Monday, June 13, 2016

Towards the Freedom That Binds Humanity

A few thoughts from the far side of the world this morning before we begin a long-awaited pilgrimage. I have prepared some forty years to have this opportunity.  I have always wanted to make this particular journey in India ---and I don't expect that others would want to join me.  I revel in our ability to create lives in which the things that move and inspire us, the experiences that nurture our spirit reveal something important about the diversity of our shared humanity.  I go on this pilgrimage not seeking god or enlightenment or some form of liberation.  I go because, for me, this is how I might find a richer sense of what binds me to our shared humanity. 
But this pilgrimage comes to on the heels of news from home--- the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida---that also makes me consider more seriously how we must turn to the powers of the secular in order to dignify our spiritual and religious claims.  Not the other way 'round.  We need not share religions because we already share humanity.   Our recourse is not making the same pilgrimages but in a democratic process that maintains that we need not agree in order to share an ethical life and a meaningful human journey. 
There is only one way to change the laws of the nation and that is to put forward candidates that will change them because _you_ voted. Imperfect as that system may be, imperfect as all candidates may be, the alternative resorts to the violence we must condemn. More cowardly still would be to abdicate the power of democracy and make yourself marginal by the righteous indignation that claims to want change but rejects the painful, slow process that democracy can create. However, to change the culture of America will require far more than laws to enforce. For that, we must change hearts and minds. That possibility lies not in furthering claims to shared religious values but instead understanding that there is a shared humanity that can appear in religious values common to humanity.
This is the power of the secular over religious discourse: if we take seriously what it means to participate in society in which _shared_ values are made into laws created to tolerate differences. Religion, of course, is not the sole source of intolerance but neither are its claims to altruism, inclusion, and tolerance reason to deny its role in the worst things we humans do and say. What is left is not an appeal to religion, for better and worse, but rather to human decency that compels conscience to admit that it is humanity that transcends such personal, religious claims.
While we cannot compel others to share our religious values, we can disempower and marginalize those who will not share in our humanity by tolerating their views only on the periphery of democracy. We will not all agree but what have we taught each other about inclusion that confers human dignity? When we are not educated to appreciate human differences and the role of religions in history, how can we engage in serious conversation or use the tools of argument? Do we refuse to invest in the public good because there is too much profit to be gained and too little shared conscience? Change will be incremental because all of these issues require time, effort, and seriousness. Our outrage is justified, no doubt. But outrage can, at best, inspire a meaningful process, it cannot create a durable result. To create a deeper humanity, we will need to learn more about how differences make us human and how we are only the "same" in the dignity of our differences.
Svamaye Saranam Ayyappa.  This is the chant we will make today on our pilgrimage.  It matters not if you understand or care what it means.  What matters is that we can appreciate in each other a humanity that speaks in many languages but commits to the dignity of human feeling and expression.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Rajanaka Summer Camp 2016

I am happy to announce Rajanaka Summer Camp 2016.
Registration is now open. 

It was Once Upon A Time when our invitation to Rajanaka Summer Camp was a few emails to friends that said, "come up for a weekend...well, a little more than a weekend, we'll talk."  It's evolved over the years but I am happy to say that our gathering has never lost its charm.  People come from all over, some who've been for years and always plenty of new folks.  We're still keen on making everyone feel welcome and leaving no one behind, just like we're keen on taking the topics to places where everyone, including me or especially me, has reached to the boundaries.  It's so beautiful in south Bristol in summer and there's time to settle into the conversation and really go deep, enjoy great company, laugh a lot, learn a lot, repeat.  Join us, it's just a great time.

July 7 -11, 2016 
The Forest of Ferocity: Chasing Shiva's Shadow

When Shiva returns to the forest of the Tillai it is to meet his own shadow.  As the mythos tells us he must face his own betrayal of his beloved Uma and consult with Visnu to make the "arrangement" for Ayyappa's future.  We'll tell the stories of Shiva's shadow conversations, learn more about Vyagrahapada and his history, and discover more about the relationship between Bhairava, Kali, Ayyappa, and the denizens of Pulliyasrama of Vyagrahapada.  Bhairava mantras and mudra will be the practice focus.

Aug 11 -15, 2016
Beneath the Forest of Shadows: Kali's Fate, Her Daivya and Lila. 
To understand the great ferocity and beauty of Tillai Kali we must return to the mandala of her Temple and uncover the yantras of her forms as she transitions through the shadows of her betrayal by Shiva and Visnu.  She must evolve herself and find company in conversation and through the many forms of her own self-organization that will empower her to interpret a reality that has entirely reshaped her experience.  Kali myths, myths of Nagas, meetings with Ayyappa, and forests of rasas, here we look deeply into Kali again with more mantra and mudra through her multiple forms.  She must make her way back to beneficence and this requires the rich re-examination of the circle of feelings, rasa.

$625 per person per retreat. Tuition includes lecture, vegetarian lunchFriday through Monday, plus Douglas's famous Curry Night Dinner one of the evenings.
Travel, accommodations, and other meals are not included in the tuition.

We begin Thursday at 2:30pm and end Monday after lunch, about noon.

Please email Vishali for details and suggestions for travel and accommodations. She will let you know how to get to Bristol, information on the different housing options, and will invite you to a Summer Camp facebook group so you can make plans with

Logistics Conference Call:
Getting to Bristol, NY and securing accommodations can seem like a lot if you have never been, so to go over the necessaries of coming to Rajanaka summer camp, we will have a call Monday March 21 at 8 pmEastern time. Call into 605-562-3140 and punch in access 468906#.  If you cannot make the call, email Vishali and she can assist

a) Deposit
To register send Douglas $125 as a deposit before March 31. Mail a check or Money Order to Douglas Brooks 7296 Gregg Rd. Bloomfield, NY 14469.  
Please send $250 if you intend to attend both retreats. 
You must include with the deposit: 
* Your name  
* Email address 
* Which dates you are registering for (or both)
* Phone number
 b) Balance 
The $500 balance of tuition per retreat will be due by May 1st
Final tuition not received by May 1st forfeits your deposit.     



Tuesday, December 1, 2015

For Susan and Mabel

Goodnight. Sleep, Sleep: The Pup’s Lullaby
Rg Veda 7.55.2a-6d
Translated from the Vedic, Douglas R. Brooks

The Vedic life began in encampments, temporary bivouacs that eventually gave way to more permanent settlements as these pastoral people took up the agrarian life and settled into villages.  Surrounded by the wild, they slept near their campfires, their pups also nearby, alert to signal warning and keep night’s watch. 

The great chieftan leader of the Gods Indra kept his own celebrated company, the bitch Saramā, renowned for recovering the cattle stolen by the Panis, and later herself attributed the revelation of another Vedic hymn, or at least a bit of it, where she is remembered by the name Saramā Devas’unī.  Saramā gave birth to four brindled pups that were given as a gift to Yama, Lord of Death.  Is it one of those four pups remembered here, in this lullaby that admonishes the watchful pup that it is at last time for him to sleep?  Surely the Rsi of this hymn, Vasiṣṭha Maitrāvaruṇi longs for a night’s sleep and implores the pup to stop his barking and let the camp have its slumber.  He then sings them all to bed, sástu mātā́ sástu pitā́ sástu śvā́, “sleep Momma, sleep Pappa, sleep pup…” and wishes us all a good night.  

When you bare your teeth, milky silver son of Saramā, brindled pup,
they flash like lancets in your growling jowls ! Go to sleep!
You bark at the Singers to Indra!
Why do you trouble us?
Go to sleep!

Sleep Momma, Sleep Pappa
Sleep pup, let the Lordly Chieftan sleep
Let all the folks we love sleep,
Let all these folks‘roundbout sleep too.
Whoever sits still and whoever walks about
And whoever sees us, the folks---
their eyes we close shuttered,
like this house.

7.055.02a     yád arjuna sārameya
7.055.02b     datáḥ piśaṅga yáchase
7.055.02c     vī́va bhrājanta r̥ṣṭáya
7.055.02d     úpa srákveṣu bápsato
7.055.02e     ní ṣú svapa

7.055.03a     stenáṃ rāya sārameya
7.055.03b     táskaraṃ vā punaḥsara
7.055.03c     stotr̥̄́n índrasya rāyasi
7.055.04d     kím asmā́n duchunāyase
7.055.04e     ní ṣú svapa

7.055.05a     sástu mātā́ sástu pitā́
7.055.05b     sástu śvā́ sástu viśpátiḥ
7.055.05c     sasántu sárve jñātáyaḥ
7.055.05d     sástv ayám abhíto jánaḥ

7.055.06a     yá ā́ste yáś ca cárati
7.055.06b     yáś ca páśyati no jánaḥ
7.055.06c     téṣāṃ sáṃ hanmo akṣā́ṇi
7.055.06d     yáthedáṃ harmiyáṃ táthāp

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Accurate, Literal, and (Not) Whatever You Think

Here's a very, very brief primer for "reading" sources in the Indian traditions, particularly texts that were originally composed in Sanskrit. Actually, it's just a series of bullet points but I'm asked these questions so very often that I thought it worth the summary. Forgive the cursory and uncensored language, I mean to help.

I'm often asked about translations of texts in the yoga traditions and which ones to choose. There are dozens of Yogasutra, Bhagavad-Gita, and Upanishad translations. Other works can be more obscure or difficult to find without access to a University library, even in this day and age of interwebbyness. It's difficult for those not trained in the history of scholarship (yes, that's a subject too that requires years of training) to sort through the issues: philological skill (language-comprehension in context and history) and the agenda of the translator are often unclear. You likely don't even know the translators are grappling with these issues and if they aren't grappling, that's a problem.

In general it's not unfair to say to the lay reader that a "boring, dry" scholarly translation is likely a thousand times more reliable than something "poetic" and "readable," or the work of your favorite theologian. Deal with that. There's no easy way into these works and it's generally not worth the 10,000 hours it would take to learn to read them in the original. A little bit of language study would be worth your while with the caveat that a little knowledge is often a dangerous, i.e., misleading thing.  If you've ever studied Sanskrit (or any difficult language) you know that it's time consuming and mostly drudgery.  That's just the price of admission and I'm not kidding about the 10,000 hours either. In the Indian case there are no Sanskrit texts without correlative oral interpretations; commentaries from lineage authorities provide the critical insight into the influential (or not) trends of meaning. Orality trumps written authority in nearly every case, no matter what kind of authority is assigned ---even the immaculate revelatory shruti that is assigned to the Veda. What teachers say is what tradition thinks things mean. Start there. Remember that it is unlikely that any two teachers actually agree. Now for the pointers:

1. ALL (now) written texts presume commentary and appear in the context of historical conversations. No one is right or wrong, only bringing their agendas and making their cases.
2. All commentators maintain the superiority of their interpretation. No one holds an opinion that is just as good as someone else's.
3. Commentators cite selectively to suit their agendas and make a point of not telling you if there are contrary or conflicting points of view unless they mean to denounce them. All writing and argument is dialectic, no one is happy about their opponents' wrongness. Opponents are never right.
4. Commentators aren't interested in being fair to opposing points of view; arguments are straw men filled. Also, just because there is amity and alignment in lineage or the larger circle of tradition does not mean there is agreement: students often deeply disagree with their teachers and just don't tell you: more selective citation and deliberate oversight.
5. Texts are the tip of the iceberg, no matter how much and how little is written. Imagine at least five times as much in terms of content. In a sutra text, the presumption of meaning is the commentator's stock in trade but the presumption of knowledge is exponential to the text. In other words, if you think you can interpret a particular yoga sutra you not only need multiple commentaries (to get a comparative grasp), you need a vast history of ideas that are presumed.
6. Every translation is another layer of interpretation. There are no translations that don't come with agendas. Knowing the translator's agenda is no simple matter so you'd be well-advised to ask. As a matter of course, never read only one translation.
7. Indian philosophy is written by experts for each other. It is technical, insular in composition, and rarely "poetic" OR clear. The more "poetic" the translation, the more likely the translator is skewing it to sound sweet. The judgment is between accurate (this is the sense of meaning) and literal (these are the words), and that is almost always a very difficult call even for professional scholars. You are not professional scholars. But you know that.
8. Last, (eight here for the number of Bhairavas: inside joke, lots of those in texts), there's nothing sacred about any text or idea. "Sacred" means to privilege and that will cause reluctance or reticence to apply your critical awareness. Given how hard it is to interpret (see the previous seven points), you should be careful leaping into meaning (because you're likely full of shit). However, if you take your own interpretation seriously then you're well within your rights because that's what Indian tradition has always done: interpret to suit themselves. If this last point wasn't rife with irony and paradox we will need another and another primer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

As If, You are Free

Freedom in practice usually finds its way to “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

We seek to be free from some perceived imposition and free to act on the basis of choice.  In both cases there is an implicit suggestion of superiority and the consequence of isolation.  Why would we choose to demand our prerogative if we didn’t implicitly mean to demonstrate the superiority of our point of view.  Who holds an opinion they don’t believe to be true?  Our creed is, after all, where we place our heart (from the PIE compound *kerd-dhe; cf., Skt., shraddha) and that is sacred both in the no-fly-zone relationship-sense of permissions and prohibitions and in the ontological-sense of inviolability.   We draw boundaries, enter into agreements, take sides.

The issue is not merely our tacit or undeclared ascendency, but neither are we required us to address the consequence freedoms-expressed have on those who do not share the imperative of conviction.  No one likes to justify much less explain their most deeply held feelings.

Whether sacrality is how we address relationships by establishing meaningful boundaries or declare a certain something to be exceptional, we have come to the brink, to the place where the limits of tolerance meet the impasse of volition and articulation.  Something silencing and clamoring is simultaneously toiling for space in our hearts, whether or not it takes voice.  The sacred is what has made the cut and we believe ---or we want to believe and that might be as much the paradox---that we’ve found an anchor steadfast to the true bitter end, that part of the rope that stays inboard when the rest is released.  Sometimes we discover that that sacred is much more like ourselves: no better than we need to be to carry on, alas without an adamantine covenant that confers irrevocable tenability.  We wish for more no matter what we are receiving: this is part of what religion means, holding us together when we’re quite sure that we don’t.  What does? Who can?

When Arjuna asks Krsna why he comes into the world, Krsna tells him it is for loka-samgraha, to hold the world together or, more literally and so with ironic metaphor to “collect the light.”  (Bhagavadgita, 3.20) Whether or not we are looking to God, we are assuredly looking for light when darkness or occlusion means that we want more than we have collected.   It becomes much more difficult to defend Krsna’s admonitions to consequences he deems unsavory when those include claims to his own sovereign grandeur or the prevention of “miscegenation.”  Why not simply end the war and prevent the unwanted, ummm, mixing.  Terrible advice and unquestionably bad values.  But let us move with those problems rather than ignore them.  Freedom doesn’t include being right, it means the power to contest values in a contested world.  The alternative is compliance, submission, capitulation, or passivism.  The costs of all are unexceptional because they are inescapable.

In the faith (shraddha) that Krsna further purports will sustain us, he doesn’t mean we need to believe in more than we see, much less an invisible or beyond that will somehow come through for us---he is, after all, right there telling Arjuna he is the corporeal presence of that real authority.   Rather, he’s enjoining Arjuna to collect himself, and so to endure, to withstand the world’s viscidity because the world does indeed hold to its nature: why should we expect reality to be less than unfinished: that will have to be enough.  It will be enough, when we come to its terms, not ours.  Theists will dispute this reading of the Bhagavadgita because who wants to hear that even God isn’t entirely sure of what comes next?  We might also reply, who needs a God so committed at once to his own sublimity and yet so willing to condone the world’s miseries?  Is Krsna being instructive, telling Arjuna that this is what he needs to learn?  Or is he as much being mimetic, showing Arjuna what it will take to live in this kind of world?  Stand up, he says, it’s no time for indulging your doubts even if they are by definition a worthy enterprise, the kind of thinking that prevents too much certainty about the worlds’certainties.  You need to act sometimes only as if than rather indulge the cataclysmic authenticity that lamentably describes the world’s facts.

Václav Havel used to say this as if-ness made his life under tyranny bearable.  What doesn’t factor in Arjuna’s moment of certainty is faith in the sense of the belief-in-the-unseen or the delayed (as St. Paul would it have about seeing through a glass darkly and then face to face, 1 Corinthians 3.12ff.)  After all, the facts are right before his eyes and Krsna is directly pointing both at himself and to the world’s constancy.  Go with the evidence and then make your as if decisions.  It’s that constancy that requires putting your heart somewhere: we abide, sometimes to ride out the perpetual storm but more to fathom how it’s always storming.   We might take Aurelius to heart here for much the same point, “Nature equips rational beings with the same powers as herself. Just as nature works on whatever opposes or resists her, giving it a place in the order of things and making it a part of herself, so too can we convert our hindrances into material for our own ends.”

Certainty’s most cherished hope is security, the feeling that we are safe because life’s risks are unrelenting.  Hope can be a mistake.  Who wants to be reminded of that?  Perhaps then there is nothing more to certainty than the inexorable audacity to persevere.  In Arjuna’s case that includes no more loitering.  Acting is believing and belief is neither a mere prompt to act nor crutch upon which we can long lean.  We are free in this tempest’s perpetual disquiet only to countenance or refuse the imperative because there really is no place to hide.   We all live in each other’s worlds however much our exercise of freedom means to sequester us in self-made consecrations, in the fiction of harbors without waves.

When everyone is on the same side, such as it is, we are agreeing upon the difference such differences make.  When is expressing “freedom to” a demand that others comply with your preferred liberties?  When is compulsion the definition of “Church” when we seek to separate your Church from our State?  In America, this is no small potatoes.  Ask the Supreme Court.  And look here for some journalistic reflection:

The State is the Church in many shared human affairs, if by that we mean the principal resource that matches conscience with compliance.  Whatever boundaries we create to delimit or assign responsibility, we protect our humanity by the ways we define such boundaries and mean to impose authority.  There is no statute of limitations for murder.  Our laws demand justice based on shared values and commitments. Our most sacred secular principle secures the necessity to debate the meaning of justice without invoking an irrefragable transcendental authority.  We must be responsible to each other and for our judgments, and especially those who believe they are answering to a higher authority, to their God.  Society means to impose the will of society, so help you God.  Holding out for an authority beyond our reach may be religion’s special claim to Church over State but this also leaves we humans not merely the arbiters but the voices of such supernal jurisdiction.  Maybe Krsna is right, we have met the gods and they are us.  We can be as wrong as he is about a great deal of convicted experience and still retain the ability to make it better.  How’s dem’apples?

Freedom means working within the rules we deem reasonable for all.  And there is no under estimating the tides of history even when the arc of justice does not bend, or at least not without coercion or with the certainty that it will not regress.  We might ask ourselves why it’s so important to learn the lessons of justice because religion makes no promises but to demand that convictions can overwrite history, which includes the possibility of dismissing evidence and ignoring reason.

The irony here should not be lost on us: if we didn’t overwrite our experience of nature and culture we would have no civilization or law, no humanitarian change or ethical evolution, no further consideration but to implement indifferent self-interest.   That does indeed appear to be some persons’ definition of their religion in that Orwellian sense in which recent “Religious Liberty” laws function as justifications for instantiated bigotry: your religious freedom is now a means to deny me what you freely grant yourselves as divinely sanctioned.

Our genes may indeed be selfish to objectives that carefully measure out doses of self-interested altruism, but equally perilous is compassion or forgiveness that ignores the consequences of conviction and the precedents of action.  We are only as free as we are able to endure another’s convictions imposed upon us with all the righteous claims that proffer security and certainty procured.  The world might instead offer us the storm we sail to its bitter end.  It’s the meaning of “bitter” that we must unceasingly reconsider: how is it that last bit of rope, the knot that holds our anchor on board, or another’s amaroidal truth?