The Passing of Brother Turiyananda
(An Excerpt from "Romancing The Divine" by Michael Henry Dunn,
copyright 2017, all rights reserved)
(left: Brother Turiyananda holding a new christened infant at the SRF Lake Shrine;
right: Brother's guru - Paramahansa Yogananda)
Another book should be written about the life of Brother Turiyananda. But as I never met him, it is not mine to write. I walked up a holy mountain in the Himalayas one fine day in the company of a rascal Frenchman who could do a pitch-perfect impersonation of Turiyananda, and we nearly fell off the mountain laughing. I had heard recordings of Turiyananda, arrived at his home monastery just in the wake of his passing, knew a hundred stories of him, and I have met many who remember him vividly, so he seems almost like a memory to me.
But I will tell you a little of what I know of him, and of his passing.
Divine Mother was his great passion, and he was a man ruled by passion. He had run a biker bar in Switzerland before becoming a monk, and could never quite overcome his fondness for cigars, for motorcycles, for coffee of brain-jarring potency. He did manage to overcome the temptation of women, but only by being extraordinarily frank about it.
He was Divine Mother’s bad boy, and in sermons he would speak of his struggles with such frankness and humility that the people felt that he was one of them, and yet holy too – that there was hope of bliss, if only one could love as deeply as Turiyananda loved.
He missed his Samurai incarnations, he said, and would wield his Japanese sword with great brio in his little monastic cell in the lakeside windmill. He was a man who demanded military-style obedience from the monks under his supervision, but was utterly humble and unpretentious. He would walk into a Santa Monica coffee shop and talk to strangers with unbridled enthusiasm about God, about his beloved Divine Mother. He could see the fine ethereal forms of fairies in the gardens, he said, and was known to blithely warn couples he was about to perform weddings for that one had murdered the other in a recent past life. He would wander into the garden visitors’ center, airily telling gathered guests that you could tell the high sanctity of certain monks by the heavenly aroma that trailed behind them – while he hid a lit stick of incense behind his back.
Turiyananda was in the middle of performing an outdoor wedding ceremony in the garden one day, and the bride began to scream – the monastery cat had wandered under her bridal gown and become tangled in her fine under-things. “Don’t worry!” cried Turiyananda, “I’ll take care of it!” And he plunged enthusiastically into a search for the cat beneath the tangled bridal gown.
At a mountain retreat for the young boys one summer, an earthquake rattled the area. Afterward one rather rebellious lad, frightened by the experience, confided to Brother Turiyananda that he was afraid of dying in an earthquake.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Turiyananda counseled him brusquely. “You don’t have good enough karma to die in an earthquake!”
He would discipline himself mercilessly sometimes, and once (half-seriously) asked the Reverend Mother for permission to have himself neutered so he would no longer be pestered by sex urges. (She reminded him with some exasperation that the body was not the problem!).
Once he fasted for a week, and strode out into the crowd after Sunday service – a crowd finely sprinkled with comely young women clad in Malibu’s customarily scanty fashion for a fine June day – and gave one lovely young lady a terribly candid once-over with his expert appraising eye, whereupon he sighed heavily and said, “I look at you…and all I can think about is food!”
Coffee was not allowed, but an exception was made for Turiyananda. “I promised Daya Mata I would drink only one cup a day,” he said to some friends as he strolled the monastery grounds one day. “Only one!” He then held up an enormous beer stein - filled to the brim with the powerful muddy Turkish coffee that he loved.
He observed the monastery rules in the breach on occasion, and suffered from nostalgia for the European habit of wine with dinner. Once he told of a vision he had of the great saint who was his teacher, sitting across a table from him – on which sat a bottle of wine. The Master gestured to the bottle, and then to himself, as if to say, “which do you choose?” Whereupon, Turiyananda related, “I made a smart remark – and he vanished. But at least I saw my guru!”
One imagines the smart remark to have been something along the lines of “Why don’t we have a drink and talk about it?”
He was still in vital middle age when he began to hint of his imminent passing. He began to give away all his possessions. When asked why, he said, “Because when they come into my room, and find me lying there dead, I want them to look around at my bare cell, and exclaim, ‘what a great renunciant he was!’”
Against the rules, he allowed recordings to be made of his talks, and made a recording of himself reading love poems to Divine Mother. He would then listen to his own readings of the poems, and weep copiously at the beauty and the passion of it.
A close friend of mine who was a monk under Brother Turiyananda’s supervision told me of his passing. “I lived in the room below him. That night, in the middle of the small morning hours, I heard in my sleep a thud on the ceiling above. Then Turiyananda came to me in a dream, and thanked me for everything I had done for him and for the shrine in the years we worked together. In the morning, he did not appear to give the Sunday service. We came into his room and found him lying there with a beatific smile on his face. The bliss in the room was so palpable you could barely breathe.”
The grief at his passing was widespread and deep. Many who had come to the shrine only to hear him speak did not return. Sadly, they had come for him, and not for his Beloved.
After my French friend and I came down from the mountain in India, we joined the head monk at the nearby ashram in telling stories of Turiyananda. We laughed non-stop for ninety minutes. At length, the monk paused for breath and said, “You see? He was a saint. He has been gone ten years, and here we sit, laughing and blissful to recall his life.”
(You may purchase the entire book at this link).