Danda Meditation

Jungle-Trail-21By Nandini dasi

When visiting my teacher’s asrama in Costa Rica, I had the fortunate opportunity to venture on a walk with him and fellow students to a ninety foot waterfall deep in the jungle. This was a special treat because (a) my teacher had organized the hike, and (b) I’d been serving in the hot sun for a few days, mostly by weeding gardens and hauling logs. Thus at the outset, a cool shaded walk to a waterfall with my gurudeva sounded heavenly.

To get to the falls, however, we had to traverse the wildest areas of the asrama’s property. No trail existed. Juan, our local expert, carried a machete. Although Juan made short work of dense forest with calculated flourishes of the blade, I quickly began to doubt my decision to join the band of explorers. As we traversed steep slopes, I stepped tentatively through the pathless jungle. Sometimes my foot found a damp, but secure, rock. Most of the time, however, I stumbled into muddy earth that quickly gave way. Although I tried my best to distinguish steady from squishy ground, my untrained eyes failed me. I worried that my clumsiness might hold others back. I knew my teacher was particularly eager to reach the waterfall. This was obvious, for at an age double my own, my teacher moved swiftly and purposefully across the terrain at at least twice my pace. He had envisioned the pool beneath the waterfall as an ideal spot for playful restoration for those serving and studying at the property.

Fortunately for me, Juan noticed my frequent slips and stumbles. With three swift swipes of his machete, he fashioned a walking staff for me from a fallen branch. The staff became my guide: prodding and revealing muddy crevasses and loose soil disguised by weeds; testing each rock for its steadiness before I took a step. With the aid of the staff, I renounced my reliance on imperfect vision and reclaimed the mental energy expended on posing the futile question, “Can I step here?”

The Sanskrit word for “staff” is “danda.” When a practitioner enters the sannyasa order, devoting him or herself to the renounced order of spiritual life, he or she receives a danda. The new renunciate carries it wherever he or she goes. In my teacher’s tradition, the sannyasi receives a tri-danda, three sticks bound together. The three parts represent the dedication of the renuniciate’s kaya (body), mana (thoughts) and vakya (speech) to divine service. There is also a yoga asana named after the staff, dandasana, a deceptively simple posture in which the yogi sits erect with legs extended on the floor. Like this pose, a danda is a deceptively simple instrument. But its utility is profound. It can guide us through terrain without the use of our eyes and allows us to forego speculation as to how we might best pass over the ground underfoot. The danda reveals, in a symbolic sense, our profound need for help in our clumsy and embarrassing attempts to navigate the world and its environment by means of the mind and senses.

Indeed, at life’s most complex and complicated moments, we may ask ourselves, “Should I walk here? Should I move there? Will I be safe?” How will we know? Who will come to our aid? As I’ve reflected on recent turning points in my own life—upon times when any step has appeared rife with uncertainty (if not peril)—I’ve come to recognize how my guru has become my “staff” of support and good guidance. The teacher walks in front of us, blazing a path on our behalf. Although our vision (and therefore judgment) may be imperfect, through the guru’s trained and unclouded eyes, we begin to see life’s obstacles for what they truly are. We begin to understand our suffering, discern the sources of our attachment, and identify those tendencies in us not conducive to spiritual life. Only when we accept the guru as our support can we expect to develop the steady grounding in philosophy needed to move on the inner landscape, while acting sagely in the outer world.

Though accepting the help of the guru on the spiritual path may seem like a simple fix (like the staff quickly fashioned for me in the Costa Rican jungle), we may not so readily appreciate what the teacher offers. We might fail to acknowledge the “terms and conditions” that come with putting ourselves in a position to actually receive help. We need to do more than just hold on. For although the teacher may be a servant, as students we are to serve the teacher. This relationship requires surrender on our part, the mere prospect of which causes our ego to bristle. We will find ourselves reluctant to give up our attachments to our mind and senses and our likes, dislikes, judgments, and desires. Part of us will cling to the ruggedly individualistic possibility that we can somehow make sense out of the treacherous environment and make it out happy and alive from what Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu called “the forest fire of material existence.”

And in that spirit of rebellion we may fall on our faces after stepping into life’s sinkholes, only to keep on going with stubborn persistence. We may think if we just survey the landscape with greater acuity, or think through life’s problems intensely, that maybe next time we’ll get the right answer or make the right move. Like a blind person who uses a stick to safely find his or her way, we may attempt use our mind and senses and to assess (if not master) the environment. Ironically, in that effort we may remain blind to life’s greater prospect within. However, the guru comes before blind eyes—om anjana timirandhasya—bearing a danda and the means to lead us from the jungle of the material world. I strive to recognize this, and to thereby find footing on the true ground of spiritual life offered by the teacher.

One of my guru’s teachers, Srila B. R. Sridhara Maharaja, captures my meditation with great beauty. He writes, “By enduring the trials of all these tribulations, we will stand. We will endure and grow beyond the jurisdiction of these mundane forces. The more pressure comes from the outside, the more firmness we should feel in the necessity of the Lord’s help. At that time, we turn our backs to all the pains of this world, and we keep him in front. We begin to move forward.”

It is with these words in mind that I humbly aspire to keep my gurudeva in front of me, even when confronted with the struggles of this life. Even if this effort is an imperfect one, it is the only way to even begin to move closer—if only by a step—to steady, spiritual ground.

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