Sunday, March 3, 2024

Haridwar and Rishikesh

 3 March 2024


I’m just outside of Rishikesh now at Sadhana Mandir Ashram which is, unbeknownst to me when I booked it, right on the north bank of the Ganga. Like the last two nights, in Delhi and Haridwar, there is tremendous thunder and lightning and intermittent heavy rains going on outside. I immediately have felt like this is the most pleasant place I’ve stayed here in India this time and after four nights in four different places to sleep, I’m happy that I can settle into this fifth place for a week.


Yesterday I got a ride to Haridwar, arranged by faithful Devin. That is Sri Ram Ashram, which is an orphanage founded by Baba Hari Das and the good people of Mount Madonna, that also has a school for about 1000 students. I had been there several times in early 2000s, the first time with John Pennington in 2005. He returned several times after that with students from Augustana College when he was teaching there. (Actually, a woman on the staff asked me, “Didn’t you come with John and the students from Augustana?”) Back in the day there would have been lots of folks from Mount Madonna here at this time of year, but things have changed a bit since Babaji died. Two old friends, Dayanand and SN were the only ones there from California, deeply engaged in laying out a new field hockey and football (soccer) field and building an addition onto the school. Very impressed especially with SN at 77 years old out there with a shovel showing the young guys how it’s done.


Dayanand gave me a tour of all the work going on and was explaining some of the new restrictions imposed in them by the government of India. For one thing, for all the amazing good work they have done there, the local government has always been a little suspicious of the Mount Madonna folks as foreigners. It was somewhat easier when Babaji was alive. Secondly, the government has forced them to be an adoption agency now, not just an orphanage, which somewhat diminishes Babaji’s dream of the place being a long-term family as it has been for at least two generations of children now. That being said, it is normally the youngest of the children who get adopted so there are still a good percentage of the older ones that stay through college age. The third challenge, which Shantivanam is also facing, is that institutions can only accept 25% of their income in foreign donations. Up until recently Babaji’s faithful disciples were donating a considerable amount more than that. Dayanand thinks that this is actually mainly in response to Saudi money that is pouring into India to support madrasas. Nothing wrong with madrasas per se, except that, according to Dayanand, they are not teaching much more than the Qur’an, and poor education and lack of adequate labor are a bad combination. At any rate, he and SN hope that the expanded school will now generate enough income through tuition to help pour back into the ashram itself. One last change is that there are considerably less children there than there used to be, especially boys, only between 6 and 9 of them (I heard different numbers and only counted five), and maybe twenty girls 


So it was a whole different atmosphere. Besides the fact that it was raining, there was no outside play time, of course no gathering in Babaji’s room at night for games and candy, and no real adult community to hang out with. On the other hand, the kids were great. Almost every one of them came right up to me––they must be trained for this––and said, “What is your name?” I remembered from before that I have to distinguish for them between Supriya (“But, uncle, that is a girl’s name!”) and Cyprian––and did. I sat in with them for their hysterical evening aarathi in the shrine room, the 10 minutes or so of the chants being led by a screaming 6 or 7-year-old girl with a young guy proudly offering the deafening blast of the conch shell at random intervals. One of the boys kept turning back and making sure I was on the right page of the songbook, asking me if I read Hindi. I also ate with the kids, sitting next to an enterprising 14-year-old named Rohit who was very keen to practice his English. 


Then a good night’s sleep amid the thunderstorms. And, in a much-appreciated improvement, there is now a “geezer” in each bathroom. (That’s the generic term for a water heater, kind of like “kleenix,” a mispronunciation of the brand name “Geyser.”) Back in the day I would stay wrapped up in my blankets until 7 AM when the chai was ready, crawl back under my blankets and do my prayers, readings and meditation until 9 when you could go downstairs and get a bucket of hot water for your pour-over “bath,” and then still wait until 10:45 for brunch. I ate breakfast with the staff and then waited and waited and waited for my taxi to Rishikesh, which was an hour late due to the literally thousands of people on the road walking to a special spot on the banks of the Ganges to get water to carry back to their villages for the feast of Shivaratri which is officially this Friday. (I posted phots on Facebook of the many of the colorful yokes that are carried, all by men, it seems.) And then we snaked out about five miles up the road back into Haridwar and onto the main road that leads to Rishikesh. 


Rishikesh was a bit of a letdown. I am far more attached to “back in the day” than I thought I was. So much has changed in all the spots in India that I knew so well. The main spots in Rishikesh, by the Ram Jhula bridge and the Lakshma Jhula bridge, were very crowded with tourists, a lot of them Indians, but more like for an amusement park than a spiritual destination. There were a lot more young guys there for sport, river rafting, and rowdy groups yelling up cheers and chants from the Ganga below. Of course, there are still dozens of yoga schools and ayurvedic clinics, and shops catering to spiritual tourism, etc. etc. I was hoping to see Ranjeet at his South Indian food stall “hotel,” and Ram Ram, who I studied yoga with, at his CD kiosk (as if anyone buys CDs anymore), and the place where I got the amazing ayurvedic hot oil massage. But I didn’t see any of them. I ran out of time and never made it to walk along the north bank, just the south bank between the two bridges, so I never got to the village of Tapovan and Jeevan Dhara Ashram (I’m not sure anyone is there anymore!) either, where I wrote a good deal of Prayer in the Cave of the Heart. It was pleasant enough in the end, and I ducked into a nice little food stall for a tali when it started raining hard, hoping against hope that it would be Ranjeet’s having just moved to a new location.


My daily schedule for the week. At least there's tea at 6!

And now I am settled in at Sadhana Mandir Ashram of the Himalayan School of Yoga founded by the late Swami Rama. My German brother Camaldolese and friend Axel has a long history with this lineage and the two ashrams here in Rishikesh. As a matter of fact, he is at the other facility 2 km away. I will see him on Wednesday since they are on retreat over there right now. I was greeted by a gaggle of young guys all trying to help me fill out the ubiquitous forms one fills out here as a foreign visitor, the main guy, Vipin, who insists on being called Vippi, especially wanting to engage about the guitar and America. He was familiar with San Francisco, where my passport was issued––“the place where the Boston Tea Party took place.” Every time I have seen him, he has reminded me that he wants guitar lessons. Two of the other young guys, who I took to be in their early twenties, are indeed recent graduates from the college the Swami Rama started and have got their BS in Yoga Studies and are on their internship. One of them, I found out, is leading the classes this week. He very officiously explained all the sessions to me. I had originally asked to just make a private retreat here and maybe sit in on a yoga class or two but was told according to their rules that, since it is my first time, I need to follow the ashram schedule for three days first and then I can be on my own. It’s okay. I think I will benefit from a new perspective and have got a good beginner’s mind going. I was just hoping for a little more time to myself. I was worried that I would not be allowed to play the guitar, but instead there seems to be not only no issue with that, but even a little encouragement to play a little for others, as well as give lessons to Vippi, both of which I am going to try to duck out of.


One other nice thing is that there is a beautiful paved promenade of sorts right outside the back gate that goes for a few miles along the Ganga, that is perfect for walks and even jogging, so I might get some cardio in for the first time in a month. There are only a handful of other guests here this week (I counted seven). There is a sign on every table in the eating hall that says “silence,” but at teatime (during which delicious samosas were served) and at dinner time (kitcharee!), there was no silence, so we shall see…

Friday, March 1, 2024

eucharistic coconuts

 2 March 2024


Two other things from my interaction with Jyoti that I forgot to mention. 


One of the things that occurred to me this time at Shantivanam––and I do not mean this as a criticism, just an observation––was that the use of the puja stone for the altar for me harkens a little too strongly to the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist and does not give much if any indication of a meal, only a kind of prasada, the food and drink offered to a deity during puja that, it is believed, the deity partakes of, thereby consecrating it, and then returns––the offering being distributed and eaten by the worshippers. (The other thing I missed this time was very little intercessory prayer.) Hence, the use of altars that more resemble tables (pace the detractors––the Vatican II documents talk about the two tables of the Word and Sacrament). And so I asked Jyoti about this in the context is wondering what of the Vatican II liturgical reform, besides inculturation, particularly influenced their work on the liturgy in India. He thought for a moment and then, not completely answering the question, said that, similar to other cultures I suppose, the Indian culture would have a particular revulsion to the idea of eating human flesh and drinking human blood. He then told me about a Hindu man, who never became an official Christian but started an ashram dedicated to Jesus. Instead of bread and wine he did a kind of a eucharist with a coconut. It is broken open, the flesh is consumed, and even its water is consumed. Once it is broken open (how I love this image!), it gives all of itself, like Jesus, for others. The suggestion being, I assume, that in spite of being historically representative of what Jesus did on that last day with his disciples, maybe bread and wine are not the only or the best eucharistic symbols for every culture.

The other thing was this. It’s taken from the second article of his that he asked me to read. We only touched on this briefly as well as on his own study of Aurobindo (via Fr. Bede, again, like myself). I was suggesting that the mystical, the apophatic does not have to be seen only as the ending point of the journey but, in keeping with my own theme of “from the ground up: rediscovering the divine,” maybe it’s the starting point for a new art (music, dance, painting), new forms of worship. Here is where the mystical intuition is not necessarily opposed to the artistic one, another debate that Bede had with Jyoti. Jyoti wrote this is the essence of Aurobindo’ integral yoga (and this of course opens up a whole ‘nother conversation; I got this more from the Mother than from Aurobindo himself): “… it is not only an ascent, as in the concept of attaining to higher states of being: it is also a descent, a way of going into the very material reality of the opaque world in which we live.” This is why it’s safe to say that the liturgy and sacramentality in general is so Tantric: it sees that material reality can be a conveyor of the divine. 


This launched into my whole theory that in the Protestant Reformation these things go together: distancing from liturgy, the contemplative life (and monasticism) and an anthropology that views the human condition as hopelessly fallen in need of being completely covered over by grace (taking Augustine to the extreme), like snow over a dung heap. As opposed to Thomas Aquinas’ famous, which could be on my own coat of arms, gratia non tollit naturam sed perfecit––“Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” This attitude, or lack of it, affected all of our missionary work as well as interreligious dialogue––again, or the lack of it––for centuries. In the other article Jyoti suggests, in keeping with this theme, that being sent on mission ought to be more like a pilgrimage than a campaign, an encounter with the sacramentality recognized as already there. At the risk of putting words into his mouth, this means meeting Christ already present in beauty, truth, and goodness already in the culture, Jacques Dupuis’ pro-Christian, not just pre-Christian. As Jyoti put it, “By recognizing that what is sacramental is a shared ‘common land’ we can come to this space in a spirit of dialogue and mutual respect.”*


It rained this morning here in Delhi, and it’s a cool 65 degrees. I slept very well and had a quiet morning in my hotel room doing all the things I do left to my own devices, waiting for my ride to Haridwar at noon.

*“Elemental Signs of the Sacramental: Sacramentality, Visual Arts, and the Earth,” Jyoti Sahi in Sacraments and Sacramentality, 110.

silvepuram and the art ashram

 1 March ‘24

Dorathick and Pinto escorted me to the Kulithallai train station Wednesday night and made sure I got on the right car and found the right bunk. As it turned out, though, someone else was already in my bunk. Each compartment has six bunks; I was supposed to have the bottom one (choice spot). But the gentleman who was occupying it asked me very nicely if I wouldn’t mind going to the next car and taking his lower bunk in another spot there since he was with his wife. With Dorathick and Pinto showing some signs of consternation out of the window, I agreed to it, and he led me there. Well, that bunk was already occupied as well, and it was now suggested that I take the middle bunk instead. After some confusion about where to put my luggage (it was 10:00 at night and pretty dark in there already), I stuffed my backpack and guitar under the bunks and somewhat gracefully crawled into the middle bunk. There was a pillow, a blanket and a sheet on the bed. Most bunks I saw already had the sheet on it, and the guy across from me did the sheet for his friend who was riding on top. No one offered to do mine and I decided just to cover myself with the blanket and call it a night. I fell almost immediately to sleep, comforted by the air-conditioned car, after all those sweaty nights at the ashram, and the quiet rocking of the train, and never wound up putting my sheet on. There was no interaction with anyone in my little compartment from then on out, except for the trio of snores around me. It’s a pretty undignified way to travel! I was hesitant to slip out of my middle bunk and go to the bathroom but at some point, I decided it was going to be a very arduous night if I didn’t, so I screwed up the energy and slipped out, to great success. There were no announcements as to what stops were coming up so I had my alarm set (as if I might sleep later than 4 AM somehow…) and started standing near the doors with my stuff and with some help managed to get off at the right stop in Bengaluru at around 6 AM. 


My host-to-be, Jyoti Sahi, who is also the only reason I had come to Bengaluru, had arranged reception for me at the nearby Union Theological College, in spite of the early morning, so I called my contact there, Abey George, when I got in my tuk-tuk from the station, who met me and showed me to a very nice room. UTC is an ecumenical seminary, mostly CSI (Church of South India of the Anglican Communion) and Methodists I believe. Abey was a really sharp guy, very polite and articulate, a fourth year student from Kerala studying for the CSI, having already done his graduate work in English literature, now the editor of the college magazine. He brought me to their worship service at 8:30 AM (introducing me like a visiting VIP), had a wonderful chat over breakfast in the canteen, and then he gave me a tour of the facility. Jyoti in the meantime had made his way to town in a taxi for some other business and met us around 10 AM.


There are a few encounters I have had in my life with particular people that I look back on as being among highly significant conversations. If I had to analyze it, they’ve usually been moments when I was able to locate myself on the map and even got a hint as to what lay ahead. One was sitting at a piano in the basement of the Jesuit novitiate in Saint Paul, Minnesota with John Foley in 1985, when I discovered what I would later call “essentially vocal music,” that totally changed the way I composed. One of course was hearing Fr. Bede Griffiths speak in our chapter room in September 1992 that completely turned my thinking around and set me on the course on which I remain to this day. One was the hour and a half I spent with Fr. Thomas Keating in 2017 at Snowmass, the notes of which I carry around in my Bible. Even in the midst of it I was thinking that this encounter with Jyoti Sahi yesterday was going to remain in that constellation as well.

Jyoti is considered to be the most famous living Indian Christian artist.I'll embed here some of his paintings that we in and around my guest room. You can find many things online.) He’s known for his paintings, murals and also design. Most notably he designed several churches, including the cathedral church of Varanasi. His distinctive style is incorporating what he unashamedly calls “Hindu” (and not the more generic “Indian”) symbol and style into his work. We had a good discussion about that as well. Like Raimondo Panikkar, Jyoti considers himself a “Hindu Christian,” his father being a Hindu. His mother was a Scottish Presbyterian but was later baptized Catholic bringing her teenage son with her, into the religion of Saint Francis of Assisi, their main inspiration. “Hindu” of course is a term invented by the British colonialists to describe not a religion, but the religions of the Indus Valley, and of course Jyoti considers his to be one of those religions (if I am not misunderstanding his explanation). He was raised in the north, Dehradun, where both of his parents were teachers, receiving the finest English education and then being sent off to study design in London. 


As he grew in his Catholicism, Jyoti gradually became more attracted to the Benedictines than the Franciscans and even at one time considered being a monk. Ironically it was Bede Griffiths who told him that he would “never be a monk” but encouraged him to live in a hermitage near the ashram. That was 1963 when Bede was still at Kurisumala in Kerala. I knew that he had a friendship with Bede, but I did not know how far back or how deep it went. Of course, being at Kurisumala he also knew Fr. Francis Archaya as well, the co-founder of that ashram along with Bede. He also knew Abhishiktananda pretty well, having also had many encounters with him, including spending some time living at Shantivanam with Abhishiktananda before Abhishiktananda re-located to the north and turned Shantivanam over to Bede. That was the jaw-dropper for me. I knew some of that history but to hear first-hand accounts of the interactions between the three of them––Francis, Bede and le Saux––during the transition from le Saux to Griffiths, was just fascinating to me. Jyoti told one story of sailing north up the coast of India from Kerala with Francis, arriving ultimately in Dehradun, where his parents still had their home, and Abhishiktananda coming down to meet them from Uttarkashi. I asked him point blank what he thought of Abhishiktananda as a person and he said he was impressed by him though he found him “extreme,” as did Bede, so he confirmed. Then when Bede moved to Shantivanam, he and his new English wife Jane lived there with Bede for two years before re-locating up to Bangalore, now Begaluru, where they have been ever since. 


In the years that followed, aside from his own art, Jyoti was deeply involved in the liturgical renewal in India, through the National Biblical & Liturgical Center (NBCLC) which is located there in Begaluru. As a matter of fact, he had had a meeting there that morning before he came to fetch me at the UTC. He knew all about the proposed Indian rite and he and Jane were proud to show me a worn-out copy of the provisional lectionary that had been put together for the Office of Readings that included a scriptural reading, an ecclesial (patristic) reading, and a reading from Universal Wisdom. We actually used the reading assigned for the day for our Eucharist later, from chapter 7 of the Bhagavad Gita––the very verses that I set to music in “Lead Me From Death Into Life.” Actually, little synchronistic moments like that came up all day long, mentioning Coomaraswamy’s book on “Dancing Śiva” which I was just quoting last week, for example.


As soon as we got in the taxi to make our way to his place at Silvepuram outside of town, totally unprovoked but perhaps assuming that is what I wanted to know, Jyoti began to tell me his history. I peppered it with a few questions, but his own narrative was enough to fill the cover. It took about an hour to get to Silvepuram where we met his absolutely lovely wife Jane and their friend Lucy, another Indian artist who now lives with her husband in Germany but at one time had run the art ashram that Jyoti founded there in the village. Jyoti and I continued to talk––I can’t begin to recount the list of related topics about art, inculturation, nationalism, the ashram movement, specifically liturgy and the arts, “the marriage of east and west,” , perennialism, some theology obviously, as well as more anecdotes about his interactions with the first generation of this whole legacy of which I find myself to be a part. He handed me a couple of books after lunch that contained articles that he had written and that he was interested to hear my thoughts about. So in the midst of an afternoon nap, I had a bit of homework, which I took to gladly, coming back for tea with a list of questions and comments. He then led me through the village up to The Land, the site of the art ashram, where is son Roshen now lives and works. He talked about his own disappointment that it has not really thrived and survived, and mused about his own legacy, which was fascinating to hear. 


Later it occurred to me that one of the reasons I was so interested in Thomas Merton when I first moved up to Santa Cruz was that he was someone who had to learn to live as a monk along with his talent for writing. There are religious, there are artists, there are religious artists who are not active religious and of course those who are. What Jyoti embodied for me, though not a professed religious, was someone so steeped in his faith with that added aspect of being so deeply involved in the specific ecosystem of the ashram movement in India, the legacy that has touched me so deeply. 


In the early evening we celebrated a very simple eucharist in the humble, comfortable chapel in their home, and then Jane asked me to sing for them, which I was only too happy to do. She called her son and daughters over as well at that point, and one grandson and a friend of their son Somo, who is a filmmaker. It was odd; it was one of those few times when I got a little self-conscious and was making some terrible flubs on the guitar on songs that I have played hundreds of times and have been practicing even recently. It’s so odd to me when those rare occasions nervousness come in. I suppose I really wanted to impress Jyoti and his friends and got self-conscious.


I had another beautiful night’s sleep with the gentle cool breeze blowing the curtains all night long in a very comfortable guest room, a real Indian bath at about 5 AM, meaning pouring the hot water over myself from a barrel that sits on a wood fire, so hot that you have to cool it down with cold water from another barrel. A little more conversation over breakfast and an exchange of movie and book recommendations with a promise to stay in touch. It was only then, at breakfast, that Jane asked me something about my opinion on liturgical music and I launched forth into a bit of a diatribe about the voice and the Word and the real meaning and purpose of chant, and Psallite, etc. etc., that was, luckily for them, cut short by the arrival of my taxi to the airport. All in all a fabulous memorable visit.


The offending pyx...
One funny thing happened in the airport in Bengaluru. Rather confusingly, the security had me drop my guitar at one spot, where baby carriages and full dressed women are checked, and sent me to another line. I was waiting for my backpack while watching across the way for my guitar. After a few minutes I rushed over to grab my guitar but was stopped by the man there who wanted to take away––and did––my favorite little tool, a string winder that is also a string cutter and confiscated. Though the cutter, as Grama Lucy used to say, was so dull “it couldn’t cut water,” it was deemed contraband. I rushed back over to find my backpack had also been sequestered. The suspect object there was, of all things, the round pyx I carry, with the Pie Pelicane on it, with a few consecrated hosts. The guy pulled it out, then opened it and said, “What is this?” I was trying to explain––it wasn’t clear how much English he spoke––“Catholic? Communion? Mass?” I made an eating motion, the sign of the cross. At some point he seemed to understand and waved me off and then suddenly a look of recognition crossed his face, and his eyes got big and he said, “You’re a priest?!” I nodded yes, and he seemed quite pleased, maybe just that he had figured it out. I would love to hear him tell his family that one tonight. A white priest with a knapsack, a guitar, and Holy Communion. (Mom, Isaiah, and Paul Ford, if you are reading, I thought you would enjoy that episode.)

After that an uneventful flight up to Delhi, with four Tibetan Buddhist monks, one elder, one middle aged and to younger, seated near me, the older of whom were very funny to watch, especially the middle-aged guy bugging the attendants for hot water for his instant ramen, in some language that none of the attendants knew. A long taxi ride again to my hotel for the night. I feel somewhat embarrassed by how nice a room I have. My friend Devin is here with the students from Mount Madonna, and we were to travel together to Haridwar tomorrow. So it was convenient, and the only room they had left was an deluxe suite of sorts, but it’s not a bad price in American dollars and it’s nice to treat myself to a little creature comfort before I head back into ashram life, this time up north, starting tomorrow. As it turns out, Devin cannot accompany me to Haridwar tomorrow after all, but I just spent some time with him now, and we talked about upcoming projects as well as about his upcoming wedding at the end of March, here in India. I remember why I don’t like Delhi: I usually feel trapped here. This neighborhood, for instance, there is nothing within walking distance. Even the man at the front desk, when I asked for direction to a nearby market, warned me not to try to walk it. And I just don’t feel like negotiating with the autorickshaw drivers tonight, so I am staying home, will treat myself to the buffet, repack and get ready for the next leg, blessing you all.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

walk in beauty

 28 feb 2024


The sixth chakra, on which people are most often advised to concentrate during meditation or the recitation of mantras, is situated between the eyes, at the root of the nose. There too is located the “third eye” of Shiva, his spiritual eye which looks within and sees everything with perfect truth in the light which alone shines inwardly––the light of the guha … (Prayer, 102)


They are doing a lectio continua of Abhishiktananda’s book Prayer here at midday prayer each day, which is great––the book itself and the fact that that is what they are reading. In the past it has been the often-lugubrious readings from the Liturgy of the Hours which were practically incomprehensible to some of the guys with English as a second (or third of fourth) language. This is much more practical as well as accessible and totally fitting the context. Reflecting back on my musings about Śiva, I don’t remember Abhishiktananda being so bold in mentioning Śiva in that book! Hence the above quotation among other places.

The groups here come and go. Several of the guys have mentioned how they feel like their hospitality (the main source of income) is still in recovery from Covid. There was quite a crowd here through the weekend, mostly Europeans, from England, France, Italy, Poland, Germany, more than Americans. The biggest part of them left last week––poor Fr. Martin, guest master, was wiped out––but a group of about a dozen, still very international remains for a week-long yoga retreat led by Dorathick. He came to us as a trained yogi already in his twenties, with also a good knowledge of Ayurveda. I pleased to see him still be able to offer things like this as well as keep up his own practice and study. He reminded me yesterday that it is part of the charter of Shantivanam to promote the practice of yoga and meditation. And it is a serious schedule. (I’ll attach a photo of it) starting with asana at 5:30 AM, two teaching sessions a day, and a session each on pranayama and yoga nidra, besides time for discussion and the regular liturgies of the ashram. Again, a very international crowd.

A friend of mine has a distinction that I had never heard of before (he thinks it comes from Czesław Miłosz), between the desert religions and the delta religions––not enough water and too much water, the former being what we would normally think of as the Judeo-Christian-Muslim monotheists as compared to the Asian traditions (or the prophetic traditions versus the mystical ones). He thinks that the religion itself is shaped by the landscape in which it was birthed. I was reflecting on that yesterday when again the day was swelteringly hot and the air was dusty. I wrote to him and said that in the same way I don’t think you can really understand Hinduism and the traditions that come out of India until you have experienced a day like that, or a lot of days like that. Somehow in the midst of that, not in spite of that, this great revelation occurs to the human psyche that there is a silent power within all that that is also the foundation of real human life, “the bliss of the consciousness of being.” And we are set free not because of comfortable conditions conducive to such enlightenment but by enduring the vicissitudes of a harsh landscape and seeing behind and before them.


Yesterday I got a tour of a beautiful little campus just down the road from us. It’s called the Swami Bede Dayanand Trust, and it contains an elder day care center, a kindergarten, a typing school and a tailoring school. It is all run efficiently by a little firecracker of a religious sister named Rosa. She came from another congregation but is now officially Camaldolese as well. I had remembered visiting an old folks’ home and tailoring center before. The former is still going, but these facilities have replaced the others. I was taken right away by how clean and organized everything is. (Gotta leave it to the women. It can be done, guys! Not that I am any shining example…) Sr. Rosa has been doing this since 1998 and has managed to get lots of foreign sponsorship. The buildings themselves are very sturdy and freshly painted, with the normal beautiful plat life all around. All that in the midst of real squalor in the village nearby. I went there with our Bro. Martin, and two other Camaldolese sisters from Andhra Pradesh, Rose and Lucy, who are down here visiting. I had half an idea to go and see their place too, somewhat near Indore about halfway between here and Delhi, but I decided not to complicate my trip anymore. Our Indian friends love to do that kind of thing, put us in chairs in front of a group of people and say something or do something–– or example they had me pass out cake to the old folks. Another one of those roles I feel uncomfortable in. I wouldn’t mind helping with the dishes, but being a visiting dignitary of some sort feels out of place for a monk in a backpack.

Rosa then had us all over at her house for lunch, and it was quite a feast. She had asked me the say before what I wanted for lunch, and I simply agreed to certain things without suggesting anything. So she made pasta (in addition to rice) and made me plain fish cooked with banana and curry leaves (besides making fish curry), plus three side dishes of vegetables, a sweet and sour soup, fruit salad custard and payasam, a tasty sweet made with jaggery (unrefined sugar) and some kind of cooling tisane plus buttermilk. She had worked very hard to prepare all that and we were all very appreciative. I for my part felt terribly overfed, though I kept my intake as low as I could without being offensive. Bro. Martin and I walked back home to burn off some calories and I slept the sleep of the overfed. That was when I was thinking about my friend’s idea of how landscapes effect our spiritualities. He’s convinced that we who have lived in the Santa Lucia Mountains on the central coast of California have a certain gift we bring. I was noticing of the other hand how I sleep so deeply after lunch here and wake up so groggy just as the real heat of the day is coming on. It takes even more discipline to get off my bed, face the sweltering heat and at least pretend to be reading, praying, or meditating.

This is actually my last day here in the Forest of Peace. I had my last English class with Arvind this morning and spent the rest of the day cleaning my room and re-packing my things. Tonight I have an overnight train to Bangalore, which could be an adventure, and then an elaborate plan of meeting someone who will give me breakfast (and maybe let me take a shower) and me wait until Jyoti Sahi comes to fetch me, the real goal of my side trip there. More on that and him later...

I’ve been working on two songs since I got to India. The first one is still kind of unformed, but this lyric has turned out nice and I keep strolling back over to my guitar to play it again, which is always a good sign. It’s a combination of the famous Navajo prayer, “Walk in beauty” that I have been carrying around for months wanting to set to music for John Pennington and my new collection that we hope to do in the spring, and a poem that I ran into recently by the English poet Charles Causley (husband of Sylvia Plath), and the two just seemed to go together. Here's a taste of it. I feel like I am so far on this sabbatical doing just that––“walking in beauty.” And ready for the next step.


today I will walk and

darkness will leave me

I will be as before

over my body 

cool breeze is blowing

nothing can hinder me 


I walk in beauty

I walk in beauty

I walk in beauty


I am the song that 

sings the bird the

leaf that grows the land

I am the tide that 

moves the moon the

stream that halts the sand.


I walk in beauty…


beauty before me

beauty behind me

beauty beauty below

beauty above me

and all around, my 

words will be beautiful


I walk in beauty…


I am the cloud that

dries the storm the

earth that lights the sun

I am the clay that

shapes the hand the

fire that strikes the stone


I walk in beauty…


wandering on a 

trail of beauty

lively lively I walk, in 

old age on a 

trail of beauty

living living again


I walk in beauty…

Thursday, February 22, 2024

holy language

 21 February, 2024


The feast of Saint Peter Damian, I believe Fr. Thomas Matus’ 83rd birthday and the third anniversary of my dear father’s death. 

I had some hesitation about my original plan and thought about maybe simply extending my time here at Shantivanam until I need to fly up to Delhi and catch my flight back to Singapore, but in the end it felt right to stick to the original plan. So next week I will take an overnight train to Bengaluru, where I will get to meet the artist and old friend of Bede Jyothi Sahi for the first time. (More on that to come.) From there I will fly to Delhi, meet up with my intrepid right hand mad Devin, who is here with the Mount Madonna students and will be staying on to prepare for the Indian version of his upcoming wedding. We will travel together to Haridwar and then he will put me in a taxi to take me to my yoga retreat at an ashram outside of Rishikesh. Where I will hopefully meet up with Br. Axel who is doing an extended time at another branch of the same ashram, and has been several times, being trained in their school of yoga.


I mentioned the other day how I finally understood why I had appreciated the Upanishads so much, because they invite you into the experience more than explain it to you beforehand. And the same holds true for the yoga tradition in general. I’ve got my copy of How to Know God with me, Swami Prabhavananda’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras with Christopher Isherwood (how many times have I recommended or given away a copy of that?!). It’s such great practical advice, not only on asana and meditation, but on living an ethical life in general. 


I preached this morning. In the gospel today (I’ve got our antiphon in mind: ‘… this evil generation is asking for a sign, none will be given but the sign of Jonah.’) tells his hearers that the Queen of the South will rise up and judge this generation. It gave me a chance to use this bit I got from Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Holy Pagans of the Old Testament:


Both Matthew and Luke record Jesus saying something rather remarkable concerning the Queen a Sheba (or the “queen of the South” as she is called in the gospels), who sought out Solomon because she recognized Solomon’s wisdom.* The Qur’an mentions this story as well, though there she is referred to as Bilqis, and Cardinal Danielou, in his famous book Holy Pagans of the Old Testament, says that the fact that she belongs both to the gospel and the Qur’an “may be a hidden link that gives reason to hope.” The Qur’an portrays her as an idolater, a sun worshipper,** though there is nothing in the Hebrew scriptures to tell us that. Danielou instead says that she was actually “already worshipping the true God through the medium of [God’s] revelation in the world and in her conscience.” In other words, she was already worshipping the true God through the Second Person of the Trinity, Wisdom. Even though she pays tribute to a more perfect revelation in Solomon, she stays “at the level of revelation which was hers.” Not only is she a “mystical anticipation of the entry of the Gentiles into the Church,” Jesus goes on to say that she will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it. In other words, she is shown in the future, on the day of Resurrection, sharing the glory of the saints! And Cardinal Danielou concludes that through this Jesus himself “testifies to the fact that the pagans who have sought God in sincerity of heart belong to his Church, by what theology calls the baptism of desire, and form part of the elect,”*** through the Wisdom of the Second Person of the Trinity. One can only imagine what a stir those words might have caused in the Catholic Church in 1956, in the decades before Vatican II, Nostra Aetate and the Declaration on Religious Liberty.


I concluded by saying I’d rather be a holy pagan than an unregenerate believer.


23 February 2024


Who knew?

It’s hard to believe I am already preparing for my departure from here. Suddenly a bunch of little community requests have come up, everyone else also feeling the imminence of it––this one wants a guitar lesson, another Mass and/or breakfast with the sisters, a walk and talk with that one. I’ve been jealously guarding my time since I’ve been on a real nice roll with everything, yoga, writing, practicing the guitar. In addition, as I have done in the past, I’ve been teaching young Arvind English lessons each day. Of all the guys I’ve tutored in English he has been the most challenging because he knows so little. Very eager to learn, but looks at me confused and often mumbles almost inaudibly, “I don’ know…” I am realizing again what a weird language English is to pronounce. What’s the difference between “heart” and “hear”? And he can’t hear the difference between “air” “hair” and “here.” He cannot say “f” or “v” or “sh” or “r”––and I wish I had a film of me trying to show him every day how to use his teeth and/or tongue to form certain sounds. We’ve both gotten past the shyness of looking silly, at least, and both of us wind up laughing. 


The thing that keeps coming back to me from my time in 2002 teaching for a month at the old Formation House, was what a holy exercise teaching English feels like to me since the common language here is English (between them they come from five different language groups now), and of course all the prayers and the Bible readings are in English (except on Sunday). It’s kind of like me doing my lectio in Italian. It’s not just a foreign language to me––it’s a sacred language because it carries our history and tradition. Tamil is given some pride of place since that is where the ashram is located––the third psalm is always sung in Tamil and the gorgeous poems of the Tamil saints are read each evening for the Universal Wisdom. Just like I used to end each class with the guys by reading the psalms, so Arvind and I spend the end of class reading the first reading for Mass of the next day.

Today's English lesson...

I have thought often that a monastery, especially a hermitage (or ashram, for that matter) is not a good place to learn a new language. There’s simply not enough talking. So the other day we took a walk around the garden and I was surprised how many common words he did not know yet so we named everything we could see. We had a little argument about whether one plant was a bush or a tree, but I let him win. Then we did body parts yesterday, which was again hysterical. I again remember the guys back in 2002 were so appreciative for that. Today we are going to do adjectives.


It is good to see that Shantivanam still has so many visitors coming from the States and, especially, from Europe. It was slow for a few days but then a small group came from Italy, another from France, a group from Germany, and then the other day a large group from Poland arrived. You can see that that is the main purpose of this place––aside from allowing a place for monks themselves to cultivate the inner life, which I must admit, as is the danger in a lot of places, can sometimes get short shrift: welcoming guests. And right now it is all-hands-on-deck. Everyone seems to know his part and Dorathick glides among the guests easily, making himself available and accessible. That would be hard on me, and I absent myself from breakfast and/or dinner most days and avoid the tea circle, with impunity, I think. Old Cristudas says that Dorathick is a cross between Fr. Bede and the late Amaldas, the great yogi who died very young. Fr Paul and I have had several very nice conversations and he says they suffer here from the same thing that we suffer from in Big Sur, though he didn’t have the word for it and appreciated hearing it: frequent visitors start to get a sense of entitlement. Not realizing that the place goes on without them, expecting that they can have everything the way they want it, ordering the staff around, even sometimes ordering the monks around. The guys are very gracious about it, but I have come to recognize that certain polite smile they offer in moments like that. Anyway, I’ve lost uninterrupted exclusive use of the meditation hall next door now so have had to adjust and/or keep to my cell for guitar time and asana.


I posted photos on Facebook of the new chapel across the street at Ananda. As I explained in that post, Sr. Mary Louise, before she died, left instructions of where she wanted it built and that it ought to be an octagon. The rest she left up to Sr. Neethi, who she passed on the mantle of leadership to pretty much as soon as Neethi got here. She did a marvelous job with the help of Fr Pinto from the ashram here. The money came from a bequest of Sr. Maria Luisa, the Spanish Camaldolese nun who died suddenly at Sant’Antonio in Rome at the Easter Vigil back in 2017, three months after Mary Louise. Ignatius told me the story and Dorathick said he was standing right next to her when it happened. A beautiful poetry to the fact that she had the same name as Mary Louise. Both of their photos are enshrined in the entryway. It is more in the “western” style, as one monk told me, but very specifically in the Indian style of the Western style as far as I can see: a little hard, lots of stone and metal and sharp edges. It was fun to be with them again, and great fun getting to know Neethi, who is a fountain of anecdotes and advice. And of course way too much food, including, they were proud to tell me, real french fries, an omelette, and vegetables cooked plain, no curry. I promised to come one more time, this time for breakfast.

*1 Kgs 10; Mt 12:42, Lk 11:31.

** Qur’an Sura An-Nami, 27:22-44.

*** Jean Danielou, “Holy Pagans of the Old Testament” (Baltimore: Helion Press, 1957), 122-125.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Śiva: form, formless form and formless

I’ve been reflecting on Dorathick’s simple explanation that Śiva can be experienced in form, in a formless form, or formless. I did a bit of research on it both from some books in the library here and also referring back to a chapter I wrote on Tantra for Spirit Soul Body (one of the chapters that wound up on the cutting room floor, as it turns out).


As for in form, at the level of poplar devotion Śiva is worshipped as one of the trimurti, the trinity of Hindu gods, along with Brahma and Vishnu. The typical iconography of Śiva has a good deal of primitivism about it, which scholars say gives evidence of its pre-Aryan origin among the tribes of southern (Dravidian) India. (The Aryans migrated to the subcontinent of India around 2000 BCE, perhaps by way of the Khyber Pass. They fused with the indigenous peoples of that region who already had a thousand-year-old civilization that was thriving in technology and trade.) In this version Śiva is often shown wearing or sitting on a tiger skin holding a trident with snakes coiled around his neck and arms. So many of these elements, including his matted hair, his ornaments of skulls and snakes, and the wild dance that will be associated with him, recall the costume and practice of tribal shamans. He is often also represented as a yogi. There is some conjecture that the Yogic tradition in general probably derived from the pre-Aryan culture as well. Many sources, for instance, point to a pre-Aryan “proto-Shiva” statue of a man in lotus position.


It’s the image of the “Dancing Śiva” that is the form that’s best known in the West and the modern world, though it did not become known there until the beginning of the 20th century. I found this paragraph in the book The dance (sic) of Śiva*:


How and when Śiva, the pre-Aryan deity who is associated with such savage rites and sacrifices among the primitive tribes and devil-fearing castes of South India, became the mystic dancer, the ultimate embodiment of rhythm in the visible universe of created things and in the invisible universe of the human soul, we have no means of knowing.


The image dates back to at least the 5th century CE. First evidence of the version specifically called “King Dancer”–Natarāja comes from the 10th century. The dance itself is called ānandatāndava–“the dance of bliss.” It is danced in an arch of flames, with the right foot supported by a crouching figure and the left foot raised elegantly. Like the typical image, this Śiva too has four arms: one swings downward pointing to the raised foot, one with the palm up, signaling “Do not fear,” and the other hands hold a drum and a flame, with a cobra around the left forearm. The river Gangā is flowing from his hair.


Natarāja is meant to be the Lord of the universe, and the dance represents the state of bliss he enjoys and embodies. Here is the Ananda Coomaraswamy’s famous description:


Nature is inert and cannot dance until Śiva wills it. He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! Matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fullness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest.**


Fritjof Capra shows how modern physics has caught up with this, writing that “The dance of Śiva is the dancing universe, the cease flow of energy going through an infinite variety of patterns that melt into one another.”


Note from the quote above that the Dancing Śiva is not only “the ultimate embodiment of rhythm in the visible universe of created things”; he is also in “the invisible universe of the human soul.” To some extent this plays out in all Hindu symbolism, more explicitly in some than others: Natarāja is not only at the heart of the universe; he is to be found in every human heart, as the consciousness found in every human being. That will tie in with the third meaning, the formless, below.


The temple that Dorathick and Jeremias visited last week, Cidambaram, is about 244 km south of Chennai, and is legendarily the place where the dance was first performed. (Now after all this research, I wish I had gone with them, discomfort aside.) It has been the center of worship of Dancing Śiva since the 7th century and is considered to be the most important of all Śiva temples, some will even say that it is “the heart of the world.” The shrine in which Natarāja is housed there is within a hall known as Cit Sabhā–the “Hall of Consciousness”–in Tamil tirucirrambalam, the “holy little hall.” (The second half of that Tamil term––cirrambalam––gets Sanskritized and shortened into the “modern” name Cidambaram.)


The formless form on the other hand is the lingam. It is typically just a kind of upright cylindrical object, phallic in nature. Originally the Sanskrit word lingam meant simply “sign.” In the Śvetaśvatara Upanishad, for instance, it says that “Śiva, the Supreme Lord, has no liūga,” meaning the Divine is beyond all name and form. The lingam is considered to be an outward symbol of the formless reality that Śiva is in essence, “the form of the formless,” as Dorathick would say. The lingam is a non-iconic representation of Śiva. Typically, it is the primary murti–image in temples devoted to Śiva, and it is recognized in natural objects such as Mount Arunachala in Tiruvanamalai. In Tantra and Shaivism it represents both generative and destructive power.


There are some anatomically realistic versions of the lingam as a phallus, such as the Gudimallam Lingam. But the masculine aspect of it is only one side of the story. It is usually inside of a yoni, a horizontal disc-shaped platform designed to allow liquid offerings to drain away. And yoni literally means “womb/vagina” or “abode/source,” either way definitely a feminine image. The lingam and the yoni together represent, obviously, the union of masculine and feminine, as well as the merging of the microcosm and the macrocosm. In Samkhya and yoga terms, this is the symbolization of prakrti–primordial matter with puruśa–pure consciousness. Of course, this is all related to the yin-yang of Taoism, though in that case they both represent half of consciousness; and the Tibetan pestle and bell, the dorge and dril-bu. An additional feminine note is that the shrine room in which the lingam is housed in a temple is called a garbhagriha a term made up of the Sanskrit roots garbha–womb and griha–house, the “womb house.” (Other deities might also be enshrined instead in a temple’s garbhgriha. At one temple in Bhuvaneshvara the garbhagriha is empty, which leads to...)


And finally, the formless. The deeper understanding is that Śiva is simply a name for the all-pervasive supreme reality who manifests in functions, qualities and principles but that/who is actually beyond all name and form or “in the form of bliss consciousness.” Here, for example, are the first and last verses of the famous hymn of Shiva attributed to Shankara, the great 8th century sage of advaita-Vedanta:


I am not mind, intellect, ego and the memory.
I am not the sense organs.
I am not the five elements. 
Chidhaanandha roopah shivoham shivoham

I am Shiva in the form of bliss consciousness.


I am formless and devoid of all dualities.
I exist everywhere and pervade all senses.
Always I am the same,
I am neither free nor bonded.
I am Shiva in the form of bliss consciousness.


One might be tempted to think that the experience of the Divine beyond name and form is so iconoclastic as to be impersonal, as if God were just a nameless force of some sort, or solely the Ground of Being (brahman) and/or the Ground of Consciousness (atman). (I worry about this for myself at times.) The opposite is true for some Hindus, as it was for our Abhishiktananda: the encounter with this Ground anamarupa–beyond all name and form, can spark a whole new strain of devotion, of bhakti––devotion to this Ground of Being who is formless and devoid of all dualities. One can become a lover of this fathomless abyss of the godhead. There is a beautiful compound word in Sanskrit that describes this well––bhakti-rūpāpanna-jñāna: not just love of God, but knowledge that has become a form of devotion. Abhishiktananda himself entered into this apophatic experience––the God beyond all name and form––and came out of it a lover of God in a whole new way, writing poems and prayers to this formless Śiva, who is here no longer one of the trimurti of Hindu gods, but another name for the 1st Person of the Trinity, the “Silence of the Father,” perhaps.


That’s where I go with that… I see Śiva as one way of understanding the 1st Person of the Trinity, particularly in that formless understanding. I also am very attracted to the lingam with the yoni, as a first elaboration of the 1st Person manifesting, the first aspects that can be discerned, the female and male, "our Father in heaven" and "the Great Mother." 


I also like the image of Natarāja a lot and I keep singing “The Lord of the Dance” in my head. And of course, the English songwriter Sydney Carter was writing about Jesus when he wrote that text, but he was also inspired by the Natarāja statue on his desk. He wrote about it:


I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.


Again, at the risk of being argumentative and contrarian­­––and knowing that we cannot separate the Persons of the Trinity, especially by their function––while I can see Dancing Śiva as a Christ figure, a personification of the 2nd Person of the Trinity, Word-Tao-Consciousness I see the Dancing Śiva as an image of the 1st Person of the Trinity more, the Creator and Destroyer. I keep thinking too of the line we sing from the Canticle in 1 Samuel (2:6): The Lord puts to death and gives life; casts to the nether world and raises back up. We don’t like facing this fierce aspect of Absolute Reality, but death is what brings new life. Even what looks like decay, like a fallen tree, can from another angle be seen as new life, a thriving ecosystem for insects and moss.


I hope I haven't offended or shocked anyone with this. Remember: this is speculative theology.

In my original blog about this a few days ago, I was putting this in the context of the evolution of consciousness. (This is basically the argument I was making in Rediscovering the Divine.) I’ve realized that one of the things that originally enticed me about the Upanishads was that they did not talk for the most part in archaic-magical-mythical language, but in the language of phenomenon and direct experience. I believe Wilber would call that injunctive language, language that says, “This is how you experience That.” It’s very hard to extricate the archaic-magical-mythical language in Christianity from the phenomenological without being accused of heresy of some sort, especially the deeper you get into Christians taking every word of the Bible––Old and New Testaments––to be literally, historically, scientifically true. (Are there really “gates of heaven”? Does God have a “mighty arm”?) Hence, though it is fascinating from an anthropological even psychological point of view, my hesitation to dive too deeply into Hindu archaic-magical-mythical iconography. I would rather stay as close as possible to the formless. And maybe start all over again from there, “from the ground up” (the original title of Rediscovering the Divine), the ground of Being and Consciousness who is God.

*The dance of Śiva: Religion, are and poetry in South India, David Smith,1998, 3.

* Ibid., 2.