A Disciple and His Guru
by Mark Chmiel
I never read Christopher Isherwood until this summer. What drew me to him was not his fictional output but his spiritual journey. My Guru and His Disciple is his engaging memoir of several decades living under the influence of Swami Prabhavananda in Los Angeles. Having been introduced to “intentional living” by one of the Swami’s British students, Isherwood had to overcome the hostility toward religiosity he’d cultivated in England. Eventually, after his long apprenticeship with this Hindu teacher, he came to see that “[m]y religion is almost entirely what I glimpse of Swami’s spiritual experience.” As you’ve generously given me selected gems from James Baldwin’s essays, I thought I’d give you a sampling from this book: what Swami Prabhavananda said, what Isherwood thought about his guru, and what were some particulars of the writer’s own spiritual practice.
Present moment, only moment,
“Whenever you think of God, He thinks of you.”
“Why do you read novels? All books that do not give the word of God are just a trash.”
“Think about death—and then you’ll know what to pray for.”
“I am the dust of the feet of Maharaj [Brahmananda]”
“Do you know what purity is, Chris? Purity is telling the truth.”
“You must try to see him as the young Lord Krishna.” [in reference to one of Isherwood’s young lovers]
“There is no failure in the search for God. Every step you take is a positive advance.”
He repeated what he has so often told me, that he feels in all his work responsible to Brahmananda [who had been a devotee of Ramakrishna].
It meant that I needn’t expect him to be perfect and try to explain away his weaknesses. From this standpoint, his major addiction, chain-smoking, seemed sympathetic, even reassuring.
I was aware of a strong sexuality in him which seemed to be controlled, rather than repressed or concealed. He would remark, quite often and without embarrassment, that some girl or woman was beautiful. His honest recognition of the power of sex attraction and his lack of prudery in speaking of it was a constant corrective to my inherited puritanism.
You felt he was more on your side than you were yourself.
To him, spiritual truths are unanswerable facts, like the facts of geography. You don’t have to get excited about them, or argue or defend. You just state them.
Swami’s attitude was like that of a coach who tells his athletes that they must give up smoking, alcohol, and certain kinds of food, not because these are inherently evil, but because they may prevent the athlete from getting something he wants much more—an Olympic medal, for instance.
His smile is extraordinary. It is somehow so touching, so open, so brilliant with joy that it makes me want to cry. [As I’ve told you before, I have often felt the same way with Bella Levenshteyn.]
Offering the prayers and mudras, the flowers and lights and incense, I am representing everybody I have ever known and all my unknown human brothers and sisters.
I now interpreted Brahmananda’s prostration as a reminder—the Atman in himself was bowing down to the Atman in me in order to remind me of what I truly was.
We must try to be firm with the body and also very kind.
Avoid gossip. Avoid their feuds. Concentrate on what is essential–contact with Swami, and prayer. Associate with people you can really help in one way or another, and not with those whose curiosity is always offering you a basin for your tears.
Meanwhile, nothing prevents me from doing the one thing that’s important—make japam.
The swami told me to make japam while I walked and to give everybody I met on the street a mental blessing. You weren’t to think of yourself with a feeling of superiority, as a holy man blessing worldlings; you were simply saluting the Atman within each fellow human being.
The pursuit of worldly pleasures as ends in themselves is madness, because it disregards the real situation, which is that we are living a life that has only one thing to teach us, how to know God in ourselves and in other people. To be sane is to be aware of the real situation. The desire, the homesickness, for sanity is the one valid reason for subjecting oneself to any kind of religious discipline.
–from novel-in-progress, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris