Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gowri's talk for the Soka Gakkai Society

Value Creation for Global Change
Talk by Gowri Ramnarayan
27 November 2014 

This has been a wonderful opportunity to learn about Soka Gakkai, read about the founders of the society, its goals and achievements.

Also, thinking about the subject made me reflect, revisit and re-live some experiences. I remembered our prayers at school, where every morning we chanted:
Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
Sangam saranam gacchami

My teacher explained, “When we chant these words, we are not thinking of Gautama Buddha alone. We invoke buddham – the light of knowledge, latent within each one of us. We hope that this light will help us recognize dhammam – the power of discrimination, to separate right from wrong; do right, shun wrong. Sangam is crucial to this process of self-awakening, because we must seek and bond with the community of wise people. They inspire us, and charge us with life-long resilience to continue the quest.

I guess my teacher was talking about a quest for values – on the terrestrial as well as the spiritual plane – for world peace, as also peace within the self.
It was with avid interest therefore that I learnt about how, in their pursuit of peace, the founders of Soka Gakkai created, reclaimed, sustained and rejuvenated values -- in times of world war and nuclear holocaust. 

To these threats our times have added a greater evil: global terrorism. Our age of excess has also fostered monstrous greed, and unprecedented ravaging of natural resources. Once destroyed, these resources are gone forever. They cannot be recovered.
Any endeavour to promote peace and prosperity today has to reckon with two sets of questions. 

n      How to overcome fear?
n      How to foster physical courage?
n      How to promote moral strength?
n      How to find inner tranquillity?  

Second,                                          *How to control consumerism?
                                                        * How to prevent climate change?
                                                        *How to save the environment?
                                                         *How not to poison the air, the rivers and oceans?
                                                         *How to stop war? Bomb blasts?
One thing is crystal clear. Both greed and terrorism are not merely physical threats. They are threats to the spiritual life as well.

Reading President Daisaku Ikeda dialoguing with farsighted achievers in diverse fields -- is to join his stimulating, thought-provoking sangam with world leaders and public intellectuals. In these talks Mr Ikeda’s own comments, questions and reactions are marked by a deep understanding of the human condition today, and the possibility of transformation, before tomorrow. It is easy to see that he is motivated by compassion (karuna), for all the people of the world. A quality we associate with true vidya (knowledge) and genuine gnana (wisdom). “ I am particularly struck by how easily he encapsulates the highest truths in the simplest language.

To create a new civilization based on the dignity of life he suggests that: I Quote:
“Instead of being absorbed in the minor self of the ego, each individual must recognize his or her connection with all life in the cosmos. By doing so, we can escape our obsession with greed, advance along a more compassionate path, and bring about mutual happiness for ourselves, and others.” End Quote.

We all know that any hope of change is from the young, and they must be convinced before this change can happen. Young people are not impressed by bombast. They like it crisp and brief, but also honest. Look at the clarity with which Mr Ikeda talks about education – not as a college degree, but as a means of extending the frontiers of the human mind. I QUOTE: “Education at its best is a process of liberation from prejudice, freeing the human heart from violent passions. Those who have learned to trust in themselves, are naturally able to believe in the latent capacity of others.” End quote. 

Can you make a better case for education as empowerment, education as the means of dispelling mistrust -- which is a major obstacle to development? It seems to me that with this kind of approach, education becomes a healing process.

Nor does he confine himself to socio-economic welfare. He sums up a basic Soka Gakkai principle: I QUOTE: Only when its people are actively engaged in spiritual and intellectual struggle can the economic power of a country be utilized to the broad advantage of humankind.” End QUOTE
Today, as an artiste, I ask myself. In this process of creating humanistic values for international peace, global welfare and people’s empowerment, what is the role of the artiste? Does the artiste have a role at all? Any function at all?

Ask anyone, anywhere, to explain just why a doctor, an engineer, a scientist, an architect, an industrialist, a psychiatrist, a teacher -- is vital for the smooth functioning of a society. Or to tell you -- just why a plumber, an electrician, farmer, mason, weaver, potter, fisherman, metalsmith, is indispensable to civilization. Everyone will have an answer. But ask people, “How does an artiste contribute to the sustenance of society?” I doubt if you will get a convincing response.

So I ask myself, I had a role in society as a journalist, which I was for 25 years. But what is my role as an artiste? Am I an empty rattle? Timepass for idlers? Am I a provider of some temporary amusement? Do I fulfil any task in society? Civilisation? World? Do I have any duty, any responsibility towards others?

Then I recall that in the ancient world, poets had a defined role. They were not entertainers though they could mesmerize hearts and minds. The Greeks saw Homer and Sophocles as vates, prophets. Valmiki and Vyasa are revered as seer and sage. Closer to our times, Mirabai and Tulsidas were viewed as saints. Their work showcased the eternal values of humankind. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were believed to be essential for building robust, resilient, sustainable civil society, and a spiritually-oriented community. Which is the goal of this symposium! These master works of literature provided light (buddham), explained dhammam (right living) and provided the sangam of wise thoughts.

It is often said that art has transformative powers, art transmits values, art generates ideals…  A recent experience made me understand just how art creates this insight.

For thousands of years the lotus image has been represented in Asian art to imply the otherworldly, the ethereal, the celestial. Its beauty and fragrance do not intoxicate, but instil contemplation, meditation.

It was in the Sanchi monument that I saw this familiar flower with completely new eyes. It was a quiet day at the stupa. Very few visitors. I almost had the entire space to myself. Looking at the intricate carvings detailing the crucial incidents in the life of the Buddha, I realized that one important person from his life was missing. Where was Siddhartha’s wife? Yashodhara? Why was she absent?

As I stood by the western entrance pillar wondering, my eyes idly followed the sun’s rays hitting the lower half of the pillar. It spotlit a carved lotus, its stem caught in the jaws of an underwater monster, but twisting itself up through the pool, gasping for breath in the open air, longing for the sun’s life-giving touch.

Then I understood that rooted in earth, rising through water, breathing in the air and blooming in the sun, the lotus partakes of the four elements, only to transcend them, to go beyond, into the realm of light, joy and freedom. The mantra gate, gate paragate, parasangate bodhi swaha… Gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond, what an awakening! acquired a new and practical meaning.

In an obscure segment of a stone pillar, the artiste had embedded an entire life journey, its troubles and traumas, setbacks and suffering, but also the invincible spirit of survival through unceasing, upwardly mobile, effort. The sculptor had made a great value eternally visible.

As I looked at the lotus carved by an unknown artiste of long ago, I thought of Yashodhara.  One fine morning she awoke and found her husband gone, leaving her and their child behind. No reasons, explanations, no promise to return.

Through the long years Yashodhara must have struggled through darkness and despair. Experienced human feelings: anger, jealousy, frustration, fear, misery, doubt and loneliness. But finally when her husband, now a world teacher, returns to Kapilavastu, she has no reproaches. Inspired by the Buddha’s sacrifice, enlightenment and compassion, she too renounces the material world, follows buddham, dhammam, and sangham. She chooses to serve humanity. In so doing -- she finds herself, her mission, her liberation.

It was a wonderful experience for me to trace Yashodhara’s journey in my dance theatre work. And wherever we performed it, in Indian cities or cities of north America, the reaction was the same. People did not talk about how well we performed. They talked about the values the work evoked. They were moved by Yashodhara’s human struggle because they saw it as their own. They rejoiced in her final resolution, because they saw their ideal in it, a movement-of-the-spirit towards ultimate wisdom.

President Ikeda asks, I QUOTE: For what purpose should one cultivate wisdom? The answer must be, for the peace and happiness of humanity.”  End QUOTE

To be an artiste is to accept responsibility and duty towards society, to offer solace for pain, to promote positive energies, invoke joy, and hold up the highest ideals for the terrestrial life and the spiritual life. To do this an artiste must choose -- not the tricks of cleverness, but the path of wisdom.

We know that such wisdom is not some static or passive state of mind. It is an active intellectual and emotive engagement with the positive, the dynamic.

We start with awareness, not only of the good, but also of the evil that we must combat. This is what contemporary poet Arun Kolatkar does, when he retells a story from the Mahabharata in his long poem Sarpa Satra or Snake Sacrifice.  As I turned this revenge cycle of an old myth, spanning several generations, into a play, I realized how it mirrors the horrors of the contemporary world – with its savagery, genocides, ethnic cleansing and terrorism. The description of the burning down of a primeval forest becomes a modern photograph of carnage.

Nothing was left, no trace of the great sanctuary…
Not just the trees, birds, insects, animals
Herds upon herds of elephants, gazelles, antelopes
But people, people as well.
Simple folk, children of the forest who had lived there for generations
Since time began.
They’ve  gone, gone without a trace.
With their language that sounded like the burbling of brooks
Their songs that sounded like the twitterings of birds
And the secret of their shamans who could cure any sickness
By casting spells with their special flute
Made from the hollow wingbones of red crested cranes

Why did they do it? Just for kicks maybe
Maybe just the fact they had all these fantastic weapons went to their heads
And they just couldn’t wait to test their awesome powers
Maybe they just wanted a clear title to the land
Unchallenged by so much as a tiger moth.

The most ironic shaft in the poem is that this genocide is performed by persons hailed as heroes, and gods, and role models. Don’t we know this disturbing delusion persists even today?
Finally the killings end. Much is saved, but what is lost is lost forever. People return to so- called “normalcy”,  go about their daily business. But the poet warns us that evil is merely suppressed, it is not extinguished for all times.  “Do not be deceived” he says.

The fire rages, they say,
in the great forest beyond the Himalayas,
where the great sages tried to dispose of it.
And there, to this day,
They say,
it continues to consume,
rakshasas, rocks, and trees.

The eternal challenge for humankind is : how to prevent that smouldering fire from once again turning into a conflagration? In every age the artiste faces this challenge, along with thinkers and mahatmas.

Mr Ikeda declares: I QUOTE: “The surest way to peace is by fostering people of character, self-motivated, empowered individuals who will confront forces that lead nations to war.” End Quote.

And just what is this peace? Not the absence of war, but a rich state of existence where everyone respects and embraces others. When diversity is not rejected, but respected and rejoiced over. Love and wisdom prevail over intolerance and greed.

I end with the final song in our Yashodhara theatre production, where the princess sees the Buddha as the personification of light and wisdom, a beneficent power which heals her wounds, quells restless fears, fills her with love and peace.

Drishti idhar jo tumne pheree                Huee shaant jignaasa meri
Bhay sanshay ki miti andheree             Is aabhaa ke aan! – Padhaaro, bhav bhav ke bhagwan
Mein thee sandhyaa kaa path here     Aa pahunche tum sahaj savere
Dayaa kapaat khule yeh mere              Doon ab kyaa navdaan (2)– bhav bhav ke bhagwan

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