Excerpts from Hill of Fire

The April 2002 issue of ‘Self Enquiry’, the Tri-Annual Review of the Ramana Maharshi Foundation, UK published selections from The Hill of Fire. Here are parts of the article that appeared in the Review.

Extracts taken from The Hill of Fire “a wise and beautifully written book” by Monica Bose, about the life and spiritual quest of her mother, Dr Suzanne Curtil Sen.

1) Suzanne was born in Paris on 13 December 1896. A very frail child, the close relationship she enjoyed with her mother was disrupted when she was three with the birth of her brother at a time when she was forming her meanings… as a result her understanding of things remained locked in her mind too uncertain and imperfect for her to want to expose…and in her early childhood Suzanne was mute.
    Suzanne was…(then aged seven) taken into the room where her brother’s little body had been laid out. The veil with which they had covered his face was removed for a moment so that she could give him the last kiss. She saw then what it was to be dead. It was to be in the midst of others, and yet apart from them. It was to be unable to speak or do anything. Before the sight of death perhaps Suzanne felt confronted with the concrete form of what her own state virtually was. At any rate, later events showed that she retained from this sad episode a fear of death, not only physical death, but death in its subtler forms as well, such as self-ignorance and the inability to find fulfillment. The certainty of being loved would have removed these fears, but that certainty she did not have.
    One day when her understanding had grown more mature, she would begin to see death of the ego not as deprivation, but plenitude; not as opposed to life, but as the very consummation of life. Her desire to know herself and to be fulfilled would then undergo a transformation and she would strive for something of immeasurably greater value, to realise the Self that was of the Spirit.

2) When she was eighteen, Suzanne joined the Theosophical Society and in 1925 was sent as a delegate from the Paris Lodge to the Jubilee Convention held at Adyar, S. India.
    At Adyar, she met Sri Jinawansaswami, a High Priest of the Theravada or Southern Buddhist Church. His specific mission was to revive Buddhism in India. He became Suzanne’s teacher, and knowing that she was a medical doctor with a strong intellect and could help him in his work, he formally asked the Chief High Priests of Ceylon to admit her into the Order as a nun.
    After she had received the yellow robe and begging bowl, and with shaven head, Suzanne was sent to the Himalayan region to establish an ecumenical connection with the Northern Buddhist Church.
     She learnt many things during her stay in the North. She witnessed a dance of demons, for which the lamas donned the masks of fierce demoniacal beings in a rite that ended with the killing and dismemberment of the effigy of a man. Chief of the demons was Mahakala, the Great Black One, of Buddhist Tantric fame. He was a survivor of a bygone age when a myriad demons had stalked the landscape of people’s minds. But wise Buddhist teachers had subjugated him…by turning him from a destroyer of men into a destroyer of the human ego. As the dark force of mystical death, he became the counterpart of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Infinite Light. In the words of one lama: “Without darkness there is no light.” Because he reconciles these two opposites he is called the Lord of Transcendental Wisdom. Whilst, as the Great Destroyer, without whom there is no creation, no transformation, no law of existence, he is the awesome Protector of the Dharma and of life itself, and his swift and secret aid is customarily invoked in times of dire danger.
    Years later, Suzanne would stage the dance of the masked lama, which had made a marked impression on her. It seems too, that she applied its lesson of hidden strength in her own life. At a difficult time, when she felt beset by enemies, she made a determined effort to efface the desires and feelings of the self so as to live more in the Self and by so doing obtained not only a greater feeling of invulnerability but an objective result as well, because when she became less assertive and hence less of a target, the attacks of her enemies would abate.

3) Suzanne was advised to meet a very holy lama, Tromo Geshe Rinpoche. He had spent years in solitary meditation in the rock caves of Tromo in Southern Tibet. When he emerged from seclusion he embarked on a wide mission to awaken the minds of people everywhere to the truth that the essence of the Buddha’s teaching was love. Some say that he had been inspired by the sight of a wondrous vision of the Buddha Maitreya, the Buddha of Love, in the sky. At any rate, the Rinpoche’s teaching and actions following the years he spent in spiritual practice were instinct with the realisation that love is the fruit of the conscientious discipline of the mind. The Rinpoche granted Suzanne an audience in a monastery in Kalimpong.
    Once she had completed her task for the Swamiji, she requested the Rinpoche to give her some guidance for her spiritual quest. When he did not reply she began to fear that he did not think her worthy of his instruction, for she knew only of a great emptiness in herself. But presently he said: “The goal of spiritual quest is Reality, which you feel is very distant from you, but know that there is no need to seek anywhere for Reality, since it is already within you. It is your innate true nature…”
To her joy she heard the Rinpoche say “I shall teach you a meditation that will help to awaken your true nature… After teaching her an ancient visualization meditation he told her: “When the feeling comes to you that He dwells in your heart you will have found your Inner Light.” Finally, he imparted to her the sacred mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, The Jewel in the Lotus.
    The mantra expresses more than one dimension of Reality. Mani, the pure and radiant jewel, is the Buddha nature in its dimension of suchness or absoluteness. Hum as the seed invocation of the Buddha Aksobya who essences the Mind of all Buddhas, is the Buddha nature in its profound dimension of Knowledge. Om, as the seed invocation of the Buddha Vairochana who essences the Body of all the Buddhas, is the Buddha nature in its vast dimension of Love and Compassion. There is a saying that when the Illumination flashes forth in someone’s mind, the entire Universe is illumined.

4) In May that year, she was appointed by the Southern Buddhist authorities as their representative to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. She was to request him to accept joint patronage with the leader of the Southern Buddhist Church. Dressed inconspicuously as a young Nepali man, she joined a caravan to Lhasa.
    After Phari-Jung, they traversed still more desolate country. A tropical sun shone in the deep blue sky but at altitudes nearing 4,600 metres, the cold was intense. Suzanne inadequately clad and equipped for such conditions, tried to keep warm by stuffing paper in her boots and between her body and her clothes. They passed mountains so steep it was a wonder how the monasteries perched on their slopes were not swept away by the onslaughts of the wind and rain. Suzanne visited a monastery that was inaccessible to outsiders for nine months of the year. She would report that within the limits of those lonely eyries, the monks, far from suffering any sense of isolation, enjoyed the widest communion possible: “At meditation time the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is chanted. It is the chain of union between the Illuminated Souls. The individual consciousness is withdrawn within and united with the greater Consciousness of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of past, present and future.”
    Suzanne fell ill and never reached Lhasa. It is unlikely however, that she would have been successful in persuading the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to share his power with a distant foreign authority. But it had not all been in vain since she would write of her Tibetan experience, “I have known the incommensurable Peace, have felt sometimes in the great solitudes of nature the Presence of the invisible.”

5) In 1927, Suzanne left her life as a nun to marry an Indian army surgeon, Ranjit Sen, who shared her high ideals of service. Their daughter, Monica is the author of this book. When the marriage was dissolved, Suzanne resumed her vows and her work for the Swamiji. Little Monica was raised by her grandmother in Europe. But in 1934 the Swamiji died.
    At a time of bafflement and distress, Suzanne saw a newspaper article about the Sage of Tiruvannamalai, Ramana Maharshi, whose realisation through discriminating intuition had brought back to mankind the reality of the ancient Seers or Rishis. Suzanne went to see him in December 1936.
    As Suzanne made the journey by train to Tiruvannamalai, kilometre after kilometre of arid splendour unfurled before her eyes. She saw tawny earth and tawny hills and giant piles of rocks that were the skeletal remains of ancient mountains. A desert vegetation of thorn-scrub and cactus like euphorbia scrabbled for existence in the dry, unrewarding soil. Unexpectedly, there would be a copse of tall trees revealing the presence of underground water, the sudden brilliant green of paddy standing waist-high, or the yellow gold of mustard fields.
    Early in the morning the train slowed as it approached a mountain taller and standing apart from the rest. She did not recognise it at once and thought only that it looked very denuded and ancient. Its soil was eroded and the rocky structure beneath was exposed like the ribs of a skeleton. It was only when they had gone around it and she saw its less rugged eastern aspect that she recognised it to be the Hill Arunachala. In the early sunlight it glowed a fiery red, and she remembered that Arunachala was held to be the manifestation of Siva’s Knowledge in the form of fire.
6) Suzanne comes before the Sage of Arunachala
In the hall of the Ashram Suzanne saw a slender, golden-skinned man in his late fifties. Except for a loincloth, he was completely bare. She thought his face was very beautiful, not only because of the Brahmin fineness of features, but above all because it had the highest expression of awareness that she had ever seen. There was about him a certain indefinable quality; the splendour of Realization perhaps described it best…Once during the morning the Maharshi turned and looked directly at Suzanne. She would write to us about his wonderful gaze, his brilliant eyes ‘shining like stars’. She was sure she had found her Master.
    In the morning and evening the mood was rather informal. In the evening, Suzanne found the atmosphere quite different; much more solemn and charged with more energy. First there was a recitation of the Vedas by a group of young Brahmin boys and their preceptor. As the powerful Sanskrit syllables vibrated in the hall, the Maharshi’s appearance underwent a remarkable change. His expression became austere, his gaze turned inwards. His face appeared translucent as if lit by inner illumination, whilst the constant slight trembling of his body which Suzanne had noticed earlier, had now completely stopped. Yet even in this state it was evident that he was not oblivious of his surroundings, and that he had an awareness of both the inner and outer reality. Suzanne was to say: “He is an adept of the highest order, a king of yogis. The splendour of his realisation radiates like a sun… Robed in ether, his yogic powers are unique, subtle and rare. He lifts you far above the world.”

7) Who am I?
The Maharshi’s basic teaching was to find out who one was. The mind was to engage in the interrogation ‘Who am I?’ rejecting what essentially one was not, until, at the point when all questioning was stilled, one reached sheer Being that is Reality.
    An early devotee asked the Maharshi to explain what Reality was. The Sage replied: “It is Being-Awareness-Bliss, in which there is not even the slightest trace of the thought ‘I’. It is also called Silence, or the Self. That alone is.” Yet he did not stop there. Lest the definition he had given of transcendent Reality led the devotee to dismiss all personal realities as illusions, the Maharshi went on to stress that if the trinity of world, ego and personal God were considered as rooted in the Absolute and as Its manifestations, then they were real. Thus he established straightaway that the aim of spiritual practice was not to escape from one’s personal realities, but rather to abide in the greater all-encompassing Reality.
    Suzanne stayed on in Tiruvannamalai to practice the Maharshi’s teaching. She made her home for many years in a house on Big Street, near the temple, and close to the foot of the Hill Arunachala. She opened her dispensary, to heal the sick by allopathic and homeopathic methods.

8) When World War II broke out, she wrote urging her mother and her daughter to come to India. They sailed circuitously to Bombay, where Suzanne met them and brought them back with her to Tiruvannamalai.
    Monica loved the place. For ten years, she would come to Tiruvannamalai at least once a year on her school and later college holidays. Her memories of the Maharshi, of the Hill Arunachala and of the temple-town are related in The Hill of Fire.
    At the same time she was a witness to her mother’s striving for Self-realisation, to her longing to receive the Initiation from her Guru which to her seemed unattainable since the Maharshi always said that he was not a Guru and did not give the Initiation to his disciples.
    His teaching was, rather, that the Initiation was the work of the subjective Spirit within oneself, of which the outer Guru was the manifestation. This broader than usual definition of Initiation makes it possible for me ask to myself whether Suzanne had not been initiated a long time before when as a young girl she had felt the first stirring of inner intuition regarding the dictates of God. Since then there had been other experiences which might have been the working of the Spirit in herself… If she personally did not rate any happening that had taken place so far in her life as an Initiation, it was because she could not see any positive change in herself resulting from it. Yet when the Maharshi once commented that progress was not always known to the person in whom it had taken place, he surely meant that Initiation could be the start of the gradual maturing of one’s understanding, a quiet inner transformation that was no less real for not being as yet manifest.

9) Last days and teaching of the Maharshi.In July 1949, the Maharshi was diagnosed as suffering from sarcoma…His concern was not for himself but for those of us who grieved. There was so little time left to make us understand that there was no need for grief. He said: “They say that I am dying, but I am not going away. Where could I go? I am always here.” In June he had been moved from the old hall to the big newly constructed audience hall adjoining the Ashram temple. Monica writes, “He never felt comfortable there. Once I was sitting in the new hall when he entered and took his place on the carved granite couch. He looked around with aversion at his grandiose surroundings, then withdrew his thoughts to some point within, and complete serenity returned to his features.”
    The time came when the Maharshi was removed to a one-room cottage built to facilitate nursing. At the time of darshan or sight the devotees filed past the open doorway. Monica came to take her leave of him before returning to Madras. She writes: “… when it was my turn to stand before the doorway to see him, I was startled—his face as he looked at me was transfigured with love. I had often seen him look tender or compassionate during the many years that I had known him, but I had never seen him look as he did now. In his poor spent body there was this supreme, passionless love. The sight of it was his last gift to me and it is still with me, vivid and vital to this day.”

10) Suzanne and Monica were not present on the last day of the Maharshi’s physical life. But when Suzanne returned to Tiruvannamalai there was a change in her; she no longer had the desire to find a Master. Instead something new and unsought for had arisen in its place…reconciliation.
    Through her friendship with the Benedictine monk Swami Abhishiktananda, Suzanne became reconciled also with her original faith, the Roman Catholic religion. In December 1952, he wrote addressing her as Guhantari or Cave-Dweller:

at the Spring deep
in the heart of Arunachala.”

    In her understanding, the Cave was the spiritual Heart, and the Spring meant Love that rose from the Source that was hidden. He had previously told her of his intuition of God as Unique and Unknowable in the non-duality of pure Awareness, and as Communion and Community in the unity of Love.
    The mysterious reconciliation in the highest state of Being between Awareness and Love, Suzanne realised, had constituted the ‘heart’ or inner teachings, some more explicit than others, and variously expressed according to individual experience or religious background, of all the great Masters she had known.
    For Suzanne, the time came when there was no more search for truth because of her discovery of the interiority of truth. The quest for a Master was futile now that she knew the Divine Master reigned in her own heart. Also, all the ideals which had motivated her so far, they too had to be given up. In the upper reaches of renunciation, ideals, even the idea of the goal has no place. Nor was any action necessary other than learning to repose in the will of God. The Maharshi who had achieved that repose called it the “silence which is the embodiment of love.” When asked what he liked best, he referred to it in these words: “What I like is to know who I am and to remain as I am with the knowledge that what is to happen will happen and what is not to happen will not happen.”

Suzanne died on 11 July 1966, in great peace despite her cancer. All fear of death had long since gone; her mother had died in Madras on 22 May 1965 also in peace and sustained by her Lord.