11/16/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Understanding Nanak

I have found from experience that we as human beings have a tough time in following simple instructions. The simpler they are, the more difficult it gets.

We can decipher the most complex of codes, and find our way through the most convoluted arguments, but given a straight-forward message, we turn into life-long philosophers and perennially dig for hidden meanings or exceptions to the rule even when none exist.

The greatest of wisdom comes to us in little bites: Love thy neighbor. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal.

You think we pay heed to these gems? You know the answer.

I'm no better.

I have had the good fortune of being born into the Sikh Faith and have, for as long as I can remember, been enthralled by Nanak the Teacher -- Guru Nanak, the 15th century founder of Sikhism. It began with the saakhis -- parables and children's stories -- but as I grew older and searched further and further, I realized that his life was the template, his poetry the GPS, to all our goals.

With that knowledge in my pocket, however, I have wandered far and wide, still looking for 'answers'.

It took a visit from a long lost friend a dozen years ago that finally shook me awake and open my eyes to Nanak, to begin to understand him.

My friend was a Thai Bhikkhu -- literally, a 'beggar' or 'one who lives by alms', it is a term used to denote a Buddhist monk who lives a monastic life. He and I, close friends since I was a child despite our considerable age difference, had finally reconnected after three decades. We had lost touch when my family and I immigrated to Canada in 1971, when I was 21. I had finally tracked him down after a lengthy search which had taken me to Thailand. He was now living in a monastery in Los Angeles, and was coming over for our first reunion.

One fine day he arrived in Guelph (Ontario, Canada) where I was living then, to spend a couple of weeks with us.

Soon after we had picked him up at the airport and brought him home, I sat down with him to work out some logistical details. He was in his late 70s and I wanted to make sure we properly tended to his needs. One of my queries was: "What do you eat? And when?"

One meal a day, he said. Around noon, if possible. That's it. Nothing else in the morning or evening.

Okay, I said. Then tell me what you like, what you don't, what you can eat, what you can't, etc.

I eat everything, he said. I have no preferences, no restrictions.

Sure, I said. But then, since you don't eat meat, what kind of vegetables and lentils would you like.

He took my hand and smiled. "I do not eat anything special and I eat everything. I'll eat whatever you are eating. Please do not cook anything specifically for me. What you'll eat, I'll eat."

I shook my head. "That's impossible. We are Sikhs. We are meat-eaters. You are Buddhist. You are vegetarian. You can't eat what I normally eat. But that's no problem at all. We'll gladly restrict ourselves completely to vegetarianism while you're here. It entails no sacrifice. It'll do us good."

"But no," he said. "I observe no restrictions. If you'll eat meat, I will too. Gladly."

I was puzzled. Have I misunderstood Buddhism all along? I remembered from my youth that every time he visited us in Patna (Bihar, India), my mother made it a point to serve him vegetarian food.

I began to cross-examine him.

"Do you normally eat meat?" I asked him.

He shook his head.

"When was the last time you ate meat?" I asked him.

He smiled. And shrugged his shoulders.

"That's settled, then. No meat. We'll make a variety of lentils and vegetables, if you won't tell us what you prefer."

"No, no, no!" he said, his nasal voice rising in distress. "You need to understand: as a bhikkhu, I go with the flow. We have no likes or dislikes. I do not crave for anything, nor do I reject anything. I will eat everything. The point is that you must not make a fuss, nor should you go out of your way to change things just for me."

He went on to explain that a bhikkhu lives on alms and alms alone. "Beggars are not choosers!" he said. "That is my religion."

I stared at him in disbelief. He was being sincere, not just polite.

I nodded. But just couldn't get my head around what he had just told me. He would eat meat, he had said, to make sure he did not inconvenience us. Eating or not eating meat was not the issue. Being in harmony with those around him was the only thing that mattered to him!

Of course, we didn't pay heed to his request. Our diet became vegetarian for the duration of his stay.

But he had planted a seed in my head which rattled me for a long, long time. Late that night, after I had left him in his room for the night, I went to the meditation room where we have, as is the case with all Sikh households, our Scripture known as Guru Granth Sahib, and I sought out the shabad (verse/hymn) in which Guru Nanak scolds those who argue over whether it is better to eat meat or be a vegetarian.

Suddenly, it made perfect sense.

There may be merit to both sides, Nanak tells us, but then asks, what is more important? What we eat or how we relate to each other?

My bhikkhu friend and I spent a lot of time together on this visit. We would get together again, once in Thailand as well, where we'd travel to remote monasteries together.

But here in Guelph, it was a time to span the three decades we had lost and catch up.

One day, we walked to the river and sat on a bench, looking at the ducks and geese in the water. I enjoyed being with him, not just our talks but also our quiet time together. What I liked about him on these occasions was that he did not have the need to be immersed in small-talk when we ran out of things to say. Quiet time was not a threat, not seen as a faux pas or a social failure. It was okay to say nothing. Even for long periods.

Looking at him engrossed in the antics of the birds, it hit me suddenly: what an odd couple we made, sitting by the riverside!

Not only were we two men who looked markedly different from everyone else in sight, we couldn't have been more different from each other.

A Sikh and a Buddhist.

His head was shiny-bald, his chin clean-shaven. My head was covered with a turban, hiding a bun of unshorn hair. My chin was nowhere to be seen behind a thick beard.

I was dressed as worldly as you could get in this society. He, quite otherworldly, in his saffron robe. He could never dress up in a suit. I was prohibited from donning a monk's garb.

I was a lawyer, a journalist and an activist. In the media almost everyday, for some reason or the other. He, a recluse, with no active interest in the goings-on in the world; he had lived a life withdrawn from it all.

He a vegetarian, despite his protestations a few days earlier; I a carnivore and a meat-lover.

He a celibate; I in a long-term partnership, and a daughter in my household.

His faith required him to be a renunciate. My faith abhorred renunciation and demanded that I immerse myself in family life.

My faith was God-centric. His did not even recognize the existence of God.

His faith required him to live off alms as an expression of total humility. My faith requires me to work hard as an act of total humility, so that I am then able to serve those who are in need.

I, with all the entrapments of modern life. All of his worldly possessions were in a small shoulder bag back in our apartment.

Even our language was different. I spoke English fluently. He struggled with it, but it was the only language in which we could communicate with each other. I spoke without much of an accent; he was difficult to understand, if you'd just met him.

There was nothing in his lifestyle that attracted me; there was no danger that I would ever abandon Sikhi to follow his path. There was nothing in my lifestyle that interested him, and there was no danger that he would ever emulate me.

Yet, we were friends -- life-long friends. Close, dear friends. I know I had missed him during the intervening three decades and more. And, in his words, he had too, and had searched far and wide for me.

When we met, it was like lost-lost brothers. Though we were separated, not merely by a full generation, but by whole worlds and continents.

And it is that what brings me to Nanak.

Nanak's mystical poetry suddenly makes perfect sense.

All he says -- there is little else in the thousand pages of his compositions in the Guru Granth -- is that though different from each other in a myriad of ways, we all emanate from the same source, The One. And we reach our potential only when we enjoy each other.

My bhikkhu friend and I could have found a hundred and one reasons to dislike each other, or to stay away from each other. But since we tripped on none of them, we never had a single disagreement.

My bhikkhu friend is no more. Ageless though he was -- he looked a mere 40 or 50, though he lived well into his 80s -- he died when a car he was in as a passenger was hit by a red-light jumper in LA.

But he lives on in my heart because it was he who helped me begin my journey in earnest to find Nanak. To learn to understand Nanak.

To be a 'Sikh' -- a life-long learner.

* * * * *

This week we celebrate our equivalent of Christmas: Gurpurab, the 544th birth anniversary of Nanak the Teacher. Wishing you all a wonderful Gurpurab!