It was twenty years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play . . . ,” and that’s how long ago it was when we started this journal, Inquiring Mind. As I look through the thirty-eight issues that we have published over the past two decades, some nostalgia arises in me. I also feel a surge of pride and an equal amount of awe and fascination as I realize that Inquiring Mind has been witness to and participant in the birth of a new spirituality in the West, in particular, the transmission of Buddhadharma to this half of the world’s population. The role of Inquiring Mind has been to track and record the progress of the “path of the elders” (Theravada Buddhism) as it enters Western culture, noticing how our scientific-materialist worldview reshapes traditional Asian dharma (and vice versa) and watching the inevitable controversies that arise over what is and is not essential to the path, a necessary part of any relocation of a grand spiritual tradition.
Comparing the first issue of this journal, published in 1984, and our current issue, the one you are holding now, I see evidence that the dharma is finding a home in the West. Our first issue listed only twelve weekly vipassana sitting groups across the continental United States, while today there are more than that many groups in the San Francisco Bay Area alone. (For further evidence, check Alan Novidor’s publisher’s notes.) Just imagine how much harder it was for Bodhidharma to spread the teachings throughout China twenty centuries ago, with no Internet, no airplanes and no Inquiring Mind!
The first issue of this journal featured an interview I did with Joseph Goldstein, during which we remembered driving to a Girl Scout camp in the Mendocino woods in the late summer of 1974 for Joseph’s first teaching retreat in the United States. We had to borrow an old wood-panel truck to bring the food to the retreat site, and on the way the bed of the truck somehow caught on fire. We all had to stop by the side of the road and throw dirt on our food supplies so they wouldn’t cook before we got to the retreat. Back in those “olden days,” kids, even the gurus had to help put out fires, and not just those related to nirvana.
Nearly ten years later, Joseph and I were driving back from a trip to the Sierra Nevada when he said casually, “We need a vipassana newsletter. Why don’t you start one up?” I accepted the job on the condition I could choose a coeditor—in particular, Barbara Gates. We haggled a bit over what the name of the publication would be. I wanted Insight Out, but Joseph liked Inquiring Mind, which is something the Buddha wanted us all to have. We finally agreed, but only after overcoming my concern that people would confuse us with the National Enquirer. Unlike the Enquirer, Inquiring Mind doesn’t do gossip. (If we did, the meditation teachers would have to be much nicer to us.)
The staff has come to call the journal “the Mind” when speaking to each other. We often start conversations with “I’ve been thinking about the Mind” or “How’s your work on the Mind coming along?” or “Do you still have last year’s Mind around?” Sometimes the answer to that last question will be, “Yes, I’ve had the same mind around for many years.”
Even though Inquiring Mind has vipassana meditators as its primary audience, we have felt free to explore and offer the gifts of all streams of esoteric wisdom as they flow into our lives and influence our chosen path: from masterful Ch’an and Zen poetry to the tantric teachings of great lamas to the nonteaching of nondual Hindu Advaita gurus to the love calls of passionate Sufi crazy-wisdom masters. We have also presented some of the sages and reformers of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions, and have paid close attention to the cutting edges of Western science, our homegrown wisdom tradition, whose spiritual message is just beginning to be tapped.
While the preceding serves as a summary overview of Inquiring Mind, for a real taste of the journal, as well as a glimpse into the past twenty years of our collective history, I offer a sample of some of the characters and ideas that grabbed my attention as I looked through the past thirty-eight issues.
The theme of Inquiring Mind, volume 3, number 2, was “Buddha-dharma and the Arts,” for which I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing one of my heroes, musician-shaman John Cage. I was completely charmed by this gracious and graceful man. He seemed delighted as he showed me to a table in his home where he threw the I Ching, explaining how each throw would determine the next note in the musical piece he was composing. He said that the I Ching helped him get the likes and dislikes of his ego out of the way as he composed his music. He added, “Besides, my favorite piece of music is the one we hear all the time if we are quiet.”
Ecologist and dharma philosopher-activist Joanna Macy graced our pages in volume 5, number 2, with her vision of contemporary Western Buddhism as the “third turning of the wheel” (the first being the Buddha’s original teaching and the second being the birth of the Mahayana). She told us, “In the third turning of the wheel we’ve got the earliest teachings of the Buddha, picked up again as the wheel just—whoosh!—spins again. And the ecologists are on it and the feminists are on it. It’s the old teaching and new again at the same time.”
Allen Ginsberg first appeared in our journal in the summer of 1985 (volume 2, number 1) after returning from a trip to China. He offered us his typically profound spiritual-cultural-historical observations, at one point saying, “It is ironic that Mao tried to eliminate Buddhism and the bodhisattva practices in China, which is precisely what could have made their socialism work. Maybe the role of Westerners will be to reintroduce the essential, active, muscular form of meditation to China.” There’s an idea: let’s start a peace corps of meditation teachers!
In volume 4, number 1, S. N. Goenka informed us that it was his own teacher U Ba Khin’s teacher who decided that ten days was the minimum amount of time for a retreat to be truly effective. Goenkaji also summed up his approach to vipassana by saying, “The ultimate truth of mind and body is nothing but vibration, and that is what you are observing when you practice this technique.”
The theme of Inquiring Mind, volume 9, number 1, was “Teachers of Nonduality,” featuring Hari Lal Poonja, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, Toni Packer, Lama Surya Das and others. At the time, many members of our sangha, teachers included, were traveling to India to visit Poonja, a master in the Advaita Vedanta tradition of Hinduism. The popularity of Poonjaji, as he was affectionately called, was raising some issues within our sangha about the nature of enlightenment and the value of meditation, so I went to get the “scoop.”
Poonja was one of the most joyous beings I have ever met and a genius at pointing people toward anatta and emptiness. However, when I tried to interview him for Inquiring Mind, I fell into a conversation that still makes me laugh when I think about it. I was playing my role as journalist, asking Poonja questions about his life and teaching, while he kept playing his role as Advaita master, trying to deconstruct my mind. To every question I asked, he would answer, “Who is asking this question?” I kept objecting that I understood the technique but that I was trying to write an article about him and needed some real information. Eventually we found common ground, and he began to talk about his life, which, I had the feeling, he didn’t take seriously whatsoever.
In volume 11, number 2, we explored the issue of Self/Nonself and interviewed Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Tsultrim Allione about the practice of Chöd, also known as “feeding the demons.” Tsultrim revealed that “In Chöd practice, in contrast to killing the dragon, which is the usual procedure in the hero’s journey, we feed it until it is totally satisfied. We nurture our demon until the dualistic battle between ourselves and the demon disappears.”
In the summer of 1988 (volume 5, number 1) we featured a forum on psychotherapy and meditation, the intersection of our own Western science of mind and its healing methods with the views and techniques of the Buddha. (For many years this issue of the journal held the record for generating the most mail from readers.) Taking part in the forum were A. Hameed Ali, Sylvia Boorstein, Ram Dass, Daniel Goleman, Robert Hall, Jack Kornfield, Roger Walsh and others. Although there were distinct differences of opinion and approach, Ram Dass may have stated the forum’s consensus when he said, “Western psychotherapy rearranges the furniture in the room; Eastern meditation practices lead you out of the room.” Also during that forum, Daniel Goleman remarked, “I suspect that meditation operates on a biochemical level, but there’s no data on that yet.” Fifteen years later Goleman would publish his book Destructive Emotions (featured in the Spring 2003 edition of Inquiring Mind), presenting exciting new data from the neuroscience labs about the positive biochemical effects of meditation.
In the spring of 1991 (volume 7, number 2) we held a forum on the intersection of ecology and spirituality, featuring, among others, Gary Snyder, the premier Buddhist environmentalist. Snyder told us, “It is not a matter of being in nature, but understanding that you are nature. You can learn this from a biology class, but internalizing it, feeling it as your reality, is another step, and that’s where the dharma comes into play.” As Joanna Macy put it in that same forum, “We have to learn a new concept of self—self as all beings, self as planet.”
As I skim through the journals, I find myself intentionally looking for lines that I remember, such as when the Dalai Lama remarked, “Sometimes I describe myself as half-Marxist, half-Buddhist” (volume 14, number 2), or when Sharon Salzberg exposed us to lovingkindness meditation, saying, “Everything comes back to love” (volume 13, number 1), or when Thich Nhat Hanh informed us hard-working Western meditators, “Suffering is not enough” (volume 3, number 1). A couple of quotes were so good we put them on the back cover, such as Robert A. F. Thurman’s “Practice, practice, practice; Buddhists are always talking about practice. What I want to know is, when is the performance?”
Of course, I could go on, but what becomes more and more obvious as I look through the journals is the scope of our little Buddhist paradigm shift in the life of our culture, and how many other streams of conscious change we intersect and mutually enrich. How fascinating it is to watch the shape-shifting of the Buddha’s path (annica!) as it enters this new world. I can’t help but wonder what the Western sangha will look like in another twenty years, who will be doing the teaching, and how the practices (or the metaphors) might have evolved. Certainly the dharma will continue to detoxify the three poisons as it encounters them here in its new homeland, and maybe we will all be on our way to a golden age of nonviolence and cooperation. As Allen Ginsberg said in our journal twenty years ago, “People sure do have a hard time being liberated from hope.”
In any case, happy anniversary to all of us!