All Aboard for the Interfaith Tour

By Virginia Hendersonn 13 September 2013

YANGON — What does one do on a hot Sunday but jump on an old bus and go to see what’s happening at Yangon’s faith spaces, find someone knowledgeable to speak with and pose some curly questions about the meaning of life?

Some curious young people with tons of initiative and social conscience recently created the country’s first Youth Interfaith Tour. Innovative and challenging, the event brought together 26 young men and women from different religious backgrounds to investigate first-hand what makes various faiths tick. The keen participants had answered an invitation posted on community noticeboards, at churches, temples, mosques and on the Internet.

This extraordinary bunch of faith explorers comprised three female and three male participants from each of four religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity—as well as three “free thinkers,” who often took the front row, observing and listening keenly, generating thoughtful discussion with lateral queries.

Leaving shoes on the bus, the gang alighted on Anawrahta Street and slipped from the busy, crowded street into the cool, calm and welcoming Shri Kali Temple. Built by Tamil migrants in 1871 and known for its dramatic sculptures of Hindu gods Ganesh, Shiva, Laxmi and many others in this particular pantheon, Shri Kali offers visitors a chance to connect with nature. It is an elemental experience. Bells, water, flowers, smoke and flames awaken the senses, evoking impulses and sharpening the mind. Poking around the dark corners, it is possible to witness local worshippers conducting their own elaborate prayer rituals.

U Aung Naing of the Kali Temple Trust explained: “Hindus are very free. Let people worship the way they think is right. To be frank, I’m not a very religious man. I have all religions around me. Everybody must be respected and valued. Speak well of other religions. Try to be as humane as possible. Don’t be aggressive. Follow ahimsa [non-violence] as promoted by Mahatma Gandhi. Be relaxed in what you do.”

Taking these words of wisdom on board, it was back on the road, where everyone had a chance to reflect on the ways that the approximately one percent of this country’s population who are Hindus practice their faith, what it means to them and where there may be common ground.

Adorned in gold and thousands of diamonds and seen from almost all over the city, the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda was next on the itinerary for the faith research team. Crammed with Buddhists on their day off, making merit and on family outings, this most famous stupa reveals some obvious connections between Hindu Brahmanism and Buddhism in the astrological stations for days of the week and planets located around the sacred site. The inauspicious toppling of the gem-laden spire during an earthquake was described in a hushed tone by one of the pagoda managers. Apparently built by the Mon people between the 6th-10th centuries, the Shwedagon symbolizes the tenets of generosity, loving- kindness and compassion that underpin Buddhist philosophy.

Under a shared umbrella, sheltering from the rain, it became clear that this was the first Shwedagon visit for a 19-year-old Muslim colleague who had lived all his life in Yangon. Treading on new ground with an open mind, he contemplated the importance of taking these steps toward greater understanding and deeper listening to each other.

U Myo Win, the director of the Smile Education and Development Foundation, is an inspiring character, a sort of “guardian angel” for the interfaith and peace-building movement. An imam trained in trauma healing, conflict resolution, critical thinking and teaching tolerance, he advocates for communities to bridge their differences and develop cross-cultural relationships through networking and dialogue. Education is a key. So, too, is the breaking of stereotypes and building civic consciousness by promoting personal responsibility—meaning that those who follow the interfaith ethos should be able to honestly say to themselves, “There is no conflict regarding race and religion because of me.”

U Myo Win’s introduction of Islamic principles at Jongalay Mosque gave hearty food for thought. Once again on this “beliefs road trip,” some participants found themselves in completely new spaces—physically, mentally and spiritually.

At the Methodist Church, founded in 1879, Pastor Saw Shwe Lin reminded the group of the importance of interfaith dialogue and highlighted the challenges of “misinformation, miscommunication, misinterpretation and misunderstanding.”

Coordinator U Aung Naing Win, a trained dentist, planned the interfaith tour with his friend and facilitator U Bahlal. Both U Aung Naing Win and U Bahlal are alumni of the Myanmar-US Friendship Association, which sponsored this thought-provoking project. Further dialogue and peace-building initiatives are underway, for education is a process, not an end.

The day’s rich discussions opened doors and delved into the ways that tolerance is linked to the notion of democracy. It concerns our personal, intimate relationship with our creator and relates to the struggle for the soul and identity of the nation. It is about everyone having a place: many faces, many beliefs. The probing, contemplating and wondering continue.

This story first appeared in the September 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.