Thursday, February 12, 2009

pure life

We need four things before we can succeed in reaching God through knowledge:
the Sruti or recorded revelation, the Sacred Teacher, the practice of Yoga and the Grace of God. (Sri Aurobindo)

Tues, 10 Feb, 2009, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia

I took a coach up from Singapore today. I am told that it is such as hassle to fly from Singapore to Kuala Lampur that they have started these pretty luxurious bus lines now. This one was so: a double-decker bus, the lower deck being all lounge chairs, a meal served, a movie playing (whether wanted or not). And there were only three of us on this particular luxury liner built for around 40.

I am now at the Pure Life Society, guest of Mother Mangalam. How to explain this place? It was founded by Swami Satyananda, a Malaysian-born Tamil Indian, who was born in 1906. He had a Roman Catholic education (interesting to note that he would later write a what he called a “catechism” if the Indian religion), entered government service at 17, and spent ten years studying yoga, during which time he met some sannyasis of the Ramakrishna order. He first embarked on a career as an educator, both in regular schools and adult education programs, and was active in social, cultural and religious movements. Then in 1937 he joined the Ramakrishna Order, after which he studied Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. In 1940 he was sent to Singapore (when it was still part of Malay) as the head of the RK schools there, and studied and lectured particularly on comparative religions, and also did lots of work in education and social reform. He parted amicably with the RK order, mutually deciding that he was on his own path. He continued to live as a monk but was heavily involved in social work, education, pacifist conferences and inter-religious dialogue. He was greatly respected and decorated by local government leaders. As a matter of fact his book “Influence of Indian Culture on Malaya” was at one time the recommended text book for the Malayan Civil Service Examination. He joined the Indian Relief Committee after WWII and in 1950 established this place, the Shuddha Samaj–Pure Life Society, which includes an orphanage, a school, an adult education center, the Temple of the Universal Spirit, and a printery which issues a magazine called Dharma. In 1960 he suffered a terrible car accident from which he never fully recovered and he died a year later. Since then this place has been under the guidance of his closest disciple, Mangalam, affectionately known as “Mother.”

It is also Swami Satyananda who taught Father John Main how to meditate when Fr. John was stationed here in KL as part of the English Civil Service, which would later bear fruit as the seed of the World Community for Christian Meditation, for whom I have done considerable work and who have been such good friends to me. I am here in Malaysia to do a retreat for the WCCM this weekend and a concert next week in Penang, but am first spending four days here at Mother Mangalam’s invitation, and taking part in an interfaith event tomorrow night sponsored by the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship of the Pure Life Society.

The sweetest part of the whole thing is that I am staying in the Swami’s old hut, a few steps below the Temple of the Universal Spirit. As is often the case in India, it has been turned into a kind of museum and shrine, with articles of his clothing and some of his books and autographs. Apparently no one has ever stayed here before but Mother had the idea that it might be nice for me to do so since they are so crowded in their other guest spaces. I must say, I feel as close to India––even achingly so––as possible here. Besides the oppressively humid weather, the hut is very much like a cell in the ashram, cement floor and noisy fan above, the bathroom consisting of a squatting toilet and buckets for a bath (I don’t mind, I assure you––don’t take that as a complaint). My actual living space is in a room on the side, but the big space that was swami-ji’s living space is open to my use as well; it is where Mother has placed my eating supplies. In this room where I am staying I am surrounded by photos of all my old friends: Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Ramanamaharshi and Ramalinga Swami. I feel a certain affinity to Swami Satyananda for a bunch of silly reasons: his amicable parting from the Ramakrishna Order, for one, and the fact that he wore a white “habit” that resembles the Camaldolese habit instead of the typical khavi. I’m counting on his darshan, and blissfully just got up from laying on my cot reading Aurobindo’s translations of the Upanishads feeling very much at home, a home I always forget until I am in it again.
There is no great virtue in keeping your discipline in your cell.
But there is if you also keep it when you come out of your cell.
Abba Serenius
wed, 10 feb, 09

I can’t tell you how beautiful these first few hours have been here. On request of Mr. Moorthi, who is my immediate host and the executive secretary of the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship here at Pure Life, I attended the beginning of the meeting of the same last evening, just staying long enough to offer the opening prayer, and then headed back to my cell. I was so excited just to be in a real live monk’s cell! For the second night now I slept a full night’s sleep. I still woke up well before dawn, and sat at the front door of the hut sipping my tea and catching the last of the cool night breeze. Then just as I finished singing my morning mantras and was about to dive into my books to do my readings, a muzzien started the azan from a nearby minaret, followed by another and another all around me. The chanting continued for quite a while––I assume chanting from the Qur’an––as I chanted my psalms and read my other readings and settled into a period of meditation.

Even now, after working for a few hours on an article that I need to send off, I went and sat in meditation in front of Swami-ji’s larger than life-size portrait in the adjoining room, and as I did, I could distinctly hear planes flying overhead, that beautiful koel bird welcoming me home, the rush of traffic below this hill and the sounds of kids playing on their recess from the school next door––and I know that exterior silence is only an aid. It’s ultimately that interior silence that we are trying to cultivate.

I brought along a book called “In the Heart of the Desert” (wouldn’t that make a nice name for an album?) by John Chryssavgis on the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, and I read yesterday on the bus that:
The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat.
It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace.
It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape.
It is a place of repentance, not recuperation.
Living in the desert does not mean living without people;
it means living for God.
The desert [is]… always more than a place.
It is a way.
I am flooded with memories of Shantivanam, of teaching classes at the formation house, of midday prayer with the boys, of sitting on the verandah of Abhishiktananda’s hut, of breakfast at Mary Louise’s, of conversations with MC, of long walks down the Kavery in the fierce midday sun. Somehow there, here, it all seems so simple. It’s that simplicity that I try to remember and foster in my cabin at Corralitos, when I visit New Camaldoli, when I am staying with the friars in Singapore, riding on a bus or a plane. Chryssavgis writes that the reality of the cell should spill over into the reality of our life: “The boundaries of the cell are gradually expanded to include every moment of our life and every detail of our world.” But it really takes work and years of discipline for the silence to take root in our heart and stay there. My own spiritual director is always telling me to make sure that I have “X” days (days crossed off on my calendar) when I am on the road, too, not just when I get home. As John Cassian says about “constant prayer,” we stop with some regularity in the day to renew our prayer because “it is not given to us to pray as we ought.” So we stop when and if we can some days of our lives to get back to that Sabbath rest that is meant to be the source of our strength. It’s good when these trips are as much pilgrimages as they are working junkets.