Alfred Sorensen - India


Tagore had introduced Sorensen to Nehru, and in 1934 he visited the home of Nehru’s sister and brother-in-law at their house Khali, Binsar where he stayed and used his horticultural skills in the garden, while still travelling during the summer. It was while staying with the Nehru family that one of their friends offered Sorensen a piece of land where he could live on Crank's Ridge, near Almora.

India’s rich spiritual heritage provided a perfect environment for Sorensen’s natural mystical attitude. During his first stay in the country Sorensen had been initiated into Dhyāna Buddhism, but it was Ramana Maharshi who was to provide the biggest influence on his spiritual life. He had read Paul Brunton’s classic A Search in Secret India (1934), and soon after he met Brunton who arranged for Sorensen's first visit to Sri Ramana.

Sorensen made four trips to Tiruvannamalai ashram between 1936 and 1946, staying for a few weeks each time. It was during his visit to Sri Ramana that Paul Brunton told him that Ramana had referred to him as a ‘janam-siddha’ or rare born mystic.

A profound experience occurred to Sorensen while he was on his third visit to Sri Ramana in 1940: “Suddenly, out of the pure akasha and living Silence, there sounded upon Emmanuel these five words ‘We are always aware, Sunyata!’” Sorensen took these five words to be mantra, initiation and name. He would use the name Sunyata, or subtle variations on it for the rest of his life.

Although Sorensen, or Sunyata, as he came to be known for the last forty four years of his life, kept his Almora hut as his base he would continue to travel around India visiting friends and ashrams, especially during the cold, Himalayan winter months. Sunyata many prominent spiritual teachers in addition to Ramana Maharshi, including Anandamayee Ma, Yashoda Ma (Mirtola), Swami Ramdas and Neem Karoli Baba.

Sunyata lived in India as a sadhu or ascetic, subsisting on donations. Although in 1950 he accepted half of a grant of 100 Rs a month offered to him by the Birla Foundation, a charitable body. He subsisted on this goodwill and the vegetables he grew in his garden until he moved to California a quarter of a century later.

Living on Crank's Ridge, Sunyata’s neighbours included W. Evans-Wentz, Lama Govinda, Earl Brewster, John Blofeld and others. Despite his notable neighbours, he put up a sign requesting silence of those who approached his small hut built into the rock.

From at least the 1930s Sunyata wrote diaries and reflections. His writing used a highly idiosyncratic, playful language to express the spiritual concepts that he focussed on. He often combined English and Sanskrit, used obscure literary terms or invented his own words. In 1945 he wrote Memory, an autobiography, which is the core of Sunyata – The life and sayings of a rare-born mystic. Sunyata continued to write throughout his life and another collection of his writings is collected in Dancing with the Void. He acquired Indian citizenship in 1953.

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