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The Rediff Interview/Stephen H Ruppenthal
August 30, 2004
I have a special, soft corner in my heart for Hinduism. It is like a mother to me, and I have always felt so," says Stephen H Ruppenthal.
The author of the recently published The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation was barely 14 when he fell in love with India.
Son of a TWA pilot, he could travel across the world but India hooked him during his first visit. Later he would come to know the spiritual master Eknath Easwaran and work with him for about three decades.
He spoke to Senior Editor Arthur J Pais.
You say when you visited India for the first time everything came to you in a different light. What was this unique experience due to?
A journalist said not too long ago that my insights into India may have been due to karma. Over the past month, I have thought a lot about that. Maybe I did have some of India in me even before I landed there at age 14. Mine is the India of the spirit. Before that, I was not religious in the least. But I came away from India wanting passionately to find the deepest truth in religion; not hear it from a church pulpit, but experience it in my consciousness.
Were you tempted to settle down in India? If so, why didn't you do it?
You bet I was tempted!! But I was a young man who had been offered a full scholarship to study Chinese and Sanskrit literature at one of the best American universities [University of California at Berkeley]. I made a compromise: I resolved to spend the year at the university and then take my summer breaks at an ashram in India, becoming steeped in mediation practice. That was when I met Easwaran.
How did that change your resolve to go to India?
He was starting an Indian-inspired ashram near my campus. In a way, I found India where I was.
What are some of the most important things you learned from Easwaran?
To meditate and find inner peace. In his presence, I meditated many hours a day. Meditation with him usually took me deeper in consciousness than when he was not present. Being with Easwaran was like seeing into a self that was pure love, deep and hidden, accessible only in his presence.
Do you belong to a particular religion?
I am not affiliated with any religion. Passage meditation, as taught in my book, is a method drawing on all religions, not a belief system.
Yet you are full of Hinduism, isn't it?
This method's founder was steeped in the Hindu tradition. I have a special, soft corner in my heart for Hinduism. It is like a mother to me, and I have always felt so.
Many people in the West are drawn to Indian spiritualism thinking that it is easy and easily accessible. What do you think about it?
Any great treasure takes some work to find and gain. When something is easily accessible, often it isn't worth that much, or perhaps the hard work comes later down the road. To me, Indian spirituality is a treasure of the highest order.
And yet reaching the treasure isn't easy.
Teachers like Easwaran have made it available, but the work of traversing deeper consciousness is nevertheless difficult and dangerously perilous at times.
Have you had setbacks in your quest?
I have experienced serious falls and reverses and know the pitfalls. I will not agree with anyone who thinks the work of spiritual discipline is easy. One has at times to pit one's whole being against very dark foes. There is nothing easy about that, but the rewards, when they come, are stupendous.
What does India mean to you at this stage of life?
India stands for hope in a world full of violence and despair. The fertile spiritual soil of India will bring forth a spiritual figure who will guide the world back into love, into peace, into mutual respect and caring for each other. That is how we will save this planet.
When was the last time you visited India?
My last visit was over 30 years ago. It set my direction in life. I visited ashrams in south India and became convinced there that meditation held answers for me. At home, people were entering deeper consciousness in their experiments with psychedelic drugs. But I didn't see these brought major changes in them and their lives.
I believed it was possible to enter one's deepest self in meditation in a more permanent way. These experiences would in turn imprint themselves on one's whole life and world, helping one to serve humanity in the way one is most meant to.
Some Americans consider Buddhism or Hinduism as New Age religions. How can that perception be changed?
Westerners should look carefully at the thousands of years of tradition and teaching that lie at the bedrock of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is because of this misguided 'New Age' view of these religions that I have published The Path of Direct Awakening, to show some of the great wealth that is there in the spiritual literature of Indian Buddhism and in the traditions of China, which so looked to India for light. To show what these traditions contain is the best way to challenge the view that they are curious, new age religions.
What are some of the Indian philosophical (and other literature) you value most?
I am more a devotee than a jnani. Though I love the wisdom of the Upanishads and such high philosophy and logic as the Nyaya-Vaishesheka and Nagarjuna, I feel most drawn to the life and example of Sri Krishna. Right now, religion is still concepts up in my head. I want to have religion flooding my heart.
How will you go through that process?
Sri Krishna offers this in the Bhagvad Gita. That is why I have memorised all of chapters 2 through 12, plus 15 and parts of 18, for use in my passage meditation. When I meditate on these passages, I try to repeat these words in my heart, where I believe Sri Krishna resides in all his glory. In this regard, I have also memorized all passages with the yin-yang symbol in my book that brings the same peace and energy directly from nature and the magical world around us.
What captivates you most about the epics?
I am captivated also by epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and by the tales of the Buddha's former birth in the Jataka. These great stories have convinced me that the deepest awareness, the kind I am seeking, comes only through suffering and trial. Plato once said in the Republic that wisdom can only be attained when the philosopher is compelled by circumstance to undergo painful training and experience -- compelled, because no one would ever willingly undertake such difficult, often lonely trials.
Do you believe in reincarnation?
We come into life many times until we learn the secret of who we truly are and why we are here, as the Zen mystics say, 'our original face before our mother and father were born'.
What would you like to be born as in your next life?
I know imagination can run wild on this subject and does!!! I am always amazed how, when someone looks into their past lives, somehow they were always a maharaja or maharani, and not a garbageman or washerwoman.
But for myself, I have one wish for my next life: to continue uninterrupted in my practice of meditation, amidst spiritual company, toward the destiny of full spiritual awakening I believe I was born to achieve.
What would you not like to be born as?
I do not want to be born as a selfish, materialistic, and spiritually blind individual. I am trying hard to rid myself of these tendencies in this life.
Apart from meditation, what helps you to achieve your goals?
Therapy, selfless work. That is the other part of spiritual work, to get at the shadow material in consciousness that does not necessarily appear until we are near death and the activities of daily life are no longer possible.
I have sought ways to bring them out in the open, so that I can deal with them now, while willful effort and spiritual work are still possible.
What would you tell an American or a non-Indian who is getting interested in Hinduism or Buddhism?
I would encourage them not to make major life decisions until they do the following. First, study books that interpret the scriptures with life and practicality to our age. Then I would urge them to go to India for the darshan of a saint. After that, they will see much more clearly what their true work and path in life will be.
Image: Uday Kuckian