The Shotgun Approach

“Critics have accused me of ‘cherry picking’ Buddhist sources…To this objection I can only point out that it has ever been thus. Each Buddhist school that has emerged in the course of history has done exactly the same. Chinese Buddhists selected the texts that best fit their needs as Chinese, just as Tibetan Buddhists chose those that best fit theirs. If Buddhism is a living tradition for you, one to which you turn for clues about how to lead your life here and now rather than for cold impersonal facts, then how could it be otherwise?”

—Stephen Batchelor, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.

The sum total of an up-to-the present lifetime of experiences, the idiosyncratic method of acceptance and rejection of those experiences, and the ongoing decision making processes based on the observation and memory of those experiences make each and every living being unique. The subjective awareness of oneself on these terms can bring everything about predilections for choosing a spiritual path to bear upon a romantic notion of God/no-God.

In a very real sense, reading has been possibly the most important path for me. My family was a book loving one. Everyone read everything, fiction, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. As a very young child I was obsessed with the thick collection then known as the Arabian Nights, reading it over and over again, along with my father’s well worn copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories. Both of these books, along with Hurlbut’s Storybook Bible, were filled with bizarre and wonderful illustrations that inspired me in the 1980’s to write and illustrate stories via underground and newave comic books.

I grew up a mid-westerner, transplanted early on from my birthplace of El Paso Texas. We traveled all over the USA, Canada, and Mexico. I was raised in the Methodist church in Seneca, Kansas where I had many interesting mystical experiences. When the Sunday school teacher read Bible stories I watched them like movies floating in the air. I would also often faint in ecstasy during the regular church services and would wake up in some anteroom, either sitting or lying down as a worried adult hovered nearby. My Dad was an avid naturalist and initiated me into the world of hunting, fishing, and tramping around the woods seeking the elusive Morel mushroom. My grandparents had a greenhouse and florist shop, and I was expected to know the names and purposes of many plants; both those domesticated for their beauty, and others growing in the wild used for food and various medicinal purposes.

We’d go to lots of plays, movies, musicals, opera and the symphony every few months as the family business afforded visits to big cities. From an early age I followed the pop-cultural trends of the sixties including watching The Beatles debut on the Ed Sullivan show. When they went to India, my interest was piqued, and at the ripe old age of thirteen I read their guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s tome, Transcendental Meditation. Soon after, I nailed a small 3’X3’ piece of 3/4 inch plywood high up in the rafters of our family garage and started “meditating.” About the same time, my older sister, a natural psychic, recognized certain experiences I was having as the “out-of-the-body” type and gave me a copy of Robert Monroe’s book, Journey’s Out of the Body. I also read Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, and became fascinated with the lead character, a human raised on Mars named Valentine Michael Smith, who possessed super-human powers and liked to meditate at the bottom of a swimming pool.

At about the same time, I read Rasputin by Colin Wilson, a biography of the Russian magus who magically-politically manipulated the court (mainly the ladies) of Czar Nicholas and Czarina Alexandra, culminating in his famous assassination by committee that included poisoning, stabbing, shooting, and drowning. He was apparently a hard man to keep down, and it is rumored that at least one exceptional part of him has been preserved to prove it. At any rate, thanks to good old Rasputin, I developed an interest in the occult.

Shortly after that I ran across Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, and Alan Watts books on Buddhism and Taoism, and many other books on Zen and practiced my own version of their idiosyncratic “Zen Buddhism.” I remember sitting and chanting to myself, “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which I thought meant “Amen, the Lightning Bolt in The Void” after Gary Snyder’s open translation described in Dharma Bums as being symbolic of “yabyum”—a tantric sex act. Of course I was all for yabyum, and the fantastical concept of that fueled an often otherwise flaccid sitting meditation practice. Aleister Crowley’s Confessions came next in my young spiritual reading life, with predictably chaotic results! That was balanced somewhat by the enigmatic and pop-culturally ubiquitous Hindu memoir/pop psychology manual, Be Here Now, by LSD promulgator turned guru-disciple Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass.

College life brought with it a more bohemian approach to no-God; as a literature, music, and art student, I explored Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Strindberg, Munch, and all of the German Expressionist painters and American Abstract Expressionists. In wine, women, and song I found my own experiences of yabyum everywhere and in every way “spiritually” satisfying. Or, at least I thought I did. To this day I am a painter, writer, and musician, and I thrive in the rich middle earth of imagination, where Nature is constantly revealed as a book of signs and symbols. What I’ve primarily learned from this is the art of improvisation, how things that appear to be the same are actually infinitely unique due to the constant unfolding and becoming of Nature.

After marriage, I entered into a mystical Christian “re-union” with all that I had originally rejected about the Church, wringing out every last drop of meaning from scripture and commentaries through contemplative prayer and meditation. A lot of the initial interest came from reading Thomas Merton, but I’d had a round the bend conversion (re-version?) experience after dabbling in the occult, studying and practicing ritual Magic.. One grimoire in particular, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, interested me, probably because it was regarded as one of the most dangerous. In the preliminaries of working this ritual, the aspirant is asked to throw open a window in his “sanctuary” (in my case, an upstairs art studio) and pray with all his/her heart. At some point in the process, I gave up the desire of becoming an all-powerful magician and surrendered to a new-found love in my heart for all things earthbound and suffering…

I discovered that right under my feet at the time, in Wichita, Kansas, Native Americans had once thrived. I entered into a profound experience with Native American Elders via the Elders conference held in Council Grove spearheaded by author Doug Boyd, who had traveled with and worked with famous shamans such as Bear Heart, and Rolling Thunder. I met and helped Doug, and many of his friends among the elders, including Grandmother Bertha, a powerful Piute medicine woman whose advise to move between the shadows of what turned out to be 9/11 were instructive to all of us in the extreme. Other Native American initiation experiences at ancient petroglyph sites, high barren hills, ancient buffalo kill sites, and caves in Kansas, and elsewhere would follow.

After my mother’s death, I was still pursuing a syncretic Christian mystic’s path, letting the Spirit move me, doing soup kitchen volunteering and following all kinds of altruistic pursuits. One day I was driving along and quite unexpectedly found myself at the door of a mosque. It was early 1992, during the first Gulf War. I was admitted with suspicion, explaining that my heart had led me there. Within weeks I “reverted” to Islam (one reverts to the “original” religion in the eyes of some Sunni shaykhs). One year later I could fluently read Quranic Arabic, make the Call to Prayer (in Arabic), and was chosen by popular vote among the ulema to head the Islamic education department.

But something happened that Spring of 1993. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met some Sufis. I was initiated into an ancient Sufi order and remained a solid practitioner for over 20 years. Meditation in this tradition consists of prayers and sitting in the dark in a group with eyes closed listening to a brief lecture and then about 45 minutes to 2 hours of beautiful impassioned singing (typically poems of various Sufi mystics like Hafiz and Rumi) accompanied by lots of stringed instruments, drums, and ney flutes. A mantra, or zikr, is imparted from Master to disciple during initiation, and this is repeated silently with every breath. The attributes of Existence are breathed in, while the Essence of the Absolute is returned to the ineffable with the out-breath. In this way, union, and re-union is established.

Over the years, my Sufi teacher understood my shotgun approach and allowed me to explore many other paths along the way, including Alchemy (of the practical laboratory type), Voudoun, Shamanism, Tantra (specifically Aghora and other “renegade God” types of extreme Hinduism), Qaballah, Freemasonry (I took all the degrees in the Blue lodge, the Knights Templar, and the Scottish Rite, and acted as pastor at my home lodge), Martinism, Tibetan Buddhism (Lamrim, Dogzchen, and Mahamudra), and Advaita Vedanta. I was very much taken with the Hindu adepts Ramana Maharshi, and later the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj. A small group formed around me to study non-dual awareness called “Not A Class” because although I directed the class, I refused to be the “leader.” We met weekly for many years and I remain in touch with several of the participants.

I began to study Alchemy in earnest, later writing a book on the subject that married this interest with my Sufi practice, entitled Al-Kimia: The Mystical Islamic Essence of the Sacred Art of Alchemy. At the time I was living way out in the country, and had access to all kinds of wild plants. I became known as the local witch doctor, when somebody’s kid would get sick, I could be counted on to arrive with the appropriate blend of medicinal herbs. As my eclectic practices grew, I was also researching and writing a lot of articles for various journals. I went in-depth into the writings of the Christian mystic Jakob Boehme and this investigation lead back once again into the religion of my childhood, back in Wichita, and the proximity of an Orthodox Christian bookstore 1/2 a block from my house at the time fueled a researching frenzy that has lasted for years and included (in no particular order) the writings of Meister Ekhart, Teresa of Avila, The Desert Abbas and Ammas, The Philokalia, The Way of the Pilgrim, Nicholas of Cusa, The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross, Dionysus the Areopagite, Thomas Aquinas, a gang of Pietists, and many more. The Rosicrucians, and all of their wonderful literature held a particular fascination, a fascination that persists.

Eventually I came back to Zen Buddhism, and practiced with a few different Roshis, two who were quite traditional, and one not so much at all. I studied and practiced both Rinzai and Soto Zen, doing koan work via the former, and “just sitting” in the latter. After several years of this I added “noting” practice via Mahasi Sayadaw, and studied the idiosyncratic meditation techniques of other Burmese and Southeast Asian Theraveda masters as well. I stumbled onto Qigong, and added it to a well established (30+ years) daily Yoga practice.

During the last phase of “searching” and discovering non-dual approaches like that of Nisargadatta and Ramana Maharshi, most things I’d found interesting about researching and practicing traditional approaches to spirituality in general began to pale. Identification with personality and form dissolved completely, there were no limitations left, no restrictions or bonds to be freed from. No labels applied. Concerning the so-called One and The Many, I had been wrong to assign particular importance to any single part, that part being reflective of the Whole. In many things there appear to be preferences, however all and every one lead back to a single point. This is true of everything, which must be conceived and held to be One and One only. Alchemy (as example) is a path among many that leads back to Unity, as all things must. A lifetime full of various experiences is a Whole in and of itself and reflective of the Whole in every seeming part. Researching this or that, finding something compatible or in opposition, is irrelevant to the outcome which is always mirrored by a likeness or it’s opposite, i.e.; a wholeness. Everything is connected to everything else and individualized to express the infinite, inexhaustible transmutation of one single thing, Thou art That/That art Thou.


johneberly@rocketmail.com

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