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.

2 comments on “Pilgrim’s Diary 8. On the Road

  1. I just started reading pilgrims’diary8 and could not put down.
    I’m sorry. In an old man and don’t remember how I’m getting these mails.
    I shall be grateful to know what is this back2krishna and why I’m getting it.

    But I’m extremely grateful that I got to study a work so humble and sublime at same time.As a born Hindu Brahmin boy, the earliest scripture I read was the new testament and quite captured by it.

    Later on after several unsuccessful efforts to find true mystics among Christians, I gave up. I found many distortions entering into the interpretations of Bible and wholesale selfish m8sleafing of people.

    Today, I spoke about it bitterly in a class too. And lo and behold, unwittingly I started reading this book and now understand the true seekers never in want, in any religion.

    Kindly reply. May Krishna bless you.

    • I have no idea why you got notified of this blog, Prabhu. My understanding is that Lord Caitanya Himself find a way to connect us with helpful information. I touched on it near the end of the article – when we want something the Holy Name responds, maybe not right away but it does.

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