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Crossing Borders

June 30, 2012

Rolling home through Connecticut on a rocking silver train. I’ve a long way to go to reach California, but I’ll not be rolling through all of it. This is the pretty part though, green and lush (also hot and muggy this time of year), not like the parched, brown land I’ll set foot on this evening. Three thousand miles in the blink of an eye. Take a moment to remember our ancestors and be amazed.

It’s not all pretty here, of course. Parts are poor and run down, industrialized and chewed up. But when I look at even those parts, I can see the tall trees and blue rivers of past years, now preserved and manicured in the better neighborhoods. Little bits of ‘wild’ with squirrels whose greatest predator is no longer a wolf but a volvo.

Then there’s ‘New England,’ the old money campuses of stained glass and stone, including the one I’d spent the last week on – Yale. Open green quads ringed by castles of knowledge and cathedrals to learning, all seamlessly integrated with the most modern of technology and pedagogy. They took good care of us at Yale, dined and feted (but not wined out of cultural sensitivity to our abstinent brothers and sisters). The conference was well organized and run, the speakers top notch and the attendees numerous – but the irony was not lost. A ‘multifaith’ theme drew 25 Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Bahai’is – and over 400 Christians.

No one is to blame, of course. The profession of chaplaincy is a Christian invention. Twenty years ago, they might have been the only ‘faith’ represented. Although the role of ‘chaplain’ may be played by other people of other names in different ways among different traditions, Christianity has a lock on defining the profession of chaplaincy. We were happy to be included and they were happy to include us, but the ignorance in which this happiness flourished never ceased to escape our little group of outliers. We felt or even more keenly, perhaps, than our Abrahamic kin. Even the term ‘multifaith’ caused a hidden grimace of irony at every turn. “I’m a buddhist!” I wanted to declare, “I don’t have a ‘faith.’ I have a practice.”

‘Faith’ is not an unknown term to Buddhists, and perhaps a monk fresh off the boat from Asia would think nothing of it, but I know how they mean it. In the noble words of Inago Montoya: “This word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” At least not in a Buddhist context. So by including myself in the ‘multifaith’ discussion, I tacitly allow them to believe I think and feel about my religion how they think and feel about their religion. It’s a lie of omission, a lie of ‘too busy and complicated to stop now and explain,’ not when we’re so happy just to be talking at all, happy to be included, to be welcomed even if it is in ignorance.

Some people know, of course. Some Christians are hip to the cause, but they can’t think of a different word, a better word, one that’s more accurate and still as warm and fuzzy as ‘faith.’ Christians like to believe we’re all believers (in something), we’re all people of ‘faith’ like them. It’s reassuring. After all, how can one have religion without belief? Without faith? And they’re not entirely wrong. One can’t really, but it’s not nearly so important to Buddhists (and maybe others). But we could ask the same questions of theists. How in the world can you have religion without practice? Without experience? We’re all crossing borders here.


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