The Rain Gods

Monsoon. Vipassana Center. Igatpuri, Maharashtra, India (June 2005)

It looks like the Monsoon season has arrived in India with a bang. Seeing Facebook posts filled with the rains, I remembered the first time I had a chance to experience it as an adult. Almost exactly ten years ago, right after a walking pilgrimage. Nipun and I were staying at the Vipassana Center in Igatpuri when it happened. I remember how hot and dry it got right before it, and how people eagerly awaited this season, especially the farmers because the heat was unbearable and the land had completely dried up. Below is a poem that came up for me at the time.

The Rain Gods

Unbearably loud --- not a single leaf stands still,

each one joins the chorus 
as the wind hurriedly rushes through.

The dark clouds hover over
as the drumming starts in a distance.
People gather together, 
to welcome the first rain.
The lightning strikes
as if all the cosmos are assembling for a grand finale.

I look up at the clouds with folded hands
as the zealous wind envelopes my whole body.
And offer a silent prayer to the Rain Gods.

Thinking of the farmers in far away hilly lands,
who only have work when it rains,
thinking of their little children with empty stomachs,
thinking of the sad grandfather whose cows ran away,
because there wasn’t anything left for them to eat.

The drumming gets louder as everyone impatiently awaits,
the pitter-patter of the first monsoon rain.
I stretch out my hand and feel the first few drops,
anxiously waiting for the showers after such a thunderous show.

But to my dismay everything comes -- to a standstill.
The clouds disseminate as quickly as they had gathered.
The temperamental wind decides to go elsewhere for the day.

Only the faithful drumming in the distance remains.
And the silent prayers,
that have yet to be answered.

But it doesn’t rain tonight,
Or the next day, or the next one after that.
Instead, the sun shines brighter than ever,
As if to take back its crown.

Until five days later,
As I sit quietly in meditation,
I hear a few drops hit the tin roof above,
and then a few more, and then a couple more,
until they all come marching down.

My heart fills with joy.
I could feel the earth being watered,
little seeds will soon start to sprout.
And while I couldn’t hear the drums of the farmers,
I could feel their heartbeats dancing with joy.
The Rain Gods have arrived.

As I sat there smiling in silence,
I knew at least one old grandfather
will be sitting on his porch
wearing the same smile,
thankful that his cows will have to
run away no more,
for there will be plenty for them to eat.


Being Human

Someone broke into our car. They broke a rear window and a small part of my heart. Seeing your private stuff lying all over the parking lot makes you want to yell at someone, or hide and be cautious of every person you come across in the building.

All they took was some change, garage remote, few minor things, and a pair of inexpensive sunglasses that I had just bought. Could it have been worth it for them? Instead of attending a lunch for two friends, who just moved to the area, you spend the afternoon cleaning up shards of glass from the car. Slowly separating what you want to keep from what to toss into the trash bin. You call the auto shops to find out how much the damage would cost, and how quickly they can take a look. When the best price is an hour away and first available appointment a couple of days away, you tell yourselves that it will be fine. The car with the broken window will be safe in your unsafe parking lot. What else is there to take? You empty it of all your scattered belongings and leave it unlocked, so anyone who wants to get in doesn't need to struggle.

Tunnel on the Camino de Santiago, Spain (2010)
As you are cleaning, you can't help wonder what type of a person would do this? Aside from being thoughtless and having no concern for other people’s properties, they would have to be desperate, or possibly homeless. Since there was nothing that was visible in the car, they really took a chance in breaking the window to see what they could find. They also must’ve been really scared because they did it in a hurry, not even bothering to close the doors afterward. As you imagine their life, in all your fury, you try not to curse them in your mind because they probably have it bad enough as it is. You wish you could sit them down and tell them not do this because these things have a way of getting back at us karmically. And if they’re already having issues, they can’t afford any more karmic debt. You hope they come out of their current situation, and almost wish they had stolen some of the good CD’s, maybe the chants -- because they need it more than you do.

You sweep the last pile of glass into a dustpan and pick up a "smile card" that had fallen on the floor from your car. People use these to do random acts of kindness and leave the card behind to ask the recipient to pay-it-forward to others. You stop all your activity because it dawns on you that no one must have ever done a random act of kindness for this person. This person probably does not know how it feels to truly receive something. If they did, they would know the joy that an unexpected kindness brings to the heart. They would also know that it would not feel good to receive an unwarranted unkind act like this. You feel grateful for everyone in your life, and for constantly being wrapped in their love. You wonder how you and your society have contributed to this person who feels the need to break a car window to get some change. You forgive them -- wholeheartedly. You wonder how you can contribute to a world where no one is lacking for what they really need.

Although your heart forgives this person, your mind is cautious and it doesn’t want to be caught off-guard again. As you enter your apartment, you make sure that the door is locked in case they took your address. You get up at night and check it once again. In your sleepiness, you decide that you will get a bolt on your door, so no one can break-in. The next day, you feel dreadful that you had this thought. You will not allow your heart to close-up and become small by something so tiny, and stupid as this. You remind yourself that this is a part of living in downtown, and this is not personal. You walk downstairs to your completely empty car, with a broken window to take it to the shop.

Out of habit, you reach for the small compartment above your head for the sunglasses. To your surprise -- they are there! You do a double-take and feel them a couple of times. How could this be? You try to remember if you could be mistaken. This is just not possible because you had checked three times as you cleaned your car since they were just bought the day before. It was completely empty. And you were so disappointed that they were already gone. Maybe they accidently took some of the smile cards and realized that there was an actual person who might miss those glasses, since that was the only personal item taken. You are relieved to know that they have a conscience. It makes you hopeful for their future. 

You feel that a hand has been extended, and an apology has been made. And you wish you could reach out and give them a hug, for a very long time, and let them know that everything will be all right. Maybe, like all of us, they're just trying, and being human the best that they can.


The Sacredness of Values

Kecak dance performance (also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant)

Uluwatu is an ancient Hindu temple situated on the top of a steep cliff, off the coast of Bali. It’s believed that in the 11th century, a sage from the East who built it attained enlightenment here. The temple is now famous for the Kecak Dance that is performed every evening at sunset.

We were staying about an hour away, but everyone we met insisted that we should make the drive out to see this unforgettable dance. As we arrived, hundreds of others had already descended upon this place. We had a little bit of time to walk around the huge temple sprawled across the beautiful cliff. 70 meters above the Indian Ocean, the view of the sea and the waves hitting the rocks was simply breathtaking and calming.

The cliff at Uluwatu Temple where the Kecak dance is performed
Gradually, we made our way up a dirt path, to the highest point of the cliff, facing the sunset. Here, in an open amphitheater, close to a thousand people had already gathered. In the middle of the circle, was a five-foot platform structure holding a large flame. The Priest, in all white clothing, circled the sacred fire while he prayed. 

As latecomers found seats, the energy with the sun setting behind the stage became quiet and still. Close to a hundred men dressed only in black and white plaid cloth around their waists, came onto the stage and gathered into a circle. As they arrived and for the next ninety minutes, the group chanted, “chak-achak-achak.” Their vocals served as the chorus to the performance, without any other musical instruments. Actors adorned in elaborate costumes, took turns coming onto the stage and performed a small part of Ramayana from the Hindu mythology. In this part, Ravana abducts Sita, and Hanuman, the monkey God, who is a renowned devotee of her husband Ram, sets out to bring her back against all odds. In my limited knowledge of Hinduism, I understand it to be a battle of good versus evil. It was quite an intensely emotional performance. The chorus evoked an energy that was both calming and vivacious. The men’s voices in unison pulled you into the present moment and held the attention fiercely still. It was one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever seen in-person.

Here's a short clip from the film Baraka, although it can't replace the actual feeling of being there:
After getting back home from Bali it was still on my mind, and I wanted to learn more about its origins. Apparently the dance is based on Sanghyang, a sacred ritual where during the performance, spiritual entities will enter and possess the bodies of the dancers and bring them into a trance-like state. However, in the 1930's, a German painter, Walter spies became interested in this sacred dance that was done in the villages, and worked with a Balinese dancer to create something, “that was both authentic to Balinese traditions but also palatable to Western tourist’s narrow tastes at the time.” After touring internationally with the dance troupe, it became the most popular Balinese dance, that the country is known for.
The Kecak dance was never combined with Ramayana in the villages. It was meant to be a sacred ritual that serves as a way to communicate with God. The part that was especially hard for me was that this was created by a non-native, basically for the purposes of commoditization. Perhaps this would've happened on its own over time, given that Bali is the only place in Indonesia that's eighty-percent Hindu. And there is still beauty to the acapella singing, combined with this particular physical movement that seems to have an interesting gateway to subtle realms. I suppose it is inevitable that time constantly changes things, and what is passed down to us, has been altered at the hands of everyone who has touched it along the way. Theoretically, this is no different than our perceptions about every single religion in the world.
For me, this brings up a question of values. Things are constantly changing, but values guide that transition? If it's about selling the show, it's no longer about inner transformation or connection. How do we maintain the integrity of what we do, and preserve our initial intentions, that often come from a space of deep clarity? These start to change, as more and more people get involved, and as we ourselves change. With ServiceSpace, I’ve always felt that our three key principles have shielded us from deviating too far from our initial motivation to serve. And even if we start to go slightly off, there is enough strength at the core to jolt us back, and course-correct immediately. 

How do we maintain the values? I think the answer is the same whether it's at an organizational level or at a personal level. We have to live those values deeply, in our day-to-day lives without compromise if we want them to be present at least for tomorrow. As a well-known Buddhist teacher, Master Hsuan Hua used to say, "Off by an inch in the beginning, off by ten thousand miles at the end." In that sense, I guess that we are always at the beginning.


Letting the Mud Settle

In ancient Greece, they had two words for time, Kairos and Kronos. Kronos was the rational word for the chronological time as we know it. Viewed as masculine, it kept a steady track of clocks, dates, and calendars. Kairos, however, a more feminine view of time, was used to describe the "quality" of time. Whenever we are doing something we love and are completely absorbed in it, we are out of the ordinary time, and in the Kairos time.

All time is certainly not born equal. I have been noticing my own inclinations towards different forms of time. In some ways, have been feeling so busy, to the point of feeling overwhelmed that I wish I could hit the pause button on everything. Meanwhile, in other ways, things that I really love seem to find their way into my day: making time for a friend, a relaxed cup of tea with the hubby, reading a few pages of a book I love.

Photo: Ian Barber
This got me thinking more about time as a concept in our culture, especially the pace at which we’re going now. All the things that were suppose to free our time, like email, (yes, that’s what we were told when "electronic"-mail first came out), social media and smartphones have slowly taken over our lives by commanding our attention, constantly. We are probably the last generation that knows how life was like pre-internet, pre-caller-id, pre-online tv. I know deep down that many of us are moving at a pace that feels unnatural and is probably faster than any of our ancestors. However, we may not be aware of the true impact that this will have on our well-being for a long time to come.

Recently, I had a couple of days in Bali to do nothing. And I recall sitting at the beach early one morning, watching the surfers and the waves -- and feeling like I’m missing something. There’s something my mind felt needed my attention. Something other than what I was already enjoying. In some sense, I had “fully arrived” and could actually take the day off, but my mind, however, had its own patterns to uphold. It was much easier to have constant activity than -- to actually do nothing.

The Italians have a beautiful phrase, that I don’t think Americans have an equivalent for, “Dolce far Niente,” the sweetness of doing nothing. Not just Italy but all over Europe and Asia, you can see people sitting outside of Cafes, on the streets, parks, just looking out and being with themselves. This is something that seems to be a part of every culture in the past. Imagine the hunters waiting for their prey, the farmers working their farms at the pace of the seasons, the fisherman waiting for the fish. The "sweetness of doing nothing" was automatically built into their days because they didn’t take out their smartphones every time they had to wait for thirty seconds. They allowed their mind to wander for a bit, and perhaps that allowed it to drift and eventually bring forth to the surface something -- something that was significant to the being.

Perhaps these are the moments when the mud of our mind starts to settle, and a deeper stillness takes over. This space between one activity and the next is where the truths can be more easily revealed, and this is where life makes sense of itself. The graceful silence between the notes makes each note that much more powerful. And maybe, just maybe this opens up the door to what the Greeks were talking about, and we suddenly find ourselves completely absorbed in the sacred Kairos time.



Morning Prayer (Bali, Indonesia)

We must face
the moments
we would rather
prefer to forget.

By confronting
our deepest fears,
we enable our
own metamorphosis
and unearth the
capacity to face
our next discord.

And meet life
at its own edge,
with open arms,
ready to take on
the next big wave.


One earth, one sky, entirely at peace

John and Mia chanting with others before a walk

When our friends John and Mia invited me to join them on a Peace Walk for a nuclear-free future, led by a nun, I immediately thought, yes. It’s not ordinarily something I would be inclined to do by myself. Especially since I know very little about this topic, aside from what has been in the mainstream media about nuclear energy, and the devastating Fukushima tragedy recently. As I was reading about the walk, a friend who knew I had a busy week ahead, wondered if these types of walks actually make an impact? I wasn't sure, but somehow I was certain that I needed to join them while they’re in the Bay Area. Aside from sorting out my schedule for the next day, I tried to mentally prepare myself to walk 17 miles from Oakland to Hayward. 

Early in the morning, when I got to the Intertribal Friendship House, to my surprise the group had just left. As a few others and I caught up with them in a van, the first sight of the walkers across the street was extremely moving. Two rows of people, walked in unison, drumming and chanting. Out of the fifty or so people that were there, the first in line were folks with the signs explaining the Peace Walk. The nuns/monks, and the “regulars” drumming and chanting followed this. They were reciting a prayer from the Lotus Sutra: Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō” (One earth, one sky, entirely at peace). Walkers like me who were joining in for a day, trailed at the end.

It felt a little surreal to see this happening with the backdrop of the downtown Oakland neighborhood, where every other store we passed seemed to be a convenience store. Walking by some of the buildings with shattered glass, vandalized walls, and the too often apathetic looking, drunken eyes staring back at us, one had a keen sense that if there was anywhere that a prayer could be useful, it was here. You could see that this energy that the prayers brought was not common on those streets. And yet at the same time it was slowly starting to be welcomed. The teenagers looked on with curiosity, sometimes erupted into cheers, and the drivers that went by sometimes honked in solidarity. It’s hard to forget the tired face of the tall African-American woman waiting at the bus stop. As she saw us coming, her face broke out into a huge smile, nodding her head in full agreement, and sending flying kisses as we walked past her. It was such an authentic and a heart-warming response. Still warms my heart to think about it. 

Peace Walkers led by the tireless Jun-sa
 After Mia kindly gave me a quick lesson on the drumming, I moved up to chant with the others. Once the rhythm took over, my heart felt a deep sense of prayer for the world. As all the voices sang in unison, the prayers were multiplied and flooded the streets with sense of reverence. A few times when I really got into it, almost everything else seemed to come to a standstill, the traffic seemed silent, only the sound of the drums remained. You couldn't help but feel all of humanity in that harmonious beat.  

Jun-san Yasuda, her teacher, and peace pagodas

Jun-san Yasuda, the fearless leader of this initiative is a 66-year-old Japanese Buddhist nun. She is about 4-foot-11 inches, 100 pounds, and nothing short of a force of nature. She has walked cross-country three times. As we pass the Aztec dancers, who were dancing on the street for another event, she ran over and joined them in the dance. Her energy rivals that of a teenager. As we watched the dance, my friend Sri, later shared that he was reminded of this beautiful quote “live so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” She embodies that deeply. In a very touching moment, the elder from the Aztec group came forward with white sage incense, and blessed every-single-one-of-the-walkers before we moved on. There’s something stirring about an elder from one tribe, embracing another from a completely different tradition, who lives half-way around the world from them.

Jun-san Yasuda, a 66-year-old nun who's walking from SF to NY
Jun-san’s teacher Nichidatsu Fujii, teacher of her Buddhist order, met Gandhi in India in 1931. Fujii was greatly inspired by the meeting and decided to devote his life to promoting non-violence. In 1947, he began constructing Peace Pagodas as shrines to World peace. They were built as a symbol of peace in Japanese cities including Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the atomic bombs took the lives of over 150,000 people. By 2000, eighty Peace Pagodas had been built around the world in Europe, Asia, and the United States. They are a symbol of non-violence dating as far back as 2000 years ago, when Emperor Ashoka of India began erecting these throughout the country.

70 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and 5 years after the Fukushima disaster, Jun-san believes that we must never let such disasters happen again. Carrying this urgent prayer, she and 23 others will walk from San Francisco to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference at the United Nations in New York City. 

Many Native Americans have been present throughout these walks. And I was initially unclear on the connection, but soon realized that many nuclear power plants have historically been built on indigenous lands not just in US, but also in Canada, Australia, South and Central America, Africa, and many others. The areas are rich in uranium, which is the fuel of these power plants. With unemployment rates usually high in many of these communities, it’s cheaper for the plants to find people who are willing to do the dangerous work of mining and processing uranium. As nuclear energy gains mass momentum, we still don’t know what to do with nuclear waste. There’s no solution to it. As we’ve seen in Fukushima, 160,000 people fled their homes because of radioactive contamination. And waste still continues to spill into the ocean. Instead of focusing on other types of energy or actually reducing our own consumption, we’re heading into something that is destroying the planet.

In these times, peaceful walks like these become a symbol of people’s voice. When nuns and monks who consciously try to live peaceful lives, leave the comfort of their monasteries and hit the streets, it’s a calling to take a close look at where we might be off. As noon approached, we all gathered into a circle on a patch of cool grass near Starbucks. Someone brought out a few packages of bread, few sliced tomatoes and spinach, along with a few jars of peanut butter, as well as jam. One of the Native American elders, Wounded Knee took a little bit of food on a plate and brought it to the center of the circle and offered a small prayer filled with gratitude. Everyone took a much-needed break to sit, stretch, fill their bellies. As people were eating, Mia pointed out that the monks and nuns always wait until everyone has taken the food before taking any, even though they work the hardest. And sometimes, like today there wasn’t that much left. This struck a deep chord. After walking for ten miles, I was famished. It’s hard to imagine how they’re feeling after continuously living in this way. I was so moved to make lunch for everyone the next day. During that break, I texted my friend Audrey to see if she would be up for helping cook for 35-40 people.  Within seconds she texted saying she was in. As I bid goodbye to all the new friends who were staying at a church for the night, I hit the grocery store.

A friend and I make lunch for the walkers the next day
Audrey, Nipun and I had a grand time the next morning whipping up a nutritious meal. As we coordinated with Amy, who was planning the walk route for the day, she asked us to show up near a highway underpass. There weren’t too many places for a group to sit, so we set up a buffet in the trunk of my car. As they all came up, they gathered in a circle around the car and offered a prayer. Audrey later told me she was almost in tears from their sincere prayers. I was glad I wasn’t the only one touched so deeply by them. It made me happy to see the monks and nuns not wait around because the food was plenty.

Going back to my friends understandable concern: will this walk make an impact? A group of people peacefully walking and spreading their message, made a bigger impact on me than anything I could have ever read in the news. People that are not necessarily “against” but “for.” They’re standing for peace. They’re standing for better quality of life for all of earth’s inhabitants. They’re standing for making global decisions from a space of love and not greed. They’re standing for taking responsibility for how we treat the planet. How can I not stand with those people who are doing so much on behalf of all of us? Their very existence is making an impact.

(Note: All photos found on-line, taken by various others, like George Cho)