Back in the mid-seventies I was in the Air Force, and was stationed on Pope Air Force Base near Fort Bragg, a huge army base covering over 200 square miles of central North Carolina. I was 18 years old and bored out of my mind. The military had thoroughly corrupted the nearby town of Fayetteville and my only reprieve from boredom was to drive to the coast on Friday evening and spend the weekend on the beaches of Cape Hatteras and Okracoke Island. Laying on the beach at night listening to the ocean waves lulled my mind to a restful state just at the cusp of sleep. Even though I never seemed to fully fall asleep, I always seemed to rise with the first sunlight coming over the flat, watery horizon feeling refreshed. I felt very awake, aware, and alive. This feeling seemed to last throughout the day and even into the first day or two of the work week. By Friday, the effect had worn off and I was ready for another trip to the Outer Banks.
After I got out of the Air Force in May of ‘76, I moved out to Colorado Springs where my sister was living to look for a job. I wasn’t able to find a job but did go on some great back-packing trips with my brother-in-law. Up in the Rockies as you climb the trails, the wind blowing through the aspens and conifers sings enchanting songs, calming and pacifying the mind. There is no desire to think of anything but the sound of rustling leaves high above, whispers through fir needles, the scent of pine and loamy soil, and the slow, rhythmic pace of footsteps and breathing. It was effortless to be deeply settled in the present moment and more fully aware of self and environment. Running streams chanted in a thousand tongues all singing praise to each fleeting moment. I found these backpacking trips as necessary as sleeping and eating. They were healing, nature itself the doctor. They addressed a deep longing that I didn’t even know that I had and all I knew was that I wanted more of this sweet contentment that the mountains offered.
I briefly moved back to my home town in Illinois and found a job in a machine shop. I was a terrible mill operator and was soon let go, but while I was living there I went into the Karmel Korn shop I used to visit as a kid and saw a book called The TM Book. I was fascinated by the name, “Transcendental Meditation”. What does it mean? What would it be like to “transcend” thought? A few weeks later, I had returned to my pre-Air Force employer in Springfield, Illinois and as I was walking down the street, I saw a poster with Maharish Mahesh Yogi’s portrait on it and the words “Transcendental Meditation - Public Lecture”. It was that very evening. I attended the two introductory lectures and on Saturday morning found myself witnessing a puja to Guru Dev, Maharishi’s master, and was given a one syllable mantra to repeat to myself in a small room as I was sitting on a chair. Soon my hands folded on my lap seemed to be far below me and I could hear sounds from the neighborhood with fascinating clarity. The mantra seemed to be repeating in my mind automatically with no effort on my part and I felt completely serene, paralyzed. The teacher then asked how I was doing and I told him, “Fine.” He said, “This is how we meditate”. I continued to meditate using the mantra I was given for many years.
I missed Colorado and soon moved back. While there I took a “Science of Creative Intelligence” class at the Colorado Springs TM center. The people were unlike any I had ever met before and I felt so comfortable with them all -- a retired colonel, the wife of a surgeon, a college student, another retired couple, and couple that were TM teachers, along with Ron Carpenter, the head of the center. I saw a Maharishi International University catalog at the center and knew I had to go there.
In January of 1978, I started my freshman year at MIU (later renamed to Maharishi University of Management). In the summer of ‘79, I went on an extended retreat to learn the TM Siddhi program and soon found myself meditating twice a day with about a thousand other “siddhas” in the “Golden Dome”, a huge meditation hall (or flying hall as we called it). After doing a quick set of yoga asanas and pranayama in my dorm room, I would walk with all the other meditators to the dome and practice TM and the Siddhis. I remember mornings and afternoons in the dome when I felt that there was nothing more I need do in this life so great was the feeling of contentment during meditation.
While at MIU (MUM), I listened to hundreds of hours of Maharishi videos as part of “Forest Academy” retreats that were part of the curriculum. Maharishi delineated seven states of consciousness in some of the lectures:
Pure Consciousness - A state of “restful alertness” experienced during the practice of meditation when thoughts and mantra subside and consciousness is simply self-aware.
Cosmic Consciousness (CC) - A state when Pure Consciousness becomes infused into the waking state giving the rise to “unbounded awareness”. This is a state when the awareness of the Self is maintained during normal activity. It is called “cosmic” because it includes the awareness of the subject and object of perception, i.e., the experiencer is never “overshadowed” by perception and even dynamic activity.
God Consciousness (GC) - As one becomes established in Cosmic Consciousness, the senses continue to refine giving rise to greater and greater appreciation of subtler and subtler levels of perception. This eventually brings about the perception of the celestial or divine aspects present in the phenomenal world and causes the heart to expand in love for the divine.
Unity Consciousness (UC) - With the rise of God Consciousness, the separation between the subject and object, the knower and the known, eventually dissolves. One perceives the world without duality and feels one with the surroundings. As this state unfolds, one feels one with the entire universe and realizes the mahavakya “Aham Brahmasmi” -- I am Brahman. This realization is also know as Brahman Consciousness (BC).
Of course, we at MIU had no doubt that Maharishi and his teacher, Guru Dev (Swami Brahmananda Saraswati) were in Brahman Consciousness and took everything that Maharishi said as being unquestionably true. How could an enlightened being say something that was not true?
After graduating from MIU, I moved to Taiwan to learn Chinese and taught English for a living. While there, I met a Chinese monk, Venerable Master Sheng-yen, who had received dharma transmission from two different Chan lineages, the Caodong (Soto) and the Linjii (Rinzai) traditions of Chan (Chinese Zen) Buddhism, that is, his masters verified that he had the correct and authentic experience of self-nature and was qualified to teach others. I began attending his Sunday lectures and soon found myself on a seven day Chan retreat in New York City while I had briefly returned to the US. At first I was reluctant to give up the practice of TM and the Siddhis but became aware that I had become very attached to the practice. A nun reasoned with me, “If you can pick something up, you can also put it down -- and you can pick it up again.” I was reluctant. On the second day of the retreat, Master Sheng-yen (Shifu), asked me to just meditate by following my breath. I agreed, thinking that after 9 years of practicing TM, it would be easy. It wasn’t. Pain in my legs at times was unbearable and I was beginning to think that Chan Buddhists were masochists. But, something about Shifu made me fully trust him and I persisted with this practice for several years.
It was during this time that I experience inner conflict regarding seemingly opposing religious traditions I had been exposed to. I had grown up as a Catholic, pretty much became a Vedantic yogi while at MIU, and suddenly found myself very seriously desiring to become a Buddhist monk out of shear trust of my Shifu, Master Sheng-yen. Shifu was an incredible man. When he lectured, you always thought he was talking to you personally. And when he was talking to you, he seemed completely and genuinely interested in you, in your well-being without concern for himself. While I deeply admired this selfless quality, it ran contrary to my education from Maharishi. While the Maharishi proclaimed, “All love is directed toward the self”, the Buddha proclaimed that there is no independently existing person, self, or soul. All the Chan and Zen literature seemed to point to this as fact. My own Shifu seemed to be completely selfless and full of compassion for others. What would it be like to experience “no self”? I was intrigued and apprehensive at the same time. And how could Maharishi say that the ultimate reality was Brahman when the Buddha and my Shifu proclaimed that there is no such thing? How could there be no Creator? It was so obvious that there was intelligence of a supreme order in the universe. These questions gnawed at me for quite some time.
Eventually, my recourse was to look back at my own Christian tradition for answers. I went through a period where I read meditative and contemplative works by Thomas Merton, Fr. Basil Pennington, Thomas Keating, Catherine Doherty and others for answers. I eventually became interested in meditative tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and even enrolled in a three year program to become a deacon. After the first semester, I faced quiet a crisis. I had read so many books that were required reading on the history of the church and its doctrines and while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, I suddenly realized that I simply didn’t believe in most of the Christian dogma. It was like a balloon was popped and Christianity just vanished before my eyes.
I began studying Buddhist and Indian literature much more seriously to find out how so many obviously enlightened masters could experience a different enlightenment than what Maharishi had laid out. How could there be multiple enlightenments? How can one person experience enlightenment and proclaim that it is Brahman and another experience enlightenment and say that it is void of Self? As I read more about the different schools of Buddhism, I found that even they didn’t agree on what the experience of Nirvana was. The Theravada Buddhist present Nirvana one way and the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist present it other ways. So how can the experience of Nirvana be different?
I decided that the only way I would know the truth was to experience it myself. In 2005, I rededicated myself to practicing meditation and started attending Chan retreats at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in Pine Bush, New York. After several retreats, my experience and confidence in the Chan Buddhist tradition deepened significantly. I also went to Vipassina retreats held at the Chanmyay Satipatthana Vihara in Springfield, Illinois, which I felt were extremely helpful in understanding the experience of no self and loosing the fear of this experience. The last retreat I went on was in December of 2009, and this retreat brought about an experience that has made my faith in Buddhism unshakable.
So why am I on a traditional yoga teacher training course? After practicing meditation for many years, I reached a point where I could no longer bear to not help others learn to meditate. There is so much confusion and suffering in the world that is so unnecessary. Through meditation and adapting a lifestyle conducive to its practice, confusion and suffering begin to fall away. At the request of the former abbot of the Dharma Drum Retreat Center (DDRC), Ven. Guo Jun, I began leading a meditation group in Fort Wayne, Indiana (and now in Elk Grove, California). People get together and practice meditation together once every couple weeks or so. Meanwhile, I started practicing yoga again in Elk Grove after joining a fitness club to address health concerns and rediscovered that it was a great way to practice mindfulness and settle down before meditation. Yoga was incorporated into the Chan retreats at DDRC for this reason. The people that attend the meditation sessions I host have a lot of trouble with restlessness and I thought it would be great to incorporate yoga into our meditation practice. Then, I got laid off and was given a Borders Books gift card for my birthday. It was then that I found Srivatsa Ramaswami’s book, The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, and then found his website and the 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training course offered at LMU. So, hear I am!
Being on this course, I’ve run into a whole new set of philosophies to reconcile. In Ramaswami’s Yoga Sutras class, it became apparent that the Yoga of Patanjali was not the yoga I had learned from Maharishi years ago. Patanjali is said to have written the Yoga Sutras to clarify what had become a morass of conflicting yogic philosophies in India. It was also a reaction to challenges to “orthodox” Indian philosophy from Jain and Buddhist sources. But, in clarifying yoga, Patanjali actually set it apart from Vedantic Brahmanism while introducing a devotional path for those so inclined as well as a purely meditative path for those that do not accept the notion of a Creator God. Patanjali’s Yoga reaches its culmination in the realization of the individual self (atman) as separate from the universal Self. According to Patanjali, enlightenment is a state of duality in which the individual Self is separate from all other phenomena, including the universal Self. The Vedantic tradition sees this duality as the last vestige of ignorance and seeks to remove it. Circling back to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s teaching, the dualism of Patanjali is equivalent to the state of Cosmic Consciousness. It is a state of liberation, but not a fully enlightened state of Unity (or Brahman) Consciousness.
From the Chan Buddhist perspective, the experience of Unity Consciousness is also recognized as a state of liberation and a highly enlightened state. In fact, meditators on Chan retreats that I have attended have had clear experiences of Unity Consciousness, experiencing oneness with the environment. Yet this is not seen as the goal of Chan enlightenment. When meditators go to the retreat master with experiences of oneness with the environment or even the universe, they are told to go back and work harder.
There comes a time when even this oneness falls away and any attachment to the notion of self (individual or universal) evaporates. The Chan retreats use a meditation technique that is sometimes referred to as “The Method of No Method” (refer to my Shifu’s book of this name) or Silent Illumination (Chinese: Muo Zhao). This method requires that the meditator already be able to stay with the object of meditation without problem, i.e., Dhyana, from which the Chinese word Chan is derived. After following the breath and attaining what is referred to as “unifed mind”, the practitioner changes the object of meditation to the entire body and sits with full awareness of the body “just sitting”. As the meditator continues this practice, the distinction of where the body ends and where the environment begins becomes blurred and begins to evaporate completely. During this second stage, the meditator feels as though the body is the entire room. As sounds come from beyond the room, the distinction again falls away and what is beyond the room also is perceived to be all within ones own awareness. This continues until there is a feeling of complete oneness with the environment. Even as the meditator walks to the dining hall, washes the dishes, or lays down to rest, this feeling of oneness with the objects of perception can persist, even extending to the sun, moon, stars, and universe.
To move beyond this experience of unity with the phenomenal world, some retreat masters will use a technique known as “Direct Contemplation” and have the practitioners focus on an object in the natural world with bare awareness. When the meditator is ripe for such a technique, even the unified subject/object relationship begins to melt. It’s as if perception pivots on itself and looses the need of a perceiver. The subject of perception fades and only the object remains. The phenomenal world becomes fully illumined by silence and all of nature comes alive, all things infinitely correlated with all other things, all speaking to all other with perfect fluidity. A cosmic orchestra of mutually supporting, ever changing phenomena penetrated by silence. It is a state of absolute perfection and contentment devoid of any attachment to self or any object of perception. In Chan literature, it is said to be beyond words, yet there are some very beautiful poems by Chan masters that beautifully give glimpses of this state.
So who is to say that the experience of Brahman is any different? Does the person that experiences the mahavakya, “Aham Brahmasmi”, experience anything differently that the Chan practitioner of the highest calibre? Does he still identify with a universal Self? Is there still attachment or clinging to Self? I leave this for you to ponder, or better yet to penetrate.
While there are different paths to enlightenment and different levels of enlightenment, ultimately at the highest level they cannot be different. Experiencing silence between waves at the sea shore or feeling a vague oneness with the wind and trees in the mountains could be called a dawning of awakening. Experiencing mind totally content to stay with the object of meditation is a level of enlightenment. Effortlessly maintaining constant awareness of oneself during activity is another level and loosing awareness of that self is yet another, higher level. When one has no more to do for oneself but can only think of helping others out of suffering, this is higher still. Realizing there is no suffering is still higher.
There cannot be different ultimate truths. I believe all spiritual paths may ultimately lead to one truth. As we say in the Mid-West, some paths may be “taking the long way around the barn”, but they all lead to the other side. My own path around the barn has been a long and winding one. May your path to the supreme truth be as direct and sweet as possible!