January-February 2005

When the Bhagavan of the Kolkata Vedanta ashram,

Interrupted my sentence,

That began with “I believe…”

He asserted,

“You only believe, I know !”

But he does not understand,

That faith is neither

Belief, nor knowledge.

*          *          *

The florescent lights

in the waiting room,

of Kolkata International Airport

Shed the cold light,

of fear and insecurity.

*          *          *

The hope of the world lies,

In the fullness of life,

That cannot arise under this

Global economic system,

Predicated on death.

*          *          *

How can you say

you love humanity,

when you don’t love each?

For there is no “humanity”

apart from each.

*          *          *

To say “I know”

the supreme truth

is a contradiction in terms.

“I know” implies two,

you and truth.

You do not know it,

you are it.

*          *          *

When you realize the truth within,

you become your own master,

and go out from the facilitator,

who then becomes of no consequence.

*          *          *

The truth is spread out,

Before us in a world,

So beautiful, so varied,

So divine —

But humans do not see it.

What is human liberation,

But to enjoy this meal,

In the living present?

*          *          *

The sea that caresses the beach,

This night,

Breaks with gentle breezes,

On the smooth beach sand.

The tsunami that tore,

This restful Sri Lankan shore,

Two weeks hence,

Is but a memory

Even in the hearts,

Of the survivors.

*          *          *

A beautiful girl,

Sitting in a restaurant in Colombo,

With her mother and grandparents,

Caught in a network

Of social restraints,

Beyond belief.

*          *          *

Setsubun is a Japanese festival,

And an Oomoto festival,

In which joy and reverence,

Mingle effortlessly,

In the snowy night.

*          *          *

One hundred priests in snow-white robes,

And one hundred maidens with them on the stage,

Sit with straightened upright backs,

To purify the sins of Oomoto followers,

From around the world.

*          *          *

The snow falls gently,

On the lighted paper lanterns,

Along the walkways,

Of Oomoto in Ayabe.

Gentle men and women,

Smile and chat – and pray

The whole night long.

*          *          *

We follow the priests and the maidens,

With their white robes and fiery torches,

Through the streets of Ayabe,

To the river —

Where many slips of paper,

Float our prayers back to God.

*          *          *

I ask many questions,

About the relation to the Ancestors,

But the answers,

Clear and simple as they are,

Leave me sitting here alone,

In perplexity and awe.

*          *          *

All the town dignitaries,

At dinner with the Mayor,

Where jet-black suits,

And drink beer and sake,

In celebration of

The blackness of their suits.

*          *          *

The priest at the top of the stairs,

Flips his grass whip with a flourish,

To purify believers,

Entering the sanctuary.

As paper lanterns glow outside,

In the falling snow.

*          *          *

The heat from the space heaters,

And bonfires,

throughout the grounds,

Cannot match the warmth radiated,

By the faithful.

*          *          *

The Fifth Spiritual Leader,

Takes obvious delight,

In tossing handfuls of beans,

Into the crowds of believers,

Who collect the grains,

To take home,

For some purpose that cannot be explained,

But nevertheless,

Is very important.

* * *

The fields of Bangladesh

Heavy in the morning fog,

Move cumbrously,

Under the weight of customs,

And a deep ocean,

Of religious emotions.

*          *          *

The TV in front of the bus,

Moving northward from Chittagong to Dhaka,

Flashing images of young people,

Dancing to the tune of sensuality and lust,

Draws the attention of these Moslem men,

Who struggle to realize

The freedom of sensuality,

Within the chains of tradition.

*          *          *

The commercial onslaught,

In images of imbecilic wealth,

Lights the night streets of Dhaka City,

Above the blue plastic coverings,

Of the Pavement dwellers.

*          *          *

Why do you say

there is no God,

when you look each day

into many human faces?

*          *          *

The immense contradictions,

Between western commercial

glorification of sex,

And the Islamic austerity,

so powerful in Bangladesh,

Create psychic tensions

Portending social upheavals,

Beyond belief.

*          *          *

A conversation begins hesitatingly,

With a beautiful Bangladesh girl,

The airport lines, no longer tedious,

As she tentatively decides,

Whether it is safe to proceed.

*          *          *

The mystery of beauty,

In a woman’s face,

Reveals the ecstatic,

Impetuosity and risk,

Erupting, ever renewed,

From the depths of existence.

The dark eyes smiling,

From a beautiful face,

Make me understand,

That transformation can happen,

Any time, any place.

*          *          *

On this bench,

In a Colombo beach-front park,

Young Sri Lankan men,

Periodically sit down,

And attempt to begin a conversation.

Everybody craves something,

Whether money, sex, or companionship,

As a distraction from the empty hole:

That empty suffering known to Buddha.

Why do they not crave God?

*          *          *

The lights twinkle from the ships,

Moored at the entrance to Colombo harbor,

The slow, warm evening,

Where everyone waits,

Expectant, for something

To emerge from the calm, deep


Soldiers, guarding the hotels

Of the rich, standing bored,

Resting on their automatic weapons.

*          *          *

As we drive back from the mountains,

With their tea-green-white-water ecstasy,

The van gets hot and sticky,

The day passes slowly,

In Sri Lankan time.

But our conversation

About the transformation of human existence,

Never lapses.

*          *          *

The snow falls lightly,

On the Setsubun preparations,

As our Japanese hosts,

Laugh over coffee and chocolate cake.

*          *          *

I kneel to the kneeling Mayor of Ayabe,

The translation of our conversation,

Is empty and formal.

But the connection between us,

Is warm and intense.

*          *          *

Beautiful bundles of food,

Are transported to the alter,

In a sacred zig-zag dance,

And the audience prays,

All the more fervently.

*          *          *

The chanting voice of the priest,

Is heard throughout the Oomoto grounds,

Some people pray along,

Other people sleep,

While the bonfire outside,

Roars in the night.

*          *          *

The voice of the Fifth Spiritual Leader,

Is powerful and distinctive,

And speaks to me,

Of authenticity and grace.

*          *          *

The chanting of Setsubun,

Is a marathon

Of devotion to God,

And concern for the ancestors,

While old people sleep in their seats,

Others smoke cigarettes,

And many women pray along,

In front of the TV monitors.

*          *          *

At 4:30 in the morning,

People are collecting their

Shoes and leaving Setsubun,

With smiles on their faces.

*          *          *

Wittgenstein speaks of the

“Logic of religious belief,”

That does not have to make sense,

In scientific logic,

For the beans are thrown to believers,

By their spiritual leader,

With abandon.

* * * * *

[Return to Poetry table of contents]