Sunday, January 31, 2010


Resentment is the mute, animal protest of a mistreated psychological organism. Driven too far it becomes mental sickness; that too is an adaption in its own way. But it is an adaption by way of escape.
(Thomas Merton, "New Seeds")

1 feb 2010

I'm leaving Tiruvanamalai today. This will be the longest I stay in any one place during this trip, longer even than Shantivanam, though I did leave for a few days last week. On Tuesday I went down to Madurai with the Quo Vadis team for a series of events at TTS--Tamil Theological Seminary. That is a major school for the CSI--Church of South India. I originally thought that CSI was the Indian version of Anglicanism, but it actually consists of Methodists and Presbyterians as well, and in very good relationship with Lutherans. My tabla player friend Theophilus' father is Principal there, so I have heard of it quite often. It was a good six hours drive down from Tiru, with our friendly Muslim driver Basha at the wheel again. When we got there we found out that there was some confusion with the rooms and while we were trying to fgure out what to do about it Theophy himself showed up. He and his new bride Belinda were staying as well, on their honeymoon of sorts. He invited us all into the Principal's house for refreshments, and set himself to solve the problem. One of the solutions was that I would stay with them there in his Dad's house. It was actually a very private room on the second floor with its own bath, a separate entrance and a veranda out front, so I was quite happy with it, and he was thrilled that could stay there. "It's wonderful that you've come home!" he said a number of times.

JP and Agnete and a German woman from Denmark named Elle were going to do some sessions with Lutheran pastors from around Tamil Nadu of something called biblical drama. As I understand it, it is something based on Jesuit scriptural meditation but was developed by the Palatine Fathers, in which participants take on one of the roles of a character in a story and see what comes up in them from their experience of it. Many of the pastors had studied there at TTS so it was for them a kind of reunion and homecoming, a place where they could naturally have a spirit of input and renewal. I wasn't to do much with that particular group, so I wound up having the whole first day to myself outside of meals and a rehearsal with Theophy. (Since he was there I co-opted him into playing for the concert with me which was to take place the next night.)

My own work started the next day. I was to give a public lecture to the whole student body and whoever from the faculty wanted to come as well. It had never been made quite clear to me what exactly they wanted me to talk about, nor how long or for whom until the last hour or so before, but I had assumed that the talk I give on the theological justifications for inter-religious dialogue--a talk I call "The Ground We Share"--would suffice. It's about 20 typed pages but can be broken up in various places to shorten it. I figured, hey, a seminary, a theological faculty, I had better do my homework, so, as is my wont, I spent a good part of Wednesday going over that talk to make sure I could deliver it with some coherence. An hour before the talk I was told that it was going to be translated into Tamil, so Jiva, one of JP's assistants, and I scurried around trying to get the whole thing photocopied so that my translator would have a script to follow. But when we got to the hall a few minutes before the lecture was to begin, my translator, a sharp guy named David Rejendra who is on faculty there, said that it wasn't going to work that way, that instead I should just talk informally and take questions. What we wound up doing was having two gentlemen on the stage with me, one on either side. Of course, I didn't know exactly what I was going to talk about now again, so I asked them to conduct it like an interview to give me some focus and help. I actually didn't need as much help as I thought but it was good to have them there for confidence, and I launched into pretty much my normal spiel about Spirit, Soul and Body: Universal Call to Contemplation. Indians are pretty informal about staying put and going and coming during even formal evnts such as church services and lectures--I had been warned of that--and we were butting up against lunch time, but a good two thirds of them stayed all they way through the hour and a half. We started taking questions after about 45 minutes, I think.

After my experience at Gurukul Theological Seminary in Chennai, the Lutheran counterpart to TTS, I was aware of the sensitivity especially among Protestant Christians to any kind of "brahminization" of Christianity. This is someting Fr Bede and Abhishiktananda got accused of: not an Indianization at all, but a Sanskritization, setting up a whole new priestly class and ritual, not indigenous. You almost have to live in India to understand how resentful some non-brahmins are toward Sanskrit and toward Hindi, even, which I have heard described as "that vegetarian language." Here in Tamil Nadu. for instance, they are proud of their Tamil language whihc maybe older than Sanskirt and is still a spoken language. Snaskrit is the language of the upper caste. The majority, so I'm told, of Protestants are Dalits, who have experienced repression, discrimination and at times out and out persecution due to the caste system and are naturally suspicious. We had even heard from Fr Michael Amaladoss, SJ, how Catholic seminarians as well don't want to hear about Abhishiktananda or any talk about advaita/non-duality or yoga or meditation; they want to talk about action, especially the Dalit version of Liberation Theology. And especially the young, the students, are adverse to any kind of quietism; one student last time told me that meditation and yoga was a way of keeping people quiet, whereas Dalit folk theology was full of dancing and singing.

It's interesting how many times one or another form of that argument has come up these past days, regarding also folks in the West who need to isolate meditation and contemplative prayer from any kind of ritual, dance or music. It is an absolutely false dilemna as far as I am concerned. There are degrees, obviously, but I was reminded of the retreat I did with Ishpriya some summers ago at San Damiano in Danville. It was a silent mediation retreat and the staff there had brought us in to do it together, me doing music and liturgy, she giving the conferences. Ishpriya herself was a little suspicious at first, but we found after the first sessions that we were absolutely complementary and were anxious to work together again. But the staff got complaints about having music during a "silent retreat." We were both baffled. This is the other side of argument at TTS, that you shouldn't waste time in silence when there is so much work to be done. I always want to say, "Then you shouldn't waste time sleeping or eating either. Or maybe you should just try exhaling for a while instead of breathing in, and see how long you last."

Anyway, there were a lot of good questions and I only fielded on very well worded challenge to my remarks, in three parts: We shouldn't set up a dualism of body and soul, which I agreed and clarified that I was actually combatting dualism by trying to understand the human person as an organic complex whole; that we shouldn't fall into quietism, to which I again agreed and said that that was why I emphasised the stream of living water flowing back out of the believer's heart; and that we shouldn't set up a hierarchy of superior people who sit up on mountain tops in meditation, to which I simply agreed. Many of the other questions were about inter-religious dialogue. To do this kind of thing in India is very humbling because they are living cheek to jowl in a much more intensely diverse environment than I. A number of students brought up the idea of identity with God, the "aham brahm'asmi-I am brahman," and I got to launch into my telso-scopos-praxis argument.

A number of them, including one man from Malaysia, brought up how to deal with political and social tensions in regards to religious differences, and I had to admit that my responses were going to be very much abstract, that they themselves knew more about this than I. You may recall that there has been an ongoing controversy in Malayasia as to whethert or not Christians could use the word Allah for God, which is not a problem for English speakers but is for native Bahasa Malaysia speakers for whom there is no other word. It was finally resolved in the courts that, yes, Christians could legally use the name Allah in print and in speech, which led to some Islamists (as opposed to Muslims, so I am told) burning down four churches. That apparently led to a retaliaitory burning of some mosques as well. This is not abstract stuff for folks in this region, especially in India where there are still people alive who remember the bloody aftermath of the partition of India. One of the students asked me directly how they should deal with the caste system which is still operative even within Christianity. Again, I told them that I didn't haev any good answers for that because there was little way I could understand this type of societal arrangement, though we did speak a little about eocnomic divide in America, racial issues and immigration. I have to check my natural sunny American optimism at the door and get a good dose of pragmatic realism without losing hope in situations like that. In my mind I'm thinking, "It's not enough hear to all join hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around the campfire here." From what Agnete tells me it is more heightened in the Mideast, where we hope to be going together in the Fall with Imam Naveed.

That evening I did a concert in the same auditorium. It was one of the harder concerts I have done. It was hot and crowded, and the crowd was hesitant at first and then a little restless. Especially young Indians are used to very loud, rhythmic music, with electronica and/or a full band, more than to a gentle evening of Indian classical music with tabla and flute or sitar. They seemed much more pleased with singing along than in listening to long meditative pieces, so I was discarding pieces and adjusting along the way. There were some folks from other traditions there as well, Hindus and Muslims, I was told, invited as guests. "Bismillah" was again a big hit, and I pulled out the "Jaya Nam" bhajan that saved me in front of the 3000 school children in Tiru in 2007. It was great to have Theophy with me, and his Dad and Mom sat proudly in the front row. As I introduced Kabir's song "The Drink Sent Down," I just briefly mentioned the situation in Malaysia, where I had first run into trouble myself singing that particular song. At that point Rev Dr Gnanavaram himself stood up and launched into quite a lengthy explanation in Tamil, which he thought was his duty as Principal of the school. I found out later he mainly wanted to address some evangelicals who he were also in the crowd and might not understand why a Christian would sing to Allah at all. The only words I understood were "Muslim extremists" and "Christian extremists." I was saoked with sweat and exhausted after the concert in a way that I rarely am. I didn't think it had gone very well, but there were many positive remarks and Elle, who had been at the concert in Tiru, told me that she liked this one better. "It was more intense," she said.

The next day, Agnete and Elle were scheduled to do a session of biblical drama with the final year students but they decided that there were too many of them (35) to do it at once. So they had asked me to take half the class and then switch, an hour and a half a piece. So I decided to do a group lectio divina with my half, which seemed a good counterpart to biblical drama. The Jesuit style meditation is discursive and expansive, the monastic is more focused and heads soon to the place beyond words. I sort of stumbled on a way of doing group lectio a few years back that has worked for me in many situations, and with texts other than Judeo-Christian ones as well. I introduce the four stages: lectio-reading, meditatio-meditation (I use this as an opportunity to talk about discursive as opposed to one-pointed meditation), oratio-prayer, and contemplatio (which I use as an opportunity to talk about the Christian understanding of samadhi, infused contemplation and grace). Those four stages then apply to four levels of meaning of Scripture (if there are any lectio purists out there reading, this is my simplified version of the four): historical, moral, symbolic and the mystery beyond words that the reading is pointing to. And then I apply those to four levels of consciousness: ordinary, moral conscience (Freudian, but I didn't say that here), symbolic dream consciousness (Jungian, but again I didn't say that here), and then again the mysterious depth of our own consciousness beyond names and forms--the Word into Silence.

I thought the sessions went very well. The students were politely attentive at first, taking notes studiously. But they perked up a little more when I talked about the levels of meaning of Scripture, and they really seemed fascinated when I applied that to levels of consciousness. I said out loud that I thought people in India were naturally more open to the symbolic level of consciousness and the dream world, so they should really pay attention to it. JP was with me translating line for line, and I thought he was really enjoying it too. (He later asked me to write out my notes and give him a copy.) Then we did the four different reading of the Scripture texts, choosing one word, then one phrase and then opening up for discussion. They spoke in Tamil with JP leading the discussion and one of the students whispering translation in my ear along the way. At the end I asked them to create the shortest prayer possible to use as a prayer word (I was assiduously avoiding using the word "mantra" for the reaons above stated), and led them into a brief period of meditation. At the end I asked one of them to lead the others in singing a Tamil song. That was the highlight of my time there at TTS, after which we piled into our cars and headed back to Tiru.

What is so interesting, as it was at Gurukul, was to be in a non-Catholic (and non-Hindu) Christian environment in India. Neither of the things that I stand pretty firmly on, my own Asian expression of my Catholic Christianity, necessarily work there. So I need to re-find the universality and then re-state it in a language that is not bogged down and loaded with brahminical Sanskrit India or priestly Latin Rome. What really stays with me is their beautiful, receptive sincere faces, and the millions of individual paths to the Divine, "each in his own language, each in her own tongue."

Monday, January 25, 2010

inward release

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 23, 2010

my true self

23 january, 2010

(reading Merton with Abhishiktananda on Arunachala)

I am hollow,
and when all the things with which I clothe myself are gone
there will be nothing left of me but my hollowness, my nakedness, my emptiness.

Stay there on that cross
to be filled with the very fullness of God.
Put your mind in hell and do not despair, says Staretz Silouan.

To discover myself in discovering God...
If I find myself--if I find my true self, hidden in God--I find God.
Within me is an apex of existence at which I am being held in being by the Creator.
God utters me like a word, like a partial thought.

Can you enter into yourself and find the God who utters you?
Can you rest on the ground of your being,
stay still on the ground of your consciousness
until the Divine sings your name across the span of the sky?
Can your ears hear the sound of the OM that resonates in the mountain of your being?

If I am true to that utterance,
I shall be full of divine actuality
and find God everywhere in myself
and find myself nowhere.
I shall be lost in God: I shall find myself.

"I had lost my God,
and in my search for him
it is I myself I have recovered,
but a myself, what a myself!
I have disappeared from my sight into my own radiance." (Abhishiktananda)

This true inner self must be raised like a jewel from the bottom of the sea,
rescued from confusion and indistinction,
rescued from immersion in the common, the trivial, the sordid.
We must salvage ourselves from the abyss of confusion, absurdity and triviality which is our false outer self.
The creative must be saved from the hedonistic addictive grasping craving ego-driven self.

"When I look down to the bottom of the abyss,
in the guha, that cave of my heart,
it is my very own image that is reflected back to me--
that is why I say say ABBA--
but an image that is so beautiful--
so beautiful!--
completely radiant with glory,
a glory that has no beginning or end,
beyond all birth and equally beyond all death." (Abhishiktananda)

Can you enter into yourself and find the God who utters you?
Can you rest on the ground of your being,
stay still on the ground of your consciousness
until the Divine sings your name across the span of the sky?
Can your ears hear the sound of the OM that resonates in the mountain of your being?

But it is more than an emptying and withdrawing to the center of myself that is called for.
From resting on the ground of God
I must call for mercy and wait on the descent of grace.
I must have God--Word and Spirit--dwelling in me in a new way
so that God begins to live in me not only as my Creator,
not only as the Spirit breathed into the mud of my being,
but as my own true self
until it is no longer I who lives but Christ, the great Person, who lives in me.

"And it is to this Great Person who is myself--so'ham asmi--
sun colored beyond the darkness,
that I reach out fervently, irresistibly,
with a view to our coming together, our advaita.
This call of myself to myself,
of myself as human to myself as God." (Abhishiktananda)

My true self is this self
that receives freely, gladly,
in silence and peace,
naked, poor and empty.

Entertain silence in your heart
and listen for the voice of God uttering you.
It is good to wait in silence
for the coming of the Lord.

Can you enter into yourself and find the God who utters you?
Can you rest on the ground of your being,
stay still on the ground of your consciousness
until the Divine sings your name across the span of the sky?
Can your ears hear the sound of the OM that resonat

Friday, January 22, 2010

eschatological signs

"Exceptional people abandon all
to follow the truth they have seen
that is now for them the one thing that matters."
(Sri Aurobindo)

Friday morning, 22 january, 2010

I don't know why I never noticed before that there were so many Muslims here in Tiruvanamalai, but this time I've seen so many guys walking around wearing kufis on their heads (not sure if they are called that here in India...). Our driver to Chennai proudly told us his name was Basha, "a good Muslim name!" It's Friday morning here and above the normal din of temples playing their music over loudspeakers and the traffic rumbling by on the main street, this morning there is also the sound of the muezzins calling people to worship on this the day when all are called to the mosque. Basha told me that there are ten "masjids" here in Tiruvanamalai.

Speaking of Islam, I think that the two Islamic songs got the best reception at the concert last night, my regular outdoor concert at the Arunai Ananda Hotel sponsored by JP and Quo Vadis. "Bismillah" was, as usual, a big hit with the folks. But also I've found a way to deliver "The Drink Sent Down" solo in a way that it really works too. I do them in that order. (If anyone cares, I've thrown the capo on the second fret for both of those songs, so they are actually now in C#m where my voice is a little stronger.) I'm very pleased with the set of music I've put together for the concerts ahead (MC echoed that too, that this is a very strong concert). The first time I did the concert here in Tiru was the time the high E string on my guitar broke something like four times before the peformance and I was tying the last broken string back on to the end pin minutes before the concert with the help of a pair of finger nail clippers. It amazingly lasted throughout that concert and for a week more. This time I was prepared for the worst but all went smoothly. I've brought the old Taylor along for this trip in the soft gig bag wrapped in my orange shawl for extra protection (Leonard will not be pleased; it got damaged by Singapore Airlines in 2008 and he ordered me never to travel with a soft case again, but I really wanted to bring this guitar and not carry a big case, so... so far so good.) Heng Sure loved it when I said this before: this guitar really loves India. It just sings. Even last night with not such a good sound system or microphones, the guitar sounded great, the bass notes really deep and the high strings not too thin. A good number of people came but oddly enough a whole bunch of them left toward the end all at about the same time, mostly sitting to my left. Perhaps they were all from the same group and had another event to attend, I don't know. But I was in the middle of "Vedahametam," had just exectued that long solo section rather well, I must say, and was heading into the "Tvameva Mata" verse when someone else stood up and left--right in the middle of the song, right in front of me! I allowed myself to lose my concentration and I dropped the third line of this song that I have sung now hundreds of times. I've been a lot more circumspect about my Sanskrit pronunciation since Bettina and Fr George and Vinaya at Shantivanam, (and with the head priest of the temple sitting in the audience), but that song I'm pretty much down on, so that was embarrassing. But that was the worst thing I did all night and all in all it was a very nice evening.

The trip to Chennai for Theophy's wedding was interesting. I do try to stay close to the ground when I am in India and avoid some of the comforts that we Westerners can afford, but it's not always easy when my hosts want to afford me luxuries that they think I might be used to or need. Originally I was going to take a bus into Chennai for the wedding on my own. But then it seemed as if a whole group of us was going to go from Quo Vadis, stay the night and pick up Agnete at the airport arriving from Myanmar on the way. But then it turned out (this is how things go in India) that only I was going to the wedding but a young woman named Pivey from Finland who is working with JP wanted to go to Chennai to buy a new camera, so JP had hired a car for us for the day, with our own driver. (That was Basha, mentioned above, a very nice attentive man, a friend of JP.) That felt a little extravagant, but I just rolled along with it and was grateful for the comfort and speed. But then when we got to Chennai, Basha dropped us off for lunch at a restaurant that someone had recommended to Pivey, specifically telling her that I would like it. I don't know why she thought that; I was actually horrifed by the place. It was like a five star hotel with all Western food, table cloths and cloth napkins, and it costs about five times more than I normally pay for any meal in India.

It's interesting to watch my own reactions to these kinds of things. I have to let go of the image of myself that I want to project and protect, and I so don't want to be "seen" as just another tourist skimming over the surface of India but really surrounding myself with a cloud of comfort out of which I can watch everything as if I were driving through a wildlife preserve in an air conditioned bus. And I don't want to "be" that either, but I think I am as much bothered by the perception as by the reality. Staying here at Ramana Ashram, simple but comfortable, we are surrounded by sadhus who really live by grace and begging, men (it is rare to non-existent to find a female wanderer here) who live with absolutely no possessions outside of what they can carry in a little bag, some who consciously get rid of their money as soon as they get it, and want to live naked and poor. I know that not everyone is called to that--even Jesus didn't ask that of all his followers, only of his close disciples going on mission--but I understand more and more what a sign that is, what we refer to in Roman Catholicism as an "eschatological sign," a sign of the end of things and the fullness of things. That's what the renunciate is doing--pointing to the end of things when there will be no possessions, no partnering, no homes, when we need to cast off, let go of everything--even "attachments to dear ones and aversions to others" as my favorite Tibetan metta prayer goes--in order to be able to squeeze through the narrow gate of eternity which is the source and summit of our life.

It's interesting to read Aurobindo on this subject. I have found a number of times passages in which he gently critiques what he calls the "exaggeration of the impulse at renunciation" which he says caused the whole system of the four "ashrams"--stages of life to collapse. He says we always tend toward that in spiritual traditions: "If we regard escape from life as our desirable end, ... if life has not a divine significance to it, the impatient human intellect and will must end by driving at a short cut and getting rid as much as possible of any more tedious and dilatory processes." The problem though it that life can then get falsely "split into the spiritual and the mundane and there can only be an abrupt transition, not a harmony or reconciliation" of the diverse parts of our nature. And of course what he is always aiming at is integral Yoga, specifically this harmony and reconciliation of all of the aspects of our being, spirit, soul and body. Still in all, we cannot do without the eschatological sign toward which outward poverty points, "our ultimate aim and destiny," "our spiritual longing for the Beyond," "an ultimate release from an ignorant mundane existence."

I think often of my first yoga teacher's admonition to us in asana: "find that edge between your minimum and your maximum." When I go to a Yoga class I often realize that my asana practice has gotten a little lazy, that I haven't pushed that maximum very much, and others around me inspire and challenge me. India too inspires and challenges that maximum in me in so many ways, to give a little more to the spiritual life, to my meditation, to the simplicity of my life, to my devotional practices.

It's this mountain, too, Arunachala. It roots out the ego of those who meditate on it in their hearts.

(afternoon) A few of us who still remained had a simple Eucharist in the flat of a German woman named Heike who lives near Quo Vadis with Marcus, a new friend from Brazil, and two other women from I'm-not-sure-where, with Fr. Augustine from Shantivanam presiding, who is here visiting and staying with this same Heike. But now the last of the other participants of the centenary are gone. I saw Vinaya off just before lunch with a few last words of wisdom about Samkhya philosophy, sannyasa and the Bhagavad Gita, and a hearty hug and kiss; Joseph seems to have been swallowed back up by the road. Even JP and Agnete are going to be gone for the weekend, off with their staff to give a retreat in the mountains. (They would have liked me to go with them but also offered that I could stay here until they return and we all go to Madurai next week for three days. They didn't seem too disappointed that I chose that instead.) I've gotten to that point already here at Ramana Ashram that I get to every time I'm here, when I start longing for the quiet and simplicity of my own rhythm and routine, not even wanting to go to the eating hall or the public spaces but staying here in the back where things are much quieter and it feels almost like a monastery, and I can slip in and out of the back gate to climb the mountain path. MC has arranged for us to celebrate Eucharist at Quo Vadis on Sunday morning again but other than that I now have three days with not much to do but stare at Arunachala outside of my window, hide in its crags with the coneys, and let everything that has gone in these past three intense weeks settle in.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

after the conference, tiruvanamalai

Tuesday, 19 january, 2010,

Understand the true nature of Knowledge by approaching illumined souls.
If you prostrate at their feet, rendeer them service,
and question them with an open and guileless heart,
those wise seers of Turth will instruct you in that knowledge.
(Bhagavad Gita 4:34)

We left Shantivanam Saturday morning in two air-conditined vans. I got to sit next to Vinaya the whole way and in between dozing a bit we had a good conversation. When he introduced himself in the opening session he said, "My name is Vinaya and I hope to be a sannyasi." It turns out before his guru died he gave him sannyasa diksha, even though Vinaya didn't want it or ask for it. He was (is) married, a father and grandfather. Just a year ago he left home and began wandering with the permission of his wife and family, having fulfilled all his obligations, as the tradition goes. He has written and translated numerous books and articles, and was a very popular teacher in the ashram. He goes from place to place still teaching and giving lectures both on Sanskrit and on the arts. I have really enjoyed his company, comparing notes with him about various things. He is a wealth of information about Sanskrit and the scriptures, especially on the Upanishads, which was the topic of his talk for us at the seminar. It also turns out that his now deceased guru, the one who gave him sannyasa diksha, was also the guru of Joseph, that incredible parivrajaka I had such a good meeting with in Rishikesh in 2007. I've met a few other disicples of this same guru now. They are pretty wide spread now that he has died.
Besides lunch we made one more stop on the way, at the Niketan of Swami Nityananda of whom I wrote last week, the disciple of Gnanananda. He was most gracious in welcoming us, gave us a bunch of rooms for our use to freshen up and then had us gather on the second floor of a common building for a talk. He sat down and started right in, speaking to us about Vedanta philosophy. I didn't have a notebook with me but here are some thing I remember...
He stressed the similarities between Christian mysticism and Vedanta, especially citing Meister Eckhart often and his use of the term "godhead." He said we need three sources: the Upanishads for metaphysics, the Bhagavad Gita for discipline and the Brahma Sutras (which I have never studied but on which Babaji is leading a course now at Mount Madonna) for philosophy. He stressed over and over again that the prupose of religion is self-transcedent--that all religion points beyond itself. He was also very keen on telling us not to consider Abhishiktananda's book Saccitananda as his last word on Christian advaita. Background (this comes up often): Abhishiktananda is quoted as saying that he didn't stand behind that book anymore, that he thought it was too Greek, and yet he said that as he was giving permission for it to be printed in English, and he also wrote at the end of his life that he was sure that what was in it was just as true as what he had experienced in his advaitin experiences. So some scholars, such as our friend Fausto who thinks we should always stay close to written records, dismiss any notion of dismissing that book, since he allowed for it to be translated and published! The controversy in it, as I understand it, is that he suggests that there is someting beyond the advaitin-non-dual experience. Case in point: Jesus goes through the total dissolution of his self on the cross and in the grave, but when he awakes on Easter morn the great surprise is that he is still there, and so is his God, in a whole new relationship. That's why, he says, the church chooses Psalm 139 for the entrance antiphon that day: "And when I awake, I am still with you; your right hand holds me fast." I was reading this on the train from Delhi to Haridwar in 2005 with tears running down my cheeks, and it incidentally became the inspiration for the song "Awake at Last." So I'm not quite ready to disregard it yet.
I had re-introduced myself to the Swami and he remembered me enough to show me his copy of Stefano's translation of "Guru and Disciple." I was sitting on the floor (as were we all) to his right in front, and throughout the first half of his talk he kept glancing over at Bettina who was to his left but then staring right at me as he spoke. It was pretty powerful but I kept my gaze right on him, open to catching something from his eyes if there was something to catch. I enjoyed his lecture immensely until the very end when I thought he got a little heavy handed about the universality of Hinduism. He also made the argument, which I have heard before, that there was no purpose in an interfaith dialogue center (he was referring to Quo Vadis) since Ramana was an interfaith saint, with a message for all people. My counter to that, with all respect, is always, yes, Ramana's message is trans-religion but this place, Sri Ramana Ashram, is not. It's filled with Hinduism, brahmin ritualism and deities, puja and Vedic chanting. I don't hold that against them' I actually enjoy it to some extent, but that is more in keeping with a temple than an ashram, and it is an overt promotion of Hinduism, not something beyond Hinduism like Yoga or the Upanishads would be. I also felt a little defensive of poor old JP and his hard work of bringing people together.
Afterward I had two questions for him but it was not a good time for him; he gave me a couple of quick answers while hurrying downstairs to supervise the tea service. Instead he sat down next to me and we happily slurped our coffee and dunked our biscuits together in silence while he surveyed his guests and the hospitality. There was kind of an answer in that too. He couldn't have been sweeter to us.
We then crossed over the road and got a full tour of Tapovan itself, the ashram of the long-deceased Gnananada, where Abhishiktananda would have met him. It also has many shrines to deities and there was chanting going on when we entered--the thousand names of Vishnu. Impressive to see a couple of young people carrying the singing from memory. I wished again that I could infuse in our monks a similar love for chanting the psalms.
Sunday morning JP, as graciously as always, set us up in a new covered patio for Eucharist. We were about 20 or so, including some old friends either from Quo Vadis or Michael's Christian contacts around the ashram. I presided. Someone busted my chops for having a written text in front of me while preaching the other day, in spite of the fact that I barely used it except as an outline and reminder, saying that he preferred it when people "speak from the heart." So I specifically did not write even notes or an outline of a homily just to prove that I could do without, and I don't feel like writing it out now so. "Anything to anyone..."
Vinaya had commented a few times about the brothers' mistakes in the Sanskrit chanting at Shantivanam, and I, of course, have picked up many of their same mistakes. He was explaining to me in the van on the way here about how chanting Sanskrit is really a form of pranayama; that's why the pronunciation is so important. Martin and George have asked him to come back to Shantivanam to re-teach it all to them, and he is excited to do so. So I asked Vinaya if he wouldn't give me a lesson also these last days we are together here at Ramana Ashram, so we arranged to meet Monday morning after breakfast outside the eating hall. As he walked out of the eating hall he was accompanied by none other than the same Joseph who showed up last night down after having spent some months up in the Himalayas. This should come as no surprise by now; this is India after all. I bent down and touched his feet, wrung his hands for a long time and smiled and smiled 'til I thought my face would crack. He is used to surprising people and he touches so many folks along the way that this was not that big a moment for him, but it was a huge moment for me.
Joseph agreed to come chant with us, so he and Vinaya and I walked up the mountain together a bit, and sat on a rocky outgrowth. I was at Vinaya's feet and Joseph sat a little above us. Vinaya led a chanting session for a good hour and a half it seemed. Then we settled back just to talk for bit and suddenly another white clad sadhu appeared on the trail behind us and called out to Vinaya. It was yet another young man from their ashram, Ajit, who now lives in a cave on Arunachala. He immediately sat down and the three of them began a long conversation in Malayalam (all three are from Kerala). Joseph and I talked a bit in between but for the most part I was left out, humming to myself. Ajit didn't even seem to notice I was there the whole time, and we were not introduced to each other. We went back down into the ashram after another hour or so and many people stopped to greet Joseph. He is a frequent visitor here. And then we went across the street for tea at a very crowded tea stall, where there were lots of grungy looking Westerners. Vinaya was looking for a friend who was supposed to meet him and it was all a buit chaotic after that lvoely morning chantring so I got up after a bit and slipped back into the ashram for lunch.
This morning we had what seems to be our last group activity for the gathering. Most of us who remained, plus Joseph and three visitors from another nearby ashram climbed a little ways up the mountain to a clear spot and celebrated Eucharist one more time. Fausto presided this time and MC and did alternated doing the music. It was very beautiful, MC thought the highlight of our time together. The original plan was to go up at 6 AM and try to find Abhishiktananda's cave and ask the swami who is living there presently to let us use it. I was asked to lead that expedition, though I've never been to his cave myself and MC assured us that at present it is not an edifying experience. The town has slowly crept up the mountain, and the last time he was there the sadhu who was presently occupying the cave had a cell phone and satellite television. But after Mass some folks still wanted to find it, so I led a group of six others up to Skandha Ashram, down to Virupraksha cave (wish are still safeguarded, silent places). After that we were all on our own trying to follow the indications that MC had given us. We had little luck and the local folks around didn't know anything much it either. (It didn't help that I didn't have the proper name for it.) At one point a man offered his daughter to lead to what he thought we meant, but msot of the folks had given up hope by that time of ever finding it and acquiescing to MC's assessment that it probably wouldn't have been a very good experience anyway. So we headed back down.

Tomorrow I head to Chennai for the wedding of Theophilus, my tabla playing little brother. I'm sure I'll have some to report from that.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

abhishiktnanda seminar III

Friday, 15 january

I hope that you have enjoyed these recounts of the proceedings of this seminar. It's almost over now and we are heading for Tiruvanamalai tomorrow morning. From there things should lighten up a bit and I'll get back to writing about my mosquito bites.

Thursday morning was another highlight. We heard from Fr. Anthony Kalliath who is a professor of theology in Bangalore and the secretary of the Indian Theological Association, having written his doctoral dissertation on Abhishiktananda. He gave a fiery presentation entitled "The Christic Wheel: Theological Reflections on Abhishiktananda's Pilgrimage." He had attended the Parliament of World Religions this past December in Australia, as had many of the participants, and he spoke about the phenomenon in this day and age of people becoming more religious on their own initiative. He thinks that this is a sign of the evolution of humanity to a new higher form of consciousness, and he talked basically about how we need to respond to this again with a new articulation of Christianity with a specific eye toward the ethos of dialogue with other religions and multiculturalism. He feels that Christianity has lost its imagination and creativity, and that we need to learn "the art of dialogue in the public space" so that we can share in the excitement and joy that he saw emanating from the other traditions at the Parliament. I was writing madly in my little notebook trying to keep up with his points and again can't wait to read his article.

Then my old friend Tureeya Mataji (formerly Sr. Thelma, of Rishikesh) gave a presentation on Abhishiktananda's influence on the ashram movement in India. It was nice to hear that spoken of in the present tense; I have heard from more than one source that the ashram movement is dead, or at least dying, in India. But what really came out of her presentation was a discussion about sannyasa, of all things, and whether or not a sannyasi can be a Christian, or vice versa. I whispered to Naveen, a young Tamilian who sat next to me throughout the entire proceedings, "This discussion has been going on for 40 years!" I was surpised to see it come up again but fascinated to listen to it on native soil among Indians Hindu and Christian.

Friday morning two very dense presenters started us off. Dr. Susan Visvanathan, who is an anthropologist from Delhi, gave a very scholarly paper on Abhishiktananda's contribution to Hindu-Christian dialogue, and then Dr. Shail Maryam responded. Both were using very much the language of anthorpology and sociology, quite often using terms in ways that were foreign to me, but their dual presentation led to a good discussion again about what Dr. Shail called "multiple belonging," what I have come to think about as, using Ewert Cousins' borrowing from Teilhard de Chardin, "complexified consciousnesses." Then Paolo Trianni presented. He is a professor both at San Anselmo, the Benedictine College, and the Gregorian Institute, the Jesuit Seminary, both in Rome. He is an affable guy who much prefers speaking Italian over English, and also a friend of Stefano and Marco Vannini, so we had had some wonderful exchanges already. The main thing I retained from his talk was the influence of Jules Monchanin on Abhishiktananda (Abhishiktananda's predecessor and partner in the early days of Shantivanam), and through Monchanin, the influence of Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin. He referred to a "tantric turn" that happened in Abhishiktananda's thought, how at some point he stopped considering maya as simply illusion and started referring to "maya shakti," the energy of maya. He related this to the idea of uncreated energies in the 13th century Christian mystic Gregory of Palamas (that we can't know God directly but we can know God by his uncreated energies at work). One of the things that I was going to briefly mention in my paper was that one of the differences between Bede and Abhishiktananda was that Abhishiktananda was more a disciple of Ramanamaharshi and Gnanananda, who were both strict advaitins who considered the world as maya--illusion, whereas Bede was more a student of Aurobindo who emphasized rather that creation is lila--God's "play." I mentally scratched that line from my text.

Saturday, 16 january, 2010, early morning, packing to leave

By some fluke in the universe, I wound up delivering the final presentation of the symposium on Friday afternoon. I had orginally wanted to summarize my series of talks on Bede and Abhishiktananda into a paper called "Union by Communion, Union by Identity," a phrase my friends will recognize. But instead I summarized all of that in one paragraph, believe it or not. Here it is:

A helpful category I have found for speaking abou the two of them is this: Abhishiktananda often leans on the idea of "union by identity"; whereas Fr. Bede tends to speak of "union by communion." This is evidenced in Abhishiktananda’s great love for the Upanishads and his introduction to them that accompanies The Further Shore, for instance. On the other hand, Fr. Bede had a great love for the Bhagavad Gita, so much so that he produced a Christian commentary on it, The River of Compassion. When speaking of Jesus, to show another example, for Abhishiktananda the pivotal moment is Jesus’ Baptism when Jesus discovered that the I AM of God belonged to himself, or put it the other way around, “in the brilliant light of his own I AM he discovered the true meaning, total and unimaginable, of the name of [God].” This is how Abhishiktananda interprets Jesus’ saying, “The Father and I are one.” Bede instead laid more stress on recognizing that there are distinctions in the Godhead and distinctions between God and creation that do not negate the underlying unity of all reality. The example that he used very often is from the very same saying of Jesus, that Jesus says “the Father and I are one,” but he never says, “I am the Father.” In terms of advaita, Abhishiktananda was a faithful disciple of Ramana Maharshi and Gnanananda, strict advaitins both who tended to consider of all created reality as maya–illusion. Bede on the other hand was a great admirer of the contemporary philosopher Sri Aurbindo, who had a far greater appreciation of created reality as lila–the play of God and therefore as a itself being a means of salvation; and Bede, following Aurobindo, always liked to point out that advaita was not the only interpretation of the Vedic revelation. There is also visist-advaita, the qualified non-duality of the 11th century philosopher-theologian Ramanuja that drew its language from the philosophical school of samkhya.

Of course I didn't stop there. What I have been working on for weeks now is a talk on two other concepts, the purusha and the guru. The original inspiration for this was the two chants "Vedahametam" and "Tvameva Mata" that I learned on my trip here in 2006-2007 that became the guitar instrumental and song "Vedahametam" on the CD Echo of Your Peace. I had come across both of those chants through my studies of Fr. Bede and Abhishiktananda. And these two concepts also carry within them this dynamic tension between union by communion and union by identity: for the first, purusha has multiple layers of meaning, from referring to the godhead to the sign over the men's room (seriously!); and the guru means only initially the outer person but ultimately refers to the inner guide who winds up being God again anyway, but this time in the cave of the heart. In the original communication about this gathering Bettina had said that this was to be a retreat as much as an academic conference, but the talks have pretty much fallen on one side or the other, personal sharing or heavy academics. I decided, and was more and more sure of it as the week went on, to aim right in between and was thinking of my talk more as a long homily than a research paper; or else a homily with lots of footnotes. I'm rarely nervous in front of a crowd but many of the folks here are Indologists and Sankrit scholars, not to mention theology professors and people who have spent their entire likes immersed in Indian spirituality. So I just wanted to make sure I didn't say anything stupid. Really, that was my main thought. I wanted to make sure I wasn't misunderstanding something about the Indian tradition. I also was quite nervous about my Sanskrit pronunciation. (There are a number of people here who have been pointing out errors all week in the brothers' chanting, in the song book, in my pronunciation, etc.) So I had my eye on two people as I began my presentation, Dr. Bettina herself who was sitting to my right, and Fr. George Gispert, the Jesuit theologian from Delhi to my left. But I ploughed ahead fearlessly. Unfortunately or fortunately, having a week to listen to everyone else's talks also gave me the opportunity to revise and rehearse and obsess over mine, so I had all twleve pages practically memorized. I played the guitar as folks gathered, chanted the two pieces as part of the talk, and then sang the full version of the song with them at the end. There were only a couple of questions (mercifully, since the time was short), but afterward both Bettina and Fr George came up to me. I was preparing myself to be corrected or to defend something I had said with a footnote, but Bettina only wanted to clarify something she had said which I had quoted, and Fr. George gave me a nice compliment and a suggestion for something else to add to the paper.

As soon as my session was done we attended the blessing of the cows that is part of the second day of the Pongal festival, and then there was a closing session, with some sharing, a closing remarks by Bettina, Fr. George and Sr. Mary Louise. There was also a little surprise. Bettina had shown us a photo that she took in the late 60s of Abhishiktananda with his cook. There is also another photo taken in 1968 as Abhishiktananda is leaving Shantivanam for the last time to head north handing the keys for Shantivanam over to this same man. While Mary Louise was speaking, a very frail old man came in accompanied by the man who has been doing our catering all week and a small boy. You guessed it: it was that same cook, now a very sickly old man; our cook this whole week has been his very son; and the little boy was third generation whose name was "Lesaux." That's Abhishiktananda's surname, though I have no idea how they actually spelled it. I know this is not important history to everybody, but to me this was the living record of my lineage.

Speaking of all that, we have eaten so well all week. Usually even breakfast has contained two or three different items plus a fruit creme and curd and coffee. By the end of the week some of us were actually complaining about too much food and having eaten too much, an odd thing to complain about when we are surrounded by so much poverty.

Now I am packing my bags and getting ready to leave with the group for Tiruvanamalai. Will post these from there and try to catch up to date.

abhishiktananda seminar II

14 january, feast of pongal!

Today is the feast of Pongal, a festival for the new year in three parts: one day for homes, one day for cows and one day for fields. I attended a big celebration of Pongal two years ago with JP in Tiruvanamalai where he put together a Christian celebration of this feast, including the boiling over pot of milk and rice. We won't do much for it today but a lot of the local kids are out of school and more of them are hanging around the ashram. I can't believe that my time here at Shantivanam is drawing to a close already. Only two more days and we will head to Tiruvanamalai for the second part of this conference. That part will be much more informal, no talks at all, but perhaps some sharing, retreat time together at the foot of the sacred mountain Arunachala.

Continuing my recounting of the sessions. Tuesday afternoon Fr. Ama Samy gave a personal testimony. Ama Samy is a rather infamous Jesuit, a tall gaunt man (I personally think that all Jesuits should be tall and gaunt, but that's just me...), who runs a place called Bodhi Zendo here in Tamil Nadu. Ama Samy is a Zen Master in the lineage of German master, I believe. I know of him from MC and Agnete again, and have wanted both to meet him and visit Bodhi Zendo. He's a confident and strong man who can also quickly become a fiery presence, as was evidenced by him bringing up some provocative points in response to a few of the talks, raising his voice and gesturing emphatically. From what he told of us his story, this goes back a long way. He was tempted to leave the Jesuits when he was still in formation and went to see Abhishiktananda, wo convinced him to stay, get ordained and then come back to see him. So he went to see him again immediately after ordination, but by that time he had discovered that his was the way of Zen so there was no question of Ama joining Abhishiktananda anymore. Abhishiktananda had relocated to the north by then. (I didn't know that he actually had stayed in Rajpur often. It would have been cool to look up his place when I was there at Yoganga in '08.) This time he argued with Abhishiktananda a little more, and he also met Marc Chaduc, Abhishiktananda's famous disciple who disappeared after Abhishiktananda's death. This is the first time I have heard someone say that they were not too impressed with Marc. He said that he found him arrogant and thought he didn't treat his "guru" with very much respect. Again, fascinating to get a glimpse of reality.

My story about Ama Samy is less dramatic. I am always looking for the perfect kirta (shirt), and Ama's was close to it. So I asked him where one could buy shirts like that. Long story short, he gave me his, the shirt off his back (he had another). Elijah's mantle would not be a metaphor too far off either.

After Ama Samy there was a little surprise waiting us. There had been a new orange clad swami in the crowd all morning who had never been properly introduced, and he came up to talk next and MC introduced him as Swami Nityananda. I started tapping people to my left and right asking, "Is that Nityananda from Tapovan?!?" No one seemed to know or be that impressed. It was indeed he, and I was so excited I had tingles. This was the direct disciple of Gnanananda, Abhishiktananda's guru, of whom he had said, "I have met the one man before whom I would be willing to prostrate." This is also the man my dear freind Stefano spent time with last year (on his honeymoon!), "a real jnani," he had said, "a real advaitin"; and for whom Stefano and I had translated his (Stefano's) introduction to the Italian edition of "Guru and Disciple" into English. We had come up with the idea already that all of us should stop at Tapovan on the way to Tiruvanamalai this Saturday since it is right off the road, so we were to meet him in any case, but this was a wonderful surprise, to hear him speak to us about Abhishiktananda and advaita. Swami is also very well versed in Christian mysticism and gave an excellent presentation. I went up to introduce myself afterward and leaned to down to touch his feet.

Then Dr. Jane Lee gave a very good paper on the connection between Abhishiktananda and Romano Guardini, the famous early twentieth century thinker and writer who did so much to lay the ground work of Vatican II and liturgical reform. It is interesting also to keep contextualizing Abhishiktananda in the ambience of the 50's, then the 60's and a wee bit of the 70's in terms of what was going on in the greater world of theological investigation and experimentation within the Roman church especially during those days. Both these things are probably true: with his solid background in Gregorian liturgy and scholastic theology, Abhishiktananda (like Fr Bede or Lucien Diess or Daniel Berrigan) was a perfect candidate to pioneer new expressions of Christianity during the heady foment of the cultural revolution-evolution taking place in the greater world--the same revolution/evolution that turned young Joseph Ratzinger into a conservative in 1968; and I doubt that he would never get away with it now.

Wednesday morning we had a talk by Dr. Swami Shivamurthi of the Hindu Virassaiva tradition. He had been around all week already. He is a former student of Bettina's and had also done post-doctoral work in Vienna. Now he is the head of a math, which something like a monastery but more of what Christians would consider to be active religious involved in an apostolate rather than contemplatives. He stated very clearly, "I am not a monk, I am not a sannyasi. I am a madathipelthi (I had never come near to hearing that word before and had to ask George to write it in my notebook for me) which is something like an abbot, maybe more like the superior of a religious community, though he is also like a pastor and judge for the community as well, arbitrating domestic disputes before they go to court. "I have a lot of baggage and an imported car," he said. As a matter of fact, he had arrived in a car with an entourage of a few sadhus and two young men who alternated carrying his bags, taking his picture and standing nearby for whatever he needed. He wore very bright orange robes and a hat that looked something like a turban, also bright bright orange. He was heavy set and quite jovial in demeanor, and spoke rather anecdotally from the laptop that he had perched in front of him. This actually gave me a strange vantage point from where I was sitting on the floor: all I could see were the back of the laptop screen, his eyes and that orange turban. It made his jokes seem even funnier to me. He had one great image about apriori arguments for the existence of God etc.: they are like a computer that is linked to a generator. The sole job of the generator is to run the computer whose sole job is to run the computer. "What's the point?" he said. I was thinking even better that that is an apt metaphor for some institutions whose sole purpose winds up being to support the institution.

Then came a particular highpoint, a talk by Fausto Gianfredda. He is a Jesuit from Italy whom I had met twice before, once at New Camaldoli where he had spent an Easter with us, and once when we had lunch together with Thomas Matus and Heng Sure, our Chinese Buddhist monk friend, sat the Long Life Veggie Restaurant in Berkeley. I can't wait for this talk to come out in the book that is being developed from this seminar; it seems almost impossible to summarize it since it was very complicated theologically. He read the entire thing right off a prepared manuscript and went over time in spite of several adomonitions to end. It got rather comical: Bettina would tap his arm, or slip him a piece of paper, or say something, and he would say, "Yes, yes!" and then keep ploughing right through his paper. Anyway, the thrust of his argument was this, concerning the Eucharist, that by the end of his life even the Eucharist and advaita had become one for Abhishiktananda. He didn't need to discard either but instead an advaitan-eucharistic spirituality emerged, with eucharist being the most sublime expression of non-daulity. His talk led to some heavy discussion and some vehemently took exception to the whole premise, finding it too cultic, for instance. These kinds of conferences tend toward over analyzing and maybe a bit of posturing--that's what we do for fun. I usually get antsy but stay on and listen to everyone have their say. But this time the discussion got irritating for the simple reason that I thought that Fausto gave us a glimpse of the mountain top, as dense as the argument was, and our conversation was ruining that vision for me. It was time for meditation and midday prayer anyway and like my Italian confreres at Chapter meetings--or is it all religious congregations?--we quite often let the meetings run through prayer time (though never through lunch). So I slipped out and went to sit in front of the tabernacle in the chapel, thinking of the Eucharist as the highest form of non-duality, matter in right relationship with the Divine.

Wednesday afternoon things lightened up a bit. First Bettina got up for a second time, this time giving her personal testimony about her many interactions with Swamiji in the 60s and 70s. And then MC had a turn. He pulled out the metaphor of exile more for us in regards his own life as well as that of Abhishiktananda, starting out refering to the ancient story of Beowulf who needs at some point to dive deep into the sea, without his armor and without his white stag, to slay the mother of the dragon. This led into a discussion about what some folks call "double belonging," how someone could consider themselves both a Hindu and a Christian. I was happy to hear that a number of folks were uncomfortable with that phrase. I thought of the example of Gregorian chant: some folks like to say that it is a perfect wedding of music and text, but a great chant scholar once noted that that is wrong. Gregorian chant is not two things; it is sung text, words-in-music. And so for many of us (this was my contribution to the discussion), there is a particular path for each of us that seems at first to contain many different and disparate elements, a path that is what the Buddha calls our upaya, our own appropriate means of liberation. At some point, like Abhishiktananda's eucharistic advaita, they are not two or three or more different elements. They just become our path. Obviously with the discernment of our wisdom traditions and spiritual masters, but still very existential. Not how am I going to be a Christian; but how am I going to be a Christian. That accent at some point is on the subject, not the object.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

abhishiktananda seminar

13 january, 2010

Our schedule has been very crowded the last few days, and between the current coming and going as well as the internet connection malfunctioning, it has been very hard both to get to this blog or to the internet.

It is quite an exciting group that has gathered for this centenary celebration of the life of Swami Abhishiktananda, the second of three founders of Shantivanam, and considered unanimously to be a pioneer in interreligious dialogue. There are of course Dr Bettina Baumer and Benedictine William Skudlarek, the latter who is head of MID international. There is a good contigent from France, his home country, monks and nuns from the famous monasteries En Calcat and Pierre Qui Vire. There is a sizable contingent from Australia here, one priest but no other monks. The Trappist Charles Cummings is here, whose book Monastic Practices was one of my favorite reads as a novice, as is Mark Cerna, OSB former abbot from Portsmouth, Rhode Island and now head of MID in the US. For the rest I think it will list them by their presentations to give you an idea of the scope of the conference.

The well known Indian Jesuit theologian Fr. Michael Amaldoss, whom I had met with Agnete in Chennai two years ago, gave the opening talk on Sunday afternoon on Abhishiktananda's Influence on Indian Theology. He is an understated solid little man whose every word I implicitly trust. The thing I remember most about his talk was his answer to the question I myself raised. Knowing that he is a respected theologian and remembering his Irish confrere William Johnson's critique of Abhishiktananda as a "very poor theologian" I asked if, as a theologian, he felt there was any area where Abhishik needed to be corrected, or that he went too far. And he said unequivocally that he stood behind everything that Abhishiktananda wrote. Now Swamiji was not a systematic theologian, so some of it may be a little unkempt or incautiously articulated in a moment of anguish in his diary, but still, those are heavy words and it was a good way to being the week. Monday we got right to work with two morning sessions and two afternoon sessions. First came Fabrice Blee, French Canadian theologian who is head of MID for North America, gave an excellent paper on "Wandering as Spiritual Practice in Abhishiktananda," which led to a lively discussion about one of my favorite sensitive topics, Benedictine stability versus the blessed gyrovague. The theme of exile was also brought out, and how all of this leads to a depth encounter with "otherness" and the other in the area of interreligious encounter. He was followed by Swami Vinaya Chaitanya who gave a marvelous talk on the Upanishads entitled, using a quote from Abhishiktananda's diary, "The Upanishads Are True! I know it!" Vinaya is a striking character, a short man with a full greying black beard and flowing hair, a wavering but deep voice that always sounds as if it is about to break into weeping and an almost perpetual grin that pushes his cheeks up into his eyes. He was for years a disciple of Guru Narayana at an ashram in Karnatica, where he married and raised four children, and wrote six books. A year ago, having fulfilled all his duties and with permission of his wife and family, he packed a bag and started wandering. He said simply in his introduction not that he was a sannyasi, "I want to be a sannyasi." I liked that a lot. We've been spending a lot of time together outside of sessions. The afternoons are mainly going to be allotted to personal testimony, so Monday the Spanish Jesuit theologian George Gispert-Sauch spoke about his early encounters as a young Jesuit with Abhishiktananda, and then Sr Annakutty, VKF, did the same. It is marvelous for me to watch traces of the real human being come out of the shadows of history, he being dead now these 36 years.

Our schedule got thrown off a little on Tuesday morning. Just as Bettina was preparing to begin her presentation, MC rushed in and whispered in her ear, and then it was announced that there would be a little change in schedule. He had invited an acquaintance of his to come and speak and it just worked out that he was passing through right at that time with his entourage and had a couple of hours before he had to get to his next engagement, so was instantly worked into the program. His name is Nochur Venkataraman, a young Brahmin scholar who is an expert in the life and teaching of Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvanamalai, who was of course so influential on the life of Abhishiktananda. Nochur was set up at the desk in front, but as we waited for him to being there was an awkward silence as he seemed as if he were in some kind of physical pain or that he might even pass out. But then he launched into a wonderful 45 minute talk on the life and teaching of Sri Ramana Maharshi and advaita. It was a marvelous experience to hear this from the someone who is steeped in this not with scholarly detachment but as someone who is a living breathing disciple and teacher. MC explained later what the hesitation was. Nochur is a well known teacher all throughout south India, teaching usually in Tamil or Malayam or Sanskrit. Up until 30 seconds before he began he didn't know who the group was and he rarely teaches in English, so he was conjuring up his whole teaching in those few seconds. "You should hear him in Tamil," MC told us later. He apparently breaks into song and gets people "all fired up," MC said. Then Bettina, who was most gracious in being "dethroned," as she put it, gave a very erudite paper on Kashmir Shaivism, which is her area of expertise, noting the elements of that tradition that are foreshadowed in the thought of Abhishiktanandna. This is an area not at all in my expertise so I was happy to get a glimpse into it. What remained with me from her presentation was the insistence that symbol and ritual are not necessarily opposed to the advaitan spirituality but can be conduits to it since Kashmir Shaivism rejects the notion of maya solely as illusion. Bettina has mentioned twice now the idea of symbol and archetype, how Abhishiktananda was able to recognize that the signs he encountered in Indian spirituality contained the reality that they signified, a distinction made also in Christian sacramental theology. I asked how much his background in liturgy and liturgical spirituality made him especially amenable to that. This has become a bit of an underlying theme, how sign and symbol, nama¬-rupa, name and form are not simply rejected in an acosmic spirituality, but transcended. I like to say that we go through them, but it is decidely through, meaning we don't get caught in them--we go through them, but neither do we skip them--we need to go through them.

more later...

hurry up and wait

(In a bit of a rush to post this, please excuse typos…)

Never be troubled by the time that is being taken,
even if it seems very long,
but when imperfections and obstructions come,
arise with the necessary steadfastness and zeal
and leave God do the rest.
(Sri Aurobindo)

12 jan, 2010

The little things I forget about being in India that rub off some of the romanticism: I sit pretty comfortably on the floor in half lotus by now, but back home never for this many hours in the day. So by the third or fourth day here muscles are aching that usually don't, in my middle back and especially around my knees and shins. There's also trying to negotiate sitting down with some dignity on the floor of the chapel in front of a crowd of people, slipping my feet under my dhoti without offering a view of my underwear, also, for instance. All that to say, yoga asana feels like a necessity in the morning for me here, not a luxury. I gotta stretch, and that reminds me of Swami Amaldas' advice early on: the whole point of the asana practice is remove the physical impediments that prevent us from sitting in meditation longer.

They asked me to preach again yesterday, which I was honored to do, espeically int he midst of such and august group of people that have gathered at this seminar, many of them, of course, monastics from around the world since this event is sponsored by MID--Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue. Last time I was at the monastery, Isaiah told me of a adage of Bruno, something like "Three things that are a waste of time: rain over the ocean, the moon during the day, and preaching to monks."

Anyway, yesterday of course we begin in earnest what's called ordinary time in the liturgical year, from the word "ordinal"; these are the weeks that get counted. We start couting time. I remember a reading an article once that was entitled, "There's nothing ordinary about ordinary time," but I'm not sure that's true. It has a pretty broad focus on themes like Jesus' mission and our discipleship. After all the color and light of Christmas and before we get to the heaviness and then jubilation of Easter, we're back to business as usual, counting time. So it's very interestring to note what readings the church picks to inaugurate this new season. It's especially appropriate that we heard the story of the calling of Simon and Andrew, James and John from the Gospel of Mark, called from their nets and their boats and their father to "fish for people instead." We pick up right where we left off, even last week, after John has been arrested and Jesus is totally on his own now. Does Jesus himself have a sense of new found urgency now that John has been arrested? The old law is past, the new is breaking in on us like the dawn from on high. Actually there's a sense of urgency and immediacy about the whole Gospel of Mark. We keep hearing words like "and then..." and "immediately..." like someone breathlessly telling a story: and then... and then... and then... And so with no lingering doubts, no thinking about it, Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow, James and John leave their father and follow.

The guys at the formation house and I were talking abotu the gunas the other day that need to be kepty in balance through yoga--the fiery rajas that can tend toward passion and addiction, slow moving tamas that can tend toward laziness and depression, and lightsome sattwic that come when all is in balance. I like the rajasic urgency of the Gospel of Mark and of John the Baptist and the Gospel in general. We sometimes need that urgency, a little bit of rajas to get us out of our tamas, a little bit of fire to break the inertia of our lethargy.

But then what? We were always taught the kingdom of God is a matter of already and not yet. And the corollary to that in the spiritual life is "hurry up and wait." It's also interesting that we heard the story of Hannah the mother of Samuel again, the same story we heard just before Christmas. We're gonna hear the whole thing later in the week so we know that it has a happy ending, but for right now we are left with the childless mother, the barren womb which, all sexist implications aside, is a powerful archetype for the Jewish scriptures: Sarah the mother of Isaac, the mother of Samson, how often the childless wife gets mentioned in the psalms and the prophets. Aside from parents or those called to be parents, for me the childless mother can also serve as a symbol of the barrenness even of the spiritual life, or our spiritual itinerary. There is the fire and the urgency of the initial call, the rush to leave behind home and family and dreams of the spiritual heights on Mount Kailash, but then in reality the whole of it can be a lot more mundane and feel as if we are giving birth to nothing, that our marriage to the Lord has been barren. So we get warned about that with this reading, and we are ultimately going to be given hope from the rest of the story which we will hear. But a part of us may just be sick and tired of hearing about it or having given up hope of ever experiencing growth in the spiritual life. That's the tamas.

I read this little passage in Aurobindo the other day that speaks to this and gave me a breath of patience and consolation:

Never be troubled by the time that is being taken, even if it seems very long, but when imperfections and obstructions come, arise by apramatta, dheeva, and have the utsaaha, ("... the necessary steadfastness and zeal of the sadhaka) and leave God do the rest. Time is necessary. It is a tremendous work being done in you, the alteration of your whole human anture into a divine nature, the crowding of centuries of evolution into a few years. You ought not grudge the time.

A friend of mine told me that he used to get up every day and say, "Is today the day, Lord? Is today the day you're going ot shatter my blindness, break through my deafness?" I want to add that favortie themse of mine, that time for us is also a sacrament which God uses for our salvation and liberation, our moksha.

There's one more little thing I want to mention, and that's gratitude. In ashtanga yoga my favorite of the yamas, the controls, is santosha--a sense of contentment with what we have, with who we are, not comparing or contrasting or longing for more, but a firm resolve to let our roots sink deep into the soil--the humus¬¬¬--of humility and gratitude. In the closing lines of the storywe heard from Samuel Hannah's husband Elkanah says to her in the midst of her lamenting her barreness, "Why are you weeping? Am I not enough for you?" That also gets conveyed in the psalm that we sang in response to the reading, which is the eucharistic psalm par excellence: "How can I repay the Lord for all the good done for me? The only thing I can do is take this cup into my hands and call on his name."

So I guess the trick is to try to combine all of these three things in right proportion, enough rajas to rekindle a sense of urgency, enough tamas for a sense of patience, knowing that this is a long slow process, and in the midst of it, some sattvic gratitude--santosha and offer our thanks for what is being done in us slowly, by the grace of God.

Friday, January 8, 2010

i must decrease, you must increase

Those who contemplate on the all-wise, ageless Being,
the ruler of all, subtler than the subtlest, the universal sustainer,
possessing a form beyond human conception,
effulgent like the sun and far beyond the darkness of ignorance,
truly reach the supreme Purusha.
(Bhagavad Gita 8:9)

9 jan, 2010

The first guests have arrived for the Abhishiktananda centenary, actually the conveners themselves--Bettina Baumer and William Skudlarek, OSB. Bettina was a disciple and friend of Abhishiktananda, and if I recall correctly was told by Abhishiktananda to go back to Germany, her homeland, to get her doctorate so that people would take her seriously here in India. I think he was referring specifically to men in a time when the male culture had even more of a stronghold on all things intellectual. So she did and has been here ever since, with her main base in Benares but also a beautiful retreat spot up above Rishikesh. She also worked with the great Hindu-Christian scholar Raimundo Pannikar on his major work on Vedic spirituality, and is mainly focused now on Kashmir Shaivism. Fr William on the other hand is a Benedictine monk from St. John's Abbey in Minnesota whose current work is in Rome as head of the MID--Monastic Inter-religious Dialogue--the group that is organizing this event. I told him last night that he was like a Marine, sent wherever to do whatever is needed: he was stationed in Brazil and Japan, he speaks four or five languages and is also a professional 'cellist. A real erudite man, perfect for the job. He's just coming in from Thailand.

There are two things I hadn't realized about this conference, first of all that it is only open to members of MID (I didn't actually know that I was a member, but please don't tell anyone); and secondly that this is not the major event celebrating Abhishiktananda at Shantivanam! That will take in December on Abhishiktananda's actual birthday. There must be some reason I am here for this one instead of that one, though this one may be a little heady whereas the birthday party sounds like it would be more fun.

So I'm preaching today. It's the last official day of the Christmas-Epiphany season and we hear the story from the Gospel of John of Jesus and his disciples going into the region of Judea and starting to baptise people. John the Baptist's disciples approach John and ask him what he thinks about this, and John at the end says the beautiful phrase, "This is my joy and now it is complete. He must increase, and I must decrease." I just finished reading a book by the famous biblical scholar Jerome Murphy-O'Connor called "Jesus and Paul: Parallel Lives." There's a wonderful section on Jesus and John the Baptist that stuck in my mind and I have been wanting to preach about it, so here is my chance.

In this book Murphy-O'Connor states unequivocally that he believes that Jesus was a disciple-student-follower of John the Baptist. He speculates that Jesus had not gotten adequate answers as to the nature of his vocation from his parents when he was a young boy, and so was impelled to search for answers back at the temple among the elders. He was still unsatisfied as he got older and so joined up with the Baptizer and, Murphy-O'Connor believes, fully bought into John's mission at first, which was to return Israel to strict observance of the covenant, kind of like a young person looking for a sense of identity in this day and age joining a fundamentalist-evangelical church. So, in other words, he suggests that Jesus himself at an early stage of his public life was a bit of a fundamentalist, a zealot for the Law; and certain passages in Scripture are from that period, when Jesus says things as he does in Matthew 5 like, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law... not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law...", passages, I might add, that I have done somersaults to try and interpret in the best light in the past. But he suggests that some time around the imprisonment and death of John, Jesus has a kind of conversion experience, a change of heart about the Law, and those more fundamentalist passages about the Law are simply slipped in out of context from the rest of Jesus' gospel, for instance here in the Sermon on the Mount, that comes out of his mature understanding. At some point Jesus completely turns his back on the Law and with it he rejects any notion of punishment or restitution, and of course turns his back on the teaching of John the Baptist. Murphy-O'Connor lays out a pretty convincing argument that this is exactly why Jesus irritates his contemporary Jews. From now on out the one thing necessary is simply to follow him, as is shown in the story of Matthew itself--no punishment is meted out and no restitution is demanded. One simply must now follow Jesus.

I had all that in mind when I read that scene from the Gospel of John, as if this were the moment it was starting to happen. If Murphy-O'Connor is correct, imagine that Jesus has now stepped out on his own, no longer in his cousin's shadow, and there seem to be some questions about ritual purity. You can feel the poignancy of this moment for John, and it makes his words have even more pathos and weight to them. Not only is Jesus beginning to understand his mission, John is coming to understand Jesus' mission and his own, and is graciously bowing out and yielding to what has been ordained from heaven. There could hardly be more powerful words in Scripture nor a better example of how we are to be in our relationship to Christ and his Gospel, as well as in our own interpersonal relationships, especially with those for whom we exercise some kind of leadership as mentor, teacher, superior, parent: This is my joy and now it is complete: You must increase--I must decrease. My love for you, my devotion to you is not about me: it's about you. I don't want you: I want for you. I would give my life for yours. This is the love that presages crucified love.

There's an excitement about this scene too, you can sense that something new is dawning, as John's father Zechariah had sung in the canticle when John was born, "the dawn from high is breaking upon the earth to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadows of death." In our own little world, too. Christmas usually comes and goes pretty quickly, like a sugar high the way we usually celebrate it, and then yields to the deeper implications of the mystery of Incarnation. This year it feels as if we have had a rather long drawn out Christmas season, but today it ends giving way to the beginning of Ordinary time with the great feast of the Baptism of the Lord tomorrow which we will celebrate tomorrow. And how appropriate (I'll assume Bettina planned it this way) that tomorrow, the Baptism of the Lord, would also be the opening of the centenary event of Abhishiktananda's life, since for Abhhishiktananda Jesus' Baptism was the pivotal moment in Jesus' own life and self-understanding. This new dispensation of Jesus, his whole new gospel, comes from this experience, when Jesus discovered, as Abhishiktananda put it, that the I AM of God belonged to himself or, to put it the other way around, (I never tire of quoting this) when "in the brilliant light of his own I AM, Jesus discovers the true, total, and unimaginable meaning of the name of God." But that meaning has nothing to do with punishment, nothing to do with petty human laws or our notions of justice, nothing to do with cultural conditioning or blood lines, nothing to do with the layers of interpretation we put over the experience, nothing to with death. As a matter of fact so far beyond death as to make death merely a vehicle of a greater power, a greater life, not unlike the death John the Baptist is facing in this scene, not just his beheading, but the surrender of his importance, his decreasing so that Christ may increase in him and around him in the world.

This is the death we are called to as well by virtue of our Baptism, if not by our lives of renunciation: Christ increasing and our little selves decreasing 'til we can make the words of St. Paul our own, that beautiful formula for the Christian version of the non-dual experience: it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. Only by this way will we go beyond death to discover resurrection power at work in us. Only this way will we know the dawn from on high that breaks upon those who dwell in the shadow of death. Only this way will we know that Great Person of the sun-like splendor beyond the darkness. There is no other way to go. We must decrease, so that Christ will increase in us and around us.

on the forest of peace

8 january 2010, Shantivanam

Like so many people I have already built up muscle memories of this place. When I go back to New Camaldoli in Big Sur, it's as if my body knows exactly how to be there. And so it has been here at Shantivanam these first two days. The transition in was pretty much seamless--no surprises, no jolts. MC met me at the airport in Trichy in a taxi after the early arrival of my amazingly smooth flight on a Kingfisher twin prop plane down from Chennai, and we drove to back to Shantivanam on the bumpy road out of Trichy in a taxi that George had graciously hired for me for the occasion. I must say, though it would have been awkward with guitar and backpack, I was actually looking forward to a ride on the bus. MC and I picked up in the car as if we had just left off the conversation yesterday, Mary Louise had a late lunch waiting for us at Ananda, and then we trudged the kilometre over to the formation house where we were greeted by George and the three brothers here. Shushila, the housekeeper, had afternoon tea within moments of arrival.

There are five guys staying here at the formation house: George, prior, and John Robert who made solemn vows and was ordained three years ago, two novices named Savio and Elbis whom I had met in '08, and a new postulant with the unique name Dorathich of which he is not even sure the origin except that it might be Greek or Hebrew. Dorathich is a Tamilian in his early thirties from way down on the tip of India where the three bodies of water meet who already has degrees in Aryuvedic medicine and Yogic science from Kerala. I am thrilled that Shantivanam has someone like that around and have asked him some questions about it, though he is a little diffident to speak about it. We may do some asana together today. John Robert was in hospital until yesterday having been diagnosed with a case of the dreaded chicun gunea (I am totally guessing at the spelling of that--it sounds to me as if they are saying "chicken guneeya," but I was assured it has nothing to do with chickens. It is carried by mosquitos and in the air, and you get flu like symptoms, etc.) so he is not very present. The ashram itself is also very sparsely manned at this point: Bro Martin is away giving talks in Auroville, Fr Dominic has taken a leave of absense, even the old lay Bro George is out sick, so that pretty much leaves Paul to lead the midday and evening prayers by himself. Indeed MC and the guests help to carry it often and once already this week had to do it by themselves without any monks. There are a host of old friends here, some staying across the street with Mary Louise: Antonella, Carl, Doreena, Jill Hemmings and of course MC, so that has also made it feel as if I were picking up where I left off. I always enjoy taking advantage of the dynamic between the three places--Shantivanam, the sisters' ashram and the formation house--though I don't think there are many who experience it from that vantage point: George always wants me to stay with him here at the formation house and to "take class" and pray with the young guys, so late nights and early mornings are here in this very quiet place; but we all go for morning prayer and Mass at Shantivanam itself at 6:30; we stay for breakfast but on the way home I stop and have a cuppa with MC et al at Ananda. I never want to presume on Sr Mary Louise since she handles quite a crowd rthere and caters to them scrupulously (and has shown her ire if you add to her burden without being asked...), but the first morning I showed up after I ate, while ther others were eating and announced that I was not coming for breakfast, just to bask in their company. Mary Louise said, "And for a cup of my coffee" which I have declared to be ther best in India. This morning I ported MC's guitar with me and sat in the corner playing while they ate. That led Mary Louise to come up to me, kiss me on the forehead and said, "Why don't come here and eat these days before the conference starts, eh?" Anyway, then I put myself to work, mostly writing, at my desk back at the formation house. (Don't know why it is India brings out the writer in me, but it sure does.) Midday prayer and lunch here at the formation house and then after a long walk along the river in the late afternoon I go up to what MC and I call the Abhishiktananda chapel at Ananda, a long cool second story prayer hall, for some guitar time in that gorgeous acoustic after which MC and I do an hour meditation together before evening prayer and dinner at Shantivanam. Actually there is only going to be two more days of this since the conference begins right away on Sunday. I'm sorry for that; it makes being on the road a lot easier when there are those "muscle memories" of how to be in a place. I suspect it will be so in Tiru as well.

After talking it over with MC, I think I know a little better how the weeks ahead will look: after the retreat conference here we will go to Tiruvanamalai--Sri Ramana Ashram--with the group on Saturday the 16th to continue the retreat-conference there (Bettina has stressed that she wants this to be as much as retreat as a conference), though MC seems to think it will be very informal there in Tiru. Then I will hook up with our friend JP and Agnete from Denmark who is flying in on the 19th in time for the three of us to attend Theophilus' wedding in Chennai. (Theophilus is the one who played tabla for me for the concerts in '07 and '08, and was a student at Gurukul Theological Seminary in Cehennai where I led a retreat day on Ash Wednesday in '08 as well. We have stayed in touch sporadically and he was thrilled to find out that I was going to be here when his wedding was to take place. I'm pretty psyched too.) After that I am in JP's service until the end of the month though I still have no idea what exactly I'll be doing or for whom. Then I plan to go to Bangalore as I am assured that our guys studying there, Pinto and especially George with whom I spent alot of time in '07, are quite excited about me coming to see them. They are studying in seminary there, but live in a boarding house, a hostel of sorts, George says, with plenty of extra guest rooms. I am assured by others who have been there that there would be no problem with me staying for four or five days. I think then that I will skip Indore, since there is actually only one sister there now, not the one I know, and it will be a little difficult to get to. Instead MC thinks I should have our friend Kumar in Tiru find me a cheap flight from there to Delhi where I have a room booked the 6th and 7th and can meet my friends for at least part of the Sufi Urs music festival. From there it is still not clear how I will spend the days from the 8th until the 16th when I fly out of Delhi, but hopefully that will work out. I certainly don't want to stay in Delhi but we will see what my adventurousness level is to spend the week tramping around farther north re-visiting Haridwar and Rishikesh where I will know many folks. Sr Turiya from Jeevandhara Ashram in Rishikesh will be here for the conference, and I think I may just ask her if she has room for me for a few days and spend the time there, perhaps making a short trip over to Haridwar to visit Sri Ram and immerse myself for a moment in the madness of the Kumba Melha which is taking place. there. More on that later.