Sunday, January 20, 2008

one taste

All objects have but one taste, the taste of reality.
When mind’s essence is kept away from all discrimination and prejudice,
it radiates its inherent brightness.

There is a knowledge beyond that of the senses, that is, rational knowledge. The Platonists taught us that “in order to contemplate the truth, the soul must be freed from sensory seeing.” Is this the same as the pratyahara-sense withdrawl of yoga? (We’ll hasten to add this withdrawl is only temporary, for a purification or re-aligning of the senses.) Philosophers since the times of the Greeks have sought the essence of things by looking at them with reason–logos. But, Bede and other mystics would argue, rational knowledge is not yet true knowledge, not the deepest gnosis. Bede says this is where we have been stuck since the time of those same Greeks, when “the rational, analytic mind first began to awaken and the idea of the division between mind and matter arose.” This is then passed on to Descartes and western science in general. Even unspiritual people can arrive at this knowledge, this “simple,” pragmatic, “sterile,” rational knowledge.

Beyond rational knowledge there is spiritual knowledge, a participation in the knowledge of God that comes about through praxis. Until we acquire spiritual knowledge we easily fall victim to an “idolatry of concepts,” which is even more insidious and dangerous than the idolatry of physical things, according to the Cappadocian fathers. And what we see through praxis is God in everything: humanity is “one with nature and with the universal Spirit pervading the human and physical world, plants and animals, earth and sea and sky.”

I hope you see the body, soul and spirit here: body=sensory knowing; soul=philosophical theoria, rational, pragmatic; spiritual=gnosis, participation in divine knowledge. But one step is missing. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was equating “soul” with merely the rational mind! Therein lies the problem (and where the trajectory of axial consciousness has led us!): soul is multi-layered; reason and the rational mind is only one aspect of it, an important one but a dangerous one if operating in isolation. (Bede is hopelessly sexist here: he says it is the product of western “man” with its male/patriarchal culture!) There are ways of knowing deeper than the rational knowing of the manas-mind. There is intuitive knowledge, and the knowledge of the dawning of self-consciousness, and the archetypal knowledge of the store-consciousness. What the so-called primitive mind was in touch with was these deeper layers of the mind, so Bede would claim, before logos, the rational mind, pierced through mythos, the mythic intuitive mind. So our challenge is to regain those deeper ways of knowing, that sit right on top of spiritual knowledge and lead to it on the interior journey, and let those deeper more subtle ways of knowing inform our rational consciousness, so that our reason will not be left sterile, so that we have some “oil in our lamps” when the bridegroom comes.

* * *

I’ve had three luscious anonymous days pretty much to myself here at the ashram so got myself right into a good pattern of the day, including hiking up to Skanda and Virupraksha cave each afternoon. Been setting myself to practice guitar in the late afternoon. I do have a bunch of concerts coming up! I was a little leery about breaking the cloister-like silence of the ashram, though this being Pongal week there are plenty of beautiful noisy families unsettling the cloister. But I shut my room up tight, turned on the fan and played for an hour or so, probably getting louder and louder as the time wore on. At some point I heard a gentle knock, and then again and then again until I finally was sure it was my door, and I groaned and thought I was about to get scolded. Instead it was a young guy almost ready to run off as soon as I answered, who put his fingers in an okay sign and said, as if he knew I needed assurance, “The music is super!” I love it when the Indians say, “Super!” It always comes out like, “Soopah!” Thanks, thambi. It was all for you.

* * *

keep your mouth closed
guard you senses
temper your sharpness
simplify your problems
mask your brightness
be one with the dust of the earth
Tao te Ching #56

Yesterday was the first of three days work. JP had scheduled a concert at Gurukul Theological Seminary in Chennai. It is his Alma Mater and also the school of Theophilus who played tabla for me last year. It was a long hard nearly four-hour ride, but at least it was in JP’s church’s private minibus. We got there just in time for Theophilus and I to run through the songs he was to play with me one time each, and then a sound check and then on. It was an outdoor venue again, and it took me a moment to get a feel for the crowd. All Protestant, mostly Lutheran, Christians, mostly students, though a good number of faculty as well. The students were mostly Indians but there was a handful from Burma (they pointedly did not call their country Myanmar when they introduced themselves to me afterwards) who had the most beautiful radiant faces. I had this yen to sing How Can I Keep From Singing to start and did so. I enjoyed it so much and they liked it too and then we broke into the pretty much standard set. We did add one piece: I have finally memorized The Great Mother, which is based on Tao te Ching 10 & 20 which I don’t think I have ever performed live yet, maybe once in New York. But I had the idea the tabla would sound good and ran it by Theophy and he said, “Pukkah! Let’s do it!” I do love the tabla and guitar combination. Anyway, it was all well received.

It is a rather forward thinking establishment. Even their choice of using that name gurukul––the place of the guru––JP tells me was an intentional move toward inculturation. The principal, Dr Samuel Meshach (as in Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) took me, along with Theophy and his friend Danny out for dinner afterward and fascinated me with stories of his own history with Christianity in India from the Lutheran perspective. He himself is also very forward thinking when it comes to inculturating liturgically, and incorporating Indian music and silent meditation in the Lutheran services. He told of one time serving as an associate pastor in a parish near Chicago when he was scolded for singing a bhajan in Tamil––a Christian bhajan, mind you––during their worship service, because it wasn’t Christian music! It was pagan. As if… I am now looking forward to the day with the student body there. I return there on Ash Wednesday to give them a retreat day, again arranged by JP, who is a favorite son of the place. I presented him the idea of doing a spirit, soul and body session with them instead of a typical Lenten theme, a sort of “new asceticism” approach, and he liked the idea, and urged me to add in prayer time and silent meditation as well.

JP is amazing, non-stop energy. He has been ordained now 14 years, I think he said, and has a real radical streak. He is second generation Christian. His father converted before him. Their family name is Annamalai, like the town Tiruvanamalai: tiru–holy, anna–high, malai–rock or mountain, the “v” slipping in in spoken Tamil. When he converted, his father took the name “Peter,” JP said, so that he would also have “rock” as his Christian name. In a sense JP is kind of typical of a charismatic Christian minister, Catholic or Protestant, very focused on action and active ministry. He has got great very hip aesthetic taste and is absolutely focused on promoting dialogue, as the literature for Quo Vadis states, “between castes, religions and genders.” He has gathered quite a group of people around him, many of them at least nominally employees of Quo Vadis. There are two young women from Denmark now here as well (through his affiliation with the Danish Lutheran Mission), Lica and Agnetta, both of whom speak impeccable English and have similar personalities, deep listeners and capable helpers. I have enjoyed my conversations with both of them a great deal. Lica today referred to the crowd around Quo Vadis as a “tribe,” which I think is very apt. Everyone seems to know where everyone else is and be constantly on the lookout for the other. They are both noticing that there is not the same sense of private space here among the “tribe” that they are used to in Denmark, as we would also be in the America. Quo Vadis is also running “Roots Café” in the evenings, serving meals at a reasonable price, but struggling mightily with staffing it in spite of the good turnout of customers, much to the chagrin of the Western volunteers who show up to help wait on tables and prepare food. I have to admire the dream and energy he and they all put into it and am happy to support their venture with these concerts. Especially given the nature of the music I sing, JP thinks what I am doing is a perfect match for his vision of traditions in dialogue. I would like to encourage more meditation among the tribe, but don’t know exactly how, except to set a good example, staying in the cloister of the ashram compound rather than spending my free time there or taking meals at Roots.

I just got back from having tea with the Krishnamoortis, the couple that I have known through MC for some years now. They are a noble refined Brahmin couple, he being at one time the head of Indian Railroad. They retired here ten years ago in the shadow of Arunachala near the darshan of Bhagavan (Ramana Maharshi) and make two visits to the ashram each day, early in the morning and evening. We had a long conversation, they gently bemoaning many things around Tiruvanamalai: the influx of so many new visitors, many Westerners, many who are not genuine seekers; how Tiru has grown so commercialized––“A visit here is something to put on your CV!”; a lot more drugs and alcohol, phony swamis, sannyasin, gurus and yogis; many more vehicles and businesses; and the anti-Brahmin-Sanskrit movement in Tamil Nadu and throughout India, which they, of course, take very personally. I sort of sensed it for the first time this time, but Mr Krishnamoorti voiced what I was feeling: it’s almost as if someone has stolen something from the mountain, some energy. “What you are thinking effects how I am thinking,” he said. “We all have an effect on each other.” I suppose this is doubly true of a place so loaded with centuries of sensitive spiritual energy. I have the sense here as I had in Rishikesh last year, though I have enjoyed my stays at both places: that they are at the end of their real efficacy. I have this image of us as greedy spiritual “consumers,” devouring up all the energy in these areas, driving it farther and farther north, like the glacier at the mouth of the Ganga melting away, until there will be no farther north to go, every place will be spoiled with cell phone reception, internet cafes every block, and a Starbucks on the corner.

There is one unexplored territory––the cave of the heart, I kept thinking. We have to go within. We have to meet there, in the place before and beyond words and thoughts and images, the place that no amount of development and progress can really touch. I have an image of old Lao Tsu fleeing through Han-ku pass over the mountain as the Chou empire crumbled, sitting down to write out his 5000 words and then disappearing from history––or disappearing into history. The Krishnamoortis and I ended our conversation talking about who wears the khavi robes in India, and how monks dress in America. Mrs K was a little dismayed that most monks in America also don’t wear their habits outside of the monastery. I told her my thoughts on it, that there would always be a place for sacralizing signs of every type, including those of vesture, but ultimately that I thought Jesus was actually against things like special costumes that make us stick out and have places of respect and the finest seats, that we should be like salt in the earth and yeast in the dough––efficacious in disappearing, and that’s the role of monk––to disappear, “one with the dust of the earth.” John Wong was telling me on Bintan of his favorite childhood poem, Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” and his favorite line in the poem is how the Snark makes you “softly and suddenly disappear.” That’s it. One day we are meant to softly and suddenly disappear.

The only place left to go is no place.

Sometimes I feel like we are all a part of this big junk machine, cranking out trivial things, churning out more and more stuff and then storing it in our houses and in our souls. India, as over-crowded and polluted and noisy as it is, makes me feel again like I have too much stuff, too much baggage, both in my backpack and in my head.

Even what good is Sanskrit or Greek or any kind of Scripture exegesis if it doesn’t lead to the cave of the heart? Pseudo-Macarius says all this information is like “a great city, but deserted, and whose walls are broken down; if it is taken by the enemy, its greatness is of no use… By contrast the unlearned (idiotai!) who are partakers of grace are like little fortified towns.”

There is something perennial in this advice too:
The Self is not known through discourse,
splitting of hairs, learning however great.
The Self comes to the one whom the Self loves
and takes that one’s body as its own. (Mundaka Upanishad)
In the pursuit of learning,
every day something is acquired.
In the pursuit of Tao,
every day something is dropped. (Tao #48)

(Ahime, il spogliamento progressivo!)
I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
because you have hidden these things from the learned and the clever,
and revealed them to the merest children. (Mt 11:25)
The intellectual is always showing off.
The lover is always getting lost.
The intellectual runs away, afraid of drowning.
The whole business of love is to drown in the sea.
Intellectuals plan their repose.
Lovers are ashamed to rest. (Rumi)
And best of all the Sikh Guru Nanak says
Oh mortal!
You dwell in a world that is as a pool
whose waters God has made as hot as fire!
Stuck in the mire of worldly love,
your feet cannot move forward.

I have seen people drowning in this swamp!

Oh heart, oh foolish heart!
Why do you not think on the One?
Through forgetting your God,
your virtues have melted away.
I am not chaste nor honest.
I am not even a scholar.
I came into this world foolish and ignorant.
O Lord, I pray to always seek the sanctuary
of the gathering of those who seek you.