Mystic Heart meditation emphasizes experience

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Attendees of the Mystic Heart seminar are led in meditation by Subagh Singh Khalsa July 17 at the Hall of Missions.

A philosopher once visited the Buddha and asked: “Without words, without the wordless, can you tell me the truth?”

Buddha kept silent.

After a while the philosopher lept up, satisfied, and bowed graciously to the Buddha.

“Oh, thank you for clearing me of my delusions and showing me the true path,” he said before darted off.

A perplexed disciple taps the Buddha on the shoulder. “What was that about?” he said.

“A good horse runs at even the shadow of a whip,” the Buddha replied.

Since the turn of the century, Chautauquans have expressed interest in Eastern religions. In July 1897, C.S.K. Rutrum of India lectured on the “oriental splendor” of the Hindu religion, comparing it to a “path to a Christian God.” In 1901, Judge D.P. Baldwin “strived to show that we undervalue” Eastern religions and must “adapt [ours] to them and learn to think about Chautauqua in Asiatic terms.”

A century later, Methodist-Buddhist monk Heng Sure ventured to Chautauqua in 1999 to speak on behalf of the United Religious Initiative, and noted that the Institution had “become more and more a place of hyphenated religions.”

In 2000, the Mystic Heart Program was created as a response to this increasing interest. Maureen Rovegno, associate director of the Department of Religion, said that the program was started by the Rev. Ross Mackenzie and Sikh minister Subagh Singh Khalsa not just to curb the spiritual appetite of Eastern-interested Chautauquans, but to go one step further.

Its purpose, she said, “was to provide meditative practice, which is more common to the Eastern expressions of Hinduism and Buddhism.”

Rovegno said this allowed for “a broader embrace of the world’s religions,” than just from the lecture platform.

Rovegno, who taught world religions for 14 years, designates herself an “interfaith, interdenominational chaplain,” and has completed two years of clinical pastoral education. As a scholar of Eastern thought, Rovegno has always abided to the Chautauquan motto of being “philosophically open to all.”

And that means making room for practitioners of Eastern religions.

“Absolutely,” she said. “It’s been a part of Chautauqua’s religious evolution to expand our religious embrace.”

In 2008, after five years of the Mystic Heart program, Rovegno and a study group banded together to analyze the religious communities at Chautauqua — to survey the present so that they might direct the future. A strategic plan was formalized in 2010, as based off the group’s analysis, and aimed to “welcome a presence” of other religions besides Christianity and Judaism, “specifically the Eastern traditions, like Hinduism and Buddhism,” Rovegno said.

The reason, she said, was to demonstrate Chautauqua’s religious plurality in the same manner its denominational houses do with Abrahamic faiths.

It was “so that, one day, a dream would be to have a Buddhist house here, a Hindu house,” Rovegno said, “or to have an interfaith house to wrap its arms around non-Abrahamic religions.”

Taking the commonly Christian term of “ecumenical” (from the Greek oikoumene, “the whole inhabited earth”), Rovegno hopes to expand the term in a sense, opening it to religious traditions not-so-much traditional in Chautauqua.

For now, Mystic Heart is the best bet, she said.

Subagh has headed the program since its inception. Based around mystic meditative practice, a daily Subagh lesson can draw on anything from Kundalini yoga to a Mahayana-inspired mantra, or chant. Subagh himself has studied with Zen Buddhists, learned from Christian preachers and instructed Methodists. What Mystic Heart is, to Subagh, is nothing one-sided.

“We are giving everyone the opportunity to engage in spiritual practices,” he said. “We do not specify any certain tradition.”

This summer, Subagh’s program featured a lineup of guest seminar leaders, including Unitarian Universalists, born-and-raised Methodists and Sufi converts. Larry Terkel, CEO of Global Health Care and a Buddhist Minister, was Methodist until he studied Buddhism and Hinduism in India. Michael O’Sullivan has abided by the Kwan Um School of Zen for 25 years. Before that, he was Catholic.

The many flavors of the Mystic Heart program, Subagh said, demonstrate the underlying ingredient on which all teachers focus.

“At the heart of our intention, there is a mystical experience — as at the heart of all religions there is a finger pointing right to this mystical experience,” he said.

In Subagh’s Manual of Mystic Meditation Practice for Absolutely Everyone, he addresses his reader by stating that his practice is universal and can be “understood by people of any background,” relating it to self-focused definition of “spiritual.” It is through the discipline of mediation, Subagh said, that one can reach this “unknowable” experience called “mystic.” Many traditions, he said, attempt to label this experience in certain ways, but “the mystical is mysterious,” and hard to pin down with words.

Rovegno said that she admires Mystic Heart because it approaches these ideas of the mystic in a “natural, organic way.” Practitioners with a background in Catholicism, or another in Judaism, can comprehend what Subagh or another teacher is teaching because of its focus on spirituality.

Jeannette Ludwig, a teacher of Special Studies in the world’s religions at Chautauqua, said that Subagh’s Mystic Heart program is a “very valuable asset to Chautauqua” in the sense that it allows persons interested in mysticism to inquire not only about its studies, but also how to practice it in a “safe environment.”

Anyone from what she calls “bookstore Buddhists” to avid practitioners of an Abrahamic faith are welcome to “explore something that they wouldn’t have otherwise” outside the Institution.

Subagh criticizes the common image of mediation as a “stress reliever” or an after-class ritual at a suburban karate course. Although beginners will find instant reward in removing stress, he said there’s more to the meditational practice than calming down one’s nerves.

“If you stop at stress management, then you are cheating yourself,” he said. “You have the power to discover much more.”

Although much of what Subagh teaches deals with healing, his lessons deal more so about learning how to see experiences as they are and allowing peace to be a choice rather than just an opportunity. A participant of one of his seminars will not only learn this sense of control, but also this more-important notion of self-understanding.

Brittany Ko, an undergraduate student at Princeton University, said that she became interested in Buddhist meditation a few years ago when she entered college. Her reason to participate in Subagh’s Mystic Heart stems mainly from its focus on practice.

“You can have a preacher tell you all of these things, but in the end it’s not about words,” Ko said. “It’s about experience.”

Ludwig said that so many persons of diverse traditions find mystic mediation invigorating because of the “spiritual language” that is commonly used. She said meditation is “a way of approaching the sacred in direct experience. And how that gets shaped depends on the religious tradition in which you’re functioning.”

Rovegno said practices like Zen Buddhism can be approached by adherents of all religious faiths because of this goal to “empty thought,” to simply focus on one’s breath, or mantra, to achieve “the experience of the divine,” rather than talking about it.

“It’s to let go of language, because language limits,” Rovegno said. “The minute we try and define something, we are limiting it. The minute we try and define God we limit whatever God is.”

As far as any organized Eastern community in Chautauqua goes, Subagh said that, although he’s interested, he’s not openly striving for one. The reason is best observed by attending one of his sessions, sitting next to another man, woman, Catholic, Buddhist — and realizing that programs like Mystic Heart don’t need to celebrate any specific tradition, East or West.  What unites practitioners, he said, is simply “being present,” through what’s called the mystic, by sitting still on the floor or in a chair. In silence.