Tuesday, January 08, 2008

An Epiphany, of Sorts

Returning to Bangkok from India on the first weekend of 2008, I discovered that the official colors had been changed from yellow and pink for the King to black for his sister, Princess Galyani Vadhana, who died January 2 from abdominal cancer at the age of 84. Black could also represents the emotions of the ruling elite who are upset over the results of the December 23 election that saw supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by the military in a coup last year, apparently returned to power. The implications of the vote, currently being contested ballot-by-ballot in the courts, are uncertain. Fortunately I have enough black attire to stay fashionable.

My homecoming was joyful, back into the loving arms of friends and enveloped in the sights, sounds and smells of the neighborhood I am coming to love. While less rough around the edges than southern India, Thailand presents one immediately with the exciting extremes of life that energize and vitalize. The bar girls and lady boys of Soi 4, along with the barber, the beggars, 7-11 clerks, international tourists, the guards on the gate at Siam Court, masseuses and fruit vendors, greeted me like an old habitué returned from the wars. And many of them were clothed in not-so-somber black. On my first night back, I feasted on steak and chocolate after a month's famine.

I celebrated New Year's Eve with a midnight mass in the Shantivanam chapel, surrounded by colorfully-clad villagers who had come for the spiritual refreshment along with the chai and cake served afterwards in the refectory. Some of the cricket boys snuck into the party and all wanted to pose with "the angel," Erika, the beautiful blonde six-footer from Germany. But while it might be 2008 now in much of the world,in India there is no agreement on dates. Fr. Paul showed me a calendar that showed months, years and dates -- all different -- in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, northern India, the West, and according to Muslim reckoning. How do you date a letter? I asked. He threw up his hands.

Soon after the New Year, a group of us traveled by pre-dawn bus to Trichy where we visited Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (usually shortened to Sri Rangam), arguably the largest temple complex in India (experts have not yet agreed; it is certainly bigger than Angkor Wat which I have visited, one of the world's largest religious sites). The view here from the roof shows the golden domed inner sanctum which can be visited only by Hindus. The temple, dedicated to Visnu, consists of seven walled sections and 21 gopurams or gates. Construction is ongoing and the largest gopuram at the main entrance was completed only in 1987. It was less crowded in the early morning than it had been during my last two visits when walking across the hot sand one blistering afternoon burned my feet. Still, the rabbit-warren of corridors was filled with Hindu pilgrims in various states of dress (like the large group of ladies in bright red) and un-dress (like this holy man pictured here...no, the one on the right). We saw the brightly-decorated door that is only opened once a year, which happened to be the week before, and therefore missed by days the free-pass to eternity that passing through it guarantees. The outer section of the temple is filled with merchants, a veritable city, where everything is sold, from cooking implements to calendars (with multiple dates), religious items, and flowers and food for pujas. Once blessed by the Brahmin priest, such food becomes sacred prasad, and a man coming out of the inner temple generously offered some of his to us. Sri Rangam dates to the 10th century, although many of the beautiful frescoes and carvings, like the horses and manifestations of Vishnu near the 1000-pillar temple (which was sadly closed), may be only half a millennium old. After the tour, Michael G. and I retired to the wild west bar at Jenny's Residency (recently taken over by the Breeze corporation and upscaled) for omelets and beer, a foretaste of secular life in Bangkok.

The first week of the year and my visit to India ended on the Feast of the Epiphany, a celebration of the incarnation of Jesus, marked by the visit of the Magi at his birth and his baptism in the Jordan River which inaugurated his mission to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. With the help of Brother Martin (full name John Martin Sahajananda), whose perspective and insights have been collected in The Four O'Clock Talks, compiled by Carrie Lock and just published by Shantivanam Ashram, I had an epiphany. Perhaps the vision one night of hundreds of fireflies (aka lightening bugs) congregating at the top of the large Bo tree by the yoga hall, contrasting with the brilliant stationary stars behind them, helped push it along. "God" for me is LIFE (writ large). Not the mechanical descriptions written by science, but the indescribable essence and depth that connects all life, and even its inanimate neighbors, the rivers and mountains, into a vast incarnation of unity. Words provide only inarticulate gropings, fingers pointing at the mystery. Religions get much of it wrong. In Br. Martin's terms, I feel as if I have graduated from the Collective to the Universal level. Identities, like "Catholic Christian" or "pilgrim," no longer seem very important. Everything I've ever wanted to find is right here, at the heart of ordinary, everyday life, and if I just clean up my act a bit, I may be able to appreciate it a little better.

Not long before leaving, Michael G. took me on a bike ride through the countryside. The day was overcast (rain was threatened yet again, but it only sprinkled one night), making for a deliciously cool journey to the south of Tannirpalli, along paved lanes through a vast farmland of banana trees and fields of reeds which are used for weaving mats. We passed children walking or biking to school, goats and even a herd of ducks, farm laborers on their way to work, a funeral in one hamlet accompanied by clamoring drum beats, and we stopped off at an ancient temple with grass growing out of the brick roof. The circular route went through seven different villages and "Happy New York 2008" was chalked in the pavement at the entrance of each. Residents greeted us with smiles and vannikums (the Tamil word for welcome). At the conclusion of the ride, I meet Michael H. at the coffee circle and we set out for an hour's walk. Michael is from Texas and was a monk at the Hermitage in Big Sur before coming to India where he has lived at Ramana Maharshi's ashram in Tiruvanamalai for seven years. We talked about our appreciation for an eclectic mix of spiritual practices and our common experience with academic philosophy. Passing through one of the nearby villages, we stopped at a Visnu temple
where reconstruction was underway, and were given a tour of the vimana above the inner sanctum where a master artist (who has worked on a Hindu temple in Pittsburg, California) was recreating images of Vishnu and his consorts. On the way back we stopped at a small flower garden created by residents of Tannirpalli to demonstrate that unused land can be cared for in an ecological and loving manner (rather than turned into a repository for garbage). Michael G. and his brother dedicated a tree there to his father who had come to visit Shantivanam when he was 83. The sign wishes passers-by a happy New Year and Pongal, the harvest festival that is celebrated in Tamil Nadu on January 16.

After the bike and hike I was exhausted, and for a day felt like I was coming down with the dreaded flu that has disabled a number of pilgrims. A day after his arrival, Victor disappeared into his hut with a fever and blurred vision and was still there when I left a week later, cared for by Antonella, the doctor from Italy, and various pilgrims who have taken him water and rice. The population of pilgrims was constantly changing. It was sad to see people I had grown close to leaving for home or other parts of India. Gesa and Christian went to see Vanya in Ooty, Peter left for Singapore and Phnom Penh, Erika flew to Hyderabad to stay with her yoga teacher and Vibika returned to Tiru to volunteer at a school. Brian the walker remained; a teacher of Reiki, he had developed a unique walking meditation around the four-sided Jesus the Yogi in the yoga hall and could be seen there day and even night by candlelight. He plans to take a Thai massage course in Goa before going to Spain to assist pilgrims on the Santiago de Compostela walk. A day before I left, a group arrived from Berkeley, including Camaldolese monks Arthur and Andrew from Incarnation Priory. I will miss the ordination of John Robert next week and the visit of Ivan from Camaldoli and Cyprian from California later in the month. Indira returned from her short trip to Tiru and Meath Conlan came back with two ladies from England, one of whom lives in Highgate, and regularly eats breakfast at a restaurant I had visited numerous times with Helen, my host in London. Meath and I discussed traveling together in north India in April. (One decision my retreat at the ashram helped me make was to cancel my planned trip to Europe in June and spend my remain funds in Asia.) Each morning the pilgrims communed together around the veggie table, chopping onions, peeling garlic, grating carrots, and cutting up various unnameable delicacies for the afternoon and evening meals. The dance of solitude and society I found to be one of the (if not the main) joys of ashram life.

Last year my mind was on the tour group I was leading, which left little time to contemplate the spirit. Or so I thought at the time. This year I was alone. But in the chapel I found myself constantly yawning (a lack of oxygen or boredom?), and when I tried to listening to the words of the Psalms and the Bible readings, I found my attention wandering to the sunlight on the fodder field through the door or the calls of the birds and oming of the cows outside. In the afternoons, and sometimes in the mornings, I took a nap under the mosquito netting. I read novels, listened to music on my iPod, and watched movies in my laptop. When the villagers came to mass, I admired the women's colorful saris and the remarkable attentiveness of the children rather than paid attention to the liturgy (Michael H.'s duets with Sr. Sarananda were, however, wonderful). Sadly, my discipline was lacking. And this turned out to be a revelation. If "God" is life and love rather than an object to be sought and worshiped, then effort can be counter-productive. In the end, I found that Shantivanam was the door for me to life in its fullness (or emptiness, as the Buddhists see it).

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