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Path: One Man's Quest On the Only Path There Is
by J. Donald Walters (Swami Kriyananda)
Joy Is Inside!
Grows only in the bosom tranquillised,
The spirit passionless, purged from offense,
Vowed to the Infinite. He who thus vows
His soul to the Supreme Soul, quitting sin,
Passes unhindered to the endless bliss
Of unity with Brahma."
Reading these words from the Bhagavad Gita, my imagination was deeply stirred. The task I faced, as I was learning from the excerpts before me, was to calm my thoughts and feelings, to make myself an open and empty receptacle for God's grace. If I did so, so these teachings stated, God would enter my life and fill it.
How different these simple precepts from the meandering theology that I had heard proclaimed from pulpits on Sunday mornings! Here I found no beggarly self-abasementthe weak man's masquerade of humility; no talk of the importance of entering a religious institution as a doorway to heaven; no effort to hold God at a distance with the diplomatic address of formal prayer; no hint at compromising one's spiritual commitment by concern over its social acceptability. What I read here was fresh, honest, and convincing. It gave me extraordinary hope.
One thing that had disturbed me about all the churches I'd visited was their sectarianism. "Ours is the one, the only true way" was a dogma implied even when it wasn't stated. Invariably it suggested that all other ways were false, that even if other groups loved the same God, their message, in some indiscernible manner, was "of the devil."
How different were the teachings I was reading now! All paths, according to them, lead by various routes to the same, infinite goal. "As a mother," one stated, "in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, sago and arrowroot to another, and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out different paths for different men, suitable to their natures."
How beautiful! How persuasive in its utter fairness!
Another point that had always troubled me in my contacts with the churches was their ministers' tendency to discourage questioning. "Have faith," they told me. But what sort of "faith" is it that refuses to submit itself to honest challenges? Could the motive behind such refusal be anything but what it seems on the surface: fear? Fear that one's beliefs are a house built on sand? Even in their efforts to be reasonable, those ministers wore blinders, for while they quoted Scripture to support their beliefs, they never admitted the possibility that those very quotations might have other meanings than those they ascribed to them. Even the closest disciples of Jesus were often scolded by him for mistaking his true meanings. Is it, then, wise and humble for us, who live so far from him in time, to insist that we understand him better? The Scriptures are intended to expand our understanding, not to suffocate it.
But then, as my guru later pointed out to me, one difference between recorded Scriptures and a living teacher is that the seeker's misunderstandings cannot be rebutted, patiently or sharply as the occasion demands, by the pages of a book.
The Indian teachings, unlike those ministers I had known, stressed the need for testing every Scriptural claim. Direct, personal experience of God, not dogmatic or uncritical belief, was the final test they proposed, but they also suggested intermediate tests by which the veriest beginner would know whether he was headed in the right direction, and not slipping off into one of life's innumerable detours.
I had already realized from my own experience that the difference between a right decision and a wrong one can be subtle. I was impressed therefore with teachings that can be verified not only after death, but here on earth, in this lifetime.(16)
These were the teachings for which I had longed. Yes, I vowed again, I would dedicate my life to seeking God! Too long had I delayed, too long vacillated with doubts, too long sought earthly, not divine, solutions to the deepest problems of life. Art? Science? New social structures? What could any of these things do to lift man high, or for very long? Without inner transformation, any outer improvement in the human lot would be like trying to strengthen a termite-ridden building with a fresh coat of paint.
One parable in the reading I was engaged in affected me especially. It was from the sayings of a great saint of the Nineteenth Century, Sri Ramakrishna. Not knowing who he was, I imagined the saying was taken from some ancient Scripture.
"How," Sri Ramakrishna asked, "does a man come to have dispassion? A wife once said to her husband, 'Dear, I am very anxious about my brother. For the past one week he has been thinking of becoming an ascetic, and is making preparations for it. He is trying to reduce gradually all his desires and wants.' The husband replied, 'Dear, be not at all anxious about your brother. He will never become a sannyasin. No one can become a sannyasin in that way.' 'How does one become a sannyasin, then?' asked the wife. 'It is done in this way!' the husband exclaimed. So saying, he tore into pieces his flowing dress, took a piece out of it, tied it round his loins, and told his wife that she and all others of her sex were thenceforth mothers to him. He left the house, never more to return." (17)
The courage of this man's renunciation stirred me to the depths. By contrast, how I had vacillated in my doubts!
All these excerpts were saying but one thing in essence: that perfection must be sought within the self, not in the outer world. Of the truth of this teaching God evidently had it in mind to give me abundant proof that summer.
Indian Lake is a beautiful place of pine trees and cool forest glades, of rolling hills and gently rippling water. "If I'm to relate more deeply to cosmic realities," I thought, "I could begin in no better place than right here." Indeed, the very scenery invited communion. I tried consciously to feel the thrill of a raindrop as it quivered on a pine needle; the exquisite freshness of the morning dew; the burst of sunlight through the clouds at sunset. Always I had loved Nature, and felt deeply drawn to her beauty in woods, lakes, flowers, and starry skies. But now, as I endeavored to intensify my sensitivity, to enter directly into the life all around me, I discovered with a pang what an utter prisoner I was, locked in my own ego. I could see; I could not feel. Or, to the extent that I could feel, it was only with a small part of me, not with my whole being. I was like an eight-cylinder motor hitting on only one cylinder. Surely if even here, in these perfect surroundings, I could not rise out of myself and attune myself with greater realities, no mere place would ever accomplish such a transformation for me. Obviously, it was I, myself, who needed changing. Whether my outer environment was beautiful or ugly was not particularly significant. What mattered was what I made of my own inner "environment" of thoughts, feelings, and inspirations.
I now was spending some time every day in meditation. I didn't know how to go about it, but believed that if I could only calm my mind a little bit, I would at least be headed in the right direction. I prayed daily, too: something I hadn't had faith enough to do until now.
For my outer life God was, I suspect, saying to me with a friendly chuckle, "You expected to find a better type of humanity in the country? Take a look around you! Man is not better for where he lives. Dreams of outer perfection are a delusion. Happiness must be found inside or it will not be found anywhere!"
My first plan for a job at Indian Lake had been to work as a lumberjack. I asked my landlady what she thought of my chances of finding such employment.
"What!" she cried. "And get knifed in a drunken brawl? Those men aren't your type at all."
Well, I had to admit her description left something to be desired. But I wasn't to be put off so easily. For two days I trudged about in the woods, looking for a logging camp that was said to be in the vicinity. Perhaps it was God's will that I missed it; at any rate, all I encountered were swarms of deer flies. Covered with stings, I found myself more receptive the third day to my landlady's warnings. I decided to seek employment elsewhere.
That morning a local farmer agreed to hire me as a handyman. I'd had a little experience with farm work just after graduation from high school, and had enjoyed it then. But never before had I worked for such a man as this. My intention was to work quietly, thinking of God. But my employer had other, to him infinitely better, ideas: He wanted me to play the fool in his little kingdom. "What else is a handyman for?" he demanded rhetorically, when I remonstrated at being made the constant butt of his rustic jokes. Humor I didn't mind, but I drew the line at witless humor. There are few things so exasperating as meeting a gibe with a clever thrust, only to have it soar yards over the other person's head. When, after a few clever sallies, I lapsed resignedly into silence, the farmer teased, "C'mon, flannelmouth! I hired you to work. Don't stand there jabbering all day." And that, as I recall, was the high point of his comedy routine. My image of the genuine, innocent, good rustic was beginning to fade.
I soon left this worthy's employ. Putting peaceful Indian Lake resolutely behind me, I set off down the road on my bicycle in search of other work. Hours later I came to a mine owned by the Union Carbide Corporation. There the hiring clerk looked at me dubiously.
"We have work, all right," she said, "but it isn't your kind of work."
"What do you mean, not my kind of work? I can do anything!"
"Well, you won't like this job. You'll see. You won't last a week." With that encouragement I was hired.
The atmosphere of the sintering plant, where I was employed, was so thick with the dust of the ore they were mining that one couldn't even see across the room. At the end of every day my face and hands were completely black. Some idea was beginning to form in my mind of what the woman had meant.
But it wasn't the work itself that finally got to me. It was another of those simple, genuine, innocent, good rusticsa complete fool who, finding me too polite to tell him, as everyone else did, to go to hell, mistook me for an even greater fool than himself. All day, every day, he regaled me with lies about his heroic feats before, during, and after World War II. Then, taking my silence for credulity, he began preening himself on his own superior intelligence. Finally he informed me disdainfully that I was too stupid to be worthy of association with one of his own incomparable brilliance.
The hiring clerk didn't even trouble to remind me of her prediction, when I appeared after a week for my severance pay.
How, I wondered, would I ever become a hermit? A person needed money to buy food. Probably I'd have to find employment from time to time merely to stay alive. But if these were samples of the kind of work I'd find out in the country, I wasn't so sure that my spiritual losses wouldn't outweigh the gains. Perhaps, I thought, if I could find some place where the money I earned could be stretched farther. . . .
That was it! I would go to some part of the world where the cost of living was low: yes, to south America. I would work in this country first, and save up. It wouldn't cost much, surely, to get to South America; perhaps I could even work my way down there. And there I'd find it possible to live a long time on my savingsyears even, perhaps, meditating in some secluded jungle spot, or on a mountaintop. My problem, now, was how to earn as much money as possible in the shortest possible time.
At the mine, one of my co-workers had entertained me after work with tales of the huge earnings he'd accumulated one summer in tips as a bellhop at a resort hotel. The thought of milking people by doing special favors for them was odious to me, but perhaps, I thought, if I kept my goal firmly in mind, I would be able to suppress my distaste.
My next stop was the resort town of Lake George. Coming to a hotel, I approached the owner and asked if he was in need of a bellhop.
"Got one already." He eyed me speculatively. "Where you from?"
"Oh, Scarsdale, eh?" His eyes flickered with interest. "Wouldn't hurt to have someone from Scarsdale working here." He paused. "Okay, you're on."
Well, by no stretch of the imagination could this fellow be called a rustic! He was first, last, and forever a shyster in the art of turning little fortunes into big ones. His guests received as little from him as possible in return for everything he could squeeze out of them. The janitor and cleaning woman were his first cousins, emigrants from Europe, but he treated them like serfs. When I saw him for what he was, it shamed me to be working for him. And it shamed me almost more to accept tips from the guests, whom it was my pleasure to serve. When one couple tried to tip me a second time for fetching something else from their car, I simply couldn't accept their offer. Hardly a week after my arrival I was off down the road again.
The time was approaching in any case for me to return to White Plains and help Mother make preparations for her voyage to Egypt.
My trip south held a certain hope also. A co-worker at the mine had suggested that I might get a job in the merchant marine, where the veriest beginner earned as much as $300 a month. This was good pay in those days. Better still, since I would be out at sea, receiving free board and lodging, I'd be able to save quite a lot of money quickly. I decided to try my luck before the mast.
The summer so far had proved a mixed bag: uplifting in the truths I had learned, but materially a fiasco. More and more I was coming to feel as though I had landed on the wrong planet. None of my experiences these past months had helped me to feel at home here.
Yet my desire to "drop out" seemed, from every practical standpoint, wildly unrealistic. I could not but admit to myself that my plans for becoming a hermit rested on the shakiest possible ground. I knew nothing of the practical skills I'd need to live alone in the wilderness. I had no idea how much money I'd actually require to remain in South America a long time. Worst of all, I knew so little of the spiritual path that I had no confidence in my ability to walk it alone. I didn't know how to meditate. I didn't know how to pray. I didn't know what to think about through the day when I wasn't meditating or praying. I was beginning to realize that, without guidance, I was as good as lost.
Yet I knew of no one whom I could trust to guide me out of the empty corridors of institutional religion into the free air of universal truth. I was contemplating a path that seemed, from every practical viewpoint, sheer folly. But I was doing so because I had ruled out every conceivable alternative.
The thought of living a so-called "normal," worldly life filled me with anguish, the more so because I felt so alone in my rejection of it. Most of my friends were getting married, and settling down into good jobs. The pressure on mefrom them, and from societyto do likewise was, in a sense, constant. But to my mind, even a lifetime of starvation and suffering would be worth it, if only by so living I could find God.
And what did I hope to achieve in finding Him? There, my notions remained vague, though certainly I would have considered even peace of mind an incomparable blessing. But what mattered to me was that to know Him would be to know Reality, and that not knowing Him meant embracing falsehood and delusion. Wherever my path led, I knew I had but one valid choice: to offer my life to Him. Thereafter, it would be up to Him to lead me where He would.
The Bible, too, stresses verification by actual experience. "Test
the spirits," wrote St. John in his first epistle. Religionists who
emphasize blind belief until death generally haven't tasted the fruits
of the religious life themselves, because they haven't practiced it.
This story has to be understood in its own cultural context. Marital fidelity
is highly regarded in India. The Hindu Scriptures state, however, that
that which is otherwise a duty ceases to be such when it conflicts with
a higher duty. The highest duty of mankind is to seek God. It is understood
in India that one's spouse can and should be supportive in this search.
Only if the desire for God is intense, and one's spouse, by his or her
worldliness, poses an obstacle to that search, would it be permissible
to break that marital tie without mutual consent.