Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Zen Videos

Comcast is soon discontinuing its "Personal Web Page" service. I've got a bunch of stuff I put up there over the years, which will disappear when the service ends. I'm transferring some of it from there to this blog, for the benefit of future generations... 

Video below contains excerpts of interviews and teaching talks from Zen Master Seung Sahn (Dae Soen Sa Nim), founder of Kwan Um School of Zen. See also Wake Up! (a short pdf illustrating ZM Seung Sahn's basic teaching) and Only Don't Know (a much more extensive collection of his letters to students).

Next is clip from Dharma talk by Zen Master Bon Seong. Many more are available on Empty Gate Zen Center YouTube channel.

Finally, a talk I myself gave at Empty Gate years ago (2 parts).

Monday, September 28, 2015

My Dharma Talks

Comcast is soon discontinuing its "Personal Web Page" service. I've got a bunch of stuff I put up there over the years, which will disappear when the service ends. I'm transferring some of it from there to this blog, for the benefit of future generations... 

Following are transcriptions of some short talks I've given at Empty Gate Zen Center:


There was once a "Parliament of the World's Religions" in Chicago, and many religious leaders were invited - Catholics, pagans, Black Muslims, Hindus, witches, and on and on. One of the things they did was try to draft a statement of principles; they wanted to tell the world, "These are the fundamental truths that spiritual people accept." They had a terribly hard time, of course. It's difficult for human beings, spiritual or otherwise, to agree on anything.

Our teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, was there. Even though he's been a Zen Master for over 40 years, he didn't contribute a word to the statement of principles. He just encouraged everyone to sit together silently (he didn't use the word "meditation"), which they eventually agreed to do for 10 minutes.

This is Zen practice, putting aside our different ideas and opinions, and just acting in this moment. If more people could learn to just do something together, even something as simple as sitting silently, then we wouldn't create so many problems for the world.

Formal Zen practice includes sitting, chanting, bowing, and other things that may look like a religion. But it's not at all necessary to consider these actions special, spiritual, or holy. They're opportunities to let go of my ideas, my opinions, mymy situation, I, my, me ... and just do it. At a Zen center, there's a schedule telling us what it's time to do (7pm: sitting; 7:30pm: chanting, etc.). In ordinary life, we often don't have a schedule, but we can keep the same mind - clearly perceiving each moment, and doing whatever that situation calls for.

Years ago, Dae Soen Sa Nim wrote a letter to the Pope, suggesting that he call a meeting of the world's spiritual leaders. When they arrived in Rome, there'd be a hot tub that they could all sit in together. Next, they'd share a meal. And after that, everybody would go home - all without saying a single word.

When religious people come together, they're wearing different costumes. Monks in Korea wear grey, Indian swamis wear orange, the Pope has his white robes, and so on. But to take a hot tub, you take off your clothes, so that would be one step towards putting aside different ideas. And when we eat, our likes and dislikes appear very strongly. So eating the same meal with other people is another way to practice letting go of our opinions.

People who want to make a formal commitment to practicing Zen go through what's called a precepts ceremony, and after the ceremony they get a certificate that includes this poem:
 Good and evil have no self-nature
 Holy and unholy are empty names
 In front of the door is the land of stillness and light
 Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.

The first two lines mean: let go of whatever ideas and opinions you're holding. In the third line, "the door" is the senses, so this line means that whatever you perceive at this moment is Truth. Finally, the last line means: whatever it's time to do, just do it.


For over 10 years, I’ve lived in an apartment just a couple blocks away from the Hayward fault. There’s been one serious quake during that time. It was a few years back, around 3 in the morning. Waking up to an earthquake intensifies that special experience you always have at the moment of waking. There’s always that moment when you have no idea, when there’s nothing in your mind but “What?!”

The phrase that comes to my mind is “back to square one.” As the room rolled back and forth, it was as if I felt, “I can’t even count on the walls and floor staying still any more; so I give up, I don’t know anything.” I had that clear, alert, immediate experience of the rocking room for just seconds. Then thinking appeared, I understood what was going on, and the square one mind was replaced by various wants, including the most pressing want of staying alive and not getting buried in rubble.

The Zen teaching tradition exists to point at this square one mind, the mind we have before thinking. In simple terms, Buddha said that suffering is caused by desire; if you want something, then you have a problem. Before thinking there’s no wanting, no suffering. So it’s a mind worth looking at. You’ll see various stories of Zen masters responding to a question by hitting someone with a stick, or shouting. These actions are like the earthquake, something to give one the before-thinking experience, at least for a moment.

People may talk about square one in a negative sense, as in, “I’ve been trying to get ahead in life for years, but now I’m back to square one.” But in Zen, returning to square one is the practice. Day after day we accumulate ideas and opinions, things we think we know, and it’s possible to practice putting all of that down and returning to square one.

In sitting Zen and in life, I’ve been noticing how these two minds alternate. Sometimes there’s square one, nothing but open alertness. And at other times, there’s thinking about what I want.

Some traditions suggest the path of replacing bad wants with good wants. Some spiritual teachers will say that since bad wants (materialism, sense desire, etc) cause suffering, the solution is to replace them with good wants: “I want enlightenment,” “I desire God,” etc. And there’s some point to this: during those years when I had a strong desire for enlightenment and God, it’s true that all other desires naturally receded into background. But Zen teaching is different. This teaching says that good wants and bad wants are both wants, and as long as you want something, you’ve got a problem.

You’ll hear that style of teaching often in the Zen tradition. “Why do you make good and bad?” This is the same as pointing to before-thinking mind, because thinking makes wanting, and wanting makes good and bad. If I want something, then when the world gives me what I want, I call it “good”; when the world gives me what I don’t want, I call it “bad.” It’s an interesting practice; whenever I see good or bad, I know I can trace it back to something I want.

Likewise with “God.” Most of the world attaches great importance to the idea of God, and conceives of “God” as the embodiment of absolute Good. But good and bad are made by wanting, so wherever “God” appears, we know someone wants something.

I went to a fringe religious ceremony that had a Christian form. A line from one of the hymns has stuck with me. Addressing God, we sang, “You’re the one we wish to serve; you give to us what we deserve.” And I thought, “Sweet Jesus! If I’m taking the trouble to sing hymns to God, He sure as hell better be a God that gives me MORE than I deserve!”

People call Buddhism atheistic, since belief in God isn’t necessary. But it’s not that Buddhism says you must believe there’s no God. Rather, it points to the possibility of accepting what one deserves, of taking whatever comes through natural process. If that’s the case, we don’t need to make ideas of God, because we don’t want anything from him.

There’s a particular practice in Zen called “kong-an” in Korean, or koan in Japanese. In this practice, the teacher asks a question which the student is challenged to answer from a clear mind, from a square one mind. The questions are designed to tempt desires to appear, but once you want something, it creates a fog that makes a clear answer impossible.

There are many hundreds of kong-ans, and they can get awfully convoluted. But when I first met Zen master Seung Sahn, his kong-an to me was simple and direct. I sat down for a formal teaching interview with him, and he asked, “What do you want?”

How to find a clear answer? Any time I stop and think about it, I can find dozens of things I want. “I want a million dollars. I want world peace. I want everyone to like me. I want to feel good all the time.” But all these answers are made by thinking. They’re “wanting” answers; what would a clear mind, square one answer be?

I could say, “I don’t want anything.” Not only is that likely dishonest, it’s what we call “attachment to emptiness.” It’s like saying, “I want to not want anything”; it’s still not clear. But when the teacher asks, “What do you want?”, there’s a particular, elegant, clear answer. What is it?

I was recently reading an essay written by a woman in therapy. She said that after months of appointments, she said to her therapist, “Now I understand something. I see that I had a certain relationship with my mother, and as an adult I often re-create this relationship with others, and this makes problems. What I don’t see is, how does this understanding change anything?”

The therapist replied, “You think it’s supposed to change something?”


I spent 1990 living in Las Vegas, making a living by dealing blackjack and roulette in the casinos. Most people know what it's like in a casino - nearly everybody loses money, nearly everybody knows that nearly everybody loses money, and nearly everybody is convinced that if he could just find the right secret, he'd beat the system and get rich.

At the roulette wheel, some gamblers figure out that if red comes up three times in a row, it means you should bet on red. Others, with just as much confidence, determine that it means you should bet on black. Some players have strong ideas about which is the lucky table, lucky dealer, lucky chair, or lucky deck of cards. At the blackjack table, many people said to me, "The secret is to make your big bets when you really feel lucky." I'd always tell them, "Whether you'll get good cards or bad cards has nothing to do with how you feel," but they'd never believe me.

There are endless tricks, and every trick works ... sometimes. I'd see people on hot streaks, winning constantly for an hour or more, and their expressions seemed to say, "I've finally got it all figured out! I'll never have to work again!" I knew that before long this type of thinking would get them into deep, deep trouble, so it was sad to watch.

People who start a religious or spiritual practice tend to have minds like these gamblers. We think, "There must be a way to avoid the suffering that everyone seems to experience; how can I beat the system?"

Also, the world is filled with spiritual teachers anxious to tell you their ways to beat the system. They say, "If you follow me and my way, you'll get all sorts of good feelings inside and good situations outside; if not now, then in the future. My way will grant you benefits infinitely greater than the effort you put into it."

In other words, they teach the possibility of getting good stuff that you don't earn, and don't deserve. This is a beautiful idea, and it's given beautiful names, such as "God's grace," etc. I've noticed that the largest crowds seem to form around those teachers who say that small efforts can bring big rewards.

In our school, the teaching different. Dae Soen Sa Nim says, "Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment." How can someone considered a great teacher get away with promising so little? He also says, "Understanding cannot help you." This means that life offers no tricks or shortcuts; and if you really understand that there are no shortcuts, even that's not a shortcut.

Maybe it sounds awful to give up such beautiful hopes. But when you completely give up hope, you're left with something extraordinary: a clear view of the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you doing right now? That's much better than hope.

There's a story about this in a Carlos Castaneda book. Carlos is walking with don Juan and stops for a moment to tie his shoe. Just then, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and crashes to the ground a few feet ahead. "My God!" Carlos says. "If I hadn't had to tie my shoe, that would have killed us!"

"That's true," replies don Juan. "And maybe someday you'll stop to tie your shoe, and because you stop a boulder will kill you. You don't know when the boulder will fall, so the most important thing for you to do is to tie your shoe impeccably."


We recently reached the end of the year, and what do you know, we’re right back at the beginning. Of course the calendar is man-made, but it’s the same in the natural world. There’s a cycle of seasons; you reach the end, and you’re at the beginning.
It may seem obvious, how it goes round and round like this. But consider: if you’d just been born, even with a fully developed intellect, would you automatically know that the world operates in these circular cycles? Maybe it’s something we learn through experience.
Zen isn’t different from life, so we also find many circles in Zen teaching and art. Zen Master Seung Sahn illustrated his teaching with the Zen Circle. Points around the circle have particular meanings… but the big meaning is the metaphor of the circle itself. You start at zero degrees, and you progress to 360 degrees, which is the same point. It illustrates that the truth, the goal, the pure and clear thing, is not something separate in space or time. It’s already appeared in this moment.
Our teaching style doesn’t say, “You must struggle for decades or lifetimes, and then attain holy ‘egolessness’” or whatever. But rather: “Just now, before the thought of ‘I/my/me’ even arises, everything is already perfect and complete.”
The circle metaphor stands in contrast to the more common image of spiritual life as a path to a mountaintop. This path image puts me in mind of people who climb Everest. Climbers speak of a problem they call summit fever. It’s not just the craziness caused by oxygen deprivation, but a psychological affliction. Climbers can become so focused on reaching the summit that they lose all reason. They don’t consider that after they summit, they’ll still have to climb back down! They make stupid decisions in striving for the peak at all costs; it turns out that most climbers who die do so on the descent.
Metaphorically, that’s what it’s like to follow a path. When you strive to reach something, you don’t clearly perceive and respond to the reality of the moment.
On the other hand, if we see that we’re going around and around in circles, there’s nothing special to look forward to, or to look back on. Then it’s possible to connect with just now. In walking meditation, as we go around and around the room, we can return to a meticulous awareness of the moment, the breath going in or out, the pressure of the floor against the soles of the feet.
Sitting meditation is similar. Trains of thought appear and disappear, over and over again in circular rotation. When I recognize that the thinking cycle is going nowhere, it points back to the clarity of What am I doing right now?
Ken Wilber is a writer and modern philosopher, popular in spiritual and New Age circles. In constructing his view of human development, Wilber has used the metaphor of a ladder. You start with body-consciousness, then move up to the next rung of emotional consciousness, then intellect, then witnessing and other spiritual rungs, higher and higher. He provides an interesting map of this process, but it lacks any sense of circularity.
One of his critics argues that Wilber and his group are missing half of reality. Wilber focuses entirely on development, but existence is more than growth and development, it’s also decay and death. To avoid facing this other half of the circle is like having summit fever, with a mind clouded by refusal to see the whole picture.
If we look at the full circle, it becomes clear. A hundred years ago, I didn’t exist. Then I got born, so now I do exist. A hundred years from now, I’ll be dead, I’ll have returned to that same point of not-existing that I started at! In Buddhism, we say that emptiness becomes form, then form becomes emptiness. First zero, then one, then zero, around and around and around.
Sometimes, I get distracted for half a second, then my attention returns. Sometimes, I get an idea, and keep thinking about it for months before letting it go. These circles, large and small, are encompassed by the circle of life — appearing out of emptiness, and eventually disappearing back into emptiness. It all points back to one thing. We’re not going anywhere, so we’ve got precisely one thing: What is this moment?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Adventures in Entheogens

Comcast is soon discontinuing its "Personal Web Page" service. I've got a bunch of stuff I put up there over the years, which will disappear when the service ends. I'm transferring some of it from there to this blog, for the benefit of future generations... 

Entheogen is the currently popular term for mind-altering substances. The older term hallucinogen has been rejected, since it unnecessarily presupposes that experiences so induced are unreal “hallucinations.” And the word psychedelic is out of vogue, due to its association with all that hippie shit.

Following are two pieces written years ago, inspired by such explorations.


S and C meet every month or two to research entheogens. On this occasion, they kept a small tape recorder nearby, turning it on periodically during the course of their inner travels, to capture snippets of conversation. The tape is transcribed here, in the name of Science, and for the amusement and stimulation of whatever minds encounter it.

S: We’re around 45 minutes into the experience. C, anything you’d like to share with our audience?

C: Well, S, nothing overwhelming, but maybe on the fringes, having gone through this experience before, I can… kind of a familiar feeling…the kind of a just… ahh… strange, the strange edges of the universe starting to creep into my reality. Feel a little bit of a… kind of a heightened alert… kind of a speedy… just a sense of being amped up a little more than normal. But no big visual hallucinations or anything.

S: Normally, one wouldn’t even notice that there are edges to perceptions, you know?

C: In the average, everyday world.

S: Yeah, I mean, once you see that there’re edges, then you’ve got to wonder what’s beyond the edges.

C: Nope, no edges!

The conversation naturally turns to religion and spirituality. Both have experience with Zen meditation, which includes sitting practice, as well as doing full prostrations.

S: When you’re just sitting there and just looking at the floor, it’s so neutral, and it’s kind of easier just to sit, just to look at it and perceive it with the view that, OK, this is truth. When you’re bowing, and it’s kind of like painful and exhausting and all, it’s, uhh..

C: The floor becomes the evil task-master.

S: Yeah, it’s more of a difficult attainment just to see it as: ahh, this is just what it is, this is just truth.

C: Gives it a completely different flavor. Although you can see it’s just the same thing! You’re still seeing the same energy. It’s just your mind that changes.

S: In Christianity, in Judaism, or in theistic religion, you have this calling out, where you’re like calling out to God. We don’t necessarily have that in Zen, and some people miss that. You know what I’m saying?

C: Yeah, we really don’t have that vision of God. In the Book of Lamentations, book of the Bible, God doesn’t really say or do anything, but it’s just kind of like the whole tone of the book is: “We’re in this fucking shitty situation, this is too much suffering, how could you fucking do this to us?” Just this kind of grief and despair, almost like Job, same kind of situation, God doesn’t… there’s not really a response from God.

S: Yeah. People generally think that at the end of Job it’s somehow resolved like, “Oh! God does these evil things because it all works out in the best.” But it really isn’t. The book of Job is just like, yeah, He does give everything back in the end, but as far as why God did it, why was God just toying around with him and making him suffer, there was really nothing offered. Except that, as I understand it, God basically says, “Hey, can you make a universe? When you can make a universe, then you can argue with Me.”

C: Right. I guess you have to chalk it up to being able to see every once in a while that the universe is more complex than we can possibly imagine. Any little thought that enters your mind is just… incomprehension.

S: I mean, we understand the universe better than a dog does. Right? But if you look at the vastness of our ignorance, it’s really a very very small jump from what a dog understands to what we understand, y’know, considering the vastness of the mystery.

C: May as well follow a dog.

Long silence.

S: Voice-activated tape recorder, that’s what I need to invest in. Like Richard Nixon had.

C: Could be our Watergate tapes, could be our downfall.

S: When you’re about to get transmission, become a Zen master, these tapes will come out like the Kerry Swift Boat Ads.

C: Oh, man. If I’m ever at that point, I hope I say, “Bring it all out. Listen to it all. Listen to it all.”

S: I feel like we’re kind of at the edge of that place… everything, the world seems fine… it’s almost the edge of that place where it’s kind of difficult to do anything, because everything is already resolved and OK.

C: Everything’s completely peaceful, and it’s almost like… things just kind of like slowly shifting about, things aren’t quite as solid as what they normally would be, but there’s no problem with any of that. Like I can actually see that when my mind is moving around, that my vision is jumpy and cloudy, and as soon as I realize that my mind has been wandering, instantly the whole room just stops. It’s just like complete complete clarity, it’s like just, oh yeah, just that glass, just the jar full of juice, that’s all there is.

Another very long silence.

S: We reached the point where we stopped talking. What was it, 20 minutes ago, 30 minutes ago?

C: Yeah.

S: Everything just felt, uh, too perfectly in place to need to say anything about it.

C: I agree as well. The complete peaceful tranquility can get jolted a little bit. But then you realize it’s OK. And it’s OK again! It’s OK for that edge to be there, just let it be there.

S: Even if your bed is made of rock, if you completely relax into it, it’ll be comfortable.

C: Sure.

S: Plenty of nice visuals when I allow them. They don’t overtake me or anything, but if I want to just look at a pattern and kind of surrender into it, all sorts of interesting visuals, perfectly calm, nice, feeling. C, anything?

C: Ditto.

S takes a bathroom break.

S: Sitting on the toilet I was kind of getting the feeling of… my mind and the universal mind being the same, so… let’s live with that for a while.

C: Yeah, yeah. You must keep this “shitting mind” with you wherever you go.

S: So kind of what I… the experience that I had in there was like… we talked earlier about the High Holy Days of Judiasm that we’re going through, where we’re supposed to be getting right with the world, and God is watching you to decide if you live or die, based on how you act here, right? So I was looking at… of course I don’t believe in God or anything, but it’s kind of like having a back-seat driver. Because it’s the same type of thing for me, that sometimes, I’ll act with this feeling like, with this concern that I’ll be judged as being right or wrong. You know what I mean? Like someone is watching me, like someone else is going to be judging me. And when I was looking at it, kind of feeling the oneness of the trip, I sort of like had this, this jolt of “Oh! It’s like I have a mind that makes decisions, and then the same mind judges them.” It’s not someone else who’s judging me, it’s the same mind, choosing to make a decision, and then judging it as right or wrong.

C: Yeah.

S: And there’s nobody else doing it. And it’s kind of like the feeling you get when you’re on a stage performing, and being concerned if you’re doing a good job for your audience, and then when the performance is over: Ahhh! You kind of breathe a sigh of relief because no one’s watching you any more. And that was kind of… a little bit of the feeling the experience was giving me.

For inspiration, they watch the DVD Devil’s Playground, a wonderful documentary about the Amish.

S: Y’know, this Amish preacher in the movie, he said that the correct way is… is not to care about the things of the world, because the things of the world pass away. “But if you obey God…” -- I forget exactly what he said -- “But if you obey God, then you abideth forever.” Uh… my initial reaction to that is: so what’s the big deal about abidething forever? Y’know, if I’m having a good time, then maybe OK, I’ll abide forever. But abiding forever just for its own sake doesn’t sound so interesting.

C: Oh, you mean spending the hereafter with God? By eschewing worldly things then you’re guaranteed paradise forever?

S: Yeah… although it’s not always even a matter of Paradise or Hell. A lot of the Protestants say this too: it’s not really Heaven versus Hell. It’s “Why do you believe in God?” “Because if you believe in God, then you’ll live forever; if you don’t believe in God, then you die.” And they automatically take living forever as a desirable thing.

C: Uh-huh.

S: Which seems to be something worth examining. I mean, maybe it’s just like our DNA blindly wants to survive, for procreation obviously and so on. And when they say, “Oh, if you do this, then you’ll live forever,” there’s something deep inside ourselves that reaches out and grabs that. But when you stop and think about it, why…

C: That’s being attached… Since “don’t be attached to worldly things”… your body is a worldly thing.

S: Yeah…

C: So don’t be attached… well, it depends what they mean by “living forever,” but… it does kind of bring up a notion of… like “you” existing, not on earth, maybe, but existing somewhere else forever and ever.

S: It’s almost like, even in my yogic experience, there are a lot of people… or maybe it’s a stage that everyone goes through, where you get a little detachment from the outside world, and you think, “Oh, man, I’ve attained all there is to attain!” But in fact, you can get just as attached to ideas as you can to so-called worldly things.

C: Yeah. And what made them decide that this was a perfect level of technology for them? I mean, it’s the same, y’know, it’s probably what they did back in the 1600s, and they just decided to never change. Whatever, in 1693, that’s the level of technology that surrounded them, and they always stayed with that.

S: But it’s arbitrary! Why should one particular point in time be more holy than some other place? The Hare Krishnas are into the same thing. They dress like, y’know, cowhearders did in India, however many millennia ago. But why keep that particular technology? One of the reasons this movie is interesting is because it does kind of show the logic behind it. The logic would be: you want your technology to be simple enough so that if something breaks, you can just call on any neighbor to help you, and that helps build community. A horse and buggy is simple enough for everyone to understand. If you went up to a car, then you’d need specialization. You’d need certain people who were the auto mechanics, and it’d be bad for the community equality…

C: What?! Auto mechanics aren’t part of your community? Like socializing with them, hanging out with them?

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: I mean, that is an interesting thing, but…

S: It’s a mistaken notion of equality, I guess. They want everyone to be equal. Obviously, that’s why they all dress the same, all this is about everybody being equal. But that’s kind of like not being able to tell the difference between black and white, y’know? Everyone has the same true self, and everyone deserves the same honor as a human being. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have people follow their own karma.

C: They’ve studied this group of, they’re kind of like Amish, they’re called Hutterites, and they live in North Dakota, like northern North Dakota and southern Canada. They have the highest ever recorded fertility rate. They’re very similar to the Amish, they fled from Germany or from Europe 150 years ago. But basically, the women will start child-bearing as soon as they’re married, y’know, married at very young ages, and continue to have children until they cannot have children any more. So it’s kind of like a rare example where there’s no break for the women, as far as child-bearing.

S: Uh-huh

C: So they can determine… the human body, the female body… how many children is physically possible over the course of a reproductive lifespan. And it’s something like…

S: This is like a Christian religious sect you’re talking about?

C: Yes. On average, in this population of Hutterites, it was like 12 or 13 kids per woman, which is the highest ever recorded. Even though there are stories of even more than that. But for a population as a whole, that’s the highest ever. Which, can you imagine…

S: It’s like… There’s this spiritual practice that a lot of people do, where they have the idea that they need to get something, they need to attain something, y’know, to become something different, right? And then there’s some sort of, some type of enlightenment moment when you realize that, no, it doesn’t have to be that way. It can just be an examination of… “What am I right now?” “What’s the nature of this moment?” I don’t have to make anything of it. You know what I mean?

C: Yeah.

S: Now, kind of a… it seems kind of silly to want to attain something, and how much grosser it is to have a religion that actually thinks it’s necessary to multiply and spread your tribe around the earth, you know what I mean? And yet you can obviously see how it’s just an idea that carries within itself the seeds of being able to spawn communities like this.

C: Yeah, I bet this will change. I don’t see how Amish… it’d be very surprising to see this lifestyle not have survival problems. It’s just like in Korea: how many people become monks anymore? It’s for the exact same reason. It’s like, fuck, you can live a normal life and still go to church. It’s not like… there’s just so many more options. I don’t know. That’s why they need to have tons of kids. Because, y’know, they’re going to lose increasing numbers…

S: It’s like crabs, or whatever the fuck it is. Grunions. They just toss out thousands of kids, and they can bear a 90% casualty rate as they crawl across the beach to the ocean.

By this point, the experience has wound down, so they review the day.

S: Anything you’d like to add in general, C? Conclusions?

C: Epilogues?

S: Yeah.

C: I can remember exactly what I meant when I felt that my thoughts were going… made my visions tremble, and that when I stopped, and just looked at whatever was in front of me, it became instantly clear. When I realized that I was thinking, then my vision became much clearer, and less jumpy than it was.

S: Yeah, that’s a very fascinating thing.

C: I definitely feel that there’s great hope for the world. Moreso than I do in my non-altered life, I guess.

S: For me, it’s like, I was quite happy at the end of the last retreat that the Zen master said, “Remember this is just a dream.” Because, a lot of times, you hear talk in any sort of spiritual group as if you’re moving forward and attaining something or going somewhere or something very important happened. Which is all fine, and maybe really necessary to have that perspective, but it also is kind of nice to have the perspective of “Oh! Just remember it’s all a dream.” And when you say there’s hope for the world… that’s the time when I have hope for the world, when I realize that it’s all a dream. What do you think, C? Is that what you meant, or did you mean something else?

C: I don’t know. No, what you said was definitely true. Yeah, but I guess… I feel that maybe my life has gotten better because I don’t hold on to things like I used to.

They decide to make one last re-visit to the altered space, by taking nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Nitrous provides a short-lived, yet extremely intense experience, hitting in less than a minute. C suggests turning off the recorder during the actual inhalation.

C: Recording during a nitrous inhalation is not allowed, not permitted, just like flash photography during a rock concert. We don’t allow that here. You can only do the aftermath, the post-mortem.

A minute later…

C: There’s a moment of… did I just die? I do get like a second of that. Of “What the fuck?! Oh yeah, I’m still here in this room.” Just for a split second, it’s amazing. I don’t know if that’s healthy or unhealthy to say.

S: Healthy and unhealthy are made by thinking.

C: Yeah, I mean, maybe death isn’t so bad. If that’s what it’s like. If it’s kind of like just a heavy nitrous buzz, and it intensifies and intensifies, and you just never breathe out. Just kind of like disappear into the void.

S: Well, you know, there are beings who claim to have made peace with death. I know I still get quite panicked when faced with the thought of death. But there are people who say they’ve made peace with it, so if this is the case, then it must be possible to…

C: It’s like “Oh shit, I’m gonna die.” “Oh no, I’m not gonna die.” “Oh yes, I am gonna die.” “Oh no, no you’re not gonna die.” “Oh shit, yes I might die!” “Oh no, you’re not gonna die.” Back and forth. Between those…

S: So anything you can think of will die. But maybe this before-thinking won’t die. What were you’re going to say? I’m sorry.

C: I don’t know. I have no fucking idea.

The End

For more entheogenic adventures, with the amazing sage Salvia Divinorum, see my Salvia Stories.


Following is a letter I wrote to a friend after an acid trip, sometime during the late 1980s.

-- Philosophical teaching on all San Francisco bus transfers

Dear Al:

M came to visit last week. On Sunday, he was interested in taking some LSD, which he had not experienced since college. Synchronistically, I had kept a stash in my freezer for just such an occasion. We spent a pleasant day walking around Golden Gate National Recreational Area (an area where people go to re-create when they tire of what they had created previously). By evening, we were famished, so we took a bus to the local Hare Krishna temple for their free feast.

With the food, of course, we got a talk from a Krishna devotee, who explained their rather complex philosophy and cosmology. Eventually, M asked him, "Gosh! How did you learn all of these things?" It seemed to me to be an astute question, which pointed to the fact that someone's "philosophy" is no more than a collection of words and ideas he is clinging to. In other words, dog-thinking creates a dog-world, cat-thinking creates a cat-world, and Hare Krishna-thinking creates a Hare Krishna-world. But our host probably thought differently.

"I learned it from the scriptures," the H.K. replied, "which are the sound vibration of the Absolute Truth." Though M and I were well past peaking, our minds were still so open that anything and everything could go in and out of them. Perhaps the devotee saw in our expressions that we were not embracing his idea that any words could be "Absolute Truth."

"You must believe in Absolute Truth," he elaborated, "because that is the basis for Good and Evil." Again, M and I said nothing, but our expressions must have communicated that ideas of Good and Evil were making no more impression on us than a bird's footprints in the sky.

"And without Good and Evil," the H.K. continued, "the world is just a joke!" M and I began to nod excitedly.

"Well, I suppose from a certain perspective the world is just a joke," the devotee conceded, and quickly changed the subject.

"Thank you so much," I told the Krishna as we were leaving. "I really enjoyed everything."

"I know," he replied. "I can tell by the look in your eyes."

Yours in the Dharma,


The End

Salvia Divinorum Stories

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Salvia Divinorum Stories 
Experiences with a mind-expanding herb

Salvia is a visionary plant, long used by shamans in South America. Over the past decade or so, word of amazing experiences with Salvia has been circulating on the net among seekers of altered states. Smoking the leaf provides an other-worldly rush, peaking for just a few minutes, followed by lesser effects lasting up to an hour. Following are tales of my own adventures. For more recent stories, including chewing fresh leaves in Hawaii, see my blog postings here and here.

I went to visit my friends M & J. I'd already emailed them information about Salvia. They were intrigued but cautious. As with other friends, I was torn between wanting to share this amazing experience, while on the other hand trying to recognize that taking such an earth-shattering trip is a heavy personal decision that I oughtn't push on anyone.

After much talk, M asked that I go first so he could at least observe the outward effects. I explained that immediately after smoking, I'd likely lack the ability and/or desire to speak, so they should give me 5 or so minutes of silence. I started with a couple tiny hits, spaced perhaps a minute apart. I wanted to judge what was necessary for a lower-level trip, since maybe M & J should start slowly. I got slightly altered, seeing subtle open-eyed effects. Like bits of stained glass floating around in my field of vision. From past experience, I knew I was on the edge of something much bigger. I was ambivalent: had I gone far enough? I guess not. I took a 3rd, larger hit & lay down.

There was a disconnect. I couldn't tell you the path I took from nearly-ordinary consciousness to the Salvia space. Either there was a brief blackout, or the path was so non-ordinary that memory can't hold it. In any case, next thing I knew, there it was. The effects were familiar from my half dozen or so previous Salvia trips. It's not just that they're hard to describe, but that it's so difficult to even remember them when not in the space.

It was as if the fabric of reality were literally a fabric: a fabric that could be twisted & torn & warped. (Earlier in the day, we'd visited a science museum & seen a short movie that talked about how space itself curved around black holes. Curved *space*? What the hell could that mean? The warping of this fabric was something like that.)

Sometimes it was as if reality had been twisted into tubes, wormlike, or DNA-like, constantly whirling. At others, it was as if this fabric had a Y-shaped zipper that had been unzipped, leaving 3 undulating pieces of reality, with synapse-like tentacles dancing in the unzipped areas.

Everything was through a prism, or kaleidoscope, or fun-house mirror. Sometimes the ordinary world was recognizable through this filter, sometimes not. And though all this description sounds visual, it was more than that. The most stunning effect (as in my previous trips) was that there was no sense of an "I" apart from the fabric. There was just the unity of the experience, with no memory of myself or sense of myself as a separate entity.

I sat up (M later said that I'd only been lying down for 10 or 15 seconds). I recognized the Salvia & the bong on the low table. Suddenly I had some context for the experience. I realized (in a very rudimentary way -- I was still far from my usually coherent thought process) that this was a strange realm, & that it had something to do with the Salvia I saw on the table. I remembered having been to this realm before, each time with the Salvia somehow involved. I put it this way because I still wasn't sensing my separate self. That is, there wasn't any identification with that being who'd smoked the Salvia.

At the risk of sounding "Being John Malkovitch"-y... I'd been taken away from my usual portal, that place in my head, behind the eyes, where I usually feel like I'm dwelling. First, there was this entirely new world, beyond time & space. Then, as I recognized the Salvia & the room I was in, there was the absolutely stunning realization that I already knew this world; I'd just changed portals. And that my epic travels had taken place over a few seconds without physically going anywhere.

Along with this awareness came a sort of wonderment at how lightly I treat Salvia in between trips. I mean, I'd been joking about it with M & J when we'd talked about it moments earlier. I'd been carrying the Salvia with me all day, & it had certainly been on my mind periodically, but it had only been one of many things on my mind. Now, that seemed so strange. As if I'd been spending all day with a tunnel to another universe in my pocket, & regarding it as just another item on my to-do list.

For the following minutes, I moved back & forth between being completely absorbed into the fabric, & having various levels of self-awareness. Mostly, I beheld the fabric, & had this nagging feeling that my self was in there *somewhere*, though I didn't have an idea of where or what it was. Though I wasn't petrified, there was I think a bit of unease at not knowing who I was. When I found myself, would I be OK?

I looked at M. I recognized him as a friendly & familiar presence. Perhaps some solid ground in the midst of this perfect storm. He said something to me, something like, "You said not to talk for a few minutes." Ahh, I got some more context, a bit more awareness of my original intention. I replied something to M. Later, he told me that I'd looked at him very seriously & said only, "Yesssss." Anyway, I also around this time recalled that ambivalent feeling I'd had before the final hit, recalling how I'd questioned whether I'd gone far enough. Yeah, I realized, wherever & whoever I am, there's no question that I've gone far enough.

I looked over at J. Out of the swirling shapes etc of the fabric, her calm & recognizable face emerged. I realized she was a friend too. It was a good sign: I was cautiously optimistic that whenever I eventually found myself, my situation & condition wouldn't be so bad. But it was also kinda weird to see her so composed. I mean, didn't she realize that reality was warping all around her?

For the remainder of the trip, I mostly looked at the floor in front of me. Periodically, I'd recall my intention of communicating something of this experience to M & J. It seemed impossible. For one thing, communication requires that one exist as a separate entity from the communicatee. In those moments where I found a bit of my separate self, the thing I most wanted to communicate was gone.

Gradually, unsteadily, the fabric began to resume its more familiar state. My self (& simultaneously the "objective world") began to coagulate. I sensed my body -- oh, yeah, I remember having a body! Wondrously, I could even make it function. I was ready to re-connect with M & J, but I couldn't think of anything non-trivial to say. I mumbled something like, "OK, I'm here now." And I remember saying, "I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what?" asked J.

"Sorry that I couldn't bring anything back," I said.

On another occasion, I was alone, trying to be contemplative. Shortly after smoking the Salvia, my mind was separated from the objective world, & for just a few seconds (it seemed) I had a vision. "Vision" might not be quite the right word, since I didn't experience it as a perception separate from myself. But something like a vision.

Figures in this vision were very simple human figures, like a Keith Haring animation. But, like an MC Escher drawing, all these figures were linked together, that is, they fit together perfectly like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle.

At first, my focus was on one of these figures, which I think I identified with. Its movements were like someone slowly crawling on the ground. I think I identified this with my own efforts to "advance" in life. The perspective of the vision widened a bit, and I saw more clearly how this particular figure was non-separate from the rest. That is, though from the narrow perspective, it appeared that this figure was independently crawling along, it was actually both being pushed by the figures ("beings") behind it, & in turn pushing the figures in front of it. So I felt that whatever progress I made in life couldn't be separated from the progress of all beings.

Then the perspective widened a bit more. I saw that all of these countless linked beings weren't crawling (progressing) along a flat surface, but rather on an earth-like globe. So even though from the previous perspective we were all advancing, progressing... in fact we were all just ultimately moving around in a circle. There was all sorts of activity that appeared (from the narrower perspectives) as struggle, as advancement, as pushing or being pushed... but from the larger perspective, nothing was ever gained, & nothing was ever lost.

I have a vague feeling that the perspective got even a bit wider than this, but it got so non-ordinary that I couldn't "bring it back" even a little.

Anyway: the whole thing lasted a matter of seconds. It culminated in a very strong sense that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, all things were in perfect balance, everything was already perfectly resolved. Even struggle/suffering was part -- a necessary part -- of the grand balance.

Now I'm in ordinary consciousness (i.e., as ordinary as I get). I can't bring back that vision. I doubt that I could function in the world if I constantly or frequently had that vision. Perhaps I haven't even been able to explain it very well. But there's *something* about it that's left a trace.

I don't have any "faith" in the usual sense of the word. I put no stock in the words of books or teachers who others consider holy. Embracing a belief because it's old or popular or endorsed by honored people is offensive to my rational mind. But the vision I'm talking about here has left me with something as close to "faith" as I'll ever get.

That is, in my ordinary life, in which it so often seems like there's no harmony, no balance, no resolution (& sometimes no *possible* resolution) to the problems & sufferings of existence... there's now something inside that feels that when I let go of my personal perspective, there's a wider perspective in which all things are already perfectly resolved. Even though I can't see it now, there's a trace memory of seeing it at least once. And that makes a difference.

Many people report communication with non-human "entities" during a Salvia trip. This hasn't been common in my own trips. I'm more likely to feel a non-separation from all things, rather than visitation from a different realm.

But one time, I did have a brief visitation experience. I remember seeing a number of beings who clearly weren't humans. Their heads were over-sized, and though I could see their bodies, they seemed translucent or somehow non-material. The idea of "a heavenly band of angels" came to mind, or a group of Boddhisattvas that one might see on a Tibetan Buddhist mandala.

I don't recall any specific words that they spoke to me. I do know there was a strong sense that they were welcoming me. They seemed to feel that it was wonderful for me that I'd made it their realm, and they were encouraging me to join them.

The idea that these entities were creations of my own mind didn't occur to me at the time. However, I'm familiar with Hindu and Buddhist teachings about beings in other realms. It's said we can get incarnated in other levels, even "heavenly" levels. But going to heaven is just like going on a vacation. The beings in heaven aren't really free, they're just reaping the happiness they've earned through good actions, and when they've used that up, they'll get reborn back in a lower realm.

This type of thinking did come to mind as the entities were calling me. It seemed like they were free of the suffering that comes from material existence. But what if they'd transcended earthly attachments, only to acquire new and different attachments in their higher realm? What if they weren't calling me towards freedom, but just a fancier prison? Though I didn't feel the beings were intentionally trying to fool me, I quickly began to wonder whether they were more sirens than angels.

As my ambivalence grew over joining them in whatever state they were calling me towards, they slowly melted into nothing.

As with any type of altered state, it's difficult to say what if any "use" such experiences have. I think that for some people, a few Salvia experiences might be an antidote for depression, or an encouragement for meditative practice or deep questioning. For myself, I'm not sure. But even after my long and varied history of psychedelic use, from LSD on down, Salvia was something new, something with an undeniable and repeatable "wow" factor. I can easily go months without any desire for a Salvia trip, though I don't think I'm completely finished with this plant yet.

I hope these stories make clear that this isn't an easy or recreational high to be trifled with. Salvia accepts serious inquiries only! Much more information is available from Daniel Siebert's Salvia Divinorum Research and Information Center.

Since writing these stories, I've given Salvia a rest for a few years, aside from chewing fresh leaves in Hawaii as mentioned at the top of this page.

The Avadhoot

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The Avadhoot 
Naked in San Bruno

[The teacher we refer to here as "the Avadhoot" still holds court in Santa Cruz under the name "Nome" (as in "no me"). He's got a loyal following, a well-appointed building, and an organization called the Society of Abidance in Truth.]

STUART RESNICK: Then there was the Avad Hut.

JANARDAN: The Avadhoot, not the Avad Hut.

STUART: I thought the guy was called the Avadhoot, but the place was called the Avad Hut, sort of like Pizza Hut, you know? Anyway: "avadhoot" is the Indian word for somebody who is just so spiritually evolved, he's completely beyond the world.

JANARDAN: Often an avadhoot - because he's oblivious to the world and its needs, its cares, its reputations - travels naked.

STUART: Yes, and that's one of the wonderful things about India that really teaches us a lot about cultures - that there are people in India who refuse to wear clothes and if anyone puts a loincloth on them, they just tear it off.

JANARDAN: And they are not arrested!

STUART: They are worshipped as God! Whereas in America, of course, someone who walks around naked is treated quite differently.

JANARDAN: And ends up in Bellevue.

STUART: Except for that naked guy in Berkeley who got arrested and went to trial for indecent exposure. And the judge - and I can't tell whether this was done with irony because I just read about it in the paper and I have no idea whether the judge said this as a joke - but the judge threw out the case for lack of evidence.

But he showed up at the trial naked, so they arrested him again.

JANARDAN: He originally started showing up to classes at UC Berkeley, right? Naked? And that's how this whole furor started?

STUART: Yeah, yeah.

WAYNE HINKLE: Well, what was his statement about? Why was he naked?

STUART: "It's natural." You know, he said what you would expect someone to say: "I'm not ashamed of my body," or whatever. Again, like the Hare Krishnas, you have to respect him. Particularly after he showed up in court naked. That shows ...

JANARDAN: ... that he had balls. But that was already apparent.

Avadhoots appear in various shapes and sizes. There are all kinds of avadhoots. But an avadhoot is like the aristocrat of the saints. They're the highest form of saint.

STUART: Yoga Journal always used to carry this advertisement for the Avad Hut, or Avadhoot, whatever. It had an address in the Bay Area, in San Mateo or something, but the ad had no picture of the guy. There was just this circle. And the text of the ad was like: "THE NAKED ONE. CLOTHED IN SPACE. PURE. IMMUTABLE." You know, just all of these words about complete ...

JANARDAN: ... describing The Absolute.

STUART: Yes, yes. And then it just gave this address. So as we drove across the country - at least in my mind - of all the various things that California represented to me, one of them was: we're going to see the Avadhoot. And we could not even imagine what that would be like.

JANARDAN: That was definitely somewhere over the rainbow - and he was where we were headed. Well, I don't know about you Stuart, but I was very excited about meeting the Avadhoot and I had my own personal fantasy.

I imagined that we would make it to the Avadhoot's hut, and he'd be sitting there in a very plain room. You know, nothing elaborate, no golden tapestry, nothing like that. Just simple furniture, maybe a rug, and some little tinkly music in the background. And then we'd sit there around a bald old naked man, and all of us would be free to be naked or not naked. We'd all sit around in a group and just, like ... assimilate his radiance, you know? His naked radiance. And be in the presence of his naked truth. So this is what I was hoping for.

STUART: I had no idea, I didn't know whether he'd be naked, whether we would have to be naked, whether it would just be like a big mirror or something. Their ad described it in such extraordinary terms, I couldn't imagine what they could do to live up to it.

But, to make a long story short, we got there and it was just some guy sitting up there who talked nicely, you know? And a lot of people bowing and scraping to him. [He was only naked in the metaphorical sense.]

JANARDAN: But he did have a couple of testicles who were very impressive, and any objection you made to his teachings were shot down by these testicles that he had.

STUART: Janardan is referring to the fact that the Avadhoot always sat in between these two henchpeople, one male, one female, who were his highest disciples.

JANARDAN: His testicles!

STUART: One would sit on his left and one would sit on his right, and I think probably the way that it started ...

JANARDAN: His two gonads!

STUART: ... is at the end of the program I said to Janardan something like, "He's a real dick," and Janardan said, "Yes! And what about those two testicles he has!"

JANARDAN: Seriously, they were very offensive sometimes, especially the male testicle. But first of all, it was very nice, you go in, you sit down ... You've never visited the Avadhoot, right?


JANARDAN: So I'm not preaching to the converted. You go into this small hall, you sit down there. The Avadhoot and his pair are on a lower platform, so that all the focus is on them. He's sitting there in a dimly lit, immaculate room ...

STUART: ... dressed in white ...

JANARDAN: ... with glasses, shaved head, but in every other respect looks like your average American goof-off. And in the background there's this very nice tape of Ananda Moyi Ma [a well-known Indian guru] chanting going on, and she's moaning and groaning in a kind of mournful spiritual orgasmic manner, and he's down there, we're sitting up here meditating, and truly speaking, he had a beatific expression.

STUART: Yes, yes!

JANARDAN: I mean, I grew up hearing those words, but the Avadhoot - if he had nothing else ... if everything else was just like a sideshow, a freak sideshow - he still did have a beatific expression that could probably stop a bull in mid gallop. Certainly it stopped many a potential heckler. After we listened to the Ananda Moyi Ma chant, we just sat there quietly gazing on him as he smiled back at us, eyes beaming. Then, after a while of this, they'd open up satsang, which was basically question and answer. Stu and I never did ask questions, we just watched.

The audience was probably about 85% devotee, strictly devotee, and maybe 15% people like us or people on the fringe who were considering dedicating themselves to this vehicle of naked truth. But they would ask questions, and it seemed that 99.9% of the questions were deemed foolish in the view of either the Avadhoot or his henchmen. I felt embarrassed for the people in the audience sometimes. Some of them really meant well, but ... I guess I shouldn't have felt sorry because it was almost like a symbiotic relationship, where they were looking to be abused by his Absolute Knowledge, and he was willing to oblige them.

Even so, there was a lot of bliss in that, and in those sessions, and every once in a while he did say something that seemed like something Ramana Maharishi [a revered Indian guru] might have said.

STUART: I mean, he spoke OK, and I did get high off of it, but - my mother just got a new water purifier. I purified a gallon of water and took a drink of it and I got high off of that, you know? So you can't go by me.

[In the years following our visit, the Avadhoot (aka Nome, I.M. Nome, or Master Nome) has lost both his testicles. The male henchman, Russell Smith, was in fact Nome's brother, though this was hidden at the time of our visit. Russ left Nome in 2003, and by 2005 was suing his former Master, and setting up his own competing church nearby: "The Way of Sudden Awakening" (now defunct, with no trace of Russell found on the net). The dark underbelly of the Avadhoot's world, including the legal pissing contest with Russell, is detailed on Sarlo's guru site.]

The Cookie Monster in the Palace of Gold

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The Cookie Monster in the Palace of Gold 
Hanging with the Hare Krishnas in West Virginia

[We're discussing here our stay at New Vrindaban, a huge Hare Krishna farm/commune near Wheeling, West Virginia. The Hare Krishnas belong to a movement centered on following ancient Indian traditions (in dress, diet, etc.), and on the worship of Krishna, an incarnation of God celebrated in Hindu theology/mythology.

[Dark secrets lay beneath the surface of New Vrindaban. At the time of this discussion, Janardan and I were aware of the nefarious underbelly of the place, having read Monkey on a Stick. When we actually visited the commune, though, we had been blissfully ignorant.

[The unquestioned master of the commune was Kirtananda Swami Bhaktipad, one of 11 Krishna higher-ups who had claimed guruhood and leadership of the movement since 1977, when the movement's founder, AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, had died. Most of these 11 ultimately left the main Krishna organization, amid varying sorts of scandal. A update on the current status of Bhaktipad and New Vrindaban appears at the end of our story.]

ALAN ROSS: How did the West Virginia thing begin? Why did you even stay there? Could you tell me what was the initial ...

STUART RESNICK: Yeah, sure. The idea behind the trip was that I had been in India for two and a half years and, well, in the ashram in India it was really tight. Like, you gotta only read Our Books. In other words, if you were in the ashram in India and you went to see some other guru, you'd come back and they'd try to have you thrown out, you know? People used to say, well, you can go to the prostitute down the street and no one will care, but if you go to another holy man, you know, well that is awful.

So after two and a half years of that, I came back and I was ready to sort of free my mind by seeing a lot of other places. I thought, you know, it's not like I need to find or add anything on to my understanding, but I need to experience some different things from what I've been experiencing for two and a half years, to sort of tear apart things that I might've built up [pointing to head] in there that I didn't know about. So, Janardan ...

JANARDAN: Didn't we have the idea that this pilgrimage was an inoculation of a kind?

STUART: An inoculation, meaning ... ?

JANARDAN: To inoculate ourselves against cultish thinking of all kinds.

STUART: Well, that's a good idea.

ALAN: And you called the trip ... ?

STUART: The Bodhisattva Yatra.

JANARDAN: Well yeah. Because apart from the prostitutes that I personally wanted to save, there was the notion that somehow we had come through the ashram and survived it, you know what I mean? And there were people all over the country in all these different communities who were thriving and striving to reach enlightenment or to heights of adoration, or you know, whatever. And they were trying to save everybody else and they were trying to save themselves, and in a way, they were kind of locked into the mindset of ... well, here it is: OUR truth is the only Truth that there is. Now Stuart and I had already debunked that for ourselves, so it was ... in that sense, a Bodhisattva Yatra. Bodhisattva comes from the Buddhist tradition and expresses the idea that you don't take nirvana until all other beings are ready to do the same. And a yatra is a holy pilgrimage. So we were going out to save all beings, and especially those who thought themselves enlightened.

ALAN: Or at least for a good laugh.

STUART: Yes, yes.

ALAN: Because you'd already had contact with the Krishnas.

STUART: I always had a certain love for the Krishnas just because ... Well, first of all, because they're obviously not trapped by the conventional reality, and you gotta give 'em that. And you gotta give 'em BALLS too, because you gotta have balls to walk down the street dressed like that, chanting, and all of them knowing that everyone thinks that they're assholes.

JANARDAN: They're purists.

STUART: Yeah. Yes, yes.

JANARDAN: Whereas some of the Western cults sit half-assed, you know?

ALAN: They've got fabulous food. I mean, at the very least.

STUART: Yes, yes. Good food makes up for bad philosophy.

So Janardan and I go on this pilgrimage. I had written ahead saying that we were coming, and they had said they had someplace for us to stay cheap, you know, they had simple spiritual accommodations. When we got there and I asked about it, they said ...

JANARDAN: 400 cows! I remember you saying, "Janardan! They've got 400 cows on the farm!" And also there was a lot of hype before we got there. There was some sort of Disneyland Spiritual Paradise that was in the making. Something beyond your imagination ...

STUART: Ah yes, this Temple of Gold that I think is either the first or the second most popular tourist attraction in West Virginia. Very surreal. So, but when we got there, they said, well, you can just stay with the devotees, and just do a little bit of work and then you won't have to pay anything.

JANARDAN: And the practices, too, right? Weren't we expected to ...

STUART: Well, yeah, I guess we were expected to. I know that I did, I don't know whether you got up that early. In any case, we went there and you get up at some ungodly hour and everyone is doing their Hare Krishnas in this big hall, everyone is doing their Hare Krishna mantras.

You see, the devotees take a vow to repeat the mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. And they were supposed to do it maybe a thousand times a day or something. Which takes about two hours in the morning. Something like that, a very long time. [Note: all devotees carry a pouch with a string of beads in it that they use to keep track of the number of times they've repeated the mantra.] And they would all come and you were supposed to say it loud enough so that you could hear it ...

JANARDAN: They were all like ... walking around in the temple, Stuart included, moaning mornings, with their hands inside these ... these ... PENIS SACKS! And they're just working the beads, working them! And when you enter the temple, you hear this low rumble, "Herremm, herremm, da-darumm ..."

STUART: There's absolutely no effort to chant in unison! Everyone's doing it and you're supposed to do it loud enough so you can hear it, so everyone's saying it in an audible pitch, without any attempt to be at harmony or in rhythm. They have loudspeakers too, so that everyone can get the spiritual benefit of it. So there's this incredible Rooaaarr, you know? This incredible Doomsday-type rumble going through the ashram. And yeah, for some reason you're not supposed to let anyone see your beads. For whatever reason, they don't let people see their beads.

JANARDAN: There's more merit if it's hidden.

STUART: Yeah, so they have these little sacks ...

JANARDAN: These little scrotal sacks that you stick your hand in, and you work these beads.

STUART: There must be something somewhere in some scripture. They were very big into scripture, and there must be some scripture that says it's better, you know, more merit if you keep your beads hidden. I guess it must be that if you do it openly, people will mock you and you'll lose your faith, so better to hide it.

So anyway, they chose somebody to show us around, they said, "Oh, you have to see the Palace of Gold." So they assigned someone ...

JANARDAN: Trishna. He was kind of a mentor.

STUART: Yeah ... Now I don't remember the actual point in our conversation. Trishna would, in the course of it say, "Yeah this is our temple, and we have a temple so we can worship our guru, because the guru represents God."

JANARDAN: His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta.

STUART: Yes. Which reminds me, by the way, that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was once asked, "What do you think of His Divine Grace Srila Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada?" And Maharishi said, "A very nice name."

[Explanatory note: Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada was the Indian guru who brought the Hare Krishna movement to the West 30 years ago, and is still posthumously worshipped by devotees. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is another Indian guru who flourished in the 60s; he brought Transcendental Meditation (TM) to the West. Picking up followers such as the then godlike Beatles and Mia Farrow, Maharishi seemed on course for worldwide revolution. But Farrow eventually complained that Maharishi had tried to seduce her, which caused John Lennon to leave India, become disillusioned, and mock Maharishi with the song "Sexy Sadie" on the "White Album," no doubt slowing the global progress of Maharishi's movement.]

JANARDAN: Maharishi. Yes, well of course, he had his little galliance with Mia Farrow, now didn't he?

STUART: Well, we know about Mia Farrow now.

JANARDAN: Ahh com'on! "Sexy Sadie"?

STUART: What are you talking about?

JANARDAN: The Beatles' song, "Sexy Sadie"!

STUART: That referred to Maharishi.


STUART: Yes, yes. But John Lennon only thought that because Mia Farrow said that Maharishi ...

JANARDAN: ... said she preferred Maharishi to Frank Sinatra ... ?

STUART: But - now we know that Mia Farrow is wacko and sends Woody Allen Christmas cards with skewers in them. And she changed the course of Western Civilization! If it wasn't for Mia Farrow, we'd all be doing Transcendental Meditation now. It would have taken over the world. But that's neither here nor there.

In any case, Trishna, in the course of his explanation, would say, "God is a Person."

JANARDAN: Trishna was a tall, bald-headed, beautiful guy in his young twenties, very amicable, not one of these eye-dead mumbling sycophantic listen-to-me-I'm-telling-you-the-Truth kind of guys at all. No! A very likable guy, the kind of guy you would share a beer with if he wasn't so fucked up.

STUART: He would give me this stuff from the scriptures, and then he would look at me, you know, like "So, what do you think?" As if he wanted something. And I was there for free, I didn't want to pick a fight, you know? And I for the most part wasn't contradicting him until he would say, "So, what do you think?" That was his job.

So eventually what it came down to was, he said, "God is a Person. That's what the scriptures say. What do you think of that?"

And I said, "Well, you know, I don't believe in something just because it's written in the scriptures." And he didn't know what to say. After that, we went on to something else.

JANARDAN: Well, the thing was, he knew we weren't entirely unsympathetic. He knew that Stuart had been to India, he could see we did practice, that we were serious meditators, so that when Stuart says something like that, the guy has a certain respect. He doesn't think Stuart has said that without careful consideration, you know what I mean?

STUART: So a couple days go by, and people would say to us, "How long are you staying?" And I'd say, "Well, we're thinking of leaving tomorrow." And they'd say, "No, no, no! You can't leave tomorrow, you have to stay for the talk by Bhaktipad."

ALAN: Is that the guru with the gold temple?

STUART: No, that's Bhaktivedanta, the old guy who came from India and founded the movement. He's dead now, and this particular ashram is run by a guy named Bhaktipad, who was a gay acid freak from New York who turned to Krishna and ended up being God at this place.

JANARDAN: He had no teeth. And he was very roly-poly. And he preferred little boys.

ALAN: This was who you called the Cookie Monster?

STUART: Yes. [More on this later ...] So they said we had to stay until he gave question and answers.

And when I said to Janardan, "Do you want to leave tomorrow" - because I was sort of nervous ... I mean, even though I didn't know at that time that there were bodies buried there, I suspected there was something uncomfortable going on ... - Janardan would just have this sweet look on his face, and say, "I don't know if I ever want to go." And only he can know what he actually meant by that, because throughout the years he always yanks my chain in one way or another, so I never know.

[Note: according to Monkey on a Stick, bodies of dissidents were in fact found buried on the grounds of this West Virginia ashram in the years following our visit.]

So finally we agree that we'll leave them the morning after Bhaktipad's talk, and I guess they figured that's OK, because he'll surely convert us if only we hear his wise words.

JANARDAN: ... or massage his wise feet.

In India, there are a few very interesting concepts associated with spiritual seekers in the company of saints. First of all is satsang, when all the members of the community get together and tell each other what they know. They share their spiritual experiences and repeat the scriptures. They kind of intellectually shake hands, as if to say, "We're all together, we're ALL RIGHT!"

WAYNE HINKLE: I'm OK, you're OK!

STUART: Everyone else is screwed!

We'd also be together every day at lunch. And it was not just that we were there with Bhaktipad, not just that there were the little boys massaging his feet, and that every once in a while as he was eating he would just sort of look up and toss an asparagus out into the crowd that everyone would fight over ...
JANARDAN: Yes! The guru's leavings! That's prashad, another key concept.

STUART: Prashadam.

WAYNE: Prasad?

JANARDAN: Well, the thing is, everyone else in India calls it prasad, but the Hare Krishnas call it prashadam.

STUART: Pra-sha-dam. And that's how I knew that Janardan was going over to the dark side, because he would come over and say, "Oh, is it time to go get some prashadam?"
But not only was all that going on, but if you'll remember, while we were eating, there was a guy reading from the scriptures. And it was not like a Christian preacher. As we were eating, he would open the book and say, "And then, LORD SHREE GOVINDA said to the assembled multitudes, 'We must all chant the Divine Name of Krishna'," in this horrifying monotone, continuously, while you were trying to eat.

JANARDAN: The reason for what Stuey just described is that when you eat, or when you are with a guru, or when you are making love, you are especially open to spiritual vibrations or whatever. And so, you see, by reading or hearing the scriptures while you're eating, the blessings to be accrued from the scriptures enter the food that you're eating, and you absorb that into your body and into your spiritual being.

And this is the whole concept, too, behind the prashadam. The guru may just pick an asparagus off his plate, and he may throw it on the ground, and that may have been the same kind of asparagus that was on your plate before, but - because he picked it up, because it's been in his aura, see, it's assumed all of his spiritual vibrations. So! By picking up that asparagus and shoving it up your anus, you acquire the highest spiritual benefit! And if you would eat it - tenfold the amount of merit!

WAYNE: What would happen if, say for instance, he threw a piece of asparagus out there and it just plopped on the floor and no one touched it? And just looked at it?

JANARDAN: Oh, that would never happen.

WAYNE: Oh, why? What would happen then?

JANARDAN: Because we were all eager to receive his prashadam.

STUART: I mean, if indeed someone did pick up that asparagus and shove it up their ass, they either would've been instantly killed or worshipped, I don't know which.

Now one of the reasons I had wanted to go to this place is ... well, it was just intriguing to me. The Krishnas had this separate world that was cut off from the rest of society. They had kids there who did not realize that they were weird, you know? They thought that this was the world. They'll probably grow up to be, who knows, six, ten ... you can grow up to a certain age in that farm, and then one day, they go to the big city and it's just, "Mommy?!? Daddy!?!"

ALAN: Like the Amish.

STUART: Yes, yes. And what a shock it must be when they realize that the entire world isn't like Hare Krishnas!

Anyway ... the night of the big satsang, the question and answer program with Bhaktipad, comes. There's a whole community, this whole world, this whole alternate universe, internally consistent, existing on its own there, and they're all in this huge hall to hear the guru. And they're all wearing these orange robes, they all have what Janardan called a "pooh-pooh," which means they'd shaved heads with a little ponytail left over in back, you know? So they're all sitting there ... It's question and answer time, and this guru, this roly-poly man that they all literally think is God, is there ...
But first, to give you some more background on this, they did an expose on one of those 60 Minutes-type shows of this guy, and a few things from it stick in my mind. Of course, if they had asked the adults, "What do you do here?" the adults would sort of filter it, and think, all right, this is 60 Minutes, you know, let me say this in some way that isn't too offensive to the mainstream. But 60 Minutes did the smart thing and asked the kids, and the kids could only answer honestly. So they asked them questions like, "So, do you pray for Bhaktipad, or do you pray to Bhaktipad?" And all the kids said, "No, we pray to him." You know, "because he is the Divine Blah-blah-blah-blah."

JANARDAN: He's the Divine Representative.

STUART: He's Krishna's Representative.

JANARDAN: Their terminology was exquisitely banal. I wish I could remember more of it. You would hear words like "Representative," "God-head," a lot, you know?

WAYNE: Was he the one that they eventually caught with all the Mercedes?

JANARDAN: No, that was Bhagawan Shree Rajneesh.

STUART: Although this guy Bhaktipad eventually did go to jail and Alan Dershowitz had to go down to talk his way out of it. In the 60 Minutes type thing, they also asked him, "Well, there are reports that women are being beaten here." Which, in fact, if you go back to the Indian scriptures, you can probably find justification for wife-beating, so that probably did go on.

But he said to 60 Minutes ... it wasn't 60 Minutes, it was 20/20 ... he said, "No, no, no. It's not that I advocate wife-beating. It's like ... if my dog misbehaves, I'll roll up a newspaper and give him a swat on the nose." And, whether you think that's a pigheaded opinion or not, at least, anyone with any connection to reality knows that it's not something you say on national TV.

ALAN: Sean Connery did.

JANARDAN: And the women still love him.

ALAN: Absolutely.

JANARDAN: And would still love to, uh ...

ALAN: ... do 'im.

JANARDAN: Yeah. But Stuart is right that this was a very cohesive community, and the women I met there seemed to acclimate fully to those Vedic scriptures, to all the injunctions, some of which did seem kind of absurd. Like the ones about cows, the ones about dress ... I never could quite understand and I used to ask Stu, why do they have to wear the fuckin' 2,000 year old dress? How does that bring them closer to God? Again, I'm not sure of the fine print in the scriptures, but ostensibly the rationale is simply "we want to be close to the original goatherds and Gopis that loved Krishna, because by emulating them, we, by some sort of symbiotic identification, will advance closer to Krishna himself." Krishna, by the way, might be a fictitious being, but that's another story.

STUART: And the things with the cows are just like so offensive at so many different levels, that I wouldn't even want to get into it.

JANARDAN: Oh! You mean like the cow dung and the drinking the cow urine?

ALAN: Jeeez!

WAYNE: What's with the cows, anyway?

JANARDAN: Of course, drinking your own pee was something popular!

STUART: Oh, that's another story!

WAYNE: Oh God!

STUART: But the thing with the cows is that Krishna - the god that they worshipped - was a cowherder, so all of a sudden cows are the most sacred thing in the world. And you bathe the statue of Krishna in this, this mixture that includes cow urine for sure, not to mention - who knows? Feces, semen. We really don't know.

JANARDAN: Got a little extra discharge? Just add it to the brew!

But what is often forgotten about Krishna is that he made love to something like 400 -

WAYNE: Cows?

JANARDAN: No, women! Simultaneously.

WAYNE: Simultaneously?!

JANARDAN: Married women! This is a very unusual kind of god. Yet the women at New Vrindaban had to remain in the back of the temple. They were definitely second place. I don't know if this is just the oriental way, but they couldn't dance in front of the altar, because the men were supposed to be closest to the deities. The women were willing, subservient, swaying.

ALAN: Sounds sort of Hasidic.

WAYNE: How did that come about, though? Why were the women always downtrodden, let's say?

JANARDAN: Because, according to the scriptures, they don't have the spiritual essence that the male has. You see, the male has "virya," which is "ojas" contained in the semen, and this stuff propels you toward Godhead! But what do the women have? The best that women can hope for is to marry someone who is enlightened or at least on the way, and then when he dies, to kill themselves. Right? That's called "suttee." Oh, and father his children. They were good at that, a lot of the women did have babies. Of course, some of them were being abused by the guru.

STUART: The short answer, of course, is that the scriptures were written by men.

WAYNE: Sounds like one of those old blues tunes from the turn of the century.

STUART: What we've been trying to communicate is that here's Bhaktipad, worshipped as God in this community that is so Twilight Zone-isolated from the rest of the world that you don't know what's going to go on there. They could believe anything, they could do anything, because they have no connection to the reality that we're familiar with. So Bhaktipad begins his question and answer and, as you know, whenever this starts, there's always a pause, because everyone's sort of nervous to ask the first question.

JANARDAN: They call it satsang.

STUART: Huuugge room. A filled, packed room.

ALAN: And they're all dressed identically, of course, except for you and Janardan.

JANARDAN: Exactly! We stand out like two sore thumbs. Everybody else looks identical, perfectly homogeneous. And Stuey and I are sitting with them, but in jeans and Pink Floyd T-shirts.

ALAN: And hair on your head.

STUART: So Trishna jumps in the very first opportunity with his first question, which is, "What should we do if we're preaching to someone, and they say that just because something is in the scriptures, they don't necessarily believe it?" You know? Verbatim what I had said to him.

JANARDAN: And the guru, stirring from a doze, says, "WHAT'S THAT?!" And Trishna says, "What should we say to those people who suggest that God is not a Person?" And the guru, who has been languishing on his chair with [a belly like]a 50-pound bowling ball in his lap, being massaged by meek little boys with pooh-poohs on their heads, this guy so full of this Krishna sugar food he eats, all of a sudden screams out of a nearly toothless mouth: "WHAAAAT!!???!!! WHOOOO SAYS SUCH THINGS??!! We shall KILL them!" And I look over at Stuart sitting next to me, and he looked like that guy in the Spanky's Gang ... what's his name ... Wheaties?

STUART: Buckwheat. Who, by the way, has now converted to being a Black Muslim and changed his name to Kareem-of-Wheat.

WAYNE: Oh really?

JANARDAN: But back to the guru, he said, "WHO says such things??!! WHO are these IMPOSTERS??!! They should SHOW themselves!!" And I don't know about Stuart, man, but my kundalini was RISING! I mean, I felt tingles up and down. My heart was going BNNHH-BNNHHH-BNNHHH.

ALAN: Did you back up towards the door?

JANARDAN: Anything could've happened, they could have all just ... But Trishna, bless him, stayed cool.

STUART: He did not offer us up, even though it was SO SADLY OBVIOUS, you know? During that time when your kundalini was rising, I was actually doing the Hare Krishna mantra with all my might, praying. I never pray, I always thought I would die before praying, yet here I was praying to Lord Shree Krishna to rescue me.

WAYNE: So the guru got excited over that one? A little too many of them cookies.

JANARDAN: That came next. We had been prepped and hyped about the question and answer program. We were told that there would be something very special happening afterward, at the end of the program ...

STUART: And we were told it was a Cookie Toss. But when we said, "What's a Cookie Toss?" they just said, "Oh, well, you'll see!"

JANARDAN: So we're in the temple, on beautiful white marble floors, and the deities are kind of hanging out behind their curtains, and all the people are gathered around and there's this buzz going around: "Cookie Toss, Cookie Toss! Cookie Toss, Cookie Toss!" And the guru ... basically, the guru tosses cookies into the audience. Keep bearing in mind everything that was said about the merit, you know? Just imagine a cookie thrown by a guru - how much shakti [spiritual energy] is transmitted through that gesture. So the devotees were pretty aggressive about that.

STUART: The whole crowd would sort of coagulate around the area where the last cookie was tossed.

JANARDAN: And I was, like, "How come the same guys keep getting the cookies?" And we were told, "Look man, you want to get one of those cookies, you gotta go for it!" And as I watched, I was bewildered to see Stuart just elbowing people aside, and knocking over women to grab a cookie thrown by Bhaktipad!

ALAN: So you became caught up in the whole thing?

STUART: Hey - I just wanted a fucking cookie, you know?

JANARDAN: But I have to admit, though I did like to pull Stuart's chain, there were a couple of times, man, when I was watching the deities unfold and I really had to question whether this world really isn't simply a veil of maya, and whether the true reality isn't contained somewhere within ...

WAYNE: A cookie?

STUART: Lord Krishna's lotus feet.

JANARDAN: Yes, Lord Krishna's lotus feet. There was something supernaturally attractive about that setup. It was only Stuart's great fondness for me, and his wish to save a spiraling soul, that saved me from that place.

But the Krishnas were good to us, actually, when you think about it. After all, we weren't murdered. We were never molested. Not that I know of, at least not consciously. And we got a lot of cheap vegetarian food. The Krishnas were very good to us.

And that's the difficult thing, because when people want to hear about the Krishna story, I actually have fond memories of the Krishnas. People are just ready to jump on the Krishnas: "You were with the Krishnas? Wow, how bad were they?" But the fact is, most of my memories are happy ones. They were all right. I guess as long as you didn't rub the wrong person the wrong way. Or, if you rubbed the wrong person the right way, and then stopped rubbing them - you might get rubbed out! Monkey on a Stick, though, was brutal in its descriptions.

STUART: Well, I like the Krishnas in the same way I like a lot of time talking to fundamentalist Christians, because sort of what annoys me the most is people who are hypocritical. Meaning, they say, "Yes, I believe in God," but then, for instance, when they're sick or they're scared of death, they say, "Oh I never want to die," they treat death as a big tragedy. Which is inconsistent with this idea that they're going to go up to heaven, you know what I mean?

What I like about the Krishnas is, even though I think their ideas are bullshit, they really just take them and hold onto them with all their might and try to carry them through all the way. And that's part of my mind - I like simplicity, I like purity. That's why I like chess, that's why I like poker, because it's simple, it's straightforward, and you can take one idea and follow it all the way through. And no matter how bad the idea is, that sort of intrigues me about the Krishnas.

JANARDAN: It also makes them much less threatening. To me, at least.

ALAN: They're so two-dimensional.

JANARDAN: They're so two-dimensional that it would be like playing a child a game of chess, because you always know what buttons to press or not to press, etc. So there's a sense of like taking candy from a child, taking cheap ...

STUART: ... cookies ...

JANARDAN: ... from baby Krishna. Yes.

[In the years following our visit, the mid-to-late 80s, Bhaktipad experimented with more Christian styles of dress, liturgy, paraphernalia, and symbols. Without changing core philosophy, he hoped to demonstrate that Christians and Krishnas are fellow lovers of God. While Bhaktipad may have considered these changes an ecumenical preaching strategy, powers within the main Krishna organization accused him of "wholesale conversion to ... Christian millenarianism" and warned of a New Vrindavan "Jonestown".

[At the same time New Vrindaban was being shunned by the outside Krishna community, Bhaktipad faced increasing pressure from police investigations, and in 1996 stood trial on six counts of mail fraud, three counts of racketeering, and one count each of conspiracy and interstate travel to commit murder for hire. The victim of this murder was Sulocana das, allegedly killed for exposing scandal in his manuscript The Guru Business. Bhaktipad served time till 2004; upon his release, the main Krishna organization banned him from visiting the commune he founded. He continued to preach in New York City, through an organization he established called the Interfaith League of Devotees. Within a few years, conflicts and defections among his American devotees convinced Kirtananda that "There's no sense in staying where I'm not wanted"; in 2008, he permanently moved his mission to India, where he died three years late. Krishnas who oppose Bhaktipad have detailed his dark history on the net.

[A former long-time resident of New Vrindaban, who saw this whole story unfold, attempted to write a history entitled New Vrindaban: The Black Sheep of ISKCON. By 2007, he lamented, "... the more research I undertake, the more horror stories I discover, until now I am not sure whether the New Vrindaban Community was more a spiritual community or more a criminal enterprise operating under the guise of a religious community. Truly I have become disheartened." The strange tale of New Vrindaban is currently detailed in the indie documentary Holy Cow, Swami. This DVD includes interviews with Bhaktipad, devotees, ex-devotees, prosecuters, and Alan Dershowitz; also some back-story on Prabupada and the origins of the Krishna movement. Thumbs up!

[The newspaper article Rebuilding its temple suggests that typical Krishnas are no longer young Americans renouncing the world for a life of monkish spirituality, but more likely a congregation of expatriate Indian householders. On that page, click on the Krishnas Come Home video link to see footage of New Vrindaban in 2006.

[Re Mia Farrow's claim that Maharishi made a pass at her, see this Daily Mail article from 2014.

[New Vrindaban itself is alive and well, both as a Hare Krishna temple and a tourist attraction. One of the current residents even maintains an unofficial blog about his life as an aspiring devotee. I guess the mood has lightened in the intervening years, as the blog's motto is: "Cows may come, cows may go, but the bull is always here."]