Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Humble Musings Of The Manhattan Monk 7/7/11

The desert which I must cross is the desert of the vacant spaces of my mind, of my heart, void of all feelings, of the truth of your own heart.

In this desert are the scorpions whose sting I refuse to take, yet what else can I do if I must walk this path? Their is no mundane antidote to their poison. The only cure is the nectar stored within my own heart-space. I must access the storehouse of this nectar, by care and love and service, to keep in a pouch with me as I walk along these hot sands

The balance of respect...

On one side, my personality which needs the social touch, who longs for the heart-to-heart, freely giving in time and space, exposed and vulnerable and ready to heal.

On the other side, the silent one, learning the art of finding the treasure within, who needs relief from the extraneous noise and demands, needs a recharge of the batteries, who is free to meditate on the flowing waters in the woods everywhere.

If I disrespect one side, the other atrophies. This balance of respect insures mutual growth, reinforcing through each others' best qualities and gifts. Each side, when healthy and whole, knows exactly when to lend a hand to the other, to pick them out of their latent mirages.

I pray for the end to my creature comforts, but I understand their is a certain quality of madness that can come by pulling the plug too quickly. If I tear down my castle too quickly, without finding true comfort in the communal quarters of loving souls and our relationships, I will have no provisions for the walk into the desert.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Death: The Elephant In The Room

From my good friend and fellow monk Gadadhara Pandit Dasa at the Huffington Post
Since I'm an only child, and since my parents and I migrated from India away from our immediate family in 1980, I haven't directly experienced the loss of someone close to me. I was very close to my grandmother, but by the time she passed away from the world, I had already been in America for over 12 years, and time had diminished any attachment I had for her.

My dad cried like I had never seen him cry before. His father had passed away when he was only seven years old, so he was quite close to her. His major regret was that he couldn't be with her when she passed.

These memories come upon me every once in a while, as I meditate on the rooftop of our monastery in the East Village. Looking across the street I witness a hearse pull up to the funeral home. The driver opens the back door and pulls out a coffin with a recently deceased individual and rolls it into the home.

It's a constant reminder that, all around me, restaurants, delis, and a variety of other businesses are opening or going out of business, but the one establishment that seems to remain constant and unaffected by the economy is that funeral home.

I also can't help but wonder how not too long ago, the person in that casket was a living, breathing individual with family and friends, and now they're gone. What must it be like for those they left behind? What was their final experience the few moments before their departure? It seems like such a mystery. A few moments before, they were here and now they've disappeared off the face of the earth.

There's little doubt that it's an unpleasant experience. The entire body and all its functions are coming to a halt. Everything we hold dear is on the verge of being stripped away from us. Losing simple things such as a cell phone or wallet can be quite stressful and frustrating, so what to speak of losing everything, all at once! Often times, death can show up at the door without giving any kind of an advance notice.

Is there anything we can do to prepare for that final moment of our lives? Or, are we to remain helpless victims? I heard one of my teachers explain that "Life is the preparation and death is the final examination." Obviously, we're not going to be able to ward off death. The death rate is and always will be one hundred percent.

However, just as we prepare for any exam in our life, whether it's a driving test or an academic test -- preparation for death is very much required. The more we prepare, the better equipped we'll be in dealing with the inescapable truth of the situation. Death is not a test we can cram for the night before.

We have a subconscious tendency to deny our mortality. Even though it's happening all around us, and everyday we're reminded of it in so many ways, we just never think that it'll actually happen to us. Driving by a cemetery might make us a little reflective, but somehow we're not able to connect that to our own life.

Death is like the elephant in the room. It can't be ignored, but we do a really good job of it. It's natural for us to be fearful of our own mortality.

This reminds me of a conversation that takes place in the famous Hindu epic Mahabharata between a wise king and a realized sage. The sage asks the king, "What's the most amazing thing you've seen in life?" The king replies that "The most amazing thing I've seen is that death is taking place everywhere, but no one ever thinks it's going to happen to them."

The Hindu scriptures explain that we come into this world with a certain number of breaths and the countdown begins the moment we exit the womb. Since we don't really know when it's going to happen, every moment should be lived in such a way that we're preparing our consciousness for the final moment.

This doesn't mean that we're constantly thinking of our demise and getting depressed by such thoughts. It means living life in such a way that we're constantly endeavoring to create a balance between our material and spiritual lives.

The wisdom found within the Hindu/Vedic tradition of India can provide us with a less fearful and brighter outlook on our own mortality, while teaching us to better prepare for our final moments. Their teachings can also help us better deal with the loss of a loved one.

As an example, I'd like to share a few passages from the Bhagavad Gita, which can provide us with a beautiful and broad perspective on life, death, and our ultimate existence:

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.

The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.

These verses alleviate our very basic and most fundamental concern, the fear of ceasing to exist. The Gita explains that the only thing about us that deteriorates and dies is the body, which is compared to an old set of garments.

The real person, the soul, continues to live on without being affected by any of the elements of this world, including the factor of time, which is ultimately responsible for diminishing the life of all matter. Time, however, has no effect on the spiritual self (soul).

This isn't our first life and it's not going to be our last. The soul is eternal and it will continue to exist even after the demise of the body. Knowing this can provide some solace about our own existence and the existence of those we care for.

It also teaches us that in order to properly prepare for that final exam, we need to engage in spiritual acts, which will help us to realize the nature and reality of our soul, and simultaneously help distance us from the bodily concept of life.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Intersection-Spiritual Action

As mentioned before here and in the main themes of Merton's own writing and thought, our society lacks a careful, non-jealous, and non-envious love, a love linked to God that even includes the oppressor. The careful balance a spiritualist must strike between allowing proper and lawful justice for the oppressor, without losing sight of his inner spiritual core and the need to compassionately address the obstacles blocking that core, is of a magnitude of the highest maturity.

When we see someone we label as an “enemy”, we are actually seeing ourselves. We are actually the seeing worst part of our own nature personified, and we become so repulsed that we dehumanize that other person and prepare to destroy him/her without a trace, as if missiles and concentration camps are the only and most effective solution. In that other person who so viscerally represents our worst nature is an incredible opportunity to unveil and experience the deeper truth of God. Their personage, and their loathsome expressions, and our reactions to it, present to us a test of our own spiritual advancement, realization of that advancement, and capability to apply that realization,

The gift of God's truth and love is at stake in this exchange. Merton writes:

If we really sought truth we would begin slowly and laboriously to divest ourselves one by one of all our coverings of fiction and delusion: or at least we would desire to do so, for mere willing cannot enable us to effect it.

On the contrary, the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.

So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own peculiar truth.

Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth.”1

As I read of the way the Native predecessors of this American land were coldly and quickly eliminated by the conquerors of European fortune and so-called piety, a grain of hate drew into my heart and began to flower and flourish. A clear demarcation line began to come into focus as I explored deeper into my unjust history. From Columbus to Cortez, from Stalin to Nixon, I could not but feel a hatred I had never experienced before in my life, a hatred largely born out of a incredulous incomprehension of these personalities and their deeds. How could someone be so hateful themselves, and not expect those who see through them clearly to return that hate in equal if not deeper fervor?

I sit in this chamber of my heart now, looking around at these past perceptions in a new light of Mertonian and Vedic wisdom. These men, my enemies, are showing me something of myself. They are teaching me a lesson about myself, and I must listen. My deepening sense of personal integrity is forcing me to re-examine all my relationships, most acutely the ones that challenge, in the light of a new obligation, an obligation to earn the deeper love of God, absorb it into my being, and be able to give to others without hesitation and discrimination.

A monk's life, even in New York City, is one where a taste of solitude can bear wonderful fruits. Here a different definition of solitude must be offered than what may originally come to mind, although this original definition is also a valid part of the larger, deeper definition. For solitude is something much more than hiding away and stepping back. It is essentially the effort to see ourselves totally, to make the painful effort to confront the hateful, lower aspects of our nature.

Solitude means to be with ourselves fully and without distraction, to learn who we actually are, to become complete in ourselves and in our spiritual relationships, with God and with our fellow seekers on the path. The fruits of this inner journey must be shared. If they are kept in the cellar of our heart, they will mold and rot, and have no benefit.

Merton writes:

Solitude has its own special work: a deepening of awareness that the world needs. A struggle against alienation. True solitude is deeply aware of the world's needs. It does not hold the world at arm's length.”2

Immersion in the solitary spirit allows us the necessary detachment and renunciation to process the needs and progression of our own spiritual being, but as the Gita describes, real renunciation fructifies in a spirit of action, of making work the gift of our realizations.

Consider this verse:

The steadily devoted soul attains unadulterated peace because he offers the result of all activities to Me; whereas a person who is not in union with the Divine, who is greedy for the fruits of his labor, becomes entangled.3

One of the key lessons of the Gita is to saturate one's work in this necessary mood of detachment. What we become detached from is known as the ahankara, or false ego. This false sense of our reality and our own self is the house of our delusions and our unhealthy habits, the abode of all those tics, illusions, and failures to communicate which tend to derail all of our personal and collective hopes for justice and peace.

The elegant solution of the Gita, as spoken by Krishna, the personification of the Divine, to is to dovetail the intentions and the results of our actions towards His pleasure and His will. God is the source of love and of all justice and mercy, and by directing the energy of our work for love and justice towards this source, we call down upon us the element of divinity missing from our all-too-human struggle. We detach from our sense that we alone can reverse the tides of the diabolic in this world and attach to the need for the help and guidance of God, who believe it or not, cares and is invested just as much as we are, if not more, in uplifting the downtrodden.

Through this work, through this action, we learn the eternal and affirming art of bringing out the spirit of justice to correct the imbalances that offend our sense of decency and being.

Speaking from a Christian perspective easily seen in a universal light, Merton writes about the practical combination of spirit and social justice:

Christian social action is first of all action that discovers religion in politics, religion in work, religion in social programs for better wages, Social Security, etc...In a word, if we really understood the meaning of Christianity in social life we would see it as part of the redemptive work of Christ, liberating man from misery, squalor, subhuman living conditions, economic or political slavery, ignorance, alienation.”4

Elaborating further on the spiritual essence of social action, Merton writes:

It is an attempt to elevate man, whether professedly Christian or not, to a level consonant with his dignity as a son of God...liberated from the powers that keep him in subjection, the old dark gods of war, lust, power, and greed.

In such a context, political action itself is a kind of spiritual action, an expression of spiritual responsibility.”5


1Merton, 68-69

2Merton, 19


4Merton, 82

5Merton, 82