Saturday, January 31, 2009

Young Dancers of Ubud

It is a slow drive up to Ubud from the steamy shores of the Bali coast. From the wide sandy beaches the narrow road winds up into the hills to the magical town nestled amidst the rich green rice paddies. It is a journey that takes you from the practical world of man by the sea to an almost fantastical realm of enchantment in the hills above.

True enough man is here as he is almost everywhere on this small island, but it is in Ubud that the mystical spirit that is uniquely Balinese seems to permeate every aspect of the landscape. It is almost as though God is not just remotely viewing his creation here but in some way the creator himself exists consciously in the rich fragrance and resplendent beauty of nature itself in and around Ubud.

And it is not just the land. It is also in the sweet smile and disposition of its people. In the crafts, in the music, and the dance which you find everywhere here. Stages and stores full of richness and spirit have sprouted up on almost every small road and lane. You can easily envision that this place is a Heaven on earth.

I came one day to watch some young dancers learn the intricacies of Balinese dance. These little girls had giggled and snacked on treats waiting for the teacher to come. Yet once the class started the kids were transformed. One moment carefree children at play and in the next they became bright flower buds. Ones who would one day, in time, blossom into the dancing mystical Goddesses they would become on stage.

No music played and yet they moved with poise and charm. The teachers were patient and attentive to their students and the long artistic and inner journey that lay before them. It was one they themselves had taken long ago. One whose destination was not self expression but to become one with Balinese dance unchanged in centuries of tradition.

Before the youngest dancers the teachers demonstrated intricate moves and steps. Every bit of their bodies was engaged. Fingers, eyes, and feet moved precisely. If you looked at one small bit it appeared awkward, but from a distance the beauty became apparent, even though the meaning of each separate portion of the gesture, step and move, remained a mystery.

From behind the teacher corrected the older dancers. A tilt of the head just so, an errant finger returned to perfect symmetry, a correct bend of the waist, and eyes, that moved with the same precision as the feet.

The teacher shares lessons unchanged for generations. She looks to no book or diagram to teach. Her own deep memories are her source and her inspiration. She calls upon tradition, upon history, upon the very spirit of the mystical Balinese dance.

There is little chance for either fame or fortune for these young dancers of Ubud. Perhaps it is a parents insistent voice that draws them out at first to practice. Or perhaps it is the spirit of dance itself which may be impossible to escape from here, and they must allow it to enrich and fill their spirit. So that one day when their blossoming beauty starts to fade they will help other young bright flowers to unfold.

No music plays and yet they dance. No audience watches and yet they are seen by many eyes. A story is told that bypasses the mind and is embraced by the heart. God watches and God dances within.



I danced with Life.

Life does not know how to dance well.


I am dancing with Death.

Death is a hopeless dancer.


I shall dance with God.

We both will be able

To teach each other.

Excerpt from Sound Becomes, Silence Is by Sri Chinmoy.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Silent Theater Meets Nature's Play

I had been following the path for some time, the one that ran west and skirted the black sand beach. The only sound I could hear on that silent morning was the gentle crash of the sea spilling up across the sand and then swirling back out once again into the Java Sea.

And then it just ended. Stopping abruptly at a small river which flowed thick and brown from the rains that had fallen heavily during the past night.

Then I followed a smaller dirt trail that pushed and meandered its way into the tangle and green of a Balinese forest. I hoped to find a bridge that could help me continue my journey westward but instead my path led me to the silent theater.

At least I could only assume it had once been a grand and wonderous place. There had obviously once been a great stage but now its floor boards were long gone. It was nature's hand that filled the gap left by man. Vines crept over the space were once young dancers feet had gracefully moved to the haunting melody and rythmn of Balinese Gamalung.

There was no one else there except me and the forest and the haunting memories of those who had once come here and found joy and life.

Nature had nearly reclaimed this place that for me had no name and no history. The beauty of the theater was a sad and distant one at best. Nature in its place was providing its own enchantment in the flowers that fell across the space.

Today there was an audience of one lone runner. Nature's performance I will continue to applaud for some time to come.

The foolish mind

Quite often performs

In the illusion-theatre.

Excerpt from Twenty-Seven Thousand Aspiration-Plants, Part 130 by Sri Chinmoy.

When I emerged from the forest I came upon a small temple where People where making offerings. Each temple no matter how small in Bali seems to thrive with constantly with life. He had placed his flowers on the platform that perched just out of reach of the splashing sea.

At the same time the dawn fisherman where coming in off the sea with their small catches of fish. Each would help the other drag the boats up across the sand to safe spot just past the reach of the sea.

None of the boats seemed to have caught much. A meager harvest at best for the 3 men who had been out with casting nets long before the sun had brought its brightness to the sea. Still all seemed content in their own way.

Like all fisherman the work is hard. Just to pull the boat up across the unforgiving sand is not easy.

And yet the customers come. Pulling out the fish they want and placing them in small plastic bags. No fresher breakfast can be found, the catch almost still alive with the scent of the sea upon it and the toil of the fisherman right before your eyes.

And so this is a fragment of life on a Bali beach. And also a glimpse at the mystery I found in the silent forest, where memories sill linger and nature gradually reclaims what once belonged solely to it.

A man makes an offering to God and the sea offers something back to man

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Chickens, Stone Carvers and the Grumpy Priest

It was a typical day in Bali. Just me, 100 golf balls, 200 unforgiving meters of grass, and some chickens. Who clucked and scratched and must have seen the meadow covered with its gathering collection of ersatz eggs as a kind of hen heaven. Safe for the most part, with just a slight potential for an occasional errant arcing missile that could almost instantly, if it made unfortunate contact, dispatch them from the verdant green playing field to the less pleasurable destination of someones dinner plate nearby.

Though the chickens were never once threatened by any of my soaring white projectiles the neighbors in their humble tin roofed shacks to my right nearby were certainly less fortunate. On my first outing I had sent such a relentless fusillade of projectiles in their direction that it seemed to my ears, as the balls fell with aching repetitiveness over the fence with such a cacophony of clanging and banging that any of the inhabitants there could easily have pictured themselves on the receiving end of a stormy biblical plague from a hostile sky.

I humbly hope, as my outings continue, and I genuinely strive and seek improvement, to both prove myself to be a better golfer and to treat the locals next door with the quiet respect they deserve.

I walked back to the hotel slowly. It was hot and sticky and my pace was leisurely. I felt the exotic peace and pleasure of the place with each shallow stride.

I came upon some stone carvers who were working on an elaborate entrance to
a building that could either have been a home or a temple. It is hard to tell sometimes here.

Everywhere you look there are statues and carvings and delicate offerings to the spirits, to the Gods, to the peace that resides within.

Not everyone here is an artisan but everyone here is part and parcel of a gentle mystical Balinese spirit that is present everywhere you walk or look.

The carvers seemed to enjoy my presence on their job site. What they create here now will remain for centuries. But the moment of creation is swift, transitory, and is over in an instant compared with how long the stone statues themselves will stand and stare out onto the busy street.

Some of the faces of the statues can often look frightening. I wonder if they are there to protect or frighten off more terrifying spirits?

There is nothing to fear however in the sweet and gentle faces of the carvers. Who work there steel tools with delicate strokes into the soft stone.

I do not know how long they have been working here or when their labor will be finished. I can only imagine that it will last for ages and perhaps I was the only one to record the magic they have wrought here.

No stroke is repeated. Each move unique and what they will leave behind will bestow infinite pleasure to those who come near, look close, and see the beauty within.

For every new face to emerge under the hands of a carver there are the countless ones that have been crafted for generations.

Close nearby was a small sweet temple that seemed to have no one inside. Fresh flowers adorned the statues so I knew it was not a neglected place.

Once inside the gates the noise and clatter of the road outside disappeared. The green rich grass under my feet was soothing and inviting. My torment with errant golf balls was replaced with solitude and peace.

I sat quietly for a moment and felt each breath return peace to my being replacing any thoughts or agitations that may have vexed me moments earlier.

After a while I saw a lone Priest walking around the grounds caring a basket of offerings. Here and there he walked slowly and gently placed small palm leaf baskets filled with fresh flowers.

I followed him on his rounds for a short while. When he spotted me I bowed in respect. He paid little attention to me but willingly accepted my request to take his picture. I do not think I added to his unhappiness. I was certainly content. I hoped he would feel better, when a short while later, I slipped quietly away, back out onto the noisy street from whence I came.

Peace in stone statues

Has inspired and helped the world

Infinitely more

Than the present-day

Self-acclaimed peace-possessors.

Excerpt from Peace: God'S Fragrance-Heart, Part 2 by Sri Chinmoy.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chinese New Year in Bali

Mario was adamant that the Chinese New Year in Bali would be significant,and worth checking out. Having seen this celebration take place in traditional Chinese cultures in many places I knew it could be interesting and moving. But I thought to myself, "this is a Hindu Muslim culture, how could they possibly have room in their population to celebrate a Confucian Buddhist religious experience as well.

With a little research we found that there was a Chinese temple nearby called Tana Kilap. A taxi dropped us of on a busy highway and the driver pointed us down a quiet lane that did not look too promising. But after 50 meters, the unmistakable sweet scent of incense greeted us and we could see bright red lanterns bobbing in the breeze.

The temple seemed small, but that may have been because there was a steady stream of worshipers. Our group was respectful and the locals who were making a circuit of the complex seemed not to mind our presence on this auspicious day.

We were given ribbons to wrap around our waist. You could choose either yellow for prosperity or red for good life. The large bundles of incense we were handed were difficult to light but once so, the smoke and sweetness enveloped you like some mystical barrier.

The stations in the temple were clearly marked and if you missed one a helpful smiling attendant would point you in the right direction. Most worshipers lifted the burning incense above their heads and bowed at each place, leaving some sticks in a container now thick with ash.

At the end of the circuit the priest gave her blessings to one and all.

A prayer said, holy water splashed on head and hands and a small amount drunk. Also a yellow paste was applied to the forehead.

For most this last ritual seemed the most significant.

I had been asking if anyone spoke English when quite magically we met the very helpful Iketut Winarta who is an architect. He also wanted me to know that his Chinese name was Liem Tian Xin. His ancestors came to Bali in the 19th century he proudly told me. This temple he explained was a mix of Confucianism and Taoism. Meaning a mix of Buddha from India and Confuscious from China. That like the mix of races that had come together over the centuries in Bali, that also religions as well found ways to mix. I mentioned that the new US president knew something about mixing and he laughed.

It is the year of the ox. Meaning one in which steady conscious effort is needed in order to succeed.

A young boy told me that all the fireworks were used the night before. Today some kids kept busy by folding paper that would later be burned in a big open oven by the worshipers.

The statues around the temple seemed quite old but well cared for. Each one carried a unique experience in the ritual circling of the grounds.

It did not seem out of place for kids to play with electronic games during the time that parents made the slow and thoughtful rounds.

I do not know how long the temple's members would come and pray. A day later the sweet scent of incense still lingers on my clothes and the ash is embedded in parts of my sandals.

The young faces of Bali. On one day I saw people praying to Shiva with the rising sun. Today I see those celebrating in a sky without a moon that yet signals a new year.

May the beauty of the New Year

Beautify my heart.

May the purity of the New Year

Purify my mind.

May the simplicity of the New Year

Simplify my vital.

May the intensity of the New Year

Intensify my body.

May the responsibility of the New Year

Glorify my life.

May only the divinity of the New Year

Fully satisfy me.

Excerpt from My Sweet Father-Lord, Where Are You? by Sri Chinmoy.