What direction? India or the USA?

The fixing of a spiritual truth in terms of a location ranks as somewhat incongruous. We already have the tendency to locate truth within or without – within ourselves or within another. It is a foolish way of looking. It might be even more unwise to speak of priority in direction in terms of spiritual truth and the nation state. Having written that, I would suggest that two trends are evolving for serious spiritual practitioners, whether teachers, seniors in the Dharma or curious beginners.

Some of us naturally look to Mother India and its 5000 years of passion for the diversity of religion, ancient texts, ashrams, satsangs, yoga, meditation and the austerities of the nomadic life. We are at home with the voluntary homeless way of life that India both encourages and endorses. There is much that is utterly appalling in India. The crimes of India are a dark stain on the vision of Gandhi and the founding fathers. Despite the poverty, corruption and polluted air in all Indian cities, there is some perverse attraction in making a pilgrimage to India. There are the endless hassles whether it is to purchase a rail ticket, change money or buy goods.

Yet India continues to be a magnet for those deeply committed to spiritual exploration. Dharamasala offers Tibetan Buddhism and new age spirituality, Rishikesh offers yoga, Tiruvannamalai offers satsang. Auroville offers community. Varanasi offers training in classical music and singing. We offer our programmes in Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and other parts of India. The experience of India, the dynamics of change, of unpredictability, vegetarian diet, the gods and the swindlers, conspire together to transform lives of Westerners. The dedication of Westerners on a pilgrimage yatra) to India is as strong as ever.

It is a little more than 40 years since I first travelled overland to arrive in India. I still turn to India for inspiration and insight. I frequently read the discourses (suttas) of the Buddha, classical and contemporary commentaries on his teachings – Indian publishers continue to publish the books with the best analysis of the suttas and othe ancient texts. I meditate and reflect on the profound realisations of Nagarjuna, the greatest commentator on the words of the Buddha. I love Advaita Vedanta (non-dual texts). The countless numbers of poems and verses on Krishna and Radha, Siva and Parvati and Rama and Sita point to romantic love as a vehicle to ultimate truth. The Theravada tradition is not open to such a possibility.

As with some of my closest friends, we are India wallahs – if we look anywhere in this world, we still look to India. We look to the Tree in Bodh Gaya, Mother Ganges, the Himalayas, the Rajasthan desert, Motilal Bookshop in Varanasi, Arunchala and the saints and sages, past and present. We, the India wallahs, perceive Mother India as the symbol of the Infinite and the Limitless. We love the ancient strengths of the sub-continent and the sense of vastness about the country – far greater than its actual physical size. Mother India is our archetype for the immensity and the insecurity that expresses ultimate and relative truth.

The Tourist Department of the Government of India markets India as “Incredible India.” To some degree, it is true – but often not in the way the tourist department would like to boast about. India never stops troubling our heart and mind. We go back to India for renewal, for space for reflection, to have every cell in our being challenged, to get away from the predictable pressures of the West to the unpredictable moments that shape our daily lives in India. We check out our conditioning and most of all we remind ourselves what it means to stay awake. If India fails to enliven compassion, we have not been to India.

The United States cannot offer what India has to offer. Like all other countries, the United States has its share of social and environmental problems. The poisons of greed (consumerism), hate (the military campaigns) and delusion (e.g. belief in the essential good of the US government in terms of foreign and domestic policy) are rampant. Yet, this should not deter us from acknowledging the dedicated exploration of the inner life among several American luminaries.

If there were an A list of spiritual teachers/pundits, it would probably include (in alphabetical order) A.H, Ahmaas for personality and essence, Deepak Chopra (on God and spirituality), Ram Dass (Indian spirituality), Daniel Goleman (emotional intelligence), James Hillman (dynanics of psychology), Jack Kornfield (Theravada and psychotherapy), Robert Thurman (Tibetan Buddhism), Eckhart Tolle (the Now), Ken Wilbur (Oneness and developmental models), Jon Kabat-Zinn (mindfulness) and others. Three on this A list are from overseas – Ahmaas from Kuwait, Tolle from Austria and Chopra from India. All three live in North America and teach mostly there.

We would be hard pressed to name such teachers in other countries in the Western world. It is not that the books or the schools that have emerged from North America are more insightful or relevant. There are numerous spiritual books published in other Western countries and India, but these books have a limited distribution or not translated into English. I regularly ship home five star Dharma books, published in India, that, in my view, exceed in depth and analysis much of what is available in the West.

I regard contemporary philosophy addressing psychology, spirituality and science as the weak link in the Anglo-American world including the books that I have read that offers an overview of spirituality and psychology. The language of progress, evolution or hierarchal structures pervade the approach to exploration rather than the wisdom of dependent arising conditions and unobstructed analysis. While others opt for only the present moment as the goal. There is often a tone of pleasing positivity in Western spiritual books that acts as a shadow over the harsh realities of life.

Anglo-American literature of spirituality often promotes in an unquestioning way the unitive view, often sounding very monolithic and personal essence as the ultimate experience, as if the five aggregates obscured something the agregates.. The contemporary philosophers of France engage in deep inquiry into the metaphysics of the human condition cutting ruthlessly into the personal, social and political structures.

Nevertheless, I genuinely appreciate the writings of the teachers and mentors based in North America – despite the almost total lack of attention to the consequences of lifestyle, capitalism, consumerism, money and education. Not surprisingly, cost of retreats in the USA is far more expensive than anywhere else in the world. The corporate model of a board of directors and paid senior management working at the centres has been adopted while several teachers and pundits live business class at every level of their life, not only when taking flights.

American teachers coming to Europe sometimes find European audiences grilling them about why it costs so much to listen to a talk, attend a workshop or go on a retreat with an American teacher. It is unusual for Europeans to pay £100 €150) per day or more to attend in Europe a retreat or course with an American. Some of our brothers and sisters on the other side of the Pond are accustomed to a certain lifestyle…

India reminds us that a certain austerity in lifestyle, a minimalist attitude in terms of possessions belong to the dharma way of life rather than an optional extra. For those who love the Dharma, and love life, India makes clear that renunciation is an indispensable feature of a dharmic way of life. It is not just about looking into ourselves. The Dharma in the United States is far too self indulgent to explore renunciation. Fortunately, there are plenty of exceptions in the USA to deny the rule – voluntary staff at retreat centres, karma yogis, and teachers of mind, body and spirit who lives very moderate lifestyles.

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