Tuesday, January 19, 2010

after the conference, tiruvanamalai

Tuesday, 19 january, 2010,

Understand the true nature of Knowledge by approaching illumined souls.
If you prostrate at their feet, rendeer them service,
and question them with an open and guileless heart,
those wise seers of Turth will instruct you in that knowledge.
(Bhagavad Gita 4:34)

We left Shantivanam Saturday morning in two air-conditined vans. I got to sit next to Vinaya the whole way and in between dozing a bit we had a good conversation. When he introduced himself in the opening session he said, "My name is Vinaya and I hope to be a sannyasi." It turns out before his guru died he gave him sannyasa diksha, even though Vinaya didn't want it or ask for it. He was (is) married, a father and grandfather. Just a year ago he left home and began wandering with the permission of his wife and family, having fulfilled all his obligations, as the tradition goes. He has written and translated numerous books and articles, and was a very popular teacher in the ashram. He goes from place to place still teaching and giving lectures both on Sanskrit and on the arts. I have really enjoyed his company, comparing notes with him about various things. He is a wealth of information about Sanskrit and the scriptures, especially on the Upanishads, which was the topic of his talk for us at the seminar. It also turns out that his now deceased guru, the one who gave him sannyasa diksha, was also the guru of Joseph, that incredible parivrajaka I had such a good meeting with in Rishikesh in 2007. I've met a few other disicples of this same guru now. They are pretty wide spread now that he has died.
Besides lunch we made one more stop on the way, at the Niketan of Swami Nityananda of whom I wrote last week, the disciple of Gnanananda. He was most gracious in welcoming us, gave us a bunch of rooms for our use to freshen up and then had us gather on the second floor of a common building for a talk. He sat down and started right in, speaking to us about Vedanta philosophy. I didn't have a notebook with me but here are some thing I remember...
He stressed the similarities between Christian mysticism and Vedanta, especially citing Meister Eckhart often and his use of the term "godhead." He said we need three sources: the Upanishads for metaphysics, the Bhagavad Gita for discipline and the Brahma Sutras (which I have never studied but on which Babaji is leading a course now at Mount Madonna) for philosophy. He stressed over and over again that the prupose of religion is self-transcedent--that all religion points beyond itself. He was also very keen on telling us not to consider Abhishiktananda's book Saccitananda as his last word on Christian advaita. Background (this comes up often): Abhishiktananda is quoted as saying that he didn't stand behind that book anymore, that he thought it was too Greek, and yet he said that as he was giving permission for it to be printed in English, and he also wrote at the end of his life that he was sure that what was in it was just as true as what he had experienced in his advaitin experiences. So some scholars, such as our friend Fausto who thinks we should always stay close to written records, dismiss any notion of dismissing that book, since he allowed for it to be translated and published! The controversy in it, as I understand it, is that he suggests that there is someting beyond the advaitin-non-dual experience. Case in point: Jesus goes through the total dissolution of his self on the cross and in the grave, but when he awakes on Easter morn the great surprise is that he is still there, and so is his God, in a whole new relationship. That's why, he says, the church chooses Psalm 139 for the entrance antiphon that day: "And when I awake, I am still with you; your right hand holds me fast." I was reading this on the train from Delhi to Haridwar in 2005 with tears running down my cheeks, and it incidentally became the inspiration for the song "Awake at Last." So I'm not quite ready to disregard it yet.
I had re-introduced myself to the Swami and he remembered me enough to show me his copy of Stefano's translation of "Guru and Disciple." I was sitting on the floor (as were we all) to his right in front, and throughout the first half of his talk he kept glancing over at Bettina who was to his left but then staring right at me as he spoke. It was pretty powerful but I kept my gaze right on him, open to catching something from his eyes if there was something to catch. I enjoyed his lecture immensely until the very end when I thought he got a little heavy handed about the universality of Hinduism. He also made the argument, which I have heard before, that there was no purpose in an interfaith dialogue center (he was referring to Quo Vadis) since Ramana was an interfaith saint, with a message for all people. My counter to that, with all respect, is always, yes, Ramana's message is trans-religion but this place, Sri Ramana Ashram, is not. It's filled with Hinduism, brahmin ritualism and deities, puja and Vedic chanting. I don't hold that against them' I actually enjoy it to some extent, but that is more in keeping with a temple than an ashram, and it is an overt promotion of Hinduism, not something beyond Hinduism like Yoga or the Upanishads would be. I also felt a little defensive of poor old JP and his hard work of bringing people together.
Afterward I had two questions for him but it was not a good time for him; he gave me a couple of quick answers while hurrying downstairs to supervise the tea service. Instead he sat down next to me and we happily slurped our coffee and dunked our biscuits together in silence while he surveyed his guests and the hospitality. There was kind of an answer in that too. He couldn't have been sweeter to us.
We then crossed over the road and got a full tour of Tapovan itself, the ashram of the long-deceased Gnananada, where Abhishiktananda would have met him. It also has many shrines to deities and there was chanting going on when we entered--the thousand names of Vishnu. Impressive to see a couple of young people carrying the singing from memory. I wished again that I could infuse in our monks a similar love for chanting the psalms.
Sunday morning JP, as graciously as always, set us up in a new covered patio for Eucharist. We were about 20 or so, including some old friends either from Quo Vadis or Michael's Christian contacts around the ashram. I presided. Someone busted my chops for having a written text in front of me while preaching the other day, in spite of the fact that I barely used it except as an outline and reminder, saying that he preferred it when people "speak from the heart." So I specifically did not write even notes or an outline of a homily just to prove that I could do without, and I don't feel like writing it out now so. "Anything to anyone..."
Vinaya had commented a few times about the brothers' mistakes in the Sanskrit chanting at Shantivanam, and I, of course, have picked up many of their same mistakes. He was explaining to me in the van on the way here about how chanting Sanskrit is really a form of pranayama; that's why the pronunciation is so important. Martin and George have asked him to come back to Shantivanam to re-teach it all to them, and he is excited to do so. So I asked Vinaya if he wouldn't give me a lesson also these last days we are together here at Ramana Ashram, so we arranged to meet Monday morning after breakfast outside the eating hall. As he walked out of the eating hall he was accompanied by none other than the same Joseph who showed up last night down after having spent some months up in the Himalayas. This should come as no surprise by now; this is India after all. I bent down and touched his feet, wrung his hands for a long time and smiled and smiled 'til I thought my face would crack. He is used to surprising people and he touches so many folks along the way that this was not that big a moment for him, but it was a huge moment for me.
Joseph agreed to come chant with us, so he and Vinaya and I walked up the mountain together a bit, and sat on a rocky outgrowth. I was at Vinaya's feet and Joseph sat a little above us. Vinaya led a chanting session for a good hour and a half it seemed. Then we settled back just to talk for bit and suddenly another white clad sadhu appeared on the trail behind us and called out to Vinaya. It was yet another young man from their ashram, Ajit, who now lives in a cave on Arunachala. He immediately sat down and the three of them began a long conversation in Malayalam (all three are from Kerala). Joseph and I talked a bit in between but for the most part I was left out, humming to myself. Ajit didn't even seem to notice I was there the whole time, and we were not introduced to each other. We went back down into the ashram after another hour or so and many people stopped to greet Joseph. He is a frequent visitor here. And then we went across the street for tea at a very crowded tea stall, where there were lots of grungy looking Westerners. Vinaya was looking for a friend who was supposed to meet him and it was all a buit chaotic after that lvoely morning chantring so I got up after a bit and slipped back into the ashram for lunch.
This morning we had what seems to be our last group activity for the gathering. Most of us who remained, plus Joseph and three visitors from another nearby ashram climbed a little ways up the mountain to a clear spot and celebrated Eucharist one more time. Fausto presided this time and MC and did alternated doing the music. It was very beautiful, MC thought the highlight of our time together. The original plan was to go up at 6 AM and try to find Abhishiktananda's cave and ask the swami who is living there presently to let us use it. I was asked to lead that expedition, though I've never been to his cave myself and MC assured us that at present it is not an edifying experience. The town has slowly crept up the mountain, and the last time he was there the sadhu who was presently occupying the cave had a cell phone and satellite television. But after Mass some folks still wanted to find it, so I led a group of six others up to Skandha Ashram, down to Virupraksha cave (wish are still safeguarded, silent places). After that we were all on our own trying to follow the indications that MC had given us. We had little luck and the local folks around didn't know anything much it either. (It didn't help that I didn't have the proper name for it.) At one point a man offered his daughter to lead to what he thought we meant, but msot of the folks had given up hope by that time of ever finding it and acquiescing to MC's assessment that it probably wouldn't have been a very good experience anyway. So we headed back down.

Tomorrow I head to Chennai for the wedding of Theophilus, my tabla playing little brother. I'm sure I'll have some to report from that.