This essay is dedicated with deep respect to the Rev. Dokai Fukui of Shogen-ji Temple in Japan


The disagreements between so-called mystics (those who seek experience of their god) and orthodoxy (those who perform rituals calculated to serve their god) is old, endless, and sometimes delightful. Either path, followed exclusively, carries both dangers and rewards.

And yet I wonder how much spiritual life has to do with either danger or reward. Perhaps that is one of the central dangers.

For all that, it seems to me that a human being, to the extent he is interested in spiritual life, must eventually pull up his own socks, leave the precincts of the wise and the precincts of the learned, and find his own way. It may be wonderful and sometimes useful to hear of saints and other unusual people who seemed to accomplish marvelous things, appeared to lead clarified, rarified lives. It may also be wonderful and sometimes useful to know texts and liturgy, the warp and woof of ritual. But, given the swiftness of life, the impermanent nature of all things, the change that greets us in every moment, the losing of that which we long to keep and the keeping of that which we long to lose . . . eventually, if a human being wants to live his life at ease, the sweetness of others must be set aside. That to which authority has been granted must be seen and perhaps loved, but, finally, for the serious student, it must be set aside.

My own experience is not long — 12 years of spiritual activity, three studying a branch of Hinduism and nine practicing Zen. Still, over that time, I seem to have created a series of notes for myself, some based on observation, some based on experience, that may be of tentative use to others.


HAPPY. The first sign that a man is getting religious is that he is getting happy. A good line from a Hindu. Often happiness is interpreted as meaning the imitative, glue-y smile, the active suppression of “negative” aspects like anger, envy, or greed under the misapprehension that this is a better way to act. But “negative,” like “positive,” follows even into the highest and holiest of mountains. There is no hiding place. Luckily, there is also no reason to hide. Feigning anything — from serenity to gloom — is not necessary to spiritual training. Walls that shut out will eventually and invariably hem in, and looking to achieve something else, anything else, will inevitably boomerang. Happiness is not so difficult: take good care of things, watch closely, and the joy will assert itself.

The first sign that a man is getting religious is that he is getting happy.

INSTITUTIONS. Obviously, it is a good idea to pick an institution that more or less suits you. Shopping around is fine, but not forever. As one Hindu put it, if you want water, you don’t dig 100 little holes, you dig one deep one. There may be many who lay claim to the ecumenical spirit, but very few have the vaguest idea of what they are talking about. It may be nice to say with the Upanishads, “Truth is one, wise men call it by many names,” but it is quite another thing to know what this means. Talk is cheap even when it feels good.

To find a more or less palatable institution (perhaps only three or four things are a real turn-off) is important. Institutions check pride even as they offer laziness. But perfection of the institution is not the point. Pick one, find out everything you can, practice hard, and see for yourself. Beware of personal bias, but do not be too self-critical: after all, who is this for? An institution that perpetuates its connection with the student forever is probably no good. If an institution, implicitly or explicitly, suggests “You have to stick with us if you want to get to heaven,” be very, very careful. Probably better is the group that in some way asserts, “This institution, with any luck at all, will self-destruct in five seconds.”


LAUGHTER. Care should be taken of places in which laughter is missing. Gut-wrenching, falling-down laughter is what I mean. There may be many who specialize in a kind of controlled heh-heh-heh and others who give a great imitation of the knowing smile. Leave these people to their own devices.

The whole thing reminds me a bit of a woman I once knew who admitted that at one time she had been enthusiastic about men who were “tall, strong, and silent.”

“It was all very sexy,” she said, “until I found out that too often tall-strong-and-silent types were tall, strong, and stupid.”

It is easy to ascribe virtue to another, but that doesn’t mean the virtue is there. Laughter is all but impossible to fake, and, although spiritual life may be a serious matter in an individual’s life, still, it’s not that serious. If it is that serious, there is a serious problem. The seriousness with which some students approach their practice — prayer, meditation, or whatever — is more often a sign that they take themselves seriously than that they take spiritual life seriously.

Laughter is all but impossible to fake, and, although spiritual life may be a serious matter in an individual’s life, still, it’s not that serious. If it is that serious, there is a serious problem.

TEACHERS. Teachers are named by other people. The best teacher is still a student — very probably the last student. Be careful of teachers who think too much of themselves or their teaching: they are not thinking hard enough. It may be difficult not to think of one’s own practice — into which so much effort is poured — as the “best.” Many groups in history and even in the present single themselves out for a higher station: they are the “chosen,” a term elected by a surprising number of tribes through the ages. Or perhaps they are the only recognized “human beings” or are on a “higher” road. All such nomenclature will impede the honest student who is far better off being his own brand of so-called slob or so-called failure than to associate himself with such preening.

How is it possible to know the true teacher? It isn’t. The true teacher is the one who began before I did. He or she is also the one about whom it is impossible to know if the title “teacher” is deserved. The only way to find out is to practice. It takes a thief to catch a thief. Becoming a good thief is important.

My own first teacher was a proud liar and a nasty womanizer. When I discovered these things, I felt many things: anger, betrayal, guilt, suspicion, sorrow, etc. But for all that, still his teaching put me along the way. He was good for a beginner. He had no laughter and he loved power, but he emphasized practice and the practice proved to be no liar, so eventually I was able to say “no” to his weed-choked garden. For this I am grateful. From this I infer that it is more likely that a teacher will be a human being than a saint and that the student looking for a saint will have about as much luck as a dog chasing its own tail: what the hell would he do with it if he caught it?


DEATH. This death business needs attention. Luckily, since in our environment death is so often hidden and lied about, it gets a great deal of sub-surface attention, frequently in the form of fear. Being afraid of death is being afraid of life — one aspect (so-called) of life. The serious student is not the one who chooses one thing and rejects another — choosing life over death as if they were opposites. Discrimination of this sort is very painful. So somehow, with courage, doubt, and persistence, the student will need to face his own life, his own death. With practice, it is not so difficult. After all, who dies?


SEX. I always like mentioning sex because it gets people’s attention. Paying attention is a sine qua non of spiritual practice.


SPIRITUAL LIFE. Great teachers the world over have proclaimed the benefit of spiritual discipline. Such discipline benefits not only the student, but the whole world, the whole universe. The fact that these things are true does not need to concern the student. “Better your own truth, however weak, than the truth of another, however noble.” The blessing of spiritual life is not that people say it is true, but that it is true. Even a bird can be taught to recite wonderful words.


TEXTS. It can be a lot of fun to read books about spiritual life or to hear others read and explain them. Heaven knows there are a lot of them. In my own case, I read between 300,000 and 500,000 pages and went to any number of lectures and sermons before I made up my mind to do something about spiritual practice. I decided in two forms: 1. If they (those teachers, saints, gurus, etc.) can do it, so can I, and, 2. I want to know, really know — for me, not for anyone else — if spiritual life is bullshit or not.

Doing is a lot slower than thinking. The intellect is so agile, so in love with itself, so praised in our society, that to ask it to shut up for a while may seem slightly more difficult than asking the sun not to rise. How to begin. Where to begin. Where are the handholds, the grips with which to start the climb? My experience is that it doesn’t matter where the beginning is. What matters is that there is a beginning. Perhaps here. A beginning of doing something. Doing what? Who knows? Many people tease themselves along with some goal: “getting good,” “clarifying the mind,” “seeking God,” “longing for enlightenment,” etc. And if that’s what it takes to keep going, to keep doing, then seek your heart out. But in the midst of it all, it is best not to get sucked into thinking or believing that this effort is for something else. “Else” and “other” are false.

Keep doing. Doing what? If the discipline is prayer, pray! If meditation, meditate! Be constant. Doing — over the seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years — has one singular and amazing advantage over thinking: for once there is the possibility that the student will know what he is talking about. Like riding a bicycle or playing the piano, there is no particular harm in reading books about the subject, but only a fool would confuse intellectual accumulations with the ability to ride or play.

So keep doing. Practice wholeheartedly. At first there may be terrific feelings of foolishness or unworthiness or, more difficult still, of great understanding. These things need gentle attention, but not too much attention. The important part is to keep doing. Pray. Meditate. There will he plenty of time later to fit angels on the head of a pin or to speak marvelously. Comparisons and contrasts will assert themselves. Fine. Keep doing. Never mind other states of being, worlds beyond worlds, consciousness divine, serene looks on other faces, words spoken in a mellifluous foreign tongue, the wisdom of paradoxes, healing lepers, walking on water, levitating . . . all those other things. Do this thing.

A calligraphy in my apartment says: “Drinking green tea, I stop the war.” Such a saying may not be pleasing to the socially or ethically attuned intellect, but then, ethically attuned intellects have never shown themselves to be especially effective in stopping wars. Perhaps a little unethical investigation would be useful.

So, texts are fine up to a point. But for the serious student, I think doing is more effective — careful, wholehearted doing. The wonderful thing about spiritual life is that, contrary to a suspicious inner voice I think everyone needs to harbor, it is not a crock of shit. Even though I say it’s wonderful, still, it really is wonderful and no one has to say so. It works all by itself, like flowers opening in spring — not by explanation, quotation, analysis, love, or anything else.

Here comes spring. Here come the flowers. BOING!


PAIN. According to our society, pain is one of the most unpopular of sensations. Whole industries are dedicated to fleeing from it. But, since there is no place in life that pain cannot reach, fleeing pain amounts to fleeing one aspect of life. (“One aspect.” Ha! How many lives does a person lead? How many “aspects” can there be?)

Flight from pain is screwy — common enough, perhaps, but screwy still. At some point it will be necessary for the honest student to investigate closely, to turn around and look, not with some fearful, cursory sniff like a dog near an uninteresting fire hydrant, but very, very closely.

The invitation to investigate pain closely is sometimes criticized as “masochism.” But masochism is the active seeking and enjoyment of pain whereas the serious student only investigates what is. Aversion and attraction may be possible, but what is has nothing to do with possibilities. Perhaps the true masochist is the one who flees from what is: running from things gives them more power than they actually have, and those who run make themselves slaves to what they claim to dislike. This is first-class masochism.

One popular pastime is to distinguish physical pain from mental pain. With practice, this distinction shows itself as false, but it probably doesn’t do much harm as long as the student maintains the courage, persistence and doubt necessary to a thorough investigation: where does this come from? Whose pain is it? Mine? Who is this “mine”? Etc.

The same close scrutiny will eventually be necessary for pleasure, but, since pain has a way of getting a lot of initial attention, it is best to start there. The desire to avoid pleasure is not exactly common.


BENEVOLENT SUICIDE. It is really quite amazing how many people seem to think spiritual life is out to take something away from them. Out with all the fun! On with the glum or superficially-serene face! Lousy food, no sex, a set of pursed lips . . . but it’s good for you. This is one attitude.

For the student beginning practice, this attitude may seem to come from the advisors of his ritual, the teachers or advanced students. What teachers or advanced students advise may become holy writ in the student’s head — an article of faith never to be changed or transgressed.

OK. But it is also important for the student to know that, except for those teachers and advisors who have their own difficulties, no one really wants to take anything away. While it is true that spiritual life doesn’t mean doing anything you want, it also doesn’t mean not-doing anything you want. Possibilities like anger, greed, sorrow, pride, and vanity that the student may seek, or think he ought to seek, to eradicate have a way of simply disappearing when a constant, strong practice is exercised. Instead of tossing things out the window, it is more likely, with time and practice, to see them simply jump.


PSYCHOLOGY AND PHILOSOPHY. Both psychology and philosophy offer profound insights. (It is sometimes true that people who immerse themselves in spiritual life are more in need of a good psychologist. A certain health is required.) But for all the profound insights, the excellent observations, even the truth as ascertained in one form of discipline or another . . . still, there is nothing that can reach or attain or match the tacit, silent, go-about-your-business understanding in which “understanding” plays no part.


VOID. Together with the lurking fear that spiritual practice may not be true, there is often a deeper lurking fear that it is true. Both fears are based on ego, the sense of the self as real. It is not a good idea to bad-mouth the ego: where would spiritual practice be without it?

Still, getting a clear understanding of the ego is important. Understanding has nothing to do with seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, thinking, or consciousness. It is with these elements that fear arises. From the point of view of spiritual life as nonsense, these elements resent being told they are not primary. From the point of view of spiritual life as sensible, these elements, again, resent being set aside, threatened with imagined annihilation. They fear their own death at the hands of something (something?) that precedes and postdates them, that informs them yet refuses to participate in their self-assertions. It is not entirely soothing to these elements to be told, “If the eye were not empty, how could the eye see? If the ear were not empty, how could the ear hear? etc.” Emptiness sounds very threatening, like death, a vacuum where nothing grows. But this is not emptiness. This is imagination.

Someone once said, “Just because the window is dirty doesn’t mean there isn’t something behind it.” Probably a Hindu. Certainly true. Practice is necessary. Cleaning the window is necessary. But the attitude will be important. Best would be just to clean the window, just do the practice. Goals are great hindrances in the end. If, with the goal in mind, I were to actually reach the goal, I would be thrown back as surely as a fisherman throws back the little ones. Ideas, hopes, and goals cannot enter. It takes courage to enter here. Courage, constancy, doubt. But it certainly isn’t somewhere else.

Another approach: there is often fear of the unknown. But how is it truly possible to fear the unknown? What we fear is always known. So what is it, exactly, that is known? Likewise there are goals. Students speak easily of “enlightenment,” “God,” “void,” “mind,” “no mind,” etc. Questioned closely, students will admit they don’t know what they’re talking about. But how is it possible to have a goal that is unknown? Of course, it is possible to pass such questions by with intellectual posturings or emotional outpourings, but really there needs to be some sure understanding, a quiet admission of what has never been unknown.


POWERS. There are so-called powers attending spiritual endeavors. Wanting them will bar the way just as wanting to keep them will bar the way. They are available, like the popcorn ad before the movie — connected, but not central.

A Hindu story tells of a man who one day set up his dyeing vat in the center of the village. The townspeople came to him one by one with bolts of undyed cloth. The first said he would like his cloth to be “blue.” Into the pot it went, and out it came, “blue.” The next villager was interested in “red.” Into the same pot that had produced “blue” went his cloth. It too came out as desired, “red.” And so it went through the colors of the spectrum. Each time the cloth went into the same pot. Each time it came out a different color.

At the end of the line of villagers came a man with a bolt of cloth that he handed to the dyer, saying, “I’d like my cloth the color of what is in the pot.”

Those seriously inclined towards spiritual life would be better off finding out what’s in the pot.


COMMANDMENTS, PRECEPTS, etc. It is true that a sincere student will have to change his attitude and activities slightly as practice enters his life. By “slightly,” I mean just that. Students who attempt to wrench themselves violently into some mold perceived as “better” or “more holy” will probably burn themselves out. Laziness (doing anything you want) and pride (doing anything you want) need some clarification.

Precepts like “don’t kill,” “don’t steal,” and “don’t lie” are important in spiritual practice. But paying too much attention to them will only manage to vitiate their true meaning. By making rock-hard principles, we only invite shattering. Such carved-in-stone monstrosities are frequently praised in the social setting because there is an assumption that if we didn’t have these cages, the raging beast in all of us would get loose. Social improvement may be a by-product of serious spiritual practice, and certainly a student will strive to avoid doing evil, but to make social distinctions and judgments will always stand in the way of an honest student.

It is best, as regards precepts, to practice. Pray; if prayer is the practice; meditate, if meditation is the practice. With time and effort, precepts once only spoken with the mouth, once only repeated at the behest of others, will begin to keep themselves. Thy keep themselves because they work, not because they are “good.” Not so complicated after all: things do themselves. No need to convince, cajole, impress or convert. Things do themselves. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that really enough?