Friday, March 27, 2009

sweet surrender

Have you ever heard of a sea which flows from fire?
Have you ever seen a fox become a lion?
The sun can transmute a pebble,

which even the hand of nature can never change,

into a gem.

I am that precious stone,

my Sun is the one by whose rays

this tenebrous world is filled with light.

(Nasiri al-Khusraw)

28 march 09, Singapore

I’m back safely tucked away at St Mary’s Singapore, taking the long way home. John Wong is so kind and funny: I said to him yesterday how anxious I was to get home and he said, “Cyprian, how many times do I have to tell you? You are home!” Indeed when I arrived back here the other night he greeted me with, “Welcome home.” And I am awfully comfortable here.

The few days in Sydney were good fun. I stayed with Martin Low, another Franciscan friend of Leonard et al here in Singapore. He and old Brother George live at the Asian Center in Ashfield, just east of town, a neighborhood that was quite ethnically mixed as evidenced by both the folks walking around and the markets and restaurants: Asian and Indian, Bangaladeshi, Korean, and even a Polish market on one corner. George and Martin installed me in my room, acquainted me briefly with the trains, gave me a map of the city and left me to my own devices. I wandered around all day Tuesday, arriving at the Circular Quay, which is right on the harbor and gives an immediate view of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, two of the most famous landmarks of this beautiful city. Then I wandered up into the City Centre, found St Mary’s Cathedral, to which I returned three more times, dozens of cafés and fruit stands, besides all the marvelous architecture. I also took the Manly Ferry north out of the harbor, about a half an hour ride. From there it is a quick walk across the Corso, a wide mall filled with shops and restaurants, and then to Ocean Surf Beach, which may as well have been the coast of California with all the volleyball nets and surfers. Wednesday I wandered back downtown again, mainly to meet an old acquaintance, a Jesuit named Richard Leonard, for lunch at a place under the harbor bridge. He is the superior of the Jesuit house there in north Sydney and also well known for his work in cinema. As a matter of fact he does reviews for the Australian Bishops Conference and for the Jesuit-run America magazine. We did talk about films a bit, mainly comparing note on “Slumdog Millionaire,” which I treated myself to in the theatre some time ago and “Doubt,” which I saw on the plane. He has reviewed both of them recently. As President Reagan said about his encounter with Pope John Paul: “We met and exchanged ideas, and his, obviously, were much better than mine.”

Wednesday night was my event for the Asian center back in Ashfield. We had gone back and forth trying to decide what for me to do there and wound up listing it as something like “Liturgical Spirituality and Meditation-Spirit, Soul and Body: The Universal Call to Contemplation,” but Martin really wanted me to do liturgical music with them. Basically what I did is write out a list of mostly liturgical songs that have substantial theology behind them and therefore possibly (probably) long introductions. As a matter of fact, I have been wondering what to do with my talk for NPM this summer, and now I have figured it out. For example, the introduction to “Streams of Living Water,” once I talk about John 7:37, Ezekiel 34, John 2, and Romans 5, usually takes upwards of five minutes; the introduction to “Lead My From Death,” even longer. It worked out well, a nice crowd and they bought up every CD I had brought down with me.

Thursday before leaving I took one more trip into the City Centre, another visit to the dancing light of St Mary’s, and a tour of The Rocks, the area right on the harbour that was first settled by the white settlers in the late 18th century, and was saved by environmentalists etc. from destruction some years back. And then off to the airport. It had never occurred to me (distances are terribly relative by now) that the flight from Sydney to here in Singapore would be almost eight hours! I’m definitely taking the long way home.

Yesterday morning, as arranged, I had a good long session with Nawaz Mirajkar (check out his website: at the Temple of Fine Arts, which is basically a school of Indian music and dance. When I was passing through between Bangkok and Jakarta earlier this month, (on Ash Wednesday, as a matter of fact) Leonard and I had lunch with Farid at a well known vegetarian chain restaurant named Anna Lakshmi. Next door to it was this school and Farid was keen for us to visit it. We met the director and she gave us a tour of the various studios and introduced us to different teachers. One of them was this Nawaz, who almost immediately upon meeting me said, “I want to make music with you!” He is excited about the idea of mixing tabla and guitar; we both mentioned Zakir Hussein’s album “Making Music” with John McGloughlin and others as being our favorite album ever. And so we set this meeting up via e-mail. We had a great session together; he, like out friend Steve Robertson, studied with Zakir himself, and he is as good a musician as any one I have met. I got to try a few new pieces out with him. I was a little tired, and the swollen hand thing that always happens in Singapore was operative, and the Collings was rebelling in a new environment, etc, etc, and yet, somehow I managed to drop into the moment and we had some pretty exciting selfless moments going places together musically. At one point I wasn’t able to sing because I was laughing with delight at what he was playing, a kind of a fluttering Persian technique on the low drum (bhaya). We talked about doing something either live or in the studio together, even the possibility of something in September back here in Singapore, but it is a long way between here and California, so we’ll let it go for now and see what the Universe has in store. I definitely know what I want to do with this new album now.

Then we visited Farid’s wife who is in the hospital with a good case of denghy fever, a mosquito born illness more common now than malaria. Leonard also treated me to a session with his chiropractor. Then last night we had a nice gathering at a very hip restaurant called “Raw,” run by a guy named Xavier from Puerto Rico and his partner, near St Mary’s. It’s a low key artsy co-operative kind of place. When John asked him about vegetarian offerings, he simply told us that he would take care of us, so Leonard just asked him to bring us whatever he thought. So he did. It was much more like a party at someone’s house than eating out. About 16 of us gathered, folks I have met and spent the most time with here. It was a nice way to end my time rather than trying to greet them all separately.

And I fly out this afternoon. I admitted to the oblates when I was giving them my presentations that I actually don’t end things well. I was referring to talks––that they usually end with dot-dot-dot… rather than, “And so…” I think it’s better that way, resisting the tendency to wrap things up and tie them in little bows, like a raga. John Main writes about his visit to Gethsemane in 1976, at which time he gave a series of talks to the monks there about meditation, but even more importantly, it was then that he discerned that he was to spend the rest of his life leading people in meditation. This trip has been interesting for me, work-wise, because I had a similar moment in 2004-2005, as I finished my tenure filling in for Mark at Holy Cross, knowing that from then on out I wanted to concentrate on this: Universal Wisdom and the Universal Call to Contemplation, through music and meditation. I have been resistant and reluctant even doing any work in liturgy or liturgical music because of this, that I want to keep my energy focused there. There are only so many hours in the day, days in a week, weeks in a year, years in a life––and we should make the best use of them. Already there are concerts and recordings, besides composing and practicing, retreats and conferences besides studying and writing, and all of that aside from the hours needed to devote to spiritual practice itself. All that to say that, I think that on this trip the work has stayed close to that center, and I can feel it sinking deeper roots as I gather broader experiences. I still am mystified as to where it all is leading, how long to continue to travel and work in this way, but I feel good, and I feel even more plugged into the anima mundi, the soul of the world. Certainly it will be good to have a little of the other kind of stability now, the solidity of the cell both in the woods of the Santa Cruz mountains and with the brothers in Big Sur.
… There’s nothing that binds me and nothing that ties me to something that might have been true yesterday. Tomorrow is open and right now it seems to be more than enough just to be here today. I don’t know what the future is holding in store. I don’t know where I’m going and I’m not sure where I’ve been. There’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me. My life is worth the living, and I don’t need to see the end.
You’ll have to figure out where that comes from.

dot-dot-dot. . .

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

some sydney sites

Not much to report from Sydney except that I am well rested and making my way slowly back. I got here on Monday night, had all day Tuesday to go touristing shamelessly. I try to go incognito as much as possible. Here is one of my outfits...

* * *

Here are my most favorite sites (if obvious). The Sydney Harbour Bridge (for $150 or so you can actually climb to the top and cross it).


And of course from every angle I couldn't get enough of the Opera House, with its buoyant sails opening up to the world.


These were taken on a ferry ride around the harbour all the way to Manly Beach where I hung out for a few hours at the Corso and the Ocean Surf Beach.


And I was so taken with St Mary's Cathedral
that I went back four different times.
I found the shadows and light of the place comforting in a way I needed for some reason.
It was like being in London and Florence at the same time.

* * * *
Leaving Australia today for Singapore. And God-willing home on Saturday.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

empty yourself completely

Sit in your cell as in paradise.

Put the whole world behind you

and forget it.

Empty yourself completely

and sit waiting,

content with the grace of God

(St Romuald)

Tasmania, continued… After the visit to Mount Wellington, it was onto Mary Knoll Retreat Center, which is located on a peninsula south of the bustling city of Hobart. Again, since Paul had pointed this general location out to me from Mount Wellington, I was expecting us to be in the middle of nowhere, and apparently at one time this place was pretty isolated. But now it is surrounded on three sides by a comfortable bedroom community with all kinds of normal middle class things all around it. But it is that fourth side that really gives this place it’s charm––a steep hill leading down to the beach, Derwent Beach. You can hear the waves crashing all day long, especially now in the early morning as I type this with my patio door cracked open. It’s a humble little retreat center, much used and homey, run by one solitary elderly Presentation sister. Drasko has arranged for me to have one of the three self-contained “hermit” units. I had pretty much all day yesterday to myself again before the oblates arrived last night, and spent a good part of the day reconnoitering the area––I’ve been three times to the beach already and had a leisurely exploratory run along the cliffs.

A quick summary of the first night of oblate retreat… For those of you reading who don’t know what an oblate is: an oblate is someone with a special bond of friendship with a monastic community who tries to live the monastic charism in a way modified to go with life in the world. Our congregation, the Camaldolese Benedictines, is a bit unique in that we have hundreds of oblates, of various religious affiliations, scattered all over the world, including a substantial number here in Australia. These oblates have the reputation for being a particularly intense lot, with two different groups of them setting up something like intentional communities, one led here in Tasmania by the same Drasko with another ex-Camaldolese named Christopher who is now a priest of the Paulist congregation, and another led by a colorful jovial priest named Michael Mifsud of Queensland, Victoria, who has taken canonical hermit status under his bishop, and whom I have met several ties in the States and in Italy.

I have prepared two pretty substantial presentations, one on the life of Saint Romuald himself, and the other on the three fold good (solitude-community-missionary martyrdom) by way of some of the early Camaldolese personalities––the five holy martyrs, Andrew and Benedict and Saint Peter-Damian. But I had an intuition to start with something I do very rarely. I checked with Drasko first to see what he thought and he agreed. Since many of them were curious about who I was (as a matter of fact I was being flooded with questions already during dinner), and since so much of what I have to say about Camaldolese spirituality depends on my own experience of it, I spent the first session last night telling them my vocation story. I touched just briefly on my early years in seminary and the experience with the Franciscans in uptown Chicago, “squandering” my twenties on music and confusion, but mainly concentrating on the years since my entry into New Camaldoli in 1992, meeting Fr Bede, the simultaneous immersion in Western and Eastern spirituality, first trips to India, the ten years at New Camaldoli, and then the whole story of these past six years. I really have nothing else to offer of any value but who I really am and what I really do, and, as I said, my own take on our charism is going to be shaded by all that.

I kept asking along the way as I was telling my story, “Is this too much detail?” but they kept saying, “No,” and listened very attentively. It wound up being a good move, and many of them related to my own quest for a “new way to do this whole thing.” Also a surprising number of them are students of the writing of Fr Bede, about which I was delighted; as a matter of fact more than one already said to me that Fr Bede and our involvement in east-west dialogue was their main attraction to being a Camaldolese oblate. So, I’m where I am supposed to be. One of the attendees is a young Anglican priest from Denmark, named Hans, who is a reasonable look alike for my friend Stefano in Florence, and like Stefano is a real student of the East. He and I already spent all of dinnertime last night immersed in conversation. So I am looking forward to the days ahead.

Without repeating my whole story here, let me just share with you how I ended, with three statements that would not have made sense without the biographical detail, but hopefully have set the stage for the conversations that will follow:
• First, in 2002, when I was with Don Emanuele, our prior general at the time, finalizing my decision to take an exclaustration in his office at Camaldoli, I said to him rather broken-heartedly, “I’m sorry, Don Emanuele. I hoped that monasticism would be a big enough container for me.” And he said to me, “Ma Cipriano, monachesimo non è un contenitore; è un’energia! Monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy.”
• Second, when I was writing a series of letters to Don Bernardino before he was elected as prior general (though expecting he would be), he wrote to me two things: “Once you have gathered the strands of your monastic life, which will be few, you will seek to remain faithful to them. Stability will reveal to you and to others your monastic being”; and he also wrote, concerning the institution, “The tie with the institution then comes last, because it will come to you and you will have to recognize it when it draws near…”
• And last, when we had renegotiated my status in the congregation to simple “leave with permission” that allowed me to continue living and working as I was indefinitely, Bernardino gave me a stiff talking to and told me to continue living exactly as I was, not to change anything, not to try to start anything new, to watch my balance between work and solitude, being alone and being with others, and––these were the wise prophetic words that so moved me––“this will be your stability now.”

Somewhere between the energy of monasticism and the stability that we have chosen and committed ourselves to lies that creative tension of monasticism. The tendency, or at least my tendency, is always to want to resolve the tension. But it seems as if staying in that tension, like riding a wave, is where we are all called to be.

* * *

tues, 24 march 09, Sydney

I flew here to Sydney last night, after the oblate retreat finished at lunchtime yesterday. I must say I think it was a great success. I had some doubts, as we were going into it, about the expense and energy it had taken to get me there to the remotest corner of Western civilization, hoping that it was going to be worth all our whiles––it was, as a matter of fact, all things being equal and with due reverence to all the other wonderful work and ministry I have been involved in these past seven weeks, it was the highlight of my trip. I only realized after a few hours how relaxed I was, in the way I am relaxed at Big Sur, laughing and joking and friendly in a way that doesn’t come out of me naturally in other environments. I really felt as if I was among family. It was also very nice to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist, and have good long periods of silent meditation with others.

I had a major presentation each morning Saturday and Sunday, the first on Romuald and the second on the three-fold good. I kept referring back to the lessons that I drew from my own story the night before, first of all, not to try to resolve the tension of Romuald, who was so insistent on putting everyone else under the yoke of obedience and yet he himself, as Bruno of Querfurt says, was “always a wanderer, now here, now there...” Peter Damian explains it this way: “Romuald could not bear to remain sterile. He felt a deep anxiety and a longing to bear fruit for souls, and kept searching for a place where he could do so. . . he was never satisfied with anything he did. While he was busy with one project, he was already planning the next.” Like what Shirley du Boulay says of Abhishiktananda: “a very busy hermit.” Instead of putting Romuald into a box or a pigeon-hole, I suggested that we see him in a constellation of other monks––the various types of hermits, wanderers, “clouds and water monks,” and sannyasis in the firmament, but also assume that he himself had a rule of life that he stuck to as well throughout. I think we can safely say that Romuald recognized the need for everyone to be yoked in obedience to someone––something other than oneself: as he really wanted to yoke himself to the Rule when he was in the monastery and all the other monks were lax; as did yoke himself to Marino; and I think we can safely assume that he was by then yoked to his own rule of life. For the ordinary monk it takes a rule and a master; an abbot and way of life. This is why the early Camaldolese were known as the “sensible hermits who live under the Rule.” That great formula of Aurobindo really spoke to them too, I think: that an ordinary person needs four things: the Sruti or recorded revelation (in other words, Scripture), the Sacred Teacher, the practice (he says, “of Yoga,” which of course is all encompassing of sadhana), and, of course, Grace. Scripture, a teacher, a disciplined practice and grace.

Then as far as the three-fold good is concerned, I kept focusing on the fact that it was first of all, as Robert used to say, not just sipping tea with the Anglicans in the drawing room, but that it is some kind of wild card, some kind of total abandonment of our self to the Spirit, total availability. And secondly, it is not something we can grasp or grab at or claim for ourselves. As is even taught about martyrdom and every other charism, it is a gift, something given to us. I think that they have been all been looking for something a little more solid in our tradition to hold on to, and they resonated with my story (they kept telling me over and over again) and these two things like cats in front of a saucer of milk. I did find it kind of ironic and humbling to be the one speaking for the Camaldolese charism, and even got pretty emotional when I was giving them a blessing at the end of the retreat “in the name of Don Bernardino and Prior Raniero,” but articulating it all for them was a good reminder and confirmation to me of how closely I am tied to our charism, and what my own particular yoke of obedience is as well.

In the meantime I had wonderful walks and talks, especially with the above mentioned Hans, with Michael Mifsud, long time student of Fr Bede and oblate chaplain here in Australia, and a young man named Michael who was visiting Drasko and Christopher exploring the possibility of joining their fledgling community. This latter was staying in the hermitage next to mine and we wound up spending lots of time together over tea and meals, tripping over each other going from one topic to another. I never realized how much this theme that Bernardino gave to me would serve others: gather the strands of your life, commit yourself to them, and your dedication to that commitment will reveal your monastic being, and this will be your stability. And so we can put together yogi, artist, nutritionist and student in a unique curry: but commit to it, and that commitment will reveal your stability.

After the retreat was over Drasko and Christopher took me back to their place, and told me more about their hopes for the future. Drasko has specifically been mandated by the diocese to found a place for young people to be able to have a monastic experience, a type of temporary monasticism. He has the possibility of a few locations, a parish center in north Tasmania, the house in Hobart down south where he and Christopher are living their common life of work and prayer now, and a rural property 50 km. outside of town where they hope to build a rural hermitage. They both spent nearly two years in formation at New Camaldoli, and still base their lives around our charism. As far as I can see in every way as much Camaldolese monks as I am. We had a great time together, talking, praying and meditating in their beautiful simple little chapel, then having a thali at an Indian restaurant around the corner before they took me to the airport. We too could have talked on for hours. They are both so well read, and Drasko is a fine and articulate theologian, so I was picking their brains about some thorny issues I have been running into that are a little out of my depth. (Mostly coming from finally reading Karen Armstrong’s “History of God.” I am loving her scholarship as always, but am so annoyed at her blatant blind spot about Western Christianity. She never misses an opportunity to give a passing pot shot or elbow in the ribs, and seems to assume as facts only views from the far left of Christian scholarship. Anyway, that’s another story… and Drasko was much more a match for her than I am.)

I am making my way home now. I’m here in Sydney until Thursday with only a small presentation to do tomorrow night and the rest of the time for sightseeing. (I’m under direct orders to do so from Master Ong.)

the silent land

I describe Australia as the silent land. Even in the great cities one senses a silence different from anywhere else. It is, I am sure, the vastness of the continent that overpowers all the man made structures...
(Ian Player)

Someone who has been following this blog wrote to me with a nice gentle correction, about which I should have known better myself. He said he was curious about my impressions of Australia particularly my sense of the newness of this country. He agreed that the time of recorded history since European settlement of this land is quite brief and young in comparison to America and certainly Europe where ages past are obviously still present. However, he invited me to reflect on

…Australia as an ancient land with at least 40000 years of indigenous history which is not necessarily present in any built up way but present in the land and the ongoing culture of these peoples. So the European history of this land is only possible in some ways because it comes on the back of something much much older culturally and geographically. I occasionally catch glimpses of this when being with the land more fully including in the cities. It is an old silent mysterious presence something articulated better than I by a South African photographer, Ian Player:

“To my friends I describe Australia as the silent land. Even in the great cities one senses a silence different from anywhere else. It is, I am sure, the vastness of the continent that overpowers all the man made structures...” (Wilderness: The Sacred Landscape, 2004).
And then he wonders if this isn’t Christ as Hagia Heyschia, Holy Silence speaking through the land, something the indigenous peoples have surely sensed for millennia?

I thought this was beautifully put and I hope that he does not mind if I add this here. It also has put words on something that has only been inchoate for me here in Australia, especially down here in Tasmania where the silence is so overpowering. I kept having flashes of Alaska probably due to the vast open spaces that lie between the little human habitations. Even the big cities are dwarfed by the sweeping untamed lands. And I have been particularly struck in various places before an event takes place where there is an honoring of the land, and a naming of the peoples who had lived there before. There does not seem to have been the wholesale destruction of the aboriginal culture and peoples here as there was in America. There was some to be sure, but not to the same extent and the aboriginal culture still survives and even thrives in the outback. That is to be envied because, as my brother above here wrote, the indigenous peoples’ sense of the pervading sacredness of the land is something we surely would do well to recover in this new axial period.

My last event in Adelaide, with my bags literally packed and waiting at the door, was to sing for 300 students at Sacred Heart College itself in the performing arts center right across the parking lot from the brother’s house where I was staying. In spite of it being the nicest performing space I had had yet in terms of stage and sound system and lighting, given my own experience of young Australian audiences, I was prepared for the worst in terms of participation, which is so central to the music I do. I had also been warned by one of the teachers that the kids were many of them un-churched and would be for the most part non-participatory. I decided on the spot, as I told Barbara later, that I wouldn’t put a heavy religious trip on them then, but try to go from the known to the unknown. I sang the Circle Song for them, and then Awakening, I guess just trying to draw them in with the music, and then did a few participatory songs with them, and they actually did sing along just fine. They also were pretty attentive and applauded more than politely.

After about a half an hour I launched into a bit of a spiel. I have a new twist on it again, thanks to our new president. I had a very small graduating class at St Charles Borromeo Seminary High School––we were only 18, and the whole school never topped 100 while I was there. So I always get kind of excited when I meet people my age and I like to ask them, “What are we supposed to be doing now? Did anyone tell you?” So it was quite a wake up call for me when I realized that our new president was three years younger than I was. If I ever wondered about what people of my generation were supposed to be doing right now, now I know––we’re supposed to be running the world. If I ever doubted when my turn was going to be––it’s now. It’s our turn. And so I told the kids the other day, It’s going to be your turn soon, maybe sooner than you think, maybe sooner than it was our turn. So my message is this: Wake up! Wake up! There are real serious issues we are facing as a race, and everything you do affects the whole world either for the better or for the worse, and the only real answer to those issues is a spiritual one. Something like that. I think it went pretty well.

* * *

Saturday, 21 march, 09, Tasmania

Tuesday I flew farther across Australia to Melbourne and from Melbourne south across a vast amount of sea to the island of Tasmania. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was not what I expected. I landed in Launceston (“LAWN-sess-ton”) a tidy little 200 year old town on the northern edge of Tasmania divided by three rivers. I guess the farther south I go I keep expecting things to get more and more rugged and less populated, but sure enough there were comfortable modern homes and Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was the guest of Paul and Gordana Crowe in their beautiful home that would certainly win Martha Stewart’s approval. And Gordana, who is an exceptional cook, took it upon herself to try out a handful of new pretty fancy vegetarian recipes on me. Paul is a candidate to be a Camaldolese oblate, and friend of Drasko, the former monk of New Camaldoli who is the head of the oblate community down here.

I had a great day wandering around Launceston. Early in the morning, following Paul’s directions, I went for a run out of town to the Cataract River Gorge. I ran about a mile into the gorge and was about to turn around when I suddenly saw some movement ahead of me. (Luckily I was uncharacteristically wearing my glasses.) It was a kangaroo. Actually, it wasn’t a kangaroo, it was a wallaby––an Australian marsupial that is similar too, but smaller than, a kangaroo (of the family Macropodidae of several genera and numerous species including the agile wallaby [Macropus agilis])––but I thought it was a kangaroo, until a woman came up behind and I asked her, “Is that a baby?” (because it was small) and she said, “No, that’s a wallaby.” It seemed to be a female and she had a beautiful little face and we sat there and stared at each other for the longest time. I finally sat down on a stair and continued the long loving gaze at her when someone else came up from behind me. It turned out to be Julien, a young French intrepid explorer who had come over on a ferry and spent the night in his car there at the gorge and now wanted to practice his English with me. We had a brief friendly conversation comparing notes, and then I said goodbye to him and my first marsupial (you never forget your first marsupial…) and jogged back home.

I had a session with the small WCCM community later that morning and then headed out on my own for the afternoon, camera in hand. Alas, the wallabies had vanished, but the coffee shops were open. And the next morning Paul and I headed farther south straight down the middle of the island toward Hobart. We stopped halfway for lunch at a little place called Campbell Town, and again I was surprised by how developed and even hip the place was. We ate at a trendy little café with delicious vegetarian food. Once we got to Hobart, but before taking me to the retreat house where the oblate gathering was to be, Paul drove me up to the summit of Mount Wellington, a spot about 4000 feet above sea level with a view of the southern shore of Tasmania, the estuary of the river pouring out of Hobart and opening up to the ocean. It was beautiful up there, with low-slung eucalyptus trees permanently hunched over clinging to the mountainside by the winds, and dramatic outcroppings of rocks thrust up from the earth all around.

Monday, March 16, 2009

impenetrable ego-persona

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass
all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers,
and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and
(Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself" #5)

17 march, 09

I’ve been staying in Adelaide, Australia now since last week Wednesday. I am a guest of the Marist brothers here, in a very comfortable house on the campus of Sacred Heart College. I have had fine accommodations all along the way, but for some reason I have felt especially comfortable in my room-cell here, quiet and dark, wireless internet and enough room for my yoga mat and guitar. The brothers have been so friendly and hospitable, even kind of anticipating my needs. There has been regular work, not a grueling schedule but at least a little something to do every day. Thursday I did an hour and a half session with about 150 Year 11 students at a prestigious Jesuit secondary school outside of town, which went very well. That same night I did a concert for a small crowd at the local Uniting Church, and the next day another for a nice sized audience in the hall of the cathedral downtown Adelaide. Then Saturday two long sessions for the Meditation Community of South Australia (WCCM).

Barbara O’Hallaran and her team from that group have been the ones to set all this up and Barbara was also the one who made contacts with other WCCM folks around Australia as well, enabling me to work my way across the country. She, her husband Justin, and her committee have been great. They had planned to take me on a jaunt out to a park to see koalas and kangaroos Sunday, but on Saturday morning Barbara offered me instead the possibility of just having a day to myself, which I opted for and so had a lazy day, Mass with the brothers here, off to the gym, big festal lunch with the brothers, who were celebrating some birthdays, then a walk down the coast to the touristy hang out about a mile away, and another quiet evening at home working on my upcoming talks.

I did a presentation at a girls’ high school yesterday. It was the most beautiful chapel I had been in yet this trip, reminded me of the upstairs chapel with choir stalls at Camaldoli that I love so much, with a wonderful acoustic. I was pretty up for the girls’; they were attentive enough but participation was an absolute minimum. The teacher was embarrassed by it, but by now I am used to it. I have talked with so many people about this phenomenon here in Australia––I think that it is worse than in the states. What is it? Have we bred engagement out of young people? Is it I-pods and computers and television and absolute passivity? Many folks say that it is such a sense of self-consciousness, a highly developed impenetrable ego-persona that simply cannot come down. I think that last bit with the addition of the others is the closest to the truth. Why is it so different at a place like Mount Madonna, where they are typical middle class western kids?

I have one more performance today here at Sacred Heart College this morning, for three hundred Year 12s. Bro Patrick here at the house took me up there last night to “have a bit of a gossip” with the Year twelve male boarders, mainly because he wanted me to play guitar for them and them for me. It was a nice enough visit and I was glad that I knew a few Jack Johnson songs.

Here are some things I have learned or realized about Australia and Australians:
• It is and really feels like it is a newer place than America.
• The cities that weren’t founded as penal colonies but by free settlers are very proud of that fact.
• The country is almost as big as America but there are less people in it than in Delhi.
• Aussies themselves have told me on several occasions, with what seems to me to be a mixture of dismay with a wee bit of pride, that Australia is “secular,” “godless” and even “hedonistic.”
• Aussies seem to like us Americans and certainly know our music and films as well as our history and politics well.
• They on the other hand do not think we know how to make either tea or coffee.
• They seem to have gone from instant coffee to espresso without much intervening automatic drip––a standard coffee here is a “long black” which is what we would call a caffe Americano.
• When you are pouring properly steeped tea out of a pot you should put the milk in your cup first.
• There are internet cafes, but they is no food in them;
• there are regular cafes but there is no internet in them.
• There is also no cable television here yet, but they don’t seem to be clamoring for it.
• American football, soccer and Football Aussie rules are three distinct games. The latter is a combination of Irish hurling and an Aboriginal game, and is very fast and so far confusing to me, and the Aussies are wild for it.
• The double “s” in “Aussie” is pronounced like a “z.”
• Australians are fiercely proud of their history and have struck me so far as very open, friendly people.

On to Tasmania.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

the mind-body split

Hence it is that some mystic writers do call this perfect union
the union of the nothing with the nothing,
that is, the union of the soul which is nowhere corporally,
that hath no images or affections to creatures in her;
yea that hath lost the free disposal of her own faculties,
acting by a portion of the spirit above all the faculties,
and according to the actual touches of the Divine Spirit,
and apprehending God with an exclusion of all conceptions and apprehensions.
(Augustine Baker, Holy Wisdom)

sat, 14 march 09

Before I left Perth I raided Meath’s library, which I told him was very much like my own only better. I am kind of fascinated with this idea of healing the body-soul split toward a more holistic spirituality. (And incidentally Christian anthropology as I understand it and Christian mysticism at its most sublime have a lot to offer to this argument.) I often quote Sam Keen’s warning against those who speak of “having a body,” that this might be another dualism sneaking in, what may be considered an “enlightened dualism.” In one of Ken Wilber’s early books he says it right out:
Biologically there is not the least foundation for this dissociation or radical split between the mind and the body, the psyche and the soma, the ego and the flesh, but psychologically it is epidemic. Indeed, the mind-body split and attendant dualism is a fundamental perspective of Western civilization…. Even St. Francis referred to his body as ‘poor brother ass,’ and most of us do indeed feel as if we just sort of ride around on our bodies like we would on a donkey or an ass.
Then he goes on to say that this strange boundary line between the mind and the body is not at all present at birth. But as individuals grow in years, and we begin to draw up and fortify all kinds of boundaries between “self” and “not-self,” we also start to look at the body with mixed emotions. And by the time we have matured we have generally “kissed poor brother ass good-bye,” and the body becomes foreign territory, almost (but never quite) as foreign as the external world itself. (And, unfortunately, as Sam reminds us, “how we are in our bodies is how we will be in the world.”) The boundary line is drawn between the mind and the body, and the person identifies squarely with the mind, and we come to live in our heads as if we were a miniature person in our skull, giving directions and commands to the body, which may or may not obey. (No Boundary, pp. 6-7)

However, in this early version of the Spectrum of Consciousness, he suggests that as we mature psychologically and spiritually the boundary between self and not-self keeps moving and begins to dissolve:
at first we identify as our persona and “not-self” is our shadow, all that lies hidden and denied;
then our “self” is our ego and “not-self” seems to be the body;
at another stage of growth we learn to recognize that the total organism including the body––KW calls it the “centaur”––is our self, but our environment is still “other”;
after this level transpersonal bands start to develop and the boundary starts to break down, leading us to both greater interiority and deeper communion, until we reach a stage of “unity consciousness” when we realize our one-ness (may I say communion?) with all things.

Does an individual self remain to be in relationship with all these things? This, of course, is where the traditions disagree.

It is a shame that I have spent so little time with Aldous Huxley’s “Perennial Philosophy,” but I did at Meath’s only to find out that he agrees:
…the relations subsisting between the world and God, and between God and the Godhead seem to be analogous, in some measure at least, to those that hold between the body (with its environment) and the psyche, and between the psyche and the spirit…
Mind affects its body and four ways
• subconsciously, through that unbelievably subtle physiological intelligence “entelechy”
• consciously through deliberate acts of the will;
• subconsciously again by the reaction upon the physical organism of emotional states having nothing to do with the organs or processes reacted upon;
• consciously or unconsciously in certain supernormal manifestations

And aside from the body, matter itself can be influenced by the mind (psyche) in two ways, by means of the body and by means of a supernormal process. The clearest example he gave is of “nervous indigestion”: emotions are directed toward events or persons in the outer environment but in some way or other can adversely affect the physiology. Huxley says this applies to tuberculosis, ulcers, heart disease and even dental problems, but how many other ways have we learned? And of course, in terms of the supernormal he mentions faith healing, levitation, and extrasensory perception. And so (I love this):
…if a human mind can directly influence matter not merely within, but even outside the body, then a divine mind, immanent in the universe or transcendent to it, may be presumed to be capable of imposing forms upon a pre-existing chaos of formless matter, or even, perhaps, of thinking substance as well as forms into existence. (Perennial Philosophy, pp. 26-28)
And I hadn’t really paid attention or even thought about the 16th century Benedictine mystic and master Augustine Baker since my novitiate under Peter-Damian, but he caught my attention again when I learned how much John Main was influenced by him. While at St. Anselm's, Fr John suggested to a troubled young man that he read Baker’s book Holy Wisdom. The young guy's response to it was so enthusiastic that Fr John himself was reread it. And inspired by that Fr John and the young man began meditating together in the manner he had learned from Swami Satyananda years before in Malaysia. Augustine Baker’s frequent reminder of the emphatic insistence of St. Benedict lays upon Cassian’s Conferences sent him to them seriously for the first time, and in chapter 10 of Cassian, he found the roots of meditation in the Christian tradition. What Cassian had learned from the desert fathers and what St. Benedict learned from Cassian was what John Main had learned from a Hindu monk three years before becoming a Benedictine monk.

So I perused Holy Wisdom for the first time, thanks to a very old edition in Meath’s library:
…there is a mystic contemplation which is, indeed, truly and properly such, by which a soul without discoursings and curious speculations, without any perceptible use of the internal senses or sensible images, by a pure, simple, and reposeful operation of the mind, in the obscurity of faith, simply regards God as infinite and incomprehensible verity, and with the whole bent of the will rests in Him as (her) infinite, universal, and incomprehensible good. This is true contemplation indeed, and as rest if the ed of motion, so is this the end of all other both internal and external exercises; for therefore, by long discourses and much practice of affection, the soul inquires and tends to a worthy object that she may quietly contemplate it, and (if it deserves affection) repose with contentment in it. (Chap. I.6, p. 504)
And this, which is a favorite section of Meath:
By reason of this habitation and absolute dominion of the Holy Spirit in the souls of the perfect (those who have wholly neglected, forgotten, and lost themselves, to the end that God alone may live in them, whom they contemplate in the absolute obscurity of faith), hence it is that some mystic writers do call this perfect union the union of the nothing with the nothing, that is, the union of the soul which is nowhere corporally, that hath no images or affections to creatures in her; yea that hath lost the free disposal of her own faculties, acting by a portion of the spirit above all the faculties, and according to the actual touches of the Divine Spirit, and apprehending God with an exclusion of all conceptions and apprehensions; thus it is that the soul, being nowhere corporally or sensibly, is everywhere spiritually and immediately united to God, this infinite nothing. (Chapter VI.8, p. 545)
While I am egg-heading, I decided that I needed to be a little more clear and concise in my presentation to the young people about what I man by the Universal Call to Contemplation and what I am up to tamping the world with my new Calton guitar case. So I came up with three points which served me pretty well in my presentation the other day at a prestigious Jesuit high school here in Adelaide.

“This is what I want to leave you with:”

1. That God or the Divine is not just outside of us, but also dwells within us, and that every human being is capable of having an experience of this indwelling divine, the indwelling presence of God. It is a way of interiority, which at first glance goes against our grain because we live outside of ourselves. As St Augustine said famously in his Confessions, “You were within me, but I was on the outside and it was there that I looked for you. Upon entering into myself I saw what was beyond my soul, beyond my spirit––your immutable light.” And the path to having an experience of that immutable light within us is the way of meditation, the way of interior prayer.
2. We mean by this also really every human being, not just Christians. This is an assumption that this experience of unity with God is first of all the inspiration for all authentic spiritual traditions, and it is that experience that gets expressed and embodied in various languages, cultures, rituals, and dogmas and doctrines, which begin to look different one from the other as they form. But the experience of unity with God, the indwelling presence of the divine, is also the height of the spiritual experience after the arduous journey of living the spiritual life. We know this because what we find when we read the great mystics of the spiritual traditions is that the language used to express the experience on the other side of ritual, culture, language and doctrine has great similarity. So we find here a meeting point, a place of dialogue with other religions, finding out first of all in what way each of these traditions is a legitimate expression of that original experience, and sharing one with the other what we have in common about the path to realizing that union with God.
3. Both this path of interiority and this dialogue, this conversation between religions are essential building blocks and stepping-stones for world peace. First of all because we cannot build peace in the world unless and until we are at peace in ourselves; and secondly it is at this level of conversation that actually find some agreement with other traditions, being able to respect their legitimate experience, their different expression of it, and their path of return. This enables us to share with each other insights about this experience and the ways that we have found that can help us to achieve union with God. As a great theologian wrote: “No peace among nations without peace among religions; no peace among religions without dialogue between the religions.”

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

saving the world

Come and be Love’s willing slave,
for Love’s slavery will save you.
Forsake the slavery of this world
and take up Love’s sweet service.

O Love, O quail in the free fields of spring,
wildly sing songs of joy.

Thursday, 11 march, 09, Adelaide, Australia

I had a kind of powerful unitive experience last night. I left the brothers’ residence where I am staying and walked the three blocks down to the beach around 8 o’clock. I was looking out at what seemed to be to me the end of the world, the south coast of Australia, here where the Indian Ocean is about to become the Pacific, next stop Antarctica. The sun was setting into the water in front of me and a full yellow moon was rising up behind me. I got kind of a shiver and was just about to send a text message to my friends in La Selva Beach (in spite of the fact that it would have been 2 AM their time) to share the experience with them, when all of the sudden my rational mind kicked in and said, “Hey, wait a minute: the sun doesn’t set in the south!” Later I looked it up; Adelaide is on a west-facing beach. I was actually looking back and Perth. Oh well. It was still pretty.

Speaking of which, the last day there was really a fine way to end. After my poor performance at John XXIII the week before, I was feeling a little gun shy about facing high school students again. But as it turned out, it went well. The first class was a group of about 30 “Year Sevens,” so about 12 years old. They were very interactive from the get-go. I started out by singing “Circle Song” for them and when I got to the part at the end when I was singing the line “…only music keeps us here” over and over again in 4 while playing the arpeggiated guitar part in 6, they first started swaying and then started singing the line along with me, which I encouraged. So while they kept that up and I could sing the vocalise of the top of it like an instrumental part. It was very cool. Then when I did “Shine On Me” with them, again when I was doing the free vocalise over the interludes between verses, they started singing along again with that too! At the end I said, “Just sing whatever you want,” and we all just sort of scatted together. I also slipped “The Jammy Song” in on them, which seemed to appreciate, now that I am finally in a country again that understands the word “jammy.” During the question and answer period, one of the kids asked a great question. He said, “Is monk like a kung-fu monk?” Some of the kids giggled a little, but I answered him with a straight face, that yes, as a matter of fact it is like a kung-fu monk. I think when lived well it is more like a kung-fu monk than it is like a parish priest, which is what people usually think.

The next class to come in was a group of Year Tens, so about 15-16 year olds. They were an elective group so had signed up to come to this session. I noticed off to my left in the room after they had gathered a group of guys that I assumed to be the “jocks,” I figured either footballers or cricketers. As it turns out, they were mostly Maori boys from New Zealand who had come to this school specifically for their rugby program. And the teacher who was my host, Chris, had stopped them before they came in to assure himself that they really wanted to be there and weren’t just getting out of class. As it turns out they were about the most attentive, especially, Chris said, since music is such a big part of their lives as islanders. I spoke more than sang in that period, and the kids were really attentive and polite.

That night then I did my last event in Perth, which was (finally!) a concert. Knowing it was going to be the last thing of the week, I was really looking forward to it and kept saying that I felt like I had to do all the other stuff all week to earn the right to do a concert. (All things being equal, I think that is what I do best and certainly what I enjoy doing the most.) It was held in the chapel at Christ Church Anglican Grammar School. It was a pretty modern building with a very nice acoustic and a comfortable stool (not to be under-rated!), and I was as comfortable as could be. I told the folks at the beginning that I usually put a list together of songs I should sing but this time I was just going to sing whatever I felt like, and I did. It felt like an evening among friends. I even sang “The Great Mother,” and pulled off “Alhamdullilah” again. I’ve been working on a new song that is based on a Balinese gamelan melody with a Buddhist text called “Lovingkindness,” and was even tempted to try to pull that off but I had forgotten to bring the words with me.

I tell people sometimes that because of something about the way I was introduced to music as a child––both the folk and rock scene of the ‘60s––I really believe that you can change the world with a song. And something of that has carried over into the music that I have don and written for liturgy as well because obviously that should apply double for sacred music of any kind. I’ve never thought of myself as an entertainer and even have kind of resented it when someone suggests I am or should be. There’s a place for diversion obviously, but there is too much at stake and certainly being an entertainer would not have been a weighty enough reason to move away from the monastery. It was more––another phrase I use often––a sense of urgency. There’s always a tendency when dealing with young people to put on a dog-and-pony show and try to match up to “the world” in entertaining them, just as there is always the tendency in liturgical music, as well as religion in general, to provide a palliative rather than prophecy. I just don’t want to go there.

A friend and fellow musician sent something along that I loved. It was the welcome address given to entering freshmen at the Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of the music division. These three paragraphs particularly could and should be any musician’s creed:
If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet...
Dostoevsky would agree.

Don and Meath brought me to the airport and we sat and had a cuppa before I left, and we all felt as if the week had been a real success. I am very grateful especially to them and to Sue and Gerard and John from the Meditation Community for all their work in putting it together and giving me such a postive introduction to Australia.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Whatever celestial form devotees choose to worship with reverence,
I stabilize the faith of that particular devotee in that very form.
Endowed with such faith
they worship that particular deity
and obtain through it without doubt
their desired enjoyments as ordained by myself.
(Bhagavad Gita 7:21-22)

Monday, 9 march, 09

Sunday morning I did the worship service at Wesley Uniting Church. Very different from a Roman Catholic liturgy, Don had pretty much gutted everything they normally do as part of their service except for the beginning and end bits, introduction, announcements, hymns, and after the proclamation of the Gospel I was on. I checked with him again on my way up to the front, “How long should I go?” and he affirmed about a half an hour. I started by telling the assembly that I could never get away with that in our tradition, though some still do. I know some of you would like me to reprint the homily here––I take that back: this was not a homily––it was a “sermon”! But it was a full half and hour long. The Gospel reading was Mark 8:27-38, which has three parts to it: first Jesus asking “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answering “You are the Messiah”; Jesus predicting that he is going to suffer and die, Peter being horrified by that and Jesus rebuking him; and then Jesus announcing that anyone who would save their life would lose it. I used the device that I used some weeks ago concerning the word “Lord”––“Lord” doesn’t define Jesus; Jesus defines what it means to be “Lord.” And the same applies to “messiah”: it doesn’t define Jesus; Jesus defines what it means to be a “messiah,” and it is not what Peter thinks it means. In the same way Jesus defines, or re-defines, what it means to be a king; and in some way (in the light of currently reading Karen Armstrong’s book “A History of God”), the same thing applies to “God”: God doesn’t define Jesus; Jesus defines what it means to be God, hence in John 14 he says to Philip, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”; in other words, “I’m what God is like.” And Jesus also defines what the “way” is toward the realization of our own oneness with God. And that “way” is the way of the seed falling into the ground and dying so as to yield a rich harvest. The way is the way of a certain dying of self.

Then I launched into my comparison of the Hindu-vedanta-advaitin notion of the self (the self disappearing into the Great Self), compared to the Buddhist notion of not-self (or no-self); with the Christian notion of the eternal self in personal relationship with Absolute Reality, as the real self of Jesus survives the total dissolution of both his body and soul. I even brought in a little of the telos-scopos thing, the difference between the end and the goal. How could I not? This was the exact example that first made it occur to me. Jesus is speaking a piece of universal wisdom here, an aspect of the perennial philosophy: as Dogen would say it, “To learn one’s self is to forget oneself.” I also sang my version of “Unless a Grain of Wheat” at the beginning, and “the Litany of the Person” at the end.

I was dressed in my habit as I thought appropriate for the occasion. It was a little on the warm side in the church but not oppressively so. But I realized about ¾ of the way into my presentation that sweat was pouring down my back and legs. (I was seated on a tall stool.) “Why?” I asked myself quickly. Because I was getting absolutely no feedback from the assembly. Mind you, I wasn’t wearing my glasses or my lenses, so I couldn’t see clearly, but even then I usually can get a sense if folks are with me or not, but in this case there was nothing. The communicator in me I was just sure that I was not doing a very good job, either over peoples’ heads or too esoteric or boring, and I was feeling bad about the fact that they had gone through all this trouble to bring me in and I was disappointing them. But I took a deep breath and barreled through the rest, trying as hard as possible not to be attached “to the fruits of my labor.” But when I slipped back into the first bench with Don, he said, “Wonderful, Cyprian.” And then at the sign of peace and after the service was over all kinds of people were coming up to me and talking about what I had said and expressing their appreciation and interest, and were so friendly. I was relieved but a little confused. As we were leaving I asked Meath about it, and he said simply something like, “This is Australia. We are trained to not react in church. We don’t clap, we don’t show emotion, we don’t hug each other, we don’t laugh. It’s what we inherited from the British sensibility. We save our emotions for the barbeque, the beach and the football match.” Wow, I said, that would take some getting used to. Now here is a place where we are so different in America, at least in the crowds that I hang in. Not better or worse, mind you, but quite different. It is slowly dawning on me that I am going to have to get used to this the next few weeks! I might have to go hang out at the beach or a football match.

Meath and a friend took me for lunch afterward and were gently teasing me about how many references I made to “catholic” thinkers, all the way from the desert fathers and Basil the Great straight through Bernard of Clairvaux, even to quoting Benedict XVI from his book “Jesus of Nazareth.” These are folks that don’t often get quoted in a Wesleyan church. I had noted that myself about halfway through, but, hey, that’s where I come from and most of them were thinkers from the undivided church. But, yes, I had found it funny too. I’m expecting a note from the Holy Office soon: “Dear Rev Consiglio, Our attention has been called to your recent remarks concerning women’s ordination and inter-religious dialogue. Please refrain from ever speaking again publicly. P.S. Thanks for the shout-out for my book!”

Here's a picture of me with a Jack Johnson fan and look alike checking out "the Collings" after the service.

Last night then we had the second part of my responsibilities at Wesley Uniting, an interfaith event. Don had invited a few other representatives from other traditions but in the end it was only myself, Ajahn Brahm, another British born Thai Buddhist monk who is the abbot of a monastery near Perth, and Sheik Mohammad, an imam from a local mosque. Ironically, Willie had told me all about Ajahn Brahm back in Bangkok. He is an acquaintance of Pandit and he was speaking in Bangkok the day after I left. As a matter of fact when we compared notes in the backroom before the event began it was as if we had been following each other around the southeast Asia: he had also been in Singapore and had just come from Jakarta. He is very popular as a teacher in this part of the world and everyone seems to know him. He reminded me of Pandit to some extent, eschewing formality and being very down to earth, maybe even more so than Pandit. We also found out that we have a mutual friend in Heng Sure. And when I told him I was going to be singing a song of Heng Sure’s he started singing, “If I were an American beef cow, you can bet that I would be mad too…” (That’s not the song I sang, by the way.) Sheik Mohammad is a very urbane man originally from South Africa, a very articulate careful speaker, polite and gracious.

Again, I started the event off with a song (“Lead Me From Death into Life”), and then Don moderated by asking us questions. Though having been involved in a lot of interfaith events, to my recollection this is the first time that I have ever been a speaker in a panel like that. I kept thinking about the presidential debates, and especially President Obama and Vice-President Biden: as for the latter I was conscious of not carrying on too long; as for the former I was keenly aware that not every question can be answered with a sound-bite. There are sometimes complicated issues at stake. I wasn’t uncomfortable but I was certainly trying to be careful and not to give overly emotive or easy answers. Sheik Mohammad was even more cautious than I, but Islam has even more at stake. Ajahn Brahm, on the other hand, was very much at his ease, and sometimes answered in a way that I think of as typically Buddhist, that is, saying something slightly shocking to shatter pretenses and cut through illusions.

There was one moment that I will probably retrace a bit for the next few days and wish I could have answered better. We were talking about violence, and at one point someone from the crowd asked if there could ever be a just war. Ajahn Brahm answered unequivocally “no.” But I said sadly that I wished I could give such a black and white answer, but I had to always leave the option of protection of the innocent, and that if I failed to protect someone who was innocent I might be committing a sin of omission. Ajahn challenged me on that, but sadly I could not back off (sorry, Baxter), though I did add that I thought a just war was practically impossible in this day and age of nuclear weaponry where indiscriminate killing of non-combatants was probable. I was also able to make the point that our last two popes were totally against our recent American military aggression and that the present pope has been a huge advocate of using “reason” to try to make the case for not resorting to violence of any kind. I had looked over my notes on Islam just before the event, and had pasted in them the report from the colloquium held by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Centre for Inter-religious Dialogue of the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation in Rome April 2008. At the end of the meeting the participants agreed upon the following: that faith and reason do not contradict each other (though faith might in some cases be above reason, but never against it); and that faith and reason are intrinsically non-violent. And so, “Neither reason nor faith should be used for violence.” Unfortunately, as we know, both of them have been sometimes misused to perpetrate violence.

I did step out and say, when asked, that I thought our present hierarchy’s approach to inter-religious dialogue was not helping us much. The present pope has been pretty consistent on this. He had already said as far back as in his 1969 book “Das neue Volk Gottes,” as John Allen just mentioned this week in his column, that at its core, Christianity is not about dialogue with the world but rather kerygma, proclamation. But for me, the insistence on proclamation
rather than dialogue is a false dilemma. Also, when the topic came up about patriarchy, I also had to admit that there was nothing I had heard yet to convince me that women couldn’t be members of the hierarchy of the church, that in fact we were terribly lopsided with our mono-sexual leadership. I usually don’t even go that far in public, but hey… I’m also rarely in a Wesleyan Uniting Church in Australia with a Thai Buddhist monk and a Muslim imam.

Meath and Don were both very pleased with the event and said that it is a rarity for Perth for may years now. I am pleased that my coming could be the occasion for it to take place. I am looking forward to the concert tomorrow night as a culmination of my work here. Sheik Mohammad said he would try to come. I told him the story of the alhamdullilah debacle in Malaysia. He was very sympathetic and said that if he came he’d love to hear me sing it, so I hope he does come and I will, gladly.

from perth

When every haughty head bends low
the salt will flavor the earth,
the yeast will raise the dough
and death will yield new birth.

Sunday, 8 march, 09, Perth, Australia

I guess Maisie’s driver Muhamad didn’t have anything else to do on Thursday morning because he showed up at around 9 AM. My flight wasn’t until 2:30. We called Maisie to see what was up (given Mohamad’s limited English) and she said that he was at my disposal if there was anything else that I wanted to do before the airport. Very kind, but there really wasn’t, so I just puttered around another half an hour, rolled up my yoga mat and we were on our way. I think Muhamad was happy to have me to himself––he had been very kind all week and must have thought I was some kind of VIP––and he was trying out his English on me, saying things like “vegetarian!” and “You like Jakarta? Coming back?” I noticed his prayer beads at one point around the gearshift and said “Tasbih?” and he got excited that I knew what they were and I showed him mine as well. We greeted each other with Asalam alakum and he was off.

Quite a show at the international wing of Jakarta airport, sheiks and imams, burkas, turbans and other headgear all mixed in with Western clothes and a good handful of us bule. I sat at the counter of a coffee shop, made a couple of phone calls, went over some upcoming talks, and then ate another taste treat: a toasted double sandwich with butter, cheese and chocolate, listed on the menu as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Now why didn’t I ever think of that? Talk about comfort food.

A sunny five and a half hour flight over the Indian Ocean to Perth. As I said, it felt odd to be leaving Asia; it was odder to be leaving Asia by flying further south; and it was the oddest thing of all to be leaving Asia flying south and winding up back in “the West.” I don’t really know what I was expecting of Australia. I’ve had some half-baked inchoate pre-conceived notions I’m sure, somewhere between Crocodile Dundee and Victoria, Canada, but nothing fully formed. But it is definitely the West. I was met at the airport by Meath, who I already know from both the Bede Griffiths Trust and meeting at Shantivanam last year, when the idea to bring me to Perth was first hatched; with him was Don Dowling, the pastor of the Wesley Uniting Church here in Perth. Wesley Uniting is what came about from the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist congregations, all of whom were small in Australia, all coming together here as one congregation. It is he/they, along with the Christian meditation Community of West Australia, who have co-sponsored me being here and organized, very well, my time, with the help and gracious hosting of Meath, who is an intrepid pilgrim and speaker himself.

Meath and Don took me right away on a little tour of Perth by night. My impressions at first glance haven’t changed much three days later: it’s a pretty, neat and orderly, manageably small (2 million) city, with a modest but handsome skyline in a beautiful part of the world. The weather is moderate Mediterranean, with a cool breeze blowing in off the Indian Ocean just to the west each evening. It is also very quiet. The contrast with Jakarta (not to mention Bangkok, Kuala Lampur or even Singapore) couldn’t be greater. As we stood at a park overlooking the skyline and the Black Swan River that cuts through the city (I’m told there are actually still black swans in it), I had my first wave of culture shock. It was deafeningly quiet and blissfully cool.

I was off right away early the next morning. Gerard from the Meditation Community picked me up at 7:15 and took me off the John XXIII school. I was commenting to Gerard as we drove there that this place may as well be the US from the look of it, except cleaner and the cars are on the other side of the road. All the flat land that stretched out around me made me think of Idaho. John XXIII is adamantly a K through 12 school; they try to foster that sensibility in everything. We first were at Mass with a handful of faculty and students in their beautiful stone and wood chapel, presided over by their chaplain, a bustling friendly young Jesuit, who wasn’t quite sure what I was going to be doing there the rest of the morning. There was a small group of singers doing a capella music for the Mass referred to as the Gospel choir. After Mass we met the principal, a warm friendly woman named Ann, and Paddy, the religion teacher who did know what I was going to be doing that morning.

My first stop was a session with the same Gospel choir. This now of course is to be my first experience with an Australian group. It went well enough. They were not nearly as exuberant and interactive as the kids in Jakarta, but they were attentive and polite, sang along and expressed appreciation after each song I sang with them and when I was through. Then came a session with the 11th year students. Again, I could have been in the US. About a third of the class was attentive enough, about a third looked bored silly, and about a third were restless and couldn’t wait to get out of there. I was singing my best stuff with them and barely getting them to sing along, or laugh or clap or anything. Finally I was urged to lead them in meditation and it was about the same thing: about a third really tried, about a third went along for the ride, and about a third didn’t even try to make me think they were trying, but were fidgeting and talking and looking around. At one point I added to my instructions on the four basic elements of meditation, “And please don’t talk to the person next to you.”

I am not writing any of this to put them down or make fun of John XXIII school, please, and if any of you are reading this accept my apologies. I am just noting that the difference from my experience with the young people in Indonesia last week couldn’t have been greater. The kids there were so attentive, hanging on every word I said; they sang along with gusto; they dropped so easily into meditation, they hung around afterward to talk. What was the difference? Again the sense of culture shock was pretty profound. More on that later.

Meath has abandoned his apartment and left it to me, so after a meeting with the meditation group planning the retreat for the next day and another lunch meeting with Don and Meath planning the rest of the time, Meath left me to my own devices. I walked downtown and found a few things I needed, particularly an internet place with a very fast DSL line (and scuba diving expeditions, by the way). I located a gym, picked up a few things I needed and spent the rest of the evening at the apartment, mostly going early to bed.

Yesterday, Saturday I had a retreat day with the meditation community. Actually all I had to do was two sessions as the major presenter, two hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the afternoon. This crowd, of about 70, couldn’t have been better, so attentive, so responsive and so appreciative. It was one of the best Q&A sessions I’ve ever done (though it could be that I’m getting better at them too). Sharp questions ranging all the way from Shakespeare to points raised by a psychotherapist. Again I had the evening to myself, and a typically Cyprian kind of thing happened that also says something about this town. The girl at the gym downtown on the Murray Street Mall had told me that there was a form I could fill out online to get a special rate for a week’s worth of unlimited visits. So I went back to the DSL-Scuba diving place and did my stuff and then filled out the forms online, the last step of which is to print up the receipt that you have paid with your credit card so they will let you in the gym. Except that between the young woman minding the place and I we tried for 20 minutes and couldn’t get it to print. So, we wound up figuring out that I could e-mail the receipt to myself and I could carry my laptop in to the gym and show them the receipt on my computer. A little geeky, but all right, except that when I went to the gym, it was closed. Now that may not seem strange at first, but this was not even 7 o’clock on a Saturday night in the middle of a pedestrian mall filled with shops and restaurants and what not, which just the night before had been bustling with young people and vendors and music. As a matter of fact, the entire mall was closed down except for restaurant here or there, and a convenience store around the corner. At 7 o’clock on a Saturday night! This is not California. The gym is also closed tomorrow, Sunday, so I’ve told Meath come hell or high water I’m going to be at that gym when it opens on Monday morning, laptop in hand and start using up my $20 Aussie worth of gym time before I leave on Wednesday.

Friday, March 6, 2009

atma jaya!

As all these flowing rivers move toward the sea,
but when they reach the sea they are lost in it
and name and form break away from them
and all is called only the sea,
so all the embers of the silent witnessing Spirit
move toward the Being,
and when they have attained the Being they are lost in it...
(Prashna Upanishad)

tuesday, 2 march 09

Dr Maisie has been most accommodating to me here in Jakarta, putting herself and Muhamad, their driver, completely at my service. For example, yesterday she picked me up at 6:15 AM with Muhamad. She had a full breakfast prepared and packed up for me in the car plus a “hand phone” for my use while I am here, specifically to use to call Muhamad when and if I got stranded. She brought me to her yoga class, which was interesting in and of itself––and older crowd, good mix of men and women. (As I walked in there was one elderly man doing a head stand to warm up. Maisie was afraid that it might not be up to my level!) She then dropped me off at their apartment complex so that I could use their fitness room for an hour (air conditioned with CNN International on cable) and then sent her driver back to get me and drop me off at Santa Ursula again, and then came back to bring me to the afternoon event. I felt like a visiting dignitary!

I often do not know what to expect from these gigs. The event was at Atma Jaya Hospital and Medical School. The director, Dr Kris, and one of the senior doctors there, Dr Lucia, were both on the retreat I gave last weekend and had arranged some time ago for me to do a session with the students. This hospital was started specifically to serve the poor, started by a Catholic lay organization. The neighborhood that has grown around it is a bit more gentrified from when Atma Jaya was first founded, and Dr Kris joked that people say the hospital, a very humble faded structure, now looks as if it were a warehouse for one of the shiny high-rises on the corner across the street from it. Dr Kris proudly took me to a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant near the hospital. This is no mean feat; I have found here, as in Bangkok, surprisingly to me, it is not easy to eat vegetarian and my hosts get themselves in to quite a lather trying to make sure I eat well.

After lunch we gathered in the chapel at Atma Jaya (by the way, the name means, in case you don’t recognize the Sanskrit, “Glory to the Spirit!” or, as Dr Kris translated it, “the Spirit prevails.”) Around 50 students gathered, all medical students, mostly in their early 20s, many of them members of the chapel choir. It took a few minutes for me to ascertain the level of English (it was pretty good, about the same as on the retreat) and to get a good rapport going with them, which I did by concentrating mostly on songs that had a lot of participation. I had asked my hosts and Lika, the student who was my MC, what they wanted me to concentrate on, music or meditation, and they had said mostly music with a little meditation. The students participated very well, and I myself am still learning what a great way music is to teach: talk a little, sing a little, explain the meaning of a song and then sing the song. It’s as if the music makes the information sink deeper, in the muscles and in the gut. I find it the same no matter what I am speaking about. Lika wanted me to have a Q&A period at the end, but there were not many questions. But as soon as we broke up, and took the de rigueur photo, many of the kids came up and wanted to talk, many about meditation itself. Again I was impressed by how many of them were asking things about other religions and how they should think about this or that.

This thought is almost clear in my mind now: in an area such as this, people are naturally syncretic, with so many religions living side by side for so long. Islam is heavily effected by Hinduism here, for instance. The conservative tendency, both for Muslims and Christians, is simply to forbid or discourage any element that seems to be coming from another tradition, but I think all that does is force the issue underground. The questions still remain unasked and unresolved. I don’t know if it is a better approach, but it is my approach––and it seems to be working––to let people ask the questions, and be able to eat the fish and spit out the bones: to learn what we can from another tradition and also ascertain where we do not agree.

I also had a wonderful experience today at Atma Jaya’s other campus, a regular university that boasts of “seventeen different faculties!” There I was greeted by a handful of eager students who, before the concert and after I sang one song for the noon liturgy, crowded around me in the small vesting room in the rear of the chapel while I ate the boxed vegetarian lunch that they had provided, asking me all kinds of questions, taking my picture, trying out their English (and laughing a lot at each others’ mistakes), and generally having a great time. I was pretty impressed by how friendly and forward they were. A good handful of others joined us for the event itself, which was pretty much the same format as the day before. I was surprised and happy to note that two students all the way from the other campus across the town showed up with three other of their friends who had missed the event the day before.

I had met one kindred spirit on the retreat this weekend, a fellow guitar player named Lembono. He wanted to talk about music and play for me something he had written himself. That led to us hanging out together a good deal over the weekend, walking and talking over meals. I told Maisie later that if he lived in Santa Cruz he would be part of our “tribe.” Last night he came and fetched me. Our plan was for him to show me “the real Jakarta.” It was great fun. We walked around Chinatown, and it was here that I learned the Indonesian term bule (pronounced “boo-lay”). It’s not a pejorative term, but it means “white people” or, more literally, “blondes,” but meaning really “tourists.” He said about the narrow streets and back alleys of Chinatown, “You see, there are no other bule here!”

It was, again, difficult for us to find vegetarian food there though. What is only now starting to sink in to me––this was the same situation in Bangkok––is that most of the fried noodles and stir fried anything on the street––including my pad thai noodles on Kaosan Road in Bangkok, as Willie clarified for me after the fact––are cooked in lard, “pig oil,” as Lembono calls it. I laughed, remembering my yoga teacher in Rajpur yelling out to us one day seemingly clear out of the blue, “No yoga for pig eaters!” So we didn’t actually get to eat at a non-bule place as I had hoped but wound up in old Jakarta, near the art museum and a beautiful public plaza surrounded by old Dutch colonial buildings, at the Batavia Cafe. (As opposed to Batavia, Illinois, I found out later that this is pronounced “Ba-tah-via,” and was the Dutch name for Indonesia when it was their colony.) I had to pinch myself to remind myself where I was. It was a spacious Dutch colonial building, high-ceilinged and full of rich wood; there was a Western menu (though I did choose from the Asian one) and dozens of black and white photographs all over the walls, mostly 30s and 40s era Hollywood glamour shots and what I would call very hip mid-twentieth century East Coast ones as well. We sat in very comfortable chairs and ate and talked for a good long time, with music from the same era being pumped in––Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, Tex Benake. Then I figured it out: World War II. It was a pre-World War II era hotel that never really changed since then but just kept modernizing and somehow enshrined that era. It was clean and beautiful, with huge displays of cut flowers all over the place, obviously a pretty sophisticated joint, mostly appealing to the bule. After we ate we wandered up the wide, carpeted staircase to the bar and dining room upstairs, which was better lit and even fancier. The walls here were covered with pictures of royalty and historic government personages, both Dutch and Malaysian. Lembono suggested that we stay a little longer, so we sat at the long bar, sipping nothing more than lemon tea but talking away another hour or so, as I continued to marvel at this place out of time, feeling a long, long way from home geographically and time wise, but quite re-invigorated from hanging out with a someone who felt like an old friend for an evening.

* * *

wed, 4 march 09

The culmination of my days here in Indonesia was spending the day today with the senior high students here at Santa Ursula where I have been staying. It seems to be a wonderful school, I am told one of the premiere schools of Indonesia and very prestigious. I did three sessions with groups of 25-50 in a beautiful aula with wooden floors and indirect lighting, and once again did the music and meditation program with a touch of universal wisdom, a little shorter than the one for the university students. It’s getting to be second nature by now, and again the English level was pretty high and the participation was great. I started off each session by singing our “Circle Song” for them, first of all just because I felt like playing it, but secondly because John played tuned Javanese gongs on it as we had in mind a certain gamelan background to the accompaniment. They were really enjoying listening to and watching me play the guitar, and even thought they heard the sound of gongs in my guitar playing. I probably have subconsciously incorporated it somehow. This time all the students were all sitting on the ground while I was in a chair, so when it came time for the meditation part I took off my Tevas and sat down there with them. They got a kick out of that, but I was actually envious of their wonderful natural seated posture, and also envious at how easily, naturally they seemed to slip in to meditation.

At the end of the day Sr Mukti, the headmistress and my host here, had arranged for their gamelan ensemble to give me a special private performance in another great wooden-floored room dedicated just to the gamelan instruments on the top floor of the high school. The students (this did not seem planned) took turns explaining the instruments and the what pieces they were going to play, and how the whole “orchestra” is actually one instrument, the sound one metalophone supporting or riding on the other. There was also a chorus of about 10 others. I must confess I had never heard singing with gamelan before, but it made perfect sense, all singing unison as if another instrument. Rhythm and melody again––no harmony. I was wondering if there was any liturgical gamelan, outside of the huge gong I heard used for the consecration at Mass yesterday at Atma Jaya.

Actually that was not the culmination. I had a great last evening out though in the face of the abundance of Indonesian hospitality I am afraid I might have offended someone. Lembono and I already had plans to walk and hang out again, but Hendra thought that we were only going for ice cream and so had committed me to someone else who wanted to take me to dinner as well. There was a bit of an awkward moment when I insisted that I wanted to stay with my original plan, but there is only so much of me to go around, and so we did. Sometimes I am not sure of local sensitivities and protocol and even clumsier on the road than at home.

There have been three times in Jakarta when I have said the words, “This is the most beautiful place I have ever seen,” once at the Hotel Batavia, once in this elegant restaurant where Maisie took me just for tea the other day after the Atma Jaya event, and this place we went last night, which was just walking distance from Santa Ursula. It was called Babah, and is a 100 year-old restaurant run by a venerable Indonesian Chinese Buddhist family. I think Lembono was thinking of a simpler meal at another place nearby, but he also offered me a peek at this place first. My jaw literally dropped as we walked around looking at the various rooms. He said, “You can write about this in your blog,” but I said I wouldn’t even know how to describe it. It was a dark interior, full of low tables, corridors with rows of lit candles, pots of incense, large silent stone and wooden Buddhas and other indigenous Indonesian statues, batiks hanging on room dividers, wooden floors. We stayed there and had a wonderful long visit again, and it was the best food I had eaten yet. It was one of those times when I didn’t want to eat the last bite of my food––I didn’t want the meal to end. My memory of Indonesian food will be of it wrapped in leaves and twigs with berries and spices floating in the broths and a hundred new flavors, like the place Hendra took me to eat last night which was called Bumbu Desa, where they served all typical village food (the name means literally “village spice”). Indonesia has taught me what “exotic” really means.

It has been a wonderful stay here, and when I was sadly saying goodbye to them all I felt like it was worth all the work to make this happen, and that we had really made a deep connection. And I was marveling at how small the world seems, but at the same time how large my own world is becoming. Hendra was struggling with some passages from John Main’s writings that he is translating into Indonesian, so we worked through some of that at the table the other night. Fr John writes that the world will be saved by sanity, and that the church will be renewed by sanctity that is based in sanity. But the world and the church will also be renewed by these well worn paths between huts.

Off to Australia in the morning. It feels odd to be heading even farther south, and a little weird to be saying goodbye to Asia, for the time being. The Indonesian language has a wonderful way saying “Thank you”––terima kasih, which means literally “I offer you my love, ” and just like other languages “goodbye,” doesn’t have to be final, only sampai jumpa, which is something like “meet again.”

Terima kasih! Sampai jumpa.