This is a story about a rock I met in Bali. Like everyone else I met there, it was immensely friendly. Only a little talkative, though, in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way. Drink me. Eat me. Basic interrogatives. To the point. Exactly how you would expect a rock to be. And this rock really was young for a rock, if you could even call it that. I loosely use that term, because it was large and irregular and heavy, but really, it was a broken corner of red paver. Concrete. Like any good image. Replete with as much meaning as you choose to pour in and allow to harden to serve the purpose of paving.
But as I said, this is Bali. I visited a palm reader here on the advice of one of my many Nyoman-drivers. After telling him the story of my life and why I came to Bali, he suggested “You really need to go visit my friend the palm reader”. This is a bit of a digression, but it sets the stage for the rock. The palm reader was a young Balinese woman. We drove to her home compound somewhere north of Ubud, and we sat on her front porch for my consultation. Really, the most striking part of the entire event was her opening question, first to the driver in Balinese, and then translated to me, “She wants to know what you want read first. Your Normal life, or your Life Spiritual.” He pronounced ‘Spiritual’ in four syllables – ‘Speer it tu aaahlll’ in a slow, drawn out patois that instantly made me a believer in something that I felt that I already knew. I couldn’t decide which, or why they were separate, or why I would choose one order over the other – at this point, what would be the most beneficial for my reading?
And that said, the rest is besides my point. What I wanted to bring forth here is that we live many different lives simultaneously, many congruent roles in many different dimensions. The palmist made a big general distinction between two of them – normal and Spiritual. That’s about all most of us have the patience to use to compound a ratio of existence. I found during my stay in Bali, I spent a goodly amount of time over on the Spiritual side; at times had a foot firmly planted in each, and at times just had to tend to the business of life at hand. Coming back to the United States was supposedly returning to my Normal life. We all just go to church on Sundays, right? We work 5 days a week. It is just too easy to relegate each world to a corner. Or a side, or a line drawn in a stand. Bah.
But as I said, this was Bali. Both worlds, the Normal and the Spiritual, are constantly and completely overlapping, interpenetrating and informing each other. Two lives at once, each equally valid. The Balinese have created a spiritual energy vortex and have been reinforcing it for over a thousand years, day by day, offering by offering. The whole island is a floating shrine. So on one hand, this broken paver was just a bit of man-made construction debris in the middle of the road. On the other hand, this was a red child of the earth that was speaking to me about the condition of our Universe, what we can choose to help the balance, and “Hey, could you lend a brother a hand?” One never knows what form our teachers will take. After all, we are all really just energy disguised as stardust.
I had two dear friends who visited India earlier this year. My friend Swaha Ron is fascinated with and has visited many Jeeva Samadhi sites in India – holy places of immense power where Indian siddhas have chosen to exit the body for samadhi, and have left a bit of their soul remaining in their resolute bodies for the benefit of all. These tombs become energetic doorways to the divine. Sometimes their bodies remain, sometimes they would vanish into light. I mentioned to them that I was going to Bali, and perhaps I would be able to find some of these sites there, because Bali is at heart a Hindu island. I looked on the web but couldn’t find anything. I mentioned this to Swaha’s fiance Divojananda, and she suggested finding and visiting the oldest temple on the island, and speaking to one of the priests there: perhaps they would know something.
I already knew that the oldest and largest temple on the island was Pura Besakih, the Mother Temple of Bali. It is a visually striking layered confectionary assemblage of 23 temples with beautiful Meru towers piled up with thick, thatched roofs, innumerable courtyards and stairways, and split candi bentar gates all constructed from carefully fitted red brick and black volcanic stone. The interlinked temple groups are perched about a thousand meters up high on the western slope of Gunung Agung, the largest mountain (and volcano! Active volcano!!) on the island. Gunung Agung is also considered the Navel of the World. The main central temple is Pura Penataran Agung and is dedicated to Siwa. There are two other large clusters of temples dedicated to Brahma and Vishnu that flank the main temple, one on either side. It has been a site of worship since prehistoric times and has played a large part in the history and religious life of the island. The lava flows from the major eruption of Mount Agung in 1963 threatened the temple, but it was spared by a matter of mere meters. It erupted five times again last November 2017, and threatened a lot of tourists and my trip.
I also read on the Internet that Besakih was home to gangs of predatory, extortionist guides that could potentially be downright abusive to western tourists. It also possibly would be very crowded, especially close to the Full Moon at the end of March, when they have a special ceremony there (and when I would be visiting). Crowds and abuse and herded tourism are not for me, so I had decided not to visit Pura Besakih. Plus, Mt. Agung has a history of erupting, often violently. Tourism to the entire island suffered as a result, and also tourist visits to Pura Besakih. (Which also fits neatly into the story to follow… but in retrospect, I also hope that I am brave enough and have the opportunity to attend Purnama Kedasa on the Full Moon of the 10th month at Pura Besakih.)
So upon the advice of Divoja, I decided that I needed to make a pilgrimage to Agung and Pura Besakih. The Mother Temple of Bali. I booked a guided agency tour online with all-inclusive fees so I would have any possible unpleasant interactions with the guides at the temple pre-arranged and neatly side-stepped. I did have to pay an additional 50% for my tour as a solo traveller, but I figured it was well worth it. My driver was a man almost my exact age, named Gusti – a very elegant and distinguished gentleman who spoke excellent English. He picked me up at my hotel in Penestanan, just west of Ubud. The night before, the manager at my hotel seemed rather incredulous that I was brave enough (or foolhardy) to want to visit Besakih. “Aren’t you worried about the volcano”, he asked? “You know it erupted…”. I told him it wasn’t erupting now, and that the government had decreased the restricted area around the mountain substantially. “But what if it erupts when you are there?” he asked. I told him that I didn’t think that it was going to, and that if it did, then it was my time to go and at least it would be exciting. He smiled.
Gusti parked his van at the designated parking area, and paid the attendant. I was hobbling a bit and was using a walking stick, as I’d taken a rather hard fall a few days earlier, and was nursing a sore left foot and a cranky right knee. We walked over to the ticket area and Gusti paid my admission. No extortion happened that I knew of. He also negotiated the services of a temple guide for me, whose name was Nyoman. Gusti told me that Nyoman would be my local guide, that he would escort me through the temple, answer my many questions (Ha… he knew me well already!) and would let me know what was acceptable and what wasn’t acceptable. He would also give me a ride up on a scooter, as it was a long walk otherwise. And that I was to tip him 5,000 rupiah – that would be sufficient.
So I tucked up my sarong a bit, and clambered up in back of Nyoman on his black Honda scooter. I tucked my staff upside down into my right elbow, took a deep breath and held on. Up we rode the 600 meters to the front expanse of lawn in front of this beautiful, ancient temple built of black volcano stone and dark thatched roofs piled up on top of each other like petit-threes, petit-sevens and petit-elevens. The pathway to the main rise of stairs and the split gate to the central main temple dedicated to Siva was straight ahead, spiritually aligned with the summit of Mt. Agung. The broad central sidewalk was lined with umbrellas: yellow to the left and white to the right. Nyoman took my picture on the steps. Little girls were offering picture postcards for sale. We climbed up the stairs to the entrance to the outer courtyard of the temple, but there was a ceremony going on. I didn’t have the proper headwater on, and I don’t think they would have let me in anyways. There were two pecharan guarding the front gate, reclining in their distinctive black and white checkered Saput Poleng sarongs. I asked Nyoman what the Balinese word was for ‘smile’ – he responded with something that I can’t remember. I called it out to the two gentlemen, and snapped their picture. One of them smiled. They still didn’t invite me in. Here’s the picture.
We walked up the many flights of stairs that paralleled the right side of the temple, and looked at in the gates of several of the smaller temples that surrounded the main ones. Eventually, we reached a terrace level up at the top that had a few souvenir shops selling intricate wind chimes, statuary, postcards and keychains. Nothing compared to the spectacular views back down on the temples below, with the jungles and rice fields and the distant coastline of the Indian Ocean far off in the hazy distance, I could see the point up high above Candidasa that I hiked out to a few days earlier, where I found my walking stick and encountered my first temple monkeys. Come to think of it now, I didn’t see any monkeys at Pura Besakih. Remarkably few tourists as well. Most of them were wearing the solid-color green or blue sarongs that the guides provide you if you don’t have one of you own. Myself, I prefer to be well and appropriately dressed. Ducking down some side stairs, past a few more postcard girls and a lady offering to sell bottles of water (I had one already), Nyoman and I walked over to the north perimeter of the main temple and looked across a ravine at another cluster of temples dedicated to Brahma up even higher on the next hill over.
Then back down many more steps on the north side of the Siva temple, probably just about as many as we walked up on the other side. At one point, we passed an open split gate that looked out in to the middle of the inner courtyard of the Siva temple. I told my guide that I was going to leave my offering here and say my prayers, but not go into the courtyard. Nyoman had talked with me a quite a bit on our tour about Hinduism and ritual and offering, and he had given me some pointers about the beliefs and faith practices of Bali. In keeping with the Indonesian mandate of Pancasila, they do have one Supreme God, Sang Hyang Widhi. The empty chair atop many of the shrines that bejewel every home, store, street and temple is right there waiting for Sang Hyang Widhi. The other island Gods and Goddesses of rice, mountains, lakes and the sea are manifestations of Him, each to their purpose. The Balinese also revere their ancestors, Buddhist saints and babies.
There are also the three deities that comprise Tri Murthi, the God Trinity concept of the Balinese Hindu Religion. ‘Tri’ means “three” and ‘Murthi’ means “Realization of God”. People in Bali often wear a sacred bracelet on their right wrist made of twisted red, white, and black wool yarn. The colors red, white and black are the symbolic colors of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu (to which the temples at Pura Besakih are dedicated). Those who wears this bracelet after the ceremony are blessed with the ability to resist all kinds of dangers that will threaten the soul. It symbolizes one’s quest for balance, harmony, and understanding. It reminds us that life is not just one color, but many colors. Tri Dhatu is a force that consists of three elements. These three elements are Tri Murthi. Red for Brahma the Creator is creativity, bravery, birth and fire. White for Vishnu the Preserver is spirituality, goodness, growth and water. Black for Shiva the Destroyer is power, protection, return and wind. The Balinese call the black “chocolates”. Personally, I eat a lot of chocolate for power and protection – it was good to have this finer point of worldwide spirituality validated. God, this is a complicated paragraph. Just thump your chest. It’s all in there.
Nyoman patiently waited for me under the partial shade of a small tree while I prepared my little flower basket that Gusti had thoughtfully provided, opened a passion fruit, lit three sticks of incense, added some candy and some coins, and left it as an offering positioned exactly at the midpoint of the opening of the split gate against the right side. That seemed the respectful thing to do, to leave it at the border, the dividing line between my normal world and the Spiritual world of the ceremonies going on in the courtyard. I also opened up my bottle of water, did a little impromptu Melukat water blessing on myself, and left the rest of the bottle with the smoking incense and my offering. I prayed a little bit, meditating with my bony knees on the pavement of the doorway. Nothing really happened, but I felt like I’d conducted myself with dignity, didn’t offend anyone (at least Nyoman was kind enough not to say anything) and the volcano didn’t erupt. The vast spin of the Great Wheel continued.
At this point, I gathered up myself, took a few more pictures, looked at the rather sizable Shiva lingam enthroned in a smaller side temple, and then I realized that I wanted to go back and get a bottle of water from the lady that was selling water a little ways back. She was very gracious when I told her “Tidak Suksma – no thank you” earlier. We started back up the stairs. I was carrying a bit of lava stone in my right hand that I’d picked up by the gate where I had left my offering. And then I heard a voice simultaneously from behind my right ear and down by my right foot that said “Put that one down and take Me instead.” I looked down and there was another bit of black lava right by my foot. Now this isn’t the rock that I mentioned earlier in this story that was talking to me, but this also sets the tone for what follows. I bent over and swapped the two stones – left the first one in the place of the second, and brought the second stone with me, held tight in the hollow of my right hand. I showed it to Nyoman and he told me “That’s a new one.”I asked “From the volcano?” He said “Yes.” I’m wearing it around my neck as I type this today.
We continued walking back to get water. It was quite a bit further back than I remembered. At one point I asked him if we were lost. He said “No”, and looked at me amusedly. He pointed at the temple up on the hill and asked “Remember?” It was the dog that confused me – there was no dog there the first time, and then there was the second. And then the water lady wasn’t there; another lady was, and she wanted twice as much for the water… I started to question her in my flawless Indonesian, then realized the better of it. I looked tot the right over and up the stairs a bit and saw the first lady from earlier, and she smiled at me and came back down. It turned out the doubled price was for a larger bottle of water. I bought it. The other lady wanted me to buy one from her as well, out of the same basket… not quite sure what goes on here sometimes. I told her “No thanks,” and Nyoman and I started back down.
It was at this point that I decided to tip Nyoman, my guide – he’d been pretty awesome. He had answered all my really odd questions, taught me many new things about God, accommodated my expansive sense of spirituality, and protected me from any evil spirits that were lurking about. He was indeed a GOOD temple guide. So I ignored Gusti’s advice (I’d also already overtipped Gusti, as I didn’t want to take a lot of money up into the supposedly merciless, predatory hawkers of merchandise that the Internet advised stalked the temple grounds. I knew the little girls with the “Mister, buy postcard?” could be potentially dangerous). So I decided to start my life anew. I gave Nyoman everything left in my wallet. I think it was about 25,000 rupiah at that point. Only a little more than Gusti told me. But 5,000 rupiah is about 35 cents, so 25,000 was less than two dollars. How can I possibly be so generous and feel so cheap at the same time? Anyways – in my calculated defense, it was all the money that I had left. I was a free man. One more illusion abandoned, an attachment severed; I was a broken, wandering mendicant with nothing but a walking stick, a bottle of water and a wallet full of charge cards… Oh well…
And then, there she was. Another little postcard girl, probably all of 6 years old. I told her I didn’t have any money. She looked up at me and broke my heart. Nyoman, Siva bless him, bought me a postcard from his tip. How blessed am I?
We walked back down the steps, and came back by the gate where earlier I had left my offering. The incense was still smoking and wafting the spirits up to Heaven. Nyoman told me that I ought to stop and pray one more time. He had taught me about the three Gods, and the Tri Murti – the black, white and red, and he told me that all things come in threes. And since I’d prayed once at the main gate, and then at the side gate with my offering, that one more time was in order. He pointed over at the same nearby tree and told me he would wait for me.
So I knelt down again on those hard stones and closed my eyes, and as usual, nothing happened. But then it did.
Clairvoyance in thousands of compressed vibrant, strobing black and white and brilliant deep blue shorts of all Time all whirled down and in and through me, liquid and swirling and flashing. Voices, thousands and thousands as well, all overlapping and interwoven, all sang and spoke and chanted all through an ever-widening expanse. Lightning flashed down my body in shivers through my head in what would have been blinding light had my eyes not been closed, but open to all I was living. And I cried out aloud from the energy. I startled Nyoman. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t in the temple, that I hadn’t passed throughout the gate, that there was no priest, that time had gone away. Of course, here in this life for us, it always comes back until it doesn’t anymore. This time it did. Fortunately, I had a guide.
Nyoman told me ” See – three times, they are important”. That his hair on his arms stood up on end. He looked at me a little strangely.
I don’t remember much past that point for a while, except that we walked back down to the front of the temple path. On the way, we stopped at another gate and he wanted to take our picture. The next thing I knew, there were five other guys all up there with us, all standing tall. A little further on, back near the entrance, I took some pictures of the beautiful white and yellow umbrellas lining the walk along the field. Nyoman told me why they were white and yellow, but I can’t remember why.
He then informed me several times (and apologized repeatedly) that I had to walk the 600 yards back to the parking area – that he was not allowed to give me a ride back on the scooter. It was a policy. I told him that it was no problem, I liked to walk, but I think the walking stick may have unnerved him. Or that at this point, i really wasn’t walking anyways, I think I was gliding gently above the ground and my sandals weren’t touching anything but the soles of my feet. I reassured him that I would be just fine, and started back under my own innate motive power. And whatever lingering residue of the power of the cosmos I still had sparking through my consciousness. A fresh, charged start.
A little bit down the road, he roared by me on his scooter and gave me a toot of his horn and a hearty wave. I kept walking. Over to my right were two ladies and three little girls. One of the ladies was buying ice creams for the three little ones from the other lady, who operated the ice cream pushcart. The ice cream looked more like ice milk, long narrow translucent rectangles of quiescent frozen delight on thin bamboo skewers, like the king used for satay. The little girls all dipped their vanilla ice cream into a container of thin chocolate syrup that was fastened on the side of the cart. Sure looked good…
The mom called me over and started asking me the usual questions the Balinese run through. “Where you from”, “What’s your name”, and so on. Then she glanced aside at the vendor and then told me that I ought to buy an ice cream – they were good. They looked good. And it is hot in Bali, especially at a temple built from black lava on the side of a volcano in the humid sun of the early afternoon. I told her that I didn’t have any money. She laughed and said she didn’t believe me. So I showed her my empty wallet. I told her I’d given all my money away. And then she announced “I will buy you one.” She looked over at the middle little girl, who was probably her daughter, and the little one nodded. Mom took her ice cream and gave it to me, and got her another.
That was the best ice cream I have ever tasted. It is what ice cream tastes like in heaven. The angels may not eat food, but we are not angels. And heaven is here and now, where the ice cream is.
Fortunately, I remembered that I had a beautiful rainbow spectrum packet of hairbands in my satchel that I’d bought at the 99 Cents Only Store before I left for Bali, just in case I needed something special for moments like these. And from the chaos that ensued between the three little ones, I was grateful that I’d thought to buy them and that I had also listened to the little voice that said to bring them along them along that day. I did tell the little girl in the middle that it would be appropriate to share with her friends by pointing at the bands and then at her two companions. Anyways, I left it for them to work out. The world will always have its problems. Hopefully, it will always have its ice cream.
I continued my walk back to meet my two guides; Nyoman, who would be waiting with his scooter, and Gusti, my driver, who would be waiting with his van. I turned around and took a few more pictures of the receding temple and the massive volcano peak in the background. I peeked at a few of the souvenir shops that were open – most of them were shuttered and closed. And then it was that I noticed.
There was no one else on the road.
It was just me. And this road was a veritable expanse of boulevard, especially by Balinese standards: two big wide lanes, one in each direction, divided by a line down the center. No one driving on the wrong side of the road. Or the right side. As far as I could see the street was empty, devoid of cars, scooters, pilgrims and pedestrians. Just me. The volcano must have scared everyone else away…
And, how often can you just walk down the middle of the road, especially in Bali. Unless it happens to be Nyepi, but thats another story. So decided just to walk right down the center of the road. No concern about the right-hand path, or the left side less taken. Just straight down the middle way. Occasionally, a stray scooter would roar by me, but they knew the road was mine and they gave me big smiles as they sped by.
Maybe halfway, I passed an island in the center, where the line split out around a diamond-shaped sutra pedestal in the middle of the lanes that had a small temple on the midst of it. Probably a temple dedicated to the road, waiting for Sang Hyang Widhi. And where the lines reconverted on the far side, that is where I met my new momentary friend. It was there on the blacktop, right where the white lines converged. The red rock. Who spoke to me and said “Please move me.” Nothing better than a rock with manners. A rock has all the time in the world for the basic civilities of life that we so often overlook. And most probably, no patience any longer for anything but the basics.
Of course it made sense. Perhaps it knew that it was a traffic hazard, enough to actually cause a scooter accident, which believe it or not, are very rare in Bali. Especially on a wide, deserted thoroughfare that only licensed temple guides are allowed to travel upon. And thankfully, this rock, heavy and massive as it looked, didn’t offer up a new request of “Put that one down and take me instead.” All I had to to was pick it up, as per request. Not compromise my weight limit on my carry-on and checked baggage. Would I need to declare a sentient, talking paver if it decided it wanted to travel with me and immigrate to the United States?
So I did, where’s the harm in that, right? I picked it up. This rock obviously had its own deep sense of personal destiny and had already lived quite a life. And now, a storied one at that, with a destiny all tangled up with mine, at least for a few moments. It wanted to move. But the question soon became “What do I do with it?” That was not the rock speaking again, that was the voice in my head that wanted to know. A familiar voice…
I looked over to the right of me and knew. Knew deeply at the core of my being. All good things come in threes. I walked to the curb of the street, painted in caution stripes of white and black, and honored the completion of the Tri Murthi with a Tri Dhatu of paint, spirit and stone.