A Question of Forgiveness

The question of how to deal with unjust attacks is an age-old one. Some people advocate a philosophy of total forgiveness. Others say that forgiveness should be tempered by an understanding of the real world and the nature of the individuals with whom one has to deal.

Some say that forgiveness should come after wrong actions have ended, but not while they are still occurring. A remorseful person should certainly be forgiven, but those who show no remorse and continue to do wrong actions may require justice rather than compassion, for their own progress. (See also “Making Sense of the Spiritual Life.”)

Once upon a time, some spiritual devotees were meditating in a church. Suddenly, they were distracted by the sound of breaking glass. Upon investigation, they found that someone was throwing rocks at the church windows, smashing them to bits. Others were calling for the church to be burned to the ground! The wrongdoers were worldly people whose minds had become agitated, and who had embraced an aggressive, destructive consciousness.

Some of the disciples said: “Let us pray for protection and meditate on compassion.” This was all well and good. But after awhile, either their prayer and meditation was not powerful enough, or else the situation required different handling. As the rocks kept coming and windows continued to be broken, another disciple said: “Let us call the police, since they also represent protection and it is their job to protect us.”

When the police arrived, they arrested one or two rock throwers, and others scattered into the night.

What can we learn from this story? In an imperfect world, there is no perfect solution to problems of harassment. Undoubtedly, compassion is a powerful force; but sometimes justice is required to deal with aggressive, destructive people, or else they may destroy spiritual things which are most precious and cannot easily be replaced.

This does not apply only to physical objects, but to abstract things as well. A person such as a spiritual teacher has only one reputation, which he or she has built up over many decades through innumerable acts of kindness and compassion. If crude people wrongly attack the reputation of a spiritual master and will not stop, the situation may eventually require justice.

The problem is aggravated when those who have become aggressive and destructive feel they can get away with anything precisely because they are attacking gentle spiritual people. While I definitely don’t advocate zapping anyone with a ray gun, this short clip from Doctor Who dramatizes the outcome when a destructive person mistakenly assumes that the only possible response to their destructive behaviour is one of mercy:

English majors please note: River Song’s use of the passive voice (“It died”) is not generally recommended, though used here to good effect.😉

According to the varying mythologies of many cultures and religions, there are different kinds of beings assigned to perform different celestial duties. Their qualities and appearance are suited to the tasks which they perform, or they may take on a different appearance according to the circumstances.

The compassionate nature of the universe is reflected in that people usually have numerous opportunities to change their ways before they reach a final reckoning with justice. They see the face of compassion many times before they finally see the face of justice. It is up to them to choose how they want to progress. In the case of spiritual people, they often make the same essential prayer to their chosen deity: “Protect us with Thy compassionate face.”

When we think of a snake, often we think of its destructive qualities: it may hiss or bite. Usually the hiss is a warning, and if we ignore the hiss then we get the bite. But what of a snake who has become a vegetarian, recited holy mantras, and adopted principles of ahimsa (non-violence)? If such a creature existed, how would it defend itself from predators? This question is addressed in a parable from the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda tradition:

“How To Deal with the Wicked”

For those with little patience for spiritual parables, I will give away the punchline: I told you not to bite. I never told you not to hiss!

Some people demonstrate an impulsive nature lacking in wisdom and restraint. Perhaps they once knew wisdom and restraint, but have lost these qualities due to whimsicality, or because they abandoned their spiritual practice. In any event, they now do much harm. When we see the harm that they do, and their utter imperviousness to compassion, it is clear they need to be hissed at.

When compassion fails, some people may need a harsh word or Internet takedown or they will just go on attacking. This restores their sense of balance or understanding of cause and effect. “Oh, if I go on the Internet and attack someone, I too may be attacked.” Duh! Some people do learn from this, and some who have suffered feel vindicated when they see that justice is operating, and people who act cruelly and callously do get their comeuppance.

Worldly people are often obsessed with protecting their reputations, which are allied to their moneymaking activities; yet they think nothing of trying to destroy the reputations of spiritual people through libel. This points to a serious ethical imbalance, which occurs because worldly people (particularly apostates) tend to otherize spiritual people. They imagine that spiritual people do not enjoy the same rights to dignity, privacy, and protection of reputation.

In “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good,” John Leo addresses “the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?” But see also: “Tawana Brawley Rape Hoax Leads To Defamation Damage Payout 26 Years Later.” One consequence of false confessions of victimhood is that they may do collateral damage to third parties. Contrary to the social trend, some people do value their privacy and resent being used as mere objects in someone else’s spurious public confession.

In “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father,” Meredith Maran discusses how a “perfect storm” of influences including recovered memory therapy, feminist political theory, and social pressure caused her to claim that her father molested her. Years later, she realized it wasn’t true, and was surprised at how strong a role external factors like therapy, politics, and social pressure played in making her commit to a story which she knew in retrospect was a lie. Her father suffered greatly because of that lie, whose genesis was bad therapy and social/political faddism. Yet, she herself was not an automaton or passive agent. Looking back, she knew she had done wrong.

Anti-cult operatives take advantage of the current fad by persuading gullible individuals that the need for public-confession-as-therapy and the need to embrace a new identity as a “cult survivor” outweigh any loyalties, privacy concerns, or traditional ethical and legal constraints against libel. So, drunk with the heady draft of fellow “support group” members egging them on, these people proceed to tell the most extravagant lies about their former spiritual teacher or group. The best “whoppers” are then leaked to the press by anti-cult operatives, or posted on a remote website, devoid of any clue about the support group pressures which led to their creation. (See elsewhere my criticism of attorney Joseph C. Kracht for orchestrating or participating in such fraudulent activities, thus giving them his legal seal of approval.)

As I discussed in Part 2, a typical problem with ex-cult support groups is that members otherize spiritual groups whose beliefs and practices they formerly espoused. They experience a pathological loss of empathy for former friends, colleagues and mentors, and a pathological escalation of hostility. They no longer honour the social contract and no longer treat others with basic human decency. This leads them to commit unethical or even illegal acts against their former colleagues.

What we’re really talking about is a socially constructed view of the religious other as archetypal bogeyman. This view inherently implies that the other has no rights, so who could possibly object to false accounts on the grounds of libel, harassment, or false light invasion of privacy? Therapy culture plus Internet culture equals an unlimited opportunity to publicly shame people with whom one has some disagreement. This is the new emotional etiquette championed by some ethically rudderless psychologists and attorneys engaged in anti-cult advocacy.

— The author, from “Therapists, Hubris, and Native Intelligence.”

Boiling things down to a usable form: Don’t blame the fabled snake for hissing when harassed. Just pray it doesn’t remember how to bite! Those seeking mercy should demonstrate genuine remorse. Otherwise they are more likely to receive justice. When it is a question of forgiveness, the answer depends on the sincerity of the individual.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Death of Sri Chinmoy

sri-chinmoy-smilingSri Chinmoy died on the morning of October 11, 2007, at his home in Briarwood, New York. He had but lately returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he performed a small concert, took part in the dedication of a children’s hospital, and met with Russian disciples. He was physically weak upon his return, and over a period of days his condition deteriorated, culminating in a fatal heart attack.

Upon his passing at age 76, his followers held a weeklong vigil of meditation, poetry, and song observed at many centres worldwide. The main gathering was at Aspiration-Ground — a former tennis court in Briarwood which had previously been converted to an outdoor temple or “meditation garden.” Those who could travelled to New York.

For six days, Sri Chinmoy’s body lay in wake. Thousands of followers and visiting dignitaries filed by the open casket, sometimes stopping to kneel and meditate for a few minutes. There was no pressure to move quickly. The line was long, and followers often rejoined it; new mourners were given faster access. The scent of flowers, candles, and incense pervaded the warm fall air. Most women wore white saris of mourning.

Female followers of Sri Chinmoy mourn his death in October 2007. New York Times photo.

Musicians flew in from around the world. Groups and individuals dedicated to performing Sri Chinmoy’s music played softly in the background as the walkby continued. These included Shindhu, Mountain-Silence, Japaka Orchestra, Premik Russell Tubbs, and many others. A large memorial service was held at Aspiration-Ground on Sunday, October 14, 2007. Countless words of tribute and affection were spoken. A barrow of long-stemmed roses was brought out; each person offered a rose at his casket; the stream of farewells lasted for eight hours. The vigil and walkby then continued on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

On the afternoon of Thursday, October 18, 2007 — one week after his passing — Sri Chinmoy was interred at Aspiration-Ground. The samadhi, or burial shrine, was built of white marble. Gongs were rung. His casket was lowered into the burial shrine. Each follower present took a handful of white sand, circled the burial shrine, and cast it in. This concluded the austere and dignified Hindu ceremony. At intervals, a recording of Sri Chinmoy singing the word “gratitude” a capella was played over the sound system, based on the belief that his emphasis on gratitude was one of the unique contributions of his teachings.

There were further events marking the thirteenth, thirtieth, and sixtieth days after his mahasamadhi or “great trance” — as it is called when a spiritual master leaves the body. On October 30, 2007, there was a large celebration at the United Nations commemorating his life and work. The predominant theme expressed in tributes from religious leaders, diplomats, athletes, musicians, and humanitarians was that Sri Chinmoy began a great work for humanity which those who love him will carry on in his spirit of self-giving. In the aftermath, his centres around the world have continued to meet regularly to meditate, sing his songs, read his writings, work selflessly, and share in the burden of losing a person so beloved.

At Aspiration-Ground, where Sri Chinmoy often sat far into the night listening to his disciples perform songs or plays, life goes on — if not quite as usual — yet not wholly changed. The songs and plays continue; and since the master’s burial shrine is there, his followers feel they are still offering him the fruits of their actions when they bow to him. In the apocrypha of letters, e-mails, and driveway conversations after his passing, the feeling most often expressed is that his spiritual presence is stronger than ever — but secondmost is “I miss him so much!”

Sri Chinmoy’s life was both a spiritual and musico-poetic event. The same may be said of his physical death. Since his passing, followers have been writings poems, songs and essays recalling their intense feelings of bhakti (divine love) towards him, describing the scene of his wake using far more descriptive language than is possible in a dry narrative. This link to an essay by Sumangali Morhall may provide more details to interested readers: Farewell, Sri Chinmoy.

On the last page of the last book of poems and prayers published during his lifetime, one finds this entry:




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Trials of Apartment Living

With help from The IT Crowd, Doctor Who, and the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre

I recently had no choice but to have some work done in my apartment. I was probably the last person to still have copper wiring for phone/Internet, and the company gently drove this point home by shutting off my service and telling me that if I didn’t upgrade to fiber optic I would be communicating using two Dixie cups and a string.

The Dixie cup phone (string sold separately, may require some assembly), used by an entire generation of children to share their hopes, dreams and fears with one another. Also used by the Nixon administration during secret negotiations with Hanoi.

The Dixie cup phone (string sold separately, may require some assembly), used by an entire generation of children to share their hopes, dreams and fears with each other. Also used by the Nixon administration during secret negotiations with Hanoi.

To indulge in a Basil Fawltyism, I had been waiting for fiber optic longer than Hadrian. (Hadrian. The Emperor Hadrian — look, it doesn’t matter!) So I was impressed when the company sent two crack technicians out to do the job. Unfortunately, they came packed in one set of chinos. So enormous was this fellow that in order to make it out onto my fire escape to drill the hole, he had to be coated with bear grease from head to toe; and even then he required that I place myself like a human shield between his combat boots and the floor.

While tacking the wiring to my living room ceiling, he began to teeter on his ladder, like a great teapot perched upon the tower of Big Ben during a thunderstorm. When he appeared in genuine danger of falling, I bravely bolted to his rescue. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn somewhere and was later found cowering under the bathroom sink.

A few days hence, when the backup battery unit arrived in the post, I found that it could not be connected because he had installed the power strip upside down and flush against the wall, thoroughly (and quite efficiently!) obscuring the battery jack.

My building is also undergoing maintenance by plumbers — at least that is the rumour, and I do occasionally hear plumberlike bangings, though these could be from sound effect recordings. The plumbers are never actually seen, and never actually show up, but we tenants do receive periodic admonishments to remove all personal belongings from areas the plumbers might wish to access. I have duly cleared the space around my refrigerator.

Due to the shortage of qualified plumbers in my neck of the woods, they are treated more like gods than workmen. “Show up any time you want! We will give you drugs and women!” Such seems to be the attitude of building management. “You can’t keep the appointment you made? You can’t finish the job you started? No problem! Come back next month, if you’re in the mood. You want to piddle in the sink? Be our guests!”

My building is under new management. The old management was supposedly fired for being personally abusive toward tenants. The new management is a vast improvement; they are merely inefficient. With regard to the plumbing fiasco, they literally could not organize a trip to the toilet. Some tenants have taken to putting pictures of plumbers on milk cartons. (“Have you seen me?”)

G. Gordon Liddy, one of the plumbers used by the Nixon administration to stop leaks, e.g. by breaking into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. Makeup courtesy House of Pancakes. Some rooster parts available for sale to interested parties.

G. Gordon Liddy, one of the plumbers used by the Nixon administration to stop leaks, e.g. by breaking into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. Makeup courtesy House of Pancakes. Some rooster parts available for sale to interested parties.

The trials of apartment living remind me of the trials of a Time Lord. Doctor Who was occasionally put on trial by his fellow Time Lords, notably during the Patrick Troughton and Colin Baker eras. This phenomenon was satirized by the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre:

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, view on DailyMotion here.)

It may help the uninitiated to view the original clip from Part 10 of “The War Games”:

There’s an in-joke about Worzel Gummidge which also needs explaining. Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) regenerates into John Pertwee (the Third Doctor). Pertwee later went on to play Worzel Gummidge in a children’s TV show by the same name, based on the books by Barbara Euphan Todd:

The Scottish Falsettos owe some of their routines to an old bit by Abbott & Costello called “Who’s On First”:

So there you have it — everything you need to know about apartment living!

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Making Sense of the Spiritual Life


With detours into the history of England, and a few bars of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”

Having become interested in the spiritual life in my youth, I have spent many years trying to make sense of it. This is as it should be, since the transition from worldly life to spiritual life can take time for some people, especially those like me who are stubborn and set in their ways.

The best advice comes from spiritual masters who know the subject inside out, and who possess not only knowledge, but also the power to guide seekers in their inner lives and act like private tutors.

I am only a fellow seeker, and not a first-rate one at that. Yet, among those who struggle to make sense of the spiritual life, homespun wisdom from fellow seekers is sometimes valued. So please take anything you may find helpful from my comments here.

In the Western world, we are used to separating knowledge by subject. We spend an hour in history class, then we go to archery or calculus. But spirituality is an integral subject that is meant to apply to life as a whole — all of life.

We are also used to very limited commitments in which we don’t invest ourselves fully. We may go for a baccalaureate degree, but our heart is not in it and we are only counting the days till we meet all the requirements.

Spirituality is different because when it dawns in our lives, it’s a life-process. It begins to change us, and these changes are holistic. Spirituality is not a limited subject, but a life-process which will dictate the course of our lives for the future. Some people make faster progress because they fully cooperate with this process. They accept it wholeheartedly, and do not self-sabotage their own highest goals.

Spirituality also differs because it’s not something imposed from without by society. We begin the spiritual journey because we feel the inner need. Often, we have a series of experiences which convince us of the need to follow a spiritual path. This need comes from within, from our soul. Then, when we outwardly connect with a particular teacher and path, we get a very strong inner response and may have conversion experiences which affect us deeply and tell us that we have found the right teacher.

These things concern God, the soul, and our inner life. The conversion experience or spiritual initiation takes place in the very depths of our heart, and afterward we are inwardly changed, though it may take some time for our lives to begin to change outwardly.

The soul is like the charioteer, but the other parts of our being may be dark and unruly, always looking for an opportunity to rebel, to gallop off in some other direction. What the soul loves, our own mind and vital may hate. But by practising spirituality, we aim to gradually bring the mind and vital under control, so that they cooperate in the soul’s mission.

When we are conscious of God and of the soul, we feel that the spiritual life is something good and beneficial. This is not merely a mental attitude, but something we feel deeply as a life-experience. We try to please God and please our soul, and we find that we receive many inner blessings for our efforts. These inner blessings help to convince us that we are doing the right thing in our lives by taking the spiritual approach.

But if we fall victim to doubt — if we doubt God, doubt the soul, and doubt the spiritual master who gave us initiation — then those very things which we took for many years to be good will suddenly seem bad. This is sometimes known as a hostile attack, where a person who was once very spiritual becomes a stark atheist and actively tries to take away the faith of others, or negate other’s spiritual efforts.

Faith can only be known by means of faith; love of God can only be known by love of God; light can only by seen by means of light. If we lose access to these things, then if we are spiritual seekers we will not be able to make sense of our lives, because for spiritual seekers, faith, love of God, and love of light are the essence of life.

As consumers, we are used to purchasing products which we can use at our sweet will, and throw out when we tire of them. According to this philosophy, a good product is one which is cheaply bought, does everything we want, and does not require any upkeep.

If we are spiritual seekers, then if we judge the spiritual life with our heart and soul, we will feel that it is everything to us, it is the source of our deepest joy, and the essence of who we are. “I am the soul, and the soul is a portion of the Life-Breath of God.” This is the blissful life-experience of the devoted aspirant.

But if we judge the spiritual life as if it were a consumer product, then easily we can find fault with it. Spirituality does not turn on and off like a light switch; when we look for it, we cannot always find it immediately; it requires daily upkeep or else like fine Tudor silver it will tarnish.

What’s more, the art of spirituality lies in self-giving. We do not become spiritual by hoarding something or grabbing something for ourselves. In order to grow into spirituality, we need to give deeply of ourselves. This self-giving makes us kings or queens in the inner world, but usually does not make us rich. People who care nothing for faith, love of God, and love of light may say we are failures because we are not basking in material wealth. But when we are living the spiritual life, we feel that we are getting utmost joy, and that a life of material pleasure would only detract from that joy.

We can only know the joy of self-giving by learning the art of it. As I discuss in “Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics and High Ethics”:

Trying to become more self-giving is a great adventure, and is something people do as a means of self-improvement, to perfect their own nature. If they practice at it, then slowly and steadily they may improve. But occasionally one encounters people whose nature is brittle. Something in them snaps. They completely reject the years they spent in spiritual practice, and become more selfish than they ever were before. They become obsessed with discrediting the spiritual ideals and movements they formerly embraced. This type of negative ego reaction is something one has to guard against. One simple suggestion I would offer which applies equally to people of all faiths is to always try and be a good-hearted person, not mean-spirited or vindictive. If you have given, do not regret giving.

You have to be honest about why you chose to lead a self-giving life. It’s because you saw the wisdom in it, and because for many years it gave you joy. If you’re not honest with yourself, then you have no hope of regaining what you lost.

Just because someone has experienced a rebellion in their nature doesn’t mean their spiritual progress has to end. Some people have these extremes within them, so they progress by lurching from side to side. It is not ideal, but it is workable. After a period in which you have become doubting, selfish, and hostile, you can gradually bring yourself back to the starting point and once again begin to practice self-giving, which includes both inner charity and outer charity.

The outer charity we know: to give money or volunteer one’s time. But what is the inner charity? To think good thoughts, to feel kindness, sympathy, and love towards others, to feel gratitude to God.

Now, I would like to focus in on a subject which requires some insight and mental analysis. When someone suffers a hostile attack, how do they view the spiritual life? Most of the rewards of the spiritual life are inner; and spirituality is a life-process which by its very nature requires that we continue to walk along the path (whatever path the seeker has chosen, whether it is Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or something else).

So if we judge the spiritual life like secular consumers, we may say that the spiritual life is very bad because when we stop leading it, we can become depressed or ill. Just like taking vitamins and eating healthy foods daily, when we practice the spiritual life daily, this strengthens us and softens the blow from many negative experiences which would otherwise hit us head on. When someone suffers a hostile attack and ends their spiritual practice, they may become depressed or even physically ill, because they are depriving themselves of something which as spiritual seekers they need for their health and well-being. I believe this to be a subtle inner law.

In some cases, when people lose faith in the spiritual teacher who first gave them initiation, they may descend into drug and alcohol abuse. But these problems are not caused by the spiritual life.

Suppose we take ignorance to be a most painful disease which afflicts humanity as a whole. You have ignorance, I have ignorance, he has ignorance, she has ignorance. But some of us take daily medicine to counteract ignorance. This medicine is our spiritual practice. This helps to lessen our ignorance, and we do not suffer so much.

Now, with any course of tablets, you can judge over time whether or not it is helping your condition. You used to suffer so much from this, that and the other, but with a particular medicine you are suffering far less. Then when you stop taking the medicine, your condition becomes acute. So you know the medicine is helping for two reasons:

1. When you were taking the medicine, your condition improved.
2. When you stopped taking the medicine, your suffering returned.

BUT (and this is very important!): When people suffer a hostile attack, they end their spiritual practice, and then blame the spiritual life for all the problems which ensue. This is clearly a misattribution of cause and effect.

I have personally seen people become unhappy after making a sudden, abrupt change in their lives — a change where they cut themselves off from people and activities which had once sustained them emotionally and spiritually. Then, in their unhappiness, they misattribute the cause, blaming the people and activities from which they cut themselves off.

In the language of the street: you blow someone off, then complain they’re not there for you. But how can they be? You pushed them away!

It’s also like a child who kills her parents, then demands sympathy because she’s an orphan. Or like a patient who’s making progress by taking a prescribed course of medicine; then she stops taking the medicine, gets sick, and (crazily) blames the doctor!

Worldly life is all around us; most of us grew up leading the material life, a life based largely on pleasure and ego-gratification. We get some satisfaction from this, but it is a limited teaching, and therefore only provides limited satisfaction. For some people it is enough; for others not.

If in your youth you underwent a series of spiritual experiences and then spent ten or twenty years leading the spiritual life, that means you are a spiritual seeker by nature. Your needs are different from someone whose main drive (and therefore main satisfaction) is in ego and ambition.

Spiritual life differs from worldly life. When we graduate to spiritual life we need to unlearn many things which worldly life taught us. We try to progress from limited truths which provide limited satisfaction to vast truths which provide infinitely greater satisfaction. So worldly life is good in its way, but if we are spiritual seekers then we learn to go beyond it. We graduate to a higher teaching.

If you lead the spiritual life for ten or twenty years, this further prepares you to lead the spiritual life, not worldly life. If you do a sudden about-face, you may experience ill effects. But these ill effects are not caused by the spiritual life, spiritual teacher, or spiritual community; they’re caused by your own abrupt cessation of spiritual practices which had sustained you for many years.

In The Karate Kid, Pat Morita famously advises Ralph Macchio:

Walk on road… Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do “yes” or karate do “no.” You karate do “guess so,” just like grape. Understand?


This relates to my earlier point about not self-sabotaging your own highest goals. Spiritual life do “yes”? I guess so, but I also want a tattoo, want to learn ballroom dancing, want a personal trainer, want to get married…

We all tend to suffer from the problem that on the one hand a part of us is sincere in wanting to go on the spiritual quest. But another part of us, like a terrorist, issues a list of vital demands that must be met! Or, like the camel putting its nose under the tent, we keep adding one more desire, one more desire, until finally the teacher says “No more!” What can the poor teacher do? It’s his job to whittle down our desires, not constantly surrender to them.

Pat Morita’s catchy monologue reflects a universal law: You have ample opportunity to decide what will really satisfy you in life. You can try out the spiritual life for a short time without making any commitment. But eventually you have to choose: Spiritual life do “yes” or spiritual life do “no.” The fact that you eventually have to make a commitment and stick to it is really not a drawback; it’s more in the essential nature of the thing — something to be understood and eventually accepted.

There is a kind of inner obligation which cannot be understood apart from questions about the nature of the soul. The soul is like the charioteer, but some people want to throw out the charioteer and pilot their own lives in a whimsical manner. The soul is also like a most beautiful child which needs to be fed in a certain way, a spiritual way. When someone receives initiation from a spiritual master so that their heart is opened and they are inundated with the light of the soul, this means their soul has a connection with that particular master. As the human being has a human father, to the soul-child the spiritual master is the spiritual father. In this case, the soul will feel miserable if the human being prevents it from being close to the spiritual master, or even tries to harm or harass the spiritual master.

When the soul comes to the fore in our day-to-day activities, we spontaneously experience bliss and a beautiful flowing quality. But if we greatly displease our soul, then the soul does not come to the fore and life will seem tired, forced, mechanical. In some cases, the soul will even place pressure on the human being to act in a more divine manner. Suffering may come if we greatly displease our own soul or go against its wishes. This is not superstition, but a valuable inner truth. How should we take this truth? The idea is not to live in fear, but rather live in harmony with the soul-child who dreams. Sri Chinmoy writes:

The Soul-Bird

O world-ignorance,
You have shackled my feet,
I am free.

You have chained my hands,
I am free.

You have enslaved my body,
I am free.

I am free because I am not of the body.
I am free because I am not the body,
I am free because I am the soul-bird
That flies in Infinity-Sky.
I am the soul-child that dreams
On the Lap of the immortal King Supreme.

When we identify with the soul and try and please the soul, this leads to freedom, and in freedom there is peace and bliss. This is the positive way to understand the nature of the soul.

We cannot be all things to all people. Worldly life is a mass-produced commodity. We begin life as one of the herd, but eventually we learn something of our own needs and aspirations. It is our soul which makes us feel our uniqueness, and reveals to us a path which is ours and not somebody else’s. Eventually, we follow the path which is right for us. We follow a spiritual path to the best of our capacity, even if it is only a beginner’s capacity, even if we see that we make millions of mistakes due to our previous association with ignorance.

As I discuss in “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy,” life is cyclic. We sometimes go through phases which are more spiritual or less so. We need to ride the ups and downs without ever losing hope, abandoning our spiritual practice, or allowing our nature to become hostile and destructive. Otherwise, no matter how many good things we have done before, if we become outwardly destructive then we court cosmic punishment for our misdeeds.

A Swami of the Ramakrishna Order of Monks used to say that life is constant petting and slapping. When we do good things, life pets us. When we do bad things, life slaps us. We cannot avoid this, since the law of karma applies to everyone, even kings and queens.

Once upon a time in the sixteenth century, there was a great Queen called Queen Elizabeth. She ruled England with intelligence and diligence during a golden era which saw the flowering of poetry, music, and theatre.

But there came a time when Queen Elizabeth became totally dissatisfied with all the obligations that go with being a Queen. After too much English drama, bickering between Catholics and Protestants, and the invasion of Latin music in 1588, she felt she could get more enjoyment by being one of the common people. So one day, she disguised herself in attire that was most ordinary, slipped out of the palace, and made her way to a publick house where there was dancing and merrymaking.

There, she became carried away by the festivities, and began dancing upon a tabletop as others clapped. Then she lost her balance, fell, and nearly broke her collarbone. Much to her surprise, no one even offered to help her up. They were too caught up in the dancing, and another dancer quickly took her place upon the tabletop.

How coarse these people were! Although she got a little attention from them, they were really not capable of appreciating her queenly qualities. When she finally held out her hand to indicate that she wished to be helped up off the floor, a man quickly grasped it. But the man was drunk, and began singing “Bess, you is my woman now” in one-and-a-half part harmony. His breath reeked of tobacco. When she moved to break away from him, he cursed her, calling her an “ungrateful wench.”

She departed the publick house and soon returned to Richmond Palace to resume her duties. She philosophized that even if she faced many difficulties as Queen, at least these difficulties were commensurate with her station in life, and by discharging them faithfully she would be true to her own destiny.

Our human wisdom will say that a common pub-goer should not have insulted Queen Elizabeth. But in the story, only when she was buffeted by crude people did she realize she was in the wrong place. If you choose to make a spectacle of yourself in a publick house, all bets are off as to what may happen, and the same might be said today of the Internet.

According to their soul’s need and the life they have led, each person has a place where they cosmically belong and where they are protected. When they go to the right place and do those things which are needful, life pets them. If they go to the wrong place and betray the truths and values which are their birthright, then life slaps them. They may be ridiculed, treated rudely and in an unaccustomed manner. There is no solution to this problem other than to go to the right place and do the right thing. Only by discharging our rightful duties can we be free of them.

There is always suffering in life. But some suffering serves a noble purpose and helps to bring us spiritual wisdom. Other suffering merely debases us unnecessarily. Since we cannot avoid suffering, then if we are spiritual seekers by custom and practice, let us try to go to the right place, do the right thing, and endure such suffering as will ennoble us. Or as Lennon-McCartney famously sang: “Get back! Get back! Get back to where you once belonged.”

lavanya-sri-chinmoy-1975-jharna-kala-filmThis is not an absolutist philosophy. As I always say, if you cannot do good, then at least do no harm. Try to weather a spiritually low period without becoming an outwardly destructive person.

The difficulty is that because we cherish some negative feelings, we seek out a negative community. Then we inherit other people’s problems as well as our own.

During a spiritually low period, old friends who have become absolutely hostile to the teacher who initiated them may invite you to join them. They want you to loudly and publicly denounce your faith.

If you take bad counsel and burn all your spiritual bridges behind you, if you become a “spiritual saboteur,” then how will you cycle back to a spiritual phase of life? The spiritual world will disown you, and spiritual people will want nothing to do with you. You will be left to the tender mercies of people who pretend to be loving and compassionate, but would kick their old guru down a flight of stairs if they had the chance. Such will be your new traveling companions.

Once, these people begged a guru to give them initiation and help them with their life-problems. Then, through lack of vigilance they allowed base desire and ambition to once again enter into them, to rule them and own them. Now, they see their old guru as merely an impediment to their love life or business life. They want to go on a million dollar shopping spree, and his teachings on self-giving are standing in their way. So they would be happy to murder him if only he had not already left the body.

Do not hate whom your soul loves, or you may court cosmic punishment. This punishment does not come from God or from the spiritual master, but from some other place. Just as the inner world is filled with gods and goddesses who are ready to shower the heads of spiritual aspirants with compassion, the inner world also has dharma protectors who mete out punishment to those who constantly break the cosmic law. You cannot fool them with some smarmy talk about why you acted like an ingrate and a scoundrel, because they see into your very heart.

When we no longer care for compassion, our better angels desert us, and our fate comes to depend on a quite different set of beings who are unforgiving in their judgement. When we thumb our nose at compassion, we get justice instead. It is we who choose.

These things must be said because they are of benefit to those who have left the path of love and devotion, and are now progressing unconsciously through the infinitely slow and painful path of justice. Is compassion not a better teaching?

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Bonus Track: Miles Davis – There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York

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Two Years, Ten Thousand Views, and Emily Dickinson

September 15th marked the two year anniversary of the Ethics and Spirituality blog. Only a few days earlier the number of views exceeded 10,000!

Many thanks to those kind readers who took the time to ponder my sometimes turgid prose. Thanks also to those who only looked at the pictures.😉

joe-kracht-parody-6Writing (even the blogging variety) has the power to transport us, and this was well-known to Emily Dickinson, who travelled farther than ninety-nine percent of us while rarely leaving her Homestead.

I’m a great fan of Dickinsonia, which as all poets know is not an iconic fossil of the Ediacaran biota which resembles a bilaterally symmetrical ribbed oval, and whose affinities are presently unknown. (Fie on you, Wikipedia!)

Rather, Dickinsonia refers to all things Emily Dickinson. One of my quaint hobbies is looking for Dickinsonia in pop culture. The signs are manifold, but I do not present them all at once, for a little Dickinsonia goes a long, long way. (Would someone please set that to music?)

In a talk on appreciation of Emily Dickinson, spiritual master Sri Chinmoy says:

Emily learned very little from her association with her outer life. But she learned much from her inner association with her world-seclusion. Indeed, the outer world was an experience devoid of integral reality to her. Therefore, what she knew of earth and thought of earth could not become an encouraging, sustaining, inspiring, illumining and fulfilling experience leading to her own existence-reality.

Emily’s love of God and her love of nature made her inwardly beautiful. All her life Emily lived the life of an introvert. A self-imposed seclusion-life she embraced. God’s Compassion-Beauty was her reward. In God’s Compassion-Beauty, her world and those who wanted to live in her world became preparation-instruments for the transformation and perfection of the frustration-experiences of life.

Her aspiration was not only in seclusion, but seclusion itself became her aspiration. Inside seclusion-aspiration she did get a few striking glimpses of the inner illumination-sun. Life’s buffets gave her two or three times intolerable frustration-experiences, which commanded her to dive deep, deeper within to discover the wealth of the inner life.

What Emily Dickinson achieved is still studied today — not only in the ivory towers of Brown and Vassar, but in inner city schools as well. This video clip titled simply “Steamship” explores the way that books have the power to transport us, “to take us Lands away”:

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, view on Vimeo here.)

For Further Reading:

“Spirituality of Emily Dickinson” by Sumangali Morhall

Coming Soon:

“Put a Bird on It! Part Three”

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Put a Bird on It! Part Two

Examining the work of Sri Chinmoy, including his abstract expressionist paintings and bird drawings. Plus, learning what he himself says about art.

The question has arisen: How seriously do mainstream art critics take the art of Sri Chinmoy? The words “mainstream” and “seriously” tend to cloud the issue; but the simple answer is that some critics do take Sri Chinmoy’s art very seriously, especially those interested in Asian art and spiritual art, and those who are curators of peace museums. He would not have had numerous gallery exhibitions if there were not some corners of the art world which deeply appreciate his visionary approach.

In the postmodern period, there is nothing resembling a single centralized authority on art. A successful artist is one who enjoys an audience which values his or her art, and which includes some favourably disposed art critics. Sri Chinmoy certainly achieved these things, as is borne out in the following video:

Deeper and more meaningful questions might be asked, such as:

– What is valuable in Sri Chinmoy’s art?
– How should we understand it?
– What is the connection between spirituality and art?
– How does he himself speak about art?

I will endeavour to answer some of these questions — not that my answers will be in any sense definitive, but they may at least shed some light and lead to other more interesting questions…

Sri Chinmoy is not the product of Western training in art, and is not responding to trends in European art. He’s not answering Picasso or Warhol or Rothko or Rauschenberg, or commenting on the century of death which was the twentieth century, or protesting by going on an art strike. He’s doing something quite different.

More than anything else, Sri Chinmoy’s work represents a magnificent outpouring of joy which bypasses the intellectual mind. Yet, we should not mistake his art for the naïve. He had a fantastic capacity to absorb different influences and to make them his own. Some of his major works can be most easily classified as abstract expressionist.

Sri Chinmoy dwarfed by a stage backdrop developed from an acrylic painting he did on November 19, 1985. Original 30 x 22 cm. Photo by Apaguha Vesely.

Sri Chinmoy dwarfed by a stage backdrop made from an acrylic painting he did on November 19, 1985. Original 30 x 22 cm. Photo by Apaguha Vesely.

To hone in on the details, we can turn to this video (produced by Kedar Misani) of the original painting:

There is clearly a worlds within worlds quality as we move through the different sections; and while most of it is abstract, bird forms do emerge amidst a riot of colour and texture which is yet not chaotic, but reflects a balance between freedom and harmony.

One thing art critics do appreciate is an enduring vision carried out prolifically over a multi-year period. This is one of the ways Sri Chinmoy distinguished himself. What’s often overlooked is that Sri Chinmoy is (in part) a conceptual artist. In addition to his abstracts, he drew millions of birds, and was the original put-a-bird-on-it guy, as I discuss in Part 1, which includes videos of large gallery exhibits.

Sri Chinmoy was a gentle soul, yet in his art he has something to say and is extremely persistent and insistent on saying it. This makes him worth listening to. Just seeing a handful of his works in small format on the Internet hardly does him justice. In Asian art and spiritual art, we often find a convergence between the gallery space and the sacred space. It’s in the gallery space that Sri Chinmoy’s art really comes alive, creating a universal sacred space whose deity is joy. (We all need joy.)

It’s one thing to draw a few birds; it’s quite another to draw literally millions of them, so that they remain (for all intent and purposes) countless. Only when one sees those rare gallery exhibits where there are thousands of his works on display on multiple levels does one begin to get a sense of how vast his vision was, and how deeply he believed in the essential message which underlies his work: Life is beautiful! If it isn’t, put a bird on it! (Yet, even large gallery exhibits can only hold a fraction of his work.)

Most often exhibited are his paintings and drawings on canvas or paper, but he was also fond of drawing on objects such as those he encountered in his travels. While visiting Bali in 2001, he transformed ordinary objects into objets d’art by adorning them with his characteristic bird forms.

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, drawn object

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, drawn object

There is often a sense of playfulness in Sri Chinmoy’s work, and this playfulness is meant to disarm the viewer.

Kagoshima, 1997: Sri Chinmoy draws birds on a background containing multiple iterations of the same cat

Kagoshima, 1997: Sri Chinmoy draws birds on a background containing multiple iterations of the same cat

The latter work may make us smile and remind us of the Dada artists. In a world of mass-produced commodities, Sri Chinmoy adds his signature element — his consciousness — to something that was extremely ordinary, thus transforming it. Mass-produced cats vs. hand-drawn birds!

Sri Chinmoy: another work from Kagoshima, this one reflecting strong Japanese influence

Sri Chinmoy: another work from Kagoshima, this one reflecting strong Japanese influence

Art as Anti-Environment

There are deep parallels between art and spirituality. The secular non-art space we routinely inhabit and traverse tends to numb us and make us unaware of the artistic and spiritual dimensions of life. The secular media space of news, traffic, weather and sitcoms — as well as the physical space dominated by rectangular office blocks and subways filled with trash — these things constitute a pervasive environment which shapes our perceptions while also numbing us. That’s why environmental psychologists are fanatics for creating parks and odd-shaped spaces which liberate our perceptions and give us back our humanity.

It’s no wonder that someone with a new message to communicate may go up on a mountaintop or take followers out into the desert in order to create a liminal space — a place where change becomes possible. Society tolerates all kinds of ideas as long as they don’t lead to real change. But historically, the typical reaction to anything producing real change has been one of hostility.

Ideally, a sacred space such as a church or temple should be a place where change is possible; but this is not always the case. In Jesus’s time, the temple had become ossified and was not the best place to present a blueprint for creating a more compassionate society.

A museum can be a sacred space. Critic and curator Germano Celant wryly observes:

Art is the new religion of today. When you go [to an avant-garde museum], you don’t understand, but you trust. That’s what the religion is about — you have to trust because it’s in the museum!

BBC presenter Michael Wood notes:

Our works of art appear to have become ruins. Only our perception is real, and our senses are bombarded with the images and sounds of media which inform us, but do not transform us. In a society saturated with data, the function of the artist is no longer to depict events, but rather to reawaken our perception.

This reawakening of perception is a shared concern of both artists and spiritual teachers.

When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, people got something from this which they weren’t getting from their temple at the time. The temple had become a commercial space due to the activities of the money-changers. There, it was business as usual. In the physical space of the temple, Jesus did not find the openness or suspension of disbelief which would have allowed him to create a sacred space. Therefore, he spoke upon a hillside. Had there been a museum handy, perhaps he would have chosen that!

Like a great music that puts to shame lesser musics, the sacred space is innocent in itself, but reveals by contrast that which is profane or devoid of true meaning. The truths we encounter in the sacred space — whether we call them spiritual truths or artistic truths — may put us in conflict with the conventional and mundane. This is so because the conventional and mundane is not actually a passive or neutral environment, but rather a place where messages are being blared over loudspeakers, only we have grown deaf or numb through constant exposure.

Insipid elevator music is propaganda, smoke-filled rooms are propaganda, political speeches which say nothing are propaganda, commercial advertisements are propaganda. Together these things speak of an existence ruled by production, consumption, procreation, entertainment, technological enhancement, and miracle drugs. It makes no sense, yet there is little time to ponder it. The space for artistic and spiritual enlightenment either does not exist, or else has been banished to some remote location we must consciously seek out. I would say the latter is the case.

This is the subtext of François Truffaut’s vastly underrated film version of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451. There, in the mainstream everything has become topsy-turvy: Instead of putting out fires, firemen burn books. The only remaining option for people of refined sensibilities is to seek out an alternative community which still values art, literature, and spiritual insight.

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 — ending

There’s a paradox here: On the one hand, we need only look within. On the other hand, it’s difficult to find support for the inner journey while fully ensconced in the noisy hubbub of the mainstream.

In Marshall McLuhan: Theoretical elaborations, Gary Genosko writes that “McLuhan sees art as creating a conflict which results in making things intelligible. He even suggests at one point that environment is propaganda until dialogue begins…”

When the artist does something new and unexpected, this initially creates confusion and conflict; leading to protest and condemnation, but eventually to dialogue. Finally, in the course of trying to understand the artist, we do get an intelligible picture. We gain insights previously lacking because we were stuck in an environment which constantly (but invisibly) reinforced a trite, propagandistic view of reality. But by creating an “anti-environment” (or sacred space), the artist ultimately liberates us. This is similar to the spiritual teacher who challenges our preconceptions and ultimately ushers in a new consciousness.

Genosko writes: “The question becomes whether the hateful contraries are in a work or whether a work forms a hateful contrary to [conventional] reality.” This is similar to questions asked by sociologists about new religious movements. Most movements do not intentionally advocate some contrarian ideology for the express purpose of entering into conflict with society. Rather, like the artist, they offer a fresh perspective which is interpreted with hostility by the mainstream because it’s different, not immediately understood, and viewed as threatening. We can consider the Sermon on the Mount in this context. The ideals Jesus commended were not hateful in themselves — far from it! But they threatened what was then (and to some extent, still is) the established order. The order of the day remains self-interest; most individuals and nations continue to pursue it single-mindedly. Still, there has been some progress.

Henri Rousseau and Sri Chinmoy

Gary Genosko also writes: “Humour and even amateurism become anti-environmental modes for McLuhan in The Medium is the Massage. Humour and amateurism both apparently undercut the ‘official’ and therefore take the present environment, which is invisible, and suddenly make it visible…” We can use this concept to better understand painter Henri Rousseau — and via Rousseau, Sri Chinmoy.

Rousseau was neither a member of the official school, nor a true member of the avant-garde. But he was embraced by the avant-garde because his works had a slightly humorous, amateurish quality, yet were filled with freshness and originality.

Henri Rousseau, his 1897 painting Sleeping Gypsy, and a trope by The Simpsons 100 years later

Henri Rousseau, his 1897 painting Sleeping Gypsy, and a trope by The Simpsons 100 years later

Unlike the core of the avant-garde — who were rebelling against things they had learnt — Rousseau was not schooled in the official style. He was a self-taught painter who followed his own visions and inclinations. His originality does not speak of rebellion, but rather a charming naïveté. He achieves uniqueness not by rejecting something, but by being true to his inner self. As his friend and fellow painter Robert Delaunay said: “He didn’t establish his style by comparison or out of obedience to style. It came from his spirit. His art is old, and also very modern.”

The same can be said of Sri Chinmoy’s art and music. He was not schooled in any Western tradition, and is not rebelling against anything. Rather, by being uniquely himself he manages to create an experience of extraordinary power for his audience — always depending upon their receptivity and openness. (I will enlarge on this shamanic aspect in Part Three.)

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there’s a send-up of the Sermon on the Mount in which a bunch of quarrelsome stragglers at the fringes of the audience fail to get much beyond “Blessed are the cheesemakers!” Yet, one cannot judge the underlying value from such stragglers. To understand what an artist or spiritual teacher is saying sometimes requires preparation, study, and (of course) interest and eagerness. Sri Chinmoy writes, “A life with no imagination is a life of imprisonment. With the wings of imagination, we must try to fly into the Beyond.”

One aspect of the contemporary avant-garde is directness of expression, and a willingness to explore new techniques to achieve it. If one views videos of Sri Chinmoy improvising on piano or pipe organ, one sees that his technique is quite avant-garde, including liberal use of fists and elbows. When one opens one’s ears and one’s heart to his music, one discovers unparalleled directness of expression. The great leap for the listener is to catch a glimpse of what Sri Chinmoy is trying to express. Then one can never doubt his genius.

It is the same with his painting. By being uniquely himself and expressing a rare vision with directness, he manages to go beyond easy categories. Frances Morris — curator at the Tate Modern — says of Rousseau:

He can never be confined to any of the conventions or avant-garde structures that surround him. So, although he aspired to be an academic painter, he wasn’t an academic painter; although he was in some ways appropriated by the avant-garde, he was never really an avant-garde painter; nor can he be confined by terms like primitive, or naïve, or a Sunday painter. And therefore, he’s never been put to bed. And in a way, each generation, I think, can and has rediscovered Rousseau for themselves.

Like this, Sri Chinmoy has the potential to be discovered by successive generations. One of his aphorisms is “Simplicity is an advanced course” (shades of Picasso). He delighted in drawing his signature bird forms on ceramic plates, clocks, children’s toys, and seashells:

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, seashells

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, seashells

He didn’t do this to be froward or puckish, but because it brought him (and others) innocent joy. His art encourages and fosters the same type of consciousness which is also open to receiving profound spiritual teachings — not profound in the sense of “difficult to understand” (like Schopenhauer), but profound in the sense that they reflect an enlightened awareness. Paul Jenkins, interviewed about Sri Chinmoy’s art in 1975, said:

Was Monet a beginner? Was Picasso a beginner when he was about to die? The artist is always rediscovering the child. I don’t mean that he is childish, I mean he finds the child aspect. And we must remember also that Freud said that to be creative is to be prodigious. And that’s one thing that is misunderstood in the art world. Everybody feels that the fewer things you do the better you are. Not from Freud’s standpoint. To be creative means to be prodigious.

Peace Run 2016: Two Missouri schoolchildren receive a poster of a Sri Chinmoy painting for World-Harmony on behalf of their entire school. https://www.peacerun.org/us/news/2016/0516/1639/

Peace Run 2016: Two Missouri schoolchildren receive a poster of a Sri Chinmoy painting for World-Harmony on behalf of their entire school. https://www.peacerun.org/us/news/2016/0516/1639/

Sri Chinmoy’s art reflects “beginner’s mind” — a much sought-after quality which is difficult for most of us to achieve because it entails unlearning so much of what we had learned previously. When we contemplate his art we are shaping our consciousness to comprehend the sublime truths which he also expressed in poetry:


No more my heart shall sob or grieve.
My days and nights dissolve in God’s own Light.
Above the toil of life, my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.

I have known the One and His secret Play,
And passed beyond the sea of Ignorance-Dream.
In tune with Him, I sport and sing;
I own the golden Eye of the Supreme.

Drunk deep of Immortality,
I am the root and boughs of a teeming vast.
My Form I have known and realised.
The Supreme and I are one; all we outlast.

— Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute

A very happy 85th birthday to Sri Chinmoy, whose legacy continues on after his physical death.


Sidebar 1: Sayings of Sri Chinmoy and other artists

Sri Chinmoy sometimes preferred giving concerts, art exhibitions, or live demonstrations of painting to giving talks on spiritual philosophy; and I suspect this is related to the ability of art and music to bypass our ordinary, prosaic thinking and create a sacred space which gives rise to poetical perceptions.

Renaissance artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo believed that to create a Divine work of art, they first had to transform their human minds into the Divine Mind. Then the Divine Mind would shape the clay, chip away at the stone, or place the ideal colours on the canvas to create a Divine work of art. Sri Chinmoy offers a similar theory of poetry:

“In order to write a poem, the poet must transport himself to the sphere of the Muse and lose himself there. He has to be like a flame that burns away everything but itself.”

Henri Matisse said:

“I don’t know whether I believe in God or not. I think, really, I’m some sort of Buddhist. But the essential thing is to put oneself in a frame of mind which is close to that of prayer.”

Sri Chinmoy said:

“If my paintings are beautiful, then it is because I am trying to keep my heart always beautiful. My paintings are the outer expression of my heart’s prayer-beauty.”

Sri Chinmoy, July 2006, Kamakura, Japan. Shortly before his 75th birthday, 75 of his acrylics on paper were exhibited at the Kōtoku-in Buddhist Temple. See http://www.tokyoartbeat.com/event/2006/1FB7.en

Sri Chinmoy, July 2006, Kamakura, Japan. Shortly before his 75th birthday, 75 of his acrylics on paper were exhibited at the Kōtoku-in Buddhist Temple. See http://www.tokyoartbeat.com/event/2006/1FB7.en

He grew up in an ashram setting where music-making was a natural activity in which everyone could participate according to his skill. The subtext of his free concerts is let us discover together. His heart is in the audience, for the audience; and the audience gets the most joy from opening their hearts to his many modes of musical expression — discovering along with him. He says similarly of art:

“Most of the time when I paint I get a kind of inner joy and a kind of inner discovery. When I paint, I discover something which I did not know before.”

Claude Monet says:

“Every day I discover more and more beautiful things.”

Henry Ward Beecher says:

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”

Albert Einstein says:

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”

Sri Chinmoy says:

“God the Musician is divinely and eternally mysterious. Man the musician is humanly and temporarily marvellous.”

The reader may observe that I speak of Sri Chinmoy’s music, art and poetry somewhat interchangeably. I do not do so out of carelessness, but because they are intimately connected. When one enters into Sri Chinmoy’s sacred space, one finds bird forms, bird references, and bird imagery everywhere. He sometimes opened concerts by playing the dove ocarina — a flutelike instrument in the shape of a dove. His was blue ceramic.

There’s a distinction between the subject/object distance sometimes found in European art music, and the communal experience of music growing out of the Vaishnava tradition and the Indian music schools. One way of understanding the more communal view comes via the concept of “Trilok,” explained here by Brooklyn-based arts organization Trilok Fusion:

Trilok in Sanskrit means three worlds. In Indian mythology the three worlds are heaven, earth, and the world beneath the ocean. As artists we consider the three worlds to be the world of the performer, the audience, and that abstract space where the performer and the audience meet to achieve a sense of harmony.

Here again, the concept of the sacred space — which is not a static space, but an active environment where learning and growing takes place.

One imagines that when Plato taught the “Metaphor of the Cave” to students, he did not ask them to copy it by rote, but rather opened up a sacred space in which their minds might grasp the possibility of life beyond the cave.

Peace Park, Hiroshima is a sacred space. It’s also a counter-situation made by artists. Marshall McLuhan quotes early twentieth century metaphysician and curator A. K. Coomaraswamy: “We are proud of our museums where we display a way of living that we have made impossible.”

As the world is ravaged by war, peace becomes something we find in the museum. In the age of the electric, outside and inside disappear. The global community of artists and seekers dedicated to peace becomes a museum without walls. We bring Peace Park home with us, cleverly hidden somehwere near our aorta, unattested to by customs declarations. We recreate it where we are.

Someone once inquired of a Far Eastern Zen master, who had a great serenity and peace about him no matter what pressures he faced, “How do you maintain that serenity and peace?” He replied, “I never leave my place of meditation.” He meditated early in the morning and for the rest of the day, he carried the peace of those moments with him in his mind and heart.

— Stephen R. Covey, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


Sidebar 2: Paul Jenkins and Sri Chinmoy

Paul Jenkins and Sri Chinmoy, 1975

There are many ways of understanding Sri Chinmoy’s art, not least of which is to approach it directly, or to encounter it in its natural habitat — that is to say, the sacred space. But for those who prefer a more traditional art history approach, once can begin to understand some facets of Sri Chinmoy’s art via Paul Jenkins.

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently quoted a Mexican proverb which says: “Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are.” Those who walked with Sri Chinmoy were often fellow poets, musicians, and artists who shared an interest in meditation and Eastern philosophy.

One of these was Paul Jenkins (1923-2012), the American abstract expressionist painter, who studied with Sri Chinmoy in the 1970s, and appears in two short films about Sri Chinmoy from the period. In one, he discusses Sri Chinmoy’s painting; in the other, he talks more about Sri Chinmoy and meditation, as well as demonstrating his own style of painting at the time, which was a type of action painting (or pouring) guided by meditation.

In 1973, Jenkins created Sri Chinmoy, a silkscreen which uses a photo of the guru as its core element, to which Jenkins adds patches of super-saturated colour:

Sri Chinmoy, by Paul Jenkins (1973)

Sri Chinmoy, by Paul Jenkins (1973)

One could draw arrows (albeit disjointed arrows) from Jackson Pollock, to Paul Jenkins, to Sri Chinmoy. Yet, Pollock and Chinmoy represent two opposite extremes whose approach to abstract expressionism differs greatly in both philosophy and practice.

Pollock was an innovator, but also a volatile personality who struggled with alcoholism and tragically died in a car accident in 1956 at age 44. There’s a sense in which he broke painting wide open in the late 1940s and early 50s, but his style of “action painting” could be difficult to control, and by its nature did not offer an obvious route to further development. In some ways Pollock’s style was a violent reaction to conformism in the era of the grey flannel suit.

Paul Jenkins befriended Pollock and learned from him; but Jenkins was of different temperament. He gradually came to explore the connection between meditation, movement, and painting. He relished freedom and the chance meeting of paints on canvas; but unlike Pollock, Jenkins preferred to paint in smooth, flowing motions, acting from a calm, meditative center and guiding the flow of poured paint with his cherished ivory knife.

Sri Chinmoy was not explicitly an action painter, since he did not typically drip, pour or splatter paint. Yet, he often worked with tremendous speed, completing even large works in one concentrated painting session with not a single misstep or erasure. The significance of this approach is given in a quote from Helen Frankenthaler:

A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image. For my own work, when a picture looks labored and overworked, and you can read in it — well, she did this and then she did that, and then she did that — there is something in it that has not got to do with beautiful art to me. And I usually throw these out, though I think very often it takes ten of those over-labored efforts to produce one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute.

As a meditation master, Sri Chinmoy is king of the beautiful wrist motion synchronized to head and heart. This shines through in both his abstracts and his more calligraphic bird drawings. The latter were also done with great rapidity, so that what we see especially toward the end of his life are great clouds of birds or bird gestures, drawn with such fluidity and rapidity of motion that they seem ready to fly off the canvas.

Soul-Bird drawing by Sri Chinmoy, January 1, 2006 No. 5, courtesy http://daily.srichinmoyart.com/2016/03/06/bird-drawing-by-sri-chinmoy-1-1-2006-5/

Soul-Bird drawing by Sri Chinmoy, January 1, 2006 No. 5, courtesy http://daily.srichinmoyart.com/2016/03/06/bird-drawing-by-sri-chinmoy-1-1-2006-5/

Returning to the earlier referenced 1985 acrylic, we can say that on a local level Sri Chinmoy uses techniques similar to those of action painters to achieve fortuitous collisions of colour and texture, and to create a sense of driving energy and synthesis. Yet, looking at the painting as a whole, it’s not a collision or explosion, but rather reflects a calm guiding hand.

In Sri Chinmoy’s abstract expressionism we find a tremendous outpouring of emotion, but never any violence. He is not obsessed with filling the canvas to maximum density through collision, but with orchestrating local areas of chaos into a symphonic whole. There is movement but also stillness; density but also space. Comparing details of his 1985 acrylic with Paul Jenkins’s Untitled I (1983), we can see similarities in the broad gestural brushstrokes and areas of textured paint.

Two details from a Sri Chinmoy acrylic, November 19, 1985

Two details from a Sri Chinmoy acrylic, November 19, 1985

Untitled I (1983) by Paul Jenkins

Untitled I (1983), by Paul Jenkins

Western civilization has tended to progress through violent trends and counter-trends. The artist is often expected to be a rebel who explicitly sets himself in opposition to society and flouts even its most basic conventions and requirements.

Yet, in much of Asia art is understood to be a natural part of life, as is spirituality. The spiritual artist need not act out a stereotypical role as rebel. His goal is not to destroy society, but to gradually transform and enlighten it.

In recent centuries, one division in Western thought has been that between the intellectual and the spiritual. The art world is not unaffected by this division. Because Sri Chinmoy is a spiritual artist who values spontaneous expression of the heart, his work may seem less accessible to those critics for whom art is primarily an intellectual pursuit (and a secular one at that). This may contribute to the view that Sri Chinmoy is a non-mainstream artist.

But Sri Chinmoy did what artists do: He continued to devote a huge portion of his time to painting over a period of decades, produced an astounding number of works which reflect his unique vision, and gathered a community around him which is eager to see his work in galleries and contemplate its meaning. Sri Chinmoy also taught: not painting, but meditation and philosophy of art. Here Paul Jenkins explains what he takes from Sri Chinmoy:

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, view on DailyMotion here.)

The art world has its trends, such as secularism. None of the articles I’ve read about Paul Jenkins mention his studies with Sri Chinmoy or the 1973 silkscreen. But these things clearly exist, and have their own life and meaning apart from what anyone says (or fails to say) about them. The same is true of Sri Chinmoy. As a spiritual artist, he may sometimes be marginalized by segments of the secular art world, but this in no way detracts from the value of his work, of which Edith Montlack said:

As an artist, I do admire very deeply his sense of colour, the rhythm in his strokes, his lovely compositions, the sunny light that emanates from his canvases. I feel that his art has a tremendous way of inspiring and uplifting the viewer. So from that point of view I do feel that his art is extremely important in this twentieth century. And I think it will leave a very great mark in the world of art for the future.

As trends shift over the centuries, I believe Sri Chinmoy’s work will be rediscovered at a time when society has found a more beneficial balance between the secular and the spiritual. Future generations who are more keenly aware of the significance of spiritual art (and the genius of simplicity) will treasure that which some of Sri Chinmoy’s contemporaries have passed over far too quickly.

In the meantime, those who appreciate spiritual art today will continue to bask in Sri Chinmoy’s glorious achievements.

A bird painting by Sri Chinmoy from 1975

Michael Howard

Special thanks to Kedar Misani, without whose videos and photos of Sri Chinmoy’s artwork this article would not have been possible. Visit Kedar’s YouTube page here.

Profuse thanks also to Priyadarshan Bontempi, chief curator of SriChinmoyLibrary.com, which houses an extraordinary collection of Sri Chinmoy’s writings, as well as a growing number of book covers. Visit Sri Chinmoy Library and you’ll always discover something new!

* * *


Joe Kracht and Lavanya Muller (parody)

“She entered into doubt-parlor

Only to be tattooed by ignorance-ink.

He learned the jiu-jitsu of betrayal
Studying at university of no ethics.”

For further discussion, see “Paint It Black!”

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, watch on DailyMotion here.)

Explaining The Aphorisms

Sometimes aphorisms are like poetry — to get the full meaning we need to examine the language carefully in all its fine shades.

What does it mean to enter into “doubt-parlor”? Suppose you are a spiritual seeker, a person of faith. You have some friends who used to be spiritual seekers, but now their main focus is on doubt and speaking ill. You feel, “Oh, my faith is secure so of course I can mix freely with them and I will not suffer.” But doubt is like poison in the spiritual life. Just because you know it’s poison doesn’t mean you can drink it and not suffer.

You may also think, “Just because I’m not attacking anyone, therefore they won’t attack me.” But imagine you put your hand inside a snake’s cage. You may do so innocently, harmlessly, but still the nature of this snake is to bite.

In the same way, former spiritual seekers who now specialize in doubt instinctively attack the faith of any person who enters their environs. They feel your faith is an impediment to joining their social clique and want to make you faithless like them. So once you agree to go where they congregate, whether it’s a physical location or a place on the Internet, half the battle is already lost.

This battle may not take place openly, but may be more like a clandestine encounter with a pickpocket. The pickpocket embraces you warmly, but a few hours later you discover he has stolen all your money!

Never think that ignorance is not a strong force. Even one person’s ignorance may overpower your faith. How much more easily you can be overpowered when you are the only person of faith in a place where everyone else has become a black doubter. It is like one person fighting against a whole gang. (This is assuming you even bother to put up a fight. Some people go to a bad place because they secretly want to become bad people.)

So “doubt-parlor” is a place where doubters meet and congregate and advance their clever arguments. (“Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly.”) Now, what is “ignorance-ink”? If you have a cloth that is pure white, then if you get ink on it, it can never be made the same again. Still, there are different types of ink. Sometimes children are given finger paints which are water-soluble and wash off easily.

Ignorance is like ink because it spoils the pure-white tablet of faith so that it is smudged or dirty. Now what does it mean to be tattooed by ignorance-ink? The ink used in tattooing is extremely permanent and is etched into the skin. This comedy skit suggests that people get tattoos when they’re drunk and are then stuck with the results, unless they want to opt for laser surgery:

So to be tattooed by ignorance-ink means that ignorance puts its permanent mark on you and calls you its own, so that you are no longer fit for a spiritual purpose.

To take the meaning of the aphorism as a whole: You are invited to join in the festivities at a place where doubters congregate. You think, “Alright, I will go but I will maintain my faith.” However, once you enter into their parlor, then like others you become drunk with doubt and are tattooed by ignorance so that you cannot get rid of it. The stain is permanent, or you do not possess the means to wash it out. Will a simple spot remover remove a tattoo? No, because the ink is in too deep. That is the favor some so-called friends are doing you.

To come to the second aphorism, what is the connection between “jiu-jitsu” and “betrayal”? Here, jiu-jitsu signifies any type of tricky move or maneuver which must be learned. The heart and soul by their nature want to remain true, but the tricky mind and vital want to find a way to throw off the spiritual commitment and live a life based on ego, desire and ambition.

It is rare for a person of faith who loses their faith to simply admit “I have fallen. I have lost what I had previously attained.” First comes disobedience, then self-justification, then a guilty conscience comes. Finally, in order to escape their own guilty conscience the person will throw all the blame on their former spiritual teacher or path. For some people this develops into a kind of complex, so that even though they left their spiritual teacher 10, 20, even 35 years ago, they are still obsessed with trying to discredit him, in order to assuage their deep-down guilty conscience.

Some people even openly admit to this without truly understanding it. They say, “Oh, I have found a wonderful new way of getting rid of guilt. I joined a support group for former spiritual seekers where we spend most days and nights publicly attacking our old teacher. Hate is a wonderful antidote to guilt.”

The only problem is that this is actually a symptom of the complex. It does not truly get rid of guilt, but only masks it temporarily. Those suffering from this complex tend to need bigger and bigger fixes of hate to mask their guilt, so they end up vilifying their former teacher to a mind-boggling extent, making up the wildest stories in order to keep the hate jag going. There is no true healing in this approach because it’s all based on lies and self-justification, not honest insight.

So “the jiu-jitsu of betrayal” is any tricky method someone learns as a way to throw off their soul’s deep spiritual commitment and betray the teacher who first gave them illumination, out of sheer compassion.

Modern science is ethically neutral. It is often not concerned with net effects on people, but only whether something is do-able. If making a bomb, can they make a bigger bomb? If making a biological weapon, can they produce a more deadly strain? That is how some destructive people think. Doubt is usually “slow poison,” but some people actually become connoisseurs of doubt. They try to refine it and make it more potent, more concentrated. Modern doubters have produced more virulent strains of doubt which are quick-acting.

When people develop an ugly and impure mind or vital, they can conjure up an ugly picture of things — things which are inherently beautiful in themselves. The impure imagination becomes a kind of demonic laboratory from which new, more virulent strains of doubt are culled. One should protect one’s aspiration by not visiting places where such people congregate — whether in real life, or on the Internet.

Some psychologists are dead set against the spiritual life, so they’ve developed powerful techniques or psyops for combating faith — comprehensive, systematized methods of injecting doubt and pressuring seekers to abandon their faith. This is known as deprogramming or exit counseling, but like tattooing or ear-piercing it’s practiced by amateurs as well as professionals. (See “Sock Puppet Theatre – A Tribute to Samuel Bradshaw.”)

Some anti-cult groups morph or change their tactics over time, renaming themselves and eventually coming to use a soft-sell rather than hard-sell approach. See Part 2 and Part 3 of my series on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom,” as well as “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy.” People don’t know the history of these groups and don’t recognize the techniques being used to rob them of their faith — professional deprogramming techniques like employing apostates to circulate false “testimonials” vilifying the spiritual teacher or path.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that such euphemistically named “support groups” often have hard-core members who’ve undergone formal deprogramming, exit counseling, or anti-cult therapy, e.g. Samuel Bradshaw, Anne Carlton, et al. These people are then encouraged to practice the same techniques on others, sometimes in an informal setting where they conceal or deny their affiliation with anti-cult groups.

How does the soft-sell differ from the hard-sell? The hard-sell is all poison, poison, poison. The soft-sell is: “People are not drinking the poison because it is too bitter. Let us set up a fake spiritual site, something to do with yoga, with spiritual quotes and artwork. Then, once we sucker people in, let us give them just enough poison to kill them. Initially they won’t know that we are all apostates, so they will stupidly drink the poison if we sweeten it a little.”


Look to the methods, not the labels. Some sites may put up a spiritual veneer, but are actually ex-members groups where the main thrust is to get people to read highly negative material, and respond by abandoning their faith.

Like wife-beaters, some people are deeply troubled in their nature. They may claim they love their former spiritual master, but they torture him regularly. Stop the torture and I will believe that you love him. Otherwise, I will say you are a sick individual.

Each person is different. It may happen that a spiritual master advises a student: “Stay close to the spiritual community. Don’t go for a law degree or it will totally ruin your spiritual life.” The student disobeys, and lo and behold! Now that he’s a lawyer, instead of showing devotion to the spiritual master, he only wants to subject the master (now long-dead) to mock show trials on the Internet! Such displays of vigilantism are worthy of disbarment. Still:

Joe Kracht Lawton Law Firm Parody 1

Joe Kracht Lawton Law Firm Parody 1

Continuing on with my analysis, what is “university of no ethics”? To learn a systematized method of doing something, you go to a school which teaches that very thing. Universities originally emerged from a monastic tradition in which faith and ethics played a most significant role. Gradually over centuries, a “great divorce” occurred between religion, science, and the humanities. Today, it’s possible to receive a university degree without knowing anything about spirituality or ethics. Some former spiritual seekers will even go to the length of getting a degree in psychology which they then use to attack spirituality. (Of course, spirituality and psychology can get along well together. Here I’m only referring to a fringe group of psychologists who actively oppose spiritual practice, just as there’s a fringe group of psychologists who participate in military torture.)

As I discuss in “Paint It Black!” apostates often trash-talk their former friends, colleagues and mentors in a shameful and two-faced manner. They may learn such behavior through participation in institutions which impart secular knowledge divorced from ethics and spirituality. They have been processed by a college or university, or by the military, or by a school which emphasizes physical conditioning and self-defense, but teaches next to nothing about loyalty or ethics. This conspicuous spiritual vacuum makes it easy for people to engage in wanton acts of betrayal. They may be experts in their limited fields, but in the field of life they are nowhere because they’ve sacrificed the core values which imbue life with spiritual meaning. This is what it means to learn “the jiu-jitsu of betrayal/ studying at university of no ethics.”

Such faithless persons of no ethics often end up coaching others in the ways of betrayal, helping them achieve the “full Judas position” — a position of utter treachery. Sadly, such coaches may fail to provide the requisite thirty pieces of silver, or the noose to hang oneself when conscience dawns.

Attorney Joe Kracht drilling a new deprogrammee

Attorney Joe Kracht drilling a new deprogrammee (artist’s conception)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Items which may interest you:

Sarama — The Hound of Intuition
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics

* * *


Paint It Black!

The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy… and Mick Jagger? Plus other topics.

My Krishna is not black,
He is pure gold.
He Himself is woven
Into the universal Beauty, Light and Splendour.

He looks dark
Because I have spilled the ink
Of my mind on Him.
Otherwise, my Beloved is All-Light.

He created Light and Darkness,
He is within and without the Cosmos Vast.

With this knowledge,
I will have a new acquaintance
With the world at large.

— Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute, Aum Classics, 1998 (1972)

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors any more, I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by, dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
With flowers and my love both never to come back
I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
Like a newborn baby, it just happens every day

I look inside myself and see my heart is black
I see my red door I must have it painted black
Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes

I see a red door and I want it painted black
No colors anymore I want them to turn black
I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

I want to see it painted, painted black
Black as night, black as coal
I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky
I want to see it painted, painted, painted, painted black, yeah

— Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, from Aftermath, Decca Records, 1966

The shared element in these two poems is not seeing things as they are, but according to one’s inner predilection. A thing is bright and golden, but we spill “the ink of our mind” on it, so subjectively it looks all black. Or a thing has bright colours like red and green, but we want to blot out those colours due to our depressed or fallen state.

In the physical universe, some things can be quantified precisely and objectively, but when it is a question of the spiritual meaning of life, this is something we always interpret subjectively. Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are merely reporting on the condition of their own minds. Brilliant thinkers, they nonetheless lack basic spiritual intelligence.

What is spiritual intelligence? This would be the subject for a whole other article. Simply put, spiritual intelligence is intelligence which is aware of the existence of God or of higher spiritual Truth. This higher awareness brings insight and understanding (or gnosis), so that we begin to see the universe as it truly is, not according to our limited mental constructs. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence which has received some illumination from higher light and wisdom, so that it no longer lives alone in a dark room, seeing only its own self-produced shadows. Spiritual intelligence is intelligence from which the “ink of the mind” has been dispelled in whole or in part, so that the universe may be seen in all its true, glowing colours.

There is, of course, the negative approach epitomized in modern times by the song “Nothing,” written by Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, and perhaps representing the path of the ascetic wanderer who finds meaning by denying everything. But this path is difficult to follow, and there is no guarantee that it leads to enlightenment. Indeed, having denied meaning in anything, the nihilist may simply stew in his own negativity, now desiring to paint everything black to match his own philosophy, his own self-produced experience of nothingness: “Monday, nothing / Tuesday, nothing / Wednesday and Thursday nothing / Friday, for a change / a little more nothing / Saturday once more nothing.” (The Fugs song is actually based on an old Yiddish song about a steady diet of potatoes!)

There is a kind of nihilism which recognizes the relative meaninglessness of the things the world tries to persuade us to take with utter seriousness. But this nihilism is not a complete philosophy or path. In rejecting that which is (relatively speaking) meaningless, we also need to look to that absolute reality which gave birth to our limited world-reality. Here are two poems by Sri Chinmoy which help illustrate how these two concepts fit together:

O bird of my heart,
Fly on, fly on.
Look not behind.
Whatever the world gives
Is meaningless, useless
And utterly false.

O beautiful One, O blissful One,
Do enter into my heart’s cry,
Do enter into my thought-life,
Do enter into my purity-dawn,
Do enter into my sublimity-eve.
With new form’s light,
Do constantly enter into my heart.

I do not combine these two poems haphazardly. They are songs composed by Sri Chinmoy, often sung by him or performed on the flute, esraj and other instruments. He often performed these two songs together as a medley, or in the form 1-2-1, as if to underscore their connectedness:

Taken together, they point to a complete philosophy in which the meaninglessness of the world is balanced by a burgeoning awareness of the “blissful One” who exists beyond our limited world-reality, yet also within in it (though unseen).

In another poem, Sri Chinmoy contrasts “a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze” with “the weaving visions of the emerald Beyond.” Here’s the poem (which also spawned a Mahavishnu Orchestra album title), plus explication by Dr. Vidagdha Meredith Bennett:

Visions of the Emerald Beyond

No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald Beyond.
My heart-tapestry
Shall capture the Himalayan Smiles
Of my Pilot Supreme.
In the burial of my sunken mind
Is the revival of my climbing heart.
In the burial of my deceased mind
Is the festival of my all-embracing life.

— Sri Chinmoy, from The Dance Of Life, Part 1, Agni Press, 1973

Dr. Bennett writes:

This poem mirrors the more traditional experience-into-cognition arrangement in which a fictive, personal situation is transformed into a general concept and we come to see it as an instance of a universal truth. In “Visions of the Emerald Beyond,” the poet begins in a confessional mode. He portrays his dissatisfaction with the life of the mind and asserts his unwillingness to remain any longer a “customer” of its barren harvest. We seem to savour something of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” in the dryness and flatness of this picture, the “sterile, intellectual breeze” corresponding to their ineffectual voices:

“We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass…”

We recognise the same pervading numbness at the core of a purely mental existence. It is an option the poet no longer chooses:

“I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald Beyond.”

This line explodes with colour, life, movement and depth — all that is in direct opposition to the preceding portrait. In contrast to the shifting and colourless “intellectual breeze,” Sri Chinmoy presents the rich enamelled colour of vision. Emerald. The incandescent green of creation itself, woven into wholeness by the heart, Sri Chinmoy’s preferred nexus of action. And in that fulness of heart, he hopes to win God’s “Smile” of satisfaction.

From this new recourse of action, the poet condenses a set of principles that are appended to the poem in the manner of a coda. In them he sets down the conditions upon which his new life of the heart shall be founded. They revolve around the “burial” of his mind which, he intimates, is already long since lifeless. From this burial shall rise the dancing, abundant life of the heart.

— Vidagdha Meredith Bennett, from Simplicity and Power: The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy 1971-1981 (Doctoral Thesis, University of Melbourne, 1981. Published by Aum Publications, New York, 1991.)

I plan to use this discussion of subjective perceptions of reality as a building block toward understanding other phenomena, such as apostasy. To preview the argument: The apostate can no longer see the spiritual reality, and therefore publicly professes that his/her past spiritual experiences were all false, or that he/she was “fooled” into believing in a spiritual reality which he/she now thoroughly rejects. This rejection of the spiritual may be accompanied by a foolish preoccupation with things extolled in pop culture, like romance and dating, tattoos, and ballroom dancing.😉

dating-tattoos-ballroom-dancingThe struggle between faith and doubt, between spirituality and secular materialism, is one of the enduring struggles of the last two centuries. People stumping for secular materialism often collate the so-called “testimonials” of apostates as if these prove that there is no God, and that spiritual claims are pure bunkum. Yet, such testimonials merely reflect the unillumined or benighted state of those writing them, those who have spilled “the ink of the mind” on what remains a vivid and true spiritual reality. Like Eliot’s hollow men, in the cosmic scheme of things such testimonial writers are thoroughly stuffed.

Nandita Pollisar on the ink of the mind

Just as there exist apostate testimonials attempting to undermine virtually every faith (even faith in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or “FSM”), some people also write testimonials reaffirming their faith. Nandita Polissar writes:

Safe – free from harm, injury or risk. “Safe” comes from the Latin word “salvus” meaning whole or healthy.

Sri Chinmoy’s path encompasses all of these meanings for women or men. It is an environment free of harm, harassment or risk. It is a whole and healthy environment.

I became a student of Sri Chinmoy over 30 years ago. Having had positive experiences with other spiritual paths (Catholicism, Judaism, Transcendental Meditation and Theravada Buddhism), my first reaction was that Sri Chinmoy did not “need” anything from me. He did not need me to add to his numbers of followers. He did not need my admiration or my flattery. He did not need my money. This impression has remained and has been reinforced in a million ways. Here was not an ego that required feeding in any way. I felt trust and faith — and to add the word used in your query: “safe.” I have never seen that trust, faith and safety compromised in any way by this pure, innocent and loving consciousness that I gratefully call my spiritual teacher. Nor have I ever seen it broken with others. The Sri Chinmoy Centre has been a uniquely safe place for me as a woman, for my husband and for my children.

I have seen others break faith with their own spirituality. I have seen others veer in other directions. I have seen others drift away. I have seen others “take a break” for a while and return. I have seen others find something that worked better for them. But, I have never seen Sri Chinmoy break trust with anyone whether they were his student or not. There is real spirituality in this world, and Sri Chinmoy is one of its representatives. Yes, people throw the “ink of their mind” on it, but that does not diminish it in any way.

As for the many ways that Sri Chinmoy has encouraged and “empowered” women, my sisters have replied much more eloquently. I am grateful for your query.

— Nandita Polissar from “Question For The Women” (discussion thread)

Hateful stereotypes of Indian gurus

When Swami Vivekananda first graced America’s shores in 1893, attending the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, he received a warm welcome and was heralded in the press as a great orator and a genuine representative of a noble tradition. Yet, with the establishment of Vedanta societies in America and an increase in Indian immigration, there was soon a nativist backlash. In 1911, the Boston Herald published a particularly blistering attack on Indian yoga as something heathen, superstitious, and profane.

Over a hundred years later, as more and more Americans practice one form of yoga or another, the level of invective has died down. Yet, hateful stereotypes which originated at the turn of the twentieth century may still be recycled in the twenty-first. There are tabloid media which pander to ignorant views of Indian gurus in order to attract a low information audience, drawing them like flies to a road apple. (See this article discussing PIX11 News.)

Apostates are often a fertile source for such ignorant views, since they tend to turn every circle counter-clockwise in an effort to establish that they’re no longer minority religionists, but rather average citizens who now share the same prejudices as the worst of their fellows. By portraying their former faith group hatefully, apostates hope to prove their newfound loyalty to mainstream secular values and thus avoid being targeted themselves — something like victims of bullying who join with the bullies as a craven coping strategy, or in order to become popular.

Since the world has little sympathy for failed spiritual seekers, such folk often pretend to be victims who wandered into the wrong conference room by accident. Suddenly a big brainwashing machine came down on their heads, and they spent the next 20 years praying and meditating. It was all a big misunderstanding!😉

Due to extreme secularization in Western society, spiritual seekers are often said to have acquired a “spoiled identity.” Because they’re doing something different from the mainstream (perhaps less materialistic), they may be subject to shaming and harassment. In order to compensate, the apostate ratifies his/her affiliation with a new secular peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world.

Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures.

Among formally or informally constituted anti-cult groups, the approved method for performing a radical guru-ectomy is to go on the Internet and post a “testimonial” recanting one’s faith in the most dramatic of terms. But only a handful of (very foolish) former spiritual seekers engage in such cheap theatrics, which tend to be detrimental to one’s mental balance and personal integrity. As I discuss in “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2”:

When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.

One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.

Yet, when people receive anti-cult counseling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.

The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.

While not everyone seeks out a spiritual teacher, for those who do — and who have studied for 5, 10 or 20 years with that teacher — there is an existing relationship which typically has many positive aspects and serves an important purpose in the student’s life. The loss of that relationship is a grievous loss. A wise and compassionate therapist, counselor, or friend will therefore not attempt to destroy that relationship by circulating hate material vilifying the teacher.

In simple spiritual terms, if the human in you comes to hate that which your soul loves, then naturally you will feel at war with yourself and everything will seem to go wrong. Deep down you may feel guilty, but in order to mask that guilt you may demonize the person towards whom you feel guilty, leading to a kind of complex. This is the apostate version of “paint it black.”

An unexpected drawback for those who fall into the Judas trap is this: The world may claim that it will love you if only you will recant your faith. But actually, the people most worth knowing (and the people who might want to hire you or enter into a relationship with you) tend to value loyalty, constancy, and consistency. So going on the Internet and trash-talking your former friends and colleagues actually results in your identity being twice spoiled: You were once disliked because you were a spiritual seeker. You are now disliked because you’re a two-faced sh-t. Better to be disliked for a noble reason than a shameful one.

Joe Kracht, the Lawton law firm's "Burning Man"

Attorney Joe Kracht burning his spiritual name to try and prove how “normal” he’s become. Paradoxically, it proves just the opposite. Normal people don’t go on the Internet and burn spiritual icons. Something troubling is happening here…

To summarize: In an acquisitive society obsessed with production, consumption and procreation, spiritual intelligence is not valued, and indeed may be ridiculed or disdained. But spiritual intelligence will sustain us in this life, the next life, and future lives. Spiritual intelligence tells us that to be true is more important than to be popular, and that for a person of refined sensibilities, what is normal is to lead a spiritual life filled with meaning, not a statistically average life followed by a statistically average death.

Spiritual intelligence tells us that life does not end with our earthly sojourn. In the same family, it may happen that the mother is very spiritual but the daughter is less so. As long as the mother stays on earth, the daughter feels that there are some things she simply will not do because it would hurt and disgrace her mother deeply. But once her mother dies, then the daughter feels, “Out of sight, out of mind. Now I can act in any way I want!” But spiritual intelligence tells us that the mother is still looking down from Heaven, trying to inspire and guide her daughter. If the daughter acts badly, the mother will suffer.

Sri Chinmoy’s education

One apostate has erroneously referred to Sri Chinmoy as a “self-educated man from a third-world country.” In truth, Sri Chinmoy was educated at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram School in Pondicherry, where he studied Bengali literature, English literature, philosophy, and was also a champion sprinter. Pondicherry is a cosmopolitan city which was still a French colony for the first eleven years that Sri Chinmoy resided there and retains its international flavour to this day.

Sri Chinmoy was extremely fluent in English, having read, written, spoken, and studied that language since his ashram days (1943-1964). In his mid-twenties, he became secretary to noted savant Nolini Kanta Gupta, and translated many of the latter’s articles from Bengali to English, as well as publishing articles of his own. Sri Chinmoy’s longest play, The Descent of the Blue, recounts important incidents in the life of Sri Aurobindo, and was first published serially in Mother India: A Monthly Review of Culture between 1958 and 1962. According to Anurag Banerjee of the Overman Foundation, “The editor, K.D. Sethna, wrote in a review: ‘Chinmoy succeeds time and again in transmuting his facts into revealing truths with the help of an alert imagination.'”

After coming to America in 1964, Sri Chinmoy soon embarked upon a vigorous schedule of writing, teaching, and lecturing. His 1969 Harvard lecture on “The Vedanta Philosophy” was later published by the Philosophical Society of England in its journal, The Philosopher, Vol. 21.

His poems won awards in American literary journals, and in 1995 he received the University of Washington’s World Peace Literature Award. In 2001 he was invited to participate in “Dialogue Through Poetry,” a consortium of poets, writers, organizers, and UN officials committed to building a culture of peace through poetry, culminating in a reading at UN headquarters which also featured Joyce Carol Oates and James Ragan. The libraries of Harvard Divinity School and Brown University house collections of Sri Chinmoy’s early writings, as does the Graduate Theological Union Library/Media Center of the Pacific School of Religion.

Consistent with the concept of spiritual intelligence, Sri Chinmoy’s works embody not just knowledge, but insight. See, for example, this talk on “Appreciation of Emily Dickinson” which he gave at the United Nations in December 1975, marking the 145th anniversary of Miss Dickinson’s birth.

So where we see a bored, neurotic housewife (flanked by male sycophants) go on the Internet and claim that Sri Chinmoy was a “self-educated man from a third-world country,” we need to both recognize the dog whistle (which appeals to shopworn stereotypes), and realize that the speaker is talking out her backside.

Lavanya Muller, whose present-day ignorance is dwarfed only by that of Joe Kracht

An amusing incident from the 1970s relays the depth of Sri Chinmoy’s knowledge and wit, and the surprise shown by some American disciples at his studied familiarity with Western literature. After reading the following story by Sri Chinmoy published in 1974, one Western disciple remarked: “How does Guru know about Shylock and Portia?”

The telephone blesses the Master

There was once a very great spiritual Master who had many disciples of all ages. Unfortunately, all of the disciples had problems, and the Master used to spend a lot of time talking on the telephone. This Master did not sleep very much. In the small hours of the morning, when his disciples were all home in bed, he used to meditate on them and on the Earth consciousness.

At midnight one night, the Master’s telephone rang. He picked up the phone and heard an elderly lady saying, “Mary, Mary, how many times did I tell you not to marry that guy?” Then she hung up.

The Master knew it was a wrong number, but he felt sorry that this woman’s daughter had made a bad marriage. So the spiritual Master prayed, “O Mother of the Saviour, do take care of Your namesake and protect Your sacred name.”

At three o’clock that morning the Master’s telephone rang again. This time the caller was a middle-aged man. “Why don’t you die at this very moment so that I can have my children back?” he shouted at the Master. “Why don’t you have children of your own and play with them? Why do you have to play with my children?” Then he hung up.

The Master used his occult power to find out who the man was, and the next day he told the man’s children to go back to their father.

The children said to the Master, “Master, we shall go back to our parents, although we have done nothing wrong to you. It is our parents who have insulted you. But since you have asked us to go back to them, we shall go. And we shall forgive your injustice. But we shall not forget the love and compassion which you have shown us on so many occasions.”

That night, the Master got a phone call at four o’clock. A young girl said to him, “Did God tell you that you have realised Him, or is it your own imagination that says so?”

The Master said to the girl, “God didn’t tell me of His own accord, but I forced Him to say that I have realised Him and that it is not my imagination. It is my declaration through God’s lips that I have realised God.”

At five o’clock in the morning the telephone rang again. A young man’s voice said, “Why do you think of yourself as God? What is wrong with you?”

The Master used his occult power and saw that the youth was a hippie and a drug addict. Then he answered, “Nothing is wrong with me. I don’t consider myself God; I consider myself God’s lion and God’s dog. When I stand before a person like you, I feel that I am God’s roaring lion. When I stand in front of my devoted disciples, I feel that I am God’s faithful dog.”

At six o’clock the Master got another call. This time it was from a young, arrogant disciple of his, who said to the Master, “What right have you to talk about marriage? My wife and I got married long before we came to your path. You have no right to break up a happy marriage.”

The Master replied, “True, I have no right to break up a happy marriage, but I have every right to break up your loveless, heartless, baleful and baneful marriage. For that is what your souls want, and that is what God wants.” Then he hung up on the disciple.

The telephone disturbed him again at seven o’clock. A young girl disciple said to him, “Master, please do me a favour. I really want to marry Roger. I desperately need him. Please tell him to marry me.”

The Master said, “Have you asked Roger whether he needs you desperately, as well?”

“I asked him,” the young girl replied, “but he said that the one he needs desperately is you, and not me. What am I going to do?”

“My child, please be just,” the Master said. “Since he needs me desperately, and I also need him, please allow me to have him. Since we want each other, we deserve to get each other. And if you want to please him, then try to please me. For that will please him most.”

At eight o’clock the telephone rang again. An elderly lady said to the Master, “How dare you ask my daughter to marry a Jew! We are all staunch Catholics. You are simply throwing my daughter to the dogs! It is like asking me to give a pound of flesh right from my chest! You are the Shylock of the twentieth century!”

The Master replied, “True, I am the Shylock of the twentieth century, but where is the Portia of the twentieth century to save you?”

At nine o’clock the Master got another call. An elderly man said, “You unthinkable, incredible impostor! How dare you ask my son to marry a Christian girl? I tell you, even your Jesus Christ would not approve of this match. For my sake, for Christ’s sake, stop this marriage! If you don’t, you will definitely go to hell!”

The Master said, “I am so happy to hear that you are ready to send me to hell. I wish to go there immediately, for the place I am living in now is infinitely worse than hell!”

At ten o’clock the telephone rang again. This time the Master did not answer it. When it stopped ringing, he immediately called the telephone company and asked them to remove the telephone from his house.

— Sri Chinmoy, from The Ascent and the Descent of the Disciples, Agni Press, 1974

Like the characters in Sri Chinmoy’s story, people who post apostate testimonials on the Internet may strike us as ignorant, petty, and self-obsessed — unable to see beyond their own narrow interests. Those who abandoned their spiritual practice 15 or 20 years ago can easily descend into a condition of knownothingness, while those like the scholars quoted here, who devote their lives to spiritual study, continue to cultivate spiritual intelligence and are able to explicate spiritual texts.

As I discuss in “Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy,” it’s important to ride the ups and downs of life and not allow your nature to turn hostile toward the spiritual teacher and spiritual path. Otherwise, you can quickly lose or negate all the good karma you had built up through spiritual effort. Your life can easily degenerate into something mean and small.

In your fallen state, you may want to see everything painted “black as night, black as coal,” and “want to see the sun blotted out from the sky.” But these things will never happen. Only, like the blind man you will not be able to enjoy the light and colours which are all around you, which others are enjoying due to their soulful acceptance of the spiritual reality.

sri-chinmoy-world-harmony-6In the inevitable movement of society toward higher consciousness, apostate testimonials which deny the spiritual reality are like mere footnotes to God’s voluminous autobiography, which He writes on the tablet of human history. See also You by Sri Chinmoy, a series of guided meditations which uncover the hidden relationship between the individual soul and the Universal Soul.

The truth of life is not black, but golden. With this knowledge, we can have a new acquaintance with the world at large. By appreciating the spiritual reality, we join in the festival of an all-embracing life. We enjoy the rich enamelled colour of vision, the dancing abundant life of the heart.

sri-chinmoy-yogaMichael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. Texts/media are quoted for purposes of education and criticism in keeping with principles of fair use in creating a transformative work.

As always, quoted material does not imply agreement by the quoted sources with this article or with anything else found on my blog.

This post is a work of independent research by the author, reflecting the author’s personal beliefs and opinions. No third party sources were personally consulted prior to publication. For further information, see “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Scholarly Research in Communication.”

Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, mostly from SriChinmoyLibrary.com:










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Sarama – The Hound of Intuition

Tribute to Sarama Minoli

Sarama was one of Sri Chinmoy’s earliest disciples. She joined Sri Chinmoy Centre (then called AUM Centre) in 1967, and chronicled the early years of Sri Chinmoy’s mission with her peerless photographic skills. Here’s one of her photos which was later used for the book Brother Jesus, published in 1975:

sr-chinmoy-meditation-16-by-sarama-3cSarama describes coming to Sri Chinmoy’s path in her own words this way:

Considering that I entered this world as a fourth generation atheist, who would have predicted a future in the spiritual life for me? I certainly wasn’t given any training in spirituality as a child. But the concept of infinity always fascinated me as it eluded me. I spent summers at my grandmother’s house in the New Jersey countryside, where I slept on a porch that was all windows on three sides. I would lie there looking up at the night sky, where the Milky Way and millions of stars were visible (you could see all of that clearly when I was a kid!), and I would imagine more space behind the stars and the Milky Way, and more space behind that space, and more space behind that space, and more space – and more space – until, my head spinning, I fell asleep.

As a young adult, I came across the writings of Edgar Casey, Yogi Ramacharaka, and that wonderful classic, Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. My fascination with yoga, vegetarianism and spirituality was growing. After a two-week vacation at a yoga camp, my fate was sealed. On my return home, Yoga of Westchester, my yoga studio, was born.

One day during the following summer, I had a visit from an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years: a violinist named Sol Montlack. We were having a chat when I recalled that he had been with a spiritual group. Nearly a year of involvement with yoga had intensified my new interest in spirituality. I asked him about the group, and his answer was that he was no longer with that group or any of the many others he had tried.

He said, “I have found a Guru who is everything I have been looking for.” I asked the Guru’s name, and Sol said, “Chinmoy.” For clarity, he pronounced it as if it were two words. “Chin Moy?” I said. “That sounds Chinese,” while the thought ran through my mind quickly that I would meet his Guru and that he would be my Guru as well.

Read more of Sarama’s story on the Sri Chinmoy Centre site here.

Sarama went on to become one of Sri Chinmoy’s closest disciples — with him for forty years during his lifetime, and continuing her journey with Sri Chinmoy Centre until 2013, when she finally departed this world. July 2016 marks the three-year anniversary of her passing.

She was known for her deep spirituality and her adamantine belief in the life of the soul. In the book His Compassion Is Everything To Us, Sri Chinmoy recounts one particularly striking incident concerning Sarama:

This time I meditated only on compassion, bringing down compassion. Here quite a few disciples — about twenty — have received abundant compassion. Somebody has received the most, although she is not here physically, and that is Sarama.

At one point I was looking just at the front of the room, where the disciples are not supposed to sit, and Sarama’s soul was there. I said to Sarama, “What are you doing? Why are you sitting in the ‘forbidden area’?” In a joking manner I said it.

She said, “I am not the body; I am the soul.”

I said to her, “Where is the difference, good girl, between the body and the soul? For me there is no difference between the body and the soul, the substance and the essence.”

Sometimes when I see the body, inside the body I immediately see the soul’s entire divinity; and sometimes when I see the soul, I see inside the soul the qualities and capacities of the body. There is no difference between the body and the soul.

This was Sarama’s message: “I have come here to swim in the heart-sea of your compassion.”

I said, “Swim as long as you want to; swim to your heart’s content. I will let you swim inside the heart-sea of my compassion.”

This was Sarama’s soul.

Nineteen other disciples have received compassion in profuse measure, but her soul has definitely received more than anybody else. When we meditate, the soul of somebody who is not physically present can come and receive. It happens; it has happened many, many times. I am very grateful and very proud of Sarama’s achievement.

Read more about this incident on Sri Chinmoy Library here.

To worldly people, the life of the soul is sheer imagination if not hallucination. For them, life is measured only in earthly years and the physical body. Then it is “out of sight, out of mind.” But Sarama was known for her intuition, which came from a higher plane. Intuition is deeply connected with spiritual intelligence, but that is the subject for another article!

Still, to those who have cultivated spiritual intelligence it’s not surprising that the essence of all a person was and is continues after death. If the person was a spiritual soul, then they look down from Heaven to see what their loved ones are doing, and try to inspire them to lead a higher life. We may no longer see them with our human eyes, but we may experience them powerfully in dreams, where they come to us to give us the inner message on how we can make progress.


A little-known fact you won’t find elsewhere on the Internet is that for a time Sarama ran a thrift shop called I Need This Store. (This was in addition to her yoga studio.)

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Alice in the Snow I

A Christmas in July video gift to my readers

There’s beauty all around us, but we sometimes need to be in the right place at the right time to see it!

Then, as aspiring artists, we try and find a way to share what we’ve seen so that the edited view communicates strongly.

It took me a surprisingly long time to get this short video of the Alice in Wonderland Statue in a snowstorm just the way I wanted. I hope you find as I do that it communicates peace, beauty, and an unseen world that seems to have its own life when no one’s looking.

The best haiku writers are said to gently eavesdrop on their subjects, so that the impression you’re left with is of the thing itself. When filming, I longed to merge with the winter scene so that there was no me anymore, and what was left was simply nature unfolding of itself, for itself.

An ambitious (and pretentious) longing — one that can only be hinted at in this short video. I actually have lots of footage of sculptures in the snow, so much so that the thought of editing it all is daunting. I once did a roughish edit (to VHS tape) that expressed some of what I would like. I remember a particular day when I spent from morning till evening filming in the snow, and Nature made such a strong impression on me that later that evening I felt as though the snow were still falling in my mind.

Time seems to expand in a really good snowstorm, and it’s wonderful to surrender to that sense of monumentality — the feeling that it has always been snowing and will always be snowing; that the amount of snow which could fall is infinite; that it might easily bury the Empire State Building or even all of civilization, leaving only whiteness.

melting snow
an old woman in black
feeds red-tailed squirrels

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Greenspan Bobblehead Shocks Nervous Britons – UPDATE

Why’d the Beeb do it?

alan-greenspan-BBCFriday was a day of well-rounded insanity for the United Kingdom, with reverberations felt ’round the Western world and some parts East. The pent-up demand for faux freedom led to renewed cries of Texit! (Texas seceding from the United States) and Sexit! (Slovenia seceding from the European Union). Probably when the dust settles, it will be found that the appetite for such changes is less real than imagined. But the present period is one for calming of waters and not further exciting residents of Blighty. So it was exceeding strange when a BBC interview with former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan which should have had a palliative effect instead took on an air of the shocking and surreal.

The interview had been scheduled in advance, but Mr. Greeenspan came down with a head cold. Yet, it is well known that the mere manner in which he snaps his briefcase can soothe troubled markets, and when the Nagus himself appears, the effect is all but narcotic.

Rather than cancel the interview or conduct it purely by telephone, the Beeb elected to put up a bobblehead of Mr. Greenspan, just as one might prop up a stuffed animal to comfort a young child waking from a nightmare.

The bobblehead is, of course, a uniquely American institution, born of fan giveaways at baseball stadiums, but occasionally extended to non-sport VIPs like Pope Francis. There are relatively few bobbleheads of economists, and after careful consideration I conclude that this is for good not ill. Economists are best left to work behind the scenes rather than gracing car dashboards and curio shops. Just one look at the Alan Greenspan bobblehead should persuade doubting readers of the verity of my thesis:

The Alan Greenspan bobblehead

The Alan Greenspan bobblehead

Suffice it to say, the calming effect yearned for was not in evidence among BBC viewers, who flooded the switchboard with complaints that much as they love their Doctor Who, now was not the time to be showcasing the latest monster dreamt up by children writing in to Blue Peter — a possible successor to the Abzorbaloff.

When queried about the cock-up, the characteristically brusque Jeremy Paxman — called out of retirement to conduct the interview — replied, “No comment.” To restore public order, the Beeb enlisted Basil Brush to help explain what Brexit would mean to the average Briton:

basil-brush-youre-screwed-animEnhanced security was put in place at retirement homes over concerns that young people might blame seniors for sabotaging their future plans for free travel and a united Europe:

old-people-walking-animFears of atonal music and riots in the streets prompted the Beeb to temporarily revert to a schedule of old-time programming with more reassuring presenters offering lessons in post-Brexit economics:

(I wonder: Is Oswald The Ostrich an appropriate meme for those voting “Leave”?)

Once calm was restored, plans for a Nouriel Roubini bobblehead were quickly scrapped — as was the Greenspan bobblehead. There are rumours of a Richard Dawkins bobblehead, but as yet no one believes in its existence.

The Home Secretary is said to be working closely with the BBC’s head boffin to carve out a new policy on bobbleheads — one that doesn’t ban their use outright, but does flash a brief disclaimer so that epileptics and those easily succumbing to fits of hysterical laughter are properly forewarned.

Jeremy Paxman on Alan Greenspan

“Tomorrow’s Greenspan: more of the same! I don’t know why they make such a fuss about it.”

extra-credit-projectThough public viewing of Alan Greenspan bobbleheads may cause mass insanity, individual viewing in the home may have a beneficial effect, not unlike a mild emetic. You can spend a pleasant rainy afternoon assembling your own Alan Greenspan craft project out of pipe cleaners, Silly Putty, head cheese, and India ink. Here’s how:

First, make a flower out of different coloured pipe cleaners. Next, cut and trim the head cheese to fit inside the flower. Then shape a slab of Silly Putty to form a smaller concentric circle inside the head cheese. Finally, use India ink to draw Alan Greenspan’s head on the Silly Putty. (Be careful not to spill the ink!)

When you’re done, you’ll have a valuable curio which you can treasure in years to come. It also makes a great gift for an economist, parole officer, or that special someone in your life.


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Sri Chinmoy – In Search of a Perfect Disciple

In this fascinating story from the bhakti yoga tradition, Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) sheds light on the master/disciple relationship.

Source: Sri Chinmoy Library

He has nobody but me

A very great spiritual Master had hundreds of sincere disciples, as well as admirers, followers, and well-wishers. Some of his disciples cherished a peculiar idea. They thought, “We will not accept anything from the Master; we shall only give everything to him.” The Master told them many times that this idea was wrong. He said that he would give them what he had, and they would give him what they had.

But his disciples didn’t listen to him. They thought that the Master would be pleased with them only if they gave him everything they had, without expecting or even accepting anything from him. To take money or any material help from him was impossible for them. In every way they wanted to feel that they would only give to the Master. They thought that they could not take even a smile from him.

Some of the Master’s disciples lived very far away from him. They had all kinds of problems with the people they depended on, especially with members of their own families. The Master used to ask them, “Why are you suffering so much? Why do you have to depend on your friends and the members of your family for help? You want to depend on others’ appreciation and admiration. You want to depend on others’ help, financial and otherwise. But you don’t want to depend on me for anything. You came into the spiritual life to be dependent on what, on whom?”

Their immediate answer would be, “To depend on the Master — on God.” But in their day-to-day activities they always wanted the Master to depend on them in every way, and they did not want to be dependent on him at all. For everything the Master needed, they expected him to call on them for help, but they did not give their Master the joy of having them depend on him. This way it went on for many years.

One day the Master had to scold his disciples. He said, “If you feel that it is impossible for you to accept help from your Master in the physical world, then how do you expect spiritual help from him?”

The disciples said, “Well, peace, light, and power — these things we can expect from you, Master. But other help, material help, help in the physical world, we cannot expect.”

“Then why should I take help from you?” the Master asked. “Why should I be indebted to you? You give me money, you bring me fruits, you offer me a few earthly objects. Do you not feel that in this way you are consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, binding me? If you feel that by giving you my earthly assistance and concern I am binding you, then I can also say that you people are binding me with your material help. But this is totally wrong. What I have to give, I will give. What you have to give, you will give.”

Still they didn’t listen to him. One day the Master invited thirteen of his most dedicated, devoted disciples, and said to them, “I will now tell you something most private and important.”

The disciples were delighted that their Master had something to tell them. Then he started pointing them out, one by one, and appreciating all their good qualities. “You are so nice, so kind, so divine. That is why you have so many friends, so many admirers. The whole world will one day appreciate you because you are so divine. The whole world wants you and needs you.” In this way he appreciated twelve of the disciples, saying that they were very great in every way. He told them that they had wonderful magnanimous hearts, and that their souls were extremely developed. All kinds of appreciation he offered to twelve of his disciples. The disciples were bloated with pride.

But the Master did not at all appreciate the thirteenth one. This disciple said inwardly, “I am sure that there is a reason why the Master is not saying anything about me. I know that if he ignores me deliberately, it is all for my good. My Master would never consciously try to hurt me.”

Finally the Master said to the twelve disciples, “There are hundreds of people on earth to appreciate you, and whose appreciation you will be happy to hear. Now I wish to say that this thirteenth disciple of mine has nobody but me. He knows this truth; he feels this truth; he lives this truth.

“You people have the world; you have lots of things. Today if I leave you, you will continue your life, because you have many helpers, many admirers, and many flatterers. With their help, appreciation, and admiration you will be able to live on earth. But this disciple has nobody but me. If I die, then he is dead all at once. Now, according to me, the one who is entirely dependent on the Master is by far the best. He also has many good qualities, but one good quality surpasses all his other good qualities. He feels that I am his own, his only, and that for everything he has to be dependent on me alone. You have many, and many have you. But he cares for and needs nobody but me. That is why he is my very own. Without me he is helpless and hopeless in every way. You people are not helpless without me. You can go on with your lives without me, but he can’t. His whole consciousness is focused only on me. Without me he does not exist.

“If a disciple depends entirely on the Master for everything on earth and in heaven, then the Master claims that disciple as his very own. Others may get peace, light, and bliss through their own meditation, their own spiritual life. They may be admired, appreciated, and even adored by many people. But they won’t be able to have the deepest intimacy with the Master. This kind of disciple who has nothing and nobody, on earth or in heaven, but his Master, is really the peerless jewel in the Master’s heart. He constantly aspires — aspires in every way — only to depend on the Master’s smile, the Master’s grace, the Master’s concern, the Master’s compassion. He can never be useless and lazy. Far from it. When one aspires constantly with a burning inner flame, one will grow into ceaseless love, dedication, devotion, and surrender. Then he will feel that he is getting everything from the Master: physical help, vital help, mental help, and spiritual help. If a disciple is blessed with that kind of awareness, then the Master can be truly pleased with him. The Master feels, ‘He needs me at every step. He is doing his best, aspiring. What more can I expect from him? In his constant aspiration he knows that I am the Source; it is from me that he receives and will receive everything. He most devotedly claims me as his very own. And I proudly claim him as my very own.'”

— Sri Chinmoy, from In Search of a Perfect Disciple, Agni Press, 1972



NBCUniversal orders YouTube takedown of Birdie Sanders clips

NBCUniversal: “All your birdie are belong to us!”

If you’ve read my post “Put a Bird on It!” you know that it’s a work of art criticism which explores bird paintings and drawings, bird symbolism, and gives props to the original put-a-bird-on-it guy, Sri Chinmoy, who did it and meant it and lived it long before Bernie Sanders or Portlandia.

It was a post I enjoyed writing, but it was also hard work lining up all the resources which ultimately went into it: quotes from George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three…Infinity, from The Upanishads, from art collector Robert Scull, artist Paul Jenkins, and memoir writer Sumangali Morhall; also videos carefully selected to illustrate the points I was making and connect the cultural dots, so that the reader is not only entertained, but informed and educated.

The conceptual glue holding it all together is the idea that birds (especially doves) symbolize peace and freedom. This is even brought home with a video of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy playing the dove ocarina — a blue ceramic instrument in the shape of a dove.

The smooth progression of ideas flows through the famous “Birdie Sanders” incident where a little bird kibitzed on a speech given by the presidential candidate, and through Porlandia’s comedy sketch about putting birds on things.

I did not escape unscathed from the experience. NBCUniversal tried to clip my wings, but didn’t really succeed in doing anything other than shooting themselves in the tail.

“We are not here to sing, we’re here to kill the dove.” — NBCUniversal (actually Jacques Brel)

It’s apparently my fault for being a Rachel Maddow fan. On the day of March 25th, the “Birdie Sanders”/Portlandia meme went viral, and when Rachel came on at 9 PM she reported on it, as countless others had done. There are plenty of videos of both “Birdie Sanders” and the Portlandia sketch on YouTube and elsewhere, and combining them as Rachel did wasn’t exactly the soul of originality, but it was certainly the essence of convenience. Since I like Rachel, a couple months later I thought, Why not elevate two birds with one stone by embedding a YouTube of the Maddow clip? O my sad brother, will you never learn?

I thought I made “fair use” of the clip by including it in a broad presentation on the subject of bird paintings and drawings, bird symbolism, etc. After all, it’s only 4:23 from a 60-minute show, and of that 4:23, 3 minutes is a clip of the Bernie Sanders speech (which ran 1 hour 8 minutes), and 1 minute is a clip from a 2011 Portlandia episode (which ran 22 minutes). Rachel Maddow is visible on screen for all of 30 seconds and is heard commenting in places. It was old news in late May when I uploaded it.

The Bernie Sanders footage used by MSNBC was apparently taken from station KGW Portland, which is owned by Tegna Media  (Gannett spinoff). The identical footage (with its unique framing and panning) appears here on KGW.com. The Portlandia sketch is owned by IFC/AMC Networks.

But I get it that because Rachel Maddow commented on the speech and the sketch, NBCUniversal can claim copyright on the resulting segment. Still, the use I made of it was fair use because it was transformative — it included new ideas not present in the Sanders speech, the Portlandia sketch, or Rachel’s brief comments. It connected the existing meme with a 40-year history of bird paintings and drawings by Sri Chinmoy. It juxtaposed the short news segment with artwork and videos from gallery exhibitions, so that the resulting work of art criticism is something fresh and new.

My WordPress account and YouTube account are both non-commercial. Now, I realize that when you sneeze on the Internet, somebody in Mandalay gets 1/1000th of a cent. Everything is being monetized by somebody or other, but that somebody is not me. Nevertheless, I got a DMCA takedown notice courtesy NBCUniversal and a strike on my YouTube account. I’ll be filing a counter-notice establishing fair use, but it’s a nutty system where you only have 200 characters (about the length of a tweet) to ‘splain yourself. So I may point interested parties to this blog post for complete details.

I wasn’t the only victim of NBCUniversal’s draconian takedown policies. It turns out one other fellow posted the same “Birdie Sanders” clip I did. In fact he had posted several clips, so his YouTube account was terminated outright. Sad really.

NBCUniversal’s idea of putting a bird on it

The good news is that it was easy to replace the Rachel Maddow clip with two higher quality clips. This footage of “Birdie Sanders” posted by The Oregonian has gotten nearly 2 million hits, and this upload of the full Portlandia sketch has gotten 80,000. The uploaders are reaping the benefits of connecting with memes that people adore.

birdie-sanders-bye-bye-birdieNBCUniversal could have gotten some of that good karma, but due to their selfish attitude they get bupkis (other than a good dressing down on my blog). Kinda makes you wonder what the NBCUniversal legal dept. is drinking:

See also this interview with attorney Wendy Seltzer discussing how NBC “seems to be shutting down its own best advertising.” (The Seltzer may help cut the taste of the Thunderbird.)

On my blog, I’d rather promote The Rachel Maddow Show than The Oregonian, and include comments from Rachel in my piece about bird art. But if NBCUniversal punishes fans and denies legitimate fair use, this has the effect of freezing Rachel Maddow out of the conversation.

rachel-maddow-duct-tapeIsn’t it ironic?

There are a number of ironies to NBCUniversal’s off-putting, counterproductive behaviour here. Let’s take a gander at Kathleen O’Donnell’s note in the Duke University Law & Technology Review explaining the purpose of fair use:

Fair use has long been considered a critical component of the monopoly protection provided by copyright. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the Supreme Court stated that, “from the infancy of copyright protection, some opportunity for fair use of copyrighted materials has been thought necessary to fulfill copyright’s very purpose, ‘to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.’” The fair use doctrine recognizes that most expression is not strictly original, but rather borrows from the wealth of literature and art that came before it. Therefore, the monopoly granted by copyright is restricted to allow for “a limited privilege in those other than the owner of a copyright to use the copyrighted material in a reasonable manner without the owner’s consent.” Through this limited right to use copyrighted material, fair use “encourages and allows the development of new ideas that build on earlier ones, thus providing a necessary counterbalance to the copyright law’s goal of protecting creators’ work product.” In this way, fair use preserves and fosters the same creativity that copyright law was created to encourage. [Footnotes omitted.]

According to The Center For Democracy and Technology, short news segments containing excerpts from political speeches are highly privileged under the fair use doctrine. So one irony here is that NBCUniversal appears to be benefiting from fair use by “borrowing” the Bernie Sanders clip shot by station KGW/Tegna Media, and the Portlandia clip owned by IFC/AMC Networks. Add a few words from Rachel Maddow and it’s magically transformed into NBC content! But when a blogger adds far more that’s new and original, suddenly NBC no longer recognizes fair use. The appropriately named Andrew Lack — Chairman of NBC News and MSNBC — seems to lack understanding of fair use, at least as it extends to people outside the Comcast/NBCUniversal monopoly.

For those old enough to remember the NBC peacock, another irony is that NBC’s concept of putting a bird on it is sort of the opposite of Portlandia’s: NBC puts their peacock on things to make them non-free, and therefore ugly. It’s easy to picture a satire on the Portlandia sketch which goes something like this:

Hi, I’m Steve Burke. Hi, I’m Matt Bond. And we put peacocks on things! What a sad little Bernie Sanders speech. I know! I’ll put a peacock on it. Now it’s pretty. Now it’s ours!

A decent site for MSNBC? Not if Comcast can help it…

The Rachel Maddow Show is part of MSNBC’s programming lineup. MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast. The acquisition of NBCUniversal by Comcast is an example of vertical integration, since Comcast is also a major ISP and cable provider in many markets, with major complaints about its quality of service.

According to Nate Anderson writing in Ars Technica, four months after the controversial Comcast-NBC merger was approved by Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, she left the FCC for a top lobbying job with the newly combined Comcast-NBC entity.

When a media behemoth owns both the content and the “wire,” this can be a nightmare for consumers, resulting in rate hikes and paywalls. Indeed, while consumers could once watch complete video podcasts of The Rachel Maddow Show and other MSNBC fare on MSNBC.com, such complete podcasts are now only available to cable subscribers or via a paywall.

As for the MSNBC website itself, it’s notoriously non-user-friendly and tortuous to navigate. See this link for a cavalcade of bad reviews in which “horrible” and “awful” are the predominating adjectives.

The MSNBC website seems to reflect twisted priorities or an underlying conflict of interest. If you’re YouTube, your primary mission is to make sure that everyone who visits the site can play the videos, even with a slow Internet connection. That’s why YouTube offers a low bandwidth version of every video, tries to adjust to the end user’s connection speed, and lets users choose between 144p, 240p, 360p, and higher resolutions. YouTube also makes it easy for WordPress.com users to embed YouTube videos in blog posts, because YouTube implements the popular oEmbed standard also used by Vimeo, DailyMotion, and other popular video sites.

But on MSNBC’s site, videos often don’t play, or choke the end user’s Internet connection, or take over the entire screen. Comcast’s self-serving message appears to be: Your connection isn’t fast enough to use our site. Better upgrade to a more expensive plan! MSNBC.com does not implement the oEmbed standard for embedding.

So people don’t want to go to MSNBC.com to watch a video or make a comment, because it’s just too user-unfriendly an experience. They want to go to a site like YouTube that’s easy to use, and is supported by blogging platforms like WordPress.com. They want to go to a site where the video is streamed to end users at a bitrate they can handle.

Punishing people for YouTubing short segments won’t solve this problem; it will only ensure that bloggers turn to alternative sources (e.g. The Oregonian) for clips of the same news events. Instead of feasting on sour grapes, MSNBC should create a site that people actually want to visit and that implements the oEmbed standard, so WordPress.com can easily support it. Make your site better and people will actually want to visit it or link to it as a source of embedded videos on blogs. Declaring war on fair use (in addition to being illegal) is a poor excuse for figuring out why people hate your site and finding ways to make it more user-friendly.

How fair use applies in today’s media marketplace

Today, vertically integrated conglomerates like Comcast/Xfinity/NBCUniversal (which also owns Hulu) may attempt to monetize the same content in a bewildering variety of ways, in effect dominating the marketplace.

nbc-universalThough the same content may be sold from a number of different media “stalls,” this must not be allowed to undermine fair use.

Even if a short news segment containing a portion of a political speech is being deployed commercially in multiple venues, this should not preclude a blogger from uploading a clip to YouTube for purposes of comment, criticism, or “the development of new ideas that build on earlier ones.” The public good from such fair use greatly outweighs the very minor market disruption.

Where a short news segment is embedded in a blog post along with commentary reflecting obvious transformative value, NBCUniversal needs to respect such fair use. It must not be permitted to abuse the DMCA takedown process until only restricted versions of a short news segment exist. This would have the effect of creating a monopoly on ideas contrary to the intent of the fair use provisions of copyright law.

In deciding Lenz v. Universal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that media companies need to carefully consider whether something qualifies as fair use before issuing a DMCA takedown notice. Where a media company shows willful blindness to fair use, they may be liable for damages under section 512(f).

Final thoughts

The nature of a meme is that it propagates through multiple iterations, and there’s a snowball effect. So aside from legal considerations, NBC violated social media etiquette by capitalizing on a meme, but then saying “The meme stops here — I call copyright.”

If you can get the site to work, you may still be able to view the short Rachel Maddow clip on MSNBC.com here. The whole segment is her cooing over footage of the Bernie Sanders speech and the Portlandia sketch, which is fine. (I like the sound of cooing.) What’s not fine is NBCUniversal smacking down bloggers who continue the meme by uploading a portion to YouTube and blogging about it.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.