Outside the East Bay ’burb of San Ramon, Crow Canyon Road winds in a serpentine fashion through rounded grassy hills, dotted with majestic oak trees. Amidst the ranches and fields, a gravel driveway leads past horse paddocks and crosses a small wooden bridge.
Dust kicks up as we pass parking areas named after Hindu goddesses and Indian locales—Lakshmi, Shiva, Kailesh, Hari Om. We join a steady stream of people heading up a steep brick-cobbled walkway towards a tall A-frame assembly hall. We are drawn like bees seeking nectar, and indeed, the ashram’s barn-like temple at M.A. Center is buzzing with activity.
Inside, pleated fabrics of deep red and shimmering gold provide an opulent backdrop to the stage, where musicians and singers sit cross-legged, filling the hall with exhilarating Indian devotional music, or bhajans. Below them sits a diminutive, dark-skinned woman, resplendent in a white sari, her smile radiating bliss and compassion to the hundreds of people who have gathered to be in her presence and to experience the blessing of her embrace.
It is believed that Mata Amritananda Mayi—better known as Amma, which means “mother”—has hugged upwards of 28 million people. Her tireless devotion and selfless, unconditional love have helped create a globe-spanning charitable network and have earned her a number of prestigious humanitarian commendations.
San Ramon is the second stop on her summer North American tour, comprising 11 cities from Seattle to Boston. It has been two years since I last made the pilgrimage to be in Amma’s presence, and to receive her amazing darshan (hugging blessing). (See the June 2007 Rob Report, “Something That Works.”)
I am gratefully reunited with my wife Heather, who spent much of the past week at the ashram and has been coming to see Amma for nearly 20 years. Many years ago, upon request, Amma gave Heather her spiritual name, Neeraja (which means “lotus-born”). We immerse ourselves in singing, meditating, seva (service to others) and listening to the swami’s talks. (Amma speaks mainly in Malayalam, the native tongue of her Southern Indian province of Kerala; often her teachings are translated and offered by one of her swamis.)
Amma is considered to be a mahatma, or fully realized being and teacher (satguru), whose divine presence is manifested in human form. That’s a lot for the Western mind to grasp; there’s something to be said for simply watching Amma in action. Whether she’s leading satsang (teachings), kirtan (singing bhajans), or giving hugs, her energy is boundless. And the love and bliss she embodies is unsurpassable.
At the ashram, I recognize familiar faces of devotees from years past. The assembled crowd includes people of all ages, many races and myriad faiths. Amma’s teachings, while centered in Hindu traditions, do not constitute a particular religion. Rather, her followers are part of a greater worldwide sangha, or spiritual community.
How is it possible that this human being can pour out so much love, sometimes hugging for 12 to 14 hours at a stretch during Devi Bhava ceremonies? Through her actions she is constantly engaged in bringing benefit and healing to the world, and encourages those who come to her to “light a flame of devotion in your own heart, then it will multiply.”
“It is said that when the disciple is ready, the guru will appear,” says one of the swami’s during his talk. “Therefore, cultivate the disciple within yourself.”
Amma, however, refers to those who come to her as her children. “They call me Mother,” she says, “so I call them my children.”
Back in Oakland after our visits to M.A. Center, Heather/Neeraja and I set out for a Sunday afternoon stroll. We hike down a short hill from our friends’ home to Sausal Creek, a pleasant area that is maintained by community volunteer efforts.
Greenery abounds, and sunshine filters through the trees to illuminate the wildflowers and berry bushes along the path. Butterflies flit to and fro—blues, skippers, fritillaries and even tiger swallowtails. A hummingbird does a quick flyby, hovering just long enough for us to marvel at its adept flight skills.
At the bottom of a concrete spillway constructed as part of a 1939 WPA project, we sit for a few minutes of silent reflection. I run the wooden beads of my mala (necklace) between my thumb and third finger as I silently recite the mantra Amma whispered in my ear some years ago.
I ponder the tall trees rooted in the steep creek banks, their branches ever-reaching toward the sunlight. All living things, I surmise, are products of the environment in which they grow. Fertile soil and favorable climate conditions will produce a strong plant or tree. Likewise, humans grow and bear fruit to the extent we are nurtured in our early years, and cultivate good habits and qualities as adults. We reap what we sow.
So much of Western society revolves around intellectual pursuits and money-oriented goal-setting. In my own upbringing, reading and learning was encouraged, academics were stressed. The education process constituted a continual pouring in of knowledge, feeding the mind.
While in college, I encountered Transcendental Meditation, a mind-quieting technique brought to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who also became popular with The Beatles, Beach Boys and other celebrities. TM was easy, relaxing and free of the cumbersome dogma that I felt weighed down other religious pursuits.
But mostly, my own inward-turning contemplation and spiritual practices have taken a back seat to worldly preoccupations. Thus, the visits to Amma afford an opportunity to polish my inner self, to recharge my spiritual batteries.
We leave the Sausal Creek trail, cutting through a neighborhood with houses built well before World War II, judging by the imaginative architecture. Behind a metal fence, fruit trees and towering redwoods grace a hillside, and closer inspection reveals dozens of garden plots.
Atop the winding garden paths, a man pushing a wheelbarrow notices us looking through the fence. Wearing an old striped T-shirt, work shorts and a wool-knit hat and sporting a salt-and-pepper beard, he reminds me of an elfin Robin Williams. He invites us to come in and look around.
“What is this place?” my sweetheart asks. “A botanical garden?”
“No,” the man answers, “it’s an old folks home.” He leads us in through a gate to the property, adorned with a stately building. On the side fronting the planted hillside, tall columns mark the grand entry.
“How about that?” our host asks. “It’s like Scarlet O’Hara lives here.”
We explore the area, amazed at the abundance and variety of vegetables, flowering plants and fruit trees. We find out that Peter, the Robin Williams look-alike, is not a hired gardener, but a resident. He tells us the 1894 building, Altenheim Residences, was originally built for elderly Germans who settled in the area and planted orchards in a neighborhood now known as Fruitvale. Now, he tells us, a group of older Chinese women are among those who tend the gardens.
“How did you come to be here?” Neeraja asks. “I grew old,” Peter replies with a youthful smile.
He leads us to his own garden plot, a fairy tale setting with colorful tiles and plastic figurines and animals stacked among the rocks and plants. Hearing that we’re visiting from Maui, he tells us he once lived on Oahu. “Look,” he gestures, “taro!” He points to elephant ear, or ape‘, and a smaller dryland variety.
He tells us about the Chinese ladies planting herbs and vegetables for their medicinal properties, and points to a plant that he says Mexican women braid in their daughters’ hair when they come of age, to help them select a good husband. “They are very clever in knowing what each of the plants is good for,” he notes.
This sort of connection with nature is a dying art. One of Amma’s many charities is Greenfriends, which assists regional efforts for tree-planting and restoring nature’s bounty. Recently, M.A. Center volunteers planted 1,000 fruit trees after constructing a large swale on the hillside slopes, created to capture water that might be otherwise be lost to runoff.
After bidding our new friend goodbye, we return to our friends’ home, charmed and inspired by the sweetness of our brief encounter. Fittingly, a bounty of fruit greets us. Our friends had stopped by a farmer’s market at closing time and gotten two-for-one deals on strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries and apricots.
Amma says: “The life force that pulsates in the trees, plants and animals is the same life force that pulsates within us. The Earth, trees, plants and animals are all manifestations of God. We should love them as we love our own self.”
With a smile, I pop a large, ripe strawberry into my mouth. MTW