Saturday, November 14, 2009

a Buddhist monk, a Muslim, and me

I went to Vietnam
recently to visit my relatives. On my flight back to Bangkok, in the boarding line, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk stood next to me. We struck up a conversation. He said this was the first time he went abroad. His final destination was Myamar, the country to the west of Thailand. He was a little apprehensive about the trip since it required an overnight layover in Thailand and he didn’t know where he was going to rest. He also didn’t speak Thai.

I told him that once we get to Bangkok, which was about 7:30 p.m., I would ask the airport workers to see if there were a place reserved for Buddhist monks to rest in the airport since Buddhist monks often receive special treatments in public places. This is understandable since Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation that has over 40,000 temples. Buddhism or rather the Buddhist way of life is ingrained in Thai people’s consciousness.
I stayed with the Buddhist monk at the baggage claim carrousel until he finally got his suitcase. He was one of the last ones to receive his bag. Afterward, we made our way through customs. Unlike the last time I came through this airport, the customs official did not call me for a radom check of my luggage. I assume it was because I was walking and talking with a man dressed in an orange robe.

We went out the door and through the lines of family, friends, hotel and company employees waiting for international passengers and into the elevator going up to the 4th floor. Here, I showed him where he would check in the next morning in order to fly to Rangoon, his final destination. I also approached an airport official to inquire about where the monk might be able to rest. The woman quickly went off to look into the matter. Seeing such a brisk response to our request, I was confident that this would be a simple matter. However, when she returned a few minutes later, she said that the place where our Buddhist monk could rest was inside the waiting area. This meant that he had to check in first. Unfortunately, his flight on AirAsia being the next morning, it was impossible for him to do so. We found that out after I went over the AirAsia counter to inquire.
The airport official told us that he might be able to rest in the prayer room on the third floor. So I led the monk downstairs to find this room. Along the way, we bumped into some airport guards and I asked for further directions. They pointed out the way. I asked them one more time just to make sure if the monk could rest there. The guards said yes.

Walking about 50 meters, I saw the sign for the prayer room. However, it turned out to be the Muslim prayer room. I imagined this would be a big room with not a lot of people inside. The monk could find some quiet corner to sit and rest. However, once we got inside, it turned out that the room was not too large. The monk proceeded to walk into an area behind separators. A man in his thirties who was sitting on a chair in the outside area saw us, stood up and proceeded to ask us where we were going. I explained to him the situation and how we were directed to come here by the airport officials.
The man who was a Muslim even though he did not wear the usual Muslim attire, told us that we could not come inside. I asked him if he were the one taking care of this prayer room. He said he was just a Muslim faithful coming there to pray. He explained to us that if we came in, we had to have the proper attire, had to do purity rituals, and to have the Muslim faith.

Since I was not a great scholar of the Muslim religion, I asked him if it wasn’t possible for the tired monk to just come in for a while for a bit of quiet rest since he was going to have an extremely long layover. He said no since it was against the rules of the religion. I insisted that perhaps some exceptions could be made to help someone who was in need. He said no. He asked me if he were to come into the Christian church wearing his Muslim attire, would it be possible? My answer was not what he was expecting. I told him he would be most welcome to come into my church wearing the things he described.

After the exchange, it was clear that it would be impossible for our tired Buddhist monk to have his rest in the Muslim prayer room. It was also clear to me that I had expected too much in thinking that a man don in Buddhist garbs could enter into a Muslim worship area and sit. It would certainly be difficult for other Muslims who come in to pray to not be distracted by this sight. Muslims are good people, willing to help those in need like any other, but they have strict rules about their worship space, and one has to accept their beliefs.
Although at the time, I was quite displeased that a stranger in need would not be received, even if he came from a different religion, as I thought more about the situation, I realized that every religion has some rules that it holds onto steadfastly and those outside of the religion will find it difficult to grasp or even to agree with. The Catholic Church itself holds on to a number of tenets that many can’t fully understand or appreciate. This incident is not going to be the incident that leads me to conclude that the Muslims are unwelcoming people or that the Muslim religion is an unwelcoming religion. Rather it tells me that I have a lot to learn about the Muslim and people of all religions need to look into themselves to see how they can learn to be faithful to their beliefs but at the same time welcome others into their midst.

In the end, I did find a place where our Buddhist monk could rest. After more inquiries, it turned out that a little beyond the Muslim prayer room, there was a number of CIP rooms (Commercially Important Persons). Next to these rooms was a smaller room reserved for monks and their novices. I led him there. No one was inside the carpeted room. There was a table with some chairs, no sofa. There was no furniture there that one could use for lying down. However, it was clean and quiet. Our monk was happy to have his rest there. Afterward, I bid him farewell since I had to catch a taxi into the city where I would rest at the Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok. I handed the monk some Thai money since he said he didn’t have any of the local currency. The old monk thanked me for my good and blessed me. I arrived to the church at half past 9 p.m. It was one of the more interesting experiences I had at the airport.

Bangkok, 15 November 2009

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