Friday, February 29, 2008

dirty ol' delhi

Keep your mouth shut,
guard the senses,
and life is ever full.
Open your mouth,
always be busy,
and life is beyond hope.
Tao te Ching, 52

I said to John (Wong) and Dominic (Ong) in the car yesterday, I was thinking that I should just keep a room in Singapore since I seem to come through here so often. John said to me, “But you do have a room here!”

I’m back with the friars at St Mary of the Angels in Singapore, here for a concert tonight, and then off on Monday for a whirlwind tour up the Malaysian peninsula doing concerts and then a retreat for the WCCM in Penang on the weekend.

So, Delhi. What I liked about Rajpur was that the locals neither seemed to interested nor surprised to see us. They were neither chasing down our business nor jacking up their prices to accommodate for Western money. On the other hand, it seems like everyone in Delhi is on the hustle. I had booked a room through a travel agent in Dehradun––Pinky’s––not really knowing what prices got you, but still had thought on the train that I would try the YWCA again first since I knew it and the area. A driver accosted me at the train station, and I told him I didn’t want a taxi, I wanted a rickshaw and he said, “Come!” I was trying to act like I knew what I was doing and said I just needed to go to the YWCA on Ashok Place, which I thought was just around the corner. He quoted me a price for it and I said it was too much. Well, so much for knowing what I was doing––I was not at the train station that I thought I was at and the YWCA was a clear 12 km across town from where we were. So I agreed to his price and we got to his vehicle, which was not an auto-rickshaw at all but a taxi. I noted that, and he said, “Yes, but it is a small taxi!” By then I was already tired of arguing, so off we went. He tried to tell me that the YWCA was not going to have any rooms, but he knew a hotel and had a pamphlet for it, his friends owned it, AC plus Internet, very clean, very safe. He was asking me lots of questions, did I have a reservation, how much was I paying, what was my budget. I’m just not very good at that and always feel like I have to answer all questions and answer them honestly too, but I finally said, please just take me to the Y and we’ll see from there. I didn’t want to tell him that I had a paid reservation at another place and that I was thinking of forsaking it (about $10). He was right; the Y had no rooms and so we were off to another part of town.

I was a little distressed when I saw the neighborhood and the hotel itself––Hotel Swagat Palace––where I had my reservation, even from the outside. He led me in, and I paid him off and got my room. The word “hellhole” kept coming to mind. It wasn’t the dirtiest place I had ever seen, but it was pretty primitive. There was no hot water; there was no faucet in the sink, no towel, no soap, and only a padlock on the very flimsy door. (That was particularly annoying since I had forsaken my morning hot bath at Sri Ram looking forward to a hot shower here in Delhi. Oh well.)

I hid my computer, locked up, strapped my passport and money around my neck, and headed out. I found the metro easy enough, and took it up to Connaught Place, the area that I did know pretty well. I walked around until I got my bearings, the block where I hung out last year, near the Sikh temple and the restaurant where Pranjal worked that I ate in every day. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised by encounters like this, but just as I came up from the underground tunnel, someone from behind me said, “Excuse me sir, what are you looking for?” I turned around and amazingly it was a young guy named Raj whom I had met last year. He was one of a dozen or so guys that had approached me on the street last year trying to lure me into going to visit the Indian Bazaar, where he would receive R 100 for having brought a customer. I had told him that I would pay him R 100 if he would walk around with me instead, so that I wouldn’t be accosted by other hustlers, which he did for about an hour, talking and still trying to lure me into the bazaar and/or get more money out of me for schoolbooks. He was quite surprised that I remembered him at all, and that he was from Rajasthan, lived with his uncle and was studying English. So he walked with me, I warning him that I was under no circumstances going to go to the Indian Bazaar. We had tea and I mentioned to him an inkling of an idea that I had had about coming to Delhi, that I might perhaps buy something at the famous music store named Rikki Ram, but I needed to go not to the well-known location but to their second store. He proudly said he knew right where it was and after we finished our tea he got on a bus with me and led me right there.

John Pennington had led me to their other store when we were in Delhi together in 2005. That place is like a pilgrimage spot for Western musicians. First of all, it is probably the most famous music store in India, especially for the sitar. There are many pictures of Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka among other sitar greats, not just publicity stills but taken right there in the store with the proprietors. Of course the thing most people really come to see are the pictures of the Beatles, and one extra of George Harrison later in life visiting the store, because this is the store where George bought his sitar in 1966, which he used to record “Norwegian Wood.” John and I (or I should say, John himself) wound up buying the tabletop tambura there that we have used in concerts and on the last recording. I had in mind that I might possibly buy another one of those, perhaps even the improved version of it, though was truly loathe to go through the hassle of lugging it home. MC, knowing how I was hesitant about taking anything big with me on the road, had given me the idea when we were together down at Shantivanam of perhaps instead buying one of the electric tambura boxes that many of the professionals use now, that are also battery operated. That had struck me as a great idea, and it was echoed by Dayanand at Sri Ram, who himself had pulled out a very cool little electric tambura, and had said that he had gotten it a Rikki Ram, not at the main store but at the second store. And so there I was.

The big man working on a sitar behind the counter was friendly enough. It wound up being Sanjay, the owner. I told him I hadn’t known before about this second store, and he told me proudly that this was the store for the professionals, the other one, run by his brother, was just for tourists. I told him what I was looking for and he gladly pulled out the three models he had. The one Dayanand had was the least expensive of the three, and also the lightest in weight, and I might have bought that one, but Sanjay didn’t approve of the sound, which was synthesized and not a direct sample. To make a long story short, I wound up buying a very nice model, and in the course of buying and selling, we had a heck of a conversation. Sanjay proudly told me all about his friendship with Ravi and Anoushka Shankar, for whom he does all the repairs and construction, and who had just been in the day before. As a matter of fact he tours with Sri Ravi playing tambura, and was about to leave the next day for a series of concerts. Not only that, he made the mohan veena for the man with whom Ry Cooder had done the album that I love so much, and knows Ry Cooder himself, along with knowing Sting and Krishna Das and countless other well known Western musicians. Even more interesting, he knows Barry Phillips well and his wife Shelley, both of who played for me on my new album for OCP, and the new pieces for Echo of Your Peace; Barry is also on Compassionate and Wise. So it was pretty amazing to be across the world talking with someone with whom I had friends in common.

Just before I left, Sanjay’s mobile phone rang. “It’s my wife,” he said. The ring tone was “Norwegian Wood.”

I usually don’t buy something like that right away without thinking it over, but I happened to have all my money strapped around my neck and Sanjay was willing to accept American dollars. So I reached under my shirt and deftly extracted four $50 bills, for which he gave me change in rupees. I had mentioned Raj to Sanjay a couple of times, and how he had led me there, hoping that Sanjay might get the idea to give him a little tip as they would at the Bazaar, but no luck. But now Raj had seen me with a wad of cash, so as we left he asked me if I could buy him a school book, since we were right by the book depot, and I said, “Absolutely.” It was a little expensive, a Hindi-Sanskrit-English Dictionary, but at that point it felt like the right thing to do. Then Raj led me to a local restaurant where I bought us each a tali. The young guy who seemed to be the manager of the place was quite taken by having this Westerner there and was eager to engage in conversation, and others of the staff sat at the table across from ours and simply stared at me while we ate, but I guess by this time I am used enough to that to be able to carry on. By this time it was pretty late and dark and I didn’t know where I was, so I asked Raj one more favor––could he lead me back to my hotel, which he did esaily by way of public transportation, a frighteningly crowded city bus, right to the door of my hotel and advised me to not go out any more tonight, “People are drinking here. Just you stay in.” I gave him another little tip, and he said that he didn’t have school the next day and “Do you want me to come tomorrow too?” I said I thought that would be a great idea, so he agreed to come at 10 and show me around Delhi.

The next day was not quite so fun. I was surprised that Raj actually did show up, but he was there waiting at 10. My plan was to go to the Ramakrishna Mission to meditate and buy the second volume of Sancarya Charaya’s Commentary on the Upanishads, then go down to Sri Aurbindo Ashram for lunch and a look around, and perhaps a visit to the Oxford Book Store at Connaught Place before heading to the airport. Raj had a better idea; “How can you come to Delhi and not see all the monuments?” he said, and offered to give me a tour of the major monuments. Well, I thought he was right, that I had for once better do the tourist thing.

Raj led me immediately to a tourist place that he said offered a tour in a mini-van of all the major monuments. Only there was no mini-van so they said that they could get me a taxi for the whole day, wherever I wanted to go, for R 1800. This made me suspicious right away––I suspected that Raj was on the take from them––and I probably should have backed out at that point, but I was trying to be open. We stepped out for a minute while I thought about it, and I asked Raj right away if he worked for them, and he swore he did not, so I reluctantly agreed that if they would also take me back to my hotel to pick up my luggage and then on to the airport I would do it. (A ride to the airport alone might have been R500.) So we set off in our taxi.

All was fine until the third monument, Huymana’s Tomb, considered the Taj Mahal of Delhi. For an Indian it cost R10 to enter; for a foreign tourist it was R250 or $5 American––listed just that way, in American dollars. I hesitated but then again decided to go through with it, so I headed back to the taxi to get a five-dollar bill out of my backpack instead of using up all my rupees. Just as I was about to head back to the tomb, Raj came hurrying back, got into the taxi and said, “Let’s not stay here, let’s go to the next one.” I was a little confused but got back in the car. Suddenly a brown suited official came and knocked on the window on Raj’s side of the car and gestured for him to come out. An angry exchange ensued between the officer, the driver and Raj. No, I take that back. Raj wasn’t saying anything, just standing there looking very guilty and a little scared. I finally got out of the car and asked what was going on. The officer was very polite to me and just let me know that I should go and see the monument but that this was not a nice man––Raj. I thought he was telling me that Raj was actually a tour guide and had a card, and was posing as a friend to get me to go along. In other words, everything that I had suspected. I looked at Raj, who was saying nothing, but looking very guilty. So I grabbed my backpack and headed to the tomb, paid my $5 and went around for a lookabout, feeling as if the whole day had suddenly taken a very bad turn and that I was very naive.

When I got back to the car the driver was there waiting and, I was somewhat relieved to find out, so was Raj. I at least wanted to get an explanation from him, and was hoping he had not gotten arrested or something. We got in the car and he hurriedly explained to me that locals are not allowed to accompany tourists to these monuments unless they are certified tour guides and Raj (just the opposite of what I thought) was not a registered tour guide, and that officer was a tourist police guarding tourists against getting ripped off. Now I was really confused and didn’t know whom to trust or what to believe. I was made to understand that if we visited any more monuments there was a good chance of this happening again, and I would have to explain that Raj was my friend or else he could get arrested. By this time it was as hot as Hades, the traffic was a snarled mess, Raj and the driver seemed to be arguing with each other, and I was sorry that we had done the whole thing and was willing to cut my losses and be done with all of them. We wound up spending another hour or merely slowly driving by another three or four monuments without getting out, and then we stopped for lunch, at which point I left Raj behind and headed back to the hotel and on to the airport a little early with just the driver, though it still took another couple of hours to do all that. We did stop at Ramakrishna Mission on the way to the hotel, but it was closed. Alas, the one thing I really wanted to do…

What was stranger yet was that as soon as we left Raj behind the driver suddenly started speaking to me in pretty good English, asking me all kinds of questions and telling me all about the things we were passing on the way, which was pretty surprising because up to that point he had only been speaking in Hindi, and right to Raj, not to me. He was very nice, but by the time we got to the airport it became clear that he too wanted a little extra money, which led me to believe that perhaps he had been in on the little scam as well. He didn’t get much money from me because by that time I actually had spent all of my Indian rupees.

In other words, a horrible day, and I am now even more convinced to not do the tourist things in India. I was left pretty downhearted about the whole encounter, that that would be my last few hours, but that is exactly the down side of India. I was thinking as we lifted off that I either never want to come back to India again or I want to move here permanently.

why are you working so hard?

So long as one clamors for the I and the Mine,
our works are as naught.
When all the love of the I and Mine is dead,
then the work of the Lord is done.
Kabir I.83

tues, 26 feb 08

There is a little temple that sits on a hill along the path of the shortcut we take to the yoga centre in the morning. I assumed it was abandoned, but a few days ago I started seeing people there again, and one of my mates told me that there was a sadhu who lived there. I saw him a few times, talking with other people there and have wanted to stop and meet him, though I am generally not good at those kinds of getting-out-of-myself encounters. Saturday, at the end of our free day, I was walking the path and noticed that he was sitting out on the low stone wall, and there didn’t seem to be anybody else there, so I decided to go up. There were in fact a few other people, most of them young guys scraping the walls of the temple and preparing it to be repainted. He greeted me gently. I told him I just wanted to look and he gestured to me to do so. When I had walked all around the temple and back to where he was sitting, he started asking me a few questions about where I was from etc., and I sat down on the ground in front of him and we talked for bit. His English was rough; he seemed to speak better than he understood. His story, which I pieced together after an hour-long conversation, is that he is from the state of Karnatica. He is a vairagya monk, like Baba Hari Das, not a sannyasi (he wears white). His name was Swami Saccitananda, very propitious! His father died when he was 7 months in the womb, and then his mother died when he was 9. He lived with his uncle for a year and then somehow moved into an ashram under a guru at 10 years old. He was a mauna, silent, for 12 years, from 12 to 24 years old, and then lived with his guru in Mysore for some years. Eleven years ago he moved here into the house next to this abandoned Shiva temple. He knew of the yoga school, and had himself done a full yoga course only recently, “not to teach, just for self.” I think after a while he finally understood that I was a monk and priest as well as a musician. He had that typically Indian way of holding a conversation in that he was in no hurry to fill the silent gaps between topics, so you never knew if he was done talking or not. I’ve learned to ride those silences out by now, so it was a comfortable time together. The others had all left by the time we really got talking.

Anyway, the Swami said something that made me very happy and that kept echoing over and over again in my dreams and waking all that night. After I told him about the yoga course, he said to me in kind of a funny voice, “Why are you working so hard?” I must have looked a little perplexed because he went on to explain what he meant: “Forty minutes in the morning before meditation is enough. This yoga is good for 20 year old and 30 year old but at our age [he was 46], this is enough.” During the course of the conversation I had asked him if he did puja or chanting the Vedas, and he said, “A little sometimes.” He was telling me that he spoke Karnatic, Maharastra, Hindi and a little English, and I asked him about Sanskrit. His face kind of screwed up, and he shook his head and said, “No, no, no Sanskrit.” I asked him what Scriptures he read, the Gita, the Upanishads? He waved his hand dismissively and said, “No Scriptures, only meditation.” Then he said something like, “I meditate three, four hours a day, I do some sweeping, maybe puja sometimes, but I think about God all the time. I stay here all the time, never go out, no attachments to people. That’s enough.”

The place has little shrines to Kali and Hanuman as well as the main shrine to Shiva, and another separate one dedicated to the nine planets. Fr Bede loved to mention that tendency toward monotheism that underlies Hinduism, the tendency to “see beyond all these gods to the one Reality which lay behind them.” There is a famous verse in the Rig Veda, ekam vipru bahuda vadanti: “the one being that the wise call by many names.” Swami gave living proof of that again. I asked him if he had any devotion–bhakta to any particular deity, and he gently screwed up his face again in that way of his, frowned and said, “No, just Brahman, nirguna, nirmurthi, nirakkar.” No qualities, no images. It is really this one Being that Bede says “haunted” the mind of the Vedic seers who knew that all the “gods” and powers were really nama-rupa, name and form of this same one Reality.

I’ve gone back a few times now, and wish I had discovered the place earlier. The swami had told me the story of how Vivekananda had come there, over a hundred years ago, and met with another famous swami, Turiyananda. What I didn’t realize until my second or third time there was that down below the temple there is something called the “Vivekananda Meditation Cave,” a beautiful spot that reminded me of Virupraksha cave at Tiru. Sunday I stopped by partly to visit with him, but even more just to sit there in front of the inner shrine with its Shiva linga and various icons and I realized what I have been missing these days: that bhakta-devotional element. We chant the text in honor of Patanjali every day, and Rajiv ends every class by guiding us in a meditation, inviting us to bow in supplication and gratitude to the point of refulgence within the vast space in within us, cloaked in an image of the Divine that is dear to us, and he often spices up the class with references to Hindu mythology and bits of philosophy, but I have to admit sometimes it has felt more dry than many of my classes in the gym. I have missed that spiritual context that we have, for example, in the Saturday AM classes at Mount Madonna, and I have missed the ambiance of, say, a place like Sri Ramanashram at Tiruvanamalai or Shantivanam or even Rishikesh. Somehow sitting in that little temple with this solitary swami felt like being home.

I love that: “Why are you working so hard?” My left hip was aching all night one night and I kept tossing and turning trying to find a comfortable place to sleep, and every time I would wake and try to go back to sleep I heard his voice clear as a bell saying, “Why are you working so hard?” and I knew somehow that it was enough to just stay close to God with the mantra, the name, the image in the cave of the heart.

* * *

I had been vacillating about whether to leave on Wednesday (by necessity to get down to Delhi to catch my plane out for Singapore on Thursday) or a day or two early to see the folks in Rishikesh again and/or Haridwar before taking off. I opted out of Rishikesh again, just to get as much class time as possible, but I am going to go to Haridwar today to visit Sri Ram and our friends from Mount Madonna who are there with Baba Hari Das at this time. I must admit, after this much time with folks from the Iyengar tradition, I am looking forward to talk to someone from what feels more like “my” tradition, simply to compare notes and get re-grounded.

Rajiv himself kind of summed up my final thoughts on this experience. He was downplaying yet again the notion of getting teaching training certificates and qualifications of being any kind of yogi, and said something like, “So you will go home and write on your CV: ‘Went to Rajpur, Rajiv yelled at me for three weeks, learned some asanas and left… with mixed feelings.’” There was a pause and then we all laughed quite a lot about the “mixed feelings.” He seemed kind of melancholy and frustrated yesterday, and talked more than usual, a good half of the class time. He was trying to instill in us again the real meaning of yoga––“the art of personal transformation”––and how asana practice can lead you to the foothills of the mountains and from there we can look at where the great yogis are, and it is then that we choose or, better, we are chosen by, one of the great margas—pathways, karma or jnana or bhakti or dhyana yoga. That was the first time I had heard it put that way, that the four yogas are only chosen after we had mastered a certain practice. He also talked about the great saint Mira Bai, who never did asana practice at all, in the context of saying the real conquest is the conquering of self, so obviously he believes that one can become a great yogi without the technology of asana as well.

Rajiv obviously has a real bone to pick with Western yoga in general and even especially Iyengar Yoga as taught in the West. For all his insistence on accuracy in poses he says that Western yoga has an obsession with shapes and they (we) think that all yoga is about is looking beautiful. The others in the class who have been here for these courses before, I found out later, were annoyed to hear this harangue again; apparently it is a constant theme of his. But in between the berating and exhorting, he has moments of real lucidity and genuine humility. I think he recognizes his own shortcomings as a teacher and does not consider himself to be a great yogi or a holy man, but merely a close disciple of Guru-ji BKS Iyengar and an accomplished instructor, both of which are true. He and Swati have certainly put together a stellar center and I am glad for the experience. I would be interested to go back to an Iyengar class at the OM Room in Santa Cruz now for more of the “technology” of this system from another teacher.

* * *

I’d agreed to go up to the Purkal Youth Development Center to sing and talk about the American election process on Monday night. One day when I was visiting the Swami asked me to sing something, and I said I would (and did) but told him that I would be passing by with my guitar on Monday, and could I stop and sing then. He liked that idea, so I stopped by late afternoon on Monday on my way to Yoganga to be picked up and driven to Purkal. As he had warned me, there was a group pandits there, which in this case means young (20-something) brahmacaryas doing a nama-japa at the shrine of the nine planets that had already lasted the better part of the day. Also there was the crew of local guys who had been hired to scrape and re-paint the temple, who I had already met on previous visits. The pandits eyed me a little funnily as I walked up with my guitar on my back, but the Swami ushered me right into the central room of the central shrine next to the Shiva linga surrounded by the hooded cobra and icons of various other deities, gave me a large straw mat to sit on, lit some incense and an oil lamp and left me to it. I hard him outside say something in Hindi to someone else who was there that included the words “music program.” I wasn’t sure; I thought maybe he was going to come back in and sit down. So I played for a while, tuning and warming up, getting used to the space––a beautiful acoustic; the guitar was almost too loud for the voice––but he never came back. I alternated singing and playing for 30 minutes. At one point one of the pandits came in and laid down a mat for himself as well, and I could see various others circulating around outside the low door. I asked to make sure I wasn’t disturbing their ceremonies but he assured me not. I think they were done by then. When I finished the young pandit thanked me and asked, “Coming tomorrow?” But alas, that was my last day. I would have liked to, and again was regretting that I hadn’t discovered the place earlier. Still in all, this is enough. I bade goodbye to Swami and he handed me a little bowl of sweets.

I made it up the hill just in time for a little van to come roaring up to usher me away to the Purkal Youth Development Center. I was accompanied by two young teachers, one of them a gregarious young guy named Vimul who I had met the week before, who engaged me in polite rapid fire conversation. It was a wild very fast ride up the mountain. After a brief visit with Mr Swami who again clarified what he wanted me to do in addition to singing. He did ask a little about my own background then, for which I was oddly relieved. And then we went in to the 50 or so gathered kids from 6th, 7th and 8th Class, so perhaps 10 to 13 year olds. So I launched first into a couple of songs, including of course “My Own Two Hands,” which I used as a seque into talking about democracy and voting and how everything we do can change the whole world, and how important our voice and vote is. Had I ever taken a civics course (I must have somewhere along the line!?) my civics teachers would have been proud of me, but still only probably given me about an 80 for a grade on my oral report. I remembered the best I could and then did a little research online, so the presentation was well laid out and systematic, but I sort of folded when it came to the question and answer part. Of course, it was Mr Swami himself who was asking all the questions, as the kids’ attention drifted off in utter boredom at the tedious, complicated process of number of Senators plus number of Representatives equals the number of electors in the electoral college, etc. etc. They did enjoy the part when I divided them into Republicans and Democrats. The girls were the former and delighted to have the elephant as the symbol of their party. The boys on the other hand were quite dismayed about the donkey, and actually asked it they could have the lotus as their symbol instead, which is the symbol of the BJP party here in India. I said I was sorry but there decisions had already been made. Then I got to sing a few more songs, had another little visit with Mr Swami at his house, which was nearby, and then whisked back down the mountain. I found out from Mr Swami that he was a graduate of the same Loyola College in Chennai that I had just visited and he spoke of his high regard for the Jesuits. Though not a particularly religious man himself, he appreciated my path and work, and asked many questions. He said that he thought we’d all be a lot better off if the religions of the world could stop concentrating on their differences and come together about something.

One last dinner and long conversation with my wonderful housemates, and then in the morning I caught the train to Haridwar. I was vacillating about adding that little side trip but in the end really thought it would be a shame ot be so cose and not stop in. I was greeted very warmly, though there was actually not a bed for me, they were so full. Jaya was most apologetic but I was perfectly happy on an overstuffed mat in the yoga hall where one other intrepid drop-in was also camping. I saw Dayanand and Sadanand, and a few other faces I recognized with from Mount Madonna itself or from my two previous longer visits there. But I must say I was most happy that some of the kids remembered me, especially my young friend Vijay, who I saw just after I arrived as the kids were coming home for lunch. He’s the young guy who was coaching John on the tabla when we were here together in 2005, and with whom I played a bunch of music last year. We had both, apparently unsuccessfully, tried to send each other things this past year, I a CD and he an e-mail. I had heard from Dayanand that just after I left last year his little brother had one day simply shown up at the gate of the orphanage. I still didn’t get the whole story, but apparently neither one of them was able to talk for the first few days that he was there. He’s a strapping ten year old with a huge smile and enough confidence to run for office, and Vijay was very happy to introduce us, and when he did, I realized that that had been the main reason I had come––to see him and meet Krishna––and told him so.

While the kids finished school in the earl afternoon, Dayanand and I sat and played music in their apartment upstairs, he with a full five guitars and/or mohan veenas of various shapes and re-configurations. My favorite was a Taylor twelve-string that he had had modified at Rikki Ram (the famous sitar store in Delhi) with drone strings just above the low E, and another of sympathetic resonating strings set at an angle right above them. I could barely make hide nor hair of it but he made it sing. We played on happily for an hour and a half or so, gathering a small crowd. And then I spent as much time with the kids as possible: tea time with Baba-ji at 3, study hall with Sonja, Savita, Amita and Arun at 3:30. I watched the boys play cricket and then played a long couple of games of 21 (basketball) with Prakash. Either the basket was lowered, I have really improved with age, or I was having a very good day, because I kept swishing it from the free throw line. I think it was the first, but still Prakash was mightily impressed, as was I. Then after our (guests’) dinner I went to their cacophonous arathi in the shrine room. Krishna was quite proud to show me that he was the pandit that evening, which meant that he got to dress all in white, and wave the fire and incense. After that, all the kids go to Baba-ji’s room for candy and games, but Vijay stole me away, found Krishna, and led us to his new room for a private visit. We took a bunch of silly pictures, Vijay showed me his tabla books, I impressed them (or they acted like they were impressed) at being able to read a little bit of Hindi, and we exchanged e-mail IDs again. I had a wonderful time and stopped just short of offering to adopt the two of them as my sons. Suddenly that part of the sannyasa diksha made sense––“I give up the desire for progeny…”––and stung a little.

I take back what I said three weeks ago: last night on that matt on the floor of the yoga room was the best night’s sleep I have had in India, almost nine hours. Again before we slept Jyoti was apologetic about the lack of space, but I was as comfortable as could be on the floor and instead apologized to her for turning their yoga room into a flophouse for wandering sadhus. Early morning calisthenics with the kids (the same warm-up routine I do every single morning now) and then I joined them for their chanting and dhyana. As in time past, as they leave to go up to Baba’s before breakfast, I stayed in the shrine room for my morning prayers and meditation, and felt very much at home. I said goodbye to them all as they left for school, caught a taxi to the train station and am now on the train to Delhi.

We’re ambling into dirty Delhi now.

no yoga for pig eaters

yogena chitasya padena vaccham…

Let us bow before the noblest of sages, Patanjali,
who gave yoga for serenity and sanctity of mind,
grammar for clarity and purity of speech,
and medicine for perfection of health.

Let us prostrate before Patanjali, in incarnation of Adissa,
whose upper body has a human form,
whose arms hold a conch and a dsic,
who is crowned by a thousand headed cobra…
chant to Patanjali

23 feb 08

On our break now after the second week of the yoga course. I have not yet decided exactly when I am leaving, could be as early as Monday, most likely Tuesday, but for sure by Wednesday since I need to get down to Delhi to catch my plane out of India. These weeks have flown past. I can hardly believe my time in India is done but I am well into my sixth week already.

This week went well and fast. I always keep in mind the phrase the Kristi in Santa Cruz used to say, that in yoga we should find the “edge between our minimum and our maximum.” There was one day in the middle of the week when I felt as if I was stretched even beyond my maximum. We were doing back bends for over an hour and then we ended class with a series of long-held chakrasana–the wheel pose, both hands and feet on the ground underneath and bending up from the waist. There were people collapsing all around me, and there were also about six people in the middle of the room slowly folding backward from a full-shoulder stand straight into the pose who seemed as if they were defying gravity. Rajiv was concentrating all his effort on them, trying to fine-tune their hand position and descent. I was relieved to find out afterward that Espen, who is quite experienced in Iyengar, also found it a grueling workout and has been carrying the same pain in his lower back since then as I have all week.

That afternoon was our philosophy class. To give you a taste of Rajiv’s style in teaching us––I wrote this down verbatim so that I could remember it––he started class by saying, “When you Westerners come to India you don’t have the context for this…” And then he told us that it would be a waste of his time to teach us Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; he needed instead to teach us “pop” philosophy.” Again I was disappointed by that, but he may be right; perhaps the majority of the class does not have much background in philosophy and spirituality, and only know the asanas. In my case it is almost the opposite. I studied the philosophy for years before I ever began hatha yoga. There was never a yoga teacher at New Camaldoli so I had to wait until I got to Santa Cruz. I wrote in my journal that after the years of study “it’s almost as if I had to sneak back outside of my body and come back in, make the journey all over again, trying not to forget what I had already learned as I enter into my own second axial consciousness.” Ignore the thing about “second axial consciousness” if that doesn’t make sense and suffice it to say that I think this is also emblematic of Christian religious life: we do tend to have a lot of book knowledge and theoretical knowledge and rational knowledge, but we have been scant on practical skills and practices.

But––and this is what I did glean out of Rajiv’s talk that day––this is why you teach yoga to children, so that when the time of interiority comes later in life. He was referring to the vanaprastha asrama, the third phase of life when one can retire to the forest, what one of my friends refers to as the “RV stage” in America. During the first years, the brahmacarya phase, young people are being governed by biochemistry, and they got to have to have the fire in the belly. That is the time when they need to be taught virtue and how to act properly int the world, give them some reins to drive the chariot. In that second stage of life, grihasta, as interaction with the world gets more and more dense, as I have heard it described before, so Rajiv also said that the main focus is on the righteous pursuit of material affluence, and a judicious use of pleasure and karma. But then, some time after 50, the density of interaction with the world begins to diminish, and one starts preparing for death. It could be a time then to also actively phase out interactions with the external world and really focus on the inner journey. And if you have studied yoga, you already have some practical skills of focusing within through the body because through yoga one knows how to turn the gaze within, one has a sense of the indwelling divine, one knows one’s own body as the brahma-loka.

I remembered Richard Rohr’s teaching about the male rite of initiation, that the young boy carries with him that memory of the experience of death and what to do with it––“Go down!”––when the time comes, when he reaches the crisis of limitation in his life. Rajiv said something similar: “Yoga prepares you to die,” he said, by teaching you to engage in the core self, in the essential being that does not terminate, the pursuit of knowledge of the Self when the urgency of the immediate fades away. But, he says, it’s too late to start when you are middle aged; you need to start at a young age to know what to do later when the time comes to start detaching from the outer for the sake of the inner. Then age is not seen as a hardship but rather as a time when one can perceive judicious interaction through the knowledge of hindsight.

I was wondering if people in the West or anywhere in “developed nations” really know what to do with themselves when there is nothing left to do, nothing left to entertain and distract us. When there is nothing else on the outside calling for outward attention, work or duty or family responsibilities, that is, according to the Indian mind, the time not to “move on” but to “move in,” all the way in. I don’t know that the Indian mind is that different from the any other mind in this regard, only that it is written out literally. We see this natural movement in some people in all cultures and I certainly see it in America, how many people in their 40s and 50s and 60s are hungry for a “way in,” practical skills for making the inner journey and devoting themselves more to prayer and meditation, the spiritual life in general. While it is vitally important also to give young people practical skills that they can tap into later, I don’t want tot think that older folks are a waste of time either, or even that it’s too late to start at middle age.

I ran into this beautiful mantra from the Isha Upanishad the other day that had given me such consolation some years ago, and it made all new sense to me in the light of this: Krato smara krtam smara––“O mind remember all that has been done. Remember!”

The funniest thing the Rajiv said the other day, though I am not sure he intended it to be funny, was the closing line of his lecture. He had been talking about karma and diet and said simply, “There’s no yoga for pig eaters!”

* * *

A couple of things happened this week that really started building some bonds between is all. Monday afternoon after our philosophy class many of us headed down the hill into Rajpur proper for various reasons and about ten of us wound up at the same at tea stall. It was the first day that I actually felt a connection with people outside of my housemates, and the liveliness of the conversation was amazing. As I noted, the crowd in general is very international anyway, and there we were sipping tea folks from Norway, America, Sweden, Switzerland and Sweden, if I remember correctly. We of course were comparing notes about the class and Rajiv’s fiery style of teaching.

And then Thursday evening we had all been invited to go to a place called the Purval Youth Development Center. This is apparently a favored charity of Yoga-Ganga Centre, who likes to encourage folks to give donations in that way instead of just doling out indiscriminate charity. A small school bus met us and took on a hurtling ride about 10 km up Mussorie Road, first to beautiful home of Mr Swamy and his wife, who run the PYD. He is a retired economist from Bombay. His idea for the PYD was an after school program to help disadvantaged young people in this area, his adopted home since retirement, to give them basic educational skills––English, computer, maths, and, what appears to be his special love, current events in world affairs. He and his wife greeted each one of us as we entered their beautifully manicured garden, asking our name and country of origin. When he found out I was from California, he said, “Oh, I must ask a favor of you.” A little later he approached me again and let me know what it was: could I please explain to him the American election process? What was all this business about primaries and caucuses, and why were there only two parties, and why was there no popular vote? I started in the best I could, and he said, no, not now. Could I come and teach his children at the school about it before I left? I said, we would see what the schedule allowed.

We then went over to the school. He has done a marvelous job, built up a couple of sturdy buildings with five classrooms plus a science lab, computer lab and yoga hall. We were ushered in to the yoga hall where Mr Swamy showed us a Powerpoint presentation, and then the older kids were paraded in and gave us a series of speeches on various topics about the organization. After they were done talking he asked each one of us to get up and point to our country of origin on a world map and tell something for which our country was famous. That was pretty interesting even for each of us to hear a little more from each of our yoga mates. We were three Americans, from far different regions––Chicago, Colorado and California. I always seem to either just say “California” or add it to “USA” since people here seem to know it well as a separate entity. When I finished Mr Swamy said to all the kids, “And Mr Cyprian here is going to come and teach us all about the American election process.” Now, I had been thinking to myself that I didn’t necessarily want to give any cash donation but that I was would enjoy coming to play for the kids, so as we were leaving I said as much to Mr Swamy. He said, “Oh yes, yes, that would be very nice, but for sure tell us about the American election process. I want the kids to know.”

Anyway, it’s a great program, and very heartening to see someone spend their retirement years giving back in such a way, so I’ll do what I can to get up there one afternoon before I go.

* * *

sat, 23 feb 08

Those who check their anger,
like a rolling chariot,
them I call charioteers.
Other folks merely hold the reins.

Conquer anger by love,
evil by good,
stinginess by giving,
falsehood by truth.
Dhammapada 222-223

I had an incredible day yesterday. I had been wanting to go up to Mussorie, which is an old British hill station town about 20 km from Rajpur and a popular tourist destination that others in the class had praised highly. I had run into my young friend Sonu Negi again the other day in town and suggested to him that he accompany me there if he really wanted to spend time with me and practice his English, which seems to be his main interest in me. But he didn’t seem too keen on that. So when two folks mentioned that they were going to be hiking up there, I asked if I could join them and they were quite happy to have me come along. We wound up being four, Jillian, a traditional Chinese Medicine teacher from Newfoundland, Eryk, a seeker from Poland, and Andrea, a yoga teacher from Colorado. Others had told me that it was a beautiful hike, and Florence had said that it was not all that steep, although it is at 6000 feet. We left at 8:30 knowing only that it was about a four-hour hike and having only the vaguest sense of the route. “You can’t get lost!” we were told. Well, we could have gotten lost, but luckily at every crossroads there seemed to be an angel waiting for us, an old man at the first, a couple of women sitting on the ground at the next. At one point it looked like the trail headed right into somebody’s home and there was a flock of goats and an old unhappy dog sitting on the roof, and suddenly a women appeared and we said the same thing to her as we said to everyone: “Mussorie?” And she indicated to us to proceed, right through her yard and between two homes continuing up the path.

We passed through countless new little ecosystems and such beauty. I kept forgetting what country I was in. At one point, surrounded by chaparral like in Big Sur, we were being circled by a large and powerful-looking hawk with a white tail. At another point we were looking down a terraced hills planted with rice patties. Then it was as if we were in a tropical forest near a waterfall and we suddenly realized that there were bright green parrots flying all around us. As we climbed higher and higher the trail became not much bigger than a goat path and we were unsure again so we yelled down at some people in a house across a small valley: “Mussorie?” and they urged us ahead. Then we ran into three young people who were just coming onto the path, all dressed in their school uniforms carrying book bags, and we asked them as well, and one of the boys nodded yes and waved his hand forward, indicating they were going the same way. They stayed ahead of us a long time, and if we slowed down they did too to make sure we were following. I could see that the one boy really wanted to engage us in conversation and finally he turned around and asked us something like if we were from Dehradun, and then we asked him if they were going to school and what class they were in (9th Standard, all of them). Then he slipped ahead with his mates again who teased him about his English. It was something to think of them making this trek every day not for fun but to get to school. As we passed others on the way, men building a home, women carrying jars of water or baskets of mud on their heads, little kid out playing while their young mother hung up the laundry, the kids would yell out “Namaste!” or something more like “’maste!” I was actually quite surprised at how many homes there were out there and how well constructed they seemed to be as well, since there was absolutely no access by vehicle, so everything had to have been made there out of the soil or carried in, bags of cement, bricks, tin roofs, framing wood, satellite dishes! I think my favorite thing was at one point we passed by a little temple, in the absolute middle of nowhere on which was a sign––in Sanskrit, transliteration and English––that read Sarva Dharma Mundir, Temple of All Religions, indeed with symbols of various religions painted on the walls surrounding the entrance.

Mind you, we were climbing to 6000 feet. Florence had at least understated the climb. The kids left us just before the last little climb into what someone would alter tell us was a “suburb” of Mussorie, right near St George’s College, certainly a regal vestige of the old days of the East India Trading Company. By that time all of our legs were feeling the weight of hike. We were walking up just as the angelus bell was ringing and I must say I had a moment of gratitude seeing the church and bell tower in the distance. Thinking that was Mussorie itself, I was dreaming of getting a chance to sit in there for a bit while the others went off to do whatever––what a joy that seemed like it would have been!––but we still had 5 km to go before reaching the town proper.

Anyway, the trek wound up being nearly five hours including a stop for tea in that suburb. We had talked a lot all the way up, and laughed a lot too, comparing notes about the hardships of class these past two weeks. By the time we reached Mussorie we were exhilarated as we were exhausted from the climb, and piled into the highly recommended Pamini Nivas Hotel for a generous at delicious, though mildly costly at R 135, vegetarian tali (meal), complete with potato, cabbage, rice, chappati, raisa, butter milk, sambhar and salad, all we could eat. Then we headed into the market area itself. Mussorie is a destination spot for Indian tourists more than Western ones, it seems. So it was commercialized but in a different sort of way that’s hard to describe, things that would appeal to Indian tourists. Lots of photo studios that featured old style clothing from the days of the Raj, lots of popcorn stands and shooting galleries, in addition to Domino’s Pizza, Baskin Robbins Ice Cream and an Asian version of Starbucks that I had seen also in Singapore, I think, called Café Coffee Day. All these places seemed a little anachronistic but I confess to a delicious cafe Americano and a little bit of chocolate at the latter. We also had a stop at the wonderful overstuffed Cambridge bookstore. Books were piled on top of each other in only the faintest resemblance of order, but the manager seemed to be able to locate anything we asked for. Lastly we also took the cable car up to the top of the mountain, “Gun Point,” it was called (hence the shooting galleries). On a clear day you are supposed to be able to see well into the Himalayan range from there, but it was not a clear day and it was a dreadful sleazy and commercialized spot, which we were not expecting at all.

a day in rishikesh

sir, speak of the secret knowledge!
you have been told the secret knowledge.
that very secret regarding Brahman
I have spoken to you.
Kena Upanishad IV.7

19 feb 08

Two days into the second week of this yoga intensive. I am enjoying it more than the first week, partly because I am much more comfortable with the Iyengar vocabulary of asanas and partly because I have grown a little more used to Rajiv’s style of teaching, which he also seems to tone down a little bit more every day. He constantly scolds us for thinking that yoga is all about asanas and shapely bodies and “having your picture on the cover of Yoga Journal,” and he tells us that this is corrupt yoga––“boga,” he calls it––that is actually more harmful than good because it lets loose powers for lust and greed instead of inner transformation; and he says that we don’t care about the philosophy and the inner transformation that yoga is really all about, that we all just want to call ourselves “intermediate yogis” and to teach others when our own lives are a mess, and that no one in the West understands yoga. I don’t know if any of that is true about the rest of the people gathered here for this course (I suspect not), but it’s all very humbling, and you generally do feel a little shallow and guilty afterward whether you deserve it or not. I personally am drinking in the philosophy but I wish that it were a little more systematic in presentation. Generally he stops in the middle of an asana and calls us around him and holds forth for five or ten minutes, and I find myself trying to remember some little pearl of wisdom so that I can write it down later. He is constantly quoting the Scriptures, usually the Yoga Sutras themselves and the Bhagavad Gita, and is a very devout man himself never hesitating to give all the credit to Lord Patanjali (to whom we chant at the beginning of each session) and refer to himself also as just another pilgrim stumbling along on the road, a bland man leading other blind people. Once you get over the shock of his shouting, he’s actually kind of funny, too, and makes lots of jokes, usually at Westerners’ expense.

I am quite impressed with my housemates. Florence from France is a midwife, quite adept at Iyengar yoga already, a quiet, confident and self-contained woman. She also spends a lot of time in Afghanistan where she teaches midwifery. Toward that end she learned to speak Afghani, and she regales us with stories about her travels and experiences in that region, quite often coming out with another surprising little anecdote of something she has seen or done. Espen is also a very experienced Iyengar student from Norway. Rajiv often uses him as a model for us, since he has also been here a number of times. Espen is a carpenter by trade, but some time ago sold everything he had and just owns what he can carry. He spends about eight months a year in India traveling and studying. He told me that he just “put it out there to the Universe” to see if the Universe would take care of him, and so far so good. Both of these people are about my age, and suddenly make me feel not so crazy, as a matter of fact even a little tame. And then there is Jessica, 23, freshly graduated from IU Bloomington, who is a fearless world citizen already. She studied world religions in college and has done work in environmental activism. She is the one who surprised us by breaking into Hindi the first night with our hosts. We sometimes all walk up to school together and have a snack or a chai together during the day, but mostly we always walk home from the late afternoon session and eat dinner together here at the house. Part of our deal is that for a fee Umed, who is the caretaker of the house, shops and prepares a delicious evening meal for us, usually rice, dhal, some vegetable and chapattis. It’s never too spicy and of course, at Rjiv’s insistence for everyone during our time here, always vegetarian (except that we sneak in a few eggs from time to time).

I had a good visit to Rishikesh on the weekend, nice to get away from the intensity of the first week of the yoga course. I went over on the bus. It was only an hour trip but counting the bus from here in Rajpur to the ISBT bus stand on the other side of Dehradun, waiting for the bus and then getting an auto rickshaw from Rishikesh proper down to Ram Jhula, it was about a three hour trip. Oddly enough, I think that that was my first solo bus trip anywhere; I have so rarely been alone in India. I had to deliver some things for Swati at the Iyengar center in Rishikesh, and then I wandered across the Ram Jhula bridge and down one side of the Ganga and back up the other side ‘til I reached Ranjeet’s restaurant on the Laxma Jhula side just in time for lunch. It was nice to see him again, and we made some plans for him to get off early and us to spend the evening together. I had a list of things to do and checked them off one by one, wireless internet at Asu’s very successful business Riverain down from Ranjeet’s, a visit with Ram at OM music, there to also pick up a few recommended CDs––by this time I pretty much buy whatever he suggests; and then a quick visit with Turiya over at Jheevan Dhara Ashram where I made retreat last year. She has since received diksha from a local swami and is now all in orange-khavi. We had a nice conversation over tea and then I headed out, actually to do some shopping, some things I needed for myself and a few things I had promised to pick up for friends. I got a room at a guest house just up from Ranjeet’s and Asu’s, at R200 a night, with a hot shower, clean and safe.

I must say I found Rishikesh a little depressed and depressing this time, as much as I was happy to have and see old friends there. There have been less tourists this year so they are all struggling for business. And yet those tourists and businesses are partly to blame for the dissolution of Rishikesh and perhaps the reason why fewer serious spiritual seekers are coming there. It’s as if a whole economy has grown up based on catering to Western visitors––in one place you might be able to get internet, travel arrangements, and an Aryuvedic massage, nothing that a local would want or need or be able to afford––but it seems as if they may have overdone it and now there is more supply than demand based on hopes that there will be enough people to buy. It reminded of eating in Las Vegas in some strange way. You go to any buffet in Las Vegas and at first you see mounds of food and looks so good and enticing, and then suddenly it seems like grotesquely too much and you lose your appetite. And so it is with the dozens of shops and stands in Rishikesh, all selling the same rudraksh necklaces and malas, sandalwood, singing bowls and clothing, or blasting the same two or three CDs (often of Westerners performing their version of Indian music), and it all seems not only unappealing but even kind of pathetic. I don’t feel like blaming the Indians and am trying to refrain from pointing fingers at us Westerners either but still... There something weird in the human condition that always thinks that more and better are the same thing.

In the early evening I went to the famous arathi at Parmarth Niketan, the large Brahmin school (or, as someone called it, a Sanskrit school) down by Ram Jhula by myself. I was exactly on time, arriving just as the young Brahmins were proudly processing out in the their yellow dhotis to line up on the steps on the banks of Ganga-mata and break into song. I enjoyed it thoroughly especially the music, except that it was a little too amped up in volume for my taste. I watched the sun set over the further shore and headed back over to Laxma Jhula. It wound up that Ranjeet couldn’t get away to spend the evening with me. There was some kind of trouble happening at Ranjeet’s restaurant when I got back and he told me that he couldn’t get his father or brother to cover in the restaurant and had to stay.

This stays with me: Ranjeet works from 6 in the morning until 8 in the evening seven days a week, the sole money earner for the family. He often sleeps on a bench in the restaurant and takes his morning bath using the outdoor faucet where they wash the dishes and pots and pans. That’s his whole life. I was disappointed that he couldn’t get away so that we could hang out as we had been planning for months. But I felt even worse somehow that I was there as a reminder to him of the gap between his life and mine. Even my room “at R200 a night, with a hot shower, clean and safe,” and my laptop with pictures of my travels around the world, not to mention the fact that I had the luxury simply to have an evening free, let alone a three week course in yoga in Rajpur. Similarly, our accommodations here in Rajpur: Govindi and Umed and their two teenaged children all live in a house the size of my sitting room. I was thinking of the story of Lazarus and the rich man in the Gospels, that great gap that stretched out between them. It doesn’t give me a sense of guilt so much as appreciation first of all, and then a sense of re-dedication to whatever it is I am doing, be it music, yoga, prayer, writing. It is a great gift, a luxurious commodity to be born in the day and age and place that most of us have, and with that comes a responsibility, a huge weight of responsibility to turn all that into something beautiful for the Lord and the world.

These kinds of things happen so much that I am was not the least bit surprised: As I was walking up steep Laxma Jhula Road back to my room to gather my things and head out of town, coming down the same road was Jill, my friend from England, of Bede Griffiths Sangha and Shantivanam and other things. She was blown away by the coincidence and of course we were both happy to see each other. After she went with me to gather up my stuff we sat at the little restaurant where she was staying, touched base and had some tiffin, and I headed back here to Rajpur, a long dusty uneventful bus ride.

Friday, February 15, 2008

the breath is like rain

Having turned to training in meditation,
making me your goal,
keep your thoughts directed to me always,
while inwardly resigning all you do to me.
Directing your thought to me,
by my grace you will overcome all obstacles.
Bhagavad Gita 18:57-58

thursday, 14 feb, 08

It has been a hard week. It’s been very challenging physically––my shoulders, neck and lower back are pretty sore––but there has been very little I haven’t been able to do. I’m grateful for that. But it has been much more challenging psychologically, and it was quite a struggle to surrender to the process of this course as it is. Rajiv is an incredible teacher, and very demanding.

Some pearls from Rajiv:

The breath is like a miner carving out the cavities of the body.
The breath is like rain; it permeates the hard places of the body; it is soft even when the body is hard.
The eye looking out is “eating”; so look at your eye instead.

As opposed to Baba Hari Das’ teaching about doing meditation before asana practice, here I think I can safely say that we are intentionally being led to an immediate experience of heightened interiority at the end of each of the two-hour sessions practicing the “technology” of the yoga.

I have found out that Ashtanga Yoga has a very bad name around Iyengar people. My first cue of it came from Rajiv himself when we did our introduction the first day and I said that I had studied “ashtanga yoga,” and I mentioned Baba Hari Das, Haridwar and Mount Madonna. For as few times as I have actually gone there, it’s interesting that Mount Madonna was the first thought that came to my mind to describe what I do. Rajiv had asked me if I had been to the center in Mysore, and I said no, of course, having no idea what Mysore had to do with it. Well, if I have pieced it together correctly, someone named Puntabi Joyce has an international school of yoga that is called Ashtanga Yoga or Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and people around here speak of it in deprecatory terms, “Hollywood yoga” or “gym yoga.” The way they describe it is a few very dynamic series’ of asanas, and very little of the philosophy or the other limbs. I found myself defending ashtanga yoga as I know it––the eight limbs of Patanjali, and how Saturday morning class runs at Mount Madonna––and wish that I could explain to Rajiv as well, but it’s too late for that and everything I say around my housemates comes out sounding very defensive. Many times Rajiv each day derides in the strongest terms what he calls “boga,” the phony yoga in the West that he says is actually dangerous because it lets loose a bunch of powers that are used for lust and greed rather than for interiority, and is constantly deriding anyone who would dare call him- or herself a yogi, let alone an advanced or even an intermediate yogi. There is no other way to describe it except to say that he seems quite angry about this and seems to take it personally. He says his teacher, I assume BKS Iyengar himself, is also concerned about this. He and Swati make an annual pilgrimage to Poona where their guru-ji still lives and has his center. The interesting note is that apparently Mr Iyengar and Puntabi Joyce had the same guru themselves. I do wonder what other kind of yoga Rajiv considers to be authentic and/or beneficial.

I do know and can honestly say that for me it is all about meditation. I was taught when I started doing asana practice that all the asanas ... gradually lead up to Yoga proper, Raja Yoga and were a means of … overcoming physical impediments standing in the way of other, spiritual, forms of yoga; and that the … ultimate goal and true end is the repose of spirit necessary for the realization of the Supreme, or for experiencing the Divine. I don’t think Rajiv would argue with that.

* * *

The other day when I went to check my e-mail at a local place there wasn’t one computer available because every computer was occupied by a Tibetan monk.
I’d been keeping my eyes open for a Tibetan monk who looked like he might speak English––whatever that means¬¬––since there are usually a number of them wandering the streets of Rajpur and had approached a few without luck. But as I was leaving I asked one of the guys who had just left. He did speak some English, but I understood him to say that he was not from the monastery here in town but from up in Mussorie, and he and his companions were just down for the day because they had a day off of school. A little later, as I was sitting in a café having breakfast I saw what appeared to be a Caucasian woman with white hair pass by in the scarlet robes, and I made a mental note to try and find her when I finished. Sure enough later I ran smack into her and asked her if she spoke English. As a matter of fact, she was from New York. She called herself Ani Kaz (Ani means “nun,” thought I am not sure how that is really spelled; and Kaz was short for Kasmiri. In fact her real ordained name is much longer and ore complicated.) We sat down and had a very good conversation in a little Tibetan restaurant, comparing notes about being a Westerner in the East and her telling me some of her story of belonging to the sakya lineage of Tibetan monasticism. (There are three other schools, more well known: ningma, the oldest; kygyu, the biggest and most thriving; and gelupa, which she described as the “reform party.”) His Holiness, the head of her lineage, happens to be in Rajpur right now and Ani Kaz was describing to me how I could have an audience with him, but it sounded a little formal and complicated to me. I have been just hoping for a conversation with a monk. As fortune would have it, the same monk with whom I had spoken was also at the restaurant with his mate and they came over to our table as they were leaving. Ani helped me figure out that they were students at Sakya College, up the road and on the way to Mussorie from here, and told them that I was a bhikksu also. I asked if I could visit them and the one wrote down his name––Lekshey––and cell phone number and said I could come the next day at noon.

We now have two days off from the course, and I must say when we finished yesterday morning I felt a real sense of gratitude, both for all the work of the week and for the break. I headed up Mussorie Road at about 11:15 to meet the young bhikksus at noon. I was told by a local man that it was about 3 km and would not take long to walk. It actually wound up being nearly 6 km, and about halfway up I asked a young man who was walking right behind me if he knew where Sakya College was. I didn’t understand his answer, but he kept talking to me until I realized that he was trying to speak to me in English. And then he kept following me and let me know that he wanted to practice his English with me. His name was Sonu Negi, 20 years old, and he stayed with me all the way up, stopping and asking people along the way for directions for me. He had never been up that way before himself although he has lived for some months in Rajpur, and was just spending his day off walking up and seeing the local sights. He said that at some point he was going to catch a bus and go back to town, but when we finally got to Sakya College it was obvious that he was going to stay with me.

Sakya College is a beautiful campus and compound, very clean and well manicured. Ani told me that it is where the cream of the crop study. It did have the feel of an elite prep school, even in the body language of the young men gathered around. When I asked two young monks who were standing near the gate for Lekshey, they let us in and said they would get him for us, and Sonu walked right in with me. We got carried along in a tide of monks walking toward the center of the campus until finally Lekshey and his mate, Tashi, approached and welcomed us. They explained that they only had a few minutes before going back to class. They didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with us, but were very kind. I explained to them that Sonu was my “dharma protector,” and they liked that and didn’t seem to mind that he came along as well. Tashi especially wanted to talk. They took us first to the temple, and then to the student canteen where Lekshey bought us a bottle of water, and then led us out through a garden to a grassy area behind the compound where we sat and talked for a little while. I asked a few questions, but we didn’t get too far or too deep. They are both Nepalese, 20 years old, have been in the monastery since 8 or 9. They both intend to stay for life. They told me that as novice monks–ketchu they take 10 vows, but after 35 years old or so they could become full kelong at which point they would take 250 vows. We spent some funny minutes trying to figure out what the 10 vows were. They of course knew them, but between Tibetan, Nepali and Lekshey explaining to Sonu in Hindi and Sonu trying to translate into English, we still only figured what six of them were: no attachment, no killing, lying, taking what is not offered, sexual misconduct, speaking ill of another. Tashi took down my e-mail contact information and promised to find English translation of them all and send them to me.

Sonu and I headed down, engaging in conversational English all the way. He was also helping me read some signs in Hindi, whose letters are very close to the deva-nagari script of Sanskrit. He also left me his cell phone number and asked when we would see each other again. We’ll see what the days ahead hold. I asked him if he would go to Mussorie with me some time––I must say it is nice to have a native companion––but that will depend on coordinating his work schedule with my class schedule.

Today I am heading out for a solo bus trip to Rishikesh where I hope to stay the night, do some wireless internet, and visit with Ram and Ranjeet, maybe see Sr Thelma and Atmananda too.

from old rajpur

Yoga is about moving from the outside to the inside.
A saint is someone who lives inside;
the closer we are to the Universal inside of us
the more peaceful and grounded we are.

9 feb 08, Rajpur, Dehradun

I am very fickle, I know, but I have now found my favorite place in India, maybe on the planet––Rajpur. We are some kilometers outside of Dehradun, in a district known as Rajpur. It is very wooded and hilly, in the foothills of the Himalayas, higher north than I have been thus far. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting––a guesthouse with a private bath, was all I was told¬¬––but this place where I am staying is the nicest house I have seen in India thus far. I’m almost a little embarrassed by it. I have a big bedroom with an equally big sitting room and private bath, and a separate entrance from the garden. I am sharing the house with at least one other person, as yet unmet, and the grounds with a few others, one of whom, a woman from France named Florence, I have met. I was the first to arrive, early this morning, so after a luxurious hot bath (the pouring water over oneself kind, not the tub) drawn from the “geezer” and a large cup of milk tea I headed out to explore the neighborhood and buy some provisions. I thought we were totally isolated here miles form anything, but just about a mile up the road is the very cool little village of Rajpur, in the midst of which sits Yoganga Center where I will be doing this course in Iyengar. (I only re-realized that they consider this a “course” in yoga, not a retreat, when I got here and re-read the literature.) There seem to be many Tibetans here as well, many prayer flags flying, some Tibetan restaurants and one school. It is also one of the cleanest places I have seen in India. By the name placards on the gates of the properties, there seem to be a handful of wealthy Indians around as well, not just European money.

I still don’t regret haven taken the train, but the last 12 hours were a little uncomfortable. The meals had been pretty good, though small, up to that point. Last night they were cold and tasted old. And then it got cold cold on the train. I was in the upper berth and the air couldn’t be shut off. It was only re-circulating but it was re-circulating cold, and I kept wrapping myself tighter and tighter. I finally got up at 3:30 and opened my backpack as quietly as possible to get out my sweatshirt and cap and wool socks. Veejay and Radha took their cue and added another layer of clothing as well, and then went back to sleep. I was up for the night, expecting that we were to arrive by 5 AM, it seemed a waste of time to go back to sleep. We didn’t get in until 7. So I half dozed and half meditated for a few hours. As planned Yoganga had a taxi waiting for me. The driver never said a word to me (He held up a piece of paper with my name on it.) We picked up someone along the way, a Sikh gentleman who owned the taxi company and told me to call him “for all my driving needs,” and they dropped me here, at Four Seasons, where I was greeted warmly by Umed Singh, the caretaker, who spoke only a few words of English, but made a heck of a cup of tea, and told me there would be lunch at 12. His wife Govindi came a little later and talked to me in non-stop Hindi, out of which I ascertained that lunch would be at noon. (There are two complimentary meals offered upon arrival; I’m not sure what happens from there.) The lunch, ready after I got back from my scouting mission, was delicious, not too spicy, lots of fresh vegetables and whole-wheat chapatis. I have felt just a tinge of hesitation about such a luxurious situation, but have decided to stay with the plan. I have got study and writing and retreating to do, and this is my big treat for the year.

* * *

10 feb 08, first Sunday of lent

We had our orientation session last night up at Yoganga. I must say Rajiv and Swati Chachani, who run the place, run a class act. The facility itself is beautiful, deceptively large on the inside as opposed to when seen from the street. The crowd gathered is amazingly international––Switzerland, Scotland, England Ireland, Canada, Norway, France, Venezuela, Italy, Poland, Germany by way of Croatia, and three Americans. We are 22 so far (some have not arrived yet), about a quarter males, which is pretty good. I was afraid I would be a) the only male and b) the only one not to be able to stand on my head. We shall see about the latter. Rajiv and Swati seem to be good cop-bad cop. After they had lit incense and offered flowers to the enshrined deities at the front and back of the yoga hall, we began by Rajiv saying in a very stern voice, “Sit up straight!” and then Swati leading us in chants to Ganesh, Hanuman, Patanjali and the living teacher. Rajiv goes back and forth between being austere and scolding, then cracking a silly play on words (that most people don’t get) and laughing at himself, and then, when he got past the practicalities––“Our orientation sheet is now rivaling Lonely Planet! We have become tour guides!” he said with just a hint of rancor––and launched into his introduction to yoga, he was mesmerizing. He stressed over and over again that yoga is not about the postures; it is about transformation of your life, like fire transforms wood. “Can I make you a yoga master in three weeks when it is something that takes lifetimes to achieve?” I was happy to hear that analogy about fire in wood, which had come up for me a number of times in the past weeks.

My favorite sentence in the guide book will give you an idea of the homespun nature of the whole set-up: under places to eat it says “Hookan Singh’s chai shop cum STD stand near the school by the big mango tree makes nice rice and dal at midday. Opposite Hookan Singh’s is Sunil’s chai shop. He will make chai for 4 rupees a glass. If you arrange it you can get the daily paper from him.”

Rajiv then gave us a little more history about Rajpur––raj-king, pur-city. We are, I was surprised to learn, only 40 miles from Tibet as the crow flies. Of course, not being crows or very advanced flying yogis, most human beings have to cross the Himalayas to get there, and Rajpur sits on the main donkey trail trading route that made it a bustling little city. The beginning of its decline happened when the highway went in below and trading started happening by way of trucks. Then at the partition of India, which almost everyone describes in horrific terms, the many Muslims who lived here were forced to emigrate to Pakistan. Then when Tibet was taken over by China, the Dalai Lama’s first place of exile was just up the road in Mussorie. That brought a lot of Tibetans to the area. They liked the “clime,” as Indians say, and stayed in the area, moving into all the houses that the Muslims had vacated. Now it has become a bit gentrified and many wealthy Indians have bought land up here. As a matter of fact the houses that we students are staying in are second homes of wealthy Indians. Rajiv says they lend them to that purpose out of their generosity to him and his students, and no one makes too much money on it. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but I was consoled to find out that we are all staying in similar situations. In other words, I am not the only one with comfortable accommodations.

I am living with three others, Florence from France, Espen from Norway and young Jessica from USA. I was hesitant about the bonding thing that Rajiv and Swati expect to happen, but we already grouped up and walked home together last night down the long road through Rajpur and did our shopping and planned our shared meals, etc. When we got back Umed and Govindi already had supper cooking. Jessica surprised us all by breaking into a little Hindi with Govindi––she had studied a year of Hindi and two years of Bengali in college––but it didn’t get too far. That doesn’t stop Govindi, who seems to thoroughly enjoy her role as housemother, from speaking to us all in non-stop Hindi, describing to us who-knows-what and recommending who knows-what-else.

Class starts in 45 minutes. I don’t think “local charm” will be the description I will have of it later. Rajiv has a reputation, as do many Iyengar masters, for being very strict about the asanas, and he seems to find countless opportunities to point out the deficiencies of Westerner yoga practitioners.

* * *

11 feb 08

Ready for the second day of class. I was kind of exhilarated after the two hour morning session yesterday. The asanas themselves, though I have been told they will get more challenging, were not too far out of my range. I was quite shaken by Rajiv’s style, very demanding and stern. Then in the afternoon was the two hour pranayama session. Apparently he is most famous for these pranayama sessions, and I must say I learned some marvelous new things, but it was very difficult. The session involved not just sitting on the ground and doing bandhas and breathing techniques, but very some strenuous asanas, which I was totally unprepared for. And again, I was totally caught off guard by Rajiv’s style, so fierce.

When he teaches the philosophy he is just brilliant, and sometimes there is a depth in him that echoes forth, you can even see it in his eyes. He keeps telling us that once we know how to do we need to learn the deeper lessons: first you do and then you know. A couple of things I jotted down:

• Putting the personality in the background, and breath in the foreground.
• Every breath is grace; when we die the grace goes.
• Grace comes in from the cosmos; breath is our connection to the whole cosmos.
• Every molecule of breath is like a grain in a silo; and every grain has consciousness––mahat, buddhi, ahamkara...
• Yoga is about moving from the outside to the inside. A saint is someone who lives inside; the closer we are to the Universal inside of us the more peaceful and grounded we are.

I walked down Old Rajpur Road by myself after class yesterday morning, stopped for a few more supplies, and then had two of Singh’s famous samosas and a cup of tea. Someone had told me that the Tibetan monastery was just down the road so instead of turning up to return to our house I headed that way. I walked about a quarter of a mile and only found the Tibetan women’s center, which was closed, so I turned around. But just as I did two little monks walked up. I mean like 10-year old little, all in the scarlet robes, t-shirt and fleeces. (I noticed that the t-shirts were actually commercial t-shirts with logos and designs on them.) I asked if they spoke English, and they stammered something not-in-English; so I asked, “Where is you monastery?” The one recognized the word “monastery” and said, “Monastery!” pointing ahead. I nodded and said thank you and started to turn away and he said again, “Monastery!” and pointed at me and then in the direction again, indicating that I should follow him, I guessed. So I did, about a half a mile down the road, feeling just a wee bit awkward me in my khavi yoga clothes trailing two little monks in scarlet robes at various points with their arms around each other. After about five minutes the one who had spoken to me turned around and offered me some grapes out of a bag he was carrying. I took a few and thanked him and he held out the bag still and waved it a bit. He wanted me to have the rest of them. Then the two of them laughed at each other and headed down again. As we got closer my guide pointed out “Monastery” to me a few more times until we finally entered the compound and he pointed me in the direction of the reception office and the two of them headed off to the dormitory. I didn’t feel like going into the reception hall and asking to speak to a monk who spoke English, so I walked around amidst the many other lay visitors until one more caught my eye and stopped. But he didn’t speak English either. So I walked around a bit and left, not exactly sure what else I wanted to do except hope for a fortuitous meeting with someone at some point.

Off to class.

jesus the dalit

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.”