Category: Monasticism

silence skeptic meditations

Unholy Silence, Hollow Men

Withdrawing from the world is appealing when there is a sacred, enlightened state to withdraw to.

Inwardly, the SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monks lived in quiet desperation. Silence was an escape from external and internal disorder. Escaping through meditation and comforting beliefs was not a healthy model for survival. The very obedience to silence was considered sacred and automatically created it’s opposite, an unhealthy un-sacred1.

Outwardly, the SRF monastics imitated the holy ascetics, mystics, and saints and gave onlookers the impression that they were contented, blissful, and mirrors of the divine.

As I began writing this exposé on the quaint SRF monastic rituals of outer silence, I more fully understood the authoritarian rule of silence was unholy and oppressive.

Desperation in Withdrawal, Silence

The renunciants were expected to obediently suffer in silence, “A good monk is seen and not heard”, preached Brother Premamoy, the Postulant House-Brother (Father-Superior) who ran the bootcamp that shaped the young, impressionable minds who were eager to follow in the spiritual master’s footsteps into the SRF monastery.

The film Song of Bernadette was shown every year or two to the monks and was referenced in classes given by the senior monks. The Catholic nun, Bernadette Soubirous (Saint Bernadette of Lourdes), was admired by the monks for her silent suffering from painful cancer of the knee as she scrubbed the filthy cloister floors on her hands and knees.

To suffer in silence was glorified. To meditate in silence was the ultimate escape from personal responsibility and we called it seeking spiritual enlightenment or self-realization.

The SRF monastics and congregations liked to quote Sister Gyanamata, a revered SRF nun and direct disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda: “We make too much of feeling, even admitting that the right kind of feeling is very enjoyable. What does it matter how you feel? Bear your lot as long as it is the will of God that you should do so”. These sentiments overtly and subtly stifled the monks from voicing their needs and encouraged unhealthy silence.

Marco Castellani, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0
Marco Castellani, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

Afraid to speak out about what was really going on in our minds and hearts, the monks I knew lived in quiet desperation. Helpless and hopeless that the ashram would ever change its dysfunctional, non-sacred ways, we were forced to “bear our lot…”. Monks I knew were diagnosed with PTSD (Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder), stomach ulcers, and mental and emotional disorders. (Scores of monastics, like myself, eventually left the Order to escape an unhealthy, authoritarian power structure designed not for individual’s self-realization but for the aggrandizement and self-preservation of the leaders and the SRF organization). While in the Order, suffering in silence made it easy to escape for four to six hours a day in silent meditation–wishing, hoping, and praying that the next incarnation, the afterlife, and enlightenment would come and that the guru would save us.

Silence is the speech of hollow men

On Sundays the Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) monastics refrained from speech from the time of waking to the time of retiring in the evening and devoted the entire day to meditation and practicing the presence of god. [See my post Spiritual Duties and Rules of Conduct of a Resident Disciple of the Monastic Self-Realization Order]

The intent of Sunday silence was to dedicate the entire day especially to god, and to redouble efforts to practice of the presence of god, and to forego any activities that would interfere with silencing the outgoing mind. Each Sunday the monks were expected to retreat further from the world into the inner sanctum of non-verbal silence, all-day fasting, and six-hour long meditations.

Gisela Giardino, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0
Gisela Giardino, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0

In addition to Sunday silence, on each day of the week the monastics observed periods of silence during all meal times and before 8 AM and after 9 PM.

Withdrawing from the world is appealing when there is some enlightened state to withdraw to. There is nowhere to escape when there is internal and external disorder. The appeal of Eastern wisdom for Westerners comes in the form of gurus, spiritual masters, and divine authorities. Escaping through comforting beliefs is neither healthy nor sacred. Indeed, that escape is unhealthy and non-sacred. The appeal of enlightenment in the silence is an authoritarian tool to get us to renounce personal responsibility and to be an unquestioning follower.


Featured image by donna.dark, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

1 This post was influenced in part by The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, Frog Books. Berkeley: CA. 1998. Paperback

pleasures of monks

Seductive Pleasure of Monks

Food was a seductive pleasure of celibate monks.

At 10:00 P.M. the Monks’ Refectory walk-in pantry and refrigerator was locked. The fruits, nuts, and groceries were only to be consumed according to a strict daily quota for each monk: 2 bananas, 2 apples, 2 tablespoons of yogurt, 1 glass of milk, and so forth. Seasonality impacted quotas: peaches, plums, and watermelons, in the late Summer, and when bananas or other foods were going to spoil the quota was increased or posted as “OS”, meaning “open season” or all you could eat. This was a community of ascetics obsessed with food.

No wonder–with the many rules and restrictions around diet–that highly coveted food stuffs were hoarded. Occasionally, the monks were allowed to go to the market and bring home “personal” items.

Last thing to go: food

In the refectory’s over-stuffed “personal” items refrigerator were rich and sweet perishable foods, such as Jiffy, crunchy peanut butter; organic, raw cream; Smuckers jams, clotted creams and jellies. When a monk opened the “personal” freezer door out fell tubs of ice creams, flavors of chocolate, vanilla, rocky road, mocha chip, Cherry Garcia, or Chunky Monkey.

Seeing initials marked in black Sharpie pen on-top of a food container was supposed to warn a hungry monk, “Don’t touch my grub. This food is mine!”.

We often joked: Somebody could leave a $20 bill on the kitchen table, every monk would pass by, and nobody would touch it. But, leave an unmanned package of chocolate chip cookies on the counter top, and within minutes the sweet morsels would disappear, and all that would be left was empty torn wrapper. Monastics were efficient at rationalizing contradictions. “Borrowing” another monk’s personal food was… well… it just happened, quite often and uncontrollably.

Virtually everything a normal, healthy guy (or gal) craved was “renounced” when he took monastic vows. Food, particularly sweets, provided monks with an outlet after days and years of deprivation, meditation, and prayer.

Excerpt from Give My Thy Heart: An Introduction to the Monastic Order of Self-Realization Fellowship–

Diet: The diet in the ashrams is simple but ample. Renunciants eat no meat, fish, or fowl[1]; nor are they permitted to smoke or drink alcoholic or stimulating beverages[2]. (Use of drugs in any form, except for medication temporarily prescribed by a doctor, is of course strictly forbidden). Balanced meals are prepared according to general rules for good nutrition, but the subject of diet is not given undue importance[3]. Three meals are served daily at regular hours–except on Sundays[4], which is a day of partial fasting.

1 Self-Realization Fellowship requires monastics, and recommends to it’s followers, lacto-ovo-vegetarianism.

2 Indian Chai Tea, made with black tea, was a particular favorite among the monastics. Chai, made with black tea, was served at most special events such as Monastic vow ceremonies, commemoration ceremonies honoring one of their gurus or saints, and anytime the monks could whip up a cup or pot of the deliciously sweet, spicy brew. Coffee was seldom served or seen in the monastery. I heard of senior monks who brewed coffee in their bedrooms using personal coffee makers. These monks were considered rogue, but apparently senior enough monks were beyond reprimand of the rules.

3 The “subject” of diet may not be given undue importance. But food and eating it was certainly the most discussed topic in the monastery, aside from the emphasis on spiritual/religious concepts and activities.

4 Sundays in the ashram/monastery had another set of rules around diet, and lack thereof. I plan to write a separate post about Sundays in the ashram, that will include descriptions of the fasting and austerities.

monastic order

Monastic Order of Self-Realization

Index of my posts about the Order of Self-Realization Fellowship and monastic life in the SRF ashram.

Ashram, monk life

Bizarre beliefs and politics


Vows and Rules

Monasticism, general

Elvis in the Ashram

elvis and yogananda-minFrom private correspondence between a former SRF (Self-Realization Fellowship) monk and me, below is a kind-of guest post used with permission. In this story our former-monk-friend shares his personal experiences of the night he entered the SRF ashram to begin his new life as a monk.

The night I entered the ashram, I was picked up from the duplex where I lived. I shared this duplex, right across the street from the SRF Hollywood Temple (on Edgemont Ave), with a handful of other devotees. A brahmachari [one who takes vow of brahmacharya, a celibate junior monk in the swami order] who had lived at Hollywood Temple and, in fact, was driving the SRF ashram car that came to pick me up. I knew this brahmachari from before he became a monk.

Brother Premamoy [see my post Postulant House Cat: Queen Nefertari for a brief bio], who had been in L.A. for some organizational business and was on his way back to Encinitas ashram center, was in the passenger seat. It was about 9:00 p.m., maybe even a little later. I’d been told earlier in the day to standby and be read. So, when the brahmachari rang my doorbell, I grabbed my little bag of possessions and got into the waiting car. I’ll never forget that drive to Encinitas. Quiet, contemplative, whisked away into a new life. When we arrived in Encinitas, the streets were empty.

I, too, did not tell anyone in my family what I was doing. I just did it. In the car, the brahmachari told me I’d have to change my name because there was already a monk with the same first name as mine. [No duplicate first names were allowed in the ashram]. The brahmachari jokingly said, “This is your chance to name yourself Elvis.”

Not sure where my questioning of belief came in–it just happened gradually, over time. I am not the same empty vessel that I was when I entered the ashram decades ago to be whisked away into a new life as a monk. Recently, I was reading Camus’ The Stranger, a short, existential novel. I highly recommend this book if you have not already read it. It cuts to the core.

To the best of my knowledge there never was a monk named Elvis. However, the real Elvis Presley was apparently a staunch SRF follower and devotee of Sri Daya Mata. You can find plenty of online sources and references of Elvis’ affinity for SRF, Yogananda and Daya Mata in Elvis biographies. Also while I was a monk in the ashram, I had heard from Sri Daya Mata and from other senior monks of encounters of Elvis visiting the SRF ashrams. I can visualize the legend: Elvis, the Pelvis, sitting in full lotus.

Thanks to our guest contributor for sharing with us his story and his journey.

Dowry of a Postulant Monk

To enter into the Self-Realization Monastic Order, I needed a dowry. A dowry was, traditionally in the olden days, property or money brought by a bride to her husband on for marriage.

Monastic tradition, nay mandate, was that young monks were to produce a dowry at the time of entering the Order.

Here I was young, dreamy-eyed idealist, ready to dip deeply into my bank account and plunge headlong into a Hindu-inspired monastery in Southern California. The dowry was my monetary price of entry into postulant training–the 12-18 months bootcamp for young monks entering the Order.

postulant dowry
My dowry receipt upon entering the monastic order

I handed over $825 cash to Brahmacharini Bertha and was handed back a hand-written receipt showing:

$300 Dowry
$500 Medical
$25 Return Fare
$825 total

What was my dowry money to be used for? My receipt shows $300 for “Dowry”. I don’t recall what that was actually for. Nor, did I care at the time. All I wanted was to be a monk. The $500 “Medical” was to pay for my four wisdom teeth to be removed. Prior to entering the Order, as a postulant monk, I was required to undergo physical exams by medical doctors and a dentist. I had a clean bill of health. Except, the dentist recommended that I extract the four impacted molars, all my wisdom teeth. After three to four months in the Order I did get my four wisdom teeth removed at the Dentist. (Those wisdom teeth extractions were the worst medical experience of my adult life. So far, I suppose if that’s was my worst I should count myself lucky!).

The $25 “Return Fare” was the estimated cost of a return train ticket–should the Order or I determine I was no longer “fit” for monastic life. (Eventually, 14 years later, that was the case. I write about my experience of driving away from the monastery in the last paragraph of my post: Darshan: Mind-reading Saints).

Acceptance letter into postulant monk training program
Acceptance letter into postulant monk training program

Also, prior to entering the Order as a Postulant Monk I donated my pickup truck to the Hidden Valley Ashram. They could use my truck more than me. The monastery had vehicles that could be borrowed, with a completed Car Request form signed with one’s spiritual counselors’ approval.

My acceptance letter, dowry receipt, and these recollections seem strange to me now. I wonder what possessed me to join an ashram–a monastic order–, to follow a guru, and to believe that my meditations was sure to lead me to enlightenment.