India Trip Notes
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2-28-11 - How I Came to Arunachala in Tiruvannamalai
Katrinka says that when we first got together, seven years ago this May, I used to read to her from a book with the collected sayings and teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi. I also used to read from that book to Ananda Claude Dalenberg in the convalescent home where he spent his last three and a half years in semi-paralysis. Of all the books and teachers I read to him, Ramana was his favorite and mine too. We never read Shunryu Suzuki whom he was little pissed at or any Zen - he'd had enough of that. He'd get cranky and tell me to stop reading something at times, but Ramana always soothed him with clear non duality and gentle self inquiry.
I first met Ramana Maharshi with Issan Tommy Dorsey who always kept a photo of Ramana's benign face on his wall. Tommy didn't know anything about Ramana. He just liked the vibes of the photo. I did too.
When I moved into the second floor of John Tarrant's barn, after fixing the roof and walls so water didn't make its way in, I unloaded boxes of John's overflow library onto makeshift shelves along the walls where they joined my much smaller collection. This was done for the aesthetics and the insulation more than the access to reading material. But one day I was in the mood for something new and picked a book at random. It was a paperback with a mountain on the cover and a face - oh, there was that photo again. Oh yes, it was Sri Ramana Maharshi. Good. Let's see what he's about I thought. I liked what he had to say right off.
That was early back in 2004 after I'd returned from my first trip to India. Maybe as far back as a year ago my thoughts of returning to India became more frequent. I knew that this time I wanted to go to the south as before I'd been in the north. Ever since then I wanted to go to Kerala which I'd heard good things about. In the summer of 2004 when I went to Tassajara, I met a student named Gita from India and asked her from where and when she said, Kerala, I told her that's where I wanted to go next time I had a chance.
Gita told me that I'd been instrumental in her coming to Zen Center. She'd been in an ashram in Kerala and when the guru died, she and a good friend decided they'd go traveling and take one book with them which they'd choose at random from the ashram library. With her eyes closed she selected Crooked Cucumber and when she saw what she'd chosen she said no I don't want a biography but he told her that it was too late to change their minds - this was the book they'd travel with. As a result of that random choice she said, she'd come to the Zen Center. Last year she was ordained as a priest.
So maybe sometime in the summer I started saying I wanted to go to India. There was a lot of work I wanted to do and I felt I needed to get away. I felt sort of stuck, nothing bad - I love where we live - just wanted a change of venue. I didn't know how I'd pay for the trip but that didn't get in the way of my plans. I knew I wanted to go to the south of India and I knew that it would be more affordable than just about anywhere else - once I got there. I had this Kerala idea but then I wondered where Ramana Maharshi came from. That was easy to check - in Tamil Nadu, the southern state on the east right next to Kerala on the southwest. Good, I thought, I'll go to the base of that mountain where he was. There's bound to be a place there to stay.
I told my friend, Trungpa student, Zen fellow traveler who got his start with Hindus, and frequent cuke contributor Howie Klein and he knew right away how to pronounce the name of this city and the mountain from which Ramana never strayed from the time he arrived in 1896 till his death in 1950. Good. Someone had heard of it.
In September Katrinka and I went to Crestone Mt. Zen Center for a week or so, and on the way back to the Albuquerque airport, Dan Welch took us over to his former mate KC's home which is full of beautiful art, much of it Buddhist and Hindu. I commented to Dan when I noticed several paintings and photos of Ramana Maharshi and the mountain where he lived. Dan said that that's who she's into and that she's living there half time now with her Indian husband. Wow - serendipitous. I told him how I'd been thinking of going there. Now there'd be someone I knew and the fact that she lived there meant it must be a pretty good place.
On the way back to Northern California I spent ten days in hometown Fort Worth visiting my mother and friends. Mother who'd just turned 96 still works, drives, goes to meetings, and is on the opera board. And when I'm home we have frequent afternoon salons for up to a half dozen people. At one of these get-togethers a young man named John came over whose twin brother and brother's wife I'd met the year before - they were in a Vipassana community in Ireland. Mother knows their father through the opera I think. The brothers had both been with Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in France. I asked John what he was doing and he said living in India and I asked where and he said in (or maybe near) an ashram and I asked which one and he said the Ramana Ashram. Oh - so there's an ashram there.
I emailed Gita and told her I was planning on going to India to do some work and had decided on pitching my tent in the neighborhood near the Ramana Ashram and it would be nice to visit Kerala while I'm there. I didn't know where she was but the last I'd seen of her she was living in the SFZC's City Center. She emailed me back that she was having visa problems and had to go back to India till they were solved and was living walking distance from the Ramana Ashram.
So here we are now. I had no idea what was here and inadvertently came to the Santa Fe of India - Dharamsala is in India but it's more like a suburb of Tibet. Gita's still here though her visa problem was just solved. She and Katrinka and I are going to the big seventh century temple downtown tomorrow. The three of us and Mary Cunov's friend Peter (and Gita's Hindu dharma bro) from San Mateo, CA, just walked around the inner circle of Arunachala which called us all here I guess, like Tassajara has also done, through randomly chosen books and godsend people.
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