December 13th, 1997
Ananda’s Response to the Bertolucci Case
The beauty of Ananda is its three-dimensionality. We recognize people as human beings first, not as elements in an institutional machine or demonstrations of an intellectual theory. A motto of ours is, “People are more important than things.” Essential to the way we conduct our lives is respect and care for each individual.
Institutions vs. people
Commonly in institutions, their members are treated primarily in terms of the needs of the institution. Viewed as parts of the system, their reality as human beings may be described as two-dimensional. Institutional structure is the priority. And the motto, whether verbalized or unspoken, is, “Ask yourself, in every situation, What is best for the organization?” The concern is only secondarily for what people are, in themselves, and primarily for what it is thought they should be. No effort is spared to fit them into the organizational framework that has been created. If a person doesn’t fit into that framework, he is given a choice: Conform, or leave.
Ananda’s philosophy: freedom to grow by inspiration, not through rules
Ananda’s philosophy, on the contrary, is: “People are the reality. Encourage them to grow toward our ideals, but give them the freedom at the same time to grow at their own pace. As long as they show the willingness, help them, inspire them, but never drive them. If they are found to be incompetent in one position, seek another one for them. Only if they refuse to adjust to Ananda’s broad vision of life may they be encouraged to seek their fulfillment outside of Ananda.” Again, the rule here is, “Never coerce. Try always to help, inspire, and encourage.”
Human beings are prone to err. We cannot insist that they be other than who and what they are. We can only encourage them to become better. It would be a violence to their own efforts to improve were they to be cut off from the tree of Ananda while they, the branches, are still sincerely endeavoring to grow.
Punishment in an institutional setting: rejection and dismissal
The surgical “solution” is commonly encountered in institutions, but this is no real solution at all. Institutions often justify the dismissal of erring members with the claim that such dismissal strengthens others in their dedication. Ananda has always felt, on the contrary, that the effect of summary dismissal is not strengthening, but merely stiffening. What it accomplishes, usually, is to put the “fear of God” in people lest they, too, be punished similarly, someday. If the dismissal goads them to try harder in future, their efforts to do so become forced and unimaginative. To compensate for the fear in their hearts, they may develop judgmental attitudes toward others, while taking their own weaknesses “underground” lest anyone see them. Thus, their change, if any, is not inward. As a consequence, there develops an institutional tendency toward role playing, coupled with the sacrifice of human warmth. This cardboard stiffness is what I mean by two-dimensionality.
The spirit of love, sincere friendship, and mutual support is, at Ananda, a fact of life. And it is rarely found among spiritual organizations and communities. Sometimes this spirit of kindly tolerance receives criticism from others on the grounds that it encourages compromise with high spiritual ideals. In actual fact, what it encourages is personal development as opposed to wearing spiritual masks. The spirit of mutual giving and the genuine fellow-feeling evident at Ananda are highly praised by visitors from all over the world, who speak of it as something they’ve never encountered anywhere before.
Accepting reality as it is
An article was published in about 1971 drawing comparisons between a number of new intentional communities. (Ananda was founded in 1968.) The article commented that Ananda seemed to lack the true spirit of idealism because it was founded, so the writer opined, on simple common sense rather than on spiritual vision. In the matter of individual income, for instance, that writer stated that in our adherence to the biological dictum, “Nature never makes sudden leaps,” we allowed people to follow the system they were accustomed to rather than demanding of them that they renounce income and property altogether. It wasn’t long before every community the magazine had praised no longer existed, whereas Ananda was flourishing, and gradually spontaneously developed a spirit of sharing and concern—not only for its own members, but for people elsewhere—neighbors, and even suffering people in foreign countries.
Other intentional and spiritual communities, by contrast, who place abstract rules and principles above individual needs, have shown such lack of charity even toward their own that failure among them, owing to internal dissension, has been more the rule than the exception. Putting abstract rules above individual needs is also evident in organizations generally.
Paramhansa Yogananda told the story of a couple who had recounted to him an experiment they and others had undertaken in communal living. “Everything was going wonderfully,” they said. “Our community was harmonious and happy. Then, one evening, several of us wanted tapioca pudding for dessert. The others didn’t want it. Tempers flared. Not long afterward, the dissension dissolved our community.” Yogananda inquired, “Why didn’t you all agree to letting some have tapioca pudding, and the rest, whatever they wanted?”
Astonished, they exclaimed, “Why, we never thought of that!”
The “principle” involved here, evidently, was consensus: a questionable ideal, even for nuclear families. But when principle is threatened by reality, is it not well to weigh the particular merits of the case instead of squeezing reality to fit into a smaller box? If a theory can’t withstand the test of reality, it seems foolish to refuse even to consider making adjustments.
People grow toward perfection, directionally
Western ethical principles are generally absolutist, like the categorical imperatives of Immanuel Kant. In India, perfection is viewed as a goal, rather, toward which one must strive. Even in the West there is a saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The Indian attitude toward ethics is directional, not absolutist. In this respect it is realistic rather than theoretical. The Indian attitude accepts everyone as being at a different stage of development, and encourages him to grow toward perfection, however distant the horizon may seem at the moment. Indeed, as I explained in my book Crises in Modern Thought, theological definitions of perfection are only mental concepts. True perfection lies unimaginably far beyond them. Moral or theological definitions can be helpful for a time, but they do no more than describe stages of spiritual growth. No one can crystallize Ultimate Truth in any kind of form, including words.
Several years ago, a certain Zen Buddhist center was traumatized to learn that its American roshi, although married, was having an affair with another woman in the congregation. As an act of penance, or so I was informed, he walked a hundred or so miles from that Zen community to another one. I remember thinking at the time, “His ‘penance’ won’t accomplish much for him, beyond strengthening his leg muscles.” Perhaps that hike exhausted him, physically, but I don’t think it did much to change his heart’s feelings, or to accomplish anything for anyone else. At any rate, the next I heard was that he was no longer the roshi of that center, and had moved overseas.
The harm of judgement
One thing that saddened me was the glee with which some of his so-called friends reported this “juicy” gossip to me. Would it not have been a mark of true friendship for them to do what they could to help him and to bring harmony to that group of sincere seekers?
Did those people become stronger as a result of this act of amputation? One hears very little about them anymore. To find a good substitute for the man they lost could not have been easy. Perhaps in self-justification they told one another that even failure would have been preferable to a compromise with principle. While I’d agree with them, I’d add, “What was their principle?” For is not charity a principle also? and compassion? and forgiveness? Having rid themselves of one roshi, could they guarantee that the next one would be perfect? and the next one after that? How many amputations would they have to endure before at last achieving their ideal? And what would they have, once they’d achieved it? a shriveled remnant, I suspect, people who were callous toward others and toward others’ needs, unforgiving of themselves, and wedded to the mere form of religion, having sacrificed its spirit.
The whole place was, in fact, a reflection of that roshi’s own spirit, which had always been unpardoningly austere, focused on rules to the exclusion of compassion.
I should like to add that there are times when people must be removed from their positions, whatever those positions might be. If such a regrettable circumstance should arise, the only possible way of dealing with it spiritually is with love, never with anger. If the removal is motivated by anger or self- righteous intolerance, it must be held suspect and, probably, avoided as too biased to be just. Concern for the welfare of the person removed must be as great as for that of the work as a whole.
Yogananda: “God doesn’t mind your faults…”
Ananda would like to take advantage of the Bertolucci lawsuit to encourage other groups, especially those in America, and especially other spiritual groups, to be realistic and charitable in their appraisal both of their leaders and of their membership and congregations. Religion was never intended for perfect people: It is for people who aspire to achieve perfection.
Many years ago, the leader of a fundamentalist Christian sect was accused of straying sexually. Her explanation for the absence that aroused people’s suspicions seemed to many of them so lame that they denounced it as unacceptable. The resulting commotion all but destroyed the church, and greatly undermined her subsequent ability to serve within it. At that time, Paramhansa Yogananda wrote and published an article pleading with people to look at the good that minister had done, rather than condemn her for one sin, whether real or imaginary. It was his way always to urge people to look at their own and other people’s potentials, instead of defining anyone in terms of his weaknesses and mistakes. “God doesn’t mind your faults,” he used to say. “He minds your indifference to Him.” And, “A saint is a sinner who never gave up.”
“Blessed are the merciful.”
Religion in America, including small bands of spiritual seekers and indeed all the yoga groups (though many of these are not overtly religious), is under attack by people who are themselves far less than perfect. It is a case of “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Would it not be more beneficial to everyone to view those who are at least trying to live by high ideals with a charitable attitude? “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus Christ said, “for they shall receive mercy.” And again, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” The human race is a single family. Would it not be more just, and beautiful, if we sought to help and inspire one another instead of denouncing anyone?
My observation has been that what people condemn in others invariably reveals some weakness in themselves. Even by condemning others in our hearts, we find it more difficult to forgive ourselves our own weaknesses.
Does anything I’ve written excuse any of us for our mistakes? Certainly not! But our philosophy at Ananda has always been to help people, and not to affirm their weaknesses by adding to them our condemnation of them.
I can cheerfully say that, in my case personally, this attitude of mutual acceptance, forgiveness, and support has enabled me gradually to grow out of many shortcomings, toward ever-greater inner strength, and toward increasing compassion, divine freedom, and inner joy.
No human being is two-dimensional. We are not made of cardboard. We human beings are all brothers and sisters. The Ananda members see themselves as striving together toward perfection, helping one another, endeavoring each one with devotion to grow toward the universal goal of all life: Self-realization in God.
With joy in Him!
Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters)