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THE INTERNET behemoth Google recently paid a rare tribute to a cultural icon who is ironically little admired by the generation that most uses the web. It celebrated John Lennon’s 70th birthday on October 9 by having its logo changed to a doodle that had a sketch of the Beatle, with his famous grandpa spectacles.

Clicking the logo triggered an animation of an idyllic scene, and the playing of Lennon’s greatest song “Imagine.”

And then a week later, UN goodwill ambassador Lea Salonga, sang the song at the World Food Day celebration in Rome, with the line perfect for the occasion: “Imagine a world without hunger. It’s easy if you try.”

“Imagine” was voted the greatest song in the last 100 years in several polls in Canada, Australia and the United States. Interviewed in Nicaragua in 2006 during a crucial elections there, former US President Jimmy Carter said: “In many countries around the world—my wife and I have visited about 125 countries—you hear John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ used almost equally with national anthems.”

That’s getting close to Lennon’s shocking quote, “We’re more popular than Jesus.” Egoistic as that may have seemed, there’s some truth there in that his and the Beatles’ songs had a bigger role in molding the ethos of the youth of the 1970s than the New Testament.

“Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”

That line turbo-charged Lennon’s earlier “(All We Are Saying,) Give Peace a Chance,” the anthem of the anti-Vietnam War movement, sang by half a million marchers in Washington in 1969, which historians say was the tipping point for America’s decision to end its war of aggression. That Lennon played a crucial role in the peace movement is reflected in the fact that then President Richard Nixon mobilized all the resources of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Bureau to throw him out of America.

“Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger. A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.”

“Imagine” was released in 1971, in the era of the Woodstock Festival, anti-war protests, the hippies, the youth revolts in the US and France, and in our case the inappropriately-called “First Quarter Storm,” said to be the template for the People Power revolts of 1986 and 2001.

In contrast to current times, when the most popular singers sing of absurd themes or sexual fantasies, here was the pop icon, calling the generation away from a selfish, materialistic life to one devoted to noble ideals of working for the brotherhood of man and the struggle against greed and hunger. More than Marx’s “Das Kapital” or Mao’s “Little Red Book,” those lines moved many young Filipinos’ emotions (including mine) towards the movement against the Marcos dictatorship, and even towards the Communist Party of the Philippines.

(Unfortunately though, the prescient lyrics of Lennon’s “Revolution” didn’t catch on: “You tell me it’s the institution. Well, you know, you better free your mind instead… If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”)

“Imagine there’s no Heaven. It’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today.”

The line expressed Lennon’s rejection of the type of institutionalized religion based on selfish emotions of fear of eternal third-degree burns in the Christian hell, and desire for rewards—among others, 72 virgins—in the Muslim version of heaven.

It signaled the start of his interest in Eastern spiritual traditions, after his and George Harrison’s meetings with the guru Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi of the Transcendental Meditation movement. Indeed, one of Lennon’s under-rated contributions to contemporary culture is that he jumpstarted the West’s interest in Eastern meditative traditions.

To be sure, there were already Eastern-religion groups in the West then, mainly Hare Krishna, Ananda Marga, the San Francisco Zen groups started by D.T. Susuki, the circle of Jiddu Krishnamurti in England.
The Beatle’s involvement with the Maharishi in 1967 however all of a sudden made Eastern spirituality the in-thing for the generation that idolized them. It was like the impact—but a thousand times more powerful—of Madonna becoming an adherent of Kabbalah, or Oprah Winfrey of Eckhart Tolle. (By the way, Tolle’s best-selling “Power of Now” was presaged by Lennon’s “living-for-today” line.)

And after Lennon left the guru, young Americans and Europeans—even a Filipina, Gina Lopez of that powerful clan—were backpacking all over India looking for their gurus and joining ashrams. It certainly inspired me to move from book-learned hatha yoga, to a group of kriya yoga practitioners, and then in the mid-1970s, to the extremely controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho.

Now, California rather than Japan is said to be Zen’s home now, while many acclaimed Hindu spiritual teachers live in Europe. Yoga has been estimated to be a $6-billion industry of accredited yoga schools, instructional DVDs, magazines, and even clothing. Despite the commercialization, Eastern spirituality has enriched Western culture, even to the extent, some say, of starting to replace institutionalized Christianity.

Sadly, lacking the equivalent of a Lennon as a pop idol, today’s youth is spiritually impoverished. There are certainly no lofty ideals sang by Lady Gaga or Justin Timberlake. In sharp contrast, Lennon in an all-time best-selling song of just a hundred words encapsulated what a human being should live for: the external task of social commitment, and the internal work of spiritual development.

“I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer