Chris and I went to India one summer. He had begun to study Buddhism and had arranged to stay in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in northern India through one of the professors at college. I went just because I wanted to go. But it was a trip that changed my life.
Chris wrote the following account of our adventure to a friend many years later. Even though he is not very much older than me, he usually treats me like a little sister—well, not always… In any case, he was very much into spiritual practices, yogas, at the time. So, we refrained from any sexual relations for long periods.
This is how Chris viewed our trip to India:
We arrived in Delhi at the worst of the dry season. Because of the heat we decided not to stay on the plains very long. Instead we headed for the foothills where the hopefully cooler Tibetans were keeping their exile. We stayed in a Sikh ashram, on the other side of a jungle from the Tibetan monastery where I was to study. Early the first morning there, a young Tibetan monk, from that monastery, awakened us, knocking on our door. He was looking for someone else. And we were not expecting anyone. But because of the unlikely circumstances, he considered it his karma to be my guide, at least for a while. And guide me he did. Rather than taking me to the lama with whom I had communicated at the monastery in preparation for my studies in India, he took me to the Abbot. This head lama who became my “root guru” in Tibetan studies, eventually taught me the stages of initiation into Tantric practice, “Tsa Lung” and certain breathing exercises. These will have an unexpected effect at a later point.
We came up to these mountains earlier than expected, so we had some free time before the Tibetans were ready to begin my instruction. We decided to visit Kashmir. Here the tale turns. I thought that I had come to India to study Tibetan Buddhism as a diligent student of com- parative religion. But something else happened entirely and my lovely, young, lady-traveling companion became the ‘cathartic’ catalyst for this transition.
We left Dehra Dun where the Tibetans had their camp, traveling by bus down out of the monkey-and-jungle clad mountains back onto the scorching plain. The bus broke down several times. Finally, we had to abandon the bus in a military village not half way to Kashmir. There we were told we could catch the train. So, we bought tickets, not knowing that we also needed reservations for first class seats. Well, we were green in India, naive about so many things. For one, how my companion would be treated. Everywhere she went, men approached her. (In Italy as well, on the way to India.) It seemed like they thought she was free game. She dressed modestly by our standards, but that was not enough. I had to stay with her. Also, there were other ingredients to this alchemy that were growing in their power. My young friend was an independent personality. But for various reasons,of youth, sex and travel, she had to be dependent on me. It seems that as much as I wanted to be free to pursue my esoteric studies I am called to a pastoral vocation. In this case, I became her defender. That may sound a bit grandiose, but events suggest this to be the case. Rather than expose ourselves to what seemed to be a rough town filled with a lot of hot Indian army boys, she and I retreated to the train station where we had several hours to wait for the train. At first we were there alone. It was very dirty, hot and covered with soot from the coal- burning train engines. As we waited, a lovely woman in a white sari strolled by. She had fragrant flowers in her hair. Later, after dark we saw her climbing up from the tracks onto the platform. Still later, the same again. I don’t know how she stayed clean at all. But by late evening she still looked fresh and attractive. Seemed to be a successful, hopefully independent, business woman!
Anyway, my young friend and I stayed together and waited. There was increasing tension between us. She was supposed to make plans to occupy herself while I went with the Tibetans. But nothing along that line seemed to develop. Perhaps I had been too directive, or, not enough so! The journey so far had been very hard, requiring much physical and psychological endurance. She was beginning to feel the stress of that and of being in a radically foreign culture. There were many sleepless nights, and fasting. She was nineteen. This was her first trip away from home. She felt exposed here, assaulted. She was very anxious to get out of this town.
The train station began to fill up as the evening passed. Our train arrived at 10:00 p.m. That’s when we found out that we needed reserva- tions. They had no place for us. My companion was frantic. We couldn’t even get on in second class. We weren’t quite ready to ride on top. Others did. My friend was anxious to leave this now over-crowded place. The train pulled out without us. The next and last train was at midnight. In the meantime we met some army officers who had trav- eled a bit and understood that my young lady friend was not available. They were sympathetic and tried to help us. When the midnight train arrived and the conductors wouldn’t let us on that one either, one of these officers spoke ‘convincingly’ to a conductor, so we were allowed to stand in the passageway of a 1st class coach all night. My friend was greatly relieved.
However, this train seemed to be the milk run. I’m sure it stopped at every station. The heat was still stifling, even in the middle of the night. The dirt on the floor of the car could be pushed around in waves of idle composing. Once, early in the morning, I grabbed the bars of the win- dow to pull myself up from a cramped, seated position on a spread out newspaper. Water trickled over my fingers as they grasped the bar. Great! The long-awaited monsoon had begun. What a relief. What? No? I pulled myself up and looked out the window. There was no rain, no clouds even, just the first dim radiance of another too hot day. The train had been stopped for several minutes. When else would the fellows rid- ing carte blanche up on top have a chance to relieve themselves?
We arrived at the end of the next day in the wonder of what is the Vale of Kashmir. Broad shallow lakes reflect the peaks, snows, and eagles of the surrounding mountains. It was doubly a delight for the hard time getting there. We rested a bit in a houseboat lined with carved wood panels, oriental (what else) carpets, heavily embroidered curtains. A lit- tle of that was wonderful—and enough.
We went on a trek in the Himalayas after a couple of days rest. To reach the base camp for this excursion required travel by car, horse, and foot. Base camp was a meadow located at the convergence of two rivers. We set up camp for ourselves, guide and several horse boys. Then, we discovered that besides the shepherds and other nomads with whom we shared this meadow was a camp of strange women. One of them came over to our fire and plopped herself down without invitation or greeting. We found out that she was guarding their camp, until the rest of her company returned. She belonged to an ‘order’ of sorts, who called them- selves the Shivalilas. I did not like her, instinctively. She was joined the next day by several more women. They took an interest in my friend, and she in them. They wanted her to go with them. I had a terrible feeling about them. They had a number of very pretty, blond children. That and the rugged mountains made the whole thing very appealing to my traveling companion. It seemed to her that it might be nice to spend the summer in the mountains with these kids. Oh, no… They tried to con- vince our guide to help them get my friend to go with them. They tried to bribe him. The tension between us became acute. I didn’t want to be a surrogate father figure. She did not want me to be. But, I couldn’t let her go with these women. I would have to face her family when I got back home with the news that I let their daughter/sister go off with a strange group of women who probably practiced illicit tantric sex and had gone native in the mountains of Northern India. It wouldn’t wash. The guide told me of their plans to take my friend with them.
As we made the trek to a local glacier, the tension between us was excruciating. I had demanded too much perhaps from both of us. Or, perhaps this is necessary for future developments. Whatever the case, we felt terrible. We continued up the mountain on horseback, then on foot. My companion was behind. The guide, Rashid and I went ahead. Then, Rashid pointed the way to the Glacier. I went on alone. While I was there, I prayed, made a small cruciform mandala of stones. Then, I felt a strong sense of the ‘presence’ that I now refer to as the ‘dragon.’ Clearly, this was the same sense of ‘presence’ as at Assisi. I felt that I was at the turning point of this pilgrimage. This experience was wonderful, a clear vision of the world, the presence of the heart of all things. Wonderful. It was seemingly detached from what was going on below with the Shivalilas.
When I returned to where Rashid was waiting. He asked me if I had- n’t been bothered by the terrible, cold wind that had blown up the val- ley while I was exploring the face of the glacier. What wind? It was so bad that he had to take refuge in a shepherd’s hut. I, only a few hundred unobstructed yards from where he was, felt no wind.
The distinctions between transcendent and immanent deity lost their significance during this experience. Who can explain or under- stand these things? But this is still only the beginning. We returned to camp. Next morning we prepared to leave. Rashid spoke to my friend. He told her that those women probably were going to use her for prostitution or sell her to the tribes in the mountains. I also spoke to her. Between the both of us we were able to convince her not to go with those women. She might have already decided. I have a feeling that she had sensed a danger there and so had to remain with me.
The women broke camp as we did. One group went down ahead of us. Another followed. Both out of sight. They had said they planned to stay the summer. One, whom we thought to be a witch, ran over the hills barefoot trying to get to our companion. But I was behind her. Rashid was in front. The horsemen before and behind us. So our ward was safe.
The women had some kind of ‘power’ that seemed to engulf a per- son. But they couldn’t get to her. We lost them for a time in the moun- tains, until we stopped to rest in a village. We were in a tiny tea shop, all seated on the floor. The second band of these women caught up with us. Their leader pushed her way into the shop and attacked me verbally in English. My friend said later that their leader seemed at that point to be like a great vulture. What the vulture lady called a dharma battle ensued. I am sympathetic to the Dharma. It seemed to me that it was not a battle between different religions, but a battle between good and evil. But, I didn’t really know what that meant. The words did not mat- ter. It was an underlying conflict. Rashid finally parted us. He took us to a different part of the village. Then we continued our travel. We returned to Shrinagar. We rode that evening in a gondola-like shikara across the twilight lake of liquid silver and gold; fruit trees silhouetted along a dike; a distant mosque, dark magnificent shadow against the cloudy copper beauty of sunset. We soon returned, by plane, to Delhi, then the foothills of northern central India to Dehra Dun.
These Shivalila women had said that they would find us. They knew where I was to study with the Tibetans. The women said that there were many of their order all over India. I went back to the Tibetans and told them that though we were not so concerned about the women that we wanted to leave India, we thought we should become scarce for a while. They thanked us for that, since they had enough problems. But they felt that I was blessed for having been brought that far in my quest. The abbot gave me a white scarf and a vajra ring and some other gifts.
A friend of mine told us about an ashram (Hindu monastery) up the Ganges from Reshikesh. A place where foreigners never visited. We would be safe there. So, we set off for this place of holy refuge. First, to Reshikesh by bus, then up the Ganges into the mountains on a foot trail. We walked all day. Watched the monkeys play, fight, and forage in the jungle. That evening of our first day’s hike, we found an empty, yogi’s cave to spend the night. I slept well because my companion took away the tension that had been collecting in my body by applying cer- tain energy techniques. That was her first time using such techniques and the effect evidenced her gift.
We continued our walk the next day. We at one point passed a temple dedicated to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity. Ganesh repre- sents the divine mundane connection and as such I felt a special affinity for him. Perhaps he is a primordial intuition of the Christ. Also Ganesh is the patron of pilgrims. Prayers to him help one finish a quest. I drank from the stream of fresh mountain water flowing through the precincts of this temple. Soon after, we reached the Ashram. We were well received. A very old man there was the only one who spoke English. He sang to us from the Mahabarata and introduced us to many other excel- lent practices of their strict lifestyle. The ashram is dedicated to Shiva and is located at the confluence of a hot water river with the glacial Ganges. We bathed in pools that were warm at one end and icy cold at the other. Excellent. We stayed there for a while, then I returned to the Tibetans, and our young lady returned to a convent in Delhi where she would be safe. (She didn’t stay there much.) After the appropriate studies with the Tibetans, we returned home.
The next event that derived from the India trip, occurred several months later. It was the following December. I was back at the school. I began to sink into a dark depression. My traveling companion from India called and said that she was having strange experiences, such as being pushed across a room when there is no one else in the room. Terrible mood swings. Great volatility in the circumstances of her life. Then, next day, a friend from a Buddhist center in L.A. called and asked if those Shivalila women from India that I had told her about looked like such and such… Yes, that’s them. They’re here! My friend and I accounted that to be the cause of our current troubles. A white magic practitioner whom I knew, suggested a ritual—a spell— involving a protective circle of white reflective light. I did it. Our troubles went away and so did the women. Some might say that such an antidote is un Christian. (Both my young friend and I are Catholics.) But I say, if you are medically sick you go see a medical doctor. Same principal. Otherwise we better give up antibiotics as well as magic.
But, now so many years later, I wonder about those women. I’ve seen so much of the dark side since then. I wonder if they were really so bad. Perhaps, they are a very necessary aspect of the whole.
On a more serious note, and yet, curiously, in some ways a more joy- ful note, I would like to end this excerpt with a description of the friend in Derha Dun who helped us with advice and inspiration while we were in India.
Her name is Agnes. Forty or fifty years ago she went to India and founded a string of leper colonies across north India. I met her at the colony in Dehra Dun. In her native Germany, she had been an assistant to a famous Catholic priest scholar. She was fluent in English, Latin and Greek. Perhaps, she was fluent in other languages as well as her native German. She prayed the Divine Office in Latin from habit, rather than a reactionary political stance. She was solid and strong and deeply com- passionate. She knew and appreciated Indian cultures and religions.
Agnes suffered in her youth from a form of schizophrenia, from split personality. I asked how she was cured of it, since she was obviously healthy when we met her. She said that she chose the one dominant per- sonality and sublimated the rest. Perhaps there was more to it but that’s what I remember her saying.
Agnes worked with lepers for forty years without contracting the dis- ease. A year after I met her, she slipped, broke her leg, developed an aneurysm, gangrene and had to have her leg amputated. She suffered considerable depression but survived. She continues to work single- legged among the lepers. They and the surrounding populace revere her as a saint. She reminds me of what St. Athanasius says about St. Anthony when he came out of reclusion. ‘He is warm and present to everyone. But he is not swayed by emotions. He is humane, i.e., gentle and kind, but also clear headed and just. He was sought out to settle legal disputes. He performed a few miracles but was more known as a consolation to the distraught.’ That’s a model of a saint.
Agnes is a saint. Brave and clear—like a jewel, rational and humane. And she helped save me, later, in the troubled times…
THE MAGIC CIRCLE:
That concludes Chris’s account of our India venture. It changed my life. Though, I see it quite a bit differently than Chris. I think he used to divide women up into saints and witches. It might have been so in this case, but generally I don’t agree and by now I doubt that he does either.
There is something else I think is necessary to explain for you to understand our story. I would like to conclude this chapter with an explanation about the magic circle mentioned above and the jewel-like light that Chris associates with our friend Agnes. (I don’t know why Chris did not mention my name in the story above. One of his secretive little quirks. He has men- tioned me on other occasions, dozens of occasions!, when he tells this story.)
My name, Stephanie, from the Greek means “crowned.” You know, like the laurel crowns that were given to champions. It was demeaned in latter days to be something one could wear anytime, at parties, banquets… But in the beginning it was for great heroes. The human head for the Greeks (Celts and others) was thought to be the place where the soul was located. It was, in the experience of heroes, a sacred place, a place of magic and power, to be separated from the profane or ordinary perception of mortals. Thus, the crown, was the magic circle that separated sacred space from profane.
Generally speaking, the sanctuary inside the circle is entered into as a place of protection, power, holiness, awe and wonder. Thus the sacred and the ordinary mark the two main levels of reality that human beings are capable of dealing with. Even today, many churches are still divided into sanctuary space and space for the congregation. The temples at the beginning of civ- ilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt also mark this division between the profane and the sacred.
Chris had this experience of it: Once, while Chris was in a seminary, he had been elected as
the student rep on an important faculty committee. After spring semester was over, they were conducting a week of meetings. The room was warm in the way of early summer. Chris was drifting a bit—from the warmth of the afternoon, or boredom. Then, he felt himself slip into an “other” state of consciousness, while still attending to the progress of the meeting. The circle of white light formed around him, became a column of light. This column carried him up, up, up, until it reached the ceiling of the sky. It stopped and seemed to ask, wordlessly, the question. Chris knew what it meant: Did he consent to go all the way with this spiritual path. He hesitated. The ‘price’ is great…. No other way… YES! The column of light shot beyond the sky, taking Chris with it.
Chris then returned to singular, normal consciousness, very awake to participate in the faculty meeting. No one at the meet- ing noticed anything extraordinary.
But for weeks after, whenever Chris would tell the story of his vision, his hands glowed with extraordinary warmth- two levels of perception, time and non-time– Jewel-like in its clarity and color…
central nervous systems, person/world.