Thursday, March 6, 2008

meeting mud

Held by the cords of love,
the swing of the Ocean of Joy sways to and fro;
and a mighty sound breaks forth in song.
See what a lotus blooms there without water!
And Kabir says, ‘My heart’s bee drinks its nectar.’

5 march 08

Three days now into my time in Malaysia. I had a very well attended concert again in Singapore. They amaze me at being able consistently to turn out such crowds there. That was Saturday, which left me Sunday for leisure, which I spent mostly with Joyce and Richard Koh, two of the group of young meditators with whom I had spent such a lively evening on my last time through. This was a little less intense. They took me first for a light lunch and then to the “primary forest,” that is, the original rain forest protected area, where we had a long beautiful walk in what is what Singapore would have looked like to the aboriginal peoples and the first settlers. Then we had a big Japanese meal for supper, which I thought might sit well with my poor innards. I actually have been sick to my stomach again since arriving in Singapore. I don’t know if it is a coincidence or if there is something about coming to Singapore from Delhi that sets off a chemical reaction in me, but for five days I have not been holding food in well.

Monday afternoon my hosts Patricia and Joseph arrived from Kuala Lampur to ferry me off to the Malaysia peninsula. It was quite an experience crossing over the border from Singapore. To everyone’s horror and surprise, a terrorist prisoner escaped from the infamously unbreachable Singaporean prison system last week and there has been a massive tri-country manhunt on. So every car–-this was rush hour––had to be stopped, passengers seen and “boot” (trunk) of the car inspected. It was not a long drive then to our first stop, Johor Bharu. We could still see Singapore from many points in the city across the straits. But I definitely knew I was in another country. Singapore consistently strikes me as odd; it is such a small country-state-city––still less than 5 million people on an island with a land mass 30 by 40 miles––and yet it has developed a very unique, booming, distinctive culture, especially as compared with its closest neighbor and parent land, Malaysia. It is far more sophisticated, richer, cleaner, more organized and powerful than the much larger Malaysia. That partition after the 1957 withdrawal of the British was not without its own controversy and bloodshed, but it seems that mostly ethnic Chinese stayed in Singapore, with some Tamilian Indians and fewer Malays, while in Malaysia the native Malays remain the dominant majority, with ethnic Chinese next and then Tamils, followed by Eurasians and expatriates of various stripes. John, Dominic and Clare had all told me just about the same thing, that I would love Malaysia, that it’s more laid back and friendlier than the high paced success conscious Singapore. And I could see evidence of that right away.

The first night’s event was in Johor Bharu, (Johor also being the name of the state), at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Chinese pastor there who greeted us is pretty young, Fr Peter, and is aided only partially by an elderly semi-retired French missionary priest, Fr Binet, MEP, who had just the day before celebrated one of his unspecified 80th birthdays. (He would only say that he was an octogenarian.) The bishop was also there at the parish, but only for a meeting. He is a Jesuit, a former secretary to the Secretary General of the Jesuits in Rome, a very affable and informal man. The concert was again very well attended, easily 400 people, many of them coming from the choir of the parish as well as from the WCCM, and they were wildly receptive and responsive, and afterward very gregarious in wanting to talk.

After the concert Frs Peter and Binet took me out to eat at a smoke-filled French bistro, and I do not know if I conveyed to them adequately how confused I was to be in that environment. It was not at all what I was expecting in Malaysia, if I expected anything at all. I had a delicious plate of pasta with almonds and goat cheese, and the best crème brulèe I have ever had. Alas, it did not stay in me long but it was fun while it lasted. The net morning Fr Peter took me to a small Indian restaurant run by a Keralese family for breakfast, delicious thick milk tea and a couple of dry chappati. I am telling you this to give you a sense of the mix of cultures I was already getting in my first 24 hours: a Chinese priest, a French bistro, a Keralese family. At this point it seems as if the only ethnic group with whom I will not have much contact is the native Malays. That is a very interesting phenomenon.

The indigenous Malays, the tribal peoples, are sequestered off a bit here on the peninsula, have their own language yet and are in large part Christian. But since the 15th century the Indonesian Muslims came who came up and settled here consider themselves the “people of the land.” Their language is still virtually the same as Indonesian, and they are for all practical purposes all Muslim. Each state is still considered a sultanate with a sultan and his crown prince, and each of these sultans takes a five-year turn at being king of Malaysia. Since independence, only a Malaysian Muslim can be prime minister (one of the reasons Singapore split off), it is illegal to convert one of them or for one of them to convert. They are also subject to the Islamic shariah law as well as civil law. (On our tour of the city of Johor Bharu after dinner, we passed by the well-lighted Islamic Center, mosque and mightily imposing Shariah Court Building.) This has not been imposed on non-Muslims yet. One of the recent edicts is that the Christians have been ordered not to use the word “Allah” in reference to God, even though it is a pre-Islamic word and is the word for God among many Asian Christians, particularly the tribal Malays. So I am told, some official Islamic government officials consider Allah to be “their God.” The Catholic bishops here are ignoring the order: though the Catholic newspaper may not use the word or else it will not be allowed to be printed, the official liturgical books are all replete with “Allah,” and one priest told me that they will not be stripped of this in speaking. There is a lively interfaith dialogue going on here among Buddhists (Chinese and Thai Theravadan), Hindus, Taoists and Christians, but the government will not allow an official representative of Islam because, I was told, they consider it to be beneath the dignity of Islam to dialogue with other faiths (though there are unofficial Muslims who participate in the dialogue anyway).

There is simmering tension underneath all of this and more than a bit of resentment. It is election time here right now and that brings a lot of stuff to the surface. Luckily people still feel as if they can talk semi-openly about it––there doesn’t seem to be any fear of a Taliban-like takeover––but many folks to whom I have spoken do not think that they are living in much of a democracy. For that matter, neither do some people in Singapore where, though not religiously controlled, there is a very tight control of the state and really only one political party has been in power since independence, though Singapore is fiercely a “meritocracy” while Malaysia unabashedly favors ethnic Muslim Malays who feel themselves deserving of a kind of “affirmative action.” Practically speaking that means that all administrative positions in the government, education and the military are Malays. I guess it all depends on how benevolent that ruling party is, and to you.

This is the reality of inter-religious dialogue, and life in a land of mixed cultures, and also the dark side of religion when it gets wedded to political and social power. Like the wake-up call from Pahmo from Burma at Gurukul in Chennai, I am not about to be cavalierly quoting the mystics of Islam, here where Sufism is considered a cult, or the Prophet (Peace be upon him) himself, or sunnily suggesting that co-existence is easily won. This is also where Pope Benedict is quite insightful, suggesting that often the dialogue that goes on is not a theological one at all, but an inter-cultural one. But I have been carefully telling the story of Kabir, re-kindled by this translation of Tagore that I am carrying around, and I must admit I love hearing the muzzein issuing the call to prayer across the city while I am murmuring my own chants and psalms in the morning.

* * *

6 march 08

Thursday now, and I am at my fourth and final concert stop, Ipho. It has been a fascinating week. After Johor Bharu I performed for a smaller crowd in Malaka, a small ancient town on the west coast, known mainly for its preservation of remnants of the Dutch colonial period and the site of the first burial place of St Francis Xavier, which is a big tourist spot. I was hosted there by Fr Deva, a lively Tamilian priest who appreciated my “program” a great deal. I had a wonderful conversation the next morning with him the next morning (at a Chinese kopitiam coffee house) regarding the use of Asian philosophy and universal wisdom in articulating the Gospel. I am still a little diffident about bringing up my Indian references, not to mention singing in Sanskrit and Hindi, in front of ethnic Indians, even if they have never been to India, but I am consistently consoled by their positive reaction and affirmation, and especially glad when and if they tell me that I am pronouncing the Sanskrit well. Then yesterday we––my hosts-drivers-dharma protectors Patricia and Joseph Lip from the WCCM and I––were in their home town of Kuala Lampur, which like Washington DC is the capital of Malaysia and considered a separate district and not in a state.

Kuala Lampur, I found out, in Malay means "meeting mud." It's the place where two rivers meet.

The highlight of the day was a visit to the Shuddha Samajam, the Pure Life Society. Like Sri Ram in Haridwar, it is an ashram that is also an orphanage, started in 1952, after the Second World War, when there was still so much devastation and destitution here in Malaysia (the Japanese occupied the peninsula) and many orphans. It was founded by Swami Satyananda, a Malaysian Hindu monk. He was originally a member of the Ramakrishna Order. but he asked to live out his monastic vocation doing this charitable work instead of the regular life of a sannyasi studying and teaching and meditating. The order said that he could not do that while remaining a member of their order but it was a friendly parting and he stayed true to the ideals of the monastic life throughout his life and on good terms with them. His focus, like the founder of the Ramakrishna Order, Vivekananda, was on the universality of religion and embracing all creeds and paths. The main attraction for the folks who know the tradition of John Main is that it is he who taught Fr John how to meditate, right there at that very same place, and it is that fortuitous meeting that led to Fr John’s ministry later in life, and eventually the founding of the World Community for Christian Meditation.

It’s a wonderful place, housing nearly 100 children with a separate housing site for senior boys (teenagers). It has been steered for years now by Mother Mangalam, who as the closest disciple of Swami Satyananda, helped found the place and carries it on in his same manner. Patricia had told her of my coming and her plan to bring me there to see the place and Mother wanted both a meeting with me and for me to sing for the children, both of which I was more than pleased to do. We met for about 45 minutes in her hut. She is about 84 years old now and has been laid up recovering from a broken shoulder which she sustained while helping one of her own invalid sisters who now lives with her. She had been forewarned of my recent stomach problems––which have been the talk of all of Malaysia––and so had a special concoction of tea made for me that included cardamom, turmeric, jaggery, cumin and Lord-know-what-else, and we talked at hurried pace about our many connections. She had been given and listened to a copy of Echo of Your Peace, and was anxious to tell me to the origins of the yantra-design on the cover which she recognized right away. It is the Sri-Chraka of a text called the Sri Lalita Trisati Stotro, a text in honor of Divine Motherhood, to be chanted on navratri puja, a nine day celebration that usually falls in October. She had also been to Shantivanam and had spent time with Fr Bede there and also in Chennai for a series of meetings, if I recall correctly, and spoke lovingly of him.

We then went up to the Temple of the Universal Spirit where the kids had gathered already twenty minutes before in anticipation, and we had a great time together, me singing for them, singing with them, them singing for me. I did the Jaya Nam bhajan with them and I must tell you, never before has that bhjan slipped so easily into the faster tempo; they just carried my guitar and I along with their enthusiasm and the clapping. After a half an hour or so we stopped and I met each and every one of them, they being pleased as punch to say to me “Nice to meet you!” and some of them also echoing me by saying, “What is your name?” There are two things I have grown to love in my middle years––children and India; and I am absolutely powerless over the combination of the two.

A few of the staff then gave me a tour of the rest of the place, the beautifully enshrined hut of Swami Satyananda, with even his clothes hung neatly in the closet and covered with plastic, and his Samadhi shrine where his ashed are buried. All around are various symbols and reminders of the world’s religions including large posters displaying Hans Kung’s great initiative, the Global Ethic. We reconvened at Mother’s where she had proper tea laid out for us, including homemade lime jellies, biscuits and curry puffs. As I left she presented me with leftovers from that, a stack of books, two loaves of bread, and a little jar of an herbal curry she had prepared just for me and my whacked-out stomach.

Then off to the parish, where I was to stay the night, and the largest attended concert yet, well over 500 people. Amazing, for someone virtually unknown. I was having trouble hearing due to sitting behind the speakers and the roar of the fans circulating the sweltering air, but Patricia and Joe said it was the best sound yet, and again the reception was very enthusiastic.

I got a run in for the first time since the first days of January this morning. Pat and Joe’s son Geoff fetched me and took me to a 6 km hilly trail. It felt awfully good, but it shook up forced out whatever was left in my stomach when I got home. It may just be that whatever it was is actually gone now as a result of that, because it feels better, though I have taken nothing but black tea, toast and bananas all day. They all gave me a tour of KL this morning and then put me on a coach (they thoughtfully bought me two seats so that my poor beat up Taylor could travel first class too), and I am now in Ipho where I will do the last of this series of concerts tonight. The pastor here feels like an old friend. He is an Indian Malaysian himself, an old friend of Leonard and Clare in Singapore (he actually married them), and a Redemptorist who spent time at Shantivanam with Fr Bede also. This is also, though far from luxurious, the most comfortable house I have stayed in in months. I am supposed to give a talk to the choir too in the morning (how they snuck that in I don’t know) and take a tour of the area in the afternoon, but at this point I would be just as happy to sit in this room and read and write and stretch and pray.