It is my great honor, fortune and pleasure to be with all of you today at this very relevant and needed conference, CLO. Thank you Mr. Kumar for inviting me to participate. I was asked to speak on how we could learn lessons that can not only equip us to live and serve within this world in a very significant way, but also lessons that can transform our lives, even from the most ordinary experiences in life.
Radhanath Swami reveals the underground secret of redwood trees
Not long ago, I decided to get away from all the demands and expectations in my life, because spiritual people also have that kind of situation. And I went to a forest; it’s in Northern California; it’s called Meer Woods; gigantic redwood trees, sequoia trees are growing there. I just wanted to be left alone. As I was walking, I came upon a circle of about 25 Chinese tourists. In the middle of the circle was a forest ranger. So wanting to get away from people, I started walking a little faster, but then I heard the forest ranger saying, “ I am about to tell you the underground secret of Redwood Forest.”
Now, I grew up in 1960s as a teenager in America. So I am naturally inclined towards underground secrets. So I stopped to listen. He explained how the redwood tree is the tallest, largest tree on planet earth, and some of these trees are over 2000 years old. He said, “Usually for a tree to survive and grow, the roots have to grow very deep. But Redwood trees, their roots don’t grow deep. But yet these trees, over the thousands of years they have been standing there, have endured massive forest fires, devastating earthquakes, frigid winters, storms, winds, tornadoes. How do they keep standing?” And he paused. “Let us think about it.”
And he explained, ‘Underground, the roots cannot be seen. But the nature of a redwood tree is that the roots reach out to the roots of other redwood trees. And when two roots of two different trees come together, they wrap around each other and make a permanent knot. And all the roots of all the trees are reaching out to connect with each other.’ Unity is their strength, these gigantic redwood trees that are thousand years old that are so tall.” – Radhanath Swami
We came to one redwood tree; there was a sign near it and it said that if a little mouse looks up at a six foot man – not a Bombay rat, a little mouse – it’s the same experience as for a six foot man looking up at this tree… huge. These giant trees, their roots go not only to other huge trees, but even to the little baby trees that are just coming out of their seeds. Their fine little roots are wrapping around the big roots and in this way they are empowering each other to grow. And because of their unity, through the fires and through the wind storms, they keep growing and growing and growing.
I found this to be such an incredible message. We see trees everywhere we go, but this invaluable lesson is right in front of our eyes. How much we could learn!
A lesson from a basket ball champion
A few years ago I saw in a newspaper the story of a basketball game. Now, what does a Swami have to do with basketball games? Really nothing. But there was something that really affected me. There was a star player in a World Championship playoff, the last game. There were two seconds left. He was given the ball; if he made the basket, they win the World Championship. If he missed it, they lose. It’s the last shot of the game. They are one point behind, either they win or lose. It was an easy shot. If he made this basket, he would have won one of the greatest awards for making one of the most coveted records in the basketball history, something no one has ever done…how many points he scored in championships. He passed it to another person… that person… it went in, made the basket, they won. When he was asked, “Why didn’t you do it? It was easy. You would have won a world record,” he said, “When I am playing, I can’t think about me. I have to think about the team. Yes, it was 90% I would have made it, but it was 95% he would have made it.”
In spiritual organizations, what to speak of politics and corporate world, the lesson is – it’s not about me, it’s about us. That consciousness where we help each other to grow. The giant redwood trees in the forest are totally dependent on the little trees, and little trees are dependent on giants and on each other.” – Radhanath Swami.
Radhanath Swami speaks of a leadership lesson he learnt from Srila Prabhupada
As was said in the introduction, when I was a teenager I hitchhiked from London to India and I travelled in the Himalayas as a sadhu, searching for spiritual meaning. Because I was born and raised in United States of America, I saw people had so much. But what confused me is, they had so little because real happiness is the condition of the heart. There is a saying that in human evolved society, people love people and use things. But unfortunately sometimes we become so distracted by limitless weapons of mass distraction that we love things, and use people to get them and keep them. From an economical perspective, from political perspective, from organizational perspective, it is an unsustainable model. And from a human perspective, there can be no real fulfillment in such a life. So I was looking for something meaningful and fulfilling that I can really connect my life to; and then whether I become a millionaire or a billionaire or a monk or a swami, I found something rich within myself and I could share that with the world. I travelled in the Himalayas; I lived with many masters and yogis.
I would like to tell a little lesson that really transformed me and helped me to follow the path that I am on now. It was in Vrindavan. I was sleeping under a tree on the bank of the Yamuna river, and then Swami Srila Prabhupad, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami , he came to Vrindavan with about 40 disciples from all over the world. Somebody was introducing him, talking about his accomplishments. How he left Vrindavan with forty rupees; he took a cargo ship across two oceans and three continents to New York City from Calcutta; and when he arrived, no one would change – in 1965 – rupees for dollars; so he had nothing and he didn’t know anyone, but he had such a determination to share the wealth of what he had within himself; and from that small beginning, he started International Society with thousands of people and temples. And I was sitting in his room next to him; there were only five or six people; and one journalist asked him a question, “Are you the guru for the world?” And he looked down with such a humble expression and with tears in his eyes. He was just sitting on the floor and he looked on the floor and he said, “No. I am just everyone’s servant. That’s all.” And that was his answer.
And I was thinking, ‘That’s the person I want to follow. Such determination, such incredible accomplishments, and he has been proclaimed the guru of the world; and he is saying – no! I am just the servant of everyone. That’s all.’ And for me, it was that type of humility that really prompted me to dedicate myself to assist him.” – Radhanath Swami
In Bhagavadgita, there is a beautiful verse, “yad yad acarati sresthas…” which means what leaders do common people will follow. There is a saying – you can tell how rich you are by counting how many things you have that money can’t buy. Money cannot buy love or peace or inner fulfillment or character or integrity. The values that we hold sacred, that is what brings about a fulfilling life. And when we find that wealth within ourselves, it humbles us. We realize – ‘I am not a master or proprietor; I am a care taker. I am a trustee of things that belong to a higher principle than just me.’ In the Gita, Krishna tells, “I am the strength of the strong, the intelligence in intelligent. I am the ability in people.”
“Whatever we have, it is so much based on the gifts we are receiving from nature, from God and from so many other people. To be grateful means to be humbled by those gifts, to treasure their value, to utilize them with tremendous determination, tremendous insight, tremendous focus; to share what has been given to us, not thinking ‘I am the giver, I am the messenger.’” – Radhanath Swami
I remember another time someone spoke to my Guru and said, “Thank you so very very much for what you have given us.” And he said, “Actually I have not given. I am just like a postman. It’s coming from higher powers of God and saints and great people. I am just delivering the message.” A similar thing I heard from Mother Teresa when I lived with her in 1971 in Calcutta. I came to her ashram or her covenant and she was washing pots, huge pots. And they asked me to sit and wait for her. And we spoke for some time, and then some people from Britain came, some journalists and one asked, “How do you do so much?” She said, “It is God’s work. I am just an instrument.”
The inner satisfaction we get from feeling that higher power and being an instrument is millions of times greater than thinking, ‘I am doing it myself.’” – Radhanath Swami
And also, it is so much more of an incentive to give and to do everything we can, because we are representing something or people we believe in – whether it’s a government, whether it’s a company, whether it’s a God or our religion. To take responsibility and understand that the integrity of what we represent is how I speak and how I act and especially how I treat others. All of these thoughts were coming through my mind for days and days and days, after I learnt the underground secret of the Redwood Forest, the biggest trees reaching out to make the little tiny seedlings become big like him and little tiny seedling knows that it has potential to be a part of an incredible forest. Every tree is dependent on every other tree.
Radhanath Swami on the unpredictability of life
Another time I was… I write about this in my book The Journey home. I was at Prayag, the confluence of Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers. This was 1971. It was summer and it was in the noon time, extremely hot. I was thinking, “I am going to go to the place of the Kumbh Mela where tens and millions of people gather every year.” But when I came, there was no human anywhere around, because it was just so hot. And I was sitting there on the banks of Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati. And I had all these little scriptures with me and I was thinking, “I am going to learn something in this holy sacred place.” And as I am doing my meditation and reading some little scriptures, trying to get some knowledge, I learnt something that was to me the essence of all my chanting and all my meditations and all my scriptures, from something I was about to see. It was a hawk, flying just above my heads, wings expanded. It was a really big hawk, brown-white-golden wings. It had really sharp curved beak and yellow glistening eyes that were looking down with tremendous focus, and it was right above my head. It looked like he was looking at me and there was no one around. He was circling lower and lower and lower and I looked up and just a few meters above my head were his claws. They looked really sharp and they were moving like they were ready to attack. Suddenly it dove right into the river, went under water. Then I saw skirmishes and all kinds of splashing and splashing and splashing. Hawk came out with a fish in its claws, and it was a just a few meters away from me. I was looking and I could see the eyes of that little fish. It was about a foot long. That fish was squirming and flapping helplessly and its eyes looked totally bewildered, disoriented and helpless as the hawk flew higher and higher and took the fish into the forest. And I was thinking, “What I am supposed to learn from this? There must be a message.”
We see these kinds of things every day. I was thinking that the little fish probably was just going about its day like any other day – swimming upstream, downstream, across stream may be with family, friends, trying to get some food, trying to protect itself, had no consciousness that the hawk of fate was about to rip it out of its complacency, rip it out of its life. I was thinking how much that is like us.
Like little fish we are swimming around with the people we know, we are going about our routines in life and we are going through the challenges in life. But we don’t know that at any moment something could really rip us out of that state. We read about it, we see it on televisions, we hear about it, we know people it happened to, but still we just swim around; complacency! When we understand the realities of this world, then we really put our consciousness on what really matters. Sometimes we just become so distracted.” – Radhanath Swami
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krisha tells Arjuna what really matters. And says, “That doesn’t mean that you should give up your duty. You should perform your duty with your full vigor and concentration, but understanding what your higher purpose is.” Then success, failure ,victory, defeat, honor, dishonor, these things come and go like the seasons, but our roots are in the real values that we are representing. The ultimate value is the love that is within all of us, to be an instrument of that love, to be an instrument of that power, to be an instrument of who and what we represent. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen in this world; there are so many uncertainties. But then I was thinking, “If that fish was swimming deeper, the hawk could not catch it.” So similarly, in whatever we are doing in our life, if we are doing it on a superficial level, near the surface, then we are subjected to all the different hawks of fate and destinies that may grab us, meaning all the different situations that could come to disturb us and trouble us. But if we find that inner satisfaction in a deeper place, in our values, in our character, in our integrity, in our love, if we find that then whatever may happen in the world it can’t change the quality of our life. If a house is built on a strong foundation, it can endure any storm. If a house, however beautiful it is, is built on shifting sand, then when the storm comes, it crumbles. It is so important that on every level of society we learn to find and develop that inner foundation of our life, those inner roots of our life, empower one another, inspire one another, encourage one another to be the best we can, and in doing so we grow.