How Buddhism Taught Me to Love My Neighbors Better


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?

Don’t give it all away


My internal situational analyst is part fascinated, part disturbed by Jesus’ challenge to give everything up and just follow Him. “If I go and do likewise,” it asks in a small voice, verging on terror, “If I give everything up, how will I live?”

One of my organization’s guiding principles while I was serving in Uganda was to have its workers strive to live comfortably, but at a similar level as their neighbors. We began our service term expecting great sacrifice, and looked forward, to some degree, towards how that sacrifice might bring us closer to God.

At team meetings, we would hear each other’s struggles as we sought to live out this principle – whether to purchase a large refrigerator to preserve more food and save on cooking time, or stick with a smaller one that would better match those in neighboring homes. Or, whether decorating our home in a way that comforted and inspired our spirits would be wasteful among families with no expendable income. Around and around we’d share, wondering whether we were benefiting too greatly, whether we were sacrificing enough.

Interestingly, our neighbors were often confused by our self-imposed emotional turmoil. We had already given up so much, they would point out. We didn’t behave like other NGO workers, with their flashy cars and gated homes. We sat in our compounds on the same tiny wooden stools we offered our guests, our children chattering and playing with theirs. We didn’t need to hobble ourselves with a finicky charcoal stove. “Just get the gas cooker,” they would say, smiling and slapping their stomachs. “Don’t worry. We will benefit also.” While we made plans for the feast we could prepare if we had a steady heat source, all mention of the personal I was stripped from conversation, and the communal we slipped into its place.

This was an answer to my worry-question. By seeking to live as a neighbor in this context, I had signed on not to give up everything I had in pursuit of some kind of personal religious experience; I had agreed to share access to our gas cooker and other resources as part of a what’s-mine-is-ours Kingdom lifestyle. How much more comforting to answer Jesus’ call, knowing I wouldn’t be alone in the following. The journey would be up to us, not just me.

Originally published in Purpose Magazine, November 2015


eh1Esther Harder spent six years in Uganda and Rwanda as an English / Math / Computers teacher, football coach, and peace facilitator. Currently, she works in a library where she is known as the computer literacy instructor, homework mentor, crocheted-flower coach, and the you-dream-it-I-make-it resident artist. Esther blogs at

Next Door Neighbors

This is a get-to-know-you post! In the comment box leave the answers to one or more of the following.


1. Where do you currently reside?

2. What languages do you speak?

3. What is the proper greeting ritual in the nation where you are currently living?

4. What’s the craziest thing you have eaten?

5. If your country was a vehicle which one would it be and why?

This will be fun! You might want to check back later to scan the comments to see if you have some geographical neighbors here at A Life Overseas.

NOTE: I understand that some people in restricted access regions may not be able to disclose certain specifics, so general answers and pen names are welcome so everyone who wants to “play” along may indeed do so.

While you are here, if you like, you can add your blog to the directory page and grab a button for A Life Overseas to put on your site. Thanks!

– Angie Washington, co-editor of A Life Overseas, missionary living in Bolivia, South America

blog: twitter: @atangie work blog: House of Dreams Orphanage