Friday, April 26, 2013

Donald Walters: Dead at 86

Donald Walters—Swami Kriyananda—died peacefully last Sunday in Assisi, Italy. He was 86 and had lived a very full life. The image above was taken in a joyous moment last year.

Though I never met him, I have known of him for many years, first as the founder of Ananda Village in Nevada City CA, and then as the author of a slim volume he wrote in 1988: Intentional Communities: How to Start Them, and Why, which was notable because it advocated cooperative living without proselytizing for the spiritual path he loved.

It is extremely rare, in my experience, for a spiritual person to see that there are many paths that lead to good in the world and that it makes sense to support and ally oneself with others devoted to worthy principles even if they don't share the same spiritual guide, or even have one at all. Donald Walters was just such a man.

To be sure, he was a very spiritual man, and a devoted follower of Paramahansa Yogananda. Over the course of his life Walters established eight successful intentional communities (two in India, one in Italy, and five on the West Coast of the United States) and about 100 meditation and teaching centers around the world, all of which are based on devotion to the principles of Kriya yoga and the teachings of his guru.

As I understand it, Walters espoused for all of his centers the guiding principle that "people are more important than things," which is a philosophy I wholeheartedly endorse—providing only that "things" is interpreted as inanimate objects or concepts. (I have added this caveat because some may prefer the view that "people are more important than other living things," which is philosophy that has been used to justify all manner of unsustainable mischief and environmental folly from which I want to assiduously distance myself.)

At my community, Sandhill Farm, there have been many occasions where we had to face a delicate choice between: a) supporting individuals; and b) following precedent or policy. I think that you can measure our maturity as a community by how we have learned over the years to place people first in those moments. To be clear, I am not saying that we ignore history or what experience offers us. Nor am I saying that we always give people what they ask. Rather, I am saying that we try to take the time to look deeply into what is best for the individual and the group in this moment—taking into account what is in our hearts and bellies as well as what is in our heads; taking into account that our information is imperfect; and taking into account that the future is uncertain—rather than be straight-jacketed by the dead hand of prior decisions.

As a young man searching for spiritual inspiration in post-World War II America, Walters came across the recently published Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) by Paramahansa Yogananda, who had moved to the United States from India and had established a monastery in California. This book immediately struck a responsive chord in Walters. In short order he traveled to the West Coast, met Yogananda, and became a disciple, distinguishing himself sufficiently that he was recognized by his guru as a future spiritual teacher at the age of just 22.

While Walters was a prolific writer (he authored around 150 books), I think his outstanding legacy will be the imprint he left on his communities, which offer a rare mixture of ecumenical curiosity and gentle strength.

Though Ananda Village has been an established star in the firmament of intentional communities since its inception in 1968, I had not visited any of the Ananda communities until last winter. In November I was the guest of Larry Rider at their enclave in Lynnwood WA, and in December I stayed overnight as the guest of Timothy Hickey at Expanding Light, their retreat and conference facility in Nevada City [see my blog of 12/12/12: Village of Light for reflections on the latter visit].

Ananda has consistently put out the message that it is open to collaboration with others in offering the tools and inspiration of community living, and even offers how-to courses about that at its Ananda College outside Portland OR. In fact, the FIC is now in dialog with folks at Ananda about how to make the on-the-ground experience of other communities more a regular part of their curriculum. I believe this interest in keeping the door open to others comes directly from the wisdom and modeling of Kriyananda.

It's my view that the fundamental challenge of cooperative living is how one responds to the articulation of viewpoints that differ from one's own about non-trivial matters. It is an unusual person who can be at least as interested in trying to understand other people's truths as they are in expressing theirs. It's even rarer when that person is a recognized spiritual teacher with thousands of devotees worldwide (when you're so busy teaching it can be hard to find the time or motivation to learn).

As far as I can tell, it was central to the way Kriyananda conducted himself that he encouraged his disciples to be in the world and open to partnering with others interested in the common goal of addressing the amelioration of suffering and injustice in the world; to help build cooperative communities where people come first and quality of life is not defined in terms of the acquisition and accumulation of material possessions.

This admonition to make common cause with others doing good in the world should not be seen as a dilution of spiritual beliefs among Anandans; rather it is an expression of them. People find inspiration where they find it, and it is never always in the same place. Thus, Walters did not insist on acceptance of his spiritual views as a pre-condition for listening to what you had to say.

While Kriyananda will be missed, his life remains an inspiration available to us all.


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Ananda Palo Alto said...

A beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing. I've been part of Ananda for the past 30 years, and have learned so much about how to live cooperatively with others - no easy task - and Swami's patient efforts to teach me, and others, have changed my life. Your blog is a wonderful resource for people. Thank you!