By Swami Yogeshananda
In 1945 I had arranged by correspondence to spend a two-week period of trial and investigation at Trabuco College in the Santa Ana Mountains, some 60 miles south of Los Angeles. With a small group of friends I had read the early books of Gerald Heard with much admiration. We studied together The Recollection, not much more than a booklet, which I still think epitomizes Heard’s religion. The era was just the beginning of the “Let’s look for a guru” period, and Gerald seemed to us a likely candidate. Moreover, relatives of mine had attended classes and lectures at the place and were similarly drawn by Heard’s scintillating erudition, originality, and persuasiveness. They had drawn lively and enticing penpictures of Trabuco, described briefly in my Six Lighted Windows, as "…sitting in awe as quotations from the mystics fell in profusion from Heard's learned lips."
As I waited in the station for the suburban train that, at the time, plied between Los Angeles and Santa Ana, a remarkable figure appeared. Dressed in a yellow robe wrapped around a while blouse, stood a small Buddhist nun, clearly not of Asian birth. Her remarks to a couple of women near her were in British style. I am afraid I stared into her face; she stared back; we exchanged courtesies. Then we boarded the same train.
Sister Dhammadinna (for that was her name) did not drop coins into the transit box: the conductor had to fish out the amount from the coin purse she held open to him. She was, of course, on her way to Trabuco College, and, following the rule of her order, a strict Theravadin one (not Hinayana, as she corrected me), which allowed none of them to touch money. We chatted amiably while comparing notes on Mr. Heard, as she always called him. I was able to learn of her European origin and of her iron-willed persistence in seeking admittance to an order of monks in Sri Lanka. They had snubbed her altogether, as she sat on their doorstep for three days without the monastery being opened to her at all. She loved to tell the story and in the two weeks following we heard it often. Somehow they had been persuaded to let her run the gauntlet of Theravadin training and become a professed nun. She was very probably the first woman to be admitted to that order—certainly the first Western one. Sister was coming back to the College where Mr. Heard had generously made provision for her food and shelter whenever she wished to be there, and she had made it a base for her preaching travels.
Gerald Heard and his driver and all-factotum, Michael Barrie, met us in Santa Ana in one of the first station wagons of the time. We were driven up the long, winding, and lonely road to the College. We passed, as I recall, only two other establishments on that trek, the lone service station at El Toro Road and the tavern at Cook’s Corner. On the drive Gerald and Sister (as I shall now refer to them) kept up a warm exchange, almost a repartee of witty and meaningful remarks which seemed to me to be on quite an elevated plane, and I began to feel I had at last reached the company of the angels. One of the scraps I recall, either from this or another drive concerned the inevitability of moving forward once you are on the spiritual path:
Gerald: “A great Christian mystic says that one must now either take pains or bear pains.”
Sister: “Exactly so, Mr. Heard! Very well put."
Built like a monastery, in the Italian fashion, yet Trabuco College was not built as one, exactly. This handsome pile of brick and tile sprawled from the water reservoir at the top of a long slope to the dormitory at its bottom, the whole structure exposed to a magnificent overlook of sky, cloud, valley, and farm, distant roads, and a spot of sea. The old engraved bell, nearly two feet in diameter in a modest tower, and the hexagonal chapel, original and controversial, as well as the oversize bricks, were features of true distinctiveness.
I recall the huge apricot trees along the approach to the entrance gates; autumn’s leaves still lay under them in some quantity, and raking these up was one of my first assignments as a visiting volunteer. Several of us engaged in this, Gerald along with us. Working beside him that day I had the opportunity to ask personal questions, most of which I have, alas, forgotten. His replies, I recall, were courteous, to the point, and always, forward leading.
We had our breakfast informally in the large kitchen. Gerald would sit on a high stool for his, beaming down upon his little flock of students and coming out with those bursts of insight and arcane memorabilia which made up his style and his identity. A few of those gems have stayed with me all the years since, e.g., “Nicholas of Cusa said, ‘God is beyond the contradiction of contraries.’” I thought then and think now, how profound that was and how Vedantic. Another day he told the story of the Sufi saint Al-Hallaj, who ran through the street crying, “I am He” and subsequently was decapitated. “The moral,” said Gerald, “is that even if you know it, don’t go about shouting it to others."
When I visited there were about twenty women and men there, either full or part time. The work of the place was shared, with the cooking done mostly by the women, gardening and maintenance by the men. The large and handsome vegetable garden, however, was run by a remarkable and efficient young lady, named Miriam King, and from her I had my first lessons in raising vegetables.
Most of those who spent that fortnight have slipped from memory, but four could not. Michael Barrie and I became good friends even in that short time, a friendship that lasted the rest of his life. A third was Margaret Gage who seemed always to be at Gerald’s side. The other two were Felix Greene, the young man who had supervised the building, in 1942, of the College, and Elena Lindeman, one of Gerald’s “prize pupils.” It was clear that romance had sparked between these two (which soon turned to marriage), and to some of those in residence this was spicy because Gerald’s teachings had quite a monastic spin on them. It was going to be said, later, by tongue waggers, that “Heard’s chief monk had run off with his chief nun.”
The Unforgettable Sister
Sister looked askance at this “attachment” as she called it, with warning glances in Elena’s direction: “Attachment, Elena! Beware attachment!” She had a habit of referring to “the guinea pig life,” and everyone knew what she meant. Sister stayed, usually alone, in one of the rooms of the old Cottage, which had come with the property. There she would do her bit of ritual in the morning, before a small statue of the Buddha. When others referred to it as her “worship”, she made strong objection, making clear that she was “reverencing” the Buddha, not worshiping. After breakfast she would sit on the brick patio at the entrance with her Sutras. It was a sight to see, this small, austere but quite urbane woman, day by day poring over Buddhist scriptures and meditating on them for hours. She also taught us at specified times, and I found her counsel profound and uplifting; I very nearly became her disciple! She spoke, of course, of renunciation, of pacifism, of the chakras in the body and of successive experiences along the Path to Enlightenment. Sister denied having had the “nirvana” experience—”Oh, that is a long way off!” she said, but declared that everyone could become “a Buddha”—not the historical Buddha, of course—that was different.
Sister had one troublesome limitation: she did not like to discuss comparative religion. I still hear her firm accented tones: “I will sit up with you day and night, turning the wheel of the Doctrine, but don’t ask me about other religions.” This was disillusioning, and I had become turned off. Gerald, on the other hand, made a specialty of comparative religions, and with that incomparable erudition which brought biology, anthropology, and a host of other academic disciplines into the picture as well, quoted the Sufis, Hasidim, as well as Buddhist and Taoist ideas. But the Christian mystics were clearly his favorites and familiars, and also the choice of his students.
Lunch was served in the large refectory. As we lined both sides of the long tables, Gerald sat in a large chair on the raised portion at the far end of the hall, reading to us from some elevating book. On those days when he happened to choose a Mahayana or Zen reading and Sister disagreed with it, she could be heard whispering loudly to her neighbor, “What rot!” She had visited Japan and had a poor opinion of the purity and orthodoxy of the Zen monks. She strictly observed the rule of no food after noon. At vespers, Christian hymns or chants were often used before the silent meditation. We thought it very interesting that Sister, who had eschewed music, and in particular church music, nevertheless came to the Oratory, and, sitting in the vestibule until the singing was over, then came in for the meditation.
I am sure all of us remember the breakfast at which much discussion arose about how to control the mice that were getting into the storeroom. Traps were proposed, and vehemently opposed by the nun, who cited the violence involved and the bad karma incurred. “Well, Sister, what do you suggest?” “Why not get a cat?” came the reply. When it was pointed out that the cat would surely do violence to the mice, her answer was historic: “But that will be the cat’s karma, “ she said.
Onward to Vedanta
Being in a mood of renunciation and some austerity myself, I had an uneasy feeling that the lifestyle — three ample meals a day plus fairly high “tea”—was rich for my taste and insufficiently austere; I used this as one of the pleas for my departure. Actually I was trying to examine Gerald Heard with the eye of scrutiny, to determine whether he had achieved Illumination. Surely he had attained, to use a favorite term of his, “Proficiency,” as he meditated so many hours a day, gave wise counsel, seemed incapable of being flattered, and treated everyone with dignity and even affection.
But six months earlier I had met a swami from the Ramakrishna Order in Philadelphia, Swami Yatiswarananda. Without casting any aspersions on Gerald, whose recently published book, A Preface to Prayer, he had read, the Swami hinted there was more to be learned about prayer, and the Swami knew what it was. Reluctantly, because it was such an attractive and beautiful environment, I reached the conclusion that my spiritual life needed the more specialized and austere direction about which the Swami hinted, and I could no longer remain at Trabuco.
Swami Yogeshananda, an American swami, went on to become a monastic in the Ramakrishna Order, serving in several monasteries in the United States, India, and England. Beginning in 1992 he headed the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, which began in the 1980s as an informal satellite of the Vedanta Society of Chicago. In 2009 he retired to the Ramakrishna Monastery at Trabuco Canyon, the former Trabuco College, where he first met Gerald Heard in 1945. Swami Yogeshananda's book, Six Lighted Windows, from which brief excerpts were drawn to augment his original contribution, "Trabuco College Tryout," is available from Vedanta Press. The Swami launched a website in May 2016, Vedanta Media, which "has been created to house the audio versions of books written and read by" him.
On May 17, 2006, The Barrie Family Trust received a communication from Swami Yogeshananda that he had discovered an archived letter sent to him from Jay Michael Barrie, longtime personal secretary to Gerald Heard. The letter, dated May 14, 1981, briefly recounts two events in the life of Gerald Heard: (1) circumstances surrounding Gerald Heard's 1939 spiritual initiation by Swami Prabhavananda, founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California; and (2) a refutation of a written reference that accused Gerald Heard of hypocrisy.
(1) "...Regarding Gerald's dream of Ramakrishna: Gerald told me about it a year or so after he became ill — however, he had had the dream in 1939! He had been asking Swami P. to initiate him and S. P. had been putting him off, as was often his wont. Then Gerald had the dream (the account of the dream Chris gave was correct) and when he told Swami about it, S. P. was very excited and said, 'You must be initiated at once!' — and he was."
["Chris" refers to Christopher Isherwood, who recounted Gerald’s dream in his My Guru, His Disciple. "Swami P." and "S. P." both refer to Swami Prabhavananda.]
(2) [Regarding a reference that questioned Gerald's life of voluntary poverty on account of his surreptitiously benefiting from goods and services that were provided by supporters and associates, implying hypocrisy]. "I thought this unfair — because not true — Gerald had ample funds at that time and was always insistent about paying his own way — even with Chris Wood — and later with Margaret Gage..."
[Christopher Wood and Margaret Gage provided lodging for Gerald Heard at certain times in Heard's life.]
Thanks to Swami Yogeshananda for providing this letter, the intellectual copyright of which is vested with The Barrie Family Trust, Copyright © 2006 The Barrie Family Trust, All Rights Reserved.
"Gerald would sit on a high stool for [breakfast] beaming down upon his little flock of students and coming out with those bursts of insight and arcane memorabilia which made up his style and his identity."