No such thing as ordinary

flower offeringsI THOUGHT I KNEW about offerings. As a Buddhist, I routinely offer flowers and incense, candles and katas. But then I came to Bali, and for the past month, my partner and I have been staying just outside of Bentuyung, a small village surrounded by rice fields. We quickly discovered that for the Balinese, offerings are not just a little something extra that you do on the side, before you do meditation practice. Here, offerings are the primary practice.

In their simplest form, offerings of fresh flower blossoms are placed on statues, but even more common are the beautiful little trays made of dried reeds that the women make in great profusion every day and fill with flowers, leaves, sweets, and incense, all artfully arranged. Each morning, they are ceremoniously presented at the many altars in the family temples, and left on sidewalks and in doorways. Sometimes they get kicked or run over with a motor bike, and the streets are often littered with their remnants, which I have come to see as artifacts left from the intensive practice of reciprocity and gratitude, reminiscent of little sand mandalas.

One morning on a trip into nearby Ubud, I noticed special offerings hanging from the handlebars of all the motor scooters and strung to the grills of the cars. They were handwoven from natural materials, each a little work of art. When I saw my friend Wayan, the painter, standing next to his scooter near the door to his family compound, I asked him what it was all about.

“Today we thank the metal god,” he said, “for giving us metal and everything we can make from it.”

“What’s the name of the metal god?” my partner, Hunter, asked him. balinese daily offerings

Wayan looked confused, as though the question were beside the point, and nodded at his motor scooter. “This,” he said. “And this, and this.” He gestured towards a car and then toward the elaborate hinge on the door of the family compound.

Hunter persisted. “Does the god have a name?”

“Yes,” Wayan sighed, ” but I don’t know what it is.” He called out to his uncle, who said the name in Balinese. Wayan repeated it just as his uncle had said it. The name was long with a complex pronunciation and I didn’t catch it.

“It’s just this,” he said, putting his palm on the metal handlebars of the scooter for emphasis. “That’s all.”

Later that night, Hunter and I were driving home on our scooter. As the narrow road approached the village temple, we came to a roadblock. Two Balinese men wearing traditional sarongs and head wraps signaled us to stop. Just ahead, the villagers spilled from the temple onto the road. There was a large ceremony in progress.

“For the metal god?” Hunter asked one of the men.

He nodded. “We should be finished in 30 minutes.”

Hunter turned off the scooter and we watched in the dim light as a procession of women dressed in lace and sarongs walked gracefully up the temple steps, each  balancing a basket of offerings on her head. I looked around. All of the motorbikes were decorated with little pieces of art woven from dried reeds. Only ours was naked, and I felt a sudden pang. Had I ever taken the time to appreciate metal? It had never occurred to me.

Just the day before, a satellite dish had been installed at our little open-air house in the rice fields. They had to use a telescopic pole to lift it high above the palm trees in order to get a signal, and still, it had taken them four days of adjusting to finally get it to work. As they persisted, extending the pole ever higher, I had felt ambivalent and a little embarrassed at the lengths we were going to in order to get internet this far from town. In fact, I had felt some resentment toward the structure and toward machines in general. I looked at the row of scooters again, and felt sudden gratitude toward ours.electronic dreamcatcher
 . . .
 The next morning, I stood on the road and looked up at the satellite dish. A rather elegant construction, really. It looked like an electronic dreamcatcher. I thought of all the work and thought and human ingenuity that went into creating such a thing. And then I thought of Wayan, and the metal god.

We humans have made powerful things from metal: knives and keys, towers and transmitters, pipelines and airplanes, bombs and medical equipment. In that sense, metal is indeed a god. From the foot of the pole, the satellite loomed far above, and I felt the power of it to transmit and receive–for good and for ill. All over the world such poles keep going up, and in Western culture, it doesn’t occur to us to honor that power. But when we make and use things of metal, we are indeed invoking an awesome power, and we need reminders to use it with care and mindfulness.

I clipped a fresh leaf from the banana tree, then quartered the orange my friend Nila had given me and arranged it on the leaf. I added a few raisins and a yellow trumpet blossom from the vine next to the house. This little offering I placed at the base of the satellite pole, all the while wishing I knew how to fold the leaf into a tray, as the Balinese do.

With my eyes lifted toward the satellite dish, I said a spontaneous prayer: ” Thank you, metal, for offering yourself as the medium through which those in distant places can communicate with one another.  I promise to do my best to use this satellite for good, in order to benefit beings and to repay the efforts of all those who contributed to getting it here. May I and all beings use metal only to benefit others and to bring us all to enlightenment.”

metal god
It’s been a few weeks since I learned to honor the metal god. It seems my offering was accepted: All of the orange pieces have been eaten, and the leaf is slowly dissolving in the rain, like a prayer flag.

Somehow, my impromptu ritual has stuck with me. I find that the intention I set that day often comes to mind spontaneously when I sit down to work at my computer. Sometimes I suddenly stop and ask myself,  “Right now, am I using the satellite to benefit beings?” And not just the satellite: How about the spoon in my tea, the key for the front door, the nails that hold up the house?

To fully live a spiritual life, it is essential that we let go of the idea that there is anything in the world that is “ordinary.” Eating is a good example—something we do every day. Yet if we think of eating as ordinary, we can’t possibly be paying attention. A seed bursts and makes a tree, which makes a blossom, which makes an orange. We peel it open and put it in our mouth, chew, and now it is transformed into nourishment to feed the universe of cells that make up our body. Where did the seed go? The sprout? The tree? The orange blossom? In the orange, we can find the whole universe.

The Balinese have something to teach us about how to cultivate our ability to see the earth and it’s products as they truly are—wondrous and holy. Right here in our everyday world, we can find the doorway to enlightenment. It opens with the gratitude and mindfulness that arise when we recognize the powerful magic in those things we used to think of as merely ordinary.

5 comments to No such thing as ordinary

  • I never thought of metal this way either. But how lovely! My laptop suddenly looks different to me. As does my car.

  • Jane Brunette

    The comments are working again. Sorry to those who tried to leave comments and couldn’t. Thanks to all those who wrote me e-mails instead. I so appreciate your support.

  • Becky

    Janeji,

    This is beautifully written and makes a powerful point. Such a different perspective for the west. It reminds me of the word “reverence.” A friend of mine, who is a hunter, stays on his quota of one deer a season with great vigilance. If he finds that dear on his first trip, he refuses to hunt the remainder of the season. When he does manage to strike the deer, he hovers over its body, reciting a prayer of thanks. He then sips a bit of the blood in reverence for what the deer provides for he and his family.

    When I heard about his practice, I began to view hunting with a whole new light. Keep shining your light, my dear, especially on those hard to reach places.

    My love to you and Hunter,
    Becky

  • Judy

    For some reason, though the sentiment of the poem is darker, I kept thinking of W.S. Merwin’s amazing and confounding poem, Thank You, after reading this. Finally found the link and wanted to share it with you, though I have a feeling you already know of it.

    http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/spiritual-uprising/1983

  • This poem is amazing! In some ways, the sentiment is not at all darker. It really captures what we’re up against, and the power we have to see through the grief ignorance and fear (our own and others) and all it’s dark manifestations — right through to life itself. We humans–our hearts are so, so resilient. And now here I am saying thank you, Judy, for sharing this. I’ll be reading it again and again.