Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Question of Faith

A few thoughts on conversion, inspired by Ashanthi.

There's a family down our road who converted (were converted as some say) a few years ago. They live in a small slum-like area.

So let's for a moment think I'm a slum-dweller who has a wife and four kids to feed. (Many of us might end up there the way this country is going!)

I make a little bit of money doing odd-jobs for people but that's not really enough to keep the 6 of us fed, let alone putting four kids through school. I don't get any help from anyone, least of all from the monk in the local temple. He sometimes eats into my income because I have to go to the temple and help them out with things and give up a days wage I could have earned somewhere else. My wife insists we go to the temple each full moon night and listen to his sermons.

Let's look at the life the monk leads. He wakes up at god only knows when. Drinks his tea, takes a crap and then sits on his ass till about 11 a.m. when someone comes along and takes him for an alms giving. He comes back to the temple and sits on his ass all afternoon till it's time to do a bana deshanawa (sermon). He's very rich because the temple has some rich dayakayas (patrons, sorta). All this money goes into keeping the mons in the temple in the style to which they are accustomed, and to make completely uselss, yet ridiculously expensive additions to the temple architecture, like a new budu ge (shrine room) or a ran weta (golden fence) for the Bo tree. Most of the time the monk doesn't even have time for the poor man from the slum. But he's always got more than enough time to impart words of wisdom to the richer dayakayas who happen to drop by at any time. It's a business, you get spiritual healing for money. The average Buddhist monk is a salesman. He sells peace of mind. And to buy it, you have to pay.

But even with all this money, the monk does not think about making life easier for the people of the area by helping out those most in need. Many of these people cannot get a bank loan because they do not have an income, so the local temple would be ideally placed to help them. But no, the temple is not there to give people money, or food, or clothes it's there to give them spiritual healing.

Spiritual healing for the hungry? Yeah right.

So then along comes an evangelical team moving about the neighbourhood and telling people that if we come to the church on Sunday (or whenever) that the church will help us out. Other people who have already been to the church tell me that they get free lunch there. If one of them go do some work for the church they get paid! The priests actually take time to talk to the people regardless of how rich they are, or how high up they stand in the social structure. So I go to the church. I take my wife and kids along because they're going to need a good meal too. There's a light atmosphere about the place. It's not like the stifling discipline that a Buddhist temple inspires. I feel more free in the churchyard.

Then one day the priest asks me if I'm willing to convert. The rumble in my stomach makes that decision for me.


If a man converts at gunpoint that is wrong I guess, but I fail to see what is wrong with a man who converts to another faith because it's a way to keep his family fed and clothed. If my god/faith/religion refuses to look after me and support me when they are capable of doing it, and some other god/faith/religion will look after me then what use is my god/faith/religion to me? Am I to die hungry to keep my faith? Am I to let my children die hungry to keep my faith?

as i said in ashanthi's blog referred to above:
'people are free to convert others or to get converted for whatever reason. period'
motives of the converter or the converted are none of our business.
Ah my friends but ... faith is not a question of "tummies rumbling" but an awakening of the spiritual soul. The soul needs no food, it needs sanctuary, space and silence.

The flock should gather around it's shepherd because he protects, feeds & cares for them. If the flock then wish to be converted, I say let them ask. I don't approve of the shepherd asking because when a member of the flock asks, we know that it is because it is an act of faith. Mind, body (tummy) and soul have connected & free choice is being made.

The funniest thing is. many, many of my friends who are of a predominantly anglo-saxon background long & yearn to become Buddhist.

So maybe, many Sri Lankans wish to become free by choosing a more liberal belief system that does not tie itself to the horror of Sri Lankan politics and the undisciplined power excercised by some who claim to speak in the name of Buddha.

People will always search for spiritual fulfilment. For some, spirituality leads to a path of bloodthirsty politics which permeates throughout Sri Lanka. We know it is the wrong path - but they were "converted" - brainwashed & they followi not with their eyes wide open but blindly.

I sincerly hope you are right Morq & that the people, poor or otherwise make wise choices for their souls even if outwardly they appear differently.

One day, we will reclaim our Serendipity. Then we will all hear the footsteps of the last great man to come out of Bihar. We will hear his phillosophy being preached in every Temple in the land. After all everywhere else on the planet his teachings are accepted & respected.

Today there are no footsteps quietly walking through our land, there has not been for quite sometime ... There is no "do unto your brother as you would have him do to you either"...

You will forgive me if I say that a few conversions here and there are irrelevant in the context of our reality. There is no Chrisitan movement - it there was, tell you what I'd have bloody noticed it by now!
errr - ps ... I am most honoured that morquendai has finally visited my blog...


ashanthi, formerly a pest blogger, then an anon, then an anon anon, then wolf mother & now having attained nirvahna - ashanthi

psss - be good if you would "officialy" post your verdict on the bpp, I am waiting you know...

again, humbly (see above) :-)
Despite space and time, the reasons why people convert in this day and age are suprisingly not very different from reasons why people converted centuries ago. It has little to do with any imagined or real superiority of one religious doctrine over another and has everything to do with fulfilling basic needs such a pursuing a better quality of life. So, I fail to see why some people get flustered over conversions now. The problem with mass faith issues like Buddhism, or Hinduism for that matter, is that in spite of its tradition of seva, it fails to engage the people socially as Christianity, particularly of the evangelical variety, does. The packaging and marketing is in need of overhaul.
Mephisto - you will forgive me if i say that you are all being a little - cynical...

Sorry - I think an individuals personal spiritual quest should never be about conversion it should be about freedom of choice. And ... (not that one should start a sentence with and :-) There is also the real need to lead by example.
If true religion can be said to be based on true belief, then what does that make a person who converts for material reasons?

Does the convert believe in the religion or does he believe in his material welfare, and who is being fooled here: the convert, the converter or the god in question?
what's 'wrong' in converting for material reasons? please explain.
imo none of this is our business. ppl are free to live in whatever way they like.
There is nothing wrong with converting now for material reasons when these were the same reasons for earlier conversions as well. Only the rich have the luxury of going on spiritual quests and what not and converting for those reasons.
Mephisto, sure the rich do have the luxury of buying themselves time & space to try to attain spiritual happiness. However, back to the converter, my point is, if you lead by example you will gather a flock that will follow you....

As you know the rich tend not to achieve a lasting spiritual happiness because there again, they try to buy this feeling of well-being from converters!

So - if we get back to the very simple basics, let's remove material & wordly goods out of the equation for a true conversion.

generally speaking, there are two levels of 'religion' in society.

the first is the sort that is practiced by a scarce few. these individuals are devoted to theological truths. in ancient times they lived in monastries, wandered through villages and forests, lived in caves etc. its these individuals who 'manufacture' the theology the rest of us follow.

the second level of religion is the sort practiced by the masses. the masses rarely understand in any depth, what, who or where their beliefs came from. thus there is a tendency towards simplicity and banality in their faith outlook. for lack of time or ignorance they fail to engage with the theology at a deeper level and even revel in their strong dogmatic beliefs by arguing with non-believers, other faith holders etc.

I think you will find that only persons belonging to the second category are enaged in what we call "aggressive evangelism". The first category are introverted because they engage with theology all day; the second group is always "spreading the message" seeking to find validation in what they believe. The insecure tend to want to externalise their faith.

There is also a third category. these are people who fit uncomfortably inbetween the two previous categories. i feel i belong to that category. on the one hand i am unable to connect with theology in the deeper sense (mainly due to my indisciplined, western, 'non-monastic' affluent lifestyle). nevertheless people such as myself value the complexity and divirsity of ideas without being dogmatic and close-minded. but this means that i am always drifting- and by drifting- i make myself a target for "conversion" by the second type of individual.

in sri lanka, the vast majority of Buddhists fall into the third category. people in this category tend to be 'loose' as far as their faith outlook is concerned. they may also be quite cynical about all faiths. however lacking any 'core principle' or 'direction' they tend to become easy prey of strongly worded arguments. odd as this sounds, they know the arguments are simplistic and dogmatic, but due to a sort of mental exhaustion they simply cow into pressure. i think its because they're so fed up of believing in nothing (as classical theravada buddhists are supposed to), that one day they simply 'give in'.

Belief in simple things makes life equally 'back and white'. others may simply be converting to ease their mind about death and the after life.

My point is that we should also factor in 'relativism' as a cause of Buddhist conversions in the rural areas. The Buddhist ideology lends itself to mental exhaustion. its far easier to believe in something than -nothing and everything- at the same time! Economics is certainly a part of it, but patrimonial apathy to religion, philosophy, spirituality - a quality noted by Emerson Tennent in the early 19 cen. about the sinhalese- is also a contributor to such superficial conversions.
j5 agree with a lot of what you say but...
i think its because they're so fed up of believing in nothing --
all religions including all flavors of buddhism are based on irrational beliefs.
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