(Not) Finding My Religion in Malaysia

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I have never considered myself a spiritual person. I come from a non-religious family. My (much older) sister was married in a church, and I remember liking the priest because he was funny. So my mother asked me if I wanted to do CCD (Catholic religious school) with him. I considered this as thoughtfully as could, being 8, and promptly responded, “No, thanks.” And that was the end of my relationship with organized religion. In my early years, I watched as my schoolmates attended CCD classes and received (is that the proper word?) confirmations, or became bat- or barmitzvah’ed, while I sat on the sidelines. But on this trip, I have been approached by two separate religions, trying to get me to join the faith. What did these missionaries see in me?  What is it about me that they find convert-able?

Believe it or not, this was the first time I had ever been asked to consider someone else’s religion. I studied religion a little bit in college, when it was a part of some other coursework like history or literature, but never for its own sake. And while I was studying, not a single time did anyone approach me about converrting. I figured that this meant that missionaries were all Christian, and that they basically traveled around the world trying to give people copies of the Bible and avoid getting captured. It didn’t occur to me that people from other religions also preach.

Traveling in Asia has brought us to hundreds of Buddhist and Hindu temples, of varying stripes. Visiting religious buildings is a common occurrence for me; in Europe, I visited hundreds of churches in search of history and art. It had nothing to do with my interest in the religion, and no one took it that way.

That was, until I visited a temple outside of Penang. It was a huge Buddhist temple complex. We climbed up to the top of one of the shrines for a wonderful view of the city below, and wandered all over the grounds. I abstained from ringing the giant gong that was set up for tourists to whack with a strange pendular contraption, thinking this was just a little disrespectful, but otherwise did a thorough exploration.

On the way out, a woman tried to teach me a phrase. I tried to speak with her, and she was very nice, and I just assumed she was trying to teach me some Malay. She wrote it down, and then demonstrated to me the gesture I should use when saying this phrase. It seemed strange that you would do this complicated bow/pray thing in front of someone else, but what do I know? After a few minutes of genuflecting (for lack of a Buddhist term), she handed me two books: principles of Buddhism, and contributions that Buddhists had made to the world. She seemed to be saying, “You know how to bow pretty well. Ever consider becoming a Buddhist?”

I took the books home and started to read. The contributions book didn’t do it for me, but the principles book was interesting enough. I learned something about Buddhism, and thought, hey, this wouldn’t be a bad way to go, if I had to have a religion. Most of it was about letting go of desires, and of our need to get even. If someone does something bad to you, just laugh it off; don’t get angry, because being angry pushes you further away from your goal of enlightenment. Sure that sounds good, but after some consideration, I decided that I would never actually be capable of that, much less of giving up worldly possessions and reciting one meditation enough times for it to actually sink in (too boring). The final nail in the Buddhist coffin was that it sounded a little too much like Catholicism – if you do this, you move backwards, but if you do this, you move forward. Life’s too short to count steps forward and backward, I think.

I left those books behind and moved on to other places, ultimately arriving in Kuala Lumpur. We had just touched down the night before and decided to go and see some of the local mosques. The first one we decided to explore was right near our hotel, so we started the two-minute walk after Indian food breakfast. We were stopped outside the mosque by four women wearing full purple hijab, a not uncommon sight in Malaysia. They asked us if we would participate in a survey, and we said yes.

The survey was really a pretense for talking about Islam. They asked us thinly veiled (no pun intended) questions about God and the universe, in an effort to identify whether we were good potential Muslims. Rebecca was sufficiently atheistic to put them off, but I was so open-minded and, I guess, wishy-washy, that they decided to send me to the book stand to get my own copy of an English translation of the Qa’ran. We then entered the mosque, took a few pictures, talked about Islam with the other missionaries inside the grounds, and left.

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I started reading the Qa’ran, which, I will admit, was much more interesting than the Buddhist text I had earlier discarded. Sure, it is seriously unkind to Jewish people for being mean to Jesus, considered a prophet by the Muslims, and Muhammad, the last prophet, but other than that it seemed pretty inviting. My overall impression was that Islam views God, or Allah, as a forgiving God, and that you should just do the best you can and live a good life. I got about 100 pages in and then asked myself a very important question: do I want to carry this huge book with me for the next month and a half, if only to test my theory that carrying a copy of the Qa’ran would be sufficient to get me extra scrutiny at the immigration offices back in the US on my way home? The answer (which should relieve my brother, a somewhat recent Jewish convert himself to hear) was no.

I hope this isn’t the last time that someone tries to convert me to his or her religion. I think religions are fascinating. They give a tremendous insight into culture, and I really like talking to people about things they care about. The women at the mosque really loved to talk to Rebecca and me about Allah and how awesome He was, and how they had decided for themselves to become Muslim. And the woman at the Buddhist temple was trying so hard to communicate and relate to me that she practically hugged me for taking her books.

Religion is the way to many people’s hearts, and those personal connections are what makes trips like this one worthwhile. I can only hope that they get as much out of meeting me as I did out of meeting them.

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