Crazy Wisdom

This is a chapter from a memoir I’ve been working on. It’s takes place in 1966-67 while I was graduate student at San Francisco State, living in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood. It’s still subject to change and editing.

Shams al-Din
I went from town to town
and did not see one such as you

Can you really say
I have seen your face


When I first encountered Wolf he was standing on Haight Street sucking on a lemon half — which I was to learn he did whenever he was fasting.

“Do you know where it’s at man?” he asked

From the way it was uttered, between sucks on his lemon, the question of where “it” was “at” had vast implications. Here was a fellow seeker and spiritual friend.

Wolf was my first introduction to living Zen, or Zen as embodied in real people. With his simple, direct manner, he sometimes struck me as a total idiot, or at best a god-intoxicated holy-fool. But he could come up with surprising, piercing insights into a situation or relationship, uttered in three or four words — that would “stun the common crowd and shut the mouths of the Patriarchs and sages.”

Stocky, with a large squarish head and chiseled features under ringlets of brown hair, Wolf had once been a member of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle club. More artistic than menacing, the Jokers were much admired for their grubby style and charisma, for which they were even respected by their ruder, more violent brethren, the Hells Angels.

A man after my own taste in sartorial matters, Wolf would find a distinctive article of clothing, such as the thick, khaki-colored coat he wore continually, until it became a part of him, absorbing his energy (along with food stuffs and various other substances) and it had acquired a delicate patina of age and venerability, like the robe of some wandering mendicant. He wore that particular coat until it was hanging in shreds down the backs of his legs before finally relinquishing it.

Wolf had a placid countenance, a calmness that gave the impression of great weight and gravitas. There was also a subtle sadness in his large, liquid, brown eyes that belied his gruff exterior. He was an orphan, but when he told me of being shuffled from one foster home to another as a child, he said it matter-of-factly, as if it was of little consequence.

In a neighborhood that was awash in marijuana and psychedelics, Wolf was unusually cautious with drugs, especially LSD. I sensed that he felt somewhat fragile in regard to the ingesting of such substances. I only heard him mention having taken LSD once and when I saw him shortly afterwards, he was visibly shaken by the experience. He said that a homosexual had come on to him in the park while he was on it.

Wolf had found the perfect employment for a former motorcycle gang member — driving a Harley Davidson delivery motorcycle around the city.

One day I was treated to a dizzying display of his motorcycle prowess when the sound of a horn honking vigorously outside my flat drew me out onto the small round porch overlooking the corner of Ashbury and Page.

The street below was empty.

Then I heard the roar of an engine coming up Page Street. An old, black delivery motorcycle shot into view and zoomed around and around the four-way intersection — from curb to curb in a speeding blur, the side-car compartment lifted almost vertically into the air.

As he sped off up Page street, Wolf grinned back at me and honked his horn again.

Wolf’s lair, a few blocks down Page Street from my place, was up a flight of steep, narrow steps in a drab Victorian apartment house. On the wall at the top of the dingy stairwell, dwarfing all the other nondescript stains and scribbles, was the word “AT,” crudely painted in large letters.

On my first visit, he reverently handed me his worn copy of “The Three  Pillars of Zen” and guided me to the translation of an essay by the Japanese Zen Master Dogen, titled “Being Time” — probably the most profound and recondite work by that most abstruse and complex of religious philosophers. “THAT’S where it’s at,” Wolf breathed, patting the page tenderly with a big, blocky hand.

It turns out IT was at many places and no place at the same time.

Wolf showed me through his squalid, disheveled, sparsely furnished apartment like a tour guide in the Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t see what he was so proud of — until he lifted a rear window and gestured for me to climb out onto what I soon realized was a level section of roof, high above the streets.

Stretching out below was a magnificent panoramic view of the city, with precise rows of buildings shining in the late afternoon light, and the bay and Berkeley hills in the distance.

It was there that I first met Hugh Banks, whom Wolf spoke of with rare respect. Huey, Wolf intimated, was some kind of Zen adept, who periodically shaved his head and engaged in long bouts of deep meditation with Suzuki, a Zen priest who had recently arrived in San Francisco from Japan. Suzuki had a temple in Japantown on the other side of the Fillmore District, almost visible from Wolf’s roof.

As the three of us lounged on the roof and passed a thick marijuana joint, I took a closer look at Huey. His hair, barely a quarter inch long, was just starting to grow out again. In an era when most of us sported long locks and thick beards, his cropped head gave him the mad look of someone who had just escaped from a prison or insane asylum. In fact, he was a certified schizophrenic (with delusions of grandeur) who had spent most of his early years in mental institutions.

But  it was more than simple insanity that set Huey apart from anyone else I had met up to that point. He had a certain presence that I found strangely appealing. He always seemed to be “on,” like an actor who must pay attention to his every movement in order to fit the part he was playing. He even had a peculiar way of walking, slowly and deliberately, as if watching himself from some distant vantage, with his weight back on his heels and his feet turned outward, like Charlie Chaplin’s character, the little tramp.

Later, when his stringy, dark, blond hair had grown down to his shoulders, leaving a round bald spot at the crown of his head like a medieval friar, with a thick red beard flowing down from either side of his face, his chin tucked in and his eyes gazing upward, he was the image of Bodhidharma, the founder of Zen Buddhism.

When Huey first visited my flat he said that life itself can become a work of art, which summed up my philosophy precisely. His highest compliment was to say that someone was “real,” the implication being that most people were not really real — an estimation which I also tended to agree with.

Huey and Wolf adopted me, informally, as their apprentice. I became their straight man, the foil and audience for their Zen antics. They reminded me of the two legendary Zen cutups, Hanshan and Shidei, popular subjects of Chinese ink painters, whose inexplicable banter pointed to deep cosmic truths.

I was happy to let them show me their favorite hangouts around the city — beat generation holdovers, like the graffiti and candle wax encrusted Blue Unicorn Coffee House, where poetry was spontaneously recited aloud and intense philosophical discussions routinely occurred.

Finally, Huey proudly escorted me to Japantown to sit with Suzuki. After what was, for me, an exotic and delicious first taste of tempura in a tiny street kiosk, we approached the ornate wooden facade of the “Soto Zen Mission,” which had formally housed a Jewish Synagogue.

Suzuki met us just inside the door. After we took off our shoes and exchanged silent bows, he ushered us in, moving smoothly about like a solicitous host. He was very small in scale, but with an impressive presence, an erect but relaxed bearing, crisp dark robes over a spotless v-shaped white collar, and a smoothly shaved head.

He and Huey seemed to have a special relationship, circling in stylized  movements and eyeing one another like two combatants, but with obvious enjoyment.

Since I was a newcomer, Suzuki escorted me to a sitting cushion for initiation into the Soto Zen style of meditation. Although Huey had shown me the basic posture, I let Suzuki gently place me into position, basking in the warmth of his attention.

I had already meditated sporadically for short periods over the last few years and could sit in the half-lotus fairly comfortably and even get into the full lotus for a few intense minutes. But I was unprepared for what lay ahead.

Gradually, in my rapidly expanding peripheral vision, others silently entered the room, bowing from the waist with palms together towards round, black sitting-cushions, each on it’s own wide, flat pad, arranged in a precise row along an expanse of wall. Turning and bowing again to the room, they each sat down on their respective cushion and spun smoothly around to face the wall in meditation posture.

Suzuki moved silently about the room adjusting peoples’ postures, his hands touching their bodies with a tenderness that was remarkably natural and unselfconscious.

I checked my position: half-open eyes gazing slightly downward, the natural forward curve of my lower back slightly accentuated, chin tucked in, the crown of my head pointed toward the ceiling as if suspended by a cable, shoulders and arms relaxed downward, elbows out and hands resting lightly on my topmost foot with palms up and thumbs barely touching at a point just below my navel, making a circle or “cosmic mudra.”

A surge of pride came over me. This wasn’t so difficult.

I went over Suzuki’s instructions, counting my breaths from one to ten, starting over at one whenever my mind wandered into fleeting thoughts or sensations.

After awhile I went to the next step — watching my breath, simply letting it go slowly in and out through my nostrils, slightly emphasizing and prolonging the outbreath. Whenever my attention strayed, I pulled it gently back to my breath.

Finally, I felt my concentration was sufficient to attempt the final step — Shikantaza or “just sitting,” the ultimate goal, the pinnacle of Soto Zen practice. Concentrating on the blurred light coming through half closed eye lashes, I explored the feelings in my body.

My body!  Holy shit!

My body was screaming at me, “What are you doing, have you gone mad!”

My folded knees were being pierced with hot steel rods of pain and my feet were turning into huge, numb blocks of wood. My shoulders and neck contracted like vises cranking tighter and tighter. I broke into a sweat as time ground to a halt. The ensuing minutes crawled painfully past. I repeatedly imagined standing up abruptly and dashing for the door.

Finally, just as I was convinced I couldn’t stand another second, a deep, resonant bell sounded. I bowed to the wall with palms together, following along with the others on either side. We rocked from side to side, got off our round, black cushions, fluffed them up with both hands, stood up stiffly, bowed again, turned, and very, very slowly began walking forward, each step taking us only a few inches as we snaked slowly around the room.

I looked over the line of shoulders. Up ahead was an exit that I decided I would bolt out of the instant I reached it. But as the line painstakingly flowed past the doorway, I was unable to make my move, as if I was being pulled along, like an object on a conveyor belt.

The sharp sound of a wooden clapper signaled the line to speed up to a normal pace — until we each stopped again in front of our black pad and round cushion, bowed, turned around, bowed to the room, sat, swung around and faced the dreaded wall again.

I nervously folded my legs into the half lotus. To my surprise, I felt refreshed and comfortable as I renewed my efforts to count my breaths and relax into “just sitting.”

As the second forty minute period neared an end, time once again slowed to a halt. The minutes stretched out like hours and I began to wonder if the timekeeper had fallen asleep on the bell. As the pain became unbearable I did what I’d done many times on LSD when things got too extreme and threatening — I gave myself up, surrendered, and threw myself into the void. The pain didn’t go away, but I stopped fighting it, relaxed, and merged with it. Before I knew it, the bell sounded and I stood up, exultant to have survived.

Afterwards, I felt buoyant and naturally high, my feet seeming not to touch the pavement as we walked back through Japantown. I marveled at how something as simple as just sitting still for a length of time could have such far-reaching religious implications. Facing the wall, there was no escape. It was like facing the vast pain of humanity. I thought of Jesus nailed to the cross. Everything, all creatures, the great earth, the entire universe, all of time, was contained within the simple practice of zazen.

After that I started going to the afternoon sittings in Japantown. My own meditations received a huge boost and a renewed focus. I began meditating every morning when I first got out of bed and every evening before going asleep, for the length of time it took a stick of incense to burn down, or about half an hour.

I also went to Suzuki’s weekly talks. I felt like he was talking directly to me — as I suspect many of us did. I’ve since heard people say that his English was poor and he was hard to understand but all I remember is how simple and clear were his explanations of often subtle and recondite matters, even to a neophyte like myself.

Unlike the recollections of many of his students, some of whom insist that he never even mentioned the word “enlightenment,” my memory of him is of urgent exhortations to develop a “way-seeking-mind” and to practice with all our might, “as if our hair was on fire.”

Most everyone who sat with Suzuki in those days appeared to be in their early twenties like myself. His formal students, a few of whom were already wearing black robes, seemed to be quite impressed with themselves. I sensed that they looked down on Huey and I, as drugged-out, hippie outsiders — unlike Suzuki himself, who accepted everyone just as they were.

However, one incident convinced me that Huey was the only one among us who had actually realized Suzuki’s True Mind. I can’t remember where we were, or even if we were high, or on what, but I suspect we were, since in those days we were high more often than not.

Huey was sitting off to my left, when, suddenly, I “saw” him — not with my usual eyes but with an eye that we somehow both shared. Perfectly still, looking slightly downwards, his face in profile, radiant with golden light, he was the Ancient One, completely clear and present, with a Mind that cut through the usual stream of phenomena to give me a glimpse of something eternal, something infinitely mysterious and subtle that embraced all of creation but was still intensely intimate and personal. For that timeless moment we were one being.

Huey was indifferent to the respect I accorded him, pointing out that he was actually a year or two younger than I was — the implication being that as his senior I had no business acting like he was my teacher. Such a relationship was unspoken, but I was convinced that, despite his imperfections, he had managed to drink much deeper from the mystical experience to be found in this life than most of us ever will.

Although he was so adept in many ways, Huey was definitely crazy. In fact it might have been that craziness, his schizophrenia, that allowed him to realize such deep states. Even his schizoid delusions were just rational enough to make me wonder if there might be some truth to them.

For instance, like most of us he frequented the incredible array of concerts in San Francisco during that time, some for free outdoors in the Pan Handle near my flat and others at places like the Avalon Ball Room and the Fillmore Auditorium. He claimed that various bands, most notably Buffalo Springfield, had asked him to travel with them, presumably to be an “audience,” a shill, who could generate the ecstatic energy that would bring everyone together with the music in a crescendo of bliss.

Through meditation one can become acutely aware of such states as they come and go and it’s easy to imagine that one is consciously creating something, like the coming together of music and audience, especially under the influence of marijuana or LSD. I had experienced such moments at concerts many times myself — the difference being that I wasn’t convinced that I was causing them to happen, but that I was probably just a part of a spontaneous arousal.

He came into my flat one day manically exclaiming about an experience he’d had sitting in the front row at one of Suzuki’s talks. He said they were both vying (with their minds) to control the flickering of a flame on a candle nearby and at the end of his talk Suzuki pointedly strode over and blew out the candle.

Much of Huey’s delusive thinking was self-referential in the connections his mind made. Following, or “tripping,” on a string of personal associations, like verbal puns and double meanings, can be very compelling. I found that if I fixated on a certain word or phrase that it would appear everywhere in my environment, as if in a mental mirror. It’s natural for the mind to pick out such connections but this seemed to go beyond that.

I was amazed at how easily I was able to adopt his view of causation — as if schizophrenia could be learned or caught from someone else.

As his mental state deteriorated, Huey’s delusions and hallucinations became more prolific. He told me that little men were all over his apartment — a common apparition in both schizophrenic and shamanistic visions.

Huey had started injecting meth, which was beginning to invade the Haight with malefic consequences, destroying minds and casting a dark pall over the neighborhood. I instinctively avoided using speed, except for the occasional Benzedrine for working all night painting for classes, which, while quite effective for putting off sleep, didn’t produce the best work,

I did smoke what was probably an early form of crack cocaine once, with Huey and some of his friends. After a few deep hits, a stream of bliss engulfed me, lighting up all my senses, especially my visual sense, with indescribably ecstatic feelings. It only lasted a few minutes and I was left wanting more and bereft of any of the insights LSD and marijuana sometimes provoked. I could see that it was addictive and indulging in it further would be a mistake.

Huey finally ended up injecting “speed balls,” a combination of meth and heroin. Before long he reported that his wife had taken their young son and left the City. He spoke longingly of how smooth her skin was and how much he missed her.

After I’d left town myself, I heard that Huey was living on the street and had lost all his teeth. I recalled how he had once told me that nothing really mattered and it was OK to take drugs, because this was all an illusion anyway.

The last time I saw Wolf he was managing a head shop in Marin County north of San Francisco. He had grown his curly brown hair out into an impressive Afro and was wearing bell bottom pants.


The other day two nice ladies from the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by to give me the good news — God was preparing to create a perfect world, without all the vexations we have to contend with, such as old age, sickness and, of course, death. The Mormons, and others, also come by occasionally with a similar message.

I’m always happy to engage them in conversation, since I typically have a huge reservoir of pent up thoughts on such matters. At first they are polite and even glad that someone is actually willing to talk to them. However, as my speculations and questions become more pointed, they invariably start backing away, with nervous glances at one another, like maybe they’ve stumbled upon a madman.

I almost pursued two hapless gentlemen down the street with demands to know “Where is Jesus, at this very moment?”

eternity-knotThe promise of eternal life is a powerful incentive. Nature has programmed us with an overwhelming will to live and to procreate. Every being, down to the most miserable bug, is primarily concerned with survival as a distinct, separate entity. That all evidence points to the fact that this is a losing proposition, only makes this need more urgent.

No wonder then that people take “religion” so seriously — even to the point of giving up everything to follow and promote the hopeful messages of eternal life they have come to believe in.

I read recently that “Jannah,” or Paradise, has become a very popular media topic in Pakistan and some other Islamic countries where economic conditions and terrorism have made things so untenable and hopeless that, for many, the promise of a better life after this one is looking increasingly appealing.

While the stories and dogma surrounding different religious beliefs vary somewhat in detail, the mainstream religions all make the same essential promise — believe what they say is true, behave yourself according to the principles and rules they adhere to, and you’ll have life everlasting. But here’s the rub — you can’t know for sure until after you die, presuming there will even be someone there to “know.”

That such beliefs are wholeheartedly embraced, largely on the basis of hearsay and say-so, by a preponderance of people on the planet, is probably due more to people’s insecurity, along with the authority that the major religions have accumulated over centuries in their respective cultures, rather than any thoughtful analysis of the available data.

Even Buddhists and Hindus, who are, for the most part, non-theistic, still maintain that this life sucks and that it is only through following their recommendations that one can be assured of a better existence through rebirth in a future life — or, if one is really deserving, eternal bliss in Nirvana.

Buddhists are especially creative when it comes to afterlife scenarios. Not only is there the classic carrot and stick, of Heavens (several) and various Hells, there is also potential rebirth as an animal, ghost, titan, god, or, as a human again. It all depends upon “karma,” which is a fancy way of saying that one’s behavior in this life will determine where one is reborn in the next.

Behaving well and doing good under threat of suffering in a future existence presupposes a firm faith in order to be effective. If that faith wavers, or disappears completely, then, the moral imperative wavers and disappears as well, and one is free to behave badly.

I think it would be be better if folks were encouraged to see that good behavior is worthwhile simply because it is good — because it works better for themselves and the rest of the world. I know atheistic humanists who are incredibly moral and compassionate, without the threat of punishment in a future life hanging over them.

Religions that emphasize a better life in a future birth, whether in heaven or in another form of rebirth, all tend to denigrate this present existence, which is considered an unclean vale of suffering and degeneration — merely a stepping stone to a better life somewhere else in the future.

I can’t help but think that this attitude can be self-fulfilling.

Some fundamentalist Christians even appear to be hoping that this world is visited by more catastrophes than it already has been, which will herald the final days when they will ascend to heaven. They might well get their wish if we continue to destroy ourselves and our environment. But whether heaven will be their due is an open question.

Jesus had some interesting things to say about this in Luke 17:20-21 —

“The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, Lo there! for behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”

I find the first part of this saying (which is generally overlooked) to be especially significant. The “Kingdom of God” is neither “here,” nor “there,” it cannot be found by “observation.” In other words it doesn’t have a specific location, like a place existing in space. It’s not an external form or phenomena that we can see anywhere — not a future life after the death of this one or rebirth in some distant heaven. It is not anywhere that observation can reach, not even “here,” in what we think of as the present.

But he says “Behold,” so somehow, It can be seen, just not in the usual way, as an object apart from us — but “within.” And not, presumably, just within “you,” but in me and everyone, or, as some say, in everything.

I’d venture to add that not only is the Kingdom of God neither “here” nor “there,” it is also not born or created (like objects and phenomena in the external world). At the same time It is also the very source and ground of all that is born — the entire phenomenal universe of time and space, with all its varied manifestations and beings.

Because it is unborn, it is said to be “eternal.” Because it is shared by all beings it is also spoken of as “oneness.” Yet It transcends all such conceptual categories and comparisons. It can’t even be said to exist or not exist. When it is reasoned about and spoken of, it only creates confusion.

Thus work on the mythical tower in Babylon, which was designed to reach Heaven, broke down in confusion when the builders could no longer understand each others’ words.

The Kingdom of God is not a place existing in space to which directions can be given and which one can arrive at in the usual fashion. But, “behold,” it is always “within” — as close as one’s own face.

To actually behold this mystery is not a matter of intellectual understanding and analysis, of simply reading and reckoning. Instead, it is necessary to strip away all of the conceptualizations and mental habits that have been accumulated — to become as innocent of thought and discrimination as a newborn.

When it does appear, usually just momentarily, it turns out to be surprisingly obvious and ordinary.



                “All beings are evolved from food”



In the late sixties, while on an extended retreat in the foothills of the Sierras, I experimented with fasting. I was inspired, in part, by the fact that I didn’t have much money to buy food. I reasoned that since fasting was reputed to have some spiritual benefits, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to see what it was like to go without eating for a period of time.


I never looked this bad, but my little pot belly did finally disappear completely

My first attempt ended after just half a day, when I wolfed down the remains of a bag of granola, which tasted fantastic, even without milk.

Undeterred, after several more attempts, I finally managed to go an entire day and night without consuming anything but spring water from the nearby well.

I eventually discovered that fasting was like any other activity — it became easier with practice, almost like exercising some muscles that hadn’t been used much.

Humankind apparently evolved in an environment where food was not always readily available and fasting was normal. Our bodies, ever adaptable, learned to make the most of it. Recent research indicates that periodic fasts are actually conducive to health and longevity.


Over the course of several months, I slowly lengthened the duration of my fasts. I discovered that after three days my entire organism shifted gears. Suddenly I no longer craved food. I felt as if I could go on fasting as long as I liked.

Up to that point, the only benefits I’d noticed was an increase in self-discipline (not to be underestimated) and a new appreciation for the subtle flavors in even the simplest fare. But after three days of fasting, my mind, as well as my body, settled into an indescribably relaxed and peaceful state — a peace that “passeth all understanding.” Suddenly I could sit in meditation, almost indefinitely, without being pulled this way and that by flurries of impulses and thoughts.

My fasts gradually became longer, until one summer, intent on going for two weeks with nothing but spring water, I was overcome with severe leg cramps on the twelfth day — to the point where I could barely stand. I learned later that my cramps were from a lack of salt and other minerals, brought on by walking the surrounding hills in the hot sun. I decided, henceforth, to be more moderate with fasting. I hadn’t noticed any additional benefit after three days and eventually the body will start consuming itself. Vital organs can fail. Longer fasts, of more than a week, are dangerous.


I eventually settled down to just two fasts a month, on the days of the new moon and the full moon, for a full day and two nights each time.

After several months on that regimen, I was intrigued to discover that not only did I know when the moon was new or full without consulting a calendar, but my appetite disappeared on those days, and fasting was effortless and natural.

After returning to the workaday world it has become increasingly difficult to fast every fortnight. But even when I can’t fast, I still observe the new and full moons by examining my habitual patterns and resolving for the next two weeks to eliminate, or at least cut back, whatever habit I deem might be negatively effecting my health and wellbeing.

Usually my fasting is from things like alcohol, sugar or marijuana, but I also frequently “fast” from other habits that have become excessive, such as the internet and TV. I’ve even thought of fasting from talking for two weeks, if it ever became feasible, just to see what effect it has on my inner life, and perhaps to tamp down my tendency to jabber excessively.


I think it was Gurdjieff who said that “impressions” are food. This is an interesting view. We can picture ourselves as a very large, one-celled organism, with our senses and mind making up a circle of awareness — like a huge mouth which consumes all of the impressions that enter it, chews and digests them, stores them if necessary, and eliminates them when they are unhealthy or used up. In this scenario, internally generated impressions, such as thoughts and feelings, are essentially the same as external sense impressions, they are also food.

Negative impressions that we consume (or generate), such as violence or hate, have a negative effect on our system, like a psychic belly ache, while positive impressions, such as beauty and peace, are nutritious and conducive to long term health.

With that in mind we might be more careful about the impressions we seek out. I think it is possible to become addicted to the stimulation that negative and violent impressions generate. We don’t have to run away from difficult situations, but we can learn ways to digest them without bad effects and “fast” from them occasionally by retreating to places where impressions are healthy, such as into beautiful natural surroundings.


To meditate is to fast from impressions, particularly thoughts. The circle of awareness is allowed to return to its natural state, which is clear and open. The incessant stream of accumulated impressions are digested and eliminated — simply by letting them disappear into that original clarity. Eventually they empty out and there is recovery and renewal.

When I’m meditating, if I’ve been over-stimulated by meeting lots of people or from surfing the news on the internet, those impressions, the dialogues and storylines, tend to come back up on me, like acid reflux of the mind. It can take some time to digest and eliminate them.

So if I stop posting on this site sometimes, it might not be due to writer’s block, but simply because I’ve decided to fast from the internet for awhile.




I was initially unaware of the spiritual significance of the sweat bath. I just liked the remarkable feeling of rejuvenation and freshness produced by the right combination of heat, air and moisture.

Perhaps this propensity was encoded in my genes by the Finnish part of my ancestry. There’s some speculation that the Finnish sauna and the Native American sweat lodge share a common ancestry in the Nomadic tribes of central Asia.

I built my first sauna using an abandoned chicken coop and recycled (scrounged) barn wood, with rough cedar fence boards for lining the interior. Underneath the small, rustic structure, a capped-off steel pipe with holes drilled along its length was attached to a five gallon propane tank, providing an instant and steady source of heat to a large, heavy steel pan full of rocks that fit into an opening in the floor.

When the hot rocks were splashed with water, a perfect blast of moist, steamy heat, known a “loyly,” or spirit of life, by the Finns, would rise up and fill the sauna.

The sauna was situated behind an old ranch house in the Sacramento Valley, under a huge, one hundred year old, fig tree whose leaves reached the ground on all sides like a translucent green dome. A cold water shower attached to a garden hose hanging over a branch completed the picture and soon I was enjoying the camaraderie of communal bathing, as friends and neighbors started showing up for regular sweats.

That first custom-built sauna functioned beautifully for several years. But it had one serious flaw — it didn’t have a thermostat or timer to automatically shut it off. At my own peril I ignored Murphy’s First Law. “If something can go wrong it will.”

Late one night, after taking a sauna, I was awakened by a tremendous whooshing noise, like a jet plane landing in my back yard. I leapt, half asleep, from bed to window.

A monster pillar of fire was shooting about fifty feet straight up into the night sky from where my sauna once stood. The inevitable had finally happened. I’d forgotten to shut off the burner. It had gotten so hot and dry inside that the wood walls had burst into flames. The ensuing heat caused the propane tank to crack open — hence the whooshing pillar-of-fire.

My first impulse was to return to bed. Maybe I could go back to sleep and find out it was just a dream. Instead, I ran, butt-naked, out into the night in a rush of adrenaline, performing superhuman feats of strength and endurance to extinguish the blaze.

Both the early Finns and the American Indians viewed fire as a dangerous element, but one that could be harnessed with the appropriate rituals to produce power and vitality.

The next sauna I built, in the late seventies, employed the lower section of a water heater tank to heat the rocks — with a thermostat that shut it off automatically when it became too hot. Located behind our house in the Santa Cruz Mountains, on a steep bank overlooking the San Lorenzo River, it had a sod roof that sported ferns and other forest plants trailing down the dark redwood exterior. The inside, lined with choice golden brown cedar, was dimly lit by narrow insulated windows. A thick section of a madrone branch supported the ceiling.

I thought I was just making another sauna, but I was to discover that the small womb-like structure I’d built was actually something more — a sweat lodge. No sooner was my new sauna completed, than I was introduced to various devotees of the Native American spiritual path who began showing up for frequent sweats.

Chief among them was Standing Bear. When I first met him he was a pipe-bearer, conducting pipe ceremonies using a beautiful traditional medicine pipe with the name “Kind Heart” carved on the bottom of its red pipestone bowl. He kept it in a large bearskin pipe bag, along with a feather incense fan for smudging with sage and other special objects used in the ceremony.

When he would take out the pipe and raise it to the heavens, the atmosphere seemed to abruptly change.

Bear was a former Catholic (when he was know as Arthur), and he apparently had retained a feeling for ritual. The only other place I’ve experienced such profound reverence was while traveling in Mexico, where I sought out the local village churches for my meditations. I’d sit off to the side near the altar, which was invariably inundated with small offerings and votive candles that cast a halo of dim light over the worn wooden benches and ancient plaster walls. As I gratefully drank in the moment like some rare wine, a pilgrim would come crawling down the aisle to the altar, knees bloody from the distance he had traveled.

It’s unusual to witness such deep devotion towards something so intangible and mysterious, especially in a world more concerned with concrete attributes such as what we’ve done and what we own. But from the truly religious perspective, it can be said that we ourselves have never really done anything, much less owned anything.

After carrying the pipe for some time, Bear gave it to someone else, just as it had been given to him. The odd thing was that when he gave away the pipe, it was if he also gave away the energy that went with it. He was suddenly somehow diminished and more subject to the usual human foibles and egotism — as if the pipe had conferred on him a special responsibility and power.

Bear was expert in all kinds of traditional lore. He showed me how to make a water drum, traditionally used in the peyote ceremony, but perfect for playing in the sweat. The edge of a piece of deerskin is formed over marbles, around which a continuous piece of cotton rope is wrapped and tied over the legs of an old three-legged bean pot, to pull the deerskin tight. When the cast iron pot is partially filled with water and the deerskin is wet, these simple drums produce a wonderfully resonant sound when struck with drumsticks fashioned from wooden dowels.

For years we held weekly sweats there on the side of the river and many different people came and went, bringing with them songs and chants from all over, some in English, Lakota, or Navajo, others in no known language.

Sitting cross-legged, the brown walls and bodies only faintly visible in the dense golden light and steam, with the throbbing rhythm of the drums reverberating in my chest and the different voices rising as one, I would remember the old Finnish saying, “In the sauna one must conduct oneself as one would in church.”

Occasionally I traveled with Bear to traditional sweats, in lodges built in the prescribed ritual manner. In these structures, willow branches are bent and tied together to create an igloo-like framework, over which a thick layer of rugs and blankets is laid, with a flap left for entry. In the center a shallow pit is dug, around which aromatic cedar boughs are spread to sit on.

Into this small, low space, as many as fifteen or twenty people are crammed together side by side, sitting with knees against chest, almost in the fetal position. When the flap is closed, it is pitch black and you can’t even see your own nose. Tactile senses suddenly become very acute. Sounds and smells are heightened.

Outside, rocks are heated in a roaring fire. When the sweat leader calls for them, rocks are rolled into a pit in the center of the sweat lodge with a pitchfork of deer antlers. They are greeted with salutations, like honored guests. Each rock is the size of a human head and so hot they glow white in the darkness. Pinches of cedar are thrown on them, producing little sparks that dance in the darkness like stars, as a pungent woodsy odor instantly permeates the lodge.

When water is splashed on the rocks, a rush of overpowering heat spreads out and assaults every fiber of one’s being. Sometimes, vainly seeking some cool air, I’d try to bend down near the ground, until I had almost reversed my fetal position. But there would be no escape and finally I’d have to sacrifice body and mind to the relentless heat, melting into a tiny little spark of essence calmly shining in the darkness.

The sweat leader reminds us that suffering is an unavoidable part of life, that the brief pain we experience is in sympathy with the suffering of all beings everywhere. He exhorts us to walk in balance with the earth and the other creatures on it. The Creator is in the creation, not separate. We must show respect and consideration for all of life.

And finally, he asks us to always speak from the heart.

In his native tongue the sweat leader sings an invocation, accompanied by a drum. The other participants are then invited to offer prayers, to seek help for loved ones, or guidance on the path. The prayer moves clockwise around the sweat lodge, as one by one each voice cuts through the burning darkness.

Always there is someone who goes on at length, until suddenly their voice chokes with emotion and a wave of healing tears sweeps silently through the lodge.

Between rounds the flap is opened and fresh air and light stream in. If anyone needs to go out, this is their chance to leave. No one moves. More rocks are called for and there is another round of sweating, singing and praying.

After a last round, glowing bodies finally emerge from the dark, moist interior of the sweat lodge, as if from the womb of Mother Earth herself, purified and cleansed — reborn.

*This piece first appeared in Coast Magazine in 1996.



Detached from appearances, unmoved, immediate and true,
All things are like a dream, a phantom, a shadow,
A bubble in a stream,
Or a flash of lightening.

Diamond Sutra


11195728Past and future are often thought of as if they were real places existing in space, like East and West.

That is the horizontal view, where the self is seen as an entity moving through time.

Thus there is talk of time travel, as if one could just motor over to the future or back to the past, like a trip to the next county.

In fact, unless it is remembered, the past (by definition) is always gone. And even if it is remembered, the memory of it actually occurs right here, in the present and that memory is not really the past itself but another new event here in the present.

Likewise, the future, unless it is anticipated, has never happened, and if it is anticipated, the anticipation of it also occurs here, in the present.

Thus it can be said that the present is all there is, and within this present moment there is no actual past or future — just constantly changing phenomena, that, fortunately, follow natural laws of cause and effect, duration and continuity, and which, although infinitely complex, can be studied and understood logically.

Observation of changing phenomena is what creates the illusion of a past and future, when in fact everything occurs in the present moment.

If the constant flow of change, which produces the sense of time passing and of a past and future, is the “horizontal,” then the present is the “vertical,” which cuts through it.

When we can step back, completely relax into this present moment, and let go of passing phenomena, including our own thoughts, then everything is naturally resolved and it is like finally returning home.

In that moment, even though birth, old age and death appear, there is essentially no change whatever.


“The world does not know we must all come to an end here; but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once.”              The Dhammapada

Empty Field, 2004, oil on canvas, 36"x48"

Empty Field, 2004, oil on canvas, 36″x48″

Turning the mind from outside concerns and looking within, we discover that there is nothing concrete to lay hold of — only a stream of impressions, images, thoughts and feelings, constantly arising and disappearing, within what can best be described as “emptiness.”

There is no one sitting inside, similar to a passenger in a car looking out the window, that can be positively identified as a separate “self,” distinct from the passing view.

It is not just like that internally, everything in the external world, animate and inanimate, is the same way — essentially empty.

Take the example of a tree. If all of the constituents that make up a tree are taken away, such as the roots, the trunk, the bark, the branches and the leaves, would we expect to find a “tree” inside of the tree?

Of course not. “Tree” is something that is put on it from the outside, to distinguish it from other objects.

A human being is much more complex than a tree, but like that example, if all of the internal and external elements that manifest as an individual person are taken away, the physical body and brain, along with seeing, feeling, thinking, and so forth — in other words, the entire movie, which is experienced moment to moment, if all of that is taken away, all that is left is emptiness. There is nothing that can be separated out from those phenomenal characteristics and identified as an independent self.

The usual concept of self, the “I” who did this, who wants that, who experiences things, is just that — a concept, a collection of thoughts centered on an idea.

Of course, the idea of a separate self, distinct from others and the surrounding environment, is a very useful, even necessary, concept. But it creates problems because most of us get attached to a concept of self as something concrete and definite, even though it is constantly changing and there are often several different versions of it. If someone insults this construct that’s regarded as an individual self, the usual response is to get upset, and when someone praises it the result is happiness and a feeling of well-being.

Talk about building a house on sand!

This idea of an independent self is not something anyone is born with. It is laid on us as we develop, first by parents, then by interactions with other people, until eventually we identify with it, not just as an idea, but as an object in a world of other objects.

At this point you might say, “So what?” or, “That’s nonsense, I’m sitting here, who else is it?”

Of course, everyone has an experience of a life that is uniquely their own. When someone tastes honey, they alone know whether it is sweet or not. If they had never tasted it and someone tried to describe what honey tasted like, that description would not be nearly as meaningful as actually tasting it. That is the immediacy of life. But it’s an immediacy that gets lost in all of the ideas that are developed in regard to life, most significantly ideas of a separate self.

Some forms of meditation entail simply watching what comes and goes, such as thoughts and feelings, without interfering. What no one seems to notice, is that it is technically impossible to watch something, especially thoughts.

If a thought comes up and we “watch” it, we’re not actually seeing that thought as it occurs, but an instant afterwards. First there is the thought and then there is another thought in which the previous thought is seen, as if in a rearview mirror. Why? Because we ARE each thought. There is not a separate entity that can watch when a thought actually occurs.

Because it is impossible to have a thought while watching it, a good way to put a stop to thoughts is to simply “watch” them.

When completely relaxed or half asleep and images spontaneously arise and disappear one after another, it might appear that we are watching them, but if we really look, we realize that we are each image as it appears. We are also the thought of watching when that occurs. This is the immediacy of life.

With each experience, we are the experience, nothing more. Smelling a rose, we are the rose — the fragrance, the color and the lovely shape. However, because concepts and ideas are entertained, not only of a separate self who smells the rose, but of the rose itself and of smelling and seeing as well, something extra is added to the experience.

So, someone might think, “Oh my, I have to prune and feed the roses. The year is going so fast, I’ll never get every thing done by summer. I wish…” and so on. Another, less real, layer is added to life. We are no longer a life, but a story line. There is the thought of a self, separate from the rose, separate from the experience of seeing, smelling and thinking, separate from everything. Separate from life.

Each individual has a unique experience of life, which in the final analysis is what gives us a sense of a separate existence apart from everything else. Life is, nonetheless, constantly moving and changing. There is nothing that is permanent — there is only emptiness. That is who we are.

Every life arises and disappears within emptiness, and cannot be separated from it. Thus emptiness is not really empty. We are empty, but within that emptiness are all the experiences of life, moment by moment, one thing after another, like a flowing stream or a movie.

Emptiness can be referred to as the “host,” and whatever arises within it is the “guest.” At an inn the guests come and go, but the host remains.

There’s a story from ancient India that illustrates what it is like to realize that there is no permanent, separate self. A man was walking in the jungle at dusk, when he saw a snake on the path ahead. He froze with fear. As he leaned forward and looked closer, he suddenly realized that it was just a piece of rope. All his fear vanished and he breathed a sigh of relief.

At first glance, there might appear to be little comfort in emptiness. But, ironically, the ultimate feeling of security and self-confidence is the realization that there is no self that is separate from our life and vulnerable to the insults and tribulations inherent in a transitory existence.

When life is viewed from the standpoint of emptiness, each experience is seen as arising within emptiness and going back into emptiness. If there is a crazy, self-centered thought, it is seen for what it is, empty, and it isn’t allowed to continue. There are still all the usual problems, but they have less power over us, and we can take control of them. There is more inner clarity and less reactivity to external circumstances. Life becomes lighter and less burdensome.

Although emptiness can be used to take away the notion of a separate self, true emptiness cannot be taken away, for the obvious reason that there is nothing there to take away.

True emptiness cannot be predicated or grasped intellectually, because it has no attributes — no sides or bottom, no beginning or end, no shape or form, and no location. Emptiness cannot be picked up or put down. As soon as it’s brought up in words, it leads to complications. Even though it is not a separate “thing,” emptiness can be experienced, and in a sense, “seen.” It is often equated with consciousness, but both consciousness and unconsciousness are transitory, they arise and disappear within emptiness.

In emptiness there is not only no self, but no other as well. Thus in emptiness we realize that we share our most basic nature with everything else.

Although the word “emptiness” is inadequate, at least it has the virtue of being somewhat descriptive of how it is most directly accessed. Emptiness is experienced by being completely empty, because inherent nature is also empty. This is not an escape from the world. On the contrary, it’s being open to the incomparable illumination that manifests as our life.



Wrentit, Chamaea Fasciata

Not long ago I found a small brown bird perched on the step at the back of my house. Just sitting there. It didn’t fly away, even when I reached down and gently picked it up.

Small and remarkably round, the bird fit nicely into the palm of my hand. It was still alive, but appeared to be unconscious. I figured it must have flown into the glass door, thinking it could fly straight through the room and out the window on the opposite side of the house — the same way these little birds zip through the thick brush outside.

My examination of the dazed bird was interrupted by a commotion in a large rhododendron bush behind me. It was another bird, sounding very agitated. Although I couldn’t see it, I was sure it must be the mate to the one I held in my hand.

Spurred to action, I glanced about the yard for some place safe, high enough to escape the notice of cats, where I could set the injured bird down to allow it to recover in peace. The only spot I could think of was the roof of my teahouse, which was some distance away.

Cupping my other hand over my little passenger I set out across the yard towards the teahouse. As I moved up the path I felt the bird’s feet grip my finger.

Nestled in a small clearing surrounded by dense brush and moss covered pines, the teahouse seemed a good place to set an injured bird. I reached up and carefully placed it on a shingle near the edge of the low roof.

My teahouse is a small structure built of rustic redwood board and batten with a shake roof. Used more for meditation than serving tea, it is inspired by the romantic image of the isolated hut in the wilderness where the ancient Chinese recluse dwelt far from the tumult of ordinary society and all outdoors became a garden to wander freely. In the words of America’s most famous recluse, Henry David Thoreau, “I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds: not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.”

I checked back occasionally to see if the bird was any better. It just sat there, beak hanging open and eyes glazed over. I began to doubt it would make it. I decided that if it didn’t recover by nightfall, I would bring it in and put it in a box over a heating pad.

I remembered seeing a pair of these birds, a few days earlier, as they bathed at the edge of the small pond near the house.  Plain brown, round, with no neck, and eyes on either side of their body, they were about the size of ping-pong balls, with perky tails that bobbed up and down as they flitted busily about. One bird would bathe while the other stood guard perched on the head of a stone stature of Kwan Yin that stands at the edge of the pond.

I was able to identify them later as “Wrentit, Chamaea fasciata.” They are a species all their own, neither a Wren nor a Tit (chickadee). Shy, reclusive and seldom seen, these non-migratory coastal denizens dwell within a one or two acre territory. They mate for life and are constant companions: grooming one another, sharing the incubation chores, and curling up together at night in what has been described as a “headless, puffed-up ball of feathers with two tails and four little feet protruding.”

As it was starting to get dark, I walked back and peered up at the teahouse roof. The Wrentit hadn’t moved.

I reached up, intending to take it into the house, when suddenly I heard a noise off to my side. On the ground only a foot or two away was another little bird. It was jumping frantically from side to side, looking up at me and emitting a rapid series of trp trp sounds that managed somehow to simultaneously communicate encouragement to its mate and alarm at what I might do. I was stunned at the depth of feeling in those odd notes.

I quickly left the scene and circled around behind a clump of trees.

A few moments later I returned from another direction. Both birds had disappeared. All that remained on the roof where the comatose bird had been was a small pile of white birdshit.

Later I was told that birds that smash into windows will sometimes abruptly come-to like that. But what stuck in my mind was the devotion of the bird’s mate.

Now, when I sit meditating in my teahouse, I frequently notice the Wrentit’s distinctive song (two notes followed by a receding burst of stacato notes) and I’m reminded of the love these little brown birds have for one another.

Humans, the strange featherless bipeds who have wreaked so much havoc on the natural world, are not the only creatures capable of deep feelings for one another. Love plays an important part in the preservation and continuance of every species. I think love serves a higher evolutionary purpose as well.

It’s been said that all love is really self-love. The Wrentit was trp, trping because he thought he was about to lose his little puff-ball. I know how he feels.

For most of us love does not extend very far beyond our immediate circle. We only love those who are closest to us, or those who are like us. But human beings are also capable of a higher, more unselfish form of love, in which our separate individual self dissolves. Then loving and caring for the world is loving and caring for ourselves.

*This piece first appeared in Coast Magazine in 1996.  I posted it here so that it will go into my permanent archives.