Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Islamic Museum

I have tons of ideas for posts about the quirky little things that I come across. Cultural oddities, little adventures, personal reflections. But it's actually kind of hard to bring myself to post about that stuff. Although entertaining it seems somehow too trivial. That's why I'm mostly posting about religious things I come across. It somehow seems more worth it, like there is an important message in it.

Today I went to the Islamic Museum (among other things). It's weird going to some historical museums. All you do is stand there and read text most of the time, which I could do more comfortably in a hammock at the hotel or at least sitting down :-). Instead I stand for a long time and drag my bag around as a direct substitute for turning the page. But I digress. The Islamic Museum was very interesting to read at, and I thought I would pass on some information to anyone out there who cares to follow my travels.

The Tenants of Islam

Fasting during Ramadhan
Fasting allows people to build patience and endurance in preparation for when they will be forced to endure hardship. I've fasted in the past and one of the reasons is in case I'm ever arrested, so that makes perfect sense to me. If I was arrested for a political protest it is not unlikely that the police would keep me for an extended period of time in a deliberately cold and isolated cell. They are required to provide minimal food but I have been told from a first hand experience that some police officers like to provide the requisite meal in contrast to the stated dietary requirements of the prisoner. That is, if they discovered I was vegan they would serve me only meat.

Solat (prayers) 5 times daily.
This is the "central pole of the tent" without which the "tent" would fall down. That being said, all five tenants are very important parts of the whole, and without a single one of them the system is not a real system. There are five times each day that people are expected to pray. Each section of the day has a different name. It is not meant to be arduous; people who are injured are sick pray in whatever way they can, sometimes moving only their eyes.

To become Muslim it is necessary to confirm that Allah is the only God. A sort of vow must be taken outwardly and also felt in the heart. If it ever ceases to be true then a person is not considered a true Muslim.

The Haj
If a person can afford it (that is, if they can pay for a return trip and people they leave behind will be taken care of) then each muslim must make one trip to Mecca in their life.

Zakat or Titha
I'm not clear quite on the amount but rich are required to give a certain amount of their wealth and/or possessions to the poor. The purpose is to reduce greed of the rich and reduce the envy and jealousy of the poor towards the rich.

There are four books in Islam. Each book was delivered by a Messenger. Messengers are charged with the duty of living a life to be emulated but also of delivering the message of Allah by spreading the word. This is in contrast to a prophet who only lives a life to be emulated and is not required to spread the word of Allah. A Prophet with a capital P seems to be synonymous with Messenger. According to religious scholars there have been about 124 000 prophets and 313 Messengers.

There are 4 Messengers (usually referred to as Prophets) who have delivered religious texts:
Musa (Moses) - The Taurat
Isa (Jesus) - The Injil
Daud (David) - The Zabar
Muhammad - The Al - Quran

The Al-Quran, delivered by Muhammad is considerd by Muslims to be the most recently delivered. It nullifies all previous books. An important part of being Muslim seems to be the the confirmation that all previous books are nullified by the latest. Previous books were meant for older societies which had different ways of being and they are no longer relevant.

That's it for the basics that I learned :-). I also came across an interesting distinction: two types of fate. Qadar Mubraw is considered fate that is unchangeable. It includes the place of birth, sex that someone has when they are born (I don't think this is meant to say it can't be changed later but rather that it is pre-determined what one is born with), where one dies among a few other things. Qadar Muallaq is "pending fate" which may be changed and people are expected to work towards changing. I thought that was interesting because Westerners usually have a fatalistic interpretation of the word "fate" which often only recognizes Qadar Mubraw.

One more thing:
"Faith is believing convincingly in the heart and recognizing it with in words and practicing it physically" - Muhammad
So faith requires practical action :-). Nuts to supposedly religious folks who think of religious is something that goes on in your head only.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The story of Buddha

I went to a Buddhist temple today. I think it is my favorite place in Singapore. The whole place was amazing, but I especially liked the garden at the very top. On the fourth floor there is a large solid gold statue in a room with solid gold tiles. It is a relic, I'm not sure of its origin but I think it might contain the tooth of Buddha.

The museum on the 3rd floor has a description of Buddha's life, as if narrated by him. For your reading pleasure, I present a transcription as complete as I could make it:

Greetings! I am the originator of Buddhism, Buddha Sakyamuni. I was born as Siddhartha Guatama in Kapilavastu, a small kingdom located in Southern Nepal today, in around 623 BC. I traveled to the human world for several decades and experienced the ups and downs in life. Amongst these encounters, the most important of all was being able to gain Enlightenment towards the path of emancipation. Hence, as I am known by all as the Buddha, which means “The Awakened One”. The Truth I have discovered is known as the Buddha Dharma. Welcome to all, who have come to learn about my life story. I hope you will be able to find some inspiration in discovering the Truth and become an awakened being, free forever, from endless sufferings.

Rebirth from the Tusita Heaven
Before I was born to this sentient world, I was Bodhisattva living in another world - the heavenly palace Tusita, for 4,000 years, waiting for my turn to become Buddha. I observed and waited till the time is ripe; when the people, time, place and my birth parents are ready for my arrival, I decided to be born into the human world to help alleviate the sufferings of all beings. My mother was Queen Mahamaya, the wife of King Suddhodana of Kapilavastu.

The Birth
Although my mother was married for many years, she remained childless. One night, she dreamt of herself becoming clothed in heavenly clothes and bedecked with divine flowers. Then, after a white six-tusked elephant holding a lotus flower in its trunk appeared and went around her three times before entering her womb on her right side. That was how I went into her womb to develop as a normal human being. It was until the eigth day of the fourth month of the Chinese Lunal calendar, which is on the fifth of may, that I was born under a sala tree in Lumbini Garden. According to some legends, after I was born, I took seven steps on the ground. There after, lotus bloomed beneath my feet for every step I take. Then I said, “I am the most honored One in the world, for I will be the One who would find the way to end all sufferings in life.” Following my birth, fragrant flowers fell from the sky; nine nagas appeared and showered me with water.

Growing Up
My father gave his all to groom me into a all-rounded great ruler. He hired the best teachers to impart me the best knowledge in history, rhetoric, mathematics as well as archery, horse-riding and other martial arts. In order to prevent me from contemplating renunciation, he ordered that I was to experience nothing but the best luxuries in life, be it beautiful houses, songs and dances, women, food and clothes, which were a vast contrast with the stark realities of life. By his decree, I married Yasodhara, a princess from a neighbouring kingdom and bore a son named Rahula.

Witnessing the Pains
Despite all his painstaking efforts, I eventually turned to a different path in life upon seeing the harsh realities in life during my various excursions out of the palace. I witnessed the pains of ageing, torments incited by illness and death. These truths made me realize that no human being can ever escape from this never-ending life cycle. No longer was I capable of continuing my indulgence in the joys and goodness of life. One day, at the northern gate, I met and ascetic who enlightened me that self-cultivation was the only way for one to be liberated from the cycle of endless rebirths and sufferings. Since then, I started to have thoughts of renunciation.

After much deep contemplation, I decided to abticate my throne, renounce my weath and family in search of the Highest Truth, which would lead all beings to liberation. One night, at the age of 29, I took a last glance at my wife and son who were both deep in sleep and left the palace without a word, riding my horse Kanthaka. At dawn, when I arrived at the Anoma River, I shaved my head, put on plain robes and told my charioteer Chandaka to inform the king of my decision.

(missing piece - Buddha goes with 5 ascetics. He fasts and wears rough robes etc., renouncing worldly pleasures. He is reduced to a “bag of bones”)

Meditation under the Bodhi Tree
Eventually, I came to realize that strict asceticism should not be the path to achieve emancipation from all sufferings in life. Hence, I decided to give up this practice. I went to the riverside to cleanse myself thoroughly and accepted milk-rice offerings from Sujata, a female cow herder. The five ascetics thought that I had given up the search for the Highest Truth and thus left me. In search of my new path to understand the Highest Truth, I came before a Bodhi tree. I decided to meditate under the Bodhi and ponder on the way to achieve the true emancipation. Then I made a vow with great determination that I must find the path to liberation; else I would never leave my seat!

The Enlightenment
While I engaged myself in deep contemplation under the Bodhi tree, I finally felt as though my soul had broken through all barriers and rose to a level never felt before. My vow had created a great uproar in the heavens above, causing great disappointment and frustration for the evil king, Mara, who was out to stop me. Mara tried all evil means and ways to deflect me from the right path; he not only tried to cajole me to submission, used beautiful women to entice me and even resorted to violence. However, my sould stood firm as the mountains and eventually overcame all obstacles. After 7 days (or 49 days in some sources) of meditation, as I gazed at the star-lit night ski, I suddenly understood the cause of all sufferings and the way to release the sufferings through one’s selflessness. Then I realised that I was free from the cycle of endless rebirths in this world. From that very moment, at the age of 35, I achieved Anuttara-Samyak-Sambodhi and became and Enlightened One.

The First Sermon
After gaining Enlightenment, I gave my first Sermon at Mrgadava. It was historically knows as Dharma-cakra Pravartana or “the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel”. The five ascetics, who had deserted me earlier, came to listen and accept my Teachings. They sought refuge in the Buddha and became monks. From then on, I began to form my Sangha. With the presence of Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha, I paved the way to spread the Highest Truth. My devotees grew in number, reaching a record of more than 1,200 in just four years time. I broke through the caste system prevalent in the India’s tradition by reaching out to people of all classes and treating them with equality. I also created a set of rules for my devotees to follow, to guide them closely in line with my Teachings.

Spreading the Dharma
With the wish to reach out to a greater audience, I travelled around India with a group of devotees to preach the Dharma for more than 40 years. During this time, I found myself in contact with other religions, correcting some absurd fallacies, and also groomed the Ten Great Disciples including Sariputra, Mahakasyapa and Ananda. I adapted my Teachings to the audiences in accordance to the varying cultures in the places that we travelled to. These Teachings were later compiled into the widely known sutras such as The Lotus Sutra, Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra and Avatamsaka Sutra. During preaching we often experienced the presence of Buddhas from other worlds to testify the Dharma.

At the old age of 80, I know it was about time that my Dharma preaching was to come to an end. I went to Kusinagara and chose to go into the Mahaparinirvana beneath two sala trees. Before entering the state of Maharaparinirvana, I continued with my Dharma preaching, not stopping for even a second. I even managed to persuade my last disciple, Subhadra, to seek refuge in Buddha and become a monk. I also instructed my disciples to respect and abide by the rules strictly after I was gone, for the rules would be their guide and were no different from my presence. By midnight, under a solemn atmosphere and being surrounded by my disciples and devotees, I left the world to go into Mahaparinirvana, for which I am freed forever from the cycle of endless rebirths.

The Relics
After I entered Mahaparinirvana, my human body was cremated and it produced numerous relics. Apart from one tooth relic taken away by the Blessed Sakra, the lord of devas, the rest of the relics were split into eight portions, each presented to the kings of eight different kingdoms. According to some accounts approximately 200 years later, a king named Asoka was very enthusiastic and interested in spreading Buddhism. The king gathered the eight portions of relics, divided them into 84,000 portions and distributed them to numerous stuptas in his kingdom as a way to spread Buddhism. A good deed indeed!

Conclusion: The Eternal Buddha
I was consoled to know that after I had entered Nirvana, my disciples actively consolidated my Dharma, rendering my Dharma Teachings to propagate with more ease and thus benefiting more people in this world. Today, Buddhism is held in high esteem in many countries all over the world - not only in Asian countries but also in Europe and America. Three milleniums have since passed. Without a doubt, this is indeed the area where the spreading of Dharma is prevalent! The Truth, wich I have finally understood, is the helplessness of sentient beings over their own lives, and it is still the root of sufferings of mankind. But fret not! For all of you, like me, have the potential to attain Enlightenment. As long as people exist in this world, so will Buddha nature! The Buddha Dharma will thus never be outdated. Modern ideas on the Buddha and His Teachings will only illustrate how far modern people have contemplated and practiced Buddhism in their lives! in this era it is indeed the emergence of a new Buddhist culture, it is simply a new way for us to develop ourselves and achieve a breakthrough in our search of the Truth. And now, itis perhaps time for you to seek the Truth under your own Bodhi tree!"

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Ok I actually didn't write much about Sadhana forest considering what an amazing place it is. But I've left all the wonderful veganism, hugging, laughter, singing and good work to join my sister and dad in Singapore for Christmas. I also left behind the flies, constant bustle during meal times, mouldy clothes, and mysterious persistent sickness. If I go back it will have to be at least for a month - they've changed the rules because so many people are showing up.

I also left behind the constant honking and temple music, dishonest rickshaw drivers, diesel polluted air, and people who constantly harrangue at you from their shops. Instead I now find myself before more familiar corporate advertisements in super sanitized Singapore.

Don't get me wrong though, in some ways Singapore is pretty awesome. The taxi drivers charge by the 385 meters and 45 seconds. But they run the meter and they are totally above board about things. The streets are quiet. The subway is quick, efficient, and easy. Things are generally cheaper than in Canada by about maybe 40% which just makes you feel like you're getting a good deal all the time. Everyone speaks English. Things are super clean! There are sidewalk cleaning machines that march around, people scrubbing the potted plant containers. It's kind of like one big shopping mall. You'd think this would bother me but at the moment it doesn't really. They have really nice flowers and trees around. We passed by this tree that has the prettiest pink and yellow flowers.

At night the Christmas lights hanging off trees are beautiful. The harbor is absolutely full of shipping tankers with all their lights on, waiting for their turn to dock I guess.

Today we toured around a bit just for fun. The three of us went to the National University of Singapore so Erika could pay for her residence fees. We took a bit of a walk around the University. There is a distinct, almost creepy lack of posters and political activity. I really wonder if that's because it's not allowed or because people genuinely feel content?

There's no particular culture here so I don't feel the need to look for it. In India I always felt I would like to seek traditional foods, and learn about traditional clothing etc. Here, it's just such a mish-mash you choose whatever pieces you feel like and run with it. We went for lunch at this sushi place. The food is served on a big conveyor belt. The kitchen makes apparently random dishes, and they flow out to you on this conveyor belt. Then you pick up whatever looks good off the belt. At the end they count the empty plates you have. You can order things from the waiter as well but we only got drinks that way.

More to come I guess: Singapore is a relaxing and interesting place with lots of internet access and I'm on holiday now, with no forest to build or food to farm at the moment.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Sustainable Living at Sadhana

I arrived at Sadhana Forest about two weeks ago. The forest is just outside of Auroville. The idea of the project is to recreate a patch of Tropical Dry Evergreen Forest. This area has ben so extremely overlogged and overused that the are has become extremely infertile, in parts complete desert. This was an area that once housed a vibrant forest and provided habitat to animals like elephants and tigers.

The main need for the area is to capture water. The surface vegetation was destroyed an all the topsoil washed away. So now it is hard for surface vegetation to grow at all, and as a result rain just runs off the surface out to the ocean. It doesn't stay in time to enter the water table or provide even surface vegetation with much water. The soil is a dense clay with well worn pebbles. From what I understand the dense clay indicates intense biological activity in what has become a human-made desert (as are many deserts of the world).

Mostly this means building trenches, holes and and hills to stop the water from flowing down the hill. Instead of running away it is held in puddles. This gives it a chance to percolate into the ground. In the six years that the 70 acre project has been here they have raised the water table by about 6 meters, which is rather a lot.

This is the garbage facility for about 100 people. There is no waste from the kitchen since the vegetables are brought in reusable packages which the farm takes back with them. The only real waste is people with their random food packages or something. Maybe a few inner cores of toilet paper rolls and tissue paper. Anyways there isn't much. Drinking water is provided by a bulk filtration system (a "dynamizer" made by a company in auroville) and people reuse their bottles.

The toilets are dry composting toilets. There is one hole for poo, and another for pee. There is a pan which people can use to collect pee if they don't want to go pee first before taking a shit. The toilets are used in a squatting manner, as is traditional in India. This takes a bit of getting used to but it's fine. Many people don't use toilet paper, instead washing with water (with the left hand) as is apparently custom here. Then people wash their hands twice and eat only with the right hand. Sawdust is poured on top of the poo to keep flies down and produce good compost.

We stir the poo every day which produces a rich looking blackish sawdusty compost which we can use to fertilize the trees in the area. Ultimately they are looking towards using it to grow food. The waste must sit for at least a year to be used for human food. Then it is good to use it on food plants where the edible part does do not come into contact with it. This is important because to really have an ecosystem waste must be recycled. The current typical system of treating human waste like a toxic substance to be thrown away by any means necessary is very ecologically unsound.

Sadhana Forest is off the grid. The only available electrical power comes from solar and bicycle energy. Apparently it is not the greatest area for wind. The bicycle is used on about 30 days of the year only, and used only for power to run the office and water pump. The water pump fills a water tower which then provides drinking water and water for washing hands. While I was here we used the bicycle system a lot because it was raining for basically a full week There's usually drums and other instruments to accompany the people pedaling :-).

The Rocket Stoves shown here are used for cooking. In terms of culinary experience they are quite limiting. They essentially are only used to heat pots so that means some very limited roasting and anything else that is cooked must be made in a pot. So we eat a lot of dahl, rice and porridge. These stoves are rather clever, the wood is fed in not at the base level of the fire but higher up. That way the coals can fall down and create a really good bed. The smoke rises up and surrounds the pot. The fire chamber is insulated by brick which increases temperature and efficiency. The stoves are quite cheap, in fact there is a nonprofit distributing them for free. We recently got even larger stoves because there are more and more volunteers coming to Sadhana.

Here's the handwashing station. Aviram, one of the people who started the project, is quite proud of this. It's just a pot with a nail in the bottom, and a bottle of liquid soap. He calls it a "15 Rs technology". It's easy to wash your hands with about 200 ml of water. Lather with liquid soap, scoop some water into the pot with a hole in it then use the running water to rinse.

First Impressions

After a plane trip of about 19 hours I'm here in Chennai! The trip wasn't so bad, I basically watched lots of movies. There was one about a romance between someone with Asperger's and his neighbor that was probably the most interesting. The recycled air and bad food took its toll. I have a throat infection and some indigestion. I should have stuck to my resolve to eat only the food I brought, but they made this special vegan meal and everything, it was so nice. The airplane staff of Etihad took good care of us in many ways.

The taxi drivers puller their usual stunts as they tried to railroad people fresh off the airplane into their taxis. But my new friend Mark and I hung onto our baggage and made our way to the government sanctioned taxi kiosk where you can pay in advance and things are a little more above board.

The car we got into was like a great big black beetle. No seatbelts or anything. Many of the cars have written on the back "No Hand Signal" which presumably is a throwback to the days when drivers had to signal by sticking their hands out the window. A lot of cars still do that actually. The honking and debris on the road was perhaps the most alarming. Indian drivers are constantly honking at each other. The major driving technique seems to be mostly to pay attention to who is honking and dodge them, instead of signaling or following preset rules of the road. There's lots of motorcycles, mopeds and three wheeled "autorickshaws".

Some tense moments getting to the Sea Shell Inn, on Greams Road south of Egmore station, since the streets don't have much in the way of numbers. But we found it eventually. I spent the rest of the day sleeping, eating food I brought and being confused about what time/day it was (arrived at the hotel about 5am on Saturday Dec. 5). I had to ditch some people I met at the airport; there was this great Indian couple who invited me and some others to come hang out with them in Chennai but I wasn't up for going out.

The next day I walked around Chennai a bit, trying to figure out logistics of getting to Sadhana Forest for Monday. It's not a very pleasant city to be in. I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't so shocked upon arrival. I just wanted to get out to a quiet forest. The best thing I found on my walk was the public library which had a good collection of books about Gandhi which I didn't have time to read. The photo here is the street outside Egmore train station. The yellow vehicle is an autorickshaw. There are tons of them around the city and they were really annoying. Drivers would follow me for quite a ways trying to get me to pay them 50 Rs for a "tour" of the city. The Lonely Planet guide says that mostly tours consist of them taking you to stores they have agreements with.

On Monday morning I woke up later than I should have and caught a late bus to Pondicherry. I'm happy to get out of Chennai and move on to somewhere more peaceful. Not that there isn't any natural beauty in Chennai too, there is some. Between the garbage strewn banks of the sewage river and the honking streets there are some enduring and lovely flowers :-) .

BTW, I'm writing this a few weeks after taking these photos. I'm taking my time making blog posts.