Graveyard Talks With Sacinandana Swami

SPECIAL EDITION – Call and Response Podcast – Graveyard Talks With Sacinandana Swami

Sacinandana Swami was born in Germany to an affluent family and, for 42 years, has been a practicing monk in the bhakti tradition. Over the years, he has significantly contributed to the way modern practitioners of bhakti engage in contemplation and meditation. He is a well regarded teacher of spiritual music and spends time teaching and leading retreats throughout Europe and Asia. His love and passion for the life he has lived has been motivated by his desire to help other people grow just as he felt he grew and learned more about his own unique purpose in life, dharma.

“It’s only through the opening of the intuitive understanding that one can make space for this kind of non-judgmental unconditional understanding, you know? It’s just like the sun. It shines on everything all the time. Everything. It doesn’t measure, evaluate, judge and see who’s worthy of sunlight. It’s just, it’s its nature and it’s the nature of these great beings. It’s the nature of God, of the Lord, of the Divine to be that Love.” – Krishna Das

KD: So, I’m here with my good friend, Sacinandana Swami: in Germany. I’ve been on tour and we are continuing what we call our Graveyard Talks. So, how many years ago was it, in Munich? We went for a walk.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: I think it was about ten years at least and we were talking, we were so much into the discussions that I noted at one stage, “Your program is already starting. It has started.” And then you said to me, “Don’t worry, let’s finish this. The program cannot start without me.”

KD: Yeah, yeah. We were looking… we looked for a place to sit down and we found this beautiful little quiet graveyard with a nice bench and we sat there and spoke and here we are today in another graveyard in Germany outside of Berlin.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Something that comes to my mind is that time moves in cycles. We were then on a graveyard. We are now in a graveyard, and maybe one of us will be on a graveyard again somewhere.

KD: Fairly soon, you know. In a different way, yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: In a different way. And it’s the question for me is, “What do we consider of the best use of our time in this human life that is really worthwhile to invest and might even outlive the graveyard on which we are eventually, where we are landing?”

KD: You know, I always talk with people about the importance of spiritual practice, but I’ve come to believe that the reason we do spiritual practice is to become good human beings, be people that are kind and compassionate and aware of other people’s suffering and pain and just naturally want to do what they can to help that situation. It takes tremendous strength to break the habit of only thinking about one’s self all the time, and thinking that, and even unconsciously believing that, that what “I think” and what “I feel” is the most important thing in the universe, and not seeing other people. It takes a tremendous amount of work on one’s self to, to even become aware that other people, they’re in their own worlds as well, and if we can’t help ourselves, how can we help anybody else?

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Yeah yeah. And the funny thing is that sometimes who are even trying to escape and help themselves by taking to a spiritual path still remain self-centered.

KD: Yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: We have some dramatic sounds in the back.

KD: Yeah. Thunder. It’s amazing.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: We get to some good subjects and nature gets her drumsticks out and does a thunder roll.  Yes, I remember last year I was walking around a sacred mountain, the Govardhan Mountain in Vrindavan and I passed two people, pilgrims who were discussing in Bengali the three essential teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a Saintly personality, and they said, “Yes, Chaitanya bolo, ‘One should attain taste in the Divine Name, One should do Vaishnav seva, one should do the service to Vaishnavas, people who are on the, on the path’” and then they got stuck. They couldn’t remember the third thing. I knew the third point, so I said, “Compassion towards all Beings.” Not just the people in one’s group, the Vaishnavas, but towards All Beings, because you can only be kind to your family members or those who are in your, on your spiritual path, you’re still limiting yourself in your kindness. You should be like a river, break the dam of the ego and flood the world with, be as good as you can with kindness. So, people on a spiritual path tend to forget that. If I may ask you a question, what do you do when you think, “Here’s an opportunity to show compassion, but I don’t like this person.” Or, “This is not the right circumstances.” Do you have something to, which helps you to make that jump out of the ego prison into something of a compassionate act?

KD: It’s hard in the moment, usually, because you have habits of reaction and things like that, but I, more and more I’m so aware of how, how much in prison we all are and how difficult it is to find a way out of that prison and when other people are nasty or try to cause pain in one way or another, or even without trying, if you look, you can see they’re only acting out of their own pain and even if we look like the targets of that action, we’re really not. Because they don’t see us at all. You know? They don’t see who we are. Just like we don’t really see who anybody else is. So, we’re just, you know, it’s like, when you’re, listen, if you work in an office there’s this guy who never smiles and never says “hello” to you and he just walks around and you know, with a sour look on his face and you develop a whole story about this person, you know? “He doesn’t like me, what did I ever do to him?” And then you find out, you know, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and you were taking all this personally and it had nothing to do with us. And I think that awareness comes, naturally arises the more that one cares enough to try to cultivate the compassion. I think that it naturally arises. You no longer take things so personally. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. As you were talking, I remembered I gave you a book on Rumi and just as you were talking, I remembered there was one part where the teacher of Rumi, Shams, says to Rumi that when Sufis look at people, they close both of their eyes and they look through the eye of the heart into their hearts.

KD: Yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: And then, they understand that then their connection, heart to heart connection, is there. It bypasses the mind. The stories you were referring to. The narratives which we have about other people. So, but yes, your answer is, as you become aware, let’s be compassion, it’s almost as the compassion muscle gets trained and then it’s there when you need it again.

KD: And you know, we’re always thinking something, pretty much. Our thoughts are always coming, coming through the sky of awareness that we call the mind. So, if we don’t cultivate positive thoughts, then only those, the habitual thoughts, limiting thoughts, negative thoughts, those will continue to come so we cultivate compassion and kindness and caring for people and for ourselves. It replaces the negative stories.


KD: Because something’s always going to be going through the head, you know.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: That reminds me of that instruction of Patanjali, the Great Yoga teacher who says, to counteract negative thought by exchanging it with positive thought, means cultivation of the mind and the more one learns that… I told you yesterday, I was once giving a lecture in, in Split, Croatia about peace in the midst of the Croatian Serbian War, and this soldier had come towards me who was highly aggressive. He, at the end of the lecture, approached me and said, “What, Mr. Peacemaker or Peace talker, would you think if I would now beat you until you’re marked?” And then I said, “It would be painful, it would be very difficult but still I would try to see that you are talking because, most probably you have lost a friend in the war or something terrible happened to you so now the word ‘peace’ triggers something where you think its impractical. We want revenge. So, I would try to see what is behind this but I must say, it would be very hard.”

KD: Yeah. It’s very hard. You can’t, it’s those knee, we call them in English, knee-jerk reactions. The reactions that you don’t have any control over, you know. That, they surface and they push us around and in order to root those out, one has to really, one has to be patient with one’s self and, you know, give one’s self a break and kind of soften one’s heart towards one’s self, also.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: I very much like that perspective and you have often said, during our conversations this time, “Follow your heart. Come in contact with the heart” one of that is that you really don’t judge yourself, that you don’t beat yourself up. As you know, I come from a very unfortunate family background. My father was very much active in the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler and yes, he was not only the witness of many brutal things but also participating in them actively and I have always seen the character traits which might have come through the DNA code into my life. And which are responsible for these knee-jerk reactions. I’ve seen that and I have noted when you then start to beat, I mean I don’t, I didn’t do anything brutal, I didn’t kill people. I’m a monk, but just the mind is sometimes impossible, then I saw that I beat up myself for this and I see “Son of a Nazi! Criminal person! See you’re only a false story of a monk!” Then, I have noted a lot of battles initiated inside. But I’ve seen, “Ok, let that pass like a bad wind which passes.” And why talk about it, think about it too much? It will go.

KD: Let me say something that I’ve never said to a German person and in this case, I’m thinking about you and your father and your family. When I was in Auschwitz with Bernie Glassman years ago at a Bearing Witness Retreat, in other words, we went to Auschwitz to bear witness to the suffering there for the sake of the souls who were there and they needed us to be with them, to bear witness. And to bear witness to something means to see it without judgement, to simply witness it and be there so you have to give up your own trip. You know? You have to give, “These were bad people and these were good people.” It’s very hard. And I’ve said before, many times, for days I walked around in the camp and the sun was shining, the fall colors were in the trees, the grass was green and I was saying, I was yelling at the sun in my mind. I said, “How dare you shine on this place? How dare you shine on this place?” I mean, I was furious. For days. And then one moment, I looked up at the sun and I went, “Oh, oh. I see. It’s your nature to shine. You shine on the good, the bad, the up, the down, the in and the out. It’s your nature to shine.” And I recognized this was what non-judgmental love, unconditional love, and I also recognized that if I had been born in Nazi Germany and raised in a family of Nazis who believed what Nazis believed, how would I be any different than one of those guards? I couldn’t prove it to myself. You know? How? What is this? Something about me that’s better than everybody else? No. And if that had been my karmas to be born there. How would I? I couldn’t prove it to myself that I would do anything different than anyone of these guards. So, the reason that I’m mentioning that is, have you spoken with your father at all? Or, what’s your understanding of how he felt about what was going on as it was going on in that time?

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Wonderful. Wonderful that you bring this question to this and observe, yes, ask the question, “Would I have any choice at that time?” I have spoken in detail to my father and he, he had, so to say, a reawakening, he, at one stage in the Nazi time it was towards the end where they all understood we had followed the wrong story. So, he said, “What people don’t understand is, we, the soldiers, were coming in as youth. We were called the ‘Hitler Youth.’ And we learned all this indoctrination and we had no chance, there was a reward system which young people are falling prey to. If you learned this and if you can present the philosophy that the Germans are the Aryans and everyone else is the cancer of the world, especially one group of people, then you know, there was, if you could repeat it nicely, that went very well for you. You got rewards. You moved up.” Somehow, it was, the lie was so impenetrable for our intellect and even, and then I asked, “But what about your feeling?” He said, “Feelings. Feelings. I was young. I was foolish and I was angry. Yes, yes but we, we, and there was success. Hitler goaded all of us by saying, ‘Do you want to pay for the rest of your life debts which you have not incurred? The debts which were inflicted upon Germany when they lost the first World War? Do you want to see that the economy of Germany can never come up so that you will be always a slave of the world?’ No! Let’s rise against this injustice! Let’s become independent. Let’s declare war to the unjust world. We can do it. We are the chosen ones.’ And there was music to it. There were films to it. There was preaching in the church to it. The whole thoughts, all the thoughts went in that demonic and wrong direction. Only later I could see, but then it was too late.

KD: Oh.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: And he said, “I wanted to kill myself.” He had, all ready, the pistol with the bullets. But then, that’s another story.

KD: Yeah yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: He had to turn. Something happened. But on your question, do we really have the choice? How much choice do we really have if our karma goes that way?

KD: Yeah. And what we also have to realize is those people who perpetrated such horror are also victims. It’s hard for people to accept. It’s very hard for people who feel they were the real victims, of course. And they were. But those people in, if you understand, believe or have understanding of karma, you know that those people who perpetrated those horrors will suffer terribly. There’s no escape from that. They’re at the results of your own actions. So, not only did the victims, the perpetrators become the victims, but it’s a bigger picture and it’s a wider perspective that most people, that’s very difficult to accept. But I’ve told this many times, I was watching television once and I was going through the channels and I stopped at CNN and they were showing President Bush, George W. He was, you know, visiting a school down in Florida and in one of the classrooms, the first group of widows from the Iraq War were waiting for him. Like, there were 20 women or so waiting for him in this classroom. And he arrives and he’s walking down the hall, you know? “Hi, I’m the President. Yup, I’m the President. I’m walking down the hall.” You know, so full of himself. Just full of bullshit. Walking down the hall. And you know, “Hi Joe. Hi Frank.” Waving to people, you know. And he walked into that room with those women and he burst out crying like a baby. Weeping like a baby. He couldn’t, he almost fell over. He couldn’t… and I thought, “that son of a bitch, now I can’t hate him anymore.”

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Yeah yeah yeah.

KD: There he is, he’s just seen his own future.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: He has just seen his own future.

KD: He doesn’t know that’s what he’s seeing, but he’s recognized the suffering that he himself has caused, being the pawn of various interests and you know, whatever money people and businesses that he owed for becoming President and starting the war up and all that stuff. He’s going to have to pay for that. And, I had to, honestly, I didn’t want to see him suffer.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Yeah yeah. There is one very nice part in one of the old wisdom texts where one saint shows a hunter a vision of the future and the hunter sees all the animals which he has killed and he has pierced them with his arrows, coming at him with horns, claws, so on, and my father told me of a nightmare he has up to this day. He enters the dome of Cologne. That’s a huge church. There’s two swords in his hands, one in his left, the other in his right and he goes, he comes into the entrance, the people, they are on the benches, actually they are kneeling down and praying and he comes obsessed by wild fury and starts to use these swords to decapitate them from the back and then as he comes towards the altar, he sees there’s a, I hope it’s an English term, a menagerie? It’s where in the circus the tigers are?

KD: Menagerie. Yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Menagerie. Yes. And there is an iron fence there. And from the altar, or in the altar, there are tigers, lions and they notice him and they growl at him and they jump against the fence to get at him and he’s horrified. The swords fall on the floor and he sees how they’ve built an animal tower. One tiger jumps on the back of the other and there’s only maybe five split seconds when the first, the biggest of the tigers, the most angry, with big fangs, equipped tiger, will jump at him and he will not kill him quickly. He will kill him slowly. That nightmare is there and yes, even the perpetrators are the, are the victims. Yes. Yes.

KD: Yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: So, therefore it sounds so Christian, but I think it’s good. We can hate the sin, but the sinner? That’s where we have to put the question mark.

KD: Yeah. It’s true. And it’s very, I mean, like Ram Das always talks of the difference between the soul and the role.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Oh, good. Soul and the role.

KD: But it’s very difficult in the rational mind to mind to make space for that. It’s only through the opening of the intuitive understanding that one can make space for this kind of non-judgmental unconditional understanding, you know? It’s just like the sun. It shines on everything all the time. Everything. It doesn’t measure, evaluate, judge and see who’s worthy of sunlight. It’s just, it’s its nature and it’s the nature of these great beings. It’s the nature of God, of the Lord, of the Divine to be that Love.


KD: And most of us, we just spend our whole lives justifying our judgmental biases that support us, our egos and keep us separate from everybody else and feeling that separateness.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Yeah. Yeah yeah. Ah, you spoke of the intuition. Connecting the intuition and then being able to be more compassionate and not justifying your own judgmental mind. I think that’s a very good direction, a very good, yes, point. For me, it is always, the shift of perspective happens in the higher connection. If I’m not connected with the Divine and with this higher source and so on. Then I tend to go to my mind but, which is so reactive always. But if I’m connected somehow, during kirtan, during deep absorbed meditation, which is happening when there’s a deep absorption of the mind, then it’s almost as if the little cold lightbulb is screwed into the faucet? Is the word “faucet”? And all of a sudden, there is light. Not its own light. That’s very important. There is the light of the electricity. The light of, and then it’s a small sun. So, that higher connection, I think, is a possibility and I feel there’s a constant invitation to enter that.

KD: Yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: An invitation and then something happens with you, despite of you.

KD: In spite of you. In spite, yeah.

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Like here, when I’m with you and you tell me, how Maharajji has entered your life and done things with you and pulled you on a rope, then and I very much like your perspective. You say, “It was not me. It’s the grace which works.” And that is a very beautiful subject matter.

KD: Yeah. I once asked Siddhi Ma, I said, “Ma, you know, is it all grace or do we have to make effort?” And she said, “Krishna Das, it’s all grace. But you have to act like it isn’t.”

SACINANDANA SWAMI: Wonderful. That is wonderful. Yes.

KD: Yeah. It’s always raining. But if you want to drink, you have to cup your hands. And it is about to start raining right now.


KD: Raining in the graveyard. So, we will pause and say, for the moment, goodbye.


KD: Ram Ram.


KD: Hari Bol.


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One Comment

  • David Birenbaum says:

    Thank you, again, KD! I am getting ready to bear witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau in two months. You are part of my leap forth into this experience. After hearing your response to my question at your workshop in LA, I struggled with the idea of that visit. I must say that you speak eloquently about that. My nature is not to hate. My parents survived the Holocaust. I will be with the souls of the women you sang to, and the 300,00 souls my friend endured being gassed in Birkenau, and the Nazi guards, and their children, who live with the sense memory of what has happened.
    Grace is with us, All love, KD

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