Tuesday Writing Conversation: East Meets West — Swami Satyananda and John Main

Click below to hear Neil discuss John Main with Ric Petersen

A special new edition of In Stillness Dancing — the journey of John Main is soon to be printed. As a taster here is Chapter 5.

In the spring of 1954, before the end of the Hilary term at Trinity, Douglas Main applied to join the British Colonial Administrative Service (soon to be called Her Majesty’s Oversea Civil Service). Like his previous decision to join the Canons Regular, it seemed a curious choice. For one thing Douglas’s personal politics did not fit with British imperialism even in its twilight years. His friend, Robert Farrell, observed his anti-imperialism and his growing socialistic tendencies at Trinity: ‘We discussed politics a great deal. I would describe Douglas’s position as “left-wing independent” in that he seemed to support the socialist viewpoint.’ If he were not a conservative in domestic politics, he was certainly not an imperialist in foreign affairs. If anything, his Irish roots and his own intellectual formation as well as his independent temperament smacked more of republicanism than imperialism. So why did he apply for the Colonial Service and why Malaya? The questions puzzled Robert Farrell:

I’m not sure, knowing his politics, pacifism, dislike of Colonial and Imperial adventures, admiration of Gandhi, it was at first sight a strange choice. But it was an experi­ence, an adventure—Douglas was very curious about every­thing and I think curiosity had a lot to do with it. However, the most likely reason was that it was a job and Douglas was broke.

Whatever his reasons, Douglas received a ‘probationary appointment to the Colonial Administrative Service as an Administrative Cadet in Malaya’.

After successfully sitting his final examinations in the Michaelmas Term (his legal degree was conferred in absentia in December) Douglas left for England to begin a three-month course of language study in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He found lodgings at the British Council hostel for Commonwealth students in Knightsbridge. While there Douglas became friends with a number of the students from Asia. During the autumn of 1954, Diana Ernaelsteen was also in London studying medicine. She and Douglas saw each other occasion­ally. He invited her to help him choose the tropical gear he would need in Malaya. Later they had dinner at Heathrow airport and Douglas left shortly afterwards to catch his boat for the East.

It was in January 1955 when Douglas sailed for Malaya, a country thought by some to be one of the most beautiful in the world. When he arrived at Port Swettenham on 2 February 1955, the area had been under British influence for nearly 150 years, and under direct British rule since 1874. By the time Douglas first saw the capital, Kuala Lumpur (usually referred to as K.L.), British rule in Malaya was on its last legs. The ultimate cause for their impending withdrawal was the failure of the British to settle Malaya instead of colonizing it. But the immediate occasion for the unravelling of British power in Malaya was a guerilla war mounted by Chinese Malayan communists.

The war broke out in 1948. The Chinese called it ‘the War of the Running Dogs’, their term for those in Malaya who remained loyal to the British. On the other side, the British called it ‘The Emergency’ because British insurance companies would honour policies for an ‘emergency’ but not for a full-scale civil war, which is what the Malayan fighting really amounted to. Thanks to the brilliant leadership, both political and military, of the previous High Commissioner, Sir Gerald Templar (appointed by Winston Churchill at a meeting in Ottawa in January 1952), the Chinese guerillas had virtually lost the war by 1955. Furthermore, the British government had promised Malaya its independence, and a time-table for elections was being worked out.

Although the fighting sometimes crackled in the jungle surrounding Kuala Lumpur, the capital itself escaped the war relatively unscathed. Shortly after his arrival Douglas began his three-year probationary period as an Administrative Cadet. This meant he spent five hours in the morning, begin­ning about 8 o’clock, studying a Chinese language, in his case the Hokkien dialect. (Later he would have followed some local law courses, because had Douglas remained in Malaya he would probably have been named a magistrate). The milieu of the language school itself could scarcely have been more exotic. It was situated in the ancestral temple of the Chan family, a notable example of a Confucian temple built about the end of the nineteenth century. The temple was still used occasionally as a place of worship and Douglas and his fellow students would sometimes begin their daily studies, eyes itching from the pungent odour of burning incense smoking on the altars across the open courtyard. The British administration had made some arrangement with the Chan family to rent the covered verandas and side rooms that surrounded the main altar. It was all rather ornate with brightly tiled roofs, porcelain fish and dragons decorating the eaves, the home of vast numbers of swallows and bats that swooped in and out during the language classes. After the morning tutorials (the classes contained only half a dozen or so pupils), the afternoons were usually spent studying privately.

Occasionally, as a respite from this rigorous language study schedule, Douglas would be assigned a more congenial task, such as helping to prepare for the first democratic voting (scheduled for July 1955) that would lead eventually to an independent Malaya. It was from these activities there emerged the most famous anecdote of Douglas Main’s short tour of duty in Malaya. The electoral officer was explaining voting procedures to a group of natives and Douglas was translating the officer’s message. You natives, explained the official, must continue to live by the rules and regulations of the Empire even after the voting. The electoral official waited for Douglas to translate. Douglas then said in the native language: ‘We bring you greetings from Her Majesty, the Queen, in London. She has asked me to tell you that if you are ever in London you are all invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.’ There was a great cheer. The officer turned to Douglas and said: ‘There you are, Main. I told you if you treated these people firmly, they’d appreciate it.’

Of course, in addition to his other duties and his language studies, there was a pleasant social side to Douglas’s life in Kuala Lumpur. In 1955, despite some sporadic fighting, the capital was beginning to relax after more than six years of tension and fear. As one observer said, in the spring of 1955 it ‘felt as if someone had given the whole city a pep pill’. Undoubtedly Douglas took advantage of some of the pleasures the capital now had to offer. He lived comfortably enough in a small bachelors’ ‘mess’. He and his mates had a servant, either a Malay or Chinese boy, an amah as they were called. There was also a male cook, and an Indian (Tamil) kebun would have looked after the garden.

When Douglas and his friends ate out they had an inter­esting cuisine from which to choose because so many of K.L.’s restaurants, shuttered during ‘the Emergency’, were now reopening. The Coliseum was famous for its out-sized curry puffs served in its mahogany-lined bar and its ‘sizzling’ steaks presented on a red-hot iron plate sitting on a wooden tray on which the steak was cooked in front of the diner draped in a large bib. The diner often washed down the spicier meals with stengahs, a potent Malayan drink and a favourite of the planters and other devotees of the Selangor Club, usually referred to as the ‘Spotted Dog’ because a formidable late-Victorian woman once hitched her pet Dalmatian to her carriage waiting outside.

In some ways the ‘Spotted Dog’ was the centre of European social life in K.L., with its cricket, football, tennis and hockey matches. There were dances and other social affairs. For the more formal occasions Douglas would wear his white ‘sharkskin’ evening jacket with black trousers. It is unlikely he played polo but he certainly frequented the racetrack in K.L. After a swim at nearby Port Dickson there would often be a dinner party, perhaps at the Akers-Joneses, good talk, tasty food and quiet conviviality with friends and colleagues like Robert Bruce who often shared with Douglas ‘long, delightful sessions over food and drink in which we examined the problems of the world’. These were the kind of evenings in K.L. that Douglas relished the most.

There was another side to Malaya that Douglas spoke about little at the time but which he sensed and responded to. It was the side that corresponded to the deep wells of his own Celtic background and also to his continuing search for a spiritual experience that would be real for him. The search for an authentic spirituality, sought with the Canons Regular and at Trinity, continued in Malaya. Douglas’s dissatisfaction with his own spiritual life, in a curious way was mirrored by what the writer, Ronald McKie, describes as the ‘vague uneasiness’ engendered by Malaya which makes:

you feel in this place, among Gods and spirits which have shaped Asia, that at any moment something will happen to you that has never happened before, that you will be influenced by forces over which you have no control. It is a feeling almost indefinable and so illogical that you know it could be true.

Something did happen to Douglas in Malaya that had never happened before and it profoundly influenced the rest of his life. For the first time he encountered an eastern form of spirituality, another way of prayer. More than twenty years later, in his first small book, Christian Meditation: the Gethsemani Talks, Douglas Main described this encounter: ‘I was first introduced to meditation long before I became a monk, when I was serving in the British Colonial Service in Malaya. My teacher was an Indian swami who had a temple just outside Kuala Lumpur.’

Initially, the teacher was more important than the teaching, for his teacher in Malaya was a remarkable man, Swami Satyananda, a slender, gentle figure clad in a white robe. He was born in the city of Ipoh in the northern federated state of Perak on 15 July 1909. He was 45 years old when Douglas Main, just 29, arrived in Malaya. Both the Swami’s parents died when he was a boy of about 10. He was brought up by relatives and educated in a Roman Catholic institution, St Michael’s School where, inspired by the teachings of Jesus and several saints, he considered becoming a Christian. In 1926, aged 17, he joined the Malayan Government Service where he remained until 1936. He then resigned to go to India to become a Hindu monk. He spent several years studying philosophy, comparative religions, Sanskrit, the techniques of Yoga and other eastern disciplines. When the Swami returned from India to Malaya in 1940, he became the principal of a school for boys and another for girls. Three years before, when he was 28, the Swami had begun to follow the intense meditation methods of Raja Yoga on a regular basis morning and evening. Later he came under the influence of several holy men including Swami Abhedananda, Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sri Aurobindo.


Swami Satyananda

In 1949 Swami Satyananda founded the ‘Pure Life Society’. This was an attempt to translate religious theory into a prac­tical spirituality. It would remain his life’s work. As one of the Swami’s collaborators put it, ‘ . . . this age lacks God-consciousness . . . the Swami’s basic desire was to . . . restore consciousness of the “Kingdom of God” among his fellow men.’ To further his purpose of making religion practical the Swami purchased a few acres of land along the edge of the secondary jungle on 6th Mile Puchong Road, just outside Kuala Lumpur. Here he eventually built an orphanage, a school and the Temple of the Universal Spirit on the site’s highest point. Adult education classes, a library, a dispensary and a printing press were added later. In 1954 the state government made Swami Satyananda a Justice of the Peace, an unusual honour for a member of a Hindu religious order, almost as unusual as a Benedictine monk being called to the Bar.

Swami Satyananda put great stress on diverse groups living together in harmony in one community. This harmony was realized by the Indian, Malayan and Chinese students who lived in the various institutions of the Pure Life Society. To develop this community life (open to those of any religious background) on a solid basis, the Pure Life Society held regular group meditation classes. Swami Satyananda himself was remarkably practical about meditation. He agrees that images in prayer might be necessary for the beginner, but mental images are only required in the first kindergarten stage. The Swami explains the nature of meditation this way:

Mental worship, together with repetition of the holy name and holy reading is the second stage. Silent contemplation and meditation on God is the third stage. The final stage is becoming one with the Supreme Spirit. . . . This medi­tation [on Peace] reaches the culmination of our spiritual venture. A serene and silent power is born in the soul of man in the depth of meditation. . . . Let us find this place of Peace—the island of spiritual fortifications in the cave of our heart. Let us be filled with the spirit of the Infinite even now.

This was Swami Satyananda: student, civil servant, monk, founder of a community, teacher of meditation, with an honorary law degree, but above all a happy, serene and integrated man. As John Main wrote in The Gethsemani Talks many years later:

… 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. . . .

Then the Swami elaborated his teaching by reciting several verses from the Upanishads: ‘He contains all things, all works and desires and all perfumes and tastes. And he enfolds the whole universe and, in silence, is loving to all. This is the Spirit that is in my heart. This is Brahman.’ This reading, done with such intensity and devotion, so moved Douglas that he asked the Swami to teach him to meditate his way. The Swami agreed and suggested that he come out to the meditation centre once a week. On his first visit the Swami spoke to Douglas about meditation:

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.

So once a week for about eighteen months Douglas meditated with the Swami for half an hour. The Swami insisted it was necessary to meditate twice a day, morning and evening:

And during the time of your meditation there must be in your mind, no thoughts, no words, no imaginations. The sole sound will be the sound of your mantra, your word. The mantra is like a harmonic. And as we sound the harmonic within ourselves we begin to build up a reson­ance. That resonance then leads us forward to our own wholeness. . . . We begin to experience the deep unity we all possess in our own being. And then the harmonic begins to build up a resonance between you and all creatures and all creation and unity between you and your Creator.

This was the teaching, a way to an authentic interior life, to ‘the cave of the heart’ that Douglas Main had long been seeking, that he first learned from the Swami and incorpor­ated into his own teaching on Christian meditation. In later years Douglas often referred to the Swami, whose death in 1961 at the age of 51, was the result of a car accident. Swami Satyananda’s work of making religion practical and open to all still goes on and, indeed, has expanded in Kuala Lumpur through the efforts of his friends and associates in the Pure Life Society. For his part, Douglas Main never forgot the friendship and openness of this remarkable Hindu monk who accepted him as a Christian disciple and taught him to medi­tate. From this experience there emerged Douglas Main’s openness to Eastern religions and to teaching meditation to ‘all those who come to pray with us’.

Few, if any, of his colleagues in Malaya knew of his association with the Swami. Meanwhile, he continued his studies in the language school. But he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the manner of the British transition and the Malayan society he saw emerging. He spoke about this later to his friend, Robert Farrell:

He felt badly about Malaya because he said: ‘The British had no constructive policy about anything at all, except to hang onto everything as long as possible.’ These were his exact words, as best I can remember them. He wasn’t bitter because he was going to lose his job. … I think he was just generally annoyed because he felt he was taking part in a sham.

Whatever his feelings about British policies in Malaya, the reason Douglas asked to retire from the Oversea Service (on 30 April 1956), was not because he lacked ability. His superior in Malaya, A. W. D. James, later wrote: ‘It was with great regret that I learned of his decision to leave the service. . . . Mr Main had the breadth of mind and depth of insight which are the mark of the best administrator.’ And the Director of the Language School, Robert Bruce, described him this way:

He was exceptional. In that large body he had the gentle­ness of a child. His intelligence was keen, quick and vibrant. He delighted in ideas and readily engaged in argument on the ills of the world. He was not a good student of the Chinese dialect he was assigned to study (Hokkien, I think). I thought he was out of place in the milieu of a brash society—both European and Asian—which was lively but crude compared to the intellectual and spiritual realm which was later to be the home of Douglas Main. He had a good sense of humour and a generous heart.

A part of Douglas Main’s ‘generous heart’ never forgot Malaya, especially the people of Malaya who ‘found love in a flower, beauty in a reed’.

The visit of H.H. The Dalai Lama to the Vendôme Priory in 1980. From left to right: Laurence Freeman, Dalai Lama, John Main.

Later on, East meets West again with the visit of H.H. The Dalai Lama to the newly-established Vendôme Priory, Montreal, in 1980. From left to right: Laurence Freeman, Dalai Lama, John Main.

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