Last week, we had the incredible fortune to witness the Balinese way of welcoming the new year.
While the western world celebrates the emergence of a new year with raucous parties, Bali gets really quiet. The Balinese new year (Nyepi) is a silent day of introspection, kind of like the Jewish sabbath, where work and electricity are banned (unlike Judaism, however, even making love isn’t permitted!). For 24 hours, no one is allowed to leave home, except in cases of emergency. Even the airport is closed; imagine another place where a major international airport simply shuts down!
The idea behind the silence is that if there are any bad spirits or demons lurking in the area, they will think that Bali is uninhabited and will go elsewhere.
This ties in with what happens the night before Nyepi begins. To scare away the bad spirits, every village constructs large paper-maché effigies (called ogoh-ogoh), which are paraded about in grand ceremony. Then, in a recognition of impermanence, these ornate and colorful constructions are ceremonially burned, like a Tibetan mandala being swept away.
Giulia and I discussed how the Balinese have a wonderful recognition of the inseparability of opposites. They dress their statues in checkered cloths in recognition that life and death, good and evil, black and white are part of the same whole. At the house ceremony I discussed here, offerings were made in equal measure to the benevolent and malevolent forces of the universe. The Balinese accept that, despite their massive efforts during Nyepi, it’s only a matter of time before the dark spirits come back. The question is how to live with them.
Think of it like a coin: you can’t have heads without tales (except perhaps with bitcoins!). In fact, heads implies tales, just as an act of selling implies buying, just as you can’t have birth without death, just as you can’t do something ‘good’ that is also not ‘bad’ in some other way.
The Balinese attitude of seeking balance between forces, rather than trying to eradicate one side in favor of the other, lies in stark contrast to a fundamental assumption of Western religion. In the monotheistic faiths, which all draw inspiration from the myth of Genesis, the implication is that there is something wrong with the world that must be put right again. Through ethical behavior and deity propitiation, the hope is that we might create (or God might bestow upon us) a state of affairs in which all the icky, negative, unpleasant aspects of life might finally be put to rest. Pain, suffering, and death are to be overcome, not welcomed and accommodated.
As I discuss in my book, I’ve suffered greatly from assuming that ‘black’ could be eliminated. The more I tried to fight my shadow, the stronger it became. I wrestled for years with my darker side until I arrived at a point where I was so completely exhausted that, like Milarepa, I had no choice but to invite the demons in for tea. These efforts were as futile as trying to separate one side of the coin from the other.
In many eastern cultures, we find the recognition that it’s impossible to break apart opposites. We see it in the Taoist Yin-Yang, in Shiva’s holding of the drum of creation in one hand and the flame of destruction in the other, and in the protocol of Balinese ceremonies. These images and activities remind us that there is a wholeness beyond the mind’s attempts to categorize everything into nice, neat containers.
Interestingly enough, many western physicists have arrived at the same conclusions through the study of the natural world. Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum physics, had this inscribed on his coat of arms:
Contraria sunt complementa: opposites are complementary
This seems to be a fundamental truth of universe which we can access through many different metaphors and paths. You could construct huge atom smashers and observe the behavior of subatomic particles. You could go to Bali and immerse yourself in its elaborate rituals. Or, even easier, just look closely at the pieces of metal rattling around in your pocket.