Thursday, December 27, 2007

“Christmas Misrepresents Jesus”

That’s what I thought I heard Br. Martin say at his talk on Saturday. And that’s what I wrote when I typed up my notes later. But upon reviewing my handwritten notes before asking him to expand on this provocative idea during his talk on Christmas Day, I discovered that he in fact had said “Christians misrepresent Jesus,” a less controversial notion. Still, Martin has told us that the central message of Jesus is to transcend the “God of history” and the “collective mind.” Even to focus on the resurrection as a real event is a misrepresentation of that message. The birth, death and resurrection of Christ, according to Martin, must be understood internally rather than externally. Although it is easy to fall into a pit of despair over the literalization, commercialization and trivialization of Christmas, here at Shantivanam there is a marriage not only of the east and west but of old and new traditions, religious and secular, which give the holiday new depth.

I have been running from the traditional Christmas since my family broke up nearly seven years ago. The songs, the lights, decorated trees, and even the dreaded Christmas shopping, brought pain rather than pleasure. In the years following, I fled, to Bakersfield with Luke, San Luis Obispo with Diana the year after Peter’s death, and to India (last year I was in London with Helen). As a Catholic convert, I’ve tried to celebrate the birth of Jesus with as much religious fervor as I can muster, but the truth is that Christmas for me has always been Santa Claus and “The Night Before Christmas,” wrapping presents and putting toys under the tree for the children, and caroling with friends. My father read me the story of St. Nick, “so lively and so quick,” and I read it to my children. In the more recent past, our family Christmas has been a walk after dinner and a movie in the evening. At Shantivanam this year I was able to combine Christmases past, present and future.

At the vesper service in the yoga hall early on Christmas eve, the community gathered to sing “Silent Night” in five languages (including Danish and Japanese), to chant the Psalms and to hear Fr. George’s Christmas message. We began by singing “Ubi Caritas” and lighting candles, which we placed on the floor beside the four-sided Jesus the Yogi. Vanya read T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” while Indira interpreted the poem with a dance. Then I read “The Night Before Christmas,” directing the story to Celeste, 7, and Percy, 10, who had arrived in the afternoon with their parents James and Maura from England. There were also several Indian children, relatives of Prabu who is one of the seminarians, and I don’t know what they made of it. In the candlelight, fireflies flashed under the conical roof. Our impromptu choir sung a beautifully harmonized version of “A Noble Flower of Judah,” the carol that signifies Christmas for Sr. Sarananda.

A couple of hours later, the villagers began arriving for midnight mass. The chapel had been decorated with garlands of sweet-smelling flowers and the porch with newly designed kolams. Women and young girls were dressed in colorful saris and had placed flowers in their hair. Men and boys wore slacks and freshly pressed shirts. Soon the room was packed and latecomers clustered outside around the doors. The service, led by Fr. George, was in both Tamil and English. Pinto, another seminarian, played organ, and the high nasal Tamil voices celebrated the birth of a baby long ago ,in far off Palestine. But it was also understood in the Indian sense of awakening to the birth of the divine in our hearts. Christmas, in Br. Martin’s symbolic view, is the transition from the “God of history” to the “God of eternity,” and for this, he says, a virgin is required, “one who must die to the past in order to gain the eternal.” We western pilgrims were in the minority in the chapel and from time to time I found children starring at me. I smiled back to see their happy reaction. In India, under a full moon, surrounded by joyous Christians, I felt a new understanding of Christmas, one that could unify the secular and the spiritual.

After mass, the crowd processed to the giant crèche that had been constructed by a team of workers supervised by the seminarians in a whirlwind two days. Next to the crèche stood a tall simulation of a Christmas tree (in that it wasn’t a pine or fir) decorated with balloons. The curtain was opened and lights were turned on; the crowd gasped. Inside the crèche there was a whole landscape, with plants people, and a working waterfall, and not one but two figures of the baby Jesus (it is the custom here to touch the feet of the larger one). Cake and tea were disturbed, and here came Santa with a pack full of candy. I dressd up as Christmas Tata (Father Christmas) two years ago, wearing a silly suit and hat and a disgusting mask. Michael G. took on the role last year and volunteered a repeat performance. During a trip to Trichy that morning we had purchased a better mask, along with some treats for the children, but it was still difficult to see out of the eyeholes. At one point, besieged by children, I heard Michael shout “help” and we all laughed at the joke. But it turned out he was seriously disoriented, and a small child came to his rescue to lead him around. The greeting here is “Happy Christmas” and it was shared by one and all. The villagers left slowly and we pilgrims drifted off to our rooms by 2 a.m.

I was tired and feeling bruised. Waking involuntarily not long after 4 that morning, Michael and I left to do errands in Trichy at dawn. We caught a bus outside the ashram and watched the full moon settle behind us as sunrise filled the sky in front. In the large city, we ate a traditional Tamil breakfast at a restaurant in front of the central bus station. Using my right hand, I sipped hot coffee from an aluminum cup and dipped pieces of a pancake (dhosa) into various spicy sauces set out on a banana leaf. Outside, while waiting to cross the crowded road, I was fiddling with my camera and not paying attention, and a bus bumped up against me. Indians jumped to my aid, but I stayed upright and was relatively unhurt, if a bit shaken. After some internet time, we took a bus to the street bazaar around Rock Fort to do some shopping. We found the Santa mask in a shop with other goods for Christians (as if Santa and Christ go together). On the way home we got on a private bus that had Indian music videos playing on two screens, but at an acceptable volume.

On Christmas Day, there was no mass in the morning, but we were invited across the lane to Sr. Mary Louise’s Ananda Ashram where Fr. Icchi from Japan celebrated mass in the tiny upstairs chapel. Fr. Bede asked the sister to start the ashram at a time when women were not allowed to stay at Shantivanam. Several nuns joined her. Even though the gender-restrictive rule was eventually lifted, many pilgrims prefer the quiet of Ananda to the sometimes busy social scene across the street. And Sr. Mary Louise is known to provide tamer food, less seasoned, for tricky tummies. Michael H. is staying there as he recovers from typhoid fever (his second case in seven years of living in India), and at the midday mass he assisted the priest who, himself, was suffering from a fever. Michael played his guitar and led the singing. Last January our group from Santa Cruz had tea with the sisters, and Fr. Cyprian celebrated mass in the chapel where, we were told, the body of Abhishiktananda had lain after his death.

After lunch on Christmas, I got to share another family tradition: a movie. I had a copy of Mira Nair’s film, “The Namesake,” and set up my laptop, with a pair of speakers to amplify the sound, in a corner of the dining hall. She also directed “Salaam Bombay” and “Monsoon Wedding.” Released last year, it is the story of a Bengali couple that lives in America where their son and daughter do not appreciate the Indian customs and traditions they try to maintain. The father is a university professor and named his son Gogol after his favorite Russian author. By coming to terms with his name, the son eventually is able to integrate his Indian and American heritages. It is an emotionally moving story and the scenes in India are beautifully filmed. I bought a couple of bags of popcorn from a vendor on the bus the day before, and so our viewing pleasure was complete (at least my image of it). The children of some of the Indian workers at the ashram poked their head into the hall and watched the film with us. On Christmas evening, a few of us gathered in the meditation hall around some candles to share our spiritual paths and the reasons why we were drawn to Shantivanam. One of the most appealing facets of the ashram is its ability to assemble a collection of interesting pilgrims from all over the world.

There were a number of last minute arrivals before Christmas festivities commenced. The British family took two rooms in our residential compound and soon Percy was running around with some of the young Indian Christmas visitors. My old friends Vanya and Jim returned for their annual visits. Both are British, but Vanya has lived in the Nilgiri Hills near Ooty for many years where she works with tribal people on agricultural and social issues. After leaving Shantivanam two years ago, I shared a taxi and stayed one night at the Femina Hotel in Trichy with Jim, who adopted six Indian children with his late wife (“the youngest of whom is now over 40,” he said). We spent an evening at a bar with an unusual cowboy theme. Dr. Raj of Hyderabad came and went; he set out to become a priest but Bede convinced him to go to medical school, and now his charity operates an AIDs clinic and an orphanage. Indira’s statuesque friend Erica from Germany arrived by plane in Trichy. Only 18, she has been to India twice before with her father and is studying yoga and dance on a trip of several months. Pete came from Sri Lanka where he was watching cricket matches. A social worker in England, he was here during Bede’s final months and now he regularly spends the cold winter months in Asia. The day after Christmas, a group of eight seminarians from Bangalore came for a three-day retreat. One couple arrived from France, and another pair from Quebec, who are currently living in Dubai where the husband teaches psychology and philosophy, dropped in at tea time one day and stayed for Br. Martin’s talk.

I have attended Martin’s 4 o’clock talks for two weeks now and am beginning to get a pretty fair idea of his theology. According to his schema, there are four levels of understanding, which can be applied to everything, from the body, to consciousness: 1. individual; 2. collective; 3. universal, and, 4. unitary. Sometimes he describes it as a tree with: 1. leaves; 2. branches; 3. a trunk, and 4. roots. The first two levels comprise the realm of becoming in time, of history, and the second the realm of enfolding, in eternity. Religion, present at only at the first two levels, should be a womb or a nest but is too often a cage. Sin is false identity of who we are. We are meant to grow through the individual and collective levels to the universal, beyond religion, where “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” Jesus came to show us the way which culminates in the unitary: “I and the father are one,” what he called the Kingdom of God (and Hinduism calls advaita, non-duality). In ordinary life we look for “essential unity and functional duality,” chopping wood and carrying water in the presence of God. Faith, beyond belief, is the experience of entering into the unity of God. Death is dying to the ego, the individual and the collective self, and resurrection is awakening to the eternal within us, to God in the cave of the heart. Jesus is unique because he brought together the Asian wisdom tradition, where love of God is predominant, to the Western prophetic tradition, where love of neighbor is predominant. The spiritual practice of the first is meditation and the second, prayer, and Jesus, “the marriage of wisdom and action,” combined them both. “Jesus brought not a new religion but a new way of being human,” Martin has said. “Everybody has to grow into the only Son of God.”
I’m sure I’ve not done his thought justice, but this is my preliminary summary. It has helped me to realize that the collapse of my belief structures and the dissolution of my spiritual identities is not an end but a beginning, not something to lament but to put behind me. I’ve become aware of my almost pathological need to have an identity, to call myself a pilgrim, a searcher, and a believer, to be a Catholic or a Buddhist. In Martin’s schema, this means I am stuck at the level of collective consciousness, dependent upon the support of a group (but permanently in rebellion against it). Not everyone I meet finds this is a problem. Just as I needed to be an official student in order to justify my love of study, I have needed to identify myself with a particular religion, or combination of paths, to justify my search for ultimate meaning. I hope, after my sojourn in India, that I will finally be able to let it all go.

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.

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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Back in the Forest of Peace

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.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Brief Interlude

I leave today for nearly a month's stay at Shantivanam, the Catholic ashram established by British monk Bede Griffiths which has become, since his death in 1973, a place of pilgrimage for spiritual seekers from around the world. I leave with somewhat less enthusiasm than I had for my previous three trips to India because I have begun to sink down roots in Bangkok after four months in residency here and I will miss this infinitely fascinating city and the new friends I have made.

Last night on the just discovered roof of Siam Court, the 15-story building in which I rent an apartment, I watched a spectacular fireworks show over Benjakiti Park, part of the week-long celebrations to honor the 80th birthday of His Majesty the King. It was the fourth fireworks display I'd seen in the last five days and I'm becoming something of a connoisseur. This time they even managed to send the numbers "80" high into the sky over the Sukhumvit cityscape. Earlier in the evening, Chris, the building's manager, had organized a Christmas party around the pool, with a buffet groaning under the weight of innumerable Thai and Farang dishes, including a variety of barbecued meats (the beef was perfection), and seasonal songs on the PA system. Many of the residents here are foreigners, like the fellows I met last night from Northern Ireland and New Zealand, but by no means most. Lots of Thai kids live here and they "oohed" and "aahed" at the fireworks like children (and adults) the world over. I rememered fireworks displays in the past, like the 4th of Julys in Capitola when we lay back on the sand to watch the brilliant lights over the pier. We cheered and applauded the best, just like the Thais here. Maybe fireworks are more universal than religion.

Yesterday was also the opening of Siam Court's new gym. Work has been proceeding on the facility since I arrived in August. While it's small, with only a few machines and weights, there is also a table and chairs on a balcony overlooking the garden next door, the perfect place to drink a morning coffee and watch the fanatics sweat. No, I take that back. No one could use a little exercise more than me. My middle-aged spread is threatening to become a tsunami. After a month of doing nothing in India, my body will be ready for a rigorous regime on the tredmill and the stationary cycle, not to mention a few crunches with the arm weights. Right? Walking has not done the trick, and it too often reminds me that arthritis is a matter of the feet as well as the hands. So, I will make a New Year's resolution (yeah, right) to get in shape.

On Friday the new Christmas fantasy film, "The Golden Compass," opened in Bangkok as well as around the world. I've enjoyed reading about the controversy surrounded Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials, from which the film is adapted. According to William A. Donohue, president of the laughably conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who also complained about “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Golden Compass” should be boycotted because it is the beginning of a “stealth campaign” to introduce children to atheism. Admitting that he hadn’t actually seen the movie, Donohue nevertheless claimed he didn’t need to. The problem, as he sees it, is that the “film is bait for the books: unsuspecting parents who take their children to see the movie may feel impelled to buy the three books as a Christmas present.” For an insightful counter to the complaints that "Compass" is an atheist Narnia, take a look at "The Accidental Heretic" by Donna Freitas, author with Jason King of Killing the Imposter God: Philip Pullman's Spiritual Imagination in His Dark Materials. A faithful Catholic, Freitas also thinks that Pullman's series is a masterpiece. I hope I can find a copy of the first book in the series at the airport bookstore today. The film, however, is a mess. Despite great effects, beautiful photography, and Nicole Kidder's glamorous villain, the plot bogs down in confusing detail, explained no doubt more clearly in the book. Apparently Pullman's critique of authoritarian religion is also toned down so as not to offend the kiddies and idiots like Donohue. Too bad. Perhaps this proves the point he makes in the series about gods and religious authority.

The news on the TV from America while I ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant the other morning was dismal. Another shooting by a depressed young man in a shopping mall. A diner sitting next to me identified himself as a Canadian and asked: "why does this happen in America?" He said there were more guns in Canada but that Canadians do not slaughter innocent people with the frequency of mass murderers in the U.S. I couldn't answer him. I recalled multiple shootings in Scotland and Finland. Is America the mass murder center of the world? Maybe we have more depressed people? I'm not sure I think much about "we" any more. The flap in the news over the CIA destroying evidence undoubtedly obtained through supposedly-illegal torture might rouse a few Americans from their torpor, but I doubt it. Perhaps America should be quarantined from the rest of the world. There is a strange virus on the rampage there, from Washington to San Diego, and if something isn't done soon it will spread everywhere like bird flu and infect the innocent.

A friend from Santa Cruz writes that "it sounds like you'll be staying over there for quite a while. Thailand has become home? Have you emigrated?" I replied that I still hadn't decided yet if this is an emigration. I'll return to Thailand in January, and spend at least another five months here and elsewhere in Asia before going to Europe in the summer. I have a return ticket to San Francisco which I may not use. I explained further that I've always "been a 'homebody' (a characteristic of Cancers, so I've been told). But when my marriage ended, I had to redefine myself. I settled into a couple of places, but really felt more comfortable living out of a suitcase during my travels. Now I have a tiny studio apartment and my only furnishing is a Buddha icon (besides the bare necessities included in the rent). I have no desire to 'nest' any more. Aren't we all homeless anyway, and holding onto a place is just a recipe for suffering?"

So goodbye to Bangkok for now. Farewell to Little Bang, my sangha away from home (wherever home might be), and to Pandit and Dr. Holly and the other friends I've made here. Enjoy your no-longer-alone wintery holiday season in Seoul, Marcus. See you in the new year, Jerry. And goodbye my lovely guide and translator, my "secret lover." I will take you with me in my heart and come back to you soon.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to one and all. And here is a selection of recent photographs that have not found a home in my blog.