Monday, January 25, 2010

inward release

monday, 25 january, 2010, feast of the conversion of st paul

"what name, cast, how old?
from questions such as these when one is free,
one gains release."

This place, like India in general, is a place of such contrasts. I was lounging on the veranda in front of the main meditation hall last evening watching the goings and comings. In one glance there were some Western tourists taking pictures of the monkeys, inadvertently encouraging them to act out. In the next glance there came Swami Brahmananda, the small sannyasi who is the caretaker of Skanda Ashram, nine hours a day, seven days a week, always wrapped in brownish dhoti and shawl, rarely speaking, with the gaze always down. On the one hand there were bus loads of Indian school children looking as if they had been forced into a cultural excursion, all dressed up looking sharp in their uniforms, holding hands and giggling; then there are the questionable sadhus gathered on the street and at the entrance to the ashram, with matted hair, dirty robes, sometimes smoking, sometimes begging. There was a young Japanese man dressed in the wildest tie-dyed yoga pants with a muscle shirt and his hair tied up like a samurai with his European girlfriend on his arm; then there is Madhu still here after ten years spending eight hours a day in meditation in the small hall. There is Ayyappa, who runs the tea stall just down the road where I have tea every morning at 5 AM, who has been pretty friendly, though now it appears that that friendliness was leading to me buying him a referigerator so expand his business; and then there is Ajit who lives in a cave on the mountain, wandering through the compound as he does twice a day to bathe and get his free meal at another local ashram who, when I offered to buy him a tea, wasn't sure he really wanted one.
"Come, go, go, enter, what seekest?
From questions such when one is free,
one gains release."
The days haven't been completely devoid of some interaction. Saturday I got to spend the morning nestled in the mountain, but then MC took me to lunch at the compound of an Englishwoman he knows who has lived here for many years. Her father was an Oxford don, contemporary of Fr Bede, who with his wife moved the family here to Tiruvanamalai in the '40s, "before it was popular to do so," she told us. She and her two siblings grew up speaking Tamil. Her folks were great devotees of Ramana Maharishi, as a matter of fact there are photos of both she and her brother with the Ramana. When I asked what her lasting impressions of him were she told me simply that he was like a grandfather. "There was so much formality around, of course, but children know nothing of these things." Her father went on to write several books on India that were very popular in their day, one of which really spread the fame of Ramana Maharshi, as well as founding the magazine called "The Mountain Path," a periodical with articles about Bhagavan, the ashram and Tiruvanamalai. She lives in the house that the parents built which feels sort of like a trip back to colonial times itself. A younger very erudite gentleman from Australia was also with us. He has been here 30 years, and now lives with her serving both as the manager of her property and the current editor of "The Mountain Path." We had a wonderful wide ranging conversation, though our hostess admitted many of her opinions are dated, having spent so much time out of the mainstream of Western culture. At one point the issue came up whether or not the Roman Catholic church was a force for good. The BBC, per a recent documentary, and our hostess have deemed it not. The other three of us tried to bring some perspective to this assessment with a combination of logic and personal witness.
"Departest when, when arrived, whence and even who?
From questions such when one is free
one gains release."

Then Sunday we had Eucharist again at Quo Vadis, this time in the litte red hut again. They are very happy to have us use the space for that and quite a crowd always seems to gather, 'til this time again we were packed to the gills. There was as usual a good Danish contingent, plus our Brazilian friend Marcus and German Heike, and then a large group from France and Belgium, who had already been to Shantivanam. The problem was, as you may have guessed already, not too many English speakers. Luckily there were MC and Fr Augustine who is still here, but other than that not a lot of "And also with you"s coming back at me. We mixed up the languages a bit, singing a French Taize piece at the beginning, having the readings in both languages, and I even tried to sing or recite some of the prayers in French. Then of course some Latin and Sanskirt thrown in: it was quite Pentecostal. We shall do it one more time next week Sunday before I leave for Bangalore. Then last night MC and I went for the Christian meditation at Quo Vadis, mainly to show some support to their work there. It's a wonderful environment they set in the red hut, with dozens of oil lamps placed in all the nooks and crannies of the walls. Again there was quite an international group and we were very crowded. Afterward young Peter, who I have known for some years now, whisked me off to his humble home where he lives with his mother to meet his wife and their nine-month-old baby girl, Paula. He's a big fan; he has all my songs on his mobile phone. They treated me with such honor and respect, like a combination of a bishop and a rock star, and fed me (only me) delicious dosas with sambhar and omelettes, and some tea and a piece of chocolate. Peter asked me to sing something before we left and then had everyone kneel and asked me to pray over them.
"I or thou, this or that, inside or out, or none at all,
from cogitation such, when one is free
one gains release."
Then in the afternoon I headed out on the inner pradakshina path (the pilgrimage path that leads around the mountain; this is the dirt path as opposed to the outer pradakshina, which is the road.) It was like being in the desert and I hardly saw another soul on it for the hours I was out there. After forty mintues or so of walking I found a nice rock to sit on and spent some good time there in the quietest place I have found here in Tiruvanamalai, more shielded from the road noise even than most spots on the mountain itself. The young very pretty Indian woman who was sitting next to me at lunch had struck up a bit of a conversation with me, mainly inaugurated by her asking me if I was a resident and did I know anything about Parvathamalai, a nearby hill that is also "said to have very good vibrations." I was telling her about the inner pradakshina path instead that I hoped to hike. This also somehow led to a discussion about food and when I said I preferred south Indian food because it is more fiery, she said, "That is because you mix your pickle with your sambar!" And then she explained to me how the pickle should have been eaten mixed in with the curd rice which is very bland, to give it some taste. It's odd: I had the feeling that I was being watched I ate. Anyway, when I got back from my hike I ran into her and her family again outside the eating hall, and we exchanged questions about our various quests--Parvathamalai and inner pradakshina--when suddenly her mother said, "Ask the gentleman!" So the young woman then asked if I wanted to join them to climb the hill tomorrow. I was non-commital, but I sat and had tea with them, which only seemed polite, and they started asking me lots of questions about why I was in India, and where had I been and where was I going and what I do, etc. I got out "performing music and offering conferences" as the answer to what I do, but they focused mainly on the singing part and missed the offering conferences part, so we never quite got to "monk." I certainly don't mind being known as a monk (folks don't assume here in the ashram that khavi clothes are a sign of being a monk), but after those beautiful hours in the silence of the forest path I was groaning at the thought of the whole conversation that would ensue from that.
"To the known and unknown equalized, differenceless,
to one's own or that of others, even to the name of such indifferent.
From all considerations such, one freed,
becomes that one, the one released."
(five verses on Inward Release--"nirvrti panckam"--by Narayana Guru, translated by Nataraja Guru, given to me by Vinaya)
I find it interesting and often very moving to be part of explicitly Christian activities here in this overwhelmingly Hindu environment and with the ashram right across the street, and I wonder sometimes what form my own explcitly Christian activities would be if I lived here, as opposed to, say, Shantivanam. I have met so many Indians whose lasting impressions of Indian Christianity is that it is shallow and dogmatic, and whose impression of Westerners is that we skim across the surface of the vast venerable Asian traditions, picking up a little lingo and a costume, and then spending most of our time sipping chai in the internet cafe and skipping from one pilgrimage spot to another, perfect candidates to be sucked in by any guru or hawker or fakir. I always feel challenged and goaded by all that: outside of the tourists--even, especially, the "spiritual tourists"!--there are some very serious seekers here at Ramana Ashram, the brahmin boys up memorizing the scriptures at 5 o'clock in the morning, the pious lay people who gather for puja and chanting daily around the mahasamadhi or walk barefoot up the mountain, and especially some of these sadhus and sannyasis, who seem to have caught a glimpse of that Something beyond all of that too and at least seem to be singly devoted to that Beyond, and want nothing to do with most mundane interactions or trivialities, especially those of spiritual tourism. It's not a question of imitating someone else's practices or costumes--if there is something we can gain from another spiritual practice or scripture, well and good; it's a question of being inspired by them, being as dedicated to my spiritual path as I see someone else is, being as dedicated to what I do as they are about what they do.