Sumangali Morhall presents us with a conclusion that echoes the wisdom of ancient sages quoted within her very pages: to find a spiritual master and to follow the life of inner truth is the most auspicious path of all. Auspicious Good Fortune is the highly recommended tale of that search, and furthermore, the tale of what is found.
Having been meditating as a student of meditation teacher Sri Chinmoy for over seventeen years now, I get asked for advice and tips on how to begin meditating so often, I thought it about time I wrote some of them down. Learning to meditate is simple Learning to meditate is both incredibly simple and incredibly… Continue reading Quickstart Guide to Meditation
Football and the art of meditation, a photo sublime on more levels than playing fields, by sublime photographer Pavitrata Taylor.
If you see art, try to see the Artist inside it. You will do this only by taking them as one. When you see art, you will feel that inside the art there is something which you need badly, and that is the Supreme. The Supreme is both art and artist, both creator and creation. When you realise this, you can easily meditate on the Supreme in art.
—Sri Chinmoy, Art’s Life And The Soul’s Light
Panorama Café in Queens, New York puts the love in the coffee.
A charming, eclectic, homely neighbourhood cafe in Queens, Panorama Café has the best coffee in a part of town that isn’t that homely, literally the only café for miles to serve espresso as it’s meant to be roasted, ground and made…
Read the rest of my Yelp review here.
With apologies and thanks to Walt Whitman for the title lifted, a brief ode—first published in Inspiration-Letters—to the now faded, sun-filled days of childhood, and the eternal summer of meditation, where the inner child, bathed in a sunshine that will never fade, eternally plays.
My childhood was idyllic for the most part. I grew up in an outer suburb of Wellington, New Zealand, city in name but near rural in nature, farmland on one side, motorways and city the other, green and blue, sun all around. I do not have unhappy childhood memories—perhaps in this day and age I am a little unusual in that. Mine was a simple upbringing, an only child of a solo-parent, little money but also little need, and other than at times being lonely I was usually happily self-occupied, and satisfied. Reading, writing, art and sport passed my time; outings to friends houses and return visits planned as frequently as parents would allow.
Not entirely appreciated at the time—such ingratitude is the human way—this childhood now looms like a golden age against that which followed, a purple mountain majesty receding across the horizon of a sea that no longer shines.
My trauma of heart is trivial compared to many, but the first of something is always the hardest to endure, and shifting house and country for the first time was for me just like a first broken heart—a rawness of pain and despair that, in the manner a burn causes a scar, in some ways never fully heals. At age eleven, with almost no warning and no small augury, my mother uprooted our tiny family unit for overseas, tore me out of the nurturing soil of the only home I had ever known, completely against my will. Friends had names and faces that could not be replaced, and like a timber native to a particular soil and land, I simply could not imagine taking root anywhere else, could not accept that love, like the sun, might shine upon every land.
Not that I was really consulted—one doesn’t pause to barter, discuss the terms of God’s offer or will. In answer to my mother’s prayers, destiny was delivered one mid-winter evening, fate sealed by a thin, rain-soaked envelope, placed in our letterbox as if by Providence Himself. Unaddressed, no writing inside, there was an untraceable, slightly sodden $8000 bank cheque within.
The only home I had ever known, surrounded by the only friends and city ever loved, were suddenly to be no more. Already possessing sufficient measure, this cheque gave my mother the means to be a missionary for a year, in voluntary service of an international Christian organisation. I would be placed in involuntary servitude, sent to Canada and the father I had never known.
I remember well a living room conversation not long before the hammer of destiny fell. A friend of my mother paid a visit for tea and talking, of matters presumably beyond my junior years. Not a part of the conversation and not even in the same room, I remember somehow the grasped fragment, “When the time is right, one door will close and another open, in answer to your prayers.” An $8,000 door did open soon afterwards, and the all-reaching, all-guiding hand of fate was framed within. First gained at this early age, the intuitive knowledge that I was not fully in control of my destiny would stay with me for years.
As has been the case so many times in my life, I did not willingly greet nor reach for the beckoning hand of fate, did not walk of my own volition across the threshold of destiny’s door. Just as many years later, when I became a student of spirituality, life conspired to choose the path I would follow, without signature or consent, a fait accompli served as if dinner upon prison cell plate.
Superiority to fate
Is difficult to learn.
‘T is not conferred by any,
But possible to earn
A pittance at a time,
Until, to her surprise,
The soul with strict economy
Subsists till Paradise.”
* * *
To say that my father and I hit it off immediately would not exactly be correct. Although at heart a good, kind man, he was, perhaps from the example of his own father, acutely uncomfortable in expressing his feelings or love—something of a shock for a child accustomed to a mother’s love and warmth. Years of being told how much my father loved me were never confirmed in person, shown neither in word nor deed.
Although by no means Dickensian, things were hardly easier at school. Technically the same age as my peers, I was younger physically and emotionally by at least several years. I felt inwardly, stood outwardly an inch smaller, and culturally, with my strange, hard-to-place accent and shabby, out of date clothes, I was not even on the same page. The schoolyard affairs in which I was an expert—sport and games—were now all hopelessly immature, sidelined by the new, unfamiliar playing fields of sophistication, romance and fashion. Being academically successful was also derided. Where in New Zealand being the best with words or numbers had been sought after, and a point of pride, I now found myself first in everything, yet nobody’s friend.
I remember being shocked every time some schoolyard disagreement would come to blows, schoolmates literally running to form a circle around the protagonists, chant “fight, fight, fight” with more bloodlust and passion than those actually blooding noses. Perhaps I was from a world more innocent than most, perhaps my little corner of New Zealand more Garden of Eden than Mitonian paradise lost, but in the face of this not so brave new world I was nothing but unworldly, and hopelessly ill-equipped.
Neither entirely at home in my new home or school, I made much of my glass being half-empty, although such was hidden stoically from family and classmates. At times drowning in self-pity, I swam quietly in a sea of never admitted home-sickness, lost in remorse for what could no longer be. If this dislocation, alienation in a foreign land was bitter medicine administered for my own benefit, it would be years before I had heart or wisdom to recognise it, for like a butterfly in a cocoon, I had not wings to fly beyond the happiness of an only known home.
Stay near me–do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!
Much converse do I find in thee,
Historian of my infancy!
Float near me; do not yet depart!
Dead times revive in thee:
Thou bring’st, gay creature as thou art!
A solemn image to my heart,
My father’s family!”
—William Wordsworth, Excerpt from To a Butterfly
I had always been a city boy, and after living in Canada, would be once more again, but for one brief year I lived in the country, in an old farmhouse surrounded by farms, on the outer edge of a town not at all big. I would leave our property and roam when it all got too much, discover a new tree to climb, or lie atop a giant bail of hay, ponder, bemoan my fate to empty fields of sun-gold wheat. Walking as far as I could, to the edge of homes and other lives to which I could not escape, I would hope against hope that paradise might be found somewhere unexplored, like the lost city of Atlantis, a golden age of the past to be rediscovered beneath the waves.
Yet those times alone in nature were like early moments of meditation. On my back, doing no more than watching clouds drift unhindered overhead, my self-pity, mourning for happiness lost would be scattered by the wind, dissolve into the nothingness of an infinite blue sky.
That such comparatively small dramas caused so much misery and angst may seem looking back absurd, but one should not be too harsh a critic of childhood self, still without the tools or means to influence, shape his own fate. And I was yet to realise that such tools were, even then, within grasp of flailing hands.
Soon after I began my year’s sojourn with my father he became a vegetarian. Meat was banished from the table in his presence, and semi-vegetarianism became my unwelcome lot. Junk food too gained a meaning broader than of any dictionary I would look up: hot dogs, served once a week at school, were banned because of “carcinogens;” McDonalds was too salty, white bread too unhealthy, soft drinks and chocolate bars the same. Already without much missed family and friends, it was as if the ingredients of life had all sweetness and taste removed, and the missing flavour of the food I was forced to eat—tofu, guacamole, chickpeas and tabouli—absolute horrors all to this child’s palette—further compounded the blandness of the world I was forced to consume.
I didn’t discover until years later that my father had become a vegetarian in order to join an Indian spiritual group, and he had given up smoking and alcohol as well. I do recall strange, new books appearing, with metaphysical titles and authors unpronounceable, but, judging a book more by the man reading it than cover, I was more than suspicious of each and every page.
Fate may at times be cruel, but destiny is more kindly—a mistress with a sense of humour, prone to poetic flourish and cosmic joke. Who but she could have known that in less than a decade I would have read all the books upon my father’s shelf, and be vegetarian as well.
* * *
The end of my year in Canada came with a trip to England, to join my mother for a month of holiday and summer before returning to New Zealand and school. Getting on the plane for London was my own flight across the Red Sea. No pharaoh or tyrant was my father, but all I had dreamed of that year was the day I would pass over the Atlantic, escape from unwilling bondage in a foreign land. And after the snow and ice of Canada, my mother’s warm heart and an English summer really were promised lands.
I spent most of that month in the West Midlands, in an old reform school for wayward youth transformed into headquarters and home for wayfarers to God, centre of operations for the international Christian organisation my mother had dedicated her year to. Idyllically nestled amongst sheep and castles outside the town of Oswestry, birthplace of Wilfred Owen and bordering Wales, I did not find a great deal of Christianity in the traditional sense—in fact I do not recall once going to church. But I do remember meeting people for the first time who had been truly touched by God—you could feel it quietly, like a silent, hidden strength within, or slowly radiating love. There was a brotherly, sisterly oneness: single, married, young and old—all were demonstrably part of the same family.
I still remember clearly a man well into his seventies, enthusing unbidden about the goodness and greatness of God, on the shore of a Welsh lake. He would point to rocks, pebbles, the water and slowly rippling waves as if carried away in private rapture, lost in contemplation at the beauty of what he saw. Many would have called him mad, or more kindly eccentric. I now call him sane.
There were miracles too, talk of the kind of coincidences that seekers of all religions claim as happenstance and everyday, once feet are planted firmly upon chosen path. Talk of prayers being answered, oft-mentioned doors opening and closing, as if by hidden hand; even a photograph of Jesus, arms outstretched, divine protector amidst lightening and clouds, picture taken through the window of a plane caught in a tumultuous storm.
I was touched by God in England. The touch wasn’t anything concrete, did not come in words or angels singing, but I felt a new, compelling inspiration to do something with my life, to have a purpose and somehow be of service. I fell in love with England that summer, and upon returning to New Zealand never felt at home again. I had craved New Zealand every one of three hundred and sixty-five days away, almost held my breath until returning, but when I did everything was different. Like a square peg into a round hole, my memories no longer slotted into the reality of the present. My childhood was gone, and I would never be the same again.
You can see the summit but you cant reach it
Its the last piece of the puzzle but you just cant make it fit
Doctor says youre cured but you still feel the pain
Aspirations in the clouds but your hopes go down the drain
—Howard Jones, Excerpt from No one is to blame
* * *
Back at the same school I had left, old friends were more or less as worldly, as mature as my Canadian peers across the waves, and all seemed to be adrift, seemingly without misgiving or regret, in a grey mist between childhood and adulthood, where innocence or simplicity can never navigate again.
As months and years passed, the calling I had felt in England, as those Christian missionaries would have called it, was still there, but it had no outlet, or discernible place to claim as home. Several churches were tried, but without success—I would sooner or later flee the stilted atmosphere so unlike that experienced in England. I found the people dull, as if atrophied, and without love.
Yet the calling would always be there, to a greater or lesser extent, the burning fire of inspiration to be and do. I can remember it arising most powerfully to television images of Gorbachev and Perestroika, the end of the Cold War and dismantling of Iron Curtain; also when watching the Olympics or listening to music.
I remember a vivid dream not long after I returned to New Zealand, of a most beautiful young woman who took me to house where many people were meeting, and above the head of each a small, shining speck of light. The woman, whom I instantly felt a deep, wordless love for, explained this point of light as the soul. Her name may well have been Destiny, for that was what I found upon joining Sri Chinmoy’s path.
There would be another seven long hard years before I discovered meditation, two more until I became a student of Sri Chinmoy, and childhood joy in my heart was born again. From this distant vantage of surmounted wisdom and knowledge, it seems as though I was unerringly, inexorably drawn towards my present point, as if all along I was riding the tale of a giant snake named Destiny, whose head had already reached where I stand today.
From the time when I was torn from New Zealand until when I learned, through meditation, to seek happiness within, it was as though I was in a race to get somewhere, and all the major events of my life, consciously unplanned, mostly unexpected, were hurdles to cross on the way. Now they are like barriers to prevent me ever turning back.
Because you are a born-heart, My child,
I tell you for sure,
No, not even the greatest doubter
Can blight you.
Because you are a child-heart, My child,
I tell you for sure,
No, not even the worst possible rogue
Can spoil you.
Because you are a oneness-heart, My child,
I tell you for sure,
No, not even the most powerful
Can divide you.
A born-heart, a child-heart
And a oneness-heart
Are unparalleled treasures
Here on earth.
—Sri Chinmoy, 10 October 1980, Excerpt from Aurora-Flora
As featured in Inspiration-Letters 17, a biographical account of a journey in search of self; a journey in search of the sunlit path.
He was a bear of a man, with a bear-like, straggly grey beard, the last vestige and visage of the Rabbinical life-path his Hebrew parents had probably intended, in a preacher-like occupation—Religious Studies professor and faculty head—secular Rabbi to the hundreds of truth-seeking youth who passed through his lecture theatres and tutorial rooms each year. Post lecture, sermon from the mount of Intellectualism, dozens would congregate around him for curriculum advice or, just as likely, words of learned wisdom. For a while, those many years ago while I was under his tutelage, I felt it my mission in life to tread the knowledge-paved road of academia, climb the spiral staircase of learning’s ivory tower, one heaped stack of books at a time.
Thus I found myself in his office one afternoon discussing a post-graduate pathway, when a throw-away comment made more of an impression than all the academic advice combined. Like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle only I was building, something about this comment fit into place, rang true within the broader tapestry of my life’s finely woven experiences.
“I left home and went to India when I was a teenager, convinced that the world was an illusion. I soon found out that it was very real…”
I was far more interested in this apparently banished, near-forgotten youthful self than the mature one behind the desk before me—the version of my Religious Studies professor that could be ambitious, audacious enough to believe that everything around him, everything he knew might be wrong, than the version convinced that everything he knew was right. You see, I too used to think the world was an illusion, and I too found out that it is real, or at least not to be lightly, easily denied.
* * *
The Boyds were our neighbours for several years, a family of five in a yellow, L-shaped two story house, just over the neatly trimmed hedge from my Mother and I. Mr and Mrs Boyd, their two cats and three “spirited” boys—spirited to their grandparents maybe, highly mischievous to anyone else with two unclouded, unrelated eyes—soon became friends as well as neighbours, parents spending time and company upon gold velvet lounge suite worth a year’s wages to some, watching living room centre-piece walnut cabinet inlaid television set often conversation-piece as well, while children were banished to invite trouble in myriad ways—starting fires in the backyard to test the efficacy of a toy fire truck; firing stones a hundred metres or more down the cul-de-sac street to mayhem and collateral damage unseen, using slingshots made ingeniously and very dangerously from dressmaking elastic and off-cuts of two by four; exploring a just larger than juvenile body size tunnel whose length was never satisfactorily determined because a working party of concerned parents, not as unaware of our childhood havoc as we might have hoped, permanently filled it in.
It was a time when televisions might still be made somewhere other than Japan, and the faux gold lounge suite matching floral pattern wallpaper tracing its way round window and door was fashionable in its own right, rather than in a retro sense, and one suspects, looking back over broader, taller shoulders, that Mrs Boyd, alone all day long in upper middle-class, neatly trimmed and weeded suburbia while Mr Boyd approved mortgages and balanced ledgers in a city bank, might have been quietly going cuckoo, or to use the New Zealand parlance, had a few sheep running loose in the top paddock. Conversations would turn more often to her two cats than matters walking upright and on two legs, and aside from quite magnificently managing the kitchen which produced our Sunday lunches, the rest of her time appeared to be spent assembling kit-set tapestries, cushion covers and floor-mats—all featuring embroidered cats—and reading books more fringe than her hand-crafted rugs.
One book in particular stands out in my memory, its cover still visible in mind’s eye where others have faded. Funnily enough I never actually read it—at that stage of my childhood I hadn’t graduated to the adult section of the library, let alone books on fringe science on dusty, taller shelves—but a few comments made by Mrs Boyd as she pressed it upon my Mother lodged in a very curious mind.
“You know that working watches, thousands of years old, have been found by miners deep under the earth. And that there was once an advanced civilisation in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?”
Microwave ovens were big at the time, and the conversation soon rotated to plastic container cooking techniques.
Although borrowed by my Mother, I suspect this book was never read by her either, as it unceremoniously became prop under right corner of our living room piano. Impossible to prise from beneath hundreds of kilograms of badly tuned keys and wooden frame, one word, more important than thousands of others unread, was prised from a single, capitalised and bold sentence on a pyramid illustrated, rather crushed cover—“EVIDENCE FOR THE LOST CONTINENT OF ATLANTIS!”
The thought that civilisation could be older than commonly accepted, and, in a broader sense, life be full of hidden mysteries, at an age where—Santa Claus unmasked and tooth fairy banished—life was fast losing its magic, was a powerful fascination to this child—a siren’s call to a shore of promise existing still, just beyond sight. Something felt right in the idea that there was more to life than met a still immature eye, just as it also felt right that “I” had existed longer than my two handfuls of years. Television programs like Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not became weekly tuned to, never missed favourites, watched eagerly for anything to do with lost civilisations, and I spent an entire school holiday mostly indoors, reading every book I could both find and carry home on Atlantis.
It was an age and spirit of curiosity, fascination, even seeking, and I could think of nothing more fulfilling than being an archeologist or explorer, crashing through jungles, sifting through mud and sand, searching needle in haystack like just to capture some remaining proof and vestige of glories lost, knowledge drowned. And if it such couldn’t be found, I was desperate to get to heaven, just to finally have the answer to earthly mysteries I assumed none who were living had.
Interests come and go in childhood, especially when one has not the means or resources to further them, and after reading every author I could lay my hands upon, and no few crackpots imitating such, Atlantis slowly sank from my mind, replaced by more age-typical concerns like the momentum and trajectory through the air of foot and cricket balls, or how to acquire music when tapes and records cost weeks of pocket money. 1980’s synth-pop and MTV-imagery became my lucre sought for a while.
Atlantis rose again in my imagination several years later when, age 15, summer holidays and boredom turned cohorts and captured interest in idle hands, prompted me to visit a new library where a wealth of books on the lost continent could be dredged. Somewhere, amidst tenuous theories based on yet more theories and scratched together half-fragments of evidence, arose something unsought and unexpected: “psychic” evidence.
Framed in parenthesis as soon as dreamily uttered, mixing together fact and fantasy as readily as hallucination and dream, psychic evidence is empirically the most tenuous evidence of all, but it wasn’t the veracity or otherwise of anything spoken over a crystal ball that caught my imagination, but rather a single idea first discovered. Atlantis, the well-thumbed, often withdrawn book suggested courtesy of a psychic of unknown repute, was the obverse and reverse to our civilisation of present day, opposite side of coin to our physical, materially-centred culture—a civilisation where that which was inner was light to our outer dark of night.
It was heady stuff to my younger self, the idea that everything around one could in a sense be false—that inner landscapes could take precedence, have higher importance than the bricks and mortar of outer surrounds—so heady in fact that I woke one night from fevered, reality shaking dreams, previously stable concepts like ‘here’, ‘now’ and ‘self’ beginning to tremble, the house of my reality starting to subside. It was a two in the morning existential crisis, a wide-awake bad dream, and like self proscribed and administered medicine, I pretty much dropped the ancient civilisation quest there and then. Chopping at the roots of the reality tree is a dangerous occupation when your own reality, barely teenaged, is more a sapling and still growing, and though hugely enamoured of those new found, mind-altering metaphysics, I was still young enough to push to one side something that, neither cricket bat nor football, couldn’t be caught or passed in the right here and now.
It would be university before I wrestled with and attempted to wield the axe of knowledge once more.
* * *
Just inside the entrance to the Religious Studies Department, a Victorian era former suburban home encroached and eventually swallowed by an ever expanding campus, next to the main office where students would queue to ask procedural questions or get copies of lecture notes, was a poster of Swami Vivekananda, pre-eminent disciple of Indian spiritual master Sri Ramakrishna, be-turbaned, arms wrapped powerfully across chest, twinkling eyes piercing infinity and far, far beyond from an original poster for his immortal 1893 Chicago Parliament of World Religions address, where, with the simple opening words “Sisters and brothers of America” he near single handedly introduced and charmed the Western world to the colossal spiritual heritage of his native land. Opposite the Indian spiritual giant and atop descending staircase, as if warning of academic failure and some slippery slope that lay beyond, a poster depicting scenes from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—the seven lower worlds, gleeful fiery demons and the torments of hell.
I was on a slippery slope when I entered the Religious Studies Department, and I would wince awkwardly, almost guiltily in front of Vivekananda’s iron, soul-penetrating stare. I had started meditating almost two years before, and after an extended honeymoon period of experiences and near daily unfoldment, was now the living embodiment of the smouldering poster on the opposing wall. Whether tormented for some karmic transgression of a previous lifetime or just the follies of this one, my experiments with self-styled spirituality had lead me down slippery slope to more unhappiness rather than less, confusion multiplied rather than decreased. I had attempted to transcend the here and now, yet was increasingly struggling to live the minute by minute.
You wouldn’t have picked my torment outwardly. I cruised through my Eastern Religions paper with ease, answered questions on Hindu deities and Buddhist philosophy almost as easily as if the answers were already written upon the page, but when it came to living, breathing spirituality, to the happiness and joy which even the textbooks will tell you every religion promises as its core, you could say I knew nothing at all. In the quest for self-knowledge I had armfuls of knowledge and nothing more.
* * *
University wasn’t what I expected it to be. While I had drifted through high school with neither inspiration nor enthusiasm, passing but never applying self to anything studied, university I had hoped, in the vague plan of my life that didn’t really follow any plan, would change all that, finally be the “it”, golden shore and destination that something deep inside said life could be—something to be inspired by, enthusiastic about, seized with both hands rather than dropped or avoided. I didn’t go to university for any conscious reason or aspiration—I had no idea what I wanted to be or do, and had no enthusiasm or feeling of having found what I was looking for in anything offered from the dictionary sized academic prospectus, but I had always assumed I would go, and in the end chose subjects somewhat at random—Philosophy, Psychology and German pencilled into an application form as the lesser of many evils.
I ended up failing everything that first semester, in part because none of the subjects, or university itself for that matter appealed, and in part because for the first time in my life not applying myself ended up having a price. But failure did lead me to finally apply myself in an altogether different direction.
Unenamoured of anything I studied, almost at my wits end and desperate for anything that might give me meaning and hope, I was quite randomly reminded of my passing interest nay obsession with Atlantis years before, and how there had always been one book in particular, source and reference for many others, that I had never been able to find: Edgar Cayce on Atlantis.
* * *
Inside the City Library, past the music section where self-conscious, befashioned youth with dyed hair and knee-high black boots flipped through racks of CDs while trying not to catch the eye of other youths dressed just the same, past the book worms who didn’t care for catching eyes beyond those dotted on the page, was the spirituality section, a dusty after thought in the far corner of the second floor where the predominant foot traffic was to the bathroom just beyond. Despite being listed on the Library computer, I didn’t find that particular book amongst those lonely shelves—it had been stolen so many times the exasperated librarians had stopped replacing it—but I did find a biography of Edgar Cayce, and within its pages, quite considerably more.
Born to a simple farming family in Kentucky, 1877, Cayce was a photographer, Sunday School teacher and devout Christian now better known as “The Sleeping Prophet” and “Father of the New Age”, who by accident discovered the capacity, from a self-induced trance state, to quite simply explain the miraculous. From yet to be invented medical cures to the history and spiritual destiny of mankind, the trance uttered, never charged for words Edgar Cayce were a total revelation, and he and the truths he revealed became a life-transforming figure for me.
What was the purpose of life? “To become one with God,” Cayce intoned sagely from a sleep like state. How to do this? “Through meditation, and the example of a spiritual master like the Christ” he asserted, with the same voice that could diagnose disease and prescribe cures from a distance of thousands of miles. That was all I needed to hear, the illumining words I had been pacing aisles and scanning shelves to find my entire life. In the midst of nothing at all—disinterested academic failure and discouraging living squalor—I had found my life-purpose and mission. I started meditating the very same day.
In Edgar Cayce and the practise of meditation, I found certainty and surety where previously there had been none, the belief that there was truth in the world and a purpose to life, and that truth, just like knowledge of some lost civilisation, could be found in the here and now. Truth and the ultimate knowledge—self-knowledge—could be found within.
* * *
Somewhere along the way, countless books and myriad authors read—I travailed the alpha to omega of that library’s spirituality section over the next few months—I gained the impression that the spiritual life is, in practical terms and application, more a mixture of self-discipline, iron will and self-analysis than peace, love and joy. With a ready-mixed, perhaps not fully baked combination of the New Age, Eastern Philosophy and Jungian Psychology, I began, together with daily meditation, a Nietzschean quest to make myself into something more than human. It was like Japanese author Yukio Mishima’s odyssey for perfection of the body, but the subtle body rather than body physical—an attempt to sculpt heart, mind, thought and emotion as though limbs out of shape, transform weakness into strength as though training with weights—through repetition and force of will alone.
With its roots in the idea gained all those years ago in a book about Atlantis that the outer world was less real than the world within, I developed my own version of spirituality in which everything in life could be made secondary to will and truth, and began the Herculean task of attempting, a little like the Deconstruction Theory popular in universities at the time, and very much like my world-denying Religious Studies Professor years before, to reduce the people and events around me to something more essential—eagerly sought for, otherworldly phenomena. I had without realising it started down a well-trodden path, the path of Jnana Yoga or “Path of Knowledge”, and a major sub-branch, Advaita Vedanta—the ancient Indian philosophy of Non-Dualism. Founded by the philosopher Shankara in the 9th century, Advaita Vedanta is the belief that the world and all its phenomena are ultimately a “Lila” or play of God, an illusion produced by and inseparable from the workings of the Divine Forces.
While not untrue or mistaken in a philosophical sense, denying yourself and the living, loving breathing realities around you is not the ideal starting point for self-knowledge, and if spirituality can be described as a myriad of different routes up a mountain, the path of denial and negation is hardly the sunlit one. In fact, the path I had begun picking my way over was more akin to scaling a cliff-face, if not traversing a giant ravine.
Constantly digging, dividing, negating and scouring for a glimmer of truth, some bedrock of reality upon which to stand safe and secure upon, I succeeded in nothing more than making myself more and more helpless and insecure. You can negate your family as arbitrary, this life-time only human relations; relegate friends as people unaware, ignorant of truth; push aside the entire world as materially based and imperfect in every way—and root out every trace of same in yourself—but in trying to shed your humanity like the skin of a snake, just like a snake you are trapped on your belly, crawling only in the mud.
The problem with self-analysis is that you tend to miss the wood for the trees, run the risk in turning over rocks of only finding dirt instead of nuggets of gold. Spending your time thinking about your weaknesses and failings is neither affirming nor strengthening, and not at all a basis upon which to build true self-knowledge. Furthermore, in self-analysis you become trapped within the very imperfect, leaky vessel which most needs to be perfected, stuck within the unlit, always tending towards doubt reasoning mind—the limited human mind that is barely capable of seeing or embracing the infinite reality into which we all must grow.
Of course, if I had been following Advaita Vedanta strictly, I would also have known about the necessity of studying under a Guru…
“You want to realise God, but it is through aspiration that you have to realise God, and not through self-analysis. If one expects to go to God through analysis he will be on a very long, tortuous, almost impossible path. The mind is constantly protecting itself by its human logic. If the mind says today, “This is the truth,” tomorrow it will say that that very thing is falsehood. The mind contradicts itself at every moment, and when you become one with the mind you just enter into a sea of confusion.”
—Sri Chinmoy, The Hunger Of Darkness And The Feast Of Light, Part 1
“Yeah hello, I’m calling about the meditation classes advertised?”
The man on the end of the line sounded busy, and despite being the owner of the answerphone’s cheery new age tones and wafting, soothing flute music—encountered on several previously discontinued calls—seemed neither embracing nor interested in conversation.
“They start next week, Monday at 7pm…” ‘Was there anything else?’ the unspoken but implied, impatient following line. I persevered.
“Well, see, I’ve been meditating for a little while already, and was wondering if you could tell me a little about the course?”
Meditating by myself for two years, at a complete loss with how to deal with the morass of my own making I was stuck within, I was desperate to just talk, swap notes with a fellow practitioner, meet a kindred spirit who might know a little about what I was going through, perhaps be able to offer some guidance or advice on treading the inner road, more muddy trail I was knee deep within.
“On Sri Chinmoy’s path we consider everybody to be an absolute beginner…”
I ended the call none the wiser than before I made it, yet further resigned to the fact that life had, dead ends if not gaping ravines on every side, construed to leave me no course of action but to follow the sunlit path, next Monday evening.
* * *
Waiting for the first night of the meditation course, I read a book by Sri Chinmoy, and the words of the God-realised master struck a chord, rang an inner bell. Sri Chinmoy’s poetic, deceptively simple writing matched, nodded in agreement with everything I had gleaned so far, but my university over-educated mind was unable to grasp the simplicity therein, was prone, like a lecturer, to talk over the top of the deeper, plain-spoken truths on every page.
In the Indian tradition within which Sri Chinmoy has his roots, a single word like “God”, “Truth” or “Love”, said as mantra and repeated countless times, is enough to lead one to enlightenment through realisation of the ultimate truth contained, but if truth was a coin, I was a greedy magpie, too intent on collecting and hoarding than spending or recognising the wealth I already possessed.
Love, devotion and surrender are dictionary words we can all know the meaning of, but each can take lifetimes to fully realise. I read of love, the spiritual heart, God and the soul in Sri Chinmoy’s writings, even had my share of fleeting glimpses of all, but was unable to identify or hold on to any because, like drawing water from the ocean with a woefully tiny cup, I was attempting to do so with the reasoning, intellectual mind.
This is why Sri Chinmoy advocates meditation in the spiritual heart as the safest, surest way, shortcut and golden path to self-knowledge and God. The heart identifies, expands, embraces and loves—it has the capacity to become the very thing it focuses upon. If meditation in the mind is a treacherous, rocky path, meditation in the spiritual heart is safe and sunlit.
The mind knows
That there is a sunlit path,
But it refuses
To walk along the path.
—Sri Chinmoy, Seventy-Seven Thousand Service-Trees, Part 25
I walked around the city block for a second time, heart palpitating, sweat forming, not from exertion but an irrational, sourceless fear. I had arrived early for the central city Sri Chinmoy Centre meditation course, and every ounce of my being was screaming to turn around and go back home, just forget about the classes, do them some other time.
Meditating by myself for so long, the whole time spent wanting to find and join others who also meditated, I now for no reason any finger could be placed upon wanted to join only myself, as though, no longer looking for truth under rock or stone, the light of sun was far too intense.
In this case, over-practise of mental gymnastics and force of will really did come in use—I simply spoke, yelled over the top of panic and fear, told my mind to shut-up, climbed the stairs to the second story venue as if symbolically reversing down the academic ivory tower.
“Is this the meditation course?” I asked a smiling, welcoming lady sitting behind a small classroom style desk.
“It certainly is,” she said, her smile doubling as she offered me a registration form, “welcome to the sunlit path…”
A visit to a Zen monastery in Japan, meeting with a monk, more similarities than meet the eye.
Hotel Mets, Ofuna, Japan. On the outskirts of Tokyo, a city that begins and then never seems to end. I am here on a whirlwind, week long visit with Sri Chinmoy and students, sharing a room with a friend already awake before dawn, his the unusual habit of beginning the day with a coffee. And I do mean beginning—before hitting the shower and immediately after hitting the bedside floor. Thoughtfully, hotels in Japan cater for the most extreme caffeine addiction, machines vending blackest gold located conveniently on every floor. And pretty much everywhere else for that matter.
In other places you might call this commercial opportunism. Like in my country, where ATMs are more prevalent on street corners than police officers; the cynic would reply that they are more profitable to run. I will happily admit that my glasses are green-tea tinted, but will argue from more than just a position of Nihon-bias that not everything in Japan runs to a profit motive; like the incense imbued atmosphere of a Shinto shrine, the air here is thick with a culture of sacrifice and service.
And sincerity too. Try asking someone for directions at any train station. Often unable to speak English, a person may not be able to help you, but certainly will want to help you. I was personally guided through three stations and multiple connecting trains to the very door of the Shinkasen bullet train by a local who did know English and was going my way. We exchanged business cards afterwards, but I value much more the sincerity of heart he offered me that day.
Examples of what could be termed the Japanese quality of thoughtfulness abound, like here at Ofuna Station, starting point for my journey this day, track-side platform pre-marked with lines approaching trains will sure as the rising of the sun come to a halt alongside, each and every sliding door precisely aligned. Perhaps more accurately one could call this trait “mindfulness;” it is as though the practise of Zen Buddhism has entered the national bloodstream.
Do I have time for a coffee from a station vending machine only feet away? Where there is a lack of will it seems there is always a caffeinated way, Suntory Boss: World Executive Blend, served ice cold this humid, mid-summer morn, can bearing moustached emblem not unlike a youthful Fidel Castro. The boss in question perhaps, or was something ‘lost in translation?’
As in all countries civilised enough to believe in the value of society over the primacy of individuality, the Japanese Rail system is a pleasure to use. Clean, swift and punctual. But as I may have already intimated, it would be hard to imagine Japan any other way.
The train journey to Kamakura from Ofuna is two stops and barely five minutes. A short distance in truth, but uncomfortable humidity and sense of urgency have already declared it too far to walk. Swift and punctual is my express aim; an appointment with friend and Swiss-German cameraman, fellow contributor to online podcast my must-not-miss imperative. Said cameraman has made one point more than clear to this occasionally absent-minded presenter: lateness is a cultural no-no here in Japan as well as Switzerland, where trains to even the most remote alpine villages are said to run on time. Being dilatory is not a usual quality for me, but sensitivity to being lectured just may be, so I took the diatribe in typically Japanese fashion—polite, silent stoicism.
United outside Kamakura Station in full morning rush hour, we embark on foot to Kenchoji Temple, first Zen temple in Kamakura and founded in 1253, later pioneer of Zen Buddhism throughout the whole of Japan, with intent to film an episode of Inspiration News, permission gained by phone to interview a monk about his practise.
The road from the station to temple is lined with vending machines, glass enclosed temptation so prevalent you could navigate at night by confectionery-lit glow. The road is passage for tourist pilgrimage rather than devoted darshan these days—one million tourists a year and obviously thirsty; but seven hundred years ago the entire nation orbited around this site, the Japanese Shogunate centred in Kamakura, Kenchoji its most important temple. The Rinzai Zen sect with some 500 branch temples was here overseen; seven main buildings, 49 sub-temples and at least one thousand people.
The first priest of Kenchoji was Chinese, not Japanese, Zen master Priest Doryu Rankei (1213-1278) of Zhejiang Province near Shanghai, invited as founding priest by Zen devotee and fifth Hojo Regent Tokiyo Hojo (1227-1263), patron and founder of a temple no local at the time was sufficiently qualified to officiate. Of the entire complex, only the Bonsho or temple bell stands from the year of founding, numerous fires and an earthquake in 1293 having damaged or destroyed every other structure. Designated a national treasure, it weighs 2,700 kilograms, and is too fragile to be tolled except on New Year’s Eve, when it is rung only 18 times instead of the traditional 108.
Entrance to the Hojo or Chief Priest’s quarters begins with a large foyer lined with shelves for shoes. The interior proper begins past this point, floor raised about six inches, obvious differentiation between areas where shoes should and should not be worn. All aspects of the interior bespeak of perfection; of the stillness and clarity of the states of concentration and meditation. Lines are perfectly straight, lacquered black beams to finely sanded and then polished wooden floors.
The meditation room is to the left, entry forbidden to visitors except between 5.00pm and 6.00pm on weekends, an hour long zazen or sit-in meditation open to laity, but the sliding doors are open, temptation to disappear into nothingness inside. Everything is still and perfect here, and familiar in a way I can’t place in memories living. I am quite disinclined to continue with the official reason for our visit—the reason for mine has already been met.
We are led along a spotless, paper lined wooden framed hallway to a small room, offered seats on a contemporary style sofa in front of a traditional style Japanese low table. Although my companion did phone the day before to arrange our visit it transpires that no one here is familiar with our purpose—the filming of a monk and his practise, and there is ten minutes of polite consternation as a succession of people enter and leave the room with questions, whispered conversations apparent outside.
In the end we are told that filming will be possible, but only for a ¥30,000 fee, a fee unable to be waived no matter how pure non-profit motive. Talking however is without charge, and seeing as paying for a filmed interview is beyond our non-existent budget as well as beliefs, we settle for this, questions to be asked by myself and translated by friend brought especially for the purpose, cameraman now largely redundant. The interviewee monk’s minder, an officious young man of powerful build, obviously the senior, although not in apparent spirituality, leaves the room without payment, signal for the interview to begin.
Mr Nagai-san, as the adept opposite us introduces himself, is a Zen monk of ten year’s practise and almost thirty years old, virtually the same as myself on both accounts. His father was a priest but gave his son the opportunity to choose a career life; like his father, he chose the spirituality and discipline of the monastic life instead.
I ask as to whether he has aspirations, whether in time his duties will change, position or responsibilities raise, the unspoken question whether he might one day achieve a position of responsibility like his father, but he appears slightly offended at implications unintended.
“Mr Nagai-san only does what he is told to do. Mr Nagai-san eats when he is told to eat, and what he is told to eat. Sleeps when he is told to sleep. He does not perform any action with intent or desire for self-reward.”
I laugh and apologise, “I certainly did not mean any offence!”
He tells us of the typical daily practise here in the monastery, an existence of simple chores and spiritual activities. Practise, in the widest sense of the word—for all activities undertaken in the monastery have a purported spiritual purpose, begins at 3am and finishes at midnight , and consists of cleaning, gardening and cooking, meditation in between. We are all amazed at the austerity and intensity of such an existence—I for one barely function on six hours a night.
“Does Mr Nagai-san only sleep for three hours a night?”
“When Mr Nagai-san is ready for this, then yes” is his reply. We are unable to get a more direct answer on this topic, returning again and again to variations of “One who follows the teachings of the Buddha will live in this manner.” It appears that three hours of sleep a night is his ultimate goal, but progress towards and readiness for such a level of discipline is judged by others; it is probably dishonourable for him to pass further comment on his own status in this respect.
We continue talking for a while, telling him of our own meditation practise as members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, like tradesmen swapping notes, all the while sipping green tea provided and nibbling discreetly on sweetened rice crackers, trying our utmost not to lose a single crumb on the spotless floor.
It is somewhat uncomfortable to be asking questions of him so directly, even though such a practise is standard and in fact required of the form of journalism we are engaged in; for me at least, keenly felt Japanese sensibilities dictate a discussion of polite pleasantries and shared affinities, a circling of the outer edges of but never crossing boundaries unspoken of acceptability. You could say, as we sit asking questions of this monk, that I am indulging a personal affinity with his lifestyle quite unnecessary of words.
Many years ago at age six I was allowed to choose for myself a book on an occasional outing to town. I choose a picture book on Japan, a children’s travel book full of descriptions and photos, a kind of A-Z of the land and it’s culture. I would read this book over and over, staring for hours at the photographs of a people and land strangely dear to my heart, pictures of bath houses, bullet trains and samurai warriors jostling with stories of seppuku and juken jigoku (examination-hell) for centre stage in a lively imagination.
At age seven I began karate lessons, at my own insistence and pacifist Mother’s reluctance, and was soon counting from one to ten over and over in Japanese while performing endless exercises and very occasional martial arts; “praying to the Lord Jesus” as instructed by fearful Mother during the several minutes of silent meditation at the beginning, ostensibly for my own spiritual protection but in truth welcome distraction from the impossibly hard task of wrestling to stillness writhing thoughts. Seeing the same robes I used to wear on these temple bound monks brought all this back to me, and something more, a deeper familiarity that was the originator of my Nihon interest, then and now. Only rice-paper thin proof of reincarnation perhaps, but were I to have more it would be very un-Japanese to share…
Interview over, we depart with smiles and bows. We all have planes home to catch this day, but for me at least it is a farewell without sadness—I have found a second home, as much inside me as beneath red, rising sun.