42 Things I’ve Learned About World Religions in my Travels

by Megan Lee

From the deep-seated philosophies born of hillsides in the far east to the dusty, cat-laden streets of the Arabian peninsula. Due south to the colorful hijabs of East Africa and the familiar hymns of southern Africa. Exploring the spiritually-earthbound identity of the Maori and the impressive folklore of the Aztecs, listening to the choir boys of Westminster Abbey, carefully crossing the sacred entryways to Confucian temples, witnessing the changing faces of the Haggia Sofia (once Christian, then Byzantine, now Muslim). 

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Angkor Wat in Cambodia

Photo by Megan Lee

Shoes off. Shoes on? Shoulders covered, skin exposed. Incense lit, silence, reverie, respect. Hush hush. Meditation. Doors closed. Open skies. Prayers.

I've been blessed to have had stereotype after stereotype shattered throughout my 10 years of travels. Un-learning many “normalities” and unintentional prejudices from my upbringing has not been an easy or pain-free process. I won’t claim that it all makes sense. I won’t claim that I don’t struggle to understand murder, hate, and crime in the name of a deity. But I will boldly state that my conservative, small-town rearing was in NEED of exposure to new ways of thinking and living; in NEED of a heavy dose of REALITY served up strong, on the rocks, with a heaping side of compassion.

Throughout my travels, not only have I garnered a deeper understanding of my own Christian religion, but of world religions at large. Here are a few fun facts, observations, and realizations I’ve picked up along the way.

  1. We all have a responsibility for our environment. This world is not ours alone. It belongs to our kids and their kids and the generations after that.
  2. Mosques shine a bright green light from the tops of their spires (looks so cool dotting cityscapes at night!).
  3. In China, public churches will ask you to show your passport to confirm you are not a local citizen.
  4. The Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi looks like it’s made of marshmallows. Or Baymax.
  5. You don’t have to understand the words to feel the power of a song.
  6. Aztecs (native Mexicans) viewed blood as an incredibly powerful medium, and often sacrificed humans as gifts to their deities.
  7. Yoga is more than sweating awkwardly with your butt in the air in a group of strangers.
  8. There are city-wide calls to prayer daily in Muslim countries on loud (REALLY loud) speakerphones. To be the caller is a duty of high esteem.
  9. There isn't one right way of life, and it’s the differences that make us interesting. It doesn't make its people inferior OR repulsive OR backwards.
  10. Tibetan prayer flags are said to release prayers with every wind that rustles through them.
  11. Sometimes singing and dancing and clapping in a circle is “church.”
  12. In ceremonies and formal occasions, Maori (native New Zealanders) greet each other with a hongi. They press their noses together to inhale simultaneously and share a breath of life.
  13. There is only one image of the Dalai Lama allowed in all of Tibet; it’s a snapshot of him sharing bread rolls with Mao Zedong.
  14. It's easy to judge cultures that are different than yours. That’s why so many people do it. What isn’t easy is moving past judgment to sincere curiosity and questioning, or seeking understanding.
  15. Sometimes the most earth-shattering, philosophy-questioning lessons are dished out by an old Bedouin man selling the “World’s Best Coffee” road side en route to Petra.
  16. Aboriginal people told their creation stories through songs, but not every tribe knew the entire story, only chapters of it. Only when coming together could the whole story be known and understood. 
  17. The Basilica of Lyon has the coolest astronomical clock EVER. Google it.
  18. Muslim women sometimes want to wear their headscarves. It doesn’t have to be seen as a tool for disempowerment.
  19. Tibetan Buddhists make regular pilgrimages to the Potala Palace and walk clockwise around it, while carrying prayer wheels that also turn in a clockwise direction.
  20. Indigenous peoples of the Americas have traditionally used tobacco (and more recently, cigarettes) for religious purposes.
  21. The elaborate embellishments and ornate decorations of Thai Buddhist temples can only be described with one word: WOW.
  22. Everyone has their own way of living. As long as it's not harmful and inhumane, we need to accept and appreciate those different lifestyles.
  23. Not all Buddhas are jolly fat guys (sadly).
  24. Shamanism was common practice among indigenous North American tribes. And totem poles are dope.
  25. There are a whopping 330 million Hindu gods (and I thought the trinity was complicated…).
  26. There’s no one-size-fits-all type of religion.
  27. The only thing stronger than a Mexican’s love of Coca Cola is a Mexican’s love for the Virgin Mary. Catholicism is alive and well in this former Spanish colony.
  28. St. Patrick wasn’t actually the first saint to come to Ireland - it was Saint Declan.
  29. Touchdown Jesus is a real thing.
  30. There are many Hindus in Fiji due to the former slavery of Indians on the sugarcane plantations when it was colonized by the British.
  31. Humanity is more trustworthy than we imagine. Though the media tries to make us think otherwise, the world is not a terrible place.
  32. Monks carry cell phones (and wear UGG boots).
  33. Everyone we meet has something to teach us.
  34. If the world were 100 people, most Americans earn more than 99% of others.
  35. We actually need a lot less than we think we do. I grew up surrounded by consumerism and excess, and was taught that I needed things to be happy. This is simply NOT TRUE.
  36. Dangit, but I can’t help but think Ganesha is really cute.
  37. Mountaintops are a good place to feel close to God.
  38. The current Pope studied abroad in Germany! #vaticanwepleasebefriends #theologycrush
  39. The number “108” is considered sacred and holy in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and many martial arts.
  40. Amazonian indigenous peoples use a natural drug called “Ayahuasca” to bridge the gap between humans, spirits, and nature. Psychedelic, baby!
  41. Tea isn’t exactly necessary for meaningful religious debate, discussion, and discourse, but it somehow makes it go down smoother.
  42. There are many truths that exist across religions. Treat others how you want to be treated. Work to lessen the plight of those less fortunate than you. More money doesn't always mean more happiness. Take responsibility for yourself. Live in community. These are BEAUTIFUL and FUNDAMENTAL and SHARED.

Hindu Temple

Hindu Temple

Photo by Megan Lee

In Many Faiths, One Truth, Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama, writes:

When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today. 

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

[…] Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

People by the beach in Africa

Photo by Megan Lee

I was never aware of how naive I was about the world until I jumped in. Naive is a nice way of putting it. A more accurate description, that is hard to admit, is “bigoted,” “closed-minded,” and “racist.” But fortunately, it didn’t take long after my move abroad for me to realize that everything I had learned in life so far was all relative. Having your thoughts, beliefs, and creed challenged doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, it can be a really powerful experience, and make you more convicted in the end.

The greatest truth I’ve uncovered is that despite all of our differences, we still all share common ground. We’re all human. We all want to wake up with a smile on our face, our needs met, our health in good order, surrounded by loved ones. We all don’t like stinky feet. We all prefer short lines to long ones. We all experience heartbreak, regret, uncertainty about our futures, insecurities. 

Or maybe none of it matters, and that’s okay too. As long as we listen to and at least try to understand all of the different tones of religious chants to see which beat we most identify with. While we may have different words and languages to convey complicated religious concepts, how we experience them is kindred, shared, and universal. 

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

What are you waiting for? Go abroad now, and experience the world!