Chapter 27


1991-09-25, Ubud

     "Service is the essence of Spirituality, Sacrifice its Price, 
     and Work, the physical Manifestation."

                           M. K. Gandhi

I've come once again to a small oceanside village. A quiet getaway in the south of Bali called Candi Dasa. Here among the few gringo restaurants and Losmens, bungalows overlooking the water, is the Candi Dasa Ashram, and Ibu Oka, the iron-willed teacher and guiding light.

Leaving Kuta, the Aussie surf capital of Bali, with its frenzied shop-filled streets and its hawkers walking up and down the sidewalks selling watches and jewelry. Every corner crowded with people yelling 'Transport!' was a relief and a necessity.

'Hello! Excuse me! Where you come from, what your name, where you going, what you want to buy? I got Marijuana, Hashish, Heroin, Silver, Batik, Pants, T-Shirt, Watches.' On the beach, in hotels and restaurants, on the street, an unending stream of talk, hustle, action. Non-stop. Kuta.

Whatever happened to those friendly natives and that laid-back natural lifestyle that Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson so enthusiastically recorded? That too is now history. Gone forever, Bwana.

The bus leaves from there, passes through Ubud, then Padang Bai the port where boats leave for Lombok, then onto Candi Dasa. It's a four hour trip to a different planet.

A Gandhi-style community by design, the Ashram is situated overlooking the beach and the water. A large spread of land with bungalows for guests, open air offices, meeting rooms, temple, meditation space and library.

The grounds are well-kept, expansive and dotted with those breezy palm trees swaying in the wind, just like you see on the postcards, and provide a feeling of peace and serenity.

Well cared for cows graze contentedly on the lawn, their droppings scooped up frequently to provide compost at the farm. These are sacred animals, their coats silky and clean. They are living an existence of leisure.

On the walls of buildings quotes by the Mahatma are prominently displayed. Photographs and likenesses of him are everywhere. He is revered.

Sayings such as 'He who eats and does not work, eats stolen food' and 'Work is service for the Lord' indicate what this ashram is all about.

I am invited to visit as a volunteer, and within a few days realize the depth of commitment within the community. Gandhi means: WORK!

The day begins at five thirty in the morning. Meditation and chanting for an hour. The sun has not yet arisen. I'm bleary-eyed, not yet awake, want to crawl back under the mosquito net for more sleep.

Back in Kuta, folks are snoring soundly, nursing hangovers, or just getting home from another night of wild reverie.

I can't do that, must follow the plan, and everyone comes for the meditation, the beginning of the day. At six thirty there is yoga, a movement meditation and exercise.

Ibu Oka, the disciplined head of the Ashram leads the yoga. She starts with the traditional Sun Salutation as we go through the repetitive Asanas. She never falters, yet many of the residents who are much younger fall behind. An hour of extensive physical exercise, in itself a ritual.

Ibu is what she is called. It is a term of respect. A small thin muscular woman, gray hair, countenance that is both stern and attentive at the same time. At seventy years old she is a figure of authority, warmth, power and discipline.

An hour of work now. Cleaning the yard, removing all those falling palm leaves, washing the cows, removing ticks, building a drainage ditch. I am helping some of the young men dig and sift sand for cement. It's gritty work out in this hot Balinese sun.

At least the food is plentiful and filling. Three meals a day are served. Guests are served in an open-air thatch-roofed dining area. Dishes, hand towels and utensils are all arranged perfectly in place settings. These Ashram people are taught immaculate manners. At least for the guests.

The food is primarily vegetarian, simple, and delicious. This is some of the best cooking I have eaten in all of Indonesia. Most of the vegetables were grown right on the Ashram's organic farm.

The community shares meals in the meditation area. Each person has a coconut bowl and eats with their hands. There is plenty for everyone. Some times I eat with the guests, other times with the community. A prayer starts every meal.

Work is broken by meals, prayer, meditation and study. There is little idle time for these residents. Ibu is a stern taskmaster. She believes idle minds lead to the Devil's work!

Ibu reminds me that rules at this Ashram are strict. No smoking, no sex, no profanity, no laziness, no lying. No nothing! It's a 'tight ship'. Discipline is prominent.

Karma Yoga is what it is about. That's what I've come to experience, and the teaching is in the doing. Yeah, I could be back in Kuta, tanning the body and lazing out on the sand! Among all those Touristos passing their time on holiday. That's what Bali is for.

Instead, I am exploring cow washing and brick hauling. I'm just another laborer in the fields. Just a grunt in the service of the Lord.

Digging ditches is tiring. Especially when I hear the ocean crash against the sand, just down the cliff. Occasionally I walk over to the edge and stare longingly down at the surf.

I could be down there, swimming, tanning, laying about, goofing off, getting some slack! But I've got to get back - a shovel and a pick are waiting for me. Must not shirk my responsibilities!

Meditations, prayers, chanting and discourse four times a day. It's good to have a break from all this work! Meditation is what we are supposed to do in an Ashram. Right?

Washing that cow this morning I was trying to be meditative while avoiding its horns. Wish someone would bathe me every day! At least there is chanting before lunch.

Afterward, Ibu has a few people recite a Gandhi parable in English. This is used as a teaching method, both for spiritual purposes and to instill a new language within the community. The kids enjoy showing off their knowledge to me, the new guest.

At five thirty in the afternoon, after washing off all the sweat and flies, I don a sarong and slandong, the waist-sash that is essential to enter their Hindu temple for afternoon prayer. At last, our labor is finished.

At least mine is! Incense and offerings on the altar. The chanting fills the room while the mendicants are performing their daily ritual purification with sacred water, flowers and rice.

Evening prayers begin around eight thirty. The day's work is finished. About this time the restaurants in Kuta are serving up a mean lobster as Reggae music fills the sidewalks. The bars will be opening soon. All that sensual indulgence and vacationing spirit!

A long round of spontaneous chants fills the air. Some in Balinese, some in Hindi. All are memorized by the singers, and there is a real sense of community as all come together for their evening songs.

The voices wash over me like the ocean surf that I have been missing. Just a few more days here, then I'll get back to water and sand. Bedtime and sleep are calling, thankfully turning in early. I'm exhausted from all this labor and have to rise for that morning meditation.

During the days I make myself available for service in the community. That's why I'm here! Right? Digging drainage ditches, laying bricks and mixing cement is Big Karma! Washing those cows could earn me lifetimes of merit!

Ibu reminds me of a German friend I worked with at Esalen in the Garden. "Ve must Vork!"

This is the dictum and the way of life. Service at the Ashram is considered service for humanity. A Spiritual discipline. It's a hands-on sparse lifestyle that provides little opportunity for play. Work is the primary meditation and is pursued as a path.

I wonder if surfing in those awesome Balinese waves could be considered a path.

This is OK for the time being, the load of bricks on my shoulders is not really that heavy. Soon I will be rolling in surf, not a beast of burden. At least I have that freedom.

Ibu tells me of other volunteers that visit and do not stay long. They often come, wanting an easy stay at an Ashram. You know, harmony, peace and meditation. That sort of thing. Full of idealism and fantasies, and not prepared for the reality. The labor is too strenuous.

The boys have another agenda. They work as a group, taking turns with the heavy labor. While two may be actually laboring, four are idly sitting by, joking and laughing. They take turns and advise me not to work too fast. Everything is accomplished at its own pace.

Of course when Ibu comes walking around the corner, all are suddenly sweating and actively engaged in hard labor!

Talking with the boys while digging a ditch, I learn that many of the forty residents are young, between ten to twenty-five years old. They come from broken homes. Many are orphans who ended up at the Ashram from all over Indonesia.

These guys tell me how they are learning skills: carpentry, farming, building. Also getting some formal education. As long as they are willing to contribute, they are provided for. They are enthusiastic about living here. It is clearly an opportunity for them, even with all the rules and regulations. They have found a home!

At least as long as they are willing to wash those cows!

Ibu founded the Ashram in the mid-seventies, and has nurtured its growth through the ensuing years. It is a vision and a reflection of her life. Bright, intelligent and quick, she is well versed in the political and social world.

Most here relate that she is personally well-off financially. Her family owns this land and much more as well. At one time, a university teacher, she now prefers to live in austerity.

We spend time in conversation after meals. Her stories fascinating, her opinions clearly stated, if not with a hint of aloofness. Claiming aversion and disinterest in 'party politics', she feels that immersion in the spiritual life also dictates a certain level of political activity for social change.

She recounts tales of her relationship with the founders and leaders of Indonesia, and especially likes to remember her involvement and heated arguments with Sukarno, the first President.

Although never meeting the Mahatma, on Mohandas Gandhi she talks for hours. A dedicated follower. Her discourses are filled with philosophical, spiritual and political history and direct quotes from her guru. For some, she may appear stark and extreme. She 'walks her talk'.

After all this I need a break, this spiritual life at the Ashram is exhausting. I need to renew myself with more relaxing diversions.

I am headed back to Denpasar, then on to Singapore to renew a visa. I'll be back in Bali soon, and while slurping coconut juices down by the water will reflect on these lessons in spiritual service I've learned from this teacher, Ibu Oka, in Candi Dasa.

Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman

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