One sometimes hears the lament, “There are too many denominations in Christendom.” Yet I dare say that even if there were only one, there would still be as many different forms of Christianity as there are Christians. For every man’s understanding is conditioned by his own special experiences, his aspirations, his outlook on life — in short, by what he is. He might recite the Nicene Creed in church every Sunday, yet attach meanings to it that would surprise some of his fellow worshipers. In reciting the Lord’s Prayer, children have been heard to say, “Give us this day our jelly bread,” and, “Lead us not into Penn Station.” We smile at their innocence. But are we so sure that we ourselves really know all that is intended in the Lord’s Prayer, or in the Credo?
The same problem confronts us in our efforts to understand one another. Even those people to whom we feel nearest are closed books to us in certain parts of their being, as I had been to my mother in the urgency of my desire for truth, and for God. (And in that case she might have been more open, for before my birth she had deliberately given me to God.) What, then, of a God-realized master? Is it worthwhile even trying to comprehend the vastness of his nature?
Whenever fellow disciples spoke to me — as they sometimes did — of trying to “understand” Master, I would marvel. It struck me as rather like trying to understand the universe! The task that Infinity places squarely on the shoulders of every human being is just this: “Understand thyself — know thyself.” To study the life of a master with the purpose, not of understanding him, but of obtaining deeper insight into one’s own true nature, and into one’s own potential for divine unfoldment: this is the wise use of discrimination.
Master himself was, to each of us, like a flawless, highly polished mirror. What came back to us from him was not his opinions of us, but our own higher Self’s reaction to any lower attitude we projected. His perfect self-transcendence never ceased to amaze me. In another person’s company he actually, in a sense, became that person. I don’t mean that in our company he assumed our weaknesses, our pettiness, our moods of anger or despondency. What he showed us, rather, was the silent watcher at the center of our own selves.
An amazing feature of my own relationship with him was that I could never clearly remember what he looked like. I needed a photograph of him to bring his image clearly to mind. Even among such photographs, I have never seen any two of them exactly alike. When he is shown posing with someone else, in some subtle way he actually looks like that person. Shown with the imposing and slightly portly Señor Portes Gil, the President of Mexico, he somehow looks imposing and portly like Señor Gil. Posed with small, fragile-looking Amelita Galli-Curci, the great opera singer, he looks unaccountably like her. Photographed with Goodwin J. Knight, Lieutenant Governor of California, he appears almost to be Mr. Knight’s alter ego.(1) Standing with any disciple, he seems to become that disciple. One wonders how a single face could display such a wide variety of expressions. But of course it was not his face that changed: it was the consciousness behind it. Master went a step beyond seeing the god in each of us: He became that god, in order that we might see for ourselves our own divine potential, and understand better how the Lord wanted to express Himself through us.
Ah, Master! If only I had comprehended as clearly then as I do now the miracle of your gift to us! But had I done so, I suppose by this time I would be making the same lament, on a deeper level. For evolution never ceases, until at last time itself becomes timelessness, and the ends we seek end in endlessness.
In his training of us, Master’s teaching was individual also. It was not that he altered his basic teachings to suit our personal needs. Rather, it was his emphasis that varied. To some he stressed attitudes of service; to others, deep inwardness. To one he emphasized the need for greater joy; to another, for less levity. His emphasis was to a great extent too subtle to be phrased in words. He conveyed it by some intonation of the voice, by an expression in the eyes, or by a tilt of the head. What he said to one person he might never say to anyone else. In a very real sense he was, to each of us, our very own, very personal, divine friend.
In the work we did, one might have expected him to honor that basic principle of every well-run institution: “Make the best use of individual talent.” To Master, however, this practice would have meant using us. His true concern, always, was for our spiritual needs. Sometimes he would actually take us away from some important assignment — one, perhaps, for which no one else could be found — simply to meet some spiritual need of our own. Sometimes, too, he placed people in positions for which they weren’t qualified, with a view to prompting them, in their struggle to meet his expectations, to develop needed spiritual qualities. At other times he gave us work we disliked — not particularly because we would be good for that work (I recall a job of carpentry he once put me on: For every time my hammer hit the nail, there must have been nine others that I missed it), but because the work would be good for us. Perhaps it was that we needed to learn some spiritual quality — for example, to overcome a natural unwillingness, which I myself had for carpentry.
Sometimes he would not place people in positions for which they were eminently qualified, simply because they no longer needed those particular experiences in order to grow spiritually. One might have thought, for instance, that he would have called upon his most advanced disciples to help him with the ministry. In fact he did say that he appointed only those as ministers who, in former lives, had developed the requisite spiritual qualifications. Along with those qualifications, however, was the still-more-pressing question of what we ourselves needed, to grow spiritually.
Speaking to me once of Saint Lynn, his most highly advanced disciple, he said, “He was leading a center in Kansas City years ago, but I asked him to give it up. Service in that capacity was no longer necessary to him for his spiritual development.”
Sister Gyanamata, his most advanced woman disciple, and deeply wise, could have rendered enormous assistance by giving lectures, teaching classes, and writing articles for the SRF magazine. But Master never asked her to serve in any such role. That kind of work simply wasn’t necessary to her for her spiritual growth. In fact, in the spring of 1949 I tried to get her, along with several other senior disciples, to write articles for Self-Realization Magazine, which Master had asked me to “spruce up” and make more helpful and attractive to the general reader. “Fill it,” he told me, “with short, practical articles on the techniques and principles of right living — articles that will help people on every level: physical, mental, and spiritual.”
I wanted to enlist as many disciples as possible in this worthy project, and naturally thought that, the more spiritually developed a writer, the better his or her article would be. To my surprise, however, neither Sister Gyanamata nor any of the others I’d hoped most to hear from responded to my appeal.
Indeed, this was my first confrontation with the truth that a master’s training is individual. My first, instinctive response (“Don’t they want to do Master’s will?”) conflicted with my awareness that they must know a great deal more than I about his will. I was forced at last to conclude that, while Master wanted the magazine improved, he didn’t necessarily want every hand on deck to improve it. It was not only a question of what he wanted, but of whom he wanted it from. In fact, I now realize that he was focused on helping me, specifically, to understand better how to reach out to people in their needs.
My own deep-seated desire had always been to share joy with others. Having perhaps suffered spiritually, myself, I felt deeply the spiritual sufferings of others, and longed to do all I could to assuage those sufferings. Master responded to this deep inner longing in me, and trained me from the beginning for public service.
In January 1949 he put me into office work, answering letters. I typed them in my room, since at that time there was no separate office for the monks. At first my letters tended to be too long.
“I once knew a lady novelist,” Master told me one day by way of advice, “who ended her letters, ‘If I’d had more time, this letter would have been shorter.’” He corrected me at other times, too, on the best ways of presenting his teachings to others.
Not long after he’d made me a letter writer, he asked me to study the complete set of the SRF lessons. His stated reason for doing so amused me: “I want your suggestions for their improvement.” His real purpose, I knew, was to get me to study the lessons deeply.
Soon thereafter he also made me the official examiner for students of the printed lessons. This job meant reviewing and grading students’ answers to the tests which, in those days, were sent out at the end of each step.
By these means Master sought to give me a thorough grounding in his teachings.
In March 1949 he asked me also to write articles for our magazine. I began to write under the pen name, Robert Ford. My first endeavor, “You Can Change Your Personality,” was featured in the May-June issue of that year.
One evening Master sent for two or three of us, and talked at length about his work in India. A strong intuition awakened within me that Master would someday send me to that country. Eagerly I jotted down everything he said. A few days later I saw him as he stood on his private upstairs porch.
“I have plans for you, Walter,” he remarked with a quiet smile.
Certain as to his meaning, I was delighted. But after I’d left him, the thought came, “To go to India would mean leaving Master!” The enormity of this threatened loss threw me into a deep depression. “Master is my India!” I cried silently. “What could I possibly find there that I haven’t already, right here?”
Gradually my dark mood left me. As I became calmer, I reflected that Master surely would want nothing of me but what was spiritually for my best. Two days later I saw him again. By this time my depression had vanished.
“No more moods, now,” Master said gently when we met. “Otherwise, how will you be able to help people?”
Every year for the next three years he made plans to go to India, and to take me with him. Each time the trip was postponed. It was his death, finally, which canceled the trip for the third time. I did get sent to India eventually, in 1958, and spent the better part of four years there. Many years later, having completed the founding of seven communities in America and Italy, I decided, as I was approaching the end of my life, to found an eighth community near Pune, India.
Sometime in February or March 1949, Master instructed me to stand outside the Hollywood church after the Sunday morning services and shake hands with people as they left. In his lessons he states that people exchange magnetism when they shake hands. Thus, what Master wanted me to do was not merely greet people, but act as his channel of blessings to others. The first time I tried it, I felt so drained of energy afterward that I actually became dizzy. I suppose what happened was that people unconsciously drew from me, in the thought that I was there as Master’s representative.
“Master,” I said later, “I don’t believe I’m ready for this job.” I explained what had happened.
“That is because you are thinking of yourself,” he replied. “Think of God, and you will find His energy flowing through you.”
His suggestion worked. By holding to the thought of God, I discovered that I actually felt more uplifted, after shaking hands with congregation members, than beforehand.
“When this ‘I’ shall die,” Master once wrote in a rhymed couplet, “then shall I know who am I.”
One of my office jobs was to send weekly announcements to the newspapers to let people know which minister would be speaking at which church the next Sunday, and what his sermon topic would be. Master had been lecturing fortnightly in our San Diego church, alternating weekly between there and Hollywood. During recent months, however, he had taken to going to San Diego only occasionally. The church members there, who naturally wanted to see him, were told to check the church page of the San Diego Union every Saturday. Whenever Master’s coming was announced, the church was filled to overflowing.
One week in May I was instructed to send in the announcement that Master would appear there the following Sunday. It had been at least two months since his last appearance there. I smiled to think how delighted the congregation members would be.
Saturday morning, Bernard came to my room with horrifying news. “Master can’t go to San Diego after all. He wants you to speak in his stead.”
“Me! But… but I’ve never lectured before in my life!”
“He also wants you,” Bernard continued with appalling insouciance, “to give a Kriya Yoga initiation afterwards.”
“What! But my goodness, I’ve only attended one initiation!”
“Two,” Bernard corrected me. “Master also initiated you last October at Twenty-Nine Palms — remember?”
“All right, two. What difference does that make? I mean — well, of course I’ll obey, but.… Oh, those poor people!”
“You’ll only have to initiate one of them,” Bernard consoled me. “Here’s money for the bus. You’d better leave immediately.”
In Encinitas, several hours later, Rev. Michael (later, Brother Bhaktananda) reviewed for me the outlines of the Kriya initiation ceremony. I worked hard on my sermon also. With sinking heart I drove down the next morning to San Diego. In a little room behind the church I prayed desperately for help and guidance. As the time arrived for the service to begin, I went out and sat in the chair at the center of the stage, as was the custom in those days. Through the closed curtains I could clearly hear the murmur of a large and eagerly waiting crowd.
The dreaded moment arrived. I stood up. The curtains parted. My worst fears were realized: The church was completely packed. People were standing in the aisles. Others were craning their heads in through the windows. I could feel the wave of shock as something almost physical. Instead of their long-awaited guru, here before them was an unknown and rather lost-looking boy of twenty-two, asking them if they were — still?—awake and ready. I felt so sorry for them in their disappointment that I overlooked the awkwardness of my own position. If everyone there had walked out, I would have understood. But regular meditation, evidently, had made them gracious. No one left.
The Kriya initiation that afternoon frightened me even more than the service. Michelle Evans, the lady I initiated, looked as terrified as I was — infected, as she later admitted to me, by my own insecurity. Master’s blessings, however, powerfully present, soon dispelled all my anxiety. The ceremony went smoothly. I returned to Mt. Washington that afternoon, bowed, perhaps, but unbloodied.
Later, Master received compliments on my lecture. “Most of all,” he reported, pleased, “they liked your humility.” Humility, I reflected, under the circumstances had been virtually unavoidable!
In case anyone wonders at Master’s willingness to disappoint so many people, I can only point out that, if his reason for doing so had been some special need of his own, there were other experienced teacher-disciples whom he could have called upon. Since he chose me, he can only have had in mind some reason concerning myself. Over the succeeding months, he made it increasingly clear to me that he was counting on me to spread his message far afield. My youth and inexperience were not, for him, the issue that they were quite naturally for me. He saw us, as he often indicated, in terms of the past lives we had spent with him, and not only of the present life.
He didn’t place the same importance on length of discipleship in this lifetime that others — notably, often, the disciples themselves — did. Often I heard him quote the words of Jesus Christ, “The last shall be first.” His meaning was also, “those who last until the end.” What mattered to him most of all, however, as he made clear to us also, was that our relationship with him was “from of old, yea, from everlasting.” Those who came to him late in this life might also have done so because they had a role to play long after he had left his body.
From the time of my San Diego church experience onward, Master had me lecture regularly there and in the Hollywood church. He also began referring to me publicly as “Reverend Walter,” though the actual formalities of ordination weren’t completed until a year later.
“Your desire to be happy,” he often told us, “must include others’ happiness.” I had long known in my heart that I would be called upon someday to serve others through teaching and lecturing. But whether out of the humility that Master sometimes praised in me, or from darker motives of unwillingness, it was several years, I’m afraid, before I could bring myself to believe that my lectures really did anyone any good.
Master made it clear, however, that he expected me to take this responsibility seriously. “Sir,” I once pleaded with him, “I don’t want to be a lecturer!”
“You’d better learn to like it,” he replied pleasantly. “That is what you will have to do.”
At informal gatherings of the monks he would usually direct his conversation to me, as if to get me to absorb his philosophy to my depths. At such times I would think, “It must be because I’m so superficial that he won’t let me close my eyes and meditate in his presence.” For such was the inspiration I felt in his presence that my desire was to deepen the experience of it, inwardly. Master was responding, however, to more deep-seated tendencies in my nature — and was subtly emphasizing that the work of absorbing his teachings, and of sharing them with others, was what I myself needed, to grow.
- These three photographs may be seen in two publications of Self-Realization Fellowship: the Golden Anniversary booklet, and Paramahansa Yogananda, in Memoriam (p. 81).
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