(The author during three and a half years as ashram cook at the SRF Lake Shrine)
(An excerpt from "Romancing The Divine" by Michael Henry Dunn, copyright 2018, all rights reserved)
Chapter Twenty-Five – Years in the Monastery Kitchen
Are the great heights of blissful union as open to the householder as to the monk or nun? My life has been a quest to experience an answer to this question.
You may indeed find that only the complete surrender of celibacy will satisfy your soul. This book may perhaps turn out to be just one step on a path that leads you ultimately to let go of the desire for human love, to find your way to a cloistered spiritual community wherein you may focus on God alone. If so, you have my admiration and heartfelt prayers. It is not an easy road.
In my years in the monastery kitchen, I dwelt in both worlds at once, in a way. I lived alone adjacent to monastery grounds, but I wore a wedding ring. I worked in silence with monks, meditated with them every morning, and cooked their midday meal, but I was not cloistered and I was not celibate. In those first two years, my wife would come from Chicago to spend a weekend every couple of months. Though I would socialize with other devotees on the weekend, my married status and my work in the monastery served to protect me from becoming distracted by the temptation of other relationships.
And I saw the monks around me struggle silently with the same questions and the same doubts that haunted me. Of the twelve monks whose meals I cooked when I arrived, six had left the monastery within a few years, all of them to marry.
But this was no ordinary monastery. Though all the essentials of monastic life were in place – celibacy, simplicity, obedience, prayer, meditation, work – the monastic environment was compromised by one very significant fact: a renowned meditation garden open to the public a few hundred yards from the beach at the southern edge of Malibu.
Monasticism, by definition, involves isolation from the opposite sex. For eight hours of the day, the grounds welcomed devotees, tourists, the curious, and the lightly clad (modest attire by Malibu standards could still be fairly provocative). It was said that the Shrine was the place where the Order sent monks to be tested.
And tested they were. One infamous starlet (well-known at the time for her shamelessly self-promoting Sunset Boulevard billboards) would frequently pull into the meditation gardens in a pink Corvette, and flounce onto the grounds, exposing to the legal limit every last square inch of a notoriously abundant figure. A call would go out over the grounds patrol radio – "Angelyne alert! Angelyne alert!" Some desperately blushing monk or volunteer would on occasion have to politely offer her a shawl, reminding her that she was on church grounds.
And it seemed that God delighted to arrange such tests. One poor fellow I knew, a very earnest and reticent young monk, was asked to temporarily relieve the parking valet in the shrine’s parking lot. Looking a bit out of place in his monastic tunic, he stood awkwardly at the gate, waving in the cars. Whereupon, a tall attractive blonde walked in the gate, straight up to him, and without so much as a "hello" planted a kiss smack on his mouth! The poor monk nearly fainted with the shock. And then he was desperately afraid that the monk in charge might have seen, fearing that he would at once be sent to monastic Siberia (yes, there was such a place) through no fault of his own.
Though embarrassing, the visual distractions that would stroll in from the beach at the Shrine were actually easier for the monks to ignore than the experience of meeting sincerely spiritual women at meditations or services. For the natural magnetism between the sexes does not decrease in the early stages of meditation, but grows stronger. Divine Mother’s beauty becomes more attractive, not less.
My tests were of a different nature. The kitchen was in a shed on a hilltop overlooking the shrine, and I worked in something more like monastic isolation.
I had no idea where my life was going. I had no idea if my marriage would survive. My ambitions for a life as an actor were rapidly fading. When I accepted the job as cook, the monk in charge explained to me, "You see, Michael, it helps morale if the food is good. We’re monks, we’ve given up a lot of pleasures most people take for granted, which is fine - but we really can’t have our cook running off at a moment’s notice to go be a movie star." He asked for a commitment of a year.
"You are working in a place of an extremely high spiritual vibration,‛ he told me. "Our guru communed deeply with Divine Mother on these grounds, and those vibrations remain. If you spend a year in this environment - you will change."
I saw the power of the place work on others. More times than I can count, strangers to the grounds, who knew nothing of its history, would spend an hour in the powerful peace of the
lakeside gardens, and then ask, "What is it about this place?" A mysterious inner cleansing and upliftment would take place, which they were often powerless to describe.
I felt a longing to spend hours meditating on those grounds, to soak up that peace, to instill devotional discipline in my recalcitrant spine. Ironically, by the time my duties in the isolated kitchen were at an end, the grounds were closed to the public – which meant me. At 5 p.m., the grounds reverted to being a monastic cloister, and even lay disciples were expected to leave. I was taken aback. I had won, seemingly by some blend of merit and desperation, the privilege of working in this environment. But Brother Devananda, the monk in charge, said that the most I would be allowed to do when my work was done was meditate for an hour or so in the bushes at the top of the stairs which led down to the shrine.
I tried it. It was not edifying. I was sitting in a bush. Bugs and a bad view, and the sound of buses and motorcycles on nearby Sunset Boulevard.
I considered again Brother’s stand. These men had, after all, embraced a cloistered life with the intention of living a life of simplicity and solitude, which was badly compromised by the public meditation gardens as it was. The environment was not merely about solitude – it was supported by the presence of those also committed to celibacy and service. And after hours their privacy was supposed to return to them, the support of their monastic seclusion in place. And the sight of me with my wedding ring, and my periodic conjugal visits with the absent wife, me with my freedom to go out to a movie if I chose, or to skip a meditation if I chose, yet with the privilege of sharing their monastic grounds, free to meditate with them in the mornings, seemingly enjoying all the benefits of monastic life with little of the sacrifice - well, let’s just say it may not have been good for morale.
"Well,‛ I thought, "what if I were completely invisible?"
That is how I found my cave.
(The Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, Pacific Palisades, California)
I will not tell you where it was. I don’t want to be responsible for people clambering over the off-limits sections of those sacred grounds, looking for that hidden place of shaded solitude by the water. I will tell you that a rope was necessary to lower oneself into it – a rope which is no longer there. The massive tree that disguised the place is gone now too. I found that I was completely hidden from view, and yet could meditate mere feet from the lake. The shrine to world peace containing the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi was only yards away. A small box tucked beneath some leaves held my meditation blanket. My only companions were three swans and a few dozen turtles. And as I quieted the breath, my mind would begin to absorb the peace of the place as the sun set and the moon rose, and my sadhana began in earnest.
However, I couldn’t very well sneak onto the grounds to meditate – I needed Brother’s permission. I explained my discovery to him, and emphasized that the worst intrusion I would make would be in that brief half-minute as I descended to my hiding place from the hilltop kitchen.
He consulted with his brother monks. A carefully limited permission was given.
It sounds idyllic, I know. And it was very beautiful. Looking back, those days seem so ideal – my brief interlude of quasi-monastic freedom between marriages, when my heart began to become still enough so that the reality of the Lover could be felt, when I began to think that perhaps the monastery would be my home after all.
I remember arising from two hours of meditation one night, and peering up through the guardian tree at the dazzling fullness of the moon, absorbed in a stillness so powerful that the sounds of Sunset Boulevard were somehow muted to perfect silence.
One night the vibrations of peace suddenly became ten times as powerful, while the world around me went briefly mad.
Light Amid the Violence – The Riots of 1992
In April of 1992, I completed my first year of work in the monastery. I commuted from the meditation center where I lived (in Hollywood) to the one where I worked – a forty-minute drive. One day I noticed an iron-grilled fence, decorative but imposing, going up around the chapel by my home, with a heavy steel door where once there had been an open church entrance.
I was appalled. "What’s their problem?" I wondered. "Do they expect rioting hordes to come pillaging down Sunset Boulevard and storm the chapel?"
Two weeks later, the four L.A. policemen on trial for the Rodney King beating were acquitted on all counts. Los Angeles exploded into the worst riots of the 20th Century. Fifty people were killed. Smoke rose from a hundred unchecked fires as snipers took shots at firemen. And rioting hordes did indeed come pillaging down Sunset Boulevard to the door of the chapel.
(The Los Angeles Riots of 1992)
It was a Thursday night, the night of the weekly devotional service, and one foolhardy volunteer usher thought it might be a good idea to stand in front of the new chapel gate on Sunset in the middle of the riots, in his suit and tie. A pick-up truck loaded with rioters pulled up at the sight of him. A gun was pointed and fired.
It misfired. They drove on.
At the Lake Shrine that night, a sense of panic could be felt in the streets as drivers became reckless in their anxiety to seek the refuge of home. Lines formed at gas pumps, and at markets as people stockpiled essentials, fearful of the chaos. Rumors spread that rioters had invaded Beverly Hills and were headed west. The long drive home to Hollywood would take me right through areas where convenience stores were being torched and looted, and where the police had largely lost control.
My cave beckoned. The thought of spending the night there was tantalizing. In this emergency, common sense said not to bother the monks with the question of permission. Within the perimeter of the shrine, as I climbed into my cave, the noise of the fear-stricken traffic receded and became a child’s faint night-time cry, an echo only of the nightmare that was consuming Los Angeles.
After practicing the techniques for stilling the mind, I gazed (as I had been taught) at the Spiritual Eye in the forehead. There, for the first time in my life, I saw it blaze (exactly as my guru had said it would) in a steady brilliance, the golden light surrounding the blue center, and within, the star. A powerful peace seemed to flow out from the light and envelop my being, as if the great souls who blessed the shrine were pouring out their protective blessings on the troubled city, through this one holy portal. I felt gratitude, deep gratitude and reassurance, as my soul bathed for the first time in the light of the source from which we all have sprung.
(Artist's rendering of the Spiritual Eye)
And then, as my karma would have it, one of the gardeners called my name from the nearby path, disturbing my concentration, and the light faded. I struggled to refocus, to let myself fall into this beauty for which I had longed for so many years, but the moment was now gone. Reluctantly, I pulled myself up by the rope to the hidden entrance, and appeared on the path. A bed was available, I was told, at a nearby home, if I preferred not to spend the night in the open. This too was protection, I realized, and I accepted.
But I’ve often wondered, in the years since, what would have unfolded, how deep would I have gone if I had simply remained rooted where I was, ignoring the body’s demands, and had surrendered to the powerful light and peace that the Divine was pouring out upon the shrine during the riots of 1992. The Light has come often again since then, but never (or at least not yet) with such a sense of presence and purpose.
I trust it will not need another heinous calamity for me to connect that deeply again. But it would often happen in the years to come that the Lover would remind me of Her protective presence when my foolhardy behavior had placed me in peril.
(More excerpts to come - or purchase the complete book at this link)