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.