Updated: Nov 17, 2019
Ever since learning about the cultural intricacies of Bali in my college anthropology class, I have had a visit to this magical island on my bucket list. I am grateful that I finally got to experience the Balinese culture in a deep and meaningful way as a Trip Leader on our Bali: Learn-Serve & Immerse trip .
While I could write a book about the deep sense of the culture and daily life in Bali and the cultural lessons I took away from this trip, I have boiled it all down to six lessons that can help create a better world.
Three Sources of Good
Tri Hita Karana , which roughly translates to “the three sources of good,” is the central philosophy of Balinese life. The three sources – harmony between people, harmony with nature and harmony with a higher power – are visible everywhere in Balinese life, from Balinese pitching in at their community center or helping neighbors (harmony between people), blessing ceremonies for rice fields and water sources (harmony with nature), and the thousands of offerings and ceremonies performed daily in reverence of spirits (harmony with a higher power).
Many of the activities on our Bali trip focus on at least one of these elements and demonstrate how the Balinese balance between the spirit, nature, and community. My short trip was mainly focused in Ubud, a healing place where people flock to for restorative energies, good spirits, meditation, yoga and indigenous knowledge.
We enjoyed an early morning herbal walk with Lilir and Westi, who are grandchildren of Balinese healers, to learn about Bali’s native plants and how they’re used for traditional and contemporary Balinese herbal healing in food and body products. Westi's parents were farmers who remembered how much healthier the soil was before chemical farming, and he was inspired to help preserve Bali's unique indigenous heritage.
Another amazing experience was volunteering with Emas Hitam Indonesia (EHI) Foundation, a grassroots permaculture non-profit that started a project called Ancut Garden. EHI empowers farmers to use regenerative agriculture techniques to improve livelihoods and promote ecological restoration. Local farmers and the wider community learn ways to adapt to climate change and the Bali water crisis through practical, local and cost-effective solutions that protect and regenerate the natural environment.
Spirituality is Everywhere
The Balinese believe in animism, which is the religious belief that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. The Balinese believe that a family member returns every five generations in a new form, each time closer to a divine-like form. These traditional beliefs were already in place when Hinduism came to Bali.
From the notion that the gods are present in all things, ancient Balinese create beautiful ‘homes’ for spirits and transcendental energies to dwell in. For example, you’ll find temples everywhere on the island, reflecting the importance of spiritual lives. Every traditional home on the island has a temple connected to it and the Balinese make daily offerings in front of temples, family homes, small shops and hotels.
Balinese masks are a great example of how all things are rooted in the culture’s animism and connection to the past. In a mask-making workshop, we learned how a mask can serve as a medium for ancestral spirits to reside and visit the physical world. (Check out some of the fun videos on our Facebook page and search #BaliGFTVirtualtrip )
We also visited a puppet theater to witness the ancient art-form called the wayang , a Balinese shadow-puppet play based on the Hindu Mahabharata myth cycle. These Balinese Hindu stories are told through the puppets’ shadows against a backlit screen. The light source, usually an oil lamp, represents the sun, while the shadow master ( dalang ) represents the spiritual leader and the creator. The screen and the wayangs (puppets) symbolize the world and all the creatures. Thus, the performance becomes a representation of the cosmos.
The Beating Heart of the Community
Every village in Bali has a banjar, or community center, where villagers prepare offerings and foods for ceremonies, meet and discuss village affairs, practice music and dance, and just hang out and chat with each other.
On our trip, we learned a lot about Balinese culture by visiting the local banjar. There were teachers of traditional Balinese gamelan music, Legong dancing, woodcarving, and traditional Hindu offerings (known as a canang), which offered an introduction to each of these disciplines and the connection to Tri Hita Karana. We quickly learned that the intricate finger and eye movements of Legong may look easy, but keeping a steady hand while woodcarving and making the offerings is no easy feat.
We also tried our hand at batik making. This indigenous craft uses traditional wax drawings and wax-resistant color dyeing techniques to create lively designs and Hindu motifs. Our instructor guided us through the process of applying hot wax to a stenciled design on a fabric canvas, then applying colors to the patterned fabric. Each of us finished the day with a homemade batik creation to take home as a souvenir. All of these activities are central to Balinese culture, and there is no better place to experience them than right in the bajar.
Water is Life
Before it was called Hindu Dharma, or Hinduism, the Balinese religion was known as Agama Tirta, or the “Religion of Holy Water.” This name bore witness not only to the role of water in rituals, but also to its role in the ecology of the island.
The Balinese wisdom of how to manage, preserve, and honor water is nothing new. Subak, the immense, 49,000-acre water irrigation system for Bali’s rice paddy fields, dates back to the 9th century and is a World Heritage Site. This ancient system provides a complex, artificial ecosystem that distributes water democratically to all those who need it for their farms.
For centuries, Hindu water temples have been sanctified in the belief that the water can heal various diseases. Like the hundreds of Hindus who come every day to perform rituals, we visited a water temple and tried our hand at these traditions.
The Practice of Lending a Hand
Islands like Bali have felt the effects of climate change for many decades and in many ways are ahead of the curve in looking for solutions. On our last day, our group had a fun and engaging time in Sanur at the Coral Triangle Center (CTC), learning about the importance of preserving marine biodiversity and resources in Bali and beyond. The hands-down highlight of this visit was the Escape Room, SOS from the Deep . Our last challenge was to clean the “beach” of plastic water bottles and escape the room. There were so many lessons here that we made this the theme of our 2020 April Educator Trip .
Yet another ecology-oriented highlight was a workshop with Bye bye Plastic Bags , an organization founded by two pre-teen Balinese girls in 2013. Inspired to start an initiative to ban single-use plastic bags in Bali, they organized an annual island-wide cleanup, created educational materials for Balinese children about recycling and waste, and given numerous speeches all over Indonesia. Six years in, they are beginning to see some real results in reducing plastic in Bali. During our workshop, we learned how to create bags out of old t-shirts, a skill that some of our travelers are planning to transfer to their own communities through hands-on workshops.
Teachable Moments are Everywhere
We spent our last morning at the Sari Hati School , a school for mentally and physically disabled children . In Bali, people with disabilities are often hidden away due to traditional thinking that blames black magic for such afflictions. The school’s founder, Sari Hati, works to reverse these negative stereotypes and provide students with the opportunity to take part in a social school environment instead of remaining isolated at home. Sari Hati shared her wisdom with us and led a poignant meditation for us in the lovely garden of the grounds, sharing the Balinese belief that we are all one in this big Universe.
Sari Hati has a mantra called the three Es: “Everyone is a teacher, every place is a school, every moment is a lesson.” This phrase really resonated with me as I reflected on our time in Bali, since each new person we met was a teacher, each new activity was an opportunity to learn and every moment on the trip was a lesson. By sharing just a bit about the authentic wisdom and philosophy of Bali’s people, my hope is that these cultural lessons will spread to other parts of the world and help make it a better place.
Along with Ubud, there are other parts of the island that we explore. We invite you to join us in Bali on one of our trips or, if you prefer, we can develop a customized itinerary:
Bali: Learn, Serve & Immerse (April 2020)
Bali Educator Trip: Examining the Effects of Plastic on Marine Life - This trip for educators offers hands-on learning opportunities from Balinese non-profit organizations involved with critical global issues and Bali’s deep cultural traditions in respecting nature. These lessons can be brought back to the classroom.
Connect with Bali’s Community and Culture in 5 Days! This short trip makes a great add-on before or after visiting Bali’s beaches and resorts.
We are grateful to our partner the Bali Institute for helping to connect us to the Balinese culture in a deep and meaningful way.