The Buddhist nun at Angkor Wat had a shaved head, white robes and flashed a smile the color of licorice. That, and her unnerving habit of giggling without any apparent reason, made me think she must have chewed too much betel nut. But without a word of English, the nun had no difficulty letting me know she wanted me to sit and light a stick of incense, while she murmured blessings on my behalf. I complied, and left a dollar for her on my way out.
It was an unexpected but benign encounter, yet one that left me feeling slightly troubled. Back in my air-conditioned hotel, I began to wonder if the nun was any different than the tour guides, dubious archeological experts and vendors of every type who swarm over Angkor-Cambodia's ancient sacred city--in search of tourist dollars. More to the point, I wondered if I, just by being there, had encouraged her to make a commodity of her beliefs. Postcards, fifty cents. Prayers, $1.
I'm as happy as the next tourist to light a candle in a cathedral, but I have my limits. I prefer to look, maybe join in the fun a little, but never to get too involved. I once joined hands, for instance, with two strangers in a hot tent outside New Orleans, to join them in singing God's praises. But I would never go as far as a friend of mine, a Protestant who once went to confession at a Catholic church in Ireland just for the experience. I observe a tourist's version of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: if scientific law says that mere act of observing a subatomic particle in motion changes its course forever, then I prefer to observe religious ritual, but not become a player in the game.
Knowing where to draw the line is a personal choice. My own worst fear is to be lumped in with those busloads of Europeans visiting New York City, who troop up to the churches of Harlem on a Sunday morning to hear the choirs sing, followed by soul food brunch. They do no real harm, I suppose, but they do pay for the experience, $65 a head. I don't think a church should be treated like a music hall. Nor should Buddhist nuns use the ruins of Angkor Wat, decorated with thousands of carved stone Buddhas and scenes from Hindu mythology, as a spiritual concession stand.
An experience I had years ago, while touring the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa, has more or less defined religion for me ever since. It also helped me see that outsiders are not always welcome. My family was driving through the grounds of an Ethiopian Orthodox church when we passed a seriously deformed worshipper stretched out on the dirt, his arms reaching for the sky. Without thinking, my dad slowed the car and reached for his wallet. But then he had a realization. "Someone has brought this man here to pray, and we should not get in the way," he said.
Indeed. Religious observance is a conversation between human beings and a spirit they believe in, a personal journey toward enlightenment. Sometimes it's good to join right in, Sometimes it's best just to stand quietly at the side.