“Be Ye Therefore Perfect.” How Can We Understand Christ’s Challenge?

The Sermon on the Mount, by Danish painter Karl Heinrich Bloch
The Sermon on the Mount, by Danish painter Karl Heinrich Bloch

I’m sure that over the centuries, untold numbers of worshippers have been intimidated by Christ’s saying, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect.”

At first glance, it seems an impossible challenge. Yet, if we look at the deeper nuances of what Christ is telling us, I think we may find that it’s less daunting than we thought.

Jesus is telling us that God asks nothing less of us than that we give ourselves to Him completely. And the subtle implication is that spiritual progress depends not so much on how we behave, as on learning to see ourselves from an entirely new perspective, as beings who are nothing but God. And, to repeat, it’s very far from an easy matter to achieve the highest perfection.

It isn’t a question of making a list of all the things we’re supposed to do, and doing them obediently so that we’ll be able to stand before St. Peter and say, “I’ve lived a good life.”

When we define our spirituality by our outward behavior and beliefs, it’s all too easy to fall into a spirit of dogmatism and rigid thinking. There’s a temptation to become smugly self-satisfied because we’ve got it all figured out with our mind. “This is right, this is wrong, you’re good, you aren’t, and I’m going to heaven and you’re going to another place.”

And then all kinds of troubling aberrations set in. First and foremost, we end up devoting so much energy and attention to looking good that we lose contact with our true nature. And the problem is that if we want to draw close to God, and if we want to realize our innate perfection, it’s absolutely essential to start working with ourselves exactly as we are, and not as we would like others to see us.

Swamiji said that when he lived in San Francisco in the 1960s, many people were sort of play-acting, pretending to be humble spiritual devotees on the one hand, and great gurus on the other, and always wanting to be seen in a certain way. They defined themselves by their hair, their clothes, their taste in music, and their carefully aligned opinions. It was all rather silly and superficial, but it tended to have the unfortunate effect of making people feel smugly superior. “I’m better than you because I’m aligned with all the right ways of thinking and behaving.”

In the early years of Ananda, when we weren’t terribly clear about what the spiritual path was really about, we were often tempted to define ourselves outwardly. “This is what it looks like to be a spiritual person.” I remember how, when the mothers started having babies, every single one of them was absolutely convinced that her child was, in fact, a highly advanced soul.

But we didn’t actually have a basis for knowing what it looked like to be a spiritual person, apart from the images in our minds. So when our children started doing the usual things that most children do, we had to step back and say, “You know, we aren’t really sure what a saint looks like, when they’re twelve years old.”

We had a nice idea of what a saint should look like, but we began to be less certain that our image was the right one.

Our children tended to be strong-minded, and it was a very good thing, because people with a lot of spunk aren’t willing to take just anybody’s word about what’s true.

I remember Nitai, the founder of our schools, talking very sweetly about the children in the community. In the years when he was developing the school system, he spent a great deal of time thinking about what it should look like. All of us who lived at Ananda recognized that the purpose of life is Self-realization. And how are you going to organize a school around that understanding? Do you want to have a bunch of pious children intoning scripture verses? Or are you going to work with them as they are?

Nitai came up with a useful guideline. He decided that the teachers should watch the children carefully, especially where issues of right behavior were concerned. And they should be particularly careful to watch out for what he called “mindless acquiescence or mindless rebellion.” Because he felt that both were signs that the children were behaving mindlessly, which wouldn’t contribute to their happiness.

And it’s a good guideline for us, as well. Are we going to be mindless slaves, blindly following a set of outward rules, or are we going to rebel mindlessly, as many people did in the 1960s, and pretend that we can do whatever we want, if we just call it spiritual.

To return to my original point, Swami says in one of his Bible commentaries, “Refraining from sin is not the same as being virtuous.” In other words, when people simply refrain from sin, it’s very often not because they’re good, but because they don’t have the energy to sin, and they aren’t sufficiently energized to be themselves.

A clever thief has to put out a lot of energy to try to get away with his crimes. And on the spiritual path, we need to understand that it’s very important to learn to be ourselves with full energy and enthusiasm. Spiritual progress comes by working with energy and consciousness, and it’s a current that has to grow very strong before we can know God. And we need to start out by demanding, with all possible energy and enthusiasm, the answers to a set of very basic and fundamental questions: “Who am I? Where do I come from? And what is real?”

There’s an inspiring chapter in the Bhagavad Gita that describes our highest potential. In beautiful poetic terms, it urges us to give ourselves wholly to God. And then it consoles us, saying that if we’re unable to give ourselves completely, we can at least “serve in works pleasing to Him,” and if we’re unable to serve Him, we can at least worship Him. And finally it tells us that if we cannot do any of these things, God will be very pleased if we bring Him our failures.

It’s a magnificent promise. Because, as Swamiji loved to say, God is very pleased when you give him the credit for all of the wonderful things that you’ve done, but He’s even more pleased when you bring Him your failures.

It’s easy to offer ourselves to God when we’ve done something well – when we’ve decorated the altar beautifully, or we’ve given an inspiring talk, or we’ve sung a song perfectly. But Swami said that God is even more pleased when we stumble, and we don’t try to hide our failures from Him, but we bring them to Him in all humility, and in full confidence that, good or bad, come success or failure, we are His own.

In the eyes of the world, success and failure mean a great deal – among worldly people, the universal assumption is that it’s a wonderful thing if you can succeed, and it’s very unfortunate if you fail. It’s particularly true here in Silicon Valley, where your success or failure is a great part of how people will define you, and how you’re supposed to measure your self-worth.

I’ve recently devoted a certain amount of energy to trying to help fix the Palo Alto school system, in the wake of a rash of teenage suicides that made the national news.

They’ve identified the source of the problem, which is the toxic school environment. It’s based on trying to prepare every child to enter Harvard. And it’s completely unrealistic, because it’s creating children who are judging themselves based on an insanely lofty standard, of whether they’ll be accepted by Harvard. It’s a perfect formula for setting children up to feel like failures, and it’s not surprising that some of them can’t bear the crushing weight of failing to meet the expectations of the whole world.

I love a saying that I heard at one of the meetings: “If you’ve got a toxic environment that’s just getting worse, the solution isn’t to get a better gas mask.”

In other words, you sometimes need to stop doing more of the same, in hopes that it will make things better, and you need to step back and do something else.

Even so, in our spiritual lives it isn’t enough to look away from our faults and shortcomings, and just keep doing them and pretend they don’t exist. Because spiritual growth comes by finding out, “Who am I really?” And if I’m not completely sure at this point that the true power behind my life is God, and that I am an inseparable part of God in my deepest Self, and that I am living by His power, then I need to ask how I can advance toward that final realization, and I need to work honestly and courageously with the parts of my nature that are causing me to slip away from being aware of my oneness with God.

We know that there’s a force of divine grace in our lives, and that it’s what we want more than anything else. We want to be able to step back and see that all of the things that are happening to us are not actually happening to us, in our true essence.

A friend of mine has had to deal with several serious, life-threatening physical conditions, and every once in a while the cry will go up in the Ananda world that we need to start praying for him again.

I told him jokingly that he’s a one-man training course for prayer, because we all get to practice on him. He recently told us about a near-death experience that he had. He was very ill, and his grown children had come to visit him, and they had a beautiful time together. But then he had a serious crisis, and they took him to the hospital, and he felt that, as the Native Americans say, “it was a good day to die.”

He had an extraordinary fever, to the point where his organs were starting to shut down, and it really looked as if he would leave his body. So he began to let go, and he said that when you pass through the death experience, even if you return, you see this world in a very different way.

It’s not that you don’t continue to love the experience of your life, and your spouse and your children, because you can love them as deeply as ever. But you realize that it’s happening on two levels. On one hand, you’re suddenly able to experience the enduring reality of your deepest soul-self which is completely apart from this world – you know that your true life is “in the land beyond my dreams,” as Yogananda put it in his beautiful chant. And on the other hand there’s the realization that you’ve just dropped into this outward drama for a short while.

There’s a wonderful story of Bella, a woman at Ananda Village who died years ago. In the last week of her life, she said, “I see thousands of faces going by in front of me.” She explained that every one of the faces was hers in a former life. She said, “And how can I be concerned about losing this one?”

Now, that’s the level of understanding we’re seeking. We aren’t looking to keep this little person nicely organized and tidy so that she won’t lose her temper and look bad. To try to behave rightly and respond with kindness is a very good practice. So I’m not giving you a license to say, like the rebels of the Sixties, “God is everywhere, and, I can do whatever I want if I just call it spiritual!”

In my early years on the path, in the late 1960s, there were lots of kooky people around. Believe me, that’s an accurate word, because it was a very crazy and interesting time. I remember a man who was completely dishonest, and he justified it by saying that, after all, this world is nothing but God, and whether I own it or you do, what’s the difference?

But of course there’s a screw loose in that argument, because it’s based on a completely unscientific way of thinking about life. A scientific approach to truth demands that we be completely honest in our experiments, and that we recognize that whenever we behave rightly we’re happy, and when we behave wrongly we suffer.

This is the fundamental question of human existence: what behaviors will bring me happiness? And what are the attitudes and behaviors that must I avoid, because they’ll only bring me suffering? And if we’re honest, we’ll find that those actions that expand our awareness make us happy, and the actions that contract our hearts make us suffer.

We have a friend who’s been in prison for thirty years. He was convicted of a murder that someone else committed – and talk about life handing you lemons! But Jairam has served as an extraordinary example of doing the utmost to spiritualize your life, no matter where it takes you.

At a certain point, the authorities moved him to a different prison, because they wanted to downgraded his security status and send him to a place that was supposedly less severe. But it meant that he had to enter a completely new and very, very dangerous, very complex prison society, where he would have to establish himself all over again, and build new relationships. So it was a very dangerous time for him, and it was the first time in many years that he’d been truly afraid.

Jairam with Devi and Jyotish, spiritual directors of Ananda.
Jairam with Devi and Jyotish, spiritual directors of Ananda.

But in fact he was never touched – not once, because when he got to the new prison he found that his reputation had preceded him. The other inmates had heard through the prison grapevine that he was someone who was on their side and could help them. “Jairam is the man – he’s the man who got my bro out of prison.” So they all knew him, and he was accepted and able to blend in right away.

Swamiji smiled so sweetly when he heard that story. He said, “Isn’t that remarkable?” He said, “Even in those circumstances, he had made good karma for himself.” He had developed a protection in God that carried him through.

Our success on the spiritual path isn’t defined by how our life is heaving up and down outwardly, but by what we’re becoming inside. We’ve all heard harrowing stories of how God has helped people in difficult situations. Jairam’s is one of the most dramatic stories I know – that a person with so much will power and spiritual potential could exercise it in such a threatening environment for so long, when every conception of truth and justice is saying that he should have been released thirty years ago.

How are we going to define ourselves? Amid the ceaseless ups and downs, how will we choose to live? Will we allow ourselves to be identified with the outward oscillations, so that every time our life comes crashing down we’ll suffer, and every time we’re able to lift it for a while, we’ll feel a relief that’s tinged with anxiety that it may all come crashing down again? Or will we simply stand in our center with God and let it all wash over us, knowing that our true reality is inside, in our oneness with Him?

Swami Kriyananda’s life was extremely dramatic, and his response to the ups and downs was very instructive.

In the 1980s, Swamiji was married twice over a period of about ten years. When he met the first woman and formed a relationship with her, it was because he had felt a call from God that it was what he was supposed to do. So he formed a spiritual partnership, and he removed the title “Swami” from his name and became Sri Kriyananda for a time. He gave a major interview to Yoga Journal about the relationship, and the magazine appeared with a big picture of him and this woman, smiling happily. But by the time it was published, she had left, never to return, and there he was, with this big announcement in a major magazine.

God subsequently brought him together with Rosanna Golia, and they were married for about eight years. But when the first woman left, I remember Swamiji sitting in his living room and quietly saying, “If I chose to, I could be very embarrassed, but I choose not to.”

There was a feeling that it was simply a karma that had washed through his life, and at every step he would act according to the guidance that he felt from God and Guru.

Nevertheless, he had a certain crisis over the experience. But it wasn’t that “I wanted this, and I lost it, and woe is me.” It was, “I felt guided to do this, and it didn’t happen in the way I expected. And let me give myself to God, and ask Him to tell me if I was wrong in my understanding of His guidance.” Because if I cannot trust the feeling that God is guiding me, then on what basis can I run my life?

So it was a serious crisis, and it took him several weeks to come to a resolution. And then one day he came out, as cheerful as ever, and that’s when he said, “I choose not to be embarrassed by this.”

I should tell you the background of the story. The community had reached a strange point, where our image of the spiritual life had become unrealistic.

In even the most serious ashrams, only a handful of people will be guided to live as monks and nuns. Most people’s spiritual lives flow better with the stable situation of a marriage and family, where they can have opportunities to learn important spiritual lessons about selflessness.

That’s true for the majority of people. But then there’s the thought, “Why would I want to become entangled with those outward involvements, with all of the responsibilities they entail? If I’m truly serious about the spiritual path, I must renounce it all.” And it’s a very valid thought – but only if it’s the direction that God is actually calling you to.

There was a man who wanted to join the Nayaswami Order. And within the order there’s a natural progression, starting with the Pilgrim vow, and progressing to the vows of a Brahmachari, Tyagi, and Nayaswami. But this person wanted to take the Nayaswami vow immediately, and it was entirely inappropriate.

I said, “Why would you want to take that vow?”

“Well, because it’s the highest.”

I thought, okay, that’s natural, because it’s how people think in Silicon Valley, where we all want to be the best. But it wasn’t the right measuring stick, so I said to him, “It’s not right for you at this point. You need to be a Pilgrim first, because it’s where you’re standing.”

At Ananda Village in the 1970s, the monastery was swelling. There were dozens of monks and nuns, and some of them were called by God, but many had adopted the monastic lifestyle simply because they felt it was what they should do – because it was the “highest vow.” The community was becoming more and more monastic, and obsessed with the idea that it was the only way to be truly spiritual. And as a result, the householders had begun to feel inferior and stigmatized for being seen as less than completely serious about the spiritual path.

Swamiji prayed to Master, and then he told us, very, seriously that Master wanted Ananda to be a householder community, because the point was to show that you can be completely devoted to God and also be married.

Swami said to Master, “Everything at Ananda has been defined by me. But I am a monk. You made me a monk, and I am a monk in my heart.” He said, “And how are we going to work this out?” He said that Master replied, “You could get married. It’s fine that you should do this.” And soon after he met a woman that he felt had been sent by God. But being married to Swamiji and trying to fill the role of a spiritual mother to the community was too much for her, and she left.

Ananda monks doing Paramhansa Yogananda’s energization exercises, early 1970s.
Ananda monks doing Paramhansa Yogananda’s energization exercises, early 1970s.

When Swami entered the relationship, there was a huge brouhaha that was marvelous to watch – how people were saying, in one form or another, that he had no right to change his life and stop being a monk. And his response was, “Really? Who are you to tell me that?”

He said, “I felt Master calling me to do this.” And we all had to say to ourselves, “Oh, if that’s his guidance from Master, then attunement with the guru must look very different from what I thought.”

In time, the community collectively exhaled, and people began to be more realistic with themselves – asking, “What’s right for me? What’s the natural thing for me to do?”

As Swami put it, we cannot make the spiritual life something we paste on from the outside. It has to be made of who we are. Because we are very much like a tree that’s growing, and we have to accept the kind of tree we are, and how far we’ve come in the natural course of our growth.

You can hang oranges on a peach tree and proclaim, “You are an orange tree.” But it won’t make it so. Because it has to learn to be a peach tree. And we’re like peach trees that have forgotten that our job is to make peaches.

We have to learn what it’s really like to be spiritual, and in time we have to learn how to become perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect. And we can’t do it in a single day.

It’s misguided to say, “Spiritual is what it looks like when you take the highest vow and put on blue clothes.” No, you have to learn how to grow into a Nayaswami, if that’s what God wants for you.

Swamiji explained that it had served him well to be a swami, but that Master had something else in mind for him now.

Later, he said, “The entire community had to transform and become the way it needed to be.”

Why do we paste the word “failure” onto ourselves? And why do we become embarrassed by our temporary mistakes.

When my idea turns out to be the wrong one, and not what was trying to happen, I feel that I’ve failed, and I’m horribly embarrassed about it. But the real issue isn’t whether I think I’ve failed, but whether I did my best. And even if I wasn’t able to, here I am – and now what?

My peach tree cannot figure out how to grow peaches, and maybe it will have to be a beautiful green fruitless tree for a while. And maybe it’s who I’m supposed to be for the moment, because it’s all I can be. But it will never be a failure unless I give up and declare it so.

What makes it a failure is not what happens, or your image of yourself, but whether you allow it to separate you from God.

In one of Paramhansa Yogananda’s Whispers From Eternity, he says, “I care not how much I suffer or how much is taken away from me, but never allow me to lose my love and devotion to You, Lord.”

And perhaps I can’t say the words with complete conviction. But I can find a piece of it that I cannot refute, and I can take small steps in the right direction.

I can stand exactly where I am and say, “What is the most important thing for me to do in this moment?” And the most important thing is always to go deeper in my relationship with God.

I can stand where I am, and ask if I’m willing to pay the price of taking the next step to draw closer to God. And when I ponder the benefits of remaining true to the path and becoming more devoted to God and Guru, I can clearly understand how much it means to me, compared to the false rewards that I would reap if I were to leave the path.

Perhaps I’m not able to commit as much of myself to the highest path as I would like. But I can know with inner conviction that this path is the right one, and that I am moving in the right direction.

When God tests us, how can we know what to do? It can sometimes be hard even to know what the test is, because God will often deliberately make it confusing, to the point where we can’t tell if we’ve failed or succeeded. And then the only thing we can do is gather up the mess of our life and offer it all to God, as the Bhagavad Gita urges.

Devi and Jyotish’s little boy came up to his mother one day when he was about four years old and said, “I didn’t do nothing.”

Devi said, “Honey, where did you not do nothing?”

He said, “In the closet.” And of course he’d taken all of the vitamins and opened every jar and dumped them all out on the floor.

That’s what we need to say to the Divine Mother. “Mother, I did something in the closet.” And there it is. And you can see how easy it is to laugh about your unfortunate actions and attitudes when your pride isn’t at stake. But when you’re tempted to take them seriously, remember that it’s all just a big joke of God’s.

This life is up and down all the time, and if you can learn to stand in it with the Divine, and see it all as His play, it will be revealed to you in the end as nothing but the great bliss of God. God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service on April 24, 2016 at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California.)

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