By Tom Holmes
I had an interesting experience two days ago. I'm in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. It was Sunday, and I wanted to worship in a Christian church, so I went on the worldwide web and found a church just a mile from where I was staying.
The style of the church was like that of Living Word--a rockin' praise band and a long sermon. People expressed a lot of emotion during the singing of the praise songs--hands in the air, closed eyes, expressive faces. The sermon lasted at least half an hour. It was in English with a Thai translation, so I understood that part of the service.
In the afternoon I went to a Buddhist temple named Wat Boon. What a contrast. There was no singing and no expression of emotion. The monks quietly glided around the compound, appearing to be in another world. They weren't hostile at all, but neither were they welcoming like the pastor in the morning had been.
That is until one of them--in his twenties I would guess--approached and started a conversation with the stand opening of "where you from?" I immediately liked the young monk. Part of his agenda was to practice his English which he spoke a lot better than I spoke Thai. But, part of his motivation seemed to be a genuine interest in me. I liked him immediately. Soon, a crowed of eight young monks gathered around us to get in on this interchange with a foreigner.
When a monsoon downpour started, he showed me to a shelter, and he and another young monk continued our "ecumenical" dialog. While we were talking, it struck me that I liked being with this monk more than the pastor I had been with in the morning. There was a quiet, unobtrusive openness in the young monk. The temple compound was quiet and peaceful. No loud music and not much talking. What a contrast to my experience in the morning. The monk wasn't trying to "sell" me anything.
What is interesting is that the monk and I were light years apart in terms of what we believed about ultimate truth. He was headed towards New York, as it were, and I was headed toward San Francisco. We were moving in opposite directions, if you will, but I had to admit that I liked the vehicle he was driving better than that of the Evangelical pastor.
That's the thing about encountering other world religions, it seems to me. On the one hand, it's important to recognize that often we are heading in different directions. On the other hand, it is possible to appreciate the "vehicle" in which they are riding. For example, I love the quiet in Buddhist temples. They often have gardens and benches under shade trees for the purpose of just sitting, thinking, processing, meditating. Most Christian churches have offices, classrooms, and community worship areas. Form follows function.
The closest I've come in the Christian churches in our area to the atmosphere of a Buddhist temple is the Taize service on the first Friday of every month at Ascension Catholic Church. There the repetitive chanting and the five or ten minutes of silence for meditation helps me clear the noise from my life and get more centered.
I have no desire to become a Buddhist, but I wish we word oriented Christians would learn about silence and spaces conducive to meditating from them. We don't have to be headed in the same direction to learn from other religions about the vehicles in which we are riding.