Today we began our morning with a trip to a Buddhist monastery to sit down with a Buddhist master and ask him questions about his religion and practices and relation to the people of faith in China. We heard a bit about the training that monks go through and what their lives are like, and even heard a bit about how the people of faith here in Sichuan are tryiing to work together for the same goal of bringing some goodness into this world. A question that I thought of later, which was sort of touched upon there and in other conversations was that of theological inclusion. This is a topic I've personally been reflecting on more and more in recent years, because I have trouble accepting a theology that condemns billions of people to a fiery damnation, but the various encounters with people of other faiths has brought it to the forefront for me again (as you may have read in my post on our experience with the Hindu class).
Buddhism is essentially about eliminating desire in order to escape the cycle of death and rebirth and reach nirvana. It's not about gods or God, although there are grand masters such as the Buddha who help followers along the way, but there is a common goal of reaching some kind of existence apart from the suffering of this world, much like the Christian heaven. I wondered what the master would have said about whether or not those not following the faith could reach enlightenment by following their own religious teachings. The more I encounter great people of faith in other traditions, the less I can accept that they are wrong because they don't believe what we do. I think, however, that there is something attractive for many people in being right. Being right gives us power, and that is quite a motivator, but it creates such a mentality of exclusion, and I wonder if some of that has to do with our society in general (western or American or both) or if other majority religions experience the same kind of expectation of reward for being right.
For example, western society, and especially U.S. society tends, I think, to be less concerned overall with others because of the "rugged individualism" ideal we hold so dear. Individualism creates greatness; great leaders, artists, and people, but is not without consequence, as we can clearly see (without trying to get too political) how messed up our health care system is, or our taxation system. Those in power benefit while pretty much everybody else gets a raw deal, to generalize like crazy. Not that the Chinese government is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the way the people operate within a community seems to be more other-focused. When we visited the church yesterday, people were so welcoming and shaking our hands and greeting us even though we couldn't understand. They applauded us when we were introduced and then fed us a huge, wonderful meal and served us and continued to offer us more and more. In light of the apparent poverty of the rural area, their generousity was that much more moving. How many times have you visited a new church in the U.S. and had maybe one person give you a half-hearted greeting? There's no excuse for that, but it's kind of normal, at least in my experience. Even among other Christians we sometimes get such an attitude about other denominations or even minor theological differences.
I think something we can learn from the Chinese here in Sichuan is first, we need to live by our motto of "all are welcome" instead of just paying it lip service. The other thing is that it might be prudent to take a close look at our underlying motivations for wantinng to be right about things. I'm learning that my faith isn't weaker because people might find truths in different places, and that's at least a starting point for opening up dialogue.
These are just some of my thoughts reflecting on what some of these differences might mean (even if they sound a little sermon-ish). One of the coolest things about this trip for me is that we've been given lots of opportunities, both planned and impromptu, to discuss what we've experienced here. I can't wait to find out what we'll get to learn tomorrow.