During my travels, I encounter many Pagan rituals and customs or other beliefs and religions that contradict my personal belief in one Deity. In some of these circumstances, I am even urged to participate. Now, I would like to say that one of the many reasons why I’m very passionate about travel is because I have an insatiable desire to learn everything I can about a country’s culture, society, and lifestyle in real time. Therefore, sometimes it is I who seek out to learn more about a particular Pagan custom or ritual. I am forever a student, constantly finding ways to quench my thirst for learning. I can’t. It’s insatiable. Learning comes in many forms, and I enjoy it the MOST with ideas I can ponder on or be fascinated by.
This has led me to become an observer of many things I may not necessarily agree with. However, I choose to understand their motivation and inspiration and subsequently, how their beliefs shape society.
So, over the years, I have hiked mountains in Korea and Japan to reach ancient Buddhist temples, I have visited famous Hindu temples in Singapore, I have joined in an annual Hindi festival in Taiwan, I have visited Shinto shrines in Japan and observed how they worship, I have lighted candles in many Catholic churches in Europe (I’m Protestant), I have drunk several bottles of Holy water outside of Mary’s house in Turkey (still Protestant), I have visited Muslim temples in Malaysia, Turkey and Morocco, I have climbed hundreds of steps to reach the Batu Caves/Temple of Malaysia, I have ridden very steep cable cars to visit to biggest Buddha I have ever seen perched on a mountaintop in Hong Kong. And in each case, I was enthralled at the spectacular show they put on for their gods or their devotion to what they believe. It showcased their culture in ways food or music cannot. So, what is my limit?
While on a trip to Osaka, Japan, I enjoyed a special Buddhist celebration/jazz festival with my local friend/tour guide, whom I’ll call Mr. Ben. We ate expensive sushi at his request (over 100 USD), listened to teens in concert, played a game where we had to catch tiny golden fish with a delicate paper net, and sweated our way thru the crowds in the buzzing night that promised a good time and delivered.
However, at one particular moment, my friend wanted to pay respects to Buddha. It was a Buddhist festival after all. I watched from a few feet away to make room for other worshipers.
His ritual: alighting his incense and placing it next to the dozens of others that were perched and bent in the way that incense sticks do when they’re about to release their ash, then clasping his hands in devotion and bowing his head, then kneeling to the ground, then getting up with incredible ease for a 60+ year old, then bowing again, then kneeling again. He did this several more times, he then filled a ladle with water and splashed it onto the smiling Buddha, as if refreshing him from the night’s humidity, before walking away and joining me. The whole experience lasted all of 30 seconds. Now, Mr. Ben was a very generous Japanese man whom I met because I was lost in Osaka (more on this in a future post). His generosity extended to him offering to pay for an incense stick for me so that I could have the pleasure of alighting my own incense stick for Buddha and bowing down to him in worship, then finally splashing him with cooling water. Although drunk with happiness and giddy with joy at the incredible day I was having in one of my favorite countries, I promptly declined with a respectful customary bow and clasped hands. If this offended him, he didn’t show it. And for that I was relieved. If this embarrassed him, that he did show. He laughed nervously and apologized when I explained I was a Christian.
So, while I have visited dozens of temples, shrines, churches and mosques, actually worshiping a deity that is not my own is my limit. But I guess Mr. Ben had to ask.
Another scenario took place in a different continent thousands of miles away from Japan, in Tanzania, Africa. I was originally in this country to partake in a 5-week international medical elective in the city of Dar es Salaam, plus one week in the village of Melala with the UK based company “Work The World“. It was an incredible 5 weeks thus far, and I was ending my last day in Africa learning all about witch doctors, an excursion arranged by my program.
Before I go on, a background story: although I am a Christian since birth, witch doctors are something I’ve heard many anecdotal tales about throughout my childhood in my family’s home country of Haiti. It is practically a religion called Voodoo, in Haiti. However, all the anecdotes were negative, had a ring of the “boogey man” to them and therefore were incredibly scary for me till this day. It took lots of maturity on my part to remain objective and receptive to learning about this witch doctor and his rituals in the middle of Africa. I am a lifelong learner after all.
Upon meeting the village witch doctor for the first time, my heart immediately sank. He was wearing my favorite color: red. Since then, I’ve looked upon that color with a side-eye. In fact, his whole garb left me with a sinking feeling. He wore loose black linen cloth as a skirt, coupled with a black wife-beater and a red scarf wrapped around his neck. His outfit was completed with his healing stick adorned with a tail made out of horse’s hair, possibly passed down from generations.
He showed us his make-shift hut, covered in the same black linen which covered his body, where he does his “magic,” on the front of which, lying on the ground, were jars of various sizes containing his nature-made concoctions. Witch doctoring in Africa is a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation, as the necessary skills are not written down but rather taught orally to the next apprentice. His next apprentice was nearby.
From the hut, he invited us into his 2-room cement home, not much bigger than the hut itself. We had to remove our shoes, and bend our whole body to enter his abode. I was instantly nervous as all the “boogey man voodoo” stories forced their way back into my head. We sat on the ground in an 8×5 area, which was made smaller with his potions covering a third of the room.
Although the African heat radiated outside, a coolness was felt indoors as the witch doctor proceeded to teach me about his potions and what they were used for. He had potions for every ailment you can think of: from arthritis to yellow fever, made of liquid, powder or clay-like material. Each potion had their own special container and he invited me open and touch what was inside. They were all created from the elements of nature. However, unlike a naturapathic doctor, the concoctions are not taken alone. The spirits for the particular ailment/body system is summoned to aid in the healing process. He even showed me a mirror in which a spirit can appear. I respectfully declined the offer to hold it.
In a village where most people cannot afford nor do they trust allopathic medicine, the village witch doctor is the most common and accessible means of healthcare, sometimes with lines of patients wrapped around his house at all hours of the day.
I was satisfied, if only a bit wary, with his teaching methodology and just when I thought the lesson was over, he proceeded to bring out all the bells and whistles for the participatory part of his lesson: “ancestral spirit summoning”. If I were a cartoon, I would have been Speedy Gonzales at that moment. Unfortunately, I wasn’t Speedy, and therefore I couldn’t get up fast enough from the tiny home and run as far away as possible. Instead, I waved my hand in “speedy” objection. To which, Mr. Witch Doctor looked shocked.
“But why in the world not?” his look seemed to say.
“Um..because I’m Christian,and I don’t want any spirits summoned in my presence. Thank you!” My look said back.
“Oh, it’s ok. All the foreigners ask for it and they even help me with the chant”, he reassured via translation .
“Oh, that’s nice. But I’m not all the foreigners. And I say: NO! NO! NO!” No translation needed for my words, as I shook my hands and waved my arms in “speedy” protest.
This led to 10 minutes of back and forth objection/convincing, before it was decided that no spirits would be summoned that afternoon. The witch doctor and his apprentice were incredulous and amused. I was the FIRST foreigner to deny this experience. Who would have thunk it? Yes, not unsurprisingly, having spirits of ancestors willingly in my presence is my limit, no matter how educational. I thanked him for the lesson and crawled out of his home.
So, there. Those were my limits. What about you? Do you have any limits when participating in rituals that you are not familiar with?