Thursday, October 12, 2006

Spirituality in America 

This was the title of a panel discussion that I was invited to participate in, along with famed Christian mystic Matthew Fox, Jewish-Hindu-Buddhist-Sufi scholar extraordinaire Nathan Katz, the Very Reverend Brian Baker, and accomplished documentary filmmaker Stephen Crisman at the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival in beautiful Sun Valley, Idaho in September 2006.

During this spiritual film festival week, we enjoyed hours upon hours of intelligent spiritual conversation. My co-panelists and new friends are all doing exciting and good works in the world. Matthew Fox has teamed up with rapper Professor Pitt to create a multifaceted approach to uplifting and healing a group of people who need it the most -- inner city schoolchildren. (CLICK HERE for more info about Matthew's "reinventing education" project)

Nathan Katz is the founding chair and professor of Miami University's Department of Religious Studies. One of his exciting projects is to bring specifically designed spirituality-based classes to the university's other curriculums, such as health care, law, and education -- in effect, bringing a spiritual point of view into all these other courses of study. (CLICK HERE for more info about Nathan's Center for the Study of Spirituality)

Reverend Brian Baker is the dean of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, and enthusiastically seeks and finds ways to bring spiritual nourishment to the masses there.

Dr. Nathan Katz, Reverend Brian Baker, Sharon Janis, and Dr. Matthew Fox

We shared meals and long walks together amidst the beauty of Sun Valley, Idaho, chatting about topics large and small, cosmic and mundane. With each of us being quite eclectic in our own right, together we created an interesting tapestry of colorful expressions and ideas.

An email sample of our zenlike conversations:

Upon seeing this photo from our panel discussion, Matthew Fox emailed to say: "Beautiful!  On stage, you look like the goddess herself presiding over the setting.  How fitting!"

To which I responded: "You're so generous and lofty! And here the main thing I noticed about the photo is that I was the only one not covering my genitals ;)"

To which Matthew responded: "That's what's makes you goddess-like!"

This week also brought another opportunity to contemplate the state of spirituality in America and throughout the world today and historically, through conversation and the nearly 40 amazing spiritual films from all kinds of traditions that were shown during the week. Right after arriving, and with only an hour of sleep, I was interviewed on local Sun Valley television about the topic of "Spirituality in America". However, I was surprised to find the interviewer focusing mostly on the social and political climate, such as his passionate question about a new law proposed in Idaho that would "close the door to gay marriage forever!" and his disgust over how right wing politics has hijacked religion for their own interests. As somewhat of a monastic, I was a little surprised to see just how much spirituality has become entangled with politics.

Click Here to watch this television interview

My work was cut out for me in this interview, and, I considered, perhaps also in today's world dialogue about spirituality. Of course, hijacking religion for political gain is nothing new in the history of human beings, but what I learned from this interview and other discussions is that while you might say the "right" is hijacking "religion," you could equally say that the "left" is hijacking "spirituality" with the same intensities of "we're right and you're wrong" that are displayed on the other side of each political spectrum. Anger is still anger, and hate is hate, whether this hatred is coming from Muslim extremists, Christian right-wingers, or new age leftists.

In my understanding, the goal of spirituality is to lift us up into greater realms of divinity, compassion, and wisdom, so that, through these qualities, we grow and mature into the great summit of spiritual and personal liberation, a bigger, more eternal picture, within which all the troubles of this world are like an insignificant itch.

As the great Indian sage Shankaracharya exhorts, "Day and night, dusk and dawn, winter and spring come forth again and again!    Time rolls on, life is fleeting;   nevertheless the winds of desire do not leave him. In childhood, one is attached to play;   in youth, one is attached to a young woman;   in old age, one is attached to anxiety, but to the supreme Brahman (the absolute divinity beyond the waves of this world), alas, no one is attached!"

(CLICK HERE to listen to Bhaja Govindam sung in Sanskrit and translated into English)

Many saints and sages of all religions have lived in much more turbulent times than our current circumstances, and yet have guided those who are interested in following an authentic spiritual life to move beyond the endless waves of entanglements in worldly gains, losses, achievements and tragedies, and to enter into the holy temple of divine communion, spiritual liberation -- the source of grace, refuge from storms of worldly life, and shining land beyond the tumultuous ocean of worldly existence.

From this place, we can still participate in healing the problems in this world, and can do so in our own way and with a sense of peacefulness and trust. As the American Sage Peace Pilgrim said many times during her 30-year walk for peace, "If you want to bring peace, you must be peaceful."

Click the TV screen to watch a 60-minute documentary video of Peace Pilgrim that was scripted and edited for her foundation by Night Lotus Productions

CLICK HERE for help with realplayer

CLICK HERE to read a chapter about Peace Pilgrim in Secrets of Spiritual Happiness, titled "Spiritual Happiness in Action"

A Concert of Sacred Music

At the finale of this wonderful Spiritual Film Festival, I offered a concert of sacred music at the Sun Valley Opera House, with selections that the festival organizers had requested from our chanting and devotional singing webpage, including Shree Guru Gita, Amazing Grace, Bhaja Govindam, The Diamond Sutra, Shree Rudram, and Ave Maria.

Here you can watch a video of the last song from this concert, an acapella rendition of Ave Maria, filmed in extreme close-up by Francesco Cabras, the Italian filmmaker who produced and directed the first place winning film at the festival, called The Big Question

CLICK HERE to play Ave Maria on YouTube

CLICK HERE to play the whole concert on YouTube