New Book on Nature and Spirituality
Durjaya Thomas Pliske is a university professor and co-leader of the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Miami with his wife, Drishti. He has been a nature-lover since childhood, and last year he published a book called Light, Truth and Nature which attempts to integrate the spiritual, artistic and scientific perspectives of Nature.
How did you become interested in Nature?
In this life, it started when I was a very young child, probably age 2 or 3, but who knows how far back the roots go. I was lucky to live my early childhood in a rural part of North Carolina surrounded by forests, meadows, farms and gardens. Some of my earliest memories spring from my curiosity about living things: insects, spiders, birds, reptiles, flowers, our pets (dogs and cats) and the farm animals that were our neighbors. I was a very tactile kid. I wanted to catch things, hold them and examine them, not just observe. I learned the hard way about bees, wasps, spiders and some snakes, luckily not from any of the poisonous snakes that are common in the American South. Once when I was five I managed by stealth and stalking to catch a woodpecker by hand in front of my parents and relatives. They couldn’t believe it. “Did you see that? Tommy caught a bird! He just picked it up!”
Butterflies were my childhood embodiment of absolute beauty and soul’s thrill - I became a lepidopteran expert while still in elementary school, and began to collect them. Over the years I amassed a huge collection, but when I met my Guru, Sri Chinmoy, in the early 1970s and began to see Nature from a spiritual perspective, I gave up accumulating dead specimens and reverted to my childhood appreciation of their living beauty. At our Miami Sri Chinmoy Centre we have planted butterfly nectar flowers and larval hostplants, so we can always enjoy their presence - more than 30 species as regular visitors.
How did you become interested in spirituality?
My mother was my first spiritual teacher and guide to the inner aspect of Nature. Wherever we lived, she was the gardener and ecosystem manager of the family. She taught me about the sacredness of life and the natural cycles of the environment, with a perspective that was a combination of Christianity and indigenous spirituality. My father was a biological/medical scientist and taught me about the physical side of Nature, but he left the spiritual instruction to my mother. Both parents encouraged my wildlife and ecology interests, even when I started keeping reptiles in my mother’s laundry tubs in the basement. Once when a big water snake escaped down there, I confided first in my father. He said, “Tell your mother you found it and let it go, unless you want to wash your own clothes for the rest of your life.”
My first contact with Eastern spirituality came in 1960 when I bought a book at the Amherst, Massachusetts, town fair for 25 cents: Yoga Psychology by Swami Abhedananda, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, a great spiritual master who lived in Kolkata, India in the 19th century. I began reading it and at some point showed it to my college psychology professor - he advised me not to waste my time. Still, I found echoes of my mother’s teachings in Abhedananda’s writings and kept it my library.
In college I learned about Charles Darwin and the doctrine of evolution. This was a major revelation. I gradually came to conceive the universe as a single event unfolding in time and space, each part, including myself, playing a specific role in the cosmic drama. I recall discussing my views of existence with one my fraternity brothers, a philosophy major. He asked me, “What about philosophy and religion?” I replied, “I don’t need them; all I need is Nature and evolution.” He looked at me in exasperation and told me, “You’re a barbarian!” I agreed. There was nothing left to say.
When I became Sri Chinmoy’s disciple in 1973, I discovered that the universe had more to it than the river of changing forms. There was divine consciousness within - Love - something again I had learned from my mother, but Sri Chinmoy’s radiant glance communicated and anchored this Truth - experience deep inside my heart. A few years later I asked a question at a public meditation, “Guru, what is the supreme goal of science?” He replied (my paraphrase), “You are a biologist. You must learn to see life in everything - not just in plants and animals - in everything.” In a few words he had unified Love, Life, Nature, Purpose, Joy and my own existence. I was stunned and grateful, and have spent all the years since aspiring to grow into that wisdom.
Over the years how has your love of Nature and spirituality developed and influenced one another?
For me they are inseparable. It is a matter of identification. Guru showed me, as he is showing all of us at every moment, that using our heart power we have to expand beyond our little I and lay claim to our transcendent cosmic I which is our spiritual goal.
As a teacher and a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, I felt the need to begin moving away from scientific research and toward sharing what I was discovering about myself and about Nature. So I transitioned from a research-focused university professor to a lecturer, where my main duty was teaching. I began looking for ways to introduce spiritual themes into science education. This proved to be easier in the subjects of evolution (continuity of relationships in time) and ecology (continuity in space).
Eventually, an opportunity opened to teach an interdisciplinary course called Deep Ecology where I could present perspectives of Nature other than the in the physical-scientific paradigm. My students read some of Sri Chinmoy’s writings as well as spiritual poetry and philosophy from several other sources, in addition to the more scientifically based writers. University openings for spirituality have come and gone over the years, but as one closes another appears. Currently I am concluding four years of winter studies abroad programs in Costa Rica for small groups of Honors College students and looking forward to teaching a course on environmental sustainability and spirituality in a Religious Studies department - from bugs to the Beyond!
You love Nature, but you are the co-leader of the Sri Chinmoy Centre in Miami, a bustling city. How do you make it work?
Well, for me, Sri Chinmoy’s path isn’t an either-or proposition, it’s a both-and deal, provided the activities are aspiring and progressive. My view of Nature is inclusive - all of Prakriti, the Creation, the Divine Mother. Whatever my spiritual teacher tells me or inspires to do, I try to do to the best of my ability. At our Centre we recycle everything, we compost, use no pesticides and have quite a variety of native plants to support the fragments of native wildlife that still call the city home. We grow organic pineapples, mangoes, coconuts and avocados which we share with our brother and sister disciples and our neighbors as food and prasad. Both of us feel that inner peace and harmony for ourselves needs to be mirrored in lifestyles harmonious with Mother Earth. It is a true blessing to be the caretaker of such a sacred place.
I am so proud and happy that Drishti’s journey has taken her from an expertise in health foods, and nutrition, into therapeutic yoga, and now she is completing studies in Ayurvedic medicine, which is the medical aspect of the Vedic wisdom. With her immersion into Ayurveda, we have become closer partners in our love of Nature’s cosmic wisdom and are trying to use what we have to be instruments of service.
How did Sri Chinmoy encourage your writing?
In 1976, Guru asked two boys in the Centre to write books. He said that both books would be published by Agni Press (the Sri Chinmoy Centre publishing company). One boy wrote on Guru’s music, and he asked me to write about his path and philosophy. The title was Human Nature and its Transformation. He told me (my paraphrase), “Most publishers would give you six months to write a book, but I am giving you six weeks.” Guru had told me many months before that he wanted me to use my writing skills. I’d been on the path for only three years and I recall experiencing great inner joy at the prospect but also being filled with doubt that I could please my teacher with so little spiritual experience under my belt. I told my brothers and sisters in the Centre, “You won’t see much of me for the next six weeks.”
I moved onto the porch of the Centre with a card table, my typewriter (no computers in those days), and a dictionary. The Centre had a complete library of Guru’s writings, so I had everything I needed. I just remember typing and typing and typing for hours each day until the manuscript was done. Guru had put me into a special space where ideas and understanding flowed from within and were more or less immediately transferred to paper. I don’t recall pondering over how to write what came to me, only that I had faith that he would give me whatever capacity I felt that I lacked to accomplish the work he had set me to do. In retrospect I realized the truth of Guru had always told us - that whatever he asked us to do, the capacity would be given. I finished early and sent the manuscript to him. It was duly published by Agni Press and made available to disciples. I have two copies in my library; God alone knows if any others survive anywhere. That was 42 years ago, but the experience and inner force that Guru communicated has energized my writing ever since.
When I finished Guru’s assignment, I still felt the creative power that had been with me for weeks. With this impetus I immediately began to write Jose Mariposa. This is a work of fiction, a sort of short story or allegoric parable. I fancied that it was for children, but it has a serious side and could be roughly analogous to the Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis or Le Petit Prince by St. Exupery. The tale grows out of my many years spent in the tropical forests of South and Central America and also of my acquaintance with indigenous peoples of those regions.
Jose is a simple Costa Rican village boy of a mixed indigenous and Catholic heritage who loves Nature and butterflies in particular. He meets an old indigenous man in the forest above his village who sets him on a quest to experience the ultimate beauty within the natural world. The quest takes years, and spiritual seekers will perhaps find similarities to their own sadhana (spiritual journey).
I submitted the story to Guru in the fall of 1976 shortly after Human Nature and its Transformation was printed. He said that Agni Press would not be able to publish it, but that I should definitely publish it somewhere. Over 40 years later the work is finished, and Drishti wants to illustrate it once she finishes her medical studies. At this point I have no publisher, but some of the girls in the Centre have begun to translate it into Spanish. We’ll have to see what comes next.
Tell us about Light, Truth and Nature, and how you were inspired to write it. What effect do you hope it will have?
The book is really a series of memoirs, based on my life’s experiences with Nature and as a spiritual aspirant on Sri Chinmoy’s path, but it has the formatting of an academic study, with footnotes and cited references. I recount many personal experiences but try to couch them in a universal frame, and with a logic and breadth that a technically trained person can understand. Since the essays are partly autobiographical, it is hard to place a starting point for the process. One of the sources of necessity for its writing was the feeling of inadequacy and frustration that contemporary science education evokes in attempting to convey the profundity, at a personal level, of our connection with universal Nature. What is missing is the heart-consciousness so integral to Guru’s message, and related to this problem, is the widely accepted idea that Truth is nearly exclusively the domain of science and intellectual enquiry.
I wanted to hold up an even higher standard for Truth, the one that stares us in the face in Nature and in masters such as Sri Chinmoy, Sri Aurobindo and other great souls whose teachings are embodied and founded upon their direct inner experience. As all the great masters have said many times and in many contexts, spirituality doesn’t negate anything; it only adds to everything. Science would be completed and guided by spirituality to become the boon for humanity that is its true destiny as the mind expands.
I’ve met scores of people including trained professionals in different fields all of whom had a deep love and respect for the earth and universal Nature, but the mental-intellectual strictures of scientific analysis gave very little room to express or even tolerate our pervasive appreciation of Nature’s poetic beauty, mystery, scope and consciousness.
On the other hand, in teaching Deep Ecology I had to reread a great deal of Guru’s writings as well as a variety of other spiritual masters, philosophy, poetry, spiritual fiction and the experiences of indigenous people. I saw it was possible to integrate spiritual, artistic and scientific perspectives of Nature and that my students were responding enthusiastically. I hoped to inspire a wider audience if all the inner and outer pieces of the mystery, heart and mind, could be assembled in a way that addressed both the searching mind and the illumining heart.
As the last version of the Deep Ecology course closed in 2013, I felt a surge of inspiration-power to write a book that would bridge the abyss between the two disparate systems of thought and experience. I started making notes and outlines and drafted some partial chapters, but was accumulating a box of fragments rather than any kind of synthesis.
At this point, I asked Guru inwardly whether I should persevere with the project, and every time I did so I got blaze of affirmation. In 2015 many of the fragments began to cohere and I began to see a vision of what the completed book should contain and how it might be organized. I hadn’t a clue about how or where to publish it, but felt it would have to be an outside publisher to give the book credibility with non-disciple readers. I discussed the project with one of my sister disciples in our Centre, a philosophy professor, and she connected me to a mutual friend, one who had actually been a guest lecturer in Deep Ecology some 30 years previously and who was the editor-manager of a small publishing company that specialized in works connecting spirituality and science. Once I explained the premise of the book, he accepted it sight unseen based on the mutual respect we shared.
Throughout 2016 and the first half of 2017 I worked at writing in whatever moments became available. The more I worked, the more quickly and things fell into place. I hope that at some point it will serve as a springboard from which a Nature lover can enter into a deeper identification with glowing, dynamic and stupendous Creation in which we all partake and which is our birthright.
- Light, Truth and Nature - by Thomas Pliske at Amazon