Swami Vidyatmananda: The Making of a Devotee
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Some Sayings of My Guru

A talk by Swami Vidyatmananda on his Guru, Swami Prabhavananda, given in 1981 at the Hollywood Temple of the Vedanta Society of Southern California.

It is with the most profound emotion that I find myself in this position in which for many years I had the great joy in seeing the Swami Prabhavananda.

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 (seat). 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!" (Laughter) 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, "Well, can I make the great modification of that sort." I was convinced that the Truth was truly to be found in Vedanta. And later, of course, I realised that the Teacher 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 one still has — and we have taken it up since then in Gretz — 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 below (laughter) I thought, "Well, I guess I've made it to the other side." (all laugh) Particularly that marvelous "Chant the Name of the Lord and His Glory, especially the lines

That my heart may burn away with its desire
And the world without Thee is a heartless void.

That I knew was really the Truth, but to realize it, of course, that's something else. That really takes years.

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.

So what shall we talk about this evening? I was reflecting on it all afternoon and I thought, well, all of us here have either known Swami Prabhavananda or heard about him, and 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 remind myself.

I had an interesting experience yesterday when arriving at the Immigration. The Immigration officer said, "Well, 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 had been all these years, we find it really isn't 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? (laughter) That is perhaps a bit more to the point (all laugh). 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 — animater. It's a very good French word and it means the kind of person that in an organization, or in an association, sort of makes things go. You might say the sports-master on a cruise ship would be an example of an animateur. Yes, to some extent.

Then I thought, No, I'm none of those things. What I am is — the only thing I am — 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. You realize that at a certain point.

So let me look at the list I made of things that we have learned.

After I took sannyas, Swami 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, of course, 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, and you can who knew him, can hear that, hear him saying that, "Feel for others... Prema, 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 his brain, see through his 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 realise 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 asked me to go with him to the High Sierras as his cook — which was a very foolish thing for him to have done (all laugh). But, of course, a great privilege for me. And 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!" (long laughter)

Another curious thing I heard Swami say more than once, "I've never suffered in my life." Now, of course we know that he suffered, but he did say that. This was because I wrote in my very freshman days here 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) — but later he did say "I've never suffered a moment in my life".

Now how can we interpret that?

Well, we can interpret it, of course, according to a high level, because basically if one is ... has his feet planted firmly on his faith, and one has taken refuge in his faith, then he 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 can come to us also if we make our life, if somehow we get our life organised. 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 boys 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 (reading recently his visit to Romain Rolland in Switzerland in 1931) — and he and Romain Rolland had a wonderful conversation (all of which is recorded in Romain Rolland's Journals) and Gandhi said, "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. I'm a great believer in japam. It was forced upon me and — but I must say it was effective.

You can easily test what meditation does for you. Let us say that — now 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. So, in the morning, of course, instead of going to your room where you meditate or to the chapel, well, 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, well, this is a good time to go down to the restaurant or, whatever it is, 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, "Well, I 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 criticise 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 who is very positive. We have — I give you one example. 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. Simultaneously going to a psychiatrist.

Swami had received him every time, anytime, night or day, anytime he wants to come and it's always the same — a desperate story of depression and lack of self-confidence, failure in the midst of success ... And I always say, "Well, Swami, haven't you had enough of this now. There doesn't seem to be any improvement." "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.

...to call, but we somehow feel that calling and talking may help them. And here in the middle of the night I would often answer such telephone calls. And I must say that the French at least don't call in the middle of the night (laughter). But they call, and you may be amused by this story which is at least partially true (laughter).

Swami 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. And will you please do something?"

So I thought, well, 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 (Henry).

"Yes, madame, I shall do it."

"Well, sir, would you also pray for Francois?"

Well now (Swami laughs) it's twice as many. "Yes, if you wish."

"And also Jean-Pierre." (all laugh) It seems there's quite a big family there.

"And Eileen, (laughter), and the twins, Christian et Christienne."

So I did as requested — put them all, this entire group (laughter) 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!" (all laugh)

And she said, "I know, and that's why he's acting so badly." (long laughter)

Well, here's another one. You've all heard this. "Oh, what patience it takes! Oh Prema, what patience it takes!"

Now, I have heard that from him, and since I have been in a position of — to a very slight extent — trying to look after a few boys, young novices at our own centre, this saying has repeated itself in my mind many times: 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 sadhana* 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, I think you will surely remember this one: "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. Now you 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 emmagasiné — put in a kind of deposit from which you can draw the next time round. Someone was saying to me today, "Isn't it remarkable that when I first came into this 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, of course, 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.

And 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. And so the disciple was going to get down, and the train go on, of course. . . and then a voice was heard saying, "Don't get off the train." And this solved the problem.

Well, we all know, we know this, but just keep putting it in mind is a good thing. As long as you stay on the train you will keep moving, but if you get down, then it's a different thing.

Never give up the struggle.

Another saying, which I'd put among the cryptic sayings — he said to me, "Never sit on the threshold of a door."

You see, we have here a wooden threshold between the outer and the inner shrine. And because then, as now, I liked a little support under me, I took, when meditating, to sitting on that slightly elevated wooden threshold. Which, from my background, was not an extraordinary thing to do.

And 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 Porte are there — and they don't like it. (Laughter) Which, of course (laughing himself) 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 the two at the same time.

And so, that, of course, is an easy thing to apply to our life. Make clear, strong decisions. And, no shilly-shallying, wishy-washy business. Commitment.

The next teaching that I wish to bring — recall to your mind: "Never lower the Ideal."

This is something that is very important for religious organisations to keep in mind. And 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, "No, 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. And which have achieved, it seems, a great success... But that is not our way. Even if Vedanta remains small — and it still does remain small, at least in the West, in the Occident — I think we must be faithful to our Master and Mother who lived the highest realization, the highest virtue as our Ideal, the highest knowledge as our Ideal, the highest devotion. And not bring that 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 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 said sometimes, "My only hope for my children is that they should become men and women of God."

Well ... that is really what we are really 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 programmes 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.

I would like, before finishing, to say something about another teaching that I have learned — this time from Swami Ritajananda, who has been for me a very interesting experience after some 15 or 18 years with Swami Prabhavananda — I have now had the blessing of being with Swami Ritajananda for an equal number of years, more or less, of course.

And this is something that I find a very practical teaching, and which complements all these others that I have already brought to your attention.

Swami uses silence as a response, and it is a most effective response.

You may remember that there was a very interesting event that happened here many years ago which caused the newspaper men and reporters of all the wire-services and the local papers to invade this place for a few hours, for a day or so, trying to get the information, because of the somewhat international interest in the subject.

When they all arrived in their most ferocious manner, and began asking questions to write their stories, I simply didn't know how to handle it. Because we were trying to play the story as calmly and as simply as possible — subtly as possible. And I frantically called a friend of mine, a friend of the Centre, who had worked on newspapers, "What in the world am I going to — how am I to handle this impact of reporters?" And he said, "There are two things you can do. One is call a press conference and give out a story to them all at the same time. And another thing you can do is simply to say, 'No comment'." (laughter)

Actually, we finally did the former. But how often since then I have thought, "What a nice response! `No comment'."

You see, when somebody comes and makes a pointed remark, immediately we fly to our defence, for self-justification, explaining, maybe hurting another person in order to explain.

There's one particular person at Gretz who likes to ...and at first I used to react in justification, but, over the years I simply have learned to smile and say nothing. And after all the wad had been shot (laughter) the person turns around and marches out of the room, and it's all over.

But to have responded ... Silence as a response. I would really like to recommend that as a working basis for everyday life.

Well, we have just about used our hour. I thought, in case I ran out of material — I would have to do as Swami used to tell what he had to do when he ran out of material.

Along about twenty minutes before the hour was finished he had a tendency to finish the sermon and didn't know exactly in his mind, of course, what to do for the rest of the time. And he would always explain like this: "I came to the end of my notes and I didn't know what to say next to fill the hour and I prayed to Mother, `Oh Mother, give me material!' and she did!" (laughter)

And, you see, I talked a whole hour.

Well, I guess that is how I have managed to arrive at nine o'clock.

Shall we just close with a prayer of Ramakrishna:

"Oh Mother, I don't want name and fame;
I don't want the eight occult powers;
Oh Mother,
I have no desire for creature comforts;
Please, Mother,
grant me the boon that I may have pure love
for Thy lotus feet."