FEBRUARY 2012: ESSAY
by Marla Lunderberg
When I get near an airport, any airport, any friend’s take-off or return, I celebrate the motion, the rhythms of humanity on the move, and I do a quick mental check of my calendar to figure out when I might next board a plane. It is my firm belief that no grown woman should ever find herself without a valid passport. I keep a bag of toiletries in small containers ready to be tossed into a suitcase at a moment’s notice. My suitcase and backpack are frayed at the edges, well used, well worn.
I thrive on the instability that’s a part of a journey, the daily surprises, small and large, that force me to remain curious about my world, force me to ask questions, to listen to unexpected answers, to weigh assumptions that I’ve long taken for granted. And I hope I answer these surprises with the sometimes-conflicting responses of energy, humility, and groundedness. Eagerness, enthusiasm—energy—for the journey and whatever mysteries it unveils. Humility in my acceptance that the world is big and I’ve only been privy to a small corner of it, and humility in understanding that what I think I know about my small corner may look different when I learn more about the whole. And yet groundedness, a willingness to live in my skin, an acceptance that I’m not a neutral player on the world stage, an understanding that there is value to the values—in particular, the Christian values, the faith tradition—that I’ve learned to hold and live by.
In 2006, I traveled with my two youngest children to Japan, where I served as an exchange professor for a semester at Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo. While in Tokyo, my children attended a Japanese public school—plenty of instability and uncertainty there!—and we all learned to take one day at a time, to listen to each other, to listen to the music of the community around us, to use those experiences to help us assess our deepest beliefs.
In early December, one of my colleagues invited the kids and me to join her in visiting Senso-ji Temple.
“Aww, Mom, not again,” Anna immediately responded when I told her about the invitation. Ever since our trip to Kyoto earlier that fall, Anna had been vociferous in her complaints about time spent on cultural adventures. She wouldn’t mind at all, she said, returning to the Shinagawa Aquarium, but temple visits had not managed to make the list of this eight-year-old’s favorite things to do in Japan.
“Did you tell your friend we’ve already been there? Twice?” eleven-year-old David queried.
I turned away from them and rolled my eyes. Whatever my goals had been in traveling with my children, I hadn’t been prepared for the appearance of these jaded young travelers sitting at my kitchen table.
Yet I had to agree with my children on one point: the time remaining to us was getting scarce and there were many things left to explore in our few remaining weeks in Japan. Contrary to what Anna and David believed, I had already tried to explain to my colleague that we had previously visited Senso-ji. Twice. Perhaps there might be another place we could enjoy together, I had wondered. But my colleague had insisted, declaring that the place was very different as the season approached the New Year’s holiday. “I think the children will be interested,” she had repeated firmly.
It was a gray, drizzly Sunday afternoon when we joined my colleague at the temple, and we bundled up for the expedition. I wore the warmest clothing I had packed—wool blazer layered over a sweater, gloves and scarf—but in the winter chill, I found myself regretting my early-September decision to pack winter coats for the kids but not for myself. Being a gracious guest is just as difficult as being a gracious host, I thought, as I grumbled to myself about the effort of accommodating ourselves to the weather and the repeat visit.
But our host was right: the neighborhood, already lively with its long promenade of shops leading from the street to the temple proper, was now decked out as if for a carnival. Vendors hawked holiday treats and beer from temporary booths set up around the temple grounds, and tents had been erected to shelter picnic tables. As we walked around the temple grounds, Anna happily posed for pictures beside brightly painted paddles that commemorated a game played by princesses of centuries past. David was more intrigued by the buckets of bright red live lobsters whose pungent odor permeated the temple grounds. He was perhaps a little too intrigued, I thought, as I watched him closely and remembered the summer in Michigan when he had stuck his finger in a neighbor’s live squirrel trap “just to tell the squirrel I was sorry he was stuck there, Mom.”
But one thing about the area hadn’t changed since our earlier visits. As visitors approached the temple, they stopped first at a small booth to light incense and wave the smoke over themselves by way of purifying themselves for their temple visit. And after they climbed the stairs to the temple itself, they stood at the entrance to pray.
We watched as petitioners tossed coins into the shallow well at the entrance to the temple. We listened to the metallic clink as each coin struck others in the bottom of the well, and as petitioners clapped their hands—twice. We stood quietly as these pilgrims bowed their heads in silence.
And then my host dug in her purse. She handed a coin to Anna and another to David. “Here, you do it,” she urged.
Anna had been quick to imitate others in wafting incense over herself, and now she was quick to toss the coin that had been given to her. Whatever her prayers were, they were fast. And when she looked up, proud to have joined in the tradition she was witnessing, she smiled and said “thank you” to my colleague.
David, however, appeared not to understand.
“Go ahead. Toss the coin,” I urged.
He looked off into the distance, as if something else had grabbed his attention.
“The coin,” I repeated. “Throw it into the well.”
He looked up at me and then looked away again. Careful to wait until my colleague wasn’t watching him, he mumbled, “I can’t, Mom.”
I was confused and then embarrassed. This wasn’t the time to ask David what “can’t” meant. And as he mysteriously found himself unable to follow my friend’s instructions, I didn’t want him to appear to be just pocketing the coin she had handed to him. I thought quickly and whispered, “Just hand it to Anna.” So he passed the coin to Anna and we cheered her on as she once again imitated those around her.
On the train home, I asked David to explain.
“Those people were praying for real, Mom.”
“Right,” I answered. “That style of prayer is part of the Buddhist tradition here in Japan.”
“And I’m not a Buddhist. So it didn’t seem right to pretend.”
“Oh.” I thought for a moment. “And last September, when you and Anna and I went to the temple on our own, I didn’t offer you any coins for that reason.”
“Yeah, I remember the first time we went there and Anna asked for one and you wouldn’t give it to her. She was mad at you.”
“Right. But this time seemed different to me. When my colleague offered you the coin, it became a different situation.”
“Yeah—Anna got the chance to toss the coin this time.”
“Why do you think that was?”
“Because you were embarrassed to say no?” Hmm—I’d have to think about this one. “Maybe. And if that were the only reason, I’d have to work on that.”
“What do you mean, the only reason?”
“We were guests this time. And my friend was inviting us to participate. In her traditions. It seemed like it would be more polite to do what she offered than to say ‘no’ at that moment.”
“Oh.” David was quiet. This was the child who would go far out of his way to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Who would stick his finger in a squirrel trap to try to express sympathy with another living creature. And I could see him weighing something. Thinking about the responsibilities of being a good guest. But then he spoke again. “But we’re not Buddhists, Mom.”
He continued. “If I toss the coin and only pretend to pray, then I’m not respecting how much this kind of prayer means to the other people here.” “Okay,” I replied, trying not to show my amazement at the amount of thought David had put into this issue.
“And if I toss the coin and try to really pray, then I don’t feel right about praying in a Buddhist way. Even if I know I’m praying to the same God I always pray to.”
David was highlighting in concrete terms a tension faced by people of any faith. How do you respectfully study and respond to others’ beliefs while still holding onto your own? How do you visit others’ places of worship, observe others in their worship practice, show respect for their beliefs, and still claim to be guided by, centered in, your own?
Deep learning, from my view as a teacher, means attempting to inhabit the thinking of the other. For example, when I teach Descartes in a college classroom, I encourage my students to try to experience the world as Descartes lived it in seventeenth-century Europe, to think about the problems Descartes was trying to solve through his Meditations—before later analyzing where Descartes succeeded and where his work fell short of achieving his goals. It’s not fair play, I tell my students, to talk about the problems Descartes’s thinking raised in the traditions of Western philosophy until we’ve first figured out the problems that Descartes imagined himself trying to solve.
In the religious arena, deep learning in these terms means trying to understand the faith traditions of others as they understand them, working hard to see these traditions from the inside and not from the outside. But this deep understanding comes with a risk: the risk of losing a sense of the value of one’s own faith traditions, of one’s own faith.
Critics of cultural relativism rightly point to this risk. Sometimes such critiques are selfish and self-aggrandizing, voiced as angry provincial rants. “God loves me and my country better than God loves you and yours” is the implication I find behind some such cheap shots. Yet at their best, there is an importantly different, importantly grounded version of the critique. At their best, these critiques point to a serious and interesting problem for those of us who love to explore the world far from our own homes: how do we show respect for others’ values without losing a sense of our own? David’s and Anna’s actions both pointed to this problem, and my two children had answered the problem in different ways.
Anna demonstrated respect for my friend’s hospitality as she cheerfully tossed the coin that my friend offered. When I asked her the next day what she had prayed about, she looked surprised. “That we’d have a fun day together. It seemed kind of like making a wish before you blow out the candle, didn’t it, Mom?” To Anna, the act of making a wish, even in a Buddhist temple, even beside Buddhist petitioners, didn’t present any conflict with her own religious traditions. She was merely respecting the hospitality of a friend who was sharing an intimate vision of her culture, her culture’s rituals, her culture’s traditions.
David’s respect was of a different nature. He felt the need to live out his faith as a concrete thinker. He refused to belittle another’s beliefs by merely pretending to enact them. If prayer was to be taken seriously, then others’ prayers should likewise be respected. He couldn’t figure out how he could toss the coin and bow his head while being respectful both of others’ traditions and of his own.
So what looked like two very different reactions to the Senso-ji prayer well—joyfully joining in and quietly opting out—were more similarly motivated than might first appear. Both actions were driven by a desire to acknowledge and maintain one’s own traditions while still showing respect for those of others. Life is complicated, and sometimes those complications lead to tensions and hard questions. Travel places particular pressure on those complications and questions. I love travel, though, and the questions it forces me to face. I am happy to learn how to expand amidst life’s complications. I am happy to embrace the sometimes-clichéd motif of faith as a journey, a journey that is often unpredictable, a journey that reminds me of the deep mysteries of the God I worship.
God is much bigger than my little human brain can comprehend, bigger than my tiny corner of human experience can encompass. That doesn’t mean I should let go of the traditions of my faith—but that I need to honor my faith, my God, in being open to an ever-growing understanding of the One I worship and the world this Creator has set before me.
Marla Lunderberg teaches English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.