30 September 2006

Searching for Huston Smith

Professor Hussain answered my email; Huston Smith had been on panels and at various meetings with him but Professor Hussain didn’t know where to find him and neither did Professor Chapple. I'm not quite sure what to try next but I'm not giving up.


(30 September 2006)

Emailing Hemu again...

I let Hemu know I wouldn’t be coming back to the Swaminarayan temple on a regular basis.

Hemu:

The reason I'm not sure about coming back to the service is I feel that, given the language problem, I am a burden to you.

I wanted so much to understand, for myself, why everyone was laughing last time. I could see the obvious passion, wit and wisdom with which the sadhus spoke so I felt a deep longing to be able to hear their thoughts for myself. That is the reason I so look forward to their responses to my proposal and my questions. I see such devotion, grace and compassion in your mandir while at the same time I feel at a bit of a loss, even with all of your generosity, to really partake in it. Perhaps if I learn some more of the basics through hearing the sadhus thoughts about my path, and learn the meaning of some basic Hindu practices, I might then be able to return to the service and get more out of it on a personal level.

Marley



When I talked to Hemu on the phone some time after, she said I wasn’t a burden at all but she also understood. “Do you want me to tell you when the big events and festivals happen anyway?”

“Of course.”

Hemu mentioned that the monk she’d asked to read an early draft of the first chapter, had tried and failed to read it at first because I’d seemed “so lost.” But sometime later, she sent me his thoughts when he was finally able to get through it.


Jai Swaminarayan
Marley:

I hope you are doing well.
It’s been a while since we communicated.

Below is (the sadhu’s) response on your writing proposal.

Initially it was stunning and confusing a little. After reading it again, it made more sense.

I re-read the package on my flight from Houston to Chicago. This time I wasn't shocked or stunned by the text but felt more comfortable reading what has been written. Aside from the personal confusions the writer has been through (to) date in terms of trying to understand God or religion, I believe that the project could be useful. I believe that by pursuing this project, the writer should definitely be able to better understand what different people of different faiths believe to be the purpose of life.

As far as the Hindu faith, I believe that the writer has come to one of the purest forms of Hindu practice and faith in the world today. The writer will be able to see people actually trying to imbibe or live the principles or teachings of Hinduism in their lives to the best of the ability. This book could maybe be viewed as a catalog for understanding different faiths.


This book could be of service to others IF each faith is portrayed correctly and totally.

This is what we have answered as of now. Have also sent the proposal to some senior Swamis for their input.

Sorry for the delay.

Jai Swaminarayan! Pallav Vaghashia for P. Kaivalyamurti Swami


Hemu!

I have been thinking of you a lot. I am so happy to hear from you.

And, wow, Hemu! What lovely and thoughtful comments from the sadhu. Please extend my sincere thanks for taking the time to both read and respond.

Marley


I missed Hemu.

Bike Riding

The soul...in its very essence, is free, unbounded,
holy, pure and perfect. But somehow or other it
finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of
itself as matter. It is a fact of everybody’s consciousness
that one thinks of oneself as the body.

Swami Vivekandanda
The Chicago Addresses

(Swami Vivekanada, an excerpt from his opening remarks, the first World Parliament of Religions, 1893)

(Swami Vivekanada, an excerpt from "Why We Disagree", the first World Parliament of Religions, 1893)


Waking up to the first really cool Saturday, I decided to throw my bike in the back of the van to ride while Matt was in his three-hour theater class.

It was perfectly clear. The mountains that sit at the edge of the valley were plain, their features distinct: crags, trees, a ruffle of houses around their bases. The air slipped by my neck, my cheeks, my hair, and made the translucent yellow wind-breaker slick close to the front of my arms but sound like a sail behind. I rarely get on a bike without remembering how it felt to ride one when I was eight, a surge of power and independence, imagining that my bike was a car that could go anywhere I wanted.

No wonder I’m afraid to age, afraid to die. I like my body. I like having one. I like having this one. Sure, it’s had its share of defects: two lazy eyes that had to be surgically corrected when I was just two, some illnesses, but not many. And it heals quickly. After all, isn’t that the real miracle? Not that we get sick, but that, with all of these complicated interlocking systems that seem pretty fragile, we spend so much of our lives healthy?

And then, oh, those sensations…the touch, the smell, the taste, the beauty that seems to land like thunder deep inside; the sounds of tires humming, of a bird at dawn, of a tune played for the ninety-ninth time; the smell of my husband’s skin, of my sleepy cat’s fur; the slip of silk against skin, the cold of water in my throat, the fuzzy-soft of the pink angora sweater my grandmother used to wear, the squirm in my sons’ bodies when I tickled them. When I was still allowed to tickle them.

Yes, I am attached to this body. Very.

That these profound joys will become increasingly elusive and, finally, gone, is terrifying. I don’t remember anyone touching my grandmother in the years before she died except to help move her between the wheelchair and the bed and back. Accidental touching. No more touching with intent, with recognition, with communion.

I mean, I still have the same car I bought new in 1995 and I put every single one of its 130,000-plus miles on it. I don’t want a new car or a new body. I like this one. Its flaws are familiar, its resilience known.

But, whether I want or don’t want, whether I resist or accept, I know my car will not work one day. I’m not going to have a choice. It’s just going to be too expensive to fix one day. But the metaphor Swami Sarvadevananda uses doesn’t help that much. I’m not sure that the “I” that drives the next body, the next car, is the same “I” that’s in this one. As deeply pleasant as it sounds, the notion of personal reincarnation, of getting a body back (and, if you do a good job in this life, a better one in the next!) I simply can’t reconcile with Swami Sarvadevananda’s ocean metaphor – that we’re like ripples on a single ocean, rising up for a lifetime and then fading back in to the whole -- which does feel possibly true to me.

If we are like waves on the ocean, bits of the Absolute that rise up into form for the flash of a lifetime and then return to that of which we are made, then doesn’t it make more sense that it isn’t that I, Marley, would be reincarnated again, personally or specifically, but the root essence underlying each and every one of us – God, if you will – that “reappears?” I mean, even if you stick with science, you have to admit that the raw material we’re made of certainly reappears in other forms. But the idea of the me I think of, the me who likes drugstore marshmallow eggs and watered down orange juice, coming back again? That feels like pure wishful vanity. But I have a Swami now to ask such questions.

It was time to head back to pick up Matt so I headed out of the park, off the bike path and onto surface streets leading back to the studio where his class was. I’m still new to bike shoes with clips on the bottom so, at a major intersection, I squeezed the handlebar brake levers to stop at the red light and then, in slow motion, feet still stuck to my pedals, I fell over to one side like a cartoon character. The skin tore off the knee that caught me, my other shin got whacked black-and-blue by the handlebars.

Okay, maybe there are some sensations I can live - or die - without. Or maybe the key is to get to a place where it’s possible to feel that the sensuous and the painful, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ are equal, the same, no different; to not get too attached to either as neither one is permanent, eternal, meaningful.

But I have a confession: I’d rather have a skinned knee and contusions than nothing. I guess, by Hinduism’s terms, I have a few more lifetimes ahead of me.


(30 September 2006)

29 September 2006

Telling them...

So I finally came clean with Mom and Dad.

I didn’t do it until just before I started all of this in earnest. I was afraid to tell them. I'm an alleged grown-up with kids of my own and I'm still worried about what they think about what I'm doing, even more fearful of what they'll say. To be fair, I've had decades of experience telling them things they didn't want to hear. When I came home from an expensive fancy college to tell them that I wasn’t applying to medical school, that I wanted to get a job in television, my mother said, “What did we send you to college for?”

Now this? They're going to think I'm an idiot.

I'd put off telling them for months. When I quit my job running the regional public television newsmagazine, I kind of forgot to mention that I knew what I was doing next, specifically. They heard “writing,” they heard “more time with Luke and Matt” and that my husband’s work was doing okay, so Mom and Dad didn’t really ask too many questions.

On the phone, Mom had said, “Maybe now you won’t have to work so hard all the time. I hate to see you run ragged.”

“Me, too, Mom.”

But I talk to my parents so many times during a week it just got plain weird not to tell them what was going on, especially when this project was becoming my life, especially when we were all going to be together for their fiftieth anniversary at their honeymoon spot in Florida.
__

In my suitcase, I brought two things to give them: a pair of patchwork pillowtops I’d made for them with their wedding photos ironed on the center squares of each and a copy of the pages I’d given to Hemu and her sadhu, the same ones I'd given to Swami Sarvadevananda. I took the pillowtops out right away – they were a big hit – but the manuscript stayed in the bottom of the empty suitcase until the day before we were meant to leave.

Not long after breakfast, I walked into their hotel room, handed over the paper held together by brass grommets, and took Luke and Matt to the beach.

Hours later, fingers wrinkled, salt baked into skin, I sent the boys ahead to take showers and opened the door to Mom and Dad’s room. Beyond the entrance hall, Dad sat with his back to the sliding glass door, scratching words into the squares of his spiral-bound double acrostic book. It wasn’t late but the sun was already behind the tall building we were in, its shadow crossing the pool and even the beach beyond. His pose was so familiar it was like a hug: one leg crossed wide over the other to support the hard pad, left hand curled around a pen, head down and slightly tilted. His hair might be baby fine and white with a whisper of tan skin beneath but the scene was the same since I was little. He seemed so happy when he was like this. He seemed so alone.

“Hi, Dad.”

Dad’s hearing is flawless for someone nearing eighty but his puzzle concentration is absolute. I tried again. “Dad?”

“Oh, hi. Boys have a good time down there?”

“Yeah, where’s Mom?”

“She’s getting ready.”

Screaming through my head was: Did you read it? Did she? Nothing in his eyes or voice said anything so I didn’t either. Forcing it felt wrong. Besides, I knew better than to start with Dad; he let Mom handle stuff like this. So I just asked, “When are we leaving for dinner?”

Looking up over his reading glasses, “Half an hour.”

After the fastest shower I knew how to take, I was back, a kid waiting for approval of a lumpy handmade ashtray.

I know I’m not supposed to care what they think, what she thinks. I mean, when am I going to get over this? I’ve investigated bad guys while at 60 Minutes, I’ve worn hidden cameras in dangerous places, I’ve interviewed a serial killer on death row and many other criminals in prisons and jails, in my last job, I’ve made decisions that an entire staff didn’t like, and yet I’m still tiptoeing around looking for signs in my parents’ eyes.

Why do I care? What am I waiting for? Permission?

And then I knew: the dread of having this very conversation and others like it is what’s stopped me dead for decades. I feel like I was born with only one subject on my mind: Is there a point and, if so, what is it? Is the visible all that’s real? Yet it’s taken me half a lifetime to become either stubborn enough or driven enough to make anyone else’s reactions meaningless…. that’s probably overstating it…to make anyone else’s bad reaction less important. But, for all that progress, I was still standing there, desperate to know what they thought.

The smell of Jean Nate and the sound of charm bracelets always told us when my mother was ready to go out. My parents didn’t go out often when we were little but, when they did, Mom loved dressing in red and black, sometimes with big wide belts or dresses she’d made, some dramatic. The bracelets were still there but the playful smell and dramatic outfits were gone. In their place were long pieces of silk and comfortable shoes.

Dad picked up the plastic hotel key from the table and called for the car while Mom finished putting a few things into one of her tiny sparkly purses. I gave up looking for them to say something. It was plain: she knew I was waiting, knew I wanted to know, but she either couldn’t figure out what to say or maybe she hadn’t even read it yet. Maybe she wanted to wait until she could figure out what she even thought about it.

Maybe she didn’t want to ruin dinner.

But, as I held the hotel room door open and turned off the light, Mom stopped and looked up at me and said, “I really never knew you had this problem, I really didn’t. I mean, you told me how you thought I should have taken you to art museums more and, you’re right, I probably should have, but I never knew about this.”

All I could do was laugh. I put one arm around her shoulder and kissed her jaw, the only part she would really let me near, as she continued with various permutations of this all the way down the long hotel hallway, with Dad following behind, until the elevator door opened and there were strangers inside.

And we had a really nice dinner.

28 September 2006

Bowling and death...

Focused on me at all times,
you will overcome all obstructions;
but if you persist in clinging
to the I-sense, then you are lost.


Bhagavad Gita, 18.58

My brain is exploding.

There’s a good reason why people only consider subjects like these once a week, a good reason why most religions have sabbaths only every seventh day: the brain can only process so much. At least, this brain. My head felt so crammed with new thoughts, ideas, and concepts it actually hurt. But it turned out to be the perfect week: both of my sons had different days off from school so I had an excuse to play and it came in the nick of time -- I needed mindless. I decided to take Matt bowling. It’s hard to be too serious in rented shoes.

Right before we left I sent an email to Professor Amir Hussain, hoping he might know either where Huston Smith was or anyone who might introduce me to him. Although I’d decided to use the chapter structure of his book, The World’s Religions, as the archtecture for this project, it hadn’t occurred to me to try and talk to him about it until Swami Sarvadevananda mentioned that Smith had spent a great deal of time in the Vedanta Society temple in St Louis. I mean, how weird is that? After wandering around from one branch of Hinduism to another, I end up choosing a swami in the same sect of Hinduism as Huston Smith? It seemed, somehow, not accidental or, at least it made me think I should try to talk to him about what I’m doing. If he’d see me, that is.

Once I sent the email, Matt and I went bowling.

Just how bad a bowler am I? Let’s just say that Matt and I played with the bumpers up. Let’s just say that Matt, using his unique two-handed hurling strategy in which the ball slammed to the wood some distance down the alley and then bounced – sometimes twice - off the bumpers, consistently beat me. Three games, some air hockey, pinball, a game of absurdly poor pool and I could feel the pressure ease. But Matt still had his regular afterschool activities so it meant I actually could go to Swami Sarvadevananda’s private study group that afternoon so I went.

The class was already underway when I walked in to what used to be the living room of the small home that also houses the bookstore and Swami Sarvadevananda’s office. About four people were in a semi-circle of chairs with Swami Sarvadevananda in the center, his back to a fireplace. Painted onto the mantelpiece over his head were the words: “All Kare Abandone, Ye Who Tarye Here,” a remnant of the home’s original owner.

A somewhat elderly white woman with short, graying hair finished reading an excerpt from a book on Vedanta Hinduism called For Seekers of God. The subject was aging and death. Swami Sarvadevananda said, “It’s very difficult for people to accept growing old. I mean we accept youth, we accept the prime of our lives but can we accept change? Everything changes. Even since we have been sitting here in class, we have been changing. How many cells have died since this class began? Why do we care so much what happens to this body? This is a temporary, rented home. It’s decay and loss is natural.”

Decay and loss might be natural but I hate it. I’m about to turn fifty and I care very much what happens to my body. And I’ve never been much good at accepting change. I cried at the end of high school, of college, of every year of summer of camp, of jobs, of relationships, at the end of kindergarten for Luke because he was the first and for Matt because he was the last. But then change is easy to like when bad things finally come to an end, right?

The swami’s slim hands were doing their sinuous dance, turning over and over as though offering us his words. “Everyone loves a new car. Youth is like that. But when it becomes old no one looks at it, at us anymore,” Laughing, he looked around the room through his large glasses to see if we understood. “And then, when the car stops working, we exchange it for another. We are still the same driver but the car is new. I mean, we can beautify ourselves, some people have plastic surgery but, really, how long can you do it? We must accept our bodies as they are and see whatever stage we’re in as beautiful.”

Okay, that’s not so easy. My current body is a little tougher to love than the twenty-five year-old one but, if I stop to really consider, I was laughably harsh about my body even then. I look at photographs and can remember what I was thinking about how I looked and it makes me sad at the disconnect. For that reason and others, this stage is actually better. So some lines have replaced the blemishes, a trade-up if you ask me. And I was pretty uncomfortable in my own skin then. I was afraid and that made me judgmental, harsh, and not very trustworthy, even to myself at times. Looking back at old photos, there’s not one that makes me want to switch places with that girl.

There was a warmth, an intimacy in the room as the swami spoke. He said that there were six stages of life: existence, birth, growth, the prime of life, the stage where you gradually lose everything, and death. “Here I am in the fifth stage of life, nothing left but death. Well, okay! What is lost by dying?" he said. “Nothing! Who doesn’t like replacing an old car with a new car? That is what we believe. But why, why do we believe this? Ask yourself: who was there in your body when you were born? You would say: ‘I was.’ But your body isn’t the same as it was then. Yet you would say ‘I’ was in there, the same ‘I’ that is in there now. So, if your body is constantly changing, but the ‘I’ isn’t, could that ‘I’ be the same thing as your body?“

There was one of those pauses, a silence like a delta of thought branching off in all directions. The graying woman then ventured a quiet question. “Why do I have so much fear of death?”

Swami Sarvadevanda looked only at her. “Because you haven’t analyzed this. ‘I’ is continuously there. ‘I’ was there when you were just a girl. Your ‘I’ was there when you were a young woman and ‘I’ is here now. ‘I’ is birthless, deathless so what will you be losing in death? The ‘I’ doesn’t die, just the body does. And here’s the Vedanta answer to that question…” The swami seemed almost disconnected from his arms. “You can’t accept that you are going to die because you aren’t. You are infinite and the concept of death feels wrong because it is. The body dies but the ‘I’ doesn’t.”

Swami Sarvadevananda pulled his pale orange tunic away from his body to indicate the spare frame inside. “What does it matter if this goes? If it’s proven that ‘I’ exists through the first five stages why not the last?”

I spent a lot of time worrying about death as a child. I hated going to bed. I was afraid of the dark. I checked for evildoers under my bed, in my closet, and even behind the pictures on my wall – after all, a secret compartment could have developed behind the wall during the day. But even once my room was investigated and secure, I was too full of adrenaline to sleep so I had a lot of time to think and death was the subject more often than not. It went kind of like this: Most people don’t really think they’re going to die. Do I know that? Do really know that I’m going to die? Or am I a “weak” person unable to handle the truth? My mother certainly was afraid I was going to be one. Along with asking too many questions and my interest in religion, I also wanted a light on in my room at night. Weak people needed religion and lights on in their room at night. I would worry this point until I was quite sure that I believed that I was, indeed, going to die.

My courage reservoir wasn’t very deep. The only tenable faith within my reach at the time was that, somehow, my parents could save me from the abject terror of facing death truthfully and alone. Going to their room was a poor substitute for faith, but it was a substitute. However, there are only so many nights parents of four children will put up with being shaken awake after midnight so, most nights, I had to settle for watching them breathe by the light of the television my mother can’t sleep without.

I’m not sure if I can completely abandon myself to it but the swami’s concept of death - the ‘I’ doesn’t die, just the body does” - is a lot easier to handle than the idea of humans as just a walking, talking set of complex chemical compounds on their way to breaking apart into their component parts. Surely we’re more than that, aren’t we? What about those moments of intense communion with another person? Or those perfect moments in plays or in stories where the veil is pierced and you feel you really know something, get that gut sense that you’ve seen It, felt It, even without having the slightest idea what It is? Randomly-assembled chemicals?

“Don’t be ridiculous. Eat your peas.”

And even now, like the gray-haired woman, I’m still stunned by the idea that one day I will cease to exist. That is, when I let myself think about it. The only moments of grace, of freedom from this paralyzing fear come when I can grasp some piece of the idea that there’s a difference between this physical form and what’s underlying it; that this specific, physical me might not be quite as important as I think.

The swami was getting ready to end the class. “Creation itself is nothing. It is a ripple on an ocean of God, it rises up and then collapses and, without the ocean, waves cannot dance. We come from God, we dance in God, we fight in God, we love in God, we dissolve in God -- only we don’t know that everything comes from God. That’s why birth, death is just a matter of course, it’s natural, like a wave returning to the ocean.

“Here is the key point: Everything that is accomplished, everything we achieve in our lives, these accomplishments are nothing. They will pass away just as our greatest failures will. They will die when our body dies. But the Self, the eternal Atman presence, remains as it is forever. We are all connected with that eternal presence – Atman. Okay, let’s stop here for now.”

And, with a short chant, we started to gather our things to leave. And then my fellow students – most of them American – each bent down to brush Swami’s feet. I was panicked. I couldn’t do it. It felt fake and false. And how do you put your palms together when holding a notebook, pen, and a cellphone? I thought of shaking hands but that appeared hopelessly out of the question, too. So, from a polite distance away, I tried to awkwardly beam my gratitude and he did the same.

When there were only three of us left, the swami asked, “Do you want to come see the Durga puja? It’s just ten minutes long, right here, in my office, on my computer.”

What I wanted to say was, ‘No, I can’t process anything more,’ but I didn’t. Instead, I followed him and two other women around the corner and into his miniscule office. The other two women were almost as excited as he was to see whatever this “Durga puja” was. Almost. I encouraged the excited ones to sit in the chairs so I could stand in the back, nearest the door, wanting to be sure to be able to get out when I wanted without having to disturb someone to do it. While I never did come to understand what a Durga puja was then, I did get that it was something happening in India, at the central office, the Rome, if you will, of Vedanta Hinduism in Belur Math, India and they were going to be able to watch it on the internet. I watched people eager to watch a ritual performed half a globe away on a tiny pop-up window on an old fourteen-inch monitor. Would I ever get to the point where I’d actually be excited to see a ritual performed? It was hard to imagine. When it was all strange and new, it fascinated. But that was different from finding meaning, peace, comfort, or transcendence in it.

One of the women leaned in to point out where the Swami should click to start the web streaming. Swami Sarvadevananda’s head was tilted up so he could find the small arrow to start the video through the reading portion of his large glasses. His hands looked odd cupped over a computer mouse. With a click, the ceremony began to play.

He was delighted. “Oh, we’re right there! This is wonderful! Can you see? Look! There are a group of monks meditating.”

The swami began pointing out monks he knew, old friends who were participating in the service. The camera started to sweep to one side to show the crowd and, when it got to some trees and water, the swami exclaimed, “Oh, that’s the Ganges! You know the river, the Ganges? There it is, right there! I mean, this was happening just today, and we can see it, we can be there, can you imagine?”

He was transported, a traveler a long way from home with little hope of returning soon who was feeling the air, smelling the smells, knowing the light of a familiar, intimate place.

Within minutes, the video was over and, as the women helped the swami save it and email it to others, I said goodbye and slipped out, grateful I didn’t have to find myself unable to bow again.

The small relief I’d gotten from bowling earlier in the day, from not thinking, was gone.

I felt like a computer that needed a hard-drive upgrade.



(28 September 2008)

27 September 2006

First teacher...


He who teaches this primal
secret to those who love me
has acted with the greatest love
and will come to me, beyond doubt.

No one can do me a service
that is more devoted than
this, and no one on earth is more
precious to me than he is.

Bhagavad Gita 18.68-18.69

Swami Sarvadevananda told me to ask for him at the bookstore. I was nervous opening the glass-paned wooden door and stepping up into the small store. The raw wood shelves were jammed with books on Hinduism as well as on every faith imaginable. There was other stuff, too: incense, incense burners, some photos, and small figures for sale. I looked around for someone to talk to and then realized that, down behind the boxy checkout counter, a gray-haired woman was bent over, peering at an old computer.

“I’m here to see Swami--,” I realized I’d only seen his name on the website and had no idea how to pronounce it. I stumbled through some approximation of it.

The woman looked confused so I did my best with all those syllables a second time and then said, “I have an appointment.”

She dialed the phone. The voice on the other end did not belong to the swami I’d met. When she hung up she said, “Oh! You don’t mean Swami Swahananda! You mean Swami Sarvadevananda!” but she pronounced his name “SHARva-day-veh-nan-duh” The other swami was Swami Sarvadevanada’s boss, the head of the Hollywood Vedanta Society temple. I confess I was still completely confused, their names still indistinguishable to me.

A few minutes later Swami Sarvadevananda came walking down the brick path. He pulled his keys out from somewhere inside his orange robes and opened the door to his tiny office. In his hand was my proposal. He’d read it overnight.

The swami began as if we were in the middle of a conversation, not the beginning. “I think this should be the question: Why religion? What’s the need of religion? Religion must help one to rise from animalistic instincts to human, and human to divine, and from divine to godly, from godly to an infinitely compassionate personality like Christ and Buddha’s. So, this is a great question and many people don’t understand: what is religion? Thousands and thousands of fanatics and followers and they don’t know what is religion!” Swami Sarvadevanada’s hands were flying. His lilting, accented voice made the already new words and thoughts even harder to follow sometimes. “They don’t know that the transformation of life is religion. Transformation means fighting with my evil tendencies inside, which is meanness, ugliness, which creates pain and suffering for others. That which brings even a little pain for others is not religion, it cannot be religion! ‘Blessed are the peace-makers.’ So, who remembers that word in the scripture? Eh? You should be peaceful, you should radiate peace!”

It was hot in that room even though the windows were open but the swami was untouched by it, his hands kept dancing farther and farther away from him as he talked. It was exciting to see him grab on to this crazy idea of mine instead of what I’d feared would happen. I’d come up with all sorts of ways imaginary spiritual teachers might reject me and my crazy project but I don’t think I had even one scenario that came close to this – complete acceptance.

He was really on a roll. “The transformation of life is religion and anything that causes even a little bit of pain for others isn’t. Sri Ramakrishna, who was born 1836, did not know the complexity of life and other religions. He was a seeker and lover of God.That is called religion. ‘I am religious’ does not mean that I go to any temple and bow down my head twenty times and come to my room and beat my wife, eh? Or I’m a religious person so I can go and straighten you by telling you are on the wrong path, and I can go to heaven, by killing you, if need be, forcing you to believe in my way. That’s a nasty concept of spirituality that has nothing to do with spiritual life. Have you read The Life of Sri Ramakrishna?”

Ramakrishna was the guy on the top shelf of the altar, the main guru of the Vedanta branch of Hinduism. I’d picked up a few books that morning. “I just bought The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.”

Christopher Isherwood also wrote a book about his life. What Ramakrishna did was simple, he didn’t go for any philosophy. From the early days he wanted to know the secret of the universe. From the early days he felt the pull for seeing God and, after going through rigorous spiritual practice, he declared, ‘As many faiths, so many paths.’ He was born into a very spiritual family. His father (was apart from his wife when) he had a dream in which a deity said, ‘I shall be born in your home.’ About the same time, his wife also had a vision of a beam of light from Lord Shiva entering her womb and felt she had conceived a child!” And Ramakrishna was born, his given name was Gadahar.”

Okay, it must be said: I get nervous around immaculate conception stories. I always wonder if they were trying to compete or maybe the devout think us regular folk won’t pay attention, might not value the message, unless they hype their leader’s story. This was one thing the former biology major in me might never ever get over. I can accept the notion of divinity in people, of certain people, perhaps, being more in tune with that Something More than the rest of us. But beams of light causing a pregnancy in a person? A metaphor, a “true” story I can handle, but insist that it is True, that actually happened and that my faith depends on acceptance of that “actual” fact, well, I don’t know what to do with the big “no way” in my head.

Swami Saradevanada decided to give me the highlights of Ramakrishna’s life, a kind of book-flap synopsis. He said Ramakrishna began his spiritual journey by worshiping God, the Mother, in the form of Kali, a black female Hindu goddess. He went to the Kali temple in Dakshineswar on Ganges River near Bengal every day, demanding that she appear before him. “He’s like a mad guy, daytime and nighttime he is meditating on Mother. When the excruciating pains set in he used to cry, ‘Oh, Mother, another day is gone in my life and you have not come. What is the meaning of this life?’ And he’d cry and weep and rubbing his face on the sandy bed of the Ganges, so much is his urge to see the face of the Divine Mother who is the cause of this universe – that is called religion.” He cocked his head to one side and smiled. Swami Sarvadevananda really liked that story.

I sat politely on the other side of the desk. All I could think was: now why did he have to go and tell me a story like that? If that is religion, I haven’t got a prayer.

Of course the story ended with him seeing the Divine as a beam of light coming from the image of Kali. But – and this was what got my attention – it was through that vision that Ramakrishna came to realize that God had no form. “He reconciled all religions as true: ‘he’ and ‘she’ – gone. Now, you can understand what Hindu philosophy is. It is like a gateway. And after that what happened? Mother is gone, the form is gone. He’s lost into infinite waves of light, an ocean of light and joy.” Swami Sarvadevananda’s “joy” is so much more than a bland single syllable. It’s an explosive word that starts out like the word “jaw” and ends with a curlicue of sound as his mouth wraps around the sound of the “o” and “y.” Jahw-oy! …and he was remained in that ocean of jahw-oy for twenty-four hours!” The swami said Ramakrishna soon came to realize that there was nothing but God.

“He was going to Calcutta afterward. He was so humble that he will run, run towards anyone calling God. So one day a public (carriage) took him by mistake through a red letter – what you call it?” he asked, “A red zone? What is the word? You know, with prostitutes?”

“A red-light district?”

Swami Sarvadenanda nodded, “Yes, a red-light district. And the car he was in was moving and the ladies were looking and Ramakrishna was looking at them and saluting them, ‘Oh, Mother! You are here in this form?’ So if you see the end result is, what? The end result is you see the one Mother - call it whatever name you wish – the oneness in every being. That’s spirituality.”
He sat back, waiting for me to speak. I guess everything my written manuscript provoked in him had been said. I started to ask him about 9/11 but he didn’t want to talk about events like that, at least not right away. “We are trying to understand what is religion first.”

“Right.”

“We must understand our weak point. We must diagnose the disease and then put the medicine there. So if any religion does not allow anyone to think freely, if any religion contradicts normal rational and reason-based thinking, even like this Vedanta, this philosophy, we should discard it as poison! Say ‘I have no need of that religion.’”

Did he really say that? Throw away even his religion if anything he said sounded false or contradicted my own sense of truth? He was saying I had a choice to reject some or all of what he believed. I was surprised, surprised and relieved. That meant he was giving me permission to have my doubts about Ramakrishna’s immaculate conception, for example, which, therefore, gave me room to consider what of his wisdom, his practice, his ideas might have meaning for me. It wasn’t all or nothing.

Okay, so I didn’t have to run out of the room. At least not right away.

The swami continued, “And nowhere is that so strongly said except in this Hindu religion. (Other religions) say my book is the only book, you cannot deviate one letter from there, no? But Hinduism says you need not believe a single word we say, you (can) discard the whole Vedas, the foundation on which the whole spiritual tradition of India is based, unless you find it verifiable. Verified and verifiable. If you can’t, forget it.”

In the briefest of pauses, I tried another question. “Were you born into this part of Hinduism? Was your family also of your same tradition?”

“What if one is born or not, what does it matter?” With that one statement, the swami tossed away my personal question, returning to what he considered the more pressing topic at hand: the necessity of different paths for different seekers. “It’s like you want to eat fish? Fried fish? You want to eat McDonalds? Go. You want curry? Someone makes curry. But the question is: are you eating fish or not?” He laughed. ”Why fight? That my fish is better than your fish?”
The swami lifted a fold of his orange clothing with two fingers and said, “I wish to dress this way, you that; you should have your freedom, I should have my freedom. So, in our dress we don’t fight with each other. In our food, we go to restaurant and we choose one out of so many types food. So, why in the world would we have to have only one religion that survives and others will have to go?” He seemed very pleased with his analogy.

But I was trying to get to specifics. “So, if I came to you and said this is the path I want to follow, what would happen next?”

“Spirituality would unfold in your heart. What we’d do is give you some guidance.”

“Like, things to do and read?”

“Suppose I will put to you the very first question. You are asking me: what is religion? I would put that question to you back. I would say: who are you talking?”

Silence. I had no idea what he was asking me.

He tried again. “Are you a man, are you a woman?”

“Uhm, I’m a, ah, woman?”

“Yes. Are you the woman talking?” Meaning was the person sitting across from him. Is this everything that I am, the sum total of my existence?

“No.”

“Who’s talking?”

“I, well, there is a drive to know this that (comes) before the issue of ‘woman’ or ‘man’.”

My answer wasn’t good enough for him. “My question is a specific, intellectual question: who is that “I”? You say, ‘I drove here.’ Who is that ‘I?’ Is it the physical flesh and bone only? Is it the eyeballs?”

“No. That, I’m clear about. It is not just what I can touch, taste, hear, see. I know that.”

“That is what the rational mind wants to explore. In Vedanta, we say explore more. Go in.” He began to demonstrate what beginners like me should do, the questions we should ask ourselves. “Who sees? I see. What is the ‘I’ that sees? First comes: The eyes are seeing? No. No, eyes cannot see. My mind is seeing? Go one step more. Mind cannot see. Mind is also matter. Because when you sit for meditation, what do you see? Your mind is rambling here and there and there. So, your mind can be seen by somebody. You say: ‘My mind is not very happy today, I’m not happy, my mind is upset today.’ You say:‘My shirt.’ ‘My spectacles.’ And ‘my mind.’ So you are using the word ‘My mind.’ So the question really is: who or what is beyond the mind, the thing that claims possession of it?”

So, I am not my body. That makes sense to me, it makes sense that there’s more to life than this specific collection of skin and bones, dark hair and hazel eyes. But, until Swami Sarvadevananda pointed it out, I’d never really thought about the phrase “my mind” that we all use with its implication that there was something to which my mind “belonged”, something that can observe my thought process.

But rolling ideas around like this is comfortable. I think I’m looking for what might make me uncomfortable, what might challenge my assumptions, what I think I ”know.” I said, “I would like you to tell me things I can do or read. I want to take direction.”

“You have this wonderful basic understanding of spiritual life, about life, about who we are.”

I wasn’t at all sure what he meant but I said, “That’s good to hear.”

“We say, in Indian psychology, that we are the product of all our past thoughts and deeds. And Hindus believe and Buddhists believe that we are not in one life. Eh? One life theory is Christianity, a Judeo-Christian idea: one-life theory. There comes more responsibility, you know? If you have the one chance only, you have to do the best you can do and, if you don’t, then you are going to hell, they say. But Indian hell, Hindu hell is a little less disruptive,” he chuckled, “because you do some bad karma, you go to hell, and then come out and, then again, start your journey. You are not forever lost. Also, to go to heaven is not our goal because that is also temporary, the result of good actions. The goal is to realize God. So this is the many life times theory has a little hope and a little relaxation, also. ‘I could not do this much?’” he continued with a happy shrug of his shoulders underneath his orange robes, “‘Okay, I’ll do it the next time.’”

The swami’s smile was so broad it jostled his eyeglasses. I told him how much I appreciated all the time he was spending with me.

“This talk,” meaning the talk we were having right then, “is not talk, merely. For me, for my spiritual journey, I am worshipping God through serving you. I am talking to you, actually I’m serving God in you. We serve God through all of our actions.”

“And following what I’m driven to do is--"

“Exactly. All our duties are nothing but a chance to serve God. God has given you the life. God has given you the strength – it is to be utilized with proper understanding. God has given you the quest to know the truth and the skills to do it. It is like the waves – God is the infinite ocean and I am only one ripple and you are another ripple and we are dancing in God, we are crying in God, we are serving in God, there is nothing but God. So, to bring this awareness, read the Upanishads. It is the ancient wisdom of our spiritual practice.”

I felt like I’d gotten a seal of approval. “I’m almost through the Bhagavad Gita.” The central text of Hinduism, it seemed like the right place to start.

“When you have a question, make a point, and when you come we can discuss one of these points. How long it takes you to come here?”

“You won’t believe this but I have been all over, temples all over. My office? I can almost walk here.”

“Is it?”

“I couldn’t be closer. It takes five minutes, unless there is a Hollywood Bowl event. Then it can take half an hour.”

The swami told me the times of the classes he taught and then said, “Above all, if you have any questions you can come talk.”

I gave the personal questions another shot. “Now, did you always know you wanted to be---what do you call yourself? Are you a sadhu?”

“We are sadhus. ‘Sadhus’ means we are celibates from our childhood and they call me assistant head, so-called assistant minister.’

“You always knew that you wanted this life?”

“Because I was born in that culture, as you asked me. When I was a very young boy, the sadhus, the monks, the renounced people used to come and their life is so attracting, so much alluring, their faces beaming with joy (jahw-oy!) as it were. That attacted me very much. As I grew, fifth grade, sixth grade boy, the sadhus were very kind. They said: ‘What you are doing? Come here.’ So our home was not that far from the headquarters of the Ramakrishna organization which is near Calcutta. So on vacation I used to go and stay there on the banks of the Ganges. The sadhus meditative life and unselfish love filled with purity, peace, and no outward pretense attracted me most.”

“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

He looked pained at the question, like I’d gone one step too far. “I have brothers and sisters but that has nothing to do with what actually God calls you.”

I was nothing if not nosy and persistent. “Have your other brothers and sisters—"

He interrupted, “They are also very spiritual. Nowadays western materialistic ideals are creeping in through the television and other media otherwise in each Hindu Indian family but every morning and every evening, they start with God, they end with God, they pray in between, and before food they pray because the culture is there. All that intense practice goes only for a few very sincere people but, even our father, grandma, mom, our aunti, won’t eat before they take a bath, repeat the holy name, pray and meditate some time. Before that they will not eat at all. So, that is the tradition there. But these sadhus are more profound in their practices. From the early days I never thought of becoming anything but a monk. Seeing them, their joy, their freeness, their openness, their relentless service to others and how they are so princely even though they have no possessions!”

The swami said the Ramakrishna Mission was a huge organization in India. “We have 150 or 160 (temples) in India and activities are multifarious for the poor, for the downtrodden, for flood relief, for tsunami relief. For anything, these monks just jump and go to be the first to help with whatever they can: with material help, with medicinal help, with building up their homes and houses, and with establishing schools and community halls and everything. So that dedication also inspired me.” He tried to explain his thinking at the time. “What is this life, you think for yourself? Only eating, sleeping and dying? Do something for others. At least if you don’t see God, at least you don’t hurt anyone, don’t harm anyone and be a better person, be a loving, caring person.The world is full of misery. You can give a little peace to others.”

“And how did you end up in the United States?”

Swami Sarvadevananda smiled and raised his eyebrows. I’d hit a sore point. “Thaaaat is not my choice. Our organization has a central control in Calcutta and we have all over the world centers. We are not big like the Catholic church - about fourteen hundred, fifteen hundred monks, nuns and novitiates. According to the need of the work, the senior sadhus think who will be fit for what work and send us. I was in one village center, I was the head of a center actively working with the poor people, the needy people, building their homes, giving them education and self-employment skills to the women. Education gives them the strength to become self-reliant.”

“What village was it?”

“Sikra, a village near the border of Bangladesh. So, this was the way I was working very happily in the center and suddenly I was called here!”

“And you weren’t happy about it.”

“In the beginning, I was not at all! Because I had no idea to come and I never imagined in my life to come over here. It is not my choice. I was saying: ‘Please don’t send me, don’t send me. Send some other person.’ I was quite happy with the poor people, being with them, building up their hearts, giving them some shelter, giving them some education and the center was not very affluent but there was a great joy to serve these people. But, anyhow this is also a service to God, what I’m doing.” He laughed. “I didn’t plan. God plans! If you accept, it’s joy. If you resist, suffering.”

“I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you were open to this and how much I’m looking forward to working with you.”

“Please come to the class and give me a call, ask me any questions. It is a lifelong journey. Many people in this country, they want instant effect. Ah, so many impressions, good, bad, have accumulated in our mind and now our mind has to be cleansed. Cleansed how? By loving others, caring for others without keeping any selfish motive.”

“I know this project will be, at best, only a beginning. What happens after—”

“--will be your own journey. In your writing, you referred to Huston Smith. Huston Smith was closely connected with our Vedanta ideas.”

“He was?”

“There was a senior swami who passed away in St Louis, Swami Satprakashananda. And Huston Smith used to go there and he learned Vedanta and this universal idea of oneness. He’s very close to us. Our nuns know him. I also met him. A very humble and spiritual person!”

“See, there’s no accident that I’m here.”

“I tell you one thing: we do not publicize this Vedanta in the newspaper. We are a very silent group but at one time Vedanta created a great impact in this country. Alcoholics Anonymous which is so popular everywhere? Who is the founder? A Vedanta student.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“He employed all the Vedanta principles. Read their books, ideals, goals – all Vedanta. Vedanta has had an impact in subtle ways but it’s not that popular a religion.”

The swami told me Ramakrishna himself had actually spent time practicing other religions. “He one day prayed to Mother: ‘Mother, you are also worshiped by people in the churches. How do they worship? Why not make me like that?’ He had one Christian devotee and he used to go and ask him what is in the Bible. And one day he saw the image of the Christ, the baby, with the Madonna and that vision became tangible and that ray of light came.” Ramakrishna then spent “day and night, not a second thinking of any aspect of god or goddesses; only Christ and Christ and Christ. Then he practiced Islam. No one in the world ever appeared before who in one lifetime has ever practiced all those disciplines that you find in Huston Smith’s book. That’s why Ramakrishna finds truth in every religion. There is truth in every religion.” But, the swami said, there is only one important question. “Are you sincere? Are you following that? Are you living that life? Or are you only fighting for the purpose of fighting in the name of religion. So this is to be understood and this message should go to everyone. Swami Vivekananda (the first Hindu representative to come to the United States) said, ‘I did not come here to convert Christian into Hindu or a Hindu into Muslim or Muslim into Buddhist. We want to make a Hindu a better Hindu, a Christian a better Christian, a Muslim a better Muslim.’ So, we are not to convert. If you are following a path called Christianity, why not love God and see God? ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you. Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.’ Where have these principles gone? You’re are talking about other things, abortion, gay marriage, this, that --- these are social issues. Why are you bringing them into religion? Why not make your life spiritual? God sees gay? No, God sees the heart of your love. Eh?”

I felt heavy when I stood up, a thanksgiving meal’s worth of new ideas in my head, but then I remembered a question I’d wanted to ask Hemu but hadn’t gotten the chance. “Now, I watched them last night, the other students. They touched your feet.”

“In the Indian tradition, they do.”

“Is that what the greeting is?”

Swami Sarvadevananda stood up, too. “Anyone senior to us, we touch our head to their feet – it’s our deepest respect. It means I am bowing down my head to you - not you, the person - but the God in you, manifested better, because you’re senior. Our mom, our dad, our elder brother, our elder sister, anyone in the society that is a teacher, a school teacher, because their wisdom is higher. So, we go and touch their feet, but in this country we follow our own way. Okay?”

He was letting me off the hook, giving me an alternative I might be able to handle. He put the palms of his hands together in front of his chest and said, “Namaste. This means: ‘Salutation to you, the Lord in you.’ So, when you do, you remember the God in me is bowing to the God in you. This is the Indian custom.”

I tried it out. “Namaste.” Not too weird.

He said it back., “Namaste.”

And, with that, I dropped my notebook and pen on the floor.


(27 September 2006)

26 September 2006

Swami Sarvadevenanda


Atman cannot be attained by speech, by the mind,
or the eye. How can It be realized in any other way
than by the affirmation of him who says: “He is”?

Katha Upanishad, II.iii.12
I wanted to get a closer look at Swami Sarvadevananda, to find out if he really was The Guy - but I wanted to be invisible while I did it. I felt like a skittish animal peering out at someone from the edge of forest: Is it safe? Does he have food? Will he hurt me? The website of his temple, The Vedanta Society, said he was scheduled to teach an evening class and that seemed like cover enough. It turned out that, after searching in temples all over southern California, I was headed to a temple I could almost walk to from my office. The Vedanta Temple is right near the 101 freeway but you can’t see it because it’s on a small hill surrounded by trees.

The white temple with leaded glass windows sits next to a dark house that serves as office and bookstore. Inside, the chapel is spare with cream-colored carpets, walls and nave. Oak pews with cushions stop at about the middle, leaving room to sit on the floor in front of the steps up to the altar which is deep in the back. The display is much more subdued than the other temples I’d seen; instead of many large life-sized deities, there’s just a wooden stand with three photos on it – one higher than the rest - and a lot of flowers.

A silent meditation was just ending when I walked in – I really should say burst in. I could only see that the room was dim but nothing more through the rippled glass door. I made more noise than I wanted to finding a seat but, as soon as I settled, a white man of about sixty with a grey beard came in, much more quietly than I had, wearing his office clothes. He must have known the drill. He put down his black briefcase by the back door and walked straight up the aisle until he was standing before the carpeted steps leading up to the altar. Once there, he got on his knees and then bowed down long and deep. Sitting up, he then bowed again. And, with that, he stood up, walked back down the aisle, scooped up something small from the tiny covered brass dish on the table by the back door, picked up his briefcase, and walked out. He seemed like he was stopping by from work on his way home just to say hello, to acknowledge a revered elder as if the photographs were real people. The visit seemed to make him happy, content, a peaceful end to a long day.

The worship of people who lived recently enough to be photographed makes me nervous – not that devotion to mythic deities is much easier. Maybe I’ve just covered too many conmen in my old job as an investigative reporter but I’m always on the look out for someone playing a role to get something from others, to get something from me. Not the best attitude when you’re trying to wrestle with matters of faith, I think…or maybe it is. I dunno. But it is a fact that my first reaction, my first action, my first thought is to try to figure out if someone I’m talking to is a fake and this obsessive focus on the veracity of others often gets in the way of my even getting a clue about what I think and feel. But, sitting in the quiet, the photographs suddenly struck me as no different than the photographs on my mantelpiece of the people in my life whom I loved and revered. From looking at my father-in-law’s broad open Irish face, a face almost precisely mirrored in my son, Matt’s, I get a sense of compassion and service, of humility and deep love. From the photograph of my difficult but vibrant mother-in-law, I feel a sense of fire and perseverance while, from the hurt eyes of my grandmother at five, comes a call for unconditional love.

Okay, so the photographs on the altar in temples are draped with garlands of fresh flowers and candles and people were bowing down before them but it doesn’t seem like they’re being worshipped like deities so much as way-showers, people who, by example, truly lived the spiritual practice in a way that still motivates some. So why should these photographs or icons give me so much trouble? I think it’s much easier to accept a representation of Jesus or Buddha because no one really knows what they actually looked like so they’ve become an idea bigger than a single human being. I mean, I find it much easier to see the divinity in every person (well, most of the time) but I get hinky when one actual person is literally put up on a pedestal.

Moments before the class was to begin, I ran to get something from my car. In the quick dash out and back, Swami Sarvadevananda, draped in light orange fabric, had come in. He was sitting on the floor of the carpeted stage, his legs under a small table that held a book, a lamp, and a microphone. I slipped into the second pew, behind a handful of others, and discovered that I’d run back in with my shoes on. A glaring whoops. I pushed my shoes forward under the pew in front of me, hoping no one noticed.

Swami Sarvadevananda was cheerful. “Well, it’s 7:30. I guess everyone’s late but let’s start, shall we?”

From twenty feet away, Swami Sarvadevanada could be mid-fifties, perhaps early sixties. He's thin, with a dark, somewhat random head of hair and an open, playful face announced by almost absurdly large glasses. He seems perpetually on the verge of smiling.

I hadn’t bothered to look at what tonight’s topic was supposed to be. It was Raja Yoga, one of the four basic paths to enlightenment in Hinduism. For us in the west, although we’re unlikely to have heard the term “raja yoga”, it’s probably the most familiar path as it’s the path that includes what’s known here as yoga, meditation, and the exercises that lead to the ability to control one’s body for the purpose of coming to experience the presence of God – the part of Hinduism I’d been hoping to avoid - not the meditation part but the body-control stuff. I don’t know what religion or the practice of faith has to do with theories of how bodies work.

“When we’re talking about prana, about taking in prana.” The swami inhaled deeply. “Most people think we are talking about the breath, about controlling the breath. No. It’s energy, it’s really energy. By controlling the breath, we are controlling the muscles that contract the lungs and that means you are controlling your energy. If we control our energy, we control our body. If we control our body, we believe, we can control the whole system.”

His hands were the most elegant thing about him: when he spoke, one of them usually traced graceful serpentine figures in the air, his long fingers close together, his palms turned over as if offering something from a pocket – if he had any. “Let me explain. Most people think they can’t move their ears. But we know some people who can. We can’t simply because it’s a skill we haven’t developed because we don’t practice it. But we have the power to do anything inside of us. It’s all potential power, power that we can realize by practicing control.”

The swami pointed out that when we held our breath to move a heavy object that was an example of an unconscious use of raja yoga, of controlling our energy.

As he went on to give examples of healing and healers, I found myself veering off into judgmentland. I mean, what he was talking about, these particular Hindu beliefs, were the root of much of what people consider nutty about California: energy healers and crystals and alternative medicine, etc. My doctor’s-daughter mind balked. I mean, I get why meditation and the practice we know here as yoga could be considered antidotes to the frantic stress of our lives. I meditate but I don’t make a big deal of it. I feel better when I do it; simpler, less jangled. And, like many people, after learning that middle-aged bodies need stretching along with running and lifting weights, I go to an occasional yoga class. Not only do these practices no longer seem strange to me, even western medicine acknowledged their usefulness. But it’s difficult for me to go much further than that.

“Energy can be transferred from one person to another. When we are near a powerful person, we feel the power. Similarly, have you ever been with someone who just took all the energy out of you, dragged you down? When we hear a speaker who touches us, who speaks with enthusiasm, with passion for what they are saying, we are touched. We really learn something. We say: ‘they really talked from the heart.’ It’s just the language that we use but what we’re talking about is pranic energy. All we’re talking about is that they were a conduit for the energy that is all around us all the time to flow through them to us.

“The whole world is nothing but energy. You are energy, I am energy, words are energy… I mean, all I’m saying is energy and nothing else but that. And there is only one energy, one prana and we are but individual expressions of it. It’s like a vast lake; if you throw a stone into it on one side, the ripples will be felt on the other shore so long as you’ve got instruments sensitive enough to measure it. So, if we heal ourselves, we can affect the people around us. The great healers – Jesus, Buddha - all knew this. What did Jesus do? He said, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’ Buddha knew this and he healed people.

“Now it’s not so easy to be such a healer. There are some people who take advantage of the innocence of normal people and pretend that they are healers!”

Now he was talking my language. It wasn’t until Swami Sarvadevananda acknowledged the existence of fakers, of people who misuse others’ faith or desperation, that I began to relax.
“Why is it that Sri Ramakrishna,” the swami said with a gesture towards the top picture on the altar, “that Christ, that Buddha have had so much influence on people all over the world? It’s because they raised their pranic energy to a level that they can awaken the cosmic pranic energy. If you are ready, you can feel this uplifting energy when you come close to this vibration. You have the power, the potential, inside of you but it must be awakened.”

So, that was the name of the man in the photo: Ramakrishna. But there were two others down lower. None were easy to see in detail from where I sat.

Swami Sarvadevananda ended the class with some chanting.

I ducked down behind the first pew to pick up my shoes when it was over and, when I came up, I found the swami standing right in front of me. Me. He began talking as if I’d already asked him a question when I hadn’t said a word. “Yes?” he said. “How can I help you?”

Did I have a sign on my head? On my face?

“I’m a writer working on a project and I’d like to come talk to you.”

“When?”

“As soon as it’s convenient for you.”

“Why don’t you stay for dinner? Follow those people, they’ll show you where to go.”

“Okay.” With that, I dropped the books in my arms and some of the contents of my purse at his feet because I was trying to hide my shoes underneath the books in my arms. He said nothing, nor did he embarrass me by bending down to help me pick any of it up. He turned and walked to the back of the chapel to greet people. One after another, almost all of them bent down to touch his feet, even the American ones. So it wasn’t just Hemu’s temple then. I headed out the back door and into the cold night, following a couple of people around the back of the building.

The sun was gone. I walked down a dimly-lit brick pathway and up a few steps into what looked like another, newer house.

I was beginning to get it: eating was clearly a very big thing in Hinduism. Everything ended with a meal – even the rituals in the temples ended with eating things. By leaving the mandir in Whittier without taking food, I was, in some sense, being quite rude. Well, maybe not rude but I was rejecting part of the practice. I never think about food as ritual, as part of a spiritual practice; for me, it’s an afterthought, something dispensable. I even think I’m being nicer by not staying, not imposing, not requiring work on my behalf. And I’m always in a hurry to get home as any “extra” time spent away from my family feels wrong.

That night, I accepted the invitation but I had my internal meter running.

On the long wooden side board, were bowls filled with rice and various simple dishes – including fish. I got my plate and Swami Sarvadevananda said, “Sit there,” motioning to a seat near his place at the end of the long table, capable of seating perhaps two dozen people, too large for intimacy but too small for anonymity.

It took me a moment to notice I actually knew the woman sitting between the Swami and me, an acquaintance I’d met through a friend years ago. When the Swami came to the table to sit down, ready to hear me out, everyone stopped talking to listen to what I had to say - not exactly the scene I’d imagined or wanted.

Describing this project isn’t easy under the best of circumstances, let alone in front of a table full of strangers. I stumbled through it and heard myself stress that my parents thought religions were “the root of all evil, the cause of strife and dissension.” I know I must have said more but those were the words still clanging in my ears days later. I had no idea how the other people at the table were reacting, I couldn’t look at them.

When I was done, the swami said, “Okay, when do you want to come?”

“As soon as possible.”

“Tomorrow at five?”

“Okay.”

And then the swami turned from me to the thin Indian man with salt-and-pepper hair beside me and said, “Are you staying with us?”

My acquaintance, a pale, freckled woman named Leslie said quietly, looking at her plate. “That sounds like an awesome idea. A really, really great idea.”

With relief, I answered, “Thanks.”

I’d finished eating the small amount of rice and vegetables I’d taken while the table full of people who didn’t know each other managed to patch together a kind but somewhat awkward conversation. It felt a bit pushy to ask any more questions so I’d decided to just sit and listen when the swami, again, turned directly to me without my saying a word and said, “You can leave if you want to go. It’s all right.”

Before I left, I handed him my proposal for this project in which I described my background and what I was planning to do; I wanted to make sure he knew exactly what he was getting himself into with me. The swami said, “Oh! I’m not sure I’ll have time to read this but, if not, you can just tell me tomorrow.” He turned to the people who were just starting to clear their places and said, “Now, if anyone wants to work on their karma, the kitchen could use some help cleaning up!”

And he was gone.

I’d found my teacher.



(26 September 2006)

25 September 2006

Tires and karma...

When a man has let go of his attachments,
when his mind is rooted in wisdom,
everything he does is worship
and his actions all melt away.


Bhagavad Gita , 4.23


So, tires and karma…

One of the devotional paths in Hinduism is called the karma path. Essentially it means that, while there are those among us who might worship, say Jesus or the Virgin Mary, and still others who prefer to read, coming to understand their faith through their study of the Torah, for example, there are also those who find it easier to express their faith through their work or their actions. Some examples might be Mother Teresa or, perhaps, my husband Kevin’s dad who became an orthopedist so he could help disabled children as Christ did, something he did all of his life…for free. Another would be Nick at my favorite tire store.

So it was way past time to leave for school and Matt was ready and waiting on the living room couch as usual when Luke came out of his room with his hair still wet from the shower, happily rattling off things he needed to know for a test later that day. “‘Araby’ was written by James Joyce. ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ is Garcia Marquez. ‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’ by Nadine Gordimer. and Chinua Achebe wrote ‘Dead Man’s Path.’”

On my toes to kiss the side of his face, I said, “That sounds good. Now, get into the car, we’re about to be late.”

I shifted my car into gear and started to drive immediately, something my eleven year-old car hates. I thought nothing of the shuddering as I pulled away from the curb but, when it didn’t ease up in four long blocks, it was clear that it was much more than that. Yes, anyone but a mother whose sole focus was on making up for a bit of lost time would have known within a few feet a tire was a flat. A very flat flat.

The good news: Kevin was still home with his car. The bad news: we were already too far to run home to get his car, given the boys’ ridiculously heavy backpacks, and have any chance of making it to school even close to on time. More bad news: Kevin had been up until one o’clock in the morning and wasn’t due to start his twelve-hour day until eleven so my phone call would wake him up. Did I mention he was fighting off a sore throat?

This was not the morning I had planned. To add to the scene, I was dressed in the embarrassing sort of clothes worn by mothers all over the country who plan to go for a run or go to the gym after dropping their kids off at school: flabby thighs on display underneath bright orange shorts leading down to gray socks popping up above brown slip-on Merrills because my running shoes were, of course, in my car trunk. After handing off my children to a grumpy husband, I accepted the fact that my exercise today would be changing my tire.

Excavating the trunk, I dug down beneath the old umbrellas and running shoes, flip flops and crumpled sun screen tubes to find, when I opened the spare tire well, that the spare was flat, too…which made not having a jack in my trunk moot. At least my cell phone worked so, after a call to AAA, I sat down on the curb, on top of my squishy spare tire, to wait with my newspaper and a bottle of water.

While flat tires, in general, aren’t happy occasions, I knew I was going to end up at my favorite tire store - yes, I actually have a favorite tire store. It's a small independent tire shop jammed in between car dealers on Van Nuys Boulevard. Believe it or not, I love that shop with a passion verging on groupiedom. Why? They won’t let me buy tires. Every time I come in with a flat, they tell me not to bother with a new tire, they can fix it.

“That’ll be ten dollars,” the guy behind the counter always says.

Once, when I finally insisted on buying tires after a certain point, they explained why I didn’t need the expensive ones. I love them. I tell them so every time I go.

This morning, the owner, Norm, whom I’d never actually met before, was behind the tall gray counter. I told him how I felt about his business. “You’re unique.”

“Oh, I don’t think so. I think most people do things the way we do. There really are only a few rotten apples in any line of work. At least, that is what I choose to believe.”

When Norm went out back to the work area, the other customer in the waiting room, a thin, gray-haired man who was sipping a cup of machine coffee, said he felt the same way. “This wasn’t what I had in mind for my morning either but I love coming here. And the new coffee machine is great; try it!”

Is this what’s meant by the karma path, the path of work? I mean, is it possible that something as simple as running a business selling – or not selling, in this case – tires can be invested with meaning if attention like this is paid? I doubt Norm thinks about it that way unless seductive girly posters with women of men’s imagination posing on impossibly clean, thrusting cars goes with a form of faith I’ve yet to encounter. But, if the point of religion, of spirituality, is to imbue our lives with a sense of connection, with a sense of the divine, I do know that way Norm chose to live and work gave me that sense of connection this morning and every time I even think about the tires on my car.

And my fellow tire store fan was a lovely man with whom to wait. “I’ve decided to get my wife’s car fixed after I’m done with mine today since this is what my day’s turned into anyway.”
Bob, I soon found out, is a respiratory therapist; his wife was a nurse named Louise. My father is a doctor named Bob and my mother, Louise, was once a nurse. It turned out that his wife worked for a national non-profit that tooks care of the elderly, something my father had done for years back east. Bob said the organization was expanding and might need part-time help from someone like my aging father, who is still a practicing doctor at seventy-eight because a combination of excessive generosity to his children and some bad luck means he and my mother can’t figure out how to afford to retire, can’t afford to figure out how to move closer to us as we had assumed they would.

When the owner, Norm, came back in, he cautiously interrupted my conversation with Bob to give the verdict on my flat. “You had a nail in your tire. I fixed it, fixed the spare and rotated your tires. No charge.”

“How do you stay in business?”

With an almost embarrassed shrug, Norm was out the door and back to the service area.

As I gathered up my things to leave, Bob said, “I’ll have Louise email you a contact for your dad.” And then he added, “It’s karma. We were meant to be here this morning!”

Karma, indeed.



(25 September 2006)

24 September 2006

While waiting for the swami....

In the Kumbha Mela program, Swami Sarvadevananda was identified as representing something called the Vedanta Society. Professor Chapple had told me this branch of Hinduism was the first to have real impact in the United States. With a call, I found out that Swami Sarvadevananda was out of town for a couple of weeks. I found my teacher – at least I hope I have – but I'm going to have to wait to actually meet him.

In the years I’d spent stewing about this project, I’d decided I should explore the faiths in related pairs, hoping that I might understand each more deeply by coming to understand both what they shared and how they differed, in theology and in practice. Given that Buddhism developed, essentially, as protestant Hinduism – so much so that academics, in fact, refer to it as non-orthodox Hinduism – I thought I should find out more about it while waiting for Swami Sarvadevananda to return.

Going into this, I had just one book on Buddhism: a bright orange book called The Teaching of the Buddha that my husband, Kevin, had found in a hotel room somewhere.

Are you supposed to take Bibles and other sacred texts left in hotel rooms? I kind of don't think so... I think stealing is another big no-no across all religions, yet another thing to feel bad about.

I figured this stolen property was as good place to begin as any and, on the very first page, I found a symbol of a wheel like the one Peter Patel was talking about when I first walked in to the Hindu mandir in Whittier, a wheel with spokes, but it was the symbol of Buddhism, not Hinduism.

It was no accident. Buddhism started near India in what is now Nepal. The original Buddha, Siddartha Gautama of the Sakyas, (563 B.C.- 483 B.C.) was actually a Hindu who began his spiritual journey by first going deeper into Hinduism just as Christianity wasn’t started by someone who declared himself a creator of a new faith but by someone wanting to deepen his own - Judaism.

I had two weeks to kill so I thought I'd use the time to check out the two Buddhist temples I knew about so that, when it came time to study Buddhism, I’d know where to go: the Wat Thai Buddhist temple in North Hollywood or the Chinese Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights.

I’d been to the Thai temple because they had an open-air food market on Sundays and I’d seen, through the wide-open doors of the tall temple, monks in orange cloth, sitting on bright cushions around the sides of the temple, available to anyone who wanted to chat. However, when I went to its website, there was very little information in English and the only classes offered were Thai language classes.

At the Hsi Lai Temple, on the other hand, where I’d been as a chaperone for one of Matt's school field trips when he was in seventh grade, they offered regular Buddhism classes as well as meditation and chanting in English, making it an easier place to get started. The one substantive difference I got from the temples’ websites, in addition to the languages of the services, was that the Wat Thai Temple practiced Theravada Buddhism, a form which has “changed no teachings laid down by Buddha.” This brand of Buddhism is primarily practiced in Thailand, Cambodia, India, Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, etc. The Hsi Lai temple website said it followed the Rinzai Ch'an (Zen) school of Buddhism as well as the Pure Land school and its headquarters was in Taiwan. None of it meant a thing to me. But Hsi Lai had classes. On Buddhism and meditation. That Sunday. In English.

It was odd to drive up a dry hill, past houses too new to have developed character, take two quick turns off the road and find an elaborate, full-on Chinese temple and monastery, yellow roof dragons and all. Steep staircases led up to a grand entrance hall and, once I walked through it, around what looked like a devotional wall, I was outside in an upward-sloping, open courtyard. The main shrine was on the far side of the grand sqaure with well-tended gardens and covered walkways. When I got directions to the temple from the website, it said Hsi Lai literally means “Coming West.”



It was kind of great to stand in such an exotic place with little more than a half-hour drive from my house but it was kind of intimidating, too. You have to have a lot of faithful followers to build something like this.

I finally noticed a small sign taped to a wooden stand which pointed the way to another stand and then another which finally led to two classrooms - one for beginners and the other for people who knew something. You know which one I walked into.

Instead of a chalkboard up front, there was a plain altar of blond wood with a small brass Buddha statue. A United Nations of about twenty people took up most of the desks in the room while two interpreters for the deaf sat on the right side translating for a few people who needed their services.

A small, well, nun, I guess she'd be called, came to the front and took the microphone. The schedule said she was the Venerable Jue Qian. I don’t know what surprised me more – the fact that she thought she needed a microphone in a room this size or her appearance. She was young. Very young. She could have been thirty but maybe not. Her head was shaved, her clothing and glasses, basic. And, she was quirky. She began the class in an oddly intimate way. “Good morning. It’s a very nice day today. Still a little bit cold for me. Ever since I moved from Singapore, lips is dry, skin is dry, nose is dry and I realize that my body has not gotten used to being here. Does anybody have any suggestions about this?”

What followed was a sweet interchange of suggestions about how to adjust to the dry desert air and about how much water was, indeed, “enough.”

“Okay, before we start, any questions?”

A square-faced white man raised his hand. “I was with some people who said they were Buddhists who told me of a ceremony where you scrape out the insides of a wooden Buddha, consecrate it with fire, and then fill the insides with gems and money. I’ve never heard about anything like this before. Do you know what they were talking about?”

The nun paused for a moment, then brought the microphone back up to her mouth. “I have heard of some people who say they are followers of certain sects who say that they are the ‘reincarnation of such-and-such- a thing.’ Or, ‘I have a special achievement of such-and-such-a thing and now I have special ritual ceremony’ or ‘I am able to see your past and future’ and a lot of people believe in them. And they ask, ‘In order to have a special Buddha statue to have supernatural power, I need diamond, I need gold in order to make it very grand and, please, give me money, give me diamond.’ You have to decide whether this is okay for you or not. We never ask devotees for money. We never ask for anything. It must come from the heart of the giver. So what I’m trying to say is: in Buddhism we always talk about simplicity, how to make things as simple as possible.”

She continued, “People say you shouldn’t judge your teacher. No. This is wrong. You have to judge your teacher, whether (you think) your teacher is telling you this thing for her, for this teacher’s benefit, or for the benefit of the students. Some teachers just teach for the benefit of themselves or their temple.”

I don’t know why but every time someone in robes says it’s up to me to choose what to think I breathe easier.

The square-faced man had another question. “What’s the difference between a lama and a rinpoche?”

“A lama can’t marry, like the Dalai Lama. But say you want to have relations with another person. Then you are rinpoche, you can marry. However, we follow the practice like in India. In India they have a concept: as a human being there are four stages of life. And the last stage you live apart, apart from the family members to practice as lay people. So this is the practice in India and it is brought into some of the practice of Buddhism. We have Mahayana, we have Theravada, we have Chinese, we have Thailand, Korea, Japan, la-da-da-da. Mahayana, Theravada is the earliest. And the Tibetan Buddhism is the latest and it is a mixture of religions in Tibet. Lots of rituals. Lots of dancing, lots of offerings. When Buddhism go into certain countries it will change. It will change according to the culture, according to the people of that country. I am not surprised that in a hundred years, if I haven’t died yet, I will see that in American there will be a Western Buddhism. Right now, Buddhism in the United States, in Europe, in England, is still not considered western Buddhism. It’s very, very strong influence of Chinese or Tibetan or Thai.”

But the Venerable Jue wanted to be very sure we got the message. “You have to judge. I even tell the devotees here not to do whatever we say. Even they need to judge us. Even monastics, we have our bad habit. We are still human. We still have emotion. We still get sick. I still dislike about the weather. If I’d already achieved, I wouldn’t feel anything about the weather.”

The group laughed and the small nun smiled, pleased. “Only difference, I just have the courage to shave off my hair, to live a simple life.”

No one else has raised their hand so the same man asked yet another question. “When the Dalai Lama says he’s going to reincarnate as the Dalai Lama isn’t that really the ultimate attachment?”

Like Hinduism, Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Attachment to things, to others, to life itself, was considered the main source of suffering and the principal goal of Buddhism was to relieve suffering, your own and others.

The nun scanned the room, looking from face to face. “Anyone have any idea, anything to say to this before I answer?”

One student answered, “The Dalai Lama is coming back to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings.”

The nun’s face didn’t let on what she thought of that answer. She said, “Everybody heard of Bodhisatva before? Bodhisatvas in the Lotus Sutra mention about one thing: the beings refused to achieve Buddhahood. You know why?”

A dark-haired woman in the back volunteered, “They keep coming back until every sentient being is saved.”

“Correct. The Bodhisatva have great compassion because they are doing something that is very difficult to achieve.” Meaning, liberating every last sentient being. And that liberation comes, in part, from getting rid of the attachments that cause suffering. “You can test whether you have achieved the concept of emptiness, of non-attachment. Somebody scolds you. Criticize you. If you have no mind of angry, not even a single thought. Not even ‘I forgive him,’ that sentence never arise. It’s just like words coming in and words coming out. It’s the time that we let go on the spot. We heard it, we feel it, but we let go immediately.”

Okay, so attachment leads to suffering. The goal is to give up all attachments so there will be no more suffering. Does that mean I'm not supposed to feel attachment to Kevin? To my children? You bet my attachment to them causes me to suffer. When Matt or Luke scrape their knees, my knees hurt; my knees actually hurt right now just remembering them scraping their knees. I don't think I want to give up that kind of suffering but I guess there are other kinds I could definitely live without if I could just figure out how, like how attached and worried I am about what other people think of me. That suffering I could do without. I mean, it's the reason it's taken me two years to actually put this stuff up on a blog. Every time I thought about doing it I imagined one person's and then another's reaction - all hideously and personally critical, or course.

And what's this “no mind of angry?” I’ve been married more than two decades. I’ve worked in an office. I have teenage children. Let’s just say: I “suffer” from anger. And, yes, I have to admit: I am attached to my idea of what I want to happen. Well, plans require goals, don't they?

“When even a single thought arises that ‘I forgive him,’ that is still an attachment. This is the most highest stage of practice. Very, very difficult.” You bet. I still consider it a major triumph when I can have that "I forgive him" thought arising.

In the class, people started asking all those questions that, for some reason drive me nuts, questions like where, specifically, souls are when they were between incarnations. How can anyone, even someone wearing robes, talk with great specificity about the unknowable? The specific location or state of souls between lives: there are no end of essays, theories, films, novels and plays that could be spun off those words in the effort to come to grips with that question. And every one of them would be about as real to me as a white bearded guy on a cloud. I imagined standing up, shouting: “Why ask such questions? Why put a monastic into a corner demanding the details, the description of a photograph that doesn’t exist?” How could that question have any meaning anyway, stuck as it is in our limited concept of space and time and concrete, physical reality? Emerging from the struggle to move beyond the senses, I can accept that I don't know everything or even very much so that it's entirely possible that there's more to existence than what I can touch, taste, see, hear and feel. I might even be able to go as far as entertaining the idea that this “something” is, in part or in its entirety, related to each of us in some way. But the idea of asking for a description of where that “it” is when we aren't alive feels like asking if fish could wear plaid pants.

Well, they could, couldn’t they? In theory.

But I suppose I have to accept that my conviction that there might be some underlying unseen force – or Force - could be just as absurd to someone else as questions like these felt to me.
Most Hindus would probably argue that there was no difference between a bearded guy in long white robes and a detailed theory of multiple lives or even Swami Sarvadevananda’s ocean metaphor, so long as it helps you feel connected to the Divine. So, what possible difference should it make to me if it works for someone else?

Aren’t we’re all just slogging around in a black bag, trying to feel around, feel shapes, smell through the fabric to get something our brains, our hearts can hang onto that might give us some faith that there’s a good reason we’re in this bag in the first place? For me, I want to know how to live a happier life in the bag and, perhaps, if there’s something I might be able to do for others nestled around me in the bag that might be of some help. Even more, I want to find out if it’s possible to shred the bag to see what’s out “there.” What I can't get is: why ask for promises and concrete descriptions about what’s outside of the bag from someone else who’s in it, too?
And what on earth do rituals have to do with any of it?

As I type this I hear that Gilda Radner character on Saturday Night Live, Roseanne Rosannadanna saying, “Mrs KD from Fort Lee, New Jersey, you ask alotta stupid questchuns!”
If this is how I feel, then how on earth am I ever going to find any answers, any peace in ritual? How did these things come to be related to the quest for meaning? Until now, I’ve led a pretty ritual-free existence. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Big life events like weddings and funerals.

I guess I actually do have some everyday rituals but they don’t involve bowing down to or before or even near any specific icon. I light a candle in my office when I start work and blow it out when I finish. I don’t know why I do it or how it got started but I do it. I clean my small rented workspace myself, waving off the cleaning crew that was offered when I moved in. I get some peace in supporting my work this way. And I never start to write without reading some of the sacred literature that's flooding into my office. I read until that small inner bell chimes with recognition at some passage and then I sit, as empty as I can, meditating for a while. Those are my rituals. More than that feels false. Will I ever feel differently?

The Venerable Jue was looking through her thick glasses from one side of the room to the other. “Ever think about if the Buddha was so powerful, why couldn’t he make himself live forever? Why couldn’t he stay in this world forever so he could keep on teaching? Any comments on that?” The original Buddha was an actual historical figure who lived in India around the fifth century BCE.

The square-faced man stepped in to the vacuum again. “My understanding is that his Buddhahood goes on but it needs to be directed to another body because bodies wear out.”

The middle-aged woman next to him added, “I agree with what Dave said but is it also that, since he is only here with us for a lifetime, for so many years, people will listen. It’s not going to last forever, so listen up?”

The nun then launched into the story of Buddha’s death. “We have many precepts as monastics. One of them is: anybody offer something to us, we have to take it. That’s why even the monks in Thailand, you offer them meat (even though they’re vegetarian), they will take it. This is the true practice of the Buddhist monk.

“So, someone offered a mushroom to Buddha when he was eighty years old and, because of some poison in the mushroom, he got sick. His body was getting weaker and weaker. He knew it’s time for him to say goodbye. A disciple said to him: ‘Can’t you just live on?’ Buddha said one thing: ‘In my teachings, I teach about suffering and I mention about birth and death, that this is the truth of this universe. Nobody can change it. Nobody can escape it. Not even me.’”

But, Venerable Jue said, the Buddha was never really dead because we all remember him, his words and his spirit. “There is no come and there is no go. We’re all very attached to come and go, that something come here and something go there. But to Buddha, there is no come and no go. There’s no yes and there’s no no.”

There's just nothing for me to do with that statement, at the moment, except to report it. Even just typing it, I feel ahort-circuit coming on.

The Venerable Jue Qian spent a lot of time talking about “cause” and “condition.” She said, “This is very important in Buddhism. Even in a temple, no one will stand up and teach without first being asked a question. In Buddhism we always say: ‘cause and condition’, there must be a cause for this condition to arise. This is very important in Buddhism. Everything leads to another thing. It’s a circle. No action, no being can come from nothing and it takes the right condition for it to happen. This means we are all connected and there is no way we can take an action without affecting others or others affecting us. But there must be cause and condition. If plant seeds when no water, the condition of the soil wasn’t right to grow a plant. If soil fertile and ready to grow a plant but no cause, no seed - no plant. Need both things. Need a willing student before anything can be taught.”

Other than the interpreters for the deaf who took over for each other from time to time, the students were still, listening.

“There are so many temples, so many churches around here. How come you are here today, at this one? Why are you here and yet there are so many people haven’t even thought of coming in here? That’s not my answer. I can’t answer for you. That’s your answer.”

My answer is simple, isn’t it? Mark's class trip came here so it was a place I knew and there were classes in English. Okay, maybe it was a bit more complicated since, without the determination to find out more about faith, about different faiths, it wouldn’t have mattered where Matt’s class trip went or in what language Hsi Lai’s Buddhism classes were taught. I guess my "cause" was my desire to understand Buddhism and the "condition" that allowed it were the classes the Hsi Lai temple offered in English – without either I wouldn’t have been in that classroom.

Wrapping up the class with a few announcements, Venerable Jue held up a few flyers. The first was for a Thanksgiving potluck lunch. Both concepts – what a “potluck” was and Thanksgiving - were new to her. “I don’t know what’s this, this ‘potluck’," she said. “I just know Thanksgiving and I never have a chance to see this Thanksgiving. This will be my first time.”

A woman in the class said, “A pot luck is where people bring food and you eat whatever you bring.”

“So we will share the food together? Oh!”

The woman also tried to explain Thanksgiving. “Do you know what the origination of Thanksgiving is?”

“No. Can I get it on the internet?”

Many people pitched in to explain the history and purpose of Thanksgiving to her, stumbling to the realization that, in a strictly vegetarian temple, there could be no actual turkey.

The Venerable Jue was surprised to hear there could be a substitute. “Tofu turkey? Really? They have that here? I never saw before. I will be very, very interested to see it! I saw a picture on the internet when I was in Taiwan of tofu turkey.”

The next flyer was for a class the temple was just starting and the nun made a strong pitch for it. It seemed the temple administration had noticed that there was considerable confusion on the part of Americans about some of the rituals and the temple decided to try to help. “Why do we have to chant the sutra so many times. The sutra is like the teachings of the Bible. Like in the Bible it says that ‘Jesus say da-da-da-da-da-da.’ The sutra is like that. Chanting is the time when peace really come to our mind and to really have a time when we ourselves touch the Buddha, when we communicate with the Buddha. I encourage all of you to take this class. We never ask the devotees to be very diligent with memorizing the sutra. So that’s the reason why for the dharma function. Reverend will introduce the dharma function and why there are so many dharma function and why do we need to make prostration. I realize something about why people here don’t like making prostration. Indians are very small and tiny. Chinese are also small and tiny. Prostration is more easy for us. I realized that most of our western friends are very huge. So, it’s not because of our practice but because of our mat. Our mat is so small!”

The class couldn’t believe what she was saying. The laughter was nervous. Could we have misunderstood her accented English?

We hadn’t. “So,” Venerable Jue concluded, “that’s the reason if I have chance to become an abbess here I will make a bigger mat. That is my vow!”

A middle-aged woman with dark hair in the back said she did prostration by herself in the temple when people weren’t so close to her but then square-faced Dave-of-a-thousand-questions chimed in again. “I don’t know when to do the prostrations. Everybody’s down and I’m up and I’m down when they’re up.”

What an absurd set of reactions I’d had to poor “Dave,” a man I’d never seen before that class. At first, there was gratitude that at least someone was asking questions when I didn’t know what to ask followed, in a trice, by frustration that he was asking so many questions, so many questions that irritated me and now this: I could kiss him. “Everybody’s down and I’m up and I’m down when they’re up.”

Me, too, Dave. Those of us who didn’t know what to do find it easier just to sit and watch rather than get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or worry that we might. And it was pretty clear Dave and I weren’t the only ones in the room who felt that way.

With that, the Buddhism class was over, I grabbed one of every flyer at the back of the room – including one about something called an 8 Precept Retreat – and then walked up the hill with most of the others to a building behind the temple for the meditation class.

The meditation room had a gray marble floor and a wide wood bench built-in against all the walls with individual seats marked by wood strips. At each, there was already a stack of two flat cushions, one square, the other a narrow rectangle and, beside the pillows, a tightly rolled towel. A statue of Buddha was in the center of the room, lit only by the shaded light that came in through the wide open doors.

A squat, no nonsense elderly nun herded every new person into a corner to give us a few tips before the meditation began. She told us how to sit: on top of the narrow rectangular pillow with one foot up over the other knee or both, if possible. “Protects the back.” After you sit, “rotate around in both directions” to get the most comfortable place to sit and put a towel over your legs. You “get cold when you meditate.” Let your arms fall into your lap, both palms up, one hand resting in the other palm, thumbs together. Sit. “Concentrate on breath.”

Men were on one side of room, women on other so “nothing interferes with empty mind.” Seems to me if your mind was going to get disturbed by members of the opposite sex, it would be far less disturbing to have them right next to you rather than across the room where you can easily see them. Or in another room. And isn't the point to get to a place where it wouldn’t matter if there were other people around you at all?

We then sat for twenty minutes in complete silence, followed by a short break and then another twenty minutes. It was really hard. I could sit for twenty minutes alone in my room but something about being in a new place or maybe it was I'd just come from a class where my mind was filled with new thoughts and ideas but I couldn't quiet my mind in any way.

When it ended, the elderly nun unfolded herself, rotating her ankles, rubbing the blood back into her legs and then, after asking if we found it hard, she squinched her glasses back up her nose a bit and said, “Man was digging a hole in the road. He said, ‘Life is hard.’ Another man, digging a hole in the road, said, ‘This is hard but I do it for a pay check.’ Another man digging a hole in the road is smiling. ‘I’m thinking about all the people who will arrive safely home because of the work I am doing.’ Meditation is like that. It may hurt. You may be doing it just to get something. Only you truly know what you experience. But you get out what you contribute to meditation. There is no substitute for experiencing it yourself.”

Now, that, I know is true. There is no substitute for experiencing any of this for myself.


(24 September 2006)