The Lure of Mount Madonna

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The week of July 29 – August 3, 2013, will see PYM Friends returning to Mount Madonna near Watsonville for the sixth annual gathering we will hold there. Many Friends view the Mt. Madonna Center, with its spectacular view of Monterey Bay, as the most eye-pleasing site at which we have gathered, while others consider it problematic due to the fairly steep hillside terrain, which is adorned with religious iconography.  Moreover, unlike college campuses and other conference centers, Mt. Madonna Center requires us to interact with a faith community different from ours, as it is owned and staffed by an intentional yoga community, guided by the spiritual discipline of Ashtanga Yoga.  The community requires that food consumed on site be strictly vegetarian, which some Friends find challenging if not intolerable.

According to their website, Mt. Madonna Center is run by “The Hanuman Fellowship, inspired by the teachings of Baba Hari Dass.”  The community is dedicated to the principles and practices of yoga through “Sadhana (spiritual practice), Karma Yoga (selfless service), and Satsang (supportive community), [and it aspires] to create an environment for the attainment of peace.”  The community’s spiritual leader, Baba Hari Dass, “… presides at weekly sessions in the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, yoga practices and other related subjects.”  Like the icons spread over their 355-acre campus, these details bespeak Hinduism. Why should this matter to Friends?

As a mere tyke, our goddaughter Rose liked avocados.  While visiting a sushi restaurant, Rose mistook the wasabi for avocado, popped a lump of it into her mouth and suddenly cried out, “yucky avocado; yucky avocado!”  Her limited experience and the superficial likeness of common coloring caused Rose’s fiery-hot confusion. She succumbed to a common misperception of the superficial as substance.

The panoply of sculptured deities at Mt. Madonna Center can, like many trees, obscure the forest and cause substance to be confused with the superficial.  Collectively, the catalogue of Hindu Gods represents the multifarious aspects of the divine and serves to remind believers that God is everywhere and in everything.  Yet, at bottom, Hinduism teaches that the Divine, which Friends know as “the Christ within” or “Inner Light,” is not encompassed in the Gods or their sculptured likenesses.  Rather, to Hindus, “God is the one of a thousand names, and [the Christ Spirit] is the one beyond all names and beyond all naming.” 

The Mt. Madonna Center yoga community and unprogrammed Western Friends are culturally different, but at their cores are much alike.  This understanding is well attested to by the simple Indian greeting, “Namaste,” which literally translates, “I honor that which is holy in you,” or “I salute the Divine within thee.” Sound familiar? 

Strict vegetarianism is also central to the faith of the Mt. Madonna community.  To Gandhi, food “was instrumental in shaping human consciousness,” so he searched for “the perfect diet” by experimenting on himself.  Ultimately, Gandhi’s diet consisted largely of goat’s milk, unpolished cereals, vegetables, and fruits (The Indian Express, February 1, 2008).  With the addition of nuts, beans, and cow-milk products, Gandhi’s diet is the diet that Mt. Madonna Center offers.  As their guests, we are expected to honor the Center’s rules and dietary practices, which means eating their fare and bringing in no food from outside their premises.  As a meat, fish, and egg eater, I look forward to the adventure (challenge) of being strictly vegetarian for five days.  And, if I may say so, it is good for Friends to eat more simply. 

But others may not be so sanguine, and those who must eat a prohibited food can do so long as the food is kept and consumed either in a special, shuttered camper we can bring and dedicate to this purpose or outside of the Center; for example, in a car parked before their gate. The Center will also make accommodations for the special dietary requirements of infants and people with medical conditions, as well as for the dietary requirements of other faith traditions.  Friends with food restrictions are encouraged to register early. 

Concerns about the sloped terrain of Mt. Madonna Center’s hillside campus will be addressed by cars which will be available to transport Friends who choose not to walk.  The nine sleeping cabins are contraindicated for Friends with disabilities.

Why should Friends embrace these challenging circumstances? Mt. Madonna offers us the opportunity to sleep upon the same earth that gave rest to California’s original inhabitants, and offers virtually unlimited camping space

The Ohlone people who settled the coast of North and Central California lived in small communities.  When Spanish explorers and missionaries arrived in the late 18th century, the Ohlone people were quickly resettled in the Spanish missions.  The Ohlone people destined for Mission Santa Cruz were confined there by 1795.  By 1825 the number of tribally born Ohlone speakers had dwindled to 133 individuals. 

Generally, when Europeans first came upon them, the religion of Native Americans was. This traditional religion of North Central Asia had fanned out over the course of millennia in an arc across northern Eurasia and North America, extending as far as Australia and South America.  It rests upon a belief in “cosmic animism” in which the whole universe, not just the earth, is alive.  The universe is structured in layers:  the sky, the underground, and between them, the earth inhabited by living humans. The layers, Shamanism explains, are connected by the Tree of Life. 

Researchers have documented prayers, offerings, dances, songs, and dream interpretation as manifestations of the spirituality of the Monterey Bay Ohlone people, as well as a belief that upon death they would go to a land beyond the sea.  In an early 19th century letter to Spain from Mission Santa Cruz, one priest reported, “At night, only the men gather together in the field or the forest. In their midst they raise a long stick crowned by a bundle of tobacco leaves or branches of trees or some other plant. At the base of this they place their food and even their colored beads. Then they prepare for the dance bedaubing their bodies and faces.  When all the men are together the old man whom they respect as their teacher or soothsayer goes forth to listen to and to receive orders from the devil.”  But, nonetheless, they “are and have been pure pagans, that is, they do not have, nor have they adored false gods. Thus it has not been necessary to devise means to make them desist from a sin they have not committed.” 

Time and culture do not allow us to know whether the Spanish missionaries conflated the inner voice heard by Shamans with the devil of their old world Bible.  Similarly, we cannot tell if a reported Ohlone myth arose independently or was a re-interpretation of a Bible story that early missionaries shared with them.  In either case, one Ohlone myth informed them that there are white people because a whale swallowed a person and subsequently coughed him up, bleached white.

Whether it existed before the galaxies formed or co-evolved with humankind, there is a Spirit that shamans, mystics, and others experience. This Spirit, I think, animates all faiths. Time, place, and culture have redirected this Spirit into a multiplicity of competing beliefs and religions. Some faiths posit that the Spirit is especially accessible to shamans, yogis, or other clergy, or by practices that experienced spiritual practitioners direct. Others (read: Friends) maintain that the Spirit is equally accessible to all. Yet all faiths, as far as I can tell, understand that the Spirit is singular.  The lure of Mt. Madonna is that it offers a unique environment for direct experience with ancient religious underpinnings of our contemporary faith.  ♦

Lanny Jay is a member of Redwood Forest Meeting.  He serves as clerk of the PYM Site Committee, as a member of PYM’s Youth Program Coordinator Supervisory Committee, and on the board of Ben Lomond Quaker Center.