Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I make no apologies for blogging about gurus, philosophy, or pop culture. Those topics are fun, interesting, and important. But the most important thing is practice.

“Practice” is what you do. It may be mental rather than physical, but it's always something more than believing or understanding. “Jesus is Lord” or “I am pure consciousness” or “Everything is One” may be OK beliefs, but they’re not practices. As Nike said – and Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS) said many years before – you have to just do it.

In the mid- to late-80s, I learned from ZMSS through spending time with him informally, attending his public talks, sitting retreats that he led and participated in, and having my first formal private koan interviews with him. He died in 2004, leaving about a dozen successor Zen Masters. The type of practice I do, and the way I understand it and communicate about it, comes mostly from him.

In this blog entry, I’ll talk about my practice, and hopefully other readers will respond in kind. Maybe we can do some cross-pollinating. In a separate entry next week, I’ll talk about the transition from my earlier yoga-style meditation when I followed Muktananda, to my current Zen-style. If there are readers who have gone through a similar process, integrating or switching between different practice styles, we can discuss it there.

My informal practice is trying to keep clear mind in all situations. Clear means empty, nothing at all, so acting with clear mind is just doing what I’m doing 100%. It means that when I’m doing computer work, I just do computer work; when I’m riding my bike, I just ride my bike; when I’m talking to a friend, I just talk to my friend; etc.

Of course I repeatedly get distracted by thinking: “I like this, I don’t like that, I want to get this, I want to keep that, this is good, that’s bad.” When I become aware of the thicket of thinking, I try to recognize it as insubstantial clouds appearing and disappearing, and return to the just-now situation, perhaps explicitly asking myself, “What am I doing right now?”

I use two special techniques to cut through thinking and return to clarity. One is mantra, inwardly repeating a phrase over and over. I use the mantra Kwan Seum Bosal, the Korean name for the thousand-armed Bodhisattva of infinite compassion. The meaning of the words don’t matter much; they’re mostly just a tool to help loosen my grip on any other type of thinking.

The other technique is to keep a Big Question. ZMSS always talked about questioning so strongly and sincerely that there’s nothing but Don’t Know. When I’m walking through town, for example, or riding the train, I’ll try clarifying my mind by bringing up a question like “What am I?” or “What is this?” Again, the exact words don’t matter so much. The point is to see existence as the total mystery it is. To find the mind that’s open, questioning, not-knowing, just reflecting each situation as it appears, like a mirror. When I notice that I’m holding some idea, I try to put it down, returning to Don’t Know and a clear perception of the moment.

That’s what I do in the midst of daily activity. I also do formal Zen practice, going to Empty Gate Zen Center 3 or 4 times a week for an hour or more of sitting, chanting, koan practice, bowing, and following various forms like wearing robes, lighting incense, and so on. In the Dharma room where we do formal practice, there are meticulous rules to follow. That means I don’t have to think about what to do; I just chant when it’s chanting time, sit when it’s sitting time, etc. This leaves me free to focus completely on how I keep my mind moment to moment. In addition to this regular practice, most months I’ll dedicate one or two days to a group sitting retreat.

Trying to keep clear mind during formal practice isn’t so different from making the same effort in ordinary life. Except for this: When I’m watching TV, for example, it’s easy to be attentive, since TV is interesting. When I’m riding my bike, I’m highly motivated to remain awake and aware, since otherwise I’ll get run over. But when I’m sitting Zen, being still and silent and looking at the floor, there’s nothing that’s helping me to remain present, to not get lost in memories or fantasies. It’s a worst case scenario, as simple and boring as it gets. Any moment that I can find clear mind while sitting Zen, it’s truly my own, since it doesn’t depend on the external situation. Since sitting depends on nothing outside, there’s the possibility that the clarity found while sitting can re-appear in any other life situation.

Sometimes evening practice at the Zen center feels like taking a mind shower. We take showers because ordinary activity makes the body dirty; practice is like cleaning the mind that’s dusty with the day’s thoughts. Sitting quietly, returning again and again to just-now mind, to the Don’t Know that reflects each moment… it’s like scrubbing the conceptual crumbs from the nooks and crannies of my brain.

I also work with koans (called “kong-ans” in Korean) with guiding teacher, Zen Master Bon Soeng (Jeff Kitzes). (Jeff is starting his own blog on the newly revamped Empty Gate site; check it out.) I find koan teaching an extraordinary and elegant method for pointing to the pure and clear truth of this very moment.

A great thing about doing formal group practice is that everyone automatically helps each other persevere. One of my jobs at the center is to run practice on Tuesday and Thursday evenings after work. If I've got some desire or agitation at 7pm on those nights, it doesn’t matter; I have to let it go when it’s time for evening practice. The fact that I have no choice but to be there makes it much, much easier. I don’t have to struggle to find a motivation to practice; I can just do it for the sake of supporting the other people there. If I don’t want to practice, I get to put down that I want, and putting down I want is the best medicine for suffering.

I guess that’s enough talk for now about my practice, about connecting with that thing that’s before words, speech, and thinking. More to come about my history with different styles of practice next week. Till then, I look forward to hearing from everyone else who’s willing to share their own practice perspective in the Comments section.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Understanding Spiritual Experiences

Over on Marta's blog about her years with Gurumayi (current guru of the late Swami Muktananda's SYDA org), there's some discussion of big special spiritual experiences. Lots of people were intrigued with Muktananda because of stories of people having trippy mind experiences around him. (I myself was influenced to follow Mukt in the late 70s by reading about a special experience that Ram Dass had when he met him.)

FWIW, here's what I just contributed to that blog discussion:

anony wrote:
I have met people who saw some gurus in their dreams when they (the people) were children, and people who heard the word "Muktananda" over the phone and got a blast of Shaktipat.

It's useful to remember that millions or tens of millions of Americans report having a huge spiritual experience at least once in their lives. It's just part of life, of being human. Sometimes it happens that people have amazing big non-ordinary experiences, psychotic breaks, spiritual epiphanies, etc.

There are millions of diverse situations when such things occur, and yeah, among those millions are a few who had them after having a dream or reading a book or hearing a funny-sounding Indian name over the phone.

After such an experience, there's a huge amount of interpretation that goes on. If you meet someone through SYDA, and they had some big experience earlier in their lives, chances are when they came to the ashram, they got lots of subtle and explicit peer pressure to interpret or re-interpret their memory of that experience according to "shaktipat" theology.

Maybe someone had a big experience when they were talking about Muktananda and eating yogurt. It's a matter of interpretation, of embracing a belief-system, that they end up thinking that they got the experience from Muktananda, rather than from yogurt.

It's useful to be literate about statistics. Someone says that 30% of all people arrested for reckless driving have marijuana in their system. That means precisely nothing; maybe 40% of all good drivers have pot in their system! So the fact that a few hundred people got an experience looking at Muktananda's photo means nothing unless you take it in the context of the millions of people who had some crazy experience thinking about Jesus, or seeing a flower, or looking at a child, or eating oatmeal.

It would be interesting to understand such phenomena.

Considering that our situation as human beings is that we get born into this world not knowing where we come from, where we're going, why we're here, or who we are... I wouldn't get too optimistic about understanding things.

Also, what's the need for understanding? The only point to understanding these special experiences would be to use that understanding to get more of those experiences. But why consider those big wow experiences so important?

OK, I like having them on rare occasions, but it's not like they're the purpose of life. I got a big experience from doing formal sitting meditation and self-inquiry for 3 or 4 days. It was cool, but took lots of effort. Also there are drugs that will give such experiences quite reliably. Some of these drugs are even legal, and compared to getting involved with SYDA, they're far far less expensive, dangerous, or addictive.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Teachings from Zen Patriarchs

On this morning's commute, I was reading The Mirror of Zen, and enjoyed these quotes from the 5th and 6th Patriarchs:

It is better to keep your true, original mind than to contemplate the Buddhas of the ten directions.

If you only contemplate other Buddhas, you will never break free from life and death. You should keep your buddha-mind as it is in order to arrive on the other shore.

Buddha originates in your own nature. There is no need to seek outside yourself.

Ignorant people chant in the hope of being born in the Pure Land, or Land of Utmost Bliss, but true practitioners only focus instead on clearing their own mind.

The Buddha does not save sentient beings. Rather, sentient beings save themselves the instant they awaken to their true mind.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Gurudev Nityananda on "Baba Muktananda's Footsteps" Tour

Back around 1979-84, I misspent a chunk of my youth living in ashrams of Swami "Baba" Muktananda. Last night, I took a trip down memory lane by attending a free program of one of Muk's successors, Gurudev Nityananda, who's currently on a year-long tour marking what would have been Muk's 100th birthday. My impressions might be of some interest to people with a connection to Muktananda's old scene, his "Siddha Yoga (SYDA)" organization, and its offshoots.

So here's a little report I just posted on the ex-Siddha Yoga Yahoo group:

Went to see Nit Jr (Swami Nityananda) last night. It was the final program of the Northern Calif (Berkeley) leg of his "Footprints of Muktananda" year+ long tour.

7pm-9pm. Nity sat up on throne in his swami costume and all, but there was only a shadow of the "we're in the presence of the Supreme Lord, Omygawd!" atmosphere that there was in Baba's day. I wonder how much of the difference was external and how much was the change in my own perception. In any case, all the talk etc was about how cool and great Baba was; it doesn't seem that Nity is encouraging that much glorification of himself.

I'm not good at estimating crowds; maybe there were 150 of us? Middle aged with a smattering of kids. I think mostly folks who'd been on Baba's 3rd Tour or earlier, now with normalish lives, looking for some nostalgia or re-connection.

The program started with a puja that lasted the better part of an hour. The Sanskrit chanting was nice and gave me good feelings, but it did go tediously on and on. I mused that if I was looking to make something special, I could fixate on the good feelings I got from hearing the mantras etc, and build a mindset about how holy and spiritual and important it was. But these days that's no longer on my to do list.

Then a short movie with clips of Baba and Nity senior. Talking about how great they were, but again, not as over the top stupidly gushing as the old days. Then talk from Eddie Oliver, who was ashram manager during Baba's American tour days. Then a song, "6 verses on liberation" from Shankaracharya, in Sanskrit. Then Nity gave a talk, then Om Namah Shivaya chanting, and a few minutes of meditation, then people lined up to greet Gurudev as I exited with my friends.

It's all a little like Protestantism or Reform Judaism. That is, it seemed that people were looking for some good feelings, nice ideas, connect with some community, but nothing that'd really shatter their ordinary lives.

Nity's talk was kind of nice-sounding empty spiritual stuff. He did start out by quoting some scripture about how it's impossible to achieve the natural state without the guru's grace. Told a story about greatness of guru's grace. It was all kind of silly and meaningless. What does this have to do with real life? It's just something to make you feel good for a while when you think about it. And I think that's what people were looking for.

Unlike the old days, there didn't seem to be much suggestion that anyone should be transforming their lives. More like, hey, we've all been initiated by Baba, let's revel a bit in how wonderful and special that is, think a bit about how to connect that with the lives we're leading now. Maybe visit Nity on his tour sometime, or join or initiate a monthly satsang in the area so we can chant and meditate together, isn't this all sweet like those old days? A bit of High School Reunion in the air.

The worst I can say is that some people still seemed kinda ditzy. Like they were using meditation practices to get a goofy high, rather than to really perceive truth clearly, or to help other beings. To each his or her own.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Great Teachings At The Movies

Saturday night I was with a bunch of friends trying to decide on DVD entertainment, and we settled on True Romance. It's the first movie that Quentin Tarantino wrote, though Resevior Dogs got made first. Thumbs up, if you don't mind extreme violence.

As the plot unfolded, I at first thought the movie's title was a huge blunder. It had me expecting a chick flick, when in fact it's classic Quentin, blood and torture and action and low-down low-lifes. But slowly I realized that the story was a wonderful demonstration of Boddhisattva Mind. From their first scene, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are 100% dedicated to each other; the hellish chaos that swirls around them leaves no more impression than a bird's footprints in the sky. They just follow their karma while regarding this world as mere jugglery conjured up by some magician.

For pure selflessness, these characters are up there with Ashton Kutcher in the final scenes of Butterfly Effect.

Which got me thinking about my favorite Buddhist teachings from the movies:

#2) From Unforgiven: The young outlaw has just seen his first killing. He's completely rattled, and trying to calm himself, he says to crusty old gunfighter Clint Eastwood, "I guess he had it coming." And Clint drawls, "We all got it comin', kid."

#1) From Blues Brothers, when the train rushes past Elwood's little room, shaking everything like a 6.0 earthquake. Jake is amazed at the commotion and asks, "How often does that happen?" And Elwood replies, "So often, you won't even notice!"