Elizabeth Schurman teaches English and writing at a Kansas City charter high school. She is a practicing Christian, member of Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, and occasional student of Buddhism.
Last Sunday evening, instead of walking in to the dark, silent sanctuary of my church, I pulled open the door and saw seven guys dressed like Big Bird, moaning.
Oh: we were hosting some Buddhist monks. I tiptoed to my favorite pew, next to the St. John window, and sat down. I guess they reminded me of Big Bird because when I was little I had a winter hat with Big Bird’s head sticking out of the top. It added six inches to my height, just as the orange and yellow fringed headdresses of the monks made them more imposing.
They also wore the orange and red robes, and were doing something with their hands I couldn’t figure out. Maybe they were keeping count of how far along they were in the chant. No, that guy was just coughing. Were they saying something in Sanskrit, or just making noise?
Our priests and cantor sat up in the front, like usual, and the sanctuary was packed. The monks went on and on. I guessed everyone was wondering how long they would go on, and how they knew when to stop. I sat on my hands and listened and spaced out and listened again.
Every once in a while, a guy in the middle would hold up his hand to his mouth, and then he would sing unnaturally low, way lower than a double bass, and holding the notes with an alien sort of wavering. I didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Being clueless about the monks reminded me of being in Paris. My knowledge of French is about equal to my knowledge of Buddhism. I had an idea of what people said and wrote in French, but I was always left with a certain degree of ambiguity. At the Pompidou Center, I kept translating painting captions as “dead nature,” which confused my English-only friends. When I got home, I suddenly remembered: “la nature morte” means “still life.”
When I was in high school, I dated a Jewish boy, and visited their temple. The boy’s father, whom I absolutely loved, reminded me of Moses and Tevye and King David all wrapped together. He was bold, cheerful, and solid. I sat in his living room one afternoon, and he asked me why I wanted to go to Rosh Hashanah. Why was I interested in Judaism?
After a lifetime of the puppydog evangelism in Christianity, I loved how my Jewish friends didn’t try to sell their religion– in fact, they viewed my interest with skepticism.
“It’s so mysterious,” I said. “There’s so much you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know it. There’s so much mystery.”
“Huh,” he said. There I was lost in ambiguity again. But I went to temple and ate dinner with them, and it all seemed fine.
Abruptly, the visiting monks stopped. They took off their giant hats. They bowed to the congregation. None of the Episcopalians knew what to do. (We bow to the altar, but not each other.) As the Buddhists walked down the side aisle, the dean said, “Let’s express our appreciation to our guests,” which prompted us to stand up and clap.
It seemed weird to be clapping for that, but what else were we going to do? I was relieved to be reminded that I don’t know everything. I was grateful that they had shown up to make me pay attention and accept what I didn’t understand.