Monday, November 17, 2014


 Having been disillusioned with the Buddhist paths I tried in Japan when I was young, I joined the Quaker meeting in the town I lived in in the late 1980s. Although I still believed, theoretically, that those paths led to enlightenment – and had in fact had a couple of spiritual awakenings on one of those paths – in the end, they just seemed too hard – and too foreign. I wanted a way to the Infinite that relied on my own Western spiritual tradition, but at the same time didn't discount the realizations of deeper truth I had had through the Eastern way. I was also looking for something less hierarchical and sexist – and the fact that there are no paid clergy in Quakerism – that everyone is, in fact, a teacher to everyone else – appealed to me. All around, Quakerism seemed a good “Middle Way.”

I was active in the Meeting until I moved away in 2000. Shortly after I re-located, I found Adyashanti – and he undid my world. Undid and remade and everything else that there are no words for. So Adyashanti's teachings became my new “Middle Way.” I call it this because Adya never studied Zen in Japan – and neither did his teacher – but he did come from a Zen lineage. As a third generation teacher, though, he felt free to innovate – and he did. In the beginning, he called the talks he gave “Zen-Satsang” because the content was often Zen-like, but the format was in the Nondual tradition of India – and specifically of Advaita Vedanta: a talk and then questions from students. This worked for me: no arduous practices – no need to do anything but just sit and let the energy wash over me.

Through all of those years, I wondered if I could still call myself a Quaker – or whether I should resign from the Meeting which I was, in any case, no longer close enough to geographically to attend except very occasionally. When I did get there, it had been so long that many people didn't recognize me anymore. Still, I have kept my membership, and so I get the monthly newsletter.

In the November 2014 newsletter I just received, there is a quotation from John Woolman, a well-known 19th century Quaker: “To turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives.” When I read this, I thought, “This is why I'm still a Quaker – this is a tradition that really does still speak to me.”

After years of Adyashanti, I no longer feel the need of him in the way I once did – which is fortunate because he rarely comes around to my town anymore. But there's one area where I've still felt like something was missing. It is said that there is a Universal Love that one comes to manifest when spiritually awake. I kept waiting: where was it? Last year, I was at a five-day retreat of another teacher, Pamela Wilson, and when I emerged, the love was so pallible – I went to the grocery store and loved everyone I saw there! (I probably wrote about that here if anyone wants to go back and look at the summer 2013 posts.) But it quickly faded.

Now, recently, I've become part of a leaderless nondual spiritual group which I initiated. It's the fulfillment of my dream of a nonhierarchical spiritual path. After a bumpy start finding our way, the group has turned into a fount of love. But it doesn't feel like I always expected love to look, and I think that's why I've been missing it all along. So, I've been asking myself how it is different and the answer I'm coming up with is that it isn't self-conscious. We usually think, “I love him (or her, or everyone)” But what if that secondary thought is absent? What if thought is absent from the experience entirely? Then love is something else. Certainly not sentimental, certainly not self-absorbed.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Why is there separation, anyway?

Today someone voiced a question I myself have had over the years: Why is there separation, anyway? The words that came to me spontaneously were, "To manifest the love." I didn't know I knew this until I said it. And having said it, everything the rest of the day looked different.

We think of love as a positive emotion, but the kind of love I'm speaking of here, while it certainly feels good, is beyond "positive" and beyond "emotion." I see that I've failed to recognize it lots of times because it doesn't look like the mind expects it to look. All connection is love, seen from this vantage point. So I looked into a dog's eyes on the beach and saw love -- though I am usually afraid of dogs. And I could feel that love connects me to everyone, even those I dislike. Underneath the dislike, fueling it even, is love. Just look a little -- or a lot -- deeper, and there it is.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Enlightenment is not self-improvement -- nor societal improvement

[Note: For those interested in the commentary on the BATGAP "Nondual Debate," see below -- July 8th post]

As I've been saying, this book I just finished -- Enlightenment Blues, by Andre van der Braak -- is scary. Here is a large group of people enthralled by a guru who believes that he is creating a new heaven on earth. Sound familiar? It should because it's happened so much in so many different contexts.

But when it happens in the context of believing that enlightenment is the key to heaven on earth, it's particularly problematic. Realization of Truth means discovering how absolutely wonderful everything is, RIGHT NOW. Anyone who has experienced a genuine spiritual awakening has experienced this. The problem is what happens when the bliss that accompanies it, which is necessarily temporary, recedes and one is left with ordinary life again.

Often, that's when the mind gets busy. "I realized this wonderful world of infinite love, where nothing is ever needed or wanted. But now it's gone. How can I get it back?" This is a typical phase that nearly everyone goes through. But the answer is not to change oneself and/or others in order that this bliss may be permanently experienced. This can never work. The idea behind change is that some things have to go in order that other things can arise instead. But this contradicts what has been realized -- that everything, despite appearances, is composed of love: nothing needs to be excluded. It's the attempt to exclude that which insists on existing -- whether it's an attitude or belief or behavior or whatever -- that causes violence against oneself and others. And it simply reinforces the illusion of ego to think that one actually has control over what are merely karmic events.

Enlightenment emerges from another, larger, dimension of consciousness. It includes all that already is, including what ordinary consciousness sees as problems or flaws in life. Its hallmark is that nothing needs to change -- and especially not you. If a guru tells you to follow him because he will make you a better person, so that eventually you will be enlightened full time, run -- and run fast -- as far away as you can. Do not buy into this idea. Because any guru who is teaching this is, before long, also going to be controlling you, making demands you can never meet that you be perfect. Then, just when you've realized the unconditional love of everything that is, which is your birthright, you are back in the world of conditioned love where you are never good enough -- and neither is anyone else. This is how hell is created.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Only ego wants to get rid of ego." -- Adyashanti

I can't begin to describe how frightening I'm finding this book I'm reading -- Enlightenment Blues (see previous post).
As I said before, I don't have any personal experience with Andrew Cohen. I'm taking as true what is in this book, and I'm sure some out there will see it differently. But it doesn't really matter because I am not so interested in Andrew Cohen as in what caused so many to follow him for years, putting aside their own doubts while the demands on them became more and more absurd. There will always be megalomaniacs, and some of them will be gurus. The more important question is not what to do about them, but why so many follow them.

Author Van der Braak, with his penetrating analysis of his own process, puts his finger on so much of what happens psychologically when one joins the kind of spiritual community that demands absolute obedience and also, especially, on why it is so hard to separate from such a community. Anyone who reads this regularly knows that I have a special interest in cults because I lived in a cultish spiritual community for a short time when I was young. I completely relate to all of the rationalizations Van der Braak told himself.

First, you have an awakening experience with a certain person. Or maybe (as was my case in my youth) you just see the divine in the other, and you want that for yourself. The guru becomes the means to access the divine, or enlightenment, or whatever label works for you. You convince yourself that the guru is the only possible access to the divine for you. Maybe the guru believes this himself, as Cohen apparently did, or maybe, as in my case, the guru doesn't. But the follower believes it -- that's what matters. Once one believes that, it becomes almost impossible to leave. You imagine yourself damned forever if you do, and there will be plenty of people in the community who will try be only too anxious to convince you of that outcome. You probably have no friends who are not part of the community, so there is no alternative viewpoint to hear.

This book is scary because the amount of psychological abuse (and one example of physical abuse is also cited) is so profound, and yet everyone in the community buys into the argument that the reason Cohen derides them, punishes them repeatedly by banishing them to invisibility in his sangha, etc., is so that they will stop coddling their ego. Everyone in the community believes this. If only I were better: I just have to try harder and then I will live up to the standards of the Master.  The amazing thing is that not one person noticed the contradiction in Cohen's teaching: if everything is impersonal, if "I" don't really exist, then who is it that is having to try harder to banish the ego?

As Adyashanti once said to me, "Only ego wants to get rid of ego." 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Believe in the Truth in the teacher, not in the person

Serendipitously, while looking for a publisher for my own book, I came across Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, by Andre van der Braak. The guru in question happened to be Andrew Cohen, a well-known teacher of nonduality and one of many former students of H.W.L. Poonja (Papa-ji, as he was affectionately known by his students). 

I have never even seen Cohen -- only heard of him.  But here we have another expose, and another reminder that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the question arises again with respect to Eastern teachings brought to the West: why do we give such power to our teachers?  

Of course, a teacher who has the imprimatur of someone like Poonja is going to be listened to. According to van der Braak's account of what he heard, Poonja sent Cohen out to teach in the West, to "'create a revolution among the young,' telling him that he was the son he had been waiting for all his life." (p. 16)

So Cohen starts teaching and includes this little story about how his own teacher sent him forth to teach. Who is going to doubt? Especially since Cohen obviously exhibits such power and clarity that he just looks enlightened.  But in the end, apparently Cohen used power in a very absolute way, while at the same time always telling people that what he did to them was for their own good, to help them abolish their ego. 

Sound familiar? It should because this is the story again and again among communities in the West centered around Eastern spirituality.  And here, of course, the interpretations of what is going on differ. Those without a deeper realization of reality will certainly say that such a guru cannot be enlightened because enlightened people don't do fascist things. Others -- especially those who experienced the guru in question -- will be more likely to say that the guru, while enlightened, or at least awakened, had a shadow side which became more and more prevalent as he accrued more power.

I believe that the solution to this, from the student's point of view, is to believe in the Truth within the teacher, not in the teacher himself. It's always, always necessary to believe in oneself first, and to let one's deepest yearning for Truth lead one to see the Truth in another. But not to worship the person of another. Therein lies danger.

After I started reading this book, I went on the web and found that last year Cohen had issued an apology for his behavior. It was in general terms, and the copious comments that followed were all over the place -- from being glad he'd owned up to saying it would never be enough to pledging continued allegiance. But one comment seemed to touch on why all of this keeps happening in community after community. The person said that the ego has a reason for existence: to help life maintain itself. This is something I myself have discovered in working through my traumatic relationship with a temple I lived at when I was young. To the extent that we put down that in us -- our ego -- that is just doing its job of keeping us alive, we abuse ourselves and leave ourselves open to abuse from others. And if a given spiritual community at large doesn't believe ego deserves to exist, there is mass denial of an essential function of the self and this allows the guru or whoever has power to use it to put down anyone whose ego dares poke its face out, while his own ego -- denied of course because he isn't supposed to have one -- runs amock.

Existence loves everything -- and that includes ego.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Nonduality and Concepts

I recently watched this debate:

A nondual debate?  Well, yeah, it was. The central question, if I can dare to paraphrase, was whether, once awakened, we completely operate without a sense of self, or future, or ideas of what we believe will make the world a better place -- or whether, on the other hand, the awakened life includes all of that as well. Lisa Cairns' position was what I would call the "absolutist" one, while Tim Freke's position was that we "come back" from the absolute into the world, where we do operate as separate individuals relating to other separate individuals even while we do not lose the awakenness.

There are a couple of Buddhist concepts that I thought could have clarified things and maybe even resolved the debate. They are "substance" and "emptiness."  These are more or less dichotomous the way I am using them, and there is no way to understand their meaning without experiencing that to which they refer. But I'm going to give it a try.

The reason things look separate has to do with our belief in their substantiality. We believe we are looking at something separate from ourselves when we see a tree. We don't know it, but it is just the label that makes this appear to be the case. This is why Buddhism speaks of the world of "forms." "Forms" are just forms, not individual entities, and when forms are seen as "empty," they are seen without substance. It's as though all things are ghosts -- you know how ghosts walk through things in movies?  Well, it's because they don't have substance, which living "beings" are thought to have.

So -- nothing is really separate but things appear separate. And the question is whether that appearance is believed to be the ultimate truth or not.  Most people implicitly believe forms have substance. But when that belief starts to fall away, we begin to experience ourselves as the other.

What does the ordinary life look like when we know this?  Depends on the person, I'd say. But so long as this truth, having been realized, is remembered, we cannot believe anymore that our concepts of how things should be ultimately matter -- because it is concepts that form the basis of substantiality. Maybe we want to do something that "helps" the world, but if we have an idea of what that might be, we are deluding ourselves, because it is the human mind, not the world, that operates through concepts.  We just live. And if that living is from a genuine place, then that is all we can do. And even if it is not from a genuine place, it is still all we do.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Enlightenment and cultural accretions

I'm reading a couple of books that, in very different ways, discuss an issue relevant to those involved in traditions that come from other cultures.  One is a memoir about living among modern Sufis in Afghanistan: Embattled Saints: My year with the Sufis of Afghanistan, by Kenneth P. Lizzio.  The other is a novel about a shy Japanese priest sent to New York to help build a temple for his sect: Buddhaland Brooklyn, by Richard C. Morais.*  The problems these two men face are the mirror opposite of each other.

The American who goes to Afghanistan hoping to gain Sufi mystical wisdom is dismayed when told how important shari'a law is. Over and over again, he is admonished that shari'a is part and parcel of the mystical path, not something only for fundamentalist Muslims but for all Muslims.  He resents having to grow his beard to a certain length and shape, and he believes the sexual segregation is plain wrong, to name only two of his many issues with Muslim law.  But he wants what the Sufis have, so he goes along.

The Japanese priest has the reverse of this problem.  Having lived in a mountain temple since he was a boy, he believes that everything that he was taught to do in reverence to Buddha is a step on the path to enlightenment, and that none of it can be omitted. So, for example, when his New York believers complain that it is hard for them to kneel on the floor, he says, in effect, "Tough shit."  When they want lectures more relevant to their daily lives, he explains that, in order to attain enlightenment, devotees must understand the sacred texts in all of their subtly .  He believes the New Yorkers aren't taking Buddhism seriously because they don't want to do it the received way.

When I was young, I practiced two kinds of Buddhism in Japan.  My unexamined assumption was that I could only get enlightened if I became like a Japanese.  And the problem was, the Japanese believed this as well!  I went home after a year, a total failure.

The trick is to separate the essential teachings from the cultural context.  Not easy.  On the one hand, we have (hopefully) an enlightened teacher who has taken a certain path to his or her wisdom.  On the other hand, we have aspirants who are not enlightened and do not share the teacher's cultural assumptions.  In such a situation, who is going to decide what is necessary to the deepest spiritual realization and what is just a cultural accretion?

Sometimes it takes more than a generation to work this out.  When Philip Kapleau found what he'd been looking for in Japan, he brought it back to America virtually wholesale, and it was not until his senior student, Toni Packer, said, "Wait, much of this doesn't really work for a lot of Westerners," and went off to found her own meditation center, that the deepest realization in Zen could be found, without the cultural accretions.  My own teacher, Adyashanti, was a third generation Zen student -- someone who had never been to Japan and whose own teachers had also never been there.  There was enough distance to have lost the cultural accretions and yet the wisdom of the lineage was intact.  How grateful for this I am! This is what we all hope can happen.  It doesn't always.

*Note: My review of  Buddhaland Brooklyn appears on the Buddhist Fiction Blog. 
My review of  Embattled Saints is at