In late 1973, after training for several years at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California, I moved briefly back to San Francisco. One day I heard that a great Indian Yogi, reputedly capable of transmitting enlightenment with a look or touch of initiation (called Shaktipat), was visiting the Bay Area, so I decided to investigate. I was curious, and invited an open-minded friend along for the experience.
I had no idea what to expect when I wandered into the Ashram in Berkeley that day. Momentarily, we found ourselves separated – men on the right side and women on the left – in the middle of a cavernous room filled with sweet incense and about 500 enthusiasts who were being led in some wildly ecstatic Hindu chant by a dark-complexioned Swami in sunglasses, eerily suggesting Ray Charles in orange drag.
His name was Muktananda, which translated means “the bliss of liberation”, and he was clearly grooving — swaying and rocking on his throne to the mounting mantric choruses alternating back and forth between the male and female sides of the hall. It was all rather giddy and infectious — nothing like the somberness of the Zen chants I was accustomed to – and I must say, these folks were lifting off!
At a certain point, devotees began lining up and approaching the Swami’s dais to offer little gifts of fruit and flowers, and he responded by dusting them with a large peacock feather. The effect on the recipients seemed to occasionally result in spontaneous displays of physical and emotional catharsis, and for a moment I had the weird sensation of being at a Hindu version of some Christian fundamentalist revival meeting!
Still, I had a cultural anthropological responsibility, so I eventually merged into the communion line that now slowly snaked up to the Swami. Fieldwork sometimes offers one the opportunity to sample the intrinsic dynamic of a wide range of sub-cultural group phenomena, particularly in Berkeley, CA in the early 70’s.
At any rate, when I finally came face to face with the fellow, he started to wave the feather towards me but suddenly paused, raised his sunglasses over his eyebrows with his free hand, and peered intently into my eyes. After a moment, he leaned closer and whispered:
“Om Namah Shivaya!”
“Om Namah Shivaya!” I agreed, though I didn’t know you were supposed to bring a fruit or something, but no matter. As soon as I had answered, he began swatting me repeatedly with his flexible peacock wand. At a certain point I sneezed, he laughed, and this seemed like the right time to bow and move on.
Back at my seat, I detected no signs of any incipient religious fit, though several fellow pilgrims in my immediate vicinity appeared quite moved by various eccentric energies modifying their electrical circuitry.
After everyone had a chance to make their pilgrimage, the Swami got up and left the room. Things cooled down really fast — a lot of blissful sighs and announcements about upcoming productions — and I found my friend near the entrance door where we walked out into the bright sunshine.
“How was that?” I asked her.
“I liked the singing!” she replied.
Then she said: “I saw you up there. What was that all about?”
“Don’t know!” I replied, but over the next few months, I found the mantra spontaneously repeating itself, and so I went with that, and it was interesting, especially as I wandered off across the continent shortly thereafter, taking my time with a tent and brown rice cooker, and meeting up with all sorts of fascinating folks along the way.
Then one morning in Richmond, Kentucky, I was doing my usual morning sitting when the mantra came up in a very absorbing fashion, accompanied by an overwhelming permeation of the most intoxicating bliss, even to the very palpable sense of physical elevation off the floor. As it happened, this seemed so hilarious to me that I just burst out laughing!
The episode signaled the conclusion of that particular yogic adventure. I’d seen directly how seductive such experiences could be, and how easy it would be to attach to them, getting trapped along the way in a perpetual intermediate zone of seeking for more and bigger experiences. I’d come to recognize through observation that experience itself merely constitutes a modification of consciousness, no matter how profound or ecstatic it might seem at the moment. My intent, however, was to see through and penetrate the facade of consciousness itself, and I realized instinctively that to pursue experience for its own sake would represent a huge detour on the path.
This is certainly not to deny the legitimacy or efficacy of mantric practice for those so inclined, since it can certainly serve a valuable function in terms of developing focus and concentration, and even acting as a psychic shield to guard one from unwholesome influence and so forth. There are, after all, innumerable gates – one for each of us — and each a doorway to ourselves.