Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I Don't Get My Name

I had waited on the street in front of Progress-Promise for Guru's car to arrive before going upstairs to the meditation hall. Ranjana was coming up the stairs just behind me.

"I hear that someone is going to get their name soon," she said. I turned in the stairwell. She had a twinkle in her eye.

"Don't say that," I said in a mock complaining voice. Ever since Guru had given Giribar his name a few months earlier I had been doing my best to keep a lid on my own rising expectations.

"Well, that's what I hear," Ranjana continued with a smile as she entered the girls' shoe room and went into the meditation hall.

Great! Now, instead of going in and having a good meditation, I was going to sit there obsessing about whether tonight was the night.

Ranjana was Guru's personal aid. Guru had a number of disciples -- men and women -- who served him directly in one capacity or another. But nobody was physically closer to Guru for more time than Ranjana and Lavanya (another female New York disciple).

Whether they liked it or not -- and I suspect the latter -- Ranjana's and Lavanya's names were as one. For disciples of my vintage, "Ranjana and Lavanya" rolled off the tongue much the same way "Bipin and Pulin" did. It was hard to think of one without the other. Though, unlike Bipin and Pulin, Ranjana and Lavanya didn't appear to be close friends.

Ranjana was tall and lean with a long mane of dark brown hair, which she usually wore in a single pony tail. She has sharp features and penetrating dark eyes. Her dark eyeliner accentuated her already severe appearance. Ranjana's celebrity lookalike would be a young, svelte Anjelica Huston (pictured above in Prizzi's Honor). It was easy to see why her physical presence alone intimidated so many disciples (men and women alike).

Ranjana always seemed fond of me though. Not that we had ever shared many words (if any). But I detected early on that she was a secret advocate of mine -- drawing Guru's attention to me from time to time. I felt naturally at ease with her. I guess that's why I wasn't surprised when Ranjana spoke to me in the stairwell that night.

As expected, I couldn't meditate once I was inside the meditation hall. Near the end of the function, Guru began calling disciples up to the stage. Everyone knew what was happening -- we'd all seen the drill before. Guru was going to give the people called to the stage their spiritual names.

One by one, Guru called more and more disciples up and with each one my nervousness and excitement grew exponentially. Soon, there were seven or eight people sitting on the stage in front of Guru. He started meditating. I hadn't been called up.

I'd blown it! My expectation had gotten the better of me. I figured that my consciousness must not have been good enough to get my name that night. If only Ranjana hadn't said anything to me beforehand, I thought.

After the names were handed out, there was prasad and then the function was over (the happy name recipients glowing with pride, their friends gathering around). On her way out, Ranjana didn't look at me directly, but the expression on her face made it clear that she felt bad.

As Guru made his way out of Progress-Promise, I saw Ranjana whispering something to him, which just raised my anxiety even higher. A moment later, Ranjana was by my side. "Guru hasn't forgotten," she confided. With that, she was off.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

My Worst Quality

For a California boy, New York in the dead of winter was a fun place to be. For the four or five weeks that Guru was out of town, my life was routine and quiet.

I'd get up and meditate in the morning and get to the Smile for work by 8 a.m. I'd work until closing at 4 p.m., and then usually go for a run. For dinner, I'd usually head over to the other disciple-run restaurant, Annam Brahma. As an employee of the Smile, I paid only half-price for any food that I ate there (a courtesy that the Smile also extended to the employees of Annam Brahma).

Without Guru around to set the agenda, the evenings were usually open. Invariably, however, I'd head back to the Smile at some point each night to help the night crew with their chores.

Until Guru returned in mid-January (1985), it was a Spartan existence. Aware that it was temporary, I loved it, and it made Guru's return that much sweeter. With his return, Jamaica came alive. Most week nights there were functions at Progress-Promise that were so sparsely attended that I was both shocked and thrilled. And on the weekends, disciples from Canada and Boston (and other locales) would descend upon Queens en masse.

For someone like me, who wanted to be doing nothing more than meditating and hanging in the presence of the Master, there was always something interesting happening. At one function that winter, for example, Guru apparently needed to raise money. So, he told the disciples assembled at Progress-Promise that night that for $20 he would tell each person either their best personal quality or their worst (their choice).

I paid and was given a blank square of white paper. Guru told those then waiting in line to put their names on the paper. The idea was that as you got to the front of the line, you were supposed to give Guru the paper and tell him which personal quality you wanted to receive: your best or your worst.

There was some nervous chatter in the guy's line (Progress-Promise was divided down the middle, with men sitting on one side and women on the other) about which quality to ask for. To me, though, it was a no-brainer. What good would it do me to know my best quality?

My goal was to become consciously one with the Divine. I wanted to know what was preventing me from achieving that goal.

My certainty about what quality to ask for didn't mean that I wasn't nervous. I was. I had always been hyper-critical of myself, even before I became a disciple. Standing in that line, inching closer and closer to Guru as he quickly wrote out people's requested qualities, I couldn't help but think of my own shameful, pre-disciple behavior.

True, I had come a long way from the person I had been at the Sadie Hawkins' Day dance, for example. But I couldn't shake an idea I had picked up in reading the Gospel. Sri Ramakrishna had said something like, "Once you have kept garlic in a clay pot, no matter how well you wash it, it will always stink of garlic." In that sense, I feared that my "impure" boyhood activities would taint me forever. I suspected that this was what Guru would allude to on the slip of paper I was holding on to.

As you can see above -- assuming you can read it -- he didn't. Instead, Guru wrote: "Lack of confidence-light in the aspiration-heart." Upon my first reading, it seemed pretty benign. I was both relieved and puzzled. Relieved not to be called out as being impure or unworthy of the spiritual life. Puzzled at what, exactly, Guru was getting at.

As far as disciples went, I was pretty cocky (though quietly so). I was a jock by nature, highly competitive, and had always cultivated a certain physical daring in myself. So, I didn't get it. For some reason, I blinded myself to what (as a lawyer) I'd call the note's express or explicit meaning.

It didn't say that I lacked confidence in general. It says that I lacked confidence in my own aspiration for God. I lacked confidence in the power of my own spirituality.

It would be 15 years before I would realize what that note meant (and before I would address it directly with Guru). In the meantime, I tucked the note away with puzzled relief and forgot about it.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rick Gets His Name

In December 1984, Rick and I both went to New York before Guru went on his annual Christmas Trip. It was an important trip for both of us.

For me, the trip was important because I was offered a job -- albeit a temporary one -- at the Smile of the Beyond. The Smile is a vegetarian diner in Queens run by disciples. At that time, a disciple named Shushoban managed the Smile. He was going on the Christmas Trip, though, and asked me whether I'd be willing to stay in New York and fill in for him.

Of course I would! If I played my cards right, I figured that I'd be able to extend my stay in New York all the way until April. Perhaps that would be long enough, I thought, to "make myself indispensable to Guru" (which, according to Jigisha, was a prerequisite to getting permission to move to New York permanently).

So, for the few weeks before the Christmas Trip began, I spent a few hours each day training in the Smile. Aside from Shushoban, the full-time day crew consisted of two veteran disciples named Boiragi (who primarily worked the salad bar) and Sundar (who primarily took customer orders and got drinks).

The other memorable thing that took place that December was that Guru called Rick up to the stage (of P.S. 86, I think) and gave him the spiritual name "Giribar." I don't remember its exact meaning, but its essence was "mountain."

I was happy for Giribar, but I also felt a little awkward. On the one hand, I knew Giribar deserved his name. Without him, there would have been no San Jose Center (nor would there ever have been one). He had sacrificed so much, not only for Guru and the other disciples, but for me personally.

On the other hand, I was jealous. Not rabidly so, but I thought my inner achievement was certainly equal to Giribar's outer achievement. Now, so many years later it's still embarrassing to acknowledge not only the pettiness of this thinking but also its absurdity. In my own defense, though, I was a good sport and quite conscious, even at the time, that my envy was petty and ignoble.

Like all the other qualities that I disliked about myself, I gratefully offered my jealousy as alms to the Divine.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Anugata

Of all of the extraordinary individuals that I've known -- in and out of the Center -- I'm not sure any of them compare with Anugata. I'm sorry that, at least early on, I was not a better friend to him.

In times future, I imagine that some people will look back and marvel at Anugata's impressive physical achievements. As a youth, he was a tennis champ. In the Center, he ran countless marathons and ultra events (including running across the Sahara). He swam the English Channel. And now he's got Mt. Everest in his sights. (Great photo of Anugata in the Himalayan foothills from one of Jowan's galleries.)

In my imagination, however, I see Anugata standing naked before a mirror. Looking at himself, he repeats the mantra of the ancient jnana yogis: "Not this, not this." To me, Anugata has always seemed a sage.

My earliest memory of Anugata is as a storyteller. He told great stories from the Mahabharata and the other epics of Indian mythology. There was a British disciple who would often be asked to sit in front of the disciple audience at Progress-Promise during Celebrations to give his rendition of the classic stories. He was a master of detail, but I preferred Anugata's tellings. Anugata is a knower, not just a teller.

My own pet theory is that some of the strong individuals that I have been blessed to know have, in the hoary past, been men of considerable inner achievement. When I think of Anugata, I am reminded of Tota Puri. (I guess I shouldn't be shocked that Tota Puri has his own Wiki page here.)

Tota Puri -- or the "Naked One" as Sri Ramakrishna called him -- was a wandering sadhu from the northern provinces of India. He had been raised in a monastery and rose to become its abbot before he dropped all for the wandering life. He walked the countryside naked, with only a walking stick, a bowl, and a pair of tongs. He never spent more than three days in any one place.

Arriving at the Kali Ghat -- where a young Ramakrishna was in residence as the temple priest -- Tota Puri noticed the young priest amongst the morning crowd at the Ganges. "You have the look of a knower of Brahman," Tota Puri remarked. "Would you like to learn about the Vedanta?"

Ramakrishna said that he'd have to ask his Mother. "Yes, go and ask your mother," the naked sadhu replied (one imagines a bit contemptuously). Perhaps needless to write, Ramakrishna wasn't referring to his human mother.

With the inner permission obtained, Tota Puri initiated Ramakrishna into the worship (for lack of a better word) of the formless Absolute. Ramakrishna's quick progress, to say the least, shook Tota Puri to his roots and he broke his wandering habit and remained at Dakshineswar with Ramakrishna for six months. By the time he resumed his wanderings, he too had realized that nothing is done without the permission of the Mother.

How would someone like Tota Puri cope in today's world? The conventional answer, perhaps, would be that he wouldn't -- a great soul like that would never incarnate again after having achieved liberation. I don't think it works that way though.

My sense is that these "great souls" (I think they would shudder at this label) are not conventional. The very qualities that made liberation possible -- heroic independence, fearlessness, the courage to seek -- rather than avoid -- a challenge, would almost demand their continued action in the world. Were Tota Puri to appear in the modern world, I suspect he'd look very much like Anugata.

The heights of immobile trance having been scaled, the great soul attempts to establish its influence over the physical world, the world of action. The soul takes up the new challenge of what Sri Aurobindo calls the "Live Divine."

The Gospel

I don't remember August Celebrations that year (1984).

From Pulin's kidnapping and rescue my memory skips to the fall -- my last as a California disciple. I was back working for Rick and living at his house, which also served as the San Jose Sri Chinmoy Center (despite the fact that it was actually located in Cupertino).

By then, our little Center had grown. We did it not by giving classes and recruiting new disciples that way, but by attracting disciples from other Centers to move to ours. The number one attraction being the generous hourly rate Rick paid his landscaping employees.

I don't want to exaggerate the size of our group -- it numbered maybe just north of a half-dozen -- but we had been hovering at around three people for such a long time. By that fall, aside from me, Rick and Elizabeth, there was Nick (a great runner and infectiously funny guy, originally from Seattle), Tony (a Lebanese-born guitar player, one of our only two new recruits), Sultana (a 90-plus year woman, our other new recruit), and Anugata (originally from S.F. and who deserves, and shall get, his own post; you can get a glimpse of him here, in a nice blog done by Utpal Marshall).

The Center was a guys' house. We worked, ran and lived together. Rick had transformed his garage into four small bedrooms, where Nick, Tony, Anugata and I lived. I remember it as a fun and dynamic time for all of us. That's when I began reading a book that -- in the inimitable words of Eugene Struthers -- brought my spiritual zeal to a "whole ... nuther ... level."

If Swami Yogananda's Autobiography inspired me to live a spiritual life, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna taught me how.

For me, reading the Gospel was like discovering family members that I hadn't known existed. From its first pages -- and a new translation of it can be read online here -- the Gospel drew me into a world that felt thrillingly familiar. That fall, we received a lot of rain, which prevented us from doing much landscaping work, so I spent rainy days lying in my loft-shrine alternately reading the Gospel and crying for oneness with the Divine. For that was the lesson I took from the Gospel: cry for the Divine like a lost child crying for his mother, but do it in secret.

The other significant event of that fall was Guru's visit to our Center at Rick's house. Shortly before Guru arrived, Rick told me that he had got in touch with my old friend Charlie and invited him to come see Guru. I was surprised. Charlie had left the Center a few years before, when we were both in high school. I hadn't seen him since. (Only much later did it occur to me that Guru must have asked Rick to talk to Charlie.)

That night I was anxious about seeing Charlie, but he didn't come by. Instead, the Center was inundated with disciples from throughout California in anticipation of Guru's visit, which was just part of a longer visit Guru was making to San Francisco.

Sitting right in front of Guru that night in the living room of Rick's house, packed with disciples, I couldn't have been happier. Near the end of the short visit, Guru asked Rick about Charlie. When Rick told Guru that Charlie wasn't there, Guru looked at me.

I told Guru I hadn't seen Charlie since high school. He asked me a question or two and then closed his eyes and said my name. It appeared he was in a reverie of some sort. Then he said, "You have a very good soul ... a very old soul."

For the rest of the fall, I spent my free time in the solitude of my room reading the Gospel and crying for God.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pulin

Guru's house had the atmosphere of a command center, which is exactly what it had been turned into since Pulin's kidnapping.

Though it had only been a few days, a rough picture of what had happened to Pulin was already taking shape. Apparently, Pulin's parents had asked him to meet them at a restaurant in New Jersey. Pulin never returned. His parents were "deprogramming" him.

By the time Jigisha and I arrived at Guru's house, Pulin's location had been confirmed with the help of a couple of private investigators. He was inside a house in Jersey. Just as quickly as Jigisha and I had arrived at Guru's house, we found ourselves being piled into a car with a bunch of other guys on our way to the Garden State (cue Sopranos intro).

Our immediate destination was a small hotel room crammed with 30 or 40 other disciples located a short distance from where Pulin was being held. The mood was tense. One of the older New York disciples (Dhruva) was on the phone with Guru, who was trying to decide on a course of action.

The choices seemed pretty bleak: do nothing or do something drastic (and perhaps dangerous). On the one hand, there was talk of help being offered by the Sikh community. They, apparently, had had some experience dealing with cult deprogrammers and offered their armed help if we wanted it. On the other hand, the two private investigators who were instrumental in finding Pulin didn't want any part of a direct action to go in and forcibly extract Pulin from the house (especially if guns were involved).

Though there was no vote of any kind, I personally was for going in, with or without the Sikhs. Thankfully, in hindsight, mine wasn't the prevailing view. After an hour or so, Guru recalled the troops. We took no direct action. Instead, we watched and waited.

Later, I heard through the grapevine that two disciples who had had some knowledge of electronics tapped into the phone line leading into the house where Pulin was being held. They learned that Pulin was to be flown out of La Guardia to the midwest for further deprogramming. That's when another disciple with connections to the travel industry was able to locate the exact flight Pulin was booked on.

The final phase of the plan simply involved Databir and some other disciples staking out the airport. Once Pulin was spotted outside the terminal, Databir shouted out his name and Pulin sprinted to his waiting car. A few minutes later Pulin strolled into P.S. 86 where that evening's function was underway. He only stayed a few minutes and then went into temporary hiding, but it was great to see him.

If I had to pick a celebrity to play Pulin in a movie I'd cast Sean Astin. Pulin left the Center of his own accord a few months later. I think he was already burned out and the whole kidnapping thing was the last straw. Pulin's departure from the Center depressed me; it was the first time I really felt a loss when a disciple left the path.

What a good man Pulin is. I still miss him and will always be grateful to him for taking me under his wing.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jigisha

I was sitting on the couch in one of the disciple boys' houses in San Francisco reading when Jigisha came into the room. We were about to head back up to the S.F. Center for another day of producing copies of cassette tapes of Guru's flute and esraj music to bring with us to New York in a few days.

Jigisha (picture by Jowan) had just dressed after showering and he was standing in the adjacent kitchen looking at me. I didn't look up, but I could still see him standing there in my peripheral vision.

Then, I felt a penetrating-type of force upon me -- similar in feeling to what one might have felt from Guru during a meditation with him. I could also see Jigisha's physical form expand. I had heard rumors amongst the other S.F. disciples that Jigisha had some occult ability, and I thought that he was consciously trying to impress me.

I refused to give him the satisfaction. Instead, I continued looking at my book, pretending to read, as if nothing was happening. At a time in my spiritual development when I had a very idealistic view of the Center, Jigisha brought me down to Earth and taught me how to think realistically (whether I liked it at the time or not). I'll always be grateful for his friendship.

I had spent all summer in Southern California living in a small apartment with over a half-dozen guys postering for Guru's Peace Concert just before the L.A. Olympics. In the short time between the end of the Games and the beginning of August Celebrations 1984, Jigisha and I were working day and night to make as many tapes of Guru's music for sale at Celebrations as we possibly could. (Apparently, the S.F. Center had the only high-speed cassette tape duplicator and did most, if not all, of the official copying of Guru's tapes.)

Aside from the long, tedious hours duplicating tapes, Jigisha and I also did other odd jobs for Sevika inside the S.F. Center. The house that served as the S.F. Center (and Sevika's house) in those days was a beautiful three-story home on 16th Avenue (near Taraval Street) in the Sunset District. It held as powerful a spiritual charge as any place I've ever been in.

When Jigisha and I would go out to get a sandwich for lunch, the moment I stepped out the front door of the Center, I realized just how powerful that charge was. I would literally carry an overwhelming sense of light and joy in my head and chest as I walked outside, as one might carry warmth out into the cold outdoors after sitting in front of a fire. Jigisha impressed upon me the secret attraction of selfless service (i.e., work as devotion, with no expectation of personal gain).

Our work done, we loaded up Jigisha's car and headed east. Our drive to New York was fast, not because we drove quickly, but because we really didn't stop except for gas and one flat tire. We made it to New York in two and a half days. As we were unloading the car in Jamaica, a vehicle came to an abrupt halt in the street next to us. It was full of disciples.

"Guru wants all boys at his house -- now," exclaimed the passenger. Then, as quickly as it had stopped, the car sped off.

Pulin had been kidnapped.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Summer Games

Upon return home, the big news was the announcement that Guru would give a "Peace Concert" in Los Angels later that summer.

The concert would coincide with the 1984 Summer Olympics, which were also in Los Angeles. As I recall, Guru challenged the California disciples to get at least 7,000 people to attend the concert. While the German disciples had recently been successful attracting large crowds to Guru's concerts, I thought it improbable for us given Southern California's thoroughly worked new age marketplace.

Nevertheless, the call went out for volunteers. The leader of the San Diego Center had rented a small, two-bedroom apartment in Anaheim and promised to provide free room and board to any guys who wanted to go down there and help.

Two days later, I made the seven hour drive south in my 1965 Ford Falcon. When I arrived, I became one of eight or so guys sharing that tiny apartment. It was a great group, though, largely made up of the same crew that had made up our U.N. Day relay team the previous fall.

What a great summer! I'm not saying that we didn't work hard to attract people for the concert, but we pretty much kept bankers' hours. Typically, the apartment would begin to stir around 7:00 a.m., with guys sitting up in their sleeping bags meditating in front of makeshift shrines.

Shortly thereafter, most of us would head out for a run. We'd get in five miles or more before converging back upon the apartment for a communal breakfast and planning meeting for the day ahead.

By 9:00 a.m. or so, most of us would be out trying to gin up interest in the upcoming Peace Concert. Our primary method of advertisement was postering -- going into shops throughout Orange County and asking shopkeepers permission to place concert posters in their shop windows. It was pretty low tech and when the concert rolled around a few months later, only some 3,000 or so people turned up.

The excitement of the Olympic Games, however, dampened any disappointment there might have been. Particularly since Carl Lewis, who went on to equal Jesse Owens' feat of four gold medals in one Games, was a new devotee of Guru's. In fact, after the gold medal ceremony for the 200 meters, Sudahota (Lewis' spiritual name) walked off the medal podium and gave his winner's bouquet to Guru, who was sitting track side.

On a personal note, Rick went out of his way to make a childhood dream of mine come true: to attend the Olympics. He bought both of us tickets to the long jump final (which Sudahota won, too). It was a very generous thing for Rick to have done and I've never forgotten it.

With the end of the Games, August Celebrations was upon us. I had no idea how I was going to get to New York; I had no money. Jigisha then told me that he was planning on driving to New York and that I was welcome to go with him. First, though, he needed to produce hundreds of cassette tapes of Guru's music to bring to Celebrations.

So, I signed on to help.

Friday, April 11, 2008

A New Year

On the plane ride back to California from April Celebrations 1984, I was both exhausted and exhilarated.

It had been the busiest Celebrations of my discipleship and by its conclusion I had been exposed to some of the best men I'd ever meet. By years end, my goal of moving to New York permanently would be near fruition.

That, however, was in the future. On my flight home, all I could think about were the previous two and a half weeks and how busy I'd been. Not only were there the typical morning and evening functions of Celebrations, but I was also now a permanent member of the tennis grounds crew. That meant that I not only acted as a ball boy during the hours that Guru played tennis each day, but I also started learning how to prepare the clay court for play beforehand.

And then there was the singing. I was now a member of the S.F. boys' singing group. Months before Celebrations started, Guru gave us some 50 Bengali devotional songs that he wanted us to perform. So, one morning at the tennis court, standing in a semi-circle before Guru with flowers in our folded hands, the eight (or so) of us belted them out, one after another. When we were done, Guru handed each of us a grapefruit. He later proclaimed that of the four preeminent singing groups (the others being the S.F. girls, and the N.Y. boys and girls, respectively), we had performed the best.

That Celebrations, I also ran my first marathon -- the first of some 25 marathons I'd run over the next five years. I did it in Flushing Meadow Park, during the annual disciple 12-hour race walk. I was too new a disciple to compete in that brutal event (thank the gods). That year, though, the race was held on the day I turned 19. Rick's brother -- Arpan -- gave me the idea to run 19 miles for my 19th birthday (something Arpan did annually into his 40s). So, with Rick running alongside, I slowly began running the one-mile course being used for the race walk. When I got to 19, I just decided to go the extra seven miles for the marathon.

But it was how I ended most nights during the Celebrations that April that was most important, not only for my personal development, but also for laying the foundation for my future move to New York. It started with some simple advice from my friend and S.F. disciple Jigisha. He told me that if I could find a way to lighten the work load of the disciples who served Guru everyday, then it would be just as good as serving Guru directly myself.

I liked that idea and knew just how to help. I was now surrounded by the guys who did nothing but serve Guru directly, most prominently Databir, Bipin (pictured above quite a few years later), and Pulin.

After their day jobs -- which typically ended after midnight -- these three still had the responsibility of cleaning and preparing the disciple-run diner named The Smile of the Beyond (or "The Smile" as we called it) for business the next day. They had to wash all the pots and pans, wipe down the booths, refill condiments, mop the floor, et cetera. In return for which, all three got a modest allowance and free food 24/7.

Cleaning The Smile wasn't a big job, even for just one person, but doing it at the end of a long day like they were used to was tough. That's where I saw an opportunity to be of service. After the evening function would end -- typically sometime after 10:00 p.m. -- I'd head over to The Smile and start on Databir's, Bipin's, and Pulin's chores.

Usually, they weren't there. After the official evening function would end, Guru would have a select group of disciples, including the guys, over to his house (the "House" as we say). So, my mission was to finish their chores before they got back to The Smile. I relished getting everything done and then sneaking back to Databir's place (where, thanks to Ketan, I was now staying). The next day, the guys would be so thankful.

Oftentimes, I couldn't finish everything before they got back from the House, which was great for me. Most nights they'd bring me back prasad and tell me what was going on there. I tried to be unobtrusive and made a point not to ask questions -- I still wasn't sure just how far I was accepted. But they accepted me with open arms.

I was so grateful. These guys were different than other disciples. I don't mean spiritually "higher" or more advanced -- whatever those terms mean, if anything at all. Primarily, they were hard workers to whom a natural humility was constant. They were devoted to Guru in an intimate way, but their devotion was natural and devoid of the reverential awe so common amongst disciples. Most importantly, however, they didn't demand Guru's attention. They were there to serve, but preferred to be out of the limelight.

I would distinguish this small band of brothers from other disciples (including many others who served Guru directly) in much the same way one might distinguish veteran soldiers who had seen combat from those idealistic and sometimes fanatical troops who had never been near the front lines (REMFs).

That's what I thought about as my plane sped west to California, taking me away from the spiritual front lines.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Phanindra

Shortly after Guru arrived at Progress-Promise, it was apparent that something significant was happening. He was very quiet and serious -- grave, even -- as he entered the hall and shuffled up to the stage. Almost immediately upon taking his seat, Guru began meditating.

After a few minutes, and without a word, Guru picked up a pen from among those gathered next to his throne and began drawing on an oversize piece of paper. The silent drawing went on for some time. There was tension in the room. When Guru finished drawing, he simply let the paper slip from his fingers almost carelessly, where it floated down in front of him onto the carpet. Then, Guru began intently meditating again.

After a few minutes, Guru announced that Phanindra was dead. He had been killed in an avalanche while skiing in the Alps with his father.

I shared floor space with Phanindra in the room of a local disciple on my two most recent trips to New York (April and August '83). He was a young, sharp-featured Frenchman with orange hair. While I would wake up in the mornings a few minutes late, shower quickly and then run all the way to the morning function -- mentally flogging myself all the way for missing every precious divine moment with the master -- Phanindra would sleep in. Upon my return to the room, I'd find him lying on the floor reading comic books.

Phanindra was at ease with himself, a quality that I both lacked and admired. He received his name on a small square of paper and I remember asking him what it said. He told me that "Phanindra" had something to do with the "divine snake consciousness," as I recall. I wasn't sure how I would have reacted to such a name had it been given to me.

The snake didn't seem like all that uplifting of a symbol to me, but I detected no such hesitation in his acceptance of the name. At the time, I thought Phanindra did resemble a snake, with his sharp nose and intent eyes, and now, thinking back, I imagine he did personify the budding creative energy beginning to uncoil itself upon the world -- the Divine Serpent.

The last time I remember seeing Phanindra, he gave me a "Vive la France" t-shirt. It was a gaudy red, white and blue number that the French disciples' Song-Waves choir used in their performances. At the April '83 Celebrations, I had made an off hand comment to Phanindra about how much I liked the shirts. So, that August, he brought one for me.

I was very happy to get the shirt, but touched even more that Phanindra had thought of me.

A special thank you to some old friends in Paris for the photo, which shows not only Phanindra, but his Paris Center name tag.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

December 1983

My next trip to New York started so well and ended so badly.

On December 3, 1983, I arrived to a cold New York for my first visit to Guru outside the normal Celebration times of April and August. I was very excited.

So excited, in fact, that it was the only time during my discipleship in which I kept a journal, from which I'll include a few excerpts. As my first journal entry for the trip illustrates, my immediate impression upon arriving in Queens was the intimacy -- there just weren't the hundreds of visiting disciples around as would be normal during Celebrations.

December 3.

After arriving in New York this morning, I went to Progress-Promise, where Guru was singing songs with a bunch of girls on stage. Guru then asked people to come up for prasad. When I received mine, Guru asked me whether I was the only one from San Jose. I said no.

As I was walking away, Guru mentioned God's Orchestra. He said that he had liked my role. I wish to be always unconditionally grateful.

God's Orchestra is a book that Guru wrote with little aphorisms about numerous professions and occupations. Just before going to New York, a San Francisco disciple named David had decided to put together a video illustrating a number of those aphorisms in a humorous way. David had recruited me to play a bunch of roles, including God's voice in one skit and a snake in another.

The next night, Guru noticed David and told him how much he liked the video. Guru also asked him who had played the snake. When Guru heard that it was me, he laughed and said that I had gone from a snake to God! The next night, my new friend Ketan put on Guru's play about Sri Ramakrishna. It was great.

The days flew by. In the mornings, Guru would show up at Progress-Promise (the name of the Center's meeting hall in Queens), where he'd exercise for a while, write new Bengali devotional songs on a portable keyboard and teach them to various singing groups. One morning, Guru mentioned how the New York boys' singing group "is the highest," but that the San Francisco boys' group had "descended." This, apparently, was because the former leader of the SF boys' group had recently left the Path.

Guru then announced that he would be the leader and Venu -- a very nice and very energetic SF disciple -- would be his assistant. That evening, Sevika came up to me and said that Guru wanted me and Rick to join the SF boys' singing group. As I expressed in my journal at the time, this was a big deal.

I wasn't and as yet am not realizing how important and what a blessing this is. I pray that I can offer my most soulful gratitude to my Beloved Supreme. I bow.

At the function the next morning, Guru asked the SF boys' group to sit before him and sing. I however, remained seated where I was -- unsure as to whether I should join them or not. Guru then called out to me and asked me if I liked to sing. I said yes. He then said that if I liked him, then I should come up front. So, I did.

Later that week, I sang in public for the first time at Guru's New Year's Eve concert in Manhattan. The SF boys sang three songs. Then Guru gave the message for the New Year:

The seeker's confidence-heart,
The seeker's surrender-life
Shall play together
The complete perfection-game
In God's Vision-Home.

Throughout the ten-day trip, Guru gave out a lot of spiritual names, including to some SF disciples and we all meditated a bunch. There were two separate 12-hour meditations, there was the New Year's Eve concert, and there was a trip to the United Nations where Guru had been offering meditations for many years. With all the practice, my meditations were taking a new turn.

December 12.

This morning, Guru meditated first with the Europeans and then with the people not going to Venezuela [for the Christmas trip]. I sat right up front. Right when Guru started meditating, I began concentrating on his forehead. Guru's grace descended and I looked at him with the feeling of emptying my entire being into him.

Thoughts would come, but they flowed right into Guru, good and bad. When Guru began meditating on me, it was incredible. It was wave-like. Guru grabbed hold of me and brought me up or put some force on me

Guru meditated a long time like that. Then, when he looked at me the second time, it was even better or higher. My mind had essentially lost all its power in those seconds.

It was all such a positive experience, until Guru walked into Progress-Promise one night.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Back Home

I had mixed emotions upon returning home to California after the 1983 August Celebrations.

On the one hand, leaving New York was a bit of a let down. One minute I was down on the tennis court throwing tennis balls to Guru, and the next minute I was 3000 miles away in my room in Cupertino. By being in California, I was missing things. It wasn’t as if Guru had stopped playing tennis when the Celebrations ended.

On the other hand, being back in California for me was almost -- but not quite -- like being a big fish in a little pond. The regular attention Guru had been paying to me gave me some status. Like I mentioned before, I felt like I was a made man (in a spiritual sense). In a real sense, I was coming into my own as a disciple. Instead of being a 16 year-old, new disciple dependent upon the numerous adult disciples surrounding me for access to Guru, I was now, two years later, in the driver’s seat.

At that time (fall 1983), the California Centers -- which included SF, San Jose, Santa Barbara, LA and San Diego -- seemed to be on the move. Worldwide, the American Centers as a whole were on the decline, having peaked in influence throughout the 1970s. By the early-'80s, the Europeans -- led by the German disciples -- were on the ascendant. Nevertheless, there were quite a few young, dynamic and just plain funny disciples in California which made it feel like as a group, the California disciples could be -- nay would be -- a force to be reckoned with when it came to attracting new disciples, starting new disciple-run businesses, and generally bringing positive attention to Guru and his many activities.

Chief among these dynamic California disciples were a handful of older and wiser guys from SF, Rick and me of course, and practically the entire San Diego Center (which seemed to be made up of guys who did nothing other than play tennis and body surf all day). Once a month, we’d all get together in one city or another for what we’d call Joy Days, which usually included some mix of fun (tennis, ultimate Frisbee, body surfing), manifestation (i.e., giving a mediation seminar), and socializing (meditating and having dinner together).

It was at one of these Joy Days that the idea of a U.N. Day relay run from Sacramento, California to San Diego came to fruition. Guru loved the United Nations and for many years had been conducting meditations at the United Nations chapel twice each week. For that reason, the disciples -- at least those in California -- always tried to commemorate U.N. Day in some way.

In fact, the first Center-sponsored event that I participated in was to celebrate U.N. Day in 1981. I joined about a half-dozen SF disciples in running a human-powered float (for lack of a better word) from the site of the signing of the U.N. Charter through the streets of San Francisco. The "float" itself was covered in miniature flags representing all the countries of the world. My only distinct memory of that day was a confrontation we had with an African-American man who demanded that we remove the South African flag from our float.

On of my quick thinking brother disciples told the man that we'd be glad to remove the South African flag if he could point it out for us (we didn't know which one it was). Neither did he. So, we completed our run through the city without further incident.

Back to U.N. Day 1983. I loved the freedom I had to drop everything and join the relay team. While I was never very enthused about public displays of my discipleship, I loved being on the road with the guys. Pictured in the photo above -- from a news account of our relay -- is (from left to right): Bansidhar, then a SF disciple originally hailing from Hawaii; Pujari, then a Santa Barbara disciple; yours truly; Sujantra, from San Diego; and Mahiyan, Guru's primary tennis partner and San Diego Center leader.

The best thing about this new phase of my life, however, was being able to visit New York at other times of the year. At that time, a relatively small number of disciples had begun visiting Guru in Queens in the weeks just prior to his annual Christmas Trip (when Guru invited disciples who had been in the Center for some time to accompany him and Alo to some tropical locale for four to six weeks).

For the first time, I planned on joining them.