Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Religion and Spirituality

So school's ended for me for undergrad and it seems I am becoming nocturnal in the summer and my recent activities include poring over reading materials that I never had the liberty of perusing through them during the last two years of my engineering undergraduate career. I am unfortunately most effective at reading and ruminating around the wee hours in the morning, so I adapted this nocturnal sleeping pattern.

My recent reading material happens to be Raden Mas' Hidup Bertuhan Hidup Beragama. I don't normally read philosophical texts in Malay, so this is a first. I thought about writing it in Malay because some terms are best described in Malay, though I personally feel that my capacity to express my thoughts in Malay is limited since I myself have thought processes in English and I made English annotations during my read through, but I will do to the best of my ability to unpack what I've read.

I read through it twice. I usually read through once, but lately I have a habit of needing to read through everything twice. The first time around was a general overview because it's not something I normally read, I needed to know the general geography of what I am reading through. The second time around I made notes of the major points and my personal thoughts.

I have to admit it does speak to my own personal dilemmas regarding my practice of my own faith. From my youth, I've always had trouble with keeping to rituals and often times I ask questions that led to chastisement from my ustaz and ustazahs of asking things for fear that I would one day become an apostate. Even to this day, I admit that it is sometimes very hard for me to feel a communion with God when I perform rituals, but I have always taken a liking to reciting the Quran for some inexplicable reason.

The fact that the central issue of this paper is about the distinction between living a religious life and, living a, I suppose, the loose English translation would be, spiritual life. It is explained at length that while both, on the surface seem to be indistinguishable as they do perform rituals, but the difference lies in how one views rituals and the focus of faith as opposed to the other.

A religious person is only concern in perfecting his rituals, only seeking out to reap the rewards for his rituals in the afterlife, and not, ultimately, to know his creator. There is little room for speculation, they believe that what is taught from the books is immutable and their only concern is following what is being taught to the tee without question. Whereas, a spiritual person is one who views the rituals merely as a platform or an aspect of a religion's identity, but it is not faith itself. They view rituals as a means to commune with God, and that with every ritual they bring themselves closer to God, because their ultimate goal is to meet with their Creator. They allow themselves to question and seek out answers regarding God. A religious person is obsessed with religion to the point that it is sufficient for them to attribute God to a being that merely watches them perform those rituals and it is not necessary to know their Creator.

I vaguely remember reading about sufi poets who sought knowledge of God and write poetry of being intoxicated with love for God and chastise the masses for fearing His punishment because that is not the true way of fully devoting one's self to Him.

The author characterizes religion as "zahir", implying it is physical and worldly, whereas the question of knowing God as "ghaib", implying it being, to loosely put it, other worldly. Knowing God can only be obtainable from one's faith and feeling His presence in one's heart and not simply from knowing facts that He exists from a book. Religious people are concerned with matters of perfecting rituals and of worldly matters. So, perhaps it would probably appall religious people had they been told that their way of living is very much secular in this context.

When I was enrolled in Religious Studies, we did comparative religion, and in any religion, there was a pattern of having multiple paths in religion. For example, in Hinduism there was a way of "bhakti" in which people who subscribe to this path are more likely to be in service in multiple deities of their choosing and their means of practicing their religion is to do good deeds and rituals to appease the deities. An alternate path is that of asceticism in which the members spend most of their time meditating and separating themselves from worldly matters in order to attain enlightenment of God. This paper is yet another example of illustrating that there exists multiple ways of practicing the same faith. Yet, the author argues, that the way of the ritual does not guarantee unwavering faith. As pushing away the need for understanding God and merely doing rituals is empty, and it could sow seeds of doubt as the person does not understand why and for what purpose are they doing those rituals for.

There is also a discussion of "hakikat". I am not sure what the English word for this is. If I had to give my own word for it, I think, loosely, it would translate to "reality", though it's not just any kind of reality, it's the absolute reality, or the absolute truth. It is the underlying, absolute truth of the nature of God and His creations. The author describes that the hakikat is trying to know if what you feel is what is real or if it is an illusion. (I'm sorry, I don't actually know how to transcribe the description into a better streamlined explanation). There are sects that practices the way of the hakikat, but the author warns that without a sharp wit, proper pedagogy and a teacher that has been enlightened himself and if the way is not constrained by proper guidelines, one can be easily led astray instead of getting closer to God. "Hakikat" is not tied to religion and it is therefore not part of the discussion in staunchly religious sects. "Hakikat" is about the true nature of God and it is not about the nature of the individual. I remember learning in religious studies about some Islamic thinkers, forgive me, I cannot recall their names, who found themselves "enlightened" and claiming that all creations and God are one of the same, which is more characteristic of some Hindu thoughts and pantheism, and as the author notes, is not true hakikat teachings.

The final part of the paper involves a reiteration for the need of a more spiritual approach to religion, the author reminds us that intellect is equally important to discern religious teachings that are corrupted with nafs and worldliness from that which is true to the purpose of becoming closer to God. Religions that become cults can be difficult to dispel as it can become ingrained in indoctrination, and it will lead to extremism.

The paper bookends by characterizing what a spiritual person's motivations are in seeking God in order to give meaning to the rituals, and ultimately to his faith. The paper closes with the statement : "Kenal Tuhan binasa dirinya". Meaning that once you know God, you realize that you lose your Self. God's creations will not stand before Him without feeling insignificant and in awe once they attain the understanding of God.

I once mused if I could meet God I would ask him all the questions I've ever had about this world, and one of my lecturers commented that once I meet Him, I wouldn't even have the gall to do so because I would be humbled at my insignificance before Him. Even in Buddhist thought, there is an emphasis on the teaching that the Self is illusory. So, there is evidence that there is a universal understanding in other religions as well.

I don't claim to be an expert on other religions, I am merely piecing together the little things that I know because comparative religion has personally been the way I better understand my own religion, and I suppose I've always liked making connections with other things I've learned or read, it's more interesting.

All in all, I hope I've done it justice, else it could be attributed to my own limitations in understanding, and thus, I still need to read or reflect a lot more.

The takeaway message from all this is really relevant to current day society in Malaysia. Clerics are concerned of how much a woman should cover herself and how it is not wrong for a man to force himself on his wife and pig's DNA in chocolates. Tch. The obsession with perfecting rituals that lead to trivial nitpicking on what is the best way to practice those rituals takes away from the actual point of the ritual in the first place which is to bring once closer to God. I'm not saying rituals are to be carried out half-arsed, but at the same time, one must strive for meaningful ritual and not an empty one, and meaningful ritual is not attained from bickering between different opinions of how one should practice said ritual. Secondly, it is also important to ask your own questions, and actively seek out answers. Relying on immutable explanations that does not allow for questions is a stagnation. Books and clerics can only do so much, but getting closer to God takes a lot more than that and it is your own responsibility. Living a spiritual life is an active process. It is not the ritual's job and it's not the cleric's job to do that for you.

So, yeah. I have other stuff to read too that I haven't gotten to, but in due time, I will probably do a write up for each of them to better consolidate my thoughts. Currently, I just finished another book, but it's altogether a completely different topic. It's also another type of book I don't normally read. It's an economic and politicala history analysis on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James P. Robinson, but I'll save that for another day. I am apparently pursuing my non-engineering interests in my free time right now, but I really like this break from engineering for now. Here's to more productive reading.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


my sadness is the 
red orange yellow
bleeding into each other
streaking across the lapis lazuli sky
as the sun sets in the horizon

my melancholy
is the ebony platinum silk
the muted cloak that drapes
over the earth in
her instance of ethereal solitude

as my sights feast
on these exquisite images
my insides ache
keeping these feelings
from breaking the seams
inundating rivers
of listless fervor

this tired soul yearns to taste life again

-N.K., Hamilton, 11.40 pm, 10/19/14

Monday, October 13, 2014


I guess, God loved you more.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Flu Season

am I finally convalescing
there's just this dull ache in my heart
where you used to be
I don't really feel it anymore
except when I take a step forward
opening a new door

am I supposed to learn to coexist
with this immovable torment
they say you can start with a clean slate
a new book
but really I'm just turning a new page
and I can still peek at earlier chapters

I want to escape this state of catatonia
let me feel again
administer a stimulation to my senses
so that I wake with a jolt
and I can once again embrace life's fullness
run abreast with the rest of the world

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book review, it's been a while.

Recently, I acquired this book :

much thanks to Ooi Kok Hin for delivering it to me from the states in a really cute little parcel. Appreciate it. 

Firstly, I should probably state my biases : I generally prefer English reading materials, and very rarely do I actually purchase any reading materials voluntarily. I write primarily in English, and if you ask me to write a proper Malay essay right now I'd probably fail terribly. 

Some of these articles were written by my friends, i.e. people I actually know in real life, or, I suppose, people I've known over Facebook that I have been in contact with over the years, or at the very minimal, have seen their names on Facebook due to their Facebook activities, ahem. There may be one or two that I really am not familiar with. Part of the reason I actually bought it is because it's a compilation of my peers' writings, and also, because I was curious, and sort of in awe they'd got their works published, something I'd wished for myself, but I doubt my writings were really that good, even if they were publishing-worthy, it'd require a lot of editing. 

Anyhow, about the book, it's all in Malay, and yes, being inadequately equipped with the knowledge of the nuances in the language to allow me to produce any remotely artistic or coherent pieces in Malay, I was impressed with the quality of the writing, and I suppose I am still capable of appreciating the cerpen's (short stories). I've always loved and preferred fiction and stories. Stories convey meaning a lot more differently than an opinion piece would. It's something about how the information is presented in a flowing narrative and the extra reflection you end up making at the end of the story in piecing those information together. And I suppose, for lack of a better description, fiction is a lot more "light" and easier to digest. My favorite, if I had to pick any, was the one about the homeless man in the cold, I guess I was affected by it the most because I'd seen those kind of people in the dead of winter before. There's a few more, but I kind of liked them equally as much but religious contemplation pieces have a special place in my heart, and they seem well-written to me, coming from someone who isn't actually that articulate in Malay writing. Out of all the anecdotes, there was a single one that touched on homosexuality, spoiler alert, which was really bold, because I personally haven't read anything of that sort in Malay, but I don't know if it had enough depth of a raw experience to judge if it was effective. wallahualam. but okay, I didn't see that coming. Adilla, you get a special mention, has two pieces in it, but I've read those before in her blog (was it?) but it was still equally as good reading it a second, third time over. And oh, one sarcastic piece made me laugh out loud. 

There's a lot of philosophy sprinkled in between, or at least references of it, or mention of names. If you're not familiar to philosophy, you'd probably at least googled those names on wikipedia and get a rough idea of what things they wrote about to warrant a mention in those prose. Some of the names mentioned, I've at least heard of them before, thanks to my Ethics complementary electives course in second year, yay. It's the first time though that I've actually read a book with shades of philosophy written in Malay which felt a little weird. I don't read enough of philosophy to comment on it, but I love that there are actually people with varied reading habits. Growing up, I don't really know that many people who would pick up a book on philosophy, but I've enjoyed googling about those other names I don't really know about, and yes, I do enjoy googling random stuff in my free time. 

Some writings seem like musings, like it was a stream of consciousness pieced together. I admit my writings do end up being stitched up pieces of my thoughts too. All in all, there were varied writing styles. Each piece had its own individuality and nothing felt similar, even though a couple few touched on similar themes of religion, education, humanity and such. 

All in all, it was a good read, the book was really light and felt just the right size to fit in the hands, even as a one-handed read, which I tend to do with my books, because heck, engineering textbooks are so thick and heavy, anytime I get my hands on a smaller-sized tome, I'd just hold it one-handedly. It didn't take me that long at all to finish it, about 6 hours tops. It's interesting to read about the thoughts my peers have.

I'd say give it a go, it's not your usual collection of short stories/essays. Hopefully it gets those cog wheels turning. For me, a good book is one that makes you ponder and ruminate, and yeah, every person takes away different things from a book and form their own interpretations about it, which is always an interesting thing to share. Books are thoughts that creates other thoughts, and that's why I love them so much, even though I hardly have the time to properly read books nowadays. sighs. 

P/S: I'm pretty sure this deserves a thorough dissection, though I'm really just doing this while taking a break from the eng life, so yeah. Perhaps another time.

Some thoughts before I get insanely busy again

I realized I wasn't as idealistic as I was back in my high school days. I tend to retreat to the background, focusing on getting my share of the pie of reality. Maybe even indifferent sometimes. Or perhaps I was just uninspired ?

I feel like I'm on the cusp of that age where I can actually make meaningful change, realizing those teenage ideals, and that age where performance really matters and will determine what comes next for me.

I do notice though, some of my peers who I once spoke of ideals with actually carrying on with it, even initiating movements, while some remain in the background, and some other peers, who, during school, didn't really tried standing out as much, but have started their own movement. It's surreal.

There's several groups in which my peers choose to gravitate to, especially for those studying overseas. I must mention the UK, the middle east, which have very prominent student organization activities.

Well, I suppose, every individual has their own reason to participate in such activities and I do not wish to be critical of it. It could be for kicks, to kill time, to enhance their credentials on their resume, spend more time with friends, networking, or even for sincerely believing in furthering their cause, whatever it may be.

Back when I was in school, the elders often warned us youngsters of being in a vulnerable position at this current age I'm in. Exposed to God knows what doctrines, by God knows what groups.

So far, I've been observant, but I am impartial to any groups, and I don't endorse anything, not openly, yet. Though I do lose out in the networking/resume-building/socializing aspect of it. I wonder if it was a wise move.

And it's funny even in my observations, I see my own circle of friends choosing their own groups of friends and acquaintances, how their circle has evolved out side of our old one.

Though, to be honest, it's nice to be part of a group with like-minded individuals who are actually on your wavelength whom you can share your thoughts with and they'd get you. I'd craved for such company all this while, though at the same time I was glad I grew up with different kinds of people, and often I ended up being the oddball and frustrated that people don't get me, but on the bright side, at least I learned some semblance of tolerance and openness from the experience.

Though I feel like over the years, I've really mellowed and perhaps, giving into my current situation in trying to find my place in the real world, I've probably stopped being as idealistic as I was in school, but sometimes, coming across groups of peers speaking of the things I once mused does remind me of the good days and gave me hope there are perhaps other people like me, or other people who believe in the same cause I once fervently did, and are making a change, or at least, materializing those ideas.

So, would it not make sense for me to reignite that old flame within me and join a cause that I believed in ? Is this not the chance to make a difference, to pursue one's hearts desires with like-minded people ? I don't know why I am holding back. I don't know why I remain skeptical. Or maybe simply passive ? Or disinterested ?

Truth be told, until I find some sort of sense of settling down in this uncertain reality, I don't think I could really occupy myself with other thoughts. I know, it doesn't feel like the best way to live, being constantly in a state of anxiety, but I guess it's just the survival instincts that keep you on your toes, and I'm not really one to go with the flow of things.

So, yes, this may not be my most eloquent post, but I've been meaning to write this for quite a while but I couldn't bring myself to pen it down. There were several times I'd open a new blog post window, type, backspace, retype and end up discarding the draft. I couldn't actually put it in proper words, but once I started writing, it just flowed.

Alright, I guess for now, there's not really a resolution to this thought, but I'll keep it where it is for now. I'm not going to make a stand until I find my own footing.