at the time of this writing
Peter lived in Tiruvannamalai, India a town in the state of Tamil Nadu situated 185 km from Chennai/Madras and 210 km from Bangalore (Karnataka).
HOW MY HEAD GOT IN THE TIGERS MOUTH
The Beginning of the Vedic New Year, April 2011
I want to begin with a few paragraphs containing a more lyrical description of where I am right now-India. Although India is very real, it seems also dreamlike, one of the qualities that some schools of Indian Philosophy attribute to the waking state in general. I will take that dreamlike state as a jumping off place.
There is a different dream being dreamt in India, even now, in the twilight hours of that dream, while the dreamer tosses lightly and seems like he might awake into this modern world, India dreams that dream. India has slept and dreamed for thousands of years before the the Trojan horse of Western technology spread into the world. There are large parts of India that are dreaming still.
You can tell the dominant theme and principle of a culture by its tallest building when you come into town. In the largest cities of India, where the tallest buildings are no longer religious temples but economic towers, they are dreaming that new dream that has come to them from the West. But, in ancient India, and the vast majority of India lives in ancient India, where the tallest building in town is a religious temple and in the small villages, and the vast majority of India is in small villages, the modern world does not make a very big impression. Here, oxcarts move slowly down the road. Roosters crow in the morning and throughout the day. Women go to wells to draw water. Mandalas are drawn every day in chalk outside the front door of a house. The people of the villages are farmers and they walk about barefoot and the electricity, which they use very sparingly, goes off daily in the afternoon. Time is measured out differently here and pace is kept by the sun and the moon, by the turning and obligations of the seasons, by the weather and the winds and by the crops and their care.
But, this is just the bed of the dreamer. Any dreamer needs a bed. But, the dream I am talking about is not the dream of living in a village. I am pointing to something else, something more fundamental. How shall I describe it? Let me offer a few names and descriptions: Let me call it a dream of Truth, GOD and Bliss. That is extremely general so let me elaborate.
To the casual observer, India seems to be full of many Gods. A few will say there is only One God, but, the greatest of these dreamers have said there is ONLY GOD. This has been and is the dream of holy men and sages and sadhus and even Buddhists and Jains and Su?s and Pirs and poets to this day. It is a dream of Reality and Truth so huge that there is no other. It has been dreamt in the rand and small temples covered with Gods in thousands of varieties of forms so that each devotee may and his or her own favorite, in a form that hints at what cannot be seen, that represents what cannot be understood and allows the undefinable to be approached, seen, sensed and served.
India dreams a people who have history, time, wisdom, experience and sophistication far beyond the white Europeans who only very recently developed their culture and developed technology and machines that gave them great physical power over others. But, these whites are like young adolescents, unaware of where they are on the long scale of time and maturity, full of themselves and thinking they must be lords of it all. The great power of their tools, machines and guns gave them reason to think themselves superior and these white men came to to this dreaming country of India, bringing their superior culture and their white Christian God, who was in fact was a dark-skinned Jewish Rabbi-Jesus from the middle
East whose teachings they did not really follow or understand and naively asked the people of India to believe in him like they did, as if it would make a real difference.
But, India did not believe very much for India makes much more of experience than of belief. India was dreaming, but, India knows it is dreaming and to a person who knows that they are dreaming, what matters is not what they believe within the dream, not what they do within the dream, but what matters most is to wake up from the dream. This is the nature of the dream that is dreamt in India.
They know this because great Beings who they venerated and istened to for thousands of years, have woken from the dream and with great authority told them they were still dreaming and the still dreaming people of India recognized these teachings and stories and the Truth in them and honored them and followed them to the best of their ability and that is the dream of India.
What is unique and different about India is that for thousands of years and to a greater extent than any civilization on earth, they were a people who not only dreamed, but knew that they were dreaming. They were a culture that ultimately valued direct realization over belief.
The dream of the Indian culture is a dream of Liberation not one of Salvation. Salvation is about the good thing happening to the self or ego or soul or I. Liberation is to wake up from the dream of self, ego, soul or I. Liberation says the primal sin is to not wake up. Liberation is not the result of any action done within the dream. India dreams that there is no perfect thought or action which makes the difference. Only waking makes the difference. This is the dream of India.
When Alexander the Great first came to India he sent out Onesikritos, a Greek disciple of Diogenes, who was traveling with Alexander, to and a great man amongst the naked philosophers of India. He found a certain Dandamis, who lived in the forest near Takshila, one of ancient India’s great centers of learning. He addressed the Indian holy man: “Praise be to you O, learned teacher of Brahmins. The son of the mighty God Zeus, Alexander, sovereign of the World, commands you to go to him. If you comply, you will be rewarded. If not, your head will be cut off.” Dandamis, who was neither threatened nor impressed by this aggressive invitation, looked up from his bed of grass and leaves and said: “I am also a son of God or Zeus, if Alexander be one. Unlike Alexander, I am content with what I have. I don’t need any gifts. If he cuts off my head, so be it. God receives all men when death sets them free. To be merged in God is far better than being received by Alexander. But, for now, please move aside and allow the sun rays to fall on me.” This is the dream that is dreamt in India.
The Christian historian Eusebios, told of an incident concerning the great philosopher Socrates. He wrote that Socrates once spoke with a Hindu who had come to Athens. The man inquired what sort of philosopher Socrates was. When Socrates replied that he was an investigator of human life,” the Indian laughed, saying that “no one was able to clearly observe human affairs if he was ignorant of Divine affairs.” This is the dream that is dreamt in India.
Millions of holy men- Sadhus, wander through India on a lifetime of pilgrimage. Most of India still has some sense of what they are seeking, of what caused them to venture forth and why they live the way that they do. This is the dream of India.
Great Realizers for thousands of years have arisen in this country. From Sankara to Buddha, from Neem Karoli Baba to Ramana Maharshi, from Nityananda to Ramakrishna and thousands of others over eons of time, again and again and again they rose and radiated their Awakening, blessing those who still slept and this is the beautiful fruit of the dream of the dream of India.
Now, let me tell you my story, There was a Man who wondered through the forest. And I, out of the midst of many troubles, went to India.
This was my second time in India. The first time, I had come to complete my study of Ayurveda at Kalidas Sanskrit University in Nagpur in 2004. At that time, I owned two houses in the town of Sonoma, 30 miles north of San Francisco. My brother had graciously helped me buy the first one when I got married with my first wife. Soon after we purchased the house and in spite of the vows we took, my wife and I separated and I purchased a second house all on my own by refinancing my first house. Housing prices were going up like a rocket and it seemed like an intelligent move to create financial security for the future. As a cabinetmaker, I had all the work I could handle. Soon after I separated from my wife, my Mother died in Florida and my Father came to live with me for several wonderful years. A few months before I left for India, my Father died. In spite of all these losses, I certainly had blessings as well. I began to live with a wonderful, beautiful partner – Gilda.
Although I felt like I was at the end of some great ascending period of my life, the economy in America was booming. I sold one house and with the profits I went to India. There, I completed a degree in Ayurveda from Kalidas Sanskrit University in 2004.
Now, seven years later, looking back on this, I see that time as the peak of my success in the world. Life looked good, I saw no reason why it would all not work out. Housing would continue to appreciate and I envisioned eventually selling my house and moving to a more quiet and beautiful, remote and less expensive place to live when I got older.
This was not to be. Financially, everything has gone down hill from there. We lost our remaining house and have been unable to fully provide financially for ourselves for several years. I have gone bankrupt for the second time and we have been living on the gracious gifts of friends and family for over a year.
How did we get to this point? When I had come back from India the first time, I found, that through a very unfortunate, yet serious misunderstanding, the money I had counted on when I returned was gone. Needing to pay a mortgage and living expenses immediately, I looked about for work. I was hired to give lectures for an Ayurvedic Herb company and traveled around to some of the major cities in the United States giving introductory talks on Ayurveda. I was good at it. I had been a TM teacher in the 70s and was at ease sharing wisdom in front of large groups of people. I felt blessed to be able give the gift of understanding relative to Life and health. I enjoyed it immensely, but it did not develop into long term employment. Back home, I found that giving consultations in Ayurveda, work which I found highly rewarding and of great service to others, would not pay for the high cost of living in northern California. I looked around for something else.
I was offered a job driving 40lbs of marijuana back to the East coast for $7000 and so I took it. I thought to myself, How many times have I driven across the United States and never had any trouble with the police? It seemed like a sure and easy thing. This time, however, it was not. I was stopped in Wyoming for going 2 miles over the speed limit and after giving me a ticket the policeman asked if he could search my car. I said, No and he called in dogs to search the car.
I was busted. I took the rap and refused to turn in anyone else in spite of offers of a lesser sentence. My life hit a brick wall. I thought that I was going to jail for ten years. My brief time in Wyoming county jail had already exposed me to the cuisine, company and culture that I could expect and I felt that there would be a difficult decade ahead. I went to trial in Wyoming hoping to prove that the search had been illegal. The police have no right to search someone without due cause in the United States and if they do, then the evidence is thrown out. Although the video and audio recordings of the arresting conversation, showed no due cause whatsoever and the policeman never asked about anything that showed concern, he lied in court and said that the reason he called for a search is that he could smell the marijuana in my trunk quadruple wrapped in plastic, vacuum sealed, inside suitcases which I had never opened on a winter day hovering around zero degrees in Wyoming, by the side of the interstate, with the winds blowing 40 mile per hour and the guy was a smoker. Even though he had never mentioned any of this on tape or video, he testified to it in court under oath and that was that.
He was working backwards. He had found the marijuana and therefore he could make up anything as long as it was subjective. He was already right. How could we deny what he smelled. We made a deal with the DA and somehow, even in Republican Wyoming, I was able to get off with three years probation and a felony conviction.
This sobered me up and brought me down to earth. I was humbled and confounded. It also scared the shit out of me leaving me very calm. While I did not feel that nature or God or Grace had deserted me, I now felt that I would no longer be supported in random adventuring upon the world and the mere enjoyment of experiences. My life since then has only borne out that conclusion. Up until then, I had lived a rather adventurous life of exploration. There was always something new, some place, some mountain, some backcountry, some woman, some person, some job, event, party, situation, teacher or book that I had sought to taste. I had certainly lived a charmed and lucky life in many respects. But now, I began to feel that my life had passed into another season. That kind of luck had run out. The wave I had been riding on was coming to an end. I was no longer being carried in the direction I had been going up to that point. I needed to recognize a different path and walk it, but, I did not know what it was.
Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage, once said the path of a religiously oriented person is not an easy one and once you have taken that path, “Your head is already in the Tigers mouth”, meaning it is impossible to ever return to your life as you knew it before and your life is no longer in your control. This last statement may not make sense to person who got up in the morning, went to work, had kids and grew old and died in America. But, to anyone who has encountered the sudden intrusion of unexpected religious events that completely changed their life, it is something they know very deeply. I think, that I had taken the path of religious life when I was young and then, once I had taken it, I tried to escape from it and that has been the story of my life up till then.
The result of nearly going to jail for ten years along with the realization that there was nothing I could do about it, really only convinced me that my head was about to be in a Tigers Mouth. I had come face to face with inexorable fate. It was this aspect of life that the Greeks considered and celebrated in their great tragedies. It was fate that Oedipus and all those around him sought to escape and it was precisely the inability of man to escape fate, in spite of everything, great and small, he did to avoid it, that formed the underlying structure of every great tragedy. Many ancient cultures found the consideration of Tragedy to be a most worthy and a great balancer of the egoic blindness that tends to arise when we are full of it, that is when things look good and the future looks bright and everyone lives happily ever after. The Greeks saw Tragedy as the very nature of life. much like the Buddha saw Dukkha or suffering as the First Noble Truth.
In 2008, a blind, cripple quickly walked into a non-existent wall and the house of cards that was built on sand that gave rise to the American economy, collapsed and there came a great depression to America. We were only one family amongst millions of others that lost their home and job. Fortunately, we had the support of close friends and family who helped us greatly. We were very lucky and thankful to have such support. I continued to try and find work.
I tried to go back into woodworking. I followed up on ads for work I found in the paper and online and sent in my resume again and again. I had worked at the top end of the architectural woodworking field for decades. However, with the depression, there were simply not that many jobs available. Businesses were cutting back to survive and they did not need a highly skilled guy to whom they thought they would have to pay higher wages. Several businesses said I was overqualified. I even applied to a company in Maine, all the way across the country. It specialized in high-end Mega-Yacht Interiors, an area of the economy that had not suffered at all. With my portfolio, filled with years of doing exquisite and high-end jobs for the extremely rich, I should of been a perfect fit. I was ready to go back East and live and work and send money back to maintain our lives in California. They did not hire me.
We had to move into a small apartment to lower our overhead and we found ourselves in an ongoing struggle to pay the bills. I went bankrupt for the second time in my life and we sometimes did not have enough money for gas or food.
I applied for a job teaching four classes at two local colleges. I wrote up the courses and presented them to the respective administrations. I was called in to give preliminary presentations. They really liked what I offered and how I presented it and I was given approval for all the classes. I told them at the beginning that I was a felon for possession of Marijuana and they said that should be no problem. It wasn’t robbing a bank or child molestation. After all, marijuana was nearly legal in California. Over the next two months, many people enrolled in the classes and then, right before the programs would start, I was told that they could not hire me as I was a felon. I was deeply disappointed. At this point, I had a feeling that this was not just karma or luck but that there was some force at work in my life. It seemed like this was the work of the very same hand that had stopped my car in Wyoming. I hoped it would be easy. I prayed it would be graceful for those around me and I aspired to know the direction it wanted me to go in so I could help out.
Since I could not find a job, or when I did it ran out of my hands like water, I began to consider more ways we could dramatically lower our overhead. During an Ayurvedic consultation, one of my clients mentioned that she was going to Vilcabamba in Ecuador. She asked me what I thought about it. I looked it up on the internet to give her a more informed opinion. It looked exquisite. It was outrageously beautiful, near the equator and at an elevation of 5000ft. Perfect weather and very clean. It was one of the few places in the world where there are an abundance of centenarians. You can drink right out of the rivers. There was a small American expatriate community, a lot of them raw foodists, most of whom had gone there for the healthy climate and pristine environment. Finally and wonderfully, it was very inexpensive to live there. I thought that I should go and check it out. Gilda and I could live there and support ourselves. I could give Ayurvedic Consultations and do some woodworking, Gilda could give Jyotish readings and counseling and we should be able to support ourselves. I started reading more about it and the more I read, the better it looked.
I was making plans to fly down to Ecuador to check it out when I thought of India, specifcally, Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lived. It was in the foothills of the Himalayas at about 6000ft and said to be very beautiful and up off the plains of India, which I had found diffcult to live in. This seemed like an even better idea-Gilda could study Thangka painting which she always wanted to do and I could study Tibetan Medicine, Tibetan Astrology and work in the wonderful Buddhist library they have there. Most of all, I thought that in the higher elevations, with a religious library and culture surrounding me, I would not only be inspired to write, something which I really wanted to do for years, but now I would have the time. India was even less expensive than Ecuador. Very quickly, I decided to go to India instead of Vilcabamba. I had much more sympathy with the Buddhist and Indian cultures than I did with the Ecuadorean. I was chastened by the fact that I had even considered Vilcabamba as it would not of connected with what had been the central core of my life- the culture, practice, philosophy, realization and realizers of the high Teachings and Dharma of the Indian Traditions.
I was struck by my ability to be distracted. I saw my own tendencies as dangerous. They often now led to my life being wasted. Guiding my life would involve a sensitivity to a much subtler perception that would involve more listening and less will. Along with this, I was beginning to feel that I was getting older and time was running out.
I had not heard of any great teachers in Vilcabamba. There were no temples there. I had not spent my life studying any great wisdom tradition from there. I had once again almost gone down a road that would not of made the best use of my life. Let me explain what I mean by that with another well known story in India about a tiger. It goes like this:
There is a man is walking through the jungle. As he is going along he realizes that a tiger is stalking him. Seeing a cliff very nearby, he runs over to the edge and begins to lower himself down by some strong vines that had been growing there. The tiger has run after him and now stands glaring and growling at him from above. The man continues to lower himself on the vine till he hears a growl from below him. Looking down, he sees another tiger, standing on the ground, looking up at him expectantly. Now, he stops and doesn’t know what to do. There is a tiger above him and one below him. What to do? Then, as he looks up again at the tiger he has just escaped from, he sees a rat, gnawing at the vine he is hanging on. He realizes that it will be all over soon. He hangs there without hope. As he ponders his situation, he looks out and sees some wild grapes growing on the cliff. He reaches out and plucks one. He puts it in his mouth. Wow, he thinks, that is delicious.
This is a picture of human life. Walking through the jungle of existence we are threatened by death. That is the first tiger. We run and try to escape, going over a cliff where we think the tiger cannot follow. We are right, that tiger cannot follow, but there is another tiger down below. We are caught, there is no escape from death. But, at least we are OK where we are. We can persist where we are. That too, is not true. We now notice that the rat of inexorable time is gnawing at the support of our life. We are getting older, things are changing and we will inevitably die. But, in the midst of this situation, there is pleasure to be had. There are the grapes growing on the cliffs. This ability to be distracted (the grapes) is when your head is about to be in the Tigers mouth. That was how it seemed to me. My head was not yet the in tigers mouth but living in the short time right before it. Here I was tasting grapes and talking about how delicious they were. I was a fool. The only thing I had going for me is that I suspected something was up.
Ramana Maharshi once said, The scriptures are not meant for the wise because they do not need them; As for the the ignorant, they do not want them. Only those aspiring to liberation look to the scriptures. That means the scriptures are neither for wisdom or ignorance. Perhaps the scriptures are for the confused, but, I suspect, only for those who know they are confused. They are for someone whose head was about to be in the Tigers mouth, hanging on the vine on the cliff, knowing he was about to die, trying to decide what kind of grapes to choose. All that I knew about dharma and religion and scripture couldn’t really help me at this point because I was in between, sort of, almost, kind of, not yet.
There was one more twist of fate to be told in this story. While still in the US, trying to decide what to do, I called a friend of mine, Chris, who had lived in India for over a decade. I told him that I was planning on coming to India. I had met Chris when I was with Maharishi in the Transcendental Meditation Movement in the 70s in Santa Barbara. Chris was a noble and good-hearted character and although he suffered a lot physically, he has spent his life in a kind and giving way. He had been busted for manufacturing ecstasy in the 80s and had spent ten years in a Federal Penitentiary, because, unlike his other friends, he refused to turn in anyone else. Upset with his lack of cooperation, the government gave him the maximum sentence. Over his years in prison, I had visited him several times and tried to help him there however I could. When he got out, he went to Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, the spiritual home of Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest sages of the 20th century.
When I called and told him my plans of going to live in Dharamsala, Chris told me that he had a friend who was leaving Tiruvannamalai for about six months and that his house would be available for a very small sum of money. It was a beautiful house, had a perfect view of the holy mountain, was quiet and I would be welcome to live there. I did not want to live in South India but the rent was very low, It was like a Jewish dilemma, pork on sale. I did not pass it up. That is the outer story of how I ended up coming to Tiruvannamalai.
I had planned on visiting Tiruvannamalai towards the very end of my first trip to India, I wanted to see Chris and visit the Ramana Maharshi Ashram. I was staying on the coast of Tamil Nadu, in the upper floor of a two foor seafront apartment in the town of Mahabalipuram. It was the last week of 2004. There was an all India
Dance Festival being held there that I wanted to attend. I had come down the coast of Tamil Nadu on my way to Thanjavur, to visit the Saraswati Mandir Library where many of the Nadi Leaves are kept for the Bhrigu tradition. These Nadi Leaves are palm leaf manuscripts containing, in writing, a record of many unmistakable details of your present life as well as relevant details of your past life or lives and your future life. They were first created thousands of years ago and subsequently translated from Sanskrit to ancient Tamil, many hundreds of years ago. They were the most magical and wild thing I had ever come across in India.
When I visited the Nadi readers, I gave them only my right thumbprint and they found a palm leaf inscribed with my Fathers name, my Mothers name, my name, my girlfriend’s name (who they called my wife), my brothers name and many things about my present life, past life and future life. The information about my present life was obviously true and so I was naturally very sympathetic to what they said about my past life and future life. One of the things they told me was that in my last life, I had been with a great spiritual teacher in South India. Although they did not give his name, I believe it was Ramana Maharshi.
The first time I saw Ramanas picture was in the Shambhala bookstore in Berkeley in the late 60s. I had walked into the store and his picture was above the shelves with a lot of other spiritual masters. I was immediately and powerfully drawn to his face. I became so full of emotion that I spontaneously started crying. This was the being who I had a vision of when I was a young boy.
When I was 15 years old, I had been reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse late into the night. I had just finished the book. I was upstairs alone in my parent’s house. I had just put down the book, when a trap door seemed to open above my head and a flood of liquid bliss poured down over my being while a strong and overwhelming ascending current rose through my body. In the midst of this light and energy, I had visions of India and a cave and a holy man who I now realized by the picture in that bookstore was Ramana Maharshi.
Perhaps that was when the tiger first took my head, that night upstairs in my house in Takoma Park, Maryland. Perhaps it had taken my head in another life. Either way, it changed the orientation of my life. I wrote a letter to my parents telling them that I loved them and that I would be OK, packed a knapsack and left home that night and started to wander like a sadhu amongst the hippies in 1960s America.
Now, there I was at the end of my first trip to India, It was early morning and I was sitting on my porch in Mahabalipuram looking out towards the Indian ocean, I was on the phone with Chris telling him I was planning on coming to Tiruvannamalai to visit him before I visited Thanjuvur to see the Nadi readers. I also wanted to visit the ashram of Ramana Maharshi. As we were talking, a massive tidal wave came in. I shouted to Chris that the whole Indian Ocean was pouring onto the land and This may be it, thinking I was about to die and I hung up the phone. I heard women screaming and the huge sound of the ocean sweeping inland carrying all sorts of things with it that were banging into the building I was in. The people downstairs were trapped in their room and could not get out. I quickly began to wrap up my computer in plastic bags and made ready to jump into the waters to be swept inland rather than die in my room from the quickly rising waters. After only a minute, I came back out on my porch and was about to climb over the rail and jump into the inrushing waters when I noticed that the ocean was not rising anymore. It had come up about 15ft. There were no more sounds from downstairs. The waters stayed there for several minutes and then slowly started to recede. That was the end of my last trip to India. I left the coast, went inland and then few back to America.
Now, seven years later, I find myself continuing that trip right where it left off, coming directly to Tiruvannamalai and living very close to Ramana Maharshi’s ashram. Many threads of seemingly disparate experiences wove themselves together to produce this story. I wasn’t the weaver. It certainly wasn’t the story that I tried to write.
I really don’t know what will happen next. So far, everything just fell into place. One thing I know- My head seems firmly planted in the Tigers mouth. I think we all know how that turns out.