Recently, at a public lecture on the theme ‘blueprint for world peace’ I found myself sitting next to a very quiet African man from Burundi. We both took a liking to each other and I gradually learned over the course of several subsequent encounters that he had been one of many refugee children, dispossessed by war and fleeing from murderous armies and tribal militias, that had been the subject of much media attention and outrage. Hounded and decimated by soldiers, killed by wild animals or dying of starvation, these many hundreds of children had dwindled to only a handful of survivors and my new friend whispered of the terrible events that had filled his life and caused the death of his entire family.
Friendships bloom in the unlikeliest of manners and our life paths kept intersecting. On one amusing occasion I invited him to a hotel function that celebrated a happy conclusion to a peace initiative I had been involved with. Nicholai had told me he would be a late arrival, and as his English language was not strong I promised to look out for him. After quite some time had passed I became concerned and began to look for him. Over in an adjacent huge ballroom, corporate types were hosting their own national get-together, a bacchanalian affair where hundreds of suited executives were dining, speech- making and almost climbing over each other to lay siege to a buffet table groaning under mountains of alluring food. A sudden possibility occurred and I scanned their ballroom from the open door – and sure enough there was our lost guest sitting merrily with a group of complete strangers, glass of champagne half-raised to his lips and blithely unaware that he had wandered in to the wrong function and invaded a Civil Engineers soiree. He looked so happy and I wondered whether I should leave him there with his whole new set of friends and dazzling new social possibilities. But I quietly retrieved him and brought him, both of us smiling at life’s vagaries, to our rather less glamorous function.
Nicholai’s heart-rending life had not made him forlorn or melancholy but filled him with gratitude and purpose and a resolve to offer all of himself back to the world to repay his own gift of life. All of the deaths he had seen had deepened him and awakened him spiritually…’death is as close as your breath’ he would tell me. He carried a battered copy of the Dhammapada, the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, and would whisper to me solemnly : ‘Why are we born? We are born so that we will not have to be born again’. He was speaking of the viewpoint that all life experience, if properly understood, offers us countless opportunities to learn equanimity and end suffering with it’s endless cycles of birth and rebirth.
How much joy we get in the company of those with whom we share an affinity of souls. Nicholai’s life had been stripped of everything that most people spend a lifetime accumulating – in return he had won the great spiritual treasures of desirelessness, simplicity, gratitude and spiritual awakening. He reminded me of a story I had heard from the life of Sri Krishna:
– stopping for a night at the simple cottage of a very poor devotee, whose only worldly possession was a cow, Krishna and his dear disciple Arjuna are treated with care and great kindness by the old lady who does not recognize who they are. In the morning Arjuna requests Krishna to reward their host for her selflessness and sacrifice and He agrees – he will take away the life of her cow! How can you be so cruel, asks Arjuna in dismay. Krishna replies, now she loves both me and her cow, but soon she will only have me and I will be the only thing left to her. She will rely solely on me, and in this way she will soon become one with me and live always in my heart. Then I will take care of her every need.
In our own quest for happiness we so often look to the impermanent and outer things of life – later we come to understand that happiness is not another person or place or circumstance or acquisition but a state of desirelessness, an inner achievement, a life of simplicity or devotion to God, the offering of oneself to a higher cause, egolessness and inner contentment. ‘Simplicity is an advanced course’ wrote my own teacher Sri Chinmoy. Indeed.
Nicholai’s wife died of gunshot wounds and whispered to him- ‘don’t be sad…go far away and start again…’ My own wife died of a lingering illness and I have only a last aphorism she wrote on a piece of paper, the handwriting spidery and wobbling with effort, a quotation by Sri Chinmoy: ‘Obstructions loom large, within, without. Yet, like a kite I shall rise without fail and fly against the wind’.
Death and sadness and loss teach us our life lessons and form an integral, indispensable part of our compassion for others and our own enlightenment. Nicholai makes me smile when he says to me: “I’m not sad any longer when someone dies – his suffering in this life is over. If you want to be sad, be sad when people are born: ’Oh, no, they’ve come again. They’re going to suffer and die again!’ “ He quotes the Thai master Ajanh Chah – “ we don’t meditate to see Heaven, but to end suffering”.
This is a guest post by Jogyata Dallas. Jogyata lives in Auckland, where he frequently gives meditation classes for the Sri Chinmoy Centre. see: Auckland Meditation
Photo by Unmesh Swanson, Sri Chinmoy Centre gallery