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Greyfriar’s Bobby: A Small Scottish Saint

Advocates Close, Edinburgh

I’d put off visiting Scotland for over a year, even though York is inexcusably close, and even though a very kind open invitation stood since I moved north from Wales. That’s the trouble with open invitations, and things that are close: they hover just below the top of the list of things one may do, pipped to the post by others with deadlines and narrower windows of opportunity.

Through the dinge of a train window, hedges sprawled in intricate skeletal black, bothered only by crows. The sky of England sat thick and woolly, like something you’d find in an old ottoman. I entered then not just another country and culture; the hedge, the sky, the crows were identical, but carried the sense of an entirely different soul.

Arthur’s Seat, a questioning hook-nose of a mountain, reared out of flat browns and greys. A manmade mountain reached beneath: dark blocks of stone just discernible as ancient dwellings. “EDINBURGH: Inspiring Capital”, sped past on a building sign. Indeed, thought I, just then basking in its strange and powerful beauty. The train seemed to pull in to a work of fiction.

I gaped a good while in admiration at a church, the shape a child would draw for a space ship—aimed for Heaven rather than the Moon, presumably—black as a crow, in curled stone, seemingly too delicate to stand for long, yet as old as if it had grown up there as a brother to Arthur’s Seat.

I arrived, upon a short walk, at the “Old Town”. There, my Scottish friend told me, they built so many layers on top of each other because the surrounding land was swamp. It looks just so, as if they needed to be strong enough to hold fast to each other over centuries, lest they fall in, each wall a fortress of blank dark grey and turrets, up and up and up. Here and there tall alleys, or “closes” form chinks in the Royal Mile; chinks of strange blackness rather than light, climbing beguiling pathways, each with a curious historical tale. Despite the cold air, darkening sky, blackened churches, grey terraces, and obscure alleys, there is nothing of the bleak or eery about the city. Contrarily, its strength lends an inner warmth; a motherly sense of safety and familiarity.

A reformed coffee addict, I struggle a good deal this time of year when Starbucks roll out their Gingerbread Latte. I don’t care who knows it: call me shallow, call me a marketing sheep, my heart glows at the sight of that round green logo, and I look longingly in, or go in just to drink tea. I know I could do that anywhere—anywhere in the world—but strangely, a high stool by a Starbucks window is one of my favourite places for sightseeing. There in a street of kilt tailors, haggis mongers and cashmere shawls, I could fully absorb the details and subtleties of my new environment.

Advocates Close, Edinburgh

I had an appointment with two friends and colleagues to talk over some business before an evening meditation at the Sri Chinmoy Centre. “Meet us by Greyfriar’s Bobby.” they said, “If you get lost, anyone can tell you where he is.” I didn’t get lost, so there we stood: me and a bronze statue of a Skye terrier, on the corner of Candlemaker Row. I had to stand a little way off in fact, as he is quite the bigshot and often has his photograph taken. “Let’s go to Starbucks,” said my friends when they arrived, “it’s just around the corner.” I smiled, and once again narrowly triumphed over the guile of ginger coffee.

I was invited to help make a mandala, part of a double birthday celebration at the Meditation Centre that night. I was in my own Heaven with such simple yet detailed occupation, thrilling at the shades of colour the rice turns when dyed and drained, coaxing it into fine shapes on a printed template. I was amazed and touched by the splendour my friends created between them, under the auspices of “birthday cakes,” more a matching pair of edible temples. They told me of past visual extravaganzas for other birthdays, effusions of heartfelt creativity and childlike joy.

Birthdays are always given a lot of significance in the Sri Chinmoy Centre; Sri Chinmoy says that on a birthday, the soul remembers and renews its promise to God; the promise it made in Heaven for this lifetime. It is therefore a day of soulful meditation, of gratitude, and of divine happiness.

“Each birthday is a petal of a flower. The flower, petal by petal, blossoms and then it is ready to be placed at the inner shrine in the aspiring heart.”

—Sri Chinmoy, Reality-Dream

I love to visit different Sri Chinmoy Centres around the world, as there is always something new and inspiring to be enjoyed in each place, even though we all share the same spiritual path.

As we came back out into the cold, the famous terrier caught my eye again. I asked my host why this little dog was honoured so in bronze. She enthused a long while and promised to lend me a book when we got home.

I unwrapped the bundle of flowers I’d brought for her, and her housemate passed me a random vase to put them in. “I know this vase.” I thought, then checked myself, certain I must be confused. “No, I know this vase.” The pink ribbon around its neck was faded almost to white, but I knew the shape of it in my hand.

2003 was the last time I’d been in Edinburgh—Sri Chinmoy happened to be there on my birthday. I’d dragged a dear long-suffering friend around all the flower shops in the city for the whole day to find the “right” vase of flowers to give to my Guru. Finally I found a plump handful of freesias and gerberas in shades of light pink, and a simple bulb vase. It did not look special to anyone else, but to me it was potentially perfect. In a hotel lobby I proceeded to take at least half of the stems away—the imperfect and overly fussy—to leave a very zen clutch of sprigs. I trimmed them further and moved them about for another half hour, defying anyone who came within a metre of my craft, and bearing the brunt of a little friendly teasing. It was not so much the result I sought, but more the route: the intensity of a working meditation, the striving for Heavenly perfection through a limited earthly medium.

In the evening Sri Chinmoy called for me, meditated with me for a few moments, then passed me a gerbera from the vase. It was more profound and significant than I can express. All that came tumbling back as I placed flowers in the same vase at my friend’s apartment, now four years later, this time white tulips and freesias.

It seemed much longer than twenty-four hours later that I stepped back on the train; I suppose I had gained much more than twenty-four hours’ worth of happiness and inspiration. I opened the little paperback with a Skye terrier peering from the cover, fiesty yet wistful.

Bobby belonged to a lowly shepherd named John Gray. Such was the dog’s devotion, he lay on his master’s grave in Greyfriar’s Churchyard from the day the shepherd died in 1858. For fourteen years, until his own death, Bobby guarded his master, leaving only once a day to eat. Gaining the status of “stray” rather than “saint”, or even “orphan,” merely due to his species, Bobby faced extermination by the authorities, or at least expulsion from his post: dogs were not allowed in graveyards, and dogs were not allowed to live at all without a license. His devotion won the hearts of the local children, who saved up their pennies in a big bag to buy a license between them. His exceptional manners earned him access to the grave, further defying human regulations.

The tale itself is no doubt greatly romanticised by its author, Eleanor Atkinson, but any historical inaccuracy is surely only in the finer details; the devotion and loyalty of dogs has the power to melt the hearts of our much more sophisticated species. Are we really so evolved? Perhaps, but perhaps we still have much to learn from our little canine brothers.

“Very, very early a dog learns that life is not as simple a matter to his master as it is to himself. There are times when he reads trouble, that he cannot help or understand, in the man’s eye and voice. Then he can only look his love and loyalty, wistfully, as if he felt his own shortcoming in the matter of speech. And if the trouble is so great that the master forgets to eat his dinner; forgets, also, the needs of his faithful little friend, it is the dog’s dear privilege to bear neglect and hunger without complaint. Therefore, when Auld Jock lay down again and sank, almost at once, into sodden sleep, Bobby snuggled in the hollow of his master’s arm and nuzzled his nose in his master’s neck.”

—Eleanor Atkinson, Greyfriars Bobby

4

A Beginning, an End, and an Eternity

Is there such a thing as a junkophobe? That’s me. I buy the same thing over and over because I keep throwing useful stuff away; I’m ruthless to the point of impracticality. I can’t tolerate anything old, broken, unlovely, unclean, or out of place.

Then what is this old Cheese Doodles packet doing here? Cheap crinkly empty bag, garish primary print, ‘Made with real cheese’ blaring from the top, like that would make it okay. It’s taped into a big silver book of handmade paper, Indian beads hand stitched onto the front. It sits beside seven others, now amongst my most precious possessions: one of raw silk in a rainbow weave and coloured pages, one embroidered with satin ribbons, one with my name across the face of a dog, and a felt-tip drawing of a bird.

Words are scrawled inside: rough shapes of words, the pen hurried or tired, the phrases hackneyed and dull, but this content has held me stunned over the last two days; compelling as an elysian dream remembered at daybreak.

These, my journals of the last ten years, have stayed mostly unopened. I wrote them for a future self I thought I would not meet for many years to come, never imagining my Master would leave his earthly frame for Heaven so soon.

I knew such apparent debris would turn to treasure then. The spent packets of blessed food from Sri Chinmoy‘s hand are now a link to another world which used to be my own; a world of outer instruction, more subtle, more powerful, more inwardly refined than I can even comprehend, let alone fit into the bounds of words. The path of the heart; the silent teaching; the sacred life of meditation; the unviolable bond between Guru and disciple.

Mostly these packets, photos, notes, bulging out of pages, are triggers to more abundant memories than those recorded. A concert ticket took me to the first time I saw Sri Chinmoy in person, Heathrow Airport 1997. In a bustle of artificial light and noise and movement, waiting for his arrival, I entered into one of the most profound meditations of my life. He passed by, looked into me with such surety and pure affection, I knew my life had found its home. Here at last was a teacher who could take me to God; a journey I knew I needed more than my own breath. His was the most familiar face I had ever seen, recognition flooded with sanctuary. Tears of relief followed me for twelve continuous hours.

* * *

Today I met with four others to meditate, the thirtieth day after Sri Chinmoy’s Mahasamadhi, an official end of mourning. One of our little band was raised a Hindu, as was Sri Chinmoy, and told us that in India, family members take lotuses on such a day, to set them adrift in the Ganges with a prayer. Perhaps we could do the same as a symbolic mark of gratitude and respect.

We took golden roses with only stubs of stems to help them float. We walked a long way down the river Ouse, slipping on the cobbles in the damp of autumn, checking at intervals with each other if “this” could be the “right place.” Two lads, three girls, and one sleek white dog named Pearl, seemingly out for a weekend stroll.

Who would have thought such profundity would come to pass on a rotting jetty by a rowing club somewhere in North Yorkshire. In the space of moments, so many impulses rose up in me that I have not dared to feel these past days. It seemed we grew up all of a sudden. Orphaned, we had only each other then, with whom to carry the legacy of a sacred life into an unknown future, to offer to others what we have had the unimaginable boon of receiving.

I set the small bundle of softness on the wide mass of water and watched it bob away. It seemed to have its own light, glowing with a joy and purity I thought only Heaven could conceive, smiling and shining at the onset of an unknown journey; a warm light above the dark and changeable – on it, in it, yet apart from it. I touched my fingers in the water, then to my head and heart, making some unspoken promise to this beautiful city where I was raised: a sudden totality of love and oneness.

We parted, all but wordlessly, and I went home. I smiled to the homeless man selling magazines and gave him a pound – he works hard like a busker, all in joy and fun, to make others smile – and I saw myself in part in him. I smiled to the youth absorbed in a greasy paper of chips and scraps. I smiled to the aged lady struggling in pain and fear from the harbour of her own front door – I saw myself in part in her, and felt only love. I smiled to the big girls in skinny jeans, cursing and shouting; the lady in shades on an overcast day; the pub landlord at his back door in a dressing gown, ruddy from the night’s excess; the sulking seven-year-old whingeing to her father for something vitally important.

Today I saw myself in part in them all. Or was it God?

10

King’s College Chapel, Cambridge

King's College Chapel Cambridge

Alleluia: Qui timent Dominum
“He healeth those that are broken in heart: and bindeth up their wounds.”

This line shines from the page handed to me at the entrance of King’s College Chapel, part of a sung mass I am about to hear.

I have been here once before, many years ago, in the company of my Spiritual Master, Sri Chinmoy. He had come to pay homage to his own Guru, Sri Aurobindo, once a student at Cambridge University. I sat in these very pews and heard a similar mass. So much has changed in me since then, but the chapel stands quite the same: a vote of integrity in a changing world.

Almost everything reminds me of Sri Chinmoy, more now than when he was alive. The earthly loss of him, less than a month ago, is still raw in this fragile human heart. One thought is still enough to prick my eyes with tears. But just as the reminders of him come swift and hard from unexpected sources, so does solace to counter each blow. I am in Cambridge to meet with other students of Sri Chinmoy—about a hundred from Britain, Ireland and France. There is no sweeter solace than the family feeling amongst those I love.

King’s College Choir is considered one of the finest in the world, and I am especially fond of religious music. “We pray that you will sense something of the presence of God…” says the printed welcome. I pray the same, and that prayer is soon answered.

The ceiling is all half fans of stone, delicately crimped, sweeping to meet each other along the nave. It is as well to be indoors on a sunny day, if “indoors” has such a body of stained glass. The robes of saints glow as magnified rubies, sweet strong faces, soft leather shoes, strange serpents, rocks of orange gold, all the tales I do not know, as I was not raised a Christian. It is enough to gaze up to them and see the devotion that made them reflected onto me.

The Dante Quartet arrives accompanied by all its stately poise, then the choir in red and wide pleated white, some so tiny, barely old enough to leave their mothers’ sight. Schubert’s Mass in G could not have found a more subtle and receptive home, warm pure notes climbing the golden-white stone.

One—is he even ten years old?—commands a solo so brilliant, so strong, each note exquisitely tuned and executed, such as any cherub would envy. I study his features for the source of it, but find only a tiny boy, soft face bespectacled under a wide brown side-parting, standing quite firmly on the earth in sensible black shoes. Baffling.

The Bishop of Winchester treats us to a sermon on “Continual Godliness”: to maintain a general goodness in our own lives. Rather than thinking it the sole property of our elders and mentors, seeing it as something real and achievable. A most encouraging reminder.

Amazed, I remember the tune to one of the hymns. I disliked hymns at school, simply because they came at a very difficult time of life. Rather than giving me strength they always pulled me into melancholy—the jollier the worse somehow. But perhaps I am grown out of that phase: I hear only the jubilant praise of one God, my God, as we sing into a listening cavern of coloured glass.

Out in the autumn chill, we seem suddenly caught in an old movie; these views are such a dear part of England, and a dear part of my own memory. I breathe in their dignity and nobility, hoping to carry them home as inner souvenirs, so much more real and valuable than postcards.

The trees are in that state of perfection which only lasts two or three weeks. Red flames litter the roads, and yellow half-fans, delicately crimped. My walking companion tells me these particular yellow leaves were just so in the days of dinosaurs. I feel a sudden solace in that fact, and their mirroring the shapes of stone I had seen earlier; a hint at God’s Constancy perhaps.

We drink some tea and eat together, then watch a slide-show of Sri Chinmoy. To see him in health brings him so alive. To see his smile brings me tears: tears of thanks to God that I could spend these years absorbing all I could of his wisdom and joy.

Riding home I let my thoughts spin out from a melting sun as it disappears into a pine forest. Memories become a potent balm, softening the recent sense if loss. The heat of grief dissolves like the sun.

6

Sri Chinmoy: 1931-2007

Sri ChinmoyMy beloved Guru, Sri Chinmoy, passed away yesterday at 7am, at his home in New York.

Sri Chinmoy has been my meditation teacher — the inner and outer inspiration of my life — over the last decade.

On a human level I am naturally shocked and sad at his sudden earthly parting, but inwardly I will never in this life fathom the inner gifts of inspiration he has given me through his teaching.

More than human sadness, which will pass in time, I feel gratitude, gratitude, gratitude for spending these years in the balm of his wisdom. That gratitude will never end. His teachings will always be with me, and I hope only to make my own life — my actions, creations and interactions — a tribute to them.

RECENT NEWS STORIES:
The Independent: Sri Chinmoy, Spiritual Leader & Peace Activist

The Scotsman: Sri Chinmoy, Peace campaigner and spiritual teacher who advocated running

Sri Chinmoy 1931 – 2007

NEW YORK, NEW YORK–(Marketwire – Oct. 12, 2007) – Internationally renowned peace leader and spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy passed away yesterday morning in his home in Queens, New York. The cause of death was a heart attack.

Respected and loved worldwide, Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy for world peace was manifested through a wide array of activities, ranging from literature to art to sports to music. The universal nature of his philosophy embraced and encouraged people of all backgrounds, faiths and nationalities to work together for peace.

Read more at SriChinmoyBio.co.uk

Sri Chinmoy, spiritual leader, dies in Queens

The end came in his modest home in the Jamaica Hills section of Queens at 7a.m. – just a day before the Nobel Committee was to announce if he had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

Chinmoy was nominated for the honor in recognition of his “ceaseless work for the United Nations” for more than 30 years.

Read more at NYDailyNews.com

Image: Pavitrata Taylor

6

Not in the Cave

The Lake DistrictI creep in at the back five minutes early, but my shoes squeak on polished wood, damp from the squalls outside. A stillness has arrived before me and sits like a living presence in the room; the arching roof higher, the golden wood warmer, the white walls purer because of it. Many have followed its silent lead and sit within it, hems soaking above boots from their assorted journeys.

The stage is in the air, it seems, or is it in a tree? The churchyard yew cradles a view to absorb my eyes for the next hour and a half, through a wide bay of glass. A half-dome of starry blue lights pressed into the ceiling above hangs like a child’s dream of Heaven.

But we are asked by our host to close our eyes first, immersing ourselves in a flow of breath, emptying the hubbub of our thoughts from the waiting universe within.

Then the music comes—a warm familiar joy—and I jump headlong into the ocean of it. Each of Sri Chinmoy‘s songs is a fond friend, but each dressed in bright newness; a rousing drum here that I have never heard, a sweet player there whom I have never seen. A golden smile is growing from inside me like many suns rising at once: the chuckle of a delighted infant, the Bravo! of a sister, the sweet slow nod of a mother, the vast silent pride of a father. The music is mine, his, hers, theirs. Ours.

Outside, mist runs fast along the mountain’s base like a hungry flock, climbs to show another green band of height and gallops down again, swallowing the roughness of the ground under its pure white hooves.

Adarsha sings Madhavi Latar (translation from Bengali):

“Sweet, soft and translucent creeper
In silence steals away my heart.
Above me, the vast sky.
Under me the wind blowing.
Today I dance in ecstasy supreme.”
–Sri Chinmoy

Does the mountain listen too? Its slow dancer’s petticoat of mist rises to its own rhythm, drifts down with the fall of unseen feet below.

Inside, clear strings, little bells, white lights, listeners a choir of silent faces, canvassing assorted worlds of meditation.

Were crows always beautiful? I had not noticed. They play at rough-and-tumble with the wind, black wings in fast precision like Chinese ink on a painter’s page. They will never seem the same again. Can music open the eyes?

The last song performed stays with me until the next morning, more a suite of five songs, all to the words “I fly in the Heart-Sky of my Dear Supreme.” If there must be an end, then let it be this perfect one.

We listeners move gently so as not to shake up subtle inner worlds. We are back in the outer, but bring a draught of Inner with us. Gradually we are a joyous crowd of smiles and re-unitings.

What of Rydal Cave, I ask? Why is the Concert-In-The-Cave Not-In-The-Cave this year? Stones were falling from its roof. Such scant facts were enough from which to fashion a legend over the past twelve months: that Adarsha’s mighty voice brought down the cave last year and it is now no more than a trembling pile of shale. Still, the Ambleside Parish Hall is a fine backup, and if one is going to fashion a legend then let it be sensational, yet suspiciously credible.

We drive out through a woolly cloak of roughness. Rusty scrubs of heather peer into wind-ruffled water. Aggressive grey sits on the air beside a sweet hopeful green. A waterfall elbows its way between two crags and runs to tell its secrets to a lake.

Then all is soaring majesty. The mountains stretch to see who’s taller.

Everything is different now… yet just as it always was…

* * *

To sample the inexpressible:

6

Share Of Strength

Sri Chinmoy recently visited Thailand during his annual harmony and humanitarian travels, and decided to lift some elephants while he was there.

A champion decathlete in his youth, Sri Chinmoy later took up weightlifting, and is still weightlifting at age 75. His aim is not to compete with others, but simply to inspire others to transcend their boundaries. In his own words:

“I am a man of prayer and meditation. I feel inspiration is of paramount importance. If I can inspire someone, and if that person also can inspire me, then we can do many good things for the betterment of this world.”

The elephant is the symbol of Thailand, and certainly a symbol of strength, so it seemed the most appropriate way for Sri Chinmoy to honour the country and to offer his goodwill. He started with 3 baby elephants, the heaviest being 1,074 pounds (including apparatus). Next came mature elephants from over 4,000 pounds to the heaviest elephant he has ever lifted: a 8,046 pound female carrying a mahout (8,622 pounds including apparatus). The park’s owner said:

“This lift by Sri Chinmoy is the reason my wife and I started the elephant camp 12 years ago, because he is showing that we can succeed at anything that is good for life on this planet.”

According to British weightlifting expert Jim Smith, this last lift is one of the heaviest calf raises ever recorded. You can read the full story at SriChinmoyCentre.org

Ashrita Furman—who holds the Guinness World Record for holding the most Guinness World Records—was also there, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to attempt the most squat thrusts in a minute, but of course on the back of an elephant. You can read all about it at Ashrita.com.

Elephant, my elephant,
You are strength,
Reality’s strength.
Your solid strength
And conscious willingness
Can and shall lead the world
To Infinity’s endless length.

—Sri Chinmoy, Animal Kingdom

In recent years Sri Chinmoy has honoured thousands of people in his Lifting Up The World With A Oneness-Heart programme. In September last year he had a 3-day weightlifting celebration, during which he lifted airplanes, huge boulders, a car, a giant pumpkin and 2002 World’s Strongest Man Hugo Girard of Canada: a total weight of 111,524 pounds. “The most amazing feats of strength” 5-time Mr.Universe and fitness expert Bill Pearl had ever seen. You can view clips at SriChinmoy.tv. You can read more about Sri Chinmoy’s sporting life at SriChinmoyCentre.org

Image source: Projjwal Pohland

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