Dilatato Corde 4:2
July – December, 2014
Dom John Main
Dom John Main

Swami Satyananda (1909-1961) and
John Main O.S.B (1926-1982)

Unity among different races and creeds rests upon our finding the inner principle of unity as a personal experience within our own hearts. . . . The meeting of East and West in the Spirit, which is one of the great features of our time, can only be fruitful if realised on the level of deep prayer.[1]
Before he became a Benedictine monk, while serving in the British Colonial Service in Malaya from 1955-56, John Main (then Douglas Main) met a Hindu monk, Swami Satyananda, who taught him how to pray with a mantra. Neil McKenty in his biography of John Main comments that “initially the teacher was more important than the teaching.”[2] Sent on an apparently routine assignment to deliver a good-will message and a photograph to a Hindu monk John Main was deeply impressed by the holiness of Swami Satyananda. Main asked the swami to discuss the spiritual base of the many good works carried out at the orphanage and school Swami Satyananda had set up in Jalan Puchong near Kualar Lumpar. Many years later John Main reminisced in the talks he gave at Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky, USA:
I was deeply impressed by his peacefulness and calm wisdom. He asked me if I meditated. I told him I tried to and, at his bidding, described briefly what we have come to know as the Ignatian method of meditation. He was silent for a short time and then gently remarked that his own tradition of meditation was quite different. For the Swami, the aim of meditation was the coming to awareness of the Spirit of the Universe who dwells in our hearts in silence.[3]
The Swami not only ran an orphanage but also taught meditation from the lineage of the Shankacharya of North India.[4] John Main asked the Swami whether as a Christian he could practice prayer using a mantra as the Swami taught. The swami agreed, “Yes, it will make you a better Christian”, and invited John Main to come to a meditation centre once a week. On his first visit the swami spoke about how to meditate:
To meditate you must become silent. You must be still and you must concentrate. In our tradition we know only one way in which you can arrive at that stillness, that concentration. We use a word that we call a mantra. To meditate, what you must do is to choose this word and then repeat it, faithfully, lovingly, and continually. That is all there is to meditation. I really have nothing else to tell you. And now we will meditate.[5]
This was at a time before Transcendental Meditation and the Beatles had made meditation well known in the west. The swami pointed out that since the young western visitor was a Christian, he must meditate as a Christian and he gave him a Christian mantra. He also insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening. For eighteen months Main meditated with the swami and it was this encounter that led him to the pilgrimage of meditation and to eventually to discover the mantra tradition as taught by John Cassian. He was never to forget this experience of holy presence. Main's own confident openness to the religions of Asia is directly attributable to this Hindu monk who had accepted him as a Christian disciple.
When John Main, as a monk in Ealing Abbey, started teaching meditation in 1976 he said that he had little more to add to the simplicity of Swami Satyananda’s advice: “Say your mantra.”
I learnt to meditate from a man who was not a Christian but he certainly believed in God—knew God—and had a deeply vital sense of God dwelling within him. Now it may be significant that it was not until 15 years after I learned to meditate with him that I began dimly to understand what my master had taught me and to understand the incredible richness of its full exposition in the Christian vision.[6]
This delay was due to being told, as a novice in the monastery in 1959, to give up the practice of mantra meditation as non-Christian. He was urged to return to a more discursive and devotional “prayer of acts.”[7]
Later in his monastic life John Main came back to the practice of mantra meditation when discovering the tradition of repetitive prayer practiced by the Desert fathers and mothers as recorded in John Cassian’s Conferences 9 and 10. When John Main taught meditation, he recommended the Aramaic prayer word “Maranatha.” Where Cassian proposed a longer prayer phrase or “formula,” Main, influenced by his Hindu teacher and books like the fourteenth-century The Cloud of Unknowing, saw the benefits of a single word.[8] The basic teaching, however, remained that of Cassian: “The mind should unceasingly cling to the formula . . . and restrict itself to the poverty of a single verse.” Following the advice of Swami Satyananda and that of later Benedictine tradition, John Main distilled this practice down to two half hours a day.[9]
Bede Griffiths became a friend of John Main and an admirer of his teaching. In the talks that Father Bede gave at the 1992 John Main Seminar, he said that in his experience John Main was the most important spiritual guide in the Church today. He spoke of him as a man of great wisdom and above all of great love who opened the way to the direct experience of God, of truth, of reality from within the Christian tradition.
Father Bede pointed out that John Main’s recovery of a Christian tradition of mantra meditation came through an encounter with a Hindu form of prayer.[10] Though the source of the contemplative renewal Main proposed came from the Christian tradition, the catalyst was an inter-religious encounter. The Hindu influence remains under the surface in John Main’s teaching. He recommended Abhishiktananda’s book Saccidananda as “one of the most inspired books of our time.”[11] Both Abhishiktananda and Main understood Christian prayer as a participation in the prayer of Christ so that, as John Main says, “my prayer doesn’t even become a possibility.”[12] John Main shows his Hindu influence in stressing that it is not so much the meaning of the word as the sound and vibration that is important in the practice. His teacher Swami Satyananda had taught him that
The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound this harmonic within ourselves we begin to build up a resonance. That resonance then leads us forward to our own wholeness. . . . And then the harmonic begins to build up a resonance between you and all creatures and all creation and a unity between you and your creator.[13]
John Main may well have recommended “Maranatha” because of its open vowel sounds, which according to Hindu mantra teaching facilitates the opening of the heart.[14] Combined with the articulation of four consonants this gives the mind enough “activity” to hold attention and stop mental scattering. Main understood the mantra very practically as “simply a means of turning our attention beyond ourselves—a way of unhooking us from our own thoughts and concerns.”[15] However it also provides “the integrating power” that restores the unity of mind and heart acting “like a harmonic that we sound in the depth of our spirit.”[16] The power and value of the mantra is related to the rhythm of its sound, its phonetic quality, as well as its root in tradition:
The importance of “Ma-ra-na-tha” is both that it is one of the most ancient prayer words there is and that it possesses the right sound to bring us to the silence and stillness necessary for meditation. . . . As a prayer word its meaning is important, but during the time of meditation we do not think of its meaning but recite it as four equally stressed syllables.[17] 
Swami Satyananda also taught how a “saying” of the mantra deepens into a “sounding” of it that in turn deepens, as the mantra takes root, into a “listening.”[18] At this level repetition moves from an act of the will, or intention, into an act of attention: “Meditation,” John Main says, “is in essence the art of concentration precisely because the higher we toil up the mountainside the fainter becomes the mantra sounding in the valley below us.”[19] This was the teaching of Swami Satyananda:
My teacher used to say to me: “When you get to this listening stage it is as though you are toiling up a mountainside and the mantra is sounding in the valley down below you. The higher you mount, the fainter becomes the sound of the mantra. And then there comes the day when the mantra is out of earshot all together.[20]
The final stage witnessed to here is silence: “An absolute silence,” John Main says, “where we enter the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and no longer hear the mantra.”[21] This shows John Main’s own experience, the witness of the Christian mystical tradition and the teaching of Swami Satyananda coming together and pointing to the “beyond” where “the mantra ceases to sound and we are lost in the eternal silence of God.”[22] Swami Satyananda believed that “mental worship and repetition of the Holy Name” is succeeded by “silent contemplation” and finally by “becoming one with the Supreme Spirit.”[23] In the scholar Adalbert de Vogüé’s opinion, John Main’s perfect and seamless assimilation of Hindu mantra meditation through his discovery of John Cassian shows “a convergence of independent monastic experiences rich in inter-religious significance.”[24]
The influence of John Main’s teacher comes not only in his teaching on the mantra but also in his advaitic or non-dual understanding of prayer. Swami Satyananda was originally a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and followed the Advaita Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda and its related mantra practice.[25] Later he left the Order and studied the teachings of Sri Gurudeva, Shankacharya of Jyotirmath from 1940-1953, a teaching closely linked to the advaitic tradition of Adi Shankara (788-820). Before undertaking his work in Malaya, Swami Satyananda spent some time with Sri Ramana Maharshi as well.[26] Through all these influences advaitic practice and theory were closely linked. John Main similarly believed, with Evagrius, that “a theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”[27] 
Prayer for John Main involved the realisation of our “oneness with God” which he said was “the raison d’être of all consciousness.”[28] In one of his letters he links this to the identity of Atman and Brahman in the Upanishadic tradition.[29] The spiritual journey, for him, starts with the discovery of the Self where we discover our own spirit in union with the Spirit of God.[30] In one of his last letters he writes that our knowledge of God is always participatory, a sharing in God’s self-knowledge. So, he says, “strictly speaking, meditation does not give us any ‘experience of God’”:
Swami Satyananda
Swami Satyananda
does not experience himself, he knows. For God to experience himself would suggest a divided consciousness. . . . The more we see God the further our self-consciousness contracts, for to see God is to be absorbed into him. To have the eye of our heart opened is to lose the very sense of the “I” that sees.[31]
This non-dual experience for John Main was an entry into Christ’s relationship to the Father. Union with Christ (who was himself “one with the Father”) means that the Christian “is now empowered to be with God in a quite unprecedented way. . . . Humanity is no longer obliged to objectify its source.”[32]
John Main's resistance to any “objectification” of God led him to a form of Christian advaita that challenged any theology based on Divine-human separation.    Even a theology based on “relation” to God is critiqued by an experience that “nothing can be outside the ground of all being that God is.”[33]
It is not just that we are absolved from the necessity of considering ourselves and God in a dualistic way. We cannot persist in the dualism of our spiritual infancy and remain in the truth. . . . The reality Jesus has uncovered for us is the new age of presence. It demands a corresponding new understanding of how we share in the Trinitarian mystery. . . . We can no longer seriously think of ourselves as summoned to “surrender” to God. In any surrender we retain the failure to dissolve the illusion of dualism. There remains an I to surrender, a Thou to surrender to. And in the light of the reality of God it matters little whether such dualism is retained due to fear or false piety. The result in any case is a kind of spiritual schizophrenia. We cannot surrender to the one with whom we are already united.[34]
John Main recognised the challenge of the non-dual experience to many Christians: “The most frequent objection is that this is not what Jesus meant by loss of self or that this is not Christianity but a form of monism.”[35] Main responded that if Jesus had meant “a partial loss of self” he would have said so and that union with Christ involved an entry into his experience of “oneness” with the father. The role of theology for John Main was to point people back to the experience of prayer. However this was also the premise for theology, as a true vision of God could only come about through loss of self. The person who really prays disappears in the vision that “Being is ONE.”[36] In the end this can never be adequately conceptualised but is made evident in silence. It is this silence that John Main first experienced in his Hindu teacher.
Our elaborate theories and systems simply crumble before the power of the actual experience, one that is so evident, so simple it defies adequate verbal expression. It can indeed only be communicated by sharing the experience-in-itself. Any description of it alienates it from the authenticity of the present when we try to treat it as observable.[37]
John Main used the insights of Hindu mantra meditation to throw light on the teaching of John Cassian and The Cloud of Unknowing. He re-presented the tradition of Christian monastic prayer in a way accessible to modern people. However he was also deeply touched by the holiness of Swami Satyananda who dedicated his life not only to prayer but also to the service of the poor in Malaya.
Swami Satyananda set up the Pure Life Society, which continues to be dedicated to serving those in need in contemporary Malaysia, regardless of their religion. The society is now overseen and inspired by his disciple Mother Mangalam. John Main’s legacy is the World Community for Christian Meditation, which exists in 100 countries around the world. One of Father John’s disciples, Laurence Freeman, continues as Spiritual Director.
Both the Pure Life Society and the World Community for Christian Meditation are dedicated in their mission statements to “serving the unity of all.” Both are involved in inter-faith spiritual fellowship which comes through meditation. The meeting of Swami Satyananda and John Main back in 1955 continues to bear fruit, a shared vision transcending religious and cultural differences.
[1] John Main, Word into Silence: A Manual for Christian Meditation, (London: Darton, Longman & Tod, 1980), pp. 3, 5-6.
[2] McKenty, In the Stillness Dancing: The Life of Father John Main, (London: DLT, 1986), p. 49.
[3] John Main, Christian Meditation: The Gethsemani Talks, (Tucson AZ : Medio Media, 1999), p. 10.
[4] The Shankacharya at that time was Gurudeva. Swami Satyananda had also spent time with Sri Ramana Maharshi.
[5]Gethsemani Talks, p.12.
[6] Ibid, p. 11.
[7] Ibid, pp. 15-16.
[8] See The Cloud of Unknowing, trans., Clifton Wolters (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1961), p. 39.
[9] For the Benedictine transmission of contemplative prayer see Adalbert de Vogüé, “From John Main to John Cassian: Reflections on Christian Meditation,” in Monastic Studies V, 66. A key figure is Augustine Baker (1575-1641) who recommends the prayer of repletion in Holy Wisdom (London: Burns & Oats, 1964), p. 321.
[10] Bede Griffiths; Robert Kiely; Laurence Freeman, New Creation in Christ, (Springfield IL, Templegate, 1992), pp. 52-53.
[11] Word into Silence, p. 93; in the collection The Inner Christ, (London: DLT, 1987). Inner Christ is a combined volume of three of John Main’s books published individually by DLT (London) and Crossroad (New York) - Word into Silence (1981), Moment of Christ (1984) and The Present Christ (1985). Word into Silence and Moment of Christ were republished in new editions by Canterbury Press in 2006 and 2010 respectively. The Present Christ is republished in Monastery without Walls: The Spiritual Letters of John Main, ed. Laurence Freeman, (Norwich, Canterbury Press, 2006).
[12] John Main, “Foreword” to Moment of Christ: The Path of Meditation, (Inner Christ, p. 103).
[13] Quoted in Gethsemani Talks, p. 14.
[14] See Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, The Power of Manta Meditation, (Himalayan Institute, 1996), pp. 110-112.
[15] ‘Foreword’ to Moment of Christ, (Inner Christ, p. 103).
[16] Word into Silence, (Inner Christ, p. 27).
[17] Moment of Christ, (Ibid, p. 109).
[18] Gethsemani Talks, p. 42.
[19] Word into Silence, (Inner Christ, p. 66-67).
[20] Gethsemani Talks, p. 42.
[21] Ibid, p. 67.
[22] ‘Foreword’ to Moment of Christ, (Inner Christ, p. 103).
[23] See The Pure Life Society Silver Jubilee Magazine, (Kuala Lumpur, 1975)
[24] ‘From John Main to John Cassian’, in Monastic Studies V, ed. Laurence Freeman, (The Benedictine Priory of Montreal), 69.
[25] See Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and his Disciples, (London, Methuen, 1965), pp. 230-249.
[26] See McKenty, In the Stillness Dancing, p. 50.
[27] Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), Chapters on Prayer, 60, Cistercian Studies Series IV, (1981), p. 65.
[28] The Present Christ, (Inner Christ, p. 326).
[29] John Main, Letters from the Heart: Christian Monasticism and the Renewal of Community (New York: Crossroad, 1991), p. 66.
[30] Word into Silence, (Inner Christ, p. 40).
[31] The Present Christ, (Inner Christ, pp. 330 & 313).
[32] Ibid, p. 273.
[33] Ibid, p. 278.
[34] Ibid, pp. 274, 277-8, 279.
[35] Ibid, p. 280.
[36] Ibid, p. 257.
[37] Ibid, p. 256.
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