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.
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
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
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
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.