Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Creating Collisions of Value

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie.

—-W.H. Auden


W. H. Auden discovered his calling when, at the age of 15, a classmate asked him if he’d considered writing poetry. By the age of 23 his Poems had won him acclaim well-deserved. I first came upon Auden’s work as a young man when in India I encountered the translations and interpretations of the sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa through the work of Christopher Isherwood. I was not only looking for sagely wisdom from the modern Bengali sant, I was in search of searchers.


I needed to know who had come before me, what they had found, and how they’d brought their encounters with India into their personal lives. Isherwood, I soon discovered, was a complicated person and when I found out a bit about his relationship with Auden, well, one thing led to another. Auden was not interested in India’s spiritualities but his voice pierced my soul.

During the time Auden collaborated on plays with Isherwood in the 1930s, the young poet began a complex journey involving politics, love, and a relentless pursuit of the soul. When in 1947 he won the Pulitzer for his long form poem The Age of Anxiety, Auden established himself as a voice of the age. The war was over but the depths of anxiety were only beginning to emerge in a world threatened by the price of nuclear victory and harrowing revelations of the evil made manifest during the Holocaust. What human beings could do to one another brought into painful focus the deep conflicts that reside in every soul. Anxiety might not be only another feature of our experience: it is the soul’s light casting shadow as a constant companion. And what might we do about that?


During this same time in my own India journey reading about Ramakrishna ad then Isherwood and Auden, my studies of Jung were deeply connecting, I felt like what these sages, storytellers, and poets were offering was the primary resource, the well-spring from which Jung was developing his theories of analysis. This provided my first collision with Jung’s notion of colliding.


What makes us grow, Jung says, is bringing our ego in collisions, that is, into troubles, anxiety, sorrow, even suffering. Now it’s important to understand that the ego is not itself a problem, at least not necessarily. In contrast to some readings in India where ego is nothing less than the problem to be solved or even eliminated, for Jung the ego focuses human consciousness and is rooted in the unconcious.


Without a strong ego we cannot obtain or transform the content of our inner experience and a weak ego will succumb to mere impulse and reaction. Thus while the ego can be selfishness, it can also be the source of altruism—ego as such is morally neutral and is better construed in terms of how we create agency. Engaging ego-consciousness is a key to creating purpose and direction and, importantly, we are free to choose and make choices because our ego can learn and we can move with, through, even past the powers of mere impulse and emotional reaction.

Sometimes we need to hold our egos in check because it’s freedom is limited, we’re so eaily and profoundly moved both by internal events and what the world is offering up. In his Aion, Jung told us that the ego “is not a simple or elementary factor, but a complex one…which cannot be described exhaustively.” He is telling us here that we are somatic, physical beings and psychic ones and that these are commingled, integrated complexities: what we feel in our bodies and conjure in our minds are coextensive. The ego is body-based insofar as it experiences itself through the body but it is as much the case that the body that the ego expriences is psychic: we are body imagers, not just bodies.


To develop a closer and more empowering connection with our selves we are going to have to learn how to engage with our ego collisions. Those experiences are going to happen, there’s no avoiding our inner conflicts, anxieties, and sorrows. But we’re going to have to take great care because the word is collision and that can be problematic, even catastrophic in terms of inner turmoil. An important strategy is to invest in creative potential, taking up modalities of inner expression that give us purpose and meaning. You might paint, do your yoga practice, write in a journal but you gotta get in to get out.


When we study mythologies together we enter into cultural virtuosities creating structures, symbols, and modalities of self reflection that can give voice and invite participation—-the collisions we are experiencing can be brought into images and framed in ways that allow us to deal with the difficult work. Myths are hard to understand but one of their great purposes is to soften the blow, make accessible the harder truths despite the fact that they themselves can be difficult to penetrate. When we can dismiss as so much fairy tale or flummery we are using it to protect us from its more challenging messages. But when we take the time, learn together, and put the myth into a context of healthy conversation, then the collisions become opportunities, we deflect less and engage more.


It can feel “demanding” when we try to make meaning out of mythology but what we now know is that we are dealing with collisions. How could it be otherwise? Best not to go it alone, like I said. Best to bring along sages and storytellers and poets who can provide the resource and the insight. To develop our own, best to make the effort in safe company.

Here’s a bit more from what I wrote about this morning.

We must not lose our voices, resign or relinquish, forsake or surrender. Stay in the conversation and allow, even create what Jung called “collisions.” We collide when the world and our inner self find incongruity, discomfort, impediments or vexations. Our natural tendency is to retreat, allow the withdrawal to bury the experience.


When we can’t “collide” then our circumvention turns this shadow experiences into latent resentments and painful, undisclosed feelings. We usually try to camoufloge and disguise further, dissemble, stifle, and duck. Next thing you know we’re acting out and we don’t know why and it all compiles. So what can we do? We have to unfold the folded lie, as Auden puts it. We have to give permission for the collision and be kind enough, gentle enough, committed enough not wreck ourselves.

There isn’t only one way to lift those shrouded curtains of the soul but it’s not going to be easy because seeing yourself isn’t easy. The power of storytelling, mythic symbolism, and thoughtful contemplation can shelter and at the same time encourage disclosure.


We don’t have to lay ourselves bear, exposed and unprotected to address the inner collisions. But when we commit to the endowments of human genius in the cultural grace of the story, we can learn how to release and unwrap the inner narratives. Myths conceal themselves behind veils of truth so that the anxious unknown becomes less daunting, so we can enter into a more delivering, exonerating conversation with the self. The undiscovered territory is you.


This week we begin again our studies of the mythic possibilities: Thursday with poems and songs to Goddess Kali, Saturday with a fresh, innovative look at Krsna stories, and Sunday in the greatest tale ever told again and again: Mahabharata. You can find the Zoom links in your Newsletters But I’ll put them here too. Come if you can. We’ll make some safe collision, play inner bumper cars with the self in the cherished company of friends. Don’t try too many collisions all by your lonesome. Best to keep good company because you will become the company you keep. See you soon.


Tuesday, January 3, 2023

A Story in the News, Rajanaka, the Past and Future of Yoga

"I read the news today, oh boy...and... the news was rather sad..."

As you know I've only had a peripheral connection over these many years with the "yoga world." The person mentioned in this NPR story cited below was not known to me, personally or otherwise. I am sad for her family, her friends, her students, for her. She died of a pulmonary embolism. I know that can happen to anyone because I too have lost friends suddenly this way. I have nothing more to say about this particular case and person. In a world in which love can be measured in grief, the depths of grief are unfathomable. 
May love find more to measure even if it too is unfathomable.

My reason to write is to comment about this well-known yoga teacher's involvement in conspiracy theories, QAnon, vaccine-denial, and the rest that has caused us all so much pain and confusion.

I have heard, again all second hand, that the conspirators are rampant in the yoga world.  In the article Matthew Remski makes the point that it's not uncommon with the "find your own truth" crowd. (For the record I have always had a wonderful, genial relationship with Matthew who came once to a seminar.  I hold his work in warm regard.)

Ironically, historical yoga philosophers (at least the ones writing in Sanskrit) have never been about finding "your own" truth. That would be a terrible misreading of their claims. Rather, their aim is usually about bringing you to experience *their* versions of truth, especially their conclusions (siddhanta) and dogmas. This is true of Hindus and Buddhists (and Jainas, etc) alike. The goals are undoubtedly personal and experiential but they are decidedly not yours---these are constructed as arguments of persuasion "verified" personally in experience.

This is an important distinction becasue this renders Rajanaka (n.b., Rajanaka simply means what Appa taught me) once again entirely outside the mainstream of these traditions.  Rajanaka is obliged to yoga traditions by sharing resources---mythologies, queries and questions, ideas and values along with practices.  But Rajanaka has no siddhanta as such, it is more method than goal, and I suppose we should say that it aligns itself more closely with the methods of scientific truth-seeking and tasks rooted in shared, empircal learning aka academics.

A Rajanaka critic once said to me that "this makes Rajanaka just another strategy of secular humanism." I offer no objection to this characterization. Rajanaka loves Hindu lore, the history of religions, the artistry and passion of the Indian tradition in all its forms---and all forms of serious learning and artistry, in all culture and history. We are seekers of a shared humanity, of human achievements, the imagination and the power of creativity in fostering a life of values, tolerance, integrity. We're here to learn and converse about things we think are compelling and important because they contribute to shared concerns.

Appa made this point with me on day one: we are here to learn, to take processes of inquiry seriously, to ask better questions and understand how "truth" is a process, provisional, empirical, experimenting with facts. We are learning about ourselves, about the world as we have been made and as we make it.  It's called a Vidya---the word is cognate to the English "verify" or "verification"---he said, because Rajanaka really is like science, knowledge refers to  hat we verify using our senses and minds, in reason and in shared empirical studies: our learning is not perfect, just the best we can do in learning.

As most academics would likely put it the problem with conspiracies is not unlike the problem with "finding your own truth." This is not a serious way to learn. "Seriousness" is something of a technical term to us: it implies methodologies and the pursuit of shared learning. Those not trained academically, skeptical or hostile to academic methods may not fully appreciate the effort placed on "seriousness."

But let me be clear with you good folks: Rajanaka loves seriousness and has little use for conspiracies or the nonsense that passes these days as "truth." Reducing to "your own truth" is a slippery slope to foolish solipsism and, worse, a kind of stochastic nihilism. That's a fancy way of saying that you think your own opinions (whenever you are thinking or feeling them) are not merely valid but sound, important, true because you say or believe them to be. This is a kind of subjectivism that can be dangerous but it is certainly the opposite of "serious."   All experience claims made in good faith are valid but not all qualify as sound.  We observe this important distinction.

I would be happy to explain the distinction further but I think this can suffice for now. The link between Trumpist conspiracy/QAnon nonsense and yoga worlds in this "personal truth" creates a swift path to stochastic nihilism. In no time things are true because you say them, feel them, believe them---and more likely because you hear them and follow along.

The whole point of "seriousness" as the alternative is to learn how to think critically, read closely, and write argumentatively. This is my mantra to undergraduates; this is what we are learning to do. It is precisely the same in Rajanaka. I am not here to teach you what to think. I am here to help you learn how to think.

Thinking is no small matter. It requires information and methods to sort out misinformation and disinformation. When Rajanaka disagrees or rejects or criticizes yoga traditions (or religions) it does so using historical facts and sources. Our aim to point out the process of argument that is implied or stated. "Argument" is another misunderstood term (like "seriousness"). 

Argument is how we conduct rational discourse, it is not a quarrel as such. We ask what are the assumptions, evidence, reasons, and conclusions drawn. It is the very process of learning itself. Rajanaka makes no religious arguments because religions begin with the notion that their conclusions, like their assumptions, are beyond disproof. More correctly, there are matters we believe withstand the critical method and so deem true and thus what remains isn't skepticism but the persistence of method. What could be disproven remains even if we are reasonably sure we have arrived at a fair and honest provision, a truth as such. 

Rajanaka takes this stance common to scientific and indeed to all historical critical method: we are vigilant in the pursuit of facts sharable because we share methods. Some religions, like certain elements of modern Buddhism, claim not to function like religions (where assumptions and conclusions are theoretically disprovable). But I've yet to find such a Buddhist like our pal the Dalai Lama who didn't subscribe to non-empirical, non-verifiable (by method) claims.

Some such claims are clearly not in the least dangerous to the common wield. In other words, there's lots about religious claims that don't do damage, even things that are downright helpful. Like "be a good person" or "be compassionate" for which there may be little argument to sustain the case. We're not reducing the world to argument, only looking for ways to have a sensible conversation about what makes us human.

I study religions professionally not because what they teach is "true" but because I seek truths. Truth is what happens when you share in a conversation that takes facts seriously, that enjoins human achievement to human fallibility and flaw. Truth depends on asking better questions, learning to formulate argument and attend to what is serious--and that too is a learning process.

Conspiracy is hearsay, gossip, nonsense, repeated as if it were true but without the processes of serious or honest learning. That's where Rajanaka stands, if you wanted to know. We are serious about learning and we mean to study yoga to engage life as fully engaged human beings. Serious learning can be soulful though it need not be, it doesn't have to be. What I mean by that is we can ask "how does this really matter to me or change the world or effect life." How does what I learn create purpose, meaning, and value in my life?

Truth isn't necessarily about relevance or application but it can be. Art can move us and shape us and change us and reveal things in our hearts we know, we feel, that are true. Sometimes the facts alone don't suffice. But they are never not the facts. So it's no small matter. The "what" is not the "so what." Understanding that distinction is helpful to having further serious conversations. "Serious" doesn't mean un-fun or boring. But it does ask more from you than your "own truth."

Cited article:

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Appa Tells Us About Love and Loyalty

 An Appa Story Notebook dated 1985

One day I took a rickshaw home to Sumeru from the city because it was raining really hard. I negotiated the fee with the driver amiably taking into account the hardship and he was eager for the fare. I was carrying a huge bundle of fruit and stuff, otherwise I'da' walked.

Anyways we get home and the rickshaw driver demands an unusually high fee. I pay him what we agreed and added some but not all of his (genuinely unfair) demand. He shouted an obscenity at me in Tamil and this brought Appa from the house. He was irate that such language be used at his doorstep, in front of his mother and children. He then said to the fellow, "How dare you speak to that man with such lanugage. Do you know who he is?" And I was, well, nobody really, just a guy in his 20s living in India. When the rickshaw fellow used bad language towards Appa I came running out of the house in a rage befitting Bhairava and his dog. Appa turned abruptly to me and pointed to the third floor. He was arguing vociferously with this fellow but turned to me in his usual wonderful eerily calm voice: "Go into the house." I could do nothing else.

Later we had a bit of a talk about the incident and I apologized for the matter wholly. He assured me that I did the right thing. "If we let him cheat you then he will cheat anyone. And he will cheat more vulnerable foreigners. No one should be cheated. You already paid him much more than the fare. You did the right thing because you can afford that, it is a generous act. But how he behaved we may not excuse so easily." This was all very Appa.

But then he made me cry, 'cause I could not help it. He wanted to make a point, so he told a story. He said, "You love me and want to protect me too. I know you are loyal to me and I am loyal to you. Do you know why? Loyalty is a true friend to love but they are companions and they are not the same. Love is Varuna, who is Sovereign. But loyalty is like Mitra, the Friend who is always at his side. Mitra knows that loyalty is always being challenged, not like their love. Now, this is not a bad thing. Loyalty is something that will be tested and because it is earned and then it is re-earned; loyalty never turns an eye from the truth. That is why Lord Varuna keeps Mitra so close. He loves him but he welcomes these test. They have earned each others' hard won loyalties. Their love, well, that they can't help."

I sad and worried for those whose loyalty is blind, whether it is gurus or politics or whatever it is. Loyalty is best with your eyes open. You can close your eyes sometimes when you're in love. That can feel right too.

Friday, April 8, 2022

How We Learned Together

These are the weeks in April when I celebrate my teacher’s birthday, remember his teaching, rejoice in his life, and grieve his passing.  I’ve tried over the years to describe what it was like learning with him.  Today I was reviewing some very old notebooks, more like log books of times spent in India with Appa.  This transcribed passage is from my 22 year old self, dated April 1978:

There is nothing to prove, nothing even on offer.  It is simply here.  If you want *it* you will have to notice it and its value.  If you want it you will have to understand how to get it.  If you expect anything from the teacher other than what he does  you have not yet understood the opportunity.  There is nothing  for sale though he may make the opportunity appear.  If you don’t understand  all of the terms under which all of this happens that too is not going to be explained.  You are going to have to figure out what you want and then figure out how it is being offered because it is not being offered.  it is simply being done.

We might think when people do something or make something that their work will also somehow be on offer.  The work might be for sale or for hire, or it might even be for free because that too can appear to be the offer.

We want to know the terms, the cost, the effort and time it will take: we want to know if the offering is something worth it to us.   It only seems normal: we want to know what we might be getting and getting into, and likely have all sorts of questions about the offering and the offer.

When I encountered my teacher it seemed to me at first that what he had chosen to do with his life and what he accomplished was somehow on offer.  He had studied, he had credentials, experience, and a long history of engagement with his work.  What would I have to say to receive or do to acquire that ?

He never once asked for terms nor did he set conditions or a price, not even after I gathered the courage to ask him to teach me about his work.


He wasn’t offering something of great value for “free.”  Every moment of life is one less moment we have to live and from mere respect for time we should consider seriously questions of value.  He did not put a price on his time or his work but did make himself available.  How do you pay for someone’s true experience or repay a debt that seems beyond any measurable compensation?


It’s not wrong or wrong-headed to consider monetary value on value received.  In fact, it seems to me wrong to think that we would not somehow try to make compensation, offer some kind of remuneration.  If none is suggested, none asked for, that doesn’t mean the work is “free” any more than we are freed from the notion of just rewards or offerings.  Things of value can have a price no matter who decides it.  If we are not prepared or willing or can’t pay that price then that is merely another life circumstance.


When I started my journey all I knew is that my curiosities had somehow brought me to a complex body of images and suggestions, into words and ideas where one thing had led to another.  There was history, a subject and in fact many subjects, there was learning and clearly a process of acquiring skills and understandings.


Any of these endeavors would take time and involve remaining a person in the world with responsibilities and ordinary costs of living.  None of those matters were ever going to simply disappear---that is not my good fortune.  But what relationship we can we create between what we long to learn, who we want to be, and making a living in a world that promises us none?

I didn’t have a plan or a goal because I didn’t even know what it was that I had found.  I felt confident that what appeared seemed only the very tip of an iceberg and that the iceberg was unfathomably vast and genuinely beyond my abilities to fathom.  The subject involved complex ideas, implied arguments and materials that even at the surface level appeared exotic, unfamiliar, and labyrinthine.  I had no idea if these pursuits really were worth the time and whatever efforts they might entail.


I remember as a kid having heard in school that Albert Einstein had important theories.  So, I went to the library to get my hands on his work, copies of the original documents.  How better to learn?  Of course what I found was so utterly beyond my comprehension that I had to reconsider, well, everything  I thought I was trying to do.  Things worth doing are not only likely hard to learn but may well leave us wondering how even to start.  It wasn’t only what Einstein apparently knew, I couldn’t fathom what he was doing much less how he learned it.  Of course, he went to school, he had teachers, he applied himself.  This too seemed to be on offer if one has the curiosity, the aptitude, the commitment to the work.

But with respect to my teacher’s work, that can only partially be learned from things on offer because of the simple and practical fact that he worked as a University professor.  If I enrolled in his classes he was contracted and obliged to offer precisely what was expected.  I soon learned that his professional offerings were only fragments of what he had done but not what he could do, much less what he was doing.  What he offered as a “professional” was only a fragment of who he was and what might be learned.


What my teacher might teach if only I knew how to learn was never for sale and never went “on sale.”  What you might learn or receive from him was somehow available if you first understood those facts.


“It isn’t that what we might do together is intellectual or “spiritual” that matters about the work.  Nothing should cause us to believe our work is different from any other endeavor.  I might be making pottery or building furniture.  What would it matter?  What there is to do in life and how we choose to do, that may not have anything to do with one’s job.   One is somehow curious and interested in the work or not.  What is “produced” might be sold and those sales may provide a living.  One’s work as one’s artistry, can do many of the same things as any job and there is nothing wrong with having a job, making offerings or sales.  Some of the skills I have learned help provide my living.  Of course, people must find ways to sustain themselves.  But if someone wants to learn what I have learned there is no need for me to make an offer, though it might be available to learn.  My job, my profession, that is only a portion of myself, as it is for anyone.  Why should I want something from you that you have not asked of me?”


My teacher never said “this is what I do, this is who I am, would you like to learn this.”  He didn’t even imply as much.  He never spoke about the value of his work in his own experience, much less how others might benefit from it.  He expressed no attitude regarding accomplishment or objectives; there was no suggestion of profit, advancement, or gain.

When I asked him why he did his work he said it had come to him first as something curious, that it had somehow called to him and turned into a way of life.   He was now just doing his work.
Is it important?  Perhaps not to the world, he said.
Is it valuable?  So long as we try to avoid particular harm to the world then we should be free to live as we choose.
You don’t sell your work?  I make a living from work I do.  



What I eventually came to realize is that I would have to learn how to ask for what was never being offered until I could ask for it.  At that point, the “offering” was commensurate to commitment and a process of learning how to ask the next question, about what seemed to be the next thing in the learning process.



Among my first lucky stumblings I came upon a quotation that said three-fourths of everything remains hidden, unknown, or unseen.  There were few clues to explain further the value or the purpose of the pursuit.  I had curiosity, even romance and mystery but that I realized was all of my own making---the clues uncovered expressed no particular interest in creating any interest.  There was no pitch, no seduction, no vending, no deal to be made, no demands, and nothing to market.  This situation was never less true so the very idea of something being on offer was actually never the case.  There was no interest expressed in eliciting my interest or anyone else’s.


If my teacher’s work were completely private, if no one had ever noticed or asked, I am confident that it would have made little difference to him.  If no one came along to carry forward his traditions of learning---what he knew was clearly passed through a process of learning---he wasn’t going to be concerned.  He felt no need to carry forward, spread, or advance any agenda.

He wasn’t doing his work so that others would profit from it though, he conceded when pressed, they might well find it meaningful and worthwhile.  After all, he did and that suggested others’ too might find it worthwhile.  That may sound selfish or self-preoccupied because there is no expressed motive of altruism or service to community but neither did he ask or expect benefit, reward, or acclaim.  If there was inspiration, influence, or an evocative muse, none was deliberate, none was being implied.  Once we engaged together in learning there were no obligations, no incentives, nothing expected.


So what happened was this: I found a person I had reason to believe knew something about matters of real curiosity to me.  I went to ask him a bit about what he knew and if he would teach me.  He respectfully listened, gave me his time, and at the end of our first “interview” he said that he would be here, at his desk, in this place tomorrow at certain hours.  Could I come to see him?  His affirmation was in his smile.  He wasn’t cold, haughty, or indifferent but neither was he particularly more inviting.  He was being himself, doing his work, and I could come or not.  This arrangement, as it were, was never made more complex or conditional.


It soon became clear that our relationship was entire, meaning that so long as I “showed up” he too would “show up” with all of his gifts and abilities.  I would ask for things and then be assigned tasks that would be in pursuit of those requests.  He never graded or evaluated.  Each day he would express or suggest things that were clearly in furtherance of my curiosities and the queries I was able to make. I was never praised or cajoled, never admonished or approved.  We simply continued our process day after day.  I never asked for “input” nor did I receive any assessments or valuations.  I was learning how to learn when there was nothing being offered or sold, no bargain, no requirements, no obligations. 


I once asked him, while living in his house, what we would do if I did not come that day to learn together.  He said, “I hope we would at least have lunch” and he laughed a little.










Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Liberated from Liberation

Live long and prosper. I went to India hungry for an awakening that would relieve me of the burdens of everyday existence. Despite falling in love with Hesse's percipient critique of the Buddha in his parallel voice as Siddhartha, I still wanted the some supernal conclusion. I did not fathom yet the Ferryman's river because I wanted something more, something that would save me from the world and from myself.

As a complement and very much an alternative to the Buddhists, I had come across the great Sankara. Here, in the nearly impenetrable prose of formal Sanskrit argument, was what I thought the cathartic release.
Sankara shamelessly told us that this vale of tears is the result of a cosmic malaise, a false super imposition of mistaken identities---like a rope for a snake, called adhyasa---and the result of our individuated ignorance made apparently manifest by karma, also a construct of mis- identifications, which shrouds us in falsity. When I met Appa, barely 20 years old, I came prepared with a thorough, memorized to the last run on sentence, appeal to Sankara's catursutri (the "four sutra'') that opens his commentary on the Brahmasutra. I didn't think myself clever or certain. Far from it. I wanted to meet someone who would make the advaitin argument come alive, someone who had lived the meaning of Sankara's exposition. I wanted the One so that I could put an end to the falsity of Many.

In our first meeting, or maybe our second, I said as much to Dr. Sundaramoorthy, who in typical form sat quietly and listened to the pedantic musings of a twenty year old seeker. My heart was in it and my head was wrapped around the best translations of the original text (in those days, Thibaut, Swami Gambirananda, and these are still in my opinion quite competent and accurate efforts.) Oneness promised that our original state was free of the limitations and conditions of our mortal coil. Oneness promised that we didn't need heaven anymore than we needed consolation or care for our otherwise certain sufferings. I wanted
that. Appa agreed to explain at any length Sankara's ideas and how his incontrovertible claim of "direct experience" (anubhava) would deliver its promised aim. I would be delivered from the world, I thought. And he made good. I had barely any Sanskrit but Appa, patiently, deliberately, in sentence by sentence exegesis pulled the text apart. He was charitable to its argument, serious in taking Sankara seriously, and he was generous to consider both the argument and my puerile line of questions. Over about a month of daily meetings, not long after we met, Appa provided more than a perspicacious scholarly rendering of Sankara's meanings, he spoke with heart about what this revered philosopher wanted from life. When we concluded, I thought to myself, this man has realized Sankara's Oneness and if only I could be as rich in soul, I too could come to such a liberation. Then in subsequent weeks Appa just as meticulously, just as soulfully began to unravel the great one's case. As he sorted it out I first paused---could he mean to be saying that the Oneness promise was itself the problem? Not the solution but the problem precisely because it is expresses the hope that life could be about something other than this vale of tears? And what did Oneness tell us of life's small joys? Of our loves and relationships of care and concern when Sankara insisted, without compromise, that the awakened realized life was nothing like the taunting, dangerous, problematic twists and turns of embodied existence? Appa wasn't about to discredit the great Non-dualist. But neither was he going to conceal his own alternative vision, a vision that could not be more diametrically opposed to the Liberationists---and by that he meant all of those who insisted everyday is but bondage and that liberation is liberation from those experiences. Whatever the promise of freedom-to, our freedom-from was to be complete, at least in their view. Appa, over the course of the next month, did something I could not have even imagined. He liberated me from liberation. Life, he suggested, with all its outrage and capricious misfortune, with lila we love and lila that dismantles every claim to relief, leaves us to revel not in a certain absolutism, a liberation. Oneness poses no ultimate answer and raises no important questions. Rather we are invited to sustain ourselves in the face of an unrelenting world in which every illumination not only reveals more in the shadows but creates more too.

Alas, the more brightly we burn, the more shadow we cast. Whatever else comes through the veils of awakening, we are as mortal beings meant to live in the mortal world for all that life might present. Appa had redefined yoga as a pursuit of gratitude for the life we have received. He wasn't saying we should be grateful for the hurt or the suffering as such, only that we who dare to love will be chastened by all that love entails.

Should we care for each other, should we love even more deeply then surely will come face to face with grief---and should we be blessed to live long and to prosper some too, we will have to learn how to live with ourselves when grief becomes love's brightest illumination. I have been lucky to love as Appa describes. It is how I still love him. It is how I have come to love so many who I will never see again in this life, whose absence I feel in every breath, whose presence I sustain in heart and memory but who I miss desperately. Sometimes I have to reach into the pain of loss more deeply, not to find a deeper joy but to recognize that the pain is how love's alchemy will change us again. I'm sure you too have a long list of those losses---the people who have meant so much and, well, the regrets, disappointments, failures, and lapses that you know are yours. Whatever else is true, you know what you have done.
To live with ourselves is the hardest thing we do when we dare to consider these shadows real. We may not see them, for they are too hidden, and we may not learn from them because that is never easy. But to engage a life lived, that is what we call yoga, for all that a life can bring and all that we do and have done. The array of emotions we feel and the deeds we do to offer up better, such efforts are never easy. We have to face what we cannot control and there's no take backs, no do overs: we can look back but never go back, and the path is forward. That path does not lead to some liberation that frees us and neither does it offer any final repose, at least if you ask me. There's no heaven, no God to forgive you, no judgments but those we render upon ourselves and are rendered. You may say that we should not judge but rather merely receive, accept, repent. But that too is its own judgment of what a life could be. We're never not judging when we are still in our wits, no matter how we might hope that others don't judge too harshly or that some Almighty might do for us what we cannot. Like anyone hoping mercy, I likely wish for better than I deserve. But perhaps it is enough to let the anxiety and vulnerability to these very mortal truths inform what next I choose. When anxiety creates value we have arrived at something more human than just fear or pain. We can make better choices because that vulnerability speaks to possibilities. Appa taught that to be human comes with no promises of joy or liberation. But it does come with the power to make promises to bring others some morsel of joy if you are willing to bind yourself more deeply to their care. Alas, Sundaramoorthy relieved me of the burdens of liberation and instead invited me to perils of bondage, bondage to love that invests as much in joy as it does in grief. He invited us to think about being grateful for this brief, strange reality of being alive. So instead of sending me on a journey to meditate on soporific indifference or in pursuit of metaphysical relief, he asked me if I would like to continue to sit nearby and to carry on this conversation about being just human. Just being human was enough he said to make us wonder at all that life might entail. Shall we take to heart what happens when we decide to care about those we have lost and those we will leave to forge ahead? Look first to gratitude if you can, if you have been so fortunate and privileged to make your way, and then ask yourself what you want to create---not because you are some divine being of unlimited possibilities but rather because you are not, because you have learned that your limitations, like your human condition, is the blessing from which all goodness will emerge.
I bet Jonathan the tortoise knows a thing or two about living long and loving all he can.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

New Year's 2022 and The Turning Towards Grace

 Saturday, January 1, 2022


Aho’Rajanaka! Bho! Bho! Sukhiya Zālā!


Warm New Year’s greetings from far too warm Bristol.   Here’s to laughter aplenty and time well-spent, health and time to do what you love most with those who make all the difference a difference can make.  I want to thank you because you came in 2021 to make learning and contemplation a joy together.  You brought grace and that’s something we should talk about more.  With all we have endured, you made the effort and we’re all the better for it.  For my part, I know you’ve kept me sane (well, you know, relatively speaking), centered and committed, and determined to make this crazy world sumthin’ good.  Let’s carry on.  First a few invitations, then on to a tumult of grace, a veritable donnybrook, brouhaha, rumpus---Grace should come like a cete of badgers, a sedge of bitterns, an obstinacy of buffalo, a quiver of cobras, a flamboyance of flamingos, and a business of ferrets. 

On New Year’s we get to collect and recollect, start anew, and consider what it means to find joy in rearranging the disorder that makes life both sweet and, well, not less complicated.  We don’t ever really start over because we’re always in the middle of things.  But finding out how to keep moving and find a moment’s peace is our human condition.  Celebrating our feeling human is the very soul of Rajanaka teaching.

And celebrating that kind of “turning towards” is “keeping things to rights” or pradaksina.  When you use pra- as a prefix to a Sanskrit word it often means forward, towards and sometimes it can mean apart, distinctive, even falling apart.  The word dakshina gestures gratitude, and often as a gift or even a monetary offering.  Put this together as pradakshina and we are charged simultaneously to keep moving forward and towards even as we deconstruct and put things to rights.

If that sounds paradoxical I’d bet you’re not surprised.  Life invites us to step into what’s possible and to receive what’s true with or without our consent---and then create, innovate, and rearrange to refresh the next breath.  

As you would expect, the cultural “rules” of dakshina in India can be complex.  For example, in temples offering dakshina to the priests is considered requisite, a virtual nitya karma, while the effort to make an offering to one’s own teacher may not be made without acknowledged “permission.”  The priest must be paid---it’s only fair and right---but the teacher is charged to decide if, when, and what dakshina is offered. Why the seeming incongruity?

I think it’s because we recognize deep in our hearts that the most important experiences in life cannot be paid back---grace more artlessly defined: you don’t earn it, you may not “deserve” it, and you sure can’t pay it back.  Dakshina is a way of saying that the best things in life are not free but come freely.  And just how to we express gratitude for such blessings? 


In Zen it is said “to surpass the teacher is to repay the debt.” That charge is riven with irony and accompanied by the deep humility that we feel when we know in our hearts that we have been graced and that it seems impossible ever to surpass our teachers, much less repay our debts.  I know I feel that way about Appa---everyday I am in wonder at his generosity of time and energy and heart---and so many others with whom I have been blessed to study.  Many of those teachers are simply the things all around us, like the pup who loves me without conditions (and maybe there are treats too) or the spider that weaves and waits, from whose patience I learn a new respect; some teachers are only in books or dreams or perhaps even in the unconscious.  So again we should ask, how might we express gratitude for all the grace that has come?

Pradakshina.  We can continue to step forward, take it all apart, put it all back together, turn with the heart opening to the center and expanding to our boundaries.  Shall we try together?  Shall we do this again and again?  I look forward to seeing you whenever you can make it in 2022.  

sapremakulasmaranam, with loving affection of the community of the heart,




Wednesday, November 3, 2021

More About Tradition & Transmission, More About Rajanaka Learning & History

In last Saturday's Conversation (31 October 2021) I was asked what about Rajanaka had changed or what had I evolved since Appa offered up his understandings. What innovations or interests had I brought?  I will write more about those matters with greater specificity soon.  This is a wonderful query about our learning and what Rajanaka means. 


There is indeed quite a bit of information that I’ve uncovered since Appa and I studied together.  I try to make clear where the research has gone and how it turned up.  One of the interesting features of these traditions is how material is withheld and how reluctant folks can be to part with it.


Some of you know about the old Sabanayaka Diksitar priest who I would visit in Chidambaram and a few of you made the journey to his house to meet him.  Ananda Kuncitapada Diksitar was the nephew of Rajaratna Diksitar, the priest who took in Appa’s mother and the whole of his family, took them in off the streets when they had nowhere else to go, when they had been cast aside from their lives in the village a some six years or so after Appa's father passed.  

Poverty and familial controversies had left them homeless.  Literally on the verge of beggary, Rajaratna Diksitar took in a widow and her children.  Our Appa never forgot that act of generosity and the goodness it brought.  It was undoubtedly as important a moment in his life as any that would shape his character.


Appa was raised in Rajaratna’s house, adopted officially into his family (he and his wife Tangamma were childless), and so began the story of his relationship to scholarship, to the great Natarajar Temple, and to the worlds of Rajanaka.  Appa was only six or seven when they moved into the Rajaratna’s home.  Down the street lived Rajaratna’s sister, married of course to another Diksitar, and Ananda Kuncitapada was their son---he became our family’s principal contact inside the Temple after Rajaratna passed in the 1980s.  He was about ten years younger than Appa.  Ananda Kuncitapada knew his time was coming---he passed in 2015, as I recall--- and he asked me to spend time with him.


With all of our pilgrimage pals safely on their own, I returned for five or six long conversations into the evening and the very early mornings.  It was then he gave me a stack of texts, with explicit instructions about how to treat them, and told me things that I know he’d not told me or Appa earlier.  I was curious if these stories, particularly involving important characters in Rajanaka lore like Ayyappa, Tillai Kali (and Her temple forms), Panchamukha Anjaneya Hanuman, and others, were things he’d learned since those conversations we had together in the 1990s or if he had simply not told us.  I never asked him about this but I suspect that he knew most of it all along and was working out the rest over the years---a combination of both withholding and his “new” learning. 


These subjects involve deeply private, personally important matters and in the worlds of Tantra there are differences between secrecy and privacy.  Secret matters are concealed usually to prevent the “unqualified” from access to information deemed potentially “dangerous.”  In truth, that danger can be social opprobrium, embarrassment, or any number of other issues that involve how “powerful” ideas or actions may be restricted.  Sometimes restriction itself is a form of power but the “sacred” is, as we know, often a defined as permission and prohibition.  To control access is to manage power and the sacred is power when one has the keys to open and close doors.


Privacy differs from secrecy inasmuch as it involves more personal feelings.  Rather than traditionally stated restrictions it may feel inappropriate to discuss one’s own experiences.  Why?  Certainly humility and the sanctity of the heart are in the mix but who knows exactly why people keep their own confidences?  There is also an old convention that matters not asked for may not necessarily be revealed.  One gets the information one is capable of asking for (cf., Gita 2.70ff) while at the same time it can feel awkward, rude, or graceless even to ask.  How can you learn if you can't ask?  How does one know what to ask for if information is withheld?   If this situation sounds “contradictory” or at the very least complicated, you wouldn’t be wrong but that wouldn’t change matters.


Appa was particularly used to my stumbling, sometimes coarse lines of questioning, and yet he genuinely invited me to ask any question, every question---not just the ones apparently permitted.  I might still have to work hard for those questions and his insights.  It could be difficult to know where a line of inquiry was going but as usual, little by little, again and again the task was to stay on the trail, to be persistent, to have the courage to speak up.

He may not offer everything all at once.  He may tell me to wait.  He may offer bits and pieces to see how much more he would reveal or over a course of time.  It can be complicated talking to a person of his depth and erudition even if he trusts you, loves you, and wants you to have what you ask for.  You learn to follow his clues and leads, use indirectness when it seems the better way to get around, and don’t give up if he deflects or says “another time.”


It was important to know when to poke and when to pause in any line of questioning and I wasn’t always so adroit or skilled.  With Ananda Kuncitapada or other members of Appa’s Rajanaka Mandali (i.e., the circle of conversants) the situation was more delicate.  As much family history and trust we shared over the years, as deep as our affections ran, there were still matters of privacy to consider.  I think no matters of secrecy were at last ever concealed from me---there was nothing in texts or practices that I asked to learn that was withheld, no esoterica left unexplained or concealed---but I feel just as confident that Ananda Kuncitapada kept much in his heart that was his own musings and experiences.  As far as we both knew, there were no others left to share in these studies or who knew these stories or who were curious to make these lines of inquiry.  


How much was transmission passed along?  How much was culled from research?  How much had been uncovered over decades of contemplation and critical analysis?  I asked myself these questions whenever I spoke to any members of the Rajanaka Mandali.  One thing is clear: they all agreed that transmission was far less important and vital to the processes of learning than tradition.  There were transmitted texts and practices that could be imitated and understood---this kind of learning could take time but it was only a matter of diligence and understanding what anyone interested and committed could be taught.

But it was their understanding that transmission is not the core of a spiritual life but merely a process of access and information,  To reach that center of one's own experience demands a commitment to tradition.

I have written about the difference between transmission and tradition before.  It is a matter, I think, that translates across many kinds of learning when we consider matters of provenance and the processes of personalizing what one has received.


Let’s go back for a moment to the citation from one of Japan’s National Treasures, the late potter in the Bizan-style, Kaneshige Michiaki (1934-1995).  He put this difference between transmission and tradition this way,


Tradition is sometimes confused with transmission. Copying Momoyama pieces is transmission. Producing contemporary pieces incorporating Momoyama period techniques is tradition. Tradition consists of retaining transmitted forms and techniques in one's mind when producing a contemporary piece. Tradition is always changing. A mere copy of an old piece has not changed; it is nearly the same as its prototype of four hundred years ago. Tradition consists of creating something new with what one has inherited.

This take us to the second feature of our recent conversation about how things Rajanaka have “changed” over the years, particularly with me.  But truth to tell, Rajanaka is something of an outlier inasmuch as “innovation” or what Michiaki calls “something new” is often construed as deviation, alteration, or even departure.  Transmission is typically regarded in Tantric traditions as the direct imprimatur of one’s lineage.  The suggestion is that truth is recursive, a perfect (re-)iteration of what is past.


Appa regarded any such transmission as religious palaver, not something we could take seriously on the basis of the merits of learning.  In other words, we can’t inherit our learning---or our character, our commitment, or achievements-- but for the ways we must make them all our own through hard work.  No tapas, no claim to tradition.  And as for transmission, that too is tradition insofar as whatever was passed along must be made relevant to context and times.


Rajanaka is a tradition with many currents.  We can identify those currents and contents relatively easily.  It takes up the south Indian worlds of gods, Vedic and Tantric lore, embracing the enormity of Hindu cultural creativities in literature and the arts and sciences.  But above all Rajanaka is not merely what we learn it is how we learn.

Rajanaka is learning to learn.  Put another way, it is learning to be educated, not merely to learn.  We are always emulating what we admire or regard, adopting from nd reflecting on others.  But what we are in the business of becoming is ourselves and living with that complexity of self, indeed creating more complexity and more selves of depth, consideration, and care: that is the business of Rajanaka.  When once I asked Appa what is the greatest human possibility he said, “To appreciate more deeply our shared humanity, to savor our own, to feel empathy for others.”