Blind Harmony

There are so many marvelous things for a visitor to take in within the George Town area of Penang, Malaysia: its fusion (and confusion) of world foods, the Batik, or the fact that the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

All these things wowed us as well, but in a bigger sense, what captured us was the larger demonstration that life can still be lived in cooperation, in positive partnership with “others.”

One of the things that we love about Granada is that, prior to the 1492 Reconquista, it was a place that practiced tolerance of different religious and cultural outlooks. Muslims, Christians, and Jews all shared the city in a cooperative fashion, working together peacefully (most of the time, at least) despite their differences in custom, clothing, food, and, most importantly, spiritual tenets.

Such communities seem quaint anomalies lost to the past, especially given today’s headlines of hate-motivated attacks or leaders condemning entire groups because of the acts of a few members. Ordinary people are quick to throw out statements about “the others” with little regard for factual accuracy or the cumulative negative effect of such irrational fear.

George Town, located on an island just off the Malay mainland, seems removed from that toxic environment. A little over two hundred years old, it was initially founded by the British as a trading post to compete with the Dutch spice trade, but has grown into a crosssroads of people. British, ethnic Malays, Indians, Chinese, and smatterings of Singaporeans, Thai, and Australians, all intermix here. Each brings their own customs and ways.

A typical example is Chulia street, where one can walk past a British pub, a tandoori restaurant, and Chinese street-food vendors in the same block, witnessing people of all ethnicities sampling each other’s wares. Western tourists, clad in tank tops or t-shirts and shorts, will sit at street-side tables drinking beer and singing, while next door Muslim elderly men sit at similar tables sipping tea and discussing philosophy, each group tacitly acknowledging that there is room enough for both.

A particularly poignant spot is a lane called by locals “Harmony street.” On a stretch not more than 600 meters long, it cuts through both the Chinatown and Little India sections. One can find on this strip a grand mosque, an Indian temple, a Taoist temple, several Buddhist shrines, and, finally, St. George’s, the first Anglican church founded in Southeast Asia.

Historic enemies? Inevitable conflict? Not here, where people greet each other as they make their way to their respective (and respected) places of worship.

There is no denunciation, but rather, shared celebration as each takes a turn at filling the area with joy as they mark their reason to observe what all religions demand, that we celebrate life and love our fellow man.

Harmony street stands for what we could all have. The universe is so big, and the veil that separates our material existence from the spiritual dimension so opaque, any honest effort to know the divine, or at least the metaphysical realm, should be viewed positively, as long as it is done in love, peace, and for all to voluntarily share in.

It reminds me of a two-thousand year old Buddhist fable about a group of blind men who come across an elephant for the first time.

One feels the trunk and says an elephant is like a thick snake. Another feels the ears and says an elephant is like palm leaves. A third feels the body and says an elephant is like a massive wall.

Each is right, but each only knows a part. They can now either choose to call each other a liar and fight over who is “more right,” or they can share their knowledge, have some tea, and maybe even catch a ride on a friendly elephant.

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