My Sunday Talk at a Unitarian Church

This last Sunday, I was asked to give the sermon at the Unitarian Church in downtown Charleston (South Carolina). During the summertime, this church reaches out to speakers of different faiths. I was being called upon to share what I had experienced and learned during my 37 years living as a monk in a Hindu monastery dedicated to the practice of yoga. Thinking you might enjoy it, I have included the text of that talk here below.

two babies

My name is Muni Natarajan. This is not my born name. I was born Philip Royall Johnson. My middle name, “Royall,” was given to me in honor my great, great Grandfather, Edward Manly Royall. The Royall name is well know here in Charleston. Edward Manly Royall was first surgeon to Robert E. Lee and was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War. Although this tale is interesting, it has nothing to do with the story I came here to tell. That story is this.

As I stand before you now, I am 64 years of age. In 1970, when I was 20 years of age, I entered a monastery on Kauai, in Hawaii.

The focus of the monks living in that monastery was and is the practice of an ancient and traditional form of yoga that was established many, many years ago in India. The objective of this yoga was Self Realization, the realization of the one Self we all share at the ultimate source of life. When I first became a monk, the order I joined was called The Christian Yoga Order.

Three years after my initiation it became The Saiva Siddhanta Yoga Order. The reason for this name change will become apparent in a few moments.

My teacher’s first spiritual teacher was a lady named Mother Chrisny. Mother Chrisny had been a Catholic nun for most of her life. At the ripe old age of 80, she left the Catholic Church because her own inner mystical experiences conflicted with what she had been taught in the church. What she had discovered within herself, she said, correlated with the ancient yoga of India.

It was this original yoga that she wanted my teacher to learn. Thus it was that she encouraged my teacher to seek out the authentic source of yoga in the Sanatana Dharma that was the precursor to that which has become known today as Hinduism. In the pursuit of this quest, my teacher, along with all of his monks converted to Hinduism. This we did in the name of yoga.

Although we were first told we could not convert to Hinduism, we eventually discovered this was not true. Through some investigation, we came to realize we could become Hindu through the Namaskarana Samskara, the Hindu name-giving sacrament.

Thus it was that we all changed our names legally in preparation for a formal entrance into Hinduism.

My teacher changed his name from Robert Hansen to Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. I changed my name from Philip Johnson to Muni Natarajan. Our group name got changed from the Christian Yoga Order to the Saiva Siddhanta Yoga Order.

And so began my 37 years living as a Hindu monk in a Hindu monastery dedicated to the pursuit of yoga’s ultimate experience.

I was originally going to talk about the seven principles of the Unitarian Church as they relate, in general, to Eastern thought and, more specifically, to that which I was taught during my 37 years in the monastery. But then, I thought to myself, “That sounds boring.”

So, I thought to myself again, and decided that it would be much more fun, for me and you both, if I talked about what it was like living more than half my life with a clairaudient and clairvoyant mystic who was hell-bent on fearlessly proclaiming that Self Realization was the one and only reason any of us have for living life on earth.

I still like the idea of referring to the 7 principles of the Unitarian Church. How could I not like this? These principles are so inspiring. And they’re so open to Eastern perception. As a reminder, here are those 7 principles:

1. The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

2. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.

3. Acceptance of all and encouragement of spiritual growth.

4. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

5. The right of conscience and use of democratic process.

6. A goal of world community; peace, liberty, and justice for all.

7. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

 Now, we’ll focus on the first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person: I love this principle because it allows me to get right to the heart of the yoga life. The inherent worth and dignity of every person is the hallmark of the one Self we all share, that one Self my teacher wanted us all to realize.

In the I my personal pursuit of Self Realization, I made two initial discoveries:

1. The closer I got to this Self, the less I was bothered by personal concerns and petty differences.

2. The simpler life got, as it did during this pursuit of Self, the more its apparent miseries dissolved of their own accord.

In the monastery we did a lot of tapas. Although tapas literally means fire, in practice, it means austerity. Although none of us looked forward to bearing up through the austerity of tapas, we all realized its value. That value was this:

In the fire of tapas, nothing extraneous can remain. Life gets reduced to essence. Here are 3 examples of tapas I performed in the monastery:

 1. A 41-day water fast.

2. Hitchhiking from the West to the East coast of the United States in the dead of winter with no money.

3. Kavadi. Piercing the skin with spears and carrying a weight on the shoulders during a pilgrimage.

Principle #2: Justice, equity and compassion in human relations:

The key word here is “human.” In a human body that’s black, white, brown, red, or yellow; rich, poor, famous, infamous, pretty, ugly, clean or dirty, we are easy targets for injustice, inequality, and a general lack of compassion.

As souls, however, living in bodies of light that are impervious to pain and can’t know death, justice is a given, equality is obvious and compassion is unavoidable.

My teacher used to say, “You’re perfect. You just don’t know it.”

When I first came into the monastery, I was pretty proud of myself. I had become a successful professional musician playing with some famous people. So, when I heard my teacher make this statement:  “You’re perfect. You just don’t know it,” I thought to myself, “Yeah, I’m perfect, but I know it.”

Fairly quickly, I came realize, through the general austerity of monastic life, that my route to humility was through humiliation. I was one of those monks who was, in the beginning, more generally inclined to learn my lessons the hard way.

Finally, it dawned on me what my teacher was trying to tell us when he said: “You’re perfect. You just don’t know it,” he was trying to convey to us in his characteristically simple way:

“You are not a physical body. You are not even a refined soul LIVING in a physical body. You are the one and only Self that we all share at the very source of life itself. Please, go within, realize that Self, yourself. This is all you were born to do.”

 Principle #3: Acceptance of all and encouragement of spiritual growth: Hinduism is well known for its tolerance. This is because there is more variance within Hinduism than there is between Hinduism and other religions. This inspires not only tolerance but also acceptance.

Hinduism has a lot of only’s. It is the only religion that has no known beginning. It is the only religion that didn’t begin with a person. And it is the only religion that accepted, kept and absorbed into itself absolutely everything anyone claiming to be a Hindu brought to it.

Within Hinduism, there are atheists, agnostics, rationalists, soothsayers, magicians, musicians, beggars, tricksters, pagans, monists, theists, monistic theists, polytheists, mystics, yogis and more.

The one common denominator that runs through all of this is it’s distinctive lifestyle, its culture.

 It is into this culture that all peoples are invited to enjoy life in the pursuit of spiritual emancipation by any means imaginable.

In 1995, my teacher sent me to India to meander alone from its North to its South for an entire year. This was supposed to be a tapas. Though tapas it was not.

My only instruction was to have no plan and travel on a whim.

Everywhere I went, I was treated like a king, invited into homes, given a place to sleep and food to eat. Again and again, I was told: “Thank you for being here. Thank you for blessing us with your presence.” None of these people knew me personally. All they saw was a man wearing monk’s robes.

Principle #4: A FREE and RESPONSIBLE search for truth and meaning:

A lot of our training in the monastery centered around using intuition in practical ways. My teacher had no use for mystical principles that could not be applied in everyday life. He used to refer to this more practical mysticism as “news you can use.”

It was through this mystical  “news you can use,” that we would initiate what Unitarians might refer to as a FREE and RESPONSIBLE search for truth and meaning.

He had a great little technique for helping us to develop our practical intuition.

Every Sunday a monk would give a talk to perhaps 100 guests in our Kauai temple. The catch was this: The monk giving the talk would not be given the subject of his discourse until right before he stepped out in front of the people.

The first time I endured this little exercise, I found myself standing in front my audience, completely locked up with no idea what to say and no ability to think clearly.

I felt a wave of heat rush through my body. My face turned red and my palms started to sweat. All I could think to say was, “good afternoon everyone. Welcome to Kauai Adheenam.”

As I recall, there was a short pause. Then, the next thing I knew, I was talking and couldn’t stop. Today, I have no idea what I said. All I know is I could have talked all afternoon. It was wonderful. We called this exercise “speaking from the inner sky.” I should add a note here that this little exercise did not always work out successfully.

In planning my talk for this morning, I considered talking from the inner sky. When I mentioned this to my wife, she made it clear she didn’t think it was a good idea.

 Principle #5: The right of CONSCIENCE and use of DEMOCRATIC process:

Ah yes. I’ve been looking forward to this principle. This is where I get to talk about the OTM, the governing body of the monastery.

If you will remember, I briefly mentioned earlier that my teacher was clairaudient and clairvoyant. Although Gurudeva, as we affectionately referred to him, was born with clairaudient and clairvoyant abilities, he had instructors along the way that helped him perfect these gifts into well developed tools.

For the sake of efficiency and security in working with inner plane entities, he set up an on-going working relationship with a certain fixed group of these devas, as we referred to them. In this relationship, a color and sound code was established to assure a safe connection for communication.

Just before each “deva reading,” as these communications were referred to, the devas, would send Gurudeva their sound and color code to introduce themselves and assure him that they were not imposters. After this set-up, the communication would begin.

One exceptionally long communication from the devas was referred to as “the Shastras.” These Shastras contained rules for running the monastery. In these Shastras there was the discrpition of the OTM. OTM means ONE THIRD MINORITY. Here is how the OTM worked:

One third of the monastery population would meet with Gurudeva in secrecy to oversee the day-to-day management of monastery affairs. Members of the OTM would be determined by seniority. Monastery seniority was lost when a monk left the monastery to travel on mission for more then 9 days. Because the older monks were the monks sent on missions, those older monks were constantly losing seniority. This meant the youngest monks maintained the highest seniority in the monastery and therefore comprised the OTM. This eliminated the possibility of a good ol’ boys controlling group forming amonst the older monks. Thus it was that we had within the monastery, a perfect example of a workable democratic process.

Principles 6 and 7:

#6: A goal of world community; peace, liberty, and justice 4 all.

#7: Respect for the inter dependent web of all existence.

Since these last two principles are flip sides of a one coin, we’ll include them together, which is to say that if we can manage a “respect for the interdependent web of all existence” on the inside (principle #7), then “world community; peace, liberty, and justice 4 all” (principle #6) should be automatic on the outside.

My teacher, Gurudeva, a supremely simple man, won the UThant Peace Aware in the year 2000. Previous recipients of this award were the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela. None of these fine souls set out for any kind of public recognition for what they did.

They simply did what they did in the name of spirit for the sake of spirit. As a result of this deeply internalized effort, they were all eventually recognized for their contributions to the betterment of mankind.

My guru used to tell us again and again. “Work from the inside out, not the outside in. KIS: Keep it simple. Simple is source where life begins and ends.”

Nowadays there are many yogas: Hatha yoga, Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Raja yoga, Jnana yoga, Kundalini yoga, Kriya yoga, Svara yoga, Nada yoga, Mantra yoga, Laya yoga, Power yoga, Restorative yoga, Svarupa yoga, Sivananda yoga, Bikarm yoga and many, many more.

 In Vedic times there was just one yoga—a one yoga of yoking manifest complexity back to its ultimate, un-manifest and supremely simple source.

My Guru and my life were dedicated to this one original yoga.

We these simple words I close.