Aspiration-Ground, Now and Then


by Animesh Harrington

 

It is late afternoon in New York – high summer – and the humidity of the day is just beginning to break. I am grateful to find a cool and restful sanctuary from the city heat and the uncomfortable rhythm of the streets.

The voice of the poet has drawn me here to “the green and the dense groves.”1 There is a gentle whisper in the breeze beckoning me. “Smiles call me, tears call me. A faint melody calls me,”2 as I move inexorably towards an oasis of the soul.

The discordant thud of traffic gradually diminishes and the sound of singing grows louder as I walk along a driveway entrance. Inside, beyond the high fence covered in wisteria, an international music group practises. There is an unhurried serenity here and the atmosphere brings peace to both heart and mind.

As I pass through the gate, a silent inner feeling of reverence begins to envelop me and I find myself walking upon holy ground – the very ground upon which a great spiritual master once trod.

Over the past week or so, people from across the globe have been gathering here to honour what would have been Sri Chinmoy’s 78th birthday on August 27. The days and nights have been given over to meditations, plays, poetry and music. Indeed, the area inside resembles a small amphitheatre – a perfect venue for these types of activities – a flat open lower level bordered by a high wall decorated along the perimeter with flowers and lush greenery, stairs leading to an elevated walkway and a series of tiered bleachers built into a surrounding natural hill, all shaded by high, leafy trees.

The white bleachers, upon which I now take my seat, though they have been renewed and considerably expanded over the years, were originally constructed as part of a tennis court back in the early ’80s. But this piece of parkland in suburban New York City was always more than a sports facility. It was given the name Aspiration-Ground by Sri Chinmoy many years ago and he always intended it to be a place for spiritual progress.  

My eyes scan the dark green rim of the treetop canopy that crowds the heights above me. The sharp edge of a leafy silhouette clips out a clear patch of vibrant blue from the sky. It is cool here among the maples and elms and my thoughts are calm and expansive. I could easily linger in the heavens where thoughts evaporate into the formless beyond, but I remind myself there is so much that Aspiration-Ground has to offer.  

As my eyes descend through the tight interlocking pattern of leaf-laden boughs, I am reminded how many memories they must hold; how much these silent sentinels have witnessed over the years. They are the guardians of a very special epoch in spiritual history.  

I think back over the countless times I have sat on these benches – in early morning and late at night; in sunshine and in rain; in frigid cold and searing heat; through mid-summer and the depths of winter; on through the ’80s and the ’90s, just to be with Sri Chinmoy as he meditated, played tennis, gave concerts and lifted all manner of things, from inert metal weights to people from all walks of life.  

My thoughts are carried gently on the soothing fragrant currents that pervade the atmosphere of Aspiration-Ground. They are not bound by the present; they seem to easily glide across three decades of history all in a magnificent moment. And I begin to paint a scene with colours and sounds from the past, as I am absorbed in beguiling reminiscences of summers long gone. The tall wire driveway fence, which is now covered in flowering vine, in my mind is almost transparent. The large suspended video projector screen is replaced by a simple blackboard upon which tennis scores, aphorisms and daily highlights are written in chalk. Peel back the decorations and extra seating from the lower level, and a full-size tennis court is revealed. The soft surface is raked and watered, the white-tape lines are brushed, and the court awaits Sri Chinmoy’s first footprint of the day.  

There is no doubt Sri Chinmoy loved this special place. He would play tennis here at every opportunity, no matter what the weather. At the far end of the court, where a beautiful memorial temple now stands, a small blue-painted wooden hut served as Sri Chinmoy’s home away from home. It was the type of structure you might find in an Indian village – simple yet completely functional – two large wire doors at the front, which even when closed still gave a view of the entire tennis court; artificial grass floor covering; a chair and a lamp; a heater in winter, a fan in summer; and a small table for drinks between matches. To each side, and sometimes inside this tiny outdoor room, lay exercise machines of every variety that Sri Chinmoy would regularly use. For him, the body was a temple and he stressed over and over again, in word and in action, how important it was to keep the body fit and healthy to allow the soul the opportunity to express its divine qualities. It was nothing for him to play 50 matches straight, and then go on to lift weights or workout on machines custom-built to strengthen different muscle groups.  

Especially when the weather was fine, Sri Chinmoy would spend all day at the court. The magic of those days cannot be overestimated. They were days of continuous joyful spontaneity that flowed on and on. We felt like a caravan of pilgrims travelling across time, never knowing what divine surprise lay around the next corner.  

Seated in his little blue gazebo, Sri Chinmoy would quite often compose songs extemporaneously on a small tote-a-tune and have different singing groups learn them on the spot – often correcting the singers as they struggled to negotiate the ‘tricky’ weave of a particular melodic phrase. Our western musical notation, with its seven basic notes, could translate nothing of the subtlety which Sri Chinmoy so effortlessly employed in his songs. The lilting slides between notes are lost if one refers only to the sheet music. For Sri Chinmoy, the subtlety of the melody was everything – it was the conveyer of consciousness, an expression of soulfulness. And so, Sri Chinmoy taught in that same centuries-old oral tradition that has enabled the integrity of songs that lie far outside the regime of western scales to be preserved.  

Over and over, the singers would sing. And when the singers had finally got it, everyone smiled. This would inevitably lead on to a grand performance in the afternoon or later that evening. But these were the days when we had Sri Chinmoy, master composer and singer – the exemplar – to show us how it was done.  

Whenever Sri Chinmoy arrived at Aspiration-Ground there was always a hush that overcame the crowd. He would invariably be in a meditative mood as he walked through the gate at the far end of the court. His presence always evoked a feeling of reverence. On seeing him, one could not help but feel drawn to prayer in an effort to find a corresponding part of oneself that could approach the natural serenity which he possessed. Before and after every activity Sri Chinmoy would meditate – every action for him was an act of devotion. Quite often he would sit and chat to us, answering questions, relating anecdotes – serious and amusing. Yet all the while, as he was seemingly occupied by the outer circumstance of talk and laughter, there remained a feeling that he was engulfed by an infinitely more sublime experience.  

Gazing down to where that little blue hut once stood, it seems to me now that at any moment Sri Chinmoy could appear. And as he so often did, he would walk by in a high meditation. His eyes would barely be open, yet he would be completely conscious of every step. He would negotiate a 90-degree turn with precision, never for a moment losing his inner poise. For 20 minutes or so he would walk back and forth along the entire length of the court, a wave of peace emanating from him with every prayerful footstep he took.  

Meditation was the focal point of life at the court. Yet despite its peaceful ambience, the court was always a hive of activity; a constant, steady movement behind the scenes, ensuring everything ran smoothly. As leader of a worldwide organisation, there were always things that required Sri Chinmoy’s attention. Messages would constantly be relayed back and forth. Sometimes they required nothing more than a nod or the wave of his hand; at other times they could occupy him for lengthy periods. Nonetheless, time never seemed to be Sri Chinmoy’s enemy. Somehow it too seemed willing to surrender to a higher power. Sri Chinmoy’s uncanny knack for timing was not only evident in his tennis playing but in every aspect of his life. “Life is a divine game,”3 he once wrote, and he played it perfectly.  

Over the years, many thousands of people have visited Aspiration-Ground. It was the culture of the heart that Sri Chinmoy created here, which drew people from all walks of life. Among those who came, were tennis players like Monica Seles and Ilie Nastase; athletes like Carl Lewis and Bill Pearl; and singers like Roberta Flack and Sheena Easton.  

All who came in contact with Sri Chinmoy were touched by a special grace. These were halcyon days; days when a great spiritual master trod upon this very ground; days we thought would never end. They will never be repeated. “Alas, the Boat of Time sails on,”4 still the poet sings.  

The sky calls me,
The wind calls me,
The moon and the stars call me.

The green and the dense groves call me,
The dance of the fountain calls me,
Smiles call me, tears call me.
A faint melody calls me.

The morn, noon and eve call me.
Everyone is searching for a playmate,
Everyone is calling me, “Come, come!”
One voice, one sound, all around.
Alas, the Boat of Time sails on.
5

Time has moved on. Yet while the outer appearance of Aspiration-Ground has changed, the essential inner qualities with which Sri Chinmoy imbued this sacred place have remained.  

The tall trees draw me once more into their confidence. There is a refreshing afternoon breeze moving through the high branches and the rustling leaves seem to be whispering. It is tempting to believe that all the treasured experiences over the years, all those stories of endless delight, and the myriad secrets of the inner worlds have been recorded here...  

Today, gazing into the silent heights of the treetop canopy, the sights and sounds of the court, where Sri Chinmoy spent his days, are still very much alive.

 

– End –

 

Endnotes:
1, 2, 4 & 5 Sri Chinmoy, My Flute, ‘The Boat of Time Sails On’, P.48., Agni Press, 1972.
3 Sri Chinmoy, Ten Thousand Flower-Flames, Poem no. 9272, Part 93, Agni Press, 1983.

 

Copyright © September, 2009, Animesh Harrington. All rights reserved.