for ISKCON News on Oct. 7, 2011
A stunning new ISKCON center in Taichung, the third-largest city in Taiwan, is beginning to attract local people to Krishna consciousness through the relatable medium of yoga, and through its beautiful facilities.
The Bhakti Yoga Lounge fills nearly 7,000 square-feet of office real-estate and includes a reception area, ashram accommodation, a roof garden with organic vegetables and flowers, a kitchen, a juice bar, and a very spacious yoga and temple room, with extensive mirrors, a chalk-board for teaching, and a beautiful altar with a glowing moon backdrop that shines behind Sri-Sri Gaura-Nitai.
There’s also a professionally-decorated prasadam restaurant with a polished wood floor, golden tables, deep red walls, traditional Taiwanese design features brought out by atmospheric lighting, and huge, panoramic paintings of Lord Krishna.
The path to this new center, opened this May, has been fraught with difficulty yet sprinkled with astonishingly merciful touches by the Lord’s hand.
The reception area
“When my wife Jahnava and I first came to Taiwan in 1998 on the request of our guru Tamal Krishna Goswami, we used the traditional way of ISKCON outreach that devotees had used in the country for the past twenty years,” says Ekachakra Dasa, manager of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust’s Western Pacific division.
“However,” he continues, “We realized that this was restrictive and wasn’t achieving big results in Taiwan, where Buddhism, Taoism and other local traditions are so deeply rooted and prominent. We weren’t touching people’s hearts and continued to be viewed as just another religion. A foreign, exotic one perhaps, but one that local people had a hard time relating to and were very reluctant to start seriously practicing.”
In 2003, the two tried a new tact: presenting Krishna consciousness through yoga. Yoga teachers Charuchandra Dasa and Atmananda Dasa were flown in to train local devotees to practice and teach hatha yoga, while Jahnava designed a series of 10-week courses introducing the philosophy and practices of Krishna consciousness through Bhagavad-gita As It Is and Hridayananda Dasa Goswami’s The Yoga Sutra Made Easy.
“During those formative years, and during the trying times after Tamal Krishna Goswami passed away, we were grateful for the guidance and encouragement of many senior devotees,” says Jahnava, who is the manager and lead teacher at the Bhakti Yoga Lounge. “As well as Hridayananda Maharaja, there was also
Niranjana Swami, who visited us every year despite health challenges, and Radhanath Swami, whose advice on building a temple—“first build one in your heart”—was a guiding principle for us.”
The struggling devotees eventually acquired a small 540-square-foot space in Taichung that they could just about afford. Decorating it beautifully, they began to hold their programs and classes there, and grew fond of it.
But then, in November 2010, disaster struck. The day after the devotees had completed renovations on their new center, the landlord told them he wanted them out in six months.
“The devotees couldn’t understand what Krishna’s plan was, and some of our newer members even began to complain about Him,” Jahnava says. “I tried to pacify everyone by telling them that maybe Krishna wanted to give us a bigger and better place—the place we had always dreamed of—but I must admit I myself wasn’t fully convinced.”
Still, the devotees placed their full faith in the Lord. They spent their time praying fervently to Krishna, holding daily kirtan sessions, going on a pilgrimage trip to India, and welcoming Gaura Nitai Deities into their community, before beginning their search for a new center in March 2011.
The result was astonishing. One week after they started looking, a customer of one of the devotees invited them to take a look at a 7,000 square foot floor she co-owned in a Taichung office building.
“The day before Jahnava was supposed to meet the landlords to negotiate a rental agreement, I happened to read the passage in Mukunda Goswami’s book Miracle on Second Avenue about the early days of ISKCON where Srila Prabhupada negotiates the monthly rent for the Matchless Gifts storefront,” Ekachakra says. “He ended up getting a discount by convincing the real estate agent to become a member of his organization—which did not exist yet—and to contribute a $20 monthly membership fee. Knowing the pious and generous nature of Taiwanese people, I suggested to Jahnava that she make a similar bargain with our prospective landlords.”
The juice bar
Scheduling the meeting to take place in front of Sri-Sri Gaura-Nitai at the old center, Jahnava succeeding in convincing the landlords of the charitable nature of spreading Krishna consciousness.
When her husband asked her how the meeting went, he was amazed to hear that she had negotiated a five-year rental agreement with free rent for the first two years!
Devotees and yoga students immediately began to gather every week to clear out all the previous owners’ furniture, holding kirtans as they did so. Then the renovation work began in earnest, triggering an inspiring display of spontaneous service amongst the congregation.
The yoga room
“Although the total cost of the renovation was expected to amount to $160,000, we ended up spending only $70,000 because the interior designer was an old friend who donated his work and time and did everything else he could to minimize the cost,” says Ekachakra. “Then a couple of devotees who had financial means made very big donations too. In some way or other, everyone got involved to help create this new spiritual home.”
The resulting center, the beautiful Bhakti Yoga Lounge, serves lunch and dinner prasadam at its restaurant every day, and holds a short daily morning program for its residents, which members of the managerial committee also attend twice a week.
Then there are the many classes: japa meditation sessions are held every afternoon for an hour and a half; dance classes and hatha yoga classes with kirtan take place every day; philosophy classes with kirtan and prasadam are given every Saturday, Sunday and Monday; and introductory programs are held once a month on Sunday.
Science class in the yoga room
“We try to use Vaishnava festivals to hold public programs and introduce bhakti yoga to new people with kirtan, dancing, prasadam and philosophy,” Ekachakra says. “We also introduce the Bhakti Yoga Lounge’s regular activities to them. Between forty and sixty people generally attend these events.”
The Taichung devotees also hold Harinamas every Saturday afternoon.
“One of the key things that identifies us as a community is our regular practice of congregational chanting,” says Ekachakra. “Kirtan is present in all our programs. We even took part in a contest organized by the city of Taichung and were awarded a formal ‘street artist license’ which allows us to go anywhere in the city and perform kirtan.”
Ekachakra says reaching out to Taiwanese people is both rewarding and challenging. He explains that the standard of life in Taiwain is quite high, and people there enjoy a high degree of freedom. They are very pious and tolerant toward religious beliefs and practices, and are very strongly influenced by Chinese
Buddhism and Taoism, impersonal philosophies that include quasi-devotional temple worship.
All these account for an audience that is friendly but not easy to convince to start practicing Krishna consciousness. They have difficult accepting the personal aspect of the Absolute Truth; that Krishna is everyone’s God, not just the Indians’; and the concept of unconditional service.
“The Bhakti Yoga Lounge allows us more than a temple would to introduce Krishna consciousness in a more audience-friendly manner and to more people who may not be willing to convert to another religion,” Ekachakra says. “We try to present the science of self-realization through the philosophy and practice of bhakti yoga.”
The Gaura-Nitai Deities
He quotes a letter from Srila Prabhupada to Pancharatna Dasa: “...The world is most sorely in need of education in Krishna Consciousness, but due to the ignorance of the age they are not interested in knowledge of the self. So if by labeling the bottle in some way more to attract them we are still able to teach Krishna consciousness, let us do it.”
Jahnava and Ekachakra hope that the Bhakti Yoga Lounge will give devotees and yoga students a loving environment where they can associate with each other and learn to serve Krishna together with love and devotion. Gradually, they see students developing their Krishna consciousness more and more and getting inspired to attract others to the path.
“While we installed our Gaura-Nitai Deities in the center on Janmastami Day, with Ritadhvija Swami and GBC Chandrasekhara Dasa attending, we haven’t had an official opening day yet,” Ekachakra says. “Our plan is to first train our bhakti yoga students nicely for about a year and then have an opening ceremony, to which we will invite spiritual authorities as well as the Mayor of Taichung. Eventually, our dream is to one day have a full-blown temple with a farm. Right now, however, our center is still in the practice stages.”