Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ramana Maharshi's Eyes

They follow me around the room. It's a very gentle gaze, but it is insistent. The question he encourages me to ask is always the same: "Who am I?" This is the question he asked himself as a 16-year-old boy growing up in south Indian at the turn of the century. He lay down, as if to die, and discovered: "I am not this body, I am not this breath, I am not this thought," and so on. At the end of his questioning he achieved Self-Realization, the knowledge that our self is not the Self, and that the Self within us, the atman, is also Brahman, the divine. Sri Ramana traveled to Tiruvannamalai and lived for more than twenty years in various caves on the side of the holy mountain, Arunachala, which is believed to be a personification of the Lord Shiva. Finally he came down to the site of the present ashram where followers (among them Carl Jung and Abhishiktananda, co-founder of Shantivanam) gathered around him to bask in the radiance of his awakening. After his death in 1950, the modern temple and ashram was constructed that attracts scores of visitors, both westerners and Indians.

Of course I didn't think about all of this as I watched the eyes from the photo on the wall follow me around the room. I was feverish and weak from little food. Shortly after our arrival Saturday night I went to bed and stayed there, buoyed by antibiotics and various Chinese and herbal remedies given me by fellow pilgrims. At times I was quite ready to believe I had pneumonia and would have to be hospitalized. I lay prone in bed, Ramana's kind eyes on me, listening to Frank Sinatra and June Christie and other ancient music on my iPod and read mystery novels (three in the last week). I managed to do a little washing and take a couple of cold showers, and I did go out briefly in the evenings to find something to take with the antibiotics in the morning (bananas, oranges, baked goods). But the tour went on without its fallen tour leader.

Some time last night my health turned a corner and I knew I would be OK. Sr. Michele knocked on my door at 8 and we went to eat breakfast at the little "German bakery" (more like street food in a bamboo tent) next door. Fr. Raniero was there and we sat outside and watched the wildlife. A peacock with a hurt foot came up and was fed by the cook who chased off a scrawny dog looking to share. We spied a fairly well fed gray cat (last night I'd come to get a bowl of vegetable soup, and some ginger-lemon juice with honey, and there was a pitiful looking orange kitten who ran squealing through across the dirt floor). Michele has also been sick and in hibernation. But she too is improved. Raniero, however, sounded all choked up, and Kay came by this computer a few minutes ago with no voice. Lois continues to be ill and Jerry seemed to be in some distress. The pilgrims from Sangha Shantivanam are dropping like flies!

The best laid plans often turn to mush. I wanted this blog to record chronologically our pilgrimage to India and my journey to Thailand and its islands, along with stays in London and Paris at either end. I've kept a handwritten journal, taken photos and made notes for various blog postings but either the internet connection was absent (Shantivanam is rather remote) or I was ill. So what follows will be bits and pieces. For example, did you know that you can dedicate your hair to God? The family above were happy to have their photo taken at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy, a huge temple dedicated to Vishnu (it's either that or Shiva), where the father and his girls had shaved their heads and given the hair to the brahmins as a puja (sacrifice). The barber covered their heads with sandlewood to sanctify and heal any small cuts.

Last Wenesday we took several buses from Shantivanam to Trichy an hour away to see the sights. Besides the large temple, one of the biggest in India, our excellent guide, Mr. Sikar, took us to a collection of open-air temples on the banks of the River Cauvery, one of the few sacred rivers of India (the ashram was an hour's drive upstream). It was kind of like a Hindu flea market. There people honored the memories of their ancestors (one family had been going annually for 27 years), made pujas with the priests for various kinds of good fortune (like this pair), to bless gifts (a cow stood by with her calf surrounded by the owners while the priest chanted), and to bathe (always fully clothed) in the sacred waters. The ashes from cremations were also put into the water there. We were amazed at how willing how everyone was to be photographed by a bunch of tourists who stood out like visitors from Mars.

Back at the Shantivanam Ashram, the primary goal of the pilgrimage, we took part for six days in the daily round of namajappas (chanting the name of Jesus at 5:30 AM and 9:00 PM), prayers and mass, and ate all meals on the floor with our hands an amazing assortment of food made solely with rice and vegetables. Fr. Joseph Wong, formerly from Big Sur and now living at Camaldolese headquarters in Italy was there, and on his final day he sang for us the Ave Marie in Chinese. We walked across the lane to visit Mary Louise's Ananda Ashram which she started at the direction of Fr. Bede Griffiths back in the 1970s to house women before they were permitted at Shantivanam (times have now changed). Her place was a source of peace and solitude, not to mention tea and cookies for us all. Clearly Fr. Cyprian holds a special place in her heart and she treated all of his group as her children. In an upstairs room, where Abhishiktananda's body lay after it was transfered to Shantivanam from the north to be buried by the chapel with Bede and the other founder, Jules Monchanan, we meditated with the spirit of Fr. Bede's predecessor. We also visited the rather modern Formation House another short walk away where candidates for the brotherhood and priesthood are housed and trained. But the place is mostly empty at the moment.

We met a couple of times with Cyprian as a group and we also attended Brother Martin's provocative afternoon lectures (he's "way far out," one pilgrim observed). Martin's books are filled with typos and almost unreadable but I've been listening to his ideas for a long time now and I like the tone of ecumenism and liberation they provide. Perhaps I'll say more about his ideas later. And in the morning and afternoons all the guests gathered at the tea circle to chat and gossip. I met visitors from Sweden, Germany, France, Sri Lanka, Italy and England, and I may have missed a few.

Aside from my recent enforced absence, I've been learning to be a tour leader: on the job training. I quickly discovered not to promise too much. When I promised opportunities to shop, find an ATM, and get on the internet during our tour of Trichy, my failure to deliver immediately brought complaints. And when I tried to get one bill which we could split at the restaurant, chaos resulted. So I called a meeting and said: my primary job is to supervise transportation, accomodation and tour guides. For anything else you're on your own (with my help and advice). I also asked people to pay for meals separately from now on. So far so good. And plans continue to change. Two of our pilgrims fell ill before departure and cancelled. Swami decided to stay at Shantivanam rather than continue. Valerie and Raniero are returning to Shantivanam tomorrow.

I don't have any good photos of kolams, but above you can see the colorful piles of rice flour for sale to make them at a store in Kulitalai, the closest town to Shantivanam. When we arrived New Year's Eve there were beautiful colored designs on the fresh-swept dirt in front of the chapel, and one of the guests was holding a flashlight to help the Indian woman create it (but I know that they can be done in the dark by experts). Our guide, Mr. Sikar, who lives in Thanjivur, told me that his wife spends an hour drawing a kolam outside their door every morning, and often he helps her (mostly they're women's work). They are created to welcome God daily into the household. Most are made just with white flour, but the colored ones for special occasions are spectacular.

At the door to my room in the ashram guest house, there is a quotation from Ramana Maharshi:

"Cast off the notion, 'This vile flesh am I,' and seek the ceaseless bliss of
Self. To seek the Self while cherishing this perishing flesh is like trying
to cross a stream by clinging to a crocodile."

That's enough bits and pieces for now. Namaste.

1 comment:

LukeYaryan said...

Hey Dad-
I've tried to reach you on your email address at home but it's either not working or I have the wrong one. Email me at