Through it all, there was the music. It was an integral part of the fabric of the study. From the first time I walked into a hall at the Los Angeles Convention Center and heard Vangelis' Chariots of Fire playing on the sound system, the music was always there to provide a soundtrack to our adventures on the path.
In the early years, the soundtrack was composed mainly of Tangerine Dream's Exit, White Eagle, Logos and soundtracks such as Wavelength and Risky Business. There was also Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygene and Equinoxe, Wendy Carlos' Sonic Seasonings, and Edgar Froese's Stuntman and Kamikaze 1989. When Patrick O'Hearn burst upon the music scene with Ancient Dreams and Between Two Worlds, we greedily added him to the repertoire.
Rama would meditate to these albums at Center Meetings and at public meditations, throwing an occasional Jimi Hendrix or Neil Young song into the mix to liven things up. When we weren't with Rama, we would listen to the same music, because meditating to it with him and listening to it on the way to desert trips had imbued it with a certain weird power. It was as if, for us, the music had somehow become a link to our highest moments, had become permanently intertwined with the energy of eternity.
But you could always tell that Rama was never completely pleased with the music available to him, and in January of 1985 he began to create his own. At a public seminar I attended at the Beverly Theater in Los Angeles in 1985, there was one evening when Rama had three of his students play live music on stage while he meditated and danced.
The musicians on stage that night were Andy West on bass, Joaquin Lievano on guitar, and Steve Kaplan on synthesizers and keyboards. I remember being a little underwhelmed by their performance, which became more understandable years later when I learned that it was literally the first time the three of them had ever played together as a group. Rama had just introduced them to each other and then put them up on stage to improvise some music while he meditated and danced.
Rama obviously saw something in the dynamic between these three musicians and himself. He named the group Nirvana, and had them play at a couple of more seminars in Los Angeles over the next few months.
Then, on May first, they recorded their live performance at a public meditation in Boston and released their first tape, Music From Nirvana. Compared to the things Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre were doing at the time, the music was rough, but it had something in it that their music did not - the energy of eternity. Somehow, Rama had managed to capture on audio tape some of the awesome amounts of kundalini flying around the room when he was onstage with Nirvana - them playing, him dancing.
When I returned to Los Angeles from Boston, Nirvana had become Zazen because it turned out that the name 'Nirvana' had been previously copyrighted by some unknown Seattle grunge band. As I understand it, there was an attempt to do a studio recording of the songs from this period, but it didn't work out.
During the first half of 1986, Zazen played at several of Rama's public seminars in L.A., adding to their repertoire of songs and growing tighter as a group. In July, Rama had the band play at a seminar held at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre. They recorded a two-cassette album of that evening's music, called Samsara. The title is a Sanskrit word that refers to the illusionary nature of the world.
Zazen has never played any of this music since. As Rama explained to some of us while we were setting up for the seminar, he felt that they had to play everything they had composed so far and then walk away from it, so they could move on and create something new. I have been told that soon afterwards Rama set a rather aggressive schedule for the band members. They were to compose, perform, record live and release exactly one album every two months for the next year, six albums in total. Think about this, and then think about the musical output of even the most prolific of the musicians you are familiar with.
The 'something new' Rama had in mind was called Samurai. Zazen recorded Samurai live at a seminar held at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles in September, 1986. Just as before, Andy, Joaquin and Steve played onstage while Rama meditated or danced. But there was a qualitative difference. I remember sitting in the audience that night and feeling that the three musicians had finally learned to surf Rama's energy, that for the first time Zazen was truly a four-member unit. When I listen now to Samsara and then to Samurai, it is easy to see why Rama considered Samurai Zazen's first album. Everything up to that point was simply rehearsal.
In December, Zazen recorded Urban Destruction, a homage to that nexus of quintessential weirdness we call Los Angeles. Song titles included Freeway Nightmares, Bag Lady Blues, Psychotic Dog, and L.A. Digital Mindscapes. The music was jazzier and more contemporary than Samurai, and began to hint at Zazen's extraordinary range.
At the January 1987 seminar, Zazen recorded Light Saber - J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings set to music. It was composed in three weeks, while Rama's students all were reading and discussing the books themselves.
Then in February, Zazen gave Rama a birthday present, a new composition entitled Zen Master. Up to this point, the three musicians had composed the music and selected the song titles; this may help to explain such early song titles as Spaceflakes and The Happy Clam. With Zen Master, Rama began to take more of a hand in the music. He suggested the album title and the titles for each of the different movements. As with Samurai, the tone of the music was Japanese. Zazen took his suggestions and composed the music and recorded it live at the March seminar.
In May, 1987, Zazen recorded their last live album onstage. It was also one of the last times I ever saw Rama dance. Occult Dancer was a musical rendering of the changing energies of the desert at different times of day - Sunrise, Noon, Sunset, Midnight, and 4 AM. Its quiet serenity belies the fact that it was recorded at a meeting later dubbed the 'Mother's Day Massacre' by some of his students, 'Purge II' by others. Earlier in the day, Rama had asked about half of them not to continue with the study, not to follow him to Palo Alto. Given the events of the day and the amount of anger being focused on Rama as a result, I've always been amazed that he could stand, much less dance! Nevertheless, Occult Dancer remains my favorite of the early albums. It captures for me the mystery and magic of the desert, which symbolizes for me the mystery and magic of the study itself.
Mandala of Light came out at the end of 1987, along with a newly-recorded version of Occult Dancer. Both albums were recorded in the studio, the musicians sitting in a circle around Rama, who meditated the whole time they were playing. They were the first albums that weren't recorded onstage, and they signaled the direction that Zazen would take on future albums. Working in the studio, having the ability to multi-track and record songs over and over until they were perfect gave Zazen a whole new set of rules, a new field on which to play. It was literally a new ball game.
They worked on their game for quite a while, perfecting their skills with another theme album, Retrograde Planet. It was a sonic tour of the solar system; one song for each of the nine planets. Rama played an early version of the album for us in Palo Alto, but the actual tape was not released for over a year.
Zazen then dived...so to speak...into their next project, Atlantis Rising. It was recorded entirely in the studio in 1988 and released in early 1989. Like Samurai and Zen Master, it was a 'recapitulation' album, in which Rama and Zazen tried to recollect the essence of self discovery as we had practiced it together in past incarnations. Atlantis Rising evoked an era of lush forests and crystal domes, in which red-robed priests relaxed after a hard day of meditation and software development by climbing to the top of the flat-topped pyramids, closing their eyes and linking minds telepathically with their fellow priests and priestesses across an entire continent. It brought back quite a few memories. It also was the first album to make use of some new advances in music technology, especially in drum machines.
If Atlantis Rising was a step forward for Zazen, the next album, Mystery School, was a quantum leap, both musically and psychically. As Rama explained it, Mystery School recollects our time in Egypt, but an earlier Egypt than is normally referred to in the history books. During this period, there were pyramids, but the real action was underground, both literally and figuratively. While the Pharaohs had fun building their monuments and playing political power games above ground, beneath the pyramids was the Mystery School. There, the High Priest taught his acolytes how to build interdimensional vortexes and play with real power.
The music reflects this dual world. Each piece begins with a theme from the surface world. Then the musical 'camera' pans and reveals what is going on beneath the surface in the Mystery School, and how it both supports what is generally perceived as reality and at the same time provides an interesting Tantric counterpoint to it. My favorite piece, and in fact my favorite tune on any of the Zazen albums, is the opening sequence of the title song, Mystery School. It captures, more than any other music I have encountered during this incarnation, the majesty of what it is To Pursue Light.
Mystery School marked not only a turning point in the music, but in the musicians and their relationship with their teacher. Over a period of some months, Rama gave all them spiritual names, something he didn't do all that often. Steve, the keyboard and synthesizer player, became Satori. Joaquin, the guitarist, became Bodhi. Andy became Zen.
About this time, Rama began using Zazen's music as a teaching device in his seminars. He would play us unfinished cuts from the latest album they were working on. Sometimes it would be a rough cut - basic guitar, bass and keyboard - and he would describe to us where they were going to add a second or third guitar track or put in a drum section. Other times he would play us a composition that sounded, at least to me, absolutely perfect. Then he would point out which passages were in fact perfect and which, from his unique point of view as producer/enlightened master, still needed work.
Then, at the next seminar, I would hear the revised composition, and marvel that it was, in fact, better. The music became for me a very real metaphor for the spiritual journey - how things evolve over time from good to better to perfect and yet, at every point along the way, are equally interesting and worthy of respect.
Tantra came out in December of 1989. It was by far the most complex and challenging album Zazen had ever done, as well as the longest - it was released as a double tape/CD set. The first three sections of the album comprised another recollection of past lives we have spent together in India, China, and Tibet. But there was a fourth section - America - in which Rama and Zazen began to 'recollect forward,' taking the music of eternity into the present day, into the realm of rock 'n roll.
The title of the album hints to some extent at the structure of the music. Each song, while clearly representative of the time and place in which it is set, is also a literal example of Tantra - the reconciliation of opposites. Each piece begins with one theme, then seamlessly slips into a second theme, completely unrelated to the first. In the third segment of each composition, Zazen briefly introduces a third, again unrelated, theme and then blends all of them into a fugue, reconciling irreconcilable melodies into a fusion of light and magic. I fell in love with Tantra. The music was so evocative, so far ahead of anything that Zazen had done previously, that I don't think I listened to anything else the month after it came out. Rama himself seemed pleased with it, and began referring to Tantra as the tenth and last album of a cycle he referred to as Zazen: The Early Years. It kinda made me wonder what was next.
What was next was straight out of The Terminator - an attempt to rewrite history. Rama released Atlantis Rising, Mystery School and Tantra on CD, but told us that Zazen had learned so much about the recording process while making them that they simply couldn't release the older albums the way they were. So, before putting them on CD, they had decided to go back and re-record all ten of them from scratch.
It was a weird idea, but no weirder than anything else we'd seen over the years. Besides, it gave Rama another opportunity to use Zazen's music as a metaphor for the spiritual process we were all going through. "As occultists," he told us, "you can change the past. For example, many of you have tried to cut corners on your computer education in the past. Why don't you follow our lead - go back to school, pick up that C course you should have taken years ago?" Setting the pace for all of us, showing us what you can do if you drop the bullshit and get to work, Zazen began pumping out re-recorded albums on the average of one every few months. I was in a constant state of amazement. Zazen would take a piece of music that I knew by heart and would swear could not possibly be improved, and change it in subtle ways that made it all but impossible to go back and listen to the original again.
The new versions of Samurai and Light Saber were pretty much like the originals, only better. With Urban Destruction and Zen Master, however, the creativity of the group began to assert itself, and they began to make more drastic modifications. Zen Master changed from a quiet, beautiful tone poem of Japan into a rock opera in three movements, complete with hundred-voice choruses, all created via the magic of the synthesizer. Most of the original themes were still there, but they had been shifted into another dimension.
When Occult Dancer and Mandala of Light were re-released as a double album, it was obvious that Zazen was having too much fun reinventing the past to be restricted by the original version of the work. The only thing they preserved was about 12 bars of the original Occult Dancer. What replaced it was Tantra To The Max - classical music followed by headbanger rock 'n roll, followed by a chorus of synthesized voices that segue perfectly into old English country dance tunes.
As Rama explained it, at one point there is literally a 'battle of the bands,' as a group of Hobbit musicians and a Black Sabbath-like heavy metal band trade licks back and forth on the same melodies. It was mindfuck rock 'n roll.
Finally, they began to work on Retrograde Planet. This one proved to be the most difficult; it just wouldn't come out right. The guys would record a complete album and Rama would listen to it, sometimes playing parts of it for us at seminars. Then he'd tell them to throw it away and start over from scratch. I think this happened four or five times over the next few months. Retrograde Planet began to look like the unfinishable album, so Rama had Zazen continue to work on it, but also work on something new he had just dreamed up - music for meditation.
Now admittedly, all of the music that Zazen had ever recorded was meditative in that it drew from Rama's and the musicians' experiences of higher states of attention. But Rama had something else in mind. Once he made the decision to allow his intermediate students to go out and teach basic self discovery, he needed some music they could use to help new students learn to meditate. The intermediate students were hard-core; we'd meditate to anything, even the newest Occult Dancer. But the new people we were meeting in meditation classes hadn't had the benefit of our years and years of odd experiences, and needed something a little more refined to start with.
So Zazen continued to work on Retrograde Planet, but also began to work on a series of albums specifically designed for meditation. As I understand it, they split the group into two different teams to do this - one to work on the hard rock stuff, the other to work on stuff that could really rock you.
The idea of the meditation albums was as deceptively simple as the idea of meditation itself. The purpose of meditation is to still the mind and shift your attention away from the everyday world to realms of ecstasy and light. So Zazen began to compose songs based on these higher planes, capturing their essence and attempting to translate it into music. Zazen would play the songs and then Rama would - as he told us - tweak the music on an occult level, creating a kind of link between the music and the plane that inspired it, a link that made it easier for students to access those higher planes in their own meditations.
Enlightenment was released in March, 1992, followed within a couple of months by Canyons of Light. As far as I can tell, the music worked as intended. Our meditations became deeper and more profound, more filled with the light that we sought. Students we ran into in our meditation classes found it easy to meditate to the music. Just as great painters are somehow able to capture the magic of a landscape on canvas, Zazen had somehow captured the wonder of the planes of light in their musical soundscapes. But unlike a painting, Zazen's songs weren't static - they were interactive. When you meditated on a song like Desert Wind or Monument Valley, it was as if you had walked up to the painting and then through it, past the surface rendering of the place and into the place itself. Hand in hand with Rama, we soared like eagles over the white spires of Bryce Canyon, smelled the desert sage after a Spring Storm, waltzed with eternity in midair over the Grand Canyon.
After Enlightenment and Canyons of Light, just for fun, Zazen recorded Ecstasy, an album of commercial 'adult contemporary' music aimed at the New Age radio market. It was followed by a third meditation album, Samadhi.
After the three meditation albums, Zazen was able to finally release Retrograde Planet. When they did, about all it contained of the original work was the idea of a tour of the solar system. The music had evolved into a combination of heavy metal and rave, so intense that a friend of mine, hearing it for the first time, told me that it sounded like "an explosion in an electric guitar factory."
Retrograde Planet blew a lot of the new students' minds. Because the early albums were no longer available, these kids had never heard any of Zazen's serious rock 'n roll. They simply couldn't understand how the same musicians who created the soft, beautiful music they meditated to each morning and evening could create something that made Black Sabbath sound like a bunch of pussies.
As if to blow everyone's minds a little further, Zazen followed up their hardest hard rock album with Breathless, a fourth meditation album that contains some of the most beautiful, lyrical, and above all personal music anyone has ever recorded on the planet.
Zazen then recorded a third remake of Zen Master, this time as a Techno dance album and then a completely new version of Samurai, which was, if I count correctly, their 25th album release. I left the study soon after this, so I am unable to tell you about any of the music that followed this last version of Samurai. Over the years, Rama said many times that the members of Zazen - Bodhi, Satori, and Zen - were his best students. Not because of their past lives, or their level of evolution, or their ability to meditate well, but because when he asked them to do something, they put their egos aside and just did it. Album after album, no matter what shit they may have been going through in their personal lives, no matter what inner and outer resistance they had to overcome, they managed to rise above it and create some fine music.
Shortly after Tantra was released, Rama made a passing comment that taught me one of the most interesting lessons I learned in all my years of study with him. Rama referred to Buddhist Symphony, the last song in the China section of the Tantra album, as "the best thing he (Rama) had written so far." This statement left me somewhat confused and unsettled, because over the months that the album was being recorded, as he played us different versions of the song, Rama had told us several times that Buddhist Symphony was composed entirely by Satori.
For days, I puzzled over Rama's remark, wondering what exactly he had meant by it. Then one night before going to bed, I picked up my copy of Tagore's Gitanjali and reread one of my favorite songs by the Bengali poet:
As the last line reverberated in my mind, I remembered what Rama had said about having written Buddhist Symphony, and the simple truth of it finally hit me.
Just as the musicians used their instruments to express their creativity, to make their inner visions manifest, Rama used the musicians themselves as instruments for a higher purpose. Zen played bass, Bodhi played guitar, and Satori played keyboards.
Rama played Zazen.
Whether he did this with the degree of involvement he claimed, contributing melodies and advice on composition and psychic assistance, or whether he did it simply by picking brilliant musicians and then pushing them beyond the limits that most musicians impose upon themselves, he did it. One way or another, he played the guys from Zazen like Miles played that fuckin' trumpet. And, like Miles, he wailed, man. What made the guys from Zazen his best students is that they managed to unclutter their lives to point that they were "simple and straight, like a flute of reed." As a result, the energy of eternity could flow through them like breath through a bamboo flute and produce the music of eternity. And because they were able to do this, to get their petty egos out of the way, the music reflected eternity's energy, not theirs.
"I am mainly in the music," Rama said at one of the last seminars I attended. "I show Zazen my mind, and from it they structure the music. Then I patch it to the planes of light. The further you push into the music, the closer you'll get to my mind."