See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya: Unworthy Vessel of the Dharma (and Total Asshole)

2014 was a year of cleansing, growth and transition for me.  Having an urgent need to dispense with some nasty personal habits manifest in the early part of the year, I found the need to address and petition for the relief of my defects of character, a personal God.  At first, I purposefully urged that God to remain nameless, but gradually the image of that God began to manifest as Krishna.

A few words of backstory, only, in the interest of brevity.  Having long been deceived, frustrated by yet drawn back in my lack of understanding and a better option, to the deceptive egotism of Buddhism, I had after some longer periods of meditation in the previous decade been drawn to my sense of my more basic, ancestral self, and discovered Asatru, of which I still am a follower.  However, being also frustrated by what I perceived as a lack of a higher dimension of spiritual practice in that faith - and having discovered through the study of Tradition the integral kinship of Asatru and the lore of the Indo-Europeans, with the Vedas, their oldest extant tradition  - I found myself drawn back to those Vedas, and to the modern expression of their truth through what is known as Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma.

Being drawn back to Sanatana Dharma, which was after all my first spiritual love, from my teen years, I sought its expression in my contemporary environment, and became frustrated.  There is in fact a gulf between ethnic Hindus and the people who are sometimes called Neo-Hindus; westerners drawn to the aesthetic and dimly perceived practices of that faith's practices, but without an ethnic grounding.  Having studied Sanskrit for a few years, sporadically and on my own, with some effort I made a connection to the local Hindu temple, Sri Ganesha, in Nashville, and began attending a Bhagavad Gita discussion group on most Sunday mornings.  Persisting in my interest, over time I felt I had gained some measure of acceptance by that group and have in fact found a teacher who has been quite helpful to me in expanding my awareness of Sanatana Dharma's scriptures and languages.

On the other side of this chasm stand the Neo-Hindus; practictioners of westernized Yoga for the most part, subject to its false prophets and practices.  And I came more and more to understand the difficulty for these people, who were for the most part willing to make the most extensive physical efforts that gained them little spiritual reward, to make a connection to the authentic source of the light to which they were intuitively drawn.

I resolved to help bridge that gap if I could.

If you seek Buddhism, you will find it, in every New Agey corner of our decomposed culture; the same with "Yoga".  But to find the truth of the Vedas, it would help to have a teacher who could bridge that gap; and I realized that not many would be willing to make the effort I had made; for earning the trust of people of another culture is not easy.

I discovered on Facebook and YouTube the videos of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya, founder and leader of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska.   I was initially repulsed by the proselytizing nature of his posts; my first impression was that they were geared toward that Neo-Hindu, Yoga mat culture I was both trying to avoid and to help.   And yet, as I was further inundated by his postings (because he makes Facebook a full-time job, which was another red flag, to be sure),  I came to detect a hint of Tradition in his words, and to discover a side of his teaching tended toward compatibility with Folkish Asatru, and thus in my perception toward a deeper truth than that of the Neos.

I came in time into discussion, several time on Skype, with Acharyaji.  He disclosed to me that he was in fact in great sympathy with Asatru, and he told me that at times he wore a Thor's Hammer beneath his Hindu robes.  I also discovered that he had written a book called The Dharma Manifesto, which laid out (though in extremely vague terms) the desire for a society based on Dharma principles, which as he expresses them are the principles of Tradition.    Based on my conversations with him, I committed to and did in fact attend what was apparently the second Conference of the ISDS in August, 2014, in Omaha, where I was delighted to discover a couple of acquaintance of mine from the Asatru Folk Assembly, evidently checking out the Acharya for Stephen McNallen, a man I have met a couple of times and for whom my admiration grows as goes, apparently, his own practice (a rare gift to perceive in a teacher).

At any rate, the ISDS conference was enjoyable, and brief; I met a lot of nice people, who mostly were a combination of the more benign Yoga types and the kind of vague spiritual aspirants with whom I had become all too familiar in my years of westernized Buddhist practice.   Some great hearts in those people, but with a couple of exceptions, not a lot of deep knowledge, either of the Vedas or the other texts of Hindu Dharma, nor of practice.  In short, a New-Ageish group folowing of a teacher who avowedly despises the New Age.

At that Conference, I was initiated into the ISDS, took certain limited vows and was given the Dharma name of Vasudeva (which I consigned to the vault of unused titles; my Buddhist name had been Kozan, which I abandoned when I deliberately renounced Buddhist vows somewhere around 2010).  I was given beads and a basic practice, for which I was most grateful (most of which came from one of his little booklets).    Wanting to share this simple introduction to Sanatana Dharma, I discussed with the Acharya the possibility of having here, in my home area surrounding Nashville, TN, a branch of the ISDS, which although headquartered in Omaha, had and has a strong branch in Austin, TX.    He encouraged this and immediately upon my return, began pushing for me to create an event to bring him to Nashville in 2015; which was a bit ahead of my schedule, but I was willing to accommodate.

At this point the first red flag appeared - an omen which I chose to ignore of what I have since discovered to be a pattern of practice of this paranoid Acharya - the rejection of, and attack upon, prior students.  There was at the Conference a man named Craig, who was apparently a practitioner of Ayurveda (a science from which I have had some benefit and in which I maintain an interest), as well as some Gnostic arts which indicated a left-hand path practice, which I had trouble connecting to the Acharya's Hindu Dharma (note: the man claimed by Acharyaji as his guru and spiritual preceptor was a brother-monk to Prahupada, the founder of that most right-hand of sects, the Hare Krishnas).  Craig spoke most eloquently and displayed an admirable grasp and mastery of his subject matter; he said he had been asked by David Frawley to support Acharyaji.  He also posted a lot of pictures of himself on Facebook drinking in bars, another issue with the tea-totalling, vegetarian nature of the Krishna-folk.

Immediately after the Conference, something exploded.  I don't know the full story; Acharyaji accused Craig of some sort of sexual misconduct with students, in Austin I assume, and Craig was stripped of any Hindu titles the Acharyaji had awarded him; the Acharya renounced the introduction he had written for Craig's book.  Now I have seen implosions in religious sects before, most notably at the conference of the Rune Gild years earlier, and had some resignation to that kind of infighting; but I was rather astonished at the vitriol heaped upon Craig by the Acharya.   As an ex-lawyer, I'm pretty sure it amounted to defamation.  And I have no idea exactly what Craig was accused of doing, or whether he really did it.  But the fact that the Acharya couldn't let it alone stuck with me, and reinforced what had grown in my awareness, against my will - the awareness of the massive egotism of Sri Dharma.

To organize the event Sri Dharma wanted for the spring, I at first upon his suggestion tried contacting several Yoga studio, with which I had some contact, both from my own Yoga practice since 2000 and from my Buddhist organizational days.  I did have some experience and some remaining connections from years of organizing events for the Nashville Zen Center and the Nashville Buddhist Festival.  Having failed with the studios, who were not interested (although some good people did help me very much to promote, later), also at Sri Dharma's advice I contacted Unity of Nashville, formerly the Unity Church, with whom I still had contacts (the NZC used to rent from them).   With the help of my excellent friend there I set up an event for Sri Dharma both to give the Sunday sermon, and to conduct a paid workshop later that same day, which was to be June 14, 2015 (as I write, next Sunday).

Bear in mind that this was all on my own effort; I had no local organization.  The ISDS (notably the wonderful Tulasi, who probably will never be my friend again after reading this, but for whom I have the utmost respect and gratitude) supplied some promotional graphics and text, but other than that I was on my own.  Aiding me I had Unity with all its resources (their own website and apparently large membership), and some friends, who had connections with the Yoga community but also an interest int the deeper aspects of the Vedic teaching.

To organize a successful event for a "Hindu" teacher who is basically unknown in the area, particularly near the buckle of the Bible Belt, would not be easy.   What made it worse was that I had unknowingly chosen or accepted for the time of the event, the weekend (and in fact the final day) not only of the Country Music Association Festival in Nashville, but also of Bonnaroo.  The CMA Festival bring in about 70,000 people to Nashville, a metro area of about a million; but Bonnaroo brings in 80,000 to a town of about 13,000, about an hour from Nashville - and in Manchester, where I happen to live.  The traffic, airport, transportations and logistics were mind-boggling.

So what effort had I put into all this as of last month, when the Acharyaji, in a fit of mind-boggling paranoia, insanity and massive rudeness, suddenly shut it down? Mostly I had worried a lot.  I'd made the basic arrangements for the venue, posted a lot on Facebook, talked to a lot of people and talked some into helping me put up posters (which I had printed at my own minimal expense).  Right now I would have been frantically worried and busy, had not the Acharyaji pulled the plug.  So really, I'm grateful.  But the way the Acharyaji not only expressed massive contempt for me and for all the people who had been helping to promote, but also indicated his own arrogance, basic lack of mental health, and unworthiness to be vehicle of the most profound Dharma.  He was in fact a total asshole.

I really don't know what had occurred in his paranoid little mind.   As a part of my efforts to broadcast the message of the event as widely as possible, I had sent invitations to pretty much everybody on my Facebook friends list.   Given that my own political inclinations are outside of the normal range, this included a lot of people who hold views more extreme and varying from my own, but whom I find interesting.   Some of them (mostly in other countries who couldn't possibly attend), to be supportive, accepted.   Sri Dharma, who I think spends all his time sitting on Facebook, noticed this, and expressed a concern, wanting to be clear that there would be no political activity at the events at Unity (that most universalist of venues!).  I acknowledge that of course this would be the case; he was insecure enough to ask about it again, and I rather incredulously assured him again.

I was in the midst - literally in the middle of a Facebook Message - of discussing motel and travel accommodations for him and for my friend who was coming in from out of state, when everything shut down.  The Nashville Event was announced Cancelled on Facebook.  I was unfriended and blocked by the Acharya on Facebook.   He refused to answer my emails about what was happening.  He was just gone.  He did not communicate with Unity (with whom he had/has a written contract), and did not respond to them.  He just abandoned us all, in what appears to have been a massive fit of paranoia.

So with some embarrassment I asked my friends to discontinue their efforts and the whole thing rolled to a shuddering stop.  Yeah, I was humiliated, but I learned what I needed to learn. One of the major ironies here is that one of Sri Dharma's main themes is the importance in Santana Dharma of finding a true Guru, who is the living example of all the virtues and practices he espouses.  It's pretty clear in Sri Dharma's writings and speeches, that that Guru is supposed to be himself.   Yet by his own childish, petty, cowardly and dishonest behavior, he shows that he is an avatar not of any Vedic virtues, but of only the crassest spiritual materialism and egotism.  And probably mental illness as well.

There's more I could add; the egotistic demands I had to negotiate between Sri Dharma and my Unity contact, who according to Sri Dharma was unaware of Sri Dharma's true value.  He saw through the whole Guru Baby schtick while I was still willfully blinded.  But what's the point?

Want another example of someone who's had similar disappointing experiences with Sri Dharma? Try this blog, which I had stumbled upon earlier, but of which I realized the essential truth and relevance, too late.

So what have I learned? There are no short cuts.  And trust your instincts.  A teacher who seems fake, probably is.  And someone who can't even behave responsibly as a human being is no teacher.  So I guess this is all down to me and the gods and God, after all.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Problem with Writing

(Trying to clear the air, or my head, or both.)

The problem with writing isn't that I have nothing to say.  It's rather that once I open the gates, the words rush out, and there's not stopping them til they're all said.  And who has that kind of time?

The problem with writing is that no matter what I say, I can't make you understand.  To quote Jethro Tull, "I may make you feel, but I can't make you think.

The problem with writing is that if I say what I truly feel, what I truly see and know, they'll come for me like they've come for so many others.  We live in dangerous times.

The problem with writing is that words are capable of expressing such a tiny portion of what I truly have to say.

The problem with writing is that if I were to try to utter more than a bit or a fragment, I'd be writing book after book, for the rest of my life, that no one would ever read.  And I'm not the sort that writes books.  Life is too short.

The problem with writing is that I see from so many points of view at any one time that I can't pick one to stand on and to speak from.

The problem with writing is that it feels like a waste of time when I should be learning.

The problem is that there's nothing to teach but lots to learn.

The problem with writing is that I'm not really willing to tell you much about myself anyway.

The problem with writing is that I'm likely to hurt your feelings.

The problem with writing is that I don't have the time for it.

The problem with writing is that when I do it I realize how much of my other time is truly wasted, sucked dry by the evil ones for whom we are all forced to labor.

The problem with writing is that I'm afraid I'm not as good at it as I used to be.

The problem with writing is that I'd rather be doing it in another language, in German, or in Sanskrit.

The problem with writing is is that I'm afraid to tell you what I really see in the world, for fear you'll hate and misunderstand me.  And I hate it that I care what you think.

The problem with writing is that I'm afraid to tell you what means the most to me, for fear that you'll use it to hurt me.

The problem with writing is that no matter how long I keep on doing it, I can never say it all.

(To be continued.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Simple Morning Exercise

Perhaps some of you are wondering, after my attacks on the American Buddhist and Yoga establishment, "Well, what does he do, then?  Is it all neti, neti, with no practive? The answer is yes, I do do something; it's changed over the years, as I change, and the form is not fixed.  Plus I've made use at times of forms I haven't documented in these pages.  But as to what I do, in terms of what most people would call a practice, is this: about five rounds of Sun Salutation, followed by about fifteen minutes of meditation. In orders words, yoga I learned from Yoga classes, and mediation based on what I originally learned in Zen.

"How can he?" you ask.  How could I not? I did years, hundreds of hours of Yoga classes, to learn the forms.  I was never comfortable, until recently, doing them on my own.  Likewise, I spent hundred of hours in Zen meditation, often in groups (all of the longer periods), often alone.  These are the tools I have, albeit modified.

I start with the Yoga.  I do it after exactly one cup of coffee in the morning.  I begin standing (on my yoga mat - carpet is horrible for this), breathe a few times, and do a series of sun salutations.  I start very slow, and never get very fast, concentrating on my breathing and on hitting and holding asanas correctly.  I've been playing music - Ravi Shankar's Chants of India works perfectly - and doing fairly elaborate variations on the salutations.  I know lots of variations because I spent many hours learning them in many classes from many good yoga instructors.  At the moment I've begun, because of a diagnosed problem in my upper back (from my brilliant massage therapirst) doing lots of back bends, stretching out my front body.  It's easy to improvise when you know your stuff.

Then I drag out my old zafu and sit facing the wall, mediating for fifteen minutes.  I find it's best to turn the music off.  I often sit silent for a while.  Often I chant my own version of the Gayatri.  I find the Gayatri best because there are millions (billions?) of Hindus and other Vedantists who find that a good way to start the day.  Or just om, or om namah shivayah.    I find it useful to visualize the sun rising, though I'm indoors, because (1) I do this about sunrise, (2)I think visually, and (3) the sun, in the Northern and Vedic cultures with which I most indentify, to honor the sun , as Surya, as Savitr, this I find most honorable, suitable, intuitive and pleasing.

Note that this is all devoid of ritual, usually (sometimes I'll light a candle or bow to the cushion).  I don't have an altar of any kind set up, though I could.  I would kind of like a Siva altar, but I can't really see worshipping a huge penis to begin my day.

That's all.  That's simple.  And it changes everything, optimizes how my day starts.  More yoga than that might exhaust me, and the point is to get me up and aware, get my body warmed up, and set the stage for my meditation.  My meditation is not zen meditation.  It's permutated over the years.  I started in zen, Shikantaza, when I was doing the really long ones.  For a little over a year when I had left zen and joined an Asatru kindred, then joined the Rune Gild, I incorporated their Nine Doors program (really a magical development program crafted by Edred Thorsson based largely on the books of Franz Bardon, among others).  Then the more of the Vedas I read, the more of the Vedas I liked, and that's the tendency drawing me lately.

Which is to say, I didn't start out like this.  I started doing Yoga in 2000 to stretch my hamstrings, and did challenging classes, mostly vinyasa yoga in which the teachers made their own modifications to basic Ashtanga series, until my body learned a lot of the poses and knows enough to give me options when I need to modify for a specific purpose.  It takes a lot of kinetic training to learn to do Yoga right.  The best way to get the training is in a class, from a good teacher.  You can't see your posture from the outside to correct it, at least not in the beginning.  Then you learn how it feels and you can internalize it.

Likewise, though nothing is simpler than seated meditation, it's extremely unnatural for most people and has to be taught.  There's not a lot to be taught.  I've taught many people to do simple Shikantaza in ten minutes or less.  What they do with that teaching, is their deal.  Most of the techniques they teach you in Zen are bullshit, and are meant to drop off anyway.  Follow your breath, if you like, but don't count them.  Don't try to control your thoughts.  Become aware otherwise.  And then just sit.

Caution: I'm not saying not to do long meditation practice, for hours a day for days on end.  It's a good learning tool.  But as a daily practice, it's not only very hard to work in, but I think in the end destructive.  Long meditation is like dropping acid.  Doing it a few times will teach you something.  Doing it every day harms you mentally.  And some people have been doing that for thirty years or more, many because they just don't get it.  Fifteen minutes for me is enough to let tapas arise, but not to let it burn out.  Especially avoid people who tell you it's about 'being there' or 'presence' or 'mindfulness'.  They are vexations to the spirit.  I may have already explained why this sort of thinking about thinking doesn't help; I'll do so more in the immediate future, I think.

And one more word:  You can't stop your mind from thinking, no matter how hard to try, or to 'let the thoughts go' without more coming.  You will stop thinking when you stop breathing, which the people at these Zen 'centers' hope does not happen on their watch.  I did discover the simple technique as a teenager of letting images arise instead of words.  But all that is up to you.

In fact, it's all up to you.  But you do need to learn things, and to learn those things you have to go to the people who know them.  But remember those people are these to teach you a technique, not how to run your life.  Because most of those people run pretty shitty lives themselves (the Yoga teachers seem to fare better than the Zen ones).

So find something that works for you.  More later on what other schools I've worked through, and why.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

San Francisco, 1980-1983: a Zen Prequel

OK, as I'm sure you've figured out from looking at the cars, this is not a picture from the early '80's; it's a screen capture from Google Maps of the sort-of-Edwardian home I occupied only for one year, in 1982 and 1983.  That's it, the yellow building in the center (I'm lucky it hasn't been as extensively remodeled as the rest of the street).  You went up the stairs and through the red door on the right, which led to the main floor and the "basement" of the house (the latter still being above street level).  I'm sure there are architectural terms for these things, I just don't know them.  The house had been subdivided, and I shared in with a largely absentee roommate during my last year in law school and my last year in the Bay Area. That year was mostly a raucous party time, though largely a joyous one.  San Francisco is one city where I've lived from which, after I'd left, though I didn't really miss the people, I missed the city itself - which has a personality like no other.  I don't know how similar it feels now, but at that time, it was magic.

I'd moved to California in 1980, my choice of law schools influenced less by Stanford's prestige than by the pictures of palm trees on the promotional materials I was reviewing while sitting out a wet, cold winter in Rutland, Vermont.  I'd been on the move since my graduation from UT Knoxville in 1979, taking a year off after my B.A. to figure out the next step.  I'd met my girlfriend, who became my second fiancee, at UT during the one semester she (barely) attended there, and the two of us had gone to Vermont because we had nothing else to do, she had family and personal connections there, and she could work as a ski instructor.  I spent a season as a snowmaker and lift attendant, and learned to ski from a bunch of expert instructors was to get stoned and make me come down from the top of the mountain (which admittedly, wasn't much of one.  I think the ski area went bankrupt that year; I remember that we had problems getting paid).  Enough said of that at the moment; we drank a lot, and you notice there's no pic of Rutland, VT, on here.

Actually, it was prior, in the basement of an old home which backed up to the Tennessee River in Knoxville which had been reorganized into a semi-commune for UT professors and grad students (my being there is yet another story for elsewhen), that I had introduced my girlfriend to my Zen books and thoughts.  Please realize that it was about this time that the San Francisco Zen Center was getting really big under the leadership of Richard Baker; all that is better documented in the book reviewed in this earlier blog entry.  But all we had to read at the time - for I know of no actual Zen practice in that area at that time, as an alternative - for Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, still often used as an intro to Soto Zen, Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen,  and I remember Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, though the cites I find now show a later publishing date for that latter.  That and whatever I had been taught in some classes.  So I had acquired some interest, but never practiced.  My girlfriend caught onto it like a house on fire, though, and the Zen seed apparently germinated during the Vermont winter, because by the time we got to the Bay Area in the fall of 1980, she was ready to try real practice.

The original situation was odd:  Though we'd been living together off and on since the spring of 1979, the fiancee and I lived separately in California.  I had housing in the Stanford Law School dorm, with a roommate, and she went to live with her brother and his girlfriend in Tahoe City, CA, about five hours away by car (which I didn't have with me, that first year).  So I used to fly frequently from the Oakland airport to Carson City, NV, where I would be picked up and trundled through the mountains up to the Calfornia side of Lake Tahoe.  It was beautiful and I fell in love the little remnants of mining and gaming towns in Nevada, a love which was probably a factor in my later move to New Mexico.   The situation was fascinating in and of itself; as my girlfriend and I drifted apart over the years, I stayed close with her brother, who if he reads this will be one of the few I know now that I knew then.  With him I had some of the wildest, craziest times of my existence, which could be the subject matter of quite a lot more writing.  There was a lot of heavy drinking and Doors music involved, not to mention my real introduction to Kerouac and the beat writers, whose ghosts I chased through San Francisco for three years.  He (the brother, not Jack Kerouac, though at time it would have been hard to tell, since both were writers and had some of the same habits) was living with the estranged wife of one of the founders of the Haight Street clinic, in a big house one row up from the Lake which had originally been bought as a place for Haight Street addicts to be taken to dry out, and which showed the scars therefrom.  Wild times indeed, but lots of thoughts, white hot thoughts, seared deep into my memories.

Anyway, the mistress of that Lake Tahoe house had connections to the San Francisco Zen Center, and she encouraged and abetted my girlfriend's connection with it.  I honestly don't remember how that all got started, but soon she had moved from Tahoe City to San Francisco and was living (a "resident") at what the SFZC now called City Center, on Page St. - a few blocks from where I was to live later, above.  I don't remember how long she lived there, but during that time (while I lived at Stanford in Palo Alto for two years), I visited her, of course, and the Zen Center a bit less often.  I remember the intro talks in  the main room upstairs, then downstairs to the basement areas where the students sat zazen, and it was there, probably in 1981, that I got my first taste of it.

No doubt, zazen and Zen itself were not for me at that point.  For one thing, I was heaving involved in the first year of law school, which is a fundamental revision of one's thinking that I've never escaped, for good or ill, probably both.  On the other hand, I was apparently too young, at 24 (though some can do it that young or younger) for the discipline of Zen - was well as too debauched.  I remember sitting through a seemingly endless day of zazen and painting bathrooms, really only dreaming of going out and getting a beer somewhere in the wonderland of San Francisco that I'd just discovered.  I remember visiting Green Gulch farm, and hearing Richard Baker speak, though I don't, and probably didn't, retain a shred of what he said.  I remember that the scenery was beautiful; but honestly at that time, in that area - I'd rather drink some wine.

And drink we did! In our homes, and with our friends and her brother, in aging WPA-rebuilt and redecorated bars up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, through North Beach, in Vesuvio's over the City Lights book store where in those days one could still find Lawrence Ferlinghetti and some aging beats among the wannabes.  And later, during my third year of law school, I moved with a roommate to San Francisco.  He had an externship with the San Francisco Public Defender, I with the US Attorney's Office.  It was only during that nine months or so that I had a chance to fully explore, within my own limits and those of my student's budget, that city that I came so much to love.  Mostly I remember the hungover, early morning fog-shrouded Saturday mornings that I'd walk from my home at Page and Laguna through the Panhandle and through Golden Gate Park itself, to the ocean.  Seeing the old men playing at lawn bowling, the horse, the remants of the hippies, and the distinctive smell of that city - to emerge at Seal Point, at the Cliff House at the North end of Ocean Beach, to start drinking beers and wandering back across town, homeward via everywhere... eventually to wind up on the bus....

So you see, I never really got started at Zen in those days, just a lasting taste that came back years later, through other forms of Buddhism to manifest over twenty years later.  Meanwhile, my girlfriend I remember stayed affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center for some years, living after City Center with some Zen roommates, and some classmates of mine from Stanford to whom she became closer than I ever did.  Later, following the event known at that Center as the Apocalypse, the fall from grace of Richard Baker, she moved on to other teachers, other worlds.  I remember she was excited about Rajneesh at one time - before he had his own crash and burn and was reincarnated as Osho.  And others.  Her brother and I feared that the stream of teachers and teachings for her was never ending. But she eventually found her own peace and a family, it seems, and I'm glad for that. For me in those days, such things were not to be -  I had a long way to go before I encountered any kind of serenity.  But you know that part.

I left San Francisco in May, 1983, and returned only once after that, a couple of years later, to visit.  But it has a permanent place in memory.  Some day soon I hope to recover a pic from that era, and put it here.  Meanwhile, I just wanted to put up these memories here, because it's a missing piece in this library of articles, the personal side of my first relationship with Zen and its followers.  Maybe there's something about how, even at the time, it seemed to work as a solvent to the kind of relationships I think are really important, and to encourage something else, a communal spirit that I think, even at that time, in which I no longer believed.  Maybe not - maybe I just wanted to think about San Francisco, and my adventures there.  You choose.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Requiem for an Honorable Man (Jerry H. Damon, 1933 - 2012)

Yesterday, I became aware of the death of my uncle, yet another Texas relative and one of those relatives of whom I have the earliest and most vital memories, in a strange way.  My cell rang at work when I could not answer it, from a number I didn't recognize - only later did I realize that I did faintly recognize the name of the town in Arkansas, and belatedly link it to one of my cousins, of whose father I had recently heard a story of medical crisis.  No message was left on my phone and it was only hours later that I reluctantly called it back, by which time I had anticipated the news - that my uncle, the cousin's father had died, of complications of Alzehimer's, two days before.

His name was Jerry Damon.  I don't normally name the people I discuss herein, for reasons of their privacy and mine, but in this case I have no criticisms of the man, no negative press, and if someone wants to use this information to ferret out details of my own life, so be it.  Jerry Damon was, above all, an honorable man, a man from a world and a time just recently passed, but which in the degeneration of our world, we won't see again - his type nor the world he lived in, grew up in, believed in.  He was a country doctor who married my aunt in a romantic dream and pursued that with her, as the world about them fell apart.  I remember my Uncle Jerry from the time of his medical residency, in San Antonio, I believe, and from my grandparents' home in Galveston.  All of the "facts" in this entry are subject to question; they come from the memory of a child and from the conflicting verbalized memories of others, my mother and aunt, mostly and especially the dates are questionable.

My mother and her sister were contrasts in personality - my mother, of German stock (Pennsylvania Dutch of Ohio) on both sides and raised largely by relatives in the north.  Her half sister Greta, Jerry's widow, is also of Adams descent, with that blood from the Isles, more like the mixture in my own veins. My mother was resolute, calm, and passionately resolved; my aunt is and was also very loving, but seen through my mother's eyes, flighty, erratic, somewhat frivolous.  The clashed as sisters will and their memories frequently disagreed, but they always loved each other.  Jerry was the love of Greta's life, there was no doubt of that.  She found, when young, her idealistic, darkly handsome doctor, an intelligent boy from a small town in Texas who had always wanted to pursue medicine.  He realized that dream, and as my childhood memories from those twice-a-year visits to Texas become more mature and more focused, bought a seven-acre property outside a small town called Lewisville, a distant (at that time) suburb of Dallas.  There they built their dream home which is only now going up for sale, and which I am told by my cousin Lori, Greta and Jerry were taken recently for one last visit, perhaps when Jerry had some coherency left.

I was an only child and was loved by my aunt and uncle.  When after quite a few years the Damons were unable to bear children, they adopted two girls, in sequence, then amazingly at around age 40, my aunt bore two of her own in quick sequence.  These parents and these four children grew up as Dallas surrounded them and their country town became part of an endless suburb, and pieces of the property were sold.  My uncle, constantly working, supporting this family which certainly had its eccentricities (to me and my mother, from our more orderly world, it was chaos!), numerous animals, and becoming enmeshed in my aunt's dreams and the vagaries of the modern world - was a rock pillar, an island of stability, purpose and calm, in a sea of what seemed madness to me.  We all drifted apart.

Prior to my visit to Texas in October to honor the death of the husband of my cousin from the other side of my family, my fathers side, I hadn't seen Greta since the funeral of my mother in 2003, when Lori came with her, and hadn't seen Jerry for years before.  I had last tried to reach him or my aunt earlier in 2011, when I had called the house in Lewisville - or Highland Village, now, I believe and got my male cousin, and was told that the parents had gone into assisted living.  Somewhat on a whim, in October, being in the area, I looked up and found them, and had a gracious visit.  My aunt, who was always a bit scattered, seemed more focused and calm than I had seen in her in many years, maybe ever, glad to be with her Jerry in what she knew were his last days.  I am also grateful that Jerry, at that time, though certainly reduced by his disease, mentally and physically, from the man that I remember, knew who he was, knew who I was, and was able to participate in our visit - a capacity that he lost later.  I was told last week that he had been taken to the hospital because he'd stopped eating. Apparently the other night, his body forgot how to breathe, and thankfully he was allowed to stop.

Jerry Damon and I had our disagreements over the years, few of them explicit.  He and Greta were Texas Republicans, my parents staunch Southern Democrats of the Depression and WWII era, and hilarity ensued.  Greta and looked about and wound up in the Episcopal church, taking my family with her and even my grandfather Adams, my mother's stepfather, another noble man who put up with that church for years, finally leaving in disgust when they began to ordain(if that's the world) gay priests.  In later years, I had stopped communicating with my aunt and uncle, partly over my frustration with their unwillingness to facilitate my communication with a family member who went through hard times in which I thought I might help.  So I always loved them but lost touch, and am grateful that I regained it at the end.

My aunt was hospitalized for medical treatment of her own yesterday morning, and it was unknown if she would be able to attend the funeral.  She and I said goodbye in October; we knew that we might not see each other again.  We were both grateful for the opportunity to know that.  I cannot attend the funeral under the circumstances, and understand that I'm not expected to.  My uncle was an honorable man, who lived for a time in one of the last times and places of an honorable world.  His type will not be able to live in its proper environment again.  I celebrate his release from a world that in the end, he could no longer understand.

I remember on one of my last visits to his home, probably in the '90's that my uncle and I, rarely alone, stood in the front yard of his home talking about the cancerous expansion of humanity and living space in the community that had grown up around him.  He shook his head.  "What I don't understand," he said, "is all these million-dollar homes.  I've done pretty well for myself and I can't afford a million-dollar home." You couldn't, Jerry, because you hadn't sold your soul for a McMansion, and instead you'd spent your love on a community and a family that will always cherish you, and can never live up to your legacy.  You were a Saturday night emergency room doctor who patched together the knife-fighter and brawlers, and a father who couldn't understand how children grew up in such a benighted world that was falling apart as you grew as you were planted, older but still true.  You will be missed, and you could never live again.

I normally wouldn't do this, but someone - at the funeral home? - wrote quite a good obituary for my uncle Jerry, and I quote it extensively, here.  The full story is to be found here.

Dr. Jerry H. Damon died January 23, 2012 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was born August 28, 1933 to James and Hildegarde Damon in Crawford, Texas. Jerry attended Crawford public schools and graduated in 1951 in a class of nine. Dr. Damon received his Bachelor of Arts in 1955 from North Texas State College in Denton, Texas and was a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. He received his Doctorate of Medicine in 1960 from UT Southwestern Medical School in Galveston, Texas and was a member of the Phi Chi fraternity. Dr. Damon met his wife, Greta, on a blind date his 2nd night in Galveston. They were married June 7, 1958. He completed his medical internship at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Texas from 1960-1961. He completed his surgery residency at Robert Green Hospital in San Antonio, Texas from 1961 – 1964. Dr. Damon moved to Lewisville in 1964 with his wife Greta, a pregnant dog and $264. He went into practice as a General Surgeon and Family Practitioner with Dr. Harold Schlegel at the Medical- Surgical Clinic. His practice ranged from setting broken bones to delivering babies to removing appendixes. He was of the last generation of doctors to make house calls. Dr. Damon had a strong desire to serve his community. He was a member the Lewisville ISD School Board for 12 years. He served as Vice President for 7 years and President for 3 years. During his service LISD grew from 8,600 students to more than 18,000. He presented diplomas to many children that he had delivered. In 1988 he was voted Citizen of the Year by the Lewisville Chamber of Commerce. His life was one of great character, dignity and compassion. He was a man of his word. His greatest peace was found in nature to which he was extremely attuned. After retirement in 2005, he spent most of his time outdoors, in the woods and meadow at his home in Highland Village, gardening and landscaping and planting trees. He loved all animals and took in every stray that came his way. Though his reading material consisted mostly of medical books and journals, he had an affinity for poetry and could quote many poems from memory, two of his favorites being, "The Old Oaken Bucket" and "Annabel Lee". He is survived by his wife of 53 years, Greta Adams Damon and children

Jerry Damon was, to the extent his upbringing and education allowed him to be, in the world he inhabited and helped maintain, a man of tradition.  We will not see his like again.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

American Yoga: A Perspective

I'm sure most of you who follow these Diaries recognize Kali.  This particular image captures most of what I've always found so much fascinating about her - her darkest aspect.  Academic inquiry about Kali about her can be frustrating because as one of the three entities who are the most common objects of devotional followings in India, along with Siva and Vishnu, her following is necessarily diverse and features aspects of maternity and warmth - but this is the image I've always held of her and always loved.   I carry it in some place deep inside where I cherish it, and I bring Kali out to fight and counterbalance the Rainbow Moonbeam school of Eastern thought wherever I find it. And I find it a lot.

This New Year's Eve, I was brought by a friend to a "kirtan" held in a local studio, its last event before closing.  I found this a bit sad, as I'd been to the studio quite a few times, though not recently and always enjoyed its particular urban ambience - in the basement of what used to be a Maxwell House coffee warehouse in downtown Nashville next to the railroad.  Let me say that I enjoyed the experience and got quite a lot out of it - it being my experience that one gets from such things depends a lot on what one brings to them.  It helped being in the company of a friend who just recently (relatively speaking) discovered her own inner darkness, by way of surviving trauma, and became much richer and deeper for it.  Once inner darkness is discovered, it either becomes a cancer and eventually kills you, or if properly cultivated (and with the necessary aptitude, luck and training) can become the inner shining Black Diamond of which I've spoken previously.  In my friend, the dark shines brightly, though manifesting through layers of much lighter brightness.  I can't really speak to the other people who attended the event; I'm sure some of them are persons of some realization and others are not, as occurs in any unregulated gathering.

It was nice, genuinely, to have something to do on New Year's Eve, a holiday I always hated (like the Fourth of July), even when I enjoyed drinking, a lot - it's amateur night for first-time drunk drivers and an excuse for every childish pashu to unleash his inner Dennis the Menace, loudly and late.  In recent years I've fled the city, when I could, to avoid the idiotic merrymaking.  It was somehow satisfying that I spent this one a scant ten blocks from the Riverfront, where Lynryd Skynyrd was playing and had promised to delight the audience with a fifteen-minute version of "Free Bird" at midnight (and I'm not making this up!).   I've been listening to a lot of Indian music the last year or two, mostly Ravi Shankar, so I enjoyed the music, although a bit disappointed that it consisted of Western arrangements of Indian chants and hymns, including some Vedic, in Western scales and with guitars in standard tuning.  Gotta love the tabla though!  The first group to perform was in fact delightful, with some very nice harmonies.  The second though - and I know I'm projecting - seemed to me to be a nice picture of what's wrong with American yoga, although the lead singer was a dyed blonde who lives in India.  To wit:

I started doing Yoga in 2000, mostly because, as I completed the ascendant arc of a cycle after some dissipation and a car wreck with injuries, I wanted to stretch my hamstrings.  Like a lot of us who grew up with gym class and forced group sports as exercise models, especially the males, I'd never gotten into the habit of adequate stretching and my body core strength wasn't adequate to the strength of my limbs, so I was in a typical imbalance.  The Yoga I was doing began at the YMCA, the object of much vitriol in prior early blogs, and toward which my feelings have not altered, though I still go, for the same reasons.  It was purely what the West calls Hatha Yoga - yoga of the body only.  As evolved, it's good for what it is, stretching and strengthening, and a good counter to jogging, weight-lifting, football, whatever.  Interestingly enough, I discovered recently that the term 'hatha', from Sanskrit, has to do with violence, force, a striking, or a man stricken with despair - which gives us a faint echo of where the practice originated, in the ascetic schools of Hinduism.   In fact, the Y, twelve years ago when I took my first Yoga class, had only recently allowed the classes to be called Yoga - seeing it, accurately, as the intrusion of a foreign religious practice into their smug corporate Christianity.  Those preachers are right, you know - Yoga practitioners are acting against Christianity, and more power to them in that regard - they would have been burned as heretics in earlier times.  Although the Yoga found today in every class retains almost exclusively the physical, and it is indeed when American Yoga meander into ersatz Hindu spirituality that it manifests the most syrupy, revolting, 'puppies and kittens' aspect of that vast philosophy. Of course so do some authentic Hindu's. I guess the bottom line is that the Sunflower School of divinity is not to my taste, nor do I find it likely to be helpful except maybe for pre-school girls.

Having researched 'kirtan' just a bit, it is a practice of chanting, call-and-response style, adopted from the Hindu - notably in Vaishnava schools - and in some Buddhism.  Notably, I don't see any indication of it in Shaivism, though Hindus are a very large and diverse lot, and I'm sure it's in there somewhere.  What I found profoundly comical was the evocation of Kali and Durga in musical stylings that led the performers into medleys with classic rock tunes (folk versions of course) and even 'Imagine', that most irreligious and misunderstood of all the hit masterpieces of our modern age.  I may see a bit of Goth in Siva and even a little Tiny Tim, but almost no Peter, Paul and Mary.  The lead singer of the second performance apparently has an Indian husband and fosters seventeen Indian children. I'll leave that one lie, and my opinion that mass charity to populations like that of modern India makes a bad problem worse, for another time.

Suffice it to say that by the end of the evening, during a fifteen-minute meditation that was unfortunately interrupted every few minutes by the meanderings of the 'onstage' muse, I was channeling great currents of dark energy and flame up through the earth into the basement study, blasting the event with masses of fire and skulls, where Kali danced in delight.  'Fresh meat!' she cried.

To tell the truth, I find that the almost all of the Americans I know - hell, almost all of the people I know - have grown up and been irrevocably formed by modern deteriorated (yes, even of that vile seed!) Christianity and its sectarian manifestations - Capitalism, Consumerism, Marxism, Scientism and most especially, Humanism - in such a way as to lack understanding of the power, truth and value of Darkness.  This is so incredibly stupid in the Kali Yuga that I cannot, in the face of such ignorance and profound unawareness, hold any hope for the human species in its present form.  In the evolutionary sense, if any life on earth is possible after the human cataclysm, I can only hope that it diverges in some way so intense as to avoid the present murk.  For myself, I find that the horizontal aspect of existence is a lost cause, and only in a vertical sense -by "moving" "above" the realm of space/time with one's awareness, does the possibilty of meaningful life manifest.

Having said all this, I'm planning on doing a Yoga class tomorrow - it's a great physical exercise which becomes a mental and even spiritual one as I, as I get closer to the end than the beginning of my lifespan,  find my intent contrasting with my abilities, and it does really flush out the toxins!  I had originally in this writing intended to point out the similarity of American Yoga to American Zen, in their assumption of the names of traditional practices and their assignment to them of forms which could only have originated in America.  They are both Reconstructions; American Yoga is no more the Yoga of the Yoga Sutras nor of the authentic (and appropriate, for this devolved Age!) practice of Tantrism, nor is American Zen the Zen of Dogen - than the Society of Creative Anachronism is a faithful portrait of medieval Europe.  I have various friends who are enactors of both Civil War and WWII battles; I find that their faith is more genuine, for being conscious imitators, actors and admirers, rather than deluded practitioners of modernized and degraded faiths.

By all means, people, do your Zen and do your Yoga.  The Yoga is good for your body and the Zen is not.  Learning to sit still, the very starting premise for these old traditions, is in itself a challenge for most of what passes for humankind these days.  I was disgusted and amused that so many of the audience members at the kirtan could not even sit on the floor comfortably without props for any length of time - and the ability to sit without the products of manufacture would seem to me to be a minimum requirement to call oneself even a human-like animal!  But I digress.

I wish to indicate no ill will toward those led down the paths of Zen and Yoga - I myself have been both and survived.  And please, if you are a practitioner of either of these paths who think that you have discovered within them the elements I find missing, please let me know where and when!  I would lvoe to see their hidden mysteries manifest in these times.  I merely find itself that within those paths, as they are, there is such misunderstanding, such good-natured and altruistic ignorance, that only those who are both endowed and fortunate can get through them to what lies behind.  Seek the darkness, friend.