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Sri Chinmoy's work at the United Nations: spirituality and the power of silence.

Introduction

Many may think of the United Nations mainly as the secular arena of political strife, but the World Organization has a spiritual dimension which, although it is often not visible to the general public, is intrinsic to its purposes. This essay describes the work of the philosopher, poet, humanitarian, and peace-server Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007) at the United Nations, a work that was devoted to bringing to the fore, fostering and articulating this spiritual dimension. Sri Chinmoy saw the United Nations not merely as a political institution but as "the Heart-Home of the World-Body" and the focal point of an emerging "world-oneness." For the United Nations to develop to maturity and to fulfill its divinely intended mission, he believed, its inner reality must be recognized and must function in concert with its outer reality. The responsibility to develop this approach belongs to the whole human community, but especially to those working directly for the UN and in association with it through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or in other ways. This essay explores the significance of Sri Chinmoy's work in the perspective of a larger question: how do spirituality and meditation play a role in the overall context of the United Nations?

Invited by Secretary-General U Thant, Sri Chinmoy led regular meditations for peace at UN headquarters for thirty-seven years, beginning six years after he came to New York from his native India. He also conducted an array of other programs sponsored by Sri Chinmoy: The Peace Meditation at the United Nations, which was founded in 1970 to support the mission of the United Nations and promote the values expressed in its Charter. The Peace Meditation consists of United Nations staff members, delegates, journalists accredited to the UN, and representatives of NGOs; it is thus both internal to the United Nations structure and also open to participation from outside it. Sri Chinmoy's work beyond the United Nations through the Sri Chinmoy Centre, an international NGO, since its inception in 1966 has advocated peace based on spiritual values, rooted in meditation and expressed in music, art, poetry, sports, community service, and celebration of the achievements of people from all cultures and backgrounds. A worldwide network of three hundred Sri Chinmoy Centres and their collaborating groups carries on the innovative programs founded by him, with no charge to participants. These include humanitarian aid in over one hundred and twenty-five countries, at times in partnership with UN agencies, and the World Harmony Run, a global torch relay for friendship between peoples involving hundreds of thousands of participants in more than one hundred countries, with its opening and closing ceremonies at UN headquarters and the UN Office in Geneva. A single, indivisible vision of peace and human transformation informs all of these activities, whether organized by the Peace Meditation at the United Nations or undertaken elsewhere under NGO auspices.

In the fall of 2007 in a spacious conference chamber at the United Nations Secretariat, representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous religions, Islam and Judaism stood together without speaking a single word to open Sri Chinmoy's memorial service. This interfaith invocation was perceptibly longer than the usual "moment of silence" and recalled the non-sectarian meditations he had led twice every week year after year. One of the most compelling features of those meetings was their silence. The deep stillness might include a musical interlude, but there would be almost no speaking. Sri Chinmoy gave many lectures at the United Nations and engaged in informal discussions responding to questions, while the Peace Meditation has held a wide variety of programs, but all this is distinct from the meditation itself. The power of silence in meditation was and continues to be the foundation of all the work initiated by Sri Chinmoy. Its premise is that spirituality--an inner life connecting us to a larger or deeper reality--is a capacity possessed by every person. All people, regardless of religious and cultural background or institutional location, can and should apply this capacity in their efforts towards the goal of peace.

The Secular, the religious, and the spiritual at the United Nations

Officially, the United Nations is secular. At its founding, Member States included a number of countries with Communist governments adhering to an atheist ideology and some others possibly resistant to the use of religious language. Since approval by Member States was needed, the founding documents, the United Nations Charter of 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, make no mention of God and set forth no religious doctrine in a narrow or conventional sense. At the same time, the very purpose of the United Nations as stated in these documents is to bring about world peace, establish justice, affirm the dignity of the human person and ensure that all people live together in tolerance and peace as good neighbors. The ringing words that begin the Preamble to the Charter are as follows: "We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small." The Preamble to the Universal Declaration holds up the same goals of "freedom, justice and peace in the world," makes human dignity a fundamental principle and refers to "the human family." (1)

The ideals of peace and justice and the vision of the oneness of humankind do not originate with the United Nations. Even as some elements of the founding documents are new, these themes are ancient and central to the ethics of the world's religious traditions. Ethics in turn is integral to these traditions and is not separable from their religious character. The explicit ethical universalism of the United Nations documents and their affirmation of the unity of the human are arguably themselves religious ideas, while phrases such as "made in the image of God," "all under heaven" or "the world is one family" (which were familiar to the drafters of the documents, a number of whom were deeply versed in their own religions) (2) can be said to hover between the lines as an implicit reference to the sacred and the transcendent. The United Nations has relied on the non-governmental sector, and on Religious NGOs specifically, to deal with the explicitly and particularly religious aspects of society. The spiritual dimension, however, is pan-human. It is the element that not only transcends the divisions between religions, (3) but also cannot be easily confined to one kind of institution or another.

The United Nations in the context of spiritual evolution

In his affirmation of its inner reality, Sri Chinmoy views the United Nations as the outcome of an age-long journey of cosmic progress in which evolution is spiritual as well as physical. In his lectures and talks given at the United Nations, as well as throughout his other writings in poetry and prose, he gives an account of how the divine reality which is immanent in creation through involution gradually comes forth, or evolves. In this process God's qualities of light, peace, joy, and beauty are over time received and assimilated by the world in the transformation Sri Chinmoy calls "God-manifestation," which culminates in perfection. Born in East Bengal and growing up during twenty years on the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Sri Chinmoy shares this evolutionary vision with Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, one of whose major works is The Ideal of Human Unity (4)

In the process of spiritual evolution, it is with human beings that a conscious longing for global oneness appears for the first time. (5) Within this vaster picture of human destiny, Sri Chinmoy identifies the United Nations as crucially important for the achievement of the goal of human unification and world harmony after thousands of years of war and struggles for domination. The United Nations is the established and concrete outcome of the dream that brought the League of Nations into temporary existence earlier in the twentieth century.
 The United Nations is an instrument, a significant instrument of God
 for His searching, aspiring and loving humanity. This instrument is
 the Joy of the Creator and, at the same time, the joy of the
 creation. The United Nations embodies both Heaven's Vision and
 earth's reality. There was a time when Heaven's Vision was only
 partially manifested as reality. We called it the League of Nations.
 Then, the League of Nations was transformed into reality, and it
 became the United Nations. (6)
The League of Nations was a dream-seed.
The United Nations is a reality-plant.
The aspiring and serving life of man's universal oneness will be the
Eternity-Tree. (7)


Sri Chinmoy declares, "The United Nations is not merely an organisation ... Rather, it is the way, the way of oneness, that leads us to the supreme Oneness." (8) The very fact that its goal is universal peace signals the key role of the United Nations in God's plan for the world: "To me, the United Nations is divine," Sri Chinmoy says. "Why? Because it is the fond child of the Supreme dedicated to promoting world peace." (9) This is peace in its fullest sense: "Peace does not mean the absence of war ... Peace means the presence of harmony, love, satisfaction and oneness. Peace means a flood of love in the world family. Peace means the unity of the universal heart and the oneness of the universal soul." (10)

Sri Chinmoy states that appreciation of the importance of the United Nations cannot rest on perception of externals but rather should be based on understanding of its real nature as an essential part of God's dream for the progress of humanity. He reminds us that the organization is young and "time is a great factor." (11) Our view of the United Nations should be aspirational: "We cannot judge the United Nations on its present achievements. We cannot judge the United Nations by what it has already offered us. We can only judge the United Nations on its soulful promise, its promise that it will one day flood the world with boundless peace." (12) He adds, "It is very easy to criticise an organisation. But an organisation is composed of human beings, and humans are still far, far from perfection." (13) Moreover, what the United Nations is able to achieve outwardly depends on the acceptance of its founding vision, with its inherent spiritual dimension, by human beings--that is, each of us--and our dedication to ensuring that this vision becomes a reality. Because of this, Sri Chinmoy tirelessly calls for recognition of the inner or spiritual reality of the United Nations. He says,
 Our source is peace and our manifestation is bliss on earth. If we
 know what we are and what we stand for, then the United Nations can
 become for us the answer to world-suffering, world-disharmony and
 world-ignorance. The inner vision of the United Nations is a gift
 supreme. This vision the world can deny for twenty, thirty or even a
 hundred years [or for centuries]. But a day will dawn when the
 vision of the United Nations will save the world. When the reality of
 the United Nations starts bearing fruit, then the breath of
 Immortality will be a living reality on earth. (14)


He fervently exhorts, "The Compassion of God has been unceasingly descending upon the United Nations. Now it is up to the world." (15)

The role of meditation at the United Nations

For all of these reasons, Sri Chinmoy holds that "Prayer and meditation are of supreme importance if we are to manifest the inner role of the United Nations." (16) He begins a talk entitled "Does Meditation Really Accomplish Anything?" with the response, "Is there anything that meditation cannot accomplish?" (17) The precedence of the spiritual is based on its capacity to illumine the outer world. In silence, it is possible to go beyond the senses, the ordinary emotions and the mind, and to access the enlightened knowledge, serenity, strength and compassion of the heart and of the soul, which is a representative of the Divine. (18) As Sri Chinmoy explains, "[I]f we become one with the inner reality, which is our silence-life, which is God's Vision, then we can bring it to the fore and transform the outer reality." (19) Silence is therefore the key to genuine progress. Sri Chinmoy did not view this message as bringing to the United Nations something new or adventitious, but rather as unfolding from within what is already there and is urgently needed. The inner reality, with its boundless power for good, is available to us if we will only pay attention to it and embrace it. Denying that "spirituality is only for the chosen few," Sri Chinmoy stresses that "The art of meditation is something inherent in each individual." (20) While his lectures at the United Nations are often highly philosophical, they deal as well with all aspects of spirituality as it is actually lived. Sri Chinmoy also spent considerable time in discussion with UN delegates, diplomats, staff members and NGO representatives about the practical aspects of meditation and ways to undertake their daily work as a service to humanity. (21)

In emphasizing silent meditation as a regular part of life at the United Nations, Sri Chinmoy consciously built on the legacy of some of its early leaders. The summit values of universal peace and humanity's oneness were made part of the United Nations at its creation, as we have seen. Following this, acknowledgment in custom and practice of its spiritual dimension goes back almost to its beginnings. In 1949, a rule was put in place to open and close each year's General Assembly session by observing "one minute of silence dedicated to prayer or meditation." (22) It is important to note that even at this early stage, an NGO played a key role in catalyzing the integration of a spiritual aspect into the United Nations proper. This was the Laymen's Movement for a Christian World, which was founded in 1941 and included prominent American businessmen among its members. Its Executive Director, Weyman C. Huckabee, had advocated the minute of silence, and also successfully urged that a Meditation Room be created within the UN. The original Meditation Room was established by the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, when the UN was still located at its interim headquarters in Lake Success on Long Island. (23)

Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant

Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary-General, is the author of a famous posthumously published journal of his spiritual life, Markings. (24) Less is heard about his active role in supporting and personally designing the Meditation Room in the public lobby of the UN. The permanent Meditation Room opened in 1952, two years after the headquarters building itself. In 1957, Hammarskjold wrote about its meaning:
 We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.
 This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace,
 should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and
 stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this
 small room, a place where the doors may be open to the infinite
 lands of thought and prayer. People of many faiths will meet here,


and for that reason the room is empty of familiar religious symbols. A giant block of iron ore placed at the center of room and illuminated by a single beam of light evokes "the meeting of the light, the sky, and the earth ... it is an altar to the God of all." (25) Hammarkjold saw a spirituality embodied in silence as the inner center of the United Nations. This spirituality is not restricted to any particular religion but is common to all religions. Remarkably, there are people living thousands of miles from New York who have never visited the UN but are aware that the Meditation Room exists and think of it as a sign of the fuller meaning and purpose of the United Nations. While many admittedly take a more skeptical view, there are some who see the United Nations as an archetype of human oneness and an embodiment of the hope for peace, in the conviction that the United Nations is not just an outer, political entity but something more.

Saying that "The United Nations needs completely self-sacrificing and self-giving servers" (26) Sri Chinmoy holds up as paradigmatic the lives of Dag Hammarskjold and his successor, U Thant. Both, even while holding the highest office in the United Nations, exemplified the complete integration of spiritual life with service to the world community in the spirit of self-offering, On Dag Hammarskjold, Sri Chinmoy says, "He was a seeker of the highest order. His heart cried for the satisfaction of mankind. His mind cried for the illumination of mankind ... He became the fulfilling bridge between humanity's excruciating pangs and Divinity's illumining Compassion." (27)

U Thant succeeded Dag Hammarskjold as Secretary-General in 1961 after Hammarskjold died in a plane crash outside the then Northern Rhodesian town of Ndola. Thant was a devout Buddhist from Myanmar and a lifelong and daily practitioner of meditation. He was convinced that spiritual and ethical values common to all religions must be the foundation of the work of the United Nations. In his farewell speech to UN staff members, given in 1971, he sums up his views. It is worth quoting at length.
 I have certain priorities in regard to virtues and human values. An
 ideal man, or an ideal woman, is one who is endowed with four
 attributes, four qualities--physical, intellectual, moral and
 spiritual qualities. Of course it is very rare to find a human being
 who is endowed with all these qualities but, as far as priorities are
 concerned, I would attach greater importance to intellectual
 qualities over physical qualities. I would attach still greater
 importance to moral qualities over intellectual qualities. It is far
 from my intention to denigrate intellectualism, but I would attach
 greater importance to moral qualities or moral virtues over
 intellectual virtues--moral qualities like love, compassion,
 understanding, tolerance, the philosophy of "live and let live," the
 ability to understand the other person's point of view, which are the
 key to all great religions. And above all, I would attach the
 greatest importance to spiritual values, spiritual qualities. I
 deliberately avoid using the term "religion." I have in mind the
 spiritual virtues, faith in oneself, the purity of one's inner self
 which to me is the greatest virtue of all. With this approach, with
 this philosophy, with this concept alone, will we be able to fashion
 the kind of society we want, the society which was envisaged by the
 founding fathers of the United Nations. (28)


U Thant personally supported Sri Chinmoy's meditations for peace and other initiatives at the United Nations. His daughter Aye Aye Thant, now president of the U Thant Institute, recalls, "Sri Chinmoy's life represented the best thought, most far-reaching vision and outstanding artistic and practical accomplishments. It was my father's and Sri Chinmoy's shared vision for world peace based on the ideals of tolerance and compassion that had brought mutual respect and admiration between them." (29) In 1972, Sri Chinmoy dedicated his play on the life of the Buddha to U Thant, who with his family attended a special premiere performance. (30) After U Thant's passing in 1974, the Peace Meditation inaugurated the U Thant Peace Award to honor his memory. Its recipients over the years have included President Mikhail Gorbachev, President Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa. Among his many tributes to U Thant, Sri Chinmoy has said, "Sincerity spoke through him, integrity breathed in him, spirituality walked with him. He knew the world-problem: ignorance. He knew the world-answer meditation, and this he practiced in silence." (31)

Programs of the Peace Meditation at the United Nations

U Thant had wanted the United Nations to be from time to time a place where the world's religions would meet for dialogue. (32) Sri Chinmoy was a deeply committed supporter of the global interfaith movement and the Peace Meditation at the United Nations in the early 1970s sponsored what may be some of the first interfaith programs at the UN. Interfaith prayer services observing the National Day of Prayer were held beginning in 1975. The Peace Meditation has collaborated with the Center for World Thanksgiving and organized interfaith Peace Walks, as well as observances of the anniversary of the Meditation Room and a well-attended annual Interfaith Prayer Breakfast, hosted each year by one of the Permanent Missions with that country's Ambassador presiding. Sri Chinmoy on a number of occasions offered an opening silent meditation at such events as the fifth Spiritual Summit Conference of The Temple of Understanding, held in New York and at the UN in 1975, and the annual Interfaith Service in New York observing the opening of the UN General Assembly, begun in 1997. For the Parliament of the World's Religions, he offered the opening meditation at the centenary Parliament in Chicago in 1993 and again in Barcelona in 2004. Interfaith events and non-sectarian silent meditation can be seen as complementary, the one specifically interreligious and the other transreligious.

The Peace Meditation since its launch in 1970 has also offered a wide variety of other programs as well at UN headquarters, including lectures, panel discussions, commemorations, inspirational symbolic events, and cultural events of all kinds, often highlighting the traditions of Member States. Meditations for peace are also conducted at the United Nations Office in Geneva. Over the years, the Sri Chinmoy Centre NGO has held UN-related events in cities around the world, such as observances of United Nations Day and athletic events dedicated to peace.

Conclusion

The pioneering work of Sri Chinmoy, along with that of many members of the United Nations community and its affiliated NGOs, has over time contributed to a growing consensus on the essential role of spirituality in the mission of the UN. Many now make a commitment to the integration of a spiritual, values-centered and interfaith perspective into work on critical global issues and partnership-building. There is greater freedom than there was thirty years ago to speak about this perspective and on appropriate occasions to engage in prayer and meditation. Important examples, among others, of this direction are the formation of the NGO Committee on Spirituality, Values and Global Concerns, (33) a member of the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with the United Nations (CONGO) as well as of the less formal Spirituality Caucus. To say that outer peace depends on inner peace may have been considered naive in the past, but today this familiar statement seems like common sense and a necessary operating principle. "Political will" is frequently mentioned as indispensable for change, and will, after all, is a matter of motivation and consciousness--an inner or spiritual entity. Similarly, "world oneness" can be seen as the spiritual, and also positive, aspect of globalization. Oneness is not sameness or homogeneity, but a form of community that affirms diversity along with those things that unite us as human beings. Sri Chinmoy has said that "Unity can be achieved through manifested multiplicity," (34) and "A nation is a limb of the universal body. Each limb is necessary, essential and indispensable. Each nation represents humanity's hope, humanity's promise and humanity's progress in a unique way." (35)

How can Sri Chinmoy's vision be further manifested and its realization in practice grow and increase its positive contributions? First, there is the question of how reality is seen, or of worldview, which can determine or influence much of our actions. Sri Chinmoy understands the United Nations and its purpose in an immense evolutionary context and in terms of an integral view of the human person that places great stress on inner experience as well as outer action. For members of Religious NGOs and others who belong to a faith tradition, such a view may resonate strongly with convictions already held. Some others may find it sufficient to see the universalist ethics of the founding documents of the United Nations as the expression of a global, egalitarian spirituality that can inspire and guide a life of service, as Sri Chinmoy advocates. For everyone, it is helpful to have regular, frequent occasions on which to remember and reflect in various ways upon the founding vision of the United Nations, to inquire into its profound meaning and also to celebrate and receive inspiration.

The practice of meditation and prayer is of paramount importance, as we have seen, because of its transformative capacity. Sri Chinmoy compares the release of the power of silence to splitting the atom, and declares, "Silent meditation is the strongest force that can ever be seen, felt and utilized." (36) The union of meditation with self-offering action is the ideal, as exemplified by Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant. Such a practice provides insight and skill for effectiveness, patience and strength to endure, and above all the widest and deepest view of what one is trying to do and for what reasons. Sri Chinmoy stresses that meditation is not for one's own individual benefit alone and quotes Hammarsjkold's saying, "No peace which is not peace for all." (37) The silence of meditation holds within itself the power to bring about a world of universal peace, but for this power to contribute concretely to the work of the United Nations and of Religious NGOs, it must be acknowledged, valued, and actually used by an ever-increasing number of people who aspire for world-oneness.

Notes

(1.) The United Nations Charter is available at http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter, while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be found at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml and is widely available elsewhere.

(2.) See Mary Ann Glendon, A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001).

(3.) See Kusumita P. Pedersen, "Spirituality beyond the Boundaries of Religion," Current Dialogue 47 (June 2006): 29-33.

(4.) Sri Aurobindo, Social and Political Thought (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970). At the United Nations, this philosophy of spiritual evolution has resonated with those influenced by the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, including Assistant Secretary-General Robert Muller.

(5.) Sri Chinmoy, The Garland of Nation-Souls: Complete Talks at the United Nations (Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, 1995), 15. Hereafter Garland.

(6.) Garland, 15.

(7.) Garland, 27. Sri Chinmoy does not regard the League of Nations as a failure, since it was the parent or forerunner of the United Nations, which carries on the League's original inspiration. See Garland, 55.

(8.) Garland, 16.

(9.) Garland, 10.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Garland, 39.

(13.) Garland, 18.

(14.) Garland, 19.

(15.) Garland, 22.

(16.) Garland, 63.

(17.) Garland, 265.

(18.) It should be said here that the contemplative traditions in many religions offer practical teachings similar to this in their general outlines.

(19.) Garland, 18.

(20.) Garland, 96, 75.

(21.) See Sri Chinmoy, Flame-Waves: Questions and Answers at the United Nations, Parts 1-13 (New York: Agni Press, 1975-1978).

(22.) Rule 62 of the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly. Available at http://www.un.org/ga/60/ga_rules.html

(23.) See "The UN Meditation Room: Prayer and Meditation at the United Nations," Meditation at the United Nations 5, No. 8 (August 1977): 6-33. This is the transcription of a program at Wainwright House in 1977 at which the Peace Meditation presented Mr. Huckabee with an award. On that occasion much of this history was recounted by those who had been directly involved.

(24.) Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, translated by Leif Sjoberg and W. H. Auden, with a Foreword by W. H. Auden and a new Preface by Jimmy Carter (New York: Random House, 2006 [1963]).

(25.) http://www.un.org/Depts/dhl/dag/meditationroom.htm, retrieved February 15, 2010.

(26.) Garland, 48.

(27.) Garland, 43, 42.

(28.) U Thant, United Nations Staff Committee Bulletin 281 (28 December 1971): 7. I am indebted to Adhiratha Keefe for this reference.

(29.) A Celebration of the Life of Sri Chinmoy, 1931-2007, Leader of Peace Meditations at the United Nations (New York: Agni Press, 2007), 15.

(30.) Sri Chinmoy, Siddhartha Becomes the Buddha (New York: Agni Press, 1972). See also his U Thant: Divinity's Smile, Humanity's Cry (New York: Agni Press, 1977).

(31.) Garland, 46.

(32.) The author's notes of Aye Aye Thant's remarks at the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, held at the United Nations and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, August 28-31, 2000.

(33.) For details see the Committee's website at http://www.csvgc-ny.org, which also contains "A History of Spirituality at the United Nations." I am indebted to Audrey Kitagawa for this reference.

(34.) Garland, 21.

(35.) Garland, 36.

(36.) Garland, 277, 252.

(37.) Garland, 265.
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Author:Pedersen, Kusumita P.
Publication:Cross Currents
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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