Wednesday, January 13, 2010

abhishiktananda seminar

13 january, 2010

Our schedule has been very crowded the last few days, and between the current coming and going as well as the internet connection malfunctioning, it has been very hard both to get to this blog or to the internet.

It is quite an exciting group that has gathered for this centenary celebration of the life of Swami Abhishiktananda, the second of three founders of Shantivanam, and considered unanimously to be a pioneer in interreligious dialogue. There are of course Dr Bettina Baumer and Benedictine William Skudlarek, the latter who is head of MID international. There is a good contigent from France, his home country, monks and nuns from the famous monasteries En Calcat and Pierre Qui Vire. There is a sizable contingent from Australia here, one priest but no other monks. The Trappist Charles Cummings is here, whose book Monastic Practices was one of my favorite reads as a novice, as is Mark Cerna, OSB former abbot from Portsmouth, Rhode Island and now head of MID in the US. For the rest I think it will list them by their presentations to give you an idea of the scope of the conference.

The well known Indian Jesuit theologian Fr. Michael Amaldoss, whom I had met with Agnete in Chennai two years ago, gave the opening talk on Sunday afternoon on Abhishiktananda's Influence on Indian Theology. He is an understated solid little man whose every word I implicitly trust. The thing I remember most about his talk was his answer to the question I myself raised. Knowing that he is a respected theologian and remembering his Irish confrere William Johnson's critique of Abhishiktananda as a "very poor theologian" I asked if, as a theologian, he felt there was any area where Abhishik needed to be corrected, or that he went too far. And he said unequivocally that he stood behind everything that Abhishiktananda wrote. Now Swamiji was not a systematic theologian, so some of it may be a little unkempt or incautiously articulated in a moment of anguish in his diary, but still, those are heavy words and it was a good way to being the week. Monday we got right to work with two morning sessions and two afternoon sessions. First came Fabrice Blee, French Canadian theologian who is head of MID for North America, gave an excellent paper on "Wandering as Spiritual Practice in Abhishiktananda," which led to a lively discussion about one of my favorite sensitive topics, Benedictine stability versus the blessed gyrovague. The theme of exile was also brought out, and how all of this leads to a depth encounter with "otherness" and the other in the area of interreligious encounter. He was followed by Swami Vinaya Chaitanya who gave a marvelous talk on the Upanishads entitled, using a quote from Abhishiktananda's diary, "The Upanishads Are True! I know it!" Vinaya is a striking character, a short man with a full greying black beard and flowing hair, a wavering but deep voice that always sounds as if it is about to break into weeping and an almost perpetual grin that pushes his cheeks up into his eyes. He was for years a disciple of Guru Narayana at an ashram in Karnatica, where he married and raised four children, and wrote six books. A year ago, having fulfilled all his duties and with permission of his wife and family, he packed a bag and started wandering. He said simply in his introduction not that he was a sannyasi, "I want to be a sannyasi." I liked that a lot. We've been spending a lot of time together outside of sessions. The afternoons are mainly going to be allotted to personal testimony, so Monday the Spanish Jesuit theologian George Gispert-Sauch spoke about his early encounters as a young Jesuit with Abhishiktananda, and then Sr Annakutty, VKF, did the same. It is marvelous for me to watch traces of the real human being come out of the shadows of history, he being dead now these 36 years.

Our schedule got thrown off a little on Tuesday morning. Just as Bettina was preparing to begin her presentation, MC rushed in and whispered in her ear, and then it was announced that there would be a little change in schedule. He had invited an acquaintance of his to come and speak and it just worked out that he was passing through right at that time with his entourage and had a couple of hours before he had to get to his next engagement, so was instantly worked into the program. His name is Nochur Venkataraman, a young Brahmin scholar who is an expert in the life and teaching of Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvanamalai, who was of course so influential on the life of Abhishiktananda. Nochur was set up at the desk in front, but as we waited for him to being there was an awkward silence as he seemed as if he were in some kind of physical pain or that he might even pass out. But then he launched into a wonderful 45 minute talk on the life and teaching of Sri Ramana Maharshi and advaita. It was a marvelous experience to hear this from the someone who is steeped in this not with scholarly detachment but as someone who is a living breathing disciple and teacher. MC explained later what the hesitation was. Nochur is a well known teacher all throughout south India, teaching usually in Tamil or Malayam or Sanskrit. Up until 30 seconds before he began he didn't know who the group was and he rarely teaches in English, so he was conjuring up his whole teaching in those few seconds. "You should hear him in Tamil," MC told us later. He apparently breaks into song and gets people "all fired up," MC said. Then Bettina, who was most gracious in being "dethroned," as she put it, gave a very erudite paper on Kashmir Shaivism, which is her area of expertise, noting the elements of that tradition that are foreshadowed in the thought of Abhishiktanandna. This is an area not at all in my expertise so I was happy to get a glimpse into it. What remained with me from her presentation was the insistence that symbol and ritual are not necessarily opposed to the advaitan spirituality but can be conduits to it since Kashmir Shaivism rejects the notion of maya solely as illusion. Bettina has mentioned twice now the idea of symbol and archetype, how Abhishiktananda was able to recognize that the signs he encountered in Indian spirituality contained the reality that they signified, a distinction made also in Christian sacramental theology. I asked how much his background in liturgy and liturgical spirituality made him especially amenable to that. This has become a bit of an underlying theme, how sign and symbol, nama¬-rupa, name and form are not simply rejected in an acosmic spirituality, but transcended. I like to say that we go through them, but it is decidely through, meaning we don't get caught in them--we go through them, but neither do we skip them--we need to go through them.

more later...