In reading recent news about Gaza and Burma (among other places), I am very concerned about whether or not I should loose hope in humanity. I am desperately searching for places and spaces of humanity in the world
around me. Is there any place where people live peacefully and trust each other? Is there any place where people treat people as people and appreciate each other’s difference? Is there any place, after all, where tolerance is a practical reality of our contemporary life, a traffic light that guides the interests of people, who come from various backgrounds, yet deal with each other in respect?I am a Muslim, and my religion teaches me that tolerance is not something that we should be waiting accidentally to happen, but something that we should make an effort in order to achieve. But so does teach other religions. This is something that I have learned during the interfaith dialogue trip that was organized by the Anatolia Culture and Dialogue Center in collaboration with the HKU Center for Buddhist studies for its alumni in the summer of 2012. This article is about how I learned about this tolerance and why it is so relevant for the humanity today.
Wonderers of the transcendent
In July of 2012, I was a volunteer for the HKU Center for Buddhist studies alumni, who travelled to Turkey. This was not the first time I volunteer for the intercultural exchange trip, but it was my unique guests and the specific context of Ramadan that made this trip for me a profound experience.
The highlight of the journey was of course the visit of the people who share deep connection with the moral teachings of Buddhism to the country which culture is deeply embedded in the faith of Islam. Both Islam and Buddhism are great moralities that contributed a lot to the history of Asia, yet there seems to be more differences than commonalities that describe the dialogue between the two. First of all, the Buddhist prayer is conceived as a silent mediation, but from the first day of the trip, my guests exposed themselves to the voices of Azan (Islamic call for the prayer), shouted from the minarets of the mosques five times a day. Buddhism suggests vegetarianism to be both the true way of living and the form of compassion, and yet, my guests were walking on the streets where smell of national Turkish dish, lamb kebab, was filling every corner. Buddhist temples are well known for the images of Buddha; yet, I took my guests to the Islamic mosques, architecture of which is drastically different in its outlook. To some, those differences may seems to show irreconcilable antagonism, but both me and my guests knew how crucial they are for engaging into the dialogue in order to compare, contrast and arrive at the common human experience.
What struck me most about the trip was not the sightseeing and talking about all sorts of things, although that was certainly amazing. Rather, it was my experience of feeling something that we seemed to know but did not talk about. At the end of the everyday, I was going to the bed with the feeling of indescribable sense of satisfaction. I was feeling good because in between of exchange of the information about the differences in the ways Muslims and Buddhists construct their lives, I was at the same time moving on beyond all my preconceived notions about Buddhism, what it is, and about who Buddhists are. More importantly, I felt a deep connection with something that transcended material dimensions of the trip. Something “bigger” was part of the experience. Endless conversations, visits to the families, to the mosques, sightseeing all constituted an ineffable power that defied the idea of “tolerance”.
I remember that on one day, we were walking together on the crowded street that stretches from the historical Hagia Sophia mosque square to the Galata Bridge. Here we were, walking slowly up the mountain towards the square, under the Istanbul sun. Trams, honking to the packs of tourists, music jamming from the souvenir shops, distant voice of seagulls, – we were part off this hustle and bustle and yet, being exhausted by that, we were looking for a pretense to escape it. I did not see, but my guests were incognito searching for water. Indeed, this innocent liquid was absent from the picture, but everybody felt this absence. However, my guests were shy to tell it to me, because I was fasting. In Islam, fasting means abstinence from food and drink, and they thought that asking for a stop to take a sip of water would be very impolite. I may well have had the same feeling of thirst, therefore they thought it would be very awkward for them to drink in front of me. In the meanwhile, it was not the first day of the fasting, and my young body very quickly got used to “waterless days”.
I felt completely fine with my thirst, after all, I needed to feel it in order to get over it and lean for the eternal blessings of Allah. While my guests worked on the chakras of good manners and thoughtfulness, I was very concerned about the Istanbul’s scorching sun: “my guests should feel very thirsty”, I thought, “even if I am fasting, they are not, and that would be very awkward if I behave as if they fast too”. In fact, I was willing to ask them, but felt very shy because I was afraid that due to the respect to my religious restrictions, they would deny the offer. “I need to buy them water without asking,” I concluded and instantaneously bought bottles of water for each. But when I gave it to them, we all experienced a moment of enlightenment. Their faces turned happy, as if a child that finally got something she desperately wanted but could not name it to the mother. I realized how little they needed to feel satisfied, – to put cold bottle of water to their elbows and to fetch their breath. At that moment, one of my guests, Dr. Lee*, approached me and said: “your kindness reminds me of my son, thank you so much for such a thoughtful gesture, you resemble me him very much now”
I have not seen his son, nor I had any idea that they desperately wanted a sip of refreshment, and in fact for the sake of the tolerance but due to different concerns, we all had the same feelings. With or without water, we all enjoyed that moment, because we all realized how concerned we were about each other. Most importantly, we knew that our religious backgrounds were the very reasons of such a delicate concern. I was shy for being afraid to be rejected; they were shy for being afraid to sound impolite. We may have different reasons behind, but it was our common experience in which we found ourselves. We experienced the encounter with the other, but we did not stop there, but ventured to go beyond it. And it was rewarding. Confession of Dr. Lee is a witness that we transcended the other. We encountered ourselves on the intersection of different concerns, and they pushed us into the common ground of tolerance, where not actually the water but the need for mutual understanding found its articulation. In the midst of the tourist crowds and activities of the historical downtown, we were seating together quietly, each of us enjoying pleasure of being heard and understood without actually expressing it.
A guest of Ramadan
As I mentioned, I was fasting during the trip. It was a holy month of Ramadan, during which all Muslims are prescribed to aschew eating and drinking in the daytime. According to the Islamic belief, for those of Muslims who sincerely and wisely spend this month, Ramadan is very rewarding and full of surprises. When it comes to me, I do not consider myself to be spiritually blessed, but I am sure that Ramadan is graceful enough even for humble Muslims like me.
That summer I send my Ramadan with my Buddhist guests. It was not like I deliberately planned it to be so, but neither I was making a decision between having guests or spending more time for the spiritual improvement, after all, I thought, these should not be mutually exclusive. So did one of my guests, Peter who decided to fast with us together from the first day of arrival. Only he can describe what he felt, but I am going to reflect on how I felt when I saw my Buddhist friend fasting in respect of my religion.
It was very different. At first, I thought that he should be kidding, fasting in Ramadan is not only about diet, one should be Muslim in order to feel it, for it is done for the sake of Allah. Or so I thought, till Peter showed me that this is not necessarily so. I saw him suffering on the first day: although he practiced Buddhist fasting before, he was not prepared for staying without water for such a long period of time. Plus, he was jetlagged. I suggested him reconsider his decision, but the determination that I heard in his voice sounded very convincing, he was willing to explore Ramadan, open himself to the religious practice of Islamic culture.
Later days were not so difficult to him: his body quickly got used to be contended with the less food and less water. He felt much better, and active. His body was not burdened with spending numerous calories for digesting food. “I am as light as a bird” he once told me, and the only thing that he regretted during the daytime was seeing how his fellows consumed Turkish delights, sweets and of course, Turkish ice-cream. But since most of our evenings were spent breaking the fast with Turkish families, his patience was rewarded with even double amount of sweets and ice cream on the dinners.
I wondered how could non-Muslim be so vigorous in Islamic practice. But I realized that the answer is probably in his own religious background, for he was Buddhist. And that explained many things. He was a Buddhist guest under the Islamic dome, but that meant that he was representing Buddhisthood in the house of Ramadan culture. The boundaries blurred in my eyes, whether somebody is Muslim or non-Muslim did not matter at all, as far as we all knew that our religious backgrounds would never bring harm to us. We were standing safe on the ground of tolerance, he was sure that Islam is wide enough to try for Buddhist to follow, I was convinced that there is nothing harmful in Buddhism that could threaten Islam, on the contrary, my exploration of such an experience only enriched my own ideas about need for a common ground.
As he continued fasting, he fascinated the families who hosted us on dinners. Once they knew it, they were very interested in his experience, what would a Buddhist fasting in Ramadan look like? I am sure that to them it meant only one thing that Buddhism and Islam were in a collaboration to construct tolerance that no words can express. I thought that it was me who expressed tolerance by organizing a trip for Buddhists to the Muslim country, but as it turned out, it was Peter who was a live objectification of it.
As we stayed in the land of Anatolia, I saw everybody, – mosques, religious centers, schools, and families opening their doors to my guests as wide as it can be. Peter did the same, he also exposed himself to these places and they responded with understanding and appreciation. With fasting during Ramadan, he was showing what Buddhisthood really meant, and Ramadan showed what can be done with it. Furthermore, my guests saw Anatolia and its people for the first time, but everybody was sure that we have met somewhere else before; we were not the strangers to each other. The feelings that we experienced, – trust, appreciation, compassion – were the most humane, most natural and most real. Amid linguistic, political, ethnic and religious differences, there was some sense that we were all in it together. Together, we showed that peaceful coexistence is possible.
Prism of the tolerance
In this article, I do not claim to speak for all participants of our trip. I can only share my story of how I see what we did together. And I also think that against the backdrop of many conflicts forged along the religious lines, our experience promised a hope for humanity. As I remember countless moments we enjoyed on that trip, my grim goes away, and I hope that our today is not as gloomy as I think it is.
I believe that during the trip we attempted to reverse the negative flow of stereotypes, clichés and preconceived notions about inherent antagonism of religions towards their “others”. We attempted to create healthier interfaith friendships. It was about compromise, but, as I call it, tolerant one.
Eschewing from the black and white picture of the religious relationships of either be converted or expelled, we constructed an “in between” ground of tolerance towards each other beliefs. Together we initiated an attempt to make sense of our own and other people’s religiosities through the eyes of the people and communities who are different from us. And we recognized that the common ground of tolerance is wide enough to encompass us all.
Such tolerance does not necessarily mean total agreement. We were not intending to change our beliefs and convert each other. We only aimed at taking our precious beliefs out of boxes where they were historically put, and to humbly show them to the gaze of the other. At the same time, tolerance does not mean acquiescence: we were willfully and practically engaging with what our religious beliefs can offer to us. Our tolerance is also not utopia, we were not aiming at solving humanity’s problems once and for all, but we were patiently hopeful that some solutions might gradually come as we have dialogue. We were determined to create a more meaningful conversation, the one that can move beyond politics, debates and conventional tags. We were determined to invest in the possibilities that such a wide space of tolerance opened for us. And believe me, we practically saw that this dialogue moved both of us forward – together.
Against the religious nature of many contemporary conflicts, there was some sense that our trip was the most feasible counterargument to them all. Everybody was sure that it was not because of us, humble Muslims and Buddhists, but because of tremendous beauty, historical richness and spiritual joy that our religions share that made this trip both enlightening and productive. We all saw that it is not about religion, but is about the way religion should be lived that we could make a different sense of the dialogue between us. Without even making a great effort, we constructed a solid ground, if not for a traffic light, then for a roundabout, in which we all could have our different interests, but we could move together.
*For the sake of anonymity of my guests, all names in this piece are fabricated.
Article: Ruslan YUSUPOV, PhD
Department of Anthrapology / CUHK