4. BITTER PRACTICE, SWEET MIND


I found 125 Waverly Place off a crowded back street of old Chinatown in San Francisco where vendors busily trimmed and sold vegetables in dozens of sidewalk stalls. A brass plaque showed me the entrance to the “Buddhist Lecture Hall.” I hurriedly climbed four flights of creaky wooden stairs. As I reached the upper landing I saw two old Chinese men talking. One was dressed in drab peasant clothing, the other in a bright yellow robe covered by a red patchwork cape embroidered with hundreds of golden flowers. Although shorter than I, he appeared huge, with a broad round face like a harvest moon.

“Is Alan Nicholson here?” I blurted out nervously.

“Who’s?” the old guy in the robe replied. He looked really ignorant — obviously he didn’t know much English. The other Chinese gentleman gave a wide smile, revealing a ghastly mouthful of decayed teeth.

“Alan Nicholson,” I said.

“Who’s?” the monk asked again.

I felt uneasy. Clearing my throat, I raised my voice and yelled, “Alan Nicholson!”

“Inside!” The monk yelled back, and then both men turned to each other and erupted in laughter. Was this really the place that Alan had wanted me to come to?

I entered the room the old guys indicated. The space was about twenty-five by fifty feet.

Clouds of incense perfumed the air. The ceiling was adorned with intricate wooden carvings of gods, men, animals, and dragons. Six red Chinese lanterns glowed dimly. Up front, inside a colossal glass case, sat three buddha statues in gold leaf, legs in full lotus. Below the statues was a handmade pecan lecture chair and a lavish altar overflowing with fresh fruits, flowers, and golden statuettes. All along the walls hung scrolls of calligraphy and pictures of Chinese sages. Where was I?

Forty people were crowded into this tiny space, all sitting in meditation on miniature stools, elbow-to-elbow facing the wall. A few of the sitters looked Chinese, but most were not. The men dressed in loose clothing and the women wore bright dresses. One young girl wore fresh flowers in her flaxen hair. Some appeared to be monks, with shaved heads and long gray robes. One, a little guy with thick eyebrows and full lips, motioned me to a meditation cushion, where I sat quietly until a bell rang.

“Do you know where I might find Alan Nicholson?” I asked. When he replied in a husky female voice, I realized this was a woman, her head shaved. She pointed to the corner. It was my friend Alan all right, but minus his signature shaggy red hair and beard. He now sported short hair, baggy clothes, and a string of beads. His face appeared younger and more peaceful, as if someone had erased the lines. His eyes were clear.

A monk struck a massive bronze bowl about the size of a medicine ball, the sound spilling across the room in eerie waves. Everyone took places before the altar — women on the left, men on the right — and a ceremony began. I stood in back, where a thin Chinese lady crept up and showed me our place in the text. My eyes wandered, Alan smiled, bells rang, drums beat. A monk thumped on a huge wooden fish. Everyone, including me, made full bows, foreheads to the floor.

After a few minutes, an old man appeared from out of the back room. He was the man from the stairs I’d been yelling at. People were calling him “Shifu,” which I later found out meant “teacher” or “father.” He now wore silk robes, and he reverently bowed to the buddha figures in the case as everyone discreetly stole looks at him. He then selected thick sticks of sandalwood from a crystal jar and pressed them into a cauldron. Although I did not yet know the words in Chinese, those who did began to sing:

Fragrant incense now is lit, perfuming the Dharma Realm.
A vast sea of bodhisattvas breathes it from afar.
Under these auspicious clouds we now request
With genuine minds, that all buddhas now appear.
Homage to the enlightened ones, bodhisattvas, mahasattvas.

The people then chanted a series of long mantras to the rapid, opiate beat of the slender red sticks against the wooden fish:

Namo Ru Lai Ying Gung Jeng Byan Jr Namo Pu Gwang Fo
Namo Pu Ming Fo Namo Pu Jing Fo Namo . . .

As I learned later, the chants called on eighty-eight buddhas in a ceremony that included repentance for wrongdoing, vows to reform our lives, a promise to seek the Way, and a supplication that buddhas continue to appear in the world. Everyone formed a loose circle and began to walk around the periphery of the room chanting the Buddha’s name. The abbot, assisted by attendants, ascended the Dharma seat and locked down into full lotus, the position Buddhists have meditated in for thousands of years: cross-legged, each foot over the opposite knee.

Once the old man was settled into the chair, everyone bowed and returned to the floor. The flaxen-haired girl approached the altar, lit a stick of incense, held it over her head, and then slowly circled the room three times. Then she too placed the stick in the ancient cauldron, returned to center, bowed three and a half times, and on bended knee, made a formal request for Dharma: “Will the Venerable Master, for the sake of this assembly and all living beings, please turn the wonderful Dharma wheel, so that we may quickly learn how to leave suffering, attain bliss, and end the cycle of birth and death?”

The abbot nodded assent and, when everyone settled into whatever form of sitting they could, began his talk. He spoke in Mandarin, reading from four Buddhist texts, or sutras, in relaxed musical tones while a monk captured the talk on tape. After reading for a few minutes, the abbot put down the book and gave us a generous smile, then began his commentary. The ceremony and chanting had already relaxed me, and now that the abbot was speaking I felt like I had traveled backward in time — somewhere long before twentieth-century America. Most in the room stared at him in adoration while others sat quietly with their eyes closed. At different parts of the lecture, the monks and others in the audience who understood Mandarin laughed out loud. I laughed too, although I didn’t know what was funny.

When the abbot was done, the monk rewound the tape, put on earphones, and began to translate. The abbot had been talking about the exact problem that had been bothering me my whole life, although I didn’t know it had a name until now: the mad mind. He referred to it as pan-yuan mind, a mind that brings us suffering because it can never be at rest. It constantly climbs on conditions, grasping and clinging to external things as easily as internal ideas; always scheming, calculating, measuring. He made it clear that there’s nothing we need to get rid of more than this crazy, wandering mind.

The next part of the talk was on spiritual penetrations, the psychic powers one obtains from cultivating the Way. These powers include the ability to see past lives, to see into the future, and to read other people’s minds. We shouldn’t seek these powers in and of themselves, he counseled. They would come automatically as a result of our practice. In fact, a good Buddhist shouldn’t be attached to either having them or not having them. True cultivators of the Way don’t advertise their powers or charge money to use them, he said. They carefully guard their talents, using them exclusively to benefit living beings.

While the monk translated, I closely observed the abbot sitting in full lotus, his eyes closed, palms in mudra, his lips silently reciting a mantra. I was entranced.

When the abbot resumed in Chinese, I slipped into a daydream, thinking how nice it would be if I could conquer my mad mind and have spiritual penetrations. I reflected back to the time I’d spent aboard my old submarine in the Pacific. I had recently started to have nightmares of giant submarines snaking over mountains, or deep in the sea with water gushing in, the boat sinking into darkness. I often woke from these dreams drenched in sweat.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if I could see inside the ocean and watch submarines racing blindly through the night? I pictured a fast-attack nuke running at forty knots, banking into a steep turn like a stunt plane. I could see my buddies walking aroud in the galley, drinking coffee and talking, others reading in their bunks — my images clear as a movie. When I snapped out of my reverie, the abbot had finished his talk and the translator was already speaking.

“When you become an awakened being, a bodhisattva, and obtain spiritual penetrations,” the translator was saying, “you can see anywhere in the universe. If you want to look inside the oceans of the world, it’s no problem. You can clearly see what your friends are doing. Without leaving your meditation bench, without even getting wet, you can watch all the submarines flying around. You can be outside looking in, or inside looking out. Everything is just as you wish.”

I cannot describe how shocked I was when I heard these words. My brain burst in a riot of emotions. Wait a minute! How could he see what I was thinking? I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could see thoughts so clearly and report them with such precision. How did he do that? How could anyone know what I was thinking? Yet I couldn’t come up with any other explanation. It was too exact to be coincidence.

I thought back to the first time I had taken LSD, when I realized that my mind was not confined to my own body. Where did my mind end and the abbot’s begin? I looked up, and he was grinning at me, his eyes in a squint. I was still flabbergasted. And yet, somehow, I also felt genuinely touched — loved on the deepest level of my being. This was new territory for me. Overwhelmed, I began to weep with joy.

After the ceremony, I found Alan, and we walked back out onto the balcony where I had entered. I reached for my cigarettes, but he informed me that smoking was not allowed. Here, he said, everyone followed a strict regimen based on what was called the five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no lying, and no intoxicants. The monks obeyed 250 rules, the nuns 348, Alan said. Everyone ate only vegetarian food. Laypeople were monogamous, the monks and nuns celibate. “The idea of holding these precepts is not just to be good,” he explained. “It restricts your energy outflows, so that energy normally lost and scattered can be concentrated and conserved.” By limiting the interaction of the senses with the “outside” world, the powers of perception associated with each sense naturally become clearer, sharper, and more powerful. This, together with the guidance of a genuine teacher such as the abbot, paves the ground for initial enlightenment.

“Initial enlightenment?” I asked.

“The unspeakable breakthrough where the universe is seen as being just a manifestation of one’s own mind,” Alan replied serenely. “The precepts are the moral foundation upon which all future practices are built.”
“Don’t you get tired of all those rules?” I asked.

Alan said he asked the same question when he first arrived. The abbot had replied, “There are so many rules because people don’t follow rules.”

“So you follow all of this?” Alan told me that in the two months he’d been there, he’d followed the rules, listened carefully to the lectures, done a lot of sitting, and now felt incredibly spiritual all the time. I believed him. After all, we’d been high together on many occasions.

Alan led me to the kitchen, a dirty, narrow room with no windows. We brewed tea and counted cockroaches. Guffaw, an ex-hippie who was now the portly temple cook, farted and laughed as he made bread and heated gross-looking leftovers. Alan warned me not to be fooled by all the traditional trappings of the temple. Beneath the clouds of fragrant smoke, he said, were the most penetrating, radical, spontaneous, and profound teachings available in the world. This was not just idle philosophy or some advanced kind of psychology. The abbot taught from the “inside out.” His teachings bore no resemblance to the lightweight new-age theories that were being packaged, peddled, and sold all over America. This was no head/mouth rap — all talk and no walk. Nor was it a bunch of confused, “self-enlightened” acid heads. This was the ultimate expression and realization of human religion. Until now, he said, no one in the West had been qualified to teach this kind of stuff. The abbot, Alan emphasized, was qualified.

After the evening lecture, the women packed up and drove across town to their apartment. We men chanted mantras until ten, then it was lights out. I slept on the floor. The next morning, Alan invited me to sign up for the rest of the summer session.

I was really excited by the prospect but also a little dumbstruck. This was everything I’d dreamed of — and ten times more — but I had to think. I needed time to make a decision.

I spent the next two days walking around Berkeley, absorbing the sun, indulging in beautiful sights, and thinking about what to do with the rest of my life. I couldn’t get the Buddhist Lecture Hall out of my mind. Deciding not to rush too quickly into the precept regarding intoxicants, I gorged on gourmet meals, fine wines, rich beer, and nothing but the finest cigarettes. But I knew I couldn’t go on living like this any longer. I had no job, no girlfriend, no home, no commitments. I was a free man, but I didn’t feel free. My spirit yearned to soar. There were worse things I could do than go to this summer session — I’d already wasted my life on many of them. There was nothing better I could think of. What the hell! I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I decided to go for it.

I returned to the Buddhist Lecture Hall and signed up for the rest of the summer session, agreeing to pay one hundred dollars a month to cover my food and shelter. I slept that evening with the rest of the laymen on the floor of the buddha hall.

At 3:30 A.M. I awakened to a sharp sound — a monk was walking around the temple banging two hardwood boards together. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and went to the dingy kitchen behind the three enormous buddha statues at the back of the hall. Alan was already there, boiling water for tea. We went upstairs to the rooftop, where it was chilly, foggy, and dark, with a fresh Pacific breeze blowing in over the hill. We sipped tea together while San Francisco snored. The tea was Tieguanyin, an oolong variety that I would later learn was named after the Chinese goddess of mercy Guanyin, the female embodiment of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. It was exactly mercy and compassion that I needed right then: looking out at the jutting city skyline, my stomach full of butterflies, I felt scared and uncertain. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.

Standing upright next to us on the rooftop were three wooden crates that I assumed had been used to ship the massive gold buddha statues from Asia. I peeked inside one and recoiled with a gasp. There was a person in there — a monk, sitting bolt upright in full lotus. Alan explained that the monks had made vows never to lie down, so they slept sitting up, following the abbot’s example, who had been sleeping sitting up most of his life. They were hoping to evolve to the point where they didn’t really sleep, but just sat, locked in full lotus all night long, their minds in a state of samadhi, or meditative concentration.

This vow never to lie down was the thirteenth of the thirteen dhutangas, the bitter practices that the Buddha recommended if you ever wanted to get anywhere as a cultivator. Other practices included everything from sleeping under trees at night to making begging rounds in strict succession (not trying to just go to the houses that had good offerings). Well, I soon learned, the abbot didn’t ask his disciples to go door-to-door in America, but he did expect them to implement as many of the bitter practices as possible, so as to experience their fruit: the sweet mind. I didn’t know it quite yet, but the abbot operated his temple as if we were still in China during the golden age of Buddhism thirteen hundred years ago. At the Buddhist Lecture Hall in 1970, you might as well have been in the Tang dynasty.

In a moment and all at once, the three American monks stretched their legs and climbed out of their individual boxes. Somewhere across town, Alan told me, the women were getting up and going through the same thing. He showed me Chinese stretching exercises designed to get the blood flowing to the brain so that you would have good meditation. The monks in their flowing robes joined in, and soon the rooftop was filled with strange figures dancing in slow motion. I was one of them and feeling better already.

Before we could meditate, however, we had to perform morning services. It was now 4:00 A.M., and I was utterly awake (it helped that there was no heat in the temple and the windows were open). First we performed an incense offering, replete with bells and drums, and then we recited the Shurangama Mantra, which at around ten thousand characters is the longest mantra in the Buddhist canon. It took twenty minutes to chant the whole thing. The Shurangama Mantra is powerful — so powerful that it is said it can “melt away deluded thoughts gathered in a thousand eons” — and we not so much chanted it as shouted it out, accompanied by the rapid beating of the fifty-pound wooden fish drum. When we finished, my ears were ringing and the silence was awesome.

By now it was almost 5:00 A.M. and time for sitting meditation. Unlike other Buddhist centers back then, meditation periods at the Buddhist Lecture Hall always lasted for a full hour. I had never meditated before, and after twenty minutes or so, my ankles and back felt like someone was boring in with a drill. I fidgeted. I tried everything I could to pass through the pain. Nothing helped. My brain raged, thought following thought in wild succession like ivy climbing a wall — one branch sprouting another, one thought giving rise to ten more thoughts. I couldn’t stop thinking no matter how hard I tried; my mad mind was running amok. It was all I could do to make it, somehow, through two full sits.

Unfortunately for me, there was more sitting to come — a lot more. The rest of the day, and all the days to come during that summer, followed the same schedule: after morning services and meditation, the abbot gave an informal Dharma talk, followed by a Chinese class and lunch. (We had to get lunch over with before twelve because many had vowed not to eat after noon, including the abbot himself, who, I would find out, had only eaten a single meal per day for decades — and some days ate nothing at all.) Then there was a calligraphy lesson, another Dharma talk by the abbot or one of the monks or nuns, sitting meditation, and finally a short break . . . followed by more sitting meditation. At 7:00 P.M., we gathered for evening services and a formal Dharma talk by the abbot, which was open to the public. Following the lecture, the laypeople returned home, the nuns drove off to their apartment, and the rest of us chanted mantras until 10:00 P.M., when it was lights out.

The ascetic lifestyle was hard to adjust to, especially after my years of drinking and drugging, but Alan was a great help. He introduced me to the five American monks (bhikshus) and nuns (bhikshunis), all of whom had just been ordained in a big ceremony in Taiwan. They’d been with the abbot for over a year, and they ran all the ceremonies, gave Dharma talks in the afternoons, and were all deeply involved in translating the Chinese sutras. I called them the “big monks.”

There was Babbling Brook, six foot five, Jewish, named for his great eloquence in lecturing. Babbling Brook had already studied Chinese language and philosophy in college and was extremely full of himself. He could speak at length on any topic, without any preparation, or, for that matter, any knowledge of the subject. His younger brother, Ralph, was also there cultivating, although he hadn’t yet ordained. Then there was First Boss, the first American monk to leave home, and Buddha’s Helper, both ex-hippies from the Pacific Northwest. Before these two buddies came to the monastery, they had delved so far into psychedelic drugs that at one point they were on the verge of turning each other in to the loony bin. However, thanks to the abbot, they had given up drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, meat, and women, and had become Buddhist monks. Although relatively uneducated, they both took amazingly fast to the Chinese language and were already translating the abbot’s spoken Mandarin and working on a written translation of the Lotus Sutra, one of Buddhism’s most important scriptures. The last two American monastics, both nuns, Tall & Thin and Short & Sweet, were also excellent translators. They spent the bulk of their days under headphones, scrunched up in full lotus, listening to the abbot’s tapes and translating via their hands and a pair of red-hot IBM Selectrics.

I was much in awe of these people — even a little frightened of them. I sensed a power struggle among them — it seemed to me that they all wanted to be, as the abbot called it, Number One. They were so far ahead of me in their practice I thought I’d never catch up. They could all sit in full lotus without moving for the full-hour meditations, whereas I was terrified of the pain. When it was 10:00 P.M. and time to go to sleep, I was ready to lie down and stretch those legs. The monastics, on the other hand, never stopped cultivating, or at least trying. Even at night, when they were allowed to sleep, they’d stay up into the wee hours working on translations, all on only one meal a day.

Most of all, though, I envied the monks’ and nuns’ closeness to the abbot — they were always talking to him, learning about translations and perhaps more arcane knowledge. I wanted to have access to his wisdom, too, but I was too shy to talk to him. Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t know a word of Mandarin and that his English was dicey at best. I could have asked one of the monastics to translate for me, but for some reason, I didn’t feel like I had the right to. After all, as I had been trained, there was a chain of command; if I understood only one thing, it was the seniority system. The real problem, in retrospect, was that I didn’t have any self-esteem. I had been indoctrinated by the navy and the Catholic Church to be in awe of authority, and so I was. Somehow I decided that I could either take my problems to the American monks or just try to solve them myself. I opted for the latter.

It didn’t help my inferiority complex that the abbot was like no one I had ever met before. One beautiful summer afternoon, after the noisy rhythm and clatter of ceremonies, when everyone was settling in to hear the lecture, I overheard him quietly turn to Ralph and tell him to keep a particularly close eye on people. He warned him to watch the door “because there was someone present in the building who was here to steal.” Ralph seemed to quickly forget what the abbot had said — but I didn’t. Maybe I felt the abbot was also talking to me. I had noticed that he had a way of doing that.

When the lecture ended, the place erupted into the usual hubbub of chitchat and socializing. While everyone was enjoying their tête-à-tête, including Ralph, I noticed a middle-aged Asian woman go into the vestibule off the main hall and try to rifle the donation box. It was like a living dream: first the prophecy, then the reality. The abbot’s mind seemed to be able to seamlessly flow in and out of the future, and he was taking me along for the ride.

I alerted Ralph, who rushed in and caught the woman in the act. He took the money out of her hands and shooed her out of the temple. The abbot had already gone to his room, but his words echoed in my mind. I hadn’t forgotten about the submarine incident my first day at the Hall, but after some time passed I had already written it off as coincidence; how could he have really read my mind? That would have been impossible. But now it was happening again: he actually knew what this person was going to do before she did it. I simply couldn’t get over it. It seemed to be as natural for the abbot to read her mind, or my mind, or anyone’s mind, as it was for me to speak English. How did he do it? Where did he get these powers? What kind of incredible state was he in, anyway? And why was he revealing himself to me? Would I be able to do this kind of stuff if I cultivated? These incidents caused my faith in the abbot, and in Buddhism, to take seed. I really believed in this wonderful teacher — even though I didn’t have any idea who he actually was. I became determined to learn more about this amazing person.