Monday, December 24, 2007

More on Ken Wilber

Back in June I posted some thoughts on author/philosopher Ken Wilber. Today I found myself at Wilber Watch, a blog dedicated to an open-minded assessment of his work. I'd surfed there from Integral World, where a new posting What Good is Half a Wing? critiques Wilber's views on evolution.

From my tiny exposure to Wilber's work, here's the issue as I see it. Wilber tries to integrate the world-views of science and religion. In the process, he attacks the view that evolution is driven by random mutations. He equates "randomness" with a claim that our existence happens by accident. He mocks this view in his blog with statements like:

Also, as you point out, referring to random chance really means "I have no idea what is going one here"--and that is really what, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I call the "philosophy of oops," as you rightly note. This is a huge hole in the mere chance and selection argument.

In the same post, Wilber offers as "the alternative" his view that the evolution of our world must be driven by a force which he calls "Eros."

I say: originally, there's no spiritual and no material, only our just-now experience, beyond words and thoughts. We create distinctions like spiritual/material or scientific/religious with our thinking, and then can struggle forever to integrate or balance the two. But if we put down the thinking that creates the split, then the sky is blue, sugar is sweet, and a dog goes "woof!"

After reading and pondering this debate, I added this comment to the newest posting on Wilber Watch:

I've just read the posting that anony commenter #3 points to. In it, Wilber writes:

... my point lies in a different direction, which is what these critics miss: the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe.

Is Wilber saying anything here? Or is he just playing with words? That is: "self-organizing force intrinsic to the universe" means that there's something that causes this experience we're having. That has no meaning unless we examine what that "something" is. Do we know?

Metaphorically: if you're drinking water, it doesn't matter whether you call it "water" or "aqua" or "H-two-O." Those are just different names that don't touch its nature. What is "Eros" other than a name?

Scientists will say that this "something" is "randomness." That's a name meaning we don't know the first cause. A true mystic will say exactly the same thing, that the fundamental cause is a complete mystery. If the mystic calls it "God" and the scientist calls it "randomness," that's no real difference.

For Wilber to call it "Eros" makes no difference either... except that he claims that "Eros" is something he does understand. He has ideas, his "theory of everything," that he claims does capture the fundamental cause with his thinking.

So that's the real point. Do we believe that Wilber's thinking mind has really captured a knowledge or understanding of why there's something rather than nothing? Or is he just too arrogant or too frightened to face the mystery, and instead (like a religious fundamentalist) opts to grasp some speculation and pretend that he knows what he really doesn't?

As Socrates told us long ago, the mark of true wisdom is to understand that you don't know.

Like myself, I believe Wilber has done some serious Zen practice, and for at least one moment, experienced immersion in that unknowable thing. After such an experience, the true direction of the Zen tradition is to recognize that it's not a thing that can be held by thoughts, knowledge, understanding.

Rather, it's something to be recognized fresh in each moment, in this moment, in our just-now experience, before-thinking. And we can also lose it at any moment when we miss that experience in favor of some idea, some "theory" about it. Isn't that what Wilber is making a career out of doing?
Merry Buddha's Enlightenment to all, and a Happy Winter Solstice.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tribes, Part 2

In Berkeley where I live, there's lots of enthusiasm for what's called Identity Politics. This means forming tribal alliances based on the circumstances of your birth, stuff like ethnicity, gender, and skin color. In elections, about 80% of Berkeleyites have supported the proposition that government should categorize people based on "race" etc. The Jewish identity I wrote of in my previous Tribes posting is similar: an identity based on the group I was born into.

It feels morally wrong to judge others, positively or negatively, based on accidents of birth. But leaving morality aside for a moment, what's the practical effect of this world-view?

I play a decent game of low-limit poker. Poker isn't a game of cards, it's a game of people. It may be possible to live much of life without judging others, but in poker, it's mandatory to judge your opponents all the time.

One option is to judge people based on ethnicity or gender. Women tend to bluff less than men; Asians tend to bluff more than non-Asians. This type of information is better than nothing, but it's inefficient. For instance, a successful female player will confound men's expectations by playing the opposite of how most women do.

Alternately, you can pay attention to what a person has chosen to do. You can get information from just about anything someone does: how they dress, the posture they sit in, how they handle cards and chips, how they make small talk, etc. This gives much better insight. As the great American guru Dr. Phil has taught me, "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior." You get closer to the heart of someone by considering the things they've chosen.

Maybe we could say that there are two types of tribes. There are tribes we're born into, and tribes we choose. The poker analogy hopefully explains why I find tribes based on choice so much more interesting.

Adopting a belief-system is one type of choice. These days, I don't like holding any beliefs. The world is always changing, and beliefs are a hindrance to adapting to each new challenge and opportunity. The Zen group I practice with could be considered a tribe. I can handle that one, since the group is 100% defined by what we do together. Quite pointedly, I can practice with this group, without thinking like anyone else, or believing in anything.

Inside or outside the Zen group, the main thing I appreciate in a friend is an open, questioning mind. Maybe it's OK for most people to follow the herd, to adhere to unexamined beliefs or conventions. But those aren't the people I find most interesting.

Questioning seems more and more natural to me. When we emerge from the womb, we know nothing, so what else can we do but question and be curious? As we grow, though, we start to believe in something. Consciously or un-, we draw a line, and allow our wondering, doubting, curious mind to go only so far.

I'm drawn to people who keep their beliefs small, and their questioning big. This has some connection to humor. Everyone thinks they have a good sense of humor, but we differ in how widely we allow our humor to wander. In other words: if I believe in something, if I treat it as sacred, then I sure can't make fun of it. But when I throw away beliefs, then nothing is sacred (which is precisely the same as everything being sacred), and then humor is everywhere.

Here's a Jewish story I learned as a kid. A gentile approached the great rabbi Hillel, saying that he'd convert to Judaism, but only if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah (Jewish scripture) while standing on one foot. Hillel responded with a version of the Golden Rule: "That which you hate, don't do to others." He said, "That's the entire Torah. The rest is simply an explanation. Go and learn it!"

Great story, huh? I appreciate Hillel's words, maybe moreso than the people who taught me this story did. When we look for direction in life, all we need is the intention of being kind and helpful to other beings. Everything else can be thrown away. Nothing else is sacred; the rest of it -- beliefs, traditions, ideas, opinions -- is just a playground.

On a recent visit to my home town, I talked to friends that I hadn't seen in decades. Even if they had no understanding of Zen or Buddhism or meditation or anything like that, I still felt that our minds could meet. It was because they'd maintained that same attitude towards life; we could share our wonderment at how mysterious it all is. We could share the joke of how absurd it all is.

Maybe I could define my current tribe as those people with whom I can share deep questions and humor about life. I won't say this is good or bad... but at least the borders of this tribe are porous. Unlike tribes defined by ethnicity or dogma etc, anyone is free to join my tribe any time, whenever they open their minds.

I've gone off on a tangent, and haven't gotten to what I originally was going to blog about: the sticky issue of how to deal with people who are attached to tribes. I'll get to that in an upcoming post. I'll also explore why so many of us get drawn into tribes defined by superficial factors like ethnicity and unexamined beliefs. Does our DNA, our genetic predisposition, make us behave like herding animals? Even if that's so, maybe humans can go beyond those biological tendencies.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Tribes, Part 1

I was playing video poker in Las Vegas, sitting next to some stranger. I could see he was a knowledgeable player (a rarity in casinos), so I struck up a casual conversation. We chatted about gambling strategies, since that was the only obvious thing we had in common. Then, out of the blue, he asked me, "Are you a member of the Tribe?"

My mind stopped. It was a total "What the fuck?!" moment. I had never heard that expression before, and didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. What shadowy society was he referring to?

Turns out he wanted to know if I was Jewish. In fact, that is how I was raised. My family didn't hold any particular religious beliefs, attend synagogue, or follow any of those tricky rules like keeping kosher. And yet I was taught that it's vital for me to maintain something called a "Jewish identity."

Surely everyone faces this issue in some way. Either you were encouraged to feel a part of an ethnic group, or religion, or sub-culture, or political affiliation, or extended family or clan, etc. Whatever I say here about my tribe, please translate it to whatever tribe you come from, so we can all relate.

There were soccer games I missed when I was a teenager, because my mother wouldn't allow me to play on a Jewish holiday. Then as now, rationality dominated my thinking, so I tried to negotiate. I'd tell her that I'd fast or feast or pray or whatever you're supposed to do on that particular holiday... I'd just do it the day after the game. What difference could it make?

No go. These memories persist, because I was so struck at how Mom could hold values with such fervor, and yet have nothing to support them in the way of reasoned explanation. I chalked it up to something that I'd probably understand when I became an adult, and I'm still waiting.

In my 20s, I spent 5 years living in ashrams with famed guru Swami Muktananda. There I experienced a different tribal identity. We constantly reinforced in each other the idea that we were a special group. A chosen people, if you will. We had access to a higher truth, or spiritual experience or some such, that set us apart from the common masses.

This dynamic resulted in us believing, on thin evidence, some outlandish things (e.g., the perfected, God-like status of the Guru, his magical energy and miraculous powers etc). It didn't matter that each of us individually didn't have the direct experience to support our beliefs. It didn't matter that the beliefs were rationally problematic. Since everyone else saluted these same beliefs, repeatedly spoke about them, and were applauded for doing so... surely they must be true.

I wonder if the power lay in our attraction to being part of the tribe, moreso than the content of what we said or did or believed. Indeed, many of my fellow travellers eventually left Muktananda's group, but straight-away joined up with another tribe. Maybe a different guru, maybe a group sharing some psychological or political belief-system. Some rejected spirituality entirely, then became members of an "anti-cult" tribe.

Here's why tribal dynamics strike me as so profound. The great question of life is "What am I?" It's my practice to watch my thinking, observe the different ideas about what "I" am, and let each one pass by without clinging to it. But if one does hold some idea of who they are, won't this inevitably lead to some sort of tribal identity? If I hold a thought of who "I" am, then that itself defines the group that's most "like me," as opposed to the outsiders who are less "like me."

A tribal identity must be the counterpart to some idea of self, and Buddha's great insight was that "self" is nothing but a mass of insubstantial thinking. Maybe identification with a group can be a stepping-stone towards breaking free of ideas of self. We start with the smallest sense of self: attachment to the body. The first step is to expand this identification to include your family. Then it gets still larger, becoming loyalty to your community, then to your country. If the circle keeps expanding, maybe it'll eventually embrace all beings, and the us/them separation will disappear.

I dunno. In any case, if the circle that defines your tribe stops expanding, and you get stuck at, say, intense patriotism, the troubles that arise from tribe vs tribe are well known.

I'm certainly not saying that tribal identity is a bad thing, but rather that its benefits and curses are both extreme. Consider some of the great ills of society: sick people with no one to help them, poor people who can't afford a home, old people left to struggle alone. If you look at close-knit tribes like the Mormons, the Amish, or ultra-orthodox Jews, these problems are in some cases completely solved. The community always, without fail, helps any member who needs it.

Yet the price is high. The very reason that the community sticks together is their shared behavior and beliefs. What if you're a non-conformist, or a free thinker? Then tribal life is hell. In any such tribe, it's like everyone is spying on each other, making sure that no one strays too far from the norms that define the group.

I went camping with a friend, along with his llamas (the animals, not those Tibetan guys). We hiked to the middle of nowhere, with the llamas carrying our gear. We set up camp at night, and tied up the llamas to a tree. I asked him what would happen if one of the llamas got loose, and he said that it wouldn't run away. Their herding instinct was so strong that one wouldn't go anywhere without the other. Ahh, herding instinct. I suddenly understood human beings much better.

If you look at the progression of evolution... ants, birds, sheep, llamas, chimps, us... it seems that each step moves away from group cohesion, towards more diversity, individuality, independence. Likewise the direction of our growth as humans, from kids entirely dependent on the family tribe, then the peer group tribe, then maybe sometimes to standing on our own feet. Likewise the direction of human history, away from tribes and kingdoms controlled by autocratic rulers, towards more individual liberty.

In religion: maybe traditions like Judaism and Catholicism, which emphasize group unity based on birth, rules, or beliefs, are on the wrong side of evolution. Are people moving away from monolithic groups, towards more individually-motivated spirituality? In politics: perhaps it's not an accident that Communism, with its ideal of "the People" moving in lock-step towards a single goal, has now entered the dustbin of history.

When I'm with a friend or family member, there's nothing more important to me than how I relate to him or her. It's all about how I feel about each of them as individuals, rather than shared membership in a tribe. But isn't much of the world driven by group loyalties? It makes me curious, since I don't quite "get" tribalism. There are, for instance, people who declare a strong Jewish identity, to the point where they passionately express the opinion that anyone who was born Jewish should feel that same way. This attitude isn't universal in the tribe, but it's not uncommon, and it can be extreme.

It's not that tribalism is a personal problem these days; friends and family don't give me grief about being too Buddhist or not enough Jewish. But it's been a bit of an issue in the past. And certainly among people I know, there's been big suffering generated when they didn't embrace the level of Jewish identity that their relatives desired. Is there any way to mitigate this type of suffering?

Kindly translate all this to your own situation, and let me know if you relate. Next time, I'll have more to say about the nitty-gritty of how I navigate inter-tribal interactions.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 10: Epilogue (Up to Your Ass in Analogies).

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

At the end of my first retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim) gave a talk. He said that we refer to the intensity of a retreat as “hard practice,” but more accurately it's “hot practice.” The mind is sometimes like ice. It’s not flexible; you can’t wash your hands in ice. We do “hot practice” to melt the mind, so it becomes like water, freely taking the shape of any situation whatsoever. The final words of his talk were, “Don’t make anything; just do it!”

Water flows anywhere; it doesn’t attach to any thing or any idea. That’s what it felt like after the retreat, not clinging to anything. But… maybe I could make one tiny exception. The sense of clarity that arose so strongly during the final retreat days… couldn’t I cling to that? The wonderful feeling of freedom, the beautiful understanding that everything is insubstantial… if I held onto just that much, and made it into something special… that wouldn’t be cheating too much, would it?

I heard an analogy about “spiritual addiction” (from “non-dual” teacher Ayashanti). Imagine that for your whole life, you've thought you were very poor. One day, someone tells you, “You’ve got diamonds in your shoes.” You don’t believe him, because you know you’re poor.

Eventually you get desperate enough. You’ve exhausted all other hope, so what the hell, you take off your shoes and check inside. Holy shit! There really are diamonds in your shoes! That moment when you discover that you’re not impoverished (and really never were) is extraordinary. “Spiritual addiction” is clinging to the feelings you get from the discovery. The value of diamonds isn't in those feelings. It's in spending the diamonds, using them in a way that helps all beings.

Here’s a cruder analogy. Growing up, I chewed Bazooka bubble gum. Inside each 1-cent pack, there’d be a little comic. In one of them, Bazooka Joe sees his friend hitting himself over the head with a hammer. When Joe asks why, the friend explains, “Because it feels so good when I stop!”

My peak experience in the Zen retreat was something like that. For most of my life, I’d been holding these delusions about my “self” as a substantial thing. When that delusion disappeared in meditation, it was wonderful. The magnitude of that wonderfulness was equal to the magnitude of the delusion. If I wanted to hold or repeat that wonderful experience, what was I going to do? Build a new, even bigger delusion, so I could feel so good when it disappeared?

ZMSS had called the retreat “dry-cleaning your mind with don’t-know soap.” Indeed, it felt like I’d taken a mental shower that left everything pristine. But no matter how thoroughly you take a shower, you can't do it once and be finished. Every day you get dirty, so you make a habit of regularly cleaning the dirt away.

In addition to practice in day-to-day life, I do a day or two of sitting retreat, every month or so since that first one. These are retreats headed by different teachers in ZMSS’ school. During the first year, I was still processing the special experience of my first retreat, and discussed it with these teachers.

When I told Zen Master Su Bong about it, he asked, “Do you want to get that experience again?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Then you can’t have it.”

Zen Master Soeng Hyang’s advice was even simpler. The words may seem harsh in black-and-white, but they were delivered very gently. Here’s what she told me: “Just forget about it.”

ZMSS talked about the need to “digest” understanding. I pondered that word for years. If you’ve got an apple in your hand, it’s obviously separate from your body. After you eat it, for a while it’s still there in your stomach. When it’s digested, though, the apple becomes one with your body, and otherwise it no longer exists.

Was I holding the experience and understanding from the retreat, as if it were a thing that I’d gotten? Over the years, maybe I’ve digested it, but who knows. How can you tell if something’s completely digested? You’d have to examine what you excrete, and who wants to do that?

Damn, this analogy has turned way too disgusting. Forget I said anything.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 9: Why?

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

I've been writing about the 7-day retreat in 1988 that inspired my decision to practice Zen. For the first part of the week, I'd painfully struggled with the big question, "What am I?" Then during one sitting session, it had all dissolved into emptiness, punctuated by insubstantial thinking that came and went without hindrance. It felt amazing, as I described in the previous two entries.

Now it was the next day, and time again for my formal interview with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). I had no plan to discuss my meditation experience with him. It's not like I understood what had happened anyway. It's not like I had anything coherent to say about it. Even without words, though, maybe ZMSS' lifetime of intense practices would give him some special insight, allowing him to see that my mind was different. Or maybe my shit-eating grin at that point was so obvious that any idiot would notice.

ZMSS' manner was more stern and intense than in the previous days. For his first question, he demanded, "Why do you eat every day?" I mimed putting food into my mouth, like a hungry person. That said it all, didn't it? Each moment comes and goes naturally. When it's meal time, you eat. What more could there possibly be to life?

"No good!" shouted ZMSS. "That's like a dog. A dog just eats when he's hungry. A human being's job is different from a dog's job. Why do you eat every day? Why do you live in this world?"

I don't remember exactly how ZMSS explained it at that time, but here's the gist as I understood it. Our thinking is like scribbles on a blackboard. Sometimes, maybe with lots of effort, we erase all the scribbles and have a completely clean blackboard. That may bring a wonderful feeling of freedom.

But you don't leave a blackboard empty. What are you going to write on it? It's like a calculator after you hit the clear button and return to zero. One more step is necessary for the blackboard or calculator to function correctly. In ZMSS' teaching, it's loud and clear what he tells us to write on that blackboard: Help all beings.

The Buddhist direction of "Save all beings from suffering" has at least one great virtue. If you accept that as your goal, you don't have to worry about ever reaching it and having to find a new one. Beyond that, this teaching turned around my view of what practice was about. I'd always looked at meditation and such as a means to getting some special experience, or insight, something like that. ZMSS seemed more concerned about intention. Why practice, why eat, why live? For what? For who? Whatever you got, good or bad, if it was for me, it'd bring suffering. If it was for all beings, then no problem.

The final day of the retreat arrived, and I returned to ZMSS's room for the last private interview. His first question to me: "Today is the last day of retreat. What have you attained?"

That week had been far and away the most astounding experience of my life. But I was clueless as to anything I could say about it. Keeping silent wouldn't do either. If you ask a rock a question, it can be silent, but a human being ought to have something more than that.

Maybe I should show the mirror-like clarity of my mind by reflecting that moment? "The wall is white," I said. ZMSS shook his head, rejecting the answer.

Uhhh... maybe he was looking for that compassion thing he'd talked about? "How can I help you?" I offered. ZMSS swept that answer aside also. Jeez, not even that?

Typically, Zen teachers won't give away answers, waiting instead for the student to find it himself. But ZMSS came to Berkeley only once a year, and maybe he thought I needed to understand something before that. After I repeatedly failed to give a satisfactory answer, he eventually relented: "Now you ask me."

"OK," I said. "Today is the last day of retreat. Zen Master, what have YOU attained?"

He gave me a one-sentence answer that made my jaw drop with its elegance. A response that met the question, and did so without even a speck of I or no-I, attainment or no-attainment. A response that clearly demonstrated not making anything.

The retreat ended, and I returned to ordinary, everyday life. I'll write one final blog in this series, an epilogue to talk about how that's been going.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 8: Buddhism.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

In the last entry, it was the 4th or 5th day of intense sitting, my first Zen retreat back in 1988, and I'd had a big breakthrough in meditation. Just afterwards, during the pre-dinner break, I’d gone on a walk through the U.C. Berkeley campus, still enraptured with this perception of all things appearing and disappearing without hindrance. A young woman approached me, and I had a strong suspicion that she was a Jesus Person. That is, she had in her eyes the look of a True Believer, someone who'd stop strangers on the street to preach the Gospel and save souls.

I had a history of frequently being accosted by Jesus People. Maybe I had the aura of a seeker, or a lost soul. Maybe it was my Semitic appearance. Do Jesus People get extra points for converting a Jew?

Allow me a short tangent here to tell the story of my favorite encounter of this sort. At another time, there’d been this Jesus Person who was trying to get me to attend a weekly religious worship that his group held. The conversation went like this:

Jesus Person (JP): C’mon, this is very important, you really need to come to our service.

Me: I’m not sure… Tell me, what do you do?

JP: I told you, it’s a service.

Me: Yeah, you said that. But I’m asking: what do you do?

JP: We pray. We sing hymns. And we read from the Bible.

Me: Listen, it’s nice of you to invite me. Maybe some day I’ll stop by; I really do like to try new and different things. But I'll be completely honest with you, right up front. I don’t like the Bible.

JP: Would you like a Miller Lite?
(My mind reeled. I’d misjudged this guy totally! My head was filled with images of a church service with an open bar. Of a Bible discussion group that degenerates into drunken partying. Could this be real?)

Me: What?!?

JP: I said, “Would you like Eternal Life?”
(I didn’t want to be a jerk, but I just couldn’t stop laughing. Eventually I was able to blurt out, “No, no, no, I’m not interested in that,” and JP left me alone.)

OK, back to our story. The young woman on campus, the one I was sure was a Jesus Person, did walk right up to me. “Hi,” she said, “I’m a Buddhist!”

The universe has such a great sense of humor. I just love its ironic timing. For the first and only time in my life, I was about to get proselytized by a Buddha Person! What are the odds?

“Me too!” I gushed. “I’m a Buddhist too!” Maybe all those hours I’d just spent with my ass on the cushion had qualified me for membership in the club. Or maybe my mind at that moment was sufficiently mirror-like that I’d have responded the same way, regardless of what she’d claimed to be. If she’d said she was a Methodist, I’d probably have said, “I’m a Methodist too!” Likewise if she were a communist. Or Satanist. Or philatelist.

It turns out that there’s a huge variation among people who call themselves “Buddhist.” This Buddha Person (BP) explained that "Buddhism" to her meant congregational chanting of a mantra (something like “Namyo Ho Rengye Kyo”) in order to get whatever you want in life.

I think that chanting mantras is great... but how long can you do it? An hour a day? I prefer repeating mantras silently, since I can do that while commuting on the train, or other times when my mind isn't otherwise engaged. But even then, it's hardly a 24/7 practice. For much of my day, I'm at work, where I need to focus on computer code, not mantras.

I didn't like BP's definition of Buddhism. Why not practice something that's available everywhere, all the time? I tried to explain:

Me: What do you do for a living? You probably can't be chanting mantras while you're working, right?

BP: Right. I teach high school math during the day. I do my chanting after work.

Me: But even while you're working, you can still practice Buddhism...

BP: Oh no. It's a public school.

Me: That's not what I mean. If it's your job to teach math, and you're doing your best to help your students learn... that's Buddhism!
At the time, the words were just coming out of my mouth automatically. In retrospect, I realize that I'd gotten this kind of speech from the teacher at the retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim. Days earlier, he'd given a talk and Q&A, and it had included one of my favorite interchanges from him ever.

One of the questions had been from a Zen student who was a father. He explained to ZMSS that he'd been trying unsuccessfully to get his daughter to come to the Zen Center. His daughter had a friend who'd taken her to church, so now, the daughter preferred Christianity over Zen. "So my question is this," he concluded. "How can I get my daughter to understand Buddhism?"

In a flash, ZMSS replied, "Your daughter understands Buddhism better than you do!"

"I don't understand," said the father.

"True Buddhism," ZMSS explained, "means moment-to-moment, when you're doing something, just do it. If you go to a church... and when it's time to stand up and sing, you stand up and sing... and when it's time to kneel down and pray, you kneel down and pray... that's Buddhism!"

Anyway: it was time to say good-bye to the BP and make my way back to the Zen Center for dinner, followed by evening chanting and sitting. There were two days left in the retreat. In the next blog, I'll receive some more great pointers from ZMSS. And then there'll be an epilogue to try to bring this story full circle.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 7: Like Space.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

In this post, I'm a bit past the half-way point of my first Zen retreat, a week-long sit in 1988. Earlier posts have detailed my initial struggles with formal sitting and self-inquiry, as well as the daily interviews (koan or kong-an practice) with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS), aka Dae Soen Sa Nim.

Four or five days had gone by, filled with endless hours on the cushion, bringing up the great question, looking for the true nature of my self and this moment. Over and over, answers would appear in my mind. Then another thought would appear, recognizing my answer as an idea, as just thinking. The cycle had repeated itself -- I can only estimate -- approximately a billion times. Still at square one. I hadn't advanced a millimeter, hadn't made a dent in "What am I?"

I'd gotten nothing but exhausted on every level. Even the thoughts themselves seemed tired, not passing in a blur, but kind of limping by on crutches. At least that made it easier to see each thought for what it was. Like watching a magic trick in slow motion: after a while, it's no longer amazing, it's just some guy pulling a Nerf ball from his sleeve.

I'd been tangled up in my efforts to crack the great mystery of existence. At this particular point, I started to get a little perspective. I felt like I was watching these physical and mental struggles... as if I were in a movie theater, and thoughts (feelings, perceptions, sensations, everything) were flickering lights on the screen.

This witnessing perspective wasn't so new or unusual. It was just that the first part of the retreat had been so challenging that I'd been enmeshed in my efforts for days, unable to simply observe till now. It was a bit of a relief.

Then, I dunno, something shifted. Hey, it wasn't that I was watching flickering lights on a movie screen. Holy Shit! EVERYTHING was like flickering lights, INCLUDING that thing called "I"! Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ! For so so long, that "I" had seemed so so solid. But it was a thought, appearing and disappearing, just like the rest of them.

Suddenly, all pain and fatigue disappeared. There was no problem; there wasn't even the possibility of problems. There wasn't anything solid to which a problem could adhere. This wasn't fuzzy like drug-induced euphoria. What did ZMSS always say? Don't Know is "clear like space." Of course! What's space like? It's empty; it's like... nothing at all.

The rest of the sitting session passed by seamlessly, with all thoughts, all things, just appearing and disappearing. Except that now and then, a thought would appear that was a bit stickier than the rest, a thought that started to gain weight, and threaten to become substantial. Thoughts like, "Will this last forever? Is this that Spiritual Enlightenment I've heard about?" But each time, within a second or two, it became clear that this too was just insubstantial thinking. Self, no-self, enlightenment, no-enlightenment, temporary, permanent... all just thoughts, coming and going, by natural process.

The sitting session ended, time for an hour-long break before dinner. What to do? I left the house, and walked towards the U.C. Berkeley campus a block away, curious about what the world would be like. It felt as if for my whole life, I'd been walking into a stiff wind, fighting resistance with each step. The wind had been so constant that I didn't even notice it. And now, my body had somehow become porous, transparent, empty or something, so the wind could pass right through it. There was no more resistance, everything was effortless.

The northern border of campus was a busy street without a traffic light. I'd crossed it here hundreds of times. Often it wasn't reasonable to wait till there was no traffic, so I'd make an automatic calculation of how far away the cars were and how fast they were going, and attempt to walk across safely.

Walking across the street was the same this time... except wait, there was something missing. Typically, as I crossed, there'd be a little voice in my head, saying something like, "What if I misjudged? Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'll get run over. Damn, that'd make me feel stupid!" Maybe that voice was what ZMSS had called "checking."

I hadn't noticed my checking so much all those other times. Now, though, its absence was evident. Of course I was trying to avoid getting killed, but there was a limit to what I could know for sure. My job was to do my best to cross correctly, step by step. Beyond that... hell, that was all! I had to laugh.

I hadn't walked 50 feet into the campus when I saw a young woman approaching me. There was something about her body language, or maybe it was the stack of pamphlets she was carrying, that made me suspect she was a Jesus Person. Y'know, one of those folks who stop you on the street and try to get you to accept Christ and save your soul. I'd always been a magnet for them. This should be interesting.

In upcoming entries, I'll tell an amusing story about getting proselytized, and then describe how I finished the final days of retreat, got some key direction from ZMSS, and tried to digest it all. Kindly bear with me; just a couple few more of these blogs and I think I can bring this long and tiresome story to a close.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Zen Master Blog

Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes) is our Abbott and Guiding Teacher at Empty Gate Zen Center. I've just added a link (see the link section on the right of this page) to his new blog on the Zen Center site. There are a couple of entries so far, and last week he told me he intends to start out posting at least once a month, and maybe increase it from there.

ZMBS/Jeff is a teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen, having received transmission (i.e., was acknowledged as a Zen Master) by Zen Master Seung Sahn (aka Dae Soen Sa Nim) in 2001. He carries on the tradion that ZM Seung Sahn brought to the West from Korea, including formal koan ("kong-an") teaching.

He is (1) a transmitted teacher in this lineage stretching back to Buddha, (2) a licensed psychological therapist, and (3) a "former" hippie. He combines these talents into a unique teaching style.

So if you have any questions about Buddha's teaching, go ask a tree, and the tree will give you a wonderful answer. Then, if you don't understand what the tree is telling you, please check out ZMBS' blog at He'll welcome all questions in the blog's comment section.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 6: Smile.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

I've been describing my first Zen retreat. The previous blog post was about the the initial efforts of formal sitting and keeping the great question "What is this?" or "What am I?" This post will be about the daily private interviews with Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS, aka Dae Soen Sa Nim). In the better-known Japanese-style Zen, these sessions are called koan practice. In Korean, the word is kong-an.

I'd read a lot about kong-ans, and had squeezed some info from the more senior students I'd talked to, so I had some idea of what I was supposed to say and do. ZMSS would ask these strange, pointed questions, and it was my challenge to respond from the direct, before-thinking experience of that moment. It was like pushing the Clear button of your mental calculator (ZMSS would say). First you return to zero. Then from there, respond to the just-now situation: 1+1=2.

I had a few things going for me. First, I was outrageously intimidated by ZMSS. The fear and adrenaline made it kind of hard to think anyway, allowing me to automatically answer with whatever popped up. Also, ZMSS' Korean accent and broken grammar forced me to use most of my mental energy to just understand what he said. That helped keep the conversation simple.

Following are some memories that have stuck with me from those early interviews.

After some preliminary explanation, ZMSS went right to the big guns. "What is God?" he asked. I knew that in Zen, this question was the same as asking about Truth, Buddha, Mind, Consciousness, etc. Those are all different words that point to the substance of everything.

I knew I shouldn't wax philosophical about how each and every thing is God. That may be a good idea, but it's just an idea, just thinking. (An ancient Zen master had famously said, "Even a good thing isn't as good as nothing.") I'd been told to respond to kong-ans not with explanations, but out of the truth of that moment. What did I perceive just now? "Your robe is grey," I answered. "Correct," said ZMSS. It was nice to get that little matter, God and Truth and all that, out of the way.

"What is your name?" ZMSS asked. "Stuart," I replied. "No, no, no," he scoffed. "That's just body's name." It was confusing. I'd given a clear, simple answer. His words, though, were a philosophical idea, the type of unnecessary thinking I'd been told to throw away. But what could I say? How could I question his teaching, when he was the Big Zen Master, and I was the new kid?

After some awkward silence, ZMSS explained, "Now you must say, 'You are incorrect, Zen Master.' When I make mistake, you must correct it." Wow. After all the years I'd spent meeting gurus who claimed perfection, here was ZMSS, right from the get-go, saying that I had to watch for his mistakes.

"How old are you?" ZMSS asked. "27," I shot back. "I don't believe you," he challenged. "You are incorrect!" I replied. "Wonderful," he said.

But wait, oops, I was actually 28 years old. I guess my before-thinking mind isn't that great with numbers. But it answered without waffling, so I passed. This must be like my poker game, where a confident bluff is sometimes good enough.

ZMSS put a mug of water between us. "What is this?" he asked. I replied that it was water. "That's just name," ZMSS said. "You're attached to name. What is it?" I had nothing, so ZMSS told me to ask the question back at him. When I did so, he immediately took a drink. I see. To be intimate with all things, just do it, moment to moment.

[As a courtesy to any readers who may someday want to try this practice themselves, I'll relate the rest of these memories without giving any more actual kong-an answers. The answers aren't the important thing anyway; it's all about questioning, about finding and using Don't Know Mind.]

ZMSS handed me a book and pointed to a paragraph for me to read aloud. It was about Buddha's Flower Sermon. All Zennies know this story. Buddha was set to give a discourse, and many hundreds had gathered to hear the Renowned Holy Teacher explain enlightenment 'n' stuff. But when he faced the assembly, Buddha said nothing. He just stood there a few minutes, and then held up a flower.

No one in the vast audience understood. Then a monk named Mahakashyapa looked at that flower and smiled. Buddha saw him smile and said, "I have got the Wondrous Dharma Seal of the Supremely Enlightened Mind, the Gateless Gate to Formless Nirvana. I now transmit it to Mahakashyapa."

All Zen schools and Masters trace their lineage back to that transmission incident. What was it about? What was transmitted? Damned if I knew. It was a puzzle, and I like puzzles. Maybe with intense contemplation and special experiences or something, I'd figure it out some day.

I finished the reading and waited for my question. "Buddha held up flower," said ZMSS. "Mahakashyapa smiled. Why did Mahakashyapa smile?"

Was he kidding? I'd been doing Zen for about 3 days, and he was asking me about the great fundamental secret? I wanted to understand... but my mind went blank. How the hell was I supposed to know?

I tried another poker technique, staring ZMSS right in the eyes, looking for a tell. My read on his expression was that he'd give up absolutely nothing. But he seemed supremely patient, ready to wait forever till I got it myself. And most bizarrely, he looked like he had every expectation that I could answer!

Uncomfortable seconds passed. Then out of nowhere, a response appeared, as if on its own. It wasn't like I knew the right answer. It was like the answer had come from a place before thinking, where there's no right and no wrong. It was only a moment later that I realized that I'd given an answer, and checked ZMSS for his response. "Ah," he said, "now you understand smile."

After days of sitting, I was super-sensitized to what was going on in my mind. It was amazing how the answer had appeared right out of the Don't Know. Maybe this'd inspire me to keep plugging away at "What am I?"

Kong-an answers -- good answer, bad answer, no answer -- don't matter. Even if you answer one, the teacher just throws a new one at you, bringing back Don't Know.

"Somebody comes to Zen Center," said ZMSS, "smoking a cigarette. He walks to Buddha-statue, blows smoke in Buddha's face, drops ashes on Buddha's head. You're there. How do you teach him?"

I tried to stay in the moment. "There's no cigarette-man here," I said. ZMSS immediately mimed a cigarette in his hand and pretended to smoke. "I am cigarette-man!" he declared. "You must teach me! What can you do?"

I was befuddled again. "But... you're not smoking..." I offered with hesitation. "Don't check!" ZMSS shouted back.

This time, no answer appeared. Seeing that I was hopelessly stuck, ZMSS changed his tone. "You must attain True Self," he told me. "What is True Self?" he asked, then he paused.

The pause seemed very long, because something big was going on in my mind. What is True Self? I'd been asking that question constantly for days. In a sense, I'd been asking it my whole life. I could tell that ZMSS had brought up the question rhetorically, that in a few seconds, he'd give me his own answer.

Of course, everything in this tradition had been teaching me that any answer was just an idea, just thinking. Zen-style didn't depend on a secret, special answer from a teacher. Zen meant not depending on anything. But my habit, my reflex of wanting to get something from an authority, was still there.

I saw a big "I want" in my mind, a desire for this Famous Zen Master to just give me The Answer, so I could stick it in my pocket and hold onto it forever. This "I want" was like a fish, ready to swallow whatever juicy worm ZMSS was about to give me. A fish too hungry to notice what hook might be hidden in the worm.

"What is True Self?" ZMSS repeated. Then, slowly and deliberately, he answered, "I... DON'T... KNOW!"

Oh yeah, that. I returned to my cushion in the meditation room, ready to continue sitting with the great question and the big Don't Know. About an hour later, a very interesting thing happened, which I'll blog about next time.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 5: Sitting.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

In the last episode, I was beginning my first Zen retreat, a week-long sitting in the Korean tradition. It was led by Zen Master Seung Sahn (I'll abbreviate as ZMSS), commonly addressed as Dae Soen Sa Nim.

There were over 20 of us in a single-family residence, with a connected living room/study area serving as the Dharma room (that's where the formal group practice takes place; "Dharma" means "truth"). The crowded conditions made for a complete lack of privacy, confusion in storing and dealing with my personal stuff, lines to the bathroom, etc. The long hours of a new sitting style, plus the new practice of 108 bows every morning, made my body ache. It was cold, keeping me awake much of the nights I spent in my sleeping bag on the Dharma room floor.

I mention all this because it may be a non-trivial part of the equation: that the first few days had this foundation of physical discomfort, exhaustion, and frustration. But mostly I'm interested in trying to articulate the mental experience.

In my earlier years of meditation, I'd spent plenty time obsessing about proper technique. Should I use a mantra? Which one? Should I control my breath in a particular way? Should I cultivate a feeling or hold some belief? Didn't I have to do these things just right in order to get the enlightenment prize? Different teachers I'd known had touted particular techniques as the surest, best path to the absolute... but they were all different.

ZMSS would talk about techniques -- mantra, breath, etc -- but without the sense that one was better than the other. He did stress, though, that if you considered the question "What am I?", you'd find yourself stuck, with nothing in the mind, just "Don't Know." Whatever technique you like, just do it, but do it with this "Don't-Know Mind."

Keeping a big question appealed to me, because it built on my earlier practice style, not negating it. Famous Indian teachers, such as Ramana Maharishi and Nisargadatta Maharaj, had spoken on self-inquiry, looking into the nature of this "I." There's a story in the Zen tradition that particularly struck me as in harmony with this practice:

Huai-jang lived in China centuries ago, on a mountain called Sung Shan. He somehow heard about a Buddhist temple where Hui-neng had a strange new teaching. This was in the early generations of the development of Zen in China; Hui-neng is now known as the sixth patriarch of Zen. Huai-jang was curious enough to make the long trek to the temple.

Eventually he completed the journey and found Hui-neng. The Patriarch asked the newcomer, "Where are you coming from?" Huai-jang replied, "I've traveled here from Sung Shan to receive your teaching." The funny thing about Hui-neng's response is that he didn't actually give a word of teaching, not in the sense that Huai-jang was expecting or looking for. Instead he asked, "What is this thing that has traveled from Sung Shan?"

Huai-jang had no idea what to say. He turned around, went back home, and continued his simple life on the mountain. Whatever he did now, throughout each day, he had that question in his mind, "What is this?" After 8 years, one day, boom, it became clear. He went back to the temple to see Hui-neng again. This time, when the patriarch asked that same question, Huai-jang replied, "To say even one word is to miss the point entirely." Hui-neng accepted his answer, acknowledging his enlightenment.

I took up this story as my guide, intending to compress Huai-jang's 8 years into my week-long retreat. It was just like the self-inquiry that I'd read about and tried in India. Except that the Indian teachers and scriptures tended to speak of this self in such beautiful, poetic terms. Stuff like: "Prajnanam Brahma: Consciousness is infinite, the absolute, the highest Truth." On web sites dedicated to Ramana's teachings, the self we're inquiring into is described with phrases like "ultimate truth" and "complete immersion in God."

Zen style would have none of that. It was always sparse: What am I? Don't know. What will all this effort get me? Don't know. So what should I do next? Just try, try, try.

Everything about it was simple and direct. The chanting had its appeal, but nothing like the lush melodic beauty of Indian chants. The Yoga sitting style had been more relaxed, with eyes closed, allowing a pleasant, dreamy mind-state. Zen posture was tighter, eyes open, just facing what is.

I sat there, keeping "What am I?", and it was interesting for a short time. Then it became more and more obvious that any answer I thought of, no matter how insightful or clever, was by definition thinking. So then what am I before thinking? ZMSS used to say, "Descarte said, 'I think, therefore I am.' But if I'm not thinking ... what?"

On top of all the physical discomfort, I now had the profound frustration of this self-inquiry process. How could I make the slightest head-way, when whatever idea I came up with was immediately useless? But I'd made the decision to stay the week, and wanted above all to not end up with regrets, with "What if I'd just tried a little harder?"

I'd remember repeatedly the advice I'd read in some classic Zen book. It said with this type of practice, you'd sometimes feel like a mosquito trying to bite through a thick steel door. When that happens, just continue the questioning with still greater effort.

Even if you're trying to empty the ocean with a spoon, at least you've got a tool that's of some value. But in this task of inquiring into my true self, it was becoming horribly apparent that the tool I'd always used before -- thinking, understanding -- wasn't just inadequate, it was useless. I looked to my will, the center of my being, all around, trying to find anything at all that I could throw at the question.

Thus passed the first few days of retreat. In the next blog entry, I'll talk about the other aspect of the retreat, the private interviews with ZMSS, in which he introduced me to the formal teaching style of this tradition. Through a combination of that teaching, my exhaustive efforts, and hell, I dunno, something different appeared.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 4: Finger in Socket.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

In the previous chapter, our hero found himself in a moving vehicle with famed Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (whom I'll abbreviate as ZMSS, and was commonly addressed during his life as "Dae Soen Sa Nim"). ZMSS taught in a tradition that uses difficult, piercing questions, and I'd reluctantly been drawn into a dialog with him that went like this:

ZMSS: How long have you been doing Yoga?

Me: I've been meditating for about 7 years.

ZMSS: After doing Yoga for so long, have you gotten anything?

Me: Yeah, sure.

ZMSS: What have you gotten?

Me: My mind used to give me lots of problems, but as I meditate more, it gives me fewer problems.

ZMSS: If mind is such a problem, why do you make "mind"?

Me: Thinking just appears on its own.

ZMSS: Thinking is no problem; it's like clouds passing through the sky. But if you attach to thinking, you make a mind, and that's a big problem. So when you're doing something, just do it! Don't make "mind." That's true Yoga. OK?

What was that about? "Just do it"? This guy was supposed to be some extraordinary Master. How could he get away with a teaching that said so damn little?

My apartment in Berkeley was coincidentally just a few blocks away from one of the handful of Zen Centers that ZMSS had established around the world. I visited a few times to hear talks by other teachers that ZMSS had authorized, and to read from a couple of his books.

The teaching was always so simple, it was practically invisible. Human beings enter the ocean of suffering when we make something, i.e., when we attach to I/my/me-thinking like "I like/dislike something," "I want to get something," etc. But our original, before-thinking mind always shines purely, like empty space, or a clear mirror. Red appears, and this mirror-mind only reflects red. White appears, only white.

Simplicity shouldn't have bothered me. By my latter days in India, I'd already been pondering how sometimes my spiritual efforts seemed like building a house, by acquiring and stacking together special experiences and understandings. I'd decided that I really needed to do the opposite, to metaphorically tear down that building by throwing away whatever ideas I found myself clinging to.

But still... I guess I'd been holding out hope that as I kept returning to witness-consciousness, it'd eventually lead me to some lasting, substantial attainment. Famous teachers I'd read, like Ramana Maharishi, had spoken about a permanent attainment, enlightenment or self-realization or some such. I think Ramana had said it was like our self-effort was necessary to keep us bobbing on the surface of the ocean, not drowning in the world. All we could or should do is to patiently continue our efforts till God would swoop down and take us the rest of the way. Did I really need to give up all hope of this "enlightenment," and be left with nothing but "just do it"?

Sometime around then I got introduced to a guy who hung out in People's Park selling LSD. I'd had one acid trip in college, but years later, when I described it to an old hippie, she told me, "If your ego didn't completely disappear, you need a bigger dose." True enough.

When I was around 7 years old, a light bulb burned out in our house, and my parents removed it, but didn't have a replacement. For many days I walked past that empty socket, till I finally flicked the switch on and stuck my finger in. It was an awful, frightening, painful few seconds till I managed to pull my finger back out (hence my continued survival). Thing is, in those days leading up to my shocking experience, I may have pondered about when and how I'd stick my finger in that socket, but I never seriously considered not doing it at all. That's my particular mind, or karma; it's just inconceivable to let an opportunity like that pass by.

I took 3 hits of the acid. During the first hour or so, there were some frightening moments, as I/my/me disappeared 90% or 99% and I desperately worried about losing the rest. But then it indeed disappeared completely, and remained that way for hours. The world was revealed as harmless, dream-like mind-stuff. The distinction between "I" and "this" was revealed as far less obvious than previously thought.

At the end of the trip, the world re-solidified, and I/my/me popped back up from somewhere or other. Those few hours in the perfect dream-world were intriguing; maybe LSD could serve as crowbar in my mental deconstruction project. I think I tripped about every other weekend for the first few months, then continued irregularly, several times each year during 1985-87.

Near the end of this period, I took a serious dose, and a couple of hours later found myself seeing the universe and my place in it from a strikingly wide and clear perspective. I saw all those efforts I'd made for years to detach from my wants and opinions, and how that had removed some suffering. Then I saw that it was the nature of the universe that desires arise endlessly. The best I could ever hope for was a temporary break in the suffering, till new desires and delusions appeared and continued the cycle. It was like mowing a lawn in which the grass never stopped growing. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, and finding that as soon as you finish one end, the other end needs painting again.

I was never going to escape suffering. My whole life direction was like running on a treadmill. I was like a hamster on one of those hamster-wheel thingies. It wasn't just tragic, it was meta-tragic. I mean, Hamlet is a tragedy, but it's OK, because at least people can watch the play and get touched by existential insight. In my tragedy, the tragedy of all beings, the tragedy of struggling to find a lasting refuge from suffering and never ever reaching it, there wasn't even any audience to appreciate the epic story. OK, maybe the occasional acid-head could watch it for a few minutes, but that didn't count for much.

As I languished in this hell, trapped in this box of hopeless existence, I heard a voice whispering. I'd rarely gotten auditory hallucinations, and I'd never put much stock in disembodied voices. But this was a desperate time, and I was ready to listen to anything. I concentrated on the voice, which was repeating the same phrase over and over, gradually getting louder. I recognized it as ZMSS's voice, saying with a light and amused attitude, "Don't make anything."

Suddenly it was clear: the horrific universe I was perceiving, the "me" trapped in it, all of it, was made by thinking. Just one moment of not thinking, and that whole world of infinite suffering never existed. Dang, that was something. That simple little teaching phrase had saved me from a hell that had no possible escape.

Every year, right after New Years, ZMSS would come to that Zen Center near me and lead a week-long retreat. I had good reasons to avoid it. The intensity of Zen practice, the sheer number of hours of sitting meditation, was greater than anything I'd contemplated previously. All my years in ashrams, meditating at most a few hours in a day, couldn't prepare me for it.

The Zen forms (sitting posture, chanting style, rules, etc) would be new and different. I'd gotten comfortable with the Yoga style, but this new style would be difficult, even physically painful. At Yoga, I had some expertise, I'd been an old-timer at the ashram. At a Zen retreat, I'd be starting over as a rank beginner. I could recite philosophies from Yoga scriptures decently well, but if I went to the Zen Master again, there'd be those horribly uncomfortable questions, and I had absolutely no bloody clue how to respond or what it was all about.

But there was a major curiosity factor. And I couldn't deny that the teaching had proven its usefulness. Lots of teachings will work in most ordinary situations, but "don't make anything" had helped me even in the midst of the weirdest and worst of extreme bad trips. Crap. As with the light socket, I'd have to go to that retreat. It was January 1988.

Next time, I'll blog about this first retreat, which included difficult and amazing experiences during sitting practice, and formal teaching interviews with ZMSS that hit my mind strongly.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Politics: scoffing at free markets

Berkeleyite that I am, I frequently hear political conversations in which self-described liberals make derisive references to the free market. These are people who take the general stance of preferring government solutions over the free market alternative. Government solutions involve men with guns enforcing particular values on the public. A market involves people not being forced to choose one option over another.

Whenever you desire a particular outcome, the use of violence, force, or government is the most effective way to get it quickly and completely. That in itself comes nowhere close to justifying that option. The Golden Rule demands that if we don't like others forcing their values on us, we ought to refrain from doing so to them, no matter how effective or convenient it may be.

This came up today on Arianna Huffington's blog. In talking about Alan Greenspan's new book, Huffington wrote of his "free market uber alles" philosophy. This turn of a phrase frames the free market alternative in the most derisive manner possible, by associating it with Nazism. Here's the response I posted in her Comments section:

I find it hypocritical when the same people who are critical of the "free market" (e.g., Huffington here using the phrase "free market uber alles") can elsewhere be found uncritically championing "peace." The two words mean essentially the same thing. Either you have people with guns who use violence and threats to force their values on others, or you have the absence of that, which we call "free market" or "peace."

Of course "peace" isn't the magical answer to everything. No matter how much "peace" you have, it won't end sickness, old age, and death. When powerful, murderous tyrants sometimes appear in the world, it may be vital to control them with force, and "peace" would be catastrophic to human well-being.

The fact that "peace" doesn't solve everything doesn't matter. The important thing is that "peace" is superior to the alternative, and should always be championed over its alternative, unless and until exceptional circumstances demand temporarily departing from it.

Anyone who fails to see this, and would mock "peace" for being less than a panacea, is confused and dangerous. And the exact same is true of people who mock the "free market."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Water (a word from our sponsor)

The great public radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, has at times claimed to be "brought to you by ketchup." Or duct tape, or pepper. I've gone one better and secured the sponsorship of water. What with their product being freely available, The American Water Council and Advisory Board has a chronic shortage of funds, and apparently this blog is the biggest media outlet they can afford, to spread their message:

"Thirsty? Drink water."

Today I did a little promotional appearance for The Board over at Marta's blog. I think the topic connects with the story of my life and practice that I've been telling in this blog. At the end of my last installment, I'm just about to be introduced to the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. I intend to write the next installment of my story next week as usual, but for the moment, here's what I posted to Marta's blog today:

MC said...
Stuart, your posts can be absolutely bracing in the am. Like a glass of grapefruit juice, unsweetened. [snip] Go easy on those who like a little sugar with their grapefruit. ;-)

Big thanks, MC. It's cool that you use this metaphor. My teacher said that good teaching is like water. Plain water with nothing in it.

Water doesn't have an especially good taste; it tastes like nothing. Likewise it lacks any interesting color like wine, aroma like coffee, or effect like beer. Most people don't like water so much, preferring those more interesting beverages.

But water's got one thing going for it. When you're thirsty, you drink it, and the thirst disappears. You can do that over and over, all the time, in every single situation you get thirsty in, and it'll be no problem. Quenching thirst with beer or soda is OK sometimes, but if you do it all the time, it makes you sick.

So maybe Siddha Yoga teaching is more like Coca Cola. It's got plenty of water in it, so it really does quench your thirst, but it also has all this other unnecessary stuff that over time may make you sick.

Politically, I'm a free-market libertarian, so I like to see everyone have all sorts of options that they can freely choose between. I'm glad people can choose Coke, lemonade, vodka, Tibetan Buddhism, Hare Krishna, Catholicism, and Siddha Yoga.

I personally don't feel the need to recommend any of these interesting choices, since there are plenty of other people trying to sell them. People can and do try whatever flavors they like. And sometimes they get sick or tired of these interesting choices, so I say it's good to remember that there's always water.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 3: Zen Master.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

My previous blog entry ended with my return, in 1984, to the USA after 5 years in Siddha Yoga ashrams, the last 2+ in India. This blog entry and maybe a couple more will take me through my first Zen retreat in early 1988.

I had gone from my family’s house to college to ashram, and now at 25, I was ready to begin the practice of being an independent adult. My grandmother had died during my ashram years, and I had a few thousand dollars she’d left me. I’d use it to start a new life in California. I’d grown up in the East Coast during the 70s, old enough to understand the hippies and the counter-culture and the Grateful Dead and all, but too young to participate. Like so many people, I felt a pull to California as a place for a fresh beginning.

I connected with a friend I’d met in India, and we hit the road. (Some adventures we had during this period are on my Strange Trips web page.) I ended up first in the Los Angeles area, then in Arcata, and finally in Berkeley (which had seemed alluring ever since my months in the Oakland ashram in ‘79). In various places, I did temp jobs to get by.

I had one year of college and no particular skills. I saw lots of office jobs available, but they required decent typing skills. I got an old typewriter and began to practice by typing out random paragraphs from the newspaper, hour after hour. It seemed impossible. How in the world was I to remember where all the letters were? But incredibly, after a few weeks of this, my fingers began to automatically know what to do. The power of practice never ceases to amaze me.

In my temp typing jobs, I was usually in front of a computer, and there was plenty of time when the workload was slow, so step-by-step I taught myself word processing, then spreadsheet design and programming. I learned how to support myself and take care of my own life, and these life lessons were as rich as those I’d gotten from philosophy and meditation. Learning how to survive and make a living didn’t feel separate or inferior to explicitly spiritual pursuits.

Life has its ups and downs, successes and failures. I had the usual succession of joy and depression and comfort and anxiety. I kept up with my formal and informal meditation practice. I’d practice attention to the moment, repeating a mantra, sitting still, watching my breath, and remembering that it’s all One. Whatever attachments or desires or entanglements appeared in my mind, I had this practice of returning to witness-consciousness, making it all OK. I didn’t know what, if anything, I should do more or different with these practices.

During this time, news filtered through to me about goings-on in the ashram world. Muktananda’s successors, a brother and sister guru team, had broken apart in a bitter sibling rivalry, filled with lies and violence. The sister (Gurumayi Chidvilasananda) sent out mud-slinging letters against her brother rival (Gurudev Nityananda), even going so far as sending goons to physically attack and threaten those who attended his programs.

The SYDA antics sounded so silly, and removed any lingering allegiance I felt to that group. While I’d always enjoy visiting and exploring different groups out of curiosity or entertainment, I saw no need to be part of a group. No guru or group held the magic or secret. I figured all that any teacher or group could do was lead me to the type of meditation practice and understanding I already had.

I was in contact with E, an old friend from my year at Yale. He was the one friend back then who’d joined me in learning to meditate and going to Siddha Yoga ashrams. We’d both been influenced at the time by reading Ram Dass and similar books. Our minds had been opened to wider possibilities by taking LSD, though that was just one low-dosage trip; my more high-powered drug trips would come later.

E had since become a monk in the Korean-style Zen school founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS). He’d written me while I was still in India, and seemed enthusiastic for me to try Zen teaching and practice.

I couldn’t understand why E found Zen worth exploring. I told him that Zen seemed just like Siddha Yoga. The differences were superficial: a different language to chant in, a different posture to sit in, and a different statue on the altar. The actual practice of watching and quieting the mind, of returning to the witness that saw everything as One, was the real point; why care about any particular tradition? E said to me, “It doesn’t matter if you do Yoga meditation or Zen meditation or Christian meditation or any other kind. But it’s very important to look into WHY you meditate.” Hmmmm.

E’s words caught my interest a little, but it was more powerful when I saw him demonstrate them. I went to visit him in L.A. where he was staying at a Zen Center with ZMSS. E would soon go to Korea for an extended time, and I wanted to see him before he left. Coincidentally, Gurumayi was on tour at the L.A. Siddha Yoga ashram at the same time.

The first night I was there, E said to me, “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we get up early tomorrow, do Zen practice first, then go to the program at the Siddha Yoga ashram.” I didn’t see any point to it. All these practices were fundamentally the same, what difference did it make if we went to one or the other or both? But, whatever, I’d go along with him.

At the ashram, as we did the Siddha Yoga chants and practices, including going up to bow to the guru, I kept watching E, waiting for him to say or do something to try to convince me that Zen had something better than Siddha Yoga. But he didn’t show any difference. At the Zen center, he just followed the Zen forms; at the Siddha Yoga ashram, he just did the practices there like everyone else. The way he just did both practices, without offering any opinions about them… it made an impression on me. His attitude of just following each situation was a teaching that couldn’t have been expressed with just words.

Even though I saw all traditions as the same, there was a particular reason that I wanted to avoid Zen. I knew that part of that tradition was being confronted with very difficult questions from the Zen Master. I’m a shy person. I didn’t want to get involved in any fierce debates. I preferred being a still and silent witness.

But there we were later in the day, driving through L.A. on some errand. E was driving, next to him in the front seat was ZMSS, and I was in the back. I really wanted to avoid any sort of interaction with this Zen Master. I figured if I just stayed quiet, he wouldn’t bother me. It wasn’t like I’d ever asked him for teaching, after all.

E was telling ZMSS that the two of us first got interested in meditation back in college when we’d taken LSD. “Yes,” ZMSS offered, “sometimes when a person takes LSD, he sees that everything is changing, changing, changing, and he understands that attachment isn’t so good.”

E continued, “And after LSD, we started doing Yoga-style meditation.” Without looking back at me, ZMSS asked, “So, how long have you been doing Yoga?”

Crap. I didn’t want to get involved with any convoluted Zen dialog. But it was a moving car; I had no escape. “I’ve been meditating for 7 years or so,” I told him.

“After doing Yoga for so long,” he asked, “have you gotten anything?”

It was a big question, and maybe a good cliffhanger. In my next blog, I’ll complete this conversation, and tell how it led to me looking into ZMSS’s teachings, and eventually to an astounding week doing a formal sitting retreat with him.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 2: India.

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

The previous blog entry describes my practice/life through my freshman year in college, 1977/78, when I encountered guru Swami Muktananda and his “Siddha Yoga” (SYDA) organization. He inspired me to give up ordinary-American style. I quit school, worked and saved for months, and started living in Siddha Yoga ashrams, joining Muktananda’s “3rd World Tour” by early 1979.

Today, as I progress into deep middle-age, it’s difficult to keep all these memories organized. In this case, though, I’m certain of the date. The first ashram I lived in was Oakland, CA, a stop on Muktananda’s Tour. After 2 months, I returned to see my parents near Philadelphia, PA. I recall my nervousness when flying back East, because the accident at Three Mile Island had just exploded. So I have a reliable time-stamp for my story at this point. We may assume that it’s pure coincidence that my years with Muktananda started with a nuclear melt-down.

Anyway: the great lesson I learned from Muktananda is that my thinking, what’s going on in my mind just now, is incredibly, amazingly powerful. Attending to how I keep my mind moment-to-moment can be a more interesting, rewarding, and efficient life direction than trying to get or control anything in the external world. In order to comprehend and experience the power of mind, it’s necessary to take a pause, slow down, and observe this inner world with care and energy. That is: this 5 year period in SYDA ashrams was when I began to do formal meditation practices.

It’s hard to break the habit of always focusing on the world of stuff, always striving to get stuff. Looking at thought-patterns is usually more difficult than distracting myself from them. Even the act of sitting still for long periods is itself physically painful. There are major hurdles to overcome in starting a meditation practice. The ashram helped me through this in a number of ways.

I had the support of the large group that lived and practiced together (human beings are herding animals more than we realize). I adopted the belief-system that Muktananda was on a higher, more spiritual level than ordinary people, so I could believe him when he told me that meditation was special and holy, that it would bring me to God, to enlightenment, and all that. I got lots of great, euphoric feelings from the practices, and from focusing on the guru. The community, the hope and desire to climb the spiritual ladder, and the good feelings inside kept me going.

And I liked the philosophy. I liked remembering that It’s All One. Just as gold can be fashioned into different types of jewelry and still be the same gold, all things in the world are in fact the same substance: God or Self or Absolute. This understanding freed me from clinging to particular things, people, or situations. If it’s all God, then wherever I go, whatever I do, whatever happens is OK. Following this understanding, after 2.5 years in American ashrams, I moved to the main ashram in India, effectively renouncing everything from my previous life.

I was there when Muktananda died; it didn’t bother me at all. By that point, I was really interested in exploring truth for myself, not so much in devotion to a guru. Sure, in the early years, it gave me energy to believe in god-like super-beings. Eventually, all that seemed cultish. I’d prefer to take my understanding and my meditation practice and run.

But on the other hand… everyone around me believed in the magical power that emanated from the guru, a power most concentrated in his physical presence, a power that’d exponentially quicken my ascent to enlightenment or whatever. What if they were right? It’d be stupid to give that up, and I didn’t want to be stupid. Muktananda had left successor gurus, so for a year after his death, I remained with them in the India ashram, uncertain about giving up my connection to the special power that was (maybe?) dependent on holy people and places.

Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to believe in myself. I preferred having a scientific mind that openly questioned everything, rather than believing in magical invisible energy, in Gods, in holy enlightened beings. I was tired of believing in things because other people did, or because some authority told me to, or because some old and popular book said so. If I could get enlightenment in a year by believing in a guru, or in 1000 lifetimes by believing in myself, I’d still prefer to believe in myself. What’s the hurry anyway?

So I left India in early 1984, figuring I’d go back the good old USA, where people are skeptical and cynical and don’t believe in any folktale that sounds nice. My kind of people! I’d find some simple life to sustain myself, continue to meditate, to train my mind to be quiet and focused, and use my remembrance of Oneness to remain as a witness. Whatever would appear in the real world, I’d watch it unfold as if a movie.

In the course of finding an ordinary life situation, I ended up in California by 1985. There I had my first encounters with Zen teaching and with major psychedelic experiences, which jolted me into a new direction and new understandings (or perhaps a lack thereof). Details to come in the next couple blog entries of my story.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Autobiography of a Boo Boo. 1: Something (Rather Than Nothing).

This series of blogs explains how I've come to my current Zen-style meditation practice. I'm calling the series Autobiography of a Boo Boo, in homage to the Hanna Barbera cartoons of my youth, and in recognition that I've never been good enough to be called a Yogi.

Grand disclaimer: If there’s anything I’ve learned from my life and practice, it’s that how I keep my mind just now, my own thinking, has remarkable effects; it’s powerfully and intimately connected with everything. When I blog about Yoga, Zen, or American culture, what I say is at least as much about my personal mind-state as I travel through these worlds, as it is about any external traditions. Since we share so much as human beings, I hope that there are others who can relate to these personal mind-states.

My original practice style was ordinary American life. I grew up in a secular Jewish, upwardly mobile middle class family, 2 generations removed from Ukrainian immigrants between the wars. The ethics I absorbed from this upbringing – to honor the Golden Rule and try to not hurt anyone – have worked out fine.

From my family, culture, and sub-culture, I didn’t find much satisfaction when looking for a big-picture goal or life direction. Mostly it seemed that people lived for the sake of getting nice things, situations, relationships, etc. All that’s fine, but a bit thin, in light of the great mystery of existence that was constantly staring me in the face.

I didn’t quite have words to express the vastness of the mystery I'd been sensing since the beginning. Years later, I encountered iconic philosopher/scientist Gottfried Leibniz asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” and I felt an inner, “Yeah, that's what I’ve been wondering!” But as a child, I got hardly any support for engaging my big questions. No one else seemed to consider them very important, so I put them on the back burner till my late teens.

I’ll mention tangentially that my family did seem to have goals and direction that worked for them, but I couldn’t quite relate. My parents considered it of utmost importance to raise a family, to leave a mark on the world beyond their own lifespan. OK, but isn’t that just postponing the inevitable? Maybe leaving descendents means you “live on” after your individual body dies... but before too long, the sun will explode or something and the planet will get burnt to a crisp. Let’s not be dishonest by pretending that there’s any way to avoid total extinction.

Similarly, my parents cared about being part of the continuing story of the Jewish People. That has even less resonance for me. Even if my grandfather’s grandfather wore a certain type of hat and sang songs in a strange language, where was the meaning of doing the same things myself?

In college I naturally gravitated toward Psychology, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. That was something; it was cool to read the great Western philosophers express my mystery in clearer language, and especially cool to realize that people who asked my big questions were taken seriously in this world. But my professors themselves didn’t seem to spend much time and energy looking into the nature of the self and all that. They seemed to think the pursuit of these issues ran into a dead end centuries ago (Leibnitz died in early 1700s), and the profs spent their days trying to get published papers that quibbled about linguistic nuances. Any academic pursuit of Truth still felt terribly lacking.

I was 18, a freshman at Yale, when I encountered Swami Muktananda and his “Siddha Yoga (SYDA)” organization and community. One big pull was finally connecting with people who took the big questions of existence seriously, seriously enough to affect their lives.

Honest to God, I’m trying to be brief here. But the arc of my practice kinda encompasses my whole life; this story may take a couple more postings to get through. In upcoming entries, I’ll blog about the plusses and minuses of my time in Yoga ashrams, how I eventually left the ashrams, encountered Zen, and how a week-long Zen retreat profoundly affected my perspective on the whole journey.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Dharma Event in Berkeley this Sunday

This coming Sunday (Sept 9, 7-9pm) in Berkeley (1940 Virginia St), there will be a sitting, talk and Q&A with Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes). ZMBS is one of about a dozen successors who received transmission from Zen Master Seung Sahn. That is, ZMBS was formally recognized by ZMSS as someone who could pass on Buddha's teaching tradition without diminishing it.

For over a decade, ZMBS has been the Abbott and Guiding Teacher of Empty Gate Zen Center. He has a private therapy practice as his straight job. Jeff's spent time on a Zen commune during the counter culture years; he maintains a bit of that hippie-mind, in teaching the fierce clarity of the Zen tradition with a wide-open and gentle style. The supportive, non-dogmatic, non-authoritarian style of Empty Gate has allowed many people like me to join in that sangha, people who would never put up with a more reverent, sanctimonious, or militaristic group.

So if you're in the Bay Area, please consider coming by for the talk. It's sponsored by the East Bay Open Circle. From their website: The East Bay Open Circle is a non-sectarian and open group dedicated to supporting, celebrating, and exploring the practices of mindful awareness, meditation and other healing arts. Though not affiliated with any single tradition or teacher, we feel especially inspired and influenced by the satsang and Buddhist traditions of non-dual presence and awareness, as well as by other practices that support the opening of our hearts and minds. I've gone to one other East Bay Open Circle event, a John Sherman satsang that I later wrote about. I like the idea of this group of East Bay folks exploring various traditions without saluting any particular dogma.

This event is free; donations are accepted, but not coerced.

Whether or not you can make this event, please consider stopping by Empty Gate Zen Center for practice any time. At EGZC, Zen Master Bon Soeng gives talks and Q&A almost every Wednesday night, and private koan interviews most Saturday mornings. Practice (without so much talk) also takes place Tues and Thurs mornings and evenings, and day-long or weekend sitting retreats are held about once a month.