Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Yogis, Zombies and Halloween!

Jesus Christ said, “Let the dead bury the dead!” Uh oh, was he already into zombies long before us?   I think so and let me tell you why.
Zombies DO walk the earth and yes they are all around us! Zombies, the living “dead,” are those apparently human beings who are un-self-aware. They walk around as if dead, doing the same things, saying the same things, day after day. Paramhansa Yogananda called them “psychological antiques!”

We all know some: they repeat the same old opinions, clichés, stories, and trite conversational subjects day in and day out with bluff and bravado. What was good for their parents is good enough for them: religion, race, gender, nationality, occupation and on and on.

The zombie movies simply mimic the great war that is taking place on this planet between those hanging on with zeal and fanaticism to old tribal-like paradigms and those, however confused and lacking of a moral compass they may sometimes be, breaking all barriers (of race, gender, religion, etc.) and taboos handed unconsciously down from the past. Zombies mimic and mock the unthinking, unfeeling state of human consciousness. They are hard to kill because so blind and unconscious that there’s little life in them to begin with.

Werewolves are those people who, like Jekyll and Hyde, flip flop in their character and loyalties, or who are perhaps (effectively, if not officially) manic-depressive, going from one extreme of behavior to another often with little warning. They are easily influenced to the extreme by the moon of negative emotions.

Skeletons warn us of identification and attachment to our physical body, saying, in effect, “Beware to those who live just for today, to ‘eat, drink, and be merry.’” “The time will come when your body, too, becomes but a bag of bones.”

All those monsters, witches, super heroes and temptresses warn us, by their mocking exaggeration, of the foolishness of our own fantasies, fears and excesses.

And last but not least are the ghosts and ghouls flitting about in sheets with holes for eyes shouting “Boo!” Our fear of ghosts reminds us of our fear of death and of the state that lies beyond it. Ghosts also symbolize our past karma returning to haunt us.

Yogis sometimes meditate in graveyards, for not only are such places quiet places to meditate but they serve as stark reminders of our mortality and the transient nature of material existence in human bodies. Medieval monks used to keep a human skull in their cells for the same purpose. Paramhansa Yogananda, too, as a young monk would meditate in such places.

In “Autobiography of a Yogi,” Yogananda’s guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar, told a childhood story of when his own mother tried to scare him by saying there was a ghost in the closet. Yukteswar’s response was to march over to the closet and open the door! So Halloween’s playful summoning of our worst fears offer us a vicarious vehicle for confronting those fears by humorous exaggeration.

If I could revise Halloween, perhaps only for yogis, I would move the date to November 1 – the traditional Christian day of “All Saints,” and have parties where we dress up as saints of east or west to affirm our aspiration and ideals. We could choose that saint who characterizes qualities we aspire towards. We could do readings or act out skits taken from their lives.

Others might prefer to dress up as famous, admirable, and noble characters from history, in science, the arts, governance, medicine or the humanities.

And if some were committed to their ghoulish foolishness, they could, at the party, start out as ghouls and show, by their change of costume and with a little acted out drama, how they would evolve and be transformed into a noble or saintly character.

So perhaps as the modern age evolves, Halloween, too, can move in a more positive and life and soul affirming direction. From its current “hollow” meaninglessness, it could ‘tween times, become truly “hallow.”

May the Holy Ghost be with you this Hallowed time Tween darkness and light.

Nayaswami Hriman

Monday, October 26, 2015

To Whom Do We Pray?

As it was commonly said during World War II, "There are no atheists in foxholes." Most pray when in need though whom exactly they address is often secondary to their desperation.

You've heard the joke about the Irishman who was late for a job interview in Dublin with Microsoft and couldn't find a parking place? He prayed, "Lord Jesus Christ and Mother Mary, help me find a parking place and I'll go to church on Sunday instead of O'Reilly's Pub." Suddenly an empty space appeared and he said, "Oh, never mind, I've got one, thanks." That reminds me of the kind of prayers I said as a child when I knew I was in trouble. I was no more faithful to my pledges than that Irishman.

A story told in India is of a disciple who was inspired by his guru's complete dependence and surrender to God for protection and sustenance in all matters. The next day this disciple is walking along a forest path and behind him he hears someone shouting, "Watch out, get out of the way, this elephant is running wild!"

Blissful (and ignorant) in the "safety" of God's omnipresent protection in all matters, the disciple ignores the shouts and continues walking. The elephant, bearing down upon him, throws him roughly into the bushes with a flick of his trunk. Bruised and battered the man returns to his guru's ashram confused and hurt. "But, my son," the guru explained, "God DID speak to you through the mahoot (elephant driver): "Get out of my way!"

We are all better at praying for (usually) minor material desires or needs than listening for God's answer or feeling the divine presence as an act of devotion. It is no coincidence that on the path of Self-realization only upon taking discipleship to Yogananda and his line of gurus is one taught the technique of "Aum" whereby, using a special mudra and arm rest, one is able (with practice and with concentration) to hear the Aum sound and other subtle sounds (of the chakras). Most of us are great talkers but poor listeners! Listening is the hallmark characteristic of one who enters onto the spiritual path consciously and with deep sincerity. Offering up our attachment to our own likes and dislikes in favor of the daily practice of asking for guidance and seeking attunement, one gradually becomes a true disciple.

But how, then, should we attune ourselves to God? How can we love someone or something that we do not yet know? In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, the archetypal disciple, asks his guru, Lord Krishna, "What is the best approach to God: with devotion to God in some form, or, striving to realize the Infinite beyond all form?" Mind you, now, this question appears in the text just after  Arjuna has this mind-blowing experience of "Krishna" as the Infinite Spirit! At the end of that experience, Arjuna pleads with Krishna to return to his familiar, human form! It was simply too much!

Krishna's response is appropriately personal and comforting--not just to Arjuna--but to you and I. He says that for embodied souls, the way of devotion ("I-Thou" relationship) is far easier. Rare is that soul who, striving assiduously to Self-realization by the formless path of seeking the Absolute, succeeds swiftly. Indeed to such a one, even the practice of meditation is taboo for all efforts in duality are tainted with delusion. Yogananda stated that such rare souls are already highly advanced spiritually.

How does this happen, then? To what form of God should we seek as a doorway to Infinity? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that to one who sincerely and with intensity seeks to find God there comes to him that perfect form of God, suited to the soul's special needs, called the Ishta Devata, to lead the soul to freedom. As the adage suggests, "When the disciple is ready the guru appears." Down through the ages saints have prayed to God in every admissible form: Father, Mother, Beloved, Friend, Light, Peace, Joy, Love.......forms both personal and abstract, but always some form.

Yet, God has no form. As Jesus put it: "God is a spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." Yes, but.......God manifested creation out of Himself and therefore IS the creation even while hidden BY the creation. God is omnipresent. God is both infinite and untouched by creation and immanent within creation. As Ananda Moyi Ma put it (in the form of a koan): "It is, and it isn't." To quote Ram Gopal Muzimdar in "Autobiography of a Yogi, [God is] "all pervading, eh?" Yes but that philosophically correct point is not personally all that useful (witness the devotee and the rogue elephant).

This is one reason we each need our own wayshower; another reason is simply that "tat twam asi": you are THAT! We, each one of us, is also a potential Christ, Krishna, Buddha or Yogananda. God is very personal where we are concerned for God has manifested himself AS us but we have yet to perfect our realization of that profound and ego-shattering fact. Because "heaven is within you" (to quote Jesus Christ) we must perforce begin right where and who we are!

Just as we identify with our physical form and personality, with our race, religion, gender, nationality, age, talents, upbringing, family characteristics and much more, therefore it is more natural for us to gradually refine our self-definition and to seek to transform every lower identification to an increasingly expanded form which, at every present point along the way, is necessarily "Other."

[The other direction of our efforts can be to annihilate the ego but this contractive approach, while equally valid, is contrary and contraindicated for most of us owing to the expansive direction of consciousness innate to the age in which we live. This was the hallmark characteristic of spirituality in the former, "Kali," age wherein sincere spiritual aspirants left the world for caves, forests and monasteries in order to achieve any measure of God realization in their lives.]

There's another angle, moreover, to the need to focus our devotion on that which is "Other." And that is the need for concentration in meditation. Concentration in meditation is both a prerequisite and a result. To pray deeply, therefore, we need to have some form to concentrate on? Otherwise, the mind becomes vague if it has no notion of what it seeks to know or unite with.

Yes, it is true that we are not our self-definitions nor is God limited by the form that appeals and inspires us, but, to use an expression from India, "Use a thorn to remove a thorn." On the spiritual path, then, God as "Thou" becomes the oarsman in the boat that takes us across the river of delusion to the shore of Infinite bliss. Achieving Self-realization, we transcend all forms when "Knower, knowing, known" become One.

Our Ishta Devata is like the gravitational pull of a planet that a spaceship that uses to propel it further along in its journey deeper into space.

As God IS the creation so any form will, strictly speaking, suffice for our spiritual journey. However (and there's always a "but" in duality), praying to a sacred alligator is far less likely to uplift us into superconsciousness than praying to a true guru, saint, or avatar! As Paramhansa Yogananda once put it (wryly), "Stupid people will never [sic] find God." (Well, so long as they ARE stupid!)

A more practical point relates to our love of nature and desire for harmony in and with the natural world. Nature, in her mineral, vegetable and animal forms, contains qualities which we admire: calmness, sensitivity, beauty, grace, strength, intelligence and many more qualities. Yet nature is SUB-conscious and, while inspiring to us, not yet self-aware. A saint is awakened in God and a savior is one with God! So while nature's admirable qualities can inspire us with gratitude we cannot "find" God through a form which is not yet self-aware, what to mention God-conscious! Let our love of nature be God-quality-reminding!

In "Art and Science of Raja Yoga," by Ananda's founder, Swami Kriyananda, "It's not what we love but how purely we love." The natural emphasis upon our special form of devotion (Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, etc.) is what can create fanaticism or dogmatism. Better to focus on refining and expanding the love of God in our chosen form to include all beings, all life than to place exclusive emphasis on the uniqueness of that form. In God all are equal, whether or not the roles they play seem greater or lesser on the stage of human history.

It is helpful, therefore, to recall the story from the life of Krishna where his adopted mother, Yasoda, tries to tie up the naughty boy Krishna but finds that every piece of rope she uses is always just TOO short! We cannot define or contain in form that which is beyond form. Nor can we, in duality, "see" God (or limit God to) any one of the divine forms of the great God-realized saviors, or avatars, on earth.

Someone once asked Paramhansa Yogananda, "Where does all spiritual striving end? "It ends in endlessness," the great guru replied!

We grow in stages: we begin to admire, love, and emulate goodness and virtue. We hear God spoken of in scripture, books, and, in time, from the lips of God-fired messengers. We seek to know God for ourselves and He responds by sending to us one who knows and shows the way. We go within to "find" Him and discover "tat twam asi:" We are THAT!

Joy to you,

Swami Hrimananda

Monday, October 19, 2015

Ananda & SRF: Part 5 - What the Future May Hold

Since these posts appear in reverse order, scroll down the blog page and at the very bottom is a link that says "Older posts" on that to find the first two articles. Sorry for the inconvenience. Next time I'll post last first.

Part 5 - Conclusion: What the Future May Hold

I cannot separate my Ananda life experience from my thoughts here, but I do feel that my visit to the SRF shrines gave me some deeper insight and appreciation for our fellow SRF gurubhais and for the differences between SRF and Ananda.

The SRF shrines need to be stewarded, preserved and protected. Ananda members need, in our communities, to support ourselves as we share the teachings and serve our guru’s nonsectarian work. To do this, we must build meditation and yoga centers, residential communities, retreat centers, publish books, create schools for children, and much more. All of this must, by the necessity of our material circumstances and by the necessity of our own ideals, must come from the efforts and support of our own members. We have never had, nor would it have been good or right for us to have had, an endowment.

So naturally, and without regard to our past differences, we express and share PY's teachings with different styles. Yet, when I think of those monastics who are truly living the life, I see the same twinkle of joy and vibration of wisdom that we were blessed to have in Swami Kriyananda. 

Even in his will and written legacy, Swami Kriyananda enjoins Ananda members to hold in respect and love SRF: its leaders, members, and monastics. He wants us to be open to cooperate with SRF, if ever the opportunity is found, as equals and with mutual love and respect. Each will remain independent and separate; each must be focused on our respective dharma and special manner of expression, forged in and by the crucible of our own history and training.

It is not easy for those of the conflict generation to forget, forgive and reconcile. Like a grease stain on a white shirt, it will never entirely be the same. Time may heal by the anesthesia of forgetfulness or the ignorance of future generations, but for those who experienced the years of conflict, it is difficult to erase the scars of wounds forged and incurred on the battlefield of the past.

And yet, it will happen. It IS happening. We ARE devotees of a great master. "Only love will take my place," PY told us. There is no other way. Ironically, this phase may be the real spiritual test, greater even than the battles of the past (where black and white were crystal clear, each according to his point of view)! But it must and will take place. It takes place, however, person to person. Institutional memories are long and, well, “institutionalized.” The hard shell of past portrayal will only be cracked by softened, attuned individual hearts and souls, warmed by the sunshine of the guru’s grace and wisdom.

This pilgrimage showed me the truth that this forgiveness and reconciliation will come and is taking place. The pace or form of it is certainly not mine to know, but of its progress, even if halting or taking two steps back before progressing again, I have no doubt. This, I feel, is a blessing I have received from our pilgrimage, and it is a grace at least as great as the spiritual vibrations of my guru felt at the SRF, sacred shrines, for, in fact, there is no difference.

Joy to you!

Swami Hrimananda

Ananda & SRF: Part 4 - Swami Kriyananda & Ananda

Part 4 – Swami Kriyananda & Ananda

Not only was Swamiji very young when he came to Master, but the guru was in his final and more withdrawn years of life. Swami himself was inspired by the expansive universality and power of these teachings. But on a personal level he stood, he often told us, in “awe” of his guru. The thought of any form of familiarity was unthinkable. (This did not, apparently, stop the young “Walter” from pestering his guru with many questions.)

Added to this, was the fact that Swamiji’s own dharma and inspiration was to share these teachings. Yogananda had no need, at least from Swamiji, for personal service; others held those roles. Yogananda, in turn, focused his training of the young monk, Walter, who later took the spiritual name, Swami Kriyananda, on the teachings themselves. Within months, the Master appointed Walter in charge of the other, older (and longer term) monks; he soon gave a kriya initiation; began teaching, editing, and writing. He wasn’t even 25 years old!

Thus we find, here also, a difference between SRF and Ananda. The one inclines to view Yogananda more personally with the teachings standing in the (now absent) guru’s stead (in the form of those impersonal, bi-weekly printed lessons); and the other, Ananda, inclined to emphasize the teachings as universal and as having personal and creative application in each person’s daily life. The first generation of SRF leaders seem to have established and accepted the fact that their guru was gone and what remained was for the organization to take on a caretaker role of sharing the teachings of the Master bereft of his magnetic and transforming presence.

The latter, Ananda, by contrast, was conceived and born after the guru was gone and with the mission to experiment and see how to apply those teachings to daily life. This was to be done through the dynamic and very personal vehicle of the “world brotherhood colonies” that Yogananda sowed “into the ether” by his “spoken word” at the garden party in Beverly Hills in 1949. The difference is understandable and not noticeably different in the beginning, but over time, like non-parallel lines, becomes widely divergent. SRF’s removal, after Yogananda’s passing, from the “Aims and Ideals” of SRF of the goal to establish and support world brotherhood colonies follows this distinction just as much as Ananda’s dedication to this ideal supports this divergence.

Yogananda’s many efforts to reach out past the monastic life — establishing a school for children at Mt. Washington, a Yoga University, a world brotherhood colony in Encinitas, a farm, a café, etc. etc. — all were ultimately abandoned. It would be natural for those monastics to consider that he also abandoned the ideals that inspired him to try. (Swami Kriyananda taught us that while it wasn’t the right time in American history for these projects to succeed, Yogananda’s efforts signaled his guidance for future disciples. In part, Kriyananda’s view is based on the simple fact that until his guru’s death in 1952 Yogananda spoke forcefully and frequently about the ideal of communities.)

Returning to my original point, it seems to me that from the very beginning, the SRF monastic experience contained the seeds of "us and them." When many years later SRF became financially endowed, they could at last afford to remain apart from the need to depend upon public acceptance. PY's autobiography has immortalized him in the public mind. This is the Master’s legacy. It also has minimize the need for his SRF children to do more than mostly hold up the “Autobiography” and continue to offer the lessons. (There’s the annual convocation, and travel by the monastics to various centers worldwide, as well. Both of these are primarily offered to its own members.)

The world, like Elvis Presley or the Beatles, would simply have to come to them.

In quite a contrast, Swami Kriyananda founded the first Ananda community in the hectic heyday and backyard of the San Francisco-based hippy movement with its "back-to-the-land" and anti-establishment culture. It was communal in spirit and it was communitarian in form. Though a magnetic spiritual leader, Swami's ("SK") intention was to manifest PY's ideal of intentional communities. It was not simply to create another monastery.

This required a more participatory and involved approach rather than a traditionally hierarchical one. SK never had a financial endowment and from the beginning needed and welcomed the support, commitment and creative contributions of others. I won't go further to describe his enlightened, supportive leadership and wisdom, but suffice to say, by contrast, Ananda's very communitarian mission  required fostering an openness and inclusivity markedly different than that of SRF.

Next article is Part 5 - Conclusion: What the Future May Hold

Ananda & SRF: Part 3 - Our Respective Narratives

Part 3 – Our Respective Narratives

Setting aside any residual feelings between Ananda members and SRF monastics for the battles we once waged against each other, I can understand how card-carrying SRF members might be treated differently from the general public. Members would be disciples; disciples would come on pilgrimage, treating these places as sacred ground, attuning themselves to the vibrations of the guru. Thus the impulse to create and validate membership credentials would arise naturally. And, once a visitor presented his credentials, he might be welcomed more warmly than the many casual visitors.

Even if there had not been a long, drawn out lawsuit or preceding years of SRF displeasure, Ananda members would occupy some kind of middle ground between SRF members and the general public. But given the simple fact of Ananda not being a part of SRF and the reality that Swamiji and Ananda were viewed akin to apostates, it is not surprising that for decades Ananda members who visited these shrines encountered from the hosting monastics mixed and confused signals ranging from welcome to disdain.

Most younger monastics, having little knowledge of or interest in Ananda, or any personal animus toward Swami Kriyananda (whom they never knew), were at least cordial if not welcoming. (If they knew anything at all it would have been presumably negative.)

So, you see: quite apart from our particular and specific challenges with each other, we would have been grouped primarily with the general and unknowing (and “heathen”) general public! Polite, yes…..but….

This idea of Ananda members being “neither fish nor fowl” played itself out in our recent visit. Our hosts were friendly and warm and, as is natural and their training as docents, shared stories of the history of the property we were visiting and stories of Master and his disciples. What they presumably did not know was that the stories (even some of the historical anecdotes) were as well known to us (from Swami Kriyananda) as to them. In some cases they were likely repeating stories told them by others who were much more distant in time from the occurrence of those stories than Kriyananda was (who personally knew Master and heard many stories from him, first hand).

The experience was both surreal and disconnecting. We of course appreciated their sincerity and presumed their innocence but whereas other visitors would be naturally appreciative of the effort, we couldn’t help feel distanced for it made our discipleship invisible (or, worse case, considered of no value).

Another facet of these stories is a distinction we have found commonplace between SRF monastics and Swamiji over many years, many visits, recordings, and publications. Swami rarely told a story of Paramhansa Yogananda that didn’t convey a spiritual lesson applicable not only to himself but to his audience.

By contrast, the stories we heard on our tour, apart from the merely historical ones, portrayed the guru as sweet, charming or otherwise being very human or relating in a human way to his close disciples. The lesson of such stories was at least as much the message that those direct disciples were greatly blessed as how charming or sweet the Master was. But no lesson — useful to us — accompanied the story.

This, too, hints at an even deeper distinction (though not an absolute one) between SRF and Ananda. It has to do with the extent each has inherited a view of Yogananda as either unique or as timeless; as personal or as universal.

The narrative goes something like this: Swami Kriyananda came to Paramhansa Yogananda as a young man, age 22. The other close disciples had, in the case of SRF’s leaders, been with the Master many more years, meeting him not only when they, too, were young but when Master himself was much younger and in a different phase of life. Charming, gracious, a powerful orator, and mixing affably with the low and the high of society…...

It is not surprising that the early and close disciples related to their guru in a more personal manner. Think what they went through together; how small was their group; how personal and particular was the form of service they rendered to him (cooking, cleaning, paying bills, etc.) living in close quarters. None of these were appointed as public teachers as Master was the guru. (Who could possibly represent him adequately!) With few exceptions, he appointed men to public roles and with few exceptions these men betrayed him by taking pride in their roles and even competing with their guru for attention.

Next article is Part 4 – Swami Kriyananda & Ananda

Ananda & SRF - Part 2 - Yogananda comes to America

Part 2 – Paramhansa Yogananda comes to America

So, let's roll back the film of our vision to the early days of Yogananda's life in America. When I look at old photographs of Yogananda ("PY") taken during the 20's and 30's I observe among the many faces that surrounded him people who seem clueless as to the true nature and consciousness of the “Swami” (and avatar) standing beside or in front of them. Not only clueless but many seem positively worldly, even skeptical.

It must have been difficult for him in America. What a "great work" PY had to do to overcome prejudice and to dig deep to find fertile, intuitive souls from the midst of the frenetic and materialistic American culture. There's an oft repeated story that at one lecture, attended by thousands (as most of his lectures were during his "barnstorming" days touring the cities of America), PY was congratulated by a student on the size of the crowd. PY replied, perhaps wryly, "Yes, but........only a handful will take up this teaching."

And, sure enough it was true. PY had to struggle against great odds and crushing indifference and ignorance, to share his message of Self-realization to Americans. Only a small handful became disciples committed to serving his work with him. This small band included those who lived with him at Mt. Washington during those first two decades and a half. During the Depression of the 30’s, he said they grew tomatoes and other vegetables there simply to have enough to eat.

But even during Paramhansa Yogananda’s final years and after his acclaimed autobiography had been published, Swami Kriyananda described Mt. Washington headquarters as a “hotel,” with students checking in and out, as if the guru there didn’t meet their standards! Swamiji quotes Master describing the final days (or years) as including a housecleaning, “many heads will roll,” he stated. And indeed, as Swamiji recounts in his own autobiography (“The New Path”), many monks left. In his lectures, Swamiji would sometimes make the comparison to Jesus’ life when, near the end of his ministry, the Bible says “and many walked with him no more.”

In the book, “American Veda,” by Phillip Goldberg, he describes Paramhansa Yogananda’s innovation to send out mail-order lessons in meditation and philosophy as revolutionary in his generation as was the Sears Roebuck catalog in a prior generation. It made accessible to people at great distances Paramhansa Yogananda’s high spiritual teachings, even kriya yoga  – people who would never, otherwise, have had access to them.

But, it also created a gulf of time and distance between the Master’s close disciples (who printed and sent them out) and the faceless students they served. The very format of the printed lessons, impersonal by necessity, only contributed to the gulf between them.

Thus, it seems to me that from the very beginning of Paramhansa Yogananda’s ministry, there was a chasm between the public and the close disciples. Jesus, too spoke to large crowds, but few, perhaps only the 12, shared his life and served his ministry full-time. While this was presumably no surprise to Paramhansa Yogananda, it could have only engendered confusion, insecurity, fear and doubt, even, perchance, resentment among the close disciples.

Swami Kriyananda, in both writings and lectures, would sometimes explain the many hardships, and, yes, even lawsuits, PY had to endure during his life. Those hardships and betrayals were experienced therefore also by the close-knit spiritual family of the monastic disciples who surrounded and served him, and, who would naturally want to protect him, feeling also the hurts of betrayal and apparently failed ventures.

This gap, then is what I perceived visiting these shrines. The worldly consciousness of those thousands of visitors (at least suggested by their perfect tans and figures and their up-to-date, chic fashions) contrasted with the ego transcendent aspirations of the monastics create a climate not unlike a zoo where each species observes the other with curiosity or indifference (but certainly not understanding or warmth). The monastics who live at these places serve as ushers and docents, greeters and hosts, to the curious general public who appear, day after day, wanting to take from these shrines their beauty but who do not stay, who make no commitment, offer no (or little) support and who may never come back again. The monastics are not unlike museum guards and might easily inclined to be mute and withdrawn.

And, what I know from visiting temples and shrines elsewhere in the world, curiosity seekers (and even lesser devotees) will sometimes pinch items to take home for their collections or private devotions. Relics and furniture must thus be protected in such places. (There were security guards at the Encinitas grounds.)

Next article is Part 3 – Our Respective Narratives

Ananda & SRF: Why so Different?

This begins a five-part series inspired by a recent visit of Ananda members from Seattle to southern California where Paramhansa Yogananda had his home and headquarters from 1925 to 1952. Each segment will be posted separately to be read at one's leisure. (Reminder: my views are entirely my own.)

Part 1 – We Visit SRF Locations in Southern California

I and 30 other members of the Seattle Ananda Sangha spent nearly a week in the greater Los Angeles area visiting the places where Paramhansa Yogananda lived and taught. Swami Kriyananda also lived and taught in most of these same places during the last 3.5 years of Yogananda's life and, between there and India, for another roughly 8 or 9 years following Yogananda's passing in 1952. During this time and before being ousted from Yogananda's organization, Swami Kriyananda was Vice-President and a member of the Board of Directors for some of those years in "SRF."

As most readers of this blog are keenly aware, Ananda was sued by SRF and it took some 12 years for the suit to be put to rest. It cost both parties millions of dollars. Though Ananda was assessed with minor monetary damages for duplicating and selling two audio recordings of Yogananda's voice, Ananda's rights to represent Yogananda's teachings, name, image, etc. were upheld. A book, "Fight for Religious Freedom," authored by Ananda's main attorney, Jon Parsons, details some of the history and issues. But today I am not writing about that long and difficult struggle that has so shaped and focused Ananda's work ever since. This is not an apologist effort, for either side, nor am I focused on any other aspects of Ananda or SRF beyond the topic I describe below.

Last week, then, as we toured the SRF places, I could not help but ask: "Why are we (SRF and Ananda) so different?" This wasn't a “good vs. bad” question. It is a curious and inquiring one. Members of SRF, especially referring now to its monastic members who are the stewards of these shrines, are obviously devoted to Yogananda, practicing the kriya yoga meditation techniques, and sincere in every possible way. Yogananda's living spirit and grace surely brings to them, as much as anyone, and possibly more than to most, the soul awakening and personal transformation that disciples of a great guru seek.

And, in fact, those whom we met, our hosts, were gracious, kind, centered and indeed everything one naturally expects from devotees who are deeply committed.

What, then, do I mean by "different?" To keep my thoughts focused, clear and simple, I would say the differences are typically described as follows: the one (SRF) is more reserved and the other (Ananda) is considered more “open.” The one, SRF, is run by monastics (monks and nuns) and the other (Ananda) includes families, singles, and couples as well as a small contingent of monks and nuns. So the simplified “reserved” vs. “open” fits the picture well enough for my purposes today.

But why? Aren’t we both followers of the same spiritual teacher? Yes, but here’s my theme for this article: I believe that the circumstances of the founding and early history of each organization has influenced the character of each.

As we toured the beautiful gardens at the Encinitas Hermitage on what was a typical weekday, I observed many other visitors besides our tour group. Most visitors did not look especially like disciples. It is the same at the Lake Shrine in Los Angeles, which is better known to the general public and which sits on the outskirts of one of the world’s most populace cities. At both of these wonderful places, one more or less observes a wide range of visitors attracted simply to the beauty, serenity and peace of the place. Based on the testimony of people I’ve met over many years, I believe that many visitors have no idea who Paramhansa Yogananda was (or, if so, only generally), or his teachings or organization.

It was in observing the steady flow of casual visitors that the seed of my thinking was planted.

Before I begin let me say that most of what I learned about the life of Paramhansa Yogananda and the history of SRF was from Ananda’s founder, Swami Kriyananda. Other sources include Yogananda’s own writings and voice recordings, the writings of other direct disciples, my own, personal observations, and the testimony of other Ananda members. I am not going to constantly give resource quotes for the statements I am about to make, as it is a mixture of all of these sources. Beyond these sources I will admit out front that I have very little personal experience or personal contacts with SRF and its members. In my years at Ananda since the late 70’s I’ve had little interest in the personalities, activities, opinions, writings or ministry of SRF leaders or any particular interest in SRF’s organizational activities or policies.

Part 2 – Paramhansa Yogananda comes to America - next article

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Our Visit to the Shrines of Paramhansa Yogananda in Los Angeles!

Last week a group of Ananda members from Seattle flew to southern California to tour the places where Paramhansa Yogananda lived and taught and where, also, our founder, Swami Kriyananda came to live during the last three plus years of Yogananda's life and for another eight or nine years after that.

Our trip began in Encinitas where Yogananda wrote (most of) his now famous life story, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Here, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, are beautiful meditation gardens, the Hermitage itself, and staff and guest quarters. This was the location of Yogananda’s experiment with what he called a “world brotherhood colony:” where people of all walks of life, races, religions, monastic or householder would learn to live and work together. In his time, he grew vegetables and fruits and had a vegetarian café along the Pacific Coast Highway.

We meditated and enjoyed the vibrations of the residue of the many hours of samadhi enjoyed by Master and his most advanced disciple, Rajarshi Janakananda.

We also swam at “Swami’s beach” (the actual name of the state park/beach below the bluffs; so named by the surfers, residents, and fishermen of Encinitas for whom a great love for Master was felt) and ate at the nearby (and now privately owned) Swami’s café.

In Encinitas we chanted and meditated at the local Ananda center on the property of Casey Hughes. Casey, who has traveled to India some forty times so far this life, had designed and constructed a lovely outdoor meditation shrine which he had commissioned and constructed in Bali. It was then disassembled and packed into a shipping container and sent to Encinitas where it was reconstructed.

In honor of the pilgrimages led by Swami Kriyananda (years ago) that included a visit to Disneyland, we spent a day there, too. Imagine 30+ adults with no children roaming around Disneyland muttering, “Gee, it IS a small world after all!”

We proceeded to the famous Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale where the body of Yogananda is interred. This is a popular sacred spot for thousands of pilgrims from around the world. Meditating and chanting in the great halls of Forest Lawn where the Master’s body lies is a special experience. (There are also many famous Hollywood celebrities interred there.)
One may easily discover that although Yogananda’s spirit may be omnipresent, his human remains continue to pulse an undying beacon of superconsciousness calling us, too, home to eternal bliss.

Next we visited the SRF Hollywood Temple on Sunset Boulevard. This is where Swamiji met Yogananda on September 12, 1948 and was accepted as his disciple. At various times both Yogananda and Swamiji gave Sunday Services, classes and meditations in the simple but elegant chapel. There one sees two pulpits: one for the resident minister and another for a visiting minister. He called it the “Church of All Religions.” The grounds are lovely beyond imagination: simple yet astral in beauty. We chanted and meditated in the chapel and were hosted by Brother Pranavananda.

Our next stop was Yogananda’s headquarters atop Mt. Washington: a short distance from downtown LA. As a young monk in India it was this building (and the Encinitas hermitage and the school at Ranchi) that he saw repeatedly in visions. We were escorted up three flights of stairs to the apartments of the Master. Words cannot describe the powerful vibrations of utter stillness. It is like walking into the “Vacuum of Eternity,” another world saturated with stillness and divinity hushed but latently infinite.

On the first floor of Mt. Washington, we meditated in the chapel where Yogananda gave kriya initiations, classes, and led meditations. Here too the residue of cosmic consciousness lingers like a “worm hole” into eternity. (One cannot adequately describe the blessing of sacred places where divinity has appeared. It’s not a matter of religion or belief, but experience. Nor is it confined to any one culture or time.)  

Outside in the Temple of Leaves we sat and meditated where Yogananda sometimes gave outdoor classes and where Swamiji and the monks would meditate together. Many of our pilgrims reported their deepest experience here, sitting there under the lovely pepper tree. 

We stayed three nights at the Biltmore Hotel, a structure of such phenomenal artistry and beauty that it stands alone like a time capsule to the days when Yogananda first came to Los Angeles and lived in the Biltmore (before Mt. Washington was purchased). It was here in what is now the lobby of the hotel that he left his body on March 7, 1952. (The occasion was a banquet in honor of the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from India.) Reading (as he once predicted in contemplating the end of his life) his poem, "My India," he dropped gently to the floor, leaving his body, as he said he would, by stopping his heart at the appointed time that he was summoned “home” by God.

While the former banquet hall is now the lobby, the staff at the Biltmore are familiar with the story and the fact that people come year round (but especially in March), to sit calmly with eyes closed near the beautiful Italian artwork before which Yogananda spoke. (You can see parts of the wall piece in the well known picture of Yogananda which is called “The Last Smile.”)

We were guided and ably assisted by the Ananda Center in LA leaders, Narayan and Dharmadevi Romano. They befriended everyone and charmed us with their sweet and focused presence.

On Saturday we visited the famous Lake Shrine which sits in a hillside bowl on a tight curve near where Sunset Boulevard ends at the Pacific Coast Highway. This incredibly beautiful property has as its visual centerpiece a small lake. On it is a houseboat used for meditation and a reconstructed Dutch windmill used as a chapel. The most beautiful grounds and hillsides surround the lake. Ashes of Mahatma Gandhi lie in a sarcophagus (the only ones outside India) and special shrine by the lake. Much more could be said. Thousands come here: some as devotees, some as neighbors, many, attracted like bees to the nectar of peace in a peaceless world.

We were welcomed warmly with the divine smile of Brother Achalananda, once a brother and junior monk to Swami Kriyananda (who as the head monk at the time, accepted Achalananda into the monastery sometime after Yogananda's passing). In two segments (because we couldn't all fit), he chanted and meditated with our group in the houseboat. 

Later, he regaled us with stories at the Lake Shrine temple (built high above the lake) and also commented with kindness and understanding in regards to Swami Kriyananda. It was a special moment for those who were there.

Those of us who were blessed to travel together to these holy places share an unforgettable memory and grace which is ours to meditate upon, nurture, and share.

May the blessings we have received radiate outward in waves of peace!

Nayaswami Hriman