Sunday, May 22, 2005

One Big Dinner - and One Long Reading List

I went to the potluck dinner for members of the LGBT community and evangelical Christians last night, and had a blast.

The dinner was held in the basement of the Unitarian Church on 16th and Columbia St - conveniently two blocks from where I live, so I made a big pot of bulgur pilaf and carried it over, still warm. There were maybe 25 or 30 people there, and two big tables full of peoples' food contributions. It was fun to look at the food and guess which of it had been made by whom - the Christians or the gays. A salad of field greens with purple edible flowers (SO DELICIOUS! I went back three times to pick out more of those tasty spicy flowers) turned out to have been brought by a gay man who got it at the local farmer's market, and there were some appetizers in the shape of little circles, made of bread wrapped around ham and American cheese, that I recognized from the recipe oeuvre of some Christian family friends of mine. So that was predictable enough. But another Christian girl brought some dumplings with steamed edamame beans, carrot and ginger; so much for my prejudice.

It was equally fun to look at the guests and guess which camp they were from (not as obvious as I'd assumed it would be.) There were also the obligatory DC-is-small moments: I ran into two people I knew, Jeff (who I met with Kaelan at the Art-o-matic), and Jesse (a friend of Jamia's I'd met at her clothing swap last year).

Everyone was very friendly and many people got up and switched tables halfway through dinner so as to meet more people. I had conversations about living in Indonesia and how it feels to have roots in life, sign language and the deaf community, clothing swaps, thrift stores, the health benefits of fasting, Western imperialism and genetically modified crops. At the second table I was sitting at, a blond girl called Jocelyn was speaking very animatedly about the failings of Western capitalism, and the unfair way in which the US treated the rest of the world. At first I assumed she was from the gay side since her politics seemed so liberal (and hence scoped her out a little bit, I have to admit) - but as she continued to speak I noticed a certain passionate fervor in her words that seemed undeniably religious.

Sure enough, she was a Christian. She told me that her parents were both hippies - her mum a yoga instructor and her dad a drug addict - who'd both had religious experiences and moved to the country and lived in a house with their eight children and a series of house guests. Most recently their guests had included an opera singer who was going crazy as a result of a brain tumor, and a physicist who'd sworn a religious vow of celibacy since being a teenager but had unfortunately recently fallen in love with Jocelyn, she said with a hint of complacency, which was disrupting his whole worldview.

Jocelyn said that her mum had become a born-again Christian after she'd been meditating in her bedroom, looked out the window, and saw the face of Jesus in a dogwood tree. (I mentioned to her that the dogwood tree is a Christian symbol, as explained here - the four-bracted red marking inside each flower is supposed to represent the cross.) Her dad found God when he was shaving one morning and heard a voice: "If you get high tonight, you'll lose the sight in your right eye." He ignored the voice, went on a binge that evening, and when he woke up he was missing part of his right retina. Her parents founded a Christian church together along with some of the members of the rock band her dad had played with (who'd also all found God one night when they were sitting in a jail cell) and their church had been growing rapidly over the past 30 years, now with 60 chapters across the world.

We had a VERY long conversation about the notion of Absolute Truth and whether all religions are ultimately expressions of the same Absolute Truth once you gain a high enough perspective (my belief), or whether there are enduring differences (Jocelyn's belief; she thinks there's a notion of "grace" in Christianity that you don't see in any other religion.) Jocelyn hadn't read many non-Christian religious works and had a lot of questions about Islam and Hinduism. I mostly know about yoga philosophy and a bit about Sufism and Hinduism, so I promised to send her a reading list. We pledged to keep in touch and continue our inter-religious dialogue.

Here's the email I sent her this morning:


Dear Jocelyn,

It was very nice to meet you last night! I'd love to continue our conversation... since it's basically about the most important thing there is to think about :)

I became interested in religion about two years ago after an experience during meditation, which was an intense feeling of divine connectedness and oneness, and also completely independent of any particular religious symbolism (perhaps since I didn't know much about any religion at that point.) Anyway, my overwhelming intuition is that every human being throughout history has always had equal opportunity to the divine, and that therefore a good angle for a search for the truth is to assume the ultimate union of truth, and then examine not only the similarities between religious paths, but also their differences, and try to think about what sort of paradoxical leap would be necessary for those differences to reconcile.

However, my sense is from my reading so far is that you can only compare religions for so long and it's helpful to eventually settle down with one particular spiritual path, even if you continually draw inspiration from others. The Dalai Lama once said that he didn't want any Christians to convert to Buddhism; if they were familiar with Christianity, that was the path that they should stick with - and ditto for Muslims and Hindus. This is tough for me since I'm a naturally eclectic and interdisciplinary person (double major English and Economics in college, for example) far yoga philosophy and Sufism have spoken to me most strongly, but there is so much beauty in so many different religious traditions. Anyway, a reading list for you - this was a great excuse to get out all my books...if you can't tell, I'm a huge bookworm!

I'd love any reading suggestions from you, such as parts of the Bible you think would interest me, or books about Christianity. To be perfectly frank, a lot of the books on Christianity I see on the shelves in stores are ridiculously shallow. I do love CS Lewis and Madeleine L'Engle, well as a few others listed below.

Best wishes,
Zoe Konovalov

"The Holy Longing: the Search for a Christian Spirituality" by Ronald Rolheiser

I'm in the middle of this now, and it's *very* well written. He's got a great bit in the beginning about how spirituality is a channeling of eros, the erotic energy within us, and he compares the lives of Janis Joplin, Princess Diana, and Mother Teresa, all of whom had a great deal of eros energy, but who each chose to channel it in different ways.

"Spirituality is about what we do with the fire within us, about how we channel our eros. And how we do channel it, the disciplines and habits we choose to live by, will either lead to a greater integration or disintegration within our bodies, minds and souls, and to a greater integration or disintegration in the way we are related to God, others, and the cosmic world."

Sufi poets:

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam and focuses on a personal relationship with God. It's very inclusive and Sufis honour holy leaders from all religions.

Hafiz and Rumi are both so wonderful. For Hafiz I would recommend the Daniel Landinsky translations and for Rumi, Coleman Barks.

There are some Hafiz poems on the internet here:

So much from God
That I can no longer
A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
A Buddhist, a Jew.
The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me
That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even pure
Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed
Of every concept and image
My mind has ever known.

And Rumi here:

Some Kiss We Want

There is some kiss we want with
our whole lives, the touch of

spirit on the body. Seawater
begs the pearl to break its shell.

And the lily, how passionately
it needs some wild darling! At

night, I open the window and ask
the moon to come and press its

face against mine. Breathe into
me. Close the language- door and

open the love window. The moon
won't use the door, only the window.


Bhagavad Gita -
This is one chapter out of the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic. Most scholars think that it was a poem written much later and inserted into the middle of the Mahabrata. Most of the Mahabharata is a series of action packed stories; the Gita has a very different style, it's a long philosophical discussion that occurs in a split second, when Arjuna sits down on the battlefield and refuses to fight, and Krishna stops time and comes to talk to him. It includes the first thorough explanation of some of the most important concepts in yoga.
The Stephen Mitchell translation is very poetic, but other translations by Indian Swamis provide more explanation and context.

From the Gita:

"The Blessed Lord said,
Although I am unborn, deathless,
the Infinite Lord of all beings,
through my own wondrous power
I come into finite form.

Whenever righteousness falters
and chaos threatens to prevail
I take on a human body
and manifest myself on earth.

In order to protect the good,
to destroy the doers of evil,
to ensure the triumph of righteousness,
in every age I am born.

Whoever knows, profoundly,
my divine presence on earth
is not reborn when he leaves
the body, but comes to me.

Released from greed, fear, anger,
absorbed in me and made pure
by the practice of wisdom, many
have achieved my state of being.

However men try to reach me
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel
It leads to me in the end."


BKS Iyengar:

One of the first people to bring yoga over to the West. It happened when Yehudi Menuhin, a classical violin prodigy, had a block in the middle of his career and couldn't play music anymore. He tried everything and eventually one friend suggested he travel to India and study with Iyengar. He did and the breathing techniques and meditation he learned there were so powerful he was able to start playing again - Menuhin is quoted as saying that Iyengar was "the best violin teacher I had in my life." But the yoga made other differences to his life and he started to become much more interested in helping the world. He paid for a plane ticket for Iyengar to come to theStates and introduced him to many of his friends. He also founded a lot of educational institutes for young musicians to ensure that they had healthier and more nurturing training methods that included meditation.
I would recommend Iyengar's book "The Tree of Yoga" which is a wonderful collection of essays about yoga philosophy. His other books "Light on Yoga" and "Light on Pranayama" are much more technical and not as accessible.

I don't have "The Tree of Yoga" with me, but here's a quote from the introduction to "Light on Yoga":

"As water takes the shape of its container, the mind when it contemplates an object is transformed into the shape of that object. The mind which thinks of the all-pervading divinity which it worships, is ultimately through long-continued devotion transformed into the likeness of that divinity."


Japji: Meditation in Sikhism (Translation and Commentary by Swami Rama)

I don't know much about Sikhism but picked up this book in a used bookstore - it includes a primer on meditation and some poems by the first Sikh Guru, Nanak Dev.

From the introduction (I like the last paragraph on the connection between grace and personal responsibility):

"Every word of the mul mantra, starting with Ek Omkar Sat Nam to Gurprasad, has profound meaning, so these words should be pronounced mentally with reverence. When the entire human being becomes an ear, then he hears Omkara. One can never imagine such a joy unless he directly experiences this stage.
Ek means "one." Here it refers to that infinite and eternal Reality that is One and Absolute without a second. That One is self-existent and ever deathless.
Omkara is the mother sound, perennially hummed in the cosmos. Sat Nam is used because among all the names and forms of the animate and inanimate, the word sat is the highest. Sat means "essence"; sat alone is self-existent, not subject to change, decomposition, or decay. Nam means "name". The Truth is infinite and eternal, and to attain this Truth the grace of the guru, who is accomplished and one with the Divine, is required.
Sri signifies the feminine gender, singular in number. It represents the feminine principle of the universe, the first cause of manifestation of the universe, without which the universe cannot exist.
The phrase Wahe Guru is also profound. The word wahe means "awesome." Guru is a combination of the words gu and ru. Gu means the darkness of ignorance, ru means the light of knowledge; that knowledge which dispels the darkness of ignorance is guru.
There are four aspects of grace. The grace of the Adi Granth is received by reverently repeating the sayings. The grace of God is equally important. The third, the grace of the guru, leads a student to a state of freedom from the bondage of karma and the sanskaras.
The fourth aspect is the grace of the self. If the aspirant does not have his own grace, he cannot retain the grace of the guru, of God, or of the Adi Granth. Therefore, before expecting to have the grace of God, guru, or Adi Granth, one should tap the resources within oneself.
Sankalpa - a full zeal for attainment, a burning desire, a perennial fervor, and a burning flame - should be lit."

Nanak Dev's first poem:

The nature of God eludes the soul
Who seeks through thought the final goal.
In silent trance, through eons spent,
Mind's restlessness may not relent.
The desire of man may never cease
Though wealth and worldly goods increase.
From a thousand, nay million feats of mind
No closer is man to God sublime.
How then for man to be pure in soul,
Transcend illusion, and achieve the goal?
Nanak says:
Self-realization requires surrender
To the pre-ordained will of God, the defender.


Thomas Merton, "Zen and the Birds of Appetite"

I haven't read this yet but it's on my list. Thomas Merton was a priest and Trappist monk who also lived and studied in a Zen monastery. This book is a collection of essays about the connections between Christian mysticism and Zen Buddhism.


Miguel Unamuno, "Tragic Sense of Life".

Unamuno is a Spanish philosopher and a Christian, and sometimes a Christian philosopher. I have dipped into this book in a few places but haven't tackled the whole thing yet. He's got a good perspective on the necessity for worldliness we were talking about - for example, the first chapter is entitled, "The Man of Flesh and Bone."

"For me the adjective humanus is no less suspect than its abstract substantive humanitus, humanity. Neither "the human" nor "humanity," neither the simple adjective nor the substantivized adjective, but the concrete substantive - man. The man of flesh and bone, the man who is born, suffers, and dies - above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills; the man who is seen and heard; the brother, the real brother."


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz - "Poems, Protest, and a Dream"

Sor Juana was a nun who lived near the place that is Mexico City today, from 1648-1695. She wrote many religious poems and love poems, but her most famous work is a letter to a bishop defending the right of women to intellectual pursuits.

"That I study not at all is not within my power to achieve, and this I could not obey, for though I did not study in books, I studied all the things that God had wrought, reading in them, as in writing and in books, all the workings of the universe. I looked on nothing without reflexion; I heard nothing without meditation, even in the most minute and imperfect things, because as there is no creature, however lowly, in which one cannot recognize that 'God made me,' there is none that does not astound reason, if properly meditated on."


Walt Whitman - "Leaves of Grass"

A poem to return to again and again in different ways! There is a lot of influence from Eastern philosophy here.

"A child said, 'What is the grass?' fetching it me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? ..I do not know what it is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say Whose?"


Rabindranath Tagore

An Indian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

From his long poem "Gitanjali":

Where the mind is without fear and the head held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary
desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.


The Dalai Lama, "The Art of Happiness"

A series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and a Western journalist. The journalist is not a Buddhist, and it's cute to see him try to wrap his mind around his encounters with the Dalai Lama.
He intersperses each conversation with a review of various scientific proofs of the benefits of meditation. It's a pretty accessible book, but ultimately limited by the fact that the author doesn't have a very deep understanding of Buddhism.


Rilke - Stephen Mitchell translation

Stephen Mitchell is a wonderful translator for these very difficult German poems (he also did the Bhagavad Gita.) Rilke is mysterious and mystical and absolutely beautiful.

"I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all
my fellow creatures, pulsing with your life;
as a tiny seed you sleep in what is small
and in the vast you vastly yield yourself.

The wondrous game that power plays with Things
is to move in such submission through the world:
groping in roots and growing thick in trunks
and in treetops like a rising from the dead."


Thomas Moore

A wonderful Catholic writer. Lots of his stuff here:

I like this interview, on "The Care of the Soul":


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