By Karnamrita Das
[I am continuing the reposting of this 5 part series as a way to commemorate this month which marks my 45th year of coming to Krishna. This is the final installment (previously posted 2-16-14)--until I make it into a whole book.] Chris had come back from Muir Woods to Berkeley a few times to restock his food supplies and then return, but this time he felt he would stay in town for a while. He wanted to begin searching the library and alternative newspapers for information about different spiritual orders and groups such as the Trappist monks, Buddhists, and various yoga societies. Somehow to have a new life, a spiritual life, and one by which he could focus on useful life skills, being in harmony with Nature, and helping others.
In his second year of college he wasn’t impressed or inspired by his teachers. He reasoned that if he continued his education he would become like they who were merely part of the materialistic status quo. His teachers didn’t seem interested in changing, becoming better people, or most importantly, in their own souls. Chris felt completely estranged from his old life, apparently lost, even damaged from an external perspective, and yet he felt somehow guided in the process of finding his path. It had been a radical, unpredictable journey and there no end in sight, but his effort to find and live the Truth was worth it, even if his material progress was impeded or lost forever. Without realizing and living the purpose of life, what was the use of any other obtainment, even if praised by the World?
He simplified his life by giving away most of his possessions, and began sleeping on the floor. During the day he would sit on his folded sleeping bag before a small coffee table that he used as a desk. It was covered with stacks of spiritual/religious books, magazines, and notebooks. He dreamed of being a sage or monk, what the I Ching referred to as a “superior man,” not in vanity, but in depth of character. Chris had become a vegetarian rather naturally,as that was the practice of many of the acquaintances he shared meals with, and it seemed a more compassionate and conscious diet—but very practically, it was much cheaper to buy a bag of beans than a small quantity of meat, and he just felt better. Studying macrobiotics, he adopted a diet that mainly consisted of brown rice and soaked raw soy beans, leaving him quite thin. By this time his brown hair was shoulder length and parted in the middle, while his beard, though scraggy, was full. His words were few and not always understood, his eyes sad, but his soul was stirring, and yearning was in his heart.
One typical fall, sunny, Berkeley day, Chris walked down Telegraph Avenue from his home on the corner of Derby and Ellsworth Streets, to check out Cody’s book store. He was hoping to find more clues about his life’s direction. As he approached the book store a street vender offered him a Berkeley Barb newspaper which he purchased. Deciding not to go into Cody’s, he crossed the street and went inside the Mediterranean Cafe to drink a cappuccino and search the paper. Taking his usual perch in the balcony, he began perusing the paper, but was suddenly distracted by the approaching sound of drums and a high pitched clanging bell or something—he wasn’t sure what it was.
He grew up listening to his father’s jazz and blues 78 records, and had played drums in a rock band, so he listened intently to the unusual ringing rhythm. It reminded him of the typical one, two, three, jazz beat of the cymbal, but with a slightly different emphasis. As the sounds increased in volume he could gradually hear singing as well, but couldn’t understand it. Intrigued, he climbed down the stairs and reached the front of the café just as a saffron clad procession was directly in front. With the men having shaved heads and ponytails, and the women covered heads, they were rather sensational. It seemed to Chris that they were floating down the street, swaying from side to side, as they sang some repetitive chant.
All he could make out was something like “Aray Llama, Llama Llama, Aray Aray.” Whatever it was, he felt drawn to it. Watching the group continue down the street he smelled incense. As he was wondering where it was coming from, one of the group—a monk of some kind he guessed—gave Chris a single stick of burning incense, and asked for a donation. Fumbling for some change he gave the monk what he had, and was given a Back to Godhead magazine, and invited to a vegetarian feast on Sunday. Their eyes met and Chris felt filled with peace and attraction. That moment seemed to last a very long time, and it touched him unexpectedly, his eyes tearing up. As the monk moved up the street he looked back and said, “Alay Kissna,” with a huge smile.
Chris’s mind flashed back to a time in San Francisco at the corner of Market and Powell Streets when he had first seen the group chanting and then leaving in an old van. It was a year or so earlier and he remembered how weird they looked, but Chris saw them very differently now since he had a vital spiritual necessity, the mind of a seeker. Without thinking he walked in the direction of the singing monks to find out more about them. He laughed to himself as he reflected that the chanting seemed like the flute of the pied piper and he was being called to follow the chanting. When the chanters reached Bancroft Way they crossed the street and formed a semi-circle for singing in front of the entrance to the University of California where more monks joined them.
Here the chanters seemed more focused and animated, and some danced, or jumped up and down. This was a useful strategic spot since it was quite busy with foot traffic in both directions, with curious onlookers. Gradually a small crowd developed. Chris stood off to the side taking it all in, and wanted to know what they were singing since it was obviously in some other language. As if in answer to his question as he looked at his feet he noticed a card on the ground that was being passed out. Picking it up, he read, “Chant Hare Krishna, and your life will be sublime.” On the other side was the full chant, called “the maha-mantra, or great chant for deliverance.” He followed the words on the card without judgment or expectation, giving it his full attention with as much enthusiasm as he could. Some of the people in the frequently changing audience were also chanting, while the monks appeared in another world, lost to themselves. At certain intervals, the chanting would stop, and one person would give a small speech about the meaning of the chant and the purpose of life, directing the listeners to purchase a magazine and come to the Sunday “Love Feast.”
Chris began visiting the temple regularly for Bhagavad Gita class with his friend Joe Gallagher, who he had roomed with for a month till another room opened up. Why Joe had joined him to go to the temple Chris never knew, since he didn’t ask, but just accepted it with a shrug of his shoulders, as was often his habit. He had become a real “go with the flow person,” which is one reason he seemed so peaceful to others and never worried. The first time he was in the temple before the altar, Chris had goose bumps on his arms—everything was strangely familiar and it felt like Déjà vu. This was a kind of homecoming experience.
Chris discovered he already had Swami Bhaktivedanta’s Gita but had been reading another version. He found he liked this Swami’s translation much better and could see the point of the book was to take up bhakti yoga. By reading Swami’s edition and the Back to Godhead magazine, along with spending time with the monks and going to the temple, he gradually decided to become a full time monk, or a devotee, as they were called. The devotional atmosphere felt like home, while the world appeared foreign and alienating. Gradually he began spending his whole day with the devotees chanting on the street. First he shaved his beard, and then tied his hair back. Then he felt he was ready to shave his hair entirely and move into the temple. This wasn’t a difficult decision, but was like moving from one room to another, but a much better one! He made arrangements to distribute his few possessions and vacate his room, and both he and Joe moved into the Temple on February 12th, 1970.