part travelogue, part cultural critique
Our neighbors were taking a short trip to visit their ancestral village. They invited us to join them for two days, promising take us up to a famous Christian mountain that rested on the border between the Bago division of Myanmar, and Karen state. After a 6 hour bus ride to the city of Taungoo and a hearty meal of rice in the sweltering heat, we piled into a private van that our friends had rented for the final leg of the trip, excited to drive up to a high altitude and to escape the thick heat of the lowlands.
Our friends, who are Buddhists, were excited to show us a religious site that was connected to our Christian faith, while we were mostly excited to be up high, taking in jungle views from above the plains, and sucking in long breaths of thin, cool, mountain air. The van raced up the switchbacks while I plied our restless daughters with snacks and tried to interest them in the views from the windows. “Look! We’re so high up! You can see so far!” (Yangon is one of the flattest places I’ve ever been, and sometimes living there, I just get the itch to go and experience a little bit of altitude, to see a view that is not rendered possible by a skyscraper.)
As the car climbed and weaved through narrow switchbacks, we saw ridges bedecked with Buddhist structures. This sort of thing—religious artifices high up on hills—is normal for most of the country. It’s actually unusual to a see a hill that hasn’t been crowned with a Buddhist worship site. Miles away, the next range over, a massive reclining Buddha made his repose, surrounded by smaller outbuildings and a monastery, flanked on one side by a series of stone images of Buddhist novices, in a recreation of Buddhist lore. The reclining Buddha looked massive from our vantage, miles away, and yet at the same time it appeared so tiny, relative to the expanse of the green mountains upon which it rested.
We wound through a checkpoint, and into a small village that preceded the final drive to the mountain top. Suddenly, it felt like we had entered Myanmar Bible Belt. Road signs had Christian names, cross symbols and the star of David were scattered throughout the village, plastered onto homes and signage. Everything was heavy laden with the symbolism of Christendom, and the guesthouses were no exception: Grace for Grace Bed and Breakfast, Star of the East, Peace Guest House, Golden Crown Bed & Breakfast.
This mountain was clearly a pilgrimage site that catered to Christians. The high season for pilgrimage was soon to start: during the Water Festival (i.e. Buddhist New Year celebration) every April, most Myanmar Christians retreat and go to other parts of Myanmar, to prayer centers and Christian camps for kids and adults. (Partly this is for the purpose of religious training and a summer retreat, but it’s hard not to watch and see beneath that an effort on the part of Christian leaders to galvanize the community against anything that is fearful and “other,” in this case, the Buddhist majority group.) For the Christians in Myanmar to embark on a religious pilgrimage to the prayer mountain is not at all unlike the religious habits of their Buddhist counterparts.
Much of Myanmar’s tourism industry hinges upon sojourning Buddhist pilgrims (not to mention a sprinkling of backpacker tourists).Myanmar is filled with pagodas, some that are seen as more auspicious than others, most of which are said to contain some form of Buddhist relic. There is a triad of religious sites that, is said to bring the highest combination of good karma to a pilgrim. (One is a balancing golden rock in Mon State, one is the Mahamuni in Mandalay, and the third, and by far the most impressive, is the Shwe Dagon, the world’s largest pagoda, in Yangon.) Many religious sites have multiple donation boxes scattered through, and places for pilgrims to purchase breadcrumbs to feed to the fish or a bird to set free (both are ways of gaining good luck).
Every visitor to a Buddhist site has to remove their shoes before entering the outer courtyard. Many rural pagodas and a number of the most famous ones rest at the top of a hill that must be summited via a long set of stairs. Everyone is required to be barefoot as they make the ascent, which is usually a 15 minute walk at the most, and along the way up there are often resting places and smaller shrines that have been donated by various Buddhist patrons. Offerings can be made at these shrines in the forms of money, incense, or donations of food or water. Before setting out on a trip, the pilgrims will break their money into the smallest denominations, so as to spread out their donations at various sites, rather than to make one large donation at the food of only one shrine or stupa. At these donation sites, pilgrims also kneel and pray before the Buddhist images, sometimes leaving flowers or lighting a candle after offering a prayer.
Ascending the Mountain
We wove through town and reached the parking lot at the base of the Christian prayer mountain. Just steps away from our parking spot was a freshly painted red concrete staircase that led to the top. Opposite there was another set of stairs, but this one led to a slightly smaller hill that was claimed as the Catholic prayer mountain. I hadn’t realized until we reached the mountain itself that there was to be a differentiation between the Catholics and the Protestants at such prayer sites.
We were allowed to ascend the mountain with our shoes on, though we were still exhorted by translated signage to wear “godly” clothing before making our ascent. As we walked up the hill, we passed small concrete buildings. They were Christian worship sites, not altogether unlike the Buddhist shrines that flank the stairs up to a pagoda. Some had cross shapes embedded into their walls, and one particularly eye-catching building was formed in the shape of a pair of praying hands. Each building bore the name of a different family that had donated it. Within each of these small structure was a mat for kneeling, and a low table, upon which rested a handful of religious items, usually a vase of flowers, sometimes candles, and always several open Bibles. Every prayer booth I entered also had prominently placed photos of long-haired, Caucasian Jesus. A collection of verses from the Burmese Bible were painted above the door or upon the walls of the building. Donation boxes sat outside, for anyone who felt compelled to give. It was all eerily similar to every religious site I’d been to before in Myanmar, except for that all of the typical Buddhist symbols (idols, pictures of the Buddha, incense, etc), had been replaced with Christian ones. And some remained; the flowers, the kneeling mats, the candles, the donation boxes.
This religious site left me pondering anew the question of where a culture ends and where a religion begins. And it left me wondering why so many Christians are so quick to look down on the practices of their Buddhist neighbors, while apparently imitating their style of worship. Did they see the similarities I was seeing? Or did they simply perceive them as cultural similarities, and not that of one religion copying the traditions and habits of another. How could you even know? There is no mathematical equation for sorting out such things.
At the very top of the hill, a sign instructed us to remove our shoes before entering the top of the site. A typical Buddhist mountaintop pagoda has most of its surfaces covered in gold paint (some of the most sacred would be covered with gold leaf, depending on the wealth and prestige of the site and of the person who had the pagoda build), and all the walkways are tiled with slippery floor tiles. This Christian prayer mountain had a simpler aesthetic. The ground was bare concrete, and the buildings were painted bright red and white. The primary building, a larger replica of all the prayer rooms we’d seen on our ascent, was built in the style of a boat, and it had a veranda jutting out one side that was made to look like the deck of a ship, replete with shiny railings and a view of the surrounding mountains for miles on end. (Perhaps they were going for a Noah and Mt Ararat feel?) The bright red and white paint combined with a boat had me feeling like perhaps a Barbershop quartet was hiding around some corner, ready to burst out and start singing old Gospel songs in English.
At random points, cross shapes were built into the architecture, or painted on buildings. Slightly towering above the boat prayer room was a large steel cross that was lined with giant light bulbs. It looked like it could have been used to light up a movie set, but presumably, it light up the sky at night so that the outline of the cross could be seen for miles.
Within the ship-shaped prayer room was a larger spread of tables and prayer mats, and a wide variety of Bibles in all shapes and sizes laid open upon the tables for the pilgrims. It was not quite sunset, and we were the only ones up there, but I imagined that a lot of Christians came here to take the religiously-inspired selfies I’ve seen so frequently posted on Facebook. (Prominent Christians will often post photos of themselves on pilgrimages, or at conferences; the one that I find most intriguing is the praying photo—obviously it is not taken as a selfie, but the subject is, in these types of photos, obviously praying for the camera.)
In Buddhist religious tradition, doing good deeds, or meritorious acts, in front of other people is not seen as a bad thing. In fact, making public display of your religious devotion, and participating in community donations and obeisance is actually essential to the religious system. In most neighborhoods, like the one where I live, there are frequent opportunities to make public displays of religious devotion. A few folks will man a large chalkboard and a moneybox, and announce each donation amount and the name of the donor as the donations roll in. No amount is too insignificant to be announced, and the reason for this is that Buddhists believe that when one’s good deeds are announced publicly, the merit of the good deed is then extended to anyone within earshot of the announcement.
Distorted Christian Practice
In situations like this, where I find myself perched atop a cultural curiosity like a Christian prayer mountain, I wonder about how the habits that form such a place might be manifest in American Christianity. How what we’ve come to see as our personal brand of “true” spirituality is actually religion that is subject to the power of our own narcissism and the quirks of our own culture. How we mistake our “faith” for what is actually conformation to the religious culture that surrounds us. We tell ourselves that our conformity is born of our spiritual convictions, but in truth, a lot of it comes from a desire to belong. We don’t see these weaknesses in our own religious practice all that readily, but we are quick to spot and criticize them in other cultures.
The longer I am away from North American church culture, the more foreign it feels to me, and the more I find myself examining my history and my western religious culture for signs of these religious malformations. It’s easy for me as a cultural outsider to recognize what appear to be malformations in Myanmar Christian practice. But I can hardly look at what I perceive as distorted faith in Myanmar before I turn the same lens back on American Christian culture, and when I do so, I’m knocked flat by the sight of ten times more of the same kind of distortions, just dressed in different clothes.
The mountaintop experience at Than Daung Gyi leads me to think about how we American Christians might not take photos of ourselves praying, but we do find other ways to announce our spirituality to our own communities; perhaps by posting photos of ourselves on a ministry trip, by making a public fuss of our devotional routines or theology studies, by leading a worship service, or by doing the requisite amount of worshipful hand waving (or the reverse: worshipful solemnity, depending on the denomination in question). And in my experience, how quickly these things morph into anything but a love for the person of Jesus.
In her book, The Dangers of Christian Practice, Lauren Winner discusses the ways that Christian practices become malformed. The religious practices by which we live out our faith (prayer, communion, baptism, etc.) are not immune to distortion: “…deformations of Christian practices are part of the practices themselves, because nothing apart from God (not church, not sacraments, not saints) is exempt from the damage produced by the Fall.” How easily the religious practices we take on in order to draw near to God are wont to turn into walls that obscure our love for God. “These deformations are easy to miss,” writes Winner, precisely because they are so intimate with Christianity’s essential goods.”
The longer I live outside of North American church culture, the more I’m convicted that much of my former involvement within that culture had nothing to do with a love for God. I’m struck repeatedly by the ways I mislabeled my love of cultural identity and called it Christian faith. Our cultural and religious habits become so entwined that we can hardly see them, and we need the help of outsiders, or the experience of becoming an outsider, in order to sort some of it out. (The worst of it all, I realized, is that far too much of Christian religious practice involves being around people who look and think just like you do, which only serves to decrease the odds that practitioners will reflect on their motives and possible distorted practices.) I’ve realized over and over how susceptible I am to confusing American cultural Christian practices with the object of our faith, which is God–who, as it turns out, loves Americans just like everyone else, but is not actually an American.
The longer I am away from the dominant culture in which I was raised, the easier it is to read the Bible and to listen to the life of Jesus like I’m hearing it all for the first time. I’ve found that the experience of being an outsider in a new culture has given me an opportunity to look at something like the Bible, and to hold it beside my old lenses of American Christian culture, rather than forcing it beneath those lenses. Those lenses, I’ve discovered, happen to be quite badly scratched and could do with some outside help (just as sure as some of you reading this might be thinking the same about Myanmar Christian practice).
There is no way to be a perfectly objective practitioner of any belief system, let alone Christianity. We are bound up within culture no matter where we go: this is what it is to be human. There will always be a set of lenses either obscuring or clarifying our understanding of God and ourselves; usually a little bit of both. But the interesting paradox I’ve observed over the years is that the more convinced a person is of their spiritual objectivity, or of the perfection of their religious practice, the less objective they become, and the more likely it is that their Christian practice is distorted. If we are too eager to be defined by our visible Christian practices, we are likely to forget God.
Searching for Presence
Buddhist religious practice, Myanmar Christianity, and western Christian culture share this in common: fast-paced religious trips. Buddhists make such trips as religious pilgrimage, Myanmar and Western Christians typically for the sake of “doing good” elsewhere. In the case of westerners’ short-term missions trips, and the profusion of photos shared, of selfies snapped with brown-skinned kids, and how these things become a sort of spiritual currency for western Christians, and they scarcely realize it. I think about how busy-ness is a sort of spiritual currency that makes itself evident in the western Christian resistance to simply visiting places as tourists, instead insisting on being “at work” as short-term missionaries. Being too busy in “good work” is a praiseworthy default, a sort of spiritual workaholism. (If you have free time in your schedule, are you really up to anything important?)
Such frenetic, endlessly busy habits of religious devotion are common to all three groups: Myanmar Buddhists, Myanmar Christians, and Western Christians on short-term mission trips. All three sets of people make lightning quick trips to other places, either to do charity work (the Christians), or to make meritorious offerings (the Buddhists), they jam their schedules as full as possible and rush back to their daily lives, catching sleep in the margins by taking red-eye trips, not stopping for much of a breath in between. There is nothing of presence in these activities, there is only the frantic addiction to “doing good” (and that “good” is, on all counts, highly questionable). The way western Christians behave on mission trips is not unlike the Buddhist pilgrimage: there is perhaps one day out of a week devoted to sightseeing, and the rest is about doing and producing, running activities for whatever project they are a part of, taking selfies when possible. One thread that links all of these groups and their activities is an abundance of busy-ness, and a dearth of peace, of presence. It is a grasping after a sense of assurance that has already been made available to us for free, no exertion required. For followers of Christ, everything has already been promised should lead us in the opposite direction of such striving, and toward rest.
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We wandered around the hilltop boat and the smaller prayer rooms that surrounded it, taking in the panoramic views of the hills, and marveling at it all. Our Buddhist friends were there too, gladly soaking in the view alongside us, and helping corral the kids as they ran around. It was similar to Buddhist hilltop sites in that it was a peaceful place to sit and rest and look at the view.
As we took in the panorama around us, I couldn’t help thinking of the similarities between the culture of religious pilgrimage—a culture that leads folks to construct religious edifices at the top of mountains—and the “get outdoors” culture where I’m from (this culture defines a lot of young people where I’m from in the United States, and it also has made for a profitable fashion and gear industry) that leads people to seek out places that are nothing but nature. The external trappings of these two groups are vastly different, and yet I can’t help but feel that their goals are similar. Both of these groups of people are seeking spiritual satisfaction in places that are away from the grind of daily life. They seek a peaceful place to breathe and be silent, an experience of nature, a chance to see something new, or a sense of doing good and connecting with the world.
I think what lies at the heart of these activities is a simple desire to take up space in the world, a longing for an uninterruptible sense of presence, a sense of presence that can be hard to find in the midst of pedestrian life. And yet, the pursuit of these understandable human longings so often declines into a frantic bucket list, an endless search for experiences that will provide us with good experiences and/or religious merit. We practitioners of the quest for peace upon mountaintops and pagodas tell ourselves that peace and goodness, communion with something (be it nature, or the teachings of the Buddha, or praying to Jesus, or going on a mission trip), can be obtained by a quick trip to a locale that is exotic or “other.” And this belief devolves into things like bucket lists, and “I must do a new hike every weekend for an entire year,” or “if I visit this site X number of times, I will have attained the optimum good luck, “or, if I am a committed Christian, I will take this year’s savings and spend it traveling to another country for a week and conducting VBS camps.”
The longing and the search are what make us human. But the frantic quest for more, for social currencies we can use to publicly declare our love for nature or our religious ardor (or the tendency to Google search the next location/hike/religious trek/vacation spot even while we are in the middle of one): our longing also turns out to be the thief of the presence we so long to know. The incessant quest for more is in opposition to the sort of presence that makes a mountaintop worth visiting. And so the sweetness spoils while it is in our mouths, our obsession with the next bite shutting the door to the very embrace of peace that we are reaching after.
And in it all, the frantic hurry to check off every pagoda or great hike in the vicinity also robs us of a greater, gentler truth: presence and belonging is not exclusive to mountaintops or religious edifices. Certainly, it can come easier there. But if you have not learned to be still at home, in your own pedestrian setting, then trying to do so upon a mountaintop will be as effective as grasping after water.
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The sun had begun to set, and we’d been lingering for some time. I didn’t want to carry our kids down in the dark, and it was just about suppertime.
“Shall we head down?” I asked my friends, who were sitting on a bench at the edge of the terrace.
“Are you finished with your prayers?” my friend Khine asked me earnestly. She is the same age as me, and a moderately devout Buddhist. She expected me to perform a public act of worship here, like the other Christians do on this mountain, like the Buddhists do at their religious sites.
“No, I didn’t pray,” I replied.
“Are you going to?”
“No, I don’t want to pray here.”
“What?! You mean it isn’t the same religion?” Khine is not prone to outbursts, but her voice was high and she seemed shocked. I was surprised by her reaction, but I didn’t know what to say. I was a Christian, yes. But the last thing I wanted to do on top of this mountain was to make a formal prayer. I have no desire to throw shade on my fellow Christians here, no matter how questionable I think their practices might be. But neither did I want to throw myself into their habits of public piety, and I certainly didn’t want to do so in front of my Buddhist friends. In that moment, I couldn’t fully explain myself in English, let alone in Burmese.
“No, I am Christian,” I fumbled. “But my kind of Christianity is a bit the same, and it’s also a bit different. I am not going to pray here.” I said.
She seemed baffled. But her curious shock subsided nearly as quickly as it had sprung up. The colors of the departing sun captured our attention. We took in one last gaze of the miles of hilly jungles around us, and then we all descended the prayer mountain in the fading light, together.
Winner, Lauren. The Dangers of Christian Practice (Yale University Press, 2018).
If you’re interested in more of Winner’s book, I highly recommend it. You can also check out these reviews of it, here:
When Christian Practice Deforms Us: