Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sitting at the Master's Feet (Let them eat parables)

I love reading the parables. Not just the stories themselves - though I definitely have favorites there and can probably go on about one or two at some point - but I love reading about Jesus' more intimate teaching moments with his disciples. He spoke to crowds, sometimes huge crowds of people, and when he taught them it was in parables - allegorical stories with lessons embedded in them, meanings to be found between the lines. He said things that made people think, mull over his words, take home concepts to ponder; and then the crowds would dissipate and most folks went back to their homes or jobs. But there were some - more than a few it sounds like - who stayed to hear more.

I picture Jesus sitting cross-legged on the ground or on a large rock perhaps, with a smaller group of people who have stayed behind, eager to hear more. Maybe they have questions about what their teacher has just been saying, or want to go off on tangents that tickled at their brains while he was speaking... maybe they know that once the crowd leaves, the rabbi will continue with a deeper teaching for those who stay to hear it. So we have Jesus in front and others gathered around, sitting on the ground, on rocks or fallen tree limbs, on the sand by the Sea of Galilee... or maybe indoors at someone's house with everyone gathered on the floor and in whatever chairs were available... what matters isn't the location... this is the group that stayed - those "with ears to hear", who wanted to know more and sought to truly understand. Teaching in this way is a time-honored practice with spiritual leaders in many traditions, including some that I have been a part of prior to becoming a Christian.

Teaching the Disciples Under an Olive Tree - Painting by James Tissot

For many years I practiced Vedanta*, a Hindu philosophy based on the Vedas - ancient scriptures of India. As a child I would go to the pujas, (a word used to describe both worship and the religious festivals around it), and later I sat in temple services with my father, my step-mom and sometimes my little brother. You would leave your shoes at the door, come forward to prostrate in front of the shrine if you're able, find a seat and attend a service that in many ways is similar to a Jewish or Christian service - worship, a sermon or lesson, stand in a receiving line to greet the swami or take the dust of his feet, and then sharing prasad - food (often sweets or fruit) that has been offered to God and then shared amongst the devotees. We didn't go often, and I loved opportunities to be there. The best times to me were after or sometimes before services, when a small group might have the good fortune to accompany one of the swamis on a walk through the gardens or in a smaller chapel. This was a time of darshan, blessings or grace that come from being near holy people or places. Sometimes it would be a quiet, companionable walk and other times the swami would address us, to answer questions or share thoughts that weren't spoken to the larger, more public crowd. These times were magical for me, and I absorbed as much as I could.

[Puja in Mother's shrine - Portland]
When I became older I went to study with the teacher I had chosen - a very old guru at the Vedanta Center in Portland, Oregon named Swami Aseshananda, and became an initiate. I stayed in one of the "Women's Houses" with other devotees a couple of times, which I loved. These were cooperative intentional living spaces near the temple (there were places for men to stay as well), and the permanent residents lived as "lay monastics" with a Rule of Life, but no formal ordination.

We did service at the Center, helping to prepare food and setting up chairs and such before Sunday services or special gatherings, but the "real stuff" happened when there were only ten to twenty devotees there. We would walk with him** or sit in the small chapel while our teacher did the daily worship and sometimes we'd meditate or sing or just observe, as he bid us.

[Swami teaching after services]
Often after Sunday services, Swami Aseshananda would retire to a sitting room off of the main hall. He would settle into a chair and those of us who had stayed would gather around, sitting on chairs, cushions, or the rug. His sermons  involved anecdotes, stories and sometimes parables (or even jokes - he had a wonderful sense of humor), and during this more private time he would take questions about things he had said, answering and going into greater depth; he explained the day's lesson, subtle meanings, translations of passages that he had spoken in Hindi - (his native tongue, which he had a tendency to slip into) - things he wanted to be sure we understood.We listened and hoped we had ears to truly hear.

[With love & humor - Boston]
So as I read about Jesus teaching the parables and then explaining about them to a smaller group of devotees who stayed behind to catch whatever words he cared to share - I see myself there. I imagine I'm sitting on the ground, surrounded by others who want to be closer to him, and to discuss and understand the deeper meanings of things; sitting at his feet and feeding on his words, being nourished within and filled with the joy of his presence.

 I try to be in this place as often as I can when I'm reading scripture; but it's especially easy with the parables, when Jesus' disciples gathered around after the crowds had gone to hear what's really been said and to gather the darshan of sitting at the master's feet.

* As a note - even after becoming a Christian, I still tend to view things through a Vedantic lens, especially in seeing all the major world religions as different paths to the same end. Happy to expound on that as asked.
** I found this footage online; Swami Aseshananda in the rose garden at the Portland Center, c.1980. Video credit: Mondaymedia (YouTube)
*** Photo credits (in order): Vedanta Society of Portland, Mother's Trust Ashram Michigan, Vedanta Society of St. Louis. The caption behind Swami in the Boston photo is from the Rig Veda: "God is one. Men call Him by different names".


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