Sunday, 27 June 2010

CITY IN THE SKY




Where could you find such a calm park lane, surveyed by a police officer relaxing on his Harley Davidson cruiser? Would you believe me if I told you that we are in Oakland, the town known for its high crime rate, racial tensions and dismal city planning? Well, we are not actually in Oakland, but in a small enclave to this unfortunate city, located in the hills and completely surrounded by the Oak City.
Piedmont, as is its name, was, in the Roaring Twenties, known as the City of the Millionaires, since it held the largest fraction of millionaires among the US towns. It is still a miracle of wealth and income, with median income per family at USD 150 000 USD (compared to 110 000 in Beverly Hills) and a per capita income of 80 000 (about at par with Beverly Hills, but three times that of Oakland)

The day after my visit to Haas Business School, to meet my old professor (“Fiat Lux?”), I was invited by two new-won friends, Akiko and Edward, to visit their home in Piedmont. I gladly accepted the invitation; the Oakland Hills and Piedmont have already been discussed in comments to one of the earlier blog postings (“Earth Day à la Berkeley”); the visit would provide me with an opportunity to put additional flesh on my arguments put down there.

My hosts, wishing me to experience the best that Oakland and Piedmont had to show for themselves, started the tour with a visit to JACK LONDON SQUARE, a nice tourist area located around the original Oakland harbour. The ferry terminals, one of them still being operated for traffic to San Francisco (“Of Cables and Ferries”), are located there. This is also the site of the Transcontinental Railroad Terminal. In olden times, railroad passengers coming from the East had to complete their journey to San Francisco by ferry boat.

The whole area has recently, that is, under mayor Brown’s augur, been refurbished as an, albeit modest, counterpart to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Everything looks spit clean and new and the whole area is a pleasure to amble through. However, I could not but notice that the many shops and restaurants were essentially empty, with few people around. Quite a striking contrast to SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, I would say! I keep my fingers crossed for the success of this touristic venture, it would be a pity to see it going into slow decay due to limited interest from the town people and the tourists.

For an intrigued foreigner, there are several attractions on the square. The first, a rather funky statue of an Indian wind spirit, points seaward as if indicating that Oakland’s fate and fortune are to be gained at sea. The second feature is more down to earth. It consists of the cabin, transported to Oakland log by log and rebuilt here, that Jack London inhabited whilst digging for gold in Klondike, more than hundred years ago. In front of this edifice a wily wolf is greeting the admiring visitors, reminding us of Jack’s most popular book, “The Call of the Wild”. Notably, when writing his books, Jack preferred a more comfortable environment, sitting in a house in – who could have guessed – Piedmont of all places!


The final attraction of interest is, of course, the yacht of former President Roosevelt, the USS Potomac. When inspecting this beauty of a boat, I could not help myself appreciating this formidable president who, whilst holding the world’s future in his hands, could still be quite content with using such a small and cosy vessel to cruise the seas with. At present, the boat is used for pleasure cruises along Oakland’s harbour.


After a refreshing lunch at Oakland’s most exclusive food retail store, located just at the fringe of Piedmont to cater to its distinguished population, it was time to mount the hills (by car, of course) and have a look around in the sophisticated interior of this exalted township. First stop was at Piedmont Park, a jewel of greenery in the midst of town. In addition to encompassing wide greens, surrounded by exotic trees, it also harbours a rather wild ravine, along which we descended, amidst ancient redwoods, oaks and sycamores, to finally arrive at one of Piedmont’s hallmarks, its olden mineral springs.


At the springs, nothing much can be discerned of its ancient splendour. The well itself has been plugged and the place looks like just any odd bend in a path alongside a brook in the Bay. But, hundred years, or so, ago, here was a delightful pavilion residing way down in the cleft, awaiting visitors from all over the Bay, not to speak of the Piedmont population itself. Jack London was surely there, improving his ailing health with life-promoting drinks from the well; and so was, frequently, Mark Twain, as told by a sign just opposite the original site of the pavilion.



Appreciating the cool shades of the canyon, we remounted along the winding path, soon arriving at a lonely Eucalyptus giant that must have been planted at the time the pavilion was built. But eventually we were back at the upper greens of Piedmont Park and could continue our journey towards Akiko and Edward’s residence on Richardson Avenue.


Well there, I had the pleasure of admiring the impressive exhibits of Edward’s main hobby. It appears that he is an aficionado of collecting rocks. When we think of rock collecting back home, on the old continent, we usually imagine small marbles, collected on the beach, or sophisticated minerals, preferably crystallised, such as, mountain crystals found in Alpine caves. But this is not the American way! True to America’s love affair with all things large, stone collecting amounts to picking huge boulders from creeks that have conveniently dried out in summertime, and polishing them lovingly with soft cloth to bring out their true structure. Edward is one of the leading figures in the Association of stone collectors and has won several prices in national, as well as international, exhibitions arranged by the Association. Apparently, this type of collecting is very popular in California, as well as, to my surprise, in Japan.


Having glanced admiringly, for some time, at these giants among collected stones, we found it convenient to continue our admiration of grandeur on a larger scale, embarking on a sightseeing tour along the streets of upper Piedmont, to admire the residences of the more affluent part of its inhabitants. There is no dearth of views in those upper reaches. From you house’s veranda, you have a clear view of Lake Merritt, Downtown Oakland and the Bay, with the island of Alameda (an old navy base) clearly discernible just beyond Lake Merritt to the left. West Oakland, the destitute area of the poor, inclining downward towards the Bay to the right, is conveniently hidden from view by the skyscrapers of Downtown.


Whilst ambling among the fashionable houses on the hills, it occurred to me that even the smallest of them would have to be called “mansions”, with their generous lay-out and lovingly maintained surroundings. But this was not all; the higher up the hills you came, the larger and more self-sustained the residences; we were not seeing mansions anymore, but increasingly huge expansive estates meriting naught else but the notation “manor”. But there is only that much pleasure to be gained by gaping at expansive residences! Whilst you are admiring glimpses of this residential splendour, my hosts and myself found it more convenient to reassemble at their home for a well deserved after dinner coffee!




Monday, 21 June 2010

WILDERNESS UCB



Tourists to San Francisco often take a detour across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit an attractive nature reserve, called Muir Woods, in Marine County. A beautiful grove of old redwoods, more impressively called Sequoia Sempervirens, can be found there. These trees are among the oldest tree species on earth, having thrived already in olden times when Dinosaurs were roaming the Earth. They are still thriving in the beneficial coast climate of Northern California, reaching an impressive height of over 100 meters and an age of up to 2500 years.

I had advanced plans of visiting Muir Woods and taking pictures of this beautiful place for your benefit. Did you think the picture above stems from this green wonder? Unfortunately not, I was too occupied roaming the Berkeley Campus to ever get across the Golden Gate towards Marine County. But I need not worry about this lack of adventurism. Redwoods could be seen much closer to my habitat in Berkeley than across the Bay. In fact, the grove shown above lies straight on Campus. How can this be? How can a forest of venerable tree veterans co-exist with hordes of students and a manifold of buildings?


One great man is responsible for this extraordinary co-existence. His name is Frederick Law Olmsted. Way back in the early 1870s, when it was decided to move the University from Oakland to its present site, there was unspoilt nature where the Campus was supposed to be located. The hills looked pretty much like in Briones (“The green, green grass of ho-ome”), with grassy slopes interspersed by two creeks, later called the North and South Fork of Strawberry Creek. Along the creeks grew large groves of Californian Oak, Sycamore and Bay Tree, much like the vegetation along Alameda Creek in Sunol (“Walk on the Wild Side”) leaving the remainder of the hills green with grass, adorned by the odd large crooked solitary oak.

Frederick, by then already famous for his planning of the Great Central Park in New York, was entrusted with planning the overall layout of Campus. He proposed to place it between the two creeks, letting it extend from the upper hills all the way down to the confluence of the two water-flows. This would give the Campus an east-west orientation. In the middle of this large area he proposed to lay down a sequence of large glades, ranging from east (the hills) almost down to the two creeks’ confluence. To the south and north of these glades, the Campus buildings were supposed to be built, bordered, on the one side, by the greens and, on the other side, by the voluminous tree groves growing along the respective creeks. The corner, all the way down west, where the two creeks meet, was foreseen by Olmsted to be left as it was, as a little forest of indigenous trees (oaks, sycamores and bay trees).

To begin with, planning and building followed Olmsted’s original plan more or less exactly. South Hall and North Hall were placed on each side of a central glade, and the University entrance was put on a bridge over South Fork, heading south exactly on the spot where Sather Gate now is located. Just across the bridge Telegraph Avenue gradually emerged, boisterous and rowdy already then, to cater for the wordly needs of students and faculty.
Over time, the university expanded, first within the natural boundaries envisaged by Frederick, but increasingly without. As a result, the two creeks, especially South Fork, now are running through Campus, instead of at its borders. 

That notwithstanding, the essence of the Olmsted plan has survived. The center of Campus is still dominated by a large glade, called Memorial Glade, and the voluminous tree groves, located along the two creeks and at their confluence, have been preserved. It is only the nature of the trees that has been changed. Already from the outset, new trees were planted, such as, Cedars, Pines, Cypresses and Olive Trees, to complement the native triad. At the creeks’ confluence, the forest was completely renewed, by planting only Blue Eucalyptus. But what about the redwoods? They arrived much later, planted as they were by University Landscape Architect Gregg in the early 1930s.

It is a sign of the redwoods’ extraordinary strength and endurance that these oldtimers, being barely 80 years old, already outrange every other tree on Campus except the odd large Eucalyptus. Residing serenely along the gurgling creeks, they are the sovereigns of the University, if not the universe, ever growing in the morning mists and prepared to outlast as all, probably enduring far into the future, when the University will be long gone and its buildings weathered down to crumbles.

All the planning and building throughout the decades has left the visitors of Campus with an enticing wilderness, to be enjoyed by hiking along the creeks, crossing small bridges and enjoying glimpses of glades and buildings along the way. If you put your mind to it, you can actually cross Campus from west to east without ever looking at a building, remaining completely immersed in the voluptuous greenery and silent serenity of the tree groves along the creeks. We are not talking about a small distance here. It would take you at least half an hour’s brisk walk to complete the hike.


When I first visited Campus, back in the seventies, I was young and eager, too occupied with my studies and research to even notice the hidden pleasures to be found along the creeks. To be frank, I had no idea that such greenery even existed within the University’s boundary, busy as I was with rushing from lecture hall to library, from library to restaurant, from restaurant to gym and back to lecture hall.

The first inkling of these hidden treasures was obtained when visiting the Campus for the second time the week after my return to Berkeley. I parked the car I rented, during that week, at the western end of Campus, along Oxford Street, planning to walk up Campus towards the Campanile. The first thing I noticed when entering the University was some enormous Eucalyptus trees, standing aside a considerably more modest Cedar, and seemingly dwarfing even the clock tower, which I could barely glimpse behind the voluminous leaves. Later, of course, it dawned on me that I was glimpsing the outer fringe of the grove of Blue Eucalyptus that had been planted at the two creeks’ confluence back in the late 1870s.



Although I bypassed this vegetational excess that day, rushing onward towards the Campanile, the view wet my appetite and I have spent many hours since exploring the amazing plantations adorning Campus. My visit here in Berkeley is approaching its end, but I would feel bad if leaving without asking you to join me on a hike along the creeks, in particular along South Fork, with minor detours, so that you can enjoy, like me, those green expanses’ cool and quiet splendor. If you would like to follow our path on a Campus map you are invited to open up now the following Google view as your companion. You can follow the trace of South Fork rather easily if you locate the crossing Cedar/Oxford to the left and take it from there.

http://berkeley.edu/map/maps/large_map.html

Let us start this virtual walk where Central Avenue ends at Oxford Street, both being busy commercial streets at the west end of Campus. Crossing Oxford, you enter, rather abruptly, the Campus premises and are immediately surrounded by dense greenery that is quickly hiding and subduing the downtown buzz and noise of city life. An impressive monument welcomes you to the forest, the massive globe in bronze we already met in an earlier post (“Climb the Indians!”).

Treading lightly on the carpeted forest ground, we now veer towards the left, in a northerly direction, and admire an airy grove of young oak trees, busily striving towards heaven, but still too young to let their down most branches getting heavy and leaning back towards the ground. These trees appear to have been planted fairly recently, possibly to revive an original grove of ancient oaks that still can be glimpsed, as one of the icons of UCB, on many an ancient view card from the late 18th century.

Backtracking to the main path we soon arrive at the first bridge crossing Strawberry Creek and enter into the enchanted realm of its bordering groves. Redwoods stand on guard along the quietly running creek and you feel transported back to olden times when reptiles roamed the earth and our species forerunners still hid, small as mice and smaller, from the trampling feet of scaly giants.

Once across the bridge, new vistas evolve before your amazed eyes. Between the stately redwoods, some portal-like openings, surrounded by green needles, permit us a first view of the blue giants, the Australian Eucalyptus planted at the confluence between the forks. For the purpose of disclosure, let me state that I am not fond of these immigrants from far west. In contrast to the native trees that permit, and thrive on, airy greenery at their feet, rendering walking a permanent delight, the soil underneath the Eucalyptus is completely bare, only being covered by dead leaves from those lofty trunks. Thus they are best admired from a distance, as we do in the two pictures just below.


For your sake we nonetheless undertake to walk among these forward immigrants. Did I mention, that there is a small consolation that lets you enjoy the grove with your nose, if not with your eyes and feet? The leaves emit a delicate smell, pleasant to behold, so we are not completely without sensual stimulation when treading the bare and dead soil underneath their expanse. But wait, what strange concoction of colored paper sheets on strings do we see between two giant trunks? In fact, we observe a rather touching sign of loyalty between students at this venerable institution. Three UCB youngsters were recently engaging in a hiking trip in western Iraq. Unfortunately, they crossed the border into much less hospitable terrain and have been kept under custody by the Persian authorities for over a year now. These shards of paper are all placed by fellow students who express, in writing, their distress and their loyalty with their captured colleagues, together with their hope for a quick resolution of this lamentable incident.

Heartened by this unexpected demonstration of human feelings among serenely uncaring greenery we continue our promenade eastward along the creek. The stately redwoods are our constant companions. But, now and then they are being interspersed with the odd olden oak, with lower branches leaning ground-ward as if wary of olden age. Here and there flowers can be discerned below its heavy branches, encouraging the venerable veteran to keep enduring. Our path now goes alongside Haas Pavilion and the Alumni House and we are approaching the center of Campus life. Along the Alumni House some interesting Japanese style stone lanterns are placed in the greenery. I have not been able to find out their raison d’être. Could they have been placed by Japanese Alumni, grateful for their stay in this enlightened place?



There is no time to think about this further, since we are now approaching the spot, where a bridge across the creek constituted the ancient entrance to Campus. The slim wooden span has, of course, long since been replaced by a solid stone bridge. On top of that solid bow was built the famous Sather Gate, the artful entrance to Campus until the University, in the early ‘sixties, acquired additional land outside its gate and built, on this new entrance area, sites like Sproul Hall, the two Sproul Plazas and the student Hall facilities. Pictures of all these edifices have been shown in earlier posts, so we bypass these architectural features and concentrate on the underground passage of the creek, as shown in the two pictures below.



Students that enter central campus via Sather Gate have their eyes usually aligned northward, towards the buildings where their lectures are being provided. For our walk we quickly pass the gate and glance back at it at a westward angle. This provides us with amiable views of the huge urns that adorn the gate’s sides, position against the stately redwoods that are flanking the gate but are usually being neglected by busy students striding about their business.

Let’s take a short brake from our nature tour and verge towards the left, along Sather Road. Soon we are crossing Schlesinger Way, much more important than its name. It provides, when descending it, coming from the Campanile, a wondrous view of the Bay, with the Golden Gate in direct alignment with this parade street. This will always be your favorite spot of observation, in midwinter, when the sun is setting over the Golden Gate Bridge and casting its dying rays along the street to bath you with its last strokes of warmth and light.

A little further on, just opposite California Hall, stands a memorable clock in marble, donated, no doubt, by a class of alumni from times long past. Below this clock, many a student demonstration is taking place, to convince the University Administration, which is located in California Hall, to better its ways. The signs on the clock tell the story of a recent hunger strike on the greens in front of the building, to convince the Chancellor to protest against a newly adopted law in Arizona permitting the police to arrest anyone, without a permit, that they suspect being an immigrant.

Now back to our evergreen monument, that is, our trusted companion, the South Fork of Strawberry Creek! Onwards, or rather upwards, we strive along the creek, leaving Wheeler Hall to our left, completely hidden in the greenery. But look, what venerable building of brick do we perceive straight ahead, whilst hiking along the creek? This is none other than the Old Art Gallery, a beautiful shed built already back in 1904, but at present left to its own devices and, as a result, subjected to gentle, but steady, decay. This building is intriguing, since it has been put to many uses over the years. 

It started out as a steam plant! When steam went out of fashion, it was refurbished as the UCB Art Gallery, until the University’s Art Museum was completed, in 1970. Thereafter it was, successively, used as the bike bureau of the campus police; a facility for storing used furniture; and a campus stationery store. The music department currently is raising money to renovate this venerable brownstone for use as a concert and performance facility. We can but congratulate this decision to save an enticing jewel in the jungle.

I had passed by this building every morning, way back when I was a young student, on my way to Barrow’s Hall, where my economics lectures were taking place. Having been busy with intellectual improvement, I had always sadly neglected this quintessence of a Campus marvel. To get you to understand my loss, take a look at the backside of the edifice, located perpendicularly to the path I trod as a young student. 

It took the more sedate pace of mature age to observe that the wall there was adorned with two memorable mosaics, almost Byzantine in their splendor, albeit with distinctly modern motives. These two images bear beautiful witness to the depressed times of the ‘thirties, when America rose to the task and introduced a series of policies to wrench the country out of its misery, with activities organized by the Works Project Authority (WPA) within the New Deal. Are we doing as well in present times of crisis, when organizing public projects?

After this refresher in 1930s mural art we continue our journey. Just a few minutes later we arrive at another small building, Anthony Hall, half hidden amongst the greenery. This is the seat of the Graduate Assembly, catering to the needs of graduate students and organizing community projects to be carried out by these accoladed youngsters.

Diving back into the groves along the creek, we bypass Moses and Stephens Hall in our steady ascent along the creek. Soon the groves become denser again, with redwoods dominating the scenery. However, the generous veterans always provide room and light for many a brush and flower between their stately trunks.



We now are approaching the end of our journey; we watch the brook bordering on the second large glade within Campus, Faculty Glade. True to our mission to explore the wild side of UCB, we stay close to the brook and prefer to enjoy the glade’s open green reaches from afar, staying within the cool shade of redwoods. But look! A beautiful Rhododendron is enticing us to approach the glade’s fringe. Along its side, we are pleased to behold a well built little tree nymph, dressed in enticing green. 

You may have noticed that my blog is sorely missing pictures of campus sculptures, although many a statue is adorning this place of academic virtue. There is a reason for this: who would be interested, on our old continent, in the quixotic statues of academic athletes and coaches, that abound around the halls and glades, bearing witness to the typical American symbiosis of sports and academics? Our interest remains firmly focused on more traditional esthetics, preferably in the form of enticing young females!


Before we finish our log, there is still a small stretch of the creek to visit, before it disappears below modern paving with concrete, giving way to Piedmont, the elegant avenue that constitutes the eastern border of Campus proper. Again we glimpse groves of redwood, interspersed with the odd venerable oak.

But soon we are descending into ravines filled with a more varied growth of trees, behind which lie hidden, in an oasis of vegetable quiet, the two remainders of a more gentile era, the Men’s and Women’s Faculty Club. Unfortunately, I have no pictures to show you of these two buildings fashioned in traditional redwood; that notwithstanding they have to be mentioned here, if for no other reason than to respond to Lars’ comments on the same buildings. I have visited them recently, Lars, but forgot to bring my camera. They still exist as separate facilities, but access is no longer separate for the two genders. 

Can you guess which of the two is the better maintained and more orderly? You guessed right! If you ever would plan to follow in my footsteps, dear readers, and spend some time in Berkeley, here is a nice idea for you: even without being faculty you can rent a room in one of these cozy venerable establishments. The cost is still moderate and, whilst staying in the midst of calm and cool glades, you reside smack in the middle of campus and the town of Berkeley, with all the main attractions only at less than half an hour’s walk away. You would have to be a pedestrian though, no parking facilities appear available nearby.


I know that I have misused your patience to the limit with this longest log post ever. I still hope, though, that you have stayed with me to its very end; having done this you are among the precious few, I believe, who ever have witnessed the green splendor of this grandiose passage through Campus.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

… RAMA RAMA HARE HARE …





I would sympathize with you if you thought that the portrait above showed an advert for a circus coming into town with all its working attractions. But, as already the title indicates, this is NOT about cheap, albeit interesting, superficial attractions. We are looking at the real thing, one of the lions guarding the portal to supreme enlightenment, the Temple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness on Stuart Street in Berkeley (the Berkeley Krishna Temple).

I passed by this portal many times at lunchtime when taking my usual promenade up to Telegraph Avenue and its cheap lunch stops and cafés, longing for company after the morning’s punching of laptop keys. It was a quiet place, almost hidden among the voluptuous greens and trees of Stuart Street (“Flowers dancing in the Rain”), but always adorned by a few, interesting looking and sounding, folks lingering about its premises. One man stood out among the few, if for naught else but his impressive stature, with his head ranging high above the others´. Slowly was he always striding back and fro’ on the sidewalk outside the lion portal, mumbling to himself in a subdued, but still portentous, voice and always presenting gentile nods to strangers passing by, such as myself. Whilst nodding back I oftentimes wondered: what business could such a man, clad in traditional clothing, have with an exotic temple, hidden within all this lush vegetation.

I knew of course about this temple and its religious inclinations. Already way back, when I lived in Berkeley for the first time, I had come in contact with its outerwordly beliefs. The first inkling had come when a young lady of striking appearance, of western looks but eastern cloths, had approached me on campus and tried, by gentle persuasion, to get me interested in a colorful book that pictured, on its cover, heroes on chariots, drawn by white steeds, engaged in gallant wars on behalf of their beloved princess. My curiosity had been kindled to such an extent that I had decided, on the spot, to buy this book of wonders. With me having been sadly out of cash at this very moment, the young nymph had nonetheless handed over this book as a gift for my spiritual enlightenment. The scripture had an exotic title to boot: “The Bharavadgita as it is” and appeared to be some counterpart to our own biblical testaments, albeit with roots in a more venerable age.

Taken aback by the youngster’s generosity, and overcome by curiosity, I have since glanced at pages of the book off and on, always admiring the flashy illustrations picturing noblemen and –women in illustrious costumes stemming from regions far to the East and times long past. Soon I have started to grasp that the young lady, who gave me the book, was a disciple of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. Subsequently, I have engaged in learning some more about this religious stream of ancient wisdom. So, here you have it for your consideration, my understanding of this intriguing line of thought and belief! But, before proceeding, you have to promise me NOT TO READ THE NEXT PASSAGE OUT LOUD, NOT EVEN MOVING YOUR LIPS WHILE READING IT! The reason for this will be revealed forthwith.


Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

The above rhymes that you have silently been contemplating, over and over again, do not represent a simple poem. Far from it! They form the most powerful CONVOCATION of them all, in short, the MOTHER OF MANTRAS. If sung out loud, with the right reverence in your voice and, preferably, in good company of friends dressed in nightgowns over pajama pants, head shaved but for a small pig’s tail and a yellow mark painted off the forehead and down the nose, it just might happen that the sound waves of your chanting reach their exact length implicating enlightenment, causing the universe to resonate in harmony with your song and OPENING A DIRECT CHANNEL OF COMMUNICATION WITH THE ULTIMATE GODNESS, KRISHNA.

What could be the content of the message that Krishna, whose inner essence we only can commence to grasp in the form of its manifold of avatars, commonly called “gods”, would care to convey to its humble invocator? Naught else but that the unimaginable joy of reunion of your very soul with this ultimate source of bliss, in short, sharing an infinite amount of godly power, glory and fulfillment with the originator of the Universe IS AT YOUR GRASP! All you have to do is to engage in a never-ending process of improving your inner spirituality. Once completely purified, your soul will with certainty enter into communion with the utmost Creator.

Complete purity of spirit will be impossible to achieve during your life-time, you say, almost despairing at the thought of infinite rewards slipping through your fingers? You do not have to worry, your limitations are understood by the Godness and it will convey to you its solution to overcome your worries: If you embark, diligently and with devotion, on the right path towards enlightenment, in your earthly life as human being, you are granted the privilege of being reborn in human flesh to continue on your journey. To be precise; an infinite sequence of finite human life spans are at your disposal to embark on a process of ever improving the purity of your soul.


But will my travails ever end, you might ask? Will I ever attain the goal of perfect purity of spirits? The Godness may choose not to answer this very question, referring back to its infinitely generous offer of a neverending sequence of lives to achieve the necessary purity. But do we even need an answer? Isn’t it obvious that, to achieve godlike purity of spirits, needed to partake of infinite bliss, naught else is requested but travails during an infinite sequence of life spans?

You are too impatient to labor and wait an infinitely long time to gain your ultimate reward, you say? Here the Godness HAS a clear answer for you to contemplate: if you slacken your efforts in improving purity, you may still be reborn, but who is to say you will be reborn as a human being? There exists an almost infinite variety of lives on this planet, not to speak of the Universe, all waiting for your soul to be housed within its flesh.

I trust you understand by now, why I asked you not to phrase the mantra with your voice, not even with your lips. A dialogue with Power Infinite may sound an intriguing offer at the outset, but it may prove far too overpowering for our limited faculties of comprehending and believing. You absolutely insist on opening the channel for a dialogue with Krishna, you say? Well, here below is a reference to practitioners of the chanting, allowing you to join in with fellow singers, all hoping to achieve communication with the All Powerful.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GohCT7WG5W8
For us more earthly inclined, better let the story stay securely anchored in the present life span and location, on Stuart Street in Berkeley, revisiting the beginning of this post. I had visited the Temple, out of curiosity, already thirty years back, together with Hans Christian Cars, an old friend who is also a commentator on this blog. Albeit not yet having been touched by the infinite wisdom of its beliefs, we had been pleasantly surprised by the lushness of the temple’s interior and hospitality of its officiants. So now, when again staying in Berkeley, and passing by this hidden marvel almost every day at lunchtime, I eventually considered to pay it another visit.


Said and done! Back from lunch on a sunny afternoon, the detour was made and the holy edifice was in front of me. Whilst passing the courtyard, a sonorous voice accompanied me with the wordings: “At last he is daring to take the final steps, after weeks of hesitations!” Turning my head, I glanced the impressive stature of the stranger, described earlier, that was flanking, as usual, the temple from the sidewalks. He pointed with his whole hand at the entrance, encouraging me to make a final effort in reaching the portals and accompanied me through the opening as if to make sure that I would not retreat.

Once in, I was politely asked to remove my shoes and allowed to make a tour of the premises, on my own as it was, since the stranger returned to his usual outpost. The interior did not look like I remembered it. Instead of just one large hall, dominated by colorful statues of all kinds and sizes, I now stood before two smaller rooms. The one on the left was looking somewhat like the employee cafeteria of a smaller enterprise, but without chairs and tables. Herein lunch was still being served to, what appeared to me, needing people of the streets. I quickly went on to visit the other hall that seemed to invite me in for a closer examination. This larger room was somber and essentially empty, with just a lonely figure quietly meditating at a sidewall, reclining on a comfortable throne, illuminated by colored glass windows and some light bulbs.


Camera at the ready, I discreetly documented this patient supplicant. Dared I tiptoe closer and exchange a few words of politesse with the enlightened sage? Of course I would! But when approaching the spiritual master, it suddenly dawned on me that this was not a living philosopher but, rather, a statue representing, I gathered, the initial explorer of the aw-inspiring path to the all powerful Godness Krishna. My eyes were resting on no other than "His Divine Grace" Abhay Charanaravinda Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This venerable leader had single handedly, by his own means and efforts, translated the major Vedic scriptures into English and, travelling world wide during the last 15 years of his life, spread the gospel of Krishna Consciousness to millions and millions of new believers. A remarkable Magnus among Prophets if there ever was one!

It is a great pity that this "Divine" Leader died prematurely. The more we have to deplore that he exhibited rather bad judgement in choosing his succession leaders, all of 11 of them. They sorely disappointed his trust in their ability; deviated from the holy path to such a degree that rebirth in human flesh for them appears a distinct impossibility; and perverted the movement almost to its ruin along the way.

After contemplating the "Divine" Mentor with respectful aw for a while, I suddenly felt being observed in turn by questioning eyes on my back. Turning around, three exalted youngsters could be seen greeting me, two with hands raised as if invoking heaven to help enlighten this too forward visitor. The third, more composed, held the serene posture of a true believer, obtained through passing many life-times of diligent spiritual labors. Although still being of young age in his present life, his poise could most aptly be described by the phrase “edle Einfalt, stille Grösse”.


This hopeful disciple of the Grand Master undertook to show me around the premises anew and explain some more about the workings and raison-d’être of this venerable edifice. The temple, when founded back in the early ‘seventies, had had a large congregation of disciples and laïc followers. Missionary activities had abounded, with disciples prevalent on streets and campus, chanting the wholly rhymes and attracting attention with their promises of eternal god-like bliss.


Circumstances had changed considerably since these early founder days. The number of disciples at the Temple had shrunk, at present it could be counted at the fingers of one hand, but there remained a large congregation of laïc believers that visited this place of worship regularly to participate in the services, that is, every Sunday afternoon. I had witnessed this myself, seeing a considerable number of ordinarily looking people congregating towards the temple on Sunday afternoons, accompanied by the occasional Member of the “fringe society” longing for a free meal. Sunday service, as it has been explained to me, starts with a lecture and chanting of the enlightened rhymes. Thereafter, everyone is seated on the floor and dinner is served. It consists of mainly vegetarian ingredients, with milk products added. Digesting the food is in itself considered to be a holy act, much appreciated by Krishna and its avatars, so the Temple makes an effort not to turn off anyone coming for the food.

The belief of pleasing the Godness through eating, stemming from the ancient scriptures of Veda, is THE sympathetic trait of the movement. It provides the basis for a lot of good deeds, by feeding, without unnecessary restrictions, the needy in society who have no other succour for their sustenance. It has also led the Society to support, if not originate, an important welfare program, called "Food for Life", which explicitly aims at providing needy people with basic plant-based nourishment.

When exiting the Temple after this brief examination, and after receiving a gentile nod of farewell by its portentous “guard”, I returned home on the short walk along Stuart’s blooming villas, digesting the new information gained about this intriguing belief. It appeared to me that the Society had come far since its early days of shrill chanting on the streets to quickly gain a congregation of disciples; from its cult-like discipline and domineering of young and innocent initiates; from its discrimation of the better sex; and from its, I hope rare, instances of child abuse. At least to judge from my experience with the Berkeley Temple, the Society had gradually been gaining in maturity and developing in a direction similar to that taken by Christian Monasteries in their early days, as well as in their time of reform with the Franciscans entering the scene. 

It makes sense to me that disciples should form a small inner core of true believers; I cannot envisage many people having the extreme bravery of facing an eternity of labor to gain communion with the ultimate Godness in the fullness of time. Far better to reserve the title of disciple to those strong and brave few and having the remainder of the congregation forming a laïc support for their endeavours. The reward for the latter will always be the participation in uplifting Sunday services, with instructive lectures, exalted chanting and dancing and, not to forget, having an excellent meal and pleasing the Godness whilst enjoying it.

So, that’s it for today. But wait, we have still a question unanswered! Who was the mystical stature that so dominated the entrance to the Temple? The young disciple was only too glad to provide me with an answer. He was an ACTOR, part of the laïc congregation, memorizing his roles walking to and fro’ on the sidewalk in front of the temple. No mystery involved, just a man going about his ordinary day to day business!