I still pinch myself when I contemplate on the causes and conditions that have enabled the ties and connections I’ve fostered in recent months, not least the encounters I had on the trip to Europe and the two conferences I attended. I’ve made many new friends who share certain hopes and aspirations. I’ve only met a few of these friends in person and I don’t know if I will ever meet most of them. I may never fully know the causes and conditions that have brought us together but one thing is clear: the indebtedness of the self to others, to what has come before, to what has been received.
No one gets to choose the circumstances by which they enter the world, and no one gets to choose the surprises accompanying the future.
I am grateful that others have lent a sympathetic ear to my views as a postcolonial “Western Buddhist” convert. I was born and raised in Singapore where I was exposed to the Buddhist customs of my diasporic Chinese ancestry. But because I attended a missionary school, I had no interest in Buddhism and even thought poorly of it. I grew up identifying as a Christian until my late teens when I became disenchanted with religion and turned to atheist outlooks. Unexpectedly, after migrating to Australia as a young adult, I discovered and embraced Western translations of Buddhist teachings along with a passion for the scholarly profession. The affordances I wielded as part of the Chinese majority in Singapore had given me the privilege to treat questions of racism and cultural appropriation lightly; so my discovery of Buddhism in Australia occurred at a time when I was also beginning to learn the hard truths of what it is like to live as an ethnic minority.
The experience of having to crisscross many borders but never finding a home—as if I’m wandering lost in a desert within a desert—has led me to the hopeful promises of diverse heritages. But I’ve also encountered the unacknowledged habits of ethnocentrism and ideological one-upmanship conditioned by the history of Western imperialism and its continuing effects. This desert-like wandering drives my curiosity about the cultural translation of Buddhism and mindfulness training. It is also the reason why I describe myself as someone who inherits and betrays at the same time; I am displaced as an “outsider” to those legacies which I nevertheless inhabit from the “inside”.
I do not feel the need to promote or participate in organised religion, but I would also come down hard on secularist conceits that denigrate the promises of religion. I do not participate in traditional Buddhist activities regularly, but I would also insist on giving room to the duties and obligations of tradition. I feel most comfortable in Buddhist spaces involving “ethnic” communities, but I do not move in the social spaces of these fellow recent migrants. Australia has provided me a home for the past fourteen years, but the questions of belonging that rouse my passions most painfully are those relating to life in my country of birth to which I can no longer acclimatise.
Inside. Outside. Not inside. Not outside. Neither here nor there.
This is not a complaint. It may be impossible for the (un)faithful self to decide once and for all where its loyalties and obligations lie. Undecidability keeps me wandering in the empty space between the “East” and the “West”, between the traditional and the modern, between the religious and the secular. But undecidability is not just an obstacle or impasse; it is also an opening and chance. Without undecidability there is no chance of encounter and no encounter of chance.
The faithful ones I meet in Buddhist spaces who provide support and community for the monastics and one another. The faithful ones I meet through social media who share a passion for Buddhist teachings, mindfulness, social justice, scholarly inquiry, media fandom, or an obsession with cats and irreverent memes. The faithful ones I meet at conferences who profess commitment to collegiality and open inquiry, and extend intellectual hospitality to one another to stage reciprocal learning. There are others and there will be more to come. I will never be able to account for every connection and every tie, so I will just have to dedicate this to you—whoever, whatever, wherever you may be.
Whatever the causes and conditions are that bring you and I together, I think it wouldn’t be irresponsible to at least say that they arrive by way of the legacies we inherit and share. Legacies hold promise. Promises haunt us with the question of faith. By faith I’m referring to something very basic—the element of trust that you and I must gift to one another and invite from one another in order for us to enter into any communicative or reciprocal relation; this elementary faith exposes us to vulnerability and unknowingness.
We are given over to faith when we utter “Yes”, “I do”, “I love you”, or when we shake the hand of a business partner, place an arm over a friend’s shoulder, or brush a finger across a lover’s knee. These communicative gestures are not primarily about knowing anything, but about affirming trustworthiness, loyalty, fidelity. And these same promissory appeals expose us to betrayal; for the swindling business partner, the backstabbing friend, and the cheating lover utter the same words and perform the same gestures to exploit us and break our hearts.
Faith in this nondoctrinal “empty” sense is necessary too when communicating facts. If I say that the distance between Singapore and Berlin is “[x] miles”, even if “[x] miles” turns out to be inaccurate or false, in order for this truth of error or deceit to be ascertained there must first be an implicit mutual hosting of trustworthiness between you and I, at least in the initial encounter.
Encounters are hosted by faith. If you’ve ever had to wait your turn in a queue, or if you’ve ever needed assistance when boarding a bus, you’d have been given over yet again to faith. Because there is no guarantee, no way of knowing with certainty, no way of deciding once and for all—even if there exists “commonsense” or public signs indicating certain rules or obligations—that others would act in the way they are entrusted to respond. Who knows if someone would jump the queue? Who knows if someone would help? Who knows if someone would stop that racist abusing a passerby?
Encounters are hosted by faith not knowledge. But without knowledge we cannot bear witness to encounters or become response-able for encounters by giving an account of oneself.
By faith, then, I am affirming something very basic shared by so-called “believers” and “nonbelievers” alike, something shared between strangers and friends, something shared with you. We’ve all received promises to honour. Promises pull us in differing directions, but promises also entangle us as ties that bind. Promises take dedication. Promises take time. Promises must be promising.
One hand touching another
Hello, pleased to meet you
Beings are innumerable, may I Awaken with them all
It is as if that elusive gap between each breath, that empty space, that pregnant pause, signs off on our behalf: