Trust your instincts. Trust your friends. These pearls of wisdom safely guided me here to the island of Bali. Back in Santa Fe, while reflecting on these chaotic world times, I wondered if there is a place where people might chose harmony over conflict. Traveling to Bali presented a portal, not abstract like John Malkovich’s brain, but a direct link to the answer to my question.
Tonight, a typical balmy evening in Bali, I stood outside naked to the waist, arms outstretched, in perfect alignment with the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross. I felt the universal harmonic chord resonate in perfect pitch. To the south, sounds of stirring farm animals and the happy chatter from the Balinese family preparing dinner balanced perfectly with the sounds to the north of slapping waves that carried fishermen’s boats to sea. American and other western governments’ promotion of fear and loathing had not permeated this landscape or culture. The Bali bombing, executed by a few Javanese extremists, had not poisoned the well of generosity and kindness that flowed naturally from the Balinese.
Earlier in my travels, at an Internet Room in Pdangbai, I had a fascinating conversation with my Balinese counterpart. He too was an observer of humanity.
In his forties, he spoke about his earlier years as a farmer in the rice fields. Contemporary western world interests brought lucrative property values, so his family chose to sell the farm. To stay in contact with the land, and the sea, he operates several fishing boats and enjoys doing his own fishing, as well as attending to his own garden.
As we continued our conversation I realized this fellow possessed keen insights into man’s behavior, whether members of the Buddhist, Islam, Hindu or Judaic-Christian communities. He distinguished people as either rational or irrational.
Today, he said, most Westerners and Asians still have problems understanding each other’s cultures. Balinese do not understand the logic behind the mutual animosity of Westerners and Muslims. The Balinese spiritual philosophy determines that, if there is a conflict between two parties, then both parties are at fault. What a refreshingly thoughtful outlook on life, I thought.
Though my American upbringing seemed to emphasize “might makes right”, I’ve instinctively felt that a more peaceful path to alleviating aggression and potential conflict must exist. My own philosophy of tolerance included a mixture of good Christian and Buddhist values combined with sage wisdom from contemporary writers and Hollywood scripts.
I admire Kurt Vonnegut’s redefined version of “love thy neighbor”; understanding the realistic difficulties of loving every type of neighbor, Vonnegut suggests a more moderate approach, choosing either to respect or be indifferent, thus minimizing conflict. This view certainly helps me mitigate road rage while I’m driving Cerrillos Road.
A Bill Murray character suggests considering those individuals who demonstrate social interaction problems as “temporarily disconnected”.
In the village of Ubud, a Swiss fellow named George introduced me to a gentleman highly revered by the Balinese as a spiritual leader. Conversing over a civilized cup of tea, Adipati spoke about the influence of his father, the general, who convinced him to pursue a life of conflict as a warrior, a hired gun exploited by Suharto’s government to annihilate the people of East Timor. Today, this decision still caused him great pain for he knew he had blood on his hands. Thankfully, his grandfather had saved his soul by reintroducing him to his spiritual roots. Many years later, his current spiritual path and good role model status had earned him respect among the young people of Ubud.
Adipati was worried that many young Balinese were becoming corrupt on the spoils of the tourist dollars. This current economic downturn gave the Balinese time to reflect and to return to their spirituality. However, the downturn also produced idle hands, hands that used to work the fields or developed creative works. He said Balinese pray all the time but still maintain corrupt thoughts. He tried his best to provide a positive influence.
While we spoke, I reflected back to an earlier encounter with a young rice farmer I met while walking the road to Tirtagangga, a picturesque village which lay in the quiet eastern shadow of Mount Agung. He expressed puzzlement concerning young Aussie travelers who seek pleasure only through loud, raucous, drunken activities when his environment offered peaceful pleasures such as star gazing, watching fireflies and listening to the crickets and frogs that gather in the neighboring rice fields. I said I enjoyed the simple pleasures too. His expressive contentment was reminiscent of a smile I’ve seen on the face of a New Mexican organic farmer I know.
In Tirtigangga, the rice paddy farmers are great practitioners of what I call the philosophy of “weedism”, or discovering one’s own humility and sense of nirvana through the efforts of tilling the soil. They quickly put me to work clearing the weeds in preparation for the next planting. Toiling in the Elysian Fields was good for the body, and soul.
Adipati continued, explaining the Hindu/ Buddhist philosophy. Balinese Hinduism does not have the strict caste system structure as in India. The caste system you belong to is determined solely by your bloodline, not by wealth. Your caste status carries little authority today however, except as it pertains to certain roles within the temple. One’s stature in the community is now measured by a variety of roles disassociated from their caste, including their role within the local farmer’s co-op and other trade related authority.
My earlier hotel host exemplified such a prominent man, a leader in both his Ubud community as well as head of his family’s household. As a reluctant hero, the townsfolk had recently elected him mayor, a role he lightly observed carried many responsibilities.
The Balinese also have a universal understanding of life’s dualities and balances of Nature…the yin and the yang, the light and the dark, birth and death…all life’s cycles that are constantly in motion, ever evolving.
Under Hindu/Buddhist teachings, one’s actions were held accountable to their karma, a belief that seemed to provide a solid moral grounding.
George came back to join our conversation. George was embroiled in a melodrama of his own creation and enlisted our advice. A feud had developed between himself and a Dominican Republic gentleman. During the last few nights, like two bantering roosters, they’d been using an innocent woman as a mere excuse to play out their darker inner conflicts in the bars and streets of Ubud. Both were men of idle hands, George finding fleeting fortune through “easy” deals, and the Dominican through inheritance. George admittedly knew better, had known of loving a good woman and brief honest work as a milkman delivering milk with poetic notes; yet, he repeatedly chose the titillating darker path to see where it led.
George, though older than us, became our son, who respected our opinions and sought our fatherly advice.
What do I say? I thought. What would Jesus do? What would Buddha do? Or, for that matter, what would Emerson, Vonnegut, Bill Murray or Monty Python say? We did not condone George’s actions. We tried to dissuade George, asking that he transcend beyond the titillation of this futile melodrama, for its outcome could only lead to pain. Despite our sought advice, George pursued the darker course.
The next morning, I heard that the Dominican in a drunken confrontation had stabbed George. I heard the wound was thankfully only superficial and George would be released from the hospital soon. The “buzz” in the community was amazingly indifferent, no ill will, just relief that the two foreigners’ bad karma influence was finally out of their lives. Vonnegut and Buddha had joined hands.
Gazing back at that balmy evening sky, I realized my hands still joined to the two twinkling polar constellations. Time to reflect. Hopefully George had learned a valuable lesson. Our paths can greatly depend on our choices. I thought about Bill Murray’s Razors Edge character stating “is it not easier to be a wise man on top of a mountain”. Obviously, the true test is down where you get your hands dirty, in the society of man.