August 30, 2010

An example of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s amazing patience, love and understanding …And, Myron Phelps’ book: The Master in ‘Akka

Among the early Western visitors who received permission to come were “Madame de Canavarro and Mr. [Myron] Phelps, who had been in the company of Dr. Arastu Khan on the last leg of their journey from Beirut to 'Akka. At the time of their arrival, the house which had been the residence of Baha’u’llah was fortunately unoccupied and available, and so the late doctor was taken to the pilgrim house and the two Western friends were housed in that residence. The American Mme. De Canavarro had previously been attracted to the Buddhist Faith, had become one of its ardent teachers and had spent large sums over the years in propagation of her views. She had sacrificed much in order to attain mastery of the Buddhist philosophy, and in the process had won distinction and renown. Sister Sanghamitta, as she was known, was an accomplished and well-respected member of her Faith and had a long-standing acquaintance with Western philosophy and a deep knowledge of Indian mysticism. She had translated and published the book of Buddha, in both English and French, under the title ‘The Gospel o f Buddha, and had now found the Baha’i Faith through the Buddhist Faith. She seemed to be about forty-five or fifty years old, and although suffering from physical infirmity was yet spiritually radiant and joyful. Mr. Phelps, on the other hand might be considered to be Sister Sanghamitta's spiritual brother. He professed belief in Buddhism, had literary ability, had journeyed to 'Akka with his spiritual sister and was keeping a journal of his observations and experiences. As she entered, she humbly kissed 'Abdu'l-Baha's hand. The Master treated her with the utmost consideration and tenderness as she was led to the andaruni of the Master's residence. The dinner-table discussions began next day.

This lady … had a multitude of questions, and as the answers came Mr. Phelps took them down rapidly. The problem, though, was that the ideas and beliefs of the sister and brother were not in harmony, and since the record of the conversation obviously had to reflect the understanding of both of them, this created undue stress on 'Abdu'l-Baha as He had to explain matters twice. The lady asked the question, I translated it and returned the response, and Mr. Phelps swiftly recorded it. But since the enquirer and the recorder had different views, they disagreed as to the meaning of the replies, and the frequent repetition of the concepts made the task that much more arduous for 'Abdu'l-Baha.

The part that pertained to Buddha and other prophets was reasonably straightforward. The difficulty arose with the concept of reincarnation. Here the recorder [i.e., Myron Phelps] insisted on including his own views in the journal, or at least wished to reflect the discussion in such a light as to make the future publication and sale of the book of interest to those Europeans who believed in reincarnation. This problem remained unresolved for the duration of the interview.

On the second or the third day of the interview, as fresh and complicated issues began to emerge, there suddenly arose a fracas. The reason was that a subject that is considered to be one of the principal concepts of the Baha'i Faith had proven too complex for the lady to grasp; she required repeated explanations. Suddenly, bursting out in furious objection, she addressed me angrily in harsh and unintelligible words. She was so irate that she was unable to speak clearly. At the same time, the Master kept asking, ''What is she saying?' - while the lady was not giving me the opportunity to understand the cause of her distress so that I could apprise 'Abdu'l-Baha.

At last, when the commotion subsided, what I understood from her protests, addressed directly to me was: "Why is it that you Easterners must always be the pioneers and standard-bearers in the field of religion, although you obviously do not possess any particular qualifications or accomplishments to justify that status? In turn, we Westerners must become dependent on you to share such knowledge with us secondhand. First, you obviously have no erudition to qualify you to understand such spiritual concepts. We are the ones who introduce the subject matter and share with you the guidance to understand the issue. Then we must wait for your response. If it weren't for us Westerners, how could you hope to understand such issues? The problem is, once you comprehend the subject matter, you get the answer first and then I have to receive the answer from you. Worse still, you receive the mysteries of the Kingdom and the divine realities directly from the Master without any intermediary (meaning that you drink from the fountain head) whereas we have to obtain our knowledge from you (meaning that we drink stagnant water). Why should I focus my eyes and ears on your mouth and wait for the answer to my query?"

As soon as I understood the problem I informed 'Abdu'l-Baha.

Yea, at such times the even-tempered, serene bearing of the Master, and His loving glances of understanding and sympathy, could transform the world. With a kindly smile He spoke:

"Tell her that the effects and influences of the mysteries of the Kingdom are spiritual, not material. Ear and tongue are material faculties. If the soul is not susceptible to receiving the divine favours, of what use are ears and tongues? These spiritual concepts are directed to your heart. I speak to you with the power of spirit and you receive these heavenly concepts with your whole being, with pure intentions and a radiant heart. The essential requirement is true, sincere and heartfelt communication. Praised be God, that spiritual connection is established. Whatever you have heard so far are the blessings of the Holy Spirit. My connection with you is direct. The tongue of the translator is only a material and physical faculty."

Then He gave further examples of those believers who had accepted and devoted their lives to the message of Christ, and demonstrated that in this wondrous age, too, people deprived of the physical faculties of hearing and sight had attained the honour of faith and reunion and become beacons of guidance to other souls.

In short, the lady was satisfied, and expressed her happiness and contentment. Peace and tranquility were established between the two of us at last. They stayed for over a month.

Many significant philosophical and religious problems were resolved, some of which Mr. Phelps recorded in his journal; others the lady committed to memory. The first part of Mr. Phelps's book [The Master in ‘Akka], which described his emotions and observations, was delightful, enchanting, and tenderly and effectively presented. The later chapters dealt with the description of Baha’u’llah and His family's journey in exile from Tehran to Baghdad, Adrianople, Constantinople and ‘Akka. This part was written quite accurately, for the lady had received that information, properly translated into English by one of 'Abdu'l-Baha's daughters, directly from the Greatest Holy Leaf, and then had passed it on to Mr. Phelps. But the chapter dealing with the concept of reincarnation and other similar issues contained a great many errors.

I translated half the book from English to Persian and presented it to 'Abdu'l-Baha for His perusal. I subsequently made multiple retranslations of His comments and corrections into English or explained them verbally to Mr. Phelps. Despite all these efforts, the published book contained sections that were contrary to 'Abdu'l-Baha's statements. Sister Sanghamitta understood the issues, but Mr. Phelps wrote as he wished.

Their happy stay came to an end at last, and they received permission to depart. For some time afterwards, letters from the Sister containing expressions of her heartfelt regard for 'Abdu'l-Baha and a description of her many acts of service were received in the Holy Land." (Dr. Youness Afroukhteh [one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s secretaries], Memories of Nine Years in 'Akka, translated by Riaz Masrour, pp. 144-148)