Sri Chinmoy: Athlete of the Spirit

Originally published in Yoga Journal September/October 1983 Issue No. 52

It's one of those crisp November days when fast moving clouds, like sailing ships, tack across the sky, and the autumn foliage snaps in the wind. Off in the distance, through a swirl of leaves, the fast pumping legs of the lead runners drive toward the finish line. One of the runners -- a slender, muscular man in a red ski cap -- sprints to the finish, cheered on by a crowd of 50 or so onlookers. As he comes out of the chute, gulping in air, two young men run over to him with a towel and a folding chair, while his supporters -- many of whom have been in the race themselves -- stand back, watching. Soon he sits down, draping the towel around his head, and the group, closing in around him, grows still and silent.

The sun reflecting off the seated man's face adds a golden hue to his rich brown skin. The sounds of the ten mile race in New York's Central Park, muffled now, seem very distant. Everything is peaceful, still, timeless. After several minutes, the man's eyes soften into the trace of a smile and, placing both hands against his chest, he bows his head. "Come!" he says softly. And in a slow procession they come, one by one, taking a piece of fruit from a box placed near his chair. When the prasad ceremony ends, spiritual master Sri Chinmoy meditates for another minute or two, then bows his head once more. The silent tableau of a moment ago breaks into a kaleidoscope of talk and movement.

This abrupt transition from body to spirit -- or, rather, the integration of an active physical life with deep spirituality -- is part of the unique style of this 52-year-old spiritual master from India. His yoga encompasses not only profound mystical philosophy, but also sports and physical fitness, a full acceptance of ordinary life, a vision for world peace, and a deep involvement in poetry, art and music.

The cornerstone of this yoga is the principle of aspiration -- the urge to transcend, to reach for something higher and more fulfilling. This continual movement toward greater perfection, Sri Chinmoy believes, is the creative and energizing force of the universe -- the electrical current that runs God's "Cosmic Game." Our purpose in life, he teaches, is to plug into this divine current and allow it to guide our lives so we can ultimately transform ourselves and the world.

Sri Chinmoy is not a mere philosopher; he's a living philosophy, for if nothing else, he practices what he preaches. To see him struggling along with his students in a 26-mile marathon, or the 47-mile ultramarathon he holds each year on his birthday, is convincing proof that this master is one with his followers. He first became interested in distance running -- as a sport and also as a mode of spiritual growth -- about five years ago. Since then he has pursued it tenaciously, running 50 or 60 miles a week and urging his students to run, not only outwardly but inwardly. "Try to be a runner and go beyond all that is standing in your way," he tells them. "Be a real runner so that ignorance, limitations and imperfection will all drop far behind you in your Godward race."

Everything Sri Chinmoy does expresses this deeper aspect of things, for he sees all areas of life as opportunities for inner development as well as outer achievement. His international Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, which now sponsors more than 200 races year, is more than a classy running club. It's one of the flagships of his spiritual vision. Its motto, "Run and become. Become and run. Run to succeed in the outer world. Become to proceed in the inner world," is a call both body and spirit to strive for thing beyond themselves, a "personal best" on the race course and in life well.

In this spirit, some of his followers have embarked on rather extraordinary "runs," literally and figuratively –- running cross-country, for example. Tackling the impossible seems thing to do for many of them. Each August, to honor their teacher’s birthday, about a dozen or so attempt to set world records in everything from jumping jacks to non-stop tennis playing. Several have succeeded.

This athletic view of life, with its constant drive for self-transcendence, finds its consummate expression in Sri Chinmoy himself. During the 18 years he has lived in the U.S., he has written more than 500 books of spiritual poetry, plays, stories and philosophical essays, composed several thousand devotional songs and completed some 140,000 paintings and drawings –- visions, he says, of higher worlds he has experienced in meditation.

As a poet and painter, he is not only a marathoner but also a sprinter. For the sheer joy of it, and as an exercise in concentration, from time to time he likes to see how many works he can complete in a single burst of creativity. During one of these “races,” he painted an astonishing 16,000 paintings in a single day. In another 24-hour period, he wrote 843 poems, published under the title Transcendence-Perfection. His thousands of poems, paintings and songs seem to flow effortlessly from some inner reserve, and Sri Chinmoy himself is the first to acknowledge his debt to a higher power. “Constantly something is coming to the fore and giving me infinite inspiration. My own human existence cannot fathom the divine capacity that God, out of His infinite Bounty, has granted me. But this same capacity God has granted to you and everyone else.”

Sri Chinmoy is back home form Central Park now, sitting on the front porch of his modest wood-frame house in the Jamaica Hills section of New York. The delicate cries of cockatiels, Peking nightingales and mynah birds filter onto the porch from the aviary in his living room, where he keeps 140 birds. A dozen of Sri Chinmoy's followers are seated on the floor, listening to their teacher's words.

"Everything I do is an expression of my inner cry for more truth, more light, more delight. I am not saying this for the sake of boasting. Only I want to tell you that I am not a poet or an artist or a runner. What I am is a seeker and what I do in all my activities, and what I shall always be doing, is aspiring to be a conscious and constant instrument of my Beloved Supreme. And because God Himself is always transcending His own existence reality, we, who are trying to be His conscious instruments, are doing the same."

Through dozens of university lectures, public meditations and concerts each year (always offered free of charge), through meetings with religious and political leaders, and through his work at the United Nations, Sri Chinmoy is carrying this message of self transcendence to seekers around the world.

It's part of a message and vision he first achieved during the 20 years he spent in a south Indian ashram from the ages of 12 to 32. During this period he worked as secretary to the ashram manager and was an active participant in sports, particularly track and field events and soccer. But beyond all else, it was a time of intense spiritual discipline. During those warm tropical nights, while others slept beneath their mosquito nets, Sri Chinmoy spent hours on end sitting cross-legged on his cot, absorbed in meditation.

"You have studied books on God and people have told you that God is in everybody, but this is all mental speculation. It is only when you realize God in your conscious life that you truly know who God is, what He looks like, what He wills. At that time you remain in God's consciousness all the time and speak to Him face to face. This is not mental hallucination or imagination; it is direct reality. And this reality is more authentic than my seeing you right here in front of me.

"But it is not enough to realize God in our own consciousness. We also have to manifest the highest truth here on earth. Otherwise, there will always be a yawning gulf between earth and heaven. Like divine warriors, we must work to transform this earth of ours into a place of joy, peace and delight.”

With this vision, Sri Chinmoy has been offering meditations for peace at the United Nations for the past twelve years, attempting to bring a new inner momentum to the age-old quest for world harmony. Meditating with in rapt silence, are diplomats and staff members from Africa, Asia, La America, Europe and North America.

"It is in the inner world that everything starts," he explains. “The peace that we attempt to grab from the outer world is only a temporary compromise. It is the peace that we bring forward from the inner world, through our prayer and meditation, that lasts.

"The world right now is a battlefield where the soldiers of fear, doubt, anxiety, imperfection and bondage fight against the divine soldiers of simplicity, sincerity, purity, humility and feeling of oneness." Meditation, he feels, strengthens the divine soldiers and creates a climate that, over time will change the world's political consciousness. The journey to peace, like the journey to God, is a marathon covering many spiritual miles.

Sri Chinmoy's contribution is recognized by many in the international community. "Sri Chinmoy's work is far more important than all the conferences in the United Nations," said Ambassador Zenon Rossides of Cyprus. “It's far more important than all the declarations of the Unit Nations." And in 1981 Vice Preside Jorge Illueca of Panama, deep moved by Sri Chinmoy's U.N. work, awarded the spiritual leader nation's highest decoration –- the Grand Cross of the Order of Balboa.

Will life's race ever end and perfection come to this world of ours? This a meaningless question to Sri Chinmoy. "Because our consciousness is evolving, our sense of perfection is all the time going higher. Today's dream will transform itself into tomorrow’s reality. But tomorrow's reality will be meaningless in comparison with what we are aiming at the following day. It is our destiny to change the face reality from bright to brighter to brightest, and from high to higher to highest."

And so, like an eternal runner, Sri Chinmoy is always moving to new horizons, striving for new heights. For this athlete of the spirit, the goal is always ahead.