Monthly Archives: September 2011

The One and Only

Our culture proclaims that it values the individual, individuality, and uniqueness.  However, like so much else about us, this is totally illusory.  What it really promotes is a kind of atomized individualism and a frenzied kind of self-centeredness, self-assertiveness.   It believes that by crying out “I am different,” that you establish your own individuality–or like that old pop song by Frank Sinatra, “I Did It My Way.”  However, true uniqueness is a deeply spiritual reality and cannot be had or found by simply asserting one’s own illusory ego identity in contrast to all other such assertions, etc.  It will inevitably require a “death” of that ego-centeredness—like the Gospel tells us: “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it will remain alone, but if it dies it will bear much fruit….”  And one of those fruits will be one’s true uniqueness and individuality.  The spiritual life is totally marked by paradox at every step of the way, and this is one such instance–one has to transcend one’s ego identity in order to find one’s true uniqueness.  And the still deeper paradox will be that this “individuality” will also be a communion with all others so that you will know their pain and their joy as your own.



In Jewish mysticism, among the Hasidim, there is the story of a very holy rabbi by the name of Zusya.  There are several variants of the story, but basically it goes something like this:  Zusya has a dream in which he has died and finds himself waiting near the throne of God for his final interrogation as it were.  He is really sweating it out as he worries that God will ask him why he was not Abraham or Moses or Joshua, doing the great and holy things they did.    He tries to prepare an answer, but God surprises him with the question:  “Why were you not Zusya?”  Indeed!  That may be THE only important question we need to consider!  But to be truly “Zusya,” to be truly “me,” means that I cannot live by any superficial social identity or even take on a copy-identity of a holy person.  You have to plunge into the gift of your own uniquness which is nothing what society or culture or even Church  tells you it is.   One of the problems even a spiritual seeker may have is thinking that God is more present somewhere else, in someone else’s life, in some other “better” conditions for a spiritual life, wishing that he were in Abhishiktanada’s shoes or Merton’s for example(!).  But it is you, in your totally and infinitely unique, irrepalaceable, non-interchangeable reality in which God has placed Himself.  No matter how many twists and turns your life has taken, no matter how many mistakes, your Heart is truly Paradise, the Abode of the Absolute, and there you walk with God as with a Friend.  He calls you by a name that you alone have from Him–no one else, and your spiritual task is to recognize that name and respond to it—because only you can do that—no one else will be able to respond to that name.  And furthermore, God has planted His secret name in your heart that you alone have and by which He wants you to call Him, and by which no one else can call him.  And the amazing thing is that these two names may very well be the same.  This is the true source of your uniqueness and the uniqueness of every man, woman and child that exists.  Your life is the field spoken of in the Gospel in which a treasure is buried and a man buys that field with all he has and claims the treasure.


Consider three very unique holy men from three very different spiritual traditions:


A. Benedict Joseph LaBre.  1748-1783.  Born into a well-to-do family in France before the Revolution.  He grows up during a period of great decadence and the peak of the enlightenment.  Right from his youth he shows a strong proclivity to prayer and living a life oriented totally to God.  He attempts to join both the Trappists and the Carthusians, but both groups reject him.  He strikes them as an “oddball” and perhaps a “mental case.”  Catholic religiosity at this time is very rigid, very formulaic, very external oriented, very institutional, very progam oriented, by the book kind of thing.  So you would think he was finished with that kind of rejection by those kind of folk!  Not in the least.  Benedict takes up a life hardly ever seen in modern Western Christianity:  the wandering beggar.  He lives a life of total poverty and total pilgrimage.  Officially he is nobody.  He spends his time mostly in silence and in continual prayer and in wandering from one church and one holy place to another.  He begs for his food, and he has only the clothes on his back.  In Eastern Christianity they would recognize him as a “fool for Christ”; among Hindus he might be considered as a kind of sannyasi, but where he was, there was no one like him!  Eventually he ends up in Rome where he sleeps in the ruins of the Colosseum and spends his days in the Churches.  He dies in Rome, and about a 100 years later he is canonized by Pope Leo.


B. Kabir  1440-1518  One of the greatest poets in Hindi and a mystic revered by Sikhs, Sufis, and Hindus.  Born in India near Varanasi, born into the lowest caste, he never learns Sanskrit, so all his poetry is in Hindi.  He is left parentless as a little child, and though coming from a Hindu family, he is adopted and raised by a family of Muslims.  He is another one of these people who is totally intoxicated with the reality of God.  You would think that such a one would take up being a sadhu, taking sannyasa, having a guru, etc.  However, he never goes beyond being a householder, marries, and is a weaver by trade.  His religious/mystical poetry is marked by intense experience, and even though he grew up in Moslem home his poetry   is replete with Hindu spiritual concepts, especially within the bhakti vein.  But he also spurned the Hindu caste system, and Sufi ideas can be found in all his poetry.  Considering how violent the Hindu-Islam encounter has been from time to time, Kabir is that unique expression of another way.  Legend has it when he died that Hindus and Moslems were arguing about how to properly deal with his body.  When they lifted the covering, there were only rose petals there.  So the Hindus cremated part of the petals as they are accustomed and the Moslems entombed another part of the rose petals according to their custom.  So today you will find both shrines to Kabir.


C. Han-shan  Chinese hermit. Taoist, Buddhist, Zen figure.  Lived during the great Tang period, around 650 AD.  He was a contemporary of China’s greatest poet, Tu Fu.  Not much is known about him, but he did leave behind a bunch of scribbled poems.  He also was not an “official monk” but more like a hobo.  A contemporary official who had heard of him from some early Zen master sought Han-shan out.  He discovered him living in a place called Cold Mountain, which is also the meaning of the name, “Han-shan.”  There was a major temple in a nearby town where Han-shan would come down to often.  He befriended the kitchen master who was also something of a spiritual adept.  Anyway Han-shan would get food leftovers from his friend and together they would often sing and laugh and joke around.  When the official first found him, Han-shan was with his friend in the kitchen, and the official came in and bowed to them.  Han-shan laughed and shouted, “Why has a big official bowed to a pair of clowns?”  The town people called him a “mountain mad man”—he was always singing, laughing, talking to himself, but the official commented that “everything he said had a feeling of the Tao.”  After Han-shan’s death several hundred of his short poems were gathered together, and very quickly he became one of the great legendary figures of early Chinese Zen.  In an earlier posting I had quoted from this poetry, and here is another sample–and it would be good to point out that “Cold Mountain”  refers simultaneously to his place of residence, to himself, and to his state of mind: (Gary Snyder’s translation)


Borrowers don’t bother me

In the cold I build a little fire

When I’m hungry I boil up some greens.

I’ve got no use for the kulak

With his big barn and pasture–

He just sets up a prison for himself.

Once in he can’t get out.

Think it over–

You know it might happen to you.



In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place–

Bird–paths, but no trails for men.

What’s beyond the yard?

White clouds clinging to vague rocks.

Now I’ve lived here–how many years–

Again and again, spring and winter pass.

Go tell families with silverware and cars

‘What’s the use of all that noise and money?’



Men ask the way to Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail.

In summer, ice doesn’t melt

The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.

How did I make it?

My heart’s not the same as yours.

If your heart was like mine

You’d get it and be right here.



When men see Han-shan

They all say he’s crazy

And not much to look at

Dressed in rags and hides.

They don’t get what I say

& I don’t talk their language.

All I can say to those I meet:

‘Try and make it to Cold Mountain.’




News Notes


A. The anniversary of 9/11 is upon us.  Ten years ago, yet who can forget that horrifying and tragic day?  The sadness and darkness of that day is not only in all the lives that were lost in that attack, but actually even more in the truly tragic and insane response it provoked from us.  Right after the attack, the next day, most of the  world was actually with us in sympathy and in solidarity.  There were actually huge demonstrations, for example, in Tehran in support of the U.S.  There was a moment, an opportunity when we could have transcended the usual “eye for an eye” approach to policy and foeign relations, and we could have called the world together and said, “Ok, what can we do, what should we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”   Trust the goodness of people, of all people, to help us find a way to bring reparation, restoral, healing  and peace.  Instead we began to bomb.  Incidentally, we call ourselves a “Christian nation,” or some people do, but after 9/11 the spirit of  revenge and retaliation was stalking through the land—NOT the Spirit of Christ.  Consider this:  Jesus was tortured and murdered, but on the cross he seeks forgiveness for his killers.  More importantly, in the Resurrection, his first words are, “Peace be with you, MY peace…..”  The Risen Christ does not speak the language of revenge, retaliation, “pay back,” etc.  Who can sanely claim that we are a “Christian nation”?  On September 12, 2001, the Gospel for the day was Jesus’s command to “love your enemy”!


But there was also another deep wound inflicted that day—a deep wounding of Muslim/non-Muslim relations, in particular Western Christian/Muslim relations, understanding, respect for one another, and even a nourishing of each other.  Not that there was great mutual understanding or interest in each other before 9/11, but now  the  distinterest on  the part of  so many Western Christians has a tinge of hostility or at least suspicion of everything Muslim.  Ignorance, irresponsible mass media, and even more irresponsible politicians and leaders have all contributed to this.


Fifty years ago Thomas Merton wrote to a Pakistani Sufi friend of his:  “It seems to me that mutual comprehension between Christianity and Moslems is something of very real importance today, and unfortunately it is rare and uncertain, or else subjected to the vagaries of politics.”  Alas, that statement is even more true today.  But if we look at the deep past there are some flickers of hope. St. Francis with the Sultan–a well-known story.  Then, in the 14th Century, before the fall of Constantinople, the great Orthodox spiritual theologian St. Gregory Palamas was captured by the Turks and held prisoner for quite a while.  During that time Palamas had many discussions with the Emir and his son.  The Emir had a great respect for this Christian theologian and mystic, and Palamas himself  became good friends with the Emir’s son.  Later when he was released, he wrote a letter to the Emir’s son and said that he hoped that “a day will soon come when we shall be able to understand each other.”  Indeed.  Then, the anonymous Christian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, is quite explicit in teaching that in the absence of a starets or spiritual father, the Christian seeker may receive spiritual instruction “even from a Saracen.”  The reverse relationship can be found in  the spiritual friendship of the Sufi Ibrahim ibn Adham and the Orthodox monk Symeon.  All this points us in the right direction.  Finally there is this iconic image: the oldest continuously existing Christian monastery in the world, St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai, contains a mosque within its precincts.  This was built by the monks for their workers who are Muslim Bedouins.  This should remind us if we have a dominant role in a given society to give our minority brethren the freedom and ability to worship as they feel called.


B. Merton wrote this about one of the great Sufi holy men of our time,            Shaikh  Ahmad al-‘Alawi of Morocco:  “With Shaikh Ahmad, I speak the

same language and indeed have a great deal more in common than I do with the majority of my contemporaries in this country.  In listening to him I seem to be hearing a familiar voice from my ‘own country’ so to speak.  I regret that the Muslim world is so distant from where I am, and wish I had more contact with people who think along these lines.”


C. Speaking of Sufis, their connection to the events going on in Libya are not well known.  It appears that the rebels have overthrown Gaddafi, and this is another one of those events that is percolating in the Arab world.  No one knows for sure the outcome of this revolution or the exact make-up of these rebels, but something very interesting about them:  they are fighting under the old Libyan flag, the flag of  the pre-Gaddafi state of King Idris who was Libya’s king from 1951, when Libya gained its independence from colonial rule, until 1969 when he was overthrown by Gaddafi.  What is especially interesting is that King Idris was a Sufi, in fact he was head of the Senussi Sufi Order—he was in fact a “Sufi king,” like Plato’s “philosopher king.”  He governed a constitutional state that was  aligned with the West.  He built a modern Western-style university in Libya.  There was also a very good religious university run by the Senussi Sufis which Gaddafi closed in 1984.  Gaddafi rose to power in the 1960s when it was very “in” and popular in the Third World to be anti-Western, and so he was against the Sufis who were able to get along with Westerners who would not exploit their country.


Libya had been a hotbed of Sufi life for centuries, as in fact a lot of North Africa.  King Idris’s  grandfather was a founder of the Senussi Sufi Order as a branch of the Idrisi Sufis founded by the Moroccan Sufi Ahmad ibn Idris(1760-1837).  This religious leader was noted for his reforming concepts.  He called for the abandonment of the traditional sharia schools of Islamic law, and he was a critic of the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhibi movement(from which Al-Qaeda and the 9/11 terrorists spring and whose roots are actually in Saudi Arabia, from where we get so much oil and with whom we are such good friends!)  What is not generally known is that while Sufis are very peaceful they are not pacifists in the strict sense—they will fight against someone who invades their home.  Thus Libyan Sufis were prominent in the fight against the colonialism of France and Italy.  Many were executed by Mussolini.  Let us see if the present Libyan freedom fighters live up to the high standards of their distinguished ancestors.  For more information about these Sufis in Lbya here are a few websites:


D. India.  What can you say?  There are so many different Indias!  Let us consider some examples.  First there is the India which has been in the international news lately because of a hunger strike conducted by a Gandhi-like figure, Anna Hazare, against widespread government corruption.  Sounds pretty straightforward, and how could you not support that!  But things are never simple in India(or here either!).  Consider this op-ed piece in a major Indian newspaer by Arundhati Roy:

Roy is a major novelist, a social activist, and what we would call a “progressive.”  Reading her piece as an outsider, it is almost impossible to follow in its myriad details, but you get a sense of the complexity and enormity of India’s social problems.  But there is another India, the India of sannyasis and sadhus, the India of our Abhishiktananda.  Here is an amazing story illustrating the fact that this India is still there—barely maybe—but still there:

Now in what other country could this story have unfolded?  I think only in India.  However modernity is eating away at India’s body and soul and heart, and what of this India will survive remains to be seen.  It is really ironic that Catholic Indian monasteries and ashrams used to want to “do it in an Indian way” when now young Indians want to live like this:

Just a sample of tons of such housing developments going up in India all over the place.  With “six lane highways” close by!!    It looks just like here!  Exactly.    That’s one of the effects of modernity:  homogenization


And a final note on this:  a real physical symbol of what is taking place in India—the greatest and most holy river in India, the River Ganga, is dying.  Not only from the human corpses which have been dumped there for ages, but more from the sewage and industrial effluents going into the river now in unprecedented amounts.  Around Karpur over 200 tanneries discharge chromium-rich effluents and 80% of the city’s sewage is dumped untreated into the river.  Around Kolkata some 150 factories pour untreated waste into the brown water of the Hugli, a tributary of the Ganga.  Fish die and river water laced with toxins irrigates farmland, eventually seeping into food and village borewells to cause untold diseases.  Once the only liquid thought fit for an orthodox Brahmin, now is undrinkable.  But a radical “solution” of sorts is in store.  The Gangotri Glacier, which feeds the Ganga is melting and retreating at a pace of about 600-700 meters per year.  Eventually the Ganga will be waterless.  Will India be thoroughly modern then?


E.   One more note about 9/11.  The New York firemen who were the first responders to the attacked buildings had a Catholic chaplain.  His name:  Fr. Mychal Judge.  He was a Franciscan priest of many years.  He went into the buildings with his firemen to minister to anyone in need and to be “with his parishioners.”  He died with them when the buildings collapsed.  One more thing about Fr. Mychal: he was a gay priest.  He was a gay Franciscan priest who lived faithful to his vows and his calling.  Many New York firemen were later surprised to find out that their chaplain had been gay.