Early Days

Photo: Grateful thanks to Denise Jans on Unsplash!

Back in the early days at Ananda Village, the nuns pretty much set the tone for what was in good taste — or, at least, proprietous — in the arts.

Which was in the natural order of things. Swamiji joked about how women are so much more sensitive to doing things properly. He laughed when he recalled how the monks at the monastery of New Camaldoli in Big Sur, where he had stayed for a few months after he was kicked out of SRF,  placed the altar cloth upside down. “That would never happen in a convent!” he said. Male or female, our strengths when carried to excess risk becoming weaknesses.

I remember a supercharged nun who urged me not to see the film “Tootsie,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays a frantically opinionated and consequently out-of-work actor. In desperation, he pretends to be a woman to land a part in a sitcom.

I’m not sure what her objection was — did she fear that I’d fall into a life of transvestitism if I watched that harmless and very funny film?

I sometimes felt that unless the latest feature at the Del Oro Theater in Grass Valley was titled “Mickey Mouse & Daffy Duck Play Croquet,” my mortal soul would be in danger if I watched it, according to the nuns.

I remember the guilty pleasure I took in seeing “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and how I urged an Ananda couple to see it because, in my view, it was highly spiritual.

When I saw them several days later, they said, “Rambhakta, what were you thinking? We didn’t find that movie the least bit spiritual!”

Here’s IMDB’s description of the film:

“A headstrong young teacher in a private school in 1930s Edinburgh ignores the curriculum and influences her impressionable 12-year-old charges with her over-romanticized world view.”

The film ends tragically when one of the schoolgirls, inspired by Miss Brodie, joins the rebels and is killed in the Spanish Civil War.

What’s spiritual about that, you may ask.

Miss Brodie was thoroughly deluded, and while her discrimination was flawed, I admired the great energy that she brought to being herself, and her willingness to learn deep and painful lessons accordingly.

It was a quality that I saw in Swami Kriyananda, that he had immense compassion for the human condition in all its expressions. People at Ananda learned that even their greatest mistakes and weaknesses were never fatal in the spiritual life — that God condemned the fault but never the person. Our mistakes, we came to understand, were absolutely essential steps in our spiritual journey. We can never learn our lessons to the depths of our heart and soul by merely listening to the precepts of the wise and following them in lockstep blindness. We must learn by trial and error — there is no other way.

Swamiji said on more than one occasion that it’s how we develop compassion. He hinted that before liberation can come we must have tried just about everything this world has to offer in the way of opportunities to get into mischief. It was why he was able to say with quiet sincerity at the end of his life that he loved everybody.

What, then, of the arts? The best art, Swamiji said, is expansive. It may show people erring and experiencing the painful results, but if it cleanses our hearts and gives us hope, who will call it bad art?


No more than a few weeks after I was warned off “Tootsie,” I found myself outside the Del Oro Theater in the company of Sananda, a fellow young Ananda bachelor. We’d come to town to see a movie, but the posters for “Marathon Man” didn’t bode well for it being a spiritual film. After pondering the odds of our being irredeemably damned, Sananda and I crossed ourselves and said three Hail Marys and ventured into the darkness — where we found Swamiji in the company of a gang of Ananda folks, including the nun who had kindly tried to save me from perdition.

“Marathon Man” is not a gentle village mystery; it’s a violent thriller with wrenching scenes of murder and torture. As we left the theater, Swami calmly remarked (I’m paraphrasing), “Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of how it is out there.”

Asha Nayaswami adds: “I was with him. That was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, and that movie has haunted me ever since! I kept looking at Swamiji waiting for him to suggest we walk out, but he sat through the whole thing, with that remark at the end. Oh my. I didn’t remember meeting you afterwards… but I remember the event! [Sananda and I had to sit several rows apart from the Ananda group because the theater was crowded. – rb] And it was unique. Never before or since did he do anything like that. We never again went to a movie like that at all… we would walk out of movies that he didn’t like, whether they were just silly  or dark. That incident happened, but it was not common because we discriminated in advance. This was a singleton.”

I (Rambhakta) remember how someone reported that Swami had said, when he saw someone closing their eyes or looking away from the screen during a gory episode of the movie, that no, we should be able to look at those things without flinching. (Asha remembers his saying this, too.)

I was energized this morning by a 10-minute film on YouTube where a Los Angeles filmmaker documents how he built a new studio. The filmmaker, Josh Yeo, brought lots of energy and lighthearted creativity to the project.

I left a comment:

Show and tell at its very best – there’s so much to learn from this – not just about building a studio but about documentary filmmaking. The shooting angles, the words, the continuity and flow – just great. Thank you, Josh.
When another commentor exclaimed, “Why is it that EVERYTHING that you create is SO DAMN COOL!” I shared a thought: “Years of nudging his edges, years of honing a vision, years of doing the work, day by day by day.”

It’s true. Building a creative vision is like building a life. It takes starting where we are, no faking, and taking one small step at a time.

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