Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

The Silent Teacher

by Judith Wermuth-Atkinson

For the last many years I have been in Rishikesh every spring. However, in 2014 I hesitated to travel to India. The reasons were primarily financial, but including a trip to India in my complicated plans for that particular summer would have also meant that I would be away from home for quite a long time. I had to be at my son’s wedding in the Philippines at the end of March and then with my husband’s family in England at the end of June. Flying back and forth from the States to Asia and then to Europe was out of the question – I had no money for more than one expensive ticket. The only option was to stay in India between the wedding and England for about three months.

“It is crazy to hang around for three months in India,” my son told me, “especially if this year you are not going to trek in the Himalayas as usual. What are you going to do in Rishikesh for three whole months?”
I argued that this particular year I really needed to go to India for two reasons. In the first place, the person I call my teacher, whom I had found only recently, was not in perfect health. The time I had spent with him a year before was so powerful that I did not want to miss the opportunity to spend one more summer with him. Nor, secondly, did I want him to be disappointed and think that, like many western tourists, I had a good time in his ashram, and then I went back home and forgot all about the tasks he gave me and the promises I made. For I took those tasks and those promises very seriously, and I wanted him to know that.

“I have the chance to be with a very special teacher,” I insisted, trying to justify a long trip and a long absence from home.

“If it is not this teacher you will find another one,” said my other son. “There are many teachers in the world.” 

“Are there many teachers in the world?” thought I to myself. “What is a teacher? What is a Master? A Guru?”

In my world, built upon the fundamental value of diversity of any kind – religious, cultural, ethnic, or racial,  I should admit that there are many teachers as there are many paths to spiritual development and many methods to achieving the same spiritual goals. Nevertheless, I had to disagree with what some of the people close to me were telling me – that I could always find another teacher. Such statements made me contemplate the question why I believed that this one particular man was the only living teacher I could have.

I am not a fanatic. Just the opposite – fanaticism has always scared me to death and I have run away from anything in my life that looked remotely like fanaticism. Nor have I ever been overexcited by people, teachings, places, or relationships. By nature, I am a philosopher, an analyst. I tend to look carefully at everything that comes my way and to make my choices slowly. Excitement is not my mode of existence.

I was fortunate to have the profound spiritual teachings of a real Master as the solid basis of my entire life, the teachings of a Master known as Beinsa Douno. This meant that I was content with my views and with my life; that I was not in search of another kind of guidance, and that I was definitely not jumping from fascination with one esoteric school of thought to fascination with another. However, all this did not mean that I had stopped learning. My character, my upbringing, and the teachings of my Master formed me as a person who worships studying, learning, and teaching – most particularly of human thought and of our perception of spirituality. I never stopped learning about different philosophical and religious traditions, nor have I stopped looking for ways to develop on deeper spiritual levels. But the idea that I never had a living teacher had not even come to my mind in the past. I never thought of Beinsa Douno in terms of a living or a non-living Master. His presence in my life was simply a reality. Only once in a while, when I was very young and I was trekking in the mountains through the places where the Master used to camp with his disciples in the summer, I felt sad that I had not been there to share those precious moments with him.

In my days, the communist regime in Bulgaria had strictly prohibited the followers of Beinsa Douno from camping and from getting together anywhere in the Bulgarian mountains. Thus, I had no experience of listening to the living words of this teacher, of spending time in a retreat with him, or of being guided in my practices. Later in my life, I learned that a direct disciple could play the role of a living teacher, and I was glad that I had had at least that experience. I was taught by a direct disciple indeed. Instead of having what people today call retreats, I was spending many hours every week, almost every day, with this exceptional person, whose love for his Master allowed him to achieve the highest possible degree of immediacy in conveying Beinsa Douno’s teachings, views, practical advice, and deep esoteric understanding of many spiritual questions. Did I then have a living teacher?

I asked myself this question only recently, in India. Eventually, after having been on what people call a spiritual path for over forty years, I had found my living teacher – unexpectedly, as a complete surprise, without searching for one. When I found him, in one of the most beautiful places I have known, in the Center for the Study of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition, the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama in Rishikesh, this man had just given his vow of five years of silence.

“So how does he teach you?” asked my husband when I told him briefly about that.

This was the question that made me ask myself what a teacher really was. My husband’s question, I believe, is at the core of the understanding of the phenomenon of a spiritual teacher or a Guru, as they say in India. If there is anything taught and anything learned, then there must be a teacher and there must be a disciple. The greatness of the teacher does not depend, I think, on anything else but the greatness of the thing taught. When or where the teacher lives may not matter much. How that teacher lives, however, matters – because it is relevant to the thing taught. The one remaining question then is how the thing is taught.

The word, both spoken and written, is a powerful mediator. From my first Master I learned mostly by reading the transcribed shorthand records of lectures he had given at the time and by listening to one of his direct disciples. Was that only an intellectual path of learning? I would say no – it was not. In the environment where I learned about these teachings, where there were constantly house raids for incriminated books, where we had to hide every time we were more than two like-minded people gathered in one place, where I was afraid to share my views with anyone, including with the members of my own family, I believe that in that environment there was a lot of spiritual practice involved, in addition to the intellectual comprehension of the texts. I was constantly put to the test and I had to practice what I studied in order to preserve not only my convictions but my normal daily life. And now my living teacher in India was silent.

Of course, my teacher in India had written many scholarly books -- on the Yoga Sutras, on meditation, and on many other spiritual topics. In the first year of his silence, he also gave a whole course, using computer technology. I had not attended that course but I read several of his books. Was I supposed to tell my husband that my teacher, who keeps his silence vow, was teaching through a computer? Or that he was teaching me through his books – a method I was quite well acquainted with? I knew that something would be wrong with such an answer. It simply would not have been true. It took me some time to realize what my answer should be.

A year earlier, after I had shared with Swami Veda the brief history of my spiritual development, he made an incredible gesture, a gesture on a grand scale that only a real Master could make. Among many other things, I had mentioned to him that I have not had a living Master and that I have not been initiated. It had never crossed my mind that I could be initiated, nor that Swami Veda could become my teacher. In some way, however, a Master, when that person is a real Master, knows what a seeker thinks or feels, what s/he lacks, desires, or dreams of. Consciously or subconsciously, I have always been content with the fact that I have not been initiated in any particular tradition. To me, this was something for another life. That thought, however, did make me sad. Deep down, I was always dreaming of that mystical experience of being in the presence of a Master – here and now. Most of all, I had been dreaming of sharing, through initiation, that universal all-embracing love that brings us all together, the love that some call God. Swami Veda, being a Master, knew that. He must have felt how much I needed such experience and how much it would mean to me. And he decided to make a sacrifice. He broke his silence once – to initiate me. He did this for me, a nobody – someone who came to him from nowhere, someone who was going to leave and who might never come back again. Or perhaps he made a sacrifice for a human being that was in real need?

How do I explain what Swami Veda’s sacrifice taught me? Have I been ready to sacrifice that much for anyone except maybe for my children? What have I been ready to sacrifice? How was I making sacrifices? Why? For whom? Did I expect anything in return when I made a sacrifice? Did I have any second thoughts? What were my reasons to compromise with anything? Would I have done anything like that for someone who might even forget what I had done for them? There are so many more questions I have been asking myself, that arose in my mind because of the extraordinary act of Swami Veda.

In the year following my initiation I did come back to Rishikesh. I wanted to spend most of the time around Swami ji in the Sadhaka Grama, the village of seekers. In the first place, I needed to be in the presence of my teacher. To be in the presence of a Master is a mystical experience which I am not able to explain, but I knew I badly needed that experience again. Around Swami ji I felt as if I was in a space of pure Good. It was as if I had another version of me, a modified version, an extension or a squared me – with bigger lungs and cleaner and clearer thoughts, healthier, calmer, more peaceful, more loving, and certainly more forgiving. I also knew that Swami ji expected me to return. I did not want him to think even for a moment that I would disappoint him. How often do we all say to our friends that we will call them and we do not? That we will be in touch and we are not? That we will see them soon, and then we let years pass, until we even forget when we saw them last?

Did I learn to keep my word? Or did I learn to care? Or to feel the obligation of someone who was on the receiving end?

I have a niece who works as a mountain guide. She told me once that all the people in her groups who have had trouble during treks and needed help, ended up hating her and complaining about her at the end.

“They could not look me in the eye,” she said. “People often hate those who help them because they hate being seen when they are weak. Their big fat Ego stands in the way of simple gratitude.”

Did I learn from my teacher to feel genuinely grateful for the help he offered, for his spiritual support? I think I did, but I don’t know how exactly. Swami ji never requested anything. A Master has the authority to require just about anything on the spiritual level - action, behavior, attention. But Swami ji was silent, and I was thousands of miles away – at the other end of the world. There were several e-mail exchanges between us during that year. I was far from India, but I learned endless lessons through each one of them. When I returned eventually, in the summer of 2014, gradually I started to realize what the teaching process between me and Swami ji was.

Swami ji learned that I was able to afford staying in the ashram only for a few days. He learned it directly from me, as well as from another remarkable person who was part of his spiritual family, someone who wanted to help me and who probably always wants to help – the publisher of the monthly journal Ahimsin, Carolyn Hume. Surely, Swami ji knew I needed to be around him and, despite the fact that he was ill and he was in silence, he found the time and the strength to make arrangements for me. I was invited to stay in the Sadhaka Grama as long as I wished and to pay as much as I could afford. Many of my big dreams have been fulfilled in this life – not without my effort, and yet – how many people can say that they have lived their dreams?  Studying and practicing in the SRSG and being around Swami ji was the fulfillment of one of my dreams. I was feeling blessed.

Before I moved to the village of seekers, I was staying, as usual, with my old friend Siddhartha Krishna in the Omkarananda Ganga Sadan. Swami ji had written to me that he was going deeper and deeper into silence but that he was still sitting with the whole community during the evening meditation for about an hour. This, in his words, was his only contact with the outside world at the moment. So, every evening, I was taking a rickshaw from the other end of Rishikesh to go to the Sadhaka Grama for the meditation.

We always gathered in the main hall – twenty, maybe thirty people. I was so happy that I could sit there, in the presence of Swami Veda. I could actually share this hour of meditation with him and all the people who lived in the ashram and to whom being together in meditation was a necessary part of life.  I knew this was the closest contact I was going to have with Swami ji – this summer and maybe ever. 

One evening I arrived in the ashram too early. I was sitting on a bench in front of the meditation hall, waiting for people to start gathering. A small group appeared, walking slowly toward me from the other corner of the building. One of them was pushing a wheel chair. Swami ji was being brought to the meditation hall. I jumped on my feet and stepped back so that I was not in the way. Swami ji looked straight at me, tilted his head toward his left shoulder, as he often used to do, and smiled. His face was shining, as if illuminated. His smile was wide, happy, and gentle. I put my hands together in front of my chest, as if for a prayer, and I closed my eyes for a second.

“Thank you, thank you for everything, for letting me come, for being here with me, for seeing you, for everything…,” I thought.

I opened my eyes. There was more I wanted to express, much more. I now spontaneously crossed my arms in front of my heart as if I was embracing all my feelings for my teacher, all my admiration, all my respect, all my gratitude, in fact all my deep love that filled my heart.

“Thank you for this experience of love,” I thought.

Swami ji lifted his right hand from his lap and put it over his heart – still illuminated in a smile. For a brief moment we were face to face with each other, both smiling, and both embracing each other in our hearts. I was illuminated too, I thought. What was the light that covered me? Swami ji’s love for his disciples, for me, for all human beings? Not only. It was not only the love for anything or anyone. It was that love that is a state of being. And for a brief moment in my life, Swami ji had taken me along to that state. I had felt, experienced, and realized it, and there was no power in the world which could ever take it from me. I may not be able to get back to that state on my own, but I can dream of it and aim at it. I knew then, that even on the days when darkness may envelop my thoughts, when fear and despair may prevail, I could close my eyes and move up into the light of Swami ji’s embrace of love.

It never crossed my mind to utter a word. Can words express what happened in that moment? I cannot find those words perhaps, but I know that what happened that evening was going to stay with me in this and in many other worlds.

The presence of a real Master is a mystical experience. The presence of a silent Master, who can teach you in his silence, is a blessing and an unending source of life and love. If we can only learn!



The Himalayan Tradition of Yoga Meditation

Purification of Thoughts     Dhyana     Mindfulness     Japa     Dharana     Shavasana     Breath Awareness     Qualified Preceptor     Guru Disciple Relationship     Unbroken Lineage     Silence     Full Moon Meditation

Copyright © 2009-2015 by AHYMSIN ®