The Buddha tells us that the object of meditation is to achieve wisdom and compassion. The latter we can all understand as the ability to feel what others are feeling, and, if possible, to assist in alleviating their suffering, as well as to share in their joy. But what of the former? What do we understand as wisdom? It seems to be analogous with Truth. Yet what is Truth? When Pontius Pilate asks that question of Jesus, the Christ is silent. Does this mean that Truth or Wisdom exists only in silence?
I have spent much of my life seeking wisdom and truth, spending much time with alleged gurus and holy men, as well as reading nearly every scripture and sacred text in existence, not to mention the lives of saints, and the discourses of sages from every faith. In all of this searching I have found much inspiration, many truths that seem to be universal, and others that strike me as reasonable working hypotheses, explaining problems that plague people limited to one dogmatic faith or philosophy. Common issues do not bother me. For instance, if God is all-powerful and all-merciful – as most require their god to be – then why does he allow evil to exist? If he can abolish it yet chooses not to, he cannot be all-merciful. If he cannot abolish evil then he is not all-powerful. He can only be one or the other, not both. Why do babies die? Why do bad things happen to good people (and vice versa)? Such sophisms and conundra do not trouble me in the least, because they are succinctly answered by the concepts of karma and reincarnation – which were even part of Christian dogma until the 4th century, and are still accepted by certain Jewish sects as the only conceivable manner in which a just universe could be run. George Harrison puts it with characteristic simplicity: And the Lord says whatever you do is gonna come right back at you.
Like many of my generation, the drug LSD turned me away from a material grasping world, revealing a universe in which everything was alive and tangibly created of, by, and for a divine energy-intelligence which some term God. In one long night I was transformed by direct experience from an atheist into, not a believer, but a knower of God. Taken under the right and controlled conditions, I still believe LSD is the most powerful tool humanity has ever possessed for the expansion of consciousness towards a state where the divine is not mere faith but irrefutable fact. It is capable of inducing states which transcend the powers of language and are thus impervious to description. It is a state of Unity in which no ‘other’ exists, where subject and object are one, where the self is indistinguishable from all that exists; thus description, language – which is really a labelling process – can be of no use, since it would create a division, thus ending the state of Unity. The state is, to use a term from Vedanta which translates as ‘God’, sat-chit-ananda, ‘existence-conscious-bliss’. The bliss is often so ecstatic and overpowering that it manifests as an awesome love for all – the animate and the inanimate – a love that is also returned by all in an endless flowing of bliss and the visual evidence that everything is self-illuminated, or, as William Blake puts it, “All that lives is Holy.” I remember one session where the state reached was one of such utter serenity and joy that I felt I could sit where I was forever without desiring any more than the deep peace and limitless bliss I then possessed. There was no thought as such at all; simply consciousness of an existence that was pure joy – and that this was my true self in its own eternal world. The experience was more real than any experience I had ever, and have never since, known. Unlike most street drugs, for which I have little use, LSD was not something one became addicted to, or wanted more of immediately. Indeed its effects were so potent, when it was pure Sandoz liquid, at least, that you had no desire to take it more than once a month, if that. With me, there even came a time when it seemed as if the drug itself was saying, You have learned all you can from me, and now you should seek to attain bliss by yourself.
LSD was still legal in England when I last took it, and came in a medical bottle from Sandoz laboratories. It provided, and provides, an experience to which every human being has a right. Not everyone should take it, and it must only be taken under safe, controlled conditions, ideally in the countryside. It is definitely not a party drug, or one that should ever be taken outside a safe setting. A group experience can be interesting, but the deep LSD state is largely inner. Only during the final phase – the last 3 or 10 hours, say – does the outer world, people, music, nature, begin to exist in classic luminous forms. A proper session should involve one person who has not taken the drug, but is familiar with it, and who can handle anyone experiencing something frightening, as well as random chaos, from burst water pipes, to aged relatives showing up unannounced. Someone in deep-state LSD experiences cannot be disturbed – and, even if they could be, would not be very helpful in such situations. Contrary to common misperception, Timothy Leary, who I met several times, never encouraged people to take LSD at rock concerts or in public situations. His books emphasise the vital importance of set and setting. Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD – who died recently at the age of 102 – told me he had pleaded with Leary to cease promoting the drug so prominently, since it would inevitably lead to its prohibition. Hoffman took LSD for most of his life, and understood its importance as a tool to expand human consciousness in ways unprecedented even by shamanic herbs, mushrooms and peyote. Through Hoffman, many prominent people enjoyed LSD sessions in the 1950s and early 60s, including Cary Grant, the actor, Aldous Huxley, one of England’s greatest writers, and Steven Jobs, who ascribed his invention of the personal computer to experiences on LSD. Interestingly enough, Leary was also one of the first to see the potential world-shattering effect of an interlinked humanity, and indeed first introduced me to the personal computer, with its webbed universal mind. Sadly, Hoffman was right about the consequences of excessive promotion, depriving science of the opportunity to study why LSD causes such potent effects on the brain and mind. Yet, I hear, research with LSD, and its uses in psychiatry-psychology, has once more been resumed in England. This will mean that a pure form of the chemical exists somewhere out there, and may soon come here, there and everywhere. When I talk to younger people who say they have taken LSD, their experiences in no way correspond in profundity to mine, or those of anyone who took Hoffman’s discovery in pure form. I hear of euphoria, hallucinations, increased luminosity, but in club or party settings. I do not hear much about the inner voyage, and nothing about the often-terrifying ego-death preceding it, where you can feel that you are literally dying, perhaps poisoned. I had read enough of the literature before my first experience to expect this, and thus to let go, to allow this death to occur. Only when the ego, or little self (whose characteristics are insecurity and fear of death) has been ‘killed’ can the experience of Unity, the real Self, commence.
My LSD experiences lead me to read material that had previously bored or annoyed me, if I had even read much of it at all. I now read the mystics, like William Blake, Thomas Traherne, St. John of the Cross, George Herbert, and the incomparable Jacob Boehme. In all of them I found poetic accounts of the same experiences I’d had under LSD. I suddenly knew what Blake meant by, To see a world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wild flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,/ And eternity in an hour. I knew what Jesus meant by, My father and I are one. I knew that Moses had correctly heard and understood God’s name in the words, I am that I am (note: the Hebrew can also be translated as, I am that I will be, the lack of vowels and dots in some early Torah manuscripts making certainty impossible). I knew heaven and hell were states of mind, and that Satan is merely a metaphor, since the Divine is a unity and can have no opposing force (note: it is interesting to study the biblical evolution of Satan or the Devil, since he does not appear in the Torah; and his later debut is as an employee of God, a kind of Chief Prosecutor, dispatched to perform tasks God finds distasteful. Then, in the Book of Job, his status is slightly elevated, yet he is on sufficiently good terms with God to make a bet with him that sufficient misery inflicted on Job, the most upright man alive by all accounts, will make him denounce God. God accepts the challenge, and the pair set about tormenting Job in unconscionable ways. God only wins the bet by pulling rank on Satan – Where were you when I created the Universe? It is an odd tale, to be sure, and cannot be taken as anything besides myth and metaphor. But Satan still only comes into his own with the New Testament, where he remains true to the meaning of his name, ‘the Tempter’. Jesus performs many exorcisms, but it is never clear if these cast-out devils have a chief or not. The Revelation ought to be Satan’s finest hour, yet he does not even get a role, unless he’s now renamed himself as ‘the Beast’ or shacked up with the ‘Whore of Babylon’. I shall write on the Bible at length, for this is not the place; but one more observation is relevant: there is no Hebrew word for ‘God’; the words translated into English as ‘God’ are curious; Adonai is more a quality than a name; Elohim is a plural, more properly rendered as ‘sons of god’ or even ‘gods’; and Jehovah is not a name at all, but merely the arbitrary adding of vowels to ‘YHVH’, called the Tetragrammaton, and only susceptible to interpretation as a complex mystical symbolism.)
In Jacob Boehme I found someone who had clearly experienced a mystical vision of the utmost purity and profundity. He lived around Shakespeare’s time in Holland, and was an illiterate cobbler (“A mender of bad soles,” as the Bard might have put it), who, in his own words, said that one day, without any warning, “The Kingdom of Heaven poured down upon me like a shower of rain.” All who knew him were not in the slightest doubt that his experience was both real and powerful. They urged him to find a way to express his obvious wisdom and enlightenment to others. First he had to teach himself how to read and write; then he had to teach himself how to read and write in Latin, since this was still the lingua franca among scholars and clergy all across Europe. He was urged to use existing mystical systems to express his own knowledge, in works like Mysterium Magnum and Signatura Rerum. Such books pleased the mystical schools, of which there were many at the time – Alchemists, Gnostics, Kabbalists, etc. – based in Prague, though found everywhere beyond the reach of Rome’s long, intolerant arm. But these books did not satisfy Boehme (sometimes spelled Behmen or Behman), who went on to write a simple little book called Confessions, which I regard as the most deeply moving and succinctly profound work in all of Western mystical literature. It corroborated my own mystic states under LSD, yet it did not explain how one could attain such states on one’s own and permanently. For this was now my quest.
By a stroke of fortune, I was introduced to George Harrison, with whom I spent many hours alone discussing this very issue. He too had found that LSD opened consciousness to a transcendent reality, yet only as a way of prompting the individual to seek for ways of attaining the state alone. He had also felt that the drug did not wish him to take it any more after a deep-state consciousness had been achieved. Its purpose was to show you that enlightenment was real, and not mere speculation or hope, but then the task of attaining it permanently was up to you. But, he added, there were time-honoured methods in the East for achieving the state of self-realization. “Read this,” he said, “and tell me what you think.” He handed me a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahamsa Yogananda, adding, “And here’s me latest record.” It was a vinyl single on the Apple label – but with the exterior fruit on both sides – of the Hare Krishna Mantra.
The book by Yogananda is still precious to me forty years later, although I now have it on audio disk. It opened up a whole new world of miracles and marvels I had never dreamed existed, chronicling the life of a holy man, whose only desire since childhood had been enlightenment. His patent honesty and simplicity make even the most improbably remarkable accounts of spiritual marvels resonate with truth. Sent by his own guru, Yogananda was among the first Indian sages to arrive in America, whence he came in the 1920s, with barely a few dollars in his pocket, going on to establish the Self-Realization Fellowship, designed to teach a form of meditation, which he termed a ‘spiritual science’, to westerners. Most received these teachings as monthly newsletters at a cost barely more than the postage. In 1952, at a gathering to welcome the Indian Ambassador, Swami Yogananda led a meditation, sitting in the traditional lotus posture, eyes closed. Such public meditations usually lasted no more than a half-hour, in consideration of those present who might be uncomfortable or unused to lengthy silence. This one, however, went on for over ninety minutes, at which time one of Yogananda’s devotees went to whisper in his ear that the Ambassador had other commitments for which he was already late. The devotee, receiving no answer, tapped the guru’s arm. No response. It was some time before they realized that, still seated serenely in the lotus posture, a faint smile on his lips, had entered Mahasamahdi, a conscious and permanent exit from the body, as opposed to the self-realized state of Samahdi, from which one returns after some time – hours, days or even years – of remaining merged in the Unity of Divinity. During such deep meditations the heart-rate can slow down to a mere few beats a minute; breathing is similarly reduced. It is much like an animal in hibernation. Because no one was certain if Yogananda had actually died, the Los Angeles Country Morgue was asked to delay any burial. As Morgue records show, Yogananda’s body displayed none of the usual signs of decay even after three weeks, by which time putrefaction would normally be advanced and nauseatingly odorous. The Swami’s body merely smelled strongly of roses, his favourite flower, and did so right up to the moment his coffin was closed forever. I have a photograph of him, taken a few hours before his final exit, in which his eyes seem to gaze into eternity, and his expression is one of pure compassion. Only one other photograph of a human face has ever moved me so much by capturing something of the pure Divinity within it.
I signed up for the SRF lessons, practising techniques of breath-control and meditation as assiduously as possible. But I was studying at Oxford by now, and the world was too much with me. Unlike my experience at North American universities, the course at Oxford was gruellingly hard work, with little time for leisure and silence. My mind was wholly preoccupied with books and words, very difficult to rein into the stillness of meditation. Yet, by another stroke of luck, one of my second and third-year tutors was a lovely soul named Bill Byrom, who had done his doctoral studies at Harvard, where he came across a mystic named Hilda Charlton, who’d spent many years at the feet of Neem Karoli Baba, the same guru Richard Alpert – Leary’s partner in the Harvard LSD experiments which ended with them both fired from their teaching posts – had sought out when trying himself to understand the nature of LSD experiences. Alpert’s answer came when the guru swallowed enough LSD for a battalion, then sat back, entirely unaffected by the chemical. Alpert concluded that Neem Karoli was already in a higher state of consciousness than his acid could provide, thus it was much like taking an aspirin when you have no headache. He remained with the guru for a year or so, changing his name to Ram Dass. Hilda Charlton, whose name only changed to Hilda, had a meditation group in New York, which Bill Byrom began to attend. By the time he had obtained his post at Oxford, he was barely interested at all in the English Literature which he had been hired to teach. I remember the smell of incense when I first entered his rooms for our weekly one-on-one tutorials, and the look of luminous serenity in his eyes. On one wall was a photograph of Yogananda, and we instantly hit it off, talking more about the inner quest than the writers neither of us cared for unless they revealed some experience of Soul. We hung out together a lot too, and he introduced me to such mystical poets as the Persians, Rumi and Hafez, and all the wealth of Indian and Buddhist spiritual wisdom. We took tea with Evans-Wentz, translator of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and numerous other Tibetan texts. The old man taught at Jesus College, which was opposite ours, and had personally known Yogananda, writing the introduction to his Autobiography of a Yogi. “He was Christ-like,” said Evans-Wentz. “One never doubted his wisdom, or that he spoke from knowledge, not theory or faith. He knew, and he exuded love the way a flower emits its fragrance.”
Byrom asked him the question this blog asks, “What exactly is wisdom, do you think?”
“In Jesus College,” said the old scholar, chuckling, “I ought to reply with silence. But you are not Pilate, so I shall give you my experience. Wisdom is a state of pure equanimity, where one desires nothing more than the moment in which one exists, seeing all its beauty and wonder as an embarrassment of riches. Wisdom is realizing that nothing is wrong in this universe, nothing needs correcting. It is perfect and precisely what it is supposed to be. Wisdom is realizing that people are exactly where they need to be at any moment, and must be treated with compassion, yet cannot be changed. All are subservient to their own karma, and they can only change from within. A wise man may point you towards the means for change, but he cannot change you. I believe it is only love in actions that brings about positive change.”
“What about meditation and the company of spiritually-minded people?” I asked.
“Swami Yogananda himself told me,” said Evans-Wentz, “that he could lead devotees to the waters of life, yet he could not make them drink. No books – and I have read so many – and no teachers, of whom I have met a few, can give you wisdom. It comes only from within; and we already possess it without knowing where it is to be found.”
He then recited the old Sufi parable about a man who spends his life digging everywhere for treasure without success. When he dies, his house is demolished, and beneath it, buried, a vast treasure is discovered.
“Somewhat disheartening, all that talk about wisdom, didn’t you find?” Byrom asked me, as we had tea back in his rooms.
“I think he knew whereof he spoke,” I replied. “After eighty years, or whatever he is, of delving into this stuff, he must have learned far more than we have.”
We both wanted the experience of a real holy man, one who knew. On Hilda’s advice, Byrom went to see Sathya Sai Baba in India. I could not wait for his return and hear what he had found. His experience, he told me a month later, was profound. Baba had seen him privately several times – a very rare occurrence – materialising a ring, a locket, and much sacred vibhuti ash from thin air as gifts. I asked if these were merely magic tricks. Bill said, no, he had seen the action from a foot away and the objects formed slowly enough to see they were drawn from the air itself, and were also, initially, very hot. The ash simply poured from his palm like rain. “Try hiding ash up your sleeve,” said Byrom. He spoke of an overwhelming sense of love felt anywhere near the holy man. Yet there was also much he disliked around Baba: the gaudiness of the main temple, the rudeness of ashram officials, and his confusion over whether Baba was a guru at all. He claimed to be an avatar of the god Shiva, who, traditionally does not appear as avatars, the way Vishnu does, in forms like Rama or Krishna. In the literature, Hinduism’s major deities form a trinity of Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver (whose avatars read like ancient Darwinian theory, the earliest being animals), and Shiva, the Destroyer, who occasionally appears to devotees as himself, the archetypal yogi, yet only emerges to anatomize the universe at the end of a vast cycle of yugas or ages, each lasting 26,000 years, and correspond to west Asian and European notions of a golden age, followed by silver, bronze, and iron; or an age of gods, one of heroes, then one of men. For all of recorded history we have been in the darkest yuga, that of Kali, but it still has many thousands of years to run before Shiva begins his dance that will end all creation in order that it can be recreated. This is the mythology; but it does not explain why Sathya Sai Baba would claim to be an avatar of Shiva. He also claimed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, an obscure holy man from Maharastra, who would have been unknown in the tiny South Indian village where Sathya Sai Baba was born. The ring Baba made for Byrom bore the image of Shirdi Sai Baba too, a holy man of whom Bill knew almost nothing, yet who, he learned, was enigmatic, revered, although it was never clear if he were Muslim or Hindu, lived in a ruined mosque, accepted no gifts, and was reputed to have performed miracles, including the materialization of vibhuti ash. A silver statue of Shirdi Baba stood prominently on the altar of Sathya Sai’s temple, and on the night of Sivarathri, the big Shiva festival, was bathed in vibhuti materialized from a jar by Sathya Sai, which was not large enough to contain a fraction of the ash poured from it. On this same night, Baba produced from his mouth an egg-shaped lingam – the phallic symbol of Shiva – so large it often tore the corners of Baba’s mouth as it emerged. Byrom witnessed this phenomenon – as did I a year later – and it was an eerily moving spectacle, similar to watching a woman give birth. The lingam was crystalline and appeared to glow from within. Byrom found the ritual disconcerting, and disliked the manner in which Baba was treated like a temple idol during the night. He also found that, although Baba seemed to know everything about him, no teaching was offered, and the only practice at the ashram was singing bhajans, repetitive chants involving the names of gods that increase in tempo before ending. The Hare Krishna Mantra is an example. A number of Indian holy men, over the past few hundred years, have suggested that chanting bhajans is the most effective spiritual practice during Kali Yuga. It is indeed pleasant and uplifting to chant, but both Byrom and I wanted a more direct route to enlightenment.
Then we discovered Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche’s book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Trungpa was a Tibetan sage – in fact of a more elevated status than the Dalai Lama – forced to flee Tibet during the Chinese invasion. He settled in America and began teaching Americans, who liked his robes and rigmarole, some even adopting it themselves, or dressing like Indian sadhus. Trungpa came to see that his students had abandoned the material world for the spiritual, but without leaving their materialistic nature behind. They treated spiritual practices as if they were corporate activities, entailing promotions and tangible gains. They expected rewards for hard work, good report cards, gold stars, devotee-of-the-month stuff. To snuff these misconceptions out, he told his students to meet him in a Manhattan bar, where he showed up dressed in a suit and tie, and then proceeded to get them all drunk on Martinis. Some got the point; others quit in disgust. In his book, where one can glimpse a mind like a razor at work, he sets out his whole and very wise perceptions in meticulous detail and with the flawless diamond-cutter logic of a truly wise being. It is essential reading for any westerner delving into eastern mystical practices, and it gave both Byrom and I much pause for thought. When I left for India, we lost touch – which I regret deeply now, since I owe him so much – and he died in 1988. He had a form of cancer when I knew him. He never mentioned the fact, but it does much to explain his intense search for self-realization. I hope he attained it, and will never have to return again to this world.
My experiences in India are mostly recounted in my book Empire of the Soul, but I shall add some new things, and continue with this subject in my next blog. If a detailed look at the Bible is of urgent interest to anyone, they should write to say so – which might hasten the promised essay.
With love, as always, Paul William Roberts.