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Why I Became a Buddhist

Meeting My Two Spiritual Teachers

Ascending and Descending Spirit

I began to notice in my early 20’s (after college) an uneasy feeling in me. It was a kind of dissatisfaction. I began to notice that things in life were not as solid and permanent as they were cracked up to be. Not only that but there was a lot more suffering in the world and in me than was generally admitted in conversation, in society, in the media, etc. I began to suspect there was this huge conspiracy in our world whose purpose was to keep the truth of some very important aspects of life buried out of sight. I suspected or knew that there was something false going on, there were cracks everywhere; yet I knew deep in my experience, in my heart, my soul that there is some kind of truth in the world that could be contacted and lived with.

After trying to connect with this truth, whatever it was or might be, through the study first of science, then living the artist’s life in theater arts as an actor, wanting to find the genuine in a gesture, then trying to break through the veils with drug experimentation, I finally discovered Buddhism and the simple practice of meditation. Here was a culture where the all-important Western preoccupation with a self-image that was supposed to be separate, independent of others and nature, and permanent, was seen through and transcended or expanded outward. This was not only the philosophy but was to be experienced through the simple and difficult disciplined practice of meditation. It was simple because it transcended the familiar and troubled world of only personal egoic thinking, and difficult because the discipline of sitting still in meditation for long periods was unfamiliar, boring yet wonderfully spacious.

The notion of a narrow self-centered attitude or belief was dissolved into a larger reality where undivided consciousness included connection with truthful experience that had been blocked in me, but I had always intuitively known was possible and alive in everyone. Truth is a loaded and difficult word to apply to inner experience, so perhaps truthfulness, as in connecting with inner experience, is a better word to describe authentic experience (Wilber, 1996). In any case, it is difficult to say what this inner truth is. For me, I felt connected to an unusually alive experience of the living now where my psychological baggage was no longer dominant, relevant or burdensome in those moments. The inspiration for meditation practice was not found in philosophy or words but in the bodily presence of my Asian meditation teachers. Something about them was quite unusual yet also strangely familiar. Looking upon their presence communicated to me directly what I was searching for and what I knew to be possible and true in people and in life’s potential for spiritual development.

One day during my first monastic Zen three-month training period something happened to me after the noon meditation period. While still sitting on the cushion, waiting for the Zen style lunch meal to be served, I experienced an amazing realization. The spacious, open quality of meditation was still lingering and I was idly looking at a splash of sun that came through a window onto the floor. Suddenly, as the hair on my shaved head stood up and goose bumps spread throughout my body, I had a powerful, distinct, and simple flash of realization about an obvious fact of life heretofore unnoticed: that it is “always now”. I was moved to the core by this insight and decided to check it out with the Zen master, Suzuki Roshi who was in residence. I asked him if this flash of realization was an enlightenment experience. When he said yes, I asked if this was what life was like for him all the time. He smiled and said, “Well, it’s like when you hear a bird sing.”

The quality I saw in my Buddhist teachers was a relaxed lack of effort and the striking absence of defensiveness. The impression was of a human presence that was genuine, authentic, easy, relaxed, and not wearing ego’s masks. These encounters and experiences also brought me into contact with a very alive yet impersonal, perhaps transpersonal, deeply subjective experience of life that was not recognized by parents, friends, teachers, or psychology mavens that I knew or knew about. This aliveness that I discovered from highly trained Asian meditation masters was hidden, dismissed, deleted from the Western culture I was brought up and educated in. And now today, it seems all the self-help books and New Age spirituality pursuits are reaching for a huge corrective movement to uncover, bring alive into consciousness, the very same thing I had noticed was missing in my education and mainstream socialization. These words from Chogyam Trungpa outline the missing piece, the fruition that Buddhism is offering to the West:

Since all things are naked, clear

And free from obscurations, there

Is nothing to attain or realize.

The everyday practice is simply to

Develop a complete acceptance and

Openness to all situations and emotions.

And to all people – experiencing

Everything totally without reservations

And blockages, so that one never

Withdraws or centralizes onto oneself.

Meeting My Two Spiritual Teachers

When I was in my late 20’s I began a search for the ineffable. Well, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing because it actually began long before that, long before I stumbled onto the Buddhist path. What I did know from childhood was that I wanted to come into the experience of connection from the world of disconnection. When I say ‘stumbled’ I don’t mean exactly by accident. Perhaps it was by some unseen guiding hand. I do not want to sound mystical, so let me explain in a bit more detail what went before.

Developmentally speaking, as described above, I can say that during my childhood I felt frustrated, a deep frustration because my loving, enthusiastic, innocent energy was not seen, valued or met by family, my mother and father. In fact it was often ignored or punished. They were good enough people but had not had the education or upbringing that nurtured them fully and properly. They did their best but didn’t know how to meet the deepest nurturing needs of their children. They had never learned emotional parenting or the developmental needs of children from their parents. I never saw them kiss or hug or express affection to one another, for example. Everything was sort of practical which you might expect from people who came of age during the Great Depression. Scarcity and ‘doing’ seemed to be the main events of those sad days. My parents weren’t sad but only dominated by a sense of duty and repression. So love was squeezed out in our family even though physical necessities were always adequate. Needless to say, I felt frustration as a child, wounded, hurt and angry, not recognized for who I was, a bundle of wild, exuberant energy in need of much guidance and support.

During adolescence and through the high school years I fared pretty well, unaware of the angst and depression that many teenagers complain about. I loved high school, belonged solidly to a peer group of wonderfully bright and friendly boys and girls. I would say I thrived in that atmosphere, discovering and enjoying the happy getting and giving that was not possible in my family of origin.

After high school I earned my way through four straight years of college where pretty much the same atmosphere of camaraderie and glory was adorned with a new set of wonderful friends. They were intellectual, funny, poetic; we enjoyed each other so much. When it came time to leave college I walked around the bucolic rural university campus environment with a strangely new feeling of nostalgia and longing. These were sad moments of a kind I had not felt deeply before. I was about to lose the happy college years that were balanced with rigorous and consistent study toward an engineering degree, avid participation on the varsity swimming team, a love of learning, and a deeply satisfying level of friendship and bonding with several young men and women who were studying the humanities curriculum. I was always attracted to the sensitivity I loved in these friends while at the same time easily grinding through my scientific curriculum.

I had the best of both worlds during those days. When still a teenager I had a vision one day, one moment, that was something like a deep certainty, a strange feeling wherein I glimpsed what was to be my dominant task in life. This feeling of certainty reached deep inside me and, while not specific, had an outline of truth that seemed to burn like a flame in me. It was not an insight into a particular career or work but rather it was an urge to realize a certain kind of insight or knowledge. Perhaps this was simply the urge to realize my self and my own vast potential as a human being, rather than just accept the local circumscribed life that I grew up in.

Searching the world and myself to find a handle for this vision it seemed early on that science, connected with engineering, would be what I was looking for. I suppose the engineering part had to do with an urge to find out how the world worked, to solve problems in the external world of mechanics and buildings, let’s say. As a teenager everything was external because I had not woken up to an interior life. Although I had experienced suffering, it seemed I was immune to suffering and that the world was my playground and laboratory to learn from. There were signs in my last years in college that perhaps I would not like working for this outside world of mechanics after all but decided to finish my degree anyway. During my first job as a San Francisco Bay bridge designer I began to feel sure that working with engineers on structural projects was far removed from something in me that wasn’t even close to being satisfied.

A couple years of travel including Army service and a marriage somehow brought me into raw contact not only with deeper suffering but also with the world of art and artists and something in that field sparked interest and nourishment for me. My wife was as actress I was soon drafted to play the lead role in a movie with her. This began three or four years of a career in stage and theater acting as well as an enthusiastic participant in political street theater, antiwar social activism, in the late 1960’s San Francisco and New York. However, gradually something about actors and acting began to feel shallow and hollow to me and I began to have that similar disconnect to acting and performing as with engineering. I came to the conclusion that, for me, acting was a second-rate art. I was beginning to feel again a deep existential suffering about the disconnection I was feeling and experiencing.

Since many of the artists, musicians and actors I associated with were attracted to the use of drugs, thus began my third attempt, after science and art, to find the liberation I was looking for. During a period of a year or two I tried every drug imaginable, usually in the company of talented and famous artists of one kind or another. Sprinkled among the society of lost adventurers of the spirit and the artist community were some truly lost souls and I began to wonder if I was going to end up in that camp. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I ended up with a serious illness called hepatitis, auspiciously donated to me from the host of denizens with whom I shared drug paraphernalia during that short period of my life. Needless to say, this illness brought me low and into a profound encounter with death and my own mortality. For a brief period I was truly down and out, having lost my strength, my vitality, my inspiration. At some point I was living at the flat of two women actress friends during a deep winter in the late sixties, going in and out of my down situation. One evening they told me they were going to a Christmas Eve lecture by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the San Francisco Zen Center. They invited me to come along, and having nothing better to do I said yes.

We entered the old wooden former synagogue on Bush Street near the Japanese district on this dark winter holy night, climbed the creaky wide staircase, and since we were a bit early I walked up to sit in the front row of chairs that were placed in front of a low dais platform that was decorated with flowers, statues, incense, candles, etc. As I sat down I noticed on the far right of the shrine a large dark metal gong. Next to the gong was what looked like a human figure seated, not moving, dressed in a brown robe-like garment. It appeared to be a man, slight of build, whose shaved brown head struck me as so similar to the metal gong. Neither of these round somber objects moved. They were joined as if in a profound silence and stillness, so striking to me because I had never noticed such stillness before anywhere or in anyone. This atmosphere was gradually made more powerful as the realization dawned on me that the slight human figure was indeed a person and not a statue.

More people gradually entered the mellow softly lit room and soon the chairs were all filled. After several minutes, the gong hit with a leather mallet resounded a ring soft and sharp all at the same time. The slight human figure moved for the first time and began to stand up. It was a man with a soft gentle demeanor who bowed to the shrine, lit a stick of incense, and stepped off the platform onto the floor facing the assembled audience. He spoke for maybe an hour, and I do not remember a word he said. However, several things about his being, how he talked, how he moved began to stir and touch something in me. Several times during his talking he burst into laughter with such a wide, sincere, total and complete laughter as I had never seen before. There was no embarrassment, shame, or defensiveness anywhere to be seen or felt in this man’s being. What I did not consciously realize until much later is that what I saw in this man’s presence, his way of being, radiated something to me that captured my soul. It was as if something in me was exclaiming, “At last, there you are; I’ve been looking for you all my life and now I have found you!” In some strange way I suppose it was for me like looking in a mirror.

Reflecting on those moments now, after learning meditation and studying with Suzuki Roshi for four years, including four 3-month-long Zen meditation training periods at the monastery known as Zen Mountain Center located at Tassajara Hot Springs deep in the forest --three days walk east into the coastal mountains from Big Sur-- I realize that what I saw in him was a hidden and lost part of myself. What I had been desperately searching for through my science, art, and drug journeys was standing right there in front of me, in the unlikely form of a Zen master, and I had the good fortune and the good sense to recognize it.

I had never actually seen a person without defensiveness before but always knew it was somewhere in me, in everyone, because I remembered this special quality from my own childhood. Even though the adults I knew seemed to be self-protective, I never forgot this unconditional open quality that adorned my childhood and always really wanted it back in my life. And because I always knew what it was in some vague way, I recognized it immediately when displayed in the personal presence and being of this elder Buddhist teacher.

From a mythical perspective this story is one where I had now been given a broken sword, like the archetypal fledgling king, and was obliged to learn how to re-forge or discover the real sword that would restore to me the power, knowledge and destiny I had glimpsed as a teenager, even as a child. This encounter with Suzuki, as it turned out, was to be the realization of a certain insight into the truth of life and the path of my life creation. Now I had a handle on it. Although this was not at all clear to me at the time --I am a slow learner, have had a lot to learn and a hard time learning it-- it appears in retrospect to be what my life of meditation, first inspired by glimpsing Suzuki Roshi, meeting his presence and actually seeing him, has been partly about.

After four years of meditation and study, including two years of strictly disciplined monastic life in the Zen Buddhist community, I began to feel nourished in a new and deeper way as never before. However, as I was learning and thriving in that environment, there was something about the community of American Zen students and practitioners that began to feel unnecessarily restrictive and repressive to me. Although the discipline was clean, pure and nourishing, there was, for me, a feeling of immaturity in that the feelings, needs, and the full expression of intellect and the curious mind were not encouraged or even acknowledged among the Zen practioners.

About that time I was introduced to some newly recorded dharma talks by a young Tibetan meditation master who had recently arrived in America (1971). This man, Chogyam Trungpa, had as a teenager narrowly escaped the brutal Chinese crackdown in Tibet in 1959. He had been born in a cowshed in Eastern Tibet, discovered as the incarnation of a previous Tibetan Buddhist master, and trained since early childhood in a monastery for a leadership role in the monastic system of Tibet (Trungpa, 1966).

In 1971, when I first met Chogyam Trungpa, he was traveling around America after several years studying Western culture at Oxford in London. He was now occupied in doing what he was trained to do: giving Buddhist meditation and dharma talks wherever he was invited by a rapidly growing following of Western students. He said that his mission in life now was to transplant Eastern buddhadharma on North American soil. Once again, I felt a direct connection as if I was meeting, and being shown, a lost and buried part of myself. With both Shunryu Suzuki and Chogyam Trungpa I encountered a vast and deep sense of being that was without arrogance or defense. It was something I had never before witnessed in any human being and I became interested in learning how to actualize that quality in myself.


Ascending & Descending Spirit

When meditating at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center I remember distinctly realizing or seeing that the real meaningful and mature experience of meditation was in a downward direction. I would think, no, this is not about getting high; it is about getting down, down to where the water flows. I was certain of it. Thoughts about a descending aspect of a body-centered spirituality began to coalesce around an intuitive sense arising from being physically grounded during long periods of sitting meditation.

These thoughts gave words and pictures to my experience. The image that resonated was how water moves down into creeks and rivers and thus flows mightily toward the sea. My sense of true meditation was thus about getting down to where the water flowed. Earth and water; it had little to do with the air element. Getting high was not at all resonant with my sustained and continuous experience of meditation. Getting high during those days was the language of the subculture of mind-expanding drugs as well as the preferred mind direction of the New Age philosophy and sentiments. People wanted to break free personally, emotionally, politically and perhaps getting high in the sense of rising above the conceptual and emotional distortions and primitive beliefs, the materialism of Western culture, is entirely understandable. But when one submits to an urge to grow and develop psychologically and spiritually when embarking on a yogic discipline of sustained meditation practice with an Asian lineage master, one discovers there is a whole lot more to personal transformation than getting high. In fact the ascending path of wishful thinking, instant peace, comfort and gratification, or any kind of grasping after concepts and ideals is seen as an escape from the point of view of the actual practice of Buddhist meditation. The descending current of awareness of going down into the body, feeling the body, being grounded in the body brings an ineffable experience of awakening that is beyond concepts. To me this felt like good medicine for a disembodied society.

While an ascending current of transcendence is definitely part of spiritual development, it is never complete unless tied to the earthy downward direction into the body and nature and the feminine aspect of receptivity. The pursuit of an ascending direction and getting high has a masculine, escapist, dominant, avoidant and arrogant quality when not grounded in earth flow.

posted 3-01-14