Sunday, March 13, 2011

An Open Window

(Note: This is a short reflection I wrote a few days ago while staying in Yangon, Burma)

Today (Thursday) we visited the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University of Myanmar. After a brief conversation with some of the university faculty in a boiling hot reception room, we shuffled barefoot around the building to gain a better understanding of the way the place worked.

“I wish the Christians had such a nice facility,” one of my new friends whispered to me as we walked quietly together. It was his first time visiting the Theravada University, as well.

At one point, we stopped for some lovely conversation with a serene student who had come all the way from France to study at the Theravada University. As sweet-smelling flowers wafted their scent in from a nearby open window, and a cool breeze brought comfort to my skin on such a hot day, the French student spoke about mindfulness, and the need to increase our awareness of ourselves and the world around us. “It is only thus that we liberate ourselves from suffering.”

He spoke so highly of the teachings of the Buddha, which seemed strange to me. “The Buddha’s teachings, they are just so, so precious,” he said, “They are like jewels.” I found myself wishing that we Christians held the teachings of Jesus in higher regard, instead of seeming to focus only on his death and resurrection. What if we treated the lifestyle and wisdom of Christ with such great reverence as to inspire us to actually emulate him? How might the world be transformed?

We moved on into the library, and I suddenly heard the comforting sound of children’s laughter. I moved to an open window and looked out over the compound to see a family outside their hut, giving the children their baths. The kids were jumping and dancing in the water from the garden hose with joyous abandon. As I stood at the window watching them from a distance, a teacher of the Dhamma quietly approached from behind. I’m uncertain whether what he said next was intentionally cryptic, or if his peculiar English simply afforded us this linguistic gem:

“If you just open the window, you can see everything,” he said.

The Dhamma is an awakening. According to my Theravada Buddhist brothers and sisters, the Dhamma is a way to open a window to the world, and truly see everything anew.

We left the university, and eventually made it back to MIT for a tour of the entire seminary. We visited the dorms, and saw the humble accommodations in which the students conducted their studies. I was especially impressed with the fact that the seminary students at MIT stay after classes in the evenings to teach a small summer primary school program. At one point, we stopped to watch and listen as a room packed with small children regaled us with chorus after chorus of If You’re Happy and You Know It in Burmese.

I stopped to look at a mural scrawled on a nearby wall. Among a series of abstract designs, animals, and other symbols were the words Peace, Shalom. My friend Mana saw my interest, and explained that the symbols depicted in the mural were representations of the many ethnic groups in Burma. “MIT is very different from many seminaries in Burma,” he said, “Inclusiveness is so very, very important to us.” In my conversations with him, I have come to find an enlightened friend who is passionate about sharing the gospel of Jesus, but in a way that respects and uplifts those with different beliefs. Thus: Shalom. An open window.

I think I’ve come to understand this as our Dhamma. When we approach one another inclusively, as brothers and sisters rather than insiders and outsiders, a marvelous, mysterious relationship occurs that binds us tightly. By being exclusive, we serve only to shut the window that allows us to “see everything,” and we remain ignorant of the outside world. And as we learned from the Buddhist teachers at the university, ignorance is one of the primary causes of suffering in this world.

There’s so much to think about at this point. I am finding myself—my assumptions about the way the world works, as well as my assumptions about the nature and character of God—challenged on a daily basis. But as I’m being challenged, that window is being opened. Wider and wider.

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