"When your work speaks for itself, don't interrupt," someone wise once said. It seems an apt description of the life of Sri Daya Mata, who led the Self Realization Fellowship for the past 55 years. I never saw her pontificating on TV or quoted in news stories, as is often the case with other religious leaders. I never heard tell of any scolding or finger-wagging on the part of this spiritual woman. As far as I can tell, she lived in the spirit of Gandhi's famous words: "My life is my message."
Before moving to the woodsy, hillside Los Angeles community of Mt. Washington twenty-three years ago, I had never heard of the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF), nor had I heard of its leader, Sri Daya Mata. This despite having spent three years studying for a Ph.D. in Social Ethics at USC's School of Religion. But I had been interested only in Western religion and theology, so I never took any classes in Eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, Shinto or modern-day hybrid religions like the Self Realization Fellowship.
I don't remember exactly how I learned of SRF's presence on Mt. Washington -- probably through a neighbor telling me what that big campus was on top of the hill. It seemed to me that those who lived there kept a low profile but were always pleasant whenever our paths crossed while jogging or walking.
It was some years before I learned that their hilltop campus is a cloistered monastery, which explains why the monks and nuns keep to themselves most of the time. Their job is to do their spiritual work on behalf of the world, but not actively engage with the world, as one of the monks explained to me when I invited several of them to come over for dinner. Silly me. Cloistered religious devotees do not do dinner with the neighbors.
I was curious about my unique neighbors, but I would have to content myself with reading some of their literature, listening to audiotapes (my favorite was actor and SRF member Dennis Weaver on "How to Spiritualize Business") and visiting their other facilities in Pasadena, Encinitas, Hollywood and Pacific Palisades. After learning more about their theology, I appreciated them in my neighborhood even more. After all, I figured, having monks and nuns meditating, chanting and pursuing their spiritual work in our midst must surely generate some good karma. And heaven knows, the world -- and our community -- needs all the good karma it can get!
I never thought much about who the leader of the SRF was, I simply appreciated what her church's presence added to Mt. Washington. They're quiet and respectful of their neighbors. They keep their grounds immaculate. I love the fact that they open their gardens to the rest of us for meditation or simply a walk to enjoy the incredible view and the gorgeous grounds.
I appreciate the public events they have hosted over the years: the Halloween fantasy land for our kids and the concerts they used to hold on their tennis courts. And during Christmas week, I love the fact that they ring recorded church bells in the evening. I try to make sure I'm outdoors at the right time so I can hear the Christmas carols ring out in the crisp winter air. It never fails to make me smile and enhance my holiday spirit.
Sometimes on Sunday mornings when I'm walking my dog in front of the SRF grounds, I hear the monks chanting their prayers. I think, Say a prayer for me while you're at it, guys. I always feel a tad more spiritual as I eavesdrop on their Sunday morning ritual.
And what of the woman who led this spiritual community for 55 years? I didn't learn the facts of her life until I read them in the LA Times after she died at the end of November. But I didn't have to know the details of her life to get a sense of who she was. I already knew her by her work.
I knew her spirit in the happy, friendly faces of the monks and nuns who greeted me on my morning walks. I knew her in the beautiful books and calendars the SRF publishes. I knew her in my strolls across the SRF grounds to take in the view and the times my dog and I would play on their lovely lawns. I knew her in my quiet moments of meditation in the SRF garden, when I acknowledged her unseen presence with a simple prayer of thanks.
Sri Daya Mata, the neighbors of Mt. Washington hardly knew you. But yet we did. We knew you through the peaceful, serene spirit of your community and the special energy we feel when we're around your followers and in your gardens. Thank you for being our neighbor; thank you for making Mt. Washington your home; thank you for your contribution to the world. Your work speaks for itself.
BJ Gallagher is a Mt. Washington writer and co-author of 'What Would Buddha Do at Work?' (Berrett-Koehler; 2001)
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