Tag Archives: Ram Dass

Death; An Eastern Perspective

I recently wrote an article for the well-known Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun. It currently appears on their blogspot: Sunpace. When the editors commented that it choked them up, it felt humbly gratifying, in that I knew the article was going to serve its purpose. It is a heartfelt and honest article about life and death. In it, I share my own recent experiences, along with Buddhist wisdom on the nature of life itself, rendering death as a part of its continuum.

Here it is, in part:

Gone, but here

After our 13 year-old poodle passed away last year, we couldn’t yet bring ourselves to give away his toys. After losing a loved one—whether human or pet—there’s a part of the mind that tricks itself into believing that the deceased one still cares about the material items left behind. Rather than do anything at the time, my husband tucked them away in a plastic storage bin.

The other day when I was putting sheets away, a hedgehog with a gnawed nose caught my eye. Soon I was finding all sorts of treasures—like the old tractor my son used to play with as a child and the tattered old baby blanket he dragged around until he started kindergarten.

There is a tendency to confer a different significance to these two different kinds of discoveries. The first event recalls a beloved pet that has passed away, and in its sense of finality, tends to evoke sadness. The second involves the belongings of a boy who has simply become a man and, as it isn’t shrouded with that same quality of finality, stirs up an agreeable sort of nostalgia.

While each of us will respond in our own personal ways to the challenging events of our lives, much has to do with our interpretations of them. My point is merely to suggest that with greater contemplation, the difference between events, such as the ones I’ve shared, is less distinct than imagined.

When I said goodbye to Simba on that day last year, it was not the same little doggy that once chewed those stuffed animals. And the man that came up to visit last weekend is not the same person that dragged that old blanket around until we’d hid it, 15 years ago. Neither are here, yet, in uncountable ways, both are infinitely here.

Birth and death, birth and death! When my Zen teacher repeats these words, it is because they reveal a great truth about existence. Neither is what we believe it to be. And despite the concrete definitions we accept by convention, neither is definable and neither refers, objectively, to any specific event. Those two words reveal the reality of life’s continuum.

We celebrate the occasion of a baby’s birth as a singular event and we mourn the death of a loved one as a final farewell to life. But both birth and death are present, unceasingly, at every moment of every life. We might only notice when we look back and note all the change that has taken place over time, or when something shakes us to such a degree that we’re thrown into shock — when we’re sure nothing will ever be the same again. But it’s at any moment that nothing will ever be the same again.

I recently saw a documentary about the American spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. In one scene, a young woman shares a dream in which she asks her recently deceased fiancé if she will ever find someone else to love…

Please finish the article at Sunspace! (Will open in a new window)

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