The stories and poems that fill the following pages were never intended as a book. They are instead isolated, stand alone sketches salvaged from those in-between moments of life when some impulse comes – sitting on a train, waiting for a flight at some airport, or perhaps in the back of a car on a long journey. They are only pencil sketches and outlines, the silhouettes of personal experiences whose real substance lies beyond the horizon of language. They have been cobbled together from different years, places, moods and selves, jumbled about a little, poured in between the dignifying covers of a book – and offered now with a mild feeling of apology.
Most of these stories involve the great spiritual master Sri Chinmoy whom I refer to as ‘Guru’- meaning ‘the one who illumines’ – and I have the immensely good fortune to still have him as my inner guide and confidant even after his 2007 passing.
Guru often reminded us that in terms of spiritual opportunities this lifetime – among the many we have had and those yet to come – will have no equal. Writing preserves the memories and events that sparkled most brightly, captures them before they vanish – like a child putting the miracle of a butterfly into a glass bottle then revisiting this memento half a lifetime later to ponder and remember.
Our tiny literary attempts at recollection– what we felt and saw – may very well lie about long after our brief lives, offer little glimpses into a chapter in history when a great master visited this earth. I remember once placing my fingers and palm over the 7,000 year old pigmented imprint of a human hand on an ancient cliff face, imagining across the long continuum of time the life of one who had roamed here in distant millenia. Like this, writing captures and celebrates the changing and vanishing pageantry all around us – and these few stories are the handprint on the cliff face, the butterfly in the bottle, gathering a few little memories from the wondrous life of a spiritual master, keeping fresh the ‘livingness’ of it all.
This insignificant collection – I counted eighty stories in all – is a small tribute occasioned by the observance of Guru’s 80th birthday.
In reading the following pages though, your kindness will certainly be needed. Well, here goes…
2. The Colouring Book
3a. The Ox Pictures
2. The Colouring Book
In the 60’s my three sisters and I were children growing up in a small New Zealand town by the sea. My father liked the simple ways and always walked or bicycled to work, shunning the enchantments promised by an emerging new age of television and motorcars. Our home became a fortress sandcastle, defiant against the rising tide of technology – eventually the ramparts crumbled and my father capitulated to the incoming tides of change. Years later though he would remind us with great pride that we had been the last house in our suburb to get television.
In this new world, evening scrabble, cards and colouring books were replaced with television and the old bicycle eventually surrendered to a gleaming Ford Prefect motorcar. Scrabble was a huge loss to me – I excelled at concealing essential letters in my clothing, at outrageous inventions with the English language and endless intrigue. And our picture books – with pursed lips, brows furrowed with a child’s concentration, how devotedly we would colour in the black and white sketches with our crayons and pens. Later I came to see how much of a metaphor this pastime was – how much the distinct, theme qualities of our nature would colour in and determine the flavours and experiences of our lives.
I was last to leave our happy childhood home. The bus that would take me out of my parents’ lives finally pulled out of the station, and I was peering out of the window, the first sorrows of adulthood filling my eyes. There they were, weeping inconsolably at the departure of their last child, holding each other helplessly by the arms. And years later we children would come together again, silent and weeping before the solemn and sad mystery of their deaths.
So began a long thirteen-year odyssey, the journey of discovery that we all make in one form or another as we colour in the storybooks of our lives. And discovering as we all sooner or later do that there is absolutely nothing out there, no place, no person, no possession, that can make us lastingly happy. In my own wanderings – that long fruitless detour across the parched deserts of worldliness that would lead to this understanding – I would often hear, whispering in my mind, the words of the Greek poet Cavafy, “No ship exists to take you from yourself,” and T. S. Elliot’s sombre words would echo in refrain: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time…”
Years later, I would come across an old box of childhood things, mementoes and treasures from a distant past – an old shawl, some favourite poems of my mother, a silver broach, the sepia brown photos of unknown grandparents – and there among the heirlooms and memories, one of our old colouring books, still with its’ bright colours and poignant innocence. Feeling now the beautiful and hidden perfection of life and marvelling at the long journey of the soul with its’ many selves and guises; peering intently at the colours I had used, trying to understand how far I might have come; how far I might have to go to reach journey’s end. Here, back at my own starting point I remembered once again the words from Elliot’s poem, and how the end of all our exploring will be “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time… Through the unknown, remembered gate when the last of earth left to discover is that which was the beginning…”
How grateful I am to all the teachers of my life whose knowledge has encouraged me along my way. How grateful to my own teacher, Sri Chinmoy, the brightest polestar in my life sky, who colours in my journey with the bright things of the soul and continues to lead me through that doorway of spirit – the ‘unknown, remembered gate’ – on the great quest for God.
3a. The Ox Pictures
In the early 1970’s I did what most young New Zealanders do and traveled to England on my first big O.E. (‘ Overseas Experience’), a landmark rite of passage for us colonials, the fledgling bird departing the national nest, leaving behind a lovely New Zealand summer of blue skies and bright promises and many kinds of certainties. The London sky was the first thing I noticed, a motionless bleak grey pall. It had the feeling of being a permanent fixture as though a random grey day had become frozen in time, winter in stasis, and that it would always be like this – which it was most of the time I was there. I liked it, for in some haphazard association of the mind it imparted a sense of festivity, of an endless Christmas. I was dressed incongruously on arrival in shorts and jandals, unmindful that the southern hemisphere summers of my home will always coincide with the northern winters. My suitcase contained a sleeping bag, some beaten-up volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s Four Quartets, a favored brown suede jacket and a few items of clothing– a minimalist traveler’s fare. Beyond this I remember almost nothing of my two years there – it has all fallen into the sea.
In one place where I stayed though, I do remember befriending a lanky, intellectual Dutch girl with whom I shared long, earnest conversations while rambling across the Wimbledon golf course, oblivious of the flying balls and the shouts of peeved golfers. She gave me a copy of a book on Zen Buddhism and I sat under the relentless grey sky to brood over the reflections of those who had traveled far on the inner journey before me. There in that book were ten representational sketches of the quest for liberation – called the ‘ox herding pictures’ – in which the seeker is attempting to tame the mind and find his true and original Buddha nature, here depicted as a wayward oxen.
The work of the 12th century Chinese Zen master Kakuan, the simple sketches and accompanying verses reeked of enlightenment and I sat under a tree in Wimbledon’s green acres, entranced and enchanted. The simple drawings began with the Zen initiate seeking the realization of oneness, the effacement of every conception of self and other.
‘Desolate through forests and fearful in jungles,
he is seeking an Ox which he does not find.
Up and down dark, nameless, wide-flowing rivers,
in deep mountain thickets he treads many bypaths.’
‘Innumerable footprints has he seen
in the forest and along the water’s edge.
Over yonder does he see the trampled grass?’
In the progressive sequence of sketches the mind is gradually tamed and the seeker of truth begins to observe the waxing and waning of life while abiding in a state of unshakable serenity. There is nothing to strive for, neither gain nor loss. The waters are blue, the mountains are green. Alone with himself, he observes things endlessly changing.
‘Whip, rope, Ox and man alike belong to Emptiness.
So vast and infinite the azure sky
that no concept of any sort can reach it.
Over a blazing fire a snowflake cannot survive’.
In the later sketches the oxen disappears – the unruly mind and the meditator have both disappeared into a great void of pure being, no ‘I’ or self left.
‘Seated in his hut, he hankers not for things outside.
Streams meander on of themselves,
red flowers naturally bloom red.’
‘Bare chested, barefooted, he comes into the market place.
Muddied and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!
Without recourse to mystic powers,
withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom!’
When I examined the simple drawings I felt a slow soul thrill that tingled inside me for days, as though here at last was the sum of all real knowledge, something so quintessential that all further outer traveling would cease to have any point or meaning. The whole book smelt unmistakably of enlightenment – and I knew too that this moment of discovery was a remembering, a hyphen between this lifetime and all that I had discovered before. I still see the ox herding sketches in my mind and sometimes, on a quiet sea shore or by a mountain stream, revisit them to cast about for the footprints of the ox, the Buddha self, and sit awhile in a serene and grateful and smiling contemplation.
6. Joining the Path
If time is a river – that old metaphor – then 1979 was a high speed, white knuckle boat ride, a wild and turbulent watershed year whose great currents of change swept us along like balsa on a swollen mountain stream. In New Zealand Subarata and I had been dabbling in the Chinese Book of Change, the I Ching, and had abandoned ourselves to its mysterious suggestions and its now exciting advice that “it will further you to cross the great waters…”
So we flew across the great waters of the Tasman ocean to Australia, landed in Sydney with our future as unknown and empty of intent as a wide blank canvas, hired a rental car, tossed a coin – heads, north; tails, west; across the remote stretches to Perth or Adelaide. The Book of Change turned us towards the setting sun. I had glandular fever, lay groaning and pale in the rear of a station wagon while Subarata sped west across endless plains of eucalyptus and the growing darkness of a strange land punctuated by clumps of farmhouse lights. How long were we travelling? I can’t remember.
But one day inside that year we moved from the remoteness of Western Australia across to Adelaide in South Australia via circuitous ways and innumerable adventures, eventually settling out near Port Adelaide and the beginnings of another kind of odyssey. For it was here we found the Centre.
Travelling east from Perth you can cross the endless Nullarbor Plain by road along the Eyre Highway – a 2,700 km epic – or in leisurely fashion on the Indian Pacific railway, gazing out for two days at the vast, unpopulated desert which features the longest dead straight stretch of rail in the world – 478 kms! So flat you can see the slow curve of the earth’s rim. But we caught a ride by car on the edge of that red expanse, shared the journey with two strangers who ended up being firm friends and who gave us four months of work in their outback motel on the edge of another wilderness, the Flinders Ranges. Subarata became the new waitress to the tour bus arrivals, I a charlatan wine waiter and handyman and we lived in a caravan parked up in the dusty back yard of the motel.
Sometimes our new friends towed our caravan-home 200 miles north and left us for a few days at roads end in the empty, endless hills, their rust-orange escarpments and valleys of pale eucalyptus spread out in all directions. Wandering under extravagantly beautiful sunsets and dawn skies filled with flocks of wheeling birds, their wings turning grey, then pink, then silver as they turned in unison in the first sunlight, an aerial spectacular high up against the blue, exulting in the new day’s gift of life.
One day we moved to Adelaide, and all at once, our first encounters with Guru. Crossing a city street for a cooling drink, there he was smiling down at us from a photo on a cafe wall; beneath his photo an aphorism reminding us that ”peace that comes from inner awakening is the peace everlasting.” He kept turning up, unfamiliar yet vaguely remembered in some other plane of knowing, a long lost friend from some other time or life. Looking at his picture I felt a whisper of recognition, a stirring of the soul, something faint and faraway and as easily forgotten as a dream.
Then in a newspaper, that ‘learn to meditate’ advert, an enquiring phone call or two and Sipra inviting us around, not to a class as there were none then running but to her flat for some starting tuition. And there he was again in a photo on her shrine! He kept finding us, beckoning us in some beautiful tryst with Destiny. Sipra has a great sense of humor and will forgive me recounting this next incident. We were shown into a small room where we saw for the very first time a large Transcendental photo. We were invited to sit on the carpet, to look at Guru’s third eye and to breath in peace. Then she said, “I have to go shopping for a while, I’ll be back soon”, and thereupon left us, returning over half an hour later clutching her shopping bags. That was the only lesson in meditation we ever had. A short time later Sipra invited us to become disciples and our photos went to New York for our new Guru’s consideration.
Looking back you can see the quiet perfection of everything, the inevitability of it all, your life river finding its way to the sea, everything a preparation and a readying for what lies waiting next. We thought we had made our choices, but we had simply ‘chosen’ what had already been chosen for us and those inner currents determined where we would go – free will and the currents of determinism collaborating nicely.
71. Surprising Rewards
In a world where from cradle rock to last breath our wellbeing and survival are founded upon physical security – a home, job, money in the bank – the notion of a life not concerned with these things, and not measuring its success by their abundance, is most definitely not in vogue.
A large proportion of the human population of course does live without these consoling buffers which insulate the rest of us from hunger, homelessness, despair – and for them the quest to simply survive is necessarily paramount. Relevant, however, in either scenario – having and not having – are the timeless spiritual commentaries that can be found in the wisdom of our greatest teachers, in the words of Christ; the sutras of Buddhism; the discourse of Sri Krishna to his dearest disciple Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra; and in the conversations of Sri Ramakrishna, to name a few.
Their insights and commentaries on the deepest truths of human life offer an alternative view of security which differs radically from the prosperity ideals in which most of us have been immersed from childhood.
These luminaries tell us that while it is legitimate and proper to seek a reasonable standard of living, every effort to find happiness exclusively in the outer world will finally fail and only the inner accomplishments – inner peace, desirelessness and detachment, love of God, self-discovery – can truly give us happiness. Some go further. My own Guru speaks often of the relative merits of self-reliance versus God-reliance – and that for those following a spiritual path and seeking oneness with God, our dependence on God attracts immediate grace. The father loves all his children but will take special care of the one who most depends on him and trusts him completely.
Over a number of years with Guru I have heard this message reiterated many times and had occasion to see its fruits and benefits. Those who put their spiritual life first, who dare to ‘whistle in the dark’, are unconcerned with the accumulation of personal wealth to meet tomorrow’s needs, these are invariably happier. For this is a step towards faith and abandonment in God, and God always assumes responsibility for the needs (as opposed to the wants) in their lives.
Speaking of those disciples who try to live this way Guru once said, “You will see how in the future you will be most surprisingly rewarded.” I was deeply moved when I heard this comment for it conveyed such a powerful message. Simply through our trust in God, here is the assurance of shedding all the bonds and attachments and problems that bind us to the world and to endless lives – our ‘surprising rewards’ will include a fearless God-reliance, freedom from anxiety regarding the future, the knowledge that all our inner and outer needs will be met, and that through our abandonment and faith alone God will take full responsibility for our lives. This is a huge short cut in our evolution, the shedding of a great burden, the discovery at last of an abiding inner peace and calm, ‘the peace that passeth all understanding’.
In the West we are virtually marinated in a culture of acquiring and possessing from the very beginnings of our life, and the alternative philosophies espoused by our great liberators and pathfinders are rarely practiced. But the soul finally is not satisfied with self-interest and the fulfilment of personal ambitions – it has greater promises to keep that lie far beyond personal gain. “For my disciples,” Guru commented, “to worry about your future is an insult to the Master, an insult to your soul and an insult to God.”
76. Christmas Trip Jottings
Auckland to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic – two days to get there, two weeks to recover with our spiritual family. In Los Angeles airport, en route, they have started playing Christmas songs, brassy versions of the classics, music whose little personality has been pared away in the search for inoffensiveness, but to such an extent that it only succeeds in annoying everyone. After an hour of recycled ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ it becomes a mild form of torture until you long to rush down the gateway to your next plane.
Here in the airport lounges everyone seems very overweight. I feel sympathy, for in the space of half an hour I have consumed – out of hunger, mild desperation, the ennui of displaced travellers – a Starbucks chai, an apple pastry, a Burger King bag of vile fries with its dunkings of ketchup, and a chocolate brownie, looking more kindly at the many travellers forced to swallow similar scraps.
On to San Juan. On this six hour midnight till dawn flight I am the only one awake – crouching, slumping, stretching, sighing in my tiny seat in a doomed search for comfort. Perhaps even the pilots sleep. My poor body twitches in a fever pitch of restless, discomfited energy – the awful L.A. food is exacting retribution. Outside, velvet black heavens are sprinkled with glitter, a dark cloth sieved with the bullet holes of stars. Below, outpost clumps of lights, lonely settlements and frontier towns, the reflected glow of great cities. Then orange dawn, battalions of peaked clouds marching far below, wind-sculpted and massed like icebergs, an arctic landscape five miles high.
Then finally arriving after two days of travelling. I catch a mini-van throbbing with the exhilarating sounds of Caribbean calypso and drums and trumpets. Olah! Flat, unenchanting scrublands slide by, giant billboards of Caribbean beaches with their promises of happiness and comfort, of unblemished leisure, warm seas. But roadside glimpses of less enchanted lives, a figure in the trees, barefoot, looking into tidal swamps and carrying a ragged child; twos and threes indolent with hopelessness or hunger standing like statues; hidden away lives of poverty. Other truths of life to tarnish the billboards idyll.
At the resort whole battalions of tourists lie supine on orderly rows of shoreline deckchairs, inert for hours as though anaesthetized by too much lunch. There are gaggles of Russians, distended by long hours propped at poolside snack bars and sun ripening like fat summer tomatoes; excitable Spanish and Italian families with their affectionate, frenetic children; geriatric American couples suspicious of everything as the elderly become; and the incongruity of disciples, the only fully clad ones here, enigmatic in whites and saris in this strange playground.
In our function room today many videos of Guru from the seventies and eighties are shown. I saw myself in one of my first trips to New York in 1981 – a five mile race and suddenly there I was crossing the finish line. I leaned forward in my chair in disbelief – I had mutton chop sideburns and fuzzy long hair! Then videos of ‘Humour, my life’s only saviour’, and Guru puts on a t-shirt and hat from each country and reads out the jokes we have sent in. I liked the French joke about the wheelchair convalescent who sat in a pool of holy water at Lourdes, hopeful of a miracle. When he emerged from the pool he had two new wheels on his wheelchair!
And some other stunning footage, the early years – Guru in his late forties looks happy and pleased and enjoying his earth life adventure as his mission in the West begins to form. Recent footage too, decades later, Guru meditating in front of his bedroom camera at 3:45 am on the Christmas trip in Turkey. He is barely in the body, poised on some cusp between intersecting worlds and veering away from us, remote and otherworldly, even then likely to discard the hindrance of the physical and depart, returning to his longed for Abode. You almost feel happy for his release when you see him connected to our world by only a tiny thread of love. And the sadness now of knowing what is to come.
11th December. Rain, rain, rain! And of such intensity and relentless ferocity that everyone is marvelling. Few have ever seen such a protracted downpour that is turning the gardens into lakes, the palm trees into frenzied whips that lash and flail across the sky, the eaves into waterfalls. Along the slippery pathways, lights flicker then die – your mind shrinks from some intimation of disaster, a sudden vulnerability to an implacable, vengeful nature. At 4 pm, an hour too early, light fades, the dark sky crackles with veins of lightning – thunder menaces at the edge of everything, encircling and closing in as though summoning its reserves for some final devastation. The tall ringed columns of the palms sway and bend, yielding before the charging offshore winds – against the sky their long fronds stretch like supplicating arms, streaming in unison to the north as though beseeching some god that only they can see. The adjoining golf course has turned into a vast sheet of water and curious wild fowl are beginning to congregate – at the eighteenth hole the marker flag crackles desperately in the wind as though semaphoring its distress. In the next morning, we learn that nine people have drowned and 25,000 are homeless.
December 12. Green trousered hotel staff have been labouring since dawn and the beach has been raked, untangled, sanitized, the storm’s debris with its mountains of purple seaweed carted away. The sea too is behaving – our group is out there already, the adventurous swimming away from land like migratory sea lions, their black snouts nuzzling through the pale sea.
On the big screen during this morning’s video Guru is powerfully there in meditation, bringing us back on course, summoning our soulfulness, providing the strong bedrock of the path. These will be among the most cherished gems of Guru’s legacy for all future time, an avatar filmed up there in the rarefied air of samadhi where so few have ever been, soaring in the summit-heights. Our eyes, our senses become bewitched by the world, but looking at Guru who embodies the end goal of life and the arrow straight path that lies beyond all seeming, we are safe.
December 18. We will not be together at Christmas and so today has been chosen as a surrogate Christmas day. At our morning function our singers most soulfully perform the usual and beautiful repertoire of Christ songs, with Guru’s admonitions from last year read out to remind us to be humble, soulful, without pride. To not sing in the classical musical style, but with oneness and great feeling and devotion. Will Christ visit us prematurely? You would think so, the songs are so lovely, their delivery so moving, solemn and lofty.
Night comes and in ones and twos we come out to farewell, to search the midnight in that quest that defines us as disciples. White tethered boats toss at their moorings as though playful on the dark seas. The long serrated fronds of the coconut palms sigh against the sky, a soothing refrain all through the night. The Russians are feasting at Los Pinos, the Italian pizzeria, and the daylong deckchair couples are all upright in their holiday best and exercising on the circular dance floor to the strains of Los Caballeros, florid with excitement and another dose of sunburn.
Others lie quietly on their backs on deckchairs, stargazing under a three quarter moon. There is the Southern Cross, then directly overhead the Seven Sisters, a pale cluster so unimaginably far away that you stare in wonderment; and a close by red star that you suppose is Mars. The many dull stars nearer the horizons all around you give the appearance of tiny pinpricks in a dark, all encompassing veil, light shining through from some other enveloping brightness. I remember Guru talking about a finite, not infinite universe, then another circumambient reality surrounding this physical universe, then Shiva in deep trance presiding over all this, over all creation, at the farthermost perimeter.