A reader suggested that I write about why we chose to move to Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala, and also how did we get to know and follow the teaching of Sri Ramana Maharshi. These seem like good questions, so I offer this posting as a way to respond.
How did we get to know Ramana?
I was born to a woman who had ‘visions of god’ since she was a young girl, and Jesus would come visit her by the Red River in Oklahoma. She says the experience of my birth was the first time she ever ‘stood in the light’, even though I was born in an ambulance, with no assistance, with the driver saying, “Lady, can’t you wait. You are making a mess and my boss will be mad.” So as a child and young adult I had ideas that there was something more to spirituality and religion than what was taught at the neighborhood Christian Church.
In my early twenties I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and was really taken by it. I started to read Buddhist material, starting with a small book, Zen Flesh Zen Bones by Paul Reps (here is the first section of the book, 101 Zen Stories) . This book has Zen stories and koans, and introduced me to the Mumonkan, the ‘Gateless Gate,’ a famous collection of 48 koans from the Chinese Ch’an Buddhists, complied in the 1300s. One other thing that I got from this book that I carried with me for years is the metaphor of Self-realization contained in the ’10 bulls’ or ’10 ox herding pictures’ of ancient Chinese origin, and modified for Zen by adding the last two pictures. It took me more than one year to read this small book. Somehow I had the good sense to NOT read it like a novel or text, but to read one ‘story’ and stay with it until I had some deeper understanding of it. I am surprised now that I had such good sense.
The woodcuts used in this book are below. They tell the story of a seeker, first starting on the journey, then seeing footsteps, then seeing and catching the bull, and finally riding the bull with no effort. Then bull, world, individual self forgotten, the Source is reached, after which he comes down from the hills and enlightens everyone he comes into contact with.
I compiled these woodcuts into a single drawing, and used this for my computer ‘wallpaper’ for many years.
On my own, I read and practiced to the extent I could with no teacher, for about 25 years. I had some great deep insights, but nothing more. This also gave me enough inner peace to handle some very difficult things that ‘life threw at me’ for which I am still grateful.
Then in 1990 a friend took me to hear a teacher in Santa Cruz, CA. The teacher was Nome of the Society of Abidance in Truth (SAT), and he taught about Ramana, Self-inquiry and Advaita Vedanta. I did not understand much of what I heard, but I knew it was the truth. I met my wife Carol the next year, and took her to see Nome, too. Since then she and I have been together and shared the greatest joy, practicing together, and a deepening of spiritual interest.
After several years with Nome where I used my mind in what was for me a standard approach, “I am a smart guy. I can figure this out.” Again this brought insights, but nothing more. Except now I had the real conviction that there was very much more than just these mental insights. So I did two things. I started a daily meditation practice first thing in the morning, which continues to this day. I also started using my mind in a different way. Rather that ‘figuring it out’ I would, when I heard the teaching, look within myself to see what the experience was for me. If it was not what was taught, then I tried to ‘go deeper’ to really see what is the truth, the reality, for me. I think t his is when ‘practice’ started for me.
Nome would give satsang weekly, starting with a discourse, and then would take questions. I think I asked hundreds of questions over the years. He also gave several retreats during the year. Each retreat focused on something from Ramana, like “Who am I?” or “40 Verses” (handled during a longer retreat). In these retreats it was like Nome was shining a spotlight on the terse words from Ramana, and they would then bloom in the heart. I read everything from Ramana. I read all the books for devotees about life with Ramana that I could get my hands on. I read Sankara, especially his Crest Jewel of Discrimination and his Commentary of the Bhagavad Gita. I read Yoga Vasishta. Again this reading might take months to go though a book, reading slowly, trying for the experience of the words, not just the ideas carried by them. I would ask questions of Nome if there was something read that I did not understand. I also used the approach, Sravana, Manana and Nididhyasana – listen (or read), reflect, and deeply meditate. This takes the reading past mere mental concepts.
Journey to Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala
Bangalore and the Ramana Centre for Learning.
In 2004, Nome was setting up a trip to Tiruvannamalai for some of the members of the ashram. My wife Carol had always, since she was a young girl, wanted to go to India, so she said that she was going,no question. I did not care one way or the other about going to India, but I figured that going with Nome, who was well respected by the people at Ramanasramam, would be the best possible way to make such a trip, and Carol would go whether I did or not. So I signed up, too.
In January, 2005 we joined others from our sangha and Nome at San Francisco International for a Singapore Airlines flight to Bangalore. We got in about midnight, and A.R. Natarajan was there are the airport to meet us, with three vehicles to take us to Ramana Centre for Learning in Bangalore where we were to stay for the next three days.
We got to RMCL at about 1:30. We we housed all over the place. Beds were not set up and we had to attend to it. Maybe 2:30 Carol and I went to bed. I awaken early in the morning. It does not matter if I travel, I will still wake up at 4 or 5 AM. This morning I did as usual, and was able to explore the RMCL facility, and even go up to the roof and watch the dawn. We had just arrived at RMCL in the photo below. Carol is standing to the left. exhausted from 30 hours traveling.
The next three days went buy in a flurry. We had group meals served at RMCL. That is me to the left. I had a moustache then.
We spent a lot of time at the Ramana Shrine in Bangalore, which is funded and run by RMCL.
Here A.R. Natarajan greets Nome at the door to the Shrine. (I am standing to the left wearing a hat).
We would have satsang there. A.R. Natarajan would speak to us. He also would ask Nome to speak. He seem to have great respect and affection for Nome. He called Nome, “Ramana Prasad.”
There is a wonderful bronze Ramana in the shrine, as well as the famous Ramana portrait. Here is A.R. Natarajan paying his respect to Ramana. I learned later that after Ramana’s mahasamadhi, when all interest in Ramana and Ramanasramam had faded, that A.R. Natarajan was one of the few who was still vigorously supporting Ramanasramam. His support helped keep Ramanasramam going during the years where there was little public support.
We also got to meet A.R. Natarajan’s wife, Smt. Sulochana Natarajan, and daughter, Dr. Sarada, pictured below.
Here is the Ramana Centre in daylight.
We enjoyed more meals there. Here are Nome and A.R. Natarajan at one of the meals.
Dr. Sarada operates a music and dance school (following in her mother’s footsteps). She offered us a chance to see and hear her group. The ladies are singing below. In the center is A.R. Natarajan’s wife, Smt. Sulochana Natarajan, with Dr. Sarada to the right. Smt. Sulochana Natarajan had intense training in Carnatic Classical Music in her early years, and learned Ramana music at Ramanasramam from Manavasi Ramaswamy Iyer who started teaching her in 1956. She has passed this love down to her daughter, Dr. Sarada.
Here are some of the young singers in the group. The woman in black has a lovely voice.
After the performance A.R. Natarajan took us out to a Ramana-themed restaurant in Bangalore. Here is he and Nome engaged in joyful conversation.
A special event was also held in the book store before we left.
Here is Sulochana Natarajan with a woman from SAT, Sarasvati. She now lives in Tiruvannamalai.
A.R. Natarajan with his daughter, Dr. Sarada. He had made much effort to publish many books in the last few years before he passed away. I think he knew that the end of this body was approaching and wanted to get the books that were in his mind published. Dr. Sarada gave much support to these publishing efforts.
The last morning we gathered in the parking lot to say our good byes and load up the cars.
Dr. Sarada and Nome’s wife, Sasvati give each other a big hug. You can see how close they are.
A.R. Natarajan says goodbye to Raman, another member of SAT making this journey. SAT members include both Indians and Americans, all who love the teaching of Sri Ramana, and the practice of Self-inquiry.
About time to get in the cars and leave.
This fits my perception of the traffic getting out of Bangalore. The trip took about six hours, two to get out of Bangalore, and four to drive to Tiruvannamalai.
Finally we approach Arunachala, clearly visible and recognizable from the road. We are almost to Tiruvannamalai.
The next installment will cover Tiruvannamalai and Arunachala, and will talk more about the decision to relocate from California to Tiruvannamalai.