The Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by Swami Kriyananda
(J. Donald Walters)
Direct Disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda
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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 bathe, then continued by bus one hundred miles south to Encinitas, the little coastal town where, as I had read, Yogananda had his hermitage. In the fervor of first reading it had somehow eluded me that he had founded a world-wide organization. Perhaps I had subconsciously "tuned out" this information from my long-standing fear of religious institutionalism. In my mind, this little seaside hermitage was all that existed of his work.
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 past picturesque gardens, colorful with ice plant and bougainvillea. Many of the flowers I saw there were new to me. The vividness of their hues made a vigorous contrast to the more conservative flowers in the East–a contrast, I was to discover, that extended to numerous other aspects of life on the two coasts.
I approached the hermitage with bated breath. Yogananda, I recalled from his book, once visited a saint without sending prior notice that he was coming. He hadn't yet reached the saint's village when the man came out to welcome him. Did Yogananda, too, I asked myself, know I was coming? And would he, too, come out and greet me?
No such luck. I entered the grounds through an attractive gate, to find on both sides of the driveway a large, beautifully kept garden–trees to the left, a wide lawn to the right. At the far end of the driveway stood a lovely white stucco building with a red tile roof. I imagined disciples quietly going about inside, doing simple chores, their 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. The white palm beach suit I was wearing, moreover, 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 or Havana. My unusual appearance, together with my obvious unfamiliarity with Yogananda's name, must have given the impression that I was a serviceman of some sort.
"Oh, you've come to check the water?"
"No!" Gulping, I repeated, "Is Paramhansa Yogananda in?"
"Who? Oh, yes, I see. No, I'm afraid he's away for the weekend. Is there anything 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'd always imagined that Hollywood consisted of nothing but movie studios. My astonishment must have struck my hostess as unseemly. After all, why shouldn't they have a church in a big city like Hollywood? Soon it became apparent to me that I wasn't making the best possible impression.
Well, I thought, perhaps it did seem a bit strange, my barging in here and asking to speak to the head of the organization, and–worse still–not even realizing that he had an organization. My hostess 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 bit coolly I thought.
"Lessons?" I echoed blankly. "I didn't know he had any lessons to be studied." My position seemed to be getting murkier by the minute.
"There's a full course of them. I'm afraid you couldn't join," she continued firmly, "until after 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, to her, must have seemed my absurd presumption in assuming I had merely to appear on the scene to be welcomed joyously with cries of, "You've arrived!" In fact, the requirement for joining was not so strict as she made it out to be. But it is usual, and also quite proper, for the spiritual aspirant's sincerity to be tested.
It looked less than proper to me at the time, however. It was only later that I learned that my hostess had been Sister Gyanamata, Paramhansa Yogananda's most advanced woman disciple. She herself, it happened, because she had been married, had had to wait years before she could enter the hermitage. The mere prospect of a wait must not have seemed to her very much of a test.
Well, I reflected rebelliously, this wasn't Yogananda's verdict. Choking down my disappointment, I inquired how I might get to the Hollywood church. Sister Gyanamata 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 heated indignation (at her presumption!) and desperate prayers for my acceptance. 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 hostess, my mind was about to wax indignant once more 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 realized. "Forgive me," I prayed, "for misjudging her. It was wrong of me in any case to think unkindly of her. She was only doing her duty. But I see now that she is a great soul. Forgive me."
A cloud seemed suddenly to lift inside 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, where the church was located. It was about three o'clock in the afternoon. The morning service had long since ended, and, apart from a small scattering of people, the building 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 before her on the table. "His appointments are fully booked for the next two and a half months."
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 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 my whole life to me!"
Two or three of the people sitting in the church were monks whose residence was 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 gentle and kind. 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 knew already that this appellation, which Yogananda used also in reference to his own guru, denoted reverence, not menial subservience.
How 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 sitting quietly farther back in the church.
"They want to join, 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 for this reason the doors weren't opening for me. If this were true, I decided, I'd just go 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 know it, and would summon me.
With this resolution in mind, and with no small disappointment in my heart, I made for the door.
No doubt I'd needed this lesson in humility. Perhaps things had always gone too easily for me. Perhaps I was too confident. At any rate, the moment I accepted the thought that I actually might not be spiritually ready, the situation changed dramatically. I had reached the door when the secretary–Mary Hammond, I later learned her name was–came up from 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, I knew from Yogananda's book, a traditional gesture of reverence among Indians; it is bestowed on parents and other elders as well as on one's guru. A moment later, the Master and I were alone.
What large, lustrous eyes now greeted me! What a compassionate 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 irresistibly from my heart. 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 in my heart I prayed desperately, "You must take me! I know that you know my thoughts. I can't say it outwardly; I'd only weep. 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 from so far. 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 female principles.
There followed some discussion of my past. He appeared 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 to be accepted.
"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 in a worldly life. "I'm sure it's fine for many people," I said, "but I don't want it for myself."
He shook his head. "It isn't as fine for anybody as people like to make out. God, for everyone, is the only answer!" 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's because it has my vibrations in it," he replied simply.
Vibrations? I'd never thought of books as possessing "vibrations" before. But, clearly, I had found his book almost alive in its power to convey, not merely ideas, but new states 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 had a need for people with writing skills. To demonstrate my ability, I said:
"Sir, I found several split infinitives in your book." A twenty-two-year-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 humorous, 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 stay.
"No," he smiled. "You have good karma, otherwise I wouldn't accept you."
Gazing at me with deep love, he then said, "I give you my unconditional love."
Immortal promise! I couldn't begin to fathom the depth of meaning in those marvelous words.
"Will you give me your unconditional love?"
"And will you also give me your unconditional obedience?"
Desperate though my desire was to be accepted by him, I wanted to be utterly honest. "Suppose," I asked, "sometime, I think you're wrong?"
"I will never ask anything of you," he replied solemnly, "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 answered, 'in the beginning of the spiritual path one's will is guided by whims and fancies. Mine was, too, until I met my guru, Lahiri Mahasaya. It was only when I attuned my will to his wisdom-guided will that I found true freedom.' In the same way, if you will tune 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 become truly free."
"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 in 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 in 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 had 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 others in 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 onward, my consciousness, in some all-penetrating manner, was transformed.
I left his interview room in a daze. Norman, on hearing the news of my acceptance, embraced me lovingly. It was unusual, to say the least, for a disciple to be accepted so soon. 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."
Copyright 1996 J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda), Trustee