Saturday, January 16, 2010

abhishiktananda seminar II

14 january, feast of pongal!

Today is the feast of Pongal, a festival for the new year in three parts: one day for homes, one day for cows and one day for fields. I attended a big celebration of Pongal two years ago with JP in Tiruvanamalai where he put together a Christian celebration of this feast, including the boiling over pot of milk and rice. We won't do much for it today but a lot of the local kids are out of school and more of them are hanging around the ashram. I can't believe that my time here at Shantivanam is drawing to a close already. Only two more days and we will head to Tiruvanamalai for the second part of this conference. That part will be much more informal, no talks at all, but perhaps some sharing, retreat time together at the foot of the sacred mountain Arunachala.

Continuing my recounting of the sessions. Tuesday afternoon Fr. Ama Samy gave a personal testimony. Ama Samy is a rather infamous Jesuit, a tall gaunt man (I personally think that all Jesuits should be tall and gaunt, but that's just me...), who runs a place called Bodhi Zendo here in Tamil Nadu. Ama Samy is a Zen Master in the lineage of German master, I believe. I know of him from MC and Agnete again, and have wanted both to meet him and visit Bodhi Zendo. He's a confident and strong man who can also quickly become a fiery presence, as was evidenced by him bringing up some provocative points in response to a few of the talks, raising his voice and gesturing emphatically. From what he told of us his story, this goes back a long way. He was tempted to leave the Jesuits when he was still in formation and went to see Abhishiktananda, wo convinced him to stay, get ordained and then come back to see him. So he went to see him again immediately after ordination, but by that time he had discovered that his was the way of Zen so there was no question of Ama joining Abhishiktananda anymore. Abhishiktananda had relocated to the north by then. (I didn't know that he actually had stayed in Rajpur often. It would have been cool to look up his place when I was there at Yoganga in '08.) This time he argued with Abhishiktananda a little more, and he also met Marc Chaduc, Abhishiktananda's famous disciple who disappeared after Abhishiktananda's death. This is the first time I have heard someone say that they were not too impressed with Marc. He said that he found him arrogant and thought he didn't treat his "guru" with very much respect. Again, fascinating to get a glimpse of reality.

My story about Ama Samy is less dramatic. I am always looking for the perfect kirta (shirt), and Ama's was close to it. So I asked him where one could buy shirts like that. Long story short, he gave me his, the shirt off his back (he had another). Elijah's mantle would not be a metaphor too far off either.

After Ama Samy there was a little surprise waiting us. There had been a new orange clad swami in the crowd all morning who had never been properly introduced, and he came up to talk next and MC introduced him as Swami Nityananda. I started tapping people to my left and right asking, "Is that Nityananda from Tapovan?!?" No one seemed to know or be that impressed. It was indeed he, and I was so excited I had tingles. This was the direct disciple of Gnanananda, Abhishiktananda's guru, of whom he had said, "I have met the one man before whom I would be willing to prostrate." This is also the man my dear freind Stefano spent time with last year (on his honeymoon!), "a real jnani," he had said, "a real advaitin"; and for whom Stefano and I had translated his (Stefano's) introduction to the Italian edition of "Guru and Disciple" into English. We had come up with the idea already that all of us should stop at Tapovan on the way to Tiruvanamalai this Saturday since it is right off the road, so we were to meet him in any case, but this was a wonderful surprise, to hear him speak to us about Abhishiktananda and advaita. Swami is also very well versed in Christian mysticism and gave an excellent presentation. I went up to introduce myself afterward and leaned to down to touch his feet.

Then Dr. Jane Lee gave a very good paper on the connection between Abhishiktananda and Romano Guardini, the famous early twentieth century thinker and writer who did so much to lay the ground work of Vatican II and liturgical reform. It is interesting also to keep contextualizing Abhishiktananda in the ambience of the 50's, then the 60's and a wee bit of the 70's in terms of what was going on in the greater world of theological investigation and experimentation within the Roman church especially during those days. Both these things are probably true: with his solid background in Gregorian liturgy and scholastic theology, Abhishiktananda (like Fr Bede or Lucien Diess or Daniel Berrigan) was a perfect candidate to pioneer new expressions of Christianity during the heady foment of the cultural revolution-evolution taking place in the greater world--the same revolution/evolution that turned young Joseph Ratzinger into a conservative in 1968; and I doubt that he would never get away with it now.

Wednesday morning we had a talk by Dr. Swami Shivamurthi of the Hindu Virassaiva tradition. He had been around all week already. He is a former student of Bettina's and had also done post-doctoral work in Vienna. Now he is the head of a math, which something like a monastery but more of what Christians would consider to be active religious involved in an apostolate rather than contemplatives. He stated very clearly, "I am not a monk, I am not a sannyasi. I am a madathipelthi (I had never come near to hearing that word before and had to ask George to write it in my notebook for me) which is something like an abbot, maybe more like the superior of a religious community, though he is also like a pastor and judge for the community as well, arbitrating domestic disputes before they go to court. "I have a lot of baggage and an imported car," he said. As a matter of fact, he had arrived in a car with an entourage of a few sadhus and two young men who alternated carrying his bags, taking his picture and standing nearby for whatever he needed. He wore very bright orange robes and a hat that looked something like a turban, also bright bright orange. He was heavy set and quite jovial in demeanor, and spoke rather anecdotally from the laptop that he had perched in front of him. This actually gave me a strange vantage point from where I was sitting on the floor: all I could see were the back of the laptop screen, his eyes and that orange turban. It made his jokes seem even funnier to me. He had one great image about apriori arguments for the existence of God etc.: they are like a computer that is linked to a generator. The sole job of the generator is to run the computer whose sole job is to run the computer. "What's the point?" he said. I was thinking even better that that is an apt metaphor for some institutions whose sole purpose winds up being to support the institution.

Then came a particular highpoint, a talk by Fausto Gianfredda. He is a Jesuit from Italy whom I had met twice before, once at New Camaldoli where he had spent an Easter with us, and once when we had lunch together with Thomas Matus and Heng Sure, our Chinese Buddhist monk friend, sat the Long Life Veggie Restaurant in Berkeley. I can't wait for this talk to come out in the book that is being developed from this seminar; it seems almost impossible to summarize it since it was very complicated theologically. He read the entire thing right off a prepared manuscript and went over time in spite of several adomonitions to end. It got rather comical: Bettina would tap his arm, or slip him a piece of paper, or say something, and he would say, "Yes, yes!" and then keep ploughing right through his paper. Anyway, the thrust of his argument was this, concerning the Eucharist, that by the end of his life even the Eucharist and advaita had become one for Abhishiktananda. He didn't need to discard either but instead an advaitan-eucharistic spirituality emerged, with eucharist being the most sublime expression of non-daulity. His talk led to some heavy discussion and some vehemently took exception to the whole premise, finding it too cultic, for instance. These kinds of conferences tend toward over analyzing and maybe a bit of posturing--that's what we do for fun. I usually get antsy but stay on and listen to everyone have their say. But this time the discussion got irritating for the simple reason that I thought that Fausto gave us a glimpse of the mountain top, as dense as the argument was, and our conversation was ruining that vision for me. It was time for meditation and midday prayer anyway and like my Italian confreres at Chapter meetings--or is it all religious congregations?--we quite often let the meetings run through prayer time (though never through lunch). So I slipped out and went to sit in front of the tabernacle in the chapel, thinking of the Eucharist as the highest form of non-duality, matter in right relationship with the Divine.

Wednesday afternoon things lightened up a bit. First Bettina got up for a second time, this time giving her personal testimony about her many interactions with Swamiji in the 60s and 70s. And then MC had a turn. He pulled out the metaphor of exile more for us in regards his own life as well as that of Abhishiktananda, starting out refering to the ancient story of Beowulf who needs at some point to dive deep into the sea, without his armor and without his white stag, to slay the mother of the dragon. This led into a discussion about what some folks call "double belonging," how someone could consider themselves both a Hindu and a Christian. I was happy to hear that a number of folks were uncomfortable with that phrase. I thought of the example of Gregorian chant: some folks like to say that it is a perfect wedding of music and text, but a great chant scholar once noted that that is wrong. Gregorian chant is not two things; it is sung text, words-in-music. And so for many of us (this was my contribution to the discussion), there is a particular path for each of us that seems at first to contain many different and disparate elements, a path that is what the Buddha calls our upaya, our own appropriate means of liberation. At some point, like Abhishiktananda's eucharistic advaita, they are not two or three or more different elements. They just become our path. Obviously with the discernment of our wisdom traditions and spiritual masters, but still very existential. Not how am I going to be a Christian; but how am I going to be a Christian. That accent at some point is on the subject, not the object.