Friday, March 24, 2006
Gracious Hearts of Bali- March 11, 2006
Dear family and friends,
We’re sorry about the inconvenience of our web site not being online for a while. We have a temporary address until we get our old one back:
Gracious Hearts of Bali
After we fly into Bali and come outside of the airport from customs, it’s almost midnight and it’s very hot and muggy. We’d enjoyed the very mild climate of New Zealand. We’ve actually flown here from Singapore after a few days layover there. Could two countries be any more different? Singapore is so orderly and organized, but frighteningly authoritarian. We’d heard about the canings and hangings that offenders of the law received there. We felt strangely safe in this place as few dare to break the law.
Things run extremely well in Singapore, systems are set up ingeniously. When waiting at a crosswalk for a light to change from red to green, it counts the time down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and then the light changes so you know exactly when to cross and exactly when the light will change. When we were helped by an attendant to exit the airport, she was very efficient at getting us a ride and facilitating our luggage getting to the van, but never looked at us as we parted after she had fulfilled her duty.
In Bali, we felt such warmth and caring from the people we met, way beyond the courteousness of people who might be serving us out of duty. The pace of life in Bali is slow and unhurried. There is a flow, a graciousness, a magic here. There is an order in Bali, not of commerce or business, but an order of the heart. A culture whose lifestyle is so attuned to the soul. We were inconvenienced at times from the lack of organization in the infrastructure, but reveled in the generosity of people whose lives are so attuned to spirit and who treated us as extended family.
Making Offerings – the rhythm of life, the Way of Bali
If there is one thing that you must know about to understand anything about Bali, you must know about their way of making offerings to God. Everywhere we go, I mean everywhere – there are offerings to be seen. Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere – at all times of the day, every day. Life in Bali centers around making offerings. They are seen everywhere, fresh ones, old ones, and the old, old ones floating down the open sewers. It is the rhythm of life here – giving offerings and giving thanks to the gods.
Our friend who showed our family how to make the baskets they use for the offerings, Kadek, told us that she makes 50 offering baskets a day, and it takes an hour to create them. They are made out of palm leaves and stitched together with thin strips of bamboo. Every day she gets up at 6 am and works for an hour to make the baskets for offerings. She fills the baskets with whatever she has cooked or made, and places it in the basket as the offering.
She will put in some of the food that she is preparing for the day. There will be rice of course, to remind their family of what sustains them. There will be fruits and candies and cookies to remind them of god’s sweetness. There will be flowers to show their beauty. And there will be incense to create a fragrant environment. Sometimes she’ll even put in a little money as a sign of abundance. Then she walks to the places where the offerings are placed with short intentional steps, dressed in a sarong and sash, her temple clothes. There are many areas to place the offerings: at the shrine in their home, at the entrance to the door, on the street, in the family temple, and at the village temple. They also place them on their car, or their motorbike, on their bicycle, or just anyplace where they show they are grateful for what they have. And the offerings are made a few times each day in some places.
When the offering is made, it is a beautiful prayer. The offering is placed down and then prayers are made, and holy water is sprinkled on the offering with a flower. In watching them perform this ritual, there was such a presence, a sacred intention in the prayer. I didn’t see anytime where it looked like someone was just trying to get it done, or rushing through it as rote. Sprinkling the holy water is like a dance, a dance of prayers. And the movement of their hand when blessing the offering with the holy water looks like the strokes of a painter on a canvas of God’s heart.
One day as we made our way through the street we witnessed a procession of offerings being made. As we passed place after place it seemed, a woman was walking to place her offering, or she was in the middle of making her offering, or she was finishing her prayers. And the whole way there was the smell of fragrant incense.
What a gift to pass on to the children, a ritual everyday that reminds them of their ancestral lineage, their cultural heritage, and a way to pass on their family prayers of gratitude. They do the same or similar ritual almost everyday, except at certain intervals that special offerings are made, and yet, it is of such impermanence because everyday is the need to make new baskets and new offerings.
The Soul of Bali
I want to quote what my friend Michael Honack wrote in an e-mail to me about Bali. It seems to describe so vividly the essence of Bali that I wanted to share it with you.
“Bali is truly magical … find out when the ceremonies are happening. Bali, among all countries in the world, is [a place where they are] still living [a life where their] spiritual connection is reflected in their daily life and in their art. I have often found it amusing that, for the traveler, walking about glazed and amazed by all the splendid art, it all seems like nice art. For the Balinese it is the outpouring from their full spiritual vessel, of the rituals and ceremonies that encompass their lives. A man my age spends half of his time planning for and participating in spiritual ceremonies. Now, that's powerful!!”
A Slice of Bali Life
As I drive down the road on my motor scooter on the dusk of one evening, I am fascinated by what I see. Passing along I see many buildings in the simple and beautiful Balinese architectural style. There is one business with clumps of grass bundled together that will be used for roofing material, another one has tiles for a roofing material business, another one has concrete cornices and sculptured pieces also for roofs or decorative pieces for buildings and temples. As I continue I see a shop with a man carving a large lizard, and a Buddha behind that, and a carving of Ganesh next to that. Further along is a gallery with magnificent carvings of Hindu lore and mythical gods. I see all kinds of materials available to the local economy that are made right there and available in the small shops. As I continue putt-putting along I notice that there is a canal for the water to flow alongside the road. This is the water that flows throughout this village, with a rice-paddy irrigation system set up from long ago. It is managed by the village for the common good of all. As the water flows to the rice fields that I see as I travel along this road, I notice a quilt work of fields in different stages of their cycle. There are ingeniously laid out irrigation systems all over Bali built centuries ago.
I also notice many people walking along this road. People walk along this road, they live along this road, they work along this road, there will be ceremonies along this road, and they will make offerings along this road every day. They live and work along this road and they’ll tell stories along this road. Village life is still very alive here. There is a rhythm here, a sweet symphony of life that is the most harmonic living landscape of people I have ever witnessed.
Oh yeah, the speed limit on this road is 60 km or about 35 mph. There is hardly any road in Bali where speeds exceed 60 km a clear indication of the speed of life. Almost all the roads are not bigger than 1 lane going each way, and many of the roads we will travel on will be just one lane, yet a lot of those roads are also two way, making it more interesting maneuver with oncoming traffic. There are some cars on the road, but most of the vehicles are motor scooters. When we first got here, we didn’t know how they could drive the way they do. It seemed so chaotic and dangerous, people passing every which way and driving all over the road, and as mentioned, on very narrow roads. At any time there could be a car and three scooters traveling the same direction using the whole road onto oncoming traffic. As we’ve been here longer we’ve discovered that it all works because they are moving at a fairly slow pace, and more importantly, they are all watching out for each other and cooperating. When someone passes another they will honk their horn, a very brief sound to let you know they are coming, or that it’s safe around the bend. In the U.S. many people honk their horn to say get out of my way or to let you know they’re pissed off. Here the horn says, I’m letting you know that I’m coming to pass you so we can both be safe. Amidst all this chaos is a sense of cooperation and harmony, no yelling, just smiles and goodwill.
As a matter of fact, I watched a group of young people playing a soccer game one day. They were running and playing hard, and they were laughing and having a good time. I brought Matt over to see the game and pointed out to him how good natured the contest was, when someone made a good play, they all acknowledged it. I had seen Matt play in soccer games where the kids were so serious, they would get easily angry or upset with each other over small mistakes. This game the players were just having so much fun and sharing the game in camaraderie.
Staying in Ubud for a while
We found a place to stay in the town of Ubud while in Bali. Ubud is called the spiritual and cultural center of Bali. It certainly is the center of culture for tourists and thrives with a vitality of spirit and art. There are many dance performances in the evening, there is a profusion of crafts, especially of the woodcarving that is of most interest to me. There are classes here and many expatriates live here because of these kinds of features. Ubud can make foreigners feel welcomed and cater to their needs, but the soul of their culture is not lost, it remains strong and intact. Anyway, the house we stayed in has 2 bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room/living room, with a veranda to sit in upstairs overlooking the rice fields. It is just south of Ubud in a small village called Nyuh Kuning, a very sweet spot to sink into village life for a while. We could get to Ubud by going on a motor scooter path that crossed through the monkey forest. There is a corner store 50 meters from our front door, and the football (soccer) field is right across from that. There is a lane that leads back to the larger road that I love driving on or walking on. People are perched on their porches and simple integral buildings line this lane. The Balinese architecture has such depth of soul and it just sings a beautiful song of what it is. There are many temples along this lane because this road is like most village roads in Bali. Usually a family lives in a compound with a stone or concrete wall around it. Inside there are buildings for living and cooking and also a family temple. Because of this there are many many temples in Bali.
All the buildings are constructed low to the ground except one hotel in the city of Sanur, in a concentrated tourist area. After that hotel was built, we were told they passed a law that no other high rise building would be allowed to be built in Bali. There is one “large” city, Denpasar, the capital, and a few other small cities. Most of Bali seems to be villages linked by rice fields.
A Fascinating View of Children
We didn’t see many babies in Bali. They keep their babies at home; they don’t even let their precious little feet touch the ground until they’re 6 months old. People were a bit shocked to see us traveling with one so young; they might not travel with their baby for 2-3 years, and then it most likely is just to another village (hardly traveling outside the country). Babies are viewed as gods for the first 6 months or so of life (that is until their first tooth appears). After that, they are treated as kings until about 6 years old. I asked someone, “Does that mean that you give them whatever they want?” the answer, “Yes, absolutely.” From 8 to 13 years old their role is as a server, and after puberty comes, they are simply treated as friends (funny how in our culture much is written and talked about not being your child’s “friend.”). I reflected quite a bit about this information There doesn’t seem to be the type of authoritative conflicts we see so much of with teenagers in our culture, or adversarial relationships. There is such harmony in the relationships we’ve witnessed. And whether or not children might be spoiled by getting whatever they want when they’re young and kinglike, these people seem to be so well adjusted and balanced, and happy. Having created such a foundation of love and respect seems to be very successful. Giving their kids “everything” is about love, not material goods, so the kids don’t seem spoiled at all.
So everyone who sees Elijah treats him as a god, and as I’ve mentioned, they fuss over him, pray to him and continually place blessings upon him. It is as if they recognize his true godliness, he is a kind reminder for all of us to remember our very own godliness. Elijah responds very well to this rapt attention and we view him as the godly emissary of light, and continue changing his diapers. As for Kate and Matt, they are nearing the end of their serving phase (from 8-12 years old), but we’re not sure they’ve fully mastered this role, especially since we were not aware and they did not understand this was their path. We are considering extending this server phase extensively. But seriously, the young are very reverent, respectful, loving, and responsible. At young ages, we see them driving motor scooters and bringing their younger brothers and sisters along with them, and taking care of them.
Like Extended Family
In meeting people, we feel received as extended family. Some people we have just met have extended such hospitality to us. We were interested in learning about how to make the offerings, and Kadek and her family opened their hearts to us and taught us how to so graciously. We were able to say thank you by making a photo collage of several pictures for them. We will post that collage on the web site so you can see some of our new extended family members.
A very funny thing happened a couple of days ago. We had read a book by a local author entitled, The Painted Alphabet, by Diana Darling. It’s a wonderful story about Balinese culture and folklore. Actually, it is an ancient Balinese tale that she distilled into a condensed and contemporary version, a riveting story. The hero of the story journeys to a holy man’s monastery to leave behind the world, and study the world of spirit. The place where the holy man lives is called Gunung Kawi in the story. It is described as high up in the mountains. When I heard this place existed not far from where we are staying we made it a destination to go to. It turns out it’s not at all in the mountains, but in a place you walk down over 200 steps – it’s very hot there, but it is an ancient site of tremendous power and presence. There are ancient caves carved into the rock of the hills there where monks and holy men prayed and meditated, and much more recently constructed temples. In one of the enclosures we walked into, I immediately went into a deep trance state, feeling a very powerful sacred presence here. Then other tourists came in and I snapped out of trance. This special jewel of a place we found just by accident. It wasn’t at all the mountain refuge we’d read about, but something very special indeed.
Ironically, later that day we went to the oldest temple in Bali, the mother temple called Besakih. It was built originally in the 8th century, and then added to in the 11th century. It has been rebuilt many times to the original design. I did not feel the same power there at all that I had felt at Kawi, and the mother temple was a site I was expecting to be very special and transformative. It was beautiful, and sits within the sphere of the largest mountain in Bali, Mt. Agung at about 10,000 ft, but I did not receive a transmission there at all.
We had the opportunity to witness a cremation ceremony on March 1st. We were going to take the kids to a batik class while we attended the ceremony; they weren’t very enthusiastic about attending. When I took them to the class though, the teacher there told us that not only didn’t they allow kids in the class because of the hot wax, but also because of the cremation ceremony, they would be a part of the ceremony and would not be holding the class. The man proceeded to tell me that it would be good for the kids to see the cremation. “In the West, the kids don’t see death, it’s removed from them, here in Bali, death is a part of life.” I had to agree with him and laughed at how spirit had set it up for them to come and see it.
The cremation ceremony is quite a spectacle. There were 2 members of the royal family being cremated today. Funerals are so expensive in Bali that when someone dies, they will be buried temporarily for as long as 5 years until there are a number of family members to pool together and pay for the ceremony. In this case, both of the women were part of the royal family and had both died just a couple of weeks earlier.
There were 4 pavilions made. One pavilion each for the 2 women who were to be cremated to be carried to the cemetery in. In front of each of these pavilions were 2 huge black bulls, one for each of them to be transferred into when they arrived at the cemetery, and then cremated in. The black bull denotes what caste system they belong to, in this case, the black bull signified they were part of the royal family, or part of the 2nd highest caste system. The procession consisted of one bull followed by the pavilion with the first member, and then another bull followed by the 2nd bull. These pavilions were all huge in size and were carried by about 50 men each running along holding the sides of a latticed bamboo platform that they rested on. Everyone walked the 500 meters from the starting place of the palace temple to the cemetery. Once the body is transferred to the black bull, family members and friends will bring gifts and blessings for the deceased. They will kneel and pray and burn incense. After the body is prepared, the bull is set on fire, first with a wood fire below it, and then with blow torches to raise the heat. As the bull burns around the body, the people attending start to see a glimpse of the body, and then the body is in full view. The belief is that it is important for everyone to see the body as it is making its transition from the physical world into the spiritual world. We were told after the ceremony that all remaining bones that had not turned to ashes, are carried to the family home and all family members will grind the bones by hand until they become powder.
We’ve attended a number of dance performances. I love soaking up the gifts of their artistry. The dancers perform to the musicians playing the gamelan and chanting. I do not know how to describe what a gamelan is. It’s like an orchestra of xylophones, cymbals, flutes, drums, each playing very different parts. The scale they use has only 5 instead of the 7 tones we have in ours. They use no printed music. The sound is strange and powerful, and induces trance states for the dancers, musicians, and even the audience. I like attending these ceremonies to be filled with the juice of their culture. They have been playing these songs and dances for many centuries, it is a ritual that connects them to their ancestors and to the gods.
One day as I returned to our house in Nyuh Kuning, I stopped at a woodcarving shop and asked the master there, Ary, if he would be willing to offer us a class in woodcarving. He readily agreed and we made plans to begin working with him the following day. Matt had been interested in taking a class of this kind. As it turned out Matt, Kate and I, ended up going to his shop/gallery almost every day for about 8 days for more than a couple of hours each day to learn woodcarving wizardry.
Ary works sitting on the ground, holding the wood with his feet. His tools are a hatchet, 20 carving chisels, and a carving knife. That’s it. There are no clamps, benches, machines or any of the sophisticated woodworking tools that I used when I did woodworking. In the simplest way, he and his fellow woodcarvers of Bali, produce the most phenomenal work. Wordworking for them is such a wonderful expression of their god-given gifts and skills. When Icasiana asked Ary about his inspiration for different pieces, he simply pointed to the heavens and we knew he was grateful his skill was all from God.
He helped us learn about his ways by showing us something and then letting us try to apply it. We each made something small, Matt carved an elephant, a mask, and a monkey. Kate made a turtle and a frog. I worked on a mask that I didn’t come close to completing but that was okay for me because I learned a lot. I would love to go back in the future and study for at a few months. We shall see.
What happened as we worked with Ary is that we became friends and he showered us with gifts, not only of his time, but his own carvings. He wouldn’t accept money for the classes anymore after a certain point because it was a gift he wanted to give us once we were friends. I also made a collage with him and our family and a few pieces of his woodcarving (that will also be on the web site when it is returned to working status).
We also became friends with the man who drove us to a number of places we visited. His name is Ketut. Ketut, it turns out, is from the village we were staying at, but we met him through Icasiana’s brother James who had traveled to Bali several years before and had hired Ketut as their driver. He was so kind to us and formed a wonderful bond with Elijah. We had so much more freedom to explore as Ketut would hold Elijah, sing him to sleep with sweet Balinese lullabies and carry him just about everywhere we went.
I’ll mention a few other places we visited such as getting up at 3:30 am to climb up Mt. Batur so we could arrive at the peak at sunrise. We spent a few days at a water palace named Tirta Gangga that was revived and renovated by our friend, previously mentioned Michael Honack and his wife Wendy Grace. Elijah loved learning to swim in these pristine spring waters. Our breath was taken away by the beauty of this place when we first walked into the walled grounds. We visited temples at Uluwatu and Tanah Lot, as well as the previously mentioned Besakih and Gunung Kawi. We visited the monkeys in the monkey forest. We participated in a ceremony that Rob Cohen, the director of the movies Stealth and Fast and Furious hosted at his place on the ocean near Tirta Gangga. Our new friend Emerald is directing the construction for a beautiful project there with some innovative systems such as grey water from septic tanks used to fertilize a garden. He’s also working on creating opportunities for kids to pursue their dreams in study and developing careers. And the day before we left, we went to a very well known and respected healer named Tjokorda Rai who worked on both of us. I have never felt such pain and could not wait for him to be finished. My wife thought it was terribly funny until it was her turn.
We were very sad to leave Bali because we were so touched and inspired by the people. It was such a profound example of how a people can live a magical lifestyle in our world today. They have integrated western style things, but have retained their soul and their customs, they have not been lost in the process. They use modern transportation and machines, and they have a special day’s ceremony giving thanks for these gifts in their lives. There is not a full scale rush to develop and get more and more. There is still a sweet innocence. I saw young ones with hearts pure, and teenagers still full of wonder. We felt so welcomed and acknowledged as kindred spirits. And in Bali we discovered there are many ways to create a life rich in the spirit. We have been forever touched by this demonstration of how to live life rich in and led by the divine.
On to Thailand!