My Teachers: Rudi

This is what my wife likes to call a spiritual adventure story.

I was walking down Grant Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach one fall evening in 1970 when a poster on a telephone pole caught my attention.  It had an image of a mostly naked Indian man sitting on a tree stump and laughing.  There was something almost insanely compelling about the laughter. The poster was advertising a lecture by this person, who was called Swami Muktananda. I gathered some friends and joined the handful of people at the lecture the next night.  There was nothing particularly compelling about the event, and when it was over we headed back to my apartment in the Mission District for a smoke. As we relaxed and chatted about the Swami I was immediately hit by what I can only describe as a wave of light-energy which was emanating from him.  I'd learned that the Swami's next venue that night was at the Integral Yoga Institute, which was just a few blocks from my flat, and immediately hustled over there.  

Swami Muktananda

I arrived at the Institute just in time to join a small crowd gathered around Swami Muktananda, who was getting into a limo. I mumbled my disappointment and the tall blond bearded guy standing next to me mentioned that the Swami was teaching every morning at a mansion in the Oakland Hills, across the Bay. He offered vague directions.

I did not have a car, so early the next morning I walked a couple of miles to the nearest freeway on-ramp and stuck out my thumb.  The first car that drove up stopped and opened its door. I got in and found myself sitting next to the blond beard from the previous evening. Obviously I was in the flow.

At the time I was a hippy pretending to be a graduate student of Asian religions, and had considerable control over my time. So over the next few mornings I returned to the mansion to meditate -- and to have a succession of profound experiences.  It was apparent that Swami Muktananda was the sort of enlightened yogi I had been reading about. Finger or moon? -- Thich Thien-An might have asked. I was intoxicated. Moon, of course, but the Swami was on his way back to India from California. How does an impoverished hippy graduate student get to India?  I mulled this question over with a fellow intoxicated meditator, who pointed me toward the Swami's senior student and the patron for the tour, a wealthy antiques dealer from New York by the name of Rudi, who owned a converted hotel-ashram in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. After a few days with Swami Muktananda, all I wanted to do was chant the names of God and meditate, and I figured that although I could not hitch-hike to India, I could hitch-hike to New York. 

Forget the pointing finger, go for the moon. All I had to do was let my thumb carry me 3,000 miles across the USA in the middle of the winter.

One morning at the Oakland mansion I approached Rudi and asked him if I could join up. He poked my forehead, where my third eye would have been, if I had had one, laughed and said, "It goes right through you. Sure, you can come to live in my ashram. When can you get there?"  At the time I had no idea of what it was that was "going through me", but thinking it best to at least finish up the term, I said, January and he said fine.  

A month later I began the cross country trek and after a couple of weeks washed up in lower Manhattan before dawn on a snowy and VERY frigid morning. I had $7 in my pocket and didn't know a soul in the city besides Rudi, with whom I had spent a total of 10 minutes. I called the phone number he had given me. A person called Stuart answered, yelled at me for calling so early in the morning, told me to come by Rudi's shop at 10 AM and hung up. New York hospitality. With no where else to go, I found the proverbial church with the unlocked door and froze in a pew until 10 AM.

I was the third Californian to show up as a result of the tour. The fourth, Sandy, a huge Hollywood stunt man, ex-green beret and ex-jet pilot came several weeks after me. I quickly figured out that the action was in Manhattan with Rudi rather than in his upstate ashram, and stayed in the city with the other Californians, all of us spending our nights sleeping on the living room floor of his townhouse, working by day in his Asian antiques shop (which was around the corner), and mornings and evenings meditating and chanting the names of God. Sandy was a particularly welcome addition, as the neighborhood was infested with muggers. Soon after his arrival the muggers disappeared --- he had beaten the crap out of them, making the blocks around us probably the safest in New York. 
Rudi with the first three bearded Californians and assorted local students in
January 1971
Me in the center, under the hair, beard and glasses 

Rudi was, more formally, Swami Rudrananda, an absolute master of Kundalini Yoga -- which he set about teaching us. The main technique for mastering this Yoga was a specific breathing technique, which he called double breathing, and which I later learned the Tibetans called vase breathing. Soon enough I began to feel the spiritual energy called shakti flowing through me. As we would meditate together, Rudi would generate it and we would tap into it, using breath control to circulate it through our bodies.  It was like getting stoned without drugs. Better, in fact. Over time I learned to control the energy by surrendering to its flow. 

Control by surrender was only one of the many paradoxes I lived. I had no money what-so-ever and along with a half dozen other guys slept on a mat on the floor of a fabulous townhouse, which was stuffed from floor to ceiling with nothing but museum quality sculptures from India, Tibet, China and Japan.  My yoga teacher was not some paper thin delicate Hindu, but a 40-something overweight, bald, gay Jewish man from Brooklyn. But his heart was larger than his girth, he was a powerhouse of spiritual energy, and he held nothing back. All in all it was a lesson in what I later learned was the distinction between reality and appearance.
Swami Rudrananda.

I was his student for a year and a half, during which time he trained me to circulate the shakti-energy and to teach others the same technique by transmitting the shakti to them as he had to me.  But spirituality aside, I needed to make a living.  Rudi had combined profound spiritual development with a life as I business man. I pondered his example, considered my options, and decided to return to graduate school in Indiana. I was determined to become a professor of Asian religions.

My Teachers: Thich Thien-An

We all know, of course, that we owe our bodies to our parents, though we rarely think about it.  When I buried my parents I thanked them for my body, but I don't do that every day. When I meditate I recall my debt to my teachers and I thank them every day. 

We Buddhists know that a basic principle of Buddhism is the law of dependent origination. Sometimes it is said that the Four Noble Truths are the basic teachings of Buddhism, but they are really an expression of dependent origination:
Suffering depends on the causes of suffering.  
The cessation of the causes of suffering depends on the eight-fold path.

My maturing spiritual self depends on the kindness and the instruction of my teachers.  It is that simple.  Since what I write on this blog comes from this maturing self, I thought it appropriate to share my gratitude on this blog.

My first Buddhist teacher was Thich Thien-An.  I took his class on Buddhism at UCLA in 1966, when he was a new immigrant from the turmoil of the Vietnamese war. Quickly I began to practice Zen meditation with him at his apartment in Westwood.  I remember being under the impression that if he had not left Vietnam he would have been assassinated.
Thich Thien-An some years after I sat zazen with him

I only remember two things from his instruction.  The first was his face when he settled into zazen --- profound peace. I wanted that. 

The second thing I remember was a story he told. If two people were to walk outside some night, and the first asked the second, "Where is the moon?", the second would point to it; "There." Naturally the first person would look at the pointing finger and then at the moon to which the finger pointed.  "Wouldn't it be foolish," said Thich Thien-An, "to look at the finger and forget to look at the moon?" He meant that we should not get so hung up on the teachings which point to liberation that we forget to practice liberation.

I may forget to practice liberation but I never forget that story, and I share it with all my own students.  That is one of the ways I can repay his kindness for setting my foot on the path of the Buddha. 

I had to walk that path for many years before I began to wonder why the first person would even ask, "Where is the moon?" Wouldn't it be obvious? The moon light of our Buddha self shines day and night, yet we do not see it.  So we ask our teachers,  "Where is the light?  Please show me the light." 

We humans are so confused we can't even see the moon.

My Teachers: Yosemite

My spiritual journey began in an art history class when I was a college sophomore. It was unanticipated. I was in the course to learn about modern art, which interested me because I'd spent many of my Monday nights at the Melrose Street art gallery openings and wanted to know more about what I had been looking at. The professor took us on a journey into African and Asian art before getting to modern art because she maintained that you had to know what kind of art Impressionists, such as Cezanne, were looking at if you wanted to understand their art. As soon as she projected images of Sung Dynasty landscape paintings I was captivated. I'd never seen anything like them before, but to me they were truer than any art I had ever seen. Twisted pines, water and mountains dominated the paintings; the people were minor elements. She talked about the pantings, but I wanted to know more. "If you want to understand these paintings you need to study Zen Buddhism," she informed me. So I headed to the college bookstore and bought a copy of Alan Watts' The Way of Zen. And then another book, and then another, which lead me to the Upanishads, which were another revelation.

Fan K'uan: Travelers Among Mountains and Streams

At that point in my education I was casting about for a professional direction and I was so taken by Zen that I considered studying Chinese. However, that seemed both difficult and impractical, so I settled on Psychology. Even so, my interest in Zen and Upanishadic philosophy grew stronger and stronger. I began to itch for actual experience beyond what I was reading, but in 1966 there was not the range of options that exist in Los Angeles these days. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to Los Angeles -- before the Beatles had discovered him and he had become inaccessible --- and I took instruction in Transcendental Meditation from him. I concluded that the technique was about keeping the mind awake while the body fell asleep, which I found uninteresting, and looked elsewhere. There was Scientology, but that did not click. I checked into the Self Realization Fellowship of Paramahansa Yogananda and the Vedanta Society in Hollywood. No clicking there either. When I discovered a class on Buddhism at UCLA I enrolled, and click, I found my second spiritual mentor: Thich Thien-An.

It took several years for me to realize who my first spiritual mentor was. For that I had to awaken to what memory had resonated for me in the Sung landscapes. It was a recollection of an experience I'd had when I was five years old. My parents had taken me on a vacation to Yosemite, where I played at the foot of giant pines, hiked to thundering waterfalls, and looked at vistas of granite mountains sheared by ancient glaciers. For a child who had never before been out of dessicated Los Angeles those sights, scents and feelings were a true spritual awakening. It was direct and unmediated by thoughts or conventions; the sort of total experience only a child can have.That was what I had seen again in the Sung landscapes, and that recollection was what had awakened my spiritual longing. The earth herself had been my first spiritual teacher.

Yosemite: Vernal Falls

The Bodhisattva Path

When we read about Shariputra or Avalokiteshvara we are reading about bodhisattvas. These are not ordinary persons like you and I. They are beings who have committed themselves to a life (or lifetimes) of what we would call evolution.  By this term I mean conscious and intentional development of one's capacities and facilities so that one can separate appearances from realities and actually be a positive force in the world, for themselves, for other humans and for non-humans -- in fact, the very planet itself.

In this way we might say that they were the first ecological activists. 

Today, as I looked at my own life from the (somewhat elderly) perspective of having lived most of it, I asked myself what was the point of it all?  Which lead to the question, what should I be doing in the limited time which remains to me?  Seeking new adventures, places and experiences is appealing, but off and on I've done that for 68 years now.  In the end, that approach has not answered the fundamental questions of why and what? Today I remembered that being on the bodhisattva path is a way of existing with purpose, and not just a way of merely existing. It answers the question of why am I here?  Since I don't believe some god placed me here, any answers to my questions which depend on that framework are not going to work for me. But this Buddhist answer does.

While I take the answer to have some metaphysical elements which materialists would reject, in a fundamental sense it is an answer which could work for anyone who seeks answers since in its fundamental elements it is non-metaphysical.

While my death is much on my mind these days, not that I have any prognosis beyond the usual fact of mortality, I find that I am also deeply concerned about the future of our planet. Some scientists are calling our age the age of the anthropocene extinction of life forms. And there is climate change, which is going to disrupt all human societies.  

So I ask, what can a traveler on the bodhisattva path bring to the future? -- both as a way of making this life meaningful, and as a way of benefiting the beings of the future who will have to grapple with an existence I can barely comprehend.

The Uselessness of the Heart Sutra

As we study and discuss the Heart Sutra one might wonder, what the heck does this have to do with the realities of my day-to-day life? I think I would observe that the Heart Sutra has nothing whatsoever to do with the material realities of day-to-day life. That is one of its great values.  As the sociologist Robert Bellah said (and I paraphrase a bit) no one can stand to live in everyday working life for very long; we need to take regular breaks from that reality.

"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form, form is not different from emptiness, emptiness is not different from form."  If engagement with form (ie, matter) is everyday life, we need to contemplate emptiness to take a wholesome break from everyday life.  Form and emptiness are not fundamentally different, they are simply different perspectives on the same phenomena. I think we need both perspectives to stay sane, and that is the point of the Sutra.  Most of us are conceptually mired in our relationship to form. I, for one, need to take several breaks from materialism every day.

The Taoists point out that the value in a cup is found in the empty space which we can fill with water (or, in the morning, coffee for me). The value of the Heart Sutra is precisely its material uselessness.

Heart Sutra: The Power of the Buddha

There are various translations of the Heart Sutra, those variations depending on scholarly traditions, original language of the Sutra being translated, interpretations of the translators and so forth. I have been thinking about this portion of the Sutra, derived from the Tibetan:

.... the Blessed One was absorbed in the concentration of the countless aspects of phenomena called “profound illumination.”
At that very time the Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, was looking perfectly at the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom, perfectly looking at the emptiness of inherent existence of the five aggregates also.
Then, through the power of Buddha, the Venerable Shariputra said to the Superior Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva, the great being, “How should a child of the lineage train who wishes to engage in the practice of the profound perfection of wisdom?”

What interests me here are these phrases: through the power of Buddha [who] was absorbed in the concentration of the countless aspects of phenomena called profound illumination, the Venerable Shariputra said to the Superior Avalokiteshvara ....." Here I find a reference to the relation of master and disciple, in which the mental condition of the master affects the mental condition of the disciple.  The consciousness of the Buddha, in the concentration on the aspects of phenomena, that is, their emptiness, so affects the disciple, Shariputra, that the disciple asks a question about emptiness.
Often this part of the Sutra is passed over by teachers, although Geshe Rabten goes into considerable discussion about this "power" in his book Echoes of Voidness.  For me these passages epitomize the relationship I have with my own (departed) teacher Locho Rinpoche -- which is a consciousness-to-consciousness connection which is the very basis of my practice of meditation, because in it I depend on his realizations.
The master does not just represent the ideal to which I strive as a student; he is the expression of the Buddha-mind itself, and as such is within me as much as he was within the transitory collection of his former body.  So when I look within, I find him as much as, or perhaps even more than, when I looked at him face-to-face.  And so my practice depends upon him and his realizations both in his life and beyond his life, because that Buddha-mind has not gone anywhere even though the transitory collection of Locho Rinpoche is now in the past. 

And because he and I were never fundamentally separate, when I write that my practice depends on his realizations I also am writing that my practice depends on the me which is we.

A Woman of Mystery

Sometimes circumstances present us with unexpected challenges and joys, such spending the weekend photographing models for Kayla's vintage clothing stores: and Surprises appear in the camera, such as when a friend becomes a woman of mystery.

Kayla immediately saw the surrealist style of the photo, while initially I saw only the technical elements of creating it.  Same object, two experiences.  But now I see what she saw. The mind is amazing that way, and even more mysterious than this photo.

Salmon Tacos

This morning for breakfast I found myself eating warm salmon with artichoke and green olive tapinade on corn tortillas. My lama Tara Tulku taught us to use whatever opportunity was available to contemplate our interconnectedness with the greater whole, and I remembered his teaching while munching on one of my makeshift tacos.  Alaskan wild-caught salmon melting in my mouth -- Pacific seawater becomes my body.  Corn tortillas -- midwestern earth becomes my body.   Artichokes and green olives -- California earth and Sierra-Nevada water becomes my body.  Columbia River water turns the turbines which generate the electricity which powers my microwave oven and heats the tacos.  These places all join together as "me".  How can I go about my days feeling disconnected from the world when all it takes is a little observation and imagination to see the reality that I am not separate by one hair's breadth!

The Road Beckons

In 1995 Kayla and I ended a two year retreat at Namgyal Monastery and San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch monastery with a car camping trip.  Starting in Yosemite we spent three months working our way up the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges to Tillamook, and then came back down though the redwoods to San Francisco.

We drove my beloved Mazda RX7 sports car, and dealt with its limited storage by putting a pack on the roof.

We slept in a small tent and cooked on picnic tables.

I was inspired to take the trip by several dreams I had had at Green Gulch, including one where the Dalai Lama turned into an eagle.  I looked for the eagle throughout our trip. Toward the end, as we hiked in the redwoods, we found scores of eagle feathers on the forest floor; the remains of an eagle that had died. We left them where we found them, and felt that if our journey had been a quest, it had been fulfilled.

These days Kayla is wrapping her fantasies around another extended camping trip, but our current bodies suggest a pop-up trailer rather than a tent.  The Rocky Mountains and southwest deserts are calling her.  And as we look at the photos we took those 21 years ago something calls to me as well. 

Curiously, at these same moments San Francisco Zen Center is reaching out to me, asking me to come and teach.  Circles close and reopen.  Or perhaps spirals are at work.