Friendship, Yogananda used to say, is the most rewarding human experience because it is a free gift, without any compulsion. Even in mother’s love a certain compulsion exists: the compulsion of nature in the thought that her children are her own. Were some child of hers to die and be reborn next door, would she feel the same love for it? Not possessive love, certainly.
Noble an “institution” as friendship is, however, it was not until I met my Guru that I came to understand its higher octaves. As a divine friend he was perfection itself. For friendship should be uplifting, and that is something it is not, always. So long as a relationship is between two egos, it may only reinforce ego-consciousness.
Much can be said, all the same, in favor of ordinary human friendship, even when it only affects the ego. Experiments have been done on plants showing that when a plant is given love it flourishes, whereas if love is denied it, its growth becomes stunted by comparison. Moreover, if hate and rejection are directed at it, it often withers and dies. Friendship is like that. Even if it offers only ego-balm, a healthy ego is much more to be desired than a crippled, sickly one, forever unsure of itself, inwardly wilting, and cringing before everything and everybody.
Though much, then, might be said of the possible negative influences of ordinary human friendship, basically it is something all human beings need.
I have in this life been fortunate in many respects, but perhaps in none of them so much as in two inborn qualities: first, never to be influenced in my opinions of others by what they thought of me; and second, never to feel even tempted to justify myself (not to myself either) when I knew I was in the wrong. These qualities have been my strength. True friendship must spring not from need, but from inner strength; only in this way can it be purely giving.
One danger of friendship lies in the fact that friends want you to agree with them. Bad friends, consequently, want you to agree with and support them in error. As my Guru put it, “If you try to talk to them of higher things, they reply jovially, ‘Oh, get off it! Come have a drink!’” This is friendship?
Too often, in other words, a person’s apparent friends are actually enemies to his highest interests. As the Bhagavad Gita puts it, “When the self is the friend of the Self, it is its greatest friend. But when the self is the enemy of the Self, it is its greatest enemy.”
A true friend is one who helps you to befriend that higher Self. He supports everything that is best and truest for your highest welfare. He sympathizes with you, and tries to understand your point of view. He will not condemn you hastily for any disagreement, nor separate himself from you in his sympathy owing to any divergence of opinion. There are both dignity and mutual respect in such a relationship, and, yes, a shared sense of fun also. For an ability to laugh kindly together is one way of sharing trust, confidence, and mutual support.
I hadn’t the advantage in my childhood and youth of many close friendships, for I was never in one place long enough to form them. I did live till I was nine in Teleajen (Romania), but childhood friendships are not often deep, and many of my friends lived there just as temporarily as we did, until their fathers were shifted further by their company. I spent a year and a half in Switzerland, where I was ill most of the time. Six months followed in Bucharest, and then two years at school in England. We moved to America in 1939, where I spent a year at Hackley School near Tarrytown, New York; two years at Kent School in Connecticut; a year at Scarsdale High; two years at Haverford College; a year and a half at Brown University; a year in Charleston, South Carolina; and then—Master and SRF (fourteen years with the latter; sixty years, so far, with the former).
Rod, my best friend in college, had a twofold influence on me: one for the good, the other for the not so good. He helped me to regain my self-confidence when I needed it. Unfortunately, though brilliant, he had the fault of intellectual pride, by which he infected me. My intellect being perhaps my strong point, it also became my weak link.
Through all the years that followed, my one truest and best of all possible friends was always my Guru, Paramhansa Yogananda. He was true in every respect: the human quite as much as the divine. It’s true that I couldn’t joke with him in the familiar way friends enjoy with one another. Though I couldn’t altogether repress my sense of humor with him, I was too young not to be always in deep awe of him. For me, being with him was like being in the presence of God Himself. Yet I asked him endless questions—more, perhaps, than anyone else. And he answered me, for he wanted me to understand. Again, if he joked with me, I, with my lively sense of humor, would joke back. Yet I couldn’t help holding him at a certain distance, never quite sure of myself in his presence.
That much said, he was with me not at all the kind of stern disciplinarian he has sometimes been described as being. He was kind, forgiving, endlessly and deeply understanding, supportive of all my (indeed, of everyone’s) human feelings and failings—not, indeed of the failings themselves, but of us, as people. I found him to be ever anxious to help us in our efforts to mature and to grow out of our every delusion.
Once he scolded me for my involvement in a confrontation where I had felt righteously indignant. It took me a little while to adjust mentally to this volte-face of being scolded for (as I saw it) doing right, but I said to him the next day, “Please, Master, scold me more often.” Looking at me deeply, with heartfelt understanding, he answered, “I understand, but that isn’t what you need. You need more devotion.”
He also encouraged me in every little gain; often, no one else even noticed him doing so. One day he said to me lovingly, “Keep on with your devotion, Walter. Just see how dry your life is, when you depend on intellect.”
And one time, feeling intensely my separation from him, I went to Encinitas, where he had gone for a visit, on purpose to see him. As soon as we met, he responded kindly, “I have missed you, Walter.” That evening, David Smith (a brother disciple) involved us in worldly chatter, and my devotion slipped. When I saw Master the next day, he tugged at a lock of my hair lightly, and reminded me with the same loving smile (though with a hint of reproof), “I have missed you.”
It pains me when I hear people say coldly, “Master wouldn’t have approved of that! Master wouldn’t tolerate disorder! Master was always a strict taskmaster!” These things have been said to justify the disciple’s own lack of kindness, sympathy, and simple humane charity. But I remember one time (I’ve quoted it elsewhere in these essays) when he came into the monks’ dining room and found it in utter, embarrassing chaos. His only comment then was, “Well, it might be worse!”
In his treatment of the other disciples, I never saw him speak to them harshly. In fact, I wonder whether their impression of harshness didn’t come from their own rebellious egos. The few times he scolded me, I saw only regret in his eyes for having to speak strongly to me. He did so for my benefit, purely.
There was a period in Daya’s discipleship, she told me, when he scolded her almost daily. She resented it, especially because his manner was then so different from what he had shown her when she first came. One evening she prayed, “From now on, Divine Mother, I will direct my love first to You.” When she went indoors for his blessing, he tapped her lightly on the top of her head and murmured approvingly, “Very good.” The scoldings stopped. He had wanted to break her of an excessively human attachment to him.
With those who were not disciples he was affability itself: kindly, warm, entirely accepting, and forgiving of any insult or calumny. I remember one time (I mentioned this occasion in my book, The Path) at a public function, a man from India was a bit tipsy and treated Master with a familiarity no one else would have ever dreamed of: putting his arms around Master, laughing jovially, and talking familiarly. Debi, a Bengali disciple, ridiculed the man to Master in Bengali (a language unknown to this Indian) for his inebriation. “Don’t!” Master scolded him quietly, so that the man himself wouldn’t notice. Master saw this man in the full dignity of a human being, not as someone who, in his drunkenness, had lost that dignity.
Another time the Master, as he was entering a hotel, was approached by a drunken stranger who embraced him and cried, “Hello, Jeshush Chrisht!”
“Hello,” Master responded affably, then shared with him a touch of the inner bliss he himself was experiencing. “Shay! What’re you drinkin’?” demanded the man.
“I can tell you, it has a lot of kick in it!” the Master replied. He then touched this man on the forehead, leaving him sober though perhaps somewhat bewildered.
These are stories I have shared before elsewhere. Here is another one. A member of the Indian community came to Mt. Washington with Ambassador Binay R. Sen just days before Master left his body. This Indian lived in Los Angeles and had devoted years to persecuting the Master by spreading untruths against him. At a certain moment that afternoon the two of them were briefly alone together. Master said to the man, “Remember, I will always love you.” Herbert Freed, a brother disciple, overheard the Master’s words. A photograph of Master taken at that moment shows the visitor’s expression; it reveals a mixture of emotions: wonder, shame, perhaps dismay at his own pettiness. For those who understand the inwardness of that moment, it is a dramatic photograph. (It was this episode, incidentally, that gave me the inspiration for my one-act play, The Jewel in the Lotus.)
The Master simply accepted people as they were, with never a breath of criticism, but always with love. It often surprised me to see the completeness of his acceptance. People whom I myself might have turned away from with distaste, Master treated kindly and with a gentle, though always dignified, smile.
Not everyone understood him, by any means. I’ll never forget a neighbor of the Master’s at Twenty-Nine Palms, when that man gave one of my brother disciples his view. Master used to share fruits with him, an act of generosity that, to this man, seemed beyond comprehension. One day he said, speaking of Master, “You know, he’s a little [making a circular movement to indicate someone a little ‘tetched’ in the head], but,” he added admiringly, “he’s got a heart of gold!”
The Master was a true friend to everybody, seeing all as his very own. That is why, wherever he went, he always found people friendly and eager to help him.
Yet, when someone came to him and asked to be accepted as a disciple, he saw his responsibility as a divine friend to be the highest type of friend he could be to that person. In this sense he might be compared to a divine fisherman: never letting the line get too tight, but if it slackened, testing it to see how forcefully he could reel it in without letting it break.
He was infinitely kind to us, forgiving, supportive, gentle, humorous, one with us in friendship, and ever completely loving. Yet he was also careful, always, to turn our minds and aspirations toward our own highest potential in God. Never did I see him come down from that high purpose. And always in his calm gaze I saw a complete absence of ego-motive, including the slightest impulse either to act or react personally. People—men perhaps especially—who lack personal motivation are often misunderstood by others, bound as almost all people are by personal desires. Master had many self-styled enemies who fancied they saw in him someone dark, someone scheming for subtle, hidden ends which he was not frank enough to admit openly, and which must therefore (so they imagined) have been all the more sinister. I think it was his very strength they feared. Their fears, however, were nothing but projections of a darkness in their own natures. Perhaps it was his strength, also, that made some of the disciples think of him as harsh. Otherwise, I can’t imagine how anyone saw him as anything but a strong bulwark, supportive always of our true needs. No, I think those disciples, too, simply hadn’t the humility or the sensitivity to see in him the truest divine friend they would or could ever have.
Only consider his poem, “God’s Boatman.” In that poem he promised to come back, “if need be a trillion times, as long as one stray brother sits weeping by the wayside.” Think of it! There was no personal necessity for him to return to this material plane. He came here out of a purely selfless desire to bring others out of delusion, and lead them back to God’s kingdom. How many times, I have often wondered, has he returned to earth already in perfect freedom? I have good reason to believe he has been coming back for many thousands of years, and always with the same purpose, and with the same universal love. He himself often told us, “I killed Yogananda long ago. Only God lives in this temple now.” And I heard him declare also, “I was freed many lifetimes ago.” Think of it!
The vast majority of souls who achieve oneness with God are satisfied never to emerge from that blissful state again. Divine Bliss is too perfectly satisfying to them, and they suffered enough before attaining it. All they want, now, is eternal, complete rest in the Lord. What did our Guru want from us? Nothing! Nothing, that is, but our highest good. Could any friend be more perfect, more dear, more wonderful than that?
When I met him, he said to me, “I give you my unconditional love.” No treasure could be greater, surely, than that sacred promise! He has fulfilled it in countless ways. More and more through the years, I have found him mentally guiding me, leading me toward final, inner freedom, filling me with inner bliss.
He hasn’t made the way easy—unless, indeed, I consider (as I do) that every hardship has become, in the end, a supernal blessing. No, I can think of no experience in my life that has not ended in sweetness, in an expansion of love, and in deep gratefulness. Forgiveness for wrongs, hurts, betrayals, tests? All I can say is, what tests? what betrayals? what hurts? what wrongs? They were never wrongs, personally, to me.
In all my dealings with Master in the body, I always knew he was on my side: not against anyone or anything else, but supportive of me in all my struggles toward perfection. He responded supportively to my least thought. If I was wrong, he said so in such a way that only I (if others were present) could know what he was talking about. He never blurted out anything. All his words were carefully measured so as to be as understandable and acceptable to me as possible. There was, as I said, a dignity about him that was completely innate and natural. He was, indeed, a king among men, and I think most people felt it instinctively. And everything I ever saw him do or heard him say was completely appropriate to the occasion.
Tara (a sister disciple) once remarked to me about him, “Every time I think I’ve understood him, I find he’s much more than that.” I didn’t say so to her, but I was astonished that anyone could even think of understanding him! To me it seemed like trying to “understand” the ocean. His friendship for each of us was deeply personal, yet he was, for each of us, like a window onto infinity, inviting us to “come outside” and merge in that vastness.
I love my Guru, as he himself wrote about his own guru Swami Sri Yukteswar, “as the spoken voice of silent God.” He was ever, and is now more than ever, my nearest, dearest companion. If I am right, I feel his inner smile. If I am wrong, I feel his inner encouragement to do better.
He is on my side in every struggle against delusion. Could anyone be a better, truer friend than that?
This will be brief.
Yesterday, someone who had just read my essay on my love for my Guru suggested to me, “It would be wonderful if you would write further articles on each of Master’s outstanding qualities.”
I disagreed, for as I pointed out, “Master was beyond all qualities: triguna rahitam, beyond all the three gunas, or qualities, especially as they are expressed in human nature.” To describe even his friendship for us as a quality is, in the highest sense of the term, a misnomer. His friendship for us is God’s love, channeled through that human vehicle. Our love for Master himself must be not only for him personally, but above all for God through him.
One time Norman, a brother disciple, wrote Master a note that said, “When I see you, I see only Divine Mother in you.” Master, who was humility itself, might have disclaimed his own unworthiness of such a comparison. Instead, he quietly replied, “Then behave accordingly.”
For this reason I asked that my letter be withdrawn from In Divine Friendship (a book of my letters) concerning a quality of Master’s: his enormous will power. I had described that as the foremost of his qualities in which, it seems to me, all of his disciples share. I withdrew that letter because I realized, later, that it wasn’t adequate. What true disciples share is something much deeper, and perhaps not even something that can be put into words: a subtle attunement with his special ray of the Divine Consciousness.
Several people have told me, or have written to say, that, as I feel toward Master, so they feel toward me. I had a dream last night which may help to clarify that thought. I won’t relate the dream itself, as it was personal, but I took it as a warning from Master to pass on to all of you.
The essential difference between attunement with Master and attunement with me is that Master lives eternally in cosmic consciousness, whereas I am still struggling to reach that state. What he channels to us is the Infinite Lord Himself. What I am able to channel to you is whatever I have succeeded so far in experiencing within myself of Master’s consciousness. That I feel his bliss is a cause of deep gratitude for myself. But I feel it is very important for everyone to realize that whatever I have to give anyone is not, and must never become, personal. To the extent that anyone takes it as such it can be binding not only for that person, but also, potentially, for me.
Therefore I plead with you—for my own sake quite as much as for yours: “See me only as a channel for our Guru.” I try my best to serve you in that capacity, and am grateful if, to any extent, I succeed in that effort. If, however, I seem to be for some of you—if only by default!—the best instrument you’ve found during your search, please always remember for what, and for whom, this instrument lives. I have no other desire than to bring you closer to God by bringing you into deeper spiritual attunement with my Guru.
He is our actual, ever-living channel to God.
Please never forget this important distinction. And please always remember it in your own dealings with others who come to Master through you, if they seek you out for inspiration and guidance.