A friend from undergrad ran off and joined the Krishnas. He was smart, grounded, and spiritual, and nobody's fool, and his conversion alarmed me. I had a number of long conversations with him during the period where he decided to move to New Vrindaban and follow Swami Bhaktipada as his guru. He understood that the path of the guru is dangerous, and that he was exposing himself to the real danger of being exploited and manipulated. Ultimately, he believed in his guru, and put his faith in the Krishnas and their religion, and he left to join them.
A few months later, I was roller-blading in Washington Square Park. It was a balmy June day, and I decided to skate around the East Village. As I got closer to 5th Avenue, I saw that it was blocked off by a parade. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness had organized a parade to celebrate the Rath Yatra festival.
There is a tradition that goes back to the city of Puri, and it could be 5 millenia old. The legend has it that the god Jagannatha appeared to the King of Puri and commanded him to make a likeness of the god. Over the next twenty years, an artist sculpted the living image of the god, on the condition that no other mortal could look upon the statue while it was being made. The king became very curious about the undertaking, and, unable to contain himself, stormed into the artist's studio on the night before the day that the artist was to finish the piece. The king, upon beholding the sculpture, caused the piece to transmogrify into a garish, cartoony image without limbs, and the artist disappeared. Today, the image of the god Jagannatha is sacred to followers of Krishna, and to Vaishnavas. The sculpture, or a likeness of it, is pulled in a cart down the main street of Puri, and similar carts with similar likenesses are drawn down the main streets of cities all over the world. In earlier times, the cart was considered to be so sacred that some devotees would throw themselves bodily under the wheels and allow themselves to be crushed to death, on the assumption that this would send them directly to a higher plane of existence. This appalled the invading British, who coined the term juggernaut to descibe an unstoppable force that crushes all within its path.
As I watched from the sidewalk, the sacred cart approached, and my friend was one of the devotees pushing it down the street. He recognized me and called me over. In the middle of the parade, I skated over to him, and a priest doused me with rose-water, and put a strand of carnations around my neck. I stood beside my friend in my skates, and helped him push the cart down the city street.
After the parade, one of the priests told me that what I had done was considered to be so sacred that, when the Lords of Karma review the events of my life, when they get to this particular event, they will allow me to immediately enter Paradise without reviewing any other deeds, good or evil, of mine.
Later that summer, I hitchhiked across the country, and after a number of adventures, ended up on a Seneca Indian Reservation outside of Ithaca, NY, at a gathering there. The guest of honor was an eighteen-year-old tribal King from the Amazon rainforest. His tribe came into conflict with a logging company, and both sides had engaged in protracted, low-intensity warfare, with deaths on both sides. This young king had left the jungle for the city of Brasilia to sue the logging company, and he had won. The organizers of the gathering had invited the king to be the guest of honor, and he arrived with a retinue of warriors, and a translator who spoke English. He was aloof and proud, and radiated his royalty unmistakably. I was terrified of him.
I had come to the gathering with a friend, who was a mutual friend of the young man in the first story. We were both living in Brooklyn when we weren't travelling, and we were both obsessed with 1970s Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies. We would pretend to be characters from the movies, and engage in mock kung-fu battles, perfectly imitating the voice actors who dubbed the English versions of the films. We had reached a point where this behavior had become so obsessive that we were deliberately avoiding each other, for fear that we would lapse into kung-fu speak again without being able to restrain ourselves. A day had passed without us seeing each other, and I was walking away from the camp where I had enjoyed my dinner (incidentally, as a guest of the Krishnas), when I saw him coming over the hill. We looked at each other sheepishly, and I blurted out, "Your crane style kung-fu is no match for my tiger style!" and leaped into my cinematic attack. I did not realize that the king and his warriors were travelling from the opposite direction, and by the time I noticed them, the had watched the entire battle. The king was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down both of his cheeks. He beckoned me over.
"The king tells you that you have made him laugh," his translator informed me. The king, simultaneously laughing and sobbing, put his hand on my shoulder, and nodded. The king spoke. "This is the first time that the king has laughed since he left his home in the jungle," the translator told me. The king made eye contact with me, and seized my gaze, pinning me with his eyes, and told me something, something important. I was in his grip as the translator spoke again. "The king says that you have the gift of healing laughter. The king commands you to go forth into the world, and find the lost, and the lonely, and the afraid, and heal their hearts with laughter. This you must do."
The king held my cheeks in his hands as his translator conveyed his message, and nodded vigorously as he spoke to me. "Go now. The king thanks you for your gift of healing laughter," said the translator, and before I could recover from my astonishment, all of them were gone.