Monday, December 16, 2013

In which Dad and I discuss Eastern vs Western Spirituality

As some of you know, my dad is a preacher, and I'd venture to say a pretty good one. Ever since I was little sitting in the 3rd or 4th pew in the church on Sundays, it always made my ears perk up a little when I heard my name mentioned in a sermon. Same thing happened this morning when I read my dad's most recent sermon about sprituality which partially drew on a comment I made about Bali being the most spritual place in the world. (Disclaimer: I've never been to Jerusalem. I hear that place is pretty deep too.)

I think Dad got a lot of things right in that sermon, but I also believe he made a couple of mischaracterizations of Eastern spirituality. In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if those views stand un-debated? Probably none. But Dad and I like to talk theology, and it IS my last morning in Bali, I've got a strong cup of coffee coming, so why not use this time to sum up a little of my experience with spirituality over here? (I say that even as I hear the voice of one of my teachers saying not to argue with people.)

First of all, Dad you are absolutely correct when you say (I'm paraphrasing) that you don't have to be some kind of zen master or nun to be spiritual. A member of PETA isn't necessarily more spiritual than a cattle rancher. And if the Alamo is where you get closer to God, then by all means continue cultivating that connection. That's the cool thing about what I've learned about what we're calling Eastern spirituality. It's flexible. It's also non-comptetitive. It doesn't require anyone to say, hey look, my religion is better than yours so you need to convert! You can be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc, and still incorporate wisdom from the East to help you get closer to God.

When I said Bali was the most spiritual place on Earth, I didn't mean it was the most tranquil. In fact, Ubud, the town I lived in for 4 weeks, is anything but. You have to constantly look where you're walking because the sidewalks are cracked, have huge gaps in them, and sometimes move when you put your weight on them. There is constant noise. There is constant shouting from men sitting on sidewalks asking if you want a taxi ride, and if not today, maybe tomorrow? I got to my practice space at 6:15 every morning. By about 6:45, there was the grinding sound of a buzz saw slicing through tiles on the construction site right next door. There was also lots of hammering, and at one time what sounded like a brawl. There is also an elementary school next door. By about 8 am we could hear the sound of children at recess. A sweet sound, but not a peaceful one. There was one afternoon where those darling children were setting off firecrackers. I felt like I was on the set of Steel Magnolias when they were blasting birds out of the trees. Boom! Boom! KA-BOOM! Still, we carried on. Even though some of those sounds were annoying at the time, I am actually grateful that I got to practice meditation and yoga in those conditions, because if you can bring your mind to tranquility next to a buzz saw, than that must mean you're getting somewhere. It also shows that we spiritual seekers were very much in the world, not separated from it on some high hill. As one of my teachers jokingly said as the construction clanged on and as the smoke from burning trash permeated the studio, "We shall not let our meditation interfere with their work."

So why is Bali so spiritual? There isn't just one reason I can put my finger on. There are many reasons, and as Dad said, some have washed into the land over centuries from a culture that has a deep appreciation for the seen and unseen. Part of it is the sense of devotion of the people here. They make offerings to put outside their door, and outside every single hotel room too, every day, which they light with incense. These are an offering to their Hindu gods. It takes a lot of time to make these, and they do it every single day. Even though I don't believe the same way as most of the people here regarding their gods, I can't help but admire the time, love and effort they put into practicing their religion.

Another thing is that spirituality seems to be on the forefront of everyone's mind, and I don't just mean for us Western yogis. I mean everyone. I'd take a cab ride somewhere and 2 minutes in, the driver was talking to me about God. I walked by the same restaurant every day, and one day the manager asked me to come in for a cup of tea so he could explain to me more about Balinese beliefs. This was not in some pitch to convert me. This was just a genuine desire to share his views with someone who might be curious.

Another part is the deep connection with nature here. I'm not a huge fan of nature because I have found that nature can bite. But when you're on an island in the tropics, nature is all around you, even when you're inside. I've had a gecko for a roommate for at least 2 weeks. When the rains come, and when there's a rice field right outside your door, you can see the visible effects of rainwater on the agriculture. And the Balinese are completely in tune with the lunar cycles. They celebrate the full moon. They celebrate the new moon. And they seem so excited about it, as if this is something that DOESN'T happen every single month. And I think that's pretty cool. I can rarely see the moon from my house in Virginia, and there's no way I could see stars. So when I'm in a place where the moon is celebrated, it reminds me of how my ancestors might have felt when they needed that light to guide them on cattle drives or maybe on their journeys from the Old World to the New. You can't help but feel that there's something bigger than ourselves out there, and that He loves us.

The idea that practitioners of Eastern spirituality are trying to transcend into nothingness is a mischaracterization. Case in point: I'm at the tail end of a lifechanging spiritual journey where I'm the calmest, fullest and happiest I can remember being in a long time, yet I've still worked up the gumption to debate with my dad on a blog. Ommmmmmmm.

Back to the point, I would say that much like practitioners of religion in the West, Eastern followers are trying to get closer to God. When one is closer to God, perhaps one is more tranquil, less stressed, and less bothered by ordinary, mundane distractions. It does not mean that they all sit apart from the world in a blissed out state of complete detachment, though I have heard that some do, much like some Christian nuns or monks. I'm sure the Hindus here would love for someone in the West to come explain to them the values of hard work and the importance of being in the world. To do so, you'd need to roll up your pants to the knees, take off your shoes and wade into knee deep mud to talk to them as they work in the rice paddies, bending over each individual stalk of rice, then moving to the next, for hours at a time. I don't think they get to come home at 6 pm to have a beer, so you'd need to catch them while they're on the job. Or maybe you can chat with someone at such a cushy profession as a manicurist or massage therapist. Must be nice to get to sit inside a room for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week catering to flighty tourists who have more to spend on their hair, nails, and clothes in a day than that woman makes in a month. But yes, someone please tell her how hard we work in the States. She'd probably listen with a polite smile. Or you can talk to my driver, Wayan, about the virtues of labor. He'd love to hear your ideas because he's full of his own, including driving, opening a pork rib restaurant, and raising ducks, so that he can scrape together the money to send his oldest daughter to school to be a teacher. Wayan thinks teaching is the noblest of all professions, and he desperately wanted to be a teacher himself but his family didn't have the money to send him to college. He is determined to work hard enough so that his now 10-year-old will get that opportunity.

It has been my experience here that people take their spiritual and religious beliefs far more seriously than we do in the West. It's interesting the effects that a belief in karma have on this island. (Which brings me to another point. The Balinese most certainly understand both good and bad. In fact they have a stronger understanding of it than people anywhere else I've been, as characterized by the yin and yang symbol. Darkness and light. They know full well that both exist in the world. I'd probably garble their true understanding if I tried to explain it because it's jarring from my own belief system, so I'll leave it at that.)

Back to karma. The best explanation for this I heard is that there are actions you can take that bring you farther down your spiritual path, and actions you can take that set you back. Hard to argue with that, isn't it? My experience in this one month is, it's GREAT to be in a place where people actually believe this. They're so nice. So nice.

So if I had to pick a beef I had with Western spirituality in light of what I've learned this month, it's not that our teachings aren't good, it's that we do not take the teachings seriously. We bend them to conform to our cultural ideals, and then argue with and denigrate anyone whose views don't match ours, all in the name of so-called faith. Our country would look a lot different if we as a nation actually took the 10 commandments seriously. We wouldn't glorify wars and warfighters the way we do. We wouldn't be completely out of sorts about ensuring that poor people have health care. (Jesus gave health care to the poor, no?) We wouldn't work ourselves up into a materialistic frenzy from the beginning of November to the end of December in a misguided attempt to fill the hole in our hearts because that hole would already be filled with love and peace if we truly followed the path of Jesus. We would take much better care of the environment. Perhaps we'd even have a sense of perspective and a lot of compassion for people from other countries who are not as fortunate as us, instead of doing everything we can to keep them and their languages, foods, and values out.

I leave you with this image: A hot tropical island where you can get a sunburn in December and where Hindu temples and offerings are visible from every single vantage point. Yet in the beginning of December, every single hotel and shop puts out a Christmas tree. Some shops even play Christmas carols. A cynic might say they're just trying to lure in Western consumers. But I say that it's a sweet, charitable example of tolerance for others that we can learn from. These Eastern spiritualists aren't over here saying to turn away from your Christian beliefs and chant mantras on a hill with us. They are saying something more like, so you've found God too? Cool, man.


Dad's sermon:

Balanced Spirituality
Luke 3: 1-6

God’s work for today re-introduces us to the haunting message and mission and person of John the Baptist. The message - “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The mission – a call to the lonely stark isolation of the wilderness along the Jordan. The person – a rough, weird, harsh individual, in every sense an outsider. John is the opposite of what we consider to be appealing, and yet thousands of people trudged for many miles to hear John speak. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were so moved by John’s preaching that they accepted his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

I am moved to reflect upon the message, mission and person of John the Baptist in the context of a remark our daughter Andi made about her visit to the far side of the globe. She described Bali, an ancient land in Southeast Asia, as the most spiritual place in the world. That caused me to do some thinking about the place where I have been most spiritually moved during my limited and provincial time on earth. For me, that place is the Alamo. My sense is that there is an extreme contrast, not just of place, but of definitions of spirituality, bound up in our choices. I am guessing that Bali is a tranquil place, made holy by centuries of profound meditation. The Alamo is a battleground, a site marked by the bowel-loosening terror and animal rage of combat; a place of blood and powder smoke, cannon fire and snarled curses; ultimately a place of death, where the blood of brave men on both sides mingled and soaked into the stony soil within and around the old fortress.

Let us keep both of those contrasting places and visions of spirituality in mind as we reflect further upon the message of John the Baptist, “Prepare the way of the Lord… Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways leveled.” All of that sounds like hard labor with pick and shovel, crowbar and
spade; a lot of sweat and blisters. John’s imagery is not what we usually associate with spirituality. John’s message is about something muscular, dynamic, difference-making and earthy. Normally we are inclined to think that real spirituality is quiet, meditative, peaceful, somewhat above and unmoved by the world’s pain, tears, calluses, filth and sweat.

I realize that I am very much in the minority in this regard, but I personally do not believe that a pacifist is necessarily more spiritual than a combat infantryman who endures the sacrifices and rigors of war to protect his country and his squad mates. I do not believe that a card-carrying member of PETA is necessarily more spiritual than a rancher who raises livestock to help feed a hungry world. I do not believe that a nun who gets up at 4 in the morning to pray is necessarily more spiritual than a mom who gets up at 4 in the morning to comfort her crying baby.

All of which could represent nothing more than the bitter grumblings and biased opinions of a disgruntled redneck. But here’s the thing. The odd, earthy call of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord tips us off that the Messiah we are to prepare for does not fit conventional images of spirituality. Christians are agreed, or should be agreed, that Jesus of Nazareth is the model of true spirituality. For us, the example of Jesus supersedes all others. And the example of Jesus of Nazareth does not fit altogether neatly within modern suppositions of what spirituality is supposed to be.

On the one hand, Jesus is very much a man of deep contemplation and prayer. He frequently disappeared into the mountains to be alone with God. He entered into profound theological discussions with learned religious leaders in accord with ancient rabbinical custom. Most often He was addressed as “Rabbi”, or “Teacher.” And for the most part, Jesus was a pacifist, except for the day He made a whip out of rope and used it to physically drive the money-changers out of the Temple. Quiet, prayerful
contemplative, profound, pacifistic. That’s Jesus.
On the other hand, Jesus was a man who on most days worked from dawn until dark, healing, feeding the hungry, teaching and preaching among huge, swirling crowds of supplicants, onlookers and hecklers. Mark says there were lots of days when Jesus and the disciples didn’t have time to eat. Luke records a time when the crowds around Him were so rambunctious in their enthusiasm that the disciples put Him in a boat just off the lakeshore so He could speak to the people without being crushed by them. Some detractors once asked Jesus about His hectic, unspiritual-looking pace. He shrugged and replied, “My Father works, and I work.” The climax of Jesus life and ministry was His bloody, public execution on a wooden cross, condemned as a criminal.

It is not my intent to detract from or denigrate the noble spiritual traditions and practices of the ancient civilizations of the East; or of the tribal customs of Africa, Australia or our own Native American peoples. I would simply like to make room around the table of spirituality for our own cherished customs and practices of the Christian West. What characterizes our brand of spirituality is a restless, determined effort to change conditions which are unacceptable on God’s earth; to establish what is good and to combat what is evil. Eastern spirituality, if I understand it correctly, does not recognize the concepts of good and evil. The point of Eastern spirituality is to achieve a state of nothingness so that one transcends all of the petty concerns of life on earth. The epitome of Eastern spirituality is to walk across a bed of hot coals or along a sidewalk filled with diseased, starving persons with equal tranquility. For us, the call of spirituality would be to roll up sleeves and feed the hungry, tend the diseased, and even address the deeply-rooted social injustices which lead to so much illness and hunger.

What I’m laboring to say is that spirituality has gotten itself cloistered and separated from the joys and the work and the hurts of God’s world. But Jesus, our spiritual model, spent most of his earthly ministry engaged in the
joys and the work and the hurts of God’s world. Jesus taught that the first commandment is to love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength, and all your soul. Followers of Jesus since His time have regarded it as an acceptable outlet of spirituality to get dirty, sweaty, and back-sore in work which promotes God’s gracious purposes on the earth.

We ourselves are heirs of a Christian tradition called the Protestant work ethic. That ethic grows directly out of instructions from the Bible such as the teaching from John the Baptist – “Prepare the way of the Lord.” That tradition does not recognize a distinction between what is secular and what is spiritual. Our tradition teaches that all honest work is woven into the tapestry of God’s design for humanity and for His creation as a whole. We tend toward a spirituality that doesn’t mind getting some mud on its clothes while trying to boost the suffering world out of a ditch. Even more modest accomplishments of keeping a tidy home; building a straight, tight fence, or sharing a pleasant meal with neighbors fits within our understanding of what spirituality includes.

We have to admit, however, that the Western world, the culture we inhabit and which we have helped to form, has drifted from its spiritual roots. Many individuals in the Western world of our time do not see work as a means of preparing the way of the Lord; work is regarded simply as a means of making money, which is then used as a means of securing one’s own material comfort. We have to acknowledge that the Christmas season, a time meant to inspire our spirits, quite often drains and wearies our spirits. We have exchanged the world-embracing, world-redeeming message of our Christian heritage for the world-acquiring message of a godless society. We have forgotten that our Lord worked hard to help other people, to make this world a kinder, fairer, safer place, bearing witness to God’s love for the world. Our frenetic pace at Christmas is hard work to be sure, but it is work devoted to getting material possessions for persons who usually already have plenty of stuff. It is not work which prepares the way of the Lord, or which bears
witness to the Gospel truth that the Lord is with us.

I trust that I am much like you, approaching this Christmas season. I am looking for authentic ways to participate in preparing the way of the Lord. I am looking for ways to be more open to the Lord’s presence, so that I receive a measure of the joy, the hope, and the peace that comes from rightly celebrating our Lord’s birth. I am looking for ways to wake up on the morning of December 26th with a sense of goodwill and well-being, not with a nagging sense of emptiness and mild depression. What I’m looking for, guided by John’s preaching, is something I would call spiritual balance. I intend to try to achieve that balance by participating in work that benefits others and also by participating in worship through which I offer sincere praise to God. I intend to be active in caring activities which touch the lives of others in the world, and also in quiet prayer which connects my mortal self to eternal God in heaven. I intend to engage as deeply as I am able in precious occasions of fellowship with friends and with family, and also in some private moments of meditation and wonder at the amazing thing God has done in sending His Son to be born among us. What I hope for myself, I also hope for you, that each of us would be prepared in body, mind and soul, for the blessed and joyous coming of the Lord into our world. Amen.

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