“I finished the school year,
bade farewell to my family, girlfriend,
and other intimates, and set off
for Japan to practice Zen in earnest.”
by Jnana Dasa
By the grace of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace AC. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, I would like to recount a few episodes from my struggle to take up devotional service to Lord Sri Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
I was born near London, into a somewhat pious though not deeply religious family. As a child, I regularly attended Sunday school and Bible class. Once I suddenly felt the saving mercy of Jesus Christ, and I prayed that he would be my Savior and take over my life; but there was little sense of actual transformation, and the sentiment faded.
My parents were eager for me to have a good education, so I worked hard at school and studied chemistry at Oxford University, although the subject no longer interested me. Satisfaction had to come from some other source. I didn’t like sports or intellectual discussions, and so I became part of a small group that absorbed itself in singing and playing traditional music. In this way I spent my days, sometimes searching libraries for scientific information (information that would be out of date in a few years), sometimes courting women who would leave me for someone else in a few days or weeks, and sometimes trying to immerse myself in the musical expression of a culture that had already practically vanished.
The scientific knowledge I acquired was an accumulation of facts in well-researched fields. I don’t recall anyone’s transmitting a sense of life’s mystery or wonder or of responsibility for understanding life’s purpose. In fact my so-called moral tutor told me at the end of his course, “Actually the most important thing is to learn how to take your liquor.”
“Isn’t getting a degree most important?” I asked. After all, why else had I come to the university?
“It’s not the most important thing. You can get by in life without a degree, but you’ll never get anywhere if you can’t take your drink.”
This, then, was the nature of the elite into which I had been initiated—spiritually bankrupt and socially irresponsible. I entered society without the slightest idea that seeking relief from the pangs of birth and death was even acceptable, socially or intellectually. Certainly I had no understanding that this was the especial responsibility of human life.
After teaching chemistry at high school for a year, I went for a Postgraduate Certificate of Education at London University. The head of the Education Department smugly recounted his maxim “Those who can’t do something teach it, and those who can’t teach it teach others how to teach it.” It was his little joke, but I saw that the men who ran the department were confused about their aims, although they had made a comfortable living for themselves. I also saw that I was little better than they were.
I wanted material security, but I was also interested in the exotic and earthy vigor of primitive cultures. So I took employment as an expatriate teacher in a rural high school in Ghana, West Africa. The environment fascinated me: the vivid colors and patterns of birth, growth, and death, the individuality expressed by the animals, the birds, and even the insects and plants in their struggle for existence, and the emotional fullness of the people, with their simple life and colorful festivals. I joined in the customs of the local people, sought to understand their beliefs as much as I could, and immersed myself in their music and rhythmic drumming.
I was frustrated with the limitations of the life I had known so far, and I longed for the wings to range over a wider spiritual landscape. Still, I was a young dog. I had no higher knowledge and no spiritual insight. My only escape from the mundane world was through music and song. Religion? I was a “reverent agnostic.” The conventional religion I had seen so far was dull. I reserved judgment, but my other attempts to enjoy life seemed more important. There was practically no question of duty to God. My basis for moral judgments was simply that I should live without “spoiling things” for myself and others.
But now my perspective started to change. At college I had doubted the simplistic religious faith of my childhood (and I still did), but now the vitality around me challenged my materialistic complacency. I had the leisure to contemplate the potency of the life force and the order and complexity of living forms and relationships. Where did material science even begin to explain all this?
I could see that there was a supreme intelligence, whom I called “the Lord of Life.” Now, I suppose I could have come alive by worshiping this source of life, but instead I withdrew into drugs and what I thought to be trances of spiritual insight. My attempts to raise my consciousness seemed very significant, although in fact I was becoming more and more remote, afraid, and unable to communicate with others. And joyful, exotic Africa now seemed weird and dangerous. I decided to return to London.
For the time being, I shelved the question of service to “the Lord of Life,” but I wanted to find some sort of relief for my mental confusion. So I began to count my breaths, as an exercise in inner awareness.
Once, someone in London gave me a Back to Godhead magazine, but I couldn’t understand it. In the front was a picture of Srila Prabhupada, looking very grave. One of the articles described the joys of chanting Hare Krsna and had pictures of Bengali chanting parties. It seemed nice, but not very serious, and I couldn’t see the connection with the Supreme Absolute. Once I met a devotee in a shop. She said “Hare Krsna!” just as I would say “Happy Christmas!” Later, one afternoon, I visited London’s Hare Krsna temple, but I saw no one there, and feeling insecure I walked out.
I was more interested in the doctrine that one can free oneself from all miseries by stopping material activity and desires and realizing that both the world and our sense of individual existence are illusory. In other words, “We only think we are suffering. You can stop suffering by stopping the activities of the mind.”
After a survey of various spiritual paths, I decided that Zen was the most practical way of attaining this state of nirvana. For one thing, it seemed to correspond most closely with the experiences of enlightenment I felt I had had in Africa. Also, it hardly required any faith in anything external, and this I felt was good. I had little faith in the materialistic culture and beliefs in which I had been raised, but I had been schooled all too well in skepticism. The principal requirements for Zen, it seemed, were dogged determination and concentration. I thought I was capable of that.
After returning from Africa I had managed to hold down teaching jobs for a year and a half, but I was becoming more and more disgusted. The children would ask, “Why do we have to learn this Sir?”
“Because you have to pass exams to get a proper job.” But I didn’t want a better job myself. Neither the children nor I were interested in what I had to teach them.
Meanwhile, I was becoming more disappointed than satisfied in my attempts to find material happiness. To admit that it was illusory and try to find reality seemed better than to carry on vainly struggling.
I was really serious about Zen. I had waited long enough to be sure of that. I finished the school year, gave notice, cut off my beard and the long hair I had defended against several headmasters, got rid of my musical paraphernalia, bade farewell to my family, girlfriend, and other intimates, and set off for Japan to practice Zen in earnest. Somehow I thought that it would not be very spiritual to fly to Japan, so I took a train across Russia, and it was two weeks before I arrived at my destination.
I climbed the steps from the road, past engraved stones (“Form is just emptiness. Emptiness is just form.”), and along the wooded path to the main gate, where I paused with one foot over the threshold. Cicadas sizzled under the hot sun, emphasizing the silence. Everything was swept clean—the courtyard, the paths, even the mossy banks were completely free of fallen leaves and twigs—but no one was to be seen. Dragon Marsh Temple stood as if transported from another dimension, a dimension of intense stillness.
At last I was granted an interview. The Roshi, or teacher, had many disciples in the West, and he allowed me to live with the monks, rising early in the morning, chanting sutras, cleaning, and sitting in zazen (focusing the mind on the nothingness that is supposed to underlie all existence and activity).
I took to the life seriously, and the monks readily accepted me. After a while I was invited to move into their quarters, and finally the teacher agreed to ordain me a monk. I appreciated the discipline and orderliness of their humble life, with its emphasis on cleanliness and neatness, and in the natural, peaceful atmosphere of the charming wooden temple set amongst forested hills and paddy fields I had the feeling of getting to the roots of the Zen tradition.
“When the mind halts, one has achieved enlightenment.” Now I was on the path toward stilling the mad mind. Every day I would battle with it, counting my breaths or concentrating on the word mu (“none”). The lofty Bodhisattva concept inspired me. Instead of seeking only his own release from birth and death, the Bodhisattva vows to enlighten all other beings. Transcending the limits of material personality, he appears throughout the material world in suitable forms to rescue suffering beings from illusion and misery. Aspiring to attain this state, I struggled with the abominably dry practice, striving to quell the ceaseless agitation of my mind. We had gruelling week-long meditation sesshins, in which we would sit for many hours a day in the oppressive summer heat and the piercing cold of mid-December. Because there was no heating and our quarters were made of lattice and paper, January and February were especially austere. Sometimes as we sat we would feel earth tremors. The buildings would shake, and the warning bells in the eaves would jingle. “This is a test of my samadhi,” I would think, and I would try harder to blot out the troublesome mind. Still, it did not halt.
After a few months, doubts began to crowd in. It was too obvious that the other monks were not at all liberated from material attachments. They ate meat and fish outside the temple’s dining hall, they smoked, and from time to time they would return from the town drunk and with bite marks on their necks from amorous pastimes. Their interest was professional; they had to put in two years at a training hall before they could take over the temples of their parents for a livelihood. The teachers were more dignified, but they also ate meat and fish and were partial to hot rice wine. They introduced me to various aspects of refined Japanese social life that seemed to have little to do with liberation from birth and death and were quite incongruous with Zen teachings.
The most serious students appeared to be the Westerners who visited the temple from time to time. Without exception, either they were baffled by the contradictions they saw in the behavior of the monks, or else they stayed and came to a stickier end. One American boy returned home after a week-long meditation session at the temple and stabbed himself. Another young man I had known at the Zen group in London despaired of attaining enlightenment, went to a nearby barn, and hanged himself in a meditation posture. An American lady became deranged and had to return to America.
I persevered. I was determined to attain awakening and could see no better situation for working on it, although I had doubts about the degree of attainment of my teacher and about Zen philosophy itself. I read the Lotus Sutra and the Surangama Sutra and found that two of the most important personages in the Buddhist hierarchy, namely the Bodhisattvas Avalokitesvara and Manjusri, both recommended concentration on sound rather than silent meditation. Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassionate wisdom, particularly prescribed concentration on the sound of one’s own voice. This started my interest in chanting.
I soon read The Way of a Pilgrim, a book that relates how a Russian peasant reached deep absorption and spiritual bliss by ceaselessly chanting the name of Jesus. The book moved and impressed me. My teacher took me to visit a neighboring Christian nunnery, and I was rather ashamed of the contrast between our rigid formality and their simple, joyful spontaneity.
One of the other Western students and I began discussing, “If all religions are equivalent to one another, what is the equivalent in Zen to love of God?” At first I thought the question would be easy to answer, but then I saw that there was no equivalent. Zen denies the reality of personal identity, both in the individual and in the Absolute. So in Zen it is not possible for love of God to be the ultimate stage, for neither the individual nor God is seen as having a real existence. Here was a problem. Either the personal feature of the Absolute was an inferior concept, which Zen transcends, or else the philosophy and practice of Zen were incomplete.
I did not understand such questions at the time, nor did the other monks. “Zen wo zenzen wakarimazen,” they would quip (“I don’t understand Zen at all”). They gradually lost patience with my efforts to abstain from eating meat and drinking liquor. Such abstinence was tolerable in the temple but too troublesome when supporters entertained us in their houses. “Why don’t you drink whiskey with the rest of us?” demanded my immediate superior at one stop for refreshment. “It’s just egotism. That’s what it is. Everyone agrees.” I consulted my teacher, and he found a small hut in the mountains where I could practice solitary Zen.
The retreat was the last building on a mountain path. Above me were forested hills, and the only sounds were the plaintive calls of Japanese nightingales and the sweet trickling of rivulets running down toward the valley. So I began a new phase in the battle to still my turbulent mind. All day long I concentrated on the sounds of bells, simple flutes, and my own chanting. (I could no longer bear to sit and concentrate on nothingness. It had been driving me crazy.)
But I fared even worse in the peace and tranquility of the mountains than in the confusion of the temple. After two or three days of austerity I would go on a binge of eating, sexual desires became troublesome after being absent for more than a year, and I began to meditate on my family. It was plain that I was not becoming free from material attachments, despite every effort to do so.
Then I went to visit a fellow Zen student from London who was staying with a friend in Kyoto. This friend was engaged to marry the daughter of a priest of the Buddhist Pure Land sect, and while waiting in the house I read some books the priest had left there. The real purpose of Gautama Buddha’s appearance, these books explained, was to preach the chanting of the name of the compassionate Buddha Amitabha. The books quoted authorities such as Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna, recognized patriarchs in the Zen line, who prescribed surrender to the Other Power and chanting of the name of Amitabha Buddha as the way of liberation. Enlightenment by one’s own efforts, they said, is difficult, like traveling on land, whereas reaching perfection by surrendering to the Other Power and the holy name is easy, like traveling on water.
It all tied in! The same emphasis on sound and chanting. The same conviction that silent meditation was not practical. After a kindly priest instructed me in chanting the name of the compassionate Amitabha Buddha, I began the continuous chanting of nama amida bu (“obeisances to Amitabha Buddha”). I longed for the mercy and realization that would free me from the miseries imposed by the mind. I no longer relied on my own ability to reach enlightenment. I needed help.
On the northern side of Japan there are many followers of this way, including a number of people who were supposed to have experienced a complete change of heart by deep faith in the holy name. I made a barefoot pilgrimage in my monk’s dress, chanting and searching for someone who could show me the way to realization. Sometimes at night I would sleep leaned against my backpack, with only my rain cape and broad bamboo hat to serve as shelter against the wind and rain. In the morning I would sit on the seashore in meditation, the rain pattering on my hat and cape and smoothing the surf before me. But nothing could soothe the raging of my mind. Who could have been more lonely and miserable? I despaired of finding happiness in materialistic life, yet I could find no transcendental alternative.
Frustrated and disappointed, I returned to London and tried to pick up the relationships I had left two years before. But there was no point of contact. I was convinced that the aims of these people I had known were futile, but I had nothing to offer them. I did not want to spend my days with people who had no inner life, but I had no real life of my own.
I was becoming desperate. I chanted the names of Jesus and Buddha and prayed often—but to whom? I was not sure whether the Absolute was a person, and if so, who? So I just prayed, “Please! Please!”
I saw that the skepticism with which I had grown up had been crippling my ability to trust in a transcendental life. So I put my trust in the unknown supreme, once again cut loose from my former ties, and went to the community of a self-styled Buddha who was preaching love and trust. But I found the Buddha making passes at the wife of one of his followers, and once again I was on the road. This had been my last hope. Now I was finally exhausted.
In a cheap boarding house near Victoria Station in London, I kneeled by a broken bed and for the first time acknowledged my complete helplessness. “My dear Lord,” I prayed, “I don’t know who You are or what Your name is or anything about You. I am sure You are there, but I don’t know how to find You. I cannot live like this for many days more.” It was a prayer of utter distress and helplessness, like that of a baby crying for its mother to pick it up.
The next morning I wanted to make a phone call, but I couldn’t find a phone box. I walked a long way before finding a row of them, all full. While I was waiting, a Hare Krsna devotee came over from a house on the other side of the street. He wanted to make a call too. “Go ahead,” I told him. “I’m not in a hurry.”
As he tried to get through, we talked. “Where have you been?” he asked.
“In Japan,” I told him. “I was studying Buddhism.”
“Whew! That must have been dry.”
I was surprised he knew. “Well, yes, it was.
I told him that I was looking for a spiritual master and that I wanted to find a community or group who were chanting the holy name.
“Why don’t you come back with me,” suggested my new friend. “That’s what we’re doing.”
He made his call, and we went to the apartment where the devotees were staying. He told me that he was initiated by Srila Prabhupada and that his name was Jagajivana dasa. “This is the Bhagavad-gita;” he offered, showing me a book. “It gives us a lot of information about the soul and reincarnation. Do you believe in reincarnation?
“Yes. Buddhists don’t accept the existence of the soul, though. They say there is no real self. It’s just illusory.”
“Well, if there’s no real self, what is it that reincarnates, and what stops your body from decaying until the time of death?”
“I don’t know. Buddhists say you can t really understand that until you have gained enlightenment.”
“Are you enlightened?” he asked.
“No “I said. “I’m not.”
“Do you know anyone who is?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you think there is anyone who is enlightened?”
“I’m not sure. I think there may be one or two people. I don’t really know where, though.”
“How can you become spiritually realized if you don’t have a teacher who is realized?”
“I don’t know. It’s a difficult problem. Is your teacher self-realized?”
“Oh, yes,” Jagajivana said confidently. “Srila Prabhupada is a pure devotee of Krsna.”
“Who is Krsna, really?” I asked.
Jagajivana happily began to tell me about Krsna, the Supreme Lord. He told me of Krsna’s personal form, qualities, and pastimes and read me a story about Krsna’s cowherd boyfriends helping to dress Krsna in the morning. While one of Krsna’s friends was tying on Krsna’s ankle bells, Krsna teased him, out of transcendental love. Mother Yasoda scolded Krsna, but the friend said he liked being teased by Krsna.
The story was intimate and simple. ‘This is a miracle,” I thought. “Last night was the first time I completely put my trust in the Lord, and already He is answering my prayer. This may be the end of my search. Perhaps Krsna is the Lord of Life who showed Himself to me in Africa! I neglected Him for so long, and now that I’ve turned to Him He is showing Himself again. If only I can become self-realized by chanting Krsna’s name!”
A beautiful photograph fascinated me. A group of robed young men and women with vertical lines of tilaka on their foreheads were chanting and dancing. I gazed and gazed at their sweet expressions of joyful absorption and prayed that I could become like them.
Jagajivana took me to his temple, and after three days of chanting Hare Krsna, eating prasadam (food offered to Krsna), and working with the devotees, I felt greatly relieved of my anxiety. “I don’t care what my family and friends think.” I told Sri Sri Radha-Krsna, the presiding form of Krsna the devotees worshiped in the temple, “I want to love You and serve You. Please don’t let me go.
The life of the devotees was practical and full of spiritual potency. I reveled in the chanting of Hare Krsna and the classes, and I appreciated the prasadam. Of course some parts of the teaching were still difficult to accept, but I was convinced that Krsna was the Lord of my life and that He would look after me. It would be a struggle, painful at times, but I would gradually become Krsna conscious. It would just be a matter of time.