Na Kupuna, The Holy Spirit, and Ahimsa

Today us the kind of day that shortens my life by five years; that parches my skin and carves the jagged lines around my eyebrows and mouth deeper into a scowl; that makes me want to escape or run or fight. Or write.

So right or wrong, I need to write it out.

Yesterday I read the Ramayana to my students. I have a short graphic novel version, and the kids got all swept up the the grand drama of princes, princesses, gods, goddesses, demons, gurus, bears, and monkeys. They imagined how they would retell the epic Hawaiian myths in their own styles and sketched Hawaiian gods and goddesses in sarongs and swim shorts, with Disney princess faces as they listened.

And today I loaded them up into two school vans and took everybody-- all of the secondary teachers and students-- up to the Hindu temple and monastery in Wailua. I was impressed-- every kid followed my instructions to bring their permission slips and wear modest pants or skirts. I quizzed them in the van-- Rama and Sita, Jambavan and Hanuman, Vishnu and Ravana. Karma, dharma, enlightenment non-violence, duality and balance... I don't know much myself, and I just wanted to give them enough information that they'd have lots of questions. 

We met our guide named Isana at the lush entrance-- the kids were curious about her bintu and impressed with her sheer sky-blue sari. She was gentle and soft-spoken and told us about the history of the place, about the founder's vision that started their work, about their internationally renouned Hinduism Today publication. My students were very quiet and respectful in spite of the unfamiliar terms and the difficult concepts.

She showed us onto the grounds-- an improbable waterfall crashing into a pool over a lava tube three hundred feet deep-- orchids, ferns, flowers, bromeliads, ornately decorated paving stones. When we rounded the corner we saw the brilliant gold-plated domes and ornate pillars of the granite temple that will someday house the crystal lingam that represents the ineffable form of Lord Shiva. 

My co-worker, the social studies teacher, asked if we could offer an oli, since the site of the temple was the site of the heiau poliahu -- a sacred place along the revered Wailua river. Our guides said yes. We gathered into two tight lines and faced the temple site, women on the left, men on the right. The Hawaiian language teacher blew his conch shell. It sounded a plaintive note - as long as a sigh, and clipped with a  tremolo. It sounded four times. Then the students chanted-- two chants about this place, about Waialeale and Wailua. And after a long tense pause, with all of us waiting for a sense of release, either from a natural sign or from spoken permission to move, the kumu began to speak. He used ornate and elevated Hawaiian and addressed with great sadness his ancestors. He spoke to the people who are invisible in this place, whose sacred stones are obscured by the new vision of these others. The land is lost to us, the stories are invisible, the people are gone, their prayers and chants are silenced. The birthing stones are empty, the bell stones are silent, the paths to the heiau are overgrown. Some people began to cry. The sadness was a scent in the air-- cloying, cold, lost. 

When he finished and released the group, the kids were shaken. Suddenly the gleaming columns seemed like vicious impositions-- the temple gaudily defaming a lost grave. He left without saying a word to me or to our guides. 

Isana, who doesn't understand Hawaiian, thanked us for the chants, and asked an older girl what the kumu had said. She lied: said he praised the beauty of the place and talked about the sacredness of the site. I arched my eyebrow at her as I eavesdropped on her conversation. I asked her, later, why she had lied. She explained that it would be rude and hurtful to explain to someone who has generously offered us her time and shown us into her sacred place about the extent of the hurt and betrayal that we feel seeing the continued erasure of our culture. 

The group, students and teachers, was fractured, shaken. The students suddenly felt that they had to choose between continuing with this English social studies class field trip, and respecting their Hawaiian teacher and honoring themselves as Hawaiians. A large group of students and the science teacher left. I felt powerless and tried to smile through it. What can I do? I can't call them back, demand they stay, insist they finish the field trip. They went and waited in the van for the next two hours.

We carried on, down to the temple itself. We admired an enormous statue of Shiva, dancing with his drum in one hand and fire in the other. One student was excited to call me over and say, "look I found Hanuman!" Sure enough, our favorite monkey from the Ramayana was there, two tons of carved granite, prone and waiting for his pedestal. I retold the story of Hanuman building the bridge to Sri Lanka to rescue Sita with magically floating stones inscribed with the name of Rama, and we recalled that he had brought the entire Himalayas back for the sake of an herb to save Rama's brother Lakshman. I bellowed at the students to imagine him growing to enormous size, and imagine his peskiness as he irritated the sun so much he was knocked to earth and concussed enough to forget his own divinity. 

The students banged on blocks of granite with rough iron hand-tools, sent sharp stone chips stabbing into everyone's eyes, and noticed the well-endowed and erect elephant monsters at the front of the Temple. Our guide began explaining the stories that were inscribed on the temple walls. I called the straggling students to come over, but a few wouldn't come. Instead they stood with the math teacher a ways off. Our guide moved around the corner and I waved them over, but my fellow teacher gestured that no-- she had them and did the universal sign for, naw, you guys go on ahead, we're staying here.  And we lost another quarter of our group. Momentarily, the only remaining teacher besides myself, the long-suffering and open minded social studies teacher explained that they were the kids who felt that going near the temple was not okay because they are Christian. Not every Christian kid left-- one of the most religious kids loved spotting the tiny carvings of the menehune-like earth dwellers and the fantastical creatures. But a large group of Christian kids and the math teacher felt they couldn't stay. So they went and waitedin the vans.

Like medieval churches, the temple building itself tells the scriptural stories of Shiva and illustrates the important tenets of Hindu belief. Isana explained that Hinduism requires the scripture, the temple, and the guru. Together they are strongest, but even separately, each can pass on the religious traditions. 

We admired the dramatic carvings. Great many-headed cobras represent the open chakras of the enlightened person, and the bow being fired and the arrow being broken represent the sending out and fulfillment of Karma. Jackfruit, mango, DNA, atoms, planets, hookupa, mokihana lei, olena, cacao fruit and all of the fruits and plants of Hawaii decorated the columns. Great lengths of chain carved from a single slab of stone slumped on the ground. Enormous cold lions held rolling balls in their teeth-- the remaining students were impressed and boldly put their hands in the lions' irresistible mouths to push the cool granite spheres back and forth. My classical-mythology-loving middle schoolers were excited to discover thar Shiva carries a triton ("ugh, I am SO obsessed with Poseidon!"-- actual kid quote), and I prodded at their knowledge when Isana explained that the Ganges river emerges from Shiva's head. How important do you all think that river would be to the religion, seeing as IT COMES OUT OF GOD'S HEAD? One astute kid pointed out that the Wailua river is so sacred since it emerges from Waialeale, the most sacred place on the island. I love it when they are little smarties. 

Isana took us through a grove with painted panels of Guru Deva's vision (and seeing a yellow mini bulldozer in stylized classical Indian painting style made me a deeply happy woman), through a clearing encircled by the lineage of the gurus in seated statue forms, and back up to have a Q and A with one of the young monks. 

What was left of our group sat in a pavilion and asked this lovely clear-eyed young man some probing questions. My students, sweet little darlings that they are, asked personal question after personal question to this poor devotee who is trying to leave his worldly life behind: Not in a cruel way, but simply trying to understand how and why somebody so young and handsome could lose his family, his name, his whole life to sleep in a concrete shack and own nothing. He was patient with their innocent curiousity, and beamed at them with his calm meditative eyes and in his lengths of rough white robes. 

A few minutes before the last puja of the day, we were invited to go and see inside of the temple that is actively in use for worship. A few students stayed behind, but I took a large group of them and followed our guide to the temple. We took off our shoes, stepped over the threshold, and sat cross-legged on the floor, again girls on the left, boys on the right. 

The insense smell was strong but pleasant, not overwhelming. Folded bamboo leaf streamers shifted in the breeze, each one marked with a bintu of natural red and white color. Soft music came from speakers hidden on the ceiling. An enormous black Ganesh sat before us, marked with the distinctive bintu of this Shiva cult. Many small brass Shivas stood in difficult poses around the room. Isana passed out pieces of white paper and said if we wanted to we could write prayers that would be burned later by the Swamis. 

I considered, and then wrote one. Yes. Let me know how to fix this. The day was so fractured-- such strong feelings-- hurt, loss, regret. Anger, fear, distrust. Resentment, pain, disappointment. How could we knit ourselves back together after careening off in such different directions?

I signed it, stood up, and rang the bell in front of Ganesh, stately in black and draped in bright garlands. Then I put my little prayer, anxiously folded over and over, into a basket in front of the dancing Shiva painting and the glowing crystal lingam. Some students did the same, some awkwardly smiling or grimacing. I was proud of them for trying something new and strange.

I think it is good to feel like an idiot. It is good to look up at something so enormous, like a world religion ten thousand years old, and realize that you know less than nothing. It is good to scoop up a handful of ocean and look at the few drops in your palm and say-- this is all I know. And the ocean is still out there. 

I had parents, teachers, administrators and students questions why I would want to take my students to the Hindu monastery. And I said things like-- it relates to our study of origin myths and ancient astronomy! It relates to our reading of myths and the Ramayana! It relates to our study of ancient Hawaiian sacred sites and religion! All of those things are true. But the real reason-- the real value in going to this place and other places like it-- is to make us realize how little we know. There is a whole world out there-- so complex, so multifaceted, so storied-- that what we talk about in school or what you see on TV or what you learn at home-- it's just a few drops from the ocean. I WANT my students to experience the vertigo of looking into the unknown. I WANT them to feel disoriented and lost when they are presented with people and ideas so different from them that they realize that there are DIFFERENT WAYS OF SEEING THE WORLD. And not half-baked, incomplete world views, but ancient, important, complex, difficult, influential worldviews. There are differences so profound in the way we experience reality, we should be deeply humbled. 

The public hours came to an end at twelve and those of us remaining hugged and thanked and said Namaste to our gracious hosts and took pictures and left. Most of the group was already out waiting in the school vans-- stewing in Hawaiian and/or Christian righteous indignation. 

As we made our way down the mountain, the math teacher tried to explain to me why the Christian students felt they weren't able to stay. I'm not sure I can paraphrase, but it was something of a mix between a. The fear that exposure to non-Christian ideas will damage their Christian faith and b. The fear that exposure to non-Christian but real spiritual forces will damage them spiritually. As one student put it later, she felt "that place was creepy." Their other big fear, according to my coworker, was that I would be angry at them for being rude. 

I answered, "Well, I AM angry at them, and it WAS rude. But that doesn't mean that they didn't do the right thing for them. Sometimes your religion makes you do things that will be rude and hurtful to other people. Accept that, and don't be surprised when people are offended. Yes, it offends me. But, that doesn't mean they should stop doing what they believe is right."  It's a difficult idea for anybody, especially teenagers, who want good things to only bring forth goodness and bad things to only bring forth nice obvious badness. 

She explained that she believes that every religion is trying to find the one true god, and some just get a little... Messed up. Or confused. Along the way. And that she went into "the Hindu, or Buddhist, or whatever" monastery, with a prayer in her heart, for God to help her do her job, which He gave her. And that if it was up to her, she never would have gone. But that being rude to people won't bring them to Christ.

Sometimes it seems like there are too many difficult conversations happening at once. And the only solution is to eat. Drinking probably wouldn't have hurt either.

I took us to Shivalik-- the Indian buffet down the road. We all came in and the social studies teacher had us all stand up and hold hands. She prayed in Hawaiian, in the name of Jesus Christ, to bless the hands that made the food, and bless it to our nourishment. She looked miserable-- she was hurt and offended by everyone's behavior-- and we raised our spicy drumsticks in mutual recognition. The kids guzzled mango lassi and tried bright red Tandoori chicken and spicy peas and potato curry and buttery naan and cardamom rice pudding. They were exemplary-- no knocked glasses or whiny complaints, and every kid contributed their fifteen dollars without any complaints. 

I was proud of them-- it was a brutal day. They tried new things. It hurt. They-- we all had to think about new and difficult things. I'm worn to the bone. 

I don't know what the salve is, or even the lesson to take away from it all.

Tomorrow I'm going to have all of the students just sit and write and write and write about their experiences and thoughts today. I'm going to just put three words on the board: Hindu, Hawaiian, yourself. I'll see what comes out. Hopefully we can use all this for growth, for momentum, rather than for ossification and division. 


  1. I have read this again and again today... what a brutal and tangled day you just had, all in the middle of such achingly beautiful surroundings. I'm sad for you, and indignant, and sad some more. That said, there were kids there who's brains got introduced to new ideas today because of you. You are a really good teacher, and someday I'm going to read this story in a book, right?


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