Almost Always Too Much
Notes from Tiruvannamalai
In the temple of the Mother of the Universe, who was also an ordinary Tamil woman whose teenaged son happened to become God one day when he was supposed to have been copying out his English homework, in this temple where all is shadowy and hallowed, where Ganesh holds court, as well as Skandha and Nataraj and the Mother of All, I was attempting to pray, when there appeared by my feet a very small beige puppy, which was very energetically circumambulating, keeping God on his right side as was respectful, and though the puppy was very clearly impressed, he was not in any way somber.
The puppy was maybe eight weeks old and, even though this was a temple, where dogs are usually unwelcome (most places don’t let in foreigners either) no one was bothered by the dog and no one interfered with him. He seemed to know just what he was doing, as he scampered about, so enthusiastic about everything. Looking at the puppy, I felt as if I’d been rescued. If I’d thought of it then, I would have prayed to him.
Swami Vivekananda was feeling somewhat grumpy, presumably, the day he said that 95% of all spiritual aspirants go mad. (What was the figure exactly? Does anyone have the quote?)
Impossible to not be reminded of this, every other moment, as I look around Tiruvannamalai, which is full of tremendously spiritual white people, in flowing clothes, on scooters. Mad as hatters, most of them, as far as I can tell.
The Spirit and the Body
Tiruvannamalai possesses a very nearly audible spiritual hum. In all my years of wandering, I’ve never been anywhere like it. Perhaps scientists will one day discover there really is something peculiar about Arunachala, the holy hill, which has been worshipped here, as a visible form of Shiva, for over a thousand years. Maybe Arunachala is some kind of magnet. Or a repository of rare elements. Maybe it’s radioactive. Or some entirely new kind of thing, which we are just about to discover. Maybe soon investors will arrive, invest 650 million, and cart the whole hill off to China.
I hope not.
Tiruvannamalai is charged. Shrines, temples and ashrams spring up everywhere, multiple devices off a single current. Writing home, I attempt to explain, “It’s wonderful here. Except when it’s too much. It’s almost always too much.” Days in Tiruvannamalai are, by definition, too much. Too much pain and too much happiness. The light, it seems to me, has been turned up far too high: too much is revealed.
God, it is rumored, is everywhere. Buddha Nature cannot be escaped. Well, in Tiruvannamalai, that’s actually how it feels.
This town is relentlessly holy. It’s also relentlessly filthy. I cannot look at Arunachala without feeling inspired. I can’t see a stream without wanting to retch. Every foot of unclaimed space is a clotted mass of filth and plastic trash. Even by the standards of India, this place is disgusting.
Perhaps I have lapsed into devotion. Come here if you can. See what you think.
I cannot deny the spirit, though I sometimes ask, What good is it?
Welcome to Tamil Nadu
No matter how often I come here, I am always jolted by how different Tamil Nadu is from the rest of South India. Somewhere, on the bumpy road here, we crossed the border from lush to rough, from flirty to adamantine. Yes, the poverty is worse, but it’s not just that. People are tough. A smile is considered an extraneous and gaudy article. Which is not at all to say the Tamil Nadins are without their charms. Far from it. Certainly it is effortless to imagine them repelling invaders for the last three thousand or so years.
Venkatesh the crippled beggar gets around in a makeshift wheelchair, a cart with a crank. He’s very chatty. In no time at all we were comparing deformities and discussing the possibility of surgery. Our cases are similar, although my clubfoot was corrected, in a botched and limited way, nearly forty years ago, whereas his has not been fixed at all.
Right there beside the busy street that runs in front of the famous ashram, Venkatesh examined my leg with great care, looking first at my brace, then, with both of his hands, feeling my leg through my pants, and establishing, beyond reasonable doubt, that my leg was defective up to the knee, and strong beyond that, all the way up to the point at which I was, quite indisputably, a boy.
I made clear to Venkatesh that I was good for at least one meal every day. As for further intimacy – Venkatesh please – not unless we are dating.
I don’t understand why some people piously refuse to give money to beggars, why they say, in a outraged tone of voice, They’ll just spend it on alcohol. These pious people – is honesty something they’ve ever considered applying to themselves?
If I were homeless, with no job, no prospects, no beloveds, and I was sitting on the curb, I would not in any way be averse to a tuna salad sandwich, lightly toasted, on seeded rye, with a generous portion of whatever fruits and vegetables were in season and thus at the peak of their freshness.
I would like a tuna fish sandwich very much, but I would not like it nearly as much as, say, a beer. Or even something stronger. If I were a homeless crippled addict, and I was sitting on the curb, I would not in any way be adverse to something stronger.
Those pious people. Do they honestly believe, if they were on the street, they would decide, I’ll use that two dollars to go to Kinko’s and print my resume on beautiful paper.
Young Lord Krishna
Standing in the book shop of Ramanasramam, looking through the photo books of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Most of these photos I’ve seen a thousand times but this one – never. I think it is because he is too beautiful, his skin so smooth and lustrous, his hair black mixed with white and so thick I cannot help but wish to run my hands through it. Instead of Shiva the ascetic, I find the young lord Krishna, beckoning and enticing.
I am not to be trusted. As the old saying goes, “A pickpocket in the company of a saint sees only his pockets.” So, too, the sex addict hones in on the loincloth.
I can’t say I enjoy it, but it does seem like exactly the correct prescription, the right way to proceed.
If I were to hand over the care of this madman to someone else I would certainly tell them, “First thing in the morning, dump a bucket of cold water over his head.”
A simple off-white kurta pajama. Standard ashram gear. I apologize if this seems – an egregious example of false advertising. It’s comfortable. Among the sea of aspirants, I aim to pass unnoticed, at least by those persons who overlook my leering and debauched expression.
No doubt the principal benefit of my holy man costume is that it sometimes renders me to ashamed to make eyes at the today’s Kashmiri collectible hunk or auto-rickshaw Adonis.
Gentleman aspirants not yet entirely refined, take note. Beneath your pajama, you must always wear underwear. This flowing pious gear may give rise to unprecedented tenting. The rain, be warned, renders these whites almost entirely transparent.
This is the only time in my life that I will ever have the right bag. The ‘in’ bag. The fashionable bag. And I am savoring it.
In Tokyo it has got to be LV, Hermes or Chanel, whereas here in Tiruvannamalai the Ramanasramam bag that reigns supreme. Available in the bookstore for just seventy rupees. About a buck fifty.
Here in Tiruvannamalai, this bag is suitable for every occasion and displays a downright ravishing humility. Anywhere else in the world, a Ramanasramam bag, hanging faded from your shoulder, indicates that you are a Genuine Spiritual Person. Oh Sacred India!
I’ve already determined that the hippest spiritual aspirants wear their bags Tamil side out, English text against the body – so of course I’m doing the same!
In response to your question. Yes, of course I can get you a bag. But it’s going to cost you A LOT more than seventy rupees.
Yesterday at lunch the blonde bearded man at the next table over was explaining that recently he’d been acutely ill, not because of food poisoning, but because of bad chi.
“The more you practice, the more refined you become, the more sensitive you are, so that your food, if it has been prepared by someone with a lot of obscurations, a lot of rajas and tamas, can make you very ill. At this point I really ought to be eating only prasad.”
Rajas and tamas are the wrong kinds of energy, desire and ignorance respectively. Prasad means God’s holy leftovers.
My nausea had nothing to do with the food. Or the chi.
Room / 1
The first few nights I spent in a noisy hotel in the alley near the Agni Lingam. The third morning, recognizing that sleep was out of the question, I left at dawn and wandered on the other side of the road from Ramanasramam, where Tamil Nadu turns halfway into California as the rich build homes with access to holy Arunachala. I was standing in front of a deluxe place called Ramana Towers, so soulless it might as well have been in Singapore, and I was wondering what was the point of it all, when a old woman in flowing white stopped and asked, “Are you looking for something?”
“I need a room,” I said mournfully.
“What’s your budget?”
“Medium?” Cheap is what I needed, but not so cheap that I felt my life had gone entirely wrong.
“Ask at the Pink House,” she said, and pointed to a sprawling pink cement mass.
Five minutes later I had my room.
Room / 2
It is the primary and essential power, which precedes even being able to think: the power of having your own room. Flying through the air and precogniting lottery numbers could hardly do more for one. “Possibility” is nothing other than a room with a door that locks.
The room was small and rather dark, with chipped green pistachio walls. The window held a jungly vacant lot with plastic bags and peacocks. The room was meant for living, with a broom and a sink and adequate shelves. I’d looked all over town, I’d hemmed and hawed, but this room I accepted immediately, at the first price offered, which was fortunately only about four dollars.
I liberated my suitcase from the noisy hotel, dragged it home, and began to feel like a man who’d recovered from a serious disease.
It appears that the man next door has taken a solemn vow to speak only to seriously spiritual French people. He looks offended if I come anywhere near. Addressing him in Sanskrit does not help. He wants no part of me and my Hari Om.
Are the French closing in on enlightenment -- or is this man on his way to the madhouse? I note that even the Dalai Lama rarely presumes to judge, not even in the world as it is, where bat crazy yogis are scandalously more abundant than yogis even halfway wise.
I only hope he’s not a screamer, like that Canadian I met in the Tibetan monastery, who threatened to hide my husband's body in the forest. Buddhists are supposed to be gentle! But then, so are Canadians.
Although I may have come here for spiritual reasons – no sign of sex or beer – I acknowledge, too, that it could go the other way entirely and I could wind up resolving to have nothing to do henceforth with capital S Spirituality and that dismaying breed, Spiritual People -- so desperately ready to fall for anything, and kindness so seldom a priority.
Holy places are always full of crazy people and hopeless causes. Of course. That’s why we’re here. We’ve figured out that nothing short of great healing is going to do us any good.
Why exactly am I here?
Well. . . I sputter, and delay, and gesture toward the peacocks, but finally have no choice to admit: a voice told me to return to Tiruvannamalai.
I was in Tokyo, miserable, waiting for what would never happen.
Maybe it was God. I hate the word ‘God’. Maybe it was Buddha Nature. The small still voice within. Maybe my subconscious was just groping around for some place that was way the hell away from Tokyo.
Whatever the reason, I’m grateful.
I’m here now. I await further instructions.