Faith & Peace in the Venice of the East

During my long transit to Bangkok, I rewatched a documentary film that I first saw some 7 years ago, “Religulous”.

The first time I watched it, Bill Maher’s 100 minute tirade against all forms of organized religion played exactly into my mindset at the time. Freshly out from under my parents roof, I had begun to openly challenge the belief system I had been given for the entirety of my youth. I was like a sponge for all things anti-institutional, soaking in the counter-cultural cesspool that is a liberal arts college campus.

The film’s title, which combines “religion” and “ridiculous”, perhaps tells you all you need to know about it. Walking on water? A talking snake? An immaculate conception? Maher, often hilariously, affirmed my beliefs and those I surrounded myself with.

Indeed, he spoke precisely to the feelings I had long held about religion but had never felt comfortable sharing with my family. Then, in my freshman year of college, surrounded by likeminded individuals, my skepticism was received, validated, and could be displayed proudly.

On Sundays, instead of going to church, my dorm mates and I would lie around nursing hangovers. We were not unique in this regard. In fact, we were a small part of a much larger trend, a mass exodus of a sort, away from organized religion, that we still see unfolding to this day. A 2015 Pew Research study showed that the percentage of young people claiming a religion has been dropping precipitously, to 70.6%. In 2007, the last time Pew conducted a similar survey, 78.4% of young Americans called themselves religious.

The reason for this? Millennials are leaving the fold in droves. More than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007. Much like my political views and affinity for technology, my religious beliefs in the early part of my college days could be neatly placed in this prototype millennial box. For a time I even considered myself an atheist, like Maher himself.

Though I was once so confident in these beliefs (or non-beliefs, rather), as a young adult I’ve found that traveling, especially, has led me to revisit and question them. Is it necessary, and even correct, to seek out a balance between logic and faith? How does one arrive at such a balance? What, then, is the role of spirituality in our lives?


 

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Some young Buddhist monks walking through the streets of Bangkok

My guide for the day meets me at the end of one of Bangkok’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) lines, otherwise known as the “skytrain”. After the young man tells me how to pronounce his real name, I’m relieved when he tells me to just call him Tom. Due to a bout of sickness, Dad had to sit this tour out. Thus I followed Tom alone as he led me several blocks to his teak boat parked alongside a canal on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Going from the MRT to the waterways was an interesting transition. The skytrain consists of 43 kilometers of track towering above the streets of Bangkok, weaving through the concrete jungle of skyscrapers, high rise hotels, and office buildings. It services the 13 million residents living in and around Bangkok and is often packed to the brim. Many on board are on their way to work, dialed in to their smart phones, dressed in black due to the King’s death, some wearing face masks to combat the city’s perpetual smog. Small TV screens line the train’s walls playing the same loop of commercials over and over. The scene is both futuristic and eerie, like something out of Black Mirror.

The canals provided an entirely different vibe. Just a 20 minute walk from the end of the MRT line, the crisscrossing water channels feel like a remote community many miles away from sprawling Bangkok.

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It is a Sunday, so many folks are relaxing by the waterside, floating around in their canoes, selling some of their homemade goods, playing with their children, or praying. Though the height of the canal community is long past (the waterways were major channels of trade and transportation in the 18th and 19th century), they are still brimming with activity. Now I see why Bangkok gets its nickname, which Tom reminds me of:

“Welcome to the Venice of the East”

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People almost always smile and wave, or put their hands together and bow, as we cruise by. We reciprocate the gestures.

Tom was born in Bangkok but grew up in Los Angeles. He is chatty (like yours truly) and his English is immaculate, so we enjoy great conversation all day as he leads me to a number of interesting places hidden along the canals.

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An orchid farm that Tom took me to. He told me his father set up an orchid import-export operation in Los Angeles during the 60’s and 70’s. As Hollywood culture became more prevalent, his father did quite well. LA became the premier market for orchids due to all the lavish events and weddings and such. Today orchids are still a huge export for Thailand.
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A Buddhist temple with some resident turtles.
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Occasionally we would come across a huge, menacing monitor lizard sunbathing canal side.
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A nun exiting Wat Khun Chan, a Buddhist temple, one of a whopping 40,717 located throughout Thailand.
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An emerald model of the Wat Khun Chan located inside the temple.

It doesn’t take a particularly watchful eye to see that that religion plays an important role in the lives of Thai people. Over 93% are practicing Buddhists. Their faith is often a large part of their identity, even for young people like Tom, who prays at various temples multiple times a week with his wife and daughter.

Tom says he never served as a monk, but that many do for a time while they are young. Novice monks can serve for as short as a single rainy season, or for two to three years, depending on their circumstances. The Buddhist community welcomes young people into the fold, feeding them, clothing them, housing them, teaching them how to read and write, and how to carry out the lessons of Buddha. Such an opportunity provides poor or neglected children with a place to live and learn in peace. Many return to traditional society as educated, peaceful, productive citizens who continue to spread the teachings of the Buddha even in their post-priestly lives. Some remain monks for the rest of their lives.

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Novice Buddhist monks.

In the afternoon Tom takes me to a more remote area along the canals. We park the teak boat and continue by foot into the jungle.

Tom leads me into the thick underbrush, through overgrown pathways and bridges, putting the canals far behind us. Eventually we arrive at a small temple tucked away amongst the trees. Architecturally it was nothing special, just a simple, open air layout, marble floors and columns with vines growing up them and a roof overhead. In the back was a small golden Buddha statue surrounded by candles and burning incense. A dozen or so monks were sitting in silence facing the Buddha, eyes closed, kneeling or sitting cross legged.

Tom then asked me something I had never been asked before.

“Wanna meditate with me?”

The question caught me off guard, but I quickly accepted. Following his lead, I remove my shoes and make my way toward the Buddha statue. The two of us kneel then slowly bow our heads and place our hands on the marble floors. We repeat this three times before taking three incense sticks, lighting them, and placing them in a tray of sand in front of the Buddha statue.

Tom then takes a crosslegged position and closes his eyes, so I do the same.

For 20 minutes we sat in silence with men whom I will never know, immersed in a faith I know little of, with nothing but the sounds of nature filling my ears and sandalwood incense filling my nostrils. I was a skeptic before, but meditating in that temple in the middle of the jungle did something to me.

I left with a budding sense of inner peace.

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On our way out we pass a statue of a wheel. Tom reminds me that when Buddha rose from his seven day meditation, he then began his teachings of the Wheel of Dharma, which symbolizes the eightfold path to Nirvana, or Enlightenment. The idea is that dharma is much like a wheel. If you do wrong by someone else or by yourself, the damage will come around at a later time, or in the next life, like a broken wheel.

I won’t claim to you that my first time meditating changed my belief set so profoundly or that I’m converting to Buddhism. What it did do was add another chapter in my “Spiritual Journey” of sorts.

Buddhism at its core preaches the same thing the other major religions do. Love one another. Help the poor. Protect the earth. Don’t be a jerk.

Some millennials miss this point, I think, that religion is inherently designed to help people learn to be good. But can you blame us? We are a generation of skeptics, fueled by the internet and all its glorious memes. We have the tools needed to pick apart the major religions and the fantastical stories contained in the pages of their various tomes. We are disillusioned. We will remind you of the destruction, death, and power grabs committed in the name of religion over the millennia. We will tell you that religion has long been a means of control by the ruling class, that it leads to toxic beliefs like the end of days, and that it boxes people in, stifling innovation, free thinking, and progression in areas like science, logic, and reason.

We are constantly subjected to modern bastardizations of religion, like the destruction wrought by Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS. Closer to home, many young Americans are left to question just what exactly happened to Christianity over the years. Certainly many of the most staunch modern Christians do not represent the values that I was taught as a youth in Sunday school.

(Help the poor? Nah, deny them benefits! Cure the sick? Psh, no free healthcare! Feed the hungry? Yeah right, no handouts! Protect the refugees? Nope, I know Jesus was once a homeless refugee from the middle east, but just nope! Seriously…it seems like Al Franken’s supply side Jesus has become the deity of choice for many modern day Christians.)

I could go on, or you could just watch “Religulous”

Tom and I walk out and find ourselves at a lotus flower pond. He steps into a more shady area while I stand in the sun by the bank and gaze out.

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Wading my mind into the Buddhist faith reminded me that, despite all that I’ve said above, it is important to not completely abandon spirituality. This is where Bill Maher and I diverge a bit.

Faith has long been a force that connects people across space and time. It has inspired wonders and built civilizations. Despite all the atrocities carried out in the name of God, Allah, etc., this idea of a God-figure might just be our ticket to our next collective cognitive renaissance.

The idea of the existence of a higher power has been around since the inception of our self awareness. This funny idea that there is some unseen force, watching us, judging us and determining our righteousness. It is fascinating to me that this idea manifested itself in many areas across the world at the same time. Despite being oceans away, different gods were often derived by looking up at the very same sun and stars.

This fierce desire to believe that there is some higher power that mandates our goodwill still exists to this day. I would not say that this is terribly misguided. What I would say to a god-fearing man or woman is that God is not some higher power to be worshipped. No, in fact I would tell them something like this:

You are God. I am God. God is all of us. We are all one. Every single one of us. Every good thing you have ever done for someone else, you have done for God, for yourself. Every bad thing you’ve done to someone else, you have actually done to God, to yourself. 

Indeed, that desire to do good to one another is not from some pan-dimensional being, it comes from within all of us. It doesn’t come from a book or from a prophet. It is something that lingers deep down. Always has. Always will.

None of the major religions completely prescribe to this notion, that God is in fact all of us, but Buddhism comes pretty close:

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”

“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without”

This contrasts to Christianity’s “I am the light and the way” or “We are created in his image”. No…we are him. Or her. Or it. Or whatever. Instead of worshipping and relying on a God-figure for guidance, Buddhism rightly recognizes that we alone can seek out and walk the righteous path.

In my mind, faith should be held in an open palm. It should be observed, but never shaped or molded to what you want it to be. It should be left to reveal itself to you. It should be held at a distance, but never let go completely. It should be doubted and scrutinized and discussed, but never dismissed. It should be respected, as many view it through a different lens than yours. It should not remain stagnant. It should evolve, as we all must do.

Faith, much like love, is a force we can never hope to understand. That’s why those who cling to religion as the singular truth and those who dismiss it as a complete farce are both equally wrong.

The essence of God and spirituality can’t be captured in a series of words and stories written by men. This is how we arrived at the current corrupt, imperialist, anti-acceptance, anti-intellectual nature we see today in many religious settings.

At the same time, the science community does not have all the answers. Riddle me this: what came before the big bang? It you have an answer to that, props. But what came before that, whatever it is? And before that? Something must have snapped its all powerful fingers at some point and started things off, right? Might that force not be the same one within all of us that moves us every day to do good to one another in spite of our own inevitable mortality?

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As I gaze out over the lotus flower pond, I am reminded of an earlier chapter on my spiritual journey. In May of last year I visited the Baha’i Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. This awe-inspiring temple was built in the shape of a lotus flower, the very same flower I see littered across the pond, which was famously crafted by the hands of people of many different faiths from all over the world. I spent time sitting in that marvelous building in silence before I read more about the Baha’i faith in the accompanying museum.

Baha’i preaches religious plurality and universal acceptance, and their teachings say what I’ve been trying to say better than I could ever say. My inner spirit is telling me I need to do something else with my journey right now, as this post has gotten too long. So please, fellow millennials and skeptics, consider being mindful of your spirituality. You might be surprised at what it will do for you.

I will leave you with this Baha’i teaching:

There is one God

All humanity is one family

Women and men are equal

All major religions come from God

Independent investigation of truth

Science and religion are in harmony

World peace is the crying need of our time

Our economic problems are linked to spiritual problems

All prejudice – racial, religious, national or economic – is destructive and must be overcome

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