by SS Mata Mandir Singh Khalsa, MT
2021 (First Quarter)
Part I: A Simple Minstrel in the Guru’s Court
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”—Lao Tzu
My spiritual journey began in Maine’s woods, where I grew up. I was the son of a farmer who taught me how to grow things and gave me a perspective on how other species—the trees, moss, insects, and the woods’ wild plants and animals—experience life on this planet earth. On the other hand, my mother encouraged me to study piano and later guitar.
I have much gratitude for a childhood rich in learning and experience. Later as a hippy, after having traveled around the US, I returned to the Maine woods to live a simple life as modeled by Henry David Thoreau, a great hero of mine. That didn’t last long.
One day, I set out for a walk on snowshoes in the gently falling snow in the deep silence of the snow-laden forest. The deep forest’s silence under snow is hard to explain unless one has experienced it. It is a special kind of quiet. I vividly remember stopping to contemplate a dead apple tree at the edge of a field, and it brought me to a profound contemplation of death.
I soon became aware of a very subtle sound; one could almost describe it as a presence rather than a physical sound. It seemed alive—vibrating both within and without. I had no real reference to describe it except for some Zen reading I had done. And so I named it “the Void.” Although it was a profound experience, I soon forgot it.
Discovering Kundalini Yoga
Soon after, I met some older established hippies who had bought land about ten miles from my cabin. Once a week I would walk through the forest to their place, to practice some Hatha yoga and meditation.
Shortly after we met, we heard of a new kind of yoga called Kundalini and learned that there would be a weekend retreat in southern Maine where we could practice it.
We hopped into their VW bus and traveled to a farm, where we joined a gathering of around 25 people. The farmhouse had no screens, and mosquitoes were dancing in and out all day and night. That made it hard to meditate and do yoga.
I must say, I was not a great fan of physical yoga either. It hurt! And I was lazy. However, a guy who could play three or four chords on a guitar would invite us all into a yurt in the evening to sing.
Everyone had a shaker, spoons, or something to play rhythm on, and we sat around and sang Sat Nam Waheguru for hours. That attracted me like nothing I had ever experienced. I learned later that it was called “kirtan.” Intrigued and wanting to learn more, I rolled up all my earthly possessions in a blanket, tied it up with a rope, slung it over my shoulder, and set out hitch-hiking south to Washington, D.C.
Golden Temple Restaurant
During the meditation course, I had learned that a restaurant called the Golden Temple Vegetarian Restaurant had just opened, where one could work, study yoga and live in an ashram and practice this Kundalini Yoga (that some were calling the “singing Yoga”). I look back on this as a particular moment in time when the transcendent True Guru called many people from all stations of life and all countries to gather together and do the Guru’s work—in anticipation of the Age of Aquarius.
I arrived at the ashram toward the end of the week and was immediately put to work washing dishes. It so happened that the founder of this spiritual family was to be teaching that weekend, and I was given permission to attend.
And so I met the Yogi. I didn’t understand a word he said, as he had a fairly strong Indian accent and had a unique way of speaking. However, I sure did like the vibe! The music, the dancing, the meditation elevated me. I began to immerse myself in Yogi Bhajan’s teachings, for which I am eternally grateful to this day.
We worked hard in those days, and we played hard. We were a family of young spiritual pioneers in the heart of the beast that was Washington, D.C. We prepared and served food all day and night, then went out in our waiter’s aprons and dishwashing boots to sing and chant for the customers at the end of the evening.
Then we would stream out of the restaurant, run a lap or two around DuPont Circle to let off steam, and go back in and clean the restaurant. We would often prepare food for the homeless in a free kitchen run by the Catholic Church. We would play music and serve food all morning.
On Sundays the restaurant was closed, and many of us would go to the park and play soccer and then sit, sing, and picnic together. As I learned to cook, and to chant in community, so began my life as a minstrel/chef in the Guru’s court. It was a busy life.
Sangat and Pangat
I would later learn that these two activities were the bedrock teachings of a way of life called Sikh Dharma—to meditate together and then share food. It was called Sangat and Pangat. We did sadhana together every morning and conducted a Gurdwara on many a Sunday morning. As one of several musicians, I was often called upon to lead the chanting. I went from playing three-minute folk songs to playing 31-minute Guru Ram Das chants. Oh, how my fingers hurt!
We also read from the Sikh scriptures and I began to immerse myself in the Guru’s teachings. One Sunday, while meditating during the “Ardas,” the Sikh prayer of remembrance, at the end of the Gurdwara, I distinctly remember hearing once again the sound in the Hriday (the heart Center)—that presence I had become aware of in the silent winter woods of Maine. I had never felt it all that time living in the city with all its busy-ness.
Now it revisited me in the company of the disciples, the Sangat. I finally had a framework with which to understand it. It had a name, indeed many names. The Sikh Gurus called it the Shabd, Christians, the Word. In yoga, we called it the “Anahad” the unstruck melody. Finally, I had come home.
The Washington, D.C., ashram became the teachers’ training center for the East coast. I believe the concept was, if you could handle the pressure of the workload and personalities you worked with, and the high energy of the place, and still get up for Sadhana (or not), and keep up, then you could handle being a teacher!
Ours was a focus of outreach to the community—to serve humanity by sharing the teachings and the music, serving healthy vegetarian food, interacting with people from all walks of life, from the homeless to the businessmen and shoppers who came for lunch.
It was a family experience of brotherhood and sisterhood sharing seva, an experience from which one can never recover. For me, despite its challenges and hardships, it was a small slice of heaven in the heart of the big city. And I still have many friends from that time and place who I will always treasure, although these days we see each other mainly on Zoom.
Part II: Traveling in Foreign Lands
“Not all those who wander are lost!”—J.R.R. Tolkien
There came a time in my life when all my endeavors in the US. were failing. For the third time, I went out into the big wide world with literally what I could carry in my hands. Yogi Bhajan told me to travel to the Punjab in India to study the music, martial arts, and language of the Sikhs.
I spent seven months in a vibrant environment of daily visits to the Golden Temple in the early morning and classes with various teachers. I also had the opportunity to experience slices of Punjabi culture that have stayed with me to this day. I met many wonderful Sikhs and observed their radiance and sense of service to each other—which was mind-blowing for this young American man.
I studied raga (melody) on various instruments and the voice. I studied Gatka, the martial art of the Sikhs, and Gurbani, the sacred writings of the Sikh Gurus. The opportunity to learn was literally everywhere. At some point, India’s political life began to heat up. The Indian army began to encroach on life in the Punjab and eventually attacked the Golden Temple.
Moving to Amsterdam
Literally days before that happened, I called Yogi Bhajan and asked him what I should do. He told me to go to Amsterdam, Holland. So I went to the Embassy library and looked it up to see where it was, got a ticket, and off I went. The ashram there ran a Golden Temple vegetarian restaurant that was not doing well and needed assistance.
I started in as a dishwasher and ended up buying it a couple of years later, living over it and running it for 22 years. I grew as a musician, continuing what I had begun in India, studying rhythm on tabla and raga on many instruments from Muslim and Sikh teachers in Holland. It was time to give back.
Eventually, I began to perform and record music before kirtan concerts were popular. This country bumpkin/hippy had, through a series of miracles, become a respectable businessman in a foreign country, a musician, and a teacher.
Shortly after I moved to Amsterdam, one of the first Yoga festivals in Europe was being held on the grounds of an old historic chateau in France. I remember going early and helping dig the first latrine-style toilets and setting up the kitchen.
I then began teaching Gatka for the first time to people from the West. I also shared what I knew of Sikh Kirtan and scripture and eventually taught in nearly every country in Europe. Ashrams and Yoga centers were being established in each country, thereby creating many great European teachers. It was wonderful to meet so many beautiful people from so many cultures and countries.
I remember a line from Guru Nanak’s teachings in which he says of the spiritual life, “There comes a longing to work at one’s craft all day and all night.” That resonated with me. It became a daily practice to share Kundalini Yoga and Sikh Dharma teachings through music and cooking.
The Kindness of the Guru
I did my best to share everything I had learned with anyone who came into my orbit. This has remained the guiding principle of my life even now in the advancing years. Sangat and Pangat. To share meditation and kirtan together, and then share food. Even now, in the wilds of Montana, I remain a simple minstrel/chef in the Guru’s court. Where is the Guru’s court? In Montana? Everywhere!
Each day can be experienced as a blessing or a curse. It is we who decide. Heaven and hell are potentials with us at all times, here and now on the planet earth, through our understanding, words, and actions. This is all I know, by the compassion of my many teachers and through the kindness of the True Guru, the Shabd.
Through Nanak, may Thy Name forever increase and the spirit be exalted, and may all people prosper by Thy Grace.
Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa, Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh!
About the Author
SS Mata Mandir Singh Khalsa is an international teacher of Kundalini Yoga and Gatka and has dedicated his life to the practice and teaching of Naad Yoga, the yoga of sound. A heartfelt singer/songwriter and accomplished musician (guitar, mandolin, and cittern), he is a pioneer of the chant and mantra genre, having recorded around 30 CD and cassette titles since the 1970s. Mata Mandir Singh is a featured artist on the Invincible Records label. He also has many new compositions on his new website. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Naad Yoga: The Yoga of Sound. Mata Mandir Singh now lives in Montana with his wife, Satnam Kaur. His children, Saraswati Kaur of Espanola, NM, and Waheguru Singh of San Francisco, CA, are grown with families of their own.