White Swan —
Zen Reflections I, Oregon Spring
The beautiful forested homestead in the land of the Wind River (in the Columbia River Gorge) and the wonderful family that stewards this land, welcomed us into retreat last Spring; lovingly grounding us all in zen stillness.
Babaji, dressed in black, led us deep into the teachings of Zen, 52 generations since Shakyamuni Buddha spoke to us through him, while the fire popped and crackled in the huge fireplace of the lodge. Advaita teachings in the language of Zen!
It is easy to fondly remember the natural sharing of our responses to the teachings through Haiku poetry. Babaji thrilled the group by reading each aloud, and then weeks after the retreat, in the mail, came a beautiful little printed book of all our haikus that Loke lovingly made for us all.
We each felt a special tender gift from Babaji's heart as he led us through an ancient tea ceremony and presented us each with a specific koan that he felt fit our individual spiritual life. What a gift!
And now, here in October, is our chance to gather together again in that same beautiful setting to imbibe the Divine Mother's wisdom! What divine grace!
See you there, Medhakendra
Zen Reflection II
“The Infinite is happening now. I am not separate from It. One Consciousness. Do not be distracted by tiny, fleeting life occurrences. They rise and fall eternally on the backdrop of Infinite Awareness. Like shadows in a dream – not real.” This excerpt from my journal was written during the Zen retreat. The heightened atmosphere generated by our time of inner reflection was very conducive to such thoughts.
The Zen retreat, which was held in the Hawaii Ashram at the end of June, was peaceful and sublime. The perfect tone was set by having participants adopt certain Zen practices such as wearing black, bowing, contemplating koan, and writing haiku. Immersed in teachings on the foundation of Buddhism, we retraced how the spark of Truth moved through many generations while traveling from India to China, to Japan and finally the US. The lessons went far beyond a mere comparative study of Zen vs. Vedanta, however. Rather, the teachings which are now so familiar to SRV students — such as the Qualifications for Spiritual Life, the Precepts, the Three Worlds, the Six Transformations, etc., although taking on unique flavors given the people and customs through which they are expressed — show us that our deep study of Advaita Vedanta gives us the keys to unlock the truths present within these different traditions.
I especially liked the teachings on the Stages of Ox Herding, the Ox symbolizing Consciousness, and the seeking, catching, taming, riding, etc., are the stages of attaining Enlightenment. Although I feel at times like I’m still at the stage of trying to “catch my Ox,” (stubborn and unbridled, it still yearns for sweet grasses…), I know that eventually, by carefully following the steps of self-effort, having ridden the ox home, my “bridle and whip will lay idle” (returned to the Source).
Inspired by the Ashram’s magnificent view of Maui’s Haleakala volcano surrounded by the blue Pacific, and taken by the principle of interdependent arising, this haiku came forth:
Silent mountain rising
from infinite ocean.
Who am I,
all that is?
Buddha bows to
sparkling original source.
My own 30-year journey on the spiritual path has been a blend of Zen and Yoga. Just prior to meeting Babaji 7 years ago, I underwent a Jukai ceremony, making a formal vow to uphold the Zen precepts. Soon after that, my Zen teacher moved away and I became enthralled with SRV. I respectfully hung up my rakusu and robes, but got them out and wore them again during the retreat. So many memories came up for me as a result. It was interesting to turn and face those memories of my former practice. With Babaji’s instruction this time, I received much more of the underlying philosophy of Zen than I had ever known before. It was also gratifying to learn that my former Zen teacher is in the same White Plum lineage as Lex Hixon, founder of SRV. At the retreat, as I came full circle, I experienced a profound sense of beneficial closure.
Reflection on Summer Retreat
Nestled in the pines of Foresthill is a home rich in teaching and fellowship, the July 2013 retreat of SRV was an inspiring venture for me into the study of Vedanta. The truth and peace I found there followed me home, and still taps at my heart as I weave in and out of Maya. I continue to learn, and hope to fracture old ideas and rebuild this body and mind with yoga. The Gunas (Tamas, Rajas, in particular) have eluded me since I have been home, and I have kept a watchful eye on these two as I practice toward Sattva.
Sandra worked heartily in the kitchen with 3 wholesome vegetarian meals each day. Flavorful and varied, there was something for every taste, and it was plentiful. Babaji’s ‘clear mind’ soup was one of the best I’ve tasted, and it certainly sated everyone as we prepared for the first sleep before the first full day. As a newbie, I learned that there is love and patience amongst this group, and it transcends the class, meditation, hikes, silence, and meals. My only regret is that I didn’t stay the whole week. Too soon, my son and I departed and stopped at Starbuck’s on the way out. We opened the door and were vaulted into noise, consumerism, and mechanical racket; all for an iced tea for the journey home….to whit Babaji would say, “Let pleasure go; it is part of the cycle of suffering. “ Too true.
– Pam H.
Hiranmaye pare koshe
Virajam brahma niskalam
Tac chubhram jyotisam jyotih
Tad yad atmavido viduh
Shining like burnished gold in the luminous sheath of intelligence,
the deepest core of the human being,
dwells Brahman, stainless, indivisible, and pure.
That is the Light of all that shines.
That is what the knowers of the Self realize.
Following in the pattern of the prior two years, SRV’s lesson for children at the summer retreat unwrapped one of the SRV chants selected by Babaji from the Upanisads for the sangha to study and memorize. Once again, our lone youngster in this age group rose to the occasion for this year’s lesson, and studied the very teachings that will equip her to soon attend the SRV Chela Dharma classes, and Babaji’s classes – maybe in 2014. As the children’s acharya, I want to acknowledge that it is not an easy matter to take these classes without any peers to mutually inspire, support, and share the demands of the teacher and teachings. Zuzu, our lone chela at this retreat, is to be commended!
Cosmology, Philosophy, and Art
This year’s art project was a tile mosaic depicting Vedantic principles from the lessons. After much discussion, Zuzu decided to make a mandala that symbolizes the Atman, the Five Koshas, and the Five Akashas. Needless to say, this was a philosophically adventurous project, and very absorbing! The mandala, which has been placed by the classroom shrine in Portland, Oregon, is even now being used by the adult sangha as a teaching tool.
The following explains how the mandala is to be interpreted, and how these teachings correlate:
Center: The Atman
The central crystal and the yellow tiles represent the Atman. Notice that after the five rings of different colors, the gold tile reappears. We are to think of this gold of the Atman pervading all the sheaths, and infinitely beyond them.
Circles: The Five Koshas
Koshas are the various psycho-physical sheaths for Consciousness to sport in. These are represented by the five rings that are superimposed over the Atman, from subtle to gross:
Anandamayakosha, Sheath of bliss and “I-sense”: light blue tiles
Vijnanamayakosha, Sheath of intelligence: orange tiles
Manomayakosha, Sheath of dual mind: green tiles
Pranamayakosha, Sheath of vital energy: red tiles
Annamayakosha, Sheath of “food”, i.e., the body: black tiles
Corners: The Five Akashas
Akashas, also called dimensions, space, or realms, are the gross, subtle, and causal worlds inhabited by earthly beings, celestials, saints, sages, on up to the Trinity. The most subtle Akasha is Chidakasha, the space of Pure Consciousness, which correlates with Atman-Brahman. For this reason, there are only four Akashas depicted in the corners of the mandala, and the fifth, Chidakasha, is represented by the crystal and yellow tiles of all-pervasive Consciousness (Atman). All the other akashas in the mandala are colored according to the sheath or sheaths they most correspond with.
Bhutakasha, the space and realm of physical objects: black tiles with a person depicted.
Pranakasha, space of life-force, and realm of the ancestors and celestials: red tiles with thunderbolt and celestial orbs.
Chittakasha, space of thought, and realm of the sages: green tiles with a “thought bubble.”
Jnanakasha, space of Intelligence, and realm of the Trinity: orange and blue tiles, since it corresponds with both the vijnanamaya and anandamaya koshas.
Chidakasha, “space” of all-pervading, Pure Consciousness: central crystal and gold tiles.
A Story and Lesson
For the prior two summer retreats, we have studied the Gunas, but primarily in terms of how they affect our mental states. This year, we introduced to Zuzu the idea of vivarta, false superimposition, in a simple way, using the traditional analogy of the snake and the rope, and applied the teachings of the Gunas:
At the end of a sunny, warm summer’s day at dusk, along a country road, a man was taking an evening stroll. The land of this region was dry, but a cool breeze began to gently blow. Golden grasses rustled between the lichen-covered rocks that provided tiny bits of shade for lizards, insects, and snakes at the hottest times of the day.
Suddenly, the man saw a large snake warming itself on the road right in front of him. His heart beat fast and he jumped backwards. Controlling his panic, he looked carefully at the snake. He saw that the head was the same size as the body. He thought, “Poisonous snakes here have triangle-shaped heads.” He could stop being so fearful. Then he noticed that the tail did not taper. “Something is wrong here,” he muttered to himself. He found a stick and stepped closer to the snake and tapped the ground near it. Nothing happened. “I wonder if it is dead?” Losing all fear, he stepped even closer and went to move the snake with the stick and started laughing out loud. “Oh, some snake you are! You are really a rope. How silly I was to get scared like that. I won’t be fooled next time!”
More about Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas:
makes the mind dull, stupid, and lazy.
It is also the power that conceals the Light and Presence of Brahman – just like when the man
could not see the rope
lying on the road.
makes the mind restless, full of desires, and selfish.
It is also the power that makes Brahman, which is Infinite and undivided, look like objects,
bodies, actions, feelings, and ideas – just like when the man saw a snake
instead of a rope.
makes the mind peaceful, contented, and selfless.
It is also the power that helps us see Brahman through those objects, bodies, actions, feelings,
and ideas – just like when the man controlled his fear and began to use his powers of reasoning
to get at the truth of what his eyes
and mind were seeing.
Summer River Retreat 2013
by Mahesh Madhav
This year's Chela Dharma class with the SRV youth concentrated on Jnana Yoga. Below is a description of some of the discussions that took place during our afternoons together.
As a starting point, we used chapter two of Swami Vivekananda's Jnana Yoga lectures. The students read the chapter and culled out some of their favorite parts, which we used to seed the discussions in class. The ultimate goal of Jnana Yoga is knowledge of the Self, or Atman. We seek this higher knowledge by fully comprehending that which is not the Self, and thus begins our study of the 24 cosmic principles of Sankhya, the 5 sheaths of the Adhara system, and the 3 Bodies.
The Gayatri Mantra starts off "Om Bhur Bhuvah Swah", immediately pointing out the three worlds of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. We can directly identify these three worlds as the locations of our three bodies: the Gross Body (Stula Sharira), Subtle Body (Sukshma/Linga Sharira), and Causal Body (Karana Sharira). The students took upon themselves a mental exercise, where each time they made an "I" statement, they had to attribute it to one of the three bodies.
• "I hit my knee" – the gross body.
• "I am hungry" – subtle body.
• "I do not understand you" – subtle body.
• "I am one with God" – causal body.
We came up with an analogy to visualize the relationship between the three bodies. You can imagine a marionette hanging on strings. The body of the marionette that the audience can clearly see is the Gross Body. The clear strings that attach the marionette to the wooden handles are the Subtle Body. The wooden handles that are moving the strings up and down (by the hand of a marionette lord) are the Causal Body. We discussed reincarnation, and how our spool of karma, all retentive memory, and samskaras, are not stored in our Gross Body, since that body turns to ashes upon earthly death. Our karmas must therefore reside in the Subtle Body. Continuing with our puppet analogy, we can see how the clear strings attached to one marionette can be cut, and attached to a new marionette, which would then be beholden to the samskaras and past karmas that were being held in the strings of the Subtle Body.
As many of our students come from the Christian tradition, we often make allusions to the Christian teachings and put them in the light of Vedanta to provide a universal viewpoint. Here are some examples:
Vedanta does not have a concept of original sin. Man's soul is pure and perfect. The closest thing to original sin is the concept of "ignorance" and "ego." Through your ignorance of the divine nature of God, you decided to become separate from God. That is the ego, that you are separate. Everything else in the philosophy stems from there. With your ego, you take on the first sheath of separation. It is like filling a bottle with ocean water and dropping it in the ocean. There is water inside and outside, and it is the same water, but only separated by a thin layer of glass. Somehow through ego, you wanted this to happen and thus began the process of you taking a body. The next sheaths we discover are the sheaths of Intellect, Mind, Energy, and Physical Body, in that order. These are the coverings which hinder the realization of the Atman within, so we uncovered and unwrapped them one by one. We also took on the exercise of attributing our "I" statements to the five koshas.
On another topic, there are "five hells" in Vedanta, and they are ignorance, egoism, attachment to pleasure, aversion to pain, and clinging to life (fear of death). So hell is not a place, but rather the mindset that you are separate. Islam has a nice metaphor for hell; it is the dream state where you are brought closer to the purifying fire of God, which burns away your egoism and ignorance, and all your passions. It hurts like hell because it is you (your ego) which is being burned away. Once ego is gone, the pure Soul which remains is perfect and fit for communion with God. That makes a lot more sense than a cavernous area underground. And speaking of that pure Soul, a person's Soul cannot be purified by religious practice, or by going to church or temple, or by doing the rosary practice, or by taking a teacher, or learning all of scripture by heart….because the Soul is already perfect!
This is the teaching of the divinity of mankind. Each soul is potentially divine; the potential is there to realize it. Each soul is potentially Divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or meditation, or philosophy – by one, or more, or all of these – and be free. This is the whole of Religion — Swami Vivekananda. We must embark on a path in spiritual life and learn how to unwind our karma. We do this first by turning our minds towards God instead of away from God.
It is by God's grace that we think of God. Some people don't have any grace upon them; they are so far away from God that they don't even think of God by accident. But that is their current level in spiritual life. They are still excited by playing around with all the toys in the material world. And God is just fine with that! A mother will leave the child playing with its toys for as long as the child is interested in them. After a few hours the child will get bored of the toys and cry out for the mother. At that point the mother comes running and picks up the child. So, some of us are playing with toys. Some are starting to lose interest in toys. Some are crying out for God. Some are ready to be picked up, and others are already picked up and are telling others that they should give up their toys too. Your cries for the Divine Mother are being heard, and as you take a step towards Her, She is taking many steps towards you, to shower the needed Grace for spiritual pursuits.
Divine grace is there as a tenet of religion, but one cannot get by with grace alone. One must put forth one's self-effort. If we do not clean our house in the summertime, why would God want to come for a visit in the wintertime? Swami Aseshananda used to say that God's grace and self-effort are two wings of a bird. Another metaphor is, that our mind is a 10W light bulb. But to realize God we need a 1000W light bulb. If 1000W current goes through a 10W bulb, it will blow up. So we practice spirituality to expand the mind's capacity to know God and become the 1000W bulb. Swami Shivapadananda of the Ramakrishna Mission in South Africa has said "You attain liberation by God's grace, and also by your own worthiness. But remember that worthiness itself is God's grace. In other words, self-effort must never be given up. Self-effort must always be there. If your self-effort is there, even if you fail, it means you are still on the path of sadhana [spiritual practice]." So we are encouraged to do our spiritual disciplines (readings, meditations, selfless actions) even when we don't see results. The teacher can observe our development even though we cannot see it.
So, having a teacher is very important in making progress. Higher knowledge is transferred primarily in a 1:1 setting between teacher and disciple, and I have heard this explained in many religions, and even among musicians or dancers or other crafts which have formal apprenticeships. All of our other gatherings help shore up the spirit and make it worthy of uncovering knowledge, but a teacher/disciple relationship transcends the bounds of time. We say that it is the teacher that finds the disciple, not the other way around. And, as we have heard often, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.
In the illumined soul, whom we must choose as our teacher, the concept of the Guru infills the physical manifestation of a true teacher. Even though you may think that your teacher is attended by imperfections, the Guru is nevertheless pure and perfect, and a direct pathway of divine wisdom transmission; it is your sight that is imperfect, not the Guru. As Holy Mother has stated, the Guru must be kept sacrosanct in your mind, for he represents your pathway to Satchidananda.
When we recognize that we need a teacher to make spiritual progress, how do we gear ourselves up so that the teacher will accept our request to be a disciple? The “application” we must fill out is the Sadhana-Chatushtaya, the Four Qualifications of the Aspirant. By learning and holding these qualifications, the student will be fit to receive the divine wisdom transmission of higher knowledge. In class we looked at the four treasures and six jewels inside out, and built a ladder down from faith. In Vedanta, we do not have blind faith, but rather a faith that is based on a foundation. Faith (Shraddha) in the divine and faith in oneself is based upon the ability to concentrate, single-pointedly, without distraction, on the one Reality. This ability to concentrate (Samadana) is possible because we have cultivated a forbearance of the dualities of the world including pleasure/pain, life/death, hot/cold. This forbearance (Titiksha) only comes to fruition because we have withdrawn our mind and senses from the sense-objects of the world, allowing us to be centered in the Self. This self-settledness (Uparati) has come about because we have practiced restraining the external sense organs. This self-control (Dama) has germinated from a practice of restraining the mind from seeking outward pleasures. This inner-peace (Sama) is possible due to our detachment from what is unreal, and identifying only with what is Real. The detachment (Vairagya) is possible only after we are able to discern the difference between the unreal and the Real. This discriminative ability is called Viveka. Thus, we have a ladder from discrimination all the way up to faith, built logically by the Sadhana-Chatushtaya. We then coat the steps of this ladder with the amber stain of Mumukshutvam, the sincere and intense longing for liberation. Our practices are always driven by this intense longing, and it is what keeps us going when the going gets tough.
On the final afternoon, the students went through several exercises in the lessons and presented them to their fellow students.
My mantra practice has been vitalized in the following way from the teachings I received from Babaji over several years, and at the recent seminar. Now, before I start Japa on my Mala, I perform a few mantras on my hands as a way of purifying the hands that will be performing the Japa. I usually do one mantra for Holy Mother and one for Ramakrishna, given that their hand patterns are different. Then I start with the Guru bead. Since I learned the meaning/symbology, I now picture the Goddess Saraswati at the helm if you will of this first bead. She is leading and directing the spiritual knowledge that is about to be cultivated. Salutations to Her. The back of the bead is the Gayatri mantra. I recite this mantra in my mind, setting the stage for my practice. I then acknowledge the position to the left where Vishnu sits. I acknowledge Vishnu and ask Vishnu to "sustain the Dharma." I then mentally turn to the right side of the bead where Siva resides. I ask Lord Siva to destroy my ignorance. All of this is on the first bead!
Now I proceed to the second bead. With concentration in my heart, I inhale and mentally recite the Mantra to Ramakrishna with visualization that his breath overlies my own. I usually end up at visualizing at 6th or 7th chakra. Then with my exhale, I recite the mantra to Holy Mother with her breath overlying my own. I envision her mantra and dynamism manifesting/flowing via all the other lower chakras. The meaning of the individual bijas are contemplated as well. (eg. Om with it's transforming quality etc.). I then continue in this way with each bead until I reach the Guru bead again and repeat the above. I have to say, to complete one mala has increased in time considerably. That is an understatement. Usually, one round on the mala fulfills my practice for the morning. I'm continuing with it in this way for now because it feels richer and deeper, rather than doing more repetitions.
Om Peace Love,