Thursday, August 27, 2015

Accurate, Literal, and (Not) Whatever You Think

Here's a very, very brief primer for "reading" sources in the Indian traditions, particularly texts that were originally composed in Sanskrit. Actually, it's just a series of bullet points but I'm asked these questions so very often that I thought it worth the summary. Forgive the cursory and uncensored language, I mean to help.

I'm often asked about translations of texts in the yoga traditions and which ones to choose. There are dozens of Yogasutra, Bhagavad-Gita, and Upanishad translations. Other works can be more obscure or difficult to find without access to a University library, even in this day and age of interwebbyness. It's difficult for those not trained in the history of scholarship (yes, that's a subject too that requires years of training) to sort through the issues: philological skill (language-comprehension in context and history) and the agenda of the translator are often unclear. You likely don't even know the translators are grappling with these issues and if they aren't grappling, that's a problem.

In general it's not unfair to say to the lay reader that a "boring, dry" scholarly translation is likely a thousand times more reliable than something "poetic" and "readable," or the work of your favorite theologian. Deal with that. There's no easy way into these works and it's generally not worth the 10,000 hours it would take to learn to read them in the original. A little bit of language study would be worth your while with the caveat that a little knowledge is often a dangerous, i.e., misleading thing.  If you've ever studied Sanskrit (or any difficult language) you know that it's time consuming and mostly drudgery.  That's just the price of admission and I'm not kidding about the 10,000 hours either. In the Indian case there are no Sanskrit texts without correlative oral interpretations; commentaries from lineage authorities provide the critical insight into the influential (or not) trends of meaning. Orality trumps written authority in nearly every case, no matter what kind of authority is assigned ---even the immaculate revelatory shruti that is assigned to the Veda. What teachers say is what tradition thinks things mean. Start there. Remember that it is unlikely that any two teachers actually agree. Now for the pointers:

1. ALL (now) written texts presume commentary and appear in the context of historical conversations. No one is right or wrong, only bringing their agendas and making their cases.
2. All commentators maintain the superiority of their interpretation. No one holds an opinion that is just as good as someone else's.
3. Commentators cite selectively to suit their agendas and make a point of not telling you if there are contrary or conflicting points of view unless they mean to denounce them. All writing and argument is dialectic, no one is happy about their opponents' wrongness. Opponents are never right.
4. Commentators aren't interested in being fair to opposing points of view; arguments are straw men filled. Also, just because there is amity and alignment in lineage or the larger circle of tradition does not mean there is agreement: students often deeply disagree with their teachers and just don't tell you: more selective citation and deliberate oversight.
5. Texts are the tip of the iceberg, no matter how much and how little is written. Imagine at least five times as much in terms of content. In a sutra text, the presumption of meaning is the commentator's stock in trade but the presumption of knowledge is exponential to the text. In other words, if you think you can interpret a particular yoga sutra you not only need multiple commentaries (to get a comparative grasp), you need a vast history of ideas that are presumed.
6. Every translation is another layer of interpretation. There are no translations that don't come with agendas. Knowing the translator's agenda is no simple matter so you'd be well-advised to ask. As a matter of course, never read only one translation.
7. Indian philosophy is written by experts for each other. It is technical, insular in composition, and rarely "poetic" OR clear. The more "poetic" the translation, the more likely the translator is skewing it to sound sweet. The judgment is between accurate (this is the sense of meaning) and literal (these are the words), and that is almost always a very difficult call even for professional scholars. You are not professional scholars. But you know that.
8. Last, (eight here for the number of Bhairavas: inside joke, lots of those in texts), there's nothing sacred about any text or idea. "Sacred" means to privilege and that will cause reluctance or reticence to apply your critical awareness. Given how hard it is to interpret (see the previous seven points), you should be careful leaping into meaning (because you're likely full of shit). However, if you take your own interpretation seriously then you're well within your rights because that's what Indian tradition has always done: interpret to suit themselves. If this last point wasn't rife with irony and paradox we will need another and another primer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

As If, You are Free

Freedom in practice usually finds its way to “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

We seek to be free from some perceived imposition and free to act on the basis of choice.  In both cases there is an implicit suggestion of superiority and the consequence of isolation.  Why would we choose to demand our prerogative if we didn’t implicitly mean to demonstrate the superiority of our point of view.  Who holds an opinion they don’t believe to be true?  Our creed is, after all, where we place our heart (from the PIE compound *kerd-dhe; cf., Skt., shraddha) and that is sacred both in the no-fly-zone relationship-sense of permissions and prohibitions and in the ontological-sense of inviolability.   We draw boundaries, enter into agreements, take sides.

The issue is not merely our tacit or undeclared ascendency, but neither are we required us to address the consequence freedoms-expressed have on those who do not share the imperative of conviction.  No one likes to justify much less explain their most deeply held feelings.

Whether sacrality is how we address relationships by establishing meaningful boundaries or declare a certain something to be exceptional, we have come to the brink, to the place where the limits of tolerance meet the impasse of volition and articulation.  Something silencing and clamoring is simultaneously toiling for space in our hearts, whether or not it takes voice.  The sacred is what has made the cut and we believe ---or we want to believe and that might be as much the paradox---that we’ve found an anchor steadfast to the true bitter end, that part of the rope that stays inboard when the rest is released.  Sometimes we discover that that sacred is much more like ourselves: no better than we need to be to carry on, alas without an adamantine covenant that confers irrevocable tenability.  We wish for more no matter what we are receiving: this is part of what religion means, holding us together when we’re quite sure that we don’t.  What does? Who can?

When Arjuna asks Krsna why he comes into the world, Krsna tells him it is for loka-samgraha, to hold the world together or, more literally and so with ironic metaphor to “collect the light.”  (Bhagavadgita, 3.20) Whether or not we are looking to God, we are assuredly looking for light when darkness or occlusion means that we want more than we have collected.   It becomes much more difficult to defend Krsna’s admonitions to consequences he deems unsavory when those include claims to his own sovereign grandeur or the prevention of “miscegenation.”  Why not simply end the war and prevent the unwanted, ummm, mixing.  Terrible advice and unquestionably bad values.  But let us move with those problems rather than ignore them.  Freedom doesn’t include being right, it means the power to contest values in a contested world.  The alternative is compliance, submission, capitulation, or passivism.  The costs of all are unexceptional because they are inescapable.

In the faith (shraddha) that Krsna further purports will sustain us, he doesn’t mean we need to believe in more than we see, much less an invisible or beyond that will somehow come through for us---he is, after all, right there telling Arjuna he is the corporeal presence of that real authority.   Rather, he’s enjoining Arjuna to collect himself, and so to endure, to withstand the world’s viscidity because the world does indeed hold to its nature: why should we expect reality to be less than unfinished: that will have to be enough.  It will be enough, when we come to its terms, not ours.  Theists will dispute this reading of the Bhagavadgita because who wants to hear that even God isn’t entirely sure of what comes next?  We might also reply, who needs a God so committed at once to his own sublimity and yet so willing to condone the world’s miseries?  Is Krsna being instructive, telling Arjuna that this is what he needs to learn?  Or is he as much being mimetic, showing Arjuna what it will take to live in this kind of world?  Stand up, he says, it’s no time for indulging your doubts even if they are by definition a worthy enterprise, the kind of thinking that prevents too much certainty about the worlds’certainties.  You need to act sometimes only as if than rather indulge the cataclysmic authenticity that lamentably describes the world’s facts.

Václav Havel used to say this as if-ness made his life under tyranny bearable.  What doesn’t factor in Arjuna’s moment of certainty is faith in the sense of the belief-in-the-unseen or the delayed (as St. Paul would it have about seeing through a glass darkly and then face to face, 1 Corinthians 3.12ff.)  After all, the facts are right before his eyes and Krsna is directly pointing both at himself and to the world’s constancy.  Go with the evidence and then make your as if decisions.  It’s that constancy that requires putting your heart somewhere: we abide, sometimes to ride out the perpetual storm but more to fathom how it’s always storming.   We might take Aurelius to heart here for much the same point, “Nature equips rational beings with the same powers as herself. Just as nature works on whatever opposes or resists her, giving it a place in the order of things and making it a part of herself, so too can we convert our hindrances into material for our own ends.”

Certainty’s most cherished hope is security, the feeling that we are safe because life’s risks are unrelenting.  Hope can be a mistake.  Who wants to be reminded of that?  Perhaps then there is nothing more to certainty than the inexorable audacity to persevere.  In Arjuna’s case that includes no more loitering.  Acting is believing and belief is neither a mere prompt to act nor crutch upon which we can long lean.  We are free in this tempest’s perpetual disquiet only to countenance or refuse the imperative because there really is no place to hide.   We all live in each other’s worlds however much our exercise of freedom means to sequester us in self-made consecrations, in the fiction of harbors without waves.

When everyone is on the same side, such as it is, we are agreeing upon the difference such differences make.  When is expressing “freedom to” a demand that others comply with your preferred liberties?  When is compulsion the definition of “Church” when we seek to separate your Church from our State?  In America, this is no small potatoes.  Ask the Supreme Court.  And look here for some journalistic reflection:

The State is the Church in many shared human affairs, if by that we mean the principal resource that matches conscience with compliance.  Whatever boundaries we create to delimit or assign responsibility, we protect our humanity by the ways we define such boundaries and mean to impose authority.  There is no statute of limitations for murder.  Our laws demand justice based on shared values and commitments. Our most sacred secular principle secures the necessity to debate the meaning of justice without invoking an irrefragable transcendental authority.  We must be responsible to each other and for our judgments, and especially those who believe they are answering to a higher authority, to their God.  Society means to impose the will of society, so help you God.  Holding out for an authority beyond our reach may be religion’s special claim to Church over State but this also leaves we humans not merely the arbiters but the voices of such supernal jurisdiction.  Maybe Krsna is right, we have met the gods and they are us.  We can be as wrong as he is about a great deal of convicted experience and still retain the ability to make it better.  How’s dem’apples?

Freedom means working within the rules we deem reasonable for all.  And there is no under estimating the tides of history even when the arc of justice does not bend, or at least not without coercion or with the certainty that it will not regress.  We might ask ourselves why it’s so important to learn the lessons of justice because religion makes no promises but to demand that convictions can overwrite history, which includes the possibility of dismissing evidence and ignoring reason.

The irony here should not be lost on us: if we didn’t overwrite our experience of nature and culture we would have no civilization or law, no humanitarian change or ethical evolution, no further consideration but to implement indifferent self-interest.   That does indeed appear to be some persons’ definition of their religion in that Orwellian sense in which recent “Religious Liberty” laws function as justifications for instantiated bigotry: your religious freedom is now a means to deny me what you freely grant yourselves as divinely sanctioned.

Our genes may indeed be selfish to objectives that carefully measure out doses of self-interested altruism, but equally perilous is compassion or forgiveness that ignores the consequences of conviction and the precedents of action.  We are only as free as we are able to endure another’s convictions imposed upon us with all the righteous claims that proffer security and certainty procured.  The world might instead offer us the storm we sail to its bitter end.  It’s the meaning of “bitter” that we must unceasingly reconsider: how is it that last bit of rope, the knot that holds our anchor on board, or another’s amaroidal truth?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Voltaire's Yoga, Durer's Wings, Shiva's Tandava

My teacher once said, 
wearing a familiar unconcealed guile, “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is certainty…”  He paused.  And with a Steven Wright-worthy riposte, “Though I'm sure we can’t be too sure of that.”

Appa made a point of parlaying criticism into actions, often without further comment.  If he was sitting in a chair and I sat at his feet like the dutiful disciple he would calmly put the chair aside and sit beside me. “I can hear you better from here.”  Another time he sighed with just a hint of exasperation and said, “Please get another chair, I don’t feel like sitting on the floor today.”  He was not the sort of “guru” who would tolerate even implicit superiority much less allow me to submit when a much more constructive deference could be implied, one that might even assume the appearance of parity.  There was no parity when it came to my understanding of Hindu lore, Sanskrit or Tamil literature, but Appa loved the gambit: he wanted me to keep up with him when he taught, he wanted me even to surpass his abilities, he wanted to learn, and most of all, not allow me to act as if he were some wisdom-Pez-dispenser.

The sworn enemy of honest erudition is submission, the cowering that accompanies intimidation, questions withheld, and, above all, the inculcated presumption of faultlessness.  Worse is the immunity supplied to “spiritual truths” to guard them from their own disregard of criticism.  That kind of servility is often freely extended because a lazy surrender to the preeminence of tradition is more satisfying than the torment of good thinking.  Thinking, after all, has its limits.  Thank goodness, we might add.  But not because the alternative is some Capital T for Truth.

Religions suffer from the kind of moral and intellectual certitude that follows as much from ideology as it does from irrefragable personal experience.  Who, after all, can tell you that is somehow not your experience?  Certitude is not all brimstone or smug quietist asservation, it has its ironic advocates as well.

We can admire especially those Buddhist philosophers committed to the principle of prasanga, the strategy of logical impasse made doctrine by Candrakirti’s reading of the great Nagarjuna.  The idea is that all argument must ultimately default to a standoff with the limitations of language and logic.  Unless you corral what’s not OK, your ultimacy will end up looking like the rest of us.  “You shall not pass,” to put this in another wizard’s words.  If the redolent treacle of irony does not yet feel like a plate of jellied eels served up on a Southampton damp winter’s day, let the Buddhists’ point be made the clearer.

There’s never an inopportune moment to pause for the didactic Middle Wayer quailing with ineffable glee at Ultimate Truth being empty (sunya) of itself.  You see, if all arguments are merely conventions of agreement (vyavaharika) then anything said about the ultimate (parmartha) truth must also be nothing more than another convention.  Ultimacy is thus safely beyond the boundary of conversations that, by definition, are imprisoned in the morass of ordinary meaning.  There’s no escaping this Donnemora.  Notwithstanding Bhavaviveka’s perspicacious 6th century efforts to establish the independent veracity (svatantrika-satya) of our meager provisional understandings, it is the Scaliaesque temerity of the Prasangikas that carries the ideological day.  It seems not even the most ardent zetetic can withstand the temptation to insulate an ultimate from the limitations of the temporal rumpus that forms our human condition.  Three more cheers for tortured prose in a twisted world.

The alternative is never merely agnostic because that too must take refuge (…saranam gacchami) in not-knowing as knowing.  What we can’t know rarely has meaning unless it serves, once again, the agenda of those who would confer authority on that Unknowable.  To wit, if we can’t know there’s a God then God or, to put this to wrights, “On the other hand, you have different fingers.”  Who said doubt is without a sense of humor?  Arguments about the ineffable are not usually a laugh a minute but they are, like everywhere, walking distance if only you have the time.  Trying to pry a person’s private experience from veracity is much the same as solving traffic problems by expanding the universe.  (N.B., more and more apologies to Steven Wright.)  To Land The Plane: serious self-inquiry can lead to not-knowing but this isn’t the same as certainty, no matter how certain one is that she or he doesn’t know.

A favorite argument for the personal-experience-is-truly-true comes at the opening of Patanjali’s Yogasutra.  After defining yoga as the occlusion of mental processes (1.2) which results in “abiding in the seer’s own form” (1.3), the next verse takes its turn at sealing the deal, “at other times, it takes the form of the movements.”  In effect, he says, if you are doing that abiding-thing in your “own form” (svarupa) then you’re done, no need to read further because you don’t need the further instructions.  You have arrived at Eternity in the form of that Person not-confused-with-mutable-experiences, all befitting the use of Big Letters because Truth.  However, if you’re not as certain as you could be, he demurs then read on, practice on, keep trying ‘cause there is such a thing as finality, a permanent and incontrovertible reality that can be accessed so long as you don’t mistake it for this pesky, afflicted, mercurial world.  Once you know, or even Know, you won’t even need to know that you know.  Must be grand.  This argument is strangely akin to Rudolph Otto’s opening salvo in the redoubtable Das Helige, not a book about the idea of The Holy but simply The Holy.  Here Otto, not merely appealing to the wonder of his own palindromic agnomen, tells us that if we have not had the feeling of what he terms the numinous, this utterly real but ineffable Holiness-Thing, well, we need not read further.  I recall the graduate school seminar when, assigned this book, I declared to the instructor that reading further was not a requirement because how could we know we are sharing the same ineffable experience? Otto’s got plenny on that too but it need not detain us.  All appeals to experience leave us outside each other’s minds anyway.  Getting inside, even with diodes and stuff, won’t tell us if the mind is what the brain does, or if the mind’s experiences are still something else.  What could “something else” be if it isn’t our brains and bodies creating it?  Good luck with that one.

So there can be no decent doubting without admitting that we’re in for a rough ride.  But far worse is certainty, a maudlin numbness much like the experience of flying at 35,000 feet so smoothly you don’t even know your flying at all.  Like Durer's wing, there's no bird in sight.  Brain lag is jet lag’s seat buddy: switch off the experience of change and with it comes a malady that can take days to remedy, maybe even a whole lifetime.  Of course, an alternative life to certainty must admit to Voltaire’s adage about how "life is a shipwreck" with the proviso "but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” Sing loudly and, when you can, in tune.

A lifeboat of certainty’s demurral is disquieting, often confusing, but it need not be distrusting.  Appa proved that everyday.  He invited your trust because you felt safe being vulnerable and welcomed risk as a way of learning.  He was not diffident to people’s needs for spiritual consolation, understanding that so many of us simply require destinations for faith to make it through our daily journeys.  If those destinations are heaven after death ("he's in a better place...") or a God who has mysterious purpose that assures meaning (ask Job about this), he could avow their comfort without assenting to their propositions.  We can’t always get what we want but we get what we need? 

I’m not sure I need to doubt or that I can ever fall in love with uncertainty but I feel reasonably sanguine that it gets my blood moving and always sets my heart 'aflutter.  Love too is something better when it is more interesting than it is unconditional.  Unconditional, after all, is simply our first condition.  I would not like it if the reality of contingent knowledge ---that true things seem true till shown otherwise--- were to suggest that this position is somehow, anyhow, or in any way morally superior.  I loathe feeling too safe and, as much as I like flying without turbulence as the next guy, I think a 21st century “spiritual life” can no longer lay any claim to an undisturbed spirit.  There’s plenty to say here about the concept of tandava, a feature of Shiva’s character we can spend lifetimes reconsidering.  Never has there be a less undisturbed spirit.  And, truth to tell, tandava is only a “dance” if you don't fathom the rage that fuels it.  More on this soon.  Keep Dylan Thomas in mind, just as a preface:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Ah, Shiva's tandava.  There’s a book(s) to be written about that, and more.  If you prefer to abjure the mystifications that can substitute for the harrowing authenticity that comes with inconclusiveness, then I think there is room for more conversation.  Nothing stanches good conversation quite like a that’s-my-opinion show stopper.  Let’s start with a few decorous lies devoted to deeper truths, you know, myths that aren’t just false and certainly never certain.  Tandava for all.  More wing, less prayer.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Got Game?

Game adds something dangerously more to the mix. Game pushes right up to and over the boundary of "fair" and raises the stakes of "cheat." And who ever said life was supposed to be fair was wishing for more than what is, and that's got plenty of game too.

As a kid I liked football a lot, actually managed to letter in high school by sheer dint of determination over talent (since I clearly had not enough talent). What was better than Joe Namath giving the Colts "game" in Super Bowl III (Roman Numbers Make It Seem More Important) and then winning it all? The Babe famously pointing to the fences. Ahhh, Reggie. I confess that the contemporary game of football no longer has interest for me but _gamesmanship_ is an interesting thing. What exactly is game? How does one draw the line between having game and, you know, moral boundaries? When is "cheating" cheating? Oh, and I remember Gaylord Perry's knuckleball too. Krsna at his best, I say. Trash talking is nothing new. Having game is something very, very old. Worth our consideration.

Any honest assessment of the great mythologies of India ---and by extension the ancient Indo-Europeans, like the Norse and Germanic myths---reveals the gods to have plenty of "game." Krsna's got game. Rudra has some serious game. Rama's game is, at least in Valmiki versions, to make playing-the-rules-is-game the game. Lila always trumps Dharma, if by Dharma we mean some sort of eternally applied standard that registers probity and the karmic consequences of behaviors "contrary" to Dharma. Lila means the world has game.

Game is when a situation creates an opportunity to use desire and interest for one's advantage (and _perhaps_ the advantage of others you care about.) Bias is part of everything we prefer or want. And why not? How else to know what it is you care for and about?  Lila puts the world in play and as players we are here to contrive our game, to figure out what game we have (and what we don't, say, my football career).  Lila reminds us that we are played, no matter what kind of players we choose to become.  Krsna too must die in the forest near Mahabharata's conclusion, mistaken as he is  No one gets a pass, not even the best players.

Every living thing in nature seeks its own advantage even when that means, on occasion, working towards the advantage of the larger phenotype (think: bees, ants). Humans may have selected out with aspects of altruism for their advantage, and there is some debate among evolutionary biologists about whether we pursue the collective over the individual. But since Dawkins' groundbreaking The Selfish Gene, the argument has been refocused because we know that pursuing more than selfish interest is a kind of interest. There's nothing special or exceptional about being human except the ways we work our interests---because like all other living things we seek fecundity, fidelity, and our advantage. We have called persons "saints" by virtue of their self-abnegation of their personal interests and we routinely proffer a transcendental exemption to God or gods by virtue of mystery or "higher" purpose. Think Job here. God gets to not play by our rules or meet our expectations, God gets game because God. Humans submit then and don't get the same game. That's pretty common, we'd have to agree.

When students of mine ask how Krsna (in Mahabharata and elsewhere) can be a "god" when he lies, cheats, misleads, rationalizes, seduces, murders, and _games_ the whole story---a friend you want and an enemy you must fear---I ask them why should god be any different than you are? How do we learn about ourselves from a god who is not like us? Drawing the line between gamesmanship and venality is no easy task, and why should it be? Are you puzzled that "cheating" is another human way of securing advantage? Morality doesn't get in the way of having game.  Rather, moral choices are another way of playing, another feature of our game.

Let's repeat the obvious: the gods and/or God (your game here) usually gets a pass. That is, there is the attribution of mystery, divine purpose, higher unknown goals, all ways of taking game from god(s). God is above human games is the usual meme. But not in every case, certainly not in all of these preChristian stories. But maybe, just maybe, gods have some really interesting game. You know, like the rest of us. The current tabloid game involves the money, the power, the industry of the NFL and its role in worldwide entertainment. I've no particular judgments here about the game of football or Mr Brady or the utter absurdity of this affair in light of other matters (he received a longer suspension and fine for gaming than for others in the industry who are spousal abusers?) or it's social "importance." Life is about having game. How you decide the stakes, the costs, the benefits, and the consequences: that is what matters. Choose wisely or have enough game that you can be Krsna. In our modern world that's no small game.

Here's a link to the story that prompted this reply.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Amaurosis Unveiled

In the Tamil language the Lord of Dance Shiva Natarajar is also known as Tillai Kuttan (say "Kuu-tan"). He is described as the "Dancer of the Blinding Forest" because, it is said, that once upon a time a vast mangrove forest enveloped the brackish byways where today stands the great temple city of Chidambaram, deep in south India. The tillai is no ordinary forest grove: its fruit and flowers are dangerously toxic and its circuitous aqueducts a menace to all who accept the forbidding invitation.  But times have indeed changed--- at least in some ways--- and today we enter these same precincts with the gracious aid of the Podhu Diksitar priests, descendants of the original "three thousand," the muvariyavar, brought from the heavens to perform the pujas, the rituals that are daily performed in witness of the Dancer and his beloved Ambal, the goddess Sivakamasundari.

My teacher, Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy, whom I call "Appa," grew up in Chidambaram in the home of Sri Rajaratana Diksitar, where he evolved his life into every aspect of Natarajar's lore. He had experienced first hand the toxicity of the tillai trees and reveled as much in telling the ancient stories of those who dared to enter the glowering darkness to seek out the Dancer's grace.  Nowadays, of course, we seem to enter with such ease, guided and made welcome by the Diksitars.  But Appa also explained that to venture into such a forest is enter the depths of one's heart, and when you go there, to love with all your heart you must put your heart at risk. Such a place can never be entirely safe because for all the ways in which love provides every reason to live, love also puts everything in peril.  How could it be otherwise?

The chalk notice written in Tamil that you see at the top of the page appeared inside the temple of Sri Natarajar this past January.  It announces a small gift of sugar cane and turmeric root made to each of the Podhu Diksitar families, the Priests of the Sabanayaka Temple, that they might come and collect in celebration of the holiday of Pongal.  The gift was made in the name of Dr. Sundarmoorthy but those of you who were there know that you made this possible because it was you who ventured this time into the forest, you who took the risk to enter the place where the heart puts everything before the Dancer.  Thank you for this gift and for your gracious hearts.

The words below are assembled from my notebooks as Appa described Tillai Kuttan and our journey into his forest. There are many more such journeys ahead.

Tillai Kuttan, The Forest Dancer

Enter the Blinding Forest of the Tillai at your peril,
Where the Lord of Dance performs his Tandavas, and
Sages Descend as Grace to drink the Tiger’s Milk, with
Three Thousand Born to Serve.
Dare but do not touch the milky mangrove,
For your skin will burn and blister, amaurois too and
smoke that poisons when leaves are long since dried.
But choose to chance it all and gamble with the dice,
as did he and his beloved,
And perhaps you will also see the Dance of Tillai Kuttan,
find healing to cureless love and refuge in life’s artistry,
Beneath the golden roof within the Hall of Consciousness.

----assembled and rendered from the words of Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoothy

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Gratitude of Understanding a Spiritual Life: A Thanksgiving Sermon for the Choir

Happy Thanksgiving, dear pals! 
What a strange and curious holiday this is as we Americans give thanks for our blessings havingcome here as illegal immigrants greeted warmly by the native folk. It's fascinating what we have done since. The ironies can go further unnoticed, of course, but who could resist? Most of the people going to work today either perform truly important services for the public good or work in commerce for wages that they cannot afford to pass by. We have in America a "right to work" (read: can't make a living by taking a holiday) and apparently a right to shop. I preach to the choir here, which means you've already read too far for me to apologize.
Let me make a point about something that goes to the heart of yoga traditions and to our conversations that extend beyond the usual how-do-you-do-sricakra puja whatever yo. From the outset Indian philosophers and commentators on the ritual life have privileged efforts of understanding and explanation. These are understood as empowerments, not mere exercises in thinking.  When you understand and can explain, more can happen: more meaning, more progress, richer life. These are contrasted and often rejected (vilified is not too strong a word) by those who maintain there that a direct, intuitive experience that defies and does not mandate an explanation or rational portrayal of events. Yes, India has plenty of mystical anti-intellectualism, the favored position of far too many, if only because it's uninterested by definition, or to put it more bluntly, a cop out and an excuse not to think because...religion. Not that I have an opinion about such matters.
The only thing less interesting than claims of ineffability and beyond-understanding are claims to Oneness, which are really just another way of saying you don't want to talk about the world that you experience on a daily basis but prefer instead to assert an experience of exceptionalism. Checking into Oneness is, by definition, checking out of the complexities and sufferings of the conditional world. Oneness never means that we share a common humanity, which is what we might want it to mean (please oh please), rather it means we don't have to: that's precisely the gist of arguments made by the Oneness-philosophers. References abundant upon request. Please feel free however to check into the mystic Oneness that checks you out, if that's what suits you. Diversity is a good thing, unless you think it's all One. I have expressed a dim view of that but who knows, from the mystic's point of view I'm the one who is dim. My point is that we might just as well prefer the world we experience with all its glorious limitations and boundaries imposed upon our provisional knowledge, which is the one we can talk about.
Understanding experiences is not the same thing as declaring that experience is rational. Hardly. Note our efforts here and elsewhere to understand events in Ferguson, Missouri and the genuinely tragic, tortured American history of slavery and race relations. We mean to understand and even try to explain why people are acting as they are, not to endorse or condone, not to reason or explain away but rather to comprehend and to feel more. Thinking has always been a form of feeling in Indian thought, this is why the "subtle body" (manas, ahamkara, buddhi) belong to the material (prakrti) part of the equation. We feel-and-think: this is an important way to understand the word "manas," which means something like mind-and-heart. Now in Indian thought to explain and to understand is not to justify behavior. It is to fathom, to comprehend in ways that draw thought into feelings and our feelings more deeply into our thoughts. It is in fact to do yoga, to engage deeply and to integrate however it is possible the expanse of comprehensive Self that is embodied physicality into the mental autobiographical experiences of consciousness.
This task is not considered optional by the more interesting philosophers unless you are happy to buy into mystical bypassing. Yeah, I said that. Mystical bypassing is the refusal to admit that our limited process of understanding is our ultimacy.  Or to put this differently, it's the claim that we must admit more than our human limitation to find the "true" spiritual life.  It favors instead a "please pass go" and "collect on the 'pure' experience" of [fill in the blank with your favorite "spiritual" claim of beyondyness.] Don't mistake me we all loves some mystical bypassing and some folks simply need it to get through the horrors and ordinary indiginities of being human. There is also the implication that we as individuals are solely responsible for our behaviors just as we are capable of changing hearts but one at a time. But there is an alternative: creating explanations is another way you can arrive at a spiritual life---ask Krsna about this when you open the Gita and find that Arjuna is bypassing his duty, asks for renunciation, looks to abjure the world in favor of some alternative mystical plot, and can't fathom wtf he is doing. Krsna then _explains_ that he has to do far better than that. But importantly it is the explanation along with the instructions for practices that are the keys to a greater yoga, a deeper engagement. 
When you can explain something you don't reduce it to reason, rather you make it available to understanding. Could our current situation in the news provide better examples? When you can put it into a context of understanding then you can act, discern what is knowledge (and what is not), and so commit (translate that: karma, jnana, and bhakti). Without the explanation you end up in a puddle in the chariot with the bow slipping from your hand, having a meltdown. In America the effective response is to make everything we humans do an individual choice, an individual responsibility, and individual incidents, thus preventing any understanding that there are deep, ancient feelings, there are realities of society and history, there are rich fields of explanation that help us understand that we are created by worlds greater than ourselves. Without trying to understand can become the mystic (there is no need, it's all beyond) or simply one who fails to appreciate that a good explanation, however unsatisfying or even unsatisfactory, is the beginning rather than the end of a spiritual life. Happy Thanksgiving!