The Wheel

It may require an active choice not to be an elitist.


In spite of Stephen's regular insistence on spiritual democracy, his manner of teaching and general failure to assay individual potentialities indicates that either he did not think his level of realization was attainable by the masses or that there was no need for any special effort at transmission beyond the outer forms of everyday life in the community.  Instead, the secondary aspects or conditional effects associated with spiritual insight were themselves touted as the supreme means to realization. Our hippy-collective lifestyle, the externalized forms of virtuous activity and an exoteric path designed to accommodate large numbers of people were offered as a non-elitist alternative to the esoteric understanding which is ultimately necessary to transform one's view of phenomena and transcend the sense of separate selfhood. In the following statement from the talk Solid Gold in Mind at Play, Stephen expresses his fundamentally exoteric view of the nature and substance of spiritual realization and transmission:

  If you want to push consciousness on people, where you say this person is a preemie, or this person is enlightened, might get yourself into a finite number of titles you can hand out; but if you are just willing to let knowledge flow forth like a fountain, and let people have it like they want, and don't make them have to have Ph.D.'s or anything after their name to symbolize that they have touched the knowledge-if you just see that everyone is doing their best, and if those folks who have trouble stretching can hang tight with the majority, they will be carried and they will be stretched.  Some people talk in terms of winners and losers, but what we are saying is that

  We are all going to do it together, and that
Consciousness is not an individual thing... 

These are very idealistic and egalitarian statements but it seems that through a merely nominal rejection of hierarchy and elitism, instead of creating a community oriented toward spiritual awakening which would be a training ground for bodhisattvas, we actually neglected to discriminate and identify those amongst us who should have been empowered to serve individuals, perhaps in an exclusively spiritual sense.  This would also have allowed us to make intelligent use of those who had any worldly skills or resources within a spiritual paradigm.

    ...Consciousness is not an individual thing.  It may require an active choice not to be an elitist.  But it's the answer to the riddle.  It's a mistake to think that the riddle is just a riddle.  You don't really want to get off the wheel-  everybody that gets there comes back.

I have never been quite sure exactly what the 'riddle' is.  Discrimination relative to attainment facilitates the strategic employment of those individuals who would be of service to others, whether in the management of worldly affairs or in the transmission of spiritual wisdom.  But the question of how to most efficiently bring this about was hardly posed on the Farm, as there was no formality wherein we were purposively tested to reveal our degree of insight.

    Six hundred miles and three joints is my style of sesshin... 

'To save the world' was our intention, but we na•vely assumed our own readiness and failed to address the matter of our collectice short-comings in any resolute way.  A leveling of the high places and a raising up of the low may be totally appropriate in popular legislation to rectify social injustices, but this does not address the question of true esotericism or the need for graded stages of spiritual practice.  One can either attribute this to Stephen's ignorance about these matters or believe he may simply have considered such a structure irrelevant to the proper functioning and focus of our particular community.  A shallow understanding of the Mahayana ideal allowed us to ignore or overlook the forms, functions and teachings which would have helped us slow our neurotic drive to expand and carefully identify the particular needs and strengths of the people already on board so that we would be in a good position to grow intelligently.  We were growing in any case.

Six years after the Caravan landed, there were over a thousand people on the land.  Speaking at Sunday Services during the spring of 1977, Stephen was looking beyond the horizon: 

    We have to do a thing so much bigger than this...I want the Farm to think bigger.

In seeking to be a player on the world stage, we did not pay enough attention to maturing the semblance of community that we already were.  Our investigation and insight into ourselves, the task of 'fixing our head' was cursory and prematurely postponed so we could grow and expand to capture the world's attention;  this was the Grail.  It was our own energy, 'the people's' as the Stranger might say, not the luminosity of an awakened being, which was channeled through Stephen and fed back to us with a socio-political slant supporting the habitual indiscipline, insecurity and megalomania of viewing ourselves  from the outside, as an objective entity in an objective world, motivated to create a self-image that would be desirable to millions. 

    Now we have some ideas about what kind of juice is good juice to put out.  We want to be re-cognized as something - we don't want to be so bizarre that nobody can identify with us...We can't cloister up.

'Going within' in the traditional sense was the last thing on our collective mind; if anything, we tended to extroversion.  In spite of our renunciate appearance, 'spiritual' pride and the desire for worldly recognition pervaded our values and indirectly compromised our radical stance by putting the effective focus over the horizon, in the world of time and eventualities.  The immediacy of the moment, the simplicity of the practice, our sensitivity to our own feelings and meaningful communication with the beings closest to us,  all seemed to diminish as we continued to throw ourselves into 'the lost cause'.  Instead of developing the potential for tantric intelligence which was initially awakened on psychedelics, we became fixed on a course which favored a headlong, lemming-like rush into a phantom-utopian future.

We put aside personal desires and the primacy of family life for the sake of accomplishing the community ideals.  That this agenda was based in another form of desire as binding as other, more conventional indulgences was not something any of us seemed to understand very well.  In trying to accomplish the welfare of all sentient beings, it seems very ironic that we would ever become so distracted so as to lose sight of each other's welfare or fail to listen to the occasional utterances of higher intelligence which were channeled through some of the very human beings we lived with.

It has been said that revelation without revolution is slavery while revolution without revelation is tyranny.  We were short on both ends.  It was only when the professed philosophy grew so rank and hollow with hypocrisy that one could see that what appeared on the surface as anti-hierarchy and anti-guruism was actually a form of egoic-hierarchy and spiritual incompetence wherein emotionalism, personal desires and opinionatedness supplanted higher wisdom.

In an effort to avoid being branded elitist, and to create a popular movement that would be attractive to millions, Stephen maintained an open gate policy for the Farm as if this in itself would guarantee our good-heart and openness without realizing the insidious exclusivity and classism that had already infected the community.

In the early days, Stephen would often say that he practiced Raja Yoga, the 'yoga of discrimination.'  But his lack of discrimination and familiarity with the Buddhadharma is evidenced again and again in his written works;

    You don't really want to get off the wheel-everybody that gets there comes back.

The wheel is a reference to the Tibetan Wheel of Life which depicts existence in terms of six realms of beings, each of which symbolizes a characteristic neurosis.  Death is depicted as a monster holding this wheel which revolves by the power of greed, ignorance and hatred, symbolized by the cock, pig, and snake at its center.

In the Buddhist cosmology, liberation from the Wheel can be interpreted in two ways;

1. as the nirvana 'with a remainder' wherein appearances remain in the form of the purified aggregates of consciousness.  This has been compared to a village of thieves where all the thieves have been executed.

2. as the nirvana 'without remainder' which is devoid of the aggregates and has been compared to a village where both the inhabitants and the village itself have been effaced out of existence.

In one sense, Stephen's advice about remaining on the wheel is a well-meaning attempt to help us avoid clinging to the one-sided understanding of nirvana, as the nirvana without remainder; a death-like state wherein all phenomenal karmas have ceased.  In Mahayana philosophy, to be liberated from the Wheel of becoming is only the beginning, not the end of the path.  This incomplete nirvana is an attachment to relative peace and must be transcended in order to realize Great Emptiness, the absolute freedom beyond relative purity of the arhat. To cling to this state results in an impermanent tranquillization which is abandoned on the path of the bodhisattva living the realization of nirvana with a remainder.

Realization totally transforms the view of self and world. The Awakened who compassionately return to the world to teach emanate from an impulse beyond samsaric determinism. Although appearing here in the human realms, they are no longer 'on the Wheel'.   In a very real sense then, the aspiring bodhisattva must transcend the wheel in order to realize Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings. To remain on the Wheel signifies spiritual bondage. 

Gampopa tells us -     

At the very beginning (of one's religious career) it is indispensably necessary to have the most profound aversion for the interminable sequence of repeated deaths and births.

It is only when the mind has been liberated from the wheel, that the bodhisattva is able to be of optimal benefit to others.  Without this fundamental liberation, all attempts at virtuous activities are taken up within the viewpoints endemic to the Wheel and subject to the winds of desire, anger and stupidity.  Without 'stopping the world' or getting off the Wheel, the transcendental nature of consciousness remains unrealized. 

Asanga states -

Inspection is to be cultivated (with respect to) getting involved with the Four Truths because (it makes us aware of) our deplorable situation and of the driving force behind it, of the shaky ground (of our ego-centered being) and of (how) not to be mistaken about it.

In the following quote, also by Asanga, the transition from a life of samsaric bondage (on the wheel) to Nirvanic liberation is described as the shift from representational thought to existential awareness:

This activation of the shift from representational thinking to existential awareness involves 1) Devotion; 2) an out-of-the-ordinary intent that (in addition) is lucid; different from these is 3) the matruation into the upper levels (of one's hierarchical organization); and 4) the elimination of (all) obscurations.

Longchenpa adds -

Because existential awareness is not in evidence when during samsara the act and the object phases of mentation with its concomitant operators are in foment, this activation of the shift from representational thinking to an existential awareness injects power into the very brilliance of existential awareness.

In Stephen's exposition, the inherent existence of the Wheel as the fundamental condition of existence is never questioned; it is seemingly the sine qua non of our appearance here and equated with the reality of the physical universe. 

Stephen defines his view of the absolute truth in the following manner:
    There is for instance, absolute existence.  Doubt our existence.  Go ahead.  If you could doubt our existence hard enough, you could make us go away.  And you notice we don't.  Here we are.  What are you going to do about it?

Absolute truths are those truths which can be universally applied without doing injustices to some people to make something come out right. If you try to stick a relative truth down on a lot of people, it's like sticking a cookie-cutter down on them and cutting off everything that doesn't fit.  The absolute truth is the real shape before the cookie-cutter got 'em- where they were really at.  The truth that is self-evident, in front of you.  And that's absolute.

When he says, 'If you could doubt our existence hard enough, you could make us go away,' is he suggesting that this is the criteria for determining absolute truth?  Again, this equates the integrity of the physical universe with the absolute truth, whereas in Buddhism, all dualistic notions, even karma, are considered to be aspects of the relative truth. These are known as the two truths in Buddhism; the conventional, relativistic truth of differentiations and the absolute truth of non-dualism.  In contrast to this,  the relative and absolute truths are being presented here in a manner which subsumes both relative to a worldly consciousness. 

The dualistic nature of what Stephen refers to as 'our existence' is never really clarified while the transcendental nature of the absolute is reduced to a product of sense perceptions and mental constructs. This subjective notion of self-evident truth is touted as the pure form, the ideal to be identified with the absolute.

From a Buddhist perspective, the incomplete and one-sided nature of Stephen's teachings can be traced back to this relativization of the absolute,  resulting in a short-sighted path bereft of traditional artifacts as well as any other effective means of magnifying the heart of transcendental realization.  In the schools of Buddhism, the true path of method is always combined with the path of wisdom to attain liberation from the Wheel of unconscious becoming and to realize Great Emptiness, the fundamental Egolessness of persons and things.  When these two paths are skilfuly merged under the guidance of a competent teacher, it is said that one will ultimately achieve Enlightenment manifesting both the form and  formless kayas, or the relative and absolute bodies of a Buddha.

Contrary to Stephen's suggestion that there is no value in desiring to transcend the wheel of karma, liberation from the wheel has traditionally been referred to as 'going beyond,' 'release,' 'crossing over,' or 'breaking through.'  As the Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther has indicated in his translations quoted above, these are apt descriptions which apply directly to the radical shift from 'representational thinking' to 'existential awareness.'