Monthly Archives: October 2011

Abhishiktananda, the Man, the Witness Who Smiles

Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux) is one of the most important and most interesting religious figures of our time and maybe the most profound Christian mystic since Eckhart and John of the Cross.  I say this fully aware that there may be some serious questions about some of his spiritual/theological proposals and claims, and at a later date I hope to go over in some detail the essentials of his spiritual/mystical teaching with all its “wrinkles.”  But here we will just look at the humanity of this great mystic—something which ought to be done with all our other historical holy figures who tend to become “unreal icons” of an unreal perfection.  When we lose sight of their humanity, we also begin to see their teachings at a further distance from ourselves than needs be.  Also, when we see the mystic in his true humanity we then begin to interpret his teaching in a truer, deeper way and avoid the pitfalls of becoming a “groupie” or a “fan club member” who simply does not question anything the mystic says.  As that bumper sticker proposes:  “Question All Authority”—even the mystic’s!


The first thing that hit me about Abhishiktananda is a comparison of him with Thomas Merton.  And here we have to add that one of the truly sad things, indeed even tragic things, is that the two never met. Merton does mention in his Asian Journal Diary that he had an intention of trying to find Abhishiktananda and visit him if he had the time, but then he tragically died.  But even with that, most mysterious is that both of them, being such incredible correspondents with so many contacts and tons of letters written all over the place, never communicated with each other via letter.  Something to ponder.


Both monks were filled “to the gills” with engaging contradictions that would endear them to their friends.  And both men were to a large extent self-aware of these contradictions and could poke fun at themselves.  For example, both rhapsodized about solitude and silence yet they both had a “gift for gab” and immensely enjoyed conversation with like-minded souls and both had a real need for human contacts and human affirmation.  One cannot picture either of these men sitting in a cave somewhere alone for years on end in total silence–yet they both idealized such folk. One of the key characteristics of Merton’s writings is that he could seemingly contradict himself so readily.  I mean if you consulted his published works, his journals, his letters and his class notes, you could pretty much quote Merton “against Merton.”  That is also the case with Abhishiktananda, though not to the same extent or the same degree.  But recall Emerson’s famous remark concerning contradictions in Thoreau:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  (Here we need to add that the contradictions spoken of here are not the same kind as in the case of Heidegger, for example, who had such profound intuitions about human reality and yet consorted for years with the Nazis; or consider even the recent case of Steve Jobs who just died and was lionized for being a “deep Zen practioner”—however, Apple under his leadership outsourced thousands of jobs to China and then allowed his Chinese producers and sources to pollute the environment and run practically slave-like work conditions.  One of the factories where Apple computers were made had so many worker suicides that people there were forced to sign “no-suicide oaths”—very bizarre, I mean what could they do to you if you broke the oath!!!?  But we are getting too far afield!  In any case, these are contradictions that open an enormous moral chasm that cannot be affirmed.  These are not just personal quirks or the desire to hold on to “both ends” of a paradox as one wrestles with a mystery.)



Take a look at this picture of Abhishiktananda:

It is cold in winter where he has his hermit’s hut in Northern India.  So he has a large overcoat and a sweater on top of his sannyasi garb. (Kind of symbolic I thought!)  At a certain point he has a stove, and an electric immersion heater to make hot chocolate and hot tea.  He is surrounded by books, papers, a typewriter.  Now this is not your typical sadhu!  And he often good-humoredly (and sometimes sadly) points that out.  He knows his physical limitations and humbly accepts them.

Another thing:  he owns the land on which he sits!!  Actually Panikkar bought it for him and put it in both their names.  Very untypical for a sadhu!!  The plot of land was large enough for a garden.  And at one point he puts up barbed wire around the garden to preserve his vegetables.  Now that’s a picture that has to make one smile–a sadhu stringing barbed wire around HIS property!!  He also has a small endowment of money given to him by a donor, which allows him to roam freely until that money runs out, and then he shows some real signs of insecurity when he has to live only on the royalties from his few published items.  Then another rich donor steps forward—again, very unusual for a sadhu!!  He is very endearing when he confesses that he feels  totally unable to go from door to door begging for his food(he only does that a few times during his time in India–not easy to do for a European from an upper middle class family or an American for that matter!


Actually he never stays for too long in his hermit’s hut—never more than a few months at a time, and then he is on the road again.  At first he had to shuttle back and forth between Shantivanam, the original ashram, and his hermit’s lair in the foothills of the Himalayas.  Quite a journey and quite taxing.  Eventually he develops friendships and contacts all over India, and his reputation as a teacher and spiritual resource pulls him here and there all over India.  He writes to one of his sisters who is a cloistered nun that his enclosure is all of India!!


He is a man of great humor–his friends say he is full of jokes, telling “even wicked jokes”–more often his humor is aimed at himself but he is not afraid to tweek even his close friends.  But the humor is never for its own sake, but it is always for the sake of that awakening toward which he always focused.  In writing to his closest disciple, Marc, when the latter first proposed that he wanted to take sannyasa, Abhishiktananda good-naturedly takes him to task:  “You need sannyasa in order to be recognized.  And why do you want to be recognized, except with a view to being accepted when you do something?  It is not the ten years of silence which are calling for the diksha, but the time afterwards when you feel that something awaits you; a need for an apostolate under a different name!  I am not blaming you, but I am the witness who smiles….  A small damper for you and for me, who are at times living a little too much in a dream….  I smile when I see you now so interested in giving a form to the formless.  That is just what cults, myths, theologies have been doing from the beginning…  You need a sign in order to possess your freedom!  Oh, the infinitely free man, who needs a sign that he is beyond signs!  Get away with you—you are still steeped in your University Seminary, and deserve to go back to it!”  Of course, at a later date, Marc does become a sannyasi in a beautifully documented ceremony.  But this shows Abhishiktananda as teacher, not afraid to tweek even his closest associate.


Abhishiktananda is a man who exudes humor, liveliness, warmth through every pore of his body and spirit, but he is also very capable of being gruff, abrasive and cold to those who seem to him to be wasting his time or misleading people or are pompous.  Although he had extensive communal living in France, here in India he seems to show a certain inability to live in close quarters with other people.  Mainly because he is set and determined by a certain vision and experience and he simply does not have time for anything else.  Although he had great fondness for Monchanin, Bede Griffiths and Father Francis–the other 3 important figures in India’s Catholicism at that time–and although he respected and valued each of their talents, for all practical purposes he could not live with any of them in any community setting.  They all in fact had a very different vision of what their role in India was, and there were moments of friction(at one time Abhishiktananda called Fr. Bede, “the fog of the Thames”!)   Abhishiktananda also had very strong and sensitive feelings, and in one gathering of Christian religious figures in the early 60s someone whom he respected not only disagreed with some of his ideas but personally called into question his integrity.  This really hurt Abhishiktananda and he practically never got over it.  For a long time he avoided this particular group of theological scholars, and one wonders if some of his harsh statements about theology in his later life does not stem from that wound.  Anyway, it is interesting that this man who spoke so much about “going beyond” the peripheral ego to the great I Am, still felt the hurt that ego experienced and more importantly still was not free of it.  In light of this one can see how some of those Desert Father stories take on an enormous importance and how they also in a very, very quiet way point to that Beyond in a very existential way without any “lofty mystical language.” More about that in a later posting.


Abhishiktananda’s vision of the monastic journey, so profoundly influenced by Hindu sannyasa, seems at times to “leave this earth.”  The word is “acosmic.”  At times the vision he articulates of sannyasa and the monastic charism leaves one seemingly outside all human concerns and human history—the sufferings, injustices, travails that so many people undergo.  It’s as if the mystical life and the pursuit of justice are two paths with almost nothing in common.  Now Merton was much more into a unified vision of the two and so today he still is the more useful spiritual guide for many people.  However, Abhishiktananda, in his real life showed a great sensitivity and a truly compassionate heart to those who suffered.  Something like Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosima he intuited that it is very “cheap and easy” to love humanity in the abstract, but very, very difficult to truly love concrete persons with all their shortcomings. That will take real sacrifice, and if you do it in a way that nobody sees it, so much the better.  Early on in his life in India he practically adopted this wretchedly poor Tamil family and regularly sent them money, a share of whatever he got, even when he was almost penniless at some times in his life.  He never forgot them.  His heart was in the right place, but somehow he could never articulate a truly “unified vision” of spirituality and mysticism and the pursuit of justice.  In a letter to his sister, this is about as good as he could get:  “The Church  is a life conformed to the Gospel.  Christians are those who love their brothers and seek to transform a civilization based on profit and egoism, which therefore is contrary to the Gospel.  Priests and religious are those who take seriously the instructions given by Jesus to the seventy-two disciples when sending them out on mission.  That is how the Church ought to appear.” (And there are other similar quotes from him.)


In light of the above, it is important to point out that Abhishiktananda never did show any grasp of the “Brahmin bias” of his advaita spirituality—advaita was upper caste spirituality in India, and although Abhishiktananda himself related to all kinds of people with the same openness, he somehow never showed any self-critical awareness in this regard(of which self-criticism he showed much in other regards!).  He fixed an almost laser-beam focus on advaita and never let go, even as there were so many other religious paths in India.  In his defense, one could say that he saw advaita as liberated from the limitations even of Indian culture.  More about this in a later posting.



Abhishiktananda had some interesting preferences in regard to Catholic religious life–most of his friends there were either Carmelites or Jesuits.  He seems not to have cared a hoot for either Trappists or Carthusians(too regimented, too organized, too external oriented), and he had little hope for his own Benedictines–he himself saw them as providing “cover” for him in India, but that was about it.  Jesuits he had a lot of dealings with because it was they who would shape the ethos of the Indian Church.  The Carmelites he really loved because they were simply and totally oriented to contemplative prayer, nothing else, not even the liturgy.  He thought the nuns’ grill was ridiculous but he found the Carmelite nuns the most receptive to his spiritual teachings.


Food wise he ate as far as he could what the poorest in India ate.  However, he recognized many times that he badly needed some “European food.”  At one point he says that after 60 you almost cannot survive in India without some “European food.”  Here again he shows discretion, common sense, and a humble acceptance of his limitations.  Speaking of which, “common sense” is very evident in a lot of his spiritual direction and guidance in letters to various people. Here he is in the great tradition of the Elders of Optina in Russia during the 19th Century: spiritual direction characterized by a lot of common sense. To a housewife in Bombay who wrote to him with some questions, he responds to her real situation, her real vocation from God, not some dream or fantasy of some unrealizable situation:  “I would not know how to give a good answer to the question whether Christ is necessary for Hindus.  I only know that plenty of people who do not know his person have access to his ‘mystery'(not to his ‘concept’) in their inner deepening and also in transcending themselves in the love of their brothers.  The mystery of the Heart of Christ is present in the mystery of every human heart.  You have found fulfilment through music, through painting.  Art is also a way of access to the mystery, and perhaps–in poety, painting, music–it reveals him better than any technical formula.  And in the end it is this mystery–at once of oneself and of each person, of Christ and of God–that alone counts.  The Awakening of the Resurrection is the awakening to this mystery!…Joy to you, to your husband, to your children.  May it shed its rays on all!  And don’t worry about those who love the esoteric, who run around to ashrams and ‘saints’.  The discovery of the mystery is so much simpler than that.  It is right beside you in the opening of a flower, the song of a bird, the smile of a child.”  This is a TRUE spiritual master speaking, but, alas, poor Abhishiktananda does seem to get a bit lost with his close disciple, Marc!   (Recently I listened to a talk by a Sufi teacher, and he also stressed the importance of common sense in spiritual guidance. )


Prayer and meditation:  at some gathering on the theme of prayer and meditation various participants got into a discussion of  “how much” time to give to such “practices.”  Very often the various individuals pointed out how much time they were able to allot to this each day.  Abhishiktananda was greatly amused to relate that he spent less time on “such periods” than any of them.  The point is that he did not believe in cutting up the day into “spiritual practics” and then the “other stuff.”  He saw this as making that fatal mistake of superimposing spirituality on the rest of life–it was kind of another layer that you put on your life.  Rather,  even as periods of silent prayer are good and important but what is really important is that pervasive and constant silent attentiveness to the Presence in all you do and in all that happens.  Here we are getting much closer to what the old Hesychast Fathers meant by “continual prayer,” “pure prayer,” “prayer of the Heart,” etc.



Finally, we have to confront the dark, swirling rumors around the possibility of a homoerotic relationship between Abhishiktananda and his closest disciple Marc.  Of course no one really knows, and it is very easy to mistakenly evaluate certain language. (It is alarming and very disappointing that Marc apparently recopied the last years of Abhishiktananda’s diary and threw away the originals—so we really can’t be too sure how much of Abhishiktananda’s own thoughts we have in that diary for about the last 5 years.  And then Marc’s own diary became totally inaccessible to all, even scholars–a close friend of Abhishiktananda’s kept this diary locked up, but she recently died, so maybe this might become available, but I doubt it.  And then, Marc’s mysterious disappearance—was he killed by some fanatic fundamentalist Hindus; did he just disappear in some cave in the mountains and die there or is he still there!; or did he commit suicide in the Ganges, like this Hindu guru did whom he had admired deeply.  Looking at it from outside one can say that there is not too many “good vibes” there!) There is an emotional flavor to their discourse in that last  year of his life that is much more than just the usual guru-disciple relationship.  However, like I said above, Abhishiktananda  was a very affective and sensitive person and he would respond with much feeling when he was connecting with someone.  It is possible that Marc was the one person who most alleviated him of a great loneliness in not being able to share his deepest and most profound insights/intuitions/teachings/understandings, etc.  He often mentions how little people seem to understand him.  However be the case, I frankly don’t care even if he did have a homoerotic relationship with Marc.  In a sense it may have been very innocent–like Merton’s experience of human love with the student-nurse, and he may have gone beyond it like Merton did if  he had lived longer.   No matter,the ultimate thing is that there was power in his words and behind his words, power to open up the depths of people’s heart to the Ultimate and Absolute Mystery.   But he is also still, “the witness who smiles” at all our foibles and preoccupations.  Amen!