The Joy of Self-Transformation: the Disciple Begins His Training
To thee, who hast overcome the carping spirit, I shall now reveal wisdom sublime. Understanding it, grasping it by intuitive realization, thou shalt escape evil.
—The Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9
Later in the afternoon of Paramhansa Yogananda’s unprecedentedly instant acceptance of him, Donald Walters moved to Mt. Washington, and there plunged enthusiastically into the life and discipline of a disciple. For the first time in his life he knew that he had found his true home. During the next three and a half years, which comprised the Master’s remaining time on earth, Donald did his utmost to study and absorb his guru’s teachings. More than just studying them, indeed, he tried earnestly to attune himself to his guru’s consciousness, which attempt he understood to constitute the essence of discipleship.
After their initial meeting, Donald didn’t see his Guru again for two weeks, as the Master was in Encinitas. The young disciple began practicing the Energization Exercises and meditation techniques of his new spiritual path, and applied himself to his assigned tasks on the ashram grounds. Finally, on September 24, Donald had his next opportunity to see his Guru again. On this day, for the first time he heard him lecture at a Sunday Service at Hollywood Church.
Donald was deeply moved by his Guru’s ability to inspire and uplift an audience. Yoganandaji’s style of speaking was filled with dynamic power and joy, combined with a naturalness and a sense of humor that drew everyone into his aura, and opened them in receptivity to his message. The newcomer had never heard such profound wisdom; nor had he ever imagined that wisdom could be presented so unpretentiously and so accessibly.
At the end of his sermon Yogananda announced, “Many are coming from afar after reading Autobiography of a Yogi. One recently read it in New York, and — Walter, please stand up.” Young Donald glanced around to see who this “Walter” might be. (His full name was James Donald Walters, though he had always gone by the name “Donald.”) No one stood up. Returning his gaze to his guru, he found the Master’s gaze directed at him with smiling encouragement! “Ah, well,” thought the young monk philosophically, “a rose by any other name!” Self-consciously he rose to his feet.
“Walter read the book in New York,” continued the Master, “and left everything to come here. Now he has become one of us.” “Walter” was to be forever thereafter the name by which his Guru called him.
Many concepts that are known and accepted in India were new and strange to the young man. One of these was reincarnation.
“Have I been a yogi before?” the young disciple asked his guru shortly after he’d taken discipleship.
“Many times,” the guru replied. “You’d have had to be, to be here” — that is to say, as a disciple of such a great guru. (Yogananda always spoke casually of his own role.)
Early in October Yoganandaji invited “Walter” to join him for a weekend at his desert retreat near Twenty-Nine Palms, where he was going for a period of seclusion in order to concentrate on his writings. Here it was, over the next years, that “Walter” spent some of his most cherished times with his Guru.
Yogananda’s house in the desert was somewhat distant from the one in which the monks stayed, five miles down the same road. Their ashram was a simple two-bedroom cabin. The guru placed great importance on the practice of silence, and requested those around him to observe this practice as well. “Silence,” he would often say, “is the altar of Spirit.”
The solitude and stillness of the desert held a deep attraction for Donald, or “Walter.” Once the young man said to his Guru, “I’ve always wanted to live alone like this.”
“That’s because you’ve done it before,” the Master replied. “Most of those who are with me have lived alone many times in the past.”
Gradually the concept of reincarnation became natural for Donald. It made much more sense, he thought, than the Western belief that the vast and complex web of mental tendencies a human being possesses should appear full blown in the mind at birth, or be developed by the passing breezes of influence which touch a person over one lifetime.
Yoganandaji invited young “Walter,” with a small handful of others, to sit in the room as he dictated a new beginning to his lessons. “Walter” was deeply inspired by the Master’s approach to teaching. It was universal in outlook, not at all self-assertive, and keenly aware of the relationship of every detail to the broadest realities.
Donald was also impressed by the sheer dynamic courage expressed in these teachings. They seemed to him filled with the power to change the world. The Master often mentioned the special mission of this line of gurus: Jesus Christ, Krishna-Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar; and of the power of Kriya Yoga to change human consciousness. From the beginning of Paramhansa Yogananda’s training of his new disciple, he seemed to be instilling in him a sense of the expansiveness of his life mission.
As the days and weeks went by, the young monk felt his heart opening like a lotus under the Master’s love. This love found expression first and foremost as universal friendship. It made each of his disciples feel in some way uniquely loved by him. Yet at the same time young Donald understood this relationship to be impersonal in the sense that he could tell Yogananda wanted nothing for himself.
One day at Twenty-Nine Palms Donald asked his Guru, “Have I been your disciple for thousands of years?” He asked this question because another disciple had had a vision in which he saw himself with Yogananda at a remote time in prehistory.
“It has been a long time,” the Master replied quietly. “That’s all I’ll say.”
“Does it always take so long?”
“Oh, yes,” the Guru replied. “Desires for name, fame, and all the rest take people away again and again.”
For thousands of years, as Kriyananda came in time to understand, Paramhansa Yogananda and his line of gurus have been guiding this planet spiritually, returning repeatedly with the special mission of uplifting world consciousness. Increasingly, the young monk felt his soul inextricably linked with his Guru’s. He vowed inwardly with every ounce of his strength to help to fulfill the Master’s great mission in this life.
In January 1949 the Master assigned Donald to office work, answering letters from devotees who requested spiritual counsel. Donald was also given the assignment of deeply studying Yogananda’s written lessons. As an aid in the learning process, he was made the test examiner, his job being to review and grade student answers to the questions that were sent to them at the end of every step of the lessons.
Two months later, having been with his Guru less than six months, he was asked by the Master to begin writing articles for SRF’s bi-monthly magazine. In all these areas of service he was receiving grounding in the guru’s teachings.
Also, in February 1949, Yogananda spoke to Donald and another monk, Harvey Allen, about a plan he had to send Harvey to India to help with the work there. As the Master spoke, Donald felt intuitively that he himself would be sent there someday. He took copious notes, therefore. A few days later, the guru looked significantly into his new disciple’s eyes and said, “I have plans for you, Walter.”
At first, the young man was thrilled at the idea of going to India. Soon, however, he realized that going there would mean leaving his Guru’s side. Suddenly he found himself in a deep morass of sadness. It took him two days to overcome this mood. The day after that he saw his Guru again, who said to him, “No more moods now, Walter. Otherwise, how will you be able to help people?” As the Master often did with “Walter,” the personal counsel he gave him was for his disciple’s future task of helping others.
In this case, the Master was showing his disciple the importance of always maintaining a state of mental equanimity, adding the further point that in this way he would be able to serve better as a channel of inspiration to others.
Swami Kriyananda has often postulated that people’s desire to help others depends on whatever suffering they themselves have known. Thus, medical doctors owe the compassion they feel for others’ suffering to ill health they themselves have experienced in the past. In Swamiji’s case, his heartfelt desire to help people is, he says, due to the fact that he himself suffered spiritually — especially from spiritual doubts. In this life, certainly, he has overcome his doubts, and shows a keen desire to help others to resolve theirs. This fact has made him instinctively a good teacher. As he has put it, “Any doubts that others have I, too, have experienced. Thus, I can help them accordingly.” Responding to this deep interest in his disciple, and to “Walter’s” natural ability in this direction, the guru trained him to teach and minister spiritually to others.
In March 1949 Yogananda asked Donald, still twenty-two years old, to stand outside the Hollywood Church on Sundays and shake hands with people after the Service. This assignment proved more a spiritual one than a mere gesture of politeness. Donald, as a disciple of a great master, found that people tried to draw from him spiritually, as they would not have done under normal circumstances. After shaking so many people’s hands he felt lightheaded, drained of energy. “Sir,” he said later to his Guru, “I don’t feel ready for this job.”
“That,” replied the Master, “is because you are thinking of yourself. Think of God, and you will find His energy flowing through you.” The advice worked. Soon, indeed, Donald found that he actually felt more uplifted, afterward.
Another of Donald’s office jobs was to send weekly notices to the newspapers announcing which of the ministers would be speaking at the different SRF Churches, and what their sermon topics would be. At this time the Master was speaking on alternate Sundays at the San Diego and the Hollywood Churches. In May of 1949, however, two months had passed since the Master’s last visit to San Diego. Other obligations had prevented him from going there. Needless to say, the congregation members were increasingly desirous of seeing him.
One day early in May, Donald received once more the instructions for which minister to announce in the San Diego newspapers for that Sunday: the Master, finally, would be leading the Service at the local church. Donald smiled as he envisioned the devotees’ delight at this news.
Saturday morning, to his horror, word came to him through Bernard, an older monk: “The Master won’t be going to San Diego. He wants you to speak in his stead.”
“Me?” Donald exclaimed, deeply dismayed. “But I’ve never lectured in my life.”
“In addition,” Bernard continued imperturbably, “he wants you afterwards to give a Kriya Initiation. Don’t worry, however, it’s only for one person.”
The young disciple’s mind reeled. He had come to his Guru just eight months earlier. He was still only twenty-two years old. Moreover, he’d attended, so far, only one formal Kriya initiation. He took the next bus down to Encinitas and there reviewed with one of the ministers the outline of the Kriya Yoga ceremony. He then labored to prepare some sort of passable sermon.
The next morning he drove twenty-five miles south from Encinitas to San Diego. As he stood apprehensively behind the still-closed curtains of the church, waiting for the appointed moment, he felt deeply sorry for those poor, disappointed parishioners, who would shortly be seeing him and not Yogananda. Sympathy for them crowded out any nervousness for himself.
The curtains parted, and he gazed out over the congregation. The church was packed. People were standing at the back and around the edges of the room. More were peering in at the windows. It was “standing room only” — indeed, more even than that! A wave of shock spread through the crowd as they saw this unknown youngster standing before them. Fortunately, they received him kindly: no one left the church!
Though he felt inadequate to the task, “Walter” obeyed his guru’s instructions and did his best to deliver a good first public lecture. His destined life of service as a teacher, sharing his Master’s teachings with thousands around the world, had begun: The fledgling bird had been pushed out of its nest. Later that afternoon he gave Kriya Initiation to the new initiate. At the end of the day, limp but still alive, he returned to Mt. Washington.
Two days later, the Master said to him that many compliments had come in about the service. People said they “liked the young ‘minister’s’ humility.” How, the disciple wondered, could anyone help feeling humble under such daunting circumstances?
From then on Yogananda had Donald lecture regularly at the churches in San Diego, Hollywood, and Long Beach, calling him “Reverend Walter.” He’d made him a minister, though no written notification of his new status was sent down to him until 1950.
Some years later Kriyananda was to write, “I had always known in my heart that I would someday be called upon to serve others through teaching and lecturing.” We may discern that this was to be his role in life in the fact that the Master had called public attention to him during the worship service on September 24, 1948. Indeed, even the Master’s coming out onto the lecture platform right after their first meeting to announce, “We have a new brother,” suggests that Donald was to become a prominent disciple. Still, the prospect of lecturing in public filled him with a measure of dread. What, he thought, had he to give? Moreover, his Guru had told him to be less intellectual and develop more devotion. Was not public speaking an intellectual activity?
Donald said to his Guru one day, “Sir, I don’t want to be a lecturer!”
“You’d better learn to like it,” the Master replied. “That is what you will have to do.”
On another occasion Yogananda, while speaking to the monks, was lamenting the fact that some of the SRF ministers had allowed praise to go to their heads. Donald’s comment then to the Master was, “Sir, that is why I don’t want to be a minister.” The Master replied with deep gravity, “You will never fall due to ego!” He had tested his disciple, and was sure of him.
During his first year in the ashram, Donald received training in the teachings in order that he might absorb and share them with others. To his surprise, there was little he needed to learn. Much of this teaching he’d declared to others already long before his first meeting with the Master. What was new and special was the power he received from the guru, adding conviction to what he believed. The young monk made steady progress under his Guru’s guidance. Soon, he was meditating and chanting to God hours every day.
One day, word came to him that the Master had been talking with a group of the other monks in Encinitas. During the course of the conversation, he remarked lovingly, “Look how I have changed Walter!” Truly, Donald realized when those words were reported to him, any inner change he’d undergone had come about not solely by his efforts, but above all by his growing mental attunement with his Guru.
In training him to teach, Yogananda said, “Before every lecture, pray that you be used as an instrument to express only God’s will.” Later, following the Master’s inner guidance, Donald tried also to tune in to what the audience needed to hear, in order to feel the divine consciousness flow through him not from his ego, but from a higher source. “In time,” Kriyananda wrote years later, “I could actually feel a power flowing from my attunement with Master, and filling the room.”
Often he heard the Master exhort his audiences on the subject of a long-cherished dream of his: “world brotherhood colonies,” or spiritual communities, where people at all stages of life could devote themselves to living for their own highest potential. This subject resonated with Donald’s own intense interest. Since early adolescence he had wanted to found such communities.
On July 31, 1949, he was present at a talk the Master gave at a garden party in Beverly Hills. Yogananda, with unimaginable power and magnetism, declaimed on the need for world brotherhood colonies. “It was,” Kriyananda has said, “the most stirring lecture I’ve ever heard.”
In Kriyananda’s autobiography, The Path, he describes the experience: “’This day,’ thundered the Master, punctuating every word, ‘marks the birth of a new era. My spoken words are registered in the ether, in the Spirit of God, and they shall move the West! Self-Realization has come to unite all religions! We must go on — not only those who are here, but thousands of youths must go North, South, East and West to cover the earth with little colonies, demonstrating that simplicity of living plus high thinking lead to the greatest happiness!’ I was moved to my core. It would not have surprised me had the heavens opened up and a host of angels come streaming out, eyes ablaze, to do his bidding. Deeply I vowed that day to do my utmost to make his words a reality.”
Paramhansa Yogananda in his lectures often urged people to band into world brotherhood colonies. We, who have lived in the communities later founded by Kriyananda, assume that the Master was referring at least partly to Kriyananda’s role in getting the Master’s communitarian concept off the ground when he said to him one day, “You have a great work to do.”
It started this way: Donald was standing by the Master’s car one day as the guru was about to go out for a drive. Herbert Freed, another SRF minister, was there also. He was being sent by the Master to Phoenix, Arizona, where he would be the minister of SRF’s church there. The Master was giving him last-minute words of advice on his new ministry.
After several minutes of such counseling, Yogananda paused, then stated, “You have a great work to do.”
Donald, naturally assuming that these words had been addressed to Herbert, turned to his brother disciple to wish him well. The Master corrected him: “It’s you I’m talking to, Walter.” Donald had come to his Guru wanting not only to find God for himself, but to help others to find Him. Thus, he understood that the Master was not paying him a compliment: He was simply recognizing what was in his heart — his desire to be of real service to others.
Repeatedly from that day onward, Yogananda repeated those same words to him. Sometimes it was by indirection: “You must do such and such, Walter, because you have a great work to do.” Far from taking these as words praise, Donald knew they were intended as a serious commission.
What was this great work? His Guru never specified that it would include founding communities. He made it clear, however, that “Walter’s” work would involve writing books, and sharing the teachings with a wide public.
One day in 1950, when the Master repeated these instructions to him at Twenty-nine Palms, Donald asked him, about writing, “Sir, haven’t you yourself already written everything that needs to be said?”
“Don’t say that!” the Master appeared slightly shocked. “Much more is needed.”
His disciple wondered how this commission would blend in with the organization’s priorities. Would he ever, for instance, be permitted — what to speak of encouraged?—to do serious writing? He wondered if the organization would even publish any books he wrote. In time, the Master’s predictions were proved true, though hardly in the way the young monk expected. In his nearly sixty years of service to God and Guru, Swami Kriyananda has reached many millions of people. His books, to date, have been translated into twenty-seven languages, and, along with his music recordings, have sold some three million copies. In India he has two twenty-minute television programs on two stations, which are aired daily throughout the year and reach countless millions throughout the country as well as in over a hundred other lands. He has founded seven communities in America and in Italy, in which about one thousand people live dedicated lives as disciples of Paramhansa Yogananda. Never has he sought personal recognition. As what is probably Paramhansa Yogananda’s best-known disciple, however, he is widely regarded as a true voice of wisdom in the modern age.
In the fall of 1949, Donald received two special blessings from his Guru, which helped to define how he could serve in future years. One day, Yogananda asked him to demonstrate the yoga postures before an Indian disciple who was visiting from Washington, D.C. Though “Walter” was, at the time, only moderately proficient in the postures, in his Guru’s presence he suddenly found that he could assume with ease even some of the more difficult poses. From that day on, indeed, he became generally considered the Hatha Yoga “expert” in SRF. Yogananda would often ask him to serve lunch to his guests and then demonstrate the yoga postures for them.
Years later, Kriyananda developed a new approach to Hatha Yoga which he called, “Ananda Yoga.” He based it on the consciousness he felt Yogananda had transferred to him while he did the asanas before him. This system goes beyond the traditional physical stretches, and enables the student to feel a flow of inner energy uplifting his consciousness and aiding him in meditation.
The second blessing that came to Donald from the Master at this time was the ability to recall his Guru’s words exactly. Yogananda began asking his young disciple to write down things he said, intimating strongly that he wanted “Walter” to write and publish those words someday.
In the quiet of the desert evenings at Twenty-Nine Palms, Yoganandaji would reminisce for hours with “Walter” about his own life, his experiences in establishing the work, his plans for the future, and the important qualities to develop on the spiritual path. During this time at, Yogananda also told his disciple that he planned to take him to India.
Having developed a certain proficiency with languages in his childhood, Donald said to his Guru one day, “I think I could learn Bengali fairly easily.” Emphatically his Guru replied, “Very easily!” He said a few words then in Bengali. Though he stated them only once, his disciple never forgot them.
For the next three years, Yoganandaji made plans to go India. Each year, these plans had to be postponed owing to conflicting demands. Finally the Master’s plan to see India once more in the body was cancelled by his death in March 1952.
It was only in 1958 that Swami Kriyananda made his first trip to his Guru’s homeland. When he did so, those Bengali words his Guru had spoken to him once, nine years earlier in the California desert, came back to him instantly.
In early 1950 the Master placed Donald formally in charge of the other monks. During his remaining years in SRF, “Walter” held this responsibility. The Master once said to Vance Milligan, one of the younger monks, “You must mix more with Walter. You don’t know what you have in him.”
Organization had never been Donald’s natural inclination. He took an interest in it, however, for his Guru’s sake, and thereafter dived into organizing the monastery, and, later on — as I have said — many other aspects of the guru’s work. Yogananda expressed his pleasure on seeing Walter’s deep commitment to spreading his teachings, a commitment which always placed God’s will first in his life.
In December 1949, the disciples lovingly gathered with their guru for the Christmas festivities. Long ago the Master had begun to hold all-day meditations just before Christmas, to celebrate the inner birth of the Christ consciousness, or Kutastha Chaitanya.
During the meditation that year the Master spoke words of blessing, telling several of his long-time disciples that God was deeply pleased with them.
Then he said, “Walter, you must try hard, for God will bless you very much.” These words thrilled the disciple to his core. They were in fact a public benediction on the role he would play someday.