Let me clarify one thing before starting this story: I am known by my family and friends as "unchurched". Despite both sets of grandparents and many friends offering copies of Bibles and/or Books of Mormon through out my life, it never took. You might recall that even my New Zealand Camping Van, Sister Mary Francis, feared for the condition of my soul. Yet, when Leslie and I started dating, it offended me when she gave me an initial ranking of only 7/10 on her required "spiritual" qualification for people she dates. I've always said the crest of a mountain top is my church. I have a Facebook Religion in my "About" section. Isn't that enough? I am Pastafarian.
Leslie is the one who requested a trip to Bali. She also had specific ideas about achieving Nirvana and "finding a guru" thru a yoga retreat. I was just along for the ride. I had no illusions of any massive spiritual changes that I was going to undertake. I thought I would tag along for a few yoga sessions and a “Sonic Healing Tibetan Bowl Meditation” or two, have a pizza and beer for dinner and all would be right in my world. Although the primary motivation of the trip was yoga, Leslie booked a taxi driver named Wayan to take us to some of the temples and attractions over the next few days between the yoga classes.
Wayan, a practicing Hindu, was a wealth of knowledge regarding the local traditions and customs and over the hours of driving between temples we extracted a lot of knowledge out of him. He is in no way proselytizing for the Hinduism, just answering the questions of two curious people as to the how and why he lives the way he lives.
The first temple we visit is the Gunung Kawi Temple. I have been to the Vatican in Rome, I have been to the Mormon Temple in Utah, and immediately upon entering there is already a stark difference in how the tourism occurs for the people outside the faith. In the churches where you are not of the faith, you are welcome to walk thru and see the shrines and feel the awe of the place, but you are not allowed to participate. At this temple outsiders are not only allowed to see the rituals, but encouraged to participate.
First, to be allowed into the temple you must look the part. Wayan guides us through the proper attire: a sarong for both men and women, tied closed with a scarf, conservative shirts on top. As we approach, vendors outside offer to assist us with the finishing touch for our "look" - Hindu prayer beads. We draw boisterous competition from a series of stalls offering prayer beads and hair clips.
We step into an area carved into stone cliffs, stone hallways lead to corners and caves where the devout may escape into themselves to - as Wayan puts it - "learn and understand the divine though their own inner reflection and mantra."
Wayan points out colorful carvings of spirits, and fabric checkered in black and white. "Good and evil, light and darkness - they are always in pairs. In life, you cannot have one without the other." Wayan tells us. "This is why our fabrics are checkered or striped black and white."
At the end of our tour, we meet a man who has carefully hand carved Hindu deities, his wife painting them in bright colors and gold edging. I decide to procure two masks of Hindu spirits carved and delicately painted.
The first purchase of the day, the man who carved the masks takes my cash and taps all of the rest of the carving art in his stand as if to say: "These two did their job, now the rest of you get to work! Get to work! Get to work!"
Wayan explains, "This is a ritual of gratitude, to acknowledge the inspiration that caused you to purchase your masks and make sure the other objects in our shop are imbued with the same inspiration."
Next up, Tirta Empul, known as the “Holy Spring” temple. It is famous for the spring where local people go for ritual purification. The major attraction/activity at this temple is the cleaning ritual done in the holy water fountains. The fountains can cleanse you of bad dreams, dishonesty, betrayal, three for general purification, and even one specifically for cleaning the dead. "We take water from this one to purify our dead," Wayan tells us. "Some tourists feel funny about using the water from that one, but I do. It's purpose isn't to cause death; it's purpose is to cleanse away anything that is dead and decaying in your heart." Who wants a dead and decaying heart? It can't hurt.
Back in the good old days this process was done fully in the nude. However, conservatism has reached even this bastion of freedom and now the process is undertaken wearing sarongs. The first step is to rent a locker to put your non-swimming clothes in. This is done in a small hallway filled with tourists and locals (men and women alike) trying to change clothes. The dressing room is funny on its own due to the chaos. Once wearing your sarong, you head to the fountains. We chose to make an offering to Vishnu to whom the temple is dedicated and I think this surprised Wayan. This is not required of the tourists, but I felt that it was the proper thing to do. Wayan got the correct offerings and incense for us and told us where to pray.
With our prayers and offerings to Vishnu completed, Wayan suggested we pick some personal mantras and use that as our prayer at the fountains. We start at one side, and as Wayan instructed moved from fountain to fountain. I state my mantra, and stick my head in the water bubbling out from the fountain. It's sharp with cold.
Wayan even instructs us to fill up a bottle to take with us, to drink if we like. "Is it good drinking water?" Leslie asks. Wayan explains that it's piped into his neighborhood for drinking water. Wayan must be very holy.
Hinduism has somewhere between 3 and 33 gods depending on how some things are interpreted, but Balinese Hinduism has a little twist to it where there is a single overarching God and all the other traditional Hindu Gods are more like saints. So, while flexible in the rituals and incorporation, they do classify themselves as monotheistic. On the drive home and as we walk thru town we notice many Buddha statues.
"Does Bali have a lot of Buddhists as well?" I ask Wayan, and he looks at me confused.
"No, Bali is 98% Hindu, why?"
"There are so many Buddha statues around."
"Oh, yes. We don't mind Buddah. In Bali, many deities of spiritual wisdom can be accepted by Hindu people as guides. There is no conflict."
Now, this, I like. Is he saying that my Pastafarian roots and traditions can continue and Balinese Hinduism will allow me to add His Noodliness to the pantheon? Balinese Hinduism seems right up my alley. The Temples are generally outdoors and structured around space for personal contemplation.
Gardens are a primary feature of each location, and I like growing gardens myself.
The daily rituals and almost weekly holidays focus on expressing gratitude for the good things in our lives and enjoying the company of family, neighbors and larger community. We probably passed five different parades in process during our temple tour alone. I like a good party.
And best of all, no one has to sit in a boring, dark building listening to an old man drone on. Spiritual philosophies and theories about the workings of the Universe are told through stories and plays complete with colorful costumes and a friendly lion as a protecting deity. (I am a cat guy, after all.)
By day four in Bali, I am surprised to find myself appreciating a real world religion - beyond the one that teaches a tangle of pasta with meatballs for eyes created the world and encourages people to wear colanders on their head in their drivers license photos. Admittedly, before coming to Bali, my knowledge of Hinduism came mostly from Apu on the Simpsons, which I am sure is a massive misrepresentation or at least oversimplification of Hinduism. Further to that, Apu is not a Balinese Hindu. So, I have a lot to learn before I complete a full conversion. Fortunately, Hindu University in Bali offers a degree in Hindu Religious Dance so maybe I can learn more while improving my dance skills when I enroll this fall.
P.S. Before you get upset with me for sounding somewhat sacrilegious, please consider this statue of Sponge Bob Square Pants the Balinese have erected in the gardens around the Pura Ulun Danu Bratan Temple. I should ask Wayan about that, too.
P.P.S. Facebook really does have a “feeling Hindu” emoji. I used it, and therefore, since it is on Facebook, it, and all associated events are true.
May you be touched by His Noodley Appendage, Ramen.