“A ripe tree bears ripe fruit, and an unripe tree
bears unripe fruit.”
1987 had begun with an ineffable sense of yearning, a stirring of the heart for something as yet unknown, that as it continued became almost exquisitely distressing. This longing to wholly merge with –akin to the excruciatingly sublime physical need to merge with a lover– wanted no other, however, wanted no external object. Originating deep within some recess of my heart, the yearning was for union with something within me seemingly located even deeper yet.
At the time I had no spiritual framework for comprehending what I was experiencing. The glowing heart and self-less love I have always felt in the quiet company of animals and the natural world brings a gentle bliss that is utterly complete. Feeling that love-bliss, that intuitive intimate connection, was priceless to me –yet something I saw as merely personal, just how I am.
The yearning that came alive in me in ‘87 was a gradual opening into awareness of an essential Existence in me previously unrecognized. In time –out of the movement of my mind to comprehend my own life journey– arose the question, Who was Jesus? Who was he, really?
Decades before, on graduating from high school, I had turned my back on what had been an oppressive religious education. Nowhere in my 14 years of Catholic schooling, based as mine had been in the strict inculcation of belief, had there been, for me, even a simple foray into the unfathomable mystery that is Spirit and the stirrings of soul. Endlessly repeated Q&A drills concerning faith and temptation, sin and hell, the self-sacrifice of martyred saints and the infallibility of the pope –of that, plenty. There were glimpses –an indelibly-etched Christmas Candle Lighting procession– when exquisite music, our own girlish voices singing, and the heavy richness of incense caught my heart and filled me with tears. But of open unscripted talk, genuine exploration of the numinous in the everyday, there was none. Ever.
Most of what I’d been taught simply had no resonance for me. And, having wholly dismissed the official patriarchal notion of Jesus as the “only begotten son of god” –born of a virgin-birth, who, as the earthly incarnation of a god-trinity that included father, son but no mother, had died for our sins– I had no recourse but to close that door. I had not dismissed Jesus; I simply had not known how to think about him. So I had walked away, into a life that was staunchly ethical but ignorant of an as-yet-unawakened part of myself that inadvertently had been discarded along with religion.
In ’87 my whole life going forward seemed to hinge on knowing: Who was Jesus? Who was this figure who, in spite of all the disinformation spun about him and the atrocities committed in his name, had left my own heart stamped with an impression of unconditional compassion and of a timeless and revolutionary truth both misunderstood and deliberately distorted?
So it was that in a moment of straining to pierce that cacophonous veil of ignorance, words came from within me so clear, so vivid and so unexpected that they could not have been mine: “Go to India and go alone for on the road you will find what you seek”. With the words came an inner push to make it so and the familiar thrill that I would soon be on the road again. Immediately I began preparing. Then fear gripped me –what if something unbearable happened and I alone so far from home? And I turned my attention to seeking someone who might journey with me. A chance meeting led me to a spiritual community in Nevada City which makes annual pilgrimages to India. Hanging out with them one weekend to get a sense of their dynamics, I paged through an album of photos. Warmth smiled up from group images. One from a series on a bus snapped into crystalline focus one facet of their experience: the happy faces of two women, their gazes clear and open before the camera, name tags pinned to their blouses, and to one side the large sealed window that spoke of first-class hired coach and air conditioning. Instantly I knew this orderly and safe containment from the raw experience was not what I sought from my encounter with India.
On returning home to San Francisco, still daunted yet determined to go alone, I wrote a letter to Sai Baba, a revered holy man in southern India with whom a friend had been acquainting me. In hopes that I might go see him and bring her back some of his Vibhuti, the ash that he materializes from his bare hands, she had invited me to accompany her to local gatherings of his devotees. These experiences of devotional chanting, the hypnotic call and response wedded to the soulful strains of a simple harmonium, the ecstatic sway of my own body cross-legged on the floor, had unexpectedly swelled my heart with profound joy. Though I knew little about Sai Baba I promptly wrote him that I was coming to see him, that I was afraid and feeling vulnerable and seeking his protection. I had no idea if he understood English and certainly no expectation that even should my letter reach him that he’d respond. Nevertheless, off I sent it, needing somehow to make my yearning visible before the Universe.
Several mornings later I walked the edge of the Pacific, a daily morning romp for my dog Luke who ran circles ‘round me chasing his beloved tennis ball. Up ahead seagulls wheeled and called, then settled, feeding on the body of a tawny shark that had washed up on the beach. I skirted them widely as I passed so as not to disturb, thinking to check out the shark on my way back. As I approached on my return the gulls lifted into the air, exposing the shark with the side of its face, the gills, all eaten away. Never before having seen a shark so close, and wary of actually touching it, I reached for a stick of driftwood. I gave just a gentle poke to its taut leathery skin. Instantly the shark was thrashing! Horror engulfed me. Deep mindless anguish, both that this creature was being slowly eaten alive and that I had no way of helping it or ending its misery.
And out of this crescendo of repulsion and helplessness came a clear voice: “Walk away. The gulls’ work is nearly done.” Immediately a wave of peace descended through me, and as if mesmerized I resumed walking. From a short distance away I turned slowly, still held in a kind of trance, to look back. The seagulls like a cloud had already settled again on the shark. And I knew with my whole being that its ordeal was passing. In that moment also, certainty flooded me that whatever presented itself in India I would not be alone and I would cope. And more, without knowing or needing to know the how of the Mystery, I knew that the plea of my heart inscribed in a letter had been noted and here was the guidance I sought.
On October 4th I arrived in Bombay, now Mumbai, and from the airport took the two-hour taxi ride north to Ganeshpuri, Muktananda’s old ashram. Thousands of devotees from all over the globe had gathered for the fifth anniversary of his mahasamadhi, the leaving of his body. The occasion coincided with a full moon (and a portentous lunar eclipse) bathing in silvery light the fragrant tropical grounds of the ashram with its splendid gilded shrines, marble pavilions and the serenely beautiful main temple always open for meditation. The feeling was magical… I felt transported into another dimension and blessed to my core.
To accommodate the large number of visitors, Westerners were housed in the conventional buildings of the ashram, likely dormitory-style, though of that I retain no impression. For Indian devotees, a mammoth inter-connected tent encampment, sprawling and curving in on itself (or so it seems to me now as I recall it) had been erected on the grounds of the ashram. It seemed to go on and on, connected and flowing, its warren of carpeted paths canopied with heavy woven cloth. Family groups squatted and reclined in loose-draped alcoves, talking and tending their cooking fires. All that I saw and felt on my walks in this pulsing community, the sensation of my steps on the rugs, the voices, the rounded sounds of languages I did not understand and the quiet laughter, the aromas, the soft eyes of those I passed, are a treasured kaleidoscope of seen and felt colors held within an unforgettable sense of heart-full unattached belonging.
“Belonging” in the sense of being one more anonymous and accepted pilgrim. And a very loose sense of “pilgrim” as I had not known Muktananda and felt no connection to Gurumayi, his successor. She was/is head of the Siddha Yoga organization, founded by Muktananda, whose Oakland, California ashram I had very briefly attended. An intoxicating weekend of devotional chanting in Oakland had touched my heart and beckoned me to attend the celebration in Ganeshpuri –a serendipitous invitation to India. I had planned to stay at Ganeshpuri a week –a sheltered time, I thought, of acclimating to the intensity of India. However, the slow-moving, deeply relational soulfulness of India I found among these pilgrims had already enchanted me.
It was the time-pressured, get-it-done intensity of the West that ultimately prodded me to move on –specifically, the disrespectful shooing away of Indian women in the temple by officious Westerners in saris intent on sweeping the temple in the middle of the night… the Indian women lifting off like a many-colored flock of birds, settling down together some distance away only to be yet again shooed away. By the fifth day, departure details were complete. Following breakfast the next morning I boarded a bus with my backpack and Lonely Planet guide –and entered the wide meandering river that is India.
I had no itinerary –Ganeshpuri had been the only booked accommodation of my seven week trip. With Sai Baba on my mind I headed back to Bombay to arrange transportation to Bangalore. During the two days I was in Bombay I made connections with lovely people I would see again. Some were extended family members of an Indian acquaintance from home for whom I was delivering a small package; some were friends of people I had met at Ganeshpuri; and most I met by chance, just striking up a conversation. At this time I first encountered some intoxicated-with-love young Christians from a group called Heaven’s Magic, with whom I was to repeatedly cross paths. All the connections felt special in some way, magical even, and I felt buoyed along, as if carried by a stream, and filled with gratitude. Early morning of the third day I boarded a flight to Bangalore. My seat mate, a young Hindu woman who was going only as far as Pune, was lovely, soft-spoken and engaging. As occurred repeatedly with many people I met by chance, she serendipitously delivered the next piece of the puzzle, the next needed turn in this story being shaped with each step taken. Eventually I came to see the entire journey through India as a flowing illustration of the art of just showing up, trusting that whatever was needed at each point would dove-tail with me, meeting me there when I arrived. On hearing that I was on my way to see Sai Baba, she recommended I go directly to the Rajmajal Hotel, whose owners would know of his whereabouts and how to connect me.
It was still morning when I arrived at the Rajmajal. The welcoming young man at the reception desk beamed with helpfulness –and again I was struck with my good fortune. Sai Baba had just returned from his seasonal residence in the cooler hill country. He would be giving darshan, a public viewing, that evening at his Brindavan ashram in Whitefield, an hour south of Bangalore. Giving me the key to my room, he thoughtfully advised me to rest, and then added that at 5:00 pm a hotel car would take me to Brindavan, wait for me, and bring me back to the hotel!!
~ * ~
The road to Brindavan –at least the portion I’m recalling– was a country lane shared with walkers, cows and a wooden-wheeled cart, all moving at about the same pace. Once the hotel car had delivered me to the ashram I followed others into the place of darshan, a large circular space, lightly enclosed with mostly half-walls and topped with a flat parasol-like roof. Inside, many were already waiting, seated cross-legged on the smooth concrete floor. I carefully threaded my way among family groups and settled into an available space almost at the opposite end from the entrance. As others arrived we all pressed closer together.
Presently an expectant buzz arose and eyes turned toward the entrance. Sai Baba’s slight form –in his customary long orange tunic and unruly afro– was bent down, quietly greeting a devotee. He continued moving along the path that had been left clear for him, occasionally exchanging a few words with a devotee or accepting letters held out to him. Devotion hummed in the air. As he came closer, I, a newbie observer, wondered if he would look at me and, if he did, would I feel anything. As he serenely passed our section, his eyes gazing softly ahead, a sensation unfurled somewhere deep in my gut, quickly coursed up through my chest, momentarily caught in my throat, then spilled out in tears and wonder, leaving me in a daze. I had no idea what had occurred or what I was to do next. In a fog, one thought crossed my mind: I’m not here this lifetime to sit at the feet of a master. Then thought fell away. After Sai Baba had left the space and the crowd was slowly streaming out I too moved along with them, emptied of expectation, of anything beyond this happening now. I flowed with others into a much smaller room, dim, almost womb-like, the floor carpeted, the soft sounds of a harmonium beckoning us inside to nestle together on the floor.
The sweetly haunting voice of the bhajan singer ebbed and flowed, she initiating the chant, the group repeating it back to her. I easily dropped into chanting, my body naturally swaying, mind still, breath becoming a velvet presence that, of its own volition, entered and left through the heart. In this way an hour hypnotically passed. The session was ending, people gathering up shawls and shoulder bags, quietly leaving the room. I too moved with them, quieted in a way rarely possible for my acquisitive mind. Just outside, the hotel car was waiting… I recall no words exchanged with the driver… we were now on the road, I in the back seat, our vehicle inching along in a quiet procession with those on foot, at times barely moving. A woman approached the open window on my left, inquired if I was going to Bangalore, then asked if she and her husband might share the car. Yes, of course, I replied, promptly sliding over in welcome. Once in the car and on conversing a bit, she exclaimed with chagrin, “Oh, we would never have imposed had we known you were a foreigner!”
That simple error made possible an encounter that remains indelibly a highlight of the journey and feels to this day like a destined connection. Chaya Devi turned out to be Sai Baba’s bhajan singer, hers the sweetly haunting voice from the womb-like room, and her kindly, dignified husband, Dr. Ramachandra K.V., was Sai Baba’s majordomo. In the hour we spent on the road to Bangalore, Chaya and I slipped into a bond rich with the sense of having always known each other. From the Rajmahal we continued on to their home. That evening, including a home cooked feast with their two delightfully present daughters, chatting, laughing and interpreting our horoscopes, and the following day and the pictures we took, all still vibrate with love, with light and with meaning. Chaya felt sure we had shared a past life as sisters. I felt then and can still today feel the bubble of tenderness and soul recognition that enfolded us. And I vividly recall that during the night spent in her home, asleep in her daughter’s bed, I was just for a fraction of a moment roused from sleep by the sensation of Chaya gently pulling the blanket up over my shoulder. Even now the memory of the love she radiated resonates so strongly within me that it’s as if that incident were occurring in this moment… as if no separation in time or between us exists.
Chaya’s home had to have been –though it’s not noted in my journal– the first of several Hindu homes I visited whose puja room altar included Jesus along with their deities. In every case I asked, why do you have his picture here? The response always came with reverence: He was a great Master… He was a great Prophet… He was a great Teacher…
~ * ~
From Bangalore I flew to Pune, then bused to Aurangabad, gateway to Ellora and Ajanta, ancient Hindu, Buddhist and Jain cave temples carved out of the Charanandri hills. Here too I connected with an open-hearted, joyful young woman and her parents, Hindus, in whose company the inexpressible love capable of creating the monumental vaulted chambers and intricately carved walls and statues came to life for me in a way they could not have had we not been together. Geeta Iyer, the daughter, had been my seat mate on the bus, and what started as a casual chat soon evolved into peals of laughter, which quickly fused us into a foursome for the day. What might have seemed merely a pleasant encounter carried a deeper message. The heart connects. Where joyfully open, the heart connects in miraculous ways. Hinduism has an all-inclusive spirituality that wholly weds the transcendent and the earthly –enshrined in the erotic couplings of Hindu deities Shiva and Parvati. This union of joyful devotion, soulfully embodied in the chanting of bhajans, steals the attention from the mind and billows it in the heart into sublime accepting openness.
This is why in my moment of intense need to pierce beyond inherited Western concepts to an essential truth that could be felt throughout my being, I was sent to India to feel the beating heart of the Love that Jesus taught. Jesus, iconically depicted with his blazing Sacred Heart. The spiritual Heart, source of love, is the central energetic engine of the body. The heart is the integration point between the earthy drives that root us into matter, ensuring our physical survival, and the ethereal impulses that draw us to expand beyond the visible, to see with inner eyes of wisdom, to choose from love, and to merge with the Grace ever present.
~ * ~
From Pune I flew north to New Delhi. Once again and repeatedly while there my path crossed with members of Heaven’s Magic. Though one of the colorful comic-book-style leaflets they gave me painted doomsday scenarios of no interest to me, my actual experience of these earnest young people was that they were on fire with love of a vision of a “heavenly kingdom” that they could clearly taste. They seemed to me like early followers of Jesus, wholly intoxicated with the love of him and what he taught, and on fire with bringing others to know what they had discovered. The gatherings I attended at their communal home were joyful, and their eyes and faces glowed with innocence. I have no doubt that before my experiences in India I would have been so focused on judging their ideas as to be unable to see the beauty at their core. What a loss that would have been! Meeting and being with them was a priceless gift.
In New Delhi I met up with acquaintances from home and traveled to Jaipur in Rajasthan. Something was off, a toxicity within the group I wanted no part of –and for me a time of testing related more to an interweaving thread of my life better left for another day. I will say the bubble of protection that had enveloped me burst in Jaipur –witnessing the condition of a street pup who reminded me of my Luke when, at six weeks, he had crossed my path almost dead. No one would save this small one. My eyes were suddenly opened to the immensity of the need all around me and my heart broke. Suddenly, feeling in some way shattered, the noise of northern India, the incessant honking horns, was unbearable.
Abruptly I left Jaipur, returned to Delhi. Here I had a life-altering experience with David, Aaron and Maria of Heaven’s Magic –to which I’ll return in a moment. One month of my journey had already elapsed. As there was still much that I wanted to see, and now felt desperate to leave India, I literally fled east on a train to Varanasi. My heart warms with the memory of this city described as the beating heart of the Hindu universe. Luck brought me to the Shankeri Lodge where a high outer wall seemed to keep the world away. Owned by a warm family, an endearingly busybody father, here I felt a locked door was unnecessary and I slept unguardedly on a porch couch in the sunny courtyard.
Four days later I crossed the border into Nepal and Kathmandu. So quiet, it was like night and day. Here no one drove on their horn. I visited Kopan Monastery above Boudhanath, seeking a contact, but he was not known. From my journal: “On my way back down the mountain met a young Buddhist woman living at the Monastery. She was clear-eyed, enthusiastic, eager to communicate though struggling with English. European, though I don’t know from where. She told me about a Buddhist master who attained enlightenment in one lifetime: how on realizing the path, went to live in a cave, ate only a certain kind of leaf and mastered his desires for food & comfort, mastered his body’s regulation of heat & cold. I was struck by how it’s all choice. We constantly make choices. I can choose further comfort, pleasure, possessions for myself or I can choose to give equal value to someone else’s needs. I’m so attached to my body, its comforts & pleasures, sexual desires, greed about food. How to reconcile that? The choice is in my face every time I spend money on another bauble. I accept intellectually the nothingness of owning one more thing, and that to require nothing is to be free. But I’m not ready yet.
“It happened naturally when the time was right to give up meat and drugs. The time is coming to give up other indulgences, the superfluous, for the sake of moving toward what is essential. I know now it’s not just a platitude, but a necessity if my life is to reflect my deepest self. I know I will not choose denial. I want to retain my individuality and color while opening my eyes more widely to the needs of others. One thing that has come of all this searching in India/Nepal, the meetings in New Delhi with the Heaven’s Magic people, is… choice. They’re people who, like the earliest disciples, have walked away from their former lives, banded together in love & harmony & trust to simply spread the word of Jesus’ love. Such genuine beauty & love I found among them. Such transcendence of self for the sake of something far greater than themselves… I felt such peace & comfort with them as if I’d always known them. I know such feelings are possible among any people living from their deepest calling. Again, choice. Choose these wherever I find them, rather than people involved in their own gratification exclusively. They’re everywhere. Some full out. And some like myself on the periphery. Practice seeing god in everyone…”
The week in Nepal restored me. Here too there had been a test –what would have been a mindless escapade sure to be regretted– and I had momentarily teetered on the edge. But abruptly I rose and walked away. Choice! Here –though I did not recognize it at the time– something in me shifted. Each life, just as it is, is the path. We set each part of our journey in motion by entering it at the darkest place (that in us which lies most in shadow and aches to be known). And we create the whole of who we are with the steps we take and with what of our lives we ourselves choose to make sacred.
I returned to Varanasi, then by train went on to Calcutta where I made one more crucial choice. Approaching the colonial-style pavilion of a ghat on the Ganga River, I noticed my body’s growing reluctance to carry me to an anticipated meeting with what had been recommended to me as “the finest palmist in the world”. Without explanation, I knew that what destiny lay ahead for me, already in motion, was to be met with unguarded heart. I retraced my steps and left. From Calcutta I flew to Bombay and continued on home.
But I want to end this with my last meeting in Delhi with Aaron, Maria and David of Heaven’s Magic. During my time there with them my heart had been full to overflowing. Something had come into me that I’d never felt before, that was pulling me in a direction I would never before have considered, that was requiring nothing from my mind, and that I just went with. In my hotel room, I asked them to baptize me. I’m not sure if I was sitting or kneeling. Most likely my hands were open, palms up, but I can’t really say. I only recall they were standing close around me with their hands on my head, praying. No thought was in my head. Nothing. I was just there, open, letting their words wash over me. Then, as if someone flipped a light switch I was a bloom of ecstatic joy… I remember nothing else, what was said, how they took their leave. By the next day or so I was on my way to Varanasi and never saw them again. I had been deeply, deeply touched by the Jesus I had found there –by the Love he embodied and that lives on in all the people who crossed paths with me… in people everywhere who live from awakened Hearts. I had been baptized not into a religion, nor into any belief or set of beliefs, but into a new way of being that was fuller because it included all of me… all the parts in and around me that I now know are sacred.
Adyashanti and Mark Matousek on Jesus
Neil Douglas-Klotz and Tami Simon – The Aramaic Jesus
Adyashanti and Francis Bennett on “Resurrecting Jesus”
NPR | Jesus in 2011 – N.T. Wright, John Dominic Crossan, Willis Barnstone