A few days ago, here in Bali, it was Galungan, a religious festival spanning three days, which is of great importance in the Balinese calendar. It celebrates the victory of dharma over adharma, of what is right, true and good over what is not, and marks the day when the ancestral spirits visit the earthly plane. Deceased ancestors return to their former homes, and their descendants have a duty to welcome them in due ceremonial form. As one Balinese friend put it, “We have to take care their life even now they stay upstairs.” I recall, in that moment, being touched by her ritual, but sincere, expression of reverence for life, and by her attitude of genuine concern for the welfare of other beings, still in some way connected to her.
Now cynics might say that all this is only tradition, and that these rituals are often conducted fairly mechanically. Others, who know something of Balinese spiritual life, might point out that ancestors are often turned to for permission or approval, or for benevolent cooperation with worldly affairs. However, anyone who has spent any time in Bali will realize that the locals do no live in fear of retribution by evil forces, nor are they constantly trying to placate angry ancestors. This is not fear-based worship, there is an inherent gentleness, a certain lightness to life, and an underlying awareness that “my well-being and happiness is not separate from yours.”
In Mahayana Buddhism, a Bodhisattva makes the vow to help liberate all sentient beings, and not to attain liberation him- or herself until all these beings have themselves become free. This includes beings in different realms and on different planes, whose happiness is, for the Bodhisattva, essential to their own. The idea that the welfare of self is intimately connected to the welfare of others, that the well-being of a part depends on the state of the whole, is not a novel one. Expressed as a single, simple, principle, it is, for example, the practice of non-violence of the Buddhist, the adherence to ahimsa of the yogi. But it seems to me that before spirituality, and without needing reminders such as the acts of violence reported by the media, there is, in each of us, an innate understanding that life is precious, fleeting, and temporary, and that on a deeper level my life and yours are not separate. A sense, then, that all lives are intimately connected, perhaps even that at the source there is only one Life, expressed as myriad and diverse forms.
In spite of this instinctive realization, in wealthy countries we seem to have largely forgotten this interconnectedness, and even more so our interdependence, and so our efforts to secure happiness or attain wisdom rapidly become individualistic and very much centred on the separate self – lone endeavours aimed at improving the lot of “me”, not necessarily at the expense of others, but rarely with a preoccupation for their, (or common), well-being, as a motivating factor. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that most of us are not engaged in a daily struggle to subsist, far less to survive, so it is easy, in fact almost habitual, to take our existence and circumstances for granted, and to overlook the miracle of being alive. We fail to see that life itself is already a dynamic, interactive and creative process, with its own intelligence, and that nurturing it at its source is a good way of nurturing its unfolding also. We have the luxury (which we readily indulge) of pondering concerns such as what we are we going to do with our lives, what are we going to make of them, and how we wish to shape them. The philosopher Alan Watts was not the first to remind us that, “The meaning of life is just to be alive,” nor will he be the last. But what would be our joy, if simply being alive, in and of itself, was our bliss, if we were able to refrain from meandering off into mind-created needs, expectations and fears?
But perhaps I am meandering into digression a little myself. The Balinese have a beautiful way of looking at the web of life as a whole, and our harmonious place within it, and it rests upon a fundamental spiritual philosophy, Tri Hita Karana. Tri Hita Karana translates simply as “the three causes of happiness,” and these are harmony among people, harmony with nature and the environment, and harmony with the Divine. This philosophy requires the practice of qualities such as compassion, consideration, moderation, and of course respect for life around one, that of other humans of course, but also other living beings including plants and microorganisms. It is hard to see how a self-centered approach to one’s own happiness as a separate indivual could be seen as harmonious with the outer world. Nor can concepts such as non-violence, or striving to refrain from causing suffering in any form, be seen as in harmony with the greater whole if they are tinged with self-interest. (And there is no need to look very far in Western religion or spiritual traditions to find incitement to behaviour that benefits others for the advancement of one’s own cause.) We can respect life by attempting to minimize any negative impact on our surroudings our actions may have, in short, from a perspective of not doing. But just as Mother Theresa declared she had no interest in anti-war protests, but would gladly take part in a gathering for peace, it is also possible to engage in a lifestyle that actively nurtures life. The symbolism of the rice in Balinese offerings is very simple, rice is food, which is sustenance, which supports life. The ideas revolving around Tri Hita Karana are introduced to children in schools from a young age. But they grow up with an intuitive understanding of these, since Balinese society is beautifully community oriented, and a great many tasks are accomplished collectively and collaboratively.
The aim here, however, is not to eulogize the people and traditions of Bali, but simply to return to a more all-encompassing vision of life. For many of us who come from societies where personal happiness and well-being are top priorities, when things don’t go our way, or situations do not conform to our hopes, there can be a tendency to withdraw into our shell, and redouble our efforts to improve things by focusing more on our individual self. Paradoxically, this can often lead to greater isolation and unhappiness, and an increased sense of being cut off from others and the world. And “looking after number one,” with the inherent strain and self-concern which accompany it, can become quite an exhausting enterprise. Without going as far as making offerings to souls in dimensions beyond, or sweeping the path before us to avoid stepping on tiny creatures, we can easily verify, in our experience, that the wider we cast the net of our life-nurturing intentions, the more inclusive therefore our notion of life, the more we feel a part of something greater than ourselves. In the same way that we learn that causing suffering to others ultimately makes us suffer also, we find that we cannot nurture and contribute to life, any life, without benefitting ourselves. Perhaps many of us have often sought happiness, health and understanding by grasping the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps it is by wanting the best for the whole, for others, through outwardly directed action, that we too may enjoy the peace and fulfilment to which we aspire. “What goes around comes around,” as they say, but this can work in our favour too.