A Spiritual Refugee Trains to Live as a Monk in the World: A Biography.

Time to be totally free, and estranged.

Time to give up our souls, to set fire to structures and run out in the street.

Time to ferment. How else can we leave the world vat and go to the lip?

We must die to become true human beings.

We must turn completely upside down like a comb in the top of a beautiful woman’s hair.”

Rumi, A Story They Know, A Bridge to the Soul, Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart, Barks, Arberry & Ergin

MY FIRST DECADE:  I grew up in a Lutheran household, attending church regularly.  My grandmother and I bonded over a heart-full love of the Christian God.  I was passionate about Jesus, and found great comfort and joy in knowing of his love for me.

TEENS: I came of age in a large extended Norwegian family.  My uncles and great uncles, my father, grandfather and great grandfather were all medical doctors.  They were all invested in the family business, a medical clinic begun by my great grandfather in the 1920’s, when medicine based in scientific thought competed with folk medicine and “quackery” for dominance.  Many of the women were powerhouses too.  My great grandmother raised 7 sons and a daughter, held Ibsen Club in Norwegian in her dining room, and kept the generations of her family steeped in Norwegian culture, language and holiday traditions. My mother was a member of the elected school board while I was in high school.  An aunt was an elected member of the county board.  My grandmother led a campaign to raise $5 million for the national League of Women Voters for its 50th anniversary in 1970, and sat on the Board of Wellesley College for many years.  There were between 2 and 7 of my cousins in every grade level of my schools growing up.  It was a rich, nourishing, inspiring holding environment for a young girl.  I was imprinted with notions of striving, social responsibility, conspicuous success.  I also yearned for anonymity.

Another important influence from my Scandinavian roots is love of the natural world.  Churches are small and poorly attended in Norway, as most Norwegians would rather be hiking or skiing.  Together with my family, I skied, skated, sailed, canoed, biked, hiked and swam.  My grandparents bought a small farm 20 miles outside of town where we all gathered to enjoy the seasons, play in the woods, sled down the hills, fish for trout in the pond, work in the gardens.  I learned the names of the trees, the birds, the wildflowers.

After years of sitting through dull Sunday morning worship services, I rebelled against the institutional church, sparked largely by deep questioning of the tenants of the faith which I studied in confirmation class.  I came to the conclusion that I did not believe in God, nor did I believe in the hell to which the church warned I would be eternally condemned for this rejection of their Maker.

My earlier spiritual passion found purchase in a new arena, befitting of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, that of fervent political belief.  It seemed to me that heaven, and hell, were here on earth, in the form of the suffering I saw all around me.  I became an activist against the war in Vietnam, for environmental causes.  I volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, organized a Walk for Mankind.

TWENTIES: In college I majored in political philosophy.  I saw life through a Marxist, feminist lens.  Religion was the opiate of the masses.  A critical analysis of capitalism, and organizing on behalf of those oppressed by its paradigm would eventually lead to revolution from the bottom-up.  I rejected the class system, and my own and my family’s upper-middle-class values and lifestyle.  I lived on the far edges of the culture I had until then been a part of, choosing jobs and living situations that reflected my counter-cultural, revolutionary outlook.

In quieter moments, I nurtured a very private fascination with monasticism.  There was something so compelling to me about people who chose to live outside of the cultural mainstream, much as I was, but from a very different motivation of finding God in the quiet and stillness.  I read the novels and saw the movies about monastic life, and in college, visited a monastery with a friend who was doing research for a class.  But, mostly I was devoted to a life of struggle against the suffering I saw everywhere I looked.  I met, fell in love with, and married my husband, who shared my lifestyle and my conviction that people would eventually rise up against the system I believed was the cause of all injustice.

THIRTIES: Having children, and the Reagan years, began to shift my energy away from my single-minded focus on building a revolution.  Giving birth to and nurturing two infants opened my eyes and my heart to the potent and very physical, instinctual world of mothering.  As my children grew, I felt a conflict between my devotion to the movement and my devotion to them.  But, in the end, I could not sustain my political fervor.  I was worn out by what I saw as the frustrating tendencies of humans to mess up any and every compelling social movement.  All the institutions I worked for were plagued with political divisions, financial woes, waning memberships.

The light of my awareness was turning around to shine within.  I completed two courses of individual psychotherapy as I grappled with being a wife, mother, daughter and friend without political work to define me. Therapy helped me to feel my emotions, to relax more, to confront the pain of my parent’s divorce.

We bought a home, got a puppy.  I left my last movement job and went to massage school, and though it felt like I was cutting off my right arm, I was deeply relieved to find work that demanded I slow down, breathe, and take care of myself, a few clients and my family, rather than the whole world.  Being drawn to an alternative healing modality also fueled my continuing rebellion against my family as the embodiment of the medical model.  I alternated between feeling self-righteous and sinfully disloyal to my tribe of origin and the world of power and prestige that being doctors conferred upon them.

I read Marsha Sinetar’s ORDINARY PEOPLE AS MONKS AND MYSTICS, and some deep bell rang with a resonance that continues to this day.  Sinetar interviewed dozens of people who had chosen lives of quiet, individual prayer, ritual and worship outside the church, outside any established order.  These were people who had found their own way by searching deeply inside themselves.  Their truth was self-actualized.  I still have this book, and have returned to find inspiration in it many times over the ensuing years.

FORTIES: Providing massage therapy to survivors of torture and war helped me to reconcile my continued commitment to political activism with my job as a provider of individual care and comfort.  I grappled with how to reconcile the immensity of the evil of political torture, the effects of which stared back at me through the haunted eyes of my survivor clients.  I went into the work determined that torture must end.  I left the work, 12 years later, knowing that the darkness and suffering I had witnessed were both out of my control and beyond my ability to comprehend.  My friends in the bodywork community who were Buddhists were particularly helpful in my coming to terms with these issues.  As they pointed out to me, who am I to judge?  How can I know where such horrific experiences come from, or will lead?  I can offer care from moment to moment.  That is all.  This stance brought me through a period of great anger and anguish, to a place of relative peace and acceptance, despite the pain of this work.

My best friend during this time was Jewish, and part of an alternative minion, a group of young families who met on Saturdays to worship together in a way that both honored the Jewish spiritual traditions and rejected many of the institutional forms that Judaism had taken.  I felt a yearning to have what I saw there.  A spiritual home.  But seeing nothing around me, I created some spiritual content on my own.  My work with my clients increasingly took on various forms of ritual.  I created rituals for my children’s 13th birthdays.  We also had family rituals for the Day of the Dead and the winter solstice.  The truth of life outside of the rational, linguistic, western ways of knowing became more important to me.  I also struggled with anxiety, heart palpitations, fear of death, workaholism and a consuming drive to excel, which created concentric circles of suffering in my kids, my partner, friends and family.

My professional identity evolved toward a focus on the integration of body and mind with trauma survivors.  I completed numerous trainings in therapies that used mindfulness as a vehicle for clients to study their own lived experience in real time.  I was very moved by the experience of learning to be fully present with a client.  The language and the mindset of mindful presence was both profound and intimidating in its intimacy and immediacy.

I began to meditate in order to strengthen this new set of professional skills.  The integration of body and mind increasingly became a personal practice as well.  Beginning to meditate was painful physically and psychically, way outside my comfort zone of high octane performance.  But I kept going.  So many books on Buddhist thought helped inspire me to try to sit still, to have faith that pure presence was the key to Nirvana, the end of suffering.

FIFTIES: One of my teachers in mindfulness-based therapeutic methods became ill with cancer and died soon after.  He was my age, 51.  Both before and during his dying process, Dan was committed to the practice of Buddhism.  I had many conversations with him during which my unexamined assumptions about life, death and suffering were completely blown away.  He was learning so much, he was willing to share his journey, his insights, and I was ready to hear them.  He was walking through the dying process while his heart opened up.  He was not consumed with fear, but determined to utilize this time to find deeper truth, deeper safety, deeper love.  He encouraged me to get serious about my spiritual practice.  His experience of awakening through the dying process was just the encouragement I needed.

I had also become ambivalent about psychotherapy as a means of addressing my own unhappiness. After a horrible break up with a business partner, I felt at sea.  Psychotherapy was unable to reach the pain I felt.  This, despite the fact that I was now practicing psychotherapy with my clients, as well as beginning a master’s program in counseling.  I began to look for a spiritual teacher.  The yearning for a spiritual home went deep.  But nothing I tried, no group I sat with, no teacher whose dharma talks I heard could touch that yearning.

It is so uncanny that during our first meeting in the zendo at A Single Thread, I was given the choice of seeing the resident priest as a psychotherapist or as a spiritual teacher.  Both were not an option.  I did not hesitate.  This woman sitting across from me, with her shaved head, the altar behind her, her deeply grounded energy was my spiritual teacher.  Is my teacher.  I had come home.  I was 53.

My early experiences of sitting at A Single Thread were simultaneously excruciating and very, very comforting.  I had found not only a teacher but also a community, and a centuries-old wisdom tradition.  I felt deeply held.  I also hated the painful, long periods of sitting, and was intimidated by all the form I stumbled through for weeks until it began to make sense to my body. I particularly remember my early experience with chanting.  The chants were long, and the form was to chant quickly, without pause.  My intellect was quickly overwhelmed, I could not comprehend the meaning of what I was chanting except in small bites, randomly, over many Sundays of repetition.  It was like no other experience I had had before.  I felt the meaning of the chants wash over me, without comprehension.  I let them happen to me, my intellect having been defeated.  Slowly, over months and years, the meanings of these ancient teachings have been revealed…or continue to lie waiting for the right moment when I am ready to receive their wisdom.

I became a regular participant in the activities of the sangha.  The teachings were like water for my thirsty soul.  I drank and drank.   I also fought constantly with the practice and the teachings.  My pride and fear and anger, my drive and my resistance to letting go of my ego were ever-present, especially when I sat on the cushion.  It has taken me many years to settle down those persistent, aroused energies.  Suzuki Roshi said, “Eventually, clear mind will come.”  He was right.  It did.  It comes and goes.  Nothing stays the same.

At home, my husband wanted to hear in detail about what was taught each Sunday.   It would always spark a deep conversation between us.  I so wished he would come with me to sit, his own pain was tearing him up.  But he stayed separate for a long time.  When he did begin to come to sangha, I was overjoyed, both for him and for me.  With the help of the practice, and our teacher, I have watched as my husband’s hurt and anger have transformed.  And, I cannot imagine a luckier person than I, having both a spiritual teacher and a partner who is now fully committed to this path.  The intimacy we have worked so hard to achieve in our marriage has found its pinnacle in this spiritual intimacy, where both our closeness and our boundaries with each other are serving us to learn, grow, struggle, be supported and have our own autonomous experiences.  I am so very grateful for what we have separately and together been given.  In the beginning of “37 Practices of a Bodhisattva” (http://unfetteredmind.org/37-practices-of-a-bodhisattva/, accessed 11/18/2017) it is written, “Right now, you have a good boat, fully equipped and available — hard to find. To free others and you from the sea of samsara, day and night, fully alert and present, study, reflect, and meditate — this is the practice of a bodhisattva.”  YES, I have a very good boat.

During one period in the life of the sangha, sangha members were invited to give the Sunday dharma talk.  One Sunday it became my task to give the talk, for which I prepared a detailed outline of my remarks.  When I finished, my teacher gave me a further assignment: to come back the next week and speak without any preparation.  I was completely terrified.  I had often taught in other contexts, but never without hours of preparation and copious notes.  That dharma talk, where I had almost nothing to say, and had to sit while my fellow sangha members waited patiently in the silence, was a profound teaching for me.  I learned how much I work to take care of everyone’s experience, to make sure others are entertained and impressed at the expense of the truth as it comes through me in the moment.  For how authentic can one be when all the preparation took place in the past?  I learned the absolute power of what can happen when an audience and a teacher and a subject come together uniquely in the moment, and an experience is created out of that moment.  Since then, I have found this way of teaching to be a compelling alternative.  To show up NOW, to teach what one knows NOW, to invite the wisdom of this moment to come through one NOW, not from one’s storehouse of dusty ideas.

That is one example of how the delusion of striving for excellence has stunted my spirit and shaped my ego.  Here is another:  For 4 years now, I have been working to create my personal artistic expression of the Wheel of Suffering, an ancient Buddhist mandala, packed with teachings if one is willing to put in the work so that the ancient images come to life in the present.  Working with each individual image, I have learned first-hand about the spiritual unfolding of something from nothing that we call the creative process.  I have learned to wait, with faith, knowing that an idea or an image, truth, will emerge.  Tolerating the void and staying in awareness allows the channels of my being open to an idea arising out of emptiness, into consciousness.  Through applying this process to the Wheel mandala, I have learned so much about my own habits of mind.  Now, the images I have created are like mile markers, reminding me when I am suffering of how I create this conditioned pain, how I choose to go down those old paths once again.

As I deepened into my Wheel project, I noticed that each time I worked with the images, I would leave feeling giddy with excitement about what I had created, and thrilled to present the project to my sangha.  I raced to complete enough of the images that it could be ready for a “showing.”  My teacher caught on.  She forbade me to present my Wheel project.  I was furious and hurt.  All my drive toward having my excellence finally seen…dashed on the rocks of continued obscurity.  It was a painful period, but eventually, I saw clearly the wisdom in her instruction.  I admitted defeat.  It became a time of concentrated investigation into my addiction to fame and glory, and continued through the process of eventually presenting my Wheel to the sangha.  My teacher was with me every step of the way, guiding me through my own addictive process, protecting me from too much, assisting me to investigate the deep, deep fear and hate and greed that drives the striving.

Another arena of spiritual struggle and learning for me has been my tendency to approach challenges from a psychological perspective.  I continued to work professionally with survivors of trauma, offering them the skills of recognizing, accepting, investigating and disidentifying from their own habits, conditioned as they were by overwhelming and traumatic life experiences.  It has taken me a long time to see in myself, and I can still be blindsided by, my habit of investigating some painful emotional knot inside me using a psychological paradigm, which originates from the agenda of making the egoic self happy and functional in the material world.  This is not a bad thing; however, it is not spiritual work.  I had to unlearn (I am still unlearning) my tendency to fix, to clean up my “act.”  I am still learning how NOT to make my spiritual work into a self-improvement project.

In Zen as it has been taught to me, little direct instruction is given by the teacher to the student.  Each of us is called to find her/his own way to practice.  The teacher can point out when one is off the mark.  The rest is up to the student.  What is more, the spiritual teacher-student relationship is not based in a need for the student to feel loved by the teacher, as is usually the case in psychotherapy.  There is not a dependence on either one of the partners to the relationship being kind or gentle or protective.  Just the truth matters.  This truth, and the devotion of both parties to the truth, does create a relationship of deep devotion for each person to the other, teacher and student.  But the devotion is not based in needing the other person to like you or pay you.

As a student of Zen, I was experiencing all of these differences between my professional world and my spiritual world.  I found it very difficult to see the differences, to accept them, and to let go of my identification as a psychotherapist.   And, at the same time, I found I had less interest in the work of psychotherapy every year.  I began to work fewer hours and see fewer clients.  I stopped taking notes on each client session, something I had enthusiastically and faithfully done always.  My favorite clients were the ones who identified as spiritual seekers, to whom I could offer counsel that was a hybrid of psychotherapy and spiritual guidance.  I yearned to have more time for spiritual practice, to remove the psychological threads from the spiritual fabric I wove.

My teacher announced to the sangha that she had been given permission from the Chan hierarchy to create a contemplative order, and was authorized to ordain monks in this new order.  My heart leapt.  THIS is what I wanted for my life.  This is what was important.  My Wheel card depiction of the Human Realm kept coming back to me—the girl with the seeking eyes, the girl who KNOWS, buried under layers and layers of the stuff that distracts me and diverts my best energies away from that which truly matters.

My partner was approaching age 65, and was moving toward retirement.  We knew there was a way we could financially swing it so that I could retire also.  My ego fought this possibility with great determination.  The fear of being a nobody in the eyes of my family, my colleagues, the fear of leaving my clients to pursue a spiritual life was so intense.   I struggled and contemplated and struggled more and spoke often with my teacher.  I wrestled with it.  And, eventually I saw very clearly that what I truly wanted, underneath all the identification with being a therapist was to be done with it, to move with trust and faith toward a greater commitment to a spiritual practice path.  I wanted to be an ordinary person who was also a monk.  The clarity I felt was fleeting but stark.  It was followed by long periods of anxiety and doubt, but the clarity remained as a vivid memory to guide me through the long painful process of shutting down my practice.

SIXTIES: On the weekend of my sixtieth birthday, we downsized into a studio apartment.  I had closed my therapy practice two months prior.  We were free.

That next winter, holed up in the warm studio apartment we call “the cave,” I knit a sweater and made a red felt Yama for my Wheel mandala in between bouts of acute neck pain and headaches.  There were weeks when I spent most days on the couch, unable to move much.  Finally, it occurred to me that this pain could be part of my spiritual work.  I made flash cards from an excellent article my teacher gave me on how meditators can work with illness.  I proceeded to practice with building an internal holding environment that could remain grounded and present to all the fear and hurt.  The more I could do this, the more the painful, constricted energy began to move.  When I could meet the pain from a stance that was calm and accepting, that constricted energy could let go.  I felt many emotions come pouring out of my body, old held emotions that I did not know were in me.  Over several months, I let go of many old holdings.  And, I learned at a deeper level what it means to be empty.  No wanting, no knowing, no meaning, no labels.  No matter how painful.  It was the power of something greater than myself, living within me.

For two years after I retired, I grappled with fear and doubt about the decision.  I meditated more, I participated more in the life of the sangha, my spiritual life deepened but I could not shake a persistent feeling of anxious dread at being without the professional identity with which my personal sense of power and prestige was linked.  It took a long time to calm this down.  And in the meantime, despite my initial enthusiasm for being a monk, I hesitated to take it on.  It was enough to have ended my professional life.  I needed time to lick the wounds and regroup.

During this time, the Single Thread sangha died a slow, gentle, natural death.  I felt great sorrow, and for a while, resisted the death with my own frantic attempts to keep things going.  But, the maxim is true: Loss is a much better spiritual teacher than gain.  I am very grateful for all I learned as the sangha went away.  It lives on in my heart, as great love for a series of fleeting experiences that, at the time, seemed like something solid and dependable. For a moment in time, this wonderful space for practice flourished in the material world.  “All that I serve will die, all my delights” (Wendell Berry, “The Wish to be Generous” http://www.rjgeib.com/biography/places/mgeib/generous.html, accessed 11/18/2017).  I also learned that when I take refuge in Sangha, it is not a physical space in which I take refuge.  It CAN’T be, the physical realm is transient.  The sangha in which I take refuge lives with Buddha and dharma in the realm of the truths we hold as true for all time: that beings can, and are, awakening.  We take refuge in Sangha as an expression of that awakening potential of all beings.

We had purchased a tiny home on wheels in Wisconsin soon after our retirement.  Towed it to a ridge-top meadow on the farm owned by dear friends who had been our neighbors in Chicago.  Their farm is a 15-minute drive from my grandfather’s farm, where I had played as a child, and learned to love the natural world.  After 30 years of living in the city, now we had 6 bird feeders outside our windows, views of the sunrise and the sunset every day, meadow grasses, wildflowers and oak trees both ancient and sapling-stage to watch as they made their rounds of the life cycle through the seasons.  Not having a physical sangha to tend to and attend, we began to spend weeks, months at a time at the tiny house with the natural world around us as our teacher and friend.

At Easter last spring, I found myself alone in my house for 5 days, and proceeded to organize the time into a solitary spiritual retreat.  For the preceding year I had been pursuing an understanding of Buddhist concepts of death, karma and rebirth.  My teacher had been increasingly focused on the idea of eternity, of the Absolute, of God as motivating her own spiritual work.  It was news to me that God could be part of a Buddhist spiritual paradigm, but over time I had opened to the possibility that an Absolute presence was part of the Buddhist bargain.  Yet, since my ‘break-up” with God at age 13, I had held to the belief that there was no heaven, no hell, no afterlife.  I was investigating where the truth lay between these discordant assertions.

I first learned that the Buddha described the truth beyond impermanence as “unborn, undying and uncreated” from Kennett Roshi.  I saw that a series of her talks, entitled “The Delusion of Illness and Death,” were available online, so I decided to make this part of my Easter retreat.  The first of these talks hit me right between the eyes.  In it, Kennett Roshi states with great clarity and confidence, “YOU WILL CONTINUE.” (“The Delusion of Illness and Death,” Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett, Talk 1, Part 1, https://shastaabbey.org/houn-jiyu-kennett/, accessed 11/18/2017). She describes her own near-death experience, and also the works of others who have studied near-death experiences.  Over the next two days, I came to the full realization that We Sit in Eternity.  Eternity, of which we are all part, is merciful, grace-filled.  I felt fully the truth of this, I KNEW it to be true.  So much fear fell away.  I felt waves of relief and joy, waves of letting go as I surrendered to being cared for…eternally.  It was a safety I had never known could exist.

A 4-day Vipassana retreat in Madison, one month later, featured Ayya Mehanandi as guest teacher.  She is……radiant, funny, incredibly strong, vulnerable, human, and a great teacher of the dharma.  Being in her presence, I knew I was ready to turn toward the work of becoming a monk.


Author: Getsu San Ku Shin, A monk in training.
Image credit: yao xiang shakya

If for some reason you need elucidation on the teaching, please contact the editor at: yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com



I felt an overwhelming sense of power – like God must feel when he’s carrying a gun.”

— H. J. Simpson’s apology upon being expelled from
the National Rifle Association for misusing a firearm.

God packing heat. A novel concept? No, not really.

Simpson, with genius often mimicked but never matched, has called attention to a problem that confronts the spiritual whenever the spiritual confronts the merely religious: God made in the image of limited man.

May we disparage Mr. Simpson’s apology, scoff at his pedestrian view of majesty, deride his ignorance of the attribute omnipotent? No. Infinity gives us all a little trouble. Whenever it’s necessary to anticipate the divine intent and the means by which that intent may be effected, we all shrink the boundaries of omni and enfeeble the implications of potent. We cut God down to size. What is Thor without his hammer? Wotan without his spear? Manju sin sword? And even Great Shiva… does he not carry a trident? So God, like a cosmic Wyatt Earp, walks about with a Buntline Special on his hip.

But God would have used a churchkey to open his can of Duff and a remote to turn on his TV. That’s where H.J. Simpson made his big mistake.

Not only do we impose human constraints upon divine power, we often usurp the rights to that power altogether, making God’s supernatural abilities somewhat superfluous. God’s power always seems to come with irritating conditions – those precepts or commandments or yamas and niyamas. Why subject ourselves to all those messy rules when we can direct destiny with just a little magical dabbling?

We also tend, while we’re at it, to restructure other divine prerogatives and abilities as well. Though every religion insists that God is omniscient and omnipresent, each restricts him to knowing only what its scriptures allow him to know, or forbids him to stray from its borders except, of course, to punish alien non-believers. And depending upon the fashion of the times, God’s Constitutional judgments are either rigidly confined to strict constructionist interpretations or else they are so liberal as to permit absolutely any conduct. To stay in power, a god has to stay en vogue.

It is only when each religion’s mystics – those who appreciate divinity at an advanced, visionary level – alone or in concert with the mystics of other religions consider divine attributes that we find a less parochial view of things Almighty.

Two “realms of experience” are open to us: the material, samsaric, public world of society; and the spiritual, nirvanic, private world of the individual. Religion’s purpose is to keep peace in the communal world, to mete out reward and punishment for actions that are beneficial or detrimental to the samsaric common weal. But each religion presents a mystical ladder, a series of steps by which we may individually access the spiritual world and enjoy direct contact with divinity. In this nirvanic, solitary state good and evil do not exist. And old news is no news. The two realms have nothing much to do with each other.

It should come as no surprise, then, that advanced Zen is no different from any other belief system that provides a regimen for such advanced forms of worship. Whether Daoist, Christian, Islamic, Judaic, Native American, Buddhist or any other established form of religion, “advanced’ means “mystical” and mystical is most readily discussed under the generic term Alchemy. Few subjects are as misunderstood.

Originally, Alchemy came in two branches. One probed the nature of matter in the causes either of pure scientific knowledge or, more often, of profitably transmuting base metals into precious ones. This experimental branch became chemistry and we shall exclude it from this discussion.

The other branch concerned itself with spiritual states. The alchemist strove always to attain that gold which nowhere appears on Mendeleev’s chart. (“Our Gold is not the common gold.”) These aspirants considered the mysteries of matter as directives for attaining spiritual transcendence. They sought psychological liberation, a methodology of self-discovery and emotional independence from societal demands, a process which Carl Jung called “Individuation.” In this form matter had allegorical significance, the alchemist operating under the assumption that as things were in the starry macrocosm so they were in the human microcosm. Gods were planets, metals and, most importantly, rulers of the various instincts to which the human psyche made obeisance. The planets may have been out of reach, but their earthly, chemical representatives were quite handy; and, things equaling the same thing being equal to each other, the alchemists assumed that by altering one, the other was affected. Let’s circle this subject a bit.

While the results that the alchemists sought were achieved around the globe by various civilizations using various methods, the particular form popularly called ‘the Alchemical Opus’ originated by blending two ancient cultural approaches to the divine: the Greek and the Egyptian. The earliest document known to us on the subject is Egypt’s Book of Thoth or its later Graeco version, the Hermetica of Hermes Trismegistus.

Because we are indebted to Greek and Roman culture and mythology – and for no other reason – we employ the gods of their pantheons as the psyche’s governing principals. Athena/Minerva is the goddess of wisdom; Hestia/Vesta and Haphaestos/Vulcan of spiritual transformation; Ares/Mars of belligerence; Aphrodite/Venus of male sexual desire; Artemis/Diana of stalking; and so on.

Universally, metals and fire had always possessed sacred characteristics. Smiths, after all, were the world’s first priests. But in Egypt the spiritual content of another substance had been exponentially amplified. The Egyptian belief in the afterlife did not involve heaven and hell or reincarnation as it is now understood; instead, the dead, providing that their physical remains were properly infused with this divine substance, could experience their own apotheosis and become one with the Atum, divinity, itself, and would, in the extended process, come to be, to know, to interact with the heavenly personae, Isis and Osiris, Horus, Re and Nut, et al, in the “other” world. This embalming substance was a sodium salt called Natrium – from n.t.r, their word for “god”; and the corpse was stuffed with it. The divine spirit which resided in this blackening chemical substance transferred itself to the desiccated flesh, preserved now for all eternity.

It is foolish to contend, as many commentators do, that the Greeks failed to apply scientific methodology to their assumptions about matter and declined to subject their theories to experimental verification. We know that Plato, for example, considered the universe to consist of such elemental substances as earth, water, fire and air; but this is largely a mystical explanation and for mystical purposes it is still sufficient – as a look at Kundalini Yoga’s Chakra divisions and the Daoist regimen will indicate. But buildings like the Parthenon or ships like the massive, complex trireme were never constructed without clear insight into matter and force. The Greeks had armor, jewelry, navigational instruments and nails; and none of these objects was ever created without considerable trial and error.

The Egyptians, too, are said to have been so interested in the affairs of the dead that they neglected completely the affairs of the living. Proof of this is supposed to be demonstrated by the archeological dearth of ordinary dwellings. The pyramids may have been constructed without mortar, but a small house, if made of archeologically fortuitous stone, would have required it. Egypt not being a heavily forested country and mortar usually requiring the ashes of wood, it should surprise no one that the common man built his home of adobe, a not exactly permanent building material in the Nile’s narrow flood plane. The wealth of prosaic objects – for hunting, farming, animal husbandry, and textiles indicate scientific disciplines which can only have had their beginnings in cottage industry; and we have no cause to suppose that those cottages were in any way the settings for unhappy, earthly domestic life.

It is also worthy of note that when a Greek died he more or less automatically found himself in the Elysian Fields, a dull place where he became a “shade” among other shadowy figures; but an Egyptian, as part of the post-mortem fuss, had his spirit ruthlessly cross-examined by the gods. Even saturated with Natrium, he still had to claim exemplary behavior as a living person in order to be acceptable as a dead one.

The idea, then, that chemical change could affect spiritual development came about a few thousand years ago. For as long as the nature of matter was mysterious and quite beyond human comprehension, it was endlessly fascinating and, being so, agreeably yielded to being impregnated with seminal notions of divinity.

Thus, Greek and Egyptian techno-theology served mostly to unite the characters of the gods and planets with the use of otherwise ordinary substances and to reinforce the idea that what circulated through the heavenly Macrocosmic orbits, circulated through the human Microcosmic orbits; and further – and this is the critical element – the salts which circulated through the body did not have to be the embalmer’s Natrium – a lifeless fluid for the dead, but were salts contained in living seminal fluid. The alchemist had found a way to take control of his own destiny.

He knew which other materials – those sacred metals – he could work with. The Sun was gold ; Mercury, mercury; Venus, copper; the Moon was silver; Mars, iron; Jupiter was tin; and Saturn, lead. As it was in the one, so it was in the other. Let a man be lustful and he was likely, then as now, to be affected by things venereal; let him be swiftly changing and he was mercurial; let him be belligerent and he was clearly under the influence of Mars. (And was it so long ago that certain soldiers strove to distinguish themselves in battle so that they might be awarded an Iron Cross?) The moon would make him lunatic; the Tin Man was ever the jovial friend; and the slothful or phlegmatic person was obviously saturnine. It was nice to have a sunny disposition but better yet to be intelligent for, as Apollo would surely agree, such a one was truly bright. As to the precious seminal fluid, he representationally used antimony or a salt, ammonium chloride, both of which he recorded using an asterisk (star regulus).

Now, instead of passively consulting soothsayers or goat entrails to obtain dubious predictions, divine substances could be manipulated, applied, and transformed to guide and to fulfill the alchemist’s will, and all this would be done with a meditation regimen involving interior body control and psychological accommodation. The complete discipline assured his right to experience the ecstasy of divine intercourse. He now had, in a manner of speaking, a ladder by which he could independently climb up to celestial heights.

Experiments with lead, silver or mercury helped an alchemist to overcome or to enhance those characteristics which he sought to alter, providing, of course, that they didn’t kill him in the process. (Alchemists often ingested the metals or inhaled noxious fumes.) Acids and bases, acting upon the metals, produced an enormous variety of results, each of which allowed the alchemist to regard a change with the requisite fascination, permitting an easy slide from concentration into meditation. Allegorically he “internalized” the chemical reactions and became sufficiently introverted to draw the macrocosm into the solitary world of his laboratory. As if he were staring into a hypnodisk, he became entranced by chemical alteration; but regardless of whether the state he achieved was hypnotic or meditative, no other human being controlled it. He and only he was privy to the drama enacted within his own collective unconscious.

As one thing complemented or inspired another, the meditative visions organized themselves, permitting classification and consensus, the necessary objectification for study. Attributes could be assigned to various material elements or compounds and the resultant lore – plus, of course, the means of handling the often volatile substances – could be discussed in scholarly treatises.

Still we wonder how matter and spirit were so easily fused.

Divine power, being beyond human imagination, did not always conform itself to earthly expectations. The Other world was so filled with unpredictable events and mysteries that other laws must surely govern it; and the human mind quickly enacted the needed legislation. Laws of Magic regulated the conduct of the known with the unknown and provided for a point of transit between the two worlds.

This “other” nirvanic world, may have been home to mystical adepts and, naturally, the dead; but the non-initiated living had to accept its existence on faith. The Unknown is always seductive and intriguing; and when people have, by definition, no knowledge of it, they have no choice but to suspend credulity and accept the descriptions and verdicts of soothsayers. A fortune teller could stare into the sheen of an animal’s liver or a crystal ball and see the future. He could turn a card and determine a child’s paternity.

In order to appreciate Alchemy we first need to consider Sympathetic Magic.

Sympathetic magic is based upon two laws: the Law of Similarity which says that like produces like, and the Law of Contagion which says that things which have once been in contact continue to act upon each other at a distance – long after physical contact between them has been severed. Frequently these two laws are simultaneously applied.

We can best appreciate sympathetic magic in the Voodoo Doll. According to the Law of Similarity, an image of a person is constructed and then, let’s say, a pin or knife is stuck into the effigy’s leg, and the person in whose image the effigy was created suffers a corresponding injury to his leg. Heat applied to the effigy will cause the model to become feverish. In the right hands, the fellow can become the ‘teaching case’ for a medical college’s entire course of study.

Similarity can be combined with Contagion to create an even higher degree of efficacy by taking something that was part of the victim – hair or fingernails or even cloth that contains his sweat, and mixing it into the effigy and then inflicting the desired damage. This, to the great relief of look-alikes, leaves no doubt about the identity of the intended victim.

These laws operate in a more subtle fashion when we consider the miracle-producing abilities of relics and such material objects as “pieces of the True Cross”- splinters of wood which have had direct contact with the body of Christ. Likewise, the teeth of the Buddha, retrieved from his crematory ashes, have been enshrined in grand stupas which have themselves become the sites of huge temples. The power of such relics cannot be underestimated. Such an enormous demand for them exists that ten sequoias could not account for all the pieces of the True Cross in existence today just as schools of barracuda could be dentured with all the Buddha’s teeth preserved around the world.

The mummy of the Sixth Patriarch is venerated and miracles are said to have been occasioned through the intercession of his bones which, themselves, are said to behave in miraculous ways. During the 1960’s Cultural Revolution, one of the Red Guards struck the seated mummy with a rifle butt, scattering the bones onto the floor. (I have had college graduates tell me that they knew for a fact that the bones bled real blood at the impact and that the particular Red Guard who struck the mummy died an immediate and inexplicable death, shame somehow having inspired his demise.)

Miraculous medals, icons, statuary, and various artworks are created to assist in the invocation of the divine presence; but whenever it is actually possible to touch the object – as a statue that may be rubbed or kissed or as a pendant miraculous medal which hangs against the skin, the effect is accordingly magnified.

The Shroud of Turin is believed to contain the imprinting blood and perspiration of Christ. It is not just an old piece of linen. Though people are no longer permitted to touch the Shroud, still pilgrimages are made to establish direct eye-contact with it. It is important to note that despite carbon-dating which insists that the shroud is of medieval fabrication; it is still venerated. A fervent believer will readily accept the explanation that the wrong part of the Shroud was tested, or that extraneous substances skewed the test results, or even that God has deliberately permitted a negative result in order to test the faith of the believer. And who can argue with this?

We find here the great strength – or weakness – of faith. Once one miraculous occurrence is accepted, the possibility for all miraculous occurrences is established and, because by definition the miraculous is beyond human understanding, people cannot differentiate between the claims. Force equals mass times acceleration only in the material world. Mass, by definition, does not apply to spiritual things and is therefore zero. And if we admit that the laws of physics can be cast aside or rendered meaningless as they in fact are in the “other” non-material world, we can attribute to divine fiat any force. A blanket exemption from rational consideration is given. Since no population suffers a lack of charlatans, persons in authority must determine the validity of otherworldly occurrences and claims – in accordance with the terms of their own religion. To the uninitiated, there is no way to distinguish between unknowns: the blanket of possibility smothers all consideration.

In this same way, for example, hedonism ceases to be useful as an explanation of human conduct because it gives the blanket motivation of pleasure to all actions. The masochist submits to punishment because he enjoys receiving it – just as the sadist enjoys inflicting it. The mother suffers to protect her children because she enjoys the exercise of maternal responsibility – just as the mother who abandons her children does so because she enjoys the freedom from such responsibility. The miscreant errs because he enjoys the pleasure of sin, the saint is benevolent because he enjoys the pleasure of righteousness. There is no willful behavior that defies hedonism’s explanation. In explaining everything, it explains nothing.

We find an astonishing example of accommodating the prerogatives of the “other” world in the remarkable Papal selection process of the College of Cardinals. After the white smoke ascends the chimney, there is great jubilation; and all the pre-selection wrangling – the machievellian intrigues, deceits, manipulations, inducements, and factional disputes are immediately forgiven, all having been regarded as not only essential to the process, but divinely ordained to assure the very result that was obtained. To an outsider, such infighting would seem designed to thwart consensus – but not to those involved in the process.

Because like produces like, we repeat a sequence of events that seems to us to be links in a concatenation of dependent events. A tennis player faces a difficult opponent in a tennis match. He happens to be wearing a green cap. He wins the match and associates the victory with the cap. He plays another match and, naturally, he wears his lucky green cap, the tennis-playing power of which is confirmed if he again wins. Not until he eventually loses is the cap divested of its manna.

A professional hockey team defeats a difficult opponent after a recording of Kate Smith singing God Bless America has been played. Thereafter the team insists that this recording be played before every game. They attribute their victory streak to this specific mantra, an incantation phonographically reproduced.

Each of us trusts that if we repeat a certain sequence of actions in a precise way we will insure the prescribed result. This is the Law of Similarity: like produces like. This is the force of ritual. And when it is combined with Contagion – human contact with the divine which if had only once is sufficient to repeat or maintain itself endlessly, we have created a sacred ritual to which we give full force and credit.

When priests who have been ordained in great world religions cannot support each other’s views of the unknown or of the great God who presides over the unknown, we can hardly look with disdain upon the proponents of pseudo science and witchcraft and cultish creeds. In every city we find psychic hotlines; fortune tellers; astrologers; Tarot readers; palmists; spirit channelers; and spiritual guides of every professional cast. When wrong, as they usually are, they are safe from retribution. (Not until the advent of the 900 number have civilized people considered restoring the practice of burning them at the stake.)

Even a form of the ancient belief in geomancy is revived by Feng Shui ‘priests’. Obvious failures in interior decoration are given sinister characteristics, just as obvious corrections are attributed to spiritual prowess usually reserved for those who are proficient with dowsing rods. Feng Shui consultants will counsel an executive not to sit with his back to the door, a positional stratagem for which they cannot take credit – the Mafia having discovered it long ago.

Before tossing the dice, a gambler faithfully repeats a mantra, perhaps, “Come to papa!” He blows upon the dice because of the law of Contagion. His breath has a divine component: breath is life and he seeks to transfer the divine element, the prana or chi or manna from his lungs to the dice.

Again, because like produces like, and because in Chinese the word for death is also the word for the number 4, some hotels in Las Vegas, for example, in consideration of their Asiatic clientele, eliminate both the 4th and the 40th floor. Non-Asiatic often fear the number 13 to an even greater degree.

We are all conscious of spiritually charged substances: the font of holy water is not a bowl of ordinary H20 just as the water from the Ganges has purifying effects far beyond its ordinary laving ability. Sin is washed away. Maytags and Mississippis cannot do that.

Thus, not only ancient people, but all people are susceptible to the wiles of charms, to the laws of Sympathetic Magic. And, especially since it concerns alchemy, astrology, too, obeys these laws.

Because the earth rotates on a 23.5 degree axis as it revolves around the sun, certain star clusters are seen annually to rise above the horizon, drift along a zodiacal stream and then descend into the underworld. Their rising might bring annual flood or drought or might deliver the year’s most clement weather. At the rising of one constellation we might find that flocks of sheep or cattle reproduce, or birds migrate, or trees flower or fruit. Not only flora and fauna but human affairs, too, seemed signaled by the appearance of these constellations. The Law of Similarity kicks in, abetted by imaginative literature. Personalities and other psychological characteristics can be assigned the bearers of such signals. And seven special spheres – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, the Sun and Moon which keep even more impressive schedules, are the abodes of the gods, themselves. For as long as the dwelling and that which dwells within it are effectively conjoined, the Law of Contagion will take effect: These planets, having been in direct contact with their eponymous divinities, have certain characteristics and wills of their own that may be studied in order that those divine actions which effect mortal man might be predicted. Forewarned is forearmed. And when these planets transited the various zodiacal constellations, what could the observer not learn from the encounters? They, too, influence, man’s psyche and portend disaster or success for his worldly efforts.

There is no way to correlate the numerous systems of nomenclature used by the various alchemists. Their terminologies varied enormously not only because of time and place and custom, but because of the central mystery of the mystical path: spiritual androgyny called Divine Marriage, The Union Of Opposites, or The Rebis Experience; and the regimen that was frequently employed in an attempt to reach that state: the imagined circulation of retained seminal fluid called “Clearing the Channels” or “The Microcosmic Orbit”.

Few people then and probably fewer now understand the transsexual nature of this Union of Opposites. Always there was a suspicion that the celibate mystic was homosexual or bisexual and that his peculiar preference to withdraw from society indicated some subversive activity. Frequently, he was suspected of corrupting anyone who got close to him. St. John of the Cross became a Bride of Christ (i.e., attained androgyny) and wrote marvelous poetry in the guise of a woman. He was incarcerated in a monastery and brought before the altar every day so that each of his fellow monks could flog him. Officially he was charged with refusing to wear shoes. (He wrote most of his exquisite poetry while in his cell.) Shams of Tabriz, the spiritual beloved of Rumi was murdered by Rumi’s son because the latter feared that Shams had made his father a homosexual. (Rumi emerged from mourning’s isolation to write magnificent love poetry in Shams’ name, The Divan of Shams of Tabriz.)

Mystics, for a variety of reasons, were so often persecuted in Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East that inadvertently these regions, by forcing their mystics to go “underground” created the setting for the creation of glorious literature. The merely enlightened can write great poetry. But the mystical writings of Christianity and Islam remain in a class by themselves. Glorious is too puny a word to describe the works of the great Catholic and Muslim mystics.

China and India never persecuted their mystics. The regimen, with certain omissions of information which was conveyed privately by master or guru to student, was written down and distributed. Perhaps it was this openness and accessibility that made the regimen so susceptible to the corruptions of overt sexuality. The excesses of Tantric sexual practices in Buddhism and Hinduism and of Dual Cultivation in Daoism had a negative, stultifying effect. Those who use women as if they were articles of laboratory equipment have already violated basic ethical constraints, prohibitive of spiritual advancement.

In celibate orders the ancient regimen was followed; and we find today, intact, the great monasteries and ashrams in which true Yoga is practiced.

(which features a woman’s regimen that did not require any special alchemical discipline)

Humming Bird


The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun: Zen and The Martial Arts isn’t a blog. A problem that could use some Zen elucidation will get the needed attention. Contact us at yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com.

Remember, the Path’s two important rules: Begin and Continue.

Image Credit: Yao Xiang Shakya
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We Worry About Things That Don’t Last


This short essay is for the wobbly spiritual seeker. The one who finds himself repeating again and again the same old mistake, namely, thinking the world of things, known as samsara, will ultimately pay a reward for his good efforts. It is, as the title suggests, for those who worry about things that don’t last.

Gamblers are, in my opinion, the model of worrying about things that don’t last. They rely on two types of reinforcement (that which strengthens a behavior), unpredictable and intermittent; both of these qualities increase the gamblers tendency to place another bet. There is a third factor that is part of the gambler’s matrix; a problem with impulse control. This third factor is an inability to restrain and resist an urge (desire). This factor represents a form of spiritual blindness. Impulsivity lacks a long view of the consequences in the face of an urge; instead of resisting the trigger, the gambler pulls it.

The gambler model is a characterization of the common man who is caught in the fires of worldliness. He is not to be thought of as other; in fact, he is best understood as us….those of us who worry over the things that don’t last….those of us who return again and again to the trough of the material world believing it will feed our hunger. For those of us who see the cycle, but pay no heed to reality, the hunger and thirst will continue. We play with fire again and again.

We, which I mean the unawakened, are bound by the lure of our unpredictable blinking hopes of finding lasting satisfaction in a broken world. The more times we fall prey to our hunger and thirst, the more our impulse control weakens. Repetition is, after all, a basis of mastery; making us masters of ignorance. We suffer in like manner with addicts of any ilk as epitomized by the familiar and hackneyed definition of insanity; doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result which is attributed to Narcotics Anonymous.

We fail to heed the proverb once bitten, twice shy. In many situations our drive to get what we want emboldens us to press on in the blinking, alternating lights for a fleeting payoff.

The trouble rests in our lack of discrimination; discrimination being the inability to see the real from the unreal. We are drunk with hope that we will indeed get blood from a stone and that our desires will once and for all be fulfilled in a broken world. Our inclination to stay drunk is compounded by the promises and propaganda of the world. We are inundated by such bilk.

We want the fruits of our actions in quick fashion. And if at first you don’t succeed —- try and try again. Instead of a sober stop, we wobble on. When we don’t succeed we are told to pick ourselves up and give it another go….a common and often misguided phrase of encouragement to remain attached to the broken world.

When we worry about things that don’t last, we are playing with fire. We need to stop. Examine our self. We need to be able to see that our yearning will never be fulfilled in the material realm. It is broken and operates on unpredicatable, intermittant reinforcement and turns us into gamblers of the worse kind.

Every day we live we have a chance to awaken. In order to awaken we need to be able to discriminate between the real and the unreal. Unfortunately, our eyes are covered with conditions that prevent us from seeing the real from the unreal. The conditions are the dust in our eyes and the dust must be wiped away.

We sober up and are humbled by the inevitable falling apart of all the things we hold dear. We begin to wipe away the dust from our eyes because we realize attachment to and desire for the things that don’t last is the cause of our suffering. This realization is wisdom.

We no longer place our bets on things that fall apart. It is simple cause and effect; don’t place your finger in the flames of the world. Non attachment is a requisite for the wobbly seeker. When we see the world through awakened eyes and we do not discriminate with worldly measures. We see what is real and eternal rather than seek a reward in the temporal. When we find the eternal we, the little self, vanishes and we are who we are.

There are rewards in the temporal, but they are temporary. When we know they are temporary we become guests and not the owners. Guests are not attached. They come, stay for awhile and leave. If they begin to grasp and cling to things, they become thieves. If they disrespect the things, they become incorrigible, unable to be corrected or reform. If they hang around too long, they begin to stink, decay and fall apart.

Our problems are anchored in the temporal things. Check this out for yourself. Look at what rattles you, what upsets you. It is most likely attached to some temporal reality of the body, the mind, the mental formations of work, power, wealth, relationships, things which get old, decay and fall apart. Learn the lesson of disappointment and turn your attention to the eternal, to that which lasts and offers eternal peace. Begin and continue in that direction. Remember we are all in a leaky boat that pushes off from the shore only to sink a few lengths out. Don’t waste time betting on gains from the material world. Take a good look at the disappointment that comes to awaken and heed the wisdom it gives.

Give up the gamble —- turn around —- look to the Source —- see through the glitz of getting gold dust —-gold is dust after all.

In plain words….Sober up!

by Fashi Lao Yue

Image Credit; Yao Xiang Shakya

The Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun: Zen and The Martial Arts isn’t a blog. A problem that could use some Zen elucidation will get the needed attention. Contact us at yao.xiang.editor@gmail.com.

Remember, the Path’s two important rules: Begin and Continue.