Self-Realization Fellowship, Encinitas

On September 16, the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas opened its doors to the public for an Open House and free concert. Just inside the entrance to the Fellowship grounds, a china setting was laid out in honor of the SRF Cafe, opened in 1943 "to introduce people to healthful principles of diet through a menu of delicious vegetarian dishes from both the East and West." The café, alas, was no more, just like the original Golden Lotus Temple, which had once stood at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Pacific. The exquisite gardens and walkways that surrounded the temple, however, remained, offering both shaded enclaves and broad coastal vistas. "We are part of the ancient Swami order of India," explained my guide Lauren Landress when I asked her about the picture on a bedroom wall in the retreat center. The picture depicted Krishna, Jesus Christ, and four gurus from the Giri branch of the Hindu monastic orders. (The Self-Realization Fellowship is home to monks and nuns living under the vows of celibacy, obedience, and simplicity.) The last guru was Paramahansa Yogananda, who founded the Fellowship in 1920. "This line believed very much in the unity between East and West -- specifically, original Christianity and original yoga.... Yoga means 'union with' or 'to bind with' the divine. That's what yoga teaches in a nutshell, and it's what Jesus was teaching in a nutshell.... It's really the belief that the Kingdom of Divinity -- or God, or Spirit, or Absolute, whatever term you want to use -- is within you, and not outside somewhere."

A ceramic plaque depicting Saint Francis hung against the trunk of a carefully pruned California pepper; the tree was surrounded by a circle of benches. "You'll often see statues of the different saints," said Landress. "When Yogananda started opening temples, he called them 'Temples of All Religions,' to honor the similarities, the unities within each church. What the Catholic mystics practice is yoga -- it's essentially the same." She referenced "Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Saint Francis" as people "who were communing with God, either through the form of Jesus Christ or whatever -- directly having that deep relationship. To unite with God -- it's what every religion is seeking to do. It's unfortunate that we allow the cultural aspects of religion to divide us."

The retreat center is open to anyone with a background in meditation. Retreats can last from two days to two weeks and be either private or communal. For the latter, "there's group practice of what we call the energization exercises. It's applying the idea of bringing energy through the body...to direct the life energy that sustains all human beings. To begin to be aware of it, so that you can control it. There are talks at night, meditation technique review classes."

In the plain white box of a chapel, a 30-minute film gave Yogananda's disciples a chance to testify. Sister Satyavati, an SRF nun since the '40s, recalled Yogananda telling her, "'Even God is seeking something. He owns everything in this universe...yet even He is craving something...the love of His children.' When I heard that, I was just overwhelmed. I said, 'Let me make up for everybody, for all of those who forget God.' Why should we seek Him? Because there is so much joy in being immersed in that consciousness...so much unconditional love." A woman struggled to express "the sublime experience" of seeing Yogananda for the first time. Another said, "There was a glow in his face. You could hear a pin drop when he talked." Others used the same expression and echoed the woman's feeling of having come home at last.

The praise continued: "He saw the good in everybody." "He was jolly.... You knew you were dealing with a friend." "He embraced people.... Most didn't know how to react. One man said to another, 'Who is this man? I never met anybody like him.' They responded to that embrace.... Now, they can put themselves into his embrace whenever they want to."

Yogananda's residence -- an expertly preserved, midcentury Spanish-style home perched on the cliff above the Pacific -- serves as a kind of shrine. The steps leading up to the living space were very steep; the feeling was not unlike ascending to a temple. In the vestibule, a table displayed some of his writings: The Divine Romance, The Wine of the Mystic: A Spiritual Interpretation of the Rubiyat . His receiving room, office, and bedroom were all on display, and in the doorway of the last, a woman removed her shoes, knelt, and prayed with eyes closed and arms raised. (A cell phone rang somewhere in the line of tourists passing through. "Sorry!" came a voice. "Yogananda would have laughed," came another.)

"We believe that he was a God-realized invidividual," said Landress. "Souls are eternal.... His soul is now in complete union with God. When people are praying like that, they're communing with Yogananda."

Two-thirty marked the start of the "Concert for a United World, featuring the United World Festival Orchestra, United World Festival Chorus, and special guest artists." A woman opened the concert by noting that "Yogananda dedicated this ashram center with the ideal of world brotherhood under the fatherhood of God in 1937.... Our relationship with God is that eternal aspect that draws us together in a spirit of unity." Conductor Robby Martinez struck a lighter note, chatting up the crowd between performances of such varied fare as Debussy's "Clair de Lune," "Somewhere over the Rainbow," "All You Need Is Love," "Amazing Grace," and the finale of Beethoven's Ninth. Also, a Beach Boys medley: "He'd go down and talk with the surfers, and they thought he was one cool guy. They nicknamed the point Swami's.... The Beach Boys caught on," and referenced the spot in their song "Surfin' USA." The orchestra played over the electric guitar and bass, and some of the nuns sitting near me smiled and nodded with the beat.

What happens when we die?

As when one layeth

His worn-out robes away,

And, taking new ones, sayeth,

"These will I wear today!"

So putteth by the spirit

Lightly its garb of flesh

And passeth to inherit

A residence afresh.

-- from "The Song Celestial" (Bhagavad Gita), quoted in the pamphlet, "There Is No Death!"

Self-Realization Fellowship

939 2nd Street, Encinitas

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