John Schlenck, My Spiritual Brother and Exemplar

by Pravrajika Gayatriprana

I met John for the first time on January 4, 1969, when I attended the Sunday service at the Vedanta Society of New York headed by Swami Pavitrananda. John’s family was Unitarian and at the time I met him he certainly had the kind of agnostic, highly rationalistic and secular kind of mind I associate with these worthy people. He was highly skeptical of any kind of emotional display, paranormal phenomena or mystical states. He was stolidly pragmatic, with phenomenal attention to detail and stick-to-it-ive-ness of prodigious dimensions.

This aspect of his personality became very apparent to me after I joined the Vedanta Society and was invited to attend the special evening classes held five times a week for the close workers. Most of us were fully employed as professionals, but were living as brahmacharis. I have always felt that Swami Pavitrananda intended these classes as support for the difficult lifestyle many of us were leading, but over and above that, they were really very unusual and very revealing. Someone would read out loud a passage from the Ramakrishna literature and we were then expected to share with the group what had particularly struck or interested us in the reading. It never ceased to amaze me how everyone emphasized something unique and different, throwing open a door to their inner worlds we could never have accessed in any other way. I felt a very, very close life-long bond with all of those who participated in these wonderful evenings together.

John in particular stood out, not only in his choice of themes, but on account of the often very personal issues he would raise, deviating from the strict format we were following. Many of these were secular challenges to the highly noetic materials we often studied, but many others were issues of how to live the life of spirituality and especially brahmacharya in the contemporary West. Swami would give replies that were so apposite, so practical, that not only John but all of us benefitted highly. I came to regard John as an outstandingly sincere, articulate, and pragmatically motivated Vedantin.

Though good at whatever he did, John’s genius was as a composer of spiritual music. He would sing after Sunday lectures, sometimes with so much feeling and intensity that we would all be lifted up to a place beyond the chapel, the Center, New York, or anywhere else. Such was his drive to express himself in music that, although Swami Pavitrananda gave him permission to join the Ramakrishna Order (permission very, very few young men were given!), John decided against doing so because there could be no guarantee that he would be allowed to pursue his musical composition. Instead, Swami had John write an article for Prabuddha Bharata explaining how music is a spiritual path in and of itself.

I was always struck by the contrast of his Unitarian rationalism and pragmatism and the tremendous passion of his music. I used to compare him in my mind to Hans Castorp of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, a young man of strict rationalism and logic and volcanic inner emotions, a combination I began to feel is perhaps very German.

In the summer of 1976 John and I went up to Marshfield, the retreat of the Boston and Providence Societies, to take care of Swami Pavitrananda, who was taking his vacation there rather than in Southern California, as had previously been his habit. Swami Prabhavananda had just passed away, and Swami was in a very deep emotional mood, thinking particularly of Swami Brahmananda, the guru of himself and Prabhavananda. At every meal he talked of the direct disciples he had known, and of his vision of the work in America. Swami was adamant that Westerners were not and could not be Hindus, and he always encouraged us to study Vivekananda, to think deeply about the meaning of his life and work and to go ahead and apply his teachings and insights to our life and work in the West. During that time John and I became welded together and saturated with the vision of Vivekananda’s Vedanta and how we could apply it to the needs of the West.

When Swami died the following year I joined the convent in San Francisco and was therefore more or less cut off from direct access to John and my other gurubhais, especially Erik Johns, who was another spiritual brother inspired to follow the Western work of Vivekananda. However, John used to come to visit his sister in California every summer and would come by San Francisco and spend time with me talking over our shared vision and goals.

One of these visits was especially memorable. John had put to music a selection of passages from the Upanishads that lay out the different stages of inner spiritual development, and our choir leader was very keen to have the convent perform this work. The music was tricky and complicated, presenting a Western composition that was also in several Indian raga modes. Our women felt that it was far too difficult for them and there was, in addition, a lot of excitement and anxiety about our being led by a man who had been related to a memorable presentation in India in 1980 on the difficulties of Indian swamis in understanding Western devotees and their needs. The presentation was the brainchild of Swami Nityaswarupananda, who thought like our guru and was therefore a maverick in the Ramakrishna Order, and perhaps not accidentally a mentor to John and my other spiritual brothers. The presentation had met with a considerable amount of animus and John was under a cloud even at that early stage in his career. It seemed not very likely that his work with us would be productive.

What actually happened, however, was that in a visit of one week to San Francisco he magisterially took up the reins of the work and exhibited the patience of Job in whipping us into shape. By the time he left our performance had improved exponentially. His dogged determination and unflappability had lifted us technically to a point where we could actually see the beauty and meaning of the music, and get the charge that comes from participating in something bigger than ourselves. There was one piece in particular, “Raise the great bow of the Upanishad”, which exhorts the disciple to take up the scriptures like a bow, fix on it the arrow of concentration and aim for and attain the deepest, innermost reality that is in all of us. It is a very, very great spiritual passage, which John had set to music with a rather tricky, syncopated rhythm, challenging us all considerably. But under his direction we were actually able to do it properly and, as we launched out into the piece in full ensemble, to feel the calm, the concentration, the exhilarating sense of purpose the piece expresses.

John himself was a study. His skinny, almost emaciated body seemed utterly still, although beating the time and indicating the dynamics, while his eyes were fixed on some remote point. It seemed to me that he was in some ecstatic state, carried away by the meaning of the music. And, almost as if on cue, a shaft of light suddenly came through the window, highlighting him dramatically.

For me, he was an outstanding example of how karma yoga can take us to the deepest states of poise. Needless to say, he soon won over all of the sisters not only professionally but also personally.

Because of my isolation in San Francisco I was not party to how John arrived at the decision to start publishing a magazine for Western Vedantists, though of course I knew most of the brothers he recruited to help him on the East Coast and would later get to know those from Southern California who had also been involved. I made a point of acquiring every copy for our Vedanta Society Library, though that was not at all politically correct. The first few years the quality of the magazine was rather spotty and disappointing, but after getting the support of Swami Swahananda and acquiring as editor-in-chief Beatrice Bruteau, a professor of philosophy at Fordham University, it became more staid and more full of content, that to varying degrees actually tried to plumb how to apply Vivekananda’s message to our day to day living in the West.

When I moved in 2002 to the Hollywood convent, I was permitted to write for the magazine and was soon asked by John to be one of the reviewing editors. In that way I got to see the background discussions behind the work and to understand the kinds of issues that he and his board were facing and how they sought to answer them. While they printed my article Who Is a Hindu?, looking into the identity of Western Vedantists as opposed to Indian Hindus, there was also a strong current of seeking to appease Indian and Hindu disquiet over the journal. John’s courageous decision to publish it had opened up once again many questions as to his loyalty to Vedanta as understood by some elements of the Ramakrishna Order and again he was under a cloud, which never really dispelled—indeed this was the reason he had to leave the Vedanta Society of New York after over fifty years of unflagging service there.

I totally empathized with him but also felt that the magazine could be bolder and certainly a lot less “Hindu” at times. John and I had many quite intense discussions over this, but we always managed to resolve the issue and maintain the attitude of mutual respect and affection we had always had.

Certainly, when I left the Order in 2008 and went to live in Santa Fe, John was a stalwart supporter and an enthusiastic attendee at three meetings in New Mexico where a group of Western Vedantins came together to share the various works each had taken up on their own initiative with a view to advance Western Vedanta. The goal of these meetings was to find common ground under the rubric of Integral Vedanta and to think through creative ways we could advance the work that American Vedantist had begun. However, it proved very difficult to agree on any shared agenda and I had to move on and focus on the doctorate I was completing on the transpersonal psychology “take” on Vivekananda’s spiritual transformation under the tutelage of Sri Ramakrishna. This material was what I saw as the basis for the notion of Integral Vedanta and my thesis explains how it worked itself out over historical time and impacted both India and the West.

This work, which was accepted in 2013 at Viadrina University in Frankfurt on Oder in Germany, was my way of fulfilling the behest of our guru and also of Swami Sarvagatananda, who became my spiritual mentor after the death of Swami Pavitrananda. Despite John’s appreciation of my efforts, I was rather disappointed in his and other Vedantins’ reception of the work, which they seemed to find “too scientific”. I felt that this reaction was due to the fact that very few of the Vedantins I knew had the kind of grounding in science I had had, and were therefore not as aware as I was about the need to think through the reconciliation of science and spirituality if Vedanta is to broaden out from largely Hindu devotionalism in the West.

This was a goal of Vivekananda himself, and certainly of Swamis Pavitrananda and Sarvagatananda, who, as a chaplain at MIT and Harvard University, was right behind me through my own rather difficult passage through the Ramakrishna Order. I tried several times to get John interested in a more science-oriented, “integral” aspect of American Vedantist, but at that time he was under tremendous pressure in New York that finally led him to move to the Vedanta Center of Atlanta, where his long suppressed and restricted creativity finally found a more favorable outlet, rejoicing all of us who knew and loved him and his work.

It was in that setting that I ventured to take up again the issue of how to work the scientific study of spiritual development into our mutual agenda for American Vedantist. I sent John a review I had put up on Amazon of Secular Spirituality, a book published by my supervising professor in Frankfurt, Harald Walach. Coming very strongly from the side of research psychology, the book is also informed by Harald’s lifelong practice of Zen meditation and his deep interest in the process of spiritual self-transformation as seen from the standpoint of quantum complementarity. For me, it was like a companion work to the Spiritual Humanism I had detected running all the way through Vivekananda’s work and developed in my doctoral thesis as the basis for the whole structure of Integral Vedanta.

By accepting the physical, emotional and intellectual worlds as “real”, unlike traditional Vedanta, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda are giving us license as human beings (with an unlimited potential for spiritual development) to embrace a fully integrated “program”, in which all possible approaches—including both matter and spirit, Indian and Western, science and religion—are completely valid and compatible if practiced with integrity. This is another aspect of Integral Vedanta, which has had a huge effect on the work of Sri Aurobindo and through him the burgeoning world of transpersonal psychology that is increasingly global in its scope. This view, originating with Ramakrishna and Vivekananda has, in my view, the potential to bring all of us together without forcing anyone to conform to anything that is not germane to his or her spiritual growth. This is spiritual humanism or secular spirituality in the integral view.

In view of John’s previous reservations about my work, I was not at all sure how he would respond to my initiative. I was really thrilled at his response, which I received on January 14th of this year:

As you know, I’ve been in favor of a think tank for some years. Our Integral Vedanta meetings [in New Mexico] had been edging in that direction. But to get it going there needs to be some kind of plan or mechanism to create and sustain it. Do you have any ideas how it could be done? I don’t think physical distance is a barrier nowadays. We’d have to think about who would be interested.

SV said that his life’s work was to put Vedantic ideas into language that was simple enough that even a child could understand it. Taking Integral Vedanta as a starting point, maybe this could be a project for a think tank—to work out ways of presenting the ideas that can be communicated effectively to different kinds of people. Also how to apply the ideas to life situations, spiritual practice, sangha, etc.

Before we could get very far with this discussion, in which Tom Couch was also a participant, John was tragically taken away from us, just as he was getting into his stride with his ideas for Western Vedanta.

I close with this letter from John in the hopes that there may be a substantial response from the editors of American Vedantist or anyone interested in the progression of Western Vedanta to include the crown-jewel of our own tradition—natural science and especially transpersonal psychology, which I see as our Western equivalent of Indian yoga and indeed its alter ego—into an integrated and integral Vedanta that can meet the needs of East and West and any other “dichotomy” whatsoever. Our mentors Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and many of the great Ramakrishna Order swamis who came to this country all speak of this approach; and, as I see it, John—the ultimate rationalist and objector to anything not grounded in our Western sensibilities—gave his entire life to work out and support it.

This is my tribute to my beloved spiritual brother and exemplar. May all of us have the courage, the honesty, the determination and ability that he had to rise above the many formidable obstacles that face Western or Integral Vedanta and to maintain it—as he did—to the end.


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