Looking through old lecture notes, I found an interesting quote from a Lakshmi Center Meeting in November, 1982. Rama said, "You know, your self is not one self but many selves. And you must allow those different selves to be what they want to be, not hold up an image of what it is to be spiritual. I feel that this is the greatest trap in spirituality, because what you're going to try to do is be Sri Ramakrishna, you're going to try to be Christ, you're going to try to be Yogananda, you're going to try to be Rama. You have this vision of 'Gosh! If I could only be like that person.' But that was what we were supposed to be, not what you are supposed to be.
"You should see and emulate good qualities in others. You see a person in the Center who has a lot of humility. They don't try and push themselves to the front and get my attention. They're happy just to sit there and meditate, they're kind to others. Well, if you see that good quality there's nothing wrong with admiring that quality, because whenever you admire a spiritual quality it transfers to some extent. You create an openness in yourself. In other words, if somebody is very humble and you look at that person and you say, 'Gosh, how exciting that this person is so nice.' When you feel that way, automatically a part of your being opens up and actually absorbs the quality that you're admiring. Whereas when you get jealous, you shut down the possibility of becoming that way yourself. Admiration is a wonderful tool for spiritual advancement, and while you should admire naturally spiritual qualities that turn you on, you shouldn't try and turn yourself into anyone or anything. This is what makes the form of self discovery we do difficult, in that there is no template."
I cannot think of a more succinct description of one of the essential principles of Tantric Buddhism, nor a simpler technique for how to live it. We are not one-dimensional beings; we have different sides, different selves, and no one of them is inherently more spiritual or more base than another. They are all us. We are, as a biologist once said of the human body and the innumerable organisms that live in, on and around it, "walking communities."
There is no single role model we can find in the world to emulate and superimpose on ourselves as a template, because each of us is a community of selves. What template would fit without constricting? Rama's high Buddhist teaching disguised as Center Meeting banter reminds me of a realization I had some years ago, visiting my parents when they were still alive. I took a Road Trip to their new home in Florida. We had a wonderful visit, but at the same time, from the very first hours spent sitting around the living room playing catch up with the recent events in each of our lives, there was also an indefinable sense of constriction, a sense of somehow being smaller than I was at home. That first day, I couldn't really identify where this sense of constriction was coming from until I excused myself and went to my room.
I had never been in this particular house, but I had a room. My mother, bless her heart, was like that. She had saved almost everything from my youth and arranged it in the room, as if part of me still lived there. I unpacked my suitcase and opened the closet to hang up some things, and completely got where this sense of constriction was coming from when I saw something hanging there. It was my old Boy Scout uniform. It hung there in its pristine glory, Troop insignia and merit badges still in place, at least four or five sizes too small.
That was it. On some level my parents, who loved me a lot, still had this image in their minds of me as Boy Scout, doing all that stuff that Boy Scouts do - rubbing sticks together to light a fire, helping little old ladies across the street, sneaking out of camp at night to swim to the other side of the lake, where the Girl Scout camp was. Well, that's the sorta stuff I did as a Boy Scout. I don't know what your experience was. Anyway, even though consciously they knew that I was grown up and gone, some subconscious aspect of them longed for the little boy they dressed up in his uniform and sent off to camp, never dreaming what he really did there.
And in their minds, they were still dressing me up in that Boy Scout uniform. But it was too small, man. Standing there gazing at the olive drab monstrosity hanging in 'my' closet, I mentally tried it on, felt it as it bound me and restricted my movements. Part of me really tried to fit in, to conform. Part of me really is still a Boy Scout. I still believe in the Scout Oath and all that stuff. I still try to be Brave, Clean, Cheerful, Thrifty, Reverent, and all those other things that I can't remember. Well…maybe not Thrifty. Certainly not Reverent. But I have grown, and I can't fit into that uniform any more.
It's the same with self discovery. You look around and you find the best teacher you can, and if they accept you as a student you try to learn as much from them as you can. And there is a natural tendency to try to emulate them, to become them. So you try to put on their uniform. It may be a dhoti or a sari, an Anne Klein original or a karate gi or a Kenzo suit. But it won't really fit, man. It's your teacher's uniform, not yours. And being only a uniform, it is but a pale reflection of who your teacher really is. The teacher is a community of selves, just as you are. Which one do you try to emulate most? Which do you adopt as a template?
"The greatest trap in spirituality." Pretty heavy stuff, given the source. One such teacher, whose uniform changed as often and as radically over the years as his hair style, spoke eloquently in that long ago Center Meeting about the ineffectiveness of trying to live someone else's life, even if that someone else is enlightened. But, being a teacher, he didn't leave things hanging. He didn't just point out the trap. He suggested a pathway around it, one that might not have occurred to us otherwise. Admiration.
You can't become the role models and teachers in your life. Even if they happen to be enlightened. Especially if they happen to be enlightened. They are just too vast. If we are communities of selves, the enlightened teacher is a veritable megalopolis. So what's a seeker to do?
Find qualities that you like in them and admire them. It's so simple it sounds simplistic. But it is High Magic, and works whether you are a Buddhist or a Christian or an atheist or just a weird Road Tripper such as myself. Admire a quality in someone else, and you begin to absorb and develop that quality within yourself.
So, in a completely self-serving attempt to lure new 'citizens' to the community of my selves, if you don't mind I am going to spend a few minutes writing about the people I admire.
I have spoken of two of them already. My parents. I found, and continue to find, many things to admire in them. The qualities that I absorbed from them formed the raw clay of my being, which was further shaped and molded by qualities I admired in others. My brothers. In one of them, I admire his intellect and his inability to settle for technical mediocrity and above all his bravery, his perseverance in the face of adversity. In the other, I admired his ability to make me laugh, and when he died, I admired even more his ability to make me cry. It's his birthday today. Happy Birthday, Clayton.
The women I have loved, who have come to know me well and have loved me anyway. I not only admire their patience and tolerance, I bow before it in reverent awe. Each of them is as close to a saint as I ever expect to meet.
My friends. My brother is certainly also a friend. I said before that I admire him for, among other fine qualities, his inability to settle for technical mediocrity. I admire my friend Sophie for her inability to settle, period. Her embrace of the life of an artist and of life as art never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Dakota. What is not to admire in Dakota? He is simply the avatar of selfless service, and I have absorbed as much from his example as I have laughed with him on our adventures together. That's a lot. If you only knew. A young woman named Sorrowhawk. I loved and admired her spirit as a little girl, and came to love and admire it again recently when she stepped off a plane a strong and vibrant 21-year-old woman. She has suffered as much loss and heartbreak in her life as anyone I have ever met, yet has more hope and optimism than any ten of them put together. From this soaring hawk I hope to learn to fly. And, of course, Yogini. She has been my friend and confidant for almost 20 years, and we have shared laughter and light and tears, but mainly light. I have never found anything in her that I don't admire. And all the others, whose names are as numerous as the qualities in them that I admire. I hope that one of those qualities is the ability to forgive me for not naming them.
And finally, my teachers. I believe that I have made enough of a case for my admiration of the finer qualities of Dr. Frederick Lenz in the stories I have written, so I will not expand upon it here. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was my first formal spiritual teacher, and the quality I most admire in him is that he is still hanging in there over thirty years later, spending pretty much every waking moment teaching meditation and self discovery. What a set of ouevos the man must have! There have been other spiritual teachers I have met along the way, none of whom I studied with formally, but all of whom I admire. I admire Carlos Castaneda for his ability to turn a simple story into a tale of power. I admire Grandfather Cachora, a Yaqui medicine man who was almost certainly one of the inspirations for Castaneda's don Juan, for the way he moves. I admire a lady named Gangaji for her attempts to keep her followers from putting her on a pedestal. I admire Khempo Gyurmed Tinley Rinpoche for the laugh with which he translated the poems I showed him by Tsangyang Gyatso, the Sixth Dalai Lama. And I admire His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, for the grace, humor and wisdom with which he has lived his life as the most visible Buddhist on the planet. I believe that he has done as much to personify the compassion that is at the heart of Buddhism as one individual can possibly do.
But that's not the end of the list. I have had many, many, many spiritual teachers along the way. Most of them you wouldn't necessarily think of as spiritual teachers, but I do. One of them was Jerry Garcia. I cried more when I learned of Jerry's death than I did when I learned of the deaths of my parents and my brother. Play on, Jer. The crystalline notes of your guitar have inspired me more often than the diamond mind of the Buddha. In admiration of you, I can do no better than echo the words you sang so sweetly:
Zazen, for allowing themselves to be the flute to Rama's breath. Joni Mitchell, for shacking up with her muse Art and never allowing him to dump her. Richard Fariña, for allowing me to catch a glimpse of myself in his Reflections In A Crystal Wind. Tori Amos, for her work with RAINN and her ability to make me listen for the first time to the words from Smells Like Teen Spirit. Jewel, for being blonde and beautiful and doing it anyway. Keith Jarrett, for teaching me the magic of flow. Bob Dylan, for still having that attitude. Jimi Hendrix, for playing for me backstage at Monterey, setting flame to my heart the night before he did the same with his guitar. Loreena McKennitt, for just being Loreena McKennitt. Oh, so many teachers. The mind boggles.
And what is most boggling is that I have saved one of the best ones for last. I have been wanting to write about this gentleman for the entire time I have been writing stories for this book. He is without question one of my spiritual teachers, and has easily had as much of an effect on shaping the clay of my life as have Maharishi or Rama. I studied with each of them for fourteen years. I have been learning from this teacher for over thirty years. I admire him for many reasons, but first and foremost because he taught me the magic of words. He is my mentor as a writer. If you find any beauty and art in my words, I learned them from him.
I first discovered him in 1969. I was living in Toronto, a refugee from L.A. I wasn't the typical American expatriate, meaning that I wasn't a draft dodger, but I still felt all the loneliness of being a stranger in a strange land. I knew three people in town - my girlfriend, who had moved there with me, and two friends we had known back in California. It was at a dinner at this other couple's house that I first discovered the person I refer to as my teacher.
We were in their dining room, talking before dinner, and about twenty feet away in the living room, a small black-and-white TV was on. It was tuned to CBC, which was showing a documentary of the latest Mariposa Folk Festival. I was sorta paying attention but not really...the conversation was more interesting.
That is, it was more interesting until I heard several hauntingly beautiful guitar notes and a soft, gentle voice coming from the TV and turned to catch my first glimpse of Bruce Cockburn. He was performing a song called Thoughts On A Rainy Afternoon. It began:
I was transfixed. I just turned and walked away from my friends and sat down in front of the tiny 12-inch screen and watched and listened. My friends later told me that they were laughing at me and making fun of me the whole time, but I didn't hear a thing they said. I was no longer there. I was in an alley that had been transformed into a cathedral by the simple sound of raindrops on trash can lids. Bruce had somehow managed to reach out through the normally cold, impersonal medium of television and transport me to Another Place. When the song was over, I found myself sitting on the floor, wiping tears from my eyes. My friends taunted me mercilessly, but I just smiled and didn't mind. I knew something they didn't. I knew about Bruce Cockburn.
Sitting here in my living room, 30 years later, I hit Disk 1, Cut 2 on my stereo remote, and voilà - there I am again in that alley, marveling at how lovely it still is. And, just as I did the first time I heard it, I have to fight back tears when he gets to the lines:
These may have been the first lines that moved me to tears and beyond, but they were far from the last. For all the years since, Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Coburn, for those of you deprived of Scottish heritage) and his music have been my constant companions on the spiritual path. It's a strange kinship - Bruce is a Christian and I am a weird kinda Buddhist - but it works for me, primarily because he is by far the most Tantric artist I have ever encountered.
Bruce may be a spiritual being, but he lives in and writes about the very real world of matter. On one of his Road Trips, he went to Central America at the height of the Iran-Contra madness and saw with his own eyes horrors that made him want to close them. But instead, he kept them open, and managed to see beyond the cheapness of life and the omnipresence of death to the beauty of light and its essential deathlessness:
Bruce somehow has this ability to see the world as it is, and not gloss over its horrors and inequities, but at the same time see shining through them a kind of eternal light. And, being a master poet, he is able to capture this light in words that have inspired me - more than the words of any other writer - to attempt my own. My favorite Cockburn lines are from a song called Rumours Of Glory, a reggae ditty whose uptempo beat and overriding sense of happiness conceal one of the most beautiful expressions of Tantra I have ever read:
Bruce can put into words the treasure of friendship (I just said good night / to the closest thing I have to home…) and the heartbreak of love (They turned their backs / I made it too hard / every place they touched me is a laceration now / Sometimes a wind comes out of nowhere and / knocks you off your feet and look - see my tears / they fill the whole night sky / the whole night sky). And when he does, you know that being the deep-thinking Christian that he is, Bruce is more than aware that the description of his own sorrow that he sings about could just as easily have been sung by his Savior from the cross.
I have seen this teacher perform many times over the years, but have only had one conversation with him. He came into a record store in Toronto where I worked as a clerk. I helped him find what he was looking for, and then a sweet young teenybopper walked up hesitantly and asked Bruce if he was indeed Bruce. He admitted it. The bopper then asked for his autograph with a voice filled with the kind of adoration usually reserved for living saints. Bruce agreed, but didn't have either pen or paper. The bopper didn't either, so I ran to the closest drawer and brought back all I could find, a magic marker and a 7x10-inch yellow card normally used to separate sections in the '45 department. As Bruce signed the card, the bopper, too shy to stand and watch, knelt and played with his dog Aroo. Aroo was a big, shaggy beast, so named because he howled so much during his first weeks in the house that Bruce decided he must be calling his own name.
I was suddenly struck by an inspiration and asked her if she would like Aroo's autograph, too. Both the bopper and Bruce seemed intrigued by the idea, so I ran back to the drawer and came back with a black inkpad. I took Aroo's paw, pressed it on the stamp pad, and added his pawprint to the yellow card, just below Bruce's signature. The bopper was beside herself, jumping up and down and squealing with delight. Bruce and I were doing everything in our power to avoid cracking up and losing it completely in public. Finally, the bopper thanked Bruce and walked off clutching her autographs and Bruce thanked me and walked off clutching his record.
I went to the door and watched him walk down Yonge Street with Aroo. I never got to talk with him about many of the spiritual experiences I am sure we have in common. Hopefully one day I will. But in the meantime I still have his music and his word magic to keep me company on my many Road Trips. I use them as I believe he intends them, not as descriptions of the moon but as fingers pointing to it. I love and revere the man, but I do not aspire to become him. I am content to slip on my headphones while walking down a narrow cobblestone street in Amsterdam and admire his artistry and his mastery of word magic and his enormous heart as he sings his own version of a dharma talk: