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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Wednesday, Aug 11 1999
If the unfortunate events that marred the recent Woodstock '99 festival have any expiatory value, it is perhaps to highlight and remind us of the ideals and intentions of its namesake. The original Woodstock, for all its faults and excesses, at least grew out of the political and social urgency of the time. It was a festival about peace, not a piece of the pie.

In fact, as the original Woodstock organizers started to become aware just what a monster they were about to have on their hands, they had the good sense to helicopter in one of the emerging spiritual forces of the day -- Sri Swami Satchidananda -- to bless the event. The photograph of Satchidananda in the lotus position facing out over the endless Woodstock crowd remains one of the '60s' most indelible images. The following year Swami Satchidananda's then-budding Integral Yoga Institute established its West Coast presence by purchasing the stately Victorian mansion on the corner of Dolores and 20th streets.

Nearly 30 years later, Brendt Bryant Barbur, a current teacher at and resident of the Institute, invited me to join him for the Institute's daily group meditation and lunch. Despite what I enjoy thinking of as my relatively open mind, I'm afraid the closest I normally get to a meditative state involves a particular bathroom and the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle. For me, meditation and yoga are two very nice ideas that generally reside somewhere in the middle of a long, yellowing list of "someday" self-improvements. Of course, there's nothing like a free meal to stimulate one's sense of self-betterment. So in the spirit of the day, I decided to walk over.

On the Institute's front porch, I found Brendt waiting for me in his all-white instructor's suit. A class had just let out and healthy-looking students were taking their time saying their thank yous and goodbyes. Only in 1970, I thought, could a nonprofit yoga institute have afforded this towering San Francisco home with sweeping views of the entire city. Brendt led me past the classroom entrance and up to the front door, where we were greeted by a smiling Sister Kamala Lee, the Institute's San Francisco director, who exuded an eerie sense of peace.

Most of the rooms in the Institute are very similar: carpeted, "multiuse" open spaces for meditation, classes, and meetings. Next to the library, lining the space that once served as a formal dining room, are a series of framed photographs of spiritual leaders throughout history including Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, and Black Elk, as well as Swami Satchidananda and other noted yogis. Stressing the Institute's ecumenical mission, Brendt explained, "Our sloka (or motto) is: Truth Is One, Paths Are Many." Throughout the house are additional portraits of Satchidananda, including one startling photo of him atop a galloping horse, with his long swami hair flowing behind him. Satchidananda, I learned, is now 84 years old and living in Virginia at the Institute's "Yogaville" headquarters.

We detoured briefly into the kitchen to meet the volunteer staff joyfully preparing the afternoon meal. While one resident teacher, Samba Siva, arranged some fresh flowers, the rest of the group followed vegan recipes from a yogic cookbook, chopping fruits and vegetables under the guidance of kitchen manager Madhuri Flynn.

Upstairs, Brendt showed me the ancient metal gong that three times a day signals the start of the house's group meditation. In the attic "temple," we joined a small group of people sitting silently cross-legged on pillows or kneeling back on little wooden benches. Before a simple altar at the front of the room, Sister Kamala led us through a series of slow, calming chants in both Sanskrit and English. "Salutations to you who are beyond the worlds," she said. "Om Shanthi ... Om Peace."

Over the course of the next 45 minutes, various chants were interspersed with gentle breathing exercises and periods of silent meditation. Besides the need to sneak an occasional one-eyed peak around the room, and a conditioned urge to think of a seven-letter word for "lanai," I was surprised at how comfortably I eased into the peace.

Afterward I rose to marvel at the temple's stunning natural woodwork. "It's an incredible room," I told Kamala.

"Yes," she agreed. "It's very special. Thousands of meditations."
Filled with a raging sense of calm, I looked out the small attic window, taking in the startling view of the city with an already renewed sense of perspective.

Back in the kitchen downstairs, Madhuri assembled the group of residents and guests for a brief pre-meal chant before pointing out each of the dishes on the day's Indian-themed menu. There was vegetable curry, kitchuri (a basmati rice and lentil dish), curried potato patties, and a fresh summer fruit chutney, along with a vividly colored heirloom tomato salad and assorted flatbreads.

After loading up our plates we all found places on the sunny patio surrounded by the Institute's colorful herb and flower garden. It was a perfect San Francisco summer afternoon. Sitting at the picnic table, Brendt pushed play on a small tape recorder, explaining, "We always listen to about 10 minutes of Sri Satchidananda at lunch."

As we feasted on the delicious meal, Satchidananda's deep, accented voice discussed the nature of good and evil. "There's nothing that you can say that is evil, or it is good," he instructed. "We make it good or bad according to our usage. I can give you hundreds of examples. Fire. Good or bad?" he asked. "Cook your meal, it's good. Set it on the house, it's bad. Knife. Good or bad? Cut a fruit, it's good. Cut a throat? So a knife by itself, it's good or bad? Neither. Stone. Good or bad? Hit it on somebody's head, it's bad. Build a house, it's good. Money. Good or bad? Take it and go to Las Vegas, it's bad."

"What if you win?" joked a cautious voice from the crowd. (No, it wasn't me.) The group chuckled.

As we cleaned our plates, a huge white cake topped with candles emerged from the kitchen, followed by a round of song. As it turned out, my visit coincided with Sister Kamala's birthday. A Raspberries & Cream cake from Just Desserts and the exchange of some simple gifts finished out the meal.

Weekday meditation and lunch guests at the Institute pay their way with donations, both monetary and service. Everyone was invited to join in the cleanup, including me. I enjoyed pushing a broom amid the active sea of bare feet moving around the kitchen. After, we relaxed back on the patio with some fresh lemonade and quiet conversation in the sun.

Walking home I marveled at how much a single afternoon can affect one's outlook on life, how incredible an organic, yogic, vegan meal can taste, and wondered: What the hell am I going to do with that huge Costco box of frozen fish sticks at home?

Om Shanthi.

By Barry Levine

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About The Author

Barry Levine


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