I’m in the final week of this great program and we’re wrapping it up in the East Coast. We’ve spent five days in Bethlehem Pennsylvania at Lehigh University. Lehigh is an interesting college in that it was constructed along a mountain so there are tons of hills. The student housing is at the top and then most university buildings are at the bottom of the hill. I sure do feel like a pansy complaining about walking up the hills to go to breakfast at Rathbone every morning for four whopping days when the Lehigh students have to walk up and down these hills all the time. The campus is really lovely and there are a lot of old buildings and more traditional style architecture.
Anyway, on my first day in Bethlehem we began by getting a very thorough lesson about the basics of the U.S constitution and the creation of the Federalist papers. I was really glad to have the lesson because embarrassing as it is, I really don’t have a very comprehensive knowledge of U.S history or the inner workings of our democracy. But I do now! After that we went to the Global Union at Lehigh to see a movie about their preparation for His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Lehigh in 2008. The video was quite interesting because we got to see some excerpts from his private and public speeches and we also got to see how the university spent an entire year creating activities and classes to prepare for his visit.
Debra, our program coordinator/supervisor at Lehigh was one of the main people who put together the entire event and she was able to give us the inside scoop on preparing for such an important and dynamic person. I’ve started reading his autobiography and it is quite good. The video worked as a good segway into the next days activity, a visit to the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in New Jersey. The center was located deep in the woods and was absolutely beautiful. I took an introductory Buddhism class last year so quite a few things that we learned about were pretty familiar to me. We got to observe a Buddhist service that was in a room with gorgeous colors and flowers and statues of the current Buddha and the next Buddha as well as a few other important figures in modern Tibetan Buddhism. The service began with an explanation of the prayers and chants that would be recited and the entire service lasted about an hour.
After the service, we went to have lunch and then when we returned to the center in the afternoon to sit in on the class that discusses and interprets Buddhist texts. What I liked about the class is that people were able to apply the texts to handling issues and challenges in their own lives . Unlike in Indonesia, Buddhism didn’t really become popular in the U.S until hippies thought it was “far out” :p Also, it is my understanding that Buddhism really isn’t very common in Indonesia though I don’t really think that it’s all that common in the U.S either. At the end we got the honor of briefly meeting with a very old Tibetan monk who was staying at the center. The center was also the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama stayed when he spoke at Lehigh.
Debra told us a story about His Holiness that really struck me. She told me that there were some Tibetan people from the area that wanted to protest during his time at Lehigh. They protested the fact that His Holiness isn’t against Tibet becoming apart of China if the culture and religion is still respectfully preserved. And upon hearing that people wanted to protest, His Holiness not only accepted this but encouraged it and requested that the protesters be placed in the front of the spectators instead of far off in the back of the crowd. I think that this demonstrates not only how kind and accepting he is but it also shows how important having the ability to engage in dialogue is. Furthermore, through his actions, His Holiness demonstrates the need to hear and consider everyone’s opinions even if they are in opposition to your own. I think that this lesson can really apply to what we’re doing here because with many of the things that we’ve done it has been really crucial that all of us keep an open mind. Especially when visiting the religious organizations and services we’ve been to in both the U.S and Indonesia, I have been truly delighted by the openness that we have had as well as those we’ve met from those various places. I have seen since being on this trip that in Indonesia there are religious groups that are closed off to the idea of learning about other religions or aspects of life that they are not accustomed to and the same certainly goes for the U.S as well.
As for differences in the place that religion has in both Indonesian society and American society I will say this. Because of the separation of church and state that we have in our constitution, religion is considered something that is more of a private issue than in Indonesia. I think I may have already mentioned how Indonesia requires people to claim religious affiliation of some kind (within the 6 recognized world religions). Basically, I feel like race is to the United States what religion is to Indonesian society. Both are important ways of dividing people and also bringing them together. They are those hot topics that can be really loaded and stir up a lot of passion in people.