What Christianity and Buddhism have common?
In 2006, Reader’s Digest released a study on politeness. It had carried out tests in 35 cities around the world to determine which were the most and least courteous. I’ll discuss their shocking findings later, but will begin by emphasizing how difficult it is to display politeness in a foreign environment. Traveling to a new place always makes for some awkward moments. So, when I led a group of students on a study-abroad program in the remote Himalayan region of Tibet in June, I naturally was worried that we might offend the locals with behaviors that they considered rude.
Though I had traveled to and around Tibet many times in the past, it occurred to me during our group trip to the majestic Lake Namtso that I had never been inside a nomad tent. For more than a thousand years Tibetan nomadic herders have come to the pastures on the shore of this lake during the summer season, and their yak-hair tents look little different than they would have hundreds of years ago. So when our students’ nylon North Face tents were pitched at the edge of the lake, it wasn’t merely an opportunity for me and my students to wonder about these nomads, it was also a time for the nomads to wander nearby and stare at their temporary neighbors. I asked one of the young nomads if it would be OK for some students to see the inside of her family’s tent. She consented, and I went with five students to their tent, which was only one or two hundred meters away from our own campsite.
The contents of the yak-hair tent, which looked to be about 10 meters wide, were rather sparse. It had a fire pit in the middle with some small rugs placed around it, and was ringed by numerous sacks containing all the family’s clothes, food and supplies. No sooner had we entered the tent than the young woman began stoking the yak-dung fueled fire and putting a pot for tea on top. Oh! Why didn’t it occur to me that we’d be offered tea? I was actually pretty excited to get a cup of traditional Tibetan tea, but I was worried about my students. Tibetans add butter and salt to their tea, and most Americans find it quite … well, revolting.
This experience had me thinking about the role that tea plays in much of the world as a sign of courtesy. (Think, for example, about Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea.) Had we not been offered tea, none of us would have noticed its absence or been offended. But to this Tibetan nomad, not providing tea for a guest would have been a sign of disrespect and an embarrassment for her family. I wonder how many things we did that would have been considered rude by these nomads.
Tibet is an Ideal Place for Reflection
Less than 24 hours after St. Thomas’ May graduation ceremonies I departed from Minneapolis with a group of students on a four-week study-abroad program in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The students were taking part in my comparative ethics course, learning about both the foundational ethical theories of Western philosophy and core themes in Buddhist ethics. For the students it was an opportunity to fulfill the university’s second core requirement in moral and philosophical reasoning, but to do so in a unique cultural setting that would bring to life the ethical principles learned in a standard ethics course. For me it was an opportunity to use my expertise in Tibetan philosophy and culture and to provide students with an educational experience that would broaden their perspectives of the world.
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