“Of all the human-built places Shan had experienced in the extraordinary lands of Tibet none moved him more than the simple wooden cells he sometimes discovered in the country’s remote regions, in the few structures remaining from earlier centuries. Here men and women had sat through the centuries, engaged in exactly the same pursuit, with the same feelings, same yearning for awareness that Shan and his Tibetan friends felt. He had awkwardly described to Gendun one of his first encounters with such cells as visiting a time machine, for somehow he had sensed the presence of monks who had sat there, three or four hundred years before. But no, Gendun had said, not a time machine, for that implied too much difference between us and them, as if the centuries changed those who sought awareness. It was a bridge, he said, a way of stepping beyond time, eliminating time, reaching for the same plane of awareness that enlingtened beings inhabited, without regard to time. He paused, remembering Gendun’s words, and for an instant wanted nothing more than to sit and meditate in one of the cells.“
~From Bone Mountain, a novel by Elliot Pattison.
About 15 years ago I was visiting my Guru’s Ashram in the beautiful Himalayan foothills during the celebration of Durga Puja, a continuous 9 day fire offering of prayers to the Divine Mother. The 10th day traditionally coincides with the Festival of Rama’s triumph over the demon king Ravanna. At Kainchi Ashram this is always marked with a 24 hour, non stop chant of “Shri Ram Jaya Ram, Jaya Jaya Ram”.
When the shifts for leading the kirtan were assigned, I was given the “favorite” spot of 3:00 or 4:00 AM. Great! I had almost a whole day to prepare, to rest, to plan the perfect melody, to ready myself for my most sublime kirtan moment…….when I would be accepted and acknowledged as a great American kirtan singer…….(Wow, ego can sure be a subtle “companion”, cant it?)…..The sun set…..The moon rose over the Himalayas…..I napped……I meditated…..And finally the hour arrived! As I took my seat at the harmonium I prayed for my voice to be strong and began my melody…… But when I heard the voices singing back to me and opened my eyes, what I saw and experienced will be indelibly etched in my deepest consciousness. Here, under the canopy of the night sky, with the stars twinkling and the moon glowing, was a gathering of mountain people, villagers, who, totally empty of “personality”, were filled with the ancient spirit of devotion. Wholly dedicated to this practice of prayer and song, they were doing just as their parents had done, as their grandparents and greatgrandparents before them had done, singing the mantra “Shri Ram Jay Ram Jay Jay Ram” throughout the night, throughout their entire lives. The vibration of selflessness and surrender was truly breathtaking, and I realized the presumption of my belief that I was a kirtan “leader”. Who was really leading whom? What actually was my role? I saw that I was merely filling a function, being a focus for an hour of melody….One hour in an endless river of prayer, of tears, of longing, streaming from antiquity. And that the prayer itself was the leader…..
That moment is with me always, particularly when I sit before a group of friends or students or strangers to “lead” an evening of kirtan. I pray to let the spirit guide us all, and try to offer my ego, my “self will” to my Guru. “Thy will be done”.
Recently we completed our annual Northern California Kirtan Camp, known as “The Art and Practice of Kirtan”, and I can only say that once again it was a completely life changing journey. Ten days of chanting, sharing, surrendering, crying, and plenty of laughing, as we ventured into the uncharted territory of the heart. Some of our “campers” had the desire to lead kirtan, while others simply wanted to immerse themselves in the great ocean of Bhakti. But everyone put their toes in the water; everyone took a moment to sit on stage and lead a roomful of people in the practice of devotional singing.
I can’t really describe the light we all could see shining from the faces of people who thought they could never sing in public, could never play an instrument, sitting there pumping their harmoniums, singing to God, and bringing everyone else along for the ride. Such beauty, such FUN!!!
Lots of love, and Shri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram!!!!!