YANGON, Myanmar – One of the most interesting things about world travel is seeing the pervasiveness of religion and its many interpretations. From the temples of Thailand to the pyramids of Egypt, to the mosques of Oman, to Vatican City in Rome—all of which we see on this voyage, the biggest, most ornate, intriguing, awe-inspiring structures are always the ones built to honor some deity. After awhile, even the agnostic must recognize people's innate drive to prostrate themselves. It is our true sixth sense. We see, we hear, we touch, we pray. And although the interpretations vary greatly, it must be acknowledged that perhaps there's some truth at the heart of it all.
Myanmar, the former Burma in Southeast Asia, is by far the poorest country we'll visit. The contrast of our white luxury ship sailing up the muddy Yangon River while its guests sit on verandas in terry-cloth robes sipping cappuccinos and waving at fishermen, is truly bizarre. But just as strange a contrast are the thousands of gold-domed pagodas that dot the landscape. Since the countryside is relatively flat, these catch the sun and gleam like gold teeth on a withered old man. Most impressive is the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is 326 feet tall and 2,500 years old. It's adorned with more than 6,500 diamonds, rubies and gems.
Inland, near the city of Mandalay, is an equally fascinating site. Inside the Mahamuni Pagoda is a 13-foot-tall Buddha that weighs 6.5 tons. Over the decades, its size has swelled as pilgrims apply small sheets of gold leaf. The statute now carries a six-inch shimmering crust.
Meanwhile in the surrounding villages, there are dirty roads, hungry children, and dilapidated homes. When the cyclone hit Myanmar just six weeks after we visited, and the same river carried dead bodies instead of a cruise ship, the world was horrified as much by the disaster as it was by the foot-dragging military junta.
I was angered too, but in an additional way. This country is not as destitute as its gross national product would have you believe. It is rich not only in spirit and culture, but also in convertible resources. When I think of its ornate temples and the energy involved in maintaining them (both physically and bureaucratically), I can't help wondering what a single ruby or square of gold could do for an entire village. I am not advocating dismantling a religion or its culture, but rather reapportioning its wealth and the effort that sustains it. After all, the gods don't need it.
Although it may sound like a father's sacrilege, I want Paul to consider these things. Prayer can be an excuse for laziness, and reverence a reprieve from action and change. I do believe there is a god or spirit in the universe. I trust our sixth sense. But in our human attempts to interpret it, we've strayed. I pray each night, but it's not for God to give me answers, solve my problems, or help others. It's for the power and enlightenment to do so myself. I want Paul to find this too.
Religion should not be about offering up alms or building impressive domes. It should be about distributing wealth so the poor can be fed something more nourishing than hope. This is the way you build the holiest place of all, Paul—a compassionate heart.