Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Humble Musings Of The Manhattan Monk 6/16/11

We are swimming with all our might, gasping for air
Even when the rescue boat arrives, we still must get in and join in the row
Even when our paddle strikes the water, we must remember to pick up the anchor
Lose the dead weight
Shed the old skin

Picking up speed, naturally the sun rises on the horizon of our heart
The relief of homeward bound
Bees and scents of kadamba games and peacocks
Relief from this dream that we have held onto for too long
The weight of this body, our expectations

Perhaps we are afraid to pick up speed, to life that anchor
But we have no choice, all hope lies dormant ready to shine.

We must beg for our grace. We must ring it and squeeze it out, like sugarcane juice, from the Holy Name. Bringing our pure intention to our chanting, we make this offering to the specific grace that we need, our actual spiritual desire. Let that offering hold our attention tight to the Holy Name, let it make us cling with all of our might to the Holy Name, to Your sweet sound resounding.

Let our chanting be infused with the complete faith that it will free and purify us fully of all that we are not. Let us have no doubt about its supreme, invincible power. Let us have no doubt about its sweet touch. Let us never give up, never turn our gaze from this golden grace.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Intersection-The Spiritual Art Of Disturbance

Merton writes of the essential foundation of self-realization:

Since I am a man, my destiny depends on my human behavior: that is to say upon my decisions. I must first of all appreciate this fact, and weigh the risks and difficulties it entails. I must therefore know myself, and know both the good and the evil that are in me.

It will not do to know only one and not the other...I must then be able to love the life God has given me, living it fully and fruitfully, and making good use even of the evil that is in it. Why should I love an ideal good in such a way that my life becomes more deeply embedded in misery and evil?

If I can understand something of myself and something of others, I can begin to share with them the work of building the foundations for spiritual unity. But first we must work together at dissipating the more absurd fictions which make unity impossible.”1

For many, God is identified as part of the problem, as an agent of the oppressor. For these people, the evolution of human society means to move past the idea of a God who watches over all, over whom we must serve out of obligation and out of love. Social justice remains solely an earthly concern, devoid of the supernatural presence. It depends solely on human endeavor, human wit, human emotion, and human ability, but to the committed spiritual activist this hope on mere humanity itself is a pipe-dream.

Humanity without a sense and connection to God's presence is not a fully capable or realized humanity. Its revolutions, even if they temporarily succeed, will then only dissolve back into the systems, structures, and injustices that the revolutionaries originally fought against.

I may still find myself rooting on green-shirted protesters in Iran of black-shirted anarchists smashing Burger King windows at the latest meeting of the World Bank, but a deeper calling comes through my conditioning. Standing as someone who is trying to reconcile my spirituality with my yearning for justice I feel as an outsider yet again looking in. Can I convince others of God's place in this discussion? Can I help to show them He is the real friend and the one who empowers the oppressed, rather than the lord and overseer of the oppressor?

A great courage and resolve is needed to remain firm to God's message in the realm of social justice, to not be convinced and swept up in actions devoid of any supernatural motivation. One has to remain in a sense above the fray, while not becoming aloof. Merton comments:

People are constantly trying to use you to help them create the particular illusions by which they live. This is particularly true of the collective illusions which sometimes are accepted as ideologies. You must renounce and sacrifice the approval that is only a bribe enlisting your support of a collective illusion.

You must not allow yourself to be represented as someone in whom a few of the favorite daydreams of the public have come true. You must be willing, if necessary, to become a disturbing and therefore an undesired person, one who is not wanted because he upsets the general dream. But be careful that you do not do this in the service of some other dream that is only a little less general and therefore seems to you to be more real because it is more exclusive!”2

The spiritual activist committed to social justice must use his most developed and sincere intelligence to tread a careful path: first, to understand and imbibe the presence of God's desire for his/her life and to act constantly upon that desire, then, to apply that desire in the fields of justice without letting it become diluted into mere politics, and finally to learn the art of disturbance as mentioned above.

This art of disturbance requires a tender balance, between being forceful enough to shed the light and message of God through in the realm of justice with enough strength to convince others, even the doubtful, of the need for God's presence, and at the same time being tender enough, astute enough, not to completely alienate the intended audience and also any potential new recruits to the cause.

This mixture is so potent, and it allows the committed spiritual activist to bridge gaps in a way that make history. We can look to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr as one of the most clear examples of someone who came as close as possible to perfecting this art of disturbance, but we shouldn't feel that his lofty example can't be emulated in our own way, in our own lives, and in our own particular set of circumstances.

Even if we try to ignore the potency of God and His love, we will have to acknowledge His absence, even unconsciously, in our failure to reflect it in our duties of justice and compassion. We cannot complete our own humanity, and any attempt to restore the humanity of others, without the touch of the kingdom of God, and this kingdom is so wonderful, life-affirming, and redemptive that it lays bare the faults and emptiness of the “kingdom” we call our attempted civilization. It is our duty and our struggle to make this contrast unavoidable to look at.

1Merton, 95

2Merton, 97

Monday, June 13, 2011

Distinguishing Between Shallow And Deep Religion

The latest article from my good friend, fellow monk, and Bhakti Center (Manhattan) president and CEO Ramnath Subramanian (Rasanath Dasa) on the Huffington Post

In March 2007, I attended a talk by Dr. Steve Weinberg, the 1979 Nobel Laureate in physics for his work on electromagnetic and weak forces, on the topic "On Religion and Science" at Cornell University. Dr. Weinberg did not mince any words when he vehemently spoke about the hypocrisy and shallowness of religion, citing several evident episodes of scandals and violence in recent religious history.

At the end of his talk, he categorically stated that because of the problems that religion has created, one of the primary aspirations of science should be to cease the existence of religion. He made a strong appeal to the audience to take this seriously.

As a practitioner of Bhakti yoga, an ancient devotional school in the Hindu tradition, I was stung by Dr. Weinberg's strong comments. It felt like an assault on a paradigm that defined my outlook and the people whom I deeply loved and respected. At the same time, my rational faculties knew that Dr. Weinberg's citations were completely based on facts and thoroughly justified. Was I simply being a sentimental religionist turning a blind eye to the problems that religion has created? Or was there a deeper root to my adherence that Dr. Weinberg may not have had a chance to experience?

The key to resolving this conflict lay in one verse from the Bhagavata Purana, one of the primary texts in the Hindu tradition. The verse classifies religious faith or dharma into two categories: peripheral (kaithava) and essential (sanatana).

Gordon W. Allport, a Harvard psychologist, developed a similar scheme and categorized religious practice into extrinsic and intrinsic. The peripheral or extrinsic practice of religion refers to those expressions of faith that are motivated by self-directed desires: personal comfort, riches, power and status. The essential or intrinsic practice of religion is governed by the deep inquiry to uncover our true essence that results in profound personal transformation.

Growing up, my first experience of Hindu religion was extrinsic. I was exposed to Hindu rituals that enabled an individual's economic development and sensory pleasure, respectively known asartha and kama in Sanskrit. My parents taught me to pray twice everyday. The prayers usually were a means to please the gods to give me the best grades, good health and success in all endeavors.

I clearly recollect visiting temples of the elephant god, Ganesha, on the eve of exams, to put in "special requests" because he is an expert at taking away impediments on the path of success. On occasions, when the stakes were high, I paid good money to the head priest for special services. I got more than the expected results every time, expect for one big test where I failed miserably. That failure exposed the conditional nature of my faith.

In course of time, I turned away from the Hindu faith, much to the concern of my parents. I was old enough not to be swayed by them or other religious individuals. Episodes of communal violence fueled by Hindu fundamentalism in the early '90s further strengthened my stance.

It was six years later that a conversation with a good friend unexpectedly reopened the "religious" chapter. Manish was regarded as one of India's young scientific geniuses, but possessed a humble demeanor. In a casual conversation on a Monday evening, he convinced me to accompany him to a talk on the Bhagavad Gita. It was during that talk that I heard for the first time a clear explanation of the primary purpose of religion: deep inquiry and knowledge about our identity and the true purpose of our existence.

The talk systematically and logically pieced together the need for such inquiry and provided a deep philosophical look into the nature of consciousness and our quest for immortality. Sprinkled throughout the presentation were various scientific citations from the Hindu scriptures -- verses explaining a method of plastic surgery from the Rig Veda, the heliocentric model of the solar system from the Bhagavata Purana, and a description of time dilation and relativistic mechanics from the Upanishads.

The speaker was pleasant and humble, yet authoritative and confident. There was no trace of criticism, sentimentalism or fanaticism in his talk. I met with him personally after the presentation and I spent two hours critically questioning his paradigm.

He introduced himself as Radheshyam and his answers were deep and succinct. Although I did not fully accept his paradigm then, I deeply respected his approach and logical explanations. It was refreshing to see such a religious man. I was curious to know more.

In the next four years, I frequently visited Radheshyam's Bhakti Yoga monastery in downtown Mumbai and spent considerable time studying Hindu scriptures with him and his fellow monks. I was a personal witness to the rigor and scrutiny they applied to their scriptural study. The scriptures dealt exclusively with understanding consciousness, its source and its purpose.

Most of the monks had advanced graduate degrees from prestigious universities. Their simplicity and spirit of brotherhood were evident in their lifestyle. Their possessions -- four sets of clothes, some books and some rosary beads -- were neatly stacked away in 3x3 closets. They slept on straw mats on the ground. They lived by one principle adopted from a beautiful verse in the Hindu texts: "Be humbler than a blade of grass, more tolerant than a tree. Be ready to offer all respects to others and expect nothing in return."

In a conversation when I thanked the director of the monastery for his time to answer my questions, he looked at me with sincere gratitude and said, "I am so grateful that you have accepted me as your servant." The glimmer in his eyes clearly reflected the sense that he would not exchange his lifestyle even for $100 million.

The lives of these monks demonstrated to me a sincere search for truth and reality. Their practice completely contrasted any experience of religion that I previously had. To me, it seemed to be a compelling alternative to science in the pursuit of truth. Their axiomatic basis may be different, but their methods, rigor, logic and dedication were comparable to any true scientist. They strove to live an ego-free life, which gave them clarity and objectivity in their quest. Above all, they were truly beautiful human beings.

Dr. Weinberg's citations were correct and his frustrations justified. But his conclusion that science should destroy religion completely was probably based on his very limited exposure to the intrinsic practice of religion. They probably sprung from his experiences of narrow-minded and ritualistic religious practices that lack philosophical rigor, progression of logic and a transformative lifestyle.

Instead of rejecting religion completely, it would be wise to discriminate between substance and shadow -- and encourage the substance. The pockets where intrinsic religion is practiced may be few, but they hold deep significance especially at a time when religious fundamentalism needs to be addressed with strong action. They may also offer the unique opportunity for science and religion to have meaningful dialogues and finally understand each other.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bhakti Yoga: In Search Of A Lost Love

From Radhanath Swami at the Huffington Post
Mother Nature is always speaking. She speaks in a language understood within the peaceful mind of the sincere observer. Leopards, cobras, monkeys, rivers and trees; they all served as my teachers when I lived as a wanderer in the Himalayan foothills. They shared the kind of lessons that elevate the spirit.

One particularly illuminating lesson from the forest comes in the form of the Himalayan musk deer. The musk deer is referenced in Sanskrit poetry and philosophy owing to its peculiar behavior. Prized by the perfume industry for its exceptional aroma, musk is one of the world's most expensive natural products, fetching more than three times its weight in gold. The aroma of musk is so alluring that when the stag's sensitive nose catches wind of it he roams the forest day and night in pursuit of its source. He exhausts himself in a fruitless quest, never realizing the bitter irony: the sweet fragrance he was chasing resided nowhere but within himself. Musk, you see, is produced by a gland in the stag's very own navel: it was searching without for what was all along lying within.

The sages of India found in the musk deer an apt description of the human condition. We are all pleasure-seeking creatures wandering a forest of some sort -- replete with pleasures and perils alike. Moreover, we are prone to the same type of folly as the deer: we seek our happiness externally. Misconceiving our true needs, we wrongly equate our fulfillment and self-worth with possessions, positions, mental and sensual thrills. We are often drawn into superficial relationships which hold the promise of lasting satisfaction, yet leave us feeling empty.

The true treasure lies within. It is the underlying theme of the songs we sing, the shows we watch and the books we read. It is woven into the Psalms of the Bible, the ballads of the Beatles and practically every Bollywood film ever made. What is that treasure? Love. Love is the nature of the Divine. Beneath the covering of the false ego it lies hidden. The purpose of human life is to uncover that divine love. The fulfillment that we're all seeking is found in the sharing of this love.

The power of love is most profound. It has various levels. In its crudest sense, the word love refers to acts of physical intimacy, and its influence over society is obvious. But on a deeper, more emotional level, not simply of the body but of the heart, there is no greater power than love. For the sake of money and prestige, one may be willing to work long hours, weekends, even holidays. A mother's love, on the other hand, is selfless and unconditional. There's nothing she won't do for the well-being of her child, and she asks for nothing in return.

When love is pure it has the power to conquer. Lover and beloved conquer each other by their affection. The source, the essence, the fullest manifestation of love's conquering power is the love of the soul for the supreme soul, or God. The sages who authored India's sacred texts found that the most astonishing of all of God's wonders was His willingness and eagerness to not only be touched by our love, but to be conquered by it. The cultivation of that dormant love is called the path of bhakti (devotion). This love is within all of us. It is the greatest of all powers because it is the only power that can grant realization of the highest truths and the only power that can reveal the deepest inner fulfillment in our lives. On the strength of this love we can overcome envy, pride, lust, anger and greed. There is no other means of conquering these diseases within us.

One who loves God sees everything in relation to God. Therefore their love flows spontaneously toward everyone, at all times, everywhere. They even love those who wish them harm. If you love God, you can't hate anything or anyone. If the love one offers is met with hate, it doesn't die, rather it manifests in the form of compassion. That is universal love. It is not just a sentiment. It cannot be manifested merely by a shift in mental disposition. It can only come from inner cleaning, an inner awakening. Then that love becomes the reality of life.

This inner cleansing is the goal of all spiritual practice. Every prayer offered, mantra chante, or ritual performed should be for the purpose of removing the impurities which impede the full blossoming of unconditional love and compassion. This is the only way to peace, both individually and collectively. When our intrinsic love is awakened and our divine qualities shine through, we will not only find the pleasure we've been seeking but also become powerful agents of change in the world.

We are all searching, roaming the forest like the musk deer, seeking the pleasures without. When we recognize what we are really looking for and begin searching for the lost love within, at that point, the real journey of human life begins.