GARDEN OF ONE
"All flowers are from
the same garden of God"
Shri Harkishan Singh Jassal
I lurk in the hotel lobby. I feel sort of out of place on the physical level. Everyone around me, or it seems like everyone, is chatting, hugging, seeming to know one another, or easily getting to know one another, having one thing in common of great importance, their mother. Mother India. But there are some souls embodied in physical bodies of Americans and some other Asian flavors added to the mix. I am at the Sheraton Hotel for the Global Dharma Conference, organized by a dedicated and devoted group of young Hindu students to promote Dharmic unity and understanding.
I take the elevator to the ninth floor, where I will find my room. The rooms are really beautiful. The hotel is top notch. Yet I do not feel at ease or as if I am on vacation or anything like that. Not at all. I am very aware of the physical difference between me and the majority of attendees and presenters alike. Well, I might as well unpack. I pull my things out of my suitcase and pretty much throw them into the closet and the drawers. The conference does not start until tomorrow. It is too early to go to bed. I rarely watch TV anymore. I am restless and go back down to the lobby to get myself more oriented.
Down in the lobby, folks are milling about, that low roar that occurs in a room when a group of people congregates together talking sounding in my ears. My eyes see hugging and laughing and namaste. I feel alone, no one to touch or hug here for me. The smell of luggage and the dust of the heat outside is in the room. It is the last weekend of July, 2003, and the air is permeated with summer. I am in the state of New Jersey and a good deal of the conference will be held in the Raritan Expo Center. I look at the people around me. I wonder what they think when they look at me standing there amongst them. Namaste, I think to myself with a smile.
The next morning, as I write a few thoughts, sitting at the table in the main room of the Expo Center as the conference is about to begin, the woman, Indian, next to me, asks me, "Did you come here by yourself?" Reading over my shoulder are you? "Yes," I tell her. Overcoming my shyness, I grab onto something we all have in common...a name. I tell her my name and ask her what she is named and how to spell it and what it means. Her name is Deepa and it means light. The age group is diverse. Even though this was organized and conceptualized by young Hindu groups, there are young and old alike. Once the session starts and we go into the room , Deepa disappears and I do not see her again.
Why are you here?
I am shopping in between a session. OK, so I feed my ego and buy some clothes. After all, I am contributing to the cause of the vendors who came out to brighten the environment for us. I am holding a sari blouse, knitted gold, something I have not seen at the other store I sometimes shop at home. I want this. There is gold in most of the few saris I have and blouses are not cheap, so I have even fewer of those. Could I sew one for myself? Yes, if I took the time. If I took the time. Right now, I will take the gold knitted blouse.
There is a woman next to me looking at the same small pile of knitted blouses. I have the only gold one in my hands. She turns to me and asks, almost skeptical, "Why do you want a gold one?" I mention the gold in my saris. She looks disappointed. But she turns away and picks up on a black one, saying that is a good color too. We chat a little as we look. She then mentions to me that if I change my mind about the gold blouse, she will take it. Now I get it...she wants it too. I promise to keep her in mind, but I will admit that I keep the blouse in my hand.
Later, as I walk towards the cafeteria section to eat, I spot her sitting alone at one of the tables in the main room. She calls out to me, "Did you get the gold one?" I smile and pat my sack, the one they give you at registration which is emblazoned with the logo of the conference, and walk over to her and sit down. We exchange names. Her name is Mala, which means prayer. I knew that! I even know what a mala is and buy one later that evening. Time to learn japa.
Suddenly she looks closely at me, leans forward, and, straight to the point, says, "Why are you here? I come mostly for my husband." She waves her hand towards a small group of men who are speaking together, then turns back to me. "But you, why are you here? What brings you to this conference, to Hinduism?"
I squirm a little as I search for an answer that will explain and satisfy. I start out with my usual spiel explanation of how God grabbed me by the scruff of my puppy dog neck and put me through Surrender 101, you know, the beginners course. She is not convinced. "This is a long way from 101. How did you get to a Dharma conference? You came here all by yourself. You know no one." I tell her a few more things, experiences I dont usually share, but I figure she is from Louisiana and I will never see her again, so why not? For now, she is satisfied and hungry.
She takes me under her wing for dinner and we sit together. Her husband sits down and starts questioning me too. Similar questions, as in why are you here, oh blonde haired blue-eyed one? "To learn," I say profoundly, as I hesitate. Mainly, I am here because I feel I will grow spiritually. Then, it comes out although I had not really thought much about this since I did not yet know how it would connect, but I tell him that I am interested in the death penalty issues in America and I want to see if I can learn from a Dharmic standpoint how to approach some of what I write. I am not sure why, but I withdrew an application to the Trial Lawyers College session for 2003 run by Gerry Spence to come to this conference because I was so certain in my heart that this was where I should be. I explain how the American heart mostly understood revenge as punishment and overwhelmingly approves the death penalty in our country. As an unexpected plus for my dharma, there is a session tomorrow on the subject of the criminal justice system and Dharma. He and his wife and friends leave to go back for a meeting. I am alone again, naturally.
I am Blessed
"Dharma is not a mandate of God.
It is a manifestation of Ishwara."
Swamjii Dayananda Saraswati
Swamiji Dayananda Saraswati is the keynote speaker at the conference and a dominant force and presence throughout. I fall into his hands on Saturday morning. Another one of those coincidences that seem to follow me around anymore. It is 7am. Lucky for me, it happens that the Sheraton is the hotel where the small sessions are held, so once I drag myself out of bed and get ready, all I have to do is get on the elevator and press 1. There is a choice of yoga, sanskrit chanting and meditation. I wander into a room where everyone is sitting on the floor. I figure it must be the meditation room. Maybe I cannot sleep anymore, but I can relax. I take off my sandals and drop them by the wall along with my pack. I begin to sit down. Suddenly, I take a good look around. Everyone has shorts/sweats on and mats or towels. "Uh oh," I think to myself. This is the yoga class, I am sure of it. I am not dressed for yoga!
I jump up and bolt for the door. There are two young girls standing there who look at me in surprise. I look at them, smile and explain that I did not realize that it was a yoga class. "Where is the meditation class, do you know?" I ask. They look at each other, smiling in obvious amusement. They point down the hallway, and so I go. I have no idea what it is going to be, but people are sitting in chairs and so am I. I walk into the room and take a seat near the front, so I can see and so I can hear. Suddenly, everyone is standing, so I join them. The man they are standing for walks by wearing the traditional orange color of a swami. He speaks for close to an hour. At the time, I do not realize who he is. By the end of the session, I am his.
It is Sunday, the last day of the conference. I drag myself out of bed again. Swamiji is speaking again today. It is the end of his second 7am morning sadhana. Both times he takes us through a short period of meditation at the end. Anyway, as I sit there and return to the light of day, I see that members of the group are going to the front to offer Namskar and to seek his blessings. His is still sitting and there is someone kneeling next to him and he is talking to them. I am conflicted between my desire to also seek his blessings and my unfamiliarity and slight discomfort with what to do. At the same time, I feel it would be disrespectful of me to just leave. As I wait in the line, one after the other, devotees prostrate before him as he continues his conversation with the person next to him. I begin to realize that this process is not for the Swamiji but for us who are ordinary.
Suddenly, I am standing in front of him. I do not have the nerve to prostrate to him under these conditions. I am not sure what to do- I certainly cannot just turn and walk away. I hear the words come from me, "With your permission?" He stops his conversation abruptly and turns to look at me. "What?" Now they are both looking at me. I gulp inside but get the words out, this time a little louder..."With your permission." His entire demeanor changes and he nods his head solemnly. I kneel down, bow my head to him, my hands in namaskar, and touch my hands and forehead to the floor, hoping for all the world that his blessings will flow.
I begin to get back up and instinctively bow my head to him again and place my hands in namaste, in prayer. As I look back up and begin to rise, he is facing me directly, looking at me, his hands, like mine are together in Namaste to me, and I hear him say "OM." That is all I hear, that is all I see. That is enough for me. I am moved-I am blessed! Feeling very self conscious, but renewed emotionally, I quickly turn around, find my sandals, and leave the room. I do not look back.
I wander out to the hallway. Straight to my room upstairs, on my knees, again, alone now, and tears begin to flow freely. But I dont feel so alone anymore. Even though I know in my heart of hearts that he and I are of the same Oneness, I have sat and listened to him for two days now and I have watched him and there is a part of me that is in awe. There has been so much turmoil in my life, especially in the past few months and I have felt sad and somewhat disconnected. I am blessed. Is it all in my mind? Is it an illusion? Who cares? I am blessed.
Garden of One
"God is merely an image - the symbol of love."
Shri Gurudev Chitrabhanu
I do not want to have to pay for the room for Sunday, so I stuff all my stuff into the suitcases and bags. I will worry about the mess later. But I carefully set aside what I will need for the rest of the day. I want to get over to the Expo center as the early morning session will include speakers from a variety of paths. I check out, go to my car and shove everything in. The bus is waiting to go, so I get on and I am on my way for the last of my Dharma days.
And another lesson or two in Dharma. Ah, Dharma. So, what is Dharma anyway? What have I learned? When I first registered for the seminar, we were asked to fill out a brief questionnaire. One of the questions was, multiple choice...Do you think Dharma in everyday life is 1. Very relevant 2. Moderately relevant. 3. Not relevant. I check off Number one. To the young man who handed me the paper, I would like to amend my answer, please. Dharma IS everyday life. It is the everyday, even the mundane manifestation of Divine in each of us. In how we act towards one another, with amity, or with adharma. While the choice is ours, the effect is karma.
It is not Hindu dogma, limited to those who wish to call their path Hindu or Buddhist. It is the universal, eternal truth, applying to every flower in the Garden of One. This was never more evident in the conference than the day that the stage was graced by Jain, Hindu, Theosophist, Buddhist, Jewish Rabbi, Pagan, Native American Indian, Sikh, Zoroastrian and the United Nations. Each spoke of dharma in the language of these paths.
No written scriptures, but oral traditions instead, the native American presence on the stage is in the form of S.D. Youngwolf, Cherokee storyteller and artist. " Walk a good road. Live in a sacred way. Walk in beauty. Before you pray for yourself, pray for others. We are living in paradise. It is within us. It is all around us. The world is a circle...we are All connected." Oh, yes, Sri Youngwolfji, We Are All Connected, seamlessly at the Heart. Not by dogma but by dharma, of action and experience.
I get to hear Swamiji Dayananda speak again. " Dharma is not a mandate of God. It is a manifestation of Ishwara...Nothing is secular; everything is sacred... There is no need to promote peace-learn how not to disturb it. What is needed is understanding-mutual respect, mutual reverence. We dont need preachers-we need teachers."
One of the many sages who graced the stage was Gurudev Chitrabhanu, a teacher of the Jain path. His energy, like that of Swamiji Dayananda, emanates from him, into the room. While the organizers of this conference may be the youth of India, many of the speakers are the maturity and wisdom of age. The session is too short to really experience his presence-he is only here for this session on this day. So in the short time allotted to him, he speaks of ahimsa. Dharma is to get in touch with your Self and find It, he states. Where? Everywhere. "What is your nature? Your nature is Dharma. What you want you give, and it will come back to you."
How can you talk about Dharma, the recognition, appreciation and homage of the Divine in all, without talking about ahimsa, a word I heard again and again throughout the conference? For if you recognize the Divinity which surrounds us and IS everywhere in everything, then you must see yourself everywhere in everything. But, you must feel it. You can write beautiful words and say beautiful words, but if the Bhakti does not emanate from and return to your Heart, you are an empty vessel of divine rhetoric.
Sri Chitrabhanu helps guide us with his written words, which can be found on his website,
AMITY is the first criterion of love. God is merely an image - the symbol of love. Personified love is called God. Lover energy is God in action. To realize God, you have to give love, you have to be love. Without love, God is not present. The presence of love is the presence of God. Without Amity, goodwill, there is no love. With any trace of fear, hate, resentment, possessiveness, indifference or self-centeredness, love is polluted.
Not only for those who are hurt, but also for the cruel who are causing the pain who are hurt but also for the cruel who are causing the pain must we have compassion. The word SIN means "missing the mark." Nothing so misses the mark as violence, which is as true for the violent word as for the violent deed. We must care for those whose "missing-the-mark" is obvious to us. Befriend them rather than putting them down. Otherwise, we shall be missing the mark ourselves.
Lex talonis, be gone from us
This caring for the cruel is one of the hardest to summon in our hearts. I know this from my own experience. That it is what drives many people became apparent when I attended the session on crime and the justice system. Prior to the arrival of our speaker, the renowned Dr. Kiran Bedi, the moderator asked the group to divide itself into two sections, those who thought that the justice system should mete out punishment as it main objective for those who have committed crimes, and those who thought that the criminal justice system should attempt to rehabilitate those who have "strayed from the mark." I was curious to see how this group composed mainly of Indian Hindus was going to perceive this issue. I was disappointed to see that half or more of the room staunchly aligned itself with the principles of punishment. When someone raised the issue of the death penalty, the atmosphere became even more charged with indignation.
It seems that part of my personal dharma is to address the death penalty. Although my interest in it originally stemmed from the undisputable fact that it is applied in a racist and discriminatory manner in my country, I soon came to realize that people did not care about this little defect in the system- black and white people, educated and uneducated, liberals and conservatives. What seemed to drive them more was the concept of lex talonis, a fancy way of saying "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
Correction grounded in punishment and anger is not grounded in amity, nor does it observe the virtue of ahimsa inherent understanding of dharma. So do we lock them away and sneer at them for the scum that they are? Yes, said a good number of the group. Or, do we honor the Divine in All, and strive to find ways to reach them so that they can reach their own Divine Self, with the hope of salvation? Do we keep them confined for the protection of others, or do we murder them, thus releasing their tortured souls back into the void? Fortunately for my faith in the need for ahimsa, our learned speaker, Dr. Kiran Bedi, an Indian woman who is the Civilian Police Advisor in the UNs Department of Peacekeeping Operations, spoke of hope and rehabilitation.
She knows of whence she speaks. After spending many years as a police officer on the beat, she took this position. She has implemented many reforms in the prison system of India, which includes prayer and meditation for the prisoners. She is able to report that the recidivism rate is substantially reduced. So there is hope. Where there is love, there is hope. Where there is amity, there is love. On the subject of the death penalty, Do we kill our brothers and sisters, or do we reach out the helping hand to them? The decision of how to handle the cruel murderer flows from the perspective of the holder of the opinion. If your Heart is closed, then you will see only revenge and punishment as your goal. If your Heart is open, truly open, you will strive to seek rehabilitation of those who have gone "astray." At a minimum, you will respect the basic principle of ahimsa such that you recognize that tacit approval of killing the killer is becoming the killer yourself.
Swamiji Made Me Do It
All of the remaining sessions are at the Expo center. It is getting to be time to think about driving home. It is afternoon. Suddenly, the thought jumps into my brain. My car keys. My car keys are lost. No, I say inside. I shove my hands into both pockets. No. Then I begin to check in my sack. They are not there either. Oh, no. This cannot be. Why me? Why me? Why me? (Just kidding)
I try to keep calm as I realize that my keys are nowhere to be found. Here I am in NJ. All of my keys are on this key chain, including my office key and house key. It is a Sunday. If I have to get a locksmith, I am told that they will charge more for having to come out on a Sunday. I am not ready to call a locksmith.
Round and round I go, checking where I had been sitting, checking the ladies room, the parking lot, my pockets (about 20 more times), my sack, two more times and I even take everything out to make sure. I think they might be in the car. Maybe I threw them in there and them threw something on top of them, and walked away. I have done that before. I get the shuttle back and forth several times, to check here and there and everywhere. Oh, Swamiji, what did you do to me? But it must be a blessing...must be. I just have not figured it out yet. Oh, Swamiji, what DID you do to me?
It has been two hours now. I know that Chinmaya has a booth set up for books. I really dont want to go there and tell another Swamiji (Siddhananda...yes, it was on his Langhorne Kedar Mission doorstep that I landed some months ago. Bless you , Swamiji, for putting up with me) about this. After all, I had another disaster with my car at the Mission the day of Mahashivratri. Another story from another day :-) I really do not want to do this. But I have thought it out now. Sparing the details, I will need help with my issues if I have to call out the locksmith. I swallow my pride, a big gulp, and go to Swamiji. Of course, he handles it with the balance and perspective of a Swamiji. "You will find your keys," he tells me, as he nods sagely.
Now that I have been going around for two hours, I am hot, sweaty, tired and pretty sure they are lost. I figure there is a reason for it and it is for my higher good. Still, it is hot and I am tired. Oh, and I am hungry too. Well, at least I will have company to eat with. They are not going to get rid of me that easy! So, I go with a small group from Chinmaya, as a woman named Raj chuckles out loud. She cannot stop herself. She grabs my arm and squeezes it with kindness. She was there on Mahashivratri and assures me that she laughs with me, then and today. Gotta laugh, not much else left to do. Eat, that is what I will do. One more meal of Indian food before I go back home to my own concoctions.
Oh, the humiliation of it all. Once again, at a major event, I disturb the bliss and peace with my karmic, I mean my car calamities. Such patience, the small contingency assures me that I will find my keys and then leaves for their respective homes. I get a second helping. Why not? I may be here for another few hours. I might as well eat while I still can. The conference will be over soon and the food will be put away, so I better get it while I can.
I have been thorough in my SOS. So, at this point, the woman at the Sheraton desk knows, the lost and founds at the Expo, security at the Expo, a few people on the shuttle buses as I talk to the drivers and wonder if I left my keys on the ride over that morning, so many light years away now. I assure myself again. There is a reason for this; it is for my higher good. If I have lost the keys, I will deal with it. I settle down to acceptance of this fact. Time for another round of visits to my friends before I call the locksmith. By the way, I want it known that I am not the only one who lost keys today. It seems that all the other losers were finders much more quickly.
I search again for the lesson in my dilemma. "Thats it!" I think to myself. "I am doing tapas for all of the food I have eaten in the last few days!!!" I have walked around and around so many times my feet hurt, and surely I must have walked off a few ounces. It is my third time to this office. I pull on the door, hoping it will be open, as the gentleman there had left earlier and had locked it. It opens...as it opens I spot my keys on his desk. It is very hard to miss the dayglo pink Digimon. As my heart leaps, my body almost jumps into the air with it. A huge smile crosses my face as I rush in and do a quick skip into the air, while at the same time, the words rush from me. "Where did you find them?" He smiles back at me and tells me that someone just found them in the main room where the plenary sessions had been held. Ah, there is a reason and a lesson in the blessing. As a result of my, um, trials and tribulations, I have connected with a number of people who I met only today. I have also connected more closely with some who I have known before I came here, and some who I have met in the last few days. Theres my blessing. A lesson in the flame of love that burns in every one of us, lighting our souls with the Eternal Fire, every day, even in the smallest of ways.
Keepers of the Flame
The Flame of Love that unites our souls. That is what it is all about. In action in everyday life. People working together to help each other. In my case, in my little lesson in dharma in action on an everyday level- Hindu security guards with bindis proudly worn from the Expo security team, the African American woman who drove one of the shuttle buses, who exclaimed " God Bless" when I got on her shuttle triumphant and waved my pink trophy in the air with a smile and who later gave me a big hug, the young Indian boy who took my scarf and tied a knot in it, promising me that I would find my keys, and telling me that I must remember to untie the knot once the keys were found. "Dont forget to untie the knot," he warned me. Do you think he would tell me what he had done? Of course not. He just smiled and told me that he was confident I would find my keys.
The American woman at the Sheratons desk who went out to my car to inspect it to see how easy it would be to break into. Her stepfather had been locking himself out of his cars and she was an expert on what cars were easy and which ones were hard. When I told her I had a Chrysler minivan from 1996, she frowned. The prognosis was not good. The students from the Hindu University who tried to help me figure it out. My friends from the Langhorne Chinmaya Mission who kept me company and reassured me and consoled me and lent me some money just in case Swamiji was wrong and I had to call out the locksmith, who would surely only accept cash. Swamiji, you were right. OM Namah Shivaya.
Joe in the sales office of the expo who went out of his way to get and photocopy the locksmith info and who let me use his phone so ET could call home and say she would be, um, late. Before he could react or I could contain myself, I grabbed his hand and kissed it, then grabbed my keys like they would open the gates of Heaven. Just feeling very thankful, I was. The American Edison police officer who went looking and asking around for me (he told me so) if anyone had found a pink digiman key chain. And who also offered to take me home if that became necessary since he lived in Trenton.
Yes, Swamiji Dayananda , mutual respect, mutual reverence, working together, reaching out to each other with the hand that helps. So that was the lesson in your blessing? Thank you, God, for everything. Each One of you, different skin colors, different religions or paths, different backrounds, different genders, different countries, all flowers in the Garden of One. Each of you who acted in the spirit of amity, helping me in ways that went far beyond what I hoped for or requested, smiling with me when my little problem was solved. We Are All Connected, One to the other, One. Know that the flame that lights your soul is the same flame that lights my soul. Our collective soul. May It burn brightly with the Flame of Love. Namaste. OM, shaantiH, shaantiH, shaantiH.