Between Stockholm Syndrome and Lima Syndrome
Part 23: Do We Choose a Belief or Does a Belief Choose Us?
There is not much choice, according to several scholars who subscribe to the golden rule of real estate: Location, Location, Location. Someone's religion depends very much on where he or she was born. In all probability that means a person is most likely a Sunni if born in Afghanistan; a Southern Baptist if in Atlanta; a Catholic if in Buenos Aires; a Hindu if in Mumbai; a Mormon if in Salt Lake City; and so on. These scholars believe—a belief in itself!—that men are products of their culture; and someone's religion, to a certain extent, is not a choice as it depends on where one was born. Call it fate or destiny, it is all a matter of one's birthplace.
And birthyear indeed. Statistically speaking, someone who was born in Moscow before the 1918 Bolshevik Revolution was most likely a Russian Orthodox Christian, but his grandson who was born in the same city during the Cold War, say in 1968, is most likely an Atheist. Surely there will always be irritating outliers. Admittedly, I'm one of those.
Born in Indonesia, which hosts the largest Muslim population in the world—12.7% of the world's Muslims, more than Pakistan (11.0%), India (10.9%), and Bangladesh (9.2%)—I was raised a Roman Catholic due to the fact that as an orphan, my father was raised in a Dutch Jesuit orphanage and sent to Catholic schools. Even if he was not an orphan, I suspect he would still not be a Muslim due to another statistical fact that the overwhelming belief of the majority of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Indonesia (then known as Dutch East Indies) is a chaotic syncretism of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It is not a stretch to say that one not only inherits their genes from their parents, but also their beliefs.
This does not necessarily mean that we always have to lead the same lives or lifestyles like our parents. Do we always live in the same location as our parents? Do we always have the same profession or career like them? Do we always have to root for the same sports teams like them? Then—with all due respect—why can we not have different religions than theirs? When it comes to something as important and critical as religion, do we always have to be on autopilot? Indeed religious conversion abounds.
Julia Roberts converted from Christianity to Hinduism; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Lew Alcindor) and Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) converted from Christianity to Sunni Islam; Richard Gere converted from Christianity to Buddhism; Tom Cruise converted from Christianity to Scientology; Madonna converted from Christianity to Judaism. Raised as a zealous Christian, Lin Yutang became a happy pagan, as he liked to described himself. Emperor Constantine (272-337) went the other way, converting from Roman paganism to Christianity. Joseph Stalin became an atheist in his first year at the Orthodox Seminary of Tiflis, to which he had been awarded a scholarship.
Even most of the founders of organized religions—from Buddha (Buddhism) to Jesus of Nazareth (Christianity), from Muhammad (Islam) to Joseph Smith (Mormonism), from Martin Luther (Protestantism) to Guru Nanak Dev (Sikhism), from Bahá'u'lláh (Bahá’í) to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (Ahmadiyya)—must be the biggest converts themselves. Logically, they could not have initiated new religions while simultaneously still clinging to their parents' respective old religions; could they?
So the question is: do we choose a belief or does a belief choose us? For sure we can never choose a believe, if we never contemplate on our existing personal belief. In my own case, I became an accidental Agnostic simply because once I stumbled upon the Zen Buddhist parable of Tanzan and Ekido while aimlessly browsing random books in a random bookstore in Jakarta in the mid 1970s.
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross at an intersection.
"Come on, girl," said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"
"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"
Still a practicing Catholic, I was immediately hooked by this aforementioned parable in a Zen Buddhist pocketbook, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (compiled by Paul Reps). At that time I barely knew anything about Buddhism, much less about Zen, but the parable certainly feels liberating and enlightening. I still recall holding the book in a bewildered sense of wonder, as I instantly discovered the undeniable freshness, decisiveness, and boldness in the action of Tanzan, which contrasts the stale dogmatic view and inaction of holier-than-thou Ekido. Carrying a young and lovely girl with one's innocent arms for a few minutes seems not as religiously dangerous as carrying her in one's dirty mind for the entire day. You may agree or disagree with Tanzan, but do we choose our baggage or does our baggage choose us? Likewise, do we choose our belief or does a belief choose us?
I did not shed my Catholicism immediately as the conversion and soul-searching process from Catholicism to Agnosticism happened gradually over a period of twenty years or so. There is no doubt however that the bookstore moment was truly a defining moment. In fact, in a twist of irony, I eventually embrace Agnosticism instead of Zen Buddhism, even though the catalyst for change was a Zen Buddhist parable. Indeed, all roads do not necessarily lead to Rome, or Mecca, or Varanasi, or Jerusalem.
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter