How Buddhism Taught Me to Love My Neighbors Better

by Elizabeth Trotter on October 28, 2016

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This month I didn’t like my neighbors very much. We have new neighbors, and they play their music loud, blasting it out of their apartment with the door open. Sometimes for hours at a time.

This causes problems for me. I teach my children at home, and we need an environment conducive to learning. But sometimes this month the music was so loud it prevented their little brains (and mine!) from functioning.

Now, we are no strangers to noise during the school day. There’s loud traffic. Always. And we’ve endured months on end of the pounding of homemade pile drivers while new buildings are being constructed. Once it was next door, and the other time it was across the street.

The metal shop two houses down from us sometimes starts screeching by 6 am. And then there’s the demolition of old tile and brick in the walls, floors, and bathrooms that accompanies new neighbors. They want to (understandably) clear out the old (possibly moldy) tile and personalize their new homes.

Once the drilling got loud enough that we had to leave the house and go to a coffee shop to study – a decision which was rather cumbersome with four children and their books. But my kids were sitting right next to me, and I was shouting at them, and they still could not hear what I was trying to teach them.

Music or karaoke, however, is different from these things. It’s not about people settling in to a new house or building a new house or even, as in the case of the metal shop, providing employment and incomes for people. It’s just some guy listening to his music way too loud.

It’s loudness on purpose, for no discernible economic purpose. I was annoyed. Angry, too. The noise interfered with my job as home school teacher. It interfered with my mental stability. And thanks to the anger and irritation issuing forth from my mouth and from my heart, it interfered with my self-perceived holiness.

As in most cases when we don’t quite know how to handle neighbor issues in a culturally appropriate way, we asked our landlord what we should do. His answer was most enlightening.

He told us that maybe our neighbor was working through something hard, and that we could build up merit by being patient with him and letting him blast his music. But, if the music really was too long and too loud, then our neighbor could gain merit by being more sensitive to everyone around him and turning the volume down. (For context, our neighbors generally don’t blast their music.)

Our landlord was speaking from his own Buddhist background, a background and belief system I don’t share, but he had something to teach me.

The first thing he taught me is that I need to be more patient and long-suffering – gracious if you will. If Christ lives in me, then I can certainly offer patience and mercy to a neighbor. I can refrain from getting angry at him. The life of the neighborhood doesn’t revolve around me, anyway.

The second thing my landlord taught me — or rather, reminded me — is that there’s a kernel of truth in every belief system. Like my Buddhist neighbors, I also believe I should show patience to people who behave in (what seem to me to be) annoying ways.

Certainly, our motivations aren’t the same: I show patience not to build up good merit, but because Jesus has shown me such great mercy. In showing patience, I am merely passing on the patience I have already received. I am giving grace because I have been given grace, not, as in the dominant belief system in my country, giving grace in order to earn grace.

But all grace comes from God, and grace was present in our recent conversations. I found a divine thread running through a very works-oriented system. Do I believe in karma, merit, and reincarnation the way many Cambodian Buddhists do? No. Did I need and appreciate the reminder to treat others with kindness? Yes.

My landlord’s Buddhist teaching was a mirror for my soul, and that soul had some nasty stuff in it. It was unloving and unreasonable and un-Christlike. If my landlord can offer grace in an uncomfortable situation, how much more can I, who claim to follow Christ, offer grace to the people next door?

Later I would sit with God in the not-so-quiet and let Him remind me of His great love for all people — annoying neighbors included. And I would remember that God’s great love for my neighbor is the same great love He has for me. I would remember that, truly, I am no less annoying than my neighbor, and I would realize that I hadn’t been obeying the Jesus I say I love and believe in, because I wasn’t loving my neighbor as myself.

So does my neighbor still play loud music with the door open? Yes. Does it still disrupt our concentration? Yes. And is it still annoying? Yes. But do I offer more grace and love in my heart than I did before? Also yes. And does the same angry, anxious feeling rise in my chest like before? A resounding no.

I may not believe Buddhism holds absolute truth, but there are slivers of truth to be found here, slivers of truth thick enough to instruct a stubborn, self-centered Christ-follower like me.

How have your neighbors taught you how to be a better neighbor?

What elements of truth have you found in the local religion(s) where you serve?

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Dave & Debbie

    Good article! We concur!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Dave and Debbie!

  • I think there is a kernel of truth in every system that is seeking Truth! What a beautiful example. (But, man, that would drive me crazy! We have loud church meetings here that go all night. Makes me feel decidedly uncharitable things sometimes!)

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      “Uncharitable” is a good word for it! But yes, the kernels are there, and can even remind us how WE ought to be!

  • Marla Taviano

    My Muslim neighbors in Ohio taught me sooooo much. How to be real neighbors–sharing things communally, opening your home to others, doing favors for people who need them. They taught me what it really means to be devout–praying 5 times daily, fasting for 30 days during Ramadan, learning to read the Quran in Arabic. Good stuff.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I think learning to be a good neighbor is, if not at the heart, at least very near the heart of Christianity. But . . . learning to be a good neighbor can be very, very hard.

    • Yes! We share a house with a Muslim family, and that is some of what we’re learning from them, too. In them and their friends, I see what real community is.

      As far as music, Elizabeth, when we lived in a very unfriendly apartment building long ago, the one friend we made was because my husband finally asked him to turn down his music. This guy lived on the first floor, and we were on the sixth, and his music kept us awake many nights. Finally, one night, my husband went down and almost timidly asked if he wouldn’t mind turning it down. The guy was very apologetic and friendly with us from then on! That really wasn’t the outcome we expected at all.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        I love your story, Phyllis! It must have been super loud for you to hear it so many floors away! Wow. We are only next door 🙂 And so sweet for your guy to respond that way.

        My husband did eventually ask if he might turn it down, “because his wife and his kids were trying to study during the day.” He tried to ask kindly and didn’t show anger. Now, our neighbor plays it during the day, and it’s sometimes loud, but truly, it’s not as loud as before. And we are very thankful for that!!

        • I didn’t mention that the request to turn down the music was at something like 1 am.

          Also, what our youngest has learned from our neighbors: recently we were away at a conference. Our kids were quietly eating the lunch they had been served, until someone asked what kind of meat it was. When our little guy heard pork, he dropped his fork, spit out his mouthful, and started flapping his arms, and yelling, gagging, etc.

          • Elizabeth Trotter

            That’s so funny Phyllis!

  • Meghan Weyerbacher

    Loved this today, Elizabeth.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thank you so much, Meghan.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I have learned a lot about giving to the person with the greatest need. (this is less about religion and more about culture, i think – so perhaps I am not even answering the question posed) For example – if a Haitian friend has been given the $500 they need to pay a year of rent that was due a few weeks ago and on their way to pay rent the run into a family member that makes it known that a surgery is needed – it is life and death – the rent money would be handed over on the spot – without any idea where the rent money is going to come from, the obligation is to give to the most pressing physical need. Thanks for writing, Elizabeth.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I most certainly think this answers the question, Tara, as culture and religion are so intertwined as to be difficult to separate sometimes. It’s only in very modern, Westernized cultures where we think we can tease them apart (another subject, oy!).

      I love that you see their desire to meet the greatest pressing need, no matter what they need that $$ for, as something to emulate. It says a lot about self-sacrificial love. It’s beautiful, and should be part of the way Church works too.

  • Ivanna

    Whoa, those questions are hard. I think we have great neighbors and I wonder more if they are simply putting up with US! Maybe being a loving neighbor means to initiate those conversations on whether we are the loud ones. As for the local religion, I am in Benin and I’ve heard it’s the cradle of voodoo! I’m still learning a lot about it. I’m not nearly there enough to see any similarities at all.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      “I wonder if they are simply putting up with US!” Oooh, I love this Ivanna. I have often wondered this about my neighbors as well. I’m pretty sure they think some of our American customs are crazy!! I am quite sure they simply put up with us as the “crazy foreigners,” LOL.

      Many things in “my” culture are different from the things of my host culture, and those differences sometimes lead to frustration, but I’m still so incredibly grateful that the people (more specifically, the government) of this country allow us to LIVE HERE. I was thinking that as we waited at the airport last week for my mom to visit us, realizing the gravity of the fact that we are Americans who live here in Cambodia. We have American passports, not Cambodian passports, yet the government allows us to live here with a pretty minimal amount of paperwork. We don’t have to make endless visa runs. I’m so thankful for that. (Sorry that took a crazy tangent away from the main point!!!)

      • Ivanna

        Tangents are fine haha. When you sit down and really think about it… it is quite amazing that we live the way we do and it’s fine.

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