25 August 2006

Emailing Hemu

Hemu and I started an email correspondence…


From Marley

Hemu:

What a lovely and loving welcome you
gave me and my project. I am attaching
the proposal I wrote which should explain
precisely what I am doing, how I am planning
to do it, and why. If you have any problems
opening the attachment, please me know.

Could you give me the full names of the first
man I met at the gate and the lovely woman
who introduced me directly to you as well
as the young woman who sat next to me at
the satsang and brought me more books?

One current question: Is it proper or even
possible to send questions (or even this
proposal) through a member of the temple
to the saints to get their thoughts on this
project or any specific questions I might
have later on, perhaps through email and
get written responses Again, thank you and
everyone else for their kindness. I look
forward to seeing you again in a couple of
weeks. I will plan to come between 2 and 2:30p.


Marley

~~~

From Hemu

Jai Swaminarayan!

Marley,

(The proposal) is great!! It did give a
clear understanding of your project.

It should be ok to have the saints read
your proposal through a member of the
mandir but I will find out and let you know.

The names are:
Upen Patel (one you met at the gate)
Pranav Patel (one you met in the mandir)
Rekha Patel (one who introduced us)
Priya Patel (one who joined us)

Jai Swaminarayan,
Hemu


~~~

From Marley

Hemu:

I am happy the proposal made sense to you.

Thank you so much for taking the time to
read (it)and for giving me the names of
the people who were so kind to me. Please
extend my warm regards and gratitude to
each of them.

What does "Jai Swaminarayan" mean?

Marley


~~~

From Hemu

Jai Swaminarayan!
Marley:

Swaminarayan is a mantra given by
Lord Swaminarayan to all his devotees
to chant while turning rosary, to say
it when one meets & greets one (instead
of hello it is Jai Swaminarayan). I hope
it makes sense.

Jai Swaminarayan!

Hemu

~~~

From Marley

Hello, Hemu:

I was reviewing my notes and our
correspondence...and I had a question.
Are all of these people related?

"Upen Patel (one you met at the gate)
Pranav Patel (one you met in the mandir)
Rekha Patel (one who introduced us)
Priya Patel (one who joined us)"

If so, how? If not, then why do they all
have the same last name?

I thought I remembered the man who said
he taught a children's class on Sunday
and told the marvelous story about the
circle/wheel (were you there yet??)
He said he used when teaching, introducing
himself as Peter. He gave me a business
card that I seem to have (so far) misplaced...

Is his name Peter? Or is there some other
name used when he is at the mandir? I
fear I am a bit confused...


Marley

~~~

From Hemu

Jai Swaminarayan

Marley,

Peter is Pranev Patel. Patel is a very common
last name, like Smith and Jones. They are not
related to each other.

I hope this helps.

Jai Swaminarayan
Hemu

~~~

A few days later Hemu sent another email.

From Hemu

Jai Swaminarayan

Marley,

I have sent your proposal to our swami and
he is reviewing at the moment, He has
informed that he will respond to your request
in couple of weeks, since, at the moment, he
is accompanying a group of senior saints
that are currently visiting our mandir.

Jai swaminarayan
Hemu


20 August 2006

Finding people...

However men try to reach me,
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel,
it leads to me in the end.

Bhagavad Gita 4.11


I stood in my closet, looking at my clothes. All of my life I’ve tried to blend in, to belong. Respectful, I was being respectful, I told myself – but I was just plain tired of it. On the left, there were the black and blue suits for the formerly “in-charge” me; next to those were a bunch of fiercely colorful silk tops and skirts I thought I needed to buy in order to live and to work in Los Angeles; beyond them, were a handful of flirty short dresses I used to wear when I thought I didn’t want to be in charge of anything except maybe date night with my husband; on the other side, were the baseball caps, men’s t-shirts and even an Eisenhower jacket for the I’m-so-afraid-I’d-better-look-tough me; and finally, in drawers, on the shelves, even on some of the hangars were the worn, torn jeans, cotton sweaters and loose tops for the at-home me, the no-make-up me. Ever since I’ve given up the running of things, I’ve given up the costuming, too, reverting to what I’ve always worn since college: long cotton and sometimes silk shirts I’d recently found out were called khurtas, Indian khurtas. I hate clothing that grabs at me.

Well, religious services called for more than torn jeans. If it were anywhere else but an Indian temple, I would have grabbed the pale pink silk khurta with white pants that were my current favorites but now I kind of had the opposite problem: Would it look like I was trying too hard to blend in and, therefore, would it be inadvertently disrespectful?

Over-thinking.

I just can’t do that, get caught up in meaningless external details, over-think and over-plan, and end up as something I’m not. Not wearing what I’d normally wear was just as bad as wearing something I thought might please. I went to Whittier in the pink and white.

But first I had to find the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in the thick Thomas Guide of Los Angeles I kept in my car. Kevin had given me a plastic-coated version for Christmas as a joke because I keep accidentally shredding and then losing the square we live on in the regular spiral-bound guides. But, after years of use and abuse, many of the laminated book’s pages - maps to places I hadn’t been - were stuck together by coffee that had spilled and baked dry long ago. Sounds kind of gross but it makes going someplace new very satisfying: I get to peel two new pages apart with a great crinkly cracking sound like cellophane on Easter morning.(Yes, my atheist mother and father not only stuffed Christmas stockings, they gave us Easter baskets, too.)

When I peeled Map 637 from the other pages, it showed that the temple was just two freeways away, no more than a half-hour drive.

The only thing I’d known about Whittier before was that President Richard Nixon had something to do with it and so did Quakers. Growing up in Pennsylvania, you know about Quakers. My brothers even went to Quaker school. It always seemed incongruous that Nixon, that imperious, formal man was a member of the Society of Friends which rejected ritual, had no one leading their services, and was devoutly against war but he was. Whittier, itself, was founded by a group of Quakers in 1887 and about 90,000 people live there now.

I got off the freeway exit closest to the temple. If Whittier had a downtown, I wasn’t in it. Within a few quick turns, I was in a tiny, packed-in neighborhood of tan and brown houses. It was a strange place: many of those small houses had horses in their backyards and trailers for them in the driveway. The traffic flow was choked by a couple of men on horseback chatting with their neighbors on foot.

I thought I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere so I was looking for a place to pull over to reexamine my map when, right in front of me, I saw it, the words “Hindu Temple” on a light-brown building.

People, dozens of them, were walking through the narrow opening in the wrought iron gate into the full parking lot. The women were all in saris, the men mostly in light, long sleeved shirts and slacks. As I backed into a parking space on the street, I felt my heart start to slam into my chest. All I didn’t know felt like a brick wall I was about to hit. I wanted to stop, back up, go home, drive, drive away fast while the rest of my head committee demanded that I get over myself and just get out of the damn car. “But,” the balkers argued, “what if you’re in the “wrong” place? What if you’re about to walk into some peculiar off-shoot of Hinduism or an extreme cult?” Well, if it was, I consoled myself, I could get out before talking to anyone, there were so many people walking in, no one would notice me.

I was wrong. One foot over the base of the sliding gate and a man in a dark blue shirt, the only person in a dark color, leapt forward to say, “May I help you?”

I stopped dead. If it hadn’t been more awkward to run, I would have. I said, “There’s a service today, isn’t there?”

“Well, yes.”

“May I come?” I asked. “I’m interested in Hinduism.”

There were only Indians in the crowd. Even the one red-head turned out to be an Indian woman with dyed hair.

The man in blue said, “Come on. I’ll take you to someone.”

The chance to check the place out anonymously, to get a feel for it before going further, was gone. The man in blue politely herded me toward the first doorway. On the landing outside the plain door, a number of women were standing and talking. Metal racks up against the stucco wall on either side of the doorway were filled with shoes, and a pile was on the ground beside each. It was clear that the men’s and women’s were on separate sides of the doorway. Once inside, the man placed me in front of a woman in a beautiful gold and ivory sari.


They waited for me to explain myself. It was the first time I had to describe what I was doing to someone other than an academic or a loved one, the first time I had to lay out my whole strange mission to a practicing believer. I wrapped my arms around my notebook and said, “I was raised without any real spiritual tradition. I mean, I was literally raised with nothing.”

We were standing in a brightly carpeted room that could have once been a school auditorium with a raised stage except that, on it, were red and gold devotional figures draped with flower garlands. The man and woman smiled, confused, so I continued, “With all that’s going on in the world right now, I just didn’t think I could remain ignorant any longer. So I want to understand what each religion teaches its converts. I’m starting with Hinduism. That’s why I’ve come here.”

It still didn’t look like they quite knew what to do with me so I added, “I thought I’d start with Hinduism because, from the little I know about it, it says that there are many paths to God and it was up to each of us to find our path, our way to the Divine, so it seemed like a logical place to start.”

The woman smiled big and warm. “I’m Rekha,” she said and put her hand on my arm. “Could you wait here for a moment? I have the perfect person for you but I must go find her.”

Rekha began bouncing from one woman in silk to another, asking each one something in an unrecognizable language, eventually disappearing down a hallway, leaving me in the center of the room with the gatekeeper. I wondered what I’d said that made Rekha know the “perfect person” for me. Was there someone whose job it was to wrangle strays?

There was an odd padded divider, no more than eighteen inches high, mostly down the middle of the room; the men and women were observing it as an official separation between them. Somehow, without making a big deal of it, the man in blue, who finally introduced himself as Upen, had put himself on the men’s side while I found myself standing on the side for women.

After a moment of just standing there, Upen pointed to a model under plexiglass and said, “This is the temple we’re building in Chino Hills. It will be the third temple in the United States, the other two are in Chicago and Houston.”

The model showed an ornate temple of white stone with many other smaller buildings. Two of the buildings were exact replicas of each other. “What are those?” I asked.

“That’s a school for boys and there’s the one for girls,” he said.

So the separation was a big deal, at least for this sect. I assumed I’d find it in Islam but I hadn’t expected the separation in Hinduism. I didn’t know whether to talk to Upen or not but he clearly wasn’t going anywhere until the “perfect person” showed up so I asked, “So, there are only three temples in this country?”

“Oh, no, those are the mandirs, the large temples. There are many more centers than that. And the temple in London was in the Guiness Book of World Records (in 2000) as the largest Hindu temple outside of India."

Upen was running out of things to say and clearly wanted to return to the gate so he was relieved when Rekha returned with a slender woman wearing glasses who somehow managed to make her pink sari seem simple.

“This is Hemantika Patel,” Rekha smiled. “You’ll never hear this from her because she is very modest, very humble, but everyone here at the mandir respects her more than anyone else. She’s very wise.You’ll be in the very best hands with her.”

Demurely deflecting the words, the woman in pink offered her thin hand, “I am very pleased to meet you.”

The din was growing so I just handed her my pen and notebook, “Would you write your name down here? I want to make sure I spell it right.”

“It’s Hemantika,” she said while writing it down. “But you may call me Hemu.”

As I started to explain, again, why I’d appeared on their doorstep again, a man with quiet authority came up to us on “his” side of the divider to check me out. After we introduced ourselves – he said his name was Peter - I asked him for his card so I wouldn’t hold things up trying to get the precise spelling of his last name.

Peter brightened when he heard why I was starting with Hinduism. “You know, I teach in the Sunday school, the children, and I always tell them: ‘What shape are the planets? They aren’t cubes or pyramids or trapezoids; they’re circles. And what is one of the greatest inventions in the history of mankind? The wheel. And it’s a circle. But, if you push on one side of the circle, it will collapse unless, of course, there are spokes to make it strong. That’s what all the religions of the world are, spokes of the wheel, and it’s important that all the spokes, all the religions of the world stay strong. If any one of them gets weak or collapses, then we will all be affected. But, what’s the most important part of the wheel? The center. The Divine. That’s where all the spokes are connected.’”

I’d never heard anything like that before, a devotee of one religion saying he thought it was “important” that other religions stayed strong. Even Hemu and Rekha were moved.

In the moment of silence that followed, I glanced down at Peter’s business card. It said he worked for a financial services company.

“May I come to your class?” I asked.

“Well, I only teach boys and all the children’s classes are taught in Gujarati.”

Hemu said, “Perhaps you might come to one of the young adult classes for the women. They’re taught in English.”

Comfortable I was being handled, Peter and Rekha left. Hemu hesitated, unsure where to go for a longer conversation. Then it was clear why: she was looking for a chair, assuming that I would need one, but there were none available on our side of the room. In fact, there were only a handful in the large room and they were taken by the elderly and infirm.

“I can sit on the floor,” I said. Anything to stop sticking out. “I really don’t mind.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m completely fine.”

So Hemu, in her sequined sari, and I, in my white pants, sat down on the carpet near the wall beneath photographs of the BAPS temples around the world. “You’ve come on a good day, she said. “Today is the day we celebrate our main deity, Krishna’s birthday. That’s why everyone is so dressed up.”

There was coming and going, greeting and warm touching going on all around us. The closest I’d even been to something like it was a high school reunion.

“May I stay?”

“Of course. But it isn’t in English, you know.”

Not in English? Everyone I’d met so far spoke elegant English. But I said, “That’s okay, if it’s all right with you.” I mean, what else was there to do? Say: Oh well in that case, I’m outta here? Was I going to let language get in the way of my understanding some of what all these people found meaningful? I figured Hemu spoke English and that, for the moment, was enough. “What language are the services in?” I asked.

Gujarati.”

I’d never heard the word before but, when I looked it up later, I found out forty-six million people spoke it. It was the first language Mahatma Ghandi spoke because he was born in the Indian state of Gujararat. Each state in India is free to choose its own official language so there are more than twenty of them.

I asked Hemu to explain the kind of Hinduism practiced at the temple.

“This mandir has been at this location just since 1984. The founder of our faith is Lord Swaminarayan who was born in 1781. We believe he is a God-realized saint.”

“And is there a current spiritual leader?”

“Oh yes.” Hemu pointed to one of the many pictures of a balding man in orange robes with a kind face and said, “Param Pujya Pamukh Swami Maharaj is the direct spiritual successor to Lord Swaminarayan.”

“Does he live here?”

Hemu looked surprised. “No, he’s in India, but there are about seven hundred “saints,” forty of which live at various temples across North America. They wear orange robes and are complete celibates. They don’t associate with women at all. They don’t own anything or have any money. We say that they have no taste, food-wise, which means they will never ask for anything or say they want to eat a specific food or even ask for something to eat, even if they’re hungry. They are supposed to be egoless and without desire, eating whatever is put before them, practicing complete detachment even from their own most basic needs.”

All I could think was what a picky an eater I could be: cold soup, blue cheese, lima beans - things I still hated - Hemu’s monks would have to eat all of them if they were served, whether they liked them or not. And the excitement of figuring out just what you want to eat and then getting it? I mean, I drive forty-five minutes to go get the cheesesteaks I grew up eating and I love every minute of having and fulfilling that craving. Not for them. They have to get beyond like and dislike. How is that even possible?

But, wait, they didn’t “associate” with women at all? I asked Hemu, “So, you can’t talk to any of them?”

“No, not directly.”

If Hemu couldn’t talk to the “saints,” then I couldn’t either.

Hemu explained that, while this sect’s faith was fundamentally Hindu and used the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Upanishads and all of the traditional Hindu literature, its Holy Scripture was an “historical collection of 262 spiritual discourses delivered by Lord Swaminarayan in Gujarati” written down by the “saints” at the time. The text, The Vachanamrut, was considered by its followers to be “the essence of all scriptures.”

The room was slowly beginning to thin out.

Hemu said, “It’s about to begin. Would you like to go?”

“Go? Where?” I thought we were already in the main shrine. It certainly looked like one.

“This is a very big day for us, a very big celebration, so we have to go next door.”

Some people were leaving but no one seemed in a particular hurry or even necessarily headed for the same place. After we picked our shoes out from what had become an unruly heap, we walked toward the back of the building, stopping at the bookstore to buy a copy of The Vachanamrut in English and a small travel bag with all the items necessary for morning rituals. We then put our shoes outside another door and walked into an even larger room with hundreds of people sitting mostly cross-legged on the carpet, men and women again on separate sides of the room. Only the very young boys disregarded the separation, taking advantage of a gap between the blue padded dividers to dart back and forth between their mothers and fathers.

A group of men was already performing on the stage, mid-song. Hemu pointed to the back of a gray couch up near the stage on the men’s side and said, “Those are the sadhus, the saints.”

I could just make out a small flash of orange silk draped over the back of the couch and the shaved head of the “sadhu” sitting on the end. From where they were sitting, the only thing the “saints” could see was the stage.

Behind the men singing and playing string instruments on stage was an altar with many large figures and a handful of small ones. In a chair in the center of the stage, I thought I saw the man from all the photographs, sitting in meditation pose with a garland of live flowers around his neck and a lit candle in front of him.

I whispered, “I didn’t know your spiritual leader was here.” Everyone seemed way too calm for that.

Hemu turned and looked at me like I was daft. “No. That’s a picture of him.”

“Oh.” I didn’t know what else to say. “Of course.”

Well, you don’t start something like this unless you’re able to spend a heck of a lot of time being stupid. I mean, it sure looked real from way back there. He was very still but I assumed he was just very good at meditation after all those years of doing it.

Soon a group of men began acting out a scene from Krishna’s life, followed by a sermon, all in Gujarati, while Hemu translated as best she could into my notebook.

The first sadhu who spoke was a tall, rugged man whose shaved head couldn’t quite make him blend in with the others. He had great personal dignity and, even though I couldn’t understand a word of what he said, he was a dynamic and moving speaker.

One part of the monk’s sermon got real belly laughs. I couldn’t wait until later, so I whispered, “What did he say?”

Hemu tried to answer and keep writing so I would miss nothing. “He said, ‘People are afraid to put trust in God, yet every day people get into to airplanes, trusting their lives to men, to pilots they don’t even know.’”

Yes but those pilots are real people, people they can see as they walk off the plane.

After some more singing, another sadhu came to the podium, a thin man with large eyes. Hemu said, “That’s the spiritual leader of this mandir.”

The senior sadhu, Priyavrat Swami, leaned on the podium as he spoke, not much more than his head and shoulders were visible above it. It was odd sitting there, understanding nothing but the emotion of the swami’s words and his flock’s reactions while Hemu took notes in my notebook, trying to turn the Gujarati into words I might understand. Without Hemu, I knew it would be hopeless for me here but, with her? Hemu had the conviction and the clarity I longed to know. Maybe it could work.

The rhythms of the unfamiliar syllables, sentences, inflections and pauses floating through the room began to feel like music, its beats became regular and expected, when I finally looked down at my watch. It was two hours past the time the website said the service would end, past the time I’d told my husband I’d be home. I whispered to Hemu, “I’m really sorry. I had no idea how late it’s gotten. I have to go.”

Without a hesitation, in the middle of her spiritual leader’s sermon on this most holy of days, Hemu got up to walk me out. She wouldn’t let me leave without going to get me a full meal which she put inside a styrofoam container so I could eat it when I got home, along with a plastic container filled with pastries in the shapes of various fruit. One small “watermelon slice” even had “seeds.” Loaded down with my books, pamphlets, food, desserts and Hemu-written notes, I headed back out to the street with a promise to return in two weeks to begin my studies in earnest.


(20 August 2006)

16 August 2006

Now what?

He who can see inaction
In the midst of action, and action
In the midst of inaction, is wise
And can act in the spirit of yoga.

Bhagavad Gita 4.18


I'm back at my desk, trying to figure out where to go next. I’d taken an armful of recent Indian newspapers and magazines, flyers from various Hindu societies, and a couple of yoga magazines - all published in California - that Professor Chapple had offered and there they all sat, in a sloppy stack. Might as well start there, at least the pile will get cleaned up.

Until I find a teacher, I'm rudderless.

In the July 21, 2006 issue of India West, which called itself “North America’s Most Honored Weekly Indian Newspaper,” there was an opinion column with the headline: “Troubled ISKCON Turns 40.” ISKCON stood for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, what the Hare Krishnas now call themselves. I'd been shocked when Professor Chapple mentioned that the Hare Krishnas were a sect of Hinduism. The reason I’d decided to start with Hinduism and Buddhism was, in part, because I thought I had no preconceived notions about either. Only the ignorant think they have no baggage or bias. I’d filed away the Hare Krishna movement under 70s cults because that’s how I’d seen them portrayed in American media: desperate parents hiring deprogrammers to get their college-aged kids away from a mind-controlling cult. The byline on the article said it was written “BY ISKCON,” making it an official opinion column from the Hare Krishnas themselves, so the headline calling their organization “troubled” was provocative.

The piece said ISKCON was started by a seventy-year-old Indian named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, that it was “a monotheistic tradition within the Hindu fold” and, although it admitted there had been problems in the past, it said ISKCON had "come of age." Its congregations “are largely composed of and often led by Indian-American families” while its Food-for-Life program was “the world’s largest vegetarian relief organization.” The Hare Krishna movement now emphasizes “interfaith work and an academic approach to its tradition.” Its center on Watseka Avenue in West Los Angeles offers a free vegetarian feast every Sunday. Maybe I’d go there. One day. But not right away.

Elsewhere in the same newspaper, an ad invites people to celebrate the anniversary of India’s independence from British rule, while another promises that a call to a certain toll free number would reach a “world renowned spiritual healer” who could “break black magic” and subdue my “arrogant, cold-hearted love. 100% guaranteed.” I could just hear my parents after reading that ad, “So, why not call the number? What’s the difference? It’s all subjective mumbo-jumbo anyway.”

What could I answer? Maybe it was as simple as that word “guaranteed.” I don't think faith has anything to do with guarantees. And it sure has nothing to do with “subduing” anyone else, not the faith I'm looking for anyway.

The July 14th issue of The India Journal, “A Leading Indo-American Newspaper,” had news of a brick-laying ceremony at the Jain Center in Buena Park, California, attended by the town mayor and local Congresswoman. Professor Chapple had said the Jain sect of Hinduism, with its strict emphasis on the sanctity of all life and hence strict vegetarianism, had influenced Mahatma Ghandi. Possible teachers at either? Maybe.

Finally, in a glossy monthly magazine called Siliconeer, a “General Interest Magazine for South Asians,” published near Sacramento, California, I found a full page with the heading: “Temple Schedules” - complete schedules for fourteen different temples, about half in southern California. Looking for the closest temple with the longest list of services and what appeared to be classes, I targeted the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Whittier as my next destination. Sunday, four to six-thirty in the afternoon, I was headed for a “satsang sabha,” whatever that was.


(18 August 2006)

12 August 2006

First steps...

On this path no effort is wasted,

no gain is ever reversed;

even a little of this practice

will shelter you from great sorrow.


You have the right to your actions,

but never to your actions' fruits.

Act for action's sake.

And do not be attached to inaction.


Bhagavad Gita 2.40, 2.47

(Stephen Mitchell translation)


Starting from nothing there's nothing to do but start. I'm going to have to act on faith - or act as if I have faith in faith - without thinking too much about how far there is to go.

I like taking my boys to work with me and summer is when I usually do it but I'm not producing television news in a quirky workplace full of water pistols and candy anymore. I didn't think Luke, now fifteen, or Matt, now thirteen, would want to spend a summer day driving around with me to look at places of worship. But, at dinner a couple of nights ago, I decided to ask anyway. "I'm going to go to check out a few temples this week, you guys want to go?"

It was late but there was enough sunlight left to see the gardening tools I'd left outside in the backyard. Matt was still examining his food but Luke's was almost gone. I thought I had a better chance with Matt - he still liked to go most anywhere I went - than I did with Luke. Turned out I was completely wrong.

Luke asked, "Which religion?"

"Probably Hinduism." I said. "It came first."

"I'd rather go to a Buddhist temple but..." A grunt and shrug. "I'll go."

Matt hadn't said anything so I asked, "How about you? One day this week?"

"Aaah, I guess so." That meant: I'll figure out how to get out of this when the time comes but it's easier to agree right now.

Luke said, "Can I bring Amy?" The girlfriend.

"Uhm, sure." That meant: well, it wasn't exactly what I had in mind but that'll work, too. "Tuesday, we'll go with Amy," and then I said to Matt, "and Thursday, it'll be us. We can see a movie, too, if you want."

Okay, so I'm shameless.

I spent the next days trying to figure out where to go. I was still confused, even after rummaging around on the internet, starting with some of the names Professor Chris Chapple had given me. Most temples listed their hours and locations, some even had pictures, but not much more. Most made assumptions that you knew words like acharyas, arti, nand santos, and shastras mandirs. Would I ever? If the schedule said there was a puja on a particular day and time, could I go? Should I? What was a puja anyway? One thing I did know: it was a whole lot easier to be born into something, anything than this.

I finally decided on a place that looked big and active: the Sanatan Dharma temple in Artesia. I printed out directions and got into the family van, feeling like a chauffeur to two teenagers in love.

I'd never been to Artesia before, though I'd heard the name on traffic reports. Los Angeles is really a vast collection of small cities and Artesia is about twenty miles southeast of where I live.

As we got to close to the end of the directions, I realized I was scared. It's odd how alone you can feel with whispering teens in the back seat. Why weren't there some kind of directions I could print out from my computer that could tell me how to do this, all of this? And what was I thinking doing it in the first place? And what on earth will my parents say when I finally tell them what I'm doing? I mean, eventually....if I really have to... maybe a decade from now...if ever. And where the heck was this temple anyway?

I was sure the temple would be ornate, decorated in gold or red or both, so I drove right by it. Two U-turns later - you can never be too sure - I turned into a narrow driveway alongside a building with aging white paint, an almost windowless church. It was probably once Christian or maybe Mormon. It was 11:30 in the morning but the worn parking lot had only three cars in it.

"This wasn't what I expected," Luke said from the backseat. "I thought it'd be more, uhm, fancy." He sounded disappointed, like he wanted to show off something exotic, both in his mother and our destination.

"Me, too," I said. "You guys stay in the car while I check to see if it's open."

God, it was hot. The hours listed on the front door ended in twenty minutes. Even teenagers could put up with twenty minutes. I ran partway back to wave Luke and Amy to come along. "But you're going to have to take your shoes off," I called.

"Here?" said Luke from inside the van. "Should we take them off here?"

"No, it's way too hot. The pavement will burn your feet. There's a place by the door."

"But Mom, it's going to be hard for Amy to take off her shoes."

"It's okay. You'll be fine, Amy." I took off back down the walkway.

I looked back to see why it was going to be hard for Amy to take off her shoes. It was a southern California summer but this cute dove of a girl had on thin, knee-high suede boots with fringe. I hadn't noticed all the work she'd put into that outfit. I turned away to hide my smile.

At the front door, I flipped off my shoes and tried to hurry Luke and Amy.

"It's only twenty minutes ‘til it closes for lunch. I'll meet you inside."

There was chanting on the other side of the double doors so I tried to slip in. It wasn't hard to find a seat - they were all empty. Only one elderly couple sat cross-legged on the carpet with their hands together in front of their mouths while a heavy-set man in white robes sat on a long bench against the far wall near the front.

The main hall of the Sanatan Dharma Temple still shows its origins as a Christian church: while there's an open expanse of carpet near the front, most of the original pews remain and there's a sky blue ceiling with painted clouds overhead. But at the back behind the altar -- well, altars -- are twelve human-sized figures in red and gold with heavy ropes of flowers around their necks. And is it still called an altar when there are so many platforms of different sizes, some with figures, others with urns, small figurines and what look like offerings on them?

Across from the chanting couple, the man in white robes was almost dozing on the long bench, so comfortable he looked like he might slide off. Was he one of the spiritual leaders? The soft leather satchel at his feet seemed to indicate he wasn't.

Amy and Luke moved into the pew behind me. I could tell they wouldn't be there for long.

I tried to commit all the objects to memory, wondering which ones I wasn't seeing accurately. Perhaps I'd come to know all this stuff well and even laugh later on, struck by how little I once understood but it sure didn't seem possible. How was I ever going to get from watching and wondering to knowing some part of what that couple knew? All that kept me from standing up and walking out, from giving up right there on the spot, was a kind of faith that at least I would never be this ignorant again.

Besides, even if I wanted to give up, to give in to the fear, well, my fifteen-year old son was in the pew right behind me. How many times had I pushed him on, urged him to stay, to follow through, to finish what he started? I told him kindergarten would be okay, that it might feel strange at first but that it would soon feel like home; to not give up on piano lessons when his small fingers felt like they would never cooperate. I'd pushed his brother Mark out the door for his first sleepover class trip across the country when he hated being away from home for even one night. "Finish what you start. Don't give up. Try." I repeat this, according to Luke and Matt, well past the point of reason.

There is power and danger in publicly stating intention. Quitting wasn't an option, no matter how frightened I felt.

But should I come back to this temple or try some place new? I'd just reread Huston Smith's The World's Religions which reminded me just how right it was to begin this project with Hinduism. Huston Smith, a life-long practicing Methodist, wrote that Hinduism "represents one of the most realistic matter-of-fact practical-minded systems of thought and training ever set up by the human mind (for the way) to come to God and remain in touch with God." This ancient religion predates Christianity by at least a thousand years and is so open-minded that it embraces or, at the very least, acknowledges the validity, of all others. Hinduism recognizes that people are different in the ways we express or enter into faith. Its sacred texts say that, for some, the Divine is everywhere present, not something separate and apart, while others of us might need to love and to worship the Divine as something outside ourselves, as Christians worship Jesus. The Hindu texts actually say that both ways are valid. Many branches of Hinduism even accept Christianity as a valid Hindu practice.

I sat in the formerly-Christian pews, wondering if all these different ways of practicing Hinduism were available at every temple or if each temple concentrated on just one. And, did I have to know where I fit?

Do I ever know where I fit?

I heard Luke and Amy tiptoe out behind me. The van keys made almost no noise in Luke's palm.

I suspect I'm more a God-is-everywhere kind of person than a statue worshipping, emotional, devotional sort. For years I thought I couldn't even consider the idea of God unless I could accept the notion of a literal guy with a white beard on a cloud. But a couple of notions have given me permission to consider the possibility of at least thinking about the subject.

I remember reading somewhere – and I so wish I could remember where I read it – about the notion of God not as a being but as a process. That, for example, God exists in that gap between doing the expedient – primarily to benefit oneself – and the action taken to help another without self-regard or concern when no one could possibly know of the choice. It was the first time any description of God made visceral sense. That, for me, is at least one place where I know “God” could be. It simply feels right.

As I’m writing this, I realize the awkwardness I feel even typing those three little letters - the “g”, the “o”, the “d”. It seems to require a finite concept that then, in turn, demands a limited, physical description. Maybe some traditions have it right: perhaps even saying or writing a name for what we’re talking about creates a loss of the sacred, reduces it to something that, by its own utterance, feels untrue and even causes a separation of sorts. I know that it’s that three-letter word that has caused me years of paralysis and pause. It wasn’t until I could consider it from a completely different point of view that the concept of God became unleashed from the limits placed on it by my own interpretation born of—what? My time and place? Maybe. But once my brain could move beyond the thought of a specific being, this line of inquiry somehow became permissible, not insane.

I mean, even scientific visionaries who devote their lives to deciphering how the physical world works are in a quest to find the order, the organizing principle behind the physical world. They believe that such a thing exists. Simply capitalize Organizing Principle and you have another term for God. Is there all that great a difference other than methodology between their search and anyone else’s? Even Einstein talked frequently of God. “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior Spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. The deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning Power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Einstein found this subject acceptable. Its mystery, profound. He wasn’t afraid of being disqualified as a rational thinker. It probably never even occurred to him that other people’s thoughts about him were relevant to him anyway.

The chanting in the almost empty Hindu temple came to an end and the couple touched their heads to the ground, stood up, and reached up to the glass orb hanging above them. I’d thought was an incense burner; it was a bell. Each gave it a bright clang. They took a few things from a stainless steel pot on what looked like a small coffee table in front of the altars and something from a pink pastry box and, after putting money in the collection box, they gave the man in white something in a plastic bag and he gave them a few things to eat. One of them was a banana. He then took the top off a brass pot and held it over each of their heads for a moment after which they stood, chatting and nibbling.

I got out of the pew before it could get any more awkward, grabbed a few flyers on my way out to reclaim my shoes, and then headed back to the car. The van's air conditioning was shocking when I opened the door.

"Sorry we left, Mom," Luke said. "It felt kind of funny sitting there while those people were praying."

"Yeah, it was kind of uncomfortable."

"Did you get what you needed?" he asked.

I had no idea how to answer that question. What did I need? Answers. A teacher. Understanding. Assurance my effort wasn't absurd. Clarity about how to proceed. An epiphany. Grace. Wisdom. Patience.

"I don't know. I guess so. What I got mostly was how hard this is going to be. But I can't think about that, the hard part. I'm just going to do the next thing until I understand something." I changed the subject. "You hungry?"

"Yeah."

"There are a couple of great Indian restaurants just down the street."

"Great!"












Two days later, Matt and I went to the Malibu Hindu Temple after five in the evening when the website said the temple opened - but it didn't work out much better. The temple was ornate, its outdoor plaza had wedding-cake-like shrines to different deities but there were only a few people wandering from shrine to shrine and some flowers and fresh fruit left behind on some of the altars. Weekdays clearly weren't the best time to come to meet anyone, to learn anything.

Okay, it's going to have to be Sunday. But, where?


(dates of events August 10th and 12th, 2006)

01 August 2006

Deciding to do a blog wasn't easy....

...so it's taken me some time to make that decision. I've thought long and hard about whether or not to let others read what I'm thinking about as I do it. The concerns are obvious. This requires a lot of quiet, a disregard for intruding voices and, for me, a willingness to possibly embarrass myself. The benefit of a blog is less obvious. I fully committed to this adventure in early 2006 and took my first steps into a place of worship that summer, promising myself I'd keep a journal as I went along. The reason to write about this is, first, to keep a record for myself, my lab notes, if you will. The reason to share those notes is to be of service.

I'm not the only person wondering what's going on in a world at war over faith. I'm not the only person with inadequate knowledge of spiritual traditions other than my own. I'm not the only person who isn't comfortable with where I "fit" spiritually. I'm not the only person like this who has had a hard time when they began raising children. And, although I've now found a way to devote my time to answering these questions for myself, I would have loved to have read something like this when I didn't have that ability.

So, rather than wait until I'm at the end of who knows what, I'm going out and inviting anyone who wants to come along to come. I'll make a lot of mistakes and I ask, in advance, that you have patience for my stumbling process and forgive me. It often takes me many drafts and rewrites to correct grammar, typos, and factual errors so this will, indeed, be a work in process.

As I made the decision to do this blog some time after I started, you'll find almost all of my journal entries up to the present posted here in a few weeks or months. As I write this, I have actually "finished" (by the terms of this project) Hinduism and I'm most of the way through Buddhism but only some of my notes are ready to be posted while others are still in chicken scratch form on various pieces of paper. It'll take sometime for this blog to catch up to where I am at present. Needless to say all of the material in this blog is copyrighted; please invite others to read it here, anyone you can think of who might be interested.

My profile has more on what I'm doing and why.

About comments... I'm going to try my best not to respond to any comments while I'm in the middle of doing this, (I've had a hard time getting past my self-consciousness even while alone in my room so I'm afraid of its return) but I would deeply appreciate reading your thoughts and comments especially once I'm through and it's time to consider whether or not I should try to collect all of this into book form so please send them along. I'm saving them all.

Sometimes I do not identify people by their names, especially when I’ve encountered them in retreats or other places where people wouldn’t expect someone to write about them.

Finally, I really don't know any other way to do this to keep things in order so the posting date is just that, the date the post was put up. At the bottom of the posts, you'll find the dates the events took place.

I am really grateful that you're interested...

A bit about why and how...

In my limited contacts with religious faith over the course of my life, I’ve been hobbled by my own judgments, looking for what was wrong, inconsistent, false, hoping to find nothing wrong, nothing inconsistent, nothing false in any single religious institution. I wanted to walk in skeptical-- No. It's really more accurate to say “walk by skeptical” -- only to be lured in by the siren song of the obviously spiritual, true, and good into a specific faith and practice that would simply feel right. I wanted to be mugged by faith. After decades of waiting, hoping, it's time to try something, anything, different.

So you won't find me reporting on what doesn't resonate with me but what does. I've spent a lifetime - both personally and as a journalist - looking for the mistakes, the flaws, the inconsistencies. This is an attempt to balance that out. (If you need or want those pointed out, there are plenty of recent books doing a fine job of cataloguing inconsistencies and flaws in various beliefs anyway.)

Using the chapter structure of Huston Smith's book The World's Religions, I'm going through the conversion training for the seven major religious traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confuscianism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I've stayed in the United States - I am a mom after all - but I’m going where there are a lot of people are practicing that faith. (For instance, I've started with Hinduism as it's the oldest of the major religions currently practiced and I’ve started in southern California as it has a huge concentration of practicing Hindus with more diversity of sects than most any place in the country.)

When it became clear this idea wasn’t going away, that I was considering actually leaving my lifetime career and taking the leap, I started asking for advice. I wanted to make sure there was some chance, no matter how small, that someone who knew a lot more than I did thought this effort might be worthwhile. I went back to the professors who taught the courses I took – Professor Rick Talbott of California State University at Northridge and Professor Amir Hussain at Loyola Marymount University – and to new ones like Professor Christopher Chapple, who’s also at Loyola Marymount and an expert on Hinduism and Buddhism. After many questions and several words of caution, they each have agreed to advise me. Professor Chapple also gave me a tutorial on the history of Hinduism in the United States and its various denominations and spiritual leaders. I spent a lot of time asking, “Now, how do you spell that again?”

“A-n-a-n-d-a. A lot of the names end with ‘ananda.’ It means bliss.”

Afterward, when I asked him which temple I should go to first and who he thought might make the best Hinduism guide for me, the best guide for Buddhism. He said I should just start showing up in various temples and "the right teachers will appear."

Great. I was looking for direction and I got Yoda.

So, that's what I'm doing. The search for that "right teacher" allows me to get me some sense of the diversity of belief within a religious tradition while spending time with the "right teacher" gives me a much more specific understanding of the faith itself. And I’m confining my search to a faith’s more popular branches so that I’ll come away with a stronger sense of each tradition’s core beliefs.

Thoughts to begin with....

I've been reading a lot of stuff of all sorts while doing this project and nothing summarizes my intent better than these two quotes....

The great irony is that American society is the most religious among industrial societies, in that more people call themselves religious. It’s off the charts. But the degree of ignorance Americans have about religion, often including their own, may be higher than anywhere. It’s a bizarre combination of factors which makes for uninformed strong feelings, most decidedly a bad mix.

Professor Harvey Cox
"Past, Present, and Future Tense"
Harvard Divinity School Online

In most traditions, faith was not about belief but about practice. Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life-enhancing. But you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.

Karen Armstrong
The Spiral Staircase

Okay, here goes...

I've been at this for two years now and I'm getting buggy with all my time alone, keeping this all to myself, so I'm letting it out. My raw notes. As I go. Once I catch this blog up with real time, that is.

So, who am I and what have I been doing?

When my sons were six and four years old, they were arguing in the back seat of my car about whether or not God existed. Pretty soon a voice from the backseat asked, "Mom, what do you believe?"

All I could answer at the time was, "I don't know. I'm still working on it."


I am a blank slate. A tabula rasa. I come to the table with the fewest possible preconceived notions about any religious tradition because I was raised outside of any. Although there were rudiments of some religious traditions in parts of my extended family, my parents considered strong religious conviction the source of wars, hatred, and division among people. At the dinner table, on more than one night, they said religion was a crutch for those unable to handle the truth: that we're mortal, that “after life” we simply revert to the chemicals from which we're made. Nothing more.

Just chemicals? That's all we were? It didn't make sense.

One night, when I was twelve, I said, “I think I might want to, uhm, go to church.”

Forks clattered to the plates. "Well,” my mother said, “if you think you need that."

So, growing up, I knew nothing of any religious tradition. I tried to learn how to live, how to have a meaningful life, by reading books. Biographies were best; I was obsessed with them. Maybe if I could see the choices people made, and how it worked out for them, I might know how to live. The Bible was little more to me than a collection of stories that I learned about, one-by-one, when a teacher would point out allusions to them in novels or plays.

When it came time to get a job, I found one that allowed me to continue my obsession with the lives of others: I became a journalist. But my spiritual dissatisfaction didn’t go away. I just tried to ignore it. On occasion, a story would give me an excuse to learn about a religious tradition. A profile about the Archbishop of San Francisco introduced me to Father Miles Riley, who specialized in over-exuberant press management for the archdiocese at the time. We didn't get off to a good start. I thought all public relations people were only there to prevent me from doing my job with integrity. Our awkward beginning was made worse by my lack of experience with clergy of any sort crashing up against the vaudeville character of Father Miles, with his light yellow Cadillac convertible, his show-tune personality, and compendium of dirty jokes about his fellow clerics. He was not what I expected or even imagined as possible in a priest. We became friends, sort of. As friendly as one can be with someone wont to exclaim: “Oh, I love hanging out with the heathen!”

After that, I spent a bunch of years working on television newsmagazines which aren't very efficient tools for exploring faith.

Finally, in 2000, I decided to take two courses at a local college: an introduction to the Bible and a survey of world religions. By the end of the term, I felt relief: I had a basic grasp of what other people believed. I thought I'd taken care of this part of my life.

But I hadn't. I had factual knowledge but I found myself wondering what it felt like to actually practice a faith, to truly live by one. I went looking for books by beginners, people walking into a faith who might tell me what it felt like to learn how to practice it. I couldn’t find anything like that. And nothing came close to explaining the mystery of how a devout follower of any of those traditions could get from their faith, could get from the Golden Rule - some version of it is in every major religious tradition - to what I saw happening between people of faith all over the globe. If the faithful of different religions all believe they should do unto others as they would have people do unto them, if they were actually living lives based on doctrine, how could there be so much hatred and bloodshed in the name of those faiths? But, for all my newly-acquired, very basic understanding of the fundamental beliefs of various traditions, I wasn't one step closer to really understanding a thing I wanted to know.

Then I got one of those ideas people get while driving around or in the shower, the ones most people are sane enough to leave right where they found them. I began to wonder what would happen to me if I went through the conversion training - not to convert but to learn what a convert would learn - in the seven major religious traditions as identified by Huston Smith in his seminal work, The World's Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Would I know something I couldn’t possibly imagine? Or might I end up at war with myself by the end, a riled nest of ideas, beliefs and practices in conflict?

Well, it's fine to have an idea, but actually doing this? I kept imagining my parents' reaction so I put it out of my mind and just confined myself to taking care of my two sons and doing my day job which was, at the time, running a regional public television newsmagazine.

Then 9/11 happened. My parents were the only people I knew who didn’t seem surprised at all; it was just one more item to add to their list of the damage religion has caused. But that act, and all that followed, finally made me feel like I had no choice any longer, that my personal confusion wasn’t something I could continue to shrug off as just that, personal. There was a life-and-death argument going on over the role of religion in our lives and I was disqualified from participating because I was an ignorant outsider.

And there was that question from my children, "Mom, what do you believe?"

So that's what I'm doing. I've decided to find out.

A note: If you're just joining up with me, especially for you first-timers to blog reading, it's in reverse chronologic order. You'll be grateful for this when you catch up to the most current post because the newest will always be what you see first when you come here but, if you've missed a lot, you might have a better idea of what's going in if you start with the oldest post and work forward.