I was walking down Grant Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach one fall evening in 1970 when a poster on a telephone pole caught my attention. It had an image of a mostly naked Indian man sitting on a tree stump and laughing. There was something almost insanely compelling about the laughter. The poster was advertising a lecture by this person, who was called Swami Muktananda. I gathered some friends and joined the handful of people at the sparsely attended lecture the next night. There was nothing particularly compelling about the event, and when it was over we headed back to my apartment in the Mission District. As we relaxed and chatted about the Swami I was immediately hit by what I can only describe as a wave of light-energy which was emanating from him. I'd learned that the Swami's next venue that night was at the Integral Yoga Institute, which was just a few blocks from my flat, and immediately hustled over there.
I arrived at the Institute just in time to join a small crowd gathered around Swami Muktananda, who was getting into a limo. I mumbled my disappointment and the tall blond bearded guy standing next to me mentioned that the Swami was teaching every morning at a mansion in the Oakland Hills, across the Bay. He offered vague directions.
I did not have a car, so early the next morning I walked a couple of miles to the nearest freeway on-ramp and stuck out my thumb. The first car that drove up stopped and opened its door. I got in and found myself sitting next to the blond beard from the previous evening. Obviously I was in the flow.
At the time I was a graduate student of Asian religions at what later was called the California Institute of Integral Studies, and had considerable control over my time. So over the next few mornings I returned to the mansion to meditate -- and to have a succession of profound experiences. It was apparent that Swami Muktananda was the sort of enlightened yogi I had been reading about. My first Buddhist teacher, Thich Thien-An, might have asked, do you want to study about the finger pointing at the moon, or embrace the moon? I was intoxicated. Embrace the moon, of course, in the form of Swami Muktananda, but he was on his way back to India from California. How does an impoverished graduate student get to India? I mulled this question over with a fellow intoxicated meditator, who pointed me toward the Swami's senior student and the patron for the tour, a wealthy antiques dealer from New York by the name of Rudi, who owned a converted hotel-ashram in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. After a few days with Swami Muktananda, all I wanted to do was chant the names of God and meditate, and I figured that although I could not hitch-hike to India, I could hitch-hike to New York.
Forget the pointing finger, go for the moon. All I had to do was let my thumb carry me 3,000 miles across the USA in the middle of the winter.
One morning at the Oakland mansion I approached Rudi and asked him if I could join up. He poked my forehead, where my third eye would have been, if I had had one, laughed and said, "It goes right through you. Sure, you can come to live in my ashram. When can you get there?" At the time I had no idea of what it was that was "going through me", but thinking it best to at least finish up the term, I said, January and he said fine.
A month later I began the cross country trek and after a bumpy week or so washed up in lower Manhattan before dawn on a snowy and VERY frigid morning. I had $7 in my pocket and didn't know a soul in the city besides Rudi, with whom I had spent a total of 10 minutes. I called the phone number he had given me. A person called Stuart answered, yelled at me for calling so early in the morning, told me to come by Rudi's shop at 10 AM and hung up. New York hospitality I figured. With nowhere else to go, I found the proverbial church with the unlocked door and froze in a pew until 10 AM. At the designated time I headed over to Rudi’s antique shop. He welcomed me warmly, assessed my situation and sent me around the corner to his townhouse to shower, rest and have a good meal.
That night I bedded down on a mat on the floor under a life size statue of Palden Lhamo and her attendants which apparently had come from the Potala in Tibet. Over the next several nights I dreamed of flying saucers – something rather novel for me.
I was the third Californian to show up as a result of the tour. I quickly figured out that the action was in Manhattan with Rudi rather than in his upstate ashram, and stayed in the city with the other Californians, all of us spending our nights sleeping on the living room floor of his townhouse, working by day in his Asian antiques shop (which was around the corner), and mornings and evenings meditating and chanting the names of God. On occasional weekends we would all drive to the upstate Ashram in the Catskills.
The fourth Californian to show up came several weeks after me. Sandy was a huge Hollywood stunt man, ex-green beret and ex-jet pilot. He was a particularly welcome addition, as the neighborhood was infested with muggers. Soon after his arrival the muggers disappeared --- he had beaten the crap out of them, making the blocks around us probably the safest in New York.
Rudi was, more formally, Swami Rudrananda, an absolute master of Kundalini Yoga -- which he set about teaching us. The main technique for mastering this Yoga was a specific breathing technique, which he called double breathing, and which I later learned the Tibetans called vase breathing. Soon enough I began to feel the spiritual energy called shakti flowing through me. As we would meditate together, Rudi would transmit it and we would tap into it, using breath control to circulate it through our bodies. It was like getting stoned without drugs. Better, in fact. Over time I learned to control the energy by surrendering to its flow.
Control by surrender was only one of the many paradoxes I lived. I had no money what-so-ever, and even though I was sleeping on a mat on the floor with a bunch of other guys, it was the floor of a fabulous townhouse, which was stuffed from floor to ceiling with nothing but museum quality sculptures from India, Tibet, China and Japan. My yoga teacher was not some paper thin delicate Hindu, but a 40-something overweight, bald, gay Jewish man from Brooklyn. But his heart was larger than his girth, he was a powerhouse of spiritual energy, and he held nothing back. All in all it was a lesson in what I later learned was the distinction between reality and appearance.
Winter gave way to early spring and Rudi began to prepare for a buying trip to Japan. One evening before he left, as we all sat around a table having dinner, he told us that Swami Muktananda had requested him to found a number of ashrams around the USA. For a couple of years I had been a graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington, and suggested that it probably would be a good community for an ashram. Rudi told me to check that out while he was on his buying trip, so while he flew to Japan, I hitchhiked to Bloomington. Upon arriving in town I looked up an old friend, hoping to sleep on his floor, but he told me about something called “The Sufi House,” which was a defunct fraternity house which a bunch of hippies had rented as a sort of spiritual commune. I knew a number of them, so I walked over and was invited to sleep in one of the rooms until it was time to return to New York. As the days passed I talked about Rudi and Swami Muktananda to anyone who would listen, and showed their pictures around. One person, who I had not known previously, but whose interest was immediately aroused, was a young man called Michael Shoemaker (later Swami Chetanananda). After about a week in Bloomington, I hitchhiked back to New York and resumed my yogic life in Rudi’s townhouse. To my surprise, Michael showed up in New York shortly after my return and joined the yogis on the townhouse floor.
It was immediately clear that Michael was going to be a dedicated yogi, and the seeds of our friendship were sown. On weekend evenings we roamed Greenwich Village, enjoying the street scene. It was really our only guy-time together, as the rest of our days and nights were spent working for Rudi or meditating.
Rudi continued to train me to circulate the shakti-energy and (eventually) to teach others the same technique by transmitting the shakti to them as he had to me. But spirituality aside, I realized that I needed to find a way to make a living. Rudi had combined profound spiritual development with a life as a businessman. I pondered his example, considered my options, and decided to return to graduate school in Indiana. I was determined to become a professor of Asian religions. This intention aligned with the idea of founding an Ashram there, but money for graduate school was going to be an issue for me. So I consulted Rudi about it. He said that he never had expected me to spend a long time with him in New York, so my idea of graduate school in Bloomington made sense to him, and he encouraged me to find a job in New York so I could begin to save for tuition and living expenses. I shaved my substantial beard, cut my very long hair, and found two jobs, working during the week as a city bureaucrat and on the weekends renting apartments on the Upper East Side.
At the beginning of the summer a few other guys and a girl showed up from Bloomington, hungry for spiritual experience, and at summer’s end we all headed back to Bloomington to start an ashram. Rudi had empowered me, Michael and a guy named Strats to teach Kundalini Yoga – what is now called “Eyes Open Meditation.” We pooled our financial resources to get the ashram going, which included most of the money I had saved while working in New York. Michael, being the boldest of us, committed our pooled money to buying a house “on contract” and we moved in. We three taught Kundalini Yoga classes every night, and by day I worked on my M.A. in Religious Studies. We were downright magnetic, and by the end of a year, and after a few visits from Rudi, the six of us in the house had become fifty. We were breaking every fire code in Bloomington, but neither the police nor the fire department bothered us because among those fifty were a number of drug dealers from the community. Our Kundalini Yoga had gotten them off drugs and off dealing, so officialdom ignored their fire codes for the greater benefit of a less druggy Bloomington.
After a year of the complexity of communal life I decided to strike out on my own and focus as deeply as possible on my graduate studies. It was a hard decision and a hard transition, and I felt that I was leaving a part of my heart and soul in the ashram when I left, but remembering Rudi’s advice about my life, I also felt the rightness of the decision.
In many surprising ways what I learned from Rudi filtered into my graduate studies. Some elements were obvious, such as writing my M.A. thesis on Kundalini Yoga. Other elements were more subtle, such as my intuitive recognition of the interconnectedness of Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist yoga traditions. While my personal practice continued to be oriented toward the yoga traditions in India, my academic and intellectual life began to orient toward Tibet, and ultimately I completed a Ph.D. in Tibetan in 1979. That degree launched me on a career path which ended up combining research, university teaching and administration. My doctoral research was on the great Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, the master of the philosophy of emptiness (shunyata) and eventually I translated and published two books about him. But more importantly, on a spiritual level, my research on Tibetan Buddhism connected me with many senior and accomplished lamas, several of whom became my personal teachers. But even in developing these relationships, Rudi had prepared me, because he had taught me how to sit with a great teacher and absorb the energy that went along with his words and his presence. That ability became a constant source of spiritual nourishment, even when my teachers were on the other side of the world, because I had learned how to mentally reach out to them across time and space, connect and be nourished by their spiritual energy.
The most important of those teachers was Tara Tulku, a former abbot of the Gyuto Tantric College, who I first met in 1983 and under whose direction my wife Kayla and I took up the practice of Yamantaka/Vajrabhairava, a form of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. We did many retreats together in which he trained me in this practice which belongs to the Highest Yoga Tantra class in the Gelugspa tradition of the Dalai Lamas. Based upon training in Nagarjuna’s philosophy of emptiness, and undertaken with the altruistic aspiration to be of benefit to all beings, Yamantaka practice consists of two stages, ultimately preparing the yogin to practice mahamudra (aka, dzogchen), a direct experience of the clear light nature of existence. The first stage of practice is called generation stage; the second completion stage. Generation stage is a training in the ability to visualize oneself as Yamantaka, while completion stage is a training in the ability to move the internal energies (Tibetan: lung, Sanskrit: shakti ) in the body/mind, generating a powerful bliss which focuses the attention so it can be turned onto the nature of consciousness and existence itself. Usually generation stage is practiced before completion stage, but Rudi had already trained me in the equivalent of completion stage. This made my practice quite fruitful.
A few days before his death Tara Tulku instructed my wife and I to consult with the Dalai Lama “to find out what to do next in your spiritual practice.” I had interviewed the Dalai Lama several times before this specific meeting, but because of Tara Tulku’s relationship with His Holiness, he kindly offered us that guidance and also placed us in the care of Denma Locho Rinpoche, who sustained our practice over the next twenty years, until his own death in 2014.
With Locho Rinpoche’s blessings the Yamantaka practice began to enrich my understanding of Nagarjuna but even here, Rudi’s influence made itself known, although in this case the influence is best explained by reference to Swami Chetanananda’s language about flow. Usually the wisdom of emptiness is understood as a way of seeing through the mental labeling of phenomena, which process creates the appearance of those phenomena having characteristics such as permanence and autonomy. In fact, of course, such an appearance is false; phenomena are expressions of flowing energy. Phenomena are not the solid entities we cognize, as solidity is merely our own concept projected upon the flowing energy. Most importantly, the phenomenon we call our consciousness itself lacks the solidity, autonomy and identity we routinely give it. Thus, to the extent one can mobilize one’s realizations from these yogas to directly experience the reality of existence devoid of the appearances of solidity and mental labeling, the energy of experience flows and expands, nourishing one’s growth and existence. And this growth in turn re-empowers the motivation of altruism, a loving recognition of everyone’s deep interrelatedness with all beings and the world itself.
This is the growing edge of my practice as I write this memoir, the attempt to cultivate altruism (Sanskrit: bodhicitta) and to settle into the clear light nature of consciousness.