Chanting is called a practice for one reason: It only works if we do it. Chanting has been my main practice for years, but it took me a long time to realize that it’s only by doing it regularly that we begin to experience ourselves changing. If we want to get wet we have to jump into the water. If we want to stay wet we have to learn to swim, or at least float! ––KD from Chants of a Lifetime
Krishna Das (KD) is drenched. He’s standing under a cloudburst of grace with his feet in a puddle of love. If you stand anywhere near him you’re going to get wet.
His karmic trajectory is well documented. He put out the call for transcendence in the Summer of Love and the response materialized as the living embodiment of the simian god, Hanuman, in the form of his guru, Neem Karoli Baba. KD crawled out of a bottomless pit of despair in New York all the way to the subcontinent and…well…you can read the rest in his book, Chants of a Lifetime.
Four decades later, the street-certified kirtan road dog who opened the door for generations of western seekers has transcended the role of portal keeper to the East. The lotus has blossomed; a career crescendo manifested in the release of Heart As Wide As The World has certified his bhakti adhikara.
Krishna Das brings a lot of light. Presumably, he also casts a commensurate shadow, but all I can see is the reflected glare from his gleaming king-sized tour bus in the parking lot just outside the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles. The show he is sharing with Deva Premal, Miten and Manose is, of course, sold out.
Krishna Das: Servant of God
“Krishna Das is my name. My guru gave me that name in India in 1972. It means servant of God,” he says. “It’s something to grow up into, I think. When you first start doing spiritual practice, it’s very much you’re trying to pull that splinter out, that nail you stepped on. You’re trying to get it out of your foot.
My practice, of course, you would say is chanting. Obviously that’s my main practice. But that’s really just a part of the practice. The context that all the chanting is done within is trying to be in the presence of that love all the time.
The practice and the path seem to be about your own pain and removing your own pain and suffering. But the more you do this stuff, the older you get, you begin to see that your own pain is no better or less or more than anyone else’s pain. You kind of lose the ability to cut off and keep people at a distance. Then your practice begins to get…how to deal with…” He pauses, “How do you keep your heart open with the huge, humungous amount of suffering in the world?”
Getting to the place inside us that knows that we are One requires practice. My main formal practice is chanting the names of God. The practice of the repetition of the Name invokes a place or space inside us, a presence that’s always here. It isn’t subject to vagaries of our thoughts and emotions – the ups and downs, the ins and outs. Chanting the Divine Names invokes the inner heart, which is the presence that lives in us.
This heart is not an emotional state; emotions come and go. It is also not referring to the physical pump that resides in the chest. The heart is an abode, our home, the place in each of us where we know who we actually are. This abode is deeper than thoughts and deeper than emotions. And that presence, of course, is our own presence; who we actually are underneath who and what we think we are, underneath the inner dialogue that’s always going on about everything. This “heart” is called chidakasha. It’s the sky of the mind, of consciousness, of true Being, not located at any one place. Embracing and encompassing everything, nothing is outside of it. It is home. ––KD from Chants of a Lifetime
“I first tasted that presence being with my guru in India. Living in India with him and meeting other great beings; great saints, great yogis. Every time I come into the presence of that love, I go, oh right…that’s what it’s about. And immediately it puts everything into perspective for me. You know we get lost in our own stuff all the time, but the minute I move into that love, into that presence… whatever you want to call it, it immediately makes everything okay. Even if it’s painful. Even if it’s difficult. It gives a context for what you’re going through. You’re not alone. You’re not a victim. You’re not a mistake.”
Sam Slovick: What’s your highest aspiration?
Krishna Das: To be in that love all the time. That’s what I want to do. I want to, no matter what’s happening in my life, no matter who’s there, who’s not there, where I am, where I’m going….I want to be in the presence of that love all the time. I want to be aware of that and I don’t ever want it to turn off. I don’t want anything to be able to turn that off. I want to have the strength of heart to stay open no matter what.
SS: What’s your biggest challenge?
[Following KD’s stream of consciousness can sometimes require a less linear thought process. It’s a follow-the-bouncing-ball scenario. Presumably, he knows where he’s going.]
KD: I think it’s inevitable, actually, for everybody, I think that’s where we’re going. Maybe not this life; maybe not this Yuga. Maybe the world’s going to go to shit before we get that. I think it goes in cycles. That’s what I’ve heard. Any bit of work that you do in this direction, any movement you make towards the love is never lost. Even if you don’t experience it the way you’d like to right away. Still it’s never lost. That’s what they say.
SS: What’s your saving grace?
KD: Saving grace for me was having met my guru in India, and also…what led me to India was having met Ram Dass when he came back from India to America. When I walked into the room with Ram Dass I immediately knew intuitively, without a word being spoken, that what I was looking for was actually real. It existed in the world and it could be found.
SS: Do you think your current career crescendo – the traction from your book and new CD is a sort of meaningful place on your karmic arc?
KD: To tell you the truth I don’t think about it very much. And because I don’t think about it very much, because I’m more inwardly directed, I think that’s what allows all that stuff to happen.
Back in the old days when I wanted all that stuff, I wasn’t getting it. And if I’d have gotten it – if I’d been in the band and I hadn’t left that band I was in and I’d have gotten certain things I would have been long dead. That stuff would have destroyed me. So now I’m more inwardly directed and I’m not dependant on external things to make me feel good about myself. They can come or go and I can enjoy them – or not. It’s okay.
SS: That’s a lovely place to be. It took a minute, huh? And a lot of work?
KD: The way that I see it, and this is totally pathological from most people’s point of view, this is my guru filling my karmas now that they won’t destroy me. He’s giving me all the things that I wanted now that I want love more than those things. It’s called grace. That’s the saving grace, that I didn’t get those things when I was young and now they’re coming when I can actually enjoy them.
SS: It’s kind of obvious that you’re having fun.
KD: It’s not like I don’t enjoy chanting to a thousand or twelve thousand people; I enjoy that. I enjoy watching and feeling that beautiful thing developing, but I’m not doing it to feel good about myself. I’m not doing it to be a star or become famous. I’m doing it because this is my practice; this is what brings me into the love. As far as I’m concerned this is as good as it gets. The really great thing about it is sitting there in front of all these people and feeling like its family.
Everybody’s there for the same reason and we’re all in this together and that’s the great feeling. It’s not the fact that I’m doing it.
That’s saving grace; saving me from pride, saving me from all that ego stuff that goes on. That’s grace. I can’t take credit for that. I’m being saved from burning in my own pride and self-importance by my own guru.
SS: How do you keep the road rust off? I’ve seen your tour schedule. It’s brutal. And let’s face it, you’re not a teenager, you feel me?
KD: Part of my practice is to learn how to take care of myself. Since I’m a person of extremes, and have always been a person of extremes, I’m trying to learn how to pace myself.
Chanting is not my job. Chanting is my practice. This is what I love doing. My job is taking care of my physical health so that I can continue to do this. I’m learning how to do that. Every once in a while I get pretty fried and I just fall over. Sometimes I just go to India and sleep for a month and recharge.
I got really tired last year: writing the book, doing the CD and touring. It really was hard, but now I’m just taking it easy singing and chanting, traveling and trying to take care of myself.
SS: Is it service that you’re doing? Is that your intention? Is that how you see it?
KD: I don’t see this as if I’m doing something for anyone else. This is not the Salvation Army here. I’m not on a mission. This is my practice. This is what I need to do for me.
SS: How does it work, your practice of mantra? What is the mechanism of your modality?
KD: I don’t know. I just sing. I don’t think about it. People seem to enjoy it so they come back. It’s that simple. Some people, who are drawn to it, they’re getting something from it. I’m drawn to it so I keep doing it.
KD: If you want to know the way I see it, I’ll tell you; it’s all my guru’s business. I have nothing to do with it. He could pick up a rusty pipe and play beautiful music as if it was the most expensive flute you could buy. He could do anything. I’m just the rusty pipe. He picks me up, he plays it, he puts me down. What does a pipe know about music? What does a flute know about music? It’s the musician who plays it. God, my guru, he’s the musician. I’m just the instrument. And the less I think about it, the easier it is.
Drawn by the power of his love, like a moth to the flame, the other devotees and I were purified by that fire. There was nowhere to get away from it. And we didn’t want to get away. We wanted to be in that love, but in order to be in that love, our stuff had to burn away. The process still continues in a different way. –– KD from Chants of a Lifetime
SS: Oddly, you haven’t said his name.
KD: Neem Karoli Baba, he’s my guru. People know him as the little old guy with the blanket. Ram Dass’ guru. Everybody knows him for that. Thing is, he’s no longer in the body. He died in 1973, so when I talk about him it’s almost as if he’s around physically because he’s that around for me. He’s that much a part of my life.
(The sound of a toilet flushing from the next room interrupts his flow. He looks over his shoulder, addressing an unseen observer.)
“All right, I’m getting a little corny,” he says, directing his remarks to the door. “You don’t have to flush the toilet in my face.”
SS: What else is on your mind? If I handed you my pen what would you write?
KD: If you asked me the one thing that I’d like to see: I’d like everybody to realize what’s really possible and what you really can find in life. What’s available. We’re programmed with so much bullshit and so much unhappiness.
We’re programmed with it from the cultures we grow up in to what our parents have gone through, what’s transmitted to us through them and our families and the worlds around us.
All that is just covering what’s really there. What’s covered is something really special that everybody has, and the sad thing is that people don’t realize that. They continually create more pain and more suffering for themselves because they don’t know what’s possible.
Everybody wants to be happy. Everybody. They may not call it that, but they’re looking for something. But because we don’t really believe it exists, our own actions just wind up covering it up even more. That’s hard to see. I’ve just been so lucky I’ve had so much grace. That just makes me see what’s possible, not that I’m special, just what is possible in the world.
SS: Presumably, there was a dark hour of the soul before you had the transcendence that has provided you this enlightened perspective, this openhearted detached indifference?
KD: I’d be dead. My mother was an alcoholic; I had substance abuse problems myself. I was strung out on coke for two years. Freebase. And I’m only alive because of my Indian family, these people I lived with in India. My Indian father came to America and took one look at me and he went, “Promise me now, you’ll quit cocaine. Promise me now.” He didn’t give me any f****** option. He loved me so much I knew I had to. I knew it was killing me and so I said okay.
From that day I never did it again. Totally clean. Stopped. Never wanted it again due to his spiritual power and my agreeing to go with the program at that point, he gave me the strength to avoid that.
I was going down the tubes, and it wasn’t the first time. I had all those inclinations to destroy myself. If things hadn’t gone the way they’d gone, I’d be long gone. Long dead. No question about it. Because I hated myself so goddamn much. Because I was so angry – so angry at my life and myself and so frustrated not being able to get what I wanted out of life. I was torturing myself and I would have continued that until there was nothing left to torture.
SS: That’s a lovely story. Really. By the way, on a related subject, do you ever find yourself practicing for the moment of your death? I know I do.
KD: You know I don’t think about death too much because, [the] way I understand it, we don’t know what life is. How are we going to find out what death is? We don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we are right now so my job is to get here right now as close to 100 percent as I can and when death happens, when that moment arrives, if I’m really present now, I’ll be really present with that too.
It’s not something you can prepare for in your head. You have to be there. It has to be real.
You have to know what’s going on now, because there is only now. There isn’t later. Every moment – it’s as if time moves through us, we don’t move through time. We’re here and time moves through us.
When that moment comes when the next breath is not gonna come in, how you greet that moment, it’s not going to be very different from how you greet these moments. So if you don’t take the knots out of your heart now, if you don’t remove fear, shame, guilt, anger, selfishness, what do you think you’re going to do when you’re actually leaving the body and you have no control? When you don’t have a body you don’t have the kind of control you have now.
You can come back from a thought and okay, now what? But when you don’t have a body it’s like a dream. You’re in a dream. Can you control you dreams? No. You’re not going to control your death. You’re not going to control your life after the body without knowing how to be here now. The same stuff that’s pushing you is going to keep pushing. You’re just going to lose your anchor.
SS: Any last word? Something else on your mind?
KD: I don’t have much on my mind. I just want to keep chanting; keep singing. Like I say, that’s what keeps me straight. Boom.
I really don’t think. [He pauses to reflect, then says] I’d like UCONN to go undefeated in women’s basketball and win the NCAA championships. Other than that I don’t have many desires, I mean, that I think about that much.
The Sanskrit chants that we sing – recognized for millennia as the Names of God – come from a deep place within each of us, so they have the power to draw us back within. If we go deep enough, we will arrive at the same place, our deepest being.
–– KD from Chants of a Lifetime
For More Information
For more information on Krishna Das’ tour schedule, recordings and books, visit: krishnadas.com.
Photos of Krishna Das at Bhakti Fest West 2012 shot by Kristina Clemens Kristinaclemens.com
Award-winning journalist, documentary director and long-term LA Yoga contributor Sam Slovick is the director, writer and producer of the Radicalized documentary, currently working on the Kirtan Road Dogs documentary.