Experiencing Other Faiths to Find One's Own

Gillian Siple

Gillian Siple is a religion major at Davidson College in North Carolina. Bill Giduz hide caption

itoggle caption Bill Giduz

A Spiritual Journey

Siple regularly wrote to her family and friends about her travels. Read some of her letters:

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Gillian Siple meditates. i i

On Siple's visit to the sacred Buddhist mountain of Putuoshan, on an island in the East China Sea, she observed a Buddhist ritual. "People pushed to the front of the crowd to watch monks chanting and playing ceremonial instruments," she says. "I stood back from the crowd and listened to the chanting which soothed me, putting me into a meditative trance." Matt Abbate hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Abbate
Gillian Siple meditates.

On Siple's visit to the sacred Buddhist mountain of Putuoshan, on an island in the East China Sea, she observed a Buddhist ritual. "People pushed to the front of the crowd to watch monks chanting and playing ceremonial instruments," she says. "I stood back from the crowd and listened to the chanting which soothed me, putting me into a meditative trance."

Matt Abbate

If Gillian Siple had to describe herself in one word, it would be "spiritual." A senior at Davidson College in North Carolina, Siple spent the past year traveling and studying in Asia and Europe, immersing herself in religions other than her own.

Amid an abundance of information about religion easily available via the Internet and television, she says, "maybe the youth of today aren't sure if the way of their parents is perhaps the way that they want to follow, and I think that's wonderful."

With a small group of students, Siple, a religion major, lived in China, Thailand and India. She meditated in monasteries and ashrams, lived and studied among Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus — not your typical study-abroad program.

She remembers living at a meditation center in Thailand, wearing the traditional garb of a yogi. "I remember waking up at 4 o'clock in the morning and taking out my mat and I can remember just thinking, 'What if my friends saw me now? Would anyone recognize me? I am so far from the person and the life that I live back at Davidson right now. There's no remnant of that life on my body right now.'"

Even her faith began to fall away. She says that when she mediated, she felt an uncommon sense of peace. She wondered: Have I gone into this too deeply? Am I still a Christian, or am I becoming something else?

But back at Davidson College, she returned to the faith she knows best: Christianity. That faith is stronger now, she says. She attends prayer and fellowship meetings and heads an interfaith group on campus. She also meditates based on the teaching she learned in Thailand.

Siple calls herself a Christian pluralist, open to the possibility of the validity of other religious traditions.

After her tour of Asia, she spent a week at the Taize monastery in France, a place that attracts young people from around the world. In a Taize service, there is chanting and reading from scripture. But there are also long moments where more than 1,000 young adults sit quietly together in silence — not being told what to do.

"You do what you feel is right for your religious practice," Siple says. "I think that is what our generation is screaming for right now. People want not to be told what they should do, but to figure it out for themselves."

'Acknowledge the Present'

Gillian Siple's group poses for a photo at Wat Ram Poeng. i i

At Wat Ram Poeng, a Buddhist meditation center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Gillian Siple's group of travelers pose along with two Buddhist devotees. Maggy, a friend and a life-long devotee of the monastery, sits beside Siple (left, front row). The lotus blossoms they held were part of a Buddhist ceremony. Matt Abbate hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Abbate
Gillian Siple's group poses for a photo at Wat Ram Poeng.

At Wat Ram Poeng, a Buddhist meditation center in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Gillian Siple's group of travelers pose along with two Buddhist devotees. Maggy, a friend and a life-long devotee of the monastery, sits beside Siple (left, front row). The lotus blossoms they held were part of a Buddhist ceremony.

Matt Abbate

Gillian Siple spent 2005 and 2006 studying abroad. In the following letter to family and friends, she describes her experience at a Buddhist meditation center in Chiang Mai, Thailand:

Monastic life is difficult and self-disciplined. Day after day I meditated from the dark hours of 4 o'clock in the morning until 10 in the evening — walking, sitting, walking, sitting, walking, sitting. At times it was the most tedious discipline I have ever practiced and I slugged though every motion. There were also times when mediation was almost addictive in the sense of elevation it offered. Maggy, a meditation practitioner of the meditation center, described the sense of elevation using a scene from Dead Poets Society. She likened the vision of meditation to the view which Robin Williams' character offers his students from the top of a classroom desk from which one can, "see more." "Meditation is like this training the mind to see more."

One night after meeting with the abbot, I took a straw mat and my meditation pad and arranged myself to one side of the chedi in front of a small trough of candles and incense. I lit two yellow candles and performed my requisite mindfulness prostration, slowly and precisely in the dark. Meditating in the dark seems easiest to me; the darkness blurs everything into a bluish haze like that which I hope to blanket the rapid sequence of thoughts in my mind. On the porous stones of the chedi [Buddhist monument], I performed my walking meditation.

With each step I imagined it as the most important step I would ever take in my life. "Right goes thus, left goes thus, right goes thus," I chanted. The language of walking meditation is the language of awareness, recognizing the ground beneath my feet. The challenge is to quiet the mind to the point when it becomes aware of even the simplest tasks and perform these with mindfulness. The language of intention is as simple as it is profound. Before lifting a foot to walk, I acknowledge, "Intending to walk, intending to walk, intending to walk." What would life be like if I daily labeled my intentions as such, giving voice to them and then following through step by step?

During sitting mediation that night, I was able to reach a level of stillness which I had not been able to reach previously. I sat without the chatter of lists, plans, or expectations and focused on the rising and falling of my abdomen with each breath. I recognized gaps between breaths through which thoughts crept in. Gently, I recognized my thinking and returned focus to my breath. I cleared my mind and filled the gaps between my breath with the thought, "present, be present, acknowledge the present." I sat in silence on one side of the chedi breathing in the present moment, joyful to be living and needing nothing more. I sat for over an hour, breathing.

Mediation offers the present. The present is not weighted down with any worries of the future or regrets of the past. The present is always new, always open; in the present I am capable of all things. Like the breath of meditation which rises and falls out of existence, each new moment offers a chance for a new possibility. It is the only substance in which I live. It is the only thing that matters. If I can remember this, how can I ever be weighted down with suffering?

The next day, I packed my bags and returned my sleeping mat and blankets. I walked by Maggy's room, and peeked in. She was lying on her bed, facing the wall. I walked away, but she noticed me. "I came to tell you goodbye," I said, looking down at my street clothes and luggage bag, "I leave today, but I leave with sadness." I looked down and away as I started to cry. She saw my tears and explained, "Tears are like rain in the desert; they are nourishing in a place that has been dry and barren. You cry because your heart knows you still have more to learn."

What Pilgrims Must Feel

A metal urn stands at the top of a pavilion on Mount Jiuhua. i i

A metal urn stands at the top of a pavilion of the sacred Buddhist Mount Jiuhua in eastern China's Anhui Province. Siple took this photograph in October 2005, after climbing to one of the clouded-shrouded peaks. Gillian Siple hide caption

itoggle caption Gillian Siple
A metal urn stands at the top of a pavilion on Mount Jiuhua.

A metal urn stands at the top of a pavilion of the sacred Buddhist Mount Jiuhua in eastern China's Anhui Province. Siple took this photograph in October 2005, after climbing to one of the clouded-shrouded peaks.

Gillian Siple

In this October 2005 letter, Siple describes a journey to Buddhist Mount Jiuhua in eastern China's Anhui Province:

This morning, our group left our homestays early to climb to the summit of one of Mount Jiuhua's peaks. The mountain trails are comprised of stone steps, and for a while this is all we can see, a stairway leading heavenward.

At one of the resting points during our climb, a Buddhist nun invites us into her home. She lives in a one-room house which serves as a shrine to the bodhisattva Guanyin, who is depicted in golden statues and a painting in the center of the room. I greet the nun, kneel in front of Guanyin, and offer the blessing, "Amituofo." In response, the nun offers the same blessing, folds her hands, and bows.

At the top of the peak I step from the stairs onto a marble pavilion which is shrouded by dense gray cloud cover. Offerings of incense burn in metal urns and flames of candles are visible through the mist. I enter the main hall to stand before three colossal statues of Buddhist bodhisattvas. I am mesmerized by the ringing of the bells and dizzied by the swirls of condensation through layers of tapestries which hang from the ceiling.

I hear the striking of another tone and follow it to its source in a second hall of the Buddha. I turn from his jovial gaze to peer into the midst of an open pavilion which is completely deserted. I feel as if this secret location has been emptied from my sole exploration. The gray mist obstructs my view, so I begin with careful step to follow the path of carved lotuses on the marble floor. Then she is upon me in her full magnificence: the golden statue of Avalokitesvara, with a thousand arms spread with eyes in every palm. I experience a taste of what pilgrims must feel. With their heads still dizzy from the climb and the altitude, they step out onto a mystical pavilion enshrined in thick clouds and see through it the golden splendor of their deities offering protection and peace.

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