Art and Culture

When was the last time you noticed a “Hare Krishna?”

Yesterday morning, before I read the article in the Washington Post I discussed in yesterday’s post, a memory of an acquaintance from Quaker youth camp entered my seated meditation.  I had not thought about C in at least 30 years.  He was a couple of years older than me, and all the parents were a buzz with talk and worry when C decided that instead of going to college, he wanted to give away his possessions, live in a community devoted to simple living, a vegetarian diet, daily worship, a like-minded community, and spreading what they believe is the word of God.   Nowadays, many of the people who are in my broad social network would have nothing but admiration for someone who lived by and practiced such tenets, including the daily chanting of the name of Krishna (or some other deity).  In the late 70s, the parents were deeply concerned:  “He is in a cult, he is brainwashed, we need to get him back.”  “Back to what?” I remember thinking at the time.

I have not seen a member of ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) in years.  Why not?  Not because the “cult” has disbanded.  Rather, it has grown substantially and become part of the fabric of our global religious society.   Now, by virtue of its longstanding existence,  its members blend in with accepted norms of social and religious behavior.

What makes a cult?  What makes a religion?  How do cults and religions foster, spread, or interfere with our own relationship to spirit and our recognition of spirit in others.  What is the difference between ritual and religion?  Ritual and spiritual belief and practice?

ps Craig made a good point yesterday about being sensitive to the practicing Hindus when we take part in some of their practices, but not in the context of the Hindu religion.  He also noted a number of rituals that have morphed and shifted with changing religious groupings in society.  ISKON “took” something that was part of the Hindu religious practice and opened it to the masses (proselytizing with enthusiasm).  Is that not analogous to the development of any religious sect?  Think about the meaning of the word “protestant.”  When is an off-shoot of a religion a cult, a “legitimate” religious group, or an offense to the group from which it parted in terms of stated belief or practice?  Does it matter that some take offense?  What if offense is taking because of a disturbance of a status quo that diminishes and constrains large elements of society (such as women or people of certain classes)?  What about practicing a ritual to honor members of another religion — I am thinking, in this regard, of the recent example of the White House seder?

pps. How is this relevant to our yoga practice in the United States?  Many of us listen to and practice our asana to the music of “chant.”  Krishna Das has a CD called “All One” that has nothing on it but variations of the maha mantra “Hare Krishna” that became so notorious when ISKON was just being known here.  What does it mean when we listen to such music, buy such music, share such music, chant these words?


“Taking Back” Yoga

I read today a piece in the Washington Post about Hindus needing to “take back” yoga.  I read the article and the comments with great interest because it has been a matter of much discussion with those in my meditation and philosophy course as to the extent to which the practices we are learning are “religious” practices and whether they can be practiced consistently with other religions.  There is much difference of opinion and strongly heated and held positions.

What I think is missing from the article is the question of distinctions between “spiritual” and “religious” practices.  It is a simple fact that practicing yoga with depth and sincerity entails learning practices that are observed by Hindus.  Does that make one a Hindu?  Does it mean that one is “dissing” Hinduism if one learns and benefits from the practices, but does not self-identify as a Hindu.

What about Jews who have trees at the Christmas holidays (a tradition co-opted from the pagans in any event)? Is it OK that I have a mezuzuh even though my parents (who were born Jews) raised me in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and I continue to be a member of a Quaker meeting, and observe no other Jewish laws or practices.

Is it OK for me to chant “Hindu” chants if I do not identify myself as a Hindu or attend Hindu temple?  If it is not OK, for whom is it not OK?  Quakers?  Hindus?  Jews? Me?  Who is to decide or judge?

It seems to me that “religion” (as specific sects, identities, and strict rules) tends to highlight difference and disunity, but sincere spiritual practice — whether or not done in a religious context and observance — should be unifying because all religions at their highest and most universal, call upon us to recognize the unity of spirit in ourselves and in all beings.


Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum (and Sadhana)

As it is every year, the Azalea Walk at the National Arboretum fills me with joy and wonder.  “Was it really this splendid last year?” one of my companions asked.  “I go every year,” she said, “but I forget how gorgeous it is!” She comes back each year to remember the beauty and the awe.  So, too, it can be with our practice.  We stop going to class or practicing our meditation or asana for a while because we get too busy.  Then we come back, and we ask ourselves how we could have forgotten the joy and beauty a steady practice brings us, and we are inspired to commit again.


Thoughts on Democracy (and “Actionless Action”)

My friend Dan posted some interesting thoughts about democracy on his blog.  He is writing in the context of the Unitarian Universalist community, but the thoughts are equally applicable to our lives as citizens.  The thoughts on democracy also for me highlighted what is really meant in the Bhagavad Gita about “actionless action.”  To embody our spiritual practice in the way we live our lives, we serve to our best ability out of love, out of delight in acting, out of a sincere joy in serving, but we do not get attached to a particular outcome.


The Front Garden

I don’t talk much about my front garden because it is not as exciting for me as the back garden with its edibles and herbs.  I give a sincere effort to make the front garden beautiful and welcoming since it is my interface with the neighborhood and all who walk past my house.  The front is very shady and two maple trees block the rain and drink most of the water that gets past the leaves, so it has taken some effort to find plants that thrive.  Much of what is in my garden comes from other gardening friends.  Plants that come from friends near-by are likely to do well moved down the street.  As my garden has matured, it has needed divisions, thus giving me an opportunity to share, in turn, with younger friends and neighbors.  It thus nourishes in important ways, though it offers nothing to eat.


A Favorite Sculpture (and the missing mentor)

I have been walking past this sculpture regularly ever since I was a judicial clerk in 1987-1988.  It is in the plaza between the Federal and DC court houses.  It is dated in the subject matter.  The partner-associate relationship has shifted over the years, both from the inclusion of women in the law place and the changing economics.  The shift in economics to assume that most associates will not be partners because the firm simply does not have the space for more partners and because the associates feel freer to move around and for a whole host of other reasons, some more benign than others, has left new workers bereft of the support of a mentor.  In the disruption of the continuity of the workplace, those who stay are less motivated to serve as mentors and lose the delight and strength that comes from the action of mentoring.  Those who come into a workplace without a mentor never learn the way they could.  Although some of the changes are good, the missing mentor is indeed a loss.

Though the sculpture reminds me of something lost, I love this sculpture, especially where it is set.  It is absolutely suited to its location and was made with great skill and love.


Street Closings/Nuclear Summit (and perspective)

On Friday, we received an email from the Office of Personnel Management that strongly suggested federal workers be given permission to take annual leave (foregoing the opportunity to take vacation on another day during the year) or telework due to the number of street and metro closings for the nuclear summit. I will be walking into work today and am hoping I won’t have any detours.  Although some of the entrances to my building are closed, my usual entrance is supposed to be open.

What happens when we have one of these events that fills DC with the world’s potentates, is that residents tend to forget the purpose of the event and what power for good or ill the event can have because we get caught up in its interference with our ability to go about our daily work and life.  I am trying to focus on the import of why the streets are being closed — it is hard to think of a world issue that is as important as global nuclear disarmament — and not the inconvenience.