Vol 13: Chapter 2: Learning Tolerance from a Shipwrecked Sailor

Sept 4, 2012


“There’s something special about going to a place for the first time, “I said to Rasikendra dasa as I threw my bags into the back of his van. “I’m looking forward to visiting the devotees in Macedonia.”

“Fine,” he said, “but hurry. Traffic’s heavy on the way to the airport.”

Sure enough, ten minutes later we were stuck in early morning commuter traffic. Suddenly, I realized I’d left my passport in the apartment. We raced back, found the passport, and got stuck in the same traffic jam again.

“Not sure we’ll make it now,” Rasikendra said as we inched forward.

I squirmed nervously in my seat. “It won’t be the first time,” I said.

We arrived at the airport with only minutes to spare. I made it to the check-in just as it was closing. When I reached the security check the man in front of me, obviously with plenty of time to spare, was slowly putting his belongings onto the x-ray machine belt. When his cell-phone rang and he answered, I lost my patience.

“Stop talking and move on,” I said gruffly. “I’m late for my flight.”

I immediately knew I’d made a mistake. There had been no need to raise my voice.

On the other side of the screening, when a security officer took my things aside to search them, the man in front of me smiled with satisfaction. I checked my anger. “Better to tolerate it,” I told myself.

I remembered a time when Srila Prabhupada scolded his servant for being impatient in a similar situation: “What is the difference between us and them if we cannot practice tolerance?”

When I finally boarded the plane there was no room in the overhead compartment for my carry-on bag. A hostess said she would take the bag and check it under the plane.

“That’s not an option,” I said. “I have valuables in this bag.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Take the valuables out and give me the bag.”

I took the valuables out and handed over the bag, while several impatient passengers glared at me.

The stewardess came back five minutes later with the bag. “It’s too late to put it under the plane,” she said. “You’ll have to keep it under your seat.”

“But it won’t fit,” I said.

I tried to push the bag under the seat in front of me, but I ended up having to put it in the space for my feet. Sandwiched between two other passengers with my legs resting on the bag, I cursed the traffic, the rain, and my forgotten passport. I was irritated, sweating, tired, and hungry. As I settled in for an uncomfortable flight, I felt a headache coming on.

“Traveling can be such austerity!”  I said to myself.

As I sat there feeling sorry for myself, I saw a book sticking out of the pouch in the back of the seat in front of me: The Narrative of Robert Adams. The cover was an old painting of a Westerner enslaved by Arab pirates. As the plane took off, I began reading the book.

I was at once humbled: The austerities I have gone through as a traveling monk in the past forty years are nothing compared with those of Robert Adams.

Adams left New York in June 1810 as a merchant seaman on a cargo ship named Charles. Two months later, the ship was destroyed in a storm off West Africa near Capo Blanca. Miraculously Adams and his shipmates all made it to shore, only to be captured and enslaved by a group of Moors.

Sold to another group of Moors, Adams was separated from the other seamen and taken deep into the Sahara, where he suffered for months in service to his new masters. After some time his captors were defeated in battle by the Tuaregs, who bound him hand and foot and took him to their king in Timbuktu. Intrigued by his new slave, the king granted him the freedom of the city for six months but eventually traded him to a group of nomads for tobacco.

Forced back into slavery, Adams was dragged into the desert again. Reunited with some of his shipmates at a remote Saharan slave market, he was eventually freed with a ransom paid by a British consul in the region. The consul arranged passage for him on a ship to Europe, where he made his way to London. With no work and no money or friends, Adams lived as a beggar.

In November 1815 he was discovered half-naked and starving on the snowbound streets by an employee of the Company of Merchants of Trading to Africa, who took him to the owners of the company. Intrigued by his story, the owners offered him an advance and free passage back to America in exchange for the rights to a book about his misadventures. The narrative was published in 1816.

I finished reading just as our plane came in to land at Skopje airport. “Never again will I utter a single complaint about any austerity, big or small, that I may meet in my travels,” I pledged as I put down the book.

“What’s more,” I thought, “the austerities of preaching are nothing compared with the happiness of devotional service. For the next few days I’ll relish the chanting of the holy names and discussions of Krsna conscious philosophy with the Macedonian devotees. It is all blissful service to my spiritual master.”

As I approached the exit I smiled at the stewardess who had made me put the bag under my seat. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for everything.”

Her eyebrows went up. Then she smiled. “You are most welcome, sir,” she replied courteously.

That night I found a letter Srila Prabhupada wrote to Prabhavisnu dasa in January 1973:

“I can understand that it is not an easy manner to travel extensively over long periods of time without proper food, rest, and sometimes it must be very cold there also, and still, because you are getting so much enjoyment, spiritual enjoyment, from it, it seems like play to you. That is advanced stage of spiritual life, never attained by even great yogis and so-called jnanis. But let any man see our devotees working so hard for Krsna, then let anyone say that they’re not better than millions of so-called yogis and transcendentalists, that is my challenge. Because you are rightly understanding through your personal realization this philosophy of Krsna consciousness, therefore in such a short time you have surpassed all the stages of yoga processes to come to the highest point of surrendering to Krsna. That I very much appreciate. Thank you very much for helping me in this way.”