Just recently, I was listening to a podcast that was reflecting on Buddhism and Environmentalism while crushing kilometers on the elliptical in a penthouse gym and watching monks shuffle slowly down the street below, collecting morning alms. There are few places where these events happen simultaneously, but Luang Prabang, Laos is one of them.
I chose to teach in Laos because it is a majority-Buddhist country. I had a romanticized vision of how my life would be living in a Southeast Asian society, conjured up from my academic study of the religion and my western yoga and meditation practice. I would find a large yoga community, befriend all the local monks at my neighborhood temple, and have an easy time starting up a daily meditation practice because so many others were practicing it too.
The reality of Laos has been much different. I have developed a deeper yoga practice, but much of the time it has only been through rolling out my mat at home. I have been to a temple to meditate with the monks, but only through an established program with tourists that prevents you from looking like a total dweeb when you walk aimlessly into their monastery. Buddhism, by my western definition, did not seem to even exist here.
At first, I was angry at myself for this oversight—us westerners are awful, taking someone else’s’ religion and morphing into a new workout fad and then thinking we can move to Asia and come home enlightened—I thought. I suddenly felt as though my own practice no longer helped me to gain insight, and I instead began to wonder if our time spent doing yoga and meditating was just a yuppy, expensive, privileged hobby.
However, as I have learned more about Lao society and continued to reflect on our own conceptualizations of this Asian religion, Laos is teaching me a different lesson: a lesson on the similarities of humanity, even across the world. One Lao person once told me that to them, Buddhism was simply a word. They go through the actions of praying and giving alms, but besides the small number of long-term monks that live here, they have not memorized the four noble truths or learned the details of the eightfold path. In my small town Colorado dharma community, we embrace Buddhism similarly through the actions of meditation and yoga void of the technicalities the religion demands of us (giving away all of our possessions, fasting, etc.).
Besides the way we practice our dharmic traditions, both cases of spirituality are also beautiful within their own contexts. Americans have adapted yoga and meditation to fit our culture—they serve as tools to connect us to our bodies; they help us overcome physical ailments and cope with mental illnesses. Lao Buddhism, although straying from my initial expectation, is beautiful too, manifesting itself in the way people live slowly and kindly, and with intention. In both cultures, our religion provides us with hope, community, and a way to best live our lives with compassion and kindness—Buddha, Sangha, Dharma.
As I continue my home practice of sitting meditation and the occasional Vinyasa flow with intermittent backpackers in a country that practices Buddhism in a hugely different way, I am reminded time and time again that our own practice, regardless of where we are or how we connect with our bodies, hearts, and minds, is enough. Our own process of waking up does not require moving to a Buddhist country, joining a monastery, shaving off our hair, or waking up at 3 am and taking a cold shower like Yogi Bahjan tells us to. It only requires our dedication, willingness, and faith in something larger than ourselves—that is something we all have.
– By WorkingAbroad Blog Writer Amy Katz
Photo by CEPhoto, Uwe Aranas from Wikimedia