I must have read some bit of Eastern philosophy about needing to go beyond the mind in order to discover the natural state of true freedom. In any case, I began pondering that concept, until one night, sitting out on the front porch of my parent’s house, I found myself utterly absorbed in the inquiry, forgetting all else. No matter how deep I seemed to go, however, I would still keep coming up against an impenetrable wall that prevented me from going any further.
I was just coming to the recognition that mind cannot be used to transcend mind, when a family member called out for me. It felt like they were miles away, but the voice was insistent, and finally I came around. They said, “You better come and see this on the TV — Bobby Kennedy has just been shot!”
With that, my inquiry into the nature of mind got momentarily put on the back-burner, but it would not be long before such an investigation coincided with my commitment to social service.
Growing up in San Francisco, with a fervent social worker activist for a mother, and a live-in grandmother who had been instrumental in founding the Women’s Benefit Association (an early pre-cursor of the modern Women’s Movement dating back to the ’30s), I was naturally inclined to a service orientation. With my own 7 years in a Catholic Seminary during the turbulent 1960’s, timed with the Second Vatican Council, when fresh voices within the church were speaking the Liberation Theology, I was moved to explore a fresh connotation to the service ideal that related directly to the oppressed and needy.
All around me swirled an immense energy of change, of consciousness re-inventing itself, wild, often conflicted, and vividly alive. For most, this all amounted to some kind of problem in need of a political solution, and plenty were suggested. I was more interested in the source of the dilemma, rather than the mere symptoms. I had I learned early on that any particular social manifestation was the play of dependent origination, a constituent component of a greater whole, and that’s the vision that beckoned me – the unified principle, the basis.
For a long time – ever since a dramatic experience at the age of 8 rocked my young mind – it seemed like everybody was performing. All were busy pretending to be students, protesters, cops, teacher/preachers, soldiers, radicals, politicians, talking TV heads, holy swamis, rabbis too, humans doing what they do, but the closer I looked, I could not find any enduring reality in this earnest charade. It was all a bit ridiculous, in fact, but what was I?
Was I the one who sent my draft deferment back to the draft board, naively accompanied by a love poem? Was I the one who, consequently, stood in front of that same board one evening, on the verge of being shipped off to Viet Nam, inquiring together on the real meaning of serving one’s country? Was I the person classified then as a conscientious objector? Was I in fact any of the characters who subsequently went on to pursue the right action, the right service, in whatever way the dream moved, weaved, twisted and turned, or none of them, none of that at all? I didn’t know, I wanted to find out, and so I delved deeper and deeper into the inquiry. The quest was not just for my own satisfaction, but I realized that, unless I was able to come to terms with what’s real, I could never hope to be of any true service, but merely compound delusion with more delusion.
Rather than providing me with answers and solutions, however, that inquiry methodically stripped away the pretense of knowledge itself, drilling down through the stratified layers of borrowed notions, subtle programs, and second-hand beliefs to the core story of “me” and “mine”. There is a pain that burns, when everything we once may have cherished is revealed to be illusion. I had to come to terms with that, to live unafraid in the unknown, to love, unafraid, in the unknown, regardless of current circumstances and conditions breezing across the dream screen. What’s eventually discovered, if we follow all the way through, is that Awareness alone remains, empty even of any emptiness — both the origin and destination of the whole functioning totality of universal manifestation. Such a realization was still far beyond my ken, and the fullness of its recognition and consequent embodiment certainly still is, but “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”, and how else would it or could it be?
When I finally returned to San Francisco in late 1969 after spending months as a hermit in the high Sierras, I moved in with some friends I had met while still a seminarian, and who were active in the Peace effort. They lived in the Haight-Asbury District – the colorful home of the Hippie Movement. One day I picked up and read the Bhagavad Gita – an ancient Hindu Bible — and this little book had a profound and lasting impact on me. As I read the verse:
“He who does My work, who is devoted to Me and loves Me, who is free from attachment and from enmity to all beings, goes to Me.”
a resonant epiphany rang in my heart. I proceeded to look up meditation in the phone book, found a Zen Center nearby, and began studying Buddhist practices geared towards the discovery of the truth of one’s own nature. To really serve others, I realized that I needed to “know myself” first, and this seemed like a good place to start.
Many of my friends were now experimenting within the growing counter-cultural movement sweeping the nation, and I found myself living right in the epicenter of it. I eagerly drank in all that this new world was serving up, but what most appealed to me was the focus on universal love woven within the songs and proclamations of this emerging vision. Nevertheless, I had learned by now that vision without action is a dream, just as action without vision is a nightmare. I was still propelled by that early call to “do something” about all the suffering around me.
At the time, the Viet Nam War was in full flare and, having forsaken my theological deferment upon leaving the seminary, I soon became the recipient of the dreaded draft notice, requiring me to report for a physical in preparation for induction into the army. I did not want to shoot people, I only wanted to serve and nurture them. Consequently, I applied for Conscientious Objector status, necessitating an appearance before the Draft Board to argue my case.
When I stood before the esteemed assembly of citizens who were trying to turn me into a weapon in thrall to the military-industrial-banking complex, I explained as patiently as possible how wrong-headed it would be to send me on their killing errand. Apparently, my sincerity was convincing enough to Board, and so I began 2 years of Alternate Service as a Child Care Counselor at a residential school and treatment center in rural Northern California for emotionally scarred pre-adolescents.
I was assigned to a group of 10 very unhappy, abused, and bewildered boys that I came to love, and I carefully watched over them, and also made sure that they ate properly. I had the kitchen substitute fresh fruits and vegetables for the standard white sugar and flour products, and eliminate institutional processed foods as much as possible. Rather than letting them sit around and watch violent cartoons on the weekends, I would load them into the van and take them to the parks and beaches of Northern California, and let these inner-city kids get the feeling for the freedom to be found in nature. At bedtime, I would give them tender backrubs, and tell them little stories to ease them into the night.
It quickly became apparent to me that the common source of these kids’ disturbance was a profound wound at the emotional heart of their being — they had found out early, and invariably violently, that they were not loved, and so I was moved in my way to address this with them, and by grace I was opened to a previously unplumbed depth of my own heart to compensate or balance the hurt in theirs. I literally fell in love with them, to the point that they recognized my love for them as real, and their behavior began to modify as they came to trust this love.
Of course, I was totally delinquent when measured against the conventional medical establishment’s rules and standards. In the evenings, we would all do a bit of guided meditation, and they fell asleep without being dosed with their prescribed sleeping pills, and in fact I gradually stopped giving them their anti-psychotic meds, because they had ceased their acting out and were developing relational skills which allowed them to deal with their anger and frustration in a more natural manner.
Within several months, my group began to stand out from the others at the treatment center, since there were hardly any episodes of violence or acting out that characterized the other units’ daily behavior. In fact, we all had more and more pure fun together, and were eventually touted by the administration as an example of successful “rehab” work to visiting authorities. After about a year, the staff psychologists decided to study my group in depth to determine why they appeared to be making such rapid progress, compared to the other units, and of course that’s when they found out I had weaned the boys from the heavy chemical straight-jackets that had previously been used to artificially manage and control their behavior. I had replaced drugs with hugs, more hugs, a natural life style, listening, yes, and even meditation – I had begun studying Zen with Suzuki Roshi at the time, and applying his teaching to child care, and they all loved their morning and evening “mendatation”.
Naturally, the bureaucratic shrinks were flabbergasted, and promptly fired me. The dear children all gathered a petition on their own to keep me there, but I had violated the prime directive — do not mess with the pharmaceutical protocols, regardless if they’re poisoning the children!
As grace would have it, I soon thereafter got a letter from the Government indicating that my services were no longer required to fulfill any remaining Alternative Service duties, and so my next stop turned out to be Mt. Baldy Zen Monastery. I still often think of those kids, and so many millions more like them, and how rare it is in this world that even a handful come through to peace and rest, all armor laid down like Prasad at the feet of the Beloved.