New York • August 7, 2015
by Bill Davis
John Schlenck was one of the finest human beings I have ever known. John lived the life of a monk but lived this life without formal vows. He was a picture of the virtues and practices taught by the Ramakrishna Order as the means to attain God. I feel very honored and joyful that I had the privilege of being his good friend for over forty years.
My first contact with John was his music. I was brand new to Vedanta. It was 1972. It was the first time I had come for a Sunday talk. As I sat in the chapel waiting to hear Swami Pavitrananda speak, John began playing, on a keyboard, a slow movement from some piece of music from the Baroque era, as he did for decades until his departure for Atlanta in the fall of 2013. I love Baroque music and I was very pleased to hear it played so well. To me that music has an inherent spiritual quality. I thought to myself, “Here’s a kindred spirit.” And indeed he was.
Another member I became very aware of from the start was Bill Conrad whom I would question mercilessly. It turned out that John and Bill were dinner partners and soon they invited me to join them for dinner prior to the Tuesday evening service. One of the first teachings I read was the importance of holy company. And here it was. I had the darshan of Swami Pavitrananda and I had the company of these two dedicated souls. We would always talk about spiritual life and what an encyclopedic knowledge John had. These evening dinners continued until John left for Atlanta. I was always impressed by John’s strong dedication to spiritual life, his good judgment, his modesty, and the moderation of his habits. I was also impressed by his steady calm mood and his generous attitudes. Here was a noble soul. I could always depend on his wise advice and his kind support when I was going through a difficult period.
Gradually I began to understand just how crucial John was to the functioning of the New York Vedanta Society. He came in 1958 at age 22 and soon after that moved into a room on the top floor named the Sarada Kutir. I believe he gave it that name. What didn’t he do? First of all, music in all its many manifestations, the mailing list, the monthly bulletin, the actual mailing, ordering books for the book table, putting them away when they arrived, keeping the library, tending the garden and the plants, being the personal assistant to Sw. Pavitrananda, being secretary of the Vedanta Society for decades, arranging for workers to come and make repairs, and many other things that I have forgot. In a word he was a wonderful karma yogi. He never expected praise. He did the work out of love for God.
One funny memory: John had terrible allergies. Mold was his enemy. He, another dinner mate, Richard Murphy, and I went, for some years, for an annual walk in nature. Richard would tease and say, “This is such a satvic activity.” There is a song
In dense darkness, O Mother, Thy formless beauty sparkles,
Therefore the yogis meditate in a dark mountain cave.
I had the idea one year that we would go deep into a cave and John would recite the words of this song. He and Richard agreed. We climbed down to the bottom of Bull Mine northwest of NYC. There John had an allergic sneezing attack from the mold as he struggled to speak the words “In dense darkness.” After he finished we sat for a few minutes with our flashlights turned off but the mold was getting to John so we didn’t stay long. Richard: “Bill, this was such a stupid idea.”
Now music: Inspired by the lives and teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swamiji, Maharaj, and the Vedantic and other scriptures John composed music for the weekly service. The choir book is filled with his compositions. He studied Indian music and his compositions often showed an Indian quality. With his musical gifts he was able to put to notation the many Indian songs he heard here and in India. The choir book is also full of them. He also created original music for the 4th of July Vivekananda festival every year since from its inception in 1961 to 2013, 52 years. After composing, he would rehearse the performers, and at the actual performance would sing, play the keyboard, and conduct the performance all at the same time. I had the pleasure of being one of the performers for the festival and for the last six or seven years before he left I had the great joy of collaborating with him. I would write a play with lyrics for songs and he would compose the music. The music he wrote so well caught the spirit of the words. In the summer of 2014 he came and sat in the audience. He said he thoroughly enjoyed himself to not have on his shoulders the responsibility of the performance—his only job being to listen.
I love his music. It is modern but delicious. In his music John’s soul is palpable. I was a friend but also one of his fans. Just as an example, one of his creations was a recording of the first chapter of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna for the VS of Toronto. Different people played the various parts. He created music for the four songs that appear in that chapter and performed them. It was wonderful. This got him writing music for the English versions of the songs found in the Gospel and recently he released them, sung by him, in a CD called All That Exists Art Thou. Listen to his performance of these songs and you will hear what a bhakta John was. I also want to mention that the celebration of the hundred-year anniversary of the New York Vedanta Society in 1994 was almost entirely something John gave to the society. He composed the music, A Prophet for Our Time, he hired the musicians, and he rented Alice Tully Hall where we enjoyed the performance.
John, a child prodigy, graduated from the Eastman school of music and for years he supported himself by improvising music for dance classes of prominent New York City dance companies. Later he came into some money from his family and decided to try to help spread Vedanta through music and the written word. He has left a treasure trove of compositions with Vedantic themes, mainly vocal music with instrumental back up. Many of these first saw the light of day at the 4th of July. He also left a great deal of instrumental music that he got recorded and is also available on cd. You can see the full range of his music by going to his web site. Just Google his name.
To spread vedanta by the written word, in 1995 he began publishing American Vedantist, a quarterly journal of interest to the Western spiritually oriented reader. By the time of his death there had been 69 issues. For the final year it has been published online. But not only Western readers. Swami Bhajanananda, a trustee of our order and assistant General Secretary, was one of its avid readers and was sorry that it was no longer to be published as a print journal. Browse the back issues of American Vedantist and you will see what a jnani he was. It is my ardent hope that the journal will continue without John.
I missed him so much when he moved to Atlanta. But then I felt very glad to know that the move was a good one for him. He was quite happy there and the people of the Atlanta center felt like they had received a wonderful gift by having his company. For me his move was a first stage of mourning. I would talk to him now and then and email but it was not like seeing him regularly. And now he is gone completely, gone into another realm. I trust he is in a very good place.
John, Thank you for being a great friend and a great role model.