The Pilgrim Meets His Guide
I arrived in Los Angeles on the morning of Saturday, September 11, 1948, exhausted from my long journey. There I took advantage of the first opportunity I’d had in four days to shave and shower. I then continued south by bus, one hundred miles to Encinitas, the little coastal town where, as I’d read, Yogananda had his hermitage. In the fervor of first reading, it had somehow escaped my notice that he’d founded an organization. Perhaps I had subconsciously “tuned out” this information, because of my long-standing resistance to religious institutionalism. In my mind, his little seaside hermitage was all that existed of his work. It was to him I was coming, not to his organization.
I arrived in Encinitas late that afternoon, too tired to proceed at once to the hermitage. I booked into a hotel and fairly collapsed onto my bed, sleeping around the clock. The next morning I set out for the Self-Realization Fellowship hermitage, walking perhaps a mile through a neighborhood of picturesque gardens, colorful with ice plant and bougainvillea. Many of the flowers I saw here were new to me. Their vivid hues made a gay contrast to the more conservative flowers in the East — a contrast, I was to discover, that extends to numerous other aspects of life on the two coasts.
I approached the hermitage with bated breath. Yogananda, I recalled from his book, had once visited a saint without sending prior notice of his arrival. He had yet to reach the saint’s village when the saint himself came out to welcome him. Did Yogananda, too, I asked myself, know I was coming? And would he, too, come out and greet me?
To the second question, anyway, the answer I received was: No such luck. I entered the grounds through an attractive gate. On either side of me were large, beautifully kept gardens — trees on the left, beyond a small house; on the right, a pleasant lawn. At the end of the driveway stood a lovely white stucco building with a red tile roof. I imagined disciples going quietly about their simple chores inside, faces shining with inner peace. (Did they know I was coming?)
I rang the front doorbell. Minutes later a gentle-looking, elderly lady appeared.
“May I help you?” she inquired politely.
“Is Paramhansa Yogananda in?”
My pronunciation of this unfamiliar name must have left something to be desired. Moreover, the white palm beach suit I wore didn’t mark me as the normal visitor. I’d assumed, mistakenly, that palm beach was the accepted attire in Southern California, as it was in Miami and Havana. My unusual appearance, together with my obvious unfamiliarity with Yogananda’s name, must have given the impression that I was a utility man of some sort.
“Oh, you’ve come to check the water?”
“No!” Gulping, I repeated, “Is Paramhansa Yogananda in?”
“Who? Oh, yes, oh, I see. No, I’m afraid he’s away for the weekend. Is there something I can do for you?”
“Well, yes. No. I mean, I wanted to see him.”
“He’s lecturing today at the Hollywood church.”
“You have a church there?” I let my astonishment show. I’d always imagined Hollywood as containing only movie studios. My astonishment must have struck my elderly hostess as unseemly. After all, why shouldn’t they have a church in a big city like Hollywood? Soon it became clear to me that I wasn’t making the best possible impression.
Well, I thought, perhaps it did seem a bit strange, my bursting in here and asking to speak to the head of whatever organization there was here, and — worse still — not even realizing that he had an organization. My companion drew herself up a little stiffly.
“I want to join his work,” I explained. “I want to live here.”
“Have you studied his printed lessons?” she inquired, a trifle coolly, I thought.
“Lessons?” I echoed blankly. “I didn’t know he had lessons to be studied.” My position was getting murkier by the minute.
“There’s a full course of them. I’m afraid you couldn’t join,” she continued firmly, “until you’d completed the lot.”
“How long does that take?” My heart was sinking.
“About four years.”
Four years! Why, this was out of the question! As I look back now on that meeting, I think she was probably only trying to temper what must have seemed, to her, my absurd presumption in assuming I had merely to appear on the scene for me to be welcomed with joyous cries of, “You’ve arrived!” In fact, the requirements for acceptance were not so strict as she’d made out. It is usual, however, and also quite proper for the spiritual aspirant’s sincerity to be carefully tested.
It looked less than proper to me at the time, however. Only later did I learn that this first person to greet me had been Sister Gyanamata, Paramhansa Yogananda’s most advanced woman disciple. She herself, as it happened, having been married, had had to wait years before she could enter the hermitage. The mere prospect of a wait must have seemed to her completely normal, and not very much of a test.
Well, I reflected rebelliously, this was not Yogananda’s verdict. Swallowing my disappointment, I inquired how I might get to the Hollywood church. She gave me the address, and a telephone number. Soon I was on my way back to Los Angeles.
On the way there I alternated between bouts of indignation (at her presumption!) and desperate prayers to be accepted. This was the first time in my life I had wanted anything so desperately. I couldn’t, I simply mustn’t be refused.
At one point, thinking again of my elderly informant, my mind was once again waxing indignant when, suddenly, I remembered her eyes. They had been very calm — even, I reflected with some astonishment, wise. Certainly there was far more to her than I’d noticed in the urgency of my desire. “Forgive me for my misjudgment,” I prayed, mentally. “It was in any case wrong of me to think unkindly of her. She was only doing her duty. I sense now, however, that she is a great soul. Forgive me.”
A cloud seemed suddenly to lift within me. I knew in my heart that I’d been accepted.
Arrived in Los Angeles, I checked my bag at the bus depot and proceeded at once to 4860 Sunset Boulevard, the address of the church I was seeking. It was about three o’clock in the afternoon. The morning service had ended long since, and the building, apart from a small scattering of people, was empty. A lady greeted me from behind a long table at the back of the room.
“May I help you?”
I explained my mission.
“Oh, I’m afraid you couldn’t possibly see him today. His time is completely filled.”
I was growing more desperate by the minute. “When can I see him?”
She consulted a small book on the table before her. “His appointments are fully booked for the next two and a half months,” she informed me.
Two and a half months! First I’d been told I couldn’t join for four years. Now I was told I couldn’t even see him for.…
“But I’ve come all the way from New York just for this!”
“Have you?” She smiled sympathetically. “How did you hear about him?”
“I read his autobiography a few days ago.”
“So recently! And you came… just … like that?” She cooled a little. “Usually people write first. Didn’t you write?”
Bleakly I confessed I hadn’t even thought of doing so.
“Well, I’m sorry, but you can’t see him for another two and a half months. In the meantime,” she continued, brightening a little, “you can study his lessons, and attend the services here.”
Morosely I wandered about the church, studying the furnishings, the architecture, the stained-glass windows. It was an attractive chapel, large enough to seat well over one hundred people, and invitingly peaceful. An excellent place, I thought, for quiet meditation. But my own mind was hardly quiet or meditative. It was in turmoil.
“You must take me!” I prayed. “You must! This means everything to me. It means my whole life!”
Two or three of the people sitting in the church were monks, whose residence was at the headquarters of Self-Realization Fellowship on Mt. Washington, in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles. I spoke to one of them. Norman his name was. Tall and well-built, his eyes were yet kind and gentle. He talked a little about their way of life at Mt. Washington, and their relation, as disciples, to Paramhansa Yogananda. “We call him ‘Master,’” he told me. From Autobiography of a Yogi I already knew that this appellation, which Yogananda used also in reference to his own guru, denoted reverence, not menial subservience.
How deeply Norman’s description of Mt. Washington attracted me! I simply had to become a part of this wonderful way of life. It was where I belonged. It was my home.
Norman pointed out two young men seated quietly, farther back in the church.
“They want to join the monastery, too,” he remarked.
“How long have they been waiting?”
“Oh, not long. A few months.”
Disconsolately I wandered about awhile longer. Finally it occurred to me — novel thought!—that perhaps I simply wasn’t ready, and that this was why the doors weren’t opening for me. If this were true, I decided, I’d just go out and live in the hills near Hollywood, come to the services regularly, study the lessons, and — I sighed — wait. When I was ready, the Master would surely know it, and would summon me.
With this resolution in mind, and with no small disappointment in my heart, I made for the front door.
No doubt I’d needed this lesson in humility. Perhaps things had always gone too easily for me. Maybe I was too confident. At any rate, the moment I accepted the thought of my possibly not being ready spiritually, the situation changed dramatically. I had reached the door when the secretary — Mary Hammond, I later learned her name was — came up behind me.
“Since you’ve come such a long way,” she said, “I’ll just ask Master if he’d be willing to see you today.”
She returned a few minutes later.
“Master will see you next.”
Shortly thereafter I was ushered into a small sitting room. The Master was standing there, speaking to a disciple in a white robe. As the young man was about to leave, he knelt to touch the Master’s feet. This was, as I’d learned from Yogananda’s book, a traditional gesture of reverence among Indians; it is bestowed on parents and other elders as well as, and particularly, on one’s guru. A moment later, the Master and I were alone.
What large, lustrous eyes now greeted me! What compassionate sweetness in his smile! Never before had I seen such divine beauty in a human face. The Master seated himself on a chair, and motioned me to a sofa beside him.
“What may I do for you?” For the third time that day these same, gentle words. But this time, how fraught with meaning!
“I want to be your disciple!” The reply welled up from my heart irresistibly. Never had I expected to utter such words to another human being.
The Master smiled gently. There ensued a long discussion, interspersed by long silences, during which he held his eyes half open, half closed—“reading” me, as I well knew.
Over and over again I prayed desperately in my heart, “You must take me! I know that you know my thoughts. I can’t say it outwardly; I’d only burst into tears. But you must accept me. You must!”
Early in the conversation he told me, “I agreed to see you only because Divine Mother told me to. I want you to know that. It isn’t because you’ve come such a distance. Two weeks ago a lady flew here all the way from Sweden after reading my book, but I wouldn’t see her. I do only what God tells me to do.” He reiterated, “Divine Mother told me to see you.”
“Divine Mother,” as I already knew from reading his book, was the way he often referred to God, who, he said, embraces both the male and the female principles.
There followed some discussion of my past. He appeared to be pleased with my replies, and with my truthfulness. “I knew that already,” he once remarked, indicating that he was only testing me to see if I would answer him truthfully. Again a long silence, while I prayed ardently for acceptance.
“I am taking fewer people now,” he said.
I gulped. Was this remark intended to prepare me for a letdown?
I told him I simply could see nothing for myself in marriage or a worldly life. “I’m sure it’s fine for many people,” I said, “but for myself I don’t want it.”
He shook his head. “It isn’t so fine for anybody as people make out. God, for everyone, is the only answer. Anything less is a compromise.” He went on to tell me a few stories of the disillusionments he had witnessed. Then again, silence.
At one point in our discussion he asked me how I had liked his book.
“Oh, it was wonderful!”
“That,” he replied simply, “is because it has my vibrations in it.”
Vibrations? I’d never before thought of books as having “vibrations.” Clearly, however, I had found his book almost alive in its power to convey not merely ideas, but a new state of awareness.
Incongruously, even absurdly, it now occurred to me that he might be more willing to take me if he felt I could be of some practical use to his work. And what did I know? Only writing. But that, surely, was better than nothing. Perhaps he was in need of people with writing skills. To demonstrate this ability, I said:
“Sir, I found several split infinitives in your book.” Twenty-two years old, literarily untried, but already a budding editor! I’ve never lived down this faux pas! But Master took it with a surprised, then a good-humored, smile. The motive for my remark was transparent to him.
“All right,” he said at last. “You have good karma. You may join us.”
“Oh, but I can wait!” I blurted out, hoping he wasn’t taking me only because I hadn’t yet found any other place to live.
“No,” he smiled. “You have good karma, otherwise I wouldn’t accept you.”
Gazing at me now with deep love, he said, “I give you my unconditional love.”
Immortal promise! I couldn’t begin to fathom the depth of meaning in those words.
“Will you give me your unconditional love?”
“And will you also give me your unconditional obedience?”
Desperately though I desired acceptance, I had to be utterly honest. “Suppose, sometime,” I asked, “I think you’re wrong?”
“I will never ask anything of you,” he solemnly replied, “that God does not tell me to ask.”
He continued, “When I met my master, Sri Yukteswar, he said to me, ‘Allow me to discipline you.’ ‘Why, Sir?’ I inquired. ‘Because,’ he replied, ‘in the beginning of the spiritual path one’s will is guided by whims and fancies. Mine was, too,’ Sri Yukteswar continued, ‘until I met my guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. It was only by attuning my haphazard will to his wisdom-guided will that I found true freedom.’ In the same way, if you attune your will to mine, you too will find freedom. To act only on the inspiration of whims and fancies is not freedom, but bondage. Only by doing God’s will can you find what you are seeking.”
“I see,” I replied thoughtfully. Then from my heart I said, “I give you my unconditional obedience!”
My guru continued: “When I met my master, he gave me his unconditional love, as I have given you mine. He then asked me to love him the same way, unconditionally. But I replied, ‘Sir, what if I should ever find you less than a Christlike master? Could I still love you the same way?’ My master looked at me sternly. ‘I don’t want your love,’ he said. ‘It stinks!’”
“I understand, Sir,” I assured him. He’d struck at the heart of my greatest weakness: intellectual doubt. With deep feeling I said to him, “I give you my unconditional love!”
He went on to give me various instructions.
“Now, then, come kneel before me.”
I did so. He made me repeat, in the name of God, Jesus Christ, and the rest of our line of gurus the vows of discipleship and of renunciation. Next he placed the forefinger of his right hand on my chest over the heart. For at least two minutes his arm vibrated almost violently. Incredibly, from that moment on, my consciousness in some all-penetrating manner was transformed.
I left his interview room in a daze. Norman, on hearing that I’d been accepted, embraced me lovingly. It was unusual, to say the least, for anyone to be accepted so quickly. A few moments later, Master came out from behind the open curtain on the lecture platform. Smiling at us quietly, he said:
“We have a new brother.”