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 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 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.

Pilgrim’s Diary 3. Testing

I took a one-week break and it was for a reason – the subject matter is very grave and it has to be approached in the right frame of mind. Even more – the right frame of mind has to develop on its own and we can’t rush these things. I could have kept blabbering about each line in the book but words would have diluted the meaning. Towards the end of his life Thomas Aquinas shared with his confidant: “The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” We might never agree on what he meant exactly, but we can take these words to mean that thinking, talking, and writing about things is nowhere near the same as to know them from direct experience. I saw a rendering of this quote where when TA compared his writings to straw he meant that they were destined to be burned to ashes on meeting the Truth Itself. To put it simply – talking too much cheapens the thing. Nevertheless, continue I must.

Last time we left the pilgrim walking nowhere in particular, frustrated, when an old man caught up with him and invited him to his “house program”. The pilgrim showed no interest and I feel compelled to complete their conversation with our typical subtext: “I know everything you can tell me, old man. I’ve been to hundreds of these programs already, there is nothing new to be learned there, and I have a real problem to solve, far above your limited understanding, so forgive me for not being very excited. My problem is above your pay grade.”

The beauty of acintya-bheda-abheda philosophy, however, is that every tiny part of the Absolute can display the power of the whole thing. Every mantra, every quote, even if repeated hundreds and thousands of times without any effect, can reveal the full glory of the Lord in an instant. You never know when and where it can happen and so one should always be respectful and prepared to be blown away. This is what the old man did.

He inquired about pilgrim’s problem and said that in his … erm, I don’t know what’s the right word for a forest dwelling built by elderly monks seeking renunciation from world’s worries, and they are not really monks and it’s not really a monastery. They are just old people living together on their own, they have no titles and no standing in the society. Direct translation would be “desert” but even in modern Russian it’s not used this way anymore because these communities no longer exist. But we can reflect on the meaning of “desert” here – it’s not about sand and heat and lack of water. It’s about lack of worldly worries – that’s what turns it into “desert”. In Russian the root of this word comes from “nothing”. And it was ten miles off the main road. Anyway, the old man said that his people know lots of things and can answer all sorts of questions, so “What is it?”

“A year ago I heard that one should chant the Holy Name incessantly, not only when one is awake but also when one is asleep. How is it possible?” The actual question was much longer, had scriptural references, and showed deeply felt hankering for a solution, but space is short. This is the point where one should realize that questions of this nature shouldn’t be taken lightly, that they should come from the heart and shine with sincerity. Only then we can expect any real answers. Before that happens even the guru will be cheating us. Even the guru won’t disclose that which we are not really eager to hear. The glory of the Holy Name must always be protected from idle talk.

Upon hearing this inquiry the old man crossed himself. Not every day one meets a person who is so eager for the Truth, and this eagerness itself is already worshipable (acintya bheda-abheda again), and at this point of spiritual journey one must attain sraddha, one must attain faith in the words of the guru, and for that the guru must dispel disciple’s doubts and earn his trust, and at the same time one must not disclose everything at once, as per above paragraph. The old man handled it brilliantly. First, he explained what the problem really was and what was at its root. This showed the pilgrim that he “gets it” and demonstrated that he has a very deep understanding of the issue. It also blamed it on others, thus creating a bond between guru and disciple against “them”. While he was explaining all this, they almost reached his place and the pilgrim was all primed for actually confidential instructions, but that I will leave for the next time. For now I’ll just try to translate old man’s introductory speech. Not to English, which is already available here, but to “Vaishnava”.

First of all, one should be grateful to the Lord for the appearance of such a desire in his heart. We should realize that it’s a call from the Lord and this should fill us with comfort and confidence. While the laulyam itself, the eagerness for Krishna, grows within one’s own heart, it’s brought there from the outside. It’s not our invention and it’s not a phenomenon produced by this world. As I said before, when it comes it’s almost like the appearance of the Lord Himself because they are intrinsically linked. In fact, sometimes devotees pray for his laulyam more than they pray for the Lord Himself – because prema pumartha mahan – bhakti is a reward in itself, there is nothing greater than love of God, not even God Himself in person. Bhakti compels everyone – us, Srimati Radharani, Krishna – everyone.

One should take comfort in this understanding and one should realize that everything that happened before was only a test of one’s readiness. The Holy Name is always there, but we start striving for it only when we are ready. Thus we should see all other limbs of devotional service as training and preparation. Until we start hankering for The Name this preparation is incomplete. It’s necessary, it has to be passed, one has to invest himself very seriously, but it’s not the real thing yet. All other aspirations should fade away and one should appear to the world as a depressed person bereft of joie-de-vivre, bereft of joy of life. Many devotees today are afraid of being perceived as such but that’s the deal – if you want to live your life than Holy Name isn’t for you. Yet. Another requirement is simplicity – one must not approach the Holy Name while thinking of some other benefits. It’s not that “let me succeed in chanting and then everyone will get off my back”. Or “and my pain will go away”. Or anything else other than the Holy Name itself. All these other aspirations, hidden deep within the heart, are sings of duplicity. We need simplicity instead – nothing by the Holy Name.

There is no wonder other people can’t help us here, for they are in the same position as us – lacking qualification, lacking sincerity, lacking simplicity, but rich in selfish desires. They can talk, they can pontificate, they can give lectures, they can write books (or blog articles) but, since they approach this subject by the strength of their minds and on rationality of their God given intelligence, and not on the direct experience, their instructions are mostly concerned with external features of the unceasing chanting and not with its essence. They can talk about its benefits, about its power, about its auspiciousness, about its fruits, about procedures and techniques. They can tell us what we need – softheartedness, purity, honesty, attention, non-enviousness, humility, and so on. But what IS this unceasing chanting and how to chant like that? That they can’t say and can’t demonstrate. Rarely one will find instructions on these most important questions. These answers require direct experience, not scholarly thinking. Moreover, mental deliberations tinged with mundane commotions force us to measure divinity by our own material standards. Some go even further and claim that pure chanting can be obtained by sadhana, by doing some heroic service, that it will be some sort of a reward and so one must simply try very hard. They completely miss the point that all these heroic deeds are produced from chanting, they do not cause it. Sadhana is produced from chanting, too – it’s what you do when you love God. What we do now is mostly imitating it. I’m not against following sadhana – I am saying that when the pure Name appears in one’s heart one would “perform sadhana” with genuine love and devotion, not with the word “perform” in mind. Whatever we do in our devotional service, chanting is at the root of it. We are able to do these things now only because we have touched the Holy Name one way or another before. We wouldn’t be doing it if we had zero experience.

Without the pure Name we won’t find our way to Krishna. It simply won’t happen. Therefore we should chant and chant and chant as much as we can. As often as possible. This is, really, all we can contribute ourselves – because, as I said, the appearance of the Name and even the appearance of genuine eagerness for the Name is a gift from God. It has to be given. Or, rather, our offering for chanting many rounds has to be accepted. It’s like you can bring your goods to the market but the final word is by the customer. Of course if you don’t bring your goods there will not be even the possibility of making a sale. So, once again, all we can contribute ourselves is our efforts, and our efforts should be incessant.

That was quite an introduction. Let it sink in for a moment, let it brew in my mind for a couple of days. There is no use of going forward until these fundamental truths are fully established in our minds.

Pilgrim’s Diary 2. Meeting the “guru”

Last time we left the pilgrim unable to digest a fairly straightforward and self-evident advice – ask the Holy Name to guide you in how to chant the Holy Name. It’s obvious to us thanks to simple philosophical lessons we learn on day one with Lord Caitanya – the Name is non-different from Krishna and so it can fulfill all desires just as if Krishna was present personally. There is nothing the Name can’t do.

This should give us better appreciation for Lord Caitanya’s contribution to human progress. Without Him people just could not put two and two together. It’s also notable how pilgrim’s society was not ready for Lord Caitanya’s message. It had to wait for over a hundred years before it became digestible. A lot of things happened during that time and here’s a novel way to connect the dots.

PIlgrim’s Diary became a blockbuster of a book and philosophy of non-difference between the Name and God became a reality, especially in the Russian monastery on Mt Athos. It was declared a heresy by the church (they blame it on the council charged with deliberating the matter being overrun by Protestant advisors from Germany). Following the verdict Russian emperor had to sent military (!!!) ships to forcibly relocate the dissenting monks from Athos to undergo re-education elsewhere. The idea didn’t die, of course, and found its way into chambers of Russian elites contemplating the nature of God, the world, the Word and so on. After Bolshevik revolution it was these thinkers who started the new, revolutionary school of Soviet mathematics. It’s fundamental difference was acceptance, as a matter of fact, that mathematical formulas are a reality of their own, that language of mathematics is the language of nature itself, and symbols and things they signify are intrinsically connected.

These new mathematics became the basis of new, revolutionary physics, and then revolutionary chemistry, biology, and so on. By the time Ananta Santi started talking to scientists about the power of mantra in the 70s there was already a state sponsored lab studying this exact same phenomenon – the connection between sound and “reality”. Ananta Santi didn’t even have to preach about God, they just took him in for speaking about mantras and it became an official government project. But forget those mad scientists. All the ordinary devotees remember that in those days they didn’t know anything except that there is this maha-mantra and that it has all the powers in the world. That’s all they preached, for the simple reason they didn’t know anything else – no books, no philosophy, nothing. They tested this power on anything they could think of and they had no doubts.

The pilgrim, however, couldn’t comprehend any of it and was left dissatisfied. This inability to parse the answer bothered him very much and he walked 200 miles thinking about it and unable to sleep. Suddenly, he found himself in a provincial capital with a big church and an abbot who really loved to serve traveling Christians. Pilgrims in those days were like sannyasis to Indians – they had to be taken care of, served, fed, sheltered and asked for blessings, of course. This pilgrim posed a different question, however – how to attain liberation. The abbot gave a standard answer – live according to commandments, pray to Jesus, and salvation is yours. The pilgrim, naturally latched on this mention of prayer and asked what he really wanted to know – what is unceasing prayer, how to attain it? How is it possible?

In response the abbot went to fetch a book and then read a passage from it. The gist of it was that constant prayer means prayer of the mind. When the mind is… Oh, forget translations – it was an equivalent of “man mana bhava” verse. Always think about the Lord. “How to always think of God,” asked the pilgrim. “I don’t really know,” replied the abbot, “understanding might come by God’s mercy,” and that was the end of the conversation.

Nevertheless, the pilgrim learned something new and something important – the mind must be engaged. How, he did not know. And he also heard that the Name must reveal itself, the Name cannot be forced, not even the method is possible to grasp without mercy. It was spoken not in these words but that was the lesson anyway. Unable to comprehend it, the pilgrim set off on his way, frustrated and without any particular destination. He walked about five days along the main road when an elderly man caught up with him. He looked like a devotee but not very mainstream, and he started begging the pilgrim to visit their neighboring nama-hatta. He glorified their prasadam, kirtans, association – everything, but the pilgrim wasn’t moved. His mind was lost in searching for his answer and he didn’t feel like another house program somewhere is going to do anything for him. The old devotee, however, was persistent.

And that’s how the pilgrim met his guru.

Their conversations deserve their own posts, and probably more than one. For now, however, I hope you can see the irony of the situation – the pilgrim was given correct answer to his question twice but it didn’t register. He was then sent a devotee to guide him personally but he didn’t pay attention – so many devotees say so many things and never to the point. Like right now, for example, if you go to ISKCON Vrindavan youtube channel there are tons of recent videos, you can scroll the whole year back, so many speakers, but who can we listen to? All of them? I’ve never heard any of their names. The ones I tried basically stay on message and faithfully repeat the siddhanta, which is a method in itself – simply repeating things over and over again. It’s advised even in Vedanta sutra but, and I can attest to it, it does absolutely nothing to engaging the mind. The effect is rather the opposite – one would think about literally anything else but the subject matter which is being repeated over and over again.

The pilgrim got caught in exactly the same situation, and yet the Lord didn’t give up on him. The Lord didn’t pay attention to the pilgrim avoiding the answer and, finally, He got through. Note to myself – do not avoid listening to boring repetitive lectures when they are foisted upon you. The Lord arranges it for a reason.