Monday, December 24, 2007

Rain in India, and Frogs

Rain, rain and more rain.

Not the rain with frogs (like in the movie “Magnolia” which I have with me in my computer), and nothing like the “Rain in Spain” ‘enry ‘iggins sang about in “My Fair Lady.” This was torrential, cyclonic rain, caused by an unseasonable depression over the Bay of Bengal. And even though the monsoon season is over, it poured here in southeastern India. According to the English-language paper, The Hindi, which comes daily to the Shantivanam library, flood-related deaths took 38 lives in Tamil Nadu. One man electrocuted in Kulitalai was cremated next to the ashram on Wednesday. The Cauvery River close to the ashram flooded twice in 2005 before I arrived here and I had visions of wading through the water and carrying my laptop and iPod over my head to high ground. It has also been quite cool. Of course I left my umbrella in Bangkok and carried nothing with me that had long sleeves. So I stayed dry and warm as best I could. On Thursday the week long storm reached its peak with a terrific thunder and lightning display. And the frogs loved it.

The noise started during evening prayer service. At first I thought it some strange bird that had developed a percussive sound, like the rattling of maracas. It was Jenny who suggested that it might be frogs. Or perhaps toads. They made quite a mechanical racket, and it reached a crescendo along with the increasing downpour. Fr. Augustine, our resident ecologist, had no idea whether it was frogs or toads. He agreed that it might be a mating ritual, spurred by the proliferation of ponds on the property. One evening Jenny and I spotted a small frog on the path hopping in front of us. Or was it a toad? If I had an internet connection, I could check with Google and Wikipedia. As it is, I’m rendered mute and stupid by the ashram’s isolation (and no doubt more spiritually advanced).

When the rain finally ended, the washing began. A riot of color blossomed on the clotheslines, steaming in the hot sun. In the past I’ve let Ram the dhobi wash most of my clothes. A short thin man, a dhoti wrapped around his waist, he was toothless but thorough. This time I decided to do them myself. I bought a detergent bar at a tiny store in Tannirpalli, and used the bucket in my bathroom. Squeezing the dirt out of clothes by hand is hard work. I got ambitious and tore the sheet and blanket off my bed; after ten days it was a bit rank. There is a raised slab at one corner of the compound where the priests do their laundry, and I tried twisting and slapping my load to get the water out with mixed results. The wire in front of our rooms quickly filled up and sagged under the weight. My stuff dried slowly. And the white shirts were not exactly bright. But by dusk at least my bedclothes were relatively dry, and I felt proud that I’d acquired a new skill.

The pilgrim community ebbs and flows. Many are making the standard Tamil Nadu journey: Chennai, Mamallapuram, Pondicherry, Shantivanam, Tiruvannamalai. Others are crisscrossing this huge country, from coast to coast. A couple, like me, have made this ashram their sole objective. The other Jenny (both can be seen in this photo) with her two daughters left for a houseboat in Kerala (“and a hot bath,” one of them teased), while Hector returned to his home on the Tamil Nadu coast. Girard got up out of his sick bed to go with his wife to their home in the Pyranees of France. Jenny from Dorset, England, decided that seven weeks in India was enough and left for home a week earlier than planned. Since the trains and planes were full, she had to get to Chennai by car, and fretted that the rains might wash out the roads. We learned that she arrived in plenty of time. They were replaced by a colorful collection of “new blood.” Indira, a 41-year-old tour guide in Berlin, arrived fresh from yoga camp in Thanjavur. Brian, an Englishman who did the six-week Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage last year, came here to continue the rediscovery of his Catholic roots. Malka, a follower of Osho, AKA Sri Bhagwan Rajneesh, for thirty years, became interested in Shantivanam after reading in her native Grenoble, France, about the French priests who founded the ashram, and has come here after visiting several other pilgrimage destinations in India, including that of the “Hugging Guru” in Kerala. Two Marianist brothers arrived, one from India and the other from Sri Lanka. Costanza and Emilio, with their four-year-old son, Matteo, who energized the community with his childish enthusiasm, stopped off for several days on their journey around Tamil Nadu. Costanza has visited Camaldoli in Italy, and Emilio tends an ancient olive orchard near Lucca. Shantivanam’s four seminarians arrived Saturday for the holidays and Margaret from Australia prepared to leave for a visit to the Ramana Maharshi ashram in Tiruvannamalai. New arrivals on Saturday included Gesa and Christien, a young couple from Germany, and Icchi, a parish priest from Yokahama, Japan.

Fr. William Skudlarek, the Benedictine from Minnesota who was recently appointed general secretary for Monastic Inter-Religious Dialogue (MID), left with Meath Conlan and John Michael Talbot, but not before celebrating mass Tamil-style and speaking to the community about his life and work to encourage the sharing of spiritual practice and experience across religious boundaries. Seated in half-lotus at the low altar, Fr. William navigated the unfamiliar territory with aplomb, consecrating with flowers, incense and fire. His booming voice did not require the chapel’s new sound system. His presence at all of the services here will be missed. Growing up on a farm in rural Minnesota, William went through school at St. John’s Abby and was ordained a priest in 1964. After 20 years of teaching homiletics and liturgy, he moved to Brazil in the late 1980s for five years as a parish priest. In 1994 he went to Japan where he studied Zen under Yamada Roshi, who “compared Zen to tea and said you don’t have to be Buddhist to drink it.” MID was begun in 1978 with the encouragement of Pope Paul VI who saw monasticism as the bridge between religions. William got involved in the 1990s and became executive director in 2003, helping to organize meetings at Gethsemene between Buddhists and Catholic Christians. “We leave theology to the academics,” he told us. “Our dialogue is confined to discussions about practice and experience.” After Shantivanam, Fr. William will visit Benedictine congregations in India and then travel to Rome to report on his journey to the abbot primate and the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Unfortunately, we saw little of John Michael Talbot who apparently fell ill and was unable to give us a sample of the music for which he is so well known.

Members of the parish church in nearby Kulitalai visited the ashram one evening. Christmas Tata (Father Christmas) in a colorful outfit, with a staff made out of a water pipe and pockets full of candy for the kids (which made Mateo quite happy) accompanied the group. Led by their priest, who was dressed in a more conventional white cassock than then kavi-colored skirt, shirt and shawl worn by ashram members, the children and adults entertained us with Tamil Christmas songs, concluding with the familiar “We wish you a merry Christmas.” The following day the ashram was visited by another Indian dressed in white who is apparently conducting a course locally in Ravi Shankar’s (the guru, not the musician) popular program. Accompanied by a retinue of followers, he chatted with us in English by the coffee circle about our appreciation of Indian food, and then the group moved to the yoga hall where they engaged in some loud and unfamiliar chanting.

During a break in the rain, Indira and I went to Trichy to find a fast internet connection. I also wanted to learn how it was done; taking a bus when you can’t speak the local language is no trivial matter. Since the express buses don’t stop at Tannirpalli, we had to go west before going east, taking a bus to Kulitalai where we connected with the Trichy bus (whether it was an express or not I could not tell; it rapidly filled up and made lots of stops). The central bus station in Trichy is huge, with no discernible traffic flow. Ancient lumbering buses, packed with passengers, nearly ran me over as I made my way to an outdoor urinal for men at one side. We picked one of several available internet shops and sat in tiny cubicles in the hot and stuffy room for a couple of hours of electronic communion with the outside world. Is junk email on the increase? I uploaded photos into a blog I had posted the previous day on a slow computer in Kulitalai. Afterwards we ate a standard Indian lunch (I had chicken after a week’s fast from meat) in a large empty restaurant in the Femina Hotel, looking out a window at the pool in the rain. If that wasn’t contrast enough with the Spartan ashram, we went next door to browse in a shopping mall filled with women in saris and men in plaid shirts moving down the aisles of a supermarket with carts or looking for new clothes in the store upstairs. One section was filled with Christmas decorations. Outside the adjacent bakery there was a Christmas crèche. I expected to hear carols.

The purpose of this trip to Shantivanam was to ponder my spiritual plight, the dissolution of my religious identities. It is hard to write about it. Or perhaps it is too easy. Br. Martin observed that I am addicted to words, and I wondered if there is a 12-step program that would cure me of my addiction. As usual when I go on retreat, I brought a surplus of words with me to feed my hungry mind. On the plane here I finished Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All. The author, Perry Garfinkel, was on assignment for National Geographic and circled the globe to sample all the many varieties of Buddhism. He confirmed Br. Martin’s observation of Hinduism that “it is a congregation of many religions, many belief structures.” Buddhism is the same and so is Christianity, not one but many. In India where Buddhism began, it is all but absent (south of here is an ashram called Bodhizendo but its kin are rare), and the sites where Buddha lived and Garfinkel visited are now tawdry tourist attractions. In Thailand, as elsewhere, Buddhist rituals are mixed with homegrown animist superstitions and beliefs. My book bag includes Karen Armstrong’s biography of Buddha and Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Dhammapada. I’m also reading his version of the Upanishads. For sheer intellectual stimulation, I brought Bruno Barnhart’s new book, The Future of Wisdom: Toward a Rebirth of Sapiential Christianity, but it is slow going. His Christocentric argument is that baptism is a non-dual experience, comparable to the Atman equals Brahma experience of a Hindu. But baptism for the most part is of infants without their consent. Equally Christocentric was the delightful autobiography of William Johnston, Mystical Journey., which I read in two days. Johnston, an Irish priest who has lived for many years in Japan, is one of the pioneers of inter-religious dialogue, but he confesses an aversion to rigorous Zen discipline. I gave his book to Fr. Paul who told me he finds it a reflection of his own experience. On the lighter side, I bought a copy of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (filmed as “The Golden Compass”) at the Bangkok airport and loved it. I look forward to reading the rest of his “Dark Materials” trilogy when I return to Thailand. I also brought The Quick Red Fox, a Travis McGee mystery by John D. MacDonald, the last I’ve not read in his gripping series of tales. I’ve been savoring it for a special occasion. It might be an excellent way to avoid confront my demons in silence. Finally, there is the Lonely Planet South India guide and Thai for Beginners (which I have not yet opened).

Because I brought my laptop along, this means that I’ve also got movies. So far I’ve seen “Daywatch,” a Russian vampire movie with terrific special effects, and “Home of the Brave,” a pedestrian film about the physical and psychical aftereffects of the Iraq war on troubled veterans. I have “The Yatra Trilogy,” a documentary of Buddhist sites in Asia written and directed by John Bush, and have so far watched two, “Dharma River” and “Prajna Earth.” The photography is beautiful but the script is embarrassingly trite. I’ve also brought “This is England,” a movie about skinheads in England in the 1980s, just the ticket for a quiet retreat in rural India. But I do have “The Namesake,” Mira Nair’s wonderful film about the acculturation of an Indian immigrant family in America and how the children rediscover their roots. We are planning to see it together on Christmas Day.

This was written on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the last full moon of the year, and the Winter Solstice.

The boys below spontaneously posed for my camera on the way to their cricket match.

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