Monday, October 9, 2006

“Our religion is democratic; our country, authoritarian”

TACHILEIK, MYANMAR: Night had fallen. Under the glow of the pagoda, dozens of children played on the vast tiled piazza -- a no-shoes zone. The spectacle of many children sliding on a shiny tile expanse brought to mind the courtyard of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. After we walked around the floodlit gleaming gold pagoda, we sat cross-legged on the piazza. Khin pulled a magazine out of his bag.

“The Christians --” he began, his finger pressed against the well-worn cover of Watch Tower (a publication of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), “The Christians do not impress me.”

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

“My friend at the church gives me these magazines – I find them a good way to study English. But I don’t agree with what the Christians say here…” (There seemed to be an acute shortage of reading material suitable for English study. Later, when we passed the town library he shook his head and sadly remarked: “That’s the town library: I tried to use it, but they won’t let me because I don’t have the right papers. I am not from this town, so it is not permitted.”)

Khin tapped the cover of Watch Tower. “According to the Christians, there is only one way. Christians say, ‘believe in Jesus and you go to heaven’ – they say that is the way, the only way.” An attractive woman holding a child had approached and lingered nearby, observing. Khin continued, “But Buddha says there are two ways.” He held up two fingers and explained it this way:
The first way is to be good; not to lie, etc. and so reap the benefits… The second way is to do whatever we like and then face the consequences of our actions.

The religion of Buddha is democratic. Burmese live in an authoritarian country but practice a democratic religion. Western people have an authoritarian religion but live in democratic countries. In Buddhism we are allowed to do whatever we want to do, and so we can learn – it’s a religion based on feedback. Because it encourages feedback, I say our religion is democratic.
The woman with the baby had left us, and a group of boys in their early teens had taken her place. They sat down nearby, observing. Khin suggested I ask the kids a question. They were extremely polite and had an innocent earnestness about them.

“What kid of jobs do you want to go into after graduation?”

My question elicited a predictable chorus of groans. “A sailor in the merchant marine” volunteered one boy. Two said they wanted to be pilots. The youngest of the students said he wanted to be an airplane steward. At this one boy jeered, “He wants to be a girl!” to great laughter. And finally one kid said he wanted to join the army.

I thought the responses interesting for the occupations that weren't mentioned.

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