Studying the Lives of Saints

Studying the Lives of Saints, Part I.

Some people believe that living a spiritual life is austere, difficult, or unpleasant. Not fun at all. They think, “That’s the price you must pay until you reach the summit of eternal joy.” If you think this, then I’ve got good news for you: nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that enlightenment, just like any other endeavor, requires discipline and sincere effort. However, walking the spiritual path need not be a painful journey.

An excellent way to discover this truth is to study the lives of people who have achieved the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment. Reading and studying their lives is inspiring and often entertaining. We learn that all of them were born as human beings, walk the Earth, and eventually die, just like us. When we read their stories, we begin to realize that we might also enjoy their experience of peace.

Quiet Karma’s posts on Spiritual Masters introduce you to some of these great souls and their teachings.

What is a Saint?

Eastern and Western definitions of the term saint differ. From the Eastern point of view, a saint is a human being who has achieved the highest state of spiritual enlightenment. In rare cases, a saint is born enlightened. However, most saints have evolved through consistent spiritual practices. Other terms used for saints are: holy person, sage, avatar, realized being, etc.

Such a person might become a teacher or leader, or they might choose to live a quiet life in solitude. Many saints are householders, married with children. One of Yogananda’s disciples, James Lynn, was a business executive. Some saints are wandering ascetics. Very few of them are famous gurus who attract large crowds. True saints don’t advertise their exalted status, so we could be walking next to one at any time without knowing it.

Hero Worship

A time-honored practice for spiritual aspirants is to keep good company. We can do this by studying the lives of saints. We have many to choose from and much to learn from them.

Human beings tend to admire and look up to people who have achieved greatness. We give them medals and standing ovations, and we build statues to honor them. It’s called hero worship. Most of us have practiced this in one way or another, beginning with our parents at a very young age. As we grow up, we might look up to superheroes, like Wonder Woman or Spiderman, or we idealize sports heroes.

Think about how this might have been true for you. Have you ever had a mentor—perhaps a special teacher or a coach? Have you ever read the biography of an influential person? In America, we value the stories of our Founding Fathers. Washington, Franklin, and Adams were great influencers in the formation of the country. Their work has affected the minds and lives of citizens since then.

When we aspire to experience the extraordinary, it’s essential to have examples. We need to know people who have achieved or experienced what we want. They inspire and teach us by the stories of their lives and by the wisdom they share with us.

Bhagavad GitaJust as a person may learn to cook or tend a garden by watching an elder, we can experience the qualities of saintliness by studying an enlightened being. That’s why we keep company with saints.

In the Bhagavad Gita (aff link), we read, “Whatever a great person does, that others follow; whatever he* sets up as a standard, mankind follows.” (3:21)

In my Guru’s commentary on this work, he says, “Most people are influenced more by the living examples of others than by philosophical teachings.”

*Editor’s Note: Do not be put off by the pronoun he. In Indian literary works the pronoun he is commonly used. Unless gender is specified, the pronoun he refers to both male and female.

Colorful Stories That Instruct

Last month, we read the story of Milarepa, a Buddhist master. Milarepa is a prime example of a person who was not born a saint. His story teaches us that anyone can become enlightened. Milarepa began in humble and ordinary circumstances. He had worldly thoughts and ambitions. Pressured by his mother, he learned black magic to take revenge on his uncle. Milarepa performed many heinous deeds, some of which caused others’ deaths. He was not the ideal character to achieve great spiritual heights. Yet with his sincere desire and arduous effort and with the help of his Master he achieved the highest spiritual state. Such a high state, in fact, that his example is remembered and followed centuries later.

Another colorful story from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (aff link) illustrates the importance of having a burning desire for our most treasured goals. Contemporary motivational teachers often cite this example:

A devotee humbly asks, “Sir, please tell us what kind of yearning gives one the blissful state of mind.”

Ramakrishna answers, “One feels restless for God when one’s soul longs for His vision. The guru said to the disciple: ‘Come with me. I shall show you what kind of longing will enable you to see God.’ Saying this, he took the disciple to a pond and pressed his head under the water. After a few moments he released the disciple and asked, ‘How did you feel?’ The disciple answered, ‘Oh, I felt as if I were dying! I was longing for a breath of air.’”

As you can see, studying the lives of saints is not a dull, dry exercise in academics. Their stories inspire us and help us take stock in our own activities and intentions.

Let’s Get Started

Your mind is like garden. In that garden, you can let weeds grow, or you can plant seeds of beautiful flowers. In fact, if you don’t nurture and protect the flowers, the weeds will surely overtake them. It’s the same with the mind. A peaceful and cheerful mind does not happen by mistake. It requires cultivation, like a flower garden.

As the days lengthen, let’s make the most of our increased time and energy. Let’s spend more time developing our souls. Reading the lives of saints is an easy—even entertaining—way to do this.

Choose your “heroes” with care. To gain the most from this valuable practice, you should, from the start, choose someone whose life is divinely inspired. Following is a list of books that I’ve chosen to get you started. They have been close to my heart—and my hands—for many years, and I highly recommend them (the list below contains affiliate links):

  • Autobiography of a Yogi: This colorful classic is not simply a story. It’s a saint’s journey beginning from childhood. Along the way, he describes the lessons learned from his Guru and other saints. I prefer the reprint of the original.
  • The Essential Sri Anandamayi Ma: Life and Teaching of a 20th Century Indian Saint: Anandamayi Ma was a woman saint who radiated love and bliss by her presence. This beautifully designed book contains a detailed biography, many of Ma’s teachings, and a wealth of photos.
  • The Life of Milarepa, Tibet’s Great Yogi by Lobzang Jivaka: This book has long been out of print. It appears occasionally through various booksellers and is worth the search. The author, one of Milarepa’s direct disciples, tells his Guru’s story with humor and affection.
  • The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Abridged Version): An excellent introduction to the life and teachings of Ramakrishna.
  • The Eternal Companion, Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings: This saint, a direct disciple of Ramakrishna, was a leader of the Ramakrishna Mission after his passing.
  • Life of Christ by Fr. Giuseppe Ricciotti is available in both full version reprint and popular version. I recommend the popular version because of its length. Fr. Ricciotti clearly describes the times and places in which Jesus lived.
  • My Life and Lives, The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation by Khyongla Rato is a rare account by a Tibetan monk who lived during the time of Chinese takeover.
  • God Alone, The Life and Letters of a Saint by Sri Gyanamata is a biography and collection of letters written by this woman disciple of Yogananda. Before joining his hermitage, she was a devoted wife and mother, demonstrating that family life can also be fully spiritualized.

Putting it into Practice

When we read the stories of saints, our awareness of their qualities increases. Those same qualities begin to take root in our minds, and we become more like a saint. The opposite is also true. Spending too much time on social media, watching television news reports, or listening to talk radio affects our mental state for a long time.

Select one of the above books, or use another that appeals to you. Start each morning and end each day by reading a chapter from any of them. As you read, look for lessons, both subtle and direct, within the life stories of saints. During your day’s activities, try to remember what you’ve read in the morning. Watch for opportunities to apply those lessons to your own life. At the end of the day, review your reading and make a mental note of its effects.

Do you have a favorite spiritual leader, Eastern or Western, who inspires you to be a better person? Please add your comment below to share your recommendations with other readers.

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