Temporary Monk

by Franklin Zahn

In Gerald Heard did I meet someone who was giving up the world not in order to gain it but to obtain spiritual advancement.

Circa 1939-1940

The F.O.R. [Fellowship of Reconciliation] speaker was a British writer-pacifist named Gerald Heard, then studying in Hollywood with a Hindu Swami [Swami Prabhavananda, then head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California]. He had a strong, fine-featured face and powerful delivery but eyes with pale, weak pupils which never seemed focused on anything. He was a spectacular speaker, seeming to have a photographic memory for everything he had read in religion, psychology, history, literature, anthropology, astronomy, etc… I would become closely associated with Gerald.


I stopped at the then almost-completed Trabuco College, Gerald Heard’s center for the study and practice of prayer, and met Felix Greene, its builder. The ashram would become very familiar when, a year later in 1943, Felix could not return from England and I would be its interim manager.


Later that summer I was in a quite different religious class of about the same size at Trabuco College, now completed. When the car full of us from San Diego arrived we found to our surprise that Aldous Huxley was to be Gerald Heard’s co-leader. He was mostly an unobtrusive listener, but when he did talk in his low voice he showed a knowledge of Buddhist and Hindu mystics I hardly expected. I had read only his Brave New World and a few snatches from Ends and Means, a pacifist work which shows that the degree of change ultimately achieved in a revolution is inversely proportional to the amount of violence used. This summer of 1943 his current work was The Art of Seeing, telling how he had found new vision without glasses through use of the Bates exercises. As I watched him read by curling the page and then moving the closest line of words past his eyes about three inches away, I appreciated even more the accomplishment of his wide reading in the mystics. With books where he could not curl the page he used a slot. His erudition in the Eastern mystics was later to show in The Perennial Philosophy — still one of my favorite religious classics.

Gerald’s talks were mainly on the various levels of prayer practiced by mystics — mostly Catholic saints. In the beginner’s purgative state of devotional life, the most elementary level was that of vocal prayer. Next came discursive silent prayer in which the mind considers the Divine. This is the stage where [Christian] Scientists, reading their Bible and Science and Health and then closing their eyes to meditate about it, normally would be. Curiously, although both Gerald and Mrs. [Mary Baker] Eddy placed a low estimate on petitionary prayer — as if God were holding something back — both put a high value on the largely petitionary Lord’s Prayer. Gerald had written that prayer does not bring good things to people but rather brings people to where good things are. Mrs. Eddy held that prayer does not change the divine order but puts people in harmony with it. The popular Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, the monk who could pray while at work in the kitchen, Gerald felt was too advanced for beginners. The book Gerald recommended to our group was The Art of Mental Prayer by Bede Frost, a Catholic in the Anglican community… As I see prayer, its two-fold purpose is to make us love more both the Ultimate Reality and the human family. If one’s emphasis or priority is the former, then she or he is a contemplative; if the latter, then an activist.

Felix Greene, whom I had met the previous summer, was on a visit home to England and Lucille Nixon, a young school teacher from Pasadena, was taking his place as resident manager. Another of the group was Francis Hall, one of the Union Theological Seminary students who had refused to register for the draft…. Like many young theological students he was much influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr. Much table talk at noon — the only meal when conversation was permitted — centered around the famous theologian’s desertion of pacifism. A later visiting college prexy quipped that we had to love our niebuhr as ourself.

Trabuco had no newspapers or radios. Although there were no clocks in evidence, the schedule was very clocklike, timed by a hand-rung bell whose belfry rose above the red-tile roofs of the white Spanish-style buildings. For me the most rigorous part was the first line:

5:30 A.M. Rising, ten bells
6:05 A.M. Start of meditation, two bells
7:00 A.M. End of meditation, three bells
7:15 A.M. Breakfast
8:00 A.M. End of overnight silence
11:30 A.M. Start of meditation, two bells
12:30 P.M. End of meditation, three bells
12:45 P.M. Lunch
1:30 P.M. Start of physical work
4:00 P.M. Tea
5:00 P.M. Start of meditation and of overnight silence, two bells
6:00 P.M. End of meditation, three bells
6:30 P.M. Supper

The Benedictine silence was not total, Gerald reading to us during breakfast and supper and conducting one evening class. Meals were vegetarian which, as Gerald explained previously to me at Whittier Institute, was part of his practice of ahimsa — non-injury. But like Gandhi he was a realist, saying we could not avoid causing some injury while on earth. Our goal should be to go through life causing as little suffering as possible. In this he was more consistent than Mrs. Eddy who could write in a hymn:

“The arrow that doth wound the dove
Darts not from those who watch and love”

but who could also write that her favorite dish was pigeon pie. In other ways Gerald seemed to practice what my co-religionists only believed. They seemed sincere in declaring matter unreal, but went on accumulating it. Gerald was the first person I knew who deliberately limited himself to one suit, two shirts, and blue jeans. With access to royalties—he had published a book every year for two decades — his poverty was definitely voluntary. He did believe in some other possessions, such as one’s personal fountain pen. He had modified to Catholic vow of “poverty” to “frugality.”

Just before Lucille Nixon returned to teaching at Palm Springs, Gerald asked me to come to Trabuco as interim manager. Trabuco seemed to fit in well with visiting ailing Dad in San Diego, only two hours away.

We all realized that sex was a serious problem in training for the life of the spirit, to borrow the title of his pamphlet. Although he had substituted continence for chastity, he disapproved of libertine sex views. Combining a monastery with a nunnery was a “unique experiment,” in Gerald’s words, but meant no relaxation of traditional celibacy. When married couples visited each other they were permitted to sleep together only in a detached building. Gerald held that the sex drive was a combination of two opposite qualities, an animalistic violent lust and a tender devotion, and that in the celibate search for God only the former was lost. He agreed with Freud that repression by will power was damaging to mind and body, but I never tried to pin him down to an exact definition of continence. His bachelorhood fitted in well with his view that devotion to God was a higher calling, but I never inquired how he happened not to marry in his younger years before becoming interested in mysticism.

Gerald and I thoroughly believed in some kind of immortality, but at Trabuco I was uneasy with his lightheartedness. For all his brilliance, he was not the sensitive psychologist who would know gaiety was not my mood… Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; Gerald was at his best in the latter.

At Christmas time several members of Alcoholics Anonymous, interested in prayer, stayed a week. Included was one of the founders named “Bill” and his wife [Bill and Lois Wilson] and daughter. One evening Bill told of the incredible series of coincidences leading to the founding of AA. I can still see him as we sat in the red brick library with its red tile floors saying, “And so he goes to Oh-high-yo.” He modestly disclaimed authorship of the movement’s book, saying he only edited materials of others. After the war my own attempts at religious healing would be to apply to disease in general the same approach AA used with alcoholism — working without pay, and asking the person helped to change his/her life and to help someone else… After the holidays, Aldous and his French-born petite wife Maria came for an indefinite stay.


After leaving Trabuco that February of 1944, I did not return until 1946. The war over, the “College” was operating on its originally intended residential basis and had fewer visitors. There were now five permanent “novitiates,” one a married woman who had a special arrangement to live part of each year at home. Another five of us agreed to stay a minimum of three months. During my two-years absence some original Trabuco-ites had been permanent residents and then left. Felix, prime mover in founding the college, had returned from England, then he and Elena [Lindeman], another resident, had married. They then left under unhappy circumstances, going to Ojai to be associated with Krishnamurti. Lucille had left to join the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, and was now working on European relief.

The present residents were newer friends of Gerald’s, none knowing him as long as I. One was Fran Hall, in and out of prison since we last met. Gerald was now less in evidence, lecturing only one hour a week. Electricity had arrived at Trabuco, ending the chores of kerosene lamps, hand laundering, and cranking the pump engines. The dozen of us could do the physical labor in five afternoons a week. I spent most of them on our dirt road with Phil, a Stanford Law graduate and recent Navy ensign.

Of the more important books I read at Trabuco one was Saudreau’s The Life of Union with God, its very title stating the aim of the college. I found the Buddhist classic The Dhammapada sounded familiar: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought…” I could now study all morning and in three months wrote summaries of over twenty books. But my interest in religious healing was at odds with the interest in physical health I now found at Trabuco. Most residents were taking trips to a Pasadena MD [Henry G. Bieler] for tests and for dietary prescriptions. My approach to bodily well-being was “wholesome neglect,” in Jesus’ words, “Taking no thought for the body…” But I was living far from that ideal, having Mother send me chocolates. When I left at the end of my minimum three months I told Gerald I missed chocolate sodas. Our only sweets had been limited to frosted cakes for residents’ birthdays — the only special days Trabuco observed.

I remember the party for Marvin [Barrett], Harvard grad and recent Navy lieutenant. What other little intimate celebration ever had as guests Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Richard Gregg! Richard is still known for his classic, The Power of Non-violence. He told us that with the outbreak of war he had tried to send his close friend Gandhi a simple message: “Love.” The cablegram was refused as being “unintelligible.” Venerables like Richard and trustee Aldous were accepted for less than the three months minimum. Another such was Howard Brinton, Director of Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center in Pennsylvania where Gerald had been a resident lecturer. I talked with Howard about rehabilitation work abroad with the American Friends Service Committee.

I was more interested in Gandhian action than Gerald. Cool to all social work, he claimed that “unregenerate man” trying to help the world was similar to a surgeon using septic instruments—infection could make things worse. He thought that only when people were in close touch with Reality should they dare tamper with the world. Soviet communism was an example wherein, as he said, people who tried to live brotherhood without Fatherhood found themselves liquidating each other. Yet Gerald published a book every year and was socially conscious. He could never be a Roman Catholic monk because he was too aware of the worldliness and power politics of the overall Church. He was far too much a liberal to accept total submission of one person to another, or even to an institution.

The basic purpose of obedience, he reasoned, was reduction of the ego — the opposite of making a name for oneself. I think this was Gerald’s most important contribution to my own spiritual life. As a Scientist I had always rejected Isaiah’s injunction against pride: “All our righteousness is as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). But in freeing humans from the bondage of matter and giving them dominion over sin and sickness, we Scientists had lost sight of the old-fashioned virtue of humility. Gerald felt that subjugating the ego was necessary to reach God. “The more there is of self, the less there is of God,” Aldous wrote at Trabuco in one of his Seven Meditations. In keeping with Gerald’s reinterpretation of obedience as anonymity, Harpers had published his Training for the Life of the Spirit anonymously, as well as the book of another resident, The Path of the Saint. But we were aware this was no final answer, for the ego can even take pride in its humility!

In addition to the health interests, I was not happy with changes in the Oratory. Instead of a completely senseless hour, there was now some singing in the morning, and the late afternoon hour had become a complete liturgy with candles, kneeling, processional, singing, vocal prayer, incense, and an eastern cross — the horizontal member curving upward at the ends in candelabra form [a crux orata, or “praying cross”]. When I expressed my annoyance, Gerald readily excused me from this third period, and I meditated in my room. My total was four hours a day. Having lived as an adult mostly singly, I discovered in my three months’ stay that I did not like group living. A basic with Felix Greene’s design was that everyone had a private room, but it was not enough.

But I felt no antagonisms, and probably could have lived on with Trabuco’s residents as well as with any other mixed group. My basic reason for leaving was that I realized I was an “activist” and not a “contemplative,” the two general classifications of religious devotees. I may have felt that some uneasiness existed among the permanent novitiates, but had no idea when I said goodbye to them and Gerald that they too would later split apart as had Trabuco’s first permanent group. The only two who would stick by Gerald were Margaret Gage, former New York actress, and Jay [Michael] Barrie, a CO who had renounced a $40,000-a-year singing contract in Hollywood. But after this second blow-apart, Trabuco College would not recover. Gerald would leave, and the campus would be in limbo before eventually becoming a Ramakrishna monastery.

Franklin Zahn (1908-1996), pacifist and activist, was educated as an engineer at Caltech. He became a Conscientious Objector during World War II. Raised a Christian Scientist, Zahn converted to Quakerism and adopted a regimen of asceticism, meditation, vegetarianism (specifically pescetarianism), and voluntary poverty. Zahn joined Trabuco College in mid- 1943 and shortly after served as its manager until when, in February 1944, Selective Service ordered him to a CO camp in Oregon. He rejoined Trabuco College briefly in 1946. Jailed three times for his beliefs, Zahn published his 1984 autobiography Deserter From Violence: Experiments with Gandhi’s Truth, from which "Temporary Monk" is excerpted by kind permission of Vicki Zahn.

"Gerald [wrote] that prayer does not bring good things to people but rather brings people to where good things are."