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.

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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gratitude to Barack Obama, I confess that I feel some fear for the future, as if a benign presence were being withdrawn.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.

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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.

(Alpha version. Please check back for updates.)

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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Compassion: The Mother of all Balms (MOAB)

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

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

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

Ore Mor Kheya

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

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

Nutaner Dake Aji Shubha Prate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Or listen directly on Radio Sri Chinmoy here.

Sri Chinmoy: Peace-Light-Delight, album cover

Of Further Interest

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

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Thought of the Day: People Are Good

The Doomsday Clock may be advancing, but there is still infinite good in the human heart, and peace remains a strong countervailing force.

In such a polarized period of our nation’s history (if not world history), it’s easy to lose sight of the basic goodness which resides deep within each human heart. That goodness often expresses itself in loving kindness, and in this sense there is no disagreement between those who explicitly believe in God, and those who are secular humanists. Both camps can agree that there is something noble at the core of human existence. Some will call it a human quality, others will say it is a divine quality. But loving kindness is one of the things we most urgently need right now. We need not agree on its ultimate source.

As I approach the evening of my life, I find that I remember many things which others have forgotten. I remember them not by accident, but because they were things which helped me build a sense of meaning in my life, and so I treasured those things and kept them in my heart.

With the turning of the generations, and the nature of a market-driven economy, many valuable things are seemingly thrown out, or at least no longer publicized, so that they become for all intent and purposes invisible. They still have tremendous inherent power, but that power is untapped by a later generation which either does not know of them, or does not identify with them.

So it was when it came to me write on the topic of “People Are Good.” I immediately thought of this song by The Roches which had moved me to tears 25 years ago and still does so to this day:

Now, some might think of The Roches as the epitome of Eastern liberal folk-singing types. But in this song they seem to channel the same feeling that one might find in churches across America. “Everyone Is Good” is like a universal folk mass gently proselytizing on behalf of the religion of loving kindness.

This invitation to practice loving kindness applies equally to people of all political persuasions. Yet, at a time when many gentle people of conscience are concerned about the direction in which our nation is headed, I can’t help thinking that these lines apply especially to Donald Trump: “Wouldn’t it be something to be loving and kind/ Forgive yourself for everything having once been blind.”

Activists on the left are not always known for their gentleness, so those lines apply to them too. About two years ago, I commented on how the name “Madonna” has come to mean different things to different people. To some it signifies the mother of Jesus, to others the folk stylings of Joan Baez, while the Googlebot is convinced that anyone who types in “Madonna” must be looking for the brassy pop idol, who recently dropped the f-bomb in her speech at the Women’s March on Washington.

I am reminded of Pete Seeger’s version of words from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for righteous anger at injustice, and I am no stranger to that emotion — to feeling it and expressing it on my blog. But I also try to be informed by a healing spirit, and an awareness that the deepest truth about human nature is that people are good.

For me, that awareness has to struggle against the many sad things I’ve seen, beginning in childhood. For me, a powerful ally in the struggle to see the good in people has always been Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), who writes:

When we open our heart to the entire world, we are not safe. The evil and destructive qualities of the world can enter into us and utilise us for their own purposes. They can do so precisely because our love, which is our strength, is very limited; our joy, which is our strength, is very limited; our peace, which is our strength, is very limited. All that we have, we have in very limited measure. But at the same time we have to have confidence in ourselves. Although we are not now measureless and infinite, a day will dawn when we will be measureless, infinite and transcendental. How? By going to the Source, to God.

Even though the ignorant world can destroy the lotus in us, that does not mean that we shall have no faith in humanity in general. 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.

Since we are spiritual seekers, we have to have more faith than an ordinary human being has. We have to have faith even in unaspiring persons although we are not going to try right now to transform their nature. Why? Because we do not have the necessary capacity, or because it is not God’s Will. Even if we do not have the necessary capacity, God can give us the capacity. He can make us strong so that we can help humanity. But that is not God’s Will. God’s Will is for us to help those who are already awakened to some extent, those who are aspiring or who want to aspire, but not those who are fast asleep. God does not want to push them. To them God says, “Sleep, My child, sleep.” But to those who are already awakened and who want to run, God says, “Have faith in My creation which is humanity and have faith in yourself, for it is you who are ultimately going to represent Me on earth.” We have to have faith in ourselves in order to realise and fulfil God. We have to have faith in God because it is He who has inspired us and awakened us and who is going to fulfil us in His own Way.

If God wants you, open your eyes, close your ears and run. We have to be fully awakened and alert; we have to stop living in the world of sleep before we can find God. We must look all around, not to see the ugliness of the world, but to see the creation in its purest form with our purest eyes. Open your eyes. We must sleep no longer! We must look at the world with the purity that we have and see the purity in God’s creation.

Close your ears. Why have we to close our ears? Because there are things we may hear that will bother and disturb us, such as criticism, jealousy, flattery and praise. When somebody criticises us, how should we regard him? We should think of him as a dog barking right in front of us. If a dog barks right in front of us and we pay attention to it, the dog will not stop barking and annoying us. Then we will have difficulty in reaching our destined goal. We have to take criticism in the same way. People criticise us in every way. They say, “He is useless. He spends all his time meditating and he does not help society the way society needs help.” But what does society want? Society itself does not even know. Nobody can tell us what to do with our life. When we are ready for God, when we are awakened and have opened our eyes, God wants us. At that time we don’t have to pay attention to anybody’s criticism. We have to know that what we are doing is best. It is best even for those who are criticising us, because a day will come when they will give up their ignorance and be inspired to follow us.

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

Pop culture is disposable culture, so if we view the world solely through the eyes of pop culture, it will be an ever-changing kaleidoscope with no clear vision. Spiritual wisdom is enduring, lasting. It gradually reveals a vast panorama of truth, the truth of how things really are and how everything fits together. This truth does not last for five minutes, or five hours, or five days, but is an eternal truth.

Let us meditate on these wise words: “What does society want? Society itself does not even know.” Society knows that it is dissatisfied, but it does not have a clear vision on how to proceed. Therefore, we need to go on the hero’s journey and bring back wisdom which will eventually help transform society.

The political struggle to build a more compassionate society will be far more successful if it is able to embody these deeper spiritual truths. To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself:

Interviewer: What is the purpose of your Peace Concert?

Sri Chinmoy: There is only one purpose: I try to be of service to mankind. When thousands of people gather together, I feel that we are working together. I am not the only one who serves. The people who come to listen to my music or to join me in praying are also doing something most significant. We are all trying to bring about world peace. It is teamwork.

Interviewer: So, everybody resonates peace together?

Sri Chinmoy: We are all working together. It is not that I am going to give peace to others — far from it! We shall work together. We are all in a boat sailing together towards the destination, which we call the Golden Shore.

Interviewer: What can somebody who comes to the concert expect to experience?

Sri Chinmoy: It is my prayer that they will get inspiration in abundant measure. Then, the following morning, they will be inspired to do something better in their life. My sole purpose in giving these Peace Concerts is to be of inspiration to others.

Interviewer: Why have you chosen in this lifetime to be a teacher and leader of peace?

Sri Chinmoy: I have not chosen to be a leader and I never declare myself a teacher of peace. I am a student of peace. I have been telling the whole world that I am a student of peace. I go everywhere to learn, and while I am learning, people feel that I am giving something. In the process of learning, we feel that the teacher and student give something to each other. While the student is learning, the teacher also learns something from the student.

Interviewer: What would you like everyone to know about himself or herself?

Sri Chinmoy: That they embody God, they embody Truth, they embody Light. Each individual should feel that he or she embodies God: God’s Divinity, God’s Eternity, God’s Immortality.

— from Edge Magazine, “The Joy of Inner Peace with Sri Chinmoy”

Some will say there is no bridge between the political and the spiritual, that they are at daggers drawn. But Sri Chinmoy clearly identifies that in the person of Mahatma Gandhi, the political and the spiritual were united by a deeper vision. Gandhian principles of non-violence came to inform many successful political movements which achieved lasting change. Therefore, let us not doubt that spiritual wisdom can be a powerful force for guiding and inspiring political change. Spiritual wisdom can bring a certain gentleness and loving kindness without which political movements fail to reach the hearts of those whose help is needed in order to achieve change.

Lasting political change is founded on peace, proceeds through peace, and eventually manifests peace as a flower coming into bloom. This coming to fruition of peace requires not only dedication, but patience. We can cultivate such patience if we are secure in the knowledge that the general trend over time is toward peace. As Sri Chinmoy says in one of his peace songs:

No matter what the world thinks,
Our world, soon, very soon,
Will be flooded with peace.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of far-reaching vision. In this promise of a world flooded with peace, perhaps “soon” means soon in cosmic time — maybe not next week or next month. Still, many people following diverse paths share a sense that peace is definitely dawning, even if gradually, in fits and starts. We may observe many conflicts flaring up, yet Sri Chinmoy finds much hope in the fact that we have avoided a Third World War. In the aforementioned interview, he says:

Interviewer: Do you feel that there is a growing peace on the planet?

Sri Chinmoy: Definitely, definitely! Over the years, I have observed that peace is growing. I have been here in the Western world for 36 years. Previously I saw dozens of times that peace was only talk. We were only talking and talking about peace. Now people are praying to have peace in the depths of their heart. Talking has now given way to experience. In many parts of the world, people are experiencing peace. So the world has made tremendous improvement! Of course, we cannot say that in today’s world there is no conflict, there is no fight, there is no confusion. There is conflict, but in comparison, it is less.

Previously we were afraid that there would be a Third World War. Now, we do not foresee that possibility. The First World War destroyed us and the Second World war destroyed us, but we do not see any possibility of a Third World War. There is mutual compromise, and this is a sign that people want peace. Otherwise there could have been a Third World War by this time.

Yet, even as I write word comes to me that the so-called “Doomsday Clock” has been advanced to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight:

The great scientists who administer the Doomsday Clock make serious points in their analysis which should not be discounted lightly. But I think their training does not incline them to factor in God’s Compassion. I do not believe God will allow this world to be utterly destroyed. I agree with Sri Chinmoy that the trend is toward peace, even if that fragile peace is often threatened by rambunctious leaders.

We can take comfort in his words at a time of fear and uncertainty, for he was truly a man of vision whose peace studies led him far beyond what most of us have seen or experienced. To learn from such a man of peace is well, good, and proper, for peace is not something we can always get from dry books, or from a crowd chanting noisy slogans. Peace is something which may be transmitted in silence from one who embodies peace to one who is crying for peace.

There are those who feel that change must always be extremely loud. According to them, silence has no power. Yet Sri Chinmoy writes:

Silence Speaks

Silence is not silent.

Silence speaks.

It speaks most eloquently.

Silence is not still.

Silence leads.

It leads most perfectly.

— Sri Chinmoy

* * *

Michael Howard

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

Of Further Interest

Silence Liberates!
Africa-Vision Songs

sri-chinmoy-a-hundred-years-from-now

 

Prayer for Peace and Peace Resources

It could just be me, but it seems as though the world is going through a particularly turbulent time. Without recounting all the sad and inhumane incidents from recent weeks (and an airport shooting just today), let me say that I feel it. I feel as though misunderstanding, hatred, killing, and warfare are running riot. It pains my heart to see such unrelenting human misery. To pray for peace is something we can all do.

I’m reminded of an incident concerning Abraham Lincoln. Forgive me if I’ve mangled the story in my memory, but it goes something like this:

Just before the commencement of a great battle in which many men might be destroyed, Lincoln stooped to pick up a small insect which had landed on the battlefield, and carried it to safety. “Will anyone really feel better just because you saved that small bug?” someone asked Lincoln. “No, but I feel better,” Lincoln replied.

If our prayer for peace is powerful enough it can change the world. But even if the world remains the same, our prayer for peace can help put us in tune with peace, and bring us a little peace in a world filled with big, bigger, biggest troubles.

Michael Howard

Peace Quote

Right now fear, doubt, anxiety, tension and disharmony are reigning supreme. But there shall come a time when this world of ours will be flooded with peace. Who is going to bring about this radical change? It will be you — you and your sisters and brothers — who will spread peace throughout the length and breadth of the world.

— Sri Chinmoy, as quoted on StudentOfPeace.org

Peace Fact

Pope Francis’s traditional Christmas day message repeated the word ‘peace’ over 20 times. Some commentators seemed puzzled by this, but I found it quite natural for one who was invoking peace.

More Peace Resources

“The Joy of Inner Peace, with Sri Chinmoy” (Edge Magazine interview)

sri-chinmoy-peace-concert

The Peace Run
https://www.peacerun.org/us/

Time For Reflection, with Prof. Alan Spence
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QCx3n9c-XU

We live in hope!

* * *

An Indian In Japan

sri-chinmoy-100-metre-dash

Sri Chinmoy in Japan (right-click to enlarge)

The rich culture of Japan was explored by Indian spiritual master Sri Chinmoy during his numerous visits there. As a runner, in 1993 he participated in the World Veterans’ Championships in Miyazaki.

Video by Kedarvideo, Switzerland*

I am a sentimentalist at heart, and so really cherish this home movie style footage of Sri Chinmoy at the 1993 World Veterans’ Championships held in Miyazaki, Japan. Sri Chinmoy was 62 at the time, and his running form is still wonderful to behold, as is his good nature and ability to immediately get along with a group of strangers of many nationalities.

Due to knee problems, Sri Chinmoy had shifted his athletic attention from running to weightlifting about a decade earlier. This allowed him to concentrate more on upper body strength, with less daily wear and tear on the knees. But in keeping with his philosophy of challenging impossibility, in 1993 he was inspired to attend the World Veterans’ Championships and give his all to the 100-metre dash.

Watching him compete is a joyful experience slightly tinged with sadness for me. It reminds me of how much he suffered in order to inspire others, bring them joy, and offer a living lesson in determination. You can see that after sprinting, when he returns to a walking gait, he’s limping slightly.

I’m also reminded of a still image I captured from a 2001 video. It shows a moment where Sri Chinmoy is rising from a seated position. The occasion as a whole is a joyful one, but you can see the sadness in one close disciple’s eyes as she identifies with Sri Chinmoy’s physical suffering.

Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, 2001. On a boat trip with disciples, he is seated drawing soul-birds with a green marker, but experiences some pain on rising. He is 70 years old. From a video by Niriha Datta.

Sri Chinmoy in Cambodia, 2001. On a boat trip with disciples, he is seated drawing soul-birds with a green marker, but experiences some pain on rising. He is 70 years old. From a video by Niriha Datta.

People sometimes wonder why I defend Sri Chinmoy so vigorously from those who, after his death, have tried to dismiss or discredit him. One reason is that I know how much he willingly suffered and took on the sufferings of others in order to bring joy to those who had known little true joy. He was many things to many people, including real hope for the hopeless. I would rather remember his smiling countenance:

Sri Chinmoy with the USA team in Miyazaki, 1993.

Sri Chinmoy with the USA team in Miyazaki, 1993.

Finishing up the 100-metre dash

Finishing up the 100-metre dash

A broad smile after finishing

A broad smile after finishing

The Miyazaki footage strikes me as wonderfully Japanese in that you see many different cross-sections of Japanese society represented. There’s an overarching spirit of good cheer, without any sense that the disparate cultural elements would clash — from taiko drummers to kimono dancers to a western-style marching band. The opening ceremonies were clearly modeled after the Olympics, with a sense of pageantry and ritual that’s also very Japanese.

Fireworks at the World Veterans' Championships in Miyazaki.

Fireworks at the World Veterans’ Championships in Miyazaki.

Pageantry predominates at the opening of the games.

Pageantry predominates at the opening of the games.

Some very young children seem slightly bewildered by it all. Unlike the adults, they weren't supplied with sun hats.

Some young children seem slightly bewildered by it all. Unlike the adults, they weren’t supplied with sun hats.

Ms. Ranjana Ghose, Director of the Jharna-Kala Art Foundation, participates in the ceremony and also runs.

Ms. Ranjana Ghose, Director of the Jharna-Kala Art Foundation, participates in the ceremony and also runs.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of diverse talents and capacities. While in Miyazaki, he gave a series of four of his legendary Peace Concerts on four consecutive days.

October 1993: Sri Chinmoy plays the flute at a Peace Concert in Miyazaki, Japan. Courtesy http://srichinmoyphoto.com/

October 1993: Sri Chinmoy plays the flute at a Peace Concert in Miyazaki, Japan. Courtesy http://srichinmoyphoto.com/

It boggles the mind to switch gears and take in the multifarious activities which he pursued as a reflection of an enlightened consciousness. Fortunately, the heart is much vaster than the mind. The heart of intuition, the heart of empathy can clasp him far more easily than the mind can grasp him.

Sri Chinmoy returned to Japan on a number of occasions. He was an accomplished visual artist, and as I note in “Put a Bird on It! Part Two,” he was in Kamakura in July 2006. Shortly before his 75th birthday, 75 of his acrylics on paper were exhibited at the Kōtoku-in Buddhist Temple.

Sri Chinmoy in Kamakura, July 2006.

Sri Chinmoy in Kamakura, July 2006.

Kamakura is the home of the Great Buddha, or Daibatsu. Nearly four decades earlier, on his first trip to Japan in 1969, Sri Chinmoy wrote:

To Kamakura

Kamakura! You in the Buddha
Are his Reality’s Face.
Kamakura! You with the Buddha
Are his Divinity’s Grace.
Kamakura! The Buddha’s Life for you
Is the limitless consolation
Of descending mankind.
Kamakura! Your life for the Buddha
Is the boundless promise
Of ascending mankind.

Sri Chinmoy emerged from the Hindu Yoga tradition, but had a universal outlook which allowed him to be of service to seekers of many different faiths. His book of plays Siddhartha Becomes The Buddha, as well as his focus on meditation, have endeared him to many a Buddhist seeker. Here Sri Chinmoy performs some of his songs honouring the Buddha, as well as the traditional “Buddham Saranam Gacchami” or “Three Vows”:

Listening to Sri Chinmoy’s soulful chanting, we are connected with an ancient tradition, still living and unbroken for thousands of years. The song “Nidra Bihin Buddha Debata” translates roughly as:

Borobudur, lap of the deep peace of the Buddha
Where divinity is present
Coming here, completely silent all the world’s waters.

Comparing Borobudur and Kamakura — two places of Buddhist pilgrimage — Sri Chinmoy writes:

Borobudur is the Buddha in the process of blossoming. Kamakura is the Buddha who has already blossomed. Borobudur has simplicity in purity and purity in simplicity. Kamakura has silence in power and power in silence. Both are totally different.

An unending thank you to Sri Chinmoy, and a big thank you to the videographers and webmasters who have worked tirelessly to chronicle his amazing life.

*Most images based on screenshots of the video by Kedarvideo, Switzerland.

Michael Howard

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

Other Items of Interest

Hiya Bhasha Group performs “E Shubha Pranate E Buddha”

Listen to the full album on Radio Sri Chinmoy.

hiya-bhasha-buddham-sharanam-gacchami-3

Challenging Impossibility: Challenging the Oscars
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-juddery/challenging-impossibility_b_1788390.html

Sri Chinmoy’s Sporting Career
http://www.srichinmoycentre.org/sri_chinmoy/sri_chinmoy_sports

Sri Chinmoy: 1998 Interview on Weightlifting
http://www.srichinmoylibrary.com/mjw-2


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy — “My Japanese Companion”

In 1979, Sri Chinmoy was still an avid runner who delighted in running and would travel great distances to enter marathons. Later, when he could no longer run due to a right knee injury, he would often speed walk. He filled book after book with reminiscences about running. This is the Run and Become, Become and Run series. Part 2 includes anecdotes from his visit to Greece to run in the Pheidippides Marathon, which he completed with a time of 5:39:41 at age 48.

My Japanese Companion

My first evening in Greece I went out to run. It seems that taxi drivers and car owners there are insane, especially at night. How badly they drive!

At every moment you are at their mercy, even in the park. I don’t know how, but they manage to drive right into the park itself. There is no street or anything; far from it. But they drive right into the park, and so speedily. Then they leave their cars there while they go to a party or some place. And we are trying to run there!

Inside the park an old Japanese man — very short, very skinny — started following me as I was running. I thought I was shorter than the shortest, but he was practically at my shoulder. And he was very old.

With such affection, such affection, he started running with me. Then we started talking. He told me all about his running experiences. I was very happy.

He was about 70 years old and he said he had come all the way from Japan for the marathon.

He was staying at the same hotel that I was. There were quite a few Japanese staying there. They all had come to run.

The following day also we ran together. I always make complaints about my strides, but his strides were shorter than mine. I ran two miles with him, very slowly.

I saw him once more after the marathon. He took seven hours and fifteen or twenty minutes. He was so delighted that he had completed it. Who would not be proud of him!

–Sri Chinmoy, 7 October 1979


Book Cover Project

Here are the book covers for this post, courtesy Sri Chinmoy Libary:

sri-chinmoy-my-salutation-to-japansri-chinmoy-siddhartha-becomes-the-buddhasri-chinmoy-the-world-experience-tree-climber-part-6sri-chinmoy-run-and-become-part-2

* * *

A West Wing Thanksgiving

With the election over and Thanksgiving upon us, now may be a good time to reflect on the immigrant experience and religious freedom:

And yes, Virginia! There really is such as thing as tofurky:

thankgiving-tofurky

Or as Popeye the Sailor would say:

popeye-i-yam-what-i-yam

Other Videos

President Obama Pardons Turkey
Turkey Runs For Peace

Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy on India and America

For the last part of this century, the West has been aspiring most sincerely for the highest Truth. For the past three decades Indian spirituality has been coming here in waves. India has aroused America from her spiritual sleep. Americans were sleeping and Indian teachers have come and helped them.

Here in America, we are in the land of freedom, the freedom that nourishes dynamic thoughts and dynamic movements. There in India, we are in a land of freedom, the freedom of a fertile, tolerant spirituality that nourishes all religions. Here we wish to reach God by running speedily, while there we wish to reach God by climbing swiftly.

India’s history is aglow with stories of kings and potentates who enjoyed power and opulence without being in the least attached to them. Rajarshi Janaka was not an isolated example. Prince Siddhartha, afterwards the Buddha, Emperor Asoka and Chhatrapati Shivaji are other such outstanding figures in India’s history.

Of all the nations in the world today, America is the one which, in the modern context, stands forth uniquely as the one most fit for the ideal of Janaka, Siddhartha, Asoka and Shivaji. By the flow of her wealth, America has restored shattered Europe, not once but twice. Impoverished India has been helped towards her goal of achieving minimum conditions of life for her vast millions through large-scale and repeated American aid.

It is not only for political and economic purposes that the divine logic of events has brought India and America close together. What is visible in these external aspects of life will be seen in an incalculable measure on deeper levels in days to come. America is perhaps not conscious that in taking a major part in the economic rehabilitation of India she has been building up the base of a divine new world.

Life to the American consciousness is nothing short of completing one task after another with the hope of realising the all-liberating Freedom.

Life to the Indian consciousness is nothing short of completing one endeavour after another with the hope of realising the all-nourishing Peace.

Why does a particular soul take birth in a particular country? There are two basic reasons: either the soul has been commanded by the Supreme or the soul has a specific preference for that country. Why will a soul care for a particular country? It is because the soul has its own inner propensities. It feels that it has some intuitive capacity or other quality which can be easily brought into manifestation if it takes incarnation in a particular country. If a particular soul has dynamism, it will try to take incarnation in America, not India. Again, if it cries for inner harmony and peace, then it will try to take incarnation in India.

Both India and America, East and West, have something to give to the world. India is offering the message of peace and the West is offering the message of science. If the West had not given the East the message of science, India would have remained primitive. And if India had not brought an iota of light to the West, then the West would have remained unillumined. Whatever India and America have, each has to give to the other gladly. They are like two brothers in a family. If one brother is a doctor, he will give medicine. If another is an electrician, he will do electrical work. How can the doctor do the work of the electrician, or vice versa? In exactly the same way, whatever India has to offer to the world, the West must gladly accept; and whatever the West has to give, India has to accept. Then only, East and West can become complete.

Without India, America is incomplete; and without America, India is incomplete. But when they are together, when they are for each other, at that time they please the Absolute Supreme in His own Way. India is God the Vision, America is God the Mission. The union of Vision and Mission can alone bring about God the Satisfaction.

Nothing gives me greater joy than to hear that American brothers and sisters and Indian brothers and sisters have worked together for the fulfilment of one cause, one hope and one heart, in which all-loving, all-illumining and all-fulfilling oneness reigns supreme.

May India’s aspiration-sky and America’s rocket-speed together sing the supreme fulfilment-song of God-prosperity here on earth.

— Sri Chinmoy, from India, My India, Mother India’s Summit-Prides, Agni Press, 1997

* * *

sri-chinmoy-america-the-beautiful

Walking on Eggshells, and Music Appreciation

What can John Cleese and The Avengers teach us about human psychology? UPDATED!

Dealing with difficult people is like walking on eggshells. This fact is known to teachers, therapists, ministers, and gurus. Some people are balanced so precariously that, like Humpty Dumpty, they’re bound to take a great fall. What can one then do?

Alice (Kate Beckinsale) wonders whether Humpty Dumpty (Desmond Barrit) should really be sitting so high up.

Alice (Kate Beckinsale) wonders whether Humpty Dumpty (Desmond Barrit) should really be sitting so high up.

Sadly, sometimes not very much. Owing to their rigid rules and canalized thinking, some individuals stand little chance of getting off the conveyor belt which they themselves have set in motion. They are, at least for a time, ill-fated.

Such is the case with Marcus Rugman (played by John Cleese), an eccentric “egg man” who lives in perpetual fear that his collection of clown faces painted on eggs will come to harm:

(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)

This combination of obsessiveness and fragility reminds me of the main character in Rain Man. A consultant on the movie, Dr. Darold Treffert, writes:

A variety of persons, especially Dustin Hoffman, felt that the portrayal of an autistic person, with all the typical associated rituals, obsessiveness, resistance to change and relatively affectionless behaviours might make a more interesting character for Raymond Babbitt, one the public had never really been exposed to on screen.

“Rain Man, the Movie / Rain Man, Real Life”

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man

Dr. Treffert goes on to explain that the Raymond Babbitt character is actually a composite of autism and savant syndrome. In the earlier Avengers clip (from Season 6, Episode 11), Marcus Rugman exhibits some of the same traits in comic form.

the-avengers-linda-thorson-john-cleeseHe’s clearly a savant on the subject of clown faces painted on eggs, but his rigid rules for entry into his world, coupled with his utter lack of warmth, mark him as a character destined to take a fatal pratfall. Then, as John Steed and Tara King remark: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men…”

Of this episode, French critic Gérard Dulapin trenchantly observes:

The diversion of childhood imagery to conspiracy Mortifier has already been explored during Nothing goes more in the nursery. If the fancy burlesque predominates, an episode like Maille to go with the taties had already introduced the absurd in season 4, appearing like a predecessor, certainly mezzo voce, of this one.

— Gérard Dulapin, via Google Translate

Among (possibly) interesting egg facts: There was a real-life egg man, Stan Bult, who did memorialize clown make-up on eggshells. And while the goose egg is understandably unpopular among men and women of sport, it is prized in clown egg circles for its crusty insouciance. According to a site celebrating International Clown Week:

The collection continued to be lent out after Mr. Bult’s death but sadly most of the eggs were destroyed in an accident at one such exhibit around 1965.

Clown Bluey became chairman of Clowns International in 1984 and resurrected Mr. Bult’s practice of recording clown members’ faces on eggs. This time a professional artist was used and the faces were painted on china-pot eggs instead of chicken eggs. Over the years, many of the lost older eggs have been reproduced, and new eggs are added frequently.

In the U.S. collection, the faces are hand-painted on goose eggs (more durable than chicken eggs), and decorated with various materials (such as clay, wire, felt, tiny flowers, glitter, etc.) to obtain as accurate a representation of the clown face and costume as possible.

Though failing to mention Stan Bult (thus inviting a clown fatwa), Salman Rushdie has his own take on egg men in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which — like all great children’s stories — is laced with jokes for adults:

Haroun noticed that among the crowd were many men and women who, like the man on the balcony, had smooth, shiny and hairless heads. These people all wore the white coats of laboratory technicians and were, clearly, the Eggheads of P2C2E House, the geniuses who operated the Machines Too Complicated To Describe (or M2C2Ds) which made possible the Processes Too Complicated To Explain.

‘Are you—?’ he began, and they interrupted him, for being Eggheads, they were extremely quick on the uptake.

‘We are the Eggheads,’ they nodded, and then, with looks on their faces that said we can’t believe you don’t know this, they pointed at the shiny fellow on the grand balcony and said, ‘He is the Walrus.’

‘He’s the Walrus?’ Haroun burst out, astounded. ‘But he’s nothing like a walrus! Why do you call him that?’

‘It’s on account of his thick, luxuriant walrus moustache,’ one of the Eggheads replied, and another added admiringly, ‘Look at it! Isn’t it the best? So hairy. So silky-smooth.’

‘But …’ Haroun began, and then stopped when Iff dug him hard in the ribs. ‘I suppose if you’re as hairless as these Eggheads,’ he told himself, ‘even that pathetic dead mouse on the Walrus’s upper lip looks like the greatest thing you’ve ever seen.’

As Haroun passed through the huge doors of P2C2E House, his heart sank. He stood in the vast, echoing entrance hall as white-coated Eggheads walked rapidly past him in every direction. Haroun fancied that they all eyed him with a mixture of anger, contempt, and pity. He had to ask three Eggheads the way to the Walrus’s office before he finally found it, after mazy wanderings around P2C2E House that reminded him of following Blabbermouth around the palace. At last, however, he was standing in front of a golden door on which were written the words: GRAND COMPTROLLER OF PROCESSES TOO COMPLICATED TO EXPLAIN. I. M. D. WALRUS, ESQUIRE*. KNOCK AND WAIT.

@CirrusStone tweet illustrating Walrus and Eggmen. https://twitter.com/CirrusStone/status/704173947797909505

Illustrator @CirrusStone tweets “I Am The Walrus” https://twitter.com/CirrusStone/status/704173947797909505

In Rushdie’s satire of good (or bad) government, the Walrus is the chief bureaucrat, and the Eggheads are the techno-geeks who actually run the place. As in The Avengers, Rushdie’s Eggheads are savants with not-terribly-winning personalities, kind of like Microsoft tech support peeps. (“You want to reinstall Windows? Okay, I’ll need a blood sample, your firstborn child, and you should take a half pound gefilte fish and swing it around your head while screaming like a chicken.** Then just enter these 42 lines of code at the command prompt.”) But I digress…

The second part of The Avengers clip sports a more cheery message: Two people who think they have nothing in common can manage to hit on a subject that lights up both their faces: Music Appreciation!

the-avengers-linda-thorson-music-appreciation

Actors Linda Thorson and William Kendall both agree that Bach, Hindemith and Brubeck are fab.

A more bittersweet exploration of the same theme is found in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, where Sandra Locke and Alan Arkin send each other muted signals:

(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)

And taking the premise beyond the edge of absurdity, there’s this classic sendup of “Mr. B Natural” by the Mystery Science Theatre gang:

There’s always a possibility that two people might manage to communicate across barriers which seemingly divide them, as when Linda Thorson first pokes her head in the door of the establishment where John Cleese keeps his clown egg collection. In David and Lisa, a 1962 film about mental illness, David (Keir Dullea) is afraid of being touched, and Lisa (Janet Margolin) speaks only in rhymes; yet their shared experience forms a fragile duet:

(Any problems with the video, try dropbox link.)

Conclusion

There isn’t any. This is one of those posts where I’m content to let things remind me of other things. Any wisdom to be found is in the journey itself, not the summing up.

Yet, like Marcus Rugman, we tend to spend a score or more years amassing a brittle collection of behaviours which comprise our lives, only to find that death breaks the shell we have so painstakingly constructed. Would it not be better to be more fluid and flexible in our approach to life, so that at the appointed moment we can dissolve gently into the wind? I am tempted to paraphrase the Christ, if I have the temerity to do so: This world is a bridge. Pass over it, but lay no eggs there.

Oh, and try not to prance about carrying a sousaphone…

Particulars

The Avengers episode in question bears the prolix title “Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers…” Airing in 1968, it was written by Dennis Spooner, who also wrote for Doctor Who. If the succession of comic wardrobe changes at the end seems familiar (and somehow Whovian), it’s because Tom Baker went on to do a similar quick-change in his premier episode as the Doctor (though Spooner didn’t write that one).

Janet Margolin later co-starred in a number of films, including Woody Allen’s Take The Money and Run (1969). Keir Dullea had a major role in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

*For further info on I. M. D. WALRUS, see the collected works of John Lennon.

**Recipe update: In response to reader feedback, please note that you can modify this recipe to use 2 pounds haddock and scream instead like a banshee. Be sure and split the haddock, though splitting haddock is rightly found under category “Ailments.”

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy Tells Two Egg Stories

The Ploughman Versus the Christ

There were two great artists from Florence — Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi. Once, when Donatello was quite young, he made a crucifix of wood and thought he had achieved nothing short of perfect perfection. He invited his dear friend Brunelleschi to offer his wise comment. Needless to say, inwardly he was dying for the best possible appreciation, which he felt he so rightly deserved. Alas, his dream-world was shattered to pieces when Brunelleschi said to him, “I see a ploughman on the cross instead of the Saviour.”

Donatello was utterly mortified by this unexpected criticism from the older artist. He said, “You are a great judge! But let me see you do it yourself. You say I made a ploughman instead of Jesus Christ. Let me see your masterpiece of the crucifixion.”

That very day Brunelleschi began working on his crucifix. In due course, Brunelleschi completed his sculpture. One day, by chance, he met with his dear friend Donatello in a grocery. Brunelleschi said to his friend, “Tonight you will have supper with me. Please do me a favour. I have bought these items and I have still more items to buy. Will you be good enough to carry these items to my house? I shall be coming home shortly.”

Donatello gladly complied with his friend’s request, carrying a few eggs and some cheese in his apron. Upon entering Brunelleschi’s studio, he got the shock of his life. Perfection incarnate was Brunelleschi’s sculpture of the crucifixion. Utterly amazed, he lost his outer senses and dropped the apron containing the eggs and cheese. Everything was smashed and all was perfect chaos before the immortal sculpture.

On his return, when Brunelleschi saw the great calamity, he said to his friend, “What is the matter with you? What are we going to have now for dinner?”

Donatello said, “Sorry, I have already had my dinner. Your supremely great achievement has fed me to my heart’s content. I feel sorry for you that you have nothing to eat. Now, listen to my sincere heart. The difference between you and me is this: you know how to make the Christ and I know how to make a ploughman.”

— Sri Chinmoy, from Transfiguration and Other Stories, Agni Press, 2007

sri-chinmoy-tranfiguration-and-other-stories

Perseverance, Patience and Self-Giving are of Paramount Importance

Once two partridges, a husband and wife, were going out on a trip. Before they left, the wife laid some eggs near the ocean. Then the husband said to the sea, “We are going on a sea voyage. You have to take care of these eggs for us. On our return, if we don’t find the eggs, then we shall empty you.”

The sea agreed to take care of the eggs, and it kept the eggs safe. A few days later the two partridges came back, but they could not find the eggs. They began screaming at the sea. The sea wanted to give the eggs to them, but it could not find them anymore. The birds cursed the sea and started emptying it. The husband and wife each began taking out a drop of water at a time, throwing it onto the land.

“We are going to empty you,” they said to the sea.

Some little birds saw all this and they asked, “What are you doing?”

The partridges replied, “We are punishing the sea. The sea is very bad because it didn’t keep its promise to look after our eggs.”

The little birds thought it was a noble task and they joined the partridges. After a while, some big birds took up their cause. They were very sympathetic and self-giving, and they also started taking out water drop by drop. This went on for days and weeks.

One day, the Conveyor of Lord Vishnu, Garuda, came and asked, “What are you doing?”

The birds said, “Can’t you see? We are emptying the sea.”

Garuda said, “You fools, how long will this take you? You will never be able to do it. The sea is very vast, infinite.”

But the birds answered, “No, we have determination and perseverance.”

Garuda was very surprised and said, “Let me show them some compassion. Let me ask Lord Vishnu to help them. If Vishnu helps them, then certainly they will be able to find their eggs. If the eggs are still in good condition, Vishnu will be able to return them. But if they are destroyed, he can do nothing for them.”

He went to Vishnu. “Vishnu, I have never seen fools like these. If you really care for fools, then will you do them a favour?” Garuda then told him the whole story.

Vishnu said, “No, they are not fools. They are showing the spirit of patience and perseverance. This is how human beings must try to empty the ignorance-sea, drop by drop. It is what the seekers must and should do. Ignorance-sea is very vast. If sincere seekers want to empty it to replace it with knowledge-light, then they have to do it the same way, drop by drop. So I am very pleased with those partridges. I am commanding the sea to return the eggs.”

Garuda said, “The sea wanted to give them the eggs but it misplaced them and feels that they are all destroyed.”

Vishnu said, “I am using my own occult power to show the sea where it has kept the eggs.”

He used his occult power and the sea immediately found the eggs and returned them to the partridges. Then Vishnu said to the birds, “Perseverance, patience and self-giving all are of paramount importance to fulfil one’s divine task.”

— Sri Chinmoy, from Great Indian Meals: Divinely Delicious and Supremely Nourishing, Part 2, Agni Press, 1979
sri-chinmoy-great-indian-meals-part-2

Special thanks to Priyadarshan Bontempi and SriChinmoyLibrary.com for providing a great storehouse of Sri Chinmoy’s works.

See also “An Adventure in Eggs,” by Ashrita Furman, plus televisual record.

And here is where the — ahem — EGGS TERMINATE!!!

* * *

The Death of Sri Chinmoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sri-chinmoy-aphorism

sri-chinmoy-eternal-journey

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* * *

Two Years, Ten Thousand Views, and Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For Further Reading:

“Spirituality of Emily Dickinson” by Sumangali Morhall
http://ezinearticles.com/?Spirituality-of-Emily-Dickinson&id=441057

Coming Soon:

“Put a Bird on It! Part Three”

* * *

Put a Bird on It! Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, drawn object

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, drawn object

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art as Anti-Environment

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

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

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

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

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

BBC presenter Michael Wood notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 — ending

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

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

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

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

Henri Rousseau and Sri Chinmoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, seashells

Sri Chinmoy: Bali 2001, seashells

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation

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

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

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

— Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute

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

sri-chinmoy-animated-gif2


Sidebar 1: Sayings of Sri Chinmoy and other artists

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

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

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

Henri Matisse said:

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

Sri Chinmoy said:

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

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

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

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

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

Claude Monet says:

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

Henry Ward Beecher says:

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

Albert Einstein says:

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

Sri Chinmoy says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sri-chinmoy-blue-bird-august-2003


Sidebar 2: Paul Jenkins and Sri Chinmoy

Paul Jenkins and Sri Chinmoy, 1975

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

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

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

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

Sri Chinmoy, by Paul Jenkins (1973)

Sri Chinmoy, by Paul Jenkins (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untitled I (1983) by Paul Jenkins

Untitled I (1983), by Paul Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bird painting by Sri Chinmoy from 1975

Michael Howard


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

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

* * *

Paint It Black!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.
O bird of my heart,
Fly on, fly on.
Look not behind.
Whatever the world gives
Is meaningless, useless
And utterly false.

2.
O beautiful One, O blissful One,
Do enter into my heart’s cry,
Do enter into my thought-life,
Do enter into my purity-dawn,
Do enter into my sublimity-eve.
With new form’s light,
Do constantly enter into my heart.

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

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

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

Visions of the Emerald Beyond

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

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

Dr. Bennett writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nandita Pollisar on the ink of the mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hateful stereotypes of Indian gurus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sri Chinmoy’s education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The telephone blesses the Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sri-chinmoy-yogaMichael Howard

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

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

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


Book Cover Project

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

sri-chinmoy-my-flute-1

sri-chinmoy-supreme-teach-me-how-to-cry

sri-chinmoy-supreme-teach-me-how-to-surrender

sri-chinmoy-the-dance-of-life-1

visions-of-the-emerald-beyond-4bsri-chinmoy-poetry-vidagdha-meredith-bennett

sri-chinmoy-the-descent-of-the-blue-2

sri-chinmoy-eastern-heart-western-mind-2

sri-chinmoy-the-ascent-and-descent-of-the-disciples

sri-chinmoy-you

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Sarama – The Hound of Intuition

Tribute to Sarama Minoli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was Sarama’s soul.

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

Read more about this incident on Sri Chinmoy Library here.

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

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

Trivia

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

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Sri Chinmoy – In Search of a Perfect Disciple

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

Source: Sri Chinmoy Library

He has nobody but me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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