Friday, August 17, 2018

Sing Along, "It's A Very Good Place to Start..."

Words mean what people say, how they use them; it matters by whom they are said and for what purposes. Words are social, political, and always powerful because humans care about them. The dynamics of words are as complex as our humanity because we are the only species that we know uses them to make the world more complex, more complicated. We talk about clarity, simplicity, and the rigors of expression but we want nuance, shade, implication, and suggestion. We don't just want things to be clear; we want them to be meaningful. And that's not always the same thing, not by a long shot.

In Sanskrit cultures there are worlds and reams of rules about this meaning and usage thing, and as much by subject---the rules for word usage in logic are different than poetry and _specified_ by each body of tradition. The word "rupa" means one thing in Buddhist philosophy and quite another thing in erotic Sanskrit poetry. We don't know meaning just from context, history, and usage. We work with meaning because it takes work to stay in the fray, to persist in the struggle _for_ meaning. There are whole literatures devoted to the study of subjects, meta-subjects like criticism to poetry, and all of them turn back to language, to its complex uses, to what we _want_ from meaning. Never underestimate desire in any human endeavor. What we want is rarely as simple as we want it to be.

There's an important distinction to be made here because in words we attempt to bridge what we want---things we might feel or need or hope, wish, or imagine---with what we say and can be said. I submit that the reason there is so much serious discussion about ineffability---what can and cannot be said or even _ever_ completely said---is because Sanskrit traditions are so deeply devoted to the idea that things can be _properly_ said. Thus, even when we know there are limits, boundaries, and realities of ineffability, we can also describe and properly explain the limitations themselves.

This is what the great philosopher Shankara does, for example, when he describes how his concept of Self cannot be fully attested by the meaning of words and yet can only be grasped when we have the proper understanding of how works _can_ work. His theories of metaphor take up volumes as he labors to explain what words can and cannot do. No one in Indian literature ever gives up on words, not even those who espouse quietism and ineffability. Arguably, Patanjali gives you 195 sutras about stanching, occluding, and halting the processes of thought---but even that's a lot of words about what words and thoughts _do_ for us, even if it's said in little itty bitty threads of ideas. Not even the most devoted mystic can remain completely silent.

I have argued over the last 20 years to the "yoga community" that we should honor the complexity of meanings of the word "yoga." Does yoga really have many meanings or is it just used in many different ways? That's yet another kind of question. I won't rehearse much more of that here because you've all likely heard long seminar rants that rail against reductive thinking and how we devalue history and tradition when we try to make "yoga" mean one thing or two, or limit its scope of uses. But that too is a process of meaning: meaning without limited scope invites more than ambiguity, it invites meaninglessness.

So for example if "religion" encompasses everything including politics, economics, art, philosophy, as it seemingly does in ancient India, then what _is_ it in comparison to those things. When something means everything it means less. So words can have power capacities to _encompass_ and _include_ and work to expand the possibilities of meaning _and_ they need boundaries and limitations to function at all. Once again, Rajanaka teaches us to embrace the paradox. To create more meaning, we have to find boundaries. And only then can you begin to address the issues that come with deeper desires.

This leads me back to "yoga" in a more personal way and for that I ask your advice and for your input.

We have always suggested that wha we need is a seat at the table of yoga. I walk into yoga studios many times in a year---well, hopefully 'cause I like the work---but I don't teach asana. And no one is fooled that asana is why yoga studios exist, or at least how they remain businesses. Many are keen not to use the word "asana" anymore because that too is too estranging in the modern yoga business. A yoga studio without asana is what exactly? An "ashram"? A classroom for learning? Learning what? Yoga? What's that? And so we go 'round.

But it's increasingly plain that story-telling, philosophy teaching, meditations, the stuff we do, whatever we what to call what Rajanaka does has been called "yoga." But folks don't really call what Rajanaka does "yoga" because they sorta' know that's misleading by any modern standard. They (you?) call it "teachings," one comes and gives and receives "teachings", and they use this language because they want these "teachings" to imply more than instructions, directions, or information; they suggest there is some kind of guidance and, more importantly, edification. We are _better_ for "the teachings" in ways that knowing how to put together the toilet handle (our needs repair) is a decidedly different kind of instruction and has different meaning, different purpose, vastly different intent. Or maybe even the more dangerous instruction "come to the front of your mat..." is not quite the same "teaching"? The idea here is that _this_ yoga implies its purpose is to edify your character, implicate your moral being, that it asks you to want a deeper part of you to go more deeply towards you. That's some pretty heady stuff for the word "yoga," at least the way it's used _now_ and in a world where _everyday_ it more means postures, exercise, asana, you know _exactly_ what I mean. Yoga once made those demands routinely. Times change, words change with the times.

Everyday nowadays I struggle with the compound "Rajanaka Yoga" because _is_ it yoga? Do we continue to fight for a seat at the _bigger table_ of yoga's meanings when we admit as well that "yoga" means exactly-what-we-know-it-means? Or do we give up on the word and no longer make the complexity case for meaning---that is, "yoga means lots of things, let's work on that..." Truth to tell, I haven't decided. For these many years the Rajanaka website has called it "Rajanaka Yoga: A Tantric Tradition of Auspicious Wisdom," which nods not only to the complexity of yoga but to "Tantra" (what's _that_?) and then encodes in the Sanskrit compound "Shrividya" for "Auspicious Wisdom." There's obviously a lot going on here that could warrant further explanation.

Given just how far Rajanaka deviates from the mainstream schools of Shrividya I struggle everyday with even that elemental identity. Rajanaka was first explained to me as "Auspicious Wisdom" and that led to sixteen years of ceaseless study and conversation with my teacher. That has continued now for 40+ years. We still look at the same stories, images, and at least foil with the ideas even when we disagree (umm, adamantly) with the mainstream (umm, 99%). So what is still being accomplished by calling it "Rajanaka Yoga"? Are we looking for a seat at a table _that no longer exists_? That is, the one where yoga _really does mean_ more than you-know-what? Are we trying to make a case for a bigger table when "our kind of yogas" were there long before modern associations with you-know-what?

What do _we_ want from these words? And more importantly what is conveyed when we use them because words aren't important just because they mean things to _us_ but because they mean things to others too. Words are not private matters, as Wittgenstein so aptly proved, and they are more than the just the case even when they are all that is the case. In human worlds, how we use words to describe ourselves is no small matter. Think of how words implicating gender implicate us or what it means to call oneself a "liberal." Or a "yogi"?

Yesterday I wrote that the word yoga is up for grabs on the interwebs because when an influential and wide-reaching platform uses it _in certain ways_ then that matters. Rajanaka is not that influential, we don't move _vast swathes_ of opinion even when we have done our share to create meanings and introduce words for contemporary yoga worlds. We've done a lot of that, with and without acknowledgment. So I wonder and, yes, I struggle with "yoga" because we are _once again_ finding ourselves not only a minority in an ocean of views with _much_ bigger fish, we know those other fish are hungry and we look like lunch. Those other big, hungry fish are called today "yoga."

Yoga may yet swallow us, that is, we may be eaten, digested, and assimilated into its Leviathan that is you-know-what-yoga, so the question remains do we run for our lives, do we attempt to persuade our predator (i.e, the usage of the word) not to eat us, do we stay around to make our case for a seat at a table (in an ocean, mixed metaphor alert!)? Do we just call it "Rajanaka" and drop "yoga," "Tantra," and even the deep code of Auspicious Wisdom?

You know I usually vote for stay the course. I am a keeper of flames, a lover of provenance, and more like Vishnu in persistence and a steady the course course than any rock n' roll chaos loving storm maker would ever wants to admit. Don't lose the plot. Don't pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Just do _your_ thing. Rilke taught us not to care for the critics but to make our art. Hitchens taught us to read our critics and respond and never fail to respond. Rajanaka says yes to both. Embracing paradox never goes away, does it?

But if I may, let me draw another analogy. Stay with me, this is worth it... We're a lot like the steel racing bicycles hat I truly love. What you need to know is that these are not only out of fashion, they are largely obsolete in the pro ranks. They aren't used anymore when once they were definitional. In fact, they are no longer really a thing at all and if they were once _the_ thing, the anachronism is now consigned to words like "retro" and "vintage."

I'm fond of "vintage", not much "retro" because _I am_ vintage, I don't have to pretend or reinvent or retro anything. I'm happy to keep making and riding our own steel bike, the Rajanaka bike, because it's beautiful to me, it works brilliantly, and I like it just just fine. It's not static, it continues to move and progress, I hope. I have no intention of going with the trend or giving up what I love and regard and have always _tried_ to evolve. But to evolve and to grow is not the same as to follow the fashions. My steel bikes are not static things, anymore than Rajanaka but they are not _the thing_ anymore, not by a _long shot_. So, it's important with words, like it is in the world, to know yourself by knowing as well what others understand and do, and what things _mean_. What say you?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

On Putting It Out There

Hindus put their gods and goddesses, their demons, and expressions of light and darkness on the outside so that they can take them inside. Vedic deity is unseen and moves invisibily. Hindus turn this around: they put it into form and beauty, that is, the same word in Sanskrit, "rupa." When you put yourself into form and beauty, that's Rajanaka. It doesn't matter if your particular outside-in is "Hindu." What matters is putting yourself "out there" you see more of yourself, to make a life of modest artistry. Your provenance and perspective are the keys to progress.

I've always been reluctant to talk about Rajanaka as such and instead just tell the stories, offer up our take, explain the material as thoroughly, honestly as possible. About 90% of Rajanaka is just telling the truth and for my part that's about having had immersion in the culture, languages, the critical and historical education required to do the work. Rajanaka is truly more method than content though it's easy to see the content as voluminous, encyclopedic, and never ending, because it truly is. Once we become comparativists and perennialists then the subject opens to far, far more than south Asian studies. Academia doesn't much approve of that latter agenda largely because it doesn't reward the specialty and so the "profession."

When you sat with Appa, you felt a grounding, that clear sense of commitment to _the work_, which he loved and which I loved when I was with him. He often "drifted" into other subjects---topics far afield from the particular text or story we might be working on. I never stopped him or tried. Now I realize how lucky I was, that he would compare across cultures and history very challenging material, that he would endlessly pursue our common humanity---sensitive to cultural difference but willing to take those risks and experiment with ideas and feelings.

I never felt this way in any other professional or educational setting. In other contexts of learning, like Harvard, one _never_ actually _loves_ the work, one _does_ the work and you _might_ survive. If you do love this kind of environment (and I know people who do), I listen like its French to me: I attend to about every fifth word. For me, well, I survived, I still survive and it's easy to keep up with their schtick, but what it takes to like it is beyond me. Forensics is a cold business, a cutthroat, self-absorbed, insular business and personally scholarship as such is just another kind of special neurotic obsession. It's neurosis with skills and self-importance. I try not to be angry about it but for my own regrets about choosing this _as_ a profession. Lord knows, I'm not capable of anything else. My own favored forms of neurosis are _way_ more fun than academics.

With Appa you felt his character, his warmth and deep commitments to justice, to humanism and humane being, his honesty and candor always coupled to his care and patience and indulgence of human travail. Really, I have no notion of supernatural saintliness---because I think of that as nothing but nonsense---but Appa gave you a pretty good idea of what saints could look like if they are real humans with real flaws, regrets, and shadows woven within a fabric of light. But here I go again talking about Rajanaka, and I'm doing that because I wonder---and I ask this with real honesty---if this _interests_ you? I mean I would be happy to tell more stories about the learning, about him, about how he woven his interests, curiosities, tastes, and feelings into a life, into a person.

I try not to make Rajanaka anything other than your thing. But here is my point: what you love to do, what you care about, even little things, if you have your heart in it and it speaks to your humanity, then share it. When you do, that's Rajanaka. I'm trying to do a bit of that on Instagram. Mostly just things I have right in front of me. (Look here if you like: @profdbrk) Having decided that being a Trump-Twitter-troll is not particularly edifying, I don't tweet back to the imbecile (though I confess it is occasionally fun). So I'm taking a few pictures everyday of stuff---old bike bits, camera stuff, junk, books, things with provenance, things I've kept that tell stories. Whatchu'got? Things we keep can tell us how we connect inside and with each other. Put out there, take it in. If no one else cares about it, that's okay too. Make yourself an offering.  And while you're at it, tell us about the things you care about and about remarkable people you've met: artists, makers, humanists, anyone you know that you think we might like to know.  That's Rajanaka.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Provenance and Progress, Seeing At Once Behind and Before

I'm often asked about Rajanaka's sources and traditions, it's provenance. And it is to provenance to which we often appeal when I describe the relationship between Rajanaka's historical relationships to south India and Srividya and it's very forward-looking, progressive values. Appa was not content to use only the sources of Indian tradition when he knew quite well that knowledge belonged to all human cultures. He believed we must evolve and change, and that we could be both revolutionary and claim provenance.

This complementarity was the very heart of Appa's heart. He was deeply committed to rooting and valuing the past and, at the same time, _fully_ dedicated to a progressive, innovative, even pioneering future. To reach into the past was no matter of nostalgia. Sundaramoorthy was not one to ache for some chimera of utopia, attempt fabrication or settle for less when it came to understanding and criticizing sources. He had no notion of a golden age, no need to invent a past to romanticize our human achievements or by-pass our shadows and failures. As a brahmin and a privileged male he was keen to see himself and his tradition as important players in the history of oppression and to take responsibility for that past. That shadow of provenance was part of what motivated him to bring about a more evolved present and envisioned future. Still, Appa was not about to give up the past; such costs would not justify abandonment. There is no reforming the past and no revisionism could withstand the truth. But there is the possibility of bringing the past forward. And _this_ is what he meant when he used the word "provenance."

So first, if I may, a bit about this perhaps unfamiliar word.
Provenance usually refers to a place of origin, particularly applicable to a work of art, an archaeological specimen, or concept. For example, in Charles Eliot's Buddhism and Hinduism, A Historical Sketch (see vol. 3 of 3), he writes, "The Garuḍa may itself be of Persian provenance, for birds play a considerable part in Persian mythology." We find a proximate etymology in the Middle French, provenir, which means to come forth, arise, originate. "Provenance" would be a present participle form (the endings here being cognate to Sanskrit formations which mimic the possessive suffix, just fyi). We can find even more provenance by taking provenance further back to the Latin prōvenīre to originate, which adds the pro- prefix to the verb venīre, which means to come. But nothing about the etymology tells us about the _sense_ of the word.

An intimation of provenance is not merely that things have traceable origins but that there is authenticity, genuineness, a sense of transmission, value, and continuance in practice, trade, or comprehension. Thus to have provenance is to claim sensibility, substance, and faithfulness. When things have provenance we mean to confer a value of constancy and worth---they have made the cut and persisted. Now, of course, things need not have provenance to have value since that is a measure made by other criteria such as efficacy or relevance. Be that as it may, Rajanaka is a humanism that speaks to the present because it takes the past seriously.

Historically speaking, Rajanaka goes at least three generations deeper than my Appa. I can trace it to sometime in the middle 18th century in south India. How much further in forms that resemble the present? I wouldn't venture to say. What Rajanaka's ancestors thought about the sricakra, the goddess and Shiva's complex mythologies, and the rest, I can only guess. I would be happy to explain more about Appa's teachers and how these teachings passed forward as well as textual sources, though those I caution are more important to western notions of authenticity than India, which regards oral tradition the core of provenance.

What I see as the core of Rajanaka is the strange and rather everyday relationship that is made between provenance and progress. Appa was keen in every way to move things _forward_, be that in ideas that would include science or critical studies in the humanities, or in social progress and change that would revolutionize society to foster justice. As I've said briefly in seminars, I am sure that teaching _me_ by inviting me into his ultra-orthodox household was a principled example of his Rajanaka teaching.

We studied ancient, even timeless, mythologies, rituals, philosophies, and yet he would never allow them to sit comfortably in some sanctified, wistful bathos. He insisted we upgrade the program at every possible opportunity. Why shouldn't women or gay folk or anyone have a chance to live and study and love as they wish? Why should tradition be reduced to recalcitrance, marooning us in a delusional past when there are so many frontiers we must explore and boundaries to reach?

One of my only regrets is how few of you met this visionary soul---though I tell you those who have will repeat as much about his graceful percipience. To look deeply into the past and to look forward at once, that was Appa's Rajanaka. He cared that at one time we might call it "Tantra" or "yoga" and "Hindu" but he would not have cared that those appellations would require revision and reconsideration. Look both ways at once. That's the true beginning of it all. Rajanaka's provenance continues in you. Thanks for that. Really, a lot.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

On the Originals: the Sublime and Ridiculous

For many years so many of you have asked me about learning Sanskrit, sort of aching for the originals. I get that, there is so much I love composed in Sanskrit (and other Indian languages) where the taste is so much more pungent, soothing, profound in the original once one has enough context and exposure. Got 40,000 hours? That's usually what I say in reply.

That's what it will take to have enough exposure to make the difference that the language skill's difference _really_ makes. Oh, and then you have to spend a lot of time in culture to fathom how what people say, what they say they do, and what they do are really never the same thing. Anyways, there are times when knowing the original isn't sublime but rather deeply disheartening and disturbing. Much the same can be said about every other tradition's foray into things religious.

I was sitting here reading a Tantra in Sanskrit this morning and I realized that it's not the parts that I don't understand that I find disturbing but the ones that I do. (Mark Twain said the same thing about the Bible.) The "problem" here is historical, not cultural, the work is anachronistic, too much of it founded on assumptions or insights that are simply no longer true. Further, like so many religious artifacts, it's claims to truth do not operate _primarily_ in metaphor or symbolic thinking---they actually think this stuff. The ridiculous is presented as sublime. And thinking it otherwise is buying into their ridiculous.

Call me dense to the sublime but after a lifetime of reading this stuff, I am not uncomfortable saying this. What's "disturbing" about all that isn't the mere bullshit proclaimed but the dangerous fact that so many are still willing to buy into this kind of religious nonsense. Can we keep it a bit more real and read it for the metaphor please?

Lemme be clear: It's nonsense because it's founded on assertions, claims, private experiences, because it fails every single test of shared evidence truth and claims incontrovertible truth and reduces reality to personal "facts." This is why religion and delusion have so much in common. I won't specify the particular material's pratfalls---you're going to have to trust me that it's beyond the pale of contemporary credulity. It's just not the 11th century anymore. Thank goodness.

To Embrace the Shadows of Integrity: Love, Loyalty, and the Real News

Appa once said that not every teaching is a blueprint for life, things to learn, assess, and apply. Some teachings are cautionary themselves tales. In other words, the teaching does not merely _offer_ a cautionary tale, it depends on our wilingness to apply its value with some caution. I have in mind here how we love and commit, how we feel loyal and supportive of one another.

These virtues and tests of character are not _only_ teachings: they require our caution because commitment too has its shadow. When we trust and feel deeply in the embrace of decency and integrity we move more easily, like we do in a well-lit room. But when leadership means to make the shadow of integrity it's method, it's operative force and energy, we cannot help but be affected by it. 

It occurred to me that one of the many reasons these are such challenging times is that things that we must cherish for their value and virtue are being used for the very worst of reasons or are otherwise attacked. Thus "loyalty" is both used to exploit its power and value _and_ loyalty is questioned, doubted, and made the enemy of decency. There's nothing new about this. Fascism has its obvious ways, Hannah Arendt, Orwell, and countless others have been keen observers. But if I may say a bit more?

We respect people with deep and heartfelt convictions because, no matter what we might think about their ideas, it is when they are made in good faith, with honesty and integrity, that we come to know someone. It is a lens pointing directly into character that focuses our attention because any such "belief" translates into intentions, actions, and outcomes. We are all guilty of some degree of hypocrisy and fakery but it is that test of character we embrace as grounding our spirit and our path.

Our Rajanaka way leans into tolerance, acceptance, and looks to listen and honor difference---it's another one of those 51/49 matters, where we come to grips with a useful, important bias that serves us. We _want_ more of the one---tolerance of others' convictions---than we want to believe their views lead to corruptions. But here we arrive at the first juncture of painful recognition.

Those now governing us and so setting our collective tone and establishing the ethos of leadership and social endorsement are at once dogmatists, unyielding _and_ willing to punish or ignore others' for their values and convictions (think: Pence). Worse, they are also shameless narcissists (think: yeah, that guy). In the latter, dogma is nothing more the next moment's full throated toadyism, abdicating every judgment or grasp of reality for something so obsequious and unctuousness that we often feel literally sick. Such flummery is accompanied by a kind of stridency and sanctimoniousness that brings chills down our spines for the way servility is masked by certitude (think: Huckabee-Sanders). For our part, we want and _like_ trustworthiness, loyalty, and commitment to one another, but the kind of violation we are living through forces our values into their malevolent gumbo---and we are left to sort it out. What I mean to say is that since we are _all_ in this world together, we cannot help but grieve and question and wonder about our own bonds and fealties because the very _notion_ of a healthy loyalty is under attack. Loyalty, which we cannot live without, is being used for purposes that are meant to divide us from our very selves and debauch our better angels.

So what can we do about it?
We can hold fast, but not too tightly.
We must assess and judge but not without a willingness to change our minds and follow the evidence where it takes us.
We can and must always try to fathom that tolerance is not the same as endorsement and that convictions strongly felt do not make for truth.

A conviction can, of course, be truly felt and argued without being true. But it is that hope and aspiration for truth that can be shared and demonstrated that must continue to move and motivate our conversation. Every time someone says "don't judge" remember how that can also debauch the truth, not merely support tolerance. Ah, a cautionary tale.

When we report all beliefs as true we can easily succumb to false equivalence. Our individual testimonies must be tested in the crucibles of shared evaluation: it's either raining outside or it's not, look out the window to find out, but please don't report both are "true" because there are opposing opinions. A beautiful mind is a cautionary tale.

We love our tribe, our folks, and the company we keep but this too can be reduced to an identity politics and that is as insidious on the left as it is on the right. You know the love of identity is becoming a problem when you reduce yourself to but _one_ identity. Nothing can live in but one way; admitting complexity may feel uncomfortable and invite compilation, but identity without complexity is too straight a line, not enough twist or turn. Loving someone for who they are is not the same as offering or demanding fidelity just because they are more or less like ourselves. There is such a thing as criminals we love---but have to lock up to be safe, and some of our own feelings are that way too. We're gonna need some Dharma and some wisdom to tell the difference between what's tolerable and what we must not tolerate in ourselves and others. And then ask what we can do about that. This is not only challenging us, it's being made a feature of our current leadership's manipulation; thus the abuse of "truth," the "law," and the difference between "fake" and real news.

So lemme land the plane.

What is under assault are not only the things we need and want, what is being abused are our most cherished and most fragile values. We _need_ loyalty, good faith, and commitment and those values are being used, manipulated, and abused for the purpose of undermining our own feelings and expression. The very notion of character itself is under siege and while we must try to hold true and steady, we must also recognize the peril. When Trump decouples truth from words and feelings we need, this is not a bug, a failure, this is a _feature_ of his debased and dishonorable nature. To grasp that there are such persons in the world is hardly encouraging and we wish there weren't.

But alas, to be better selves we will have to come to grips with how easily people are led into the worst of what is truly the best of us. We humans can love one another with fierce commitment. Let us not forget its value and its perils, how that teaching is a cautionary tale itself, and how that need for loyalty can be used both for good and manipulated to undermine its own value. So it goes. To live with integrity is to embrace its shadow. Carefully. Rage on, calmly.