Friday, March 6, 2009

atma jaya!

As all these flowing rivers move toward the sea,
but when they reach the sea they are lost in it
and name and form break away from them
and all is called only the sea,
so all the embers of the silent witnessing Spirit
move toward the Being,
and when they have attained the Being they are lost in it...
(Prashna Upanishad)

tuesday, 2 march 09

Dr Maisie has been most accommodating to me here in Jakarta, putting herself and Muhamad, their driver, completely at my service. For example, yesterday she picked me up at 6:15 AM with Muhamad. She had a full breakfast prepared and packed up for me in the car plus a “hand phone” for my use while I am here, specifically to use to call Muhamad when and if I got stranded. She brought me to her yoga class, which was interesting in and of itself––and older crowd, good mix of men and women. (As I walked in there was one elderly man doing a head stand to warm up. Maisie was afraid that it might not be up to my level!) She then dropped me off at their apartment complex so that I could use their fitness room for an hour (air conditioned with CNN International on cable) and then sent her driver back to get me and drop me off at Santa Ursula again, and then came back to bring me to the afternoon event. I felt like a visiting dignitary!

I often do not know what to expect from these gigs. The event was at Atma Jaya Hospital and Medical School. The director, Dr Kris, and one of the senior doctors there, Dr Lucia, were both on the retreat I gave last weekend and had arranged some time ago for me to do a session with the students. This hospital was started specifically to serve the poor, started by a Catholic lay organization. The neighborhood that has grown around it is a bit more gentrified from when Atma Jaya was first founded, and Dr Kris joked that people say the hospital, a very humble faded structure, now looks as if it were a warehouse for one of the shiny high-rises on the corner across the street from it. Dr Kris proudly took me to a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant near the hospital. This is no mean feat; I have found here, as in Bangkok, surprisingly to me, it is not easy to eat vegetarian and my hosts get themselves in to quite a lather trying to make sure I eat well.

After lunch we gathered in the chapel at Atma Jaya (by the way, the name means, in case you don’t recognize the Sanskrit, “Glory to the Spirit!” or, as Dr Kris translated it, “the Spirit prevails.”) Around 50 students gathered, all medical students, mostly in their early 20s, many of them members of the chapel choir. It took a few minutes for me to ascertain the level of English (it was pretty good, about the same as on the retreat) and to get a good rapport going with them, which I did by concentrating mostly on songs that had a lot of participation. I had asked my hosts and Lika, the student who was my MC, what they wanted me to concentrate on, music or meditation, and they had said mostly music with a little meditation. The students participated very well, and I myself am still learning what a great way music is to teach: talk a little, sing a little, explain the meaning of a song and then sing the song. It’s as if the music makes the information sink deeper, in the muscles and in the gut. I find it the same no matter what I am speaking about. Lika wanted me to have a Q&A period at the end, but there were not many questions. But as soon as we broke up, and took the de rigueur photo, many of the kids came up and wanted to talk, many about meditation itself. Again I was impressed by how many of them were asking things about other religions and how they should think about this or that.

This thought is almost clear in my mind now: in an area such as this, people are naturally syncretic, with so many religions living side by side for so long. Islam is heavily effected by Hinduism here, for instance. The conservative tendency, both for Muslims and Christians, is simply to forbid or discourage any element that seems to be coming from another tradition, but I think all that does is force the issue underground. The questions still remain unasked and unresolved. I don’t know if it is a better approach, but it is my approach––and it seems to be working––to let people ask the questions, and be able to eat the fish and spit out the bones: to learn what we can from another tradition and also ascertain where we do not agree.

I also had a wonderful experience today at Atma Jaya’s other campus, a regular university that boasts of “seventeen different faculties!” There I was greeted by a handful of eager students who, before the concert and after I sang one song for the noon liturgy, crowded around me in the small vesting room in the rear of the chapel while I ate the boxed vegetarian lunch that they had provided, asking me all kinds of questions, taking my picture, trying out their English (and laughing a lot at each others’ mistakes), and generally having a great time. I was pretty impressed by how friendly and forward they were. A good handful of others joined us for the event itself, which was pretty much the same format as the day before. I was surprised and happy to note that two students all the way from the other campus across the town showed up with three other of their friends who had missed the event the day before.

I had met one kindred spirit on the retreat this weekend, a fellow guitar player named Lembono. He wanted to talk about music and play for me something he had written himself. That led to us hanging out together a good deal over the weekend, walking and talking over meals. I told Maisie later that if he lived in Santa Cruz he would be part of our “tribe.” Last night he came and fetched me. Our plan was for him to show me “the real Jakarta.” It was great fun. We walked around Chinatown, and it was here that I learned the Indonesian term bule (pronounced “boo-lay”). It’s not a pejorative term, but it means “white people” or, more literally, “blondes,” but meaning really “tourists.” He said about the narrow streets and back alleys of Chinatown, “You see, there are no other bule here!”

It was, again, difficult for us to find vegetarian food there though. What is only now starting to sink in to me––this was the same situation in Bangkok––is that most of the fried noodles and stir fried anything on the street––including my pad thai noodles on Kaosan Road in Bangkok, as Willie clarified for me after the fact––are cooked in lard, “pig oil,” as Lembono calls it. I laughed, remembering my yoga teacher in Rajpur yelling out to us one day seemingly clear out of the blue, “No yoga for pig eaters!” So we didn’t actually get to eat at a non-bule place as I had hoped but wound up in old Jakarta, near the art museum and a beautiful public plaza surrounded by old Dutch colonial buildings, at the Batavia Cafe. (As opposed to Batavia, Illinois, I found out later that this is pronounced “Ba-tah-via,” and was the Dutch name for Indonesia when it was their colony.) I had to pinch myself to remind myself where I was. It was a spacious Dutch colonial building, high-ceilinged and full of rich wood; there was a Western menu (though I did choose from the Asian one) and dozens of black and white photographs all over the walls, mostly 30s and 40s era Hollywood glamour shots and what I would call very hip mid-twentieth century East Coast ones as well. We sat in very comfortable chairs and ate and talked for a good long time, with music from the same era being pumped in––Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Tex Benake. Then I figured it out: World War II. It was a pre-World War II era hotel that never really changed since then but just kept modernizing and somehow enshrined that era. It was clean and beautiful, with huge displays of cut flowers all over the place, obviously a pretty sophisticated joint, mostly appealing to the bule. After we ate we wandered up the wide, carpeted staircase to the bar and dining room upstairs, which was better lit and even fancier. The walls here were covered with pictures of royalty and historic government personages, both Dutch and Malaysian. Lembono suggested that we stay a little longer, so we sat at the long bar, sipping nothing more than lemon tea but talking away another hour or so, as I continued to marvel at this place out of time, feeling a long, long way from home geographically and time wise, but quite re-invigorated from hanging out with a someone who felt like an old friend for an evening.

* * *

wed, 4 march 09

The culmination of my days here in Indonesia was spending the day today with the senior high students here at Santa Ursula where I have been staying. It seems to be a wonderful school, I am told one of the premiere schools of Indonesia and very prestigious. I did three sessions with groups of 25-50 in a beautiful aula with wooden floors and indirect lighting, and once again did the music and meditation program with a touch of universal wisdom, a little shorter than the one for the university students. It’s getting to be second nature by now, and again the English level was pretty high and the participation was great. I started off each session by singing our “Circle Song” for them, first of all just because I felt like playing it, but secondly because John played tuned Javanese gongs on it as we had in mind a certain gamelan background to the accompaniment. They were really enjoying listening to and watching me play the guitar, and even thought they heard the sound of gongs in my guitar playing. I probably have subconsciously incorporated it somehow. This time all the students were all sitting on the ground while I was in a chair, so when it came time for the meditation part I took off my Tevas and sat down there with them. They got a kick out of that, but I was actually envious of their wonderful natural seated posture, and also envious at how easily, naturally they seemed to slip in to meditation.

At the end of the day Sr Mukti, the headmistress and my host here, had arranged for their gamelan ensemble to give me a special private performance in another great wooden-floored room dedicated just to the gamelan instruments on the top floor of the high school. The students (this did not seem planned) took turns explaining the instruments and the what pieces they were going to play, and how the whole “orchestra” is actually one instrument, the sound one metalophone supporting or riding on the other. There was also a chorus of about 10 others. I must confess I had never heard singing with gamelan before, but it made perfect sense, all singing unison as if another instrument. Rhythm and melody again––no harmony. I was wondering if there was any liturgical gamelan, outside of the huge gong I heard used for the consecration at Mass yesterday at Atma Jaya.

Actually that was not the culmination. I had a great last evening out though in the face of the abundance of Indonesian hospitality I am afraid I might have offended someone. Lembono and I already had plans to walk and hang out again, but Hendra thought that we were only going for ice cream and so had committed me to someone else who wanted to take me to dinner as well. There was a bit of an awkward moment when I insisted that I wanted to stay with my original plan, but there is only so much of me to go around, and so we did. Sometimes I am not sure of local sensitivities and protocol and even clumsier on the road than at home.

There have been three times in Jakarta when I have said the words, “This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” once at the Hotel Batavia, once in this elegant restaurant where Maisie took me just for tea the other day after the Atma Jaya event, and this place we went last night, which was just walking distance from Santa Ursula. It was called Babah, and is a 100 year-old restaurant run by a venerable Indonesian Chinese Buddhist family. I think Lembono was thinking of a simpler meal at another place nearby, but he also offered me a peek at this place first. My jaw literally dropped as we walked around looking at the various rooms. He said, “You can write about this in your blog,” but I said I wouldn’t even know how to describe it. It was a dark interior, full of low tables, corridors with rows of lit candles, pots of incense, large silent stone and wooden Buddhas and other indigenous Indonesian statues, batiks hanging on room dividers, wooden floors. We stayed there and had a wonderful long visit again, and it was the best food I had eaten yet. It was one of those times when I didn’t want to eat the last bite of my food––I didn’t want the meal to end. My memory of Indonesian food will be of it wrapped in leaves and twigs with berries and spices floating in the broths and a hundred new flavors, like the place Hendra took me to eat last night which was called Bumbu Desa, where they served all typical village food (the name means literally “village spice”). Indonesia has taught me what “exotic” really means.

It has been a wonderful stay here, and when I was sadly saying goodbye to them all I felt like it was worth all the work to make this happen, and that we had really made a deep connection. And I was marveling at how small the world seems, but at the same time how large my own world is becoming. Hendra was struggling with some passages from John Main’s writings that he is translating into Indonesian, so we worked through some of that at the table the other night. Fr John writes that the world will be saved by sanity, and that the church will be renewed by sanctity that is based in sanity. But the world and the church will also be renewed by these well worn paths between huts.

Off to Australia in the morning. It feels odd to be heading even farther south, and a little weird to be saying goodbye to Asia, for the time being. The Indonesian language has a wonderful way saying “Thank you”––terima kasih, which means literally “I offer you my love, ” and just like other languages “goodbye,” doesn’t have to be final, only sampai jumpa, which is something like “meet again.”

Terima kasih! Sampai jumpa.