By Cathy Merchant
You may have noticed when I came in that I did the three prostrations that Tibetan Buddhists do when they enter a holy sanctuary. This is done both to humble oneself and to express reverence for the place one has entered; you not only lie flat on the ground at the entrance, but you lift your hands up to raise up the wisdom that emanates from such a place. I think this is a beautiful tradition, and I have been doing it in one form or another since 2005. That year, I had the privilege of traveling to Tibet and Nepal for a few months and helping collect life stories from Tibetans regarding how they had been impacted by the Chinese government. As you can imagine, their stories were often heart-wrenching and full of tragedy, yet I couldn’t get over how light-hearted and open the vast majority of the people were. I will always remember standing in line with them one day at the entrance to the Jokhang Temple – the holiest temple in Tibet – as we waited for the guards to let us in to pray. Everyone in line was chanting mantras under their breath such as “Om mani padme hum” or “Om ah hum vajra guru Padma siddi hung,” two of the most popular Tibetan prayers. I joined them for awhile before quietly switching to some Hebrew prayers that I had been learning recently, as someone newly interested in Judaism (but having come from a Roman Catholic background). Two of the Tibetan men near me turned around to ask me about these prayers, and when I said they were Jewish, they immediately responded: “Oh, you are Jewish? That’s wonderful. You are Jewish, and we are Tibetan. And both of us have suffered. Can you teach us those prayers?”
That response has stayed with me since 2005 and has remained one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard about religious identity to this day. The universalism and deep compassion behind that statement was what compelled me to formally take refugee in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha two years later to become a Tibetan Buddhist. And it is what I have carried with me since then, as I have worked as an Interfaith peace activist with Jews, Muslims, and Christians, both in North America and in Israel and Palestine.
I’m sorry to say that most religious people – especially those in Palestine and Israel – don’t typically greet each other by saying, “Both of us have suffered. Can you teach us those prayers?” As you may have heard, they generally do the exact opposite of that. And that is why I have job security.
My switch from Tibet to Israel and Palestine may seem random or a tad bizarre, but the international peace community is actually rather interconnected. Presumably, if you are opposed to violence in one region you are opposed to it elsewhere, as well. (Although the specific cases in which that is not true are fascinating enough to one day be the subject of their own sermon!) While there are relatively few peace opportunities in Tibet right now because of the influence of the Chinese government, the same is thankfully not true for Palestine and Israel. While the violence there has indeed lasted off and on for the last 70 years (give or take a few millennia, depending on whom you ask), there are also dozens of peace and reconciliation organizations there. In fact, while we Buddhists are somewhat famous in contemporary society for our dedication to nonviolence (the current genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar apparently not withstanding), I don’t think we have anything on the current set of peacemakers in Israel and Palestine. Those people deserve all the accolades.
On my first trip to the Middle East, I traveled with the Compassionate Listening Project in and out of the West Bank and Israel. Our citizen delegation of around 20 members had been coached in “Compassionate Listening” – a peacemaking style somewhat similar to non-violent communication – and spent around 10 days traveling back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian groups to listen to them describe how the violence there had impacted them. Oof! On our very first night in Jerusalem, we met with Bassam Aramin and Rami Elhanan, two fathers from Palestine and Israel, respectively, whose daughters had been killed in the conflict. Bassam and Rami always describe themselves as brothers. They help lead the Parents Circle Families Forum, an organization of more than 600 Israeli and Palestinian families whose loved ones have been killed by people from the “other side.” These families have bonded over their shared grief and work together to advocate for reconciliation in the region. Because of the price they have already paid as a result of the violence, they are relatively well-respected there and are one of the more influential peace organizations in the region.
Well, good lord! Most of the rest of us can’t even get along with our “Facebook friends,” and these people are over there doing that? Someone get them a Nobel Peace Prize, already, for God’s sake!
Fortunately, I’m happy to report that they aren’t the only ones. There are also the Rabbis for Human Rights, a coalition of rabbis who work together to help lead Interfaith dialogue groups, find legal assistance for Palestinians whose homes have been – or will be – bulldozed, and who help organize annual olive harvests to protect Palestinian farmers from attacks by extremist Israeli settlers. Obviously, they are amazing! And let’s not forget about the Combatants for Peace, a group of Palestinians and Israelis who had formerly been actively engaged in the fighting but who have since dedicated themselves to peaceful reconciliation. They spearhead dialogue circles and peaceful activist initiatives in and around Jerusalem. Their leader, Sulaiman Khatib, is often called “the Palestinian Gandhi.” He is truly remarkable! But I must say, while this title certainly fits him, I believe the leader of the Holy Land Trust, Sami Awad, has a strong case for being compared to Gandhi, as well. His organization is based in Bethlehem and does dialogue work, women’s and youth programs, and two-week long peaceful activism tours around the region, as well. Sami even used to bring Palestinian young people to Auschwitz in order to help teach them about the Holocaust and how this impacts Israelis today. He is undoubtedly one of the most Godly people I have ever met.
And finally, while we are on the subject of “Godliness,” I can’t help but mention Interfaith Encounter, an Israeli and Palestinian group that brings Jews, Muslims, and Christians together to develop explicitly religious initiatives to foster peace in the region. At the moment, they are doing a lot of dialogue work around issues concerning the Temple Mount (which is the holiest and therefore the most controversial site in the entire Levant). They also organize a food drive just prior to Passover every year wherein they collect leavened bread products from Israelis for the express purpose of donating them to Palestinians. Instead of seeing their differences in faith as an obstacle to peace or a cause for further hostility, members of Interfaith Encounter believe their traditions can actually be used to help end the conflict and reconcile the two peoples to one another.
Just think of how much we can all learn from them! Can you even imagine?
While the Israel / Palestine conflict was not, in fact, caused by religious differences – despite what you may have heard from misinformed or perhaps even biased sources – many people in the region unfortunately use religious exclusivism as an excuse to incite violence against one another. Consequently, virtually all peacemaking initiatives in Palestine and Israel are – to one degree or another – Interfaith. Sometimes this is explicit, as with Interfaith Encounter or with joint projects between churches, mosques, and synagogues in a given town or city. Other times, it’s just incidental, since groups that are obsessed with their religious superiority are generally not interested in peacefully reconciling with members of opposing faiths. When I was working with the Compassionate Listening Project, I was fortunate enough to be able to learn a lot about Islam, Judaism, and traditions within Christianity that I previously had not been exposed to. Members from all three Abrahamic faiths were involved in the peace community and had grown sufficiently comfortable with one another that it wasn’t unusual for them to pray together, celebrate one another’s religious holidays, or even periodically attend each other’s religious services. This sort of thing actually happened all the time, and over time, we would joke within the peacemaking community about each of us having our own individual rabbi, imam, and priest whom we could visit about spiritual matters. Since the very beginning, I seem to have been the only Buddhist in these circles (or at least the only one who identifies as such, although I have met plenty of Jewish and Christian Buddhists along the way). Consequently, I have been both a slight curiosity and – interestingly enough! – the “safest” person for everyone else to come to when they are feeling put off by some aspect of another person’s faith tradition. Apparently, the stereotype of the wise and unflappable Buddhist extends even to the Middle East. While it is sadly not accurate, I personally am going to milk it for all it’s worth. You wouldn’t believe how helpful it has been, in a peacemaking context!
Through my Israel / Palestine network, I gradually became involved in local Interfaith activism in the Seattle area, as well. That was how I met several key Interfaith leaders there, including my mentors, Sister Sanaa Joy Carey and Rev. Steven Greenebaum. Sanaa is a Sufi Muslim who works as a psychotherapist and spiritual director. She organizes large Interfaith events and dialogue circles throughout Seattle and the Eastside and is one of the most spiritually grounded people I have ever met. A group of us from various faiths have regularly met at her house off and on for years, both to meditate over a wide variety of spiritual texts and to plan Interfaith events that would hopefully combat the division we’ve seen arising around the world. Sanaa always says that when something awful happens in the news, she doesn’t get depressed – she starts a program! Sadly, the news has been so depressing over the last few years that she has been running multiple programs at once. As such, the Interfaith activists in Seattle are pretty much booked solid right now. May Allah bless them!
My other mentor, the Reverend Steven Greenebaum, has spoken here in Vancouver in the past about both his books on Interfaith and our spiritually diverse congregation, the Living Interfaith Church. Steven is Jewish, but he worked for years as a choir director in various Christians churches up and down the West Coast. He was moved by what he saw to be the similarities between Judaism and Christianity and gradually began to understand God’s message as being one of unity across all faith traditions. Following God’s call, Steven attended seminary at Seattle University and then went on to found the Living Interfaith Church in 2010. Our congregation may not be large, but it is made up of members from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism, Wicca, New Age Spirituality, Humanism, and the Baha’i Faith. At the start of every year, we get together and decide which religious holidays from our various traditions we would like to celebrate in the coming year and chart them out on our calendars, accordingly. As a result, in a typical year, our congregation will celebrate the Birth of the Bab, Chinese New Year, Christmas and Easter, Rosh Hashanah and Passover, both Eids, Samhain, and Vesak and Bodhi Day, among other traditional holidays. Pastor Chris Boyer of the Good Shepherd Baptist Church has generously allowed us to share their sanctuary, so our congregation meets there every other Saturday, while his church meets there on Sundays. Although unusual, our congregation has decided it makes the most sense for us to meet there every other week, as everyone is encouraged to be “bi-churched” and attend their other spiritual community (usually one that is in alignment with their faith tradition) on the off-weeks. Then when we get together, we share a bit about what we’ve learned or experienced in our other community. This might sound overly complicated or “woo-woo,” but you’d be surprised how well it works! I must say, if your congregation hasn’t yet hosted Muslims pouring water over a statue of the Buddha in a Christian sanctuary while being overseen by a Jewish minister, you are missing out! You might want to think about that, for next year’s events.
In case you found that last image a bit worrisome, let me just be clear. Our Living Interfaith ethos – and really, the Interfaith ethos everywhere I have worked – is not predicated on us abandoning our own faith traditions or dissolving into what Steven calls “some great cosmic soup.” We all know and agree on the fact that our faith traditions are not the same; indeed, the differences between our religions are important and should be acknowledged and respected. You can’t really understand another tradition if you just see it as the mirror image or some murky facsimile of your own. But at the same time, these differences don’t have to amount to what Steven calls “Right Belief-ism.” I can attend mass or a Shabbat service or visit a mosque for Jum’ah prayers or, indeed, honor the Buddha’s birthday by pouring water over a statue of the Buddha without spending the entire time at these events arguing in my head about whether or not my own religious tradition is superior to these other ones. As you may or may not know, that is a thing that can happen. And what a beautiful thing it is!
I am currently a Master’s of Divinity student at the Vancouver School of Theology – indeed, the only Buddhist MDiv student in the program and possibly the first one, ever – and I live in this beautiful head-space all the time. I study the Synoptic Gospels and the Letters of Paul and the Hebrew Bible. I take part in the weekly community worship services and receive the body and blood of Christ whenever it is offered. And I don’t believe any of this is in opposition to my Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Indeed, Shakyamuni Buddha said, “He who experiences the unity of life sees his own Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.” Put another way, the Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” While I certainly love that about my own religion, I have studied enough of the others to know that that is the underpinning of them all. Not one of them is based on superiority or division or small-mindedness; God, in all God’s forms, is far too big and unwieldy and incredible for that. We do both God and our faith traditions a disservice when we pretend otherwise.
Now that my family and I have moved to Vancouver, I hope to continue the work of my mentors here and help promote peacemaking and Interfaith initiatives in the Lower Mainland area. I am in the process of starting my own little “Interfaith house church” in Vancouver in the style of the Living Interfaith Church and have slowly begun making connections with other religiously diverse souls who are as interested in multi-faith activism and reconciliation as I am. If any of this work interests you, please let me know. God knows, we need all the support we can get!
While I hope you have found some of the projects I shared with you today inspiring, please don’t leave the sanctuary this afternoon thinking that the only work worth doing on these fronts is that which might qualify you for a Nobel Prize. The everyday connections that people are making with one another all the time are the seeds – and even the soil – of this movement. You don’t have to visit Tibet or Israel and Palestine or even the U.S. to spread love and inter-connectedness. Indeed, all you have to do the next time you see or hear someone different from you praying or taking part in a ritual or doing really anything you’ve never seen before, all you need to do is talk to them. Acknowledge – even if it is just to yourself – how much you have in common. And maybe even ask them, at some point: “Can you teach me those prayers?”