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.