Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Eyk Noor. One Light.

A Daoist, a Mormon, a Free-thinker, and a Sikh sat at the edge of a long table and… (oh don’t worry, this isn’t one of those anecdotes)… and in the short space of 20 minutes discovered that they had more in common than most would have imagined possible.

The pursuit of fulfilment. The experience of joy. The comfort of community. The attainment of purpose. The sense of belonging. The tranquillity of peace. And the deep well of love.

We hadn’t specifically planned to eat together; it just happened as the group of us on the course filed into the hotel restaurant and headed for the few empty seats left at our designated table. We most certainly had not planned to discuss religion; generally people seem to skirt around it as it makes some uncomfortable (if faith is a private matter), judged (if they feel they don’t know or do enough), or affronted (cos organised religion is so last decade :p).

I can’t remember exactly what steered the conversation that way, but somewhere in between helpings of salad and sushi, somehow over the clanking of tableware and calls from the waiter, sometime in the gaps between wipes of the napkin and sips of water, the glass that guards this delicate subject shattered and out poured an exchange on divinity and purpose.

Describing all of the above, some 230 words later, you may be surprised to know that the conversation we shared, delightful though it was, is not what I wanted to write about. I presented it to credit the space and the source of the reflections that followed in the confines of my mind.

My thoughts that day were born out of a world in which the following reality prevails:

The existence of peace in the human race rests on our ability to celebrate the universality of our beliefs.

We live strange times indeed. In an age where information is borderless, I continue to be surprised by how much ignorance plagues the human race, and more specifically, how much fear and judgement is being spread, disguised as the right to protect our way of life. While the origins of this dilemma are multi-faceted, surely you would agree with me that much of this confusion would go away if we only took a moment to stand in each other’s shoes.

Are we really so unique from one another? I look to my own and see a diverse way of thinking and living within my extended family… but the values that anchor us are the same. So what more can I say of the wider Sikh diaspora that spans the globe, and from there, of each of the 7+ billion inhabitants of this planet?

The four strangers who dined together, each plucked from a different (man-made) box, found that they were bound by common threads. After stripping away physical practices and culture-specific terminology, it turned out that they each sought the very same things as their neighbours.

Now of course madmen exist; they always have and always will. Every civilisation can name its tyrants, every sect its deviants, every ideology its oppressors. But to take the shadow of a misguided fanatic and cast it upon others just because they share a name for God, an origin, a language, or a scripture is not only a gross injustice to our fellow Earth-dwellers, but also negligence of our own capacity for compassion. Is their hate really powerful enough to overpower our love? Exactly; I didn’t think so either.

While I do not have a solution to solve the world’s problems, I can look inward and instead, reflect on the little part that we as individuals can play in the insanity we find ourselves in.

It is self-evident that the first (and heaviest) step is to recognise our oneness in every face we see. I look in the mirror and my head spins just at the thought of this monumental task, for too often do I judge, generalise, and scoff. This will be a lifelong battle, and my prayer is that every time I fall, the Guru will lend me His arm for the strength to keep on fighting, and His eyes to see through my bias and into the light that shines in each soul.

There is also a second step, which thankfully isn’t as overwhelming as the first: in this pursuit of understanding, we have learn to communicate in a common and identifiable language set in universal principles and values.

Love. Respect. Peace. Hope.

There are scores of thought leaders and activists who advocate this in words far more persuasive than my own. I follow some inspiring individuals on social media who do incredible work in bringing awareness on what values bind us together as humans. They are eloquent and charismatic, and always seem to find the right words to bridge the foggy valleys of ignorance. 

How beautiful would it be if each of us every day folk, homemakers and accountants and teenagers and uncles and sevadars, also held the key to such a language? Isn’t it time we also jumped on this bandwagon and hummed along to the tune?

My lenses are heavily tinted; my belief system is ingrained in me and as a result my worldview is always touched with a hue of the Sikh perspective. For those of us in Malaysia (others will surely have their own local equivalents), the days when Arjan walked to school with Amina, Ah Kai, and Anand are becoming far more complex. Today we live our lives on a much more evolved stage, where that traditional circle of friends has now expanded to include the Baha’i’, Jews, Mormons, agnostics, atheists, and…

You and I can create a space for communication grounded in openness and tolerance. We cannot merely rely on the presence of personalities to do this for us; each of us is an ambassador and lighthouse of our faith and has to do this for our own environments.

Do we have the tools to do this? Not just to draw out a common, value-based language when consciously listening to others speak about their beliefs, but also to project the same energy when representing ours?

While we may already hold on to universal values in our Sikh way of life, in speaking to others I wonder if our vocabulary has been limited to describing practices and dos and don’ts, as opposed to the roots, the essence, from which they stem. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to look too hard; living a principled life is the purest message from our heritage. 

We have taken this message and translated it into daily actions to serve our human existence. Perhaps along the way, in the whirlwind of just doing things, the connection to the source has faded. What we need now is stop running, turn around, look back to the starting line, and re-identify with the flag that set us off in the first place.

We need an elevator pitch, that short and sweet dive into the essence of what it means to live as a Sikh, yet in words that others can identify with. 

As we poke around in our muddled brains for some clarity, and attempt to curate the content of these conversations, I hope you’ll be guided by the truth that all our cores gravitate to the same centre, and we all live for the same things.

The pursuit of fulfilment. The experience of joy. The comfort of community. The attainment of purpose. The sense of belonging. The tranquillity of peace. And the deep well of love.

Eyk noor te sabh jagh upjeya, kaun paley, ko mandey?

How can it be any other way, when we all come from the same source?

Friday, 25 March 2016

The Land of Happiness is...

And so where is it... this Land of Happiness?

Some may say it is in Bhutan, and after spending a few days here it's easy to see why. I've travelled quite a bit and never have I seen a society collectively so conscious, so kind, so sweet, and so content. I'm going to be raving about them for the foreseeable future, without a doubt. 

But you know... there are unhappy people here too. Those who want more, those who have cause to complain. The poor live here too, as do the marginalised. Young people everywhere share a few things in common, and the desire to push the limits and see what lies beyond is certainly one of them. 

And for me to call them ungrateful is both arrogant and unfair. I, who have seen both sides of the world, the materialistic and the detached. Why should others not have the same opportunity should they seek it?

No. Happiness isn't the default setting of a nationality or a location, not even in a dreamy Himalayan kingdom. It isn't derived from governments, natural surroundings, family, or social settings. They help, sure. Just don't hold them accountable to it. 

My spiritual teachings say that happiness is a birthright. Every single one of us, no matter our circumstances, is entitled to it. It is just up to us to choose it and make it a reality. 

And while the Bhutanese may certainly be in the front-running to be the happiest people in the world, there is no reason why you and I can't be there too.

Because the sun shines on everyone. It doesn't make choices. ☀️

For these precious experiences, kadinche, Bhutan. Tashi delek.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

That Bamboo Table

I imagine that to most people The Jungle Book reminds them of the cheery Disney animation from the 60s with Baloo the Bear jiggling his generous belly around to The Bare Necessities.

Not to me. 

I remember a much older and darker version, a movie from the 40s that I watched as a child, through the little peephole between my fingers because I was too frightened of Shere Khan's stripes brushing past the tall jungle leaves, and yet too involved to pull away. I watched it many times, but only remember doing so bunched up against the wall, snuggled amongst the big TV cushions of my Babaji's sweet old house, that seemed so small for two people and a cat, but always large enough for a family of a dozen.

He would either be sitting on his chair in a corner, watching me make a repeated spectacle of myself, or in his absence his newspaper would sit folded into a quarter on the round glass table with bamboo legs, next to the ringed stain of his teacup. 

I don't even know if the table was real, or if it is a figment of my nostalgia. But somehow I feel that there must have been a round glass table with bamboo legs, just as certainly as there was a newspaper folded into a quarter, just as certainly as there was the ringed stain of his teacup, just as certainly as there was my Grandfather.

I bought this book some years ago, and it has sat untouched in the disgraceful pile of unread books on my shelves all this time. I have no idea why I bought it, and no idea why I numbly chose it to read a week ago, drawn only by the orange smudges at the bottom of the cover, which made me think of tea, as did also the first name of the author. I was halfway through the first chapter when I suddenly flipped back to the inside of the dust jacket to remind myself what this book was even going to be about. 

Imagine my wonder. It has turned out to be a story that interlaces an escaped tiger from a Balkan zoo during the war... a tiger that becomes known as the magical Shere Khan to a little boy who keeps a copy of Kipling's The Jungle Book tucked safely into his breast pocket... a little boy who grows up to be the grandfather of the girl through whose eyes this story is written... a girl who has recently lost her grandfather and is on a journey of his stories in the days following his unexpected passing. 

How strange that this fictional Natalia and this very real me have these unusual threads in common. 

A grandfather, a tiger, a journey, and the sudden loss of all three.

How sweet it is that this is the book I happened to pick up, just as my memory of that bamboo table fades. 

You know the one... that round glass table with bamboo legs, where his newspaper sat folded into a quarter, next to the ringed stain of his teacup.

The one that is as real to me as he is.

Photo credit to Angad Singh

Love you, Babaji.

In memory of my Grandfather. 
Buddy. Provider. Storyteller. Traveller. Joker. Collector. Adventurer. Foodie. All-round super cool guy.