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Ashrams east and west


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Ashrams east and west

  1. 1. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart ASHRAMS—EAST/ WEST—NOW AND TO COME Eeshpriya Mataji ( Ishpriya) The title given to this morning’s topic seems an open invitation to play the prophet or clairvoyant. As I have none of the qualifications required of a prophet—not even the desire to be stoned to death for the ‘cause’— nor am I in any way a Siddha Yogi, it would seem wise to avoid the maya/mire of projections about Ashrams in the future, their forms or spheres of influence. However I have been asked to speak in the light of my experience; and reflecting on my experience, I find that the light has often changed. As the continuous nuancing of light on the many ranges of the mountains before us at different times serves to reveal, hide, or emphasize the contours and interfolds of what remains the one reality, the Himalayas, so too the changing lights of intellectual insights and expanding heart-consciousness, have clarified and enriched my understanding of the Ashram as a specific social-spiritual phenomenon. I know what I have seen and what I now see, and this I am happy to share with you. I know too, that when the light changes yet again, as change it must, however different the new aspect may appear, the essence of the Ashram will remain the same—only the optic varies. It is not possible in the time that we have, nor is it necessary, to attempt a full historical account of my involvement with the ‘Ashram Movement’ of Catholic Ashrams in India. (That has, in fact, been given in the report to the Ashram Aikiya Meeting in November, 1989.) I will speak only of a few moments or events of the often imperceptible daily transformation of understanding and acceptance. The experience referred to covers the twenty years from 1971-1991 and includes constant involvement with the Ashram Aikiya since its inception in 1978. I had asked to be one of the founding ashramvasis in re-opening the Christa Prema Seva Ashram in Pune in 1972, because in the light that I then had, I saw in the Ashram tradition the promise of a way of preserving and developing along new lines, the contemplative prayer life that my Religious Congregation had always prized, but was in critical danger of losing. The confusion and destruction resulting from, and along with, the authentic post-Vatican 2 aggiornamento of Religious life, had shaken us and divided us on issues pertaining to the priorities of contemplation and social involvement. For me the ashram tradition as I then understood it, offered a way to develop a contemplative outlook on the world, in a community context more socially available and organizationally less restricted than were the current modes of apostolic Religious life, that is, more suited to the times. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  2. 2. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart I am well aware that labelling experiences is a dangerous activity. One runs the risk of ossifying a dynamic event, distorting its true character and preventing subtler insights from emerging on further reflection. Natural lighting allows for nuancing, neon lights do not, and labels could become like these, providing clear but unshaded insights. Still, symbols and signposts do have a value, and naming an experience does not necessarily disauthenticate it. I recognize that what I was initially engaged in was establishing an Adapted Ashram. We had thrown much energy and zeal into adapting carefully selected aspects of the Indian Ashram tradition to our needs as a Catholic Religious Community. This experience was valid and valuable, and Adapted Ashrams are still perhaps the majority of those we have today. Within two years, however, the very genuineness and intensity of our efforts at adaptation and Inculturation had all but extinguished this first light of mine. Survival for the existing forms of Religious life was clearly not assured by the Ashram way of life. In fact it could be more of a danger, facilitating their swifter dissolution. Within three years I was already living in a Hindu Ashram for half the year and would continue this experience for several years to come. One of the earliest of the myriad symbolic events of these times was sitting in the over-crowded Bhajan hall of the Ashram listening in rapt attention for two hours each week for three months to Swami Krishnanandaji’S teaching on the BrihadaranYaka Upanishad—the oldest and probably most complex Upanishad text. In those weeks the light changed drastically and simply. What was revealed to me looked very different to the Adapted Ashram I had known, and I was no longer looking for ‘survival’ I saw with an unarguable Clarity that the ashram could not be equated with a life-style or a cultural tradition In essence it is a non-physical space where the Teaching takes place, a womb where wisdom is transmitted to the yet unawakened consciousness. One by one the different, seemingly essential socio-cultural aspects, the ‘externals’, were understood. It became clear that the life-style, the Sadhana the saffron, the rituals and cultural courtesies could all serve to bide rather than reveal the ‘true’ Ashram within the material Ashram SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  3. 3. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart In this light I felt the way might be through grafting scions of Sanatana Dharma into the soundest of the Christian stock. Although I am not a gardener, yet I know that in order to graft a cultured rose Onto a wild common rose stock, a deep cut must be made in that stock. The shoot must be SO implanted into and bound to the receiving stock that it can draw its new life from the very being of the stock, and yet bloom as itself, with its own beauty. Would we? Should we? Could we? set ourselves to such a task of Grafting Ashrarns7 Deep cuts are painful, but some would bear the pain in order to bear the fruits. About the same time, the early 70s, a world- encompassing phenomenon began to touch the ashrams, Nuclear . physics and high technology were forming shy but exciting friendships with ancient Eastern spiritualities. Capra’s Tao of Physic3 was one popular recognition of the importance of these relationships A most blessed result of these alliances was that each partner came to yield its tendency to arrogance and recourse to magic. In 1974 a series of scientific studies of the Psychology of meditation practices caught public attention as much in Asia as in the West. T. Himi’s Psychology of Zen, a research classic in its field, formed ~the basis of Johnson’s Silent Music. This was a forerunner of many such books which would revitalize ancient teachings through popular spiritual literature incorporating contemporary scientific explanations As my own research interest was the study o human consciousness I have an image of myself at that time which may be symbolic of the experiences of many. I held, as it were, in one hand the open Upanishads and Patanjaji, in the other, a hunch of EEG electrodes; and whilst stepping carefully out of the ruins of my concept of Apostolic Religious life, I came face to face with two challenges; the Guru-chela tradition; and Sannyasa and the teaching of Advaita . These are neither quickly nor easily faced by the Catholic Ashramvasis. The implications of encounter are far reaching and for many of us there is no resolution as yet. While the head (intellect) was at home in the new sciences and Advaitic teaching, the emotions were still engaged in the practice of traditional Christian Bhakti. Ashrams of Parallel Traditions therefore emerged. We all know that the tradition of the Guru-chela relationship has been and remains a critical issue for the development of Catholic Ashrams. It is not solved. In fact it becomes more of a crisis of growth. I offer here only a few reflections in addition to all we have already discussed: SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  4. 4. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart “Christ is the Guru of the Christian Ashram.” This statement is frequently made with all the emphasis of an authoritative legislation. It is the opinion, hope or faith-conviction of some—even the majority of—Catholic Ashramvasis, but it has to be understood. It must not be used as a law forbidding a man or woman to be Guru to his/her disciples in an Ashram. —The authentic Guru-chela relationship is seen as a pure gift of the Spirit. The disciple recognizes his/her Guru as made known by the Spirit, and the guru is called to surrender to the Spirit, so that the Spirit alone acts through him/her. —We cannot decide therefore whether this gifted relationship will be offered to Catholics or not. The Spirit acts freely, but we can refuse the offer. —One does not usually hear Sri Rama or Sri Krishna referred to as Guru but as an Ista Devata. To the majority of Indians, to call Jesus the Christ our Guru might seem to put Him on a par with, for example, Guru Nanak, Muktananda Swami, or Sai Baba. —The term Sadguru is also used by followers of Sri Ramana Maharishi, Swami Sivanandaji etc., and could be used by any disciples of their master. It is not a term reserved to Christian usage. —Jesus the Christ would be the Guru of all Christians—not merely those living in Ashrams. “Call no man your master.” This verse of scripture is often quoted as though it were a specific command of Christ, forbidding any Christian the gift of a Guru-chela relationship. The writings of Abhishtiktananda have helped, but great fear still prevails. —It seems to threaten the hierarchical system of the official Church as a ‘charisma’ which lies beyond its control. For this reason Ashrams do not ‘fit’ neatly into the system. I —Refusal to acknowledge that the way of Sannyasa and of the Vowed life traditional in Christianity are distinct and ultimately not transposable. —That our fear of becoming Gurus is basically an insecurity, born of the fact that we have never been true chelas. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  5. 5. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart It appears that this will remain a disturbing challenge to Catholic Ashrams for some time to come, and will only be met by a willingness on the part of those called to enter into the experience fully. It is often stated that true Gurus are rare in our times because true disciples are even more rare. Yet, if one surveys the Western scene too superficially, one gains the impression of a super-abundance of Gurus. In 1978 I was asked to share outside India something of my experience. This has continued each year since then, and I have thus been in contact with the wider Ashram movement, an ebb and flow from the East to North, South and West. The Permutations and Mutations of elements of traditions and cultures which produce contemporary Ashrams is fascinating. The list of examples would include the Hindu-Indian Guru with Christian-Western devotees, the Western-Christian Guru with Indian-Christian disciples, the Western-Hindu Guru with Indian-Hindu disciples, etc. Wonderful variations—East, West, North, South, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist- combinations with many possibilities. I do not think that it is possible for Catholic Ashrams in India to consider themselves aloof from or untouched by this movement. In fact I am convinced that we need to be much more aware of the role we do, or could, play in it. Ishpriya & Fr. Bede Griffiths A second dimension of the International. Ashram movement is the ‘Foreign-Return’ Ashram. One well-loved symbol of this is sitting here with us. Fr Bede: English Benedictine monk comes East—absorbs the traditions of Ashrams and Sannyasa in India—’converts’ to the Camaldolese Order and leaves in a few days to carry saffron and Shantivanam to the West Coast of America. Also Fr Lasalle : European Jesuit (of the strict observance) goes to the Far East—becomes the disciple of a Roshi—reaches the ‘status’ which allows him to conduct sessions in Japan—and returns to do the same in a German Zendo! SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  6. 6. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart But the movement is not all West- East-West. Many examples can be quoted in reverse. The T.M. Ashram of the Maharishi in Rishikesh is a Western-coloured foreign-returnee, so also is ISKCON (that is, Ashrams of both branches of Sri Krishna Consciousness). A group of Ashramvasis Typical of the East-West-East flow is the recently arrived Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Ashram in Kerala. Its brochure tells us that Swami Vishnu Devananda was sent by his Guru to San Francisco in 1957. He was part of the 50s East goes West period. Since then he has established a corporation of Yoga Vedanta Centres with its headquarters in Canada and many branches, including New York and the Bahamas. Now the disciple from Rishikesh is back home with an Ashram in India. Can we expect his Kerala Ashram to be totally free of Western influence? In fact it was in Rishikesh 18 months ago that we heard an American Guru giving a pravachan to his Indian disciples and devotees. The subject was the relationship of Yashoda with Bal Krishna presented in verse. While being fanned by a Brahmachari with the traditional peacock-feather fan, the Guru read his excellent pravachan from the screen of the personal computer resting on his knees. During our discussion yesterday someone stated that there were two movements in the Church in India—the Ashram movement and the Computer movement. Whether this is true, false or debatable, in the wider movement these two seem to be merging. If our Aikiya has problems with acknowledging such a development, I wonder if we are not looking on the Ashram only as a means of giving a more intelligible witness to the life of Evangelical Poverty? or rather Economic Poverty? We tend to endow the word ‘simple’ with many inaccurate meanings. Whatever the economic standard of the material Ashram, Sadhakas and Sannyasis are still free to live their own understanding of a ‘simple 1ife- style’—for richer or poorer. Among the best that the permutations have to offer in the Ashram way of life is an alternative to the local church community. Christians both in the East and the West are increasingly disappointed by the failure of the structured hierarchical Church system to teach and train for deep spiritual life. Where they find authentic guidance and help, no mailer from what tradition it stems, they will stay. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart
  7. 7. SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart The worst that such Ashrams offer, in my experiences, is their encouragement of commercial spirituality. The Western world is well nigh replete with pre-digested Wisdom, fast-effect Self~realiZati0fl skills and supermarket sadhanas. Once, some years ago, when I asked Fr Tony de Mello why, with his knowledge and experience of the richness of Eastern spiritual practice, he chose to rely so heavily on untested Western psychological techniques, he gave an important answer. He pointed to the failures of the Church’s pastoral/spiritual care and to the vast numbers now demanding immediate help. Traditional Eastern sadhanas, though profound~ often require years of practices an initial, secure religious foundation and personal guidance. These prerequisites are not readily available to the majority of seekers. While I conceded Fr Tony this point, he also agreed with me and was even insistent, that some Ashrams should keep intact and living the traditional spiritual practice, so that, once the immediate hunger of the vast crowd has been met., there would be those who know how to go on nourishing the mystical well-being of the people. So what remains? Ashrams—Adapted, Grafted, of Parallel traditions, Permutations and Foreign-returnees—all are now existing and flourishing. Each has a contribution to make to the whole. Yet I wonder if members of the Ashram Aikiya do not have somewhere in their subconscious a vague but dangerous expectation of finding the “authentic” Ashram paradigm? Something that has already disappeared?. Something that never was? So-what will remain? God alone knows and chooses to reveal to us only one event at a time. Only in hindsight will we see how we are being transformed, For myself, the light I now have begins to reveal new secrets of another ancient tradition, that of Sannyasa and the Sadhu Samaj. Ishpriya Mataji Address given to a Seminar/Meeting of Christian Ashramvasis in May 1991 SATSANG – Seeking Together – Helping to Create – A Planetary Vision – A Universal Heart