John Roger Barrie
Los Angeles, California
Copyright © 2021 John Roger Barrie
I was born and raised in Los Angeles. Although also raised a Catholic, beginning in early 1975 when I was just barely eighteen years old, I took an interest in Eastern religions, Hinduism in particular. I soon learned of Sri Ramakrishna. Making the rounds in the Los Angeles area, I discovered the Vedanta Society and began visiting the Hollywood center. By 1976, I started attending lectures at the Hollywood Temple. I saw Swami Prabhavananda speak prior to his passing. I also attended lectures by Swami Chetanananda, who was then assistant minister under Swami P; he also served as acting minister during the latter half of 1976 after Swami P’s passing. I would absorb the Vedanta teachings like a sponge, as they deeply resonated inside me. Many times after each lecture, I would hastily jot down notes of salient points while I sat in my car before leaving the Temple grounds.
Equally important to my attending lectures was perusing the Vedanta bookshop. Discovering the insights of Eastern religions was like finding a treasure trove, and the Society’s well-stocked bookstore never disappointed. Inside the bookshop, I’d greet Swami Amohananda, Swami Vedamritananda, Swami Atmavidyananda, and Nitya Chaitanya whenever I saw them, then systematically browse the aisles and make purchases of any books of interest that were then gracing the shelves. I would typically visit the bookstore after first meditating in the Temple, which is a dynamo of spiritual energy, as the cumulative effects of decades of worship and attendance by swamis, monastics, and sincere devotees have created an intense, palpable spiritual atmosphere. I continued this routine of attending lectures, visiting the Temple, and exploring the bookshop until I permanently moved from Los Angeles in late March 1978, although I would often visit the Hollywood center in subsequent years when traveling to L.A. and meeting with Swami Swahananda.
As memory serves, I first met Swami Swahananda in December 1976, when the center was then welcoming him as the newly appointed minister in charge. Swami was always very approachable; he related well to young people and adapted to contemporary Western society. In early 1977, Swami permissioned me to visit Trabuco Monastery for the Shiva Ratri puja taking place in mid-February. One thing lead to another, and on one auspicious morning—Thursday, June 23, 1977—I visited Swami, as I did every now and then, at his room in Hollywood for a 10:00 AM private appointment. Before I left home, I had cut twelve Shasta daisies from my backyard, which I had brought to him that day. Armed with my litany of questions about the spiritual life, Swami patiently, authoritatively answered each one in his inimitable warm, lively manner. Toward the end of my meeting, at around 10:25 AM, I raised a question with Swami that I hadn’t specifically planned to ask. I asked him about initiation. Immediately, without one moment’s hesitation, Swami went into a profound spiritual mood and proceeded then and there to initiate me. Afterward, I bowed low and thanked him, then took my leave. WOW! I was turned inside out by the intense blessings that poured forth from Swami and, through him, from the Ramakrishna lineage, into my being. Every year thereafter on the anniversary of this date, I sent Swami a note of gratitude commemorating this life-changing event.
Vedanta teachings have become a cornerstone of my philosophical outlook, particularly its nondual explanation of reality. The Vedanta philosophy and the various schools of Vedic religion offer plausible theories about the universe and provide a meaningful framework by which a person can make sense of life and the place human beings play in the overall scheme of evolution. In addition, the broad interfaith approach espoused by the Ramakrishna tradition particularly rang true with me. Swami Swahananda knew of and always respected my Christian roots. One day I asked him for a spiritual nickname, as so many devotees had been similarly given such names. But Swami instantly countered, saying, “You already have one: John, [who was] the Apostle of Jesus!” From that point forward I was content with using only my given name.
Throughout the years I have been able to integrate Vedanta teachings and practices seamlessly not only with my Catholic beliefs and practices, but also with other religious traditions. Swami never blinked an eye when I related my various spiritual adventures to him; he never once disapproved of my interfaith undertakings. When moderating an informal study group on comparative religion in 1986-87, I had received Swami’s support and blessings. This deeply ingrained respect for and acceptance of all religions is a pivotal element of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta tradition, which has especially appealed to me throughout the decades, as well as its corresponding nondogmatic approach. I’ve adopted the Vedanta philosophy to comport with my native Christian faith, blending and harmonizing both traditions into a compatible, syncretic viewpoint that provides the philosophical underpinnings of my daily life.