Acharya India Pilgrimage: A testament

Summit of Arunachala

I have been reading the Indian epic, Mahabharata, and was touched by the moment when Arjuna meets Krishna for the first time. (This is well before their conversations comprising the Bhagavad Gita.) Arjuna the warrior prince is profoundly struck by the recognition of the Supreme in Krishna: of God-consciousness fully embodied in the fullness of its own freedom, knowledge and power. And of the awesomeness of the compassion and love which that is. Arjuna recognizes that from that moment his life will never again be the same.
I am today completing a pilgrimage in India of three weeks visiting traditionally sacred sites with a group of Acharyas, authorized teachers and practitioners of Nilakantha meditation. I came on this pilgrimage because I was called to it, despite all of my doubts and small fears. I came to support the Acharyas and our own meditation teacher who was also there. And I received something very precious and essential along the way.
My thinking, my mind’s biases, would like to say that location does not matter. That Consciousness is truly expresses and fully present in every thing, person and circumstance. And that is completely true. Yet for how long have I wandered about failing to recognize that? What does it take to open whatever remains of the doors of my very own heart?
Location, sacred places, can act as transformers or lenses, as catalysts by the very intensity of Grace they bestow. Arunachala, a sacred mountain in southern India, is the location or vortex of the Agni lingam, the Divine becoming manifest as the power of fire. This mountain contains the meditation caves of the 20th century saint Ramana Maharshi. These caves still contain his presence, his love for it. And here we connect to this form of support.
But beyond the caves the route upward is more challenging with giant boulders and confusing choices. How do we get to that summit that calls us? Then we see that those who have gone before us are showing the way. There are actual arrows painted on the rocks showing: “This way”, “This way to the top”. And others indicate “Not this way. Don’t go this way!”

So we have the support of those who have gone before us, ancient and recent teachers. Just as I am following close behind you, my dear Acharya friends. Because this is the only service that calls me. This direction of becoming a teacher, to stand in my own freedom and embody the knowledge and love contained in these teachings. That is my mountain and life path.
This journey has provided so many extraordinary gifts and unexpected pivots that it would indeed read as chapters from the Mahabharata. I will mention just two.
The first was when we finally stepped into the inner-sanctum of the Kashi-Vishvanath temple in the ancient and most revered Indian city of Varanasi. As I entered the small space I glanced to my right and glimpsed the black monolithic linga, there naturally emerging from the earth. Being in its presence broke some dam deep within my individuality. Some unseen walls came tumbling down. I was laid bare to a great depth of freedom and love that had always been there, but now I was naked before it. So here I am.
It was disorienting and part of me was terrified by it. But another part so grateful said “Yes. This yes. Thank you yes.”
Then we all walked to the great cremation grounds of Manikarnika, the cremation grounds of “the dropped earring of the Goddess”, which has been operating 24/7 for over 3,000 years. And this, these cremation pyres and the relatives’ devotion, resonated with what was going on inside me. I felt a sacred sort of peace and even beauty in the fires that burn away the temporary- freeing life and lives to move onward. I am already in that fire, burning away that which is unnecessary. But as for this body: Not yet.
Later, in the purifying life-giving river “Mother Ganga” (the Ganges), I immersed myself completing a ritual for accepting the liberating gift of fullness I had received. This is what happened in Varanasi in the company of the Acharyas (who certainly also received them, each in their own way.)
The second pivotal, what I would call an initiatory moment was at a fire-offering ceremony, called a “homa”, at another sacred location and temple a few days later. This was at the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram, home of the dancing form of Shiva, the Absolute Consciousness. It was on the evening of an extraordinary day of honoring and invoking Ganesha, the intelligence that governs and removes our obstacles. During this elaborate fire-sacrifice ceremony, while the temple priests were performing the rituals, I was there silently offering my own limitations into that fire, all of my own separative and limiting individuality into that fire. I did this systematically.
I offered, released and burned my own 3 malas (root errors), that of smallness and inadequacy; that of difference, separateness and differentiation; and that of arrogance, of thinking it is a separate person and not the Whole that acts.
I offered my doubts and my fears (Yes all of them.) and my holding-back. I offered my false identifications. The ideas that I am this body or this mind or my roles in life, etc. I offered all my obstructing-patterns in life: patterns of fear, of anger, of hatred, of depression, of refusal. Then my opinions, my ignorant judgements, ideas and suffering-laden beliefs and karmas.
I offered my entire limited individuality into the fire. I was enacting my own cremation. And I was inwardly shuddering and grieving for what was being “lost” to the fire. All of this will certainly one day be consumed in fire. So it may as well be here and today in this sacred place surrounded by these friends. I knew and trusted that what was essential would not be burned but would arise.
I celebrate life! I want to live fully and free. All live is indeed one. So I live in everything. In this very body that you see I am most honored and grateful for the opportunity to step forward again to serve. The highest is to offer oneself in service to the Highest: In Sanskrit “atma-samarpana”.
Postscript: A few days later I felt that I was still in the process of “sifting through the ashes” of my own fire-offering, to see what shards of my relative and temporary self still remains among the ashes. Most of it was of no use and is happily let go. Certainly there are some necessary fragments to be kept, such as the wisdom hard won from past experiences. So I will finish sifting through the vibhutti ashes. Who knows? Perhaps I will find a jeweled-earring there amongst the dust!


The Sky and the Reflection


Today, mid-February of 2017, Finds me in Varanasi, the most ancient and sacred city of India. Located on the banks of the Ganges river, where 3 rivers join together, mid-way between its Himalayan source and the Bay of Bengal towards which it flows. This great river of India has always been revered as the life-giving goddess “Ganga”. And so it is to this day. This morning at sunrise I bathed in her waters, as yet another pilgrim nourished by this place of devotion: devotion to life, to the river, to the practices of yoga, and to welcome again the rising sun.
All of the great eastern traditions of philosophy, of spiritual teachings and practices, and yes, of the religions of India, all of them intersect here. Yesterday our group consisting of meditation teachers visited one of India’s most revered temples: the Kashi-Vishvanath Shiva Temple. In the name “Shiva” refers to the universal principal of consciousness. “Vishvanath” means the lord of that which gives rise to the entire universe (“vishva”). So this is very beautiful. And the visit uplifted me deeply with its living energy of freedom. Just as it does every day for tens of thousands of visitors arriving from every quarter of the globe.

During my internship as a young physician back in 1980, I lived in Denver Colorado. This region is called the “western front, where the Great Plains give way to the Rocky Mountains. It is a land of high snow-capped peaks, cascading rivers, deep pine forests and the promise of adventure at every turn. The Summer mornings here are often crystalline blue and dazzlingly clear. A mountain sky full of light and energy and not a wisp of clouds.
However, on most afternoons, clouds begin to materialize out of nowhere. They gather, thicken and darken, piling upward rapidly into enormous thunderheads. The temperature drops, winds begin to swirl then the first flash of lightning is followed by the rolling of thunder. The wild sudden storm cuts loose with such great and wild energy. Drenching downpours release all of this water in a dazzling display of power. Then suddenly it is over: The sky clears, the sunlight and a vast open sky return.
It is all so astonishing and mysterious. There was nothing apparent in that sky. Where did all of this come from? Of course it was already there in potential, the energy of sunlight on snow, invisible water vapor brought from the surrounding mountains’ snowfields. It only appeared that there had been “nothing” there.
The foundational and most authoritative text of the Shaiva-Tantra of Kashmir, the non-dual “high” tantra that is the source and basis of our deep meditation practice, is the Tantraloka of Abhivana-Gupta of Kashmir, “Light on the Tantras”, written almost exactly 1,000 tears ago. In one of the most beautiful and enigmatic teachings in this encyclopedic book, Abhivana-Gupta articulates a key “view” on the essence-nature of the universe, and thus of our own lived-experience of life. He says (paraphrasing):
This entire manifest universe (“vishva”), everything, all of nature, objects, beings, experiences and knowledge is but a reflected-image or counter-image (“pratibimba”) that arises in the unbounded infinite Source which is celebrated and called the “Light of Consciousness” and indeed the “Sky of Consciousness”.
(The non-dual teaching, to the degree one can attempt to articulate it at all, is that all of the relative objective universe and what is known to us as human life, is nothing else but that absolute principle of consciousness (referred to as “Shiva”). Nothing else other than That actually can be said to exist at all!)
So the hypothetical question that is then posed in this teaching is: “Well then, if this entire world is actually a “counter-image” arising within the “Sky of Consciousness”, then what would be the appearance of the “original-image?” (In reference to the level of the Absolute, beyond the relative).┬áThe delightful and mysterious answer of Abhinava-Gupta is: “Why it is absolutely nothing at all!”

So, to me, this is like the vast and empty sky, my own conscious field-of-awareness. Seemingly empty of content, as it first appears in deep meditation. But like the summer mountain sky, it is burgeoning with the potentialities and energies (the “Shaktis”) of every possible gift and form. Of you and of me and of a summer storm.
And it is into that sky of Light, that sky of Consciousness, that we “go” and immerse ourselves in our meditation, so easefully and so naturally. That seeming emptiness and silence turns out to be the fullness, that which is replete with our own fulfillment. This introversive meditative immersion, which is so readily accessed and achieved, is what is known as “samadhi”. Much more on this to come later. For now, from Varanasi, “Namaste”.