Master’s Commission to Me
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Similar sentiments have been stated by masters down through the ages. Institutions of any kind are a means to an end, never an end in themselves. I cannot think of a single statement by any great master who ever lived that contradicts this view, whether in regard to a social convention like the Sabbath or an organization divinely instituted.
Master, in his autobiography, makes clear his disinclination for organized religion. His distaste was based on the fact that, to find God, one must go within. He often stressed the importance of loving others outwardly, too, of expressing concern for their needs-above all for their spiritual needs, but also for their physical and psychological needs. He came to the West not with the primary purpose of starting an organization, but to help souls. The organization he founded was only a means to that end.
It was an important means, for it helped anchor the work and give it a solid foundation without which the influence of his presence on the West might have been like snow-beautiful for a season, but only a memory by summertime. Still, the organization itself was not his message; it was a means, only, by which his spiritual message could be spread.
It is strange, how many of those who he hoped would teach on his behalf ended up teaching on their own behalf. Strange, too, how many of these ended up betraying him, turning against him to bolster their own need for self-importance.
Yet Master wanted his message to spread. He couldn’t be out touring the country, teaching, and at the same time train the disciples at Mt. Washington who would carry on his work after he left. And the disciples who came and stayed were those humble few who came seeking only God. He accepted gratefully what God sent him. It was in the fitness of things that he gave the responsibility for carrying on his work to these loyal ones who had served him with unconditional devotion for so many years.
“Feed My Sheep”
He still needed others, however, who would think not so much of the needs of the organization as of the needs of the people whom the organization was created to serve. It was to men, primarily, that he looked for the manifestation of this kind of energy. As he put it once, “Men’s energy has a more outward thrust; women’s is more inward. Even their bodies reveal these differences.”
In May, 1950, while I was walking with him at his retreat at Twenty-Nine Palms, he said to me, “Apart from Saint Lynn (Rajarsi Janakananda), every man has disappointed me.” He added with intense earnestness, “And you mustn’t disappoint me!”
Yet he had other good men disciples, and had, in the past, had many more: Mr. Black (Yogacharya Oliver), Dr. Lewis, Michael (Brother Bhaktananda), Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Cuaron-numerous others. What did he mean by saying that “every man” had disappointed him? His disappointment, obviously, wasn’t on spiritual grounds. Surely his meaning was, rather, that none of those men had shown an interest in spreading his message. None had shown the understanding that his teachings were for the world.
Dr. Lewis often scoffed at teachers who, as he put it, “just get up and blow.” I sympathized with his attitude. I myself was not interested in lecturing. I had come to Master to find God. In fact, I subscribed wholly to the prevalent thinking at Mt. Washington that public speaking and teaching were for those who liked personal recognition. Such recognition meant nothing to me.
Yet I did want to help people. And helping people meant, in the context of Master’s work, not giving food to the poor so much as inspiration and guidance to truth-hungry souls. Master, seeing my interest, encouraged me in that direction.
Once, on seeing me recovered from a mood, Master said to me, “No more moods, now. Otherwise, how will you be able to help people?”
I’d been with him five months when he looked at me concentratedly one day and said, “I have plans for you, Walter.” Because he had been speaking at the time to a young monk, Harvey Allen, about sending him to India, I thought he was thinking of sending me there also. But it appears his plans were somewhat different.
I had been with him only eight months, and was still twenty-two, when he had me speak in his stead at the San Diego church. Even more frightening to me was his instruction that I give Kriya Yoga initiation to a member of the congregation. I’d never spoken in public before. And I’d only attended one Kriya initiation-three months after my arrival. When I emerged on the platform to speak, I found the church packed beyond capacity. People were standing outdoors, leaning in at the windows. Even worse than the crowd, from my point of view, was the test of that one member at the initiation afterward staring at me intently for the two hours that it took to complete the ceremony.
I’ve heard it said that high on the list of people’s greatest fears is the dread of speaking in public. Fortunately for me, I’ve never experienced fear or even nervousness before an audience. The reason is not that I’ve been puffed-up, happy to be the center of attention, or eager to display to others my powers of persuasion. Quite the opposite. The audience’s response has been, to me, a matter of indifference. My feeling, simply, has always been, “Whatever is, is.” If people perceive me as a fool, or if in fact I am a fool, what does it matter? I want to please God, not human beings. And if lecturing is my Guru-given service to Him, then I will lecture for Him. Nothing matters except that He be pleased.
For many years I held that thought too exclusively. But then in meditation one day I understood that I must please Him through others, for it was His presence in them, their own superconscious Self, that I needed to reach. Since then, I have thought of my Guru as residing in the souls of the people I speak to.
Ananda Mata objected to me once in India, “How can you think of yourself as teaching your guru?” I explained, first, that I never teach, for teaching, to me, is an act of sharing. And second, I said, by seeing Master as residing in each member of an audience I can ask him to bless that person, through my words and the vibrations I channel from him, that he awaken him or her in divine love.
I didn’t want to lecture, at first, but I didn’t want to be unwilling, either. I once said to Master, “I don’t want to have to lecture.”
“You’d better learn to like it, then,” he replied. “That is what you will have to do.”
Thus, for quite a few years I simply took it as my bad karma that I had to help keep the churches full by taking my turn speaking in them, while others, more spiritual than I, could remain quietly serving behind the scenes.
One time Master was lamenting to the monks about the numbers of ministers in the work who had allowed praise to go to their heads, and as a result had fallen spiritually.
“Sir,” I said, “that is why I don’t want to be a minister.”
I was surprised at the gravity with which he sought to reassure me: “You will never fall due to ego!”
This was a consolation, certainly, but it didn’t release any pent-up desire in myself to “get out there and wow the public.” It was only after I’d been lecturing almost weekly for seven years that I was brought to recognize that my lectures actually did do some good. One day, someone told me that a talk of mine had persuaded him, after many years of atheism, that God exists. Another day, someone else told me he’d been contemplating suicide, but after hearing me lecture he felt renewed faith in life.
“If even one or two people are really helped,” I began to think, “then what does it matter what unspiritual karma I have that keeps me in the public eye? At least I’m doing what I really want to do, which is help people.” From then on I took the job of lecturing very seriously-even to the extent (this may seem strange to you) of preparing my talks. In time I learned, much to my surprise, that the talks people liked best were one or two that I hadn’t had time to prepare at all.
My focus was not inward, on people’s impression of me, but outward-on their need for spiritual insight. What Master’s work meant to me was its power to help others. But it went against my nature to think small. If a thing was good, it must be good for everyone. Why limit the benefits to a handful of people? Thus, I universalized every idea. To me, Master has always been for the world.
A friend of mine met an ex-SRF monk recently who had been with Master during those years. The man told my friend, “I once heard Yogananda say, ‘If Walter had come sooner, we would have reached millions!’”
Organizing the Monks
Master always encouraged me in my enthusiasm for sharing his teachings with others. To train me, perhaps, he put me in charge of the other monks. Though I’d been with him less than a year, I took this charge seriously. It pained me to see how many monks came and went, and how few realized what they had in Master! Those who had held this position before me had thought in terms of their own dignity and importance. They never saw their job in terms of the needs of the monks. I remember Dr. Lewis in Encinitas once, on finding me seated on a box in the back of a van that was leaving Encinitas for Mt. Washington. “You should be sitting in front,” he remarked.
“Why?” I inquired.
“Because,” he said, stating what seemed to him the obvious, “you’re in charge.”
“For that very reason I belong in back,” I replied. What mattered to me was the job I had to do; its trappings were to me a matter of indifference.
I was determined to do what I could to organize the monks and develop in them a group spirit, which had been sadly lacking before. My youth was against me, unfortunately. So also was the fact that the monks had never been organized until then. A number of the older monks, especially, were determined to boycott my efforts. I could only ignore their efforts and concentrate on those who saw the need for being organized, as I did. Gradually, over a few years, the “hold-outs” joined us-or, alternatively, left.
Perhaps it was after Master saw my firm commitment to his teachings and to placing his will above all other considerations, that he said to me one day, “You have a great work to do.” He had been addressing Herbert Freed, a minister who was about to leave to be in charge of our church in Phoenix, Arizona. I assumed his last remark was addressed also to Herbert, and turned to him with a smile that said, “Good luck!”
“It’s you I’m talking to, Walter,” Master corrected me.
From then on he told me many times, “Walter, you have a great work to do.”
Because the primary need of the organization at the time seemed to me to be consolidation, whereas lecturing was something that others were doing far more competently than I, my assumption for many years was that the work he wanted me to do was organizing.
Organization had never been “my thing.” My ambition before coming to Master had been to be a playwright and a poet. I had looked upon writing as a means of inspiring people with new insights into the truth of things.
I remember my cousin Bet writing to me from Wellesley College when I was a student at Brown University. She was thinking, she said, of studying to become a doctor. In reply I wrote, “That certainly is a laudable ideal. Now that you raise this point, however, it leads me to ask myself, What do I want to do with my life? I realize, in thinking it over, that I don’t want to take sick people and make them well. I want to take well people and help them to become better. For I find that even after sickness is removed, very few people are happy.”
After some time I had given up writing, persuaded at last that I didn’t know enough truth, so how could I help anyone? I wound up as a disciple of a great guru. When I came to Master, I was indifferent to religious organizations of any kind. It hadn’t even penetrated my mind, as I read Autobiography of a Yogi, that he had an organization. For Master’s sake now, however, and in the belief that he wanted me to help build his work, I set my own disaffection with institutionalism aside and dived enthusiastically into the task of organizing one aspect after another of Self-Realization Fellowship.
My first job was organizing the monks, inasmuch as he’d put me in charge of them.
It might have dawned on me from a few signs he gave me that organizing SRF wasn’t the direction he intended for me. The first hint came while I was suffering a period of poor health. I suggested to him that he relieve me of my responsibility for the monks. He’d seemed pleased with what I’d accomplished with them already, though he did scold me once for accepting applicants too readily. Actually, I assumed he would answer as he had when I’d told him I didn’t want to lecture: “You’d better accept that that is your duty in life.”
To my surprise-and, I admit, some dismay in the thought that perhaps I’d displeased him after all-he replied simply, “I have been thinking about it.”
In the end, he didn’t relieve me of that responsibility, but the fact that he’d even considered doing so should have been my clue that this wasn’t the destiny he’d intended for me.
He also didn’t tell the other leaders of the work about his plans for me. Had he done so, my life might have turned out very differently. (But that account must be reserved for later telling.) Instead, after his passing, my superiors in the work, except for Rajarsi, never thought of me in terms of any work that didn’t take its definition from them. (Once, I mentioned to Daya Mata that Master had said I had a great work to do. Her reply, after a pause, was, “Yes, all of us have a great work to do.” This thought was one with which I also, of course, agreed wholeheartedly.)
Master told me many of his ideas for the work, but never, as I look back, with the suggestion, “This is what I want you to do in your efforts to build SRF.” Rather, he told me specifically, “Your work is writing and lecturing.”
On the occasion I just mentioned I asked him, “But Master, hasn’t everything been written that needs saying?” I was thinking of his own books, many of which had yet to be published (and some of which are still waiting to be published).
At my question he looked almost shocked. “Don’t say that!” he exclaimed. “Much yet remains to be written.”
One day at Twenty-Nine Palms he looked at me and, out of the blue (I thought), said, “I predict you will make a good editor someday, Walter.”
It was his ideas he wanted me to present to people. That was the “great work” he had in mind for me. I see it clearly now.
Expansion from Outside
What I couldn’t imagine at the time, but understand now at last, was that he knew I would have to work outside the framework of his organization to work effectively. Any such thought would have been, to me, an abomination. SRF, to my mind, was his work. To serve him meant, to me, serving SRF.
And yet, I recall one evening at the Lake Shrine, when Master was walking back to his car with a group of us monks after a concert “under the stars,” as it had been advertised. Master turned to me and said, “Someday those who leave here will have their own groups: Jan, David, et cetera, et cetera.” I don’t know what became of Jan and David, having lost touch with them since they left. I believe now, however, that Master was hinting to me to continue working for him even after I was no longer a part of SRF.
That he saw the work in broader terms than the organization itself I understood also from something he told Debi Mukherjee, a Bengali disciple living then at Mt. Washington. “Someday,” Master said, “lion-like swamis will come from India and spread this message all over.”
Many years later, in India, I repeated his words to Daya Mata, who was by then the president of SRF. “Well,” she replied dismissively, “he never said that to me!”-as if he therefore could never have said it at all. Her reaction to Master’s statement to Debi helped me to understand that what Master had revealed to each one of us was a segment, only, of an infinitely larger picture.
I might also have suspected that his plans for me were different from what I imagined from the fact that he never put me in charge of a church (as he did several of my peers), but had me lead the service one Sunday a month at three of our main churches. Thus, apparently, he didn’t want me to become entangled in the affairs of one particular congregation or of one particular aspect of the organization.
Meera Mata, a close disciple of Master’s, told me once, “I’ve always felt that the work would spread from outside SRF.” I wondered how such a thing could come to pass, but her words lingered in my memory.
Master accepted the help God gave him for the spread of his mission. But he had a larger mission to fulfill. If the means of fulfillment were not to come in one way, they would have to come in another.