“Buddhists Have to Shave their Hair, and Muslims Have Normal Lives”
Henry Goldschmidt, The Interfaith Center of New York
A few weeks ago, I joined about fifty students from Explorations Academy, a predominantly Black, Latino, and Christian public high school in the South Bronx, on a fieldtrip to explore New York’s religious diversity. Along with their teachers, the Interfaith Center of New York brought them to visit the city’s oldest and largest Hindu temple, a mid-sized mosque serving a South Asian community, and a Chinese Buddhist temple – all located just a few blocks from each other in Flushing, Queens. At each site we met with a community leader, who answered students’ questions about their religious lives. The next day their teacher, Josh Adland, asked his students to name two things they had learned on their trip. One student wrote: “That Buddhists have to shave their hair. And that Muslims have normal lives.”
Truer words have never been spoken – sort of. Actually, relatively few Buddhists shave their hair. And I, for one, don’t want to get into the business of deciding whose life is or isn’t “normal.” So I wouldn’t say either point is entirely correct, or at least I wouldn’t put them quite the same way. But this student’s response nevertheless captures a truth all Americans must learn, if we wish understand our nation’s religious diversity. On the one hand, we need to appreciate the power of religious devotion to reshape the lives of individuals and communities, leading them to do things that might seem strange to others, like shaving one’s head upon becoming a Buddhist monk or nun. And on the other hand, we need to appreciate the limits of such devotion. We need to recognize that even the most pious among us continue to lead what others would consider normal lives. With a balanced appreciation of the power and limits of faith, we can acknowledge the differences among religious communities without losing sight of the common humanity we all share with our neighbors.
During their visit to the China Buddhist Association, the students from Explorations Academy spoke with a Buddhist nun named Reverend Ming Yee, and the next day in class they kept asking about her hair. “Why she gotta go shave her head like that?” one student wondered. Her appearance had clearly struck a nerve. She was short and stocky, with a round face, rosy cheeks, and a gentle smile. Indeed, when she smiled she bore an uncanny resemblance to the statue of the Buddha seated at the center of the temple’s elaborate altar. She was dressed in a loose-fitting brown robe, and her hair was shaved extremely short – not quite bald, but very nearly so. The students asked her, politely, why she had shaved her head, and Reverend Ming explained that her short hair and robes are meant to ensure gender equality among monks and nuns in her monastic order, and to reflect the Buddhist ideal of renunciation – the monk or nun’s turning away from the world of desire, and from the fiction of selfhood that is a product of desire, in order to follow the Buddha’s path toward enlightenment. Her short hair touches, in other words, on the heart of Buddhist teachings.
The Explorations students were not generally reflecting upon these issues through their curiosity about Reverend Ming’s hair. Indeed, I suspect they were reacting, more viscerally, to what they saw as her unconventional femininity. But the fact is, her shaved head is unconventional, and not only to outsiders unfamiliar with her community. It’s not how Black and Latino teens from the South Bronx expect a middle-aged woman to look, but it’s not how Chinese Buddhists in Flushing expect most middle-aged women to look either. I wasn’t able to ask her, but I doubt it’s how Reverend Ming herself expected she would one day look before she became a nun thirteen years ago. Her haircut isn’t exactly “normal,” and it thus reminds us of the power of religion to reshape the course of human lives. Some Buddhists “have to shave their hair” out of their devotion to the Buddha’s radical vision of a world without gender, selfhood, or desire.
A similar sort of devotion was evident when the Explorations students visited the Muslim Center of New York, though in this case it was displayed by junior high school boys with “normal” haircuts under their plain white kufis, and familiar “Gap” hoodies over traditional South Asian clothes. When we arrived at the mosque, the prayer room was filled with the lilting sounds of quranic recitation, as a dozen students from the mosque’s parochial school kneeled together on the floor, rocking back and forth, as they chanted passages from the well-worn texts lying open before them. The Explorations students were impressed when the president of the mosque, Abdel Ghani, explained that these twelve and thirteen year-old boys were attempting to memorize the entire Qur’an – to learn over 6,000 verses of scripture by heart, in a language they don’t even speak on a daily basis. It was a powerful image of religious devotion, but I’m afraid it may have blinded our students to the prosaic realities of these young boys’ lives.
At one point in their conversation with Mr. Ghani, a number of students asked about the daily prayers most Muslims perform, in accordance with the central “pillars” of Islam. They had learned that Muslims pray five times each day, but many seemed to imagine five long prayer services, like the church services most were more familiar with. One student asked about the boys we’d seen reciting the Qur’an: “Do they have a social life?” she wanted to know. Mr. Ghani had asked one of these boys to tell our students about the daily prayers, but at this point he stepped in to respond: “What do you think, we just keep praying the whole day? How would you make your life?” He reassured our students that the five daily prayers take a few minutes each, and that young Muslims still have plenty of time to play basketball and video games. Yes, he said, they have a social life. “Do they eat lunch?” one student asked, and Mr. Ghani responded: “Now I know you’re joking!” But I’m not sure. Many of the Explorations students were surprised to learn that Muslims too “have normal lives.”
The next day in class many students said that meeting these young Muslim boys was their favorite part of the entire fieldtrip. They were especially pleased by another moment of conversation I can’t describe here, when one of the boys talked back to Mr. Ghani – yelling “You can do it!” when he was asked to translate a verse of the Qur’an. These glimpses into the everyday life of another community seemed to humanize Muslims in our students’ eyes. When I asked them why these boys made such a big impression, one girl replied simply: “Those kids was cool – they my homies now.” This sense of common humanity must not lead us to ignore the religious and cultural differences between a Dominican Catholic girl from the Bronx and a group of Pakistani Muslim boys from Flushing. The boys were, after all, attempting to memorize the Qur’an – a task that makes shaving one’s head seem positively ordinary. But such differences must not blind us to the fact that these young New Yorkers all lead “normal lives.”
For much more on the Explorations Academy fieldtrip to Flushing check out this video produced by Josh Adland, the teacher we worked with to create the trip: