50 years ago in the countercultural summer of 1973, in the metaphysical section of the Victoria, B.C. library, I randomly grabbed two books from the far right-side of the bottom shelf: Krishna Book, Volume Two and Bhagavad-Gita As It Is.
Back at our peaceful ocean side cabin I tried reading Krsna Book in the shade of the huge cedar trees. The story of the Syamantaka Jewel was like a soap opera, so I passed it to my wife, who loved the drama.
Turning to Bhagavad Gita, my eyes literally opened to a reality in which Srila Prabhupada’s words could be seen in the absolute sense of the term. Writing the nearest temple for more information resulted in a 5-page handwritten letter which described chanting 16 rounds of a Maha Mantra on a string of 108 beads. We bought some large beads, strung them up and began chanting as we had heard it sung in the musical Hair. It became immediately apparent that singing 16 rounds a day of Krishna Mantra was not a viable option.
Entering the Hare Krishna Explosion
Shortly after, we took the scenic ferry to Vancouver and visited the Hare Krishna Temple. We spent the night, and in the morning, received instructions on how to properly chant. Within two weeks, we moved to the temple, a 4-bedroom Tudor house. One bedroom was the Deity sewing room, one was the sankirtan office and the other two bedrooms, in the evening, were gender separated, wall to wall sleeping devotees.
The Bhakta Program at that time consisted of everyone giving the newest bhakta their service. Trying to surrender, I said yes to every request and ended up struggling to find time to chant 16 rounds between endless service from 5 am, when Mangal Arati ended, until 9:30 at night. Being the last one to bed, I kept my sleeping bag in the hall where I inevitably slept, as it was impossible to navigate through the sleeping devotees to get to the closet to retrieve my bedding.
In the morning japa session there was a Bhakta Larry who chanted super-fast. In retrospect, it reminds me of kids putting a clothes pin holding cardboard against bike spokes to produce a rapid clicking sound. So, he became a role model…for a week, until he blooped, left the temple. So, now I was up the creek with no paddle until a fateful morning when someone brought a new invention their father had sent, a portable cassette recorder, into the japa session and for the first time played a recording of Srila Prabhupada’s japa. I swear the angels were singing halleluiah in the background. It was the famous tape where Prabhupada says, “Sit properly.” Chanting with Srila Prabhupada’s recording gave a feeling of safety and security and after speaking with the temple president, my services were adjusted to a busy but blissful routine.
Chanting in that small temple room with over 30 devotees every single morning was electrifying. Later, more japa with 15 devotees in the stripped down sankirtan van, with no back seats and no side windows, was like a humming beehive of bliss. I still wonder what the gas station attendants were thinking.
In December of 1973, my wife, Uttama, and I took initiation from Srila Prabhupada. We made our vows before him and still chant on the beads he personally gave us, now well worn, after over 292,000 rounds on each set.
Taking chanting to another level
In November of 1977 my wife, Uttama and I were present in Vrndavana for Srila Prabhupada’s concluding pastimes. Being with Prabhupada in his room from four to fourteen hours a day for a week and a half was the greatest fortune. Expecting his room to be packed with devotees but noticing how few there were, I began spending more and more time doing kirtan and japa there. Being musically challenged I had a fear of being alone and asked to lead kirtan for Prabhupada.
One afternoon, two devotees came in and started chanting Brahma Samhita. In Prabhupada’s room, during Kartik, in Vrndavana and hearing Brahma Samhita, I was thinking, “It could not get any better than this!” Then surprisingly Srila Prabhupada requested that he only wanted japa. The devotees singing Brahma Samhita got up and left the room.
I thought, if Prabhupada wants japa, I’ll chant japa for him. Thus began the most amazing, intense japa immersion. After completing some Deity seva at 6 am, I went straight to Srila Prabhupada’s room to chant japa at his bedside until late in the evening, when I would finally be falling asleep, standing up.
It was such a penetrating, powerful, poignant experience to be chanting the Maha Manta 14 hours a day a few feet from His Divine Grace with the focused awareness that it was important to him and gave him comfort.
Over the years I have tried different techniques for concentrating on japa. To be honest, my mind is like a room with a dozen radios, all playing different channels. Nothing helps me concentrate, except one thing- realizing that I am personally chanting for Srila Prabhupada’s pleasure. To this day, this is my intent while chanting. Realizing that these are not “my rounds”, I now understand they are a sacred, invaluable gift Srila Prabhupada presented to me to care for and they are to be held very close to my heart.
Often there is the question, “What was it like to be with Prabhupada?” My reply is, “If I simply chant with the intent of pleasing Srila Prabhupada, I experience that same feeling of chanting directly for him in his room in 1977. Try it.”
This realization helped me navigate some very challenging times which I will describe in Part 2.