Who Will Lead Us Out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death?

Our scripture verse from the Bible this Sunday is “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

Aside from the immediate inspiration of the words, it’s been the justification for a certain amount of narrowness in Christian teaching – as if Jesus was claiming to be the only savior that God would ever send to the world.

In his commentary, Swamiji hints at these and other meanings, but today I’m going to pick it up from a different angle. While the theological implications are important, there’s a powerful message for us in Christ’s words that we don’t want to lose sight of.

The song that our choir so beautifully sang this morning reflects the simple inspiration of Jesus’ words:

“We shall walk through the valley of the shadow of Death,

We shall walk through the valley in peace!

And if Jesus himself shall be our leader,

We shall walk through the valley in peace!”

The song isn’t part of our usual Ananda repertoire, but oh my – the composer certainly knew what he was talking about: that this life is indeed the valley of the shadow of death.

At our annual Ananda Sangha Christmas staff meeting, there’s a longstanding tradition that we bring something funny to share. One of the jokes that was offered this year was: “Why was the Buddhist coroner fired from his job?” “Because every time he filled out a death certificate, for ‘Cause of Death’ he wrote ‘Birth.’”

It’s funny, of course, but it’s poignantly true. Because once we’re born we find ourselves inexorably approaching the end of this life, and everything that happens to us is overshadowed by the awareness that this earthly existence is fleeting.

Even though we may find a great deal of joy in these temporary lives, there’s an undercurrent of knowing that however happy or sad this life may be, it was never meant to last.

The beautiful altar that you see behind me today took hours of loving devotion to create. But before many hours have passed it will all be taken down again, and the flowers will be thrown away.

For the major religious festivals in India, they make beautiful statues of the Divine Mother. Gifted craftsmen spend months creating the images, which are elaborately decorated and adorned. And when the festival ends, the worshippers troop down to the river carrying the statues, and they set out in a boat and throw them in the water, and because they’re made of clay they dissolve and disappear forever.

It’s difficult for Westerners, attached as we are to the material side of things, to watch so much loving effort be tossed away. But the deeper meaning is that it’s a deliberate affirmation of what our lives are about.

In the Bible, Jesus says that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, you should turn to him the other cheek also. (Mathew 5:39) Swamiji said that one of the meanings of this passage is that we spend a tremendous amount of time trying to arrange our lives so that they will fulfill our very short-sighted ideas of what will fulfill us and be helpful to us.

We devote endless time and effort to trying to ensure our pleasure and comfort, and to making sure that people will understand us, and that our talents will be recognized and will have a chance to be expressed. But God has a very different agenda – and it doesn’t include the idea that He wants us to suffer.

This is a great misunderstanding that has been propagated in religion, where we keep narrowing God’s will for us until everything we do is in some way in contradiction to what God wants. The Catholics even have a word for it – they call it “scrupulosity” – with a precise definition: “Scrupulous individuals are overly concerned that something they thought or did might be a sin or other violation of religious or moral doctrine.”

When I began to fall into that error, in the beginning of my life at Ananda, I remember how Swamiji tried so hard to get me to understand. He said to me, almost pleadingly, “God does not want you to be unhappy.” He said, “That is your misunderstanding.” It took me a while to let go of the attitudes that were causing me so much tension, where I was thinking that the spiritual path had to be always antithetical to my inclinations.

In time, I began to understand what Swami was trying to get me to understand. In fact, it’s a fine line, because even though we should not be too hard on ourselves, we also shouldn’t mistake what the path of Self-realization is about – that we aren’t here to have it all, but to transcend it all.

This is not a path of suffering, but it is definitely a path of renunciation. The great secret of the spiritual path is that when we are willing to let go of that which is temporary, we are graced with that which is eternal.

It’s a difficult truth to begin to understand. And the only way we can truly understand it is by making sure that Jesus himself will be our leader. And whether our leader will be Jesus or Yogananda or the Divine Mother, it means constantly remembering that those who know the path are forever present with us and eager to help and guide us.

Many years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to Italy. And when we were in Florence we visited the Duomo, a magnificent cathedral with a very old and famous dome that was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and completed in 1436. There’s a staircase that leads up to the dome, and a catwalk that goes around the inside, and then you can walk out onto a little porch and look over the city of Florence.

So I cheerfully climbed up the staircase, which was narrow and steep and a little claustrophobic, and I came out onto the catwalk and started walking along – at which point I remembered that I’m terrified of heights, and I had a mental flash, perhaps of a past life, of catapulting over the railing and hitting the ground in a very unpleasant splat. So I panicked, and even though the catwalk was narrow and people were coming in the opposite direction, I turned around and made my way past them and went back down the claustrophobic staircase, bumping into everyone, and dashed out almost hysterically into the piazza.

When I had recovered, I was not proud of my response. And it raised a question for me, “How long do I want to be dominated by these subconscious fears?”

A year or two later, I had the opportunity to be in Florence again, and to visit the Duomo with my friend Santoshi, who has a tremendous amount of physical bravery. She’s very courageous, and the thought of being frightened of heights is laughable to her.

So we climbed up the claustrophobic staircase, and when we got to the catwalk I grabbed a fold of her skirt in a fierce grip, and I put my head down, and she walked me the length of the catwalk and back to the stairs.

Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

When we got back down, I sat leaning against the Duomo, and somebody took a photo of me where I’m looking utterly triumphant. But there wasn’t a chance in the world that I could have made it if my grip had been a fraction less fierce, or if my faith in Santoshi had been an iota less. Because my fears were so far beyond reason that it scares me even today to think of how I managed to do it. But the power of faith in someone that we know can do it makes everything possible. And this is why the gift of the masters means everything to us in the spiritual life.

When Swami Kriyananda wrote the Festival of Light, he said that he was, in a sense, writing the mass for Dwapara Yuga.

He said, “So much ritual celebrates a particular historical event.”

We’re in the season of Christmas and Hanukkah now, and Hanukkah is the story of the Jewish rebel Judas Maccabeus and his brothers who vanquished the evil Greek emperor Antiochus and rededicated the temple.

The eternal light in the temple had been extinguished by the barbarians, and the holy people wanted to light the lamp again. But they had only a tiny bit of consecrated oil, and when they lit it, legend has it that it burned for eight days. And this is why the Jews celebrate the eight nights of Hanukkah by lighting a candle each night to commemorate that historical event when God miraculously intervened.

Similarly, the Christian mass celebrates the historical event of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and the wafer and the wine represent the body and blood of Christ.

Many of the Indian rituals are about historical events as well, for example when Durga defeated the demon, or when Rama was restored to the throne.

Some Indian rituals celebrate the life of a great master who demonstrated his transcendence over every earthly limitation, and other ceremonies are about symbolic entities such as Durga or Kali. But all of the stories are fixed and outwardly specific, because that’s what religion in Kali Yuga is like. Kali Yuga defined spirituality in very specific, rigid and ritualistic ways, and the stories and ceremonies were needed to keep those traditions alive.

But we’ve now entered Dwapara Yuga, when there is a growing understanding that religious stories and rites are less meaningful than knowing that which simply is. And that which is includes the coming of these fully liberated masters who have triumphed over death, and who want to help us escape from the vale of suffering.

Our Festival of Light celebrates, not a historical event, but the simple truths of Sanaatan Dharma – the Eternal Religion: the everlasting teachings that tell us what simply is.

“No greater love can there be than this, from a life of infinite joy and freedom in God, willingly to embrace limitation, pain, and death for the salvation of mankind. Such ever has been the sacrifice of the great masters for the world.”

We find the universal truths of Sanaatan Dharma expressed by great masters in all religions, and recorded in the world’s great scriptures, including the Bhagavad Gita. Although it’s a bit harder to discern the timeless truths in the Bible, because it was written in the depths of Kali Yuga when the esoteric truths couldn’t be as openly and clearly stated and shared, since the consciousness of mankind as a whole was incapable of comprehending them.

But the meaning as it’s expressed in the Bible is every bit as powerful and engaging, once we know how to look beneath the surface – then we find that the eternal truths are all there, and that they addresses our individual needs. Because our salvation is not a question of rules, ceremonies, historical events, or theological abstractions, but of working with ourselves, moment by moment, exactly as we are.

It’s impossible to escape or ignore our individuality with all its strengths and weaknesses. I think it was a particular form of my own madness in former lives that they had to put me in an asylum because I couldn’t relate to the inescapability of my individual consciousness. It still shadows me, and I don’t know if others are troubled, as I have been, to wake up in the morning and find that you’re still yourself, and that no matter how long you meditate, you keep coming back to the same old cussed self, unless you have a very high degree of Self-realization.

And so all of the metaphysical abstractions, and all of the scriptures, and all the great moments in history are boiled down to a simple question – “What is my consciousness like?”

What am I experiencing? The grand ideas of the scriptures have to be become personal for us, before they can have power to change our lives.

When I graduated from high school I attended Stanford University for a year. In those days, you could have a personal interview, and I basically talked my way in. So I went there basically just because I had gotten in.

I had no real interest in going to college, but I didn’t know what else to do. So I thought, well, this is a world-famous university, and perhaps I’ll find something meaningful here. But what I found was that my professors were only interested in a very abstract and speculative way in literature, drama, history, and language, whereas my interest was immediate and intensely personal and pressing, in the sense that I was desperately searching for someone who could help me live within my own consciousness.

None of my professors had even thought of the question, what to speak of having answers. So I very quickly became disillusioned, not for what they were doing, but for how irrelevant it was to me.

And then, several years later, I met Swami Kriyananda. And in the moment that I first set eyes on him I had a powerful intuition – by the grace of God for which I fall on my knees and thank Him every day – that he had solved the problem of consciousness. Which, to me, seemed like the only problem to solve. Because if you can solve the problem of consciousness, everything else will follow. And then wherever you’re standing is a place you want to be. Or if it’s polluted by the craziness of your particular karma, at least you have a general idea of what you can do about the karma, and you know which direction you want to go.

But how do we know where to go? Because a great soul has come, and greater can no love be than this, that a great soul, from a life of infinite joy and freedom in God, has willingly walked into the valley of the shadow of death, and has said, “Come with me.”

I love to think about spiritual things. I talk about them all the time, and I read and study, and I marvel at Master’s magnificent poetry, and Swami’s crystal-clear articulation of the teachings. But when we get right down to it, we just need to grab hold of somebody’s skirt. It really is just as simple as that – or their hand or their feet. And I enjoy contemplating that it really doesn’t matter how many mistakes we’ve made, or that we will make, as long as we never let go.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes unto the absolute freedom of the Father except through me.”

Tattoo that promise on your arm and read it every day. Because it’s saying that you can come unto the absolute freedom of the Father through the power and loving help of the masters.

Master talked about James Coller, a disciple of whom he said that he would be liberated in his present lifetime. Master said that James had “commotion karma.” No matter what he tried to do, it was bound to escalate into chaos. Master finally had to ask him not to live at Mount Washington. But he said that he would be liberated, and he added, “I don’t know how, but Divine Mother says so, so it must be true.” He said that James was like a mouthful of hot molasses – too hot to swallow and too sticky to spit out.

Those were the guru’s words. He was hot, but he was deeply devoted, and despite all the chaos and confusion, he was absolutely never going to give up. As Master put it, James wouldn’t let Divine Mother alone. And even though he couldn’t work with him in any conventional way, he belonged to the guru, and the guru belonged to him.

Now, think about that. We try to do our Kriyas as best we can, and we wonder if maybe we should learn kechari mudra. We try to get the outward details of our spiritual lives just right. And we have to ask ourselves, how much does it really matter in the end, compared to the simple devotion of our hearts?

Many of us sat here in the temple for eight hours yesterday during our Christmas all-day meditation. And tonight we’ll come back because it’s Christmas Eve, and we’ll have a wonderful program. We do these beautiful things, and they awaken an inspiration that carries us through the weeks and months to follow, so that we’ll remember the source of our inspiration.

But in the end there is really only one thing we have to do. We have to become persuaded of the power of those great souls who were sent to rescue us. And we have to become so committed to not letting go, that even if God Himself tried to pry loose our fingers, we absolutely would not give up. Master said – and many scriptures echo his words – that if the guru is pleased with us, that’s all that matters, even though the whole world stands against us.

There’s a story of a disciple in India who asked a certain master to give him initiation; but the master refused. The disciple knew that the master went down to the Ganges every day to bathe. So he hid by the steps leading down to the water. And while he was hiding there the guru accidentally stepped on him, and when he saw the disciple he kicked him and said, “Get out! Get out!”

The disciple decided that the guru’s kick was the touch of initiation, and the mantra was “Get out! Get out!” Meaning, to get out of delusion. And by repeating the mantra the disciple became very great.

Was the guru teasing him? Is it a true story? Who knows? And does it really matter?

There was a saint  in India who was very eccentric. He would throw bricks at his disciples, and one of the disciples took the brick and put it on his altar, thinking, “If this is from my master, this is what I will worship.”

Now, these are symbolic stories. Because we like to think that the guru is going to take care of us in the way we imagine we should be taken care of. And if it doesn’t go our way, we resist, because we think that we have the right karma and everything will go our way, and we’ll have a happy home and great success, and we’ll get lots of money, and we’ll have power to manifest whatever we want. And blah, blah. And we think it’s a sign of God’s grace.

God doesn’t want us to be unhappy, and if it’s our karma for these things to flow into our lives, they will come. But we should not for a moment mistake anything that happens to us outwardly for the one thing that matters. “I am the way, the truth and the life, and no one cometh unto the Father except by me.”

Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, if Jesus himself shall be our leader, we will walk through the valley in peace. We have extraordinary good karma to have found our divine leaders. And what more could we ask?

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on December 24, 2017.)

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