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Author Archive | Mallikarjun Rakala

We will prevail

On April 16, 2007, a student at Virginia Tech, had killed 32 of the university’s students and professors besides himself. The tragedy had plunged the academic community at the university into sorrow and grief. The entire nation was deeply moved by this tragedy. Amidst this morning rose a voice that was strong, powerful and defiant with a touch of rebellion. It was Nikki Giovanni. She was addressing the thousands who had gathered the next day at the memorial service for the shooting victims. She was asked by the president of the university to give a speech at the memorial service. As Nikki Giovanni is a professor at Virginia Tech, she was herself deeply affected by the tragedy. She found it very difficult to write a speech. Instead she composed a poem. In fact it was a poem chant. In her very opening lines she takes the tragedy head on and accepts the reality with courage to ‘stand tall tearlessly’ and with humility ‘bend to cry’. She said,

“We are Virginia Tech.
We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while.
We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech.
We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly,
we are brave enough to bend to cry, and
we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech…”

In the lines that follow she conveys the message to her listeners that even as the tragedy is very personal, yet they cannot afford to indulge in the pleasures of self-pity. And so she tries to connect to the tragedies suffered by other innocent people like them. She said,

“We do not understand this tragedy.
We know we did nothing to deserve it,
but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS,
neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army,
neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory,
neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water…”

In these very powerful lines the poet by embracing the sorrow of others, transcends from the personal to the universal. Even as they grieved, by reaching out to the sorrow of others, Giovanni tapped into the fundamental goodness of humanity that resides deep within every human heart. Some of her closing lines are as follows,

“…We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid.
We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be.
We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities.
We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness…
…We will prevail…”

Many speakers spoke before her including the president of United States. But it was the lone voice of Nikki Giovanni that not only raised the spirits of the students and teachers at Virginia Tech, but also the entire nation. It is these rare voices like Nikki Giovanni who help us rise above hatred and intolerance. They help us to accept the reality around us and embrace our fellow travellers, on our life’s journey, with sympathy and goodwill.

“Our philosophy is the acceptance of life for the transformation of life and also for the manifestation of God’s light here on earth, at God’s choice hour in God’s own way.” ~Sri Chinmoy

…The journey itself is home

In one of his travel diaries, Oku no Hosomichi, the 17th century Japanese Haiku poet Bashō most famously wrote, “A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” Born in 1644, near Ueno, in Iga Province, about thirty miles southeast of Kyoto, Bashō’s first poem was published in 1662. Over the next decade his poems continued to be published in various anthologies. In the spring of 1672 he moved to Edo to further his study of poetry. He undertook arduous studies in Chinese and Japanese literature, philosophy, and history. His studies also included Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shintoism. By 1680 he made a name for himself as a poet and taught poetry to quite a few students. Basho is considered one of the most learned poets of his time. In spite of his success as a poet, Bashō was lonely and dissatisfied. From 1682 Basho started undertaking long journeys on foot. On each journey he maintained a dairy which turned out to be a new poetic form he created called haibun. In haibun, Basho combined haiku and prose to trace his journey. This combination of prose and poetry was rich in two kinds of images: the external images observed on the journey and the internal images that these outer images invoked in the mind of the poet. Starting from 1684 Basho composed several such travel diaries that included Nozarashi Kiko, or Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones (1685); Oi no Kobumi, or The Knapsack Notebook (1688); and Sarashina Kiko, or Sarashina Travelogue (1688).

It was his last travel diary, Oku no Hosomichi, or The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that turned out to be his best and most famous piece of literary work. Basho composed this poetic travel journal on the last long foot journey that he undertook to the northern provinces of Honshu, covering 1,200 miles in over five months. He started his journey in the beginning of May 1689 and was accompanied by his student Kawai Sora. Their goal was to visit Oku that lay north of Sendai by following a narrow path that passed through the Sirakawa barrier, over the mountains. Both of them headed north to Hiraizumi, which they reached in one and half months. They then walked to the western side of the island, touring Kisakata and began hiking back along the coastline returning to Edo in late 1691.

When Basho was about to start on his journey many friends come to see him off. He describes this touching scene by putting into words an internal image that passes through his mind, “I felt three thousand miles rushing through my heart, the whole world only a dream. I saw it through farewell tears.” (1) Then he goes on to pen the following haiku:

Spring passes
And the birds cry out-tears
In the eyes of fishes

In this haiku, Basho is trying to convey the depth of his sorrow at parting with his close friends. The sorrow was so great that even the birds were crying and he increases the intensity by saying there were even tears in the eyes of fishes.

Many of the places visited by them had a lot of cultural and spiritual history behind them. These were places that were described by other poets of the past and Basho refers to these poems in his writing. For instance when he reached a beach called Shiogama, it was evening. After the summer rain the sky was just clearing revealing a pale moon over Magaki Island. This beautiful twilight scene reminded Basho of a line from Kokinshu’s poem, “fishing boats pulling together” and for the first time he understood what the poet meant.

Along the Michinoku
Everyplace is wonderful,
But in Shiogama
Fishing boats pulling together
Are most amazing of all.

On this journey into the deep north, often his mind soared into the rich depths of the Japanese history, culture and Zen philosophy. From those aesthetic heights, Basho came out with insights that are golden nuggets of human thought. The form was in prose but on reading the aftertaste is sheer poetry. When visiting a shrine at dawn, he gives the following description, “huge, stately pillars, bright painted rafters, and a long stone walkway rising steeply under a morning sun that danced and flashed along the red lacquered fence. I thought, “As long as the road is, even if it ends in dust, the gods come with us, keeping a watchful eye. This is our culture’s greatest gift.” (2). For a moment it is worth pondering on Basho’s insight. This shrine was five centuries old at the time of Basho. It seems what Basho is trying to tell us is that far into the future, maybe hundreds of years later, if a devout pilgrim visits this shrine and even if the shrine is in complete ruins, the pilgrim will receive the blessings of the gods he has come to pay homage to. The shrine which is something physical is time-bound (i.e.bound to decay with time) but its essence “the blessings of the gods” is timeless, eternal.

During their journey, Basho and his companion decided to spend a night at a place called Iizuka in a country inn. As it was a country inn the facilities were less than basic. After they had gone to bed, there was a heavy rain storm. Basho writes, “Suddenly a thunderous downpour and leaky roof aroused us, fleas and mosquitoes everywhere. Old infirmities tortured me through the long, sleepless night.”(3) At another time when for days and days they had to walk through rain and heat Basho wrote, “Through nine hellish days of heat and rain, all my old maladies tormenting me again, feverish and weak, I could not write.”(4) Sometimes for days they also had to walk through marsh land. These and other descriptions give one the impression that the journey was arduous and physically very difficult as Basho was of a delicate constitution and suffered from several chronic diseases. Also travelling by foot in seventeenth-century medieval Japan was immensely dangerous and hazardous. Yet Basho was willing to risk his life for the rich experience of his journey. In fact he considered it a pilgrimage.

By the time Basho composed his last diary, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he had matured as a poet. The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the climax in his literary career. Using his close interaction with nature as a tool, Basho was always trying to be in resonance with something within him that was impersonal, deep and meaningful. Once when he was passing through a remote forest area where a few hermits lived in thatched huts under pine trees, Basho wrote, “Smoke of burning leaves and pine cones drew me on, touching something deep inside.” (5) Sri Chinmoy said, “Art in the most effective sense of the term is a sublime truth that draws our soul from within towards the infinite vast.” Through his poetry, Basho tried to achieve this artistic excellence. His poetry was based on the Zen concept that one attains perfect spiritual serenity by immersing oneself in the egoless, impersonal life of nature. The complete absorption of one’s petty ego into the vast, powerful, magnificent universe. Hamill writes, “When he (Basho) invokes the call of a cuckoo, invokes its lonely cry. Things are as they are. Insight permits him to perceive a natural poignancy in the beauty of temporal things – mono_no_aware – and cultivate its expression into great art.”(pg. xiv)

References

1. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 4
2. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 16
3. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 12
4. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 28
5. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. 17
6. Narrow Road to the Interior, Basho, trans, Sam Hamill, Shambhala, Pg. xiv

VOYAGE – Chidananda Burke

In open casket dark and gleaming

richly draped in mourning velvet,

I turn into the setting sun,

my final journey now begun.

So calmly swift this polished boat,

so calm and bright the golden sea;

and just ahead, the bright horizon;

and just beyond, the splendor free.

Forgotten all those clumsy dreams

rising up in dark of mind;

earthly beauty left behind.

Now I touch, I drink the sun!

This I, once thick with form and flesh,

slowly rising

through dense atmospheres of life,

now pulses with light –

a glowing awareness

without center or source,

a luminous stillness

in the calm luminous stillness,

the endless course.

                                                      CHIDANANDA BURKE
 

Photo by Kedar

Hilda Charlton – a tribute

(Hilda Charlton was a spiritual teacher who taught meditation in New York City from 1965 to 1988. In her teachings Hilda stressed the importance of a life of giving and forgiving, unconditional love and remembrance of God. She Hilda Charltonuplifted the lives of thousands of people who sought her spiritual guidance. She was born in London and moved to United States along with her parents and two elder brothers when she was four years old. As a young student she learnt classical ballet dancing and from the age of eighteen for the next two decades she performed and taught dancing in the San Francisco area. But right from her childhood her real quest was spiritual. From 1947 to 1950, Hilda toured India and Ceylon as a dancer. After that she lived in India and Ceylon for fifteen more years, pursuing her studies of Eastern mysticism and meditation under the guidance of many great spiritual masters.

This story of Hilda is based on her autobiography, ‘Hell bent for Heaven’. All phrases and sentences in quotes are Hilda’s own words unless otherwise mentioned.)

Hilda was direct, simple and filled with life1. The then president of Gold Mountain Entertainment, Danny Goldberg said of Hilda, “When Hilda talked about saints, she began with a gushing enthusiasm I would normally associate with a teenage girl contemplating her latest heartthrob. Almost imperceptibly her tone altered from one of girlishness to a solemnity manifesting the holiness of the saints’ lives to the jocular familiarity of a next door neighbour. Only gradually, subtly, and with the utmost concentration did it dawn on me that she herself was one of them.”

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Your song

sunrise

Your song caresses

the depths of loneliness,

high mountain bird

                                 – Matsuo Basho

Photo: Unmesh.

Lincoln looses only to Triumph

The Loss

abraham lincoln In 1858 Abraham Lincoln accepted the Republican Party’s nomination to run for the Illinois Senate seat against the Democratic incumbent Stephen Douglas. (In those days, U.S. senators were elected by state legislatures; so the candidate whose party won control of the state legislature was elected.) Despite the Republican Party winning the popular vote, Lincoln lost the election because the Republicans did not gain control of the Illinois state legislature. (In the election the Republicans received about 50 percent of the popular vote and won only 47 percent of the seats in the house. Where as the Democrats received 48 percent of the popular vote and won 53 percent of the seats. On January 5, 1859, when the balloting took place in the Illinois state legislature Douglas received 54 votes to Lincoln’s 46 and was thus reelected for another six years to the United States Senate.) But this defeat proved to be the stepping stone for Lincoln to win the Republican presidential nomination and ultimately the presidency. Lincoln who was little known outside his home state gained national recognition after his splendid performance in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates

The central issue during the Lincoln-Douglas debates was slavery, especially the issue of slavery’s expansion into the territories.(Territories of the United States were political division of the U.S., overseen directly by the federal government of the United States but were not any part of a U.S. state. These territories were created to govern newly acquired land while the borders of the United States were still evolving.) Lincoln was against the expansion of slavery into the territories where as Douglas was advocating the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which meant that, people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Lincoln was against popular sovereignty and the extension of slavery that it would allow.

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Abraham Lincoln – a President of the people and for the people

It was the poet Walt Whitman who prophesied the emergence of Lincoln as the future American President. In 1856 he wrote a political address that remained unpublished till towards the end of the 19th century. In that address Whitman denounced the Northern Democrats including the then-president Franklin Pierce without mincing words and then went on to say: “I would be much pleased to see some heroic, shrewd, fully-informed, healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced American blacksmith or boatman come down from the West across the Alleghanies, and walk into the Presidency, dressed in a clean suit of working attire, and with the tan all over his face, breast, and arms; I would certainly vote for that sort of man, possessing the due requirements, before any other candidate.”1 On Nov. 7th 1860, Lincoln, a healthy-bodied, middle-aged, beard-faced boatman from the West, was on his way to the White House.

abraham lincoln

Whitman was immensely fascinated by Lincoln from the moment he saw him for the first time in New York in 1861 (from the top of a stalled omnibus). In 1863 he wrote, “Lincoln has a face like a Hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”2 (Interestingly Lincoln had been reading with admiration Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in his Springfield law office before heading to Washington to assume the presidency.  Lincoln and Whitman never knew each other personally. They may have met on an occasion.)

Lincoln was born in 1809 in a one-room log cabin in frontier Kentucky. He was largely self-taught and from his early childhood had great taste for reading. Later in life he taught himself law and went on to become an eminent country lawyer. Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk War. In the 1830s and 1840s as a Whig politician he held a seat in the Illinois state legislature. In 1847 he became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Sometime in 1856, Lincoln joined the new Republican Party. In 1858 he contested the election to the U.S. Senate. His opponent in the election was one of the most popular politicians in the nation, Senator Stephen Douglas. During the campaign, Lincoln and Douglas had a series of seven debates (in towns across Illinois over seventy days) – the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. These debates were covered nationally. Even though Lincoln lost that election, his spectacular performance against Douglas in the debates made him a strong contender for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination.

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Padre Pio of Pietrelcina

Padre Pio of Pietrelcina was a Capuchin monk (an order of friars in the Catholic Church). During his life time he performed many miracles. Through a mystical experience he received the five wounds of the Christ (the wounds of the stigmata) – two on his feet, two on the palms of his hands and one on the side near the heart. Attracted by his miracles people flocked to him from all corners of the globe. Yet it was not his miracles but it was his love – his love for God and his love for man that won people’s hearts. He once wrote, “I am devoured by the love of God and the love of my neighbor. God is always fixed in my mind and stamped in my heart. I never lose sight of Him. I can admire His beauty, His smiles, His vexation, His mercy, His vengeance, or, rather, the rigors of His justice….”1

Padre Pio’s only desire was “to be a poor friar who prays”. He did not take any credit for the miracles that he performed. For him these miracles were “gifts” that came from God and they belonged to God. When his friend Angelo Battisti once questioned him about these things, Padre Pio replied: “Angelo, they are a mystery for me too.”2 Italian journalist, Renzo Allegri, writes, “I was extremely impressed, not so much by the stories of miracles that people told about him but by the extraordinary moral strength that emanated from his whole being…When he would lift his head and look around, his big eyes looked like they were burning, not from pain but from a goodness that he could not contain.”3

Unlike most people when Padre Pio prayed, God literally spoke to him either through a word or a vision. In a letter to his spiritual director Padre Pio wrote, “My ordinary way of praying is this: hardly do I begin to pray than at once I feel my soul begin to recollect itself in a peace and tranquility that I cannot express in words…” Sometimes Padre Pio felt “touched by the Lord … in a way that is so vivid and so sweet that most of the time I am constrained to shed tears of sorrow for my infidelity and for the tender mercy of having a Father so loving and so good as to summon me thus to His presence.”4 Padre Pio once told his friend Padre Agostino that from early childhood he had seen and spoken to Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and his guardian angel. He thought this was something that happened to everyone. “Don’t you see the Madonna?” he asked his friend. When Agostino denied this, Padre Pio shrugged his shoulders and said, “Surely, you’re saying that out of humility.”5
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