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sri chinmoy

Inspiring letters and no few words

Strangely and very much disconcertingly absent from pen and desk, writing paper blank now curling at the edges these past few months, I've finished and submitted a story nay epic 4000 word behemoth to the soon to be published Episode 17 of Inspiration-Letters at the Sri Chinmoy Centre. Here is a sneak peak, teaser and few opening words from a wagon-load of writing which I near shed tears and lost sleep over—it's no joke trying to write after several months not, not to mention write with significant quantity and hoped for quality...
Across the Ocean to Swim or Sink Sri Advaita AcaryaHe 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.

Things my Uncle taught me

A trip to visit a mysterious uncle, whose sagely, intuitive advice proved to be presciently exact (with apologies to Sumangali). Uncle Kevin and grandmotherWhile still somewhat new to meditation, and some months before becoming a member of the Sri Chinmoy Centre, I discovered to my great joy my Mother's sister was a practitioner of this new, seductive art, a coincidence maybe not so far fetched in a family of twelve siblings. During the unimaginably long holidays before the start of university, three months which more practical students spent working, more hedonistic partying, I went to visit this meditating Aunt on her semi-rural farm. The journey north from Wellington to Opotiki —"The place of children" in Maori, and tiny town of several thousand on the south-eastern shore of the Bay of Plenty—was made by thumb, hitch-hiking with a friend more experienced in such matters, journeying home to see his parents in down-the-road Whakatane. We did pretty well in haphazard transportation at first, securing a non-stop ride to just north of Taupo almost immediately, a small township on the edge of a giant lake that is sole reminder of a massively self-imploding volcano one thousand years ago. Deposited upon the junction where State Highway 1 turns away from Rotorua and then Whakatane, it appeared we would travel no further that day, stranded witnesses to a cool, clear-skied falling dusk, particularly suiting of the musical ambiance created by pocket walkman. Auspiciously, and in almost complete dark, my companion and I were sighted by a passing couple, intercepted leaving the road to take overnight shelter in an empty field, their back seat coincidentally empty. Almost the age of our own parents, and we their offspring, the husband and wife likely saw in us the resemblance of their progeny, generously inviting and then driving us to their lakeside home in Rotorua; feeding and then offering us welcome rest in absent daughters' beds until the morn. While not quite as prevalent as it once was—people actually lock their doors here in New Zealand now—you can still find generosity and selfless hospitality everywhere this country, if you persist in breaking through the shy outer reserve. Arriving before lunch the next day, life on my Aunt's farm—more suburban homestead with miniature organic plot and orchard than farm—consisted of activities unremarkable in such places, yet refreshingly new to this lifelong urban dweller. Picking ripe avocados from overburdened trees, chasing chickens out their coups to steal over-sized free-range eggs, and endless games with extremely active younger cousins, our first meeting since Aunt's remarriage. And going for runs and bike rides with another cousin much closer to me in acquaintance and age, touring inexhaustible sun-drenched panoramas in the neighbouring countryside. Then in her final year of high school, I got to show off to this cousin a little as "the big cousin," first of an extended family of now more than twenty to go to university. Always surprisingly good at giving advice to others, (yet hopeless at self-prescribing—read on...), I knowledgeably explained the ins and outs of debated higher education options from a position of genuine experience. In the end she chose psychology as her degree major, much against my protestations and advice, although maybe it should have been self-evident that very few people are receptive to the one truly insightful thing I have to say about higher learning —don't do it! The true reason for my visit to Opotiki that summer was neither rural or familial idyll, but to catch up with this spiritually inclined Aunt not seen for years, and also, meet a most mysterious Uncle. Not my Aunt's recently married new husband though, a kind-hearted farmer of local prominence but in truth little mystery, but her first cousin—technically not an actual uncle, but the term is close enough. They were as close to each other as brother and sister, born but a day apart, and virtually grew up together. They were alike in looks as well as interests—including a shared sense of spirituality. My Aunt, a former medical nurse, and current member of the district health board, had turned to traditional Maori healing in recent years, describing how she would choose home-made remedies for patients based on experience and knowledge, and intuition—a "voice from within" guiding her to the medicine best to prescribe. Several months before, in knowledge of my new-found enthusiasm for meditation and all things spiritual, she had sent me a cryptic invitation to make this trip north, writing of her cousin and uncle whom I had last seen when I was four years old: "You might get something very special out of meeting him again." An enigma before I had even laid eyes upon him, I was regaled with seemingly fanciful tales of his exploits by other family members: "He was a US Navy Seal once"; "He was beaten and left for dead in the Australian desert, found and nursed back to health by Aborigines, who taught him mysterious healing arts and powers," and, "He can survive in the bush for up to a month without food, drawing life-force for sustenance from trees alone." Whatever the truth to such stories, he was undeniably an impressive sight in the flesh: bushman's leather hat and jacket on powerful six-foot frame; firm, engaging handshake conveying a calm poise and quiet determination. And confidence—he had this quality in spades, self-evident in a tale told about conquering fear: confronting a small town trouble maker with a bullet engraved with bully's name, telling him to leave town else there would be a second bullet which wouldn't be given by hand. Even more impressive was his face: youthful and sparkling despite his age—over fifty but ten years younger in appearance—with lively, piercing blue eyes that unnervingly looked right through you. I asked him about the Navy Seals—"I don't talk about that" the firm reply. He viewed himself as "only a healer", going where inwardly directed—where ever he and healing abilities might be of service. He talked discreetly of the state of my aura, and, my curiosity aroused, gave me a "healing", an experience consisting of broad sweeping movements made up and down self's invisible energy field, small "male" and "female" crystals held in each hand. I was pronounced "looking better" afterwards, and in truth did feel a little lighter—subtly so, but if anything more was accomplished that day I was not spiritually aware enough to ascertain. At this point in my life, although having discovered meditation, a path embarked upon with all the vigour and determination one has when convinced of your life's calling, I was, perhaps contradictorily, in enormous personal turmoil, unsure of my direction beyond this lifestyle choice—a solo, daily practise which in some respects raised more questions than answered. Enormously frustrated, I could envisage a golden future in occasional glimpses, but was stuck within a present that was anything but. This bushman Uncle might just have sensed some of this, and before I departed homeward, compulsory to attend university lectures soon to begin, offered unbidden three pieces of sagely advice. "Your time of book learning has come to an end." An odd statement at the time, the final year of university degree about to begin, but in truth a statement I was not completely unreceptive to, anything but enthused with this current aspect of my life course. "You will soon need to learn how to make money quickly." Advising me to begin buying and selling items for profit, he gave me $500 to get started, as though I was doubting of his sincerity, and to my complete jaw-dropping amazement. And the final advice? "I don't know who God is, but if He made all of this," a broad gesture made to entirety of surroundings, "He's a pretty nice guy." Two weeks after this conversation I had added an unforeseen option to my educational curriculum, meditation classes at the Sri Chinmoy Centre —beginning of the end for most part forgettable academic career, or "time of book-learning," and early beginnings of full-time meditation occupation, tutelage embarked under the guiding hand of teacher Sri Chinmoy. Within months I found myself engaged in an assortment of odd jobs and money raising schemes, "making money quickly" to see Sri Chinmoy for the first time in New York, air fare from New Zealand no joke on modest student income. And likewise, I don't know who God is, not in any final, definitive sense at least, but as the years pass by I do have some inkling as to what He is—love, peace, wisdom and beauty—the presence of which grows stronger every day.

Inspiration-Letters: Destiny Edition

sri-chinmoy-authorThrift stores, cheap chocolates and masterpieces by Van Gogh and Cezanne—so begins the 16th edition of Inspiration-Letters, magazine style forum for inspired writers of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. A fitting beginning it is too, for all the authors are koan-carrying members of a meditation group espousing a philosophy of merging the heights of spirituality with the here and everyday, and what could be more lofty and lowly than the two masters of post-impressionism rubbing shoulders in a one dollar shop? All the world may well be a stage, and we the players therein, but some of the sets are truth be told, less than top-drawer. The Inspiration-Letters editor, in possession of red pen and hugely discounted bargains, proceeds to the check-out, continues his introduction:
“As the cashier was checking me out, I happened to glance at her name tag: ‘Karamvir’ it said. I knew ‘vir’ means hero in many Indian languages. I asked her what ‘karam’ meant. She told me that ‘karam’ means fate. So ‘Karamvir’ means ‘she who is the master of her destiny, the one who is victorious over her fate!’ Apparently she had never thought about the meaning of her name before, so she just nodded, smiled shyly and handed me my merchandise.”
checkout-operatorI am reminded of a supermarket closer to home, where checkout operators are likely as not to be Indian, lowly in station but sweeter in nature than the most expensive chocolates, and names hand-picked from the loftiest spiritual literature. While shopping for bread and milk I have been charmed and served by the entire pantheon of Indian goddesses—Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga included. The topic for this latest issue of Inspiration-Letters is “Destiny”, and it was the destiny of seven writers and myself to contribute, stories all of the moving and workings of nature’s most mysterious force—fate, and its invisible hold on our lives.

Home Is Where The Heart Is

Inspiration-Letters opens with top-drawer writer Sumangali Morhall’s Home Is Where The Heart Is, a tale of time spent in Thailand and the titular lesson learned: home is where the heart is, no matter where mind or body may roam. Sumangali is a master of poetry and lyricism—her gentle evocation of landscapes inner and outer sing a tale of destiny as sweetly as a nightingale’s call, and moved one reader to comment “no one describes nature better than her. Her description of monsoon rains will rise like steam in your memory every time you get caught in heavy rain ever again.”
“I arrived at the start of monsoon. From a veranda I would watch the sky as it jealously gathered navy blue cloud with long grey fingers, until its arms could hold no more, and the whole hoard was spilt on the earth at once. The traffic thickened and curdled, borders between road and path were eaten away by hungry torrents, where sandalled feet sloshed towards any cover they could find. It was at those times I liked to go for a walk.”

It Is Written

Alaskan Palyati Fouse weaves in It Is Written the working of destiny with film of the moment Slumdog Millionaire, and recounts a recent discussion with someone described only as a genius:
“I had a lengthy discussion with a genius recently about destiny. I asked many questions because, at first, I did not agree with what he had to say.”
I for one am highly curious to discover the name of the genius, for it is not written. Perhaps he is unnamed deliberately by the author, lest lost sheep like myself beat a grassy path to his isolated mountain top. Telling of living alone like a beacon in the dark, just her and destiny on the uppermost edge of the American continent, Palyati talks and inspires with her account of swimming against the spiritual tide, and deserves more than just the respect of some distant shaper of destiny in doing so.

There Was A Child Went Forth

A reader of my own story, There Was A Child Went Forth—title lifted directly from Whitman—commented that he found me to be a good writer, but my stories somewhat depressing. While not ego-shattering, his feedback was certainly unexpected, and from far enough left field to make me pause and reflect. Am I a depressing person; is there less joy in my writing than there should be; in my life as well?
“The journey from child to man is said to be a passage, but for me childhood and adulthood were separated not by distance but a straight line, worlds cleaved apart as if by sharpest knife.”
There is a simple answer to both question and self-doubt—the true story of my life is a tale far more intense than any written. The experiences I went through before joining the spiritual life were more harrowing than any yet related, and while as prone to exaggeration as any writer, in the case of my own backstory, I am not writing larger than reality. With admirable honesty, Palyati Fouse in It Is Written follows the very same thread:
“Recalling life experiences and my reactions to them before joining this path makes my stomach knot up. There is nothing for me there in the deepest sense. It is the continual inner urge to progress spiritually that keeps me alive.”
Destiny may at times be a blunt instrument, but none can deny the necessity of its scalpel-like role, its work and operation, through trial and tribulation, needed for our ultimate good. Yes this is an intimidating truth, but it is one anything but depressing, for it speaks of perfection, promises a happiness never-ending.

Magical Mystery Tour

In Magical Mystery Tour, professional writer and published author Noivedya Juddery tells of his new preoccupation as film screenwriter, and how the casting of a young aspiring actress really is an act of destiny. At times a treatise on the millennia old debate on determinism, Noivedya writes and winds to the conclusion that life is the greatest mystery tour of them all.
“Occasionally, airlines and tour organisers speak of mystery tours, for which adventurous travellers pay for a tour to a place unknown. It might not be where you wanted or expected to go, but you will hopefully enjoy the destination. Life, of course, is the greatest mystery tour of them all – and however much you might influence your pilot, you never know where he will take you.”

How I Came To The Spiritual Life

In How I Came To The Spiritual Life, Abhinabha Tangerman relates with a Zen-like directness how he came to the spiritual life. To approximate an old Zen saying, if you see the Buddha on the road, you see the Buddha on the road, and in getting lost on a dark Dutch road Abhinabha found his own path to enlightenment—a lecture that would change his life forever.
“The speaker was a Belgian man of about forty years, exuding a marked inner poise. As soon as he started speaking my disappointment vanished. He talked about a spiritual life, a life of peace, love and happiness and the ways to bring these qualities to the fore through meditation. The man was very nice, humble and likeable. And his words were like music to my ears.”
Courageously, Abhinabha shares two dreams of Sri Chinmoy which convinced him to become a full time student of meditation, and concludes that he guesses it was destiny. For me there is no guesswork in this convincing, inspiring story.

Some Thoughts On The Way Forward

In Some Thoughts On The Way Forward, Jogyata Dallas waves the banner and writes a ringing call to arms on karma yoga—the yoga of action and work, and his forceful words are like an Emersonian edict for a new spiritual age. Jogyata is at his best writing of nature inner and outer, poetically intertwining the idyllic landscape of Bali with the sometimes smooth, sometimes rocky contours of the human soul:
“Horizoned and other-worldly, magnified by haze, the grey pencil sketch of Mt. Agung soars up to improbable altitudes, its ragged bulk cloud-garlanded, mysterious and remote from the far-below, scrambling destinies of man. Beyond the shoreline grey skeins of wrinkled seas crest and break—long ocean rollers at their journey’s end. Away from our usual melodramas, Bali’s peace and languor and the heavy gravity of the afternoon conspire, press you down supine.”

Overcoming Destiny

Mahiruha Klein writes in Overcoming Destiny of his first personal message from Sri Chinmoy, and of the message received the very eve of his Guru’s passing: “Hope is sweeter than the sweetest. Sweeter than ambrosia.” Chasing hope like a bee to nectar, Mahiruha is all parts sincere and heart-felt, and his words possess the silent width and weight of the best, other-world inspired writing.
“That was the last time I ever saw Sri Chinmoy. He passed away the following morning, quite early. But his last words to us, that hope is sweeter than ambrosia, touched me deeply. My Master told me in that phrase to keep a positive attitude, to stay happy and well, and to remain hopeful. Sri Chinmoy’s first message to me was to forswear anxiety about what people think of me or how I am judged in the eyes of society. His last message to me was to keep hope alive forever.”
In my case, it is tempting to dwell upon the fact that I had few personal messages from Sri Chinmoy, but like doubt itself this is the path and fiat of a false, never profitable coin. I was one of Sri Chinmoy’s students who had very little outer contact with him—I can count literally on fingertips the times he spoke to me—but to flail now for what will never be would be to miss totally an inner contact that has always been. I can write books of all the messages that have come in quiet moments and dreams, and it this inner communication that is the true currency of spirituality, a wealth of heart and soul that can never be spent, now or when the flickering flame of human life finally burns out. Again where doubt is concerned, memory is without doubt the quickest, easiest to reach for antidote, and I need look no further than my own submission to Inspiration-Letters to be reunited with Destiny’s eternal, inner communion:
“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 is a sense now that we students of Sri Chinmoy are swimming in lonely seas, all coming to terms with a sudden, unexpected change of course. But how much and what has changed, and what exactly has been lost? In vanishing from sight it can be said that the boatman has merely charged garments, shed his human appearance to become the ocean and sea itself. In staying the course and continuing to sail, even though upon seas uncharted, are we not in the heart of where we have always been? In the Master’s boat. On board an immortal journey of the soul.

The 108 Steps of Perfection

Karate, kata, perfect form and perfectionism in Japan

Newlands Karate Club, Wellington, New Zealand, 1983At the age of seven, the result of an I don’t know from where interest in Japan, I began learning karate, lessons undertaken at my own insistence, my mother’s weary acquiescence. Perhaps she sensed that it would be either breaking blocks of wood or chopping bones on a rugby field, and thus surrendered to my desire to learn this more refined, disciplined form of violence. The early eighties were a slightly unusual time to learn martial arts. The Bruce Lee, one-inch-punch inspired craze of the seventies had faded, perhaps on a pair of roller skates, while the ninja craze of straight to video fame had yet to take strangle-hold. I was therefore the youngest student at my local Japanese karate dojo, the only without sideburns or handle-bar moustache, trading punches, blocks and kicks with teenagers and adults who had started learning while the star of Enter the Dragon had still been alive. I had not even been born when Lee mysteriously died. bruce-leeFrom time to time younger students like myself would join our small neighbourhood group, but few would last more than a fistful of lessons; the iron discipline of stretching, exercise and practicing technique, over and over again, was less attractive than computer games or television, and actual sparring sessions—the tofu and potatoes of martial arts, where long-honed technique is finally put into wrist snapping, high kicking practice—were few and far between. Unlike Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid, few ever graduated from “wax on, wax off...”
Pure Zen Quote from The Karate Kid: The Karate Kid: Hey, where do these cars come from? Mr Miyagi: Detroit.
Perhaps all those cranky, letter to the newspaper editor writers are right. Discipline and patience are, high-scores on a Playstation aside, mostly foreign to my generation. Hanashiro ChomoRather than fighting an actual opponent, karate lessons would culminate in hours learning kata—stylised, dance-like movements performed in a series and, initially at least, in slow motion. Kata is said to represent the technique required to simultaneously fight and defeat an overwhelming number of opponents—a theory of combat put into action most famously by master Japanese swordsman and strategist Miyamoto Musashi. It was a little like learning to swing a golf club or a tennis racket—learning the correct form, through repetition, to master perfection in physical action. There are around 100 kata in total across the various disciplines of karate, with the ultimate said to be Suparinpei, a word of Chinese origin which literally translates as “108”—the number of actions in this supreme kata. For those who, like the subtle flavours of a sushi roll, prefer to find meanings wrapped inside meanings, the number 108 is not only an “abundant,” “semi-perfect,” “tetranacci” and “refactorable” number in mathematics, but a total of great spiritual significance.

The Spiritual Significance of the Number 108

  • the essence of the Vedic scriptures, considered to be the greatest heritage of India and foundation of Hinduism, are the 108 Upanishads, or writings which expound the philosophic principles of the Vedas;
  • Japa mala used for repetition of mantra contain 108 beads;
  • Hindu deities are said to have 108 names;
  • Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps;
  • The number of sins in Tibetan Buddhism total 108;
  • At the end of the each year in Japan a bell is chimed 108 times to finish the old year and welcome the new. Each ring is said to represent one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome to achieve nirvana.
  • There are said to be 108 energy lines converging to form the spiritual heart chakra;
  • 108 is the sum of “the numbers” in the at times mystical TV show Lost (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42). I admit that the spiritual significance of this last fact may be questionable...
There is more to kata than grown men practising martial arts in pyjamas—over and over again. How much more? Wax on, wax off, my friend...

Kata and Perfection Through Perfect Form

The word kata, like karate, was born in Japan, and translates literally as “form.” Kata is more than simple outer appearance, structure or method; it is derived, both in word and concept, from shikata—“way of doing things”. Like “the Way” of Taoism, shikata is synonymous with a striving for perfection: a perfect way of doing will eventually reveal a perfect way of being, just as the course of a river wears smooth the jagged surface of a stone. Japanese garden pathOver the course of centuries kata evolved to the point where there became a perfect way of doing everything. Every facet of existence in traditional Japan was perfected, down to the arrangement of food upon a tray or flowers within a vase. Kata however is more than a purely physical concept, more than action or object of the human hand. Zen Buddhism, which entered Japan from China in the 12th century, introduced into the national consciousness the insight that perfection has an inner component as well; that mental training was just as important, if not even more so, than physical mastery in achieving the perfection of any skill. Illumined by the the influence of Zen, mastery of kata came to mean the attainment of a meditative oneness with the action or discipline practised. A painter would seek not just to paint, but become the brush upon the page; a swordsman become one with the sword in hand.
“Early in their history the Japanese developed the belief that form had a reality of its own, and that it often took precedence over substance. They also believed that anything could be accomplished if the right kata was mentally and physically practised long enough.” —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese
Kata, the correct, harmonious way of doing things, links the inner and the outer in Japan—it links body and soul, man and the gods. The inner order, which the Japanese call “heart,” is linked directly to the outer, cosmic order by correct form—the spiritual realm manifested in the physical through perfect action.
“To the Japanese there was an inner order (the individual heart) and a natural order (the cosmos), and these two were linked together by form—by kata. It was kata that linked the individual and society. If one did not follow the correct form, he was out of harmony with both his fellow man and nature. The challenge facing the Japanese was to know their own honshin, “true” or “right heart,” then learn and follow the kata that would keep them in sync with society and the cosmos. —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese
Japanese Zen stone gardenJapanese will not accept a minimum standard as a goal; rather they expect absolute perfection—nothing is considered finished or complete until perfect. Which of course, lofty Zen masters aside, is near impossible for the average mortal to achieve. Hence the Japanese expression Kiga Susumanai—“my spirit is not satisfied.” Trapped between the inflexible postures of kata and insurmountable heights of perfection, Japanese are said to suffer constantly from this chronic spiritual dissatisfaction, a deeply felt discomfort at their inability to be perfect in everything they do:
“This spiritual discomfort burns in “pure” Japanese like an undying flame, constantly spurring them on to do more and do better...” —Boyé Lafayette De Mente, The Japanese Have a Word for It

The Path of My Own Perfection

I was not born Japanese, and have spent no more than ten days there in this life, but the quest for kata and perfection rings true in me without cause or reason, speaks if from an instruction manual to self lost before birth. My path to mastering kata in this life however, quelling the dissatisfaction of imperfection was neither straight nor direct, for I never did get that far with karate. I studied for three years, attained a purple belt and attended, without notable success, a solitary tournament—the experience literally of getting kicked in the face. An extended period overseas then saw my burning desire to acquire a black belt, and I presumed, the eventual attainment of mysterious insight and powers, thwarted. But desire for martial perfection was not lost so easily, and I am to this day, somewhat impracticably and yet to defeat a group of opponents with my bare knuckles and toes, dissatisfied at my imperfection in this particular kata or form. I guess there will be another lifetime... Life, the greatest teacher and master of them all, doesn't give up easily when there is a lesson to learn, and some decade after ceasing lessons in karate I discovered the practise of meditation, first introduced briefly in those childhood sparring halls. In meditation, I found the kata of perfection I had always been seeking, a perfection requiring a form and method within.
“If we say that someone's body is perfect, then we are just giving an overall view. But when we say "perfect perfection," it means that each cell is perfect; everything that is inside that body is perfect. Perfect perfection is the perfection of the entire being. Whatever the being has and whatever the being is, is perfect.” —Sri Chinmoy, excerpt from Philosophy, Religion And Yoga.

Mono no aware: Beauty in Japan

Meaning literally “a sensitivity to things,” mono no aware is a concept coined by Japanese literary and linguistic scholar Motoori Norinaga in the eighteenth century to describe the essence of Japanese culture, and it remains the central artistic imperative in Japan to this day. The phrase is derived from the word aware, which in Heian Japan meant sensitivity or sadness, and the word mono, meaning things, and describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. It can also be translated as the “ah-ness” of things, life and love. Mono no aware gave name to an aesthetic that already existed in Japanese art, music and poetry, the source of which can be traced directly to the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth century, a spiritual philosophy and practise which profoundly influenced all aspects of Japanese culture, but especially art and religion. The fleeting nature of beauty described by mono no aware derives from the three states of existence in Buddhist philosophy: unsatisfactoriness, impersonality, and most importantly in this context, impermanence. According to mono no aware, a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound more beautiful than one clearly heard. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies for Japan beauty as a transient experience. Mono no aware states that beauty is a subjective rather than objective experience, a state of being ultimately internal rather than external. Based largely upon classical Greek ideals, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or artwork—most commonly nature or the depiction of—in a pristine, untouched state. An appreciation of beauty as a state which does not last and cannot be grasped is not the same as nihilism, and can better be understood in relation to Zen Buddhism's philosophy of earthly transcendence: a spiritual longing for that which is infinite and eternal—the ultimate source of all worldly beauty. As the monk Sotoba wrote in Zenrin Kushu (Poetry of the Zenrin Temple), Zen does not regard nothingness as a state of absence, but rather the affirmation of that which is unseen, existing behind empty space: “Everything exists in emptiness: flowers, the moon in the sky, beautiful scenery.” With its roots in Zen Buddhism, mono no aware bears some relation to the non-dualism of Indian philosophy, as related in the following story about Swami Vivekananda by Sri Chinmoy:
“Beauty,” says [Vivekananda], “is not external, but already in the mind.” Here we are reminded of what his spiritual daughter Nivedita wrote about her Master. “It was dark when we approached Sicily, and against the sunset sky, Etna was in slight eruption. As we entered the straits of Messina, the moon rose, and I walked up and down the deck beside the Swami, while he dwelt on the fact that beauty is not external, but already in the mind. On one side frowned the dark crags of the Italian coast, on the other, the island was touched with silver light. ‘Messina must thank me,’ he said; ‘it is I who give her all her beauty.’” Truly, in the absence of appreciation, beauty is not beauty at all. And beauty is worthy of its name only when it has been appreciated. Excerpt from Vivekananda: An Ancient Silence-Heart And A Modern Dynamism-Life by Sri Chinmoy.
The founder of mono no aware, Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), was the pre-eminent scholar of the Kokugakushu movement, a nationalist movement which sought to remove all outside influences from Japanese culture. Kokugakushu was enormously influential in art, poetry, music and philosophy, and responsible for the revival during the Tokugawa period of the Shinto religion. Contradictorily, the influence of Buddhist ideas and practises upon art and even Shintoism itself was so great that, although Buddhism is technically an outside influence, it was by this point unable to be extricated.

What Matter Age?

What goes around, comes aroundThere’s a funny saying about things that go around coming around. Usually it’s karma, an eye for an eye and a sow for a reap—the great spiritual law of the universe that dictates bad things for things done badly, good for that done gladly. But inspiration goes around as well, and more like a fire than the predictable arc of an arrow—leaping, dancing, taking light as it spreads; a force that creates and multiplies rather than destroys. A blog comment by a reader inspired me to write an entire post in return, a list of childhood memories which beget and became My First Meme, a charming, illumining anecdote on age, meditation and self-transcendence at Sumangali.org:
Age does not matter. Until his passing at age 76, Sri Chinmoy proved that to me. Through his life of meditation and self-transcendence he showed me that perhaps I am not as limited as I think. I hope to continue forgetting how old I really am. I hope to feel amused, rather than bound, if I do happen to remember, and grateful to Sri Chinmoy, especially if others find it funny too.
The torch is passed, the wheel turned. And so it goes...

What Matter Age?

I can relate to the sentiments above in so many ways. At age thirteen, and in my first year in High School, I would at times be mistaken for sixteen or older, not because of my size, but my attitude and demeanour. I was overly serious and “adult,” something of an grown up trapped in a child’s body, and for the most part related to my elders better than my peers. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless it is making you miserable. It was and then some. Now twenty years on and thirty-three, I find age to be a bit of a joke. I have reached a kind of dim, twilight zone, like a purgatory between youth and senility, where I have to stop and think to remember my age. I still can not believe I am in my thirties, and for that matter during my twenties I could not believe I was not a teen. This is only because of meditation. With the regular practise of meditation—in which I am certainly no expert, but hopefully an advertisement for: a poster-child for meditation’s slow-dawning felicitation to experience life in the ever present, ever lasting now—I again feel as I did before those forgettable, teen-aged years. Like a child. Like myself once more. Musing upon the inevitable forward march of age, I am reminded of learning to drive recently—several years ago in fact—in which getting over the insistent feeling that I was an impostor acting as a grown-up—driving seeming like such a grown-up thing to be doing—was far harder than getting a handle on the rules, firm grip of the wheel. John Gillespie, postmanLikewise my career. After years striding the streets as a postman—a card-carrying job for loners, introverts and others who wish to drop out of the ‘nine to five,’ or in my case, approximate a wandering, meditating monk, composing poetry while roaming up to thirteen kilometres a day, I exchanged hair shirt for one starched, press-ganged into a pre-press job with a design company, and rejoined my last seen at university, career-making peers on the cusp of their thirties, threshold or over of marriage, mortgages and children. What a joke it all was. Feeling like a child trapped in a far too big body I had to get head around idea of being an “adult,” or at least its outer appearance; joining serious colleagues in serious decisions about heavy responsibilities and pressing problems—not to mention getting in line for performance appraisals and promotion, a necessary evil when regular, expensive overseas trips to supply my meditation habit—or self-enlightenment sanity excursions as I subtitle them—were a necessity. Throughout my extended tour of the five-days-a-week world of adult duty, I was always keenly conscious of the illusory nature of it all, of its secondary status to the pursuit of my ageless, real identity. Funnily enough, and this is a very real letter of recommendation for meditation, I find that people value a person who can bring a child’s touch to a serious situation, a person able to laugh and to joke, remain good-natured and even-tempered when others do not. I was genuinely moved by the extent my colleagues showed their appreciation when it was time to move on from that job—their sincere, heart-felt sentiment running to pages on hand-made leaving card. Not to mention all of the hugs I had to dodge. In feeling like a child still, I in truth should be grateful to my mother, whose raising of me was anything but conventional—I am “old” enough, or at least wise enough to appreciate this now. Now sixty-five and looking barely fifty, she is a guileless, child-like woman, and as far away from adult politics and game-playing as is possible; it is I her child who has to point out the alternative interpretation of occasional, unintentional faux pas. Her youth-like, light of heart qualities I once mistakenly sought to uproot in myself, leave behind in a wrong-headed, head-strong rush to “grow up”—early, regrettable attempts at self-transformation with a labourer’s pitchfork, rather than the meditation’s gentle pruning. Sri Chinmoy by Pavitrata TaylorBut most of all, I can relate to Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy of self-transcendence—transcendence of mind, belief, achievement and of age. In this respect alone I have so much to be grateful to my meditation teacher for. Initially self-taught in meditation—I am something of an autodidact in most things; a good quality when one remembers to be humble, or the much that one does not know—I have come to learn that meditation is so much more than a moment of peace, or a silent mind only in a silent room. Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy of the child-like heart, of living as a child rather than living childishly, has re-invented my life in the most remarkable ways, transformed me in a fashion I once could not imagine. Compared to my former self, you could say I am re-born. Photo Credits
  1. Teh Google
  2. Mail model John Gillespie, Post News, Dec 2003
  3. Pavitrata Taylor

Six Childhood Facts

Six facts about me as a child, with due respect to Pavitrata.

1. No fast fried pleasures, please

I never spent my pocket money on junk food as a child. Which is not to say that I didn't like junk food, or to suggest merely a lack of money, but rather that spending hard earned, all too easily lost riches on something lasting but a fleeting moment—the temporary sense pleasure of food—made no sense to me at all. I remember my early bewilderment clearly, not really understanding my peers as they downed sodas and crisps wantonly, their pocket money flagrantly, and I am not an adult who remembers not his childhood—to a large extent, no small thanks to meditation, it lives and breathes in me still. It is a great shame this innate childhood common sense became less than innate as the years passed by, a growing worldliness, wisdom of the “ways of men” passing me not.

2. Pop music not so popular

I couldn’t bear popular music as a child. I listened to and owned nothing but classical music until the age of nine, and according to my mother used to cry in my early years if anything less refined was played. I taught myself to play the piano, memorising more by ear than note pieces by the great composers, and used literally to shudder at the sound and sight of punk bands then at their height. MozartThat all changed with the advent of synth-pop—I skipped screaming electric guitar anthems, safety pins in your nose, furious drum solos, and went directly from Mozart to Madonna; Cyndi Lauper, Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw in between. I was pretty normal from that point on. As a teenager I dreamed of haircuts and concerts, rather than wigs and concertos, and gave up the piano for the guitar after an intense battle of wills with a piano teacher, who told me on the morning of my Grade 3 exam that, lest my results harm her reputation, she was disowning me. I did fail, by all of four marks, but more due to the fact that I didn't feel inspired to practise, than any glee sought in tarnishing a disagreeable piano teacher’s name. I had refused to learn music theory; she had refused to teach me as accustomed “by heart.” I may not have been vindicated by my grade, but they have schools today devoted to the instincts I was following.

3. Football was my life

Football was my life for a number of years. Growing up in rugby mad “God’s Own” I rose at ungodly hours to watch “that other game,” fleetingly available when broadcast from the other side of the world, then spent morning, lunch and evening playing same with friends; otherwise just kicking a ball alone. I was told by a coach at age fourteen that I had the talent to go to the highest level, if I could but “get the right attitude as well,” but it was meditation rather than football that coached me in the power of self-belief; trained out of me, ten minutes practise a day, my nagging, dribbling sense of self-doubt.

4. Turning Japanese

I was fascinated with Japan from an earliest age. When offered the chance by my mother to buy a book on a special occasion, I chose a children’s guide to this implicitly intriguing land of kimonos, karate and kabuki. Soon afterward I demanded lessons in karate, and attempted several times to learn the language—with more enthusiasm than steel or resolve. Upon adulthood my fascination has waxed rather than waned; a more than decade-long marriage to the practise of meditation just one example of my un-struck appetite for things Nihon.
“Japan is a country filled with infinite beauty. It has an image of a beautiful flower garden. This beauty is expressed through inner peace. Man has seen many things, but of these things peace is new. Japan is offering this new treasure to the world. “Japan has some other very special capacities to offer. Japan produces such small, beautiful things. God is infinite and finite-larger than the largest and smaller than the smallest. He is both the ocean and the drop. He is inside me as a human being and, again, He is inside the vast sky and ocean. In Japan I see God the Creator in His small aspect, but at the same time, so beautiful and powerful. Here I see the finite expressing the Beauty and Divinity of God in such a powerful way, and I am deeply impressed. It is like the difference between seeing a child do something and a grown-up do it. When the child does it, I get much more joy. In Japan's case, the child is Japan's childlike flower-consciousness-a beautiful flower is reaching the highest in terms of beauty and purity. As soon as I think of Japan, my mind feels beauty, my heart feels purity and my life feels humility. I could write hundreds and hundreds of poems about Japan. In fact, I have already written them in the depths of my gratitude-heart.” Sri Chinmoy, Excerpt from Japan: Soul-Beauty's Heart-Garden

5. Altar-ed states

David and GoliathI was raised a Christian. Not that I actually enjoyed going to Church, or Sunday School—in fact I would beg my mother every Sunday to leave me at home to watch “Big League Soccer, yet I studied and memorised the stories of faith, courage and heroism in my Picture Bible unbidden, and would pray most evenings without prompting.My last visit to church was around age thirteen, a time when my local congregation, almost completely absent of fellow teenagers, was split pew and rafters over the siting the altar—two metres this way or that I kid you not. I don't claim to be high and mighty but I do have a good eye for low and petty, and my hunger for spirituality and inner truth would from this point seek a different nama-rupa—name and form.

6. Interest in a mythical, mid-Atlantic clime

AtlantisI have always been fascinated by tales of the lost continent of Atlantis. A childhood cartoon, of futuristic cities and technology existing beneath the surface of ocean, caught for only several episodes before sadly it went off-air, evoked hazy, strangely familiar memories that could not be placed; dreams that felt more like memories and that found another flame in stories my mother would tell of her mother, how she spoke cryptically of the existence a long forgotten, long ago buried land—to me a tantalising suggestion that there might still exist a living, breathing link through memories passed to an ancient, mythical mid-Atlantic clime.

Make me a Meme

Write up your own list of childhood facts and I’ll mention you here:
  • Pavitrata: Six Childhood Facts—Pavitrata, the “cheerful fellow” who got the ball rolling
  • Sumangali: My First Meme—Mummy, mummies, cheese and the reading of minds make for a quite outstanding list of childhood facts
  • Sharani.org: The 6 Childhood Facts Meme—Tutus, patent leather shoes and the forbidden fruit of chocolate feature in Sharani’s walk down childhood’s memory lane.