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A Tower of Babel With Many Prophets

Added: Sunday, October 7th 2012 at 10:32pm by emilyirvine

Andrew Lam’s California is one of cultural collision, a land of fusion cuisine and religious diversity, a land shaped by immigrants and the spices they bring with them, be those spices culinary or cultural. Lam is correct, for the vast majority of California fits this perception. However, unlike myself, Lam did not grow up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, a place where the only culinary diversity is a small Mexican deli, the only non-protestant house of worship a single Mormon church, and the only Eastern influences are the Honda Civic and Toyota Tundra. My hometown is beautiful, the majority of the roads either unpaved or paved badly but engulfed by breathtaking deciduous forest, void of urban conveniences but also of urban smog, sound, and crime. To say I did not grow up in a city is an understatement. I grew up in the rural America one assumes was lost shortly after the timeof Steinbeck. Though I wouldn’t change my small town upbringing for all the pho in Brussels, what small towns inevitably lack is perspective and outside influence. White, protestant, and republican: you must be two, but preferably all three. As much as I love the soil that nourished my roots, the mindset in those gorgeous hills is hardly one of religious tolerance. Asking someone in my hometown what they think Buddhism is would likely incite a hilarious conversation, most likely accusing the religion’s followers of being stoned out hippies who need Jesus. 


Antics from my homeland. 


As illustrated in East Eats West, for Andrew Lam, the fusion of Eastern and Western religion is a fascinating phenomenon, a path toward acceptance and enlightenment where religious differences are conversation starters and areas of intrigue, not points of irreconcilable divide. He calls the new, integrated world we live in “a Tower of Babel with many prophets” (157), a place where Buddhist temples share parking lots with Pentecostal churches and no one finds it remotely unsettling. For me, this kind of seamless integration is as foreign as it is longed for. Coming from a religion that preaches one path to salvation and only one allowed perspective, there is no room for free thinking. I was forced to abandon the religion of my upbringing when my convictions began to violate the “all or nothing” perspective of its followers. Lam recounts a similar tale, exploring howhis upbringing around ancestor worship was unable to fully cross the ocean. For Lam, spirituality takes many forms and is best reached through the coexistence of many points of view, “In the best scenario,” he states, “[spiritual traditions] could come together to shape the human condition and lead humanity to an age of spiritual exploration” (156). When so many religions believe so strongly that they are the only ones who are right, this kind of coexistence remains elusive, though increasingly, it is proving to no longer be unreachable.


An excursion to the Bok Kai temple in Marysville Ca, a thirty minute drive from where I grew up. 


For me, I believe the religions of the world form many spokes of the same wheel, the ultimate goal of the vast majority of doctrines similar to identical, that is a quest for inner peace and a goal of outer kindness. This point is illustrated well as Lam quotes a message from Abbot Thich Chan Minh, who states: “Buddha is not out here but in each of you. So be kind to one another, be kind to your husband, to your wife, to your children, because when you are cruel to one another, you are cruel to Buddha” (141). How interesting, for the Christian bible calls us to “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you” in the book of Luke, and in Matthew, Jesus states “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” in reference to  cruelty or indifference committed against each other. Buddha and Christ very much march to the beatof the same drummer, both as spiritual leaders creating a doctrine of love and kindness as well as enlightenment in the form of seeking answers beyond the self. Though let’s not forget that Buddha spoke his doctrine over 400 years before Christ did. 

More alike than different. 


Andrew Lam illuminates the contributions of Eastern religion on Western culture, expertly illustrating the benefits of combining the two without hostility, a marriage of thought that I myself had no idea I had succumb to. I am ever so pleasantly surprised to realize that while I am no more a Buddhist than I am a Christian, upon my dresser rests a jade Buddha next to my bible, the position of both an outer coincidence, but perhaps purposeful in my subconscious. I can say I have taken parts of each religion in forming my personal philosophy. But perhaps it would be more accurate to say these religions have, possibly without knowing it, taken parts from each other, or maybe just come to many of the same conclusions despite being separated by centuries and continents. However, though this reconcile continues to happen, Lam is not so absorbed in the coexistence of ideas that hefails to realize the immovable presence of conflict, though that conflict is happily shrinking. He states that “While xenophobia and racism and fights over territory and ideas will always exist, increasingly people living in both East and West have more options than simply accepting the traditions they grew up in. It’s a Tower of Babel with many prophets, but for every dozen who retreat into a comfortable homogeneous corner, there are also one or two who cross some hallway asking, ‘What are you about? Tell me about your beliefs. Tell me your story’” (157). 


My dresser top. A bible that has been with me for over 10 years, a jade Buddha, a reminder that knowledge can be gleaned from every culture, and a candle stand, the language and origin of which I haven't a clue, proof that even the mere esthetics of Eastern culture influence us all. 

User Comments

I think that there is a commonality of all religions to do good or for the better good. It's the basis of philosophy and is intertwined with societal expectations. It is interesting to learn different view points. The most important thing is to keep ones mind open. Recently, my daughters high school friend had an issue with her English class. First of all , I have to tell you that I encouraged the advanced English class. She was supposed to read a book during the summer and didn't. Hence, I was the cheerleader. However, the problem came when she refused to read a common literary book due to her religious convictions. I inquired as to the problem and she didn't approve of the swearing in the book. She was refusing to read the book because of the swearing, but was willing to read the cliff notes. It's an example of not keeping an open mind. The book is "of mice and men." Since there was vulgar language, she believed there was no point in learning classic literature. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It's rewarding to see your growth of new experiences.


Enlightenment through knowledge or guidance, will often close as many minds as it opens. The missing element is often self awareness and faith in one's self, which many fail to achieve. Great post!

Love the pics!! 

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