Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sikh service

I woke up around 7:15 this morning after a very sound sleep. The clothes I'd left out to hang-dry were still damp; I'd taken them into my room last night to finish drying and to avoid the morning dew, but it looks as though I'll be wearing them wet.

I tentatively made my way across the grounds over to the Sikh temple a little before 9; the place was quiet when I entered the building and stepped into what was unmistakably a refectory-- a cafeteria of sorts. The place was quiet, but food was already out and ready to be served. I heard a woman's voice chanting over the loudspeakers; this was scripture (the Adi Granth, if I'm not mistaken). I sauntered over to a stand that held some free pamphlets on Sikhism and read for a bit before I decided to overcome my natural introversion and talk with someone.

And that's how I met Charnjit, a young kid (teenager?) who ended up providing me with quite a bit of information. I asked him about the noon service I'd heard about. He told me that worship had already started, but that people were free to come and go. He also told me I was free to grab some food. (It turns out that something special generally happens at noon, ritual-wise, but no one's obliged to stay until then.)

To enter the worship area, you have to do three things, as Charnjit explained. First, you take off your shoes. Next, you put on a "ramal," a white head scarf or bandanna. Finally, you wash your hands. Charnjit was able to find a ramal that fit my enormous noggin. I got it tied on the first try.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: I didn't go immediately into worship. Instead, I hung about the refectory a bit, recorded a minute of chanting, spoke with Charnjit when he floated in my direction, and finally got some food when a lady beckoned me over to the food table.

I met Satpal Sidhu, the gentleman who represents the temple, as well as being Reverend Rozendaal's contact. Mr. Sidhu, Charnjit, and some of Mr. Sidhu's friends all sat with me, and we talked. I asked if it would be all right to record the conversation, and everyone seemed comfortable with that.

We focused on food first. Mr. Sidhu explained that food symbolized equality:

"This is a tradition in our religion: that wherever we go, we always have food, because this is our symbol of equality-- that we all eat from the potluck."

"Like breaking bread," said one of Mr. Sidhu's friends.

Mr. Sidhu went on: "Like India had a caste system? Lower caste, higher caste? So this was the way to break that, because if you have every caste sit together and eat, you break that barrier. We are all equal. Whenever we build a temple, we always build a kitchen."

I'd say that Sikhs, with their love of food, have something in common with us Presbyterians! And what a contrast this is with a newspaper clipping I saw on the wall of the refectory at Haeinsa, one of Korea's major Seon (Zen) temples. The article showed a picture of the abbot at the time (this was in 2000), and the headline blared, "I saesang-ae meogeureo on gae anida!" or, "We didn't come into this world to eat!" To be fair, this was a monastery, so you'd expect to see and hear strict monastic sentiments.

"We always eat vegetarian food," said Mr. Sidhu, still talking about temple life. "No fish, no meat; we don't smoke, we don't like people to smoke; we are very strict about that; we don't bring wine to our temple...we don't bring fish or eggs or meat-- mostly fresh vegetables: lentils, rice, and that kind of stuff.

"And the other tradition is that if somebody comes-- a guest-- we provide a bed and a place. It could be just right here [indicates refectory floor]; it doesn't matter. We welcome people; if people come and say 'I have nowhere to stay, I don't have a place to go, I have to stay one night,' come on! Whatever we have, you eat, and here's a place you can sleep and leave tomorrow morning. So you don't need any introduction from anybody; you walk up, or ahead of time you do a search on there [online], see what the next Sikh temple is, call ahead of time, because, you know, the security and law-- a lot of crazies out there. I just wanna be very clear with you since you're a little bit unknown, right?"

Mr. Sidhu also noted that the Sikh community isn't divided into denominations: "We don't have too [many] denominations...we are all the same. We believe in one God."

I asked Mr. Sidhu whether it was possible for anyone to become a Sikh. "You just have to believe in our teachings," he said. "You don't have to change your name; to be a Sikh is to believe in our teachings. That's it. Simple. Then there's the next stage [laughter from Mr. Sidhu's friends]: beard, and tie a can go all the way, but to be a Sikh, you keep your name, you can be what you are, learn about the scripture, learn about our teachings. You learn about the Adi Granth, what the teachings are, and you say 'I believe in that,' and you are a Sikh. There's nothing more than that."

One of Mr. Sidhu's friends piped up: "'Sikh' means 'student.' Seeking knowledge." "And our gurus," added Mr. Sidhu, "We don't call them 'God.' We call them 'teachers.'" I responded with a story about something I'd heard from a Korean Seon master who had challenged me (I was a grad student at Catholic U. at the time) by asking, "What is religion?" I had no adequate response, so the monk, in exasperation, said, "It's deepest teaching!" I told Mr. Sidhu that I liked this emphasis on relationship. He noted that Buddhism also started in India, and all those Indian traditions value the teacher-student relationship.

I have a ton more to write, but I have to gear up and make my way down to Bellingham. More later.


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