a blade of grass

… he told me that perfection could be learned from nature. be more humble than a blade of grass; more tolerant than a tree. give respect to others freely, without expectation or motive. in such a state of mind, stripped bare of your false pretenses, call out to your Lord eternally.

i’m still working on it …


and now a word from our sponsors


One of the trickiest things about keeping a travel journal is traveling and keeping a journal. On the one hand, you have experiences that are just the sort of thing you should be writing about -- exciting, meaningful, and (perhaps) spiritually moving experiences. On the other hand, having those experiences doesn't always leave so much time for writing about them. Factor in the character flaws of being a perfectionist and a procrastinator, and... well, I guess what I'm trying to say here is that I'm sorry for not blogging (and emailing) better while we are here in Italy.

I hope to catch up (my famous back posting) soon. Til then, here's a rushed update before I go to bed:

The conference ended last night with a sweet goodbye dinner (ate too much) and some prolonged goodbyes (talked too much). Today marks the first day of our official holiday. Although we shifted from the temple, we're still here in Albettone, a town outside of Vincenza proper, we are now staying at the beautiful home of our godbrother and sister Giridhari and Gandharvika. Today we ate loads of homemade prasadam pizza, did some shopping, and took some amazing japa walks while touring abbeys and cathedrals.

Tomorrow morning we live for Venice. For part of our time there we will be staying in a hotel, so right now I am saying a selfish prayer to Lord Krishna for wireless internet access there. (Hey, whether one has no desires, all desires, or desires liberation...)

By the way, because I've had some pretty austere internet connections here so far, I've had some problems uploading pictures and even running a spell check on these entries. Sorry about that too. Hopefully, I can fix that soon enough and start posting up some pix.

Please check back soon. And thanks and love to everyone who is encouraging me to keep this blog going.

Radhe Syama!


From Italy with love

7/25 - 7/26 JFK Airport to Prabhupada Desh

Bonjourno! I am typing this from the quiet solitude of the area I've nicknamed Tatastha at the top of the stairs in Prabhupada Desh. I call it Tatastha, because it is a foyer which is basically the dividing point between where the ladies' and mens' guestrooms are. Krsangi and I say our goodnights and Haribols here. It is also the place to catch the strongest internet connection, so at any given time during the day, this landing looks like a cyber cafe. Right now, though, I'm the only one here (unless you count the mosquitoes... what is it with me and mosquitoes?), sitting in no-man's land, trying to do my duty to the blog readers by posting about our Italy trip so far.

Faith on a flight
Our flight over was good. I've gotten so used to traveling alone that having Krsangi's association was actually a novelty and a welcome change. We chanted, napped, and ate an ekadasi feast of potatoes, potatoes, and salad. For some reason, our plane was filled with Hasidic Jews. (I think the flight had a connecting flight to Isreal). It was really fascinating to see them in action. Actually, it gave us a lot of relaizations and an opportunity to reflect on our own practice as members of a highly demanding faith. For instance, we noticed that the adults all used their time to read scripture, pray, or do some constructive activity directly related to their faith or culture. They ate their specially ordered kosher meals (and other food they brought with them) quietly and thoughtfully. At a certain point (I guess a time of day... more educated readers can comment), all the men stoood up, put their jackets on, and began to pray together, making very dramatic gestures and movements. They did this without apology or any sign of feeling awkward. It got me thinking about our own identity as Caitanya Vaisnavas, and more specifically as ISKCON members (to use the simplest term, as "devotees"). We too have our belief the faith is to be lived 24/7, and if one were to alanyze a Krishna devotee on a flight, he or she might reflect on the same kinds of things: eating specially prepared foods, reading religious literature (usually exclusively), chanting on beads, saying prayers at certain times (perhaps together, if possible). In fact, I remembered a story about the devotees taking a flight to India -- one of the first Mayapur meetings -- and taking up half the flight. They were so many of them, that they did kirtan, chanted japa uip and down the aisles, and maybe even showed a Prabhupada film (not too sure about that last one though). In one sense, thats kind of cool; in another, its a bit too -- I don't know -- in your face. I guess I have yet to negotiate the tension between being unapologetic and maintaining a distinct, radically different identity, while still being conscientiuous and intentionally assimilating to the society around us

Anyway, we caught a connecting flight from Zurich to Venice. The 40 minute flight was uneventful, but afforded us a fantastic view of the Alps.

Three out of four
At the airport in Venice, we waited anxiously by the carousel for our bags. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the belt started up and the bags shot out. Remarkably, the first three were ours! That has never happened to us before, so we took it as an auspicious sign. Which just goes to show you that I have no future in reading auspicious signs, because the fourth bag never arrived. After standing in line, being re-directed to another line, being sent back to the first line, filing a complaint, getting yellled at by some pissed-off American lady who accused me of cutting the line, answering back said pissed-off lady calmly, getting apology from no-longer-pissed-off lady, and finally being told the bag was still in Zurich and would be dropped off to us, we left.

Bonjourno Italiana style
We nervously walked out into the arrival lounge, and almost immediately recognized our godbrother Giridhari Prabhu. Although it has been several years since Giridhari and his wife Gandharvika stayed with us in NY, seeing his jolly smile and feeling his warm brotherly embrace, I felt like we were the best of friends. He happily led us to the car, and introduced us to a handsome, dignified Italian man -- with silver hair, a bronze tan, and looking like he just stepped out of an Armani ad -- named Sri Adwaita prabhu. We will be staying with Sri Adwaita and his wife in Venice, so I hope to blog about him in more detail later.

Soon, we were coasting down an Italian highway (which felt like a weird cross betwen being in California, India, and the UK), chatting away like old friends as we braved traffic jams on the way to the temple.

Throughout the ride, i was struck by how welcoming and friendly Giridhari is. Sometimes, when you enter a new country you have to deal with some coldness or feeling ut of place for a little while before the ice melts. That was my own experience for the last two years that I've been partiicipating in the conference. But here, there was no need. In this land of hundreds of thousandds of beautiful people, we felt re-assured that we had our own guradian Italian angel looking out for us.

Sanyassinis in Prabhupada country
Pulling up to Prabhupada Desh, a villa about an hour outside of Venice, was exciting. Having only seen this place in pictures, Krsangi and I were very impressed seeing it all in person. The temple is not huge or architecturallly stunning (although it is nice), but the place has real charm to it. Marble everywhere, beuatiful huge paintings of Prabhupada in many rooms and areas, sweeping stairwell, classical looking Italian fixtures. Since

Incidentally, the temple is called "Prabhupada Desh" which translates literally into "Prabhupada's country." I find the name a bit humurous because of the conotatons that des(h)i has for me. Imagine asomeone being an American Born Confused Prabhuada Desi? :-)

We were soon shown to our rooms -- I'm staying with Anuttama Prabhu and Krsangi with Mother Rukmini. One funny thing about our accommodations: they have Krs and M. Rukmini staying in the sannayasi quarters (Jayadvaita Swami, the only sannyasi in the place right now is staying in another room). The two "sanyassinis" thus get to experience the luxury (relative) of a private bathroom, nice furniture, ceiling fans that actually work, and a proper sitting room area. Sweet. My room is small, stuffy, hot, and faces the noisy main road; but on the plus side it is nice to get to spend time with Anuttama Prabhu, and the room is clean and simple with a nice view of the Italian countryside.

The conference had not yet started, so we had an afternoon to do whatever we wanted. After rest, showering, an changing into some comfortable clothes (Reason #476 why I already fell in love with Italy: guys can actually wear linin pants here), we met back up with Giridhari, who had a special treat planned for us. Although he had work to do, he came to drop us off to a nearby place to relax. Because we told him that we felt we needed to unwind and decompress, he suggested that we go to experience a form of relaxation therapy that --as far as I could tell -- was simply called "bubbles." From his descriptions, I gathered that this was a natural hot springs (Krs and I went in Alachua, and we loved it), so we agreed.

Note: Although Giridhari and I have pretty good communication skills, at times things get lost in translation. Case in point...

When we got to the place, we realized that it wasn't a natural hot springs, afterall -- it was a sor of resort center in a hotel. Still, we were definitely in the mood to try it out. After paying some nominal entrance fee, we went in, changed to swimsuits, and hit the pool. Actually, the place is a large omplex of pools, whirlpools, and massage jetstreams. The mood was very nice, and soon enough we got over the bit of self-consciousness we brought in with us. We were able to relax -- something that, between Kazakhstan and Sunday School, we are generally in urgent need of -- and give our bodies and minds some (regulated) pampering.

Heavenly planet
After several hours chanting "I am still not this body... I'm pretty sure, I'm not this body," while streams of temperate water eased knots of tension out of my back, it was time to return to dry land. But the enjoyment was just beginning.

Yes, it happened. For the first time in our lives, Krsangi and I ate pizza in Italy.

It tasted surprisingly like the pizza I grew up eating in non-descript NYC pizzarias. That is to say, it was delicious. Delicate, sweet tomato sauce; rich, expressive mozzarella cheese; a thin, light crispy crust. Lifetimes of prayers fulfilled...

Of course, just to be safe, we washed down the pizza with homemade ice cream from a small shp owned by devotees near the temple. An outdoor musician strummed an acoustic guitars for a crowd of Summer evening patrons, as we let the prasadam hazlenut and mint ice creams officially welcome us to Italy -- which I am now more convinced than ever is a bonafide heavenly planet.

Holy insomnia, Batman
We got back lat enough that the temple was asleep but not late enough to be sleepy ourselves. After saying goodnight to Krsangi at Tatastha, I head back to the room, but just couldn;t sleep. So, while Anuttama Prabhu dozed, I sat by the open window (no screens or bars in this place -- open the shutters and you are there) in our room and just tried to take in the beauty of Krishna's creation in a place like this. As I gazed out towards the moonlight sky and the sillhouttes of the post-card-perfect hills in the distance, I heard a flapping and swooping noise. Looking up, directly above my window, 5 or 6 bats were engaged in an elaborate air show. Bats. I watched for a while, amazed to actually be here, and then finallly forced myself to sleep.

Don't Mess With Texas Day 4: Entourage

Final in the Texas trip series... Sorry for the delay!

Don't Mess With Texas Day 4:
"Entourage" (7/8/07)

Every day of my trip to Texas, I was awakened by the sensation of mosquitoes feasting on my body (the same body that I am supposed to know that I am not). Sunday morning, however, the bites were even more stinging because they were accompanied by the realization that this would be my last full day here.

Despite my tiredness from last night's late program I managed to make it to the temple for mangal ara -- er, I mean Greeting of the De-- um, make that Guru Puj--- okay, okay, Bhagavatam class. Govinda Maharaj gave a nice simple class on the verse, and spent the Q & A time telling stories of joining the temple in Buffalo.

Breakfast was upma -- not one of my favorites -- but I spent the time with a nice devotee named Krishna Kripa prabhu and we discussed the history of ISKCON Houston a bit. After that I met with Guru Bhakti Mataji -- an amazing devotee who manages to find time between her full-time responsibilities as a medical doctor, a wife, and a mom to do wonderful service with the media, interfaith community, Hindu community, and other forms of outreach. In fact, she was the main organizer of the benefit dinner last night. Like many of the worshipful Vaisnavas and Vaisnavis I've met here, Guru Bhakti deeply imbibed her guru TKG's mood and desire. I am truly humbled by these souls.

I assisted Govinda Maharaj with a radio call-in show he had to do (it went very well), and then we both walked to the temple for the Sunday Feast program.

Walking in to the temple was such a trip. Govinda Maharaj went in first and I followed close behind, kind of hovering in his wake. As soon as the devotees saw Maharaj (those who are familiar with who he is) dove to the floor. He went and offered his obeisances to the murti of Srila Prabhupada, and I followed suit, taking the bold step of touching Maharaj's foot lightly to my head afterwards -- just a bit of extra blessings I stole for myself. Thankfully he didn't notice, and we both started walking deeper in to the temple room. As we did more devotees came forward, some with folded palms requesting blessings and others offering words of support for the devotees in Kazakhstan. Flashbulbs went off a few times, as devotee paparazzi quickly snapped photos of the spiritual celebrity. From time to time, Govinda Maharaj would turn to me with a question, or ask me to do something, or just share a comment (sometimes even a joke!) with me.

Maybe it was the fact that we were on TKG's turf, but I couldn't help but think of those pictures and videos of Srila Prabhupada visiting a temple, with an entourage -- usually someone like TKG leading that entourage -- close behind him. I admit it, I felt a dizzying rush thinking of myself in that situation. I'm actually a part of history, I thought to myself, as I let the depth of it sink in.

Then my "wow, this is cool" feeling began to transform into a deeper, more sober realization. Like the members of an entourage surrounding a celebrity get to enjoy access into certain exclusive areas, the members of a devotional entourage can get passes into Krishna's exclusive circles. Staying in the association of devotees -- especially devotees whom we regard as senior practitioners of bhakti -- means that we have a chance to go back to Godhead on the strength of that association.

Of course, most members of an entourage are famously un-famous themselves; their sole claim to fame is who they know. In the case of Vaisnavas, we also know that we have no position ourselves, that our only hope is who we know... that if we just muster up enough faith and sincerity to stay in the sanga, we will be carried by the power of their bhakti.

In any event, the Sunday Feast program went very nicely. The humidity, whirling fans, marble, and pressed bodies evoked memories of Sunday Feasts I've experienced in India.

Maharaj's kirtan was especially fiery and I danced more wildly then I've danced in a long time. The final appeal went well -- fearing that this would be my last opportunity to perform this service, I put all my energy and emotion into my part. I'm not sure if everyone appreciated it, but many devotees came forward and the Dallas and Houston youth groups even got into a "bidding war" to try to outdo one another's donations to the Kazakhstan fund.

I barely caught my breath and ate a few grains of rice before I was pulled in to a fired-up Youth Kirtan. Like a pied piper, Maharaj expertly led and choreographed one of the most invigorating, exciting, inviting, and enjoyable kirtans I've ever experienced. After chanting Hare Krishna a lot, Govinda Maharaj started to even throw in Bhagavad Gita verses (and translations)!

Finally, we ended up at the house where Govinda Swami was staying. I helped him catalog all the contributions, and then said my goodbyes. Maharaj -- so personal and caring -- gave me a big bear hug and emphasized his appreciation of my service, and how much he hoped we would see each other again in Toronto. It was quite moving, and (although undeserving) I was touched by Maharaj's gratitude and encouragement. Its an important thing to be recognized for your work, and Maharaj made me feel valued, noticed, and loved.

That night, I crashed out at a godbrother's simple but devotional apartment, and landed up at the airport early the next morning.

The exhaustion of the last few days hit me hard, and I slept most of the flight home. I woke up only as my plane was beginning its descent to New York's Laguardia airport, surprised (and perhaps a bit disappointed) not to find a new mosquito bite.


Don't Mess with Texas Day 3: Lucky 7s in Houston

Continuing to back-post...

Don't Mess with Texas Day 3:
"Lucky 7s in Houston" (7/7/07)

I awoke this morning to find the vast majority of my left arm had been devoured by what must be the hungriest, ugliest mosquitoes in Dallas. I lay in bed, staring up at the whirling ceiling fan, trying to figure out if I was dreaming or awake. It was one of those "Where am I? What am I doing here? Why is my arm red, swollen, and itchy?" type of moments.

Fortunately, after a brisk shower I regained my consciousness and the bug bites (plural -- the arm was just the main course; apparently my legs, neck, hands, and feet were appetizers) looked more manageable.

The program the night before had gone well. Govinda Maharaj was in top form, leading a rousing Hare Krishna kirtan peppered generously with some "Radhe Radhe / Syama Syama" rows. In fact, at one point Maharaj induced the ladies to call out the Radhe part, and the men to chant Kalachandji -- and everyone's hearts just melted.

Those soft hearts were receptive to the Kazakhstan cause, and many gave generously. Helping the devotees in Kazakhstan is critical, and this is a cause I believe in wholeheartedly. Still, I felt more than a bit awkward being the buzz-kill who pleads for money-- especially after Maharaj won the crowd over with his smooth voice, enchanting stories, charming wit, and unassuming good nature. Anyway, Lord Krishna was definitely in control: when I thought I was doing a good job, He arranged for there to be challenges and a lackluster response. When I thought I was not so convincing, people came forward and helped. Lesson: I am not, not, not the supreme controller. Better to be detached and remember that without Krishna, I simply can't do it. I'm just here to be an instrument, like Sultana's saxophone or Bimal's harmonium. If I can produce a sound that pleases Krishna or the devotees, my credit is just that I am allowing myself to be utilized by the real Musician.

Random highlight from last night: At one point a devotee's cell-phone went off and the ring tone was the trademark of the Motorola Razr that begins "Hello Moto..." This devotee (in front row) tried to find it to shut it, but took a bit too long, so the ring tone was pretty hard to miss. I thought Maharaj might get irritated, but instead when he saw the devotee, he recognized that they had known one another in Vrindavan. Maharaj shared some memories and said how happy he was to see the devotee (who was beaming by now). Finally, Maharaj said: "When I last saw you, you were so thin! Now, you have put on a lot of weight. Even you're phone calls you 'Hello, motu...' [fatso]" Everyone got a real kick out of that, and I could appreciate that Maharaj has a great sense of humor and is generally a very chill, understanding Swami.

Anyway, after chanting a few distracted rounds and packing my bags, I head over to Kalachandji's for a late breakfast. Since it was closed, consummate host Nityananda Prabhu brought me to this house where he (and his son, Chaitan) fed me a freshly made pizza brunch!

After the typical ISKCON Standard Time delay, we left for Houston. The devotee driving -- a member of the Houston congregation who came over to Dallas just to serve Maharaj and us in this way -- did a great job of getting us there safe and sound, despite the fact that the uninspired stretch of highway between Dallas and Houston put everyone else in the vehicle right to sleep.

Arriving in Houston, I was surprised to find that arrangements had been made for me to stay at the home of a godbrother, Adi Guru prabhu. Interestingly, Adi Guru and family - who I had hung out with a few days earlier in New Vrindaban - were still traveling (hence his being in New Vrindaban), so I stayed there without them.

Ate, shaved, and was about to hop in the shower, when a frantic knocking at the front door demanded my attention. It was Houston TP Shyamasundara Prabhu who, seeing me in a towel, let me know that Maharaj was waiting to talk to me. I guess that IST thing doesn't always hold, so I quickly showered and dressed up and went to the hall to meet Govinda MAharaj.

The devotees set up Gauranga Hall, which serves as a rental facility for big gatherings, for a beautiful semi-formal sit-down dinner. On the guest list were several friends and supporters outside of the usual temple community (fror them, we will do something at the Sunday Feast), yoga scene movers and shakers, and interfaith representatives. Fresh table linens, classy decorations, centerpieces, and even a silent auction helped to make this event very attractive and a big success.

I made a modified appeal that was very well received; confirmation that my trip to Houston was well worth the endeavor and money.

Walking back to Adi Guru's place (many Houston devotees elect to live within walking distance of the temple) I felt exhausted but also inspired. Suddenly, I remembered that today was July 7, 2007. In other words, it was 7-7-7 -- and because Western culture considers 7 to be a lucky number, a date that is supposed to be considered good luck (which translates to "very auspicious" in ISKCON-ese). I said a quick prayer that some of the 777 magic could be sent to the devotees in Kazakhstan; they certainly need whatever good luck is available out there.

One funny incident to cap off my night: walking back with Bimal prabhu and Sultana mataji, Sultana was in a somewhat giddy mood. She began to reflect -- in her broken English -- on possible connections between the name of the city of Houston, and pop diva Whitney Houston. It turns out that Sultana was (is?) a huge Whitney fan, grew up idolizing her, and considers the pop star to be her "singing guru." Hearing that bit of history I couldn't resist, so I pleaded with Sultana to sing a Whitney song... and she (giddy again!) obliged. Her voice is almost as amazing as her sax playing ability is, and she nailed a few Whitney ballads.

I fell asleep almost a soon as my head hit the pillow, the DJ in my head spinning some weird mash-up of Mama mana mandire and songs from the "Bodyguard" sound track.


Of Shamans and Lobbyists

Trip to Washington, D.C. yesterday– and thanks to the overpriced but convenient Amtrak shuttle from NY to DC, I was in an out of the nation’s capitol in a day. I was there to attend a briefing on the state of human rights and religious freedom in South Asia… and, of course, to network with the officials there, especially in regards to the Kazakhstan situation.

Anuttama Prabhu was out of town, so I had to fly solo on this mission. That worried me a little. For some reason, I feel uncomfortable about the whole Washington D.C. vibe. It is hard to explain, but somehow I feel like all the hand-shaking, card-passing, and back-scratching is just a bit too surreal for me. Media in New York I can handle, but get me in a room full of DC lobbyists and politicians and I suddenly end up with sweaty palms and a stutter. This opportunity was too good to pass up though, so – with butterflies fluttering in my stomach – I arrived in D.C. shortly after noon.

Anuttama had instructed me to wear devotional clothes to the event, and (since I hate traveling in a dhoti) I had to change at Union Station. I remembered the last time I had to do the “Clark Kent into Superman” routine in a restroom at Union Station – not very nice. So, I decided to take a chance and went into a nearby Express store. After browsing around for a bit, I asked the young guy folding polo shirts if I could use their fitting room. He agreed, and a few minutes later, I stepped out of there in a dhoti, kurta, and my trademark Nehru vest. (Hey, just because you are dressing in devotional clothes doesn’t mean you can’t do it with some pizzazz.)

Since I still I had to freshen up my tilak, I had to visit the men’s room anyway. As I stood in front of the dirt caked mirror and attempted to draw the straight lines on my forehead, a disheveled old Black man staggered into the restroom. His eyes were a disconcerting yellow and red, and he stopped and stared at me for a few minutes before he began muttering to himself unintelligibly. I tried to ignore him and concentrate on my tilak, but he continued to stare and mutter. Finally, he came up close to me and started speaking slower and more clearly.

“Some kind of shaman… This is some kind of shaman…”

I ignored him again and tried to fix the tulasi leaf at the bridge of my nose. Now he questioned me directly.

“Are you… are you… man, are you a shaman? You’re a shaman, you’re a shaman aren’t you?”

I glanced at his reflection in the mirror standing next to me. His face seemed genuinely intrigued studying my hand’s movements as I drew the sacred U-shaped symbol on my face, and – now that I noticed it – he looked a bit awed. The other people in the restroom went about their business, either oblivious to our exchange or pretending not to notice. Faced with a direct question, I answered simply and quietly, addressing my response to the reflection.

“Something like that.”

The awe on his grizzly face seemed to intensify, almost morphing into a look of delighted terror.

“I knew it! You’re a shaman! Oh man, a shaman! A shaman! Hey, hey… hey, is that magic? Is that real magic?”

I finished up the tilak, and rinsed off my hands.

“That depends,” I said, turning towards him for the first time. My eyes locked with his and I looked deeply at him, trying to penetrate his gaze. “Do you believe in magic?”

Speechless but excited, he stepped away backwards as if a wave had just crashed into him. He kept watching me, his eyes wide, as I walked out of the restroom and out towards the metro.

Later, while on the metro to Capitol Hill, I thought about what the man in the restroom had said and how he had reacted. I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, I was goofing around and messing with his head a bit. But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe I did possess some magic, some untapped shakti, that I could draw on. Maybe, if I could just be here on behalf of Lord Caitanya and the paramapara instead of my own ego and insecurities, I could get through this day. Suddenly, I didn’t feel quite so nervous about working that room full of politicians anymore.

The meeting went well. I made some important contacts and got into some interesting conversations. I passed out my card and stated my case with confidence and ease.

And then I took the train back, one of many harried commuters on a night shuttle back home to New York. Among the businesswomen in smart suits and attorneys with their ties loosened, clicking away on Blackberries or reading Harry Potter novels to unwind… unbeknownst to them, a sleepy shaman with his hand in a bead-bag and his eyes struggling to stay open.


Don't Mess with Texas Day 2: Upgrade to First Class

Don't Mess with Texas Day 2:
"Upgrade to First Class" (7/6/07)

TKG's Quarters, Dallas – There is something about these rooms that just seem inhabited by TKG’s spirit. I don’t mean that in a "haunted house" sort of way; I mean that his essence and his mood waft through each of these rooms like the lingering fragrance of really good incense. The quarters are actually more than just a bedroom – an intricate maze of corridors and doorways help one to navigate through a little world containing a bedroom (off limits), a guest room (where I am staying), an executive office (with TKG’s massive desk), a bathroom, a sitting room (comfortable couches, his favorite easy chair), and a formal dining room for entertaining guests (TKG was the consummate host).

This morning I woke up, chanted some rounds, and then went to the temple room for Bhagavatam class (given by Hridayananda Goswami, who was pleasantly surprised to see me and – in characteristic HdG style – took the time to crack a few jokes right from the vyasasana). After class, I joined the Swami and a large group of devotees for breakfast at the home of a local disciple of Srila Prabhupada. Over breakfast, I got to catch up with Brahma Tirtha Prabhu (better known as Bob Cohen, who as a young peace corps worker engaged Srila Prabhupada in such an interesting dialogue that Prabhupada had it turned into a book – Perfect Questions, Perfect Answers). We discussed everything from mediation to his son’s law practice (his son, incidentally, graduated from GW Law School a year before I started there).

After breakfast, I returned to the quarters to get some work done.

Walking around, breathing in this place… If I had to sum up ISKCON Dallas in two words, they would be these: first class.

The ISKCON community in Dallas is a special place. The mood of excellence permeates everything here; its ingrained in all the details and nuances of this place.

We use the term "first class" a lot in ISKCON -- its one of those slightly antiquated Indian phrases we inherited from Srila Prabhupada -- but I was thinking about how accurate it is in this case.

One way to understand "first class" is to mean the best. This is certainly the mood of Dallas, a la Tamal Krishna Goswami. TKG had this amazing drive to offer nothing but the best to his guru, Srila Prabhupada. He wouldn't settle for anything less; to not offer the topmost spiritual master the topmost of everything to use in Krishna's service was just not an option for him. This is how he was trained, and -- from the stories I've heard recently from some of his senior disciples -- how he trained others. He wanted to give them what Prabhupada gave him, but to do that he needed them to take on that mood of nothing but the best.

It is apparent in Dallas... it almost seems like the managers and leaders wear WWTKGD bracelets and base any decision -- from the menu at their award-winning restuarant Kalachandji's to which kind of paper towel to stock the restrooms with -- on what is the best offering to Prabhupada.

Another meaning for "first class" is rooted in the culture of varnashrama: brahminical. The brahmanas were considered "first class men" (and their feminine counterpoints were "first class women") in this ancient culture, not just because of the family they were born into, but because of qualities such as cleanliness, honesty, humility, a commitment to deity worship, and a desire to give others the highest wealth of spiritual knowledge. Taken in that way, it is clear that Dallas is following TKG's example to the tee. This is probably the cleanest ISKCON temple I've seen in America. The hallway sparkles, the restaurant is classy and neat, the temple room is very stylish and opulent without appearing cluttered or garish. Sri Sri Radha-Kalachandji's worship is conducted to exacting high standards, but still emits an aura of simplicity and intimacy.

Finally, "first class" can be used to denote above and beyond the norm, the way we regard the first class section of an airplane. And like the first class section of an airplane, its all the little extras that make the difference. Sure, the folks sitting in coach will get to the destination just the same; but the first class passengers are treated to luxuries and benefits that exceed expectations or requirements. Goswami Maharaj was a visionary, and couldn't tolerate just settling for something, even if it was the way that everyone else was doing it. He was an aristocrat without being an ego-driven snob -- by meditating on creative ways to go the extra mile to represent Krishna in this world. The Dallas temple imbibes this attitude wonderfully. The devotees are always pushing themselves to give more, to come up with new and exciting ways to share Krishna with others. They are detail oriented in a way that is rarely seen in ISKCON, being conscious of the most minute considerations to ensure that guests and visitors have the best experience they can.

A few days before, on the fourth of July, I had attended a very special Vyasa Puja celebration honoring Goswami Maharaj. And now I found myself sitting in his darshan room, reflecting on these qualities, and grateful to be here.

My meditation was soon broken however, when BB Govinda Maharaj came into the room and reminded me that it was almost show-time.

... to be continued...


Don't Mess With Texas Day 1: Go West

Right now it is almost 1:30 am in Houston, Texas -- For the past four days, I've been here in Texas, trying to assist B.B. Govinda Swami's awareness and fundraising campaign for the crisis in Kazakhstan. Despite the fact that it has meant being away from home, and that I have had to tolerate the meanest, hungriest mosquitoes I've tangled with in a long time, I've really loved my time here. No big adventures or hilarious stories -- but it has been a fun, lively, busy, and interesting trip. Thought I'd share some highlights, day by day...

(this is all back posting, so bear with me.)

Don't Mess With Texas Day 1:
"Go West" (7/5/07)

I had hardly finished zipping up my suitcase when we jumped in the car; Krsangi dropped me off at Laguardia airport, making perfect time. After checking in, I readied myself for those precious few minutes (usually a solid half-hour) where you sit at the gate, before your flight begins boarding. For some reason, I relish that time. It's like you can use that time to do silly, little luxuries -- like thumb through a Time magazine or fiddle around with your cell phone or munch on an overpriced candy bar and people watch -- without feeling too guilty about it. Usually, any "free time" would have to go to finishing rounds, or dealing with the latest crisis, or dutifully plowing through emails. But somehow, that pre-boarding time at the airport is like a free-pass for spacing out. It's like a little time-out for me, and its one of the weird little things I actually enjoy about flying as much as I do.

No such luck today. Instead, I used all that time touching base with Anuttama Prabhu about the Vrindavan widows story on CNN and how to respond. Anyway, the conversation was good. And while I was sitting in the airport lounge, glued to my cell phone, I noticed all the other people sitting there on a Thursday afternoon, glued to their cell phones. They were talking about things significant to their occupations - about financial statements, and prototypes, and testing the system specs, and earnings reports. In the midst of it all, there I was, discussing the risks and responsibilities facing ISKCON in light of a CNN news story. Suddenly, I had one those "a-ha" moments and realized that I have, possibly, the coolest job in the world.

The flight to Texas was good -- decent seats, minimal delays, and I alternated between chanting rounds, taking naps, and -- thanks to Krsangi's description-defying sandwiches of love and devotion -- eating. These sandwiches were ideal for taking on the flight, loaded with fresh pesto (perfectly flavorful), avocado, lettuce, and Primal Strips (a devotee produced vegan soy "jerky" that we found is a great filler for a chewy tasty sandwich).

I arrived in Dallas late that night, and was picked up by my godbrother Rasaraja Prabhu. As soon as we drove up to the large temple on Gurley, my heart fluttered a bit and I felt the warm familiar feeling of returning home. Not that I have ever lived in Dallas, or even spent that much time there. But still, there's just something about the temple that makes me feel very welcomed. I think it must be the astounding hospitality, attention to detail, and care that TP Nityananda Prabhu and the other devotees there have showered on me in the past when I've visited. They have this uncanny ability to make someone feel like they are the most important person on the planet. Its obvious that these devotees have a deep understanding of what it means to serve Vaisnavas -- or even the pretend variety like me. Whatever the case, they've managed to completely win over my heart.

"Prabhu, where exactly am I staying?" I asked.

"Oh, you will be staying in Gurudeva's quarters."

Gurudeva's quarters?! Hare Krishna! I carried my bags, took a deep breath, and climbed the stairs. Next stop: TKG's territory.


over on that other blog

. . . U P D A T E S . . .

Since I haven't been so active on blade of grass lately (okay, okay... I've been downright negligent), I thought I'd share some of what I've been posting up at the ISKCON Communications blog.

New York Ratha Yatra coverage: A nice article from the India Post (manifested from my press release, btw) and a cool photo montage from a NYC photo blog.

Bread and Water: An Indian news story reported that prisoners at a Bangalore jail are refusing to apply for early release. Why? Because the prasadam being served there by ISKCON volunteers is so good! True story.

Modern Meditation: A NYC writer writes of her powerful experience trying out bhakti-yoga, taught in an innovative way by followers of a Gaudiya Vaisnava guru and Prabhupada disciple named Siddhasvarupananda.

Hindus in the House: for the first time in history, Hindu prayers will open the U.S. Senate. Good news... unless you are a nutty ultra-right-wing American fascist, of course.

Vrindavan Widows: The top story on CNN.com -- beating out the arrest of Al Gore's son and a new video from Al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri -- was a story on shunned widows awaiting death in Vrindavan. It raised a lot of questions... about the situation itself, but also about the way it was covered.

Soundbites: Blogger and ISKCON member Sita-pita muses about the need for devotees to be prepared to communicate Krishna consciousness effectively.

So, now you know what I've been up to. But for those of you who are jealous "blade of grass" fanatics... don't worry. I'll be back to posting exclusive b-o-g stuff as soon as I can so please check back soon.

Thanks for stopping by. Haribol!