Devotion cultures the heart. When adoration does not selfishly demand a return, there is a yearning toward something greater than ourselves. We lose ourselves in the immensity of the beloved; we are nothing and thus become everything.
This is Indian Bhakti and the lover-beloved relationship of the Sufi poet. Naturally, it is dualistic in the beginning. We are separated, however little, from the object of devotion, and the true Bhakti prays to his beloved that this separation may continue so that the ecstasy of adoration will not be lost. Unlike the follower of the path of knowledge, the Bhakti delights in separateness — there will be no merging with Reality, so the identity of the lover is not lost.
And yet, is this not the self-naughting Christian monastics have spoken of? Is this not the Realizing of God in the true Hassidic fashion, and in the realizing, do we not disappear? When cheeks are washed by involuntary tears of gratitude, and thankfulness for being, do we not attain heights that no self-striving can realize? In the simple Namu Amida Butsu of the devotee, is there not a faith and a devotion that removes regard for my power and that places us in the position of utter dependence on the other, saying simply “Thy will be done”? Such surrender is the hottest purifying flame and from it comes a certainty.
I want to share two incidents that happened to me personally. In the summer of 1971, I was staying at a Ramakrishna Vedanta Ashram near Los Angeles, recharging my batteries. Having promised to give several Sunday talks there, I was spending time in meditation, watering the lawns, and helping wash dishes after meals. The beauty and quiet of the place lent themselves to contemplation, and since the ashram was situated in the foothills, the oppressive summer heat was apparent only at midday. But this idyllic situation was clouded by an antagonism sensed from the moment I arrived. An Indian woman living on the ashram grounds with her children took an immediate dislike to me. I admired her singing (in the true tradition of Indian kirtan) and saw no reason for difficulty between us, but there it was.
When I greeted her, she did not answer. At the dinner table, many unpleasant comments came my way. I realized she had been the victim of an auto accident in recent years — with a serious head injury — and did all in my power not to respond in kind, but to no avail. There was great unpleasantness felt by all.
So heavy was the weight of this antagonism that I began to seriously wonder whether I should leave the ashram so as to spare others the unpleasantness. It did not seem that there was anything I could do to alleviate the situation.
This ashram’s spiritual practice is devotion to the Divine Mother. Many devotees who live there claim to have had strong experiences with Holy Mother, and others eagerly await the day when they will feel the Divine Presence. Do not think of imagination or self-hypnosis. Those who have to have a rational explanation for every event will never know such experiences and never know the contentment that such devotion can bring. They are doomed to wander in the nether world bounded by their own narrow intellects.
In any event, morning and afternoon services are devoted to washing the feet of the deity, along with meditation and chanting. On Saturday nights there is kirtan, led by the woman antagonist, and a wonderful feeling is generated from singing devotional songs as we sit before the huge fireplace.
With a background of Zen Buddhist practice, bhakti is not my way. And yet, I could not help but feel the strong vibrations of the ashram and enjoyed the services and meditation. Finally, in despair over the deteriorating personal situation, I decided to put Holy Mother to the test.
During the afternoon service, I prayed very hard, a departure from my usual way where prayer is simply a giving of thanks. “Holy Mother,” I beseeched, “I don’t know how you can do it, but please heal this breech that has developed. I ask it not for my sake but for the benefit of all.” Then after the service, we went to dinner and washed the dishes, and then I slowly walked under the many stars down the road to the guest home where I slept.
No sooner had I entered the door than the phone rang. I was surprised to hear the distraught voice of the Indian woman. She had tried the phones of all the other cottages on the grounds and none had answered. As a last resort, she appealed to me. Something had happened to her dog, and she was frantic; it was choking to death.
I ran to my car and came face to face with a woman who was studying to be a chiropractor. I pushed her into the car, and we headed up the road to the Indian woman’s nearby cottage. We took in the situation quickly. The large dog was choking, but not fatally so. Soon we won his confidence enough to help him. The future chiropractor courageously slipped her hand between his teeth and discovered a small bone lodged in his throat close enough that could reach it. In a minute she had dislodged it, he coughed it out and ran to his bowl to continue eating. The Indian woman now overcome with relief kissed the chiropractor and threw her arms impulsively around me. Her hostility was forgotten. Through tears, she explained how upset she had been over what was happening to her Bengali people in Bangladesh and how this had made her cranky and unreasonable.
Arms around each other, we walked to the car. A full moon shone down on us, and thousands of stars hung in the immensity of the sky. Inwardly I marveled, offering my thanks profusely to Holy Mother for so quickly answering my hesitant prayer. What ingenuity, a solution of such complexity brought about so rapidly. There was a warmth in my heart and a gratitude I can still feel today. Of course, the ugly word coincidence may now raise its head, and for those who must believe that way, I am perfectly willing to allow it. Let me tell you of a second incident and an even more incomprehensible coincidence.
As the summer drew to an end, and the coolness of September arrived, I began to think about leaving the ashram. I was scheduled for one more Sunday talk, on September 29th, and determined to leave the following day. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from friends in San Francisco inviting me to come for an annual ceremony at the local branch of a Japanese church. I had stayed at the home church many times in Kyoto and felt very close to these followers. Consequently, I wanted to go to San Francisco on September 28th and stay overnight at the church to be present for the ceremony on September 29th. But how could I do it? I had promised to give my talk at the ashram on the same day.
When I sat down to breakfast the following morning, I made some inquiries. I learned that a young scientist, who did not live at the ashram, was scheduled to give a talk on September 22nd. So there did not seem to be a way to change my engagement. Across from me sat a nun whose radiant face belied her seventy-some years. I determined to explain the situation to her. “Sister,” I began and then was interrupted by someone calling me on the phone. Mystified as to who would call me at the ashram, I picked up the receiver and heard a voice I did not know. At first, his name did not register. Then I realized that it was the young scientist on the other end.
“Mr. Stone,” he said, “I know you are slated to speak at the ashram on the 29th and I have promised to give my talk on the 22nd. But I have been invited to go on a backpacking trip down the Colorado River the weekend of the 22nd, and I would be very grateful if you would switch dates with me and give your talk on the 22nd instead of the 29th.”
I was stunned. All I had said at breakfast was “Sister” to my friend the nun, and this unexpected event swiftly followed. It meant I could speak at the ashram on the 22nd, drive to San Francisco, and be present for the Japanese church ceremony. How strange were the ways of the Mother with her children.
Coincidence? Two coincidences? It seemed I had become one of Mother’s children in spite of myself, and that guidance has never left me since then.
The Zen writer, Paul Reps, once confided in me that it was easy to be happy, that it actually took only fifteen seconds a day to ensure happiness.
“What do you have to do, Paul?” I asked, somewhat skeptically.
“Every morning get up and say, three times: ‘I am grateful, I give thanks,’” he replied.
I shook my head. “Too difficult, Paul” was my judgment. “You’re asking too much. People won’t do it. The maid didn’t show up, it is income tax time, that person in the White House. There are any number of reasons every day for not doing it.” He smiled.
Devotion cultures the heart, and truthfully, nothing exists outside the heart. None of what happens is our own doing. Yet our own karma impels us. This is the great mystery. How can we reconcile the divine grace of the Holy Mother with the cause-and-effect pattern we make for ourselves?
Since endless times people have been arguing over the objects of their faith. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holy Wars, and bigotries have come as a result. But from the spiritual point of view, the validity of the object of worship is not important. Where there is sincere heartfelt belief, such devotion cultures the heart and completely changes the character of the believer. The object of worship becomes secondary to the act of worshipping.
How can we possibly make plans? How humble we are. We do nothing for ourselves, and yet everything happens. The momentum at the ashram has taken me through several years, bringing about all kinds of interesting teaching assignments involving two universities and students from Japan, though I have no degrees. It is hard to see how we can refrain from gratitude and is not gratitude a form of devotion?
In Indian history, the famous Saint Valmiki began as a highwayman and dacoit (outlaw). So sinful was he felt to be that his eventual guru would not let him do customary japa (repetition) of one of the names of the lord. Instead, the guru had Valmiki repeat the holy name of Rama backward, which came out as Mara, the name of the tempter corresponding to the devil. And yet, by single-minded repetition of this dubious name, Valmiki reached one-pointedness of mind and sainthood.
The Chinese and Japanese languages are wise in that they have two words for heart. Hsin in Chinese and Kokoro in Japanese mean heart in the sense of heart-mind spirit as opposed to the ordinary physical organ. We also speak of a “person with heart” and mean something other than the person’s central muscle that pumps blood. It is in the sense of this heart-mind-spirit that we speak of the heart being cultured. Those who have meditated for a long time may well have had experiences of “the cave of the heart” (the Upanishads speak of the Divine Person, the size of the thumb in the cave of the heart), or even the realization that
the throbbing, beating heart encompasses the cosmos. At such a time one wonders if there is anything outside the human heart and that is a great awakening.
The aim of all true spiritual practice is one-pointedness of mind. Whether through concentration and meditative disciplines; single-minded devotion to a spiritual ideal; control of breath and Prana (Vital Force); or various physical practices such as Hatha Yoga, T’ai Chi Chih, and T’ai Chi Ch’uan, the ultimate goal is the completely focused mind not aware of a multiplicity of perceptions.
The Japanese Buddhist chanting Namu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo or Namu Amida Butsu, with nothing else in their heart, can reach this nondual state of mind. So can the Sufi poet who sees only the divine in all things and whose only perception is that of the beloved. The philosopher and their speculations, the intellectual and their argument, and the science worshipper besieged by their senses can never know the stillness of the one-pointed mind.
It is not found in variety, which the easily bored ordinary mind constantly seeks. When we focus the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass, they can burn almost anything. Similarly, the completely focused mind, empty of all diversion, can accomplish almost anything. Whether we chant mantras, pray to our version of the deity, concentrate on a mind-breaking koan, or endlessly make the single inquiry, “Who am I?”, we are focusing the mind on one thing. There is no turbulence, no competition going on.
“To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders,” writes Lao Tzu. It is a state with just one active groove in the brain (vritti), where one-pointedness soon becomes no-pointedness, which is the Turiya or Fourth State of Consciousness spoken of by Indian sages as the underlying layer of the other three. “Then the Spirit is an emptiness ready to receive all things,” the poet continues.
But are we willing to pay the price to achieve such one-pointedness (ekagra in Sanskrit)? Do we have the necessary will? The habit energies of the mind (vasanas) cry out for amusement. Memories and daydreams rush in to distract the mind from its single-poised status in the present. Very seldom do we live in the present. This is the difference between a master or adept and an ordinary man. Generally, we plan for the future or recreate the past. Placed here, we think about being there. By doing this, we dream away our life. We constantly recreate exciting memories to let ourselves know that we are alive. The photograph becomes more important than the original experience itself. How can this unsteady mind be one-pointed and rest content in the present moment?
To play the piano well we must do finger exercises, practice reading music, learn to count and divide musical time correctly, and develop a concentration enabling us to express our inner resources in musical subtlety. On a sunny afternoon, it is tempting to give up practice and go out to play. So easy to do. But to excel as a pianist, to eventually free us from mere technique and achieve easily coordinated spontaneity, we must stay with the task at hand. A great musician is not one who is thinking of other things while playing. Those fortunate enough to watch Arturo Toscanini conducting or see Pablo Casals playing cello have had the feeling they were in church, so still and devout the atmosphere. Music has become a religion, a one-pointed religion, and we are deeply affected by it.
Young people frequently set out to do impossibly heroic tasks, then easily give them up because they can’t be done. I remember one young man who was going to work all day at an ashram, then cook most of the night at a pizza restaurant some distance away and, finally, get to a distant room to sleep by hitch-hiking through the streets in the early morning. He had no transportation. It was easy to see what would happen. In less than a week the whole routine broke down, and he spent some days just catching up on his rest. This is not admirable but destructive. It is a pattern he will repeat and repeat. From a spiritual standpoint, we must set plausible goals and then follow them unwaveringly, not impossible objectives we can never fulfill.
I always tell T’ai Chi Ch’uan or meditation students that I am not impressed by initial enthusiasm. The one who says, “How wonderful it is!” on the fifth day may have disappeared by the tenth day. It is steadfastness that impresses me, the one who sits meditation on his good days and his bad days, or the one who practices T’ai Chi every morning, sleepy or not — these are the ones who achieve. Perseverance makes it that much easier as time elapses. Our practice becomes an important part of living, and we prize it. “Practice and enlightenment are one,” says the Soto Zen Buddhist. Our practice becomes its own reward.
I have admired some who had great difficulty, originally, in sitting Zazen (cross-legged Zen meditation). It can be painful, and the pain makes the normally flighty mind even more jumpy — it becomes almost impossible to sit still for even two minutes, so how can the mind go to work to focus itself? But these people come back again and again, and gradually the difficulty works itself out. Having started from a difficult beginning, there is naturally a series of unconscious rewards waiting for them as they persevere. The Way to Reality is a lonely road, and we must travel it by ourselves. The passage down this road consists of putting one foot in front of the other. The longest journey begins with a single step!