I think Viren Joshi said it best when he said that Words are not enough.
How can one explain a silence that speaks, an emptiness that fills, a moment that seems to last eternity? Last weekend has been one that I would label as Beyond Words. The Manav Sadhna weekend.
Even in this moment, I sit in a room that seems to have changed somehow. With Virenbhai’s chanting, John and Thoi’s meditation sits, and BTC volunteer’s sharing of food and gratitude, somehow, these four walls have changed again.
Friday afternoon, Laura, Brittany and I pull up at the airport to find Virenbhai receiving his luggage. He doesn’t recognize my face, but I recognize his simplicity. He looks just like any ordinary man: golf shirt, jeans, black suitcase, graying mustache, and a down-to-earth smile. At first glance you would never expect that this man could change your life.
I immediately feel as if it would be good for me to carry his luggage.
We drive to my home where Nirali is awaiting with a surprise. We open the door and Virenbhai is greeted with a traditional Indian welcome. A small flame passionately dances on a plate as it circles around Virenbhai’s face. The glow of light is mirrored on Virenbhai’s face as it is on Nirali’s. I know that my home is being blessed.
We enter the main room… and it begins from there. We sit in silence for a few minutes before Virenbhai is inspired to share a few prayers. Now the fire dances within us.
After a brief snack we make our way to Rutabagorz restaurant in the city of Orange. During dinner we all decide to share what we have been up to since we last saw Virenbhai in India 6 months ago. Jason started off with an astonishing announcement. In seven days he is going to become a vegetarian!!! That was a tough one to follow, but all the volunteers had inspiring changes to share. Most volunteers mentioned how the trip to India in December was making them more compassionate, more introspective, and more filled with faith.
Having conveniently forgotten my wallet at home, I had little say in how the bill was to be paid. It went around the table and everyone pitched in their fair share. When the bill reached the last person, it magically reversed and started to make its way backwards. Overwhelmed with generosity, the last person to receive the bill decided to cover the entire expense. Of course a battle of wits ensued as no-one was willing to take their money back. After a brief moment of (non)violence it was decided that all the money left over would go towards the launch of the Seva Cafe. Someone even donated on my behalf :)
After dinner, Virenbhai arrived at Bharti’s, Bharat’s and Nirali’s home. On his bed were numerous gifts that the travelers had put together as a surprise for Virenbhai. Our own version of the gift bag that we all received when we first arrived in India.
I went back to my home in Garden Grove where I was to await long time friends: John Silliphant, and Thoi Pham. They were driving down from the Bay Area to be here for the Saturday night event. The comings and goings of friends in my home seems to be what keeps this place intact. The strength of the goodness that flows through here feels stronger than the cement foundation that keeps the walls upright.
Saturday morning Nirali, Bharti, Virenbhai, Bindi and Soham made their way to the Evening in India event while John, Thoi and I went out for Vietnamese food. We also picked up the Indian Dhol Drum that would be used to welcome all the guests at the event. The arrangement of the Dhol was literally made in the very last minute. Sanjay of Ziba Music received a phone call from me and for some odd reason he agreed to let us borrow a brand new Dhol from his father’s music shop. Moments such as this make me wonder how all these interactions are being orchestrated. Some voice in Sanjay’s head told him to say “Yes” to the request for the Dhol. That voice could have said anything, but the neurons in his brain fired in the favor of service. In that moment, something connected Sanjay to every single person who heard the Dhol that night.
When we arrived at Deerfield Community Center, teems of volunteers were already busy at work. Whether putting up decorations around the venue, chopping up fruit for the dinner, setting up the sound equipment, or preparing the welcome ceremony, everybody was engaged in service. To me, that is what these events are all about. As each volunteer is engaged in some physical external activity, something internally is happening to them as well. At the external level, they may be chopping melons, but beneath the surface their lives are being utilized for something beautiful.
… and then all of a sudden all of us become one to that spirit.
With rangoli and chalk decorations, Dhol blasting, puja aarti, and hand made necklace, everyone knew this was a night to remember. I can only imagine what would go through the minds of the guests as they entered. The idea was to transport everyone to a place they had never been. No, that place was not India, but a place that existed in their own hearts.
Guests were urged to partake in the delicious Punjabi food offered by the Sikh Community. 45 minutes later our emcee of the night, Jason, kicked things into gear by inviting Deepali, the musician, to sing the Om Tat Sat Prayer. Although she was not versed in the prayer, her voice and her heart emanated a strong vibration that made the entire room fall silent. I looked over at Virenbhai to see if he approved. His hands folded and his eyes tightly shut reminded me of where I should be. I folded my hands, and closed my eyes.
Then it was our turn. One by one, fourteen travelers took the stage to talk about how the India trip had impacted them. Each traveler spoke about some unique aspect of the trip. Like a rushing ocean wave, thoughts of the entire trip flooded back: the Seva Cafe, bathing the kids in the slums, playing cricket at the blind school, the Christmas party, Manav Sadhna hospitality, the plane ride, dinners in silence, the streets of India, the Mexican Food Fiesta, the toilets, the marriage, Samvedhna, Utthan, Dinner at Nirali’s house… everyone spoke with gratitude.
People were already beginning to sense the power of the evening, but nothing prepared them for what was to come next. Nirali took to the stage and started her speech off with 20 seconds of silence. She spoke about the things that matter most in life: small ideas, ordinary people and a simple thing called love. It seemed as if every word she uttered connected the audience with a deeper part of themselves. Words are never enough, but these words had major impact. People were literally moved to tears.
After Nirali’s speech, Virenbhai was asked to come to the stage. He took things to a whole new level. The movement to tears continued as people caught a glimpse of the awesome potential behind Virenbhai. He spoke about Manav Sadhna, about his own journey, and about his â€œkidsâ€. It still amazes me that people on the earth can care so much for others.
John came up to the stage and broke service down in its simplicity: “We serve others because it makes us happy”. Enough Said! He updated everyone on the Seva Cafe concept and even had the details of the Los Angeles Seva Cafe memorized.
The night closed with the musicians singing sweet songs. Everyone was at home.
In random conversations at the end of the night I realized that the entire evening had been special not because of the volunteers or because of the speeches but because of the love that existed in every person in the room. The feeling that we all experienced wasn’t just emanating from us but was also reverberating from each and every heart in the room. Every person at the event made a decision to be receptive, to be open, to share a piece of themselves with others. If any one person was missing, or any one thing was different that night would not have been what it was.
Although the attendees thanked us for the invitation… we thanked them for inviting us into a place within their hearts. A place that knows no names, knows no countries, and knows no words.
It was hard to tear away from the inspiring night, we ended up spending a few hours in the parking lot even after everyone had left. I stood in the back with Mike and Angel and we reflected on how beautiful it was that people had come together in the spirit of service. Where there was no connections before, somehow our love for humanity had brought us all together.
John and Thoi left at 5AM. John was heading back for his 10 year old niece, Noraâ€™s, birthday party. Instead of receiving gifts for her birthday she decided to ask her friends to donate to the World Wildlife Fund instead. Now that is a birthday party you don’t want to miss.
Sunday morning Nirali, Virenbhai, Bindi and Soham traveled to the Rama Krishna Monastery. I slept in. When I woke, I started to prepare my home for the gathering in the evening.
At 6pm volunteers showed up. Everyone grabbed a task and went to it. We wanted to decorate the place with the same enthusiasm as the Manav Sadhna staff had for us. Somehow, organically the lawn outside started to look like Dinner at Nirali’s house in India. Even the statue of Buddha made an appearance outside.
We welcome our esteemed guests with a Dhol entrance. We had a potluck style dinner, discussed our latest adventures in life, and ate a lot of food. Inside the home, Virenbhai shared how he was overwhelmed with the love he was receiving. Payback we all thought, considering how overwhelmed we all felt with the love we received in India.
After dinner we sat in the renovated garage and we naturally gravitated towards prayer. Virenbhai started off with “Vaishnava Janto” (translation below). He even sang a special request from Laura. Laura’s nieces, Eva and Laura sang a few Christian based songs. Even my land-lady came in and blessed the home with some devotional chanting. Bindi and Soham, along with Angel and Carolina sang some Latin songs. Different cultures, religions, and backgrounds, all coming together in a space of goodness. The room was a good model for the entire planet.
The next morning, we met Angela, Don and Whitney at the Free Wheelchair Mission. When we walked into the building the photographs of smiling faces of people receiving wheelchairs in developing countries greeted us and made us feel at home. Then, when we saw the founder, Don, in his office using an actual wheelchair instead of an office chair, we knew we had arrived at someplace special.
After the discussions, Don said a few words about the Lord, and Virenbhai said a few words about the Lord. It seemed as if the two of them belonged to the same religion.
We made our move to the Seva Cafe location. We ate some of the great food, sat in silence, and said a few prayers. To no-one’s surprise sitting on the bookshelf was a book of Swami Vivekananda with a photograph of his statue smiling down on us. Quite serendipitous considering that Virenbhai, Nirali, Bindi and Soham had just visited the Rama Krishna Monastery the day before and the photograph on the book was of the same statue that they had just seen.
We dropped off Virenbhai at the airport 40 minutes before his flight. The receptionist said that he was too late and that he had missed his flight. So not only were we late in picking up Virenbhai from the airport, we were also late in dropping him off. Balance in the universe. Of course the flight receptionist sensed kindness in the air, and she too got struck by it. Scurrying to the other counter she arranged for Virenbhai’s boarding and even got his luggage checked in.
The moment of Virenbhaiâ€™s departure was a strong one. Our drive back home was a silent one. We could sense that a great presence had just come into our lives.
Vaishnava Janto Translation
“Who is a Vaishnava, a true man of God?
The man who experiences in himself the pain of another
Who soothes the distress of others
Who is not puffed up with notions of ‘achievement’ or great age
Who respects all creatures in creation
Who speaks ill of none
Whose senses are firmly restrained
Whose tongue does not utter untruth
Who does not touch what he does not own
Such is a Vaishnava
In his pure self are found all the places of pilgrimage.”