Experience is subjective and we all interpret events differently. I make no claim that the story
presented here provides an accurate depiction of the events and details of Rudi’s life, what was
told to me by Rudi and others, and my personal experiences with Rudi over 50 years ago. At 74,
this is how I remember that which is written here. I have forgotten many details, distorted
others, and invented my share of folklore that masquerades in my mind as history. Since we all
do that, please forgive me.
“That can’t be him,” I thought. “That guy looks like a garbage man.” I looked down from the
2nd floor landing of the Subud House where Rudi was talking with my drum teacher, Roy
Burns. Roy was a world-renowned drummer and for several months I had been coming to New
York to have lessons with him. From the day we met, Roy touched me deeply with his personal
insights. He could read me as a person more accurately than had any teacher I had known.
When Roy told me that his teacher was coming back from New Zealand and that I needed to
prepare myself for meeting this extraordinary being, I was floored. How could such an evolved
person as Roy need a teacher?
That was 1960 and I had just turned 18. Roy advised me to join the practices that took place at the New York Subud House called latihans. A latihan is meant to release blockages in a person’s body and mind to their own spiritual awakening. The practice was developed by an Indonesian man, Pak Subuh, who one day found his body being moved involuntarily, even tossed about, by an unseen force. The experience had, it was told, cleared his resistance to the Universal Force that gives life to all things. Having learned to package the process to some degree, making it safe for participants, for example, he had opened Subud Houses in several parts of the world.
Almost a year earlier, Pak Subuh had been in New York, and held audiences with whomever came to see him. He might have already known Rudi, who had helped in the earlier days at the Subud House; if so, he surely knew that Rudi would bring a long list to this audience. To Rudi’s dismay, when the line of questioners had moved forward and it was his turn to ask what was in his heart, Pak Subuh refused to answer any question Rudi presented to him. All he would say, which he said repeatedly, was: “Sell everything you own and move to New Zealand.” Rudi tried again and again, but the answer, without elaboration or qualification, was the same.
“Sell everything you own and move to New Zealand.”
Rudi staggered with the magnitude of this message. Then, he sold everything he owned and headed for New Zealand. He had been renting a tiny store on Manhattan’s west side on 7th Avenue just below 11th Street, where he sold oriental antiques. His entire inventory was now gone, including eight larger-than-life statues of Gautama Buddha that he had in storage, and that would eventually make their way back to him. But that comes a little later in his story.
Flush with cash, with which he planned to stock the store he would open in New Zealand, he stopped in India where an old friend would take him to various sites to buy art. It seems that religious Indian statues lost most of their perceived value if they were broken, and along with whole statues, Rudi could buy museum-quality pieces many hundreds of years old, sometimes, lying behind India’s ancient temples, lost and forgotten in the weeds.
Energized by his mission to relocate to new ground, Rudi was excited about picking up art, and wanted to hit the biggest, most crowded temples. But his friend and guide insisted that they go to Ganeshpuri, a relatively small ashram that in those days was several hours to the north of Mumbai (then Bombay).
As I recall Rudi’s narrative to me, he became increasingly agitated as they drove north. This detour bothered him. Reaching Ganeshpuri, they entered the ashram, then a crowded, bustling temple, with a line of people stretching past an old man wearing only a loincloth, with a shaven head and big belly, sitting on a stone slab. The man was answering questions, blessing mothers and their children, and generally bestowing his good wishes to everyone who came before him.
His companion and he got in line, and Rudi’s agitation grew. He had just had one disconcerting experience in such a queue, and he had no patience for this one. The line moved slowly and the heat was oppressive. He felt himself becoming what he called “crazy.” Before long, he heard himself thinking, “What the fuck is he doing, making me wait? I came all the way from New York just to see him, and the guy is making me wait in this line with grandmothers and old men!” He sensed such anger, like venom (his word) boiling in his brain that at any minute, he felt, he might release that venom in an explosion that would blanket the room.
He continued boiling like a stew when, from out of nowhere, a voice thundered in his mind: “What is your question?” He ignored it and continued building steam about his complaints. He had no question, he thought, as he was there for the art he might find before continuing in his mission. And who the hell was this old, nearly naked, singularly unimpressive man?
“What is your question?”repeated the voice. Rudi continued bitching to himself. Several times, the voice penetrated the onslaught of noise in Rudi’s mind, when suddenly, he realized that the nearly naked old man was talking to him. While remaining placid on the surface, and seemingly occupied with the queue of supplicants, this man was speaking directly to Rudi’s mind. Breaking the rhythm of his complaining, and suddenly realizing how irrational he was being, Rudi let go and started to listen. A half-hour later, having interacted with Bhagawan Nityananda as the line moved steadily forward, he came before the man who was to be his Satguru (True Teacher) and fell at his feet. They had connected on another plane and dealt with everything that might be part of the relationship they were to have; the initial work between them was done.
Rudi remained for the rest of the day at his guru’s feet, crying, surrendering his angst, and gaining comfort from Nityananda’s fingers as they lovingly stroked his head as a parent would to calm a child.
So, Rudi found his teacher, his Satguru, despite considerable resistance on his part. He never made it to New Zealand. The meeting with Nityananda marked the beginning of a relationship that would nourish him spiritually forever. He stayed in Ganeshpuri for several months, and returned to New York. Before he could travel to India again, Nityananda left his physical form. As he prepared for dying, Nityananda instructed his disciple, Muktananda, to care for Rudi as his own. For many years, they both tried hard, but that relationship never found the sweet spot into which Nityananda had welcomed Rudi on their first meeting.
Now, Rudi was back home in New York, having remade all his connections. Even the eight giant Buddha statues were sold back to him at the same price that was paid to him for them.
“Think of me as a garbage collector,” Rudi was to tell me later, much to my delight. But I found the work that was to follow far from delightful. Rudi’s eventual explanation was unlike anything I had ever heard: “You bring me your psychic garbage; the Force passes through me, and through you, and I collect and digest your inner poison, reducing it enough for you to have a chance at a spiritual life.” (He called his book “Spiritual Cannibalism,” after discarding its original title, “Spiritual Work and Ecstasy.”)
What did he mean by inner poison or psychic garbage? Greed, fear, meanness, anger, hatred, cowardice, deception, notably self-deception, all the neurotic hallmarks of the worst of human society, the garbage that kept people from their fulfillment as spiritual beings. In accordance with Hindu tradition, in exchange, the guru would bestow loving energy or shaktipat. In time, the student was meant to transmute his or her own poison, thus becoming a liberated being able to know true Love.
On that first day, we walked from the Subud House down 7th Avenue to Rudi’s store. Rudi and Roy were joined by several people I had not yet met and I fell behind the group, still wondering how this burly, thick man could be Roy’s, or anyone’s spiritual teacher. He did not match any of my preconceptions about what such a teacher would look like and how one should behave. Picture a slight, Asian man with a wispy Fu Man Chu mustache, half-closed eyes, and a soft, melodious voice. I was to meet that teacher later.
Next to me, walked Alan Auerbach, an eccentric fellow just a year older than I, who was to become my best friend. We were by far the youngest people in Rudi’s entourage, young and foolish enough, I soon learned, to spar with Rudi about the fine points of his teaching or whatever statement he made that we stubbornly wanted to challenge. Alan had taken over the tiny space that Rudi previously occupied, and Rudi had moved a few doors down to a much larger store right next to the Village Vanguard Jazz Club, where he sometimes would have to work to make ends meet.
There were five, maybe six people in the group, and as we arrived at his store, Rudi offered everyone coffee, a few jokes, and some casual conversation. Then, without any introduction, Rudi began “working” with one of the group—staring into the person’s eyes. The person spontaneously sat upright and began breathing deeply, fixing his gaze on Rudi. This continued for five minutes or so, then Rudi moved his focus to the next person.
Embarrassed, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Complicating matters was the fact that we were sitting and staring in a store that was open to the public. A man entered and everybody in the group ignored him, keeping their eyes on Rudi. I reflexively turned my head toward the stranger, and Rudi told me to keep my eyes on him. The work held a higher priority than doing business. The man looked around and soon left.
When my turn came, Rudi told me to breathe into my heart and to open myself as much as I could. I tried to be receptive and to feel what was going on. After several minutes, Rudi went on to the next person, and the next, and then it was done. This was Rudi’s work. He cracked a joke, the atmosphere grew less intense, and the work was over with for the time being. We repeated the experience maybe three or four times, always starting spontaneously, always followed by a laugh or two.
As the afternoon wore on, I felt sick to my stomach, as if something had penetrated my solar plexus and had jumbled things around. Seeing my discomfort, Rudi offered me the thought that the first time could be like lancing a boil; sometimes, the stuff that comes out isn’t pretty. I then headed to the subway and train to get home.
The following week, I came into the city for my lesson with Roy, the latihan at the Subud House, and more of Rudi. He surprised me by saying that he had not expected me to return and that I was a “hero” for doing so. It seemed that people with the kind of upbringing and background with which I came to the situation did not often enter this sort of spiritual work. I didn’t feel much like a hero, nor was I aware of any spiritual yearning in myself, but I yearned for truth and sensed that there was something about all this that was important beyond anything I had yet experienced. I had no idea what was spiritual and what was not and still felt self-conscious when people came into the store while we were working.
I got a job in Manhattan and shortly after moved to 13th Street a few blocks away. Rudi instructed me to meditate every day by opening my heart and asking higher, unseen entities to help me awaken my spiritual self. “Asking” was the word he used, but it was more like a desperate, pleading effort that I had to generate from my core strongly enough to feel an acute hunger, a wish strong enough to attract the interest of those entities that could act on my behalf. “You have to awaken your desire to grow. Dig deep. Make it like Jewish theater,” he said.
I saw Rudi every day, but spent considerable time with Alan in and in front of his tiny store, commiserating about something Rudi had said, or about the unfairness of it all, since Rudi gave more attention to people we didn’t know than he gave to us. Rudi’s insight into people was uncanny, and he conveyed loving playfulness and humor with his teaching. But, we could always count on Rudi to be annoyed by our nonsense, starting his response with one of the 3-word sets he had reserved for the likes of us: either “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” or the ethnically appropriate “Schmuck, schmuck, schmuck.” He would then explain that we had to work exceptionally hard if were to transcend our immaturity and wake up.
Prior to Subud, Rudi had been a member of the local Gurdjieff group from which several members became his friends and followers. Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a Russian mystic who taught this idea of waking up to reality and going beyond the fantasies of the ego.
Gurdjieff was famous for making the rich and famous clean toilets. I heard stories from people who were given a job like mopping a floor, then, when they were almost done, someone with muddy boots would be sent to walk through the room, forcing the student to deal with anger, pride, and other aspects of being invested in an outcome. We didn’t need set-ups like that. We were always working on what had to be done around the store, and later at the ashram.
Rudi was a student of the dynamics of energy. In the sixties, he described how he would go to the movies or to Times Square just to be in a crowd that was putting out lots of energy, and he would bathe in it. As his spiritual work grew, he stopped talking about all that, and embraced a path more like traditional Tibetan and Indian yoga, combined with the face-to-eyeball practices of Georges Gurdjieff and Rudi’s own insights.
I did the asking exercise, which was done standing, every night for a half-hour or more, putting so much energy into it that I sometimes fell onto my bed in exhaustion and slept where I fell. I asked to see the truth of existence, what is real, and to perceive my true state of being. For months, nothing came to me, just exhaustion. It was like I was numb to any sensation of what it was like to feel from within. In fact, I was conditioned to feel nothing. School, religion, social survival, and family dynamics had all conspired, it seemed, to make me not dare to hope for something greater and more conscious than that which I already knew.
Then, the night after I had a particularly uncomfortable day with Rudi in which he told me that he was ready to throw me out of the group, I asked to see myself and got an answer. The image that came before my mind was that of a zombie-like, charred mass trying to be a person.
Terrified, I got dressed and raced to Rudi’s apartment three blocks away and rang the bell. He came to the door, which was at the top of a flight of stairs and asked me what I wanted. “I’m scared,” I cried out. “Don’t worry. I’m not really going to throw you out,” he replied. “That’s not what I’m scared about! I’m afraid of what I just saw!” He looked at me for a moment, then said “C’mon up. You’re going to be OK.” He had guests, people from the group, who listened knowingly to my report. Having had their own version of that experience, they joined him in acknowledging what I had just seen, and encouraged me to keep going.
The following night, the same image appeared in my mind, but a softer, gentler, and kinder version. And, it came with the gentle message: “Remember, you have a soul.”
My meditation changed. Less tearing, more surrender to the Force, which was everywhere but concentrated in some people, and in art made by individuals who were exceptionally developed. Rudi had a large, bronze statue from Tibet’s indigenous, pre-Buddhist religion, Bon, and he had me sit in front of it and try to “connect.” But, I felt nothing. I also struggled to find the right setting, or posture, or conditions for “good meditating.” Reporting to him about this struggle, he handed me two subway tokens. “Take any train to the end of its line, then do it again with another. Meditate the entire way as best you can,” he told me. “By the time you get back, you will be able to meditate anywhere.” I followed his instructions and soon could meditate in my dentist’s chair, even while he pulled my wisdom teeth.
Insight in a Game
I don’t recall who brought this game to our group, but it was light-hearted fun that I always enjoyed, especially since it was a great intimacy builder on first dates. The two-person game supposedly acted like a Rorschach test, revealing how a person perceived the world and themselves in it via the following instructions, questions, and interpretations:
“You are in a forest; describe what you see.” The person would describe a light or dark forest, sparse or dense vegetation, perhaps a sense of welcoming or foreboding, and so on. We would take note of the picture they revealed, then offer the next question.
“You see a bowl. Describe the bowl.” The person would describe an ornate or plain bowl,something ceramic, or metal, or stone, and we would take note.
“You come upon a bear. Tell about the bear. What happens?” The encounter could be menacing or one of disinterest, for example.
“You come upon water. Tell about the water.” The person would describe a stream, or a lake, or a marsh. And so on.
When all the questions were answered, for everyone’s entertainment, we would present the interpretations below:
Forest: the world at large. This was your World View.
Bowl: Your Creativity
Bear: Society, people in general
Wall: Problems, Obstacles
Mountain: the Future
We only played for a short while, and soon forgot the game. But Rudi’s answer to one of the questions revealed something of his inner world that still makes me smile.
Questioner: “You come upon a wall. Describe it.” (My wall was a remnant of the 1800s, an overgrown, mostly collapsed, short, stone wall that, if I paid attention, I could just step over.)
Rudi: “The wall is hundreds of feet high, far higher than I could ever climb. Besides, it is made of some material that is too smooth to climb. It is so thick as to be indestructible. And it goes infinitely in both directions so I can’t go around it.”
I got a little worried at this point. Had we uncovered an Achille’s heel?
Questioner: What do you do?
Rudi: “Oh, there’s a door, so I just go through the door.”
It seemed that everyone in Greenwich Village knew Rudi. Walking down the street with him to grab a bite, at least eight or ten people would cheerfully greet him by name. The many lines of connection between Rudi and his neighborhood continually amazed me.
While we were sitting in the store one afternoon, a NYC garbage truck pulled to a stop in front of the store. A heavy-set man in uniform, with the butt of a well-chewed cigar between his teeth dropped out of the truck and came into the store. “Eh, Rudi,” said the driver. “I got a desk in the truck that you might want to look at.” It wasn’t uncommon in the city for people to leave pieces of furniture on the sidewalk for someone to take home and use. Rudi went out, and ten minutes later the damaged, but still elegant, 17th century French desk was headed for the warehouse around the corner for repairs. The truck continued on its way with the driver $40 richer. Rudi would later sell the desk for a considerable sum.
One day, with a small group in the store, I saw an old woman, dressed in black, hunched over at the waist shuffling past the store. Rudi saw her, too, and reached into his desk to pull out a $20 bill. Handing it to me, he instructed me to give it to her, and not to let her refuse. As she accepted the money, her eyes shone with a mixture of gratitude and suffering. I had never felt anything like that moment; some crusty, hard thing in my torso simply melted.
On another occasion, the owner of the local Chinese laundry was hospitalized and needed blood transfusions. At Rudi’s mention, we all gave blood. Rudi cracked jokes about reminding the Chinese of our sacrifice when they take over. Even today, I wonder: was that prescience?
Among the people belonging to various groups like ours, we became known as the “work freaks.” When a shipment came in from Asia, we descended on it like ants on a candy bar, tearing open crates of art from Tibet, China, Japan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. When Rudi needed a hand, there was a small army of willing workers. We worked inside and outside of ourselves with equal enthusiasm. The objective of all that was to take care of business while waking up to reality.
As his business grew, Rudi bought a defunct funeral parlor on Hudson Street. We renovated the place and he lived on the second floor with his companion, while he rented out the third-floor apartment to a friend. The funeral chapel downstairs served for meditations with a much larger group, the irony of which did not escape us: Awakening spiritually in a transformed funeral parlor seemed appropriate.
I lived in the converted basement, and served as the building’s janitor. Because my mind and time were filled with aikido and tai chi practice, getting laid, music, food, getting laid, and the other obsessions of an average 20-something male, I often did a poor job, or even forgot to take care of basic items, like clearing snow from in front of the main entrance or sweeping the floor before group sessions. He would get furious. I wasn’t paying rent, just elbow grease, and he expected me to do my job.
The work soon included talks by Rudi, which preceded the silent work described above. He would expound several points, sometimes making something clear for ten minutes, then he would make precisely the opposite case. As he masterfully presented contradicting points, he expected us to circumvent getting caught up in one position or another and to simply continue deepening our effort to open up and surrender being “right.” You had to get the Yin with the Yang and not get attached to either one. You had to see the whole.
When challenged about this seeming contradiction, Rudi would verbally tear into his challenger. He was especially skillful at beating down our egos if we tried to impress the others in the room with a clever comment or question. As he became known to a much wider circle, he attracted a number of wealthy, famous, important, and beautiful people, all of whom had to repeatedly decide why they were there.
Rudi consistently and clearly forced a decision: you were there to build your ego, or you were there to surrender your ego and to grow. Period. If he detected even a hint of ego-building in our behavior, especially in a large-group setting, or if we became ambiguous about our commitment, the hammer would come down on us. Dialog with him always meant making a choice: Ego or New Inner Ground.
Rudi knew how to turn garbage into gold. One morning, he invited me to go to breakfast with him, and we headed for the local deli. Passing a large, grey, metal waste basket on the sidewalk, Rudi suddenly stopped and told me to pull out two table lamps that someone had thrown away. He instructed me to remove all the wiring from the lamps, which left us with two old, worm-eaten, Spanish candle holders that could have been 100 years old. We took them to an antique dealer’s store on Greenwich Avenue. Rudi asked the shopkeeper if he would like to take them on consignment. “When they are sold, please give half to my friend here,” gesturing to me and introducing me. I received $75 a few weeks later, and got a beautiful lesson.
“The nature of the work is to turn useless garbage into energy,” he said. ”And it’s all about energy.” Rudi, as mentioned above, was very aware of the energy that people emitted. Having had plenty of turmoil in his life he tried to get us to be open and in a calm state of surrender when meeting with him.
He taught that inner work was like cooking a steak: You don’t take it out of the freezer and just drop it in a hot pan. On the days I was to see him, I had to learn to prepare.
At first, this seemed beyond my capabilities. I would show up at the store, filled with the complaints and events of my day, with my mind reeling with my emotional reactions to getting through it all. I saw him frequently, and when I arrived, he would look me in the eye and if he saw chaos, the pin-ball of my brain careening from one context to another, he would make me reset myself. In my early 20s, my mind was filled with my job, daily martial arts training, a girlfriend when I was lucky, and the normal gripes of youth. Rudi would look at me and, if he saw excessive agitation in my thinking, he would send me out onto the sidewalk to get myself calmed down, quiet and open. I remember standing in the freezing New York air, stamping my feet to keep warm, trying to calm down. Rudi would come out, look me in the eye again, and either say “Nope. Keep working,”or he would let me into the store. It all depended on whether he would have to slog it out with my craziness before getting to some inner work, or, alternately, that I was ready. I learned to start preparing for my meetings with him from the time I got out of bed in the morning. Things went better when he didn’t have to work to get me ready to do my work with him. It’s a good lesson for anyone with a teacher: Make yourself present and ready to do the work that needs to be done; don’t make it energetically expensive for your teacher to get you engaged.
My inner work slowly became more like classical yogic meditation, an opening of the chakras (energy centers) along the midline of my body freeing energy to flow from chakra to chakra. Down the front and up the back to the crown of my head. Open throat, open heart, open belly, open genitalia, reaching to the base of my spine, then “up the spine to the crown of my head, being receptive to that which passes from the crown of the head to the forehead between the eyes. “Like a bucket going down a well,” “an elevator going down the elevator shaft,” “like unzipping a jacket, unbuttoning a coat,” letting go…Over and over again, always more deeply, always with less personality getting the way. Just energy. I meditated like this for forty minutes every day for ten years, never missing a day. Rather than becoming something dramatic like the urgency of my previous work like the “asking,” it became a gentle, loving release of my egogrip on myself. Today, it is the lovingkindness and unconditional friendship ( Sanskrit: Maitri) with which I address myself that defines my meditation.
One day, while we were in Rudi’s new store on the East Side, he asked me who I thought was his best student. I hadn’t seen Roy in some time, and with only a tiny bit of hesitation, I answered, “John Mann.” John was a great guy, a psychologist who it seemed had been Rudi’s disciple forever. “That’s interesting,” he replied. “Why do you say that?” I responded, “John, I believe, has been with you for the longest time of any of us.”
“I’ll tell you this,” he said: ”The best ones are those who figured out what I had to offer, got it right away, and had the good sense to never come back. Why put up with all this effort and mishegas when you can get the gift and move on.” That gave me a lot to think about.
As described to me in 1960, a central belief behind Rudi’s practice was that human beings were “farmed” for their energy by beings we can’t see, and who harvest energy when they needed it by tuning in to the conflicts we create in our personal lives and as a race. When we had wars, social strife, or were just sufficiently aroused, they fed on our negative energy. But, unlike farm animals, we had the ability to transcend our level of existence and “graduate” to a plane of consciousness on which we took responsibility for our lives, and learned to stop wasting our energy. The purpose of the work was to step off the track that most of the world considered normal living, and to learn to be conscious, present, and truly free to live the lives we are capable of living. “They are looking for you,” Rudi told me, “They are looking for anyone who might grow beyond this level, and ironically, they want you to do it.” This was the early 1960s, remember, long before The Matrix and Star Wars were to hit theaters near you and me.
As the years went by, I realized how intensely Rudi was working with counter pressure: his own resistance to his own deep surrender, his struggle with the work of transforming poison into Life. They say that “you teach what you need to learn, and you are your own worst student.” It was only after the eleventh year that I realized that he was teaching his own inner work for his own growth, with disciples as “co-travelers” or witnesses of sorts. I confronted him with this realization at the end of the twelfth year as if he had been keeping it a secret. “I was telling everyone the entire time,” he said. “You just weren’t listening.”
© 2016 Greg Brodsky All rights reserved.