At the peak of my bhakti days, Sara Oakes, Surya Prakasha and I held a monthly kirtan where we led Hindu and Buddhist devotional chants and shared stories and teachings from both traditions. For a long time I had felt a kind of tension in my heart being immersed in the postcolonial yoga world, and this was one of the places it showed up the strongest. The #TakeBackYoga movement was gaining momentum, and I wanted to uplift wholesome aspects of that anti-oppression discourse in a way that felt helpful. The tension was partly so palpable because it was one of the most powerful, emotionally moving kinds of spiritual work I had ever found. I think that’s true for a lot of practitioners in modern Yoga outside of South Asia now.
Eventually we stopped doing kirtan, partly because I needed to get clear about what it meant to convert to a new religion, and to be clear that it was Buddhism that I had converted to. Getting busy with grad school also contributed. And it took time to be able to speak to the complexity of the postcolonial landscape in a way that felt like it did the history and conversations justice. I’m still learning how to do so.
But a couple weeks ago, as I walked with two of my most beloved elders in the Buddhist tradition, Kitissaro and Thanissara in the SF #ClimateMarch, I heard Thanissara softly singing verses I knew. It was the Hanuman Chalisa, the Tulsidas prayer we had sung so many times over at kirtan.
I had learned the Chalisa from Krishna Das records, and through it made a connection to KD’s teacher, Maharajji Neem Karoli Baba. We visited his ashram in Kainchi, and I can feel his presence in my lineage tree as clearly as I can the other elders in my line, Ajahn Chah and Dīpā Mā Barua. Thanissara has her own deep connection to Maharajji, which I knew through reading a dream vision she recounts in her book of poems, “Garden of the Midnight Rosary”, and I felt her clarity of heart and long practice as I walked beside her singing this ancient song.
All of this is a way to say that cultural transmission and appropriation are deeply complex, and there is often a gulf between what is obvious and true in spiritual practice and what must be held carefully in the world of borders and resource extraction.
I wouldn’t be the Buddhist teacher I am today without Maharajji. Which of course also means without Ram Dass and Bhagavan Das (both of whom studied with Buddhist teachers as well)… Leary and Hoffman, Huxley, Isherwood, Prabhavananda… Krishnamurti, Blavatsky, Besant, Olcott, Emerson… Vivekananda, Ramakrishna, Chaitanya, Tulsidas, Valmiki.
Postcolonialism is complex, needless to say.
One of the practices I most value as Buddhist and Hindu convert Yoga practitioners is honoring our lineage of teachers. Part of what is such a pleasure studying and teaching on the history of Yoga is tracing the lineages back into the weave. All the ways I’m connected to this ancient culture, which includes both the mysterious spiritual connections beyond the boundaries of culture AND the very real truths of my ancestors’ misconduct that led to everything about my life being what it is now.
The same violence that made available to me my beloved Theravāda Buddhism, Yoga, and so much else, through the British conquest of India, Burma, and Sri Lanka, now tears apart the UK itself. And maybe soon England will once more be alone in the world, its ancient conquests of Ireland and Scotland unraveled, the karma of the horrific “Great Game” finally bearing fruit.
I don’t wish anyone suffering, but I bow with deep respect to the juggernaut of history and conditionality that now careens downhill into the rising waves. (And remember that “juggernaut” comes from Jagganath, the local form of Visnu carried once a year across the town of Puri in Orissa by enormous chariots that crush everything in their path, including enthusiastic devotees.)
This Sunday we start the 2019 run of Intro to the History of Yoga: Philosophy, Practice, Transformation, my 20 hour online course for serious beginners in Yoga philosophy. Join me and a lovely crew of dedicated yogis for a deep dive into story, text, and mostly manageable complexity.
Maṅgala muraṭī maratanandana
sakala maṅgala murani kandana
Embodiment of happiness, Son of the WindTulsidas, Hanuman Chalisa
you remove all sorrow by the root.