BG 154: The Mountain of Spirit

Episode Description:

This week we’re joined by Zen-inspired dharma teacher, Michael McAlister. Michael is the leader of the Infinite Smile sangha, just east of Berkeley, in what Michael calls, “the hard edge of suburbia.” After many years of Zen practiced with the San Francisco Zen Center, Michael set up to teach a form of dharma that wasn’t bound by tradition.

Some of the topics we discussed with Michael include climbing the mountain of spirit–a stirring and ancient metaphor for the spiritual journey, the 7th, 8th, and 9th spiritual senses, and finally the things that Michael has learned while endeavoring “to integrate a relevant spirituality with 21st century living.”

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn and I am joined over Skype by Michael McAllister. Michael, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy day, and I understand had a second child, so I know you are extremely busy. So thank you for taking time.

Michael: Well, it is my pleasure to be here with you Vince. Yeah, I am incredibly busy and sleepless. And mixing those two things together, it is easy to get in touch with your attachments. So my new daughter and my two-year-old daughter have become maybe my two most profound teachers. [laughs]

Vince: Nice. Nice. And just a little background for people who aren’t familiar with you Michael. You are the author of a new book called Awake in this Life: A Guide for Climbing the Mountain of Spirit, which we will hopefully get into, why the mountain. And you are also… well, I don’t know exactly what you are, but you are doing some teaching, and it is in the guise of a community called The Infinite Smile Sangha based in Lafayette, California, which is just east of Berkeley. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about how that community formed, because as I understand, it wasn’t like you went out and just started it. It kind of just happened.

Michael: Yeah. To be quite honest, I have never really had much of an interest in being a spiritual teacher at all. I kind of just evolved. I had been, actually, a Zen practitioner for largely, well, I guess the better part of 15 or so years, when I decided to leave and go study with some masters in Thailand and in Nepal. And I ended up coming back to my old community, which is actually predominately Green Gulch Farm, which is offshoot of the San Francisco Zen Center.

And I did a couple of practice periods there, a few months without saying much of anything. And then I kind of came back into the world. I was about get married and I had been asked by a group of people, “Hey, why don’t you just start teaching us how to meditate?” And from there, within, gosh. I don’t know. We started with about 15 or 20 people and then it kind of burst, and around me this group kind of formed. And again, I have felt like I have been hanging on to the caboose of this train that just kind of keeps rolling. And it is incredibly humbling and incredibly beautiful, and all those great things. It is also a lot of work, but I have really enjoyed actually watching Infinite Smile kind of just spontaneously arise around this version of the teaching, I guess you could say.

Vince: And your version, as you are saying, it kind of reminds me, when I look at your bio, of someone like Adyashanti who is really heavily involved in a particular tradition. And then it seems like you have made this move of kind of, not leaving the tradition behind, but broadening out and becoming more ecumenical.

Michael: Yeah. I actually think that is a really good way to put it. It is really funny. I knew Adyashanti as Steve Gray. He and I had a mutual friend. And I went to, I guess, Steve’s first or second retreat that he held, and there, I don’t know, about nine of us. It was really quite hilarious. And I loved the way he had kind of woven in the tradition of Zen with some of the other teachings that are available. And it made so much sense to me.

I was fairly new at the whole game at that point. This must have been around 1997, ‘98; early ‘98 or something like that. And it resonated with me that what makes most sense is not to lock in, but also not to lock out. And as a result, it kind of naturally formed that way for me with Infinite Smile. I feel deeply blessed to have had this saturation of the Zen tradition. But I also was not interested in carrying a lineage, although I think that is very important in the traditions. I think traditions themselves are important. I certainly wasn’t interested in breaking anything down, but rather adding to what I had been given, and then being able to share that in a way that made the greatest possible impact for the greatest possible number of people, I guess.

Vince: And it seems like your new book is kind of an extension of that. I mean, it seems like that’s one of the outreach things that you’ve done. We talked a few weeks, actually a few months back, and you were saying that this was a project that actually ended up contributing back to the Infinite Smile song, which I thought was pretty cool.

Michael: Yeah, it was utterly a labor of love, and it’s a, believe it or not, a fundraiser for Infinite Smile. All the money, all the proceeds from the book go to Infinite Smile. I’ll tell you the book, it only took me six weeks to write. It just kind of flew out of me, and the editing process took five more years.

Vince: Wow.

Michael: So it was really, really interesting kind of how it fit together, and it quite literally was an extension of the teaching that I had been dealing with at Infinite Smile, and I just kind of grouped the topics around what I have come to appreciate as the metaphor of the mountain of spirit and how it just seems so often, Vince, that we argue about the particular path, how to get up the mountain, whether it’s you’re a Hindu, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, or a Buddhist, “our way is the right way; here’s how you do it,” and so forth, and it just seemed that traditions so often can start adhering to the path instead of making sure they actually encourage students to look at the mountain itself, and, so that’s really kind of where the book came from. It’s how can we literally take that, as we say in Zen, kind of that backwards step indeed from our own path. [Laughs] It seems to be working, so again, I have no issue with tradition. I think traditions are quite marvelous and incredibly useful, especially when the teacher, who’s kind of immersed in a particular tradition, can articulate herself or himself really well, but being able to take that backward step, so that we don’t attach to the tradition, I think becomes really, really important.

Vince: I found it striking too, reading your book, this metaphor of the mountain comes up so much, and it seems like it’s such an ancient metaphor for the spiritual path, and I actually have friends who during their practice they’ll have dreams about climbing the mountain or being on the top of the mountain or coming down the mountain. It seems like almost a kind of archetypal thing, and I was wondering if you could say more about that metaphor and why you chose it to kind of be the theme of the book.

Michael: It’s a great question. I think it’s so simple for people to understand what it’s like, for instance, to climb something. Because it literally is what we’re doing as spiritual practitioners, as seekers; we are continually searching externally for something that is always available to us internally, but you have to make that external reach in order to kind of uncover what’s there. So, for instance, I love the metaphor in that somebody who’s done a fair amount of rock climbing and hiking and so forth, you have to be very careful to chose well when you begin to ascertain what it is you need to take with you on your trek. You just can’t take everything with you, and, in fact, if you want to do this particular climb, you have to let positively everything go. You can’t summit this mountain without letting go and developing an alternative, if you will, relationship with all of your baggage, and as a result, that then puts us in this place with a gorgeous view that’s available, but then the real work is being able, for any of us, to take that view from the top of the mountain and then integrate it into our descent so that ultimately we are working with what we have viewed as we enter back into, if you will, the marketplace with gift-bestowing hands as the Buddha, fat and happy. I always loved that image, you know, but you have to go up the mountain, and you can’t take a shortcut. There aren’t any shortcuts. You need to do this climb. You need to do it on your own. No one’s going to do it for you. Nobody can enlighten you. You must actually engage in this journey with sincerity and with courage.

Vince: It’s interesting that you talk about coming back down the mountain because I often see people that are engaged in spiritual practice, and myself included, that seem to have this idea that somehow the end of the journey is actually at the summit, and then it’s over at that point and somehow you kind of just build a camp up there and just hang out there, but it sounds like that’s not true at all.

Michael: Well, from my perspective once you hit that deeply seductive place of stability and openness you are precisely halfway there. Here again we can look at the metaphor of the mountain. You don’t find mountain climbers going up Everest or Kilimanjaro and then just staying there. They’ve got to come home, and I find that actually the traditions that have advocated that you just go, you reach this place of nirvana, this placeless place, through this gateless gate, once you’re there everything is fine. I think everything is always just fine, the problem is when we stay up there and we don’t come back into the world integrating what we have unlearned then we aren’t being helpful and that after all is what in my view a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is somebody who is truly helpful from a place of non-ego, a place of non-attachment.

Vince: Nice, and I think this question kind of ties in, but another thing I was struck by while I was reading Awake in This Life was that you talk about what you call the seventh, eighth and ninth senses and I’m guessing the six senses that your referred to are just the kind of traditional, the way we think about the six senses.

Michael: Absolutely. Well, except that the first five sensory senses plus then the sixth sense, which we oftentimes in the West, I think misinterpret. We tend to look at anybody who has the sixth sense as somebody who is… got extrasensory perception or something like that, rather the eastern version of this, which I really like is that the sixth sense is the sense of mind.

Vince: Right.

Michael: So, from that place then it gets really interesting because where it kind of went with this was the seven sense, if the sixth sense is our sense of mind the seventh sense would be our sense of time, meaning that the only thing that ever goes on in our minds, we can have memories and we can have judgments and we can have plans. You can even break that down further, everything that goes on in mind is rooted in either something that has happened or something that hasn’t happened yet. So there is another option available to all of us when we begin to see that there is this space in between thought that isn’t affiliated with either past or future, it is only in the now, and there is some techniques that help people get into that deeply effulgent now and usually it involves paying attention to ones breath. Or for instance if you’re into extreme sports where you cannot be in your head or back to the mountain metaphor when you are on a rock phase you don’t have time to nor do you have the ability to lock yourself into thinking about what happened 20 minutes ago or what is going to happen 20 minutes from this moment, you have to be in that moment and the minute we get into that space, the minute we go into the present moment, what’s left? Well the witness as many people call it or the seer or the observer and that’s our eighth sense. The eighth sense can actually view what we see in the seventh sense, which is time, and therefore if it can actually watch time it cannot be bound by time. It somehow turned the time into an object and it has become, the eighth sense has become this deeper subject.

And then we get into this really really cool space the ninth sense, which is at the root of the witness, what is it that it’s beyond this witnessing awareness of the eight sense and it quite simply is not a sense at all, they kind of describe it like that, it’s in many respect beyond words, it’s this bliss body but it’s kind of beyond that, it’s not just the nirmanakaya, it’s not just the sambhogakaya we’ve actually move now into the dharmakaya and then even further now, we are at the core of every single one of these junior if you will bodies or junior senses we’ve got the svabhavikakaya to get all Buddhist on you, carrying us right through this awareness that carries us through each and every single layer of our awareness and it’s incredibly flexible space, it’s quite beautiful, it isn’t bound, I mean just to throw some words at it but that doesn’t really do it justice and the beautiful thing about this is that it’s available continually, it’s never not there, it’s always there. The trick is, can we practice becoming deeply intimate with our senses, be they one through five, our bodily senses; or six, our sense of mind, our thoughts; the seventh sense, our sense of time; the eighth sense, our witnessing awareness; or what’s at the core of all of it as the ninth sense.

Vince: Nice, and it sounds like, as I was reading your descriptions and hearing them now even, it reminds me of a teacher named Ken Wilber. He has a similar kind of way of talking about things, and one thing he points out is the inclusive nature of this, that each sense includes the previous ones.

Michael: Right.

Vince: And it sounds like you’re describing it in kind of a similar way, kind of almost like the Russian dolls. It’s interesting.

Michael: I think that’s a beautiful way to put it. Everything goes past but brings along its junior level. Just like you and I, although I’m probably substantially older than you are, at forty-five years old, I still bring along with me my twenty-one year old sense of self. I’m an entirely different person in many respects, yet I still have some of that crazy, youthful fire that burned in me at that point in my life, but my relationship to it has changed drastically. And this is how development tends to work.

I think Wilber does a masterful job of creating kind of a map for those of us who are really interested in this space. You also look at, for instance, spiral dynamics, which I’m sure you’re aware of, as we evolve from beige to purple to red to blue to orange to green to yellow to coral, I think I’m getting those right, but this idea of becoming more expansive the deeper we go. I know that sounds kind of ironic and strange, but the deeper we go into our sense of who and what we are, the broader, actually, our view becomes, the more space there is. And that’s ultimately, I think, the best that spiritual teachers can offer, is the teaching of space.

Vince: Nice, thank you. Just kind of switching gears a little bit, this is a topic I’m really excited to speak with you about. I guess I get excited speaking with anyone who’s trying to do what you’re doing, which is on your website I noticed that Infinite Smiles… officially part of their vision is to “integrate a relevant spirituality with twenty-first century living.”

Michael: That’s just a small goal.

Vince: Yeah, yeah… [Laughs]

Michael: Just a small goal, right. [Laughs]

Vince: …and obviously, like everyone else that has this as their aim, you’re probably learning as you go and figuring things out as you go, but it’s really cool because you’re kind of on the ground floor or in the trenches, if you will, doing this, and I was wondering if there’s some key things that you’ve discovered in your community in trying to do this that are maybe practically applicable to other people, other communities that you’d feel are worth sharing.

Michael: Well it’s… actually community is a fascinating, fascinating aspect of practice because I don’t believe that we move along this process very quickly if we try to do this alone. The saying that you need to have a teacher, you need to have a teaching, and you need have a community. I think this is really important. It’s not entirely necessary. I think people can in fact wake up without the blessings of a deep relationship with a teacher, and so forth, but it tends to be their awakenings, they become manifestations of something that’s deeply partial.

For instance, Infinite Smiles seems to attract a lot of people who have worked with other people before, whether they were in a community and they’ve kind of come back into the real world, they still were Jonesing for a little bit of spiritual life and so they meet us. Or, another group that tends to meet us is, there are an awful lot of people who they were born out of the sixties movement. A lot of those people who have then come back into the world from their days as rebellious teens, they’ve made their money, raised their families, and they’re trying to get reconnected to something that they’ve uncovered when they were younger. Another group that’s real interesting are the parents that have kids that are just approaching teen years, and so forth, the ones that are in MySpace tend not to show up so much, the ones that have little babies at home obviously it’s kind of a trick, getting out of the house, but what the community offers, it’s a way for everybody to test, if you will, what it is that they’re uncovering in the process. And so, one of the things that I have noticed, and this is yet another group are people that basically they want to talk to me, for instance, about their enlightenment, and I always think that this is really fun to kind of sit down and have a practice discussion with someone in this space. What I invariably find is that their version of enlightenment has become deeply egoic. In other words, they have become an enlightened ego, and they have this inherently small view that their ego has convinced itself is truly huge, or they have, I’ve heard it described as a limited view that thinks it’s absolute, and so it’s real interesting work to try to kind of get them unstuck from that space just by asking questions and patiently kind of being with them and constantly, constantly turning up the heat on their practice in a tender and yet relentless way as possible. Community provides that, and that’s one of the things I think is really cool about Infinite Smile. It acts as a shortcut.

I think community in almost any capacity helps slowly but surely chip away at our egoic attachments. It forces us to look within and forces us to become very intimate, if you will, with our clinging, just like a teaching can do, just like a teacher hopefully can do. Yeah, it’s thrilling. It’s also… what’s really amazing is that, I would say across the board, one of the things that I finding as a teacher is that people who show up to sit with us at Infinite Smile, they can come from pretty much any tradition. They can be atheist, they can be scientific materialists, they can be Catholics, they can be Tibetan Buddhists who are deeply ensconced in the Vajrayana tradition, whatever. They sit with us, and the offering is really a way of deepening your relationship with whatever tradition you’re in, so as a result it becomes, like I said, very flexible, yet at the same time it has some backbone to it. It’s not that you can do whatever you want, it’s that if we deconstruct the Buddhist teaching, and deconstruct Islam, and deconstruct… if we deconstruct anything, we start getting to some core stuff, and that core stuff can always be found as we climb, summit, and descend the mountain. And this means that people are no longer hammered with this choice, which typically, I’m sure you’ve found it in your interviews, people they either have to rejoin tradition that no longer applies to their lives or reject their spiritual life altogether, and I just don’t think this is a legitimate choice for someone. They don’t have to be in that space, and Infinite Smile is a rather non-aligned group that’s inspired from Zen teaching, and it creates that openness for anybody who is facing that dilemma. It helps them kind of, if you will, reconfigure their meeting of a spiritual life.

Vince: Nice, and I wonder what is it that you find in particular with the twenty-first century part. Are there specific things, I mean you’ve kind of hinted at this with different categories or different types of people, are there specific things that living in the twenty-first century brings with it that impacts the way we approach spirituality?

Michael: I believe so. I think that it’s very difficult, for instance, in the twenty-first century to assume that people can move in an integrated way through a twelfth-century practice of retreating constantly. It’s very difficult, I think, in this day-and-age, certainly out here in the hard edge of suburbia, for people to imagine heading down to a monastery and spending the next three months in utter solitude, and so forth. It has its appeals, certainly. I’d love to be able to do that, personally, and I’d love to be able to do that an awful lot, but when you start looking at the realities facing people as they live day-to-day, that doesn’t seem to be a real viable option. What does seem to work, and I can only speak for Infinite Smile, what does seem to work is when you create a rhythm of consistent meetings, as we have. We always meet on Monday nights, and we have our sitting, and we have all the people show up somewhere, anywhere between twenty and sixty people kind of show up, although it’s growing, which is kind of exciting, but still everybody shows up, and then we always have offerings of retreats, as many other organizations do. And these retreats can be day-long, they can be half-day, they can be weekends, they can be five-day, which is what we’re offering, but what I would say is those only act as a temporary fix if you’re not able to practice what it is you take from a retreat. I would also say that they are utterly critical for people to do. If the way we turn the heat up on our practice is by embracing deeper, and deeper, and deeper layers of stillness, that once again are always already existing within our hearts and minds and our bodies and everywhere else, but being able to meet that, that’s exactly how the retreat is designed.

Let’s take thirteenth, twelfth century Japan, you know they had these enlightenment factories, these Zendos that would just spew out these monks that would go through these great, rather mythic practice periods of intense work, and so forth, all of it, good, that’s all really important, but does it work in the twenty-first century? I kind of doubt that we are in a space where we could actually replicate what they did, and for that matter, the context of society has shifted quite a lot. What enlightenment means now, in many respects, has shifted from twelfth century Japan, or sixteenth century Tibet. Pick your tradition. Enlightenment itself and its meaning has morphed. I don’t think that the realization necessarily has shifted, but its context has shifted. And that means, for instance, somebody who achieved enlightenment in, let’s say, Dogen’s presence, Dogen Zenji, he’s sitting up there teaching and so forth, whamo, this guy’s awakened, that doesn’t mean he then has the benefit of what we know in the twenty-first century.

Consider the internet. I mean, what does the internet allow for us to do now? Well, it allows for this expanse to occur more readily, if it’s used appropriately. It also means that, I mean not to sound too judgmental, but it also means that a lot of trash can be thrown out there more readily as well, so it means that we really have to engage actively in our process, we have to use our filters, we have to bring questioning to whatever group we’re sitting with, whatever teaching we decide to take on, and especially with the teacher. We don’t want to attach to our doubt about a teacher, but I don’t think you allow for a teacher to do what he or she is best at doing unless you bring your questions into the experience. That’s when everything kind of takes off. That’s when we are not only able to summit, but actually begin to come down the mountain of spirit, if you will.


Michael McAlister