Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Anvil

Though it drives many of my readers crazy when I say it, I am and will always be grateful to Sri Chinmoy.

He changed my life for the better.

That's an objective fact. I may not know much, but I do know who I was before I joined the Center and who I had become by the time I decided to leave it. I was a better person.

For that, I'll always be grateful.

A lot of my friends have argued that Guru did nothing, that he added no value to our lives as disciples. In effect, they're arguing that whatever good experiences we had -- whatever progress we may have made in our personal development -- was the result of our own efforts, our own self-discipline.

I've no doubt this is true for them.

It's not so for me. For a few years in the mid-1980s, I experienced an exalted sense of being. Was it actually exalted? It felt that way to me, and Guru made it possible.

I'm not selling myself short. I played a part in my own experience, obviously, and perhaps the most important part. But to say that I could have achieved the breakthroughs in my meditations that I had all by myself would be inaccurate. I can only speak for myself in this regard, but when I meditated in front of Guru, he brought something powerful to the table.

A few months back, a friend of mine challenged me on this point. I told him that if I had been meditating on a rock -- rather than in front of Guru -- I would not have had the same profound (profound to me anyway) experiences I had had meditating with Guru.

"Have you ever tried meditating on a rock?" my friend asked. "Maybe you would have."

It's a fair point, I suppose. Maybe if I had devoted hours of concentrated effort meditating on a rock I would have had the same experiences. I doubt it, but perhaps. Even so, I'm still grateful to Guru.

And there are some very tangible reasons for me to be grateful.

Were it not for Guru, I would never have met any of these people: Sahishnu, Prakash, Sevika, Giribar, Ketan, Phanindra, Bipin, Pulin, Jigisha, Anugata, Ranjana, Lavanya, Jayanti, Premik, Shambhu, Sundar, Sunil, Shraddha, or Dhruva, Trishatur, Bansidhar, the Rocherolles (Gangadhar, Gayatri, Narendra, and Durdam), Bhima and Tejiyan, Sudhir, Pinak, Ashrita, Databir, Suchatula, Sundari, or Bihagee.

And that's just a short list.

Meeting these people alone was worth the price of admission, even if that price meant that Guru deceived me. It was, without a doubt, worth it to me.

Finally, even if Guru brought nothing to our relationship -- even if he was simply the anvil upon which I hammered my own identity -- then I am grateful for that anvil.

I'll always be so.

The photo above shows Hephaestus, Greek god of blacksmiths among other things.

Living Without Magic

I take my coffee black.

I prefer it that way, without the milk and sugar that makes it so much easier to get addicted to in the beginning. I feel the same about religion.

Magic and magical thinking are the milk and sugar of spirituality. It's what makes embarking on a religious life so attractive in the beginning.

Perhaps it's even necessary at the start, even though in the end it becomes a disability. Like the old analogy of the two thorns -- sometimes it's necessary to use one thorn (or negative quality) to help extract another one stuck in your foot.

Perhaps stories of saints, miracles, and the supernatural are necessary in the beginning to inspire one to tread the path of yoga. In the end, though, belief in these stories -- magic as I call it -- must be discarded, just as one discards the second thorn after it has helped you remove the one in your foot.

I'm not saying that the path of conscious personal development -- the path of yoga -- need be bitter like the coffee I'm addicted to (not all the time anyway). Nor am I arguing that we need to forsake the mystical and vastly unexplored world of our subjective consciousness.

But it's imperative at some point not to cede control of one's life over to the imaginary.

At some point, the individual must stand up on his or her own. At some point, one must stop relying -- stop hoping really -- for magical help from the beyond and instead take control of one's own life. This is especially true after one's spiritual master has died.

(Unlike some, I still believe in the utility of the guruvada -- the taking up of a guru on the path of yoga. Why a person would ever surrender their decision making ability to a brother or sister disciple after the master's passing, however, is beyond me.)

I found a nice little example of this point in an anecdote recalled by Mahendranath Gupta.

Mahendranath was known by many names, but I suppose most folks know him by the titles Paramahansa Yogananda gave him in Autobiography of a Yogi: "Master Mahasaya" or the "Blissful Devotee."

When I had read Autobiography as a kid, I'd assumed the title "master" meant just that: spiritual master -- a title denoting inner achievement or self-mastery. And, in part, that may have been how Swami Yogananda meant it in the book.

As I learned later, though, Sri M (as he's known within Ramakrishna circles) had been called "master" for most of his adult life.

In fact, Sri Ramakrishna himself referred to his intimate disciple as "master."

That's because Sri M worked as a schoolmaster by profession. He was about 27 when he first met Thakur and had graduated college with distinction. He had a small family to look after and was living at home with his parents and other relatives. His living situation was extremely stressful.

It was so stressful, in fact, that it was driving M crazy -- literally.

One rainy night -- on the verge of committing suicide -- M rushed out of his family home intent on not returning. His devoted wife insisted upon following him. After a few miles in the rain, the horse drawn carriage they were riding in broke down in the mud. More disconsolate that ever, M eventually sought shelter in the middle of the night from a relative.

The next day -- while strolling through the gardens of Dakshineswar -- M's cousin asked him if he'd like to visit a sadhu. That sadhu, of course, was Sri Ramakrishna.

The course of M's life was permanently altered.

For the next four years, M would visit Thakur just about every weekend (and at any other opportunity he could find). Then, after returning home for the night, M would stay up late writing down the events that had transpired that day with Thakur from memory. For the remainder of the week -- until his next visit to Dakshineswar -- M would go over and over the events of the previous weekend, drawing out the details of every conversation, every utterance.

That was M's sadhana for about four years, which resulted in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna or as originally known the "Sri Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita."

Then, in 1886, Sri Ramakrishna died.

M was devastated by the death of his master and friend. He found it difficult to write or even talk about the events surrounding Thakur's passing. In his grief, M looked for a sign of his master's unseen hand in his life. Then, one day, while waiting for a trolley to take him to work, M found his sign.

He tells the story this way:

Thakur had just given up the body.

I was then a teacher in the Oriental Seminary. I was headmaster of three schools at a time. I had to teach for an hour in each school. I had to go there by palanquin, at times also by tram.

Once, I was changing trams at the
Burrabazar when I saw a sadhu there. His face was similar to Thakur's. He had his seat there. He was like a child.

I would go and stand beside him daily. When the sun was bright, I used to hold an umbrella over him. Seeing him, Thakur would fill my mind.

Once, he favored me by asking if I could help him take a train to
Howrah. I said "yes." Thereafter I bought his ticket and helped him entrain to Howrah.

He then kindly gave me a small piece of paper saying, "Put it in a case and keep it with you as an amulet. You will never be in want -- your travails will end."

After the train left, I walked on happily carrying it with me until I reached the
Pontoon Bridge of Howrah. As soon as I cast a glance towards Dakshineswar, I was reminded of Thakur's words and felt downcast with shame.

I touched the paper with my forehead and threw it into the Ganga.

I felt ashamed of myself. I realized that Thakur was always looking after me. For he had said, "What is there for you to worry about? You already have the privilege of having a guru." The moment I remembered these great words of his, I was overwhelmed with shame.

Then I returned home reassured, full of bliss.
(M., The Apostle and the Evangelist, Vol. 8, pp. 217-218.)

Sri M is a good example for anyone treading the path of yoga. After the passing of his guru, he didn't forsake his master or forget about him. On the contrary, he spent the rest of his life -- which lasted until 1932 -- reflecting on those four years in the early 1880s.

He focused upon publishing his diaries -- the Gospel -- and encouraging all those he came in contact with, including the young Mukunda Lal Ghosh, to tread the path of yoga.

Sri M, however, did not engage in any further magical thinking.

The message is clear. For those of us who haven't already done so, let's give up the magical thinking that helped us through our spiritual undergraduate program in the Center. Let us release our dreams of rainbows and unicorns (and our nightmares of darkness and hostile forces).

Instead, let's stand up on our own two feet and find the spiritual life right here on Earth. Let's find the spiritual in the human gesture, not the mysterious divine symbol.

Ultimately, the path of yoga is about the individual. It's about becoming the supreme individual. To do that, one must give up all reliance on forces and guides outside oneself.

Until you're ready, willing, and able to shoulder the burden of your own life, you'll never truly be of use to anyone else.

At top, that's Sri M some years after his master's death. Just above is the more classic shot of him in old age, sitting near the Panchavati at Dakshineswar. Here's a nice site devoted to Sri M's home, with some interesting photos.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An Instructive Example

It's not a perfect example.

The cancer eating away at the Catholic Church isn't the same as that corroding the Center. But it's instructive.

Particularly in how the organization is now cooperating -- perhaps reluctantly -- with independent investigators to bring the truth to light.

According to this New York Times article, after decades of turning a blind eye, the Vatican appointed a veteran clerical diplomat to address the scandal in Ireland.

An Irish governmental Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was then established and the Irish Archbishop then began to cooperate.

The full Report by Commission of Investigation into Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin can be found here.

The report is long, but it's worth a few minutes to scroll through the first section and skim through the commission's mandate and its broad findings, some of which seem particularly apropos to the situation now facing the Center's leadership.

Of particular interest is the organizational culture of secrecy, the active cover-up by leadership, and the fact that a brave few were willing to speak up.

The takeaway point is that here's an example of how a religious organization -- however late -- turned its attention to its own behavior.

Painful as it is -- embarrassing as it is -- an open and honest inquiry conducted by uninterested, neutral investigators is the the only option for an organization facing this kind of rot from inside if it wants to have any sense of relevance to the outside world.

Credit for the image of the Clarsach or Irish Harp goes here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Organizational Chemo

Have you ever heard of the Alipore bomb case?

On April 30, 1908, two Indian revolutionaries tried to kill a British magistrate known for handing down harsh sentences against other freedom fighters. They missed their target. The bomb they threw landed in the wrong carriage, killing the wife and daughter of an English barrister.

Within just a couple of days, the British arrested 33 suspects, including the suspected ring leader, Aurobindo Ghosh. Aurobindo, who was educated at King's College, Cambridge University, retained the pro bono services of the hitherto unknown defense lawyer Chittaranjan Das.

C.R. Das, pictured, faced an uphill battle. The trial lasted a year, included more than 200 witnesses, and more than 5,000 exhibits. On top of it all, he had a client who was his intellectual equal.

You might think that having a smart client would be an asset to the trial lawyer. Oftentimes, however, the client thinks he knows best and can't resist being a backseat driver at the trial -- scribbling notes to the lawyer, dictating trial tactics.

During the Alipore bomb case trial, Sri Aurobindo had trouble fighting the urge to feed notes to C.R. Das and to suggest strategy. Then he received a "command from within" telling him to, in essence, let his lawyer do his job.

In the end, 17 of 36 defendants were acquitted, including Sri Aurobindo. (Sri Aurobindo's younger brother, Barindra, was one of two found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Their sentences were later commuted to life, and in 1920 they both received amnesty.)

C.R. Das went on to become a leading figure in the independence movement of India. But before we leave his story, let me suggest that C.R. Das was the best kind of lawyer. He wasn't a tool for his client's whim.

He didn't restrict his advice to good news. He wasn't a yes man.

I think it's safe to say that C.R. Das told his clients what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. That's what a good lawyer does.

The client never likes to hear bad news, but it's often the only medicine that will help.

So it is with the Center.

The Center as an organization faces a threat to its existence that is not of its making. It is suffering from a late stage organizational cancer that can only be cured by radical action -- action that I fear the Center's leadership would rather not hear about, much less consider.

The outlines of this action have already been put forth in this excellent comment by reader "Legal Eagle." I don't know who "Legal Eagle" is, but at the heart of his or her advice is this: the need for an independent investigation.

Like it or not, that's the only course of action that can save the Center as an organization.

To be precise, it's the only voluntary action the leadership of the Center can take. There are, of course, involuntary possibilities.

It is, I suspect, only a matter of time before a major media outlet takes an interest in this story. Imagine, for example, if any of these individuals take an interest in the sordid events that have been revealed over the last few weeks. Although indirect, the ensuing publicity nightmare would force unpredictable changes upon the Center.

Likewise -- though I have no knowledge of any concrete plans by anyone in this regard -- I'd assess the likelihood of legal action over the near to mid-term as high. What a misfortune that would be for all involved. In this regard, let me make one thing clear to my friends in the Center.

Though I've been asked, I've advised nobody about litigation against the Center. Nor shall I do so. Though it's my profession, litigation is -- by its very nature -- a destructive path. It should be avoided at all costs.

I won't be a part of such an action.

I don't think I'm giving away any secret, however, when I say that despite its destructive nature, litigation is good at solving some types of problems, one of which is a corporate board of directors that doesn't follow formalities, that doesn't investigate reported wrongdoing, and that revokes the membership rights of its members without due process.

Nevertheless, the leadership of the Center should take heed. Voluntary reform is cheaper, it provides certainty, and it affords some measure of control. These are things that I expect the Center's corporate counsel already knows. In this case, corporate counsel's challenge is to convince the rest of the Center's board members of this.

Like all corporate counsel, however, it should never be forgotten that the duty of an organization's lawyer is always to the organization. Where the organization's interests diverge from the interests of the corporate counsel's fellow board members, the lawyer's duty is to the organization.

In this case, the Center is sick and only a neutral, independent quest for the truth will save it.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Even enemies can show respect."

If you haven't yet taken the time to view Karen Armstrong's presentation below, I'd encourage you to do so. It's about 25 minutes long and touches on many of the important issues facing us all. (Hat tip to my sister Liz for suggesting the video, and to this anonymous commenter for suggesting Ms. Armstrong's work more generally.)

In her talk, Ms. Armstrong uses a story from the Iliad to underscore the importance of sympathy and compassion. It just so happens that I watched the movie Troy last night and was moved very much by that very scene as dramatized by Peter O'Toole and Brad Pitt.

If you're not already familiar with the story or have not already watched the movie, the setup for the scene below is that the great Greek hero Achilles (Pitt) has just killed the great Trojan hero Hector in battle. After killing Hector, Achilles drags Hector's body behind his chariot and back to the Greek camp.

Under the dead of night, the king of Troy, Priam (O'Toole), sneaks into the Greek camp and begs Achilles to return Hector's body.

Watch the clip on YouTube here.

Karen Armstrong on Compassion

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Hear Me Roar

The time for former women disciples to come together, "in numbers too big to ignore" as Helen Reddy sings in her famous song, is now.

With the huge exception of Jayanti Tamm -- and her book Cartwheels in a Sari -- there have been precious few examples of what the disciple life was like from a woman's perspective.

That should change.

There are now scores of women who spent significant time in the Center leading extremely disciplined lives, who are now living outside the shadow of the Center, standing on their own, each of whom have distinct and unique voices.

I'd really like to hear from them (you all know who you are).

And I don't mean just in guest posts here (though I love them). What I'm really advocating is a site for women, by women. Something like a spiritual Double X site.

I take inspiration again from Jayanti, who is perhaps laying the foundation for such a site at her blog -- read the latest lion's roar here.

That's Helen Reddy in the photo above.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Outing, Part Deux

We've already discussed the Oliver Sipple principle.

The principle being that I have no intention of disclosing the names of women currently in the Center (or out of the Center for that matter) who have been implicated in Guru's sex ring.

Like most rules, however, the Sipple principle admits an exception.

In the gay rights context, it seems that most people don't have a big problem "outing" a person's private sexual orientation when hypocrisy is involved.

The cleanest example of this would be a right-wing, "family values" politician who actively works against the interests of gays, but in private is a closeted homosexual.

That's hypocritical.

In cases like that, there doesn't appear to be a groundswell of sympathy for keeping the hypocritical politician's private life private. Better to out him.

The exception applies here, too.

It's one thing for our sister disciples to be going about the tough business of trying to lead a life in the Center while privately grappling with the pain of their own abuse.

It's quite another for any of these victims of Guru's sexual abuse to actively work in concert with the Center to tear down the reputations of the courageous women who have thus far spoken out or to actively deceive current disciples about what they themselves know to be true.

Though I hope it never comes to that, such women should be outed.

What I'd really like to see -- and what I've blogged about before -- is someone, anyone, to stand up for the truth, to stand up for what's right, even if it means paying a personal price for doing so. That's what I'd like to see.

It's really the flip side to the much more common phenomena of going along with the crowd, of not rocking the boat, of standing by while others get hurt.

A lot of research has gone into what makes people compliant to authority, even when that authority asks the individual to do something wrong, even when the order requires the individual to hurt someone else. Preeminent among such research is the work done by Professor Philip G. Zimbardo.

Professor Zimbardo is famous for the 1971 Stanford prison experiment. In that study, Prof. Zimbardo demonstrated how ordinary people can be corrupted by the roles they play and the environment in which they work. He's written a relatively new book called The Lucifer Effect on the subject, but it's the flip side of this research that I'm more interested in here.

The antidote for this evil of our general willingness to go along with whatever is dictated to us from the authority figure even at the expense of fellow human beings is what Prof. Zimbardo calls the "heroic imagination."

The idea seems to be that if one's own personal psychological narrative is that "I'm a hero in waiting" -- waiting for an opportunity to stand up to the "man" even at personal cost to oneself -- then the chance that you'll cave under pressure from authority or peer pressure is minimized.

Honestly, I'll be doing you a great disservice to write any more about this.

Take 25 minutes and watch Prof. Zimbardo's talk to the audience at TED. (And if you haven't yet discovered TED, take some time there and explore some of the wonderful talks available there.)

It is particularly relevant to our experiences in the Center and the current situation facing all of us.

A Quick Link

Here's a disturbing blog post by Jayanti.

If you haven't yet read her wonderful memoir, Cartwheels in a Sari, please go out and do so. It's a wonderful and moving read.

And if you haven't yet read my own early history with Jayanti, you can look back here.

Thanks for the post, Jayanti.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Comments

To a blogger, the promise of the comment function located at the bottom of each post is like the Siren's call.

It lures you in with notions of fair dialogue, engaging discussions, and interesting Socratic clashes of thought.

Then you're dashed on the rocks.

The reality is, left unchecked, unmoderated online comment forums quickly devolve into havens of the angry and the deranged. Thus, one's first instinct is to moderate.

In the early going, moderating blog comments is not a bad solution. When you start, traffic to your blog isn't typically very heavy and neither are the comments. But once you've built a forum that attracts interesting comments by earnest and informed readers -- once you've built an audience -- a phenomena seemingly unique to the Internet occurs.

The trolls are born.

Wikipedia defines the term this way:

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room or blog, with the primary intent of provoking other users into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
That's where we find ourselves now.

Together, we've developed a forum of concerned readers and thus an audience for trolls and others unconcerned with our purposes here: dialogue and a search for the truth. Once trolls appear, moderating comments becomes more challenging.

My default position is to let everyone speak. Let's have a true marketplace of ideas, where the good ideas compete with the bad ideas, winner take all. This default position presupposes, of course, that the participants are actually sharing ideas (which trolls, by definition, do not).

So, it pained me to reject my first comment over the weekend. For those betting in the informal pool about who would be censored first -- I had put my money on my acid tongued sister -- there were no winners. Instead, the distinction went to one "Michael Howard," who offered a particularly nasty message that he said he'd received from Guru. (Note to Michael: thanks for the message, we no longer require your services.)

Since then, I've started getting more comfortable with the "reject" button. So, beware friend and foe alike: if I don't like your comment, I ain't posting it.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines and tips for commenting:

1. Click on the title of the blog post. When you click on the title of the blog post, the page will reload and all the associated comments will appear in an easy to read fashion at the end of the post.

2. When you submit a comment, give me some time. The site forwards your comment to my email account. My choices are then limited: I can either publish your comment or I can reject it.

3. I cannot edit your comment. I would never do so anyway, but early on I wanted to correct some obvious spelling errors in a comment and learned that I couldn't do so; Blogger will not allow it. So, proofread before sending!

4. Remember the "Coffee Shop Rule." This is my virtual coffee shop. I love it here. It's my baby and I'm very jealous of it. If you wouldn't say something to someone's face over coffee, then don't post it to my blog. (There is a true forum for unmoderated ideas at the Yahoo! Sri Chinmoy Information site, which can be found here. Beware the hot coffee there!)

5. Use emoticons. If you're being snarky or using irony, give some indication of it. Remember, blog commenting is the lowest form of human communication because such comments are so easily misunderstood. They permit none of the visual cues that we normally rely upon so heavily in face to face discussions.

6. We don't have to agree! But consider which of the following comments is most likely to be posted.

Exhibit A:

I don't believe the allegations leveled at Guru because you're an asshole Yogaloy.
OR

Exhibit B:

I don't believe the allegations leveled at Guru because I was in the Center for 30 years, went to the House every night, and I never saw anything to indicate Guru was having sex with his disciples.
Now, while it's certainly true that I'm an asshole (I think I could find a friend who might agree -- you know who you are), that's not really a reason for disbelieving the allegations.

Though I'd disagree with the latter argument, it's a good faith and respectable argument.

7. Don't impugn others' motives. I make this mistake myself sometimes, but let's all work to avoid doing so. If someone says something that you don't agree with, don't assume they're liars, dupes, or anything other than someone wrestling with some very difficult information that may be central to their identity.

8. Email me. For any reason, but especially if you've posted a comment and it doesn't show up. When you comment, I don't get your email address. So, I might have a good reason for holding your comment, but I won't be able to share it with you if you don't ask. Also, I may not have received your comment. I've noticed problems with the Blogger comment function and have lost some of my own, so communicate.

And finally...

9. Please don't criticize anyone by name, other than yourself or Guru. That's been a working principle of mine, which I've been pretty good at following. I ask that you do the same. This isn't about Ashrita or Ranjana or any other current disciples. I'm not saying you shouldn't use their names to make relevant points or to offer constructive suggestions, but other than that and your risking comment rejection.

Lemon out.

The image above is The Siren by John William Waterhouse.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Outing

Have you heard of Oliver Sipple?

Oliver Sipple was a United States Marine and a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. On September 22, 1975, he joined a large group of people gathered outside of a hotel in San Francisco waiting for then-President Gerald R. Ford, who was inside the hotel, to emerge.

As President Ford exited the hotel and headed for his limousine, Oliver Sipple noticed the woman standing next to him pull out a gun and point it towards the President. "The bitch has a gun," he screamed and instinctively grabbed the woman's arm as the shot rang out.

The shot went wide, wounding a bystander, and Oliver Sipple was feted as a hero. (His Wikipedia entry is here.)

Oliver Sipple also happened to be gay.

Thinking -- probably correctly -- that it would do the public some good to know that the man who had courageously saved the President's life was gay, pioneering gay activist (and later San Francisco Supervisor) Harvey Milk leaked Oliver Sipple's sexual orientation to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Although he had been active within San Francisco's gay community, Oliver Sipple was not "out" to his parents. The resulting newspaper article and media frenzy changed that. Oliver Sipple had been "outed."

While Harvey Milk's decision to out Oliver Sipple may have made sense in the abstract strategic sense as a way to advance the gay rights movement, it exacted a heavy personal toll on Mr. Sipple. He was estranged from his parents for years afterward and was exposed to stress and pressures that without doubt contributed to his early death at age 47.

As we -- the current and former disciples of Sri Chinmoy -- consider how to move forward in the coming weeks, months, and years, I hope we remember the story of Oliver Sipple. Ultimately, I'm not concerned with the Center as an organization.

I'm concerned with individuals.

I now know the names of more than a half dozen female disciples -- some of who move within the leadership of the Sri Chinmoy Center -- who were active participants in Guru's sex ring.

I have no intention of outing these women.

They've done nothing wrong. These women are victims, just like our other spiritual sisters Phulela, Sevika, Rupavati, Suchatula, Sundari, and Bihagee. They may not think of themselves as victims and may not want or need our help. But we should, nevertheless, stand ready to offer our collective hand of support should they ever ask.

We can't make such an offer in good faith, however, if in our zeal to make some larger point trample upon the very women we claim to support.

It's imperative that we create a safe and supportive environment. If we violate their privacy now -- if we out them preemptively -- we'll be creating anything but a safe and supportive environment for them. From our cloistered sisters' point of view, we'll be living up to the negative stereotype Guru long ago painted of former disciples as "hostile forces."

It's been tempting for me over the last few weeks to think that I know better.

Sitting on explosive information like the stories of Sundari and Bihagee -- revelation of which I thought would benefit the truth in the abstract and help others who are privately suffering similar pains -- was difficult and try as I might, I overstepped my bounds with Sundari and Bihagee a little, adding stress to their lives at a time when they least needed it.

All has worked out now, with their brave public disclosures, but the process has given me pause.

Let's remember, together, that the path of self-development is ultimately an individual one. We can't force our sister disciples to do more than they themselves are willing to do.

If this blog is going to morph into something other than my own memoir -- as it has apparently already -- then it must be about facilitating the further development of each one of us through dialog, understanding and sympathy.

It will do no good to expose the truth for truth's sake if in the process we destroy the well being of those we claim to support.

In this regard, let's remember Oliver Sipple and always strive to temper our zeal for the truth with sympathy for our brothers and sisters still in the Center, many of who are struggling with these issues for the very first time.

Let's not trample upon their opportunity to stand up for themselves in the name of some abstract principle.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Bihagee - A Guest Post

I do not wish to recount the details of what happened to me.

It is the same story as Suchatula’s, who is one of my best friends and with whom I have been suffering through all this. How things might have been different had one of us just shared our story with the other?

That is what I would like to write about here.

For those who do not believe our stories, I want to explain my feelings. So much has been written already.

It has taken me almost three years to leave the center. Even this I did not do on my own. Before I even managed to share my pain with my parents, Ashrita had informed them that their daughter was out of the center.

Because of my complete faith in Guru, I did my best and accepted that, somehow, what he had asked me to do was okay. But it wasn’t easy. I had to fight so hard with myself. I had to convince myself that this thing Guru asked of me, which was so against my spiritual, religious, mental and human views, was okay.

At the same time, I felt so bad, so guilty for doubting my spiritual master. I was punishing myself for not having enough surrender. No matter which way I looked at it, I was always somehow a culprit.

In spite of all that, when I weighed the beautiful moments and experiences I had on the path, all that my spiritual life had given me, all of my sweet spiritual family members, against the pain I was feeling, the balance still tipped in favor of my disciple life.

I couldn’t share my secret turmoil with my parents, who were on the path. I couldn’t tell my few best friends, and to be honest, I did not want to. How could I share something like this? How could I possibly betray my Guru, my spiritual master?

Would my friends believe me?

Maybe I was the only one.

I wanted to walk into the sea and just have it over with. In the end, I decided I would have to quietly accept what Guru had asked me to do and somehow continue with my spiritual life, the life that had shaped me into a much better person, the life that had helped me find out so much about myself.

Oh, but it was not so easy.

Believe me, I did my best. I tried so hard that almost nobody thought I was troubled. But it was difficult. There I was, spending my time with my friends, working, going to the center, doing all a good disciple is expected to do and at the same time feeling bad for not doing it 100% the way I had done done it before 2007.

I was having a hard time and blaming myself for having a hard time. The guilt and secrecy really pained me. I was hoping for an answer from Guru, who then suddenly passed away. That did not help things.

Then one of my brother disciples in San Francisco, Viddyut, told me about Suchatula’s story. As a good disciple, I had never read Suchatula’s story, despite the fact that we had been such good friends before she had left the path.

My world completely felt apart.

Guru had asked me to do the same thing. If in any way I had been defending what had happened to me, now that I realized that others were also involved, I simply couldn’t handle it anymore.

All my fears were confirmed.

It was so painful, standing in front of Ananda Fuara, trying to assimilate it all, while Viddyut patiently tried to help me recover from the shock. At the same time, I will admit it, I felt relieved that all was out in the open. I can finally share, talk about it and receive understanding, belief, and care.

A load was off my heart.

Oh, only if all was so easy. The realization of it all was excruciating. My head would not stop aching, thoughts too big and heavy for my little brain to handle were pushing their way in. I felt as if someone heavy was sitting on my chest and would not move.

I couldn’t breathe, I had no desire to eat or sleep.

The only person I told was Donka, one of my best friends. Even then it took a while for me to start explaining what had happened to me. So judge me if you want, but I had to tell someone, and better someone that was far from San Francisco.

Next, I was finally able to call my other best friend, Suchatula, with whom I had not spoken to since she herself had left the center. We talked for hours and hours. If only one of us had shared with each other earlier…

She came and picked me up. After a day together, she drove me to the airport.

If only this was the end. It was not easy for me to be in the center struggling with this secret, but it sure is not easier now either.

I had to call to my parents, knowing that they would not only suffer as disciples, but would naturally blame themselves for not protecting their child (as any good parents would). They are not to blame though. I have always made decisions for myself.

I am now dead to my many friends in the center.

They have not called me or contacted me in any way. I am suspected of being hostile and mentally ill. But believe me, I do not blame them, because I know how the center works. I know how they have to protect themselves, even if it means considering me dead, so that they can protect the precious, beautiful life we all had.

My world has been shattered. Now, I have no desire of joining any other spiritual group. Everything I gave heart and soul for has been stained. But again, I do not regret my years as a disciple. If I had the chance to go back 10 years and make the choice over, I would take the same road.

I only wish to share that it has not been easy, and it certainly is not easier now.

Just telling this story to one person has been such a painful experience. I do not have the strength to tell other disciples, as I have been blamed of doing. I did not call New York and never tried to convince people to leave the center. I simply could not do that.

I have decided, though, that I cannot and should not continue blaming myself anymore.

Thank you all for your support and love. I know that things will get better. Let everyone decide what’s best for themselves.

Just do not accuse us of writing lies.

I so wish all of this was a lie.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Beauty -- A Guest Post by Sundari

It’s been 37 years since I joined Guru’s Path in 1972.

I never thought the day would come that I would be telling this story, but I guess it’s time. Before I start though, I just want to say that I have no regrets, only gratitude to my Guru for making me the person I am today, for sharing his precious life with me and for giving me an opportunity to serve him and my fellow disciples through his music.

I also want to say that I came into the world only for the spiritual life, it’s all I ever wanted and all I will ever want.

To all the wonderful disciples I have loved and laughed and cried with over these years, I love you and I always will. Please know you will be in my heart forever. I am sorry that the way we have been taught makes it impossible for us to continue walking along the same road together. It’s so sad we are forced to cast people out of our hearts and lives who have served the Supreme side-by-side with us for decades. But unfortunately that’s the way it has been set up. I did it too and it broke my heart every time.

So now…

On the day before my birthday this year I received an unexpected gift from Ashrita – my complete and total freedom. After 37 years, I was told to leave the centre.

The day began like any other day. As I had done each Friday morning, I got up at 5 am, put on a sari and headed to work at Ananda Fuara to do my job baking and then later waitressing. I had no idea what would be in store for me when I got to work.

A long-time co-worker and friend put on a hysterical display that caused shock and fear in the other two workers who were with me that morning. She ended her tirade by marching to the door, flinging it open and saying, “Suchatula made allegations and she left, Bihagee made allegations and she left. What are you still doing here? We don’t need your stupid cakes and we don’t need YOU!!!”

Just to set the record straight, Suchatula never made any allegations or even looked at the internet sites about Guru until many months after she left. And on that Friday morning, Bihagee was planning to go visit a dear friend in Seattle. She herself didn’t find out that she had left the path until she was informed by her parents that Ashrita had called Bulgaria and told her centre that she had become a hostile force.

Now about me…

First of all, let me say, I was not thrown out by Guru. I served him sincerely every day of my disciple life and would have continued probably to the end of my days. I truly believed as I sadly went home that morning that my brothers and sisters would see some sort of light, come to their senses and realize there had been a horrible mistake.

I begged Yogaloy to give them some time, let the dust settle and please not mention my name in his blog. But I was sadly disappointed. It seems Ashrita called a few members of the Committee and my fate was decided.

I won’t go into details, but my story, Guru’s reasons and even my reactions were very similar to Sevika’s. I had a sexual relationship with Guru.

People ask, “Well, why didn’t you leave?” I say it wasn’t that simple. First of all, I loved Guru, adored him. He was the Supreme, God on earth, my Father, my Mother, my All.

How could he ever be wrong about anything and who was I to question him?

He offered to help me purify my vital life and I would be foolish not to accept. I just never expected that this purification would take over two decades.

Like Sevika, I thought I was maybe the only one, or one of very few women involved in this activity. I eventually felt I was performing a service, maybe even helping Guru in some way to remain on earth. It seemed like a worthy sacrifice.

I was told from the start I must never tell a soul or even write anything down and that if I told, nobody would believe me and they would think I was crazy. That should have made me nervous and it did. But by that time I had completely severed all connections with my family (at Guru’s command) and had no friends or support outside the centre.

If I had left I would have had to move out of my home as well. I guess I just wasn’t brave enough or self-confident enough to make that decision.

About my family: in the early 70’s my sister, my mother and I were all disciples. After five years my sister left, followed a year later by my mother. At that time I was told to send my family a telegram asking them never to call or write to me again.

I was told that my mother’s leaving was a crime against her soul and that if I were to talk to them they would not realize the seriousness of their error and later in life they could go deaf or blind. To protect my parents from that fate I didn’t communicate with them for the next 20 years even though we had been a very close family.

I later learned that my mother had cried every day and said she almost wished I had died because at least that way they could have had a funeral and some closure.

Isn’t it interesting to know that these people, my family, actually loved me and prayed for my happiness every day of those 20 years, while respecting my wishes and never once contacting me?

They embody the true essence of spirituality.

Whereas my long-time co-worker and friend at the restaurant, who has worked beside me for decades, sung thousands of songs with me, and shared my whole disciple life, could in one day become so unimaginably hostile.

It all boils down to defending the lie that is at the very heart of what remains of the centre without Guru. It’s the reason that my friend and those in her boat have embodied the very worst qualities of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials. Did not our beloved Thomas Jefferson wage a campaign for religious freedom? How then does she have the right to try to corner each worker and ask them, “So are you with us or against us? Are you on the side of light or on the side of darkness?”

I would like to ask my former brothers and sisters, who are so hasty to believe I am evil and a hostile force: please just use your heart and even your brain for a minute and tell me, what could I possibly gain by making up a lie about this after spending the last 37 years (all of my adult life) serving Guru?

I have transcribed and prepared for publication thousands and thousands of songs. I have spent countless hours creating and repairing an extensive database of those songs. Guru often said, “No Sundari, no Sri Chinmoy’s music.”

This has been my entire life’s work. Why would I throw it all away?

I have absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose. I have lost my job, my former friends, my good name, my spiritual family. I have gained nothing except my freedom to finally speak the truth.

Even that would never have happened since I took my promise quite seriously, keeping a secret for 23 years that caused me tremendous inner conflict. But it was a sacrifice I was willing to make to protect my Guru and my brothers and sisters.

The turning point finally came when a co-worker mentioned to me that he had read Suchatula’s story on Yogaloy’s blog (which of course I had never even heard of before, being an obedient disciple who doesn’t read things on the internet about Guru). Having lived with Suchatula for years and having watched her leave with absolutely no idea why, I was curious enough to look for her account and it didn’t take long to find it.

At this point I must say that my sexual relations with Guru had ended a few years before, back during the time when so much information first appeared on the internet. I truly believed that he had seen the danger of this activity and ceased altogether. But reading Suchatula’s story made me realize that it had not only continued, but had changed into something far stranger than anything I had known.

My experiences with Guru had been entirely private and just between the two of us, while Suchatula’s involved another woman. The strangeness of that and the devastating effect it had on such an exemplary disciple upset me deeply.

It’s one thing to make a personal sacrifice and surrender, but to see your sister’s spiritual life completely destroyed is another thing altogether.

When asked by Viddyut if I believed her story, I said yes I did. It just had the ring of truth. And then, when he found out from Bihagee that she had suffered the same fate while in Bulgaria 3 years ago, it was all just too painful to bear.

So this is my crime.

I sympathizing with two women whose spiritual lives will never be the same. I don’t pretend to be all-knowing and of course we can never judge the actions of an Avatar. It is said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Guru’s Life-Tree produced many wonderful fruits.

It also produced a few not-so-wonderful ones. I guess it is up to us to make our own decisions about our lives based on what feels right in our hearts and our souls. That’s the understanding I’ve come to anyway.

It’s a whole new world.

May the disciples who are left to carry on Guru’s message somehow find the strength and the wisdom to listen to their hearts, overcome their fears and realize that Guru does not need us to defend him.

He needs us to embody true spirituality as a testament to the Light he gave us. One way leads to a slow and painful death, the other to life.

We must choose.

With love,
Sundari

Friday, November 6, 2009

Organizational Cancer


"There's nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that."
~ Al Pacino as Lt. Col. Frank Slade in The Scent of a Woman


At some point in my early disciple life, I read or heard Guru say that after his death, the Center as an organization would implode. The implosion began this morning in San Francisco.

In truth, though, it's more like a cancer than an implosion. Like pancreatic or liver cancer -- which exhibit few symptoms until it's too late to do anything about -- the poison of Guru's exploitation of his female disciples metastasized seemingly in secret.

Sure, there were warning signs. Sevika, Rupavati, and Phulela all spoke publicly and courageously. Guru was alive then, however, and they were easily dismissed. Then Guru died. Since then -- with cancerous cells lodged in every vital center of the Center organization -- it's just been a matter of time.

If there was any doubt about the diagnosis, it was confirmed with the coming out of Suchatula. Sevika's, Rupavati's, and Phulela's stories weren't evidence of just some isolated, benign ailment. Instead, their stories were symptomatic of a malignant disease that Guru sowed within his organization, which now reaches all the way into the very leadership circle of the Center.

It will be with little wonder that we look back at this time, years from now, and realize that this was when the patient put the first step in the grave.

Not surprisingly, I guess, it started in San Francisco. That's where Suchatula spent more than 20 years as a disciple working at the disciple-owned vegetarian restaurant Ananda Fuara, alongside some of the very old-guard disciples, like Nirvik, Sundari, Venu, and Dharana, who once watched over me as a youngster in the Center. The San Francisco disciples knew Suchatula.

They couldn't easily dismiss her.

Now, as it turns out, at least two other San Francisco disciples have reported similar stories (one admitting to sex with Guru, the other to being pressured into sex with another female disciple). Their reward for making the ultimate surrender to Guru?

It appears these two women are gone from the Center (one apparently kicked out, the other fleeing the inevitable). The disgraceful treatment meted out to them was also visited on a prominent younger San Francisco male disciple named Viddyut.

"If you're not 100% for Guru," they were told, "then you're out!"

The chutzpah! These women -- and the dozens like them -- were the only disciples "100% for Guru!" They gave body, mind, and soul to him. And Viddyut's crime? He believed his sister-disciple's stories -- because they're true -- and he showed these women support.

This is the beginning of the end for the Center as even an arguably legitimate enterprise. If an organization founded upon the principles of yoga isn't about seeking the truth no matter where it lies, then it might as well be burned to the ground. The sheer incompetence of the Center's board of directors evidenced by this morning's events is nothing short of stunning.

Is there not one fucking person in the whole of this cancer-ridden organization that can make a stand against his or her own goddamned personal interest?

Not one?

As our fictional hero Lt. Col. Frank Slade might say in the video above, the "leaders" of the Center are "killing the very spirit this institution proclaims to instill." Does nobody in the organization care enough to speak out?

It's ironic, I suppose, that the leader of the San Francisco Center -- Garima -- is a doctor and might know a thing or two about the importance of attacking malignancy. I hope she'll set an example for others to follow. I don't remember first meeting Garima, but it must have been during those early heady days when I would sneak out of my dad's house as a 16 year old to go to meditations up at the old San Francisco Center on 16th Avenue and Taraval Street in the Sunset District.

Back then, Sevika was the Center leader there and Garima kept a very low profile. By the time I had ensconced myself as a local disciple in New York, Sevika was on her way out. It was Garima, then, who took over the duties of Center leader. It was sometime later that my only real memory of Garima was established.

Very late one night -- actually, it was probably very early one morning -- after a long drive back from a concert in New Jersey, Vinaya and I arrived at Guru's house to find the place dark. Typically, when concerts were held in Manhattan, for example, Vinaya and I could pack up Guru's musical instruments afterward and drive back to Queens in time to put all the instruments away and then hang out at Guru's house with the other regulars and relax. Then, sometime around midnight, Guru would tell everyone to go home for the night.

On this particular night, though, we got back very late because of the long, out-of-state drive. The house was dark. But that wasn't really a problem for us. We had keys and the combination to the cypher-locked doors. That night, Vinaya said that he'd unload most of the instruments into Guru's garage, which was then used for storage, while I should take Guru's favorite instruments -- the flute, cello, harmonium, and esraj -- into the house and put them in their usual spots in the living room.

So, I unlocked the door, carefully picked up the esraj and its bow, and walked into the house through the side door. I went up a short flight of stairs, turned right, and made my way into the darkened -- but not completely dark -- living room. To my surprise, Guru was sitting in his usual oversized recliner. Garima was sitting on the floor in front of him massaging his feet.

Now, back in the day, I kept pretty close attention to who was permitted to touch Guru. There were just a handful of disciples given that honor. None of them were girls.

I was surprised to see Garima at Guru's feet. She looked a little surprised to see me, too. But she quickly focused back on Guru and Guru didn't seem worried by my presence as I walked in and out a few more times bringing in the rest of the instruments.

When Vinaya and I were done, we left. As I walked home that early morning, I reflected on what I'd seen and actually thought it was pretty cool that Garima was allowed to massage Guru. I figured that as a doctor, she must have had the ability to think about the body in a very clinical -- and unsexual -- way.

I had -- and have -- no problem with what I saw that night. I don't think it was sexual. In hindsight, though, it has helped me understand how Guru hid things from even those disciples who seemingly spent every waking hour with him.

Whether she likes it or not, it is perhaps fitting that Garima is the Center's last hope. She's a doctor, after all, and is strong enough, smart enough, and has the personal integrity not to buckle under the extreme pressure she must be under.

That's my hope anyway. She knows the truth. Without courage, however, without the willingness to lose everything you once held dear, the truth means nothing.

(Seriously, if you haven't watched the video above, take at least 5 or 6 minutes and watch the main speech. Here's a quick plot summary if you haven't seen the movie before.)

Made some significant edits from the original. First, and foremost, I got a little too far in front of the story for those involved and included a little too much personal detail. For that I'm sorry, and I've removed it. Second, the original post incorrectly stated that both these women had sex with Guru, when apparently just one did (the other was pressured by Guru to have sex with another female disciple). Finally, the original post stated both girls were kicked out of the Center. Apparently, one fled the Center preemptively, while the other may want to remain. I'm sorry for the errors. (November 7, 2009.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Unconditional Acceptance


"Even though my guru frequents a grog shop,
still to me he is the embodiment of eternal bliss."

~ Sri Ramakrishna

A long time ago, an old disciple friend of mine was telling me about a family crisis. Apparently, his younger sister, who was still in high school, was dating an African-American classmate. They were preparing to go to the prom or something.

The problem? Their mom -- an old fashioned, practicing Catholic -- didn't want her daughter dating a black guy. So, both sides of the family appealed to my friend, the eldest son, for help.

My friend, of course, sided with his little sister and tried to talk sense to their mom. He pleaded with her to be fair. He used logic. Finally, he appealed to his mom's religious sensibilities. What would Jesus do, he asked. Her response was classic:

"If Jesus Christ himself came down off the cross and told me to accept it," she said, "I still would not accept it."

The absurdity of this situation aside, there's definitely something to be said for sticking to one's guns and this story reminds me of the literally mindless devotion we all sometimes have towards a principle, even when such rigidity begins to eviscerate the very principle we claim to be following.

In our case, the principle is truth seeking.

When it comes down to it, the essence of the guruvada -- the way of the guru -- is complete and utter surrender to one's guru without conditions. This is a lesson my friend's mom, hypothetically anyway, hadn't learned yet. As surrendered to Jesus as she may have been in other areas of her life, that surrender stopped when it came to whom her daughter dated.

From a yogic point of view, that's no surrender at all.

Take a moment and read the little aphorism above that Thakur was so fond of repeating to his disciples more than a hundred years ago. Think about what that means. That's unconditional acceptance, unconditional love for one's guru, no matter how he or she behaves.

It doesn't mean you, the disciple, must condone the guru's behavior. It doesn't mean you must play along, it just means you love your guru despite his or her apparent flaws. Perhaps it means loving from afar, the way one does for a wayward family member or an adult child who has gone astray.

You love and support, though perhaps not enable.

Whether accepted or not, the implication of this point of view is easily understood to those of us who believe the various allegations of wrongdoing that have been made against our own Guru. It suggests forgiveness -- that while we race to embrace and support our sister disciples who have been exploited by Guru, we should nevertheless remember what Guru once represented to us at a time in our lives when we needed something to believe in.

As I've struggled to explain in my last series of posts, my view -- which I acknowledge is one apparently not held by many others -- is that Guru was both extremely exalted (in his austere, reserved, passive consciousness) and emotionally immature (in his frenetic, vital, active consciousness).

When he meditated he went somewhere few others ever have. But when it came to expressing human feelings and emotions, Guru apparently never developed much beyond that young orphan brought up in a cold, repressive ashram. He took what he wanted -- what he needed -- from those surrendered to him.

Though my Guru deceived me and took sexual advantage of many of his spiritual daughters, "still to me he is the embodiment of eternal bliss."

I love him, flaws and all.

I challenge my friends -- most of whom (but not all) are inside the Center -- and who are not even willing to consider the mounting allegations of sexual misconduct to ask themselves whether their love for Guru is unconditional.

Because it seems to me that if you're too afraid to even consider these allegations it can only be because -- at root --your acceptance of Guru is conditional. You can only accept him as you think he is, but not necessarily as he actually was.

Not everyone in the Center has their head in the sand though. There are some who know the truth, and others unafraid to search for it.

The future of the Center rests with them.

"... at the length truth will out."

That's the goddess Kali above, from an etching done in 1770. Pretty cool. I found it here.