Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Goodwill

In October Joseph and I went to India for the third time. Each time we go we think it will be the last – because frankly – India is a very challenging place to live. And perhaps that is what draws us back – because of the way the culture bumps into us – rubs against us – pushes us – makes us think and pay attention. But each time we do go - we are more at ease. What looked like absolute chaos on our first trip now makes sense and what we still don’t understand we have learned to accept. Our trip started with the Tibetan Buddhist refugees in the Himalayas. We really enjoy the unique culture and environment the Tibetans have created outside their homeland. I visited with some of the Buddhist nuns I have known from our first trip six years ago and we were happy to be there when HH Dalai Lama returned to town and we were able to see him in person. We visited the temples and were welcomed and accepted everywhere we went. We then went to Amritsar which is the spiritual home to all the Sikhs and walked around the Golden Temple and went inside to listen to the reading of the sacred text. One Sikh made a point to welcome us and let us know that this temple belongs to everyone. “When you walk in it is no longer a Sikh temple – it is your temple. No matter what your religion – this is your holy place.” What a welcome is that! And so we took his words to heart and made ourselves at home. We walked, we sat quietly and prayed, we had a meal in the kitchen that serves over 10,000 people a day, we watched the visible devotion of thousands of people. The rest of our trip we spent in the company of Hindus and Muslims. We visited temples, shrines and mosques and sacred places everywhere we travelled. There are hundreds if not thousands of these all over India. There are holy rivers and hundreds of sacred places along the rivers, there are gods in the mountains, in lakes, in hot springs, in caves and we visited many many of them. In India there doesn’t seem to be any distinction between every day life and religion. They are totally enmeshed with each other. Every few blocks there is at least one shrine dedicated to an aspect of God. Some take up the whole block and some are just a few feet square right on the edge of the road. Some of these small shrines have become popular and little additions are added – places to put flowers or candles. While we were in one town there was a notice that shrines that were obstructing the flow of traffic needed to be looked after and brought back to the original size. Our experience there was certainly coloured by the fact that we chose to stay in ashrams and religious communities. When we travel in India we are not sightseeing and trying to fit in as many exotic or interesting places as possible - a 10 or 14 day tour and rushing from the Taj Mahal to the Golden Temple to shopping in Mumbai. Instead we chose a few places and settled in for a few weeks at each one so we can make friends and have some meaningful conversations with people. Although what we find is that these philosophical conversations can happen any time any place and quite quickly – even over a cup of chai. These philosophical or religious conversations happen naturally because it is part of their culture. Here we have a kind of unspoken ban on speaking about religion or beliefs or God. It is certainly not encouraged. In India its an open lively topic and one we were happy to engage in. We never saw or heard quarrels or disagreements between religions, only acceptance and acknowledgment of differences and a genuine curiosity to learn and understand more. One of the ashram guest houses we stayed in had reminders of the spiritual life everywhere. On the landing near the water station there was a poster about water and its spiritual qualities and health giving attributes. On the landing between the 3 and 4 floors was a poster reminding us to pay attention to our bodies as we climbed the stairs, to feel our legs and our lungs and heart. Acknowledge this physical body that is carrying us around in this physical plane. On the door of each room was a word – a quality. Our room had the word “trust” on it. I would pause before I opened the door and take a moment to contemplate “trust”. These words are not religious words – as the Dalai Lama says they are basic human values.