Date leaving: April 23, 2012
Date returning: June 18, 2012
Countries: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Independent Study Description: backpack independently through the religiously and culturally diverse region of Southeast Asia, with particular emphasis on personal exploration and understanding of Buddhism in Thailand and the Indonesian Archipelago.
Year in school: Senior
Major: Religious Studies
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Entry No. 25 | June 20, 2012
This is my last blog, and as I write it, I am sitting in the USF Tampa campus library. It feels surreal to be back. Everything here is so clean, and organized, and not dirty, and working, and not breaking, and not grimy. The people are busy doing their own things and minding their own business rather than trying to sell me something. I feel great, and as someone said to me on Facebook, I made it home in one piece…whatever that means. I guess it means that I did not have any of my body parts amputated while abroad. Thank goodness!
In my final blog, I am going to do what I have never done before. I will now relate my experiences living in India and traveling through Southeast Asia to haircuts. I was in 6 countries, and over 6 months, I had 6 haircuts. They were scary, mysterious, interesting, and as a result of having the haircuts done, I am a different person, more learned and experienced in the ways of the world…or the haircuts of the world. In this context, the haircuts act as an analogy to living and traveling abroad by providing important life lessons.
So my first cut was in New Delhi, India, and by the time I had it done, I had already been accosted by hundreds of touts,or pestering, aggressive people who attempt to convince you to purchase their product or service at inflated prices. This means that I was adept at saying “no” and saying “no way.” I was getting better at saying nothing, which is actually the best way to handle touts. Not saying a word frustrates the pesky little kooky Indian sales people, so they move on to other tourists.
During the haircut, the barber, who did not speak English, began cutting the hair on the sides of my head with scissors rather than clippers. I like barbers using clippers, so I said, “no, no, no, clippers. Use the cl-iiiiiiiiiii-ppers”… and I pointed to the clippers. He looked confused, and then he begrudgingly picked up the clippers. As soon as he started using them, I could tell he had no clue what he was doing. After thirty seconds or so of being scared he would cut in big bald spot in my head, I said, “no, no, no clippers. Don’t use the cl-iiiiiiiiiii-ppers” … and I pointed to the scissors. In the end, the barber gave me an almost perfect haircut. Besides a failed attempt by the barber to give me some sort of massage by taking a towel and putting it over my head and then rubbing my entire head and face with the towel really hard until I yelled, “stop!”, the haircut went well.
During this experience I was able to practice saying “no,” and then I learned that my way is not always the best way, even though it is always the right way…the right to be right and the right to be wrong.
I had another memorable haircut in Bangkok. I was meeting with a new friend, and beforehand, I had some extra time. I walked around a busy neighborhood looking for the cheapest barbershop or salon I could find. Good news, I found the cheapest one, the one where the hair cutters have no experience in cutting hair. During this particular frightening haircut, my stylist was a middle-aged Thai woman, and she complimented me in every possible way the whole time. She remarked how nice my hair was…she complimented me on how nice my watch was (digital $7 Wal-Mart watch)…she asked me if I was married…and she told me how much she loved my shoes. Then she began offering to give me a massage after the haircut. I don’t like massages, especially from strange Thai woman posing as hair stylists. I was getting frustrated until she took the clippers and shaved a bald spot along the side of my right ear. After that, she didn’t do much talking while trying to shave the other side as close as possible to my scalp so that it might match my baldness.
During this experience I was able to practice tolerance and loving kindness, and I learned that I must accept certain things, no matter how unacceptable they may be. Plus, if I am honest with myself, the outcomes of most experiences, whether good or bad, are the result of my own actions. I chose the cheapest haircut I could find in Bangkok so what did I expect! Although I knew and she knew what she did, how she shaved a hole in my precious hair, I said nothing. I didn’t need to. Sometimes or most times it’s better to keep my comments to myself.
I received my final haircut last week in Jakarta, Indonesia. At this point on the trip and in my coming to terms with haircuts abroad, I was not as scared as I once would have been months earlier. The people in the barbershop were extremely kind; not a single one of them spoke English. The man who cut my hair was a true professional; he used clippers and scissors with a skill I have only witnessed in America. I felt my fear of ordering a simple hair trim and getting a Mohawk fade away. Afterward, I was elated over the results of my haircut! Not only was my hair looking good, but also I was close to coming home, in one piece, with a full head of hair! I said “thank you” to these people in a way I have never done before.
During this experience I was able to put my faith, my faith in humanity and haircuts into action, and then I learned that not everybody in Asia sucks at giving haircuts. And I learned that a bad haircut is not the end of the world, on the other side of the world, and if I just keep searching for a descent hair cutter, eventually I will find one.
Getting strange haircuts in stranger places is like being abroad. First you say “noooooooo!” to everything.
Then you say nothing.
Finally you say “thank you.”
Now check out the last video in which I videotaped myself thanking the Indonesian barbershop. This is by far my most ridiculous video, yet!
Entry No. 24 | June 12, 2012
Within my system of beliefs, is the notion that God is working in perfectly harmony to realize all of my goals. And one of my goals is to not die. God came through yet again this week. Now as a student of religion with a lot experience with a lot of different gods, I cannot define God; I can only trust in him…or her…or it…or them. Them? That would be weird. Wait, where was I going with this? Oh yeah, so I did not die the other day, and for that I am grateful. Let me explain.
Although I am in Jakarta, Indonesia now, as stated in my last blog I was on the Balinese island of Nusa Penida volunteering and having fun this past week. After my first day there, I felt blisters on my lower back, and without a mirror around, I attributed them to sunburn from snorkeling. As the week progressed, the sores seemed to get worse. Each day I had tons to do, thus I did not pay too much attention to them until the day before I had to leave. At that point, the sores turned into a long rash, and wrapped around my side and were on my stomach. A local islander suggested it might be from little baby jellyfish stinging me. Since I went swimming everyday, this suggestion made sense. So I visited the island’s clinic…the only clinic. Now I must mention that since this entire journey began just before this past New Year’s, I have been to some clinics. The experience receiving health care in Asia can be both scary and seriously frightening! Not only do the medical professionals not always speak English, but also the facilities can be slightly less than American standards, to say the least.
I approached the area where I was told that the island health clinic was located, and all I saw was an abandoned building. I asked some people where the clinic was, and they pointed to the abandoned building. I got nervous, but it turned out the clinic was located in the back of the abandoned building next to the other abandoned building. After walking up to an empty reception desk located in the front of the clinic, I yelled, “Helllllllooooo.” I heard a bunch of whispering and all of a sudden, several medical professionals burst out the doors to assist me. I showed them my rash, and they said, “Ooooohhhhh!!!!” Then they proceeded to say a bunch of words in Indonesian, and I heard blah-blah-blah-viral-blah-blah.
Viral? I asked what was wrong with me, and they couldn’t remember how to say the word, the diagnosis, in English. Finally, they said I had herpes.
Herpes? Okay. So I figured they had no clue what they were talking about. How do you get herpes on your back? Plus, I have a girlfriend!
So the next morning was time to leave the island. I took the ferry back to Bali to prepare for my flight the following day to Jakarta. Before I checked into the new guesthouse, I visited another clinic in Bali for a second opinion. This time it was a completely different experience. I had total confidence in the staff and doctor, who quickly told me I had herpes.
Herpes? Okay. It turned out that I contracted herpes zostar…also known as shingles! Oh no, and isn’t shingles what older people get?
The doctor gave me anti-viral medicine to take and assured me that I would be fine. I left the clinic and immediately took my first dose. Less than five minutes later, I felt my whole body heat up. All of a sudden, my face began itching, and when I scratched it, I felt bumps all over. Then my face began to swell and grow in size outward. I became filled with fear, so I jumped on the scooter I had just rented, and drove the two or three blocks back to the clinic. As soon as I walked in, I yelled, “I am having an allergic reaction or something, and I need help!” The nurse led me to the doctor, and immediately she said that I needed to go to the hospital. I said, “Call an ambulance, NOW!” She said that they don’t have ambulances, so they got me a taxi. I jumped in, and on the way to the hospital, I started having trouble breathing, my heart was pounding, and I was sweating and feeling like I was going to pass out. The taxi was moving so slowly. I yelled, “Emergency, drive faster!!! Hospital, hospital!!!” The driver did not get it.
When you feel like the way I felt, when you feel like you might be dying, your true faith comes out. It becomes go time, and as I felt myself slipping into unconsciousness, I began to pray affirmatively. I thanked God over and over again for allowing me to live a long and healthy life, and I envisioned myself old and not dead. I imagined my life in the future, and I thought a lot about Brittany. I saw myself with her, having a wonderful life and enjoying all of those things that two committed and in love people enjoy…money, gold, and diamonds. Just kidding, but I was burning into my subconscious an intense desire to live so that if I passed out, this desire would remain burning even when my conscious mind was no longer conscious.
But, I didn’t pass out. When the taxi arrived at the hospital, I hurried inside to an empty reception area. I yelled how I needed help, and then I laid down flat on the floor. The receptionists looked at each other strangely, and one of them came over to me. She asked me to follow her to the emergency room, so I got up. Where was my wheel chair or stretcher? Where were the nurses yelling for help and running in all directions?
I have been involved in a couple of serious hospital emergency situations, and nobody ever runs around like in the movies.
After making to the emergency room, on my own I must add, I was given two injections to reverse the effects of the allergic reaction. They worked immediately, and I felt my face shrinking back from Elephant Man status!
I spent the night in the hospital, and the facility was amaaaaaaazing. The hospital offered a food menu that would rival many fine dining restaurants, and the staff was so sweet.
All and all, I am very fortunate. When I was first diagnosed on Nusa Penida Island, the doctor wanted to give me the same anti-viral medicine that caused me the horrible reaction. I can only imagine what could have or would have happened if I had the reaction on an island with no hospital and no helicopters.
God was working in perfectly harmony to realize all of my goals.
Now check out the last video from Bangkok. It is simply amazing. Then watch the video of made of my entire Bali island experience, minus the hospital visit…
Entry No. 23 | June 8, 2012
When I was growing up, my parents and I would go to McDonald’s for breakfast on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day…several of them. I am not sure if McDonald’s still does it, but back then on those two special days devoted to moms and dads, the restaurant chain would offer free breakfast to the mom on Mother’s Day and to the dad on his special day. We always went to the beach, so on the drive out to Honeymoon Island, we passed four McDonald’s…and we stopped at all four and got the free breakfast…and bought NOTHING ELSE! This means we drove up to the drive-thru, asked for the free breakfast for mom or dad, declined to purchase anything else, pulled up to the window, and paid nothing while trying to hide the other bags of McDonald’s food from our previous stops. As a kid, I never knew there was anything strange about this behavior. My father’s thinking was that they give away a free meal so we should collect as many free meals as possible, and why not?
There are lots of different ways of thinking, and what makes sense at one time in our lives within a certain environment does not always make sense later in a new situation. The type of thinking I have encountered here on the Balinese island of Nusa Penida, and particularly at the Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF) where I am volunteering, is unique. There is a kind of concern for nature, wildlife, the environment and fellow human beings unequal to anything I have ever experienced, and the idea here is to work together for the greater good.
Nusa Penida Island consists of more than 40 villages primarily farming seaweed. Approximately 85 percent of the island’s income comes from this crop, and everyone is collectively working on this pursuit. Because the majority of islanders’ time is applied toward seaweed, they have been importing fruits and vegetables from nearby Bali forever. As a result, the FNPF has developed several organic gardens not only to show the locals that farming is possible, but also to have a place to teach them how to farm. Furthermore, in an attempt to help rebuild the forests and develop agro-forestry, the Foundation has a green house in which tree saplings are grown and freely given to villagers. This is where I have been working, in the green house pulling weeds. Now my thinking is…“If only I had a jug of Roundup, I could save so much time!” Of course, Roundup and other chemical products are not used here because a selfish choice to kill weeds with chemicals would not be for the greater good of the island’s inhabitants.
In addition to developing food farming and improving the forests, the Foundation works to rebuild populations of endangered Indonesian birds including the beautiful Bali Starling. They are raising these rare birds so that eventually the birds can be released. These little birdies are sooo cute! I want to bring one home with me, but this would not be for the greater good of the island’s inhabitants. Nor would it be for the greater good of me at immigration trying to enter the United States.
At the FNPF, when you are going to the beach for to snorkel, you are reminded to bring a bag to collect any trash. This makes sense, and I never thought about doing this before. If I saw trash, I would think about how someone needs to do a beach cleanup. I didn’t think about cleaning it right then and there. But…when is now the right time to start taking care of the environment?
I mentioned in the last blog how I was going investigate the form of Hinduism practiced in Bali, so here goes. Traditional Balinese culture is embedded into the daily lives of the island’s villagers, and a rare form of Hinduism shapes the culture. Animism and some Buddhism, with an added island laid-back attitude, heavily influence this Indian religion. While Hinduism from India includes personal worship of specific gods and goddesses like Shiva, Ganesa, Vishnu, or Durga, Balinese Hinduism focuses more on the Ultimate Reality-God manifested in the sacred symbol and word- Om or Aum. This means that rather than having lots of images and icons of the Hindu deities, the temples here contain symbols signifying Om/Aum or…God or…Brahman or…not this or that or…whatever or however one describes the ultimate divine power responsible for the world, past, present and future. Wow! What am I talking about? I don’t know, and that is why I must not go much further. Bali Hinduism is fascinating, and I could spend a lifetime trying to understand the tradition…and I just might…or at least a portion of my life…like retirement!
There are two volunteers here who have stayed over a year, and I understand why they would not want to leave. A confusing question here is what day is it? Seriously. These people here cannot quickly answer this question.
“For one million dollars, what day of the week is today?”
“You lose. Now you must live a meager life on Nusa Penida Island for the rest of your days, enjoying constant smiles and hellos from the locals, eating island fish and rice dishes, riding scooters along the coasts, and going snorkeling on Indonesian reefs.”
“Thank you. I lost on purpose.”
Nusa Penida is “a remote island unprepared for tourists,” as one webpage stated. I can put a lot of things into words, but this experience I cannot. The Buddha, when asked to describe enlightenment, responded with silence. He preached that the only way to understand something is to experience it, and in the case of understanding the experience of being on a Balinese island unprepared for tourists…well, you can imagine what Buddha would say about that…or what he would not say about that!
The last thing I want to mention is that a few of the other volunteers and I visited a Hindu cave temple. It was amazing, and to me, the best part was when the temple priests led us to a large shrine to make an offering. One of the priests offered us cigarettes! I could not believe it, and this experience was one of the funniest and most unique of my journey through Asian traditions. A temple priest offering a cigarette!!!! There is no better example of the difference in attitude, the difference in practices, and the laid-back-ness manifested in Hinduism on the islands of Bali.
Entry No. 22 | June 4, 2012
So I made it to Bali, and now I am on Nusa Penida Island, 25 kilometers off the Balinese coast. This island is considered Bali without the tourism. Besides the few foreigners where I am volunteering, there is practically nobody from the outside here. This is a tropical paradise unlike anything I have ever imagined. It’s a Hindu island that is not Indian. I never thought of such a thing before…Hindus who don’t care about Gandhi. And this is not in a bad way, it just puts into perspective how different the religion is manifested in Indonesia. But I am going to figure out what’s going ‘round here with Hinduism this week and write about it next time.
I am at the Friends of the National Parks Foundation (FNPF) NGO, and it just so happens that right now there is a huge Hindu festival going on at the village temple next to the FNFP. This is a super-spiritual place, and it had me thinking about what that means to me. I am passionate, not as much about being spiritual, but rather about investigating how other people are spiritual. This is what I find fascinating. What do these people do to find God or what are those people doing with that incense! And what does spirituality mean anyways? A new friend here asked me last night what religion I followed, and I said, “Umm, well, uhh, I guess…I am spiritual!”
Prior to coming here, a man I met in Bangkok offered me the perfect explanation for spirituality, saying: Spirituality is finding meaning in things that would otherwise be meaningless.
I cannot properly explain to you how much this definition has affected me since I heard it a few days ago and how much I have pondered the notion. It means that someone who is spiritual or trying to be spiritual attempts to take normal daily tasks, events and experiences, and make them matter. Spirituality is the transcending the mundane to the meaningful.
Here’s an example.
Two brothers each have a job picking up garbage, and they both do their job the same way. Eventually, one of them decides to become more spiritual, and he starts finding meaning in the normally monotonous task of picking up trash. While the other brother looks at his own job as simply a means to a paycheck, the spiritual brother identifies how picking up trash fits into the bigger universal picture and realizes the importance of his job. For example, he sees that picking up trash has benefits for nature, and he even starts separating the trash that can be recycled. As the result of assigning more meaning to his job and acting with improved intention, he helps the environment and most importantly, he finds more happiness. Spirituality, moreover, is finding meaning in meaningless things to be happier.
People who have had spiritual awakenings have awakened their ability to find meaning, happiness and fulfillment in their lives. An awakening of the spirit is seeing the world through a different, more clear and positive lens than before. This awakening awakens or our ability to find the good in the bad, the beneficial in the boring, and the meaningful in the meaningless. Spiritually is stopping and asking…What is this all about? Why am I doing what I am doing? What does this mean to me? Spirituality is paying attention, and the resulting payment is happiness.
So today, besides snorkeling over a coral and fish filled reef…besides enjoying delicious exotic rice dishes with fresh vegetables, hot peppers and prawns for a dollar…besides relaxing in the shade with baby chickens walking around and Balinese Starling chirping nearby…I am going to spend time digging, planting, cleaning and maybe even teaching. And while these tasks normally might not mean much, within a spiritual intention added, they will now mean a great deal.
Entry No. 21 | June 1, 2012
I am preparing to leave Bangkok today, and I am headed to Bali, Indonesia to volunteer for a week at the Friends of the National Parks Foundation. FNPF, as it is abbreviated, is on the Balinese island of Nusa Penida. This charitable organization rebuilds populations of endangered Indonesian birds, sponsors children to attend schools, teaches sustainable farming, and plants trees on degraded land to restore forests. While Bali itself is supposed to be filled with typical tourist stuff and touts—people trying to get tourists’ money, Nusa Penida is a real-deal Indonesian island containing sheer cliffs, rocky hill terrain, amazing coral reefs, and over 40 villages with traditional Balinese culture including farming, weaving, temple worship, and seaweed production. Wait, I am allergic to seaweed!
Why I am telling you what this Balinese island is supposed to be like when next week I can tell you what it is like?
So back to Bangkok…there are more 7-11’s here in Bangkok than any other place in the world. Of course, I do not know this for a fact, but it sure seems that way. 7-11 is a great place to feel at home, and I have enjoyed lots of food from this American chain. It is too bad monks can’t shop there. They would not have to wake up so early and go around collecting food and other goodies in the neighborhood.
This practice is called alms, and to me, it is fascinating. Each morning, Thai monks leave the monastery at 5 a.m. carrying big bowls. They split into groups and walk all around their neighborhood collecting supplies from their non-monk neighbors to sustain the temple clergy. Basically, they walk around begging for food. But this traditional Thai practice is great because it allows the temple’s neighboring Buddhist lay (non-monk) community to participate with and practice Buddhism. See, Thai Buddhism, as I mentioned in a previous blog, is “old school.” Its focus is on individual enlightenment and individual attempt to break free from the endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth (samsara) that we are all trapped in and try to reach nirvana-heaven. Thus, non-monks don’t have as much of a chance to accrue good karma-merit as the monks do who spend all day and night in this effort, so supporting the monks is a way to get good karma. Remember, there are temples with monasteries everywhere. So everyone in Bangkok has a chance to offer supplies to the local monastic community.
Over the last three weeks, I have been staying in a hostel/guest house. Monks come by here around 6 a.m.…so it would have been nice to witness the alms giving…but, too early! I asked the lady that works the front desk how the process works. She said, “The monks come here very early in morning. We give food.” I said, “What kind of food?” “We give rice, some kind of meat, a snack or something sweet, and juice or water.” I said, “meat?” She explained that if the monks are given meat, it is okay for them to eat. They just can’t prepare the meat themselves.
Monks take on precepts, which are vows-usually to not do certain things. One of the precepts is to not kill sentient beings or participate in the killing of sentient beings. You would think that eating meat would count, but in Thai culture and many other Buddhist cultures for that matter, the bad karma comes to the person who kills and cuts the meat. So meat offered as a gift is okay to eat. Interestingly, buying meat is bad because that would result in the seller of the meat having to replace what you have purchased, thus, you would be participating in killing.
Wow, I have a headache now. I think I will go to 7-11 and order a hotdog!
Now check out my next YouTube that truly gives you an inside look at Bangkok scams…
Entry No. 20 | May 25, 2012
I am going to begin this blog with some bragging. First of all, at this point I can eat anything. I have eaten every single form of hot pepper from South Asia across to Southeast Asia. Wait, that’s not that far, but it sounds tough. I eat hot peppers with hot sauce for breakfast! I actually do. Hand me a hot pepper in any form and I will devour like Godzilla eating Japanese people in the old black and white movies.
I eat mushy stuff, hard stuff, green stuff and gross stuff…all of which I have no idea what they are. And the cheaper the food, the better it tastes…the less expensive the meal, the more willing I am to eat it.
“What, you want me to eat that entire fish with the bones in it? How much does it cost? Fifty cents…thank you, and it tastes great!”
“Oh, what are THOSE things? I don’t speak Thai, so I don’t understand. How much does it cost? Thirty-three cents…thank you and it tastes great, whatever it is.”
A couple of days ago, I was thinking about how I did not have much to brag about lately and I was running out of interesting photos to post on Facebook, so I ate a bag of grasshoppers! They were great. The grasshopper salesman, who also sold beetles and some other unrecognizable bugs, sprayed the grasshoppers with a butter spray and sprinkled them with salt. This added much flavor! To me, they were not cheap…about 75 cents for a small bag, which seemed high for grasshoppers. What do I have to base that opinion on?
“Man, I could not believe the prices of hotel rooms, rental cars, and grasshoppers in Bangkok!”
Now that I have bragged to my heart’s content about all of the crazy things I’ve eaten, I will begin to brag about all I know in terms of Buddhism and spirituality. I will now list some of the spiritual things I have done on this portion of my journey thus far in Bangkok, attempting to make myself appear super-spiritual, completely enlightened, and basically, smarter and more experienced in every way…and in an annoying way.
Buddhists are not supposed to eat living creatures! I just remembered that, so I must mention that I did not actually eat the grasshoppers; I tasted them, and then returned them to nature.
Recently, I visited the International Buddhist Meditation Centre and quickly found out that I am not Buddhist. After sitting on the floor for 2 hours, my legs felt like falling off, and my feet were asleep, dead asleep. Dead, like when I stood up, I had no feeling in my feet for a looooong time, and I thought they would need to be amputated.
Anyways, the teacher said some interesting things to us during the class. He explained how we only need 4 hours of sleep. I was thinking, “Speak for yourself. I need 4 hour naps in the afternoon followed by 8 hours of sleep at night.” Then the teacher began talk about dreams. He said that dreams interrupt our sleeping, and when we can sleep without dreaming, we only need a few hours of sleep. He made sense, and his suggestion was doing meditation as we lie in bed and fall asleep. I do believe that many of my dreams are fear based and must interrupt my R.E.M. sleep, thus causing me to need more sleep.
The guru added, “You have 100 percent authority over your mind, although you might have very little control over it. You have no authority or control over what other people do to you.” The teacher was teaches us to let go what happens to us in our external environments and focus on how we can improve our internal environments. It was interesting, so I began to meditate on ordering pizza.
The class consisted of three parts: the teacher talking to us, a sitting with legs crossed meditation, and then a walking meditation. I love the walking meditation because my feet regained blood flow and were miraculously healed while I dreamed of running out of there. During the walking, we had to raise our feet very slowly, one after another, and walk bit by bit. At one point, the teacher kept looking at me, and I thought, “This guy thinks I am doing this so well!” I soon snapped out of my ego-trip when the teacher said to me during his closing remarks, “you did okay… a lot better than I thought you were going to do.” I responded, “Thank you?”
It was funny, because one of the attendees asked the teacher where Buddha is at now, and it took him a minute to respond. He got stumped, and I couldn’t help thinking “I know where he is. He is in Parinirvana… heaven…the afterlife where he has been released from the never-ending world of birth-death-rebirth that Buddhists believe we are trapped in.
Now check out my next YouTube, which takes you on a trip around Bangkok and ends with a trip to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha (deceased Buddha)…
Entry No. 19 | May 21, 2012
In my last blog, I wrote about the things in Bangkok that seem familiar, so this week I am writing about things that seem unfamiliar. This makes sense, and there is a lot to write about.
Thais are filled with a sense of national pride, and this is evident all over Thailand’s capital city. Bangkok is a monarchy, and the metropolis is decorated with photos of the country’s monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. It is important to have respect for the great king, because last November, a man sent four text messages defaming His Majesty, and the man was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Further, Information Minister Anudith Nakornthap recently announced that Facebook users who “like” or “share” content that insults the Thai monarchy are committing a crime punishable by losing their Facebook passwords, which, for most, would be worse than 20 years in a Thai prison. Of course, the latter is a joke, but the Facebook part is not. After watching every “Locked Up Abroad”episode ever created, I am confident that nobody would want to spend time in a Thai prison.
Okay, so national pride abounds the streets and alleys of Bangkok. Now here is what is unfamiliar, to say the least…each morning at 8 a.m. and evening at 6 p.m., the Thai National Anthem is broadcast on every TV and radio channel and from loud speakers in public parks, subway and train stations, and civic and government buildings. It is the most extraordinary event to witness. I was at Lumphini Park, which is Bangkok’s version of Central Park, and all of a sudden, the Anthem began playing. The park is huge and has hundreds of people jogging, walking, sitting, playing, talking, doing aerobics and even pedaling pedal boats. When the noise came out of the loud speakers, all of the park attendees stopped what they were doing and stood straight up in reverence. I guess the pedal boaters did not stand up, but they stopped pedaling. Even the shop peddlers stopped peddling their goods. Wow, this is getting weird…
So the song played while everyone stood still. As soon as the anthem finished, all of the people went back to what they were doing. It was almost like in the movies when someone pressing a “freeze-time” button.
Speaking of movies, I went, and the King and his Anthem were there as well.
First, Thai movie theatre popcorn comes in all kinds of flavors, and I like cheese the best. I bought a ticket to “Avengers,” and in doing so, I had to choose my seat. It seems that most Asian theatres sell tickets with specific seat assignments rather than general admission. The movie was completely packed; every single seat was sold up to the second row, so I had to sit very close and on the end. The movie’s previews went on forever, and since I did not understand a word in Thai, I was ravaging my butter popcorn while two skinny Thai kids sat texting on both sides of me. All of a sudden and just like at the park, the National Anthem came on and everyone stood up in the theatre. This time, the music was accompanied with a video on the big screen, and it was similar to a Hallmark commercial with hints of “The Wonder Years” introduction. The music played, there were kids singing, and by the end of the video, I felt a deep sense of respect and gratitude for the King and all he has done for humanity.
Although the parks and theatres are a couple of places where reverence to His Majesty can be witnessed, Bangkok’s Grand Palace is the best place to pay respect to the King and his family. With that, this historical home to the King and his Royal Family, the Grand Palace, has a strict dress code. You must wear long pants, and they can’t be tight or have holes. You must wear shirts with sleeves. You must dress with respect! And if you are not properly dressed, you are sent to an area where you can rent the right clothes. Now check out my next YouTube video in which I stand at the Grand Palace’s front gate and assist telling people they are dressed inappropriately…
Entry No. 18 | May 17, 2012
I have been in Bangkok for the past week, and I will be here until the second of June. This city is amazing, and there are things happening here that seem familiar, and there are things happening here that seem unfamiliar. Actually, they don’t seem unfamiliar…they are unfamiliar…but this week, I am going to write about the familiar.
As a religious studies major, I have been taught that Theravada Buddhism is the primary religion practiced throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and much of Vietnam. Thailand is considered a true Buddhist country with an estimated 95 percent of its citizens practicing Buddhism. Within this religion, there are three primary schools of Buddhism, and Theravada differs from the other two schools by being the oldest, the most orthodox, the strictest or toughest for practitioners, and the closest to what the Buddha practiced. Basically, of the three schools, Theravada is old school.
Some of what seems familiar in the largest Buddhist city in the world is its Buddhism. The religion resembles Hinduism! Like the ancient Indian religion, Buddhist shrines are all over the place, and devotees offer these shrines incense, food, water, tea, candy and money. This is the same type of activity that I witnessed in India. You have your shrine and you keep it clean; you give the god or spirit or whatever you believe the shrine contains some things that cost you something, and you get good merit or karma or prosperity as the result of your generous actions. It’s the same system here in Thailand as in India, but with more of a Chinese feel, condensed, and simpler. Rather than there being tons of different kinds and styles of shrines devoted to a multitude of Indian/Hindu gods, the shrines here look mostly the same. Okay, so that’s one example of how things seem familiar.
Another example is Hanuman, the half-monkey god from the Ramayana, Hinduism’s great epic. In India, this story is one of the major texts that Hindus use to understand dharma or proper, duty, truth or order. It’s almost like their New Testament, but with a mythological feel. I was at Bangkok’s Grand Palace, which is a huge old palace larger than a Hyatt Grand. On its walls, I noticed Hanuman! It turns out that in the 18th century, Thailand extracted the great Indian narrative, changed the story a little, gave most of its characters Thai names with Thai attributes, and made the book the primary epic of Thailand. I bought a T-shirt with a picture on it of Hanuman battling the demon king Ravana, whose name has been changed in the Thai version to Pokemon. No, no, no, they changed his name to Todsakan.
For me, everything I experience relates back to India. So the idea is that you start with India, one of the oldest places in the world, move outward, and everything is always compared back to the Subcontinent. In this context, not only do I recognize India within the Thai Buddhist tradition and its version of the Ramayana, but I also identify Indian influences in the everyday actions of the Thai citizens. Here is an interesting example.
In India, when drinking bottled water or canned soda or any beverage purchased from a store, Indians never touch their lips to the container. This means that the people will hold a bottle of water above their lips and dump the liquid into their mouths. In Thailand, straws are included when you buy any drink. At the 7-11’s, which are absolutely everywhere, if you purchase a huge jug of bottled water, the cashier hands you a straw. My theory is that since Thailand is further away from the more uncivilized India, the Thai society is more civilized. Thai’s have improved on some of the Indian notions of how to best live. Thailand realized that it is easier and better to use a straw than to dump a liquid into your mouth. All of this comes from the idea that touching your lips to something that other people will touch their lips to is impure or gross. You might ask, “But what if I don’t let anyone else drink my drink?” The answer is that Thais and Indians and whoever else practices this way of not touching their lips to purchased beverage containers are worried about lip touching the container after it is recycled!
Now, moving out of Asia and toward the West, we realize that once a beverage container is recycled, it becomes clean, disinfected and pure again. Therefore, we can put our lips on anything we want.
Part of what I have learned through my experiences thus far is that in the West or in America, our ideas are newer and make more sense. We let go of old ideas, while the older nations still retain many of them. This is why we live in a better country!
I miss the good ole’ USA, especially since my girlfriend Brittany has returned there and left me to fend for myself. She was my navigator or map-igator, since I think backwards is left, and south is over there!
It feels strange without her here after being together on this adventure since New Year’s. As I reflect on our experiences, I am filled with a sense of pride for her courage and perseverance, especially in the midst of some particularly challenging and even frightening situations.
In Dubai, we were in a taxi, and the driver got frustrated with us. He pulled down an empty alley, and for a moment, we thought he was going to kill us. Of course, he only kicked us out of his cab, but the reality of being in Muslim countries and visiting mosques is that the experience, while exciting and new, can be daunting. It’s so far from what we are accustomed to and comfortable with.
All over India, we were constantly accosted, and many times, we had to stand up for ourselves to some intimidating people in some intimidating environments. Over and over again, Brittany held her own, and after a while, she handled things so much better than me.
Varanasi is one of the oldest places in the world, and there are shady people everywhere. There, we were lured into an apartment to meet “a famous guru,” and after we realized that the whole thing was a scam, we had to leave. But these guys didn’t want us to leave. Making a quick exit is more challenging when your shoes are off and you are holding a beverage that they just handed you (no straw of course). But we did it. We learned to do what we have to do, and Brittany did what she had to do so well.
The boat ride we just took leaving Malaysia in the middle of a storm was one of the scariest situations of my life. At one point, I had to accept that there was a very good chance the boat was going to flip. Meanwhile, Brittany, through affirmations and affirmative prayer, was able to rise above the fear she felt. By the time we reached shore, although Brittany was shaken up, she felt great.
Brittany is a changed person, and that is what this type of experience does. It’s not about seeing things that you’ve never seen before, but rather becoming who you’ve never been before.
Now check out the video from the boat ride leaving Tioman Island Malaysia and heading to the airport in which we thought we might capsize. Although the video does not properly show just how scary it was, understand that the waves were 5 to 10 feet high, and the boat was tiny.
Entry No. 17 | May 9, 2012
I spent all week on Palau Tioman, a small island located 32 kilometers off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. Later on the flight to Bangkok (where I am now), the male stewardess collected my garbage after I was done with my $10 snack. I realized that my credit card receipt was with the garbage he took, so I said to the male stewardess when he came back by, “Excuse me, may I please have my trash back?” At first, the male stewardess did not understand what I was asking, and then he figured it out. I felt happy to have my receipt back. After getting off the plane, I threw the receipt away. What did I need the receipt for anyways? What do I need anything for anyways?
During the past five months, I have lived with only enough things that fit into a big backpack. Meanwhile, everything else I own is in an Uncle Bob’s Storage unit. The most important material items I have are with me at all times: my MacBook, my iPod, my Canon Camera, my MacBook charger and adapter, my iPod charger and adapter, and my Canon Camera charger and backup batteries. After these things, who cares! What do we really need in life to sustain our happiness? This is a pertinent question as I prepare to study and experience Thai Buddhism across Southeast Asia.
Now back to Tioman Island…the place was amazing…there is almost nothing to do there…and I like it that way! From the crowded streets of New Delhi to the desolate beaches of Malaysia…from the Indian capital with sand bags piled high around military troops ready for terrorists attacks at its Hindu temples to the sandy shores of Tioman Island…from smoke filled piles of garbage burning endlessly throughout the streets to piles of coral glistening in the sun along the Malay Coast…from the…okay, enough already.
Like most Southeast Asian countries, Malaysia is multi-cultural and multi-religious. Sunni Islam is the state religion, however, Hinduism, Daoism, Christianity and Buddhism are practiced there. In some ways, there is quite of bit of religious tolerance, especially for non-Muslims. Christmas, Chinese New Year and Diwali are national holidays.
Things are different for Muslims. Malaysia has both civil and Shariah courts, and Muslims are required to follow Shariah laws, which are enforced by the police and the government. An ethnic Malay, a Malaysian born in Malaysia must be Muslim. A baby born of Muslim parents must be Muslim. A person wanting to marry a Malay Muslim must be Muslim. If you are Muslim and you decide to change religions, you will be taken to a rehabilitation camp and forced to dress and act Muslim. Being Muslim in Malaysia is fun, and if you don’t think so, you will be taken to…
On Tiomon Island, I saw lots of female Muslims at the beach completely covered up. It made think about the different kinds of religions and how they are practiced.
Religion is almost impossible to define. Nonetheless, I prefer to think of religion as a system of beliefs, which manifest into practices, rituals or even habits enabling people to be more disciplined, more happy or more content with their lives. Religion is what you make of it, and some religions have more room for making then others.
My experience in life has taught me that what you believe becomes your experience. So a Christian who is always praising Jesus is always seeing Jesus. In other words, whatever we are thinking about, we are bringing about. If every day I constantly obsess about donuts, I will notice a Krispy Kreme on every corner. The point of all of this is that because religions are beliefs turned into actions, it’s too bad that some religions require such challenging actions. As I watched female Muslims frolic along the beach wearing long pants and shirts with their heads covered, I felt sorry for them. Because of beliefs developed hundreds of years ago, these women end up with the worst tan lines ever. Plus, I am not sure if it’s an Islamic or a Malaysian thing, but compared to some good old Clearwater Beach beachgoers, these women did not know how to properly frolic.
Now check out the two videos from my initial experience in Singapore and a video I made of Tioman Island, with the most beautiful beach in the world…
Entry No. 16 | May 2, 2012
I left India and have been in Singapore all week. This marks the beginning of my journey backpacking through Southeast Asia, staying in crowded youth hostels with people from all over the world, and experiencing local customs and religious traditions. In leaving India and coming to Singapore, I went from one of the dustiest, most disorganized, and oldest places in the world to one of the cleanest, most organized, and newest countries on the planet. This place is A-MAZE-ING!
Singapore is at the southern tip of Southeast Asia, just under Malaysia and above the Indonesian Archipelago close to the equator. It’s hot here, but the A/C runs niiiiiiicely.
In the early nineteenth century, Singapore was founded as a trading post for the East India Company and later became a British Settlement. Since becoming an independent state in 1963, Singapore has had a massive increase in wealth. Along with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, Singapore is one of the Four Asian Tigers, which denotes exceptional high financial growth and industrialization rates. In addition to containing the world’s fourth-leading financial center and the second biggest casino gambling market, Singapore operates one of the five busiest ports in the world. At the beach, tanker and freighter ships are parked out in the water like nothing you have ever seen…you would not believe how many ships there are!
Singapore has had the same government in power for 47 years since its independence, and I guess the political system is “Parliamentary Republic.” I don’t know what that means, but I do know that a Chinese-Singaporean family is running things. Whatever or however they do it, they do it right. If you are reading this, you must come here. But be careful…
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Singapore has one of the highest execution rates in the world relative to its population. Coming into the country at Immigration, my Visa application had a huge red stamp that warned, “DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKER UNDER SINGAPORE LAW!” They don’t play!
Singapore is a wonderful mix of cultures, religions and ethnicities. There are four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil, and this combination is symbolic of the environment. People from China, Malaysia, South India and the West are everywhere, and so are their religious traditions. In addition to mosques, Hindu temples, and Christian churches, Buddhist temples are situated throughout the city. I came across a beautiful Tibetan temple, and one of the young devotees took me for a tour. He explained that the practitioners are Chinese, so they practice a Chinese influenced version of Tibetan Buddhism. Within one of the shrines, there were icons of the Chinese Zodiac situated underneath the Buddha. I had never seen that before, and it exemplified how this Tibetan Buddhism was embedded with Chinese traditions.
As the young man showed me around, I noticed Guinness Beer, gin and wine used as offerings to the Buddha. I asked him about the alcohol, and he answered, “To renounce something is not to refuse it.” The young man explained that refusing something, to not consume it all, involves thinking about it. Refusing can include obsessing, and the idea behind renunciation is to cease obsessing. Monks can have a drink, and monks cannot have a drink. It really doesn’t matter. It’s not good, and it’s not bad; it just is.
As my temple guide took me outside to the massive prayer wheel, the primary Tibetan prayer and mantra was playing over the loud speakers—Om Mani Padme Hum. I asked what the words mean, and the young man responded, “We don’t know what it means exactly. It’s not that important.” Wow--I love it! So many times I have been told what this mantra means, and to me, you can’t translate Tibetan or Sanskrit into English in a few words. That’s the deal with many of the great religious mantras, prayers or expressions from the East. The meaning is so deep and endless, and for some, finding an understanding in the meaning takes a lifetime. And when he stated that understanding the meaning is not that important, he is implied that what is important is doing it…action. Rather than trying to comprehend something with our minds, we experience it through our actions. The Buddha, when asked what Enlightenment was like, remained silent. He would not answer this question because the only way to understand something is to experience it.
In a few hours, I am heading to Palau Tioman, a remote Malaysian Island for the week. This segment of my journey will bring many new and interesting experiences.
Date leaving: Dec. 28, 2011
Date returning: April 28, 2012
City and Country: New Delhi, India
Independent Study Description: Assess the impact of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam on the treatment and definition of women in New Delhi, India. Field research conducted on site in New Delhi, analyzing Tibetan Buddhism, Catholicism, Sikhism and the Baha'i faith as practiced by the local population.
Year in school: Senior
Major: Religious Studies
Hometown: Tampa, Fla.
Entry No. 15 | April 24, 2012
As our time in India is up, I have been reflecting on what this trip has meant to me, especially as a non-traditional student from America living abroad.
A couple of months ago, I attended a Tibetan Buddhist meditation in which the teacher, an older man from Great Britain, asked me, “You’re a mature college student?” I told him that I was, and I explained that I had gone back to school to pursue an undergraduate religion degree. He commented, “I wish I could have done that. I was an idiot when I was 19 years old.” I said, “Yeah, me too. I was a freshman for 7 years!”
Only in the United States do people have the opportunity to transform their lives in the middle of them. The Federal government giving me grants and loans…this is unheard of in the rest of the world. Throughout our travels in Asia, people we meet never understand how we can be students. There is an assumption that we are rich, but we are only rich in citizenship. Opportunity is what separates America from the rest of the world. The “American Dream,” the chance to create the life of our choosing, is truly something only afforded to us, the fortunate citizens of the United States.
In addition to attending school later in our lives in America, we can study whatever we want. As a religion student, the most wonderful experiences of my life have come as the result of trying to understand and investigate others’ religious beliefs and traditions. While so many people from so many other countries study certain disciplines “to make money” or “to get a job,” we are able learn things for the love of learning…we can take courses that interest us rather than courses that serve a specific purpose.
Part of what fascinates me about studying religion is recognizing someone else’s beliefs-- seeing a man with his head shaved and a small patch of long hair coming from the back of his scalp and knowing that he is a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. He’s a Hare Krishna! I might say to him, “Oh, I like Krishna…I read the Bhagavad-Gita.” And he’ll smile and think I’m cute. Then I’ll spout off every possible thing I know about Hare Krisnas. But, I don’t actually know anything about them because to know something is to be something, to experience it from the inside. See, I’ve never chanted their Mahamantra--Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, 2,000 times a day for a year straight. I’ve never devoted my entire life to one thing, one book, one god, to one love. This beginning to sound like a U2 song…
India is definitely a place where the streets have no names. Heck, it’s a place where the bathrooms have no toilet paper! But India is mysterious and compelling in a way that cannot be explained; it must be experienced. I love India in such a deep way I myself cannot even understand it. The sights, the sounds, the smells…the Indian subcontinent is another world. I first visited two years ago for only three days, and months later, I longed for India. Something would spark a memory of my visit, and I would begin to cry; I would begin to imagine myself there again. And of course I made it back. Thanks to USF and thanks to the USA, I was able to transform what I imagined into what I experienced. Living in Delhi, the trip through the Middle East on the way in, and the trip through Southeast Asia on the way out that I am just beginning, will be some of the greatest experiences of my entire life.
Okay, I am sitting in a Starbucks in downtown Singapore and writing this. We had the wrong information about our India visas, so we had to quickly leave. The next part of my travels is about to start with a journey through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Indonesian Archipelago. Stay tuned for the next GloBull Blog, which will detail my new adventure each week.
Now enjoy the next set of YouTube videos. These three are my favorite. The first video is from our experience in Bodhgaya, the Indian village where the Buddha sat under a tree to change the world. The second is from our experience at the Taj Mahal, and the third video is called Chasing the Dalai Lama…and it is just that!
Entry No. 14 | April 18, 2012
This week has been incredible and one the most important weeks of my life in terms of the future.
Obviously, as a religious studies major living and studying in India for the semester, I love South Asian traditions. I also love being a student; I take pleasure in learning; I relish chances to grow my writing skills; and I enjoy studying; obviously, I also find delight in lying about enjoying studying!
But seriously, as a non-traditional student with lots of married friends entrenched in careers, many happily and a few unhappily, I appreciate some of the freedoms being a college student offers. So with passion for Indian traditions and a love for learning, I have been pursuing an opportunity to attend graduate school after I earn my bachelor’s degree this summer.
Meanwhile on an Indian tip, the Hindu tradition contains two elements, shakti and bhakti, that are related to my grad school quest. Shakti means “to be able,” and itis the universal creative and destructive feminine power that abides in all beings and from which all things derive. Bhakti means “to be devoted to,” and it is the unconditional devotion toward the Ultimate Reality--God through one’s heart, mind, and most importantly, one’s actions.
Wow, I just came up with this stuff…man I really learned something!
Anyways, shakti is power, and bhakti is devotion or submission. Paradoxically, through bhakti--surrender and devotion, a person attains shakti--power. Simply put, Hindus are devoted to the gods and gurus in hopes of gaining power or prosperity, and these two notions are at the core of Hinduism.
It is necessary to understand that devotion is not only a matter of thoughts and feelings, but devotion is also about actions. So if I am devoted to my girlfriend, the importance is in how I show her my devotion by what I do rather than what I think, what I feel, or what I want to do. Intention is great, but it’s only the starting point toward the devotion required to achieve something--to attain the shakti power and prosperity.
The point is, this week has been incredible and one of the most important weeks in terms of my future because I was accepted into The South Asia Institute at the prestigious Columbia University! This is truly the culmination of tons of hard work and dedication, with some added faith. I must attribute much of this accomplishment to the kind of bhakti--devotion that I have displayed toward this pursuit, and the shakti--power/prosperity that I gained as the result of my devotion.
To me, one of the most significant aspects of this achievement is how I took actions acting “as if” I had already been accepted. See, I only applied to Columbia and no other grad schools. Almost a year ago when I decided “to devote” all of my energy toward this application, the first thing I did was order Columbia University clothing. If I were already accepted (in my mind), then I would need to dress the part. Next, I went to New York City and visited the school. If I was already accepted, then I would need to see where I would be studying. Then, I began searching for places to live. If I was already accepted…you get the point. The last action I took acting “as if” was to begin speaking about my admission into this Ivy League school in the present. “I cannot wait to get to New York next fall and excel at Columbia,” I would say.
There is something magical that happens when we speak. Often, what you say is what you see. At the core of most of the successes that I have had over the last few years is this affirmation…it’s not--I must see it to believe it…it’s--to see it I must believe it…and when I say it, I begin to believe it.
Now enjoy the next YouTube videos, the first of which I needed a lot of “added faith” motorcycling through the Indian mountains with one hand on the bike and one hand holding my video camera. In the second and third videos, come along for a first hand look at the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon and the tree he sat under until he became enlightened.
Entry No. 13 | April 10, 2012
This past month, I have been working on a religious studies project investigating Sikhism as it is practiced here in New Delhi. Members of this South Asian religion are called Sikhs (Sikh is pronounced like seek). So if you friends with one, you two might play Hide and Sikh. I remember hearing about the religion for the first time in my initial introductory religion class. If you are not familiar with Sikhism, continue reading because this tradition is both fascinating and practical. If you are familiar with Sikhism, continue reading because this blog is both fascinating and practical.
As one of the major religious traditions of the world, Sikhism has spread across the entire globe. The word “Sikh” means disciple, and a Sikh is someone who believes in One God and the teachings of the Ten Gurus. The teachings are found within the Guru Granth Sahib, their Holy Book. I capitalized their Holy Book because they would like that. And I like Sikhs!
Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak in 1469 in the area that is now Pakistan. After bathing and performing ablutions in a river, Nanak had a spiritual experience in which he felt the true presence of God. Later, Nanak would say that he had experienced God directly, and within this experience it was revealed to him that God was one, beyond all names and conceptions. Guru Nanak declared that the true name of God had to be experienced rather than proclaimed, and he announced that there were no Hindus and no Muslims. Well things have sure changed around here because there are tons of Hindus and tons of Muslims! Of course, what he meant was that there are no religions, only people.
Nanak was succeeded by a succession of nine other Gurus before the 10th and final Guru, Gobind Singh, ordained the Guru Granth Sahib. This Holy Book became the ultimate spiritual authority and object of worship and adoration for Sikhs. That means that when Sikhs go to their Gurdwaras (temples), they go and worship the book! It’s amazing to see. The Gurdwaras each have what looks like a beautiful canopy bed, and inside it is the Sikh Holy Book wrapped in silk. Devotees pray to the book, bow down to the book, and perform prostrations to the book. Sikhs even have parades all over this city, and sitting in the main float…you guessed it…the Book!
While Sikhism shares some of the same aspects as Hinduism, this tradition is its own unique religion. Sikhism is not polytheistic but rather it is strictly monotheistic, believing in One Supreme God. Multiple deities, gods, and goddesses are regarded as nonentities, and there is no advocacy of asceticism or renunciation. Salvation can be achieved by anyone who earns an honest living and leads a normal life. Sikhs do not recognize the caste system, idol worship, rituals, or superstitions.
What Sikhs do recognize are uniforms. Male Sikhs adorn the Five K’s: Kesha (long uncut hair), Kangha (a comb), Kara (a metal bracelet), Kachha (underwear), and Kirpan (a sword). Sikhs who are doing the deal will wear this uniform, and according to Sikh literature, “people who wear a uniform and who are imbued with a disciplined outlook, are better able to achieve unity of purpose and acquire a sense of brotherhood than those who have no particular sense of standards.” Since Sikhs does not cut their hair, they wear turbans. Male members of this tradition can be indentified by their huge, thick turbans, which hold really, really long hair.
The majority of the Sikhs in the world reside in North India in the Punjab, and the most important pilgrimage site for devotees is the Golden Temple in Amritsar. However, the second largest amount of Sikhs exists in New Delhi, and this metropolitan city contains 10 historical Sikh Gurdwaras. In addition to the historical Sikh temples, Delhi contains more than three hundred Gurdwaras in different colonies. According to Manprit Singh, Head of the Foreign Tourist Office at Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, “Sikh Gurdwaras are where men, women, caste and community can go in and are welcome to pray.”
See, the deal with Sikhs is that they welcome everyone. It does not matter who you are, what you have, where you come from, or whether or not you are a student at the University of South Florida. You are welcome! Also, at every Gurdwara there is a huge kitchen, and they will give you a meal for free--that means you don’t have to pay! And I love not having to pay. The only requirement to get in is to cover your head and take off your shoes because they are nasty from walking in cow and bull dookie all day. Only in India!
Now enjoy the next YouTube video, which is a firsthand look at the Holi—the famous Indian Festival of Colors where people throw dye, paint and watercolors at cars, rickshaws, children, old people, buildings, cows, dogs, rats and in each other’s faces. The deal with Holi is that if you go outside on this particular holiday, it’s on; and for those poor victims who were walking or driving by where we were pummeling people with color that day, it was on them!
Entry No. 12 | April 3, 2012
We visited Varanasi (also called Banaras or Kashi) during spring break, and the experience was fascinating! Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and the oldest city in India. Located on the Ganges River, this ancient town is filled with incredible sights including cremation ghats where you can actually watch bodies being burned, cows and buffalo walking next to the river where you can actually walk along side them, and magical and mystical looking renunciants and holy men meditating on the sidewalks where you can actually meditate along side of them. Now that’s a lot of actually’s!
The Ganges River curves like a crescent moon along the banks of Varanasi. This is the city of Shiva, and this greatest of Hindu gods adorns a crescent moon on his head. Shiva is known as the Great Yogi, and there are plenty of opportunities to practice yoga in His city. Instead of a hotel, we stayed in Yoga Mandir (temple) Guesthouse, and there I had the fortunate chance to practice yoga for the very first time. As the early morning sun rose from the East and the breeze swept along the sacred river’s water, I practiced touching my toes. The owner of the Mandir was Peetambar, and this yogi was a seriously spiritual dude! He would only look at me and I would feel slightly enlightened. I can still hear him saying “left leg up, right leg up, breath in, breath out, now meditate on your god” in his super spiritual sounding Hindi-yogi accent.
After my return to Delhi, I joined a new gym and found one that had a yoga instructor. I was unsatisfied with the service at my former gym because they would keep the lights and the A/C off when I worked out in the afternoon. Businesses in India will turn off all of their power when they are not busy, and this is certainly the case with health clubs. Working out with no lights in the heat gets old, especially when it’s 35 degrees Celsius (hot, very hot).
On my first day at my new gym, I showed up eager and ready to sweat off a kilogram or two. I prefer to go to the gym in the afternoons when nobody else is working out, so I arrived at 2:30 p.m. or 14:30. In order to find out information for my Women and Hinduism project, earlier that same day I visited Delhi’s ISKCON temple, which is the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. It is the primary temple in Delhi for Hare Krishnas and the largest Hare Krishna temple in India. While I was at ISKCON, they gave me a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, one of the great Hindu texts and basically the one and only book devotees of Lord Krishna study. You could say that compared to Christianity, in terms of Hinduism the Gita is like the New Testament.
At any rate, when I showed up at the gym I had the Bhagavad-Gita in my bag. The gym was completely empty besides all of the employees standing around and staring at me, so I jumped on the treadmill and set it to 9.5 kilometers per hour. While I was running, a young man came up to me and introduced himself as Nareem and then told me to breath only through my nose. Breathing through your nose and running while weighing 110 kilos and living in one of the most polluted cities in the world is challenging!
Nareem asked me why I was in Delhi, so I explained that I was here completing independent research accessing the treatment and definition of women within Indian religions and working on separate projects conducting field research on a variety of world religions while taking USF online classes. Since Nareem doesn’t speak English well, he responded with “why you here?” I said, “I like curry.” Ahhhh, he completely understood and we were off to a great start. It turned out that Nareem was my new yoga instructor, so I gave him the book that the Hare Krishna’s had given me.
Nareem thinks I am hilarious. On my first day at the gym, I brought a sacred Hindu book and presented it to him. I bet there are not too many Americans in New Delhi carrying Bhagavad-Gita’s with them to the health clubs. My yoga instructor is so happy with me that now he will bend over backwards for me. Seriously…he actually bends over backwards for me, which is kind of weird.
Now come for a walk along the Ganges River and see one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities in the next set of YouTube videos…
Entry No. 11 | March 27, 2012
Last week, I wrote about Jasvir who is my friend and spiritual adviser here in Delhi. A spiritual adviser is different than an academic adviser in several ways. Academic advisers suggest which courses to take at USF while spiritual advisers suggest which courses to take in life. Academic advisers help you reach your academic goals while spiritual advisers help you reach heaven…or nirvana…or moksha…or the Chocolate Factory depending on your beliefs. Academic advisers help you with the small stuff while spiritual advisers help you not sweat the small stuff. Academic advisers…this must stop. I could go on forever, but I should get to the point.
In addition to working as a radiologist, Jasvir donates some of his time to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for underprivileged men in Delhi. Jasvir owns an old ultrasound machine, and he has it at the rehab to examine the organs of the rehab’s residents. Now you might be thinking that all of this is beginning to sound strange, and I would say you are right. This past week, Jasvir invited Brittany and I to come out to the rehab and see what he does there.
We met Jasvir at the Metro station, and he drove us to the rehab in his brother’s car. Jasvir explained that using his brother’s car was better since it was already scratched, dented, and somewhat smashed up. See, driving in Delhi means having minor accidents everyday, hitting things and not stopping, and basically, complete chaos. Delhi driving in like Outback Steakhouse- no rules, but definitely not right…especially for the innocent bystanders.
Anyways, we arrived at the rehab center, and the director was honored to see us since Jasvir told him we were from America. We met the center’s nurse, and she was thrilled to practice her English on us. The nurse talked about how many of her family members immigrated to America. She said, “Excuse me for saying this, but some of my cousins even married white people…sorry…they married some of the natives!” The nurse referred to her Indian family members marrying Americans as marrying the natives. I imagined the natives building huts in major US metropolitan cities. I pictured the natives hunting for food in shopping mall food courts.
So just as I thought things could not get any stranger, as usual, they did. Jasvir signaled us to come into his ultrasound room while the new guys in the rehab lined up. Meanwhile, the director brought us Indian milk tea. As the patients stretched across the examination table one by one, I sipped milk tea while standing above each of them. As Jasvir applied the ultrasound gel to their stomachs, I sniffed the sweet smell of my tea’s chai seasoning. As the ultrasound gel slurped out of the bottle, my milk tea slurped in my mouth. As the…you get the point. Like so many other strange experiences we have had in India, enjoying Indian tea while alcoholics and drug addicts are shown the destruction they caused their kidneys and liver was a bizarre experience. I think there was a sense of relief that echoed throughout the room when the last examination (or humiliation) was over…none of the men were pregnant…or as we say these days…none of the men were preggos.
Now enjoy the next set of videos detailing our trip to India’s State of Rajasthan where I appear to be in the state of confusion. Enjoy the parades, the monkeys, and the monkey-whisperer that can be viewed from within our hotel room. Come along as we interview a real-deal Hindu renunciant holy man. Finally, relish the view of one of India’s holiest lakes with its bathing ghats and King Cobra snake charmer begging for cash…
Entry No. 10 | March 20, 2012
I have a friend here in Delhi named Jasvir who acts as my spiritual adviser. In this way, Jasvir gives me advice, makes suggestions, and is someone I can go to when I get frustrated or want to pout about how tough India is compared to living in the Sunshine State. Jasvir is a middle-aged physician, a member of the Sikh religion, and an all around kind, thoughtful and spiritual human being.
Jasvir will tell me things like “Muslims have it right with praying; they pray five times a day. John, you should pray five times a day. Prayer is the only way to true peace…America is the greatest country in the world, John. You should make a gratitude list and add to it all of the reasons why you are so fortunate for being born in America. Focus on how different your life would be if you had been born in India and all of the opportunities offered to you as an American…”
Meeting strangers in foreign lands might seem strange, but in South Asia, it is very common. And despite the fact that many people can be aggressive or rude, many more are extremely friendly.
We were interested in finding a means to volunteer and help some people, so I asked Jasvir about giving our time at an orphanage.
India is filled with homeless children, kids begging in the streets and orphanages. Lots of the children have different types of disabilities, and they face extremely challenging lives. Not only are many of them in the lowest caste, but the Indian-Hindu notion of rebirth also makes their lives extremely difficult.
Included in the idea of rebirth or reincarnation is the belief that your past actions from your previous life determine your place in the next life. This has to do with karma, which simply means “action.” The better your “actions” are in this life, the better your life will be in the next.
So, a child born with a disability is looked down upon by most of society for being a horrible person in his or her previous life.
Imagine this--a baby is born blind. The family is immediately ashamed. The community will talk badly about the child. Less people will want to be arranged for marriage with the other children in the family. The disabled child will never receive any type of financial assistance from the government or any kind of help for that matter. Children are most often left to beg for their entire lives.
It is the opposite here. If you need help because you have a disability, you have less chance of receiving help because you have a disability.
As a matter of fact, I have seen things here that most people would not want to nor will they ever see in their entire lives. I have seen things that could not be aired on television. The amount of suffering that exists in South Asia is, at times, unbearable to look at. Yet, this experience is what makes this experience so powerful. This is the real world, and the education through seeing firsthand in terms of insight is priceless.
Anyways, we visited the Bachchonka-Ghar Orphanage in hopes of finding a way to volunteer. Although this particular orphanage did not need help, the experience was fantastic. Jasvir suggested that we bring the kids crayons and coloring books, so we purchased 30 packs of crayons and a huge stack of books to color in. When we got to the orphanage, we were brought into a large classroom where the younger kids were being taught. They stopped class and allowed us to pass out all of our gifts to the kids. I knew we had enough packs of crayons, but I was nervous we would run out of coloring books. Each child came up to us one by one, and we handed them one package of crayons and one coloring book.
I love expressions like everything happens for reason, or in God’s world, everything happens perfectly, or people are in our lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime (like Jasvir). No matter what you believe, there is no doubt that some infinite, unexplainable, indefinable power exists that brings joy, that relieves pain, and that directs certain events perfectly because when we handed the last child his gifts, we handed out the last coloring book. There were 23 kids, and we bought exactly 23 coloring books without even knowing it. Just then, I knew we were in perfect alignment with that power.
Wow, I did not intend for that to happen, but it just came out!
Now enjoy the next set of YouTube videos, which entail a cow’s eye view, some of India’s holiest religious sites, a roadside guru, a beautiful billy goat, and a chance to come along for a ride on an Indian train…pay particular attention to the first video that shows just how ridiculously friendly some Indians can be…
Entry No. 9 | March 15, 2012
This past month, I have been working on a religion project detailing the Baha’i Faith as it is practiced here in New Delhi. (Baha’i is pronounced bah-HIGH) As the newest of the world’s religions, Baha’is have had great success in spreading their message of unity, especially throughout India.
The term Baha’i means “follower of Baha’u’llah,” (pronounced Ba-Howl-lah) and this founder of the Baha’i Faith was preceded by the Bab (pronounced Bob like in Boston) who lived in Persia from 1819 until his martyrdom in 1950. In 1844, the Bab created new laws that became a distinctive religious community called the Babis (pronounced…just kidding!), which later turned into the Baha’i Faith. According to the Babis, the Bab was a Manifestation of God whose mission was to prepare humankind for the coming of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’u’llah is regarded as the most recent divine teachers in a long succession of messengers sent from God including Moses, Abraham, Buddha, Krishna, Christ, and Muhammad.
As perhaps the most universalistic of religions, the Baha’i Faith defines God in broad terms that are appealing to a wide range of people. So, within the India Subcontinent that contains all of the world’s religious traditions, the Baha’i Faith makes sense. The notion that Moses, Buddha, Christ and the other Prophets make up a long line of God’s messengers sounds rational in a world with some severely irrational religious beliefs. Think about it: We need help so God keeps sending down new representatives to help us. Each has his (too bad not his or her), his own way of doing things, yet the message is the same--trust God and be nice. Well, maybe not all the messages are the same, but the universal principal that exists within the primary religions is…treat thy neighbor as thyself. Can you imagine what the world would be like if we actually did that?
Okay, back to reality. There are 6 million Baha’is spread out over 7 continents, and India has the majority of devotees with a little over 1 million. Of course, India’s capital of New Delhi is marked with several of the most spectacular sacred structures in the world, and one of these is the Baha’i Faith’s Lotus Temple. This Baha’i House of Worship draws more than 70 million visitors each year, making it one of the most popular religious sites on earth. There are six other Baha’i Houses of Worshiplocated around the world including one in Chicago. The Lotus Temple was designed out of deep respect for the lotus flower, which is a sacred symbol for many Indian religions and evokes spontaneous love in the hearts of Indians everywhere. As the central point of worship and place of gathering for the Baha’i cultural and intellectual communities, the Lotus Temple embodies the Baha’i principles of unity and diversity that were first established by its founder, Baha’u’llah. At the daily services, scriptures from some of the world’s religions are read. In one of the services I attended, which lasted 15 minutes, the Bible was read in English, a Hindu text was read in Hindi, and the Quran was read in Arabic. Now that’s what I call unity!
Now come along for a journey to the Baha’i Lotus Temple where you can experience the religion for yourself through my next YouTube video…
Entry No. 8 | Feb. 28, 2012
Delhi is one of the most populated cities in the world containing close to 20 million residents. There are several different means of public transportation including the Metro (subway) Train, a multitude of taxis and cabs, camels, horses, some type of lawnmower-looking wagon that I wouldn’t dare ride for 10 billion rupees, and bicycle and auto rickshaws. With more than 70,000 auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi, these crazy, kooky little green and yellow enclosed three wheel go-carts are the most popular form of transportation.
Like tiny rats at the Delhi Railway Station scurrying for crumbs, auto-rickshaw drivers are hungry for your business. They are everywhere, and when they see a potential client (me), they come quickly--and aggressively--and loudly. However, catching a ride in an auto-rickshaw is unbelievably inexpensive and well worth it. A 10-15 mile ride that might cost $50 in Tampa from Yellow Cab will cost $2 in an “auto” (as they are nicknamed). But, today there is a Trade Union strike, so that means that drivers of auto-rickshaws have the day off.
Another option for local transportation is the bicycle-rickshaw. These crazy, kooky little dented and smashed up three-wheel bicycles are by far the cheapest form of transportation because they run on man-power, or leg-power for that matter. Since the average weight of an adult Indian male is 54 kilograms (120 pounds), peddling around other Indians is easy for bicycle-rickshaw peddlers and many people take advantage of their availability.
Nevertheless, I prefer never to take this type of public transportation because I have had several embarrassing moments on them. See, I weigh 108 kilograms (you can figure out in pounds); each time I have been a passenger on one of these broken down three-wheel bicycles with tires half-flat and a driver weighing a little more than my left leg peddling for his life, I sense a feeling of regret on the driver’s part for agreeing to take me. I weigh slightly more than the average of two Indian men.
Not only do I sense feeling of regret on their behalf, but I also incorporate my sense of hearing when I hear all of the other bicycle-rickshaw drivers laughing at my rickshaw driver’s struggle in peddling a man who weighs 108 kilograms around.
In addition to incorporating my senses of intuition and smell, in these embarrassing and frustrating moments, I incorporate my sense of sight--I no longer, no matter what--see myself taking a bicycle-rickshaw and being embarrassed, laughed at, or creating regret for another human being.
I am anticipating that weighing more than two men in a society made up of skinny people will give me some discipline and determination. I have decided to lose somewhere between 10 and 98 pounds while I am abroad, and a primarily vegetarian diet should help my cause…I hope. Although eating “veg” and mostly not eating meat helps to consume fewer calories, much of the food here is made of starch and then deep-fried. But, if something doesn’t change, then my waist size will.
Take a look of this video of our cook, Sunil, as he creates delicious foods for our enjoyment made mostly with potatoes and deep fried…
Entry No. 7 | Feb. 22, 2012
Looking back over my life, I realize that I am always going places. I consistently think, “I can’t wait to get there. Once I get to that place, I will feel renewed, relieved, refreshed, rejuvenated, re-whatevered.” At this very moment, I am riding on an India Railways train returning to New Delhi from Pushkar, one of the holiest Hindu pilgrimage sites in the world. The only Brahma temple on earth is there, and the city’s lake was made from one of Brahma’s footsteps when he created the universe. The experience in Pushkar was exhilarating yet peaceful, and I will never forget this magical, spiritual place. But, I can’t wait to get back to Delhi! Before we left, I couldn’t wait to get to Pushkar. This coming weekend, we are going to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra, and I can’t wait to get there. I can’t wait to not be able to wait to leave there. I am always looking forward or backward instead of paying attention to what is happening now.
Living in the moment is a tenet of Buddhism. This notion comes out of the truth of impermanence, which recognizes that we are all alive for only a fleeting moment, the physical world will come and go, and most importantly, the only thing that always exists is the present. When the past existed, it was the present; when the future arrives, it will be the present. In this very moment, it is the present. Wait, now the last sentence is the past, and this sentence is the present. For you, the next paragraph represents the future.
What’s the point? The point is that although it’s easy to get caught up in the past and the future, it is important to relish the present. Right now, a middle aged Indian man is sitting to my right. He and I have been on the train for a couple of hours, and we finally spoke to each other. Typically, I shy away from talking to others on trains or planes or on any other type of public vehicle for that matter; yet, I was thinking about living in the moment, and it seemed that this man and I might learn something from each other. Therefore, I made a friendly gesture, and he responded by asking my girlfriend and I the typical question we are asked every single day…“From which country are you from?” We said, “America” because in most places in the world, foreigners recognize America rather than the United States. He became excited and explained how he had been on a trip to New York City, Boston and Washington, D.C., this past November.
We began discussing the differences between living in America and living in India. He mentioned how expensive it is to have servants in the U.S., and I asked him how much he paid his live-in maid and how much she works. She works 7 days a week, 365 days a year from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. Not only does she do all of the cleaning and other household chores, but she also does all of the cooking. Her children live somewhere else, so you can imagine how much time she gets to spend with them. And for all of that, she makes 4,000 rupees a month, which is 80 dollars! So that’s 20 cents an hour. And this man’s maid is not poor in the sense that India has people starving to death who are not even fortunate enough to have a job that pays 20 cents an hour, 13 hours a day, 365 days a year.
When we think of India, many of us think about Mother Teresa. To me, she was fantastic because she was all about action. Mother Teresa said that if you want to help the poor, come to India to see how the poor live for yourself. She suggested visiting her Missionaries of Charity children’s home, the center for leprosy, the home for the dying and the destitute, and her home for TB sufferers and mentally handicapped patients. Mother Teresa said that there is poverty and suffering in the world because we don’t share. People, governments, countries do not share what they have. This simple and profound statement makes so much sense to me, especially in the wake of last week’s blog when I wrote it on Valentine’s Day and offered a video of a lavish Indian wedding. Everyday, when I spend money on things that will only crumble over time, or even worse, when I spend money on expensive food, there are people in the world starving. Living in India is far different than living in the U.S. because here, when you need help, you don’t always get it. And the worse off you are, the more likely you will not get the help you need. Mother Teresa was right when she said that if you want to help, you have to see how the poor live yourself. While we think about what we could have done for others or what we will do, the time to become more selfless is now, in this very moment.
Now enjoy this week’s three videos taking you on a journey of some of Delhi’s most fascinating sights, sounds and adolescents…
Entry No. 6 | Feb. 14, 2012
We recently attended an Indian wedding, and since today is Valentine’s Day, I have been thinking about marriage…Not mine own of course, because I know that the No. 1 reason for divorce is marriage!
Indian marriages are either “love” or “arranged,” with an overwhelming majority of them being arranged. A “love” marriage is when the initial contact of the two spouses does not involve family members while an “arranged” marriage is when the parents (particularly the father) find a suitable partner for their son or daughter. To us (westerners), the notion of arranged marriages sounds crazy. What about the person’s right to choose? What about freedom? How can someone allow their family to decide whom they will spend the rest of their life with?
We met a couple from South India who, like most Indians, had an arranged marriage. Their families visited an astrologist to see if the two were compatible. The signs in the cosmos said, “yes,” so they met for the first time the day before they were married. The couple has been married for almost 20 years, and the rest is history…or astrology!
Imagine what it would feel like on your wedding night, when you are embarking on a relationship with an unknown person that must last the rest of your life.
Oh yeah, basically divorce is not an option in South Asia.
I always enjoy asking people who have had arranged marriages how long it took before they loved their partner, and often the question encounters confusion. These love stories, tales of how Indians love arranged marriages, are stories about devotion. Of course, it isn’t long before a couple loves and cherishes each other, but marriage here is about commitment and dedication. We are not devoted to someone through our thoughts or intentions—but rather through our actions. Sometimes we think about being devoted to someone as being a feeling, but devotion is about doing rather than thinking or feeling.
Throughout all of India and within Hinduism, is the notion of maintaining one’s proper duty or dharma. Dharma simply means “to support,” yet in terms of Hinduism, dharma is extremely complex. It includes moral and ethical laws, truth, and order. Dharma encompasses proper social and familial duties and the social, cosmic, and moral orders of the world.
As a devoted family member, it is important to fulfill your familial duty, which includes having your marriage arranged. This helps to ensure the welfare of society. Families with similar castes, religious preferences, or even choice of vegetarian or non-vegetarian diets connect better and become more successful as an integrated unit. When the social order (dharma) is threatened by Indians abandoning ancient customs like arranged marriages, the entire cosmos is in jeopardy. The end of the social order marks the beginning of the end of the cosmic order, which means thermonuclear destruction! Just kidding, but when things get out of whack “down here,” things get out of whack “up there” where the gods reside. And you don’t want the gods to get mad, especially Shiva, the god of destruction.
To me, the importance of living in another country within a new culture is to see the world from a different perspective. I don’t know what is right and wrong in terms of arranged marriages, but I do know that sometimes when there is not choice, we actually experience more freedom. We become free from the thoughts of thinking our partners, wives, or husbands are not good enough. When there is no getting out of a relationship, we find fault in others less, and we learn to accept others more. India has few divorces because breaking a commitment to God, society, and one’s own family is not an option. Commitment means forever, and forever is how long this country and its people have been in existence. We might judge India through our American lens, but India knows how to exist, survive, and more and more each year, thrive.
Now come along and enjoy the wedding we attended in the next video…
Entry No. 5 | Feb. 7, 2012
There are NO tanning salons in India!
But, there are dogs…lots of dogs. Cute dogs, little dogs, big dogs, skinny dogs and barking dogs. Actually, there are only barking dogs of the cute, little, big and skinny varieties.
Symbolically, dogs are considered inauspicious within the Hindu tradition. Dogs are attached to their owners, always wagging their tails when they get attention and approval and whining when they do not. In this way, the dog is a symbol of the ego. Like a dog’s interaction with humans, the ego blooms when praised and given attention, and the ego languishes when ignored. I know about this; my ego languishes when ignored. I am transformed into a little crybaby when I don’t get attention. I want attention, and in India, I get what I want.
Each day as we scour the streets in search for our next meal (Go to McDonald’s), we are stared at constantly. And by constantly I mean continuously, incessantly, relentlessly, frequently, perpetually and all the time. For example, if we go on a subway train and there are 112 people in a subway car built for 80, 98 of them are staring at us. This is an example of karma and how perfectly it works. Let me explain.
A lot of people think of karma as the “what comes around goes around” expression about how people get what is coming to them. In reality, karma simply means “action,” and it is pure cause and effect. I am a sentient, conscious being, so I am a series of causes and effects, a whole web of actions. Karma is a product of intention, so if you stop the intention than you can stop the karma or the action. Desire is essentially karma, and when there is no more desire, there is no more cause and effect. But that’s a lot easier said than done.
So for me, being stared at endlessly everywhere I go is karma in full effect. My desire for attention is the cause, and the resulting attention is the effect. We always get what we want, and in New Delhi, India, I am getting what I want. I am getting what I want at a level I never thought possible. I want attention, but I want it my way!
Mick Jagger was wrong when he said, “You can’t always get what you want…” (You know you want to sing it~!)
Let’s do it…
I saw her today at a reception~
A glass of wine in her hand~
I knew she would meet her connection~
At her feet was her footloose man~
No, you can't always get what you want~
You can't always get what you want~
You can't always get what you want~
But if you try sometimes~
You just might find~
You get what you need~
Sorry about that, but I love me some Rolling Stones.
Anyways, the more I think people are staring at me everywhere I go, the more people stare at me everywhere I go. Thoughts are things, and in my opinion, this idea is found in the majority of the world’s religious traditions and spiritual ways of living. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive.” Buddha said, “Form follows thought.” Gandhi said, “Your thoughts become your life.”
One of the most important lessons I have learned is not to stare at others. Confucius said, “Attack the evil that is within yourself, rather than attacking the evil that is in others.” When I get back to the U.S. and I notice people who “look different,” I will remember how I felt.
Now I’m off to the Ladakh Buddhist Vihar to gain some Tibetan insight on meditation, expectations, thoughts, and acceptance. Come along with me in my next video…
Entry No. 4 | Jan. 31, 2012
Delhi offers tons of opportunities to learn about the world’s religions and grow spiritually. This past weekend, I attended a Dharmatalk of Pema Donyo Nyingje Wangpo, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who was born in Tibet and resides at his monastery in the Himalayas. Situ Rinpoche, as he is called, is the 12th Tai Situ and one of the foremost spiritual leaders in the Kagyu Order of Vajrayana/Tibetan Buddhism. He is, of course, the incarnation of the 11th Tai Situ, and his existence was first discovered when His Holiness the 16th Karmapa had a vision in which he became aware of Rinpoche’s rebirth. His Holiness described the baby’s parents by name and where they could be found, and as a result, the search party for the 12th Tai Situ was able to find the infant quickly. At the mere age of 18 months, young Rinpoche was taken to a monastery and enthroned as the new Tai Situ.
Imagine…you are a member of a family of peasant farmers living a meek existence in the mountains of Tibet. One day, a bunch of Buddhist monks lamas, and practitioners show up at your door. They tell you that the baby in the crib is the next great spiritual master, and they need to take him to their monastery hundreds of miles away where he will spend the rest of his life. Make sense?
Imagine…you have been a Buddhist monk for many years. Your new teacher and boss shows up at your monastery, and he is a baby! Now your job is to teach him everything you know so that he can eventually teach you everything you taught him. Make sense?
The world in which I am living is extraordinarily different than in the West. Here is another example: His Eminence, this same guy, Tai Situ Rinpoche is especially revered for an event that occurred in 1981. His Eminence (I want to be called His Eminence!) attended the creation ceremony of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa (being called His Holiness would be good too but His Eminence is better). When the Karmapa’s body was being burned, his heart rolled off the fire and landed at the feet of His Eminence. The heart was undamaged and many feel that this unusual event was a sign of His Eminence’s greatness. I want to see that video on YouTube!
Rinpoche’s (His Eminence’s) talk was in a residential home in South Delhi, close to where I reside. The living room was filled with people mostly sitting on cushions while some were seated in chairs. I am part of the “some,” and this was because I did not see any Lay-Z-Boy recliners. There were three female monks and four male monks. Of the seven, only one was not from the West. I personally met one of the female monks, and she is from Seattle.
The devotees refer to Tai Situ Rinpoche as “Master.” One said, “I first met Master four or five years ago.” Lama means spiritual master or guru, and to me, this term represents one of the many paradoxes that exists in Buddhism. At the core of this tradition and one of the central ideas that the Buddha realized during his enlightenment, is the notion that the ego does not exist. The ego or the self is the consciousness of one’s own identity or the essential qualities that make a person distinct from all others. The Buddha’s enlightenment was when he completely let go of his ego. He said to his self, “Oh Lord of my own ego, you are pure illusion, you do not exist.” The Buddha became one with all sentient beings, and in doing so, he was able to see the reality of the world, which is that we are not all that! In terms of this world and outside of it, we are nothing, and our self or our identities or our egos are an illusion. To me, a paradox that exists within Buddhism is the idea that someone is a master and has a higher status than anyone else when we really don’t exist. A Buddhist is both somebody and nobody, and perhaps the more of a somebody someone is, the more the somebody understands that he or she is a nobody. While Tai Situ Rinpoche, by virtue of his lineage, knowledge and experience, is elevated to higher status within his tradition, like all beings, he is still nobody and hopefully for him, will not be reborn in the next life as an ant.
While we waited for Master to arrive, the couple seated next to me asked where I was from and what I was doing in Delhi. I explained how I was a non-traditional university student from America, and I was living in Delhi for the experience and to complete two religion projects. I added some of the details of the projects in a way that made me appear very smart while hoping they would not ask me any specific questions about my research. But the one question they asked was the one people here always ask: “How do you finance this trip?” I explained that the U.S Federal Government provides American citizens who want to attend college with loans, grants and scholarships. Indians are amazed at this idea because it’s not possible in anywhere in South Asia. Here, your family pays for your school in the few years after high school, before you get married, or your shot at a degree is finished. People also find it fascinating that I am pursuing a religious studies degree. If you have the opportunity to attend school in India, you take courses in business, economics, medicine and other subjects related to making cash money. Mostly, people don’t study things because they want to or the subject “sounds cool,” but rather they study serious subjects in order to make serious money!
Just after Tai Situ Rinpoche arrived, the monks he brought with him began chanting in Tibetan. If you have ever heard this before in person or seen it on TV or the Internet, you know that it’s pretty cool. With a deep growl, they sort of hum the words, and it seems super-spiritual. But…in normal group gathering fashion, just when the monks were in the middle of their chanting ritual, somebody’s cell phone rang!
No matter where you are in the world, nothing changes, and although I can communicate how different this country is, humans at their core are all the same. We want what we want, and we want it when we want it.
Rinpoche gave a great informal talk, and I am a slightly better person as a result of his insight. Now I must go ask…no…demand that my girlfriend call me His Eminence…and follow that demand with sincere pleas for forgiveness!
Entry No. 3 | Jan. 27, 2012
This week has been filled with lessons, and I’m not talking about piano lessons. I have learned what not to eat and what not to eat under any and all circumstances no matter what. I have learned to wash my hands more frequently with bottled water, bleach or plutonium. Like most travelers coming to Delhi, I got sick. Not only did I get “Delhi-belly,” but I also got infections in my leg and arm. Fortunately, there was a small hospital nearby, and I decided to pay it a visit after using the bathroom 58 times in one day. While I was sitting in the waiting room, I met a married couple from Chicago. This was great, because in a city of close to 20 million, I have barely seen any Westerners. They came to have a child through in vitro fertilization. The father’s sperm was melded with an anonymous donor’s egg, and another woman carried the baby for nine months. They said that the process was unsuccessful in America because “so many companies are more concerned with taking your money rather than helping you have a child.” The husband and wife had the baby with them, born only six days ago; Michael was beautiful. When the surrogate arrived at the clinic to have the baby, like most Indian women, she rode on the back of a motorcycle sidesaddle. Can you imagine a woman hours away from giving birth sitting on the back of a motorcycle with both legs hanging off one side while traveling through the most insane traffic on the planet? You don’t have to--come to Delhi.
We visited Swaminarayan Akshardam, the largest temple in the world; this Hindu complex was beyond huge. Unfortunately, they did not allow cameras, phones, laptops, or any type of electronic equipment, so I missed my Facebook. I kept thinking “Oh Facebook, I will only be gone for the day. Don’t worry Facebook, I will be back on soon. Facebook, I am not leaving you for Twitter.” Fortunately, or even better, auspiciously, there was a wall inscribed with quotations from influential people from the past; I read quotes from Vivekananda, Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., and Tolstoy. With all of the random inspirational sayings, I felt like I was onFacebook!
Anyways, this wondrous religious site offered several exhibits similar to Epcot Center, so we purchased tickets for 170 Indian rupees each and entered the exhibition. It began in a dark, gloomy room where we sat on benches. In front of us was a massive boulder with a man chiseling himself out of its side while a deep voice rang out, “It took 7,000 sculptors five years to carve and craft this temple--but it only takes one to craft your life. You are the creator of your own life.” I felt both comfortable and inspired by these words. It never matters which religion I am experiencing because I always here the same message: Change begins within, and it requires discipline and action. The voice continued: “Elevate your consciousness. Elevate the people and society around you. This is your life’s purpose.”
Wow, that was deep! The exhibit ended with a section of life-like cardboard animals, and each animal had a message for us. While a small herd of cardboard cows said, “Oh man, for centuries I have given you free milk, and in return, you butcher us for beef,” a bunch of rabbits remarked, “And us, man kills for mere sport.” On the wall, just before the exit, was a quote from American historian Will Durant: "India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe's languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all.”
Entry No. 2 | Jan. 20, 2012
I am here in India primarily to experience the world’s religions and complete two independent religion projects, however, every aspect outside of these pursuits is fascinating. My girlfriend and I have found a flat to stay in as “paying guests.” This means that we are living with a family, and the cleaning, laundry and meals are included. Our landlord’s name is Roop Chand. He is 72 years old and from the Jain tradition. Roop Chand stays in one bedroom with his Hindu governess (caretaker) named Rita and a young female student from Delhi University rents another room. Roop Chand and Rita are very involved in our daily activities always asking what we are doing or where we are going. We have a full-time cook/servant who lives on the roof of the flat. This guy works seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!
Our household is strictly vegetarian, but here “veg” includes consuming dairy products. In India, the cow is sacred, so the process of milking the cow is done in a respectful way that doesn’t harm the cow. Many of the cows are allowed to roam free each day and that is why there are so many cows walking around. I asked Roop Chand and Rita why the cow is revered. They said, “because of the god Krishna and his love of butter.” Krishna is one of the most well-known and worshipped deities and this is partly because of the stories about him. Within these narratives, there are three different aspects or faces to Krishna including Krishna as a child. Many of the stories present Krishna as a portly young god always trying to steal and eat butter. In terms of the relationship between humans and the divine, Krishna as a child is accessible because everyone knows children. In God presenting himself as a child, Krishna is putting his life in the devotee’s hands to create the opportunity for the devotee to care for him. In this way, Krishna is a popular deity. You gotta love a fat kid eating butter!
Within the academic study of religion, the answer to the question about the sacredness of the cow can be far more complicated. Scholars might say that the sacredness of the cow traces back to the Rig Veda when the cow is referred to as a goddess identified with the mother of gods. So, this is the reality: Does the Hindu swerve to avoid hitting the cow because he understands that the sacredness of the cow traces back thousands of years to the Vedas or is it because of Krishna and his love of butter? It seems the majority of Indians go with the butter answer.
What I find most fascinating about South Asian religions are the way they are practiced. My experience with western religions is that they are more about what you believe rather than what you do. I can’t see what you believe but I can see what you do and here, I see a lot of doing. Explicit in the everyday lives of Indians is the constant practice of their religions and devotion to their gods through everyday actions. Shrines are everywhere - in stores, parking lots, restaurants, situated in trees and anywhere along the roadside. To me, the more one does the more one believes and in New Delhi, the Delhites believe!
Entry No. 1 | Jan. 11, 2012
My name is John Strasser, and I am a senior and religious studies major. Right now I am living in New Delhi, India, one of the most populated cities in the world and considered the mecca for the study of the world’s religions. As a student focusing on South Asian traditions, living in the Indian subcontinent is ideal. As an American citizen focusing on cheeseburgers, living in a beef-free society is not ideal!
First, I am non-traditional student, which means I am slightly older. After failing to graduate after high school and entering the real world without an education, I have a newfound respect and gratitude for being a student. As a matter of fact, while my buddies I grew up with are working hard, raising families, and paying mortgages, I am enjoying planning my eighteenth spring break trip! And this will not be the last. I am applying to graduate school this month, so I look forward to riding this gravy train with biscuit wheels for another couple of years.
So what I am really doing here? I have come on this journey to India independently rather than through education abroad or a student exchange program. I am taking three USF online classes, and two religious studies department professors have graciously agreed to oversee REL 4910 undergraduate research projects. Dr. Mozella Mitchell will direct my project designed to study and assess the impact of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam on the treatment and definition of women in New Delhi, India, and Dr. Paul Schneider will oversee my project analyzing Tibetan Buddhism, Catholicism, Sikhism, and the Baha’i faith as practiced by the local population. Both independent research projects will require independent field research conducted on site in this Indian metropolis. Wow, this sounds like serious stuff, so I better get to work right away!
While living here, I am going to learn about a culture, a city, a people, and their religious traditions unlike anywhere else in the world. As one of the most unique places to visit, New Delhi, India will present remarkable and fascinating situations and life lessons. In fact, Delhi already has. But before I begin with the here and now, let me catch you up on the journey getting here.
I booked an Etihad Airways flight from New York City to New Delhi with a three-night layover in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Etihad is the official airlines of the U.A.E., and they are a five-star airline with flight service and food that is incredible. My girlfriend, a USF student and I.S.S. major came with me, and we felt like we were eating at a fine dining restaurant. After arriving in the U.A.E.’s capital, we rented a car and drove to Dubai to watch the New Year’s fireworks at the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The next day, we spent the afternoon at Abu Dhabi’s main beach soaking in the rays while enjoying a New Year’s Day fighter jet air show. Before finishing our stop in the Middle East, we were fortunate to spend the day at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, one of the most beautiful religious sites in the world.
For a first-hand look at the Etihad flight and all of the events afterward in the United Arab Emirates, watch these YouTube videos.
Here is just a quick example of how different Delhi is than the West. A few nights ago, we found a large monkey sitting on a car. Next to the monkey, there was a boy making egg sandwiches on the street. The monkey lunged toward the boy so he jumped back. Suddenly, the monkey and his partner in crime, another monkey, grabbed the egg maker’s loaf of bread and some eggs and took off! I spoke with a man in my neighborhood about this experience, and he warned me about the monkeys. He said, “You have to be careful when you are walking alone at night. The monkeys will wait until you are alone, and then 2 or 3 of them will take whatever is in your hands. Don’t walk alone at night carrying anything in your hands!” So here in New Delhi, it’s not the 18 million human residents I need to worry about, but rather the cities menacing monkeys…