Sunday, February 8, 2009

sikh hospitality

Listen, my heart!
Let your love be that of the lotus for the pool.
Though the ripples shake the lotus and torment it,

It flowers and loves even more the waters.
Let your love be that of the fish for the water
Without which they perish.
(from the writings of Guru Nanak)

8 feb 2009

Yesterday we had the event that I had been really looking forward to, the Faith and Music event sponsored by the Community Development Council. Our friend Farid was the organizer but it was held at the Central Sikh Gurdwara. We were all invited to lunch beforehand. They serve hundreds of people a vegetarian meal for free every Sunday. A lot of the foreign workers, especially Indians come for it. (According to the teaching of their gurus, no one can be turned away from the pangat––the community kitchen. "It is here that the high and low, the rich and poor, the learned and the igonorant, the kings and paupers, all share the food sitting in common.... The institution of the langar––common kitchen is instrumental in creating social equality," they write in their pamphlet.) Leonard and I showed up first, but soon on our heels my friends Joyce and Richard, with Dominic and Andrea; then other of Farid’s young associates and interns, and other of the invited participants.

The program began in earnest in the Sikh’s auditorium upstairs a little after 2 PM. I was first and allotted a full half and hour to set the stage and atmosphere for the event. I stuck to my usual material, the Gregorian Benedictus Es and Abhishiktananda’s Namo Janitre, then “There is A Light” and “Awakening,” “Streams of Living Water,” “Lead Me from Death Into Life” and “Compassionate and Wise”––all short versions for the most part––since they all have good stories behind them. There were some Indian Hindus there who were going to perform later in the program. As always I felt a little shy about singing the Sanskrit in front of them, but they joined in and afterward told me that they liked it a lot.

The traditional Sikh Ensemble from the Gurmat Sangeet Academy, which is housed right there at the Gurdwar, performed a traditional Sikh kirtan next. I think that they were everyone’s favorite performers. They had a large ensemble playing all traditional instruments, performing a long kirtan in the typical Indian way, with a long alap-intro at the beginning led by their music master teacher. The text they sang was from their holy book the Gurbani, which includes poetry of Nanak and the early Sikh gurus as well as Indian rishis that went before. The text was: Fareed, the path is muddy and the house to my Beloved is so far away.

Then came this family of Hindus, including the youngest participant, Ayush, who was all of four years old. They are members of the Chinmaya Mission which was founded by H.H Swami Chinmayananda, who “blazed a trail across India and the world, revitalizing the study of the ancient Vedic texts and making their elusive and highly subtle principles accessible” to all people last century. They sang some Vedic chants and then a kirtan of their own. I suddenly noticed, during the singing of the kirtan, the words “Guatama Buddha.” And then sure enough, the next verse was about Allah, and the next about Yeshu.

Then came young Master Chung of the Taoist Federation Youth Group. He chanted three Taoist scriptural texts from us accompanied by a wooden fish, with good explanations of the training of young Taoist priests. He also slipped in the piece of information that there are three things that a Taoist priest may never interrupt, no matter what: meditating, eating or chanting. So, he told us, if you ever try to talk to a Taoist priest while they are meditating, eating or chanting and they don’t respond to you, please don’t think they are rude.

By then we were well behind schedule. Virtually no one had stuck to the 8 minute Fareed had requested. He and Aaron, one of his co-workers went up and treated us to a few short pieces of music. Farid played a song on a small reed instrument from Hawii called a zuphon, that sounded very much like a clarinet, and then sang it as well. Then Aaron first chanted a surah from the Qur'an. And, in keeping with the idea that I had presented of learning from traditions and being able to sing each others’ traditions, he then sang the old Christian hymn “Abide With Me,” explaining to us that his father’s side of the family had been Catholic, and he himself had grown up with a lot of appreciation for Christianity, and this hymn especially remained dear to him. I found it very moving that that is what he would choose to perform.

Last, two girls from an evangelical Christian church, one with a guitar, came up and did contemporary Christian song. It was quite different from anything we had heard thus far, but they performed it quite well. I was particularly impressed by the kind of gritty style of playing coming out of the diminutive guitarist.

Three young people from the CDC then led us in a discussion and dialogue exercise for a little less than an hour. And then we stood around and talked for another hour or so amidst the cacophony of the ongoing activities of the Gurdwara. Our host for the day, a tall very gracious young Sikh named Gurpreet, took my friends and me up to visit the Gurmat Sangeet Academy upstairs, where “Master-ji” was giving lessons but interrupted them to give us an explanation of all the traditional instruments that were housed there. Then there was quite an exchange of cards and CDs and thoughts about doing this again next year. Farid and Aaron and I really want to stay in touch, and even talked about some possible projects together, maybe in India or the Holy Land or even in California. Very exciting.

We were all so impressed with the Sikhs’ hospitality. In this day and age the Sikhs seem like a real beacon of hope in the midst of the religious fervor that is so often misdirected in this part of the world. The Sikh sect is originally composed of Hindus who, under the inspiration of Islam, adopted monotheism and rejected the caste system. (That, I found out, is why many of them are named Singh––they adopted a surname that was unrelated to the caste system.) Their initial impulse at least was based on recognizing that the fundamental religious truths of both religions were harmonious and easily reconcilable. And their sacred writings are so profoundly mystical and yet devotional at the same time, with that same kind of intimate reverence that one finds so often in India literature. Here is something form Radhakrishnan’s introduction Selections from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs––the Gurbani––which includes poetry of Nanak and the early Sikh gurus as well as Indian rishis that went before but already carried the spirit:
The Sikh Gurus transcend the opposition between the personal and the impersonal, between the transcendent and the immanent. God is not an abstraction, but an actuality. [God] is truth, formless nirguna, absolute, eternal, infinite, beyond human comprehension. He is yet revealed through creation and through grace to anyone who seeks him with devotion. [God] is given to us as a Presence in worship. The ideas we form of Him are intellectualizations of that presence. A great Muslim saint observed: ‘Who beholds me formulates it not and who formulates me beholds me not. [One] who beholds meand then formulates me is veiled from me by the formulation.’ It is the vice of theology to define rather than to express, to formulate rather than to image or symbolize the indefinable.
Here is the part I like best:
Silence is the only adequate expression of that which envelops and embraces us. No word, however noble, no symbol, however significant, con communicate the ineffable experience of being absorbed in the dazzling light of the Divine. Light is the primal symbol we use, of a consciousness ineffably beyond the power of the human mind to define or limit. The inveiled radiance of the sun would be darkness to the eye that strives to look into it. We can know it only by reflection, for we are ourselves part of its infinite awareness.
In other news: besides getting myself settled in "road mode" and doing preparations for upcoming work while staying here under the usual warm hospitality of the friars of St Mary's: Thursday I had a great hike out in the rain forest with Richard and Joyce and their friend Dominic which ended with a meal at the most stridently vegetarian restaurant I have ever experienced (extra pix on the Picasa website); Friday Leonrad took me to hot (Bikram) yoga from which I am still sore, and a visit to the Temple of the Tooth, where there what is said to be a relic of the Buddha––a tooth––enshrined; Friday I did a talk for this parish on "The Inner Meaning of the Liturgy," amazingly well attended for a Friday night, but I have have grown to expect that from Singapore; Saturday an all day workshop on music with the musicians of this parish, about 70 in all, which was a lot of work but very well recieved and ultimately a lot of fun. Today Leonard is taking me hiking again (they are making sure I keep exercising) and I am to have lunch and some meditation time with a yoga teacher from Thailand that we met the other day. And, of course, prepping for my trip to Malaysia tomorrow. The work has begin in earnest.

Wishing you peace.