“I have two religions in my head and I can’t decide which God is more powerful yet” said my eight year old cousin.
Born into a Buddhist father and a Christian mother, it is understandable why she feels so. She would occasionally go to a Buddhist Temple and pay homage and donations to the monks while she also attends Church on most Sundays. Luckily for the girl, neither father nor mother urges/persuades her to choose their religion. Still, a little child with a big heart is being confused by a choice of faith.
Oh, I can relate. I can so relate. Plot may be different but certainly falls on the same genre called Faith. Here’s my story.
I was just about five or six years old when I first stepped into faith & religion unknowingly. Different to above story, both of my parents were Buddhists who truly believed and followed religious practices. At that time, I did not know what a religion was all about and why it had to exist but I obeyed. I obeyed what I thought the rules were. I mostly spoke the truth, tried to avoid killing any living (mostly mosquitoes and flies), listened and followed sermons from monks and never wore slippers inside monasteries as a gesture of respect. It was always a mix of the culture and religion. And I did not mind. In fact, I enjoyed doing/obeying all these because that, I believe, would make me a more likeable kid, especially among my parents and teachers. Yup, it worked big time.
A year or two later, a belief put into my head that there was another existence (afterlife) for when people died. It was not a particular person or a monk that enlightened me this but it was more like a combination of little information each from different people. In my 6-or-7-year-old mind, it worked like this: there were different realms where one (dead person) can be reborn into depending on good and bad deeds they did before they pass away. Those realms include heaven-like realm for gods (devas), human realm and hell. That got me into some thinking where I would be going. Was not worrying one bit about hell as surely I would not be deported there for a good boy I was. So, it would be between heaven and human again for me. Chances were that mostly monks and rich people who made plenty of donations would probably take up the heaven which means people like me would take the milky way; reborn as human. There was little excitement but much concern. Suddenly, it was quite tragic for me to even imagine a new life because I was too attached to my family, especially my mother so I would have particularly chosen to live afterlife with the same family if possible. However, afterlife would not work that way. The thought of being a child to different parents in next lifetime scared me. I loved this life and I would not mind doing all over again when next round came. But as said, afterlife would not function according to a six year old.
Since then, I would be in school but that thought stayed with me too. I would be playing with friends, but that thought never went away. I would be sleeping and that thought came to haunt me. Some nights, I would wake up all sweating and started crying of the fear of being away from my family afterlife. I would pray in tears to Buddha that I wanted the same family for every next existence. And I decided not tell anybody because people would have just told me to do more good deeds in order to aim for heaven instead of one level below. I knew what I wanted: every life with the same family. But nobody would have given me an immediate solution. And I felt miserable…for a long time.
Looking back now, I must admit it is difficult to blame religion for those tearful & miserable nights of my childhood but I still wonder what if I learned about faith only a few years later when I would be more sensible instead of being introduced at very young and fragile age. Life and death are not religion but it defines what would happen next and that’s where it got me. While kids my age were worried about class, homework, exam, dinner, holidays and trips, I was worried about being with strangers in next life, class, homework, exam, dinner, holidays and trips.
All in all, I grew up okay, even a little well despite all that. And it was not all due to the tearful prayers I did every other nights from the age of six to twelve (I later figured praying without willing to work was not recommended in Buddhism). It took me plenty of books, comedy movies and years of suffering to finally live that way but yeah, it worked out. What I realized through all these years was that religion did not always have to be top priority nor it demanded so. And one may have plenty of next chapters in current life before “the next existence” finally comes (if there is any) so it is better to live for those opportunities which are current and real. Or even this could be that terrible afterlife and you are enjoying it.
One can be religious and practical at the same time. Even if non-religious, our well-being cannot be questioned as long as conscience is clear. So, now that my little cousin is confused about which religion to follow, I would like to tell her that it is okay not to pick one right away, and it is still okay not to pick at all and that she will be just fine; like me or like all of us. As I believe religion is there not to scare a child up in the middle of the night but to keep them safe.
Zwe Oak Soe