December 28, 2004

Gurus & Ashrams

Due to my disappointment at the tourism of the Backwaters, I had become a little despondent. When I travel, I like to feel that I have a purpose, rather than just to go and look at sites, and be shuttled around. I do not want to argue the pros and cons of tourism here, because even the most ardent traveller is at the end of the day, just a tourist with a slightly smaller backpack. However, I do like to have experiences that are not so freely available.

As I was feeling in desperate need to move on, hoping that something would surprise me, I took a train to Trivandrum. I shared my section of the carriage with two old ladies and a young man from Mumbai. We started to chat and one of the ladies asked me if I knew of Amachi - the Hugging Saint. I replied that I had met Amachi twice in Tokyo, when she had come over to give teachings.

Amachi is a world famous guru, who has helped to develop schools and hospitals here in India. When she was 15, she made it her mission to alleviate the suffering of others. She is not my teacher, but I do respect her enormously, and believe that there is something very spiritual in her goodness. When you are hugged by her, you can feel a strong sense of warmth and power from within.

The two ladies suggested that I should visit Amachi's ashram, since it was Christmas Day. I explained that I was heading to Trivandrum, but it was possible for me to get off at Kollam, where I could take an auto-rickshaw up to the ashram. I had actually planned to visit the ashram, but had been put off by the son of my guesthouse owner in Kochi. The coincidence of meeting these ladies, as well as my desire for new experiences, made the option irresistible, so off I went, with an open mind and an open heart.

This was not the first time that I had visited an ashram, as I had been to a large one near Amritsar, five years ago. As I approached Amachi's, I was immediately struck by the usual Westerners carrying goofy smiles, as if high on a trunk load of Prozac. What I have never understood, is why Indians never change their countenance when they visit gurus, but Westerners seem to go loopy, by emanating what is clearly a false sense of contentment; a contentment that is short lived and quickly banished once they return to their 'real' lives. Now, don't get me wrong, I am all for spiritual pursuit, but I believe that honesty to the self is the only true way to achieve great things. Feigning enlightenment, because you happen to be in an ashram or wearing Indian clothes, does not true illumination make.

The Dalai Lama once recommended that people practise the religions of their own culture. Whilst I am a Buddhist, I do understand why he promotes this view. Often, people are enamoured by the exotic and new, which in turn drowns out the real message of a particular spiritual path. When I belonged to the New Kadampa Traditon of Tibetan Buddhism in England, I witnessed the fascination that a Tibetan monk can create in Westerners; a fascination that is certainly not there when an English Catholic priest walks in. This is perhaps why the Indians don't change their behaviour when they see a guru, because this is their culture. For them, there is no superficial novelty factor.

My romantic notions of Eastern holy men, were quickly erased when I visited my first Japanese Buddhist temple in Kamakura, nine years ago. On one of the doors there, there was a sign with "Come In" written on it. I opened the door, only to have a Zen monk scream at me to leave. From that point on, I have always retained a realistic view of the Asian priesthood, realising that it has all the foibles that are to be found in its Western counterpart.

During the evening, I sat mostly alone in the main hall, where Amachi was hugging thousands, just observing the people around me. I found it interesting that there was hardly any interaction between the Westerners and the Indians present. In fact, there seemed to be an invisible line that separated everyone. When communication was made, the Westerners seemed extremely patronising and imperial...but, of course, with those goofy smiles.

I queued up and waited for my chance to have a hug. As I approached, I kneeled down and shuffled closer when the ushers directed. Finally, I was pushed into Amachi's soft body and held tightly, with my arms wrapped around her. She whispered mysterious words to me, looked into my eyes with a glorious, genuine smile that none of the Westerners could compete with. She then imparted a small gift into my hand, and I was ushered away. It is a unique and powerful experience.

After stacking some chairs when Amachi retreated, I headed to my very basic accomodation, which I shared with a faceless Spanish man, who I did not once see, but who told me in the darkness of the room, "I speaky no Ingish."

"Buenos noches," I replied, and that was the end of our beautiful friendship.

Before I went to sleep, I considered staying another day, but when the morning sun woke me up, I packed my bag as quickly as possible, so that I could escape from those awful goofy smiles and glazed eyes.

I took an auto rickshaw back to Kollam, where I waited three hours for a train, chatting away with several Indians. When I finally got on the train, I was heading to Kanyakumari, the most southern point of India, where the Arabian Sea and the Bay Of Bengal meet the Indian Ocean.

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