Tuesday, February 24, 2009

space for monks

None of the means employed to acquire religious merit, O monks,
has a sixteenth part of the value of loving-kindness.
Loving-kindness, which is freedom of heart, absorbs them all.
It glows, it shines, it blazes forth.

24 feb 09, fat tuesday

I’m sitting downstairs in the vegetarian restaurant part of Shanti Vegetarian Guest House, waiting for my taxi to the airport which will come in a hour. These last two days in Bangkok have gone by in a blur. Sunday was the day for Willie to take me on his grand tour of Bangkok, one that he has given with some variations to a number of folks. We started out early, 6:30 AM, when he met me and we headed for 7 AM Mass at Xavier Hall, a Jesuit residence and parish. And then spent the next six hours traveling from wat to wat, temple to temple. We visited three in all: Wat Pho, Wat Suphat with its famous reclining Buddha, and Wat Saket on the Golden Mount, an artificial mountain in the middle of the city, which we climbed at the end of our tour both a little sunburned and sore-footed. Willie was an excellent tour guide and is pretty knowledgeable about the Thai Buddhist tradition by now. There is way too much to tell of them all, but I will post some pix.

Monday was wan phra or “Monk’s Day,” a day when it is particularly auspicious to visit and give gifts to monks. When Willie first told me about it, I thought that it was a yearly thing, or a four-time-a-year thing, but it is actually a four-time-a-lunar-month thing, at every new phase of the moon. As Willie had been trying very hard to arrange, we spent the day with his friend Pandit Bhikku at Wat Pak Nam. Pandit is British, in his late 30s. After studying Thai Buddhism for a while in England, he headed to Thailand to ordain 12 years ago. (Interesting side note, he too stopped over at Shantivanam for a good long stay on his way to join the wat, and had a very good experience there.) We arrived at around 10 AM, met up with Pandit, and then wandered around the surrounding neighborhood a little before stopping for a cup of tea. Wat Pak Nam is a huge temple complex and a little difficult to reach, crowded on all sides by low-slung houses and shops and back alleys. We had taken two buses to get near, and then gotten a ride down a long side street by two motorcycle taxis.

The conversation kicked in pretty easily right away between the three of us, though as the hours ticked away it did mainly become a dialogue between Pandit and I. Willie was very patient, but that was also what he was hoping for, that Pandit and I would get a chance to meet and talk. We headed to the monastery for the morning meal, which according to the Thai monastic tradition is also the monks’ only meal of the day and must be taken before noon. There was a large sala or eating hall (I noted that it is the same word in Italian), one half of it set up for monks seated on a raised platform and the other with tables for visitors. On this particular day there were a lot of visitors, 90% of them women. Willie and I sat at the far end with a couple of other Thai men, who all seemed to know what they were doing. Immediately to our right were the youngest monks, novices, etc., in various degrees of being uncomfortable being on display in front of a large group of people.

There was quite a ritual of serving the food. Pandit explained it all to us later. I had asked him if this was something special for Monk’s Day but he said that it was done this way every day, only this day there happened to be a large group visiting, something like the Buddhist form of oblates, I took it. (Pandit, excuse me if I don’t get this right…) According to tradition Thai monks go through the streets begging, with their heads down waiting for people to put things in their bowls. (One of the things on display in the shops we saw on Sunday to buy your favorite monk for wan phra was a new, pounded brass begging bowl.) Apparently they used to gather too much food and much of it was wasted, so the old abbot arranged for people to bring the food to the monastery instead so that it could be distributed more evenly. But monks are supposed to receive food, not take it, so that eventually developed into this ritual of people actually serving the monks, and presenting the dishes to them before they eat them, even though they are already placed on the platform in front of them. Pandit and I both laughed a little at how begging on the street evolved into being served in a dining room, but that is how religion goes, I guess. It’s also a long way from Jesus washing his disciples’ feet to the present form of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in all its Baroque finery.

After lunch Pandit and Willie gave me a full tour of temple compound. Pandit has a wry sense of humor and can laugh at both the incongruities of Thai culture, and the inconsistencies of a monasticism that has grown so large and prosperous. Their life is, as is to be expected, different from Western Christian monasticism in some significant ways. He, after studying for some time, simply came here and “ordained.” The difference in the use of this word “ordained” is to be noted: one is not ordained as in ordained to the priesthood; one ordains as in taking the precepts. We did talk about the difficulty of the words that are used to translate these concepts that are so very different for us. Hence also the confusion with monk and priest since monasticism is the equivalent of our priestly class-caste-culture in a country like Thailand. Everywhere, especially within the temple compound, which is quite large at Wat Pak Nam, monks are shown tremendous deference and respect. People passing them by on the street stop and bow their heads with hands folded in front––the traditional wai gesture. Even folks passing by the novices seated on their platform eating bowed their heads as they scurried by. Christians and Hindus do have the distinction between monk and priest though it is not always understood––the difference between the Brahmin priest and the sannyasi, for instance, hence the difference between the ashram and the temple. The first one that comes to my mind in Christianity is the difference between Antony of the desert and his biographer, the great bishop and theologian Athanasius. It does not seem that Buddha envisioned any kind of priesthood at all, but even in his day it does seem as if the monks were given an elevated status.

I sometimes lament that monasticism isn’t as close to the center of popular religiosity in Western Christianity as it is in Buddhism or even Orthodoxy (where a majority of bishops are taken from the ranks of celibate monks), but I am beginning to doubt my lament. I like the distinction between priest and monk, as did Fr. Bede. In spite of the fact that he, like myself, was also ordained, he liked to point out that the monk has no function but the search for God alone, and hence priesthood is something added on to the monastic vocation. And so the sannyasi cuts off the sacred cord and walks away from his priestly caste and all ritual, renounces all titles and privileges. This seems a lot closer the way of the Desert monks as well, and St. Benedict who wasn’t sure he wanted to let any priests into the monastery at the beginning.

That being said, in many Asian cultures, as in the West, the monks wind up performing what seem like priestly functions, reading fortunes, presenting offerings, bestowing blessings, and of course teaching. I think it always surprises us Westerners to know how little meditation is stressed among some Buddhist monks, even in their teaching. There are those who meditate, but it is not the norm of the practice even for monks. (Actually, if I recall correctly, that is one of the reasons Shunryu Suzuki came to America, and left Japan, because he wanted to be more of a meditating monk than a priest and was thrilled with Americans’ interest in za-zen.) Pandit is a meditator and a student of someone who was a master in a tradition known as dhammagaya, which includes a lot of visualization and accessing the psychic realm.

To continue his story, he ordained, as most do, without a lot of formal training, but he after ordaining he studied with this above-mentioned master for five years, as is the norm. After those five years, he has been pretty much on his own. There is not a heavy obligation to take part in the daily rituals, chanting etc. in the wat, he can come and go as he pleases, even to moving away to another wat or another country (though skipping from wat to wat is frowned upon), and he is free to have his own income. As a matter of fact monks are encouraged to have a private source of income from family or friends or students. Pandit does have a quite a covey of students. He has started something called “the Little Bang Sangha” for English speakers in Bangkok that draws up to 300 people for some of its events, which is how Willie knows him. He also teaches regularly in the Buddhist University where Willie also teaches. And he has lots of creative ideas for spreading the dharma among lay people.

After our tour, Pandit took us up to his room in the large housing complex. It’s small really, one half crowded with books and computers and the other half sparse, with enough room for the three of us to sit on the floor comfortably, and an attached private bathroom. We discovered a common fondness for PG Tips (he gets them delivered regularly from a friend), and so we shared a cuppa and launched seriously into two and a half hours or so of conversation. We talked about everything and the answers to most questions we addressed to each other had a long back stories that we unhurriedly filled in. My favorite question that he asked me was, “Is the place for God in Buddhism?” I laughed and said that I thought that that was a question that I should ask him. I gave him my understanding first and then got his. It was the clearest conversation that I have had about the concept of anatta–“not self,” and I was able to pick his brain about my most recent understanding about that in relation to the Hindu and Christian understanding of the self. And we talked about my idea of the difference between the scopos–the goal which we articulate often in the same way––“to learn the self is to forget the self”––and the telos–end, which we describe very differently––ayam atma brahma, anatta, union with God. To that we added something even prior about which we also agree often between traditions, the Buddhist term for it is upaya “means,” the various praxises.

Around 3 PM we all three headed out again across town first by taxi, then by water taxi down the river, and then by foot to an air-conditioned coffee shop. It was here that we started talking among other things more about meditation, and then about monasticism itself and that question that I love to ask: where is the world going, and what is the world going to be asking of monks in the future? We went another full hour at that when I started to notice poor Willie glazing over with fatigue, either from having missed his afternoon nap for a third day in a row or from incessant drone of Pandit and I. The three of us made one more stop together at another wat––this one containing a whole hall full of relics of the Buddha––before parting ways at the river ferry again. Thanks to Willie, and with all due affection to my other Buddhist monk friends, I think that this was the best and deepest encounter I have had to date with a Buddhist monk. Pandit was refreshingly unpretentious and made no claims to having attained any great enlightenment himself. He kept referring to monks as the foot soldiers, doing something that everyone will have to do eventually, that is, renounce. I found that there was nothing to disagree about, even if there were at times differing views of a similar experience and reality––for instance, our discussion of re-incarnation––questioning each other how we came to believe in what we believed in rather than challenging. I am even more convinced there is such a large common core that we share, particularly in regards the means–upaya, and the immediate goal––scopos, even if we do not have the same way of describing the ultimate end.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

spurious self-isolation

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race,
though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities
and one which makes many terrible mistakes…

And if only everybody could realize this!
But it cannot be explained.
There is no way of telling people
that they are all walking around shining like the sun…

It is because I am one with them
that I owe it to them to be alone,
and when I am alone,
they are not “they” but my own self.
There are no strangers!
(Thomas Merton, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander)

22 feb 2009

I’m staying at the Shanti Guest House in Bangkok, Thailand. It’s a great place; as I wrote to some friends the other day, it redefines the word “funky,” kind of a cross between Santa Cruz and M*A*S*H. Willie Yaryan, our Sangha friend who lives here now, calls it a typical “backpackers ghetto,” which is probably a good place for a wandering monk. My room is just big enough for the low double bed with about 2 feet of space around it. There’s a warning about standing on the bed because “the fan hurts. And we mean it!”

We had an incredible day yesterday. Willie and I spent the day with a small group of ex-pats visiting the place where Thomas Merton was killed in 1968. We first all met at an old Vietnam era hotel called the Atlantic. There is even a plaque on the wall boasting that “officers planned much of the Vietnam war here.” We sat in the coffee shop, which is very European in style, red leather and dark wood. You could almost imagine a cloud of cigarette smoke in the air, and CIA operatives sipping tea and glancing around furtively with maps of Laos and Cambodia spread out in front of them on the table. Thailand was conveniently located for bomber missions and one of the places that US soldiers also came for R&R.

Our crowd for the day slowly trickled in: John from Scotland and his beautiful Thai companion Fong; then Marcus, from England, who has taught English in Korea as well as here and writes a daily blog column on the Heart Sutra; Janelle from California who is an expert in international health issues, currently working with autistic children and appearing in the Thailand premiere of “The Vagina Monologues,” about which she spoke to us animatedly; Emily, who has been here since she came with the Peace Corps in 1961, married a Thai man and had three children, speaks fluent Thai and has had considerable contact with the royal family and now heads up the Thai WCCM; and finally Lance arrived, our convener for the day. I am not sure how to describe him: he is a freelance journalist (as a matter of fact he was plugged into his computer and working throughout the day) editing for a several English speaking journals and just the kind of guy who can get things done. He had hired a van and a driver for the day, printed up schedules for each of us, edited and e-mailed versions of my latest article for the Golden String and Cathy Redfern’s article on me from the Observer to introduce folks to me, and brought along a cameraman, Ong, from Burma who was taking photos and films all day long.

We headed out about 9 AM and drove across town to the place, which is part of a larger complex called Suwanganiwas administered by the Red Cross. Merton was here for a big pan-Asian conference when he died. Fr Bede was here for the same conference. As a matter of fact I found in his photo album a photo of Merton delivering the speech he gave just before he died, and also a photo of him laid out and lying in state after death. We pulled up near the hut in which Merton had died, and Lance explained to us that he ahd visited the family that occupies both floors and all four rooms of it now, explaining to them that he was going to be bringing a group of people there. But he had not told them about the death there, not knowing if that would be taken as a very inauspicious piece of knowledge for them. We entered the antechamber of the house, and Lance pointed out to us the room to the left which was where the terrible accident had happened. (Merton was electrocuted by a fan after taking a shower.) He wasn’t sure what to do from there and if there was some kind of ceremonial something we could do, but Emily suggested that it didn’t feel appropriate for us to stay too long with the mainly members looking at us on all sides. I agreed but I had had the idea that I would like to sing something, and so I offered to and did the In Paradisum, just in case his soul was not yet at rest. And then we stood in silence for a moment before leaving. I had chills. It all seemed too ordinary. Then we sat around outside around a little pond and had a kind of impromptu service, I did three songs, including a song called “Prometheus” which was inspired by an essay from Merton’s book “Raids on the Unspeakable” that I had written in the mid-‘80’s for my band LUKE St. There were a few readings including that remarkable selection from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” at 4th and Walnut Street in Louisville, and something from Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. And then we sat in meditation together for a time before looking a little more around the complex, and then going for lunch and lively conversation, to say the least. What an extraordinary group of people. What an unrepeatable unique opportunity.

Willie left me to my own devices for the evening. I wandered over to a Thai Buddhist wat right around the corner from my guesthouse. I actually had to pay 40 baht to get in, not much really but it was a little like being in Florence or Rome and needing to pay to go into a church to pray. There were two meditation halls and the main Buddha hall, bright-orange clad monks all over minding various stations.
I kept looking for a place to sit for a time in one of the meditation halls but every time I settled in someone would come in and start talking, so I finally wound up in the main Buddha hall where there was a golden Buddha around 20 feet tall on a raised platform and jatakas-incredible frescoes all around on pillars depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. I knew they closed at 6 but around 5:30 a monk came in and started closing certain windows and moving things around, and I asked if I had to leave. Well, “ask” is kind of a strong word since there was no English being spoken there. He indicated “no.” Shortly afterward a group of orange clad monks started to slowly file in one at a time, take their places on the raised platform and then began chanting in front of the huge Buddha for about 15 minutes. And then they sat there as silent as stones for another 10 minutes or so. I was the only other person there, in the whole complex I think besides a woman behind me who was chanting along with them. I could barely breathe by the end of it. It didn’t seem as if anyone spoke English but suddenly I didn’t want to be incognito monk anymore. I wanted to run up to one of them and say, “I’m a monk, too!” and have them to invite me into their house and tell me everything. They mostly looked kind of fat and sassy and spoiled, and the whole thing was probably a show for visitors, but still, I wanted to talk to them.

But I slipped away, and walked a long way up to the huge popular hang out area for tourists and locals called Khao-san Road. As I was walking there, a good long jaunt from Shanti Guesthouse, I passed by three young monks wrapped in their bright orange robes, who seemed to be lost and asking some folks for directions somewhere. They looked a little frightened and very out of place. Khao-san is a crazy place mostly catering to both hedonistic Westerners and hedonistic Asians. There were guys carrying signs that read “VERY STRONG DRINKS!” and others stopping me on the street showing small brochures of naked women, advertising some kind of show or prostitutes. Lots of loud funk and rock playing and people getting their hair braided and hennaed, tattoo parlors and who knows what else.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
I ate some pad thai noodles and mango with sticky rice from street vendors, and listened to some street musicians, walked the whole length once and headed home. The contrast between the two––the quiet comfort of the wat and the fleshpots of Bangkok––was pretty stark but beautiful in its own way. I’m told that for the most part Thai Buddhist monasticism is very well-off, the wats have more money than they know what to do with, and the monks are as well cared for as any clerical caste can be, as most religious are in the Christian West. And everybody else is between.
…spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or of my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels...
Later when as I was walking home, I saw a single monk padding silently down the street across from me barefoot, probably heading to that same wat. I might have projected on to him in a flash all that I understand renunciation to be but for a moment I understood why. Sometimes you just gotta say “No,” and you gotta say it really loud or paint it in bright orange to balance the whole world off.
Certainly these traditional values are very real, but their reality is not of an order outside everyday existence in a contingent world, nor does it entitle one to despise the secular: though “out of the world,” we are in the same world as everybody else, the world of the bomb, the world of race hatred, the world of technology, the world of mass media, big business, revolution, and all the rest. We take a different attitude to all these things, for we belong to God. Yet so does everybody else belong to God. We just happen to be conscious of it, and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better, than others? The whole idea is preposterous. This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud...

Thursday, February 19, 2009


For those who have completed the journey,
for those who are sorrowless,
for those who are wholly free from everything,
for those who have destroyed all ties,
the fever of passion exists not.

The mindful exert themselves;
to no abode are they attached;
like swans they quit their pools,
home after home they abandon and go.

They for whom there is no accumulation,
who reflect well over their food,
whose object is the Void, the Signless, Deliverance––
their course cannot be traced, like that of the birds of the air.

(Dhammapada 90-92)

19 feb 09

I have been staying for the last three days as a guest of the Capuchin Franciscans at St. Felix of Cantalice Friary and House of Formation here on Penang Island–Pulau Pinang in northwest Malaysia. The friary is right across the street from a huge retreat house named Stella Maris, which in turn is right on the beach overlooking the Straits of Malacca facing north. It has been typically hot, even with the breeze off the water, but I have enjoyed a morning jog on the beach each day and found one little spot on the terrace around the second floor where a breeze blows cool around the corner. There are only five friars here, one who just entered his postulancy last night as a matter of fact. I have been impressed by the fact that they live a pretty simple life. I have been reminded a number of times of the simplicity as well as the communal atmosphere of Gospel Brothers in Chicago in the ‘70s. The food here is modest, and the double house is sparsely furnished and not air-conditioned, which seems like a big thing for Malaysians who are absolutely hooked, like Singaporeans, on icy cold air-con.

The superior here is Fr. Paul Cheong, himself a simple, under-stated man. He reminds me of my Uncle Bong of happy memory. I had met him already at the WCCM retreat last weekend. He has recently agreed to be the spiritual director for the WCCM Malaysia. They are happy about this because, as one woman told me, “he is a real contemplative.” I was impressed by the fact that he traveled to and from the retreat by bus wearing his light brown Franciscan habit carrying only a knapsack on his back. A real friar of the first hour. I suddenly felt like my backpack and guitar case were like lugging an entire cruise ship around. Paul has an interesting background and a connection to Fr. Bede. (This should no longer come as a surprise to me.) He first joined a diocesan seminary in the early eighties but decided early on that this was not his vocation, and so he left and went west… to India for six months. He stayed first at a Christian ashram run by a Jesuit who Paul says was quite strict with his visitors: if they weren’t serious about their spiritual practice and his schedule they were encouraged not to stay. He then spent three weeks at Shantivanam where he found Fr Bede, by way of contrast, welcoming to everyone, he said laughing, “even hippies and wanderers.” After a time visiting a Buddhist monastery in Colomba, Sri Lanka he came back to Malaysia and joined the Capuchins.

At the retreat this past weekend I was wondering if Fr Paul was buying into what I was teaching about integral spirituality––spirit, soul and body––and drawing from other traditions, but he didn’t say much all weekend until the very end. At breakfast on Sunday morning he suddenly out of nowhere said to me emphatically, “I am so glad that you are talking about the importance of the body!” and then went on at length about it. Then later at the closing Q&A, there was some debate about the connection between the mantra and the breath. I had suggested earlier on the retreat, as I usually do, that you focus on the why first, and then posture and the breath, and then attach the mantra to the breath. One of the long time meditators countered “not to worry about the breath, just say the mantra!” But Fr Paul jumped in in his sober way and said, “I am glad that you brought up the importance of the breath. This is one thing we learn so important from the Buddhists” and went on at length about that. Just this morning when we were talking about my upcoming days in Bangkok, he said again at breakfast that he was fascinated with the Buddhists and had also spent some time meditating with the Theravadan monks there. And a number of times over these days he has brought up again “taking care of the body” and how much he enjoyed the stretching and breathing I did with the retreatants, and how maybe next time I come I could do that with the community here. Though I am convinced of this path of holistic spirituality for myself, sometimes I worry that it is simply too eccentric for most others. And then, every now and then you get a glimmer of recognition and an affirmation, and you think, “There just may be hope. We just may be having some kind of positive effect on the world.”

I have basically had two days off after my concert on Tuesday, but I didn’t take into account Asian hospitality. My immediate marvelous host Serena was quite insistent that she take me touristing a bit on Penang. She even gave me a pile of brochures and maps to bone up on my geography and history as preparation. Wednesday afternoon she took me to an active old Chinese Taoist-Buddhist temple, and a clan house. Other than a quick visit two years ago with Jonathan in Singapore, I have had very little experience of the devotional side of Taoism; I know it mainly by the Tao Te Ching. But Huston Smith’s distinction between the three kinds of Taoism was really helpful: there the is philosophical Taoism of Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and Wen Tzu; then there is scientific Taoism, of Taoist yoga, Chinese medicine, feng shiu etc.; and then there is devotional Taoism, prayers to deities and ancestor worship. This was the latter, and Serena herself was raised as this type of Taoist before she converted to Catholicism. There were may people there offering paper and oil and food to the deities, and a Taoist priest offering prayers for other folks, and shrines and humungous joss sticks burning everywhere, plus murals of Maitreya Buddha and Kwan Yin. (Syncretism is no problem for many Asians.) As a matter of fact the temple was dedicated to Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. This was the first time I had heard it explained to me so clearly that Kwan Yin was actually a man who had so perfected the virtue of compassion that he had achieved a balance of yin and yang and turned into a woman. From what I understand of the Jungian perspective, it makes perfect sense––at the height of the process of self-actualization we can then access the other side, anima for man, animus for man.

Yesterday morning then Serena recruited her friend Won Fong to drive us to the other side of the island to Balik Pulau. From there on a clear day looking west if you squint you might get a glimpse of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. We picked up another friend of theirs who guided us through the forest to a beautiful beach, where they let me take a long walk by myself. The most significant note about this beach is this that was where the full force of the tsunami hit, fishing villages were destroyed, and many people died. I was trying to imagine a 12-foot wave roaring up on shore.

In addition, later that day I visited the local seminary with one of the friars. It was at one time called General College, now called Martyrs Seminary since it was the seminary that launched both the Korean and Vietnamese martyrs. It dates back to the 17th century, although it has relocated several times to various places in South Asia.

I’ve now had my last piece of kaya toast (that marvelous coconut, egg and sugar jam) and am going to go with Vincent, the new postulant, to the market where I will have one more teh tarik–my favorite tea in the whole world bar none, “pulled tea” only made by mameks–Indian Muslims––and trade my remaining Malaysian ringhets for Thai bahts. And this afternoon I fly off for Bangkok to meet our old friend ex-pat extraordinaire, Willie Yaryan. More from there.

the same language, the same words

To learn the Buddha Way is to learn one’s self.
To learn one’s self is to forget one’s self.

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. One is that the infraction of the migrating people was that they built this tower trying to reach heaven. In a way it is the same “sin” as Eve and Adam––they were trying to take heaven by storm, trying to reach heaven by their own power. And the Lord punishes them for that by confusing their language so that they can no longer understand each other. Another way is to think of it in terms of the Hebrews’ ongoing evolution of understanding who God is––maybe they weren’t doing anything so bad, but this God, understood more in the image of a human being, was jealous of their progress and tried to stop them because he was afraid of them being too powerful, a god more akin to the Greek or Roman gods than to the God of love.

Either way, I love the fact that it is said that before this time, “the whole world spoke the same language, using the same words.” There is a primordial unity. It’s an intuition I stumbled upon years ago first in music. At some point I got the suspicion that it was “all the same music, that it all came from the same place.” This is when I started getting fascinated with essentially vocal music, realizing how many cultures had a chant form as the basis of their sacred music––and later added to that the other basic element, rhythm––and decided that if we would discover that root we could find a universal music. That in some way paved the way for an easy acceptance of the perennial philosophy, the sanatana dharma, the universal wisdom, a belief that there was a common core to the world’s spiritual traditions, a common root to the spiritual experience, and if we were to discover that common core, that one language, those same words, we could find each other, learn from each other and help each other along the way too.

With either interpretation of the story, we need to fast forward and find how this division is healed by the Gospel, in the Acts of the Apostles: when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, and the apostles begin to preach, the whole crowd understands, each in his own language, each in her own tongue. Now maybe we are being taught that the diversity was not such a bad thing after all––just another necessary step in the evolution of consciousness; or we are being taught the Gospel is its own version of the perennial philosophy and cuts right through the language and cultural differences and can speak all those different languages. Either way, the diversity is being reverenced. The Spirit speaks all these languages and recognizes in them her own voice, the primordial unity. And the Spirit calls us to the new unity beyond all the words. And above and below those words, of course, is the silence, the apophatic depth of the divine, the silent bija mantra of the sahasraha chakra at the crown of the head where the Spirit's flame appeared.

And so the ministers of the Gospel should be able to speak those different languages, an language of inculturation outside of Western European cultural expression, Roman law, Greek philosophy and Gregorian chant––each in her own language, each in his own tongue. As the documents of Vatican II say about music––in mission lands “their music should be held in proper esteem… in adapting worship to their native genius”––so for all things: their painting, their language, their rituals, their philosophy, each in his own language, each in her own tongue. Not to re-discover the original primordial unity, but to work toward that new unity, the new earth, the mystical unity that lies ahead, that respects the differences and allows others to reach the divine by means of that language.

That’s the good news. The bad news, or at least the difficult part of the good news, is contained in Jesus’ own version of the perennial philosophy in the Gospel. Exactly what Adam and Eve and the people of Babel get accused of––trying to grasp after heaven on their own power––is what St. Paul, in the most lucid description of Jesus’ way, tells us Jesus did not do, and that this is the mind we should have: Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself, took the form of a slave… And it was therefore that he was raised on high and given the name above every other name.” And so Jesus himself says (Mk 8:34) that if we want to save our lives we will lose them, and if we lose our lives we will save them. Or, as Dogen-zenji expressed it, “To learn oneself is to forget oneself.” No matter what spiritual path one takes, it is only through this death, emptying ourselves, the journey beyond the small self, the false self, beyond the ego, that we once again find the new unity, the unitive way of the mystics.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

penang, malaysia

Hardly one among thousands strives to realize Me; of those striving Yogis, some rare ones, devoting themselves exclusively to Me, know me in reality. (Bhagavad Gita 7:3)

17 feb, 2009

Catching up…

I led a meditation retreat for the WCCM Malaysia up at Genting Highlands over the weekend. It was held at probably the most beautiful retreat house I have ever seen (outside of Mission San Antonio, of course). It is Jesuit owned Maranatha House, situated in at gate community in the middle of a forest preserve. Apparently there was some issue about getting permits to build a retreat house there, since it is mainly a residential area, so the Jebbies told the local commissioners that it was a residence for the bishop. When they inspected it the commissioners remarked, “Well, the bishop sure needs a lot of bathrooms!” It does only hold 30 in double occupancy rooms with shared baths so we were small in number. They have designed the place very eco-friendly, and all the beautiful hardwood floors are made from trees that were felled clearing land for the construction of the place. It is hemmed on every side by old growth rain forest, and there is a waterfall and a pond and all kinds of wildlife, including iguanas, macacas (sp?) and wild singing birds of all stripes. It all went quite well.

Then since we had come hours to kill, Pat and Joe, my same hosts from last year, took me to see a Sri Subramaniaswamy Temple, a cave temple near Kuala Lampur. You climb 250 stairs to get up to it, and at the foot of the staircase there is a large golden Shiva as tall as the staircase. Malaysia is still in the aftermath of a huge Hindu festival called Thaipusan, so the place was mobbed with people, incredibly loud music playing and the air was redolent with smoke of incense and offerings, hawkers selling chotkies and south Indian sweets, all the world like being in Trichy. We whiled away another hour or so in a tea stall, Joe wanting me to sample as many typical Malaysia treats as possible. They sure feed me well here.

Then a long bus ride up to Ipoh where I was met at the bus stand by a group of folks that I had met last year who whisked me right away off to dinner and then settled me in again with the Redemptorist community, where I had stayed last year. I had no work there, I merely wanted to stop by and see all the folks again since it was on my way to the next stop. I was somewhat afraid that I might be an imposition to them, and would have been just as happy to sit at the house and do my laundry and catch up with some reading, but they all seemed all too eager to hang out with me too.

The next morning a group of kids, all but one of whom I had met last year, most of them musicians, came and fetched me just after nine We, in various configurations, spent the next 10 hours together. They were all 17 and 18, and had just finished secondary school, and are all waiting for the finals marks from exams to determine what their future will be. They remembered my favorite kopitiam-coffeehouse and even what kind of tea I liked, so we went there first. Then shopping for a few things I needed, then off across town to visit another cave temple, this time a Buddhist shrine that also included a statuary garden and a pond of tortoises, some of them pretty big. The kids told me that they also don’t get much chance to hang out together so they were all enjoying each others’ company as well, with lots of little stops at tea stands and juice stalls along the way. They were also very funny. (Notice the small statues above their heads in this picture below.)

Then after lunch we went to an old tin mine that had been flooded and turned into a nature preserve with a lagoon around which we got a boat ride. I was pretty impressed by how much the kids were enjoying all this and hanging around all day with a rather low-key monk instead of a shopping mall or the cinema. After a brief stop to let me do internet at another kopitiam, and 5:30 Mass, we finally sat down to play some music. They are fascinated mostly with American oldies, and I was like a human jukebox. They didn’t want hear much of “Compassionate and Wise” or anything else original. They wanted Beatles ("Yesterday"), Glen Campbell ("Rhinestone Cowboy," I kid you not...) and, especially, the Eagles. They love the Eagles. And their all-time favorite song is “Hotel California,” even though they were struggling with the words. But I won the day with my rendition of “Desperado,” which they made me do twice.

Anyway, we had so much fun. Then the grown ups came and picked me up for dinner again. I am quite touched by the fact that I had not overestimated the bond that we had pretty formed last year, and they want me to come and stay longer next year. I kept protesting that I hadn't even done anything for them this year, but they didn't mind.

Two of the Redemptorists had to come here to Penang yesterday for a meeting right across the street from where I am staying, I they gave me a lift. As always, it is the conversations along the way that really make up the bulk of my memories of these trips, and I had a good visit with Fr. Eugene about Bede and Eckhart Tolle, and the future of religious life. Last night what I thought was a pretty well attended concert in town (around 300 people). There was some commotion before hand between the woman in charge of the facility and Serena who organized the event, and we were still setting up at 8:05 for the 8:00 concert, but all went well. I had asked (demanded?) that only the smaller fans be used and that the large fans be turned off because they were so loud. Some of the folks were a little annoyed at me for this, but we made it.

There was one funny incident. The retired Roman Catholic bishop was there, and it happened to be his 31st anniversary of ordination, which Serena told me about, asking me to do something special. At the end of the concert, also per her instructions, I asked the crowd if there were any questions they would like to ask or comments to make. The bishop himself stood up at one point and said that the concert had been like a prayer service to him but that the applause had made it seem like a performance. So, turning to the crowd, he said that people should not clap in church, including at the liturgy itself. I thanked him and then said, “Incidentally, this is the bishop’s anniversary of ordination, and Bishop, we’d like to honor you for that.” At which point the people broke into thunderous applause.

Which I thought was very funny.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

the golden rule

Tzu-king asked,

“Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?’

The Master said, “It is perhaps:
Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.” (Analects of Confucius)

friday, 12 feb, 09

The spirit of Swami Satyananda is still alive here, especially among the older folks. They all still speak of his vision in similar words, that for him the central focus needed to be on spirituality. But along with that finding the truth that all religions share was a focus of his from his youngest days. And so a great focus on the Golden Rule, “Do not do unto others what you yourself would not want done to you,” and more recently the Global Ethic as pioneered by Hans Kung. Swami-ji decided that he had to do something proactive as well. Hence, with the encouragement and help of Mother Mangalam, he started this orphanage in 1952. It does boil down to Jesus’ own teaching about the greatest commandment, which is really two: Love the Lord your God with all your strength––spirituality; and love your neighbor as yourself.

That reminds me, how impressed I was by President Obama’s remarks at National Prayer Breakfast February 6th, and I wanted to reprint them in full here.
There is no doubt that the very nature of faith means that some of our beliefs will never be the same. We read from different texts. We follow different edicts. We subscribe to different accounts of how we came to be here and where we’re going next – and some subscribe to no faith at all.

But no matter what we choose to believe, let us remember that there is no religion whose central tenet is hate. There is no God who condones taking the life of an innocent human being. This much we know.

We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth.

It is an ancient rule; a simple rule; but also one of the most challenging. For it asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility for the well-being of people we may not know or worship with or agree with on every issue. Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing, active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do – to give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the betterment of our world.

In this way, the particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us. Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times.
* * *

I’m leaving today for a retreat with the WCCM in Genting Highlands. I’m leaving just in time: Mother has been spoiling me rotten. She keeps sending women up with more and more things for me to eat. (As if on sue, as I was typing that, a woman showed up at my door with a tin of tea made with roasted and boiled cumin seeds and curry leaves––“good for digestion and the liver,” the accompanying note says, and a contained of some kind of brilliant purple exotic tropical fruit.) She has been a marvelous host, and this has been a very good stay for me, especially since I have been able to get in touch in a deep way again with India’s immense contribution to me in terms of practical spirituality, both through the ambiance, the time for prayer and meditation, and all the reading that I have been able to do here.

Here’s the full quote from Sri Aurobindo that I cited on Tuesday, that I have found very affirming, and is sure to turn into a conference at some point:
An ordinary person who wishes to reach God through knowledge must undergo an elaborate training. One must begin by becoming absolutely pure, one must thoroughly cleanse the body, the heart and the intellect, one must get oneself a new heart and be born again; for only the twice born can understand or teach the (scriptures). When one has done this, one need four things before succeeding: the Sruti or recorded revelation, the Sacred Teacher, the practice of Yoga and the Grace of God.


The drink sent down by unseen hands,
we drank our share, alhamdullilah!
The table set to welcome the guest,
has fed us too, alhamdulillah!
Kabir Helminski

thurs, 11 feb, 09

The musical performance and dialogue went pretty well last night, but there was an “incident.” I have learned a song of Kabir Helminski’s named “The Drink Sent Down” that I have been wanting to sing. Kabir does not give the exact source for it but it is from a collection of songs (illahis) that he explains in the liner notes to the accompanying CD are mostly translations of ancient Turkish Sufi songs, I believe. It seemed apropos even if still a little risky to sing it in an overwhelmingly Muslim country such as this. I’ve been practicing it a lot. It includes a refrain that the assembly sings over and over again like a dhikr beneath the verses––“Alhamdullilah,” which means “Praise is due to God,” and also includes the refrain, “la ilaha illa Allah,” the first part of the Ash Shahadah–– “the witness”: la ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammad rasul Allah––“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is what gets repeated in the daily muezzin’s call to prayer five times a day and on innumerable other occasions. I had asked Farid last week if it was okay to sing this song as a non-Muslim and he had said, yes, no problem. But I was still a little cautious, mainly because there has been the issue here in Malaysia of the government trying to forbid Christians from using the name “Allah,” although it is the word for “God” in the native Malay as well as other indigenous local languages.

Anyway, the Pure Life Society and the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship seemed like a safe place to try it. As a matter of fact it went quite well except for one little thing. Amir, one of the members of the board whom I had met the previous evening, raised his hand after the song and said very nicely, “It was very beautiful but just one thing: it is ‘Al-ham’ not ‘Al-am.’ Other than that it was very beautiful.” Apparently I had not accented that “h” enough. I thanked him, but then another man near Amir stood up and said, “I am sorry but as a Muslim I must tell you I am very offended!” He then proceeded to scold me at length pretty harshly for that same mispronunciation, that it had changed the meaning of the words, and I should have known better. Needless to say, by the time he was finished I was mortified. But then a woman raised her voice and took the second man to task, saying that she was probably the only native born Arabic speaking Muslim in the room, and that she was not offended, she understood what I was saying and that this was not a sound easy for an English speaker to make (the guttural “h”), and that she was delighted that I had made the gesture of learning a song from Islam in this day and age of so much violence. Most of the crowd then cheered her. Then she and the gentleman got into a bit of a row, mainly about pronunciation, until the crowd again raised its voice and wanted to proceed.

I was by this time soaked with sweat. When everyone got quiet I first apologized to the gentleman and thanked him for correcting my pronunciation. I tried to make a little joke about the fact that I sing in different languages and quite often both my Latin and Sanskrit sound like bad Italian. But then I said there are two lessons that we can all learn from this concerning inter-faith dialogue: first of all, that this is what it is all about, learning how to speak with each other and correct each others’ mistakes; and secondly, that we each need to really do our homework when it comes to another’s tradition. Then I proceeded to sing “Hidden In My Silence.”

The ironic thing is that I thought I had done my homework about that phrase, to make sure that I knew the exact translation of it (“All praise is due to God.”), as well as knowing what the ash shahadah was. So, if anyone ever again accuses me of being too scrupulous about these kinds of things, I shall relate this story.

Afterward, quite a few people came up and apologized for the incident. Particularly another Muslim man in the crowd came up and apologized, “also on behalf of all Muslims.” I was very touched by this, because I thought I was really in the wrong, that I had not really done my homework well enough. I am glad that doing the song itself is not a problem, and that now I know how to pronounce it better. The folks bought many CDs and overall were thrilled that I was bringing songs from so many traditions and texts together, and I had many good conversations with them all. This was also the reaction in Singapore, and so it seems that this is an overwhelmingly good track, singing from Universal Wisdom. These of course are two countries that where the different faiths really do have to live together, not like America with its overwhelmingly Christian majority or even India with its Hindu majority.

Some of the staff members were still talking about the incident at lunch today. One of the gentleman said to me, “That was just divine intervention that that woman was there, because we would never had said anything. We usually just let things like that go.”


pure life

We need four things before we can succeed in reaching God through knowledge:
the Sruti or recorded revelation, the Sacred Teacher, the practice of Yoga and the Grace of God. (Sri Aurobindo)

Tues, 10 Feb, 2009, Kuala Lampur, Malaysia

I took a coach up from Singapore today. I am told that it is such as hassle to fly from Singapore to Kuala Lampur that they have started these pretty luxurious bus lines now. This one was so: a double-decker bus, the lower deck being all lounge chairs, a meal served, a movie playing (whether wanted or not). And there were only three of us on this particular luxury liner built for around 40.

I am now at the Pure Life Society, guest of Mother Mangalam. How to explain this place? It was founded by Swami Satyananda, a Malaysian-born Tamil Indian, who was born in 1906. He had a Roman Catholic education (interesting to note that he would later write a what he called a “catechism” if the Indian religion), entered government service at 17, and spent ten years studying yoga, during which time he met some sannyasis of the Ramakrishna order. He first embarked on a career as an educator, both in regular schools and adult education programs, and was active in social, cultural and religious movements. Then in 1937 he joined the Ramakrishna Order, after which he studied Sanskrit and Indian philosophy. In 1940 he was sent to Singapore (when it was still part of Malay) as the head of the RK schools there, and studied and lectured particularly on comparative religions, and also did lots of work in education and social reform. He parted amicably with the RK order, mutually deciding that he was on his own path. He continued to live as a monk but was heavily involved in social work, education, pacifist conferences and inter-religious dialogue. He was greatly respected and decorated by local government leaders. As a matter of fact his book “Influence of Indian Culture on Malaya” was at one time the recommended text book for the Malayan Civil Service Examination. He joined the Indian Relief Committee after WWII and in 1950 established this place, the Shuddha Samaj–Pure Life Society, which includes an orphanage, a school, an adult education center, the Temple of the Universal Spirit, and a printery which issues a magazine called Dharma. In 1960 he suffered a terrible car accident from which he never fully recovered and he died a year later. Since then this place has been under the guidance of his closest disciple, Mangalam, affectionately known as “Mother.”

It is also Swami Satyananda who taught Father John Main how to meditate when Fr. John was stationed here in KL as part of the English Civil Service, which would later bear fruit as the seed of the World Community for Christian Meditation, for whom I have done considerable work and who have been such good friends to me. I am here in Malaysia to do a retreat for the WCCM this weekend and a concert next week in Penang, but am first spending four days here at Mother Mangalam’s invitation, and taking part in an interfaith event tomorrow night sponsored by the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship of the Pure Life Society.

The sweetest part of the whole thing is that I am staying in the Swami’s old hut, a few steps below the Temple of the Universal Spirit. As is often the case in India, it has been turned into a kind of museum and shrine, with articles of his clothing and some of his books and autographs. Apparently no one has ever stayed here before but Mother had the idea that it might be nice for me to do so since they are so crowded in their other guest spaces. I must say, I feel as close to India––even achingly so––as possible here. Besides the oppressively humid weather, the hut is very much like a cell in the ashram, cement floor and noisy fan above, the bathroom consisting of a squatting toilet and buckets for a bath (I don’t mind, I assure you––don’t take that as a complaint). My actual living space is in a room on the side, but the big space that was swami-ji’s living space is open to my use as well; it is where Mother has placed my eating supplies. In this room where I am staying I am surrounded by photos of all my old friends: Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Ramanamaharshi and Ramalinga Swami. I feel a certain affinity to Swami Satyananda for a bunch of silly reasons: his amicable parting from the Ramakrishna Order, for one, and the fact that he wore a white “habit” that resembles the Camaldolese habit instead of the typical khavi. I’m counting on his darshan, and blissfully just got up from laying on my cot reading Aurobindo’s translations of the Upanishads feeling very much at home, a home I always forget until I am in it again.
There is no great virtue in keeping your discipline in your cell.
But there is if you also keep it when you come out of your cell.
Abba Serenius
wed, 10 feb, 09

I can’t tell you how beautiful these first few hours have been here. On request of Mr. Moorthi, who is my immediate host and the executive secretary of the Inter-Faith Spiritual Fellowship here at Pure Life, I attended the beginning of the meeting of the same last evening, just staying long enough to offer the opening prayer, and then headed back to my cell. I was so excited just to be in a real live monk’s cell! For the second night now I slept a full night’s sleep. I still woke up well before dawn, and sat at the front door of the hut sipping my tea and catching the last of the cool night breeze. Then just as I finished singing my morning mantras and was about to dive into my books to do my readings, a muzzien started the azan from a nearby minaret, followed by another and another all around me. The chanting continued for quite a while––I assume chanting from the Qur’an––as I chanted my psalms and read my other readings and settled into a period of meditation.

Even now, after working for a few hours on an article that I need to send off, I went and sat in meditation in front of Swami-ji’s larger than life-size portrait in the adjoining room, and as I did, I could distinctly hear planes flying overhead, that beautiful koel bird welcoming me home, the rush of traffic below this hill and the sounds of kids playing on their recess from the school next door––and I know that exterior silence is only an aid. It’s ultimately that interior silence that we are trying to cultivate.

I brought along a book called “In the Heart of the Desert” (wouldn’t that make a nice name for an album?) by John Chryssavgis on the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, and I read yesterday on the bus that:
The desert is a place of spiritual revolution, not of personal retreat.
It is a place of inner protest, not outward peace.
It is a place of deep encounter, not of superficial escape.
It is a place of repentance, not recuperation.
Living in the desert does not mean living without people;
it means living for God.
The desert [is]… always more than a place.
It is a way.
I am flooded with memories of Shantivanam, of teaching classes at the formation house, of midday prayer with the boys, of sitting on the verandah of Abhishiktananda’s hut, of breakfast at Mary Louise’s, of conversations with MC, of long walks down the Kavery in the fierce midday sun. Somehow there, here, it all seems so simple. It’s that simplicity that I try to remember and foster in my cabin at Corralitos, when I visit New Camaldoli, when I am staying with the friars in Singapore, riding on a bus or a plane. Chryssavgis writes that the reality of the cell should spill over into the reality of our life: “The boundaries of the cell are gradually expanded to include every moment of our life and every detail of our world.” But it really takes work and years of discipline for the silence to take root in our heart and stay there. My own spiritual director is always telling me to make sure that I have “X” days (days crossed off on my calendar) when I am on the road, too, not just when I get home. As John Cassian says about “constant prayer,” we stop with some regularity in the day to renew our prayer because “it is not given to us to pray as we ought.” So we stop when and if we can some days of our lives to get back to that Sabbath rest that is meant to be the source of our strength. It’s good when these trips are as much pilgrimages as they are working junkets.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

sikh hospitality

Listen, my heart!
Let your love be that of the lotus for the pool.
Though the ripples shake the lotus and torment it,

It flowers and loves even more the waters.
Let your love be that of the fish for the water
Without which they perish.
(from the writings of Guru Nanak)

8 feb 2009

Yesterday we had the event that I had been really looking forward to, the Faith and Music event sponsored by the Community Development Council. Our friend Farid was the organizer but it was held at the Central Sikh Gurdwara. We were all invited to lunch beforehand. They serve hundreds of people a vegetarian meal for free every Sunday. A lot of the foreign workers, especially Indians come for it. (According to the teaching of their gurus, no one can be turned away from the pangat––the community kitchen. "It is here that the high and low, the rich and poor, the learned and the igonorant, the kings and paupers, all share the food sitting in common.... The institution of the langar––common kitchen is instrumental in creating social equality," they write in their pamphlet.) Leonard and I showed up first, but soon on our heels my friends Joyce and Richard, with Dominic and Andrea; then other of Farid’s young associates and interns, and other of the invited participants.

The program began in earnest in the Sikh’s auditorium upstairs a little after 2 PM. I was first and allotted a full half and hour to set the stage and atmosphere for the event. I stuck to my usual material, the Gregorian Benedictus Es and Abhishiktananda’s Namo Janitre, then “There is A Light” and “Awakening,” “Streams of Living Water,” “Lead Me from Death Into Life” and “Compassionate and Wise”––all short versions for the most part––since they all have good stories behind them. There were some Indian Hindus there who were going to perform later in the program. As always I felt a little shy about singing the Sanskrit in front of them, but they joined in and afterward told me that they liked it a lot.

The traditional Sikh Ensemble from the Gurmat Sangeet Academy, which is housed right there at the Gurdwar, performed a traditional Sikh kirtan next. I think that they were everyone’s favorite performers. They had a large ensemble playing all traditional instruments, performing a long kirtan in the typical Indian way, with a long alap-intro at the beginning led by their music master teacher. The text they sang was from their holy book the Gurbani, which includes poetry of Nanak and the early Sikh gurus as well as Indian rishis that went before. The text was: Fareed, the path is muddy and the house to my Beloved is so far away.

Then came this family of Hindus, including the youngest participant, Ayush, who was all of four years old. They are members of the Chinmaya Mission which was founded by H.H Swami Chinmayananda, who “blazed a trail across India and the world, revitalizing the study of the ancient Vedic texts and making their elusive and highly subtle principles accessible” to all people last century. They sang some Vedic chants and then a kirtan of their own. I suddenly noticed, during the singing of the kirtan, the words “Guatama Buddha.” And then sure enough, the next verse was about Allah, and the next about Yeshu.

Then came young Master Chung of the Taoist Federation Youth Group. He chanted three Taoist scriptural texts from us accompanied by a wooden fish, with good explanations of the training of young Taoist priests. He also slipped in the piece of information that there are three things that a Taoist priest may never interrupt, no matter what: meditating, eating or chanting. So, he told us, if you ever try to talk to a Taoist priest while they are meditating, eating or chanting and they don’t respond to you, please don’t think they are rude.

By then we were well behind schedule. Virtually no one had stuck to the 8 minute Fareed had requested. He and Aaron, one of his co-workers went up and treated us to a few short pieces of music. Farid played a song on a small reed instrument from Hawii called a zuphon, that sounded very much like a clarinet, and then sang it as well. Then Aaron first chanted a surah from the Qur'an. And, in keeping with the idea that I had presented of learning from traditions and being able to sing each others’ traditions, he then sang the old Christian hymn “Abide With Me,” explaining to us that his father’s side of the family had been Catholic, and he himself had grown up with a lot of appreciation for Christianity, and this hymn especially remained dear to him. I found it very moving that that is what he would choose to perform.

Last, two girls from an evangelical Christian church, one with a guitar, came up and did contemporary Christian song. It was quite different from anything we had heard thus far, but they performed it quite well. I was particularly impressed by the kind of gritty style of playing coming out of the diminutive guitarist.

Three young people from the CDC then led us in a discussion and dialogue exercise for a little less than an hour. And then we stood around and talked for another hour or so amidst the cacophony of the ongoing activities of the Gurdwara. Our host for the day, a tall very gracious young Sikh named Gurpreet, took my friends and me up to visit the Gurmat Sangeet Academy upstairs, where “Master-ji” was giving lessons but interrupted them to give us an explanation of all the traditional instruments that were housed there. Then there was quite an exchange of cards and CDs and thoughts about doing this again next year. Farid and Aaron and I really want to stay in touch, and even talked about some possible projects together, maybe in India or the Holy Land or even in California. Very exciting.

We were all so impressed with the Sikhs’ hospitality. In this day and age the Sikhs seem like a real beacon of hope in the midst of the religious fervor that is so often misdirected in this part of the world. The Sikh sect is originally composed of Hindus who, under the inspiration of Islam, adopted monotheism and rejected the caste system. (That, I found out, is why many of them are named Singh––they adopted a surname that was unrelated to the caste system.) Their initial impulse at least was based on recognizing that the fundamental religious truths of both religions were harmonious and easily reconcilable. And their sacred writings are so profoundly mystical and yet devotional at the same time, with that same kind of intimate reverence that one finds so often in India literature. Here is something form Radhakrishnan’s introduction Selections from the Sacred Writings of the Sikhs––the Gurbani––which includes poetry of Nanak and the early Sikh gurus as well as Indian rishis that went before but already carried the spirit:
The Sikh Gurus transcend the opposition between the personal and the impersonal, between the transcendent and the immanent. God is not an abstraction, but an actuality. [God] is truth, formless nirguna, absolute, eternal, infinite, beyond human comprehension. He is yet revealed through creation and through grace to anyone who seeks him with devotion. [God] is given to us as a Presence in worship. The ideas we form of Him are intellectualizations of that presence. A great Muslim saint observed: ‘Who beholds me formulates it not and who formulates me beholds me not. [One] who beholds meand then formulates me is veiled from me by the formulation.’ It is the vice of theology to define rather than to express, to formulate rather than to image or symbolize the indefinable.
Here is the part I like best:
Silence is the only adequate expression of that which envelops and embraces us. No word, however noble, no symbol, however significant, con communicate the ineffable experience of being absorbed in the dazzling light of the Divine. Light is the primal symbol we use, of a consciousness ineffably beyond the power of the human mind to define or limit. The inveiled radiance of the sun would be darkness to the eye that strives to look into it. We can know it only by reflection, for we are ourselves part of its infinite awareness.
In other news: besides getting myself settled in "road mode" and doing preparations for upcoming work while staying here under the usual warm hospitality of the friars of St Mary's: Thursday I had a great hike out in the rain forest with Richard and Joyce and their friend Dominic which ended with a meal at the most stridently vegetarian restaurant I have ever experienced (extra pix on the Picasa website); Friday Leonrad took me to hot (Bikram) yoga from which I am still sore, and a visit to the Temple of the Tooth, where there what is said to be a relic of the Buddha––a tooth––enshrined; Friday I did a talk for this parish on "The Inner Meaning of the Liturgy," amazingly well attended for a Friday night, but I have have grown to expect that from Singapore; Saturday an all day workshop on music with the musicians of this parish, about 70 in all, which was a lot of work but very well recieved and ultimately a lot of fun. Today Leonard is taking me hiking again (they are making sure I keep exercising) and I am to have lunch and some meditation time with a yoga teacher from Thailand that we met the other day. And, of course, prepping for my trip to Malaysia tomorrow. The work has begin in earnest.

Wishing you peace.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

from singapore

Truly, those who have attained to faith in this Word,
as well as those who follow the Jewish faith,
and the Sabians and the Christians––
all who have faith in God and the Final Day and do righteous deeds––
no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.
Qur’an 5:69

Wed. 4 Feb, 2009

Greetings from Singapore. An uneventful 20-hour trip over, with a short stop in Seoul, Korea. My friend Leonard bravely waiting for me at 1 AM to whisk me over to the friary at St. Mary of the Angels where I have stayed so many times now.

Leonard does like to fill up my days when I am here but I managed to keep the first morning to myself. I now have made this trip enough times to remember that my body is going to be stiff and swollen from the trip, though I am never sure what causes that. My hands and feet are puffy from the change of climate, and back especially is stiff and tight, from the plane trip, I guess. Just knowing that makes me take better care of myself the first days now, lots of fluids and forcing myself to do some asanas knowing full well it will be like bending a 2 X 4.

Leonard picked me up at noon and we headed off to meet Farid. I had met him two years back at the Islamic Harmony Center here in Singapore. He has now organized an inter-faith event for this Sunday that I am participating in. Actually he organizes a series of inter-faith events such as this, every one with a different theme. This particular one is called “Music in Faith-Traditions: an alternative route to the soul, an interfaith experience.” We went to a wonderful “Chinese fusion” vegan restaurant. (Farid is a committed vegetarian, something I think is rather unusual for a Muslim.) He greeted me like an old friend, and has apparently been following my doings on our web site. I found out more about him. He started out working for “Outward Bound,” the wilderness experience for young people, which was, he says, started in England. (I thought it was founded in the States.) He now teaches at a local college about body consciousness, relaxation and health, I think he said; and he also works for the local government on the inter-faith council. They are pretty serious about that here in Singapore, which is good if not obvious: it is such a melting pot of Hindus, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists, Christians, and Sikhs.

Farid took us over to a place called the Istana Kampong Glam, which was formerly the palace of the Sultan of Jahore, a city right across the water in Malaysia, and is currently the Malay Heritage Center complete with a museum and shops. We visited an artist who does very a modern style of batik, and then right next store a ceramicist, both of whom were very gracious and talkative about their work. (Chris and Debi, if you are reading, this would be a good place to stop on your world tour for Red Egg Gallery.)

Then we went over to the Masjid Sultan, which is considered Singapore’s premier Mosque. It’s history is like a snapshot of Singapore in the last century, tied in with Sultan Hussian Shah, the ruler of Temasek (the former name of Singapore) and Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company. The current building was begun in 1924. I brought with me this time a copy of The Light of Dawn, Camille Helminski’s selections and renderings of the Holy Qur’an. After the Sangha’s study of Islam this past year and my recent wonderful visit with Kabir and Camille at their Threshold Society meeting, I have grown increasingly fascinated by Islam, and this trip is going to give me a little more opportunity to interaction with Muslims. It’s a particularly sensitive interaction, I know, and southeast Asia Islam has a little different character than Arabic.

I am really excited about Farid’s event on Sunday. It is being held at the Sikh Centre, next to the Sikh Gudwara here in Singapore. I am the “headliner,” and so will sing and talk for about half an hour, and then a muzzein will sing the azan, that beautiful Muslim call to prayer, and do a recitation of a short Qur'anic Verse in Arabic. After that another Muslim group will be singing the Naat––Muslim praises to Prophet Mohammad) a capella in Urdu. (That’s interesting because the last song I wrote was “Hidden In My Silnce,” a setting of a poem on the 19th century Islamic Indian poet Ghalib, who also wrote in Urdu. Look up the video of that song on YouTube!) Then there will be some contemporary music sung in Malay language about the theme of love in Islam, followed by Baha’i recitation. The part of the program that everyone seems to be the most excited about is Taoist Prayer Chant that will be done by Master Chung Wei Yi, who is all of 25 years old. Farid said that there will be a Hindu group there as well doing some kirtans and the program will end with music by the hosts of the event, the traditional Sikh Ensemble from the Gurmat Sangeet Academy performing the traditional Sikh kirtans. There will be some Buddhists attending the event and Farid is yet hoping they will perform something as well.

I suppose my remarks will set the tone for the event––they have over-stated my reputation, I think––but I am not sure yet what I am going to say. My tendency is to let the music speak for itself. I almost wish I could go last, and sum it all up by drawing a little from each tradition. Farid is also hoping for what he called an “interfaith jam” at the end, while being sensitive to folks who would not be comfortable singing certain words or names of God. We shall see…

For now, today I am going over to give a talk (on something or other) to the Franciscan novices, and then going trekking with a couple of young friends I met here last time, Richard and Joyce Koh. Real work starts on Friday night and Saturday when I will be doing a workshop on liturgy and music for the Franciscan parish here. I haven’t done much teaching about liturgy here or at home these past few years, but John Wong, ofm, who has hosted me so many times put in a special request since he is the one in charge music here at this huge parish, so how could I refuse? Coming off a visit to the North American Academy of Liturgy in Baltimore, a week of composing with the Collegeville Composers Group and the Composers Forum in Saint Louis, I might just have something to say. I might actually have too much to say––the problem may be organizing and synthesizing it in digestible chunks.

There was so much preparation for this trip, the longest and most complicated one that I have made yet. I was groaning under the weight of it just a few weeks ago and mourning leaving my beloved kutir in Corralitos, but now that I am here I am looking forward to whatever adventures await. It does seem odd to be in Asia and not be on my way to India. The feel of the tropical air and the call of the koel bird, not to mention the many Indian faces here in Singapore, tug at my heart a little, but it was not meant to be this time. Though I must say I’m already looking forward to the trip there in 2010 for Abhishiktananda’s centenary.