Pilgrim’s Diary 8. On the Road

We left the pilgrim at the end of the summer with his guru suddenly leaving this mortal world. The pilgrim used money earned for guarding fields all summer to buy a copy of Philokalia and went on the road again. This is where his second story begins, though it’s not marked in English translation.

His Jesus Prayer became his constant companion, it traveled with him, comforted him, consoled him, warmed him – they had built a relationship. This should not be very difficult for us either but there are obvious conditions – traveling means detachment from people and places. You meet someone, you see something, and you move on. Things, people, and words come into your view and disappear, you don’t create any bonds with them, just watch them come and go, even though in normal thinking it’s YOU who are traveling. In these ever changing circumstances the pilgrim had only one steady association – with his prayer. From the point of view of this relationship they stayed in one place and everything else traveled past them. We can and we should form a similar bond with the Holy Name, we should also find this solid ground where we stay in one place and life flows before our eyes, and eventually we should stop looking – it doesn’t require our attention anyway. We won’t stop the universe by not looking at it.

Next step for the pilgrim was to realize that this flow of people, places, and events is still distracting. He longed for solitude again but it wasn’t available. He divulged something about himself here – his left arm didn’t properly work from his childhood so he couldn’t get a job. This is interesting – if one wants to walk he will be fed as a passing holy man, but if one wants to stay in one place he has to work for his upkeep, and since our pilgrim was handicapped holding a steady job was not so easy – he lived a hundred years before emergence of “service economy”. Work meant working with your hands and hands needed to be strong. Thus the pilgrim chose walking, and he chose to walk east to Irkutsk, some five thousand kilometres away from central Russia, a city near lake Baikal. There was an apparently famous priest living in Irkutsk and the pilgrim didn’t feel the need to explain why he wanted to see him, not at this point in the book anyway. A side note – the name of that priest is interesting for non-Orthodox readers – in English it would be “Innocent” but in Russian this “c” in the middle is hard and the word doesn’t mean anything, it means “innocent” only in English and other Latin based languages but doesn’t evoke ideas of innocence in Russian even though it’s a very popular name.

The idea was to walk through Siberia, which was always sparsely populated, and there would be no distractions on the way. A look ahead – the entire book is dedicated to events of this journey to Irkutsk where the pilgrim met this “Innocent” priest, which was kind of anti-climatic, if you ask me, but that’s where the road had taken the pilgrim, so let’s go along.

He walked and walked and walked and chanted his Jesus prayer (on his beads) and then he noticed that the prayer, entirely by itself, started entering his heart. It was basically one sentence in the book, but there was so much packed into it that I have been thinking for several days about what it means in practice and what it could mean for us.

First of all – it was result of chanting a lot of names, chanting whole day through, without getting involved in anything else. The pilgrim walked, which isn’t an option for most of us, but we CAN find a way to dedicate more time to chanting. These days we often hear that it’s quality, not quantity that matters, that we shouldn’t prematurely take vows to chant more than sixteen rounds, that it should be done only on the orders of the spiritual master and only under his supervision, and so on. Well, this is also as impractical as us walking five thousand miles to Siberia. Our gurus have no time to babysit our chanting, though consulting with them is, of course, necessary. Still, I don’t see how shooting a “Can I chant one lakh a day?” email is appropriate. It’s not something that can be discussed from a distance, it’s something that should come from close heart to heart relationship, and that’s where practicality becomes a problem. I’d say that we should attain this closeness within our hearts ourselves, not necessarily by hanging out with our gurus day and night. There is much to discuss about this but now is not the time. Chanting a lot of Names has to be done, though.

One has to find a way to be close to his guru and start chanting more and, of course, one has to find a way for chanting itself. This can’t be ignored, we can’t move forward and expect the same results without these two steps. The pilgrim felt his prayer entering into his heart after maybe two months. What should be our equivalent? I once saw a quote from Sivarama Swami’s book on japa – one should get a grasp on what he is doing after five-ten years of practice. The idea is that initially the mantra has no meaning to us, it’s just sounds, but after five-ten years these sounds should start to really mean something. We’ll talk about the meaning a bit later but let’s talk numbers first.

If we gave up our jobs and replaced them with chanting we could be chanting about twelve hours a day – eight hours of work plus grooming, commute etc and two hours we chant already – we are in the region of twelve hours. With reasonably fast speed it works out to two lakhs of names, or 2×64=128 rounds. That’s eight times more than what we chant regularly. This means that what Sivarama Swami said could be achieved in five-ten years would be achievable in one year only if we chant two lakhs a day – counting by the number of names we hear. When Sivarama Swami gave this time frame he also meant “for temple devotees”. I believe he based his estimate after observing temple devotees, not “fringies”. He meant devotees who wake up before sunrise, attend mangala arati, chant sixteen rounds before breakfast, attend deity greeting and guru puja, listen to Bhagavatam classes, engage in active service, read our books one or two hours a day, attend evening Gaura arati – you get the picture. My point is that it’s five-ten years of intense sadhana, not five-ten years of working in the office, with internet and movies and all the other trappings of being “normal”. That kind of lifestyle is useless here – useless for spiritual progress of the kind I have in mind. Conversely, when chanting takes one’s entire day then intensity and purity of lifestyle will bring results faster than dictated by the number of rounds alone. In other words, what the pilgrim experienced is doable and is in the realm of possibility if we apply the same method – a lot of chanting with a lot less distractions.

Now about the meaning – in pilgrim’s words he felt like his heart started saying words of the prayer with each beat. Thus, for example: One – “Lord,” Two – “Jesus,” Three – “Christ,” and so on. Once he discovered this ability he stopped chanting orally and started listening to his heart. He felt subtle pain in his heart, similar to how he felt pain in his wrists when he started chanting on rosary, and his thoughts were flooded with love of Jesus. He felt that if he saw Jesus he would have immediately embraced his feet and kissed them with love and devotion. So we have three things here – prayer on the lips, prayer in the heart, and love in one’s mind. I’m not sure how to translate it properly into our experiences.

Sivarama Swami spoke of grasping the meaning of the mantra, though I don’t recall his exact words. The pilgrim had “Lord”, “Jesus” etc and he felt his heart “pronounce” each name distinctively. Let’s say one’s heart beats at the rate of 80 beats a minute. 80=16×5, which means at this rate we would chant 5 sixteen word Hare Krishna mantras in a minute, which means it would take almost half an hour to finish one round. Obviously, it won’t work. Even with two words, like “Hare Krishna” per one beat, it won’t work. We need to chant a bit more than twenty mantras per minute to keep a reasonable tempo and it just doesn’t resonate with heart beats. At least I don’t see the connection.

We can still approach it from the other side – never mind the hear trate, the words should mean something to us in the same way “Lord”, “Jesus”, and “mercy” mean something to Christians. We have been given the basic meaning of Hare Krishna mantra and every now and then our speakers remind us of it, but there is really a lot more to be said on the subject. Most importantly – we should find what these words mean to us. Take “Hare”, for example – it could be an appeal to Hari or it could be an appeal to Radha. Lord Hari snatches away our material attractions and Srimati Radharani engages us in Krishna’s service. These are two different functions and one should find which one has a meaning to him and in what way. Devotees struggling with life in the material world should probably find what Hari can do for them and what He is probably doing already and remember that when chanting. Our mantras should be meaningful, they should be connected to our lives and should be relevant to our stages of progress. There are so many other meanings of Hare Krishna matra, too, so we always can find something that speaks to us. Every word has multiple meanings and their combinations have multiple meanings as well. “Hare Krishna” is not the same as “Hare Rama” and not the same as “Hare Hare”. Even syllables in Hare Krishna mantra can have different meanings.

The point is that there is always something in the mantra that can speak directly to us and we can find it. It’s not a matter of giving book references but a matter of the mantra itself. If we want to know what it means to us it will reveal itself and make itself relevant. We just have to listen. Then we can start pronouncing each syllable with full knowledge and in full connection to the mantra. It will literally become our companion, become our conversation partner. We WILL see the mantra reciprocating with us, though [probably] not in the same way as conversing with other people. Personally, I experience a several day lag between expressing what I want and getting the answers. Like if I feel I want to hear something about a particular topic and then appropriate book or a video or facebook post coming to my attention. I don’t order these things, though, they must be heartfelt inquiries that rise up almost on their own and then get answered. Two-three days is a big delay, one might note, but it’s not how I see it. I rather see it as lots of useless stuff happening in between exchanges in the ongoing discourse. I pay a lot less attention to this stuff than to questions and answers. It’s “two-three days” in human calculation but this conversation is not on the human level.

I guess it could be compared to chess games played by exchanging letters in the old days. You mail your move and wait for reply with your opponent’s move, think about it, send your new move, wait for reply etc. The game can become very exciting, but this excitement should be experienced on game’s time, not on everyday’s time. If you forget the game the excitement goes away but it still exists, you just have to filter out everyday noise and concentrate on the game again. It IS possible to live in such a game but, of course, we are also forced to watch a lot of mundane stuff passing by, too. Forget chess, a very common example is people falling in love and exchanging text messages. They, too, live on a different time, barely noticing what happens to them between their texts.

There is another issue here – articulation. Desire in the heart takes time to manifest itself in the mind and it takes time to come out from the lips and, similarly, the response takes time to propagate from the layers of the universe before it materializes as somebody’s helpful Facebook comment, for example. We are mediating our conversation with God through a slow responding medium of our bodies and our universe, but that’s what we have have and so I don’t complain. This brings me to another aspect – our chanting should resonate with our bodies.

What I mean is that it takes time to say the words and it takes time to feel them. This becomes important when their meanings become distinct. Our minds need time to change their state from requests to thankfulness or to whatever the appropriate meaning should be. This time can be reduced with practice, as evidenced from experienced chanters, but we have to learn it slowly first. It takes time for the mouth, it takes time for the mind, it takes time for intelligence to switch to the meaning of the next mantra, and it takes time for the heart. When we are somehow blessed by circumstances we can find this perfect pattern and perfect tempo and feel the mantra reverberating through our entire bodies, and I don’t mean “head to toe”, I mean it from “heart to tongue”. This goes both ways, too – sometimes we hear the Name and we catch its meaning in the mind and then our heart melts, and sometimes the call rises from the heart and then reverberates through the body until it manifests on the tongue, and we hope the Lord is listening.

In any case, depending on one’s “speed of life”, it needs to take a certain amount of time and we should become sensitive to it. We should not rush the mantra before we can catch what it means and we should not stretch it so that the mind wanders away. It would wander away if we chant fast, too – because it can’t meaningfully distinguish between fast flying words. The idea of chanting audibly was to give the mind something to hear, if you remember, and evolving from hearing to listening is a natural next step.

It’s like a song on a radio – it’s one thing to hear music coming out of it and quite another to actually listen to the song itself, to resonate with its tempo, to appreciate the moves of the tune, and to absorb the meaning of the words. Our Hare Krishna mantra is not that different – there is tempo, there are words, and there could be a tune, too – our voice can rise and fall and we can change tone if we want. We already do it in kirtans, all that is needed is to drastically reduce the amount of “music” and it becomes japa.

Speaking of kirtans – I listen to a lot of Aindra playing in the background and, with time, I noticed how each tune is very personal for him. He is not singing melodies but rather the call from his heart takes shape of a song. Emotion translates to music, which is how music is created anyway. We have to feel something very very deeply to make it into a song, and that’s how most of our common kirtan tunes were born initially, before they were turned into memorized melodies with a lot of embellishments. I especially like it when “Hare Krishna” part produces a new emotion and then “Hare Rama” part is a response of amusement and appreciation. This is a special stage in a tune’s development and I think it’s very precious. Later on in the evolution the distinction disappears and “Hare Rama” part simply mirrors “Hare Krishna” – because we, the general public, do not feel the same way, we simply follow the already known music, we do not discover it, and so we do not react to our discoveries. I’m getting away from the topic, however.

So, one way or another, but the pilgrim observed the mantra entering his heart. He does not elaborate on it at this point and so he presents himself as an observer – the heart chants and the pilgrim listens. How does it work with listening, though? It’s not his ears that hear the prayer of his heart. Perhaps his sense of hearing, the actual sense as a part of his subtle body, not “sense of hearing” in a common usage, so his sense of hearing had, perhaps, detached itself from his ears. We don’t need ears to hear – senses and physical sense organs are different things. This would mean that the pilgrim is gradually moving to a different state of reality – detached from gross matter. Can it happen to us? It probably should, if we did one of the usual kinds of yoga, but since Lord Caitanya invested the “gross” sound of the Holy Name with the power to reveal itself it’s not strictly speaking necessary to detach ourselves from our bodies in order to perceive the Holy Name in all its glory. That’s His very unusual gift, probably never seen before – revealing God’s presence in common articles of matter. Traditionally, things like deities, names, books, and all kinds of sacred objects, were seen as tools and as gateways to divinity, but with Lord Caitanya’s blessings we don’t have to look anywhere else – He brought full power of Divinity right into this world.

I didn’t think much of it before but now I can’t read Pilgrim’s Diary in the same way anymore. First time around I was sure that going inside the heart was THE way but now I realize that if we can’t see Krishna in the audible name outside we won’t see Him inside the heart either. It’s not the location were we look that matters, though chanting in the heart, the way the pilgrim learned, is still a pretty useful skill to have. The pilgrim himself didn’t totally disappear in his internal chanting either and that would be the subject of the next installment in this series. Something very “external” happened to him and we will discuss it next time.

Pilgrim’s Diary 7. Not a Competition

I keep telling this myself – I’m not in a competition with the pilgrim. Our Hare Krishna movement is no in a competition with the pilgrim, but old ways of looking at the world die hard. We want to know we are in the right movement, we want to know we are not losing the race back to Godhead, we want to know we are doing okay. Even if we are slower we want to know that we are not hopelessly so. This is a challenge we can deal with in many different ways, so let’s look at the possibilities.

The best option is NOT to see it as a competition but see it in the mood of appreciation of other people’s progress. Whether we can actually see it like that is a different story, let’s set it aside for now.

We can look at the pilgrim and say that he was just one special devotee but for the rest of us his method is inapplicable so we should compare ourselves with general state of Christianity. We can conclude that we look pretty good in comparison, our hearts will get warm, and we can get on with our lives.

There have also been many devotees who tried ISKCON but then left for Christian pastures. Tulsi Gabbard’s father is one example but there are many more “lesser” devotees, so to speak. Some of them genuinely think they are making progress, some use Christianity as a safe vantage point to bark at Hare Krishnas and declare to the whole world how rotten ISKCON is. I don’t know of anyone who went pilgrim’s way, though.

In case it’s not clear – pilgrim went in three months from getting his first rosary to chanting Jesus Prayer non-stop. We can’t get there in thirty years and soon some will be chanting sixty years already, ans still not there. And the pilgrim is just getting started, there is a lot more to come.

Another way to compare ourselves is to look not at the external practice but at the internal mood. A little disclaimer first – internally the pilgrim is also way ahead of us but I’m talking about entirely different category, different quality of the prayer. His is a Christian one – God must help me. If you think about it – what happens if you feel fine and don’t feel like you need help? The book is silent on this, it doesn’t tell us how the pilgrim felt about the meaning of his prayer. They don’t talk about its meaning at all. We can say that Hare Krishna mantra is meant for Krishna’s pleasure, not for our salvation, and therefore it’s objectively better.

There is a story in this connection. A couple of years ago Dandavats published an article about Mt Athos, which is the heart of Orthodox Christianity and a place like no other. They have twenty monasteries there, two thousand monks, not a single woman, and by their standards the pilgrim was no one special. They had seen thousands of practitioners like him and even better. Anyway, after that article one devotee contacted me with a story. He had a friend with a congenitally deformed finger and once this friend went through hypnotic regression therapy. He learned that in previous life he was a monk on Mt Athos and one day he pointed his finger in anger at an icon there, and that caused his birth defect in this life. When he became a devotee and started chanting Hare Krishna and his birth deformity resolved itself. At least that’s how I remember it.

The point of this story is that it “proves conclusively” that Hare Krishna movement is better than Christianity, that it’s a natural next step in one’s spiritual progress. Moreover, this progress goes from a celibate monk to a regular devotee, going on sankirtana, eating prasadam, getting married etc. This shows that there is a categorically different quality to life in ISKCON, that it can’t be measured in the usual ways of human progress – coming from animal life and up through varnas until one becomes a perfect brahmana and eventually becomes a perfect sannyasi, which in itself could take several lives even for brahmanas. Athos monks can be compared to sannyasis here.

Or one could object because of their non-vegetarian ways – they do eat fish and stuff, though some subsist only on nuts and berries. One could say that from there the soul goes into an ISKCON devotee, then from ISKCON devotee into an Indian brahmana, and then he could be initiated into actual vaishnavism. That’s the official line of Madhva Sampradaya and it appeals to many ISKCON devotees, too. Or rather ex-ISKCON devotees – because after this move they don’t consider themselves as plebs anymore, they are “almost Madhvas”.

Now let’s return to appreciation for pilgrim’s progress. It should come naturally to us. Bhagavatam, after all, is meant for “nirmatsaranam satam”, for those who are devoid of (nir) the attitude of competition with others (matsarya). It can be appreciated only by those who don’t need to prove that they are better, not to anyone else nor to themselves. I’m not there yet and I constantly catch myself on finding some ways to make my ego feel unthreatened. If I catch this moment I can walk it back but nirmatsaranam means there is nothing to catch in the first place, that the comparison with others doesn’t even arise. So, how would one look at pilgrim’s progress in that state? Surely one would be glad for him, but that’s not what bothers me at the moment. My question is – should we try his way, too? Will it work for us?

I can’t find any connection to Jesus or Jesus Prayer in my consciousness so it’s not about a change in religion but about a change in practice. The pilgrim retired from the world and dedicated himself solely to chanting. We are supposed to end our lives in this state, too, but when should we start? Now? Or when we are seventy? Or when we are ready? What does “ready” mean in this case? How do we know we are ready? In later chapters we will see how his kind of retirement is not entirely implausible and that we can accommodate his kind of chanting, too, which poses even more questions. Should we really try his method? What are our precedents?

When I first read this book I felt very positive about all these questions. “Yes”, “yes”, and “yes”, and “when can I start?” This time, however, I have come to look at it differently. The pilgrim started from chanting in his mind then, for better control, progressed to chanting orally, then to chanting on beads, and we will not talk about what happened next yet. The goal, however, had already been declared – to transfer the prayer from his lips to his heart. This is what I cannot wholeheartedly agree with today.

Not that I have something against chanting in the heart or that we don’t have examples of that in our tradition, but there is something special in the audible form of the Holy Name. To me, today, it looks like a superior form to the Holy Name in one’s heart. Sure, it’s the same name, but the level of its presence is different. “Sound” in Vedic science is not sound per se but the idea of a thing itself. The concept of the thing which can be distinguished from concepts of other things. You might look at something and recognize it and this recognition demonstrates the presence of a distinct idea and, therefore, the presence of sound. You just looked at something and sound is already there. That’s how the Holy Name exists inside one’s heart and it’s even subtler than sound, subtler than any images or conceptions we have in our consciousness. And then this Holy Name gradually manifests itself, appearing in the heart, in one’s intelligence, in one’s mind, and, ultimately, as sound as a sensory object. We can hear it with our ears and we can produce it with our tongues. This appearance is Holy Name’s gracious mercy and I can’t think of a reason to reject it and go seek it inside the heart again.

When the Holy Name appears it starts dancing on our tongues and, as Rupa Goswami told us, at this moment one wants to have a thousand tongues and millions of ears, so why should we give it up and seek something else? Moreover, when the Holy Name appears on our tongues it rises from the heart anyway so we are not missing anything.

Lord Caitanya brought it to us as a sound vibration. He made a great effort and the Holy Name obliged. And He continues giving us this darsan as “Caitanya” – the giver of the clear consciousness, the one who awakens us to transcendental reality. Why should we turn away from this gift?

In this way we are not in the competition with the pilgrim, we are not trying to escape and to renounce but to bring the Holy Name out into the world. Lord Caitanya thrives there – on the streets, in the sounds, in the dance, and the louder the better.

Pilgrim’s Diary 6. Summer Sadhana

We left the pilgrim coming to his guru with the problem of losing taste, to which the guru replied that it’s just Satan testing the mind and that the mind had to be brought under control. Let’s see what it meant in practice.

First lesson, supported by sastra, was to chant audibly. Interestingly this “oral prayer” was not translated as such, it’s simply “repeat the prayer” in English, but I think it’s an important distinction. We are told not to chant our rounds in the mind from the start so we don’t have experience of this. When we do chant in the mind and something else comes up we simply stop chanting because we have no obligation to continue – it doesn’t count to our daily quota anyway. For the pilgrim, however, it was not an option and therefore his guru told him that restless mind can be brought under control by manifesting the mantra on a gross audible level. Then the mind will be captured by the audible sound.

It makes sense – when the mind is swayed away by something subtle it can be brought back by something gross, by something stronger. I think for us it would mean that if we chant and the mind strays away we can increase the volume or change the speed or do something similar to remind our mind that chanting is still going on and it’s demanding its attention. Same principle but applied on the next level of distractions. Whenever the mind loses concentration we have to do something to attract it again. Most often we are told to simply force it to listen but I don’t know what’s wrong with changing speed/volume/tone etc.

The pilgrim didn’t slide down to our level of inattentiveness yet and so was told to chant audibly AND he was given japa beads, too. He was told to repeat the prayer three thousand times per day, not too loudly, not too fast, not too slow – just like we are told to chant our japa. He was also told that it doesn’t matter whether he chanted sitting, standing, lying down, or walking. Exact same instructions are given to us as well. Three thousand prayers – how many rounds is that?

One prayer consists of five words so three prayers makes roughly one Hare Krishna mantra, so three thousand prayers make one thousand Hare Krishnas, which is roughly ten rounds, give or take, which is about an hour. We usually tell people to start with one, two, or four rounds. Ten rounds sounds like a lot to ask on the first day, but people are more distracted now plus the pilgrim was not a new devotee, he was new only to chanting.

He struggled for a day or two but then chanting had become easy and he felt he actually wanted to pray, it had become a desirable activity. Likable, as they translated it. He reported to his guru and was told to increase his chanting to six thousand prayers, which is like twenty rounds or two hours, which is already more than our sixteen, and he’d been practicing for not more than two weeks only. The guru knew it was a big ask so he told the pilgrim not to panic and TRY to fulfill this vow, and also to rely on Lord’s mercy – “God will vouchsafe you His grace,” he assured him.

The pilgrim carried on for a week as best as he could, ignoring perturbations of his mind. He really really wanted to follow the instructions of his guru and it paid off – he got so used to chanting that he wanted to do it even as he was talking to other people. Conversation would go on but inside he would think of coming back to his hut and resuming his chanting. Ten days later the guru himself came to check on his progress and the pilgrim shared his newfound love of praying. He was then told to cherish, protect, and nurture this habit. He was told not to waste time on anything else but rather make a vow, with God’s help, to increase chanting to twelve thousand prayers, which is sixty thousand names, which is a bit less than forty rounds, about four hours per day. He was told to avoid company, get up earlier and go to sleep later, and to report his progress every two weeks.

First day was hard and he struggled to complete his rounds late into the night. Second day chanting was easy and even pleasurable, and something else happened, too – he felt physical effects of chanting, his tongue got tired, his fingers got wooden, and pain even went up the arm to the elbow, but it was a pleasing pain, it felt very welcome. Strictly speaking, he felt this subtle and light pain in the roof of his mouth but I can’t relate to that. What is also interesting is that he was chanting with his left hand and moved beads with the left thumb. In Indian culture it would seem barbarian because left hand is considered dirty but, if we are talking about cleaning oneself, the pilgrim probably used his right, his dominant hand, so even the principle of cleanliness was somehow followed without any specific instructions about it. Five days he was chanting like that, happy to feel the slight and subtle pain that comes with accomplishing something great, and he really really got into this new habit of his. Even the pain was urging him to chant more. He was not only pleased but hungry to chant and chant and chant.

Then one day something else happened – he got woken up by an urge to recite his morning prayers but his tongue wasn’t sharp enough, the prayers didn’t come out smoothly, and he realized that he wanted to chant his Jesus Prayer instead. He gave in to this desire and it carried him through. He felt lightness within and his mouth was chanting the prayer entirely by itself, without being forced to do so. He felt so much joy after giving up his usual obligations and taking shelter only of his chanting that he finished his rounds earlier than usual.

Short reality check – I know I calculated that it should have taken him no more than four hours but he says on that day he started early in the morning and finished early in the evening, which is a lot more than four hours even in high latitudes of Russia. Summer daylight there is much longer than twelve hours, not four. It probably means that he was chanting much slower than we chant our Hare Krishna. This makes sense – the prayer meant something for him, it wasn’t just a bunch of foreign sounds. The meaning had to be born in the heart, reflected in the mind, and articulated by the tongue. It takes time to express a meaning, to propagate the meaning through the subtle and gross coverings of the body. I think we are missing this in our chanting. We know what the words of the Hare Krishna mantra mean but they also don’t meat much to us, we can utter them with great speed and one word won’t feel any different from the other. We are not even listening to the Names, we simply hear the Names being spoken. Our minds don’t take any time to process what we hear when we chant. We do take time to process what we hear during a conversation or even during a lecture, but not during chanting. This is an interesting subject that must be addressed separately, so let’s get on with the book.

The pilgrim liked chanting so much and he finished his rounds early but he was afraid of chanting more than was ordered. After a few days like that he went to his guru with the report. The guru was glad to hear of pilgrim’s progress and commented on the self-generating power of the prayer. He compared it to the machines of those days which required an initial force but then keep their momentum going on their own. Chanting should be like that, too, it should have self-sustaining power of its own. This hasn’t happened to me, at least not in the same way. I could argue that even chanting sixteen rounds is an activity sustained by Krishna’s mercy, that I don’t have to struggle to keep it going, but it’s not quite the same. Maybe if I chanted twelve hours every day like the pilgrim did then this self-sustaining momentum would have been more obvious. Anyway, at this point the guru removed the upper limit on the number of daily prayers.

This is the point most of us, I believe, haven’t reached yet. He was told to stop counting and simply pray at all times. He was told to surrender his will to Lord’s will and trust that the Lord won’t abandon him. To me it means surrender to the Holy Name itself and let the mantra guide and protect us, as we keep chanting it without pause, but it wasn’t specified in the book. The Lord and Lord’s prayer were seen as different entities. Whatever – it doesn’t really matter as much as an eager desire and ability to chant all the time.

This was how the pilgrim passed the rest of the summer – chanting, chanting, and chanting. He felt very peaceful, it wasn’t a vow that was difficult to keep, and he had often seen himself chanting in his dreams, too. If he ever met anybody during the day he saw them as his close relatives even if he met them for the first time. He was completely in love with his chanting. His mind gave up creating disturbances and started to listen to the prayer itself. His heart felt special warmth and pleasure in chanting, too. If he ever went to the church then long services there didn’t strain him and felt very short instead, and when he returned to his straw hut he felt like it was a palace, and he felt very grateful that God sent him a guru who gave him this wonderful method of praying. Then, at the end of the summer, the guru died. Just like that. He was gone.

The pilgrim cried at his guru’s funeral and he asked for guru’s japa beads, which he was given. Summer ended, the fields no longer needed guarding, his job was over, he was given two dollars and full bag of dried bread for services rendered and let go. He was on the road once again, except this time he didn’t go to places driven by the need to arrive – his prayer was always with him already, he didn’t feel any needs, and he noticed that people he met in this travels became kinder to him, too. Then he thought about two dollars he was carrying and decided to buy a copy of Philokalia for himself. It wasn’t enough for a brand new book but he found a second hand copy and was happy with it.

That’s where we leave him at the end of his first story – walking the roads, sometimes up to seventy miles a day, but not even feeling it because Jesus Prayer had taken over his life. The Holy Name had become his most prized and most dear possession. If he felt cold the prayer literally warmed him and if he felt hungry taking shelter in the prayer made him forget about food. If his back or his knees ached he took shelter in the prayer and forgot about pain. If somebody insulted him he would think of the sweetness of his prayer and forget bitterness and feeling offended. Whatever worldly worries came into his view he only wanted to be alone with the prayer, paying no attention to them. He became half mad in his aloofness from the world.

He still didn’t know how to transfer the prayer into his heart but he didn’t dare to try it himself without guru’s orders. He waited for some instructions first, he waited for God to show him the way. What he understood already, though, was that sastra’s instructions to pray without ceasing were real. He now knew what it meant.

A final world – in one summer the pilgrim went through sadhana stages I can only hope to achieve in my whole life. Will a day come when I, too, would be able to chant incessantly, day and night, without paying attention to anything else? It’s clearly desirable, though not mandated directly. Should we wait for direct instructions like the pilgrim did? Or maybe general orders are enough? What comes first – desire, guru’s order, or ability? At the end of the day, I think we should do what the pilgrim did at this point – let the Holy Name make its own arrangements, let it speak for itself. When we are ready we will hear the order to chant more, and when we are not ready the Holy Name will find a way to distract us from chanting, too. Purity is the force, as we often say. In this case it’s the purity of chanting that gives us force to chant more and more. That’s what I think.

Pilgrim’s Diary 5. Nyasa

In Vedic tradition mantras given at initiation are supposed to be “placed” on the body in a ritual called “nyasa”. Good example of that is Narayana Kavaca from the Eighth Canto of Srimad Bhagavatam. The Holy Name, however, is famously exempt from this rule – niyamitah smarane na kalah – no niyama, no rules, no kalah, no consideration of time. Is it equally true for the Jesus Prayer given to the pilgrim? Yes and no – not in the traditional sense.

I think I forgot to mention it last time – unceasing prayer was supposed to be chanted by the tongue, by the mind, and in the heart. So far the instructions were given only for chanting coming from the tongue but the major work is placing the prayer in the mind and, the hardest part – in the heart. It’s not going to happen at once but it is necessary – the prayer must come in touch with these three bodily parts or it would be ineffective. In Narayana Kavaca prayers one is supposed to touch his left knee and right ear so it’s not quite the same, and yet the principle remains – one’s body has to become one with one’s mantra. Narayana Kavaca was meant to protect one’s knees and ears so it had to become one with those bodily parts. Makes sense.

Strictly speaking, this is not required from Hare Krishna mantra which provides direct connection with the Absolute and doesn’t require medium of the body. Of course we can’t chant it without using the body but, with experience, we should realize that the mantra exists entirely by itself. We are not specifically encouraged to “place” it inside our bodies but nobody would object to it either – Krishna is Krishna. Our problem is that we can’t perceive the mantra’s full power and sweetness when it escapes our lips. Maybe it would be better felt in the mind? It should definitely feel better in the heart, right? Not necessarily – Krishna is Krishna, He is independent of any medium, if we can’t see Him in the books or deities then we can’t see Him inside our hearts either. It’s not a mechanical process and it does not depend on our powers of perception, it depends solely on Krishna’s agreement to reveal Himself.

Nevertheless, traditional process of yoga, of connection with the Lord, should not be dismissed. We still have to withdraw our consciousness from the external world and focus it on our hearts, hoping to meet the Lord there. This is how it’s supposed to work – connect with the Lord first, then learn to see Him in the objects of the external world, too. I don’t think Lord Caitanya is supposed to dazzle us with external displays of sankirtana all the time. We have to put our own work in finding Him as well. Of course, when He so obviously demonstrates His external presence, like five hundred years ago in Navadvipa or like fifty years ago in Hare Krishna movement, He can’t be ignored or discounted, but these five hundred years in between were conspicuous by His absence. He presence is not always externally perceptible.

So let’s return to the book. Once again, the goal has been announced – one should chant the Holy Name, in this case Jesus Prayer, always and at all times, inside one’s heart, and even in one’s sleep. The first instruction, however, was much easier. After reading a couple of other unspecified passages the old man explained their meanings and let the disciple to attend predawn Mangala arati. His last instruction was to practice this prayer under his supervision and warned the pilgrim that doing it alone would be troublesome and ineffective.

During Mangala arati the pilgrim felt elated and fervently prayed for further directions. There was no place for him to stay but he heard that there was a village nearby and, by God’s grace, he was able to get a job there guarding someone’s fields through the summer. He got a straw hut to stay and all the time in the world to pray. What a find! He put himself to practice.

First week went fine, he was contemplating his Jesus Prayer from all sides and reflecting on the passages the old man read to him from Philokalia. Then things started to go wrong. He felt heaviness, inertia, boredom, total lack of taste, sleepiness, and simultaneous influx of all kinds of fascinating ideas. He went back to the forest church and told about this to his guru. “It’s normal,” was the reply. “It’s just maya testing you because those who take to chanting the Holy Name are about to escape her grip forever and ever, and she won’t let it go so easily.” Replace “Maya” with “the world of darkness” and you can’t tell vaishnava from a Christian here. The old man also added that even Maya serves at the discretion of the Lord so there is nothing to be really afraid of. This test indicated the need to develop humility and to give up one’s own desires. Unless one’s heart is clean and pure it’s not suitable for the Holy Name to establish itself there. It would lead only to pride. The old man opened Philokalia again and read a passage that I found unexpected:

‘If after a few attempts you do not succeed in reaching the realm of your heart in the way you have been taught, do what I am about to say, and by God’s help you will find what you seek. The faculty of pronouncing words lies in the throat. Reject all other thoughts (you can do this if you will) and allow that faculty to repeat only the following words constantly, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Compel yourself to do it always. If you succeed for a time, then without a doubt your heart also will open to prayer. We know it from experience.’

On second thought – Krishna also said that mind can be conquered by sustained efforts, by one’s willpower. We have also been told to speak nothing else but Hare Krishna mantra. To be honest, I always fail at this. I’m compelled to say so many other things, but I would also admit that avoiding temptations is very important. This instruction was meant for Christian monks and ascetics and I’m sure it would work for “simple living high thinking” vaishnavas, too. The pilgrim lived alone in the forest, on the edge of the field he was guarding, so he had no one to talk to and no TV. In those days cell coverage didn’t reach remote areas yet so there was no mobile internet either. There was no outlet to even charge his phone, if he had one. Electricity had not reached rural Russia yet. My point is that living in today’s world and peace of mind are incompatible, and one has to make concerted efforts to isolate himself from the noise of the world. It has to be done, skillfully, gradually, with humility, with recognition of one’s weakness, but it has to be done. As far as I tried, it really works and mind CAN be brought under control when it is protected from unnecessary stimuli.

In this regard, Christian response to this book made a point that the pilgrim, in his twenties by their calculation, was jumping ahead of himself and that one should go through many many years of practice before one can dedicate himself solely to prayer. Fair enough. Actually, very true, but we all must come to this point anyway. Christians can’t accept that the bulk of this progress could have been done in previous lives and, perhaps, we also have to accept that perfection in our chanting is a multi-lifetime project as well. It helps to understand how the world works, it helps to know what distractions are there and what their roots are so they hold no mystery and don’t provoke curiosity. Curiosity is encouraged in modern population but there must come a stage when one sees it as a distraction. We should realize carvita carvananam principle for ourselves – all the alleged pleasures and treasures of the world are only chewing the chewed. But for that things have to chewed first, too. How else would you recognize them?

This is an uncomfortable point for those devotees who believe in one life ticket back to Godhead. I’m not here to discourage them and I know many who are well on their way towards this goal, but I am also aware of many who are fooling themselves and driven by rather mundane interests in their daily dealings. You can’t be genuinely excited by something you see on the news or something you anticipate in your own life AND hope to return to Krishna. Maybe we can get to fulfill those desires in Krishna’s presence, but it won’t make us into His devotees, it won’t grant us Krishna prema.

I was hoping to finish this part of the story today but there’s too much interesting stuff left. Coming back to the title – so far it’s not so much about placing mantra “on” our bodies but about placing ourselves INTO the mantra. Let the Holy Name take over our lives, let the mind surrender unto it. It’s a very important step that no one can neglect. Mind must become still and peaceful. Not thoughtless, but peaceful. Undisturbed.