How Pancho Came To Gandhi

Posted by Suchitra Shenoy on Dec 26, 2019
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There is a group of people around the world. We have not all met. We don’t even all know each other. One particular thing connects us: a deep respect for a person who, on meeting a stranger will say: “My family calls me Pancho. And I want you to know that I love you.”
(And the amazing thing is: he means it. How do we truly see: All as One?)

This group of people knows the following:

An arresting photograph of Pancho in a cream coloured khadi shirt, sitting cross-legged in meditation, being dragged and arrested by police in full combative gear; Pancho at the Occupy Movement. The incredible stories of loving action in the face of violence. Pancho setting up an open-doors, home of peace, Casa de Paz, in a violent and physical-poverty-stricken part of East Oakland. Pancho walking without money or identification to the US-Mexico border in the name of love, against all the atrocities being done to undocumented immigrants in the part of the planet we call the US, and planting an Earth-flag on the wire-ridden fence.

The details of Pancho’s life are startling, deeply moving and inspiring. They are filled with incredible examples of nonviolence in action.

For me, these details led to the question: How did Pancho become an embodiment of the perfect mix of activism and spirituality?

In December 2019, some of us were in Ahmedabad. There, late at night, after a full day’s programme, we crammed into the small kutti he was staying in, and asked the question: How did Pancho come to Gandhi?

Here, is the answer:

“My family, especially my father came from a background of social justice. My grandfather migrated to the part-of-the-world we call the United States. He worked in the labour movement in the 1920 and1930s in Chicago and then came back to Mexico City. My dad speaks six languages and has been deeply involved in peoples’ movement.” Pancho’s father would ask him, “Do you know who is the Mahatma?” He told Pancho stories of Gandhi with an Indian accent :) They watched the film (Gandhi, by Richard Attenborough, came out in 1982). One of the stories Pancho’s father told him was of Gandhi telling someone who had killed a child, to go and adopt a Muslim child, and raise it as his own.

A note of amazement creeps into Pancho’s voice, “Here’s my atheist dad, practicing these religious paths – of Hindu Gandhi and Christian Martin Luther King!”

“I remember the elation and the devotion that they evoked in my dad. As a kid, I couldn’t understand the theory, but I could certainly feel my dad’s passion for them.”

Pancho was an avid tennis player in his teenage years. “Me and my friend Pepe Tono would joke – what would Gandhi do? What would Jesus do? (when we wanted to evoke the best of us on the tennis court, but mostly in life.)”

At graduate school, Pancho studied astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley. “I heard about the new kind of nuclear weapons that brother-George Bush waswanting to build together with the UC nuclear weapons labs. I saw all these students protesting and fasting against these weapons. I was fed up with all the news on how the University was making deals with British Petroleum, Monsanto, Bechtel, Novartis, etc. It was awful,” he recalls. Pancho got to know Professor Michael Nagler. (Nagler founded the Peace and Studies programme at Berkeley. He is a nonviolence educator and peace activist; a meditation student of Eknath Easwaran.) Pancho thought of changing departments, to Nagler’s, but the university would not let him switch.

“I started learning all that I could, while joining in the protests [the protests were asking the university to turn down money from the government’s Department of Defence]. I watched all of Nagler’s videos on Introduction to Non-Violence and read his page-turner book, 'Search For a Nonviolent Future'. My first Gandhi book, was Eknath Easwaran’s, ‘Introduction to Gandhi, Gandhi the Man’. I was deeply struck by, and excited by Gandhi. His work in the Quit India movement. How he kept Silent Mondays. How, on a silent Monday when journalists asked Gandhi what his message is, he scribbled, ‘My Life is my Message.’”

“Easwaran (my teacher’s teacher), was deeply moved by Gandhi and his fasting during the Independence movement. He travelled from Kerala to Sevagram to meet Gandhi, to find out what was the secret of Gandhi’s Power. He said when Gandhi opened his eyes right after prayer, he knew (according to Easwaran): “Gandhi’s power was coming from prayer and meditation.”

“This is it”, says Pancho with inner excitement, bouncing on his seat. “This is how Easwaran developed his own technique of meditation. This is how he was inspired by Gandhi.”

We might be alone on our individual spiritual journeys, but there are always those who came before us, a shimmering line of what we inherit, the line of continuity. Here, we see the thread of connection: Pancho-Nagler-Easwaran-Gandhi.

~

Pancho went deeper into experiencing fasting and learning from the work of Gandhi. He undertook a nine-day fast during the graduate school protests. “At that time I was reading Michael Nagler’s book, 'Search for a Nonviolent Future'. It was so powerful to be reading it while fasting during our satyagraha.” Pancho says, “As a recovering left-brainer, all this reading and discussing of Gandhi was incredible. I was just amazed by Gandhi’s work --- what is this?!!”

Nagler pointed out to Pancho that, “Fasting for Gandhi was the last resort. Gandhi would try and talk things out first. He had a very clear escalation curve of conflict.” Pancho says, “So then I realised that fasting, on that occasion, was not so much a protest-tool but a spiritual cleansing. There was something that was flowing through me. During the protest, the police banged me to the floor (after not having food for nine days). ‘Forgive them for they know not what they are doing,’ is what flashed through my heartmind. The real Jesus and Gandhi came together then.”

Nonviolence in protest led to other aspects of ahimsa. “I still remember the first smell and explosion of the juiciness of a peach that I broke my fast with. (I offered it to the cop first, to share my fast-breaking with him.) That is when I became vegetarian. That is when I started started feelthinking more seriously about ahimsa what I ate, what clothes I wore, what things I said, what thought I had…”

[Around this time, Pancho also met Audrey and through Nagler, Nipun.]

“At this point I was not meditating regularly, just sitting for about 15 minutes, and then going for a wander in the woods. I was reading and inspired by the book, “Seven Masters, One Path” by John Selby. I was house-less. Audrey would bring me hot oatmeal every time we met. Nipun visited the Metta Center --where Audrey and I were volunteering-- and we had long beautiful conversation. I was getting a lot more into asking, ‘How do we practice real Satyagraha?’”

An opportunity arose: Nagler helped get a flavor of Gandhi’s Satyagraha for a protest against the cutting of some beautiful old trees, a mini-urban-forest at the UC Berkeley campus. “A group of us tree-sat. We lived in those trees for close to two years, protecting them from being cut down. I would hold meetings in the trees!” “Michael taught us so much. For example, to have written nonviolent agreements/discipline, then it is ok if you are breaking the law of men, but are following the rule of love.”

Pancho started learning yoga (on a platform on top of the trees), eating healthy vegetarian food. But, he says, “My model of ahimsa was incomplete. We knew the Satyagraha, we knew the food and exercise, etc., but we didn’t know the economics of it.” “That’s when I learnt of gift-ecology from Nipun. And then we went to the Kindness Temple, (Nipun’s parents house in Santa Clara), and it was all over for me!” he says with a laugh.

~

In 2007, Michael Nagler was awarded the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for ‘Promoting Gandhian Values Outside India’. Five of his students, including Pancho --who was not an “official” student-- accompanied Nagler to the part of the Planet we call India. They meditated at Sevagram. Pancho was reading Gandhi’s book, ‘Satyagraha’. He says, “Reading about Gandhi’s train rides, meeting the residents of Wardha and the Pavnar Ashram… Seeing Michael tearing up at Sevagram. I was so moved by it all. The essence of the silence, the beauty – it was beyond words. Later the effects of these experiences come up…. Whoooosh!”

He remembers really feeling, “Mother Earth, and this particular piece of earth [holds so much]… what a movement Gandhi created for all of humanity.”

Gandhi naturally led to Vinobha Bhave. Reading Vinoba Bhave’s writings, especially ‘Science and Self-knowledge’ was another layer in Pancho’s understanding and growth. “After I read it, I had the deep realisation that coming from a scientific point of view, I cannot continue cooperating with such institutions (such as the University of California). True science and violence are not compatible, cannot coexist in the long term. Vinobha says, when there is a violent situation, creativity vanishes.”

~

Our conversation moves to meditation and the role it plays in nonviolence. Pancho remembers going for his first 10-day Goenkaji meditation retreat with Nipun. All the toughness and competitiveness of his tennis days surfaced! “But my first experience of my first hour of absolute stillness was incredible.” The deepening through meditation, realizing that 90% of the work is inside. “Gandhi’s Satyagraha was 1%, just the top. Most of the work was internal.”

“Now I realise all the seeds that were planted when I was 7, 10, 13 years old. It sits inside, sits there quietly and then, at certain times, pops up. You start tapping into the innercosm energy. You realise why people (who really go internal), don’t brag about things.”

“I began putting together silence, science, heart, nonviolence. What if we could ignore politics, country-borders and have a new Renaissance of Humanity? Why don’t we have the Earth as one family? What does a citizen of the world look like in the 21st century? It is soooo old [this way of thinking and acting], that it looks new,” he says with a big smile.

We learn as we do. Pancho says, “If we look at Buddha, if we look at Gandhi, they practiced consistently in small ways. So, I started doing Silent Mondays 12 years ago, and then I realized, ‘Hmmmm…. This is why you do it.’”

“To live by offering your heart to the ‘oppressor’ – truly, openly, in a way that the other person actually feels it. And they are moved by it. It is a powerful moment.”

“Gandhi said the charkha was at the centre of the Indian freedom movement. Today, it is is organic, local food (externally) and meditation/prayer (internally).”

“The Earth is but one country and all living beings her citizens. That is Jai Jagat.”

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Comments (10)

  • Ragunath wrote ...

    We should all nominate Pancho for Nobel price for Astro-Physics. Of course the Nobel selection team will require some deep data to see the science in his life, but we can provide that, beginning with this article. Thanks Suchi!

  • Nisha Srinivasan wrote ...

    Thanks Suchi for capturing so much of the Pancho spirit in words.

  • Vinod Eshwer wrote ...

    Raghu, is the word "price" an intended pun, or is it an error of astro-nominational proportions :) 

  • Kishan Laddha wrote ...

    Beautiful :) Thanks Suchi didi for capturing and sharing with us. There are so many layers of the resident of this space suit called Pancho, these days traveling across country called India on this planet earth...Thanks for unfurling!

  • Shyam Gupta wrote ...

    Beautiful Sharing Suchitra. Pancho is just so much of an Amazing person.

  • Kozo Hattori wrote ...

    Beautiful Suchitra. I wish we could share this interview with the whole world. Such an important piece in a time of need.

  • Abid Ali wrote ...

    Thankyou Suchi for amazingly capturing late evening spent with Pancho in the kutti.

  • Pankaj Shah wrote ...

    Thank you, Suchitra! Enlightening and inspiring to get to know Pancho better through your effort of capturing this.

  • Amita wrote ...

    Brilliant! The lovely journey of Pancho shareded so evocatively. Very happy with the path you are following Suchi! God bless you..

  • Rev. Heng Sure wrote ...

    May the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and all the devas and Dharma-protectors continue to protect brother Pancho as he witnesses for the path of compassion on the front lines.