Tuesday, February 17, 2009

penang, malaysia

Hardly one among thousands strives to realize Me; of those striving Yogis, some rare ones, devoting themselves exclusively to Me, know me in reality. (Bhagavad Gita 7:3)

17 feb, 2009

Catching up…

I led a meditation retreat for the WCCM Malaysia up at Genting Highlands over the weekend. It was held at probably the most beautiful retreat house I have ever seen (outside of Mission San Antonio, of course). It is Jesuit owned Maranatha House, situated in at gate community in the middle of a forest preserve. Apparently there was some issue about getting permits to build a retreat house there, since it is mainly a residential area, so the Jebbies told the local commissioners that it was a residence for the bishop. When they inspected it the commissioners remarked, “Well, the bishop sure needs a lot of bathrooms!” It does only hold 30 in double occupancy rooms with shared baths so we were small in number. They have designed the place very eco-friendly, and all the beautiful hardwood floors are made from trees that were felled clearing land for the construction of the place. It is hemmed on every side by old growth rain forest, and there is a waterfall and a pond and all kinds of wildlife, including iguanas, macacas (sp?) and wild singing birds of all stripes. It all went quite well.

Then since we had come hours to kill, Pat and Joe, my same hosts from last year, took me to see a Sri Subramaniaswamy Temple, a cave temple near Kuala Lampur. You climb 250 stairs to get up to it, and at the foot of the staircase there is a large golden Shiva as tall as the staircase. Malaysia is still in the aftermath of a huge Hindu festival called Thaipusan, so the place was mobbed with people, incredibly loud music playing and the air was redolent with smoke of incense and offerings, hawkers selling chotkies and south Indian sweets, all the world like being in Trichy. We whiled away another hour or so in a tea stall, Joe wanting me to sample as many typical Malaysia treats as possible. They sure feed me well here.

Then a long bus ride up to Ipoh where I was met at the bus stand by a group of folks that I had met last year who whisked me right away off to dinner and then settled me in again with the Redemptorist community, where I had stayed last year. I had no work there, I merely wanted to stop by and see all the folks again since it was on my way to the next stop. I was somewhat afraid that I might be an imposition to them, and would have been just as happy to sit at the house and do my laundry and catch up with some reading, but they all seemed all too eager to hang out with me too.

The next morning a group of kids, all but one of whom I had met last year, most of them musicians, came and fetched me just after nine We, in various configurations, spent the next 10 hours together. They were all 17 and 18, and had just finished secondary school, and are all waiting for the finals marks from exams to determine what their future will be. They remembered my favorite kopitiam-coffeehouse and even what kind of tea I liked, so we went there first. Then shopping for a few things I needed, then off across town to visit another cave temple, this time a Buddhist shrine that also included a statuary garden and a pond of tortoises, some of them pretty big. The kids told me that they also don’t get much chance to hang out together so they were all enjoying each others’ company as well, with lots of little stops at tea stands and juice stalls along the way. They were also very funny. (Notice the small statues above their heads in this picture below.)

Then after lunch we went to an old tin mine that had been flooded and turned into a nature preserve with a lagoon around which we got a boat ride. I was pretty impressed by how much the kids were enjoying all this and hanging around all day with a rather low-key monk instead of a shopping mall or the cinema. After a brief stop to let me do internet at another kopitiam, and 5:30 Mass, we finally sat down to play some music. They are fascinated mostly with American oldies, and I was like a human jukebox. They didn’t want hear much of “Compassionate and Wise” or anything else original. They wanted Beatles ("Yesterday"), Glen Campbell ("Rhinestone Cowboy," I kid you not...) and, especially, the Eagles. They love the Eagles. And their all-time favorite song is “Hotel California,” even though they were struggling with the words. But I won the day with my rendition of “Desperado,” which they made me do twice.

Anyway, we had so much fun. Then the grown ups came and picked me up for dinner again. I am quite touched by the fact that I had not overestimated the bond that we had pretty formed last year, and they want me to come and stay longer next year. I kept protesting that I hadn't even done anything for them this year, but they didn't mind.

Two of the Redemptorists had to come here to Penang yesterday for a meeting right across the street from where I am staying, I they gave me a lift. As always, it is the conversations along the way that really make up the bulk of my memories of these trips, and I had a good visit with Fr. Eugene about Bede and Eckhart Tolle, and the future of religious life. Last night what I thought was a pretty well attended concert in town (around 300 people). There was some commotion before hand between the woman in charge of the facility and Serena who organized the event, and we were still setting up at 8:05 for the 8:00 concert, but all went well. I had asked (demanded?) that only the smaller fans be used and that the large fans be turned off because they were so loud. Some of the folks were a little annoyed at me for this, but we made it.

There was one funny incident. The retired Roman Catholic bishop was there, and it happened to be his 31st anniversary of ordination, which Serena told me about, asking me to do something special. At the end of the concert, also per her instructions, I asked the crowd if there were any questions they would like to ask or comments to make. The bishop himself stood up at one point and said that the concert had been like a prayer service to him but that the applause had made it seem like a performance. So, turning to the crowd, he said that people should not clap in church, including at the liturgy itself. I thanked him and then said, “Incidentally, this is the bishop’s anniversary of ordination, and Bishop, we’d like to honor you for that.” At which point the people broke into thunderous applause.

Which I thought was very funny.