The last time I traveled to Asia was in 1992, when I was a college sophomore. My parents were spending a sabbatical year teaching college English in Malaysia, and during my visit we were going to go to Thailand. I arrived in the middle of a full-blown spiritual quest. I was taking classes in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, and my mind was full of monks in saffron robes, voices raised in chant, and the possibility that enlightenment was hovering just beyond my reach. I wanted life to be exotic, and thought that I would be transported back to some older and better world which was free of the corruption and dullness of America.
I was quickly disabused of this notion. Asian cities are much like American cities – the same cars, the same buildings, the same kind of infrastructure. Bangkok let me down. We drove on busy highways past concrete buildings. The world around me didn’t resonate with esoteric spirituality.
I expected more when we took a tour out into the countryside. We rode on a wobbly cable car across a mountain gorge and found ourselves in a Buddhist monastery. I saw a young monk in a saffron robe. He saw me. He beckoned me over. “Are you from America?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you know Michael Jordan?” he asked.
We looked at each other. We had both expected the other to be exotic. He was supposed to represent ancient spiritual force. I was supposed to represent the excitement of a technological modern life. We were both disappointed. I didn’t know Michael Jordan, and he didn’t teach me how to reach enlightenment.
I returned to Asia this fall. In the intervening years I’ve become a Christian. I still love the idea of the exotic. I’ve spent a lot of time reading the legends of saints and finding a teasing sense of the wonderful in their lives and miracles. But I’ve also come to need the exotic less, and become more open to God in the ordinary.
I met another Buddhist monk, this time in Tokyo. He was on a silk painting in the National Museum. His name was Kyogen Chikan, and four hundred years ago he attained enlightenment while cleaning, when a tile fell off the roof of the monastery. I spent a long time looking at that painting, and came away smiling. We don’t have to travel half way around the world to experience the divine. God, enlightenment, spiritual force, are right here, in our ordinary lives. All we have to do is listen closely enough so that we can hear the tile fall and shatter, be open enough so that its shattering can crack our spirits apart and let something wonderful come flooding in.