Muhammad Ali was a man who transcended nationalities and religions. He put love for human beings above love of country. He put love of God above religious barriers. He expressed and lived truths that were honored the world round, and it was this more than any of his other accomplishments that made him such an exceptional person.
I met him once. I was in La Jolla, California, walking home from dinner, when my attention was drawn to a nearby restaurant. The balloons were what caught my eye. In the midst of a dinner party that was breaking up for the evening was sitting Muhammad Ali. From the writing on the balloons, I could see it was his 50th birthday. As a disciple of a dear acquaintance of his, I decided to offer him a greeting on my teacher’s behalf.
Sri Chinmoy, my spiritual teacher, was born in India in 1931 and raised in a Hindu family. He spent 20 years at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Southern India and came to the West in 1964. He lived in New York until his passing in 2007.
He first met Muhammad Ali in Puerto Rico on January 25, 1976. It was the beginning of a somewhat unusual friendship. Although the two men led quite different lives, they connected deeply over their spiritual ideas. During that first two-hour conversation, Ali said, “Chinese die, Mexicans die, Indians die. If there is a Heaven, people from all races go there if they’re good. I want to help all people who want to be helped, regardless of race, creed or color.”
Sri Chinmoy, too, emphasized the connections between people. “God is the only true religion,” he wrote. “Is there any religion that will not tell us to love God? But alas, some religions will say, ‘Love God, but do it in my way. Only if you come to church, only if you come to the temple, only if you come to the mosque will your love of God be perfect. The other ... ways are all wrong.’ True love of God is not like that.”
I was in high school when Sri Chinmoy and Muhammad Ali first met. It would be a few years until I met either of them, yet Ali was already an inspiration to me. Seeing him on television, I was moved by his candor, impartiality, and his physical prowess.
In particular, I was touched by his famous words on the draft: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
Those were not just words. Muhammad Ali sacrificed his heavyweight title, his ability to box, and risked a possible prison sentence as he stood behind his beliefs. Those actions made him loved and admired the around the world. His case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.
During their meeting, Ali explained his reasons for refusing to fight in Vietnam to Sri Chinmoy. He bore no grudge against the people there, he said, and he could not shoot people just because his country had decided to go to war. “I’d rather go to jail than to kill,” he stated emphatically.
Their second meeting was on the morning of Ali’s title defense fight with Earnie Shavers, September 29th, 1977; the two spent an hour together in shared silent prayer. A photo of the two men serenely meditating was placed beside a photo of Ali powerfully vanquishing Shavers on the front page of The New York Times the following morning.
My good friend Shambhu Vineberg was there for that meeting. He remembers: “Sri Chinmoy offered Ali a song that our choir had prepared. As we sang him the song, Ali and Sri Chinmoy listened in quiet repose. At the end of the song, they both stood in meditation for what felt like an eternity.”
Sri Chinmoy expressed gratitude for the inspiration Muhammad Ali provided to so many people. The boxer was inspiring regular people to have the courage to battle ignorance. “Your heart of oneness with all humanity makes you the greatest,” he said.
Ali replied that his main goal in life was to be peaceful like Sri Chinmoy. He longed to leave boxing and do God’s work for the good of humanity, to find ways to bring people together.
The two men met again on June 12, 2003 at the Oneness-Family Montessori School in Bethesda, Maryland, run by my friend Andrew Kutt. Andrew recalled, “Muhammad Ali visited classrooms and playfully boxed with some of our younger students. He did magic tricks for our students… [His] visit that day was made all the more special as it also marked the reunion of Muhammad Ali with spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy. Having both of these great souls in our midst - and seeing the immense joy they had in each other’s presence - was truly an honor.”
That night in La Jolla, the seat right next to Muhammad Ali was open so I sat down and introduced myself as a student of Sri Chinmoy’s. He immediately asked if my teacher was still running. I said yes, and that he was now into weightlifting. Ali noted what a nice man Sri Chinmoy was, and I wished him a happy birthday on my teacher’s behalf.
Walking out of the restaurant that evening I was truly uplifted. Not because I had just crossed paths with a famous man, but because I had just crossed paths with a man who exuded and lived love. As Andrew noted, “I will never forget the conversations I had with Muhammad Ali during his visit as he met students, teachers and parents. At one point I was showing him a treasured gift - a statue given to our school from the Ambassador of Sudan. Muhammad Ali pointed to the sky with his trembling finger and said, ‘Remember that the greatest gift comes from our creator above.’” As Sri Chinmoy had noted all those years before, it was Ali’s dedication to connection and spiritual love that made him truly great.