By Nirmala Hanke
Gurudev Shree Chitrabhanuji is a 92-year-old Jain Master, who is the spiritual advisor at the Lighthouse Center. He has been guiding me on my way since our first meeting in 1992. He has been my guru, my teacher on my spiritual path ever since Chetana, my first spiritual teacher, transcended. Re-live with me my first meeting with him. To set the stage, let me tell you a bit about the man I was to face one-on-one.
Chitrabhanu became a Jain monk in India at the age of 20. He traveled with his guru and a small band of monks, walking 12 miles a day on foot, speaking in the evening to the people they met in the villages. He was to do this for almost 30 years. During this time he spent five years in silence, speaking only with his guru. He also studied world religions and many languages, and was active in Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha. He became a popular speaker all over India, speaking to crowds in the tens of thousands.
In 1971 Chitrabhanuji became the first Jain Master in 2,500 years to leave India and come to the West. He was motivated to leave because he felt the world was in desperate need of a more compassionate direction, and that the Jain philosophy could provide that direction. The Jain philosophy is one of India’s most ancient schools of thought. For the many Jains in both East and West who have benefited from the teaching, it is an eternal philosophy of Ahinsa (non-violence), Reverence for All Life, and Relativity in Thinking.
“Jain”, Gurudev explains, “is not a religion or an identity, but has its roots in the Sanskrit verb ‘Ji’, meaning ‘to conquer.’” This conquest is very much the result of a personal spiritual struggle against our inner enemies of anger, greed, ego, and deceit. A “Jina” is one of those enlightened beings who has conquered the inner enemies and thus has seen through the negative clouds that obstruct our natural state of enlightenment.
In the West, Gurudev has spoken at many colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Cornell, and has worked with many church groups, drug addiction centers, and international-minded groups. He was the first to address the United Nations on Ahinsa and has served as founder-president of the World Fellowship of Religions in America. He has many books in print in India and in the West. They include: Realize What You Are: The Dynamics of Meditation, The Psychology of Enlightenment: Meditations on the Seven Energy Centers, and Twelve Facets of Reality. He has inspired and supported the development of over 65 Jain centers throughout the United States and Canada.
So this was the guru with whom I was going to meet, one-on-one. Here’s what that first encounter was like.
I was attending my first Chitrabhanuji weekend at the Lighthouse Center, in which he gave morning talks and then had private consultations for any who would like one. I signed up and went in, not knowing what I wanted a consultation for, not knowing what to expect. Most people came out of their consultations smiling and glowing; I did not. As I knelt down and shared with him my doubts and frustrations about not seeming to make any headway in my meditation practice of some ten years, his only comment to me was, “You can do it.” This was initially unsettling; by the time I got home, I was enraged. How could he say something like that to me? Here I was, a psychiatrist, someone who had spent years trying to “do it” and not succeeding, at least not feeling like I was succeeding, someone who felt like I understood myself and others pretty well, sharing some of my deepest feelings and concerns with a complete stranger. And that was all he could say? It felt like a slap in the face.
It took some time, but I gradually came to see that what he said was exactly what I needed. To believe in myself fully, to put aside the doubts, to overcome the negative “inner enemies.” Now years later, I am rereading Chitrabhanuji’s many talks at the Lighthouse. Here is one that sums up what meditation can do, and what it has done for me:
Meditation is a kind of power or light. Used properly, there is nothing you cannot touch,
nothing you cannot solve. Meditation is a very precise way of using your thought to solve the problems of daily life. Without it, your thoughts will become fantasy or will jump from one subject to another. Like Hamlet, you will be unable to come to a decision. Many people pass their whole life in the process of “to be, or not to be” and before they decide, their time is over. But through meditation, your thoughts will become stronger and stronger and you will have confidence in yourself. You need this confidence. If a surgeon is trembling while he is operating, he will kill the patient. If he has confidence in his ability, his hand does not tremble, and he ultimately helps the patient. With confidence, the artist can draw a straight line in a single stroke. If a singer has fear in his breath, there will be no music. A spiritual man, who harbors fear, negativity and uncertainty, will be unable to reach his highest potential. So you need confidence and to obtain this confidence, you must use your own energy for meditation. (Chitrabhanu, Journey to Enlightenment, vol. 1, p. 121)
Chitrabhanuji as Storyteller
For me, meditation has been the cornerstone of Chitrabhanuji’s guidance. But he is also a wonderful storyteller and aphorist who can capture life’s quandaries with humor and wisdom. As one of the Lighthouse students, Priya Tammi Johnson recalls:
To me there are two stories from Chitrabhanuji that have such meaning in my life. One is the story of the boy that was supposed to go to the woods and kill the chicken, but no one was to see. After a few days the boy returned to say he could not do it because he would see, and he was someone. I use this a lot when I have conversations with clients that are feeling down about themselves or have no confidence in themselves. I remind them they are someone.
When people talk about their lives and how they feel like they are getting nowhere, maybe traveling the same path over and over, or doing the same thing and it never works, I try to reflect the story that Chitrabhanuji told us. How the two fisherman had drunk and drunk bang (a stimulant) and sat in the boat rowing all night to get to the other side. Only to find themselves in the same place at daylight. Because they didn't untie the boat. So you either keep on rowing over and over, or untie the boat to get to a new path, new ground, new direction in life. So these Chitrabhanuji stories have given me new ways of moving on, believing in myself. But also trusting if I untie the rope, it will help me to get to a better place.
As for aphorisms, two of my favorites are:
“Instead of staying on the stage (of your life), watch the drama from the balcony.”
“You do not have to take what others are dishing out. Don’t let them push your buttons; do not give them your remote.”
Chitrabhanuji as Teacher
Not only for me, but also for all of his Lighthouse students, and indeed students in New York, around the country, and around the world, Chitrabhanuji is revered as a teacher. Here are four tributes to him from Lighthouse students (to be published in a forthcoming biography by Dilip Shah):
Thank you, Dearest Teacher
He is the Gift of a lifetime. In the presence of Gurudev Chitrabhanu, I am loved unconditionally, and I will always be grateful. We are all blessed with his light and his presence. He has taught me not to follow any dogma or teacher without questioning, to be respectful, but to know that my true spiritual guidance is within me. Because of this great teacher, each day is a practice of loving kindness to myself and all other beings. Thank you, Dearest Teacher, because of you I am learning to live every day with great joy and giving.
—Mukta Tana Dean
Reflections on My Teacher, Gurudev Chitrabhanuji
There is an old Arabic proverb: “Repetition teaches even the donkey.” Perhaps the most outstanding gift Gurudev has repeatedly given me during the last two decades is the reminder to stop my inner chatter long enough to understand the lessons I am to learn in this lifetime about who I really am. He has done this with the simplest of phrases, delivered in the kindest of manners. At times, I have not immediately understood the content of Gurudev’s teachings when they have been delivered; however, their import has been made clear over the days, weeks, months and years I have been his student and exposed to the Jain way of life. I will always be grateful for the opportunities I've had to hear him speak, read his profound writings, or have my questions answered on all levels. The repetition of his teachings has guided my steps and will continue to do so.
I have numerous examples of Gurudev Shree Chitrabhanuji’s profound influence on my life. I will share one here. The first time I had an audience with him, as a new student, I was full of questions about how to mindfully raise my two children. As a worried parent, I wondered about their lives: what they were doing, what they were thinking, and why they made the choices they did. Listening patiently until I was finished with my chatter, Gurudev looked into my eyes and said, “Love yourself.” Two words. I left puzzled and remained so for more than a few weeks. I then began to understand those two words and return to them now, decades later, when the ego wants to exert control over others.
—Siddhi Edith A. Lewis
Every Single Lesson
I have held every single lesson you (Gurudev) have taught me close to my heart; and, I pass them on each time I have a chance. You have taught me that I cannot love you until I love myself, and I am loving myself, and you, more each day. You have also taught me that each day is my birthday, that I decide, that I must not try to interfere with peoples’ karma, and that The Lighthouse is within me.
With love and gratitude,
—Shiva Devi Zulema Suarez
A True Teacher
On my spiritual journey, I had been seeking a true teacher. I found one in Chitrabhanuji. There is no division between his beliefs and how he conducts his life. His example has influenced me to seek a path that has the highest intention for my life, which in turn has led me to embrace the Jain philosophy. I know of no other teacher being attuned to each student’s place along his or her spiritual path. Because of this, he has the ability to assess what lesson is needed to help the student. He imparts the lesson so skillfully and with love and compassion, that even what may be difficult to hear is accepted.
—Aarti Meg Graff
The Jain Way of Life
Chitrabhanuji and millions of Jains have, for thousands of years, lived their philosophy, the Jain Way of Life. The essence of the Jain Way of Life consists of three core practices:
Non-Violence is compassion and forgiveness in thoughts, words, and deeds toward all living beings. For this reason, Jains are vegetarians.
Non-Absolutism is respecting views of others. Jains encourage dialog and harmony with other faiths.
Non-Possessiveness is the balancing of needs and desires, while staying detached from our possessions. (Jain Way of Life, A Guide to Compassionate, Healthy and Happy Living, ed. Yogendra Jain)
Chitrabhanuji embraces and embodies these practices. Of Non-Violence, Ahinsa, he writes:
More than twenty-five hundred (2500) years ago, Mahavira made a simple yet profound statement based on the absorption of Ahinsa – Non-violence – into the fabric of his consciousness. He realized, “All life is just like me. I want to live. So do all souls, all living beings. The instinct of self-preservation is universal. Every animate being clings to life and fears death. Each of us wants to be free from pain. So let me carry out all of my activities with great care so as not to be harmful to any living being.” (Journey to Enlightenment, vol. 1, p. 134)
Another way to think of Ahinsa is as another statement of the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A Golden Rule that applies to all sentient beings, plant and animal, as well as human. Since Ahinsa includes all living beings, Jains are vegetarian and support animal rights. Another aspect of Ahinsa is Reverence for All Life, and this is the basis upon which Chitrabhanuji has been leading the Jains to adopt a plant-based, vegan diet and lifestyle which has no animal products. He now has a blog, GurudevChitrabhanu.org, to carry on his campaign for a vegan lifestyle worldwide. His wife Pramodaji Chitrabhanu and Pravin K. Shah have compiled The Book of Compassion, a book of articles detailing the many cruel practices involved in using animals for meat, milk, silk, pearls, and other animal products. The book also offers non-violent, vegan alternatives. Pramodaji is also the Director of PETA India.
This practice of respecting others’ viewpoints means that one is tolerant of other viewpoints, and in fact sees reality as being comprised of Anekantavada, multifaceted viewpoints. Rather than believing in an Absolute Truth, Jains believe in being open to and respecting all points of view. In the Indian fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant Jains see an illustration of Anekantavada. In the fable six blind men each “observe” a certain part of the elephant, and each is convinced that his perception is the true perception; for example one is certain that the elephant is like a wall, another, like a spear (a tusk), another, a rope (the tail), and so on. American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) based his poem on the fable, with the concluding lines (Blind men and an elephant, Wikipedia):
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
Anekantavada, multi-faceted viewpoints, helps the Jains, and can help all of us, in our personal lives and in the world at large, to be more open-minded and find alternatives to intolerance, prejudice, stigma, dogmatism, and fundamentalism.
The core practice of non-possessiveness addresses basic human greed, an age-old phenomenon that plays out today (in the West especially) in materialism and consumption. We are all encouraged, pressured to be good consumers to keep the economy going; we succumb to wanting the latest and best gadgets, computers, cars, clothes, homes, etc. The Jain practice of Aparigraha helps us to sort out our needs from our desires, so that we can reign in self-centered greed and focus more on what is in the highest good of all, and for planet earth. In this way, beginning with Mahavira, the last great Jain Prophet 2500 years ago, Jains are environmentalists, stewards of a sustainable earth for all. So the next time you want to buy yet another device or the latest in fashion, makeup, or running shoes, or you find yourself consuming more and more of your time in video games or the hottest Netflix series, stop and ask yourself, “Do I really need this? Or do I just want it? How can I best spend my time and resources?”
Other Jain Practices
In addition to the core practices, the Jain Way of Life includes the practices of forgiveness, fasting, and silence. Each of these practices provides another way to shed the inner enemies, the negative karmas that we all accumulate.
Forgiveness: Every year Jains celebrate Paryushana, the Jain Festival of Forgiveness, eight days of introspection, meditation, and fasting. Chitrabhanuji describes Paryushana this way:
This is not a time for outward show — but a time for introspection; a time to scrutinize
ourselves within. Throwing off our burdens during these days of introspection, the mind
becomes clear with the soothing, natural happiness of the Soul.
The Lighthouse Center has made Paryushana an integral part of its meditation programs. One year when Chitrabhanuji visited the Detroit Jain Temple during Paryushana, a number of Lighthouse students completed the eight day fast, attending the temple every day. Every year those participating in Paryushana, having shed many negative energies, come away renewed and recommitted to another year of growth and awareness on their spiritual path.
Fasting is one of the time honored practices of the Jains, who are the Olympians of fasting. Not only during Paryushana, but at many times throughout the year, individual Jains commit to fasting, again as a way to shed, release inner enemies, negative karmas. There are many fasting styles, from water only, to one meal a day, to four to seven items daily. One year Lighthouse students were invited to celebrate the breaking of the fast of Devendra Peer in Philadelphia. He had fasted for thirteen months, alternating a day of water only with a day of one meal, and for the last month, had water only! And he worked at his job the entire time. Many people came to celebrate his accomplishment and to witness first hand his serene and joyful countenance.
Silence is another time honored practice among the Jains. As noted above, Chitrabhanuji practiced silence for five years as a monk in India. Silence allows us to more easily watch the constant chatter in our minds, so that, over time, we become more quiet and focused. We also learn to pay more attention to the words we might wish to utter. At the Lighthouse Center we have included a practice of silence as part of the throat chakra meditation in the chakra class. The practice is to be silent for an hour a day. Recently, I decided to ask the students to increase the time in silence by any amount, and I thought I would try myself to be silent for 36 hours. Well, I was doing pretty well with this until one of the cleanup guys for my basement came by unexpectedly. My sister explained to him that I was in silence, and he was at first a little uneasy about this. I jotted down a quick explanation for him and he smiled, and said, “Namaste!”
As you can see, Gurudeve Shree Chitrabhanuji has led an exceptional life of meditation, purity and service, to his fellow Jains, and indeed to all mankind. I hope you have been inspired by him and the Jain Way of Life, to continue on your own particular spiritual path. In closing, I would like to share with you a poem I have written, BHAKTI (Devotion), which expresses my gratitude to Chitrabhanuji, for all he has given to me and to so many.
You walk quietly into my life
helping me to see
how really I am fine, ok
just the way I am
could become so much more
the Divine in me bows
to the Divine in you
“Ahinsa”, you say,
be kind to all
let the inner enemies
in the Light
of Love and Forgiveness
“Stay on the balcony”
watch the drama
on the stage
to get caught up in it
watch, so clearly you may see
“You don’t have to take
what others are dishing out”
you say, be like the Buddha,
to quell his heckler’s
In the beauty
of your silence
I can be at home in mine
reaching out to find
we are all One
the Divine in me bows
to the Divine in you
Nirmala Hanke is a practicing psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and recently retired medical director at Monroe Community Mental Health Authority. She has a private practice in Whitmore Lake for psychiatry, meditative psychotherapy, and Reiki healing. She has been meditating the last 30-odd years, first in the Zen tradition, and the last 20 years in the Jain mantra tradition. She teaches introductory and advanced meditation classes at the Lighthouse Center based upon Chitrabhanuji’s Jaina teachings, including The Psychology of Enlightenment: Meditations on the Seven Energy Centers. For more information on the Lighthouse Center, see lighthousecenterinc.org.