Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Patanjali Yoga Sutras: Atha 3

Continued from Patanjali Yoga Sutras – Atha 2

Atha means when man has realized he is all periphery with no centre.

One of my former management students sent me a mail a while back. He had a wonderful job, he said. It was not too demanding, considering the pay they were giving him, which was to the tune of about a lakh and a half a month. He had everything he could desire for at his workplace. He had recently married a beautiful young girl, an MBA like himself. They loved each other, his parents loved him, his in-laws loved him, everything was fine. But with all that he was not happy with his life, he wrote to me. He felt something was missing. He felt a deep sense of meaninglessness – a kind of existential angst.

This is what happens when your life has no deep core. Modern society, modern civilization, takes away that deep core from our lives and gives us everything at the periphery. The periphery is wonderful, but there is no centre.

Abraham Maslow speaks of the eight dimensions of human needs in his revised theory of needs and motivations [the original theory had only five]: physical and physiological needs, security needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization needs and self-transcendence needs. In the case of an educated, employed young man like the student who wrote to me, his physical and physiological needs, he security needs, his belonging needs, his esteem needs and even his aesthetic needs are well taken care of. But when it comes to the other three dimensions, he is perhaps poorer than his predecessors.

Our younger generation today frequently take ‘working hard and partying harder’ as their motto. And the work is often not really meaningful, though it is productive and pays extremely well. And the parties provide for very superficial satisfactions. Intimacies are of very tentative nature – frequently of the kind Eric Jong wrote about in her blockbuster Fear of Flying. They do not give meaning to life. True, in the case of the young man who wrote to me his belonging needs are satisfied because of his satisfying relations with his wife and family and perhaps with his colleagues. But when it comes to his deeper meaning needs – cognitive needs – there was a big question mark there.

Victor Frankl, once an inmate of Nazi concentration camps for Jews and later the founder of logotherapy made an interesting observation – the people who perished in the concentration camps were the ones who had lost meaning in life and the survivors were invariably the ones who found meaning in life even under the unimaginably cruel conditions of the concentration camps. Man needs meaning to live by, as deeply as he needs anything else, if not more deeply than most other things.

Barring the case of a few individuals, our society and civilization, our lifestyle, does not satisfy our meaning needs.

And along with meaning needs, most of our self-actualization needs are left unfulfilled.

And when it comes to the highest of our needs, self-transcendence needs, in its truest sense, our society and our jobs do very little to satisfy them.

For these reasons, we live at the periphery, instead of leaving at the centres. For it is only when you have a meaning to your life and when you achieve self-actualization and self-transcendence that your life has a centre. Otherwise it has only peripheries.

What modern civilization does is deny man his centre and give him lots of peripheries.

It is like watering the leaves of the plant and leaving the roots hungry.

Yoga is for people who have realized this truth about modern life and want to live at the centre, from the centre.


Here is a story I love.

A young little bird used to fly so beautifully that the sky would be moved. One day he came across a man who sold termites. “Give a feather, take a termite,” the salesman said. And there was a scheme – buy one, get one free. The bird gave the man a feather, bought a termite, got one free. He ate the termites, and he liked their taste. The next day the salesman came and the bird gave another feather and got two termites. Soon the bird grew addicted to eating termites. One by one, he kept giving his feathers.

The blue of the sky soon became a rare thing for him. Somehow he could manage to fly up to the trees.

And then came a time when all he could do was hop on the ground.

One day he came across a huge termite hill. He thought he would give back two times the termites he had eaten and buy back his wings. Maybe three or four times, if needed. He saw the man who sold termites passing by. When he offered termite again, the bird said: “Enough. I have had enough of termites. You take your termites back and give back my feathers. In fact, I will give you three termites for a feather. Or even four.”
The man who sold termites said: “I sell termites for feathers; I don’t buy termites paying feathers.”

It was too late. The young bird had forever lost his freedom. He had given away his sky.

Yoga is for people who realize they have lived their life like the little young bird. It is for those who realize that they have been giving away their feathers for termites. It is for those who realize when you give your feathers away for termites, you lose the sky.


Richard Bach tells a story in his bestselling book Illusions. Here is the story narrated in Biblical language.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river.

The current of the river swept silently over them all – young and old, rich and poor, good and evil, the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom.”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Saviour!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone and they were left alone making legends of a Saviour. “

Yoga is for the potential messiah who has realized he can let go and enjoy the journey and it is far better to let go than cling to the twigs and rocks at the bottom of the river.

It is also for the creatures who bound by unthinking habits cling to the twigs and rocks at the bottom of the crystal river. But of course, they have to realize the futility of their clinging, the absurdity of it, the total meaninglessness of it.

In fact, it is they who require yoga more than the messiah.


To be continued on Patanjali Yoga Sutras Atha 4

Patanjali Yoga Sutras: Atha 2

Continued from Patanjali Yoga Sutras – Atha 1

Anthropologists talk about the Dobuans of Melanesia. Here is how Ruth Benedict discusses them in Pattern of Culture [1934]:

The Dobuan child in Melanesia might think twice about coming into this world, if he had any choice in the matter. He enters a family where the only member who is likely to care much about him is his uncle, his mother’s brother, to whom he is heir. His father, who is interested in his own sister’s children usually, resents him, for his father must wait until he is weaned before resuming sexual relations with his mother. Often he is also unwanted by his mother, and abortion is common. Little warmth or affection awaits the child in Dobu.

The Dobuan child soon learns that he lives in a world ruled by magic. Nothing happens from natural causes; all phenomena are controlled by witchcraft and sorcery. Illness, accident, and death are evidence that witchcraft has been used against one and call for vengeance from one’s kinsmen. Nightmares are interpreted as witchcraft episodes in which the spirit of the sleeper has narrow escapes from hostile spirits. Crops grow only if one’s long hours of magical chants are successful in enticing the yams away from another’s garden. Even sexual desire does not arise except in response to another’s love magic, which guides one’s steps to his partner, while one’s own love magic accounts for his successes.

Ill will and treachery are virtues in Dobu, and fear dominates Dobuan life. Every Dobuan lives in constant fear of being poisoned. Food is watchfully guarded while in preparation, and there are few persons indeed with whom a Dobuan will eat. The Dobuan couple spend alternate years in the villages of wife and husband, so that one of them is always a distrusted and humiliated outsider who lives in daily expectation of poisoning or other misadventure. Because of numerous divorces and remarriages, each village shelters men from many different villages, so that none of them can trust either their village hosts or one another. In fact, no one can be fully trusted; men are nervous over their wives’ ossible witchcraft and fear their mothers-in-law.

To the Dobuans, all success must be secured at the expense of someone else, just as all misfortune is caused by others’ malevolent magic. Effective magic is the key to success, and a man’s success is measured by his accomplishments in theft and seduction. Adultery is virtually universal, and the successful adulterer, like the successful thief, is much admired.

What kind of personality develops in such a cultural setting? The Dobuan is hostile, suspicious, distrustful, jealous, secretive, and deceitful. These are rational reactions, for his lives in a world filled with evil, surrounded by enemies, witches, and sorcerers. Eventually they are certain to destroy him. Meanwhile he seeks to protect himself by his own magic, but never can he know any sense of comfortable security. A bad nightmare may keep him in bed for days. As measured by our standards of mental hygiene, all Dobuans are paranoid to a degree calling for psychotherapy. But simply to call them paranoid would be incorrect, for their fears are justified and not irrational; the dangers they face are genuine, not imaginary. A true paranoid personality imagines that other people are threatening him, but in Dobu, other people really are out to get him.

Doesn’t the world of Dobu remind us of the world of many business organizations today? Doesn’t the world of Dobu remind us of how a lot of people in the richest part of the world are living today?

Much of our world today is moving in the direction of the Dobuans. Primary relationships are growing weaker and there is more tentativeness about them than ever before. Man’s ability to trust his fellow beings is on a downward slide. More legal papers are being signed today than ever before, more laws are being enacted than ever before. Families are breaking up everywhere – and the more advanced a culture is, like the American culture – the more families break up, creating more and more broken homes. Insecurities and paranoia are haunting man ever increasingly.

Atha means when man realizes it is not worth living like the Dobuan. Atha means when man begins to search for freedom from fears and insecurities, when man begins to seek lightness of heart and a life in which he can breathe more freely.


In 1972, Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil told the world the harrowing story of Sybil Isabel Dorsett, a young woman in her late twenties who was not one person, but sixteen different persons. Subsequently the book was made into a groundbreaking movie that forced the world to sit up and watch holding its breath as a horrid, unforgettable true tale of multiple personality disorder resulting from unspeakable acts of child abuse unreeled on the screen. The book and the movie were telling us the real life story of Shirley Ardell Mason, who later died in 1998, and who had been given the name Sybil in the book and the movie.

[A small aside. In one of my guest lectures at a leading business school, I was discussing the power of the mind/belief and was using Sybil as an example when I found a group of young girls from Europe giggling in great amusement and looking at one of their friends. I stopped the class and asked them why and they pointed at one of the girls and said her name was Sybil. This Sybil, unlike the Sybil of our story, told her friends, had a very rounded and smooth personality.]

To come back to our movie, one day Sybil finds herself standing by a lake in New York, unable to remember how exactly she reached there. The experience was not new to Sybil because she had had several such experiences in the past and so long as she could remember, she had experienced blackouts, some of which had lasted for months.
This leads her to therapy sessions under Dr Cornelia Wilbur and soon a harrowing tale begins to emerge from the therapy.

To begin with, Sybil was very erratic during the therapy sessions. There were sessions during which Sybil was cool and relaxed. At other times she was different – belligerent at times, shy at others; sometimes she was free spirited, at others she was pathologically polite and yet at others, angry or depressed. Her speech and accent changed too – sometimes she sounded crude and uneducated, at others, polished and sophisticated. Eventually Dr Wilbur was able to count sixteen different personalities in Sybil – two of them male, others female. They were really more than different personalities – they were more like sixteen different persons, each with his or her own name [Vicky, Vanessa, Marsha, Mike, Sid, etc.], each with a different speech, different past, different ambitions and aspirations, different fears and frustrations.

Eventually what comes out is a story of “vicious abuse suffered at the hands of her exquisitely insane religious fanatic of a mother who subjected young Sybil to almost daily degradations, most of which involved sexual abuse in the guise of religious practices.” Sybil had created alter egos in order to protect herself when she was unable to handle the horrifying reality of her life and to escape her mother. Before becoming one single person again, these personalities had to be integrated into one.

The European mystic Gurdjieff says that modern man is not one individual and when he says “I” he really rarely means one single individual.

Each one of us a crowd, says Gurdjieff.

Atha means when man has realized this crowd within himself and is ready to integrate himself into one.

Incidentally, the world yoga literally means integration.


To be continued on Patanjali Yoga Sutras Atha 3

Patanjali Yoga Sutras: Atha 1

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begin with the sutra ‘Atha yoganushasanam.”
The sutra means “Now the teaching of Yoga”

The word atha there, the first word of the Sutras, means “now.”

In the Indian culture, atha is symbolic of an auspicious beginning. Atha indicates the beginning just as iti indicates the end. Thus the Narada Bhakti Sutra begins with ‘Athato bhakti-jijnasa.’ The Brahmasutras begin with ‘Athato brahma-jijnasa.’ Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, again, begins with the word atha. Innumerable other texts begin with atha.

But of course atha means much, much more than just an auspicious beginning.

Let us first look at some of these meanings from a contemporary standpoint, particularly as relevant to the modern urban executive, male or female. Later we shall look at how the ancients understood the word atha in the Yoga Sutras.

The job of an executive today is more challenging than it has ever been in the past. His pace of work is hectic and unrelenting, and the content of his work is varied and fragmented. Much of his work is reactive rather than proactive in nature, requiring him to react to decisions taken by others and actions initiated by others. The decision making processes are disorderly, characterised more by confusion and emotionality than by rationality and frequently involve hard negotiations, organizational politics and self-serving interests of individuals and groups complicating the process.

While his job involves dealing with his boss and higher executives on one side, it involves dealing with direct and indirect subordinates, peers, lateral superiors and lateral juniors on another side and officials in government agencies, clients, suppliers, colleagues in the same position and important people in the community on yet another. His responsibilities involve supervising, planning, organizing, decision making, monitoring, controlling, representing, coordinating, consulting and administering and he is called upon to play the leader role, the liaison role, the spokesperson role, the entrepreneur role, the resource allocator role, the disturbance handler role and the negotiator role, to mention just a few. And has to do all these under severe constraints of numerous kinds imposed upon him.

Atha for an executive today means now that such are the conditions and the demands on the executive, he needs Yoga and therefore the teaching of Yoga.

Patanjali’s yoga can be of immense value to the modern executive. It can help him retain mental serenity even when he is in the middle of his stormy executive life. While storms rage outside, he will still be able to function from that inner serenity. His decisions will arise from his inner calm and not from chaos. The inner calm will help him become more intuitive – and intuitiveness is invaluable when you have to take decisions with insufficient data. Yoga will help the modern executive by enabling him to work effectively even in the middle of hectic and unrelenting work conditions. It will enable him to find meaning behind the disorder of his workplace, meet the challenges of confusion and emotionality there, and deal better with the different levels and kinds of people he has constantly to deal with. It will help him multitask effectively – and his job requires that he supervises, plans, organizes, makes decisions, monitors, controls, coordinates and does numerous other things, many of these at the same time.


Man is possessed by a strange madness today. A madness that has taken over the heart of the individual, organizations and society alike. And possessed by that madness, we are all chasing windmills mistaking them for giants, as Miguel Cervantes’ hero, or ante-hero, Don Quixote did in The Adventures of Don Quixote. We all feel compelled to run after things and we frequently have no clue what we are running after or why we are running after it. Of course, we do have our reasons – it is only that these reasons are the same as the reasons of Don Quixote.

Everyone today seemS to suffering a kind of insanity.

I remember reading a while back Robin Sharma’s international bestseller The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. Here are some excerpts from the first chapter of his book where he describes the life of the lawyer Julian Mantle.

He collapsed right in the middle of a packed courtroom. He was one of this country’s most distinguished trial lawyers. He was also a man who was as well known for the three-thousand-dollar Italian suits which draped his well-fed frame as for his remarkable string of legal victories. The great Julian Mantle had been reduced to a victim and was now squirming on the ground like a helpless infant, shaking and shivering and sweating.

I had known Julian for seventeen years. Back then, he had it all. He was a brilliant, handsome and fearless trial attorney with dreams of greatness. Julian was tough, hard-driving and willing to work eighteen-hour days for the success he believed was his destiny.

For the first few years he justified his long hours by saying that he was “doing it for the good of the firm”, and that he planned to take a month off and go to the Caymans “next winter for sure.” As time passed, however, Julian’s reputation for brilliance spread and his workload continued to increase. The cases just kept on getting bigger and better, and Julian, never one to back down from a good challenge, continued to push himself harder and harder. In his rare moments of quiet, he confided that he could no longer sleep for more than a couple of hours without waking up feeling guilty that he was not working on a file. It soon became clear to me that he was being consumed by the hunger for more: more prestige, more glory and more money.

As expected, Julian became enormously successful. He achieved everything most people could ever want: a stellar professional reputation with an income in seven figures, a spectacular mansion in a neighbourhood favoured by celebrities, a private jet, a summer home on a tropical island and his prized possession — a shiny red Ferrari parked in the center of his driveway.

However, none of these was enough for Julian. He wanted ever bigger cases to win. He wanted his preparations to be more thorough than ever before. He wanted his research into each case to be no less than perfect.

The more time I spent with Julian, the more I could see that he was driving himself deeper into the ground. It was as if he had some kind of a death wish. Nothing ever satisfied him. Eventually, his marriage failed, he no longer spoke with his father, and though he had every material possession anyone could want, he still had not found whatever it was that he was looking for.

It showed, emotionally, physically — and spiritually. At fifty-three years of age, Julian looked as if he was in his late seventies. His face was a mass of wrinkles, a less than glorious tribute to his “take no prisoners” approach to life in general and the tremendous stress of his out-of-balance lifestyle in particular. He had lost his sense of humour and never seemed to laugh anymore. Julian’s once enthusiastic nature had been replaced by a deathly sombreness. Personally, I think that his life had lost all sense of purpose.

Perhaps the saddest thing was that he had also lost his focus in the courtroom. Where he would once dazzle all those present with an eloquent and airtight closing argument, he now droned on for hours. Where once he would react gracefully to the objections of opposing counsel, he now displayed a biting sarcasm that severely tested the patience of judges.

And then it happened. This massive heart attack that brought the brilliant Julian Mantle back down to earth and reconnected him to his mortality. Right in the middle of courtroom number seven on a Monday morning, the same courtroom where we had won the Mother of All Murder Trials.

Many of us are Julian Mantles. Many of us are Don Quixotes. And what we do with our lives is exactly what Julian Mantle did, what Don Quixote did.

Atha means when we are driven by the madness of Julian Mantle. Atha means when we are driven by the madness of Don Quixote.

Atha means when we have awakened to the fact that we are driven by the madness of Julian Mantle and Don Quixote.

Sometimes, by some grace, we get a glimpse into the madness we are living. Atha means when that has happened.


To be continued on Patanjali Yoga Sutras Atha 2

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Machig Labdrön, Yeshe Tsogyal and Ramana Maharshi 2

Continued from Part 1

Here is what the great Tibetan teacher Machig Labdrön [see my article Machig Labdrön: Mystic Woman, Teacher Unsurpassed on my blog http://innertraditions.blogspot.com] has to say about the mind in her final teaching.

Mind itself [natural and co-emergent]
Has no support, has no object:
Let it rest in its natural expanse without any fabrication.
When the bonds [of negative thoughts] are released,
You will be free, there is no doubt.

As when gazing into space,
All other visual objects disappear,
So it is for mind itself.
When mind is looking at mind,
All discursive thoughts cease
And enlightenment is attained.

As in the sky all clouds
Disappear into sky itself:
Wherever they go, they go nowhere,
Wherever they are, they are nowhere.
This is the same for thoughts in the mind:
When mind looks at mind,
The waves of conceptual thought disappear...

The defining characteristic of mind
Is to be primordially empty like space;
The realization of the nature of the mind
Includes all phenomena without exception.

Right now you have the opportunity
Look for the essence of mind-- that is meaningful.
When you look at mind, there's nothing to be seen.
In this very not seeing, you see the definitive meaning.

This old woman has no instructions more profound than this to give you.

Machig Labdrön, the Tibetan Yogini who has known what the mind is and what lies beyond the mind, knows with absolute clarity just as Ramana Maharshi does: “When you look at mind, there’s nothing to be seen.”

When thoughts cease, we realize there is no mind, there has never been anything called the mind.

The mind is only an illusion. Like the moon reflected in the water in an old pail as in the story of the Zen bhikshuni Chiyono. The pail breaks, water flows out and when there is no water, there is no moon.

When the nirodha of chittavrittis take place, in the language of Patanjali, you achieve yoga. And yoga is seeing that the mind does not exist. It is the mind that separates us from our true nature, from pure Existence, and when we realize no-mind-ness, we realize our true nature.


What is the straight path that Ramana Maharshi is speaking about?

In Sky Dancer, her autobiography, the greatest of Tibetan Yoginis Yeshe Tsogyal speaks of the path leading to the realization of no-mind: imperturbable relaxation. When you reach imperturbable relaxation, and reach it consciously, you realize no-mind. Everything you do as spiritual sadhana is for achieving this imperturbable relaxation consciously. Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, all are for that. The question that Ramana Maharshi asks us to ask ourselves repeatedly – ‘Who am I?” – the purpose of that questioning is not to arrive at a cerebral answer to the question, but to achieve this imperturbable relaxation. Patanjali calls this state of conscious imperturbable relaxation Samadhi – and the other seven steps of yoga are for reaching there. This is the purpose of yama and niyama, of asana and pranayama, of pratyahara, dharana and dhyana.

When you achieve stillness, mind disappears and then there is only one thing left: prajna, boundless intelligence, consciousness, wisdom.

Which is our true nature.

Prajna has no purpose, except to play the game of life.

Leela. Krida.

One of the names for the Mother Goddess who is our true nature – ahamityeva vibhavaye bhavaneem, we say in our prayer invocation to her – is Lalita.

Lalita means the sportive one, the playful one.

Life is her game.


To be continued...3

Machig Labdrön, Yeshe Tsogyal and Ramana Maharshi

I still remember vividly sitting among the other disciples of my teacher in his ashram and listening to the verses of Ramana Maharshi’s Upadesa Saram sung by him decades ago. Swamiji had learnt to sing these verses in Ramana Maharshi’s ashram in Tiruvannamalai, listening to the Maharshi singing it. Swamiji he sang those verses melodiously, in his rich, deep voice, sending a thrill through us as we listened to him.

It helped that Swamiji had learnt classical Karnatic music as a child in Tanjavur from traditional music teachers. Listening to him chanting the Upadesa Saram was a spellbinding experience. Swamiji of course sang the verses exactly as Maharshi had sung them. Following the chanting of the verses, he would comment on them. Usually he commented on one verse a day, for ninety minutes to two hours – so the thirty-one verses of the book took a month for us to study under him. By the time he finished, we had, of course, memorised the entire book, apart from exploring the meaning. The true meaning of the book, as in the case of the teachings of every self-realized teacher, Swamiji told us, dawns in your heart when you personally experience it.

Later I listened to another teacher who explained to us, a small group of four or five of friends, the meaning of Upadesa Saram. This was in Madras [Chennai] and the teacher gave us an option. He knew only two languages – Tamil and Sanskrit. Tamil was his mother tongue and he spoke Sanskrit as fluently as he spoke Tamil. We chose to listen to him in Sanskrit, more for the privilege of being taught in Sanskrit, which I consider is indeed a rare privilege.

Sastrigal, our teacher, began teaching us the Upadesa Saram by narrating a small incident from his life when he was living in Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai. Satrigal was writing a small poem in Sanskrit – a single long verse in fact – and struggle as he might, he could not complete the last part of it. Eventually after hours of effort he left the paper on which he was writing where it was, along with the pen, and went for a bath. And lo! When he came back, he found the verse was complete. Puzzled, he made enquiries all over the ashram and then he learnt the amazing truth. Ramana Maharshi was taking a walk inside the ashram when he came across the pen and the paper with the incomplete verse. He had picked up the pen and effortlessly completed the verse in a spontaneous act of composition!

Reminds me of how Jayadeva felt reluctant to write about Radha placing her foot on Krishna in the Gita Govindam and went for a bath. When he came back, he found the verse completed for him. Legend says that Krishna himself had come and completed the verse. [Jayadeva might feel reluctance about Radha placing her foot on Krishna; but Krishna has no such reluctance about it!]

The most amazing thing about what Maharshi did is that while Sastrigal was a Sanskrit scholar, Ramana Maharshi was not. He had picked up a bit of Sanskrit from the scholars who used to visit the ashram and discuss things among themselves or with the Maharshi and that was all – he had never studied the language formally.

Of course, it was the Maharshi himself who had rendered the Upadesa Saram into Sanskrit from his Tamil original, though he did get some help here.

Some people prefer to say that he composed it in four languages – Tamil, Sanskrit, Malayalam and Telugu. That is to say, they consider all four compositions as independent ones, rather than as one original and its three renderings.

Every verse in the Upadesa Saram is precious and extremely beautiful. But I have always had a special fascination for verse 17:

manasam tu kim margane krte
naiva manasam marga arjavat.

“If you make an enquiry into what the mind is, you find that there is no mind, if your path is straight.”


The mind is a myth.

And the strangest of all things is that we all live our entire lives for the mind. All our seeking, all our ambitions and aspirations, all our struggles, the entire pursuit of our life, is to satisfy the mind. And the mind itself does not exist! It is only a myth.

Abraham Maslow in his celebrated theory of human needs speaks of eight dimensions of human needs [In the revised version of his theory. The original and more widely known theory has only five dimensions]. Physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness needs, esteem needs, cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, self-actualization needs and self-transcendence needs. The lowest dimension of physiological needs are at the physical level – at the level of instincts and impulses. And the highest dimension of self-transcendence is the need to reach beyond the mind, beyond the ego, into our true being. In this dimension we transcend the mind. In all other six dimensions, it is the needs of the mind that the human being tries to satisfy, it is the needs of the mind that motivates all his actions. Our safety needs, our belongingness needs, our esteem needs, our cognitive needs, our aesthetic needs, our self-actualization needs are the needs of our mind. And our life story is the story of our race through the arena of the world to achieve these, the story of our battles to satisfy these.

And what Ramana Maharshi says is that the mind does not exist.

He is pulling away from under our feet the plank on which we are standing. He is making the earth on which we stand disappear from below our feet.

Following his path would force us to reconsider all that we try to achieve in life. We will have to question the meaningfulness of all that we do in life.

We will have to ask ourselves if the mind is unreal, aren’t all mental pursuits illusory? We will have to question if there is anything that is really meaningful in life apart from searching for self-transcendence.

And once that is achieved? Once self-transcendence is achieved? Then what?

Here is what the amazing Yeshe Tsogyel, Tibet’s greatest female teacher and the Mother Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, has to say in her embodiment as Vajra Mamo, the Dakini of Crazy Wisdom:

“Whatever happens; may it happen.
Whichever way it goes; may it go that way.
There is no purpose.”

Crazy because that sounds crazy to us.

But this is what India has always called lila. Life as the divine lila. Krida.

It has no goal, it has no purpose.

For there is nothing to achieve.

Only the game has to be played.

As Krishna says in the Gita:

na me parthasti kartavyam
trishu lokeshu kinchana
nanavaptam avaptavyam.

“Listen, Oh Partha. There is nothing whatsoever that I must do in all the three worlds. There is nothing for me to achieve that I have not already achieved.”

From the standpoint of the self-transcended individual, there is nothing to be achieved.

Until then there is a goal: achieving self-transcendence.


Continued . . . Part 2

Life of Machig Labdrön by Lama Lodö Rinpoche

In searching for authentic material on Machig Labdrön, I ran into different versions of her life. Here is a very brief one by Lama Lodo Rinpoche. The biography is found in a book called Chöd Practice and Commentary, by Lama Lodö Rinpoche. The Preface to the book begins with the following warning by its author: “I strongly suggest that whoever wants to read this book and practice chöd have the initiation from a qualified teacher and have their permission to study this book. Because this practice is of the high tantric class of Vajrayana, it may be dangerous rather than beneficial to do this practice without initiation and explanation from a qualified teacher.”


The especially well-known profound practice of Chöd was brought from India to Tibet by the great mahasiddha Dampa Sangye . . . The Chöd teachings and practice were transmitted in Tibet by Machig Labdrön, who thus played a very important role in the Chöd lineage. Here, therefore, we will give a brief history of the wisdom dakini Machig Labdrön.

First, she manifested from Dharmata in the form of Prajiiaparamita. From that, she emanated as the great pandit and mahasiddha Dandrub Zangpo in India. He was a very well-known scholar and accomplished yogi. At that time, he received many prophecies from divine beings and his own teacher that he must go to Tibet to benefit many beings in the snowy regions. He quickly accomplished complete realization in the cave of Potari, and while he was practicing and experiencing clear realization, a dakini appeared and told him he needed to go to Tibet to benefit many beings in the snowy regions, and must transmute his consciousness into her heart.

As the dakini requested, he transmuted his consciousness into her heart and took birth in Tibet in the town of Labchi Kangra as the daughter of a couple who had great devotion to the Dharma. Her father and mother, Chakyi Dawa and Bumcham, were patrons of the Buddhadharma and lords of that town.

After entering her mother’s womb, during the pregnancy many special and divine signs appeared, such as her reciting the Mani and Ga-Te and other different mantras and even speaking to her mother from the womb. All these unusual indications were heard by the mother. During the pregnancy the mother had many omens, dreams, and blissful and joyful experiences. Many neighbors and villagers also had incredibly unusual omens, dreams, and experiences. Machig was born without any kind of difficulty to the mother and immediately stood in a mass of rainbow light and manifested many divine signs, such as a third eye and being able to speak right away to her mother. Her wisdom and compassion naturally caused people to be devoted to her as an emanation of Buddha and to bow, pray, and receive blessing from her without any doubt.
She followed her mother in her daily practice in the shrine room, reciting, bowing, and saying prayers, expressing devotion at an early age. She also showed unimaginable intelligence in reading, matched by no other; even her own teacher could not equal her intelligence.

Her special ability and unusual qualities became known throughout the kingdom; even the king heard of her, and extended an invitation to her and her family to meet with him. He offered them gifts and prayers, and gave her the name of “Labdrön,” as the one born in the village of Labchi Kangra and already called Dranma by her mother.

She was an extremely fast reader and mastered all aspects of Buddhist science, including logic, etc., without effort. When she was thirteen her mother died; afterward she followed her sister as a disciple of Lama Drapa Nganshe and stayed for four years with him, learning the teachings and practice of the sutra and tantra traditions, and reading the sutras for that lama. Afterward she met Kyoton Sonam Lama, who bestowed on her the empowerments of all traditions. She received teachings, and both Lama Drapa Nganshe and Kyoton Sonam Lama foretold that she must unite with the Indian mahasiddha Sangye Tanpa, who had come to Tibet to benefit sentient beings; that she had the karma to unite method and wisdom and benefit beings with him.

She met and practiced tantric union with the great mahasiddha [Sangye Tonpa] and again returned to her two gurus, telling them what she had done and requesting more teaching. Finally they sent her back to the yogi to continue with him, even saying that to start a family lineage with him would greatly benefit sentient beings. So she followed her gurus’ instructions, went back to him, and had two sons and a daughter. After having the daughter, she completely renounced worldly life and practiced in isolated places. After that, she met Dampa Sangye and requested all the teachings directly from him. He foretold that she would greatly benefit beings and should go practice at the mountain of Zangri Kamar; that many disciples would be gathered there, and that it would greatly benefit sentient beings.

According to her gurus’ instructions, she meditated there and began to teach many beings – humans, nonhumans, spirits, and nagas. She composed her own tradition, Pungpo Sengyurma, “Offering the Body as Food for Demons.” She developed this and taught it to many beings; then her tradition flourished all over Tibet. She had many disciples; abbots, learned pandits, and many yogis and yoginis became her students.

Her doctrine of Pungpo Sengyurma became popular all over Tibet, and rumor of it even spread to India. Then pandits and mahasiddhas were sent to verify that an emanation of Prajnaparamita had appeared in human form, had developed a specific tradition, and was benefiting beings. Two accomplished siddhas, both pandits and great beings, were sent to Tibet to meet Machig, question her, and check her teachings. When they first spoke to her, Machig replied in the Indian tongue. They asked her how she learned the language, and she replied that she had no need to learn it; she had been born in India before her present birth in Tibet, and had never forgotten it. This impressed the two pandits; here was a great being who could change lives and yet not forget the language.

They stayed and debated with her for many days concerning the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana points of view. The two great scholars could not defeat her; she won the debate, and her teaching became popular not only in Tibet but in Nepal and India as well. While the teachings of the Buddha had been faithfully carried from India to Tibet and elsewhere, never before had any tradition been transmitted from Tibet to India. Machig’s Chöd of Mahamudra transmission was the first time in history that a valid source of Dharma went from Tibet to India. Thus, such a great being, Machig Labdrön, was the first lineage holder, and this unbroken lineage continues until the present guru, as shown on the following pages.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Machig Labdrön: Mystic Woman, Teacher Unsurpassed

As we celebrate the Goddess during this Navaratri, I wanted to write at least one article on a woman teacher. I was most keen to write about Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, Tibet’s greatest yogini and supreme teacher, the woman founder of Tibetan Buddhism, the Mother of Vajrayana. Yeshe Tsogyal [also spelt Tsogyel] has had a special place in my heart for some eighteen years now and I have never written about her, so I thought this would be a good time to pay my obeisance to her and express my gratitude the innumerable things that have happened to me through her grace.

But everything associated with Yeshe Tsogyal is a mystery and though I have been trying to write an article on her repeatedly for the last few days, my attempts came to nothing and it is not about her that I am writing now, but about her subsequent reincarnation – about Machig [Machik] Labdrön [Lapdrön], the legendary Vajrayana pathfinder, the originator of the spiritual practice known as gCod [Chöd], credited with developing the first original Vajrayana spiritual path to emerge from Tibet. Her path became so successful that it is said Buddhist scholars in India became alarmed – for the first time things had begun to flow from Tibet to India and not the other way round, and they sent a team to try to prove her wrong, and if possible destroy her. It is said that in her own life time 1263 of her disciples reached enlightenment. It must be the highest number ever happened with any teacher – including perhaps the Buddha himself.

Machig Labdrön (Ma gCig Lap sGron) was born in 1055 and lived into the very old age of ninety-nine years. While she was the incarnation of Yeshé Tsogyal, after her death she is reborn again as Jomo Menmo and then as Khyungchen Aro Lingma. Padmasambhava, Tibet’s greatest yogi and the male founder of Tibetan Buddhism, widely considered the second Buddha and sometimes even greater than the Buddha, predicted that his consort Yeshé Tsogyal would take incarnation as Machig Labdrön and that he himself would manifest at that time as Padampa Sangyé. He also predicted that Yeshe Tsogyal’s spiritual consort Atsara Sale would be reborn as Machig Labdrön’s husband, Topabhadra.

According to Jampel Tsawai Gyud Tantra, the Buddha himself had prophesied of Machig Labdrön: “When my teaching is thin like a tea leaf, the embodiment of the Great Mother, whose name is Labdrön will come and her activity will be far reaching. Anyone who is involved with her activity will be liberated.”

A fascinating story is told about her birth. According to this story, Machig was an Indian yogi practicing meditation in a cave in India. The yogi had a serious of visions and following the visions, he left his body in the cave and went to Tibet and entered the womb of a woman called Bumcham. On the night of the conception, the woman had extraordinary dreams. And the dreams were not confined to her alone – her older daughter as well as one of her neighbours had these same dreams.

When the baby was born she was bathed in a divine light and had the shape of a third eye on her forehead [Iconographically Machig Labdrön is frequently shown with a third eye on her forehead.]. The mother was scared of the baby – she also considered what was on the forehead of the baby a deformity and was afraid of her husband’s reactions. Fearing its father’s reactions, the mother hid the baby behind a door refusing to show it to its father. But her father insisted on seeing her. To the father’s eyes, the girl child had all the signs of a wisdom dakini. He also saw the root syllable ‘Ah’ written in her third eye.

Machig was a child prodigy. By the time she was three, she could chant many mantras and do simple rituals. She learned to read at a young age and by the time she was eight, she could read the Prajna Paramita Sutra fluently. In fact, by that time she could recite the entire eight-thousand sutra line twice in a day. The governor of the province was so impressed when he heard of this, he came to test her and impressed by her gave her the name Labdrön, meaning Shining Light from Lab. Lab was the province from which she came.

Speaking of Machig’s development as a yogini American author and Buddhist teacher Lama Tsultrim Allione says in her celebrated book Women of Wisdom: “The philosophical basis for the Chöd is the Prajna Paramita Sutra. Machig was thoroughly immersed in this teaching from childhood, because she became a professional reader at an early age, and the most popular text to be read was this sutra. Professional readers were people who could read very quickly. They were sent out to the homes of lay devotees to read through a text a certain number of times. The logic behind this was twofold: first, the hearing of a text would be beneficial to the householders immersed in worldly preoccupations, and secondly, the recitation of such a text would cause the accumulation of merit. Because the Buddhists believe that every act has a certain result, a positive act causes the accumulation of positive results, and therefore a kind of stockpile of good karma could be accumulated by having sacred texts read aloud. What was considered important was the number of times something was read rather than understanding the meaning; therefore the faster the reader was, the better. In this way the patron could accumulate more merit in less time and have to spend less on maintenance and gifts for the reader. Machig, from a very young age, was an extraordinarily fast reader, and so she was highly valued as a professional reader. She probably repaid her teacher by being his reader.”

Her mother passed away when Machig was only thirteen years old. At the age of sixteen, Machig became a disciple of Lama Drapa. Under his guidance, she became a reader of the Prajna Paramita Sutra for the monastery. Because of her ability to read and recite fast, Machig was in great demand. Along with the recitations, she also studied the sutra in depth and those studies altered the course of her life.

One night she had a dream of a great teacher. The next morning she ran into the teacher in the front courtyard of the house in which she lived. This teacher was Padampa Sangye and he had come to Tibet to meet her. He too was led to Tibet by a dream – of an Indian yogi being born as a woman in Tibet. Padampa Sangye taught her the teachings that she would later articulate as the gCod teachings – the powerful spiritual practice for which we now know Machig, the essence of which is to find the Buddha within oneself through one’s own efforts. Subsequently, she also learnt the deepest wisdom of the Prajna Paramita Sutra with the guidance of Lama Sonam Drapa, who too came to her hearing of her.

Machig’s meeting with Sangye and Lama Sonam became a turning point both for her and for Tibetan Buddhism. She was now ready to transform the precious teachings of the Sutra into the new and uniquely powerful spiritual practice called gCod. This caused a kind of renaissance in Tibetan Buddhism.

Padampa Sangye recognized her true spiritual lineage and explained to her that she was spiritually descended from Prajña Paramita, the Mother of all Buddhas. He also told her about her past life in India as the yogi and of how the yogi left his body in the cave and took birth in Tibet as her. From him she also learnt about the ancient prophesies that had been made about her birth.


Some time had passed after she met Padampa Sangye and Lama Sonam Drapa. Machig was now twenty-three years old. One day she was in the home of a rich family where she had gone to read the Prajna Paramita Sutra as instructed by her teacher. Here she had a dream of a red dakini [For more about red dakinis, please see the posting Zen and the Red Dakini elsewhere on this blog.] The red dakini instructed her to unite with an Indian yogi she would be meeting soon. The yogi would be called Topabhadra and her union with him would be the union of Wisdom and Skilful Means [In Vajrayana terminology this would be the mystic union of the male and the female, the female being the Wisdom and the male, Skilful Means.] This dream was followed by another dream on the same night in which a blue dakini told her that the union had yet another purpose than helping her grow spiritually – creation of a spiritual lineage with her children. This lineage, the blue dakini told her, would take the dharma forward and help it reach places it hasn’t yet reached.

The next morning a young girl arrived at the home where Machig was staying and told her she had come from the yogi Topabhandra. She was told that Tapabhadra was now in Tibet and she should pay a visit to him.

Machig met Topabhadra in a rich patron’s house where he was staying. They spent seventeen days together discussing the esoteric dimensions of Vajrayana and on the eighteenth day the union of Wisdom and Skilful Means took place. As their union took place, such effulgence filled the whole house, Machig’s story tells us, that the lady of the house came to see what was happening and all she could see was blinding light formed by the blending of red light of Machig and the white light of Topabhadra.

Machig informed Lama Sangye and Lama Sonam of what had happened and they advised her to live with Topabhadra. She did this. Lama Sonam had already had dreams about the union of the two and knew how auspicious it was for the future.

However, what Machig had done was not acceptable to the common men and women who had known her for years. To them she was a bhikhuni, though it is doubtful if she had ever been initiated as one, and she had no right to relationships with a man. That the man was an Indian yogi made matters worse. She fell in their eyes and they shunned her and Topabhadra. Leaving central Tibet, they moved to a faraway place among still colder mountains and it was there that she gave birth to her first child and the two other children to be born later.

However, Machig Labdrön was not to be content with living the life of an ordinary wife and mother. Her spiritual urges were too strong for that. Just as she left monastic life earlier and embraced the family way of life when the call for it came, after twelve years she left her husband and children and became a wandering lama. She chose to listen to the call from within her and her affection for her children and Topabhadra could not stop her from going away.

It was to her old teachers that she went first. She asked Lama Sonam for an empowerment initiation and the lama told her she did not need any. She was already too great a master to need such initiations, he told her, and admitted that he himself was like a tiny star in the night sky while she was the moon itself. He however asked her to go to the Copper Mountain in central Tibet where her presence was needed.

In her thirty-fifth year she became a wandering yogini in the ancient Indian and Tibetan tradition. She slept where evenings found her and lived on what she received from people in their generosity. For clothes, she had rags. Wearing them, she roamed all over the mountains. Cremation grounds were among her favourite haunts where she loved to practice tantric rites. It is said that during the years she spent as a wandering lama, she practiced tantric rituals in 108 cremation grounds. Eventually, five years later, in her fortieth year, she reached the Copper Mountain [Zangri Khangmar] and settled down there fulfilling ancient prophesies about this.

One of the first things she did after settling down in her abode was to avert the death of a couple who it had been prophesied were about to die. Her fame now began to spread far and wide and soon she became a legend. Everyone now called Mother Labdrön. People came to her with all kinds of problems, seeking her help. Many learned and famous masters came to her now from all over Tibet and sat at her feet seeking wisdom from the foremost dakini of the age. It was at this time that she gave full shape to the practice we call today Mahamudra gCod or just gCod, through her own practice and experiences.

A year later, at the age of forty-one, she once again decided to live a secluded life. Refusing to interact with the public, she now retreated into a cave, losing herself in deep meditations. Goddess Tara along with her retinue appeared to her in this cave and blessed her. Tara prophesied about her future fame and the great good she was going to do to the world but Labdrön maintained that she was just an ordinary woman. Rejecting her stand, Mother Tara spoke of her greatness and her lineage, beginning with Prajna Paramita and coming down through Yeshe Tsogyel. Before Tara left, a great light emerged from Tara’s heart and merged with Mother Labdrön.

A while later, Topabhadra brought her two younger children to her. The eldest was now already married and living elsewhere. After an initial stay of seven days in a cremation ground to cure himself of the mental problems he suffered from, her younger son became her disciple and practiced meditation under her guidance for fourteen years in a cave.

Fascinating stories are told about this son and his meditation practices. It is said that when Labdrön asked her son to go and practice meditation on the mountain Shangpo Gangri, he left along with three of his friends and travelled for a month before he reached there. When he reached Shangpo Gangri, he found his mother waiting there – she had appeared there miraculously. Here after enquiring after his health as a mother would, she gave him the empowerments of the Five Dhyani Buddhas and the Five Secret Vajra Varahis. After staying with her son for seven days, Labdrön returned. Before returning, Tonyon, her son, saw Machig getting transformed into Vajravarahi before his eyes. The heavens showered flowers upon her she was transformed into Vajravarahi.

After entering the cave for his meditations, Tonyon sealed the cave and Mother Labdrön returned to Zangri Khangmar. A dakini with great powers had been ordered by Machig to bring him whatever he needed. She took care of his hunger and thirst, giving him an empowered drink once every three years.

When a yogi who had been sent by his mother came to him after five years and enquired of his welfare, he told the yogi he was happy his mother was alive and well. As for himself, he said, meditation was enough food for him, and his visions were enough company for him and he needed no clothes because of the inner heat he had developed. Tonyon practiced meditation for fourteen years and becomes a siddha and a lineage holder in his own right.

By then Machig’s own fame had crossed the borders of Tibet and spread into neighbouring lands. She had disciples in every walk of life – great monks and lamas, scholars, kings and queens, noblemen, princes, ordinary men and women – and even lepers and beggars – in vast numbers. It was not long before it reached India and when that happened, Buddhist scholars of India were upset because until then texts, traditions and practices had flown from India to Tibet and never in the other direction. Now there was this woman lama who was working miracles and her practice of gCod was spreading like wildfire.

As always, a genuine master is always opposed by scholars. Scholarship and spirituality are two totally different things, since one is based on the study of books and the other, rooted in personal experiences. Buddhist scholars held a meeting in Bodhgaya and this is what they thought, according to her most authentic biography, quoted by Lama Allione:

“All true Dharma comes from India but this teaching called Mahamudra Chöd did not, even though Mahamudra does. This teaching has spread from Tibet to Nepal. Even the Nepalese are receiving teachings from this woman with three eyes; she teaches the Chöd, which they claim can overcome the forty sicknesses and the 80,000 obstructions. This three-eyed woman claims to be an incarnation of the Prajna Paramita Dakini, but more than likely she's an emanation of bad demons. It will probably be difficult to conquer her. But if we do not, she will destroy all of Tibet and then invade India. We must send a party to check up on her.”

A group of the best Buddhist pundits from India travelled to Tibet to meet Machig Labdrön. When they reached her, she came and greeted them in their language and they asked her how she knew it. Her answer was, “Because I have often been Indian in previous lives.” And they said, “You mean to say you remember your previous lifetimes?” and she answered, “Yes, I remember them all.”

The scholars now wanted to engage her in a debate. She said she was ready on one condition – her disciples from all over Tibet should be allowed to attend the debate since this will be a great learning opportunity for them. Invitations were sent out to her disciples and when the debate began after a month, the time it took for the disciples to reach Zangri, Khangmar, there were 500,000 of her disciples attending it!

Labdron amazed the scholars with her scholarship. And it was clear to all that she was not a woman of mere scholarship, but a siddha woman of deep realization and unbelievable powers. But in spite of this, the pundits were not willing to accept her as an authority. She needed to do something different to convince them. What she did was recall one by one all her past incarnations and what she taught in each one of them. Eventually she came to her most recent incarnation as a yogi in India and she told the scholars about the yogi’s body she had left in a cave in a place called Potari in south India in order to incarnate as herself in Tibet. She told them they would find the body still in the cave, youthful and unharmed. She also told them where to locate the cave.

Under instructions from her, Padampa Sangye accompanied the pundits to Potari and there they found the body of the yogi, exactly as she had described it. Following instructions she had given them before they left for Potari, they cremated the body in a sandalwood funeral pyre and when the yogi’s body was reduced to ashes, they found in the ashes the signs she had told them they wound find there.

There were now requests for her to go to India to teach there. She said she would prefer to stay in Tibet and continue to teach from there. However, to satisfy the desire of Indian scholars and devotees, she wrote several books about the gCod practice and sent these books to India.

As was mentioned earlier, she lived into the ripe old age of ninety-nine. By the time she passed away, 1,263 of her disciples had reached enlightenment, 423 lepers had been completely cured of their leprosy and their flesh fully restored, and she had performed numerous miracles.


In The Yogins of Ladakh: A Pilgrimage Among the Hermits of the Buddhist Himalayas, by John Crook and James Low (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1997), we find a very different version of Machig Labdrön’s childhood days. According to The Yogins of Ladakh, Machig Labdrön was in her previous lifetime an Indian dakini known as Gauri who subsequently came to Tibet motivated by the need to help the people of Tibet. She was born in Labs in Central Tibet and her father was called Khyega Cholha, her mother, Lumo Bumcham and her brother Kyega Khore. She was married to a rich cattle herder at an early age and went to live in her husband’s house. Philosophical questions troubled her from her very early days and one day, desiring to end the life she was leading and start a new one, “she hung her milking pot from her waist and put a small golden knife inside her amulet case. Going to the cattle, she squatted as if to milk the cows. She placed the milking pail below the cow as a chopping block and then she cut off both her thumbs with the knife.” Her in-laws sent her back to her own home now that she would no more be useful to them. And it is from there that she went in search of a dharma teacher. According to The Yogins of Tibet, Machig Labdrön died at the age of eighty-eight after helping beings equal in number to the extent of the sky.


Before I end this article, this is how Lama Tsultrim Allione explains the gCod practice, of which she herself has been a practitioner and teacher for decades:

“Chöd (gCod) literally means 'to cut,' referring to cutting attachment to the body and ego. First the practitioner visualizes the consciousness leaving the body through the top of the head and transforming itself into a wrathful dakini. This wrathful dakini then takes her crescent-shaped hooked knife and cuts off the top of the head of the body of the practitioner. This skull cup is then placed on a tripod of three skulls, over a flame. The rest of the body is chopped up and placed into the skull, which is vastly expanded. Then the whole cadaver is transformed from blood and entrails into nectar, which is then fed to every conceivable kind of being, satisfying every kind of desire these beings might have. After all beings have taken their fill and been satisfied, the practitioner reminds himself or herself that the offerer, the offering process, and those who have been offered to, are all 'empty,'” and seeks to remain in the state of that understanding. The ritual ends with further teachings on the true nature of reality and some ending prayers for the eventual enlightenment of all beings.

“Through this process, four demons are overcome. These are demons connected to the ego. It was when she understood the true nature of demons as functions of the ego by having reread the Prajna Paramita texts that she began to formulate the Chöd. Before going on to explain the ritual instruments and so on, I would like to discuss these four demons. This explanation is based on oral explanation given by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche.

“The first demon is called '“the Demon that Blocks the Senses.”' When we think of a demon, we generally think of an external spirit which attacks us, but Machig realized that the true nature of demons is the internal functioning of the ego. This particular demon manifests when we see or experience something with the sense, and the senses get blocked and we get fixated on the object. For example, when we see a beautiful woman or man, as soon as we see this person the perception is blocked by the desire to possess that person. The process of perception stops, and we try to meet that person, and so on. So this is one process that must be overcome by meditation. If we are in a state of true meditation, perception occurs without this fixation with, or attachment to, the objects perceived.

“The second demon is '“the Demon which Cannot be Controlled.”' This is the thought-process which just runs on and on. The thought-process takes over, the mind wanders from one thing to another, and our awareness is completely lost in distraction.

“The third demon is '“the Demon of Pleasure.'” When we experience something pleasurable, like eating something delicious, we become attached to this delicacy and we want to get more and avoid anything which stands between us and the object of pleasure. This does not mean that pleasure is in itself demonic, but rather that our attachment to it becomes a hindrance to remaining in a state of clarity. For example, a meditator might have an auspicious dream, which is a sign of progress, but then '“the Demon of Pleasure”' comes into play and he gets very attached to the dream. Or someone else might experience a period when everything goes well, he feels good physically, and so he tries to continue this good period endlessly, but it must always end in change and is therefore disappointing to us.

“The fourth demon is “'the Demon of the Ego.”' The ego is that with which we condition our world. It rests on the principle of '“self'” and '“other”' which causes a blockage in awareness and a lot of suffering for oneself and others.

“Fundamentally, all four demons are thought-processes which block a state of clear, unattached awareness, and they all grow out of the process of ego-fixation and the lack of prajna, with the consequent misunderstanding of emptiness. The Chöd practice seeks to do away with these demons.

“The Chöd was traditionally practiced in frightening places such as under lone trees (which were thought to be inhabited by demons), and in cremation grounds. The direct encounter with one’s fears and the transcending of them through the understanding of the true nature of demons is the essential point of the Chöd practice.”


Note: I am deeply indebted to Lama Tsultrim Allione and her Women of Wisdom for this article.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mind Power, the Will to Live and Cancer

In one of my sessions earlier this week in a training programme for young engineers from Tata Steel held at the Centre for Excellence, Jamshedpur, one of the topics we discussed was managing the mind – something every executive should know in today’s world. The job of an executive today is more challenging than it has ever been in the past. His pace of work is hectic and unrelenting, and the content of his work is varied and fragmented. Much of his work is reactive rather than proactive in nature, requiring him to react to decisions taken by others and actions initiated by others. The decision making processes are disorderly, characterised more by confusion and emotionality than by rationality and frequently involve hard negotiations. Besides, organizational politics and self-serving interests of individuals and groups complicate the process further. Under such conditions, an executive who does not know how to manage his mind ends up as a total failure.

Our discussion on managing the mind led to a discussion about the mind’s power to heal and to cause diseases. Though this would have been strange to doctors from the western world to accept until a couple of decades ago, I do not think there is any sensible doctor in the world today who does not believe in the power of stress to cause diseases. About seventy percent of all our medical problems, for instance, are believed to arise from stress and stress related reasons. As far as skin diseases are considered, experts say that most of them are related one way or other to stress.

I would like to explore here in some depth a topic that we only touched upon in the training programme, since the topic was really beyond the scope of the training. Is there then any connection between stress and cancer? Is the mind in any way involved in the development and growth of cancer? Can he mind heal cancer?

Dr Carl Simonton is one of the doctors who strongly believe that the mind is involved in the development of cancer and since it is involved, it can also help in the healing of cancer. In fact, he believes that any treatment of cancer that does not take the mind into consideration is bound to be ineffective. “The mind, the emotions, and the attitude of a patient play a role in both the development of the disease and in the response that a patient has to any form of treatment,” he says. True, he does not abandon conventional treatments like radiation in treating cancer. But such is his faith in the power of the mind to cause diseases and to heal them that he invariably uses meditation and other forms of mind-based healing techniques in all his treatments along with surgery and chemotherapy.

Dr Simonton’s journey into mind-based healing began in 1969 while he was doing his internship in radiation therapy at the University of Oregon Medical Centre in the United States. One of the observations he made during this period was that while some patients receiving the treatment did not make much progress, others beat all kinds of odds and made great progress. In a few cases, a few patients who had almost no chances of survival lived on for years. He questioned why this was so.

In his discussions with the patients, Dr Simonton realized that the patients who survived were those who refused to accept the verdict of the doctors about the certainty of their end. In some cases, people felt that they could not afford to die at the moment because they had so much to do.

Incidentally this later feeling was something that Dr Viktor Frankl, the developer of logotherapy, had enquired into deeply. Dr Frankl was an inmate of Nazi concentration camps in Germany during the second world war. He observed that while the unimaginably horrid conditions of the bestial concentration camps killed the vast majority of the inmates, a few people survived in the camps too. He himself was a survivor, despite finding, to quote from the Preface of his bestselling book Man’s Search for Meaning, “himself stripped to naked existence. His father, mother, brother, and his wife died in camps or were sent to the gas ovens, so that, excepting for his sister, his entire family perished in these camps. How could he—every possession lost, every value destroyed, suffering from hunger, cold and brutality, hourly expecting extermination—how could he find life worth preserving?”

His enquiry into the reasons for his own and other people’s survival led him to conclude that those who survived were the ones who had deeper commitments in life – those who had a compelling reason to live on, a purpose to live for. In other words, those who found meaning in living. If you still found meaning in living, you lived on, and if you found no meaning in life, you surrendered to death. Based on his observations, he developed what is known as logotherapy, a sister science of psychotherapy. Logotherapy helps people to find meaning in life and through that meaning develop the will to live on and find the strength to fight their problems..

As I write this, a report in the local edition of The Hindustan Times [dated 17th March, 2010] says in my small city of Jamshedpur alone 57 people have committed suicide so far this year. Which is a shockingly huge number – 57 people choosing to end their lives in two and a half months, most of them young! The figure was given in connection with the report of a young girl, a class eleven student, in one of the leading schools committing suicide on the previous day and a boy ending his life the day before.

People, young and old, commit suicide when they find there is no point in living on anymore. When they lose meaning in life, when they lose purpose.

And, concluded both Dr Viktor Frankl and Dr Carl Simonton, people succumb to diseases and death when they lose meaning in life, when they lose purpose. And they refuse to succumb to death so long as there is something for them to live for.

One person told Dr Simonton, “I can’t die until my son graduates.” Another said, “I can’t die until I see my grandchild.”

Dr Simonton says, “They didn’t die until they wanted to. I couldn’t help wondering if maybe something as simple as the will to live could alter the prognosis of cancer.”

Hope. Things to look forward to.

Dr Simonton’s next step was in trying to find out if there was a connection between the opposite factors and the beginning of cancer. Was there any connection between hopelessness and cancer? Between having nothing to look to forward to and cancer? Between meaninglessness and purposelessness and the origin of cancer?

His enquiries led him to statements such as “I felt trapped,” and “I had nothing to live for.” These were the feelings of patients who were suffering from cancer at the time of the development of cancer. Some were people who had found that all their chances of making a living after retirement were closed. Some others couldn’t get along with their spouses. Yet others had nothing to do. “It seemed as if the mind had decided to die on at a less than fully conscious level, and the body simply found a way.”

Can cancer then be psychologically induced?

Dr Simonton’s asked himself, “Everyone has cancer many times during his lifetime, but most people don’t realize it. What is unusual in cancer is not that malignant cells arise, since in the day-in-day-out replacement of billions of cells, some ‘bad cells’ do get made. But at times, and for some reason, the body allows these ‘bad cells’ to grow when it normally, routinely, reorganizes them as abnormal and destroys them. Why, then, in these instances, does the normally operative immunological system break down?” And he concludes that it must be because the mind lowers host resistance to these cells.

Under conditions of hopelessness and purposelessness, when there is no will to live, the mind does not resist the cancerous cells. It ‘permits’ the cancerous cells to grow and spread.

His next question to himself was: “How the hell could I bring about the will to live in someone who felt badly enough about life to develop cancer in the first place? How could I change such a defeatist attitude, one made worse by having cancer? How could I mobilise the power of the mind to affect the immunological response to cancer?”

His answer to the question was something that we in the east have practiced for ages: meditation.

He asked his patients to meditate for fifteen minutes, three times a day. He asked them to physically relax during these meditations, and then, in the next stage, to visualize a natural scene of peace and serenity. In the third stage, the patients were told to visualize vividly, in total clarity, the immune system systematically destroying the cancerous cells. The visualization involved something that was new then but has become an old method now: Patients visualize that an army of white blood cells are attacking, destroying and carrying away the cancerous cells.

One woman used the vacuum cleaner technique – visualizing that the white blood cells form a vacuum cleaner and suck in the diseased cells. A young man visualized what is going on inside him was the timeless battle between the powers of darkness and the powers of light in which the powers of light destroyed the powers of darkness.

And then at the end of this visualization, the patient begins the final visualization. He sees himself, with complete clarity, as totally cured of the disease and being in perfect health.

The visualizations are repeated exactly as they are, three times a day, day after day.

The practice produced amazing results. It was found that those who were cooperative with Dr Simonton’s meditation programme and followed his instructions achieved excellent results while those who were uncooperative and did not follow instructions fared poorly. Dr Simonton defined excellent results as ‘marked relief of symptoms and dramatic improvement of condition’ and poor results as ‘no relief of symptoms.’

In the cases of both kinds of patients, conventional forms of treatment had been given along with meditation. Which is to say that while conventional treatment was an important element in the healing process, meditation was another significant element.

Of course, the patients’ will to live was yet another significant aspect of the whole process.

The mind does have power over cancer.


In his book The Healing Mind: the Vital Links between Brain and Behaviour, Immunity and Disease, Dr Paul Martin, who is more cautious about the powers of the mind, says:”There is now little doubt that psychological and emotional factors can influence the development and progression of certain cancers... Psychological variables such as social support and the patient’s emotional response to their disease have substantial bearing on survival. Equally, there is little doubt that appropriate psychological and social interventions can be of enormous benefit in helping cancer patients to cope with their disease, improving the quality of what remains of their lives and, in some cases, extending their survival time. To ignore the mind is an irresponsible waste.”

According to Dr Paul Martin, “The termination of a close relationship, whether through death, divorce or other means, has often been linked with cancer. When American psychologist Lawrence LeShan looked at more than four hundred cancer patients he discovered that a remarkably high proportion [72 percent] had suffered the loss of someone close to them not long before the onset of their cancer. In contrast, only 10 percent of comparable people without cancer had suffered such a loss.”

The link between the sense of hopelessness and cancer is so high that one might even say that it can be used to predict cancer. In a study, women undergoing cervical smear test were interviewed before their test results were available. And it was found that “women who expressed feelings of hopelessness during the interview had the greatest likelihood of being diagnosed of having a malignant tumour. The interview alone predicted the results of the smear test in over three-quarters of cases.”

Two thousand and six hundred years ago, the Buddha said in the first verse of the first chapter of the Dhammapada: “All that we are, is the result of what we have thought: It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.”

A lot of things that ancient masters have said and many things that psychology and psychoneuroimmunology tell us today suggest that sickness and health are personal choices we make.


Note: In writing this article, I am deeply indebted to an essay on Carl Simonton in a book by David Hammond on the powers of the mind [The book is not exactly about healing. It is called The Search for Psychic Power. The chapter on Dr Carl Simonton, however, is about healing.].

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Chasing Shadows, Fighting Windmills

Dead authors sometimes surprise us with their amazing wisdom. Of course, living authors do so too.

From my child hood, I had always known Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a book dealing with the mad adventures of a crazy night. I knew Cervantes was laughing at the craziness of us human beings through his literary masterpiece, which is often considered the first novel from the western world. The book was one in which the central character was out of touch with the reality of everyday living, out of touch with concrete facts and lived in a world of misguided fantasies. I had taken it at that and had never bothered to read the full book after I read an abridged version of it in my teens, which I enjoyed tremendously. But recently I came across a quotation from Cervantes and that made me sit down and think about the book more seriously. The quote said: ““Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world. “ That is what Socrates said in ancient Greece and what the Upanishads told us several millennia before him in India: Man, know thyself.

Now when I look at Cervantes from the standpoint of this quotation, the whole Don Quixote gains a new dimension. Aren’t the adventures of Don Quixote the madness of all humanity ignorant of its own self? Wasn’t Miguel Cervantes telling us the highest truth about human life through his literary masterpiece? Wasn’t he talking about the existential madness of man rather than of its mild crankiness? Wasn’t he telling us that all human pursuits undertaken while we are still ignorant of ourselves are like Don Quixote’s chasing windmills mistaking them for giants? Isn’t Cervantes telling us that we are all like the musk deer that goes crazy by the fragrance of the musk it has smelled and madly searches all over the mountains for it when he himself is the source of the musk? Wasn’t the Spanish renaissance author a later day literary Buddha in his own right?


Cervantes’ hero is an eccentric gentleman of fifty. He has lived a life of neglect, failing in all his responsibilities, leading a life of fantasies engendered by the books of chivalry he has spent all his life reading. One day his decides he now wants to experience for himself the adventures he has been reading about.

His family owned an old armour – it once belonged to his great-grandfather and “had been lying forgotten in a corner eaten with rust and covered with mildew.” He scours and polishes it – but there was a problem still. It “had no closed helmet, nothing but a simple morion. This deficiency, however, his ingenuity supplied, for he contrived a kind of half-helmet of pasteboard which, fitted on to the morion, looked like a whole one.”

He now finds an old hack and, after four days of pondering over the matter and considering and rejecting numerous names, eventually names it Rocinante, which he feels is a lofty, sonorous and significant name appropriate for a great knight’s horse. Having named the old hack, he now has to find a name for himself and, after eight days of continuous pondering, chooses for himself the name Don Quixote of La Mancha.

He had by now assembled everything that was needed for a knight, but one important thing was still missing: a ladylove. For, every knight had a ladylove in whose name he performed great deeds and a “knight-errant without a ladylove was like a tree without leaves or fruit, or a body without a soul.”

Here is how Don Quixote solves the problem. In a village near his own, there was a very good looking farm-girl over whom he once had a crush, though she never knew of it. The girl was named Aldonza Lorenzo and he decides she shall be his ladylove. Of course she needed a new name that befits a princess, a great lady. He again considers numerous names and eventually decides upon Dulcinea del Toboso, “a name, to his mind, musical, uncommon, and significant, like all those he had already bestowed upon himself and the things belonging to him.”

Having completed his preparations, one fine morning Don Quixote puts on his knight’s suit of armour and patched up, mounts Rocinante, braces his buckler, takes his lance and slips out of the back door of his yard, without informing anyone of his intentions. He rides the whole day and by evening reaches a roadside inn – he is hungry and exhausted because he hasn’t had anything to eat the whole day.

He decides that the wayside inn is a mighty castle. He expected a dwarf to blow his trumpet, informing the lord of the castle of the arrival of a great knight. He is disappointed when this does not happen and he moves towards the door of the inn. He finds the two common prostitutes standing at the door of the inn and takes them for two fair maidens or lovely ladies, relaxing near the castle door. At this time, a shepherd near the inn blows his horn to gather his sheep and Quixote takes it for the trumpet of the dwarf he has been waiting for and is delighted things are happening exactly as they should.

The prostitutes are terrified of Quixote’s appearance and turns away towards the inn in fear. Quixote addresses them courteously in a gentle voice, as becoming of a knight addressing noble ladies, telling them, “ "Your ladyships need not fly or fear any rudeness, for that it belongs not to the order of knighthood which I profess to offer to anyone, much less to highborn maidens as your appearance proclaims you to be." The prostitutes cannot contain their laughter when they hear him addressing them as maidens, and they laugh at his word, making Quixote indignant but even in his indignity he does not forget the manners of a great knight.

Quixote decides the innkeeper is the keeper of the great castle and addresses him in the manner befitting his position. The innkeeper decides to play along with Quixote’s fantasies, and addresses him treating him as a knight and informs him that he can have everything there, except for a bed. Quixote replies that his armour is his only wear and battles are his only rest. Since he is unable to stand his hunger any more, Quixote has for his meal whatever victuals the innkeeper has still left with him since others staying at the inn have already eaten.

Before he has meals the prostitutes help him remove his armour – and he believes it is two noble ladies doing it. However, the women are unable to pull out his helmet off since he has tied it onto his head with ribbons and he wouldn’t allow them to cut the ribbons. Eating the meal of small trout is a chore because of his helmet and visor but the women help him by placing his food in his mouth. “But to give him anything to drink was impossible, or would have been so had not the landlord bored a reed, and putting one end in his mouth poured the wine into him through the other.”

After his meal is over, Quixote has himself knighted by the innkeeper and then he begins on his journey of adventures that would make him attack windmills taking them for giants made to appear so by the evil magic of an enchanter, attack two monks escorting a lady taking them for magicians who have captured a princess, attack two herds of sheep taking them for two great armies on the brink of a battle, attack a barber wearing a basin on his head mistaking the man for a great knight wearing a mythic helmet with magic powers and innumerable other adventures of the sort.


While Don Quixote appears crazy to us as we read his adventures, are many of us really different from him? Don’t we too spend our entire lives searching for things that exist only in our imagination?

I remember reading sometime back Robin Sharma’s international bestseller The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. Here are some excerpts from the first chapter of his book where he describes the life of the lawyer Julian Mantle.

“He collapsed right in the middle of a packed courtroom. He was one of this country’s most distinguished trial lawyers. He was also a man who was as well known for the three-thousand-dollar Italian suits which draped his well-fed frame as for his remarkable string of legal victories. The great Julian Mantle had been reduced to a victim and was now squirming on the ground like a helpless infant, shaking and shivering and sweating.

“I had known Julian for seventeen years. Back then, he had it all. He was a brilliant, handsome and fearless trial attorney with dreams of greatness. Julian was tough, hard-driving and willing to work eighteen-hour days for the success he believed was his destiny.

“For the first few years he justified his long hours by saying that he was “doing it for the good of the firm”, and that he planned to take a month off and go to the Caymans “next winter for sure.” As time passed, however, Julian’s reputation for brilliance spread and his workload continued to increase. The cases just kept on getting bigger and better, and Julian, never one to back down from a good challenge, continued to push himself harder and harder. In his rare moments of quiet, he confided that he could no longer sleep for more than a couple of hours without waking up feeling guilty that he was not working on a file. It soon became clear to me that he was being consumed by the hunger for more: more prestige, more glory and more money.

“As expected, Julian became enormously successful. He achieved everything most people could ever want: a stellar professional reputation with an income in seven figures, a spectacular mansion in a neighborhood favored by celebrities, a private jet, a summer home on a tropical island and his prized possession — a shiny red Ferrari parked in the center of his driveway.”

However, none of these was enough for Julian. He wanted ever bigger cases to win. He wanted his preparations to be more thorough than ever before. He wanted his research into each case to be no less than perfect.

The author continues: “The more time I spent with Julian, the more I could see that he was driving himself deeper into the ground. It was as if he had some kind of a death wish. Nothing ever satisfied him. Eventually, his marriage failed, he no longer spoke with his father, and though he had every material possession anyone could want, he still had not found whatever it was that he was looking for.

“It showed, emotionally, physically — and spiritually. At fifty-three years of age, Julian looked as if he was in his late seventies. His face was a mass of wrinkles, a less than glorious tribute to his “take no prisoners” approach to life in general and the tremendous stress of his out-of-balance lifestyle in particular. He had lost his sense of humor and never seemed to laugh anymore. Julian’s once enthusiastic nature had been replaced by a deathly somberness. Personally, I think that his life had lost all sense of purpose.

“Perhaps the saddest thing was that he had also lost his focus in the courtroom. Where he would once dazzle all those present with an eloquent and airtight closing argument, he now droned on for hours. Where once he would react gracefully to the objections of opposing counsel, he now displayed a biting sarcasm that severely tested the patience of judges.

“And then it happened. This massive heart attack that brought the brilliant Julian Mantle back down to earth and reconnected him to his mortality. Right in the middle of courtroom number seven on a Monday morning, the same courtroom where we had won the Mother of All Murder Trials.”


Was Julian Mantle searching anything different from what Don Quixote was chasing? Or was Alexander chasing anything different? Or Hitler – though his search was a thousand times more deadly and ruthless, a thousand times more frightening in its implications. Or why go for such giants – good, bad, whatever – from history – is what most of us search in life any different from what Don Quixote was searching?

Aren’t we all chasing shadows and fighting windmills? Aren’t the things that we are after and the things we are running away from all as shadowy and insubstantial as Quixote’s Dulcinea and his giants?

That is, all of us, except perhaps a rare Siddhartha who stands back and questions so that he becomes a Buddha?

We do not understand life until we understand ourselves first. And when we understand it, we understand how very like Don Quixote we have all been.

And we laugh at ourselves.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Ramana Maharshi: The Human Side of a Jnani

Ramana Maharshi is often perceived as a pure jnani, living at a dimension far beyond that of ordinary mortals. He is sometimes seen as entirely devoid of a human side to him – an impression that I myself had retained for a long time, in spite of being taught by two of his direct disciples. The following excerpts from SS Cohen’s Guru Ramana show how this impression is totally wrong. SS Cohen was an inmate of Ramanasramam for fourteen years, until the Maharshi passed away in 1950.


There I quietly sat and listened to the visitors’ talks with him and to his answers, which were sometimes translated into English, particularly if the questioner was a foreigner or a north Indian – not always. His answers were fresh and sweet. His influence was all pervasive in his silence not less than in his speech. To me in the beginning this was all the more perceptible in the contrast it offered to the hustle and bustle of the life on which I had just turned my back – to the wasted energy, the false values, the foolish expectations from ideals which are in themselves hollow reeds, the dreary intercourse with people with whom one has very little in common; to the social rules which have been laid down by many generations of selfishness, convention and superstitions, not to speak of the mess of politics, of rank and wealth, and the bitter jealousy and hatred they breed in the minds of men. It is small wonder therefore that Bhagavan appears to the serious-minded as a beacon light in an otherwise impenetrable darkness, and a haven of peace.

Bhagavan was then enjoying the sound, robust health of middle age, and could very well afford to be available at almost all hours of the day to devotees. The years 1936-1938 were very blissful, indeed, to us, when we could gather round his couch and speak to him as intimately as to a beloved father; tell him all our troubles and show him our letters without let or hindrance. After 8 p.m. when the hall contained only the local residents, we sat round him for a ‘family chat’ till about 10 o’clock.

Then he related to us stories from the Puranas or the lives of Saints, yielding to transportations of emotions when he depicted scenes of great bhakti, or great human tragedies, to which he was sensitive to the extreme. Then he shed tears which he vainly attempted to conceal. Some stories are memorable like the following one. Kabir was a great bhakta (devotee) and lived in or near Benares some centuries ago. Although he had siddhis (psychic powers), he earned his livelihood by weaving. One day, when he was working on his looms, a disciple entered in great excitement and said: “Sir, there is a juggler outside here who is attracting large crowds by making his stick stand in the air”, etc. Thereupon Kabir, who like all true saints, discouraged the display of jugglery, wanting to shame the man, rushed out with a big ball of thread in hand. Seeing the long bamboo standing in the air, he threw up the ball of thread, which went up and up unwinding till the whole thread stood stiff in mid-air, and to a far greater height than the juggler’s stick, without any support whatever. The people, including the juggler himself, were stunned in amazement, and Sri Bhagavan’s eyes acted the amazement, while his hand stood high above his head in the position of that of Kabir when he threw up the ball.

On another occasion Bhagavan recited from memory a poem of a Vaishnava Saint, in which occurred the words “Fold me in thy embrace, O Lord,” when the arms of Bhagavan joined in a circle round the vacant air before him, and his eyes shone with devotional ardour, while his voice shook with stifled sobs which did not escape our notice. It was fascinating to see him acting the parts he related, and be in such exhilarated moods as these.

Some disciples and his attendants used to sleep on the floor of the hall at night. Bhagavan’s sleep was very light: he woke every now and then, and almost always he found an attendant nearby fully awake to say a few words to, and slept again. Once or twice he would go out for a few minutes, and, by 5 a.m., when the Veda chanters came from the township, they found him fully awake and chatting in a soft, subdued voice. Now the parayanam would get started and go on for a little less than an hour, during which everybody abstained from talking, and Bhagavan often sat cross-legged and completely indrawn. Then he went out for bath, breakfast, and a little stroll on the hill, and returned at about 7.30, when visitors and devotees began trickling in – men, women and children – till they filled the hall by about 9 a.m.

This morning hour of the parayanam was the best time of the day for meditation: the congregation was small, women and children were absent, the weather cool, and the mind had not yet completely emerged to run its usual riot. Over and above this Bhagavan then shone in the stillness of his samadhi, which permeated the hall and the meditation of the disciples.

But unfortunately I could not keep up this attendance, nor could I benefit by it even when present, for my mind remained in the fog of somnolence. Being a life-long bad sleeper I never succeeded in making the requisite six-hour sleep before six in the morning. Another tendency which I could not completely overcome was intolerance to noise, of which the hall was seldom free. Apart from the free access to it by all and sundry there was also the freedom of singing, which at times took one by surprise at a moment when the hall was plunged in silence and the atmosphere conducive to meditation. All of a sudden a soprano voice rose from somewhere in the hall intoning some hymn or other, or reciting some shloka in a South-Indian language, to be succeeded by a tenor or another soprano, often the latter, in competition with a male of the species, till Bhagavan went out at his usual hours. These were: 9.45 for a few minutes, 11 o’clock for luncheon, followed by the midday stroll in Palakottu, evening 4-45 on the hill, preceding the evening Veda parayanam, and 7 o’clock for dinner.

The best I could do then was to remain in a semi-contemplative or reflective mood, reserving my serious meditation to the quiet solitude of my own room. Major Chadwick, the only other foreign resident then, who had preceded me to Ramanashram by exactly three months, used to wonder how I could meditate in my room at all. I reciprocated by myself wondering how he could seriously concentrate amidst so much disturbance in the hall. Even in as small a matter as this, it will be observed, individual idiosyncrasies are apparent. These lonely hours I snatched from the time when Bhagavan was out.

The constant influx of visitors was of some help in that it afforded the much-needed relaxation to an otherwise tense life. Secondly the peculiar problems which visitors brought with them were a useful study – study of the human mind and the endless ills to which it is subject. The problems of the mind and the conditions which give rise to them are infinitely more numerous than the variety which the physical universe presents to the human senses.

Moreover, watching the masterly ways Bhagavan tackled these problems was sadhana in itself. Rationality was the very essence of his arguments. Whilst the ultimate answer to all the questions was always the same, namely, “Find out who you are,” he first met every questioner on his own ground, and then slowly steered him round to the source of all problems – the Self – the realisation of which he held to be the universal panacea. Psychologists deal only with the working of the mind, but Bhagavan goes to the source, the mind or Self itself.

It was a wonder that all visitors were agreeably impressed by him, sometimes even without comprehending the drift of his ideas. People take siddhis as the sure sign of Perfection, but few understand the subtle influence of the truly Perfect person, who, without the deliberate use of miracles, works out the transformation of the people who come into contact with him, more so the genuine disciples, whom he actually turns into muktas, or well on the way to mukti, of which external siddhis are totally incapable. Many of those who have had the inestimable privilege of a long stay with Bhagavan bear witness to the blessedness which his mere presence conferred on them. This is the highest and truest siddhi which always accompanies Jnana (knowledge of the Self or Supreme Perfection).

When the audience shrank, the Master at times became humorously autobiographical about his early school and home life, or about his many experiences on the hill with sadhus, devotees, etc. One of the stories was about a “miracle” he had once performed in Skandashram, when his mother one day, leaving him inside a room in deep samadhi, bolted him in from outside and went to the town, and, on her return, to her great surprise, found him seated under a tree in the garden outside, and the door still bolted, as she had left it. She was so impressed by this “miracle” that she told it to everyone she met. The truth was, Bhagavan said, that he had unbolted the two door-shutters from inside and then re-bolted them, as before, from outside, from sheer habit.

Again and again the Master spoke of his early life in the big Arunachaleshwara temple in the first year of his escape to Tiruvannamalai (1896). Whilst urchins troubled him, educated adults had much respect for him, although he was then still in his teens. Pious men used to seek his company almost daily on the steps of Subramanya’s shrine. Two lawyers, in particular, were assiduous in this respect. On a certain Hindu festival day they prepared a grand dinner and came to take him to it, but his immovable silence indicated his refusal of their invitation. There was no alternative for them but to use force, which they did by joining hands and bodily lifting him, till he agreed to walk with them. Bhagavan said that that was the only house in Tiruvannamalai where he ate once. Another time he was also bodily carried and bundled into a waiting cart and fed, but that was not in a private house but in Ishanya Mutt – an Ashram-like institution for sannyasis of a special caste in the northern end of the town.

The stream of visitors [to Ramanasramam] continued to increase, so that soon afterwards sitting accommodation and easy access to the Master on personal matters became difficult. In fact under the new rules, letters and articles written by devotees were made first to pass the censorship of the office before they could be shown to him, which was not without reasons. One or two devotees, taking advantage of the Master’s compassionate nature, took to write to him letters running to several pages in very small hand on petty, often imaginary, difficulties in their spiritual practice, on which he strained his eyes for one or two hours. He was too scrupulous to let a single word go unread, which encouraged them to write still longer letters and daily too, imagining their epistles to be of great interest to Bhagavan till the management found it imperative to clamp down a ban on all correspondence to be shown or written to him.

A year or two later a colony of devotees, with families for the most parts, sprang up round the Ashram. As Bhagavan’s body grew weaker, his power to influence and attract increased,so that the tide of settlers and visitors continued steadily to rise and included world-famed philosophers, scholars, politicians, ministers, provincial governors, generals, foreign diplomats, members of foreign missions. They all came, whether in war or peace, in rain or shine. The tide swelled and swelled and reached its zenith in 1950, the last year of his earthly life. Till the last the Master continued to instruct. In the whole history of the Ashram there has never been a bar to the seeking of spiritual guidance orally from him, except in the very last year when he was seriously laid up and the visitors of their own accord desisted from troubling him.

As time passed and the Master’s state of mind and ideas took firm root in me, I ceased to ask questions, or to intercept him in his walks outside the Ashram grounds, as I used to do in the first six months of what I call my Vanaprastha life; for by then all my spiritual questions – call them problems, if you like – had resolved themselves in various ways. The final conclusion to which I came in the end of these six months I reported it one day to Bhagavan. He showed his gracious approval by a gesture of finality with his hand and said: “So much lies in your power, the rest must be left entirely to the Guru, who is the ocean of Grace and Mercy seated in the heart, as the seeker’s own Self.”