Saturday, June 25, 2016

East Meets West Under One Roof

Last week, with the Shingon temple’s priest away on business, I went to visit the Ananda Temple in Bothell, north of Seattle.

The temple (which, as the video shows, is a gorgeous building) bases its philosophy on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, a yogi whose mission was to bring a greater knowledge of Eastern spirituality to the West.

I learned about Yogananda years ago through my favorite music: Singer Jon Anderson said the kernel of the idea for the Yes album Tales From Topographic Oceans came from a footnote in Yogananda’s book Autobiography of a Yogi. Jon Anderson’s spirituality draws from various sources, and so does Yogananda’s – and I owe my interest in religious syncretism to both of them. 

Yogananda’s belief was, essentially, that there were many spiritual paths leading to the same destination, and I believe that myself. Accordingly, the Ananda temple during my visit mixed teachings from the Bhagavad-Gita and the New Testament (as I imagine happens every weekend), and the pictures above the altar include Jesus at the top of an arc, with Yogananda and other teachers of Kriya yoga -- the spiritual practice central to Yogananda's teachings and, therefore, the Ananda temple -- descending in either direction, implying a direct link of transmission from Jesus, who stands at the top. 

And indeed, that is what Yogananda and the Ananda temple teach. Yogananda claimed to have met Babaji, an ancient Indian saint, who in turn was said to have been met by Jesus himself. In their meeting, Jesus told Babaji to send someone to the Western world, to tell people how they could more deeply commune with him through meditation. Babaji chose Yogananda for the task and is said to have told him so as Yogananda sat in meditation, seeking assurance in regard to his guru's request that Yogananda travel to America.

Take all of that with whatever size of grain of salt you like, but I found Yogananda's autobiography an inspiration when I read it. It gave me another vantage point on spirituality as I was attempting to step away from the religion of my upbringing. It came into my life at a time when I needed something else to grasp onto. I ultimately wouldn't leave my Catholic faith for many more years, but when I did, I looked back on Yogananda's writings -- his autobiography, along with the books The Science of Religion and The Second Coming of Christ -- as helping to bridge the gap between traditions and to allow me to see that religion and spirituality didn't need to be the limiting and restrictive experience I'd grown up with. 

There were other influences by that time -- notably Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, the Transcendentalists, Jon Anderson himself, and Sri Chinmoy, by way of yet another musical discovery: Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by English guitarist John McLaughlin, who was a Chinmoy devotee. But Yogananda, being one of the first spiritual masters I'd studied outside the Christian tradition, helped make me more receptive to all the other influences that flowed my way in the years to come. 

And it was he, perhaps more than anyone else, who helped me frame my Christian views in a new way -- in essence, making them more personal and accessible. "The Kingdom of God is within you" took on a much more personal meaning, for example, changing my frame of reference from religious experience as something cold and distant, with an object of worship to be feared, to one that could be personal and intimate, seeing us all as pieces of a fragmented but divine Whole, like cosmic puzzle pieces that only needed to learn how to put themselves back together again.

In any event, the temple was a lovely place to visit. Equally enjoyable was the temple's East West Bookshop in Seattle. Not surprisingly, it’s a wonderfully eclectic mix of spiritual resources. You can buy gongs and meditation cushions, pick up some Hindu or Christian statuary, take your pick of pagan and native paraphernalia (tarot, crystals, dream catchers, you name it), get an I Ching complete with a set of yarrow stalks, or immerse yourself in any number of books, from alternative medicine and vegetarian cookbooks to Buddhist bedtime stories for children. It's quickly become a favorite destination for me.

The Ananda temple is also affiliated with the Living Wisdom School -- a private school I recently visited to see if it might be a good fit for my 4-year-old. In addition to academics, the kids learn the importance of empathy and kindness and even learn some basic yoga moves, in an environment that fosters non-sectarian spirituality. I'm not sure yet whether we'll send her there, but I certainly don't think a parent could go wrong enrolling a child at Living Wisdom.

In all, the temple visit was an enriching experience that took me back to the years when I was just starting to explore other religious paths. It was a pleasant reminder of how far I've come, and how many enriching teachings I've encountered along the way.

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