By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
One man with whom I always try to get together when I’m in Chiang Mai is a missionary named Bill Yoder. Bill came to Chiang Mai in 1963, when I was a sophomore in high school, and has been in Thailand pretty much ever since. When he retired a couple years ago, he was the Dean of the McGilvery College of Divinity, the post which Satanun now holds.
Bill has invested the last 48 years of his life in the Thai people in general and in the Christian church in Thailand in particular. Single his whole life, he was the foster parent for 27 Thai children, having up to seven of them in his home at one time. My friend Sanit at the Nong Bua Sam Church was one of Bill’s “children.” Bill has a plot purchased in the missionary cemetery in Chiang Mai, a pretty clear indication that for him Thailand is home.
Thailand is his home now, yet he steadfastly maintains that he will never be Thai. A few years ago he acknowledged, with a sheepish smile, that when he first arrived in Chiang Mai he had fantasies of becoming Thai. Although he speaks, what my Thai pastor back home calls, perfect Thai, he told me that he learned early on that he would always be an American.
From what I have gathered, the Thais he teaches and works with don’t want him to become a Thai. They appreciate how hard he has worked at adapting to their culture, but they also appreciate the perspective he brings to them precisely because he is a farang. He’s is a striking example of what Karsten and Satanun were talking about when they told me they wished more of their students could study abroad—to gain a point view from which you can observe your own culture as if for the first time. “The Thais sometimes say to me,” he told me a few years ago, “that I understand Thailand better than they do.”
When I asked him how he has changed during his almost half century long sojourn in Thailand, he exclaimed, “Oh my gosh! I came here as a naïve graduate of the College of Wooster in Ohio. I’d never been outside the U.S. except for Canada. My whole life has changed dramatically.”
His relationship with God in particular was changed by two experiences. One was his contact with Christians living in Thailand who had survived World War II. Some were Chinese who had immigrated to Thailand when Mao came into power in 1949, and some were Thais who had lived through what amounted to but was never officially called a Japanese occupation.
“These were people,” he said, “who were much older than I who had lived through a great deal of persecution because they were Christian.” He explained that he came to Thailand as a “cultural Christian.” He was brought up in the church and thought of America has a Christian nation.
“It was quite startling for me,” he continued, “to find people in real life who had consciously made the decision to make their faith the number one thing in their lives and to possibly defend their right to do that even possibly with their lives.”
“I suddenly thought ‘why is something like belief in Jesus Christ so vitally important to these people when it isn’t to me, and I’m supposed to be a Christian.’” He laughed and added, “That started me thinking.”
The second experience was his encounter with Buddhism. During his first two years in Chiang Mai he taught English to the novices and some of the monks at Wat Phra Singh on Saturday mornings, and after lunch he and the monks would sometimes get into discussions about religion. He said of those discussions,
It was a turning point in my life to know that there were distinct differences between world views, and not everybody thinks the same. I also discovered that I was probably thinking more like Christian than I thought I was. I didn’t find anything wrong with what they were teaching, but it wasn’t what I felt was germane in the situation.
“What distracted me so much with Buddhism,” he recalled, “was the idea of detachment.” He remembered the abbot of the wat using an example in his preaching of a man being attacked by a pack of dogs. The normal human reaction, said the abbot, is to help the man, but it’s best to not get involved, because, first, the man must have done something to make the dogs attack him and second, you might get bitten yourself if you intervene.
“I remember sitting on the temple floor,” Bill told me, “and wanting to stand up and say, ‘No. How can you say that? It is not natural for human being to want to help the person. It’s natural for humans to want to protect themselves.’ And second, that is just the opposite of what Jesus is asking us to do. Jesus calls us to try to help, even if it means that we get hurt in the process.”
“That’s an example,” he added, “of how I became more of a convinced follower of Christ than I originally ever thought I was. I sometimes say that I was converted to Christianity by the Buddhists.”
When I asked him what he thinks about Buddhism now, he responded with a comment about Christianity:
I think that religions are creations of human beings. Christianity is a religion, and as a religion it has got to be flawed, because it is a human construct. When we talk about Jesus Christ, however, we’re talking about a relationship that has become extremely existential and real in someone’s experience and has little to do with religion.
For me, listening to Bill reflect on his life was like going to a play and hearing an actor speak lines he memorized from a playwright’s script, but which feel like they were written about me. He had put into words my ambivalence about Buddhism. On the one hand I had always been attracted to the peaceful ambience in small town wats, the serene way the monks kind of float through life, the emphasis on the introspective life.
But in the end, like Bill, I just couldn’t buy the detachment thing. I saw how it was useful psychologically in not letting critical people get to me, but not as a fundamental way of leaning into life. The most important time of the year for me is what some Christians call the Triduum, ie. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. Others call it Jesus’ Passion.
For Buddhists, the paradigm seems to be the Buddha sitting under the Bodi Tree achieving enlightenment. For Christians it is Jesus dying on the cross. For Buddhists the challenge is to detach from everything and everyone including your self. For Christians the goal is to attach unconditionally to the only One worthy of that kind of trust.
I thought about how Buddhadasa Bhikkhu would react to Bill Yoder and decided that he would reply that everything my missionary friend was saying was delusional, really. If you just look at things objectively, he would say, you would see that passion and attachments only produce suffering.
I remember him writing that you don’t have to accept what he’s saying on his authority. “The listener can recognize the truth of every word of the answers,” he wrote, “without having to believe them blindly and can see their truth more and more clearly until he understands for himself.”
I can just see him living in the U.S. for a couple years, dialoging every week with Christians and returning to Thailand more convinced than ever of the truth of dhamma (Buddhist teaching). And I couldn’t help concluding that each religion or world view is like a lens through which believers view the phenomena of their lives. No one “sees” objectively. Everyone views life through some sort of lens. The result is that we see what we believe. There are no exceptions. The trick is to find the lens which focuses your mind on that which is most important.
And that got me a little depressed, because it seemed to me that there was no way for Buddhists to understand my faith profoundly unless they took off their spiritual glasses and looked at life through my lenses. And, I knew that I was not willing to set my faith aside for the sake of really understanding the dhamma.
I could try to understand Buddhism intellectually, of course, and to a degree I have a better grasp of it than any of my friends. But trying to understand Buddhism without practicing it, without diving into it with no reservations, is like trying to understand what it’s like to be married by reading a book about it while remaining single.
And then I recalled what Bill had said about the difference between Christianity as a human construct and an existential relationship with Jesus. I had gotten pretty good at observing life through the lens of the Christian religion, but I began to wonder if I had any clue of how the way I live my life looks from the point of view of the kingdom of God which Jesus talked about so much. I wondered how my view of “reality” would change if I were so committed to life in God’s Kingdom that I’d be willing to die for it.