Saturday, December 25, 2010

Grandma And The Hindu Monk

Special thanks to our friend Caitanya Mangala for sending this to us. He writes in the intro:

The American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton (1915-1968), wrote one of the introductory essays for an early edition of Bhagavad-gita As It Is. It's a fine essay, if you haven't read it. Part of his sympathy with the Gita came from meeting a monk from East Bengal in the mid 1930s, whom he met through his Columbia University friend, Seymour Freedgood. I will, at some point in the near future, type up the sections of Merton's spiritual autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, in which he talks about Brahmachari, as they referred to him, and the influence he had on Merton's spiritual development. In 1968, Merton took a trip from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky to India and Thailand, described in his book The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. One of the people he visited was Brahmacari, still living faithfully at his ashram in East Bengal. The following story by Seymour Freedgood, however, will give you a good introduction to Brahmachari.

I offer it partly because it is a fine, even a sublime story, based almost wholly, as I see it, on real events. Perhaps that makes it as much a reminiscence as a short story. Brahmachari was a real person in Seymour Freedgood's life.

However, I also offer it as reflection on the effect of a Vaisnava arriving in America thirty years before Srila Prabhupada. The sixties were definitely more conducive to the success of his mission than any earlier decade would have been.

The story is in three parts. If you really get impatient, scroll to the beautiful conclusion in Part III.

These events occurred in the mid 1930s, story published in 1948 in Harper's . Anthologized in 50 Great American Short Stories, edited by Milton Crane. I've kept the punctuation as it was originally printed, although it screamed for commas.

Grandma and the Hindu Monk

by Seymour Freedgood

(1915- )


It was only with my old Jewish grandmother that I expected trouble when Brahmachari, a Hindu monk I had met at the University of Chicago, came to stay with us at Wreck Lead that summer. Our parents' house in that seaside village was a bright, noisy, communal sort of gathering place. Located equidistant between bay and ocean - Wreck Lead is a narrow strip of island that fronts the Atlantic and has its back to a smaller ocean of marshes and bayous that separate it from Long Island proper - it was a haven for my college friends. In the garage one of my brothers was always building a sailboat. In the yard and over the surrounding sand dunes our youngest brother, sometimes aided by Ernst, the police dog, waged a constant war for survival over half a hundred neighborhood kids. Projects were always on hand - either a voyage of discovery to an adjoining island or the launching of a new surf boat on the beach. Against those clear Atlantic seascapes the agreeable combination of hot sun, salt air, white beaches, and interior bays made the town an exciting place to visit and our house was always full. Josey, the Czech cook, was never sure who might come down to breakfast any morning. Even more than our parents, whose work took them daily to New York, it was our seventy-year-old grandmother who ruled this precarious menage.

Her lot was not easy. She was a pious, near- sighted old lady who spoke chiefly Yiddish and spent most of her time at her prayers. Out of respect for the Jewish dietary laws and a distrust for Josey she prepared her meals in the basement and ate them in her own room. Betweentimes she made periodic inspections of the house. My two brothers and I usually entertained our visitors, both New York and local, in a small book-lined study - which was also a repository for most of the fishnets, paddles, and overnight camping gear in the community - at the rear of the house. An extra-large window gave it separate entrance. Sometimes, upon getting up from the table, my brothers, our house guests, and I would retreat to this room and find that ten or twelve of our Wreck Lead associates, having finished their suppers earlier, had come through the window and were waiting expectantly to discuss new projects - a crabbing expedition or a trip by rowboat to an overnight camping spot.

There was a fixed routine to Grandma's periodic inspections. Invariably she would poke her gray, mild old head through the door of the study and peer near-sightedly through her glasses - usually they were sunglasses - at the occupant of the nearest chair. "Where's Seymour?" she would ask. To this question there was a fixed reply. "Here I am, Grandma," would answer whoever it was who occupied the chair. She'd peer a little closer. Behind the sunglasses her eyes were misty and uncertain but whether she wore the dark lenses against the glare, or against the truth, or possibly against the glare of the truth, it was hard to say. "What time is it?" she'd want to know. "Twelve o'clock, Grandma," was the set reply. "Good," would say the little old lady. Satisfied that her eldest grandson was present and that the world was still at meridian, she'd return to her cooking or prayers.

Except for Mr. Isaacs, a local Hebrew teacher and Talmud scholar who had recently immigrated from southeast Europe and who provided her with a special link with her past, she had few friends of her own. Isaacs would stop by frequently to give her religious counsel, find her place in her prayer book, and criticize the finer points of her dietary observances. She accepted these ministrations with the good grace of a Roman lady who, condemned to spend her life in a distant and barbarous colony, took instruction in the traditional virtues from a clever Greek slave. Grandma was indebted to, yet suspicious of, Mr. Isaacs. In her conversations with me she sometimes observed that the scholar, coming as he did from southeast Europe, must have secret ties with the Hasidim, a mystical Jewish sect which had its origin in the eighteenth-century Ukraine. Grandma was anti-Hasidic. Yet Mr. Isaacs was a solace. Mystic or not, he at least knew the Talmud. And that was more than anyone could say about the rabbi of the local synagogue. All he wanted was a new gymnasium. She was also encouraged by the fact that Mr. Isaacs, in his frequent excursions into our back room, took occasion to chide my brothers, myself, and those of our friends who were of the Jewish community about our lack of respect for the ancestral values. He didn't get far.

Into this household, with Grandma its titular chief, the Hindu was easily absorbed. It's possible that three years before, when the monk - a delegate from East Bengal who turned up in America to represent his religious order at the World Conference of Religions at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair - had first arrived in this country, he would have fitted less nicely. By now though, after a period of residence at the University of Chicago, he had acquired more polish. When I met him there the previous Easter, he seemed to be just the sort of fellow who could liven up the summer at our house. I invited him at once. It's true that his costume was an obstacle but there was no changing that.

I still remember the shock I had when I first saw him in it. He couldn't have been four foot six. He had an ingenuous smile and protruding, fan-shaped teeth. Around his head was wrapped a turban, upon which a series of Sanskrit prayers had been scrawled in red and yellow crayons. A similar cloth hung around his shoulders. Beneath it was a gray undervest which did not entirely hide a woolen sweater and the tops of some brown underwear. And below all of this a white cotton skirt dropped clear to his feet. These, mercifully, were not naked; instead he had shod them in a pair of blue tennis shoes. Taken together, this outfit was his version of khaddar - Indian homespun - for adoption in northern climates. The sneakers he wore for religious reasons; any other footwear is of leather, which would be in violation of sacred cows. I don't know why they were blue. He also had a string of wooden prayer beads wrapped around his neck.

Such a costume, you may be sure, takes a lot of explaining but I felt we could overcome it somehow. Besides, he was clever and amenable and had a deliciously boyish quality. I knew that my parents, once the first shock of confrontation was over, would accept him as one of their sons. Anyway, he had dietary laws of his own to observe and I promised them and Josey that he'd prepare his own meals and eat them in his room. As for my younger brothers, I knew they would be amused by him. Monk or not, he could give them a hand with their boats. It was only with Grandma that I anticipated difficulties. She and Brahmachari were bound to run into each other eventually. I felt it important to prepare her.

I tried to explain to her, some months in advance, that a Hindu rabbi was coming to stay with us for the summer. Have you ever tried to make clear the facts of geography and history to an old woman whose Baedeker to the contemporary world is the first five books of the Old Testament, David's Psalms, and certain vestigial memories of a town in northeastern Europe where she spent her youth? That Brahmachari was a member of the Jewish clergy she was prepared to consider possible. Her world was full of mendicant clergymen - generally old men with beards, fur hats, and frock coats; many of them, she hinted darkly, were Hasidim. No offense to Mr. Isaacs, of course. She was even prepared to believe that Brahmachari, since he was a friend of mine, did not belong to this ragged company. A rabbi, to be sure. But just what community had I said he belonged to? India? A province of Russia, no doubt. Or further to the south?

"A little to the south," I admitted. "and maybe a bit to the east."

"Not Egypt?" she said, startled. Egypt had a special place in Grandma's world view. It was only a matter of years - or had it already been centuries? - since Moses had led us out of that wretched country. She was unkindly disposed toward the Egyptians and each spring at Passover she invented new atrocity stories about them. I sometimes felt that Grandma felt closer to the times of Exodus than to the European town where she had spent her youth.

"Certainly not Egypt," I said hastily.

She said she'd consult with Mr. Isaacs. Meanwhile we'd wait and see.


As it happened, Brahmachari was already in the house for two or three days before Grandma even noticed him. They were enjoyable if hectic days. As I had anticipated, the Hindu was absorbed into the household with a minimum of fuss. It's true that when he first drove up from the depot he was so surrounded by luggage and parcels that my parents were upset. They replied to his greeting with visible apprehension and eyed his turban, his skirts, and his shining brown face with alarm. For his part, the monk seemed to accept this as natural and tried to put them at ease.

"I am Mahanan Brata Brahmachari," he told them, in the meanwhile ordering the taxi driver to deposit his luggage on the veranda, "a Hindu mendicant from the Sri Angan Monastery, Faridpur, East Bengal. Your son has invited me to stay with you for the summer. Ay, Seymour," he said, noticing me for the first time in the crowd that by now had gathered around the taxi, "there you are. Delighted to see you. Please pay this man."

His fan-shaped teeth shot through his smile with an almost disembodied brilliance as he folded his palms in front of his face and bowed to my parents in the traditional Hindu gesture of greeting. He then shook hands with my brothers, patted the police dog, and clucked sympathetically at my parents' polite but strained expressions. They were plainly worried about how they were going to explain the presence in their house of this little turbaned stranger to their friends at the Men's Club and the Ladies' Auxiliary.

No sooner had Brahmachari installed himself on the couch in the backroom study - immediately upon entering the room he had removed his sneakers and squatted down in the middle of the couch, his legs folded under him, and from this position supervised my two brothers and me as we carried in his luggage - than my parents were inside with us. In the background Josey hovered, concerned about his meals. These, it appeared, must consist entirely of vegetables. No eggs, no fish, no meat. "Not even eggs?" asked my mother. "Can Josey fix you a salad for lunch?" He agreed that a salad would be splendid and the two women bustled off, full of plans. It was apparent that he would have to do little cooking himself.

My brothers and I got on with his luggage. This consisted, in addition to three tin suitcases, of a box full of philosophy books, and a potted plant, securely wrapped in brown paper, which he asked me to unbind and set in a window seat. When my father, who was an amateur gardener, expressed interest in this rather hideous bit of shrubbery - it looked a lttle like the rubber plants which were once a feature of many middle-class American households, but was dwarf-sized and covered with small, dark brown beans - Brahmachari explained, waggling his finger at us from where he sat in the middle of the couch, that it was a Tulasi plant, a bush sacred to the Hindus for a reason I now forget. His abbot had given it to him when he first left India. He never traveled without it. It reminded him of home.

More people were crowding into the room to greet the Hindu but my brothers and I admitted only Mr. Isaacs. It was my hope that the Talmudic scholar would act as an intermediary between Grandma and the monk. A direct meeting, particularly on his first day in the house, seemed unwise. As for our other friends in the house and out in the yard, some of whom were tapping on the window and demanding that they be let in at once, I asked them to be patient until the monk had settled. His trip from Chicago had been tiring and he wanted rest. Later we'd all go to the beach. A boat-launching was scheduled for that afternoon and the Hindu would come along. Meanwhile Mr. Isaacs sat down with Brahmachari on the couch.

It was soon apparent that the Hindu and the mystical Jewish scholar had hit it off. Indeed, so absorbed did these two become in each other that they seemed unaware of the tumult outside the house, where my brothers were preparing for the launching of a long, slender surf boat on which they had been working for weeks.

It's my impression that Brahmachari was comparing the attitudes toward God and salvation that obtained in his Hindu monastery with those of the Hasidic Jews. His order was devoted to Lord Krishna, he told Mr. Isaacs. This meant that it was opposed to brahmanic formalism and put its stress on music and dancing and ecstatic union with God. As among the Hasidim there is a preference for the Psalms of David over the priestcraft and legalisms of the Mosaic testaments, so among the members of his order less attention was paid to the Vedic writings than to the Bhagavad-Gita, a song by the same Lord Krishna in praise of Himself. In short, Brahmachari and Mr. Isaacs, despite their differences in cultural background, costume, and language, had much in common. In stressing the ascendancy of the poet and the musician over the legalist they were defying ancient parochialisms and giving full praise to the Lord. With much of this Mr. Isaacs agreed. He did feel, though, that Brahmachari, if he had any sense about him, should keep these opinions to himself. Grandma might hear. In fact, it was his advice to us to keep Brahmachari and Grandma apart as long as possible. God knows what would have been her reaction if she learned that we were entertaining another Hasid in the house. Especially in those skirts. The issues of the spirit were beyond her. Best play it safe.

Sound as was Mr. Isaacs' advice, it was less program than circumstance that led us to act on it. The immediate occasion was the renewed uproar that now swept the yard. Evidently the boat was now ready for launching, for faces appeared at the open window, my two brothers' among them, and there was no resisting their demand. We must join them at once.

A great cheer went up from the yard a few minutes later when Brahmachari, now clad only in loin cloth covered by a bright piece of turban, and I, more conventionally clad in shorts and sunglasses, joined the launching party. There were hasty introductions but my brothers and their friends were too busy with last minute preparations for plunging the boat, a slender, canvas-covered affair, into the surf to attend to further ceremony. As their only concession to Brahmachari's status - or perhaps this was to test him - he was assigned to the bow. Huge waves coiled up in front of us as we lifted the boat to our shoulders and walked it toward the ocean. In the bow Brahmachari was already perched, a small, well constructed, brown figure, dressed in a brightly colored loin cloth and holy beads, his teeth flashing with excitement, a paddle in his hands. "All set?" I asked, looking up at him as he sat in the boat. He nodded enthusiastically. "Let's go." We lunged forward into the surf.

At Wreck Lead the idea in surf boating is to get the craft out beyond the first three rows of breakers, reverse it without capsizing, and race back in. As the first row of breakers crashed over us the Hindu disappeared. He bobbed up a moment later, his sleek head dividing the waters, still perched in the bow. We were now up to our shoulders in the water and had begun to swim alongside. A second row of breakers rolled over us but again the monk bobbed up, the boat riding lightly under him. He was now working his paddle and grinning. By the time we had survived the ocean's third assault he was definitely the skipper of the boat. "Here," he said, flashing me a brilliant smile as I crawled exhaustedly over the gunwale. He handed me a paddle. "You take the stern." A moment later, with Brahmachari calling instructions from the bow seat, we were racing toward the shore. This maneuver was repeated until even my youngest brother was limp.

By the time we had returned to the house there was little feeling among any of us that the Hindu was a stranger. In one afternoon he had successfully submerged himself in the routines of the house. So far did this absorption go that when Grandma, making her six o'clock inspection, looked into the study and inquired about my whereabouts, Brahmachari - but surely he had been told about this beforehand: could he have got it wrong? - answered for me. "It's six o'clock, Grandma, " he said to her. "Seymour's upstairs." I was later told that she failed to notice the discrepancy and left the room.

It's possible that this happy state of affairs might have continued indefinitely if Grandma and Brahmachari, because of their separate dietary practices, hadn't been preparing their own meals, Grandma on a stove in the basement, Brahmachari on a Bunsen burner in the now vacated garage, and eating in their rooms. They began to meet, their hands full of trays and dishes, on the stairs. After two or three days of this Grandma came up to me one afternoon in the study. Brahmachari was off somewhere with Mr. Isaacs and for once I was alone. For once also she had removed her sunglasses and seemed reasonably certain that it was I she was addressing. Who, she wanted to know, was that old colored lady who had moved into the room next to hers?

"Old colored lady, Grandma?" My grasp of Yiddish has never been perfect and I wasn't sure I had heard her correctly.

She repeated her question. Who was the old colored woman in the shawl, white skirts, beads, and kerchief who had been monopolizing Mr. Isaacs for the last few days?

"That's not a colored lady, Grandma. That's a man. It's that Hindu rabbi I told you about. Hasn't Mr. Isaacs introduced you?"

"Him!" she sniffed. "That Hasid. But he's black," she objected. "You said he's a Hindu rabbi. Can Jews be black?"

The answer to that question would have called for such a lecture on the wanderings of the Jews since the burning of the first temple and their relocation in such unlikely spots as the Congo and Outer Mongolia that I decided to cut it short. "Of course they can be black. They can be any color you want. As a matter of fact," I added irrelevantly, "Brahmachari's brown. Now don't worry yourself about this, Grandma. Believe me, he's a man."

But she did worry, poor lady. I didn't realize until later how worried she must have been. Fifty years had elapsed since Grandma had come to this country but her attitudes, flexible as they may have been to start with, had long become fixed. The point of view from which she judged her children, her grandsons, our house on Wreck Lead, and her grandsons' friends was in violent contrast to the contemporary world of cultural interchange and racial transcendence. Nor was it any longer rooted, except indirectly, in the tight, exclusive, inversely aristocratic Jewry of nineteenth-century eastern Europe. Between the European world of her childhood and the transformed Long Island household in which she was spending her last days she had projected a screen upon which all social occurrences were interpreted according to their Old Testament archetypes. To her way of thinking, for example, every non-Jew was a potential raider on the caravan - Grandma in charge of one of the camel carts - which traveled interminably from Egypt to the Promised Land. In Grandma's mythical world-view the time was always Biblical - either midnight or high noon - and the space was a limitless desert across which she and her people moved. Perhaps you've felt that her periodic inspections of our back-room study, her queries about my whereabouts, and her requests for the time were no more than the obsessive rituals of a vague old lady. Or that our replies led to her questions - "Here I am, Grandma," and "It's twelve o'clock, Grandma" - were a cruel sort of joke. Obessiveness and cruelty were no doubt involved but it occurs to me that what she really demanding when she asked for my whereabouts was the promise that the caravan was secure. That despite the wide open doors and windows and the crowds of strangers, no enemies had come in, no hereditary antagonists of the race.

In retrospect I now realize that for some days after our conversation she looked more harried and distraught than ever. It's true that the house was crowded that week - another boat-launching was planned - and the yard and the back room were again full of enthusiasts. This added to her rounds. Also, it had been hot and for some time she had been ailing. Her illness was diabetes, I think, although she was secretive about it. She also had a leg infection. But I didn't know until the very moment of discovery that she had extended her patrols. Evidently she had taken on a new assignment after our talk about the monk. She began to observe him at night. Since her room adjoined his on the second floor and had access to it by an outside balcony, this wasn't hard.

The spectacle of that mild old lady creeping along the balcony after midnight to peer through a closed screen door and observe by moonlight a sleeping Hindu would be ludicrous if the eventual result hadn't been so shattering to her brave old spirit. Early one morning - it was the hour of the false dawn, I think: there was an unnatural light in my room - I was awakened by a violent tug. I rolled over, opened my eyes, and discovered that it was Grandma who was standing over my bed. She was dressed in a night shift and was barefooted and trembling with rage. "He's risen, he's risen!" she almost screamed at me.

It occurred to me that she might have been cooking all night and had eccentrically baked a cake. "What's risen?"

"The savage! The demon you brought to the house!"

I heaved to a sitting position and now realized that Mr. Isaacs was standing behind her. In the half light he looked as sleepy and bewildered as I felt. Presumably she had roused him first - he had by God's grace chosen this night of all nights to spend at the house - and had only given him time to throw his frock coat over his night shirt before rushing him to me. He too was barefooted and his beard was uncombed but he hadn't forgotten his fur hat. "The demons!" Grandma was now screaming. "Your friends, the demons!" She clutched at me savagely. There were other cries of alarm from up and down the ground-floor corridor as my father and mother, my brothers and Josey, perhaps thinking that the house had been burgled, came running from their rooms. Ernst, also aroused in the study, began to bark. I looked at Mr. Isaacs, who raised his shoulders in a shrug. "What demons, for God's sake?"

Instead of answering she grabbed me by the elbow and almost hoisted me from the bed. There was the strength of ten thousand demons in that little old woman. She then whirled on her bare feet and ran back up the stairs. Mr. Isaacs and I followed dumbly, with the rest of my family crowding behind us. "The Hindu's risen," I told them. "God knows what she means." Josey and the police dog, who now had been silenced, protected our rear. "What does she mean?" I whispered to Mr. Isaacs as we trailed Grandma across her bedroom and through the door to the outside balcony. "She caught him praying," he said indistinctly. "Praying?" I asked. "What's wrong with that?" Grandma had rushed on ahead and was now glaring - a fierce, stooped little figure in her white night shift - through Brahmachari's screen. "Burglars?" panted my father, who had brushed past us to join her. "Where are they?" He was carrying a shotgun. A moment later we were overtaken and passed by the rest of my family, all in various states of undress and each of them armed - my mother with her pocketbook, my brothers with boat hooks and a fish net, and Josey with Ernst on a chain. "Well?" I asked Mr. Isaacs as we hurried over to join them. "What's wrong with praying?"

"It's the way he does it," Mr. Isaacs stuttered. "It's his dawn prayer. He shouldn't be seen." Mr. Isaacs was trembling, but whether from cold or apprehension I couldn't make out. "Speak up!" I said harshly. "What does he do?" Across the eastern horizons of Long Island there spread the soft-tinted reds and purples that herald the true dawn; then up from the eastern horizon shot the fast rising sun.

I grabbed Mr. Isaacs by the arm and pushed him through the small crowd around the screen door. "That's what scared your grandmother," the scholar said hysterically. "He does it by rising himself." Mr. Isaacs was trembling with horror. "She saw him praying four feet in the air over his bed."

Mr. Isaacs and I, our eyes straining against the screen door and our arms around Grandma, who was making inarticulate sounds, now had minds for nothing except the vision of the monk on his bed. Bolt upright in the middle of the counterpane, and dressed only in a turban, his loin cloth, and holy beads, Brahmachari was rapt in prayer. His legs were folded under him in the traditional yoga pattern, his eyes were shut tight and turned inward, but on his lips was a cryptic smile. In a circle around him on the counterpane he had placed his begging bowl, his cymbals, his hand drum, and the water jug, and beside him on the night table the Tulasi plant nodded and rustled in the early morning breeze. Perhaps I was deluded by what Mr. Isaacs had just told me - and nobody, not even Brahmachari would confirm this later - but I had the distinct impression that the Hindu, at the very moment the sun had risen, had floated down from the middle of the air. At that Grandma screamed again and lurched against me and Mr. Isaacs. As we put out our arms to support her I discovered that she had fainted dead away.

With many expressions of commiseration and sympathy we lifted Grandma up and carried her to her bed in the next room. It was into a vastly changed household that the monk descended several hours later when he came downstairs to prepare his own breakfast. The doctor had already come, examined Grandma, prescribed quiet and rest, and had gone, promising to return later in the day. The virtual coma into which the old woman had lapsed after the tension at the screen door had changed into mild delirium. She was conscious, the doctor told us, but a bit out of her head. "What's been going on around here?" he asked, looking at us queerly.

"What do you mean, Doctor?" Mr. Isaacs asked. "Did she tell you anything?" My parents and brothers were looking at each other intently.

"Well," the doctor said hesitantly, "have you got any dark-skinned people around here? Dressed in shawls and turbans?" He paused, no doubt afraid he was about to make a fool of himself. "She has an idea that you've got somebody around here that Moses was angry about. She told me that when the Jews were leaving Egypt some dark-skinned people fell on the rear of the caravan, where the sick and the old folks were, and threw rocks at them. She says that Moses was very angry and told the Jews never to speak to those people again. It's my professional opinion," the doctor concluded bravely, "that if you've got anybody like that around here, get rid of him."

Even my brothers turned pale. "Dark-skinned?" asked my father. "The only one I can think of is a friend of one of my sons, a Hindu, and she couldn't mean him. India," he continued loyally, "is on the other side of the ocean from Egypt. Matter of thousands of miles. Besides, he's highly civilized. Never threw a rock at anybody." They were all looking at me sternly, though. The doctor agreed that Grandma might be suffering from shock. It was only an unaccountable swelling of her legs that disturbed him. She had suffered from this before, he knew - diabetes, perhaps - but it was now accompanied by paralysis. Temporary, of course. Keep her off her feet and under sedatives. He'd be back later.

"You and your monks," one of my brothers said gloomily.


It was into this hostile atmosphere that Brahmachari shortly descended. In his arms he was carrying my mother's pocketbook, as well as the fish net and the boat hooks with which my brothers had armed themselves. "Are these your properties?" he asked, smiling politely at us as we sat around the breakfast table. "I found them on the porch outside the door."

"We have no idea how they got there," my mother said stonily. She was speaking, it was clear, for the household.

"Excuse me," said Mr. Isaacs. Leaving his eggs untouched he got up from the table, took the monk by the arm, and led him out of the house. Later I saw them pan-broiling some rice together over the Bunsen burner in the garage. The two oddly-costumed men - Mr. Isaacs in his frock coat, fur hat, and beard, Brahmachari in a red turban and a clean skirt - were talking earnestly to each other.

The doctor's return the following morning did not ease the tension. Later that same afternoon he had briefly reappeared, stationed a nurse in Grandma's room, instructed her to keep the old lady under sedatives and to massage her legs, and had abruptly left. His only word to us was by way of warning - stay out of her room and keep the Hindu, or whatever he was, away from her. The nurse would attend to the rest.

So it was with considerable anxiety that I watched the doctor come down from Grandma's room the following morning. His own anxiety seemed greater than mine. In fact, when my parents took hold of him at the foot of the stairs and demanded to know what the trouble was, he seemed almost incoherent. "It's all in the mind," he mumbled over and over.

"In the mind?" my father asked. "I wish you'd enlighten us on that, doctor."

The doctor, perhaps recalled to his senses by my father's tone, tried to explain. He had taken Grandma off sedatives, he told us, although the old lady was still far from well. Despite hot applications and massage, the swelling in her legs had not gone down. It was almost as if she didn't want it to go down. You get cases like that, he confided. As if the patient refused to get well. It was his suggestion that we call in a psychiatrist. He'd be glad to recommend a good man, a cousin of his who was good in that line. Otherwise, the old lady might be permanently bedridden.

It was at this critical juncture, with my mother in tears at the mention of a psychiatrist and my father stern, that Josey made a great outcry at the kitchen door. "No, no," she was shouting, "stay out!"

"Come on, Josey, " I heard one of my brothers tell her. "It's only us and Mr. Isaacs." A moment later my brothers, with Mr.Isaacs in the lead, appeared at the foot of the stairs. "Where've you been?" I asked them. "The doctor wants to bring a psychiatrist."

"Out in the garage," said the youngest one. "That's where Mr. Isaacs spent the night." I looked at them closely. "Anybody else in the garage?" But if they had a secret, they were determined to keep it. "Could be," said my other brother. "You worried?"

Mr. Isaacs ran his hand through his thick black beard. "A psychiatrist? For the reverend dame?"

"For Grandma, " my mother wept. "They think the swelling is in her head." My father, himself verging on tears, tried to console her.

"In her head, is it?" Somewhere in the scholar's beard I detected a smile. "I can well believe it. I always thought her memory was bad. But before you call a psychiatrist, and with the doctor's permission," he said, making the outraged physician a formal bow, "I wonder if I could bring in a colleague?"

My father stared at him. "A colleague? Do you have colleagues? Another Hasid, I suppose."

"You might call him that," the Talmudist said imperturbably. "A certain theologian of my acquaintance." Again followed by my brothers, who winked at me broadly as they passed, he went back to the kitchen door, opened it, and returned a moment later by himself. "I would like to introduce Dr. Mahanan B. Brahmachari, my colleague from the University of Calcutta." This time preceded by my brothers, who with the greatest solemnity were carrying his hand drum, his copper begging bowl, his brass cymbals, and the water jug, Brahmachari appeared in the downstairs foyer. He was gorgeously made up.

On his head was a ceremonial turban of transparent gauze. His body was shrouded in a toga of the same material qand on his forehead and cheekbones he had daubed in yellow paste the markings of his religious order. "Good morning," he said, smiling at us amicably. "I've come to call on your grandmother."

"The Hindu!" cried the doctor. "Not the Hindu? Out! Out!" My mother was no less vociferous. Brahmachari's markings - they were in direct violation of the Mosaic injunction against tattooing or painting the flesh - seemed final proof. "The demons!" she cried. "It's the demons that Mamma was telling about!" But my father was more circumspect. "What did you mean?" he asked Mr. Isaacs. "You said the old lady had a bad memory. About what?"

Mr. Isaacs gestured triumphantly. "About locating herself in the Bible. It hurts me to say this," the Hebrew teacher told my parents, "but you've been wasting your money on her Hebrew lessons. Such a bad student. The worst I've had!"

It was clear that Mr. Isaacs had a point. Among the Jews, as with other groups who make use of the Old or New Testaments as the basis for their liturgical year, the sacred text is divided into portions for weekly reading. It was an old joke in our family that Grandma, whenever she became confused about the section for the week - and, according to Mr. Isaacs, this was often - would revert almost by instinct to the portion which describes the flight of the Jews from Egypt. So notorious was this habit that Mr. Isaacs sometimes referred to himself as Grandma's guide to the Promised Land. It was his hope that someday he would get her there. By some means he must teach her to follow, not her private idiosyncrasy, but the text. Finally, here was his chance. "For example," he continued, beginning to sway backward and forward in the approved manner of a Talmudist when he is about to explain anything, "she tells us that our friend Brahmachari is a member of the tribe who stoned us on our way out of egypt. This is a plain case of mistaken identity. Or insufficient attention to text," he added in a voice that was now falling into its traditional sing-song. "Our friend Dr. Brahmachari comes from another section entirely. Examine his cymbals and drum. Are these the equipment of a man who attacks caravans? Certainly not," he answered himself. "Then what section does he come from?" He looked at us expectantly.

"St. John?" said Josey.

"Wrong Testament," Mr. Isaacs told her. He looked at the cook disapprovingly. "Try the other one."

"Look here," the doctor protested. "I can't allow this to go any further. Whose patient is she?"

But we ignored him. It was plain that Mr. Isaacs, by recasting the issue in a more favorable Biblical framework, was now turning the tide in Brahmachari's direction.

My head reeled at this preposterous interpretation of history. "For goodness sake, Brahmachari," I said, hoping to be able to appeal to the monk as a university graduate, "surely you don't believe that?"

"What's the difference what he believes?" one of my brothers said violently. "You want Grandma to get well, don't you? Trust us, we've got it figured. If one shock put her into bed, a bigger one will get her out. Providing she holds still for it," he added grimly. "Otherwise we'll have a funeral around here."

"Of course," Mr. Isaacs continued dreamily, "there's always that affair with the Queen of Sheba. It's possible that Brahmachari is a son of Solomon by the Ethiopian queen. But no," he decided cautiously, "that puts him too close to Egypt. Best play it safe."

I was staggered by the perfidy of this reasoning. "Brahmachari," I again appealed to the Hindu, "you can't go along with this?"

The monk looked me straight in the eye. "I think I can. In a poetic sense, of course. It's possible that Mr. Isaacs, in his zeal to dignify my origins, is playing a little loose with the record. But in so far as Solomon himself was sired by King David, the author of the Psalms, I accept the paternity."

"You accept the paternity? He just made it up!"

"And a nice construction it is," the monk said comfortably. "Perhaps you're not aware of the close affinities between David, the dancing king of the Hebrews, and Lord Krishna, the ecstatic deity of the Hindus, one of whose followers I am.

For both, the proper method of worship is not doctrine and ritual, but enthusiasm and song.. You've been asked to examine my equipment. Look at it again." He reached over and gave the drum in the hands of one of my brothers a smart tap. "Cymbals and drum! Aren't these the implements of your own King David? Have you read the Psalms? We have more of a problem in treating your grandmother," he continued, "than giving me status in her somewhat quixotic world-view. Beyond that, it's a problem of convincing her that no matter what she's heard to the contrary, she's broken no commandment by accepting a mystic in her house. Or, as Mr. Isaacs would say, a Hasid. A devotee of the Psalms. We feel that once she's acknowledged that religious salvation, guided though it can be by rule and precept, has its origin not in theological doctrine, but in a spontaneous welling-up from below, from within the person, and is furthered less by abstract argument than by emotion, by a conversion of heart - she'll stop fighting herself. She'll no longer identify the sources of her movement with monsters and demons. She'll get up and walk. Even more than that," he added mischievously, "she"ll get up and dance. That will cure her." He nodded to my parents, signaled my brothers to precede him, and with Mr. Isaacs at his side began to mount the stairs.

"I forbid it," the doctor shouted. He tried to block the procession. "Nurse, nurse, lock the door!" But he was too late: in a moment the procession had swept past him and disappeared up the stairs.

Our ears cocked, we waited for the first sound from above. It came in a moment, preceded by a short gasp and a scuffle which I took to be the nurse protesting and then being thrust aside as the procession moved into Grandma's room. Grandma's shriek, while not as shrill as the one with which she had greeted the sight of Brahmachari at prayer, had more substance. Full of violence, the sound reverberated down the stair well.

My father shook his head. "It's those markings," he said, nodding sagely. "I knew she wouldn't take to that paint job. Against the Laws of Moses, you know," he informed the doctor. To this the latter had no reply.

Then there came from upstairs a sound of such intensity that Grandma's in comparison was the whimper of a small girl in a hurricane. In mood, though, the sounds were reversed. Whereas Grandma's was shrill, even strident in undertone, the new sound that emerged from her bedroom, soul-piercing as it was, had a high, sweet, overriding quality that seemed to originate, not in the brainpan, but in the heart. It had been going on for some time, I later realized - first low and muted, as if two soft metals had been struck together, then louder and stronger and more sweetly resonant - but none of us downstairs had been truly struck by it because of the violence of Grandma's cry. When it struck us it was all at once and almost at crescendo. It had in it the sound - not that the wind makes, but that the wind means, before sunup on a clear June morning. It had in it the swell of the sea, and the echo of the conch hell that reproduces internally the sea's message. It was Brahmachari, of course, dancing like an oriental King David in front of Grandma and clashing his cymbals.

Then came silence, abrupt and absolute. The sound had stopped.

""Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," the cook said. She crossed herself.

I looked around me and saw that my parents were huddled together in a corner like two frightened children. They nodded to me and without a word we swept past the doctor and up the stairs. Outside the shut door to Grandma's bedroom the nurse was standing, her face as white as her uniform. For a moment we surrounded her as my father tried the door. It was locked. From inside the room there came fresh sounds, but this time, although hard to make out, they were human. As if from another world I heard Mr. Isaacs chanting in Hebrew. "To the chief musician," he sang. "A psalm by David. Sing unto the Lord a new song, His praise in the congregation of the pious." I also heard a drum being tapped.

Wordlessly, and with my parents still in the lead, we turned and made our way through Brahmachari's adjoining bedroom and out to the balcony. There, with my arms around my parents' shoulders and our faces pressed to her screen door, we saw Grandma for the first time since her illness. She didn't seem ill at all. Still wearing the same night shift but with her hair and face made up - she had, in preparing for these inevitable visitors, even applied a little rouge - Grandma was propped against the pillows at the head of her bed. She seemed many years younger, and on her face there was a dazed but contented expression. At the end opposite hers on the bed Brahmachari squatted, his legs folded under him. He had again stripped down to his loin cloth, his turban and the holy beads, and with his long brown fingers he was tapping on the two-headed drum. Bolt upright in front of Grandma and with a slight smile on his lips he weaved the upper half of his body as he tapped. "Hare Krishna," the monk hummed. "Praise Krishna."

She smiled at him dazedly, her cheeks flushed. Brahmachari, I now realized, had also applied the religious markings to his chest. It was at these that she was staring. Tentatively, she put a hand up to her own slightly made-up face. As he continued to tap on his drum and sway in front of her I also noted that the large copper begging bowl was placed on the bedspread between them. In it was the pair of now-discarded cymbals. Each no larger than the palm of a man's hand and tied to the other by a thong that ran through their centers, they seemed dim and inconspicuous instruments to have produced the sounds that had drowned out Grandma's. And on the night table beside them Brahmachari's Tulasi plant nodded and rustled in the noonday breeze.

"A psalm by David," Mr. Isaacs chanted. The Hebrew teacher had taken up his station in a corner of the room and with a prayer book in front of him was singing and rocking backward and forward. "Hallelujah," he repeated. "sing unto the Lord a new song, Hs praise in the congregation of the pious."

"What time is it, Grandma?" the monk asked. He paused in his drumming for a moment. "Who am I?"

Her lips moved wordlessly. "King David?" she asked presently, but in a voice so timid that my parents and I, with our faces pressed to the screen door, could hardly hear.

"Hallelujah," Mr. Isaacs chanted. "Praise Him upon the clear-ringing cymbals. Praise Him on the high-sounding cymbals."

"It's Dr. Brahmachari, Grandma," my brother told her. "It's the Hindu Hasid that Mr. Isaacs wants to introduce to you. Up on your feet," he urged her. "Say hello to the Hasid."

They slipped their hands under her shoulders and lifted her to the floor. As she stood there between them, smiling bashfully and still uncertain on her feet, the monk slipped off the other side of the bed and came around to greet her. "I am Mahanan Brata Brahmachari, " he said, folding his palms in front of his face and bowing, "a Hindu monk from the Sri Angan Monastery, Faridpur, East Bengal. I've been invited by your grandsons to stay for the summer."

There was an instant of silence. At the church around the corner a bell struck the midday. Then Grandma came across. "Good afternoon, Dr. Brahmachari," she said in English. "Welcome to our house."

"Hallelujah," Mr. Isaacs began again but Grandma beat him to it. "Hallelujah!" she cried, wresting herself from my brothers' arms. "Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord." It was my parents' impression that she stumbled towards the Hindu but my own is that she skipped. As my brothers stepped forward to grab her she turned to them with a radiant expression. "It's twelve o'clock, children," she told them. "Where's...?" But before she could ask her final question I had plunged through the screen door and taken the old woman in my arms.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Bhagavad Gita And The Problem Of Ego

The latest article from my good friend, fellow monk, and Bhakti Center (Manhattan) president and CEO Ramnath Subramanian (Rasanath Dasa) on the Huffington Post

In 2007 I attended a talk at Cornell University by Dr. Steve Weinberg, the 1979 Nobel Laureate in physics for his work on electromagnetic and weak forces, on the topic of "Science and Religion." Dr. Weinberg did not mince any words when he categorically stated that religion is the cause of major problems in today's world. Science, he stated, has proven to be objective in its outlook, and it only speaks the beneficial truth.

As I returned to my dorm after the talk, I mulled over Dr. Weinberg's statements. As a young seeker, I looked towards both physics and religion for answers to the big questions about the purpose of my existence. I was often puzzled by the fact that every person that I admired on both sides seemed to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a "good" man is, how to live, and so on. It became quite apparent to me that both science and religion could be used for positive transformational work and for the perpetration of deeply hurtful activities, and both had the capacity to explain "truth" in deeply philosophical and practical ways. It was not a question of which was better; it was more a question of who used it and for what purpose. It became evident that the core problem in this debate is that of the human nature itself -- its hopelessly self-fulfilling side called the ego.

Modern psychology has been wrestling with the vast territory of the human ego for a great while now, and its complexity continues to mystify us. Even before I learned about Freudian ideas on the ego, I first encountered the concept of the ego explicitly mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, India's classic text on yoga and spiritual wisdom. According to the Gita, there is a fundamental difference between "real" ego and what it defines as the "false" ego. Real ego is our very essence, the consciousness that makes us aware and awake to reality. The false ego is a false identity crafted to preserve the sense of being the most significant and the most important all the time. In short, it is a narcissistic search for being loved, validated and appreciated. This is what we generally refer to as the ego. The Gita further describes the subtleties of the ego and how it manifests moment to moment in our thoughts, words and deeds.

The concept seems to be stretched too far when we first read about it. But when we honestly study our own lives, we can clearly isolate various episodes of how this tendency manifests itself in our personality, either covertly or explicitly. The events can range from simple conversations on which football team is the best to intense debates in boardrooms on the next important decision for the organization. What's worse is that the ego blinds us from seeing its own ploy, the ultimate of which is rationalized excuses for avoiding honest introspection and admittance.

None of us has navigated through life without encountering the effects of the ego, be it in the workplace or home. Our own behavior is, at times, strange, unsettling and unobjective. Some of this is tolerable, and some of this is decidedly unpleasant or outright disastrous. Yet, while everyone is busy gathering insight into the way other people act and behave, few are willing to look so intently at themselves. This dynamic of interaction also applies to the way that groups of people interact with each other. We want to know what makes other people or groups tick, yet are afraid to discover anything upsetting about ourselves. We would like to point out the faults of systems and people as if we had X-ray vision, while not really wanting others to see our weaknesses and shortcomings.

Capitalism further aggravates this mentality by simply rewarding us for producing enjoyable and affirmative content. Even academia, which prides itself on objectivity, is more geared towards pleasing companies and corporations that can provide grants and financial assistance. In this atmosphere, we are less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called "The Psychology of Human Misjudgment," and in his talk he revealed our natural weakness, in which we only pick out evidence that supports our views, or we pick out weakness in the other that makes us looks better. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible, especially about our deep inner motivations. In today's times where we pride ourselves on progress in cognitive science and search capabilities, this tendency leaves a huge cognitive deficit. And the thought of internal combat further takes us away from attempting to rid ourselves from the shackles of the ego.

The ego is a master of disguise. One of the greatest dangers of progressive work is that the ego tempts to sidestep deep introspective work by leaping into self-righteous advancement too soon. This is because the ego fancies itself as more "advanced" than it actually is. How many "rational" decisions made by heads of state have caused havoc in the lives of millions of people? How much scientific research has been employed to cause direct harm to our environment? How many first-year novices of religion have persuaded themselves to believe that they are just about ready for sainthood only to find their misconceptions and behavior gives rise to scandals and violence?

The Bhagavad Gita's prescription to combat this crafty enemy within us is to create a culture of introspection and self-knowledge whose basic components lie in courage and humility -- a healthy skepticism of our own "goodness" combined with an unending desire to learn more about ourselves. They work as powerful radars that uncover the camouflage of the ego and disarm it. Real self-knowledge is an invaluable guardian against self-deception mechanisms of the ego, and any true and beneficial culture of transformation will teach us this. And the more we practice this awareness, the more we can realize that it is not systems that are good or evil; rather it is our ego-centric adoption of those systems that we need to explore before we make those judgments.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The First Church of Robotics

Click here to read this challenging op-ed piece from Jarod Lanier at the New York Times

WHEN we think of computers as inert, passive tools instead of people, we are rewarded with a clearer, less ideological view of what is going on — with the machines and with ourselves. So, why, aside from the theatrical appeal to consumers and reporters, must engineering results so often be presented in Frankensteinian light?

The answer is simply that computer scientists are human, and are as terrified by the human condition as anyone else. We, the technical elite, seek some way of thinking that gives us an answer to death, for instance. This helps explain the allure of a place like the Singularity University. The influential Silicon Valley institution preaches a story that goes like this: one day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening

Some think the newly sentient Internet would then choose to kill us; others think it would be generous and digitize us the way Google is digitizing old books, so that we can live forever as algorithms inside the global brain. Yes, this sounds like many different science fiction movies. Yes, it sounds nutty when stated so bluntly. But these are ideas with tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.

It should go without saying that we can’t count on the appearance of a soul-detecting sensor that will verify that a person’s consciousness has been virtualized and immortalized. There is certainly no such sensor with us today to confirm metaphysical ideas about people, or even to recognize the contents of the human brain. All thoughts about consciousness, souls and the like are bound up equally in faith, which suggests something remarkable: What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Tale of Dorothy by Radhanath Swami

By Radhanath Swami

We waited. And waited. It was a sweltering summer day in the Florida panhandle. The morning sun glared through the expansive windows of an airport departure gate. There, a young blond haired lady, neatly uniformed with a blue vest over a pressed white shirt and matching blue pants, stepped up to the counter, timidly surveyed the room, then announced a one hour delay. Passengers sighed, edgy to escape from the heat and travel north. With cellular phones pressed to their ears, they persistently glanced at their wristwatches.

Among them stood a middle-aged woman. She had nicely coiffed reddish-brown hair. Her dress and demeanor hinted that she was a lady of wealth and taste. Suddenly, she flushed red, flung her boarding pass and screamed, “No! You can’t do this to me.” Her outrage jolted the assembly. Everyone stared as she stomped to the counter, stuck her finger in the face of the receptionist and shouted, “I warn you, do not anger me. Put me on that plane, at once!”

The airline hostess cowered. “But ma’am, there’s nothing I can do. The air conditioning system of the plane has broken down.”

The woman’s lips quivered. Her eyes burned and she screeched louder, “Don’t you fight with me, you stupid child. You don’t know who I am. Damn it, do something. Now! I can’t take it.” She ranted on and on.

After finishing her verbal lashing, she fumed and scanned the lounge. Her eyes landed on me sitting alone in a corner of the room in my saffron colored swami robes. She stormed toward me while everyone looked on. Now, standing almost on top of me, her face distorted with anger, she yelled, “Are you a monk?”

Oh God, I thought, why me. I really didn’t need this. After an arduous week of lectures and meetings, I just wanted to be left alone.

“Answer me,” she persisted. “Are you a monk?”

“Something like that,” I whispered. The whole room watched, no doubt delighted that I got to be the lightning rod and not them.

“Then I demand an answer,” she challenged. “Why is my flight late? Why is God doing this to me?”

“Please ma’am,” I said. “Sit down and let us talk about it.” She sat beside me. “My name is Radhanath Swami,” I said. “You can call me Swami. Please tell me what is in your heart?” I have asked this question thousands of times and never know what to expect.

She said her name was Dorothy, that she was a housewife, fifty-seven years old, and lived on the east coast. She had been living happily with her family until…then she started to weep. She pulled tissue after tissue from her purse, blew her nose, and wept some more.

“It was tragic,” she said. “All at once I lost my husband of thirty years and my three children. Now I’m alone. I can’t bear the pain.” She gripped the handle of her chair. “Then I was cheated. The bank put my house into foreclosure and kicked me out on the street. You see this handbag? That’s all that’s left.”

Looking more closely at her face, I noted that beneath the well coiffed exterior her complexion was pale, her eyebrows tense, and her lips slanted down in sadness. Dorothy went on to explain that, if all that sadness were not enough, she had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She had one month left to live. In a desperate effort to save her life, she had discovered a cancer clinic in Mexico which claimed they might possibly have a cure. But she had to be admitted today. If she missed her connecting flight in Washington, D.C., her chances of survival were finished.

One of my duties is to oversee spiritual services in a hospital in India. I have ministered to victims of terrorist bombs, earthquakes, tsunamis, rape, trauma, disease, poverty and heartbreak of all sorts, but I cannot remember more anguish written on a human face than Dorothy’s. “And now this flight is late,” she said, “and there goes my last chance to live. I tried to be a good wife and mother, I go to church, I give in charity, and I never willfully hurt anyone. But now there is no one in the world who cares if I live or die. Why is God doing this to me?”

Minutes before, I had been cringing at her obnoxious behavior. How easy it is to judge people by external appearances. Understanding what was below the surface flooded my heart with sympathy. When she saw tears welling in my eyes her voice softened.

“It seems maybe you care,” she said.

What could I do? I felt too weak to do anything. Closing my eyes, I prayed to be an instrument to help her. “Dorothy, I do feel for you. You’re a special soul.”

“Special.” she huffed. “I’ve been thrown out like a worthless piece of trash and I’m going to die. But I believe you think I’m special, and I thank you for that.”

“There may not be anything you can do about what has happened,” I said, “but you can choose how you will respond to what has happened. How you react can affect the future.”

“What do you mean?”

“You can lament how cruelly the world has cheated you and spend your days cursing life, making others uncomfortable, and dying a meaningless death. Or you can go deeper inside those experiences and grow spiritually.” I remembered her comment about going to church.

“Doesn’t it say in the Bible, ‘Seek and ye shall find’ and also ‘Knock and the door will open’? Would you rather die in depression or in gratitude? You have that choice.” Her hand trembled and she grasped my forearm.

“I’m so afraid, Swami. I’m so afraid of dying. Please tell me what death is.” Her face had all but wilted. What could I do? I felt so incompetent. If only I had the power to heal her disease. But I didn’t. Still, my years of training in Bhakti had taught me that we all have the power to soothe another person’s heart by accessing the love that is within ourselves. I felt like a surgeon in an operating theater and silently offered a prayer before speaking again.

“In order to understand death,” I said, “we must first understand life. Consider this question: Who are you?”

“My name is Dorothy, I’m American…”

“Dorothy, when you were a baby, before you had been given a name, were you not already a person? If you were to show me a baby picture today, you would say, ‘That’s me.’ But your body has changed. Your mind and intellect and desires have changed. When was the last time you craved your mother’s milk? Everything about you has changed, but yet here you are. You can change your name, your nationality, your religion, and with today’s technology you can even change your sex. So what part of you does not change? Who is the witness of all these changes? That witness is you, the real you.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you are saying,” Dorothy said. “What is the real me?”

“You are the conscious person, the life force, the soul within the body, who is having the experiences of this lifetime. You see through your eyes, you taste with your tongue, smell through your nose, you think with your brain—but who are you, the person receiving all those impressions? That is the soul. The body is like a car and the soul is the driver. We should not neglect the needs of the soul. We eagerly nourish the needs of the body and mind, but if we neglect the needs of the soul we miss out on the real beauty of human life.”

“Go on,” Dorothy said.

“Animals and other non-human species react to situations according to their instincts. Lions don’t decide to become vegetarian on ethical grounds, and cows don’t become carnivores. Essentially, beings other than humans are driven to satisfy their needs of eating, sleeping, mating and defending according to the instincts of their species. A human being is entrusted with a priceless gift, which can be utilized for creating the most profound benefits or the worst disasters. That gift is free will.

“But with the blessing of free will comes a price, namely responsibility. We can choose to be a saint or a criminal or anything in between, and we are responsible for the consequences of those choices.”

“You’re talking about karma,” Dorothy said. I was surprised by her knowledge of the word. “I’ve never really understood that idea,” she said.

I explained that karma is a natural law, like gravity, which acts irrespective of whether we believe in it or not. As ye sow, says the Bible, so shall ye reap. Or as they say back in Chicago where I come from, what goes around comes around. If I cause pain to others, a corresponding pain will come back to me in due course. If I show compassion to others, good fortune will come my way. Dorothy didn’t seem encouraged, and I began to feel like I had taken the conversation in the wrong direction.

“That sounds like a justification for becoming callous and judgmental about suffering,” she said. And she was making a good point. Sadly, I had witnessed within myself as well as in others a tendency to do just that.

“Dorothy,” I said, “the devotional tradition in India teaches that karma and other mysteries are not intended to discourage us into thinking we are helpless victims of a cold and cruel universe. Rather, we should feel encouraged to take responsibility for the choices we make knowing that how we live can make a difference. For myself, I have discovered that spiritual truths lead me to the joys of compassion and devotion, starting first of all with myself. Charity begins at home. Once I can forgive myself for not being perfect, then I can begin to look upon others with similar compassion. Bhakti has taught me that we are all related, in our happiness and our distress.”

“So just what am I supposed to take away from that?” Dorothy asked. “If everything that has happened to me is my fault, my karma, I don’t see how I can avoid drowning myself in guilt.”

Dorothy was emotionally starved and I felt that meeting her was a test of my own spiritual realization. “Instead of drowning yourself in guilt, you have a precious opportunity to bathe in grace. The philosophy of karma is meant to lift us up and encourage us to make the right choices in both joy and suffering. Depression impedes our progress. In whatever situation we find ourselves we have the opportunity to transform how we see that situation. Devotional life doesn’t make every crisis disappear, but it can help us to see crises with new eyes, and often that deeper vision leads to a more content frame of mind. I’ve been practicing that for many years, and I know it has helped me to see the hand of God in all things…”

“Swami, don’t give me any religious dogma. I had enough of that as a kid. In church they taught us that the good go to heaven and the bad go to hell. The last thing I need is more of that. Tell me what is really in your heart.”

She was doing a good job getting me to explain things that can’t be physically seen such as the soul, the law of karma, and reincarnation.

“Tragedies in this life can sometimes be attributed to things done in previous lives. Because the soul is eternal, we carry those consequences from this life to the next.” That really got Dorothy angry.

“It shouldn’t matter what we did in some other life. Why should we believe that God is merciful when we see in this life that good people suffer and wicked people prosper?”

“Years ago,” I said, “an old recluse in the Himalayas shared with me an interesting analogy. It is quite simple but it sheds some light on the subject.” Mentioning that I had spent time in the Himalayas must have captured her fancy because for the first time I noted the trace of a smile on Dorothy’s lips.

“The yogi gave the analogy of a farmer who puts excellent grains into his silo but then adds rotten grains on top. The silo empties out from the bottom, so when the farmer goes to sell his grains the healthy grains come out first and for a while he wallows in prosperity. But with time his prosperity will end and poverty awaits him.

“Then the yogi gave the analogy of another farmer who fills his silo with rotten grains. Eventually he learns to do better and begins pouring only fresh wholesome grains into the silo. He may be presently suffering from his past deposits, but a glorious future awaits him.

“We humans create our own destiny. We are free to make choices. But once we act, we are bound to the karmic consequences of what we have done. You may choose to get on an airplane to Washington, D.C., but once the plane takes off you have no choice about where you’re going to arrive…”

Suddenly, the voice of the airline hostess came through the speakers announcing a further delay of another hour. Dorothy whimpered. I gave her a sympathetic smile.

“Here is that choice again, either to focus on the miseries of our fate or transform how we see our fate. Most of us have a huge mixture of karmic seeds of fate waiting to sprout. But the most important teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is that we are eternal souls, transcendental to all karmic reactions. That’s a very reassuring thing to know. Even in the midst of great distress, people who live with awareness of their eternal nature can be happy. The Bible tells us that the kingdom of God is within. True happiness is an experience of the heart. What is it the heart longs for?”

Dorothy’s sad eyes searched mine. “My heart aches for love,” she said.

“We all do,” I said. “Our need to love and be loved originates in our innate love for God.” I quoted words that Mother Theresa from Calcutta had spoken to me years before. “The greatest problem in this world is not the hunger of the stomach but the hunger of the heart. All over the world both rich and poor suffer. They are lonely, starving for love. Only God’s love can satisfy the hunger of the heart.”

“You’re a Hindu and I’m a Christian,” Dorothy said. “Which God are you talking about?”

I looked out the window at a blazing summer sun. “In America it is called the sun, in Mexico, sol and in India, surya. But is it an American sun or a Mexican sun? The essence of all religions is one, to love God—whatever name we may have for God—and live as an instrument of that love. To transform arrogance into humility, greed into benevolence, envy into gratitude, vengeance into forgiveness, selfishness into servitude, complacency into compassion, doubt into faith, and lust into love. The character of love is universal to all spiritual paths.”

Dorothy really didn’t look like any of this was reaching her.

“Someone told me,” she blurted, “that the reason I’m suffering is that God wants to experience the world’s suffering through me. What kind of a God is that?”

“People have been inventing ideas about God for a long time,” I replied. “In the Bhakti tradition we have three checks and balances for true knowledge of God: guru, sadhu, and shastra. Guru means spiritual teacher. Sadhu means holy people. And shastra means scriptures, wisdom revealed by God. Throughout history different scriptures have been given according to time, place and the nature of the people for whom the teachings were intended. The ritual parts may differ, but the essence of true scriptures is always the same. However, because people tend to invent meanings, followers of Bhakti receive their understanding of scripture from a guru or teacher coming in an authorized succession of teachers. The Bhakti lineage traces its origin back before recorded history, a succession of realized souls who have preserved the original spirit of the teachings throughout the generations. The company of sadhus is important because with people who are also on the path to God we can share our understanding and realizations…”

Dorothy was not convinced. “What do your Bhakti teachers tell you about why God gave us free will when it makes so many people suffer?”

“In order for there to be love,” I said, “there must be free will. You can force people to obey but not to love. Without that freedom there would be little meaning to love. When we choose to turn away from God, we enter the material world and forget our original loving nature. We become covered by a cloud that camouflages the real nature of things.”

“Like a veil?” she asked.

“Yes, like a veil.”

“Well, I think I’m wearing many veils.”

“We all are. The veil is called maya, illusion, in which we forget our true identity and wander birth after birth chasing superficial pleasures. The real substance of happiness is within our own hearts. Please understand, your situation is an opportunity…”

Dorothy moaned. “How is suffering an opportunity?”

“May I tell you the story of a famous lady saint?”

“Yes, please.”

“Her name was Queen Kunti a most pious and devoted lady. She underwent unbearable miseries. Her husband died when she was very young. As a widow she raised five small children. The eldest was meant to inherit the throne when he came of age. Because her children were so popular for their virtue and skills, a rival burned with envy. That wicked man seized the crown and ruled. All of Kunti’s property was usurped and her children were banished. They faced repeated assassination attempts and constant persecution. In the end, her persecutors were brought to justice and her eldest son was enthroned. At that time she prayed to Lord Krishna, ‘In those calamities I had no one to turn to but You. In that condition I had no other shelter but to call your name, and calling out to You meant I was remembering You at every moment. Thank you, my Lord, for my suffering was also the source of my greatest happiness.’

I mentioned the work of a famous doctor, who said that sometimes patients come to him to say that having a heart attack was the best thing that ever happened. How is that? Because it took a crisis to get them to rethink their appreciation for life, their habits, their priorities, and see the blessings that they had always undervalued. That seemed to register with Dorothy.

“Bhakti doesn’t necessarily make our material situation go away,” I said, “but at the very least it gives us something more than our bitterness to focus on. And more important, when we open up to the possibility of some explanation other than cruel fate, we just may find that there is a loving Supreme Being looking out for us. In your present condition, Dorothy, you can turn to God like practically no one else can do.”

She closed her eyes she asked, “In your tradition, do you have a meditation to help us turn to God?”

“There are many forms of meditation,” I told her. “I have been given one that has, since ancient times, been practiced for awakening the dormant love of the soul. May I teach you?”


“This is a mantra. In the Sanskrit language, man means the mind and tra means to liberate. The mind is compared to a mirror. For more births than we can count, we have allowed dust to cover the mirror of the mind—dust in the form endless misconceptions, desires and fears. In that state all we see is the dust, and so that is what we identify with. The chanting of this mantra is a process for cleaning the mirror of the mind and bringing it back to its natural clarity where we can see who we really are, a pure soul, a part of God, eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. As the mind becomes cleaner the divine qualities of the self emerge while ignorance and all of its cohorts fade away. As we approach that state, we can experience the inherent love of God within us. As love of God awakens, unconditional love for every living being manifests spontaneously. We realize that everyone is our sister or brother and a part of our beloved Lord.”

The speaker system crackled and everyone in the room perked up, staring at the airline hostess almost like prisoners would look at a parole board, yearning to be released.

“I’m sorry,” she announced, “but they haven’t yet fixed the air conditioner, and there will be another hour delay.”

Dorothy slapped her forehead, “Swami, teach me the mantra.”

“Please repeat each word after me,” I requested. “Hare… Krishna… Hare… Krishna… Krishna… Krishna… Hare… Hare… Hare… Rama… Hare… Rama… Rama… Rama… Hare… Hare…”

Dorothy shook her head and shooed me with her hand, “I’ll never remember that.”

“Would you like me to write it down for you?”

She reached into her purse and pulled out a slip of paper and a pen. “Yes, but it doesn’t interest me unless I know what it means.”

After writing it, I explained that these were names of the one God. Krishna means the all-attractive, Rama means the reservoir of all pleasure, and Hare is the name of the female, compassionate aspect of God. Dorothy took the paper and immersed herself in chanting the mantra over and over. I borrowed her cellular phone and walked away to call a friend with news of the indefinite delay.

When I returned and sat beside her, Dorothy had closed her eyes. She was leaning back and taking deep breaths. She looked at me and asked, “Where do you live?”

“I travel a lot, but much of my time is spent in Mumbai, India.”

“How many people attend your lectures in Mumbai?”

“On Sundays, maybe two thousand. During pilgrimages it’s closer to four thousand.”

“Where are you going now?”

“To a temple in Hartford, Connecticut. But like you I missed my connecting flight, so I’ll probably miss giving the lecture.”

“Do you go there regularly?”

“I’ve been invited for several years, but this is my first opportunity to visit them.”

“How many people are waiting for you?”

“I think about a hundred.”

Again she took a deep breath. Then, as if purging anguish through her breathing she released the words, “Now I understand.” To my surprise, her lips stretched out across her face into a blissful smile and her eyes twinkled like a child.

“The flight delay was my good fortune,” she said. “I bet thousands of people would give anything to sit with you for even a few minutes. I have you all to myself—and for hours!”

I have to admit, I teared up. “The delay is my good fortune,” I said. “There is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than here with you, right now. You are a special soul.”

Dorothy wiped a tear from her cheek. “Yes, now I understand. This is a blessing of the Lord.” I moved to another seat to give her some private space. Of course, I really needed it, too.

Finally, after six hours of delays, came the announcement everyone was waiting for. The same young lady in the blue uniform announced, “The flight is now ready to board. Anyone who wants is now invited to board.”

“We’ve been waiting six hours,” a passenger yelled out. “Why would anyone not want to get on?”

The flight attendant looked at us sheepishly and said, “In the process of fixing the air conditioner, the toilets stopped working. There will be no toilet facility on this flight. You are requested to use the airport restroom before boarding. Especially please take your children as this is the last chance until we arrive at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. But the good news is that the air conditioner is working.”

The passengers jumped up and rushed to the restrooms. A mother pulled the hand of her four-year old boy. “Come on Timmy, let’s go to the potty.”

“But mommy, I don’t have to go.”

“You have to go,” the mother corrected. “Come on.” She grabbed the boy’s hand and dragged him to the toilet.

“I don’t have to pee-pee.”

“You’re going anyway….”

It was a fifty-seat commuter jet. The good news was that the plane flew. The bad news was that the toilets were boarded shut, the lighting did not work, and the air conditioner, after all that time, still didn’t work. It was a ninety-five degree day. The plane was hot, muggy, dark, and Timmy decided he really did need to pee-pee and cried the whole trip. By the time we landed, every passenger was miserable.

Except one.

As we trudged down the steps of the plane and onto the tarmac, there was Dorothy sitting in a wheel chair that she had requested, smiling and waving as everyone rushed by. The passengers were stunned to see one among them who could be so happy. I stopped to say farewell.

“Swami,” she said, “I chanted the mantra nonstop throughout the flight. I can’t remember being that happy in a long time.” She handed me the slip of paper with the mantra. “Will you write a message for me to remember you?” Taking her pen, I wrote of my appreciation for her and a little prayer. She pressed the note to her heart and smiled while tears streamed down her cheeks. Then she said something that I will never forget.

“Now, living or dying,” she said, “is only a detail. I know that God is with me. Thank you.”

I hurried into the terminal and looked up at a monitor. My airlines had one last flight to Hartford. It left in ten minutes from another terminal. There was still a chance. Have you ever seen a swami galloping across the corridors of an airport? One man yelled at me, “Why don’t you use your magic carpet?”

As I was running, it struck me that I had forgotten to take Dorothy’s cell phone number. How would I ever find out what happened to her? To this day I regret my foolishness. I made it just as they were closing the gate. Five seconds more and I would have been too late.

At the cultural center in Hartford, my hosts had adjusted the schedule to accommodate a late start time. I asked if there was a particular topic I should speak on.

“Anything you like,” was the reply.

“Tonight’s lecture,” I announced, “is called ‘Why I am so late for the lecture.’”

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Man Who Planted Trees

The Man Who Planted Trees

by Jean Giono

For a human character to reveal truly exceptional qualities, one must have the good fortune to be able to observe its performance over many years. If this performance is devoid of all egoism, if its guiding motive is unparalleled generosity, if it is absolutely certain that there is no thought of recompense and that, in addition, it has left its visible mark upon the earth, then there can be no mistake.

About forty years ago I was taking a long trip on foot over mountain heights quite unknown to tourists, in that ancient region where the Alps thrust down into Provence. All this, at the time I embarked upon my long walk through these deserted regions, was barren and colorless land. Nothing grew there but wild lavender.

I was crossing the area at its widest point, and after three days' walking, found myself in the midst of unparalleled desolation. I camped near the vestiges of an abandoned village. I had run out of water the day before, and had to find some. These clustered houses, although in ruins, like an old wasps' nest, suggested that there must once have been a spring or well here. There was indeed a spring, but it was dry. The five or six houses, roofless, gnawed by wind and rain, the tiny chapel with its crumbling steeple, stood about like the houses and chapels in living villages, but all life had vanished.

It was a fine June day, brilliant with sunlight, but over this unsheltered land, high in the sky, the wind blew with unendurable ferocity. It growled over carcasses of the houses like a lion disturbed at its meal. I had to move my camp.

After five hours' walking I had still not found water and there was nothing to give me any hope of finding any. All about me was the same dryness, the same coarse grasses. I thought I glimpsed in the distance a small black silhouette, upright, and took it for the trunk of a solitary tree. In any case I started toward it. It was a shepherd. Thirty sheep were lying about him on the baking earth.

He gave me a drink from his water-gourd and, a little later, took me to his cottage in a fold of the plain. He drew his water—excellent water—from a very deep natural well above which he had constructed a primitive winch.

The man spoke little. This is the way of those who live alone, but one felt that he was sure of himself, and confident in his assurance. That was unexpected in this barren country. He lived, not in a cabin, but in a real house built of stone that bore plain evidence of how his own efforts had reclaimed the ruin he had found there on his arrival. His roof was strong and sound. The wind on its tiles made the sound of the sea upon its shore.

The place was in order, the dishes washed, the floor swept, his rifle oiled; his soup was boiling over the fire. I noticed then that he was cleanly shaved, that all his buttons were firmly sewed on, that his clothing had been mended with the meticulous care that makes the mending invisible. He shared his soup with me and afterwards, when I offered my tobacco pouch, he told me that he did not smoke. His dog, as silent as himself, was friendly without being servile.

It was understood from the first that I should spend the night there; the nearest village was still more than a day and a half away. And besides I was perfectly familiar with the nature of the rare villages in that region. There were four or five of them scattered well apart from each other on these mountain slopes, among white oak thickets, at the extreme end of the wagon roads. They were inhabited by charcoalburners, and the living was bad. Families, crowded together in a climate that is excessively harsh both in winter and in summer, found no escape from the unceasing conflict of personalities. Irrational ambition reached inordinate proportions in the continual desire for escape. The men took their wagonloads of charcoal to the town, then returned. The soundest characters broke under the perpetual grind. The women nursed their grievances. There was rivalry in everything, over the price of charcoal as over a pew in the church, over warring virtues as over warring vices as well as over the ceaseless combat between virtue and vice. And over all there was the wind, also ceaseless, to rasp upon the nerves. There were epidemics of suicide and frequent cases of insanity, usually homicidal.

The shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on the table. He began to inspect them, one by one, with great concentration, separating the good from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I did offer to help him. He told me that it was his job. And in fact, seeing the care he devoted to the task, I did not insist. That was the whole of our conversation. When he had set aside a large enough pile of good acorns he counted them out by tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly cracked, for now he examined them more closely. When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and we went to bed.

There was peace in being with this man. The next day I asked if I might rest here for a day. He found it quite natural—or, to be more exact, he gave me the impression that nothing could startle him. The rest was not absolutely necessary, but I was interested and wished to know more about him. He opened the pen and led his flock to pasture. Before leaving, he plunged his sack of carefully selected and counted acorns into a pail of water.

I noticed that he carried for a stick an iron rod as thick as my thumb and about a yard and a half long. Resting myself by walking, I followed a path parallel to his. His pasture was in a valley. He left the dog in charge of the little flock and climbed toward where I stood. I was afraid that he was about the rebuke me for my indiscretion, but it was not that at all: this was the way he was going, and he invited me to go along if I had nothing better to do. He climbed to the top of the ridge, about a hundred yards away.

There he began thrusting his iron rod into the earth, making a hole in which he planted an acorn; then he refilled the hole. He was planting oak trees. I asked him if the land belonged to him. He answered no. Did he know whose it was? He did not. He supposed it was community property, or perhaps belonged to people who cared nothing about it. He was not interested in finding out whose it was. He planted his hundred acorns with the greatest care.

After the midday meal the resumed his planting. I suppose I must have been fairly insistent in my questioning, for he answered me. For three years he had been planting trees in this wilderness. He had planted one hundred thousand. Of the hundred thousand, twenty thousand had sprouted. Of the twenty thousand he still expected to lose half, to rodents or to the unpredictable designs of Providence. There remained ten thousand oak trees to grow where nothing had grown before.

That was when I began to wonder about the age of this man. He was obviously over fifty. Fifty-five, he told me. His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had once had a farm in the lowlands. There he had had his life. He had lost his only son, then this wife. He had withdrawn into this solitude where his pleasure was to live leisurely with his lambs and his dog. It was his opinion that this land was dying for want of trees. He added that, having no very pressing business of his own, he had resolved to remedy this state of affairs.

Since I was at that time, in spite of my youth, leading a solitary life, I understood how to deal gently with solitary spirits. But my very youth forced me to consider the future in relation to myself and to a certain quest for happiness. I told him that in thirty years his ten thousand oaks would be magnificent. He answered quite simply that if God granted him life, in thirty years he would have planted so many more that these ten thousand would be like a drop of water in the ocean.

Besides, he was now studying the reproduction of beech trees and had a nursery of seedlings grown from beechnuts near his cottage. The seedlings, which he had protected from his sheep with a wire fence, were very beautiful. He was also considering birches for the valleys where, he told me, there was a certain amount of moisture a few yards below the surface of the soil.

The next day, we parted.

The following year came the War of 1914, in which I was involved for the next five years. An infantry man hardly had time for reflecting upon trees. To tell the truth, the thing itself had made no impression upon me; I had considered it as a hobby, a stamp collection, and forgotten it.

The war over, I found myself possessed of a tiny demobilization bonus and a huge desire to breathe fresh air for a while. It was with no other objective that I again took the road to the barren lands.

The countryside had not changed. However, beyond the deserted village I glimpsed in the distance a sort of grayish mist that covered the mountaintops like a carpet. Since the day before, I had begun to think again of the shepherd tree-planter. "Ten thousand oaks," I reflected, "really take up quite a bit of space."

I had seen too many men die during those five years not to imagine easily that Elzéard Bouffier was dead, especially since, at twenty, one regards men of fifty as old men with nothing left to do but die.

He was not dead. As a matter of fact, he was extremely spry. He had changed jobs. Now he had only four sheep but, instead, a hundred beehives. He had got rid of the sheep because they threatened his young trees. For, he told me (and I saw for myself), the war had disturbed him not at all. He had imperturbably continued to plant.

The oaks of 1910 were then ten years old and taller than either of us. It was an impressive spectacle. I was literally speechless and, as he did not talk, we spent the whole day walking in silence through his forest. In three sections, it measured eleven kilometers in length and three kilometers at its greatest width. When you remembered that all this had sprung from the hands and the soul of this one man, without technical resources, you understand that men could be as effectual as God in other realms than that of destruction.

He had pursued his plan, and beech trees as high as my shoulder, spreading out as far as the eye could reach, confirmed it. He showed me handsome clumps of birch planted five years before—that is, in 1915, when I had been fighting at Verdun. He had set them out in all the valleys where he had guessed—and rightly—that there was moisture almost at the surface of the ground. They were as delicate as young girls, and very well established.

Creation seemed to come about in a sort of chain reaction. He did not worry about it; he was determinedly pursuing his task in all its simplicity; but as we went back toward the village I saw water flowing in brooks that had been dry since the memory of man. This was the most impressive result of chain reaction that I had seen. These dry streams had once, long ago, run with water. Some of the dreary villages I mentioned before had been built on the sites of ancient Roman settlements, traces of which still remained; and archaeologists, exploring there, had found fishhooks where, in the twentieth century, cisterns were needed to assure a small supply of water.

The wind, too, scattered seeds. As the water reappeared, so there reappeared willows, rushes, meadows, gardens, flowers, and a certain purpose in being alive. But the transformation took place so gradually that it became part of the pattern without causing any astonishment. Hunters, climbing into the wilderness in pursuit of hares or wild boar, had of course noticed the sudden growth of little trees, but had attributed it to some natural caprice of the earth. That is why no one meddled with Elzéard Bouffier's work. If he had been detected he would have had opposition. He was indetectable. Who in the villages or in the administration could have dreamed of such perseverance in a magnificient generosity?

To have anything like a precise idea of this exceptional character one must not forget that he worked in total solitude: so total that, toward the end of his life, he lost the habit of speech. Or perhaps it was that he saw no need for it.

In 1933 he received a visit from a forest ranger who notified him of an order against lighting fires out of doors for fear of endangering the growth of this natural forest. It was the first time, that man told him naively, that he had ever heard of a forest growing out of its own accord. At that time Bouffier was about to plant beeches at a spot some twelve kilometers from his cottage. In order to avoid travelling back and forth—for he was then seventy-five—he planned to build a stone cabin right at the plantation. The next year he did so.

In 1935 a whole delegation came from the Government to examine the "natural forest". There was a high official from the Forest Service, a deputy, technicians. There was a great deal of ineffectual talk. It was decided that some thing must be done and, fortunately, nothing was done except the only helpful thing: the whole forest was placed under the protection of the State, and charcoal burning prohibited. For it was impossible not to be captivated by the beauty of those young trees in fullness of health, and they cast their spell over the deputy himself.

A friend of mine was among the forestry officers of the delegation. To him I explained the mystery. One day the following week we went together to see Elzéard Bouffier. We found him hard at work, some ten kilometers from the spot where the inspection had taken place.

This forester was not my friend for nothing. He was aware of values. He knew how to keep silent. I delivered the eggs I had brought as a present. We shared our lunch among the three of us and spent several hours in wordless contemplation of the countryside.

In the direction from which we had come the slopes were covered with trees twenty to twenty-five feet tall. I remembered how the land had looked in 1913: a desert .... Peaceful, regular toil, the vigorous mountain air, frugality and, above all, serenity of spirit had endowed this old man with awe-inspiring health. He was one of God's athletes. I wondered how many more acres he was going to cover with trees.
Before leaving, my friend simply made a brief suggestion about certain species of trees that the soil here seemed particularly suited for. He did not force the point. "For the very good reason," he told me later, "that Bouffier knows more about it than I do." At the end of an hour's walking—having turned it over his mind—he added, "He knows a lot more about it than anybody. He's discovered a wonderful way to be happy!"

It was thanks to this officer that not only the forest but also the happiness of the man was protected. He delegated three rangers to the task, and so terrorized them that they remained proof against all the bottles of wine the charcoal burners could offer.

The only serious danger to the work occurred during the war of 1939. As cars were being run on gazogenes (wood-burning generators), there was never enough wood. Cutting was started among the oaks of 1910, but the area was so far from any railroads that the enterprise turned out to be financially unsound. It was abandoned. The shepherd had seen nothing of it. He was thirty kilometers away, peacefully continuing his work, ignoring the war of '39 as he had ignored that of '14.

I saw Elzéard Bouffier for the last time in June of 1945. He was then eighty-seven. I had started back along the route through the wastelands; but now, in spite of the disorder in which the war had left the country, there was a bus running between the Durance Valley and the mountain. I attributed the fact that I no longer recognized the scenes of my earlier journeys to this relatively speedy transportation. It seemed to me, too, that the route took me through new territory. It took the name of a village to convince me that I was actually in that region that had been all ruins and desolation.

The bus put me down at Vergons. In 1913 this hamlet of ten or twelve houses had three inhabitants. They had been savage creatures, hating one another, living by trapping game, little removed, both physically and morally, from the conditions of prehistoric man. All about them nettles were feeding upon the remains of abandoned houses. Their condition had been beyond hope. For them, nothing but to await death—a situation which rarely predisposes to virtue.

Everything was changed. Even the air. Instead of the harsh dry winds that used to attack me, a gentle breeze was blowing, laden with scents. A sound like water came from the mountains: it was the wind in the forest. Most amazing of all, I heard the actual sound of water falling into a pool. I saw that a fountain had been built, that it flowed freely and—what touched me most—that some one had planted a linden beside it, a linden that must have been four years old, already in full leaf, the incontestable symbol of resurrection.

Besides, Vergons bore evidence of labor at the sort of undertaking for which hope is required. Hope, then, had returned. Ruins had been cleared away, dilapidated walls torn down and five houses restored. Now there were twenty-eight inhabitants, four of them young married couples.

The new houses, freshly plastered, were surrounded by gardens where vegetables and flowers grew in orderly confusion, cabbages and roses, leeks and snapdragons, celery and anemones. It was now a village where one would like to live.

From that point on I went on foot. The war just finished had not yet allowed the full blooming of life, but Lazarus was out of the tomb. On the lower slopes of the mountain I saw little fields of barely and of rye; deep in the narrow valleys the meadows were turning green.
It has taken only the eight years since then for the whole countryside to glow with health and prosperity. On the site of ruins I had seen in 1913 now stand neat farms, cleanly plastered, testifying to a happy and comfortable life. The old streams, fed by the rains and snows that the forest conserves, are flowing again. Their waters have been channeled. On each farm, in groves of maples, fountain pools overflow on to carpets of fresh mint.

Little by little the villages have been rebuilt. People from the plains, where land is costly, have settled here, bringing youth, motion, the spirit of adventure. Along the roads you meet hearty men and women, boys and girls who understand laughter and have recovered a taste for picnics. Counting the former population, unrecognizable now that they live in comfort, more than ten thousand people owe their happiness to Elzéard Bouffier.

When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God.

Elzéard Bouffier died peacefully in 1947 at the hospice in Banon.