In the centre of Bangalore I am able to collect the
three rolls of film I have left for developing. I study the proofs of the photos
I have taken so far.
Relief — at least I know the camera is working!
Lynn flies off to Bombay. I place myself on the train for Kerala.
It is another long journey. Just before lunch the following
day I am arriving at Anandashram, near the town of Kanhangad.
And here is Swami
Satchidanand who signed his welcoming letter to me, “Ever your Self,”
greeting me. He is so relaxed I know at once I will get straight wholesome answers
from him: Yes, they have been expecting me, and Mother Krishnabai knows about
the book…Yes…but at the moment there are no devotees here…only
two visitors…Mother has not thought it a good time for Western followers
to come to the Ashram. He directs me to the canteen.
No devotees here? I’ve come all this way for
a non-Interview? But a little distance ahead also walking towards the canteen
is the back-view of a familiar form. It is my friend of the travelling road,
Charan Das, who I last saw 3 weeks ago at the Theosophical Society, and who no doubt
since then has catalogued at least another twenty worthy incidents for his monumental
book. With him is Richard Willis, who is but a part-time traveller. He has known
Charan Das far longer than I have; they took their first initiation from the
same guru together, they spent much time floating
about this huge country together, but it is the first time I am meeting them
together face to face.
The three of us share the empty canteen and reflect
on the many-splendoured wonders of Indian Ashram life. Within ten minutes Charan
Das has filled me in with the latest Ashram gossip.
He has a list of ten more places for me to visit and
at least six persons hidden away all over the country who, as he charmingly
puts it: escaped the West. One was a nun who is writing a thesis on unknown
women saints; another married a maharaja and has two gurus and a Romanian gypsy grandmother;
yet another works as a doctor in one of the Ramakrishna hospitals and meditates
all night; there are even two devotees of his own (main) guru teaching at a Christian Mission
School — But, he adds quickly, you’ll have to be careful about them:
the principal of the school doesn’t know about their being non-Christian.
Wonderful, but all that will now have to wait, perhaps
later for a second volume — that’s if this one ever gets finished.
Then I ask: Surely you are both not going to allow
me to leave this sacred place without taking even one Interview? — Charan,
can’t you give yours now?-- Do we really have to wait until we meet in
Much grinning and mumbling and excuses.
But I catch a light in Richard’s eye…he
is quiet and reticent, his usual style; he says… Perhaps this evening?
But now we have to rush to see Mother Krishnabai; she
only allows her few visitors into her room after lunch. She is not in good health
but I see at once a radiant figure of self-contained stillness and peace. She
gazes at me with much love and my heart is filled with pain; my mind stops planning,
speculating. Back again to absorbing…such a quiet dynamic force is being
released! And I remember the words of my own beloved guru, Sant
Kirpal Singh, who often said to his Western devotees: Don’t dwell on the
past, don’t speculate on the future, live in the living moment. This is
the eternal beauty, the essence of which no words can do justice: the physical
presence of a saint bathes one in a fragrance not found anywhere else.
Mother Krishnabai asks me about the book, about its
length, about my journey, She speaks about her own great guru, Swami
Ramdas who left this physical world nearly 20 years ago; she prostrates before
his large photograph mounted on a white-washed wall; she presses one of his
books to her forehead and presents it to me. She is the perfect disciple and
consequently the perfect guru. There are no signs of rules and
restrictions in this Ashram; it is all small and intimate and above all loving.
In the evening I walk alone in the simple grounds;
it has a mellowness few Ashrams have been able to retain in the face of inevitable
But here is Richard, and he says there is herb tea
for me in his room should I care for some.
Ah, yes! I will have to go back to my room and collect
the tape recorder.
To start from the beginning. The beginning is childhood,
and we are now in an Ashram that is very much linking my feelings and thoughts
to that time of innocence, before the complications, before the spiritual trip
became a trip. I feel here a purity and resonance with that beginning.
My beginning was in Independence, Missouri. The name for me has been significant;
my main wish has been to be independent, to explore the full dimensions of freedom.
Much of what I remember of my early life is due to the stories and emotional
contact I had with a black nanny. She told me stories from the Bible, and this
sparked my imagination and had a strong effect so that later my heart could
recognize the value of something by the feeling of it… knowing by feeling
From the age of 4 to about 22 I just have to skip
because I fell asleep. I have some memory of that time but I now know I was
in deep sleep. I found myself periodically awake for a few minutes, and of course,
there had been some experience with psychedelics, which were a powerful opening.
But I was preparing for a pure event — the meeting with Truth, one’s
I have to go to the time I was awakening and found myself in the Film School
in the University of Pensylvania, working on a Master’s Degree in International
Communications. I had been trained at Denver University to become an Ambassador
for the U.S.A. Foreign Service.
I found myself working on a documentary film on Buddhism in America, travelling several
times a week from Philadelphia to Freehold, New Jersey, where there were three
Buddhist monastries. My work was at the Tibetan monastery. There was no interest
in spirituality or religion as such — I had turned strongly against all
of that conditioning — my interest was in how such a different cultural
and religious group could thrive in America.
I filmed the pujas,
the lamas, and as I sometimes had to wait
up to six hours at the monastery before I could do the Interviews, I would listen
to the chanting, the bells, the cymbals and the trumpets made out of lamas’
thigh bones. This I realize now was a kind of preparation. All this time I was
fully asleep, moving mechanically through situations. It ended abruptly with
such finality that I cannot now move back into that same state of sleep, where
one sleep-walks, where one wakes up in the morning but is still sleeping.
But how did that dramatic
change take place?
In this way. I had been wanting to film the Abbot, the head lama, Geshe Wangyal. All the stories
about him fascinated me: he had been one of the teachers of the Dalai Lama. He had been instructed to establish
a monastery in America. But he was never at the monastery; almost the whole
year he was in retreat. One day I phoned to say I was coming to film. But the
monk who answered said: No! No! No! not come today, Geshe Wangy-te-la here.
I said: Fine, that’s just who I have been waiting to see! I packed the
car with all the equipment and drove there. One of the lamas was waiting for me who obviously
had been placed there to intercept me. He didn’t want me to come in. I
insisted — after all, I wanted the abbot in the film.
I took the camera on my back, marched to the door,
while the monk was pleading not to go in. I said: Well, if I go in and ask it
will be alright. I walked in with my camera cocked ready and there was an ancient
looking lama, nothing but bones and a white Chinese
beard and moustache. He was sitting at a table upon which was a Kentucky fried
chicken dinner from Colonel Sanders — he was having his lunch. He didn’t
look up and I was just about to introduce myself — my physical presence
was fairly demanding — but when he did look at me it was right at me,
right through me.
He said quietly but with a force that almost knocked
me over; There will be no movie today.
That stopped the whole mechanism of my own movie:
I almost dropped the camera, and the whole fear of stopping the movie stopped.
I was choked up, fearful, an emotional wreck. I put the camera in the car and
drove away. It was as if the whole mechanism, the whole movie since childhood
This was your opening?
This was my opening. One month later I met my guru: it had been the preparation so
that I could accept him.
How did you meet your
guru, and what sort of age were you?
I must have been about 24. I was living in an old Quaker farm. There were two
seekers there: one week-end they invited me to go with them to Washington as
their guru was touring America. At this point
I had no idea of gurus: the whole idea turned me off.
I went as I wanted to see Washington. One young lady intended to ask for initiation,
of which I was skeptical, but I felt warmly for her. My first meeting with the
Indian saint was not remarkable: I saw a man in Indian garb, majestic, and after
his discourse there was a coffee hour when he walked amongst the gathered, and
this was to be the special event. I was standing near Suzie, this friend of
mine. She looked lovely in a white dress and new hat. The Master walked passed
her, then suddenly turned and asked her: Well, sister, is that a new hat?
I was standing a bit behind her so I couldn’t
see her face but I saw her whole body went into fireworks — I saw from
the top of her hat a 4th of July firework display. Her hands went together in
such a state of joy. I thought: If this man has been part of this in any way
he must be something. Suzie was in a special state. Then the next day the Master
was again moving through the crowd; he came towards me and extended his hand.
We shook hands, there was some small talk, and as I was a little uncomfortable,
I shook his hand again, and he walked off. Then people came up and said: Look
what happened — that’s very special — he doesn’t often
give his hand — do you know who this is? The whole mechanism that had
stopped one month before I could feel beginning to wind back; I became resistant
to any kind of interpretation of what was taking place.
But didn’t you
feel any attraction towards the Master?
No, not at that point. When I was asked if I would go to New York to see him
again I was adamant and preferred to stay alone in the house. Suzie was still
in a blissful state. That was my main source of happiness. They went to New
York, and that evening very special things happened externally and internally
— I can’t go into details. I went to bed early and began hearing
crickets outside; the sound was so brilliant that I became entranced by the
sound and found that in that cricket noise I heard a sound I had not heard before,
yet I knew it. Following that sound led me to a profound experience which I
cannot relate — it’s too, well… That experience lasted a great
portion of the night — it involved inner sound and light, which are the
main teachings of this guru. I was confused the next day as
to whether I could rely on that experience; I consulted a friend, an older disciple
of this guru. He was able, without feeding the
ego machine in me, to suggest that what had happened might have been related
to the meeting with the guru as this in fact is his teaching.
I had not read any of his books so I didn’t know anything about his yoga.
Surely you must have
then been able to accept that as a real experience?
You see, the machine moved back in. Over the next few months I experienced a
simultaneous movement of both the spiritual awakening magnetic force, and along
side it the movement of the ego — they were both in strong animation.
The very next day I spontaneously decided to leave Graduate School, chuck my
scholarship and my parents’ expectations. I felt the need to move immediately.
I packed whatever small things I could into the back of my car, and without
a notion of what to do, left. Nothing behind me made any sense — the school,
the expectations, the Foreign Service. And yet I wasn’t relating all this
to the Master. But I found myself again and again coming into contact with him
as I moved; first at Chicago to tell my parents — and there he was. The
ego said: All right, as long as he’s here we might as well go. And we
did; but just as suddenly when I returned to my parents house I told them I
would be leaving in the morning for Minniapolis.
And that started the journey following the Master
on what was left of his tour. It ended in Los Angeles, and I had been appointed
to photograph him during a coffee hour there. At this time the ego mechanism
and the divine mechanism were moving equally; I was able to now experience him
as a being. I was moving about in the crowd very much like a sports or high-fashion
photographer snapping, crouching, moving in and out. At one point I was focusing
my tele-photo lens; I could see the Master in the box, his face was getting
larger and larger, I kept readjusting the lens into short distance until he
just went right out of the lens. I put down my camera and he was looking right
at me. He said: Have you taken enough pictures? The camera again almost fell
out of my hands. That was enough. They were his last words to me — he
left the following day.
So you still hadn’t
Oh, no! I found myself in California with little money, nothing to do, no friends,
but at the start of one of the most beautiful periods of my life. That is a
period that most seekers must go through after finding their heart’s desire.
Everything becomes so easy once you recognize what your heart has been seeking:
suddenly life accommodates you in a gracious way. I knew I had to leave Los
Angeles — it wasn’t a healthy place. I moved north to Big Sur(1)
and within one hour of arrival I met an old friend who gave me a job as a dish-washer
and a place to stay. Then my spiritual life started. There was the time to begin
meditation and the enquiry into the Self. That was eleven years ago. Over the
next year it was a moving into myself to allow each of my parts to accept what
the heart knew instantly. The mind began to recognize the purity of the teachings,
the body had to be purified, and then after a year I asked for initiation.
I presume it was not
in the physical presence of the guru. Can you say how it was given?
It was given through one of the Master’s American representatives, with
the Master’s consent and power. It is the initiation into the Divine Names
of the Lord, and the technique of meditation on the inner light and sound. That
brought me to a stage which most seekers know about; I was immediately thrown
into great, great difficulties.
Can you describe some
At first there is bliss, such ease, such grace. Then there comes the ending
of childhood and the realities of adulthood. For me it was the ending of the
amount of karma one has to move through.
You prefer not to mention
your guru’s name?
I feel what I am trying to say here needs to be understood in terms of a disciple’s
experience in himself rather than a reflection on the guru. So the name might not even be mentioned
— you cannot judge a Master from his disciples. In my experience almost
all the enjoyment and bliss of meditation suddenly ended after I was initiated;
I was confronted with hard work. I faced it by perseverance and adding more
hours to meditation. This lasted two years.
How many hours did you
put in daily?
About six hours — at that point I had no job. Someone who had recognized
the importance of this stage offered enough money for me to live on. I accepted
this as a grace until suddenly I had the desire to see the Master again. I wrote
to him in India; his reply was: You can come for a visit when you can pay for
the ticket with money earned by your own labour. That threw me into another
shock of then having to move into life again.
Did it take long to earn
Again it was easily provided. Within a month I met a man involved in a form
of healing. I became his student, and after a short time was able to do this
work and secure my plane ticket.
What were your first
impressions of India and your guru’s Ashram?
It had been almost five years since I had seen him. But I came without the intention
of seeing him for the simple reason that I had not been given permission. Yet
I was drawn in a very strong way — this was in 1975 — I was hoping
to see him on his travels in India. I lived with Tibetans in Dharamsala working
with the doctors as I had taken a profession in healing. Then I was able to
attend a satsang
given by my guru in Northern India, and somehow an
Interview was arranged; I met him, and he suggested I come to see him at his
Ashram. So through his invitation I was allowed to visit him. What happened
then I must relate as it involves so much of what took place in the five years
Experiencing the guru who is Truth and Perfection, and
somehow knowing that, the completion, the beauty of what the heart has been
waiting for; yet almost equally, there was the mechanism which saw itself from
such a distance from that, in a state of incompleteness and impurity. In the
few days I was with him he seemed to activate both: the light was there, but
behind it the tremendous darkness upon which the lie of our psychology is based
— the separateness from that.
It came to a point where Charan Das and I went to
see the Master for an Interview. We expressed our faith in him — and yet
that was a lie because if you trust, you trust — the question was: What
to do with the separation. Our question was to formulate this split: The guru is perfect but what do we do day-to-day?
You will say meditate, grace is there. Yes… but… And it was that
“but” that causes so much trouble. Guru is there, is there a need for a
teacher? His reply momentarily stopped all of that — it may not be clear
from the words but you may catch the feeling. He looked very sternly at both
of us and said: Be straight with me, brothers, what is it you want? That question
was like a knife: devastation! The question cut through the split many of us
have. When we left we were crying.
You never tried to answer
No. What we were wanting was a teacher also — may be that was wanting
the penny and the cake. I feel the guru responded perfectly, but his response
brought such pain. To give this a positive turn: we went the next day for five
minutes to say we were leaving — we were both frightened to see him again
but he looked at us with such love — he beamed. We were so touched by
his warmth, the brightness of that moment. He sent us away in such a beautiful
way. Now, all that established a movement in my life in the following years.
I feel the way a guru works is by telling us: Ask the
questions, but learn to love the questions and wait for the answers; wait until
they move into you by response when you are ready. His answer to that question
was letting me live the answer which took five years. It was a search for teachers,
knowing that from the first moment the heart recognized its guru. Yet it took me on a search through
India and the West to find what to do with the psychological sides of my being.
Can you name some of
the teachers who influenced you, who helped you?
We were still looking outside — there. There meaning when the guru is not here. Well, we put out the
map of India — yes, Swami
Shyam is up here in Kulu, he’s very strict, we could be meditating fifteen
hours a day, eating once, and he would beat us for not doing enough sadhana.
Then there was the change to come here to this Ashram where we are now sitting
because it is more relaxed — maybe it would open the devotional side.
And that map was the materialization of the confusion in our own brains.
We sat in New Delhi three days looking at it. Then
we heard that one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers was in Delhi, so
through some Tibetan friends we went to see him. He was nothing but skin and
bones. We prostrated. His eyes were closed most of the time, but there was a
lovely smile. We had come with this great build-up of psychological confusion
and to ask him what we should do. We were bubbling up to ask. What did he do?
— Oh, do you know my friend in New York? Yes! Yes! I had to say —
she was in my film. Oh, you know Geshe Wangyal? So we had small talk, but behind
it was this tension — I need to ask this question!
At last, at last we could put out our dilemma. What
did he do? — he closed his eyes, went into silence, then gave us some
sweets — candy! I was raging. He made a motion that signaled it was time
to leave — he still had his eyes closed. We started walking to the door,
then he said: Think of others more than yourselves. The machine was saying:
Yes, that is a very Buddhist thing to say — very nice — but…
His eyes were open and he must have heard this mental chatter, so he said it
again. This time it was like a loving wave with such a softness it bathed us
completely, and all this thinking stopped. We walked out, got on a bus —
you know Indian buses: 200 people in a space for 30 — and we had to stand
in the front. And I remember looking back at that sea of faces, those clear
eyes looking back at us; such a feeling of being right there. Yes, you give
out or give up. It was the most beautiful bus ride.
But did that solve all
Well, in that crowded bus there was such warmth, there was no need to make one’s
space. We carried that energy. But again we started creating roles — Oh,
no! This was perhaps the next day. But we also carried the shock — these
are not normal events. But we did understand that to answer our question the
motive must not be a selfish one.
Have you not come across
some Ashrams lacking in organization, restrictions, rules and regulations? Look
how perfect this Ashram is.
The one here is a good example because the personality aspect of the guru is very laid-back — he was
a subtle and subdued personality. Let’s face it, there are not many like
that. Here one feels something of real value; it is very much needed, especially
for Western devotees. Here one is free to bring within oneself one’s own
response to the Path, to one’s guru. And that is not interfered with
by a conflicting discipline. At an inner level it actually creates more of a
demand as the individual has to respond to his own idea of spirituality. Mother
Krishnabai, whose whole life was devotion to her own guru, Swami
Ramdas, is a great inspiration. You ask her a question and her response can
only be in terms of what Ramdas has given to her. Here there is something strong
in integration without being strong in projection, without the need to convince,
without the need to establish an order, a rule. Very few of us are interested
in becoming individuals, in the sense of making the Path our own. This is perhaps
because of the strong personality aspect of the guru, and because of our own misunderstanding
of our relationship to the guru.
You said you spent some
time in Europe. What did you do there?
I went to Frankfurt, Germany, the most dense place in the West — the heart
of the machine. I had $100. It was just trust. The plane had stopped in Frankfurt
on the way back to the States, and I suddenly felt I had to be there. I was
able to get out; I was guided, and within six months the conditions were such
that I was asked to bring a kind of teaching — a form of healing method
— so I worked with the idea of expanding the circle. When one establishes
a group there needs to be some kind of teaching; the Master let me answer my
question by letting me become a sort of teacher.
So in fact a group was
set up and you had followers?
The attempt was not to do that — it happened.
Since your return to
India, what have you been doing?
The return is so much different. I feel very free this time; I am not playing
the game of looking for teachers — I am imbibing the spirituality here.
My aim is to realize the Master within. I am recognizing how he works in me,
by intuition, by feeling. Here spirituality is more accessible if you penetrate
the resistances, the hardships, and so on. You can work through the personality
level in which you are free of most of the expectations — yes —
opening yourself and being here without looking for something. The guru had always told me in so many ways:
What you find here you can find there. So I have found the way to pure being
is to be pure. The way to the guru is to become the guru. I am not looking for anything,
but it is my preference to be with those who are spiritually attuned and honest.
To be near the guru, certainly that’s important,
to see him just around. The East has something but you don’t always find
it so quickly.
It is already 10 p.m. the time lights go out for the
night in most Ashrams, but Charan Das is either moved by Richard’s life-story
or by too much herb tea: he announces he will now give HIS Interview. Why wait
After midnight when we stop for yet more tea I realize
we have only covered the first few years of Charan Das’ life in India.
No use asking Charan Das to abbreviate; and why should he? No one else in the
rest of this incredible country has passed through so many barely credible excitements.
So meticulous is he, from time to time he pauses to make sure I write the correct
spelling in my note-book of people and places he is talking about.
And one of the most intriguing of his mannerisms is
the way he constantly refers to himself as “we”. Never: I did this
and I found that…But: “We” left early as”we” needed…
He has used this form for so long it comes natural to him and no longer surprises
those who know him.
At 2.30 he has finished; we are all stunned, breathless,
so much has been covered, and in such detail. For the past 7 or 8 years Charan
Das has rarely stayed in one place longer than a week. Unlike most travelling
yogis in India he is able to pay his
way - his parents set up a trust fund for his use; if he lives rough, it’s
by choice. He has much to describe, far more than anyone else I have recorded
so far. But I am beginning to think Charan Das needs half a book to himself.
I know I will be forced to trim some of the longer Interviews when it comes
to transcribing them, but with Charan Das, he offers a different challenge.
Charan Das has had such a spectacularly eventful Ashram-to-Ashram,
guru-to-guru life, and his memory being flawless,
the smallest detail is treasured like the thrill a collector of rare stamps
must feel on opening a half-forgotten envelope and a set of gems pops out. Somewhere
half lost there’s a trunk full of Charan Das’ notebooks crammed
with lists of dates, meetings, journies, but tonight there’s obviously
no need to refer to any of them. His movements across this vast continent don’t
simply cover all the major religious festivals like the Kumbha Melas he attended
where up to 10 million pilgrims gather to bathe in the sacred River Ganges,
but every bus journey or treck taken to the most isolated retreat so that he
can get the darshan of a saintly figure he wants
to meet. In the end, this dazzling display of detail tells us much of the adventure,
risks, restlessness that makes Charan Das so fascinating, but one can’t
help longing to hear more about the spiritual wealth he may have gained from
this shopping-list of Ashram-hopping. The dizzy-making constant movement with
its visual and mental stimulation, to say nothing of any spiritual nourishment,
surely needs time to assimilate and digest.
When Charan Das, in his early days, received initiation
into the Surat Shabd yoga from Maharaj Charan Singh of Beas, as a tribute
to his guru he adopted the name Charan Das.
This translates as The Servant of Charan. To serve one’s guru requires nothing except to obey
his instructions, which in the Beas Radha Soami teachings, means purifying one’s
life, standing on one’s own feet, and sitting still to meditate a fixed
number of hours each day. As far as I understand, definitely not to jump about
chasing other gurus, other teachings, or other places
of spiritual interest. To collect and document what may be considered important
material for a book certainly requires an amount of travel -- I am currently
caught up in this myself. Charan Das has a noble project underway, but he has
adopted this constant movement as a way of life and is unaffected by, indeed
thrives on the upheaval. Somehow it seems impossible to imagine Charan Das ever
reaching contentment through chasing after this endless cornucopia of excitements.
But it is his chosen path. It must be right for him.
The marathon recording session now finished, I am longing
to get to my room. But Richard is offering more tea, and Charan Das is starting
to tell us another incident – one he missed.
The tape recorder has been turned off…but sorry…I
just have to crawl away, hit the stringbed, surrender to…Goodnight…
Charan Das travelling light
A few hours after Charan had given his marathon Interview,
bright as ever, he left by bus for Poona; I am to meet him there at the Christa
Ashram in a few days. He gives me a last-minute message of greeting to a friend
– an Australian Swami
– in the Bombay Ashram of Swami
Muktananda. This special friend will, he says, certainly be of help when I get
there. But first I must take the local train to Mangalore and from there the
plane direct to Bombay. It cuts out a circuitous tiring train journey; I am
feeling distinctive signs of physical exhaustion, the need for more time for
reflextion, and perhaps a little less excitement.
Mother Krishnabai died a few years after my visit to her love-permeated
Ashram. The spiritual work passed most appropriately to Swami
Satchidanand who I presume still signs his letters, “Ever your Self”.
Richard Willis is now resident in Switzerland, married and established
as a spiritual teacher and therapist in the Zurich area where he has lived
for many years. More recently he has blossomed as a film-maker and an accomplished
rock and folk guitarist.