I first met Ram Dass in Bodhgaya, India, in the winter of 1971 at a vipassana meditation retreat taught by S. N. Goenka. I was a little starstruck and, I’ll admit, somewhat intimidated to be practicing meditation with this counterculture hero. Ram Dass (then Richard Alpert) had become legendary as a pioneer of the psychedelic journey; he had gone off to India and actually found his guru, Maharaji, whom we all assumed was teaching him how to get high and “never have to come down,” a common fantasy back in those days.
As the retreat progressed, I became friendly with Ram Dass, who would often hold forth in the meditation hall after Goenka had gone to bed. We were practicing the body-scan meditation technique, which some people referred to as “sweeping,” and Ram Dass quipped that we were going to “sweep ourselves out of existence.” After Ram Dass began to refer to himself as a Hind-Jew, I decided that I was Buish, and in spite of our spiritual differences, our friendship grew.
Last year I was visiting Maui with my friends Catherine Ingram and Jack Kornfield, and Ram Dass invited us all to come to his house for dinner. Over the years we had all taught retreats and been yogis together. Ram Dass suggested that we talk about our lives and our work and said that he would like to videotape our conversation. We agreed, and he began by pretending we were part of a spiritual talk show.
Ram Dass: This is Ram Dass at my home on Maui. I go out to play in the ocean every week, and I often sit on the shore and wave at all the tourists going by. This week I picked up these three and brought them home with me. And here they are—quite colorful tourists. They have a common thread among them, but I’m not going to tell you what that is.
Wes Nisker: I’ll tell; we are all wearing Hawaiian shirts. Actually, this is our cult uniform. We have joined Ram Dass’s new Maui cult, and we are required to wear a Hawaiian shirt and relax and enjoy the moment. Finally, after all these years of struggling, we realized that just going to Maui and visiting Ram Dass is how we get to “be here now.”
RD: And how do we know each other, sir?
WN: Remember, I met you in Bodhgaya at a meditation retreat taught by Goenkaji? There were only about thirty people there, including you, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Daniel Goleman, Mirabai Bush, Krishna Dass, John Travis—a real collection of spiritual rebels. Here we are, forty years later, having smuggled this Asian wisdom back to the West. How do you think it’s going?
RD: Well [pointing to each of our group], this is certainly a measure of how it’s going.
Catherine Ingram: Uh oh, we’re in trouble.
RD: And your name, dear lady.
CI: My name is Catherine Ingram, and I read your book Be Here Now when it first came out in 1972. It became a bible to me. You put a reading list at the back of the book, and I read every title you recommended. Then, in 1974 I went to Naropa to be with you, Ram Dass, and that experience ruined all the other plans I had for my life. But I’ve been having a pretty good time since then.
RD: Did you get any Buddhist teachings there?
CI: Yes, indeed. That first year at Naropa I met Joseph Goldstein and began going to meditation retreats, and then I met Jack Kornfield, who was teaching with Joseph at the time. I helped create the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, and have been on the Dharma trail all these years. Remember back in the early ’90s when you invited me to teach at some of your retreats? That launched a sharing I’ve been doing ever since. I often tell people that the Dharma ruins your life, you know, the life that you had planned, the things that you were trying to get away with, in a sense. It exposes the flaws in all the different ways you were trying to find happiness in the world. I fell in love with the Dharma, and then the rest just didn’t measure up.
RD: We have all fallen in love with the Dharma. Certainly that is true with Mr. Kornfield.
Jack Kornfield: Yes, yes, yes. In 1972, I came back from being in the forest monasteries of Thailand and Burma and landed in Boston, where I enrolled in graduate school in psychology. Basically, I wanted to figure out what had happened to me in Asia. So, I went to a meeting of the Massachusetts Psychological Association, and there was Dan Goleman explaining a big mandala of the Tibetan wheel of birth and death. He was teaching Buddhist psychology to the Western professionals. I introduced myself, and he invited me over to David McClellan’s house. David had been the chairman of the department of social relations at Harvard and had both hired and fired Ram Dass. At David’s house is where I first met Ram Dass and Chögyam Trungpa.
One day when Trungpa and I were talking about Buddhist monasteries, he said, “I want to start a Buddhist university.” I showed him some of the manuscripts I was working on that eventually became the book Living Buddhist Masters, and he said, “Oh good. You come to my fledgling university and help teach vipassana and the Theravadan Buddhist tradition.” And so, at David McClellan’s house, which was this kind of nexus of wild, wonderful, creative Dharma people coming and going to and from India, I found a sangha of like-minded seekers. I had been so happy being in the monastery in Thailand, but after returning to America I had been feeling lonely and disconnected. When I got to David McClellan’s house and met Ram Dass and Trungpa and Danny Goleman, I felt like I was home again.
RD: After that first year at Naropa, you and Joseph started teaching retreats together. I know, because I came to a few of them. You started up the meditation center in Barre in a building complex that used to be a Catholic monastery, and it still had some remnants of the previous inhabitants. I remember that during the periods of walking meditation, I would do my walking between a picture of Jesus and a stained glass window in the upper walking room. It was the one place in the building where I felt the bhakti, the love that I love to feel. I thought the Buddhists were a little dry. However, in your recent book, Jack, I detected some bhakti energy in you, alive and well.
JK: Yes, yes, I borrowed it from the Hindus. I needed it, you know, the sweetness. It’s made such a difference, actually. The Buddhist practice we started to teach in the early ’70s was very austere. You could say “dry.” It had tremendous clarity and deep wisdom, but it didn’t have much heart. And then we would go and sit with you and do the chanting and talk about love and service and feel a different kind of connection to the world.
So, here’s a question: Over the years you’ve seen many people going back and forth between Hindu practice and Buddhist practice in the West. What do we have to learn from one another? What do you see in this Hindu-Buddhist dance?
RD: Well, I studied with your teacher in Thailand and Joseph’s teacher in Burma, and that training in mindfulness actually fueled my devotion and helped my bhakti practice take off. After developing mindfulness I could focus my love more intently on my guru.
WN: I found bhakti in Buddhism. When I got myself out of the way to some degree, the love naturally seemed to appear. It really started to grow when I began practicing with some Tibetan teachers, who seem to deify awareness itself, arousing devotion to the mind as the ground of being. Somehow, the emptiness—the ultimate reality—is worthy of a deep kind of love.
RD: Yes, and the Tibetans got that bhakti flavor from the Hindus.
JK: These days we teach vipassana with a lot of emphasis on compassion and lovingkindness. It does feel like Hinduism has crept in and kind of moisturized our Buddha way. Of course, there is also a lot of devotion in the Dharma of Thailand and Burma, but we went for the mind training. Only later did we realize that we also needed to open the heart.
RD: Yes, so the heart can witness the mind.
CI: I’ve always loved the title of Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. It sounded like what I was doing on the path, but now I feel like my experiments are with love. Ram Dass, it feels as though you’ve been experimenting with love throughout your spiritual life.
RD: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s very immediate for me now. Right now, at this moment, I’m giving you awareness. But my awareness is down here [points to heart]. If you have awareness up here [points to head], you are missing something. The soul itself is awareness, and I now see it clearly as loving-awareness. Now I am loving-awareness. Which means that I love anything that I am aware of.
My guru, Maharaji, had love like that. He once revealed to me that he knew all the things about me that I don’t want anybody to know. He was standing right next to me and telling me all these things, and when I looked up, I was confronted with unconditional love. It was the first time in my life I had ever felt that from anyone. He looked at me with such love.
Maharaji said, “Ram Dass, I want you to love everybody.” And I said, “I can’t do that, Maharaji.” Even just a few years ago I didn’t think I could love everyone. Like, what about George Bush? So I got a frame and put George Bush’s picture on my altar. I thought, That poor soul. He has such an unfortunate incarnation. He’s like Ravana in the Ramayana. But when I thought of George as that soul rather than that personality, I could find love for him.
Now I am loving-awareness. I even love this wall [laughs and points to the wall across the room]. After all, this wall is a manifestation. I love this wall. When I am down here [points to his heart], I love everything I see.
CI: I love that phrase you used—loving-awareness. I love that.
JK: Yes, a beautiful state of being. But for many people, mindfulness or bare attention is necessary at first, just to see the waterfall of thoughts and the amazing, chaotic, neurotic junk and then to realize that there is some other place from which to be aware of it all. Already that involves some shift of identity. But the judging mind can keep up its judging, “Okay, how are you doing? Are you a good yogi?” It keeps a little scorecard in there. Then all of a sudden, the love rushes in, and that actually allows the awareness to go deeper, become more profound. They become married, a happy couple: loving-awareness.
WN: That potential for loving-awareness exists in all of us. Jack, as you have pointed out, Dharma practice reveals and cultivates positive states of being, in contrast to Western psychology, which emphasizes neurosis and what is wrong in the human psyche.
JK: Western psychology is mostly about pathology. Just look at the DSM-IV and you’ll find a thousand different pathological states. The discipline is about diagnosing what is wrong and finding the right medicine. Psychology doesn’t see us the way Maharaji saw Ram Dass, with unconditional love.
RD: Well, that’s one reason why I left psychology. Blech!
JK: But I also realized that I needed some therapy. I had some uncooked seeds in the sauce, and although meditation led me to rapture and joy and oneness, I could easily relapse back into my neurotic personality. I realized that I was doing a kind of spiritual bypass, an end run around the difficult parts of myself. I would often drop into some place where I felt wounded, abandoned and incredibly lonely. Even though another part of me would say, “I know that’s not who you really are,” it also felt true to me and was very painful.
CI: Jack, I really appreciate that you’ve done all that work on yourself. I think it’s great for a person in a teaching role to model the fact that you’re not claiming any kind of perfection.
JK: I’m not? [Laughter]
CI: As the great Zen master says, even though it’s all perfect, there is still room for improvement.
JK: Well, the spiritual path is certainly not about the perfection of the personality. If it’s about perfect anything, it’s about the perfection of love. Or as the Zen patriarch says, “To be enlightened is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.” Can you love this life, this incarnation?
RD: When I inhabit my soul, there is so much love in my life. So much love in
CI: I can see that. You are surrounded by it.
RD: And people so much love that love.
WN: Love that love.
RD: Love that love.
JK: You’re waving at them on the beach and they are all waving back. Look what happened? We came along with you.
RD: It’s an ocean of love, and it starts when you become loving-awareness. Now people call me on Skype, and we have a “heart-to-heart.” They are in their living room, and I am in my living room. We have never met, but it happens. I say, “I love you so much. I love you just so much. You have the most beautiful heart.” And the person becomes like a flower, opening and blossoming as we talk.
WN: You are living up to the title of your new book, Be Love Now.
RD: It’s an invitation to everyone. Don’t wait. Be love now!