My first contact with the Ramakrishna Order came in 1967 when Swami Vividishananda (1893-1980) of the Seattle Vedanta Society (now the Vedanta Society of Western Washington) visited our philosophy class early in the fall quarter of the freshman section of the two-year undergraduate Honors Program at Seattle University. I was thrilled to receive our summer reading assignment: Swami Prabhavananda’s translation of the Bhagavad Gita, as well as his Upanishads: Breath of the Eternal; Romila Tapar’s History of India; and Heinrich Zimmer’s Philosophies of India.
When he was introduced in the wood-paneled seminar room, Swami Vividishananda wore a 3-piece suit, a white shirt with cufflinks, and a tie, looking quite like a friendly and self-possessed accountant. He talked to us about Vedanta philosophy and the Gita for about an hour, and then took our questions. We asked him about reincarnation, psychic powers, and the caste system. With each answer he pointed us back to the main theme of his talk: “Atman and Brahman are one”. At the time, I wanted something else, though I couldn’t have said what.
Seven years later, having explored Gurdjieff, Thomas Merton’s Trappist Order, Oscar Ichazo’s Arica teachings, and read many books on Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda, I defined the goal of my search as the realization that “Atman and Brahman are one”. I was relieved to find that Swami Vividishananda was still living and teaching, at the Seattle Vedanta Society.
After attending several lectures given by him and his assistant, Swami Bhaskarananda, I sought initiation. Feeling some trepidation, I asked the younger swami, who asked me to take my request to Swami Vividishananda.
A few days later, I visited the ashram in the afternoon. I was escorted into the library, where Swami Vividishananda was seated, legs up, in his dark green leather recliner. I had barely entered the room when he suddenly sat up, causing the chair’s ottoman section to retract with a bang.
“So!” he exclaimed. “You are home!” My trepidation dissolved.
“Swami Bhaskarananda tells me that you want to ask me a question.”
“What is that question?”
I gulped and replied that if it were at all possible, I would like to join the Ramakrishna Order. I had not planned to bring that up.
“Yes,” he said, not granting my wish but acknowledging that he had heard it. He didn’t say anything for what seemed like minutes.
“You are a student?”
“Yes Maharaj, I’m studying at the University of Washington, on a full scholarship, and want to eventually do research in the conservation of library materials, hopefully at the Smithsonian Institution.”
I expected him to be impressed. Instead, he said, “Don’t chase after money. That is not for you.”
“You are young,” he said. “You should focus on your spiritual life; on devotion, meditation, and service.”
But could I join the order someday? He hadn’t said no to it. I pushed.
“Would it be possible to…”
“You need to be an initiated disciple. Then we can consider.”
His counsel against chasing after money worried me. I didn’t think I was chasing money. Was it wrong to seek material security? Withdrawing from my studies would be painful, since I had received so much encouragement from the chemical engineering faculty, several people having gone out of their way to admit me.
But when I told the department head that I was going to withdraw from school, and why, he replied that he hoped I would not mind his sharing a confidence. His wife had just returned from a Christian retreat where, one morning, while sitting in prayer, she had received what he called the grace of insight into the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”). He said that he also had been deeply affected by her account of her experience. He not only completely understood my decision to focus on spiritual life, but encouraged me.
A few weeks later I asked Swami Vividishananda for initiation. I fully expected him to demur, or simply say that I was not qualified. But in loving tones he gave his consent. He asked Constance Allshaw, a woman who tended to a great many household tasks at the Center, to tell me how to prepare for it. Constance was a bit bossy, but she was all about serving the swami. She set a day and time, told me to bring flowers, and asked me to be sure to bathe the morning of my initiation day.
That day, Swami Vividishananda sat on a chair placed on the lecture hall’s dais; I sat near him on a similar chair at the hall level. He gave me my mantra in a low, soft tone, then looked at me carefully. I thought he was appraising its effect on me, but then he asked, with concern, “Did you hear it, all of it? Could you understand me?” I said that I believed so, but asked him to repeat it. He relaxed, and then repeated it very slowly. He asked me to give my thanks to Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, Swami Vivekananda, and to Jesus Christ, images of whom were on the nearby altar. And to sit for a few minutes using my mantra.
Six months later, after I had worked off my few remaining debts, he told me I could write to the President of the Ramakrishna Order to ask his permission. I joined the order as a probationer in 1975.
Later that year, Swami Vividishananda had a couple of strokes that left him in a condition that required nursing care, eventually 24/7. Under the guidance of Dr. Santosh Kumar, Brahmachari Jim (now Swami Manishananda) and I took care of him, along with (for most of those years) James Holland, another probationer. We fed and bathed him, and in the later stages of his decline, we assisted him as mothers care for infants. We were proud that, thanks to Dr. Kumar’s guidance, Swami Vividishananda never developed a single bedsore.
Between tasks, we played a lot of one-on-one basketball in the back alley, and worked at cutting wood and erecting the first buildings at the center’s newly purchased retreat property near Arlington, some 45 miles away. Serving Swami Vividishananda, though, was always the highlight of each day. Even after he lost the ability to talk, and entered a semi-coma, we believed we felt his presence in the same way we had when he was alive, when any problem we had would be lifted after spending only 5 or 10 minutes in his company.
I had a problem though that wasn’t going away. I felt torn between the attitudes of a bhakta and a jnani. I understood intellectually that they were not contradictory, but when I pursued one, I felt my capacity for the other weaken. Perplexed, one afternoon in 1978, several months after Dr. Kumar had announced that Swami Vividishananda was no longer able to speak, I sat beside his bed and said to him that while I knew he could not talk, there was no one else in whom I could confide. His eyes were open; he seemed to be awake. I spoke slowly and clearly, and then sat there, watching his eyes.
He moved a foot; then a hand. Facial muscles twitched. I was amazed to see him raise his head from his pillow, and then with great effort he spoke each word by strenuous word: “The…Self… …alone… is… the… goal”. Exhausted, his head fell back onto his pillow and he slept motionlessly for almost three hours.
He died in 1980, at 87. Swami Swahananda of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, while attending the memorial service, advised Swami Bhaskarananda to send Brahmachari Vinaya Chaitanya (now Swami Manishananda) and me on tours of other Vedanta centers. He had seen in similar situations that when people are tied to a single task at a single location for a long period of time, a kind of tension builds up that, if not given relief, can lead to anxiety, tension, and even illness. So each of us, in turn, over 6 weeks visited monasteries in Olema, San Francisco, Portland, Hollywood, and Trabuco. My long walks, meditation, reading, and conversations with other monks over those weeks were heaven-sent.
But on my return to the Seattle center, I felt little inspiration, a sort of ennui, and emptiness. I recognized these reactions as grief, but for me they also showed that I had been totally dependent on Swami Vividishananda for my commitment to devotion, meditation, and service. I wanted to show my gratitude for all he had given me by making those my own. So I “buckled down”, increasing my hours of meditation, working with as little sense of attachment to results as possible, repeating my mantra without ceasing (or close to it), and performing our center’s daily puja (when it was my turn) with full attention. I took brahmacharya vows, becoming Mukti Chaitanya.
One day early in 1983, something happened to me while meditating in the center’s shrine that untied a lot of internal knots and loosened a few more.
A year later, I met Margaret, the woman who I would marry in 1986, when she began attending Swami Bhaskarananda’s Sanskrit classes and lectures on the Bhagavad Gita. When she asked him to teach her how to perform the puja, the symbolic meaning of its rituals, and the meaning of its Sanskrit prayers, he declined, and told her to tell me that I was to teach her. We were to meet in the living room of the monastery on Sunday mornings while the Sunday services were held across the street in the temple. I thought she must not have understood what he had said, but he had indeed given those instructions. Over the next several months, I prepared careful notes for our classes, the format for which was reading through the liturgy together and discussing the Sanskrit terms and the worship’s underlying structure, a combination of Tantric philosophy and Vedanta.
We went for a long walk on Monday, June 23rd, 1986. I had intended to tell her that I wanted to end our classes, and friendship, because I had fallen in love with her, very much at odds with my chosen path. We had stopped at a balcony overlooking a sunlit tree-lined path as we talked about that. A few minutes later, a young man joined us, standing some 15 feet away. He played Indian ragas on a flute, standing in the “thrice-bent” (tribhanga) position associated with Sri Krishna. We walked down that path into the sunlight, and I asked her to marry me, and she said yes.
That night I told Swami Bhaskarananda that I would leave the monastery and the Order on Friday. I could not stay in the monastery when my mind had turned toward marriage. Tears gathered in his eyes, and rolled down his cheeks.
And then I left.
Of course no monks attended our wedding, but many of the Vedanta people I had been with for over 10 years did come. We had a very good time. We included a sivalingam on the altar of the church where my father married us. Margaret’s brother was very suspicious: “What is that stone doing there?” “Indian art,” Margaret explained.
Swami Aseshananda of Portland told me that my ideal now was to provide a good home for Margaret. Swami Bhaskarananda and Swami Manishananda visited our house in Ashland, Oregon. I visited the ashram frequently. My work took me to India more than 25 times.
In 1991, Margaret and I visited India, on vacation. While she toured with her Fulbright group, I stayed at the Ramakrishna Institute of Culture in Calcutta. I was thrilled to discover that I was only a few doors away from Swami Nityaswarupananda, a very senior monk in the Order. He was eager to hear what I could tell him about Swami Vividishananda, whom he had known in their youth. I told him about “Atman and Brahman are one”, and “The Self alone is the goal”.
“Ah,” he said, “that is a great teacher. The very first thing you heard from him was the truth, all is One; and that was also the last teaching he gave you.”
John Scarborough (née Thunemann), a disciple of Swami Vividishananda (1893-1980), joined the Ramakrishna Order as a probationer in 1975. He took brahmacharya vows in 1982 and left the Order in 1986, when married Margaret Scarborough (taking her last name). John worked for Microsoft from 1989 to 2000, for India-based companies until 2016, and now owns Scarborough Consulting. He and Margaret live in Oregon. Email John at firstname.lastname@example.org