Friday, December 24, 2010

Of language and cultural roots

This is going to be a different blog...not on Vipassana meditation which I have been writing all along (though it has some links to it) but something which bothers me from time to time.

Today, when I spoke to my mother in the morning she mentioned that she was listening to a discourse on the "Thiruppavai" played on a TV Channel. After my conversation with her, I looked up the internet for video/audio recordings of the verses and listened and recited the verses.

It took me back to those days when the month of Margazhi ( a month in the Tamil calendar between December 16th to January 16th) was celebrated in my parents home in Hyderabad. Everyday, I would wake up listening to my mother's chanting of the Thiruppavai verses; sometimes she would listen to them played on the local radio channel (those were the days before the TV). There were days when she would make me recite some of them too. I did that with difficulty as I could never get the pronunciations correct.

In the evenings there was a discourse in the nearby school where a learned brahmin would expound on the verses. My parents attended these discourses regularly, and sometimes I accompanied them. And then there was a competition among children of various age groups on the recitation of these verses. My mother was called to judge these competitions and I would accompany her to these as well. I never took part in the competition--I did not know the verses well enough to compete with others, and probably my mother was too busy at work ( she was a teacher in a school & also did a lot of the housework) to teach me. So I grew up picking up bits and pieces of the verses but am not very perfect in them.

Those days it was never very clear to me whether this was a religious exercise, a cultural one or a part of tamil literature. But there was richness in the whole thing. Waking up to the chantings of the verses, my mother's morning prayers, the fragrance of incense and flowers, the ringing of a small puja bell, and finally the aarti.

In school we learned different things--we learned English and my mother was proud that her children went to a convent school. I did not learn my native language, Tamil, in school. The medium of instruction was English and one of the languages that we were also required to learn was Hindi, because it was and is the national language.
Learning Hindi was difficult because nobody spoke that language at home and I struggled with it during tests and examinations. Another strange thing about learning a language in school in India was that the focus was on reading and writing and not much on speaking. It was only years later that I could learn to speak Hindi well---only when I went to live in Mumbai as an adult.

I was never good in my native language, Tamil. I could barely speak fluently. The heavy emphasis given to English in school resulted in using that language to communicate at home as well. My family made fun of the little Tamil I spoke--either the pronunciation was not correct or my vocabulary wasn't large enough to maintain a decent conversation. And there was that fear of being made fun of, which reduced my attempts to speak.

Moving to Madras much later in life helped me pick up the language (Tamil)well. Because I was forced to use the language for my day-to day survival (that is the local language)I slowly became quite fluent in speaking and communicating in it. However, although my mother taught me the Tamil alphabet I could not read and write Tamil as well as English or Hindi. As I read and wrote exams in English and Hindi, I could read and write in them--but not in Tamil as I did not learn it in school.

Strangely, it was my involvement in Vipassana meditation for children that finally forced me to engage more in Tamil. I was asked to conduct meditation courses in Tamil for children and teenagers in Malaysia and so I taught myself the language. I am still not very good at it...but learning and improving slowly.

Listening to the Thiruppavai verses this morning and recalling and reciting them awakened me to the richness of Tamil language and literature.
The following website: helped me understand the meaning of the verses very well and a deep appreciation of my cultural roots.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An evening with AT Mr. Jayesh Soni

On Sunday the 19th December we had Mr. Jayesh Soni for dinner at home. Jayeshji is an Assistant Teacher of Vipassana meditation (Goenkaji's tradition). It was his first visit outside India and was actually on his way to Malaysia after conducting a one day course in Singapore.

It was very interesting to talk to him. Infact it is always interesting to talk to senior meditators of this tradition. They generally discuss the application of Dhamma in everyday life, one's progress on the path and one's grasp of the teaching.

He asked me about the courses I have attended and was impressed that I had been on this path for the past 15 years. He then asked me about my experiences in my long courses--20 day and 30 day.

I told him that I did my 20 day course in New Zealand because I wanted to have a breakthrough in my attachment for Indian food. He then told us a story of a group of monks who once visited a small village. An elderly lady in the village offered them food, and after a meal, the monks dispersed to the nearby forest to meditate. One day, out of curiosity, the lady asked the monks about their practice. Impressed with what they shared, she asked to become the head monk's lay disciple. The monk instructed her on the basic technique of Ananpana and then Vipassana. Practicing diligently in her home she soon reached the highest stages of meditation ---sotapanna (stream enterer), and then anagaami ( once returner). At this stage, she was able to penetrate her own mind as well as the minds of the other monks and find out at which stage they were in.

To her surprise she found that they hadn't yet come to the stage of Sotapanna and wondered why this was so. Being monks, they could give their complete time and energy to the practice and achieve high levels of success. Then why was this was not the case with these monks, she thought to herself. She then found out that the monks were quite worried about their source of food and this preoccupation hampered their progress on the path.

Therefore she decided to offer them food on regular basis, so that they would be free of that concern and could work diligently towards liberation. The point Jayeshji was trying to make was that food and some basic necessities were important in order to meditate otherwise, our preoccupation with it will keep us from working properly. Point noted Jayeshji.

He then asked me about my 30 day course and what changes I saw in myself afterward. Now it was my turn to tell him the story of the skeptic's similar question to the Buddha and the Buddha's reply--that he gained nothing from meditation--he only lost his anger, insecurity and fears.

In addition, I replied that it was a deep and intense course and that I could see that some of my old habit patterns had changed. He asked if I was able to understand the Dhamma at a more deeper level, to which I replied in the affirmative adding that I was now convinced that this was the only way toward liberation.

He was amazed at my confidence and said how was I so sure? How could I say that this was the only way? There are so many ways to enlightenment---what was so special about this path and this teaching....(I knew he was testing me).

After a while of thinking deeply, I said that in my view, other paths focus on avoiding pain and achieving pleasure states. The essence of the Buddha's teaching was that one recognize the transiency of both pleasure and pain and thus move beyond this to experience true liberation. Pleasure was not a desired state as when one observes it deeply, it also causes suffering (as when we get separated from a pleasure object). Pain is always something that we want to avoid, and very often it is not avoidable. However the truth is that these are transient states and therefore reaching a state of balance, unfazed by the good and the bad happening around us is the key to liberation. This is the unique and special teaching of the Buddha, which resonates with me deeply and which convinces me that it is the only way to liberation from suffering.

Not only is there logic in this kind of reasoning, there is a clear path to follow in order to achieve freedom from suffering.

Jayeshji was pleased, and so was I with the discussion.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Changing old habits of thinking

'What we think has consequences for the world around us, for it conditions how we act' writes Eknath Easwaran, explaining the Buddha's teaching.

This reminds us to be mindful of our thoughts. But very often we are not and some thoughts are recurrent, destructive, unproductive and uncontrollable.

Its about 5 months since I returned from my one month course in Vipassana meditation (Igatpuri, India). The experience was intense, transforming certain deep habit patterns of the mind. In these 5 months of my return I have been able to maintain my daily practice fairly regularly and this has helped me retain some of the changes I experienced in the month long course.

One profound impact was the last discourse of the course, where Goenkaji explains in detail the 5 aggregates ( skandhas). Towards the end of the talk he reminds us that we are born alone in this world and we will depart alone from this world. The only thing that will go with us is our karma, the disintegration of the 5 skandhas at the time of death and its reorganization with a new body at the next birth. So he entreats us to be steadfast in our practice so that we bequeath a more evolved mind- set which would continue on the path of enlightenment and become fully liberated.

This was an important learning for me, as whenever I catch myself thinking in unhealthy or negative ways, I ask myself...If I were to die at this moment would I want to pass on this current mind state to the next person--the inheritor of this state? This usually forces me off negative thinking immediately. With continuity of meditative practices, negative thinking has decreased considerably, but however, sometimes they do surface.

Maybe it takes a lot of time and practice to change from deep within. At this stage in my practice, I am still torn between the old ways of thinking and the realization of the futility in engaging in them. When someone harms you, the old way implores you to harm the person in return, while the practice shows you that when you harm in return you only harm yourself. Moreover, indulging in negative, destructive thoughts creates a mental field of negative energy which in turn harms oneself.

It takes us quite a while to understand that a person causing harm is suffering himself/herself. When they are suffering so, its natural that that is what they can give others--pain and suffering. Ignorant of this we preoccupy ourselves with settling scores, harbouring angry, hateful vengeful thoughts. Abandoning this thinking and understanding the transiency of our pain alone can set us free from this vicious circle.

"He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me"---those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.
"He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me"-- those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely become free from hatred.

For hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end."