Saturday, December 28, 2002

50. THE SPIRITUAL WORLD

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During the sunny summer holidays, my elderly, former-neighbour, Mr Samsu, invited me round for afternoon tea; we sat on the verandah which overlooks his garden; a huge pile of books lay on a small table next to Samsu’s rattan chair.

"This is a very pleasant house," I said.

"It’s quite an ordinary bungalow," said Samsu, whose hair seemed whiter than ever. "It’s Dutch-style. A bit colonial, with the red tiled roof and the cheap-looking Doric columns that are meant to be classical or neo-classical. Inside it sometimes feels a bit too enclosed."

"It doesn’t feel enclosed when you’re on the verandah," I said.

"Indonesians like a house to have a feeling of openness."

"Do you lock your doors?"

"Nowadays, I lock my study. I don’t want my computer stolen."

"You have some fine trees," I said, as I cast my eyes over the garden. "What’s the one with the yellow-white flowers?"

"We call it Cempaka Kuning. It’s like the Magnolia. You’ll see them used for floral decorations here and in Bali."

"It’s good to see there are still some trees left in Indonesia."

"Who should we blame for the cutting down of so many trees?" asked Samsu, with a mischievous grin. "Is it the greedy logging companies? Or is it you people in the West who want paper for packaging, palm oil for cooking and plywood for building?"

"Both are to blame, but what I read was that more than half of all the logging here is illegal. Officials are bribed to turn a blind eye."

"But why is there bribery?" said Samsu, suddenly looking less relaxed. "Why does a teacher ask for a bribe to let children attend school? My father was a civil servant in the days of the Dutch. The Dutch kept wages so low that government people simply had to supplement their wages with gifts."

"The Dutch are long gone," I said gently. I decided not to ask if his father had taken bribes.

"The problem is human nature."

A maid, a barefoot, angelic little girl, appeared with a silver tray bearing a teapot and cups.

"What have you been reading?" I asked, after Samsu had poured the green tea.

"Chapter 76 of the Koran. ‘Good people feed the needy, the orphan and the prisoner, because they love God.’ That’s why they get to heaven."

"What does the Koran say about heaven?"

"It is a garden where people are served by youths who are eternally young, youths like pearls."

"Is that what you’ve got here? A garden where you are served by beautiful youths?"

"No. Here it’s too hot and you can see young Azis is asleep over there." Samsu pointed to his young house-boy who was snoozing on a mat in a shaded corner of the garden. "He’s probably far away, in Central Java."

"My maid said something odd to me. She said that on Saturday she visited relations in East Java. But she was here in Jakarta, at my house."

"An out-of-body experience," said Samsu.

"What?"

"Be careful when you wake someone. They may be out of their body. Wake them gently, so they have time to return."

"Are you joking?"

"No. Your maid probably believes that while she was asleep she did in fact visit East Java."

"Sounds weird."

"Not at all. There are lots of recorded cases, even in the West. If you phoned up your maid’s relations, they might confirm that they had indeed been visited." Samsu looked straight-faced as he said this.

"I’ve often had a sense of deja vu."

"Perhaps you visited a place in your dreams and then later went there while awake."

"Who knows."

"We Indonesians have no great difficulty with spiritual things. To us, consciousness can exist without the brain."

"Sounds unscientific."

"In the West, scientists like Professor Eccles have suggested that consciousness is not produced by the brain. Sir John Eccles is a Nobel Prize winner. An Australian."

"Not produced by the brain?"

"That’s right. You know your famous Englishman, Alfred Russel Wallace?"

"He came to Indonesia in the 1850’s," I said. I had read parts of Wallace’s Malay Archipelago. "He thought up the theory of evolution, at the same time as Darwin."

"Wallace was cleverer than Darwin. Professor Eccles reminds us that Wallace believed the human mind could only have come about with the help of some kind of God. Eccles believes in random genetic mutations and natural selection, but he believes God has some influence over what happens."

"How does the mind exist without a brain?"

"We have a brain existing in the physical world," said Samsu, pointing to his head, "and a mind existing in a different spiritual world."

"The mind is non-physical?"

"Not necessarily. Our mind may be made up of some kind of energy. It’s possible that energy can move from the spiritual world to the physical world."

"Sounds a bit beyond me," I confessed. "Do you believe in a spirit world?"

"Of course. You know it is not only human beings who have consciousness. Some researchers have found that plants can be conscious beings. Tomatoes can feel pain. Have you heard of David Bohm, who was a Professor at Birkbeck College?"

"I’m afraid not."

"I’ll lend you some books on Bohm. He was a physicist who believed that all physical matter is alive. We are all part of one whole."

"So a tree has a spirit? And maybe a mountain?"

"Man certainly has a spirit," said Samsu, sounding authoritative. "Didn’t Jesus talk about good and bad spirits? When somebody died, isn’t Jesus supposed to have returned their spirit to their body, so that they came back to life? Didn’t Jesus say that, to God, all people live? After death, the spirit goes on living. John’s gospel says it is the spirit that gives life, not the flesh."

"Yes." I sipped my strong tea and tried to take in what Samsu was saying.

To my delight, the little maid reappeared, this time with plates of banana fritters and little cakes that looked like green Turkish delight. As the maid offered me a cake, I noted her small, delicate hands and her wonderful light brown skin.

"Thank you Kuntil," said Samsu, as the girl, walking like an Italian model, returned indoors.

The green cake had a taste of coconut milk and sugar.

"Coconut is good at killing off bugs," said Samsu. "It keeps you healthy."

"You were telling me about spirits," I reminded my host.

"Indonesians often talk to their dead relatives," said Samsu. "In North Africa, dead holy men, called marabouts, are consulted by Moslems."

"Does it worry you, as a Moslem, that some Christians say that the only way into heaven is through belief in Jesus?"

"It doesn’t worry me. Jesus said: ‘My teaching is not mine.’ Jesus said his teaching came not from Jesus but from God. There is only one God. It is God’s teachings that matter. If you carry out God’s teachings, you get into heaven. ‘Good people feed the needy, the orphan and the prisoner, because of love of God.’"

"Love, yes," I said.

"And don’t forget," said Samsu, picking up his Koran, "in the Koran, chapter 3, it mentions ‘the Messiah, Jesus, who is honoured in this world and the next, and who is one of those people who is near to God.’ So Moslems do believe in Jesus. Christians are not seen as nonbelievers, according to verse 55."

"What about the idea of Jesus dying for our sins?"

"Jesus said, in your bible, ‘I came into the world for the one purpose of bearing witness to the truth.’ And what is the truth? A lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to get into heaven. Jesus said that he must love God and love his neighbour."

"Moslems and Christians agree about that," I said. "Same message."

"And who is your neighbour? Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the man who risked his life to help someone of a different race. The Samaritan would go to heaven, even though he wasn’t a Jew, or a Christian."

"What about the idea of dying for our sins? What do you think it means?"

"Jesus taught about how to get rid of our sins," said Samsu smiling. "But our sins don’t automatically disappear because of Jesus’s birth and life and death. According to Jesus we have to be salted with fire. We have to struggle and suffer. Jesus says we have to repent of our sins. We have to bear good fruit. We have to forgive others."

"I’m not keen on the suffering bit. Wasn’t the idea of a bloody sacrifice to the gods very important in primitive religions?"

"Some early Hindus and Persians believed that the Gods could only survive if we provided them with food. In some countries, children were sacrificed to the gods."

"So, what do you think?"

"More advanced thinkers began to see that God, who is perfect, doesn’t need us to feed him. In Hosea, in your Old Testament, God says ‘I want love and not sacrifice.’ In other words, understanding of God has evolved through time."

"The Christian Gospels seem to give conflicting statements?"

"We have the same problem," said Samsu, grinning. "Does the Koran say that God is the only power and controls man like a robot? Or does the Koran say that man has free will? Common sense tells us that we have free will. Is the Koran something perfect, like God? The Mutazilites didn’t believe that the Koran was eternal. The Imamites believe in 12 imams. Is love of the imams necessary for salvation, as some Moslems believe? Is Ali, the first imam, a divine being? You see, religions become complicated. Yet the basic message of the Koran is simple. Love God and your neighbour."

A visitor arrived, a slender old man with a friendly smile and a well-worn suit. He took a seat at our table and was introduced to me as Dr Petrus, a former university lecturer.

"Petrus believes that Jesus died on the cross," said Samsu, as he poured more tea. "He’s a true Christian."

"Of course he was crucified," said Petrus, as he put lots of sugar into his tea. "Why? Because he annoyed so many people. He annoyed the warlike, because he wouldn’t rebel against the Romans. He annoyed the respectable people because he made friends with outcasts, the handicapped and prostitutes. He annoyed the Pharisees because he said the path into heaven was by loving your neighbour, rather than keeping the Sabbath or avoiding certain foods."

"Human sacrifice?" asked Samsu, as he turned to his university friend. "When is a sacrifice good?"

"When it’s voluntary self-sacrifice and when it produces a good result," replied Petrus. "Like giving your place on the lifeboat to a woman and her child. Like going as a doctor to an area infested with cholera and malaria."

"Jesus?" asked Samsu.

"John’s gospel," said Petrus. "‘I lay down my life so that I can take it up again. No one took it from me, but I lay it down of my own free will.’ So it was voluntary. Jesus knew that people tended to kill God’s prophets. Didn’t people try to kill Mohammed? And good results? People learned that ‘he who loses his life, for the sake of others, will save it.’ Mark’s gospel."

I was always amazed by certain people’s knowledge of the Bible and the Koran, although I suspected that Samsu and Petrus were not your average beings.


I made one of my infrequent trips to see Oya, who was lying on her back in her one room shack in Kapuk. Her head seemed as big as ever and she had a cough.

"Oya should go back to the hospital for a check-up," I said to her mum. "She seems to have a fever."

"She’s got a cold," said her mum. "Lots of people have flu."

"We’d better go to the hospital. OK?"

"No."

We argued and argued until at last she agreed that Oya could go to the clinic at the end of the road. We waited ages for a girl, who had agreed to come with us, to strip off and change into her best clothes. I averted my eyes and stood in the rain outside.

At the clinic, the doctor told us we had to go to the hospital. The mother refused. We got back into my vehicle.

"To the St Francis Hospital," I said to the driver, in English. Oya’s mum said nothing as we battled through the traffic.

"It’s pneumonia," said the hospital doctor. "Oya will have to be admitted to the hospital."

"No," said Oya’s mum. Oya was weeping.

"What will happen if the child goes home?" I asked the doctor.

"She’ll probably die."

I had a long argument with Oya’s mum. I said Oya could not go back home in my vehicle. Mum got some medicine from the hospital pharmacy and took Oya home by bus.


Red and white flags decorated every street. Indonesia was fifty years old, at least if you count 1945 as the beginning of independence. The sky was blue and I felt in a reasonably cheerful mood as I called in at Panti Bambu to visit Wisnu. The big toy car had disappeared, mysteriously.

"How’s Wisnu?" I asked the director.

"Gone to Malang. The place run by the Dutch professor. It’s a good place."

"I’m pleased," I said.


There was a phonecall from Wardi to tell me that Oya, the little girl with the big head, had died. Maybe her spirit had decided that life in her body had become just too difficult. I felt more than sad when I thought about her suffering. And I felt some guilt about having got involved so unsuccessfully. Then I tried simply not to think about it.


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