Sri Chinmoy Birthday Music Mix, August 2019

Exploring the subtleties of Sri Chinmoy’s music with a delightful mix including flute, esraj, singing, and piano, plus detailed notes

BETA VERSION. A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy, who would have been 88 today, August 27th, 2019! In the music world, when we hear the number 88 immediately we think of the piano, which has 88 keys. And indeed, the piano is an instrument for which Sri Chinmoy showed tremendous fondness. He played many instruments, and imparted to each a particular quality or manner of expression. Taken together, these begin to comprise his musical oeuvre.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of action, not a dry theoretician, or a composer removed from the performance of his works. He wrote countless spiritual songs, and was very active in singing, playing, and teaching them. But though his songs represent a significant corpus, he was also known for his striking improvisations on piano and pipe organ. Often times, at the close of a concert of one or two hours in which he played his songs on a variety of instruments, he would end with an avant-garde piano improvisation.

Sri Chinmoy as many remember him: in the spiritual and musical spotlight. Photo courtesy https://au.srichinmoycentre.org/articles/piano

His flute melodies are extremely pleasing to the ear — the essence of zenlike simplicity. When he played the Indian esraj (a bowed instrument similar to the better-known sarangi), this imparted a haunting, ancient quality. His singing was all heart and soul, seeming to embody the seeker’s plaintive cry to know the Divine, and to be freed from the shackles of ignorance. He himself was ever-free, but identified with the pangs of seekers.

When he sang in concert, it was as if he were bundling up the collective longing for God of his audience, and directing it as a single prayer upward to the Divine. Something more: As a spiritual Master, he was able to fulfill that prayer, to bring it to fruition. So inwardly, in the course of a concert he would play the role of both a seeker and a Liberator, carrying the collective longings of his audience Heavenward, and showering them with inner blessings from the Highest Height of meditation — throwing them into the Universal Consciousness (as he would put it). The closing moments of his meditations and concerts were indeed special for this reason. They are coloured deep blue in my memory.

He approached each of the instruments he played with a sense of discovery, spontaneity, and childlike enthusiasm, bringing out the unique qualities of each. He was fearless in the manner of David Amram, always ready to grab a new instrument and start jamming. (A photo from Amram’s first autobiography Vibrations shows him wigging out at the Fillmore East with violin and kazoo.) Like this, if someone gave Sri Chinmoy a Hawaiian slide guitar, he would not hesitate!

He was also like a quick-change artist or showman. There was always something more about him than met the eye (or ear). He was a perfect example of the artist as shaman, creating art not simply for art’s sake, but also as a means of inner awakening for both the individual and the assembled collective, the gathering tribes.

As listeners, it is always our challenge to remain attentive. There is a regrettable human tendency to replace the actual experience of art with our mental attitudes toward it. The liner notes (or our knowledge of the musical devices employed) become a substitute for hearing the music itself.

Listening to Sri Chinmoy’s flute music, we could easily be lulled into thinking that his entire message is one of peace. But he knew how to guard against complacency on the part of listeners. Just when you thought you had him pegged as a purveyor of serene flute melodies, he would rotate the circular table on which a host of exotic instruments were assembled, and choose one with a striking and unusual sound, like the African wind spinner. Or he might rise and walk over to a different part of the stage where his cello was waiting for him, and proceed to sing and play in unison, perhaps “Ore Mor Kheya”:

Ore Mor Kheya (English translation)

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

 

Here then is a specially selected mix of Sri Chinmoy’s music as performed by the Maestro himself, and by his students. Not every track has piano, but that instrument is well-represented, including one of Sri Chinmoy’s immortal piano improvisations. Taken together with his other music, we can see how in the course of an evening he could easily span the distance from ancient to modern. He expressed not only deep peace, but also dynamism, vastness, and infinitude.

(place main music video here)

For now, you can access this mp3 audio file containing all the referenced music.

Because the individual and the collective go together, I find it especially meaningful to hear the same song performed by Sri Chinmoy and by his students. There’s completion of a circle in that. The whole of his music consists not only of what he sent out, but of what was received, embraced, and understood by others. The same is true of his teachings.

Sri Chinmoy’s voice is not prettified in the manner of an opera singer or pop star, but is the true voice of a shaman — one who through spiritual knowledge is qualified to conduct the sacred ceremonies. His performance is always the most austere, but the most true. And where there is abundant truth, is that not also beauty? The spiritual truth is most beautiful in itself, without any artificial sweeteners.

Sri Chinmoy blended the boundaries between purely sacred or ceremonial music, and music which could be enjoyed simply for its aesthetic beauty. His flute music is pleasing to everyone, and his Bengali songs are arranged most beautifully by his students. But as with much music with sacred origins, the more you know, the richer your experience. His music is an invitation or portal to the consciousness which inspired it. When he sang a bhajan which called upon the Divine to bless and illumine each soul present, the Divine answered! No matter if Sri Chinmoy missed a note or two.

How do you listen to music? I know I always ask myself “What is the musician getting at? What is he or she trying to say?” In the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth we hear a tremendous striving to communicate something which is beyond words, employing every possible device, but always going beyond, beyond, beyond. Like this, in his meditation, music, and poetry, Sri Chinmoy is constantly going beyond. The lyrics to his English song “There Was A Time” say:

There was a time when I stumbled and stumbled,
But now I only climb and climb beyond
And far beyond my Goal’s endless Beyond,
And yet my Captain commands: “Go on, go on!”

– Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute, Agni Press, 1972

In his philosophy, Sri Chinmoy suggests that there is a subtle distinction between the words “God” and “Supreme.” When we think of God, we may think of Him as a great but finite being; but when we think of the Supreme, we become more conscious of His “infinite beyond” aspect.

These are ideas about the beyond, but in his piano improvisations Sri Chinmoy often seems to be dealing with the infinite in a manner far beyond words and ideas, as infinite energy, or as an endless sea with no shores. His piano improvisations can be highly gestural, with no discernible melody or harmony, but a maelstrom of notes that strives to communicate something about the vast and eternal.

Sri Chinmoy traveled widely, holding free concerts and meditations in major cities around the world. He would often write a song honouring the city or landmark he was visiting (which for some reason is making me cry remembering it). We hear a medley of five such songs: “Monticello,” “Philadelphia,” “Moskva” (Moscow), “Eternal Peace Flame” (Oslo, Norway), and “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” (Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Java). The contrast between “Monticello” and “Philadelphia” is striking because the first arrangement uses all acoustic instruments like harmonium, recorder, and tabla, while the second makes extensive use of synthesizers. (Gotta love that classic DX7 tubular bell patch!) “Philadelphia” sounds Philip Glasslike in spots, and the revered minimalist spoke highly of the Master:

The passing of Sri Chinmoy represents the loss of one of the last of the great spiritual teachers who brought the tradition of Indian spirituality to the West.

He had a very special connection to music. In his performances, with clarity, simplicity and directness, he was able to move his listeners in a very immediate and deeply emotional way.

In his lifetime he brought tremendous joy to the people who were with him. For me, his life was a special and personal inspiration.

Though at this moment we may feel great sadness, he will always be in our hearts.

— Philip Glass

Source: https://www.srichinmoy.org/kind_words/leaders/tributes

After his passing, his music has continued to live on in many, many forms, including the Songs of the Soul concerts presented worldwide by his students, where Philip Glass has been a beloved guest artist.

Returning to our mix: “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” (here performed by the groups Mountain-Silence and Akasha) has a somewhat different character than the other city or landmark songs: first, because its subject is an ancient holy site extremely significant in Buddhism; second, because it is in Bengali, which language is (obviously) far closer to ancient Pali and Sanskrit than is English. The compact nature of Bengali lends itself especially well to spiritual poetry, as Vidagdha Meredith Bennett hints at in her doctoral thesis Simplicity and Power: The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy, 1971-1981 (footnotes omitted):

It is possible that Sri Chinmoy’s use of the compound noun has its origin in an attempt to find in English the natural analogue of the Sanskrit and Bengali forms of comparison. Gerow notes that translations from Sanskrit into English “tend to be flabby and prolix precisely where the original displays a tense compactness and is most striking in its beauty.”

In the case of Sri Chinmoy’s own mother tongue, Bengali, this compactness is inherent in the language. The formation of compounds is frequent and, in fact, the grammar of compounds cannot be distinguished from that of phrases. The words “swapan sathi,” to take an example, may be translated in an interpretive way as “companion of my dream.” Literally, however, the words read as “dream-companion,” with the two words closely intersecting. In so far as a direct English equivalent may be found for the Bengali words, Sri Chinmoy most commonly elects to keep the true form of his source language. As a result, he is able to use the compound noun to establish a greater cohesion within the English language itself. The life-principle of poetry, he would seem to affirm, does not lie in any of the norms of grammar and logic but in the interactions of words within the language.

See the song “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” (discussed further down), which includes the compound nouns “mind-jungle,” “Forgiveness-Eye,” and “World-Lord.”

Because Sri Chinmoy is a gifted poet in both Bengali and English, his best translations of his most significant poems are absolutely outstanding! Why? Because he does not merely translate. Rather, he re-imagines the Bengali poem in English, so that it becomes a significant poem in its own right. (See “Ore Mor Kheya” above.) His groundbreaking 1972 volume My Flute includes many such translations.

Another example of things coming full circle manifested in 2016, when a bilingual edition of The Garden of Love-Light was published, including (for the first time) the Bengali script. (See this article in The Indian Panorama.)

Without diving too deep into the ethnomusicology weeds, we can note that like fellow Bengali Rabindranath Tagore (whose songs the Master greatly admired), Sri Chinmoy employs lines of different metric lengths. So while much of “Philadelphia” is in 4/4 time, the words “Liberty Bell” bring in two bars of 5/4. “Karuna Mayer Jyotir Dulal” (arranged and performed by Temple-Song-Hearts) is a striking example of this phenomenon. The piano introduction alone tells us we’re in for a bumpy ride, mapping out as:

4/4 + 4/4 + 5/8 + 7/4 + 7/4 + 7/8 + 3/4 + 7/8 + 3/4

Others might count it differently, but still: Not even the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its heyday adopted a metric cycle this ambitious! (In songbooks, Sri Chinmoy’s songs are usually notated without barlines, but when groups arrange them, barlines become more of a practical necessity.)

Sri Chinmoy’s music is like a garden which we can enjoy for its simplicity and beauty, or if we are so inclined we can learn the names of all the different flowers and analyze how they are arranged. Retaining our simplicity, we can yet begin to recognize certain key Bengali words which recur: karuna is compassion, shanti is peace, ananda delight. (The Bengali language has different classes of words, some of which are Tatsami, meaning roughly “same as in Sanskrit.” See also this brief comment from Sri Chinmoy himself.)

The music of India is rich in scales (or more properly ragas) which can sound exotic to Western ears. Statistically, Sri Chinmoy does not make much use of the more exotic flavours, but since he wrote thousands of songs, we can discover notable exceptions. One such is “Chinta Amar Amai Kare,” again arranged and performed by Temple-Song-Hearts. In Western music theory, the melody might described as alternating between the Double Harmonic and Major scales.

sri-chinmoy-songs-chinta-amar-amai-kare

Another class of songs worthy of mention is the bilingual songs. Sri Chinmoy’s bilingual fluency dates back to his ashram days, when he became close personal assistant to noted Indian savant Nolini Kanta Gupta, translating many of the latter’s articles from Bengali to English for publication in the English-language journal Mother India.

Sri Chinmoy (top left) with Nolini-da (bottom left), August 27, 1962

Years later, Sri Chinmoy would provide beautiful English translations of his own works. But there is a special class of songs (usually short) where he weaves Bengali and English together in the same song. These possess a unique charm all their own, as we can see from “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” (sung delightfully in rounds), the cheery “Gan Likhi Ami,” “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” (offered in two contrasting versions), and the soaring “Everest-Aspiration,” whose melody literally peaks!

Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara

Pit pit mit mit sanjher tara sanjher tara
Atmahara heri tomar sudha dhara

Twinkling, twinkling evening star, evening star!
Watching the flow of your nectar-delight,
Myself I completely lose.

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Gan Likhi Ami

Gan likhi ami gan geye jai
Nidra dekha nai
Ganer majhare parama shanti
Charama tripti pai

Songs I write
I keep singing
Sleep remains unseen.
From my songs, I receive peace sublime
And satisfaction deep.

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Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal

Dhire ati dhire man jangal
Bishwa prabhu khamar nayane hase

Slowly, very slowly in my mind-jungle,
The Forgiveness-Eye of the World-Lord
Is smiling.

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Everest-Aspiration

Everest-Aspiration!
Gauri shankara dan
Open my heart’s silver door
Dao more aji amarar bhor.
O highest mountain peak!
Janame marane karo nirvik.

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In some cases, the Bengali and English may not have been composed in the same instant, but appear close together in the same songbook, and are combined by the performers. For example, “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” and “Twinkling, Twinkling Evening Star” appear nearby in the collection Your Face Is My Dream. But in “Everest-Aspiration,” we see the two languages tightly interwoven. After each English line, Sri Chinmoy pens a rhyming Bengali line.

A solo sitar medley by master of the instrument Adesh Widmer rounds out this section of the mix, underscoring the melodic interest inherent in the songs.

Sri Chinmoy’s music-world is rich in beauty, and there is always more to discover. I hope these notes, written in haste, will help you in your journey of discovery. (I hope to fill in more details later.)

I began this article feeling tired and thinking that I could find no good words to say. I am grateful that some words did come, and that listening to Sri Chinmoy’s music inspired and uplifted me. May it do the same for you, dear Reader!

sri-chinmoy--vaasa-statue-finland-1

Michael Howard

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

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The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race 2019

News flash! 8 men and women brave NYC elements in world’s longest certified foot race

(Pics/videos to follow.)

For 48 days now, ultra runners from around the world have been competing in a race which lasts for 52 days and 3,100 miles. Why? For the love of running, and to experience the joy of self-transcendence. It all takes place around one extended city block in Jamaica, Queens, where runners must average 60 miles per day for 52 days in order to complete 3,100 miles, running lap after lap.

Mind-boggling, right? But of this year’s 8 competitors, 7 have run the race before. Speedy Finnish postman Ashprihanal Aalto is a 14-time finisher. For Harita Davies, who hails from Christchurch, New Zealand and is the only woman competing this year, it will be her second try; and third time out for Nirbhasa Magee, an Irishman who makes his home in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Other contenders come from as far away as Austria, Russia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria to brave the summer heat and indulge their passion for running really long distances.

This ultra event (now in its 23rd year) is the brainchild of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-American spiritual teacher who believed that perfection of the body can aid in perfection of the soul. He himself was an avid athlete, and encouraged his students to integrate running into their spiritual practice, while using the benefits of meditation to stay calm and focused during long runs.

The race was featured in Sanjay Rawal’s 2018 film 3100: Run and Become, which connects the spiritual running practices of Navajo runner Shaun Martin, the Bushmen of Botswana, the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei, and students of Sri Chinmoy. View the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/266754781. According to Rawal (himself a Sri Chinmoy student), “running is a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life.”

Day 48 has been a banner day for those concerned, because this morning Ashprihanal Aalto reached his 3,100-mile goal with a time of 47 days, 1 hour, 39 minutes, 34 seconds. That makes him a 15-time finisher and 9-time winner. After a month-and-a-half of ultra running, featherweight Aalto looks as though a good wind might easily carry him aloft. But joy will do that for you also.

There is no cash award, but friends, admirers, and well-wishers line up to greet each finisher, and the sense of joy is palpable. Bells are rung and songs of victory sung. This year, one woman offered Aalto a small stuffed puppy dog as a prize — this in addition to the traditional garland of flowers, certificate of appreciation, and custom-baked cake with a message of congratulations.

No golden earring — as worn by sailors who’ve managed to circumnavigate Cape Horn — but finishers of the Self-Transcendence 3100 know they’re members of an exclusive club. Only 43 people have done it in its first 22 years.

This year, Aalto got a little extra (well-deserved!) appreciation in the form of congratulations from the Finnish Consul General, and reporters turned up in unusual numbers. The Bergen Record of North Jersey did a wonderful 3-minute video profile which also included an outstanding interview with veteran Race Director Rupantar LaRusso.

There are 4 days left before the race ends on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th. Of the 8 starters, 1 (Aalto) has already finished, 5 more are on track to complete the entire distance by day 52, and 2 more will probably keep on running till the cutoff, but may fall short of 3,100 miles.


Sidebar: Weather proves tough for tough competitors

The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile race has an illustrious history, with numerous records being broken for time, distance, age, and gender. Ashprihanal Aalto nailed World Best Time with his 2015 finish, done in an astounding 40 days, 9 hours, 6 minutes, 21 seconds. He averaged 76.776 miles per day (123.56 km), under favourable running conditions.

But though Aalto has just chalked up another victory in 2019, this was far from his best time. 2019 will see relatively few records set, largely due to the weather, which has been abysmal!

The race began on Sunday, June 16th, with rain, rain, and more rain. Day after day of rain. Then for a change, a little more rain! (as the old song goes). You might think all that rain would cool the runners off, but it also makes them soggy and heavy, and increases the likelihood of blisters. The lack of sunshine can be a mood-dampener as well.

Finally, the rain went away for a bit, but returned on the heels of Hurricane Barry. A couple of beautiful, springlike days followed — perfect weather for running. But as it turned out, that was the Weather Gods’ version of rope-a-dope. They were just lulling the runners into a false sense of comfort — if you can call running 60+ miles a day anything resembling comfortable.

Then came the great heat wave of July 2019, with maps that seemed to invent new shades of vermilion just to warn folks how sizzled, fried, clam-baked, and London-broiled they would be. No exemptions for vegetarians.

The NYC Triathlon (with entrants in the thousands) was cancelled due to extreme heat and humidity. But the brave 3100 runners soldiered on, with their health closely monitored, taking breaks as needed.

The early leader in June had been Vasu Duzhiy of St. Petersburg, himself a three-time winner. But by the time the July heat wave hit, blisters and a sore Achilles had forced Vasu The Invincible to drop back to third place. Ashprihanal Aalto was in the lead, with Nirbhasa Magee nipping at his heels.

Then the heat wave struck, and this is where Aalto’s years of experience finishing this seemingly impossible race paid off: Unbeknownst to observers (and apparently invisible), a finely-honed gear change mechanism lurks within his pencil-thin frame. He magically switched gears and found a pace that he could sustain in the sweltering heat, suffering far less than other runners.

Nirbhasa Magee hoped to stay close and continue to challenge Aalto; but alas, the heat affected him. He couldn’t seem to adjust as well as the more seasoned Finn. He took a short break in the oversized receptacle for runner immersion (dubbed “Big Bertha”), which helps cool down fatigued runners.

Magee is still on track to finish second, with a current ETA of Saturday, August 3rd at 3 p.m. That would be a new PB for him. He finished third in the 2017 edition of the race, with a time of 48 days, 16 hours, 47 minutes, 1 second. He stands to shave off about 8 hours.

Harita Davies is the only woman competing this year. (I tried to place bets with the London betting shops that she’ll come in first in her division — but sadly, no takers.) She had hoped to finish with a new PB, but like Magee was slowed by the heat. A new PB is still within her reach, but is less certain post-clambake.

Her previous time on first attempt in 2017 was 51 days, 12 hours, 48 minutes, 14 seconds. Davies looks to come in sixth overall, beating two of the men who — despite noble efforts and some outstanding days — have nevertheless struggled to keep pace. But no one doubts they’re gaining valuable experience, both athletic and spiritual. Interviewed in mid-July 2017, Davies had this to say:

What will the 2020 Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race bring? Probably #1 on most people’s wish list is a hint of a smile from the Weather Gods.

Michael Howard

LINKS

Official Race Site (daily updates and live webcam)
https://3100.srichinmoyraces.org/

The 3,100-mile race around a New York block (BBC article)
https://www.bbc.com/sport/48702452

A Diva Who Is Not Above Walking 3,100 Miles (New York Times article)
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/nyregion/yolanda-holder-walking-diva-3100-mile-race.html

At 3,100 miles, the longest footrace in the world tests the mind (Bergen Record article)
https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2019/08/02/3-100-miles-longest-footrace-world-tests-mind/1899125001/

Perfection Journey – 3100-Mile Race (Utpal Marshall’s blog)
https://perfectionjourney.org/category/3100-mile-race-2019/

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Happy 55th Anniversary, Sri Chinmoy!

Shedding new light on the contributions made by this immortal teacher and his musical oeuvre

I am so grateful today, April 13th, 2019, to write something about Sri Chinmoy, the great and good spiritual teacher, musician, poet, and artist who came to the West exactly 55 years ago today.

I am grateful because I feel that Sri Chinmoy saved my life many times over (though I hardly deserve it). I was and am a poor student, but Sri Chinmoy always reflected such an effulgence of light that even the dullest student could not fail to absorb some of it and be changed by it.

And by God’s Grace, I think I have some inkling into how much he willingly suffered in order to be of help to those who sought out his spiritual guidance. As human beings, you might say we are half-devil, half-angel. Or you can say that when we try to go one step forward and become spiritual, then we discover the destructive tiger within us that wants to keep us in its den at all cost.

By challenging humanity to change for the better, to embrace ideals of peace and divine love, Sri Chinmoy had, at times, to endure the hatred of the world. And in offering a helping hand to those who specifically asked him to help them change their nature, he had to endure hatred, at times, even from his own disciples — from the destructive tiger within them.

Human nature is fickle. Today, and for a few days (or weeks or months or years), someone wants to become spiritual. But after a time, the same person may lose interest and intensity, or may fall victim to desire. At that time, they may hate and blame the spiritual teacher for taking them away from worldly life — forgetting that it was they themselves who asked the spiritual teacher to guide them, and they who assured him that they were ready and eager for the spiritual life.

A simple truth: Those who wrong or betray a spiritual teacher may hate him because deep down they know they have wronged him. I was reminded of this simple truth by a scene from an old movie: Ice Palace (1960), based on the novel by Edna Ferber.

Sadly, it is human nature to sometimes hate those whom we have wronged. But today, April 13th, is a day of celebration. And to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Sri Chinmoy’s arrival in the West, I want to offer 5 songs by Sri Chinmoy. These are not just any songs, chosen casually. Rather, they are a gateway to understanding the richness and depth of expression found in his artistic oeuvre.

The 5 songs lay the groundwork. But in addition, there’s a sixth bonus track, and what a track it is! — a medley incorporating all 5 songs, strikingly arranged and masterfully performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra. This is a large international ensemble of singers and instrumentalists dedicated to performing Sri Chinmoy’s music on a grand scale:

As a lifelong student of music, I’m very excited about sharing these songs in this particular format. It’s so gratifying to hear the individual songs, then see how they’re combined contrapuntally and polyrhythmically in such a powerful and joyous fashion. If there’s one concept that shines brightly from this experience, it’s the idea of call and response. Whether in gospel music or jazz, call and response is the essence of communication. And in the lives of great spiritual teachers, we see that it’s also a matter of call and response. The message of one enlightened soul is so electric that it lights the way for thousands of seekers who then take up that call and lend their own voices to it in richness and harmony.

When I hear Gandharva Loka Orchestra’s striking arrangement of Sri Chinmoy’s songs echoing through the large hall, and met with thunderous applause, I feel dynamically energized, but also I feel a sense of completion. I hear over a hundred people crying out (in essence): “We have heard your call, and now we are singing back to you, with immense gratitude, the songs you have taught us.” The cycle is complete.

More About The Songs

Sri Chinmoy was a prolific composer of spiritual songs in Bengali and English. These five songs are in Bengali, with English translations for two of them given by the composer:

Sukhero Lagiya

I lead my poor vital along teeming roads
To discover happiness birthless and deathless.
I see Your Beauty’s Feet
Shining and scattering their radiance
Inside a tiny twig of my hope-world.
A perfect stranger am I now
To the tired and sleeping life.
The confines of the hope-empty Sahara
Will never be able to imprison me.

Chitta Dolai

My heart-door is completely open.
O my sweet Lord Supreme,
Come and enjoy Your Ecstasy’s Dream
On my heart-swing.
Do come driving Your Light-flooded Chariot,
On the flower-decorated purity-road.
And the moment You come,
Do make me lose my division-self
And make me one with Your
Infinity’s Immortality-Self.

The character of these two songs is completely different. In the first, the seeker is still wandering through the desert, and only catches a glimpse of the spiritual Reality that will eventually liberate him. In the second, she is well along the path of Bhakti Yoga, and with open heart is enjoying a feeling of sweet devotion and oneness with her Lord Supreme.

These contrasting moods are strongly developed in the arrangement by Gandharva Loka Orchestra. There are elements of world music and jazz fusion: a large orchestra and chorus, tabla accompaniment, a Chinese erhu solo, and an amazing soprano sax solo by Premik Russell Tubbs, who listeners may know from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Like any great band, Gandharva Loka Orchestra combines fantastic arranging skills with tremendous freedom on the part of individual soloists. Yes, it’s spiritual music, but it also swings.

These tracks collectively comprise a half-hour odyssey into Sri Chinmoy’s music-world, and begin to get at the variety of musical expression he fostered, both in his own compositions and performances, and in the way he inspired his students to form groups reflective of their individual style and musical experience.

There is always more to discover about Sri Chinmoy’s music, and I hope this brief introduction has sparked your interest. Thank you for reading!

Michael Howard

Track List

0:00 “Sonali Jyotir” performed by Arthada and Friends
2:42 “Mishe Phulla Dale” performed by Sri Chinmoy
3:56 “Oi Akashe” performed by Akasha
7:01 “Sukhero Lagiya” performed by Sri Chinmoy
9:34 “Chitta Dolai” performed by Mountain-Silence
11:39 Medley performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra

Links

Sri Chinmoy Songs (sheet music, translations)
More Gandharva Loka Orchestra on Radio Sri Chinmoy
God, The Supreme Musician (Sri Chinmoy’s influential book on music)

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International Women’s Day: Temple-Song-Hearts music group and more


BETA VERSION
What can one say after such beautiful music? Except that it helps explain why I write in favour of freedom of religion and religious tolerance, because only when these things flourish can we enjoy the fruits. Here, the fruits are beautiful music and a presentation filled with light by women who come from different countries across a borderless Europe. But did you notice what language they are singing in? The language is Bengali, which was Sri Chinmoy’s mother tongue.

When the world is at peace and there is freedom of movement, people are free to gather what they find beautiful and meaningful from the world’s cultures, to create something uniquely their own. What wonderful music with which to celebrate International Women’s Day!

Now, I’m going to switch gears, because this Women’s Day happens to be the 15-year anniversary of a groundbreaking event. In March 2004, members and supporters of Sri Chinmoy Centre began a discussion focused on women’s issues, with women sharing how they came to Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual “path of the heart,” what it means to them, what their daily lives are like, whether it’s a safe path to follow, how spiritual seekers are viewed by society, and overcoming negative stereotypes.

The need for such a discussion perhaps requires explanation. Many Americans (and indeed, people around the world) have a good working knowledge of things like how to drive a car and get a license, how to do their taxes, how to finance their homes, how to carry on a trade or business, as well as the rules for popular sports like baseball, basketball, and football. They also have some knowledge of politics and world affairs, which they get from newspapers, TV, and (increasingly) the Internet.

Yet, over the decades there has developed a split between the secular sphere and the religious or spiritual sphere. These two spheres were originally meant to work together to foster the experience of life as a coherent whole. Business and government would be conducted largely in the secular sphere, while each individual would be free to join the church, synagogue, or temple of his or her choosing (or none at all). People who made similar choices would form church groups or spiritual communities of various sorts. This did not put them at odds with the secular sphere, because the two were complementary. (Ideally, they still are.)

Without over-analyzing the phenomenon, if we fast-forward to today we can see that the secular sphere and the religious sphere often seem to be at odds. Much of life in the mainstream is now lived in the secular sphere, and those who make spiritual choices are often portrayed as the “religious other” — to be distrusted, feared, even hated and discriminated against. How society came to this point is a long story, and a great many books have been written on the subject.

My purpose here is not to assign blame, but simply to observe some of the symptoms, and to point out that education is one of the cures. I will then provide excerpts from the 2004 Sri Chinmoy “Question For The Women” discussion thread as an example of how better information about spiritual groups can lead to a lessening of tensions and misunderstandings. Continue reading

Happy 87th Birthday, Sri Chinmoy!

Remembering the beloved spiritual teacher, musician and artist with a joyful music mix and slideshow

Sri Chinmoy’s birthday was always a joyful occasion, a perfect opportunity to celebrate. The celebrations continue, although he passed away in 2007. He lit a bright torch, carried it for many years, and taught others to hold it aloft. So many people around the world are celebrating on August 27, 2018, the day when Sri Chinmoy would have turned 87.

My way of celebrating was to make this video as an introduction to Sri Chinmoy’s music world:

I say “music world” because Sri Chinmoy is a world unto himself, and his music is best understood by listening with an open heart, rather than theorizing with a critical mind. Listening brings its own rewards and leads to understanding.

I say “music world” because inside Sri Chinmoy’s music is his art — his painting and drawing. All his creations emanate from a deep spiritual well, and one can approach that well from many directions, like a circular fountain which has a myriad of little footpaths leading up to it.

Music, art, concert posters, and photographs are all ways of making inroads to reach that centre of consciousness from which Sri Chinmoy always acted. But the divine secret is that this centre of consciousness does not belong to any individual, but is our collective consciousness, to be realized. It is the Supreme’s consciousness of Light and Delight.

It is fitting, then, that the music mix begins with “Supreme Chant” — a melody which Sri Chinmoy composed to the word “Supreme” — and that it ends with Sri Chinmoy chanting the word “Supreme.”

In between, we can begin to glean something of the vastness of Sri Chinmoy’s musical oeuvre from the main selection, which is a medley of his songs performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra, culminating in a magnificent counterpoint. Truly, his music is “vaster than the sky,” and a thunderous pipe organ improvisation from Riverside Church punctuates this point.

There are many facets to Sri Chinmoy’s musical manifestation — so many that we can only catch a fleeting glimpse in the 38 minutes of this video. I hope to create other videos which bring out different aspects. A great wealth of Sri Chinmoy’s music is available online at Radio Sri Chinmoy. Special thanks to them, and to the musicians, photographers and videographers who made this non-commercial production possible.

A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy! Wishing peace and joy to everyone around the world who is celebrating this day!

Michael Howard

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

Peaceful Morning Meditation Music April 13th

Celebrate the dawn with the music of thirteen different artists…

I hope you enjoy this peaceful morning meditation music:

The styles and instruments may differ, but these thirteen artists are all performing variations on the same song: “Usha Bala Elo” by Sri Chinmoy. Judging by the number of recordings, it’s one of the most popular songs among his students.

Lyrics:

Usha bala elo
Dhire aji dhire
Hridaya gabhire

Translation:

Slowly, very slowly,
The virgin dawn appears
In the very depths of my aspiration-heart.

Source: SriChinmoySongs.com

This beautiful song with its simple melody is very enjoyable to sing. Usha means “dawn,” and can also refer to the Goddess Usha, who is celebrated in the ancient Rig Veda, where she is identified with the dawn and described as a bringer of light.

In poetry and song, we need not choose a single meaning. We can enjoy the superimposition of the outer and inner meanings. In the outer world, we can imagine the first rays of the dawn softly illuminating the sky, and in the inner world we can feel a new dawn, new light, new consciousness appearing in the depths of our heart.

April 13th is a special day for those who admire Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). On April 13th, 1964 he arrived in the West and began a remarkable decades-long career as a teacher, composer, musician, poet, artist, athlete, and humanitarian.

He composed thousands of songs, but “Usha Bala Elo” is certainly one of his most beloved.

Of the versions performed here, two merit special attention because they are medleys. Master sitarist Adesh Widmer begins with “Usha Bala Elo,” but also works in other tunes by Sri Chinmoy. And arranger Paree Atkins creates a rich tapestry for large ensemble, beginning with another of Sri Chinmoy’s dawn songs: “Andhakarer Bakka Chiri”:

Lyrics:

Andhakarer bakka chiri
Khulche ushar toran oi
Jaya dhwani kare sabe
Khoka khuki achhish koi
Arun ranga charan phele
Usha rani ese
Khelar chale anlo tene
Ajana ei deshe

Translation:

Behold, tearing the heart of darkness,
the door of dawn opens.
O children, where are you?
Sing, sing the divine glory.
The queen of dawn descends
with her morning rays.
She has dragged me down
into this world unknown.

Source: SriChinmoyLibrary.com

Paree incorporates both the original Bengali and the English translation into her choral fantasia, adding a welcome dynamic element to the mix!

Artists and Links

These are the artists performing “Usha Bala Elo”:

1. Silence-Hearts
2. Phulendu
3. Hiya Bhasha
4. Akasha
5. Utsava and Friends
6. Purnakama
7. Song-Waves
8. Adesh
9. Adarsha
10. Paree’s Group
11. Ananda
12. Sri Chinmoy
13. Satja

Many, many thanks to Sri Chinmoy, to the artists performing his music, and to Radio Sri Chinmoy, where much of this music is freely available. (It is truly a treasure trove.)

This year, April 13th happens to fall on a Friday. But after a peaceful morning meditation, we need not surrender to bad luck or Fright Night. The light of the dawn can carry us through to the evening, and at day’s end we can enjoy sweet, peaceful dreams.

Michael Howard

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

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Why we need gun control – an alternative spiritual view

Introduction

The demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of people have participated — many of them students — demanding sensible gun laws, is a very positive development. It represents a countervailing force against the sheer money power and bullying power of the gun lobby. It remains to be seen whether these demonstrations will have a lasting political impact, and will ultimately achieve the goal of meaningful reform.

Many of the reasons why we need sensible gun laws are painfully obvious — both to Americans, and to friends of America like Great Britain. The latter is one of several Western nations which have enacted strict gun laws, and as a result have seen gun violence plummet dramatically. No thinking person can question the basic connection between the mass proliferation of firearms and a spiraling murder rate.

It is especially fitting then, that our young people are rising up to question the political and moral corruption which keeps both gun sales and gun murders at astronomical levels — fitting not just because young people are often innocent victims of gun violence, but also because young people bring a fresh perspective unstained and unsullied by the base motives which have led us to the present morass.

Young people are shepherded through active shooter drills at school, and in neighborhoods like South L.A. (as demonstrator Edna Chavez points out) they learn to duck bullets before they learn to read. So they’re angry about this wholesale, bump-stocked destruction of their innocence. They rightly observe that in an atmosphere of fear, even those not directly impacted by gun violence in the form of losing a friend or loved one nevertheless feel the intense psychological pressure. If they are angry, and are speaking up with anger, this is understandable. But is there anything beyond the anger?

On the one hand, political action for a worthy cause is admirable; on the other hand, political movements are less than perfect. There’s always a certain amount of sloganeering, emotionalism, and “rah-rah, hooray for our side.” These things are inevitable, and don’t invalidate the underlying cause. Some people can be forgiven if, with respect to a particular demo, they ask not “What are the organizing principles?” but rather “Which bands are playing?” After all, social bonding is part of the process of amassing political power.

One summer when I was just a tiny tot, my aunt paid my way to go to day camp. On the daily bus ride, the camp counselors would sing endless renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

A good protest song is definitely worth its weight in gold, and can help both inspire noble idealism, and galvanize opinion on concrete issues. To this day, on the issue of gun control I trot out this old Tom Paxton ditty, often introing it as “Wayne LaPierre Sings”:

Has anything changed? I think so. To understand what, we need to know about the madness of crowds. Over time, the population becomes enamored of — and subsequently disenchanted with — various fads, some of which can be long-lasting. After a decades long experiment with the mass proliferation of firearms, it may be argued that we are, as a nation, beginning to turn the tide. The learning curve is finally bending in the direction of insight that more and more guns do not lead to a safer and safer society, but rather to a society in which our children grow up in a state of perpetual trauma. In this respect, the slogan “Enough is enough” is perfectly apt and signals a definite inflection point (we hope).

A Spiritual Perspective

To some people, the concept of spirituality seems remote or pie-in-the-sky. This is understandable, since spirituality is mostly not taught in our schools; and when it is, it’s sometimes the “believe this or go to hell” variety.

Yet, spirituality is connected with peace and peace studies. Peace is a quality, and peace studies is an organized effort to find ways of bringing peace to our troubled world.

From a spiritual perspective, gun control is not just about reducing the number of guns, but also about changing the mindset which leads us to adopt violent solutions to basic human problems. One of the tools used in peace studies is meditation, and this NBC story on meditation in the schools shows just how effective a tool meditation can be:

What do I mean when I say that peace is a quality? If you go to a certain restaurant, you know they specialize in items like burgers, salads, or shakes. In God’s shop there is peace, light, and joy. You can eat as much as you want according to your appetite.

Peace does not mean simply the absence of war or conflict. Peace is a quality which we can imbibe through our prayer and meditation. When we drink deeply of peace, so many human problems are solved! And also, when we drink deeply of peace, we see more clearly what things need to be done to improve our lives, to improve society. When we drink deeply of peace, we see that this decades long obsession with guns, guns, and more guns is total insanity! It is an unnatural fixation which comes from man’s destructive mind and destructive vital.

Again, when we drink deeply of peace, we are taking in something which is natural, just as some people prefer natural foods rather than heavily processed foods. For gradual, lasting change to occur, we need to drink in peace in abundant measure, and learn from the experience of peace how we can make a world in which our children feel safe and loved, not angry and betrayed.

But this peace is not just for adults, and the solutions will not come only from adults. The more our children feel the psychological pressure of violence all around them, the more they need a safe space where there is quiet time and they can experience peace. And the more they see that this inner peace is indeed an ingredient in solving the problem of outer violence, the better prepared they will be to create tomorrow’s institutions based not on turning schools into prisons and teachers into armed guards, but on patterns of association involving love, trust, and insight.

Now, there are even deeper spiritual reasons why we need gun control. Our world was created by God. He was one, He was silent; but He wanted to become many in order to know the meaning of His silence. So He created the Cosmic Game, in which matter is thrown out from His soul, and takes billions of years to evolve back into conscious Divinity. This is the Cosmic Game, of which we are part.

Our world is a reflection of something which is, at its root, perfect. This is the great secret which peace can teach us, silence can teach us. Presently, our world is an imperfect reflection. But gradually, gradually, over the long arc of time, it is evolving toward perfection. So we get the most joy when we consciously participate in God’s Cosmic Game in the way that He intended; not by collecting more and more guns, but by expressing more and more self-giving.

Meditation can take us very far. In meditation, we can catch a glimpse of the higher worlds. There, the beauty of nature springs directly from the mind of God in infinite abundance. There are no guns there, and no need for guns.

If we know we are evolving toward something higher, then we can have a kind of blueprint for what we want to achieve in society. The golden future is fast approaching, but we are late in making ourselves fit to receive it, live in it. The future beckons us, but in order to fully embrace it we must renounce our foolish attachment to guns and weapons of mass destruction.

Change occurs not just on an individual level, but also on a macro level. The micro and macro influence each other. If, as individuals, we are able to cultivate more peace, then we can also affect institutions in a positive way. Likewise, when institutions charged with fostering the health and well-being of society reach the unmistakable conclusion that gun control is necessary, they can educate and influence individuals.

Let us hope that we have passed a milestone point in history, and are moving away from armaments and toward the firmament!

Anger and slogans are part of politics, but for lasting change something more is needed. We need to cultivate peace, and we should not lose faith in humanity despite setbacks. Spiritual master Sri Chinmoy writes:

India’s greatest spiritual politician, Mahatma Gandhi, said something very striking. He said not to lose faith in humanity. We have to take humanity as an ocean. There are a few drops in the ocean that may be dirty, but the entire ocean is not dirty. According to him, we must not judge humanity by the limited experiences we usually get when we associate ourselves with limited persons around us. We have to be careful, but at the same time we have to have faith in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity, then we are doomed, for humanity is an actual limb of our body.

— Sri Chinmoy, from A Hundred Years From Now, Agni Press, 1974

To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself. Looked at from a spiritual perspective, gun control is part of a broader effort to create a world based on principles of peace.

A peace benediction from Sri Chinmoy


Sidebar: Save The Country

If you are a student of peace, then you are in the same boat as singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, who sang “In my mind I can’t study war no more”:

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Salvation – a short film exploring NYC snowscapes

Now released on YouTube

Although I made brief mention of it in a post on Storm Emma and the Meaning of Snow, I’d like to officially announce the YouTube release of my short film Salvation:

While I’m only an amateur videographer, and the means brought to bear for Salvation are exceedingly modest, I can nevertheless point out a few things about the film.

It first and foremost uses the language of visual images, sound, and music to say what it wants to say.

Though my primary purpose was artistic, it does call attention to the plight of New York City carriage horses, who work in all kinds of harsh conditions (including snowstorms).

The film begins by showing a dense crush of passersby on a midtown Manhattan street during a blizzard. We hear the tinkling of a bell, and as the crowd thins out, we see that the sound is coming from an African-American Salvation Army worker with a collection box to which no one seems to be contributing.

The next sequence is of Pomona, the Goddess of Plenty, who stands atop the Pulitzer Fountain there in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza. Like the Salvation Army worker, she looks cold, forlorn, and forgotten in the snow. We can still hear the bell tinkling faintly in the distance.

The third sequence shows carriage horses; and just as we saw clouds of steam coming from the nostrils of the Salavation Army worker, we likewise see clouds of steam coming from these equine nostrils, and hear the metal clink of their fittings. One horse hollows out the snow around its front hooves to push back the cold.

In the middle of the carriage horse sequence we cut away to Nike, the Goddess of Victory, as she appears high up in a gilded-bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens depicting William Tecumseh Sherman.

The fourth sequence begins with a brief shot of two men fencing indoors during the same blizzard, adjoining tall picture windows from which we can still see the snow falling. We hear the metal clink of blade on blade, but the men are tethered to body cords (as is the custom in sport fencing), just as the horses are tethered to their carriages. We cut briefly to more shots of the Goddess of Victory, and then to the final sequence, which is vintage footage of black stallions running free in an open field in the midst of a snowstorm. (This less than 30 seconds of film is adapted from the BBC documentary The Big Freeze about Britain’s harsh winter of 1963.)

After completing the final edit, for those who might ponder the meaning I offered these words:

What does salvation mean to a man? To an angel? To a horse? Is snow the great equalizer?

About the music

From 30 seconds into the film until the end, we hear the music of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy arranged and performed by the duet Silence and Sound, consisting of Kushali Tarantsova (violin, vocals) and Rageshri Muzychenko (keyboard, vocals). The song is “Param Pitar Charan Duti Barai Madhumoy” from their 2006 CD Playing My Heart-Violin, recorded and mixed in Kiev, Ukraine and released on the JRC label.

I’m so happy with their music, which could not be more perfect if they had produced it specially for the video (they did not).

Sri Chinmoy wrote thousands of songs, mainly in Bengali and English. Ten years after his death, not all of them have been translated or made readily available — though many have, due to the diligent work of his students.

This song is one of 150 from the 2002 songbook Bahir Jagate, Part 1. Most of these have not been translated, but the Bengali reads:

Param pitar charan duti barai madhumoy
Param pitar dibya ankhi asim kripamoy

To aid us, here are some Bengali words and phrases with their English equivalents:

param pitar – Supreme Father or Absolute Lord
charan – feet
barai – great, intense, or deeply
madhumoy – sweet or blissful
dibya – divine
ankhi asim – infinite Eye
kripamoy – compassion

So we can guess that this is a mantra invoking the Father Supreme, taking refuge at His feet of intense bliss, and His divine, infinite Eye of Compassion.

Sri Chinmoy wrote this song on December 26, 2001. Many of his “param pita” songs written during the Christmas period are Christ songs. Indeed, there is a whole book of them from 1990 called Jesus the Seeker, Christ the Saviour with a mix of English and Bengali entries.

If the recording I chose for Salvation is plaintive or even sad as rendered by Kushali and Rageshri, this need not be true of other “param pita” songs. Sri Chinmoy’s students organize Songs of the Soul concerts around the world. While visiting Mongolia in 2017, Pavaka and Nelson recorded this sunny version of “He Param Pita Bishwa Bidhata Ami,” accompanied by a beautiful HD video in which horses also figure prominently:

It’s so good I want you to see it, even though it puts my video to shame. (In fairness, mine is based on analog footage shot in 1995, when Hi-8 was thought a fairly good “prosumer” format.)

Here’s a medley of two more “He Param Pita” songs by Sri Chinmoy:

The titles are “He Param Pita He Param Pita Ami Je” and “He Param Pita He Param Pita Dharar.” (A quick search reveals about three dozen such songs to his credit). These two are performed in monastic style by an unnamed group, though it could be Oneness-Dream, which in 2016 toured churches in Ireland performing Sri Chinmoy’s songs in a manner like to Gregorian chant:

Conclusion

So how does all this relate to the concept of salvation? Well, people use the word in different ways. To truly achieve salvation (from ignorance, bondage, and death) is an extraordinary achievement. I cannot claim any such thing. But in the small, human sense of what salvation means — or perhaps in the sense of what salvation means to a horse tethered to a carriage — I feel that knowing Sri Chinmoy has saved me from a life which would have been as dull and plodding as a workhorse’s. By his Grace I have seen and felt things beyond my imagination, and he has given me hope that I might one day at least grasp the concept of salvation, even if achieving it is presently beyond me. I gratefully dedicate the film Salvation to Sri Chinmoy, who inhabits my dreams (the best ones, anyway).

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy’s universal teachings

For the sake of clarity, I should explain that Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are universal in nature. He embraces the Neo-Vedanta view that there is truth in each religion. He emerged from the Hindu tradition, but composed songs honouring many spiritual figures, including Sri Krishna, the Buddha, the Christ, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Mother Teresa, and many others.

Sri Chinmoy is a teacher who epitomizes vastness. This post brings out one small facet, namely his “param pita” songs. Broadly speaking, his philosophy is Eastern philosophy. (See, for example, his Eastern Light for the Western Mind.)

His path includes an emphasis on meditation on the heart.


Of Further Interest

The Sound of Music in Bengali
Jesus is Born – in a world of many faiths
Radio Sri Chinmoy – Songs Devoted to Jesus Christ
Shindhu performs “Param Pitar Charan Duti Barai Madhumoy”

Barber’s Adagio For Strings (YouTube)
Hearts and Flowers (version 1) 1908 Orchestra (YouTube)
Hearts and Flowers (version 2) Mahavishnu John McLaughlin (YouTube)
Alice in the Snow I

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Parkland School Shooting: NRA’s Wayne LaPierre Sings

Breaking news and broader discussion of issues

Everyone expected that due to mounting pressure, Wayne LaPierre would have to issue some kind of statement in response to the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left at least 17 people dead — most of them children. But no one expected that he would break into sunny song:

Yes, it’s wonderful when young children are indoctrinated into gun culture, for this is bound to pay off later on in life! (especially if they have a beef with someone).

I’ve already blogged about crazed mass shooters here and here. What is there new to say? People die, and the usual suspects offer their semi-automatic response: We shoudn’t “politicize” the deaths by talking about gun control. We need a decent interval of time to pass (like maybe until the next mass shooting); and even then, the real issue is better mental health for all Americans! (and lots and lots of country music). Bacon should be made a mandatory breakfast food. Shunning bacon is erratic behavior. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again! 😉

Lacking the political will to make truly beneficial changes (like loosening the stranglehold the NRA has on our feckless Congress), we can at least give our children an education that allows for quiet time and insight:

Crazed shooters are often people who have more anger and outrage than they can handle. It’s not clear our current health care system and mental health establishment can do much about that. A couple of talk therapy sessions and a prescription for Prozac aren’t going to de-weaponize people who’ve accumulated a lifetime of grievances by the time they’re 18 or 19.

Besides the insane proliferation of firearms, there are also sociological and spiritual reasons why our society is producing a ridiculous number of mass shooters. The doctrine of materialism, taken to extremes, leads to depersonalization and a failure to recognize the value in each human life. The past few decades have seen accelerated change, but our educational system has failed to ring the changes. It doesn’t teach people basic skills like how to live, how to deal with conflict, how to overcome the setbacks, disappointments, and even outright maltreatment which people may experience in our highly competitive, acquisitive, dog-eat-dog society, presently headed by one Donald J. Trump.

“Going postal” is a particular type of psychosis experienced by people who have a lot of pressure building up with no release valve. But as the above video on meditation in the schools shows, quiet time and insight are release valves. They’re valuable tools in our toolkit which we’re not utilizing to the extent that we could. These tools are largely free, but highly effective.

The emphasis on personal freedom which emerged in the 1960s is a positive development, and was a natural outgrowth of many factors: some of them cosmic, and some of them a reaction to the repressiveness of the 1950s. Any good thing needs to be assimilated; and we’re still trying to assimilate the freedoms of the 60s, which at their worst can lead to personal selfishness. Wantonly taking the life of a fellow human being is the ultimate in personal selfishness; so there’s a spiritual connection between the problem of greed and the problem of violence:

One of the institutions affected both positively and negatively by the changes of the 60s is parenting. On the one hand, there was a recognition that the repressive, disciplinarian style of parenting was harmful and outmoded. But in discarding that model, what was sometimes left was no parenting at all, or an assumption that children will simply find their own way with little or no guidance and attention.

The economic model has also shifted, so that both parents (in two-parent households) often work, whether they want to or not. A single wage-earner may not be able to provide for the needs of the family, as was once the case. There are only so many hours in a day; so when both parents work, giving children as much love, care, and attention as they need becomes an even greater challenge.

The solution is not a Leave It To Beaver trip back to the fifties (to quote a West Wing-ism), but an effort to really think about these issues and find a way to care for children with the right balance — neither ignoring their genuine needs, nor subjecting them to harsh discipline. Parents who love their children should try and mould them — not in a domineering or destructive way, but through love — because the parents know many things which the children need to know but cannot know merely by osmosis or hanging around the mall, or by being given large allowances.

There’s no substitute for being there as a parent — sometimes to supervise, but sometimes just to express love, caring, and a sense that the universe is a basically friendly place, even if the child can’t avoid having some painful experiences (like bullying). Parents need to teach one of the most difficult lessons of all: forgiveness of those who cause us pain.

Freedom is not as simple a concept as it might initially seem. We are free to do absolutely anything, but without wisdom we may do things which have serious negative consequences. An impulsive person may express their freedom in an irresponsible or destructive way. Then, because they cause grievous harm to others, they may have to spend years in prison or endure other serious punishment because their freedom was not tempered by wisdom.

Parents can’t make their children happy by giving them all freedom and nothing else. They do need to teach their children right from wrong and help them grow in wisdom, so that they can use their freedom wisely. Spiritual freedom is not the freedom to do absolutely anything. It is, rather, freedom tempered by wisdom and compassion — the freedom of a person who knows how to do the right thing that will not bring suffering on himself or others.

Parents need to be a light to children. To be a light means to be present.

In his 1986 book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams, spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy writes:

Here in the West, there is a kind of freedom that I do not endorse. Parents sometimes act out of false modesty, saying that they do not know what is best for their children. So they give their children the freedom to find out for themselves what is best. True, in comparison to a spiritual Master or a Yogi you may know nothing. But in comparison to your children, you know much more. You have made many mistakes in life, and by making mistakes you have come to know to some extent what is good and what is bad. If you really love your children, you will let them profit from your experience. Every day you should pray to God and meditate on God to illumine you so you will not misguide your children. And the illumination you get, you have to offer to your children. So in the children’s formative years, the parents should always tell their children what is best for them.

If children are not properly moulded when they are of a tender age, then when they grow up they may take drugs and do many undivine things. At that time the parents claim, “I didn’t teach them to do these things.” But unfortunately the parents gave them the wrong kind of freedom. Instead of teaching their own ideals to their children, they let the children make up their own minds.

When you have a child, you give your child milk because you know that it is nutritious. You do not say, “Let the child drink milk or water, whichever he prefers, and when he gets older he will realise that milk is better for him.” By that time he may have fallen sick or even died. So you make the child drink milk until he is ten or twelve years old and then, if he does not like milk, you let him drink something else.

Likewise, on the spiritual plane, parents often do not feed their children’s souls. They say that they do not know which path their children will want, which church they need or what kind of prayer is best for them, so they do not teach them anything. But what you feel is best for your own inner lives, you should also feel is good for your children. Children will die spiritually if you don’t give them inner nourishment. You are not injecting anything into them; you are giving them food. They may not like that particular food, but they have to eat or they will die. Later, when they grow up, they will have the freedom to eat whatever they choose.

Here I see thousands of children who have been misguided by their parents in the name of freedom. Freedom is available, but who can really enjoy freedom? He who listens to the dictates of his inner being and obeys the inner law. You enjoy freedom on the outer plane precisely because you listen to a higher authority, which is your own higher self. When you do not listen to your higher self, at that time you are totally limited and bound.

The parents have to feel that since they have more wisdom and experience than their children, they are the higher self of their children. They are part and parcel of their existence, but they are more conscious; therefore, they are in a position to guide their children. These same children will one day grow up and be in a position to guide and mould their own children. But when children are given freedom before they have any inner wisdom, this freedom is not good.

In America, parents always think that they have to give their children material things. But when it is a matter of love, most American parents do not give it to their children. They give a life of comfort. But there is a great difference between a life of comfort and a life of love. The child’s heart and soul do not care for money. In the depths of his own heart the child cares only for the mother’s heart, the father’s heart. If the child gets love from his parents, then he is eternally and divinely bound by his parents and he himself binds his parents in the same way.

Love has to be given unconditionally, not with the feeling of an inner bargain. If the parents think that they will love their child when he is four so that when he is twenty-five he will give them material comfort, this is absurd. God is constantly showering His choicest Blessings on us. He never cares for our gratitude. He cares only for His giving. When He is giving, He is happy. In this world, happiness comes only from giving. So the mother and father should give everything to their children unconditionally and expect nothing in return for their love. True, if the parents go on pouring their love into their children, eventually their children will offer them gratitude. But real parents do not care for gratitude; they care only for loving their children. Even if the children do not offer gratitude, at least one person will never remain ungrateful for what the parents have given to them, and that person is God. He will try to please the parents in His own divine way.

–Sri Chinmoy, from A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams, Aum Publications, 1986

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Michael Howard

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


Of Further Interest

Sri Chinmoy – Love-Power, Gratitude-Flower
Thought of the Day: People Are Good
People Are Good Everywhere

Enlighten

In ordinary conversation, to enlighten is to inform. I enlighten you on the latest box scores, and you enlighten me about the spaghetti dinner at Luigi’s. The president enlightens us about his subterranean homesick penthouse blues. His daily tweets remind us of his unenlightened state.

In the field of spirituality, enlightenment has a deeper meaning: to receive abundundant light which is all-transforming. Spiritual enlightenment can be a sudden burst of light which lasts for a few hours or a few days, or, in the case of a great spiritual figure, it can be an ultimate enlightenment which does not fade. Having learned the truth of life, this truth is not forgotten or eclipsed. The spiritual master remains in a permanently enlightened state from which he conducts his day-to-day activities.

In Entertainment versus Enlightenment, Sri Chinmoy recounts traditional stories in a humorous vein — some about the great Mogul Emperor Akbar and his minister and court jester, Birbal:

Akbar is Superior to Indra

Once Akbar asked his ministers and the others present in his court, “Tell me frankly, who is superior: Indra, the Lord of the Gods, or I? Be very frank.”

Everybody was shocked, and nobody dared to answer. If they said that Indra was superior to Akbar, Akbar would be displeased. And if they said that Akbar was superior to Indra, it would be a real lie. So they all kept silent.

But finally Birbal came forward and said, “I have the answer.”

“Then tell me,” said Akbar.

Birbal proclaimed, “You are superior.”

Akbar was outwardly amused and inwardly pleased. “Prove it,” he said.

“That is very easy,” replied Birbal. “When the Creator created you and Indra, He put both of you on a scale. On one side He placed you, and on the other side He placed Indra. Just because you were heavier than Indra, you dropped down to earth and Indra remained up in Heaven. So you see, you are superior because you are heavier. You are more fulfilling for earth. That is why you have become the Emperor of the earth.”

Akbar was very happy. He thought, “Indra remains high because he is light. I came down because of my superior weight. That is why I remain on earth.”

Spiritual comments

Everybody was happy with this answer. But poor Akbar did not get the point. He did not understand that Birbal really meant that Indra was superior. Akbar thought that just because he was heavier in weight he had more power.

In the spiritual life, a seeker sits on the scale every day. God places him on one side of the scale and his ignorance on the other side. The seeker always finds that his ignorance is heavier, much heavier than his knowledge and wisdom. Then he feels miserable. So he tries to pray, he tries to meditate, and gradually he increases his knowledge and inner wisdom. Simultaneously the other side of the scale, his ignorance, becomes lighter and lighter.

Finally a day comes when he has only knowledge. His ignorance has all been devoured or illumined by his inner knowledge. When there is nothing on the other side of the scale, the knowledge side drops down to earth again and the seeker enters into the world to work for mankind with his newly acquired wisdom. With this wisdom-power he tries to conquer the ignorance of the world.

— Sri Chinmoy

In this passage, to enlighten means to lighten the side of the scale which represents ignorance, and to acquire wisdom which can transform the world.

Douglas Hofstadter is a college professor who first achieved recognition with his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach. He evinced great intellectual curiosity about the Japanese zen tradition, and the teaching stories which often mystify the unenlightened, but may act as a catalyst to enlighten those seeking after enlightenment. In Chapter IX, Hofstadter serves up this zen story:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out. Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What I take from this story is that enlightenment is not simply more information, or even a different way of thinking. Enlightenment is a radically different perception which breaks the mold or overturns the vase in which we had previously stored a host of unenlightened perceptions and experiences. To enlighten is to palpably vanquish ignorance. Enlightenment is made of different “stuff” than information or ideas. Information and ideas about enlightenment are only “pointing at the moon,” but are not the moon itself.

One might venture to ask: “Can one enlighten and entertain at the same time?” In Sri Chinmoy’s case, clearly the answer is yes. If his own prodigious ventures in the arts were not proof enough, he explicitly addresses this question in his writings:

The ultimate aim of the spiritual life is enlightenment. But we must not have the wrong notion that enlightenment excludes entertainment. Enlightenment does include entertainment. Real entertainment is not and need not be restless, vital excitement. It can come from an innocent, spontaneous feeling of joy from deep within and be the simple expression of this inner, sweet, tender, soulful feeling. This kind of innocent entertainment gives the rest of the world the same kind of spontaneous, childlike innocent joy.

* * *

Everything is in seed form in the inner world first, and then only can it become manifested in the outer world. The embodiment of thought-reality, which is manifested here in the form of art or in any other form, first existed in the inner world. Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.

— Sri Chinmoy

Art charms and entertains us, but if it is spiritual art it also enlightens us or points us toward profound inner truths.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Last Crossword – A Play (video)

A fresh take on the subject of crossword puzzles, spirituality, and death (with some talking animals thrown in for good measure)

This is a short play I wrote in 2004, based on Sri Chinmoy’s telling of a traditional story about Ramdas Kathiya Baba. The story, called “I am going Home,” may be read online at Sri Chinmoy Library:

The play was performed in Bali in early 2004, with Devashishu Torpy playing Ramdas Kathiya Baba, and Sahadeva Torpy his crossword-loving disciple Rakhal (a very moving performance!).

Look for Kanan as the cow, Sanjay as the tiger, with special guest appearance by Ketan Tamm as the roving reporter — a character not in the original story, but being more in the nature of a gratuitous anachronism.

The play was performed outdoors, and according to one apocryphal story, when Sanjay made his exit by leaping over a wall (souple et féroce comme un tigre), he thoroughly startled a casual observer! Thank you to everyone who made the play possible, including the videographers.

I re-dedicate this play to Sri Chinmoy on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his Mahasamadhi.

* * *

Latest Tragedies in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas

Is there an empathy deficit and values vacuum?

I find myself running out of words to react to all the tragedies which seem to be hitting us nonstop. The ongoing tragedy in Puerto Rico is not only one of physical devastation; it also highlights the deficit in empathy which I feared was coming when I wrote in early January:

A president, aside from his many practical duties, is also like a guardian angel for the nation. If he is kind and just, we feel protected. If he moves gracefully through the world, our nation feels at ease with the world. … At the same time that I feel tremendous gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.

When it is a question of character, intelligence, scholarship, humanity, and empathy, Barack Obama is a rare example of the best in American political leadership. We were lucky and blessed to get him for eight years, and I fear that we shall soon miss him more than we can ever imagine.

While empathy is no substitute for food, water, and medicine, empathy can heal the hearts of those who suffer, and a leader who shows empathy can also inspire a wider empathic response throughout the nation. So it’s part of the greater tragedy that President Trump shows so little true empathy at times of crisis, and instead uses disaster as a means to inflame differences.

When it comes to shootings and bombings, I always feel there are certain universal values which don’t belong exclusively to this religion or that, or this nation or that, or to a particular race or culture. Some truths have been universally arrived at. So I quoted President Obama as saying:

My mother was a deeply spiritual person, and would spend a lot of time talking about values and give me books about the world’s religions, and talk to me about them. And I think always, her view always was that underlying these religions were a common set of beliefs about how you treat other people and how you aspire to act, not just for yourself but also for the greater good.

Somehow these universal values are being lost or eclipsed in our society, in the unbridled pursuit of money, sex, and power. Electing a leader whose reputation was built on money, sex, and power was a step backward for this nation, and I hope we will learn from it and seek out leaders who are richer in empathy, spiritual insight, and proximity to the Universal Good. As I wrote last February:

For American democracy to succeed, we need to elect leaders who are above average, even exemplary — those who have education, experience, and a profound vision of what we can achieve in concert with other actors on the world stage. It has become a rubric that Americans typically elect the guy they’d most like to have a beer with, the guy they perceive to be just like them. We should not be afraid to elect leaders who are super smart, compassionate, visionary, and extremely well-qualified to lead us. They may not always make good drinking buddies, but they do make better leaders.

So next time you’re in a voting booth, think of the guy or gal you’d most like to have a beer with, and remember to buy them a beer! Then vote for the better qualified candidate.

We need to improve education in civics so that the average American understands how to choose between candidates, and how not to be swayed by populist appeals. When we elect leaders with no vision and few qualifications, we ultimately pay the price.

How sad that we now have a boorish leader who conned millions of voters into thinking he would protect their interests, when his real world policies entail throwing millions of people off health care, and shoveling yet more money to the richest in society, including his own family.

Do you know the Sam Cooke song “Twistin’ The Night Away”?

Hearing it made me want to post a parody on YouTube contrasting a bunch of rich folks in tuxedos shaking their fannies on the dance floor, while elderly residents of Puerto Rico are dropping dead in rural areas because no planes were sent to drop food, water, and medicine. Maybe all the planes were busy shuttling cabinet members to vacation destinations where they could inspect the gold in Fort Knox, or stock up on designer brands.

Naked injustice sends its own perilous message to the rank and file of America: a message that there is no God and one might just as well take a gun and start shooting random strangers. The mentally ill fall victim to this blackest of visions of an America gone valueless; but even the nominally sane are affected. The era of Trump is an era of every man for himself; an era where compassion is seen as a weakness, and pressing maxumium personal advantage a strength; an era of metaphorically grabbing them by the whatever. This is an America not habitable by decent people. We need to recoil from it, and resist allowing it to spread ad infinitum.

Neither conservatives nor liberals have a lock on values, and somewhere between the extremes lie sensible policies, including revising educational curricula to deal more effectively with the values vacuum. In writing about the congressional baseball shooting last June, I elaborated on some of the problems, and discussed the utility of Peace Studies in forging solutions:

Gun safety at its root is not a political concept, but a practical one. It’s rooted in the simple observation (borne out by statistics) that if you have a mass proliferation of firearms, you’ll get a mass proliferation of shootings — a soaring murder rate. That’s what we have in this country, and Western allies like Britain and France think Americans are crazy. Why do they need all those guns? Why don’t they see the connection between guns and murder? Why can’t they implement gun safety? Why must even mentally ill people have guns?

Here, an element of corruption enters in. Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Twenty children and six adults were shot at Sandy Hook elementary school. People said: “We need to do something about guns.” Forty-nine people were shot at an Orlando nightclub. People said: “We need to do something about guns.”

But nothing meaningful is done about guns because the politicians are in the pocket of the gun lobby. America is the richest country in the world; we have the best democracy money can buy, and the most guns per capita.

The lack of peace is a universal problem. Lack of peace in the human mind leads to lack of peace between nations, to warring political factions within the same nation, and to random acts of violence.

When we recognize the keen lack of any resource, as well as its importance and significance, we try to cultivate that resource. So it is with peace. The field of Peace Studies has grown up around an awareness of what peace can do to benefit the quality of human life. Peace Studies can be something personal and individual, or it can focus on groups and institutions. Individuals who are firmly grounded in peace can go on to create or change institutions so that they better reflect ideals of peace.

On an individual level, peace is an antidote to problems like anger and impulsiveness which can lead to crime and violence. One component of Peace Studies is meditation; and while meditation is often most effective as part of a comprehensive spiritual outlook, it still retains much of its effectiveness when presented as “quiet time” or as a basic technique for de-stressing and focusing. See this NBC Nightly News report on “Schools and Meditation”:

Aside from helping people become more peaceful and focused, meditation can also lead to insights both personal and cosmic. With greater insight comes less need to change the world by force or commit acts of aggression against a perceived enemy. When we experience peace, which is a solid form of strength, we feel that we are okay and the world is okay. There are problems, true, but these problems cannot be solved through sudden violent outbursts. They can only be solved through reflection and cooperation.

There will always be economic injustices, natural disasters, and crazed shooters (at least for the forseeable future). But we will be better prepared to deal with these problems if we give future generations a grounding in Peace Studies, which can lead to insight, empathy, and self-control of violent impulses.

Even in times of strife, there are always voices of peace in our midst and in the world at large — but we need to listen to them. Their message is not commercial and is not geared to our greed, so it’s harder to hear over loudspeakers which, after 2,000 years, are still blaring the message of Caesar: Veni, vidi, vici.

John Donne wrote words to the effect:

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.

No one else can solve the world’s problems. We need to play some role ourselves, however modest. Sri Chinmoy writes:

There will come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who will bring about this radical change? It will be you – you and your sisters and brothers. You and your oneness-heart will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

The connection between greed and violence is stressed in this interview with the Dalai Lama of Tibet:

So, if we look carefully we can see that there are broad connections between a society which abandons itself to greed, politicians who are for sale to the gun lobby, and a record number of casualties in the latest shooting spree in Las Vegas.

The values we need to combat these problems are, again, universal. They’re found at the core of the world’s religions, and also in many humanistic philosophies. We need to find practical ways of imparting these values to the next generation, as a farmer plants a seed knowing that he may not live to see it fully germinate, but that it will one day be of great benefit. If we do not do it, it will not be done.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

* * *

Of Further Interest

People Are Good Everywhere
Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Art and Hermeneutics Part 2
Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z”

Art and Hermeneutics Part 2

Hermeneutics, performance art, and shamanism. Plus a journey into the style of “fusion” music which took shape in the 1970s, including a video interview with Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

In Part 1, I began discussing hermeneutics as a theory of art — not a dry theory, but something helpful and practical. I hope you had fun watching the different videos; and while the emphasis was on fun, the point is that hermeneutics is concerned with helping us understand art, finding ways to overcome the historical and cultural boundaries we may face when trying to comprehend art from another time or culture, or art partaking of such far-flung influences.

To summarize from Part 1: 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 and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

The word “hermeneutics” also comes up in discussions of performance art, and performance artists are sometimes called “hermeneutists.” This might seem puzzling until we learn that in Greek mythology, Hermes was the son of Zeus and the messenger of the gods. The gods don’t speak directly to human beings, so Hermes acts as their interpreter. This makes Hermes the patron saint of hermeneutics (notwithstanding his lack of quaint parades in third world countries).

According to this line of thought, performance artists are interpreters of the culture in which they live, or perhaps all of human civilization. They’re seen as living messengers (though of what, it’s not always exactly clear).

So how does shamanism enter the picture? (“By the back door,” would be one clever retort.) From a modern secular point of view (which I don’t happen to embrace), shamans might be said to perform incomprehensible rituals which have a theatrical component (like performance artists), and which are intended to transform them and their audience (or participants in the shamanic ritual).

Performance artists are interpreters of culture who perform a kind of intense personal magic which may possess transformative power, provided the audience enters into dialogue (or identifies) with them. Not surprisingly, the performance art community stresses the connection between performer and audience far more than one would find at, say, an exhibition of Victorian upholstery. In some performance art, the distinction between performer and audience arguably disappears. The art is not delivered over a transom by the artist, but is created to a considerable extent by participants. In both performance art and shamanism there may be an element of spectacle. So does all this mean that

performance artist = shaman [???]

Not necessarily. Think of it more as conceptual mapping between two different traditions. Perhaps in a largely secular period and region (such as Western Europe at the start of the twenty-first century), performance art acts as a substitute for certain types of shamanic rituals, without genuinely approximating them, and without necessarily understanding what the original rituals entailed or signified.

As I see it, the shamanic tradition involves performing rituals which have some definite supernatural effect, such as putting the shaman or participants in contact with a supernatural force or entity, an altered state of consciousness, or a healing power (whether conceived of as internal or external). Most modern performance artists, on the other hand, strike me as engaged in a type of secular theatre which may imitate (or perhaps ape) the outer trappings of shamanism, but which neither intends to have (nor succeeeds in having) a supernatural effect. Rather, the effect is social, political, aesthetic, or psychological.

Of course, performance art has its critics and skeptics. A “cutting” satire on the genre is found in The West Wing episode “Gone Quiet”:

Writing in The Guardian on “How performance art took over,” Adrian Searle provides a more serious and balanced perspective, and will get you up-to-speed faster than some wholly credulous authors writing from within the performance art community. Searle opines:

The proliferation of performance in museums has a lot to do with both art itself and the changing role of these institutions, as well as the demands of an audience that wants to feel empowered, engaged and participatory. Today’s spectators demand a role, whether they are inventing their own performances in the gallery … or clamouring to take part in artist-led workshops such as the Hayward Gallery’s ongoing Wide Open School. We want to be active, rather than passive spectators. Perhaps this is merely fashion, but I suspect not. … Private rituals and public acts, catharsis and confrontation are the central strands of art as performance. The work is the beginning of a dialogue, not an end. It is something shared. We are all performers, even when we are playing at being spectators.

Ritual plays an important part in human civilization, human psychology. With the rise of secularism and the corresponding decline in faith-based communal rituals, people are looking to artists to provide them with rituals they can join in, but not believe in — or at least, where no particular beliefs are prerequisites for participation.

I’ve had lively discussions with Buddhists who claim that Buddhism is not a religion and requires no beliefs. I won’t recapitulate that argument in full, but some American Buddhists are refugees from strict Christian (or other) upbringings. Their particular style of Buddhism has a lot to do with rebellion, and rejection of beliefs they were force-fed. This is less true of Buddhism as practiced historically in India, China, Japan, Thailand, and Tibet. A distinct feature of some American Buddhism is its connection to American counterculture and rejection of formal requirements, its nonconformist, roll-your-own quality.

So, if there are differences between traditional Buddhism and modern American variants, can there also be differences between the shamanic tradition and the type of shamanism which Western performance art is said to emulate or ape?

Perhaps bad performance art = faux shamanism. There’s a saying in science fiction circles that alien tech is indistinguishable from magic (a variation on Clarke’s Third Law). Likewise, for people who don’t believe in the existence of God, gods, avatars, angels, spirits, or higher consciousness, performance art may be indistinguishable from shamanism, despite their seeming differences.

I think the underyling fallacy is that by imitating the outer form of something, the artist has captured its essence. In the 1986 film Saving Grace, British actor Tom Conti does a superb job of portraying the Pope, but that doesn’t mean he embodies all that the Pope is (or can be) in real life. For that he would probably need years of spiritual training, as well as a sense of calling or vocation.

There’s a darker side to some performance art involving self-harm, cutting, and so forth. This sub-genre creates a public spectacle of blood and pain, and is justified by theories concerning primitive cultures, endorphin production, and whatnot. The mere fact that an act is performed as ritual does not sanctify it. I think this type of performance art tends, whether consciously or unconsciously, to evoke the demonic, and does not have a truly healing spirit.

The extreme nature of some performance art may produce a forced increase in endorphin levels, but this need not indicate that anything spiritual (or even supernatural) is taking place. Also, those performance artists who do try to invoke some form of spirit being strike me as unconcerned with the nature of what they are invoking. With no clear grounding in tradition and no clear moral sense, they may easily become channels for dark and violent spirits. It’s like someone who built their own radio out of spare parts. They’re so eager to tune in anything at all that they may fail to consider the meaning, quality, or purpose of what’s “coming out of the speaker.”


A Saturday Night Live spoof of The Exorcist, with Richard Pryor as Father Karras

This is not to condemn all performance art or minimize its value, but simply to ask tough questions about what it is or claims to be. Those who have rejected (or never studied) rituals of light may be drawn to rituals of darkness. Any intense communal experience, even one involving violence and pain, may be mistaken for the spiritual. Indeed, one of the challenges of our postmodern world is that the meaning tends to slip off words like “spiritual,” so that almost anything might be defined as spiritual according to the experience and predilections of the individual.

Anecdotally, I recall from the mid-1970s a story being circulated about a friend who had once trained as a Christian brother, but had since embraced everything from Eastern philosophy to glam rock. Referring to a formal spiritual event where everyone sat in silence and meditated, another friend telling the story related: “He said that was the highest meditation he’s ever had — but then he also said that about the latest David Bowie concert…”

I’m an arts person, certainly not a political conservative, so my point here is not to rant about peculiar notions found in postmodernity. I’m trying to slowly lay the predicate for understanding how a particular scholar, Dr. Shrinivas Tilak, connects performance art as it exists today with the poet-seer or “kavi” of ancient India, who may be viewed as an authentic shaman within the Vedic tradition.

If performance art sometimes consists of artists imitating shamanic rituals, how would this differ from shamans practicing performance art?

Some time in the late twentieth century, high quality digital recordings of Tibetan Buddhist music began to be available to Western audiences, many of whom knew nothing about Buddhism. Some devotees of the avant-garde listened to Tibetan Buddhist music purely for its aesthetic qualities, largely divorced from any beliefs about Buddhism. Others, such as Phillip Glass, helped popularize interest in Tibetan Buddhist music out of a deeper understanding arising from Buddhist practice. Tibetan Buddhist ensembles began to tour Western nations,

and anyone from New York’s downtown arts scene was surely familiar with them.

One aspect of the New York School, broadly conceived, is the influence of Japan, China, India, and Tibet — not just in art, but in spiritual philosophy and practice. While the performance art scene includes some artists doing their impressions of shamanic rituals, it also includes some shamans whose authentic rituals converge with performance art — in the sense that their art is live, communal, participatory, and transformational.

The Peace Concerts given by Sri Chinmoy fall into this category. They did not include only musical performance, but could also include live painting, poetry recitation, multimedia, and chanting of AUM in which the public was invited to participate. Even within the purely musical portion of the programme, the styles might vary widely from moment to moment — from the traditional to the unmistakably avant-garde, from a Bengali song sung a cappella in a style evoking the depths of India’s hoary past, to a peaceful melody played on Western flute, to an avant-garde piano improvisation with no foothold in melody or harmony, but only a dynamic flow of energy and consciousness.

Can authentic shamans exist today, perhaps in parallel to secular performance artists? This question seems connected to hermeneutics, since it might be resolved by developing a “fusion of horizons” a la Gadamer. Jeff Clark writes:

The works of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900–2002) explain that ‘the modern concepts of science are not adequate to understand people and our experience of art and even communication.’ He developed a philosophical perspective in his work ‘Truth and Method’ and explained a process of philosophical hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is a process which helps interpretation and understanding things from someone else’s perspective. It can be applied to situations where we encounter meanings that are not easily understood but require some effort to interpret. He originally applied this to an interpreter and a religious text but in a later essay he describes ‘its (hermeneutics) fundamental significance for our entire understanding of the world and thus for all the various forms in which this understanding manifests itself: from inter-human communication to manipulation of society.’

When applying hermeneutics to the human process of interpretation Gadamer talks of a ‘horizon’ as a way to conceptualise understanding. Your horizon is as far as you can see or understand. Both patient and doctor go into a consultation with a horizon and out of this encounter both will leave with their own new horizon. Gadamer describes a horizon as ‘The totality of all that can be realised or thought about by a person at a given time in history and in a particular culture.’

Gadamer states that: ‘the concept of horizon suggests itself because it expresses the superior breadth of vision that the person who is trying to understand must have. To acquire a horizon means that one learns to look beyond what is close at hand – not in order to look away from it but to see it better.’

Understanding happens when our present understanding or horizon is moved to a new understanding or horizon by an encounter. Thus the process of understanding is a ‘fusion of horizons.’

— Jeff Clark from “Philosophy, understanding and the consultation: a fusion of horizons” in The British Journal of General Practice [footnotes omitted]

Since he’s a medical diagnostician, Clark tends to focus on the encounter between doctor and patient from which each ideally emerges with a fusion of horizons. But this concept can also be applied to the encounter between a shaman and those participating in the shamanic ritual; and to the encounter between a performance artist and audience-participants.

The encounter seems to be a shared factor in precipitating the fusion of horizons, whether in the realm of medicine, shamanism, or the arts. As opposed to merely being mildly influenced by something in a controlled way, the Gadamerian concept of an encounter suggests a collision with the other from which one emerges changed, with a genuinely new synthesis of views.

This encounter need not be a literal encounter with a person. In art appreciation, to enhance our understanding and enjoyment we may actively seek out texts or media which will lead us to a profound encounter with an ancient civilization or a contemporary culture foreign to our own. We, in turn, may respond to that civilization or culture by adding something of our own, so that the mutuality implied in the concept of a fusion of horizons is fulfilled. We join the “hermeneutic circle.”

In the 1960s and 70s, the term “fusion” came to be applied to the encounter between Western musicians studying Indian classical music, and Indian musicians interested in jazz. Take for example the piece “Vrindavan”:

It’s primarily an encounter between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. Both are listening intently to each other and communicating across a cultural divide, so that genuine fusion takes place. Within that fusion, each is expanding and contributing to the possibilities inherent in the other’s mode of expression. The result is something both ancient and modern, both Eastern and Western, both acoustic and electric; and in this fusion of horizons there’s a tremendous sense of liberation. Such fusion can be deeply moving and inspiring.

According to Cynthia R. Nielsen of the Villanova University Ethics Program, “Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together.” I think that’s what the musicians are doing in “Vrindavan.” Nielsen is fond of using musical analogies to explain Close Encounters of the Gadamerian Kind. Elsewhere she writes:

When a small jazz group — for example, a trio or a quartet — performs, each musician has an assigned part that contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole. The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a spectrum of chordal textures and colorings as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what ‘connects’ most readily with the audience. When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results. Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group. If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to the pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies and thus adjusts her solo accordingly. That is, as a skilled improviser listening empathetically she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original harmonic progression as if the former harmonies were the only proper way to play the tune; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, ‘way of understanding’ the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. Given her broadened horizon, the pianist’s altered harmonies are not heard as mistakes — if they were, this would be analogous to forcing the other into one’s preconceived grid and thus distorting the other. Rather, a genuine understanding has been achieved through the communal creation of a new harmony analogous to a newly fused-horizon.

— Cythia R. Nielsen, “Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open-ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question” (PDF)

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding the fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires the cooperative skills described by Dr. Nielsen. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

A horizon is not a fixed point, and neither is an expanded “fusion of horizons.” The implication is that there is always more we can discover through encounters with other points of view (and the people who hold them). Thus, while Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics might initially seem dry, he actually helps advance the argument for openness, inclusiveness, and a progressive view of life in which change becomes possible. Nielsen writes that Gadamer’s horizons “are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of reharmonization — that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed and enriched by the other.”

Gadamer can help us understand the fusion of horizons which took place between two major figures in twentieth century art: Picasso and Matisse. They were friends, yet rivals; and while this might initially seem contradictory or imply that no such fusion took place, the contradiction is resolved if we recognize that a fusion of horizons need not entail complete agreement or the abandonment of those aspects of the self which result in uniqueness and dynamic engagement with others.

Some of the best evidence that Picasso experienced a fusion of horizons with Matisse is found in the former’s picture “Claude in the Arms of His Mother”:

While the two faces are clearly stamped with the style of Picasso, the mixture of decorative patterns surrounding them loudly exclaims “Matisse!” Picasso has not lost his Picasso-ness; his encounter with Matisse has simply allowed him to express his own identity more richly.

Picasso is a particularly Gadamerian artist in the sense that great swatches of his career were spent in reflective dialogue with other artists, including the ancient Greeks and ancient Egyptians. (See “Was Picasso Spiritual?” Part 1 and Part 2.)

A Gadamerian analysis might also be applied to Sri Ramakrishna, the Indian avatar who passed away in 1886, but whose life and teachings formed the harbinger for the coming century in the West, in which the oneness of all religions became an idea seriously propounded, and by some, ernestly lived. Sri Ramakrishna was a natural inheritor of Hindu spiritual practices, but in his quest for truth he also spent time practicing Christianity and Islam, concluding that these too were valid pathways.

Like the Neo-Vedanta philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

In this sense, Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Of course, a fusion of horizons is not embraced by everyone. In the field of religion, fundamentalism still afflicts some sects and causes them to violently reject the doctrine that Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews are all worshipping the same God, and should therefore live in peace and harmony. Less violently expressed is chauvinism in the arts, but it can still be a divisive factor.

Gadamer’s approach is surprisingly congruent with those spiritual philosophies which accept the doctrine of reincarnation or rebirth. As described in such philosophies, the purpose of rebirth is not to acquire scientifically objective knowledge, but to gather experience of life in all its contraries. We are (as Sri Chinmoy puts it) writing God’s autobiography, with the infinitude of possibilities that would imply.

Nielsen says: “Because concepts, entities, and individuals stand in a complex interrelation with one another, they can be described from ‘nearly inexhaustible viewpoints’ (Wachterhauser 1999, 87). This complex interrelated net of relations into which all of reality is implicated gives rise to multiple perspectives and (legitimate) multiple and diverse meanings…” If so, it may take many rebirths to assimilate such multiple perspectives.

Gadamer can help us make sense of a figure like Sri Chinmoy (if indeed any are like him), who may seem incomprehensible at first because he’s a spiritual teacher, but also an artist, poet, musician, and athlete. We understand such an astonishing polymath in part through openness and dialogue with his surviving works, and with the organizations he founded. We stop clutching our fixed point of view, and try to “disappear” into the music or the artworks, which possess the necessary magic (or yogic science) to teach us how to listen, view, and appreciate.

In his article “The Transformative Art of Sri Chinmoy,” Dr. Shrinivas Tilak tells the story of his own Gadamerian encounter with Sri Chinmoy’s art. He explores the relationship between the traditional poet-seer or “kavi,” and the modern performance artist. What’s especially fascinating is his suggestion that Sri Chinmoy straddles both categories.

Here in Part 1 and Part 2 of “Art and Hermeneutics,” I’ve been laying the groundwork for “Put a Bird on It! Part 3,” where I hope to explore Sri Chinmoy’s art in relation to hermeneutics, shamanism, and performance art, with the help of Dr. Tilak’s article. I know I needed to write these preliminary articles in order to clarify my own thinking. I hope the reader will also find them useful.


Sidebar: Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and L. Shankar

Earlier, I cited the piece “Vrindavan” as an example of a fusion of horizons between American keyboardist Stu Goldberg and South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. A fitting corollary is this 1978 episode of The South Bank Show featuring British guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin and South Indian violinist L. Shankar (the brother of L. Subramaniam):

At around 15:09, McLaughlin discusses how he began to discover spirituality. He describes listening to John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, but not quite being able to grasp it. Still, he entered into a kind of Gadamerian dialogue with it. Having encountered music he didn’t understand, he looked for a text and found a poem on the back cover which gradually helped him zone in on what Coltrane was doing with his new style, which was deeply influenced by spirituality and meditation.

As the spiritual dimension opened up for McLaughlin, this led him to ask a core question shared by both religion and philosophy: “Who am I?” He began studying meditation with Sri Chinmoy, and soon enrolled in Wesleyan University’s Karnatic (South Indian) music program, where he studied with Dr. S. Ramanathan and met violinist L. Shankar. This eventually led to the formation of the group Shakti, whose original name (given by Sri Chinmoy) was Turiyananda Sangit. Some portions of this history are recounted in greater detail by Peter Lavezzoli in his book The Dawn of Indian Music in the West. But getting back to the South Bank Show

As with Goldberg and Subramaniam, this collaboration between McLaughlin and Shankar shows how listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy can foster a fusion of horizons. Underscored too is the concept of “play” in Gadamer’s philosophical aesthetics. For Gadamer, play is not restricted to the creators of an art work. The viewers, listeners, spectators, or audience-participants are drawn into the play like attendees at a festival or participants in a ritual.

Indian classical music is a far more participatory medium than Western classical music. In Indian classical music, the audience must count along with the musicians in order to understand what they are doing and appreciate the subtleties. After an extended passage of improvisation which plays with musical lines of different lengths, when the musicians and audience finally arrive together on the Sum, this is a deeply shared communal experience.

In “Play, Festival, and Ritual in Gadamer” (PDF), Jean Grondin writes:

The play of art will never be conceptually grasped; we may only participate in it to the extent that we allow ourselves to be moved by its magic. When we hear a musical work, we are at the same time inextricably invited to sing along and to dance. We cannot avoid an inner humming along, a tapping of fingers or foot, a following along, almost an accompanying “directing.” In any case, we play along when we hear music. The most authentic mode of execution for music is, therefore, to dance along. In just the same manner we recognize ourselves in a poem or painting; we are captivated by a novel or tragedy. It concerns us; it speaks to us. Gadamer’s thesis concerning the concept of play is that this going along with is not external to the work, but belongs to its statement: it is “art” only if there is this addressing. Every experience of art is one of answering to the address of the work.

— Jean Grondin as translated by Lawrence K. Schmidt

One exceptional feature of the duets played by McLaughlin and Shankar is found in the final piece which begins at 22:05 of the video. At 23:35, they break into konnakol, a form of vocal percussion which every student of Karnatic music learns as an aid to timing and rhythm. Because McLaughlin (raised on blues and jazz) has studied Indian music, and Shankar (raised on Indian music) has studied jazz, their play together reaches the level of genuine fusion of horizons.

Dedication: I offer this post as a birthday tribute to Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). A very happy 86th birthday to the master!


Michael Howard

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

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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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