Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 (with Fun Video Clips)

Everything from Sri Chinmoy to Doctor Who, Star Trek, Suzuki Beane, The Thin Man, Carry On Teacher, and Herman’s Hermits

Today I’ll be musing about art and hermeneutics, hopefully in a fun way that’s not too dry. I’ve been working on Part 3 of my Put a Bird on It! series, about the art of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)

In one sense, Sri Chinmoy’s art is the essence of simplicity; but the arts community (and especially art critics) sometimes prefer it when art is analyzed intellectually and placed in historical context.

By the same token, Sri Chinmoy is in one sense completely unique. Yet, people who have a hard time understanding his art may benefit from viewing his bird drawings in relation to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, and his abstract paintings in relation to the New York School (which got underway in the 1940s, but continued to evolve through the 70s and 80s).

The late Paul Jenkins studied meditation and spiritual philosophy with Sri Chinmoy. Jenkins’s style of painting combining meditation and movement was certainly influenced by Sri Chinmoy. This is broadly characteristic of those New York School painters, poets, and composers who studied Eastern philosophy and incorporated it into their work.

In beavering away at Part 3, I collided with the topic of hermeneutics — much as a bull collides with crockery (not to mix animal metaphors). When I hear the word “hermeneutics” I think “egghead,” “Ph.D.,” and “above my pay grade.”

Hermeneutics, simply defined, is “the art and discipline of interpretation.” In art criticism, hermeneutics is not so much a single theory as a way of approaching art. This approach stresses entering into dialogue, striving to understand a work rather than standing coldly aloof from it and making iconoclastic pronouncements. See “Gadamer’s Aesthetics” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy — an article which I find challenging but informative. (“You see, the phenomenological reconstruction is connected to the cognitive dimension, and the cognitive dimension is connected to the hermeneutical aesthetics. Now hear the word of the Lord.”)

The art we seek to understand may be from another time or have different cultural roots, so in entering into friendly dialogue with it, we may discover the limits of our own knowledge. Hermeneutics is concerned with how we know what we think we know and what cultural assumptions we bring to the table. The dialogue between a spectator and a work of art may occur over a great historical and cultural distance. We can try to see a cave painting through the eyes of its creator, or we can view it through the lens of modernity; or we can look at it both ways — moving backwards and forwards in time to have a more fulfilling and illumining experience (no TARDIS required).

These different views from different cultural and historical perspectives are sometimes called “horizons.” When we delve deep into a work of art, seeing it from different perspectives (both ours and other people’s), the net resulting view is sometimes called a “fusion of horizons.”

Another step in developing a fusion of horizons entails moving between different levels. We might understand some things about a painting by examining the brush strokes in detail, and other things by taking in the canvas as a whole. (Reductionism vs. holism, if you will.)

Brush strokes from an acrylic painting by Sri Chinmoy. Video by Kedar Misani.

The same painting blown up and used as a stage backdrop for a concert in Switzerland. Photo by Apaguha Vesely.

One might say that hermeneutics has two different but complementary functions: One is to help ensure that people’s interpretations of art are not merely whimsical, anecdotal, or based on personal or cultural bias. This a limiting function. The other is to foster a depthful connection with art based on dialogue, ideally leading to a fusion of horizons which comprises understanding. This is an expansive function. Still, hermeneutics is not a science; Gadamer said in a 1978 lecture that it’s a gift, like rhetoric, and that one of its components is empathy.

Another feature of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is the idea that both artist and spectator are involved in a form of play which brings people together in the manner of a festival. To understand a work of art is not to come away with a crib sheet summarizing its salient points, but rather to lose oneself in it (along with other spectators, perhaps from different times) and to be transformed by it. But this doesn’t signify an end to the game, since further revelations are always possible.

We may encounter references to the “hermeneutic circle.” In hermeneutics, we try to understand one thing by means of other things, much as Plato and Aristotle did. Even a simple English sentence can contain a number of symbols which need to be interpreted in relation to each other, and in relation to the world of physical things and abstract concepts. That’s why it’s so hard to teach computers to understand natural language. Take the following sentence:

Time flew by, and John felt sad that the beautiful butterfly disappeared into the sunset.

An infant computer might ask: *Is time a butterfly? What is sadness? Why did John feel sad? What makes a butterfly beautiful? How could it disappear?* In Star Trek lore, when Commander Data creates an offspring named “Lal” (which can mean “beloved” in Hindi), the child Lal asks similar questions:

These questions cannot be answered all in a day. When we immerse ourselves in a major work of art rich in symbolism, personal expression, cultural significance, and historical allusion, we are drawn into a hermeneutic circle which may be unique to that work of art, or to works of that genre. As we enter into dialogue with it, we ourselves may become part of the hermeneutic circle.

From a spiritual point of view, we might say that hermeneutics is related to our limitations as human beings. Most of us lack use of our third eye or ajna which sees things at a glance, and most of us do not have our heart centre or anahata open so that we can instantly identify with a thing. Therefore, like a blind man (or infant computer) we have to begin by building up a picture of the thing piece by piece. We don’t initially know what an ankle bone is, but as in the song “Dry Bones” (embedded earlier), we gradually figure out that “ankle bone connected to the shin bone” and “shin bone connected to the knee bone,” etc. (Perhaps Ezekiel was the first physical anthropologist!)

Comparing the piece-by-piece operation of the mind with the identification power of the spiritual heart (anahata), Sri Chinmoy writes:

When we say that the mind is not good, that the heart is better, we are speaking of the physical mind which does not allow us to expand ourselves. It always says, “One at a time, little by little, piece by piece.” The mind seems to go very fast, but you have to know that the mind thinks of only one thing at a time. It does not want to embrace existence as a whole.

The mind sees things part by part. If Infinity appears before the mind, the mind will take a part out of the whole and say, “This is the truth.” It will take a portion of the Vast rather than accept the Vast in its own way. It will try to scrutinise Infinity itself to see if there is any imperfection in it. But the heart will not do that. As soon as the heart sees the Vast, it will run to it like a child runs to embrace his mother or father.

— Sri Chinmoy, from Mind-Confusion and Heart-Illumination, Part 1, Agni Press, 1974.

As a spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy taught the “path of the heart,” so it follows that his art would be heart-centred rather than mind-centred. This can pose a stumbling block for viewers and critics unwilling or unable to shift gears to a heart-centred mode of art appreciation.

Some art presents a kind of historical or stylistic puzzle which we have to carefully piece together. Such art appeals to critics who are inured to what can sometimes be a dry intellectual exercise — a rattling of bones. Other art (especially Asian art and spiritual art) may be more simple and direct, and appeals to our sense of intuition and identification. To quote the master:

This kind of art may get short shrift from Western critics due to underlying bias in the art world.

Hermeneutics actually helps us understand why such bias can occur. If a work of art tends to draw us into its own hermeneutic circle — its symbols, time period, cultural influences, and charismatic proponents (e.g. Andy Warhol) — then certain styles of art may give rise to particular communities or social cliques — some more glamorous than others. Critics who specialize in medieval and Renaissance art may be of quite different temperament and lifestyle than those who specialize in Pop art. Even in the same city, there can be an “uptown” and “downtown” arts scene.

People can be passionate about art and culture to the point of open warfare, as with the Mods and Rockers in mid-1960s Britain:

When asked whether he was a Mod or Rocker, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr replied that he was a Mocker.

Painters and sculptors rarely come to blows, though Alec Guinness and Michael Gough nearly do so in a famous scene from The Horse’s Mouth:

(My kitchen sometimes says “Mother earth and her dead.”) Anyway, let’s have fun by entering into dialogue with this short “Suzuki Beane” TV pilot made in 1962:

Since it was produced about fifty-five years ago, depending on our age and cultural experience, we may have a hard time making sense of it. We get that it’s cute and satirical, but we may not be quite sure which elements are satire and which are direct reportage. Did some people (the Beats or “beatniks”) really talk and act that way? Still, without catching every reference we probably sense the struggle between a free spirit who values expressiveness, and ossified structures which tend to penalize it.

When invited to visit her friend’s dancing class on East 64th Street, little Suzuki explains that her parents Hugh and Marcia don’t believe in anything above 14th Street. Even in 1962, some folks living in Montana or Taipei might not grok that below 14th Street signifies Greenwich Village, an area homesteaded by Beat poets, artists, and musicians; while East 64th Street is part of the Upper East Side, an area with a quite different socio-economic feel. So what would people make of this charming cultural artifact, stumbling on it a thousand years hence? Would its essential spirit still shine through?

If we go back another fifteen years, we can unearth Song of the Thin Man, which, like most good detective yarns, treats the viewer to a tour of different strata of society. (See also this post about the Costa-Gavras film Z.) Nick Charles is a private detective and regular guy who’s married to a society dame named Nora. Along with their fox terrier Asta, they solve murder mysteries together. In Song of the Thin Man they find themselves immersed in the subculture of jazz musicians from the period. Veteran character actor Keenan Wynn, perhaps best remembered for shooting a Coke machine in Dr. Strangelove, gives Nick and Nora a virtuoso earful of the musician’s slang known as “rebop”:

The farther away we get in time and cultural distance, the harder it is for us to know whether jazz musicians in the forties really spoke that way, or what percentage of this lingo is being served up as satire. There may even be a racial (or racist) component. Are some of these white actors poking fun at black musicians, who are notably absent from the film? The piano player seems to be riffing on Fats Waller.

When we first hear a Shakespeare play performed, we may not grasp the subtleties of language, and may miss the jokes (some of which turn out to be rather ribald). For the latter reason, Shakespeare texts used in primary schools are often expurgated.

British humour — from Carry On films to Monty Python — often depends on the collision between high culture and low culture, or in this scene from Carry On Teacher, between Shakespeare and inner city youth:

Whether or not he ever saw it, I think Gadamer would have enjoyed this clip, because it is dialogical in nature and underscores a point he made in a 1978 lecture:

[A] work is something that is detached from its maker; even the craftsman is not sovereign over against his fabrications. The consumer of it: he can use it and abuse it; he can treat it correctly; he can destroy it quickly.

Hermeneutics looks on art as something that we like because it’s a part of our lives and a part of human civilization. We understand it by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it, entered into its hermeneutic circle, and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Gadamer says:

If you decide to make the effort to read, when you read you will not deconstruct, but you would learn to construct.

This doesn’t mean we have to like every work, agree with the artist’s intentions, or how he or she realized them. But hermeneutics does stress such concepts as listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy. Gadamer also says something very striking which he does not, perhaps, fully explain:

[T]he ideal of real, natural and not deformed hermeneutics is to disappear.

Though he does not use such mystical language, I would guess he means that to become one with a work of art is to experience it directly, its essential nature, not filtered through one’s own conceptions or collection of experiences, but as it naturally exists. The inspiration behind a work of art struck the original artist, and it can strike us too. At that moment, we are egoless and have no opinions. We simply experience the essence of the thing. This is the ideal way to experience Sri Chinmoy’s art.

These are just some random musings which would hopefully get you thinking about the process by which we understand art, and concepts like cultural distance and developing a “fusion of horizons” constituting unified understanding or gnosis. At least, if you later read Part 3 of Put a Bird on It! and encounter the word “hermeneutics,” it won’t come as a total shock to you. Who said hermeneutics can’t be fun? I can easily picture housewives across America holding hermeneutics-themed Tupperware parties, and dancing to the music of Herman’s Hermits:

(Well, at least now you know something about the Big H.)

In Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I hope to tackle the connection between hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism, and how this relates to the art, music, and poetry of Sri Chinmoy. Stay tuned.

Michael Howard

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


List of Videos

Should you have any trouble viewing the short clips embedded in this post, you can view them individually on the sites (DailyMotion, YouTube, Vimeo) where they reside:

Delta Rhythm Boys – Dry Bones
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xtfh7

Objet D’Art (Doctor Who)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxlxt

Star Trek TNG – Lal
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZRgNWPnX1o&rel=0

Mods, Rockers and Moral Panics
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r61ks18Bd7I&rel=0

Painters and Sculptors (The Horse’s Mouth)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxniz

Suzuki Beane
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P909e3DznY8&rel=0

Rebop! (Song of the Thin Man)
http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5xxpod

Shakespeare in the Classroom (Carry On Teacher)
https://vimeo.com/230925223

Herman’s Hermits – What a Wonderful World
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNwE02gBBXI&rel=0

Some links may go bad over time, but I’ll try and keep them current.

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Compassion: The Mother of all Balms (MOAB)

Here in the U.S., there’s been a lot of excitement about a new kind of bomb that was dropped in a remote region of Afghanistan. Though I cut the cord years ago, I still watch cable news on the Net, and it seems that each channel has its own retired general burbling exuberantly about this “Mother of all Bombs.” The bomb weighs 21,000 pounds, and the generals only slightly less. 😉

Maybe it’s just me, but in a wounded world I can’t get too excited about greater destructive power. I tend to space out and think up alternative meanings for the acronym. In one of those bread and cheese places, it could stand for “Muenster on a Baguette.” (Hold the thirty-weight!) Then it hit me that in a world filled with suffering, compassion is the “Mother of all Balms.”

Compassion runs deeply through the teachings of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). If the destructive power of a bomb can weigh in at 21,000 pounds, Sri Chinmoy’s creative power weighed in at 21,000 songs. Many of these he wrote in his native language of Bengali, but also translated them into English, where they stand on their own as striking poems. Here are some of Sri Chinmoy’s writings on compassion:

Ore Mor Kheya

O my Boat, O my Boatman,
O message of Transcendental Delight,
Carry me. My heart is thirsty and hungry,
And it is fast asleep at the same time.
Carry my heart to the other shore.
The dance of death I see all around.
The thunder of destruction indomitable I hear.
O my Inner Pilot, You are mine,
You are the Ocean of Compassion infinite.
In You I lose myself,
My all in You I lose.

– Sri Chinmoy, from The Garden of Love-Light, Part 1, 1974

Nutaner Dake Aji Shubha Prate

My heart today has responded
To the new light.
This auspicious morn has blessed me
With a new light from the Unknown.
Above my head I see the Compassion-Flood
Of the Universal Mother,
The Compassion-Flood that illumines and fulfils
My entire existence.

– Sri Chinmoy, from Pole-Star Promise-Light, Part 1, 1977

Question: Is God’s compassion the same as His love?

Sri Chinmoy: God’s love is for everybody. It is like the sun. A person has only to keep open the window of his heart to receive Divine love. When God’s love takes an intimate form, it is called compassion. This compassion is the most powerful attribute, the most significant attribute of the Supreme. God’s compassion is for the selected few. God’s compassion is like a magnet that pulls the aspirant toward his goal. It is a mighty force that guides, pushes, and pulls the aspirant constantly and does not allow him to slip on the path to Self-realization. God’s love comforts and helps the aspirant, but if the aspirant falls asleep, the Divine love will not force him to awaken and compel him to resume his journey.

God’s compassion is not like human compassion. In a human way we can have compassion and pity for somebody, but this compassion does not have the strength to change the person and make him run from his ignorant condition toward the Light. In the case of God’s compassion, it is a force that changes and transforms the aspirant and keeps him from making major mistakes in his spiritual life.

Love will stay with ignorance, but compassion will not. Compassion has to be successful, otherwise it will be withdrawn. It will stay for a few seconds, or for a few minutes or for a few years, but it has to report to the Highest Authority and say whether or not it has been successful or not. A time may come when the Highest Authority says, “It is a barren desert. Come back.” Then compassion has to fly back to the Highest Authority, the Supreme.

– Sri Chinmoy, from The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy, Blue Dove Press, 2000

Listen to Sri Chinmoy sing “Ore Mor Kheya” from the 1977 album Peace-Light-Delight:


Or listen directly on Radio Sri Chinmoy here.

Sri Chinmoy: Peace-Light-Delight, album cover

Of Further Interest

Sri Chinmoy – I Want Only One Student: Heart
Sri Chinmoy – In Search of a Perfect Disciple
Sri Chinmoy – Love-Power, Gratitude-Flower

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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

sri-chinmoy-in-search-of-a-perfect-disciple

Sri Chinmoy – Love-Power, Gratitude-Flower

How can a spiritual figure love us more than we love ourselves? What role does gratitude play in receiving divine love?

Source: Sri Chinmoy Library

An Indian spiritual Master, who was living in the West, one day went to the hospital to visit a disciple who had met with a serious car accident. Although the disciple was in much pain and could hardly move, he was overjoyed to see his Master. “Master,” he said, “I feel that I have been helped considerably since my accident by your occult and spiritual healing power.”

The Master smiled. “You know, one of your spiritual brothers asked me yesterday if it was your past karma that brought on this accident or whether it was due to an attack of hostile forces. I told him that it was definitely an attack of hostile forces. The hostile forces are much more alert than the divine forces, even though the divine Will always wins eventually. The hostile forces are like children who go on and on pinching their father like a monkey, thinking all the time they will weaken their father. But they are wrong. Just one slap from their father and it will be all over. But they still go on and on pinching. When a divine soldier is attacked by hostile forces in this way, he is actually strengthened, rather than weakened. It gives him added strength.”

The disciple replied, “Master, I feel that this accident was worth every moment of pain for the experience it gave me. For the first time in my life I really felt and realised how much love you have for me. I saw that this love you have, that the Supreme has, is infinite, it is all-encompassing.”

“This is absolutely true, my son,” said the Master. “I am always telling you and the other disciples that I love you infinitely more than you love yourself. The mind won’t believe it, but it is true.” The disciple asked, “Master, how is it possible for you to love us more than we love ourselves?”

“When you think of yourself, you think of all your anxieties and worries. You think that your life consists of what you have to do, whom you have to speak to, what you have seen and so forth. But in the Eye of the Supreme, that is not your life at all. Your life is your receptivity — how much you are capable of receiving His Love, Peace and Delight.

“One of my disciples said to me the other day, ‘I can believe that you love me and I love you, but when you say that you love us more than we love ourselves, is it not just something nice that you are telling us?’ Then a few days later that disciple had a dream and in this dream he saw that with all the incidents in his life, with all that he had done and achieved, he had built a house. But gradually, gradually this house began to crumble; everything fell away from him and he saw how meaningless all these incidents were. He felt totally lost. But then he saw me standing there with my love for him. Only when he had become totally one with me and I had become totally one with him did he feel any joy, peace or fulfilment.

“Everyone feels that his life is made of these incidents — his daily routine — but I wish to say that these things are merely experiences that we have while we are living on earth. In order to live in God something else is necessary. In order to live in God, we have to know how much love we can receive, how much light we can receive from the Supreme.”

“But Master,” said the disciple, “I still don’t understand exactly why you can love me more than I love myself. I’m sorry. I know you do, but I’m not sure exactly how.”

“My son, the reason is this. You see yourself as a human being, full of ignorance. So when you think of yourself, you think of ignorance. You do not see yourself as another God; you see yourself as a half-animal. When you are insincere you think you know everything and when you try to be sincere, you think that you are full of ignorance. But you should know that what God is, you also are. Only when you are in your absolutely highest consciousness do you think of yourself as a chosen instrument of God. This knowledge of who you really are is what you are now crying for. I love you constantly and infinitely because I always know who you are. I know you not only as an instrument of the Supreme, but as the Supreme Himself. There are times when I am looking at you and the other disciples when I am not seeing the Supreme in you; I am seeing the Supreme Himself. You won’t believe it, but I see you not as a human being with the Supreme inside you, but as nothing other than the Supreme. I see this with my human eyes, without even using my third eye.

“I love the Supreme, who is your real reality, infinitely more than you can love the human being you consider yourself to be. So if I see you as the Supreme, how can I not love you, as I love myself — not as a human being but as I see myself through my realisation — as the Supreme? You may think that you are your problems, that you are the details of your life, and so you cannot love yourself most devotedly. You will be able to love yourself only when you are in your highest, when you feel my presence inside your heart. But I am loving you constantly. Here is the proof. Most of the time you are thinking of something else — your job, your wife, your children — but I am constantly thinking of you. You think you are loving yourself — your family, all that is your life — but your attention is divided. Always you are thinking of other things. But my attention is never divided. It is constant love for you.”

The disciple had now totally forgotten his pain. “Master,” he asked, “does the secret of being conscious of this love lie in gratitude?”

“Yes, absolutely. But the unfortunate thing is that our human mind feels that gratitude is something inferior. We feel that when we offer gratitude to God, because He offered us something first, we are doing something inferior. If someone has done something for us, naturally we will show him our gratitude, but we feel that the power of gratitude is inferior to the power of giving.

“But God sees Himself and us as one. He feels that He is giving what He has — Love and Compassion — and we are giving what we have — gratitude. Our power of gratitude is every bit as strong as His Light and Love-power, but we feel that it is inferior because He offers us His Light and Love first. In the beginning of the Game, He gave us what He wanted to give us, which is gratitude, and He kept for Himself His Light. Now, the Role He has is to offer us Light and our role is to offer Him gratitude. He is playing His Role, but we are not playing our role. Now, if we return to Him what He has given us, we are playing our role and if He offers to us what He has kept for Himself, then He is playing His Role. Our role is in no way inferior to His Role. When He is giving us His Light and we are giving Him our gratitude, then only can we manifest.

“When you feel gratitude, feel that a flower, a lotus or a rose, is blooming inside of you, petal by petal. And when you feel tremendous gratitude, then feel that the flower has totally blossomed.”

“Master,” said the disciple, “I am deeply grateful for this experience that I have had, even though it was a hostile attack, for I have learned and received so much from you in and through this experience. I know now that your love-power is the only thing on earth that can totally fulfil me and I pray that one day my gratitude-flower will totally fulfil you.”

— Sri Chinmoy, from Love-power and gratitude-flower, Agni Press, 1975

Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy Encyclopedia Article

Making sense of a teacher whose contributions were both diverse and prolific

Sri Chinmoy reading from his aphorisms for The New Millennium

Sri Chinmoy reading from his aphorisms for The New Millennium

There are many articles about Sri Chinmoy in bona fide print encyclopedias, and most are good (like this one). Recently I revisited an archived “community” article written in encyclopedic style and last updated in 2008. It comes from an emic or inside perspective, and reflects a nice balance between biographical facts, significant quotes, and understanding Sri Chinmoy’s “path of the heart” in historical context. Proof that emic accounts can sometimes be more accurate than etic ones. It includes good footnotes and many details not found elsewhere.

From reading other encyclopedia articles about Sri Chinmoy, I gather that one challenge is to understand what’s unique about his teachings, and how they relate to the Hindu tradition from which he emerged. At the same time, a purely historical or philosophical approach might fail to catch the spirit of a movement which is lively, colourful, musical, and vibrant. Sri Chinmoy is an eminently quotable writer, so an article jam-packed with quotes is a definite plus.

He was active in a number of fields: meditation, music, poetry, art, athletics, humanitarianism, and peace studies. Another challenge is to explain how these diverse activities fit together within the larger context of his teachings. This is an area where an emic account can hopefully shine.

Beginning from any facet of Sri Chinmoy’s artistic output, one may gradually experience a “worlds-within-worlds” quality similar to late period Beethoven. A friend once told me a story about a man who was visiting the U.S. from a foreign country. He stopped by Sri Chinmoy Centre to learn more. He was very inspired, but as the day wore on he became a bit bewildered because there was always more about Sri Chinmoy to take in. “You mean he paints too?” is the quote that stuck in my mind. 🙂

Sri Chinmoy painting

Sri Chinmoy painting one of his Jharna-Kala (“Fountain-Art”) abstracts

If you’re interested in an encyclopedia style article which tries to pack Sri Chinmoy’s worlds-within-worlds quality into something you can read in a few minutes, then check out this PDF:

Sri Chinmoy Community Article
https://ethicsandspirituality.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/sri-chinmoy-community-article-53.pdf

Disclaimer: I was one of the contributors to the article. Continue reading

Sumangali Morhall: Auspicious Good Fortune (audiobook)

YouTube description:

Introduction to the audiobook Auspicious Good Fortune, a spiritual memoir by Sumangali Morhall.

Has your life ever flashed before you? Sumangali Morhall chased everything Western society taught her to pursue: material wealth, academic success, and even the perfect relationship, only to discover something deeply significant was still missing. A sudden near-death experience opened her eyes, and her life began anew. Left with nothing and nobody to rely on, her inner strength blossomed and her spiritual search began in earnest. Her journey led her to study meditation with Indian spiritual Master, Sri Chinmoy: a direction she could never have imagined. Sumangali reveals the arcane practice of learning from a contemporary Guru in lively detail, shedding light on misconceptions while remaining candid about her own initial doubts. Heartwarming, courageous, and beautifully crafted, this spiritual memoir follows a Western woman learning the ways of the East, and putting them into practice in her modern world: an ordinary person leading an extraordinary life.


Sumangali Morhall with Sri Chinmoy

Sumangali Morhall with Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy – I want only one student: heart

A story about the power of silence and the significance of the spiritual heart.

Source: Sri Chinmoy Library

There was once a spiritual Master who had hundreds of followers and disciples. The Master often gave discourses at different places — churches, synagogues, temples, schools and universities. Wherever he was invited, and wherever his disciples made arrangements for him, he gave talks. He gave talks for children and for adults. He gave talks for university students and for housewives. Sometimes he gave talks before scholars and most advanced seekers. This went on for about twenty years.

Finally there came a time when the Master decided to discontinue his lectures. He told his disciples, “Enough. I have done this for many years. Now I shall not give any more talks. Only silence. I shall maintain silence.”

For about ten years the Master did not give talks. He maintained silence in his ashram. He maintained silence everywhere. He had answered thousands of questions, but now he did not even meditate before the public. After ten years his disciples begged him to resume his previous practice of giving talks, answering questions and holding public meditations. They all pleaded with him, and finally he consented.

Immediately the disciples made arrangements at many places. They put advertisements in the newspapers, put up posters everywhere to announce that their Master was going to give talks once again and hold high meditations for the public. The Master went to these places with some of his favourite disciples, who were most devoted and dedicated, and hundreds of people gathered together to listen to the Master and have their questions answered. But to everyone’s wide surprise, the Master would not talk at all. From the beginning to the end of the meeting, for two hours, he would maintain silence.

Some of the seekers in the audiences were annoyed. They said that it was written in the newspaper and in the posters that the Master would give a short talk and answer questions as well as hold a meditation. “How was it that he did not speak at all?” they asked. “He is a liar,” said many, and they got disgusted and left the meetings early. Others remained for the whole two hours with the hope that perhaps the Master would speak at the end, but he closed the meditations without saying anything. Some of the people in the audiences felt inner joy. Some stayed only because they were afraid that if they left early others would think that they were not spiritual, and that they could not meditate at all. So some left, some stayed with great reluctance, some stayed in order to prove themselves to others and very few stayed with utmost sincerity, devotion and inner cry.

It went on for three or four years this way. There were many who criticised the Master mercilessly and embarrassed the disciples, saying, “Your Master is a liar. How do you people justify putting an advertisement in the paper that your Master is going to give a talk, answer questions and hold meditation? He only holds meditation, and we don’t learn anything from it. Who can meditate for two or three hours? He is fooling us, and he is fooling himself.”

Some of the close disciples were very disturbed. They felt miserable that their Master was being insulted and criticised. They pleaded with their Master again and again to give just a short talk and to answer a few questions at the end of the meditation. The Master finally agreed.

Now on the next occasion, the Master did not actually forget, but he changed his mind. He went on meditating, and this time instead of two hours, he conducted meditation for four hours. Even his close disciples were sad. They could not get angry with their Master, for it is a serious karmic mistake to get angry with the Master. But they were afraid that someone from the audience would actually stand up and insult the Master. In their minds they prepared themselves to protect their Master in case some calamity took place.

When four hours had passed and there was no sign that the Master would either talk or close the meeting, one of the very close disciples stood up and said, “Master, please do not forget your promise.”

The Master immediately said, “My promise. Yes, I have made a promise to you people, so now it is my bounden duty to give a talk. Today my talk will be very short. I wish to say that I have given hundreds of talks, thousands of talks. But who heard my talks? Thousands of ears and thousands of eyes. My students were the ears and the eyes of the audience — thousands and thousands of ears and eyes. But I have failed to teach them anything. Now I want to have a different type of student. My new students will be hearts.

“I have offered messages at thousands of places. These messages entered into one ear and passed out through the other, all in the briefest possible moment. And people saw me giving talks and answering questions. Just for a fleeting second their eyes glimpsed something in me and then it was totally lost. While I was speaking about sublime Truth, Peace, Light and Bliss, the ears could not receive it because the ears were already full of rumour, doubt, jealousy, insecurity and impurity which had accumulated over many years. The ears were totally polluted and did not receive my message. And the eyes did not receive my Truth, Peace, Light and Bliss because the eyes saw everything in their own way. When the human eyes see something beautiful, they immediately start comparing. They say, ‘How is it that he is beautiful, his speech is beautiful, his questions and answers are beautiful? How is it that I cannot be the same?’ And immediately jealousy enters. The human ear and the human eye both respond through jealousy. If the ear hears something good about somebody else, immediately jealousy enters. If the eye sees somebody else who is beautiful, immediately the person becomes jealous.

“The ears and the eyes have played their role. They have proved to be undivine students, and I could not teach them. Their progress has been most unsatisfactory. Now I want new students and I have new students. These students are the hearts, where oneness will grow — oneness with Truth, oneness with Light, oneness with inner beauty, oneness with what God has and what God is. It is the heart-student that has the capacity to identify itself with the Master’s Wisdom, Light and Bliss. And when it identifies itself with the Master, it discovers its own reality: Infinite Truth, Peace, Light and Bliss. The heart is the real listener; the heart is the real observer; the heart is the real student who becomes one with the Master, with the Master’s realisation, with the Master’s vision and with the Master’s eternal light. From now on, the heart will be my only student.”

— Sri Chinmoy, from The ascent and the descent of the disciples, Agni Press, 1974

Sri Chinmoy

Sri Chinmoy

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

What is freedom of heart, and how does it differ from freedom of mind? Are the two compatible? Should we follow our hearts?

In Part 4 we talked about various methods used by oppositional groups to abridge the civil rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, and by laws guaranteeing freedom of choice in spiritual matters. Some of those tactics include spreading alarmist misinformation, or attempting to portray minority choices as unethical, irrational, or even criminal. Yet, the many spiritual groups which dot our land are part of America. They do not lie outside her borders, and participating in them can be an ethical, sensible, and (dare I say?) joyful choice for someone who feels a genuine spiritual calling.

Many people inherit secular beliefs and values by default and accept them unquestioningly. But of course, the whole point of laws guaranteeing religious freedom is that they’re there to protect minorities from maltreatment at the hands of aggressive majoritarians.

An analogy to freedom of speech can be made in that the latter is hardly tested by walking down Main Street at high noon whistling “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Free speech is only tested when one whistles a less popular tune or acts in some unexpected way, such as opposing a popular war.

The attempt to crack down on unpopular views and unpopular religions often entails looking for some excuse — some way of redefining matters so that the crackdown no longer appears as an affront to human rights, but rather as a necessary imposition of social control. The reason some Commonwealth nations (such as our next door neighbour Canada) have passed laws against religious vilification is that they rightly perceive such vilification as leading to religious persecution (which historically it has). First come the angry denunciations, then come the townsfolk with flaming brands to burn down the convent, synagogue, mosque, or temple.

In Part 4, after exploring the question of whether faith arrived at by nonrational means can be moral and ethical, we closed by noting that mystical experiences play an important role in many spiritual traditions; and while mystical experiences are themselves nonrational, they’re often explained within a larger philosophical framework which is rational and consistent. Thus, many living, vibrant spiritual traditions can be described as practising techniques which lead to direct spiritual experiences, and as proliferating a philosophy and culture in which these experiences make sense, become comprehensible.

Yet, as the secular world becomes increasingly estranged from the spiritual world, secular do-gooders want to wage war on spiritual groups in order to “rescue” adherents from “magical thinking” and other fates apparently worse than death. (See “Putting The Wind Up Richard Dawkins” for a humorous look at the effort to “batten down the hatches of reality so that no trace of imagination can infiltrate the 39th parallel of dull and boring.”)

One way of describing these conflicts is as relating to differences between “freedom of heart” and “freedom of mind.” The latter has become a cornerstone of Western democracies, but the former is sometimes thrown into question. One method used by anti-cultists to circumvent constitutional protections is to impose a host of conditions on faith, including the requirement that faith be arrived at through a rigidly prescribed course of critical reasoning.

At first glance, this requirement seems modest, since as a society we find critical reasoning immensely helpful in science (which it certainly is). However, spirituality is a quite different field, and critical reasoning is not always beneficial to faith — in fact, it may sometimes be an impediment, not because faith is bad or because it inherently conflicts with reason, but because faith is intuitive or “of the heart” and relates to matters which cannot be resolved empirically. As we discussed in Part 1 via William James and Carl Jung, conversion experiences tend to come as personal revelations rather than analytical conclusions. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, we are each entitled to our personal revelations, and to act on them in a positive way which does not harm others. Continue reading