Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Looking for the Cave of the Heart

OM bhur bhuva svah

The Gayatri, an ancient Hindu Sanskrit chant, has been appropriated by the Catholic monks at Shantivanam Ashram where I am visiting, and, after three longs OMs, it opens each of the day’s three prayer services. The verses continue:

tat savitur varenyam
bargho devasya dimahi
dhyo yo ma prachodyat

This was translated by Bede Griffiths, who designed the liturgy to blend elements of Hindu and Christian worship, as:

OM! Salutations to the world beyond which is present in the earth, and in the heavens: let us meditate on the splendour of the giver of life. May that one illuminate our meditation.

From the Taittiriya Upanishad:

They have attained the goal who realize
Brahman as the supreme reality,
The source of truth, wisdom and boundless joy.
They see the Lord in the cave of the heart
And are granted all the blessings of Life.

After the Angelus is rung at 5 a.m., the day begins with namajappa, brief chants in praise of Jesus, at 5:30 followed by Morning Prayer an hour later. This service blends seamlessly into morning mass, followed by breakfast in the refectory. Mass on Sunday draws participants from the surrounding area, the women in colorful saris, the men in boring darks pants and plaid shirts. Daily midday prayer is at 12:15 followed by lunch. The Angelus is rung at 6 p.m. and evening prayer starts an hour later, followed by dinner. The day ends with namajappa at 9 p.m. There are opportunities for silent meditation in the new temple or chapel (the old one was doomed by a tree) before morning and evening prayer. And the community of monks and pilgrims gathers socially twice a day in the outside rotunda at 10 and 3:30 for sweet milky coffee or tea. On most days after the afternoon refreshments, Br. Martin gives a talk and answers questions in the hall.

Walking along the dirt lanes in the predawn dark to namajappa, I hear a loud “OM!” in the distance and realize it is the mooing of one of the ashram’s dairy cows. The Gayatri prayer is like an old friend. Fr. Cyprian included it in the series of talks he gave at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz over the last couple of years, and it became a part of the liturgy for the contemplative prayer service on Monday evenings in the Mission. After Sangha Shantivanam was formed, the Gayatri was recited before every gathering. The liturgy in India includes a mix of readings from different religious traditions, and the Psalms are chanted and sung in both English and Tamil. The daily services end with arati, the passing of a hallowed flame around to each person, and the application of sandalwood paste, red kumkumum powder or ash to the forehead. It is a simple and satisfying ritualized schedule, designed to direct the mind to the cave of the heart where the divine dwells, according to the Hindu tradition borrowed by Fr. Bede and his predecessors at Saccidananda Ashram (usually called Shantivanam, which means “Forest of Peace”), the French monks Jules Monchanin and Henri Le Saux (also known as Abhishiktananda).

Being here in rural India is an opportunity for me to survey the territory left behind after the collapse of what Br. Martin calls my “belief structure.” Last Spring I began to let go of an identity as a Catholic Christian, which I had held for over twenty years. Since this boat had kept me afloat after the failure of a marriage, troubles with the law and a cancer diagnosis, its loss was sad and painful. But I could no longer ignore the doubts and questions I had about the institutional church and its dogma. The conclusion I reached was that the church was a fallible human creation and I could no longer believe in what it taught about Jesus and God (for starters). The rituals felt empty and I stopped going to mass.

But I have always hedged my bets on the spiritual path. Since puberty I have searched for texts and teachers who could help me make sense of whom I am and what I am to do. From vacation Bible School to Theosophy to flying saucers to Zen, I have looked for a deeper meaning and purpose to life. The materialist reduction of meaning to mechanics has never satisfied. Recently I dove into the literature of the New Atheism and found much in their shrill ranting that I could agree with. The sky god is indeed dead. The atheist critique of religion was like sandpaper for my critical reflections, pointing out inconsistencies, contradictions and outright hypocrisy. Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris do not play fair however. They read religious texts literally, like the fundamentalists they condemn, and ridicule even liberal believers for all the excesses of their religions. For them the Bible (and the Koran) must be either accepted in its entirety with all its flaws, and therefore the religion on which it is based must be rejected.

The fact of existence, it seems to me, calls for a set of values if not an explanation. What are we here for? It does not seem to me to be just an accident of atoms. But even if humans created the idea of God and the afterlife to assuage fears of death, set rules for behavior, and explain the workings of the cosmos, this does not negate the possibility of a mystery at the heart of creation towards which we are drawn, not out of fear but through love. The best language to talk about this would be poetry, or mystical theology, and perhaps silence. I have come to Shantivanam in the hope of reigniting the flame of love and compassion. Slipping back into the daily cycle of prayer, meditation and Eucharist has been remarkably easy, despite my fear of being a hypocrite. Maybe context makes all the difference. On Sunday the chapel was full of Christians from the village of Tannirpalli, mostly women and children and a few men. The young altar server brought his brother who was blind and found him a place on the floor before taking up his duties. Tamil voices raised in song send a chill up my spine.

In the past I have come twice for short visits with groups of pilgrims, and once for two weeks on my own. This time I will stay a month over the holiday season. During the first week I settled in quickly. Rural India no longer seems strange to me. The sounds and the smells are comforting. My room in the new wing is spacious (it was designed for two) and comfortable. Perhaps life here would seem deprived to some, with no hot water or toilet paper. We eat on the floor with our hands, Tamil style (the spicy vegetarian cuisine is delicious). Electricity is erratic. On the third day I walked out to the highway and caught a bus to Kulitalai a short distance to the west. The ticket was two rupees (36 of them to the dollar) and the bus was packed; I hung out the open door with several others. In the small town I found the tiny internet shop with aging equipment, waited an hour until it opened, and discovered the slow dialup speed to be frustrating. This blog should be posted from a shop with a high-speed connection in Trichy, a large city an hour by bus from the ashram. In Kulitalai I also bought a shawl for cool mornings and a nice white dhoti (India skirt for men) with kavi-colored trim (540 rupees for both) at the Gandhi weaving collective store where I’ve shopped on previous visits. But I was unable to buy a SIM card for my mobile without proof of residency. The price was also double what I was quoted, so I decided to renounce use of the telephone during my retreat (the computer is another matter altogether).

Membership in the community is constantly changing as people come and go. Bron from Australia, healing from the breakup of a marriage, left to continue her travels in India. Richard from Goa, a former chef who taught me how to cut vegetables without including my finger, returned home to attend a family celebration, while his friend from Denmark, Sidsl, stayed here. A theology student, she is taking a break from classes to study yoga in India. She is visiting India for the second time, and we celebrated her 25th birthday with a sweet cake after dinner one night. Victor and John Peter, two deacons preparing for their ordination as priests this month, came and went, as did Kathy from Ottawa, Canada. Angelo from Naples left after a month’s stay to visit Tiruvannamalai. Sr. Lena stayed for a few days to teach the Chinese yoga she had recently learned to the pilgrims, but she had the disconcerting habit of blowing a whistle between poses that I found unsettling. Jean-Michel, a brother in a French religious congregation, was here for a few days from Algeria where he teaches English and art in a small village. He showed me photos of his beautiful tile works. Then Meath (formerly Fr. Douglas) Conlan arrived with Fr. William Skudlarek from St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, recently appointed director of inter-religious dialogue for the Benedictine order, and John Michael Talbot, a renowned monk, composer and musician. This group also includes a noted photographer from New York whose name I did not catch. Conlan, an Australian, has written about Shantivanam in a recently published book, Bede Griffiths: Friend & Gift of the Spirit (Templegate). The versatile Michael G., an Englishman who first came to Shantivanam in 1989 and his been here many times, returned with his friend Jenny from a visit to Ramana Maharshi Ashram in Tiruvannamalai and resumed his duties as assistant guest master, ashram history and guide, and technology guru. Another Jenny, this one from Australia, arrived with her two daughters, Kerra and Corine, to stay for a few days before going to Kerala to live on a houseboat. There are a few others, Girard and his wife from France and another French lady, as well as several Indian men and women I have not met. In a previous blog I mentioned the presence of Margaret from Australia and Michael H. from Tiruvannamalai, formerly a monk at New Camaldoli in Big Sur, both old friends. The community comes together to chop vegetables after breakfast every day and to sip coffee and tea during the two social breaks.

We had a rare rain (the monsoon season having ended) one day last week and the sky has been on the way to namajappa that were matched by a few fireflies in the mango trees. The mosquitoes require constant vigilance and pints of repellant. Margaret says she was bit by a nasty caterpillar that lowered itself from the rotunda roof onto her shoulder, and she now checks carefully for its relatives. Large ants dart hither and yon on the sand in no discernable direction. Jenny found a snake (small) in her bathroom. There are small spiders that hop. The crows (or are they ravens?) around the trash dump are incredibly loud. We are closeted on these eight acres by banana trees and coconut palms, watered by a complex irrigation system. Beyond the border of the property lies the Cauvery, its wide banks recently mined of sand for commercial purposes by a flotilla of trucks. Sometimes I can hear the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque on the other side of the river. It competes for attention from the Tamil songs broadcast at full volume from numerous temples in the neighborhood. It’s been cool compared to Bangkok, in the low 70’s. I should have brought my umbrella and a long shirt.

One Sunday afternoon, Michael G. took a group of us across a narrow bridge over the canal to the small village of Tannirpalli. Everything, from bodies to clothes is washed in the canal water. We stopped first at the temple to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who is honored as the “remover of all obstacles.” Then we walked down the street greeting Tamil residents who are quite familiar with western visitors to nearby Shantivanam. Michael showed where communal weaving takes place in the road during the week. Children came out to say hello and were happy to be photographed. The village has prospered since he first came here nearly twenty years ago, partly because of the migration of workers (who then send money home). The ashram supports weaving and sewing projects in Tannirpalli along with an old folks home. At a corner store we bought bars of detergent soap for washing clothes (four rupees). Michael pointed out the location of temples dedicated to horses and snakes and we will visit them later. On the way back we took a short cut through the woods by Jyoti Ashram and ran into the Swami on the path with this little girl.

Construction has begun in the ashram on the Christmas crèche, which is no small process. Those I’ve seen for the last two years have been almost life sized and take days to construct. On Monday we marked Fr. Bede’s 101st birthday with a small feast at lunch, which included visitors from Sr. Mary Louise’s Ananda Ashram across the road. Conlan brought a handful of DVDs made during Bede’s visits to Australia in the 1980s and early 1990s for viewing by the pilgrims in residence. A few of us are going to Trichy for Christmas supplies, a hat for Father Christmas (it has not been yet decided who will impersonate him this year) and presents for the expected children. Soon the choir will begin rehearsals for the Christmas program. Sr. Sarananda is our director and she has a remarkable collection of music.

In the few blogs I will be able to post while here in India, I will write more about Br. Martin’s stimulating talks and his liberating perspective on the Hindu-Christian meeting point which in some ways seems more radical than that of both Fr. Bede and Abhishiktananda. Perhaps that is why he is a brother and not a priest. All of the prophets of Shantivanam, however, emphasize the message that the divine is not separate from creation, but is within each one of us in the cave of our heart. The objective of my pilgrimage here is to find that place and rest there.

From the Katha Upanishad:

The wise, realizing through meditation
The timeless Self, beyond all perception,
Hidden in the cave of the heart,
Leave pain and pleasure far behind.


littlebang said...

Brings back memories of the characters, schedule, chants and atmosphere of my 2 months there nearly 12 years ago. There was a German girl called Claudia then - she was to stay for a minimum of 5 years, but I think she moved to the nunnery next door after I left.

Can you bring me back a few of those handy tongue scrapers the Indians use? Mine are all rusty now but I still use them.

Grateful said...

Hello Dr. Will,
I enjoyed your article on Shantivanam and would love to ask you more about your experience. Please respond to my email if you have the opportunity. I am planning a trip to India and am considering a visit to this place. Thank you so much! Happy Travels....Danielle

Grateful said...

Hello.... I enjoyed reading your article about your visit to Shantivanam. I would love to hear more about your experience there. If you have the opportunity, please reply. I am planning a trip to India and am considering visiting this place. Thank you so much.

Dr. Will said...

Grateful, I cannot say much more here. Send an email to me at: