Friendship, Yogananda used to say, is the most rewarding human experience, being free from any compulsion. Even in a mother’s love there is a certain natural compulsion: the thought of her children as hers. Were her child to die and be reborn next door, it is not certain she would have the same love for it, even if she felt for it a certain natural affection.
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 uplift, and that is something it does not always do. So long as it is between egos, it may only strengthen the ego.
There is much to be said, all the same, for human friendship, even when its benefit is primarily to the ego. Experiments have been done on plants showing that when even a plant is given love, it flourishes, whereas if love is denied it, its growth may be stunted. Moreover, if hate is directed toward it, it may even wither and die. Friends are like that. Even if they offer only ego-balm, a healthy ego is much more to be desired than a crippled, sickly one that is forever unsure of itself, inwardly wilting, and cringing from everything and everybody.
Though much might be said, then, of the possible negative influences of ordinary human friendship, basically it is something all human beings need.
I have in many respects in this life been fortunate, but perhaps in nothing so much as in two inborn qualities: never to be influenced in my opinions of others by their opinion of me; and never to feel tempted to justify myself (not even to myself) when I knew I was in the wrong. These qualities have been my strength. I think that true friendship must spring, not from need, but from inner strength, for in this way it can be purely giving.
A 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 their errors. As my Guru put it, “If you try to talk to them of higher things, they may reply jovially, ‘Oh, come on, have a drink!’” This is friendship?
Too often, in other words, a person’s apparent friends are actually the enemies of 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, and will not condemn you hastily for any disagreement, nor separate himself from you in sympathy because of any divergence of opinion. There is dignity in such a relationship, and mutual respect—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, as a child and youth, of many close friendships, for I was never in one place long enough to form them. I lived in Teleajen (Romania), true, till I was nine, 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 abroad 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, N.Y.; 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, S.C.; 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 was intellectually proud. I became infected with that pride. My intellect being perhaps my strong point, it also became my weakest 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 like to enjoy with one another. I was too young to be more than always in deep awe of him. For me, to be with him was like being in the presence of God Himself. Yet I used to ask him endless questions—more, perhaps, than any other disciple. And he answered me freely, for he wanted me to understand. Again, he would joke with me, and I (who have always had a keen sense of humor) would joke back. Yet I always held him also a little at a distance, never quite confident of myself in his presence.
That much said, however, he was, with me, not at all the kind of stern disciplinarian some of his disciples have described. He was kind, forgiving, endlessly and deeply understanding, supportive of all my, and our, human feelings and failings—not, indeed of the failings themselves, but of us. He showed himself ever anxious to help us to mature and grow out of 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 (about face), but I said to him the next day, “Please, Master, scold me more often.” Looking at me deeply and 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, even though no one else would have even noticed him doing so. One day he said to me lovingly, “Keep on with your devotion. 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 was visiting, on purpose to see him. As soon as we met, he responded warmly, “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 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 couldn’t tolerate disorder! Master was always very strict!” These things have been said to justify the disciple’s own lack of kindness, sympathy, and simple charity. But I remember one time (I’ve quoted it elsewhere in these essays) he came into the monks’ dining room and found it, quite embarrassingly, in utter chaos. His only comment 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 to me in that way. He did so purely for my benefit.
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 head and murmured approvingly, “Very good.” The scoldings stopped. He had wanted to break her of excessively human attachment.
With those who were not his disciples, he was affability itself: kindly, warm, accepting, wholly forgiving. 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 kind of familiarity no one else would have ever dreamed of: putting his arms around Master, laughing jovially, and I don’t know what else. 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 softly, 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 some of that dignity.
Another time, as he was entering a hotel, a drunken stranger came up to him, embraced him, and cried, “Hello, Jeshush Chrisht!”
“Hello,” Master responded affably, then shared with him a taste of the inner bliss he himself experienced. “Shay! What’re you drinkin’?” demanded the man.
“I can tell you this: 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. 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 Master by talking against him. At one moment during that visit 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 horror 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.”)
Master simply accepted people as they were, never with a breath of criticism, but ever lovingly. It often surprised me to see how total was his acceptance. People whom I myself might have turned away from with distaste, Master treated kindly, often with a gentle but always dignified smile.
Not everyone, by any means, understood him. I’ll never forget Master’s neighbor at Twenty-Nine Palms, when that man gave one of my brother disciples his opinion of the Master. Master used to share fruits with him, an act of generosity that seemed, to this man, beyond comprehension. One day the fellow said, “You know, he’s a little [making a circular movement by his head to indicate someone a little ‘tetched’ in the head], but,” he added almost fervently, “he’s got a heart of gold!”
Master was a true friend to everybody. He saw all as his very own. That is why, wherever he went, he always found friends eager to help him.
Yet, when someone came to him and asked to be accepted as a disciple, he saw his responsibility as a 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 hard 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, of the slightest impulse either to act or react. People—perhaps men, especially—who are without personal motivation are often misunderstood by others, bound as almost all are by personal desires. Master had many self-styled enemies who fancied they saw in him someone dark, scheming for subtle, hidden ends which he was not frank enough to admit openly, and which must therefore (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 that strength, also, which 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 ever have.
Only consider his poem, “God’s Boatman.” He promised in that poem 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 need 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 to God’s kingdom. How many times, I have often wondered, has he returned here already in perfect freedom? I have good reason to believe he has been coming back for many thousands of years, 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 come out again. The divine bliss is too perfectly satisfying to them. They’ve suffered enough in attaining it. All they want, now, is eternal and complete rest in Him. What did our Guru want from us? Nothing! Nothing, that is, but our own 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, surely, could be greater 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 inner freedom, filling me with inner bliss.
He hasn’t made the way easy—unless, indeed, we consider that every hardship has turned out, in the end, to be 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 gratitude. Forgiveness for wrongs, hurts, betrayals, tests? All I can say is, what tests? what betrayals? what hurts? what wrongs? They were never wrongs to me, personally.
In all my dealings with Master when he was in the body, I always knew he was on my side: not against anyone or anything else, but supportive of me in 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 we were in a group) 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 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 our Guru, “Every time I think I’ve understood him, I find he’s much more than that.” I didn’t say so to her, but it astonished me 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 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 friend than that?