Sunday Homily: Is Liberation Theology Obsolete? Insights of the Enlightened Jesus

Enlightened Jesus

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: GN 12:1-4A; PS 33: 4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 TM 1: 8B-10; MT 17: 1-9 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/031614.cfm

Have you ever gone through a period when you profoundly question how you’re spending your life? I’m thinking especially about suspicions that you might not be giving enough attention to your interior life – to your enlightenment.

Today’s gospel reading about Jesus’ transfiguration before his friends on a mountaintop with Moses and Elijah raises the issue. Matthew’s account presents a literally en-lightened Jesus. He’s suddenly filled with light. His face shines like the sun; his garments become white as snow. The story points towards enlightenment as the purpose of life with all other matters being secondary. . . .

Personally, Jesus’ transfiguration makes me wonder about all the things I do that distract me from the pursuit of personal enlightenment — distractions from meditation, my mantra, and the other spiritual disciplines the Great Masters tell us are necessary to attain union with God..

I’ll get back to that in a moment.

But let me contextualize my reflections by confessing my own recurring doubts about finding myself on mistaken path of activism. I mean lately I’ve been wondering if in my thinking, teaching and writing I’m too concerned with politics, economics, and issues of oppression and liberation – too influenced, perhaps, by liberation theology. In fact, over the past six months those wonderings have been surfacing with renewed intensity.

I blame it on India.

And why not? Four months spent in such an exotic atmosphere with its sea of people, intense traffic, dime-a-dozen gurus, wild auto-rickshaws, cows on the street, colorful temples, poverty, spicy food, and wonderfully kind people will raise questions about everything.

On top of that there was yoga every day, past life review, learning prana yama (breath control), and living inter-generationally with my daughter, her husband and three children under five. All of that can cause one to question everything.

Above all, a ten day silent Vipassana retreat with its strict “noble silence,” and 10 hours of meditation each day (100 hours in 10 days) will do the trick. So – to repeat – I find myself questioning everything, including all the things I’ve held important in life. I question what I’ve taught my students over my forty years in the college classroom – you know, about economic systems, on the history of colonialism, liberation theology, and the development of the Jesus tradition.

By the way, I am back teaching again. (That’s been my principal form of activism all my life.) And suddenly my life threatens to become very busy, involved, and outward-turned. Oh, right now it’s not nearly the way it was when I was teaching full time. Currently I teach a two-hour class on Monday, and then I have a day off. Wednesdays there’s another two-hour class followed by four days off. That’s not so bad at all, I’m sure you agree. The point is, however, that teaching has me back on campus.

So a couple of weeks ago, one of the deans saw me there walking across Berea’s quadrangle. He thought, “There’s the man I’ve been looking for.” And pretty soon he’s asking me about directing and administering a prison project Berea’s been asked to join.” (It’s the “Bard Prison Initiative” which offers college degrees to inmates.) The dean asked me if I’d be interested.

I said yes. And now I find myself recruiting Berea teachers to take part – helping prisoners in the Northpoint Training Center/Prison in Danville Kentucky to obtain a Berea College degree. So I’m back organizing and attending meetings. True: it’s a wonderful opportunity in so many ways. But it’s filling up my plate which had become delightfully manageable after I retired from Berea College and stopped my teaching in Costa Rica.

What about meditation then, I wonder? What about the pursuit of enlightenment as (at my age) I’m increasingly aware that the moment of death getting closer and closer? Will new responsibilities distract me from such concerns?

Once again, my questions are intensified by what I learned about Jesus specifically in India. There people kept telling me that during his “hidden life” or “lost years,” Jesus had spent time on the subcontinent. They said that between the ages of 12 and 30, Jesus traveled to India and studied under Buddhist masters who schooled him in the ways of Gautama who lived 500 years earlier.

Though virtually no Christian scholars give such tales any credence, many Indian spiritual guides simply take it for granted that Jesus’ time in India. They even point to documents discovered in a Tibetan monastery that offer “proof” of Jesus’ years there.

Even apart from such evidence they ask: how else can we explain Jesus’ teachings about divine sonship and identity with the “Lord of All”? After all, those teachings agree with the tenets of Indian mysticism, viz. (1) that there’s a spark of the divine within us all, (2) that such divinity can be realized (i.e. expressed in life), (3) that it is the purpose of life to do so, and (4) that once we see the divine spark within ourselves we inevitably recognize it as well in every other human being and in all creatures of the earth.

Though I agree with the literal contrary opinions of the scholars just mentioned, I also believe that Jesus did, in a sense, travel to India. He did so, I’d say, in the way that all mystics travel the world – by tuning into the Universal Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being. That Spirit leads mystics wherever they find themselves to reach the same conclusions about the divine that resides within us all. It’s as though they all sat at the Buddha’s feet – or at the feet of the Enlightened Jesus – without ever leaving home. In that sense, Jesus did indeed travel to India.

And that brings me to today’s gospel and the answer it holds to questions about how to invest one’s life – and about the obsolescence of liberation theology. In the gospel, Peter, James and John find themselves at the feet of the enlightened Jesus. They’re on the ground prostrated. But significantly, Moses and Elijah are there too.

That last element (the presence of Moses and Elijah) answers (I think) my question about balancing activism and the pursuit of enlightenment. The two prophetic giants represent the entire Hebrew Tradition: “The Law” (Moses) and “The Prophets” (Elijah).

Moses was the great liberator who led a slave rebellion against Egypt’s pharaoh 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. Like Jesus and his companions, Moses ascended a mountain to receive God’s revelation. Elijah was the 9th century BCE prophet who specialized in speaking truth to power. Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, were considered reincarnations of Elijah.

Jesus “conversing” with Moses and Elijah represents the conviction of the early church that a strong continuity existed between the Jewish Testament’s “old story” and the new one embodied in the Enlightened Jesus.

Accordingly, Jesus was the new liberating Moses. His law of love and compassion epitomized the fulfillment of Sinai’s covenant. Jesus was the new courageous Elijah – uncompromising in his siding with the poor – the widows, orphans, and immigrants.

As both the new Moses and Elijah reincarnated, the transfigured and enlightened Jesus insists on the indispensability of activism informed by transforming spirituality. And he does so in the face of acute knowledge about his fast-approaching premature death. (Jesus references that in the concluding words in today’s gospel episode: “Tell no one of this vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”)

What can all of that mean for us today – on this second Sunday in Lent? I think it means:

• We have to learn from Indian masters and the East in general about the importance of seeking enlightenment through cultivation of the interior life. There’s a “division of labor” among the world’s Great Religious Traditions. India’s contribution about spirituality is far better developed than the West’s and Christianity’s. The Enlightened Jesus (fresh from his own trip to India) calls us to daily meditation this Lent. There’s no other way to enlightenment.
• At the same time, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah highlights Christianity’s part in the global division of humanity’s search for the divine. Side with the poor; take on their cause as your own. Do what you can (by way of phone calls, contributions, lobbying, and teaching) to stop the deportation of immigrants, to restore food stamps and unemployment benefits for the hungry and jobless – to see the world from the margins and periphery. The message is something like that.
• Finally, Jesus’ ever-present awareness of “the prophet script” requiring his own early death reminds us that the work of following our Master can never stop – there’s no retirement from it. The proximity or remoteness of death offers no excuse to relax.

Working without ceasing to change ourselves and the world is the very purpose of life. Jesus’ transfiguration, I believe, suggests all of that.

India Afterthoughts III: A Rat as Big as a Cat – Living Inter-generationally in Mysore

rodent of unusual size

“Hello . . . hello . . .” It was my eldest son, Brendan, calling out at 2:20 in the morning. He was sitting up in the bed next to mine, and calling towards the window. Hearing him caused me to sit up as well. Brendan thought someone was in our room. My immediate thought was that a monkey had somehow gotten inside.

Brendan and I were sleeping in the room his mother and I had shared during our time in Mysore. My son had just returned from a year in Afghanistan, where he had served as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy. He was spending a week with us in India before returning for his next assignment in D.C. Peggy had gone home several days earlier; I was to join her in the States a few days later.

Now Brendan had ignited his iPhone flashlight app and was shining it towards the floor near the entry door to our room.

“God, Dad, it’s a rat!” he exclaimed.

I turned on my flashlight too just in time to see a huge rodent – as big as a medium-sized cat – slinking across the floor in front of our beds. Now he was in the corner near the window.

“What do you think we should do?” Brendan said.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

Gingerly I got up and opened the door leading to the outside patio in front of our room. Just then the rat jumped onto the window sill and slipped out through a hole in the screen. I heard him scurry out across the yard.

I closed all the windows and said, “That’s going to make it hard to go back to sleep, won’t it?”

Brendan agreed. But somehow we fell asleep again — I suppose dreaming of “Rodents of Unusual Size,” which played such a role in “The Princess Bride” which ironically we had just viewed that very night.

In any case, that’s only one of the many astonishing incidents Peggy and I shared with our children in India where all of them spent time with us in a funky apartment that housed our wonderful inter-generational community.

That is, for three of our four months in India we shared space and time with our daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and those three yellow-haired children, Eva (5), Oscar (nearly 3), and Orlando (nearly 2). Peggy’s roommate from her college days, Micki Janssen, joined us half-way through and stayed for two months. Our sons, Brendan and Patrick came for the Christmas holidays. During one of his leaves from Afghanistan, Brendan and his girlfriend, Erin, had also spent a week with us in Sri Lanka.

Our house in Mysore’s V.V. Mohala neighborhood was perfect for renewing family ties. It resembled a three-story motel right out of the 1950s. Four separate living spaces (each with its own lockable entrance and kitchen) made up the first floor. Peggy and I occupied one of those rooms. That’s where the incident with the rat occurred.

Oscar slept in another room on that same floor. The idea was for Peggy and me to keep tabs on him during the night. The house’s owner (the ever-present Mr. Dass) made his office in a third room. And then there was an American college professor (whom we rarely saw) who lived in the fourth.

The second floor of the “motel” was a two bedroom apartment with a large kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room and office. That’s where Maggie, Kerry, and our grandkids lived. Early on, they converted one of the walk-in closets into a “bedroom” for baby Orlando.

Peggy and I ate lunch and dinner in that apartment with the whole family every day. (The two of us had breakfast each morning on our own at the “Barista” Coffee Shop a few blocks away – café lattes and “Breckwich” sandwiches consisting of an omelet with lots of cheese on a white bun. I figure that between us we probably ate more than 100 of those sandwiches while in Mysore. )

Everyone eating together twice a day was terrific. What bonding we did! We had a great cook by the name of Anita. She’d fix us Indian food for lunch. And it was always superb – Indian curries, dhal, chapattis, naan, biryani rice, roti, bitter gourd, yogurt, and other delights. Then we usually had something western for supper – pasta, pizza, quesadillas – that sort of thing. Two other women, Vigia (of whom Oscar was strangely afraid) and her daughter Pavrita helped Anita and did the cleaning and laundry as well.

The “motel” had a third floor too. Micki lived in the apartment up there. The third floor’s terrace spread itself in front of Micki’s room. Kerry and Maggie eventually placed two table and chair sets there. That made it nice for parties and occasional meals when the weather was especially fine – and when the laundry had dried and could be removed for the occasion.

Intergenerational living in those circumstances turned out to be wonderful. Many mornings Eva would wake us up, join us in bed, and insist on playing some game – usually involving Pippi Longstocking or Harry Potter. She’d also want to awaken her brother Oscar who always slept longer than Eva and was (as I said) sleeping next door. So we’d have to dissuade her from doing that.

Though the living arrangements and interactions were not without their challenges, I’m sure none of us will ever be the same after living inter-generationally like that. We learned we could do it and have great fun in the process.

Brendan and I will never forget that rat either. . . .

India Afterthoughts II: Varanasi

Puja Varanasi

Varanasi was the most memorable of all the places we experienced in India. It’s probably the poorest big city I’ve ever seen – and somehow the most spiritual. Its streets were jammed with pedestrians, scooters, auto-rickshaws, and pedicabs.

Shop owners invited me into their stalls. When I ignored them, they followed me offering marijuana and opium. Ragged beggars held out their pitiful hands. The place was teeming with life. The city’s small shops were shoe-horned into winding streets too narrow even for Vespa and Honda Hero “two wheelers.” But as I walked rubbing shoulders with the crowds, a voice in my head kept repeating, “This is amazing, absolutely amazing!”

And then there was the great puja (religious ritual) we witnessed on the Ganges’ banks. Everyone in Varanasi seemed to be there sitting in sprawling grandstands. Others sat in boats anchored close together just off the river’s edge like the crowds in the gospels listening to Jesus.

As we entered the scene, women painted dark red bindis on our foreheads without being asked, and then demanded money in return. Others equally unsolicited thrust miniature bowls of flowers and candles into our hands to float ceremoniously in the River, and then exacted their fee.

As I returned from floating my own offering, a young man reached out to shake my hand. Suddenly he was giving me a vigorous massage – my hand first, then my arm; he reached out for my shoulders. That cost me a hundred rupes.

And then the ceremony itself! Four brightly lit stages stood before us each covered with golden embroidery. As we watched from the wooden stands, six priests chanted and danced majestically on each stage. They were dressed identically in beautifully gold vestments. They stood at measured intervals on the platforms, and with constant loud chanting blaring from huge loud speakers, the holy men swung thuribles first of smoking incense, then of candles by the dozen, and finally of wild orange fire. All their motions were choreographed with exact precision.

(Meanwhile our blond, blue-eyed grandchildren ran through the crowds laughing and playing as people reached out to touch them , bless them, or snatch them up to be photographed in their arms. It was like that wherever we went. They were constantly ogled and treated like celebrities.)

Totally other; totally amazing!

India Afterthoughts (I)

Mysore Palace - 7pm Sunday

in the airport on my way home from India. My four months here are over. I can hardly believe it.

Just a little while ago my time remaining here seemed endless – in the sense of still having plenty to absorb what life has sent me here to learn.

I ask myself: what was that? What did life teach me in India?

My answer? It taught me about India itself (this “Mahatma” or Great Soul of the world), about my past lives, how to breathe, about meditation, yoga, and the joys and challenges of communal and inter-generational living. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some thoughts on each of those lessons.

I’ll begin today with some brief impressions of India itself.

Ah, India! I grew to love the place. It’s just beautiful – gorgeous with its deeply green rice paddies, palm trees everywhere, huge mountains, brown rivers, cows standing motionless in the middle of busy intersections, and roadside stands selling coconuts and textiles of every hue and pattern.

I think of where we’ve been. . . . We spent most of our time in Mysore in the south-central part of this most “foreign” of any of the countries I’ve visited. (The city’s main palace is pictured above.)Compared with other Indian cities we’ve seen – Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore – Mysore was delightfully sleepy and manageable, even though its population is well over a million. Mysore streets are dirty and spotted with cow dung. Unexpected gaps in sidewalk pavement suddenly reveal holes at times a meter deep. But no one seems to mind.

The traffic is absolutely chaotic. It’s dominated by scooters, motorcycles and Vespa rickshaws. Horns blare constantly. As someone said, “It wouldn’t be India if it weren’t noisy.”

But there’s something about the rhythm of life in India that’s most appealing. The pressure we’re used to in the States seems less prevalent, though people still complain about stress. Arrival and appointment times are approximate, not exact. People smile when they talk. They bobble their heads as they consider responses to questions, and always appear reluctant to say “no.” Women doing even the most menial tasks like street-sweeping or ditch-digging wear the pink, yellow, blue and red saris. They all walk with such stately dignity and grace. Everywhere men stand motionless by the sides of roads urinating against walls, trees and into empty space.

We did some traveling too. There were two idyllic weeks at the beach in Sri Lanka. Over the Christmas holidays we also visited the backwaters of Kerala. We saw Agra (and its Taj Mahal), and the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges.

I’ll tell you about Varanasi next time.

“Temple on the Ganges”: An Ugly American’s True Story

Varanasi

In holy city of Varanasi
On the banks of the Sacred Ganga
Snaking in fetid glory
Before its rooftop restaurant
There’s a hotel called
“The Temple on the Ganges”
Yoga and meditation classes there are free.

Walk up the temple’s dusty stone stairs
Our room is the first on the right
#26
A heavy steel padlock seals the door
On an isolated landing
Like a forgotten prison cell.

The room is small and cramped
Its walls shocking pink.
Two beds meld together
In its center
Leaving little room to breathe.
But the sheets are clean,
And the blankets warm against Varanasi’s smoky cold.
In front of the beds,
A Flat screen TV adorns the wall
With its cable box ridiculously tucked behind.
No chair in sight or desk.
The bathroom has an orange plastic bucket
Beneath the shower head
That sprays everything before it.
When lifted, the toilet seat flops to the ground.

Two floors above
Is the Temple’s “Rooftop Restaurant”
With square slate tables
Laid out like chessboards
On top of thick stone legs.
The lawn chairs there are dingy white plastic.

A strangely thin small-boned waiter
Wrapped in a scarf,
With a blue watch cap perched on the back of his head
Takes your orders.
A half hour later
As you shiver in the morning cold
Your pancakes finally arrive:
Smothered in orange marmalade.
The coffee is already mixed with milk.

“Where are you from?”
The waiter asks
In English heavily accented but clear
And thoughtful.
“The United States,”
We answer.
The waiter smiles,
“Ah, Amayreekah!” he says.
“Veddy Goot cahntree!”
He nods his head.
“Thank you,” we all reply.

“All of India,” he recalls
Was weeping and praying for you,
Years ago
When those terrorists destroyed your towers
In New York City –
Veddy Bad!”
He is rueful, sincere
And seems close to tears.
Again we say “thanks.”

The pancakes have not yet arrived.
So gazing at the Sacred Ganges, the waiter continues,
“Four months ago, in July and August,
During the monsoons,
A dam broke up river.
Everything you see before you
And so much of India was covered with water
For six weeks.
Many homes were destroyed!”
He points a bony finger towards the river.
“Do you see that white mark on that building over there?”
He asks.
The high water mark we see
At his direction
is perhaps three meters off the ground.
“The water was that high,” he says.
Then he adds,
“One hundred thousand people drowned in that flood –
One hundred thousand!
Perhaps you read about it in your newspapers?”

Embarrassed, we look at each other blankly.
“No,” we’re forced to confess,
“We don’t remember . . . .”

Vipassana Reflections (Dec. 4-15, 2013): Alur, Karnataka State, India

dhamma_paphulla_vipassana

Here are 18 little reflections on the 10 day meditation retreat I finished about a week ago. It was extremely intense — a real immersion experience both in meditation and in Indian culture. The living circumstances and diet were Spartan. No talking or even eye contact for 10 days. No cell phones or computers, newspapers or TV. We meditated for 10 hours each day using a method that will be explained below. It was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity. India is wonderful!

I
“Arrival”

Here at last.
This is what brought me to India, I’m convinced.
But how did I get here?
Did I die?
I can’t remember doing that
Or how.
I recall saying goodbye to my loved ones – a wonderful hug from Maggie,
A goodbye kiss from Peggy . . . .
“May you find what you’re looking for,”
She whispered.
“I think you already have.”
So here I am – dead to the world.
Is this what heaven is like?
Or am I in hell or in prison?
I’m determined to find heaven here,
And wherever I land
From now on . . . .

II
“The Vipassana Community”

So many people here,
(about 80 I’d guess)
Young, old, men, women,
Tall, short, slim, heavy,
All but 5 of us brown,
All seeking God.
I am not alone.

III
“The Setting”

It’s quiet here.
Green, brown and dusty,
Run-down, like India,
And very slow.
But there’s a well-kept garden space,
In front of the Meditation Hall.
No golf course beauty though
Or slick railings, winding staircases or polished floors.
Instead there are large patches of dirt,
Stoney paths, chirping birds,
Blood-thirsty mosquitoes,
And sunshine all around.

IV
“Where I Sleep”

I sleep in one of the “Gents Dormitories,”
In bed # 22.
Fifteen cots, each two feet apart.
The beds are pieces of slate,
With a mattress on top, just 2 inches thick,
And a small hard pillow.
A piece of canvas suspended from a rod
Separates each bed.
But nothing filters
The farting, snoring, throat-clearing, belching, spitting, coughing and sneezing.
Still, we somehow manage to sleep
From 9:30 till 4:00.
Already by 3:30
Alarms go off.
Fluorescent tubes ignite.
The farting and throat-clearing begins in earnest,
And the race to the outdoor washstands.
By 4:30 we’re in the meditation hall.
Following our breathing – till 6:30.

V
“Be Happy”

“Be Happy”
That’s the mantram here.
Every notice ends with those words:
“Be Happy!”
It’s a strange, forbidden thought for me
Who fears happiness,
(I’ve been told)
Who’s blind to the happiness already bestowed
Here,
And who longs for the pains of hell.
What if I realized heaven is indeed already mine,
Surrendered to it,
Luxuriated in my body, mind and spirit,
And spurned the hell
The saints have sold me?
What then?
Would I actually see God?
Why this terror before heaven all around?

VI
“The Reason for Unhappiness – and Its Cure”

All life is suffering
Says the Buddha.
But why?
What’s the cause?
Gotama went deep inside
To find out.
It’s because of craving,
He discovered.
Senses encounter sense objects.
Attachments and aversions form.
When inevitably thwarted
Suffering results.
To overcome suffering,
Simply detach!
Become a dispassionate watcher of sensations
Pleasant and unpleasant,
Knowing that each
Is governed by
The Universal Law of Impermanence.
“This too will pass”
Is the salvific mantram.
“I am the Happiest of mortals,”
the Enlightened, Unattached Buddha insisted.

VII
“Where I Eat”

Our mess hall has red concrete floors.
We eat on narrow shelves
Each facing a dingy white wall
Whose Scotch Tape wounds
Cry out for soap or paint.
Thousands have sat here before us
Clattering teaspoons
On stainless steel plates.
Rice and dal
And a sweet thick drink
I can’t identify.
No one speaks or makes eye contact.
Afterwards
We line up to wash our cups and plates
At stone pilas.
Then one by one
We melt back into the darkness
Whence we came
Like moths seeking light.

VIII
“The Menu”

Breakfast
Upma (millet mush)
Or biryani rice
Sprouts
Idles (twice)
Pickled green peppers (available at every meal)
Chai

Lunch:
White rice
Biryani rice
Iragi balls (black millet)
Dal
Chapattis
Sliced cucumbers
2 vegetables: green beans, diced beets, squash, okra, or bitter gourd
Sauce: spinach, tomato and onion,
Buttermilk

Supper/Snack:
Fruit (one piece): watermelon, papaya, or banana
Salted and peppered “puffed rice” with peanuts and cilantro
Chai

IX
“Take Things Hard”

I love living like this
(My kids will laugh)
When I was a Columban
The motto was
“Take things hard.”
I bought into that,
I guess,
And still do.
I like the predictable daily routine,
The rock-hard bed,
Cold “showers” from a bucket,
The same meals repeated.
But time to think,
And meditate
And pray.
What more could I ask?
(Well, maybe not the cold showers.)

X
“How to Meditate”

“Narrow your focus,”
The teacher said,
“To the triangle
Whose base is your upper lip,
With its apex, the top of your nose.
Now do nothing
But breathe.
Just observe your natural breath
For 15 hours.
That’s step one.”

“Step 2 is to spend 10 hours
Focusing on sensations
In the same triangular space –
An itch, a pain, a tingling, throbbing – anything.
Work diligently, ardently, patiently.
This was the Buddha’s path
To enlightenment and liberation,”
The teacher advised.
“It can be yours as well
If you follow his technique.
Doing so, you are bound to succeed,
Bound to succeed.”

“Step 3 is to narrow focus still further.
The triangle shrinks.
Its base remains your upper lip.
But its apex becomes the bottom of your nostrils.
Focus on that mustache area.
Identify the feelings there,
And contemplate it – for 10 hours.”

Now you’re ready for Vipassana itself.
The word means “seeing things as they are,
Not as you want them to be.”
You scan your body
From head to toe
For changing sensations,
For 5 hours in the morning
And 4 in the afternoon.
The point is
To experience life’s impermanence
Where it cannot be denied
Within the framework of your own body,
And so be liberated
From cravings and aversions.
Which like all bodily sensations
Always pass.
Do that for 65 hours.

XI
“The Lotus Position”

The lotus position
Is killing me.
After 15 minutes
The fronts of my thighs
Are throbbing uncontrollably
Like waves on a rough sea
I can actually see the turbulent ripples.
And I still have 45 minutes
(Sometimes and hour and 45 minutes!)
To go!
Towards the end,
Each 60 seconds seems like an hour.
Is this what I must do
For the rest of my life
To achieve enlightenment?
“It’s not about torturing yourself,”
The teacher tells me.
“It’s about self-discipline,
And purification of mind.”
I review my life:
For 16 years I’ve gotten up each day at 4:45
For half an hour of meditation.
For 25 years
I’ve run 4 miles every morning
In cold and snow, heat and rain.
“No pain, no gain,” I’ve always believed.
Then a half hour of spiritual reading.
Three vegetarian meals
When I’d rather eat meat.
Another half hour of meditation at night.
What I need is not more pain.
What I need is the Buddha’s understanding
That the pain already here
And the abundant joy
Are both temporary
Subject to the universal law of impermanence
And destined to pass.
Don’t be attached
To either pain or pleasure.
That’s the lesson
And the purification of mind
My teacher was talking about.
But pardon me;
I’m using a chair.

XIi
“I Hate Vipassana”

It’s day four of our course.
During the last half hour of morning meditation (4:30-6:30)
Something snapped.
I felt like screaming,
“This is just bullshit!”
The chanting had started,
Making it impossible for me
To concentrate on my body scan.
All of a sudden,
I hated everything:
India, Indians, Vipassana Meditation, the chanting,
My hard bed
The food
That’s making me gag.
I don’t understand Vipassana!
Yes, I know it’s about
Facing up to life’ impermanence.
But how many times can you survey your body
For changing sensations
Without screaming about bullshit –
From sheer boredom?
It’s a good thing I still have nearly a week
To recover,
Make sense of this,
And find heaven
Here.

XIII
“I Love Vipassana”

The crisis passed
As quickly as it had come.
This morning
After 3 hours
Of fruitless, distracted, infuriating “meditation,”
A conference with our dour, laconic teacher
Helped me see. . . .
He spoke of the importance of posture
For disciplining the mind.
He asked about mine.
“No problem,” I said,
“I’m old,
I don’t do the lotus position;
I sit in a chair.”
“Hmm . . .” was his pitiless response.
Chastened,
I adopted the lotus configuration
For the next hour.
My legs absolutely throbbed.
At one point
I couldn’t tell my right from my left.
But then I saw:
The Buddha based everything,
I realized,
On what was certain,
From the experience of his own body.
Since that body perfectly mirrored
The entire universe,
And the laws of nature,
Reading it
Was better than reading a whole library of books.
So scanning the body
From crown to toe
Is like journeying among the planets,
Like a history lesson,
Like a review of my own life.
Bodily sensations
Pleasant and painful
Were like all the crises of life
Like all its joys – destined to pass.
The point is however
To awaken the body completely,
To make every single cell
Sensational.
And to do the same
With every moment of life.
“Just observe it all objectively
With perfect equanimity,
Without craving or aversion
Everything will soon pass,”
The teacher said.
“Everything is changing,
Changing
Changing.”
I can hardly wait for this afternoon’s
4 hours of “work.”

XIV
“A Meditation High”

This afternoon
December 11 , 2013
At 2:15
I had a unique experience – for me.
(My teacher would later tell me it’s quite common.)
During the last 15 minutes of meditation (1:00-2:30)
I had been sweeping through
My Vipassana survey of my body,
And had done so quickly
Perhaps 6 times in a row.
I stopped.
And all of a sudden
My entire body was tingling
From head to toe
In mild vibration.
I felt my body was filled with light.
The vibration continued for 15 minutes.
This, I believe,
Was the experience
Of the “Inner body,”
The immanence of the divine
That Eckhart Tolle describes
In The Power of Now.
My Indian teacher however
Warns
Not to treat such experiences
With any more preference
Than dryness, distraction or frustration.
All – the pleasant and the unpleasant –
Are merely sensations.
The point of Vipassana is
To treat all sensations the same:
“With perfect equanimity.”
It’s the nature
Of both pleasant
And unpleasant sensations
In meditation
And in life
To arise and then subside.
It’s fatal to crave and form attachment to the pleasant
And to fear and cultivate aversions to the unpleasant.
(Still, the experience was nice!)

XV
“Outta Gas – again!”

Today – the 7th of the course—towards the end
Of our 7th hour of meditation
(with 3 ½ to go)
I just ran out of gas.
My back ached.
I couldn’t bring myself
To scan my body even one more time,
“From the top of your head, to the tips of your toes;
From the tips of your toes
To the top of your head.”
And then those aversions kicked in again –
To meditation, Indian accents,
Endless translations into Kanada and Pali
And our teacher’s chanting
In that artificially deep voice,
With the weird tones, melodies and cadences
I don’t understand.
Then I realized
My aversions are the point.
It’s sensations like this I’m supposed to identify
And observe objectively.
Life is full of them,
And they are merely feelings – at least until I own them
(as I mistakenly have done again!),
Making them mine
And creating new “samskaras”
(Negative behavior patterns)
In the process.
“Just observe the sensations,
The teacher intoned.
View them objectively
With equanimity
And patience.
Like all sensations,
They will arise
And then disappear.
Don’t attach to them.”
Lesson learned . . .
For now.

XVI
“The Problem with Pleasure”

My teacher says that
Pleasure is good
When it’s shared with others:
A good meal with friends
A game of golf with my sons. . .
But not when it’s sought
For its own sake,
Especially in isolation
(Drinking alone,
That bowl of ice cream for a midnight snack).
Those sorts of “pleasures”
Give rise to craving
And attachment
Which the Buddha teaches are the causes of unhappiness.
I’m afraid all of that is true.
My experience shows:
Unsought pleasures
Have filled my life to overflowing.
The pleasures I’ve sought – for me –
Have been the problem:
Craving when they’re absent,
Disappointment when over.
And then there are those samskaras . . .
So give others pleasure in abundance.
And let life shower you with gifts unsought.
(It always will.)
Otherwise, live simply
Your cup will overflow
Even if nothing extraordinarily delightful
Ever happens again.

XVII
“Self-Denial”

All my life
It’s been preached to me,
“Deny yourself.”
And what a burden it’s been!
Now I see
That responding (not reacting) to impulses
Is intimately connected to
The Universal law of Impermanence
And to my anger and defensiveness.
Impulses are impulses
Whether to take that 2nd piece of cake
Or to make a smart retort.
As sensations they arise and pass away.
Recognizing self-indulgence
As a passing impulse
Helps me identify angry sensations
As impulses too –
To be recognized
And given time to pass –
In order to escape misery.

XVIII
“Conclusion”

This has been
A 10 day
100 hour Meditation
On the Universal Law of Impermanence.
(I.e. on reality’s changing nature
As events constantly rise and pass away),
On the need to face
And accept
The present moment
As it is
and not
As we would like it to be,
With equanimity and calmness.
It has been about
Eradicating (uprooting)
The causes of unhappiness
Located in the sensations
Our bodies constantly produce
As our senses meet
Sense objects.
Eradication happens when
We don’t react or become attached to such sensations,
But simply observe them
With heightened awareness –
Objectively, calmly,
Equanimously.
To accomplish that feat,
We must practice
An hour of mediation
Each morning and evening
Scanning our bodies
“from the top of our heads
To the tip of our toes”
And back,
This establishes a pattern
(Based on experience)
For facing the vicissitudes of daily life
Which is constantly
Changing,
Changing,
Changing.
Remember:
The two wings of the Vipassana bird are
Awareness and
Equanimity.

Guest Blog: My Daughter Maggie’s Report on India

Rickshaw

Today marks our 2-week anniversary in India and it feels like our sabbatical experience has really begun in earnest. As expected, India is a radical departure from the elegant Tuscan countryside we so enjoyed for the last two months. But it’s exciting to be here! India is absolutely teeming with life. Kerry and I are already firing on more cylinders. And the kids are thriving–marveling at the cultural kaleidoscope and relishing inter-generational living (with my parents just downstairs).

It’s not perfect, of course. We miss some creature comforts; but we’re hammering out solutions every day. If you’ve checked our blog lately, you know that we don’t love the house we’ve ended up in. Also, our ears are ringing from the constant street noise. This weekend we took a trip out-of-town, and the silence was actually unnerving. Finally, the kids brought lice(!) home after just one week at school, which was appalling. (And of course Kerry and I did not escape unscathed). All five of us did a round of medical shampoo last week, and we’ll do the second round tomorrow to catch the remaining eggs that will have hatched. But Oscar is still itching his scalp and saying he has “ants in his hair,” so the situation is definitely not resolved. The crazy thing is, Indians don’t seem to think lice is a big deal at all; no need to even keep the kids home from school! We’re going to move to braids every day for Eva. And hopefully get some kind of preventative spray shipped to us from home that we can spray on their heads every day before school for the next six months!

Kerry and I started a daily Mysore-style yoga class last week at a shala called Yoga Indea, and it’s everything we hoped for. Our teacher, Pratima, is very strict in an exhilarating way. She scolds us when something is not just right. And she’s constantly telling us to “feel the work.” Kerry is doing great, even though it’s all so foreign to his body. And this is definitely the most serious and frequent yoga I’ve ever done. Most importantly, we’re both moved by the opportunity to engage in this project together, side-by-side. Our class meets each weekday morning from 11:15-12:15. Afterwards, we stop by the coconut stand for some electrolyte-rich coconut water, and then head over to the kids’ school to pick them up. It’s been really lovely so far. And how great that it’s only just beginning!

We are all in near-constant awe as we walk the streets of Mysore. As time passes, I think we’ll stop noticing how “other” this all is. But for now, here’s a little taste of some things that have grabbed our attention as we move about town:
-Children playing on an improvised swing hanging from scaffolding; the swing seat was made of a bound pile of recycled diaper boxes.
-A whole valley full of white sheets and towels drying on lines–stretching over at least a full city block. (In theory, air-drying clothes is kind of romantic. But not on the side of a busy road in a polluted city).
-Our security guard burning (presumably our) trash on the side of the road, not 50 feet from our front gate.
-An incredible funeral procession that started in front of the children’s school and passed right by our house. In it, a dead body, clothed in a loincloth, sat upright, tied to a throne, covered by a canopy of hundreds of yellow marigolds. The throne rested on a litter, carried by four men. A group of mourners encircled the body, wailing and moaning with a somber drumbeat accompaniment. After about 15 minutes, the procession began to move around the neighborhood before heading across town to the burial ground. (Kerry commented that the tradition couldn’t be great for public health).
-I don’t think we’ve seen a single stop sign here. Instead, every vehicle (double or triple) honks at every intersection; this explains a lot of the noise pollution.
-There are so many animals roaming the streets, especially cows. Someone told my mother that cows are Mysore’s “speed bumps.” That’s actually quite lovely, isn’t it?
-Because there are so many animals, it is imperative to walk with your eyes down at all times to navigate the animal dung, which is everywhere. (This even though Mysore is India’s second cleanest city).
-Rickshaws are our main mode of transportation and the children think they’re pretty great. They’re not at all safe, of course. They’re open on both sides and they weave in and out of traffic, tailgate to the extreme and barrel the wrong way down one-way streets without hesitation. They’re designed for two adults to fit very comfortably. And we can technically fit our whole immediate family in one if the boys sit on our laps. Even that seems like a bit of a stretch to us. But our jaws drop regularly when we pass rickshaws literally dripping with people. 4 adults. Even 5 adults. 10 children. Crazy.
-Everyone seems to litter here, without a second thought. It’s pretty mind-blowing, since littering feels unthinkable in the United States.
-Mysore’s world-famous Dasara festival just ended. We mostly avoided the celebratory events because of the crowds. But we attended a purportedly “less-crowded” dress rehearsal of the Torchlight Parade one night. We found ourselves in a shocking crush of people trying to push through a narrow gate into the stadium where the parade would take place. A line would have worked well, but instead it was a stampede. It’s not at all hard to imagine the fatal scene on the bridge in northern India last week. Definitely not a situation we’re hoping to repeat–especially with kids.

Eva turns five next month. It’s a big birthday and we wish she felt more settled socially. She has made a friend at school from Ohio, and she’s happy about that. But she’s generally (and understandably) a little intimidated by the language gap. (As a side-note, recently Oscar refused to ask an Indian waiter for more water. “I don’t speak Spanish!” he insisted). But back to Eva. She really misses the community and sense of belonging she feels at home. She vacillates between saying she wants to go home immediately, (because she misses ALL her friends), and wishing we could stay in India forever (because it’s so exciting and colorful here!) All things tolled, this is not actually a bad mental place for her to be in right now. But if anyone out there feels moved to send a birthday card her way in the next week or so, I know she would really appreciate it. Little connections to home feel extra-important while we’re still getting settled here. Our new address is:

The Lehnerd-Reilly Family
No. 2639/1, II Main, Valmiki Road
V.V. Mohalla
Mysore, Karnataka 570002
India

Thanks so much to everyone who’s keeping us in your thoughts. We’re happy to report that all is well and we’re on our way to creating a full life here. Kerry made a rather profound “sabbatical observation” just the other day: “People without kids don’t understand that ‘doing nothing’ is possibly doing too much.” And so we keep going.

Love,
Maggie, Kerry, Eva, Oscar and Orlando