My Spirituality in Bali
The traditional Balinese way to greet and say goodbye is clasped hands in front of the chest, a bow and a smile. At first, I found this a bit demeaning. But a conversation with my guide, Wayan (pronounced WHY-ANN) changed this perspective. He told me the Balinese live by three tenets; take care of nature, take care of each other and take care of God. I understood completely. After my first day I found myself seamlessly clasping my hands and bowing at every person I passed while grinning ear to ear. I’ve always known that there was more to spirituality than what was taught in my Sunday school. I was baptized Catholic and I’ve attended Moravian, Baptist, and Pentecostal and Jehovah Witness’ congregations for much of my life, but time passed, I felt exhausted and conned by the church. My unorthodox uncle taught me about the healing powers of Chinese herbs and we practiced tai chi in the parking lot of his apartment building. As I practiced tai chi, I felt a stirring that I didn’t get from any choir singing or church meeting. My desire for something different has led to meditation and my becoming reiki practitioner. Visiting Bali awakened my spiritual spider senses and I craved more.
Hinduism is practiced by 92% of Balinese. Their religion is inextricably bound up in their culture and daily lives. Hindu Bali does owe credence of its origins to India, but the religion has developed independently in Bali with elements of Animism, (the belief that there are gods and goddesses in all things) from the indigenous people. There are also elements of Taoism and Confucianism in religious practices. Art and rituals are celebrated in a highly dramatized form. This can be seen in dances and the daily offerings. These offerings are contained in a square container formed out of coconut leaves. Flower petals, candy, money and incense are usually the offerings to the gods for good luck and well- being.
As I moved from the cities of Seminyak and capital of Denpasar to the hills of Ubud, the energy felt unhurried, even in traffic. I came to Bali to experience spirituality as a way of life. It was hard not to notice evidence of this religious culture. Incense smoke wafted lazily around street corners, bright flowers decorated religious statues and Hindu deities. Offerings for good luck, protection and prosperity to the deities were on street corners, in public shrines, in front of businesses and homes.
Through the intricate movement of dance, Hindu legends are shared. The Sadekawa and Barong Dances are popular dance performances for tourists to view. These dances are passing on Balinese culture through the generations. I found it striking that on stage, there were multi-generations, the young and the old re-telling thousand year old stories of Balinese mythic folklores.
On a particularly hot day, we were driving through the town of Seminyak. We whizzed by stone Buddha statues decorated with red and bright orange flowers behind their ears. Wayan was under a firestorm of questions and he answered each thoughtfully. Suddenly he turned around and said, “America thinks our country is a piece of shit. Australia doesn’t give us visas to work. They think we are all terrorists.” He chuckled bitterly and continued, “Bali people don’t have time for terrorism. Our religion is a very busy religion. We are too busy with offerings every day, praying at the temple three times a day and other celebrations. Besides, we are not a violent people.”
As the drive continued through the streets out to the country, the traffic thinned and I noticed a woman on a pink Vespa with a little boy’s arms wrapped tightly to her as she deftly maneuvered around a large truck carrying furniture. I asked Wayan if there were any single parent families in Bali. His brows furrowed, “Sorry?” I leaned forward, “You know, single parents. Just one parent and the child or children.” His eyes darted from one corner to the next as he tried to comprehend, my seemingly difficult question. “Never! Never in Bali that will happen,” he exclaimed. Now it was my turn to not understand. I leaned in even further in as the as the van jolted along the winding road. “You mean to tell me. There are no single parents? None, whatsoever?!” Wayan’s lips curved downward as he shook his head, “No. Family is everything in Bali. If a man gets a woman pregnant and refuses to marry her, she can call the police on him. A man has to take care of his family.” As I exhaled slowly and leaned back into my seat, I couldn’t help but to think how bloody good it felt to hear that. He couldn’t grasp the context of single parent families. The term “single parent family” is post- modernist and I doubt that there is a translation for that in Bali. The traditional Balinese family lives on a compound with multi-generations living in their own dwellings. They eat and worship together as a family.
I reflected on my own fatherless childhood in Jamaica and immediately drew a parallel. I too was raised communally. My father was a non-factor in my life. My grand- parents, along with my aunts, uncles and cousins took the mantle of raising three girls. I considered the money they spent for food, books, school uniforms, and all the other expenses that factor into raising three children, without complaint. I grew up two time zones away in Jamaica and this similarity deepened my connection to Bali.
Our family took care of us financially and spiritually. Our lives were steeped in traditional practices for our protection. For instance, frankincense, myrrh and incense were burned regularly to cleanse the house and leaving an open Bible to Psalm 23 on empty beds were common practices. Whenever there was a new born these practices were more elaborate. Dressing the baby in red, making a sign of the cross in olive oil on the baby’s forehead and placing a tape measure over doors were ways to keep evil away.
The core to Balinese belief is that the world is full of danger. In order to counteract this they hold a great number of religious rituals that must be performed so goodness will prevail. The Nyepi is the annual ceremony in every village where they chase out evil spirits which are represented by large bamboo statues called, ogoh-ogoh. Villagers parade the ogoh-ogohs through the street and verbally shun the ogoh-ogohs. They shout, “Go away!” “We don’t want you here this year!” The statues are then ceremoniously burnt. The Day of Silence follows. Everyone must stay indoors, the island blocks all satellite, radio, television transmissions, the seaports and airports are closed. This is a day of introspection for Balinese and folklore says that in case there the evil spirits chose to return to Bali they would see the island in darkness and think no one lives there.
We finally reached our destination in Ubud. I observed the early morning activities before the hustle and bustle settled in on the Ubud Art and Craft Market. After purchasing a sterling silver bracelet, the store owner touched everything in her stall with the RPI 100,000 bill I handed her. Throughout the market I kept hearing, “Lady! I give you low price for my good luck today.” Incense smoke drifted gracefully into the air only to be pierced by bargain hunting tourists. The spice lady mounted offerings on top her head with flower petals and several incense sticks and walked all around the market under a thin cloud. “This is for everyone’s good luck today,” she tells me. Taking care of each other is a tenet that resounded here. Bali felt like an extension of my family. It was familiar and refreshing at the same time. The generosity I witnessed showed me that there was a kinder, gentler me. It made me want to smile more and to try little things like holding door open at the bank and letting the person with one item go in front of me on the supermarket check- out line.