Diary of a Traveling Monk
Volume 15, Chapter 10
January 31th, 2020
By Indradyumna Swami
“These Are All Krsna’s Arrangements”
I was on my morning walk on the beach in Durban, South Africa, last week when my cell phone rang.
“Hey, Maharaja. This is Craig! Craig from high school!”
“Wow, Craig! I can’t even remember the last time we were in touch! How are you doing?”
“Just fine,” he replied. “I heard through the grapevine that you’re recovering from a big surgery and I just wanted to call and wish you well.”
“Thanks a lot, Craig. That’s very kind of you,” I said. “Hey, I’m curious. How did you get my number?”
“I met a few of your students here in California,” he said. “And I follow you on Facebook too. You’ve done well for yourself!”
“Well, thanks,” I said.
“Remember way back in 1969? I predicted who your guru would be. And it all came true!” he said.
“That’s true, you did predict it,” I said. We both laughed.
“Well, get better, my friend,” he said. “And let’s keep in closer touch.”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s do that.”
Craig had reminded me of a defining moment in my life. Overwhelmed with emotion, I sat down on a bench. I looked out at the ocean and, wondering at the mysterious ways of the Lord, I thought back to that moment.
On leave from the United States Marine Corps for a month in July 1969, I was living with six of my friends in a rented house in my hometown of Kentfield, California. One evening the phone rang.
“Hey, Steve,” one of the guys called out, “get the phone, will you?”
“Man, I’m watching the Beverly Hillbillies,” Steve yelled back. “No way I’m getting up!”
“I’ll get it,” said Jonny in a resigned voice. He put his beer down and dragged himself off the sofa and into the kitchen. “The darn phone rings all day long, and it’s never for me.”
Sure enough: “It’s for you Brian,” he called to me.
“Who is it?”
“Dunno, I didn’t ask,” Jonny said. “But the guy sounds official.”
“Thanks, man,” I said, taking the receiver from him. Into the phone I said,
“Hello, this is Brian. Can I help you?”
“Is this Lance Corporal Tibbitts?” said a commanding voice. I immediately realized it was a Marine Corps official.
“Sir, yes sir! It’s me.”
“The captain of the local duty station is requesting that you come to see him at zero-eight-hundred tomorrow morning,” he said.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“That’s classified, soldier.”
“Sure. Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there.”
The next morning, I arrived in full uniform at the Marine Corps center on Madison Ave in San Rafael at 8 am. I knew where it was because I had signed up for the Corps there three years earlier. The captain was a serious-looking man in his 60s; he directed me to a chair in front of his imposing desk.
“Lance Corporal Tibbitts, thank you for coming in,” he said. “I have the report of your meeting with the naval doctors last week in Oakland.”
“Yes, sir,” I said nervously.
“Son,” he said, “on the advice of those physicians, we’re discharging you from the Corps, effective immediately. An honorable discharge.”
I felt my stomach drop. “But why?” I blurted out. “I thought I was on my way to Vietnam!”
“Well, according to the report, you joined the Corps with eight of your high school friends. Correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “All guys from my high school football team.”
“And when your unit shipped out to Vietnam, you were ordered to stay back for advanced weaponry training. Yes?”
“Yes, sir. Underwater demolition.”
“And then you served stateside for some time?”
“And while you were stateside, your platoon came under heavy artillery and rocket fire during the Tet Offensive. And all your friends were killed. Correct?”
“Yes, sir,” I said in a quiet voice.
“The doctors have determined that that’s had a major effect on you,” the captain said. “We don’t deem you fit for combat.”
“But I’m over it,” I said in a bigger voice. “I’m ready to go.”
“Not according to what I have here in front of me,” he said, tapping the pages on his desk. “Your father’s deceased?”
“Yes, sir. Last year.”
“It says here he was on the aircraft carrier USS Cabot in WWII in the South Pacific. Says that he was injured and that he received a purple heart.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, surprised. “He saw action there. It was his dying wish that I join the armed forces.”
“Has your mother remarried?” the captain asked.
“Are you helping her out financially?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Son, we’ve taken all that into consideration. Your discharge papers will be mailed to you within a week.”
“That will be all, soldier.”
“But I’m not a soldier anymore,” I said, standing up.
“You gave a few good years to your country,” he said. “You can be proud of that.”
When I got back to the house, I shared the news with my friends. They all jumped up and down for joy, but I was despondent.
“Come on, man!” Steve said. “Be happy! You know how many guys wish they could get out of going to the war in Vietnam?”
“You know my story, Steve,” I said. “Harvey, Jerry, Paul, and all the others died in combat while I was stateside. They’re gone and I’m still here. I don’t feel good about that.”
The mood in the room changed suddenly. Craig, the most spiritual of my friends, spoke up.
“Everyone has their karma, Brian,” he said. “Try not to feel guilty. Karma is a law of nature. What you do, good or bad, comes back to you. It wasn’t your time to die then, and it isn’t your time now either.”
“Whatever,” I said.
I walked down to the corner church and sat awkwardly in the pews with folded hands.
“I can’t remember ever having come into a church,” I said out loud. I wasn’t sure who to talk to, so I directed my words toward the cross on the altar. “My parents weren’t religious, and I guess neither am I. But what can I say God? I’m struggling with a few issues and, honestly, I don’t know who to turn to. If you’re there, if you’re real, can you give me a sign? Some direction?”
It was quiet in the church. I sat a few minutes and when nothing happened, I stood up and left, grabbing one of the free bibles at the entrance on the way out.
I wandered into a local alternative bookstore. Browsing through the section on eastern philosophy, I picked out a book I thought might help. It was called The Tibetan Book of The Dead.
I stopped in a park on the way back to the house and read the first few chapters. I was confronted with an idea totally foreign to me: the theory of reincarnation, the idea that there is life after death.
“It helps a little if you believe in reincarnation, I guess,” I thought. “If it’s true, it means the guys are probably doing OK somewhere else.”
When I finally got back to the house, Craig was sitting on a couch waiting for me. He could see I was upset even without me saying a word. Craig was like a big brother to me. Tall, freckled and with a full head of red hair, he stood out in a crowd. He had done well in school until the drug culture hit and he had started missing classes. Intelligent and inquisitive by nature, he had recently started showing an interest in Indian philosophy.
“Hey Brian, Billy saw you go into the church,” he said. “How about we sit and have a talk? How are you?”
“I just don’t know where to turn from here,” I confessed.
“I think you should look to the East,” he said. “Like India. The Beatles went there. They stayed in an ashram for a few weeks. Look, yesterday I was in San Francisco, in the Haight Ashbury, visiting some friends. Someone gave me an invitation to a big event that’s happening tomorrow in Golden Gate Park.”
“Yeah, what kind of event?”
“It’s a big parade with a gigantic chariot from India,” he said. “A spiritual gathering. People dress up like in India. They’re gonna sing songs and burn incense. Stuff like that. It’s the talk of Haight Ashbury. All the hippies in San Francisco are going.”
“What’s it all about?” I asked.
“I’m not completely sure,” Craig said. “But there’s going to be a vegetarian feast at the end, so I’m going. You wanna come with me? It’s free!”
“I guess so,” I said. “I don’t really feel like going to a big celebration, but I guess I’ll go if you’re going”.
“Hey, but it’s not just a celebration,” Craig said. “Maybe you can find the answers you’re looking for.”
“Yeah, sure. OK,” I said. “Where shall I meet you?”
“I’ll meet you at the event,” Craig replied. “Just drive over Golden Gate Bridge and take the second exit into the park. We can meet at noon next to the big chariot.”
The next morning, I got up late and rushed through the traffic towards Golden Gate Bridge, which was an hour from where we lived. There a long line of stationary cars backed up for at least half a mile at the tollgate.
“Reports are just coming in of a bad accident on Golden Gate Bridge,” the newsreader announced on the radio. “The California Highway Patrol says to expect a delay of several hours.”
I gave up after two hours. “Must be my karma,” I thought, remembering Craig’s explanation for unfortunate reversals.
The next day Craig came bursting into the kitchen where I was having breakfast.
“Hey Brian,” he said. “What happened, man? I looked for you everywhere at the parade yesterday.”
“Sorry,” I said “there was an accident on the bridge. I waited for hours and just gave up.”
“Man, you really missed out,” Craig said. “It was far out! There were literally thousands of people. The chariot was huge! We all pulled it through the park on ropes for three miles down to the beach. Then we had a feast of rice pudding, fruit salad, and sugar balls. The food was so delicious! But you know what impressed me the most?”
“What?” I said.
“The guru,” he said. “He’s the spiritual teacher of the people who organized the event. He’s from India. He rode on the chariot with statues of their gods. His speech in the Family Dog Auditorium was super cool. He began by telling us he was going to sing a song by an Indian holy man who lived 450 years ago. Then he explained the song. It was something about an incarnation of God who lived 500 hundred years ago. At the end, he encouraged us to sing, dance and eat the food.”
“Wow. Sorry I missed it,” I said.
“Yes, but listen to this,” Craig said. “I was thinking of you as he spoke. Everything he said seemed to resonate with who you are. I mean, he was talking about finding the answers to the questions of life. And how we’re struggling in this world but that there’s a spiritual way out. Stuff like that. And when he said his practice includes singing and dancing, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s Brian when he’s doing good.’ Because you like to sing and dance. And you know what?”
“I’m convinced he’s your guru. I mean seriously, man. One day you’re gonna be his student!”
“No way, Craig,” I said. “I’m not even looking for a guru.”
“I get it,” he said. “But if you ever do want a guru, he will be your guru. Believe me. I’m gonna write down his name for you.”
Tearing off a piece of newspaper that was lying on the couch, he wrote down each letter of the guru’s name and handed it to me. “They call him Srila Prabhupada,” he said.
I took the scrap of paper and crammed it into a pocket in my jeans. That night before going to sleep I emptied out my pockets onto my bed and found the piece of paper. I stuffed it into the cover of my Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record album by the Beatles.
For a few weeks, I mused over Craig’s advice that I look to the East for the answer as to why my friends died in the war and I didn’t. My discharge from the Marine Corps, though honorable, also weighed heavily on my mind. I finally decided to leave the house I was living in with my friends, leave California, and leave the United States altogether.
“For now, I’ll go to Europe and experience different countries and different cultures. I’ll meet all kinds of people. Maybe I’ll find some answers to my questions,” I thought.
In September 1969, I boarded a flight for Europe with a friend. We visited England, Denmark, France, Germany and Greece. We were still unfulfilled, so we went on to Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon. I started thinking of going on further to India when unforeseen circumstances forced me to return to the USA. Upon my return, I got married and, with my wife started to follow Craig’s advice in earnest by attending lectures of various yogis and spiritual teachers who themselves had traveled from India with their teachings.
Then, as fate would have it, in December 1970, my wife and I chanced upon a small group of men who seemed to be monks. They were dressed in flowing saffron robes and were singing and dancing on the main lawn of the campus of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where I was working as a gardener. A large group of 200 or so students had gathered around them. When the singing stopped, one of the monks stepped forward to speak.
“Thank you, boys and girls,” he said in a clear and joyful voice. “This chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra is a transcendental sound vibration coming down from the spiritual world.”
The students started drifting away. After a few minutes there were only a few remaining. But I stood dumbfounded by the whole experience, captivated by the young monk’s presence and by the atmosphere they had created. The young monk came over to me.
“My name is Visnujana Swami,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Brian,” I said. “Tell me more about what you’re doing. Tell me about Krsna.”
“First let me tell you about my guru,” he said. “One can only understand Krsna by the mercy of the spiritual master.”
“Who is your guru?” I asked.
“His name is Srila Prabhupada,” he replied.
The name was familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why. It rang a bell and awakened a deep emotion I couldn’t understand.
We sat and the swami spoke about Srila Prabhupada for well over an hour. When he finished, he asked me, “So what do you think?”
“Can he be my spiritual master too? Can I be his disciple like you?” I asked.
It wasn’t long before I was. My wife and I moved into the nearby Hare Krsna temple and, within a year, I was an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace Srila AC Bhaktivedanta Swami, affectionately known to his disciples and followers as Srila Prabhupada.
I had long forgotten the short exchange I had had with my friend Craig after he saw Srila Prabhupada at the chariot festival in San Francisco. But ten years after joining the movement, I went to visit my mother in California where I went through some of my old possessions which I had left with her when I went to Europe. When I picked up my Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band record album a tiny yellow piece of newspaper fell out from the cover. Picking it up, I saw Srila Prabhupada’s name scribbled in Craig’s handwriting on it. Suddenly, everything came back to me and I broke into tears.
I marveled at how the Lord orchestrates for His devotees to come to Krsna consciousness and at how He had arranged for me to meet and take shelter of my eternal spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada. I could only conclude that such arrangements are not of this world.
Srila Prabhupada has said the same:
“Today is the disappearance day of my Guru Maharaja. I was born in a different family, my Guru Maharaja was born in a different family. Who knew that I would come to his protection? Who knew that I would go to America? Who knew that you American boys would come to me? These are all Krsna’s arrangements. We cannot understand how things are taking place.”
[Srila Prabhupada lecture on the disappearance of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja, Los Angeles, December 9, 1968]