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


  1. Yeah!! it's great to begin at the beginning and plant that seed in the fertile soil, so we, the readers can follow that sprout through it's long journey up until the present moment..........But...there are too many "buts" in the second paragraph....and though the backside can be a revelation in it's self reflection......perhaps a few variations are in order.....;-)

  2. Thanks, I have taken some of my "but"s out of Yosemite. On the first hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls I was 5 years old, and my butt was the least thing I was noticing. :-0