Welcome to Indonesia
Thay and the Sangha touched down in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia on 27 September having just said a wistful goodbye to our hosts and organisers in Malaysia where we had enjoyed a successful 2 weeks offering retreats and public talks, getting to know a little of a rich and diverse country from people who lived there. Once again we were greeted by more warm smiles from a team of lay friends and monastics eager to take good care of us, introduce us to their homeland and help us plant more seeds of Thays teaching and practice.
Indonesia is densely populated with some 238 million (cf. 28 million in Malaysia). 120 million are concentrated on Java – the political hub of this archipelago of some 17,500 islands – where we were to stay for 2 weeks.
We were taken first to Ekayana temple, to be our base in Jakarta. Here is the home of Br Phap Tu and Ven. Dharma Vimala both of whom have spent long stays in Plum Village. We were welcomed by the Abbot Aryamaitri and offered songs by the laity before lunch. Back on the coach we experienced VIP treatment being escorted by police for the 3 hour journey to Kinasih resort near Bogor where we were to offer a 5 day retreat. Phap Tu said without this it is not sure how we could have made our way through the thick traffic of greater Jakarta. It is impossible not to be affected by the squalid conditions of the poor majority of this overpopulated city. After the higher standard of living seen in Malaysia, not to mention Singapore, it hits you like the heat after the air conditioned coach. However, much of our time has not been spent in the city and we have been lucky to have some days in more rural mountain areas. Evident on the people’s faces and their way of interacting was the simple reality that, even though people may be poor, happiness is possible once the wholesome conditions of having enough space to live, clean air, water and nature are present. Taking a day hiking up the volcano we saw families and communities living simply but happily together. In fact wherever we went the majority Muslim population were all friendly and courteous, happy to return the beautiful Islamic greeting As-Salamu ‘Alaykum (peace be upon you) with wa’-Alaykum As-Salam (and on you be peace).
As in Singapore and Malaysia, in Indonesia the ethnic Chinese are generally Buddhist by way of their family tradition. However, the Plum Village tradition is something new. This has been Thays first visit to Indonesia yet there has been plenty of Sangha building and conditions arising to make Indonesia a fertile ground for Thays teaching to take root. Br. Badra of Ekayana temple, who recently received full ordination under Thay in Plum Village (and his new Dharma name Chan Phap Tu - True Dharma Son), helped to organise for Thay’s visit when he returned to Indonesia. Thay Phap Kham has made a number visits. In May 2009 Sr Chan Khong, along with a group of brothers and sisters, came to Jakarta and led a 4 day retreat in Kinasih Resort, Bogor for 400 people, offered 2 Days of Mindfulness in Java, and 3 in Sumatra. The trip included a press conference to celebrate the Indonesian version of Sr Chan Khong’s book Learning True Love. Many of Thay’s books are already available in Indonesian.
Kinasih Resort 5 Day Retreat
With conditions so ripe we should not have been surprised by how well the retreat was attended and how immediately the energy of practice established itself. There were 900 retreatants for the 5 day retreat of which a record 300 were young adults (18-35y). Such an inspiring number of youth attending was inspiring indeed but it would not have manifested without the outreach work of Br. Phap Tu who offered a series of weekend retreats at various Universities in the months leading up to this tour. This outreaching had paid a wonderful dividend and is something we hope to emulate in Europe before the 2012 wake up tour. Thay gave a talk on ‘True Love’ specially dedicated to the young people of the retreat and they had lots of real and sincere questions, many concerning the 3rd Mindfulness Training, to ask the monastics during Dharma Discussion and question and answer sessions. For some, monastic seeds were watered and we may well have young Indonesian aspirants manifest in Plum Village before too long to join the three recently ordained Indonesian “Moon sisters”. Of those Trang Phuong Dong (Eastern Moon)and Trang Moi Len (Moon Just Risen)were able to join the Sangha delegation for this Indonesian section of the S.E. Asian tour.
The retreat went well for everyone and over two thirds received the 5 mindfulness trainings. It seemed everyone knew the Plum Village songs and some Indonesian practice songs too. With a little encouragement they were sung so wholeheartedly by everyone before each Dharma talk it gave truly a warm feeling of one big family.
Some 30 Muslim practitioners attended the retreat – something that by law could not have happened in Malaysia. They formed a family for Dharma discussion led by Sr. Jina. Thay shared teachings of Buddhism that highlighted nondualistic thinking, non discrimination and inclusiveness as central to Buddhist wisdom and insight. Thay talked specially on “the wisdom of non discrimination” as the 4tht ingredient of True Love – Upeksa – often translated as equanimity. Thay said Buddhists and Muslims can say to each other, “Because I love you and your God is Allah, I also love Allah as my God”, “Because I love you and your teacher is Lord Budhha, Buddha is also my teacher.” Thay shared how as Buddhists we can very well understand Islamic proclamations from the Koran like “Allah is God, there is only one God” in the light of the Buddhist insight of, for instance, the one contains the all.
“As Buddhists we should study Islam. Thay has studied and sees the 5 pillars of Islam can be compared with the 5 Mindfulness trainings.” On the last day Thay invited the Muslim Dharma discussion group to share to the whole Sangha of 900 about their experience and the initiative, that followed Thays request, to establish an interfaith group in Indonesia. One young Muslim lady shared how the country’s motto “Unity in Diversity” sadly does not reflect the real situation.
She shared that this retreat gave her hope and a way to contribute to making the motto something to believe in. A young Muslim man shared about his childhood love affair with Buddhism began with watching Kung Fu movies. An Imam (Priest of Islam) had told him that in order to understand Islam deeply he would need. The young man shared that for him the Touching the Earth practice had been very powerful. His father had recently passed away and the practice had allowed him to discover his parents and ancestors present and available to him – in every cell of his body. Separately from this sharing to the whole Sangha, a Muslim lady shared with me about a transformation for herself. “The ethnic Chinese, although a minority of 20-25%, are economically dominant and this causes negative perceptions among the Muslim community. But here it is clear that there are many good hearted Chinese that I can relate to as brothers and sisters on the path. I feel very at ease here.”
I had numerous conversations with our hosts Chinese Indonesians and Malaysian Chinese during the stay in these countries and discovered there is a lot of resentment regarding the many ways in which they suffer discrimination by the governments which favour the Muslim majority. Underneath the occasional eruptions of violence that make the news there is a pervasive tension among the different ethnicities and religions of the Indonesian people. Poverty and overpopulation only exacerbate the situation. Misperceptions and discriminatory behaviour towards each other fuels more resentment. It seems all the more important to find ways for the two communities to create conditions and find the common ground from which to build mutual respect and love. Conditions seem more favourable in Indonesia compared with Malaysia where sadly Muslims are barred by law from attending any Buddhist events. Under these kinds of restrictions it is hard to see how interfaith groups can form openly.
On the retreat it seemed everything was possible – indeed understanding, love and unity manifested palpably by the end of the retreat. Among many wonderfully rich ethnically Indonesian songs the favourite songs for families to offer in the Be In together on the afternoon of leaving were “We are all the leaves of one tree...the time has come for all to live as one” and “The rain – it falls on everyone...no discrimination”
The Plum Village brothers and sisters also offered a dance and song with Indonesian serongs breaking the usual image of monastics which brought whoops of laughter and hopefully didn’t offend. In fact we had a good number monastics from local Theravada and Tibetan traditions attending and they too offered a song for the Be In. We said goodbye to each other with the Plum Village song “No Coming, No Going” knowing that many wonderful seeds had been planted for building brotherhood, Sisterhood and Sangha within Indonesia during this retreat.
When Thay accepted to come to Indonesia he expressly asked for a day of mindfulness to be arranged at Borobudur beginning with a sitting meditation at sunrise. Thays wish was realised by lay friends who organised everything beautifully. We set out at 3am from the temple at Parakan and arrived in time to first sit with Thay at the foot of the hill on which this beautiful and magnificent temple is built. With the early morning light Thay led us in walking meditation up the high stone steps to each successive 4 levels or terraces of the giant stupa. At each level we followed Thay around the 4 sides of the pyramidal monument. Hundreds of serene Buddha statues sit performing various mudras in niche alcoves all along the terraces. Designed by the 8th century Buddhist Gunadharma the walk, by way of exquisitely sculpted reliefs, takes you on a journey through the Shakyamuni Buddhas previous lives (Jataka), his historical live and teachings and meetings with the future Buddhas Maitreya and Samantabadra. The path describes a mandala – a Tibetan representation of the Universe, that can only be seen from the air. Finally the high corridors intense with Dharma folklore and teachings give way to the spacious top level where3 concentric circles of meditating Buddhas, sit encapsulated in Stupas shaped like upturned bells perforated with variously shaped windows cleverly formed by gaps between the hundreds of interlocking stone pieces. I dare not pere inside one of the Stupas to see but assumed the Buddhas all sat facing outwards contemplating the beautiful vista of Javas jungle. They surround huge central stupa with no windows and, mysteriously, empty – at least of a stone Buddha statue. Seated below the Buddha stupas Thay and the Sangha began meditation with Br Phap Tu offering the morning chant in Indonesian.
After coming down we collected our breakfast box and it began to rain. This caused some logistical problems but we deemed the rain auspicious given it usually comes punctually after lunch. After breakfast we gathered at near the monument for an open air Dharma talk. Thay began by saying how he was in touch with the spiritual ancestors of this land who, very early on, had strived to bring and maintain the Dharma in this land.
After Thays talk the monastics made an alms round (pre organised by the lay friends) and we gathered, once again seated on the Earth outdoors. After Thay shared the practice of eating meditation and we enjoyed the food offering together as a 4 fold Sangha.
The day was concluded in the afternoon by a beautiful offering by locals of traditional Indonesian dance, song, bells and percussion.
Happily the schedule allowed time to connect with the land and people outside. This included two hiking trips up active volcanoes with their primordial steaming sulphurous landscapes. Hopping onto local transport, taking coconut stops and buying various fruits including 5 different kinds of bananas all allowed for some interaction with locals that added to the sense of experiencing Indonesia. Thay also took off on a local bus to shop for fruit at the local market. Another morning Thay selected some locally carved Buddha statues for Plum Village and Br Phap Khoi did the same for Blue Cliff Monastery.
Some of us took a days hike up Salak, a volcanoe mountain close by Bogor. We were obliged to hire a guide but enjoyed his patient contented nature. We bathed for over an hour in the sulphurous streams of the hillside and later were wishing our guide had been less patient and hurried us up some for we all suffered from sunburn in the following days – fooled by the overcast sky. He told us some of the natural history of the mountain including the last eruption in 1985. He was a boy of 5 but recalled the shaking ground and the temporary exodus of the locals of the mountainside.
Our last Day- Mission Impossible
On the last day the Sangha led days of mindfulness in about 10 different places including various islands. For this we split into groups of 4 and were accompanied by a host and translator. It worked out very well though physically quite taxing. Our group for instance set out at 5am and returned after a delayed flight back from Palanbang in Sumatra to Ekayana temple at 10pm.
For our particular destination, the Ekayana associated temple in Palambang, Sumatra only 50 people were expected but 200 came. We opened with Plum Village songs which many of them knew from the 2009 visit of the group with Sr Chan Khong. We offered a talk on the basic practice, shared a meal in mindfulness and offered total relaxation. In the afternoon the congregation was split into 4 groups by age each of the monastics took one group to share with. Following this the whole congregation gathered again for a Be In and each group offered songs to the others. The energy was very warm by the closing and there was a lot of enthusiasm for a continuing to meet together especially among the younger ones. We encouraged the organisers who had taken such good care of us to meet together to practice and support the young ones to be able to meet regularly also.
Breakfast with Thay
The following morning our hosts had prepared a delicious breakfast to send off the Sangha and celebrate Thay’s birthday.
Thay wrote to his children on the tour, “The Southeast Asia Tour is blooming as a beautiful flower. The flower has 5 petals. The first three petals are Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and they have manifested elegantly. The happiness of the Sangha has been nourished by the happiness of the local Buddhist practioners. As teachers and students we have learned many wonderful things on this trip, being able to drop many of our preconceived notions about these countries.” Now it is time for the forth petal - Thailand.