Christmas Trip Notes
Auckland to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic – two days to get there, two weeks to recover with our spiritual family. On the long haul to North America, thirteen hours plus some, a chance to cram in some of the old unvisited classics on our personal screens. I really liked The Bridges of Madison County with Clint Eastwood – a few furtive tears evoked in this very thoughtful moral debate brimming with tact and sensitivity. Not recommended viewing for disciples yet a really thoughtful look at human love, its quirks and foibles and its sometimes underlying beauty – how is it that this perennial experiment so entrances us, and when it has failed, so haunts us with its memories? Perhaps because our botched human entanglements and sorties were the closest we ever came to love's final flowering in God-oneness, and sensing it in the shadowlands of human life we mistakenly sought its fulfillment there. And it was there too, like a blade forged and tempered by the fire and the anvil, and we would refine our understanding through suffering and loss to at last understand where true satisfaction really lies.
Exiles from the golden land of union with God, we sought Him in each passing face – and He was there but we failed to clearly see Him. And in our human love, its many shades and varieties, we also came closest to being the best in ourselves. In life as in my movie, we are left with the feeling, perhaps not altogether romantic, that human love contains within itself the seeds of something finer, the divine love for which this lesser venture is a watershed. And which will one day find its way to the sea.
In Los Angeles airport they have started playing Christmas songs, brassy if charmless 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. And recycled warnings in English and Spanish about keeping visual contact with your personal items at all times – everyone staring morbidly at their own bags. In the airport lounges of America everyone has laptops and cellphones and seem obsessed with their own lives, consumed by their dramas and fictions and talking with the blithe confidence of those yet to be dispossessed.
Many people are very overweight. Searching for some half decent food I could see why, settling finally on a Burger King bag of fries and mandatory tomato ketchup. The L.A. airport police, doomed to perpetually roam the limbo of departure wings, have become inflated by relentless bad nutrition into pallid cheeked robo-cops, moving mechanically down the gauntlets of fast and farinaceous food outlets like stiff wind up toys and losing the fluidity that living things have. I feel sympathy – in the space of half an hour I have consumed, out of hunger, mild desperation, the homesickness of displaced travellers, a Starbucks chai, an apple pastry, the Burger King bag of vile fries with its dunkings of ketchup and a choc brownie, looking more kindly at the many fat people forced to swallow similar scraps.
On to San Juan. On this six-hour midnight till dawn flight of comatose Puerto Ricans I am the sole insomniac – crouching, slumping, stretching, twisting, sighing in my tiny seat in a doomed search for comfort. Perhaps even the pilots sleep. My poor body sings with a fever pitch of restless, discomfited energy – the awful L.A. food is exacting retribution. Outside, velvet black heavens are sprinkled with confetti lights, 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 traveling. I catch a mini-van share ride with a Spanish family to the Bavaro Hotel on a flat coast in the Dominican Republic. The father jabbered away to the driver in a rapid dialect and I heard 'musico' and 'Dominica' and surmised correctly – 'don't you Dominicans like music?' – and sure enough the driver jabbed a button and our silent van was filled now with the excitement and exhilaration of Caribbean calypso and drums and trumpets. Each of his two small children sat on one of the father's knees and he bounced them up and down in rhythm while I tapped my feet and the excited kids clapped and sang and rose and fell. 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 the holidayers are a ragtag bunch of foreigners who do not overlap into each other's lives at any point and know as little about each other as when they first arrived. Whole battalions of them, sun-basted bikinied women and their large bellied partners lie supine on orderly rows of shoreline deck-chairs, inert for hours as though anaesthetised by too much lunch. There are gaggles of bellicose, corpulent 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, phrenetic kids; geriatric American couples suspicious of everything as the vulnerable become; and the incongruity of disciples, the only fully clad ones here, enigmatic in whites and saris in this strange playground. The beach sooner or later draws everyone. Across a lagoon of iridescent pale blue marbled with skeins of dark weed, a line of white breakers shines where untamed sea ends on coral reefs and sandbars. In the lagoon are dolphin pens with their pontoon catwalks and further out the rectangular boundaries of a shark aquarium. The dolphins dart about in penned captivity and fee-paying tourists dawdle on the catwalks above them – you can swim with the dolphins, grasp a dorsal fin and ride about while cameras click and purr.
In our function room many videos of Guru from the seventies and eighties are shown. I saw myself in one on my first trip 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! Subarata too flashed across the screen. Then videos of 'Humour, my life's only saviour' from that very bad year, 1994, 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 moving, stunning recent footage of Guru meditating in front of his bedroom camera at 3:45am 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.
There are one and two mile races each week, out and back country lanes surrounded by on one side a golf course, on the other the ubiquitous palms plus dark brooding swamps. Everyone applauding the fastest runners, then we recite one of Guru's aphorisms followed by prasad. Then off to the curly headed sea to swim. There have been Monday a.m. games each week, a tennis tournament, a number of manifestation meetings, many singing groups.
Rediscovering Guru's poetry at my shrine every morning and jotting down favourites:
What am I?
An indomitable spirit
Encaged in an earthly frame.
There has been much talk of the future, of plans and projects. I believe the safety and standards of the centres will greatly rest with centre leaders now. And with the disciples themselves keeping the fundamentals of our path alive and rigorous and disciplined. Joy Days, inspiration, travel to other centres to stay on top.
There is a video by the English disciple Sushumna in the early seventies – everyone seems to have longish hair, the girls in long dyed skirts, and kids everywhere. Guru in his early forties looks happy and pleased and enjoying His earth life adventure as His mission in the West begins to form. The Christmas trip is bringing us all together and providing some sense of a reassuring continuity – and its low-key nature allows much space for fun and the blossoming of friendships and meditations. But we miss Guru in our heart and there is a vacuum here – looking at the large photo above the stage, tears prick your eyes and at times you can't quite believe it or accept it, the sudden unreality of His physical absence. As though some burden of grief remains hidden away in another level of our being, surfaces unexpectedly in random moments. Harder, too, to feel soulfulness, intensity – you have to find this more in your own private spaces, some secret place that you go, or at your shrine during an hour of the day when you feel most deeply. We will have to be careful to protect this, keep this inner link strong where we can find it, feel it.
The Christmas trip is imparting a sense of confidence about the future, and mapping out certain directions. And a further shift away from gravity and mourning toward purpose and resolve – a growing sense too of a living Guru here amongst us, felt, sensed, experienced and surprisingly often, even seen! So many stories one hears that can never be told.
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, tempt you to imagine some final armageddon. The sea is boiling with white foam and charging up among the hapless deck chairs, tossing them about like the wreckage of a sunken liner. 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 4pm, 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.
Faces peer from foggy balcony windows in wonderment. No one is outside lest they are flung away like rags and broken in the wind. Shielded from nature by artifice and comfort but estranged from it as well, we are not used to this savagery howling outside our walls and windows, our sudden sense of frailty. Many will lie fearful in their beds tonight while things bang and clatter in the wind – dreaming of cities tumbling like kitset toys, monstrous waves leveling coastlines, primal winds scouring the land back to its beginnings, the granite carapace of earth. My pen dips into stationery that is turning into porridge, the paper soggy and hygroscopic and melting with moisture.
The adjoining golf course has turned into a vast sheet of water and curious wild fowl are beginning to congregate, dropping out of sullen skies in twos and threes - a brace of blue teal; black swans, ungainly, their plumage dishevelled by buffeting winds; a trio of fast plummeting mallard. They bob among the bunker flags and a partially submerged tractor shed like surprised travellers discovering an uncharted new waterworld. 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.
And in the pre-dawn, post-storm stillness this morning the phone jangles at 4:15am and Shardul is calling from New Zealand, a conference call involving our three Centres hungry for news. Swimming up abruptly from a deep sleep, stupefied in some in-between world where all the familiars are gone. Death must be like this, a release from flesh and masks and masquerades, disconnected from all of the trappings of our human life. The early phone has brought a curious sense of returning from somewhere to what is only the fiction of oneself, perhaps like an actor who, returning to his changing rooms but too long immersed in the play, has forgotten whether his play or his life is the more real. Is he an actor captured by the fiction of the play or a man who feels he is only himself when he is acting? I can hear everyone on the phone and we chat for a while, then I launch into a twenty-minute account of everything. Then discover at the end that no one is there anymore – after only five minutes the line has died. Talking to myself for quarter of an hour. Todays aphorism reminds me:
Follow the ancient disciplines
And pray and meditate
In the small hours
Of the morning.
Green trousered hotel staff have been labouring since dawn and the beach has been raked, untangled, sanitised, the upended boat wreck deck chairs washed and restored to orderly rows, the storm's debris and mountains of purple ribboned 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. Last night, December 11, we had a long function occasioned by the second month since Guru's passing. A bhajan concert, many music groups, meditation videos, two walkbys, one in which we placed a candle before our Teacher's portrait, another near midnight in which a single stemmed purple flower was offered by each of us at the stage shrine.
Our minstrels are warming up for December 18 Christmas carols, practicing each early morning. There are regular morning videos of Guru meditating and these are the heart of everything – on the big screen Guru is powerfully there to bring us back on course, summon our soulfulness, provide 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 of consciousness. 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. Jotting into my diary another of Guru's poems:
An ageless river flows
Through the modern aspiration
A beautiful short video this morning of Guru, 1976, talking about Australia prior to his first visit there in that same year. He talks of its unique inner qualities, the height of the mind, depth of the heart, the qualities of its physical, its vital and heart, like a description of the uniqueness captured in a spiritual name. A phrase about how Australia embodies 'the ancient sun' and the promise of 'tomorrow's new dawn'. I remember Guru telling us in the eighties of how – I think it was on that first visit – the soul of Australia, like a tall strong young man if you were to attempt to describe the indescribable soul, came to Guru before he arrived to greet him. It asked Guru about His purpose – Guru made some response about how Australia was good at sports, always beating India at cricket. He had come to bring to Australia a new game, the oneness-heart game.
On my way home a black snake wriggles across the path right at my feet, coiling in exaggerated full loops at great speed.
There have been many meetings about the year ahead but perhaps everything is already in place, the way forward organic and likely to unfold if simply left alone. Guru's physical departing was not untimely or premature and we have been in training for this for a long while. I believe the standards set in the centres will ensure the purity and strength and continuity of the path – meetings between centre leaders to discuss these standards will be very useful.
Follow the ancient disciplines
And soulfully recite
The sacred mantra-incantations.
One of our disciples flew to a small village in some remote part of the island for an adventure. I hope this third hand account is accurate. In a café he left 'The Son' (Guru's play on the life of Christ) on a table, and returning found a man reading it. He was a missionary, had met Guru in person at the United Nations and presented the selfsame title to Guru for his personal and obliging signature. The man was greatly moved by Guru and had used The Son as a text in all of his later teachings and religious seminars. This unlikely meeting reminded me of the fact that Guru and the centres have touched millions of lives in this way, almost all of these stories entirely unchronicled and unknown. Millions of seeds planted, waiting to germinate at God's choice hour.
Quite recently in Auckland a lady stopped me on the street to ask if I remembered her. I did not, and she proceeded to remind me of a visit I had made to her town over twelve years earlier. Guru's teachings about meditation on that weekend of long ago had changed her life and she had been meditating ever since, rising at 6am every morning and even becoming a vegetarian. These stories are the tip of a great iceberg of life changing/world changing initiatives inspired by Guru, most of it concealed in countless unknown lives but seeding the world with light, one person at a time.
My Beloved Lord Supreme,
Do transport me to the land
Of limitless and ceaseless
It is most pleasant here at night time on the shore. After our function finishes around 11pm you can sit alone on a deck chair, the only person in this long stretch of beach, and close your eyes in the darkness. The ever-present breeze is lovely and the wind pushes into your face, sea-fragrant and rich, invisible though almost tangible like a flowing heavy mist. There are plenty of stars, and 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.
Alone on the beach at this late hour, everything seems ephemeral as though no one else ever existed, you the only being on this coastline. Cocooned like this in nature, the mind falls quickly away and you can practice your meditation. I like to count each in-breath in preparation, count up to one hundred very slowly. You can imagine Guru sitting in your heart, or see Guru's face before you, withdrawn into some samadhi of sat-chit-ananda, and you can emulate this, practice your own attempt at withdrawal from body, mind and senses into pure consciousness and delight. Or imagine your soul bird merging into the overhead heavens, a universe of endless stars.
Once, in this way an hour passed very quickly and I felt pleased that something like this might come so quickly. Or that I had become oblivious of time, a tiny intimation of something. Sometimes I wonder if I'm veering a little off course with some of my meditations though I feel like a goat on a long chain – Guru will yank me back if I stray too far. I hope the chain of my personal love for Guru is strong.
Sometimes at night sudden storms rage across the sea and batter the coast, abrupt and violent, the petulant fury of a sea god, then as quickly abate. The wind roars through the shoreline palms like the breath of a Colossus, the long supple fronds of the coconut palms whirling about like scimitars. Before the rain comes the wind drives the pale golden sand up into the hotel grounds and swimming pools – it hisses through the garden shrubs and slides slowly, defeated, down the ground floor windowpanes like a doomed, sad invasion. After the rain the sky suddenly clears and stars like pale mica glisten in the velvet canopy. Everyone has fled, shrieking, slipping on the wet tiles to their thatched shelters and hotel rooms and you have the place to yourself.
If you follow
All the ancient disciplines
Early in the morning,
Your mounting aspiration-flames
Will reach the Highest
Sooner than at once.
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. Other Christ songs, Guru's compositions, are also performed, then Guru's play The Son is shown featuring Guru as both Christ and God. Wonderful. Post-lunch, and in droves the disciples head for the beach, a sense of urgency with only four days left. Cramming in as much suntan, joy, camaraderie, swimming, yachting, windsurfing, deck chair dozing and nature meditations as possible. They are scattered across the great lagoon on skiffs, Lasers, kayaks, catamarans. They swim in ones and twos, black seal heads bobbing far out against the sea, eat pizza and drink pina coladas by the gallons.
A festive pleasure boat comes by, two decks of cheering, dancing young people, swaying and clapping to the sounds of mandolins and drums. You have to smile. They line the railings, call out good-naturedly to other boats they pass. Jammed together on the brightly painted boat they spontaneously cheer, urged on by an excited megaphonic voice, gyrate on the top deck as though on a Saturday night dance floor, a floating party. The sounds of their revelry slides left to right across the sea and fades. In the afternoon the sea throbs with music, with the snarl of jet skis and small boats, the throb of diesel engines and outboard motors – in the evening only the wind.
As night comes everyone leaves the beach and the empty deck chairs seem to bask in the fading light as though leading a life of their own.
Tonight others are out to farewell, to search the midnight in that quest that defines us as disciples. They lie quietly on their backs on deckchairs, stargazing under a three quarter moon. The palms lean away from the ocean in the offshore breeze, sibilant and rustling, their fronds gleaming moonlight. 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 saying something 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.
This pleasure life, as we know, is empty of real happiness and even while basking carefree on a Caribbean beach, your toes in the pale gold sand, you can feel the failure of the temporal to satisfy, the familiar knot in your heart and that pensiveness of spirit that has been your faithful life companion. Though these late nights by the sea when others have retired are good enough, at rest in a stillness that is at least a tiny whisper of what you seek – a stillness at least of the mind, though when the mind becomes quiet you can see that everything else is moving, the ceaseless rhythms and arhythms of our planets livingness, trees, sea, late and silent strollers like shadows against the black hem of night, an offshore breeze, and further out a cruise ship, decks ablaze with cabin lights, inching silently across the far horizon. And stars inching across the heavens while you watch, the earth turning, turning, turning as you ride your deckchair across the cosmos.
I told a disciple friend today with a shamefully straight face that recent medical research shows conclusive evidence of cauliflower being linked to premature hair loss. His plate was piled high with the stuff. He told me his mane of white hair confers a geriatric frailty to his appearance and gets him frequent proffered seats on Canadian public buses – he seemed genuinely worried by my pronouncement. I forgot to tell him I was teasing. This is how new diets are formed, lives are changed and how sales of Canadian cauliflower could mysteriously decline.
From everything that you say,
Everything that you do
And everything that you see
In your life,
Just ask yourself one question:
"Am I deriving any
A pleasant afternoon waiting in Los Angeles for my flight to Auckland – pampered and fed like some tycoon in the United Airlines Gold Card lounge. Blue vein cheese, fresh salads, crusty cheese breads and olives – oh my! The gleeful uninhibitedness with which disciples gorge on free food at every opportunity – as though none of us are quite sure when a next square meal will be had. I sense the proximity of other frugal incarnations, most romantically monkish, but more plausibly living under a bridge wrapped in newspaper. In the lounge I find a charming small collection of New Zealand books, one striking compilation of artists' self-portraits with an absorbing introduction. I felt a moments wistfulness for those pre-disciple years of seclusion in the mountains with my collection of treasured authors, reading late into the night by candlelight, silent before the beauty of language and those great and majestic pinnacles of thought, the nearing sense of some final revelation. Tearing the heart out of a book like a loaf of bread.
Literature with its thoughts and insights and its accumulated knowledge of our finest hearts and intellects has been one of my life's enduring loves and yet most neglected and spurned. I have never returned to her after a whirlwind early romance that left impressions, memories and endearments enough to last a lifetime. By candlelight, so long ago, devouring those great books that marked out the territories of my understanding and which I remember still as though it was only yesterday. And to still cherish them – is this a measure of their profundity or of how little I have actually changed? In their presence and the spiritual wisdoms of my Guru's legacy, my own distaste for inserting the 'I' into writing is simply a profound conviction that it, 'I', has nothing much to offer – best leave it out altogether. The critic Laurie Lee once wrote 'perhaps the widest pitfall in autobiography is the writer's censorship of self. Unconscious or deliberate, it often releases an image of one who could never have lived. Flat, shadowy, prim and bloodless it is a leaf pressed dry on the page, the surrogate chosen for public office so that the author might survive in secret. With a few exceptions, the first person singular is one of the recurrent shams of literature – the faceless 'I', opaque and neuter, fruit of some failure between honesty and nerve.'
But in terms of leaving something heraldic behind, Guru's own poem of self-assessment has the last word:
As everybody has to leave,
He will also one day leave this Earth.
But He will be able to say
That He left something
For both Heaven and Earth to treasure:
His Transcendental Consciousness.
All poems on this page are by Sri Chinmoy.