Monday, February 8, 2010

the real threat

5 feb 2010, en route to delhi

Faith is the opening of an inward eye,
the eye of the heart,
to be filled with Divine light.
(Thomas Merton, New Seeds)

There are two other ways that I found Bangalore to be unique. One is that it is cooler, as a matter of fact in the morning it was downright cold. The past few nights I was wrapped in a sheet and a woolen blanket. That made for great sleeping as far as I was concerned. And the second thing is oddly related. The "little Vatican" of Bangalore is also "Little Kerala." I realized soon on that about 95% of the people around me were from Kerala; the guys in the house spoke Malayalam to each other, the food served was mainly Keralese style (including delicious brown rice), and there were many restaurants on the surrounding streets advertising "Kerala food" and "Kerala room mates." I asked George if this was true for all of Bangalore or just this little theological union area. He said it was the latter. Kerala is of course the largest Catholic population in India--many of the Indian clergy and religious in the States are from there, for instance. I asked why the Keralese had moved to Bangalore to start their theological consoritum, and he said simply, "The moderate climate." Our Bro Pinto, a tall, dark and slow moving sweet Tamilian, seemed a little out of place, even though he apparently speaks pretty good Malayalam. There are age-old undercurrents to the state divisions that we can only guess at. For instance, Catholics especially outside of Tamil Nadu don't seem to have much problem with either Sanskrit or Hindi. Though it has different script, Malayalam unashamedly shares a bulk of its vocabulary with Sanskrit. Many of the houses and schools in the Little Kerala-Vatican had Sanskrit names--even Gurukulam, Dharmaram College, Bhavan Assisi, etc.

The men living at Mar Makil were a very friendly bunch and seem to enjoy each others' company a great deal. It's more like a fraternity house but with very few group activities outside of meals. There are chapels around for people to celebrate as they wish, when they wish. There were a handful of already ordained men doing advanced degrees there, as well as some faculty and "secular" students. Every afternoon a bunch of guys gathered for a game of basketball. I went to watch one day; they were pretty good. Several of the guys were pretty forward in approaching me and engaging me in conversation. I found it a little unusual, though not at all, rude for them to be so initiatory. Possibly because they were in academia they were used to grilling people with questions and gathering facts. Quite a few asked about my community and each time I start to explain that I don't live with a community the conversation takes about the same turn--where do I live, what work I do, why do I do that, and, oddly enough, what do I eat. There were quite a few queries about why I don't eat "non-veg." (It is notable that the default in India is actually vegetarian--"veg." It always reminds me of our friend Janice Daurio confusing me mightily by marking the coffee "non-decaf.") It seems Christians are a little suspicious of vegetarians (another fear of Hindu- or Brahmin-ization?). One of George's classmates named Bobin also came over from the Camillian house to ask me to teach him some music, ways to chant the psalms.

On my last day there after tea I ran into Tomy, a bright young guy from the Claretian congregation, a very active group that does a lot of work with the poor, and we wound up taking a long walk together in the nearby park that I kept thinking of as "Muslim park" because there were so many guys in their topis and kurtas, and women in burkahs. We had a wonderful conversation about vocations and music--winds up he had written some bhajans himself and played tabla. He is firmly unapologetically committed to the active life and ministry but was appreciative of my emphasis on meditation and spirituality. He was especially keen on those who were using the Indian style in music and liturgy. I invited him to join us for Eucharist again that evening and he offered that maybe he could find some tabla so that we could make some music.

Then George took me out on my tour of the city. Our first stop was actually my idea, the Ramakrishna Math. This is the exact community where my old friend Madhurananda had been a monk, before leaving to wander for a year, finally settling in Tiruvanamalai. He subsequently dis-robed and relinquished his vows but still lives in Tiru, very dedicated to meditation and a bit of teaching and writing. We had had a nice visit the day before I left, and he had given me the name of a friend of his, Swami Shantimayananda (does that mean "the peaceful bliss of illusion"?) who is now head monk there. The Ramakrishna order, founded by Vivekananda, is one the most well-organized of the orders of sannyasis in India, and to my eye pretty much a counterpart to Catholic religious life. Madhu had told me that no one enters until they have an advanced degree. They do a lot of teaching and charity work, and have a relatively comfortable life. The place, like the RK Math I visited in Delhi, is an oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city. They are based on the inspiration of Ramakrishna, the late 19th-early 20th century holy man considered actually to be a deity, who was devoted to the Divine Mother, Kali, and taught the universality of religion. They have more of an emphasis toward meditation and Yoga rather than on ritual and devotion, in keeping with the sannyasa way. The campus is very clean and quiet, with three special areas of meditation: the temple itself which is lined with photos of various saints and sages, a photo of Ramakrishna himself enshrined front and center in place of a deity; a stone slab bench from a nearby town where Vivekananda sat often to take rest and so considered to have been sanctified, now donated to the Math and covered with a large gazebo; and a large rocky protusion where Ramakrishna's female counterpart sat at one point, and thus it is also considered to have been sanctified. We tried all three spots but both George and I agreed that the Mother's Rock was the most powerful place. There were a handful of others sitting around and some doing pradakshina around a small shrine containing the Sri Chakra yantra (the design on my CD Echo of Your Peace, which I am now running into all over the place). I was absolutely comfortable there, more than at Gurukulam and even more than Tiru. For me that's a real ashram, with a focus on meditation and not a lot of "religiosity" or bhakti to a specific deity to obsturct non-devotees. George and I talked about the place as a great example for Shantivanam, and he is keen on setting up more places for meditation and generally encouraging more meditation there in general. We had a brief courtesy visit with Swami Shantimayananda who was in the main office receiving visitors, but we didn't get much past formalities and generalities.

Then George took me on a bit of a whirlwind around Bangalore by city busses: first to an Ayurvedic medical shop, then across town to a Science and Techonology Museum (he didn't actually care for it too much but for some reason thought I would like it; I think it is the de rigeur tourist route); then lunch at a stand in a big beautiful park. I almost ate fish on purpose: we ordered two "meals" which usually come with rice, a variety of curries and veggies and a sweet; this place only had one "meal"--a mound of rice with a mackerel in curry sticking out of a bowl and a little container of buttermilk. I thought for a moment if this was one of those moments when prudence and charity over rule tapas, but the sight of it was so unappealing, that poor little mackerel tail sticking out of the golden curry sauce, that I settled for rice with buttermilk, and a slice of cucumber. (George felt bad so he gave me his buttermilk and cucumber slice too.) By the time we got back to Gurukul it was pushing 5 o'clock and I was pretty wiped out, just from the noise and bustle of the several busses we had had to take. We did have another beautiful simple eucharist later on the floor in my room again, followed by a meditation. That's what really makes my world go 'round, being able to share the practice with just about anybody, especially my younger brothers. Tomy did join us after all as well, which was nice, to get to share "Shantivanam style" with someone outside of the community. Neither the "Indian style" of liturgy (bhajans, sitting on the floor, me in the kavi shawl, etc.) nor meditation is encouraged or practiced there at Gurukulam, it seems, so I was a little wary about making a show of it. Kind of like our catacomb Masses in Santa Cruz.

At dinner I spoke with another young man, one of the "secular" students who was studying for his GRE (which I confused with the GED, duh!), and asked me for advice on that as well as being keen to talk about American culture. Tomy had procured a set of tabla after all, so after dinner we headed up to a hall on our floor and played happily for an hour. Thanks to Theophy and Steve I now have quite a set of music I can pull out to offer to a tabla player, and it is fascinating to hear what variations each player comes up with. He especially liked the Indonesian piece "Loving Kindness" and asked me to play it again before we parted ways. It was already nearly ten and I still had one more appointment.

Another man, a priest from Kerala (who I will remember as a short guy but a real scrapper on the basketball court) is in Bangalore doing his docotral dissertation on Islam, and wanted to probe me about Islam in America. I offered what I could, only positive reports due to interaction with Kabir and our friends from Pacifica, and recommended that he look both of them up. He asked me at one point why I thought so many people were leaving Christianity and converting to Islam. I hadn't thought of that before, and am not sure of the numbers, but the first thing that came to my mind was that the uniqueness of Jesus is such a stumbling block to so many people, and Islam gives some of the familiar territory but putting Jesus in a more palatable place. He then launched into a pretty well thought out defense of Jesus' divinity, partly using the Qur'an itself, that he wants to be able to teach priests so that they can be armed from the pulpit to defend Christian doctrine. He used the word "threat" a couple of times, concerning both the threat of terrorism and the threat of people converting to Islam, and then he asked me what I thought the biggest threat from Islam was. I said that I would never use the word "threat," but I talked about the challenge that Islam presents.

This uniqueness of Jesus came up recently in another context too a few times now this trip, in regards the incarnation as compared with the Hindu notion of the avatar. I remember the first time I heard someone describe Jesus as the 11th avatar of Vishnu. I immediately bristled at the thought, but wasn't sure why. They are such similar concepts but it's almost like "comparing apples and tennis," as I heard one Zen teacher say. There are a couple of differences which may seem quibbling but I think are important. I read a brilliant paper these past few days that George had from his class on Indian theology that laid out a couple of subtle points. For one thing, the avatar doesn't really become fully human, only appears in human form; the body is discarded when the god returns to heaven. Whereas orthodox Christianity fought for the proposition that Jesus was fully human, and that that bodiliness of Jesus remains important, hence the resurrection and ascension, symbols of flesh and all creation participating in divinity. For another thing, orthodox Christians don't believe Jesus is one of many incarnations, and certainly not of only one aspect of God--Vishnu the protector. "The fullness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily," St Paul says. And another little one: avatars always come to help the righteous, as this one theologian pointed out; Jesus specifically came for sinners, prostitutes, drunks and tax collectors. But our friend Fausto (SJ) makes an even more subtle point: there is an entirely different understanding of history operative in Hinduism than in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it is out of that tradition that the understanding of both incarnation and avatar sprout. It sure makes things easier to have conversations with folks from other traditions if we say that Jesus was just one in the line of prophets, or that Jesus was an avatar. It sort of resolves the tension for us, too. But there is something unique about what Christians claim about Jesus, his divine bodiliness, his incarnate divinity, and that is somehow to me the real treasure of Christianity, and its scandal/stumbling block. Reducing one of its central messages takes away the unique treasure we have to bring to the party.

That doesn't make us better than anyone else, of course, and I still don't think of the other religions as "threats."

Another priest had also grilled me the day before about why I was dealing with people outside of Christianity and why I thought people were leaving it, sort of suggesting, I think, that if I preached right dogma that would make them stay. But, gosh, the other side of all this is that faith is more than intellectual assent and winning philosophical architecuture. What I read from Thomas Merton in "New Seeds" the other day offers a corrective to the whole discussion: "We must not be so obsessed with verbal correctness that we never go beyond the words to the ineffable reality which they attempt to convey." I liked this too that I read in Vivekananda's essay on the life of Ramakrishna called "My Master":
We must realize God, feel God, see God, talk to God. That is religion. The Indian atmosphere is full of stories of saintly people who have visions of God. Such doctrines form the basis of their religion; and all these ancient books and scriptures are the writings of persons who came into direct contact with spiritual facts. These books are not written for the intellect, nor can any reasoning understand them, because they have been written by people who saw the things of which they wrote, and they can be understood only by people who have raised themselves to the same height.

There must be some universal wisdom here because Merton agrees, writing that ultimately "faith is communion with God's own light and truth," and that's an experience that goes beyond words. Simply coming up with arguments to "prove" to Muslims that Jesus was the Son of God and not just a prophet--or vice versa--, or that Jesus was or wasn't an avatar in the sense that Hindus mean isn't going to convert anyone to anything. (We're back in the realm of scopos and telos here, by the way.) I keep going back to that image of St Francis before the Sultan; there's got to be more if we are to witness to folks the intergrity of our spiritual path.

The real threat is always our ignorance and our lack of desire to realize God. The real threat is our lack of faith, that we are not in communion with God's own light and truth.