Today (Friday) was my birthday. Moving on.
We visited another pagoda this morning with another buddha sitting in the center. I’m already desensitized to seeing pagodas and buddhas. I’m certain I’ve seen hundreds of both in the two days I’ve been here so far. I mean, you’ve seen one, you’ve seen em all, right?
While we were at the pagoda, I wasn’t very interested in observing more people kneeling and praying at the feet of another buddha, so, instead, I walked to the edge of the area and watched a group of small children chasing each other around. They were giggling and playing and squealing and laughing and doing all the things that children do.
It felt surprisingly normal.
Kids are kids wherever you go. Whether in Myanmar or Kansas City or Europe or Uranus, kids are always the same. We all start the same. We giggle and play and squeal and laugh and do all the things that children do.
It felt right and unbroken.
I may have even shed a tear.
I turned around and faced the buddha behind me and watched two different groups of people engage the statue. First, the parents of these kids were doing their rituals and chanting their prayers. Second, all the Americans who were there to sightsee were snapping photos and asking questions about what the heck was going on.
Two completely different sets of adults. Little in common. Drastically different beliefs, rituals, and values. Buddhism is technically atheistic – it’s a way of life and a philosophy, not a belief in the divine or spiritual – so there was a chasm of belief in a higher power too.
What a juxtaposition: kids being the same wherever you go, and adults who couldn’t be more different.
I felt like Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, not wanting the little ones to grow up. I wanted to protect them from losing their innocence. Keep them from moving forward into the way of life their parents were certainly going to teach them.
From the pagoda, we visited a Buddhist monastery around the corner. In Myanmar, once boys reach 7 or 8 years old, they are able to enroll in the monastic education. They leave their homes to become monks, and this brings great honor to their families back home. They memorize the Buddhist “scriptures” – basically just commentaries on the teachings of the Buddha, with perhaps some oral tradition involved as well – and when they’re 20 years old, they get to decide whether they want to take vows and become a monk for the rest of their adulthood.
So before they’re even teenagers, they decide to commit to a certain way of life so they can bring honor to their family. I mean, if I was a parent, I’d encourage my son to pursue a monastic life too. Practically speaking, Buddhism is all about merit. Doing good deeds to rack up merit in your earthly life. It’s not about the other. It’s about gaining honor yourself.
We got to “observe” the monk kids eating lunch together, which felt extremely uncomfortable – a bunch of Americans standing around snapping photos and taking video of these kids in matching maroon robes.
I noticed a couple of the youngest kids peeking at us during their prayers and gesturing to their Buddhies* and giggling under their breath. I was reminded of the kids at the pagoda earlier. It was a tiny glimpse of childhood shining through. But they weren’t kids anymore. They were monks and were expected to live a certain way.
* – Okay. This is hilarious. And potentially insensitive, but c’mon.
My friend Sylvester asked one of the head monks what they got to do for recreation. The monk responded that they spent their free time going to homes in their community to beg for food. They don’t get to play or laugh or chase each other anymore. Those things don’t bring honor to a family.
What is even sadder is that if kids don’t make it into a monastery, they typically end up street vending to help support their families. Tomorrow we are supposed to be going to a ministry that lets kids play for an hour a day to take a break from selling trinkets and be kids again. I am fairly certain it will be the highlight of my trip.
In youth ministry, I talk with my colleagues all the time about “faith ownership” – reaching adolescence and claiming ones faith for their own. It’s not the faith of the family or the pastor or friends – it’s their own.
Maybe the family values and cultural dynamics here don’t support that way of thinking. It breaks my heart to watch kids be removed from the life they experience as little ones only to be forced into a “religion” they didn’t choose for themselves.
Especially a religion that is atheistic and feels so jumbled and backwards.
Life is not about gaining merit for yourself. It’s about loving the Creator and loving others.
Life is not about emptying oneself in the present. It’s about living abundantly in love in the present while having hope in the future.
I see little Buddhist kids and I see all the hope in the world. And I see Buddhist teenagers and I see that hope fading. And I see Buddhist adults and I see little hope whatsoever.
Not to say that Christianity in America has it all figured out and is perfect in every way, but when a way of life is so blatantly opposed to God’s ways, it breaks my heart.
Hoping for a more hopeful tomorrow.