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2014 Grateful 29

I had lunch yesterday with  a Hare Krishna friend of mine and was once again enthralled by the sense of peace he radiates. Whatever I might or might not think of the doctrine of Krishna Consciousness, I thoroughly enjoy our conversations and always end up leaving with more than I came with. He gives me food for thought – a sort of spiritual take-way.

The old conundrum of the existing of God and evil came up. He told me this story, which he rightly thought was incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein, but even without Einstein, it’s still an interesting one.

Does evil exist? The university professor challenged his students with this question. Did God create everything that exists? A student bravely replied, “Yes, he did!” “God created everything? The professor asked.

“Yes sir”, the student replied.

The professor answered, “If God created everything, then God created evil since evil exists, and according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil”. The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor was quite pleased with himself and boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

Another student raised his hand and said, “Can I ask you a question professor?”

“Of course”, replied the professor.

The student stood up and asked, “Professor, does cold exist?”

“What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?” The students snickered at the young man’s question.

The young man replied, “In fact sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is in reality the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460 degrees F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat.”

The student continued, “Professor, does darkness exist?”

The professor responded, “Of course it does.”

The student replied, “Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton’s prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn’t this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present.”

Finally the young man asked the professor, “Sir, does evil exist?”

Now uncertain, the professor responded, “Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man. It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world. These manifestations are nothing else but evil.”

To this the student replied, “Evil does not exist sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exist just as does light and heat. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

The professor sat down.

There are numerous variations on the same theme. All no doubt fictional. But who cares. Am sure that many of you could dissect this particular one from a scientific standpoint. Yet no matter what religion you are, or whether your God is the Universe itself, or doesn’t exist at all, it could simply be that evil is the absence of good.
hkWhat strikes me most about my HK friend is that he doesn’t feel the need to convert or convince. He simply states his beliefs and owns them. I can’t help but think how much better the world might be were everyone so calm and peaceful in putting their point of view across. And unlike others I know with equally firm convictions, he doesn’t argue or feel the need to justify and defend his faith. It simply is what it is.
Today, as I unpack to repack, I’m grateful that I made the time to see him. I’m grateful for his unconditional friendship and for the different perspectives he offers. For our wealth is found not in our bank balances, but in the friendships we have that challenge our thinking and keep us engaged.

Grateful 5

Everything I’ve ever done in my life to date has led to my being in Budapest right now. Difficult to imagine that each little decision I’ve made in the course of my life has somehow contributed to my today – my present – my reality. I sometimes wonder where I’d be if, say,  I’d been accepted to teacher training college or if I’d not applied for a US Green Card. But only occasionally. I spend way more time marvelling at how I end up doing what I do.

I met LS at a Toastmaster’s meeting. We got chatting. I’m naturally curious and him being the first Hare Krishna devotee I’d met in person, I had plenty of questions. I’d just learned, too, that I needed to mentor a new starter as part of my ACG and he seemed ideal. He invited me to visit the temple at Csillaghegy. And so began our friendship. I was at the TM meeting because of WB and met WB through ESz and met ESz through BC… and the line goes on. Had any link in that chain been broken, I doubt I’d have seen the marvel of the Sweet Festival earlier this month.

Celebrating Krishna’s lifting of Govardhana Hill, the sweet festival is quite simply amazing. Over the previous two weeks, 900 kg of sugar went into making 1923 kg of sweets which are first offered to Krishna and then distributed amongst the villagers down in Krishna Valley. The ceremony has happy, joyful, and full of energy, in sharp contrast to some of the Catholic and Protestant services I’ve been to. The cake replica of Govardhana Hill alone weighed 400 kg.

After the ceremony, we were invited for lunch. The miracle of the loaves and fish came to mind as hundreds of us sat down to eat and were fed with great efficiency. Plates piled high with vegetarian food, each spoonful tastier than the one that had gone before it. Everyone in good humour, a kindness radiating throughout, a true sense of community.

I was struck, once again, at how varied and interesting my life is; at the diverse nature of the people I meet; at the strange situations I find myself in. This week, I am grateful for the curiosity gene I’ve inherited, the one that keeps me asking questions and wondering why. The one that opens doors and unveils new experiences. The one that makes memories and keeps that sense of wonder alive.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Get off the fence

I’ve managed to get this far in life without ever putting pen to paper to sign a petition. I have an irrational fear that this signature will later be used against me in some wanton, undemocratic move to rid a country of its dissenters or its non-nationals. I’ve managed to get this far without ever taking to the streets to march in protest against something that sets my teeth on edge and keeps me awake at night, lest my face be captured on camera and my image filed in a folder marked ‘dissenter’. To my shame, I’ve wanted to get along by, well, getting along. I’ve chosen the easy option; I’ve chosen to believe that in everyone, there is some good. And from every government policy, someone will benefit. And although I might not see or understand what lies behind it, I’ve somewhat naively believed that elected officials have the interests of their electorate at heart. But today, I cast aside my naivety. I’m too old, I’ve lived too long, and I’ve seen too much to be able to hide behind it any more.

Standing in solidarity

Today, Tuesday, 13th December 2011, I finally got down off the fence that straddles what is and what might be. Not only did I sign a petition, I forwarded it to everyone I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. Around the world, virtual strangers are opening up their emails and dredging through the annals of their minds in the vain hope of remembering how they know me and why I might be emailing them about the Hare Krishnas in Hungary.

Today, I stood alongside hundreds of others at Kossuth tér in the wintry sun to show my support for the Hare Krishna movement and this latest, completely asinine act by the government to cut off at the knees those who are doing the most good for those less fortunate in our society.

Earlier this year, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness (HSKCON) was one of many religions that lost its religious status as a ‘recognized church’. Under the provisions of the new Act on Religious Communities, as of 1 January 2012, HSKCON and others should surrender all their property (real estate and arable lands) to those religious communities that have been granted legal status as a recognized church. Figuring out the formula that determines what exactly constitutes a ‘recognized church’ is beyond my basic math and logic. It seems to me to be suspiciously subjective.

Neutered and neutralized

Divested of their ‘wealth’, these religious communities may continue their religious activities as non-governmental organizations but without the right to preach or conduct religious services. What’s the point, one wonders. What’s the point in being allowed to practice medicine as long as you don’t treat any patients? What’s the point in being allowed to play football as long as you don’t score any goals?

HSKCON isn’t the only one to suffer: add to the mix at least two others that I know of – the Buddhists and the Methodist Church – and conspiracy theorists might be justified in thinking that there’s a move afoot to neutralise those who work with the homeless. HSKCON, through its Food for Life programme, feeds 1000 homeless people in Budapest each day. When it can no longer grow the food it needs on its farm in Krishna Valley; when it can no longer rear cows in peace and harmony with nature (a project much lauded in the international environmental community and held in very high regard globally); when it can no longer live the sustainable life envied by so many around the world, what then? Where is the logic here? What am I missing?

Human dignity

I’m an Irish Catholic. I go to mass every Sunday. I try to do good when I can, to be good more often than not, and to give to those less fortunate. I was brought up to believe that Christianity is more than sitting in Church on Sunday and tithing money to the collection plate. It is about feeding your fellow man when he has no food; it’s about sheltering him when he has no home; it’s about giving of yourself when it’s less than convenient. What makes the HSKCON faith, its work, its religion, less legitimate than mine, boggles my mind. When it’s been effectively disposed of by this act, who then will feed the homeless, help the needy, and remind us all that a peaceful life of sustainable living is not just a dream?

Rumour has it that a last-minute reprieve was granted this afternoon by the government that will allow HSKCON keep its land. While this is a very timely Christmas present for so many, its battle for recognition as a religious entity is still to be won. It looks like today was a good day to get down off the fence.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 December 2011

Violent milk

Just 30 km from the Balaton in the direction of Kaposvár lies the little town of Somogyvámos where  Krishna Völgy (Krishna Valley) sits. Its 260 hectares houses a cultural centre, an eco farm, a village (complete with temple and school) and 150 Krishna devotees committed to living in accordance with the ancient Vedic scriptures. When I mentioned to  Foodie friend of mine in the UK that I was going to visit the Haré Krishnas at home in Eco Valley, she immediately started talking about milk. Here in Hungary, as at George Harrison’s old mansion in Hertfordshire in the UK, cows enjoy a sacred life. There is a strict no-kill policy. No matter how old, how decrepit, how useless, the animals live out their natural lives…and do so quite happily, it would seem.

Each animal has its own name. I was personally introduced to Radhika and fell madly in love. (Don’t tell me you’re surprised?) Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the Haré Krishna movement, set up farm communities almost from the git go [and there I was thinking they simply danced in the streets]. His idea of ‘simple living, high thinking’ is realised by the community in Krishna Völgy who are striving, in so far as practically possible, to be self-sufficient. Srila Prabhupada, like all persons so inspired, apparently had a stock of quotable quotes – morsels of wisdom that might, on first hearing, seem somewhat inane, but on deeper reflection, capture huge concepts in tiny phrases. You can’t eat nuts and bolts. No, you can’t. A simple statement – but think of what it implies: by being dependant on  bulls and cows, by working the land in order to be self-sustainable, and by protecting these animals in harmony with the natural laws of God, Haré Krishnas utilize this life in a conscious fashion [the keyword for me in all of this is ‘conscious’].

But back to the happy cows and their gifts of milk, butter, curd, yogurt, and cheese. And don’t forget the urine and the dung, both of which are used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Dung is also used as fuel for cooking and many believe it to be a powerful antiseptic [others disagree]. Late last year, the Guardian ran an article on two extremes – a proposed new 8000-head dairy farm and a small farm of just 44 cows and oxen (on the aforementioned former home of Beatle George Harrison). And, having discovered ahimsa [slaughter-free] milk, they asked a panel of experts to do a taste test between it and supermarket milk. No surprise which won.

So, I met the cows here in Hungary (one even gave birth the day I was there) and they are beautiful. And with each one having its own name, they’re very real. My granny had a farm and I’m well used to cows and calves and cows calving. Some had names but as kids, we were never encouraged to get attached to them as one day, we’d most likely be meeting them at the kitchen table. Talking to cows as if they were, well,  human, seemed a tad peculiar. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering at the innate human kindness that has been subversed to a greater or lesser degree in many of us, all in the name of progress.

I started reading up on ahimsa milk [according to the website: no bulls or cows were slaughtered or exploited to produce it] and discovered that this isn’t quite what it says. Ahimsa (Sanskrit: Devanagari; अहिंसा; IAST ahiṃsā, Pāli: avihiṃsā) is a term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violencehimsa). And can there really be such a thing as ahimsa milk? According to Dusyanta dasa, picking a carrot and feeding it to a cow who is producing milk is violence by the human and the cow… ergo the milk cannot be non-violent (ahimsa).

Oh yes… I can see eyes being rolled to heaven and can hear vague murmurings of ‘she’s lost the plot’. But no, I haven’t stopped drinking supermarket milk – it’s not practical for me to do so. But I do think of Radhika as I drink it. And I am convinced that if we were all just a tad more aware of what we do and a tad more willing to accept responsibility for our actions, the world would be a creamier place. mmmm….might milk have become my metaphor?

Going back for seconds

Passing through Blaha Lujza tér on my way to have lunch at Jelen, I noticed that the Hare Krishna’s food line had moved from the square itself to just around the corner onto Márkus Emilia utca. Three thoughts hit me in quick succession: the first, a brief ‘how sad’; the second, a short invocation – there but for the grace of God go I; and the third, most telling, the material recognition of the aesthetic improvement to Blaha Lujza tér. Had I been on my own when the magnitude of this final thought hit me, I’d probably have launched headlong into a bout of severe self-loathing at such callousness, but I had company and I was hungry.

The great unwanted

Some days later, I read a piece in the Budapest Times about the city’s homeless – the Great Unwanted – and realised that this move around the corner was a prelude to a second move out to Teleki László Tér, near Kerepesi cemetery. Again, three thoughts flashed into my mind:  the irony of moving one literal step closer to the grave; a vague recollection from my flat-hunting days of Teleki tér not exactly being a choice neighbourhood; and a somewhat self-righteous disgust at the City’s attempt to sweep the problem under the carpet. But it wasn’t my problem. I had other things to worry about: appointments to fix, bills to pay, clients to meet…

The grand delusion

Then just last week, I found myself visiting the Hare Krishnas in Csillaghegy. As I walked across the road from the local Catholic church to the temple, I had a strange sense of crossing a great divide – something far wider than the 20 feet or so of tarmac that separates the two. I was nervous. I was brought up Irish Catholic and had survived convent school with all my prejudices intact. Back in 1980s Ireland, this new-fangled religion that made grown men dress in orange, shave their heads, and spend their days singing in the streets while banging on drums had met with walls of suspicion and fear that Ireland’s young and impressionable might be caught up in the madness and disappear, never to be seen again. It’s funny what you remember and how you remember it. Even thirty years later, some miniscule part of me wondered fleetingly if I’d make that hév back to Budapest. A little nervously, I ventured inside, completely unprepared to have all my delusions shattered.

The global phenomenon

ISKCON (the International Society for Krisha Consciousness) is just one month older than me. In its lifetime, it has developed into a global confederation of some 250,000 devotees. That surprised me. When compared to other religions, it’s not a big number – and yet the effect that just one of the ISKCON programmes is having worldwide, would blow the lid off any religious Richter scale.

In 1972, looking out a window in Mayapur, a small village near Calcutta, His Divine Grace A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada saw a group of children fighting with street dogs over scraps of food. His reaction? The promise that no one within ten miles of a Krishna centre would go hungry. And so began the Food for Life programme, which recognised that starvation isn’t a problem of supply, but rather of fair distribution. Each day, this programme alone feeds over 800,000 people worldwide.  Ételt az életért began in Budapest in 1989, with the occasional distribution of vegetarian food during Christian holidays. In 2001, now officially registered as a non-profit organization, it took up residence in Blaha Lujza tér. From the back of a van, devotees distribute as many as 500 hot meals most days of the week with a further 500 to needy families near the Budapest temple. That’s 1000 meals a day from produce grown on their farm and food donated by the public. Ten years ago, most of their clientele may well have been homeless; today, many have homes to go to but are unemployed, surviving on a meagre pension, or victims of the foreign-currency mortgage fiasco. All are ordinary people, just like me.

The grave truth

The right to human dignity is enshrined in the new Hungarian constitution.  But where’s the dignity in having to stand in line for some hot food? Where’s the dignity in having to parade your poverty in front of strangers? Where’s the dignity in being ignored by so many and helped by so few? Rather than simply relocate the problem, wouldn’t the dignity of the homeless and the needy be better served by providing the Food for Life programme with a permanent home? Surely there’s an unoccupied building, centrally located, that could be put to better use? Sprucing up Blaha Lujza tér is one thing; relocating the in-your-face evidence of the City’s failure to preserve the dignity of its poor is another.

My grandmothers will be turning in their graves as they read this. Not only did I survive my first encounter with the Hare Krishnas, I plan on going back for seconds.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2011