mugshot photo of Rick McCharles

the story of my experiments with truth

Mar, 1999
by Rick McCharles <e-mail>

Once upon a time a Calcutta boy grew to become a great scholar, philosopher, and writer. In the French colony of Pondicherry he established an ashram teaching a new "Evolution". The aim not a departure of this life to any Heaven or Nirvana, but a perfection of life on Earth.

Matter manifested into life. Life evolved "mind" (a consciousness of our existence). Next is the transition to a kind of Superman, with supramental understanding that all life is part of the same "Energy".

This sage is Sri Aurobindo. You may never have heard of him, but you know his work. He made a supramental intervention at Dunkirk, turning the war in favour of the allies. Later he declared India "free" for his 75th birthday, Aug. 15, 1947.

Aurobindo had a disciple and partner, a French woman known only as "The Mother". She was an artist, an occult mystic with even greater telekinetic powers than her mentor, and a tennis nut. She conceived a utopian "experiment in international living where men and women could live in harmony above all creeds, politics, and nationalities", as long as they could speak French.

The community would be called Auroville, City of Dawn. Configured in the shape of a spiral galaxy, communities would have names like Eternity, Gaia, Quiet, Fertile. The spiritual heart would be a Zeiss crystal sphere enclosed in a spare white marble meditation chamber, housed in a giant dodecahedron. Star Trek architecture.

This new Eden attracted idealists from all over the world. Even Saskatoon! I moved in immediately.

I was impressed with the courage of trying to build Paradise, an experiment material and spiritual. Anyone can meditate in a cave. Auroville took guts. Plato would be proud.

Since it opened in 1968, Auroville has struggled. Settlers were starving in 1976. Utopia is a work-in-progress.

After the Mother left her body in 1973, an acrimonious power struggle was inevitable between the ashram (which controlled the money) and the increasingly pragmatic Aurovillians.

In 1988 the Indian government finally transferred power to a committee representing all interest groups. Progress is slow. All talk no action. Too much democracy?

Evolution was faster with Mother as benevolent dictator.

(As a neo-Confucius wandering state-to-state looking for a potentate to install my ideal government, I'd be happy to take over. Aurovillians would fly right, or be drinking the special Cool-aid.)

Auroville is clean and green. Mongoose run bold as house cats.

All life's necessities are available; ayurvedic medicine, reflexology, pranic healing. You can get your lymphs drained.

Library, computer lab, health food. It's a cashless society, everything done on account. I liked the "Free Store" -- used clothing and toys dropped-off and picked-up as needed.

Jazz on Sunday nights. Theatre Sports Fridays.

My guesthouse provided bikes and motor-scooters so I could explore the communities and get to the beach.

Aurobindo's ashram itself (in town) was disappointing, but Frenchified Pondicherry was a treat! Wide, clean boulevards, Hotel de Ville, red-capped Gendarmes. The Tricolour flies the Consulate.


Gandhi's Ashram, Sevagram

"The Story of My Experiments with Truth" is Gandhi's autobiography. A tale simply told.

Gandhi was a normal boy, a little rebellious. He stole money, smoked, ate meat -- then repented, submitting a written confession to his father.

Some years later he became the impossible, a truthful man. He said he had "no regrets about any word spoken or written". A lawyer for 20 years, he never lied. How about that?

"The essence of lying is in deception, ... a lie may be told by silence; by equivocation; by the accent on a syllable; by a glance of the eye; attaching a particular significance to a sentence; and all of these lies are worse and baser by many degrees than a lie plainly worded."

- John Ruskin

Ultimately Gandhi declared "Truth is God". Truth in word, deed, motivation & thought.

A week at Gandhi's, I was overwhelmed by his story, by the self-sacrifice and altruism he inspired. I was brought to tears dozens of times as I visited his many memorials across India.

Gandhi's commitment to truth made me consider my own "weakness for dogmatic and exaggerated statements". (Herzog) I'd like to claim a comic style a la Hunter S. Thompson or P.J. O'Rourke; that I'm sacrificing the boring, literal truth on the higher alter of humour. The Mahatma would not approve, I know.

Then I considered my use of unattributed quotations. These scribblings are mostly anecdotes I've liberated from books and fellow travellers. Precious little is divinely inspired. A friend (kindly) suggested I wasn't a plagiarist but, rather, a "jewel thief". (Becket?)

Osho International (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh)

Remember Osho, the "sex guru"? His scandalous Oregon Rajneeshpuram ashram? His fleet of Rolls Royces?

The "man" charged Osho with immigration fraud, fined him $400K, and deported him back to Pune, India in 1985.

My guidebook urged me come see "hundreds of disaffected maroon-clad yuppies being individuals together". I couldn't resist.

Before admittance to the ashram you must pass an (intriguing) HIV negative test. Inside the leafy, immaculate compound there is no hint you're in India. Pretty people, some sitting close, cow-eyed. Others lead blind-folded partners in a trust game. Unseen speakers pipe new-age music. Classes are offered in Chinese, Sufi dance, calligraphy, koan study, archery, and "zennis" (zen tennis).

Osho's the rogue guru who could be counted on to do or say anything. Still his most popular practice involves laughing, crying, or being "a watcher on the hill" (sitting) for 3 hours / day. "This is the most important breakthrough since the Buddha 25 centuries ago."

Osho was his own worst enemy. His most astute business move was to leave his body in 1990. With no more fear of scandal, the ashram is booming. It's the #1 Club MEDitation in the world.

Osho's market has always been rich Westerners. The kind who believe James Redfield ("Celestine Prophesy") to be a spiritual genius. They load up with "new" (carefully re-edited) Osho videos and books before flying home to New York or Milan. Audio tapes of his silent communion with devotees sold briskly.

Everyone I spoke with who spent time there left disappointed. But I thought it looked fun and harmless.


Dharamsala

I write from a scenic Hill Station in the Tibetan foothills. This is the Tibetan Government in Exile. Dharamsala is the main refugee centre and home of the Tibetan Children's Village, a residential school with over 2000 kids.

I'm in a mellow place. Dharamsala is still surprisingly undeveloped; pot-holed, muddy roads, littered hillsides. The Dalai Lama had lunch in a local eatery with Tenzin Palma (American nun who spent 12 years in a cave retreat) -- nobody pestered them.

Gere's here. And Goldie Hawn. The Dalai Lama is teaching an advanced tantric initiation.

Can you believe this? A charity golf fund-raiser. Pounding golf balls for merit off a makeshift mountainside driving range. (The Dalai Lama has a terrible slice, rushes his swing.)

We marked the 40th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising. Recently, 6 hunger-strikers were force-fed after 49 days. One, 60-year-old Thupten Ngodup, then set himself ablaze. Their (ignored) demands were:

  • U.N. debate Tibet
  • U.N. investigate Human Rights violations
  • U.N. Special Envoy to facilitate dialogue

Dharamsala attracts an interesting mob; Tibetan pilgrims, fresh-faced volunteers, hangers-out, and wanderers.

For the first time I'm staying at a Buddhist retreat. A founder, Lama Yeshe, died in 1984. But he's still here in his new incarnation, a Spanish teenage monk. Smoking, alcohol, sex, theft, and lying are forbidden -- this is truth.

Each evening Westerners get together for meditation and a "teaching". The theme, appropriately, is "delusion". But our teachers, mostly American nuns, babble free of any confines.

There is far too much emphasis on the teacher-student relationship, a throwback to the times of oral transmission of wisdom. Those with spiritual accomplishment and experience are assumed to be educators.

I quickly tired of long debates on whether a Buddhist should rescue a fly trapped in a web. But I did feel compassion for the sincere, muddled seekers caught up in the complexities of ancient text and ritual. They are an intelligent, thoughtful group, but unenlightened as the rest of us.

The Western mind has difficulty melding with Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is constantly advising not to change religion. He's seen the damage far too many times, especially when Westerners put on Buddhist robes.

Yet there is something excellent in Buddhism. Eastern Buddhist are radiant, serene, full of fun and laughter.

Buddhist masters are capable of incredible physical and mental feats. One Rimpoche refugee was assigned brutal Himalayan road construction. He worked joyously, unaware of the cold, mentally transforming a frozen quarry into a "pure realm".

I tried to reduce Buddhist philosophy to a few USEFUL elemental CONCEPTS & TECHNIQUES.

Life is IMPERMANENT; birth, aging, disease, death. You are travelling by train, 3rd Class, or perhaps 1st Class A.C. The only thing certain is that your train will crash. You just don't know when. So enjoy the ride.

I've always denied death, but Buddhists find it liberating. The Dalai Lama rehearses his death moment every day (to get it right when the time comes). He's always talking of living and dying in peace.

The founder of Tibetan Buddhism meditated in a charnel ground. Buddhists make instruments of human bones, bowls of skulls.

DETACHMENT. No clinging or despising. Renounce the world and accept it back each day as a one-time-only gift.

SUFFERING is part of life's cycle. Should we ignore it? Call on the Gods to intervene? Can we be "happy" when others are suffering?

The Buddha said we should not rely on external saviours. Instead, cultivate our own "Buddha-nature" (call it "Christ-spirit" if you prefer) -- LOVE (be happy when others are happy) and COMPASSION (be sad when others are sad).

When the Dalai Lama first visited the States in 1977 he noted that Americans only show affection for their dogs and cats.

A useful concept is KARMA -- accumulate "merit" (like a bank account) through good action and thought. MOTIVATION is critical. Karma makes more sense to me than sin-all-week, repent-on-Sunday Christianity.

Buddhists believe meditation is essential. I find it difficult and frustrating, the posture uncomfortable. Neither meditation nor prayer have ever done much for me.

I liked the chanting we did at Gandhi's. I'm thinking I'd like my own spoken mantra of favourite quotations set to a musical score. Regular quiet time. Gandhi, the most practical Holy man you'll ever find, suggested to sit in a chair or stand if that helps concentration.

VISUALIZATION is the next step. Buddhists are filled with calm when they see the Buddha. Sunlight sparkling off the lake might do it for me.

The Buddha, a reformer, said we must not believe in tradition simply because it is written in religious texts. Do not blindly accept authority of teachers. Keep testing and reinventing. When you find something that agrees with reason, conducive to the good of one and all, accept and abide by it.

I can disregard reincarnation, enlightenment, Buddhahood. It's enough to aspire to be a little more generous, patient, persistent. Less susceptible to that "sudden, temporary madness", anger.

Truth?

That greater seeker, Gandhi, always disclaimed, "In my search for truth I have disregarded many ideas and learned many new things."

Me too.

Nietzsche argued that there are no truths. Heisenberg proved it -- "Nothing is certain".

Be assured at least this travelogue is truthful. Even my golfing with the Dalai Lama. We golfed and chanted.

Actually we just chanted. I don't think His Holiness is a golfer.

Continuing my experiments with truth,

- Shri Swami McBhagwan

PS

Perhaps I'll follow the Beatles to Rishikesh. (Though George fell out with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi after the giggling guru fondled Mia Farrow.)

Where is Alanis? I haven't bumped into her yet.

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