How Buddhist practice revealed a fresh perspective on Islam for me

“Happiness is here and now

I have dropped my worries

Somewhere to go – something to do

But no longer in a hurry”

– A monastic song

Recently I attended several mindfulness camps with monastics in Hong Kong. Now beyond the awe a newbie might associate with Zen – not least a chance for something experiential. What struck me was the potency of guided meditative exercises that were practiced to, ‘center’ the participants, decompress, or simply put, relax the mind. My limited exposure to Buddhism can be summarized in the following key words (phrases):

  • A hour long 8th grade, opinionated history lesson about Ashoka, Nirvana, and Enlightenment.
  • A very popular religion.
  • A colleague who once said he is a Buddhist.
  • Militant Buddhists in Burma and plight of the Rohingya Muslims.
  • The Dalai Lama.
  • Jeff Bridges characters in Hollywood films.

The contrast between realizing the potential application of a philosophy new to me and my rudimentary knowledge of it was humbling. Moreover so as the communitarian, harmonious and meditative underpinnings can be only understood properly through experience and practice.

And more practice.

I also couldn’t help but wonder whether Islam, my religion of birth, operated in a similar fashion. Does increasing the frequency of practices and rituals prescribed in the Islamic school of thought lead to a greater understanding of Islam? I remember my childhood when I would make conscientious effort to pray and how on most occasions my mind would constantly drift around mundane everyday tasks. As I have reached 30, I barely practice. Reverence to God and death aside there is little actual relevance of the Holy in my life.

These are just some reflections. Muslim faith and understanding of life and Islam I suppose does increase as time passes. Perhaps the issue I’m really raising here is the practicality of theistic as opposed to non-theistic religions in present times. Or is it the virtue of practicing multiple religions?

Whatever debate I’ve stumbled upon today and however strong the potency of mindfulness exercises one thing is abundantly clear; practicing Buddhism showed me a fresh perspective on Islam. It compelled me to give new meaning to old Islamic practices I’m familiar with and that I usually find confounding. For someone who often questions the value of ‘being a Muslim’ this is important.

I’m not advocating Buddhist practice over Islam here. But of why fresh and comparative perspectives are necessary. Perhaps for you it would be some other religion, person, ideology or life choice. As long as effort is made to open up to others. Searching for similarities rather than differences with it or them.

For it gives us a chance to better understand our own selves and our role in this World.

Wabbit Season Noo! Duck Season Nooo Wedding Season!!

Ahhhh weddings. The divine bond between husband and wife or husband and husband or wife… and well which ever is politically correct for you. They say that a funeral, religion and a wedding are the defining traits of a civilization. I must say if that is really the case then we Pakistanis are a civilization of the highest order ’cause boy do we celebrate on our weddings.

I once had a discussion with some peers on the importance of these so called Wedding Seasons. I was trying to understand why families prefer weddings on specific times throughout the year. Well summer vacations are obvious, kids are home, relatives coming from all over the world, parents are more relaxed.

What about the Winter breaks? Here I got an interesting response, ‘Are you kidding me? Winters are amazing, its chilly, we get to wear expensive suits, coffee tastes really good who doesn’t want to get married in winters?! Ok… er fair enough. But then what about the Eid Holidays? or for that matter specific times all year round when that ‘golden relative’ is coming on a strict deadline who would kill himself if he misses the wedding (its funny how they never change their own vacationing schedule for this major event)

OK so Winters, Summers, Eids and random golden relatives year round I think a Wedding Climate is a better choice of words. I don’t buy this season bullshit weddings in Pakistan just need an excuse to happen.

However one does not find many or in fact any occasion in Pakistan that gets celebrated purely out of a feeling of mutual respect, tolerance, joy and love the way our weddings do. It is in its essence a festival allowing people usually constrained by societal taboos and restrictions to enjoy life free of all limitation. Dancing together in our desi spirit, female friends getting permissions to stay over night or stay out late, lavish spending on the venues and so many other things which will on any other day be restricted by the elders. No matter how divided we Pakistanis are but inside that yellow-green flower Marquee we are all united as one. I think cricket is the only other event that brings us close the way weddings do!

A few of my friends got married quite recently and the whole fare was quite experiential. Dance practices, dholkies, mehndis, helping the house members out with the arrangements. The events proved to be a welcome break in a mundane week usually marked with work during the day, hanging out at nights and dinners on the weekends.

One Mehndi stood out among all other events. It was a union between one Karachi family of doctors and one Lahori family who, I learned later on were also doctors. Very interesting  phenomenon.

The usual wedding processions took place. The arrival of the ‘barat’ (other wedding party) had a great fan fare among not only the people invited but also people on the side walks and passerbys. It reminded me of a Bora wedding last year when my friend the groom, actually rode on a white Arabic stead (horse) in traditional Bora garments all the way to the stage where his maiden fair was waiting for him. It was an amazing spectacle and I am lucky to have attended one. Wish our weddings were as interesting, I am sick of this usual Korma and Biryani shit. In the past 30 years the only modern thing about weddings in my family is the addition of a Coffee and/or Pan (betelnut).

So any way, the dances were good at this event. There were properly choreographed ones and free style ones. Freestyle should be a term synonymous with the Punjabis. A group of pretty dancing girls were joined by their cousins, followed by their friends, folllowed by their parents and as if on que the bride and the groom. A ruckus ensued on the tiny dance floor.

Now we Karachites are a bit shy and protective about our personal space. Punjabis on the other hand… In the confusion it seemed like all the guests from Lahore were crammed up on the dance floor with the their Karachi host quietly standing on the sidelines  waiting for their turn to shake it. The d j getting caught in the tempo switched from the usual bhangra to Pitbull. hahah Pitbull! in a Mehndi. And hardly surprisingly there was a shout of joy from the Lahoris.

Mehndi Dance

We decided to leave at this point and were just getting in our vehicles when someone from inside with a big smile on his face approached us.

“Hello, any body got a cigarette?”

“Sure” and I offered him one

“Oh thanks man, I am an asthma patient but I can’t live without this darn thing. I am a doctor too.”

“Oh really, then ho-”

“Don’t tell my wife though, she doesn’t know. Actually I just got married two days ago in Lahore and now I am attending my brothers wedding here in Karachi. Isn’t that exciting?”

“Yea sounds like f-”

“You know I am glad I found you guys they say cigarettes unites us all. Hey you guys know where a medical store is? Its time for my asthma medication”

“Yes it is about a Kilometer from here, you go straight and take a rig-”

“Can you please take me there? this is my first time in Karachi”

Oh boy. What a character. And as I said before there is just something about Lahoris , friendly though they are confused as fuck. We decided to give the nuptial soul a ride and had a good conversation along the way.

Funny thing a wedding is. A very cultural event. There are certain rituals and traditions no matter what the 1400 year old man made shariah bullshit counters, we will still do it. Even the extremists. Maybe there is hope still.

Zia’s Spawn: The Generation X

Wow you must be wondering that the title looks like it came straight from a WWE match and whether this post will stands up to its claim. Well this will be my first serious (well partly) post and I hope it will shed some light about our parents. Yes you heard correct. Parents 🙂

What is the Generation X? one may ask. Although there have been debates on the exact definition of the term most people regard Generation X or Baby Boomers as the people born in the 60’s and the 70’s. You can find out more about them here. You might recall this era in North America and Europe as one marked by extreme changes in social order,mistrust of the government, the Vietnam war and the hippie counterculture which bloomed as a result among other things. In the West this generation thus became very open to change. Our dearly beloved Steve Jobs was attending college at this time.

In Pakistan at the time there was a sense of security, yes it was from what I have heard through popular accounts minus the one shameful war in ’71. There was another phenomenon taking place in Pakistan one which would have disastrous consequences for us. The Afghan War. We found ourselves caught up in the fight of two most powerful countries in the world.

Everything seemed to be going right for us, Aid came pouring in from USA and Saudi Arabia, Pakistani’s felt that they were the sole guardians in the fight between God believing ‘good’ and UnGodly communist ‘evil’. Massive petrodollar came from Saudi Arabia due to fresh job opportunities and the heavy industries which Bhutto had founded had matured now and Pakistan moved from a basic agrarian economy to a manufacturing economy.

The Dictator rose in Popularity, massive popularity non of which I believe can be truly credited to him. Sharia laws were imposed, Pakistani scientists were asked to conduct research on ‘jinns’ and holy spirits and the influx of foreign Aid was proclaimed as the Dictators success in improving the economy. Truly the fortune of God falls on those who lead their lives according to the arcane and outdated rules of the Holy scripture. The Jihadist were considered as indispensable national assets able to infiltrate the enemy in Afghanistan, in Kashmir and in India.

Now had the Dictator been wise he should have dispensed with the Jihadist once the war was over. These guerilla soldiers are undisciplined, brain washed and treacherous. They believe in a delusional and fantastic ideology which is very dangerous as it draws strength from, poverty, illiteracy and as of late the phenomenal success of the Jihadist dictator in filling Pakistani begging bowl with cash! The Generation X became the pious Muslims they always thought they were. Even people who believed in freedom, human rights, democracy etc realized that maybe there is something ‘Magical’ about ‘Leaving Everything to God’. Thus the foundation of a misinformed guardian of the universe Islamic state were laid down.

And then Aid was gone. The war was over and there was no more middle eastern oil boom. The Generation X realized that they will actually have to work to make a living. The decade that followed is known in economics as The Lost Decade. The ’90s was the most f*****up time in Pakistan’s history. Maybe all the problems can’t be mentioned here but I will summarize it all by saying that The Generation X got confused as hell. Their unwavering faith in God as they had been led to believe was perhaps wrong after all or was it? This is also the time when hippocrisy grew in earnest. We learned to survive the 90’s by cheating and squabbling while having a firm faith in God. We blamed the world for our problems while ignoring fundamental flaws like pseudo-feudal culture, high illiteracy rate, poor law and order situation, extremism and intolerance.

All was not bad though, another dictator came to power. This one was brighter then his predecessor. And knew what was going on with our society. He even made a solid effort to try to change the direction the nation was following. But I think by this time our Generation X had gone beyond repair….

Please don’t get me wrong. I love my parents and I know you love your parents as well. I get my mom flowers every now and then and help my dad with his work anytime he asks for it. But we need to realize that their believes are outdated. Their version of Pakistan and society is very twisted for the reasons I have shared above. They did what the thought was best for us maybe we would have done the same have we been in their shoes. But that doesn’t make it right yea? They are the spawn of General Zia as I like to call them.

A feeling of change is in the air now. I think the worse mistakes and their consequences are over. Our time is here now, we are the Generation Y. My only hope is that we do not repeat the mistakes our parents and others their age made. That we give priority to education, freedom, human rights, women empowerment rather then the teachings of the shariah which are open to thousands of interpretations. That we renounce the Jihadis once and for all. That we quit this hippocrissy plaguing our daily lives. That we stop blaming the world for our problems and just think logically to their solutions.

I will end this post with a classic rock anthem from The Scoropions: