By Swami Vidyatmananda
This is an edited transcript of a talk given at the Hollywood Vedanta Society in 1981. Swami Vidyatmananda was a monk at the Vedanta Society of Southern California for many years before he was transferred to the Centre Vedantique-Ramakrishna in Gretz, France where was the Center’s manager until his death in 2000. An accomplished writer, Swami Vidyatmananda was the editor of What Religion Is and was one of the editors of the journal Vedanta in the West.
I remember clearly the first time I came here and viewed from where you are sitting now him sitting here, on a wooden box, a kind of elevated asana. Probably it was in December of 1948. I walked in that door, took a seat on the aisle, looked at this chapel, with its marvelous candles and decorations, and the smell of incense, and I thought, “Well, well, well!” Because thirty-two or thirty-three years ago Hindu things were simply not as common as they are today, and I was a person who had a conservative religious background. People were not making the change from protestantism or atheism in those days to Vedanta with as much facility as they are now. And I wondered, “Can I make the great modification of that sort?” I had read, of course, the books. I was convinced that the truth was truly to be found in Vedanta. And later I realized that the teacher who was here was one capable of helping find that truth.
The real conversion occurred on New Year’s Eve that same year. We had then, as I believe there still is, a custom of doing arati at midnight. And I was here. And as the arati was performed, and we could hear the sound of jubilation rising from the city below I thought, “Well, I guess I’ve made it to the other side.” So that was how it all began, and I never thought I would be here in this position, saying these words, but I’m thankful that I am.
What shall we talk about this evening? I was reflecting on it all afternoon and I thought, Most of us here have either known Swami Prabhavananda or have heard about him, so why not simply recall together as old friends some of the things that he taught us, some of his sayings which I remember, and so I’ve made a list of half a dozen or so to remind you, and to remind myself.
I had an interesting experience yesterday when arriving at Immigration. The Immigration officer said, “What is your occupation?” Now as we reach a certain point in our life we really begin to ask ourselves, what is our occupation? Because what we think we have been all these years, we find we haven’t really been at all.
So I thought, well, what am I? Am I a farmer? It’s true that we have a farm at Gretz and we do quite a lot of farm work, but I wouldn’t say I’m a farmer.
Am I a hotel keeper? That is perhaps a bit more to the point. Because, as you know, Gretz welcomes people who come to make retreats there, and we try to make them as comfortable as we can.
Am I a writer? Well, maybe a little, but not really. A speaker? Certainly not.
An animateur? That’s the word in French. You can say it easily in English—animator. It’s a very good French word and it means the kind of person that in an organization, or in an association, that sort of makes things go. You might say the sports-master on a cruise ship would be an example of an animateur. Yes, I am that to some extent.
Then I thought, No, I’m none of those things. What I am—and the only thing that I am—is a devotee. We finally end up realizing that all else is of little interest, of passing interest, but our occupation as well as our avocation is to be a devotee. We realize this at a certain point.
So let me look at the list I made of things that we have learned.
After I took sannyas—final monastic vows—Swami Prabhavananda told me the following: “Nothing—remember, nothing bad can ever happen to you again. It may be bad, it may seem bad, but it won’t be bad for you.”
Now that’s a very curious statement. Because it seems to contradict itself. But if you reflect a little bit on it you see exactly what it means. It means this—that, having put yourself in His hands, having taken your stand as a devotee—both as occupation and avocation—whatever happens, we must believe and know, must be good for you.
And as you go on with your life you realize that He is pulling all the strings. Events that seem impossibly terrible at the moment—disasters—at the moment, somehow or another twist themselves around—or you get twisted around, that’s probably the case—so that later on, well, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Another saying was: “Feel for others … you must learn to feel for others.” Hum? Now, what does that mean? That’s a very difficult thing to do. Because we are always acting and reacting in terms of our own point of view. And if the other doesn’t seem to fall in with that point of view, or seems to be in opposition to it, or seems to be ignorant of it, we immediately consider that person at fault. Feel for others means somehow or other trying to think through that person’s brain, see through that person’s eyes. Of course that doesn’t come quickly or easily and it seems to me that as we go on suffering in our own lives and realize how often we are wrong, we begin at last to see how other people feel about certain things, and sympathy which is love—or love which is sympathy—somehow begins to stir a bit in us.
Now I’m going to give you a very astonishing saying. It is extremely cryptic. And I won’t even try and interpret it. It happened—I heard it—on an occasion when Swami Prabhavananda asked me to go with him to the High Sierras as his cook—which was a very foolish thing for him to have done. But it was a great privilege for me. As you know, rice does not boil at the same temperature, or water doesn’t boil at the same temperature, in the High Sierras as it does at this level. So the main ingredient of his diet was somewhat doubtful in terms of its being properly boiled. And after one day or two days of suffering in silence Swami said to me in great irritation, “If a person doesn’t know how to cook rice he doesn’t know how to do anything!”
Another curious thing I heard Swami Prabhavananda say more than once: “I’ve never suffered in my life.” Now all of us know that he suffered, but he did say that. This was because I wrote in my very freshman days here at the Vedanta Society an article called “Suffering” and his response later on—not at the moment (he was very encouraging in the early days about things like that)—was, “I’ve never suffered a moment in my life.” Now how can we interpret that?
We can interpret it according to a high level, because basically if one has their feet planted firmly on one’s faith, and one has taken refuge in this faith, then he or she does not suffer in the same sense as people who are simply torn by the slings and arrows of everyday life.
But as I’ve reflected on that, it seems to me that this state can come to us if somehow we get our life organized. We suffer because we have incompatible desires. We are torn by all sorts of alternating currents.
So I come to the concept of sacrifice. I think that until we somehow or other make up our minds that we are a living sacrifice, we will suffer. But when we come to the point, if we are so lucky, that we can say, “All right, I’m not holding anything back and I am not trying to preserve a particular situation or position or privilege, or expect the appreciation and even the approval of others—then our life reaches a point where there isn’t very much conflict in it, in so far as human relations are concerned and incompatible desires.
And then a certain kind of happiness, a kind of low-key happiness, not the kind we were looking for before, but a kind of low-key happiness begins to take over. The existentialist says, “I am responsible for everything in this universe.” Well, we say, “I am not responsible for anything in this universe. I am simply here to serve.”
I often tell our young monks in Gretz, who don’t want to do this or don’t want to do that, or refuse to do this or hesitate about doing that, “As long as you’re holding yourself back, you won’t be happy.” Just make yourself a sacrifice. Sooner or later you will have to. And then, as you can say with our Swami Prabhavananda, “I’ve never suffered a moment in my life.”
I’d like to quote a saying of Mahatma Gandhi. He says, “Truth brings joy.” He said, “First of all I felt that truth was God, then I came to see that God is truth. And truth brings joy. If it doesn’t, it isn’t truth.” If it doesn’t bring joy it isn’t truth.
The next saying I wish to bring back to your attention is one everyone knows perfectly well, “Meditate, meditate, meditate.” And I would add that that certainly includes doing japam [the repetition of the Lord’s Name]. I’m a great believer in japam. It was forced upon me, but I must say it was effective.
You can easily test what meditation does for you. I’m not talking about it to bring you into a state of ecstasy and nirvana. I’m talking about the daily practice of regularly going and sitting.
Suppose you go on vacation. Your whole routine is upset. In the morning, instead of going to your room where you meditate or to the chapel, you decide to take a swim. And in the evening, instead of thinking that six o’clock is the time to be quiet for an hour, you think, This is a good time to go down to the restaurant or horseback riding or go for a walk. You find after a few days—this has happened to me so I know—that a certain finesse, a certain edge to your recollection, becomes a bit blunted. And you think, I will be glad to get back to my regular practices again. Because distractions don’t distract. That is a conclusion that one comes to, distractions don’t distract.
Then I remember him saying—very often to me, perhaps oftener to me than to some—“Always be positive.” This is a very simple saying, yet how easy it is not to be positive. How easy it is to be negative and I think particularly when we criticize mentally or verbally others, we are going against this suggestion to always be positive.
Silence is better, if one can possibly keep silent.
I get a great inspiration from—on this particular subject—from Swami Ritajananda [then the head of the Vedanta Society in Gretz], who is very positive. There is in France a very well-known popular singer who is easily compared in France to big name singers here. He’s made many records, popular records. And like some others, his success was too much, and he went through a nervous breakdown, divorce, drugs and the whole thing. He has no interest whatsoever in religion, but somewhere or other he heard that there was a holy man—not a holy man, a seer in Gretz, and so he began to come. He was simultaneously going to a psychiatrist.
Swami Ritajananda received him every time, anytime, night or day, anytime he wanted to come and it was always the same—a desperate story of depression and lack of self-confidence, failure in the midst of success. And I always said, “Well, Swami, haven’t you had enough of this now? There doesn’t seem to be any improvement.” And Swami Ritajananda would reply, “No, there doesn’t seem to be any improvement—but he may change. Always again the same—but he may change. He hasn’t yet—but he may change.” So that’s always being positive.
Swami Prabhavananda always said, “If someone asks you to pray for them, what do you do?” I asked, “What do you do?” He said, “Tell them that you will pray for them, and mentally put them at the feet of the Lord.” And this has always been my practice and still is.
So there was a call from a woman, and she said, “My teenage son is very terrible toward me. He even hits me. Will you please do something?”
I thought, I will do what I had been taught to do and I said, “Please tell me your name, not your family name but your first name, and the name of your son, not the family name, I’m not interested. And I will pray for him.” So she told me her name, and she told me his name, Henri.”
“Yes, madame, I shall do it.”
“Well, sir, would you also pray for Francois?”
Well now it’s twice as many. “Yes, if you wish.”
“And also Jean-Pierre.” It seems there’s quite a big family there.
“And Eileen, and the twins, Christian et Christienne.”
So I did as requested—put them all, this entire group at the feet of the Lord. Then she called back sometime later and she said, “I want to tell you that things are really very much better.” (You see, it gives confidence to the people themselves. That, perhaps, is the psychology of it.) But she said, “It’s Bruno that’s causing the trouble now.”
I said, “Bruno? But you didn’t mention Bruno!”
And she said, “I know, and that’s why he’s acting so badly.”
Here’s another saying of Swami Prabhavananda: “Oh, what patience it takes! Oh what patience it takes!”
You see, evolution is a very slow thing. And we see things from our standpoint in looking at the young who are beginning their spiritual practice from a rather different position, and we wonder, “Well, why in the world doesn’t he see that immediately?” “Why doesn’t she quickly grasp the situation?” Well, it just doesn’t happen that way. It takes patience.
But without patience you won’t accomplish anything in dealing with such situations. Patience—love—that’s the only way I know—and trying to give a good example—that’s the only way I know of helping anybody.
Then there is another one of Swami Prabhavananda’s sayings: “Never give up the struggle.” And this is often coupled with another saying, “There is no failure in spiritual life.”
There is no failure in spiritual life. We find that clearly set forth as well in the Bhagavad Gita. Even if you seem to fail or stop, what has been gained will not be lost. It is stored—put in a kind of deposit from which you can draw the next time around. Someone was saying to me today, “Isn’t it remarkable that when I first started leading a spiritual life I had this idea of doing such and such?” Those things we arrive with are things that we have learned and which we get the fruit of the next time round. But that is a rather lazy way of looking at things. I prefer the other saying, “Don’t give up the struggle.” Never give up the struggle.
This was very clearly brought to our attention here once by a dream that one of the members had, who was in a very discouraged condition and somehow or other the cry of the heart was answered by a dream. And in the dream this disciple was on a train. And the train stopped as they often do. The disciple was going to get down, and the train would naturally go on. Then a voice was heard saying, “Don’t get off the train.” And this solved the problem.
We all know this, but just keeping it in mind is a good thing. As long as we stay on the train we will keep moving, but if we get down, then it’s an entirely different thing. Never give up the struggle.
Another saying—which I’d put among Swami Prabhavananda’s cryptic sayings—was, “Never sit on the threshold of a door.” You see, we have a wooden threshold in the temple here between the outer and the inner shrine. And because then, as now, I liked a little support under me while meditating, I took to sitting on that slightly elevated wooden threshold. Which, from my background, was not an extraordinary thing to do.
Then after one or two occasions, I think it was Swami Krishnananda who was sent to me to tell me that we do not sit on the threshold and it was explained that the gods of the door, the protectors of the entryway are there—and they don’t like it. Which, of course to my western way of thinking, made perfect sense!
But the truth of the matter is far deeper and subtler than that. It consists of making a commitment: either be in or be out. Don’t be half-way between. It shows a certain lack of decision. A certain “foot in two camps” psychology. And whether there are gods protecting the lintel or not, I don’t know. But I can understand perfectly that if you are going to be in the shrine, be in the shrine. If you are going to be in the outer shrine, be in the outer shrine. But don’t try to be in both at the same time. And that is an easy thing to apply to our lives. Make clear, strong decisions. No shilly-shallying, wishy-washy business. Commitment.
The next teaching that I wish to bring to your mind is: “Never lower the ideal.”
This is something that is very important for religious organizations to keep in mind as well as individuals. Because that sharp enthusiasm naturally becomes somewhat blunted with the passage of time, and we may begin to make compromises. But we must keep in mind that, even if we don’t achieve our ideal at once, we must always remember that the ideal is an ideal and should not be tampered with.
One may admit clearly and openly, “I have not been able to achieve the ideal.” But one should never attempt to justify one’s performance in terms of lowering the ideal—for success reasons, or for reasons of comfort, or for any other sort of reason.
We have seen so many religious movements—so-called religious movements—in the West which seem to make everything very easy. But that is not our way. Even if Vedanta remains small—and it still does remain small, at least in the West—we must be faithful to Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sarada Devi who lived the highest realization, the highest virtue as our ideal, the highest knowledge as our ideal, the highest devotion. We cannot bring that ideal down to make things go a bit better. So far, I think, we are keeping up the standard.
Then I would remind you of what Swami Prabhavananda always said: “Our objective is transformation of personality. Sometimes he said, “Our objective is samadhi and nothing less.” That certainly is keeping the ideal high. He sometimes said, “My only hope for my disciples is that they should become men and women of God.” That is really what we are struggling for, to become men and women of God.
I like the American enthusiasm for transformation of personality. There are any number of books and programs which are devoted to that. But transformation of personality in terms of it becoming transformed into a spiritual personality—not simply a personality that is very interesting or who attracts other people or produces success—but a spiritual personality is what is needed.
To close this evening’s talk, I’d like to conclude with a prayer of Ramakrishna:
Oh Mother, I don’t want name and fame;
don’t want the eight occult powers;
Oh Mother, I have no desire for creature comforts;
Grant me the boon that I may have pure love
For Thy lotus feet.