My Teachers: Helmut Hoffmann

I returned to graduate school at Indiana University, in Bloomington, not just because I had begun a Psychology program there several years earlier, but because I had recruited to New York half a dozen locals who had wanted to study Kundalini Yoga with Rudi. Swami Muktananda had directed him to start ashrams in the USA and I suggested Bloomington as fertile ground. I was right. Within a year of our return there were about 50 budding yogis living in a four bedroom house, its basement and a few tents outside when weather permitted. Although we were violating every fire code in town the authorities left us alone because most residents were former hippies or dealers who had given up drugs for yoga. I imagine that the police and fire department considered any fire or health risk we posed to be more than compensated for by the mass of drugs that were now off the street.

Every couple of months Rudi would come out to teach meditation classes and with each visit our community of yogis would grow.

We built bunk beds out of two-by-fours and slept six to a room, men in two bedrooms and women in the other two. Romance required finding a (temporarily) empty room or a tent. I got fairly good at determining when my roommates would be working.  Food was simple, and there was enough of it, though I can't recall how the kitchen managed to keep up.  Every night residents were joined by hippies from town, all of us sitting knee-to-knee for meditation classes in the former living room. Rudi had empowered Michael, Strats and I to teach. We took turns leading the meditation practice, which consisted of facing the community and passing the shakti-energy back and forth between ourselves and our students. By the time each session was over everyone was high. I would feel outright intoxicated by the end of a half hour of this practice. But I also began to notice the imbalanced power relationships which the practice engendered. It seemed that the structure of the group practice could create a sort of spiritual pyramid scheme (with the teacher at the top) if everyone was not cautious. I could not resolve the concern, and no matter how much I would give back when teaching, it never seemed like I could level the pyramid and restore a balance.

Parallel to my life in the ashram, I began work on an M.A. in Religious Studies and at the same time set out to complete my M.S. in Counseling Psychology. Though it was not our plan, the ashram had turned out to be a booming success at helping drug users recover. In addition to the police, the local mental health establishment took notice, concluded I had valuable skills and offered me work in community mental health agencies, which eventually proved a handy way to finance my Ph.D. studies. 

Though the ashram flourished and still exists (though now located in Portland, Oregon), after a year I left to live the life of a graduate student and practice yoga on my own. I wanted some privacy and what might pass for a normal life, but more importantly, I had not been able to resolve the student-teacher power problem to my own satisfaction and determined that I would not teach meditation again until I had found a resolution.

My academic study of religion naturally focused on India because that was what interested me and also because I felt that my meditation practice had given me extra insight into the ancient Indian scriptures. I was probably correct. The way I had gained admission into the Religious Studies department was through an interview with the resident Indologist.  He was dubious about my qualifications, and created an impromptu admission exam -- he pulled a text off his shelf and quizzed me about the meaning of a variety of passages.  I answered all his questions correctly and he promptly admitted me to the M.A. program.

But in time I was drawn into the orbit of a German professor in the Tibetan department by the name of Helmut Hoffmann. Even among the remarkable professors at the university he stood out for his extraordinary erudition. A 1938 graduate of the University of Berlin, he had survived the war and reconstruction of Germany with great difficulty, converting his suffering into a deep concern for his students. He once told us that his digestion had been ruined after the war because he was forced to subsist on oats. That was probably the reason that he fed the students who came to his apartment for advanced textual studies. I could not keep track of all the languages he knew, and he worked with the original texts as he tracked symbols, such as the lotus, over the centuries and across the cultures of Eurasia.  His brilliance was seductive and in time I shifted my academic focus from Indology to Tibetan Studies so I could be his student. But yoga continued as my spiritual practice.
Helmut Hoffmann

Hoffmann was the sort of mentor most graduate students can only dream of. When I told him that I was thinking of translating one of Nagarjuna's middle way Buddhist philosophy texts for my doctoral dissertation he responded by telling me that he was no expert on the subject, but considered it an opportunity for us to learn together. For a couple of years we met weekly in his book-filled apartment to work through difficult points in Buddhist philosophy and history. When we would hit roadblocks he would try to solve the problems by scouring his library, which filled the living room and second bedroom of the apartment. Usually he would find the answers in books I had never heard of written in languages I could not read. In time I realized that I was probably his weakest student and when we talked about it he cryptically assured me that it was important for me to obtain a Ph.D. and that he would assist me to complete it because I had valuable work to do . Though one of the most prominent European orientalists of his generation, he also had a prophetic sense of things, and he made it clear that his view of me was seated in that domain. But what he saw about the work I was to do he would not share.

Our final meeting, in the late summer of 1979, was dramatic. As my doctoral dissertation defense concluded and I was congratulated as a newly minted member of the Ph.D. guild he suggested that the entire committee go out for rounds of beer to celebrate. Just then there was a clap of thunder so loud that the building shook and it began to rain like an Indian monsoon. We all looked at each other, decided that a celebration would be anti-climactic, and headed out on our own ways.

Within the year Professor Hoffmann had retired and returned to Germany. I still consider myself fortunate beyond words to have had the opportunity to be his student.  When we began our work together I was a shakti-crazed yogi in a hippy ashram, and by the end I was a scholar who had been polished by a brilliant stone.

1 comment:

  1. I love reading these because you are filling out the stories that have captivated me for years with new details and insights!