Meet the Monks comes to town: This is in the town of Winchester. King Alfred looks on in approval
Way back in 1973 Srila Prabhupada told us what our preaching strategy should be for the British Isles. He wanted us to do six things: 1. Distribute books 2. Perform Harinam Sankirtan 3. Answer people’s questions 4. Give out some free information 5. Distribute prasadam – “..at least some small thing.” 6. Hold a programme in a hall or someone’s home.
When one devotee heard that he had stressed book distribution, seemingly to the exclusion of all else, he enquired as to whether we should stop everything else and simply concentrate on book distribution. “No, continue everything, side-by-side” Srila Prabhupada said.
However, creatures of the mode of passion that we are, and therefore not very good at focusing on more than one service at a time, the six-point strategy gradually gave way to single-pointed book distribution and its concomitant and much welcomed raising of funds. So it came as something of a novel proposal to some young brahmacaris several years ago when we decided to hold harinams and mini-festivals as an integral part of their preaching.
We’d developed an unhealthy and competitive separation between the various strands of preaching, resulting in something approaching a caste system. Some book distributors privately considered any other service as maya, and an artistic festival team regarded the intensity of the book distributors as unengaging for the public, and at times a touch vulgar. Then there were devotees who worked in communications, for whom anything other than conversing with academics, faith leaders, media, politicians and celebrities was a quaint continuation of the Hare Krishna movement’s vintage years but relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Finally there were the temple managers who looked favourably on any kind of preaching as long as it paid for itself and perhaps generated a little profit.
Such lack of integration between preaching styles inevitably leads to organisational snobbishness, the consequent erosion of team spirit, and can lead to the complete disintegration of a temple or centre. At the very least, it means that the right hand of the movement doesn’t know what the left hand is doing – and any interested people lose their way in the confusion.
So the idea was quite simply to bring the different types of preaching together into a seamless programme that more or less resembled Srila Prabhupada’s idea of 1973. We wanted to keep the cost down, so we made sure that we paid for everything we did with the proceeds of book distribution. We also wanted the programme to be reproducible for any sankirtan team.
We decided that we wanted to find the most interested people of every town where we frequently went for book distribution. And we knew which towns they were because the people greeted the sankirtan devotees very favourably, bought more books, and asked the most questions. (Isn’t it a strange phenomenon that people in towns seem to share Karma? The population of one town can largely appear very entrenched in materialism, while the entire population of another can all appear to be spiritual seekers)
We also wanted to change the ‘giving the conditioned souls the absolute truth’ mode of presentation that often occurs when young devotees are trained at public speaking by watching and listening to Srimad Bhagavatam class speakers. So we opted for short, personal stories from each monk in which a sequence of philosophical points would be contained. It worked out to be engaging for the audience, broke down many barriers, proved humorous, and stimulated much animated conversation afterwards during the discussion session.
Jivadoya Das, the first of four speakers for the evening, tells the audience: ‘How I was saved from Communism.’ This is in the town of Truro
So the programme – which we named ‘‘Meet the Monks’ and took to 14 towns – ended up like this:
- Select the towns for the year and organise the sequence of events.
- Book the halls, checking them to see whether they are suitable for a diverse audience of 30-50 people
- Distribute books in the first town for 3-5 days before the programme
- While distributing books hand out invitations to the event
- Take names and addresses or email addresses of the most interested
- Hold Harinama sankirtan, handing out more invitations
- Place an ad in the local newspaper
- Put up posters – especially in the places where active spiritual seekers visit
- Contact everyone who has ever given their name from that town
The idea of the Meet the Monks was to use the novelty of the brahmacaris in their saffron robes to attract people to a spiritual evening where they’d get a chance to meet with them and talk to them, as well as taking part in kirtan, short classes and prasadam. We wanted to avoid the performance mode that we often get into on these evenings, as if we were an Indian cultural presentation. So the evening was convivial and presented along the lines of an experiment with various philosophical ideas and meditational techniques.
The monks move into four places in the hall and the audience divide up to come to speak with them. Small groups break the ‘performance mode’ of the presentation. This is in the town of Salisbury
Later on, when we organised some Meet the Monks events in London, we discovered that the attraction of actually meeting monks in their saffron robes only really worked outside London, where we are still a novelty.
Mostly I dressed in a dhoti as well, sometimes not. I tried various approaches in presentation and dress. The prasadam was light but satisfying and relatively easy to prepare. The ide was this was a light, introductory evening that would be the first in a series of seven meetings. Here’s what the evening looked like:
- Devotees assisted guests in finding the correct room if it was a large venue.
- Drinks served to guests as they arrived, toilets indicated.
- Asking guests what they’d like to hear about or see that evening – that helped to adjust our content
- Introduction by the host
- Meditative kirtan by the monks
- Explanation of the musical instruments used
- Short presentation of the coming west of the mantra
- ‘How I came to Krishna’ by first monk, including how he came to understand the nature of the soul
- Short but lively presentation by second monk on karma, reincarnation
- Third monk speaks on how he discovered the transformational power of yoga and mantra meditation
- Host describes how japa is done, then hands out beads to all guests
- Japa session lasting half a round
- Final lively kirtan
- Monks go to different parts of the room, all guests invited to sit with their favourite monk to chat
- Prasadam served while conversations continue
- Names and addresses taken while conversations are concluding
The follow-up to this follow-up was a series of six meetings where different themes were explored, quite relaxed and conversational in style.
One of our top congregational book distributors came from these programmes, as did the entire Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich groups, as did the ‘temple-commander’ and the website designer of the London temple.
Below: But it wasn’t only monks. Here’s Avadhuta-priya dasi with two happy guests, the gentleman is a musician, a member of The Troggs, and composer of the popular song ‘Love is All Around’, a nice ditty for when the monks come to town. Check out Avadhuta’s blog here