Monday, June 17, 2013

Spiritual Growth from Interfaith Encounters

Dustin Moretz
by guest blogger and former Project Interfaith intern, Dustin Moretz

 I think that often when we discuss the value of interfaith dialogue its benefits are thought to be societal – dialogue promotes respect, understanding, and peace. While I believe that these benefits are undeniable, interfaith encounters can also facilitate immense personal and spiritual growth, driving individuals to grapple with questions of faith and come to a new understanding about themselves and their own faith traditions. And, to be honest, I’ve experienced this firsthand. Last August, I flew across the world on a study abroad program to India that strengthened my belief in not only interfaith dialogue, but fostered spiritual development within my own personal belief system as well.

          When I was accepted to Antioch University’s Buddhist Studies in India program, I was absolutely ecstatic. I had always wanted to travel, and being a passionate Religious Studies major, there was no better way to study a religious tradition than to encounter its adherents. India, as a diverse multi-religious and multiethnic society, was the perfect place to encounter interfaith dialogue and study inter-communal relations. The program in particular was especially unique since we studied in Bodh Gaya in Bihar – essentially the birthplace of Buddhism. It was under the sacred Bodhi Tree (on the site of which now stands the beautiful Mahabodhi Temple) that Siddhartha Gautama was said to have attained enlightenment and become the fully enlightened Buddha (literally ‘enlightened one’). Bodh Gaya is a place of pilgrimage for the entire Buddhist world as well as thousands of Hindus, many of whom regard the Buddha as an incarnation of the god Vishnu. As a place of pilgrimage, monasteries of many different nationalities dot Bodh Gaya’s landscape, and my program was hosted at the Burmese Vihar, where we lived and attended classes with our program’s faculty, allowing us to be immersed in monastery life. We meditated every morning and every evening, switching to a different meditation tradition every 3 weeks or so. 

            Academics aside, the spiritual growth I experienced from encountering Buddhism was astounding. While I wanted to use the experience as a foundation from which I could learn more about interfaith dialogue, my experiences in India reinforced the point that any interfaith encounter can be deeply spiritual and personal in addition to being educational. For one of my courses I interviewed a Bhutanese monk in a village outside of town about his life and spiritual journey. He spoke to me about growing up in Bhutan, being unable to afford college, but always feeling a profound connection to Buddhism – its teachings about suffering and enlightenment resonated with him. He told me about ordaining for the first time, and feeling such a deep connection with monkhood that he simply never wanted to return to the life of a layperson. It was impossible to talk with him about his faith and not feel changed by the experience – after all, he was divulging personal details about his life and belief system to a complete stranger. Needless to say, a bond of trust was formed between us. The personal connection it created was a spiritual one, one that transcended boundaries of faith and connected us as human beings.

            Other spiritual experiences came from meditation. I must admit that I walked into meditation the first day thinking it would be easy. As all of our teachers reinforced, if meditation felt easy, that meant we were doing it wrong. While the various meditation traditions each emphasized different focuses and goals to their practices, each echoed the importance of mindfulness. I remember one particular evening meditation Bodh Gaya was being pounded on by the storms of the monsoon, and I felt particularly at peace as I became conscious of the rain pounding on the roof, the gentle rustling of my peers as they repositioned themselves on their meditation cushions, and my own soft breathing. It was clear to me, at that moment, why some Christian mystics found profound meaning in Buddhist meditation, adapting its methods to their prayer practices. Living in the future had been inculcated in me by Western culture, and Buddhist meditation practices brought me back to the present, and made me value living in the moment.

            I, too, adapted some meditation practices to my own spirituality. When I visited the Mahabodhi Temple, I walked on the path around the temple with my prayer beads in my hands, praying in silence. While singing songs of praise in church can be deeply spiritually fulfilling, the silence of meditation allowed for a new and profound personal encounter with God. I cannot articulate how fulfilling it was to pace around the temple, listening to the chanting of the monks, feeling my feet on the damp stone path, praying about my hopes and my fears, my personal shortcomings and my petitions to find the strength within me to do better. Here I was, a Christian in a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. Even with a different belief system, I was able to take away so much spiritually from the encounter. The Mahabodhi Temple continues to hold a special place in my heart for the spiritual growth I experienced while there.

  This isn’t to say, of course, that I never experienced times where I was uncomfortable with some interfaith encounters – especially encounters in which I directly engaged in different spiritual practices. During meditation in the Tibetan tradition, we were encouraged to envision a Tibetan Buddhist bodhisattva, Green Tara, the manifestation of enlightenment and compassion. While the visualization of the deity could be interpreted as metaphoric, I was nevertheless uncomfortable with envisioning her – a deity that I did not believe in. In the end, not only was I uncomfortable with it, but I felt that it would be disrespectful to Buddhism as a whole to engage in a spiritual practice I was uncomfortable with. Our meditation teachers had made it clear that we were not obligated to engage in particular practices if we did not wish to. We had to be conscious of our own comfort levels. Nevertheless, I was still able to take something away from Tibetan meditation. The Tibetan tradition emphasizes unbounded love and compassion. In one practice, we were instructed to envision taking away the suffering from our loved ones, even the entire world, and placing it upon our own shoulders in an ultimate act of compassion. As someone who considers myself a Christian, this compassion is (in my opinion) the absolute epitome of my faith. At the end of the meditation practice, I was almost in tears. It was the most profound spiritual experience I have ever had, and I felt that it strengthened my own faith. Despite the discomfort I had with some facets of Tibetan meditation practice, other facets I could find much meaning in.

            Whether it was through the adherents or spiritual practices, these interfaith encounters can be more than just learning experiences. They can be experiences that move us personally and spiritually. Certainly, we will all have different comfort levels when we engage in interactions with those of different faith traditions. But the openness to not only understand, but grow from those interactions, can grant us deep spiritual growth through our encounters with others and their belief systems.

Dustin Moretz was previously the Development Intern during the summer of 2012 for Project Interfaith. He is currently double majoring in Religious Studies and Anthropology/Sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, with a concentration in Public Policy and Service. He hopes to eventually get involved with interfaith relations on a national and international scale. He is passionate about social justice, and the necessity for members of all faith communities to unite to create a more just, prosperous, and safe environment where all individuals feel valued. He enjoys running, kayaking, reading, video games, and all things interfaith.

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