Archive for November, 2007

Like Reading A Comic Book Or Sometimes The Mind Of The Buddha–Lotus Sutra

November 24, 2007

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Becoming Reacquainted With Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism

May 1980

It was lonely at first. Carin was living in Scotland’s–or was it England’s Finhorn commune. I never did get that straight. Her parent’s were excited over the idea. (Actually, I think they were just happy to scurry their daughter away form me—a nice guy, but not really good son-in-law material.) At work, I went from midnights to second shift. My new shift, 4:30 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., helped me deal with Cairn’s absence. The heavy going at the end of a love affair, the late night pain hours, were taken up by work. In fact, I used that time to practice japa– mind discipline. For six hours, I would do mental work. The other two on the job hours, I would read or eat. Since my on the job work did not require a lot of mental attention, I had a lot of free time to silently repeat the mantra that was given to me eleven years ago by the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist group in San Diego. Now I was really putting nam myoho renge kyo to use.

I also was taking a yoga class. It met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Jean, a graduate student in Art, taught the class. She was a good instructor. As it turned out, she was also practicing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. After I told her about my experience with the Buddhist sect, she said, “It’s not done like that anymore.” I was “street shockabukued,” meaning I became a Buddhist initiate before I had the foggiest notion of what it meant to be one. At the time, however, I had studied Buddhism in an Asian Philosophy class, so it wasn’t as if I was forced into doing something that I didn’t want to do. It’s just that I had no idea what made Nichiren Buddhism different from the Buddhism I had studied in class. As it turned out, there was quite a bit of difference.

Jean was upset because she thought I was–having not studied under a practicing Buddhist before I took my vows–a dishonest Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist. As a “card-carrying” member of the group, she thought I should know more than I did. I agreed, and when she volunteered to teach me, I was more than happy to oblige. Every other week, our worship group met in a house over in Midland, and sitting before the shrine of Gohonzon, a Japanese lady would lead us in the practice of Gong Ho, a 15-minute recitation of Japanese script. Everybody chanted along to the best of their ability. This practice began and ended the worship session. Not knowing the language, I sat quietly while the rest, (usually five or six participants) recited Gong Ho. To make a long story short, I only went with Jean on two occasions, and then politely told her that I didn’t want to continue. I told her I needed more time to read about the Buddhist sect before I continued my Gong Ho practice. She was disappointed, but understood, and, as it turned out, I was disappointed also, but not with Jean, nor even with chanting, I was disappointed in the literature I found on the Buddhist sect. I was not impressed.

The main problem with Nichiren Shoshu, for me at least, was that (I’m actually embarrassed to say it) the followers believed that their Buddhism was the last word on Buddhism, and by extension, the last word on all religion. In Japan, around 1262, the monk, Nichiren, came to believe that his mission in life was to alert his fellow Japanese to abandon all other beliefs and religious practices. Instead, they were supposed to accept the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. For Nichiren, the Lotus Sutra contained the highest truth of Buddhist teaching, and was the only teaching that could be effective in the “mappo”—the latter days of the dharma.

To be fair, the Lotus Sutra, at least according to some authorities, was written at about the time of the Buddha, and, as sutras go, it was quite large. Also, it was considered to be a highly advanced form of Buddhist teaching. It was only taught to the Buddha’s most prized disciples. The Buddha taught “perfect wisdom,” that is, “right teachings” were taught to the “right disciples” at the ‘right time.” The Buddha only taught what the disciple could comprehend. It was commonly believed that this “magical ability,” to teach effectively to all who sincerely listened, set the Buddha apart from all other religious leaders. What made the Lotus Sutra unique was that it taught, allegedly, only the teachings that the Buddha reserved for his most advanced disciples.

Reading the Lotus Sutra, at times, for me, was like reading a comic book. At other times, though, it was like reading the mind of the Buddha. It had a little bit of everything in it. It also had a lot about “who can understand what when.” I’ll leave the heady interpretations to the Buddhist scholars, but what I could not accept was the claim by the monk, Nichiren, that the dharma (knowledge) that led to enlightenment, was complete in the recitation of the title of the Lotus Sutra. The recitation of–Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, or Homage to the Sutra of the Lotus of the Marvelous Law– was enough to guarantee one’s enlightenment. According to the practitioners of Nichiren Shoshu, chanting nam myoho renge kyo was, in the age of mappo, the only “ticket” available for enlightenment because time had tainted all other Buddhist teachings. For the disciples of Nichiren, Buddhist Dharma was obsolete, so chant, chant, and chant some more.

This nasty mix of beliefs–the common practice of proselytizing (historically, it was militant), the belief that chanting fulfilled all desires, material and spiritual, and the belief that all other religious groups were wrong– turned me off to the Nichiren Shoshu religion. When I dropped out of the group, I was left with on
e disappointment–my relationship with Jean came to an end. I stayed in her class, even though it felt a bit awkward. She was the best yoga instructor I ever had. Something else felt a bit awkward, too. At work, doing japa with my mantra, nam myoho renge kyo made me uncomfortable. I decided to switch to the Tibetan mantra of compassion, om mani padme hum, but after chanting nam myoho renge kyo for ten years, it was difficult to stay focused on the new mantra. I finally succumbed. “What the hell,” I thought, “its only a ‘tool.’ If it keeps the mind in place and focused, why should the sound syllables matter?”

Immersed in all this fuss over “who’s right,” I was ready to move in a different direction. When a new semester rolled around, I enrolled in a Hindu religion class. I was familiar with some of the concepts already, but I wanted to check out how the new professor taught the course. My old professor, Professor Folkart, was on sabbatical in India doing research on the Jain religion, so there was a new guy teaching his Asian religion courses. (Sadly, my professor never returned to CMU. While riding a motorcycle in India he was killed by a hit and run truck driver.)

Essay Response—The Brahman Experience-The Seat Of Freedom

1980 Hindu Religion Class

Dr. Will had a totally different teaching style. Class discussion was not encouraged. I guess that’s why things didn’t jell between us. He didn’t like the way I interchanged religious concepts, either. I finally stopped doing that, but not before, in an assigned paper on the Upanishads, I continued to discuss what I took to be similarities in the mystical traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism:

Uddalaka and Yajnavalkya share in the fundamental view of a timeless, spaceless, causeless Brahman. This Brahman is the sustaining power of the universe and is also the essence, or most essential quality found in human beings. Brahman is beyond description, but is individualized within a person’s identifiable atman (spirit, divine self). Thus the quest for Uddalaka and Yajnavalkya is to become conscious of their respective atmans, however, their presentations, concerning the aspirant’s spiritual release, reflect slightly different perspectives.

Uddalaka identifies Braham as “tat tvav asi”—thou art that, thou art that (Will’s lecture, Hopkins p.44). For him, all is Brahman, and everything else is “maya,” karmic illusion. Determinateness (appearance), for Uddalaka, is all part of the warp and woof of Brahman. The embodied self–the atman, is only a flicker in Brahman. At death Brahman and the embodied self merge. However, the trajectory of that flicker (its karmic consequences) determines whether or not it will remain in the ultimate, permanent, and undetermined state of Brahman, or spin back into maya as another karmic-cycled life form. If the trajectory continues back into maya then another opportunity arises for the aspirant to work off bad karma. If the trajectory “flickers out,” then sat, chit, ananda– perfect being, perfect consciousness, perfect bliss becomes the experience (Will’s lecture—on liberation).

Yajnavalkya takes a slightly different approach. When he talks about release, he emphasizes desire. For Yajnavalkya, desire fills embodied states. Wipe out desire, and the world dissolves. Wipe out desire, and Brahman takes its place. In order to become desireless, one must desire an end to desire and then act on that desire, and there in lies the problem. How can one desire something when desire itself keeps you from attaining the desired affect? But, says Yajnavalkya, as long as the self—atman–is desired then it is okay to desire, and knowledge, right knowledge, is what is required in order to desire the self only. “Knowledge of the self for Yajnavalkya,” says Hopkins, “brings an end to rebirth because it brings an end to desire for anything other than the self. The self is the one true source of all that has value, and thus the only true object of desire. Only ignorance of the self could bring desire for anything else; when one knows the self, there is nothing more that he could desire. Nothing else need be loved or held dear, because all else is only a manifestation of the self: ’When the self is seen, heard, reflected on and known then all this is known’ —Brihadaranyaka 4.5.6” (Hopkins, p. 42).

Through our choice of activities we create karma. For Uddalaka, Brahman is achieved only when karmic obligations are fulfilled. For Yajnavalkya, we desire karma until we desire “the indestructible, the unattached, the unfettered, the insufferable—our atman” (Hopkins p.39). In other words, for both men, certain kinds of intentional behavior must be eliminated before one can experience Brahman, and, typically, a teacher (guru) is sought out to help us achieve this goal. With the help of this guru, at some point in the educational process, right knowledge takes the place of ignorance. When this happens, all worldly desires are left behind. “According to how a person acts and behaves, so he becomes” (Will’s law of karma lecture). If, however, Brahman is not attained, samsaric existence continues unabated.

I would like to suggest that in any teaching that calls for spiritual progress, the most important thing to realize is first, where you are at, and second, where do you want to go. With that knowledge all philosophizing stops. You turn in the right direction, or you go nowhere. It’s all in that first step, however small, —in the direction toward more freedom. To be continued…

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Opening To Time, Space, And Knowledge

November 17, 2007
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Opening To Time, Space, And Knowledge Was What The Practice Was All About

Psychology 735

Summer ‘79

It began as a workshop. The Psychology Professor, Don Beere, had brought Larry Simmons to CMU to do the workshop on Time, Space, and Knowledge (TSK). The lama, Tarthang Tulku, Rinpoche, had trained Larry to spread his vision. The lama, from Eastern Tibet, was well educated in all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and authored the book, Time, Space, And Knowledge, which expressed a new way of understanding the nature of reality. In 1973, the lama established the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley, California, the purpose of which was to provide a place for the interaction of ancient wisdom with modern ideas. The Institute offered an environment for meditation, self-growth, and intellectual development. The primary person responsible for teaching and presenting the TSK vision was Larry Simmons and he was also the person who taught others how to give the workshops. For me, the workshop was interesting and fun, but it was also just too much information presented too quickly.

Not long after I attended the workshop, Professor Beere offered a university class in Time, Space, And Knowledge. We (I was allowed to sit in on the class) were taught how to release physical and mental stress as part of the overall program that involved students in both mental and physical levels of study. According to Tarthang Tulku, the physical body was not a ‘fixed object’ it was essentially flowing and open. Using the books Time, Space, And Knowledge and Kum Nye, we learned techniques for participating in the ongoing process of ‘embodiment’ of energies, which, according to Tarthang Tulku, made for healthy bodies and clear minds. Those exercises included breathing techniques, slow movements, self-massage, chanting, self-image, concentration, and group process work—all of which were supposed to put a person in touch with his or her own creative potential, as body, mind, and emotions engaged the TSK vision. When one’s energies were made to flow more freely, clarity of vision was supposed to result, and, for the most part that was exactly what happened.

In Kum Nye practice there were three stages of unfoldment. In the first stage an increased familiarity with body, thoughts, feeling, and emotions occurred. Observing the levels of mind and the mechanism of our ordinary consciousness was more the focus of the second stage, and the last stage involved the actual transformation of negative energy into positive energy. Because this was only an introductory class there wasn’t enough time to develop the stages. It was enough to find out that they could be developed. I especially paid close attention to the exercises at the second stage because they dealt with observing the mechanism behind our ordinary consciousness, and that had always been what interested me the most.

According to the TSK vision, our nature had an immense depth to it and we could open to that depth. That vision challenged what, typically, got understood as time, space, and knowledge. Opening a person up to time, space, and knowledge, as opposed to what customarily got experienced—the constraining aspects in one’s time, space, and knowledge—– was what the practice of TSK was all about. Unlike most paradigms, which defined reality, the TSK vision was about revealing different aspects of reality by generously giving of itself without ever altering or losing its own nature. In the end, it dissolved itself in the opening up to what is, or at least that’s what Dr. Beere told us was supposed to happen. The exercises were all about getting in touch with that new level of awareness.

Our Beliefs About Reality Are Not Wrong-They Are Approximations

Psychology 735 Paper

After taking the Time-Space-Knowledge class, the “act of dissolving into an opening” stopped sounding so strange. Opening to the possibility of experience without carrying along “excess baggage” was what the class taught us. Getting back to “raw experience” may sound easy, but that was only to the uninitiated. In fact, the discovery of “raw experience” had to be measured in incremental levels. In class we talked about the phenomenological investigations that had revealed the clinging baggage that, for the most part, remained invisible.

Questioning The Constraining Aspect Of Experience:

Experience is constrained; it cannot be separated from intentions. When I notice my experience, I constitute my experience as an object in order to notice it. Thus, that intentionality, by necessity, has to be one of the underlying facets of my experience.

Experience is further constrained by the language I use to identify and describe it. Language gives to the world a kind of stability that may, or may not be there. Sense experience, for example, possesses a kind of indescribability. For instance, the language I use to describe the removal of a hot cherry pie from the oven will never capture the whole experience. The smell of a freshly baked cherry pie cannot be made linguistically clear, yet the language of the experience becomes primary, thus making the experience itself secondary. At bottom, my experience is never free from the methods I use to intentionally constitute it. I would be living in a very different world if it were otherwise.

Consider for a moment, the idea of temporal span or duration. The continuity and stability of the world–and ourselves–depends on this temporal span, but my experience is actually discontinuous. Each conscious moment fades out of existence, while the next emerges only to fade again
and again. What is most notable, but never emphasized, is the gap between these moments. My experience is empty there, but I rarely notice that emptiness. I only notice my unbroken continuity. Thus my experience is made to flow even though it is full of holes and discontinuities.

I integrate my world and myself in time, but I also integrate my world in space, and, in that space, I find my I-space. My I-space, usually located above the plane of my eyes, assumes responsibility for the thoughts and images that arise in that space. It is like an observer appropriating occurrences as one’s own. The experience of a mental “reaching,” “grasping,” or “making into something,” triggers my “experiencing I” and by necessity a world context within which both “my experience” and “my experience of the world” finds its place. Spatiality is a clarifying structure. It helps constitute the character of consciousness and the character of things in the world. But, our I-awareness or knowingness, need not be bounded by an “I” or a physical body; thoughts and knowing arise in awareness while the “I” just comes along for the ride. Specific spaces or specific experiences limit the fullness of the potential experience that is available to us. The TSK vision challenges our normal habits of perception; it challenges also the belief of anthropologists that the body is a “thing” somehow inhabited for the purpose of locomotion. It holds that the true nature of humanity extends far beyond the limitations “we bring” to experience.

Recognizing that the world is the play of Space, Time, and Knowledge speaks to the heart of Being and opens both the world and consciousness up to a radically different set of alternatives. Any thought or sequence of thoughts is bound to its origin, both in terms of its history and intentionality, but that is not the true origin of thoughts. Our space, time and knowledge is a product of a much more encompassing and deepening Space, Time, and Knowledge. The true origin of our thoughts is found there, in the “all encompassing” order. In fact, according to Tarthang Tulku, if only we could get back to that “virgin quality” of experience we could become truly free. He says:

“Throughout history, human beings have understood space as being empty like the sky, and time as the irreversible flow of our lives and of the seasons. There is an increasing emphasis on the knowledge appropriate to this space and time—technical and factual knowledge; the kind you find in an encyclopedia. Holding to this way of knowing however, limits our ability to enjoy and appreciate life…. (But) Once we understand Great Knowledge we do not need to change anything. We recognize that we are part of a vigorous reality that shines through all petty attitudes and preconceptions. Our ‘knowing’ is fresh, sharp, and spontaneous. It never needs to reduce the virgin quality of experience to something that is ‘known’ and therefore unworthy of closer attention and appreciation.”

In the TSK perspective–a vision not bound by a subject-object relation– time is not perceived as the stabilizing condition of the world. And further, in that vision, experience is not always “of something.” The focus is rather on the emptiness at the heart of experience–on the pervasive experience of an empty awareness. The TSK experience—what could be called the ground or source of all specific awarenesses—emerges out of and returns to that open, empty awareness-space. The petty concerns of our daily lives prevent our participation in the great feeling that is Time-Space-Knowledge, a feeling within which we find space and meaning, time and change, and knowledge and clarity.

Our beliefs about realty are not ‘wrong,’ they’re simply approximations of the way things are. Everybody, at one time or another has had an altered space-time experience. That experience can expand into experience of a higher order—experience that is not dissociated or fragmented. In that “place” is found the liberation that accompanies freedom from a persisting, independent, isolated self. In that “place” there is nothing to get, nothing to discard, and no place else we need to go. Tarthang Tulku says it this way:

“Through our bodies we can embody the full and infinite perfection of Being: we can participate intimately in the interpenetration of all reality, Being alive is like being invited to enjoy ourselves in a beautiful garden where every sight and sound blends in perfect, inexpressible harmony. Through our embodiment we can embrace this precious opportunity, and merge with the perfect equilibrium of time, space and knowledge.”

Life Is Sweet, Goodbyes Are Tough–And, Flashback #3-What’s It All About.

November 10, 2007
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The Picture–Mt. Tewinaut

Dr. Gill Was An Emotionally Moving Educational Experience-Not Just A Teacher

Oct. 25, 1979

After breakfast of campfire eggs and bacon, Carin and I headed back to Michigan. By late afternoon we stopped for the night at the campground at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains. It was located at the entrance of Tensleep Canyon, the same canyon where, while careening down the mountain grade on a previous bicycle trip, I had an “out of body experience.”

After another day’s drive, we pulled into Lead, South Dakota. While there, I renewed my acquaintance with—the Barrios Family. Sitting in Javier’s living room brought back memories, maybe a few too many. Drinking beer with Vicky and Javier while listening to Leon Russell sing Hank William’s Good Night Irene on the stereo, however, made it all worthwhile. I knew I was about to say goodbye to Carin (maybe forever), but I also knew that I had said goodbye to Carole Sue from on top of these same hills–many times over. Life had a way of repeating itself, whether you wanted it to or not; all that was required to get you through was strength–and sitting with old friends and listening to great music also helped. Drinking my beer, I knew full well that when Leon was through singing, it would be the Grateful Dead’s turn. Javier would see to that!

Alone In My Empty Apartment

A long time ago, I attended a lecture in Warner Auditorium. The keynote speaker was an authority on value theory. I had hoped to learn something from him, but I didn’t. After the talk, as was my custom, I went up to where the speaker took post lecture questions from the audience. My Professor, who himself had some original ideas on value theory, was in the crowd. When he noticed me, he immediately came over and started apologizing to me. He was apologizing for something he felt uncomfortable about, something that he said to me the last time we were together.

At that time, I was taking his class, and, as was his style, he had just posed a question to the class. I was not satisfied with the discussion of the question that followed, so I went up to him after class and asked, “What is the arête of man?” I was simply repeating back to him the question he had asked the class to respond to. He wouldn’t (or couldn’t) answer my question. (Arête is a Greek word relating to purpose: the arête of a bow is to shoot straight.) I didn’t know it at the time, but that semester was over for me. Do to circumstances beyond my control, I quite CMU and moved to Arizona. Because of my absence, he had jumped to the conclusion that his teaching method—his silence, had caused me to drop out of his class.

But now, in his apology, Dr. Gill wanted me to know that that was not true. He wanted me to know that his silence was not surrender to “man’s lack of arête.” His silence was simply a way to make a point. “The only person who can answer that question, your question,” he said, “is you.” A person’s arête was always peculiar to one’s unique situation at the time of posing the question. He was apologizing to me because he did not answer my question; that is, until that very moment, and at that moment, he completely won me over. I knew myself to be standing in the presence of a man of impeccable character and generosity.

Just before Carin and I went on our vacation, I was sitting in on yet another class taught by Professor Gill. In the past I had sat in on full semester classes taught by Dr. Gill in– The Philosophy Of Literature, Myth, and Spinoza. I had also spent truncated time in the classes he taught concerning Value Theory, Plato, Zen and Symbolic Logic, and Freedom. In all but the last couple classes, I challenged him at every opportunity. I needed to know what he knew. What I finally concluded was that John Gill was not an instrument conveying knowledge; but rather, as a teacher exuding great sensitivity, he was a deeply emotional, educational, experience. After I got back from vacation, I found another Professor teaching his Freedom class. John Gill died of cancer October 23, 1979. He was 69 years old.

Flashback # 3 What’s It All About…Is It Just For The Moment We Live

Late September, 1970

Campfire Sitting With Vedanta Tom In Grand Teton National Park

Outside Omaha, John, a University of Nebraska Psychology graduate student, picked me up. He was taking time off school to visit the Grand Teton National Park in northern Wyoming. As we were talking, he invited me to go along with him, and I happily agreed. Actually, I’m not sure if he invited me, or I invited myself, I think it was a little of both. As we were driving down the highway, John picked up two more hitchhikers, Tom and crazy Jon. Tom, a Philosophy student at Berkeley, was on his way back to California after spending the summer in Europe. Crazy Jon was a nice guy, but still a bit crazy. He was returning from New Jersey where he visited a girlfriend and he was also on his way back to California. Apparently, he hitchhikes back and forth to see this girl on a regular basis. He wore a summer jacket, carried nothing, and he was out of money.

After dark, just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming, we pulled off the highway to sleep. John and Tom slept in their sleeping bags on the ground while I shared a blanket with crazy Jon in the backseat of the Mustang. (After spending two weeks in the farmer’s field my gear was still wet.) In the backseat, crazy Jon and I spent the night like two ice cubes lying on a bed of nails; our body heat just didn’t get the job done. In the morning, the car heater was greatly appreciated. In Cheyenne, crazy Jon got out and continued on his way to California, but Tom decided to go along with us. I, for one, was glad to have him; he was a very interesting person.

As we traveled farther north, we could see Caribou leaping in the prairies. As we approached the mountains, our excitement intensified. The Teton’s were formed from a geologic fault that left shear rock walls anchored in the grasslands of the flat prairie, unlike other mountains that rose up out of the foothills that surrounded them. After we drove through Jackson’s Hole, the last town before the park, the view of the mountains rising above the fall colors was spectacular. Finding a nice campsite was a cinch, since we were the only campers in the park, and after filling our water jugs from Lake Jenny and making our fire out of tree stumps, we cooked hot dogs. After dinner we went exploring, but with daylight almost gone and the nighttime cold setting in, we were back standing around the fire in no time flat. We were all in agreement on one outstanding issue: we didn’t gather too much firewood.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that arise when you’re sitting around a campfire in a mountain wilderness. We spent a lot of time in silence as we watched and listened to the fire snap and crackle. I asked John, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” “Probably become a school counselor,” he replied. Tom, like me, didn’t know what he was going to do.

“What can you do with a Philosophy major?” he said, then he answered his own question,”Maybe I’ll join a monastery.”

John looked over at Tom and said, “Do you have a philosophy that you like best?”

“Not really,” he said, “but lately I’ve been studying Shankara. I tend to like the philosophy that I’m studying at the time I’m studying it, and right now it’s Shankara. I like his ideas. Get back with me in six months and I’ll probably like someone else’s ideas.”

“I thought you said you were into existentialism?” I said from across the fire. “That’s right,” Tom responded, “At school I studied existentialism, but I’m studying Vedanta philosophy on my own. Actually, it was the nausea created from reading too much existentialism that got me interested in Asian philosophy.”

“Wow!” I said, “I don’t know anything about existentialism, but I did take a class in Asian philosophy, and just last year I became a Buddhist.”

“Really! What kind of Buddhism?” Tom replied.

“Japanese, I think,” I said, “I haven’t really studied up on it.”

“Well how did you become involved then?” asked Tom.

“I was walking down a street in San Diego when these Chinese ladies came around a corner and asked me, ‘Do you want to learn Buddha?’ I said ‘Sure,’ and they took me to a temple and after a brief ceremony, I was given my papers and a mantra, ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,’ and proclaimed a Buddhist. Then the ladies drove me back to the city, and now here I am, a Buddhist, I guess.”

“That doesn’t sound right to me,” Tom said, “Papers and mantras do not make a Buddhist, there’s more to it than that.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too, but when I chant the mantra, silently or out loud, I actually feel better,” I said.

“That shouldn’t come as a surprise,” Tom replied, “it’s not how you quiet your mind, it’s the effort you put into it that matters. And you know, I’ve heard that mantra before. I believe it’s a mantra used in the Japanese Buddhism of Nichiren Shoshu. I don’t know much about it, except that chanting the mantra was supposed to bring you things, material things, and that’s not what Buddhism is about either, at least not the Buddhism taught by Buddha.”

“You’re right,” I said, “But the guy at my initiation explained it to me when he told me that Nichiren, the Japanese guy that gave his people the mantra, did so because at different times, different teachings are necessary. Even the Buddha taught different stuff to different people. What was taught depended on how ready a person was to hear what needed to be heard. Nichiren lived long after Buddha. I agree with you though, I don’t think that’s what the Buddha meant to teach when he gave us his four noble truths. Anyway, I don’t use the mantra to get things, just to focus my mind.”

“So why do you like Shankara?” John spoke up, “Who is he?”

“He lived in southern India around 700 A.D,” said Tom. “He was a child prodigy who, by age ten, had memorized most of India’s holy books. In fact, scholars would go to him for council. He believed the material world, the stuff of our phenomenal existence, was illusion and he called this illusion Maya. Reality, for him, was dualistic. A duality that was separated into the true Absolute called Brahman, and the phenomenal world of illusion. But, when you got right down to it, the dualistic nature of Brahman and Maya was really non-dualism. Shankara always described the world paradoxically. He would say, ‘The world both is and is not.’”

“Why is it,” I interrupted, “that Eastern philosophy always seems to begin and end with paradoxes?”

“I don’t know,” Tom said, “but the sages tell us that what is beyond language and thought is, by definition, inexpressible—yet real!”

“How can something exist if it can’t be described or known?” John replied.

“That’s why they call it Eastern philosophy,” I spoke up, “it’s the opposite of what we do in the West. If we were scientists, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

“According to Shankara,” Tom said, “reality can’t be known, at least not in the way we normally ‘know’ something, but it can be experienced and I guess that’s another way of saying we can know it. I can’t know a blue sky or a beautiful sunset, but that doesn’t mean that a beautiful sunset does not affect me, or that it’s not meaningful. And, it’s not quite right to say that Eastern philosophers never describe reality. Reality gets described negatively. In the Upanishads there’s a guy who frequently refers to reality as ‘neti, neti,’ — ‘not this, not that’.”

“When were the Upanishads written?” I said.

“Back around the time of Christ,’” replied Tom.

“Well, how is Shankara’s philosophy different from the Upanishads?”

“That’s a good question, I wish I knew,” said Tom. “I’m not a scholar, I just read books. What I find striking about his thought, though, is the way he uses the atman/Brahman distinction, the same atman/Brahman distinction found in the Upanishads. In his philosophy, Brahman, or the stuff that never changes, is the first cause of the universe and everything in the universe emanates from, subsists in, and finally merges back into this absolute Brahman. For Shankara, the universe is superimposed upon Brahman. That means the universe, as an accumulation of objects, is essentially all Brahman, but we don’t experience it that way, instead, we experience rocks, dust and heat, the stuff called by us ‘universe’, the stuff of the ‘world illusion.’ Our job is to see through this illusion and, in doing so, experience absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss. Intuitive knowledge of our inner-self is brought into play here, for our connection with Brahman is linked to our atman, or deepest self. When a person becomes one with their atman, they enter a consciousness where the fundamental unreality of the universe becomes realized. Unfortunately, this is a rare experience; our normal experience of atman is more commonplace. It is our ego-idea, and that falsehood keeps us in the world illusion.”

“Is that anything like Freud’s ego?” said John.

“Yes and no,” replied Tom. “Shankara’s ego-idea was a more generalized form of ego. Freud, if I remember correctly, sliced ego into its personal, social and biological components while, for Shankara, ego means simply ‘the object of consciousness.’ In other words, Freud’s ego, superego, and id are most definitely ego-ideas, but so to are all other predicates that can be referred to the subject I. In this way whatever gets predicated along with the ‘I consciousness’ becomes an ego-idea. For instance, when I say, ‘I’m hungry… I’m lonely… I’m unpopular’ –hunger, unpopular, and lonely become predicates of the subject I, thus these ‘referents’ become ego-ideas. Shankara goes on to tell us what we call individuality is nothing more than a generalized form of this ego-idea and, more importantly, were it not for this ego-idea there would be no particulars in the outside world. First we superimpose our ego-idea on atman then we superimpose a world of multiple creatures and objects on the undivided existence that is Brahman. In reality, though, it’s all appearance, it’s all part of the world illusion.”

“But, if I understand you correctly, how can we be connected to Brahman by our atman when our atman, in the form of ego-idea, is the same thing that keeps us separated from Brahman?”

“Yes, that’s exactly it,” Tom replie
d. “Figure that out and you become a sage, a holy man, or a Saint. In fact, the sages tell us that the existence of our inner-self, uncontaminated by ego-idea, makes sense up to a point, but after that we must subject ourselves to a long regime of meditation and yoga before the ‘real thing’ can be discovered. Shankara tells us that ‘only that which does not change exists’ and that something is Brahman. Shankara also tells us that world-appearance depends upon ego-idea for its existence. Yet, in order to have an ego-idea of an impersonal, unqualified Brahman, we too must exist as Brahman exists. The key to enlightenment then is to lose our ego-idea. When world-appearance vanishes, absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss follow.”

“You’ve lost me,” said John. “I can understand why some people might say that all knowledge is interpretation, but I can’t understand why any sane person would say that what is being interpreted is all illusion. How could anybody believe that nature is mere illusion?”

“I guess I kind of agree with that,” I said. “There’s just too much beauty out there, I mean look around, look at those mountains, smell the air, listen to that owl, this feeling that comes over you, if that’s illusion, if that’s something to be done away with then I think I’d rather be part of the illusion than separate from it.”

“Hey,” Tom interrupted, “I said I like Shankara, I didn’t say he was God. He’s fun to read, and sometimes exciting, but I’m not sure I even understand what he’s saying. I’m convinced though, that he does have something important to say about the ‘human condition.’ I also know that this stuff is not for everyone. Wait a minute! I just remembered an analogy that might make him easier to understand.

“Think of nature’s transitions – birth, life, death, creativity, decay, – as colorful changing patterns on the surface of an expanding soap bubble. Now, let one of the more mature patterns represent the human species. Ego-idea objects would now involve knowledge of the beautiful and sometimes the not so beautiful phenomena occurring within the soap emulsion patterns. Some of these patterns, maybe most, could be described mathematically. At some point, an ego-idea would predict how those patterns and cycles of patterns relate to one another. Ego-idea would come to ‘know’ all about the changes in those changing patterns and, as its ability to analyze those changes developed, it would start to ‘feel good’ about itself. At some point, ego-idea might even come to understand and predict the outcome of its own existence, and even the eventual demise of the surface that it finds itself on. It would however, be extremely difficult for ego-idea to discover the reality underlying its own existence, or the emptiness upon which the bubble rests. In other words, all loving, caring, hating, and suffering– the stuff that animates our individuality — subsists in and finally merges back into the source of all, into Brahman, into the Great Mother, into whatever name you attach to the source. Shankara probably wouldn’t like my use of the feminine gender, but as you have already said, ‘different strokes for different folks.’ Anyway, that’s about it. We’re all here, doing what we do, but we’re also part of a larger ‘spiritual whole.’ What do you think? “

“I don’t know about you,” said John, “but my butt is freezing. I’ll sleep on it, and maybe I’ll be enlightened by morning, but until then see you in my dreams.”

I sat alone by the fire after Tom and John went to bed. It was an extra cold night, and the fire was warm. I couldn’t look forward to a good night’s sleep like John and Tom. I knew I wasn’t prepared for this kind of cold. When it came time to call it a night, after I built the fire up, I laid as close to it as possible. I slept for more than an hour before the cold set in. I vowed if I ever went on another trip, I would have a good sleeping bag.

Lost Wallet On Mt. Tewinaut

Up early the next morning, the frost covered the ground. The three of us walked around Lake Jenny and then we stood at the foot of the mountain, trying to decide which of our lines of sight would produce the easiest climb. None of us had climbed a mountain before. Half way up the mountain, the cold had turned to hot, and we had our jackets tied around our waists. From the bottom what appeared as merely darker shades of green were really large and sometimes impassable moguls and ravines.

Not yet at our destination, we realized the dimensions of the task we had set for ourselves. John was the only one wearing boots. I was wearing tennis shoes, and poor Tom was climbing in sandals. We were almost out of drinking water and we still couldn’t see that part of the mountain that we singled out as our goal. For all our sweat and hard work, though, we were compensated with a beautiful view of the Snake River winding through the open prairies beneath us. The pungent smell of pine was everywhere also, and off in the distance we could see yet another lake and mountain range. The view for John and Tom was reward enough for climbing this mountain, but I wanted to go higher, so they reluctantly followed.

On the mountain we ran into a Bull elk, deer, and lots of rabbits. By the time we reached the snow line John was done in. The excitement of running into the Bull elk reinvigorated Tom though. We told John we would look for him on the way down the mountain. The climbing got even tougher after that, but at least now we could see the plateau that we had marked as our goal. Pointing out the finish line, I tried to encourage Tom to climb higher, but there was no convincing him. If it weren’t for being able to see the end of the climb, I would have quit to. Not far from where I left Tom, the incline increased dramatically. As I approached the plateau, I was climbing on all fours, and before I was done, I was climbing hand over hand. On the plateau, probably 7/8’s the way up the mountain, I had reached my goal. Above me, was a vertical rock face only meant for climbers with ropes and pitons.

I walked around the shelf, and then sat down with my feet dangling over an immense fissure. I can’t even begin to describe the feelings I encountered. All I can say is that I know now why the Greek’s called Mt. Olympus the “Seat of the Gods.” The sun was shining, but there was still a chill in the air. When I finally did get moving, it was like being on top of a pyramid. A little movement provided a totally different view of the mountain and countryside below. I walked back across the rock shelf and began my decent.

Climbing down, I intentionally slid on my ass. It was the fastest way I have ever found to wear out a pair of blue jeans. About half way down, I found Tom playing around large dirt slides. As we met, a large Bull Moose snorted his way out from behind a large rock next to a thick forest. All of a sudden we found ourselves staring down a huge moose standing no more than thirty yards away. We were petrified; we had no place to run. Only broken pieces of shale separated the moose from us. The huge animal took one step toward Tom and then turned and snorted his way deeper into the forest. We were moving pretty fast when Tom almost stepped on a porcupine. We were almost down the mountain when we ran into John. It took us all day to climb the mountain, but only a few hours to get to the bottom.

Our hurried decent didn’t come cheap. My feet were in sorry shape, and I lost my wallet somewhere on the mountain. I became sick to my stomach. All my money, $112 lost, my identification lost. Getting caught hitchhiking without ID meant jail. That night I couldn’t
sleep; my only option was to climb back up the mountain and look for my wallet. I couldn’t believe that after going through so much already on this trip that it had come to this. It was a hopeless situation, but I had to at least try.

The next morning I awoke to the cry of a blue jay. I wished I had as much to look forward too as did that screaming jay. My feet were swollen and sore. John suggested we go talk to the Park Ranger. He said, “You can look at a map, maybe that will help.” I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I went anyway. When I pointed out on the map where I thought I had lost my wallet, the Park Ranger said, “The park service recommends experienced climbers for that area and climbing up there alone isn’t allowed. Somebody will have to go with you.” The ranger understood how important it was for me to find my wallet, so he told me that he would go if I could wait until tomorrow. I thanked him, but I told him I needed to climb today. Tom, seeing my predicament, volunteered to go with me, the ranger looked relieved. As we were leaving, the ranger said, as he handed me his climbing boots, “If they fit use them. Just be sure to drop them off when you’re done.” I thanked him again, and we drove back to the campsite.

The boots were a perfect fit, they were a half size too big; they kept the briars from tearing up my ankles, too. Tom got me out of a jam and I appreciated that. I never did expect him to climb the mountain, so I wasn’t surprised when he didn’t make it very far. John took advantage of his time alone to drive up to Yellowstone Park. He was heading back to Nebraska today, but he didn’t seem upset that he was going to get a late start. I think he was glad to be doing some more sightseeing.

It was impossible to trace my steps back up the mountain. My only hope was that my wallet was on the steep incline that I scooted down. For sure, that would be the most likely place to lose it. Knowing exactly where I wanted to go, I made better time than the first time I climbed the mountain. When I reached the place where I started climbing on all fours, I got excited; the path was narrow and if my wallet was there, I thought I would find it. As I climbed farther up, I was kicking enough dirt down the mountain to bury many lost wallets. Three-quarters of the way up, I was beginning to get sick to my stomach again, and then I saw it, half covered in sand, and stuck behind a loose rock. Elation was too tame a word to describe my feelings. I stuffed my wallet deep inside my front jean pocket, and started sliding back down the mountain.

I met Tom playing in a stream a little farther down the mountain than where I met him yesterday. He was very happy to hear that I found my wallet. Under a warm sun, the two of us followed a mountain stream. Our idea, to follow the stream, once again showed naiveté. The stream cut a crevice in the side of the mountain and eventually we found ourselves desperately trying to keep above the rushing waters as we continued down the steep ravine. By the time we realized we could no longer climb up the ravine’s vegetation overgrown walls; we were too far down the mountain to consider going back. At one point, we found ourselves traversing the vertical slope by hanging on vines and bushes growing out from the walls. To say that this was dangerous would surely be an understatement. Just before we reached the bottom of the mountain, we did manage to climb out of the ravine. Topside, however, our bleeding and bruised bodies curtailed the excitement of finding my wallet. Using Lake Jenny for a landmark, we hiked back to camp where we found John patiently waiting. He was happy that I had found my wallet.

As it turned out John didn’t have to wait very long because he spent the entire day at the south entrance of Yellowstone and had a marvelous time. He saw an abundance of wildlife, which was the major reason he came here in the first place. We stopped at a restaurant in Jackson’s Hole and ate dinner. After dinner I bought some beers to celebrate, and we drove into the night drinking beer and reminiscing about our mountain adventure. When the beer was gone, John pulled into a Wyoming cow pasture and we climbed into our sleeping bags.

All I Managed To Show Carin Was My Disappointment

November 3, 2007

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Montana Prairie

Oct. 1, 1979

Carin’s parents just left my place and took their daughter with them. The emotional good-byes were short and sweet. In the next few days she will board a plane enroot to Finhorn, a colony of people tending a “magic garden” somewhere in Scotland. Carin and I never made promises to each other. We lived together for almost a year and half. We loved and respected one another. Many times in the past we joked about getting married. I think it was back in July that I tried to get serious about it, but her response was a silent, icy stare. I dropped the idea after that.

She was 22, a free spirit, and ready for independence. I had just turned 31 and was four years into the not so sensational work of self-development. Carin graduated “summa cum laud” while I, after twelve years, had just received my degree. Her life was just getting started, while mine meant little more than a scratch on the wall of another day. Our “getting together” would have, most likely, violated some kind of natural law. I guess that’s why we chose not to talk about it. I knew there would be no Carole Sue type break down or collapse for me. If I had learned anything from my experience with C.S., it was how not to let something like that happen again.

Carin and I shared some good times, but I never let myself look too far into the future. As the time for her departure approached, I couldn’t just let her go, though. We planned a farewell trip. On that trip I would take her to my spiritual home–the Rocky Mountains. I hoped that in the most beautiful place in the world she would wake up one morning, throw her arms around my neck, and tell me she wanted to spend her life with me. It didn’t happen, but I did manage to bring back a nice souvenir. It could have been worse. Anyway, here’s the record of that experience:

9-17-79

In the ’72 Chevy that I had just bought from my brother (to make this vacation possible), Carin and I pulled into Glacier’s Two Medicine Lakes under a constant drizzle. We forced ourselves to take a last ditch ten-mile rain drenched hike, before we packed up, and headed down to Yellowstone. So much for the beauties of Glacier National Park, all I managed to show Carin was my disappointment. I was the one who did most of the complaining. After two days of remaining in our rain suits, we both needed a change of scenery. I hoped that we would drive out of the rain. It was so depressing.

Once we got out of the mountains, the rain did let up some. That night, we pulled off on a tractor trail and drove the car behind a gravel mound. In the middle of the prairie, hidden from view, we fueled our campfire with an old fence that was lying on the ground. The makeshift gravel pit was a perfect campsite. Leaning against the gravel bank, warmed by the fire, and watching the dark and shifting rain clouds break apart as they pushed across the mountain peaks was an extraordinary experience. After dinner, I remembered the bottle of brandy that I had stashed under the driver’s seat of the car. With the night air came the expected mountain chill, but with a good size fire and a bit of brandy to sip on that chill could be tolerated, even enjoyed.

Watching the flickering shadows on the wall of gavel behind us inspired visions of ancient Indians and cave philosophers. We were made even more aware of that history, when a giant bird came swooping out of the night sky. The bird swooped down and barely missed Carin’s head. Carin thought the bird had to be some kind of omen. (It was probably a giant owl looking for table scrapes, though). We made a game out of it. If the bird had been an omen then we had to discover “an omen for what?” Huddling close together under the blanket, sipping brandy, trying to figure out our future, was the perfect game for that evening–a perfect evening in fact. As we climbed into our sleeping bags the full moon called to attention the howling coyotes, and we were serenaded into dreamland–incredible.

In the morning, we headed out to Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs. In order to get there we had to drive through the middle of Montana’s Gallatin Mountain Range. Back when I bicycled that stretch of highway, I was reduced to tears by the majesty of the place. This time, however, the hot summer sun had melted the snowcaps. Water run offs were scarce, and from the dry lakebeds to the brown meadows, the heat had taken its toll on the scenery.

At Mammoth Hot Springs our plan was to get up early, and look for a good backcountry trail to hike. I figured the northeast corner of Yellowstone would produce a lot of animal sightings. I had been everywhere in Yellowstone except the northeast corner. I planned a hike there once, but the snow clogged highway kept me away. I had heard of numerous grizzly bear sightings in that area, and I wanted to see one. There was no snow now, so Carin and I decided to hike in that area. We headed up Slough Creek. According to my map reading skills, the hike was not going to be too rough. I was wrong. The 11.2 kilometers went mostly up a canyon valley and did not follow the creek-bed. In addition to the hot tempers that hiking in full packs under hot sun produced, when we arrived at trails end, Carin had no less than five large blisters on her feet. Sweaty, dirty, and in pain, we were not awe-inspired. We didn’t camp in the designated camp area, either. Instead, we camped in front of a boarded
up Ranger’s cabin. That made a bad situation a little better. It was strategically located, so we had a panoramic view of the valley, and access to a cold mountain stream. Our motivation for camping there was not totally self-centered, however. Carin could not walk any further, and after l checked her feet, it’s a wonder she made it 11.2 kilometers.

We Soaked In The Hot Spring Till The Milky Way Patterns Were Clear

Yellowstone National Park

Sept. ‘79

We had band-aids, but her blisters were too large. After spending the first day soaking her feet in the cool waters of the stream, she was able to hobble, with the help of a stick, around camp on the second day. I also had a couple of blisters, but they were small enough to protect with band-aids. It was on the second day that I hiked up to where we were supposed to camp and found the campground full of trout fishermen. When I returned, Carin was in a better mood. She was sunning herself by the stream. Fortunately, the weather was accommodating– warm and sunny.

The next day she was healing fast, but still wasn’t ready to hike. She encouraged me to explore the area. I hiked up to Bliss Pass. The trail was 8 kilometers long and steep. At the low point in the mountain peaks, I still had daylight in front of me, so I decided to keep climbing. I was trying to gage how far I could go and still get back by dark. When I reached a large rock outcropping with a gorgeous view of the valley, I gave myself a half hour to enjoy the solitude.

On the way down I followed a dry steam bed. It ended abruptly at a ridge—a waterfall ridge. When I headed in a different direction, I came upon what looked like a large log, but it was not a wooden log, it was stone. I dug away at the large petrified log and found it to be completely in tact. I took a couple of small cracked pieces, and then started down the mountain once again. This time I actually tripped over another piece of petrified wood. It was a tree stump. It was a very exciting find. When I examined the stump, a large chunk fell off the main part. I lifted the beautiful piece of petrified wood–10 to 15 pounds– up to the light. I decided to take it with me.

When I made it back to the campsite, just before dark, I found Carin sitting at the fire. She had already eaten dinner, and had left some macaroni and cheese in the pan for me. She was not excited about my rock. When I told her I wanted to keep it, she even got mad. Apparently, she thought I was going to carry her pack when it came time to hike out. When I told her I would carry her pack and the stone too, she relaxed a bit. We spent the next day hanging around the campfire. When we did leave, I got most of her stuff in my backpack. Our food was pretty much gone, so that freed up space. I carried my piece of petrified wood in my arms. For me, it was a long 11.2 kilometers back to the car.

From the northeast corner of Yellowstone we drove to Yellowstone Canyon and then to Yellowstone Falls. We camped at Norris Junction. The falls and canyon were absolutely fantastic—a must see. At the campground, we drank a few beers with the two Connecticut fellows that we met. They told us about the hot spring over at Madison campground. In the morning, after checking out the Norris geysers one more time, we headed over to Madison.

The following evening, after some help from fellow campers, we found the hot spring. It was a large pool of water, which was continuous with the little stream that ran along side the campground. It was outside of the campground, but not very far from where we camped. After dinner, Carin and I hiked over to the hot spring and found eight people –four girls, four boys—already in the water. The temperature was around 90 to 100 degrees, just perfect for the muscles that were still aching from our trip into the backcountry. Our prayers had been answered. We were happy, very happy campers.

We submerged ourselves in the hot water just before sunset. Seated in the pool, with our heads sticking out of the water (the pool was not deep), we watched the daylight fade into starlight. Two of the girls left early, but the rest of us stayed until the patterns in the Milky Way were crisp and clear. It was obvious that the temperature had dropped, but it was not obvious how far it had dropped until the steam off the water began to interfere with our view. We finally took the hint. The transition from hot spring to air temperature was excruciatingly painful. It was too cold to even dry off. Climbing into dry clothes wet was nasty, but the alternative was turning into a human icicle.

Back at the camp, we built a quick fire and then poured the wood to it. Charley and Bill, our two hot spring buddies from Tennessee, followed us back and helped with the fire. The fellows were from Chattanooga, real southern boys. They were easy to talk to, humorous, and very excited about traveling in the northwest. They were 23 spent rolls of film (three weeks worth) excited to be here. We laughed and talked late into the evening. Topics of conversation ranged from Charlie’s Vietnam outrage to Bill�
��s engineering job frustrations, from finding women to finding God. Our energies spent, along with the firewood, eleven beers, half pint of brandy, and two large bowls of marijuana, we called it a night—a good night!

After Madison, we drove down to the Teton Mountains, just south of Yellowstone. The weather remained good, but it was a little crowded, for my taste anyway, at Colter Bay Campground. The next day we drove down to the Jenny Lake. The first time I had camped at Jenny Lake I climbed Mt. Teewinot and lost my wallet, but found it the next day. This time around, the weather was beautiful, and I was enjoying it with the woman I loved. This was going to be our last stop before we headed home. We planned to make it a rest stop. But the Tetons had a way of reinvigorating even the weak and lame. After resting a day, Carin suggested we climb Mt. Teewinot.

I didn’t try to change her mind (I knew the mountain would do that for me), but I did suggest that we check out a few of the sights before the big hike. She agreed, so we hiked up to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point—absolutely beautiful scenery. On the third day we headed out to Mt. Teewinot and managed to climb up to a waterfall. From that height, we had an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. Carin agreed that we had climbed high enough. Spending the day on the mountain, in the hot sun, just the two of us, proved to be the best part of the whole vacation. Carin and I had never gotten that close, or at least that’s the way it seemed to me, on that perfectly beautiful fall day.

Back at the campground, we had an early dinner and then went for a drive hoping to see some wildlife. Perhaps it was the dryness, or perhaps we were unlucky, but we didn’t see any animals. In fact, on this trip the sum total of all the wildlife we saw was: three cow moose, one calf, a coyote and a buffalo. In the backcountry we did hear the sounds of some distant bugling elk, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see any.