Monthly Archives: November 2013

Abhishiktananda Revisited

Time to revisit our old friend! As I have mentioned on several occasions, I believe that Abhishiktananda is one of the most important religious figures of modern Christianity. He died on December 7, 1973, 40 years ago, seems like a whole age ago. His writings are in all the libraries of the seminaries in his beloved India, but as one theologian told me they are sadly largely collecting dust. Most of the younger Indian theology students are more interested in various forms of Indian Liberation Theology or in some conservative reconstruction of the Christian past. Never mind—his influence has gone far beyond India to so many people seeking a deep contemplative life and especially those drawn to the encounter of Christianity with the great Asian religions. Now granted the number of such people is not great compared to all those who follow pop evangelical writers or mainstream Catholic or Protestant voices, but the importance of someone like Abhishiktananda cannot be measured by numbers of any kind.

Over the years there have been quite a few studies done of Abhishiktananda’s thought, theology and spirituality. Some are good and helpful, some are critical, some are superficially critical, and some are superficially laudatory. Whatever be the case, getting even a bit of his insights is most welcome. His written work does present various problems among which is that a lot of it was written very quickly and in a kind of ad hoc way, addressing some pressing problem or issue confronting him, especially in his numerous letters and in his diary—sources of some of his deepest insights. One is left to wonder how he might have developed these kernels of insight into a more refined contemplative/mystical theology—or if he would have even done that. Another possible problem is the narrowness of his interest, his laser-like focus on one thing: the encounter of Christianity with Hinduism, and even with just one path within Hinduism, Advaita. If your interests lie elsewhere, you might easily miss the importance of what he is trying to relate. However, the biggest problem in approaching Abhishiktananda and the biggest obstacle in getting a handle on his thinking is the fact that he develops as time goes by and his thought has some very serious changes. The Abhishiktananda of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is not quite the Abhishiktananda of the early ‘50s even though he was already sitting in a cave at Aurunachala even then. Some of his strongest supporters claim that he was “already there” even then, but I think there is a real revolution in his thought as he gets into the 1960s.

What I am getting at can be seen in his book Saccidananda, his only book-length theological reflection, which he started composing about 1960 and finally got published by 1965. By the late ‘60s he had so changed his ideas that he considered this book no longer representing his thinking. However, when it was published it became quite popular in certain circles and also received some critical notice. The publisher wanted him to revise it and to republish it in the ‘early’70s but he said that he would now have to totally rewrite it. However he got talked into a revision of sorts and sent it out and this is the copy we have, but it does not truly represent his most developed thought—if that’s what you are looking for. And the revolution in his thinking that this little book begins has to do with how a Christian views the other great world religions. Abhishiktananda was trained in a progressive but traditional Catholic theology that gave rise to the Vatican II Council. The conservative view at that time looked on all other religions as simply being false if not downright leading to hell. The new view was that God was truly known in some way in all the great world religions, but that they were somehow incomplete and Christianity’s coming would be a kind of fulfillment and completetion of what was lacking in them. At least implicitly Christianity was held as “superior” and as the goal toward which all other religions were moving, but they were seen as holding a partial truth not to be demeaned or dismissed. When Abhishiktananda arrived in India in the late ‘40s he was very close to this position, but already you see in him an openness and a willingness to explore and encounter beyond the traditional lines. Well, by the late ‘60s there is a veritable revolution in his thinking. He turns the whole thing upside down! Speaking from his own deep religious/mystical experience of Advaita, he no longer sees this as being “incomplete” in the old sense of that term. In fact it is Christianity which he insists needs the experience of Advaita in order to come into its own fullness. Needless to say this is not going to fly in Rome!

Let’s do some exploring pertaining to these points by looking at some quotes. First let us listen to what may be his most formidable critic, his old monastic companion from his early days in India: Jules Monchanin, a brilliant and deep man of prayer in his own right:

“Serious divergences between us have cast a shadow over these last years; I think he goes too far in his concessions to Hinduism, and it seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be recovered the other side of Advaita. Advaita, like yoga and more than it, is an abyss. Whoever in an experience of vertigo throws himself into it does not know what he will find at the bottom. I am afraid he may find himself rather than the living Trinitarian God.”

This is not a simple criticism which can easily be brushed off, and it does not come from someone who doesn’t know theology or who is congenitally conservative and not open to a grand encounter. However, the difference between Monchanin (and so many other Christian intellectuals who could not and cannot follow Abhishiktananda ) and Abhishiktananda is that the latter did venture into that abyss and his reports, at least for some of us, point to a profound discovery and realization. As someone put it: Abhishiktananda moved from interpreting Advaita in Christian terms to understanding Christ in the light of his own Advaitic experience. This is a new realization of the Christ-event and it leaves you wondering about the role of the Church in all this.

In relation to this is the general criticism of all contemplative life and mysticism as simply being narcissistic, a pre-occupation with one’s own self, not really in tune with the “Love Commandment” of the Gospel. Abhishiktananda understood this very deeply and confronted such criticsm vigorously(and this is one indicator that his Advaita experience is truly genuine):

“The act of pure love is what awakes. Advaita, non-duality, is not an intellectual discovery, but an attitude of the soul. It is much more the impossibility of saying ‘Two’ than the affirmation of ‘One.’ What is the use of saying ‘One’ in one’s thought, if one says ‘Two’ in one’s life. To say ‘One’ in one’s life: that is Love.”

This kind of statement is of course at the heart of what the New Testament says in so many different ways. And it is interesting that he puts it in “Advaitic” terms as if to say that this brings a new understanding of what the Gospel is saying. As many other times he says that we do not fully see how much the Gospel holds until we see it through the eyes of Advaita (granted this is not everyone’s cup of tea ).

Abhishiktananda is not fooled by general piety and religiosity, a kind of acting out of superficial religion—which is the real enemy of “love of neighbor”:
“Piety is perhaps the most subtle and also the surest way for the ego to escape pursuit and re-establish its status and dignity.” (Dostoiyevsky’s Father Zosima points to a similar insight.)

Here he is in harmony with that other great Hindu Advaitist, Ramana Maharshi:
“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from strengthening his ego.”
And this from one of the great Sufi masters, Bistami:
“The thickest veils between man and God are the wise man’s wisdom, the worshipper’s worship and the devotion of the devout.”

Like all the great spiritual masters of all the great traditions, Abhishiktananda focuses on the problem of identity: “who am I?” He summed up the whole spiritual journey in one marvelous expression: “The absolute surrender of the peripheral ego to the inner Mystery.” For Christians the Mystery has a face as the Gospel presents it in the person of Jesus. But Christian mysticism does not seek for you to “imagine” Jesus in your heart. A Christian Advaita, as Abhishiktananda sees it, moves way beyond praying to a God who is solely extrinsic to uis and is contacted exclusively by our own ideas and our own discursive reasoning. It affirms that the Risen Christ, who has no limitations or determinations, is at the core of our being. There is the “placeless place” within us, within our deepest consciousness—which in the Hesychast tradition is termed “the heart.” So God is not an object to be looked at; nor to be petitioned out of one’s own self-centeredness that is so filled with a bias toward oneself. Now for the pure Advaitist that very central Mystery has no face, just a pure Interiority. It is the “I Am” of God spoken in your heart as the ground of your little personal “I am.”

That sense of “I-ness” that every human being has is certainly real in its own right and level but if one only knows the superficial “I” then even the religious life gets warped. In the modern world this “I-ness” is especially exacerbated by mistakingly thinking that what we are is what we own or what we do or some such extrinsic dynamic. Happiness and fulfillment and the whole point of life then seems to consist in aggrandizing and protecting and embellishing all that. Abhishiktananda knew all about the delusion of all that quite early in his spiritual life, but when he has his heart attack toward the end in 1973, when he is no longer able to do anything, when in a sense he even has to give up “being Abhishiktananda,” then he serenely experiences the “deep I” which no longer is a matter of any extrinsic object or activity. From his Diary:

“Seeing myself so helpless, incapable of any thought or movement, I was released from being identified with this “I” which until then had thought, willed, rushed about, was anxious about each and every thing. Disconnection! That whole consciousness in which I habitually lived was no longer mine, but I, I still was.”

In the Christ-event, then, from Abhishiktananda’s viewpoint, what constitutes true personhood, in Christian terms, is that experience of being from the Father and going to the Father—using the language of Jesus. This is what Jesus communicates. This is where some Christians would say that Abhishiktananda gets problematical: the figure and role of Jesus. For Abhishiktananda Jesus is more the “frame of a window” through which we can see who we really are—not so much the “contents of a painting.” When Jesus says that “The Father and I are one,” this is meant to communicate an experience of Advaita in Middle Eastern, Jewish terms and this is a communication of our own identity that Jesus brings to us. And you begin to see some concerns that some might have when you catch the full implications of a statement like this:

“See Jesus in his infinite mystery, without setting him apart, and if he is the very mystery of every person, why refuse to adore him in each one and to recognize his unique glory in that person…and why demand that people should always and everywhere give to this mystery the name that was given to him when he appeared in Israel?”

This kind of statement makes even some very good people uneasy—because it seems to make the dynamic of evangelization in the classic sense unnecessary. Toward the end of his life Abhishiktananda had arrived at that point. For him a lot of the “Christian message” was namarupa, mythology and symbolism for this universal inner mystery of Absolute Presence. For him the Jesus of the Gospels was the window on this reality but that did not mean that would be the case for someone else. Let us listen to some key statements from him:

“Christ is my Sadguru—my true Guru—and he makes himself the singer of the Presence of this inner Mystery which Jesus called the Father, and of the relationship to the very heart of the Mystery which Jesus called the Spirit.”

“Far more than being the ‘head’ of a religion, Jesus is first of all a questioning of every human being. An examination of each one about his relation with God and with his brothers, as actually lived.”

“Jesus the Advaita, the Only Son of the Father, to whom we are not second, but in whom we are all one Son and in whose Spirit we are One with the Father.”

In each of the quotes above there is much more there than meets the casual eye, and one can understand why traditionally trained Christians would be/can be uneasy with such language. Abhishiktananda is quite ready and willing to take you beyond the boundaries of traditional Christian understanding if you let him. And now listen to this—here he is referring to the Eucharist, which he celebrated all the time in his role as priest and which some point to his “relative conservatism” as if he had still a traditional understanding of this sacrament:

“Every act that I perform is a divine act. Every act performed by any creature, every movement of unconscious or inanimate creatures is a divine act as much as the divine generation itself. God is completely and totally present in each of his manifestations (just as Christ is present in every host and in every particle…)”

For Abhishiktananda, the great words of the Eucharist, “This is My Body,” are no longer relegated to a discrete specimen of bread but pronounced as a revelation of the real nature of all that is real as it flows into the Ultimate Reality. The Eucharist is truly a celebration of Reality but not the only one—“Lead me from the unreal to the Real” chants the Hindu prayer!

Let me conclude with one of his last entries in his Diary, just before his death:

“The Trinity cannot be understood apart from the experience of Advaita, of non-duality. Jesus lived with his Father this experience of non-duality, an experience at once lacerating and fulfilling, all transcending, which carries away and leads beyond all; the gift of Wisdom, deep co-naturality, an explosion which whoever experiences it cannot escape.”

To follow Abhishiktananda beyond the boundaries of traditional Christianity may be hazardous, but then again it may be the “one thing necessary” for some of us.

More Issues

Henry Giroux, a Canadian, is one of my favorite social critics and public intellectuals (with Chris Hedges of course). I usually catch him on Truthout, and there he has recently written about the corruption of the public university. Not a small matter or something that can be ignored without serious consequences. If our religious institutions are suppose to form and direct our hearts toward the “higher things” of life, our universities are suppose to inform our minds and empower us to think intelligently and critically about our life and our society. But, alas, we are in serious trouble on both fronts!

Giroux’s target here is the university. It has become mostly a shil for corporate America and the maintenance of the status quo. Yes, there are some decent people there and some real scholars, but the institution as a whole has been totally undermined as a bastion of independent thought, as a home for deep thought in the classic sense. Read Giroux’s lengthy, powerful, and devastating indictment here:”>

The nation is abuzz with Obamacare talk! Conservatives and Republicans are absolutely apoplectic about it. Most of what they complain about are either small problems or downright lies and fabrications on their part. A few things are actual, real problems, but what truly bothers them is the increasing role of the Federal Government. They are against that even if that were to produce good results for people. But about such a thing we could have an honest debate in other circumstances—but not now, for the simple reason that BOTH sides are absolutely wrong on this issue (and so many others). The trouble with Obamacare is not a broken-down website or the fact that the government tells you that you must have health insurance. The real problem is that Obamacare is another subterfuge for big business, for the insurance companies to make a ton of money. Yes, Obamacare will help some people; it will also hurt a few people. But you really miss the underlying narrative if you just look at these kind of numbers. No, the U.S. did NOT have a great health care system in private hands as the Right claims—there were (and are) so many serious problems with it, but what the Obama administration came up with is this strange blending and joining of corporate and government elements which is truly toxic—as in the military-industrial complex in another segment of our society. An extensive description and analysis of how this happened and why can be found here:

. Not too long ago the Pope gave a homily in which he said something astonishing. He used the term “ideological Christianity” and he called it an illness within the Church! Indeed! A remarkable diagnosis coming from the highest office in the Catholic Church. This afflicts all Christians but there is a particular “flavor” of it within Catholicism. As the Pope put it, these people become not followers/disciples of the person of Jesus Christ, but of an ideology which is called Christianity. They are more interested in “being right,” in “being correct,” rather than following the person of Jesus Christ. They avoid the real cost and the real terms of discipleship. The reality of Jesus attracts people to the Church; ideology repels them. (This reminds me of Abhishiktananda saying somewhere how he met a number of Indians/Hindus who very much loved the person of Jesus but who were put off by Church people.) Ideological Christians become hard and brittle judges who believe, well, that they are superior to others who don’t hold the “correct doctrine.” They do not invite anyone to discipleship; they beckon them only to accept that particular ideology. The Pope also said that the cause of this illness was the lack of “true prayer.” I believe by this he meant “contemplative prayer.” I think it is simply impossible to have entered the realm of deep contemplative prayer and be an ideological Christian. This takes you beyond any ritual, sacramental, external, verbal, conceptual system of Christianity.

Now given all this that the Pope said, it is so disappointing to see his actions are very different. Just one example, described in the National Catholic Reporter, has him appoint a bishop for Hartford, Connecticut who seems seriously afflicted with this illness. Defenders of the Pope will say that he doesn’t have full knowledge of the man he appoints, he is simply presented with some names on a list and some information about each of them. Well, I think if he really wants to “make a difference” in the Church, he better find a way to make his actions and appointments correspond to his teachings. For example, he could appoint a woman to the College of Cardinals—at least one!! There is no church doctrine that stands in the way—you do not need to be an ordained priest in order to be a cardinal—Jacques Maritain, who had been a married layman, was made a Cardinal toward the end of his life in order to honor him for his service to the Church. More than words or symbolic actions are needed. Pope John XXIII called for the Vatican II Council in the first year of his pontificate.

One Last Thought: How different things would be if we all lived like Socrates, Jesus, and Gandhi. Very simple really, isn’t it? But all three were murdered—by State and religious interests.

The Trail

There are many trails, and then there is The Trail. I will be speaking of The Trail symbolically, metaphorically, and of at least one empirical reality—The Pacific Crest Trail.

Anyone who goes out even a little bit into some wilderness area will have some experience of hiking on some trail—and the joy, the views, the exposure to the wild, the wonders, the effort, the challenges, etc., etc. But there are three trails within the U.S. that are extra, extra special: the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. From “Hiking the Triple Crown”: “…it is the three great north-to-south trails—the so-called Triple Crown trails—that have captured the imagination of long-distance and weekend backpackers alike.”

The Appalachain Trail (from now on referred to as the AT) is 2167 miles long; the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT) is 2650 miles long; and the Continental Divide Trail (the CDT) is 3100 miles long. Each of these follows one of America’s three great mountain systems; the variety of terrain and ecosystems represented in these trails is nothing short of mind-boggling. Each of these trails has its own challenges and its own attractions, and their distances can make it almost seem “beyond reach”; but “trail dogs” will tell you that most anyone in good health can do these trails—the key ingredient is desire. Of course it is quite possible to do these trails in segments—some people hike only for a few days on one of these trails ; some stay on the trail for a few weeks; and others go the whole way and this usually takes several months. Whatever it be, rest assured that you will learn something about yourself, about life, about reality, when you get on one of these trails.

Among the three great trails, there is one that stands out above the others: the Pacific Crest Trail. Among “trail dogs,” people who have done these trails and many others around the world, the PCT may rank as the very best long trail in the world—characterized by incredible views, enormous challenges, the longest stretches of unremitting wilderness, and ranging from sea-level desert to over 13,000 feet footpaths around glaciers. Within this stretch the PCT overlaps another trail which was established independently, the John Muir Trail (JMT). The PCT with the JMT runs for a bit over 200 miles from the Mt. Whitney area to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. The John Muir Trail is generally considered the “Jewel in the Crown” of the PCT. It is the most challenging and the most beautiful part of the PCT. Most hikers need about 15 days to do this segment(but of course some do it in less time but I don’t understand why rush through this beautiful country) and food resupply is very difficult. Also you spend a lot of time above 9000 feet and this causes altitude sickness if you have not acclimatized(hikers who come from LA or the Bay Area who just hop on this trail get it bad if they don’t take the time to acclimatize). But the reward is almost an unspeakable beauty that John Muir wrote about so eloquently—calling this area the “Range of Light.” You encounter numerous peaks over 14,000 feet, glaciers, numerous pristine high mountain lakes, and real solitude—some find it difficult to be by themselves night after night in an absolute wilderness!

Here are some photos of the John Muir Trail as found on Google and taken by various hikers at various times:

The popularity of the PCT has increased over the years, but the number of people who do the whole trail is still very small. Around the year 2000, there were about 200-300 people who started on the PCT at the Mexican Border heading north. Only about 50% of those who started made it to the end. Now that figure is more like 800 people who start and the percentage of finishers is much higher. Normally the south-to-north direction is considered the best way of doing it, but many have also done the opposite direction. You generally start in the Southern California desert in April, then you make it to the High Sierras about June, and then you end by the Canadian border before the winter snows come.

Equipment issues are interesting! You will need something like a 0 degree sleeping bag for the High Sierras in June (most of the trail here is over 9000 feet)—at night it will get down to something like 20 degrees(some make it with a 20 degree bag but you might then have to sleep a bit chilly at times); the lightest small tent possible; a bear canister—yes, this is mandatory in the High Sierras because the bears will come after your food if it is simply in the backpack! Usually you can pack about 10 days worth of food in one of these bear canisters—you learn to cut down your needs to the bare essentials (no pun intended!!) What you stuff in the bear canister would make a Desert Father proud of you! Resupplying on the JMT is particularly difficult—there are only about three possibilities and 2 of them require you to detour from the trail quite a few miles. At Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, those who continue on the PCT can easily get resupplied at a grocery store by the trail or have supplies sent to them to the post office that will hold packages for them. In fact some of the hikers send food packages to themselves at various spots along the trail which they pick up as they get there.

Here are some quotes about the JMT and the PCT from several books:

From The John Muir Trail: “The John Muir Trail passes through what many backpackers agree is the finest mountain scenery in the United States…. This is a land of 13,000-foot and 14,000-foot peaks, of soaring granite cliffs, of lakes literally by the thousands, of canyons 5000 feet deep. It is a land where man’s trails touch only a tiny portion of the total area, so that by leaving the trail you can find utter solitude. It is a land uncrossed by road for 140 airline miles …. The JMT is not a place to hike on impulse. Its length, its remoteness, and its great changes in altitude mean that you must plan your hike if you are going to enjoy it, or even to complete it.”

From Hiking the Triple Crown: “The PCT is a “hiker’s hike,” no question about it. Much of the trail passes through large tracts of wilderness, including the High Sierra complex (the longest wilderness in the continguous states)…. There are no shelters to congregate hikers together, and trail towns are farther apart with fewer hiker-oriented amenities.”

Like I mentioned above, at Tuolumne Meadows there is a grocery store, a post office and a grill where many campers and tourists and hikers take time out for refreshments. Sitting at the outdoor tables is fascinating because you see so many different kinds of people. There are the tourists who are in a hurry to see as much as they can and then hurry home; there are the campers and short-term hikers who are obviously enjoying the wilderness; and then there are the long-term hikers coming off the PCT or the JMT for refreshing and refilling their supplies. You can see from their faces, their bodies, and their eyes that they are in a different space. There is something about being on such a trail that has a deep effect on a person. Many have written that this hike has changed them and their lives—a truly transformative experience. On such a journey, of such length, with such challenges, where you are largely removed from the structures and supports of modern social life, the way you normally live your life and your whole identity comes into question. At the very least you begin to see through the multitude of superficial and trivial pursuits and gadgets of our modern existence. When you are on The Trail, the wilderness is silent about who you are—or better, it speaks in a language you yet do not understand. Perhaps after many, many days of hiking 15 miles, then sleeping on hard ground, then getting up and hiking another 15 miles, then sleeping on hard ground again, when life has been stripped to the bare essentials, perhaps then, just perhaps you might begin to catch a whisper of what the wilderness is saying—it is God’s Wisdom speaking to you, Hagia Sophia, and just perhaps you might begin to hear that voice within your own heart.

One final thought: The Trail is ultimately a symbol and a metaphor for the whole religious/spiritual life. I will leave it to you to work out the details of this connection, and perhaps you will really need to have hiked quite a bit to see the connection, but it is there. Suffice it to say that just as there are not many who take up these long trails, there are also very few who take up the real spiritual journey—there is a price to pay and there is a need for a kind of desire that surmounts all obstacles to see it to the finish. Already in the Gospels there are plenty of indications that not many want to really do this. They are more like “tourists” who want a picture of Jesus, and a label to wear that says:”Christian” or maybe just “religious.”