Pilgrim’s Diary 11c. Gregory of Sinai, shorts

Next on the assigned reading list is St Gregory of Sinai:

First of all, read through the book of Nicephorus the monk (in part two), then
the whole book of Gregory of Sinai, except the short chapters,

First of all, it doesn’t seem right – in the current editions it’s the short chapters that are clearly related to unceasing chanting. In the modern Russian text there are three books attributed to St Gregory of Sinai. First one has 137 chapters, second one 8, and last one 15. “Chapters” in these books are short and by word count the first book is only twice as long as the two others combined – they are 10,000 words, 3,000 words, and 2,000 words respectively. Pilgrim, however, was using 1793 edition in Church Slavonic language which I can’t read and I have to rely on tables like this just to translate numerals so that I could count chapters.

The first book in 1793 edition is the same, 137 chapters, but then there are 5 more chapters, then there is a 10 chapter book, then 15, and then 7. The last three books use “stillness” and “prayer” in their titles while the long one, in 137 chapters, talks about faith in general. Here is English translation of the penultimate chapter of that long book:

Complete dogmatic orthodoxy consists in a true doctrine about God and an unerring spiritual knowledge of created things. If you are orthodox in this way you should glorify God thus: Glory to Thee, Christ our God, glory to Thee, because for our sake Thou, the divine Logos who transcends all things, becamest man. Great is the mystery of Thine incarnation, Savior: glory to Thee.

I’m not going to read 135 chapters that brought St Gregory to this conclusion, I think it’s an error in Pilgrim’s references.

In English translation, done very recently by a group of collaborating academics, the long book has additional chapters which deal with something called “Morbid Defluxions” and I’m not going to read that either. English translation next has a 10 chapter book called “On the Signs of Grace and Delusion, Written for the Confessor Longinos” but it doesn’t seem to correspond to the 10 chapter book in Pilgrim’s Philokalia so I’ll skip that, too.

Then there is a 15 chapter book in English translation that corresponds to Pilgrim’s edition and to the last book in modern Russian, so I’ll read and comment on that. For reference, it begins on page 1121 of this pdf. Never mind the count starts with “2” there – it’s probably just a typo.

Then Pilgrim’s edition has 7 chapters on “stillness” and they correspond to 8 chapters in modern Russian (7 plus 1 Q&A), and there is an English translation of that, too, so I’ll read and comment on that short book. This leaves a 10 chapter book in Pilgrim’s edition I can’t seem to locate anywhere else. Oh well, what I have found is already more than enough and it’s kind of repetitive so I don’t think we’ll be missing anything truly essential.

The order in which these books appear in modern translation is different and this supports my decision not to summarize and categorize their meanings, not to search of one overarching idea and explain everything in relation to it like we usually do with books. I treat these chapters as a collection of random thoughts, not necessarily following one from another. Unlike modern “thoughts” these pack a lot meaning on their own and that’s why they are called “chapters”, I guess, though in size they are more like paragraphs.

A short note on St Gregory of Sinai himself first. Previous book was by St Nikiphoros, who was a guru of one Gregory Palamas, the father of Orthodox Christian mysticism. Gregory of Sinai was his contemporary and for some time they both lived on Mt Athos but there is no clear evidence that they knew each other – Mt Athos is a big place and monks there are supposed to live reclusive lives. Gregory of Palamas didn’t make it on the reading list, however, and I wonder why. Perhaps it’s a kind of a different sampradaya – because I’ve seen critics of the pilgrim citing saints who refer to Gregory of Palamas for support against his “heresies”. I don’t feel like investigating possible doctrinal differences here so let’s get on with St Gregory of Sinai, chapter by chapter, starting with the 15 chapter book as it appears first in Pilgrim’s edition.

1. First chapter is on two ways of prayer and it doesn’t seem like a choice – either one happens by itself, depending on how the Lord wants to awaken the devotee. In the first one the mind withdraws into the heart and calls the Lord from there, and in the second one the Lord’s Name rises up like a wave and drags the mind along with it. In either case the mind becomes fully absorbed in the mantra and does not desire anything else, no distractions. First method sounds like astanga yoga practice where the mind is withdrawn from the senses and one meditates on the Lord inside the heart. Second method is like mercy of Lord Caitanya which manifests full power of the Holy Name in the external sound, like in kirtan, attracts the mind, and then goes and enters into the heart, too. “Jaga jana mana lobha”, as Gaura arati goes – with Lord Caitanya’s mercy we don’t need to forcefully restrain our minds from sensual activity. God comes out of the heart and shines externally as the Holy Name. This is not the end of it, however – I was just reminded that the sweetness of the Holy Name, before it begins to dance on our tongues, first comes from the heart. So whatever happens externally must go through the heart first in order to manifest itself again, but this time in full glory of the Pure Name. Not to be dismissive, St Gregory tells us that the first method of withdrawing one’s mind also relies on God’s mercy – we can’t compel the Lord to appear in meditation. At the end of the day – either way is fine, whatever works, and whatever the Lord chooses for us Himself.

2. Second chapter gets right to it – to the actual praying in the heart:

Sitting from dawn on a seat about nine inches high, compel your intellect to descend from your head into your heart, and retain it there. Keeping your head forcibly bent downwards, and suffering acute pain in your chest, shoulders and neck, persevere in repeating noetically or in your soul ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy’.

This is it. Makes sense? Not at first. What does “compel your intellect to descend into the heart” mean? How can it be done? How do you even know when it’s done? How do you know your intellect is in the heart already? The moment you start checking you realize that it’s the head that does the testing. I don’t know what he meant exactly but I got my answer how – it’s not a spatial movement where you see your mind first in one place and then observe it moving into another. No – the observer (you) has to move, and the mind is just a location of your attention, “you” doesn’t actually go anywhere, “you” are always in your heart already, and it’s the focus of your attention that has to move.

So, what it means is that you should retract your mind into the core of your own being, away from all external thoughts and considerations, to the core of your heart where there is only you and the Supersoul, or you and the Holy Name in this case. Even if the Holy Name is an external sound at this point it’s still only you and Hare Krishna mantra, and nothing else. That is the location of your “heart”. To check whether you are there you, indeed, have to take an outside observer’s position and that’s when you know you have exited your heart and directed your attention to something else – your head, your considerations of success and failure, measurements of your progress, memories, desires, aspirations – whatever. When you are IN the heart these things don’t exist and they are seen as external. To get to their location your mind has to reach out to them, which is also what it should look like spatially if you were observing this movement from inside the heart – if you are looking from inside the heart then the mind first goes away from you and then comes back, it doesn’t go from one place to another as if you were observing it from a separate vantage point. No, first you are with the Holy Name then the mind, ie focus of your attention, leaves you to see something else, and then it comes back.

How to find that core of your being? Well, it’s when you leave all your worries behind, leave all your shields and faces and become honest with yourself and with the Holy Name. There is no need to pretend to be anyone else, no need to aspire for any better position, no need to justify anything – there is just you as you are and God. If you happen to bring some attachments this is where He will cleanse you. I believe lots of people would spontaneously start crying when they reach this state for the first time, the state of being totally honest with themselves. As devotees we should be a little more familiar with it but as devotees we also have models to follow – managala aratis to rise, Bhagavad Gita to read, rounds to chant, principles to follow, dhoties to wear, initiations to receive, missions to accomplish and so on. None of that should come between us and the Holy Name. We might feel guilty about something but that is the place where the Lord accepts us as we are and so there is no need to hide anything. The Lord knows us inside out already anyway, so just go and be with Him. Hear His name, pour out your soul. “Pour out” – see, once it’s done your heart will be free, empty of all the stuff and free to call to the Lord without any conditions attached. This is different from asking for something – money, wife, peace of mind, justice – whatever. We can’t come to the Lord if we are after these things because these are different destinations. We might be pronouncing the mantra but we should remember that the Name reciprocates with our inattention, too – if our heart is in a different place then the Lord will also be in a different place. This kind of chanting can go on forever without any tangible progress. It’s like Queen Kunti’s “janmaisvarya sruti sribhir” verse – if these things have value to you then you CAN’T call to the Lord sincerely. And the Lord won’t respond sincerely either. So it’s not about spatially locating your heart on the left side of your chest, it’s about purging everything else from the core of our being. Once we are there, once our consciousness is focused there, then this is where the heart is, and we should not let the mind go away from this state.

But then again – I don’t know how St Gregory meant it. He added a few other instructions – chant the first half of Jesus prayer first, keep your head down, bend your shoulders, neck, and chest inwards until you feel acute pain. Then you can switch to chanting the second half of Jesus prayer. I don’t know, maybe this is important, but I don’t see how – not for us. For St Gregory himself it might have been but our lives are different. For him it could have been our equivalent of sitting in a lotus posture with our backs straight like Sacinandana Swami teaches in his japa seminars. St Gregory lived in a “kutir”, alone. He didn’t have TV, internet, Facebook or any other distractions. His religion also taught him to consider himself as a sinful beggar for mercy and so crouching on a low stool, bending his head to almost touch his knees, and exerting considerable effort to maintain this posture could have been his perfect ontological position. There is also less stuff for senses to come in contact with, which means less potential distractions. Our equivalent could be chanting during brahma-muhurta and following routine so that even if there are things to look at our minds won’t pay attention to them and we can go on auto-pilot. Personally, I also prefer to close my eyes if possible, but when the Name comes and grabs your attention it’s not really necessary, you forget what your eyes are looking at anyway, like when talking on a phone we forget what our eyes are looking at – it is possible, we just have to wait for the Name to grab our attention instead of a phone call grabbing our minds as usual.

Second part of this chapter is about guarding the mind from allegedly devotional imagery that comes during chanting. Bad thoughts need to be rejected, that’s obvious, but St Gregory warns us from entertaining good thoughts, too. More on this later.

English edition also has a sentence about exhaling, how the mind can get carried away together with the expelled air, but I don’t think it’s relevant to japa, maybe to manasik japa but I don’t have enough experience with it to comment.

3. Third chapter is about breathing and it’s full of quotes in support, but I’m afraid they actually talk about prana. There is one quote that talks about nostrils but even then the gist of the chapter is that the Lord should become our prana-natha. Literally, it means He should control our breathing, too. Perhaps I should pay more attention to it but it’s hard to imagine how it could work during japa, unless it’s manasik. Prana moves a lot of other things as well. In our literature “Prana-natha” refers to control over desires and aspirations, too, for example. It means everything we do should be done for the Lord AND controlled by the Lord. St Gregory, apparently, included breathing into this “everything”, too.

4. Fourth chapter is about bhajans, kirtans, and attending temple services – St Gregory talks about psalms, which should be sung in predetermined tunes. He says that if you get tired of praying then this change is welcome, but otherwise it would be a distraction. If the Lord is present in your heart then you can’t turn around and go somewhere else, hoping to find Him elsewhere when He is standing right in front of you.

5. Fifth chapter is an answer to a question why some Fathers teach to do more kirtans while others teach to do more japa. St Gregory says that people preach according to their own experiences. Some simply don’t believe in Lord’s appearance inside the heart during unceasing prayer so they don’t recommend doing it excessively. What they don’t believe in, however, can easily come by Lord’s grace, and this is another reminder that this is not a mechanical process but Lord’s own plan for us, meaning we can’t force it and it simply might not be our time yet.

6. Sixth chapter is about difference between performing various limbs of sadhana bhakti and chanting. This goes back to that devotee who built himself a tree-house in Mayapur so that he could chant three lakhs a day. Neglecting things like devotee association, or fasting on ekadasi will not help in chanting, rather the point is that doing all these things – fasting, offering obeisances, staying awake through the night (used to be part of ekadasi vrata) etc should be accompanied by proper thinking and proper understanding. Sambandha should always come first, and then our dandavats will be offered not only with our bodies, or often only with our words, as in “Dandavats pranam, prabhuji”, but with our minds and hearts, too. Similarly, chanting should not be done only with lips – the heart should be invested in calling out for the Lord as well.

7. Seventh chapter is about moderation in mind control – when we get tired of forcing the mind to listen to the Name we should engage it in other activities until we gather strength again. This is the instruction of the wise, St Gregory says, like Srila Prabhupada who did not demand more than sixteen rounds and did not demand sixteen rounds to be chanted all at once. This is not an excuse to indulge in other things and it’s not an injunction to never chant more – it’s meant only to moderate our efforts so that we can give our best at least to these sixteen rounds. The goal is to chant 24/7 like Haridas Thakur, unless we are rather like Six Goswamis and can also write books and stuff. Their dedication is equal to that of Haridas Thakur, just the activities were somewhat different. The point is that this state is achieved by properly moderating our efforts until we get there.

8. Eighth chapter defends Haridas Thakur and says that for people like him there is no need to go to the temple, they are with the Lord already. Lord Caitanya even said that Haridas could take a break from chanting itself because that would not separate him from the Name in his heart. Then St Gregory argues that these instructions on unceasing prayer are meant for those who are simple at heart, even for uneducated, but those who know a lot, on the other hand, will always fall into delusion of grandeur, fall victim to those “prelests” I mentioned in the previous article. More on those later. For now St Gregory warns these people that unless they have purified their hearts of all pride and absorbed themselves in the spirit of “trinad api sunicena” instruction they will not succeed. Two things will happen – either they will persist with force until they break or they will chant haphazardly, which also doesn’t bring any results. Real chanting means inviting the Lord into our hearts and only then it becomes possible – “kirtaniya sadah harih”. We can’t force it and we can’t force the Lord to appear by chanting millions of rounds at Him. Our pride in our ability to chant so many rounds is what prevents us from succeeding.

The passage about dare consequences is damning:

…because of their negligence and arrogance, their intellect is still impure and has not first been cleansed by tears; and so, instead of concentrating on prayer, they are filled with images of shameful thoughts, while the unclean spirits in their heart, panic-struck by the invocation of the dread name of the Lord Jesus, howl for the destruction of the person who scourges them.

We don’t have the equivalent of “unclean spirits” in the heart but we do have the experience of the mind going completely nuts in response to our chanting, and I’m not speaking only for myself here. As I mentioned earlier, there are other beings that share our body in a sense of enjoying its activities and chanting might threaten them. We do have the concept of pisacas attaching themselves to our subtle bodies and if one is infected then he will experience what is described here by St Gregory. Hopefully, they will either leave or, ideally, get purified and help us in chanting, too.

9. Ninth chapter again stresses the need for moderation, this time based on the experience of St Gregory himself. If you get tired then you can go to the temple, let your mind relax by singing in kirtan or something. I don’t need to list all the ways we can engage ourselves. Another important point is that St Gregory recommends changing your psalms daily so that the mind finds fresh meaning and enjoyment in them. He also recommends kirtans where you listen to other people singing, too. The main idea is that when we let the mind relax from forceful meditation it should not get bored, otherwise it will discover its own entertainment. The responsibility is ours.

10. Tenth chapter is about “prelests”. English translation does not give chapter titles but their most common way to translate it is “delusions”. St Gregory implores us, his readers as “lovers of God”, to be very attentive and discerning and reject images of Krishna, Radha, Jesus Christ, angels or whatever that might arise in our minds, nor should we try to evoke these images ourselves. Do not let these images to impress themselves on our minds and become solid memories. These apparitions are designed to delude and distract us, and this is what is called “prelests” – that which seduces us from the spiritual path, that’s what the root of this word means in Russian – the ability to cloud our judgement and steal away our minds. As devotees we don’t suffer from this often but if you listen to congregation members they sometimes share “realizations” that sound just like that. Someone claims to have seen the Supersoul after two days of fasting, someone claims to have seen this or that, but Srila Prabhupada’s answer to these queries is immortal – keep chanting and it will go away.

Having said that, St Gregory does not deny actual spiritual experiences but he says they start and manifest themselves differently from “prelests”. It begins with the overflow of warmth in the heart, the warmth that melts away all desires and worries. It establishes nothing but love in the heart and it fills the whole being with supreme confidence, devoid of all doubts. That’s what “vastavam vastu” from Srimad Bhagavatam means – the foundation of all foundations which does not depend on absolutely anything else, and therefore it leaves no doubts. It’s the direct experience of brahma bhuta platform. Obviously, St Gregory is not talking about realization of the personal form of Krishna that comes as a culmination of chanting on that platform for a considerable period of time, which we probably won’t reach in this life anyway.

St Gregory gives one simple test – anything that produces doubts of any kind is not “vastavam vastu” and must be rejected. Note that it’s not that the doubts need to be resolved but that real experience does not create doubts in the first place. There is also an interesting description in the chapter that sounds like St Gregory was talking about lust, how it burns hot instead of making one’s heart warm, and how its sweetness, even thought clearly perceived, is tied to physicality instead of causeless joy in the heart produced by genuine spiritual experiences. He concludes by saying that with experience one should learn to differentiate between one and the other just as our tongues differentiate between different foods.

11. Eleventh chapter is about reading. St Gregory gives a list of authors who write about keeping silence and prayer and I’m not going to follow up on that, sorry. He warns not to read other literature, even if spiritual one, because their narratives would distract the mind from prayer. They are not to be rejected altogether but one should respectfully put them aside for the moment because they are not conducive to one’s practice. St Gregory says one should avoid reading aloud, because the sound of one’s voice can be distracting, too – one might start enjoying one’s own skill and diction, and one should avoid reading for the assembly because one might imagine himself as a leader who is appreciated by everybody. One should read at a steady pace, not too fast and not too slow, not too much and not too little – moderation should be practiced in everything, and the goal of reading is to make one’s mind ready and strong for praying. Breaking these rules will make one’s mind tired, lazy, clouded, and uncontrolled when it comes to the time to chant.

12. Twelfth chapter warns us to watch our inner intentions. Our mind if controlled by our intelligence, by our will, but our will is controlled by our intentions. We should always restrain ourselves from doing sadhana for reasons other than service, spiritual advancement, or benefit of others. Otherwise we will externally appear as vaishnavas – servants of Vishnu, but internally we will become servants of ordinary people. I guess St Gregory means that we will work for their approval, which will nourish our conceit and vanity. He specifically mentions it towards the end of the chapter – if we become driven by puja, labhda, and pratistha, especially pratistha, our sadhana will be fruitless – srama eva he kevalam.

13. Another realization from St Gregory’s personal experience – a yogi can’t progress without cultivating the following qualities: “fasting, self-control, keeping vigil, patient endurance, courage, stillness, prayer, silence, inward grief and humility”. A couple of these sound strange to our ear, like “keeping vigil”. On one hand there is a church ritual like that, they even have “all-night-vigils”. On the other hand it can’t be what St Gregory had in mind because he already told us not to bother with church services too much. Okay – not to us, but to people qualified for unceasing prayer. I think he means what we can call “meditation” – a concerted, undeviating concentration on something requiring a lot of effort and energy. It’s the effort, the time and energy that we put into it, that is necessary for a yogi in the context of this list. Difference between stillness and silence is elusive, but I would say, based on Russian translation, that the first means general attitude to life – don’t talk and don’t engage with the world, and the second means literal silence, which one can’t maintain 24/7 but should practice from time to time. For us it means japa, more of it instead of talking, and “stillness” is synonymous with renunciation and more of what we might call “phalgu-vairagya” – actual act of not doing anything and not engaging with anything. I think it should be obvious by now that St Gregory’s process is not for those excited by the opportunities provided by yukta-vairagya.

He then says that fasting reduces lust (“dries it up” in Russian translation) and brings about self-control, self-control brings about “vigil” or mediation, vigils develops tolerance and patience, tolerance builds up courage, courage – stillness, stillness – prayer, prayer – silence, silence – crying for the Lord, crying – humility, and humility in turn nourishes tears for the Lord, which lead to more praying, and in this way the chain goes back, strengthening one link after another. By tracing these steps backwards one can figure out how daughters give birth to mothers. English translation adds a bit about mutual generation. It’s a beautiful concept to keep in mind – everything in spiritual life works both ways. We serve the Lord and the Lord protects us. Lord’s protection increases our desire to please Him, and so on. If you think about it, St Gregory’s progression of virtues from the beginning of the list and back makes a lot of sense, too. I mean once you develop real humility than all the other virtues will naturally follow, just as they lead to humility in the first place.

14. Fourteenth chapter is long but actually pretty simple – in spiritual efforts one should always exert himself. If there is no exertion, if our sadhana is effortless, then it will be fruitless, too. In this way “easy” sadhana can go on forever without bringing anything in return, and St Gregory warns against taking this easy path. I guess it’s a counterweight to chapters telling us about the need to relax when necessary. St Gregory gives sastric support for this and these quotes makes up the bulk of the chapter. I can’t think of our vaishnava equivalent and his point seems self-evident to me. Our chanting will become effortless eventually – when the Lord really assumes the position of our prana-natha, but we are long ways from there so it’s not something to worry ourselves about right now.

15. Last chapter in this book tells us that we need instructions of the guru, though some have used their own experience as their guide. As we have seen, both St Gregory and St Nikiphoros occasionally tell us to use their instructions as our guru. We have rittvik controversy in ISKCON but discussing it would be rather distracting at this point. The point is that one always needs a guru but guru’s identity is not fixed – it only must be something external to ourselves. When St Gregory talks about one’s own experience he invites us to surrender to this experience instead of listening to what our minds are telling us right now. In this way “experience” becomes something external, too. It exists objectively and it controls and directs our minds, which is the same function as that of a normal guru. In our tradition there is also a concept of “caitya-guru” but for that we need to develop good sensitivity and discern between caitya-guru talking and the chatter or single pointed obsessions of our minds. This was mentioned in the chapter on “prelests”.

St Gregory concludes the chapter and the book by reiterating the point of chapter 14 – we have to work for the fruits of our spiritual labor, it’s not free, and these fruits will come by themselves and on their own schedule. It’s the same message our devotees get to keep them going – work now, samadhi later. Sadhana bhakti can’t be done in any other way until it brings the fruit of spontaneous attraction to the Lord.

Next is a seven chapter book, plus Q&A, in the modern Russian edition. Its English title is “On Prayer” but in Russian it’s called something like “St Gregory’s instructions to those who keep silence”. It uses a word that is popular in Church literature but is not in Russian-English dictionaries, with Google translating it as simply “silent”, which is not quite it – it’s a person who abstains from speaking. So, moving on.

1. First chapter is on how to sit in one’s kutir while praying – not comfortably but one should exert effort, both mentally and physically. The position should require some strain to achieve that, though he says one can change it occasionally when it becomes too difficult. This goes back to the need for moderation – we should exert effort without putting undue stress on ourselves. How to draw the line? My guess is that due effort is accepted by the Lord as a sign of our attention and we have to be sensitive to Lord’s appreciation. Undue stress, conversely, is not appreciated by the Lord and so feels like torture. Krishna also speaks about it in Bhagavad Gita when He talks about severe austerities and penances as symptoms of a demoniac nature (BG 17.5-6). Similarly, one should exert just the right amount of effort to control his mind. I would also add that we should prepare our minds for japa – we should be serene and peaceful, not obsessed with something or other and not planning revenge or making any other plans, really – japa is not the time for that. We should try to arrange our lives in such a way that we can free two hours from any problems so that we can give our mind to the Lord, at least for the japa time.

2. Second chapter is on how to chant. Some recommend breaking Jesus Prayer into two parts, or alternating full and shortened version so the prayer. St Gregory’s opinion is that it should not be done frequently. This doesn’t apply to Hare Krishna mantra but his underlying reasoning does – our chanting should display patience and not laziness, as when we think we are tired and change something simply to make it easier.

Much of the chapter deals with chanting aloud and in the mind. Some recommend this way and others that way. St Gregory’s own advice is to use both, whichever method helps. Sometimes the mind can’t concentrate on manasik japa anymore so audible japa is advisable. Sometimes the mouth gets tired, which never happens to us but probably becomes a real problem for those chanting three lakhs daily. Then manasik japa become advisable. By saying “both” St Gregory also means that both the mind and the tongue should be engaged at the same time. Audible japa should be clear, peaceful, and quiet. The goal is not to distract the mind from the name by the sound of the voice – there should be only the sound of the name, ie no singing. This is required until the mind gets completely used to listening to the Holy Name and, by the power of the Name itself, begins to pray unceasingly on its own. At this point audible japa will become unnecessary and even distracting – the sound of one’s voice will become distracting. At this stage manasik japa will become fully satisfying and one would have no desire to ever stop it for anything else, ie for audible japa. Maybe that’s what will happen and I can see how “chant 16 rounds or else” would be seen as too constraining on one’s devotion. Presence of the Holy Name at this stage will also include presence of Srila Prabhupada and of our gurus so the need to keep the vow will be reassessed according to our actual degree of progress. Perhaps more should be said about avoiding the dangers here but now it’s not the time.

3. Third chapter gives advice on how to control the mind. St Gregory says, straight away, that it is possible only by Lord’s power and not by our own efforts. He then explains that the mind has attained its current wandering nature because we let it do so for so long and it has become its habit. It goes back to the “original sin”, to our rebellion against the Lord and ever since then the mind had to seek pleasure somewhere else. The mind will have no choice but to behave this way until it’s reunited with God. For us it means to always bring the mind to the Lord’s lotus feet and apologize for leaving Him. The Lord can forgive any transgression if it is brought to him with a repentant heart in the spirit of humility. We have to work this way, St Gregory tells us, until the power of the mantra reveals itself and brings the mind under its control. English translation talks about the prayer becoming “activated”, which has a nice ring to it. I see it as starting the engine manually – you have to turn it again and again and again until it “clicks” and it starts rotating on its own. I still remember trucks that had a place to stick this manual crank in front or how people asked their neighbors to get the car rolling until the engine is “activated”. Lots of small engines for boats and even lawnmowers still have the cord you have to yank very forcefully to start them. I wonder if it’s the same principle with chanting. Could be. Last words in the chapter inform us that even then the mind might occasionally wonder off and this stops only when one attains perfection in his meditation.

4. Fourth chapter is about expelling “thoughts” – in English translation. Russian translation is a bit more specific. Dictionaries don’t help here but it’s more like expelling “intentions”, the ideas to do something. “How to stop yourself from getting ideas” would be a better translation but this informal register won’t match with seriousness of St Gregory’s tone, of course. Neophytes can’t do it, says St Gregory, and only the Lord can protect them here. More seasoned devotees can muster enough strength to fight but even they have to rely on the help of the Holy Name, using it as one’s own armor. This sounds very dogmatic – expelling bad intentions from one’s mind by the power of the prayer. It’s almost a caricature image of an erstwhile Christian shutting his mind to the world and only shouting Jesus’ name at everybody. “By the power of the Holy Name I compel you!” Nevertheless, I agree with St Gregory that this is what we should do. These days, however, people prefer to go along with their ideas instead – “what will repression accomplish?” Quite a lot, actually – when it’s done right, but neophytes can’t do it at all, as was said in the beginning. The model is like this – we should only chant the Holy Name, twenty four seven, and so this is our safest position whenever thoughts come – expel them and focus the mind on the Holy Name. Again. And again. And again. All other thoughts are useless and have to be abandoned. All of them, without discrimination. As you can see – it’s not for neophytes and even seasoned devotees should know their limits here – because “what will repression accomplish?” This is also why it’s impossible to fight this battle without Lord’s help – He has to provide us with safe alternatives to our minds’ ideas. All too often devotees get something in their head and it doesn’t even occur to them that they have to purge this idea completely, that it might be very harmful and should not be pursued. Instead everyone embraces it enthusiastically and tries to connect it with Krishna. And why not? That’s what we do when we are hungry – we cook prasadam. That’s what we do when we get married – so why not? It’s at this point that the reader should remember the huge gap between ourselves and yogis of St Gregory’s caliber – he is giving advice on unceasing prayer to those who have renounced their careers and family lives, who live in caves or bhajan kutis, who sustain themselves by a pound of bread and water, and who are able to chase away ideas of desiring pretty much anything in this world. The question naturally arises – is this really the only way? Yes, and no – it depends on how much support the Lord extends to help us to get to the stage of renunciation. Whatever is provided cannot be rejected, so “renunciation” is not the only way. Maybe it’s the ultimate stage of our journey, as I just heard in class – all activities should lead to religion, all religion should lead to renunciation, and all renunciation should lead to devotional service, otherwise it’s all pointless. Bypassing renunciation, therefore, is not an option. Sooner or later it should come and be welcomed, and before that point is reached St Gregory’s instructions might appear fanatical even if they aren’t. We will lose absolutely nothing if we purge away all thoughts except the sound of Hare Krishna. It’s how it should be, it’s the ideal state of our minds. Let’s get back to the book, however.

The advice is to chase away all ideas by force until the Holy Name comes to our help. He says that one should, like Moses, get up and lift his arms and eyes to heaven and appeal for help, and the Lord will remove unwelcome thoughts. Then one should patiently resume his prayer. I’m not sure how it would work for us – it seems he is talking about attacks of lust, otherwise there is no particular urgency. Anyway, this advice is for those who have not yet experienced the power of the mantra itself. Sometimes even those who have this experience still rely on this method, but only briefly, so that they don’t over do it and do not get a response from the category of “prelests”. The reason being that the mercy comes from the Holy Name itself, not from theatrics, and so getting carried away by his impersonation of Moses could become spiritually dangerous. Anything else we get attracted to, besides the Holy Name, is a gateway to falldown. St Gregory concludes the chapter by informing us that even for very advanced practitioners absolute serenity of mind is impossible and it’s attained only at the stage of perfection. I guess what he wants to tell us is that it won’t bother us as much but it won’t go away completely until the very end, so we should not freak out when the mind starts its ideations. It’s a property of the mind, not of the soul, and it’s natural for the mind to get distracted or attracted.

5. Fifth chapter is again about psalmodizing and it’s significantly longer than chapter 4 in the previously discussed book. We don’t have an exact equivalent to this “singing”. We do it at assigned times in front of the deities or during specially arranged kirtants. It’s not like one can start singing in the middle of the night – we don’t do that, but it’s a common Christian practice. Sometimes we can also start singing Hare Krishna, no one forbids this, but how it should be done properly will be seen from the discussion in this chapter.

Some recommend singing a lot, others never, and yet others singing only rarely. St Gregory is writing a letter here and so to his intended recipient he recommends singing in moderation, for all things are best in moderation. In English translation this maxim is ascribed to Ancient Greeks but in Russian they are identified as “unwise wisemen”. Probably because for all their wisdom Ancient Greeks weren’t Christians. Singing a lot is recommended for those engaged in active service and it would benefit them the most, but it’s not recommended for those practicing silent meditation who live their lives alone with God and who purge their minds from all “conceptual images”. He cites St John Klimakos that stillness is shedding of all thoughts, whether pertaining to empirical or intellectual planes. For these devotees singing would rather exhaust their intellect of strength necessary for controlling the mind during their prayers. That’s a very good point – kirtan is a recommended process for this age but we should keep in mind that after the kirtan we still have to keep on chanting, so it should recharge, not drain out batteries. One should definitely sing less at night but I think it’s meant for those who are actually praying through the night, not to those who are struggling to stay awake. Once again, this reminds us of a distance between us and these Christian yogis who slept only a couple of hours a day and bulk of their spiritual practice was done during the night. At Mt Athos they wake up around 11PM, afaik.

If, while praying, one observes how the mantra in one’s heart is active on its own one should never ever abandon the prayer and start singing. One can do that when the mantra leaves the heart (on its own accord, too) – but not while it’s still there. I would say this observation itself is fascinating – St Gregory talks about the mantra getting a life of its own and flowing in one’s heart out of its own will. In this way we become actual servants of the Holy Name – not in the sense we are using this phrase now – we do something, allegedly for Krishna, and Krishna allegedly accepts our service, which is very different from seeing the Name moving through our heart on its own. Come to think of it, it’s not very different from sankirtana. It might take a long time to find it, to find Lord Caitanya’s mercy and become its carrier, but when it happens one clearly feels how he is riding the wave and nobody in his right mind would want to get off and go home. That’s what St Gregory says about chanting and he says it as a matter of fact: “when the mantra chants itself you should not…” – yeah, but indeed – when? Well, at least we know what we should be ready for here.

His advice makes sense and he gives his reasons, too – if the Lord is speaking to you from the inside you can’t get up and try to address him from the outside. It would be descending from a higher level to a lower one and it would not only break your meditation but disturb your mind as well. True serenity is inside – remember? Stillness, by it’s very nature, engages one in activities of peace and silence. God lives in a world above our clamor and noise and so our singing should be similarly angelic, not mundane. I guess this is for all those new Hare Krishna tunes and styles – pop, rock, techno – whatever. All these overlay mundanity over the mantra and it’s unwelcome here. It might be useful elsewhere but not in silent prayer. Singing is supposed to awaken the pure voice of our souls and overcome, not encourage our, hmmm, “unawareness” and laziness. English translation gives “grossness” and in Russian they translated it as “making oneself dumber”. I actually remember when people’s common reaction to modern music was “it will make you stupid”. No one dares to talk like this today but they do advice to play Mozart to newborns instead, which conveys the same idea – classical music is sophisticated and intellectual while rock debilitates one’s intelligence. If we consider this from all angles we will come to the conclusion that our standard tunes, based on Vedic ragas, are absolutely perfect. In traditional kirtan the voice carries the tune and mridanga provides unbelievable sweetness and sophistication, but I digress.

Citing St John Klimakos again, singing is given to those who haven’t discovered praying yet. Of course everyone knows how to chant japa but here they are talking about prayer that infuses the soul with knowledge, joy, and power. So those who don’t experience it yet are told to sing, and sing a lot. They should also always engage themselves in service and never let themselves stay idle even for a moment. Then, as a result of their unwavering sadhana, they will eventually discover the inner world of self-manifested, self-activated prayer. “One would hope” – all I can say here. Silent meditation and communal life are different things, St Gregory says, but he assures us that one will get to his goal by following either of the two paths as long as it’s prescribed to him by the Lord. He warns that practicing silent meditation on one’s own, without guru’s order, and relying on books alone is futile, which is a point that I feel needed a little expansion there. For ourselves – we know that nirjana bhajana is not recommended for anyone in this age and that gurus are not always easily accessible for such guidance, so what to do? Sometimes, however, it becomes the only viable course of action and that would be the best signal from the Lord – you can’t do anything else anyway, so chant. Ordinarily, however, even with Covid lockdowns, we are not as isolated as necessary and so we have to follow our prescribed duties first and we can’t abandon them willy-nilly. The time will come however, when we will be left on our own and so we should be ready to chant and chant and chant.

Anyway, one who knows the mystery of self-manifested prayer should sing in moderation and spend more time chanting, resorting to singing only when the mantra disappears from the heart and when one feels exhausted. Or one could read Bhagavatam to get his mind back in shape. At this stage one is like a ship that doesn’t need rowing when wing blows its sails, but when the wind stops a bit of good old rowing becomes necessary again. At this point I want to remind us again that “blowing wind” here is the mantra starting to chant itself. We should have experience of this in kirtan but, generally, it’ s not present during japa.

Some give examples of Holy Fathers who spent all-nighters in singing, to which St Gregory replies that not everyone is the same and that not everyone stayed with the same method to the end. Some, after a lifetime of active service, immersed themselves in pure contemplation, enjoying the waves of well-deserved ecstasy, which poured sweetness into their souls so they couldn’t even sing anymore. To them it looked like fulfillment of all their desires but we should know it’s not the ultimate end yet. Others never gave up active service and left this world hoping to get their rewards in the next life. Some attained liberation at death and this was known by the fragrance of their bodies. At first this liberation at death sounds great – a perfectly acceptable outcome – but St Gregory pours some water on this excitement – liberation at death means they were initiated into it during their lives but, due to being caught in the illusion and general ignorance, didn’t get to experience the mysticism of union with the Lord during their lifetimes. Better late than never, as they say. Yet there are others who artfully mix both singing and praying, ie active service and personal bhajan, and in this way they live spiritually enriched lives, enjoying the spoils without obstructions or any obstacles. And yet there are also those who live their lives in silent prayer and attain total unity with the Lord. This book is for them.

6. Sixth chapter is about food. St Gregory starts with a question that sounds slightly annoyed: “What can I say about the belly, the mother of all passions?” Both translations use the word “queen” but in English “mother of” sounds far more appropriate. I think this has been St Gregory’s reply to someone’s query or maybe he was going through the list of topics and this wasn’t one of his favorite ones. After posing the question, however, he says quite a lot, so his apprehension could have been from “don’t get me started” category and he thought that this is a settled issue that can, nevertheless, distract him from his bhajan. He begins his answer with “if you can starve your belly to death or even to half-dead state – do it without hesitation, relentlessly”. He then says that his own belly took control of him and that he serves it like a slave. Then he follows the same argument as given in Nectar of Instructions – belly must be controlled and, on the other hand, uncontrolled belly is the source of all our spiritual troubles, and he also says that a controlled belly leads to liberation. Therefore honoring prasadam is at the very foundation of our sadhana, too. St Gregory didn’t know about prasadam and his solution to controlling the tongue is, therefore, slightly more pedestrian.

Different people have different needs, he says, what is enough for some might be too little for others and way too much for someone else. He lays down one common rule, however – those dedicated to praying in the heart should be always hungry and never eat to satiation. This “always hungry” has not been translated into English and I don’t know what original Greek is, but Russian translation carries the meaning of “always fasting” or “always starving themselves”. St Gregory gives an explanation – heavy stomach weighs on one’s thoughts as well. Full stomach also makes one sleepy and the mind can’t be controlled during dreaming, too (he’s got a very good point here!). Either way – it makes it impossible to be firm and pure in one’s chanting on a full stomach. All in all, his recommendation is to eat a pound of bread a day, accompanied by three-four cups of water or wine, plus other eatables if they come to the table and only for the taste, not for satiation. I guess “wine” rather means “grape juice” but that’s a whole other issue. Taking a little bite of everything serves two purposes – one is not to feel oneself too proud of his ability to fast, and the second is to show respect to the Lord who sends us our daily food. You cannot say no to prasadam, but honoring it is not the same as stuffing ourselves. His says this conclusion is the council of the wise. Then there is this weird quote about eating only vegetables being a sign of a weak faith, and I don’t want to go into that either.

He then continues what looks like correspondence: “You asked me about rules? What else can I say.” He says it’s not easy for an old man like himself to give rules to the young ones because they would fail to follow them anyway. He says that the path of the young is to know the rules, fail to follow them, repent, start over again only to fail shortly afterwards. One must persist despite failures, however, and that’s the only rule he insists on. He also stresses that one should blame only himself for his failure, not the rules and not anybody else. In this way one can eventually convert his failures into victories. In the English translation this passage is interpreted very differently – that St Gregory was writing to an old but sick man and that sick people should eat as much as they can. Then it gently transitions into the above mentioned rule [to be followed when health is restored]. Anyway, the point is to wisely learn how to convert lapses in sadhana into eventual victory.

St Gregory then draws the red line – live only on bread and water. I’ve tried to get exact measures but word usage has been fluctuating – it’s somewhere between a pound and half a kilo of bread. He says nothing works better for strengthening the body than bread and water. In our language it’s the best way to keep body and soul together, with all other eatables being nonessential, and he has a quote for that, too. Where I live it would probably be an equivalent of a cup of rice – when cooked it comes to about a pound in weight and it looks like quite a lot to finish in one sitting, should probably be enough for a day. The chapter concludes with a very important discussion about degrees of satiation: self-control, sufficiency, and satiety. Self-control is when one feels light after eating and doesn’t crave for more. Sufficiency brings slight heaviness to the stomach, and if one continues eating past that point it opens the door of gluttony which then lets in lust. Last words are the quote that one should learn to be full, hungry, and strong all at the same time. It’s a skill we all need to develop. Sigh.

7. Seventh chapter is a long discussion on “prelests” again, and it’s probably the longest chapter in these books. The tone is similar to the previous passage about food – it’s not directly related to unceasing prayer in the heart and if we start talking about it we might never stop, for a lot can be said on this. This time St Gregory does not talk so much about prelests themselves but puts them in a larger context and discusses how, where, and when they fit in our spiritual life.

He starts with free will and points out that by its nature it’s prone to misdirect us, especially for neophytes who are also practically hunted by these demons. We do not personify our delusions but St Gregory does, following general Christian trend to blame Satan for everything. We have this, however. These demons see that our “city of nine gates” is still largely in control of barbarians and so they set up traps and snares wherever possible. Our heart might be in the right place but the rest of our body and mind isn’t, and most of the time we still follow body and mind. Therefore it is to be expected for beginners to become deceived, lose their intelligence, become deluded (“give in to prelests” in Russian translation), accept falsity for truth, or say something inappropriate. Next sentence is very familiar – these neophytes, speaking about truth but still residing in ignorance, sometimes say things they don’t really mean and are unaware of simply because they don’t know how to speak correctly, and this might make listeners aghast, while senior devotees would chuckle and ridicule these pronouncements among themselves. English translation uses “hesychast” for senior devotee here but in Russian it is “silent one”, meaning people who don’t say anything but the words of the Jesus Prayer, and even then only to themselves. These mistakes are common and they happen to almost everybody, says St Gregory. It happens to those who search after God now and it has also happened in the past.

Smaranam, or mindfulness of God, or noetic prayer, or maybe mindful prayer, is the best sadhana and the chief of all good qualities. We usually put sravanam first, but we also have “always remember Krishna and never forget” rule which controls all other rules that follow. Having said that, people should not try to engage in smaranam before they are ready and attain the necessary level of purity. If this condition is not followed than we will become brazen, shameless, and over-zealous in our efforts at intimate communion with God, and for this we can be easily punished by the demons. In Brahma Samhita there is a description of how Goloka is protected and usually people guarding places are known as yaksas and raksasas. Yaksas slow you down and raksasas disassemble you by hooking at pieces of your being and separating them from you by force. This is where these Christian demons become recognized – they are meant to divert your brazen attack on God elsewhere or remove all that is unwanted from your personality. Quick anartha removing service, so to speak.

St Gregory says that demons need permission to do that but it’s unclear whose – God’s or ours. I don’t think he meant God’s permission but it would make sense in our tradition because anarthas don’t necessarily must be removed by force. Kubja came to Krishna full of anarthas and He didn’t inconvenience her experience in any way, as an example. If St Gregory means these demons need our permission then it means the permission to be led astray, not the permission to give up our anarthas. In any case, the real problem is our pride, it lies in our conviction that we deserve a much higher spiritual status. The Lord, out of a desire to protect us, Himself protects us from deviations and engages us in proper service leading to genuine humility so that we don’t make ourselves and Him, by association, the subject of ridicule and drive people away from devotional service. He tries to instill this humility in us before we fall victim to prelests.

Demons need to be battled but this is the calling of the strong, not of the weak. Neophytes, therefore, are advised to retreat and escape and avoid prelests entering into their hearts. Otherwise they’d be slaughtered and so hiding in fear will save them for now.

St Gregory then turns to his interlocutor and advises him, acknowledging his eagerness to succeed in prayer, to never give in to visions of angels, Christ, saints etc, no matter how convincing they appear. The mind already is prone to day dreaming, so don’t help. It projects the images of one’s desires and if one starts contemplating them he puts himself in mortal danger. Memory of good and bad things also get projected by the mind and dwelling on them is equally dangerous. Start thinking about it and you’ll become a day dreamer, not a hesychast or the “silent one”. Therefore we should not give assent to any of this imagery, unless collaborated by senior and more experienced practitioners. Whenever something like this comes, we should strive to keep the mind colorless and formless.

This is an unusual advice for us – we are supposed to engage the mind in Krishna’s service and Krishna is blue and has a form, but this is what St Gregory says. Ordinarily, our mind takes the form of the object it is attracted to and by studying this mindform one can learn the nature of the object itself. Modern understanding, for example, is that healing herbs of Ayyrveda were discovered through trial and error and that it’s a collective wisdom of the ages, but Vedic explanation is that these healing properties are discovered through meditation. You let your mind become totally absorbed in a plant and its environment and gradually gradually you will start to understand it, understand what it wants, what it does, what is capable of, how it relates to other plants and substances etc. Then you will know how to use it. It’s an impressive power but we should admit that it is not at all helpful for our cause. Our minds should become free from all material forms until they become naturally attracted to Krishna Himself. Filling them with artificial imagery is rejected here and I think we should reject it in our practice, too. It might look like we are looking at a picture of Krishna but unless it is self manifested or drawn exactly to instructions of a qualified guru we are looking at artist’s projection of his own mind. He thinks that Krishna should smile like that or hold His flute like that or sit like that and so on. There are also thousands of pictures of babies colored in photoshop to look blue and being presented as “Krishna”. That’s not how Krishna appears in this world and it’s not how He should appear in our minds. I’m with St Gregory on this one – a lot of this imagery should not be allowed into our minds. Also “mantra” means that which relieves the mind of being addicted to such imagery among other things. Hare Krishna mantra does not need mediation by the mind, it can go straight from the ear to the heart. The mind can purify itself or it can take a hike – we are not our minds.

Anyway, St Gregory says that sometimes it’s the Lord Himself who tests our free will by tempting us with these things. He insists that none of this should be accepted unless approved by our seniors, even if it comes from Krishna directly. After all, Krishna is a known liar crooked in three places – who in his right mind would take any of what He says seriously? Of course one must know Krishna first before deciding when to listen to Him and when to listen to one’s heart. Therefore St Gregory says that neophytes should trust only their hearts and not what appears in their minds. He says that the Lord does not deceive those who listen to their hearts and check with their superiors, though there have been occasions when He was angry for ignoring Him. I don’t know what historical episodes St Gregory mean here. I guess it would be like Madhavendra Puri refusing sweet rice in Remuna or a pot of milk at Govardhan – both were sent by Krishna and rejecting them would have been inappropriate. I would say that Madhavendra Puri knew in his heart that these gifts were not to be turned away and Krishna counted on his heart, too. In general, however, the Lord is pleased when we put our trust into His devotees instead of relying only on ourselves.

This brings us to a question of guru – who is guru? Who can we trust? Not everybody, says St Gregory, but those who have been given responsibility to lead others and who themselves lead exemplary lives and, as he quotes the scripture, enrich others while remaining poor themselves. I don’t think he concludes this topic properly, being carried away by discussion on the prayer itself, but the gist of it is already given here – the guru is the one who is entrusted with care for others and he should posses keen discrimination. St Gregory says that inexperienced taking charge of unintelligent will pay for this dearly after death, and then goes into the discussion on the necessary level of discrimination. Guru, sadhu, sastra – he says, with sastra being the pivot of it all. He talks about different kinds of discrimination of which only spiritual one is truly important and attaining it is not easy. One must follow the scripture and reflect on it with humility. It’s hard to find those who stay clear of temptations and have reached maturity because the devil tests one every step of the way. There is a quote given there, too – you can make friendship with many but spiritual advisors are one in a thousand.

St Gregory then reiterates the path of the “silent one” in this regard – one should approach the prayer with great humility and great trepidation, inquiring from his spiritual guides. One should realize the extent of his own impurities and repent his inability to follow strictly, always being afraid of falling back into maya, just as Srila Prabhupada once said he prayed for this every day. This is our great weapon, says St Gregory – humility and prayer. In this way even when joy comes we will spare ourselves from being affected by pride. Again he talks about special kind of warmth that comes from the Lord, different from joys of this world. God’s reciprocation fills us with more humility and the warmth of His embrace burns out all the remnants of our desires, naturally silencing our mind. It doesn’t come from the outside but it streams from inside of our hearts out. We should strive for this source of warmth, for the Lord, in full trust in His assurance that He exists, that He is with us, and that He loves us.

If we see someone falling away we should know that the cause of it is pride and arrogance. The protection, again, is humility and genuine inquiry and search for the Holy Name, which will never harm us. But even if such sincere people appear to fall down we should understand that it’s just testing and that it soon follows by Lord’s personal help. So do not try to be smart and do not try to impress others – that is the best defense against falling into delusion. Stick to this royal road. Excess in anything leads to conceit and conceit leads to delusions, and therefore we should cultivate three virtues – self-control, silence, and humility. These three virtues nourish each other and together increase our thirst for chanting.

St Gregory concludes the chapter by describing the appearance of the Holy Name. Some would experience incredible awe that would melt away mountains of desires in their hearts. Whatever was there blocking our way will be destroyed and the body would feel like it has become dead. Others would experience earth shattering jubilation, the state of exultation described by Church fathers. And, finally, those who were really successful in prayer would experience the sense of peaceful and illuminating light in their hearts. That’s how the Holy Name (or Jesus Christ, in St Gregory’s case) makes our hearts into His own dwelling place – it’s through the flow of illuminating light, and this is the perfection of prayer.

The book ends with an answer to a question and in Russian edition it’s presented as a separate chapter.

Q: What to do when the devil transforms himself and presents as an angel?

St Gregory doesn’t give a direct practical answer, ie what to actually do when it happens, but he gives a valuable advice on how to distinguish demons from angels – by their effects on our consciousness. He says demons can’t replicate what Lord’s grace does to our hearts. The Lord’s mercy makes us gentle, welcoming, humble, serene, free from envy and enmity, and it curbs our lust and greed. This cannot be faked. Appearance of pride, vanity, and haughtiness can’t be ignored either, and this is what is produced by devil, not by the Lord. That is St Gregory’s ultimate test, and test we must. He implores us to become “guru”, in the meaning of “heavy”, and do not get easily carried away by whatever comes. Everything must be considered very carefully before being accepted as truth. This answer is a little different from the advice to check everything with senior devotees given earlier. Here St Gregory tells us to develop the “noetic sense” so that we can distinguish between genuine mercy and delusions presented by the devil. He compares it to distinguishing between vinegar and wine or lettuce and mustard – I’m not sure about translations, but the point is that they look the same and one must test them with his tongue to spot the difference. Similarly, we should develop our spiritual sense to distinguish between grace and delusion.

This is the end of the book and the end of the summary. It took me a long time, two and a half months, but I never gave up and never paused contemplating on these things. The main, most time consuming part, was bringing these words into my own life. There is the part about being inside one’s heart, for example. It’s one thing to translate it or comment on it and quite another to actually gain at least some experience. Will it even work? Yes, it will, and now I can say this with confidence of personal experience. The part about restraining one’s food intake is also easy to translate but difficult to follow for more than a few days, at least for me, but I also at least know now what it feels like and how to do it. In some ways I would like to go back and re-write some paragraphs in the light of my personal experiences but that would be too much for me now. So, please accept it as it is and keep in mind that these things are “live”. They are not just words on the screen but ideas and concepts that WILL interact with you and WILL fill you with understanding and, more importantly, with experiences as you allow them into your consciousness. In the process of such meditation and reflection your mind takes the shape of the thing and starts to behave accordingly, and in this way we get to gain first hand experience ourselves. Admittedly, only glimpses of experience because we are not cave dwelling monks, but enough to give us a taste of what is to come in the future. I’m definitely not the same person as I was at the start of this post and I hope this summary of St Gregory of Sinai’s teachings will make a meaningful change in your life, too.

O tat sat

Pilgrim’s Diary 11b. Philokalia – Nikiphoros

This is the second appendix to Part 11 and it goes over this sequence of Philokalia’s chapters recommended specifically for those desiring to develop inner prayer of the heart:

First of all, read through the book of Nicephorus the monk (in part two), then
the whole book of Gregory of Sinai, except the short chapters, Simeon the new
theologian on the three forms of prayer and his discourse on faith, and after that the
book of Callistus and Ignatius. In these Fathers there are full directions and teaching
on interior prayer of the heart, in a form which everyone can understand.

“And if, in addition, you want to find a very understandable instruction on prayer,
turn to part four and find the summarized pattern of prayer by the most holy Callistus, patriarch of Constantinople.”

“Nicephorus the monk” was a contemporary of Ramanujacarya, lived on Mt Athos, and was the guru of Gregory Palamas who, in turn was the father of Christian hesychasm. Wikipedia informs us:

Hesychasm (/ˈhɛsɪkæzəm, ˈhɛzɪ-/) is a mystical tradition of contemplative prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Based on Jesus’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you”, hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.

Sounds just what we need here. First things first, however. Nicephorus is spelled as Nikiphoros in this English translation of Philokalia (starting from page 1011), so I’ll use this spelling. Then, as I began this article, I thought I’d give a short summary of all the aforementioned fathers but after re-reading Nikiphoros several times, in both Russian and English translations, I think I’ll keep this installment to his teachings only. Maybe others won’t need as much space, I don’t know, let’s see.

Reclusive dwelling, Karuli, Mt
Hermits house, Karuli, Mt Athos

First Nikiphoros tells us who his book is for – it’s for those who “ardently long to attain the wondrous divine illumination of our Savior Jesus Christ; to experience in your heart the supracelestial fire and to be consciously reconciled with God” and so on. One crucial characteristic of the proper candidates however, is that they should have given up all attempts and all connections with mundane happiness. This is not for people who hope to extract anything from this world. It’s for true renunciates and this will be re-iterated later. And what does he promise to these people? He promises to relieve them from fear of something called “prelest” in Orthodox Christianity, which wasn’t translated into a singe word in English but it’s a big topic in these circles. It was discussed by many other saints in this mystical tradition and there is a separate chapter about this on our assigned reading list, too. So what is this “prelest”?

In Russian the word gives rise to adjectives like charming, lovely, adorable – all the good ones. In the context of spiritual progress, however, it’s a word for anarthas that misdirect one from true spiritual path. In our language it would be various apasiddhantas. They sound attractive to devotees who go into them but our acharyas warned us again and again that it would mark the end of our spiritual life. “Everything will be finished,” as Srila Prabhupada put it. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati treated followers of apasiddhantas as worse than non-devotees. Non-devotees are presumed to be innocent and can be taught the correct path, but with sahajiyas and others there is no hope as they won’t even listen. They think they know everything already. What is the problem? The problem is in accepting non-spiritual things bringing pleasure and comfort for genuine spirituality. Another candidate for our translation of “prelest” is “bhakty-uttha anarthas” – anarthas arising from the practice of bhakti itself – there is a list of those in Madhurya Kadambini. One can get recognition and become attached to fame or to service received as an advanced devotee. The very idea “I’m an advanced devotee” is said to be the deepest and the most difficult to give up.

Is there a need to expand on this “prelest”? Probably not – one has to smell these things from a mile away regardless of what exact form they take, and this is what Nikiphoros is talking about here. In our society there are plenty of devotees who embrace these distractions and give multiple reasons why they should be allowed to keep these attachments. This book is not for them. In Orthodox tradition “prelest” is the work of the Satan himself and it’s these “prelests” that are meant in the English translation of what Nikiphoros’ method is supposed to provide: “without the danger of being deceived or terrified by the demons. Terror of this kind we experience…” Comparing this to Russian I think a correction is in order – in English we can be deceived OR terrified, and then terror is described, but in Russian translation there is a terror of being deceived, too. This book is for those who are terrified of the possibility of being mislead. It’s for those who try to keep their nose clean and know that one step away from the path and they’ll be finished, at least for the rest of this lifetime.

The method to attain “wondrous divine illumination” within our hearts is given at the very end of the book and first Nikiphoros deals with objections, with “purvapaksa” in our speak. He proposes meditation in the heart with closing one’s consciousness to the external world as much as possible and surely people would object to that. I myself not sold on this whole thing – we are a preaching movement and, regardless of whether this kind meditation works or not, we make progress by following our prescribed methods. If Lord Caitanya told as to go and preach and to chant the Holy Name loudly for everybody to hear then this is what we should do and there is no other way. For us. Because it’s a personal matter – He asked us and we can’t say no, and we can’t be ungrateful, and we can’t say “I know better”. So should I proceed?

My answer is that preaching is effective only as a reflection of our inner realizations. We can give people only what we carry in our own hearts. Ages ago I wrote about reasons why sankritana devotees are so successful and the main one was that because they are the best devotees to begin with. They are first to get up for mangala arati, first to finish their rounds, they never fall asleep during Bhagavatam class (only temple residents can appreciate this ability now). They read books more than others and they remember what they read better than others, too. In other words, they first become perfect “inside” – in the temple, and then they can preach outside on the streets. I apply the same logic here -for Nikiphorus “wondrous divine illumination” might have been the end goal but for me it will always be only the means to an end. This inner glow MUST be projected outside. That’s what Lord Caitanya wants and I’m bound to His words.

Anyway, to defend his proposal Nikiphoros offers anecdotes from the lives of other saints or sometimes their straightforward teachings, and this comprises much of his book. Let’s go over those and story from the life of Father Anthony comes first. To my knowledge, “Father Anthony” was the first ever Christian monk, first person to introduce asceticism into their sadhana. He was living on top of a mountain and once two pilgrims were walking through the desert to meet him. They run out of water and one of them died while the other passed out and was on the verge of dying, too. Suddenly, on his mountain, Father Anthony called his disciples and told them to quickly grab a jug of water and run down towards Egypt. “One guy already died,” he said, “and if you don’t hurry the second guy will die, too”. In this way one pilgrim was saved. The moral of this story is that it’s by renunciation and by looking inside Father Anthony attained the perfect vision of the outside, too. If one asks why the first guy was allowed to die NIkiphoros’ answer is that his death was predestined and Father Anthony was not supposed to change that.

Second argument is from the life of “St Theodosios the Cenobiarch”. The name obviously meant something to Nikiphoros by itself because it looks like he simply cited him as an example of how solitude and renunciation lead to development of character and love of God. Basically, Nikiphoros states that Theodosios was so good because he was inward looking.

Then comes St Arsenios. Nikiphoros says that Arsenios never wrote any letters and never received any either, and not even talked with anybody despite being effortlessly eloquent in his speech. Why? He didn’t want anybody to think highly of him. For this reason even in the monastery he would choose a spot where nobody could see him and he didn’t have to look at anybody. He didn’t want to have any value assigned to his life in this world, he wanted nothing of it.

Then there was St Paul of Mount Latros. As the name says – he lived on Moutn Latros, alone, and if he ever came down to talk to people it would only be to instill the necessity of keeping mind under control, which is “watch over intellect” in English translation but “control the mind” is our usual phrase so I’ll go with it.

Then there was St Savvas, who, apparently, was a temple president back then. The point is that he demanded all the devotees to conquer their minds. Then, and only then, he would consider accepting them as resident devotees in his ashram. But that’s not all – he would allow them to live IN the temple only if they were frail and weak. Otherwise he told them to build their own hermitages. The point being that one absolutely must learn to keep his mind from indulging in mundane things. One cannot be a man of this world AND hope to attain enlightenment. Our devotees should be occasionally reminded of this, too.

Then there was Abba Agathon, who was once asked what is more important – following sadhana or meditation. Agathon replied that sadhana, the practical devotional service, is like leaves on a tree and meditation is like fruit. If a tree doesn’t bear fruit then it should be cut down and used as firewood. The goal of growing a tree to is relish its fruits, and so that is the relation between sadhana and chanting.

There there a letter from Abba Mark to Nicolas where Abba Mark says that if one wants to ignite his inner light of knowledge to guide him through treacheries of Kali yuga then there is one simple method that does not require physical exertion – one must learn to control his mind. “Attentive understanding” was another phrase used for this attainment. In our speak it would probably be “awareness” where consciousness is sharp, attentive, all knowing, but peaceful and largely inactive. To attain this state Abba Mark instructs to look deep inside one’s own heart and purge three enemies of awareness – forgetfulness, sloth, and ignorance. This can be achieved only by relying on God’s help so one should seek it first, and at all times, too..

Next is St John Klimakos who instructed that one should strive to “enshrine what is bodiless within the temple of the body”. He explained that this is possible only by controlling one’s mind – again. I would point at the proposal itself, however – to enshrine means to place something that wasn’t there before and it might mean to invite God into our hearts, as if He wasn’t there already. In Russian translation it’s not what St John was talking about – he specifically meant to keep one’s own soul within confines of one’s body, meaning to not allow consciousness to wander in the outside world. In this state the body might sleep but the heart, the consciousness, is still awake and aware. Biblical reference is “I sleep but my heart is watchful” (Song of Songs 5:2). Lock the door to keep your body in your cell, close your mouth to keep silence, and lock your heart to keep “evil spirits” from getting inside and messing you up. By this practice one can learn the pathways бы which “prelests” try to enter into one’s heart. Actual word was “robbers” and I don’t know what was the original Greek – there IS Greek equivalent for the term but they also say the word “prelest” is not used in official Bible translations. Anyway, the metaphor given is that by sitting high up one can see the ways for robbers to get inside the garden and steal the grapes, and so by placing one’s awareness above the body one can see how anarthas find their way inside the heart. St John draws distinction between guarding against evil thoughts and watching over intellect, which is not immediately clear to me. Perhaps he means getting the mind back on chanting as opposed to never allowing the mind to slip away in the first place. This second ability is more important but more difficult to attain. He then compares buddhi to robbers again but in a different way – robbers who properly case the place know exactly how to get to the valuables and so does the intellect when getting the mind under control. Perhaps English translation makes more sense – those who want to rob king’s palace do not attack indiscriminately and so the mind, controlled by the intellect, cannot be penetrated easily. In Russian translation it’s not the mind controlled by the intellect but “heart infused with prayer”. In English translation it’s “enshrined prayer within his heart”, which takes us back to the need to rely on the Lord to control one’s mind. He (either St John or Nikiphoros – not clear) then asks the reader if divinity Lord’s instructions become visible in his words. He says most of the time we miss the point and pass on these instructions as if we were voluntarily deaf. Meaning words remain words and we do not see the Lord speaking through the guru. In this case he was quoting the Bible a lot so it wasn’t posturing – in these instructions he genuinely wanted to convey Lord’s orders.

Then there is St Isaiah the Solitary who taught that only when one detaches himself from one’s mind one can start to see the scope of his sins and his sinful propensities. No, sorry, I wish he said that, but he said that one has to separate himself from evil, not from the mind, which would have been a super cool realization. Anyway, what he said is known in our practice as the phenomenon of people thinking that they are essentially good until, after practicing Krishna Consciousness for a while and restricting themselves, they realize that their hearts are full of slime, gunk, and smut. Then one starts to understand the real meaning of shame. St Isaiah then says that if our hearts are corrupted then we should at least keep our bodies clean and do not indulge – do not break regulative principles. Then maybe we can expect some mercy.

Then comes St Makarios the Great who said the most important task for an ascetic is to “enter into his heart, to wage war against Satan, to hate him, and to battle with him by wrestling against the thoughts he provokes.” He stresses that if the mind is allowed to engage in all sorts of mundane thoughts then keeping the body clean has no value. This seems to contradict St Isaiah above but Nikiphoros says that this is not so and that following four regs is a must in all cases, but keeping purity of the mind is more important and it’s what actually counts. Christian word “spirit” used here could mean the mind, it could mean the heart, and could mean the consciousness. I would say it’s a failure of intelligence – one must have a very clear conception of right and wrong and then the mind would naturally stay within the boundaries. If the intelligence is weak then the mind explores the opportunities. These opportunities do not come from the external world, as one might assume – it’s the intelligence that allows for existence of various maybes. It’s in these maybes that the mind senses potential value and tries to explore. The intelligence has to shut these possibilities completely and put its foot down. Then the mind won’t flow towards undesirable things. I hope this clarifies St Makarios’ message.

Then comes St Diadochos who outright tells us that for those who dwell inside their hearts there are no distractions of porn. He who already lives “in the spirit” does not know desires of the flesh. Temptations, or “assaults of the demons” can’t reach him anymore. This is similar to what I said in the previous paragraph but I want to say a few extra words about this – Christian references to the demons sound a bit naive but, if we think about it, lusty desires rising up in our minds are not necessarily ours. There are sooo many beings that “live” in our body, too, in a sense they express themselves through parts of our bodies. All the demigods live inside our bodies already, for example, but not in the same way that we live here – they occupy a certain slice of ALL bodies simultaneously while we claim ownership of the whole thing, but only as a single unit, one single body. The point is that it’s possible that there is a controlling demigod who gets off by observing lusty thoughts in our minds. Christians might call him a demon but we know that by chanting we can change his/her nature, too. We expect that eventually all the demigods will come to visit our minds and various other bodily parts to appreciate sankirtana and be engaged in devotional service. That’s one way to explain what it means when we say “by chanting all the demigods become satisfied”. They are not our enemies, we just have to preach to them and make them appreciate our chanting.

Then there is St Isaac the Syrian, which I can quote in full: “Strive to enter the shrine within you and you will see the shrine of heaven, for the one is the same as the other, and a single entrance permits you to contemplate both. The ladder leading to that kingdom is hidden within you, that is, within your soul: cleanse yourself from sin and there you will find the steps by which to ascend.” That’s a very elegant way of putting it. I can add many equivalents from our practice but these comparisons might simply distract us from the main point. By SELF-realization we will attain God, too, and Krishna Himself will illuminate our path towards Him as caitya guru inside. There is no need to look elsewhere, unless specifically directed, like towards the Holy Name, which is a sound outside of our bodies.

Then there is St John of Karpathos who says that attaining the state of brahma bhuta requires a great effort but in this state one starts to see God within his heart. In Russian translation there is “reaching another sky, the inner sky of the heart” but there is no equivalent in English that I see. It’s a beautiful point – there IS an entirely different space within our hearts and when traversing this space we don’t need to pay any attention to the world outside. What is this space and what is this traveling? I wish I could speak from experience but I can point the way, roughly as I did here, in an addendum to Pilgrim’s Diary part 8. Eventually our chanting should lead to perceiving the meaning of the holy name and we should notice that there could be multiple meanings there, too. This variety of meanings creates space where some are close to each other and some are far apart. We respond to these meanings differently and our response makes the holy name to reveal the next meaning, too, and this change from one meaning to another, from one response to another, constitutes movement, ie traveling. One can do it by mental efforts, as I think I described in the linked article, but the idea is to become an observer and let the mantra flow by itself. Then we can step off the mental plane of being the controllers and finally learn to HEAR different meanings, which is a kind of hearing that happens in the heart. Then creation and discovery of this new “sky” inside our hearts starts to take place on its own, without us forcing it to go this way or that, which is undesirable in the beginning. Let’s move on.

Next is St Symeon the New Theologian and in Russian “theologian” is like a compound word made of “God” and “speak”. Well, he speaks a lot in this passage and his words are godly, but there are just too many of them. It’s about the original sin and what I get from this is that we have to guard our minds from indulging in it again, which means ignoring Lord’s advice and doing our own thing because we think we “got it, will take it from here”. What we need to do is to guard our hearts and minds against ideas like this, which becomes possible by being attentive to the Lord, which means constantly directing our minds towards Him, by praying, by relying only on His help etc.

At this point Nikiphoros asks the reader if all these pramanas are sufficient to accept that inner meditation is, indeed, the way to go forward. Obviously everybody should agree, and then Nikiphoros moves on to his proposed method of achieving it. First he answers a question from the audience – okay, we got it, controlling the mind and concentrating it on the heart is important, but how to achieve it? With God’s help, answers Nikiphoros. We can’t do it on our own and we need the Lord to guide us.

Different people call this process by different names, like I used our familiar “control the mind” here, but all these terms point to the same thing, except our “control the mind” instructions can apply to external activities as well – do not watch this youtube video, watch that instead. Do not talk to this guy, do not look at that girl, read this book instead of that and so on. What Nikiphoros talking about here is attaining total stillness of the mind, however. It’s not that the mind needs to be engaged but it has to be stopped from doing all external activities altogether. Impossible and inadvisable, we might hear in reply, and that’s why this is not for every devotee. However, EVERY devotee must come to this point eventually – to the point where the mind becomes peaceful and undisturbed. It’s not that we will sit and do nothing either – we always have to chant so “still mind” means mind absorbed solely in listening to the holy name. At some point it must become possible, and it’s the entrance to brahma-bhuta prasannatma stage. Whatever objections we raise – this is still the entrance to actual bhakti, there are no alternatives, and we are not talking about some substitutes brought over from Christian religion here. Neither we are talking about shortcuts – all the same stages we must pass according to our tradition are still there and we still must pass through them. Pilgrim’s diary only offers a slightly different description of what should be happening. It’s not magic – these things MUST happen and mind must be brought under control. Mind should not be just directed to spiritual activities but actually brought under control where it can sit and listen to the maha-mantra for prolonged periods of time. Once it can do that we can, and we must direct it outside – to preaching. As I said earlier, what was the end goal for Nikiphoros is only the beginning of the real sankirtana for us.

Nikiphoros says that this mind control (maybe pratyahara and dharana in astanga yoga) has to be practiced under the guidance of an experienced guru who can observe and direct the disciple every step of the way. Some can do it alone but it’s rare and it happens only by Lord’s special mercy so we can’t count on that. If a guru is unavailable then one must spare no efforts in finding him, and that’s all Nikiphoros has to say about that. Devotees spend years and decades seeking a guru to take initiation from so finding a guru who himself had this kind of experiences and is willing to guide us seems impossible. Well, then we have to pray, what else is there? Nikiphoros’ own solution, and that’s what he literally says – if you don’t have a guru then pray to the Lord and do what I say.

I don’t think should retell his instructions in my own words so I’ll just paste it here:

You know that what we breathe is air. When we exhale it, it is for the heart’s sake, for the heart is the source of life and warmth for the body. The heart draws towards itself the air inhaled when breathing, so that by discharging some of its heat when the air is exhaled it may maintain an even temperature. The cause of this process or, rather, its agent, are the lungs. The Creator has made these capable of expanding and contracting, like bellows, so that they can easily draw in and expel their contents. Thus, by taking in coolness and expelling heat through breathing, the heart performs unobstructed the function for which it was created, that of maintaining life.


Seat yourself, then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart. Put pressure on your intellect and compel it to descend with your inhaled breath into your heart. Once it has entered there, what follows will be neither dismal nor glum. Just as a man, after being far away from home, on his return is overjoyed at being with his wife and children again, so the intellect, once it is united with the soul, is filled with indescribable delight.

However you parse it to mean – up to you. Personally, I’m not impressed, not very clear, and do not know where to start. First of all, I’m not going to give up chanting for this so unless there is a way to draw the breath inside while chanting, as well as the way make the Holy Name descend into… Wait – into what? This doesn’t make sense already. He is talking about actual lungs and hearts and an actual region in space where the heart is and where the “intellect” should be compelled to enter. To locate this region one must look at it from the outside and so we have me, the observer, and my heart, the location in space, and now me the observer should force my mind to go into that location. Am I supposed to continue observing my mind hanging around inside my heart? From which vantage point should I observe this? Where is my consciousness during all this? In the heart? With the mind? Or at that vantage point?

Russian translation is not helpful here either as it describes the same process and so raises the same questions. I suspect Nikiphoros had all the answers but today’s translators can’t understand what he was talking about and so interpret this passage in a way that raises questions. I suspect original Greek is not understood today either as we no longer have experiences of what these words refer to. Perhaps familiarity with mechanics of astanga yoga could help but I’m not going to study yoga to figure out what to do with my life – we already have all the instructions we need.

Nikiphoros says that if one can’t enter the heart despite many efforts he has to pray to the Lord for help and follow his additional advice:

…everyone’s discursive faculty is centered in his breast; for when our lips are silent we speak and deliberate and formulate prayers, psalms and other things in our breast. Banish, then, all thoughts from this faculty – and you can do this if you want to – and in their place put the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and compel it to repeat this prayer ceaselessly. If you continue to do this for some time, it will assuredly open for you the entrance to your heart in the way we have explained, and as we ourselves know from experience.

Perhaps things have changed since this was written, but we think with our heads now, not our breasts. We might feel something with our hearts or we might have a “gut feeling”, but it’s never as articulate as Nikiphoros describes. Perhaps original Greek word for “breast” here meant something different. Russian translation is the same as English so not helpful. If we ignore this physical location, however, then this advice is no different from our common advise to banish all thoughts from our minds and simply chant Hare Krishna. If this is the way to go from “breast” into the “heart” then there is nothing to object.

If we don’t treat this spatially then it makes sense. There IS a way to hear the maha-mantra with all one’s heart, a way where the mind becomes excluded. When a child cries for his mother the mind is similarly has no place – the child cries, he doesn’t think about what he is doing. There IS a way to focus our consciousness on this “heart” and it might as well be spatially located where the heart is, but analyzing these spatial relations should be excluded just like the mind is excluded when crying. This analysis is done by the mind anyway. Another point is that by “mind” we often mean the thought generating faculty which is not the mind but the sense called “speech”. Thoughts are still words, except physically imperceptible. Similarly, our dreams are physically imperceptible, too, but we still “see” them with our sense of sight. Anyway, this thought producing facility can by shut down, at least for a while, but it’s not the same as shutting down the mind itself, technically speaking. Nikiphoros himself calls it “discursive faculty” rather than the mind or intellect, too.

Finally, Nikiphoros talks about a two stage process – mechanically enter the heart and THEN start chanting the Jesus Prayer. I hope other gurus on the reading list will not make such a distinction and will tell us how the prayer itself can be used to draw our consciousness into the heart. For this reason I don’t think Nikiphoros’ method was anti-climactic but it was a good first glimpse just as Krishna’s instructions in the Sixth Chapter of Bhagavad Gita were not the last word in yoga. We can’t follow those either but we don’t reject them, we rather expect more instructions suitable specifically for us. Nikiphoros’ preconditions are similar to Krishna’s instructions to go into the mountains, find a proper place, and learn to sit there comfortably for a long time. His method works, but not for us, we need more help and we expect this help from the Holy Name. If you remember, the pilgrim used the Jesus Prayer itself to draw it inside his own heart, too. He synced chanting with his breathing to achieve that, which is already a step beyond NIkiphoros’ advice to mentally force the consciousness inside the heart.

And let’s not forget the lessons from various holy fathers above – assimilating them into our consciousness should already make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Another image from Mt Athos:

Reclusive dwelling on Mt Athos

Pilgrim’s Diary 11a. Opulences

This is an appendix to go over the following list of realizations mentioned earlier:

“the inner secret man of the heart,” “true prayer worships in the spirit,” “the kingdom is within us,” “the intercession of the Holy Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered,” “abide in me,” “give me thy heart,” “to put on Christ,” “the betrothal of the Spirit to our hearts,” the cry from the depths of the heart, “Abba, Father,”

I don’t know what exactly these terms mean to Christians who will recognize them at first sight but there are several things at play here – common western Christian understanding (Catholic plus Protestant), Russian Orthodox understanding, Pilgrim’s own understanding, and, most importantly – what WE should know about these things if we want to achieve similar results. I’m sure I will miss great many details and nuances immediately obvious to Christian scholars, but the pilgrim wasn’t a scholar and we can’t even be sure he understood these things right (if there is one “right” way to understand them at all). He discovered his own meanings for these terms and he most certainly didn’t have time to elaborate on those. Therefore, I believe it would be adequate to simply find similar kinds of realizations in our own spiritual lives, our own moments when a light bulb goes off. Delving into details can actually spoil the moment here.

“The inner secret man of the heart” is in reference to a passage from the Gospels (Peter 3.1-6):

In the same way, you wives, be subject to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won over without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your pure and respectful behavior. Your adornment must not be merely the external—braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry, or putting on apparel; but it should be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way the holy women of former times, who hoped in God, also used to adorn themselves, being subject to their own husbands, just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord; and you have proved to be her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.

At first it seems to be about women developing inner character, often referred to as chastity, that attracts and influences men better than their external appearance but the pilgrim obviously saw more than that. He himself externally didn’t look like much – as I argued earlier police captain didn’t even recognize him as a sadhu, and neither did two guys who mugged him. The main transformation happened in his heart and it’s all he has been writing about in his diary so far. Sadhu’s qualities develop from within, inside out, as the body continues its assigned karmic trajectory. Even if sadhus don’t behave up to the standards – sādhur eva sa mantavyaḥ. We have to see inside their hearts, where this “inner secret man” lives. Hopefully, one day we find a “secret man” of our own, too. To me, the pilgrim discovered what Lord Caitanya said about vaishnavas: Even the most learned man cannot understand the words, activities and symptoms of a person situated in love of Godhead. (CC. Madhya 23.39)

“True prayer worships in the spirit” – two things, actually – “true prayer” and “worship in spirit”. That’s how it stands in Russian but English translation put them together. I don’t think “true prayer” needs an explanation here because this entire book is an exposition on what true prayer is. Second term, worship in spirit, is apparently from John 4.21-24:

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Huh, another one about women? No, it’s actually about moving on from vaidhi bhakti to raganuga bhakti. It’s when external rituals of worship become filled with heart’s flow of devotion from within. It’s when we do something not because we have to follow the rules but because it pleases Krishna. And it’s not that we start doing something else – no, we are still talking about the same thing, like offering obeisances, for example, or offering arati, or prasadam, or going to the temple. “I have to go every Sunday” is nicely expressed determination but it enhances millions of times when we think that when we ring the bell the Lord will be happy to notice our arrival. Now we can drive for hours just to make Him smile that one time we enter.

“The kingdom is within us” is from a famous verse from Luke 17.21

No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.

There are books written about this so I don’t think there is a need for me to explain it. In our tradition Krishna lives within the hearts of devotees and that’s where we are expected to find him: santaḥ sadaiva hṛdayeṣu vilokayanti. What more can be said about this? Maybe sometimes we need to remind ourselves, in our pursuit of pure devotion and perfection of sadhana, that we will not find Krishna in these external activities. He is within us, always has been and always will be, except if we ever get lucky enough to see Him externally, which almost never happens. Come to think of it, so many devotees put all their passion in fixing external things, like BBT books or initiations or GBC resolutions. I’m one of those, I know. Every now and then we should be reminded that our process is called “self-realization”, not “world-realization”. All that we need to see is inside us, not outside.

“The intercession of the Holy Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered” is from Romans 8.26:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

This has been interpreted in various ways – some used this verse to support “speaking in tongues”, others to support their mystical experiences. The explanation I read is more mundane – people do not always have the ability to follow four regs and they can’t even offer properly worded prayers, free of rasa-abhasa and apa-siddhanta. Realizing their inability all they can offer is their sincere sighs of repentance and gratitude to the Lord. Going back to “inner secret man” and “kingdom within us” – wordless groans is how it comes out of the heart and into the open. Our mundane words and our mundane ability to speak can’t serve it justice. Or, as we often remind each other – Krishna is bhāva-grāhījanārdana. That bhava is unspoken. I’m not sure “groans” is the right word for it, but I think I get the point.

“Abide in me” is from John 15.4:

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.

This is obviously their version of acintya-bheda-abheda tattva. Or there is this verse about chanting:

mano-madhye sthito mantro​
mantra-madhye sthitaṁ manaḥ​
manomantra-samāyuktam​
etad dhi japa-lakṣaṇam​



The mantra firmly situated in the mind; the mind firmly situated in the mantra; such a seamless connection of the mind and mantra is the characteristic of ideal japa. — (Gaura-govindārcana-smaraṇa-paddhatiḥ, 64)​

This is from a famous work by Dhyanacandra Goswami which lays down rules for siddha pranali practice in Gaudiya Vaishnavism. We look at that practice with a lot of suspicion, but this verse by itself is uncontroversial so I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. Or maybe it is – I don’t really care, I accept it as a good advice on better chanting.

What does it mean in practice? I’d say it has to be experienced – how the mantra enters the mind and takes over. It starts living there, not as a foreign sound but really living inside the mind. There is another passage from Kurma Purana, which I can’t find right now, but it tells that various stages of mediation – dharana, pratyahara, dhyana etc – are distinguished by how long one can maintain this state of unity with the mantra. It starts from a few seconds and samadhi is when it lasts over twenty minutes (half a muhurta). This is not the same as the Holy Name dancing on one’s tongue as in Rupa Goswami’s tuṇḍe tāṇḍavinī verse quoted twice in CC. In any case, placing our minds into the mantra or hearts into Krishna comes first.

“Give me thy heart” is from Proverbs 23.26:

My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways,

Doesn’t really need an explanation – the pilgrim learned what it means in practice. How to give our hearts to God? “Always think of Me” is not exactly the same thing, is it? Is the passage itself implies something special? Maybe, but I don’t think the pilgrim was into some other possible meanings here.

“To put on Christ” is from Galatians 3.27:

For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

That’s an esoteric one but also very simple – when we surrender our hearts to the Lord our bodies become spiritual. They don’t look or feel like spiritual, but when Krishna accepts us as His devotees our bodies become as dear to Him as our own. I know there is a verse supporting this in the Eleventh Canto but I don’t think I can find it easily. Or consider how we are told that worship of vaishnavas is even greater than worship of Vishnu because devotees are “visnu tadiyanam” – Lord’s paraphernalia. We often forget this, especially when it comes to other devotees’ bodies, but Krishna doesn’t. Whatever flaws we may perceive in these bodies, including ours, are not flaws but Krishna’s special arrangements. Personally arranged for the best possible outcome for everyone.

“The betrothal of the Spirit to our hearts” is from 2 Corinthians 1.22:

set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

This is about bhakti-lata bija in our hearts. It comes and it makes our hearts its home. One thing is to say this and another to feel Lord’s love for us inside our hearts. That’s what the pilgrim has experienced. That precious moment when you realize that Krishna actually cares and never gives up, never turns away, and is always there, regardless of anything. Or maybe Lord Caitanya – because He is our designated God in charge. We are His and He is in us.

“The cry from the depths of the heart, ‘Abba, Father'” – this is from Romans 8.15:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

Otherwise “Abba, Father” is a common Christian appeal to the Lord. Two words mean the same – father, just in different languages. For Christians there is a special significance of this because God has only one son and it’s not us. I don’t know if Christians ever say this from their own position or rather understand it as “touching the mind of Christ”. For us Krishna is the father of everyone so we all can come to Him equally. It’s only in the spiritual world that we develop different relationships with him as possibly his friends or even parents, but down here, as embodied souls – He is the father of everyone. Again, saying this is one thing but sincerely and wholeheartedly appealing to Krishna this way is quite another. The pilgrim has experienced it, apparently – he didn’t go into details, or at least he realized this point.

Second promised appendix, with a summary of Philokalia passages mentioned in the previous installment might take a while to compile. Just reading them is a lot already.

I’ll conclude with this picture from BTG:



Pilgrim’s Diary 11. Resonance

We have completed a set of events on Pilgrim’s journey, he got his books back and said good-bye to police captain, but the underlying theme of his odyssey continues as a phase of a larger cycle. The captain challenged him about the power of the the prayer as opposed to the power of reading the Gospels and the pilgrim said they were equal, and yet he was representing praying as a method that works. At the same time he was reunited with the books so he was excited about reading. Next stage on his journey will continue these topics and it shows how these two activities resonate with each other, how they amplify each other, feeding off and stimulating each other in turn.

There will be significant ground to cover in this installment and I think it will need at least two appendices dealing with two lists that pack quite a lot separately.

The pilgrim walked fifty miles along the main road but then decided to try something else. Too much traffic, I guess, so he turned off into a country road where villages were far and few and between. His MO was to read Philokalia during the day, taking shelter of a big tree, and walk at night. He loved that book and learned a lot from it, his only concern was that he didn’t have a place to sit down and immerse in it completely. The book was encouraging him to chant his prayer and the prayer was drawing him to study what the book teaches about it.

He read the Bible, too, and he realized that Philokalia was the key to unlocking Bible’s treasures, he discovered that the Bible was full of hidden meanings and Philokalia was uncovering them for him. Here is a list of his discoveries taken from English translation of the diary: “the inner secret man of the heart,” “true prayer worships in the spirit,” “the kingdom is within us,” “the intercession of the Holy Spirit with groanings that cannot be uttered,” “abide in me,” “give me thy heart,” “to put on Christ,” “the betrothal of the Spirit to our hearts,” the cry from the depths of the heart, “Abba, Father,” and so on.” I think this deserves unpacking separately.

With these realizations his praying evolved to a whole new level. As the prayer was flowing from his heart he started seeing everything surrounding him as “delightful and marvelous” – trees, grass, birds, earth, air, daylight – everything was telling him that it exists and is shown to him as a demonstration of God’s love for humanity and that everything he sees feels grateful to the Lord and glorifies Him in return. When the pilgrim saw it he understood what the books mean about knowing the language of animals and he understood what it means to know the speech of all creatures. This needs unpacking, too, but I wouldn’t even know where to start because this has to be experienced, it has to be seen. As far as people report – you don’t actually talk to trees and animals, it’s not a verbal communication, but you understand why they behave in a certain way, you can reply to this understanding on exactly the same level it came to you, and they will get it and respond accordingly. Conversations like this can be translated into words but only if a third party asks, otherwise words are not necessary. This vision, this realization is related to seeing the root of every creature’s existence, their raison d’etre, and responding to it with great respect and appreciation. I don’t have much experience in this regard and can point to people in popular culture saying things like “he sees me” or asking “Do you feel me?” These expressions refer to the same deep understanding of another person’s reason for existence, that’s where they came from before they got trivialized by the public and entered into Urban Dictionary.

Speaking of the public – I’ve never seen this kind of vision attained when observing human society while it’s been very common when observing the nature. Something about what we, people, do feels unnatural and disconnected. Maybe it’s all our garbage and highways and everything, or maybe it’s due to our inability to distance ourselves, which is necessary for becoming observers. Or maybe it would need a high level of spiritual realization, way above our current level. It works with animals and trees because humans are already higher than them so no extra effort is necessary. Moving on.

After some time the pilgrim reached a very remote region and didn’t see a single village for three days. He ran out of his dried bread and started to worry about food. He, however, dispelled this uneasiness by turning his heart to his prayer again. There is this joy in surrendering to God’s will that doesn’t leave any space for unhappiness even if the reasons still seem to be perfectly valid. I don’t remember where I’ve seen this recently, probably in some commentary on something, but even if the state of being hopeful drives away all fears, real peace comes only with absolute hopelessness. Just leave it to the Lord and simply be with Him. Worries come only in relation to the events of this world. Forget about it and just be with God. That’s where the real peace is. In our lingo this state is called “akincana”. In this term “kin” is from the beginning of question words – what, where, who, etc, and “a-kin” makes it to mean “no questions” to be placed to the world, nothing to ask for or about, which means one doesn’t expect any answers, which means one doesn’t entertain any hopes.

If this looks like a pretty high level of advancement – no, sorry, it’s only the first step in vaishnavism. Queen Kunti in the First Canto uses the state “akincana” as a prerequisite to chanting the pure name, stating that it won’t happen otherwise. This state is elusive, unfortunately, as we all can attest to the unfailing ability of things like good food to fill us with hopes. Happens all the time, doesn’t it? When you smell it you hope for a good meal, with your first bite you hope for satiation, and when you ingest it you feel an influx of energy and confidence, ie your hopes are rising up.

The pilgrim was walking along a huge forest and suddenly he saw a very friendly dog running out of it. Friendly dogs mean friendly owners and the pilgrim followed the dog into the forest where he was met by a skinny, pale middle aged man. They asked introductory questions and immediately took liking of each other. The man was living in something translated as a dugout (“mud hut” is used in the above linked translation but it’s not a hut). It’s basically a hole in the ground, something like a trench, with a roof over it. The man said he was a forest ranger watching after the timber. The pilgrim said he was jealous of this life – alone, in the solitude, not having to mix with all kinds of people on the road. The man replied that there is another dugout nearby and the pilgrim was welcome to use it. Villagers bring bread once a week so they will be set for food, and the only problem is that later in the fall two hundred guys will descent on this forest to fell all the trees and their watching job will be over. “Works for me,” replied the pilgrim, and so a new phase of his journey started.

It should be noted that they both considered living only on bread to be totally sufficient. The fact that the man was described as skinny and pale doesn’t say much in favor of this diet but he had also lived like this for ten years and was not going to die anytime soon, which is also saying something. The pilgrim was very happy with this turn of events and he gratefully noted that the Lord fulfilled his desire for solitude. He also noted that there were four months left before late autumn when loggers were supposed to come, which means it was August and he was only two-three months into his journey and no more than two months since he started chanting. Quite a progress.

Guys exchanged their life stories and it turned out that the man was a village artisan, doing all kinds of skillful things for the public, but he also had a fair share of vices. He wasn’t an alcoholic like police captain but he loved to get into fights and insult people. Village deacon had a very old book about Last Judgement and he would go from house to house reading from it for money. For ten cents he would read it until morning while people would go about their chores, and so the man got to hear these stories, too, and started thinking about his sins and his future. He realized that he stood no chance and that he needed to atone for his sins. He sold his business, his house, and moved into the forest where he had lived for ten years already. He got paid in bread and candles, which he used for his altar. He would get up before sunrise and pay obeisances and pray, he would eat only once a day and, when walking around looking after the forest, he would wear sixty pound chains on his body, and not the golden chains either – it was not to show off but a voluntary austerity meant to atone for sins.

He said he liked this life at first but then thoughts about women and stuff started creeping in, leaving him confused. He hoped to atone for his previous sins but wasn’t sure he was saved from the new ones, and he wasn’t sure the Book was telling the truth either. He then gave a list of common doubts regarding Christian doctrine – how dead people are supposed to rise up? Who knows for sure that hell exists? What if it was written by popes only to scare ordinary people into obedience? What if austerities of a righteous life are all for nothing and there is no heaven waiting ahead? Why should people restrict their joy now if there is no certainly about joy in the afterlife? Is he wasting his life living in a forest? Wouldn’t it be better to return to the village and restart his professional career? Yeah, he had a lot of time to think about these things and this also tells us that he was also a neophyte on his spiritual journey.

Previously I described the police captain as a neophyte on the basis of doubts in his own chosen path and it was not very fair. This guy was a lot more doubtful than the captain but I would still insist there is progression between these two cases. Police captain was a karmi and this forest guy was a jnani. Police captain relied on religion for his enjoyment and this guy relied on it for liberation from suffering. It’s not the language Christians use and there is no hint of this progression from one case to the next in the diary but once you see it can’t be unseen.

Pilgrim’s reaction to these doubts was rather mature. He was amused that even simple folk, not just the urbanites, can grow into “freethinkers”. Nope, concluded the pilgrim – dark forces have equal access to everyone and simple people are probably even an easier prey. The solution was obviously to fight against doubts with the sword of the Scripture, so he took out his Philokalia and read out a passage by St. Hesychios saying that restriction of the senses does not bring results if not accompanied by directing one’s mind towards God. Atonement of sins is not nearly enough without cleansing the heart and the mind. The pilgrim explained that even if one decides to turn his heart to God but is still driven by fear of punishment then it’s no more than a business transaction and only unalloyed surrender is the way. It’s like he was reading from Srila Prabhupada (that St Hesychios’ passage is less clear, however). He similarly recommended chanting of the Holy Name as the only reliable means of self-realization. The Holy Name will not only guard one against temptations but it will fill one’s heart with genuine love of God, which is the real goal of human life. He also gave instructions on chanting, the man accepted his reasoning, and become peaceful.

Having sorted this out the pilgrim went to his dugout and suddenly it felt like being in God’s own palace for him – because what he treasured most at that moment was solitude and the company of Philokalia, and now it was provided over and above. He read the entire book, from start to finish, and he marveled at the depth and breadth of these topics. The only problem was that with so much to know and appreciate he wasn’t sure how to keep the thread of instructions on chanting, which was what was most important to him. He really wanted to find the secret to unceasing and self-manifested prayer in the heart. This is probably the first time the prayer was called “self-manifested” or “self-chanting”. He had remembered two instructions from the Bible telling him not to give up his quest for seemingly unattainable, otherwise known as “hunting for the rhino” in our parlay, so he was determined to find the answers.

Since he had chosen to be alone and books were of no help here he had no choice but to turn to the Holy Name for guidance. He gave himself completely to it and didn’t do anything whole day but chant, hoping that the Lord might respond to his inquiry. Then he fell asleep and in his dream he saw his spiritual master, the one who first told him about chanting and about Philokalia (he died in episode 6). The pilgrim was in guru’s ashram, like in the old days (less than a month ago), and the guru was telling him about glories of Philokalia, how it is a treasure chest of spiritual secrets but at the same time contains simple things for simple people, too. He said that for those who are not very wise it’s not recommended to read the whole book from cover to cover but look only at the chapters suitable for their level of development, so those seeking instructions on unceasing prayer should read Philokalia in the following order, copy-pasting from English translation again:

“First of all, read through the book of Nicephorus the monk (in part two), then the whole book of Gregory of Sinai, except the short chapters, Simeon the new theologian on the three forms of prayer and his discourse on faith, and after that the book of Callistus and Ignatius.”

That’s another list that needs to be dealt with separately. I’ve located some of these already and the only thing left is to actually read them, should be done in about an hour. Ha ha, I don’t think a week would be enough, but this stuff is interesting and it forms the background to pilgrim’s next realization so I don’t want to skip it and I want to stay on the same page, quite literally here.

The guru then added that after this one should read the prayers of the holy Callistus but the pilgrim couldn’t find it in the book. He then asked the guru for help and the guru quickly flipped a few pages and located it easily. “Here,” he said, “I’ll even underline it for you,” and he took a piece of a charcoal and put a mark in the book. When I grew up it was unthinkable to mark books this way but this was a personal copy and these people weren’t very cultured by today’s standards (says more about our standards than about real culture). Instructions on reading continued and broke off only when the pilgrim woke up. It was still dark out and he tried to memorize guru’s instructions while they were still fresh in his memory. He also pondered whether it was a ghost or the soul of the actual guru, or maybe just a dream. Thinking about options and explanations he got up and noticed that his Philokalia was on the table instead of under the pillow, and that it was opened, and then he found that the passage from his dream was actually underlined with a piece of charcoal lying nearby. This confirmed to the pilgrim that it wasn’t a dream but a real visit from his guru, made possible by the mercy of the Holy Name.

He then read the assigned passages, then read them again, and he felt the urge to try their advice in real life. This means that by the mercy of the Holy Name he got access to necessary passages in Philokalia and then, in turn, Philokalia implored him to chant. The book gave him sambandha – what is this inner prayer, how it pleases the heart, and how to distinguish this pleasure from the weeds of bhakti, which can sometimes appear indistinguishable.

The pilgrim started with locating his heart, as was advised by Simeon the New Theologian. One has to close his eyes and direct his mind to it. It’s a process of visualization and I normally don’t put much value on it, but I’ve seen it being practiced elsewhere so I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand. It’s not something we learn from Srila Prabhupada, which is a rather damning label by itself. Should I try it myself? Not sure about that. Anyway, the pilgrim tried this several times a day for half an hour each and for the first few days he saw nothing. I guess it’s easy to imagine one’s heart but to actually see it with the mind is a different thing and, by pilgrim’s account, it requires a significant amount of practice.

After he started sensing his heart and sensing its movement, the heartbeat, he started placing Jesus Prayer inside it, as was instructed by Gregory of Sinai, Callistus, and Ignatius. I really need to check their writings out. This was also synced with breathing – on the inhale he said first part of the prayer and on the exhale completed it with “have mercy on me”. This he had practiced for an hour at first, then for two hours, and if he felt tired or lazy he would open Philokalia and restore his confidence again. After three weeks of practice (should I still try it!?!) he started feeling pain in his heart which was then replaced by delightful warmth, consolation, and peace. This encouraged him to chant even more and as he directed more energy and efforts to chanting he started feeling great joy. Sometimes he would feel his heart bubbling with exultation, sometimes he would feel lightness and freedom in his heart, sometimes he would feel love towards Jesus and to the entire creation, too. Sometimes tears would flow from his eyes, sometimes he would feel gratefulness for the mercy shown to an insignificant person like himself. Sometimes he would have great insights in the words of the scripture and sometimes what was complicated and misunderstood appeared simple and clear as day. Sometimes the warmth from his heart would spread all over his body and he would feel Lord’s presence everywhere. Sometimes simply calling Lord’s name filled him with untold joy, and he started to realize Lord’s words that kingdom of God is within us.

From these experiences he noticed that inner prayer brings results in three ways – in the soul, in the mind, and in intelligence. In Christian language it’s in the spirit, in the feelings, and in revelations. “Revelations” here means realizations, attaining knowledge, and therefore I think it’s justified to equate it with intelligence, buddhi. He then gives examples of these three kinds of realizations but I don’t think it’s necessary to translate them all. The ability to understand animals was classified as “revelation”, for example, sweetness of love of God as “spirit”, warmth in the entire body as “feelings” and so on. It’s a lot of stuff we don’t experience right now so listing it and sorting it out correctly doesn’t seem like a useful endeavor.

Five months into the practice of praying (two months before he got to his dugout plus three months according to instructions from Philokalia) he got so used to the prayer that he did so without interruptions and then finally he felt that the prayer got a life of its own, that it didn’t require his conscious efforts anymore, it flowed entirely by itself, and it did so in the heart even when he was sleeping.

We will leave the story at this point, just before the loggers came and a new chapter started. All I can say that in five months he achieved that which might not be attainable for me in my entire life. With this success in mind it’s hard to dismiss his method of visualizing the heart and placing the prayer inside it. On the other hand, it’s not what Srila Prabhupada taught us and so some reconciliation is necessary. It’s like manasika japa – I know some devotees swear by it but there is no way I’d replace any of my sixteen rounds with it. I’m open to trying it on top of sixteen but so far I haven’t noticed anything unusual about it. Maybe need to try more. The pilgrim didn’t notice anything at first, too, so it might require weeks of concentrated work, plus he was living in the forest with minimum distractions. This one episode with Lokanatha Swami threw me off balance for a week, what to speak of taking in some mundane news, like a war in Israel or Belarus grounding a plane. If we let our minds to indulge in these things we can forget about unceasing, self-generating prayer in the heart. Of this I’m confident. Nevertheless, it still shows the ideal conditions for chanting and it gives hope and encouragement to try it, so why not? What was that about hunting the rhinos?

I’m still in two minds about this. Maybe I should read those instructions in Philokalia first, and I have another source for “meditations” like the one described above. I should probably try those, too – visualizing things, controlling the mind in a sense of directing it to certain locations in space. What kind of space is that? Special kind of mind space? There is so much to know about these things, and there is also “simply chanting is enough”. So I’ll leave it at that.

Pilgrim’s Diary 10. Japa vs Bhagavatam

We left the pilgrim with police captain about to tell him the story about his faith. This is, of course, interesting, and the pilgrim was very eager to hear it, but I noticed that there is another aspect to this conversation. I first noticed it when I typed the previous installment but now I see clearly – the captain was a total kanishtha adhikari, so let’s start with that.

As a short reminder – the pilgrim found two men who robbed him of his Bible and his Philokalia and they told him that the captain of the prisoner convoy had these books together with the rest of their loot on his cart. The pilgrim went to talk to the captain and it all worked out fine, but it took a long time for the captain to recognize the pilgrim as a sadhu, like a really long time. First, the pilgrim looked like a pilgrim, a man of the road. Secondly, he asked for his missing Bible. Then they walked together for a considerable amount of time, exchanging pleasantries and pilgrim answering basic questions about himself. Then the pilgrim found his Bible, embraced it tightly, and started crying. And only then the captain realized “You must really like it, I gather.” And then he immediately wanted to talk about himself, like every neophyte is sworn to do. The captain just couldn’t contain himself and clearly lacked appreciation for pilgrim’s advancement. This will also be seen later in their conversation, so let’s move on.

The captain took a silver bound Gospel from his chest pocket and said he always keeps it close to his heart. I have never seen silver bound Gospels but in Russia it’s apparently a thing. Why silver and not gold? Maybe it’s a question of price, maybe it’s a question of modesty as almost everybody could afford some silver so it wasn’t a “show off”, just a show of appreciation, or maybe it’s a question of the Bible itself – there is a passage there which compares Lord’s words to purified silver (seven times over in a furnace). Anyway, the captain said he had a problem with alcohol (Russians, right?) and he specifically suffered from going on prolonged benders. I don’t know if it happens to people in the west where they just drink every day and maybe binge themselves on weekends, but it’s an old Russian tradition – to every once in a while disappear from public view for weeks if not months (six weeks for the captain) and spend all this time drinking non-stop, without ever getting sober. After it’s over the person would become a normal and productive citizen again, having occasional drinks socially and everybody would love and respect them until they suddenly disappear again. During these benders they would sell all family silver and often would not even live at home, it’s like they switch their personality off and become someone else. The employers obviously don’t like it and so the captain was demoted to ordinary soldiers barracks and was about to be moved to the disciplinary corps so he was near the bottom.

Army chaplain was collecting some money for something in the barracks and he asked the captain why he looked so sad. Captain told him about his alcoholism and the chaplain told him his brother had the same problem but then his guru gave him the Gospel to read with the firm instruction to read at least a chapter the moment he feels the urge to drink. The brother followed this advice and gave up drinking very fast and had been sober for fifteen years already. The captain objected, saying that he doesn’t believe the Gospel can help where medicine and public pressure failed but the chaplain was insistent and assured the captain that it would work. Next day he, indeed, brought him this very copy Captain was showing to the pilgrim right now, and Captain looked at it, flipped a few pages, tried to read, and said that he didn’t understand neither the meaning, nor the language, not the elaborate Church typography in the book. The chaplain replied that understanding it is not strictly necessary because Gospels’ words have power by themselves. He explained that regardless of whether you understand it or not, the demons get it and it’s the demons who urge your to go get drunk. Nobody asked you, it’s a battle between the Bible and the demons, and the chaplain also gave a sastric quote to support his argument. Captain gave him a donation for the distributed book and locked it away in his chest.

Next time he felt the urge to get wasted he unlocked his chest, looking for money, but found the Gospel first and remembered chaplain’s advice. He gave it a go and read the first chapter, didn’t understand anything, but remembered that it didn’t matter and read the next chapter. It didn’t work either but suddenly an alarm was sounded and he couldn’t go for a drink anyway. He was saved. Next morning he was about to finally go get a drink but decided to try the Gospel again. Read a chapter and decided not to go. Next time he craved a drink he read a chapter again and again it helped. With this experience he really started to believe that reading Gospels works and this faith gave him strength to swear off alcohol forever. Captain then announced to the pilgrim that he hadn’t had a drink in twenty years since.

It was noticed by his superiors, his rank was restored, then he was promoted, got married, got a child, his son grew up and became an officer himself. Ever since he gave drinking he took a vow to read a chapter from the Gospels every day and he hadn’t broken it once. When he was sick or tired he asked his wife or his son to read it for him, and feeling grateful, he also put it in silver binding.

The pilgrim listened to this story and appreciated it like one would appreciate the sweet nectar of Bhagavatam. He shared a similar story, too, about his friend from the old days. They had a guy working at a factory near their village and he was similarly fond of binge drinking. Someone told him to chant 33 Jesus Prayers every time he wanted a drink, one prayer of each year of Jesus’ life, and also in honor of the Trinity. The guy listened, followed, and quit drinking. Even more – in three years he moved to a monastery!

Like every neophyte is sworn to do, Captain asked which method is superior – chanting Jesus Prayer or reading the Gospels. The pilgrim explained that both are equally potent because the Holy Name contains in itself all Gospels’ truths and church fathers declare it the essence of all Gospels, too.

This is why I named this installment Japa vs Bhagavatam – the captain was the follower of his Christian version of Bhagavatam (or maybe Caitanya Caritamrita is a better equivalent here), and the pilgrim was the devotee of the Holy Name, like Haridas Thakur.

At this point they decided it’s time to stop talking and they both engaged in their favorite forms of bhajan. Captain immersed himself in the Gospels and the pilgrim started chanting. This went on until 2 AM and then they went to bed. The pilgrim got up early, as usual, and immediately went for his beloved Philokalia – it was the first time he actually had the chance to read it again. The night before it wouldn’t be appropriate, I guess, after telling the captain about glories of Jesus Prayer he had to chant it, not to read something else.

Pilgrim’s reunion with Philokalia was like greeting a father coming home from foreign travels. He kissed it again and again and eagerly drunk the instructions on its pages. He opened writing of Theoleptos of Philadelphia and one thing struck him immediately – the instruction that one should simultaneously engage his body, mind, and soul in three different things, like during eating body gets the food, ears gets to hear scriptures (it’s a tradition on Mt Athos, where Theoleptos was trained as a brahmachari, to recite sastra while everyone eats), and the mind should chant. The pilgrim remembered previous night discussion and it dawned on him – mind and heart are not one and the same. He didn’t elaborate on this discovery but I see it as the realization that what one does in his mind and what one does in his heart could be two different things, with the goal of dedicating the heart to non-stop chanting while allowing the mind to engage in daily affairs.



I’ve seen these descriptions of Athos monks where they would talk to visitors but if one pays close attention one would notice that they continue praying even while talking, what to speak of walking around doing their daily chores. Srila Prabhupada was also observed doing something similar once, and there is a case of Hemalati Thakurani, I believe, who kept chanting during Bhagavatam discourse and the devotee who criticized her for doing that got severe punishment for his offense. As far as I remember this will come up later in the diary so let’s finish this part of the story first.

In the morning Captain invited the pilgrim for breakfast, gave him a donation, and the pilgrim continued his journey. A mile later, however, he remembered that he promised to pay the guys who robbed him. He thought about it a little bit, considering pros and cons, but in the end Christian thoughts won the argument, the pilgrim turned around, found the prisoners, gave him the donation he just received from the captain, and said a few words about necessity of repentance and prayer. Then he could really walk away, with nothing burdening his consciousness anymore.

PS. It’s not about that Philadelphia where they make cheese and ice cream, it’s the one in modern day Turkey, and this Theoleptos guy was a predecessor acharya for the Christian branch that believed in chanting of the Holy Name. Therefore he is in the picture today.

Pilgrim’s Diary 9. Sambandha

Last two entries in the series discussed the mechanics of chanting and the pilgrim had observed how his prayer entered into his heart and developed a life of its own, filling him with humility and warmth. It looks like his path to perfection was wide open, just like Siberian steppes. It looks like from now on we will hear more and more insights and revelations into mysteries of unceasing prayer. Not so fast. I myself always have this idea in my mind that simply by chanting Hare Krishna I will attain all perfection. I don’t think I will ever let it go but I’m reminded time and time again that I need to rely on things other than japa for the foreseeable future, not even only for the time being.

So what else do we need? Sambandha – the knowledge of our relationship with the Supreme. Japa or praying is the next step – abhidheya, acting on the knowledge of sambandha. Time and time again I’m reminded than my knowledge of Krishna is incomplete and in many ways corrupted, which means chanting is not going to bring results. We have to have a clear conception of what we are doing first. Anartha nivritti, for example, is nothing else but crystallizing our knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, hacking away at that which has no value (anartha). This is what makes our chanting progressively pure and it’s the only way to success. Offensive chanting (I don’t like the term as it doesn’t do justice to what’s happening) can last forever and if anarthas are still being kept chanting will eventually stop.

If you think about it – our entire “material” lives are just lessons in identifying and letting go of anarthas. The other day someone talked about devotees discussing football scores and how it was somehow normal. I would rather reflect on what makes us interested in football in the first place. Is it the game itself? Quite often it’s quite boring. Is it the few bouts of excitement? Yes. Is it our own “muscle memories” of playing football ourselves that make us appreciate these movements? Yes. Is it our affinity with fans of a particular club? Yes. Is it our particular taste in selecting one club anthem between many other clubs? Yes, like Liverpool’s “You will never walk alone”, for example. Next we can examine why we like these things. Why do they seem so important to us? What is it that really makes us tick? Next we can consider if these values are valuable or not, or whether assigning them to football clubs is justifiable. We can consider where these values originally come from and discover that they are just certain shades of Krishna which appear under certain circumstances, under certain light. Rama lila, for example, probably has millions of little lessons scattered all throughout so we can find them, appreciate them, and then what we value as our football club will hopefully become just a tiny reflection of what we have found in Krishna, not worthy of being of huge interest at all. Hopefully, we will learn to recognize Krishna in every bright and attractive feature of this world, just as He told us in Bhagavad Gita. But I’m digressing.

We left the pilgrim on his march to Irkutsk, a city close to Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia. Jesus Prayer entered into his heart and filled his body with warmth. This warmth urged him to take deeper appreciation of the instructions given in Philokalia and he felt very grateful to it for opening him to these wonderful experience of seeing his praying in a new light. There was another reason for reading, too – he knew that the books warned practitioners against what is called Prelest on wikipedia. He was worrying about illusions of advancement meant to divert a seeker from his path, and these illusions cannot be seen from the inside, from within illusions themselves, so books, or better yet mentors, are the only sure way to escape their traps. Pilgrim’s departed guru also warned him about this, so he changed his schedule – walking and praying during the night and reading books during the day. He had two – his old copy of the Bible and second hand copy of Philokalia he bought with his summer job money.

He liked praying already but when he read Philokalia he discovered a whole new level of appreciation and a whole new level of depth to his practice. Words of the acharyas filled his praying with meaning and opened up new horizons. They had given him daily Eureka moments. This is the function of samabandha and also a function of diksa, and it’s not a one time occurrence, as we can see here. There is always something new to be learned, which means new initiation, but let’s not talk about diksa too much here. What the pilgrim noticed was that praying itself helped him understand passages that he couldn’t decipher at first. I can attest to it, too – sources of new information appear to me in response to my chanting as well. I’m not bragging here – most of the time these are distractions that I filled my mind with during japa and then they come to be for real and I have to deal with them until I understand they have no value. Sometimes I get positive revelations, too, like if I wanted to know something about the Name and then I hear the answer somewhere else. Distractions take a little longer to turn to my profit but eventually it happens, too, and in this way sambandha always improves one’s chanting, and then chanting leads to discoveries of new sambandhas, which lead to more chanting and so on. In this way the Name IS the only means even though it appears to be separate from “guru” – from externally observable beings who deliver information.

In this way the pilgrim walked for two months, begging for dried bread and drinking water to sustain his life. Then, one day, two guys caught up with him and asked him for money. He honestly told them he didn’t have any but they didn’t believe him. They argued that pilgrims get good donations but have nothing to spend them on so he must have had some money on him. When they saw that their argument wasn’t going anywhere they whacked him on the head with a wooden cane, grabbed his bag, and ran off. He hid his passport in his hat, which was important for passing through checkpoints, and this mention gives us a clue to timing of this story as these passports were introduced in 1861. What I see as equally important to the story is that he mentioned his passport first and not his lost books (or his stock of dried bread). This kind of gives us an insight into his actual priorities – yes, he liked his praying, but no, when his life was in danger he thought of his passport first. I mention this not to blame but to keep our expectations in check – his road to perfection was still largely untraveled, he was making only first steps.

Nevertheless, when he realized the loss of his books he started crying. He continued his journey but now he was inconsolable – he really really missed the association of his books, which was his only replacement and the only manifestation of the guru. He thought of his books as his first real treasure and also as his last – he had nothing left in his life. On the third day he got exhausted and simply collapsed. His guru appeared to him in his dream and told him that losing his books was a lesson in detachment – we can’t make ourselves dependent on the objects of this world. He also told him that it was a lesson in not making our own plans. The pilgrim thought his way forward was clear but the lesson was not to be so fast and accept setbacks as manifestations of Lord’s will. We have to approach Him on HIS conditions, not on ours, even though we can argue that we want only spiritual goals. Nope, that won’t do. We have to accept His schedule, not insist on ours.

The pilgrim woke up pacified and with new determination continued his journey, drawing strength from his prayers. After three days he caught up with a convoy of shackled prisoners and found two guys who robbed him among them. He got so happy on seeing them he fell to their feet and started begging them for his books. This is not how mugging victims usually approach the perpetrators but the guys weren’t moved and asked for money in exchange for information. Just think about it – they were shackled, led to prison, and still they demanded money before they could return their illegal loot. The pilgrim promised them he would pay after he begged at the next stop and they told him that his books were confiscated along with everything else and were carried on a cart under supervision of police captain escorting them.

The pilgrim went to the captain and the captain said that he won’t let him look for his books on the way but once they reach their next stop he would be happy to help. More importantly, he was surprised that the pilgrim could read and wanted his books back before anything else, and that among all the books in the world he wanted his Bible. He let the pilgrim walk along the cart and they got to talk on the way about this and that, and when they arrived to the next village where they were supposed to take rest he helped the pilgrim to find his books and invited him to spend the night in his hut. The pilgrim was very glad to be reunited with his books, he held them to his chest and tears of happiness rolled down his face. “So, you like your Bible?” the captain asked, “Let me show you mine,” and he took out a small gospel from his chest pocket, embroidered with silver. “Let me tell you about this book and what it had done to me,” and he called for supper.



I’ll leave captain’s story for the next time.

Pilgrim’s Diary 8a. Hare Krishna

Previous article mentioned grasping the meaning of the Hare Krishna mantra and I didn’t feel I did the justice to this topic. There is so much more to say about it and I don’t want to continue with pilgrim’s journey without elucidating on those points first. Main reason is that I might not get around to it again, but also because the study of the diary won’t be complete without us making relevant observations or adjustments in our own practice. I don’t want it to be theoretical or even simply inspirational, I want it to be practical.

On the minus side – I should have typed this up at least a week ago when it was all still very fresh in my head. Instead two weeks passed from the last entry in this journal and I might forget this or that, never mind losing a clear structure I intended for this post. I had it, and then it dissolved because other things came into my consciousness. Still, I have to commit this material to paper at least for posterity, so, in no particular order…

I mentioned singing Hare Krishna with specific tunes being expressions of specific feelings rising during the conversation with the Holy Name. I don’t see how it could be done during japa and it’s a good argument for advantage of kirtan over japa, but let’s not forget that Hare Krishna mantra, unlike the Jesus Prayer, already is in a verse form. There are four lines with eight syllables per each. This is the same structure as the famous Anustubh, the meter of the first verse in Sanskrit ever, the one that came to Valmiki. There are many varieties of Anustubh but I can’t easily find the one that fits with Hare Krishna. By varieties I mean sequence of guru and laghu syllables, or short and long, as we say in English. Guru means heavy and laghu means light but in this context “long” and “short” are fine. In Hare Krishna mantra they alternate as follows, with long syllables in capitals:

haRE KRISHna haRE KRISHna
KRISHna KRISHna haRE haRE

haRE RAma haRE RAma
RAma RAma haRE haRe

or, if we replace long and short with “o” and “O”:

oO Oo oO Oo
Oo Oo oO oO

and this repeats for “Hare Rama” part. Try to repeat it without actual words and you WILL feel the pattern of call and response. Put this pattern back into you mantra, listen to it, hear it reverberate through your mind and body, make it “your own”. I put it quotation marks because, if we think about it, it’s not our own. It’s not a call and response between us and God but between two different aspects of Divinity – between Hara and Krishna, who changes His mode from Krishna to Rama in the process.

In this way we have two beings but the main one among them responds to the interaction by modifying itself creating a third word in the mantra, but more about this in a moment. Let’s look at the numbers first.

There are 32 syllables, and it’s the syllables that are the building blocks of words and meanings in Sanskrit. Syllables themselves are consonants modified by vowels so it doesn’t contradict the scientific understanding of individual sounds being the most basic unit of information, especially if we consider that consonants and vowels are two fundamental categories of sound and so it’s their combination that produces unique meanings, which are syllables, and we have 32 of those in total. 32=2⁵, of course, which means the entire mantra has 2 as its base elements with no “third wheels”. Let’s see how it goes.

First there are two parts – Hare Krishna and Hare Rama. Each part has two names – Hare and Krishna or Hare and Rama, each name has two syllables, but that’s where we get stuck because there are 6 unique syllables in the mantra – Ha, Re, Krish, na, Ra, and ma. But, as I said, Rama is just another name of Krishna and it gets born out of interaction with Hara so we still have two beings, each being’s name made of two syllables, and not just “two” but one short and one long.

It’s the interaction between short and long syllables that creates the rhythm of the mantra, but it’s not the end yet. The mantra has 16 names, repeated 108 times, and then 16 rounds of those. Here is an obvious idea – why not make meaningful use of this repetition? It has been tried before with individual mantras but matching 16 names to 16 rounds sounds very natural. What do I mean? I mean making stress on each individual name in turn. First round stressing Hare, second round stressing Krishna, third round stressing Hare – see in capitals below, with unchanged parts omitted for now:

HARE krishna hare krishna krishna krishna ….
hare KRISHNA hare krishna krishna hare hare ….
hare krishna HARE krishna krishna hare hare…
hare krishna hare KRISHNA krishna krishna …
hare krishna hare krishna KRISHNA krishna …

Just try to hear how putting stress on different names changes the sound of the mantra, how the mood of it changes. When you make one individual name stand out as the main pillar of the entire mantra you will see how all these mantras suddenly become different. Let’s see how to make more sense of it.

If we split the mantra into pairs then we have “Hare Krishna”, “Krishna Krishna”, “Hare Hare”, and so on. They are distinct combination and one explanation I heard is that “Hare Krishna” and “Hare Rama” indicate the union of Hara and Krishna (or Rama) while “Hare Hare”, “Krishna Krishna”, and “Rama Rama” indicate a call in separation. Thus you can notice that the entire mantra is a vibration of union and separation. Interestingly, first they are together, then Hara calls for Krishna, then Krishna calls for Hara, and then they get together again.

Usually we talk about crying out for Krishna when chanting but in this scheme it’s not us who feel separation, it’s the Divine Beings themselves, and we are here only to observe. Or to make them dance – dance with each other, not with us. WE are the third wheel in this relationship! We should facilitate it, not barge in with our own ideas. Manjari bhava, remember? We are here to make THEM happy, not to worry about ourselves. We’ll be alright, no need to worry about it. I mean we will get old, sick, and die, and no amount of chanting can ever change that.

Anyway, if we stress 16 successive names for each round of our japa we get perfect number of 16 rounds. It’s just meant to be this way. And if we want to increase our rounds it is done in multiples of 16, too.

There is another consideration here as well – let’s say we chant the same “hare krishna HARE krishna …” during one round. Are all these mantras the same? No. Each bead represents one of the 108 principal gopis, which means each one of these gopis has a unique mood. Some are reconciliatory, some challenging, some domineering, some submissive – there are a lot of these classifications in Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu and then in Ujjvala Nilamani. They ARE different personalities and we CAN inject their mood into each mantra, if we ever get to learn their names and peculiar characteristics.

In this way the mantra never becomes repetitive and expresses different moods with each bead and then with each round. There IS something to keep our minds busy, if we learn these distinctions.

Can we turn it into genuine music? Possibly – nothing stops us from changing the tonality of our voice as we chant, and rhythm is already there, as I said. What more do we need for a song? It might not follow our own hearts, with us being concerned with dinners and politics, but, as I said, it’s not our mantra to chant – it’s the dance between Radha and Krishna. We can follow it if we can, that’s all. It would obviously be ideal to learn to fully feel and appreciate it but we probably can’t do it right away, so let’s make baby steps first.

One thing we should remember – japa is not a mindless repetition. It appears so only until we learn its meaning. It’s not mindless even when we simply chant and hear how it sounds and explore the variety of meanings, moods, and emotions already contained within. It becomes mindless only when we want to think of something else but force ourselves to chant. Which is what we do most of time. There are other pitfalls to avoid, like investing ourselves too much when we haven’t learn to patiently hear yet. As I also said above – it’s a dance between Radha and Krishna and they don’t want our opinions and requests just yet. Leave them alone. Learn to appreciate what they are already doing first.

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 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.