China – Three Impressions
You are standing on the Yellow Mountains in eastern China, 6,000 feet up in the clouds, waiting in silence for the dawn. Around you a small group of your friends are dim figures in the mist, their breath forming white plumes in the cold air.
Huge feathery snowflakes are falling in slow motion like the softest down of giant geese, and you catch one in your outstretched palm to marvel at it's beauty. Below you on the steep mountainsides you have just climbed, giant bamboos bow under the weight of snow and the pines are Christmas trees of white, each needle a stalactite of crystalline beauty. You stamp your feet on the icy path and your cheap crampons grate on the granite slabs.
Now suddenly the mountain clouds are parting and there before you, materialising like phantoms from the mist, the fabled peaks and granite turrets painted down through the centuries in countless water colours and Chinese scrolls, rearing up into the dawn sky like so many lonely sentinels.
We were here to explore an ancient culture, twenty members from the New Zealand Sri Chinmoy Centre joining our international family and Sri Chinmoy himself on a six week visit to China. Bejing, Xian, Nanjing... Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism. We would travel to many places and see many remarkable things. On the Great Wall near Bejing Sri Chinmoy would play the esraj in a spontaneous concert, the meditative sounds of this most haunting of musical instruments a perfect mirror of these endless jumbled hills and ancient landscapes.
Standing on those great ramparts, immersed in the silence of mountains and spirit of place, I was imagining the great armies of invasion and conquest marching across these remote wastes over the long sweep of centuries; marveling at the ambitions of the great rulers and Emperors and their dreams of dynasty. How perfectly Sri Chinmoy's music evoked these great struggles and sagas of our race.
In Qingdao in the half-light of dawn, we held running races two mornings of each week on the icy beachfront promenade above the freezing sea. In our function room later, Sri Chinmoy would personally award the fastest and often read out the times of all competitors, encouraging us not to grow old. Perfecting body and mind through running and meditation to better nourish the life of spirit. To realise God – the penultimate goal of all human life – every part of our being has to become surrendered and obedient to the divine task-master, the soul, the base metals of ignorance alchemising into the gold of a radiant Self.
And each morning, secluded in our function room like disciples or monks of old in their ashrams and temples, we would repeat the solemn and soulful prayer-chants of Sri Chinmoy, eyes half-closed in meditation. Here is a gem from Thursday, January 14, 2005:
O Lord Supreme,
Do dissolve me
Into Your Infinity's ecstasy.
O Lord Supreme,
Do dissolve me
Into Your Eternity's nothingness.
You can chant it slowly over and over as we did, like a Vedic mantra, or you can imagine you were there with us, hearing Sri Chinmoy deliver these lovely words with his unforgettable voice, a voice saturated in the consciousness of God.
You catch the bus bound for Nanjing from the town of Huangshan, a six-hour ride that takes you at first through mountain passes and steep forested hills then out onto wide plains terraced with small fields and neat rows of crops. In the wintering fields, plastic bags flap on bamboo poles a poor man's scarecrow – and the pale green plains recede away into far-off silhouettes of mountains. You sketch a panda on your notepad and hand it to the old man across the aisle, pointing to the distant hills – are there any of those vanishing bears still left up there? – and he cackles with delight. His eyes twinkle and smile at you and looking into his face you know he is a survivor from a world you will never know or understand. Is he one of the old Taoist monks who took refuge in the mountains during the Revolution?
Now you are passing through ramshackle small towns where vegetable stands, bicycle shops, butchered animals and clothing spill out onto the footpaths and streets; onward through small villages where women wash clothes in brackish ponds and streams and dogs lie in the dust.
You doze and wake to find yourself at a dilapidated rest stop. Outside, the driver cradles a small puppy in his arms and the passengers crowd around him, clapping and smiling at his gentleness and taking turns posing for photos. The old Taoist stands alone, singing a song full of pathos, his eyes closed. He is free of all self-consciousness and dissembling and you envy him the depth of his feeling. Then onwards, south through fading light and industrial estates and fallow empty fields and far ahead in the growing darkness the lights of Nanjing are waiting for you, twinkling and pulsing like the heartbeat of this vastness land.
Like a lamp shining through a thin veil of cloth, the light of God shines through a realised Master, through every action, every moment of their life. They spread like a giant tree the pollen of enlightenment and if this pollen falls on you, your life will never be the same. Look at what happened to me this morning. At 6:30 am I was standing on the eighteenth floor of our hotel in Xian when the elevator door opened and there was Sri Chinmoy, standing alone in the lift. He beckoned to me without speaking and I joined him on the ride to the lobby. What is it about such an encounter that makes this so unforgettable? In the 20 seconds of our downward ride in the elevator, Sri Chinmoy simply looked at me smiling and meditating on my soul. Suddenly I felt breathless with the feeling of spirit, filled with light, elevated to another realm of being. My consciousness was catapulted upwards like a dove tossed into the sky to fly, and all day long a feeling of profound peace and stillness lingered inside me. How strongly I could feel my own soul! I could hardly speak and rushed back to my room to meditate. It is hard to describe such things. This is one of the things that a spiritual master can do for you in the twinkling of an eye.
When you first hear the rolling thunder you stumble from your bed to the window and peer out into a midnight sky bright with splashes of colour and light. You go downstairs, out into the street, and the air is blue and pungent with smoke and fireworks are exploding across every part of the night sky, across the battlements of the old city wall and the high-rise apartment blocks, across the river that ferried troops at dawn during the wars and insurrections, across the downtown canyons with their skyscrapers and neon lights.
You think to yourself, why am I so comfortable here, why is it so familiar, have I been here before in some forgotten time and you turn away from the growing sounds of New Year revelry and the dancers in the hotel lobby draped in dragon costumes, leaping and swaying to the banging of drums and music and you walk along the nearly empty streets while the fireworks crackle in the alleys and explode over your head and all of your unlived lives are stirring inside you, all your secret longings squeeze your heart, and all your nostalgia for what you will never be and do tumbles down on your head like the spent casings of falling skyrockets.
I remember well our last day in Nanjing. Those who have not already departed wait in the hotel lobby, spread out along the fifty metre route that Sri Chinmoy will walk from the elevator to the waiting van and the first leg of his long journey home. At 6:15 am he emerges from the lift, sees the gauntlet of his students awaiting him. He accepts this and begins walking very slowly, with tiny steps down the parallel lines, looking at every single person in turn for four or five seconds. "I hope I can see you all at least once in this incarnation," he had said of disciples living in far off countries, "so I can expedite your progress, your soul's journey." Many here come from such places – when will they see him again? – and this moment is intense and poignant. To each face Sri Chinmoy turns, smiling yet concentrated, a lingering, loving, farewell benediction, wordless yet powerful with the full force of an inner blessing. Yes, expediting the progress of the soul. Other hotel guests stand motionless, sensing that something sacred is taking place. In some part of their being they too will benefit from this encounter. The pollen of God, spreading to every heart and life. At the end of the line, Sri Chinmoy turns and waves one last time, not with a sense of goodbye but casually – to the Master there is no separation, time and space are creations of the mind, part real, part illusion. Then he steps into the van and is gone.