Domes and Self-Expansion
Our first need was for water. I didn’t want a repetition of the story of the city of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, India, constructed before anyone checked to see whether water was available. (There wasn’t any, and the city had to be abandoned!) Herb Radel, a local water diviner from Nevada City, was recommended. He found a stream underneath the property, and correctly estimated how much water it would supply. Soon we had a well and a water tower.
Our next need was for buildings. In 1961 in India, for what came to be known deprecatingly in SRF as my “Delhi project,” I’d meditated and sought inspiration for the best shape for a temple. A building’s shape exerts a subtle influence on people’s minds. Square or rectangular buildings, which nowadays are still the norm, seemed to me to box in thought and inspiration. Flat ceilings seemed to press down on the head and oppose expansion of the spirit. The energy emitted from the human head, round on the top, seemed reflected unevenly from the usual ceiling. Rounded ceilings, which correspond to the shape of the head, seemed to reflect energy back harmoniously.
Pyramidal shapes, considered from the standpoint of energy, draw the mind upward and help to give it focus, increasing its power. Years later, I was fascinated to learn that razor blades retain their sharpness longer if they are kept in pyramidal containers. Much information has come out more recently on the energizing influence of pyramids. When I visited Egypt and meditated in the pyramids, I vividly sensed their spiritual power.
It seemed to me, however, that for meditation the ideal form is the dome. I’d seen domed cathedrals, but always their domes were high up, as if to suggest heaven, not the sky of our earth. Their very loftiness implied a future beatitude and peace far removed from the sweat and strain of earth life. A dome would be ideal, I thought, if it came down on all sides, like the sky, to eye level.
In San Francisco, years after my “Delhi project,” I visited the Morrison planetarium in Golden Gate Park. While waiting for the show to begin I was happily enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, when suddenly a group of about thirty school children rushed in and arranged themselves in the seats all around me, squirming and giggling. I was entertaining thoughts of moving when I noticed that the children, one by one, stopped squirming and were becoming silent. It seemed to me indeed that the shape of the dome was inducing their stillness. I was glad to remain where I was.
As a further comment on the influence of the shapes of buildings, during my months in Arizona a friend recommended a book to me by Joseph Epes Brown which described the philosophy and world-view of the Sioux Indians. I was amazed to see how closely their view corresponded to the cosmic vision of the ancient seers of India. I was struck also by the emphasis the Sioux placed on living in harmony with the world around them. This emphasis stood in marked contrast to their reputedly warlike nature. Yet in fact, by defending their land against foreign invasion they were acting in accordance with teachings in the Indian scriptures, also. The Bhagavad Gita says that it is righteous to fight in self-defense.
The Sioux built tepees to correspond with the round horizon. The steep height of their tepees had something of the soaring quality of the Egyptian pyramids. And the openings faced east whence, they claimed, “all good things come.” How similar this idea, too, to the teaching of yogis that one should meditate facing east to harmonize oneself with earth-circling energies of spiritual awakening and wisdom.
The Navajo Indians also built rounded dwellings, called “hogans.” The entrance of a hogan, too, was placed eastward, and for the same reason. The hogan is squat-shaped, rather than dome-like, as if expressing satisfaction with the earth rather than upward aspiration and expansion. If the Sioux were as warlike as one reads, it is certain the Navajos were peace-loving. Could the shapes of these dwellings have had any relation to their attitudes?
Aspiration and self-expansion are important attitudes in meditation, in addition to peace and harmony. For all of these reasons, the dome shape seemed to me ideal especially for a temple. I had wanted a temple in such a form for my Delhi project. Now, I hoped to repeat the concept at Ananda. Most of our first buildings were domes. Years later we were able to build a true dome at Ananda Assisi, in Italy. This beautiful structure, “the Temple of Light,” has become well known in a land where people resonate with artistic expression. Perhaps domes will become acceptable in America someday also. They are suitable especially for temples, though I can see homes, too, constructed in that shape. The obvious difficulty with a dome residence is that furniture, as we know it today, is built to accommodate straight walls and rectangles. Joseph Epes Brown said, however, that the Sioux believed evil spirits gather in corners. This is, I imagine, a metaphorical way of saying that corners create an inharmonious vibration.
Everything one does reflects one’s philosophy of life. Buildings, too, ought to be expressions of a conscious philosophy. The more uplifting the philosophy, the more attention should be given to the forms that express it. On this point I disagree with Frank Lloyd Wright, who said a building should reflect its environment. A mindless relationship isn’t enough. A building should also express the relationship of people to their environment, and the energy they project outward to it. Wright’s concept seems to me limited by its emphasis on abstract considerations-a sort of “art for art’s sake” attitude that doesn’t take into account the part played by human consciousness in every act of creation. I’m told, in fact, that his homes aren’t even comfortable to live in.
I remembered how often Yogananda quoted the suggestion made to him by an architect: “Immortalize your teachings in architecture.” The Master agreed with him. A spiritual teaching ought to be clothed in a form that expresses the consciousness it seeks to inspire. Yogananda had designed gold-leafed lotus towers, which may be more attractive on the outside than most domes-though Ananda’s dome in Italy is a notable exception-and are ideal shapes for enclosing an inner dome.
This, then, was what I had envisioned in India: A dome enclosed within the lotus shape designed by Yogananda. During Ananda’s beginning, of course, I was forced to be cost-conscious (as, naturally, I’d have been also in India, once I faced the problems of actual construction). I still hope that Ananda will someday be able to test the idea of a gold-leafed lotus temple, based on our Guru’s original concept, along with my idea for a dome on the inside. Whether a lotus would be too imposing over a large dome, however, is a question to be considered carefully when the time comes to consider this idea seriously. Meanwhile, the Ananda temple in Italy expresses much of this concept, and very beautifully, with its transparent cupola on the top shaped in the form of a closed lotus. It is especially lovely when the cupola is lit from inside.
The first domes I put up at Ananda were, I admit, a very awkward first step in this direction. At least, however, they were a step.
For me, the dome symbolizes above all what I deeply appreciate in the teachings of my Guru: their universality. When certain of the nuns at Mt. Washington tried to persuade Rajarsi Janakananda, SRF’s second president after Yogananda, that the Master had wanted his organization established along more sectarian lines, Rajarsi replied with a hint of distress-the only such hint that I ever heard from him-“But what I’ve always loved about his teachings is their universality! I’ve liked the way he embraced all religions as one in God.” The nuns, however, insisted that Master had decided at the end of his life to change all that. Rajarsi, perhaps realizing how things would go anyway, evidently decided to give harmony among the disciples top priority. Therefore, he said nothing further. I was present on that occasion, however, and felt that the nuns had taken something that I knew Master had actually said, but had gone beyond his intentions. What they insisted on reflected, rather, a personal bias.
Master often made the statement: “SRF is not a sect.” Tara quoted his statement to me once during a conversation, then remarked dismissively, “Well, we are a sect!”
When Master named his church a “Church of All Religions,” he did not mean to endorse eclecticism. Rather, his wish was to stress the oneness of truth, based on the universal ideal of Self-realization in God. Unfortunately, that name was dropped in time, as sectarianism became increasingly emphasized.
Paramhansa Yogananda once told Dr. Lewis, his first Kriya Yoga disciple in America, “Remember, Doctor, no matter what you or I do, this work will follow a certain pattern, ordained by God.” He must have been referring to mass karma. Master himself, in letters to Rajarsi, had expressed dissatisfaction with the way things were going. In one letter he questioned whether it wouldn’t be better simply to raze the organization and start over. “Of course,” he ended, “it’s too late for that now.” In another letter he wrote, “They will have to go their way, and I will go mine.” To Daya Mata he once exclaimed, “How you all will change the work after I am gone. I just wonder, if I were to return in a hundred years, if I’d even recognize it!”
He stressed to Daya, however, the one thing that could prevent his organization from going the way of so many other religious works. “After I am gone,” he said, “only love can take my place.” I quote his statement a little sadly, for it was not with love that I myself was treated. Other disciples, too, have been treated harshly, though none of them, perhaps, so ruthlessly as I.
I do not want to belabor the personal aspect of this matter. Deep and important issues are at stake. The question to ask is: Are Master’s universally embracing teachings to become enclosed stuffily in rules and rigid policies? Can it be true, as many SRF monastics actually believe, that Paramhansa Yogananda expected his organization to replace the Catholic Church? That thought seems preposterous!
In 1990 in Fresno, California, I said to Daya Mata, “Master predicted that Self-Realization will someday be the religion of the world. He cannot possibly have meant Self-Realization Fellowship, Inc.!”
“That …” Daya paused significantly, then continued: “is your opinion.”
As if there could be another opinion!
Self-realization is a state of consciousness, not an organization. Self-realization is an attainment toward which all religions aspire, whether consciously or unconsciously. What end could be served by re-institutionalizing the religions of the world? The need at present is to affirm the universality of truth itself. Can any good end be served by creating another super-church?
The non-sectarian, universal aspect of Yogananda’s teachings is emphasized by the dome shape. The temple I wanted to build at Ananda was intended primarily as an expression of this ideal; its raison d’être, therefore, was more than esthetic. I saw it as a form of architecture for the future, but also as an expression of the philosophy I believe humanity will embrace in the future.
Symbolically, however, Ananda’s domes were destined to have to struggle for a “place in the sun.” Ananda itself has faced, and, I suppose, will continue to face, the opposition humanity reserves for new concepts. It seems strange that this should be so, for Ananda is based on communitarian principles that were established long ago in India, and also in America by the early Pilgrim Fathers.
Partly because I’d dedicated Ananda to a universal truth, and to a system of belief different in some respects from the evolving policies at Mt. Washington, the community has been treated also as a threat by SRF. They are convinced that they own the teachings of our Guru. I’d seen a fiercely protective expression in Daya Mata’s eyes years earlier, when Mt. Washington Estates was threatened by fire. That same protectiveness flared up in her anew as she contemplated my “audacity” in offering people an alternative to the official interpretation of the teachings. Who was I, she and all of them demanded, to think for myself? It was precisely this independence that they’d found so outrageous in me years earlier. It was not, however, that I was independent in the sense of wanting to think differently from them. Far from it. But I felt that I had to be true to my own understanding. How, otherwise, could anyone grow spiritually? In their eyes, however, since I’d been a disciple “only” three and a half years, what was I but an interloper? This thought is one they have often reiterated. Of course, I’m still a disciple, after fifty-two years! I might have quoted back to them Yogananda’s own often-repeated statement that length of discipleship is not the determining factor in questions of spiritual merit. “The last shall be first,” he often said, quoting Jesus Christ. He’d put me in charge of the monks when I’d been with him less than a year. He’d told me, “You have a great work to do, Walter,” when I’d been with him very little over a year. That he intended this “great work” to be out on my own has become clear to me over the years, for within the organization no effort was spared, especially after Daya Mata became president, to force my thinking into line with their own-a direction I was constitutionally incapable of following. To try to justify myself on this question of how long I’d been with him has always seemed pointless to me. In fact, there are only two other disciples still living who were with him very much longer than I: Daya Mata and her sister, Ananda Mata. St. Paul, on the other hand, never even knew Jesus personally. Yet his understanding of the teachings played a crucial role in their formulation for posterity. SRF representatives even told inquirers that I’d had no personal contact with Master. When such reports reached me, I thought, “Isn’t truth true, no matter who utters it?”
Tara once declared to me, after I was put on the SRF Board of Directors (I was still in their good graces, then), “In an organization, no one has a right even to think except the members of the Board of Directors.” She was so much senior to me that I didn’t feel I should voice my disagreement. I was sure at the time, however, that this attitude could not possibly prevail. Unfortunately, it did prevail. Perhaps Ananda will help-again, in time-to restore the openness that once prevailed there. SRF has, in fact, followed many of Ananda’s leads, although this fact would never be admitted!
The U.S. Government, in addressing a similar need, has broken up many a monopoly. Generally speaking, the parent company has benefited, at least in the long run, from the “fresh air” this move allowed into the field.
For my part, I’ve never desired to oppose SRF. I repeat, I cannot help seeing truth as I sincerely see it. Harmony, however, and not opposition, is for me a vital principle.
Daya claims that her insistence on SRF’s monopoly is “a matter of principle.” I don’t agree. No thing, however noble, can be a principle. Kindness is a principle, but not the specific acts expressed by kindness. Principles are abstract; they cannot be limited by examples of them. Jesus expressed this truth when he said, of someone whom John had rebuked for casting out devils in his name, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:49)
On the other hand, unkindness is not a principle. Even if justification for unkindness is sought in the name of protecting a noble cause, it also betrays a spiritual principle. For the scriptural injunction against violence concerns violent attitudes. Unkindness is an attitude. It is an act of aggression, not of self-defense. It is an offense against karmic law deliberately to try, in the name of higher loyalty of any kind, to destroy a person’s faith in God and in himself. Above all, to betray a fellow disciple is to dishonor the fundamental commandment Master himself gave to his disciples: love.
It has taken many years of persecution, and of determination on SRF’s part to destroy me and Ananda, to get me to address these issues. Long and long in the name of peace I remained silent. Now I feel that, in the name of truth, I must speak out.
In April of 1967, when I bought our first property, I still dreamed of co-existing with SRF in loving harmony. At that time I was forty years old. Life, it is said, begins at that age. The birth of Ananda did, in fact, mark a new beginning for me. I hoped during this next phase to re-establish harmony between me and my brother and sister disciples. For I deeply believed in such harmony. I would even day-dream of being welcomed back by them with open arms, going to each of the monks in turn, as I had done before my last departure for India, greeting each one lovingly, and being so greeted by each of them in return. Evidently, this was never to be. To my deep sorrow, the rift has only widened over the years. What generates it is an attitude of self-righteous anger against me.
A year previously, in 1966, a student had brought a friend of his to my apartment in San Francisco. I was just then preparing a mailing to go out regarding my classes. Pressed for time, I asked them if they’d like to help me stuff envelopes. They willingly agreed.
This new friend’s name was John Novak. The very manner of our introduction seems in retrospect to have been symbolic, for, in time, John became my “right hand man” in service to Master. Later, I gave him the spiritual name, “Jyotish.” When I retired from active leadership in 1998, I appointed Jyotish as the spiritual director of Ananda.
John-Jyotish, as I’ll refer to him from here on-shared my and Master’s philosophy of universality. In some ways his universality was even greater than mine, for while I recognized the need for practical application of spiritual principles, he tended sometimes to see practical needs as an affront to the principles themselves. (Such differences of temperament only enrich the colored tapestry of life.) For well over thirty years, he has been among my most loyal and dearest friends, sharing with me the struggles and growing pains of Ananda, and my perception of it as one of the most exciting and important ventures of modern times.
Jyotish enrolled in my classes. A year later, he helped me also by teaching a few of them.
The first question I put to myself at this time was, “Can a dome be constructed without spending astronomical sums of money?” Even purchasing the property had been, for me, a major undertaking.
Another student and friend of mine, Karen Leffler, suggested I look into “geodesic domes,” a design by Buckminster Fuller. (I was to share the lecture platform with “Bucky” several times, years later.) Karen and I drove to a site in Marin County, north of San Francisco, where she’d seen one of these geodesic domes. Esthetically and philosophically, I found it rather a disappointment. Still, it was a dome, and didn’t look all that expensive to construct. Buckminster Fuller’s design required the binding of flat triangles together in such a way as to present the illusion of a hemisphere. The building was sturdy; indeed, it was an engineering marvel. What I didn’t so much like about it was that it attempted to achieve roundness by means of straight lines and flat planes. This seemed to me an esthetic contradiction. Still, given my perennially under-fed bank account, I recognized the need for compromise.
With Karen Leffler’s assistance, I located a company that made and sold geodesic domes. They were tool designers, not artists, and their structures rather resembled toadstools in a book of nursery rhymes. It was far from what I really wanted. In fact, I decided these domes represented just too much of a compromise. In the end, however, I had to go back to them.
Another friend of mine, Charles Tart, a professor at U.C. Davis, showed me a geodesic dome he’d been constructing in his back yard. “Sun Dome,” this structure was named. He’d taken the idea from an article in Popular Mechanics, as I recall. Inexpensive, and easy for amateurs like me to construct, it offered a ray of hope where, so far, I’d seen none. I grasped at it as eagerly as a drowning man at a straw-and, alas, as unadvisedly!
Easy the Sun Dome may have been to construct, but cutting one-by-one-inch struts to the correct angle, assembling them into triangles, then covering them with plastic, took months of labor. Having waited years, I was determined to build my retreat that year, if possible.
Jyotish helped me. So did a number of other friends. Jyotish also filled in for me by teaching occasional classes when work at Ananda kept me from returning to San Francisco. Pat Kutzner, my secretary at that time, wrote to me in exasperation, “Am I to resign myself to an attitude on your part of total irresponsibility?” (She hadn’t bargained for Ananda when signing on to help with my correspondence. In time, in fact, Ananda ended up exasperating her so much that she did, literally, resign.)
I had an interesting experience one day concerning the efficacy of Yogananda’s “energization exercises.” I was stapling plastic sheets to their triangular frames. The staple gun was stiff, and was, besides, large for my hands, which are small. (My shoe size might be described as an “oriental” five-and-a-half.) A woman working with me needed both hands to make the staple gun work at all. The job required the use of only one hand, however, while the other held the plastic to the triangle. I had driven in about 500 staples when all at once it seemed to me I would not be able to squeeze out even one more. Mindful of winter’s relentless approach, however, I told myself sternly, “You must finish this job!” With every ounce of will power, I sent energy to my hand muscles as one does when practicing the energization exercises, and managed to squeeze the gun-just barely-one more time .. . then just once more .. . then-ouch!-a third time. By about the tenth squeeze, for each one of which I had to force myself to the utmost, I suddenly found I could continue without effort. I probably drove in another 500 staples that day. At the end of the day I was as full of energy as I’d been in the morning.
My co-workers and I finally got the dome up. The last triangle was about to go in; after that, supposedly, the dome would stand firm. Until then, however, its stability was precarious.
Just then, a strong gust of wind swept up from the valley below. The entire structure collapsed. All that remained was a jumble of matchsticks and plastic, littering the wooden platform.
Refusing to give up, I set out immediately to replace the broken pieces, reassembled the unbroken triangles, and stapled them together once again. Weeks later, the new structure was up. In all fairness, it was more beautiful than anything we have constructed since. Its delicate struts were an esthetic delight. Keats was wrong, however: Beauty is not necessarily truth, nor is truth beauty. The “Sun Dome” proved a snare and a delusion.
I didn’t realize that it had been designed to rest undisturbed in the fenced-in enclosure of a back yard, protected from the mildest spring zephyr. Up on Ananda’s hilltop, the winds of late autumn can get up to sixty or seventy miles an hour. My beautiful dome-house, before the onslaught of our first storm, simply disintegrated. I walked away and didn’t give it even a backward glance.
It took me days to summon the courage to try a third time. This time, after cutting and assembling more struts, I screwed them firmly to large metal plates. “Now,” I thought, mopping my brow, “the wind can’t possibly rip them apart.”
It didn’t have to. I knew nothing of air’s power to lift a hemisphere, as it does the wing of an airplane. I returned to Ananda after several days of classes, eager to get in a little meditation there before the winter came.
On my arrival, I found pieces of dome draped artistically over the surrounding bushes. Worse still, since this time the triangles had been screwed so firmly together, every strut was broken. There was nothing to do but recognize defeat, and accept it calmly.
I sat down on the bare platform, and-perhaps surprisingly-had a joyous meditation.
To me, this failure was a sign that I must build a temple for many others first. My own home could come later.