Hold nothing dear,
For separation from those that are dear is bad:
Bonds do not exist for those to whom nothing is dear or not dear.
Those who are perfect in virtue and insight,
established in the Dhamma,
have realized the truts and fulfilled their duties,
them do folks hold dear.
Dhammapada, 16:211, 217.
7 feb 08, Gurukul Theological Seminary, Chennai
I did a retreat day for the student body of the Gurukul Lutheran Theological Seminary starting with an opening conference Tuesday evening and carrying on all day yesterday. I had arrived here on the overnight train Tuesday morning, after what was perhaps the best night’s sleep I have had thus far in India being rocked gently in my upper berth in 2nd Class AC Sleeper on the Chennai Express. MC had seen me off after a hearty meal at Ananda Ashram surrounded by a sizable group of people I didn’t know that was staying there. After a breakfast and a shower I had kicked right into work on Tuesday preparing for the day ahead. Even more important than the content of the day, which went very well, was what I learned from my interaction with several of the people here, things of which I am not sure we have much of a clue in the West.
I first met for a long time with one of the professors here with whom I was to lead the worship service that would close the retreat day. But actually he and I spent the better part of our hours together involved in a discussion that was to be somewhat emblematic of other discussions I was to have in the hours to come. He knew of the focus of my work and was generally sympathetic, having involved himself in inter-religious work when he was younger. His hesitancy was that he is suspicious that much of the influence and exporting of Indian spirituality in the West is actually the result of Hindu Nationalists and fundamentalists that are trying to implant and establish Brahminic culture abroad. This was the first of several mentions there were to be about the tension between Brahmins, the highest priestly caste, and dalits, the lowest untouchables. This particular professor is a very bright, well read an articulate man and we had a fascinating conversation, also about how far a Christian can go in adapting, which drew on all my best skills and really made me dig deep. I am pretty confident of what I am doing and how, but even those few hours gave me a new vocabulary to articulate it. What he was especially pleased by is the idea of re-articulating Christianity in the light of other cultural and intellectual expressions, and the fact that I said over and over again that I don’t think we meet with Hinduism, for example, in the temple, but in the ashram, not necessarily at the level of ritual and doctrine, but at the level of philosophy, art and meditation.
The next conversation was with a young woman friend of Theophilus, another very bright and serious girl who was introduced to me as being a strong advocate of feminist theology. We sat having tea at a shop down the street from campus and she said right out that she thought yoga and meditation were the imposition of Brahminic culture on the dalits to try to control them. She was also not a fan of the Upanishads nor the Bhagavad Gita since they both promote the caste system. Now I knew that about the Gita (at least condone) but not about the Upanishads. We talked about that for a bit and I think even worked through it, and then she added, “But dalit spirituality is not quiet. Our spirituality is singing and dancing and expressive.” We also worked through that, me saying that all people could say the same thing at one level, but that the way of meditation is another and valid counterpart to that. I hope you can appreciate the impact of these statements. Afterward Theophilus fiulled me in even more––he himself is doing his thesis on dalit theology. Many of these young people are suspicious of yoga and meditation for these same reasons, as I had learned last year, that it is the “Sanskritization” or “Brahminization” of Christianity, not the Indianization nor the “inculturation,” because their culture is dalit culture, not Brahmin. This is a very heavy matter and I knew that I had to tread very carefully. These are all Christian students, mind you, but there concerns were not mainly doctrinal but cultural.
Another example, another young man, whom I had met (oddly enough, just about all of these discussions were happening over tea) said, very politely, as they all had, “With all the action that needs to be done for social justice we are wondering why we need to be quiet. What does meditation have to do with ministry?” I said that was like asking what a petrol station had to do with driving, and if I used the analogy of breathing in and breathing out once, I used it a hundred times in the next 24 hours. The last example was from a beautiful soul named Pah Mo from Burma, to change the context a little. We spoke a little at lunch and I said that I would very much like to hear more about the situation in his country. He lives in what is called Maraland, way in the north. When he goes home on holiday, he must walk for five days in order to reach his home. The tribal peoples up that way were divided when land was divided during the partition of India so that half them live in India and half in what is now Burma-Myanmar. They have been Christian for centuries. The government is nominally Buddhist, and ethnically Burmese rather than tribal people. We heard all about the Buddhist monks protesting the economic situation and being persecuted by the military junta. What we don’t hear about in the West is how the Christians are being persecuted in the north bu the Buddhists, more by the government than by monks. He gave me a paper that he had written about how Christians are being forced into labor and suppressed by the military government in what seems like an effort to wipe out Christianity, which is seen as an imposition from the West. He describes the situation as a new face of slavery.
So, I went into the day know that I could not just cavalierly start quoting the Upanishads or the Dhammapada, or recommending yoga and meditation. I ad to have serious reasoning behind everything I was about to say, and make sure that nothing I was going to use would wind up being a “noise factor” rather than a teaching tool. I consciously went through and changed the readings from Universal Wisdom that I had chosen to have fewer examples from India and more from Tao te Ching, the Sikhs, and even Islam. And I consciously did not pepper my talks with Sanskrit phrases. Two things occur to me. One: this is inter-religious dialogue at its most crucial, in an area where there really are problems between peoples. It’s all very easy for me from my comfortable hermitage in the woods in Santa Cruz to say that we should all agree to find common ground, but what does that mean for a dalit or a Christian from Burma who has experienced persecution who has had another religion imposed on them? And secondly, I was keenly aware that I could even not talk about Indian spirituality, as much as I have been influenced by it, if it gets in the way of the real message, which is holistic spirituality and meditation. Somehow I had to provide a basis for contemplative and holistic spirituality from the Christian perspective first, and then show how these other traditions are also valid and beautiful expressions of this, as well as areas where we simply do not agree.
The interesting thing was that I did not find this attitude with the faculty, many of whom came up and talked to me on the side before, during and after the day and were quietly thanking me and complimenting me on my approach. The younger generation is much more sensitized; the “baby boomer” were much more adventurous in their thinking, or at least had been at one time. I must say I enjoyed the time and the interaction thoroughly. I always find it interesting when I get described as or accused of being “intellectual” or “academic” because I feel like I barely have an advanced education. And yet, it was so stimulating to bring up these ideas––of course it was the same theme: Spirit, Soul and Body, the Universal Call to Contemplation––in a group such as that, where people were studying the same things about which I was talking, biblical anthropology and the interplay of Asian and European theology and philosophy, but not necessarily at the level of praxis as I propose and try to live it. Dr Meshack, he principal, unbeknownst to me, had scheduled me to lead a session of yoga and meditation early in the morning as part of the retreat day. After all the discussions of the previous day, I was a feeling pretty cautious. At first I was actually relieved that there was only a handful of people. But it was merely Indian Stretchable Time. By the 7:40 about ¾ of the chapel was full. I began as I always do by explaining that I am not a yoga teacher but that I have a practice that I am happy to share, and then I gave them 10 minutes of ashtgana philosophy, 10 minutes of the Sri Ram stretches and 10 minutes of Mount Madonna pranayama ending in the briefest of meditations––it was breakfast time after all. But mainly I told them, at the end of the last pranayama exercises, “Now I am ready to meditate” and that’s what this is all about, preparing my self to enter into meditation which, at least as I was taught, is yoga proper. It was a great session. Including the evening before, there were then four sessions, each beginning with one of their own worship teams––gurusishiya––groups leading music, usually something in English and a bhajan and a prayer, ending with a Scripture reading that I had chosen to introduce the theme. What music! And what a thrill to hear their full-voiced singing, 100 young people belting out these bhajans in various languages. I would always then do another song, opting for the most part to stick to Western liturgical style, which would be something different for them and also establish that I was definitely coming from a Christian perspective. Since it was Ash Wednesday, I had decided to use some pieces from Awake At Last, the new collection of Lent and Easter music that I just finished for OCP. Create a Clean Heart and Leave the Past in Ashes have now taken on a new life; I shall never be able to forget the sound of their voices singing them, as well as the set of Eucharistic acclamations that I wrote based on a Hindi bhajan but using the English words, the Holy, memorial acclamation and Great Amen. It’s the first time I heard them sung by Indians, me leading with just voice and finger cymbals, but trusty Theophilus on tabla throughout.
The communion service itself was beautiful. They had wanted me to do the consecration, but, in spite of feeling a little like a coward, I explained how complicated that would be, a Catholic priest publicly consecrating the Eucharist for a group of non-Catholics. If word of that got out we would all be the sorrier for it. So I led the first half of the service, a liturgy of the Word and this same professor did the consecration according to the CSI (Anglican) Book of Common Worship. I used the same old format derived from Shantivanam but with the new wording, as this was a group that constantly referred to God our Father and Mother, and ended with blessing some vibhuti-sacred ash and marking all their foreheads with the sing of the cross. Since I wasn’t in a Roman Catholic environment, I didn’t feel impelled to follow the exact words of the rite––the least of my concerns at that point––so I chose to say as I signed each one, “May God preserve you whole and entire, spirit, soul and body.” I did notice that there were a few who didn’t come forward, just as there were a few who did not attend the day. I think there were the same people. Theophy said not to worry; there were some people who were not open to anything.
It was only later that I realized the impact of the service on the folks. It was a style, a liturgical style, to which they are to used, at once both more participatory and more interior. Danny explained it all to me later. They tend to have very extroverted services with long preaching and long prayers. I was once again convinced of the transformative power of ritual, and how ritual conveys a reality, and incarnates an understanding of God, the world and each other that we are asking people to believe in.
Indian crowds, I have found, are much less interactive and responsive during any kind of event, so I kept checking with Theophy and Danny to see how things were going and if I was getting things across well. They assured me I was and so I just plugged away. But, as often happens, one by one students came up to me and shook and/or held my hand and thanked me and told me how much they enjoyed the day and asked me to come back again. I told them, and I am not saying this cavalierly, I was moved and changed by them, their fire and my interaction with them.
* * *
later, on the train
It is now 4 PM, a mere six hours into the 48 hour trip to Dehradun, but I have no regrets about taking the train. I am sharing a two tier compartment with a great couple named Radha and Vijayraghavan from Mysore, way in the west (though she is from Andhar Pradesh, the state just north of Tamil Nadu through which we are whisking as I type. He is a retired banker and Radha is a tour guide. They seem well educated and are just talkative and friendly enough that I feel comfortable and at ease, enough even to have told them who I was and what I was up to––the whole monk-musician-teacher thing, which usually elicits far more question than I care to answer. But the only thing they seemed to want to know was what I ate in the woods in California. I succumbed to two purchases at Madras Central Staion, a copy of volume one of Sancaracarya’s Commentaries on the Upanishads and a new novel by Rohinson Mistry, who wrote the wonderful “A Fine Balance” that I read some years ago. This one too is set in India, the story of a Parsi family in Bombay. Vijay noted, “You seem to have many books,” as I was routing through my knapsack, and then pulled the two new ones out of my guitar case, and they’re probably slightly amused as I have slipped non-stop between the Upanishads, my Bible, Spidlik, the novel. In other words, I’m as content as could be. If I only felt comfortable enough to whip out my guitar...
After the retreat day was over Danny drove me across town on his two-wheeler to Loyola College, Jesuits, of course, named year after year the best college in India. There JP, Agnete and the Danish group were, at the end of their tour on their way to the airport, but stopping first for a meeting with Fr Michael Amaldas. It was fortuitous that I would be there in Chennai on the same day and they wanted me to meet him, and I wanted to as well. He is a very well known theologian in these parts in inter-religious dialogue. He has helped found the Center for Dialogue of Religions and Culture there on Loyola Campus. By the time Danny and I arrived, he had already launched into an impromptu discourse on interiority versus activity, during which he boldly confessed to not being a sannyasi or contemplative or a yogi. He was a theologian, and “the first thing I do in the morning is not yoga. I check my e-mail or one of my three computers to see where I left off on an article I was writing last night.” He was really fun to listen to, no romance and no posturing. We all went for dinner afterward and I got to sit next to him and have a bit more of a tete-a-tete. He of course knew Fr Bede, and used to be part of a regular dialogue meeting between Bede and a Hindu swami. But he also knew Abhishiktananda, who he described as very childlike, and knows Raimundo Pannikar.
Some of the things he said put what I had experienced the past twenty-four hours into perspective. When one of the group asked him about how inter-religious dialogue is helping the peace process, he said, “Not much is happening right now.” He even thought that the Assisi gathering was not much more than a “photo op.” And he went on to clarify that most of what appears to be inter-religious strife has nothing to do with religion, but most of the problems we are facing in the world are economic, political and cultural. Religion simply becomes the fall guy. (I wonder what the vocal atheists would say to that?) That of course holds true for the situation in Myanmar-Burma: even Pah Mo could see that the imposition of Buddhism on Christians on the part of the government had nothing to do with the teachings of the Buddha; as it applies even to intra-religious conflicts such as the Sunni and Shia in Iraq: that is not a theological issue; it is purely about political power. And so, we must work for political and economic justice. On this, as well as the issue dialogue taking place at the level of culture as much as at the level of religion, he is in agreement with the present pope, though he did not say so himself. Later at dinner I also asked him about the dalit-brahmin issue in the church and was it true, as it seemed to me, that this is a more pressing issue in protestant churches than in the Catholic church? He said it was, partly because, though the majority of Roman Catholics in India are also dalits, a much higher percentage of Protestants are. I mentioned some of the things that I had heard. He thinks that some of the issues are not really grounded in historical fact––such as the use of yoga and meditation as a means of controlling dalits––but that these are emotional issue that must be respected. He seemed to hope for the day when the Sanskrit culture as well as all the other cultures of India would be appreciated together, without losing the treasures of any of them.
The group that journeyed here last year will know what I am talking about when I say that the buffet in the restaurant where we ate was up there with that of the Radha Park, and I was at first embarrassed by the air-conditioned comfort, cloth napkins and silverware, but got over it quickly enough and had a fine meal without getting any stains on my jhippa for the first time in weeks. As Agnete was telling me about the rest of their tour––after Shantivanam they had been to Fr Ammasmai’s well-known Bodhi Zendo in the south, which meant that they had spent their whole time with Catholics. I noted this to her, and she said to me, “As far as inter-religious dialogue is concerned, you guys are the ones doing all the work.” I felt so… proud of us for a moment. Meanwhile there was a duet of keyboard players entertaining us, who could have been a sketch on Saturday Night Live, singing the oddest selection of American standards––“Okie from Muskogee,” ”Those Were the Days,” “Achy Breaky Heart”––with perfect American English pronunciation both for the lyrics and their patter. Even the Danes, who seem to know a lot about American culture, recognized the music as what would be played at wedding receptions and dances for the elderly. JP actually asked them to turn their volume down because we couldn’t hear ourselves talk. So JP and I said a fond goodbye for now, as well as Agnete and Soren of the Danish group, all with expectations of seeing each other again.
When I got back, I was very tired and ready to go to bed, but there was a knock at the door. It was Theophy and Pah Mo, just stopped by to chat and say goodbye. They wound up staying almost two hours, but I was still sad to see them go then. Pah Mo wanted some guitar lessons––for living five hours from civilization he knows some pretty serious Western style licks already, and didn’t want to talk about native Burmese music; he wanted to hear some rock ‘n roll. Theophy told some more stories about his time ministering in the dalit village, and to put inter- and intra-religious dialogue in context, he told of talking to a man who had been persecuted by some local higher caste people because he was stepping out of line. Theophy was urging him to have patience and forgive. Then the man told him that he was trying to, but instead of punishing him directly these thugs had come in the village, grabbed his daughter and raped and killed her I public to punish him, and he was having trouble being able to trust and forgive. Theophy has told me this story before, and he was just as choked up this time as then. You see why he wants to do his theological work on “Dalit Theology,” and why one of his favorite books is “Jesus the Dalit.”