Wednesday, February 15, 2012

fired up

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have begun our real journey.
(Wendell Berry)

15 feb 2012

It’s 6 o’clock AM on a sweaty morning in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All around me I can hear the muezzins through their loud speakers (one quite near my window) waking everyone up with their throaty intonation, Allahu Akbar! God is great! What a thing to wake to. I suppose the folks who live in Muslim countries such as this get used to it, like train tracks or a factory whistle near your home, but I am always moved by it again my first days here.

I am on one of my crazy pilgrimages across southeast Asia again. I have not had the inspiration to write much yet in spite of several requests to do so before I left, but I shall add this brief log here if for no other reason than out of a sense of obligation, and see if that primes the pump.

The main reason for this trip came from here in Malaysia, which up ‘til now has been a stop on my way to or from somewhere else. I had a strong connection with a young musician named Ian here in KL when I was through two years ago. Ian is also highly connected with the young people of his parish and others in the city and dreamed up a scheme for me to come and do some things with and for them, a little bit of everything––mostly music, worship and meditation, and hopefully how those things all tie together. I hooked him up with my stalwart supporters and friends Leonard (in Singapore) and Dr Pat Por (here in Malaysia) to see if there were some other things I could do for them as well having flown this far across the sea. They, especially Pat, did indeed and offered to get me passage all the way to India for my labors. So here I am, over a week into a seven-week trip that will eventually land me at Shantivanam again.

I started out in Singapore, as usual. There wasn’t actually that much work to do there, but my friend Leonard Ong kept me occupied with various activities and the marvelous hospitality that he and Claire and the kids always show me. Another acquaintance from my Asian journeys was also in Singapore at the time, Gunawan from Jakarta, Indonesia, the gentleman who took me out to eat at the Chinese Buddhist Indonesian restaurant my last night in Jakarta, which inspired the song “Lovingkindness.” We became “pen pals,” (what do you call someone you have a long distance correspondence with over the internet?) keeping track of each others’ lives and families over these past three years. His sister-in-law lives in Singapore so he and his wife Imelda arranged to take a holiday there at the same time I was going to be there, along with Gunawan’s father, sister and their two boys. We were able to spend most of Saturday together wandering around Singapore. Imelda and his youngest son Jason also came up with him to St Mary’s for Mass on Sunday where Leonard and Claire already were with their two kids. When we went down for our breakfast tea and kaya toast (coconut jelly) and half-boiled eggs at the hawker stand afterward I felt oddly consoled by what seemed to be a pretty unique experience, almost like might have happened at home, two families that I knew coming together and hanging out.

Saturday there were two events sponsored by our friend Aaron Maniam who works for the government of Singapore, one time in the Office of Strategic Planning, and now as a teacher and trainer of community leaders and activists. In the morning he had me meet with a small group of “youth activists.” He wanted me to tell them about my life and work, especially the latter as an example of a unique way to use one’s gifts in a type of activism. I had not really thought of myself in that way, and often feel as if I am not actually doing enough in terms of real concrete activism for the sake of a world so in need of so much––“the corporal works of mercy,” as we call it. But when I got to thinking about it, it was pretty easy to explain what I do and why. Pretty much two things that both come out of one thing¬¬––music and meditation surrounding universal wisdom. When I first got started on this particular phase of my life almost ten years ago, almost from the start, and certainly after 2004, I began to focus on learning more and teaching others about the various religious and spiritual traditions of the world Fr Bede’s life and teachings easily convinced me right away that we could learn from these other traditions––universal wisdom, the perennial philosophy––especially the marvelous lessons I have learned about meditation and contemplative prayer. But the added benefit that it didn’t take long to figure out was that of promoting mutual understanding (as we say in the Sangha, borrowing from the second Eucharistic Prayer for reconciliation, “to be a sign of unity and an instrument of peace”) in a world so filled with discord and ignorance, where as I often say about my own country, “many important and influential people are saying some very ignorant things about other religious traditions.” And in this day and age that kind of ignorance is beyond dangerous; it’s deadly. (Maybe it has always been so, i.e. the Crusades.) The things that I’ve heard directly out of the mouths of the Republican candidates concerning Israel and Palestine, especially Speaker Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinians are “an invented people,” could get someone killed. That’s culpable ignorance if not an outright twisting of the truth for political pandering.

That leads to the point I headed toward with this group of young activists and the question I asked them. I don’t know if they have this expression in Singapore but I asked them, “What gets you fired up?” Because I realized that I actually had had an awakening of a real activist spirit of late, especially after my trip to the Holy Land. I came home and wrote three new sets of lyrics, all toward the aim of addressing the human rights violations going on there. I told them about that and then sang one of the songs for them that I’m very happy with, called “One Minute to Midnight,” inspired by our ill-fated day at the tombs of Abraham and Rachel in Hebron and Bethlehem:
Father, what should I do? I ask
as I sit weeping next to your tomb.
Mother, ‘s there any advice you can give?
We’re so far from your merciful womb.
How can I bring back the sister, the brother
I’ve exiled in fear and in hate?
The clock keeps ticking––one minute to midnight.
Please, help me before it’s too late…

Then they shared with me their own stories, and I was pretty edified. They were involved in such marvelous creative work, such as working with youth at risk, promoting classical cultural expressions, and promoting awareness of victims of severe brain injuries. It was one of those humble gatherings where I felt like the depth of the connection was more important than the breadth.

That afternoon we had a reprise of the event we held three years ago when I was through here. It was called “Faith and Music as Prayer and Devotion,” part of a monthly interfaith dialogue series sponsored by an organization called EIF––Explorations in Faith. It was sponsored again by the Sikhs at their Gurdwara and it of course included a free meal in their dining hall, which is always open to all. This time the participants included a wonderful Islamic singer (with his three children) named Brother Nor, the Sri Krishnan Temple Bhajan Group, Master Sarwat Singh, the leader and teacher of the Gurmat Sangeet Academy of Music, and two folks from a Buddhist Center. As for those latter, I had sung the same “Lovingkindness” for my part of the program, introducing it as a Chinese Buddhist Indonesian song based on a text from the Pali text Ituvitaka with the story of the restaurant in Jakarta. In his remarks after their performance the young man in the group gave us a brief description of the Ituvitaka text and thanked me for singing that song––since they were both Chinese Buddhist from Indonesia! You never know.

There was also an interesting duo that was dubbed as a contemporary Christian group, who performed the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” on saxophone and violin, and then the Schubert one as well. This was not at all what I was expecting. One of the two gave a fascinating introduction to the piece by talking about the connection between theology and symmetry, as evidenced by architecture such as the al Hambra in Granada and Mahaballipuram in Tamil Nadu, both of which I have visited. We spoke briefly afterward and made plans through Aaron to reconnect on my way home. I also met another young man at the gathering afterward who started asking me the most unexpected questions, in the sense that they were so coming at me from someone in Singapore. He wanted to know about the chanting tones that I had written for Shantivanam 12 years ago based on the ragas, as well as about the Camaldolese psalm tones and a few other questions about liturgy and inter-religious dialogue. Of course it turns out that he lied in California for a time and happened on the Episcopalian Holy Cross monks who use our psalter, and that he is working on a doctorate in inter-religious dialogue. You never know.

Enough for now. I'll update on my time in Malaysia soon as well.