A Journey to the South Seas

Sri Chinmoy’s visit to Samoa and Fiji, 1993-94

by Animesh Harrington

It is a world away from the bleak grey skyline of winter discontent; the rush and scuttle of grid-locked streets; the squeeze and scatter of subway transits; and the crowded isolation of tired, foot-worn pavements where biting waves of ice-cold Atlantic air drive inhabitants of New York City either indoors for months, or in search of warmer climes.

This is Samoa.

Here the air is humming with heat; heavy with humidity. The rainforest glistens with tropic intensity and the sky is clear, wide and high. Lush greens and brilliant blues fill the senses with South Pacific peace and nature’s warmth envelopes northern visitors like a comforting blanket.

Sri Chinmoy and a few hundred of his students have arrived and everyone is grateful to be here. For a Bengali like Sri Chinmoy, the weather in Samoa is reminiscent of his childhood days. He certainly seems at home.

   
 
Wearing his gold World Masters Games uniform, Sri Chinmoy sprints around the track at Apia Park – December 28, 1993. Photo: Animesh

At age 62, Sri Chinmoy is looking trim and athletic. Ten years of weightlifting, from 1983 to 1992, saw him bulk up to cope with his strenuous training regime. But with a respite from heavy lifting and his chronic knee injury gradually improving, he has been able to concentrate once more on his favourite sport of running. This past October he was able to compete in the 10th World Veterans Games in Miyazaki, Japan. His body is taking on the shape of a seasoned athlete.

Sri Chinmoy now weighs less than 145 pounds – a goal he has been cherishing for some time. Although this is somewhat heavier than his Ashram weight of 131 pounds, he is overjoyed with the achievement. And to celebrate the occasion, he wants to give his students a special present, so he asks his long-time British disciple Ongkar Smith to organise a 145-item prasad (blessed food).

In Samoa, a confluence of forces seems destined to enable Sri Chinmoy to improve his sprint times. Determination and opportunity are happy partners here – Sri Chinmoy’s steadfast commitment and a warm, relaxed environment in which to train will soon produce results. Within a day or so, some of the boys have already fashioned a makeshift 100-metre track in a vacant field not far out of town for Sri Chinmoy to practise on.

Sri Chinmoy once lamented that as you get older, the spring in your legs is no longer there. His body now does not respond as it did when he was the 100-metre champion of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, some thirty or more years ago. These days, the speed of his youth is beyond his reach. But undeterred by the constraints of passing decades, Sri Chinmoy is still eager to find new ways of increasing the length of his stride, and he will practise every day with utmost dedication.

Yet running is only one of the many activities that occupy Sri Chinmoy’s ‘holiday’ schedule. For many years, Sri Chinmoy has performed ‘Peace Concerts’ wherever he goes, and Samoa’s capital of Apia will be no exception. After meeting with the Head of State of Samoa, King Malietoa Tanumafili II, Sri Chinmoy holds a Peace Concert in his honour. It is an opportunity for Sri Chinmoy to play and sing some of his favourite songs and most importantly to offer his gratitude to the Samoan people.

The grounds of the Kitano Tusitala Hotel where Sri Chinmoy is staying provide an ideal outdoor setting in which to hold regular functions. A series of tents and portable chairs are set out on the grass in the open air. In the morning, afternoon and evening, Sri Chinmoy and his students gather here to meditate, to sing and tell stories. Typically, the evening functions are punctuated by heavy downpours of tropical rain. But it never lasts for long and cheerful laughter soon returns everyone to their seats as the joyful mood of the function continues to flow on into a star-blessed night.

 
 

Wherever Sri Chinmoy happens to be, he can always be seen with pen and paper. The tiny abstract bird drawings known as ‘Dream-Freedom Peace-Birds’, which he started in Malta two years ago, seem to roll from his hand at an ever-astonishing rate. Every spare minute is consumed with creating. And it’s not as if Sri Chinmoy works for ten minutes or half an hour between more important matters. No, it is almost as if he has access to the space between the racing seconds of normal life, where he is able to draw into existence something of form from a formless welkin of creativity. To watch Sri Chinmoy while he is drawing is akin to witnessing the primordial moment when time itself was first created.

The numbers speak for themselves: Sri Chinmoy has just passed the 700,000 mark – 724,000 to be exact – which averages out at more than 1,000 birds per day since the project began.

Tonight there is a special banquet in honour of the 700,000 birds. The Jharna-Kala1 girls have cooked a delicious Indian meal. And because it rains each night here, this evening all the chairs are lined up along the covered walkways. There is a line of chairs on each side, stretching for almost 100 metres, with just enough room to walk down the middle for serving. The odd tourist walks through, a little bemused I’m sure, as we sit happily chatting and eating.

After the banquet, we move over to a large tent to view Sri Chinmoy’s latest creation. He asks us to walk by “prayerfully.” The magnificent illustration on display before us is unique. This drawing marks a radical shift in Sri Chinmoy’s artistic development; it is quite unlike anything he has previously done.

Initially, this new artwork looks similar to one of his early pastel drawings, but on closer inspection it can be seen to be entirely composed of very tiny birds – each one, vivid, brilliant and precise. All have their own individuality and a special luminosity, which is surprising because from a distance the collective form is totally different. The brightly coloured tiny birds combine to produce a larger picture, a new optical image – more muted in tone – much like how the eye synthesises the individual dots in the pointillist paintings of Seurat and Monet to produce perfectly composed scenes.

This drawing contains over 13,000 birds. Sri Chinmoy explains that the large overall picture looks like Kanu (his favourite dog who died just one year ago) when he sat in a particular way. The drawing was dedicated to Kanu and Sri Chinmoy’s mother (who looks after him in the inner world).

This evening, we celebrate Sri Chinmoy’s new weight achievement with the 145-item prasad. Sri Chinmoy said the items could be “smaller than an atom,” hence there are all manner of things, ranging in size from a grain of pepper to a tomato, all contained in a large surprise pack. He was so proud to have lost weight that he also hands out a photo of himself on the scales as proof!

 

Speculation is rife as to when Sri Chinmoy might complete 1,000,000 birds, but he is giving no hints. However, he said when he is finished they will be displayed in a gallery in Canada. “I’m begging each and every one of you to come to Canada at least once in your life to see these birds,” he declares. Then he adds, “and this means disciples from abroad ... You won’t have to meditate or do anything. There will be two million wings to lift you up.”

The function continues with people telling stories of their adventures while here in Samoa. One place of interest to visitors has been the house of the famous Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson,2 author of such classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The author spent the last 5 years of his life in Samoa. His home, located in the much cooler altitude of Vailima, just 4 km from Apia, is a beautifully preserved example of colonial architecture. Here many of his books and letters have been preserved. The Samoan people had such high regard for their Tusitala (Teller of Tales) that when he died, they carried his body on their shoulders to the summit of nearby Mount Vaea, where they buried him, overlooking the sea.

Sri Chinmoy, a prolific author himself, would no doubt have been pleased to hear of the honour accorded to a fellow writer. Nevertheless, he takes the opportunity to keep drawing. Behind the scenes, Jharna-Kala girls have been busily counting birds in the ever-increasing number of drawings that have been accumulating. Towards the end of the evening, Sri Chinmoy announces that today was his biggest day yet – 21,466. (The previous highest total was 21,232.) Currently, the total number of bird drawings is 769,000. The artist-athlete is steadily closing in on 800,000.

A boat trip is being organised for tomorrow. It will take people to another island for a dedication of the body of water between the two islands as a ‘Sri Chinmoy Peace Strait’. There will be a big ceremony there with the chief of the island.

Sri Chinmoy does not go on the boat trip; he spends the morning drawing. It seems every bit of his energy is now going into the ‘birds’. Sri Chinmoy wants to finish the million as soon as possible.

The afternoon brings Sri Chinmoy to his running track and the boys who had worked on the track are invited to run 100-metre time trials. Most people are on the boat trip, so there are only about 30 disciples here. Sri Chinmoy stays at the track for a long time, having all sorts of races. Finally, he gives out a huge sugary pastry for prasad.

Tonight there is a huge treat in store – we are all off to the circus.

The sun is setting as we arrive at a most unusual venue. There are a few stalls set up outside a miniature big-top-style tent, which only seats about 200 people. The humidity is near 100% as we pack ourselves tightly into the crowded seats surrounding the tiny arena. This is the first all-Samoan circus and most of the performers have never seen a real circus before. They range in age from three to forty plus, and the rustic simplicity of their skills, as well as some well-honed professional acts, has us all charmed. It is after all called ‘The Magic Circus of Samoa’.

The enthusiasm of the ringmaster, Tup’ai Bruno Loyale, makes it all happen. As the circus is about to start, he introduces Sri Chinmoy as a ‘Man of Peace’. All evening he is overwhelmingly open-hearted and beaming a smile from ear to ear. Needless to say, it is an infectiously happy event. Sri Chinmoy takes in all the action, even while he is still busily drawing.

Some of the Samoan circus performers have traditional tattoos on their bodies. The more tattoos a man has, the higher his standing in Samoan society. To undergo the entire process is extremely painful and takes up to sixteen years. Usually, only a chief will have his body completely covered in tattoos.

 

 
Ringmaster Tup’ai Bruno Loyale wearing the garland just presented to him by Sri Chinmoy. Photo: Prashphutita Greco   After the circus, Sri Chinmoy greets the ringmaster who proudly displays his traditional Samoan tattoos.

 

At the end of the night’s performances, the ringmaster himself is introduced. He enters the central arena, minus his flamboyant showman’s coat and tails, dressed instead in simple Samoan attire. It is a surprise to everyone to see that he too is adorned with the traditional tattoos. He is of German origin, speaks with an American accent, but he is every bit a Samoan. After the show, Sri Chinmoy is eager to meet him again to offer his gratitude for the evening’s truly magical experience.

Inspired by the idea that participating in sport is not just for the young, but for the young at heart, Sri Chinmoy has been sponsoring athletic events for the over 50s since 1985. At 7 a.m. this morning, a group of intrepid elderly athletes gather in Apia Park for the Sri Chinmoy Masters Games. The Minister of Youth, Sports & Cultural Affairs Tuiloma Pule Lameko is here as is Chief Matai Viao Ala’Illima and his wife, a noted American author, all ready to compete.

Sri Chinmoy too, is ready to run. He is wearing his uniform, gold shorts and singlet, from the World Masters Games in Miyazaki. The warm climate here seems to draw out the best from Sri Chinmoy’s muscles. And even though the track is less than ideal, with its uneven surface partly covered in slippery moss, Sri Chinmoy’s time for 100 metres is clocked at 15.1 sec. and 33.4 sec. for 200 metres. At the end of the morning’s activities, the invited guests participate in a Celebrity 100-metre walk. Minister Lameko crosses the line first and Sri Chinmoy ties with Chief Matai Viao Ala’illima.

At the awards ceremony, the Minister leads the Samoans in a traditional Samoan song.

Tonight is Sri Chinmoy’s second Peace Concert in Apia and he dedicates the concert to Mikhail Gorbachev, saying that he is, “the greatest peace-dreamer, the greatest peace-seeker and the greatest peace-lover here on earth.” The Minister of Sports has become a great supporter of Sri Chinmoy’s peace initiatives and he is in attendance tonight.

The year is drawing to a close, and so is our stay in Samoa. So much has happened here that remains unrecorded. Only the highlights now seem recognisable; like islands, on an ocean of consciousness, they jut out above the waterline of experience. But even the smallest, most fleeting moments can often change the complexion of a day, lift the heart to unexpected joy or soothe the soul. Samoa has done that for us. The Samoans we have met and the Samoan nation as a whole, I’m sure, have benefited from so graciously accepting the presence of a great spiritual master. Tofa soifua Samoa!

***

It is New Year’s Eve in Nadi,3 Fiji, the first day of our ten-day stay here. At the entrance to the function room is a small sign which says that Sri Chinmoy has requested that we enter in silence, with folded hands, and to be in a prayerful consciousness.

Only a few people are here at present. They are walking slowly around the room. Stretched along both side walls are two 4 ft. x 30 ft. rolls of paper covered in texta-coloured birds. There are 7 or 8 large bird shapes on each sheet. Surrounding and within each major bird image, are many other smaller birds – flying, diving, floating and sweeping across the canvas. A personal insight strikes me: the very existence of these birds is due to Sri Chinmoy’s Light and at the same time their very existence is to spread Sri Chinmoy’s Light.

When Sri Chinmoy arrives, we take our seats and listen intently as he talks about the year ahead from a spiritual perspective. He extemporaneously recites this prayer:

My Beloved Supreme, the New Year begins.
Do tell me
How I can please You most
In the New Year.
“My child, you will be able
To please Me most
If you just give Me two things
Once and for all:
Your mind’s ceaseless deception-night
And your heart’s sleepless aspiration-light.”
                                                    December 31, 1993

Sri Chinmoy is still drawing and the official bird count now stands at 826,603. He expresses a wish to complete 1,000,000 birds before the end of the Christmas trip.

The first day of the New Year marks the commencement of outdoor morning meditations, followed by bhajans.4 Sri Chinmoy arrives around 5:15 a.m., meditates for a short time and recites a special prayer:

My Absolute Lord Supreme,
May my mind today and every day
Think of You only.
May my heart today and every day
Love You only.
May my life today and every day
Serve You only.
May I today and every day
Place my success-joy and my progress-peace
At Your Compassion-Feet.
                                                              January 1, 1994

It is the night before we leave Nadi and Sri Chinmoy shows us something very special which he had been working on that day. Done on approximately A3 size paper, they are intricate drawings of birds composed of thousands of very tiny birds.

The three ballpoint pen sketches represent the members of his immediate family. One is of his mother – the number of small birds alone in this drawing of Jogā Bishwās (Yogāmayā, as she was known) is 3,127. Another depicts his father, Shashi Kumar, and the third drawing depicts all seven brothers and sisters.

Next morning at the 5 a.m. meditation, Sri Chinmoy recites this prayer:

This morning
My Lord Beloved Supreme
Is telling me
That before I dare to claim
His Immortal Love, Immortal Joy
And Immortal Pride
As my own, very own,
My own faith-heart-garden-blossoms
Must infinitely increase
Their beauty and fragrance
Inside His Compassion-flooded Heart.
                                              January 2, 1994

The early part of the day is spent in packing all the bird drawings, equipment and personal luggage onto buses that will take us from Nadi to Fiji’s capital, Suva, on the other side of the main island.

 

Here in Suva this morning, Sri Chinmoy is ‘relaxing’ by the hotel pool and still drawing birds at an incredible rate. Last night he said he had finished 860,000.

During the day, Sri Chinmoy watches some of the boys playing volleyball. He instructs them with great enthusiasm, calling the vital shots and scoring the matches. Then for a bit of fun, he has them playing games, such as keeping the ball up in the air for as long as possible. Volleyball is one of Sri Chinmoy’s favourite sports. He used to play it in his youth and captained the men’s team at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India before he came to the West.

Sri Chinmoy likes it here in Fiji. The large Indian population gives the island a very different feeling. The streets are filled with sari shops and all types of Indian food vendors. There are stores full of brassware, spiritual books and religious items – brightly coloured pictures of Indian gods and goddesses are ubiquitous. Sri Chinmoy can often be seen out and about, popping into the many fascinating stores around the city.

At the evening function, Sri Chinmoy announces that the tally is now 878,316 birds. He comments that the first 100,000 birds took him more than a year and 10 or 11 months to complete, whereas the subsequent number has been done in the few months since then. Like any task he undertakes, his progress seems to invariably follow an exponential path.

Fiji’s National Stadium in Suva is an all-purpose venue with its own 400-metre synthetic track. In a few days the Sri Chinmoy Masters Games will be staged here, so Sri Chinmoy can be seen early each morning, rain or shine, practising his sprints.

January 5, 1994, proves to be an historic day, filled with anticipation and drama. The next eventful 24 hours begins with a prophetic message by Sri Chinmoy at 5:15 a.m.:

Supreme, my Supreme, my Lord Supreme,
My Absolute Supreme, my Beloved Supreme,
Today once more,
Out of Your boundless Bounty,
You are making me
A choice instrument of Yours.
You are completing one million bird-creations
Through my aspiration-heart
And dedication-life.
My Lord, my Lord, my Lord,
Do make my heart
Worthy of Your infinite Compassion
And my life Your immortal Victory.
My Lord, my Lord, my Lord,
Your birds are smiling
In Infinity’s Sky.
Your birds are singing
In Eternity’s Peace, Peace, Peace.
                                          January 5, 1994

Many of us are presently seated in the hotel lobby awaiting Sri Chinmoy’s arrival. It could be minutes or hours to the one million. Sri Chinmoy walks downstairs. He is carrying with him, folders and papers. He is totally immersed in his own world of creation. He gazes sideways at us for a moment, but you can tell that he does not see us – his eyes are focused on a more immediate goal.

The room is filled with palpable expectation. Sri Chinmoy walks outside, takes a seat under the large shaded canopy, and calls for some of the girl counters – presumably to check the latest count. Suddenly he rushes back through the door and heads upstairs. On the way, he calls for his attendant, Savyasachi Brown. Now, back down the stairs – Sri Chinmoy first, followed by Savyasachi carrying 5 or 6 rolls of paper. The intensity is building as Sri Chinmoy returns to his seat outside. Savyasachi is now counting each page as Sri Chinmoy completes the drawings.

Tonight there is a Peace Concert at the Suva Civic Centre dedicated to President Gorbachev. It is all of one hour long – very short by Sri Chinmoy’s standards. He is soon dashing back to the hotel. The counters inform him that he still has 39,000 to go. At his hotel room, Sri Chinmoy keeps drawing, through the late evening and on past midnight, into the silent hours of the next day.

It is easy to think, with his goal so tantalisingly close and after a long day and night packed with activity, that the early hours of the morning might tempt Sri Chinmoy to take the shortest route to his goal by quickly drawing the smallest possible birds. But again, Sri Chinmoy confounds the devious mind. Instead, he begins to create something totally new – large, intricate and beautiful designs on fabric, saris and postcards.

At 4:31 a.m., January 6, 1994, local time, he finally completes the one million birds. But Sri Chinmoy still counts this as belonging to January 5, since, in Moscow, it is still January 5 – Raisa Gorbacheva’s birthday. Sri Chinmoy was determined to finish by her birthday as the entire collection is dedicated to her. The final count is 1,001,919.

Many more events will take place over the forthcoming days, but one highlight will forever remain unsurpassed – the one million bird drawings and the Herculean effort of their creator.

The Sri Chinmoy Masters Games is held at the National Stadium, where Sri Chinmoy runs 100 metres in 14.82 sec., his fastest time so far during this Christmas trip; the Sri Chinmoy Oneness-Home Peace Run visits a hospital, an orphanage, a school, and carries the flaming torch around the oval at a Rugby match; and at the National Stadium, Ashrita Furman sets an official world record for dribbling a basketball – 83 miles in 24 hours – to honour his Guru’s achievement.

Finally, today Sri Chinmoy and his students are leaving Fiji. Some will travel with him onto Raratonga and Tahiti before returning to New York. Others will fly out to destinations in Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Yet it won’t be long before they all meet again. One million Dream-Freedom Peace-Birds are also taking flight. They too will flock together soon, in what will be a spectacular display of light and colour in the heart of Ottawa,5 Canada, the city Sri Chinmoy has chosen to exhibit this most wondrous collection of heaven-born creations.

Vinaka vaka-levu Fiji!

 

– End –

References:
Author’s original diary notes from Samoa and Fiji, 1993-94
Notes by Prashphutita Greco: Sri Chinmoy in Western Samoa and Fiji (1993/4)
Anahata Nada, Volume 23, Mid-December 1993–March 1994
News Clippings from Samoa-Fiji 1993-94
Statistical References: Sri Chinmoy’s first one million Soul-Bird drawings

 

Endnotes:
1 Jharna-Kala is Bengali for Fountain-Art, the name Sri Chinmoy gave to his body of artwork. For many years Sri Chinmoy’s paintings and drawings have been catalogued, preserved and exhibited by a dedicated group of girls.
2 Sri Chinmoy’s stay in Samoa coincided with the eve of the centenary year of Robert Louis Stevenson’s death (1894).
3 In Fijian, the letter ‘d’ is pronounced as ‘nd’, thus ‘Nadi’ is pronounced ‘Nandi’.
4 Traditional-style devotional songs, composed by Sri Chinmoy.
5 On March 23, 1994, an exhibition of Sri Chinmoy’s first 1,000,000 Dream-Freedom Peace-Birds opened in a gallery in Ottawa, Canada. The choice of Ottawa to host the drawings is significant because it was here Sri Chinmoy produced his first artwork in the West, on November 19, 1974.

Copyright © January, 2010, Animesh Harrington. All rights reserved.