YAK YAK YAK and OTHER IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” James 1:19
“She had lost the art of conversation but not unfortunately, the power of speech.”
George Bernard Shaw
I traveled to Dharamsala in India, hoping to arrange a private audience with the Dalai Lama, or at least meet his pets, the Doggy Lama and the Lama Dolly. When he heard I was coming, he immediately arranged to be out of town!
Fortunately for me, some people are kind enough to talk to anyone, including me, so I was invited to have tea with Tashi Phuntsock, the Secretary of State for the Tibetan government in exile, and his charming 16-year-old daughter Yigha. Yigha told me that she attends a Presbyterian boarding school in India, whose strength is the diversity of its students and faculty, representing over forty countries. Both of them are fluent in at least five languages and have lived all over the world. I, on the other hand, can understand English as long as no big words are involved and one speaks very slowly. Despite my linguistic limitations, we had the most delightful conversation, one that opened not only my eyes but other key parts of my sensory and spiritual perceptions, such as the mind, heart, and soul. Such is the difference dialogue makes–it opens us up to new ways of seeing and being in God’s most interesting and varied world.
I had missed my friends’ sobering visit that Sunday morning to the Tibet Museum, a celebration of culture as well as a stark reminder of the brutal Chinese occupation in 1959. But I had traveled to Tibet on a personal pilgrimage years prior, where I had witnessed first-hand the continual suffering that the people endure. In Tibet, I had made friends with a number of Tibetans, not to mention yaks, the best-named beast that side of Mount Everest. As it turned out, I had entered Tibet from Nepal through Nyalam, the town where Tashi had been born, a detail that connected us immediately, as places and people are prone to do. I think I caught a glimmer of fond remembrance in his eyes, although he had left Tibet as a child.
I asked them some questions, but mostly I listened and learned. His sadness was still evident as he recounted how important it was to “inform the world about Tibet and its struggle,” to acknowledge the force that is “the mighty Chinese,” and to continue to “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” He said, with some pride, that the mere fact that Tibetans have been able to survive in exile and are known throughout the world is a major accomplishment in itself. He also pointed out that those Tibetans who have it the worst are those in the “Autonomous Region of Tibet,” a reminder that we sometimes have to go deeper than words or labels (especially those that originate with the oppressor) to understand the reality.
Our dialogue turned to interfaith dialogue as Tashi and Yigha shared with me how “Interdependence is the essence of Buddhism,” and how the ultimate meaning of Karma is that “kindness begets kindness.” Each of them described how their religious practice is more of a habit and way of life than a doctrinal system, and its core is defined by goodness, consideration, compassion, and love. Sounded like authentic religion to me.
Finally, they articulated their love for India which, despite its poverty, pollution, and “chock-o-block” traffic, still offers the seeker a sense of peace and attraction. Tashi says about India and its diversity what could be said about the world: “All this simmering tension is part and parcel of harmonious living.” Even now, he says, right now, blessings abound in India. One of them, I realize, is my time with the two of them, an opportunity for spiritually-stimulating conversation and personal enlightenment.
We live in a world that grows smaller each day, connected by communication opportunities never imagined by previous generations, yet we still stake out our turf, protect our boundaries, defend our prejudices, and proclaim our superiority, spiritual and otherwise, over those who differ from us. They may differ in language, culture, religion, or nationality. Whatever the distinction may be, we often find ways to separate ourselves and divide our world by differences. Such self-limiting attitudes create much of the world’s problems, and our loss of the art of conversation and the appreciation of differences, while retaining the power of speech, promote a world of instability and unharmonious—if not threatening—conditions.
When I returned from India, someone asked me immediately if I had been criticized for trying to learn about “other religions” rather than solely studying “your own.” For a moment I was incredulous that such thinking could possibly exist. Of course, it not only exists, it may be the prevalent perspective. And it is likely the root of many of our problems. Our inability to listen and learn from those who share our common humanity, as well as a Common Creator, creates much of the distrust and misunderstanding on our planet. We are far better, individually and collectively, when we engage in conversation with each other, when we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slower still to get angry and defensive.
I wonder what the world would be like if those who criticize the Black Lives Matter movement would sit down and have conversations with African-Americans who are subjected to prejudice, projection, suspicion, and violence. I wonder what the world would be like if those who have nothing good to say about police officers would ride with them in a patrol car for an entire shift and hear from them about the challenges they face and the fears of their families who wait for them at home. I wonder what the world would be like if those who misunderstand Muslims sat down to dinner with a devout Muslim family and freely exchanged ideas about the life of faith. I wonder what the world would be like if those who think religious people are responsible for all the problems in this world would wander through a hospital, orphanage, school, or soup kitchen that came about because religious people were motivated to do good, and talk to them about such good things. I wonder what the world would be like if extremists and fundamentalists, of every stripe, would open their minds and hearts to the possibility that others may possess some form of truth that is quite different from their own perspective. I wonder what the world would be like if we had more conversations over tea with those who are different from us. It would certainly not be a perfect world, but I’ll bet it would be a much better world.
At the end of our tea time, Tashi insisted on picking up the tab. I knew I should have ordered cake, like Yigha did! Still, I feel so satisfied–filled with appreciation and awareness. Dialogue about differences can make a real difference. So stop yaking about what you think you know—and listen.
“Let the one who has ears to hear, listen and understand!” Jesus