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Chuan Heng Shakya

The Song of Courage

by Chuan Heng Shakya, OHY

A song’s end has a strange bleakness. There’s a signal of finality, the end of something beautiful and loved. The dying overtones of the last note cause the heart to skip a few beats as if it’s trying to still itself, anticipating sounds the ear will not be hearing.

The day after the attack on New York a friend of mine, a fellow pastor of an Indian meditation group, asked me to fill in for him while he attended an important civic meeting. I had attended his meetings a few times and knew the routine.

The room was filled. I had not seen all the available prayer mats occupied before.

Post-attack anxiety had shattered the ashram’s normal, peaceful ambience. Everyone was talking, moving about, straining necks to look back at a man with a pocket radio and earpiece who was listening intently to a news broadcast. I waited for the members to assemble themselves into a quiet group, but it wasn’t until people noticed that I was sitting there waiting for them to settle down that they paid any attention to me.

I explained the circumstances of my substitution for their pastor and said that we’d proceed as usual with an opening song, a lively Bengali hymn. The harmonium was on the floor beside me, and so I asked who it was who normally played it. A woman sitting in the front row looked at me as if I had just insulted her. “Music?” she said defiantly. “You want to sing at a time like this?” Others clearly agreed with her.

I had expected that many in the congregation would be disappointed that their regular teacher wasn’t there and that someone from a group, which they considered to be a rival group, had filled in for him. But I had not expected such a hostile response to a suggestion to sing. Perhaps, I thought, the selection was too upbeat. I leafed through the hymnbook. “Would you prefer something else?”

As if I had been asleep for the previous thirty-six hours, a man explained the situation to me. “We’re in a disaster mode,” he concluded. “This isn’t something we can just go beyond, shrugging and singing, like… ‘and the band played on.’”

The man with the pocket radio pulled the bud out of his ear. “Thousands of people are buried alive,” he shouted. “Patriotic songs are one thing, but singing as if nothing has happened doesn't seem right.”

A schoolteacher I recognized chimed in. “It’s rather like Nero nonchalantly playing the fiddle while Rome burned.”

A woman in the back said, “Singing for the sake of singing is just so much whistling in the dark. It’s a sign of fear. Cowardice.”

I don’t know why I suddenly felt angry. I wanted to shout, “I’m not being indifferent. I’m not a coward, and I’m not ignoring the attack. I didn’t come here to sing patriotic songs. I came here to conduct a religious service. And isn’t that what you’re all here for?” But I said nothing. In deference to my friend, I took a deep breath and announced that we’d commence the meditation session.

They seemed satisfied and adjusted their postures; but they didn’t settle down. They were still agitated. And I could tell that they very much resented me.

After five minutes of squirming, a man in the back of the room said, “This is useless.” Everyone seemed to agree.

“First,” I said, “we’re not in a disaster mode. We’ve been injured, but we will heal. What will your agitations accomplish? Will getting flustered in an Ashram rescue people from the ruins? You don’t want to sit and pray or meditate at a time like this. What is a better time for it than now? You don’t want to sing hymns at a time like this. Well a hymn is a prayer set to music and this is the perfect time to sing hymns. When is music not appropriate? Music accompanies and signals all human endeavors. We have waltzes and dirges, marches, love songs, and lullabies, and we have hymns of praise and thanksgiving. But cowardice? Since when is music a sign of cowardice?”

Nobody said anything and, needing to make a point, I suggested a guided meditation. “Close your eyes,” I said, and then, after a pause, I lowered and softened my voice. “Imagine for a moment that you are on the deck of the Titanic watching the scene, but as though you’re in a silent movie, you can hear nothing. You see people’s open mouths and their expressions of horror, but you hear nothing. You watch the men lower the last lifeboat into the icy water.”

“On the deck,” I continued, “you can see people flail about, their feet scrambling as the ship begins to sink.

“Now, slowly add sound to the scene. Hear the furniture slam into walls as the ship lists. Here the cries and whimpers of the abandoned passengers and the lapping sounds of water sloshing down carpeted corridors. Listen to all the shouts and shrieks of chaos. But then, above the horror, you begin to hear music a few brave musicians - men who earlier had been playing the frivolous rhythms of ragtime - are now playing a hymn. There is nothing left for the people on board. The lifeboats are gone. The end is inevitable and clear. Where is there to turn for solace? They need to pray, but they are disorganized and confused. And then they hear the music and cohere into a unit, and together, because of the music, they face their deaths with faith and dignity.

“The musicians play Nearer My God To Thee; and you know that in just a few moments they will join the doomed travelers and be as near to God as anyone ever gets.

“See and hear the dedicated musicians play on as death approaches and the sad song ends. The icy air blows through the horror. The musicians clutch their instruments; and the ocean sucks the great ship and everyone aboard under the surface of the sea. Feel the heavy, eerie stillness now that everyone is dead now that there are no more musicians and no music left to hear.

“Stay in this moment and understand what it means to practice your Dharma, what it means to do what needs to be done both in ordinary and in tragic moments.”

I stopped speaking to let the congregation feel the moment. Then I asked them to bring their awareness back to the surface of consciousness.

As each set of eyes opened, it seemed that a new understanding was present. “Courage?” I asked. “Never has anyone exhibited such courage as those whose examples we need to follow - the brave men on the Titanic and all brave men and women everywhere and in all times who have refused to surrender to fear. Those musicians chose to proceed with honor and purpose. Their Dharma was the meaning of their music, which was to comfort others with their song. And our Dharma here tonight carries the same imperative - to continue doing what we do, which for us is to carry on with our spiritual practice, including our hymns.

“If all that we have to offer God is our practice, let us offer it with enthusiasm.”

I started singing the Bengali hymn and in a moment the room was filled with chanting. 

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Last modified: November 22, 2004
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