Spending more time at New Camaldoli Hermitage

I have been feeling more strongly drawn back to the Hermitage in Big Sur, where I originally made monastic vows. I have continued with the Order, by God’s grace, and on June 19, 2014, I celebrated there, together with fellow novice Brother Gabriel Kirby, fifty years of life under the vows as a Camaldolese monk. Of course, as I said elsewhere, I spent many years in Italy, at our mother-house of Camaldoli in the Tuscan Apennines, and from there traveled many times to India. So grateful for all this! I have no words.

While at the Hermitage this summer, ten days after the anniversary of vows, I gave the following talk: it was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, but the gospel reading was the same as that which we heard last Sunday (August 31).

In classical ethics — think of Plato and Aristotle — virtue is like Goldilock’s porridge: neither too hot nor too cold, but just right. The Latin maxim is Virtus stat in medio — “Virtue’s place is in the middle,” that is, between the extremes of excess and defect. Christianity is ambivalent about this. Most early and medieval writers acknowledge Plato’s maxim, but they also teach us that there is a whole series of virtues that do not stand in the middle. These are virtues that have an infinite potentiality, because they point us toward an ultimate end that is itself extreme, like God. If you are as old as I am, you must remember a novelty song of the 1940s based on an African-American preacher’s sermon: “You’ve got to ACcentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, but don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

There is also the way of “both-and,” which is another kind of middle way that deals with ideas and opinions. “There are two sides to every question,” of course: we know that, but maybe we would know more if we tried to think outside the box defined by the two sides. The wisdom of India does not speak of two sides, like Western philosophy; India prefers a triad, like three colors or three flavors that imply a fourth transcending the three. Reading Plato and Aristotle, together with the gospel, can help us make sense of the moral teaching of Jesus, but it can also lead to the loss of the transcendent flavor or color in him, whom Paul and Peter preached and lived.

The liturgy of Peter and Paul celebrates the Roman Church, the people of God in Rome who hark back to these two apostles, and here is where we need the both-and. We want our church to be not only the church of Peter but also the church of Paul, because we need not only an apostle who holds the center together but also an apostle who pushes the boundaries outward.

Today we heard the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16, which focuses the feast more on Peter than on Paul. Moreover, today’s reading is only half the story. We need the both-and if we want to understand the real Peter. In the full text of Matthew, Simon son of John is given two nicknames: Jesus calls him not only the Rock but also Satan. First Simon said words of faith that were given to him by the Abba of Jesus, and for this he became Blessèd Peter. Then he said words that came from his own human reasoning, and he became an accuser, which is what Satan means in Hebrew. Peter did not accept what Jesus said: that the source of Peter’s blessing was to be the death of the Messiah in whom he had believed. “This cannot be,” says Peter; “This shall not be!”

In the complete text of Matthew, Peter shows himself to be both an extreme believer and a man of little faith, like all other extremists. Once again he tries to walk on water and then he starts to sink. Ultimately he hits bottom when he denies his Master and Friend. At that very moment, Jesus looks at him from a distance, and Peter, seeing the forgiveness in his gaze, goes out and weeps bitterly.

Here is the whole Peter, who was complete only when he had been completely forgiven. The same was true of Paul, who, when his name was Saul, began his relationship with Jesus by denying that he was the Messiah and by persecuting those who followed him. Saul, thrown off his stride, fell to the ground and saw a light that at first made him blind. When a disciple of the Messiah restored his sight and baptized him, he began to be Paul. The name is an omen: from Saul, the name of a king, he became Paul, which in Greek and Latin means “little one.” Maybe Paul was short of stature, but his stride was long enough to take him to Rome and beyond. Peter may have been taller, but Paul stood up to the chief of the twelve apostles, when Peter was being hypocritical.

At the end, they were both in Rome and both attained the full stature of their faith in Jesus, when they witnessed to him by their blood. Paul, the Roman citizen, was decapitated; Peter was crucified, but legend has it, head downward. Is this the full story? Or, we could ask, is it enough if we have both Peter and Paul? Maybe the sages of India are right, and we need a third. Of course, we do have a third disciple, the other one of whom Jesus speaks at the end of the gospel according to John. He is the beloved disciple who outlives the apostles of Rome, and who has no name. Was he John the evangelist? Was he a she? No matter; all three are with us at the banquet of the Messiah, the fullness that includes the three and transcends them.

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The Scenario of the Gita

We stand with Krishna and Arjuna between two armies, in the Field of Truth, Dharma-kshetre. Dialogue genre, disciple and guru, following a typically Indian (Asian) pedagogy of reiterated themes, viewed differently at different levels of reality and understanding: as it were, an ascending spiral that progresses from partial to fuller knowledge. The “I am” words of Krishna in the early chapters are not yet a revelation of unique divinity, since any teacher is divine in virtue of the dharma (truth…) he conveys, by speech and by presence. What is dharma?

The literary structure of the Gita. The arguments from internal criticism in favor of, or against, the literary unity of the work (I prefer to affirm the literary unity and single authorship of the Gita). Structure of the chapters; the recapitulation of the whole Gita in a string of verses of the eighteenth chapter. Is the return to less significant and more traditional themes in the later chapters (after the theophany of the eleventh) a sort of letdown (cf. Stephen Mitchell)?

The first chapter: Arjuna’s despair as his necessary yoga. Violence and caste-duty, action and renunciation as basic themes. The Bhagavad Gita as allegory and spiritual metaphor (imminent war as the symbolic context of the spiritual life: see both Gandhi and Yogananda). For Bede Griffiths, the battlefield is human nature.

Read the first three chapters in the commentary of Gandhi. Compare the dilemma of Arjuna with Gandhi’s clear choice of non-violence. “We know only one simple thing: God is, nothing else is.” Action/work and its fruits; yoga is “skill in work” especially when the skill is the renunciation of the fruits of work. The examples of fasting and desire for God in Mohammed and Jesus.

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Translating the Gita

The first translation of a Hindu sacred text into a European language — Charles Wilkins’ English version of the Gita, 1785 — marks the beginning of the inter-religious dialogue in its modern sense. Hindus as well as Christians and, of course, secular scholars, made the reading of this and other translated texts the basis for understanding both the differences among religions and their possible points of convergence.

Of great importance in the American context was the profound influence of the translated Gita on the New England Transcendentalists: Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, together with Walt Whitman. This history of the Gita in the West is especially important in our meeting with religious/spiritual persons from India or grounded in the vast, spiritual culture of India, ancient and contemporary. We are also challenged to understand the motives of those who speak of themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (motives for which I have the deepest respect). Keep in mind that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of his own inner life in almost the same terms as our spiritual-not-religious contemporaries.

Charles Wilkins was a printer and a designer of type fonts for Asian languages (Persian, Bengali etc.); he also resided for a time in India and exercised his considerable linguistic skills in a one-year study of Sanskrit. This apprenticeship to the Hindu sacred language was enough to make him attempt a translation of the Mahabharata, the massive epic of which the Gita traditionally forms a part. Wilkins never completed his Mahabharata project, and consequently the appearance of the Bhagavad-Gita as a single volume made it a sort of Hindu Gospel, and so it is called to this day.

Wilkins’ translation is flawed, and the text is sometimes incomprehensible, but enough of the original came through to deeply move and influence its readers. It is our purpose in this course to offer the students a chance to experience this intellectual and spiritual influence of the Gita. Our advantage, of course, is the embarrassment of riches in choosing a current translation, and each student is free to choose the one (or more) that you find most appealing. Personally, I am a bit partial to the Juan Mascaró translation, fruit of the translator’s vast linguistic learning (born in Spain, he was a professor of English Literature at Cambridge University); I am fascinated by his intentional echoing of the solemn tone of the Authorized Version of the Bible. Western readers will inevitably want to compare the Gita to the Bible, and Mascaró’s dynamic-equivalence method speaks effectively to us.

If one is put off by Mascaró’s imitative archaisms, we now have the Stephen Mitchell translation (available as a Kindle eBook). Mitchell, a poet in his own right, has won deserved praise for his translations of Rilke, Buddhist sutras, and Bible texts. The translations given by Gandhi, Yogananda, and Prabhupada are slanted toward the interpretations they propose. Bede Griffiths uses Mascaró, while frequently offering alternative readings from R. C. Zaehner and other translators.

The commentaries of Mahatma Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada: who were these men, and which of the many “Hinduisms” do they represent? How did Bede Griffiths contribute to the advent or incorporation of India in the Church and vice-versa? Read the respective introduction/preface of the four commentators.

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January course in Berkeley: “The Bhagavad-Gita today”

Again this January, if any students sign up, I’ll be teaching a course on Hinduism. The theme this year is about the Bhagavad-Gita, India’s favorite scripture, as understood by four twentieth-century commentators.

Here is the summary from the course syllabus:

In the West, Hinduism has usually been characterized as the religion grounded in the Vedas and related texts, based on a cyclic/cosmic world-view, and aimed at the liberation of the human spirit from these cycles. This understanding of the vast religious and spiritual culture of India is more superficial than untrue. Both “religion” and the name “Hinduism” are terms invented in the ethnocentric context of Europe and Christianity and in the historical phase of European colonialism. The great vitality of India’s many ways of worshiping the Absolute and understanding/remedying the human condition can be seen in the presence and influence of the most beloved sacred text of India, the Bhagavad-Gita, in the spiritual self-understanding and practice of Westerners during the last two centuries. This intensive course will give students the opportunity to read the 18 chapters of the Gita, examine some scholarly reflection on its historical roots and influence, and reflect on four modern commentaries: those of Mahatma Gandhi, Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Prabhupada, and the Christian monk Bede Griffiths.

One principle I wish to emphasize (as I did in my course last year) is the dialogical nature of the Church’s relationship with other religions. For the Second Vatican Council, the Church indeed relates to the religions as socio-cultural realities, and not only as individuals, either to be evangelized or to be tolerated as ‘invincibly ignorant’ of the truth of the Church’s teachings. Some Catholic thinkers seem to have returned to this conceptual isolation of other-faith persons from their socio-cultural context, but this concept contradicts a theological principle: the inseparability of an individual’s faith from her/his faith community. It is not true, as I once heard a cardinal affirm, that only Muslims, as individuals, are part of God’s plan for humanity, and not Islam itself. It should be obvious that there would be no Muslims without Islam and no Hindus without Hinduism, etc. Hence Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and all the rest are in a certain sense positively willed by God.

Another part of the ‘reform of the reform’ in act today is the return to a diplomatic paradigm in the Church’s approach to other faiths. Since (as a certain esteemed theologian has repeatedly affirmed) there can be no inter-religious dialogue in a theological sense, the chief use for our conversations with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims et al. is to protect Catholic interests in those countries where the others are the majority and the Church represents a minority (often in single-digit percentages). My objection to this reduction of dialogue to diplomacy is that it ultimately secularizes the inter-faith relations of Christians with others; it also implies that the goal of the conversations is to reach some sort of compromise amenable to the interests of all concerned. The risk I see here is to hide the authentically spiritual dimensions of our own faith and the support that our faith itself (faith as spirituality) offers to our dialogic relationship with others. My question is this: do persons of other faiths want to meet with us as diplomats? And: do they not rather have every right to expect us to engage in the conversation as spiritual persons, that is, as persons who practice and intimately experience what they believe in?

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A dream of Debussy / India and other passions

I seem to remember: in the past few days I briefly dreamed of meeting Claude Debussy.

India is a great passion, in the best sense: that is, as an energy that brings forth an appetite deep in the soul. There is a negative sense of “passion,” used by moralists, which identifies passionate energy as “disordered appetite” — though it be natural, they say, passion always “foments” sin (fomes peccati is a classic definition of passio). But I say, it does not always do so, for if a natural appetite has been repressed, it is good when passion awakens it.

India (known through reading and images and my attempts at imitating the virtues of Yogis) awakened my desire for God. It has done so for many others in America and Europe, where culture and society, for three centuries, have tended to repress the soul’s natural appetite for God. Western culture and Western religion have also repressed the human being’s sexual appetite, and it has often done so by positing a dualism between sex and Spirit.

India and her Yogis have also, at times, tended toward the same dualism. My reading of Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi certainly revealed to me the beauty of his ardent passion for God-consciousness, God-union. Yet now and then, in his teachings, I found the same negativity toward the passion of our flesh that we know from Western moralists, whether Puritan, or Mormon, or Jansenist. The paradox of grace in my life was the demanding gift of my own God-consciousness in Jesus and in the sacramentality of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Those who were born into these churches may have experienced their magisterium as dualistic and flesh-negating. In my case, having been born outside of them and having lived for twelve years without baptism, I knew there was something wrong in this dualism. I converted to the mother-guru, the church of the passionate lovers of Jesus, and she gave me his flesh — not a partial Christ, but the whole, in whom is my wholeness. Grace awakened my appetite, and the energy of this passion made me seek the full meaning of Word-becoming-flesh through my own becoming-flesh.

I had received through Yogananda and his disciples the desire for monastic initiation; during my Catholic novice years at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, I was led by grace and the wisdom of elder monks to resume the practice of Kriya Yoga, which had itself brought me to the threshold of grace.

One of these elder monks was of course dom Bede Griffiths. Last Tuesday, December 17, 2013, we celebrated his birthday with a reading of his words at noon prayer and the thoughts I shared at evening mass, here at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley.

The day before, on December 16, I and other passionate lovers of music remembered the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven (born in 1770). Music is a great passion, not only Beethoven’s but also the music of Debussy, Bartok, Feldman, Takemitsu, and Gubaidulina. Music — songs my Dad sang to me, music on the radio, recordings of music by Richard Rogers and George Gershwin, and Liszt’s “Dream of Love” number 3, which our cook, a self-taught pianist, played for me when I was four. Music was my first religion and my first passion, and it still is.

The day before Beethoven’s birthday was the naskotago of Dr. Esperanto, Lutwik Zamenhof (born in 1859). Languages are another passion of mine, and I have become more and more passionate about Esperanto in these latter years. I am currently reading Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis in an Esperanto translation. My Polish is no where near good enough to read the novel in the original, but Zamenhof grew up speaking Polish (and Russian and Yiddish and German), frustrated by the linguistic tribalism in his corner of Poland. And so, Zamenhof composed this beautiful language which represents no empire, is spoken by no army, nor does it suppress anyone’s native language.

No one can say how many earthlings speak and/or read Esperanto — were we to know the number, we might be surprised. In any event, 125 years after Zamenhof launched his new language, it still lives on at the margins of this world’s empires, and it troubles no one. I joined a small group of passionate Esperantists who gathered in Emeryville on December 15, 2013, to remember Zamenhof by conversing in Esperanto over lunch and a cake.

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I’m always in India

Conversation with Karen Andrews, our oblate: I was speaking about a young Indian-American, who has been inquiring about staying in one of our guest rooms. This led me into talking about what India is for me. I last was there in July-September 2004, but it is like yesterday, and India was a place for my soul even in my early teens, when I read the Autobiography of a Yogi and felt the call to be a monk.

I told Karen about two Yeshu-bhaktas (“devotees of Jesus”) whom I had known at our ashram (Saccidananda Ashram, at Shantivanam, in Tamil Nadu State). One was a village poet, illiterate, who improvised songs that he sang at village feasts; he would often come to the evening service at Shantivanam, which included chanting in the local language and in other tongues spoken in India, Christian songs in the style of the Hindu bhajans. When he was there, Fr. Bede Griffiths and the brothers would always let him add one of his songs, whose words I did not entirely understand, except for common religious terms, and the name “Yeshu, Yeshu” repeated often. This man never came to the morning service, which included the Christian eucharist. Except one day, perhaps in December 2003, when he came and sat in his usual place behind a pillar in the temple. The monks saw him there, and let him sing. That evening word came from his family that he had just passed away. So, I said to Karen, after singing “Yeshu, Yeshu” so many times, where do you think he went?

Another devotee of Jesus was a woman, who would walk, limping, almost a kilometer from her home to attend the 6:15 a.m. eucharist. She was a Hindu, and sat silently meditating in a corner right by the entrance to the ashram temple. One of our sisters (Marie-Louise Coutinho) suggested that she could forego the difficult daily walk and attend only on Sunday, when someone might drive her there. She replied, “No, Sister, I must come, because Jesus calls me.”

The strict rule of our ashram is that we must welcome everyone, but proselytize no one. What need would there be for us to proselytize, if Jesus speaks to them?

When I think of these two devotees, I feel I am still in India.

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On “Christ the King” Sunday, but is He?

Here are some words I shared with our friends at Incarnation Monastery in Berkeley today.

When we read “Christ,” we usually understand the word to be a name. That is not a misunderstanding. As a title, in its literal usage, “Christ” means “the anointed one” and implies his consecration as a tribal king. But does “Jesus Christ” really mean “Jesus the King”?

Now, we are not living in an age of kings; almost all of the few remaining monarchies are constitutional democracies, ruled and governed by public servants whom the sovereign citizens elect to legislative and executive offices. At some point in the history of Israel, high priests were also anointed, but we are not living in an age of priests; only Iran and the Vatican are ruled by religious authorities.

This evolution of human societies from kingly or priestly rule began with the resurrection of Jesus himself. The New Testament, in many passages, seems to be using “Christ” as if it were the last name of Jesus, and not a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, Mashiach, the title of Israel’s anointed king. The change of meaning of the title Christ-Messiah took place on Calvary. “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”, said one of the men crucified with Jesus; some guilty bystanders said, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Messiah.”

Jesus did not come down from the cross. Better yet, he rose from the tomb. Note that he bettered their request, answering it with a fulfillment the askers could not imagine. In a passage in John, we read that Jesus went and hid himself, knowing that the crowd following him wanted to make him a king. The crowd could not do it then, nor can we do it now, because Jesus, as his Abba willed, wants to be better than a king for us.

If we read the Bible as a whole, we can see that what is called “the fulfillment of prophecy” is the betterment of prophecy. On the one hand, we see the unity of the Testaments; on the other, we see that what is promised is never enough. God wants us to have more and better than what is promised, or what we understand to have been promised. God wants us not only to believe and to hope, but to hope against hope and to be ready for the astonishing fulfillment that God means to give us.

We do not have a king to reign and rule over us and to lead us in battle. Of course, a monarch today, a king or queen like Elizabeth Windsor is probably better than any of her predecessors who did so rule and lead. We Americans, like the Italians and the citizens of other republics, feel we are ultimately better off without a king or queen. But we are still dealing with human power and the internal and external conflicts this power entails. Jesus bests all the monarchies and republics by ruling from the throne of his cross, and by leading us forth from death to life in the resurrection.

By the way, today’s gospel reading ends with a prophecy on the lips of Jesus: he says to one of those crucified with him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus had to say it this way, to make himself understood, but he meant to best his own prophecy, by bestowing on the man a crown identical to his own, that is, the crown of sharing in the divine nature. Not just Paradise, but Godhood; not just resurrection, but divinization.

Yes, not even just rising from the dead is enough for God, or for us. If it were enough, we should have to call the serpent in the garden of Eden a prophet, when it said, “Eat that fruit, and you will become like God!” No, “like God” is not what God ultimately means. When Jesus told his disciples, at the last supper,  to take and eat and drink, he gave them not just edible things but the whole reality of his own being: body, blood, soul, and divinity. The promise of the eucharistic signs is bested by the reality they signify and convey. Let us eat and drink them now, ready to be astonished at what they will do in us.

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Hindu Diaspora in America

9. Building a traditional Hindu presence in America: the arrival in greater numbers of Indian immigrants, the building of temples across the continent, where authentic vedic rites are celebrated by immigrant Brahmins.

Some Hindu scholars and Brahmins are still of the opinion that belonging to Hinduism is somehow identified with dwelling in the land of ‘greater India,’ that is, the current national territory plus Pakistan, Bangladesh, all of Kashmir, and perhaps also Sri Lanka. This is not a political judgment but one of jurisprudence (based on the Laws of Manu) and even of a certain theology of sacred place and time. Hence some believe that Caste Hindus who leave India thereby lose their caste status and become ‘profane,’ whatever their personal adherence to Hindu credences may be.

Of course, times have changed, the Hindu diaspora has extended itself to every continent, and other canonical-theological considerations have come to the fore, making the above-mentioned opinion a minority position (a position, by the way, which does not speak to the important historical fact of earlier diasporas, such as the pre-Islamic presence of Hindus and Buddhists in the Indonesian archipelago, or the forced migration of Indians to South Africa, Guyana, and British Caribbean islands in the colonial era).

Even in the strictest sense of ‘belonging to India,’ there was never any question raised with regard to the swamis (Vivekananda, Yogananda, et al.) and other gurus who went abroad or lived abroad; as liberated spirits, they had gone beyond space and time, caste and formal religion. Both V and Y were given a hero’s welcome on their respective return to Mother India.

So today the issue for Hindus in America and elsewhere is mainly practical, albeit with psychological repercussions: Is there a temple where I may (occasionally or regularly) worship? How best may I fulfill caste duties in a secular context? What if I marry a non-Hindu, or my children depart from Hindu devotion and rules? Hindu culture and mores in India are generally quite conservative, but even if a Hindu in America is of a conservative mind-set, he or she may be attracted to America’s privatization of religion and our respectful indifference to others’ creed or ritual practices.

When the wave of Indian immigration to the U.S. was beginning (often made up of well-educated and qualified professionals), and in the absence of traditional Hindu places of worship (temples, pilgrim sites etc.), many attended services in the temples of Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, which was, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, the largest neo-Hindu body in this country. The Vedanta Society and the centers of the Ramakrishna Mission were also available.

Then, through the eighties and nineties of the last century, Hindus in America began to acquire the financial means to begin building temples. Builders and sculptors were brought over from India, and (most important) Brahmins consented to come to this country, to bless the grounds and foundations of the temples, and to consecrate them at their completion. With some adaptation to local circumstances, the Brahmins have continued to conduct the vedic rites in full conformity to their traditions. See Diana L. Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (N.Y.: Columbia U. Press, 1998), pp. 77-92.

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Christian meditation, yoga practice, ‘intention’

8. Alternatives to Yoga: John Main’s meditation movement and his initial Hindu inspiration; Centering Prayer; the use of mantras; the Christian embrace of the Hindu greeting gesture, the namaskara. American devotees of Hindu gurus who have converted to the Catholic faith (Professor Alexander Lipski, John Moffitt, and others).

There are and have been Christians (Jews, even Muslims) who, remaining in the faith they inherited, have practiced some form of Hindu yoga consistently and over a long period of time. This practice has borne fruit for them in the “stilling of the agitations of the heart” (the definition given in the Yoga Sutras 1:2), in the awakening of kundalini, and in some degree of samadhi, the assimilation of the human consciousness to the divine reality upon which the yogi meditates. These ultimate states of the yogi’s spirit correspond to the “abandonment to the Lord” (Ishvara-pranidhana), which is the last act of Kriya Yoga according to YS 2:1.

Only a theological a-priori can deny the possibility or legitimacy  of yoga practiced by a Christian. There have been too many of these ‘Christian yogis’ to justify the denial of the fruits they have experienced. They have integrated their practice into a life of faith, or if they had begun outside organized Christianity, practicing meditation and experiencing its fruits have brought them to embrace or renew an explicit faith and a sharing in the sacramental life of the church. This latter has been the pattern of my own spiritual journey.

Of course, the ‘yoga’ in question is not just the physical ‘limbs’ of the practice (posture, breath-control, and sense-control, about which there seems to be hardly any objection), but the three-fold meditative process of contemplation, communion, and assimilation, in which the act of the believer passes through what Thomas Aquinas calls the enuntiabile, whatever can be expressed in words and concepts, directly to the reality of God, who is “beyond all names and all essences” (John Damascene). An authentically contemplative yoga can be a legitimate means to the end of the act and habit of faith, precisely because it is per se a going-beyond.

Although I cannot concede the a-priori arguments against a Christian practice of yoga, I do see the personal and pastoral value of alternatives that ground themselves primarily or exclusively in Christian sources and the great heritage of the church’s mystics. The first of these was developed by John Main (1926–1982), a Benedictine who, before entering Ealing Abbey outside London, served in the British Colonial Service at Kuala Lumpur, in what is now Malaysia. He had been raised Catholic and had studied in seminary, but during his service in southern Asia felt drawn to a more contemplative life. He made the acquaintance of a yogi from India, Swami Satyananda, who instructed him to accompany his meditation by a mantra drawn from the Bible. His experience gave rise to an international network of Christian meditation groups.

On Centering Prayer, let me quote this paragraph from the relevant Wikipedia article: “Cistercian monk Father Thomas Keating, a founder of Centering Prayer, was abbot all through the 60s and 70s at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This area is thick with religious retreat centers, including the well-known Theravada Buddhist center, Insight Meditation Society. Fr. Keating tells of meeting many young people, some who stumbled on St. Joseph’s by accident, many of them born Catholic, who had turned to Eastern practices for contemplative work. He found many of them had no knowledge of the contemplative traditions within Christianity and set out to present those practices in a more accessible way.” Objections to Centering Prayer as Hindu-influenced have been based on nothing but crass ignorance of the contemplative tradition of orthodox Christianity.

Readings: excerpts from Moffitt and Lipski in the Dropbox folder; Wikipedia articles on John Main and Centering Prayer. Compare and contrast Main’s meditation practice with Centering, especially with regard to the distinction between ‘attention’ and ‘intention.’

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From West to East: Vedic America returns to India

7.    From West to East: Western scholarship and comparative religious studies and their influence in India: Raimon Panikkar; Mircea Eliade and the Chicago school. The controversy surrounding Jeffrey J. Kripal’s reading of Sri Ramakrishna. The work of Georg Feuerstein on Yoga and Tantra, and the spread of ‘Neo-Tantra’ in India.

Emerson and the other Transcendentalists took quite seriously the vedic wisdom they wanted to imbibe; they read the best translations then available from the primary sources. So ‘vedic America’ is not originally, and is not now, just a pop phenomenon (fads generally do not last through two centuries!). America has had, and does have, a great community of Indologists and other scholars of Asian history and thought; some are from India or born of Indian parents, while others (non-Asians) have been initiated into vedic, yogic, or Buddhist traditions out of family traditions. So there is a ‘vedic America’ that includes orthodox Hindus of Caste, as well as serious scholars whose vedic culture may not be native but is nonetheless deep and authentic.

Some there are of double heritage, for whom the ‘inter-religious’ dialogue is ‘intra-religious’: that is, a person like the late Raimon Panikkar, son of a Hindu Brahmin and a Spanish (Catalonian) Christian mother, formed in Catholic tradition and ordained to the Church’s priesthood, who from within could think and intuit the relationship between the two traditions. Others have felt themselves destined (as it were from before their birth) to live a double membership; among them was dom Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine monk who assumed (with the blessing of an Indian bishop) the name Swami Abhishiktananda and wore the orange robes of the Indian ascetics. Close to him was his successor at the Saccidananda Ashram of Shantivanam, dom Bede Griffiths, a Camaldolese Benedictine who was seen by great numbers of simple Hindus as a holy person of their own tradition, a genuine sannyasi.

These three great souls (add to them a fourth: Jules Monchanin, Swami Parama-arupyananda) lived major portions of their respective lives on Indian soil. There have been others, in America and elsewhere, who have pursued a pilgrimage route that did not take them (physically) to India but into their own spirit, into the ‘cave of the heart.’ Such a one was my brother sannyasi Wayne Teasdale, Benedictine oblate, who sojourned in India with Bede Griffiths and was initiated at his hands, spending the rest of his life teaching and writing in the Chicago area (he was one of the major facilitators of the 1993 Parliament of Religions). Still other persons — kriyabans, vedantists, meditators — have acquired a contemplative vision of their life grounded in America (or elsewhere in the West), and in another world may be recognized as true rishis and yogis and bodhisattvas by the saints and sages of India.

Another phenomenon in the relations between India and the West has been the West-to-East influence of aspects of vedic-yogic-dharmic traditions, inculturated in America or Europe, which have found their way back to their lands of origin. The major example of this return passage to India was given by Paramahansa Yogananda. As a young swami and graduate of Calcutta University, he founded a boys’ school near Ranchi, in the state now known as Jharkhand. A few years later, he was invited to address a religious assembly in Boston, and before he left organized a society (Yogoda Sat-Sanga) to continue his educational work. In California he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship, an order of monastic and lay disciples initiated into his Kriya Yoga practice. During a one-year return to India, Y placed his Indian society under the order in California, whose presidents (briefly James J. Lynn and then Faye Wright, Daya Mata, from 1955 to 2010) presided over both organizations. Other examples?

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