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'Help thou, my unbelief'

July 15, 2001
By Selwyn R. Cudjoe

ASK anyone in Japan what is their religious faith and they will tell you they are not religious. There is no Jesus; there is no Allah; and there is no Jehovah. There is no Other World where all shall meet when we pass through this world of suffering.

The Japanese simply strive to attain enlightenment, pray to and for the memory of their ancestors twice a year, and seek to reach/achieve Nirvana without the assistance of spiritual grace or a supernatural saviour. When a baby is born, s/he is taken to a Shinto shrine; when he gets married, he goes to a Shinto or Christian temple; when she dies, she has a service at a Buddhist temple and hopes to enter a state of Buddhadom. The Japanese people garner their values from nature (the Shinto believe in the power of nature) and dharma that underlie their Buddhist faith. Beyond this, they are guided by tradition and common sense. They do what is pleasing to the teachings of Buddha and respect the traditions of their ancestors.

Encountering such a formulation makes one look at the world differently. It demands that we rethink "the truths" that were thrust upon us in our childhood and reinforced during confirmation (that is, for those who subscribe to the Christian faith). When we realise that a quarter of the world's people (as much 1.5 billion out of 6.5 billion people) practise Buddhism and Confucianism, a way of life, it seems arrogant to condemn them to a world of burning flames. Moreover, it should make us re-evaluate our conception of other civilisations inculcated into us in our West Indian Readers.

My respect for religious traditions came from my mother who always preached: "Son, if you go to a mosque, take off your shoes; if you go to a Catholic Church, respect how they worship." Perhaps, the varied religious influences that inundated my family account for such tolerance.

My mother is an Anglican and two of my aunts are Catholic. This might have had to do with the Portuguese orientation of her side of the family. On my father's side, the worship of West African deities predominates. Cousin Lily, related to Baba Olisha, Clarence Forde, of the Opa Orisha, conducted her annual thanksgivings to thank the gods for her blessing. Tantie Lenora was a devoted Shouter Baptist. As a boy, I stood in amazement as she and other devotees rang their bells as they wended their way to the Tacarigua River to perform their baptisms other rites. Later in life I came to respect my Mother for inculcating such a deep sense of ecumenicalism within me. Only, we never called it by such a highfalutin term.

This is why I am so attracted to religion and religious places of worship. After adventuring out from home in the mid-'60s, I was first attracted to St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan. Years later, I worshipped at St Paul's AME in Boston and later still at Riverside Cathedral, better known as Harlem Cathedral. When I went to London, the first place I visited was Westminster Abbey.

In Paris, I delighted in the grey eminence of Notre Dame (it has since been cleaned up) on the banks of the Seine and found Sacred Heart Cathedral in Montmartre an architectural gem. In the summer of 1978, when I studied at Strasbourg University, I would sit in a café, under the magnificent gothic steeples of Strasbourg Cathedral and delight in the Bohemian passion of reading and writing. It was there, in Strasbourg, that I began a novel that I never finished.

Then I went to West Africa and was taken to the shrine of my ancestors, about 50 miles outside of Ibadan, where I prayed to Obatala and was renamed Omawalli. Although I was thousands of miles away from home physically, I felt spiritually at home. Mother Gerald, my grandmother's spiritual mother, always kept a red flag "of the old man Obatala" in the front of her yard. In her mind, she was never far away from Africa.

In Yamoussoukro, in the Ivory Coast, I was amazed by the presence of a replica of the basilica in the hinterland of Africa. Although it was a beautiful, well-kept, edifice, it did not seem to be the best way to use taxpayers' dollars. Felix Houghouet Boigny, former president of the Ivory Coast, built this holy place to honour the Pope who spent one night there. Such a display of devotion to the Other Power might have been important for Houphouet Boigny. It did not seem to matter much to the Holy Father.

In Casablanca, Morocco, I marvelled at another lavish display of African wealth and commitment to belief. On the banks of the Mediterranean, Mohammed VI built Hassan 11 Mosque, the third largest mosque in the world in honour and praise of Allah. Not a cent was too much to spend to make it one of the grandest places for Muslims to worship. I took my shoes off when I entered this holy place. Not being a Muslim, I was not allowed to worship in that holy shrine.

Then I found myself in Kyoto, the centre of Japanese traditional culture for centuries. I visited Nishi-Hoganji Temple, one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Nothing could describe the awe, respect and calm I felt there. In Yokkaichi, Professor Kitajima, also a Buddhism monk, invited me to his Temple to worship with him. In that serene and spiritual environment, the chants and invocations provided one of the most moving moments of my life. For a moment I understood why a Buddhist's salvation did not depend on any power outside of him. Within him lay that inner realm of calm, which constitutes Nirvana, the total strivings of his life.

The more of the world we see, the less we understand its mysteries and its vagaries. As we relate to the Other Power, my mother's wisdom may be calming consolation: "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief."

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