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.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2022/01/31/oldest-animal-tortoise-jonathan-/

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,

Douglas