0309 – Auroville, a place that belongs to humanity as a whole

A few weeks back my friend introduced me to a tiny town on the East coast of India called Auroville. Literally the “City of Dawn,” it is an experimental township founded upon The Mother‘s Dream:

“There should be somewhere upon earth a place no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, obeying one single authority, that of the Supreme Truth; a place of peace, concord, harmony, where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his sufferings and miseries, to surmount his weakness and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the care for progress would get precedence over the satisfaction of desire and passion, the seeking for material pleasure and enjoyment.”

That sounds like my kind of town, doesn’t it? Well, it also has the reputation of being a hippy town…

Well, that sounds like my kind of town, doesn’t it?!!!! Haha.

So off I went to the city of Auroville. I even decided to make this a solo trip, because my agenda is probably not going to make my friends happy.

The first stop is typically the Visitors Center, where I spent almost three hours just walking around and watching documentaries about sustainability, Auroville’s purpose of realizing human unity, and the culture there.

The Mother and Sri Aurobindo, the two figures behind the creation and faith of Auroville

The funny thing about Auroville is that even though it’s all about unity and openness, it’s not a tourist-friendly town. Apart from the visitors center, there is a very small chance of exploring the community. It is as if the visitors center is built to distract tourists from the real Auroville. Kind of a strange concept, but I think there’s some truth to that. Even the locals aren’t all that willing to talk to tourists. I could understand why, as they probably get the same questions over and over again.

So I ended up walking around and exploring the city mostly through my own eyes and through books and audios. One of the highlights is the Matrimandir, Sanskrit for The Mother’s Temple, a place where one comes to seek a higher state of consciousness.

From the outside, it looks like a magnificent golden sphere, which honestly leaves a lot to be desired since it seems like it’s hiding something really important inside. Fortunately, tourists are allowed to go in on the next day after signing up the day before. So that’s what I did. Too bad photography wasn’t allowed inside, because it was mesmerizing. I’m going to embed pictures from online here instead:

The inner chamber, which contains the largest optically perfect glass globe in the world. The design of the globe receiving the ray of sunlight is a design given by The Mother, who envisions it as a symbol of mankind’s future realization of a higher consciousness.
The glass globe here receives sunlight that has already passed through the globe in the inner chamber.

We were given 15 minutes to meditate in the inner chamber. Just to be there felt like an honor.

But there’s something wrong. This concept just seems so perfect, but in reality it’s far from that.

First, the element of human worship (of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo) bothers me. Although my humble and limited exposure to The Mother’s teaching tells me that she actually has found the Supreme Truth, I always like to see people worship that very Supreme Truth rather than the person who’d found it. Aurovillians seem to love her too much–something I don’t quite comprehend.

Another interesting–and ironic–thing about this town is that most people outside Auroville actually dislike Auroville! I found no satisfactory reason for this, but speculation includes

1) Aurovillians came in wanting to make this place “better,” but never really took enough time to ask what the locals think is “better.”
2) Aurovillians are full of rich and wealthy people who just come to settle down at the end of their lives looking for spiritual awakening. They know nothing about the local livelihood around Auroville.

Whichever it is, it’s really really interesting to think about how there is no guarantee that such a beautiful concept can come to fruition easily. Regardless, Auroville’s philosophy, in my opinion, serves as an important and timely reminder of how our society has become so out of sync, so disunited. Being there to explore the concept alone was worth it for me. Getting to CouchSurf overnight at a local organic farm was a bonus that brought me a glimpse of the local livelihood close by to Auroville. It felt great to be close to nature.

My humble abode for one night
Perhaps the grandest shower I’ve used so far

Although this trip leaves so much to be desired, if you’re into this kind of hippy-ish/spiritual/unusual type of thing, I’d highly recommend doing it anyway. You won’t find this kind of experiment anywhere else. I remain optimistic of Auroville’s concept and potential to change our world, but there are obvious kinks that have to be sorted out before Auroville can truly embrace–live and breath–the concept for the world to follow suit.

Tip: Auroville is best seen combined with Pondicherry into a weekend trip. To ensure that you will get to go into the Matrimandir, I suggest that you arrive by noon in Auroville on a Saturday, as you have to see the Matrimandir from the outside first before you can register (registration is 10-11am or 2-3pm) to go inside on the next day. So you can take the morning to explore Pondy, get to Auroville in late morning, stay overnight through CouchSurfing or one of the guest houses there, then leave back for more exploration of Pondy after you’ve visited the Matrimandir on Sunday.

0308 – Small Act. Simple Happiness

When I was in Hampi, I ran into a group of middle school students on a field trip. Hampi, India is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with ruins, temples and rock formations to marvel at.

Our tour of the city brought us to a place called Queen’s Bath. At the entrance, we saw the huge group of kids lined up next to the front gate waiting to go in. I thought to myself, “Uh oh. S.O.S. Chaos to follow.”

Chaos did ensure.

There were 10 of us in Hampi at the time. All foreigners. And if you have been in India before, you know that most locals like to stare at foreigners–out of curiosity. They also like to say hello, shake hands and take pictures. And if they’re kids, they shout and run after you too.

So this place, Queen’s Bath, is literally a place with a giant bath in the middle, like this:

Guess who was in the bath itself when the kids ran it. This guyyyyy.

Oh, shit.

They swarmed in strong and seemed really excited to see us. I was a natural target, being the sole foreigner trapped in the middle of a giant box.

Yup. Right at the middle of that. There's only one way up...

Boy it was mayhem. By the way, I’m saying all this in good fun. I love kids, and I like to see them happy. Foreigners are, quite literally, foreign to them. For some reason, they love seeing us. They wanted to shake our hands, be in pictures with us, or even just to be near us. We felt like superstars, with out little fans following us around. Here are some pictures:

They were just… happy. It was the highlight of my trip. And we really didn’t do anything much. We just spent some time with them and took pictures. That’s all we needed. Small acts, big happiness. It made me happy too. And their teacher was happy that he got photos of us with the kids, and perhaps also because the kids got a chance to see us. Interesting thought.

It really is true that happiness is relative, and it all depends on one’s expectations. This really puts life in perspective. You don’t have to accomplish everything or be the luckiest person in the world to be happy. Sometimes, joy comes when you  least expect it. Sometimes, joy comes from simplicity.

0307 – Are all life forms equal?

One of Buddhism’s Five Precepts:

“I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life.”

These days we like to talk about humans being the most intelligent form of life and on top of the food chain and all. Somehow, the conversation sometimes shift to our superiority over other forms of life. Somehow, that no longer feels right.

When I was younger, I used to step on ants that were on my path. I used to kill flies that were annoying me, or mosquitoes that were trying to suck my blood. I used to trap butterflies for fun. But since I’ve been thinking about this, I’m starting to believe more strongly that perhaps we really shouldn’t do those things.

Even if you take the Christian angle, you could say that all life forms are God’s Creation, and to any life forms would be to hurt a fellow Creation. Who are we to decide if other beings are to live or to die? You could also take the nonreligious angle: if life is simply precious, should we take it away from others?

Who are we considered a killer only when we kill other humans?

We know the capability of mankind. Save some godzilla invasion or a visit from an alien planet, we are high up on the food chain. But we know how delicate the food chain is, and we know that humans cannot survive without the biodiversity and the typical functioning of other beings–these things are just indirect. We know that everything is interconnected in ways we may never completely comprehend. I say we’re all equal. I say we’re all life. I say we’re all together on this planet.

Perhaps it is wiser–or simply feels righter–to think twice before killing anyone or anything.

0305 – Why do we make wishes for ourselves?

About two weeks ago, I was at a temple in Fatehpur Sikri, about an hour away from the Taj Mahal. There was a praying spot where we were told to give offerings and make a wish–for long life, good health, children, etc. It reminded me of one issue that I’ve thought about for quite some time:

Why do we make wishes for ourselves?

It seems almost counter-intuitive to me that when we pray, we make rather self-centered wishes. Shouldn’t we be praying for world peace? Shouldn’t we be praying for alleviation of poverty? Shouldn’t we be praying for love to supplant the hatred in our world? Isn’t the act of praying imply some sense of transcending the desires of the self? It doesn’t make sense to me.

This thought dawned upon me a couple years ago, and since then when I pray, I thank God for my past fortunes. Then I pray for hope in the world. In my opinion, I don’t think it’s right to wish for our own better lives. I think our lives are made better, knowing that we are here to serve a larger purpose.

Perhaps next time, when we make a wish, we can think about those who need the prayers more than we do. It brings much more joy than asking for the winning lottery ticket.

0303 – My conversation with Dr. Vandana Shiva

I was in New Delhi a couple weeks ago and took the opportunity to meet Dr. Vandana Shiva, truly one of the most inspirational environmental activists in India, if not the world. I first met Dr. Shiva at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in April 2012. She was a speaker in one of the plenary sessions, and I remembered being captivated by her passion and ability to carry the message. You can watch it here.

I really wanted to talk to her because I identify with so many things she said in that session, and also because she’s involved with Bhutan–a country that I just love–in an effort to turn it organic. Sadly, it shouldn’t be just a cool thing that some people do; it should be a common thing. Dr. Shiva also seems to… get it. She seems to have figured it out–what she’s here to do, what her role is, and what life is all about.

After almost an hour of searching and sweating in the 42-degrees heat of India’s capital, I arrived at Dr. Shiva’s humble office in the southern part of Delhi. Dr. Shiva was hard at work when I arrived, gave me a big smile and kindly asked me to wait a few minutes. The 30-minute conversation that transpired afterwards was definitely worth all the wait. She gave me many pointers to ponder. One of the things that stuck with me the most was her take on socialism. I asked her what her thought on socialism is, and here’s what she said (or what I recalled of it):

“If socialism is about equality, then I’m all for equality. If capitalism is all about maximizing our potential, I’m all about capitalism. But if socialism is about more power for fewer people, then I’m against it. Likewise, if capitalism is all about consumerism, I don’t agree with it.”

Dr. Shiva has a way with these things. I was surprised at how at ease she was about our world. She said that her quantum physics background shaped her philosophically as well, which perhaps has helped her to understand uncertainty and the constant flux that we exist in.

But it is her seeming happiness that pleasantly surprised me. Dr. Shiva greeted me with a big, genuine smile. Not one of those ones where you obligatorily force out for guests, but one that made me feel like she’s actually happy to help another soul. It was really nice to see. The world needs more happy people like her.

I kept asking her whether she felt angry or sad or depressed or confused–emotions that I’m feeling–about this whole thing called life. She served as a living example of how one need not feel negative about the mess that we’re in, and small steps can make a difference. With the work that I do, I hope that many generations to come will have a chance to smile, and a chance to be happy–a chance to live.

Soon, I’ll be doing some more soul searching to shift the attitude that has brought me much negativity. Dr. Shiva has shown me that there really is a way to work in a challenging and at times hostile environment and still be truly happy. I encourage you to check out her work. It’s really one of a kind.

0302 – Do you love your life?

So I’ve been battling gastroenteritis (a.k.a traveler’s diarrhea) the whole week. It was is pretty bad. Vomits and stuff. But you probably didn’t wanna know that. I just put this in here because my friend told me not to write about my sickness. Heh.

Now… In all seriousness, this is an issue very dear to my heart. Self-love.

Once in a while, you read about lives of fellow beings that make you think hard about your own. Once in a longer while, you actually meet a compelling life force in person who makes you stop and really introspect. That life force can be similar to yours, but often it is vastly different, and unfamiliar. So unfamiliar that you can hardly imagine what would be of you if you’d lived the same way. And I mean that in the most neutral way possible–to me there is no such thing as good life or bad life; it’s just life as it unfolded at that moment.

You get to meet a handful of life forces like these over the course of your life, and I believe every encounter has a reason behind it. This life force that I’ve just met, who’s become a good friend of mine now, he’s quite a character–a free spirit who lets life take him to places, to try new things–sometimes strange, sometimes scary, sometimes wild, sometimes plain absurd. Quite unfamiliar to my own life indeed. Anyhow, the freedom to roam has given him a wealth of experiences and memories that only add to the vibrancy of the life force. He still has dreams, and he has his down moments, but in general–and I quote–he “loves [his] life so much it’s ridiculous.”

That’s what made me pause.

Do you love your life?

It’s not often that you meet someone who’s fully experiencing the joy of life. So whenever I meet one, I rejoice. And smile. It’s a marvelous gift–to love your life. A rarity. A gem. It doesn’t come easy to me at all.

I rarely give myself enough credit. It sucks, but it’s not something I can change overnight. I am one of those who dream of changing the world. Sometimes I dream about becoming famous. Sometimes I dream about being rich. Sometimes I dream about living in my world.

Alas, I wake up. Every time.

But dreams need not be all about the future. Because dreams can sometimes be enabled in the present. One can dream of freedom. One can dream of happiness. One can dream of love. One can dream of these things and grant them to oneself. Because we all do deserve our own love and affection. Life is not always easy. We know our potential and where we can go, but we miss out on all the beauty along the journey if we only just go. In a way, I feel ironic saying this since I haven’t fully convinced myself of this yet, but I believe many of us share the same sentiment.

 

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”-Rumi

 

May we all be wise.

 

For love of the self, and love of the world.

0301 – My experience at Infosys

I haven’t talked about my work much. That’s partly because I really don’t know what I can and can’t say. I need to be careful with confidentiality, but I feel like I should at least say something about my experience. Most of Infosys’s data, policies and commitments are available online anyway–a demonstration of Infosys’s openness that I admire.

Someone told me that Infosys operates based on trust. It builds long, healthy partnerships with its customers and ensures that it provides the best for them. It’s interesting for an IT company (or a company in general really) to… have heart. It’s so refreshing to see. That Infosys cares about sustainability and its societal impact too is a plus in my book.

The big question when I came to the company was whether all this is a sham. Many companies’ Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts are there just because it’s fashionable to do CSR, which defeats the purpose of CSR. As far as I can tell, Infosys seems to be an exception.

I work in the Green Initiatives Team at Infosys. The team is responsible for almost all things sustainability: energy efficiency, building planning, waste management, renewable energy, environmental mediation, etc. I’ve been here for almost a month, and I’m really blown away by the amount of work that this team does. I only have good things to say. The team comprises of so many different professionals specializing in different aspects of sustainability, united under a common goal. Each person is responsible for a piece of the puzzle, and they all come together at the end to make Infosys more sustainable. I’m just amazed by how diverse this work really is.

What’s really interesting too is how different this unit is from all the other ones at Infosys, who offers services in hardware/software/consulting/supply chain/etc. The Green Initiatives seems like a little red dot–a unique one–on the map of Infosys–kinda like how Singapore is the little red dot on the world’s map. Unfortunately, just being a little red dot also means that most of Infosys doesn’t know about this team. One of the big challenges this team has is how to communicate with the rest of the Infosys employees, and also how to present its vision and accomplishments to the world. It’s definitely a challenge to communicate something different to the IT world, but they’re trying hard.

Anyway, it’s been a huge learning journey working on my projects here. I’m getting a feel for the corporate system, the way companies choose their vendors, the self-motivation required to work well, and the rapid pace of technological change in the renewable energy industry. It’s been hectic to say the least. But I am really glad I got to be here, in a different environment than the one I’m used to, and to see the work that this company is doing. To see a company make a serious commitment to sustainability and follow up on it gives me hope that the world can be right.

0300 – Engaged, but not attached

300th post!

Purposefairy wrote in her wildly popular inspirational post “15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy” that we sometimes have to embrace change and let go of things that are holding us back from happiness. This notion is something I’m very familiar with as I was raised Buddhist. “Attachments”–that’s what we call them. Attachment to worldly things is part of the cause of suffering–a fact of life, one of the Four Noble Truths.

I actually don’t consider myself Buddhist anymore. Little-known fact: When I was young, I was ordained as a novice monk in a forest temple for two weeks in 2009, right before my arrival in the US. That experience, unfortunately or otherwise, was the pinnacle of my Buddhist pursuits. The experience aught me a lot and I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t do it again if you ask me right now. I could definitely see why heading down this path would lead to ultimate happiness, but I felt like it wasn’t right for me.

Monkhood, in my very limited understanding then, seems like removing oneself from the world–an act I was not ready to commit to. As I’ve said many times, there’re things that I’d like to see in the world, and I still yearn to make a valuable contribution. In a nutshell, I still have attachments in the world that I was and am not ready to let go of. I still hope that one day, I can make a contribution. To me, in order to make a contribution, I need to remain very committed (synonymous to “attached” to me then) to my dreams. And this belief of mine seems to not fit into the Buddhist scheme of things.

Earlier this year, I was introduced by my friend, Mr. Eric Weiner, to the concept of “Engaged Buddhism,” which captivated me. The phrase engaged Buddhism seems oxymoronic at first, but this emergent interpretation of Buddhism is saying that one can be engaged, but not attached. Huh.

I found this video:

 

Fascinating.

The beauty–and sometimes point of contention–of Buddhism (and other religions as well I suppose) is that its interpretation and translation into actionable items in everyday life can be largely subjective. There’re different ways to adopt the teachings, and I am always interested in hearing about one that I can apply to my life. Engaged Buddhism is pretty intriguing and plausible in that regard.

Engaged Buddhism is pioneered by the great Thich Nhat Hanh, whose teachings have reached millions both in the East and West. I resonate very well with this interpretation, and m really glad to see that I learned about it. Yet, I won’t consider myself a Buddhist again.

Our society is obsessed with labels, from grades, nationality, age, race, religion, college major, etc. Some of them we have no control over, but some we do. Regardless, we seem to be very interested in learning about others’ labels, which I think is not right. In my refusal to choose a single religion, I have been free and able to internalize the teachings of various religions. Why must we choose a single label, when one is unique and a single label doesn’t really define who you are?

I’m not saying that I don’t believe in Buddhism anymore. I still do, and I still draw comfort and peace from the Buddha’s teachings often. But I no longer see the reason to call myself a Buddhist, when many other teachers have also found the Way, the Truth and the Light.