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?"


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


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)

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