In Hey Beatnik! Stephen spoke about the beginning of his own teaching work and the personal choice to establish his authenticity outside of any practicing lineage:
...nobody could tell me it was cool to be a teacher, because anybody who told me it was cool to be a teacher was the teacher. So it got to where I could only decide on my own thing and try to be good and try to be honest and try to always polish my lick and keep it together like that.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi's picture is the lead photo in four of Stephen's books and is the man pointed to more than any other as a spiritual mentor. Stephen says he never knew Suzuki but was 'slightly acquainted with him,' having sat formally with him a couple of times and having heard him deliver lectures on a few other occasions in California. This loose identification with the teachings of Zen lent an intangible air of tradition to our noble efforts. Of course, like most exoteric communities, we assumed that we were a lot more esoterically oriented than we ever were. We navely considered ourselves the American equivalent of the 'sudden school'.
Stephen always expressed great love and respect for the Zen tradition. Their militant asceticism, spontaneity and freedom from intellectual speculation, the non-conceptual and straightforward manner of their high expression, and above all, a practical emphasis on manual labor and the simple life were values that he hoped would also become indigenous to the Farm. But to appreciate so much and to adopt so little hardly served the ends of either Zen or the Farm. To neglect the regular practice of meditation was to ignore the fiery admonitions of a whole millenium's worth of enlightened masters.
There is a tendency to equate hearing or reading with understanding and so build up false conceit and overestimation of one's spiritual realization. In the context of traditional sadhana, an authentic teacher will test and undermine these assumptions so that one's spiritual growth does not stagnate. Here in the barbarian west we do not always enjoy such an opportunity. The individual who has a mystical or psychic experience is often left to gauge its import and meaning in solitude.
It was common enough for us to hear about the ancient Zen practitioners who trained and struggled for years and years before they had satori and glibly assume that in our half-decade of bumbling and wandering we had somehow accomplished the same end.
More than seven hundred years ago, Dogen-zenji was telling his disciples:
You should pay attention to the fact that even Buddha Shakyamuni had to practice zazen for six years. It is also said that Bodhidharma had to do zazen at Shao-lin temple for nine years in order to transmit the Buddhamind. Since these ancient sages were so diligent, how can present day trainees do without the practice of zazen?
Suzuki Roshi's lineage traces all the way back to Dogen-zenji, who was born in 1200 and became a Buddhist monk at thirteen. Dogen travelled to China where he studied and gained realization under Ch'an master Ju-ching before returning to his native Japan in 1227. Part of the work in establishing the Buddhadharma in any new land, east or west, is in differentiating the true interpretation of the teaching from versions based in partial or incomplete understandings of the doctrine or syncretic teachings which claim to be identical to Buddhadharma. In the course of such a talk, Dogen speaks of his experiences on the mainland and quotes an old Ch'an master who addresses the difference between the ethical doctrines of the ancient ones and the word of the Buddha. He speaks of people who -
...fall victim to their own superficial understanding of the teachings and aided by their own attachment to the outer forms of zazen, imagine that their teachings concerning political morality and spiritual freedom are the same as those of the Buddha concerning enlightenment.
In 'A Universal Recommendation for Zazen,' Dogen presents the common understanding of the enlightened view and the consequences of assuming attainment without having transcended dualism:
The way is completely present where you are, so of what use is practice of enlightenment? However, if there is the slightest difference in the beginning between you and the way, the result will be a greater separation than between heaven and earth. If the slightest dualistic thinking arises, you will lose your Buddha-mind. For example, some people are proud of their understanding and think that they are richly endowed with the Buddha's Wisdom. They think that they have attained the Way, illuminated their minds, and gained the power to touch the heavens. They imagine that they are wandering about in the realm of enlightenment. But in fact they have lost the absolute Way, which is beyond enlightenment itself.
According to the Soto school, the 'practice of enlightenment' which Dogen refers to in the lead sentence is the discipline of zazen. The cults of self-initiation do not possess the wisdom to gauge one's true level of realization and in turn fail to recommend the appropriate spiritual exercises to bring insight to maturity. Many masters have said that true practice of the way does not really even begin until enlightenment. Everything that leads up to that point can be considered preparatory to real practice.
In December of 1970, Stephen, traveling with the Caravan, gave a talk in a small chapel in Princeton New Jersey during which he outlined his enlightenment experience:
I had one perfect trip, where I saw how it worked. I got to shinny all the way up the flagpole and hang on the top of the flagpole long enough to get a good look. You know, found out how the universe works.
Interestingly enough, Dogen comments on this very point.
An old master has said: 'You've climbed to the top of a hundred foot pole. Now keep on going.'
Most people, when they reach the top, are afraid they will lose their footing and fall to their deaths. Thus they hang on all the more tightly. To advance another step means to discard all thoughts of everything, from your functions as a savior of other beings to the means of your own livelihood, even if it requires casting away your own life.
Whether Stephen ever actually took that step or shinnied back down is hardly the question. This may be a reference to conditional nirvakalpa samadhi, an ecstatic state of ascended consciousness exclusive of bodily or mental forms which reveals a 'glimpse' of the reality beyond self. Or possibly an experience of savikalpa samadhi, a realization wherein subtle forms are still present, and in full manifestation has been called the experience of 'cosmic consciousness.' In either case, these states are temporary conditions after which consciousness returns to its normal sphere of experience. They are often the result of esoteric practices of the psychedelic or yogic variety. Stephen's practical emphasis was upon morality, service and the harmonization of social life. We understood this necessary grounding for a deeper focus on break-through teachings and stabilizing in the higher stages of life. Nirvakalpa samadhi initiates an esoteric, progressive process of meditative ascent for which no instructions were forthcoming from any quarter. We were engaged in a 'social sadhana' which, if performed correctly, would naturally prepare the individual for spiritual responsibilities.
After a couple of hundred acid trips in the late sixties, Stephen came back down the mountain with the new dispensation; a code of morality and an effective theory of action. To continue with his Princeton quote from above -
Now that's an outrageous thing, but I'm prepared to sit here and tell you how the universe works, and I can impart that knowledge to you: As you sow so shall ye reap. It's a wiring diagram of how the universe works, and you can do anything in the universe knowing that.
The most practical and scientific application of morality was presented as the platform for change. Stephen taught 'freedom through responsibility.' The esoteric doctrines of non-causality or emptiness are not to be taught to beginners in any case. The information covered in this talk and others during the Caravan period were foundation teachings, the prelude and basis for a scheme of appropriate activity grounded in these understandings.
Stephen is clear and straightforward in his proclamation of the doctrine of cause and effect, but his emphasis is on what we can do and accomplish to improve conditions in the world without ever teaching from a perspective which transcending the motion of samsara altogether. A theory of action was presented with the intention of mobilizing a social movement.
Once having understood the inexorability of karma, a question arises as to skilfull means. The teachings set forth in the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes are all special instructions on the fulfillment of the moral law. Knowledge of the real process of transmission and transcendental awakening is the treasure possesed by all authentic spiritual traditions. In Buddhism, knowledge of the causal law is used to purify and cancel the effects of negative karmas by performance of virtuous actions, coupled with the practice of meditative insight. Through the resultant equanimity, we develop the spiritual sensitivity and intellectual clarity that are the necessary foundation for awakening transcendent wisdom.
In the talk entitled, Holiness in Our Times, Stephen exhibits an appreciation for the tradition of spiritual lineage when he states:
...there exists good juice, good holy energy that is common to our time frame, not just to past ones...but you have to be discriminating, because the purpose of that 2000 year long extension cord is for folks to have energy sources that are not going to lead them off into some kind of never-never land and sink them in the swamp and lose them.
We'd already been warned about the role of magicians and false teachings. What criteria are we to use in our discrimination? Common sense will tell you quite a bit, but in light of our western conditioning and the absence of a living spiritual tradition, it definitely has its limitations. Not knowing the quality of the fruit before engaging in the practices, one often steers by feeling and guess-work. The ability to discriminate between a true path and a half-baked revelation is crucial if we don't want to waste the opportunity represented by this human birth. The spiritual confidence and strength engendered by intimate association with a practicing lineage is of inestimable value in this regard.
After examining the degenerate forms of practice prevalent in thirteenth century Japan, Dogen was moved to comment:
A former patriarch once said, 'If the Bodhi-mind is untrue, all one's training will come to nothing.' This saying is indeed true. Furthermore, the quality of the disciple's training depends upon the truth or falsity of his master...The truth or falsity of enlightenment depends upon whether or not one has a true master. This should be well understood. In our country however, there have not been any true masters since ancient times. We can tell this by looking at their words, just as we can tell the nature of the source of a river by scooping up some of it's water downstream.
If anybody, it seems Stephen himself would have been able to benefit from the advanced instruction available in the lineage transmissions, but as will be made clearer below, the fact that he did not seek out a relationship of this sort is characteristic of his level of insight. Instead of developing and integrating the ontological implications glimpsed in samadhi, through following up with the appropriate practices to remove the subtler obscurations and thereby permanently realize consciousness in the higher stages of life, he assumed he had already completed the necessary accumulations of merit and wisdom which result in Buddhahood. In response to this transforming experience, he did exactly what he told us to do years later:
If you've got any juice,
give it to somebody while you've got it.
It's all you can do with it.
This relates to the practice of the first paramita, generosity, which initiates the bodhisattva path. When one has been given so much, sharing the fruit is happiness itself. Upon descending from this blissful height, the natural response is to create access for others. This is a manifestation of compassion and I believe, Stephen's original motivation in teaching. Any westerner without esoteric training or an intimate relationship to a spiritual master might easily mistake any one of the more extraordinary samadhis for full enlightenment. Only wisdom itself would be able to discriminate between enlightenment and Enlightenment.
Dogen offers us one of the bedrock axioms in the science of serial reimprinting:
Don't think that, because you've heard or seen something once, there is no need to hear or see it again.
Once in awhile we'll chance upon a real treasure that doesn't seem to have anything to do with what has come before it. If you study the causes and effects that led up to its appearance, you may not be able to find any basis for predicting its arising. According to Buddhism, experience is karmic and you must have performed many virtuous activities in the past to be graced with the possibility of spiritual practice in this present life. Such openings are like seeds sown by the Buddhas in the fields of causality to help awaken and inspire sentient beings to take up the way that leads to complete and unexcelled enlightenment. The mature form of response to the appearance of this impulse is a matter of profound hearing and seeing beyond all forms and activities of this life to tune in the spiritual momentum, the thread of continuity throughout all time and change. This continuity is the literal meaning of the Sanskrit word, 'tantra.'
Having no training in the present life and coming upon something as profound and valuable as samadhi on psychedelics is like digging for clams and discovering a golden vajra. The karmas of the mind which are temporarily made void will inevitably rebound and thereby condition this non-experience by qualifying the moments immediately before and after it, thus rendering it temporal and experiential. The ability to respond to this event will be limited by the habit of ego-clinging modified by insight and grace, usually in combination with an esoteric practice. If this samadhi experience is rightly understood as a form of baptism or spiritual initiation, there is sufficient cause and motivation to embrace practices and teaching situations in order to effect a more thorough dissolution of the ego-self principle and subtler forms of conceptual and emotional obscurations.
Assuming that he, like the Buddha 2500 years previous, had realized the highest truth and decisively overcome the demons of ignorance, anger and desire, Stephen set about teaching others on his own initiative, limited by what he himself had not yet mastered:
I found out that spiritual teachers are where you find them,
and if that's what I seem to be doing, I should do it.
In what only afterward might be viewed as a premature offering, he began to serve others and combined his own personal evolution with a community of people who sincerely valued his guidance.
The highest accomplishment of the Farm's yoga was a form of hippy sainthood and I have no doubt that this realization was embodied by at least a few who lived there for awhile. But far from realizing what a humble little yoga we were practicing, Dogen's 'slightest difference ' of dualistic thinking which was apparently present 'in the beginning between you and the way' resulted in an unfounded sense of self-importance which eventually gave rise to a common cynicism about both the reality of spiritual process and the efforts of many other teachers. This type of ignorance unwittingly combined with a superficial sampling and nominal understanding of seed concepts and maxims of the worlds great religions, resulting in a nearly impermeable exoteric gloss.
In an attempt to create a non-elitist, non-esoteric movement for mass consumption, the presentation of the higher teachings was reductionist and superficial. Without the benefit of prior realization or a teacher to help guide him beyond the outer and preliminary forms, it was only a matter of time before Stephen was not able to offer us any significant help on the path to enlightenment.