Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Mystery Realm

The philosophy of art was always one of my favorite classes, as a grad student. One evening, my favorite instructor was talking about the sublime—that quality of utter resplendence that so wholly defeats our capacity to contain it, describe it and formulate it in any way, that we find ourselves awestruck. It is a quality that supersedes language entirely.

In art, it is not found by examining the techniques of the artist. Vivaldi can give away his method and his tricks, but still no one will compose like Vivaldi. Renoir can explain his brushstrokes and color mixtures and still, all we’ve got is a good copy, which only makes good foodstuff for the philosophers, who can argue about whether a good copy is really art or not.

The understanding and the employment of technique can only, ever, take us so far. I was thinking about these things one night when I caught an interview with Jason Alexander, of Seinfeld fame. To the question of whether “technique can make you a good actor,” his reply was to the point: “No, it’ll make you a good technician.” It’ll make you a better actor, to be sure, but there’s a sort of magic to good art. There’s an indefinable something about the truly good artist.

Like the sublime, itself, there’s something you can’t explain about it. It’s the “it” factor. There’s a distinctiveness about the great artist that lies outside the qualities that we can enumerate.

Every instance of it is unique, like the finger print, every one of which looks the same to an untrained eye. But of all the billions of people that have ever existed and that will ever exist, there will never be two identical prints. Or the voice—each of which has its own resonance and tone.

Maybe that’s the key for the philosophers, as to the mystery of the good copy and the problem of calling it art. There is always the suspicion that something is missing. And I would suggest that it’s because the missing component is intangible—it too, is beyond the paint mixtures and brush strokes and techniques. It is creation itself. It is the idea behind it, it is the inspiration to do it and finally, it is the act of unfolding it into reality.

You are the universe unfolding, Zen says.

The artist unfolds a new reality by expressing the world in her mind’s eye, transcending all the while, her own experience, by revealing the one we share. She affords us a glimpse of our collective experience—she catches the ephemeral, like a dancing butterfly, and puts it to form as a subject for our gazing eye. She is a story teller. And it doesn’t much matter if it’s true, for our remembrance of anything is but a construction, subject entirely, to what we were able to apprehend and comprehend, at the time, to our maturity level, to our attention span and to our mood at the time. And as the future has not yet happened, what we take as true is always a creation in some sense.

It is the ineffable creative element that stops us short. It is the sublime. It is the realm of mystery.

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Are Zen and Kundalini Yoga Compatible?


I shared some of my favorite Kundalini mantra music with a Buddhist friend the other day. He loved it, but then gingerly asked whether I “consider it to be compatible with Buddhism.” He asked about the music, but he was really asking about the paths, in general. “Maybe I should just forget about all that and just enjoy it for what it is,” he then mused. And did I have any thoughts?

Of course, I did! And he already knew the answer—”you said it,” I told him. “You should absolutely enjoy it because only the dualistic mind sees a difference. “All paths are one and truth is truth.”

I have another Buddhist friend—a musician—who grew up with gospel. To my best knowledge, he would never consider shunning this inspirational music that he loves so much, just because it’s Christian. What an idea! So, why wouldn’t it be fine to listen to Kundalini mantra music, as a Buddhist?

One thing is certain; gospel is Americana. It’s part of our cultural heritage and we look upon it with nostalgia. On a wider note, Buddhists, like any one else, listen to a variety of music, much of which has no spiritual association at all. So, I would propose that if music with no spiritual connotation is fine, that music with some spiritual connotation would be even better—even when that tradition differs from one’s own—because uplifting vibes are, well…nice.

The question of compatibility between two spiritual traditions smacks of the guilt many people still carry around from their childhoods, when their intimidating family religions forbade even a cursory glance at some other religion’s holy book.

But, both Buddhism and the Yogas are “inclusive,” rather than “exclusive,” which means one may practice alongside any other religious practice without conflict. And many do. Consider the many Buddhist meditation teachers who still consider themselves Jews (there is even a name for them: “Jubus”)—Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg are but a few. And everyone knows about Leonard Cohen, Steven Seagal, Robert Downy Jr., Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn. And with regard to Yoga, a better question would be: Who hasn’t tried at least some form of it?

Buddhism, and Zen in particular, is not predicated on any beliefs and if there’s no belief, there’s nothing to contradict. Thus, Zen complements any practice, spiritual or otherwise, like basketball—which is why Phil Jackson used Zen-style meditation as part of his training methods with The Lakers. Zen is, in the most basic sense, just meditation. It is the practice of waking up to the present moment; it is to “eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired.” So, it’s not surprising that training in such a discipline would improve performance in anything.

Perhaps my friend’s concern had more to do with the power of Kundalini mantra music. Known as Naad Yoga, it is spiritually potent. It is held that the human body is designed for transformation through its proper practice, but even if you don’t happen to believe that, it certainly won’t hurt you if you go ahead and chant anyway! (And less so, if you’re just listening.) It is understood, in all forms of Yoga, that we have a central energy channel, known as the sushmuna, by which prana flows. This energy is our life force, it is consciousness itself, and to awaken its flow is to awaken to our own infinite potential as humans. In Kundalini parlance, it is to awaken to the divine within. At the heart of this practice is mantra meditation, in which we vibrate that central channel as well as every cell in our body, as long as we are chanting from the heart and with the belly. It is understood that everything is vibration—even our state of mind, so we can either choose sounds that elevate, or not. Naad Yoga is the technology of doing just that.

And so, if it’s potent: all the better! 

Even though Zen is not oriented around vibrational technology, it does have another point in common with Kundalini Yoga Practice: mindful meditation. One of my teachers, Guru Singh, talks endlessly about the importance of staying in the “what is,” rather than in the “should be,” which is his way of reminding us to keep our heads out of the “picking and choosing mind.”

Sounds a lot like Zen talk to me!

Our outlook toward spiritual practice doesn’t have to be polemic. It’s not Zen versus Kundalini Yoga, any more than it’s Zen versus Judaism; they’re only separate in the divisive mind! One of the things I always liked about the Zendo was that there were Christians practicing next to Jews—at this level, none of that matters anymore. While one path is not necessarily better than another, one may be more appropriate for an individual, at a certain time, than another—that’s the idea behind the various Yogas, or spiritual paths, in India. The great sages recognized that no one path is “one size fits all.” We each have different temperaments and innumerable karmic circumstances that make up our lives. And it’s all in flux. Funny enough, if we weren’t allowed to grow and evolve, there’d be no Buddhism at all! Buddha himself, born a Hindu, wouldn’t be pigeonholed. He embraced his truth, and left the rest behind, settling himself somewhere in the middle of it all.

If acclimation and adaptation are necessary for a religion’s survival as a whole, how much more so for an individual in his own evolving, personal practice? Sometimes that means strands of different traditions get intermingled, the way Taoism and Buddhism did, in the hearts of the mystics in old China, creating the birth of Ch’an (Zen).

In this light, the whole idea of a “forever home” is questionable. But even so, only the seeker gets to choose. And with the right to proceed along the sequence that is right for her. The well-known American spiritual teachers, Ram Dass and Bhagavan Dass, both traveled along paths that were ever-expanding, each having received initiation from Buddhist and Yogic teachers—and the former started off Jewish. In Zen, as well, it’s not uncommon to venture into different forms of meditation, as found in the various schools of Zen, as well as in other Buddhist traditions, such as vipassana.

As a fun and hopefully useful analogy, look upon Zen as a wonderful broth—the foundation of every soup that ever was. Like broth, Zen is simple (which doesn’t mean easy) and unembellished. But, when you add potatoes, celery, spices and salt, you’ve got something different. Some will dig it, some won’t. To play with analogies further, Zen may be seen as an essential strand in the fabric of a rich spiritual life, as a concomitant part of a whole. And further still, think of it as a no-frills wooden boat, which, like any other boat, will carry you just fine to the other shore. Some boats are fancy, some are not, some go fast, some don’t and some rock more than others. How wonderful the differences are!

Through these analogies and commentary on my friend’s innocent question, I hope to have shown the beauty of each tradition, but most of all, that there’s no conflict between them—or with any other path.

On the Notion of a Perfect Teacher

   I watched a documentary about the American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. His Be Here Now, has long been one of the staples on my book shelf. Now 80 years old, he talks candidly about the struggles he’s faced after his stroke. He confessed the moment when, on the verge of death, he failed to orient himself toward God. That’s the ultimate test, he explained, and according to him, he flunked it. “I still have a lot of work to do,” he says.

His honesty touched me. It is often assumed that those on a spiritual path don’t slip and fall. But as my Zen teacher has said, it’s not whether you fall or not, it’s how quickly you can get back up. In Yoga, we look at growth as it manifests in degrees and stages, the real measurement of which is entirely internal, and rarely consistent. Progress in anything, including life itself, is never a straight line. But what we do have, as seekers, is an ever keener insight into the difference between what our minds have concocted and reality itself; the tools needed to snap out of our delusion; a willingness to laugh about our own folly, and with time, perhaps, the courage to make things right.

As teachers, we can be hard on ourselves when we do find ourselves splashing around in the dark waters of old habits. At our final Yoga teacher-training weekend, Joey told us he had had an altercation with someone just before arriving. I was listening. I had just exchanged words with a demanding student.

We had both been rocked off center and we shared our feelings with the group. We were disappointed in ourselves. We were about to graduate as teachers of Kundalini Yoga. We both share a feeling of responsibility for maintaining the dignity and excellence of this tradition and part of how we do that is through our own conduct.

What happens, Joey asked, when this sort of thing happens and we’ve got to teach a class? Do you cancel? Of course not—what an idea! You go and you teach, our teacher said. And in this tradition, what that means, is that first, we “tune in.” You never know who will be there and what they will take away from the class. There might be someone in your class that day who will decide to become a teacher herself, or who will be so moved as to make some positive life-change. And chances are, you too, will forget all about whatever it was you left outside the door before you took your place on the teacher’s bench. And you did leave it outside the door!

Tuning in means going beyond ourselves to align with the greater wisdom we deliver as teachers. In this way, the teacher is more like a messenger than an originator. The teachings come through us, rather than from us, and have nothing to do with our individual personality or quirks. They go beyond the words that are spoken and are communicated subtly through our own presence.

The conventional, or western, or academic, notion of a teacher is of one that dispenses information and data. From our perspective as Yoga teachers, this reduces teaching to nothing more than a “professional trade.” As our own founding teacher, Yogi Bhajan, quipped, if we look upon teaching in such a shallow way, as merely a profession, “we will train many preachers, but no teachers.”

Our focus should be on getting out of our own way and on uplifting and guiding others, rather than on our own success or failure. Our obsession on perfection is just another ego trip. And that doesn’t mean we stop striving toward excellence—our very ability to develop excellence is directly proportional to our ability to stop striving. At least where that striving is tied up with our ideas and notions of who we should be. We had better simply let go of ourselves.

When we begin to do this, we begin to manifest a certain grace when we teach. Ironically, the very shift in the way we understand our duty as teachers, from one in which we recite information, to one in which we serve, is the first step toward inner transformation. But it takes faith and trust to relax into this role as a conduit of truth. To be entrusted with the task of serving, of being a source of light, makes it, most surely, a noble profession. As such, “to be a teacher is the ultimate human end,” Yogi Bhajan concludes.

Anyone who teaches to be a teacher rather than to serve, will fall. ~Yogi Bhajan