Eat Together: A Movement

A parable:

A long time ago, the gods and demons gathered together to discuss to whom they should give their offerings. After some debate, the demons decided to put their offerings in their own mouths. But the gods, being wise, served the offerings to one another.

***

In America and in the world today, there is obviously much disagreement and conflict. When has this ever not been true? The history of the human race is a tragically bloody and murderous record.

Yet, we all acknowledge that it’s become easier to isolate ourselves within our respective ideological bubbles, to never hear voices from outside. Many of us rarely have sustained encounters with people whose life-situations are different from our own. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, it’s clear that there’s a civic emergency in America. Too often, people talk past each other, scream at each other, and can’t really see each other. They see labels, see the bearers of despised ideas, and can’t discern the human beings lying behind them. It seems clear that we need more opportunities for unhampered personal encounters—for people to simply meet each other, talk with one another, and share a meal, on neutral ground. Starting a national “Eat Together” movement would be one way of providing such an opportunity.

The various members of a community, from all walks of life, would gather for a shared and totally free meal on a weekday night (perhaps Wednesday or Thursday). That’s it—no agenda. Just food and people. The organizers would not attempt to convert anyone or give political lectures, while, at the same time, the participation of volunteers from all religious and secular organizations would be much desired in organizing and providing these meals. While additionally fulfilling the function of a soup kitchen, Eat Together would actively seek the participation of everyone, from every conceivable background. Its volunteers would not try to reform or convert others to any cause. They would simply serve.

But those who are eating can and should talk about whatever they want. They shouldn’t feel pressured to start a political dialogue, or avoid politics, or talk about any specific topic, or eschew any specific topic. They should simply be together, and interact organically. Words like “dialogue” or “conversation” shouldn’t even be used in promoting the event. The basic message—“Eat Together”—will be the movement’s entire mission statement.

To give credit where credit is due, the practices of one particular community inspired this initiative. In India, the Sikhs have long held open meals with no proselytizing agenda. Tourists to the Golden Temple in Amritsar in The Punjab are likely familiar with this custom: Sikh communities operate a communal kitchen called a langar, offering free vegetarian meals, acceptable to members of all the major religions of India and to those of no religion. While many Sikhs are not vegetarian themselves, they want to offer food that caters to the dietary needs of Hindus and Buddhists and which fulfills the Halal obligations of Muslims.

The Eat Together Movement should observe the same practice in America, in order to bring as many people together as possible. By not serving meat, the movement more easily accommodates Halal and Kosher diets, not to mention explicitly vegetarian religious groups and individuals. Again, this is not to proselytize for vegetarianism or any other cause, but simply to make the meals as widely acceptable as possible. (It shouldn’t be too difficult to provide vegan and gluten-free versions of the meal, as well.)

In addition to the non-proselytizing nature of the movement and the vegetarian menu, there is another important point. People who participate in the event should not try to sit with those they already know, but simply occupy the next available set of seats, sitting next to whoever happened to arrive before them. They can’t self-sequester into religious or ethnic groups within the dining hall. That would abnegate the movement’s purpose. It’s possible that families and single people could eat in different sections, but it would be crucial to deftly assure that all seating arrangements facilitate interactions with people who aren’t in one’s own group.

Eat Together meals could be held anywhere, in any facility sufficient to accommodate a group of the expected size (a gym, a school, etc.). Letting a different religious group or organization offer its own facilities on alternating weeks might be a viable method, as long as they strictly adhere to the “no proselytizing at meals” discipline. A volunteer committee comprised of representatives from different religious congregations and secular organizations would be highly helpful and likely necessary in setting up the meals.

Also, if one were to organize Eat Together meals in a large city, it would be well to ensure that the venue does not fall entirely within the bounds of a neighborhood defined predominantly by one ethnicity or religious group. Meals should be held close to borders and dividing lines, to bring in as many people from the opposite sides of those lines as possible.

Again, the meals will be free, relying on volunteers and on voluntary donations. However, donations won’t be aggressively solicited. Rather, on the way out, people who’ve appreciated the meal, and want to show their support for the movement, can drop money into a collection box.

Breaking bread with another person is one of the most fundamental and natural steps towards establishing friendship; this seems to be a cultural universal. Traditions of communal feasting and hospitality towards strangers exist across the world, in virtually every society. Further, sharing food together is the most natural expression of human unity, an affirmation both of diversity and of the oneness underlying that diversity. If we could create a new tradition like this in America—or even internationally—it would be a major step towards relating to each other in a less fraught manner.   The Eat Together Movement could help us to see one another, respect one another, and ultimately know one another.

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A Teacher for Our Time: The Message of Guru Nanak

by Sam Buntz

Of all the founders of major world religions, Guru Nanak probably remains the least known and least discussed in the West.  This is surprising, considering that the religion he founded— Sikhism—has over 30 million adherents (which, for comparison, is nearly twice as many as Judaism’s total).  Indeed, it is the fifth largest religion in the world.  Yet Sikhs are better known in America for being confused with the followers of another religion: the Sikhs are the people who wear turbans but are not Muslims.  That sentence probably encapsulates your average, fairly well-educated American’s knowledge of Sikhism—through no fault of his or her own, of course.  I don’t mean to berate Americans for their lack of religious literacy—but considering that even Zoroaster (the founder of Zoroastrianism or Parsee-ism, whose followers today number somewhere in the range of 1 to 2 million) has received more press in the West—probably due to the fact that the Zoroastrian conception of God and vision of the Apocalypse influenced Judaism and Christianity—I’d say a decent popular book or PBS documentary on Guru Nanak would be in order at the present time.  The Buddha and the Prophet Muhammad have all been carefully treated in well-written, detailed books marketed to the average reader—but Sikhism’s founder has not yet received quite the same audience in America and Europe.

The lack of proselytizing zeal among the Sikhs—stemming partly from their faith that all humans and, furthermore, all life-forms are on a sure path back to God—may partly be responsible for the Western World’s general unfamiliarity with their religion (though Sikhs would undoubtedly appreciate a wider exposure).  But the message of Nanak is so relevant, so directly related to the concerns of the casual Monotheist-in-the-street—the person who believes in a Higher Power, but finds concepts like that of an eternal hell or the “Wrath of God” to be more than a bit unpleasant—that it demands to be expounded.  Although Nanak is revered as the founder of Sikhism, it seems fair to say—and perhaps most Sikhs would accept this—that he did not consciously intend to found a new religion.  A “Sikh”, after all, is simply a disciple, a follower of Nanak and the nine teachers who came after him (or ten, if you count the Sikhs’ holy book, The Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, which is also revered as a guru).  Sikhism, as an organized religion with a more distinct cultural identity, emerged under the pressure of the later Mughal rulers—like the fanatical Emperor Aurangzeb, an Islamic fundamentalist who intensely persecuted the Sikhs, forcing them to take to the sword in self-defense.

But Guru Nanak himself originally expounded a sort of religion-less religion.  As a young man, he was an ardent spiritual seeker: Nanak was attempting to discover the Grand Trunk Road back to God, seeking to determine how much of the truth lay in Hinduism or in Islam—the latter of which had been making so much progress in India, due to the Mughal conquests and the peaceful missionary activities of mystical Sufi teachers.  As the New Testament says, “Seek and you shall find”—and, for Nanak, the crucial moment of finding, the epiphany or break-through, came when he was meditating while seated in the shallow part of a river (note the curious thematic connection that the Hebrew prophets, or Jesus during his baptism in the Jordan, also experienced major visions while standing beside or while immersed in rivers; I have no idea what that might signify, but it strikes me as interesting). Nanak disappeared—his family found his clothing by the riverside, but no trace of the budding saint, himself.  Everyone assumed that he had died—that he was washed away, drowned.  Yet, three days later, he emerged from the river with the startling pronouncement: “There is no Hindu.  There is no Muslim.”

Consider the nature of the pronouncement: Nanak did not say something like  “Hinduism is false or “Islam is false.”  Rather, he expressed the deeper truth that, from the Divine Perspective, all religious distinctions are illusory—there is no follower of one sect or another; there is only the soul, longing for its Source.  After expressing himself in this rather sublime and shockingly direct formulation, Nanak said, “Since there is no Hindu, and there is no Muslim, whose path shall I follow?”  He answered by stating, “God’s.  I will follow God’s path.”  Nanak was determined not to inherit his spirituality second-hand—he didn’t want to get it from the priestly class of Hinduism and Islam, the Brahmins and the Kazis, but straight from the Source itself, from the Power that had formed all religions.  (I’ll note here too, that the parallels with Christ are striking—Jesus is reborn as a world-changing Messiah,  in conflict with the priestly class, after his immersion in the Jordan and his experience of the Descent of the Dove—the Holy Spirit, the Power of God.    Likewise, Nanak felt the descent of God’s Power, the Naam, and emerged from the river after three days, as someone who not only was in contact with that Power, but could put others in contact with it, as well.  (Additionally, the three-day disappearance interestingly mirrors Jesus’ three days in the tomb before his resurrection.)

During his experience in the river—when, in his meditations, he’d been taken to the highest heaven, Sach Khand, the very throne-room of God—Nanak had discovered a way to God that wasn’t based on outer forms or rituals, but on devotion, love, self-surrender, and a direct attachment to the Power of God.  The essence of Nanak’s teaching involves the supreme importance of God’s Naam—the Name or Word.  It bears a marked similarity to the identification of Christ with the Word or Logos of God—the Creative Power that has made or manifested everything.  The Naam is not any sort of human word, one that can be formed vocally or through writing.  Rather, it is—or can be spoken of as—the eternal stream of God’s creative energy—the Power that is manifesting the entirety of the universe (and other universes) at all times, now and forever.  (The idea is related to the “Music of the Spheres”, described by Pythagoras—which John Milton imagines ringing in the birth of the Christ Child in his poem on the Nativity.)  Through Simran—the remembrance of names of God throughout the day and in meditation—Nanak showed his disciples the way to bring the divine presence into everyday life, to find a contact with the higher power of the Naam, which goes beyond all spoken names.  Continual devotion and self-less service helped pave the way.

While Islam and Christianity threatened unbelievers with endless roasting in hell, impaled on whatever spit a rather angry and—shall we say?—frowny-faced Deity had sharpened and prepared for them, Nanak preached a God of Mercy and Universal Love.  Embracing the Hindu conception of reincarnation and karma, while holding fast to the idea and the experience of one transcendent God beyond all names and forms, Nanak did not see life as a term after which the conventionally pious would be eternally rewarded in paradise, while the wicked would get their horribly just deserts.  Rather, he saw life as a sort of school—all human beings were here to struggle against their egotism (haumai) and surrender to the greater, all-inclusive Naam of God.  All the karmic punishments doled out for failings were merely a way of helping that struggle progress—they were ways of instructing and rehabilitating the soul, not Divine Retribution or Wrath.  God’s Grace was an essential ingredient in helping lift the soul out of the world of karmic justice, liberating it from birth and death, and leading it into the deathless state of God-Consciousness.

Obviously, to offer up an exhaustive study of Nanak’s teachings is far beyond the scope of this miniature essay—suffice it to say that he took equality between genders, races, and religious adherents as a given.  Today, in Sikh Langars throughout India—gigantic kitchens and dining halls—free food is served up to everyone without distinction, taking all diets into account (vegetarian and halal), allowing everyone to honor their spiritual equality through a communal meal.

It only remains to give a brief taste of Nanak’s personality—that vital influence which re-made the souls of so many people.  It’s often said—and, I believe, perfectly possible—that Nanak made four epic journeys, during the space of about twenty-five years, which took him to places like Arabia and the Levant, all the way back through Nepal and Tibet.  During the course of his travels, Nanak had occasion to both instruct and disconcert the people he met on his way, often at the same time.  For instance, when he encountered a group of Hindu yogis, who were demonstrating their spiritual attainments by publicly levitating, Nanak sent his own shoe flying (miraculously) into the air.  It slapped each of the yogis directly on the face, before returning neatly to its owner’s foot.  The message, of course, was that such spurious magical attainments mean little or nothing—it is only the awareness of God that gives peace.

Another tale involves Nanak’s journey to Mecca.  In the Arab world, it’s considered quite offensive to point the soles of your feet directly at someone else, yet Nanak, after arriving in Mecca, slept with his feet pointing towards the Kaaba—the sacred space which Muhammad had cleared of idols, re-dedicating it and its sacred black stone to God, and toward which every devout Muslim prays.   When the people present demanded that he move his feet, he did—but the Kaaba vanished, and re-appeared wherever Nanak’s feet were pointing.  The chastened crowd of Muslim pilgrims was forced to imbibe Nanak’s lesson, so mischievously inculcated: there is no place where God is not.  Also, on a different occasion, the Emperor Babar—a not especially devout Muslim— offered Nanak a hit on the medieval Mughal equivalent of a bong.  Nanak politely declined, saying that he had already become intoxicated on the Naam—an infinitely higher kind of bhaang (cannabis) than that which Babar had just offered him.  The emperor was evidently perplexed, but somewhat humbled.  Nanak had impressed him.

This is only a tiny sliver of Nanak’s dharma—an extremely, even absurdly brief glimpse at a genuine Saint.  Interested as Western people have been in learning more about the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of great Hindu figures like Paramahansa Yogananda, there would likely be a strong desire to learn more about so illustrious and powerful a figure as Nanak if one could be awakened.  His teachings reverberate with a quality both timeless and somehow modern—exalted in their philosophy, but simple, direct, and utterly practical in their approach.  A good dose of Nanak’s wisdom would prove to be an immensely effective tonic for what ails the consciousness of the contemporary, spiritually-interested person.  As Nanak said at the end of the Jap Ji (a poetic scripture that quintessentially distills his teachings): “Those who have communed with the Naam, their toils shall end, and their faces shall flame with glory.  Not only they shall find salvation, O Nanak!  But many more shall find freedom with them.”