In villages and in cities, on the coastal waters and inland mountains, life goes on – the irrepressible life of a country that has emerged from the great centuries past to meet a future of even greater promise.
Inspired by tradition and powered by timeless energy, a thousand worlds of hearts and minds and faces, a million ways of the soul that is Japan, move as one. This island unto itself, this culture so secret and sacred, has sustained generations with its will to endure.
In the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, spiritual and material, this land of vast contrasts retains its delicate balance. It comes as no surprise to find the bustling international airport of Narita surrounded by fields that have been tilled in the same manner for countless generations. In the cities, high-rise buildings and centuries-old temples share the skyline. The horizon, everywhere, is an eclectic mixture of imagery.
The Japanese world is elaborate with ritual yet, in essence, the people maintain their lives with simple reverence. From the grand Buddhist and Shinto temples that dominate the country with their austere architecture to the humble neighbourhood shrines on village street corners, decorated by flowers and offerings of fruit, the evidence of Japan’s faith abounds. It is, after all, the living spiritual consciousness of the people that sustains Japan.
The words of Sri Chinmoy's song uniquely capture the heart and soul of this special land.
Japan, Japan, Japan!
A soulful flower-garden.
Clearly you see,
Quickly you do.
Your property true.
Japan, Japan, Japan!
High Heaven's hallowed plan.
* * *
The skies over Narita are clouded as North-West Airlines flight No.17 touches down on its fourteen-hour flight from New York. Before Sri Chinmoy passes through the customs doors there is already evidence of an unprecedented tour. Box after box of heavy weights, exercise machines and musical instruments are being loaded onto the buses. The steady stream of students, 100 or more, many with conspicuous extra items of luggage, greet the cold Japanese morning.
There is anticipation in the air, as though the soul of Japan has been longing for this moment. Japan, with its innate receptivity, is readily awaiting the message of a modern spiritual master, as it did the light and wisdom of the great Lord Buddha more than twelve centuries ago.
Finally, Sri Chinmoy makes his way out of the terminal and onto one of the buses. The journey has begun.
From here the group will travel to Tokyo, for a one-week stay, then by bullet train to the coastal town of Beppu, famous for its hot springs, then high into the mountains of Fukuyama, and finally on to Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. However, the itinerary can never describe the way in which Sri Chinmoy moves, the spiritual adventures he reveals or his joyful way of surprise.
Through this schedule of travelling and tarrying, packing and unpacking, sightseeing and quietly being, Sri Chinmoy weaves a silver thread of delight as concerts, weightlifting, functions, marathons and shopping flow on and on.
* * *
Amid the swarming afternoon rush of a crowded Tokyo subway, with its vast migration of office workers and shopkeepers, who move with relentless precision through the maze of ticket gates and tunnels, Sri Chinmoy walks calmly towards the station platform. With a detached anonymity, he moves steadily through the sea of human activity. He acknowledges little of the outer parade; surrendering nothing to the cadence of the crowd: his pace and time are his own; his focus is inner poise.
With him, Sri Chinmoy carries a small bag; it swings gently on his arm as he carefully negotiates a set of stairs leading down to the platform. He turns to the side to lower one foot at a time onto each step, sparing the strain on his back.
Once on the platform, Sri Chinmoy and his students board the train. The carriage is completely full. Sri Chinmoy presses himself against the glass of the carriage door, protected by only a few students from the crush of passengers.
The variant sounds of the subway merge into a monotonous hum as the train moves on towards the next station. Gradually another sound, coming from one corner of the train, becomes increasingly audible. The pure notes ride easily over the carriage conversation. Sri Chinmoy, with his head bent towards the ground and his back to the crowd, stands by himself playing his tote-a-tune.
In a little over one hour, Sri Chinmoy will be on stage in Kamakura. His cello, esraj, harmonium and other instruments will stand proudly by him. He will be dressed in a beautiful dhoti. The setting will look like a celestial garden. He will look like a divine king as he meditates and the heart of the audience will melt as he plays.
Kamakura, a little over fifty kilometres from Tokyo, has long been a place of pilgrimage. For it is here that the most famous and best-loved monument to the Buddha resides. Built entirely of bronze, weighing 270,000 pounds, with a height of over forty feet, it has survived both earthquake and tidal wave and stands today as it has for centuries, complete in contemplative repose.
The nobility and purity of Japan’s spiritual heritage is enshrined in the sanctified dimensions of the Great Buddha, the Daibutsu. After seven hundred years, the benign presence of the holy image, unsheltered from the elements, towering majestically above the temple gardens, still blesses the ground of Kamakura.
Today Sri Chinmoy has come to honour the Buddha – a living master of the present will honour the living spirit of a great master of the past.
Sri Chinmoy makes his way quietly through the tourist traffic of the temple gardens. At the front of the statue, Sri Chinmoy folds his hands and raises his head towards the inclined face of Lord Buddha. For some minutes he remains there, motionless, immersed in the silence of meditation. Then, gently he turns to meditate in front of those surrounding him. His face reflects a radiant ecstasy.
It was here, three years ago, on these very steps, that Sri Chinmoy first taught his students his song proclaiming Buddha's victory. As Sri Chinmoy takes a seat in a portable folding chair and gazes high into the eyes of the Buddha, the singers among his students form a line behind him. Suddenly the air begins to resonate with the stirring call of this immortal song. Sri Chinmoy’s eyes span the infinite skies; the Buddha is enveloped in timeless trance and the singing continues:
Jaya jaya jaya
He niranjana maha nirvan
Joy hok taba joy
* * *
The streets of Beppu are clear. The cold air lies low to the ground. Streetlights contrast a hazy glow against the dark sculptured slopes of the mountains surrounding the town. In the pre-dawn calm, sounds never heard by day ripple faintly over the sleeping city. Each movement, sight and murmur, is part of this early morning tapestry.
At 4:00 a.m. a group of boys prepare themselves to leave the kaikan (Japanese hall) where they are staying. They brace themselves against the December cold and jog 1½ miles towards the Hinago Hotel in the city centre. At 4:30 a.m. Sri Chinmoy meditates with his students before leaving the hotel for his early morning run. This morning thirty or forty people have gathered. They sit on the carpet and chairs in the hotel lobby.
Sri Chinmoy begins to speak slowly as he gives the morning meditation; the power of his voice reinforces the silence. Then, for fifteen minutes, he meditates; each second a reflection of the enchanting spiritual world of the beyond. At the end, he bows to those around him and, rising from his chair, walks off towards the hotel exit, out into the cold morning air. The silence remains as the group gradually disperses. They will meet in a few hours’ time for a two-mile race.
* * *
Alongside the shore of Beppu Bay, a flat one-mile running course has been marked out. By 6:50 a.m. the marshals and timers are in place and at 7:00 a.m. the runners are called to the starting line. As the runners pause for one minute of meditation before the event, a distant clock tower begins to chime out its morning call, the famous Japanese song – Sakura.
Sri Chinmoy is extremely fond of this song. At functions, he will quite often sing or play it. The traditional melody is so hauntingly beautiful. And the lyrics that describe the heavenly fragrance of the cherry blossoms seem to capture the very soul of Japan. It is hard to believe that someone other than a Japanese person could have composed the words. But in 1894, a German named Rudolf Dittrich wrote the lyrics for Sakura in Japanese, German and English.
The race starts. Even though it is just a few days since the marathon in Tokyo, the pace from the outset is fast and it takes the winner, ironically he too is German, only 10 minutes 13 seconds to complete the two-mile course.
Later in the day at a function, Sri Chinmoy plays with a tape recorder he has bought in town. On it, he has recorded ‘Sakura’. He delights in telling the story of how the lyrics were composed by a German. Then Sri Chinmoy calls up Kailash, head of the German Centres, and presents him with the recorder. Kailash takes his seat again and Sri Chinmoy goes on with something else.
A minute or so passes and then, as if he had been waiting to see how long it took Kailash to find out how to operate it, Sri Chinmoy looks over to him with a smile and jokingly explains how it works.
Sri Chinmoy returns from a mid-morning walk through the busy shopping section in the town of Beppu to the quietude of the foyer of the Hinago Hotel. Some students have gathered there as he tries out a new massage chair. He sits with eyes closed as the machine gently massages his back. Sri Chinmoy is obviously pleased with it and starts to bargain with the shopkeeper who has delivered it. Finally, the price is settled and Sri Chinmoy once more relaxes back into the chair.
Agraha has brought Sri Chinmoy a flashlight. There are two lights on the frame that move independently and cast a bright, intense beam. Again, Sri Chinmoy smiles and starts to talk to the others who are standing by. “We should have a 100-lb. weight on stage tonight,” he says. Sri Chinmoy is feeling mischievous. He suggests that the seekers who come to the concert in the evening could come up afterwards and try to lift 100 lbs. “It can be called a Strength Concert. Peace is strength,” he says.
Of course, it does not happen that way. The concert is purely musical. Sri Chinmoy arrives at the concert wearing an immaculate blue kurta and dhoti. He is the epitome of gentility and peace. The audience could never guess that this great spiritual master is, for his weight (154 lbs.), one of the strongest people alive. His recent single-arm lift of 155 lbs. has astounded the greatest weightlifters of our time and attests to the inexhaustible power of the soul.
* * *
Sri Chinmoy’s love for shopping is unbounded. Each day he will spend hours in stores, mostly browsing and occasionally buying prasad or a small gift for someone. His Indian nature can hardly resist the temptation to bargain with the shopkeepers. The Japanese shopkeepers, although not accustomed to the bargaining process, usually find some way to offer him a discount. Through shopping, Sri Chinmoy finds new ways to meet the people of Japan and in an unassuming way, the people he encounters respond.
The delicacy of Japanese design, the exquisiteness of its presentation, reflect a quality of elegant simplicity that lies at the depth of the Japanese heart.
Endless stories of Sri Chinmoy’s shopping adventures abound and he delights in telling them. What other spiritual master has ever written a book entitled I Love Shopping?
* * *
In unexpected places, the unexpected seems almost to be expected.
On the bullet train from Beppu to Fukuyama Sri Chinmoy is seated by himself, absorbed in composing songs, while his students, who have spread out through the various carriages, occupy themselves reading, listening to music or gazing out the windows at the passing landscape of Japanese life.
As if to bring into focus this diversity of activity, Sri Chinmoy begins to hand out prasad. The aisle through carriage no.14 is instantly flooded by the slow-moving procession of students making their way towards Sri Chinmoy.
Sri Chinmoy smiles as he offers each person a small Japanese sweet. Within a few minutes, the aisle is again free, as his students quietly resume their seats. Sri Chinmoy goes on composing his songs as the bullet train speeds on towards Fukuyama.
What must the Japanese passengers think; or perhaps they were too polite to notice?
* * *
Nearly every day Sri Chinmoy buys or is given a musical instrument; the Japanese stores being almost inexhaustible in their range. The collection he has gathered over the past weeks includes instruments from both East and West. Some of the most unusual forms of musical combinations now sit side by side. Simple whistles and horns together with the instruments Sri Chinmoy has brought from New York for his concert performances constitute a grand symphonic display.
One of Sri Chinmoy's favourites is a 50 cent multi-coloured whistle only six inches in length, which can be broken apart and re-assembled. It is packed in a beautiful pale blue cloth case that, in turn, can be packed into a larger cloth case with other small instruments. Sri Chinmoy takes great delight in the packing of this precious favourite, smiling as he gently places it in the soft material covering and slowly closing the zippered case.
Each instrument, it seems, has its own home and those without homes are soon given one; like the group of toy instruments Sri Chinmoy found in Beppu. A toy piano, a battery organ, a xylophone, a Japanese drum, a dragonhead-shaped castanet, tuned bells and others formed an unusual group.
The instruments were closely arranged in order of height so that each one could easily be played and a wooden box was constructed by Unmilan to house the display. Sri Chinmoy now often tinkles with this small orchestra during the spare moments of a function.
Another cute item Sri Chinmoy is fond of playing with is an alarm clock in the shape of a toy trumpet. Occasionally he will turn on the alarm, the sound of the trumpet calling the attention of his students. The sound has now come to signal something special – the start of a meditation or a singing performance.
On a small table by his chair lies an assortment of wooden flutes. Neatly scattered about the floor beside him are percussion instruments – a small drum set, cymbal and temple bells. Some Japanese instruments like the samisen, koku and biwa sit nearby.
From time to time, larger instruments like the cello are brought in for Sri Chinmoy to play. Each day many hours are spent in practice. And just as he finds homes for his instruments, his instruments are homes for his melodies.
Sri Chinmoy’s musical expression is limitless. With the touch of each instrument, he brings forth new worlds of sound – sublime melodies from the heavens above.
* * *
It is New Year’s Eve and the Japanese students who have arranged much of Sri Chinmoy's tour offer a small concert of singing – an intriguing mixture of traditional Japanese songs and Sri Chinmoy’s compositions.
The serious mood of the singing and meditation gives way to light-hearted humour as Sri Chinmoy asks the Japanese students to tell some Japanese jokes. The jokes are translated back and forth, sometimes losing their intended meaning, but no-one minds. Far beyond the jokes themselves, there is an infectious joy that is bursting to be expressed.
Sri Chinmoy knows how to have fun.
* * *
Barely after dawn, as the silent heights of Japan’s hilltops witness the first rays of light for the New Year, a group of runners stands before Sri Chinmoy as he talks of the year ahead and the remarkable possibilities it holds. His presence is irresistible, as are his words. “Think of your good qualities,” he requests. “This year has tremendous possibilities.”
Most of the runners are expecting a two or three-mile run, which has become the standard over the past few weeks of daily races. Today, however, is different; Sri Chinmoy announces that the boys should run 13 miles and the girls 7 miles.
Sri Chinmoy himself is determined to cover the distance of 7 miles; his knee injury still prevents him from running. Sri Chinmoy completes the course walking in 2:01:50. Later he smiles as he recalls his time. The pace is 17 minutes 24 seconds per mile – far, far outside his best running time.
The weather has become colder and after the race, the day’s activities are confined to the warmer surrounds of the meeting hall. Different singing groups practise songs. At times, the rooms and hallways are a confluence of sound ringing with an ethereal resonance broken only by the silence of meditation.
* * *
The talk and clamour in the meeting hall quickly stills. All movement has ceased as a quiet meditative mood permeates the atmosphere. Twenty songs, Sri Chinmoy begins to sing, all in Bengali. He gazes intently at his hand-written manuscript. He carries the tune perfectly as his voice glides over the notes.
Each note is like a bend in a stream, lending form to an unbroken flow of music. The quarter notes and all the varying portions that inhabit the realm between tones add an infinite expressiveness to the lyric. The sound of Sri Chinmoy’s voice carries the listeners far beyond the mind as he responds solely to the call of his beloved Inspirer.
Quite unexpectedly, he stops to correct a line. He repeats part of the tune a few times and then continues to weave through the delicate pattern of the melody.
“I have done my job,” he exclaims. “Now you people have to learn them.”
Seven different groups have been given songs over the past week and singers can be seen day and night carrying manuscripts and practising the subtle nuances of the songs.
Every now and then, Sri Chinmoy will call different groups to rehearse in front of him. He listens for the soulful qualities of the songs to emerge. The subtle variations, sometimes only discernible to his ear, are corrected with meticulous care. When the songs are sung correctly and soulfully they ‘melt your heart’, he says.
Whenever Sri Chinmoy hears a mistake, he smiles and stops the singers. Over and over they will sing the line. He will sometimes motion with his hand, describing in the air the flow of notes. At other times he will say, “Here I do something tricky,” then proceed to sing the notes. He will use phrases like ‘thin not flat’, not referring so much to the pitch of the note but rather to its actual ‘shape’.
Sri Chinmoy finds a way to communicate the essence of his songs where Western musical notation merely approximates a description, often missing the delicate interplay of the partial notes that dip and slide.
Suddenly Sri Chinmoy smiles. Magic has been created – the singers have got it. Today Heaven and earth are satisfied.
* * *
His back is perfectly straight as he sits. His right arm is raised in the air. His hand is open and poised to clench the 50-lb. training weight being gently lowered onto his palm. His face is expressionless save the sheer concentration. His eyes are open, yet his gaze is focused neither on the distant walls of the room nor on the crowd of onlookers who watch with breathless expectation. One, two … five times he lowers and raises the weight.
From the bending of his elbow to the full arm extension, his countenance does not alter. The weight is carefully lifted from his right hand and transferred to his left. Again he repeats the exercise, back and forth. After each set of five he relaxes only momentarily.
Finally, he has done enough. His head dips towards his knees as he puffs out his exhaustion with one long breath. There is a slight smile in his gesture. He throws back his head and, looking high above the heads of his students, broadens his grin. There is a challenging look on his face and everyone begins to share the humour of the moment. “How many girls can lift fifty pounds with one hand?” he asks. “Only once you have to do it.” There are no takers.
The same challenge is issued to the boys. A half a dozen or so, out of the hundred people present, come forward. Some succeed, others don't. (Later Sri Chinmoy gives 200 yen to all the boys who lifted the weight.)
The next test is one of Sri Chinmoy’s favourites. “Who can do 100 push-ups without stopping?” Vidura springs forward. His face is flushed and his arms are straining after rhythmically pumping out one per second, but he does reach 100. He has obviously been training. Others try but all fall short of the magic mark.
It is now Sri Chinmoy’s turn. He has already done 700 earlier in the morning and, together with the weight training he has just finished, this extra attempt of 300 push-ups constitutes an exhausting workout. Sri Chinmoy positions himself carefully for the attempt. He does them in sets of 100 as his students count each push aloud, and time the breaks between sets.
Because of his painful back problems, he does not completely straighten his body in this position. His head is a little lower to the ground and his legs are slightly parted. “A lot of people think that the way Sri Chinmoy is doing it is easier. But it is not. It actually places tremendous strain on the shoulders and the legs,” explains Vidura.
As Sri Chinmoy retires back to his chair after the final 300th push-up there seems to be an air of anticipation about him. He stretches out his legs and gestures to Nirvik to massage his feet. Perhaps he is already contemplating new goals? (A little over one week later Sri Chinmoy would astound the world by completing 2,230 push-ups in less than one hour.)
* * *
It is a steep climb up the narrow steps leading to the Buddhist temple in the grounds of Miruko No Sato in Fukuyama. The temple is a modern building but the wide walkways, the rock garden and the grand dimensions of the interior halls are an unaltered expression of the ageless architecture of Japan.
From the meditation hall, the sound of singing drifts softly across the gardens and out into the forest surrounds; the clear cold air amplifies the awakening of the fragile morning. The words of the song are in Pali, the Indo-Aryan language spoken in Northern India, 500 B.C., which formed the greater part of Buddhist literature. The voice is unmistakably that of Sri Chinmoy.
Buddham sharanam gachhami
Dhammam sharanam gachhami
Sangham sharanam gachhami
I go to the Buddha for refuge
I go to the Dharma for refuge
I go to the Order for refuge
Over and over Sri Chinmoy continues to chant. For fifteen minutes he remains seated before the great altar, his eyes fixed on the statue of the Buddha – a black cast image embraced in a chandelier of bright gold brass bells.
Suddenly Sri Chinmoy’s singing changes to a higher key and the invocation becomes a breathless song of adoration. For a further five minutes, he continues. After the singing, he remains for a while as the light of the morning gradually begins to fill the room.
As Sri Chinmoy moves from the hall out onto the landing and along the wooden walkway, he is singing sweetly to himself. He carries with him his song-offering to the Buddha. In the meditation hall, his consciousness-breath remains.
Who knows who will next be blessed in the silence of this remote temple, far from the world and its cares?
* * *
In the high mountains above Fukuyama the mist and rain shroud the world below.
Many thousands have come into contact with Sri Chinmoy over the years. Those seeking spiritual wisdom and inner peace are drawn to him wherever he goes. Here at the Buddhist retreat of Miruko No Sato, where Sri Chinmoy and his students have come for a one-week stay, a group of Japanese seekers have made their own pilgrimage. Some have already made an acquaintance with Sri Chinmoy at his concerts in different cities; others, who will see him for the first time tonight, have patiently been awaiting his arrival. This evening is special in their lives and for all present.
Sri Chinmoy meditates on each new seeker. His gaze is far beyond the physical. The air is charged with a power that is difficult to comprehend. Each person is blessed; they receive something only they and Sri Chinmoy know.
Downstairs in another meeting room, one hundred or so of Sri Chinmoy’s students have been waiting. Sri Chinmoy walks to the front of the room and takes his chair. He meditates briefly and gestures to the singers to start. Softly, his song ‘Never Say No’ is sung in Japanese. A mood of tranquillity permeates the room. The Japanese students, including those accepted only moments earlier, walk slowly by Sri Chinmoy as he meditates. His eyes alight on each person as they pass. The singing continues, gently drifting, as it seems, beyond the mountains of Fukuyama. Sri Chinmoy, too, seems distant as his face expresses a concern for the world at large.
* * *
At first sight, the shallow pool that stretches the length of the memorial seems empty. A thin layer of ice has formed on the surface. It mirrors the clouded sky in stark reminiscence. The piercing chill of the air holds no comfort for the casual visitor, yet the old men and women who come to pray here are indifferent to time and season.
Sri Chinmoy stands and meditates in front of the memorial. The eternal flame silently guides the mind upward, away from the harsh realities that the body of Hiroshima has suffered. Hiroshima, an international shrine; the focus of the world’s prayer for peace seems to be crying constantly while God’s Compassion rains like a fine morning mist on all who come to worship.
We walk from the memorial to the concert hall where Sri Chinmoy will play. There is not a breath lost or a word spoken as the silence merges gently with the music of the Heavens.
* * *
At a function in a Kyoto kaikan, Sri Chinmoy relaxes in his chair as he listens to various singing groups. Yesterday had been a most significant and, at the same time, physically demanding day. Already this morning’s newspapers were carrying reports of Sri Chinmoy’s astounding feat of self-transcendence – 2,230 push-ups in less than one hour (59 minutes and 34 seconds to be precise).
Throughout the push-up attempt, Sri Chinmoy had requested that everyone remain in a prayerful, soulful consciousness. The audience sang Sri Chinmoy’s songs as he performed set after set (usually 100 push-ups per set). Agraha timed the breaks as Unmilan, Bipin and Rupantar took turns in counting.
The speed at which Sri Chinmoy moved seemed to defy the mind. At times the whole action of bending, dipping and straightening became a blur of motion. Between each set, Sri Chinmoy walked back and forth on stage. Deep in concentration, he would drop his arms loosely by his side, easing the strain in his burning muscles.
Even as the final minutes of the hour ticked away, Sri Chinmoy continued his breathless pace. At 2,230, he stopped and sat back in complete exhaustion. Then, standing before the audience of his students, Sri Chinmoy bowed in gratitude to the Supreme.
Later, Agraha reads out a letter from Jim Smith (Record-keeper, British Amateur Weightlifting Association). The letter not only officially recognises Sri Chinmoy’s unique weightlifting achievements, but also Jim Smith personally adds his unbounded praise for Sri Chinmoy’s ideals.
Afterwards, Sri Chinmoy starts to chat with his students.
“If anyone does something really great for the world,” he says, “it takes at least two hundred years for that person to be recognised… When it is a matter of the spiritual power that I have, it is like the sea, whereas my physical strength is like a drop. But people appreciate the drop. I have been serving the world for 22 years through talks and meditations, but I am more famous for lifting these inert weights… On the other hand, if people can appreciate the drop they may ask the question: Where does the drop come from? From the sea!”
* * *
As the days of Sri Chinmoy’s Japan tour come to a close, the outer significance of the journey becomes apparent. Each day more and more newspaper articles are collected. The total number of reports on Sri Chinmoy’s concerts, his push-ups, his weightlifting; the Peace Swims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Adhiratha, Sunil and Shraddha; Ashrita's pogo-stick world record at Mt Fuji; and the Sri Chinmoy Marathons in Tokyo and Kyoto have now reached 37. National and local television also covered many of the events.
The outer events have their own evidence, but who will know the inner miracles that have taken place? The Japanese people have responded to Sri Chinmoy’s call and he has touched the heart and soul of Japan in a very special way.
On the last days of the tour, Sri Chinmoy is busy seeing students and admirers. Some will not see him again for a long time and Sri Chinmoy constantly offers them his love and concern.
As Sri Chinmoy stands at the departure gate of Osaka airport, his smile means more than any words that can be spoken. There are no goodbyes as such, only the unspoken invitation to meet again soon, but still, Japan and all those who stay behind are a little sadder for his leaving.
– End –
This article was originally written in 1986.
Copyright © 2009, Animesh Harrington.
All rights reserved under Creative Commons license.