A Christian himself, he challenged American Christians to learn from the Buddhist culture of charity, kindness to all people and willingness to help others. Leming, who is leading the Term in Asia study abroad program next fall, also expressed concern over the increasing globalization and Westernization of Buddhist countries like Thailand.
Leming, who worked in Thailand for four months in 2006 as an English professor, traveled with two Buddhist monks for two weeks along the Thailand-Burma border during the summer of 2006.
His background as a Christian sociologist equipped him with a unique perspective to analyze the culture, religion, and people of Thailand.
"All I know is what I experienced," Leming said humbly in his introduction to a packed audience in Holland hall room 403.
He described the basic tenants of Buddhism, breaking down the religion into five separate aspects: as striving for enlightenment, as a philosophy, as a moral system, as a popular or folk religion and as a civil institution. The same can be said for Christianity, the first of many similarities between the two religions which Leming pointed out.
Slide shows of photos from Thailand came next, the most spectacular of which displayed the elegant and varied architecture of Buddhist temples. "We don't have anything this fancy," Leming said about one temple with particularly ornate detail.
Unlike in the United States. where funds for churches and clergy are often sparse, the Buddhist community, or Sangha, receives huge donations from the middle and upper classes. Leming described how "any poor child of any village anywhere in Thailand can come get an education" for free, because of the general population's extraordinary charity. Truckloads of food donations, sent to support the Sangha are given away daily at the temples.
"It's like Halloween," Lemming said.. "I think Christianity could learn a little from that," he said, commenting on the extraordinary charity which has become part of normal Buddhist civil culture.
Professor Leming spoke with reverence about his monk friends who he spent time with in Thailand, particularly their willingness to help. He joked, "I would throw my kids out for these kids."
Leming later added, "They're like us, only they're always smiling. They're real people. They're like 20-year-olds in America." He punctuated this statement with a story about the monks transforming their saffron-colored robes into makeshift swimsuits one day on their travels and by showing the audience photos of the monks making funny faces and goofing off.
According to Leming, increased westernization in Thailand is causing the burgeoning middle class to adopt the crass consumerism of the United States. "Now the middle class is going to be fat," said Leming, and pointed out eating at McDonald's, buying a new car, and owning a large U.S.-style home are major goals for many Thai citizens. Most of these citizens are "folk Buddhists" according to Leming, who pay more attention to the superstitious Buddhist rituals rather than the central principles of compassionate love and charity.
Leming said he was especially struck by how the monks often "act more Christian than I do in many ways." However, Leming pointed out that he never had an inclination to convert to Buddhism. "I feel I can embrace aspects of Buddhism," he said, but there are other parts he disagrees with, like self-reliance rather than relying on Jesus Christ. "I don't have a desire to give up my faith, but my experience with Buddhism has caused me to live in a more Christ-like way," he said.
He encouraged students at St. Olaf to travel abroad and experience different cultures. He asked, "How can you know about the United States or Christianity if you've never seen anything different?"
Leming's words resonated with the students in attendance, many of whom stayed afterward to ask questions, eat cream cheese wontons and chat.
Tess Garvey '10 said, "There are lots of things we can learn from other religions." She added that as a fellow Christian, it's important to think of your religion in the context of other world religions, and to keep an open mind. Finally, when referring to Leming's speech, she said, "It made me want to go there."
Seth Kinzer '11 also appreciated the open-minded tone of Leming's talk. "There's such a huge overlap in many religions, [but] Buddhism is one I hadn't thought of," he said.
Regarding western Christians whose actions often don't reflect their faith, Kinzer said, "It's definitely a challenge to their faith" to see Buddhist monks acting in ways often considered to be Christian.