Why And How I'm Religious

Old box I found at my Achchi's

When I was young, I remember my father as a devout atheist. But he told me to read the Bible, as the foundation to western literature. My mother is a Buddhist and she taught us breathing and took us to doze off in various temples but it never really clicked until she took me to a monastery when I was about 18. There I had visions (very simple, just colors moving with my breath) and the feeling has never really left me since. That faith is there, whether I believe in it or not. I go in and out of it, just as I'll go in and out of this life, but God is of course constant.

In those days, I used to walk the streets of Montreal and feel what people call God, shimmering in the leaves on the trees. I got there through breathing, but then the Jews got me through eating. A Jewish friend invited me to a Shabbat dinner and it was free food (and good), so hey. I went back there many Fridays. I'd even pray with them, because whatever they were feeling, I was on the same wavelength. G-d is a word for the wordless and what it points to. And whatever they were pointing towards when we faced the wall together, I felt it too.

When we were in England I tried to find the Knanaya Christians my father-in-law comes from, but that ancient Indian Orthodox sect is too small and obscure. So I tried every church in the neighborhood until I found one that fit my rules for a church. 1) No projector 2) mentions the poor at least twice. We found a cold, leaky place near the kids' school and I started dragging them there on Sundays, with bribery and threats. I'm not Christian, but I was determined. The fact is, I like the service. I still get the zing when they read the red words in the Bible. I don't keep the Nicene Creed, but Jesus is a friend of mine. Honestly, I often feel like crying when I hear his words.

Last Ramadan I fasted and vowed to finally finish the Quran. I'm 95% done now, my daughter makes fun of me cause my copy is so small, but it's literally intimidating. I did this, partly, to understand the literary reference in Hamas and Hezbollah communiqués, but largely with no expectations at all. For a full moon, I woke up at 4:30 AM to shovel sustenance and pray. I performed ablutions five times a day, I've never been more hygienic in my whole life. I also went without drinking water in the hottest month of the year, which made my brain melt by 3 PM. In all aspects of my life, I was really disciplined for a month (though I was hangry with my family). After this experience, do I believe in Allah? Absolutely. And the Prophet Muhammad as his Messenger. I still go to Jummah prayers some Fridays, though I don't put one finger up. I'm fundamentally a polytheist at heart.

Polytheist, omnitheist, I try to take every faith in good faith. That's all. Many people (indeed, most of my friends) dismiss religion as just a silly story, but I try to listen for the moral of the story. Many people blame religion for history's ills, which to me is like blaming hospitals for killing people. I try to respect faith rather than rationalizing it. I try to practice before declaring myself an expert. I try to know different faiths, and I have always found that knowing leads to love.

As my Achchi tips 100 and is losing her memory, I heard that my father sat and read the Bible to her. This is a big thing in our family, the prodigal son returns. I don't know how we got here, the father is atheist and the son is everytheist. Perhaps each generation reverses, information transmission through rebellion, positive and negative, over and over.

I do know that values are transmitted generationally, and one of the oldest threads we have connecting us to our grandmothers is God. And, out of respect for the oldest form of worship, I try to respect my ancestors, and not disrespect what they worshiped.

In Sri Lanka, of course, we take ancestor worship literally. I bowed to my Ammachchi every single time I left her house. I still bow to her photograph whenever I leave now. When I became Buddhist, that Achchi asked me what color the Buddhist flag was, and I thought what a silly question. It's only now that I realized how wrong I was, how irreverent. I should have understood my position by my position, bowing to her. As a kid in Sri Lanka, you just bow before elders before you know what's going on. My Amma always said I was a good bower, quite ingratiating. This is really the oldest form of worship—ancestor worship—and we still do it. When my children were being rude to their grandparents, I bowed before them, as a reminder. It's an unconscious transmission of something important, from way back in human understanding.

We also worship trees, through Buddhism. There's saplings of the tree the Buddha attained enlightenment all over the country, including a 2,300 Bo tree in Anuradhapura. It's the oldest tree in the world with a known planting date, apparently. We worship it but I never thought about it that much. It's a lovely tree, though it needs crutches now. There's a caste of people that maintain the tree, an unbroken family line going back to India which doesn't mix with anyone (consider this a dim memory from a dimwit). My family went there to conduct some ritual, smashing coconuts for some blessing, I forgot what it was for. But we did it around an ancient tree, because we still worship that also.

When I look up at the sacred Bo tree, feel the sand between my toes, I can see same the twinkling signs of God that I saw in the trees of Montreal. That I saw behind my eyelids in West Virginia. I have gone in and out of faith, but what I believed in was always there. As Björk said, “You just ain't receiving.” Until you need help or until you just see it in the leaves. When I pray next to anybody I can catch the same wavelength, the same feeling, just a different station. When I read the Quran I feel, for lack of a better word, afraid. Godfearing. When I hear the words of Jesus I feel a great projection of justice, and comfort to the poor. I don't know what you do with this information, it's my particular journey, not a rendezvous. I do think it's important to start with respect for religion, and to end there too. I start from what my atheist father told me, which was to read the book, especially if I don't believe in it. And, in the end, I do.