Don’t Do Anything About the Pain
Notes from Tiruvannamalai
The Mad Bihari
Here in Tiruvannamalai, the saint once known as “The Mad Bihari” desired that a temple be built for himself. This was near the end of his life, nearly all of which had been spent on the streets as a beggar. He instructed his devotees exactly how the temple was to be built, he dictated its vast dimensions, and so a ramshackle basilica was built on the edge of town, a place perhaps five times the size of the nearby temple dedicated to Sri Ramana Maharshi, one of India’s most famous saints.
Beneath the exact center of the floor, dozens of books were books were buried. These books had been filled with the name of Ram, handwritten thousands of times by devotees, and then sealed into a box. No one knew the purpose of this. Much later, the saint announced that a statue would be placed above that exact spot, a likeness of himself in bronze.
I met the saint only once, many years ago. A group of us first chanted his holy name. Then we were instructed to circumambulate the statue – as the man himself stood off to side, looking bored and somewhat disgruntled, as if waiting for an overdue bus in the rain.
I wasn’t impressed. I confessed as much recently to one of his devotees, an earnest and affable European whose judgment I respect. He did not appear offended. He was obviously accustomed to responding to complaints about the statue.
“He insisted the statue was himself,” said my friend. “He put his power in it. My father, he called it. For him everything was My father.”
He told the story of a time when the saint, in the presence of his devotees, had abruptly become very uncomfortable. He began to scratch and twitch and peer inside his shirt, where a red rash was found to have broken out.
“No one knew what to do, or what was going on, until someone thought to look at the statue. A garland had been placed on it which was crawling with red ants.”
My friend also told this story: “He was dying. Everyone knew it. He was dying very slowly. Toward the end chanting of the name of God was kept going in his temple twenty-four hours a day. Late at night there weren’t enough people to chant and so my wife and I would go and sit for seven or eight hours at a time.
“Several times during those last few weeks the doors to his private chambers would open and out he came, in a stretcher pushed by his nurse attendant. Wheeled before the bronze image of himself, he paid his humble respects to it and prayed.”
I would just like to say, officially, that I am totally and completely fed up with gurus who preach strict monogamy – and meanwhile have four wives and numerous lucky recipients of. . . the guru’s tantric blessing rod.
More specifically, I am fed up with this senior student of the guru’s inner circle, who, after three days of flirting, said, I would allow you to give me a massage.
I really liked him, too. That’s why it got to me. But he couldn’t say he liked me. Or wanted to touch me. Of course not. Maybe he was supposed to be desire-less, whereas I was a greedy grubby mortal. Maybe he didn’t even like me.
I get nostalgic for non-spiritual people, who just say, Hey yer cute, wanna come to my room? For non-spiritual people who say, Suck it. For non-spiritual people, who during sex are willing to actually move.
Maybe somewhere there are spiritual people who are good in bed. My experience has been horrendous. In my life I’ve been to bed with perhaps five very religious people. They all just laid there. What do they write in personal ads? Highly spiritual person. NO reciprocation.
I tried to explain to this handsome senior disciple that I only wanted to. . . do something. . . if it was mutual. . . I said I didn’t really know how to give a massage. . . I did not understand. . . what he meant. . . would he really just lie there?
I got tears in my eyes. It was awful. Everything fell apart. The senior student retreated in embarrassment. He never again acknowledged my existence.
Why is it I’ve never gotten this knack that some guys have, of just indicating – It’s time for you to worship me now. I cannot even imagine doing that.
I only know how to be the devotee.
When I become a spiritual master, I will send out fliers.
Hi! I’m starting a new religion! (It’s all about me!) My new religion will require STRICT MONOGAMY of all practitioners. Only monogamy will be respected. Or celibacy. Your choice.
However, IF YOU SIGN UP NOW, you can be designated a TANTRIC MASTER, which will allow you to have as much sex as you want, with absolutely anyone! Think of how much your appeal will increase when you are a TANTRIC MASTER!!!
Interested? Sign up today. Send 34.95. The moment your payment is approved, my grace will descend upon you! Go online now! Be a TANTRIC MASTER!
The Beggar’s House
It is the only place I have ever been which seems like an imaginary place, and goes on seeming like an imaginary place, no matter how often I go there.
As if a dream would have emergency lights or water damage or peacocks banging around on the roof! But the drawbacks of reality are powerless to interfere with the essential preposterousness of the place, which seems too unlikely to exist, even while you are standing there looking at it.
As you enter, you come upon is a sign which reads: This beggar has not built any temple nor has he written any books. . . he has only left a name for mankind. . . This sign is posted next to a gigantic temple. (Books are for sale by the exit.)
The temple walls are stark concrete, like those of a parking garage. The space inside is entirely open and resembles a vast warehouse, or perhaps the gymnasium of a immense and underfunded public high school. The walls are emblazoned with gigantic pictures of the saint, looking merry and motley in his saintly beggar’s costume. Signs remind us that all comers that all that is necessary for salvation is to chant the beggar’s name.
One woman’s voice rings out, chanting the name, and a few old women sing in response. Their voices sound discouraged by the vastness of space they must fill, by the grace they are waiting for, which has not yet deigned to descend.
The immensity of the building is more pronounced because there are rarely more than a dozen people inside of it. Often just two or three. OK, a small crowd shows up for lunch but – lunch is free.
Inside the temple of the Mad Bihari, the beggar saint, I feel as if I am inside the world of a fabulist or else a philosopher’s argument. I do not doubt that Italo Calvino was fond of this place and often spoke of it, despite dying twenty years before its construction. Montaigne must have referred to this place, somewhere in his Essays, and illustrated masterfully some point about faith or human vanity.
I have a variety of opinions of the Mad Bihari’s temple, all of which are strong and entirely in opposition to each other.
On the face of it, it’s a personality cult that did not take off – a faith with funding but not fans. Atheists must find it an effortless proof of the silliness and vanity of religion, especially a faith centered on a guru. Here he is, Swami Ozymandius.
On the other hand, I cannot help but feel fond of anything so ungainly and outrageous. The saint said the temple had to be vast so as to accommodate the worshippers who would arrive in a century. This despite the fact that the place is so poorly constructed I fear it could be a ruin in twenty years. Just over ten years old now, it already looks run down.
Actually there are quite a few devotees. The guru’s cult would seem to be thriving – if they met in a much smaller building. Therefore, there is something automatically humbling about even showing up here, like going to a party in entirely the wrong clothes.
More significantly: isn’t one of the central roles of the guru to give his disciples problems? There is no question but that this building will continue to give problems to anyone associated with it for as long as the faith lasts – so may it not be said to be a form of the guru’s ungainly and exasperating grace?
The impossible task has a long and venerable spiritual pedigree. If the guru had been Tibetan he might have waited until the temple was finished and said, “No, no! You’re obviously not listening. I want it eighteen inches further to the left.”
At one end of the cavernous space is a small enclosed shrine in the traditional style – it looks like a small chunk of India that fell to earth in a hockey stadium. Most of the devotional activity, however, is focused on the statue which stands in the center of the room. It is a remarkable likeness and is said to possess wish-granting powers.
But I do not think people go to the statue just to have their selfish wishes granted. I think they hurry there because the guru looks so lonely, vulnerable even in bronze, standing all by himself in the middle of that vast and empty space as the peacocks thump about on the corrugated roof above.
About the Pain
People become interested in spirituality for different reasons. We may wish to be more calm or more compassionate, happier or more skillful. We may seek direction or wisdom. We may hunger for miracles or for powers. But my guess is that these reasons are almost always secondary and auxiliary. Their popularity lags far behind the principal reason, the burning reason, the one that really matters to us, which is that we would like to know what to do about the pain.
The pain, which can be so vast and so overwhelming, so encompassing and all-pervasive. All this goddamn pain.
Abruptly I find myself in possession to the answer to this question. Don’t ask me why. Certainly I have no authority whatsoever. However, since an answer has arrived and this is perhaps the central problem of the human condition – I thought I’d go ahead and pass it on.
Here it is:
DON’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT THE PAIN.
DON’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT THE PAIN.
DON’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT THE PAIN.
Don’t drink whiskey. Don’t seek counseling. Don’t breathe in the white light. Don’t breathe out the black smoke. Don’t write angry letters. Don’t attack. Don’t forgive. Don’t ask for advice. Don’t listen to advice. Don’t smoke dope. Don’t be practical. DON’T FIX ANYTHING. Don’t twelve step. Don’t explain. Don’t watch porno. Don’t recite affirmations. Don’t think positive. Don’t go to church. Don’t complain. Don’t justify yourself. Don’t apologize. Don’t go to the gym. Don’t go for a night on the town. Don’t be realistic. Don’t call a friend. Don’t get a divorce. Don’t reconcile. DON’T FIX ANYTHING. Don’t pity yourself. Don’t buck up. Don’t protect yourself. Don’t shout. Don’t seek help. Don’t expose. Don’t defend. Don’t do drugs. Don’t pray. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t take vitamins.
Stand there in the pain. Don’t do anything about the pain.
Today I found a man lying dead by the side of the road. A sadhu with long hair lying in the dirt with his hands clasped on his chest, and his robes neatly arranged. Calm and collected. Dead. Nothing terrible except the shape of his mouth. And the flies.
I was exactly myself. (I always hope someone special will turn up for special events.) I flagged down a white truck with three young men and a load of water jugs. In my super-polite schoolteacher voice, which is just a little too high to seem natural, I asked, “Ex-cuse me. Is he dead?” And I pointed.
The three men got out of the truck and peered at him. Yep. He was dead.
The night before, again, I’d hardly slept. Five nights that must have made it. At one point I felt so helpless that I was ready to call a lawyer, as if I’d been possessed by the vengeful spirit of a celebrity ex-wife. (Not that I had a phone, or a lawyer, or even electricity.) It was a bad night.
Staring at holy Arunachala while sipping coffee helped, as did a chat I had with a curly haired German boy whose skin tone, self-confidence and aura were all improbably luminous. He assured me that it was good that the pain was coming out now. That was how it should work. (In my experience, the pain goes out – buys protein powder, steroids, and heavy weaponry, and then comes right on back home, but never mind.)
I thought I’d take a walk to settle myself down. Luckily it worked fairly well and I was starting to feel better – when I noticed the sadhu lying beside the road had way too many flies on his face.
The sadhu was only dead. He did not look sick or old. He looked quite sturdy. One of the guys from the water truck went to get the man whose house it was. To let him know he had a dead man in his front yard. This man, too, came out to stand over the sadhu and re-pronounce him dead.
Providentially, the sadhu had been carrying a plastic tarp. For the rain presumably. It served now as his shroud. We unfolded the tarp and spread it over him. And, as far as any of the bystanders were concerned, that was end of the problem. It was just a waste disposal issue now. Maybe there’s a number you call when a sadhu is dead in your yard.
I stood there beside the plastic covered lump, wondering it there was anything else I should do. No one had acknowledged me since I had asked the question and pointed. For some reason I thought they might be a little embarrassed. But there was no real sign of emotion whatsoever. Certainly no one was upset.
I wasn’t upset either, which was really funny, considering that I’d been upset about absolutely everything since my eyes first shot open at 2am the night before. Now here was a corpse. And it just didn’t seem like such a big deal. It didn’t even seem like a big deal for him.
At that moment I became an advisor to myself. “You haven’t slept much in five days,” I said. “And you just found a dead body. Why don’t you go to the temple and stay there?”
I went to Ramanasramam, to the samadhi shrine of Sri Ramana Maharshi. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I stood in front of the statue of Sri Ramana which had been unveiled by Indira Gandhi, and I told the story of finding the sadhu’s body beside the road. I also remembered to feel very grateful to the sadhu, because it seemed likely to me that he had taught me a lot, just by being dead.
Then I went to the New Hall and reread the story of Sri Ramana’s enlightenment, of how he’d pretended to be a corpse and then discovered he was neither the body or the mind but the universal deathless spirit.
I didn’t know if I was a deathless spirit or not. It seemed unlikely. Instead it seemed to me that humanity was a flowering tree – and one flower had just closed. A beautiful flower on a tree that was likewise beautiful, even if the human species had turned out to be both pernicious and invasive.
I’ve never gotten the knack of the primary practice prescribed by Sri Ramana, which is to ask Who Am I? and then to search for the ‘I’, discarding false identities and storylines, while diving ever deeper toward the fundamental experience of being. I try, but – no revelations so far.
But somehow it occurred to me that instead of asking Who Am I?, I might better ask, Who Dies? And so I circumambulated the Mother’s shrine asking myself over and over Who Dies? Who Dies? Until the question speeded up and up in my mind like the blades of a fan. Until I discovered I suddenly had to lean against the stone wall, and from there slid gently down onto the floor.