Monday, August 23, 2010


Gathering of meditation groups of the San Francisco East Bay, in Berkeley, 9/11/2010. See the poster for the event, and the facebook page.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Real-Time Dharma Talk Online, Sept 1

Resident monk Kwan Sahn Su Nim has been bringing Empty Gate Zen Center into the new millennium, with a website, Facebook page, Twitter account, and YouTube channel. A week from Wednesday, 9/1/2010, we go a step further, with our first live webcast. The Dharma talk by Zen Master Bon Soeng will be broadcast from this link. It should start around 8 p.m.

Su Nim is also webcasting morning practice each Sunday (sitting and chanting starting 7:30 am, Pacific time) from this link.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Eat, Pray, WTF?

The ultra-chick movie Eat, Pray, Love was released this week. Star Julia Roberts insured its success; I believe it's the second biggest film out there, after the ultra-guy movie The Expendables. EPL is based on the eponymous novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. The novel in turn is based on Gilbert's real-life year-long trip around the world, during which she experienced food in Italy, meditation in India, and a love affair in Bali.

Neither the novel or the movie names the female guru whom Gilbert encountered in India, and with whom she had the requisite earth-shaking experiences. But it's clear from all the evidence that it's Gurumayi Chidvilasananda (successor to famed guru Swami Muktananda).

I myself was part of that scene in my youth. I traveled with Muktananda in the US on his 3rd World Tour in the late 70s-early 80s. I then went to his ashram in Ganeshpuri India, staying there through his death in late 1982, plus over a year with his dual successors, Gurumayi and her brother Nityananda. The photo attached to this blog post is from those days in India; I'm third from the right. My sartorial choices were not uncommon for that locale, and made sense at the time.

As you might expect when dealing with such holy and spiritual people, the scandals (power, sex, money, lies) that emerged over time were jaw-dropping. Muktananda had diddled underaged girls (while claiming and promoting celibacy), and had sent goons to intimidate anyone who tried to reveal his secret. Gurumayi, at a minimum, helped keep this covered-up. She grabbed sole control of the org from her brother, and when he started to run independent programs, she sent her own goons to intimidate his followers. The usual stuff.

(Did Gurumayi consciously try to deceive her followers into believing that she was a divine being, bestowing magical invisible spiritual energy? Was it all for the sake of fame, fortune, and adoration? Or did she believe her own hype about her God-like status? Considering the human talent for self-deception, I'd guess it's the latter. But I can only guess. Damn, I do wish she'd come clean about her motives, purely to satisfy my curiosity. Her and Bernie Madoff.)

I was pretty clueless of all this dark underside while I was with the group. It was all slowly revealed in the press in the years after Muktananda's death, and on the net in the decades since I returned to ordinary life in the US from the ashram in India. See these links for more info on the whole sordid scene.

Gurumayi disappeared from public view a few years back, perhaps because she got tired of hiding the scandal, or perhaps just exhausted from pretending to be a superior being. Gilbert's visit immortalized by Eat, Pray, Love occurred after the scandals were well-known, but while Gurumayi was still actively playing guru.

None of this has great philosophical import: even if Muktananda and Gurumayi were absolutely pure and innocent, I don't find them very interesting or important teachers any more. Whatever valuable insights they did offer (under the mountain of nonsense) are available from countless other groups. But hell, I can't completely ignore a good sex-and-religion scandal.

It'll be interesting to see how the buzz around the movie develops, whether it leads to serious mainstream discussion of meditation practice, and/or of the ugly secrets and power struggles in Gurumayi's history. A couple of major news sources have already reported on the kerfuffle. See the New York Post article Eat Pray Zilch, and Salon's The "Eat, Pray, Love" Guru's Troubling Past.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Talk by ZM Dae Kwang

Audio Dharma speech by Zen Master Dae Kwang, Abbot of the Kwan Um School of Zen. Delivered for Founder's Day ceremony, Sept 31, 2010.

Click here to listen.

(The link is to an .mp3. Your browser should prompt you to open in e.g. Windows Media Player.)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Vaccine for Stress

Human beings are wired to see patterns, whether they exist or not. That's why so many people believe in astrology, or think they can sense where the roulette ball is going to land on the next spin.

There's a simple evolutionary explanation for this: understanding patterns was a huge help to our ancestors. If a caveman could recognize which plants tended to kill people who ate them... then he had an advantage in surviving and procreating. If he saw non-existent patterns... e.g. believing that if he danced a certain way it would bring rain... it led to excessive dancing, which was hardly catastrophic.

From the viewpoint of our DNA (which only wants to us to survive and procreate), seeing patterns and sensing danger is clearly the way to go. This leads to stressful lives, as we've evolved to metaphorically see a saber-tooted tiger hiding in the bush, whether or not it's really there. Just in case.

I've been thinking about this after reading the article US scientists developing vaccine for stress (thanks, Brian):
THE world's first vaccine for stress was undergoing development today, as Californian scientists worked on a single injection that would help people relax without slowing down.

The quest for the lifetime cure to stress was led by Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University [...]

Dr Sapolsky said he was on the path to a genetically engineered alternative to yoga, pills and friends urging others to relax - itself a recognised cause of tension.
Evolution is an insanely slow process. It's entirely trial and error... evolution gathers information purely based on which individuals last long enough to procreate. Over an unimaginably long time period, it's determined that high stress levels (seeing tigers in the bushes, enemies under the bed, evil spirits all around) is the optimal survival strategy.

Many would argue that we're at a key point in evolutionary history, as we ourselves start to alter the mechanism of evolution. Millenia of trial-and-error say that high stress is necessary. But we have the means to use our nifty rational minds to explore alternatives. Testing the what-if scenarios of our thinking is a jillion times faster than waiting for evolution to change things.

On the one hand, we can easily make mistakes in our haste. If I got a stress vaccination, I might have even more difficulty finding the motivation to move my sorry ass. But hell, why not? My DNA may favor high stress, but must I agree with my DNA? Those genes care only about survival. Maybe that can be over-blown. How about perceiving this body, this "I", as a floating cloud that appears, exists for a little while, then disappears, no problem? That doesn't seem so stressful.

In any case, don't stress out waiting for your local Walgreens to start offering the stress vaccine. The article concludes:
"To be honest, I'm still amazed that it works," Dr Sapolsky recently told Wired magazine. He warns that human trials are years away
In the meantime... in 3 months, Californians may vote to repeal laws against pot. Human trials would begin immediately.