We’re joined by spiritual teacher Adyashanti to discuss his 15 years of training with Zen teacher Arvis Joen Justi. He shares details from his initial awakening at 25–where he realized that he was what he was seeking–to the end of the search several years later at 31. It’s at that point that Arvis asked Adyashanti to begin teaching, and as he shares with us, his teaching evolved and changed fairly quickly. He shares how it changed, and how he saw it as a natural evolution of his Zen training, rather than an entirely new form.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, I’m Not Babysitting Your Ego.
Vince: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vince Horn and I’m joined today over the interweb with spiritual teacher, Adyashanti. Adya, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate your time and looking forward to this discussion a lot.
Adyashanti: Oh, you’re welcome, Vince. I’m really, really happy to be here with you.
Vince: Yeah, and I figured for most people they’ve probably heard of you if they’ve been in the kind of dharma world. You have a lot of really amazing books out and some audio material through Sounds True. And you have different articles that have appeared in some of the various Buddhist publications, so I have a feeling a lot of people have a sense of your background. But if they don’t, we’re going to sorta explore that together too.
And I thought maybe the best way to do that to start with is to speak with you about your history as a Buddhist practitioner, and now you’re teaching as a non-aligned spiritual teacher. As I understand it you spent 14 years with a Zen teacher in California. Is that right?
Adyashanti: Yeah, I spent 15 years with a Zen teacher in California. A very little known Zen teacher. Her name was Arvis. She retired about four or five years ago. And I got her name–this is going back when I was 20 years old–so that was 27 years go. I got her name out of the back of a book that Ram Dass had written. And sure enough, she was within 15 minutes of where I was born and raised. And I was thrilled to find a Zen teacher, and to think that there was one so close. So I called up and the next thing I knew I was at her home because that’s where she taught from. She had herself studied with a lot of the early Zen teachers that came here from Japan, like Soen and Yasatani and others as well. Her last teacher was, pardon me for forgetting his name, he was the one who ran L.A. Zen Center, Maezumi.
Vince: Maezumi, yeah.
Adyashanti: Yeah, Maezumi was her sort of last teacher and he used to actually come to her house. Again, this is going back almost 30 years, or probably 30 years ago if not more. So there was very little Zen and it wasn’t as accessible as it is now. So he used to go there and do retreats at her house in Los Gatos. And after years of doing that and her being with him, one day he just said, “You know, you should do this. You should teach. You don’t need me here anymore to teach.” So she started to teach. And she taught out of her house. She had robes and she used to wear robes, but long ago before I got to her she had put her robes away, and just had decided she didn’t want to start a center or a temple, or any of those kinds of forms. And so she just did it in a very sort of very quiet way. She was a very sort of quiet, hidden Zen teacher you might say, right in my backyard.
Vince: Wow, that’s great. That sounds like a great find.
Adyashanti: Yeah, it was for me. It was a really fantastic find. Admittedly when I was a young kid, 20 years old or so at the time, and I was attracted because I had read some books on Zen. So I had this sort of mystical kind of idea of what it was going be like. I had created visions of sort of you know, misty topped mountains and Zen temples hidden away, and people in their robes and all that kind of thing that you kind of imagine, when your imagination gets away with you.
So when I first showed up there and it ended up being in a house in Los Gatos. I was of course quite surprised and it took me a couple of years to kind of get beyond the imagination of what I thought it should look like. And it took me a couple of years to really realize what was really going on there with her. That even though it looked quite ordinary, there was something quite profound and beautiful that she was offering and that she really was, that she really embodied. She just did it in a very ordinary looking package, you might say.
Vince: And I understand that you also, in addition to studying with her, you were doing retreats and things with some other Zen teachers. Is that true?
Adyashanti: Yeah, well I told her I wanted to do one of these retreats that I had read about at the time, you know, a typical Zen Sesshin. She would do short retreats or we’d do all day sittings and have private interviews with her and stuff. But I wanted to go to one of these Zen Sesshins that I had read about.
So she said well, there’s this guy up in Sonoma, Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, Bill Kwong. She says, “I met him once and I really had a good feel about him. I think he might really be a good person for you to go and do a retreat with.” A few months after that I found myself up at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center doing a retreat with Kwong and I did retreats with him probably, I would do one or two a year for probably seven or eight years, something like that, maybe longer. But when I did my kind of weekly, I would see Arvis almost every week. Every Sunday morning, I would be at her home with anywhere from 8 to 15 others.
Vince: It sounded like when I saw you writing about this time, it sounded like you’re really pretty hardcore about it, too, like you were really into it.
Adyashanti: Yeah. Looking back on it, it was almost like kind of mysterious how I just read, literally, read the word enlightenment in a book, and it lit something inside of me. I didn’t know what the word meant, I didn’t know where it was leading to, but it literally just sort of lit something inside of me.
It was almost like, I like to explain it like almost catching a disease. This incredibly powerful seeking disease, I just have to find out what this thing called enlightenment is. I didn’t really have any reason why I had to find out. My spiritual search, I think unlike a lot of people, wasn’t motivated by suffering, by angst, or by grief or I think a lot of the emotions that are part of really what fuel people’s spiritual search. I mean, there was probably some of that going on unconsciously. But, for the most part, it was just, “I have to find out what this enlightenment thing is.”
It was literally like one day I was going around just being a regular guy, and the next day, it was like a light switch turned on. I distinctly remember getting up out of bed one morning, and I just knew, I was sort of struck with this little realization. I just thought to myself, “My life has completely changed.” Whatever direction I thought it was going in, it’s completely altered, and it was about something else entirely. I didn’t even know what that was going to be. My life was no longer sort of in my control, you might say. if that makes sense. This sort of spiritual-seeking thing took over my life from one day to the next.
Vince: And it sounds like, after a long time of training and doing a bunch of stuff, that you sort of had a resolution to that original disease. Like the disease kind of ran its course and you felt like there was sort of an awakening or a resolution of that. At that point you, as I understand it, sort of decided not to teach within the Zen tradition?
Adyashanti: That actually came later. The first sort of shift that I had, whatever one wants to call that shift, was when I was 25. That shift really kind of brought an end to the seeking energy. In a certain sense, what I realized was that, at least the way I had it hooked up in my mind at that time, was I am what I’m seeking. So, all of a sudden, the seeking didn’t make any sense anymore. What I was seeking was something that I’d no longer saw as separate from me. I would love to say that that was the end of my spiritual search. It was sort of the end of the seeking, but it wasn’t the end of the search, I know that’s paradoxical.
But really, I kept very much in the tradition and very much seeking externally, but internally, it wasn’t looking for something outside of myself. Actually, what I was trying to do was clarify that experience that happened when I was 25. There was a very powerful shift and I knew that I was what I was seeking, but there was something about it that I wasn’t completely clear on. I knew it wasn’t clarified, I knew it wasn’t finished. So, that’s really what I was looking at. Like, almost a koan, a spontaneous question that arose in my mind is: I know that I am this – I didn’t have a name for it – I know that I’m this, but I don’t know what this is. That was kind of the next form that it took. I chewed on that for another six to seven years.
Vince: Was there a sense…? I get the sense that what you’re saying happened at 25 is sort of a kindle like what they would “kensho” or like an initial awakening of some sort.
Adyashanti: Yes. Yeah, I’d pushed myself to the edge of insanity, and at the moment, I kind of gave up. The moment I was defeated is when everything opened up. Yeah, it was an initial opening, an initial kensho, I guess you would say. The thing that really stuck with me is that I was removed all fear, which kind of a strange thing to happen, to remove all the fear out of a 25-year-old male. Do you know?
Vince: I do, I’m 26 now. [Laughs]
Adyashanti: Yes. You remove all the fear and it’s like you’re half clear or half spiritually awake. It’s that other half, without any fear, to kind of hold it in check that was kind of a little bit of a wild ride for the next four or five years. As I guess you would say spiritually speaking I sort of worked through some sort of deep karmic patterns the kind that had to work themselves out, but it wasn’t just all going happen on a cushion. I kinda had to get out there and actually do some of this stuff to burn it out of my system, I guess you might say.
Vince: And the culmination I guess of that is what you talk about later in your early 30s?
Adyashanti: Yeah, yeah.
Vince: Yeah, and is that the point at which you sort of felt like a movement away from the Zen tradition toward something novel or something new?
Adyashanti: You know, the odd thing was I never really had that feeling. That was never a decision. It wasn’t something I planned on. You know, at some point after that my teacher then asked me to start teaching, and so I did. And when I started it looked just like what I was used to. In fact, I used to carry around the zafus and the zobutons, the sitting cushions, and I used to wear my robes that I had. And we would do meditation and I would do very short talks. And we’d do walking meditation and sort of very traditional Zen form, even though I didn’t have like a temple and I wasn’t a priest or anything. But I used those forms, and the thing was, it just sort of started to evolve. And what I found when I would do a talk, like a short talk, maybe 10-15 minute talk, and then I’d see if anybody had any questions. And what I realized was I could help people work through what they were going through when we would dialogue together. I figured we could find resolution in dialogue to something that they might, that they might’ve been working on on their cushion for three or four years. Then they could suddenly have some sort of resolution, some real shift out of it, and I thought “wow, this is really fascinating.”
And so over time I just made a little more room for the talks, and the question and answer. And that kind of got a little longer and a little longer, and there was a little less sitting, although there’s always been some silence, some quiet time to sit before I do any teaching. And it just sort of happened very naturally I guess you might say. In fact, it was a little unsettling to me at the beginning because as time went on, and I was doing more and more of this sort of a different style, I would go back to my teacher and say, “I think you might want to come and see what I’m doing. Because it’s evolving and it’s something quite different than you were doing.”
And she would just say, “Look, I trust you. Just go ahead and do it, it’s all fine.” Of course I’d tell her what I was doing and she’d say it was all fine. It was sort of like one of these jokes you know, where like every joke on the third time something happens. You know, like it’s always 1, 2, 3 then the punch line. This wasn’t a joke, but I went to her once, she said I trust you, just do it. Maybe a month or two later I went back to her again, and I said I think you might really want to check this out. Because I had a great respect for her and I didn’t want to be doing anything that would… I wanted her to take a look at it, make sure I wasn’t going astray.
Adyashanti: Because I really had a lot of respect for her and I knew that anybody can go astray. And the third time I went back to her and suggested she might want to come see what I was doing, she shook her finger right in front of my nose and she said quite sternly, “I thought I told you that it’s Ok, and I don’t ever want to hear you ask that question again.”
Adyashanti: And she was rarely that stern with anybody. So it energetically, it felt like she kind of got a knife out and cut a cord that I was holding onto. Kind of like being kicked out of the nest entirely. Don’t ever come back.
Curiously enough, a few weeks later she did show up and I was teaching on a Wednesday night. It was a Wednesday night, it was just a few days before I was going to start doing the first retreat that I ever taught. So the people who showed up on that Wednesday night, almost all of them were gonna be going on the retreat with me that weekend. The atmosphere was really very charged…very, very charged and powerful.
And at that time I was still sitting on the meditation cushion when I would give my talks. And I was sitting there and I was giving a talk, then I did question and answers. And my aunt, my aunt had started to come see me, my aunt who was probably 60 at the time. She raised her hand and she asked me a question and we dialogued. And before I knew it, she just burst into tears. The kind of tears that are between laughter and sadness. She burst into tears, ran up from the back of the room, up to me. Put her head in my lap and just was sobbing, and so I put my hand on her head and I was kind of just being with her. And she just kept sobbing, and sobbing, and sobbing. And all of the sudden I understood. I was like, “Oh, she’s not gonna stop doing this.” So I just rested my hand gently on her head and we went on.
I asked the next question. And the very next question someone was talking and they had some insight during that and they started hysterically laughing uncontrollably for about 10-15 minutes. And so went the evening, very sort of unusually charged, powerful evening. And there was my teacher at the back of the room. This wonderful lady who had trained–very, very traditional Zen teacher in many ways in what she was exposed to–and I remember thinking when the evening, wow, I wonder what she’s going make of this. I can still visualize her as people were sort of starting to leave the room. I saw her on the far side of the room and she was just looking at me, not giving anything away on her face. And when the last person left the room she just walked up to me, and she put that finger right in my face again and shook it in my face, and said, “Now that’s Zen.” And you can imagine the great relief I felt.
Adyashanti: Great relief. And then she told me about her experience of some of these early Zen masters, Yasatani and Soen and some others. And how sort of dynamic and alive those retreats were, and how people would just spontaneously start crying or laughing. She said people had a lot of insights and there was a lot of breakthroughs. And what she saw was, as Zen kind of got more and more stable in this country, what she thought was a lot of that dynamic quality started to sort of disappear. And it became just about sitting quietly, and hush hush, don’t laugh, don’t cry, don’t disturb anybody. Just sit still. And she had said you know, we did a lot of silent sitting with those early teachers, but it was really dynamic and reminded her of that. So of course I felt really quite good about that even though the form that I was teaching was evolving and changing.
Adyashanti: So maybe that gives you a sense of from the outside it might look like Ok, this guy sort of made a conscious decision not to use all the traditional forms, but it just sort of evolved. It was very natural. There was no decision about it.
Vince: Yeah, it sounds like from the inside there was just this natural evolution toward doing whatever works.
Adyashanti: You know that was the phrase I was going say because I literally had that in my mind like a mantra constantly the first probably four or five years that I taught, was what works? What really works? And as far as I was concerned, everything was up for investigation. Everything could be questioned no matter how old the form. Whether it was something I was doing or not, I was really, really interested in what works. I thought that’s the bottom line.
Because of course I wasn’t like a priest and I didn’t have a temple, so of course my aim was not necessarily to carry on the tradition, as such. Like a priest, that would be part of their mission. Someone that has a temple, that would be part of their mission and rightly so to sort of carry on the tradition of it. I was always interested in the awakening part of it. From the very beginning and that kind of informed me when I started to teach too. That was the piece of the puzzle that I was really the most interested in.