How Buddhism Taught Me to Love My Neighbors Better

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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?

Please Don’t Feed The Monks

Tonight* my husband, Mike, and I took the little dog and walked down to one of our favorite restaurants in Luang Prabang from which to watch the sun set over the Mekong. While we were eating and watching the long-boats glide downriver in golden light, two tourists at the next table struck up a conversation with us.

“Is that your dog?” they asked. “Do you live here? What do you do?…”

In return they told us about their trip. They were backpacking around Asia together, and they loved Luang Prabang with it’s stately temples and unexpected, French-influenced, other-wordly charm. Just that morning the guy we were chatting to had gotten up early and gone out to feed the monks who come out in silent lines to receive alms at dawn. He’d bought rice to give away from one of the girls selling it nearby, lined up with the local women, and started dishing out food as the monks trailed past.

MONKS BREAKFAST IN EARLY MORNING IN LUANG PRABANG, LAOS

“There were so many monks!” the guy raved. “I had no idea there would be that many. I gave all my food away to the first twenty – I was piling it into their buckets, two biscuits and a handful of rice at a time – and then I went and bought some more and kept giving.”

Now doesn’t that sound charitable? Noble? At the very least, harmless?

Not so fast.

As this total stranger relayed this to me while Mike was inside paying the bill, I felt torn. On the one hand I didn’t want to be that know-it-all who jumps on an unsuspecting tourist, shoots him down, and tells him that what he’d done was culturally inappropriate.

On the other hand, what he’d done was culturally inappropriate.

Locals here (usually women seeking to earn merit for their families) get up before dawn to prepare the fresh rice they give to the monks. They line up alongside the road, kneeling, with head and feet bare as a sign of humility. As the monks walk past, the women quickly and silently place a small offering in each bowl without making direct eye contact. Giving alms is a cultural and religious ritual that carries great meaning for the locals – they practice it with commitment, care, and deep thoughtfulness.

The unique picturesque symbolism of the monks making their dawn rounds has made it one of Luang Prabang’s premier tourist attractions. Some locals have capitalized upon this by staking out places where alms-giving occurs and selling unsuspecting tourists rice that they can offer to the monks. These rice and cakes sold by the hawkers are often not fresh, and tourists who do not fully understand the meaning of the ceremony or how to perform it respectfully then offer this left-over food to the monks. This is disruptive to nearby locals and to the monks (who, from what I understand, do not want these offerings that are not prepared or given in the proper spirit of humility and thoughtfulness by their community or by genuine seekers who approach the ritual with reverence).

So, what to do with my new and garrulous buddy at the pizza place?

Initially I let it slide. He’d already gone and done it, I reasoned. He was leaving tomorrow. Why risk embarrassing him in front of his girlfriend now?

But then the conversation continued. After he told me of that morning’s activities, I mentioned that many here were wondering how long there would enough locals living in the Old Town district to sustain the ritual and feed all of the monks in the area. As more and more guesthouses are built in the Old Town, it seems inevitable that more of the local families currently living there will leave. With them will go their early-morning-rice-preparing wives and mothers. Who will feed the monks then?

“Oh, no problem,” the stranger proclaimed. “There are plenty of tourists around, they can just sell more rice to tourists and get the tourists to do it and make money out of the whole thing to boot!”

After this I couldn’t let him leave without at least trying for a course correction.

“You know,” I said, “tourists feeding the monks is a bit of a controversial practice…”

I explained why as gently as I could, and then Mike and I wished them well, collected our leftovers and our little dog, and left.

“Do you think he got it?” Mike asked as we walked home

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hope so. Do you think I was too indirect? What would you have said?”

“How about just, don’t feed the monks!” Mike said.

So for all of you readers who may come visit us in Luang Prabang at some stage I’m telling you now so I don’t have to tell you then. Unless you earnestly desire to give dawn alms in ways that are fully respectful of local traditions here, please don’t feed the monks!

When did you last have one of those awkward moments with a visiting stranger?
What did you do?

*This post first appeared on lisamckaywriting in 2012.