For Portland monks, life and chores are all for Krishna
Columbia Sportswear jackets and hoodies cover their saffron robes. Knit caps cover the trademark shikha haircut as they roam the streets on a wet Portland afternoon.
If you frequent the area around Pioneer Courthouse Square, they may stop you with this line: “Hey man, you wanna hear about yoga, meditation and soul?”
These are Portland’s present-day Hare Krishnas. Unlike the 1970s, you won’t find them at the airport, tossing flowers at tourists and tired businessmen. You won’t find them dancing with throngs of hippies in the park.
These days, they’re more likely to leave you with a vegetarian cookbook or just a smile and an enthusiastic “Hare Krishna!”
The city’s Hare Krishna devotees worship in their temple, a weathered single-story house, at 3766 S.E. Division St. Three monks in their 20s live there; up to 25 devotees — including married couples, dreadlocked hippies and the occasional homeless vagabond — regularly attend.
And every Sunday and Wednesday, they open their evening services to the public.
On a recent Sunday, a pile of shoes on the doorstep greeted visitors. Inside, there was the smell of strong incense and curried vegetables.
The 3-year-old daughter of two members of the temple ran into the kitchen with a container of salad. A monk stirred a simmering pot of broccoli soup. A young woman wrapped a belated wedding gift on the floor. It was hard to stand in the kitchen without being in someone’s way.
Fifteen seconds later, the sound of a conch shell trumpeted through the room. The house instantly was transformed. Everybody rushed to the temple room to lay themselves prostrate on the floor, paying respects to the deity statues before services began.
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The International Society for Krishna Consciousness Temple was founded in 1966 in New York City by a man named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
According to its Web site, the offshoot of Hinduism comprises more than 350 centers, 60 rural communities, 50 schools and 60 restaurants worldwide. The Portland temple is supported by the international society and by sales of Hare Krishna texts and vegetarian cookbooks.
Scandals from embezzlement to child abuse have been attributed to the movement since its founding. But past troubles seem unimportant and far away in this little Portland temple. Here the age of the main core of devotees barely skirts 30.
To Hare Krishnas, Krishna is God, and everything they do is for Krishna. Or at least they’re working on it.
“There’s nothing to it but to do it,” says Trikalajna, 23, formerly known as Travis Geyer and one of the temple monks who teaches a class on the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, the Krishna equivalent of the Bible. He says Krishna only asks five things from a Hare Krishna member at first: no meat, no gambling, no intoxicants, no sex before marriage and to chant the holy name of God, i.e., Krishna. If you do these things with sincerity, patience and faith, you can be closer to God, according to Trikalajna.
Three years ago, Trikalajna met a Hare Krishna monk on the street. It was a Thursday morning, and he bought the Bhagavad-Gita for $3. The next Monday he packed up all his belongings and moved into the temple to live the austere life of a monk.
“Everything you do for Krishna is fun. I cleaned all day today and it was fun because it was for Krishna,” says Ananda Tirtha, formerly known as Tim Leeb. Ananda, 24, is a smiley, friendly Austrian monk who lives in the Portland temple. At the time he joined the movement, he was a 21-year-old college student “spacing out” in Vienna. “I was always hanging out with people who had the most weed,” he recalls in his thick Austrian accent. To Ananda, that was not real friendship.
Trikalajna has a similar tale. When he was 18, he moved to Portland with a bunch of friends and $2,000. The plan was to start a band. Soon after, the money, his friends and his love for music had somehow disappeared.
He says his karma changed the day he met a Krishna devotee outside of Pioneer Place mall. “I felt, what can I say — warm and fuzzy inside,” he recalls, after reading the Bhagavad-Gita for the first time.
Trikalajna and Ananda have one young spiritual disciple under their wings, Bhakta Joe (Joe Bogner), 20, a Portland area native. Bhakta Joe moved into the temple in September after meeting Ananda at Saturday Market.
Day begins at 4 a.m.
If you listen closely at the Portland temple, at any given moment or lull in conversation, you may hear one of the monks singing “Hare Krishna” softly while peeling potatoes, changing a light bulb, sweeping the floor or writing an e-mail.
Monks, unlike other members, live in the temple and adopt a celibate lifestyle. They also are the only Hare Krishnas who wear saffron robes; other members wear white or other-colored robes. Women as well as men can be monks.
Being a monk is weird at first, the three young men say, and it doesn’t get any less bizarre with time. Bhakta Joe says he has struggled with severe depression much of his life, and spirituality has helped him. “It’s like getting a new job,” he says slowly, with a steady, blue-eyed gaze. “It’s strange.”
The three men get up at 4 a.m., stumble bleary-eyed out of sleeping bags laid out on the spotlessly clean hardwood floor, grab a cold shower and then chant “Hare Krishna” for two hours. After morning services, they have been up for more than four hours. The rest of the day is either spent on the streets of downtown Portland distributing books or working in the temple.
What sets this young Portland temple apart from larger Krishna temples is its friendly, casual atmosphere. If you don’t sit on a rug in the temple, that’s OK. The devotees and monks sometimes stumble over Sanskrit pronunciation, and the phrase “Hook ’em up phat!” was heard during a class on the Bhagavad-Gita one recent Wednesday evening.
“Somehow we’ve been able to maintain enough to continue here. As long as there is someone who knows what’s going on,” Trikalajna says.
When asked who that person is, Trikalajna hesitates for a second as though he is unsure, then he stares straight ahead and answers as though it is completely obvious.