“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness…”
~ Kurt Vonnegut
(sunrise, photograph by me)
I was very fortunate to be able to do quite a bit of traveling with my father, a minister. One of the most powerful trips was to India. On this particular trip my father was to mentor a group of college students in a Comparative Religions course. India is home to 4 of the world’s great religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. I was in my middle teens, and not particularly interested in comparative religions. I knew precious little about any of the these religions. But in India you are not given the option of not caring about religion. You can not escape religion. It greets you in the morning, at every corner you turn and is the the last thought you have when your eyelids fall silently on your cheeks at night. The brightness of religion in India makes you squint your eyes from brilliant glare of color and light. The smell of religion in India is overpowering with burning funeral pyres, dung fires and the pungent smell of marigolds strung into garlands intermingled with the heady aroma of jasmine. Religion in India fills your ears with ringing all the time with the sounds of humanity: crying, singing, begging and praying. Religion in India coats your taste buds with slippery ghee butter made from the milk of the sacred cow.
(Ganges River, Varanasi India, photo by me. People come here to bath their sins away, to be purified by the water, to cure illness, to die here, to make a pilgrimage and be here once in your life is a priority)
In Nepal, you are nearly at the entrance of heaven above….there is no sight like the Himalayan mountains. No air so pure. No sky so blue. When I was there, Kathmandu was almost sleepy. Religion was everywhere. In fact, the eye of “God” was always gazing at you from atop the white and gold stupa. The “wisdom eyes” look out in the four directions to symbolize the omniscience (all-seeing) of a Buddha, enlightened one. Giant prayer wheels spun endlessly and tirelessly, sending prayers to the heavens and the Gods above. Prayer flags hung from buildings, doorways, trees…..fluttering wishes and hopes to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. And here, the most beautiful greeting, freely given to any and all, “Namaste”, the light in me honors the light in you. Here I did feel close to “something” divine.
I lived in Greece on the island of Crete for awhile when I was 19 and 20. Religion there was also inescapable. Crete is home to possibly the oldest civilization known. Full of mythology and brilliantly colored frescoes, the ruins speak of a life that revolved around trying to understand and tame the unknown.Women played an important role in culture and religion. In Crete orthodox icons are everywhere. There are saints, crosses, the Virgin Mary, Christ’s birth and Christ’s death, all painted in brilliant colors flecked with gold. They hang in churches, homes, places of business and on the front of doors and buildings. Baaaing, whimpering lambs are carried onto buses during high holidays and served with pride and solemnity. Perhaps reminiscent of sacrifices in the past. During Holy Days parades and festivals clog the streets, people sing and dance, and bow and pray. Priests dressed in silks and gowns lead parades with floats of the Virgin Mary. Candles spread the light of hope and faith and the flame is passed from one to another as “Peace to you” is bestowed with kisses on both cheeks. Incense fills your nostrils and lingers with you in your hair, clothes and skin for days.
After I was married I lived in Japan. Here religion is a bit quieter but no less brilliantly beautiful. Temples well over a thousand years old are adorned with gold and silver. Pristine gardens for silent contemplation are alive with moss that looks like velvet. Other gardens are almost barren, with raked gravel in intricate pattern with no hint of footprint or tool that was used to make them. An occasional twisted, serpentine tree or huge boulder dot the pattern. Temples are entered barefoot. On occasion giant temple bells weighing over 100 tons and 30 feet high, are struck with a tree trunk held by 20 monks. The vibrating deep tones can sometimes be heard 30 miles away. The chanting of sutras, which means the thread that binds things together, brings to the present the spoken words of Buddha and honors the history of the oral traditions. Meditation offers a way to for the mind to engage in calm-abiding and “clear seeing”. Song and prayer are replaced with meditation and chanting.
In these four countries I had to pay attention. I was wrapped in the mythology, history, ritual, and dogma of religion like a baby is wrapped in a swaddling cloth.
These experiences opened a door to curiosity. I walked through.
Fast forward. Forty years later. India remains in my thoughts daily. India ignited the spark of my interest in world religions. I still process India. Every. Single. Day.
Recently I let go of my early religious upbringing. For years I knew I could no longer embrace what was my father’s belief. I tried very hard. Very hard. But, I remember as a child not being able to get “on board.” I rebelled whenever I could. Sunday school teachers did not like my questions. The nun who lead communion classes didn’t like my questions. I wore a red plaid wool jumper to my confirmation….the Bishop was not pleased. My father hugged me.
Now, like the quote above, my “religion” revolves around being soft. Not hard. Pain and suffering does not give rise to hate. No thing can turn sweetness to bitterness. It is a choice I make. I do not practice submission or devotion. There is no imploring or petitioning. When I “pray” it is more of an internal, deeply personal song to the mystery of things I do not understand, to the magnificence found in nature, to the bond of our common humanity. When I am still, and quiet it is self inquiry that moves me forward and challenges me to be compassionate.
In Softness I stand in awe of the beauty of Nature. In Softness I find peace in silence. I Softness I do not fear death or “where” I will “go” when i “die”. In Softness I value compassion, kindness. My path is to love, be gentle and offer comfort and support. My focus is on the moment, of being present. This is moment I have to Be. THIS is the moment I have.
“My path is the path of stopping, the path of enjoying the present moment. It is a path where every step brings me back to my true home. It is a path that leads nowhere. I am on my way home. I arrive at every step.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh