It's Cold in Benares

By Robert Rabbin

I feel as though I fell through the rabbit hole in 2004. More than at any time in my life, I became involved in the social and political events of the day, the temperature of which presidential election fever pushed to an almost unbearable degree. As we enter the New Year of 2005, I feel drawn to visit my "roots" -- the early experiences which continue to define my life and work. I fully intend to journey even deeper into the rabbit hole this year, but last year taught me that it is of utmost importance to stay firmly planted in the soil of my soul and to heed the wise counsel of silence.

If we are going to heal this troubled world, we are going to do it with wisdom, with compassion, and with an elevated sense of our common humanity. Silence teaches us we cannot create peace through violence. We cannot understand others without listening. We cannot bring love and joy into the world with anger and hatred.

And so I tell the following story for my own sake, in order to renew my own heart and spirit. Of course, I hope you will be similarly inspired.

In 1969, I lived in a wood shack near the village of Trinidad, about thirty miles north of Arcata, California. I was supposed to be studying Eastern philosophy at Humboldt State College but spent hardly any time in class. Instead, I sampled a variety of hallucinogens, sat zazen and practiced Aikido, followed the saga of Carlos Castaneda, and read haiku poetry -- tiny bridges of words that are connected to the immense emptiness behind conventional thinking and meaning. During this time, I encountered the world of silence, and in that silence I experienced the physical world perceived by the senses was a paper-thin facade hiding something vast.

It was in search of that vastness that I traveled to India. In 1973, I set off with a friend whom I had met the year before in Israel. Eric and I had decided to go overland from Europe. We set off from Paris, hitchhiking to Brindisi, Italy, intending to take the ferry to Greece, and then trains and buses through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and into India.

During one of the station stops in eastern Turkey, Eric and I ventured out to the platform, where we met another traveler, a Frenchman. Herve was a shepherd who was returning to India to see his guru, Swami Muktananda. The three of us struck up a friendship and journeyed together another two months, ending up in Delhi, India. We had endured and enjoyed much and had formed a great bond of love. In India, Herve invited us to visit him at his guru's ashram near Bombay. But Eric and I were headed to Bhutan, so as we parted company to go our separate ways, I was sure I would never see Herve again.

I never made it to Bhutan; perhaps the vast silence I was searching for took control of my itinerary. I was first sent to a small ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas, where the resident guru, Neem Karoli Baba, had passed on just days before. I stayed there for about a week. During that time I heard many stories of Muktananda, and several people, including Ram Dass, suggested I visit him.

Returning to Delhi, Eric decided he wanted to study the sitar in Benares. I bought a third class ticket and boarded a train for Madras. My next adventure, courtesy of the silence, was a two week vipassana meditation retreat with Goenka, a Burmese teacher. I subsequently visited Satya Sai Baba's ashram, and wandered around south India. Several months later, I ended up in Bombay. I thought of Herve.

I climbed into a battered red bus and spent the day crawling the 60 miles to visit him in his guru's ashram. I entered through a circular gate into the small marble courtyard that is the entrance wearing sandals, white cotton pants and shirt, and carrying a small rucksack.

Herve was in a Bombay hospital, expected back soon, and Muktananda was up north in Kashmir with a few disciples. I was invited to stay as a guest until Herve's return. I settled into a tiny room with a cot and mattress and a view of the rice paddies and plantain trees. The ashram was quite beautiful and clean, a real oasis from the pounding I had taken wandering around India for five months. Herve returned two days later, and he became my enthusiastic guide through the ashram's rigorous discipline.

One was expected to wake up at 3:00 AM and pretty much remain engaged with meditation, chanting Sanskrit hymns, or work of one sort or another until 10:00 PM. As I was still a guest, I was allowed some leniency. I managed a few hours a day of meditating and chanting, and pitched in with the dishes and the gardening. Sometimes, a few of us would escape to the dingy yellowed tea shop next door, where in deep shadows we'd drink strong chai strained through a T-shirt unwashed in a decade.

I began to get restless. I wanted to head up to Benares to meet Eric. Herve went nuts when I told him I wanted to leave. He insisted I wait a few more days to meet his guru. French shepherds can be very persuasive. I relented.

A few days later, a current of intense excitement went through the ashram. Muktananda was coming home. In the late morning we all gathered densely in the front of the ashram with the usual cacophony signaling auspicious events: bells, trumpets, conches, gongs, and clapping, shouting, and stomping. Suddenly, there was the guru.

I spent several more seemingly uneventful days in the ashram. In Muktananda's presence, everyone seemed more alert and alive, almost on edge. I hadn't yet felt the hammer of recognition which would come later in a series of excruciating inner experiences. Once again I felt it was time for me to head north and meet up with Eric, and I told Herve I really had to get moving. I think he felt sad for me that I hadn't connected with Muktananda in the way he had. I told him my wanderlust was inflamed. I was rested and ready for more adventures. Relenting, Herve said that it was customary good manners to request permission from Baba, which is what the devotees called Muktananda, to leave the ashram; it was a gesture of respect. After all, I had accepted his hospitality for over two weeks. Not wanting to offend him or Baba, I agreed, though I thought asking his permission to go was somewhat incredible. I treasured my independence.

I had my small traveling bag packed and was within minutes of the next bus departure for Bombay. Baba was sitting on his small marble perch in the main courtyard where he would often sit for hours, unperturbed by time or events. Even with my mind preoccupied with imminent departure, I was aware of a breathtaking aspect to Baba. To this day I have not encountered anyone or anything as compelling as Baba just sitting on his cushions on that marble verandah. He was so fabulously dangerous. Anything could happen. Anything did happen.

I went up to him and said, "Baba, I've been in your ashram for a few weeks, but I have to leave now. Thank you very much for allowing me to stay here."

He looked at me for a moment and said, "Where are you going?" It was a reasonable and friendly question. I told him I wanted to go to Benares to meet a friend. He looked at me again, differently, as though he were an x-ray machine. Something in me quivered. "Why do you want to go to Benares?" he asked. "It's cold there at this time of year. It's cold in Benares."

At his last word I went totally blank. I can recall that something in me skipped a beat: it was a sudden disruption of equilibrium, as if my feet slipped out from under me on ice without warning. I was disoriented and confused and I couldn't regain my inner balance. Then I plunged into timelessness for an encounter with silence. I don't know how to describe those moments. I know it will sound odd, but I wasn't there: I disappeared. That's why I don't know what to say.

The next thing I remember, I was standing in front of Herve, some thirty feet away from Baba. I stammered, "I guess I won't be going to Benares." Herve cracked up.

There were many perfectly polite and rational things I could have said to Baba when he told me how cold it was in Benares, like "Yes, but I have warm clothes" or "Don't worry, I won't be there long." But something transpired in that exchange which, to this day, I still can't quite fathom. My life took a radical turn. That moment foretold a dream I would have months later in which Baba, holding my hand as we soared through space, whispered, "If you stay with me, I'll take you flying to places you've never been before."

Baba's guru, Bhagawan Nityananda, was reported to have said, "The heart is the sacred hub of the universe. Go there and roam in that space." I believe that the experience I still can't fathom pointed me irrevocably towards that sacred hub. I remained enthralled by Muktananda and remained under his tutelage for the next ten years. During that decade, I was graced with many excursions to the sacred hub of the universe.

I sometimes reflect on a conversation I had with Baba in his room in India shortly before he passed away. He told me to return to America. He said I was to be his emissary. He said he would tell me where to go and what to do. At that time I thought he was referring to work he had asked me to do as a manager in his organization. Perhaps he did, perhaps he didn't. If there is one thing that is certain, it's that sages are quite inscrutable. Their words and actions have layers of significance and some of the more subtle layers are revealed over time. I don't think it is possible to understand a sage definitively. I don't think anyone can know with certainty or authority what a sage says to a particular person, including the person to whom the sage speaks. I do think that behind everything a sage says is the basic commandment, "The heart is the sacred hub of the universe. Go there and roam in that space."

Looking back, I think that's what Baba meant. I think he meant that I should continue to roam in the sacred hub of the universe. He was showing me my path in this life. To be his emissary is to stand for the light of our own true nature, our essence, the Self. I think he meant that I should serve that Self and listen to that Self and follow that Self. Rumi, a Sufi poet of the Self, said the same thing in this way, "Let the love of holy laughter guide you." I think this is what Baba meant.

A few days after that conversation, I said good-bye to him as he sat on his chair in the courtyard. I began to slowly walk away, resigned to return to America. He called me one last time. As I turned to him, I saw he had leaned forward in his chair. He held a tiny candy in his right hand. With an impish and mischievous smile that contained all the love I could ever want, he said, "You should never leave the ashram without something sweet." That was the last time I saw him.

Over the years, I have tried to follow his instructions. I agree with J. Krishnamurti, who said that truth is a pathless land. The pathless path is not always clear, rarely certain, frequently terrifying, always challenging. Roaming in the sacred hub of the universe is simple, but it's not easy. Still, I think we should try.

What Baba said to me is an important message for everyone. I think we all know intuitively that our real home is the sacred hub of our own heart and that our real identity is that Self which is identical to the supreme consciousness that pervades the entire universe. I sincerely hope we will all try to experience the truth of that sacred hub, our own Self, and to then fully embody its transcendent beauty in every thing we do.

In this way, our lives and this planet will become a living paradise of joy and peace. May everyone on Earth experience the truth of their own heart, their own Self -- the one heart and the one Self to which we all belong.

Robert Rabbin is a San Francisco-based writer and speaker. He is the author of numerous books and articles, and the founder of RealTime Speaking, an online hub of global spiritual activism. For more more information, please visit http://www.robertrabbin.com

Copyright © 2005 Robert Rabbin, All Rights Reserved