The whir of the fan in my room at Shantivanam ("Forest of Peace") is comforting, but the mosquitoes largely ignore the poison that I’ve liberally applied and draw blood through my clothes. I have a room in the new wing with a toilet, sink and shower. There are bars on the window to protect the possessions of pilgrims, but there are no screens. So I close them in the evening to keep the bug population manageable. While these might seem like complaints, I do not hesitate to add that I am overjoyed to be back in India, back again at this quiet ashram near the sacred Cauvery River in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu.
I knew I was back in India when I heard the horns. Drivers like Kannan, who works for the ashram and who picked me up Monday morning at the airport in Trichy, use their hands often to beep at people crowding the edge of the highway, sleeping dogs, bullock carts, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, cows and goats in the road, and even buses which generally have the right of way (and louder horns). Without benefit of easily discernable lanes, vehicles dart and weave through traffic, looking for safe passage. It’s a dangerous game and I’m glad he was in charge.
At Shantivanam, so familiar after three visits in four years, I received a shock: The chapel was gone. Although the sanctuary, which was designed as a Christian version of a Hindu temple, remained, the rest of the building was leveled, and a large tree that used to grow by the entrance lay on the ground in pieces. A branch from the tree had damaged the roof. Apparently the roots of the tree had also undermined the fragile foundation and it was decided to reconstruct the chapel rather than wait until the structure collapsed. Fr. Bede, who brought the ashram world-wide recognition, designed the chapel, and both Fr. Paul and Sister Sarananda, the French nun who is still going strong in her late 80’s, told me how hard it was to accept its absence. “How did you feel when you saw,” she asked. And I told her I felt a pain in my heart. Until the new one is built, prayer services, meditation and mass are being held in a building that once housed dormitory accommodations for pilgrims. Unlike the chapel, it is locked when not in use. Change, as the Buddha taught, is the only constant.
It was good to reunite with old friends: Brother Martin, now in charge of operations since Fr. Amaldas left to be a priest in America; aging Fr. Augustine with his beatific smile, Paul and Sarananda, Margaret from Melbourne whom I met here two years ago, the tall and stately Br. George who speaks little English, and Michael Christian, at one time a monk in Big Sur and now from Tiruvannamalai , who is recovering from a bout with typhoid fever at Sister Mary Louise’s ashram across the road from Shantivanam. Fr. George, the prior, is living at the novitiate not far away and I saw him the next morning at mass. When he welcomed me at evening prayer on Monday (as the formal “William”), Martin spoke of me as an old friend of Shantivanam who had been here “many times.” I beamed. It seems like only yesterday that I arrived in India with Russill and Asha Paul.
The pilgrimage began Sunday evening with a three-hour flight from Bangkok on SriLankan Airlines to Colombo. Because the flight to Trichy in southern India required a layover, I made a reservation through Expedia (for more on my trouble with this expletive-deleted online travel nightmare, see the “Expedia Sucks!” posting) at a hotel near the airport. The room rate was $85 plus taxes, which didn’t exactly match my budget, and I would not be there long enough to enjoy the luxury of it. At the airport in Colombo, however, I discovered that SriLankan Airlines provides a free hotel stay with breakfast for “night stop” passengers. I snuck past the driver for the expensive hotel, who held up a sign with my name on it, and went in a van to Jetwing Seashells Hotel on the beach in Negombo where I had a good night’s sleep in a lovely room. After a hot shower the next morning, I had an excellent cheese and mushroom omelet on the terrace overlooking the bay where the fishing fleet, with their distinctive sails, was hard at work.
This journey has allowed me to watch my worrying and impatient mind. At the airport in Bangkok I worried that the airline would not honor the ticket I purchased (twice) from Expedia because of all the problems associated with it. No problem. In Negombo I was impatient because the van to the airport was half an hour late. And when we finally got to the airport, our flight was inexplicably delayed. On arrival at Trichy I worried that my new suitcase would be lost, remembering the trouble some of our group had last January in Chennai. I had forgotten to move the identification tag from the old suitcase to the new one, so if it had gotten mislaid, its owner would remain unknown. It wasn’t easy to find anything in the crowded baggage area at Trichy because most of the passengers were collecting huge boxes of stuff (computers, TV sets, appliances, etc.) and, along with gigantic suitcases, these filled the carousel up and the surrounding floor. But my small red and gray bag finally turned up looking like Gulliver among the giants.
The power supply here at the ashram is unstable and the lights, fan, and assorted electrical chargers I’m using go off and on at will. Walking in the dark towards the dining hall after removing my flip-flops, I smashed my toe against an unseen step. On the plane I bit down on a piece of ice and bruised the roof of my mouth. So now I get to examine my threshold for pain. At least the chest cold that has been irritating me for a couple of weeks is now gone.
There is a surprisingly small number of guests here right now. Besides Michael and Margaret, there is a young Australian woman named Bron (“for Bronwyn”), a thin Italian with a goatee named Angelo, two Indian deacons from Andar Praddesh (check spelling) on retreat before ordination, and a young couple, he an Indian from Goa and she a student from Denmark taking a break from her studies. Tuesday night an Indian nun arrived. I am used to a bigger crowd. According to Michael, there is also an Englishman now visiting Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai who will help us form a choir for the Christmas celebration. I expect to see work beginning on the elaborate crèche shortly.
Already the visit has begun to challenge the cynicism and doubt sharpened by my exposure to New Atheism texts. At mass on Tuesday, Fr. Dominic spoke of our preoccupation with the past and future, and said that all religions should teach how to live in the present. This resonated with my understanding of Buddhism and my criticism of the otherworldliness of Christianity. In his afternoon talks, Br. Martin has compared what he calls “the historical God” with “the eternal God,” and outlined his theory of the transition in consciousness from individual to collective, to universal and, finally, to an awakening to non-dualisic unity. Ethnocentric religion and the God that preoccupies the New Atheists lie at lower levels, and it is the historical God, the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac (and Mohammad), that Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris, who read the scriptures literally, want to do away with.
Walking along the dirt path to the chapel in the evening for Namajappa (chanting the name of Jesus), my headlamp illumines the swarm of bugs that cross my in front of me. Across the Cauvery I can hear Tamil songs blaring from loudspeakers somewhere. The bell rings. Can I find the eternal God here? Can I relate to God like ice to water, one form to the content of form?
NOTE: This computer is excruciatingly slow, and I have had to redo this blog several times. Photos have disappeared. So it is not up to my usually standards. I am in a small shop in the small town of Kulitalai, a short bus ride from Shantivanam. I will wait until I can get into Trichy where there are high-speed connections before I attempt to post a blog again. There is also a bank there and hopefully I can get a better exchange rate for dollars than at the airport where they gave me 36 rupees compared to 45 last January. Everything was expensive in Sri Lanka as well, where a cappuccino at the airport cost $3.30 and they wanted $7 for the daily International Herald Tribune. I consider the poor sinking dollar a casualty of the misbegotten war in Iraq. It's expensive out here for Americans.