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Prophet Sharing

Noble silences and ignoble gases: A dispatch from two spiritual retreats

Maya. I first learned that word years ago in my Intro to Eastern Religions class. It refers to the sensory veil that is the world -- the tastes, the sounds and smells, the feel and the vision of the material world. It presupposes another reality too: one without suffering, disease, and desire -- a transcendent reality that the Buddha and the Hindu sages knew well. If you wanted to be more ecumenical about it, you might even say that Jesus and Mohamed knew about it, too. As a rule, my own efforts to get past that veil haven't really measured up. I have made a few noble attempts, though.

When I was younger, these attempts were bolder. It was easier to live outside of the world, or to live inside of it and still hold my ideals tight. I could travel for months on end, or just stay still and travel in my mind (with whatever internal travel aids I could find in my small college town). In the end, though, these methods proved inadequate. I grew up. I got jobs. I met my future wife. Suddenly, the self-indulgent path was no longer cutting it. Maya had grown more complex and more beautiful.

And that self-indulgent path was never good for much of anything other than getting back to myself, anyway. So as time passed, the question stopped being, "How can I smash the illusion of maya forever?" Now I just want to be able to lift up and peek under the corner of that veil, to know one single thought without desire, to be able to breathe a cleaner air, and maybe even to bring some of that good stuff back with me when I go.

Such thoughts led me to the Web site of the Bhavana Organization and its monastic retreat. The Web site actually scared me a bit: I'm not much of a Buddhist, and they seemed very serious. Even though they openly welcomed visitors to stay at their retreat, they had so many rules: "Follow a vegetarian diet and take only tea, juice or soft drinks after 12 noon....Avoid all physical contact except in emergencies....The Bhavana Society Meditation Center is not to be taken as a hotel or recreation center. It is purely a place for serious meditation and Dhamma study." The rules went on like this, as if the monk who had written it were practicing some sort of meditation on discipline and punishment. The most lenient piece of information I found concerning overnight stays was that their 5:15 a.m. yoga session was optional.

In the end, that very rigidity was probably what attracted me the most: It gave the distinct sense that I was not being marketed to. This was not "Enlightenment in 48 hours or your money back!" This was not, for that matter, foreign travel, mushrooms, and a jam session at the local coffee shop. The very austerity of it all suggested to me that this was something genuine.

My fiancée and I made the trip down early last spring, and we arrived for our weekend retreat at the bucolic monastery only after a long, white-knuckled drive down a tiny, nearly flooded West Virginia road. A tall, skinny bald man wrapped in orange robes and a puffy winter coat met us after we'd gotten out of our car, and he showed us to our rooms. He did so with such a kind manner, oozing such peace, that I found myself feeling bad for him when he had to awkwardly inform us of our sleeping arrangements: men slept in the men's dorms, and women in the women's.

After we had deposited our bags in our respective rooms, we returned to the central meditation hall for a brief orientation. This entailed the dissemination of a few more rules, and some nice tea. In fact, there was a pretty wonderful array of teas freely available in the main meeting hall. Since the monks discouraged the use of any kind of toxicants -- including coffee -- these teas became key to my survival.

As I sipped on my first of many cups, we learned about something called "noble silence." This meant that we were not to speak unless it was an absolute necessity. At first, this struck me as somewhat dramatic and priestly, as something that ought to be reserved for the actual monks. But before long, I started to revel in the freedom silence brought me. It meant no small talk, no chitchat about the weather, no useless salutations, no lamentations about the Steelers' performance last season. This was difficult at first, but it was also a minor revelation. I never realized how much time I'd spent saying so little, and how much more sincerely I could say it with just eye contact and a smile.

The retreat we were attending lasted for only two-and-a-half days, was open to all, and focused, cheerily, on an awareness of death. Our guide for this grim journey was Bhante Rahula, someone with the beatific presence of Mister Rogers and the otherworldly appearance of the singer from Midnight Oil. If you looked at him, you might be a little afraid, but if you listened to him speak, fear would be the last thing on your mind.

After our orientation, we nodded our goodnights and went back to our separate, austere but well-kept dormitories. The woods along the way were peaceful and seemed impartial, and the melting snow that still covered the moonlit ground held brightly limned silhouettes of winter branches.

The next morning, at 4:30 a.m., I promptly incurred my first infraction of the rules by taking an unnecessary hot shower. It seemed I had missed the rule concerning the water shortages in the previous evening's rundown. One of my co-retreatants did look at me funny as I was stepping into the shower, but, luckily, he was very observant of the noble silence, so I didn't have to suffer any embarrassment at that time. (That part got to wait until the car ride home.)

The morning yoga sessions were taught by an agile Asian woman with a shaven head and clean white robes. She smiled as she stretched, and we followed her example. Slowly, the sky outside started to brighten, then dawn was close behind. Dawn itself would meet us through a stained glass window in the meditation hall. Bhante Rahula would speak to us, as we sat before him in lotus position (or as close as we could come), then we would meditate. Along with two breaks for meals, time for chores, and time for one-on-one discussions with the monks about our thoughts, these meditations and talks filled up the bulk of our time.

My appreciation for both the guided meditations and for Rahula's talks grew as the weekend progressed. The talks, or the dhamma as it was introduced to us, mostly concerned the transitory nature of life, but also touched on many of the basics of Buddhist thought. One of the greatest concerns of Buddhism is to halt the cycle of desire, acquire, then desire more. Part of our problem, according to the dhamma, is that we see life, inappropriately, as a permanent fixture, and we try to hold on to things as though that were really possible. But, well, cue in "Dust in the Wind." You know how it goes: Enter impermanence, the illimitable flow of life, and that great equalizer, the big D.

Of course, just hearing about this stuff isn't enough to get it through your head. According to Bhante Gunaratana, the head monk out at Bhavana, the Buddha himself was very anti-authoritarian, and was a great believer in the necessity of seeing things for oneself. To this end, they teach vipassana meditation. The goal of this technique, introduced in an ancient text attributed directly to the Buddha, is to see things clearly, or mindfully, and this is done by training the mind to be observant, and to expel noisy, obsessive and unhealthy thoughts. In his book, Mindfulness in Plain English, monk-in-chief Bhante Gunaratana puts it this way: "We see life through a screen of thoughts and concepts, and we mistake those mental objects for reality....The meditator who pushes all the way down this track achieves perfect mental health, a pure love for all that lives, and complete cessation of suffering."

To get to that mindful place where you've started to see without the imposition of an overly eager, label-making mind, though, you first have to quiet your mind down, and that is not easy. As I sat in the meditation hall, I kept obsessing over how I could render all of this into words. My fiancée complained of a perpetually recurring chorus of that celebrated Styx classic, "Mr. Roboto," assailing her own inner silence. Elsewhere in the meditation room, during a particularly tender meditation led by Rahula and designed to confront our unwanted feelings of malevolence towards those in our past, someone farted. I don't mean to be immature, but it happened, and then about half of the 24 or so people in attendance started choking back giggles. Rahula heard these noises (although he'd missed the initial emission), and, thinking he was hearing choked back sobs, he told us to let our tears flow freely if we had to. At that point, two people had to get up and leave.

Once our laughter was successfully quelled, our training in the mindfulness of everyday life resumed. Eating mindfully, for instance, was an amazing experience. Unless I'm eating something I paid too much for, it's unusual for me to do anything other than simply inhale my food. Mindful eating, however, requires that you slow down and think about every stage that your food went through before it reached your lips. Its life from seed to sprout, drinking from the earth and the sun to approach ripeness and harvest, and then through the hands of the farmers and workers who reaped it and prepared it for you. Finally, there are the stores and the very kitchen, the hands of the cooks, to consider. Then you consume, and you understand that all of this is going into your sustenance.

I didn't think about it much at the time, but on later reflection it occurred to me that the other folks on that retreat with us did a terrific job of defying stereotypes. Many of them had been there before, but it seemed like a good number were also neophytes like us. There were even a few people of Asian descent who I guessed might have been practicing the religion they grew up with. Honestly, it's strange to think of those people in terms of difference; at the time, that was the last thing on our minds.

Unfortunately, though, after we returned from our trip, the gradients of difference and the complexities of life began to seem real once more. Thankfully, however, our immersion back into the world wasn't immediate. My first day back at work, for instance, still existed within a grace period of sorts. I smiled at co-workers that I'd never met. I spoke easily and honestly to my boss, around whom I was accustomed to feeling a bit anxious. In fact, I like to think that a tiny part of me still stays there, in that place we found that weekend, beyond this beautiful, torturous veil of maya.

As the months passed, though, and as I continually "couldn't find the time" to meditate, even that perspective faded, and I wanted to find a way to refresh it. When I came across an ad for The Datta Retreat Center, which is sort of a satellite campus of Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda Swamiji's ashram in Mysore, India, and a local branch of the Datta Yoga Center, USA, I knew I needed to investigate. I had heard of this Swamiji before.

Years ago, when I'd been traveling through Mysore myself, I had met one of Swamiji's devotees at the hostel where I was staying. He told me about his guru's presence, about his aura of warmth and magic. I usually would have dismissed this testimony as credulousness, vanity, or the opening bars to a con. In India, though, anything seemed possible. I would have gone to meet his guru right then, but in India, where everything may indeed have been possible, I spent most of my time needing to go to the bathroom. So it was on that day, too: bad stomach, no swami.

So, after a series of phone messages and e-mails, it was established that I could visit the retreat on Saturday, and then come out to the home of one of his devotees on Sunday for a special ceremony. This ceremony, called Kum Kum Archana (really), was going to be held in the venerated presence of Sri Manasa Swamiji, who I later found out was considered to be a very holy man, and very close to the big swami himself.

As I pulled my car up alongside the retreat center, it became clear to me that if I was hoping for something like my experience at Bhavana, I had perhaps been hoping for too much. The ice and snow that covered the grounds were unbroken by footprints, and snow devils circled in the parking lot. I had known there wouldn't be a crowd here, but this was unexpected.

A small calico cat ("Jaya," I learned the next day, who belonged to Padma, the retreat's manager) accompanied me with her cold little mews as I walked from building to rustic building in the empty center. A blissful Ganesha looked over its recent offerings outside a house next to a creek running through and under the snow, and I could tell that in the summer the land must be resplendent. Two nearby temples also hinted at a splendor that they were withholding for warmer times.

The larger of the two temples, a prayer or meeting hall, was equipped for musical performances and had a life-size picture of Swamiji over an altar at one end of the hall. Streamers and glittering decorations hung from the ceiling over the wooden floors, and display cases held CDs of Swamiji's recordings and a selection of his books. I noticed a small stereo system set inside one of the cases, so I left some money under the counter and chose two of the CDs: one labeled "Music for Meditation and Healing," and the other "Live from Hyderabad." Who doesn't like a good bootleg, right?

I turned on the stereo, curiously removed Bonnie Raitt's Fundamentals from the player, and sat down in the cold prayer hall to listen and read. According to one pamphlet, Swamiji's music is supposed to have deep "vibrational" healing powers, and it has had positive effects on everything from anxiety and depression to cancer and the common cold. At first I dismissed the music as being a bit too Hindu for my tastes, whatever that means, but it started to grow on me as I went on reading. In fact, on my stereo, right now, as I write, Swamiji is cranking out the ragas as sitars, violins, and tablas accompany his synthesizer to climax after ecstatic climax.

In an anthology of devotees' stories of their first encounters with Swamiji, I found a tale I later realized was from Padma, the manager in absentia. She wrote about the devotion she felt upon first meeting Sri Swamiji, and subsequently about how his teachings and specifically his music had healed her sicknesses over the past 20 years. A second narrative came from a Pittsburgh woman whose husband had been struck by a car; in her husband's case also, the music and the nurturing love of the Swami had pulled him through. In story after story, a composite picture of the Swamiji becomes apparent: a deeply mystical, deeply caring, and almost spookily omnipresent force who is able and willing to care for every one of his devotees.

Another book I'd picked up discussed the healing energy of the stones in the second temple on the grounds. Apparently, because of what the British call "lay lines," or energy fields that lace the earth and meet at certain points, a field of "protective energy" had formed around the temple. Jaya and I went to check it out.

The temple was hexagonal and filled with windows through which natural light poured in. Hindu deities perched next to and upon the "healing stones" projecting up from the earth in the center of the hexagon, but as I walked the brightly colored path that ringed those deities, I realized that this was a much more ecumenical temple than I'd first realized. Jesus and Mary stood next to Krishna, while over their heads, like halos in a dada pieta, Native American crafts hung down from the ceiling.

I noted a wooden African totem, a brass Star of David next to a menorah on the wall, a plaque written in Arabic, pictures of the Swamiji, and an aged-looking Buddha, who seemed, perhaps, just a little amused by his present company. A stack of bhajans, or hymns, sat on the floor next to a crate of cymbals, drums, and castanets. I tried to imagine the small room full of dancing, chanting devotees; sometimes, I thought, solitude isn't so bad.

The next morning, as I pulled into the driveway of the Doctors Murti, who had been kind enough to host the Kum Kum Archana, something seemed odd. The house was nothing short of a mansion. When I was invited inside, I felt like some kind of tourist, a glamour-seeking interloper. I stared slack-jawed at the brightly polished granite floors, gawked at the crystal chandeliers that hung from cathedral ceilings, and visibly lusted after an entertainment system that dwarfed the baby grand in the corner. Immediately after my shock set in, however, it was warded off by the attentive hospitality that surrounded me. The hosts gave me breakfast, showed me downstairs to where the ceremony would take place, and soon introductions were being offered all around.

I soon met Dr. Rao, the president of the Datta Yoga Center in the United States. He had a skull-like countenance that seemed to strongly discourage any frivolity, but as we spoke about Swamiji and his place in their lives, any wariness I had felt quickly faded. He said that everyone who meets Swamiji has a different experience of him: Some people are unmoved, while others fall in love. It all depends on where you are in life -- or lives, as the case may be.

I was surprised to learn that they believe that Swamiji himself is not just a guru, but that he is an avatar -- a living incarnation of the deity Dattatria. Other gurus have reached their enlightened state by living many lives and accumulating good karma. Swamiji, Dr. Rao explained to me, had more of a direct line to divinity. He was actually something more akin to a living god -- which brings me to an interesting point of comparison between the Bhavana experience and my time with the folks from the Datta Center.

Concerning gurus, I found the following in a book of Sri Ganapati Sachchidananda Swamiji's wisdom: "Knowledge gained without a guru is akin to self-medication and therefore more harmful than useful." The point is clear: You can go it on your own, as the Buddha did, but you won't get as far and you might hurt yourself in the process. At Bhavana, on the other hand, they were strict about what you did, but not about who you did it for. Then again, according to the followers of Swamiji, once you met the guru, you offered him what devotion you did out of love and no other sense of obligation.

I also had a chance to speak with John Laird, who was responsible for first bringing Swamiji to U.S. over 20 years ago. I asked him about what the Datta Center was, exactly: Was it simply a kind of Hinduism? Dr. Laird said no, it wasn't simply Hinduism; its mission was the "spiritualizing of humanity." He told me that the ceremonies and the ritual were all meaningful and fairly complex, but what brought people to Datta was the sense of universal love that you feel in the presence of Swamiji. Dr. Laird also said that when he first met Swamiji, he had gained his first glimpse of his own soul, and that it was this quality of Swamiji, rather than any specifically Hindu traits of Swamiji's culture, that define the Datta Center.

The crowd slowly coalesced around the altar, and as Sri Manasa Swamiji, the visiting swami, began the day's ceremony, he looked out at the growing crowd and offered an explanation of what was to happen, saying somewhat mysteriously to me, "Life -- this incarnation -- is ritual."

Sri Manasa and two other priests began chanting in unison as they pitched herbs, clarified butter, and other offerings into a flaming brazier that perched in the center of the room. Smoke, representing our desires, rose to the heavens (or in this case, the ceiling vent). In the final stages of the ceremony, there must have been 65 people in attendance. We all stood, took handfuls of almonds, circumambulated the flames, and leaned in to pitch our nuts into the growing blaze.

Afterwards, we moved to a different altar, and as bhajans were sung in Swamiji's praise, everyone started to turn around in circles, so I did too. I had no idea what the hell was going on at this point.

After that final ceremony had finished, the devotees invited me back upstairs, where a wonderful lunch had been prepared by our hosts. I stuffed myself on curries, biryani, and rich homemade gulab jamon. The conversation was honest, the people were excited and kind, and the atmosphere was warm and inclusive. After a short time, though, I had to be on my way. I needed to go and process.

Now, after some time has passed, I've started to question part of my approach to this. Perhaps maya isn't quite the opposite of enlightenment at all. Perhaps growing up, getting a job and getting engaged isn't really the thickening of maya at all, but rather the sweetening of the pot. What if loving Swamiji, as his devotees do, is a way to love the world, and Buddhist detachment from the world is simply a path to understanding the world that much better? "Retreat," in that sense, is a strangely misleading word.

Some other resources for spiritual retreats and institutions in southwestern Pennsylvania

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