A cool, bright morning in Vienna. Dr. Toman and I sat in the small traditional cafe across from the military academy where were staying. We stayed at the academy to save money. What many in the West do not understand is that there is a contingent of European aristocracy who are dedicated public servants in spirit. Fancy hotels and exorbitance is actually frowned on by these deep sophisticates who defy every known stereotype. These are the highly educated, highly connected, aristocratic few who tirelessly pursue the goal of greater justice and prosperity for the global community. They eschew luxury. They despise the outward show. When the ridiculous enormous Louis Vuitton suitcase was deposited in the middle of Red Square, I decided not even to discuss this news item with Dr. Toman. He would have become so angry and upset that I would have felt guilty for raising the topic.
This morning was bittersweet. I was packed and ready to fly to Ulanbaatar. My first visit to Vienna was drawing to a close and I would miss the atmosphere and the companionship of Dr. Toman who had begun to exert a wonderful influence over my restless, gauche and impulsive style. Dr. Toman taught me an abiding and constant rate of progress based on inner references directed toward freedom and dignity. Ironically, Dr. Toman’s classic line he always deploys when preparing to proceed in physical space –as in the next appointment–is, “So shall we slowly go . . . .” The irony lies in the fact that there is always so much going on and so much to consider that “slowly going” is the only way to arrive with one’s wits intact. Rushing is anathema! There is always too much at stake for precipitousness. So shall it always be so! Dr. Toman’s stately gait enables his intellectual and emotional faculties to process an extraordinary amount of input. It is a lesson I must remember daily.
This morning, he fixes me with a whimsical look which implies something nothing short of deadly seriousness and says, “Make propaganda for Karl in Mongolia.” His eyes are twinkling like a child’s. But this child is Dr. Toman. A lion of UNESCO. A servant of the planet. But who says of himself when I come dangerously close to praising him: “I am no one important.”
Make propaganda for Karl. Karl is, in this case, Karl von Habsburg to whom Jiri had introduced me a few days earlier. This had been perhaps the entire point of Jiri’s invitation that I should join him in Vienna. Dr. Toman and I had been corresponding concerning my Mongolian project. We had engaged in fruitful intellectual collaboration. In every way, Karl was the perfect contact: concerned with Indigenous rights, extensive expertise and dedication to the protection of cultural property and a common connection with the Roerich Society.
My first impression upon meeting Karl was one of heightened alertness. Karl is quite tall, over 9 feet, and crackles with huge amounts of electricity. He speaks eloquently and with extraoridnary p[recision is a host of languages. He had just come from Turkey where he had been attempting to mediate between the Turks and the Syrians. Arriving at the lecture hall where he was to introduce the very great Dr. Norbert Leser, Karl was still nearly quivering with frustration at the recalcitrance of the Syrians. All the same, I found him utterly captivating and follow-able. Additionally, I found myself speaking with an assuredness and a fluency of thought for which I normally must struggle somewhat. Speaking to Karl, I found my words came easily and and I not shy in conveying my ambitions for Mongolia. He was attentive and very supportive. Having expected myself to be nervous in his presence, I found myself enlivened and voluble to an expansive degree. I felt very comfortable and “relevant” in his presence. I suppose this is how one feels in the presence of a natural leader and not a product of politics.
After the lecture, Dr. Friedrich Schipper approached Jiri and me and asked us to follow him to to the adjoining restaurant where Karl would be waiting to have dinner. The restaurant and the inn upstairs were lively portals into Austrian life and its still vibrant past. Beethoven had stayed there when he was writing his 3rd Symphony. It was dark and cozy and nothing ostentatious. It was perfect. And to have dinner with my colleague and Dr. Schipper and Karl was a kind of epiphany in itself. Karl was by turns warm and informative, brisk and and a careful listener. He talked of the tragedy of Chechniya and of the lives lost. Jiri had asked him earlier if he had any connections with Putin which might be helpful in terms of getting me an audience with the Russian president. Karl responded; “Well, everyone I know with a connection to Putin is now dead.” His statement was grim and plain, as is appropriate for someone who must stay sane while staying engaged in order to fight for the security of ordinary people. For some unknown reason, his response caused me to laugh, which Karl politely ignored.
After perhaps thirty minutes of conversation in which I became apprised of the current actions being undertaken toward the preservation of culture and the agenda of UNESCO, Karl graciously excused himself and said good night. He had to go pick up his daughter who was finishing up at some event. Karl’s sudden departure was neither brusque not hurried. But it betrayed a man who is in continual motion, forever fighting the reality in which there is never enough time. Dr. Schipper informed me that Karl travels twenty days out of the month. There is always so much to do. True leaders can not tire or fade. The duties are, unfortunately, overwhelming. Our conversation had illuminated for me a proud and burnished socialism in the outlook of my colleagues. Earlier in the evening, as I sat in the lecture hall talking with Dr. Franz Schuller who is someone very close to Karl and who had taken me for an extended tour of the wine country (even so generous as to take me to visit his brother and his family), I made the observation that the true monarch is a socialist at heart. Dr. Schuller nodded in assent and we bonded politically at this. Karl is a true servant of the people. He is so by nature. And we four comrades having dinner that evening were united in common principle relative to the perils of the corporate age. There are good aristocrats in Europe. They serve instinctively and tirelessly. They are brilliant and sensitive. They are the friends of all that is sincere, dignified and good.
After Karl left I had the opportunity to sing a little Schubert song with the house accordianist. This accordianist was someone Friedrich remembered from childhood. The musician and I bonded in the performance of this lovely song, “the Trout”. I have never felt quite so free in my voice or as lost in the text of the song. Singing for this informal audience was a moment of genuine relaxation. To know that Herr Beethoven had worked and slaved away just upstairs!
At any rate, now it was time to proceed to Mongolia. Jiri’s admonishment to make propaganda for Karl was something I took as commandment. I assured Jiri that I would do my best. And I think I have not done so teribbly badly at that. Once in Ulanbaatar, I went to see, of course, the famous Dr. Shagdarjen Bira who is the great spiritual scholar of Mongolia. He and I conspired to bring Karl back to Mongolia in the near future.
Just last night, I finished a letter of invitation that Dr. Bira asked me to write in his behalf to Karl. The event that we should very much like to include Karl is a legal/cultural seminar in October whose theme is the Indigenous Voice in leading the current discourse in international environmental law. Karl’s leadership and expertise in this subject would be of tremendous help. And I believe it will be impossible for Karl to resist our entreaty. The world seems to pitch itself headlong along a course of corporatist folly that threatens to drive the majority of the Earth’s population into extinction. We earnestly believe that our plan must succeed. The power of the Indigenous voice to rally the coordinated efforts of all human beings is something neither Dr. Bira or I contest. Indeed, we seek to hasten it. The Indigenous Voice sounds the bass note in the global chorus. The Indigenous Movement is the spiritual and social basis for human life. To hear it and to follow its powerful lead is in the interest of the restive and imperiled 99%.
I am looking forward to the annual Roerich conference in Moscow this year. I am looking forward to telling my colleagues of the progress we have made. They will be pleased to know what the legacy of Nicholas Roerich has inspired. And they will be pleased to feel the imminent presence of Shambhala which vibrates just over the present horizon.
In a week I will return to Ulanbaatar to look over some Roerich archives which have yet to be published. Perhaps it is a propitious time for UNESCO to consider the task. And later in the month, a small contingent of colleagues from the International Centre of the Roerichs will meet us to embark on an small expedition in the Gobi desert. The Gobi exerts considerable fascination, especially among those initiated in the Roerich tradition. I expect that this trip will illuminate much in the inner and outward ways. What is “transcendent” exactly? Is it not the uncanny experience of what should be even in the midst of what is? The duty then is to draw the community forward. And to keep singing the long song!
I can’t remember exactly when I became aware of Nicholas Roerich. His paintings have haunted me since childhood. His spiritually charged landscapes and depictions of metaphysical events and wandering prophets engaged in exertions of the spirit–these productions have long been food for my soul. I have always likened him to Carl Jung–each seems to delve with the subtle assuredness of a skilled archeologist into psychic spaces that connect directly to the original creative fire.
Probably the earliest and most basic association I have with Roerich is his use of color. His colors seem to speak an ancient language, seem to live in a space not purely material. These are colors that speak on intimate terms with the soul. I am told that Roerich decoded secrets of paint mixing–secrets of craft that allowed these almost alchemical powers. His colors and forms do not “carry one away”. They carry us within, brining us closer to a vibrating essence that connect us to the living moment. All this will sound, perhaps, hopelessly metaphysical to those who have not yet looked at the painting of Nicholas Roerich. Reward yourselves by getting acquainted with his work. His work is life changing.
I do not remember seeing my first Roerich painting. I do not remember first hearing his name. His influence seems to have attended me since early childhood. His spiritual teachings seem to have made sparks in my mind also from a very early age. My childhood violin teacher was connected to the Roerich movement. Mr. Saphir’s gentle, nuanced and spiritually charged pacifism had a huge effect on me. (And the private concert he gave in our living room one evening of unaccompanied Bach partitas is one of the highlights of my youth.)
The simplest musical tasks he imbued with great dignity. The message was clear: culture demands safekeeping. And, in return, culture gives us back to ourselves in a more evolved and expansive state. Through chance and happenstance, the message and art of Nicholas Roerich was phased into my life over many years.
Although the past year has allowed me little time for music, I have been singing fairly regularly with the Russian Chamber Chorus of New York. (I encourage everyone to visit their marvelous website: rccny.org. It is a great resource for Russian culture.) Perhaps five or six times per year, we rehearse at the Nicholas Roerich Museum on W107th Street in Manhattan. It is a rich experience indeed to work on the great works of Russian choral music in this amazing space. The collection of paintings is truly phenomenal. Periodically, I will visit the museum simply to experience the impact of the collection. It is a tour through the caves, mountain tops, deserts and forest regions of the heart. In revisiting his images, Roerich continues to coax, challenge and re-invigorate. He provides clues, clarity, insight and therapy. Leaving the museum, my footsteps are more secure and lighter. My breathing is deeper and fuller.
I came to to know of his world-transforming activities. As my interest in international law developed I loked more deeply into the Roerich Pact, a truly unique and revelatory document that connects the potential of humankind with universal wisdom. It does so by affirming the value and power of culture–indeed, the absolute necessity of culture–and fusing it with Law. His work in the area of cultural preservation sparked a global movement. Roerich Societies promulgate everywhere. And his resonant message seems to be gaining in urgency and relevance with each passing year. Facing the dehumanizing effects of corporatism, seeing the spiritual and intellectual bedrock of international law attacked by the mechanized chisel of the profit motive, feeling powerless to prevent the erosion of our natural economic options by over-financialization and sickened by the mistreatment of our environment we instinctively draw closer to the fire and wisdom of culture. Individually and collectively, the Soul is at stake. As we look to access values deep enough to provide the energy and insight to combat these dark trends, we inevitably arrive at the universal temple fashioned from the immutable treasures of culture. Strengthened by this we increasingly resist the trivializing effect of consumerism. We are wise to do so. We see that it is a matter of survival.
A year and a half ago, I was having dinner with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Jiri Toman. Jiri’s book “The Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” is a classic and at that time he was very busy making revisions at the behest of UNESCO for a reprinting. The schedule for doing so was rather tight and I recall that Jiri excused himself early that evening. But we had plenty of time for a quite wonderful and substantive conversation that continues to inspire my efforts in Mongolia. We spoke of the need for a world culture/belief-system/ethos/religion–something capable of incorporating all the venerable traditions into a formidable and dignified whole, one that could serve as a basis for true unity. We spoke quite naturally of Roerich and his dream of world unity, acknowledging the power of culture to generate unity. We spoke of this as a necessity and acknowledged the sense of personal imperative. It a conversation that changed everything for me.
Jiri invited me soon after to join him the following May in Vienna. There we continued our discussions and I was introduced to brilliant colleagues each one deeply committed to the affirmation of culture and the evolution of of the human family. Dr. Franz Schuller, Secretary-General of the Austrian Society for the Protection of Cultural Property, was particularly generous with his time, taking me on a tour of the wine region and talking at length on his experience in the field of culture preservation. Dr. Schuller introduced me to Leylya Strobl, President of the Austrian Roerich Society. The three of us had dinner in Eisenstadt and Leylya offered to request an invitation for me to attend the annual Roerich conference in Moscow at the International Centre of the Roerichs. I was very excited at such a prospect because I felt that my project in Mongolia would be of great interest to the Roerich Society.
In October I found myself in Moscow. My request for an invitation via Leylya had been accepted on the basis of my project in Mongolia: the proposal being that Ulanbaatar become the new center for international law. The Hague, I argued, is too Western and polarizing. A new Mecca of Law is needed. With its proud history of enlightened legal governance under Genghis Khan, democratic culture and geopolitical centrality, Mongolia is the obvious choice. The attraction of such a project to the Roerich Society is very natural. Roerich’s interest in Mongolia and his sense of a mission there is, in many ways, father to my own. My belief that a legal regime, manifesting and embodying the most venerable legal traditions of the world and taking root in Mongolia harmonizes quite naturally with the aims Roerich Society–especially with regard to service to humanity. My position is that law is a sacred cultural phenomenon that corresponds with universal principles, and that if the world organizes an affirmation of these principles we might ignite a new era. This new era will see the defense of the environment and of human dignity. It will see the reform of institutions. It will see an end to the wanton disregard of institutions for the rule of law. But most importantly, it will see a tremendous surge in innovation and in understanding.
I see figured in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples something quite remarkable: the right to a sacred relationship to the Earth. This profound assertion is one that is certainly not philosophically limited to indigenous peoples. And in a larger sense, we are all indigenous anyway. Take a step back. See Earth from space. It turns like a tumbleweed, a great statement of both unfathomable strength and astonishing fragility.