Friday, June 8, 2012

My Trip to Get Hugged by Amma

     Until returning to America last year I had never heard of Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, better (and more easily) known as Ammachi, Amma, or "The Hugging Saint." But last summer I lived in the greenhouse of a young woman named Danielle who was a devotee of Amma, and who had pictures of her on her altar, on her nightstand, on her refrigerator, etc., and who considered Amma to be an Enlightened Being and, as the Hindus would say, a Sat-Guru---a true teacher, God manifested in human form.
     So I read her biography, which seemed to be rather biased in her favor, and kept an open mind, suspending judgement as well as I could. Partly because I like Danielle and respect her wisdom, partly because finding an Enlightened Being in this world is an incomparable blessing, and partly just out of curiosity and a desire to See What Happens, when Amma was scheduled to appear in Bellevue, WA (less than a hundred miles from my present abode of Bellingham) I figured I ought to go.
     I got a ride down to Bellevue with a New Age surfer dude who works for an organic produce company and a rather hard-headed data analyst preparing to finish his Masters degree in Bio-Informatics---both of them great guys---with me somewhat in the middle of them with regard to the ratio of Faith to Reason. On the way down for our first darshan with Amma we talked of Astrology, Atlantis, and Apartment rentals, among other things. (I may reserve the Atlantis part for a different blog post someday.)
     Amma's darshan was held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Bellevue, about as different from the settings of an Indian ashram as one could easily call to mind. We went through the lobby of coffee shops, business people, and participants in a World Conference on In Vitro Biology until we arrived at the line of people waiting to see a Hindu Saint. We arrived hours early and found ourselves toward the front of a line of friendly, happy, mildly excited people, most of them women. As we sat on the carpeted floor awaiting entry into the Hyatt Regency Grand Ballroom where the darshan was to take place, a young Indian man with perfect English and just enough of an Indian accent to sound charming walked by vending expensive organic, gluten-free quinua wraps with raw veggies---East meets West. 
     Danielle, who was an assistant organizer for the event and had been there for the entire 4-day spiritual program, found us shortly after a vender of organic chocolates glided past. She was in a state of blissful excitement, the pupils of her eyes so dilated that only thin rings of green remained of her irises. She animatedly told us of some of the wonders of her experience thus far, smiling even more than the newcomers sitting in line. I leaned over to the surfer dude and jokingly said, "She's hooked."
     After a few hours of conversing, meditating, and watching the variety of people wanting to see Amma, we were herded (more or less politely and respectfully) into the Grand Ballroom. Shortly after 7:00pm, if I remember correctly, Ammachi appeared and ascended the stage: a cheerful, chubby, middle-aged, dark-skinned Indian woman dressed in white, accompanied by some bearded male swamis dressed in orange and some white-clad attendants, mostly women.
     Amma settled onto her seat, blessed some large containers of water by sipping from them, holding them to her chest, and performing who knows what at a nonphysical level, and then she gave a discourse on Dharma, which was interpreted into English by a swami with a rich baritone voice who, I was told, used to be a Bollywood movie actor, but who renounced the world and became one of Amma's first serious disciples. Unfortunately I don't remember very much of the talk; they say that if one is lucky one will walk away from a talk with two sentences of it, so I guess I did pretty well. She spoke at length about sankalpa (which in Pali Buddhism is sankappa, although with a slightly different meaning). Sankalpa means the first arising of a thought or urge, which is beyond our conscious control. It may be positive or negative, but does not create karma because it is not deliberate. What does create karma is going along with the sankalpa and reinforcing it, creating habits which enslave us. And being enslaved to habits prevents us from acting in accordance with Dharma---we follow the mindless habit instead of what is conscious and godly. Therefore it is a sacred duty to make a devout, humble effort not to succumb to our habits and to always do what is loving and compassionate and good.
     Amma teaches with many stories and similes, and one story that stands out is the story of a teacher who gave two of his students each a live chicken and told them to go and kill the chicken in a place where no one could see it happen. The first student went into a cave and killed the chicken there, and returned to the master with it; but the second student eventually came back with his chicken still alive, saying he couldn't find a place where no one was watching. The teacher said, "But the other student found a cave and killed his chicken there." Then the second student said, "I also found a cave and was going to kill it there, but then I realized that I was still watching." The moral of the story: You can't get away with anything.
     After the sermon there was a guided meditation, including the mantra OM and some purifying visualizations, and then the water Amma blessed was distributed in little cups to all the crowd. I drank mine immediately just moments before the swami warned everyone not to drink theirs immediately…but for those who had already drunk it, it was OK. 
     After this the Devi Bhava began, in which Amma dressed up as the Great Goddess, blessed everyone, and began systematically hugging probably more than 2500 people. I estimated that each hug lasted an average of just under 10 seconds, with maybe 5 seconds between each hug, and she hugged people nonstop, without getting up to pee, etc., from around 9:00 that night to around 8:30 the next morning. 
     When my turn came to get in line to go on stage for the hug, Danielle gave me an apple to offer to Ammachi; but I noticed that the apple had two mushy spots on it, and it didn't seem right to make an offering of a mushy apple. So she gave me a different one, but this one was small and hard---still not a suitable offering, in my opinion, to a human manifestation of God. So then Danielle gave me a small green fruit that after a few moments of confusion I identified as a lime. A lime. I was thinking at this point that a flower would be much more suitable under the circumstances, but beggars can't be choosers, and I didn't want to be completely fussy, so I decided just to keep the lime and keep my mouth shut. Then I got an idea: as I sat in the queue I held the lime under my robe, against my heart, and began repeating like a mantra, "May the sourness in my heart go into this lime and make it a more succulent, more perfect lime…" 
     As I approached the stage I tried to keep my mind clear, and to be receptive to whatever might happen. As a rule a Theravada Buddhist monk avoids physical contact with women, but one breaks a rule only if one makes that contact with desire for the woman in one's heart, and I was confident that I could receive a hug without carnal desire for Amma. (The rule in question, incidentally, is called sanghādisesa, and requires 6 days and 6 nights of penance to expiate it, plus going through a final reinstatement ceremony at which no fewer than 20 monks in good standing are present, so breaking the rule entails a fair amount of trouble.) On the other hand, most of the attendants, plus most of the people on the stage, were youngish women, and the attendants would essentially grab hold of the hug recipients, position them in front of Amma's seat, and then pull them away after the hug to position the next one. This caused me some concern, and that combined with being on stage with a saint, in front of 2000+ people, trying to be as conscious and "pure" as possible, in an atmosphere of spiritual excitement, resulted in my being rather tense, and feeling almost as though drugged on something psychedelic. 
     When I finally received the hug, Amma repeated something into my ear that I didn't understand; I thought it must be in her own language, or maybe Sanskrit. But afterwards the person next after me said, "When she was hugging you was she saying 'My daughter, my daughter'?" Then it dawned on me that that's what it sounded like. I still am not sure why she called me her daughter. I was wearing essentially a skirt (a monk's robes), but a 6'2" man with broad shoulders and a 10 days' growth of beard and head stubble could hardly fool her. I've received and entertained various theories, but I'm still not sure.
     After the hug I decided to stay for the rest of the program, and spent much of the time attempting to meditate below the stage, near where the musicians were playing. I will say that the Hindu devotional music that was played all night long was reason enough in itself to make the trip for the darshan worthwhile. One advantage of Hinduism over Buddhism is that they have better music.
     There were times, though, that I felt glad to be a Buddhist. For one thing, I like the idea of taking responsibility for oneself, and not devotionally offering one's life into the hands of a guru or deity. (Not all Hindus do this, and some Buddhists do this too in their devotion to the Buddha or a living teacher, but it seems to be emphasized much more in Hinduism. It certainly may be appropriate for many, even though it does not resonate with me.) I've never been very keen on worshipping, and it seemed pretty worshippy there at the Hyatt Regency. Also I've never had much appreciation for rituals and ceremonies, which is one reason why I became a Theravada Buddhist---minimum rituals---so the chanting and so on were interesting and entertaining, but not something I would want to do on a regular basis. It occurred to me that night that Hinduism is like Divine Emptiness covered over with lots of decorative cake frosting, chocolate sprinkles, flowers, lit candles, and sparklers. That's the way lots of folks like it, and I have no quarrel with that. But I personally like my Divine Emptiness a little more plain.
     Also throughout the course of the night I watched people. One person who fascinated me was a tall, slender, very handsome young man who looked to be in his early 20's or maybe even late teens, with bleached blond hair, black stretch pants, a very shaggy black jacket, and apparently the remnants of black polish on his fingernails. Sometimes he wore a pair of large sunglasses with pink lenses. He reminded me of a young David Bowie, and it was difficult not to stare at his striking appearance. Another person I especially noticed was a young woman also dressed in black, with a chronically troubled look to her face; she looked like the stereotypical party girl who tries to counteract a perpetually unhappy mind through overindulgence in sensual rebellion. What really struck me was that both of these immodest rebel types (or so I interpreted them) were staying up all night in order to be in the presence of a saint. There were all types of people there, and I saw blue jeans, sweatshirts, saris, white robes, long dangly earrings on both men and women, rosaries, and bindis---but I did not see a single business suit there, nor a single tie there at the Hyatt Grand Ballroom in such a white-collar, businesslike city as Bellevue. The atmosphere throughout the night was one of Goodness: not a serious feeling of "We ought to be good," but a joyous feeling of "Yay! Let's be Good!" That was one of the best things I took away with me, not just that feeling in myself, but the feeling of a whole crowd of joyous people feeling pretty much the same way. "Yay! Let's be Good!"
     In the morning, after everyone had been hugged, the crowd prepared for a final blessing. Accompanied by loud music and devotional singing, the thousand or so people who had remained there all night walked in a thick line in front of the stage while Ammachi flung bucketfuls of flower petals onto everybody, after which she went behind the stage curtain. Then, to my confusion and impatience, everybody waited in silence for about 15 minutes. Finally it occurred to me that they were waiting for an encore, like at a rock concert, but much more quiet. And at last she came out again, again dressed in white, and blessed the crowd again and again, expressing her profound gratitude for everybody's goodness. 
     Four days later I am still feeling a mild afterglow. Many say that we have received Amma's grace, which no doubt is true; but it is just as true that we use Amma as a kind of gimmick, using her as an excuse for an upwelling of inspiration and Dharma in ourselves. We believe in Amma more than we believe in ourselves, even though Amma herself says that we are all equally filled with God. As I told Danielle that night/morning, "If you believed in yourself as much as you believe in Amma, you would fly."
     Whether Ammachi is an Enlightened Being or not I cannot say. Although she seems to be in a state of constant bliss (I started to write "bless"), she often looks and sounds rather ordinary. That may be, however, due to the nature of saints and sages---they simply reflect back at you your own mental states in a more pure form. Like Ramana Maharshi used to say, a true guru is like the ocean: if you come with a cup you get a cupful, and if you come with a bucket you get a bucketful; there's no point in blaming the ocean if you don't get very much. In my case, I'm pretty sure I came with a bucket, but I seem to have been holding it sideways. The strange thing is that after I straightened up the bucket it started getting fuller, even though I was already well away from the shore. Or so it seems to me.
     As I say, I don't know if she is Enlightened, but I rather hope she is. I would like to think that there are Enlightened Beings in this world, and that this world has a real chance at becoming immeasurably better than it is---not through technology or economic reform, but through Spirit. One very big thing that struck me at Amma's darshan is that there really is a lot of goodness in people, and in the world we have created. It is unfortunate and very misleading that the badness gets the overwhelming majority of the press. 
     I conclude this blog post with:
Amma's Dream
Everyone in the world should be able to sleep without fear, at least for one night.
Everyone should be able to eat his fill, at least for one day.
There should be at least one day when hospitals see no one admitted due to violence.
By doing selfless service for at least one day, everyone should help the poor and needy.
It is Amma's prayer that at least this small dream be realized.




  1. Very sweet account from a Buddhist monk, showing that in the end, the removal of self identification is an important factor for anything we call Peace.


  2. Well, I think it is a gift to share openly one's own beliefs while at the same time honoring the incredible beings of different faith. At the end of the day, we are all in it together!

  3. Some of us are not all together here.

  4. VERY interesting...about one year after you met Ammachi, one of her followers "escaped" and wrote a memoir of her time with the guru which was very much NOT biased in her favor. The author had lived with Ammachi for about 20 years and was her "right hand woman" so to speak. More or less, she painted a reasonably convincing portrait of a quite narcissistic spiritual teacher, which I must admit is consistent with a few other things I had heard. If your friend is ever interesting in reading about Ammachi but from a different perspective, the book is called Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness by Gail Tredwell. It conveyed very well why Hindu-style devotional guru-worship practices are not appealing to me and why I think they are a really BAD idea...

    1. I've already written a post addressing Tredwell's book, published last August first. Even if what she writes about Amma is largely true, I still think Amma is way ahead of her spiritually.