Sunday, February 28, 2010

the ancient art of god symbolism

28 feb, 2010, on the way home.

On my way home now, back in Singapore for one day before flying back to California tomorrow. After the reletive retreat of the first days in KL, the last few days were kind of a blur of activity, and the weather was unrelentingly humid and hot, so I got back here pretty tired and slept the air-conditioned sleep of a worn out pilgrim last night here at the friary of St Mary of the Angels.

There were two concerts Friday. The first was in the afternoon at Pure Life Society itself, sponsored by the INSAF, the inter-religious group there. Beforehand I had sat for a few minutes with Mr PK, one of Mother's main assistants, and Dr Amir, the secretary of INSAF, whom I had met last year. Dr Amir is a devout Muslim who is also involved in all kinds of experiments with body-mind techniques and traditions, including Qi Gong. He writes a regular newpaper column about it all. He told me about a special song that is sung for Muhammad on that day, being the Prophet's birthday, and I suggested that he do it at the beginning of the event, to which he hesitantly agreed. So as we began, Mr PK introduced Dr Amir as "the only Muslim in attendance today," and he sang the chant for us, quite well, too, in spite of his diffidence.

About a third of the crowd was made up of the senior students from Pure Life, both boys and girls ranging from about 12 to 17 years old. They were not always the most attentive crowd, especially the girls who were doing a lot of talking and giggling even into the first three or four songs. I kept looking over their way while I was speaking and even while I was singing, trying to catch an eye or two directly instead of scolding them, that old teacher trick. It took a while for it to work, which of course had a negative affect on the rest of the crowd too and so I was unusually distracted and dropped a few verses and chords here and there. That makes for a lot of work. So I started leaning toward more audience participation than I had planned on because that did tend to keep their attention more. Because of the incident here last year about my poor pronunciation of an Arabic word, combined with the recent controversy over Christians and the use of the word "Allah," I had decided not to perform either "Bismillah" or "The Drink Sent Down," partly because I didn't want to seem like a smart aleck stirring up trouble, and partly as a kind of gentle protest, to be in solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters who have not been allowed to speak their own language. Instead I was going to allude to the controversy and sing "The Ground We Share." But since Mr PK had said that Dr Amir was the only Muslim in attendance (which meant my interlocuter from last year was not there) and since I really needed more audience participation, I pulled out the "Bismillah" after all. And I'm glad I did because it was a big hit again, so much so that one of the other members of INSAF told me twice later that I simply must get them a copy of the song, both recorded and written, so that they can use it, and Mother mentioned also as I was leaving how much she loved it. "And a song like that is especially salient here in Malaysia," she told me, "where we are all living together." Another man said, "If Muslims could see with what passion you sing the name of Allah they would be convinced that there was no controversy." I also sang "The Ground We Share" and they would like that one too for their use. I tell people sometimes that I grew up in an era when I really believed that you could change the whole world with a single song, and I am feeling pretty certain of it again. (So, Pennington and Rivera: we have got some work to do...) Mother also asked if I would consider writing a theme song for Pure Life and INSAF. These comments from people after a concert are often the greatest learning experiences I have. Another woman told me pointedly, "It is so good that you are out here singing these songs and doing this work as an American" (not as a Christian monk mind you--as an American--"because we have such a poor opinion of Americans in this part of the world now after these last years." I told her about writing to Eboo Patel, the increasingly well-known Muslim speaker and author who is on the President's Council for Inter-religious Initiatives (I probably got that latter name wrong): "If you do talk to the President, please just let him know that I am out here doing my part. If it matters to him, there is one monk wandering the world singing these songs, doing his part."

The other point of that story was that my interlocuter from last year was actually there; he has slipped in late. I wish I had known and we could have spoken. I think he actually did me a great service.

After the concert at SFX that night (St Francis Xavier Church as opposed to SFA, St Francis of Assisi) there was an unusual number of folks wanting me to sign their CDs. There are always a handful but this time, even though the church was mobbed, it seemed way out of proportion. While I was singing away a group of 8 or 9 young people approached me, a little shyly, one or two of them wanting me to sign, some just wanting to stand there it seemed. They had such beautiful birght faces that I really wanted to bask in their presence, so I started a conversation with them. I could tell from looking at them that they were neither Chinese, Indian or Malay and I found out soon on that they were all from the island of Borneo, from the two states, Sabah and Sarawak, in the north quarter of the island that are known as Eastern Malaysia. The southern rest of the island belongs to Indonesia. (More and more the whole idea of borders between so-called countries seems so arbitrary, especially the ones super-imposed by the colonials.) In the course of chatting with them and asking them questions, I ascertained that they are all Catholics and that they all live together, and that turned into an arrangement for me to come to their place on Saturday for lunch and music. After a wonderful Saturday morning trek through a jungle park named Gassling Park with a friend of his, Jeff, Dr Pat's son, who has been my interpid chauffeur, running partner and dharma protector all week, drove me out to Shah Alam, an area about 20 km outside of KL. Shah Alam is home to the famous impressive Shah Allam sport stadium and also to UITM, the University of Islamic Technology and Management. This university is reserved to "bumis"--short for "bumi putras"-sons of the land, in other words, no Chinese or Indians, only ethnic Malays, who are all Muslim, but also through a kind of loop hole in the law, the indigenous peoples of Eastern Malaysia, since they are also technically "bumis." What makes the Eastern Malaysians feel twice out-of-place there is that not only are they not Malays, they are not Muslims, but mostly Christians. So one of the bishops on Borneo bought this house specifically for Eastern Malaysian Catholics to live together. Mind you, they themselves are only somewhat related geographically, but are from different states and different tribes and therefore different language groups themselves. They communicate mostly in Bahasa, but are mainly united in that they are all Catholic. These, of course, are also the main people affected by the ban on using the word "Allah," since that is the word for God in their language. It all got very concrete, and fascinating. These are little nuances about which most of us in the West would have no idea at all.

About 15 of them gathered to meet with me, soem whom I had not met yet. They all came pouring out of the house as we pulled up. One of the members of the group is a very talented artist named Kandy. He has already finished school, but while working toward making a living on his art he remains there in the house serving as the cook. I was told he was famous for "Kandy Soup," and I had asked for that specifically. They had a very nice meal of that and many other dishes laid out on the mats on the floor of the main room and we chatted through lunch, mostly us asking eachother questions. I think I had more questions for them than they for me.

Then after eating we spent most of the next hour and a half singing. They did a bunch of their songs for me, the words projected onto a screen from a computer, in a variety of languages, mostly in the "praise and worship" genre. These included at least one song in English that went like this: "Move a little bit for Jesus, you feel good (sic): bop-shoobop, bop-bop-shoobop," followed by some bahasa words: "Fewah, fewah, fewah-oh..." Then, "Twist a little bit for Jesus..." and "bump," "dance," etc., all with motions. They liked what they called "action songs." At one point they also sang a beautiful "Alleluia" in a pentatonic scale in imitation of an indigenous stringed instrument which I recored on my phone, and they also performed a dance for me. Two of the guys were pretty good guitarists, first just accompanying the group, but then I asked each of them to play a little something. The one, Zyzy, has been studying classical guitar and he did two nice pieces for us. The other, Rolland, did a Latin jazz piece, also very good. I did a little set for them too of the pieces that I thought they would like the most: "Sab Bhole" from India, "Lovingkindness" from Indonesia, and the my bluesy arrangment of the American Quaker "How Can I Keep From Singing," which Rolland played along with me. It was great fun. Jeff and I had had an agreement that he would pick me back up in two hours but if it wasn;'t going well I coul djust text him and he would come earlier. When he arrived we were singing and dancing, so he came in and we stayed another half and hour while we prayed together and they showered me with gifts, including a framed copy of one of Kandy's latest prints.

At the concert at SFA on Friday night, on the other hand, there was one young guy who was sitting to my left who even without my glasses on I could tell was riveted in attention through the whole evening. As at SFX the night before, I geared this event toward half singing/half speaking on Lenten themes. I spent a good fifteen minutes just explaining the theology behind "Streams of Living Water" and another on "This Is Who You Are," for instance. For me, when someone is paying as much attention as this guy was, it really gives me a lot of energy, so after the performance when he came up and introduced himself, I thanked him for his energy. His name was Ian, and he is the conductor of the youth choir there at that church. (They were rehearsing that very night after the concert, by the way, at 10 PM!) He introduced me to his father Patrick and his brother Julian as well, who are also both musicians, and was really keen to talk about music and spirituality. As a matter of fact, I was to be presiding at Mass there Saturday night, so we arranged to get together afterward with him and his brother and some other members of the youth choir. One of Dr Pat's friends from SFA had also arranged a dinner for us all, so we wound up a group of about 20 driving across town to a wonderful Chinese restaurant in a shopping mall (thanking God by this time for the air-conditioning), gathered at two large round tables. About a dozen of the young people showed up so we were all together at one table, Ian right to my left. He started with the first question of the evening and we, or mostly I, talked straight through the whole meal, with food continuously appearing on my plate every time I looked down. They asked great questions, some about increasing their own spiritual life and that of their music ministry, and some other questions about dealing with other religious traditions. I won't go into the whole conversation here obviously but just these two points. First, I was so grateful again to talk about a theology of the Word, and the Word as beauty-truth-goodness and the semine verbi--"seeds of the Word," and how when we really understand that, it becomes a bridge to other traditions. Secondly, as I was explaining to them some more of the inner meaning of liturgy as I understood it, again I was convinced of how powerful liturgical spirituality is, and that as Catholics that is our greatest treasure.

I've been reading the book "The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals" by Swami Parthasarathy, the father of the Sunandaji who gave those excellent classes on the Gita last week, and the introduction to the book, similar to what she herself said in one of her talks, really impressed me. It's another way of saying what I keep haranguing about to my religion teacher friends about the Bible: "Just read them the stories! Just read those great stories!" In this post-modern age of demytholigization (excuse that word), we've lost something that someone like Baba Hari Das has recovered for the folks up at Mount Madonna, for instance. Here's how Swami Parthasarathy puts it: He says that Hinduism perfected the ancient "art of God-symbolism." But, and this certainly does not apply just to Hindus, this ancient art has gone neglected, with the result that the symbols festivals and rituals "have been shorn of their philosophical significance and reduced to mere superstition," such that Hindus have either blindly accepted or rejected them. What he aims at is exposing the deeper philosophical meaning of these rituals, symbols and festivals, and I might add he does it very well. And that is what we could do with liturgical spirituality and an approach to Scripture such as lectio divina as well. Just like in that little act of mixing the water and the wine at Mass--"may we come to share the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity"--if we leave out little rituals and gestures like that in the name of expediency or avoiding superstition instead of evoking the deeper meaning they convey to another part of the brain through another medium of communication--the mythic mind instead of the rational mind--, we are on the course of starving our soul of its favorite language, the language of song, poetry, art, dance.

Anyway... After the meal and conversation, I wanted some of my favorite Malaysian teh tarik, so Ian offered to take me home across town to Puchong himself so that I could spend more time with them. They took me to their favorite mamak--the name for the Indian Muslim eateries that are so popular in Malaysia, especially among young people. I am told that they are the Malaysian equivalent of American junk food, but our junk food should be so good! Roti and fired noodles, all kinds of fatty meat dishes and of course, teh tarik, literally "pulled tea," made with condensed milk and swung through the air ("pulled") to aerate it and give it a rich deep taste. More talk there and then we stopped back at Ian and Julian's house, where Julian impressed me with a bit of Chopin on the electric piano. We added their mother and an aunty who the route straight to Puchong to our caravan and around midnight they delivered me safely to Pure Life for my last very warm night in the swami's hut on the hill.

Pat, Jeff and Joe drove me down to Singapore, where they were coming anyway for a housewarming party at Jeff's new apartment on Sunday. I made a brief appearance there too but was happy to find my way to "my" room here at the friary. I got a nice run around Bukit Batok Nature Park this morning, then treated myself to one more breakfast of teh, half-boiled eggs and kaya toast down at the hawkers below, and am now waiting for Leonard who will host me to hop around and have a last visit with several friends here before I head home in the morning. I'm so grateful for all the wonderful hearts and souls that I've encountered on the way, and longing to see the faces of the wonderful hearts and souls in the ground we share back in California.

In the name of the One beyond all names,
the Word made flesh
and the Spirit poured into our hearts,
in whom we live and move and have our being,
may all be happy,
may all be free from ills,
may all realize what is good.
May none be subject to misery.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

parallel universes

"Let us come to an agreement on the things we hold in common..."
(Qur'an 3:64))

"This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before."
(Leonard Bernstein)

25 feb, 2010, birthday of the muhammad (peace be upon him!)

There's a story of something that happened to me some years ago that keeps recurring to me these past few days, that's sort of an snapshot of how wierd and wonderful my life these past years has been. I was on my way to Washington DC, having been invited by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to be one of a panel of musicians to consult on liturgical chant for the new Sacramentary, the offical book of prayers for the Mass. To be honest, despite my babbling on and on about Hindu bhajans and African-American spirituals at the consultation, I think it had actually already been decided that the Gregorian chant in the Roman Missal was going to be translated into and adapted slightly for English, but they did gather some of us in two different localities to discuss it, mainly who was going to do it and some of the fine points of meter and rhythm, etc. And it did feel like quite an honor to have been asked to be included on the panel, though I was never consulted again (probably because of my babbling on and on about Hindu bhajans and African-American spirituals). I remember that I was the only one in the room without either a Roman collar or a coat and tie. I was trying to be on my best behaviour, but I remember at one point jumping up and singing something for the whole crowd, perhaps even kind of dancing a little as I did it, as is my wont. The headquarters were very imposing--this is also the center of the political arm of the Bishops' Conference--security was tight. The whole proceedings were filmed and there was a microphone before each of our places at the long conference tables. It felt Very Serious, and I felt very out-of-place.

But the evening before, it just so happened that a young man named Chris, whom I had met while staying with Abbot Francis Kline (of blessed memory) at Mepkin Abbey the previous summer, was going to be passing through Washington DC the very day that I was arriving. So we arranged for he and his traveling companion, Rick, to meet me at the airport, take me to my hotel room, and spend the evening together. We managed to find each other at the airport, and I remember that as soon as I climbed into the back seat of the car, Rick, who was driving, looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked me a question about "cosmic consciousness," picking up on a conversation that Chris and I had had the previous summer--and we were off. We spent a kind of ecstatic evening together talking about spirituality and many other things. They were both part of an inter-religious spiritual group at their university in Pennsylvania and were both quite bright and articulate. Rick, it turns out, was a Muslim of Mideastern background. At one point in the conversation, Chris and I were talking about meditation and the use of a mantra, and I mentioned to Rick the 99 Beautiful Names of God that are found in the Qur'an, and what a beautiful mantra one or all of those names would make, prayed on the tasbih-prayer rope. But, to my surprise, he had never heard of the 99 Beautiful Names of God! So I remember dragging them back to my hotel room and tearing my suitcase apart (this was pre-Eagle Creek backpack days) because I just happened to have two copies of the Beautiful Names with me that I had recently photocopied. One was already in my Bible, where it still is today, near the picture of a prisoner in Abu Ghraib with his hands gripping the bars of his cell, a tasbih intertwined in his fingers; and I was sure that the reason I had made that second copy was to give it to Rick.

The first reason I've thought about this event is because during an interview for the parish newsletter last week in Singapore, when the interviewer asked me why I studied the other world religions, I thought immediately of Rick, and how glad I was that I knew enough about his tradition to be able to point him toward his own tradition and be of service to him. The second reason I thought about it was the shift in consciousness that I had to undergo from that ecstatic evening with those two young searchers talking about the evolution of consciousness and spirituality as contrasted to the necessarily, I suppose, conservative and rather staid environment of the USCCB headquarters the next morning discussing the adaptation of Gregorian chant into English with no real probability of another approach. It was like walking in two parallel universes, without the benefit of passing through any kind of de-pressurization chamber. The other reason I thought about it was because, on my way home from India and in the midst of staying here at the Pure Life Society with Mother Mangalam, Dr Pat took me to visit the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur the other day.

I didn't know what to expect. Pat always refers to him, without any irony, as "His Grace," so I was prepared for all kinds of formality, and even asked at one point if I should kiss his ring. (She said absolutely not.) He was involved in a clergy day of recollection at the pastoral center and was going to receive us during their tea break at 5:30 PM. He was a lovely man, very gracious and articulate, dressed very casually in secular clothes, and had the real heart of a pastor. And we spent most of the time talking about liturgy. The whole conversation got started when he asked me what the popularity of the Latin Mass was in America, and I asked him in turn if he had had to sign off on the new translation of the Roman Missal in English, since Malaysia is also an English speaking country. It seemed to me that both sides of the whole foment over language is sort of lost on him, the liberals who don't like the new translation (mostly Americans, English and Australians) and the conservatives who are pushing for more and more Latin. As for the former, he had celebrated the Rite of Catachumens in four languages the other day, English, Tamil, Bahasa and Mandarin, so the accuracy of the English translation was not his main priority. As for the second, the same situation applied. Even when he had his ad limina visit with the Holy Father, the archbishop explained the same situation to him, and how he didn't have the time and resources to devote to encouraging a Latin Mass. He said the Pope understood that very well and let him know that the most important thing was that his people knew they were loved by God. He also gave a little apocryphal tidbit about Don Cipriano that I didn't know.

Side note: the good bishop was quite taken with the fact that I chose my name partly because of Don Cipriano Vagaggini, the late great liturgist of whom he was a great admirer, especially when I told him that Don Cipriano had ended his life as a Camaldolese. The archbishop knew well of Shantivanam and Fr Bede, and he said that Vagaggini thought that the Indian rite was a wonderful ritualization of the inner meaning of the eucharistic doxology, with the waving of the light and incense before the consecrated bread and wine.

Anyway, after all these weeks of everything they have been, it did feel like a bit of an abrupt shift to spend and hour talking about liturgy and liturgical music with the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and even more to go back to Pure Life and jump right in another car and head back to the lectures on the Bhagavad Gita with Mother Mangalam. (We also went on Wednesday, so I was able to attend three out of four in all.) Aside from those two things, I have had nothing else to do all week until last night when I had my first of three concerts here. It has been steamy hot here, with no escape from the humidity and heat except to sit still or slip into an air-conditioned room somewhere. I've for the most part opted for sitting still.

Last night's concert was at the Jesuit parish, St Francis Xavier. I was told that this parish might be a little more on the traditional side, so was advised to stick to mainly Christian songs as opposed to the world music, and especially to avoid the "A" word. I thought they meant "alleluia" because it's Lent, but they meant "Allah." I think I have already written about that. Short version: the government has tried to prevent Christians from using the word "Allah" in print or in in public speaking (along with 12 other Arabic phrases) in spite of the fact that it is the word for God in the native Malay language, Bahasa, as it is in other Arabic based languages as well as Bahasa Indonesia, where it is no problem. As a matter of fact, one priest from this diocese who came to vist me here at Pure Life yesterday said that he was one of the first to provoke the wrath of the law some 19 years ago when he was actually arrested and detained for singing "Allah" in a Taize chant. And it is this very same bishop with whom I had tea the other day who has been spearheading the challenge in court. Recently the courts have ruled in favor of the Christians, but some politicians are challenging the court ruling, and there have been fire bombings of churches in protest and counter fire bombings of mosques by some fundamentalist Christians in relataliation.

It seems especially poignant that today is Muhammed's birthday, of course a public holiday here in Malaysia, and it is with a strange sadness that I listened to the beautiful chanting over the loudspeakers early this morning. Inspired by my time with Imam Naveed in Copenhagen and our plans for the upcoming trip together to the mideast, I wrote a new song last Fall called "The Ground We Share": "The holy ground is the ground that we share / like the holy city Jerusalem..." The idea for it came about like this: We were talking about going together to Lebanon and Syria, but when I got to England after my time with Naveed and Agnete in Denmark, Naveed sent an e-mail that said something like, "Cyprian, my brother, why don't we also go to Jerusalem? I want to go to the Holy City with you." Just reading that gave me goose bumps and within a day I had written a few verses for this song about Jerusalem, with two verses from the Psalms and one from the Book of Revelation. These are the psalm verses:
How my heart was glad when I heard the call,
"Let us go to God's house, let us hasten there."
And now our feet are within your walls
in the land of peace and the ground that we share. (Ps 122)

Let my tongue be mute, let my hands fall off
if I place you not over every other care.
God forbid I remember not
the land of peace and the ground that we share. (Psalm 137)

A not unrelated side note: as Fr Bruno has pointed out to me, it is not to be understated how much my background in liturgy and adapting scriptural texts for liturgical use aids me in my approach to inter-religious dialogue through universal wisdom and music... Anyway, I asked Naveed to suggest something from the Qur'an as well. He suggested the story of the Night Flight, when Muhammad was carried by horse to Jerusalem, referred to as "the Farthest House" or "the Distant Mosque" late one night. Once there he was able to discern what was in the hearts of its residents.
God's servant carried by the Holy One
to the Farthest House, late at night, through the air,
saw all the good and the evil done
in the Land of Peace and the ground that we share.

I had had no cause to perform yet so it was still in embryonic form until I got to India, where we had the idea to use it for the biblical drama with Agnete and Elle down in Madurai. It just kind of came together in a nice arrangement when I needed it to, like something just waiting to be born. But even as I was writing it, I had had in my mind this situation here in Malaysia with which I have been famliar for three years now. The ethnic Malays, who are Muslims by birth and by law, consider themselves to be the "bumi putra," "sons of the land." So the use of the word Allah is symbolic to them of their heritage. Many of my ethnic Chinese and Indian friends are quite saddened by that distinction since their Malaysian roots go back many generations as well; and certainly the people of Borneo, who do speak Bahasa Malaysia and many of whom are Christian, are children of that land for countless generations. So the lines in the refrain, "...the prophets' land and my parents' land, the land of peace and the ground that we share" has an emotional meaning here as well.

So, sadly I didn't feel as if I could sing either "Bismillah" or "The Drink Sent Down" there last night, but decided to sing "The Ground We Share" in its place. They had an overhead projector that they use for displaying song lyrics there so we were able to project the words and so the assembly was able sing along as well, beautifully as they did for all the evening's songs. I hadn't noticed so much before how much like a lament the melody is, but I invited to audience, who probably didn't need any prompting, to experience it in that way, and to carry the ache of separation and the sin of division, and let the lament become a longing and the longing be the voice of hope that we can overcome our differences and find the ground that we share. Between Naveed's email and the ache here, I feel as if I am beginning to understand just a little of the apocalyptic urgency and hope of the Book of Revelation:
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,
coming down from heaven like a bride prepared.
God will dwell in the midst of them
in the land of peace and the ground that we share.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

the vedanta of prosperity

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

23 feb, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pure life

"Do not ask me about my conception of God.
I live in God, I am in God.
More than that I cannot say."
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

22 feb, 2010, feast of the chair of peter, kuala lumpur, malaysia

I am once again a guest at the Shuddah Samajam, the Pure Life Society here in Kuala Lumpur. This place was founded in 1952 by Swami Satyananda, a Tamilian Malaysian who was a former monk of the Ramakrishna Order. There were and are two purposes for this place, to be both a center for inter-religious dialogue and an orphanage, mainly serving the ethnic Indian population of Malaysia and the many Tamil orphans after World War II. (Just a brief history for those who might be reading who haven't read my posts a year ago about this--though you can consult back in the blog.) It is now and for many years has been run by Mother Mangalam who was a disciple of the good swami and takes credit for inspiring him to add orphanage onto his many inter-religious and educational endeavors in Malaya (as it was still known at the time before the British left in 1959). He met an untimely death at 52 years old (my age! shiver...) due to car accident. (This year is his centenary as well as Abhishiktananda's. What a generation!) Both of his initiatives for this place continue under Mother's leadership, the home for children (very few of them are actually orphans) and the Interfaith Spiritual Fellowship. There is also here the Temple of the Universal Spirit, decorated with large placards about the Global Declaration of Universal Ethic, mainly the work of Hans Kung, and an altar topped with the words AUM and Amen. This is also where Fr John Main learned to meditate from Swami Satyananda when Fr John himself was in the British Civil Service, hence the legacy of the World Community for Chrisitian Meditation.

They have only recently, in the past few years, converted the swami's old hut into a sort of shrine room, as is done often in India. The main room which was his office holds some of his effects and a large life size portrait, with a smaller room where he slept attached. A few years back Laurence Freeman was here when the John Main Seminar was held in Kuala Lumpur, and he blessed it. I met Mother for the first time and sang for the kids two years ago through Dr Pat Por, my main contact here, who is a close acquaintance of hers. And for the second year in a row now, at Mother's invitation, that is where I am staying, in that little room surrounded by portraits of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, the Tamil mystic Ramalinga Swami, Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. For all the work and travel there have been on this trip, it has also been spotted with regular breaks, and so now I have two days completely free for some retreat time here.

I had a good crossover in Singapore. I flew from Delhi through the night on Tuesday and got in on Ash Wednesday morning. I was once again welcomed by the friars at San Damiano Friary at St Mary of the Angels church. My friend John Wong, ofm, said, as usual, "Cyprian! Welcome home!" I didn't have much to do the first two days but as usual Leonard and Claire Ong, who have also become good friends and collaborators here, spoiled the stuffing out of me. I was thinking of them as "spa days": they took me out for one delicious meal after another, got me a session with their chiropractor (they all seem to be quite keen here on monitoring how well I am by how much I limp), a good Yoga class at Leonard's favorite studio and a 90 minute massage. I also managed to get in a couple of good runs in the early morning before the muggy heat of the day, one with another young friend, Jeff, son of Dr Pat.

The "work" there in Singapore, such as it was, consisted in only two things. Friday night we had a concert at St Mary's itself, as part of their "Voices for Peace" series. (Wait 'til you see that poster and T-shirts for that event-- as for the latter, I'm finally catching up with Tom Booth--a pretty close facsimile of the Woodstock logo.) Leonard had tried to gather some of the folks that did the event at the Gurdwara with us last year to perform too but, being so close to Chinese New Year, which is a major celebration in these parts, it was not a good time. In the end we were three different performers. The first up was the marvelous Sikh Sangeeta that we met last year, this time men and women performing together, about ten of them, I believe. (Leonard and Richard will hopefully supply some pictures soon. I've given up as a photographer.) I had had a lot of Sikh music already staying at the YWCA right behind Bagla Sahib Gurdwara in Delhi, and was joking that I liked it much better at 8 in the evening rather the 3:30 in the morning. It was beautiful, as before. Someone gave an explanation of the meaning of music for the Sikhs, and how the entire Scripture, which is itself considered the guru, is sung and classified according to the raag in which the various passages are sung. Then he also gave a brief explanation of all the instruments, some of which were designed by one or the other of the nine gurus of the Sikh tradition specifically for this purpose. What our friend Aaron pointed out to me that evening, and what others mentioned later, was the beauty of seeing this Sikh ensemble sitting on the floor of the sanctuary of a Catholic church right in front of the altar directly under a huge corpus of Christ which had been made for the friars by a Muslim sculptor. That's the Singapore I know and love. Then the same Aaron (Maniam) and some members of his family got up and performed two songs and recited two poems of Rumi accompanied by music. He himself and his family are a sort of model for inter-religious co-existence. Aaron himself is a Muslim but was singing some of the Christian hymns which he loves with his aunt who is a Catholic. I was last and did a nice 45 minute set. I got to do the Bismillah again, once again to a rousing response. Singapore is the perfect place for it. I usually have set up to perform there at St Mary's facing two of the side sections, so the audience is forced to be closer. The pastor didn't allow that this time so we were performing from the altar platform which is surrounded on three sides by banks of pews but separated from the front section by quite a distance which includes a large immersion Baptismal font. I didn't fight it, and actually just relaxed and enjoyed the huge space open above and in front of me. The guitar sounded like a small orchestra and my voice felt as flexible as ever. It felt to me like being alone in a huge acoustic space and without my glasses on it almost looked like that too.

The next day my other group of friends took me out for the day, Joyce, James and Dominic. All my friends there do great research as to the best vegetarian restaurants, and this time Dominic had found a wonderful place called Mushroom Park that served practically everything with an infinite variety of mushrooms. Then I had a choice, and of the options placed before me I chose the incredible Asian Civilzations Museum. It was worth the price of the ticket just to see how well laid out the place was and how tastefully, artfully the displays are done, not to mention the contents of the displays. Of the eight or so galleries we took in, I think, five: the ones on Singapore and the Malaysian peninsula, China, Islam, and Buddhism in southeast Asia. (I'm kicking myself for not taking better notes but alas, there is only so much one can absorb!)

Then that evening Aaron hosted one of his semi-regular fireside conversations in honor of my visit. Aaron is a young civil servant (forgive me if I get this wrong, AM). He works for the government of Singapore doing future planning, and travels extensively in that capacity. As a matter of fact he had just returned from the Arabian peninsula the day of the concert. He was educated at Oxford and worked for the Singapore Embassy in Washington DC, so a very broad base. He also currently works in community organizing there in Singapore, specifically in the area of inter-religious dialogue. He hosts these gatherings as informal meetings with other like-minded folks and facilitators. We ourselves were a slice of heaven: I as usual didn't ask anyone what their religious persuasion was, but I am sure we were Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, a few of us Catholics. We didn't have a formal presentation of dialogue but where I was sitting we had a very wonderful long discussion going among seven or eight of us. The subjects I remember the most were Christianity and America.

Looking back it's kind of funny to remember how many statements began with "The problem with America is..." and at one point, "Do you know what the problem with Christianity is?" I am not saying this as a complaint and I was in no way insulted. I actually enjoyed getting another perspective and responding (as opposed to reacting--you know the drill). Also in attendance was another little surprise. A very bright and talented young man named Steven whom I had met in Bakersfield years ago but with whom I had lost contact has since graduated from Princeton, spent time in Paris and Prague, and is currently in Singapore teaching Spanish but on his way in a week to Mexico City to be the food critic for a major daily newspaper. He happened to go to St Mary's on Ash Wednesday and to his surprise saw my name advertising the concert and voila! Aaron graciously invited him to the evening as well. He and I both had a similar approach when it came to America, and that is: "The America that you know from mass media is not all of America and it certainly isn't the America that I know and love." I also am more and more inclined to say that one can't just blame America for our tawdry exports--McDonald's, KFC, television shows and movies--one has to also blame the consumers. In the words of Nancy Reagan: "Just say 'no'!" I'm embarrassed about it too, but those things have nothing to do with my life in America, nor Steven's, so hopefully we are reasonably good exports. Another thing is this, and this is not the first time this has come up for me around the world: since the Bush-Cheney years people in other countries do tend to equate America with a certain exclusive style of evangelical Christianity that is intolerant of other religions as well as other peoples. That's too bad, and that is also not the America I know and love nor the Christianity in which I was raised.

One gentleman, a Muslim from England, asked me directly why I thought Christians in general were so heavy in their evangelical fervor, trying to convert people rather than being in dialogue and accepting of other traditions. (Forgive me if I didn't get the wording exactly right.) I said that I thought it was built into the system, at least from a certain understanding of Scripture. When Jesus' final words are an exhortation to go out to all the world and tell the good news. Mark's Gospel ends even more explicitly: "Those who believe and are baptized will be saved; those who do not believe will be condemned"; and when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one come to the Father except through me," it's hard not to take those things at face value. I also added that this is an inheritance from Judaism, and I gave as the example that I am currently making my way through the Book of Judges. The tribes of Israel were not only mandated not to tolerate the worshipping of other gods but firmly believed that their God willed for them to slaughter anyone who stood in the way of them taking possession of the Promised Land. Now there are very few Jews today who say that God asks and demands thus, but has God changed? Or has our understanding of God changed? Can one not observe an evolution of spiritual consciousness that is taking place in the Jewish people as we make our way through their scriptures, from the early mythic stories of Genesis, through the narratives of Exodus, the first glimmers of history peeking out of the cloud of myth, through the Kings, through the prophets and the Exile and on into the poetry and Greek influenced wisdom literature. As a Christian, of course, I can also see Jesus as a high point in that evolution of consciousness, when the covenant made with a certain people opens up universally. I also pointed out how important our understanding of scriptural interpretation is in all of our traditions. In Islam itself, some schools of thought are very harsh in reaction against those within Islam who posit any notion that there are different stratae in the Qur'an or anyone who dares to suggest that it was not recited verbatim in Arabic to Muhammad (peace be upon him), while there are others who do hold those positions. And so in all of our traditions.

Which leads me to this: what does it mean to proclaim the Good News of Jesus today? I have three answers. One: that marvelous image of Francis of Assisi before the Sultan who told him all about Jesus, we are told, without every insulting the Prophet or refuting Islam. So even in explicit evagnleization there must still be (what does Paul say?) patience, kindness, gentleness. Two: the church teaches that dialogue does not replace evangelization (see Dominus Iesus"), but could it be, as Fr Thomas Keating says, that in our day and age evangelization is dialogue and dialogue is evangelization? "Recognizing that our brothers and sisters of other traditions are beloved of God with great gifts to share," I think is how he put it. Certainly the Roman Catholic documents on dialogue and evangelization all assume that before any kind of proclamtion can effectively be done there needs to be a whole foundation built in sharing life and uniting in common concerns, not to mention a sharing of spiritual experiences. Third: we simply, maybe most importantly, need to be Christ in our world. Again, even the most orthodox church documents state that the church is Christ. In this way our very presence is Christ.

I read this beautiful quote in "New Seeds" this morning. Merton writes that a new being is brought into existence by the indwelling Divine Person who is Christ, and this new being, "spiritually and mystically one identity, is at once Christ and myself." A little later he presents an idea that I have used often. I refer to it as breathing in and breathing out, the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us (Rom 5) and that same Spirit pouring out of us like a stream of life-giving water (Jn 7). He says, more eloquently, "We receive [Christ] in the 'inspiration' of secret love, and we give Him to others in the outgoing of our own charity. Our life in Christ is then a life both of receiving and of giving. We receive from God, in the Spirit, and in the same Spirit we return our love to God through our brothers and sisters." (pp. 158-159)

Anyway, I ended the evening singing a good set of songs for them, especially some pieces I didn't get to do the other night, like the new "The Ground We Share," and some I just felt like singing such as "Los Laberintos," in honor of Steven, and also an encore of "Bismillah," which this group re-affirmed is a great success of a song, for which I am grateful.

The sky just cracked open in a torrential rain, immediately bringing some relief to the sweltering heat of the day. I'm gonna go sit on the front porch of my hut and savor the darshan of the swami and the rain.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

the divine presence

16 feb, last day in India

There comes a moment when life becomes intolerable without the Divine Presence.
Give yourself, therefore, entirely to the Divine and you will rise up into the Light.
(the Mother)

As it turned out, when Prakash got home from his Valentine's Day trip he had to go on duty right away, which means we couldn't hang out today; and so I have had two almost full days to myself here at Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The silence of the place and the solitude it has afforded me have been luscious. There is a new meditation hall here now, with large images of Aurobindo and the Mother, who are of course revered as deities, a large wooden floor and even a mezzanine space. The latter is where I have been spending my time there, sitting near a window to do my readings. There are only a few other people who trickle in and out, spending some time before the images, especially in the early morning before 7 AM breakfast when I believe it is staff and workers who stop in and pay their respects. Though last night I wound up in the midst of a gathering. Besides the day school and health clinic that operate in association with the ashram, there is a boarding vocational school for young people from all over India who appear to be in the late teens and twenties. They are called "aspirants." They are on a very strict schedule which I'm told must absolutely be followed, and last night just before 7 slowly slowly they started coming into the large hall 'til there was nearly 100 of them seated on the floor in front of the images. Off to the left a stage had been set up with microphones, and an elderly woman, accompanied by a younger woman and a tabla player mounted the stage. She spoke and then read in Hindi. Later she explained in English that she was reading one of the Mother's prayers, and noted that they had been written in French, translated into English, and only then translated into Hindi. She then read the same prayer in English and spoke about it. And then slowly she worked up a beautiful kirtan, accompanying herself on the harmonium, then joined by the young woman and the tablist, and some voices from the crowd. It was a captivating melody. There seems to be a certain quality to North Indian kirtan singing that is different than the South. I like it very much.

The Mother is always referring to "the Divine" and "the Lord" in her writings and prayers, though every now and then she mentions Mahakali, the Great Mother. Last night I was reading a book that is in my room called "Growing Up With the Mother," which is a collection of the hundreds of notes and short letters that a young woman received from the Mother on a variety of issues. This woman would submit regular questions and/or her own notebook as part of a very long correspondence on topics ranging from sadhana and questions about Aurobindo's writing, to education and even personal hygiene. This young woman was also a teacher in the ashram school, and the answers that she received were also passed on to other teachers, with the Mother's blessing. I have heard more than one person comment that they find Aurobindo himself very difficult to read with his florid English style and flights of poetry. I have read a number of his short works, and have been picking away at Synthesis of Yoga for a few years, and have not paid much attention to the Mother. It was very clear to me reading last night, as I have found once or twice before when I've stumbled on something of her writing, that she does bring the great man's philosophy down to earth, make it accesible and very practical. It is she who was the mastermind behind the schools, the physical fitness programs, the vocational training, and Auroville in general. I liked that fact that she uses the word "contact" so often in relation to the divine, and one time she even used the phrase "conscious contact with the Divine," a phrase I use often too to explain the goal of meditation, though I borrowed it from the 12 Steps of AA. I heard this earlier somewhere on this trip in a slightly different form in regards Ramana Maharshi: "the inalienable bliss in which one dwells as soon as one is in conscious contact with the Divine." And again, "One moment of conscious communion with the Divine can shatter any resistance, however powerful it may be."

Back to the 'logue: I arrived a little later than I had hoped on the bus to Haridwar, so I hopped in a bicycle rickshaw and had the driver hurry me over to the train station. Gitanjali and Laura had also arrived a little late and were waiting patiently there. We called SN at Sri Ram to let him know we were that far, and he put Rashmi, the headmistress, on the phone to give us instructions one more time: we were to try for a prepaid taxi, but if they are not running, walk to Chandipul Bridge and try to get an autorickshaw from there, and if that didn't work, turn right at the bridge and walk for 9 kilometres. I was kind of psyched for the adventure, partly because it was a beautiful day and a walk after that bus ride would have felt good, and partly because we would walk right past the Kumbha Mela Camp. But as it turned out, my dreams of being Daniel Boone were soon dashed when the guy at the pre-paid taxi eagerly agreed to drive us out there for 300 rupees. That was too easy.

There were mobs of people for sure, Shiva Ratri and the opening of the Mela being the next day, and quite an fascinating array of both pilgrims and sadhus who seem to all be in competiton for the most colorful costume and water carrier for the former, and the most outrageous way of tying up their dreadlocks for the latter. With some cursing and swearing (at least that was what I assumed it was, in Hindi), our driver wend us through town and out to the ashram within a half an hour. A smaller group of Westerners are there this year, partly because for the first time Babaji did not come due to failing health and simple old age. We all fell right in with the kids, I of course knowing many of them already and happy to see that some of them remembered me, even by name, Laura and Gitanjali becoming an immediate hit with the girls. My main interest was to see Vijay and Krishna, the brothers I have kept contact with. To my dismay I was told Vijay was actually away at college in Chandipur, farther north, but as fortune would have it, he came home a few hours later for one of his frequent regular visits. I didn't recognize Krishna when I first saw him, quite a spurt of growth from 11 years old to 13, and he wasn't sure who I was either. But then I mentioned "birthday card" which I send every year and the photo I sent of he and I and Vijay, and his face lit up and he put his arms around me and stayed that way for a good long time. Another of the young guys that I had done some tutoring with before saw me and asked me to help him with his math. What I didn't know at first but found out soon on was that he has been dealt a pretty serious punishment for some very serious offense, and has been ostracized from the other children, living and working with the cooks, who have kindly taken him in. After I found that out, I made it a point to spend lots of time with him out behind the kitchen, even eating my meals with him sometimes. We did a lot more talking and laughing and taking pictures with my iPhone than any hard Math, but that was okay. He never did tell me what was wrong or admit to me that he was being punished, but he did draw me a picture and write me a letter before I left thanking me "for study and for coming."

They do great work there, I must say again. It is one thing to send money to a favorite charity; it is a whole other thing to set up something like this that actually forms and shapes children, and gives them skills and knowledge that can be used to make a life for themselves outside of the ashram. Whatever pain those kids may have in their memories, and undoutably they have it from the sometimes incredible hardships of their families of origin, they probably have a much better life present and future than they would have had with the families who were not able to care for them. But they are a family, this is their family, headed up by the amazing Rashmi. She has been there for 15 years now (with one year off for good behaviour), speaks very good Hindi and knows every in and out of these 40 or so childrens' lives. Her latest innovation with them these past few years has been Cross Fit training, something that came into her own life in a very powerful way a few years back that she has now passed on to the kids, and they have eaten it up, especially the older boys. She lists a program every day on a board and the kids put each other through the paces. For our friend Vijay it is as if he has found his niche in life. He's a monster--"a beast," Rashmi says--with his own program (no sooner had he recovered from his seven hour bus ride than he was at it doing the program of the day), but also has become quite a good coach for the others. The younger kids kind of idolize him, and he told me that he prefers to come home from school to Sri Ram as often as possible, especially, he told me, because he doesn't like the food there at college. And this also in spite of the fact that he fulfilled his dream of playing cricket by being the only freshman to get chosen to play on the varsity team there at school. But he's soured by the whole scene of it; he doesn't think the others on the team train hard enough and there is too much politics in the whole scene. It's a beautiful thing to watch, the whole of it, that a young guy would turn out so stellar in an environment like that, and want to come back and be with his sisters and brothers instead of being in the the big world outside with all that it has to offer.

There were two big activities for Shiva Ratri. The first is the bath in the Ganges, often accompanied by putting on new clothes. This was quite a big deal the first time I was here, and we had driven some distance in a bus to get to a spot along the bank. This time it was a little more low-keyed. We went to a spot that was just on the other side to the village of Shyampur, the young kids in a trolley pulled by a tractor and the rest of us walking the paths. I have a sweet memory of walking with Krishna at one side and a little Nepalese guy named Kesav sidling up to me and grabbing my hand on the other side. He was all of six or seven years old but clever and smart. His English, for instance, was very good, very clear already. When we got to the river, I followed the example of the older boys--Vijay, Uttam, Gautam, and Vijay Pal--and decided that the water was too cold and dirty (I actually didn't have shorts or anything into which to change, I had brought so little), but was a cheerful spectator as the others did their bath, or swam to the other shore, made their offering and, some anyway, changed into new clothes. Then at noon there was the puja. Two Brahmin priests from town came to lead it, but as I remember happening my first time here and, so I'm told, happens every year, one of the men from Sri Ram does the actual offerings. This time, as has happened often, it was Sreven Kumar. He is also from Santa Cruz (I run into him often working the cash register at Staff of Life) but an Indian national by birth. Now in his retirement years he can spend several months a year there at Sri Ram, and he is just beautiful with the kids. A gentle but forceful disciplinarian who knows just how things should go, he has come so often. The ritual was quite elaborate as usual for these kinds of things and took over an hour. The adults, mostly Westerners, were trying very hard to be attentive, every now and then shushing the kids or moving somewhere where they could see or hear better, but the kids' patience wore out quickly. I had sat near the back and was trying to look attentive and respectful, but was soon surrounded by kids, Kesav back and forth on my lap showing me things and wanting to see my phone to take pictures, and others around me talking, hitting each other and/or itching to play some music. It gave me a whole new perspective on 11 o'clock Mass, though the advantage with Mass is that there is actually something for the congregation to do besides watch the priest perform the ritual. We didn't have anything to do until the end when the water from the Ganga was offered and the prasad was passed out.

We had a little musical fun during the days there. We sang some at the beginning and especially at the end of the puja. I loved watching the next generation of drummers take over--Shubam and Krishna on tabla and dolak, respectively, while big brother Vijay looked on quietly, though he did fill in at the end. There was also a young American guy there who is a kirtan singer back home and is currently studying more kirtan singing with a Sikh teacher here in India. At the end, while the crowd was dispersing, he sat down at the harmonium and led us in a couple of choice ones. At Vijay's urging I led one as well, something I remembered from one of my Krishna Das or Jai Uttal CDs. I hadn't brought my guitar, prepared as I was for trekking, but there were a couple of other Westerners there who had had the same idea that I had had back in 2005: they had brought "baby"s with them, one had a baby Martin and the other a baby Alvarez. They both had asked my advice about them and offered for me to use them whenever I wanted, so there was always a guitar at hand. Gitanjali and I had half a plan to do some singing together at some point during the weekend (we've worked together, but never just sat down and sung for fun), so after tea following the puja I got one of the babys and we sat under Babji's tree for about two hours, I think, going through the Great American Songbook (or, as one radio station had it, "the best of the '70s, '80s, and whatever we want"). It was a LOT of fun! Sita played along a bit as well as did one other guy, and eventually Dayanand brought down one his slide guitars and that was even more fun. He could play solos, and then we started improvising a song, making up verses as we went along. Dayanand himself and some of the boys too had told me that there was going to be kirtan singing later that night as is traditional on the night of Shiva Ratri everywhere. (Quite often it is accompanied by drinking an intoxicating beverage known as bhang, which is made with marijuana, and then staying up all night in the temple singing. We didn't do that.) In my Westerner's penchant for schedule and clarity ("We have a plan, we have no schedule"), I stood outside the guesthouse after dinner waiting for us all to head over to the puja shrine for the music, but it wasn't happening. Dayanand was up practicing his mohan veena and the boys were watching a movie. But after sending around a couple of messages, Srevan Kumar gathered the troops, and soon we were sitting at the puja shrine with no light except for a couple of ghee lamps and a distant electric light bulb. I don't think any of the Sri Ram girls were there, but a good handful of the women and men guests were and, to my surprise, quite a few of the boys. Vijay was on tabla most of the time, with Shubam on dolak on the other side, and the brothers Uttam and my old buddy Gautam were on either side of me singing their hearts out. One of the other guests led a few and then passed me the guitar. I did one or two that I've done before, but then started mentally going through my Krishna Das and Jai Uttal CDs again and started leading some of those. No one knew that I had never done any of them before. I had a blast. Eventually Dayanand showed up with his mandolin in open tuning too and then we had a real quorum. Who needs bhang?

I had originally planned on five or six days up that way, and had really wanted to get to see more of the Mela and get over to Rishikesh, maybe even for a few nights. But we were only going to be there two days-three nights, so I feared not much of that was going to happen. I never did make it to any of the Kumbha Mela. To be honest by the time we got there I wasn't that interested, surprisingly. The crowds were huge on the roads because of the coincidence with Shiva Ratri and security was very tight, though there wasn't much actually going on yet. To be honest, I was also a little turned off by all the hype and publicity around it, the huge billboards of famous sadhus who were going to be appearing or speaking, and all the kind of "bliss junkie rush" associated with it for so many Westerners, but if I had had more time I would have eventually gone. (It lasts until April 15; the biggest days of it are still way ahead.) Some folks went on Shiva Ratri afternoon. Two got turned away, but two others managed to climb over a barrier and then over a security wall and sneak in for the arathi. On Saturday there were a couple of different carloads going to Rishikesh. I was tempted, but didn't want to spend a whole day out when we were leaving in the morning--there is only so much I want to cram into a day.

But after breakfast Rashmi told Gitanjali, Laura and I that she had to go to Rishikesh to bring two of the girls back to school, and if we wanted to go (again, this being their first time here, the women had never been) we could tag along and spend a few hours walking around. That was perfect for me, and so we went, Rashmi herself driving, braving incredible traffic, I might add. The sight of a woman driving, let alone a Western woman, is still something rather incredible for Indian males, I must tell you, but she was impressively fearless. There is a little disdain for Rishikesh among some of the long time Sri Ram ashramites who consider it like an amusement park with all kinds of international babas and teachers selling their wares to Western spiritual tourists, whereas Haridwar still retains its seriousness as a real Indian holy city. They are probably right and I say some of the same things myself, but I have wonderful memories of my times there, and there were three people I wanted to see. The women kindly let me lead the way, and I got to see all three. Just across the street from where we left the car is the restaurant of Ranjeet, the kind guy who took me to the arathi over the Ganges (and wouldn't let me pay for dessert) and with whom I took my lunch every day I was there in 2007. With all the tourists they see I was delighted that he and his brother both remembered me, and they happily told me that they had each gotten married that past year. Ranjeet then invited me to come to his house for dinner that night. What an honor. Unfortunately, obviously, I couldn't. Then down the street and around the corner going down toward the Laxma Jula Bridge, I stopped to see Ram Ram, the Yoga teacher and CD kiosk oracle. He got up, grabbed my hands and gave me a huge warm hug. I asked for recommendations on music again and we all bought one CD from him. Then I took them all over to meet Turiya at Jheevan Dhara, the Christian ashram where I stayed in 2007 while I was doing Yoga with Ram and, as a matter of fact, where I finished writing the book that was just published. I had told her I might be coming when I saw her at Shantivanam, and so as she opened the gate she semi-scolded me: "I thought maybe you had gotten lost in a cave on Arunachala." All three women really loved the place, especially the chapel. I told them that that place was like ground zero of my spirituality, the marvelous marriage of Christianity expressed through the genius of Indian spirituality.

The crowds were immense there in Rishikesh too--because of the five day holiday--mostly Indians, though, not with us Western bliss junkies this time. We crossed over the Laxma Jula Bridge so Laura and Gitanjali could see that side and do a little shopping, and not only was that tiny little road mobbed, but there was also two way traffic of Jeeps and tourist cars going back and forth. The river rafting has become a big business there. It really was off-putting and I couldn't wait to get out by then.

After that, not much else. As I wrote yesterday, we took a taxi back down, and I've had two wonderfully relaxing days at Aurobindo Ashram. I have taken a few walks for supplemental chai, some toiletries and in search of an internet place (no luck), but haven't wandered very far or spoken to almost anyone for two days. It's now 4:45 PM on Fat Tuesday, and I'm packed and ready to check out. If all goes well, a taxi will come and fetch me this evening and then I fly to Singapore at 11:30 PM. I told someone last week, I'm at the point where I always get with India: if I'm not gonna stay forever, it's time to come home. Well, two weeks work ahead of me first, but I'm heading that way.

dilly daze

15 feb, 2010, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Delhi Branch

Know only that unique Self
on which are strung
heaven, earth and space
the mind and the other organs
and discard other speech

this is the bridge to immortality

where the nerves are pinned
like spokes on a wheel
that One moves
becoming multiform

thus with the OM
think of the Self!
no hinderance for you
for the further shore
beyond darkness
(mundaka up. II.ii.5-6)

I don't keep it up when I am at home unfortunately, but the last few times I've been here in India I've been trying to learn a little more Sanskrit, just enough to make out the devanagari script, and read the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in the original, with transliteration and translation, of course. The above is my own rendering of some verses from the Mundaka, possibly hopelessly misbegotten, but fashioned after one version of the Tao te Ching I have that doesn't fill in all the implications in the blanks, instead leaving the words raw and, to my mind, even more powerful. Of course, Hindi is a simpler form of the same script, so I'm able to read Hindi painfully slowly, just enough to impress the kids. I like to pass the time in the bus or car or walking trying to read signs. I had two humorous discoveries. The first was: I wrote a paper for the Abhishiktananda centenary on the various meanings of the terms "purusha" and "guru." I listed six different meanings of purusha, for instance. With all that deep metapysical speculation floating around my brain, I arrived at the Delhi airport and was trying to find the Men's Room and sure enough I was able to make out the sign: PURUSHA. In spite of our modern American and English penchant for avoiding exclusive gender language and someone like Valerie Roebuck's insistence on translating "purusha" as "person," in ordinary everyday Hindi, it simply means "man" as in "male." I wanted to add that into my otherwise quite erudite paper as yet another meaning of the term, just to bring a little levity--"Holy things to the holy!"--but I refrained. The other discovery I made was that the exact transliteration of Delhi is not "Dayl-hee" but "Dilly," which I find pretty funny. Hence the title of this blog.

This is just going to be a bunch of travelogue rambling, so please don't be disappointed if there is no deep message herein, just a description of some of my Dilly Daze.

Yesterday morning I was sipping the long anticipated morning tea outside of OM Bhavan Guest House at Sri Ram Ashram in Haridwar at 6:30 AM with another Californian, waiting for the kids to arrive so that we could do PT (physical training!) with them, and I mentioned to him that Gitanjali, Laura and I were going to take a taxi back down to Delhi after all instead of the bus. He asked why we would have even thought of taking the bus, and I said that I had taken the bus up from Delhi. He said, "A tourist bus? (one of the those big air-conditioned jobbies) and I said no, the regular ISTB bus. He said with a perfectly straight face, "Did you do that as an austerity?" I found that very funny. I was always think I am not traveling "close enough to the ground." Once we got here in the taxi, I was glad for the sake of the two others that I had not subjected them to that. It wasn't a bad trip up really, just a little long, dusty and bumpy, but that was early morning, not very hot nor crowded. Coming back yesterday afternoon, it took longer in the car than it had on the bus, and it was miserably dusty, crowdy and hot. It's a holiday weekend here. There was Shiva Ratri on Friday and a government holiday--as always the second Saturday of the month--and so, we were told, folks turned it into a five day weekend. (If you can figure out how two days off turns into a five day weekend, you're ahead of us; we kept scratching our heads about that one.) Anyway, that's the end of the story, and I'm back in Delhi until I fly out to Singapore tomorrow night. Sri Aurbindo Ashram is quite a ways south in Delhi, far from everything else I'm familiar with, but it's clean, quiet, inexpensive, with three simple vegetarian meals a day, it's a direct line from here to the airport, and it is an ashram. So a full day to myself with a an evening and a morning on either side to regroup and close out this time in India.

After the Urs, I still hadn't figured out my travel plans, but Gitanjali and Laura really wanted me to accompany them to Haridwar on what would be their first visit to Sri Ram. They already had train tickets, but after a lot of negotiating and consulting it seemed that even if I was on the waiting list I wouldn't have been able to get on. Everyone was heading north for the Kumbha Mela, which happened to coincide with the big feast of Shiva Ratri this year. The Kumbha (perhaps you will know of it from the movie "Shortcut to Nirvana") is the gathering of sadhus that happens in a different city along thebanks of the Ganges every three years. Reportedly millions pour in for them, well-known babas who are advertised on billboards and speak before huge crowds as well as countless little camps for lesser known sadhus, often performing incerdible feats of tapas-austerities. (The monk who hasn't lowered his arm for five years, for instance. That's a lot more impressive than riding the ISPT to Haridwar.) The river Ganges is said to flow from the locks of Shiva's hair, and once year people from villages all around make a pilgrimage to her (she is worshipped as a goddess, Ganga Mata) and bring some Ganga water back to their village, carrying these wonderfully colored containers balanced on the shoulder that looks sort of like a large bow, with a bag tied to each end where the water is. The roads are lined for days with various groups of people and trucks blaring music. And this year twice as crowded due to the crowds gathering for the opening of the Kumbha Mela.

At first Delhi seemed like an impenetrable asphalt jungle to me, with a river of cars running through it. Even though I have been through here a number of times now, I've never really gotten to know much outside of the YWCA Family Hostel and Connaught Place. But I had made the trip over to Nizamuddin a number of times by autorickshaw, so by Monday, after I had traveled again over to the hotel where Laura and Gitanjali's group was staying, I felt like the layout of at least that part of the city was making sense to me. After quibbling with a rickshaw driver over how much he would charge to take me to the famous Khan Market, I decided to head out on foot. I asked a traffic officer to point me in the right direction and made it quite close without having to ask again, just by following the big signs that said "Khan Market" with a big arrow. My experiences in Italy have led me to only half trust signs like that, mind you, so at one point, I turned around and asked a young man who had crossed the street behind me and was walking my way if this indeed was the way to Khan Market. He said, "I am only going there now myself," and he allowed me to tag along. We headed off the main road pretty soon on, and I must admit I was beginning to wonder if I had met another young hustler who was going to walk me to an goverment emporium or a travel agency selling trips to Kashmir--those are the two big things the guys on the street are up to. But, no, he was polite and didn't seem to want anything. His name was Prakash, he was not from Delhi, but from Himanchal Pradesh, farther north, and was only stationed here, midway through a 15 year enlistment in the Indian Navy.

I wanted to get a duplicate of Amasamy's shirt made while I was still in India, Gitanjali's teacher Shabda had given me the name, phone number and some vague directions of someone there. When we got the market, Prakash contiued to help, called the place and found out where they were, stayed with me while I talked to the tailor, and even helped me pick out the right color of fabric. When we were done I offered to buy him a tea or some other refreshment to thank him. We wound up at a place called Amici's, an Italian restaurant, and talk a good long time over a couple of fresh lime sodas, and when we were done, he wouldn't let me pay. "You are in India. You are my guest." I was a little embarrassed, but after all the shysters on the streets of Delhi, I was also awfully grateful. I told him I had a bunch of little errands to run and he was welcome to accompany me if he wanted, but he said he only had about a half hour before he ahd to get back to base for some personal business, but he would walk me as far as Ashika Road, from which I could easily find my way home to the Y. We walked to India Gate, the large impressive monument to Indians killed in war. He told me it was his favorite place to some for some quiet. It was actually quite crowded, mainly with school kids out on field trip, but he was quite happy to be there and share it with me. I thoguth we would part there, since Ashoka Road was in sight, but he stayed on with me and walked me all the way home, a good 45 minute walk. He also seemed concerned that I have a contact number of someone in India, and made sure I took his number down in case I needed anything. I was going to take him for lunch yet, but he got called back to base for some kind of emergency, so he left saying "We can meet again when you want."

The main problem with the trip to Haridwar was that we were told the roads going out of Haridwar were going to be closed due to the Kumbha, making it impossible for us to get transportation from the railway station to the Sri Ram, about 10 km out of the city. Both Gitanjali and I had come up with the same solution--that we would walk it. But they needed me to be there to guide them, since I was the only one who had ever been there. I finally decided that the solution was going to be for me to take a bus and meet them at the railway station. I had booked an extra night at the Y (or so I thought) because they weren't going to go until Thursday. So I got up Wednesday morning full of energy to get everything ready, feeling like I was really getting good at making my way around the city.

Everybody kept telling me that getting a bus to Haridwar was easy, but everybody also had different information about how to go about doing that, so I decided I needed to make an advance run to the ISBT station myself and figure things out. An act of kindness: after Mass and breakfast, I asked an autorickshaw driver to take me to the ISBT station near Kashmere Gate. He could have charged me and arm and a leg, but instead he said, "Get inside and I will take you to the Metro right here. It will take you ten minutes. If I take you it will take 40 minutes." When we got to the Metro Station, I asked him how much he wanted and he said whatever I wanted to give him. Delhi was slowly redeeming itself. I consulted the Metro route map, and had the folks at the ticket counter sell me an all day pass since I looked as if it went everywhere I wanted to go. I headed up to Kashmere Gate, wandered around the bus terminal long enough to figure out how it worked and how much, (143 rupees, a bus to Haridwar every fifteen minutes starting at 4 AM), and then headed back down to return to the Y. That's when things started going wrong. The first thing was, I got hit by a taxi! It's always quite an adventure to cross the street in Delhi anyway since no one stops and you just have to part the waves, and of course they drive on the left so I always have to think twice and look three times, but I had gotten pretty good at it all. So I was crossing the street, looked left, looked right, and looked left again as I started to cross and suddenly got smacked on the right arm by a taxi who had skipped around of the traffic jam on the other side of the cement barrier and was going the wrong way! It wasn't serious, just some scrapes, but my heart was in my throat. Another second and that could have been very very serious.

So I got back to the Y nursing my sore and slightly bleeding arm and, since my next stop was to go back to Khan Market and pick up my shirt, I called Prakash to see if he wanted to join me. He did and we set it for an hour hence. But then as I was going up to my room I found out that they hadn't actually extended my stay another night and were wondering when I was going to be checking out. So we discussed that... by now they couldn't let me stay another night in that room, but might have something else if I came back later. So I rushed up to my room, packed my bag in a flash (I was actually prepared for any exigency and had my bag half packed already), but then had to go through the whole round of paperwork checking out and putting my backpack and guitar in storage. Got that all done and headed back to the Metro with my all-day pass, and then on to Central Secretariat where I was supposed to catch the Violet Line that went straight to Khan Market. But when I got to Central Secretariat, I couldn't find the Violet Line, so I asked and was advised to go back to Rajiv Chowk and transer there. Rajiv Chowk is the busiest station, jammed with people transferring and cheek to jowl in the train itself. So, same thing, when I get there I asked how to get to Khan Market but this time I was told, "Go back to Central Secretariat and take an autorickshaw." The Violet line hasn't actually been built yet. By the time I got to Khan Market, I was laughing to myself about my plans for conquering Delhi and was delighted to see Prakash waiting for me in the exact place where the autorickshaw let me out.

We picked up my shirt and then I told him I needed to go back to Nizamuddin to talk with the women, but if he would come with me I would treat him to a great vegetarian thali at a little reasonably priced place that I knew. This was all a part of Delhi that he didn't know, so now I was the guide. But as we turned down Mathura Road his gaze drifted over to the left and he said, "Do you know what's there?" No. "The zoo. I have never been. Do you want to go to the zoo?" Yes, as a matter of fact, I did want to go to the zoo. Again, he wouldn't let me pay, even though "foreigners" were 40 rupees more than Indians. We had a great time. He was very happy to see all the animals, and was naming all the trees we were passing for me as well, and telling me how each of them was used for medicine and cooking. When I asked how he knew so mch about trees, he told that he had lived with his grandparents in the jungle for some years. I couldn't get much more out of him about that. After an hour or so we headed to talk to the ladies and then ate the delicious thali (which he pronounced good and reasonably priced as well, though he gradugingly let me pay for it.) He escorted me back as far as India Gate again, but made me assure him we could get together again tomorrow (he too is gone home to see his fiance for her birthday over the "five day weekend") adding that he wants to go to the airport with me to see me off. I don't know how or if that will all work out, but I'm quite touched by the whole thing.

By the way, they did have a room for me for the night at the Y, though I was anxiously preparing myself to spend the evening wandering Delhi in search of bed for the night, or spend the night either on an overnight bus to Haridwar to wait for them to arrive, or huddled up in a doorway somewhere waiting for the 4 AM. Of course when I finally got to my room, a smelly sweaty mess from my day, the hot water wasn't working, so I had another delay while maintenace came up to work on my hot water geyser (pronounced here as "geezer") before easing into the evening, pretending to say my evening prayers and meditate. I wound up only getting 12 hours out of my $32 room, but rarely has a hot shower felt so good nor a night's sleep been so welcome. The only reason I had to spend time out in the chilly Dilly night was because I got up way too early and sat at the Metro station for 45 minutes before it opened--someone told me they started running at 5 AM but they didn't start until 6. When they finally opened, the turnstile at the entrance I was at wasn't functioning correctly, so they sent us underground to the other entrance, where my unlimited ride pass didn't work. I finally got to the ISBT terminal at Kashmere Gate in time to get on the 6:30 bus to Haridwar, breathing a sigh of relief to be finally out of the city.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

the Sufi message

9 feb 2010, delhi

We often confuse unity with uniformity.
Unity is the goal and uniformity the means to reach that goal,
but often the means has obscured the purpose.
(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

One of the speakers at the Urs urged us, in the Sufi way, to be non-definitive, inclusive and experiential: to trust intuition rather than categorical beliefs; to allow view and method to respond to the need of the moment; and to favor simple presence over "intellectual figuring out and position-taking." So it was with some trepidation that I did some intellectual figuring out with Lori over lunch on Sunday, though I did try mightily to avoid taking any position.

These past years back in Santa Cruz (I'm going to say this baldly but with all respect) I have often been confused about the use of the title or adjective "Sufi." I associate Sufism with Islam, the mystical movement within Islam. This is in agreement with Kabir and Camille Helminski, and our friends from Pacifica, I'm pretty sure, though they are all extremely open in sharing thier gatherings with everyone and all. But I just couldn't get my mind around the Sufi Dances of Universal Peace. As wonderful as I think they are, I know that it would be anathema or "shirk" to many observant Muslim to sing songs to Shiva or Krishna, and maybe to Jesus as Lord, so I couldn't figure out how they could be "sufi." And I have had some trepidation about being involved in them at the risk of offending our Muslim sisters and brothers, just as I try to be careful about co-opting anything from another tradition.

So I watched carefully as the Universal Worship, based on Hazrat Inayat's own model, was celebrated Friday afternoon, the first thing I attended. It was quite mild really, a prayer was invoked, a candle was lit before the scriptures of each tradition, then a reading was done from each of them by two different readers, and another prayer was chanted at the end. Nothing was read that anyone in the room could not have heard and absorbed easily. It was what I call, after Fr Bede, universal wisdom. No one was asked to acclaim Mohammad as the Prophet, call Jesus Lord, take refuge in the Buddha, or offer praise to any of the Hindu deities. But apparently when the group visited Humayun's tomb, a famous 16th century landmark that is considered to be the prototype of the Taj Mahal, after singing some Sufi songs, one of the Westerners in the group led the singing of a kirtan to Shiva. That, someone else in the group told me, made a few of them quite uncomfortable, to do that in the presence of observant Indian Muslims.

I also noted that, outside of the dhkr and the words to some of the qwalis and ghazals, in the speaking there was little if any mention ever made of Mohammad (peace be upon him), Allah or the Qur'an. Another man I spoke with had been through this when he studied with a Turkish teacher. When he announced himself to be a Sufi already, the teacher insisted, "Then you are a Muslim" and proceeded to encourage his practice of the Five Pillars of everyday Islam. The man in question eventually left that teacher and now does not consider himself to be a Muslim but still follows the Sufi path.

"The scriptures given to the Jews, the Muslims, Parsis, Hindus, Buddhists, all have as their central truth the message of unity, but we have been so interested and absorbed in the poetry of these scriptures that we have forgotten their inner voice."

Honestly, I really was withholding judgement on the whole thing during the conference and ardently wanted to see what it meant to these good people to be "Sufis." It does seem to have little to with Islam. There are those who say the Inayat Khan himself was using the term "Sufi" loosely or even wrongly but as a convenient umbrella term to explain his notion of the universality of religion, and that his message has always had more appeal in the West than among Muslims in India. (Indeed, there were very few Indians in attendance except for the musical performances.

So, then the question formulated itself in my mind in this way: can one do adapt Sufism the way I have adapted Yoga, or how others have adapted Zen. Can Sufism be a praxis and a philosophy that can frame and articulate any content? Can one be a Christian Sufi as I think of myself sometimes as an aspiring Christian Yogi, or how Amasamy and many others are Zen Christians? I heard at least one Christian theologian and author describe himself in that way. Can Sufism actually be lifted off of Islam and serve people of other traditions? Mind you, there are both fundamentalist Hindus and Christians who claim this cannot be done with Yoga, as I am sure there are Muslims who will say no. With all due respect to their sensibilities, I'm just exploring what that might means.

"If anybody asks what Sufism is, what kind of religion is it, the answer is that Sufism is the religion of the heart, the religion in which the thing of promary importance is to seek God in the heart of humankind."

Now, who could argue with that accent? Who could not use that as an incentive and goal? I can hear some folks thinking out loud that that is still a little vague. Here is something a little more solid. Hazrat Inayat teaches that there are three ways to seek God in the human heart: to recognize the divine in everyone and to be conisderate toward every person with whom we come into contact because for that reason; to think about the feelings of those who are not present--to speak well of those who are absent and sympathize with those who are far away; and finally to recognize in one's own feeling the feeling of God:

"to realize every impulse of love that rises in one's heart as a direction from God, to realize that love is a divine spark in one's heart, to blow that spark until a flame may rise to ilumine the path of one's life."

I actually asked a number of questions about the specific practice/technique of meditation and got some great answers. Certainly the marvelous practice of dhkr-repetition of a name or attribute of God/Allah. There as the deep teaching on fana and baqa--absorption and revival both in God/Allah and in one's sheikh. And then one teacher spoke, in connection with dhkr, about the three stages of prayer with words: dhkr, then fhkr and then fhkr al-sur. Forgive me if I have those transliterations wrong, but as she explained it, it was very much the same as Theophane the Recluse's stages in connection with in the Eastern Christian tradition of hesychast prayer: prayer on the lips, then it goes to the mind and rolls around there, until finally we "put the mind in the heart." (That works pretty well in connection with mantra meditation as well.) Of course in the Christian tradition this is when we say we discover the Holy Spirit already in us praying "Abba!", Jesus' own mantra and we join our prayer to the divine song of love that is the center of our own being.

One other person told me firmly that, even though it may seem like it sometimes among his followers, Hazrat Khan did not want to start a new religion, but simply wanted to offer the Sufi way as an inspiration to anyone from any tradition to find a new approach to their own tradition. So in this way, yes, a Sufi Christianity, a Jewish Sufism, a Buddhist Sufi are all in some way possible, though we may still be using the word in a way that would offend Muslims, and I think we have to be careful of that, or at least not consider the conversation ended. (The same with authentic pure blood Zen Buddhists and Hindu Yogis, not to mention the real mystics and students of the Kabbala, etc.)

If there is some universality in the Sufi message, and I think there undoubtably is, here is this one other long quote of Hazrat Inayat that I want to end with, that has some real teeth in it and is very inspiring for our work in the world:

"The Sufi message does not give a new law; it awakens humanity to the spirit of family, with tolerance on the part of each for the religion of the other, with forgiveness from each other for the fault of the other. It teaches thoughtfulness and consideration, so as to create and amintainharmony in life; it teaches service and usefulnessm which alone can make life in the world fruitful, and in this lies the satisfazction of every soul."