What is it like to be a monk?

Endless physical work and hardly any sleep, plus Guru piling on the pressure… In this authentic story of graft and grace, Swami Suryananda shares what it is like to be a monk.

Swami: Guru had the members of the Community working tirelessly. When I first came to Skanda Vale, the first thing was he got me a dog. A beautiful dog called Lester. Lester was a Newfoundland / Alsatian cross with such a beautiful personality.

Lester, an Alsatian / Newfoundland cross dog with Swami Suryananda
Lester, an Alsatian / Newfoundland cross dog with Swami Suryananda

Initially, what I would do every day was walk to the woods and bring back branches from the forest with a billhook. Walking backwards and forwards. How many miles I walked in a day I don’t know. 

And then I cut them up with a rusty saw because we didn’t have any money in those days for a new saw blade. Certainly, there weren’t chainsaws or anything. This was a rusty bow saw. 

And I would spend 7 or 8 hours a day doing this, to light two fires – one was the fire in Guru’s house, and the other was the fire for Valli the elephant. And I did that every single day.

Working in the goshala

And then, Guru thought, “Oh, it would be nice to have some cows.” So he got a cow and a bull. The cow was called Prani and the bull was called Tamboura – they were Dexters, miniatures, very small and very young when they came here.

So now I had this cow and this bull, but I still had to go and get the firewood with the dog. Then you need a house for the cow and the bull. Then the cow and the bull need a field to go and eat grass in, so you have to build a fence to keep them in the field. 

And then because the cow is black you have to make a shelter to stop the cow getting too hot. (This is Guru’s way of teaching). So, it’s not just a cow and a bull. It’s a cow, bull, house, field, and a fence. 

A Welsh Dexter Bull called Tamboura at the Skanda Vale Goshala
A Welsh Dexter Bull called Tamboura

Then Guru came to me one day and said, “I’ve arranged with one of the monks to sort out fencing materials for you.” I thought, “Oh great, now I can build the fence.” 

The cows were indoors and it was summer, so I was getting pressurised by Guru, saying, “Why haven’t you got the cows out?” He wasn’t interested in the fact that I hadn’t built a fence.

It was just, “It’s your job to get the cows out, you find a solution.” And while they’re indoors there’s extra work because you have to muck them out every day – which takes several hours. 

The fence materials I was promised were actually just some trees that had blown over in the wind. The electricity board had cut them down because they had fallen on a line. Those trees were my fence posts; I had to convert trees to fence posts. That was done with a two-man saw, a load of splitting wedges and a billhook. 

And so I had to find another person to help me cut the trees into 6-foot lengths and then split each section. The trees were thick, like that. [Swami demonstrates the dimension]

And if any of you have ever had the joy of splitting very large pieces of wood with metal wedges, you’ll know the fun. I only had 2 or 3 metal wedges and when they got stuck in the wood it would take me about an hour to try and get them out with a combination of bits of metal. It was quite frustrating. 

A herd of Jersey cows at the Skanda Vale Ashram Goshala
Swami with the Jersey cows

I managed to split them, then point each post by hand and carry each one about 500 metres to the field where they would be banged in, not with a tractor and fencepost bonker, but with a hand hammer.

We didn’t have money for wire, so I had to split all the rails as well. And I got bought a bucket of nails to bang the nails on the posts. It took me the whole summer to make one section of the field. 

And whilst this was going on, Prani and Tamboura were growing up, and like all young people, as they grow up, they develop certain feelings. Prani was a thoroughbred and Tamboura wasn’t, and so Guru decided that actually, he didn’t want Tamboura serving Prani, because he wanted her having pure Dexter calves. 

So then I had the job when Prani was coming on heat, to separate Prani and Tamboura. And if you’ve ever tried to physically restrain a bull when a cow is on heat… it’s quite challenging. It really is challenging. So that was another exciting part of this drama. 

And then I had to learn how to milk the cow. So I still had to go to the woods to collect the wood for the elephant fire and look after the dog and the cows. I had to learn to milk the cow, but I’d never banged a nail in, never split wood, never done any of this. This is when I first came to Skanda Vale. 

So you’ve got this cow that’s never been milked before. Of course, the first thing that happens when you try and milk her is she kicks you. Bang like that – a walloping great big kick. And so that was a challenge, working out how to milk her without her kicking the bucket over, or kicking me. 

But after lots of trial and error, I managed to do it. And it brings out certain facets of your nature, like frustration, impatience, even a few expletives every now and again.

The longer it takes to do this, the less time you have to collect the wood, and you’re getting hassled by Swami Karuna because his elephant has got cold, or Guru’s saying, “I’ve got visitors tonight, why haven’t you done the fire?”

Guru moves the goalposts

When you just about begin to get it sorted out, Guru says, “Ah, I think it would be really good if you took over the deer.” And then, “Would you like to look after the Murugan Temple?”

Of course, I’d love to do this, I’d love to look after the temple. But every time you start to get some kind of program, you get some kind of order and system, and you master a job that Guru has given you, just before you get to that point where you’ve mastered it, something else comes. 

It’s like he’s giving you this sweet “Oh, I thought it would be really nice if you could light up the temple, and clean the murthis…” And so that’s another job, another responsibility. It went on and on and on. I would get up at half past four in the morning. 

As well as this, Guru is going on and on about you doing your own sadhana. Nevermind the Karma Yoga. “What about your own spiritual sadhana?” Nevermind the public pujas. 

An early entrance sign for Skanda Vale from the 1980's
An early entrance sign for Skanda Vale from the 1980's

We didn’t have the Shakti Temple or Ranganatha Temple in those days, so there was a 5 o’clock puja, 1.30 puja and 9 o’clock puja. And you had to go to those pujas, even if you were dying. You had to go. You could not miss a puja, doesn’t matter how ill you were, you had to go. 

I used to live in Guru’s house, down the end of a corridor he had these Irish Terrier dogs, three Irish Terriers and I used to have climb over them and be in this little room at the end, on a shelf. That was where I lived, up on a shelf.

I’d come back to my shelf after the morning puja and I’d do my own puja there. And then it was breakfast, and working all day and blah blah. Then Guru wanted me to do a puja in his room as well, at 6 o’clock in the evening. So I’d do that and then I’d go down for the 9 o’clock puja and come back up and do another puja. 

I ended up on four hours of sleep. Working outside all day for probably the first four or five years I was in Skanda Vale. I was absolutely exhausted. Totally and utterly exhausted. And I started getting quite miserable and grumpy.

The house of Guru Sri Subramanium which later became the Maha Shakti Temple
The house of Guru Sri Subramanium which later became the Maha Shakti Temple

The breaking point becomes the turning point

Guru called me up into his room one night and said, “What’s the matter with you? I can’t do anything with you!” He said, “You’ve got to bend. You can’t be like this tree that doesn’t move in the wind. You’ve got to have flexibility. You’ve got to move and flow with everything.”

“That’s the art of spirituality. You can’t be rigid. You can’t say, ‘I have to do it like this. I’ve got to do that.’ You’ve got to be open and responsive and flexible.”

So this is one of the main things he was teaching me. These lessons went on for many, many years. You know, it would be a lesson over many years to teach you one thing. To teach you how to be open, flexible, how to move like water, like the wind.

So he was beginning to teach me that, away from this rigidity of “I’m on my spiritual sadhana, I have to do it like this, I can’t not do this, I can’t not do that.” You end up totally frustrated and totally screwed up.

But what's important is that you worship and serve God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength. He abhorred mediocrity. Absolutely abhorred it. If people didn't put their heart into something he wasn't remotely interested.

Purity of intention is everything

A person’s attitude was the most important thing for Guru. Their approach to life. Doesn’t matter how many mistakes you made, doesn’t matter if you did things wrong, or if you messed stuff up. If your intention was pure and your attitude was right, then that was all that genuinely mattered for him. 

You see, all the time he would be testing people’s attitude and approach to one thing or another. If their approach was right, then he would do whatever he could to look after them. If it wasn’t, and they were involved in mediocrity and weren’t making an effort, then he’d just pile more stuff on them. He’d crank the pressure, so they had to do something.

And he’d be on and on, and on, and on at them. Although it was quite traumatic, that was an immense privilege because he knew exactly which button to press, exactly how far he could pressurise a human being to help you on your path of evolution.

Guru Sri Subramanium with two swamis in white robes
Guru and Swami

And you would take it from him because you knew that he loved you. And that he wanted, more than anything was for you to realise your Divinity. He didn’t want anything from you. His job is to give and to serve. He was joyful for you when you applied yourself and made an effort and had the right attitude and approach.

The more that you find yourself serving the Divine and looking to see how you could use your faculties to serve the Divine, then you begin to realise that even though you’re very busy, there begins to be space in your consciousness to receive the impulses of the Divine, in whatever you are doing. 

There begins to be a reliance on offering your service to the Divine. Seeking the grace and guidance of the Divine how you can be of service to the Lord. 

Another thing that you learn (and it takes a long time and a lot of pressure) but normally there’ll be a project or something will happen. (And it will happen to every single one of us) where you try as hard as you like, banging your head against a wall, and nothing works. Nothing happens. And you try and try. 

The lessons of Karma Yoga

You begin to learn at that point that you cannot do anything. You are not the doer. When you feel, “I am trying so hard, I am doing this, doing that”. And then you get to the point where you’re forced to offer it. Genuinely offer it to the Divine because if you don’t offer it, then you go mad, or you break down, or something happens. 

So you offer it to the Divine. And then something happens, something changes, a relief comes, an inspiration comes. And then slowly your whole approach begins shifting away from, “I am doing this” to a growing natural approach to offer every single situation up to the Divine and seek the grace from the Divine to inspire you how the Lord wants you to serve the Divine in whatever you’re doing. 

And that goes hand in hand with the shift from being sense-orientated, to using the senses to serve. That’s a physical aspect of it, and that’s a spiritual aspect of that alignment. A shift in consciousness from “I am the one who is doing this” to begin to surrender yourself totally at the feet of the Divine. So that you become an instrument, a pure instrument of the Divine.

That is the progression towards pure Karma Yoga. That cultivation of the attitude of surrender to the Divine. 

Society doesn’t help because it emphasises, “You’re the one who’s done it, you’re the one who’s studied, you put the hours in, you did all the work, made the effort, who went day after day to do this stuff. It’s you who’s done that.” 

It’s not you who’s done that. You get to the point where you actually realise that you cannot do anything without grace. It is the Divine within you that provides the motivation, the energy, the power, the opportunity, the resources to do these things. 

As long as you think you’re doing it, you’re driven by your egocentric nature. And that limits you so much. Totally limits you.

A worship procession with Devi and devotees in Skanda Vale in the early 1980's
Swami at the Maha Kali Procession

This is the freedom of Karma Yoga or Bhakti Yoga. People think that when your life is about spirituality then you have all these constraints. But you don’t have constraints. What you gain is total freedom. Total freedom from the constraints of the ego. 

You realise this amazing, limitless potential that every single person has, to be an instrument of the Divine. Because the Divinity within you is not limited in any way. It’s totally unlimited. It is directly connected to the source. So our potential is limitless. 

It’s our ego, our inhibitions, our habits of being, our mindset that puts those limitations in. And when you begin to really surrender at the feet of the Lord, and you begin to experience this limitless potential become realised in your life, it’s such an amazing experience. 

This is Divine experience. It's not flashes of lights and seeing massive manifestations of Krishna and this, that and the other. It's a real experience of the Divinity embodied within you. Your limitless potential. And that comes through surrender, through service, through purification, through alignment of your whole body, mind and spirit, your environment – all of these things.  You get these things right, these building blocks are there so that you can become free.

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