Below is an overview of the vows and the rules followed by monks and nuns living in and ordained within Self-Realization Fellowship. (The notes below are excerpts from pamphlets or handouts of the rules I received during the 14 years I was ordained an SRF monk).
Monks and nuns of the Self-Realization Order embrace a four-fold vow of renunciation: simplicity, celibacy, obedience, and loyalty. Through these vows, the renunciant pledges himself to a way of life that will draw him, it is believed, to union with God. In the religious traditions of both East and West, such vows are the foundation of the monastic life. The belief is these sacred pledges lead the renunciant to realization of his soul and of its eternal relationship with God.
The Four Vows–
Simplicity is the essence of the monastic life and of all the vows, for ultimately simplicity means to put God first—in one’s thoughts, in one’s desires, in relationships with others. If one lives fully by the spirit of this rule, then every other aspect of the life falls naturally into place.
On the material level, the monk learns to let go of all the “unnecessary necessities” that tend to crowd into and occupy one’s life. Inwardly, he also lets go — of desires, moods, and petty concerns that clutter heart and mind, leaving little room for his search for God.
In the Self-Realization Order, the renunciant may retain for his use some personal belongings, as may be suitable and necessary for the practical conduct of his life and work in the ashram. But inwardly and outwardly he practices nonattachment — grateful for all that is good and beautiful in God’s creation, but not depending on external conditions for his happiness. One who cultivates this attitude remains untroubled even when circumstances do not conform to his personal preferences. The simple life of the renunciant is full of peace and contentment; for he places his trust not in the uncertain fulfillments of the world but in God Himself.
Monastics of the Self-Realization Order pledge themselves to a life of celibacy—strict abstinence from sex. The renunciant seeks in God the supreme fulfillment of the heart’s longing for a pure love that is without condition and endures eternally.
“The greatest romance you can have is the romance with God,” says Paramahansa Yogananda. “He is the Lover and our souls are the beloved, and when the soul meets the greatest Lover of the universe, then the eternal romance begins. The love that you have been seeking for incarnations through all human loves is at last yours. You will never want anything else.”
According to SRF monastic training, the celibate life, in which all powers are consecrated to the Divine, is not, as some may imagine, a strained or unnatural existence. Chastity is maintained not by harmful suppression of the sex force, believe the SRF monastics, but by transmutation of that force through scientific methods of yoga meditation, constructive activity, and the direction of the heart’s desires toward God alone.
This “natural” way of self-control taught by Paramahansa Yogananda was supposed to bring inner fulfillment, for it means turning one’s energies and affections directly toward the Source of all love and joy. The practice of celibacy, promoted throughout Yogananda’s teachings, increases physical vitality and bestows tremendous spiritual and mental power — helping to promote health and maintain youth, and expanding the capacity for keen concentration both in work and meditation.
As the devotee awakens to the all-satisfying love of God, lesser forms of attraction fall away naturally. To help in achieving this purity and intensity of love for God, the renunciant avoids communication, either by word or look, with those of the opposite sex. (Monks and nuns do not have any contact with one another except on matters pertaining to the work of Self-Realization Fellowship, and then only when necessary and by permission.)
Through adherence to the vow of celibacy and through purification of the mind, the monk seeks to transcend limited human attachments and desires— to expand his love to embrace all beings.
Paramahansa Yogananda pointed out that without God-realization one has little true freedom. In myriad ways he is ruled by impulses and influences seemingly beyond his control: desires, moods, habits, environment, likes and dislikes. Often such influences are so ingrained in his consciousness that he is not even aware of them. Yet all too frequently they lead him toward decisions and actions that turn out to be shortsighted. He finds himself subject to alternating states of pain and pleasure, while lasting happiness continues to elude him. The vow of obedience, when rightly understood and observed, is like a spiritual beacon, revealing the way to greater freedom and self-knowledge. By willingly accepting the guidance that he is given, the renunciant learns to identify himself less with egoistic desires and whims, and to look beyond them to that higher and infinitely more fulfilling consciousness toward which he is striving. He sees the rules and instructions he may be asked to follow not as inhibiting regulations but as guidelines and motivations for spiritual growth, by which he becomes more deeply attuned to the innate humility and intuitive wisdom of the soul.
In the ashram there are no rules without reason. The basic rules of the Order were to be for the monastics’ highest welfare. Blind, unquestioning obedience is not required or expected. One has always the right to seek understanding of the reason behind the suggestions and directions he is given. But he must also be able when necessary to set aside his own opinion and preferences in support of the Self-Realization community and the SRF path he has chosen to follow.
The sincere devotee realizes that at every moment and through every circumstance it is God and Guru who bring into his life exactly what he needs. Gradually one attains to that effortless harmony with God’s will that is known to all the saints, and that leads the soul unerringly toward union with the Divine.
“Loyalty is the highest law,” said Paramahansa Yogananda. It is this quality that makes possible the depth of commitment and purity of heart that are necessary if one would know God.
A renunciant of the Self-Realization Order pledges his loyalty to God; to his guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, and the other Self-Realization Gurus; to the president of Self-Realization Fellowship, who serves as their representative; and to the Guru’s teachings and society.
His first loyalty is given to God, the one goal of all his seeking. Through the countless changes and challenges of life, he remains steadfast—his heart ever constant in its allegiance to the Divine.
Loyalty to the Guru, to his teachings and society—the channel through which he will attain his soul’s liberation—follows naturally from such dedication to God. The Self-Realization Fellowship renunciant is faithful in thought, word, and deed to his chosen path. He feels a deep bond with all other lovers of God, whatever their religious creed or faith, and respect for all religions. But he dedicates his own efforts to seeking and serving God through the particular path and teachings to which God has drawn him.
Through his vow of loyalty, the monk focuses his powers of will thought, and feeling, directing them toward the realization of his divine goal. That single-mindedness creates in him an ever-deepening attunement with God and with his Guru, and the capacity to receive and express fully in his life Their guidance and love.