For a moment consider what it is like to live in the presence of a loved one who is “sleeping” ( a person who has already passed away). To care for their physical and spiritual needs each day. To take six months, a year, two years to morn, settle unresolved conflicts and come to peace death. To say goodbye through elaborate funeral ceremony, in which a community comes together and animals are sacrificed to carry the soul from this world to the second life.
This ( very simplified) is a natural progression of life and death in Tana Toraja, a region located in the high lands of Sulawesi. Over our time in Tana Toraja, a three day funeral ceremony took place, the ceremonial events combining “adat” ( tradition) and ” agamat” ( religion).
The first day of the ceremony we set out early, dressed in dark sarongs. In front, four men from the village carried a live pig, which our group purchased for the receiving family. The funeral ceremony was not far and I was grounded by the beauty of the rice patties. Two main events took place this day, fist the animal sacrifices: one water buffalo accompanied by twenty to thirty pigs. The offerings are not for show, and the animals are loved and beautifully cared for until their death. In Torajan culture, the offering allow the human’s soul to travel to the second life and they believe God sent man and water buffalo to earth first, thus just as they entered life as on, water buffalo and man leave this world as one, guiding each other along the way. Following the offerings, meat is distributed among attending families and is used to feed the guests. The ceremony is not only a chance for the community to unite and celebrate the dead, but it is also an opportunity for the deceased, through the offerings, to give back to its community.
The same day, in the evening, we returned to participate and observe the chanting portion of the ceremony. Songs and dance tell the life story of the dead- their birth up to their death. In a large circle men and women locked pinkies and began to chant, the sound was strong and united. Everyone swayed and moved together. The chants were grounding and standing in the circle, I could feel the power behind each chant, the power from the community.
The second day, more buffalo( this time three) and pigs were sacrificed. And on the final day, the church service and actual burial took place. We did not participate in the final day of the ceremony.
It was difficult to watch the sacrifices and witness the moment when the animals falter between life and death. Although the sacrifices are difficult to see, it is beautiful to observe the villages, near and far, come together to celebrate the life of a loved one. The value of family and support exemplified through the funeral ceremony is incredible. And it is beautiful that there is time to spend with your loved one before death, time fore the family and community to feel settled and truly say goodbye.
I will always be thankful for our time in Toraja, for the people who shared their tradition and for the love of the community.
Sending my love to all at home.
Every day on my walk to the program house, I greet the same elderly woman. Teeth line half of her mouth and a purple splotch spreads over the bottom half of her face. Each morning she smiles at me from behind her stand of carrots and extends a shaking hand. The morning after Tabaski, a holiday on which people give gifts, she asked me, “Where is my present?” “What?” I asked, surprised. “Where is my present?” she repeated. “I don’t have one! Tomorrow,” I answered, and went on my way.
The next day, I passed the woman again. “Where is my present?” she called with bright, expectant eyes. “I forgot!” I told her. “Tomorrow.” A few feet down the alley was a beignet shack, where a woman was frying fresh balls of dough. I remembered how Emmy wanted to try beignets from every vendor, so I asked for two. The women held up two fingers to make sure I was saying the word I meant. I nodded in agreement and paid the ten cents they cost. With a blank stare, the woman handed me three beignets wrapped in newspaper. I was taken aback, and thanked the woman profusely. Then, I had an idea – I tore a scrap of newspaper, wrapped up a beignet, and brought it to the old woman hunched over her carrots. “Here is your present!” She gasped and peered up at me, and then joy seeped onto her face. “Thank you! Thank you!” Her words of thanks followed me through the narrow alley long after I walked away, and the next day she thanked me all over again. When I delivered Emmy her gift, her reaction was almost identical.
Later that day, Sebastian and I went to the post office downtown to pick up a package from my mom. After a painstaking process, we slid into a cab and began ripping open precious bags of American candy. In Senegal it is customary to share with everyone, so I offered the driver a Snickers. “For me?” he asked. “Thank you!” A few minutes later, I offered him a Tootsie Pop. He looked back at me, incredulous. “Another one? Thank you!” When we reached Yoff he asked where we lived, then happily agreed to drive us to our respective homes on opposite sides of town. When Sebastian got out the driver called after him in tentative English, “You are good people!” I directed the driver to the front of the narrow road that leads to my house, but he insisted on driving me all the way to my door. I handed him one more piece of candy with his money and he grinned and shook my hand.
These reactions to the small gifts I gave make me appreciate more the daily gifts I receive: when my 2-year-old nephew offers me some of his french fries, when a stranger takes time to talk to me, or when my siblings teach me a new word. And in these small, beautiful moments, I am reminded of the enormous gifts that make my life here possible: the support of my family, the hard work and kindness of the instructors, the love and patience of my host family, and the guidance and generosity of Princeton and the Bridge Year office. Every day at unexpected times, I feel that mixture of surprise and joy that I saw in the woman and the cab driver; when I have a funny Wolof conversation, play with a child, or learn something new, I am awed by what a remarkable gift it is to be here. Like the woman and the cab driver, the only way I know to express my gratitude is to say thank you over and over, and promise that I will make the most of every gift I’ve been given.
I have always been really drawn to the saying “things come, let them come; things go, let them go.” I liked the way it sounded, the aesthetic principles of the saying alone, and the way it always seemed to make sense. The complete meaning of it I did not know. This week at Namobuddha Monastery I was able to reflect on this phrase with a sense of clarity which now puts this statement in a whole new light for me.
Each day at the monastery we had the privilege of being taught by a wonderful khenpo. I say now that his teachings were a privilege, but it took me the full week to view it in this way. He guided us through a text called “The 37 Practices of a Boddhistava.” And when I say guided I mean we sat, deep in our vows of silence, wading in the stream of his words that seemed to have a space of three seconds in between each one. His teachings were full of silent moments which would end with him saying “mmmm… yeah” with a painfully charming pace. I especially loved the way he pronounced the word vividness – “wiwidness” – and the irony of this pronunciation for this word. Despite his slow speaking nature and his tendency to get lost in his own thoughts, it was impossible not be drawn to his glowing demeanor as he swayed back and forth, eyes shut, each word forming from his lips with a smile. As I pondered his teachings and struggled with the “wiwidness” of his words, I became particularly struck by one aspects of lessons: the theme of attachment.
Throughout our time in Nepal, I have been wavering in and out of homesickness and longing for the company of my family and friends. I didn’t realize until now that the attachment I feel towards my home and my people are a source of suffering.
I was reading up on my Buddhism during the monastery stay a found a story which involved the Buddha saying “Loved ones bring sorrow” to a merchant who’s child had just died. I initially was disturbed by this and thought how could the Buddha have said such a thing when compassion and loving-kindness is what he preached? But as I meditated on the meaning of the story and thought about this statement I came to this conclusion. How would we feel if something good happened to someone we love? We’d feel happy. How would we feel if something bad happened to someone we love? We’d feel distraught. By attaching ourselves to people and things, impermanent in this world, our feelings are dictated by things out of our control. We cannot let attachment dictate our feelings. I think this was the point the Buddha was getting at.
Obviously I struggle with this concept still, because I am deeply attached to my family and friends. Like anyone, I bask in their triumphs and I hurt in their pain. Yet on a simpler level, I came to realize that always thinking about them really takes away from the present moments which I came to Nepal for. I realized through khenpo’s teachings on attachment and through stories such as these that the best way to enjoy relationships to people or places is while they are happening, while they are alive, while they are tangible. We must enjoy the present. We must not worry about inevitable separation. Suffering from the sorrow of missing someone or somewhere completely takes away from the present moment and we must recognize that the sorrow of is a consequence of the love we have those things. Things come, let them come. Things go, let them go.
By the fifth day of the stay, I had become completely attached to this spot on top of a hill of prayer flags. The view was impeccable, with a stunning panoramic picture of hills and trees, villages and plains, and when the sky was clear enough an awe-inspiring line of mountain tops. I basked in the serenity, the beauty, and the serendipity of this place and this scene. I went up there daily to stare at these mountains. Then in a moment of “wiwidness” it became clear that this was exactly the attachment I was trying to avoid. One minute I was transfixed by the beauty of the mountains, and the next they were covered by clouds. I longed to see them again, but realized that instead of becoming attached and dwelling on them, I had to simply appreciate their uniqueness every time they were presently apparent. Wishing to see them took away from my realization of the beauty of the rest of the scene, which I would never have noticed if the mountains hadn’t disappeared.
I thought about how important it is to be present and live in each moment. Here. Now. Nothing is worth holding onto because as soon as it comes, it can go. I learned this valuable lesson: If you love something, let it go. If it’s yours, it will come back. And if it doesn’t come back, it was never yours anyway. Therefore, the biggest ignorance you can have is one in which you let others determine your well-being. Each moment must be viewed with a sense of “wiwidness”; a sense that in this moment I can create my own peace and my own happiness.
All that being said, I want to clarify that everyday I still miss my family and friends deeply. But now, instead of looking back with sorrow and longing, I look down at my feet and realize how important it is to remember where I am and why I am here. Part of leaving home is actually leaving home – making home a mind-state and not a physical place. Since the monastery and the stay I view each moment with a new sense of “wiwidness” and try to appreciate and love each moment in it of itself.
Finally, I realize how important it is to let things come as they come, or to take each moment as it is and for what it is. Similarly, I know now that all things go, and we must let them go. They may come back or they may not, and either way it’s okay. I know my family and friends will still be there when I return in two months. There’s no need to worry about our separation because they are mine, and they will come back to me. So each time I find myself really missing them and my home, I remember this: As long as we view each moment with presence and “wiwidness”, we can truly appreciate wonderful the present can be.
What is silence? Is it the lack of noise, or the presence of introspection?
I am a very musically-oriented person, especially in the sense that I always have music playing when I’m getting ready for school or work, when I’m driving, or pretty much any other thing. Coming on this trip, however, I decided not to bring an iPod, which seemed strange to my family members, considering the amount of traveling I’m doing over the course of this trip. I decided to make a change in myself this trip, a change that would make me increasingly comfortable with silence. As much as I love listening to music, I find that there are times when silence is more necessary, that there are times when deep, probing thoughts, no matter how difficult they may be, need not to be drowned out, but to be cultivated. I noticed the true extent that my resolution had rooted within me when no one in our group wanted to go in a certain car because the auxilliary cord was broken. My first thought was how shallow that was, and I wondered how it could be that difficult to drive without music playing constantly for a couple hours. Luckily, our instructor Briana was on the same page as me, and asked us in the god-forsaken car without music, if the uncomfortability with silence was a generational epidemic, or the source of something else. This prompted even more of a stir in my mind on the subject, and it prompted me to write a response after we dicussed it in the car:
What’s wrong with silence, with thinking? With looking out the window without a soundtrack to accompany it? Are our everyday observations not enough? I’m totally and completely guilty of the subject I am criticizing, of purposefully drowning out my thoughts, those thoughts sometimes ellicited by extended periods of silence, thoughts I want to avoid, thoughts that scare me. I listen to loud music, and talk unnecessarily to fill empty spaces I’m too afraid to face, or too uncomfortable to acknowledge. Am I a product of my generation, where everyone is extremely uncomfortable with silence and empty spaces where nothing is being said or done? The fact that I’m guilty of this is only made better by the fact that I’m extremely aware and not okay with it. I’ve learned increasingly over the past year that sometimes silence and empty spaces of simply existing are completely necessary for the healthy development of my mental and spiritual health. Before I left for Bolivia, I began making it a habit to pray and meditate in absolute silence on the day before every morning I would drive somewhere, whether it was work or school. This has become an extremely healthy habit in my life, and it has allowed me to really mentally prepare myself and regain focus for the day ahead of me. This is not to say that music is bad, in fact, I believe it is one of the best ways to heal a human soul, but sometimes it can be used as a means to fill an uncomfortably empty space with noise so as not to dwell on something else seemingly prone to ferment in and torment the mind. Silence, as well as music, are remedies for the soul, but they must be balanced in a certain way so as to nurture the soul and ensure its health and growth. I’ve grown to love silence more and more on this trip, and most of the time, silence is not truly silence. I’ve grown to love the “lack of foreground” silence, like cars and honking in the street, the sound of wind blowing through my eyelashes, the flipping of pages, of chewing, of sipping, of forks scraping, of walking, of rivers gushing, of goat cries and llamas galloping, or doors shutting and opening, of latin telenovelas and morning radios far away. There are so many beautiful sounds to hear in this world, so many nuances, so many crumbs of knowledge and enlightenment embedded in our surroundings, that we would completely miss with an “earphones in” mentality, both literally and figuratively. I really do believe in the power of conversation as well, especially meaningful, deep and questioning conversation, especially if it involves clashing ideas or viewpoints. I believe that we as humans were made for companionship, but also to grow from diversity and difference. I truly believe that we as humans were meant to sharpen one another as “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). We are tools meant to sharpen one another’s characters and souls, to make us better humans and to bring more good onto the Earth. I believe it is important to be conscious of the presence of a time and place for both conversation and silence. Life is a continual balance between good and evil, rest and work, joking and seriousness, as well as the balance between mental, physical, an spiritual health.
Now, I’m going to go enjoy my twenty minute walk home through the fields, in silence.
The chainsaw revs as the men leap to their feet and rush out into star studded darkness. Gathering at the edge of the patio, the women’s eyes light up as they watch the men move out into the trees beyond the compound. A chorus of gleeful giggles and hurried words greets my ears as they tell me in Mandarin that the men are off to fetch “ma feng.”
This is night one in the village and I have no idea what is going on. My only hint is that Gong told me we will be having something quite special for dinner. I wait with the women in electric anticipation of what “ma feng” could possibly be. I don’t wait long before the men return with an entire wasps’ nest. Everyone laughs at my shocked expression as I stare at the smoked out structure still attached to the branch it was built on. Laying out plastic rice bags, the men begin by using twine to separate the layers of the nest. They parade each layer around and let everyone admire the paper white coating that hides the young wasps and larva below. Larger wasps that had not escaped when the fire smoke first began wander aimlessly and harmlessly over the remains of their home.
With the nest fully deconstructed, the men, women, and I start to extract the larva from their lodgings in the comb. As I work I get to know my new relatives and laugh with them over sour papaya that we eat, and I avoid (truly the most sour fruit out there), as we work.
I learn from my grandpa whose Mandarin is mostly understandable that the family actually ‘farms’ wasps up above our family home. When they find a small nest in the mountains, they bring it down and let it grow until it is large enough to set a fire below and harvest the inhabitants. Some of the nests they eat, but they often sell them for a fine price at market. They also keep bees for honey, and like many of the other families, have their fair share of chickens, a smattering of pigs, and a couple cows.
The next morning, after helping to clean the larva, the older wasps and larva are cooked in pans over the open fire that serves as the family’s stove-top. It’s pretty tasty overall.
After this first experience in the cuisine of this village, I have come to learn more and more about their diet and farming practices. In the mornings, I often go out with my sister to the family’s farmland and help gather beans, various squashes, greens, and corn. They also grow tobacco, tomatoes, walnuts, bananas, bamboo, and a few other crops. I have also helped to forage for mushrooms and to pick tea leaves. I have learned about how corn is mostly sold as pig feed and how tobacco is dried and prepared for market.
Animals and crops are a large part of daily life here in the village and it has been interesting to field questions like “how many pigs do you have?” or “how do you usually prepare a whole chicken you have just killed, plucked, and butchered?” My answer to these is an unavoidably, “I don’t.” But along with these questions I am also asked questions about life in America like “Are light or dark skinned people preferred? Do you have rocks? Does everyone speak the same type of English? How many minority cultures are there? Do people gamble?” Some of these questions are easy, but some of them force me to pause and consider complexities I am not always asked to consider. And then there is always the challenge of explaining things I do not always fully understand in a language I do not fully know to someone who has little to no context for the things I am trying to say.
The experience reminds me that while we must take time to really listen to the answers someone gives us to our questions, to really understand something requires taking time to try and observe for ourselves the things we have questions about. By living with people, by being in their country, and by watching their actions I am allowed the opportunity to set aside what I have read, what I think I know, and what I have been told in order to simply practice the art of observation. Through this practice, I learn about myself by recognizing my assumptions and seeking to understand where they come from. In the long run, I hope that by practicing observation, I will come to be able to see with new eyes things I thought I knew back at home.