Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bali and Shiva Buddha

     Bali is one of the most colorfully exotic places I've ever been to. There are religious shrines everywhere. Many people, every day, place in front of their houses offerings of flowers, fruit, incense, etc. to the gods, their ancestors, and to the lower beings, arranged on little trays made of folded leaves. People dress in bright colors. The word for water is air. The beaches are like nothing I've ever seen. Most of the sink basins I saw were carved out of rock, and at one place I stayed a frog lived in the drain, and would poke his head out when I turned on the faucet. It's the only place where I've ever seen tree ferns. Sometimes when it seemed like yet another ant was crawling on me, I'd raise my arm to blow it off and see that it was a tiny black praying mantis. Big, pretty pink bugs (true bugs of the insect order Hemiptera) fall out of the roof and crawl around the floor; and something about two inches long that glows in the dark crawls around on the pavements at night. Even the toilet water is exotic: I'd never been south of the equator before, so of course it was a big thrill for me to see it swirl the opposite direction as it went down the pipe. I have to admit, though, that maybe because Bali is not far from the equator, sometimes the water still swirls counterclockwise, and sometimes it just splooshes around turbulently before going straight down the hole.  
     I also have to admit that Bali's reputation for being a kind of ecotopian Paradise is to some degree an image projected for the sake of encouraging tourism, and so forth. It seems that garbage, mostly plastic, is strewn just about anywhere that tourists are not likely to look, with no recycling in many parts of the island; and ven. Vijaya, the Balinese monk who invited me there, said that in the rice paddies near our cemetery-monastery, despite the area's reputation for organic farming, very few fish or other animals are to be seen anymore because of toxic pesticides. Also, I would guess that a genuine Paradise would have wider roads and less traffic. Furthermore, even though I was there in April, when the rainy season was supposedly petering out, it still rained anywhere from once to twenty times a day in the mountains where we stayed.
     Still, Bali is exotic. Even the beverages are exotic. The lumpy chlorophyll drink is very good, and the sweetened guacamole liquid is truly excellent. On the second or third day at the cemetery, our attendant Nyomon served me a cup of coffee that had a peculiar taste to it. I asked ven. Vijaya what kind of coffee it was, and he explained that there is a kind of creature (a palm civet actually, an animal somewhat resembling the American raccoon) which has very discerning tastes with regard to the fruits of the coffee tree, and eats only the best ones. So, these animals are kept in cages and given their choice of coffee berries to eat. When the beans come out the other end, they are made into this choice type of coffee…
     At this point in the explanation I interrupted him by asking, "Are you telling me that I'm drinking civet crap?"
     Ven. Vijaya hastened to assure me that the coffee beans themselves remain undigested as they pass through the civet's digestive tract, that only the surrounding pulp is actually digested. Although he didn't mention it, I would very much like to believe that after the coffee beans are picked out of the surrounding fecal matter they are then rinsed off somehow. 
     I wonder how many thousands, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of fussy Americans would be permanently traumatized by being informed halfway through a cup of coffee that they were actually drinking liquified animal dung. It's not even funny. It may be that the most important words for a visitor to Bali to know how to say are tai lubak?—"(Is this) civet crap?" (Tai, it should be noted, is two syllables.) Otherwise, visitors should be wary of any coffee they drink. It is amazing what some people are willing to pay extra for. I frankly admit that I was afraid even to try a bottled beverage that ven. Vijaya said was made with the juice of earthworms. The drinking water flavored with extracts of chrysanthemum and yam was weird enough.
     On the other hand, Balinese food is excellent. Even if you know what the ingredients are, it's still excellent. But enough animalistic digressing about food and drink. 
     Our attendant at the cemetery, Nyomon, was a cheerful, burly-looking Balinese guy who shaves his head, has a bad tooth up front, and sways from side to side when he walks, like a wrestler. The name Nyomon literally means "Third Son," and I've been told that all third sons in Bali have this same name. He also has another name which sounds like Batman, but I think I'm digressing again. Nyomon is a seer of spirits. He can see higher spirits (devas) as well as lower ones (petas). Ven. Vijaya has told me that in the past devas had instructed Nyomon to move from one place to another, and when he arrived at the new place he found people expecting him, as the same devas had informed them of his impending arrival. One reason why he converted to Buddhism from his native Balinese Hinduism is that the Buddhist system was better able to explain these beings that he was seeing and hearing. He decided to become ven. Vijaya's attendant because, according to him, lower spirits don't throng around that venerable one, trying to influence him, like they do with almost everyone else. They keep their distance from him and leave him in peace. I was told that there are many monks that lower spirits stay away from, but I was not told whether or not I am one of them. (I was sorry to hear, shortly before leaving Bali, that dear Nyomon runs a chicken farm that raises a special kind of chicken used in Balinese religious sacrifices.)
     When we first arrived at the cemetery-monastery, ven. Vijaya informed me that one or more attendants would accompany us when we walked for alms round in the morning. I realize that this is a common tradition in Burma and Thailand also, but it has always seemed bass-ackwards to me. The Pali word for a Buddhist monk, bhikkhu, literally means "beggar," and for a beggar to walk through a village silently begging alms with one or more servants attending him strikes me as somewhat perverse. So I requested that no attendants accompany us. He agreed, but expressed doubt that we'd be able to carry all the food ourselves without help. His doubts were not entirely groundless: we brought in an average of ten or twelve kilograms of "take" every morning, each. On the first morning I turned back when I had more than enough, and ven. Vijaya expressed surprise, saying, "But more people are waiting!" One day when we were walking for alms a woman offered us food in an apparently distraught state, almost wailing in Indonesian, which I don't understand. On our way back, as we were passing through the cemetery, I asked him what the woman was crying about. He said she was expressing distress on our account because we didn't have an attendant with us. Then he said that the first time he attended a Chinese Buddhist ceremony as a monk and ate from his alms bowl, some of the people there actually wept to see a "priest" undergoing the degradation of eating all his food mixed together in a single container. It was their belief that a priest, an exalted being, should eat everything from a separate dish; and a few wiseguy Thai ajahns who had visited the area had encouraged them in this belief, along with the idea that monks should receive at least ten times as much food as they can possibly eat. Plus earthworm drink. Afterwards the monks' leftovers are distributed as prasad for the benefit of the people. 

     One reason why we score so big in a not particularly Buddhist culture is that there are a few dozen Chinese Buddhists in the area who are tickled by the fact that there are real Buddhist monks in town. But many Balinese Hindus also offer alms. After all, Hindus consider Buddhism to be just another sect of Hinduism, with the Buddha himself considered to be the most recent avatar of the great god Vishnu. Perhaps more importantly than this, Balinese Hinduism greatly emphasizes generosity; and I've been told that many Balinese will not eat in the morning until they have offered some of their food to another being, human or non-human. A basic tenet of their religion is the Five Yajñas, the making of the following offerings or sacrifices: 1) bhūta (to the lower beings, especially ghosts), 2) manuya (to humans), 3) pit (to ancestors), 4) ṛṣi (to "rishis," holy men, sages), and 5) deva (to the gods). Renunciation of the world for spiritual purposes is still remembered in Balinese Hindu tradition, but it is rarely practiced anymore; and I was led to understand that there are no Hindu sadhus in Bali. So, some people are happy to capitalize on a Buddhist monk wandering for alms as a convenient way of fulfilling their obligation of ṛṣi-yajña. Some Balinese are frankly blown away by the knowledge that there still are people in this world who voluntarily adopt a lifestyle of simplicity and poverty for the sake of spiritual development. The Brahmin priests there, like most spiritual and religious teachers in the West, remain at the stage of the second ashrama-dharma – that of householders – and the local Christian minister notoriously drives a Ferrari.
     I had heard many times that Bali was predominantly Hindu, and I'd read before that long ago, before most of the people converted to Islam, the "civilized" parts of Indonesia formed a great Buddhist empire (following a kind of Tantric Mahayana Buddhism); but it was only shortly before coming to Bali that I put two and two together and realized that modern Balinese Hinduism is a relic of the culture of that empire. In fact the religious system of the island is sometimes called Siwa Buda, which in more English spelling is Shiva Buddha. Evidently what happened was that from ancient times sometimes Buddhism predominated, and sometimes Hinduism did, with the two systems in close proximity contributing to each other and borrowing from each other. During medieval times there arose a debate over whether the two systems, which had drifted closer and closer together, should simply be combined into one system or kept separate, and the combiners eventually won the debate. As Buddhism died out in India, and as the Indonesians tended to look to India for their classical inspiration (much as Americans have tended to look to Europe for theirs), Hinduism came to have more and more influence in the combined system. Finally, as Islam made its mainly peaceful conquest of the islands, many priests, aristocrats, poets, philosophers, and other intellectuals and cultural diehards who refused to convert to Islam fled Java, the cultural and political center of the empire, and established a stronghold on the small island of Bali, even building a great temple on each of the four corners of the island to ward off any adharmic influences. This may explain why the present culture of Bali is so rich and vibrant – it is largely the result of the efforts of the most brilliant, inspired, and devout "Siwa Budists."
     The Buddha aspect of Shiva Buddha is not particularly conspicuous in Bali. I would guess that most of the Buddha images one sees in public places were set up by Chinese Buddhists or else set up for the sake of tourists. There are significant Buddhist undercurrents, however. There is much emphasis on the four Brahma-vihāras and on trikāya-parisuddhi (purification of body, speech, and mind); it is true, though, that Indian Hinduism also puts some emphasis on these (for instance an interesting interpretation of the four Divine Abodes may be found in Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras).

The statue represents a Chinese earth deity;
graves and huts are in the background

      Yet the Hinduism of Bali has taken a divergent path from that of India in general, and despite the mention of Shiva in its name, it appears little more Shaivite than Buddhist. Most temples are not dedicated to a particular deity, but to the Trimurti, the Divine Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. There is a large temple to Jaganath ("Juggernaut") in downtown Denpasar though, I saw a shrine to Ganesh at the entrance to a public elementary school, and at one shrine near the beach I found an image of Durga, with the standard huge, staring eyes, fangs, and one bared, scary-looking black breast. These are just a few anomalies that I noticed. People who can afford it may build veritable temple complexes in their yards, in large part to honor their ancestors. Also, little spirit houses are set up in farmers' fields, one to a family, as is sometimes seen in Burma also. But by far the most common type of shrine in Bali is the Padmāsana, or Lotus Seat – an empty throne dedicated to Acintya, the deification of supreme wisdom, worshipped by the gods themselves, mounted atop a pedestal or column. The most elaborate of these have a turtle at the bottom on which, according to Hindu cosmology, the earth rests. In urban areas the average distance between one Padmāsana and the next may be fifty meters or less. Ven. Vijaya says that these empty thrones for Highest Wisdom are Buddhist in origin.
     Two of the most important scriptures of Balinese Hinduism are the great Indian epic poems Mahabharata and Ramayana. The Mahabharata is the story of a war which may actually have happened in ancient times, but over the centuries it has been transformed into a poetic spiritual parable. Now, it is explained, the war takes place within ourselves; it is a war between light and darkness, between, in Buddhist terms, skillful states and unskillful states. On one side of the war are the five sons of the pale Pandu (Sanskrit, Pāṇḍu), who ven. Vijaya says may be understood as representing the five faculties or powers of Buddhist philosophy: The righteous eldest son Dharmavasa (Yudhiṣṭhira, whose chariot wheels do not touch the ground) represents faith; the herculean second son Bhīma symbolizes vigor; the handsome archer Arjuna, whose conversation with Krishna on the battlefield forms the Bhagavad Gita, represents mindfulness; and the twins Nakula and Sahadéva, the youngest, stand for concentration and wisdom, also known as tranquility and insight. On the other side of the battle is Pandu's brother, the blind Destarastra (Dhtarāra), representing the darkness of ignorance, and his one hundred sons – ignorance gives birth to a hundred defilements. Again according to ven. Vijaya, this is why, at the beginning of the Gita, Arjuna refuses to fight: these unskillful states are his family, they are part of himself; but Krishna urges him to fight for God's sake if not for his own, and also reminds him that, ultimately, the defilements cannot really be killed.
     Balinese religion thus has a rich philosophical and literary background on which to draw; but even so, most Balinese do not understand the meaning of their beautiful, colorful traditions and ceremonies. It is, for most, a superficial pageant of a beautiful culture. We all have to follow a culture, so it does make sense to follow a beautiful one. Yet many are intrigued and curious about the meaning of religion, and of life, and some are drawn to Buddhist monks because Buddhism is apparently better at offering a meaningful explanation for religion and life. Also, in the tradition of Hinduism it is very common for a family to adopt a priest as a family guide and counsellor; and the Indonesian monks I met in Bali continually had people coming to them to discuss their personal and family issues. Ven. Vijaya in particular was very popular in this respect, with occasionally even politicians and Balinese royalty coming to him for advice. So it seems that Theravada Buddhism may find a happy niche in Balinese culture, and monks receive respect and support there. Monastic Theravada may have a much easier go there than in the West.
     One event occurred shortly before I left the cemetery which conveniently ties in a number of themes mentioned in this post, including the theme of fussy Americans. One night, around 8:45, while I was trying to meditate, a loudspeaker in the village nearby began emitting some of the most horrific sounds I've ever heard. It was a man with a rather scratchy voice, not singing – I wouldn't dignify the sounds he made by giving that description – even calling it "chanting" seems overly generous. He was essentially wailing like a sick or wounded cat. Sometimes he would segue intro ordinary speech for several seconds, not poetry, but prose, and then go back to caterwauling. Only once in my life have I heard a turtle vocalize; it had been mauled by a dog and was dying; the sounds this man made strongly reminded me of that dying turtle. It was worse than the chanting or popular music blasted over loudspeakers in Burma; and those of you who have endured a "Patthan" festival in Burma will know that this is really saying something. There was no musical accompaniment, no background wailers, just him. Sometimes he would stop for several seconds, so that I would start to hope that maybe…but then he would start again, and again, and again. After about twenty minutes or so I gave up on trying to meditate, and lay down, but the sound was too loud and too distracting for sleep. For a while I put my fingers in my ears, but I've never liked having my fingers in my ears, so I took them out again. Noise has always been a pet peeve for me, especially loud human voices, and before very long I began to grow irritated. Within half an hour or so I was occasionally thinking things like, "Oh shut up you #*@//#!! idiot!" I realized that thinking such thoughts was not skillful, so I distracted myself with a running commentary, like thinking that if the guy just softly played bongos and had two young maidens with sweet voices chant the necessary noise it would certainly be more pleasing to the gods, or whoever; and making jokes like comparing his efforts to a crow's efforts at yodeling. He lasted longer than I did, and I eventually got tired enough to fall asleep. 
     My life-long aversion for noise is possibly the one attachment that has caused me much suffering, and no real joy – at best just some relief when the noise stops, plus some relative equilibrium. (I am not bothered by some loud noises, though, like wind, rain, crickets at night, even traffic or the monotonous kachunk-kachunk of a textile mill next door. It's mostly human voices, loud snoring, angrily barking or yapping dogs, and crows.) One thing I have noticed is that paying attention to it makes it much worse. Attending to something else as best I can has been my best defense, although it may be that I should just listen and watch my own attachment seethe.
     Anyway, the next morning I asked ven. Sikkhananda, a Javanese monk who had moved in a few days previously, what the horrible noise was the night before, and he said he hadn't even noticed it! He observed that Indonesians are acclimated to it, so to speak, but for them American heavy metal music would have a similar jarring effect. They wouldn't be used to that. That seemed reasonable in a way. A little later a man came who told us that a Brahmin priest had died in the village, and that the funeral ceremony would last four days. Luckily I guess, I evidently was not the only person bothered by the noise, as on the following night the volume was turned way down.
     Now I am back in the United States, contemplating my resources. Although America can be a difficult place for a monk to live, it definitely also has its good points. For example, it is much quieter than Southeast Asia. If anyone dares to blast over a loudspeaker chants to the gods, or to the dead, or to anyone else, the neighbors promptly call the police.
     May all beings be happy.      

The Happy Venerable Vijaya 


  1. Ah, the infamous civet coffee. It has made its way to the U.S. by way of Vietnam, and I do believe that if you searched coffee culture in the Pac NW you'd find it there (obviously imported, unless you know of an animal up there w/ discerning bean tastes).

    You might want to look into it as a dye for robes? Might be a deeper, richer color...

  2. Having followed your blog and learned many things about many things in all earnestness why would you come back to the US? After Bali and other accoutrements to facilitate a peaceful and harmonious life coming back to a country at war with itself and those around it seems incongruous. Please explain.


    1. That's a good question.

      Two of the main, superficial reasons are that I am tired of constant sweating, and am also tired of not speaking English with people who don't think like I do. I can communicate better in the West, despite the many drawbacks of living here.

      Another, deeper reason is that I was stagnating in my cave in Burma. It seemed as though I had gotten what was to be gotten there, and that I needed new challenges to keep me waking up instead of settling deeper into a rut.

      And another reason is that, as you say, the US is a troubled nation, and so I could be of more benefit to others as well as myself, potentially, by staying here. The trouble is that the Americans, including the American Buddhists, see things differently, and even finding shelter is very problematic. It is a little astonishing that the minimal requirements of a roof and access to a bathroom can seem almost an impossibility in a non-Asian community.

      The other option is to stay at an Asian temple in the US, as I am doing at the present moment. However, Asian monasteries in the West are either extremely lax (the overwhelming majority), or else they are so regimented that they seem like prisons to me. If I could find somewhere in the West where following Vinaya were sufficient, I might prosper. But difficulty seems more conducive to spiritual growth.

      So that's another reason: There is more challenge here. Although I have to admit that America has a heavy, stressed vibe to the atmosphere which brings me down. People are much more inclined to perceive me negatively, which has its effects too (mental states are contagious).

      One last reason I'll mention is that if I go back to Asia to stay, I'll probably have to stop writing this blog, and I enjoy it. It's one of the few ways that I'm able to communicate.