Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Honoring Thomas Merton

A few of us gathered on Saturday at Star Cottage, a guest house at the Red Cross conference center south of Bangkok where Thomas Merton died on December 10, 1968. We all wanted to honor the end of the journey of the monk who had meant so much to us, to the Catholic Church, and to millions of anonymous spiritual seekers everywhere. The pilgrimage was organized by Lance Woodruff, an American expat and journalist, to coincide with the visit of my friend, monk and musician Cyprian Consiglio, and our trip to Suanganiwas in Samut Prakan 30 km from Bangkok was joined by several other friends, including Emilie Ketudat, leader of the local chapter of the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM).

Merton's writings were crucial to the trajectory of my spiritual search. I converted to Catholicism as he did, because any church that could accept the prolific writer who had led a desolute youth similar to my own was a club I wanted to join. I still recall my shock on hearing about his death at 53 by electrocution when he touched an ungrounded fan after taking a shower during a break in the ecumenical conference in Thailand, his first major trip out of the monastery after 27 years as a Trappist monk. After delivering a morning talk on "Monasticism and Marxism" to the conference, Merton ended with, "So I will disappear from view and maybe we call all have a coke or something." His body was found several hours later. It was the end of his life as well as of his Asian journey which was recorded in a published journal. In addition to meeting the Dalai Lama in India, Merton traveled to Sri Lanka to see the giant Buddhas at Polonnaruwa. There, he records being "knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity of the figures, the clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into the rock shape and landscape, figure, rock and tree." Then he experienced, a week before his death, a final epiphany: "Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious." Thirty-eight years later, I went myself to Polonnaruwa to gaze on the inscrutable smiles of the three huge Buddha figures and to try and see what Merton saw.

The cottage in which Merton died has been lived in for many years by a Thai family who pay the Red Cross $170 a month rent. Lance did not want to tell them why we were there, since Thais are acutely sensitive to ghosts, but they allowed us to stand for a few moments in the downstairs hall. Cyprian chanted an English translation of the traditional prayer for the dead which he suspected had been said 40 years before in that very house. Then we went to a park across the street for a short ceremony that included music and readings from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as this marvelous passage for Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in which which Merton writes of his earlier epiphany on a rare trip outside the monastery in Kentucky:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Several years ago I helped start Sangha Shantivanam, a small group in Santa Cruz, California, dedicated to the study of world religious texts and inter-spiritual dialogue and practice, with the Camaldolese monk from Big Sur. Fr. Cyprian is a composer and singer who has recorded numerous CDs and can be seen and heard doing recent songs on YouTube videos. Two years ago, our group traveled to Shantivanam, the ashram in Tamil Nadu, India, where the British monk, Bede Griffiths, who died in 1993, brought Hinduism and Catholicism together. This year Cyprian interrupted his busy schedule of retreats and performances in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia to come and see me in Bangkok, his first visit to a Buddhist country. Besides the Merton memorial, I took him to experience a selection of Buddhist temples, from Wat Pho with its golden reclining buddha and yoga images, to Wat Suthep and Wat Saket with its Golden Mount. We also rode in a boat taxi on the Chao Phraya river and went for a walk in Lumpini Park where we had a picnic with vegetarian fare purchased from a streetside stall. We also joined Emilie for an early Sunday mass in Thai at the Jesuit center near Victory Monument. It was my first Eucharest in over a year.

On Cyprian's final day in Thailand, I took him to meet my friend, the British monk, Phra Cittasamvaro, also called Pandit Bhikku. We traveled by two different buses across the city to Wat Pak Nam, a very large temple on the other side of the river in southwest Bangkok. I knew that Cyprian and Pandit would hit it off, and they immediately began talking about issues in common to monks everywhere. Pandit was also able to answer Cyprian's many queries about Theravadan Buddhism and immediately corrected some of the misconceptions that I had passed on innocently. (Buddhism did indeed first come to southeast Asia from Tibet, although the southern version later imported from Sri Lanka was ultimately more influential.) We had coffee and tea in a shop front outside the temple and then joined several hundred laypeople clad in white for Monk's Day (each of the four phases of the moon is Wan Phra) to eat with the monks in a large hall. Only our table at the back held men and they patiently showed us how to serve ourselves from the wide selection of food (which Cyprian had to sift for meat; one dish contained hidden fish that he couldn't avoid). We sat close to the group of fresh-faced novices and there were numerous chants before and after the meal. We went to Pandit's small room to continue our conversation and later were given a tour of the temple grounds.Then we took a trip across the river to Coffee World for the liquid snack permitted monks who only eat one meal a day. And finally we went to nearby Wat Yannowa to see the cement Chinese junk with its fat, smiling Buddha in an upstairs altar room and to tour an exhibit of "relics" which look like mostly small stones.

Cyprian left this morning to continue his Asian journey. We may meet up again next December and January at Shantivanam in India for the Abhishiktinanda celebration which might include a contingent of folks from California. I missed the Academy Awards to take him to meet Pandit but it was worth it. I loved the conversation they had about various perspectives on ultimate reality (even if there is one or not). What is the difference between "telos" and "scopos," goal and methodology? Is there a place for God in Buddhism? Can a Christian believe in karma and reincarnation and, if not, how can we progress with only one life to live? Pandit is particularly fond of Teresa of Avila and much taken with Christian mystics in general, and Cyprian has studied deeply Fr. Bede's anthropology of spirit, soul and body, so influenced by Hindu thought. I'm sure they both were affected by the encounter.

As for me, I continue to muddle through, looking for salvation by immersion in the world. I tuned out of their discussion of the universal monk's vow of celibacy. It was wonderful seeing Cyprian again and we avoided any talk of how far I'd fallen from the faith. On the last evening we met Sylvia and Jerry Deck who had stopped in Bangkok on their way home to California from a tour of Vietnam. We found a riverside restaurant not far from the backpacker ghetto where Cyprian had a run, and feasted on Thai food. Sylvia had been a catechist when I was becoming a Catholic twenty-five years ago, still wet behind my ears from an enthusiastic reading of Merton's works. It seemed so easy then, as it did to Merton when he first entered Gethsemane Monastery in 1941. His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, captured the public imagination, but he later criticized it as immature and overly conservative. The later Merton resurrected an early strain of mysticism from the buried tradition and reached across borders to inform and dialogue about non-Christian religions with a sensitivity and wisdom unique to Catholic clerics. His discoveries I think made Vatican II possible. But, as the Buddha taught, all is change, and the present occupant of the Seat of St. Peter would like to recapture eternal Christian certainties that all but gag inter-religious dialogue. Would I still be going to mass if a disciple of Merton were in charge?

(Cyprian's own account of his trip can be found in his blog listed on the right, talks, notes & travelogues. Marcus also mentions the Merton ceremony in his journal. Below is my photo of Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka with two of the Buddha figures that so affected Merton right before his death.)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Roses are Red

Red roses, real and fake, were on sale on ever street corner yesterday as Thailand -- or at least Bangkok -- absorbed another western holiday into its sponge-like culture. Valentine's Day, with roots in Chaucer's England, is a 19th century marketing invention designed to sell cards, festooned with cupids and hearts, along with flowers. The Catholic Church recognized at least eleven saints named Valentine but none was associated with romance (a martyr's death is the typical theme). The custom of sending cards arose in England in the mid-1800s and was copied quickly by Americans. More than a billion were sent yesterday, a close second for greeting card makers to Christmas. And that's without even counting countries like Thailand where flowers and cards have been proliferating for the last month. According to numerous newspaper warnings, Thai teens are quite likely to celebrate the occasion by having sex.

I received a few cyber Valentines on my Hi5 site, and I got email and phone messages from a couple of past and present Thai girlfriends. In the afternoon I met Bee, who has recruited me to teach her English, at one of the ubiquitous Bangkok shopping malls where I presented her with a single humongous long-stemmed rose (on steroids?) and corrected homework. In the evening I retired alone to my cozy room and watched "Cadillac Records," the fictionalized story of Chess Records and the rhythm and blues artists it launched, from Muddy Waters to Chuck Berry. Easily the high point of the film is Beyoncé's incredible portrayal of the gritty blues singer, Etta James. The representations of Waters, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Berry were terrific. This was the music I cut my teeth on when I turned 13. But the song that always turns me to putty is Rodgers and Hart's song from the 1930s, "My Funny Valentine":
My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
This year, however, my heart is not smiling so much.

I doubt that they celebrate Valentine's Day in Gaza. There the color red is too reminiscent of the blood shed by innocents during the recent "war" in which a technologically dominant Israel made the civilians pay for the less than two dozen deaths over the last decade caused by the hand-made rockets Hamas has lobbed over the border. I've read that Israel still maintains a strangle-hold on the Gaza border crossings, preventing even cement to reconstruct the destroyed infrastructure along with sufficient medical supplies to treat thousands of injured, many of them women and children. The election in Israel last week spelled disaster for the feeble peace process; now the right wingers have the upper hand. It remains to be seem whether Obama will put the breaks on, but there are as yet no hopeful signs. He and Hillary have been knee-jerk supporters of the Jewish religious state. For yet another sane perspective on a tragic situation, please listen to the wise words of Bill Moyers here.

The news out of Washington is dismal. Obama's attempt to transcend partisanship was a total failure. The Republicans, fully responsible for the unwon wars and economic crisis inherited by the President, have decided to oppose everything he attempts in the hopes of returning to power should he fail. My economic guru Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times, criticizes the just-passed stimulus package as inadequate and the bank bailout as a cash giveaway to "bunglers." Of course we should cut Obama a little slack during his first 100 days, but the consequences of failure could be a disaster heard round the world. With all this on his plate, is it any wonder that the Middle East will get short shrift?

Prime Minister Abhisit of Thailand admitted to CNN this week that mistakes were probably made in the recently-reported cruel treatment of Burmese refugees by the military. But no one expects heads to roll, given the military's role in his unelected rise to the country's top office. In the meantime, highest priority by the government has been given to perceived threats to the monarchy. Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, fled to England last week rather than face prison on a charge of lèse majesté for passages in his book about the military's 2006 coup. Last month, an Australian was sent to prison for three years for passages in a novel that sold less than a dozen copies. Giles, proudly identifying himself as a Communist, issued a "Red Siam Maifesto" from London that no one in Thailand is willing to print for fear of being arrested. In an interview, Abhisit claimed that Thailand’s lèse majesté law is analogous with laws against contempt of court in other countries, “because the courts have to be neutral and respected. The monarchy is a revered institution above politics and conflicts and therefore has no self-defense mechanism, that’s why we have the law.” The BBC's Jonathan Head and engaged Buddhist activist Sulak Sivaraksa are among those currently facing lèse majesté charges, and several thousand web sites have been censored for possible offensive opinions. Meanwhile, the anti-government red shirts have held huge rallies in Bangkok and upcountry, and only a few thousand police in Udon Thani last night keep the red shirts from clashing with their opponents, the yellow shirts, who brought down two governments before succeeding with Abhisit. These are perilous times in Thailand.

My youngest son Nicky is coming to Bangkok March 11 for a six-day visit with me. His sister Molly is in Bali recording a CD with her singing group, the Sirens, and I've been trying to get her a plane ticket to join us. Thai Airways, suffering from the airport closures last year and the drop in tourist visits to the Land of Smiles, is offering a special promotion to Bali, under $300 (the online price fuctuates) for a round trip ticket. But because I wanted a ticket that originated at Denpassar, I was unable to use the web site since Molly would need my credit card to board the flight. An airline customer service rep told me that I had to buy a ticket here which could be issued to my daughter by email as an e-ticket. But at the travel agent's office Friday I learned that the promotion price would not apply to a flight leaving from Bali. The full price? Over $1,000. So much for Thai Airways' attempts to attract passengers. Now I need to see what price Molly will have to pay in Bali and find out how to send her money for the ticket. I hope this works, because I'm eager to show my Bangkok to Molly and Nick.

I hope to be able to watch the Academy Awards when they are telecast live here at 8:30 am a week from Monday. Cyprian will be visiting Bangkok then and I'm not sure it's his cup of tea. I finally saw Anne Hathaway in "Rachel Getting Married" and thought her performance superb, the best alongside Melissa Leo's trailer heroine in "Frozen River." Both are long shots. Will they lose to Streep, Winslet or Jolie? Will it make any difference in the state of the world? Most of the nominated films have come to Bangkok but play in small theaters, unable to attract crowds more interested in "Inkheart," "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans," "My Bloody Valentine" in 3D, or (just opened) "Confessions of a Shopaholic" which might prove quite popular in this city where megamalls dominate the shopping zones. The biggest current hit here is "Red Cliff 2," John Woo's retelling of the Three Kingdoms history of China (the first part was shown in Asia last year; the rest of the world gets a condensed single version).

Nature is rearing her angry head once again. The devastating brush fires in Australia, even though some may have been deliberately set by arsonists, are a warning to humans who want to live where natural fires periodically burn (Californians learn this anew every year). And the crash of a plane near Buffalo which was caused by excessive ice tells us that natural limits abound beyond which our technological civilization cannot pass. Recently I watched Werner Herzog's excellent film about the South Pole, "Encounters at the End of the World," up for an Oscar for best documentary. "Not just another documentary about penguins," the director says, but rather a study of the people who live there and their reasons for exploring the edge of nature. More than a couple of his melancholic scientists are pessimistic about the future. A new study of global warming reveals that the pace is faster than thought previously. "We are basically looking now at a future climate that's beyond anything we've considered seriously in climate model simulations," Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Unexpectedly large amounts of carbon dioxide, caused by the excessive burning of coal, are being released into the atmosphere as the result of "feedback loops" that are speeding up natural processes. Last night as I watched a very red sun set through the industrial haze of Bangkok, I wondered how many more sunsets the planet could withstand.

Monday, February 09, 2009

May the Force be With You

Today is Magha Puja (also Makha Bucha), one of the four main Buddhist holidays celebrated in the Theravada countries, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. It commemorates the gathering of 1,250 disciples of the Lord Buddha, each personally ordained by him, at Veluvana Bamboo Grove, near Rajagaha in Northern India. All were arahants, enlightened through the Buddha's teaching. According to legend, they all knew to assemble together without prior arrangement on the full moon of the third lunar month. On that occasion, the first sermon after the Buddha's enlightenment nine months before, he gave an important talk which is considered to be the heart of his teachings. Thais mark the occasion by giving alms to monks in the morning, and processing around the temple in the evening three times, to honor the Buddha, dhamma and the sangha, with flowers and candles which they present on an altar when the circumambulation is complete. Last year Pim and I took out-of-town visitors Kathe and Michael to Wat Pathum Wanaram which is squeezed between the Siam Paragon and Central World megamalls. The temple was being repaired so hundreds of us marched around a construction site holding lotus flowers and trying to keep the wind from blowing out our candles. This year I may go by myself to Wat Ruak Bangbamru through the rabbit warren of sois behind my building. But it is not easy without a guide to know what to do.

I've engaged in several discussions lately about Thai Buddhism and how odd it seems to an American raised on the generic Buddhism we learned back in the States. Not that Alan Watts and Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Jack Kornfield and other teachers who imported what they were taught did not try to give the whole picture. Just as the eucalyptus tree was brought from Australia without its accompanying ecosystem (which causes problems only a tree ecologist can fully understand), Buddhism came to America without the cultural contexts that gave it life in Asia. Not that they didn't try to learn. Gary Snyder and Philip Kapleau spent many years in Japan, and Kornfield and his associates Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg lived and studied in Thailand and Burma. But when they returned home, the Buddhism they presented had been largely shorn of most cultural rites and rituals, particularly the animistic practices that smack of superstitition. My Santa Cruz teacher Carolyn Atkinson, who was trained in both Zen and Vipassana, called her amalgamated version "everyday dharma." American Buddhism is mainly a one size fits all.

I suspect that the average Thai treats the Buddha and his monks as a source of power. They pay their respects with a bow and a wai when passing every temple, spirit house and be-ribboned tree. I cannot help thinking, "May the force be with you!" Most of spirit shrines appear to contain Hindu gods rather than images of the Buddha. Only the half million monks and novices in orange robes stand any chance of enlightenment, according to popular belief. Ordinary Thais are limited to making merit (tam boon) by feeding the monks in order to insure a good rebirth. Laypeople and monks are in a symbiotic relationship; without public support, the monkhood and the sangha would collapse. I've been reading about the history of Buddhism in Thailand in a book by the Ven. Phra Brahmagunabhorn, also known as P.A. Payutto. The split between Theravada (southern) and Mahayana (northern) Buddhist, which includes the Vajarayana version in Tibet, is very real here, and reminds me of the schism between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity during the 10th century. At a screening of "Little Buddha" at Thammasat Uiversity last week during a "Monastics and Film" festival, several monks in attendance voiced displeasure at the story of a search for a reincarnated Tibetan lama in Seattle. If I understood the translation correctly, they thought Thais would be troubled by such a radically different version of their faith.

I'm on the cusp of an argument Marcus frequently raises in such discussions about faith versus intellectual understanding. Perhaps because Korean Buddhism has been a strong influence on him, and faith seems to be more important in the Mahayana schools, he thinks faith is an essential component of Buddhism as a religious path. While I've seen the power and value of bhakti (faith) in Hinduism, it has too often seemed like blind faith in Christianity where the faithful are encouraged to believed the most absurd stuff, like miracles, and that the one God had a single son. I'm an intellectual, and so it has always been the intellect rather than the heart to which I've turned. But I also realize that the poor and the uneducated do not have recourse to an intellectual religion, and must find their way with the aid of rituals guided by faith. Buddhadasa hoped to purge Thai Buddhism of superstitious practices like tam boon and string to ward off evil spirits, but he made little headway among the common folk. I wonder what he would have thought of the generic Buddhism sans ritual and faith in America?

The few days of winter we experienced in Bangkok last month have come and gone, and once again the weather is consistently hot and humid ever day with hazy skies blurring the horizon. A new 24-hour minimart opened up on the ground floor of my apartment building on Sunday and I wonder where it will find its nocturnal customers. There is already an all-night 7-11 around a short distance away. I often purchase cheap frozen dinners (various versions of rice and chicken) from that store which I heat for dinner in my microwave. A better source of nourishment is the restaurant below which delivers to my room, quick and cheap. Sometimes I stir fry already cooked chicken purchased from Tesco Lotus with mushrooms and oyster sauce which I then pour over brown rice made in the cooker Pim bequeathed me. Steamed broccoli completes dinner. I take the leftover skin and bones downstairs and feed it to the wild cats that congregate in front of my building. Sometimes I resent the need to eat now that most of my meals are solitary.

All week I've been thinking of The Professor, and how he used the mourn the loss of his beloved Rhine wine after his wife and doctor had told him it was forbidden. I'm sure he was a trial and a tribulation as a husband at the best of times, but drunk he could be even more wild and eccentric (if not also happier). I've also been remembering how he would raise his squeaky voice in song at the drop of a reference, be it an Anglican hymn or a ditty from Flanders and Swann who he seemed to prefer to Gilbert and Sullivan. He had a fabulous memory for the obscure quote, even well into his 80s. He was a man without a country, one foot in the Punjab where he was born and one foot at Oxford where he owned a home; I always thought of him as marooned in America. Now I can see that the hagiography has begun. A memorial site has been set up by the family. Some of the memories are wonderful (one mentions his fondness for drink) but a few perpetuate the myth that he was some kind of a guru, dispensing other worldly wisdom to his students along with academic credit. If anything, he was a holy fool. I believe The Professor encouraged his students to follow their bliss (i.e., Joseph Campbell) without telling them what that might be. He offered a smorgasbord of possibilities, but he did not share his quibbles or doubts. He was human, oh so human, and that's what made him such a delight to me.

My TV cable has shut down, at least the channels in English. For a week the BBC and CNN service has been experiencing difficulties. Luckily, True Visions has customer service in English, sort of. I learned that I must pay 500 baht ($17.50) for a service call, even though it is probably not my problem. The cable service is expensive, nearly $50 a month, and I only watch news and occasionally a film. Pim signed me up for a year's contract, so I cannot cancel until the end of June. Without a Thai in the apartment I do not watch the Thai channels. Except for tomorrow night, when I will be interviewed on TNN2 at 6 p.m. with Pandit Bhikku. We filmed the program last Monday with Dr. Saen who teaches English in the classroom next door to me at Wat Srisudaram on Wednesdays. His show five evenings a week is aimed at youth and occasionally is in English, depending on the guest. Since Pandit speaks Thai, they talked about our Little Bang Sangha for the English-speaking community without speaking English, so I have no idea what was said. Dr. Saen's assistant, a young man named Johnson (his grandparents were American, he told me) asked me how I liked Thailand. I told him. Then they continued speaking to Pandit in Thai. I expected to be asked to compare teaching Thais with the young Americans in my Santa Cruz classes, and I had prepared a marvelous response. But it was not needed. The cable technician will come tomorrow morning to put me back in touch with the news of the world.

I'm not sure if I want to know. Aside from the horrendous brush fires in Australia, and the cruel refusal of Israels to allow shipments of concrete into Gaza to facilitate the rebuilding of that destroyed occupied territory, there is little happening at the moment that I want to hear about. Obama appears to have hired a bunch of hacks from the Clinton era, whether they paid their income taxes or not, and his bipartisan approach to the Republicans, whose failed ideology got the U.S. and the world into this mess, has not been very successful. The bankers responsible for the fiscal crisis are extravagantly spending bailout funds but there is little sign that the credit crunch has eased. Will the pork-filled stimulus bill restart the economy without protecting U.S. workers (which means trade protection and sanctions)? Every country in the world seems to be trying it. Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit smiles and says everything is going to be all right here, while the military is killing Burmese refugees and the police are arresting anyone who appears to insult the monarchy. Most Thais are already poor. It can't get much worse for them. Apparently the pound is falling against the baht so that British visitors and residents are suffering. I watch the dollar holding steady at 34.9 baht and discover that I now am earning 10,000 more baht a month than when I arrived a year and a half ago, because of the increase in value of the dollar as well as additional Social Security. This is not bad.

My youngest son Nicky will be coming to visit on March 11 for six days. His sister Molly, who is in Bali recording a CD with her singing group, The Sirens, may join him. So I'm busily planning excursions and adventures to make every minute count. Before they arrive, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio will be in Bangkok for a short three-day trip in two weeks, his first visit to a Buddhist country. He is coming from Singapore and Malaysia where he has participated in inter-religious dialogue with Muslims. I'm planning a trip with Cyprian to visit the site of Thomas Merton's death here in 1968, something I've long wanted to do. We will also probably attend Fr. Joe's mass in Thai on Saturday afternoon in the slum called "The Slaughterhouse." And Sunday night Jerry and Sylvia Deck from Santa Cruz will stop off in Bangkok for dinner with us on the way back from their tour of Vietnam.

The school terms ends on March 4 when I will give my students their final exam. For the past two weeks I've been interviewing them and taking their pictures (photos can be seen here and in the slide show on the right-hand column of this blog page). Having 15 minutes alone with each one of them has been wonderful, and has allowed me to give each one some personalized instruction. A student from last term has asked me to help him with a proposal for funding from NGOs to help support a school he and other monks have started in Shan State, Myanmar. I'm am honored to be able to help them.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Death of a Chota Sahib

Yesterday I learned of the death of my dear friend and mentor, an Anglo Indian for whom I'd worked as a research assistant for a dozen years after he retired as professor emeritus of history and comparative religion at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I began to assemble photographs and memories for a eulogy here. But last night I received a "cease and desist" request from his widow, a famous writer of mysteries, who asked me to remove all reference to him from my site. She wrote me that "it's kind of peculiar for my readers to follow a google alert that leads them to a blog with Barbie and Ken having sex..." I was stunned.

The Professor (who shall remain nameless along with his widow to avoid the google sensors) would have found this very funny. He spent a lifetime cultivating and demolishing his reputation. He took great pleasure in calling himself "chota sahib" (little man) while his students often looked up to him as a guru and many of his fellow academics sometimes referred to him as a fool and charlatan. He had a love for bawdy humor, puns and limericks, and enjoyed confessing his most scandalous faults. While he never tuned in totally to American culture after 40 years of living in California, I'm sure he would have laughed at my story of Barbie Doll's history. My blog posts were read to him by Michael, the caregiver who looked after him during the past two years (and who visited me here two weeks ago). In the last email I received from them, The Professor wrote: "We have just brought ourselves up to date on your blog and found it full of fun and entertainment as well as deep thinking."

I found The Professor, who died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 86 after a long struggle with aging, to be both the oddest and the most human individual I had ever met. Born of Anglo Indian parents in what would later become Pakistan, he never really fit in elsewhere. His father, who strung telegraph wire to Tibet for the British, sent him to England after the war to be educated because he had the bluest eyes of all his children. There he worked his way through a redbrick university and ultimately earned a Ph.d. with a dissertation on the 4th century Emperor Theodosius who established Christianity as a state religion. He married Evelyn, the woman who typed his papers, was ordained an Anglican cleric and settled down in a small parish. But adventure beckoned, and they left with the first of their four children for Africa where The Professor taught Christianity and studied native religions in Uganda and Ghana.

In the mid 1960s, The Professor was recruited for the new experimental campus at Santa Cruz which was modeled on the college system of Oxford and Cambridge. UC Santa Cruz was a hot bed of hippie experimentation. His office was at Merrill College where the buldings had been painted with the colors of the North Vietnam flag. Wisely, he took a position in the history department rather than religious studies which soon came under fire for letting students study a variety of spiritual faiths from the inside rather than objectively from the outside. The Professor taught courses on Christian history and Asian religions which drew hundreds of students, as well as derision from other teachers who thought his methods lacked academic rigor. His white beard and bushy head of hair marked him as a guru for students in need of inspiration and affirmation -- sometimes he wore an African robe to class -- and several generations of students credited him with changing their lives.

I encountered The Professor in the mid-1980s just after I'd enrolled as a part-time undergraduate student in philosophy with a concentration in religious thought. The religious studies department had been disestablished by then, and at a reception for one of the former teachers he got up in front of the assembled guests and wept openly for what might have been. I was moved, and later I offered to help maintain the presence of religious studies on campus. He suggested I form a study group which I did, and for several years it provided a forum for faculty and students who continued to believe that religion was a valid subject of academic study, and that objectivity was only one tool among many. The Professor's classes in religious history were so large that he recruited senior students to lead discussion sections and I was one of many that benefited from this early training. When he decided to retire in 1992 I joined other former students to help organize a memorial lecture series in his honor.

The Professor's office at Merrill was a study in chaos. Books were strewn higgledy-piggeldy everywhere. A steady stream of students attended his office hours, somehow finding a place to sit, often on the floor. He loved to invite people to lunch which usually consisted of the leftovers of some mysterious Anglo Indian dish he'd cooked at home the night before, pungent and spicey. His interaction with students was intimate and went beyond a concern that they understand the subject at hand. This odd academic anomaly, so vastly different from the ken of the California kids he taught, was devoted to helping them grow as human beings. This goal has someone dropped out of the current curriculum (if it was every there). And his peers resented his popularity, as if it trivialized his pedagogy.

I got to know The Professor much better when I began work as his research assistant at the large hilltop home his wife's successful writing had enabled them to buy. His messy office was the duplicate of the one at Merrill. Nothing was ever wasted, or thrown away. Books and papers were sorted by a schema only he knew. His book collection had been stored in the former barn where mice had the run of the shelves. When he attempted to donate them to the UCSC library, few could be salvaged. Since The Professor had never learned to type, I took dictation on the computer for email and scholarly articles. We sometimes had to compete with the cats for space. I was awed by his ability to compose emails off the top of his head with little revision ever needed. They invariably began, "My dear ...." His language was flowery and archaic, the product of a British colonial upbringing. It was also full of humor and irony. The Professor was never direct, which would be impolite, but rather always got to the point in a circular fashion.

In his retirement, besides keeping in touch with his farflung family and writing many forwords and prefaces for the work of colleagues, he concentrated on revising and reissuing early work on religion in Africa and new translations of the travels of Ibn Battuta in 14th century Asia. He also tried to write an autobiography, but as his powers of concentration and memory failed the writing (or dictating) became less coherent. Much was written by and for the Sikhs who, I believed, exploited him shamelessly. He supervised Ph.d. theses for suspect Canadian schools and was the token European professor at conferences where he was called upon to defend one faction or another of that contentious religion. He somehow found allegiances to all known religions, but, when questioned by me, his certainties seemed to vanish. I came to see that, aside from occasional outbursts of irration at the perfidities of life or the indignities of aging, The Professor was essentially a man for others. He gave of himself and said yes to everyone, until there was little left, his ego a mere lovely shell.

I was never quite sure, however, whether I was an employee or a friend. He called me his "amanuensis," his scribe, and said I made it possible for him to continue his work, but I'm sure I was part of a long line of secretaries, going back to his first wife, who enabled his scholarly productivity (which, sad to say, was neither prodigious nor acclaimed). He was constantly trying to pay me more than I asked for the job, even to the point of giving me unexpected bonuses, and the Tuesday morning work period always ended with lunch on his time, the familar heating up of exotic leftovers. After his retirement, he had little contact with his former UCSC colleagues who mostly found him a little strange. There were scholars in distant lands who kept in touch and some even came to visit. But I do not think he had anything like a close friend, another man with whom he was close to out of love rather than expediency. I liked to think that I came close to being his friend.

I shall miss you, my professor.