Growing up in the small African country of Zimbabwe, my first impressions of China were of a remote and distant country, steeped in ancient ways, while at the same time isolated from the world by the cloak of communism. It somehow never occurred to me that I would one day visit China – it just seemed to be one of those places that would forever be hidden from the world, or at least from the Western world. Yet, by some miracle of humanity or divinity, as I now write this story about China, my overwhelming impression of this far away land is of a place that feels like home.
Upon hearing last August that my spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy, would be visiting China for his annual 'Christmas Trip', which is usually also attended by many of his students, I was not really sure what to think about the prospect of going to China. It was only when a friend in New York sent me a series of language CDs on learning to speak Mandarin, that my interest was somehow piqued. For a couple of weeks the CDs sat unopened and I wondered whether I would ever give them a try. So many people had told me how difficult a language it was to learn. But I eventually did find the inspiration to have a go, and I was immediately grateful that I did, as I found myself fascinated – somehow the language seemed to carry an aspect of the culture that I strongly identified with. It immediately brought back fond memories of times shared with friends from Hong Kong who I had met while attending an international school in New Mexico.
In a matter of weeks I had been through each of the 18 language CDs several times and I was searching desperately for a way to obtain the subsequent series. It was eventually through the generosity of a friend I met at a meditation class that I was able to continue with the language course, although in the end I ran out of time as the day of departure for my trip to China suddenly loomed and I soon found myself on a plane bound for Hong Kong.
I have been to Hong Kong before, but I somehow felt that China would be different and it was. As our plane from Hong Kong descended through the clouds in preparation for landing in the northern coastal city of Qingdao, I looked out through the window at a cold, bleak and untidy landscape, dotted with warehouses, roads and new development and I wondered whether my new found fascination with China would survive.
Once inside the airport, I was soon amongst familiar faces, fellow members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre who like me had journeyed from the far corners of the globe to spend a few short weeks with their teacher, Sri Chinmoy. It was a great relief to be amongst old friends once again, yet at the same time it was somehow bizarre to be seeing all these people in such an unfamiliar environment – part of the magic of life in the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It took about an hour for our bus to travel from the airport to our hotel in the heart of Qingdao. On the way we passed a whole spectrum of sights from shabby and run down homes for the poor, to tall and glitzy skyscrapers only recently finished.
As I settled into my room at the hotel and began to get a feel for Qingdao and its people, rather than feeling any sense of disappointment, I only felt a sense of harmony and joy - being in China felt so comfortable. Each day began with an early morning meditation in my room followed by a run or some other exercise and then breakfast. At around 9:00 am, we all headed for the main hotel conference room, where we spent about two to three hours with Sri Chinmoy. At the end of those few hours, it felt as though I had at long last reached the oasis at the end of the desert. All the struggles I had been battling with in the previous months seemed to be just magically dissolved and washed away.
And even when our morning meditation session was over, the strength of the consciousness that I felt during those few hours seemed to be only sustained and enriched by all my seemingly ordinary jaunts to explore Qingdao and its environs. In Sri Chinmoy’s presence China seemed to exude a quality of sweetness and purity that seemed so uncharacteristic of my childhood impressions
Knowing even a few words of the Chinese language turned out to be a great blessing. Wherever I went just a few simple words of Mandarin seemed to be the key that would unlock a smile. And even though I did not really know enough to communicate properly, being able to communicate a little with Chinese people in their own language seemed only to bring Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy of oneness alive – that we are all part of a oneness world family.
Perhaps surprisingly, my most memorable experiences of China are not the great places I saw like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City or even Beijing, but more the little day to day encounters I had with ordinary people. From my simple conversations with the lady who cleaned our room, or the encounters with the local taxi drivers, to the comical situation of trying to find shoes that would fit my size 12 feet. These experiences somehow unlocked the real culture of the Chinese people, their sweetness, purity and childlike nature, qualities that seem so long dead in our 'advanced' western world. And as I now reflect on this, I realise that it is only because of my spiritual life that I was really able to appreciate this aspect of China. As Sri Chinmoy encourages us, his students, to value these qualities in ourselves, we naturally appreciate them in others.
Three and a half weeks after landing in Qingdao, I arrived back in Hong Kong, having travelled first to Beijing and then down through central and southern China by train. I felt a tremendous sense of gratitude, while at the same time I had a lingering sense of sadness – grateful for being so enriched and uplifted in spirit and sad to be saying goodbye not only to Sri Chinmoy and my fellow students, but also to China and the nurturing and protective spirit it had shown me during my brief visit. Most important of all, however, I had a firsthand sense of the beauty and uniqueness of the world family and of ,Sri Chinmoy’s dream for humanity, so beautifully and eloquently expressed by Sri Chinmoy himself:
"As the countless drops of the boundless ocean or the myriad leaves of a huge Banyan tree peacefully remain side by side, even so all human beings will someday live side by side in a perfect oneness-world." – Sri Chinmoy.
View images of Sri Chinmoy's visit to China on The Sri Chinmoy Centre Galley