Sunday, January 27, 2008

the roots of the indestructible tree

When people are engaged in their proper work,
they attain the highest end.
One’s own duty in its imperfection
is better than someone else’s duty well-performed.
Bhagavad Gita 14:45, 47

So I am in Tiruvanamalai again for a concert tonight at the venue that got this whole new phase going, Arunai Ananda. I am trying to not project last year’s great night onto tonight, but just et tonight be what it will be. Though JP had offered to send a car for me, I was going to come up by train and bus, but we were unable to get me anything but waiting list on the proper train. So MC stepped in and arranged for and paid for a car to come and get me and drive me here through our friend Kumar. It was still a long hot drive, but worse for the driver, also named Kumar, who had driven all the way down that morning and all the way back up with me in tow.

JP had yet another evening program, a “cultural program” as are so popular here in India, planned at Quo Vadis, mainly for the benefit of yet another group of Danes that had come in plus a group from somewhere in northern Illinois. He asked, very nicely, if I would please come and end the evening leading the crowd in some music and meditation, around 8:30, he thought. It is worse than just “Indian time;” here it is called IST: Indian Stretchable Time. 10:30. I didn’t mind. Among the presentations before me there was a spectacular dance troupe. I must find out more about them, but I know this much. They were all from a dalit village, that is, of the lowest “untouchable” caste. As I remember, and it was explained again, the Brahmin cannot touch drums (they can’t touch animal skin) so the dalits would actually have to play the drums for some of the rites, at a distance. Out of that, a whole tradition of drumming and dancing and telling stories developed. How I wish John Pennington could have seen this. Apparently this particular group has been called on to perform by the state of Tamil Nadu as well at large cultural programs. They were three men and three women together, playing a sort of round frame drum that was actually shaped like a hollow bowl, and one man off to the side striking a large bass drum. And while they played, they did kind of syncopated steps sort of like a marching band, crossing each other on the stage and yelling out what seemed to be orders. It was so strong and joyful and triumphant. You could almost feel them celebrating their pride at being who they were.

I am sort of disappointed to find the Bhagavad Gita sort of justifying the caste system, but no more than I am to find Paul tolerating slavery and mysogeny. It comes from the same mind set. But in Chapter 18 after describing all the duties of each caste, Krishna says––I had just read it before I went to the cultural program––“When people are engaged in their proper work, they attain the highest end. … One’s own duty in its imperfection is better than someone else’s duty well-performed.”

I am staying over at the Bungalow, where Kay and Valerie stayed last year, and where we had those beautiful liturgies on the porch. It seems like a lot of house for one guy, but I don’t mind. When he brought me over JP was embarrassed about the state of the house since it has been in some disuse for a while, and offered to get me a room at Arunai Hotel. I was tempted for a moment––air conditioned comfort and modern plumbing––but just for a moment. Having this kind of space to myself and so near both Quo Vadis and the ashram. His faithful capable young friend Benni (who had run me off the to doctor last year after I cracked my head open on the stone lintel) came over with JP and dusted and ran the water and set up a mosquito net. (Kay and Valerie would have loved such luxury!) I set up a little meditation spot and my yoga mat out in the front room, which is just about big enough for a small yoga class or a regular size sangha meeting, and I have had dreams of having a Christian meditation center in the midst of Tiruvanamalai.

I was sitting out there this morning finishing my morning routine with the screen door open, when suddenly I heard a little voice say, “Hallo!” It was a beautiful little girl with a tiny girl following her, the latter naked as a jaybird except for a little red thread around her waist, Konabi and Shadika, (no idea if I got the spelling right), ten and two years old. It was obvious I was being invited out to play, so I went while Koniba very expertly finished building and lighting the little scrap fire they burn to chase the mosquitos away, and then I took their picture and then she insisted on asking mine with Shadika, before we were joined by another little naked angel named Tirupadhi, and Konabi ordered us all to pose for another picture. I’ll post them.

Off to Mass in the little red hut at Quo Vadis.

* * *

Let us be yours, Lord!
Pervade us, live in us;
gather scattered humanity in your body,
so that in you everything may be subordinated to God
and you can then hand over the universe to the Father,
in order that ‘God may be all in all.’
Pope Benedict XVI

Just one (complicated) thought on today’s Gospel. “The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light.” “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Those two are equivalents, eh? But what is this “kingdom of God”?

Evagrius, a little harder to understand, says “The kingdom of heaven is apatheia of the soul along with true knowledge of existing things. (Praktikos #2) When we reach apatheia (the state of all our passions being ordered), he is not sure but that the nature of the mind is such that it in and of itself is luminous, or if it is illumined from something outside of it. The former would have him agreeing with Mahayana Buddhism, according to Ashvagosa: “when the mind’s essence is kept away from all discrimination and prejudices (could this be equivalent to apatheia?) it radiates its inherent brightness to all parts of the conceptual world.” I was thinking of Plato’s people in the cave, our normal way of viewing the “enlightenment.” The philosopher is trying to get the people who are facing into the dark inside the cave to turn around and look at the sunlight streaming in from the outside. Okay. But the east turns that around. Looking inside the cave means looking out at the outside world without being rooted in Spirit. Katha Upanishad says, “The Lord made the senses look outward and see we look out and do not behold the deathless Self. Every now and again some wise ones, seeking immortality, look inward and behold the deathless self.” This is not far from St Paul’s understanding of the situation. We need to go deeper than our bodies and deeper even than our souls to the Spirit within. And that’s when the enlightenment experience happens, because it is then that we are governed by the Spirit of God who dwells in us. And that, according to a most ancient understanding, is where and what the kingdom of God is.

John Cassian taught that
after the devil has been expelled and the vices no longer reign at all, the kingdom of heaven can be established in us, as the evangelist says: ‘The kingdom of God will not come with observation, nor will they say: Here it is, or there it is. For amen I say to you that the Kingdom of God is within you’… Thus, if the kingdom of God is within us, and the kingdom of God is itself righteousness and peace and joy, then whoever abides in these things is undoubtably in the kingdom of heaven.

In his book Being Still, Jean-Yves le Loup explains that for the ancients, the Kingdom of heaven is nothing other than “the Holy Spirit ruling over our faculties, ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ … the Kingdom of God is ... the reign of love, love that informs and directs our other faculties.” And who else agrees with that is none other than Pope Benedict. In this section on the Our Father from Jesus of Nazareth he writes: “kingdom of God means ‘dominion of God’” (p. 146);“The Kingdom of God comes by way of a listening heart.” Since Jesus is the kingdom of God (autobasiliea), communion with Jesus is entry into the kingdom, hence he quotes Reinhold Schneider:
The life of this Kingdom is Christ’s continuing life in those who are his own. . . . [I]n the heart that is touched and transformed by [the vital power of Christ], the Kingdom begins…. The roots of the indestructible tree seek to penetrate into each heart.
And then Benedict goes on to write this beautiful prayer:
Let us be yours, Lord!
Pervade us, live in us;
gather scattered humanity in your body,
so that in you everything may be subordinated to God
and you can then hand over the universe to the Father,
in order that ‘God may be all in all.’
So, by turning inward, to the Spirit within (how Fr Bede would love that!) we establish ourselves in the reign of God.

I am happy to find out that this stuff I am teaching and learning from the Desert Fathers is coming in handy.

* * *

dhyana mulam gurur murti
puja mulam gurur padam
mantra mulam gurur vakyam
moksha mulam gurur kripa

the root of meditation is the image of my master
the root of my mantra is the word of the Lord
the root of all worship is the feet of the teacher
the root of salvation is grace
Dhyana Mulam mantra

28 january 08

Heading back down to Shantivanam today. The much anticipated concert at Arunai Ananda went well last night. Due to a snafu in late advertising, I think not as big a crowd as last year and not quite as lively either, but the reception was still powerful and, in spite of many doubts listening to them set up, the sound system was wonderful. Theophy and I had had a good practice surrounded by six or seven local kids who kept inviting themselves into the main room of the bungalow––I’ll post pictures. They were adorable. At one point they were imitating me singing on, of all songs, “Lead Me From Death Into Life” which of course has an echo. But they were echoing the long held notes I do during the verses: “I–––––––––––!” and they would answer “I––––––––––––––” Just beautiful. Theophy and I agreed that we were both very relaxed together on stage and were actually breathing together. He was really following my dynamics and tempi quite well. I also tried some new things (of course), pulled off the new song from the Dhammapada, “There is No Joy (Like Freedom).” (But I didn’t throw in “Good Gets Better” yet, John.) And led the meditation with the “Jaya Guru Deva” chant I love so much, and came out of it with the Dhyana Mulam and my version, “The Root of Meditation,” which I’m a little surprised how much people like. It’s such a simple little tune I’m almost embarrassed by it.

There is a large Danish contingent here, not mostly Lutherans this time but Theosophists and New Agers etc. led by a theologian (apparently well known) named Mogen Mogensten, and a well know theosophist named Lars. We had great conversations already and I am catching a ride on the bus with them down to Shantivanam today. India affords all kind of opportunities like that, but I have been thinking about what Theophy said to me. He said if I come back I should go and stay in a village some time. During his training to be a pastor he spent one summer there himself and he said it changed his view of spirituality.

Many blessings. I’ll post again when I can.

how the grape becomes wine

21 january, st agnes

I’m at Shantivanam now. I came by bus, a long ride from Tiru, through Villupuram. Luckily I had the company of Vibike, yet another wonderful young Danish woman who arrived at Quo Vadis just yesterday and just happened to want to come here also today. I have to admire folks like her––a woman in her early twenties––who just pick up and travel fearlessly to other places in the world, and regret a little that I didn’t do that and that I am not so adventurous or at least haven’t been so. But I find that it is so much easier to travel with a companion and I feel so much more ready to pick up and go anywhere if there is someone sharing the road.

Yesterday was another concert sponsored by Quo Vadis, this time at the Lebanon Campus of the Danish Lutheran Mission where there is a teacher training school for girls and the weaving center among countless other activities under JP’s adventurous eye. I wasn’t quite sure what the whole event was, but fund out when I got there, a mixture of three different groups: his local parishioners and fellow Lutheran pastors and their bishop; a group of Lutherans from Minnesota who have been supporting the work of Danmission in India for some years and were now getting their first firsthand experience; and then the women weavers and the girls of the teaching school. JP had had the whole thing set up in the weaving center itself, setting up a stage in the open air “quad” surrounded by looms. It was quite a striking setting, but I must admit it took me some time to figure out exactly what audience to try to reach! I played it by ear and spoke as slow and careful English as I could when I remembered––for the Minnesotans Just kidding, but at one point I thought, “This is like Praise Home Companion meets Bollywood.” It went well.

I am certainly getting closer to true sannyasa itineracy. I always say that all I need is my Bible, my guitar and my computer, so since we were traveling by bus I packed up only my knapsack with one set of everything and left everything else behind except guitar, Bible and computer. If I hadn’t promised Lit Press to finish the manuscript for them during this trip I might have even left behind this computer (it sure adds weight), and I seriously considered leaving behind the guitar for these few days and would have if I were to have been traveling alone. But even thinking consciously about taking “just enough” (including clothes for the cold country later) I still feel like I have three times too much stuff. I’ll lug the rest of my stuff here when I go back to Tiru on Saturday for the Sunday concert and return Monday, catching a ride with JP and yet another group of Lutheran missionaries who are coming to spend time here at Shantivanam and then on to Bodhi Zendo, a place that I am sad not have visited myself yet. But I am trying to balance my itchy feet with some long stretches in some places.

I saw MC right away, still over at Sr Mary Louise’s recovering from typhoid. We already had a long visit. It was interesting how much he concurred about the energy at Ramanashram and used the comparison of a rainforest––how sensitive spiritual environments are to the slightest change in their ecosystem, not to mention huge changes like two-lane highways being put in at the edge of one’s property, which by the way is what is about to happen here at Shantivanam. The state government has co-opted land that runs along the edge of the formation house property, as well as that of Ananda and Shantivanam itself to build a new raised highway. The fragile peace of this place will soon be no more. We added to that the recent demise of Sr Pascaline’s beloved Osage Monastery (O+M) in Oklahoma (though it is falling into good hands) and were speculating about the age we are entering into––the yogis tells us it is the kali yuga, the age of Kali. Just as Lord Shiva possesses a double nature of repose and action, in each one of these characteristics he has a spouse that is not only his contrary but represents generally an intensification of his attributes. As the symbol of beauty she is Uma (or Parvati, the one who invented the Saraswati veena), the mother of the Universe; but as destroyer, she is called Kali.

What will all this mean, and what are we to do? This wild translation of Rumi by Kabir Helminski I read on the bus this morning comes to mind:
I am from you, and at the same time
you have devoured me.
I melt in you since through you I froze.
You squeeze me with your hand,
and then you step on me with your foot.
This is how the grape becomes wine…
I just missed a whole crowd of people who were here, Camaldolese visitors from the US and Italy and Bede Griffiths Sangha folks from England. But another group, Russill and Asha’s annual pilgrimage, is here, 23 of them from the US, and two other women I know from California. I am actually staying at the formation house again with George, so haven’t seen the others. There are four new guys here with George, two from Goa and two younger ones from Kerala. I look forward as always to my interaction with them, learning and maybe teaching too.

* * *

Saturday, 26 january, timothy & titus, India republic day

I settled in pretty quickly to routine here at the formation house. (They’ve still never given it a proper name!) George has actually had to be gone a lot this week so I have stayed with the guys most of the time. I’ve been glad to be able offer the presentations on the introduction to desert monasticism each morning. The two older guys here, Lovell and Savio, are from Goa and speak very good English. The latter of the two seems to be brilliant with languages and rules of grammar, etc. He leads a Scripture reading class to the younger guys. When I attended it he didn’t hesitate to point out some of my own errors in phonetical pronunciation, until we established that “American English” is actually a legitimate variation on the Queen’s English. (Well!) After midday prayer, lunch and siesta, they say the rosary together, and just the other day I started also offering them some chanting classes before tea. I’m not trying to resurrect and teach them the raga tones, but merely teaching that simple three note tone I’ve been using for these past years all over the world. Then I take a long walk, and go over and visit with MC, enshrined at Mary Louise’ and still on the cure form typhoid before we do a period of meditation together up in Abhishiktananda’s chapel (as I came to think of it) before I head back to the house for meditation and evening prayer with them guys again. Dinner and nama japa, and then the day is done. We have all been going to Shanativanam itself for Mass each morning. I usually walk over with the two Keralese boys, 18 years old a piece, Elbis and Jibin. Again, I am enjoying the interaction with the young guys immensely and find it easy to slip into teacher mode.

Elbis and Jibin take English class with a wonderful erudite Tamilian man from Sri Lanka, actually a chemist by training and a Buddhist by religious preference, named Mr Ilangovan. We have had great exchanges over morning tea, he saying specifically that he wanted to speak with me and hear “American English,” which sort of justified my accent to Savio a little bit anyway. He almost does regard it as a different language. He wasn’t able to come yesterday and so I took class with the young guys, and I have to say, I enjoyed that too, though it made for a long day.

I have to say, if you haven’t gotten it from the tone so far, I am really enjoying settling in here and being a part of the daily round and common task of monastic life, and all of life being one dhoti, one pair of yoga pants, two shirts and a shawl, and two kilometers of forest along the bank of the lazy Kauvery River. I am scheduled for a yoga retreat up in Dehra Dun starting the 10th of February. I told a friend before I left that I wasn’t 100% committed to it yet, simply because I felt like I had “happy feet” and was feeling tempted to go tramping to other places up north I hadn’t seen yet, especially since Ranjeet from Rishikesh wrote and said he would be free to go with me if I wanted. But the very opposite has happened. I don’t even want to leave here and go north!

I haven’t been able to access e-mail here at the formation house this week so I am sending this off from Tiruvanamalai where I am for to do the concert tomorrow. More in the AM before I leave again.

* * *

sunday, 27 january

Yesterday was India Republic Day. (I might not have known that except for the fact that, to add to my insertion in community life at Shantivanam, I was asked to preach yesterday.) In the years that followed Independence in 1947, a man named Vallabhbhai Patel, who was called the Iron Man of India but wanted to be known as “one of Bapu’s soldiers,” brought together the 565 polyglot states that comprised the Indian subcontinent, bringing some semblance of order out the nightmare of chaos that followed independence from India. And on January 26, 1950 India cut her last ties with Britain and became a Republic. Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as the first president and, as he said, the country was now “brought together under the jurisdiction of one constitution and one union which takes over the welfare of the more than 320 million men and women” who inhabited it at the time. The church in India has its own eucology for the liturgy of the day, prayers and readings.

The readings were interesting choices, Jeremiah 31: “I will make a new covenant with house of Israel, I will write in on their hearts”; and John 8:31: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” I talked about how these experiments in democracy are based on that law written on the heart somehow, that can be known by looking into the nature of things, and looking at the human person. We say in America that people being “endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights” that are not just boons from the gods or gifts doled out from a monarch. I mentioned the pope’s world peace day message again (see earlier blog entry, “so the children may die no more”) too, and how nations need to be challenged to add to those rights things like homes, schooling and universal health care, and how their nation and ours both need to pay challenged by the pope’s call to care for the environment and demilitarization. These are things we can learn from reading the law written on our hearts and written into the very fabric of nature, and applying our logic to them. “My book, O philosopher,” says St Antony of the Desert, “is the nature of created things, and it is present when I will, for me to read the words of God.” You could even say that Jewish law was based on the same thing, an understanding of nature given their limited knowledge.

But Jesus always points out that even Jewish law or being children of Abraham is not enough, as in John 8. We need to go beyond that to have the very mind of Christ, “Christ consciousness,” if you will. But let’s make no mistake about what Christ consciousness is as recorded by Paul: he emptied himself and did not even consider godliness something to be grasped at. True freedom lies in not clinging, in not grasping, in being emptied out, not only not clinging to earthly attachments and the fear of death but of even our memory, understanding and will, all that which is in the realm of the soul. Then the awakening happens, then we may see God. “You can see forever when the vision is clear!” And then––Svetasvatara Upanishad again––: When the seers of Brahman see Brahman in all creation, they find peace in Brahman and are free from all sorrows. Then true freedom.

The promise about the end of that is two-fold. First: I remembered how Sri Aurobindo’s birthday was on August 15th, which is of course the feast of the Assumption, but also the day that India achieved her independence in 1947. Someone wrote to him to say how marvelous that was, that India should gain her independence on his birthday, since he had been a freedom fighter as a young man, but he had responded, referring to the Assumption of Mary, that it was even more wonderful that India should achieve her independence on the day when a human life was taken up into the life divine. The end of all this is that we are divinized. And then, we find that we haven’t actually lost anything, the things we have released from our grasp. “When I desired them the least,” says John of the Cross, “they were all mine.” But we look back on the world with clear vision and fierce optimism. Then we are really able to see even beyond the nature of things and “contemplate somewhat of the things divine and heavenly… which are beyond the range of bodily sight.” (Origen) It’s only then that we will know how to build a world of justice and peace.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

how the grape becomes wine…

21 january, st agnes

I’m at Shantivanam now. I came by bus, a long ride from Tiru, through Villupuram. Luckily I had the company of Vibike, yet another wonderful young Danish woman who arrived at Quo Vadis just yesterday and just happened to want to come here also today. I have to admire folks like her––a woman in her early twenties––who just pick up and travel fearlessly to other places in the world, and regret a little that I didn’t do that and that I am not so adventurous or at least haven’t been so. But I find that it is so much easier to travel with a companion and I feel so much more ready to pick up and go anywhere if there is someone sharing the road.

Yesterday was another concert sponsored by Quo Vadis, this time at the Lebanon Campus of the Danish Lutheran Mission where there is a teacher training school for girls and the weaving center among countless other activities under JP’s adventurous eye. I wasn’t quite sure what the whole event was, but fund out when I got there, a mixture of three different groups: his local parishioners and fellow Lutheran pastors and their bishop; a group of Lutherans from Minnesota who have been supporting the work of Danmission in India for some years and were now getting their first firsthand experience; and then the women weavers and the girls of the teaching school. JP had had the whole thing set up in the weaving center itself, setting up a stage in the open air “quad” surrounded by looms. It was quite a striking setting, but I must admit it took me some time to figure out exactly what audience to try to reach! I played it by ear and spoke as slow and careful English as I could when I remembered––for the Minnesotans Just kidding, but at one point I thought, “This is like Praise Home Companion meets Bollywood.” It went well.

I am certainly getting closer to true sannyasa itineracy. I always say that all I need is my Bible, my guitar and my computer, so since we were traveling by bus I packed up only my knapsack with one set of everything and left everything else behind except guitar, Bible and computer. If I hadn’t promised Lit Press to finish the manuscript for them during this trip I might have even left behind this computer (it sure adds weight), and I seriously considered leaving behind the guitar for these few days and would have if I were to have been traveling alone. But even thinking consciously about taking “just enough” (including clothes for the cold country later) I still feel like I have three times too much stuff. I’ll lug the rest of my stuff here when I go back to Tiru on Saturday for the Sunday concert and return Monday, catching a ride with JP and yet another group of Lutheran missionaries who are coming to spend time here at Shantivanam and then on to Bodhi Zendo, a place that I am sad not have visited myself yet. But I am trying to balance my itchy feet with some long stretches in some places.

I saw MC right away, still over at Sr Mary Louise’s recovering from typhoid. We already had a long visit. It was interesting how much he concurred about the energy at Ramanashram and used the comparison of a rainforest––how sensitive spiritual environments are to the slightest change in their ecosystem, not to mention huge changes like two-lane highways being put in at the edge of one’s property, which by the way is what is about to happen here at Shantivanam. The state government has co-opted land that runs along the edge of the formation house property, as well as that of Ananda and Shantivanam itself to build a new raised highway. The fragile peace of this place will soon be no more. We added to that the recent demise of Sr Pascaline’s beloved Osage Monastery (O+M) in Oklahoma (though it is falling into good hands) and were speculating about the age we are entering into––the yogis tells us it is the kali yuga, the age of Kali. Just as Lord Shiva possesses a double nature of repose and action, in each one of these characteristics he has a spouse that is not only his contrary but represents generally an intensification of his attributes. As the symbol of beauty she is Uma (or Parvati, the one who invented the Saraswati veena), the mother of the Universe; but as destroyer, she is called Kali.

What will all this mean, and what are we to do? This wild translation of Rumi by Kabir Helminski I read on the bus this morning comes to mind:
I am from you, and at the same time
you have devoured me.
I melt in you since through you I froze.
You squeeze me with your hand,
and then you step on me with your foot.
This is how the grape becomes wine…

I just missed a whole crowd of people who were here, Camaldolese visitors from the US and Italy and Bede Griffiths Sangha folks from England. But another group, Russill and Asha’s annual pilgrimage, is here, 23 of them from the US, and two other women I know from California. I am actually staying at the formation house again with George, so haven’t seen the others. There are four new guys here with George, two from Goa and two younger ones from Kerala. I look forward as always to my interaction with them, learning and maybe teaching too.

* * *

Saturday, 26 january, timothy & titus, India republic day

I settled in pretty quickly to routine here at the formation house. (They’ve still never given it a proper name!) George has actually had to be gone a lot this week so I have stayed with the guys most of the time. I’ve been glad to be able offer the presentations on the introduction to desert monasticism each morning. The two older guys here, Lovell and Savio, are from Goa and speak very good English. The latter of the two seems to be brilliant with languages and rules of grammar, etc. He leads a Scripture reading class to the younger guys. When I attended it he didn’t hesitate to point out some of my own errors in phonetical pronunciation, until we established that “American English” is actually a legitimate variation on the Queen’s English. (Well!) After midday prayer, lunch and siesta, they say the rosary together, and just the other day I started also offering them some chanting classes before tea. I’m not trying to resurrect and teach them the raga tones, but merely teaching that simple three note tone I’ve been using for these past years all over the world. Then I take a long walk, and go over and visit with MC, enshrined at Mary Louise’ and still on the cure form typhoid before we do a period of meditation together up in Abhishiktananda’s chapel (as I came to think of it) before I head back to the house for meditation and evening prayer with them guys again. Dinner and nama japa, and then the day is done. We have all been going to Shanativanam itself for Mass each morning. I usually walk over with the two Keralese boys, 18 years old a piece, Elbis and Jibin. Again, I am enjoying the interaction with the young guys immensely and find it easy to slip into teacher mode.

Elbis and Jibin take English class with a wonderful erudite Tamilian man from Sri Lanka, actually a chemist by training and a Buddhist by religious preference, named Mr Ilangovan. We have had great exchanges over morning tea, he saying specifically that he wanted to speak with me and hear “American English,” which sort of justified my accent to Savio a little bit anyway. He almost does regard it as a different language. He wasn’t able to come yesterday and so I took class with the young guys, and I have to say, I enjoyed that too, though it made for a long day.

I have to say, if you haven’t gotten it from the tone so far, I am really enjoying settling in here and being a part of the daily round and common task of monastic life, and all of life being one dhoti, one pair of yoga pants, two shirts and a shawl, and two kilometers of forest along the bank of the lazy Kauvery River. I am scheduled for a yoga retreat up in Dehra Dun starting the 10th of February. I told a friend before I left that I wasn’t 100% committed to it yet, simply because I felt like I had “happy feet” and was feeling tempted to go tramping to other places up north I hadn’t seen yet, especially since Ranjeet from Rishikesh wrote and said he would be free to go with me if I wanted. But the very opposite has happened. I don’t even want to leave here and go north!

I haven’t been able to access e-mail here at the formation house this week so I am sending this off from Tiruvanamalai where I am for to do the concert tomorrow. More in the AM before I leave again.

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.
Ashvagosha

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 CafĂ©” 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.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

seeing God in everything

When the seers of Brahman see Brahman in all creation,
they find peace in Brahman and are free from all sorrows.
Svetasvatara Upanishad

I woke up in a strange room yesterday morning around 5:30 to the sound of a loud speaker blaring music, knowing that I had just had a deep sleep but unsure of everything else. It took me a moment to remember that I was in Tiruvanamalai, in a guest room at Joshua Peter’s Interfaith Center, Quo Vadis, and it was the Indian national holiday Pongal. JP had met me at the airport at 10 PM in Chennai and then his driver took us through the night to Tiruvanamalai. It seems I have made that nighttime trip quite a few times now. Just counting myself lucky that I don’t have to do public transport, especially at that hour of the night. Since it was too late for me to claim my room at Sriramana Ashram, I stayed at Quo Vadis. I could stay on there all week, and I think JP would have preferred it, but I already had this room waiting, thanks to MC, and I assumed that the ashram would be a more private environment, not to mention closer to the meditation halls, the mountain and the caves. There will be enough interaction and work in the days ahead.

As I said, it was the feast of Pongal, a Tamilian harvest festival, and a government holiday. Pongal is both the name of the feast and the name of a rice dish. JP says that Christians, while having the day free from work, don’t really acknowledge it and so he, as is his wont, is all about finding a way for Christians to accept it and celebrate. So he had put together a worship service and invited all his friends and followers, complete with stage and sound system and a variety of speakers and musicians. He asked, if I was “in the mood,” if I would play something on the guitar. I begged out for now, as graciously as possible. I got some pictures (picasaweb.google.com/cyprianconsiglio). My young friend Peter was there, the one who had saved my during my guitar string emergency last year, working at a variety of jobs, including alternating between singing with the choir, playing the violin and the harmonium, and we had a warm re-acquaintance. The focal point of the worship ceremony was the clay pot full of milk set over a fire, and the climax came when, during the local Catholic priest’s message (he being one of the invited speakers), the milk pot boiled over, the milk, so I’m told, being a symbol of both purity and unity. Unfortunately I’ve already lost the order of service that was printed up because I wanted to share with you the blessing that I assume JP had composed to end. It began with, “May your milk pot boil over!”

I got my ensconced at Ramanashram shortly afterward. Doc Murthi was as gracious as always and I have a room two doors down from MC’s, who is incidentally not here right now. He is at Shantivanam recovering from Typhoid fever under the care of Sr Mary Louise. Though it is odd for him not to be here when I am, I admit I like being here without knowing anyone. In between work there is plenty of time to myself. I had told JP that I would be happy to do anything I could for him and Quo Vadis, and he has taken me at my word so much so that Ihad to back off that pledge a little. The days ahead are like this:

Friday I will go to Chennai and do a concert at Gurukul Seminary, where my friend Theolphius is, Saturday I will take part in a ecumenical pastors forum at Quo Vadis back here in Tiru, Sunday there will be a concert for a select group of around 150 at Lebanon Center, the main campus of the Danish Lutheran Mission, and Monday JP will get me to Shantivanam. But I am going to come back up here on the 27th overnight for another concert at the Arunai Ananda Hotel where we did the one last year. That one he is advertising widely already all over the city, and I am looking forward to it. The back to Shantivanam until the 5th of February, when I will coe up and do one last thing at Gurukul before heading north for my retreat time in Dehradhun. Honestly, though the traveling place to place can be a little wearing, the concerts ahead these next weeks feel like not a big imposition and I am looking forward to them. They feel like the reason I came to India this time. But I am relieved that he is handling all the travel arrangements and I don’t need to think abut that at all. And I have told him that that is all I am willing to do during this period––he wanted to know if I wanted to give guitar lessons to a group of young people at Quo Vadis––so I can keep the majority of my day to myself.

Today I officially re-donned my khavi dhoti and took my place among the pilgrims and rag tag sadhus around Ramana Mahrashi’s samadhi and Shiva’s holy mountain.

I was remembering the phrase that Kristi used to say in yoga class when I first started: “Find the edge between your minimum and your maximum.” I think that is a good summary of the practical spiritual life all the time. When you get to a place such as this, there is a tendency to hope for some kind of big cataclysmic conversion moment. Maybe. But in the meantime, how does Sri Aurobindo put it?
I have always seen that there has been really a long unobserved preparation before the Grace intervenes, and also, after it has intervened, one has still to put in a good deal of work to keep and develop what one has got… So tapasya of one kind or another is not avoidable.

It’s so helpful to be in a place such as this (or, one would assume, any monastery let alone any religious house) where people are going about the ordinary everyday business of the spiritual life, nothing dramatic or extraordinary, the little monk who sits up keeping watch over Skanda Ashram day in and day out, watering the plants and reading Scriptures, the folks who get up and do their asana practice each day, rain or shine, like the old folks who go to Mass and say their rosary every day of the year, the nun doing her lectio every morning at 5:30 for thirty years. And gradually life gets saturated with the spiritual, like fruit dipped in sugar and meat in salt pervades the food and preserves it.

I re-found a great proof text for the spirit, soul and body view this morning in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, which, all things being equal, may be my favorite:
When in inner union we are beyond the world of the body,
Then the third world, the world of the spirit is found,
Where the power of the All is, and we have all:
For we are one with the One.
When one sees God and the world and the soul,
One sees the Three: one sees Brahman.

The Svetasvatara’s description of contemplation is right in line what I understand the Christian one to be as well: When the seers of Brahman see Brahman in all creation, they find peace in Brahman and are free from all sorrows. What a suggestion: that when we have this experience of God, this seeing of God everywhere, that experience will make us know freedom and know inner peace. We in western Christianity are a little phobic about pantheism and easily miss this “seeing” which will enable that freedom and peace, but the spiritual masters of eastern Christianity (here we go again…) are pretty clear that theoria (the Greek word usually translated as “contemplation”) means to see God in everything. This understanding actually comes from a play on words which is a dubious etymology––theon horan, in case there are any Greek scholars reading––but still…

And then that experience of seeing God everywhere in everything has this tremendous effect on the rest of our lives, the freedom and peace. It’s not just a solipsistic thing, every time we have a greater experience of the Mystery of God––a unitive experience, an experience of the Indwelling Grace––we come back, or ought to come back, to the world, with greater charity joy peace patience kindness goodness generosity gentleness faithfulness modesty chastity self-control. Ordinary consciousness gets flooded with Divine Light.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

learning and teaching

Hard to find a people of great wisdom;
They are not born everywhere…
Happy is the teaching of the Sublime Dhamma;
Happy is the unity of the Sangha;
Happy is the devotion of the united ones.
Dhammapada, 193-194

Monday, 14 January 08

The retreat went well and was well received. Again it is interesting to experience giving this material in an Asian context. Folks were taken by and no one seemed to be shaken by the inter-religious subtext and, of course, understand references to Buddhism and Hinduism, not to mention Taoism, not in an abstract way. We had packed a lot into less than two full days so certainly by the time Mass was over on Sunday after lunch I was tired of talking and hearing myself talk and so gave the last session, which was supposed to have been another question and answer period, over to singing. It was a lot of fun and great relief to get into that part of the mind and body. Afterward I met with Pat and Richard from Malaysia who are to be my hosts there when I get back from India. The plan they have formulated now that they saw me work was to take me on a week-long trip up the peninsula of Malaysia, performing a “recital,” as they called it each night of the week and then ending up on the island of Penang where I will lead a retreat. It sounds like a very full week but one that will afford me the opportunity to get to know Malaysia more than from a plane trip.

After the retreat I had tea with Peter Ng who is the head of the WCCM and Mediomedia here in Singapore. He is quite an impressive man, having worked now for 30 years for the Singaporean Government Investment Corporation, not far removed from the past and current Prime Ministers. It is hard to describe just what an influential position this is, if you know anything about the economic savvy and influence of Singapore. He was telling about a multi-billion dollar bank deal that will certainly have an effect on the global ecomony that he was brokering this past weekend, the reason he couldn’t attend the retreat. And yet the practice of meditation seems to be the very center of his life. He is very close to Laurence Freeman and a huge supporter of the WCCM. Then, just as I got home, there was a call for a group of young people. There is a young meditators group here in Singapore, a handful of whom had been at the retreat and with whom I had already spent some time talking. They wanted to take me out for dinner and pick my brain a little. They whisked me off to a local hawker area––outdoor vendors, which are the typical way of eating here––and plied my with both local food and dozens of very intense, earnest and intelligent questions about many things spiritual––all the way from the practical mechanics of meditation to some very deep existential questions. In the case of one young man, he was anxious to learn more about this notion of “spirit, soul and body,” and “Why don’t we ever talk about this in Christianity?” Two of them kept pulling out notebooks and writing down phrases and names of books while we spoke. I rarely have encountered this level of intelligent enquiry and existential hunger in America. It was pretty exhilarating. I’m not sure I was up to the task of satisfying their hunger, but our conversation might have made them a little hungrier yet, and me too.

Today Leonard is going to take me to one more session of hot yoga (Bikram), and then he and John have arranged for me to meet with a Jesuit in his regency here in Singapore, while I wrap my stuff up and prepare to head for Chennai tonight. The Taylor took a good smack en route from San Francisco––the risk of traveling with a soft-shell case; they wouldn’t let me take it on this time. So Leonard and John insisted I get some bubble wrap, just in case that happens again. They, along with Clare Ong, have been marvelous hosts. I am now looking forward and am physically ready for my time in India. I am anxious to seeing what this time has in store for me. Learning and teaching, learning and teaching.

word into silence

What use are the Scriptures
to anyone who does not known the Source from which they come?
Only those who realize that one as ever present within the heart
attain abiding joy.
The Lord of Love is the supreme creator
hidden deep in the mystery of the Scriptures.
Svetasvatara Upanishad.

We did a communal lectio period together as part of the retreat. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work with such a large crowd, especially Singaporeans who are somewhat reticent of sharing in public, but it went well.

I am so interested in and fond of the connection between Scripture and meditation. My own practice has grown out of that simple phrase of John Main’s that seems to sum up the connection between liturgical prayer, lectio divina and meditation, “Word into silence.” I found some things in Spidlik again that are very useful. (I have brought the second volume of his Spirituality of the Christian East, on prayer, along as my spiritual reading for this trip, like an old friend.)

The Hebrew terms that usually gets translated as or associated with “meditation” derive from the root haga, translated into the Greek as melatan, and Latin as meditari, meditation. There is an immediate tie in with the Asian understanding of the mantra and even the nama japa, as its original root meaning is actually “to make a soft murmuring sound,” and so the seat of meditation is the throat! (OM!) And this haga is mostly associated with God’s word. So Psalm 1 says they are “happy who meditate on God’s law day and night.” The Greek notion of melatan and the Latin meditari expand that a little bit. They carry the notion of “taking something to heart,” as in practicing or accustoming oneself to something. So we have Mary “pondering all these things in her heart.” Spidlik mentions St Paul recommending that his disciples “take to heart” the meaning of Scripture (1 Tm 3:14), but I was thinking of him saying in Colossians 3, “let the Word of God dwell in you richly,” or as we re-stated it in our Psallite antiphon, “let the Word make a home in your heart.”

So Christian meditation proper grew out of encounter with the Word, as we see evidenced in the desert monks, recalling and repeating texts from Scripture as “food for the soul.” The word that comes down to us from St Benedict is ruminare, to ruminate on the Word as a cow on her cud. This word actually derives from Scripture too, in Lev 11:3 and Dt 14:6 where the clean animals are the ones who ruminate, those that “chew the cud.” A clear example is found in a method recommended by Pachomius in his Rule; he tells them over and over again to meditate on something from Scripture (de Scripturis aliquid meditari), which meant for them to recite verses from the Psalms or short biblical texts in a low voice. John Cassian tells us that this practice is what eastern monks did instead of celebrating the canonical hours as the western monks did; all day long during manual labor, repeating or reciting biblical texts or snippets of Psalms. This is the practical application of praying without ceasing. And of course it is in this context that we get Abba Isaac’s famous teaching on prayer in Conference 10 that John Main and others adapt as a Christian teaching on the use of a mantra, Abba Isaac’s “mantra” itself being a line for the Psalms: “O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me,” taken from Psalm 70:1.

The practice of the monks of the early centuries of the church was that of learning Scripture by heart, usually by means of reading it out loud in a soft voice––haga––murmuring it. This of course comes about partially by necessity given the paucity of printed copies of the Scriptures. There are still monastic teachers who insist that this is the proper and most efficacious way to read Scripture; there are certainly echoes of it in the Rule of St Benedict. Theophan the Recluse taught that it is impossible to describe all the profit one could gain from learning passages of Scripture by heart. It is like putting fruit in sugar to penetrate and preserve it, so the soul is “impregnated by the words of God,” and so preserved against the corruption of vain or evil thoughts. “The goal of reading is to let the Word of God penetrate the heart, where it becomes prayer.” (Spidlik, pp. 140-141) “Let the Word make a home in your heart.”

Spidlik mentions that there is a connection here with St Francis de Sales’ teaching as well as that of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, that even “ignatian meditation” is not as opposed to eastern notion of meditation as some would assume but is rather supposed to lead to the same contemplatio beyond words and images of the intuitive intellect. But Theophan thinks that Catholics never understand what true prayer is because they stay concentrated on rational reflections instead of going all the way to the intuitive intellect. It is not the St Francis or St Ignatius themselves do not lead us there, but that practically speaking going beyond thoughts and imagination, “discursive reasoning,” has been neglected in the western notion of prayer. This of course is where the proper practice of lectio divina comes in and be a real help, a practice of “Word into Silence.”

Said simply, we read the Word, we memorize “learn by heart” something of that reading that has moved our heart, and that little snippet becomes our mantra that we carry around and murmur, if you will. This is the understanding of the practice japa-repetition in the Indian tradition, that we are lead to greater and progressive interiorization by way of the bhajans, japa–repetition either of a name of God or a mantra, leading to dhyana–meditation.

this is my joy

This is my joy,
and now it is complete:
he must increase
and I must decrease.
Jn 3:30

Halfway through the retreat for the World Community for Christian Meditation here in Singapore. I have come to expect, and was certainly not disappointed this time, that the Singaporeans can really get things done, including turn out a crowd. There are around 200 people on the retreat, which we are holding at Trinity Theological Seminary. So far it is all being very well received, after getting past the initial session of them getting used to my American accent and too much information. They are especially appreciative of the music and have learned the chanting tone and even some of the Indian pieces quickly and eagerly.

Today’s Gospel was one of those signature lines of John the Baptist: This is my joy, and now it is complete: Christ must increase and I must decrease. I can hear the music of our Camaldolese antiphon. That passage gave me leave to talk a little about bridal mysticism in the homily, as John introduces Jesus as the bridegroom, and he himself is only the best man. It comes to us not just from the female saints such as Teresa and Therese but from the commentaries on the Song of Songs that go back as far as Origen through Bernard of Clairvaux, and of course even farther back to the Hebrew Scriptures that include not only that erotic love poem the Song of Songs in the canon but record the prophets such as Hosea and Isaiah referring to Israel as the bride of the Lord. It’s with the Song of Songs, though, that this espousal becomes understood not just as corporate but regarding each individual soul as well.

I suppose this is harder for men to grasp, the idea of being a bride, despite the commentaries of Origen and Bernard, but in a sense it is easier to grasp for everyone––including some feminists who prefer not to name certain attributes as “female” or “feminine”––viewed through the lens of a culture, such as this one, that would be so heavily influenced by Taoism. Instead of saying we are all “feminine” before God, we could say that at some point we all need to be yin as opposed to yang before God. We need to be passive, receptive, yielding, like Mary (how this image has become important to me!) who welcomes the Word in her pure virginal womb. How many times have I quoted Tao #10 in the past weeks?: Opening closing the gates of the sky; can you be like a woman?

But back to the really important point, how Christians, like Jews and Muslims, do not have much language for, using Bede’s vocabulary, “unity by identity” (aham Brahmasmi––I am Brahman), but more “union by communion.” The Trinity is our operative model, the love affair between the Father and the Son, which is the Holy Spirit. And we are invited into that relationship. Even there, the language of erotic-spousal love works also in relation to the Divine, and this we do hear from the mystics, disappearing into the Beloved, the lines blurring between lovers, which someone like Rumi learns teaches him about the Divine as well:
During the day I praised you, and I didn’t know.
At night I laid with you and I didn’t know.
I had suspected that I was myself
But I was entirely you––and I didn’t know!

John asks for no allegiance to himself any longer from his followers––I must decrease, he must increase. Don’t these words also apply to all of our relationships? At some point our love for anyone must reach the stage where it asks nothing in return, and we say of our lovers, our children, our friends, our students––I must decrease and he, she, you must increase. This is why Jesus urges us to give without asking anything in return. It is all a lesson in loving in general, the seed falling in the ground and dying and so yielding a rich harvest.

But somehow in that dying process, in that asking nothing in return, in our decreasing, our real self emerges. That is part of the rich harvest. So I want to hold these two things together in tension, that Paul says both “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” (Gal 2) the disappearing into the Beloved; and “my life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3). Perhaps these are two ways of speaking about the same thing: the first is “union by identity”: no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the second is “union by communion”: my life is hidden with Christ in God.

The “I” that must decrease is not our real “I,” our truest self. It is the “I” with which we usually identify, the false I that we project out to the world. Our real self is somehow already in union with God, hidden with Christ in God, but we keep identifying with and projecting our shallow selves, our shadow realms. That is what must decrease.

And the meditative process is all about that. Letting go of our identities and self-definitions one at a time, whatever we are clinging to, layers of our mask, accepting the poverty of stripping down ‘til we experience our real self hidden with Christian God. I must decrease so that he must increase and as he increases, my real self will increase as well.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

bintan

I spent some time around people,
but fidelity I neither saw nor smelled in them.
It’s better to conceal ourselves
from the eyes of the people,
like water in iron and fire in stone.
Rumi, Rubiyat #1082

The original plan was for me to spend some time with the Franciscan novices, perhaps even doing some yoga and meditation with them. But John Wong, ofm, who I had met last year and who had been the novice master, has just been relieved of his duties and the new novices are living at another house. John himself, having just seen his charges make simple vows not even a week ago, had this week free before beginning his new assignment in the parish here. That worked out to my advantage because he invited me to come along on a little getaway that he had planned for himself. So Wednesday morning we boarded a ferry boat and crossed the busiest shipping lane in the world across the South China Sea to the Indonesian island of Bintan, where he has booked a room at an inexpensive resort known as Nirwana (sic) Gardens. I got an Indonesian visa on arrival (VOA) for $10 US. When the little shuttle from the ferry dropped us at the hotel we were greeted by a troupe of young beautiful Indonesian musicians in what I assume to be native costume, playing accordions, drums and tambourines, and dancing. It reminded me of our stay last year in Mahaballipuram, but a little fancier yet and more crowded.

We had a couple of walks and talks on the beach together, and even walked out to a small island at low tide. I am still adjusting to the time difference so I woke up early the next day (actually, come to think of it, not that much different form my home schedule) and I wandered around the darkened resort looking for a cup of tea and a lighted place to do my morning lectio. A worker setting up for breakfast kindly got me the tea, but no such luck with the well-lighted place to sit and read, so I contented myself sitting our near the water and for a time over in the outdoor breezeway near our room waiting for John to get up. One of the workers approached me suspiciously––“Hello? Sir?”––some guy sitting in the dark at 4:30 in the morning; but as soon as he ascertained that I was a bona fide guest he asked me, “Why are you not sleeping?” and sat talking with me for quite a time in his broken English.

Later that morning––John and I gave each other lots of space this second day––I found an isolated spot of beach to spend a few hours and did some yoga. Suddenly at one point I thought to myself, “Am I really doing yoga on an isolated beach on an island in Indonesia? How the heck did I get here?”

While throughout our trip John, who speaks Indonesian among three or four other languages, was able to regale me with stories about Bali and Jakarta and Java, guests at the resort are prevented from experiencing much of the real Indonesia. The place is kind of a plastic bubble for Singaporean, Japanese, Chinese and Korean tourists. Even the so-called village to which the shuttle bus took us at lunch time was nothing more than Disney-esque shops full of oleh-oleh (souvenirs) many of which were plastic thingies which had nothing to do with Indonesia. The only saving grace of the village was that at the edge there was one little––empty––restaurant that actually served local Indonesian food. John, who is also vegetarian, ordered up a selection of vegetables and rice and feasted on jack-fruit with a kaffir lemon leaf sauce, bitter tapioca leaves (which, if not cooked properly, so John tells me, could give one cyanide poisoning; we hope for the best), potato croquettes and chilis. Then a few more leisurely hours before catching the ferry home, reading the wonderful Kiran Desai novel, “An Inheritance of Loss,” reading Rumi in solidarity with the Sangha, even wrote some poetry, and watched the Japanese tourists vie with the Chinese tire manufacturers vie for championship leisure.

We met up with Leonard Ong, just returning from Hanoi on business, with his wife Claire and their kids afterward, and for here on out I am his as he is the organizer of all my work here. By the way, the compilation album that Leonard and I have worked on all these for MedioMedia, Echo of Your Peace, is printed, and there were five copies waiting for me when I arrived the other night. For those of you who don’t know, it is a sort of greatest hits collection drawn from previous albums with the addition of some of the brand new Indian material. It is mainly meant for distribution in Asia since it is cost preventative to bring albums from the States to sell here. I am so happy with it, and so is Leonard, and we are both determined to do worldwide distribution with it if we can figure out all the contractual issues. Certainly I will take it with me to Italy next year.

One thing I forgot to mention, they were pumping gamelan music over the sound system throughout the hotel. I kept asking people if there were any instruments around I could see of recordings I could by (thinking of John Pennington), but the closest I got was one guy telling me the IT department would burn me a copy of what they were playing and a young porter named Steve who didn’t play gamelan but did play bass in a punk band. An Indonesian punk band? Leonard is still determined for me to come back to this region next year and do some work for WCCM in Indonesia and he and John were plotting as to how I could spend some time on Bali to get experience gamelan up close.

Work starts up tomorrow. One more day of rest, though I day planned by Leonard is anything but restful! We’re on our way to hot yoga in a half an hour.

Monday, January 7, 2008

the wealth of the nations

January 6th–8th, in flight

May the mountains bring forth peace for the people
and the hills bring forth justice.
May he defend the poor of the people
and save the children of the needy.
Ps 72

It felt quite significant to leave for this trip to Asia on the feast of the Epiphany. My friend John had come out to my cabin where we had early morning yoga, Mass and meditation before he took me off to SFO. I was remembering our Eucharist with Raniero presiding on the porch of JP’s house in Tiruvanamalai last year, the day that Theophilus snuck up behind me and started playing tabla, especially our rendition of “We Three Kings.” I was remembering too the beautiful relazione that Bro Martin had offered at the General Chapter in 1999 on “the three wise men from the West” who had come to India, namely Monchanin, Abhishiktananda and Bede; and how it has always seemed significant to me that the gifts the magi brought were received, and how everyone brings gifts to lay at the feet of Christ, and just as they are welcomed, so we must welcome all the gifts that our sisters and brothers from other traditions and cultures bring and lay them at the feet of Christ.

But I was especially reflecting again on my conversation with Fr Monodeep Daniel last year at the CNI Brotherhood of the Ascended Christ in Delhi. Monodeep was telling me how much Abhishiktananda’s theology of the Word had influenced the whole Church of North India, so much so that they practically quote him in their Eucharistic Prayer: “From age to age you sent wise men and women to show us the way to you.” Any Indian, he said, would know that the rishis of India and the Buddha and the Jains and the Sikhs are all included in that phrase. He had spoken of Abhishiktananda’s understanding of “bringing the wealth of the nations to Christ,” such as the truth of the advaitan experience, or the wisdom gathered from any praxis. But he went a step further and explained what else that had meant for them, that Abhishiktananda might not even had known. “For the dalits,” he said, that is, the lowest caste, “untouchables,” “not only do we bring the wealth of the nations to Christ, but then Christ distributes the wealth of the nations back to us.” He went on to explain how there was a time (and somehow I never fully understood this) when the dalits were not allowed in the temple at all because they would pollute the place and the Brahmin priests. (Hence, here again is the source of Dr Ambetkar’s rage against Hinduism.) He told of an image that is used among Christians, “the drum of the Word,” which refers to the ironic fact that Brahmin priests could not beat the drum that was necessary for certain rituals because he could not have contact with animal skin, and so had to get a dalit to do it for him from a distance. “So you see, the dalits have been beating the drum of the Word all along.” And this, he said, is the tension between the Christian priesthood and the Brahmanical one: the Brahmins, at least at one time, were not allowed to touch the dalits or have anything to do with them, whereas, he said, “I have been to many Roman Catholic ordinations and it says specifically in the rite that they have the power to sanctify, the duty to touch the so-called unclean, and they will actually lay their hands on them. Christian priests say, ‘You come and I will bless you.’” He said this was the same tension between the priesthood of Aaron and the priesthood of Melchizedek that Abhishiktananda loved to point out: the priesthood of Aaron would not allow itself to be polluted by un-holy things, but the priesthood of Melchizedek is the cosmic priesthood that sanctifies the wealth of the nations for Christ. And then Christ distributes that wealth to everyone, which means a dalit may not get the wealth of India from Hinduism, but might get it from Jesus, advaita, yoga, everything, from the One who has gathered the wealth of the nations, the fullness of the Word wherever it has manifested, and then spreads is like prasada with bliss-bestowing hands.

* * *

I've arrived safely in Singapore after 22 hours of travel. I'll be here 'til next Monday, some days to acclimate and un-lag, then a retreat on the weekend for the WCCM. Blessings, Cyprian

Friday, January 4, 2008

itinerant

#24

Hermit, that yogi is my guru
who can untie this song.
A tree stands without root,
Without flowers bears fruit;
No leaf not branch and eight
Sky-mouths thundering.
Dance done without feet,
Tune played without hands,
Raises sung without tongue,
Singer without shape of form––
the true teacher reveals.
Seek the birds, the fish’s path.
Kabir says, both are hard.
I offer myself to an image:
the great being beyond boundaries
and beyond beyond.
from the poems of Kabir

I'm heading out for Asia on Sunday. There is more “work” this time yet than in the past, mostly concerts and interfaith events of which I am very happy to be a part. Here’s brief summary of what I'll be up to:

Jan 8th-14th I'll be in Singapore, giving a retreat for the World Community for Christian Meditation on the weekend. They are my sponsors for this whole trip. We will be "premiering" "Echo of Your Peace," the compilation album that I put together this year mainly at their request for distribution in Asia, which I also hope to use as a greatest hits/retrospective album to make available next year, especially during the concerts in Italia.
Jan 14th-21st I will be between Chennai (Madras) and Sri Ramana Ashram at Tiruvanamalai, for sure a concert at Gurunkal Theological Seminary in Chennai on the 18th. This is as a guest of my good brother the Rev Joshua Peter. He is organizing a few interfaith events in the days ahead, and I shall just go along for the ride and count on him to organize my travel, or at least get on the right bus.
Jan 21st-Feb 6th I'll be down for a too-short stay at beloved Shantivanam (Kulithalai), though Jan 25th I am to go back to Tiruvanamalai for a concert at Arunai Ananda, the hotel where we sang last year. "A concert for westerners" JP said it would be.
All the above are in Tamil Nadu, South India.

Feb 7th I will go back to Chennai for a day, offering an Ash Wednesday retreat day for Gurukal Lutheran Theological Seminary (!) where my friend Theophilus is a student. I'm still shaking my head a this one, not sure why or what I am going to do or say. But how could I say no?
Then north by train, through Delhi, and Feb 9th-27th I am signed up for a yoga retreat at Yoganga Ashram in Dehradun.
Feb 29th I will return to Singapore, for two or three concerts, and then they (the WCCM) are sending me March 2-8 to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for a retreat, concert and youth event.
God-willing I will be back March 12.

Counting on your prayers, assuring you of mine.