Krishna Das: 'I Feel Like I'm the Same Jerk I Always Was, But I Don't Think About Myself as Much as I Used to.'

I don't lose books.

I lost this one.

A few years ago, I bought Chants of a Lifetime in Los Angeles, got on the plane, read a few chapters, put it aside and walked off the plane without it.

I realized right away I didn't have it.

But I didn't go back for it.

You read books when you're ready for them. Clearly I wasn't ready for the memoir of a desperately unhappy kid who falls in love with Neem Karoli Baba, finds ultimate happiness through his guru, loses it and regains it by chanting the names of God in a language he doesn't understand.

What changed for me?

First is an echo of a decades-ago conversation I had with the great short story writer Andre Dubus. I asked him why he went to Mass every day. He said; "Because if Ronald Reagan defines ultimate reality, I'd have to shoot myself!" That's pretty much how I have come to feel about most of what now passes for news: If this is reality, I need to find something else.

Better believe I have looked hard. And found lots of wisdom. But nothing grabbed me, shook me, calmed me until I encountered the music of Krishna Das. For the last few years, my wife and I have been going to his evenings at a church on the West Side. [The videos on my piece about Heart as Wide as the World were made there.] I am so not a chanter, so not a joiner, so not a seeker after a guru. But I have cherished these evenings. Last year, we brought the child, who complained briefly, then drifted into a beatific snooze.

And now I find I'm noticing a convergence of my head with others. A friend and I were talking about the music in heavy rotation in our lives. I said I was mostly listening to Krishna Das.

"I don't know why," I said, "but I feel Krishna Das helps me deal with a lot of the junk that's in my way."

"You and a lot of people," she said, to my great surprise.

So it seemed like maybe this was the time for me to read Chants of a Lifetime: Searching for a Heart of Gold. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]

It starts with Krishna Das -- the former Jeffrey Kagel, from and of Long Island -- about to return to America. He never thought this would happen; he'd hoped to stay with his guru forever. Now he was being sent back.

I blurted out in anguish, 'Maharaj-ji! How can I serve you in America?' He looked at me with mock disgust and said, 'What is this? If you ask how you should serve, then it is no longer service. Do what you want.' I couldn't believe my ears. How could doing what I wanted to do be of service to him? I didn't have that kind of faith. I just sat there, stunned. Then after a minute or so he looked over at me, smiling sweetly, and asked, 'So, how will you serve me?' 'My mind was blank. It was time for me to leave for Delhi, to catch the plane back to the States. He was looking at me and laughing. I bent down and touched his feet for the last time and when I looked up he, he was beaming at me, 'So, how will you serve me in America?' I felt like I was moving in a dream. I floated across the courtyard and bowed to him one more time from a distance. As I did, the words came to me, 'I will sing to you in America.'

This memoir is about getting to that moment, blowing it (a crack addiction), recovering, building a following for Hindu chanting, blowing it again (in 2002, Krishna Das pled guilty to a federal charge of money laundering and was sentenced to three years probation and six months house arrest), and moving on to bigger audiences and greater CD sales. It's the usual story: an angel with a dirty face. Just like you. Just like me. Only here the contrasts are all in High Def.

I'm not much for reading about someone else's God-intoxication. I prefer teaching stories, anecdotes, dish -- an adventure story -- punctuated by killer one-liners. By this standard, Chants is a classic. It starts with Kagel's hilarious encounter with the Army physical. Quickly serves up a picture of Kagel in his bearded, long-haired Jesus moment. And then delivers the guru, the embodiment of divine love.

But this book does not read "holy." Consider this, on his guru:

He didn't teach with words. He'd shine light on me like the sun, and I'd bloom. When the clouds came between us, I saw that they were my own clouds. Then I would sit there, freaking out, 'What the f--! I can't do anything about this.'

And in the end? "I feel like I'm the same jerk I always was," Krishna Das writes, "but I don't think about myself as much as I used to."

For most of the child's life, my wife has put her to bed with a lecture called "Bore Me to Sleep." Exports, the Bill of Rights, what to visit in a dozen countries -- my wife has developed quite the repertoire.

My wife is away for a few days, so the bedtime boredom ritual has fallen to me. Last night, my first on the job, I told stories. I rubbed her back. Nothing worked. In desperation, I reached for this book and began to read. After a few minutes, the child asked me to stop.

"Too interesting," she said.

Out of the mouths of babes...



[Cross-posted from]