Today was my favorite day so far. We started out in a freezing cold, but interesting, lecture about Hinduism, Buddhism, and the folk religions (Taoism, Confucianism, and other folk beliefs). By the time our lecture was over, the clouds had cleared and it was starting to look like a beautiful day! We headed down a treacherous staircase (with only two butterfly attacks [for those who don't know I have a, um, small fear of butterflies]) down to the bottom of our mountain home and went off for dim sum and other delicious goodies for lunch. After filling ourselves about to the bursting point, we went to a temple related to traditional Chinese folk religions. Since the Chinese new year is coming up, we got to see a lot of people there paying respects to their ancestors and getting fortunes or making prayers. It was a really interesting sight to see and the temple itself was absolutely beautiful.
We headed off to Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist nunnery that was possibly the most peaceful place I've ever been. Beau and I spent a lot of time in the main area enjoying the lotus ponds and serene atmosphere while the others headed up to explore the main part of the temple housing smaller shrines to various Boddhisottvas (those who have reached enlightenment and stay behind to help guide others). Even though it was the temple of a different religion (and we were shamelessly taking photos like tourists), there was a real sense of quiet that I think we could learn from.
We then wandered over to the Lian Nan Gardens, which was a beautiful garden with bonsai trees, waterfalls, a golden pagoda, and lots of winding paths (but thankfully no butterflies). We had a quick dinner at a delicious little hole-in-the-wall Indian place and then went to the main event: a Hindu class taught by a woman who keeps to an ascetic style life, living off the donations of others, and who maintains celibacy and maintains obedience. The class started with chanting and then the leader went into a reading of the Bhagvat Gita, one of their vedas or holy writings. Although I'm not familiar with much about Hinduism, my understanding was that the story was about a man struggling in his relationship with Krishna, a guru or enlightened one. The lecture went through each point of the story using illustrations, and the thing that struck me most was the discussion about surrender. The teacher spoke about the need to let go of those little parts that we hold back, which are foolish and false anyway, so that we can come to have a closer relationship with God by seeing him through the guru and be able to experience that love and perfection. This really resonated with me, because it's so parallel to concepts within our own religious context. How many of us, seminarians and otherwise, have struggled with God, trying to keep a little part of ourselves, trying to hold onto a little control. The relationship between the protagonist and Krishna really reminded me of many stories of the prophets or others who have walked closely with God, and to be honest, nothing that she said as far as morals, ethics, or way of life disagreed with anything I have been taught or believe as a Christian.
The issue of religious dialogue verses incorporating the practices or beliefs of other religions into our own is one that has been emerging for some of us. I had a conversation with Emily W. night before last about this very issue in relation to Buddhism. Buddhism is, essentially, an atheistic belief. There is no God or gods, there is really nothing much in reality except desire, and eliminating desire eliminates suffering. Some of the practices, such as meditation and struggling to avoid desire of wordly things, very much align with Christian beliefs and practices, but the basic doctrines are basically incompatable. Does that make the meditation and applicable elements useless to us? As for Hinduism, as I'm learning about it, it's kind of interesting to note some of the similarities to Christianity, such as the idea of the loving God and trying to gain a closer relationship to God, but at the same time, it is a polytheistic religion and holds the belief that we are basically gods within ourselves. And yet the teaching I heard tonight moved me and many others in the group (if I may speak for them), and thinking about God in an eschatalogical framework, that is, sacred texts and our experiences of God as a narrative given from our own perspective, it kind of makes sense. It seems that God can/is be experienced in different cultures in different ways and those experiences then develop into beliefs that may be different or off the mark in our view (I'm not passing a value judgment one way or another, just speaking to our perception), but still reach us in meaningful ways. If we are all experiencing God in different ways--Krishna, nirvana, Jesus Christ, or Mohammad, there should be something to be learned whether or not we agree with their interpretations. However, the practical question of what we do with these perspective remains, and that, I think, is a question for another night.