54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis

  1. Vijayananda
  2. Melita Maschman
  3. Brahmachari Gadadhar
  4. Bill Eilers
  5. Simonetta
  6. Swami Jnanananda
  7. Bill Aitken
  8. Bramacharini Atmananda
  9. Jamie Smith
  10. Martha Smith
  11. Radheshwari
  12. Omkara Das Adhikary
  13. Gopi Jai Krishna
  14. Ellen Schector
  15. Paul Ivan Hogguer
  16. Giorgio Bonazzoli
  17. Anil Bhai
  18. Russell Balfour-Clarke
  19. Norma Sastri
  20. John Clarke
  21. Peter Hoffman
  22. Dhruva
  23. Maggi Lidchi
  24. Sz. Regeni
  25. Baruni
  26. Michael Zelnick
  27. David and Sally
  28. Wilhelmina van Vliet
  29. Norman C. Dowsett
  30. Father Bede Griffiths
  31. Matthew and
    Joan Greenblatt
  32. Lucy Cornelssen
  33. Doris Williamson
  34. Lucia Osborne
  35. David Godman
  36. Hamsa Johannus de Reade
  37. Sir
  38. Joachim Peters and
    Uli Steckenreuter
  39. Richard Willis
  40. Chitrakara das Adhikary
  41. Aviva Keller
  42. Ma Prem Leela
  43. Swami Prem Pramod
  44. Ma Amanda Vandana
  45. Swami Anand Bodhisattva
  46. Swami Nadama
  47. Sister Arati
  48. Francis Reck
  49. H.H. Giriraja Swami
  50. Jean Dunn
  51. Raymond and
    Maree Steiner
  52. Bhikshu Ngawang Samten
  53. Ani Tenzin Palmo
  54. Kate Christie



Francis Reck

Christa Prem Seva Ashram

16th February 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

Francis, the captured travelling sadhu, has been listening in the background. His life of wandering/searching is totally different from that of Charan Das who has chosen this as his way of life – or that of the settled calmness and stability chosen by the Sisters in this Ashram.

Francis travels as he feels he has not yet reached the path leading to spiritual fulfillment. All paths lead eventually to the same goal if sincere longing and dedication is there. That, with Grace, is the passport. Francis loves the simplicity, calmness, the order he finds here with the Sisters. Whenever he speaks, however, one is conscious of an inner balance. The whole point of the search, the upheavals, the seemingly endless struggle, is to help centre ourselves within. To be living in an enclosed life away from the distractions of worldly activity has much to be said for it, but it is harder also: without the knocks and scrubbings from the outside the polishing takes longer.

My great Swiss friend, Swami Jnanananda Giri who gave one of the earliest Interviews, recently wrote saying,
“Life is indeed a gift from God. One’s aspirations and the company one keeps are the great factors that help realize oneself and purpose. Patience is the great lesson one must try to learn. Day by day there are the opportunities to practice equanimity and balance in one’s conduct. This is only possible in one’s Divine Presence”.

Francis, like Baruni at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, has been dragged through the filth of the world. Now they both shine because of the constant scrubbings. Francis has a dream-like, child-like quality which touches the heart.



Interview 48

My grandfather came from Italy to America to get out of poverty, but I don’t know where to start about me — should I start with the spiritual side? My spiritual quest started when I was 7.

Why don’t we have what happened before that — it can’t take too long?
O.K. So my father was a Catholic, my mother was a Baptist — she wasn’t Italian: she was English — very different backgrounds. There were big arguments in my family: we have this son — what’s he going to be? They decided I could make up my own mind. First I was brought to my mother’s church when I was about 5, and I found it pretty boring; a spiritless scene in church. Then I was brought to the Catholic Church to see what that was like; I really felt some power there. They told me I could be baptized if I learned the prayers, but that I had to also have an understanding of what they meant. I tried to get an inner feeling for them, which I guess is pretty lucky because most Catholics are baptized when they are babies and don’t have any understanding. When I was baptized it was one of the most powerful experiences I can remember: the priest poured water on my head and the spirit came through Jesus into my body: I felt totally purified — I felt there was no need to be on the earth anymore - finished! But I got very disillusioned.

What sort of age were you then?
Oh, about 14. I was in a Catholic school and the nuns were terribly neurotic at that time. In my mind I started to grow a bit. The sexual repression of the Church, the question of good and evil, the thing of only Catholics deserving salvation helped the disillusionment. I didn’t know where to go. I read about LSD so I tried it, hoping to get some mystic experience — I suppose. I was about 18 then, at High School in Denver. My mind was unraveling a bit too fast and becoming desperate: I used hard drugs for about a year and a half. It brought me down so far that when I made a surender it was very deep. I remember I went to a church. I was praying to Jesus: I don’t know if you exist or not, but if you do, help me! That was the surrender, and immediately the help came: I ran into good people, although I had no trust any more. They were not in any organization, so this idea of good and bad, that we are going to be saved, wasn’t there.
A group of us kept together — it was a beautiful experience.

From such a low it really made me appreciate love, from not having it, from cutting myself off from it. It gave me understanding: how could there be duality in pure love. I was reading St. Augustine and how he had gone through that whole process and he had come to a state of non-duality. But I couldn’t come across any other Christians having the same experience: there was this duality in every Christian community, and I could never break through.

You didn’t think of turning to the Eastern mystics?
I did. I was very inspired by Kirpal Singh. Then I ran into Chogyam Trungpa rinpoche. He hit something in me — touched me, reflected such kindness. I became his student for about two and a half years. Through his suggestion I studied vipassana meditation with Joseph Goldstein.

Would you describe some of your experiences with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche?
I had been doing Kundalini yoga, and for some reason it was throwing me into high energy states, so when some people suggested I should see their guru, I went. I was expecting to see an Indian with a beard in an orange robe. But the first thing I saw was a bottle of wine on his table, and there was a roast cooking — it was in his house in the early days. When he came in, I saw a Tibetan in Western clothes smoking a cigarette — it kind of shocked me a bit, I had been having a depression for the past few days and I just started babbling my problems out for some reason. He sat there and listened. And then there was a moment when the babbling stopped and our minds met, and there was just silence and a moth flew through the air. It looked like a Chinese painting. I left, but there wasn’t such a strong connection yet — I continued with my spiritual materialism.

The next time I met him I was again down from a love affair — my heart was very black; but when I saw Chogyam, he was so right there: as high as you could go and as low as you were — he was right in the middle. And he just looked at me and reached over and pulled my beard like: You’re O.K. as you are, you don’t have to go up any higher or down any lower — you don’t have to go anywhere or do anything or be anyone — just be yourself as you are: you are all right. And that was so inspiring — for my whole life I will never forget those two seconds: such kindness and compassion.

I started studying with his group in San Francisco and got another Interview about a year later. I started the babbling as it worked the last time but he told me: You’re full of shit! Wow…it was good. He said I was making too big a spiritual trip out of my practice and to start sitting with my eyes open. I did this style of meditation for 2 ½ years, but it was very painful.

You mean you focused with open eyes?
Yes. It was painful because all these things would come up from within without being able to see them inside…in that meditation the attention is not internal…it’s a form devised for Westerners. I felt the need to go inwards so I was attracted to Joseph Goldstein, a vipassana teacher in the Southern Buddhist tradition. Chogyam suggested I study with him. So I did a 3 month retreat with him which was a real death and a new life again! Then everyone I met after that had been to India and was talking about India – so I wanted to go. I have never been a big money-making person, but I put my mind to it and worked full effort to get the money to come here.

So how long ago was all that?
Three years ago.

What did you have in mind when you arrived in India?
I wanted to go to Bodhgaya and continue with vipassana and study with Munindra, but as I had been inspired by Rajneesh just before I left, I came to Poona but was too sick to do any of the dynamic meditation or groups. I listened to the lectures, observed the people and had an Interview with Lakshmi. She decided this wasn’t for me as I had already started on a Path and that I should continue on it whereas most people coming to the Rajneesh Ashram don’t have one and so are accepted easily. I left and met a family near Lonavala. I stayed with them for eight months doing kundalini meditation, and Mrs. Patwardhan gave me shaktipath initiation. I had some trouble with my relationship with the family, so I left.

There must have been tremendous differences between your vipassana and kundalini practices?
I ended up with Mrs. Patwardhan because I was so sick with heavy fever, but she said I could only stay if I took the initiation. I wasn’t particularly keen but I took it as I thought it would enable me to meditate in a good environment. But the kundalini was activated more than before…I had had some experience of it.

Can you say how she activated the Kundalini?
She just touches you and the kundalini starts moving through the various chakras. It seems to bring up a lot of old patterns in people: some start crying, some come out with mantras they have never heard before, some go into spontaneous hatha yoga, some see past-life events, some see a lot of phenomena. The emphasis is not to do anything — just surrender to the energy, to let it take you to the source, to Shiva the Para Brahman — God. Many people get different experiences: shaking, fast breathing — some people are quiet and calm.

Why did you leave them?
I had a conflict as I wanted to live as a sannyasi — their guru was a sannyasi but they were householders, and they didn’t quite understand my desire to leave off everything. This brought about the break in our friendship and I ended up without any money. At least I thought: This is my chance. I had to go to Goa, and by chance I found a temple where I was allowed to stay. Some people told me to come to their house every day and they would give me food. I meditated during the night and it was beautiful — it was the life of a sannyasi. There I met a man whose whole sadhana was raising cows and protecting them; he would milk them and give the milk to poor people. He was an inspiring man. He had never heard of Christ — he didn’t know anything about him — but he was displaying such Christian virtues.

I also lived with some sadhus in Goa. One sadhu lived on the edge of a village of prostitutes: on the other side of his wall lived a prostitute, and he would chant his mantras very lovingly the whole day. A few prostitutes came to see him and had a change of heart; he affected some of the heavy characters there and had changed their lives. In my Christian experience he was very Christ-like. From Goa I went to a Christian Ashram: I felt a need to make a connection with my Christian roots: I stayed there three months, then came back to Poona to this Ashram.

What attracted you here?
Before I tell you all that I have to go back a bit. I went to see Nisagardatta Maharaj in Bombay: he told me to go to Alandi, and on the first day I was walking about the temple where I saw an old man who I didn’t take as a guru but I remember touching his feet as it seemed that everyone was doing this. When I touched his feet the kundalini went straight up my back and I felt some energy hitting my heart very, very strong. I felt like life-times of poisons were pouring out of my heart. I looked up, and he said through a translator: I don’t understand your language but I know all the prayers of your heart. He was wearing a Shirdi Sai Baba ring, and there was a beam coming out of it hitting me in the heart. Then he said: I know you have come to India purely for spiritual purposes… you have gone all around… now you don’t have to go anywhere. At the time I didn’t know what a gem he was, and I could hardly walk after seeing him: I felt the whole Eastern hemisphere pouring into me. I stayed with him two weeks and had various experiences with him.

Sometimes he would look like a regular old man, sometimes his body wouldn’t be a body but all light — I couldn’t see anything but light, his body was beaming light. Then other times I would look at him and feel disgust at his old worn-out body, and then suddenly my thought would change and his feet would be lotuses, and all sorts of phenomena would be manifesting. My health was still bad and he told me it would be better for me to leave India. I told him I can’t leave; I can’t. Then he said: Take the deities of the temple into your heart and you’ll be protected. Only when I left him did I realize how much I had been protected, and that he had been with me the whole time. Then there was a deep connection with him — when I was away from him. Every time I see him it gets deeper and deeper and deeper.

Does he have any Western followers?
No. Through me there’s been a number of Westerners who have gone to see him and he seems to have touched them, but none have felt a connection as deep as mine: I am sure he has touched me for the rest of my life.

Would you now like to give the reason why you are staying at this Ashram?
Oh, yes. After I had been through the Rajneesh period I was brought here by an Indian, so I stayed a month doing meditation. I had a hard time with nuns when I was young as I told you, but that relationship was mended here; also the lack of connection with the Church, although I was still deeply attached to Jesus, was bridged to a large degree. I find many of the Sisters here very sensitive, heartful, serious in their search for God, which is inspiring to me. They are extremely kind — we have had ups and downs, but they are extremely kind.

Now that you are back in Poona, do you ever go to see Bhagwan Rajneesh?
I admire him very much in that he sees a new vision, a new way of life. He sees it in a deep way and is able to reflect that jump into the new age. He has had the courage to take the jump; now whether his ego gets into it — has gotten into it — whether all these techniques he has developed, the experiments and the organization that have sprouted up work or not, I don’t know. It may fail, it may succeed, but I admire him for having the courage to try. Most people are terrified to try — tradition is so strong, and everyone wants to survive. He has made a break with tradition in spite of tremendous opposition. The organization is too strong for me, it doesn’t appeal: it’s too big a machine. But he is a person I find inspiring.

In your search there have been so many ups and downs; what has been the high-spot and what is the aim?
The journey is the most important thing — there is no goal; the journey is the goal. And it is continuing. Of all the teachers I have had, I would say Raghudas — my little old man, unknown, unsung — and Krishnamurti have influenced me the most. Raghudas as a person, Krishnamurti through what he stands for. Raghudas also never claims to be a guru, never wants to be an authority, never wants to influence you to do anything. Absolutely everything is spontaneous with him: he touches my heart. That relationship keeps growing and I see more and more the value, and I have to care for that relationship as I would have to care for my own son — which is me and him and everyone.

Yes, there has been a lot of darkness during different periods…as a child during the conflict when I had to find out which of my parents had the “right” God, and then finding He wasn’t in any church but right inside me. Then the conflict with the drugs which led to a state of surrender which allowed the spirit to enter on a much deeper level but still very much through form – Christian form. Then being over-sensitive and struggling with that, like being born into form from nothing then going back to nothing through all these forms. There was a lot of pain and struggle in that birth as well. Then my experiencing the falling in love with a woman and going through the flesh into love; through form again which always ends up in disillusionment. The Buddhist meditation, the Indian meditation, then going through yet another form, the form of India with so many problems – the visa problem, the not-speaking-the-language problem, the-having-the-Western-body problem, the having-all-these-Eastern-concepts problem….they are all forms.

I have found a lot of beauty here, especially with Raghudas: that’s another form and he’s going to die some day. It’s just a journey that never ends. And there are always going to be positives and negatives all the way. I can see my attachment to the form of India and I am trying to work through that. I have a clear idea it doesn’t lie in being in India particularity, or in any other form; I somehow have to be broken from that attachment.

The Christa Seva Ashram apparantly closed some years ago and was reclaimed by the Church authorities.

I am now returning to Bombay. Francis is accompanying me to the Poona railway station where at the last minute I remember I still have to photograph him! Ironically appropriate perhaps, here in a place of constant movement, surrounded by noise, bustle and frustration, but where if we are centred within ourselves, there is no reason why our inner calm should be disturbed. Of course, the ideal is to be unaffected by outside disturbance of any sort, but to remain in a detached meditative state. Saints dwell in that blissful place. They float on unperturbable.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006