Tuesday, February 23, 2010

the vedanta of prosperity

"We have to do violence to ourselves to keep from laboring uselessly for what is bitter and without joy, and we have to compel ourselves to take what is easy and full of happiness as though it were against our interests, because for us the line of least resistance leads in the way of greatest hardship and sometimes for us to do what is, in itself, most easy, can be the hardest thing in the world." (Thomas Merton, New Seeds)

23 feb, 2010

Jaya, a simple woman who works for Mother here at Pure Life, just came through to give my cell its dusting and freshening up. I was still in the middle of asanas when she showed up and did the outer room, and she had waited patiently until I finished and then said something gentle and partly undecipherable to me that made it clear to me that I was to excuse myself for a while. After she swept, she replenished the oil lamp that burns in this room as well as the big room all day, and then she lit a stick of incense and held it up to her forehead, making a nod of reverence to each of the portraits that hang around the room. It's like living in a shrine room or a temple, not a bad feeling. She had come up earlier with a small thermos of an herbal brew from Mother that I was to drink. I've had just the slightest cold since Sri Ram that is more annoying than anything, but Mother was right on it in spite of my protestations. I have learned in this part of the world that resistance to Asian hospitality is absolutely futile. Here's a typical conversation between Mother and I, last night as I was on my way to bed:

Mother: Did you have a proper meal?
Cyprian: Yes, I had the brown rice with the beans and coconut chutney.
M: I've just baked some fresh bread. Shall I give you a few slices?
C: No, Mother, really, thanks, I'm fine.
M: I'll get you two slices.
C: Yes, Mother, thanks very much.

As I mentioned, it is Chinese New Year, the lunar new year feast which goes on for a week or so. Today, for instance, is the tenth day. Though I've been in and out of this region often around this time, I've managed to miss most of the parades and festivities. A lot of eating goes on, and a lot of gift giving, and a lot of giving of other people food, especially oranges, which are a symbol of prosperity, and sweets. Also little red envelopes are given out, mainly to umarried people, filled with money. I think priests and other religious get a lot of them. I got three just for standing there. This is also a time when it is all but mandatory to visit relatives, especially one's parents. John Wong is from up here in Kuala Lumpur and had no plans to visit his folks during the festivities, but got brow beaten enough by the other old folks in the parish that he changed his mind. It's a long drive from Singapore--nearly five hours--so he offered to bring me up with him to spend an evening and morning with his folks before delivering me to Dr Pat and Pure Life. We had a great visit and conversation in the car on the way up. We see each other about once a year now, and it's fun to check in where each other is at in terms of vocation and relation to our respective greater orders/congregations. He's a bright guy, speaks at least three languages fluently and competent in a few more, and is very theologically astute, besides having a refined sense of culture and aesthetics.

His parents were wonderfully friendly people and welcomed me to their airy 19th floor apartment without the slightest hesitation. John's father is a lively 81 year old, ex-military, very talkative and intellectually curious. They took me to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant for dinner Sunday night. Then John assumed that he and I would be sharing the small guest room, with one of us on a matress on the floor, but the Colonel had other plans. John was to sleep in the master bedroom, I was to use the guestroom, he himself was going to sleep on a cot in the living room, and Mom was going to stay the night with a friend in an apartment downstairs who was feeling a little low. I think that was a ruse: when I got up in the morning, Mom was curled up on the loveseat in the living room. It being New Year's, there are lots of fireworks. At one point (it might have been right at midnight) I woke up to some very loud noises. At first I was pretty startled: I couldn't figure out what they were, and I couldn't figure out where I was, so I sat up in bed and looked out the window of the bedroom, 19 floors up, to see the fireworks going off what seemed like right beside my head. I think I laughed out loud.

In the morning Colonel Wong was regaling me with stories about his days in the military, when he led teams into the Malaysian jungle to monitor the movements of terrorists and Communists rebels. It's a complicated history (this is during the '50s and 60's mainly), and he doesn't hold a grudge against those over whom he was keeping an eye. As a matter of fact he said a number of times, "They just had a different ideology than I did" and "We were young. It was great fun." They would get dropped off by helicopter in the middle of the jungle, and have to bushwak and bivouac for days at a time, with just enough dry rations to get by. Sometimes during droughts they had to slice open jungle creepers to find water, and at times they were forced to kill some game or find jungle fruits to eat. If the helicopter crashed, he told me, you had better hope that you would die in the crash because it would be impossible to find your way out of the jungle on your own and you'd almost certainly get torn to bits by wild animals. "It was all great fun!"

Once word got out that John, Favorite Son-Nephew, was in town, our plan for a simple morning meal quickly, effortlessly morphed into a family gathering with six other people at the home of Mrs Wong's sister. The table was loaded with all kinds of delicious Chinese and Indian specialites. Everything was different--the food, the accents, the skin complexion--but for all the world it felt just like when we were in Bellusco up near Milano at Christmas time in 2003. I would not have been surprised if pannatone and vin santo had been served. And then I sang for my supper, just a few songs before I got delivered here.

There is a lecture series on the Bhagavad Gita going on near here for the next four nights sponsored by the Malaysian Vedanta Cultural Foundation. Mother Mangalam is an invited VIP and extended the invitation to me to join her, which I did last night for the first of the series. Indeed, as she walked in everyone seemed to know her and bowed to her, often touching her feet or the floor in front of her. Her right hand man Mr Krishnamurthi had driven us over and as she was led to her seat in the front row he and I were finding some seats about halfway back. Someone came back from the front row and motioned to me, saying, "Mr Cyprian? Please come." And I was planted next to Mother, front row second seat in, with all the dignitaries and officials of the Foundation.

The talk was given by Sunandaji who is the daugher and disciple of well known philosopher and guru Swami Parthasarathy. I felt like the only person in the world who had never heard of him. He pioneered a concept called Self-Management, a "technique that combines dynamic action with mental peace." His CV in the pamphlet that was handed out said that he counsels sports, film, political and corporate celebrities, and TIME magazine says that he "adds new meaning to the phrase business guru." He is also the founder of Vedanta Academy and author of best selling books. I found it kind of humorous the way it was phrased, but it's actually pretty impressive: his CV says that at age 82 (he's 83 now) he "has maintained the same weight and waist for 61 years" and he "continues to play cricket and wins most MVP award competing alongside players less than one third his age"! (Tell that to Tom Moore!) His approach, as I understand it, is that life is a skill that must be learned, and Vedanta is a practical wisdom to acquire that skill. It even teaches techniques for "drawing the wealth from the world" so as to have material prosperity.

His daughter-disciple is a chip off the old block. She was a wonderful speaker, dynamic and demonstrative in that way that the best Indian teachers are, very funny and very lucid, big gestures with her hands, lively facial expressions and some pretty funny side comments. She is teaching on Chapter 10 of the Bhagavad Gita, which they have translated as "The Yoga of Supreme Manifestation." Two young women sitting stage right of Sunandaji led us in chanting the Sanskrit of each verse, and then Sunandaji held forth on each. There was some introductory material as we began, since this was the first of four nights and she wasn't sure how much everyone in the audience knew the basics of Vedanta. At one point she sort of scolded the adults in the audience for not knowing the basics of Vedanta. "You will wait until you are retired to learn all this, I suppose?" This organization makes a big deal about the fact that Vedanta is not for old folks, but is exactly what young people need, some practical skills and a framework of reference to look at the world.

There were two things that stuck out for me in that first talk, that are salient to what I was writing about yesterday. (I hope to go tonight and tomorrow too, but Thursday I am working...). The first is this: as she was explaining the Bhagavad Gita in the context of the epic Mahabharata, Sunandaji pointed out that in the midst of all that symbolic language in the Gita, the Vedanta is there, but it needs to be interpreted. Even things like the "seven great seers, their four elders and the fourteen Manus" are all symbolic of objective realities. (She rattled off the list so fast, I couldn't get them all down.) There is a practical science of life and living hidden in there, but a teacher must point it out to you or you will never see the Gita as more than an historical novel. I was thinking of that in relation to the Bible and to the Qur'an. How much does one take literally, and how much is symbolic language, and who do we trust to point that out?

The second thing was her explanation of Krishna saying of himself in verse 8, "I am the source of all creation and everything in the world moves because of me. Knowing thus, the wise, full of devotion, constantly worship me." She taught that whenever any of the great masters (her word) refer to themselves as "I"--including the Lord Christ and the Lord Buddha, she said--it is the truth who is speaking, or rather Truth itself. These are people who are so identified with the truth that Truth is speaking through them. Of course that gets us around "I am the way, the truth and the life, says the Lord; no one comes to the Father except through me" which is similar to Krishna saying, "Those who know me as unborn and without beginning, and as the supreme Lord of the Universe, are purged from all sin" (BG 10:3). Two things came up for me with that. First: it's interesting that I never hear people express discomfort with Krishna saying he is Lord of the Universe, and yet I remember specifically getting all kinds of grief about using the beautiful passage from John's Gospel when Jesus says, "I am the vine, you are the branches" at Boulder Integral. I guess most people assume about Krishna that this mythic figure in the Gita is really Ultimate Reality Itself speaking? But, secondly: I wonder if that's what Jesus thought about himself, that it was Truth Itself speaking. I remember Monsignor (now Archbishop) Niederauer at St John's Seminary railing at us about his pet peeve in homiletics; he hated it when guys would say, "What our Lord was really trying to say was..." "How do you know what Jesus was really trying to say?!?!" he scolded. (After one such harangue, the president of the student body got up and said slyly, "What Monsignor Neiderauer was really trying to say was...") This is something that has fascinated scripture scholars and theologians for centuries obviously, Jesus' own self-knowledge. Maybe he really did think he was the unique only Messiah-Christ, savior of the world, outside of whom no one can enter into union with this God whom he called Father. This is back to Wm Harmless' argument about mysticism. There is always the danger of filtering someone else's words about their experience through our words about our experience. So, if he did think he was the unique universal Savior, would Sunandaji say he was wrong?

I loved this little tidbit too. It's another image I use often myself and she gave it added depth. I like to point out that even Thomas Aquinas thought that plants and animals shared in soul, just not eternal souls, and so it's not a far stretch to say that they also share in consciousness. But the human person is the one creature, so we believe, that doesn't just know: we know that we know (that we know that we know that we know...) Self-reflexive consciousness. This was very much in keeping with what Sunandaji taught last night. "So you know my name. 'Are you sure you know my name?' I ask you. And you answer me, 'Yes, I know that I know.' That's it!" she said; "Find that which knows that it knows. You are that knowing behind the knowing behind the knowing..."

I was smiling a little to myself, conjuring up other, humbler images of studying the Gita. I had my own little now-crumpled up copy with me, the one that Joseph bought me in Rishikesh in 2007 with all my pen and pencil marking in it from Babaji's Thursday morning classes at PCC in Santa Cruz. I've heard the "Gospel of Prosperity" preached many times, but I've never heard the "Vedanta of Prosperity" preached before, at least not that openly. It's fascinating. Still, I think it is undeniable that the Gita as well as the Gospels are calling us to a certain death of self first, before we yield whatever rich harvest we are meant to yield. I'm reminded of the teaching about Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu. She is the goddess of wealth, power and glory, but she sits at Vishnu's feet. This is meant to symbolize that when we seek the higher truth we'll grow disinterested in the world, but when we do the world of sense objects seeks us--when Vishnu is sought, Lakshmi necessarily follows the seeker. But the opposite does not abide, according to Vedanta: if we run after wealth first, when we are slaves to our cravings, the objects of our desire escape us. Strangely close to the teaching of St John of the Cross: "Now that I no longer desire them they are all mine." That is what Yoga is about to me, that discipline, that denial of short term gains for long term ones, building the house on rock rather than on sand. And sometimes it seems as if we do "have to do violence to ourselves to keep from laboring uselessly for what is bitter and without joy," and that we have to "compel ourselves to take what is easy and full of happiness as though it were against our interests, because for us the line of least resistance leads in the way of greatest hardship" and sometimes "for us to do what is, in itself, most easy, can be the hardest thing in the world."