Three of us, Pawm (Kachin student), Bonnie Cassida, and I journeyed to a Buddhist home on the eastern side of Yangon. When we entered the apartment, we observed a very large Buddhist shrine on the east wall of the living room. The large Buddha figure was placed on the finest furniture, and on tables in front of the image were offerings of flowers and clusters of bananas. The prominence of the shrine struck me; Americans usually give their significant space to entertainment.
We discovered that the host couple had invited another couple and their son to instruct us about Buddhism. When they arrived, the husband began his presentation with force, not perceiving that we were not there to denounce his tradition or dissuade him of his belief. He only relaxed a little after we were able to voice some knowledgeable questions that allowed him to know we had some acquaintance with these teachings.
He outlined the five major principles of Buddhism: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not commit adultery, and do not use harmful substances, e.g., drugs and alcohol. (Interestingly, he was chewing betel, a narcotic leaf grown in Myanmar, while instructing us.)
The convergence of these five principles with the Ten Commandments proved an interesting line of conversation. I remarked about the significance of the first two, as rendered by Jesus, for the Christian faith: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
A new learning for me was how relatively few true Theravada Buddhists there are in the country—about 2 million out of 60 million. The popular Buddhist beliefs and practices retain many of the ideas of animism, with many good and malign spirits at work in the world. The formal Theravada Buddhism, more a philosophy than a religion, does not believe in a divine being.
This tradition also calls one to lose the self, but in a radically different way than Christianity espouses. Jesus speaks of “losing the self” in service to others and, thereby, finding the true self. Buddhists believe that personal ego is the source of relentless desires, which prevent one from reaching nirvana, the desired goal of life.
We spoke about the common concern for mindfulness, the practice of being present to the circumstances of our lives, even while perceiving that all moments are fleeting and the flow of history is inexorable. We also spoke of the challenge of worshipping the right things in a world where consumerism may be the real heart commitment.
As we reflected on our encounter, I realized how few times am I able to enter into this kind of discourse. Surely one understands personal faith in the attempt to bring to clear words what one holds fast.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church,and serving humanity.