Saturday, March 27, 2010

Week 16: Unusual Seasons

Pictured here is Shaman Sonnleitner at Kanniyakumari (the most southern tip of India) in January. After fully three months abroad, this Blazer fan extraordinaire has now returned to Portland in time for both March Madness and the Playoffs. Though his Mom and I miss his presence here, we are glad to have has his company so long in India. Now he can enter a new chapter of his life while also contributing to the sports mania that this time of year is known for.

This has been an unusual season in so many ways beyond basketball. Shaman, his Mom, and I have had no winter! We have certainly learned to sweat well and to survive nights without electricity to feed a fan. Hey Shaman! Remember that backup battery system we paid for? Last night it lasted the advertised three hours and then expired! Lightning continued to brighten the skies all night and the rain has been coming in a steady stream. Oh goody, he might agree: more humidity! No doubt the temporary cooling effect will be paid for dearly when the sun soon arises to its normal 90 by 10am and more in the afternoon... As I write now at 6am, the roosters are greeting the day in spite of the first rain in two months -- and it is very peaceful. Later it will be like a very wet sauna!

So what is new?

Kris and I are beginning to plan ahead for the arrival of our daughter Mira (age 19) and her friend Naomi (21) a month from now. In the meantime, April looks to be full of possibilities ranging from my accepting speaking engagements in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu to traveling to Pakistan where Fulbright would like me to contribute to a Conference there celebrating their 60th anniversary in the country. The big problem with the Pakistan option is that they would not allow Kris to accompany me due to the security (or lack of security?) situation there. Bombings in and near Islamabad definately does complicate travel -- and I wonder how well my proposed lecture will be received: ``Nonviolent Responses to Terrorism``. It would be fun to find out!

This past week a three day National Seminar on ``Gandhi and Religious Pluralism`` was held at nearby Mahatma Gandhi University. Just two days before it was to begin, I was in a meeting helping to finalize the program! Those of you who know me might imagine the exasperation felt by one as obsessively organized and as compulsively perfectionist as I am. Surprise: a little detachment can go a long way to reducing stress! Yes, I put in about 5 hours producing a paper which (as it turned out) I had only 10 minutes to present – but such matters I am now becoming more accustomed to. Mellow Me? No, not quite… But I think I grimace, roll my eyes, and sigh a little less now than before. As it all worked out, while most of the presentations were as boring as I had expected – some good new relationships were begun and it was a pleasure to see some of the folks I have shared with during the previous four months elsewhere in Kerala and beyond. Relationships. Is that not really where much of the hope for a future can be found?

The sun is now brightening the eastern sky over my right shoulder. It is a hazy red sunrise, made a bhit surreal by all of the moisture still in the air. The rain has just subsided and sounds of prayer are filling the air. Nearby catholic nuns arise early and provide a spiritual greeting to the day. Birds are adding to the music as they fly among the cocoanut, banana, papaya, and jack trees that are currently bearing fruit. There is much to be grateful for here – as anywhere we may be. As I now complete this blog entry before the battery on this laptop dies, I hope that each of you may take time in your day to count your blessings. Though electricity and cool temperatures may not be among our joys here, there is so much to appreciate. Creation is not only what we see when eyes are open, but what we can give birth to with our positive attitudes. Gandhi was right: problems can be opportunities and our opportunities as best when they are embraced.

Yes it has been an unusual winter season for my son Shaman, an unusual season for basketball, and an unusual season full of learning opportunities that are only beginning to be appreciated. It has been a pensive week and a beautiful morning. I am thankful for having been able to share some of it with you.

Peace be with you all as we approach the easter season of renewal – as renewal is crucial regardless of what religious (or even non-religious) tradition there may be. Yes. Peace be with you Shaman. Peace to us all.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Week 15: Reflections on Religion

This photograph was taken at Kurisumala Ashram near Vagamon in the Western Ghat highlands about 30 miles east of Pala where we live. Michael is tired from all of our recent traveling (see last week`s report), so this is me, Kristine, providing some reflections this week.

Although I returned to Pala from six days at Kurisumala over two weeks ago, there was little time to write about the experience, since the next week we went to Udaipur and Ahmadabad for conferences (Fulbright and Global Warming). The retreat was wonderful, but before talking about that, some history about the Syrian Catholic Church might be helpful.

As mentioned before, the Catholics in Pala often refer to themselves as St. Thomas Christians, that is, their religious conversion can be traced back to St. Thomas the Apostle. Indeed, many of their church structures can be dated to before the year 1000 AD, and before Vatican II, the language used in their liturgies was Syrian (close to Aramaic, the language of Jesus). When the Jesuits and other orders came in the 15th and 16th centuries, they were surprised to find many people in South India already practicing the faith. However, since the ritual was different, those of the Roman rite tried to impose both the centralized church structure (the St. Thomas churches are decentralized but connected to each other) and the rubrics of the Roman rite upon the Syrians. One particularly contentious issue was that of married clergy, which eventually Rome was successful in banning. (The clergy in India are totally celibate today). Besides celibacy, Rome restricted the Syrians from evangelizing, especially in certain areas. While these restrictions were somewhat mitigated by Vatican II declarations there is still contention about this issue. (On a personal note, I have been attending the Syrian rite in Pala. Daily mass is well attended and almost everyone receives communion. On Sundays, there is standing room only. In our travels, I have attended Roman rite churches, and the contrast is striking. On Sundays, the church is only half full and few receive Eucharist. In India, the Syrians appear the more compatible with the culture.)

Liturgically, there are some interesting variations. First of all, there are two altars separated by a veil which opens after introductory prayers are said, before the Liturgy of the Word. The scriptures reside on the altar of sacrifice (which reminds me of pre-Vatican II)-up against the foremost wall, in the sanctuary or what the Syrians refer to as the holy of holies. When the gospel is proclaimed, the priest brings the scripture (accompanied by two altar boys with lighted candles) to the exterior altar. The liturgy of the Eucharist is celebrated on the altar of sacrifice with the priest facing away from the congregation during that time. While communion is sometimes distributed western style, with long lines going up to the priest, often the priest (accompanied by an altar boy with lit candle) weaves up and down the aisles of the church, distributing to the men first and then the women. On Sundays, there is typically elaborate use of incense. Their altar boys (usually four, grade-school age) could teach us about incense. The censure is usually glowing, if not on fire, and the youngsters swing it with athletic vigor. During daily and Sunday mass, the congregation usually responds with an oriental sounding (minor key) chant. On Sundays, however, the responses usually are accompanied by electronics -- Syrian Catholic karaoke (the synthesizer usually sounds like a harmonium). During communion, a hymn may be sung by a soloist or the entire congregation.

At Kurisumala, there were more variations in liturgical rubrics. While basically Syrian, most of the masses are celebrated facing the congregation, with the celebrants and the congregation (stools for those who wish) sitting cross legged on the floor. Along with the bread (one whole wheat round for the whole assembly)and the wine, flowers are offered. At one point about a dozen flowers are individually prayed over and offered up with the Eucharistic gifts. Incense is a daily affair, not only at mass, but also at the liturgy of the hours. (3:30am, no coffee or food, monks in saffron robes chanting in Malayalam, a cloud of incense, and butterflies winging around the chapel -- either I had gone to heaven or was in one of those David Carradine movies!) The monks typically chant the prayers which are often accompanied by harmonium (no karaoke!)

As you know, this trip to India has been a challenge for me-the heat, the humidity the mosquito bites, the problems with washing. Kurisumala was thankfully, a lot cooler but quite austere- hard bed, stools (no chairs with backs), early rising and rice and vegetable curry for most meals (at breakfast they actually had the best whole wheat bread-a rarity in India). No towels, sheets, soap or toilet paper were provided (although I brought my own- have learned to come prepared for all circumstances here).

However, what most impressed me about Kurisumala was what it stated in their brochure -- no fees are charged but donations will be accepted. They added that the daily cost of hosting a guest was Rs 50 -- about a dollar. This was so unlike what happens so often in retreat centers in the US. Three hundred dollars for a 3 day retreat.. (They often do say that stipends/scholarships are available, but you wonder: Is $300. the real cost of the retreat? If yes, would it not be better to lower the budget (simpler food, accommodations, etc...) so more folks would find it more affordable? Or is the price so high intentionally to attract a certain income group? Or is the market place determining the value? The Brothers were welcoming but not overly solicitous. I was happy to have a private retreat and they were content to let me be.

Two books that were helpful during the retreat was Prayer with the Harp of the Spirit (essentially, the Syrian version of Prayer of Christians) and Revelations of Love by Julian of Norwich. The good thing about the Harp was that the monks prayed this each day and not just with their mouths. Like Prayer of Christians, there are psalms and scripture readings, but also there are poetic prayers, many from St Ephrem to whom the Syrians attribute their theology. Often these prayers refer to events in salvation history, the cycles in nature, and religious philosophy. They inspire deeper reflection. There is a lot of physical activity and gesture in Syrian liturgy. For instance, at the beginning of most prayer times, while singing ``Holy are You O God, Holy are you the Strong, Holy are you the Deathless who was crucified for us, have mercy on us!`` the monks go from standing position to full prostration-three times. Except during Fridays in Lent, when they do it 30 times. Most of these monks are 40-60 yrs old. I have to admit, as a Westerner, the religious practice in India, whatever the faith, puts us to shame.

Julian of Norwich gave me a new perspective on suffering, as she contends that Jesus gives us suffering to one us with Himself. Since Jesus` greatest act of love was His passion and death on the cross, when we participate in that agapic mystery, we become one with Him. (Not the popular idea, that God wants us to be self-fulfilled; suffering is only the result of our bad karma, Jesus came to bring healing if we believe, etc…). Another revelation that Jesus gave Julian is that all manner of thing will be well. Julian is confused about this revelation. She asks Jesus: What about the teaching of the Church about hell and purgatory? What about the obvious results of sin and selfish free-will choices that are made? Jesus only responds that what may be impossible for her to conceive, is possible for Him and assures her that He will perform the great act so that all maybe well. While some might consider the radical implications of this revelation as heretical, to me it was a comfort. (I have often wondered how the God that preached forgiveness seventy times seven, could also maintain eternal punishment.)

During my stay at Kurisumala, there were two personal messages of grace. The first was regarding the bathroom. Upon arrival I noticed there were two bathrooms next to my room, both with Indian style toilets ( essentially, a hole in the ground with two places for your feet in front). As I sat in my room wondering how I would manage this, I saw that there was a door in the back of my cell-a closet maybe, where clothing might be hung. I opened the door and about three steps down was a bath room with a Western style toilet! Halleluia! Thank you, Jesus. The second occurred one morning when the chapel was filled to capacity. As I grabbed a stool to sit in the vestibule, I looked up and saw a cross above the entrance to the church. Not just any cross, but the cross (smaller version) that I took with me to Pala, the same one that was left in my prayer corner in Portland, the very same that graces Ascension, my parish church: The cross of San Damiano! (We have visited many churches and shrines and I have never seen the San Damiano anywhere except Kurisumala.) How well Jesus blesses us and makes us feel welcomed and at home!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Week 14: Two Conferences

Pictured here is the Rockwood Palace Resort and Spa, where one of two Conferences we attended last week was held. Located in the city of Udaipur, in the state of Rajasthan (3 hours on the air from where we live in Kerala), the Rockwood really was like a Palace. Spacious rooms, huge swimming pool, fancy meals with unending desserts, and even unlimited alcohol (on some days) were part of the package that Fulbright Scholars from all over India were treated to for three days and four nights. Your tax money at work?

While a few others shared my discomfort regarding such fancy accomodations, most enjoyed the ``good life`` to the max -- thinking little about what ``good`` should mean. As U.S. citizens, are we entitled to a life of luxury in a world where over 1/3 of humanity lives on less than $2/day (and half of those subsist on slow starvation diets)? If not entitled, should we enjoy such a life when it is given to us for even a few days? I confess to having enjoyed it some... So is there then hypocracy in the gap between my basic values and my actions? YES. Admitting this, my perfectionist personality leaves me with a bittersweet taste.....

One afternoon I escaped from the over-stimulation of continuous 1-15 minute presentations from intellectually brilliant people and met Malik, an auto-rickshaw driver. Malik is Muslim, with a family of four to feed and provide for on a net income of about $5/day. Well off by Indian standards, he has learned passable English over the years by providing transportation to tourists. Udaipur is a city full of historic Rajput palaces, lakes, museums, and amazing artwork. He seemed more than a little surprised when I asked him to take me anywhere he might like, really anywhere. So it was that I enjoyed two hours talking with him while he introduced me to his Mosque and several (including Hindu) friends. At one such stop, an employee of one of his friends had a major seizure in which he lost consciousness and bit his tongue with the blood staining his shirt. I felt very good about my role in the medical emergency and worked with others to help the person successfully through the crisis of this day. Even so, returning to the Rockweeod Palace to the Fulbright Conference, I knew that this man`s seizures would likely continue untreated by any doctor, as the modest cost of medications would almost certainly be beyond his income to purchase....

On March 11th morning we departed by automobile from Udaipur to Ahmadabad (in the state of Gujarat). Our driver was Mr. Singh, a Hindu with two pierced ears (like me) indicating his kshatriya (warrior) family heritage. Our 5 hour trip cost 5,750 rupees (about $120) -- which was cheap, considering we had five passengers in the car (including two students living in Ahmadabad who joined Kris, Shaman, and I free of charge). Train tickets for the five of us would have cost more! Still, getting to know Mr. Singh (plus a little math) informed me that he would earn only 200 rupees for his full day of driving (5 hours with us, then 5 hours to return to his family in Udaipur). He was very happy that my tip (not customary) doubled his income for the day from less than $5 to about $9. Was that generous? Even considering the fact that $1 here really carries a purchasing power of $4, could we in the U.S. cover our family expenses for $36/day? How about less than $4? (as over 100 million people in India have
inclomes of under $1/day)???

In Ahmadabad I was one of six (supposedly) expert speakers at an International Conference on Global Warming. Invited primarily due to the status given to Fulbrighters (and maybe a little related to my expertise regarding Gandhi and my serving on the national committee of the U.S. Green Party), I shared the limelight with people like the Governor of Gujarat and a retired India Supreme Court Justice. Crazy, huh? They may have thought so -- as I was the only major speaker at the Conference who was very critical of Globalization (Free Trade) and its supporters (Prime Minister Monmohan Singh and President Obama). This surprised many in the audience of 350, though quite a few expressed gratitude for my comments in private. Most middle-class Indians are quite supportive of free trade policies, though they are aware of the increasing economic disparity it has so far produced. Many believe that the benefits will eventually trickle down -- while others (including Gandhi) do not share this faith.

The real highlights of our three days in Ahmadabad included a 6-hour visit with my Indian sister Dina Patel, residing at the Gandhi Ashram Guest House (where I previously resided for a week in 1972!), and being able to join in a 2-mile walk commemorating the 80th anniversary of the Salt March which began from Gandhi Asram on March 12, 1930. Over 1,000 people participated in the walk this year, with me being (as far as I could see) the only caucasian face. It was a spiritual experience for me, reinforcing my evolving view that inter-related crises in ecology, economic globalization, and militarism require a global independence movement today. Starting with baby steps myself, I intend to be more of a nonviolent soldier in my lifestyle as well as in my public life.

From the Rockwood Palace and a medical emergency, to a Global Warming Conference and commemorating the largest civil disobedience campiagn in the history of the world -- it has been a week full of too many experiences to easy digest. Hopefully this next week will allow time for reflection. Those who may have read this entry are most welcome to share their thoughts with me. How shall we live with ourselves? with others? -- and with more humor than I have shared here!!!! In next weeks` entry I will seek to discuss more of the funny side to some of our life experiences.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Week 13: Looking Forward

The flowers on the tree pictured here are my favorites seen so far during these travels. Hanging down, as if from heaven, they present a splendor to the eye!!! They are here posted as a small gift in celebration of the remarriage of my step mother, Ellen to her new beau Al. It is now early morning on March 7th in India – close to the 2pm time on March 6th in Seattle when the wedding is scheduled at the Space Needle! It sure was nice to talk with you over the phone yesterday and hear that most members of both families expect to be attending (except me). Hopefully we Sonnleitners can meet Al and become acquainted shortly after our return to the U.S. in August. For now, know that I hope the two of you have many wonderful years together. Peace be with you both.

Much of this last week has also been prelude to the future for us. Kris has spent time reflecting upon how the 6-day retreat at the Kurisulmala Ashram the week before may positively impact her spirituality. Time has been devoted to preparing for a very busy time this coming week when Kris, Shaman and I travel north to Rajasthan to attend a Fulbright Conference, and then to Gujarat where I am a featured speaker at an International Conference on Global Warming. Plans have also been finalized for Shaman to depart back to the U.S. the following week, on March 17th. Long distance communications with our daughters Sonrisa and Mira in Portland have also turned our minds to how their lives may continue to unfold in positive ways.

Of course, the mundane is always present. Water must be boiled twice daily (8 liters) for our drinking use. Kinks must be worked out in an electricity back-up battery system to provide us with up to 500 watts to power a few fans. Sheets and clothing wet with sweat must be washed, as temperatures increase to around 100 degrees (with over 75% humidity) in the daytime, declining to only 80 at night. While a neighbor loaned us his extra TV so we could watch the Winter Olympic, the snow skiing seemed surreal in a context where we cannot even tolerate a cover sheet while sleeping at night. It also is clear that ice cream has a short life in a small refrigerator which turns off with each daily power outage! Still, life goes on, and at least our misery has company – since even folks native to Kerala express some discomfort with how climate change is impacting them too….

This week my classes at St. Thomas enjoyed a good rhythm, interrupted only by one day of cancellation (due to yet another bus strike). Kristine enjoyed a day of shopping and sharing with her friend Shanty, who helped her purchase three beautiful sets of Indian clothing (two custom-made) at crazy low prices. Kris and I spent much of yesterday in the good company of Shanty`s husband Stany, as he transported us first to visit to Kottayam to work on visa issues and then to an Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center where he volunteers to teach courses. Another upside of this week was the showing of several film segments of A FORCE MORE POWERFUL to a very receptive student audience at St. Thomas College, with full approval of the administration. The day after that heartening event, one of my classrooms was invaded by a crowd led by a student artist who presented me with a gift portraying a very good likeness of me (sunburned) with Gandhi smiling behind my right shoulder.

So it is that each day here has its challenges and positive adventures. Who knows where another 3-inch (thankfully non-poisonous) spider will show up? Two days ago Kris pointed out to me one on the wall less than a foot from my right shoulder as I was using this laptop! What a horrible thought – I do hope that spider had nothing of the spirit of Gandhi! We did not practice nonviolence in that situation….

Rather than ramble on longer (with humor that may not be appreciated), let me add some more thoughts regarding Gandhi. What now follows is written version of a ten minute presentation set to be shared on March 10 at the Fulbright Conference. If you share my interest in Gandhi (or in education issues more generally), know that your comments would be most welcome. It is entitled:


Teaching Gandhi is both like teaching any other course in India and a good deal more complicated than that. It is similar because teaching anything really well needs to go beyond mere information to stimulating knowledge and nurturing wisdom. It is more complicated as Gandhi is looked upon as an historic person far more than as someone whose views have relevance for today. In short, he is generally studied and revered rather than listened to as an inspiration for action that may address current issues.

With regards to courses on Gandhi, most teachers and students focus upon learning (mostly memorizing) information about the historical person and events and persons associated with his ideas and actions. This information may be effectively communicated through lecture notes and (possibly, with greater depth via use of a biography and scholarly writings). Knowledge (in the sense of real understanding) is rarely encouraged because understanding requires a level of mental interaction in the learning process beyond the memorizing of information.

The stimulating of knowledge involves critical thinking and analysis which requires what may be revered to be questioned, ideas to be tested, and personal evaluations of current relevance to be made. From my observations the process of stimulating such knowledge seems largely absent from most teaching relating to Gandhi -- as well as to other subjects even at the PG level in the Indian State of Kerala. This is only partly explained by the teaching to the test phenomenon. It is also deeply rooted in a culture of hierarchy in which reverence is accorded to Mother, Father,Teacher, and God (in that order) and questioning of authority is systematically discouraged. Knowledge is seen, in this context, as something to be conveyed rather than stimulated -- and the goal is to ``mold`` students more than to empower them.

Where stimulating knowledge by more active than passive learning strategies occasionally does occur, there is a general resistance to nurturing wisdom. Wisdom may well mean different things to different people, but it is commonly understood to involve the application of knowledge to experience. Without experience, one cannot
be wise. Ivory towers where learning information is remarkable and critical thinking skills are well developed, still usually do not venture much into the real world beyond the walls of academia (whether they be more covered in ivy or topped off with broken glass). Activities in the U.S. that seek to transcend these walls, including the use of internships (as in cooperative education), service learning, and other experiencial opportunities are usually not utilized in the U.S. and seem even more rare in India. Often not nurtured in academia, wisdom is something you may seek on your own.

Gandhi, himself, did not believe in Ivory Towers. His ideas regarding Nai Talim (New Education) insist upon learning and questioning, while doing. He would insist upon the learning of information in a context where established truths are constantly questioned (and knowledge improved), even as what we intellectually know is tested in the light of experience (an evolving wisdom in which service to society is expected and walls that separate us are to be transcended). Too often, however, many who even describe themselves as Gandhian remain mentally walled in by historical practices like the wearing of khadi and the using of outdated technology. Reverence for Gandhi, ironically, can itself become a wall to our understanding his deeper wisdom: that we,each of us, must hold firm to the truth as we see it in our own time!

In this context, teaching Gandhi needs to include 1) understanding information about him as he lived within his historical context, 2) stimulating knowledge (including critical analyses) of his teachings as they may (or may not) be relevant to realities to be addressed in our current time, and 3) nurturing such wisdom as may result from taking our knowledge into the world and experiencing the praxis of it. Teaching Gandhi need not involve the molding of little Gandhians. Gandhi did not want others to follow him without question. He wanted people to seek progressively new truths (sat), by means that minimize harm (ahimsa), with a willingness to voluntarily sacrifice our own comforts and even lives in the process (tapas). His life gives us a role model not a road map.

If we carefully study Gandhi, the danger is that we may be inspired to action regarding current issues in education and beyond. To memorize information with respect to Gandhi threats no status quo. To stimulate knowledge that leads to greater academic freedom and an improved body of knowledge runs the risk of our critical thinking being criticized by others who may feel threatened by it. To nurture a wisdom borne of experience and encourage concrete action to both serve others in this world and to confront oppressive structures of authority -- well, that gets really complicated!

Are professors called to do more than profess -- and actually engage in action that may affect our own lifestyles and put us in conflict with established norms and policies? Should students be empowered to do the same? These are among the most basic of questions that are raised by teaching Gandhi on a deeper level in India, or elsewhere! Academic institutions in India seem generally unready to encourage the teaching Gandhi anywhere close to this level at this time. Doing so would be to invite basic change; to go beyond reverence to action; to potentially serve as agents of revolution that could bring down the walls which both divide humanity today and threaten life on this planet.

To teach Gandhi, I believe, should risk our being impacted by his words and his life example. That is to:

Live as if you were to die tomorrow.
Learn as if you were to live forever. -- Gandhi