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Listen, contemplate, meditate

Spiritual practice requires of us an inward journey. Much of it takes place in solitude, within us, in the cave of our innermost being. This necessitates withdrawal from the external world, even if it is for a short while every day for those of us who lead worldly lives otherwise. Even when we attend teachings and listen to discourses, the real work of understanding happens in silence, after the words have been spoken and imbibed. An enlightened guru’s words can be potent pills with layers of meaning. To unfold them and reach their essence can be a multi-step process.

According to Vedanta, this process has three steps – sravana or careful listening, manana or deep contemplation, and nididhyasana or complete absorption. Each of these steps is in itself a comprehensive internal practice. Just to listen carefully requires us to harness our attention away from distractions, including mobile phones and our seemingly nonstop internal chatter, and focus it entirely on the act of listening. Some people find it easier to write or record a discourse, to be listened to later at leisure. While it is a good idea to do so, I would suggest an attempt at deep listening. It can be a meditative exercise on its own, and hone one’s practice of steering the mind away from tangible and intangible distractions and training it towards one particular task.

Manana is repeated contemplation of what has been heard and understood through sravana. The nature of the mind is such that even if it has heard the most profound truth, it is liable to push it aside the minute the experience of listening is over. So habituated is the mind to its monkey-like prancing from one branch to another, one thought to another, that the memory of a teaching recedes with the passage of time. Merely having listened is not enough. It must be brought into the mind’s conscious focus again and again for it to have a lasting impact. A lot of inner spiritual work lies in this category of effort, where we attempt to remain mindful of the content and meaning of the teachings that will act as one’s guide on the spiritual path.

The processes of listening and reflection must lead to something more, a higher state of consciousness or realization. This is nididhyasana, which has been variously defined by scholars of Vedanta but in simple terms, it is meditative absorption. It still involves some effort, in terms of holding and perpetuating a state of meditation, and there is some content of knowledge in it as well, even though self-conscious knowing has been transcended in favour of a more direct perception. It is a familiarization, if you will, of a higher truth, perhaps even of ‘the truth’, qualified as truth of the Self, or Brahman. Adi Sankaracharya says in the Vivekachudamani that this process of listening, contemplating and meditating can lead to nirvikalpa samadhi, where dualism ends and one is established in a direct experience of consciousness.

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A Jewel in Indra’s Net

Imagine a net that stretches into infinity. On each of its nodes is studded a brilliant jewel. Every jewel reflects all the other jewels on the net, and is in turn reflected in them, thereby creating a phenomenon of a deep and irrevocable interconnectedness. This Vedic metaphor of ‘Indra’s net’ was used in Samkhya Darshan and later in Buddhist philosophy to demonstrate the nature of reality. Which in Samkhya is nonduality, and so the net though made up of a million and more jewels, is essentially an integrated field of consciousness. Phenomena arise in it, but they are not disparate events. Rather, they form nodes in the same flow, the one continuum. In this oneness, creation unfolds.

According to the Buddhist perspective, Indra’s net expresses dependent origination – pratitya samutpada in Sanskrit. Briefly, one set of causes and conditions gives rise to another, and nothing exists without everything else that caused it to arise. One jewel reflects all the others, and its own existence in turn is revealed in them. One cause leads to another and so on, thereby forming a reality where everything is conjoined and is ultimately dependent on everything else.

These profound ideas have been around for a while now, but the radically connective new technology of the last couple of decades has evolved new meanings for them. What could be a better illustration of Indra’s net of interconnectedness than the worldwide web? Its tentacles reach out to cover almost the entire globe. Millions of nodes are logged into it, sending data back and forth along its pathways, creating a virtual prototype of the kind of interconnections that Indra’s net exemplifies.

Technology has increased the experience of connectedness in our daily lives. Yet, with vast amounts of connective information literally a touch away, there is a constant splintering of attention. Conceptually, the worldwide web might be a good example of an integrated field. But our actual experience of it is anything but unitive. Constant connectivity fractures our consciousness again and again, so we exist in many alternative mental realities at the same time. Any actual enrichment of the mind and heart is debatable.

What can we do to deal with this? One simple yet profound shift is to know that we use technology, and not the other way round. Human beings are not vehicles for technology to showcase its capabilities. To use it mindfully, simply become aware. Switch off and prioritize the act of joyfully connecting with what can be seen, felt, heard, touched and smelled. To revitalize the links of interconnectedness, we must begin from where we are. The ground beneath our feet, the water in our taps, the park in front of our homes, the rainwater that could be harvested, the garbage that could be ecologically disposed. Where we are is our world in this moment. We could consciously choose to engage with it mindfully. And savour being a jewel studded in the net of Indra.

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A wayward song

Itchy fingers

need to write

not tap

at a keyboard,

a screen…

Need the yoga

of

wrist, hand, thought, mind

what moves

and what remains

still

what feels

and what words

fill

This page

Empty to touch and eye

This pen

Marking its empty sky

It unites

It expands

It forms

An untidy multitude

Within which

hums

a wayward song.

When God became Goddess

Devi Mahatmayam, composed in 400-500 CE, is the definitive text of the Shakta tradition, and one that established the Goddess as the supreme creatrix, entrusted with the functions of creation, sustenance and destruction. It could well be the first recorded instance, at least in the Indian subcontinent, where a scripture accords the Goddess supremacy, and celebrates her independence, her power, her intelligence, her uncompromising protection of dharma, her essential femininity, her graceful compassion, and her universal motherhood.

The three central episodes of the Devi Mahatmayam revolve around the allegorical slaying of ignorance by the Goddess. Rapacious demons, symbolic of afflictions of mind and ego, wreak havoc on heaven and earth, symbolic of one’s inner environment. In the first episode, two demons attack Brahma as he prepares to launch a new cycle of creation. He calls out to Vishnu for help, who is asleep. Brahma then petitions the Goddess in her form as Yoganidra (yogic sleep), who withdraws from Vishnu, causing him to awaken. So, while Vishnu does the actual slaying, Devi enables him. She lifts the veil of ignorance from him, an awakening occurs, and the afflictions of mind and ego are slain.

In the second episode, Devi makes her debut as warrior goddess Durga, invoked to overcome the shapeshifter, Mahishasura. Astride a lion, she engages Mahishasura in fierce battle where he changes form each time she is about to kill him, suggesting the slippery nature of the ego and the many manifestations of ignorance that constantly attempts to subdue it. Eventually, Durga vanquishes Mahishasura because of her alertness. Pinpointing the exact moment he is about to change out of a buffalo’s body, she swiftly decapitates it. To better the wiles of the ego, one needs to be ever aware of its movements, and as it begins to draw one’s witness-consciousness into a play of emotions and thought patterns, act quickly in wielding the sword of discrimination to end its hold.

The third episode of Devi Mahatmayam comprises a cluster of stories that introduce an aspect of the Goddess that is perhaps the most feared and the least understood. Kali is mistress of time (kala) and transience, who keeps the cosmic balance by ensuring an end to created life. The reason Kali is such a powerful icon is because she uses the negative impulses of anger, retaliation, vengeance and violence, to create balance and harmony. She is never a slave to these emotions, as most of us are, but their mistress. She channels the basest of human instincts to generate positive power, and is never overcome by them. This alchemy of energy, whereby negativity is not to be destroyed but transformed into its exact opposite, is central to the practices of Shakta Tantra.

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Ennui and the Search for Meaning

According to Newton’s first law of motion, an object at rest, or in motion, remains so unless an external force is applied. This ‘law of inertia’ can sometimes afflict us in the form of a human condition, rendering us unable and unwilling to head into challenges, begin something new, or even engage fully with ourselves and our lives. Nothing that we say or do seems to have much meaning, and we can easily get stuck in a vicious cycle where we do not do anything for lack of motivation resulting in inertia, which in turn leads to further inability to act and engage.

Another word, of French origin, used to describe such a state of stasis is ennui. Ennui is closer in meaning to boredom than inertia, though they might appear to be interrelated issues. Inertia indicates an unwillingness to act. It is a kind of passivity in which we remain stuck in the ruts that have come to define the physical, emotional and spiritual content of our lives. Ennui is boredom that might be experienced due to an absence of appropriate stimulation.

Today, so many of us exist in an environment of hyper-stimulation. Easy access to the internet, social media platforms, mobile phones and tablets mean that we can be “connected” all the time. We consequently experience another kind of ennui, that of over-stimulation. All kinds of stimuli exist at a click or a swipe, and yet, it is still meaningless because it does not have the power to draw us out and make us experience something beyond ourselves, if we are not open to it. Ennui often leads to inertia. If nothing has any meaning, why bother?

From a spiritual perspective, cultivation of gratitude and reorienting one’s motivation might come in handy when we are trapped in an ennui-fuelled inertia. His Holiness the Dalai Lama suggests that, “Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” Just this very thought has the potential to immediately change our perspective towards ourselves. If life is precious, we will regard it as an opportunity, a blessing, and focus on all the things that are going well in it as opposed to all that which is not.

After shaking off the torpor of ennui, we need to get out of the inertia of meaninglessness as well. According to the Dalai Lama, we must think, “I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.” While enlightenment might be far from our minds, by getting out of our restricted personal bubble and contemplating a goal that is bigger than us will help reorient and revive our internal energies. This could in fact become the “force” that must act on a body to end its state of inertia, as per Newtonian law.

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Understanding Tenzin Gyatso

Few of us can claim not to know Tenzin Gyatso, a.k.a the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. The elderly maroon-robed monk with a warm smile and ready handshake is one of the most photographed people in the world. And yet, who is he, really? On his 79th birthday today, it is a worthwhile question to ask.

We know the facts about him – that he is the fourteenth reincarnation of the monk-rulers of Tibet, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, his name is Tenzin Gyatso though he is addressed by honorifics like Kundun (‘the presence’) and Yeshe Norbu (‘wish-fulfilling jewel’). That he had to flee Tibet in 1959 and has lived in India ever since.

He is spiritual master and politician, ambassador for Tibet and lovable guru-philosopher-hopegiver to the world, practitioner of the 2,500-year-old teachings of Buddhism, a modern mind interested in science, and winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Peace. He is able to balance, even integrate, all these roles, while making it seem effortless and a lot of fun!

Instant connectivity

Actually, ‘fun’, ‘the happiest man alive’, ‘intensely human’, are words people most commonly use to describe their experience of the Dalai Lama. On examining his life, one realises what little cause for happiness he actually has.

He has lost home, country, much of his immediate family and many from the larger family of Tibetans, and has seen what was the most sacred to him – monasteries, temples, culture and religion in Tibet – reduced to rubble. Yet, his smile is never strained, his mind is sharp and clear, and he exudes a genuine concern for everyone he comes across.

One of the reasons for the Dalai Lama’s widespread impact is this instant connection he can form with just about anyone. He responds to each individual at an intensely human level, without the baggage of expectations and preconceived notions that usually come into play in dealing with others. There seems to be no ‘otherness’ as far as he is concerned; we are all parts of an interconnected whole.

Scientific spirituality

Though claims of enlightenment, transcendence, even miracles, are made for him, the Dalai Lama is quick to shoot these down as irrelevant. He is firm in prioritising logic and reasoning over unquestioning belief. In doing so, he is really following the Buddha’s injunction to accept only what has been proven after rigorous testing. The Dalai Lama has used this as a torch to guide him into explorations beyond his tradition, which have resulted in a groundbreaking dialogue between Buddhism and modern science in the form of the Mind and Life Conferences.

Such a dialogue requires a great flexibility of mind, for it delves into theories and methodologies that are the fruits of modern science. It also presents a challenge to the Dalai Lama, for it may prove that some of his own long-held beliefs are not true. He has embraced science and the dare it represents without feeling threatened by it. To do so requires letting go sufficiently of attachment to his own religion and the tendency to regard it as the supreme truth. He is quick to discard any religious dogma that is disqualified by evidence, an example being his discovery during aeroplane travel that Mount Meru actually doesn’t hold up the centre of the earth as claimed in certain scriptures.

At the Mind and Life Conferences, the Dalai Lama quickly comprehends the essence of what is being said, and is able to look at it both from the scientist’s perspective and that of his own tradition. He has famously remarked, “I would have been an engineer, if I had not been a monk!” This scientific temperament is evident when he uses his knowledge of Buddhist mind-training, and his interest in science, to form bridges that enable one to understand the other.

Compassion in action

On most public forums, the Dalai Lama emphasises the universal human values of compassion, a “warm heart”, and a responsibility towards the earth. These he places above religiosity of any kind. When approached by people who want to convert to Buddhism, he is quick to point out that there is no sense becoming a Buddhist. Far more important is to be a good, kind human being.

The reason why the Dalai Lama’s words on compassion are so compelling is because they carry the weight of experience. We know he isn’t just saying it, he has done it too. What he is asking of us is what he has perfected in his own self, and continues to practise every moment in the most difficult of circumstances.

As the leader of Tibet, he refuses to classify the Chinese as ‘the enemy’ and has stood by a non-violent path of dialogue, diplomatic initiatives, and peaceful demonstrations to obtain justice. The equipoise and compassion that are a result of his spiritual practice flow into his political role and enrich it. As a political figure, his example is extremely valuable in these times of self-serving politics. He has shown that it is possible to use values like non-violence, honesty and compassion in statecraft.

Perhaps it is because he places the greatest emphasis on his inner spiritual practice, on the core rather than the accoutrements of his life, that he has been able to deepen in his simplicity and clarity, despite the chaos he has often been plunged in.

As to the question asked at the beginning of this article, it is best answered by the Dalai Lama himself – “I am a simple monk.”

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As many paths as seekers

The Dwarka Shankaracharya’s recent remarks about Shirdi Sai Baba (see TOI report here) are unfortunate, if hardly surprising. Seers like Sai Baba have existed in the margins of organised religion in the subcontinent, and are often regarded as a threat to the existing religious status quo. The reason is simple. They do not owe or declare allegiance to any organised religion, which in the Indian subcontinent is usually bound up with several layers of heirarchy – caste, gender, class, and so on. They have also usually ‘opted out’ of societal norms, and have embarked upon a spiritual journey that has led to an inner attainment and realisation, a direct experience of the sacred that might be quite different from the prescribed dos and don’ts of ritualised religion. 

Their appeal to the masses is because of their accessibility, their ability to provide spiritual solace and guidance, and because with the passage of time, they might come to be regarded as wish-fulfillers as well. Certainly, this is the case with the sage who is now known as Sai Baba of Shirdi, and it is this aspect of his appeal that draws ever-increasing numbers to his shrines each year. 

One of the reasons the venerable Shankaracharya gives for Hindus to stop revering Sai Baba is because he was a “Muslim fakir”. In which case, I suppose he would want us to stop singing Kabir’s songs because he was a brought up by a Muslim couple, and oh, Meera too, for publicly singing of how her heart belonged not to her husband but to another? Lalla might qualify for the “fallen woman” tag as well, because didn’t she roam around naked? So, off with her divinely beautiful vaakhs. This list could become endless.

I suppose the point I am trying to make here is that guardians of organised religion will always want people’s faith and their connection with the sacred to stick to a particular model (preferably designed and designated by them). In India, for millennia, we have defied those who deem to be the definers of our relationship with the sacred. Sramanas (spiritual seekers) were opting out of the pale of organised society and religion on inner quests of truth certainly before and around the Buddha’s time some 2,500 years ago. A popular saying in India is, ‘There are as many paths as there are seekers’. Each seeker of spiritual truth has the freedom and the right to forge his or her own inner path to the sacred. It is time we stood up and owned this right for ourselves today.