Life on the Ganga

March 8

Dear ones,

I’ve spent the past week in two yoga ashrams along the banks of the Ganga — one in Rishikesh and the other in Haridwar. Both cities are important destinations for pilgrims who come from around the world to pray, bathe, and pay homage to this river, considered holy by Hindus.

The air is alive with a cacophony of sacred sounds coming from devotees and pilgrims who gather at the many ashrams and temples along the banks — the sound of conch shells being blown during prayers at dawn and dusk; temple bells ringing; the beating of drums; the murmur of chanting; the clanging of symbols; and sacred melodies being played on various musical instruments, accompanying devotional singing called Kirtan.

Cars, motor bikes, rickshaws, bicycles, cows, dogs, carts, people and more press through the narrow streets of both cities, which are lined with vendors selling everything from yoga mats to cucumbers. It’s a bazaar experience that borders on the bizarre at times — a strange amalgam of sacred and profane.

Amidst the bustling banter of shoppers and shopkeepers are numerous wandering sadhus, mendicants dressed in ochre who have taken yoga to its highest level, giving up everything for God, living gently on the earth with only a tunic, walking stick, and a bowl in their possession. In this environment of the marketplace, two different worlds converge: the frenetic world of material consumption encounters the challenging world of renunciation. The lives of the sadhus are a reminder to me that a yogic life is a simple life, walking and living lightly on the planet.

Meister Eckhard has written that “God is willing to give great things when we are ready, for righteousness’ sake, to give up everything.”

Simple living doesn’t mean being confined to a life of poverty. I believe we can live comfortably while living lightly on the planet, recognizing, as the psalmist writes, that “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”

It has been said that simple living is the art of using minimum means in order to attain maximum results–just the opposite of what happens when we are drawn into the addictive patterns of our consumer society. To live simply is to live gently, keeping in mind the needs of the planet, other creatures, and generations to come. In so doing, we lose nothing– the interest of the whole naturally includes our own being.

This is the message of all the great religions of the world repeated over and over throughout history. When Gandhi was asked to sum up the secret of his life in three words, he quoted the Isha Upanishad: Renounce and enjoy!

This is the key to a complete and fulfilling life, a yogic life.

Peace,

Father Peter

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Sivananda Ashram

Peter 6

February 25, 2012

Dear ones,

I’ve settled in at the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam in the state of Kerala. My handy copy of the Lonely Planet explains that people go to Kerala because the “thoughtful pace is as contagious as the Indian head-wobble–just setting foot on the swath of soul-quenching green will slow your stride to a blissed-out amble.” So it should come as no surprise that I’m having a lovely time here. I guess you could even say that my amble is “blissed out.” It is truly beautiful country: white sand beaches, lush coconut groves, rice paddies, and mountainous ghats surrounded by tea and spice plantations. I can see why many people flock here for vacations.

As I entered the coastal village of Kovalam, where I spent a few days before coming to the Sivananda ashram, the streets were lined with large, beautiful red flags displaying a hammer and sickle. Yes, Communist flags! In 1957 Kerala democratically elected a Communist government — the first place in the world to do so, and it remains in power.

Interestingly, Kerela has been described by Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen as “the most socially advanced state in India.” Land reform and changes in the infrastructure of health and education programs have been key factors in the state having the highest literacy rate (91%) of any developing nation. The infant mortality rate is one-fifth the national average, and the life expectancy rate is ten years higher than the rest of the country — at 73 years.

Sadly, because of a lack of industrial development and foreign investment in the state, many educated youth lack sufficient opportunities to get ahead in life. This may explain why Kerala has the highest suicide rates and liquor-consumption statistics in the country. But there is hope that these conditions will change and improve as economic prosperity occurs, thanks to the booming tourism industry.

The Sivananda ashram attracts yogis from all over the world. It is situated on twelve acres of lush, tropical forest and next to a tranquil lake — at least it looks tranquil on the surface until you read the signs that warn of crocodiles.

Each day begins and ends with satsang. Two-hour yoga classes are offered twice daily, and coaching sessions are available in between for folks like me trying to perfect their headstands. Classes are also offered on yoga theory and practice each day.

While meditating my first night at the ashram, I kept hearing a very low-decibel growling. I thought that someone in the temple must have been afflicted by some major indigestion until I realized that the growling was really roaring coming from the lion park next door — on the other side of the lake, thank God!

It was really good to be around serious yogis for several days instead of trying to keep up my practice doing asanas in hotel rooms.

Now I’m going to blissfully amble to the north part of the country on three flights to Dehradun and from there take a taxi Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world.

Om Shanti.

Father Peter

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After a Week in Silence

February 18,2010

Dear ones,

Well, my iPhone was not functioning for over a week, but I am back on track.

After a week in silence, the last three days of our pilgrimage were spent at the base of Arunachala, a mountain considered sacred by Hindus and where Ramana Maharishi lived in a cave from the age of sixteen. It is also where the Arunachaleswara Temple (arunachaleswarar.com) is located — one of the five most holy places in South India, which is in the adjacent village of Tiruvannamalai. This is the time of year that many Hindus make pilgrimages to sacred places; so most of the temples we have visited were teeming with people.

All of our temple visits have been extraordinary, and Arunachaleswara was no exception. The entrance to a Hindu temple is called the gopuram, a large tower with ornately sculpted images depicting the hierarchy of creation and the human desire to evolve from lower to higher states of consciousness. There are four massive towers at Arunachaleswara.

As one approaches the temple, the entrance marks the threshold between the profane and sacred worlds. Images in the outermost precincts of the temple are dedicated to elemental forces, nature spirits, and local deities; the inner precincts are dedicated to the spiritual powers of gods and demigods; the innermost sanctum is devoted to the highest reality and absolute presence of the Godhead.

While inside the sanctum, devotees connect with the energy of the deity, who is the symbolic form of the formless absolute. Hindus believe that encountering the form of deity makes it possible for the invisible presence of the divinity to be felt, seen, and touched — an experience which is called darshan. It is a profound and intimate time of communion with God — you encounter God and God encounters you.

Over the course of this past month, we have been privileged to be allowed access to the sanctum of several temples while special services (pujas) were being performed by pujaris or priests — if you enjoy Anglican chant, you should hear these guys! These rituals have been performed at this sacred site for thousands of years, even before the temple was built, and normally they are not open to non-Hindus.

Moving clockwise through the temple precincts from the outer into the inner, the pilgrim’s path replicates the interior journey into the cave of the heart, that place where God is found.

India is a mysterious portal into the holy. Most days I feel like I’ve been dropped into a vast ocean of devotion. Often I am brought to tears at the beauty and wonder of it all.

I have stayed in Pondicherry for four days, after saying goodbye to my fellow pilgrims in Chennai. While in Pondicherry, I visited Auroville, a most interesting international intention community. Now I’m sitting in a very small plane getting ready to take off and arrive in Trivandrum, where I’ll be staying for a few days at the beach before I go to the Sivananda ashram in Neyyar Dam. Hopefully, I’ll be able to connect — as in wi-fi — while I’m there.

Pray for me as I am praying for you.

Om shanti.

Father Peter†

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Praying at Shantivanam

Peter 6

February 1, 2012

Dear ones,

As promised I’m writing about the shape of the liturgy and prayer life at Shantivanam. Each day we participate in Sandhya Vandana, which are the worship services. Sandhya means “holding together, union, juncture, meeting point.” Vandana means “chants of praise.” Worship at the ashram is a meeting point of day and night, darkness and light, morning and evening twilight; it is the juncture of the three divisions of the day: dawn, noon, and sunset.

Sandhya also refers to religious acts performed by Brahmins, or priests, at these three times of the day. The Rishis, the seers in ancient India, used to insist that prayers be said three times a day. These prayers consisted of sipping water and repeating invocations and mantras, especially the Gayatri Mantra.

The three services which take place at Shantivanam are the Sandhya Vandana, corresponding with the monastic offices of Lauds; Sext; and Vespers. Hymnody is sung in the local Tamil language and Sanskrit along with the playing of finger symbols, tambourine, and shakers. Prayers come from the Syrian Christian and Latin Benedictine tradition, but each liturgy begins with the chanting of the Gayatri Mantra in Sanskrit, the ancient sacred language of India. It is a beautiful prayer.

Here’s the translation: Salutations to the Word which is present in the earth, the sky, and that which is beyond. Let us meditate on the glorious splendor of that divine Giver of Life. May he illuminate our meditations.

Readings are from the Bible and Hindu sacred scripture and other traditions of the East.

Therefore, worship here is a meeting point of the Church’s liturgy and India’s heritage, of Christ and the Rishis, of East and West in the secret place of the heart at prayer.

The day begins at 5:30 A.M. with Namajapa (repetition of the name of God), followed by an hour of mediation. The day concludes in the same fashion at 9:00 P.M., followed by silence through breakfast.

There are many symbols used in the liturgy drawn from the Hindu tradition. In the Morning Prayer service, sandalwood paste is used and placed on the forehead and or on the hands as a way of consecrating the body and its members to God. It is also a symbol of God’s unconditional love as it gives off a sweet fragrance even as the axe cuts into its wood.

At Midday Prayers a red powder called Kumkumum is used, which is placed on the space between the eye-brows and is a symbol of the “third eye,” the eye of wisdom. Whereas the two eyes are the eyes of duality, which we see the outer world and the outer self, the third eye is the inner eye which sees the inner light of Divinity.

At Evening Prayer, ash (vibhuti) is used on the forehead, which signifies that our sins and impurities have been burnt away, representing the purified self.

We do meditate regularly here at the ashram. A few days ago, while we were meditating together, we were visited by a tree snake in the meditation hall. Oh, my! You should have heard the hollering! We went from Zen quietude to full-throat Pentecostal shouting in seconds. I’ve included pictures of before and after the snake appearancel plus a picture of the snake once it was coaxed outside. Eventually, it was set free in a nearby pasture.

There are more symbols used here, which I’ll describe in a future post. What a blessing it is to be here–snakes and all.

Father Peter

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Day 5 of Silence

Peter 6

January 31, 2012

Dear ones,

It takes me more time than I like to admit to relax. I’m not talking about the kind you do when you sit in your easy chair in front of the television after a full day of work. No, I manage that form of relaxation reasonably well although nowadays I do it without the aid of a television, which I gave up some time ago.

I’m talking heavy-duty relaxation, the real kind, where, without guilt, you let go of all that vexes you–when you suspend, at least for a while, attention to those ever-present responsibilities and duties which impinge upon your fleeting, yet longed-for peace of mind. I’m talking about doing nothing–not one thing. Imagine!

Well, I’ve been trying. After all, I’m on sabbatical. It has taken me over two weeks to settle into this idea of doing nothing–to wait for it to unfold, to reveal itself to me and show me what to do–to rest in the potentiality of the moment.

And so I wait. I’m taking time to see what is there, to watch and listen to the sights and sounds around me–the clouds lumbering across the sky, the bird song that ascends on a chromatic scale–and the silence. And I keep telling myself that nothing is lost, no time is wasted, that everything is present in the doing of nothing if only I stop, be still, and pay attention to the nothingness.

Peace.

Father Peter

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A Trip to the Village

January 29, 2012

Dear ones,

On Wednesday we walked to the village of Kulitalai, which is next to Shantivanam, to get a tour of several projects that are supported by the ashram.

Our first stop was a home for the aged. It was established many years ago at a time when the restrictions due to the caste system kept people of one caste or faith tradition separate from the other. Father Bede took a very bold step and purchased a house in the middle of the village to provide care and a home for the most vulnerable in the community regardless of their caste or religious tradition.

It has grown over the years, and the residents are provided neat and comfortable quarters that resemble monastic cells. When food is made at the ashram for guests, a portion of the food is delivered to the home three times a day. The monks also provide pastoral care and support to the community.

People in the village must have thought they were being invaded by 29 white people and a big, tall African American man as we made of way down the main street. I’m sure the locals are accustomed to having people come from Shantivanam to do a little shopping now and then–but not 29 people!

Our next visit was to a small collection of weavers, who make saris, the most common form of clothing worn by women in this part of India. Hopefully you’ll notice in the pictures I’m sending that all the equipment used is human powered. There are three looms–all made out of unfinished lumber, rope, wire, and hardware. Notice also the spinning wheel that used to be a bicycle.

The ashram has also constructed many homes in the village–small units by American standards but quite an improvement in living conditions for the locals.

We were welcomed warmly by everyone. Although it wasn’t open on this day, the ashram organizes a medical clinic once a week in the village.

There’s always more to tell. Stay tuned.

Om Shanti.

Father Peter

 

 

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Daily Life at the Ashram

January 27, 2012

Dear ones,

The weather here so far has been comfortably warm with highs in the 80’s and moderate humidity. Evenings are very pleasant, and I’ve even had to sleep with a light blanket the last couple of nights. Mosquitoes are a bit of a bother, especially at dusk; and I’m slowing getting used to tucking my mosquito net in before I go to sleep to keep the little buggers out.

White rice is the main staple here — something I’m also slowing getting used to. We are surrounded by rice fields, but the preferred rice is white. Boy, what I’d do for a big bowl of brown rice. Meals at the ashram are strictly vegetarian although not vegan.

Shantivanam is nestled in a forest of banana and coconut trees; so both fruits are available in some form at almost every meal. The ashram also has cows, which provide fresh milk served at meals. I’m not drinking the milk, but I must confess that I’m drinking chai in the mornings; so this means I’m enjoying a bit of milk with my tea. I’ll have to turn myself in to the detoxification unit when I return to the US.

I’m including pictures of the cookhouse, where all cooking is done, using wood and dried coconut shells for fuel. There’s also a picture of coconut meat drying out in the sun. The meat is used in meals and also made into oil.

I’ll write soon about the rhythm here, the liturgy, and my retreat sessions. Suffice it to say, it has been an enriching and enlivening two weeks in this most sacred place.

Peace be with you all.

Peter†

 

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Women Priests in India

January 24, 2012

Dear ones,

Yesterday we visited Sri Lalita Mahila Samajam and, among other things, got to meet and talk to Mathaji Srividyamba Saraswathi, the head guru of a community of women religious, who run this orphanage and a K-through-12 school. The women performed a special puja for us in the morning, which in the Hindu tradition is done exclusively by male priests. We spent the rest of the day at the ashram interacting with the children. It was amazing!

We were fortunate to have a meeting with Mathaji in the afternoon. One of the pilgrims asked her for advice for life. She said there are five important things we must do:

  • Say prayers regularly from your tradition;
  • Care for your body and do yoga ;
  • Make a connection with God;
  • When things aren’t going well, turn to God;
  • Be of service for those less fortunate than you.

And the people say “Amen.”

There are beautiful statues and pictures of Swami Sivananda around the campus and in the temple, and special homage was paid to him and the lineage during the puja. There’s a great picture of Mathaji and Swamiji, when she was fourteen, the age she was initiated. Swami Sivananda was a true visionary as this is the only ashram of its kind in the world.

There is always more to tell, but it must wait for now.

I hope you are all well.

Om shanti.

Father Peter

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Settling In at the Ashram

Peter 6

January 17, 2012

Dear ones,

We arrived in Trichy after a six-hour overnight train ride from Chennai. The train ride itself was quite magical as if we were mystical travelers tucked into our sleeping compartments, prepared to awaken in some other time and universe. It didn’t take long for me to fall into a deep sleep shortly after leaving the station at 10:00 P.M. Yes, I’m still suffering from jet lag. I awoke about three hours after leaving the train station and spent the rest of my time in a trance-like state, falling in and out of sleep as the train rocked and bumped its way south. In a funny way, I felt a sort of childlike excitement and was unable to sleep as I was anticipating my arrival at Shantivanam.

The train was well used but clean. Some of the more experienced travelers in my group were very happy to find the train in such good order. Evidently, this is not always the case.

The sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and even the feel of the air in India strikes one like an experiential tsunami. Needless to say, there’s a lot to take in, and I’m working hard at being wide eyed and open hearted to it all.

We were picked up at the station by members of the ashram staff and whisked off to a nearby hotel to enjoy some early morning tea and coffee before making our way to Santivanam.

The ashram is an hour away from town and deep into the tropical forest. The grounds are beautiful here, and the buildings are clustered around the new temple consecrated in 2010. It’s stunning! All of the services including morning and evening prayer and Holy Eucharist are done Indian style in a seated position. In other words, everyone including the celebrant is seated cross-legged on the floor during the Eucharist. There are benches against the walls along the edges of the circular Sanctuary for people unable to sit on the floor. The chanting is glorious, sung in English, Tamil (the local language), and Sanskrit. Readings are from the Christian and Hindu traditions.

The food is exceptional; and we eat, as is the custom in most monasteries, in silence while sitting on the floor. Oh, yes, and I’ve been learning how to eat with my hand, my right hand, as using the left is taboo. I’m starting to get the hang of it slowly but surely. Eating utensils are available, but I’ve decided to do as Father Bede did and as the locals do.

Unfortunately, I’ve come down with a nasty cold, but I’m not letting it get me down. Asha is going to have one of the village people make up an herbal remedy that they say will help me. They’re taking very good care of us here.

My cell is comfortable, and I have a private bath, for which I’m grateful. There’s only cold water, but a bucket of hot water will be provided for showering when requested.

Well, I’m off to my afternoon lecture. I miss you all, and you are all in my prayers.

Peace,

Peter†

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I’m in India!

Peter 6

January 15, 2012

Dear ones,

After a long, long airplane flight, we arrived in Chennai just before midnight.

I’m in India! For a brief moment, I had the urge to prostrate myself, paying homage to the Divine Mother for bringing all of us safely to this most holy land, but then I decided it might be wise to get through customs first and then give thanks.

I am among 29 pilgrims who have journeyed from many cities in the U.S. along with a few Canadians as well. There’s even a woman from Santa Monica who, after hearing about our community, can’t wait to “check out the church.”

After an uneventful customs process, our guides, Asha and Russill, whisked us off to a rather luxurious tour bus which was waiting nearby but not before we got a quick lesson on how to make our way assertively through the throngs of people who were at the airport either to greet loved ones or waiting and eager to assist the bleary-eyed travelers.

We have arrived on the first day of a four-day harvest festival, which is somewhat like Thanksgiving in the U.S. It is called Pongal, and while it involves ritual expressions of gratitude for the harvest, it is also an important time for new beginnings — where one takes account of life and circumstances and gets rid of interior and exterior clutter. What a blessed and auspicious way to start my sabbatical, my new beginning. God is good!

We’re staying at the Ideal Beach Resort for a few days to give our bodies a chance to rest and adjust to our speeding through several time zones. We arrived here at 4:00 A.M. yesterday, and I managed to get a few hours sleep before waking up and venturing out and exploring the beauty and wonder of the place. Besides resting, yesterday was spent getting to know my fellow pilgrims and preparing for our month together. With the singing of the ocean breeze and the sound of crashing waves of the Indian Ocean in the background, we chanted and meditated together on the beach as the sun disappeared into the horizon.

Here endeth the first day of my sabbatical. Another new day begins….

 

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