When the prime minister met the saint, and other memories and reflections
Looking back, I see my five years in India as the high-point of my diplomatic life, and my most memorable time in India as the four days in January of 1971 before Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s official visit to India. During these days Mr. Trudeau and I were on a rather undiplomatic mission. We had known each other as friends when we were both serving in the Privy Council Office, or Cabinet Secretariat, in Ottawa in 1948-9. Before his official visit to India, Pierre had asked me whether I could arrange for us to have a few days together during which I could introduce him to the “real India” of sacred places and saintly teachers that he had glimpsed during his earlier visit to the country as a student. Thanks to the very understanding attitude of the Foreign Ministry in New Delhi, I was able to take him to see not only some of the great places, like Khajuraho, Fatehpur Sikri, Mathura, and of course the Taj Mahal under a full moon, but also introduce him to two of the leading Tibetan Rinpoches, to disciples of Mahatma Gandhi and of Krishnamurti, and to the Canadian Jesuits in Benares. But our most striking encounter, I believe for him as for me, was our morning with Anandamayi Ma at her ashram on the banks of the river Ganges near Benares.
Anandamayi Ma was then a 75-year-old Hindu from Bengal, regarded all over India as a remarkable saint and teacher….
From the moment we sat down on the floor with her and her interpreter, I could see that she understood that this was no courtesy visit and that I had brought her another seeker of truth, struggling, under the impact of her presence, to find some rational explanation for how an illiterate Bengal woman, who could scarcely sign her own name and had never read a book or had a human teacher, could respond with such wisdom and intelligence to his questions about the nature of the human condition. Later, I was able to help him follow, at least mentally, the indications she had been giving him as to how he might, with practice, expand his horizons through a form of meditation that amounted to being fully present at each moment. But this was too much for his Jesuit-trained mind to accept in one short visit. Her sensitivity and understanding was beyond anything that he had ever encountered. He could not bring himself to abandon the promptings of his well-furnished mind and its rational associations. He could not shift his trust from his mind to the unknown One Mind…even when she was demonstrating for him that this miracle was humanly possible….
In 1972 I was in Ottawa between India and Iran postings, and the Prime Minister invited me to lunch at 24 Sussex. Before lunch Pierre’s wife, Margaret, was showing me around their official residence. At the top of the stairs, she pointed to an embroidered banner hanging on the wall, proclaiming LA RAISON AU-DESSUS DE LA PASSION (“REASON ABOVE PASSION”). And she said with a laugh “That is what I live with—and he put it next to the bedroom!”
In retrospect, I feel I was being shown, in these lessons, how difficult it has become for any Western intellectual to free his attention from its identification with the ordinary associative thinking that has come to rule our daily lives, isolating us from the life-giving energies of an all-pervasive Consciousness, or One Mind—the “boundless luminosity” of the Dharmakaya in Tibetan Buddhist terms—that knows no restrictions of time or of space, but for most of us is beyond our knowing. On his recent visit to the United States, the Karmapa observed that the general lack of confidence in that quality of consciousness was what was putting our civilization in danger. All I can say about it is that it is…just as I actually, in this present moment, am. But that is incontrovertible.
As I see it now, it was Gurdjieff’s mission, once he had found his way to be penetrated by that One Mind, to articulate, in language the Western mind could grasp, the skilful means that, if practiced diligently for years, could make it possible for human beings not just to think and feel and move differently but to be in a different state, to be. In my experience, “I AM” is at the heart of the practice and at the basis of Christ’s original message…. I hear it in Krishnamurti’s call for a “choiceless awareness.”
After our meeting with Anandamayi Ma, Trudeau asked me if this was what she had been trying to convey to him. He told me that he had been reading Krishnamurti and understood the human potential of making a shift from ordinary thinking to this direct awareness. Can enough of us follow Anandamayi Ma, the Dalai Lama, Krishnamurti, and Gurdjieff, among others, into such esoteric practices so that human behavior will change in the only way it can, from the inside out, allow the higher to penetrate the lower part of our nature? Nothing less fundamental will, I say with trepidation, avert the breakdown of our civilization, as climate change takes hold of our world, and our grandchildren wonder angrily why we did so little to stop it.
Pierre Trudeau was a very private person, so it is not surprising that his interest in India had never been understood as anything more serious than tourism. It is time for me to reveal a little of the spiritual exploration that we shared together so long ago. He had a deep search to understand. It gave him a freedom from conventional thinking and standard reactions that made him, in or out of office, such an interesting man. And on this occasion his reputation for breaking boundaries did him no harm, although it probably irritated Ted Heath, the British Prime Minister, who was officially conferring with Indira Gandhi in New Delhi, while most of the media attention was covering Trudeau’s unofficial encounters elsewhere.
Shortly before completing this book, I was greatly encouraged by reading the latest reflections of my friend, Lee Smolin, physicist and founding member of the Perimeter Institute, which is hoping to formulate a scientific “theory of everything.” In The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, Lee has (in partnership with his co-author, Roberto Unger, Professor of Philosophy at Harvard and currently a Minister in the Brazilian government), come to the remarkable conclusion that nothing less than a completely new paradigm, a new cosmological theory, will suffice, if the many problems in physics and philosophy are to be resolved. He proposes the reality of time as the basis of their new cosmology: “All that is real is real in a moment, which is one of a succession of moments,” and because the laws and states are “properties of the present moment,” they can evolve. On this basis, I hope we shall soon see a new paradigm for science that will enable West and East, science and spirituality, head and heart, to come together with mutual respect in a common search for the One Reality. As Gurdjieff has been telling us, life is real only when we are completely aware of the present moment. That existential sense of “I am,” he repeated, is our chance, moment by moment, to change ourselves and the world for the good.
As the French say, perfectionism is the enemy of the good. It is time for me to let this “Last Call” go to my publisher as it is, and then, with such being as I can muster, wish sincerely that it will be of some help to you on your journey. So may all of us join together in this prayer from Pope Francis’s great Encyclical of June 18, 2015:
A prayer for our earth
All-powerful God, you are present in
the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all
Pour out upon us the power of
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
As brothers and sisters, harming
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and
the forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and
not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not
pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts of those who look
only for gain
at the expense of the poor and
Teach us to discover the worth of
to be filled with awe
to recognize that we are
with every creature
as we journey towards your
We thank you for being with us
Encourage us, we pray, in
for justice, love, and peace.
So now it is up to you, and to me, and to everyone, to awaken to consciousness as best we can. On August 22, 1947, at the Harvard Club in Boston, less than three weeks before he died, the great Buddhist art historian, Dr. A.K. Coomaraswamy, put it this way: “May you come into your own, that is, may I know and become what I am, no longer this person So-and-so, but the Self that is also the Being of all beings, my Self and your Self. ♦
From James George, Last Call: Awaken to Consciousness (Station Hill Press, 2016). Reprinted by permission. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.