Alan Richard Griffiths was born today in 1906. Educated at Oxford under C.S. Lewis, with J.R.R. Tolkein as a fellow student, he went on to become Dom. Bede Griffiths, a professed Benedictine monk. After 25 years in a cloistered English monastery, he went to live in India in 1955. He described this as “going to India to seek the other half of his soul”.
Inspired by the Upanishads and the Vedas, Bede lived as both, Catholic priest and Hindu guru aka Swami Dayananda, the bliss of compassion. And that, indeed, he was: a truly, remarkable presence of love and compassion. As you can understand, the combination of spiritual paths he lived, however, was by no means easy. He was breaking new ground in what today is known as “inter-spiritual”, that is, embodying more than one spiritual tradition simultaneously. Bede was a renaissance man in the fullest sense of the word.
Saintly though he was, Bede was not free of those who criticized him or found fault with his methods. In fact there were quite a few who had negative things to say about him. How can someone embody both Christianity and Hinduism at the same time? When you look for it, there is always someone out there who will find something lacking or problematic, even about Krishna, or Jesus, who are far beyond any ordinary sense of what a spiritual teacher is.
For instance, there are people who will ask, “How can Krishna be God and have so many wives and lovers? Doesn’t that give his followers to do the same?” Or, “How can Jesus say, ‘Father, father, why do you forsake me?’, in the garden before his death? How can He be God and still be so separated from God?”
The answers to these questions are best tackled by theologians. Of importance to us is that the people who ask such questions usually have no intention of genuinely following the spiritual teaching of the teacher they ask the question of. They focus on one thing, instead of the whole, and often take one thing out of context to support their opinion.
In more recent times, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King are examples of extraordinary humans who have come under criticism. We don’t want to be blind to a leader’s shortcomings, nor ignore the clay feet of the hero or heroine we look up to. Humans are humans. They are flawed at least in one way. They are not perfect.
The real test for us, is to identify what is best about spiritual teachers who have made an impact upon the world. And then, try and practice their teaching authentically, and to the fullest. Not the watered down, adjusted, or freely interpreted versions that make us comfortable. But the radical message they stood for. When we try and do this, we find that it is not so easy. We will find that their spiritual teaching is not easy to follow. It challenges us. In fact, it challenges us radically.
Now we can apply this method in a special ways to develop spiritually ourselves, that is, to always try and think the best of people. Everyone is teaching us in some way or the other.
When we are inspired by someone, we can look for the best in them and try to embody those qualities in our lives. It is one thing to admire someone. It is a step further to embody what we admire in them in our own lives. This is more involved. And we can also do something similar when people fall short of our expectations. For they may still embody qualities that we don’t posses, qualities that we can admire. And we can then try to embody those qualities in our lives. This changes how we feel about them, and about ourselves, for it alters our tendency to be judgmental.
When we do this, even “try” to do this, we learn to appreciate the beauty of the soul, which, consequently, is our own soul’s beauty. And in “trying” to do so, we discover who we really are, and where exactly we are on the spiritual path. Perhaps, we are not so evolved or enlightened as we assumed we were, which is the place from which our judgment of others arises. This shift in perspective can inspire us towards spiritual authenticity, to practice what is actually quite hard to follow, and, in that process, move towards wholeness in ourselves.
So why are we speaking about this? Because today, there is so much tension between spiritual traditions. And Bede Griffiths sought to bring unity among them. And he did this not just by words, but by embodying it in his life, his thinking, his dress, his food, his behavior. This goes so much further than just speaking about spiritual unity. And it takes a lot of courage to do something like this, because not everyone can stretch their soul to embrace a vision like this. And he did it way ahead of his time. Of course, he had contemporaries and there were those that preceded him, but today, we celebrate him.
During the Age of Pisces, spiritual traditions were quite clear and well defined. One could not belong to one faith and practice something of another faith. Today, that is changing. Bede, was a pioneer in this regard. And he came under a lot of judgement for doing this. Nevertheless, this holy man could embody more than one tradition and he did this with authenticity. He had found a way to master wholeness. Even in the midst of tension, he always found a way to be connected profoundly to Divine Presence. So we celebrate him today!
We are getting ready to travel on our annual pilgrimage to India in just a few weeks, to be at Bede’s ashram and to immerse ourselves in mantra and the power of India’s awesome spiritual energy. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Many go to India and become disillusioned because they do not know how to look, how to perceive.
Where we perceive from, the place within ourselves; and what we perceive through, the clarity of our mind; and what is perceiving, the quality of our consciousness, this is the wholeness of self, the composite that determines the fullness of our spiritual awakening.
Father Bede Griffiths aka Swami Dayananda, over the 87 years of his life, transitioned most exquisitely from being a seeker of holiness to becoming a master of wholeness. From the psychological perspective, wholeness is a more holistic goal than holiness, which can cause us to look down on others. Wholeness requires us to integrate the shadow in ourselves, in others, and even in spiritual traditions.
This is the objective of our annual chanting pilgrimage: the recovery of wholeness. We, who have made our lives here in the west, go to India each year, to immerse ourselves in that other half of soul. India offers us environments in which we can do our spiritual practice and access deep spiritual states. Proper guidance, however, is necessary, and we, Asha and I, are grateful to have had Bede Griffiths as our spiritual mentor.
Today, Dec 17, 2018, would have been his 112th birthday. I had the immense blessing of being rather close to him the five years I spent as a monk at his ashram. Asha, too, was blessed with this closeness to him. After Asha and I married, in 1989, he spent roughly a third of the year with us in the US, until a major stroke transitioned him into perpetual samadhi on that further shore in 1993. To this day, we are filled with gratitude, that Bede, a monk, chose to come and live with us, a married couple, out in the world.
Our retreat in India each January:
Journey to Find the Other Half of the Soul
Below: On retreat with Bede in Vermont in 1990
(top, with Arlo Guthrie; bottom, with Wayne Teasdale)