by tendo zenji
What is it that draws us to practice and why does it seem to be more effective for some and not others? No-knowing is the only answer to that. There is a long history of trying to understand and explain these questions but it is pretty hard to say there has been any definitive answer. I certainly don’t have one. When one considers those who have traversed the path and plumbed the depths there are some salient features. Deep commitment, deep questioning and a certain flavor of skepticism. And yet there are so many outliers that it becomes difficult to make any claims of universality. In the role that I find myself in these days, I am periodically asked questions that boil down to “why hasn’t this worked?” No-knowing is the only honest answer. Sure one can suggest techniques, or practices, or even bodies of teachings, or one can point towards degrees of commitment, or issues of the self or various other blockages. But in the end there is only no-knowing.
Whenever any of us on the path speaks about such matters it is incumbent upon us to speak within our experience. If we stay within our experience we can provide some insight to others that are on the path. Everybody’s path is unique, but again there are these commonalities. One of these commonalities is what I’m going to refer to as Wayseeking Mind. That combination of determined questioning and skepticism is how I’m defining Wayseeking Mind. Many of those who have followed to the path to its outer reaches have this quality. Following my own advice I’m going to speak about this in terms of my own experiences, which are certainly limited, but give an example of Wayseeking mind—but only only one man’s path, no claims of universality or even utility here.
I grew up on Fidalgo Island and when I was twelve years old my family moved to Whidbey Island. More on this event later, but the essential aspect is this creates clear demarcation of events that occurred before I was twelve. Probably around the age of nine (could be as early as eight or as late as ten) I began a practice that I refer to now as ’Sky Gazing’ I developed this from being very inspired by tragic defeats. Things like the Alamo, where a small band is defeated by a large horde. My neighborhood had no other kids my age so I often played outside by myself. These tragic battles became a mainstay of my play. I would pretend I was fighting off a horde of various flavors but ultimately I would be defeated and collapse to the ground dead. I would then lie there on the ground looking up into the sky letting my thoughts drift, sometimes for hours. Eventually I would just do this as an activity in and of itself without the play beforehand. In the course of this sky gazing, which I liked to do from twilight until it was fully dark, thoughts would really settled and I would slip into a more open awareness. I can vividly recall going back into the house after doing this and the feeling I would have, of this kind of detached presence. Years later I would find this sense familiar in several other practices. It is worth noting that in the initial development of this practice was some sort of grappling with death.
Out of the sky gazing practice came a deep love of silence. There is a very interesting stillness that occurs after the sun has set but before it is dark. The birds settled down, most people are inside perhaps for dinner. The traffic is lower. It isn’t silent but there is a stillness. This practice can be thought of as a samadhi practice, or an awareness practice and it really isn’t any different from any others of those I have undertaken, I have engaged in this practice well into my adulthood. Only the amount of time that it takes leading it to becoming increasingly infrequent. But it is the progenitor of a whole body of Gazing practices that I have developed in more recent years.
A few years after I began Sky Gazing, but still on Fidalgo Island, I began a process that I refer to a Self Questioning. This arose because I found it becoming increasingly intolerable to be around other people eating. The noises of people eating were becoming unbearable. But why? I sat myself down on the floor of my room, facing a wall and began tracing this back. I relentlessly questioned myself until I found the root event. This led to myself wondering if all of my reactions to things, all of my feelings, and foibles and preferences and such could be traced back into this way. It became an annual practice for me to sit myself down on the floor, usually in a fairly limited space and to trace to the roots everything that I did. Why did I behave in certain ways? Why did I react to things how I did? Why did I feel the way I did? And I would trace back everything I felt and was inclined toward, or repelled toward in this way. Doing this process every year means that I have had little in the way of repressed memories. I know where things come from. I was learning that everything came from various causes. I should note that I could have pushed this a little further, seen that there was nothing but these causes and conditions and questioned myself, but I didn’t quite make that step. But this has prepared me quite well for that. This form of relentlessly questioning until something is understood is something I still do, if not trying to be so all encompassing. This is a practice I still engage in, but usually on a single topic.
Moving at age twelve is the worst time to move. I went from elementary school to middle school in a different town. Kids at that age are really defining their identities, splintering into in and out groups and undergoing all the changes of puberty. This is well known to be a bad time to change schools. I found myself in seventh grade as an unknown and perhaps strange new kid. I tended to not let myself be pushed around, but nor did I do much to fit in. There was little incentive for kids working out their peer groups to put up with a new kid who wasn’t that interested in conforming to their various roles. This move remains the defining event of my life and there is much to be said about this in terms of my personal history that is well beyond the scope of this talk.
During this year I was in what was called the “whiz kid” program where we could study topics of our own interests. I was studying ancient Greek Astronomy and in the course of that learning some Greek. During this I encountered the Stoics. My understanding of Stoicism at age thirteen was definitely naive, but for a time I completely took on my understanding of it. We can view stoicism as a choice to how we react to circumstances. We don’t have any control over circumstances, but we do have control over how we respond to them. I decided at this age that instead of overreacting with big emotional outbursts to the cruelties of the other kids that I would take it in stride. Kids will often make a big show of a minor injury and I came to see that as allowing that to push you around. So for a while I would just let things roll off—physical pain, emotional pain, whatever. I followed this for a while, months I’d say, then became less strict about it. But it was a background guide for a long time and helped me get through seventh grade. Years latter when I discovered Daoism, this had laid the groundwork for that approach, an approach where you move through the world without obstruction.
Several years later in junior high while outside the school I overhead some kids talking about a book. In this book a character decided his action by rolling dice1 I never read this book (not to this day) and I heard about three sentences from these kids talking about it as they walked past. But in my mind I immediately worked through all these ramifications of this approach. I had no idea what the character in the book did, but I saw how I could apply this. Moving through life rolling dice I found impractical, but flipping coins was immanently doable. And so I did. Choices are often reducible to a binary this or that, but I worked out ways to deal with multiple choice as well. Like stoicism this didn’t last long—too often the coin toss would go against what I wanted to do—but this interest and adherence to randomness has cropped up again and again in my life. Uncertainty, impermanence—these are the foundations on which I began to see things.
My parents raised me in increasingly fundamentalist churches. They were late converts themselves and they were always readers and encouraged us to read. If you want to truly indoctrinate your children into any closed system you can’t encourage them to read. In my youth I didn’t take Christianity very seriously, in fact I gave it no thought outside of the few hours a week we were at church. But as a teenager I began to take it more seriously. Youth group was important for me, especially in that struggle of moving to a new town at a difficult age. But the hypocrisy of my fellow youth group members, who were one way at youth group and another way a school was difficult to accept. The Fundamentalist churches I went to weren’t political and in fact their stance was “We are not of this earth’ considering heaven to be our true home and our time on earth temporary. But it increasingly politicized during my time there. I found that unacceptable to push our values on society. Why should we make non-believers, whom we believed would spend eternity in hell, follow our rules during this short span on earth? And was it not God’s place to judge and so on. But my intense curiosity, love of music and reading and denying any limitations on those things all combined to lead me away. Music and reading led to an interest in the 60s and psychedelia and that lead me step by step to Timothy Leary.
In the last few years of High School this all came to a head. When I read something in a book that I was unfamiliar with, I tended to look it up in the library. From this I had discovered the I Ching2 which I began to regularly use. Do to my church upbringing there was always some uneasiness to this but we could always play it off for laughs. I introduced my friends to it and we used to sit in the back of class flipping coins—connecting to my interest in uncertainty—we would construct our hexagrams and their changes and with many laughs apply them to our lives. From the I Ching I looked into Daoism3 and that way of moving through the world seemed just right to me. I was so taken by the Tao Te Ching that I carried a pocket edition of the book around with me for nearly a decade. But Daoism didn’t seem like a going concern so I turned to another approach that I had found from reading the Beats—Zen Buddhism. My understanding of these things at this time was beyond superficial but there was an element that I understood completely and was the result of my increasing interest in and research into the writings of Timothy Leary.
My interest in Leary’s writings was vast and varied and I would follow many of the practices and programs that he proposed and promoted. But at this time the single most important thing that I had probably read in my life up to this point was an essay called The Seven Tongues of God republished in a book called the Politics of Ecstasy. This essay outlined what was at the root with my dissatisfaction with Christianity and my reluctance to just replace it with another belief system. I want to read two excerpts from this text. The first, takes us back to the question with which I began today: why do some awaken and others do not.
The Seven Tongues of God4
Once upon a time, many years ago, on a sunny afternoon in the garden of a Cuernavaca villa, I ate seven of the so-called sacred mushrooms which had been given to me by a scientist from the University of Mexico. During the next five hours, I was whirled through an experience which could be described in many extravagant metaphors but which was, above all and without question, the deepest religious experience of my life.
Statements about personal reactions, however passionate, are always relative to the speaker’s history and may have little general significance. Next come the questions “Why?” and “So what?”
There are many predisposing factors — intellectual, emotional, spiritual, social — which cause one person to be ready for a dramatic mind-opening experience and which lead another to shrink back from new levels of awareness. The discovery that the human brain possesses an infinity of potentialities and can operate at unexpected space-time dimensions left me feeling exhilarated, awed, and quite convinced that I had awakened from a long ontological sleep.This sudden flash awakeningis called “turning on.”Timothy Leary, The Seven Tongues of God
Leary’s “awakening” came from the use of psychedelics but what he is saying here is much more applicable. Personal reasons, preferences and the like are of limited significance. It is the universal questions which are essential. Those with Wayseeking Mind are delving into these questions. The next excerpt has to do with these questions.
What Is the Religious Experience?
The Religious Experience:You are undoubtedly wondering about the meaning of this phrase, which has been used so freely in the preceding paragraphs. May I offer a definition?
The religious experience is the ecstatic, incontrovertibly certain subjective discovery of answers to seven basic spiritual questions.
There can be, of course, absolute subjective certainty in regard to secular questions: Is this the girl I love? Is Fidel Castro a wicked man? Are the Yankees the best baseball team? But issues which do not involve the seven basic questions belong to secular games, and such convictions and faiths, however deeply held, can be distinguished from the religious. Liturgical practices, rituals, dogmas, theological speculations, can be and too often are secular, i.e., completely divorced from the spiritual experience.
What are these 7 basicspiritual questions?
1. The Ultimate Power Question
What is the basic energy underlying the universe—the ultimate power that moves the galaxies and nucleus of the atom? Where and how did it all begin? What is the cosmic plan? Cosmology.
2. The Life Question
What is life? Where and how did it begin? How is it evolving? Where is it going? Genesis, biology, evolution, genetics.
3. The Human Being Question
Who is man? Whence did he come? What is his structure and function? Anatomy and physiology.
4. The Awareness Question
How does man sense, experience, know? Epistemology, neurology.
5. The Ego Question
Who am I? What is my spiritual, psychological, social place in the plan? What should I do about it? Social psychology.
6. The Emotional Question
What should I feel about it? Psychiatry. Personality psychology.
7. The Ultimate Escape Question
How do I get out of it? Anesthesiology (amateur or professional) . Eschatology.
While one may disagree with the wording, I think most thoughtful people — philosophers or not — can agree on something like this list of basic issues. Do not most of the great religious statements — Eastern or monotheistic — speak directly to these questions?
Now one important fact about these questions is that they are continually being answered and re-answered, not only by all the religions of the world but also by the data of the natural sciences. Read these questions again from the standpoint of the goals of (1) astronomy-physics, (2) biochemistry, genetics, paleontology, and evolutionary theory, (3) anatomy and physiology, (4) neurology, (5) sociology, psychology, (6) psychiatry, (7) eschatological theology and anesthesiology.
[…] Most of us dread confrontation with the answers to these basic questions, whether the answers come from objective science or religion. But if “pure” science and religion address themselves to the same basic questions, what is the distinction between the two disciplines? Science is the systematic attempt to record and measure the energy process and the sequence of energy transformations we call life. The goal is to answer the basic questions in terms of objective, observed, public data. Religion is the systematic attempt to provide answers to the same questions subjectively, in terms of direct, incontrovertible, personal experience.Timothy Leary, The Seven Tongues of God
This essay goes on to examine these questions in various ways and to look at the ramifications. The crux of it all is that one must determine one’s own answers to these questions. You can accept the answers that religion or science or philosophy give you, or you can determine to find out for yourself. This was what was troubling me about religion, that I had to take their answers as read. That there was no space for my curiosity for my questions. I had to find these answers for myself and for the first time, my path was laid out before me. This is the Wayseeking Mind: driven to know directly and to not accept any answer until one had experienced it for oneself reality. A relentless of seeking after truth and into what is.
I would follow Leary’s program working with psychedelics as a practice. Not just for kicks. My practice had two components. The first was following Leary’s program of encountering what he called the White Light. This is basically a samadhi experience. The other I devised myself and had to do with a variety of experience. I felt it was important to see things from myriad views5, to have experiences that pushed one’s boundaries to become flexible. I began this by consciously rejecting things that I shied away from or trying to not always do things in the same way just because I liked it. So I would do things like organized group trips, or trip with diverse array of characters, or arrange different and unexpected approaches. One of these involved using coin flips as I walked around campus with a fellow traveller blindfold, harkened back to my interest in randomness (which flourished in many ways during my college years) and my practice of “Zen Driving” (see endnote 2). This practice I would undertake throughout my activities, not just high6.
I had numerous psychedelic experience that were important but two in particular were formative experiences. The first of these was a complete ego death experience which was brought on by an intense inquiry into the nature of consciousness and particularly how to maintain it after death. This was an application of my long time practice of inquiry into the self, but finally pushing that into a deeper realm, into one of the essential Seven Questions: The Ultimate Escape Question. As this practice functions you question and then question the answers until you reach some sort of genuine truth. In this case, aided by the psychedelic access no fundamental truth was to be found in the self. Finally the self was extinguished and I operated for some time operations without it, functioning in a seemly regular fashion. Later over the period of some time it was like there was a witness to its reconstruction.
The other essential trip was the culmination of the Leary program. I had in the beginning worked with the text he wrote with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner, The Psychedelic Experience., with its guided trips based on the Bardo Thodol. But I gave those up after my friend with whom I explored this with moved from psychedelic practice. I would engage in various experimental practices when I would trip alone but informed by the Leary-an orientation. On this particular time I was on my own and laying in a field where other students rarely went. Gazing into the sky for some time I entered the unified, all is one experience that Leary called The White Light. It is worth noting that here I combined my practice of Sky Gazing with my psychedelic seeking. These two experiences were incredibly formative for my later practices and still inform much of my practice today.
After the White Light trip I felt I had gotten what psychedelics had to offer. That while I was sure I could have similar experiences they would quickly become limited by the drug itself. So my assessment was that any further psychedelic exploration would by an affectation, would come from the self. I felt that the next step was to turn to meditation and a Zen practice. So I stopped and didn’t use Psychedelics again. I was 21 years old. I wouldn’t take up a formal meditation practice for fifteen years.
One last quote from the Seven Tongues of God:
A conversation with Alan Watts:
Leary: Alan, what is the purpose of life?
Watts: That is the question!
Leary: What do you mean?
Watts: The purpose of life is to ask the question, what is the purpose of life?
The only purpose of life is the religious quest, the religious question. But you must be careful how you put the question because the level at which you ask is the level at which you will be answered.Timothy Leary, The Seven Tongues of God
- This book I believe was The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart.
- The first reference read regarding the I Ching and Zen Buddhism was Douglas Adams The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. This book also inspired my to develop my own form of “Zen Driving” where my friends and I would drive around time flipping coins at intersections to decide which way to go.
- The most influential book for me on Daoism at this time was Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way. But I also was inspired by The Tao of Pooh and the, released around this time, Te of Piglet. The latter led me away from Daoism with its strident tone (that turned many off).
- Published in The Politics of Ecstasy. Can be read online here: Seven Tongues of God
- This was inspired in part by Dead Poets Society, the scene where Keating has the students stand on their desks to see things from another view. Also Ken Kesey’s dictum with the Merry Pranksters that one had to be able to function on psychedelics. But note also the progenitor of different views in the Buddhist sense.
- These practices can be seen as a progenitor of ’not rejecting; not grasping.’ But I also felt that having a diversity of experience was essential and that always doing things the same way was limiting this. One example was I had a friend who would always get high before watching a movie. One time I mentioned to him that since he was always stoned when he’d watched a particular film, that if he watched it straight, that that would be the altered state for him. He didn’t follow that suggestion but I often did, choosing not to be so constantly high for the diversity of experience.
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul
Gallery Books; Reissue edition (October 7, 2014)
Harry N. Abrams (May 1, 1998)
I Ching: The Book of Change
Translated by David Hinton
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (May 9, 2017)
The Politics of Ecstasy
Ronin Publishing; 4th edition (September 4, 1998)
ISBN-10 : 9781579510312
The Psychedelic Experience
Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Richard Alpert
Citadel (June 27, 2017)
Tao the Watercourse Way
Pantheon; 1st edition (January 1, 1975)
Tao Teh Ching
by Lao Tzu Translated by John C. H. Wu
Shambhala; 1st edition (November 25, 1989)
The Tao of Pooh & The Te of Piglet
Egmont (September 5, 2019)