Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 236: The Art of Dharmic Embrace


Episode Description:

Terry Patten–spiritual teacher and author–joins us to speak about some of the challenging issues involve in teaching and practicing an empowering form of dharma. We begin the conversation by exploring his history with infamous teacher Adi Da. Patten spent many years practicing intimately with Da, and shares his incredible love and appreciation for his guru, while also openly acknowledging the many challenges and paradoxes inherent in his approach. He also speaks about the problem of the “rare specimen” and the ways that incredible teachers inadvertently create “demotional”, as opposed to devotional, cultures around themselves.

This topics leads us to then explore the various ways that we, often quite unsuccessfully, work with the areas of money, sexuality, and power. We look at why these forces are so challenging to us as social creatures, and as part of that Terry issues an interesting challenge to the Western Buddhist community.

This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, Seasons of Practice.

Episode Links:


Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn back again for another exciting Buddhist Geeks episode and today I’m joined with Terry Patten. Terry, thank you so much for jumping on Skype today and speaking with the Buddhist Geeks. We really appreciate it.

Terry: Yeah, I’m excited to do this, Vince. I’ve always enjoyed our conversations and I imagine we’ll go some new places today.

Vincent: Yeah. Yeah. I hope so. Just a little bit of background for people because we’ve started on Buddhist Geeks really starting to branch out and speak with people that, you could say their home base isn’t just purely in Buddhism, they actually are coming from different perspective or different backgrounds.

Terry, actually I wanted to mention that you’re an author. You’re one of the principal authors along with Ken Wilber who we’ve on the show on a book called Integral Life Practice: A 21st Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Balance and Spiritual Awakening which is a whole lot going on there. So it would be cool to get into what Integral Life Practice is.

And I also wanted to mention that Terry is also a host of a popular audio program called Beyond Awakening, which is sort of like taking what we’re going on Buddhist Geeks and sort of trumping it in a certain way because you’re going beyond awakening. [Laughs]

Tell me a little bit about that program because I know that you have different people on there from various backgrounds, a lot of spiritual teaches, a lot of people from the integral community, people that are sort of connected with Ken Wilber. It’d be cool just to hear a little bit about Beyond Awakening.

Terry: I conceived it based on my perception that the private conversation I was having with deep multi-decade practitioners were often not connecting with the public conversations that they were having with their students. That we would be talking with students about the things we already understood. But when we got together privately we’d be asking questions for which we didn’t already have good answers. And a lot of those had to do with the facts of our time. The crises that are interlocking, in some ways seemed to be unprecedented. Swould argue that the world has always been on crisis and nothing is new. But there are certainly unique features to the challenges that we face today and dharma is evolving.

The elephant in the living room seems to be how does our practice help us rise to the challenge of this time. A lot of us came on to the path feeling that we faced problems that couldn’t be solved with the kind of consciousness that created them, an often quoted line from Albert Einstein. And we entered the dharma in order to become capable of the kind of consciousness that could meet the complexity of our world. But we weren’t speaking often enough about exactly how can that be done. Because very often people would still be trying to be an expression of their practice in the way they dealt with their practical lives but didn’t really have radically new approaches to these intractable problems that the whole human species is facing. And I wanted to have a deeper conversation about that.

Vincent: So that’s the beyond part of Beyond Awakening.

Terry: It’s really not so much that I want to take awakening for granted and is easily misinterpreted as a kind of grandiosity and it’s certainly not meant that way. But beyond merely our personal practice what then do we do with whatever awakening is real and how does that make us a force for a healthy adaptive response to an inflection point in the evolutionary process that we’re all here for.

Vincent: Okay. Great. And then before we get into some of those topics because those are rich and complex topics, you mentioned that we’ve had previous conversations and a lot of our conversations have just been sort of getting ready to have this exploration in some ways, getting sort of on the same page talking about some of these topics and they’re so deep.

But first I wondered if we could talk a little bit about your unique history with spiritual practice. Because certainly as I understand it when you started on the spiritual path decades ago you were sort of approaching it like many of your peers at the time as a type of… mainly as a way to liberate your own experience. And I wanted to see if you could share a little bit about your early spiritual life and especially your time with the Guru Adi Da, an infamous and amazingly dynamic character that in the Buddhist world we don’t… a lot of people don’t really know about him.

Terry: Yeah. It’s very hard to do justice to him. I had the good luck that my parents when I was 6 years old moved into an intentional community called the York Center Community Cooperative where members of the Church of the Brethren which is one of the peace Churches along with Quakers and Mennonites, had acquired about 70 some acres of cornfield in what was a rural area west of Chicago. It’s now completely swallowed by the greater Chicago land area. But at the time it was pretty countrified. I went to a one-room schoolhouse in fact. Anyway, they invited people of other races and religions to live together with them as a witness for peace and brotherhood. So it was it an interracial community back when that was really radical. They founded the community in 1945.

That gave me a sense of how a spiritual commitment required you to live in a way that didn’t necessarily conform to social convention and that was very much what my aunts and uncles in that community communicated to me. So I had politically active and contentious objectors and leaders in the civil rights and peace movements as mentors growing up, and naturally became a pretty active student leader of protests, SDS and what not in college. But then had a kind of awakening, realizing that I was basically arrogant and that I needed to evolve before I could be a source of something more harmonious and true in the world at large.

And after a little while just kind of focusing on writing, I was a poet and so forth. That was my artistic passion. I begin to get drawn to personal growth, the human potential movement. I moved to San Francisco. I began to do therapies. I got involved with a growth center, a place sort of like Esalan. It was called Cold Mountain Institute up in Canada, become a resident there, did some very rich encounter groups and learned a lot of the beginnings of my path. I learned yoga and Tai Chi and sesshin and did a silent retreat and began kind of dabbling and in the process had a little kensho moment in which I was struck very deeply, realized that most of what I was doing in my life was done in order to become lovable or to gain love and approval of others and that the key really was the transformation of my own heart, that my own loving was the point. When I realized that I realized that I needed to find a teacher.

I actually did this epic pilgrimage. I bought this old van and drove down the coast to San Francisco and meet the devotees of Chögyam Trungpa and Suzuki Roshi and Swami Satchitananda, Swami Muktananda and Ken Keyes had his living love center in those days. And then encountered the first book that was written by Franklin Jones, was what his name was then. It was called the Knee of Listening. And there was just something about it that really struck me.

He had advanced the dialogue about dharma in some important ways. He was talking about the self-contraction back when that word was not pervasive. We always talk about contraction today but that word wasn’t in common parlance at all. He had a kind of a slogan at that time that ego is not an entity but an activity. It just struck me as being pretty important and deeper. And so I began to check him out and very quickly got very charmed and in a sense I was in touch with an awakened and embodied transmission that blew me away. It was so fresh and alive. He was very young. So I became a student without having even met him and then in January of 1974 I drove across the country. I’d gone back to the University of Michigan to finish up my bachelors degree. I drove out to Los Angeles where his ashram was and in January of 1974 I met him.

Whatever else one may say about him he was a remarkable human being. His personal presence was so yogically strong and the field of bliss and awake-ness. There’s kind of almost of a turgid intensity of feeling. I remember when I first saw his skin it almost felt like you saw a 2-hour-old baby in the middle of busy airport. You just want to cover it up. It felt so tender and so vulnerable. He was quite remarkable and basically you can get a feeling for it. I fell in love. I had the classic devotee experience. I spent 15 years really, I’m a pretty independent guy so I had in many ways a difficult time with the cultic aspects of the gathering around him and I wasn’t always in the best of graces. But in my own way, I was very sincerely living that path for that full time and still remain utterly grateful, because there is an esoteric transmission of mind that I received from him that really pretty much reformated the hard drive here.

The reputation he has is mostly negative. People dismiss him out of hand because of various things they’ve heard. And I think that’s a shame because I think actually there are aspect of his written literature, his art, things people can get from viewing videos and audios and reading some of his essay that are, there’s a unique potency of embodied awakeness that he transmits that I think is part of the medicine that would do us all some good today.

Nonetheless I don’t defend him. I ended up having to stand up to him and in a sense defy him. I think my relationship with him is profoundly paradoxical. I once wrote that to even dare to talk about him is to nominate oneself to be one of the blind men feeling up the elephant and offering an incomplete perspective. He’s too difficult and troubling but most of all too awakened and brilliant and transmissive to summarize. There are aspects of how he taught that defined what I don’t do myself. I feel like there were all kinds of ways that he related to his students that are exactly what I would never do with any of my students today. And yet even as you asked the question I feel myself, it’s like when you think of someone that you just totally love. I love my guru. He is the very presence of the mystery of existence and the way that mystery transmitted itself to me, body to body, heart, soul, balls and feet, toe to crown, in and out. And to me there’s a certain way that he just knocks me out. He’s sort of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles rolled into one in terms of a certain kind of… the art of dharmic embrace.

Vincent: It’s so interesting as you’re sharing I’m just thinking about all of these profound teachers particularly in the Buddhist world lately who’ve been involved in various scandals. And as I’m looking at that I keep thinking, “Wow there’s so much crazy stuff happening here and yet there’re such geniuses in certain ways also.” It just feels like you’re saying there’s this paradox in your relationship with Adi Da that continues even now even though you long since stopped formally studying with him and he’s now dead.

And I’m just wondering, maybe just to throw this out there this question about how such amazing brilliance and genius and transparency can co-exist with all sorts of other difficulties and confusions perhaps. It just seems so interesting that in some ways those things actually do tend to come together. And I know in the Buddhist world we have this tendency to think that awakening equals some sort of purified ethical behavior that we could all recognize from the outside as being like awakened activity.

But there’s also a clear tradition in various Buddhist traditions about crazy wisdom, the Mahasiddhis in India and Chögyam Trungpa was a great contemporary example, people who defied those easy categorizations of ethical awakeness.

This is something I know you have something to share on this because of your own experience. And I just wanted to throw that question out there to you and to see what comes up.

Terry: Well there’s a lot that comes up. I think that we have several interlocking paradoxes at work that we haven’t worked our way through. One of them is that one of the reasons that we come to a teacher is in order to see an example of what a human body-mind can be, so to be inspired and in a sense to template of a higher demonstration of what it is to be a human being. And therefore we’re most attractive to the “rare specimen.”

I know sometimes when I’ve gone to botanical gardens or to visit a special famous tree, a century oak of the epitome red wood. You really get kind of all the potential of what a Ficus can be in that particular Ficus. But the focus on that tends to create a distortion in which a lot of students surround such extraordinary teachers listening raptly to everything the teacher says and really trying to do as they’re being instructed to do. Imagining that if they did everything the teacher said really really well, they would be like that teacher. But in fact they happened to be a Ficus growing in sandy rocky soil or whatever. We’re all, most of us kind of cartoon characters. We’re bonsais. We’re twisted and gnarled in this way or that. And no matter how much we practice some of that is not going to be completely transformed.

But because that’s the case and because that’s rarely acknowledged around these particularly robust specimens, these teachers, even though the teacher might be very gracious and by no means suggesting that students should think of themselves as less than, the student still does. The student still kind of feel like if I was really doing this I’d be like that wonderful person and I’m not. So I’m just kind of not quite doing it. So I think that a lot of spiritual practitioners have something of an inferiority complex on a certain level. And there’s a kind of, I used to jokingly called it demotional rather than devotional, demotional culture where people get smaller by putting themselves next to these really big characters.

Now the other thing that goes on, of course, is that once the teacher really has broken through another level of awareness and another level of mastery. Perhaps they’re awake to the subtle mechanics of how mind and feeling and motivation come into being and they’re able through their way of being in a space to in a sense warp the psychosphere in which others are operating so that they’re influence is profound. And they can see that they’re operating at a degree of freedom that others don’t have. And they’re instructing people and maybe even instructing people as to how to relate to them in certain ways. Or they have a tradition that asked for certain kinds of deference. The teacher’s role then becomes something that people can hide behind. Whether or not they are hiding they feel a different level of power. And out of that they know that if they just hold back and they only follow rules they don’t really give their gift.

I think there’s a contest in many teachers own heart, like they can feel themselves really mixing it up and really giving their best transmission when they uncork a bit. And we’re sexual beings it’s the problems usually with male teachers and female students. And a lot of those female students are kind of into seducing their teachers, and there’s this power dynamic. It doesn’t necessarily invalidate everything that that teacher has done.

And yet right now we’re at a point in the evolution of culture in which we’re all required to be somewhat more transparent. I don’t know if transparency should be an absolute value. I think there’s a role for privacy in people’s lives. But we’ve evolved to a place where this kind of behaviors is no longer okay. We’re working into a kind of democracy in which there is accountability, in which even teachers have to begin to be drawn to question themselves even if they are operating at a level that is superior to everyone around them. There’s still a kind of accountability that’s necessary if we’re to begin to evolve the next Buddha who is a Sangha. And we as students and practitioners have to recognize that there needs to be a kind of responsibility where we stand without falling into an angular skepticism and kind of challenging orientation. We need to be able to empower teachers without simply defering to them. And none of us have learned any of these things. And so we’re generally caught into a dance where there’s kind of a gotcha game in which gurus are guilty until proven innocent. And any sex that a teacher would have without anyone who might have been interested in their teaching is inherently exploitive no matter what. There’s a kind of cynicism that’s pervaded the culture that we’re all disserved by.

I don’t think we’ve become capable of getting beyond our own sexual neurosis to a place where we can establish the next kind of post-conventional moment in dharmic conduct wherein we can really demand that people behave morally and hold them accountable but not require that they simply obey rigid rules and treat the power position as something inherently corrupt about it. We need to learn something by how to evolve it.

And that’s why I personally, it’s not my nature to be a dominator so in my relationship with students I tried to be very transparent. In a sense always give them overt signals that they’re at choice, that they have a lot of power. And I try not to hide behind the teacher role. Because I think that in this time we might be able to evolve a different kind of spiritual culture and that the really exiting thing is in this domain where that untouchable immunity of the teacher is given over to a new possibility.

Vincent: There are a couple of things you brought out there that are really provocative. I figured maybe we can touch at least one of them. You mentioned this piece around women actually seducing gurus or teachers in some cases. And I know the common sense or the common sentiment is that, as you said, the moment a male teacher were to be in relationship with anyone who has any sort of student potential or has been a student that that’s immediately seen sometimes as corrupt or wrong.

At the same time, there’s not been a whole lot said about the fact that this is often a two way dynamic for men and women. There can be a sense of really wanting the teacher to love us, confusing our own personal needs and neurosis with whatever that thing is we see in the teacher.

I’ve heard stories from teachers, people that I’ve worked with describing incidents that aren’t talked about much. For instance, a male Zen teacher is in the Dokusan room and a woman comes in and is naked and certainly that wasn’t the expectation from the teacher. For people that have been around the dharma scene a long time, they know this. They know that these things happened. You know we think if we’re in that same situation that would be really difficult. Day in and day out you’re working intimately with people. It’s messy. So I just wanted to highlight that point and talk about how it is really more complicated once you’ve been in and around this stuff for a while to see the dynamics. And the pieces you mentioned I think that are so interesting seemed to center around this triad of power, sex, and money. Often times those seem to be the things that come up all the time when it comes to difficulties in community.

In some ways as a spiritual practitioners I’ve seen these are the things that lag behind the most, both in myself and I’ve seen it in communities I’ve been part of. They are the things that feel like somehow inherently non-spiritual. And I wondered what you think of that, this kind of difficulty in dealing with some of these really nitty-gritty human issues like around sexuality and power and resources and love and attention?

Terry: Well these are the quantities that we have most strongly in-built hardwired neurological and biochemical signaling around. It is opportunities for reproduction. It is opportunities to raise one’s status. It is power. Opportunities to feed first that have defined the very evolution of our neurology. And we’re social creatures so we tend to be comfortable where the rules are clear. And if somebody is top dog in some setting, they get the food first, they get their choice of the women. That was the way it used to be done back on the Savannahs when we were living in hunter-gatherer tribes and during which a lot of our hardwiring got laid down.

So to pioneer a way of being that goes beyond rigid rules and that really works is a daunting task for all of culture. It’s not just in the spiritual world, it’s right now everywhere. People don’t know how to deal with dating and sex before marriage and generally everybody has the experience that they can’t wait until marriage for sex and they do need to get some experience. But generally they feel that they’re all kinds of cross-motives. It’s complicated, right? We don’t know how to work in a grey area in general.

And then particularly in a spiritual setting we’re trying to get out of the profane every man for himself maximizing our power and influence, and then we tend to fall prey to this post-modern attitude that can’t really hold power, where we speak truth to power but we don’t really have an unambivalent relationship to it. We don’t want more power so we tend to be spiritual but disempowered. And then we admire somebody who can be spiritual and empowered, but typically they’re not playing by the same rules as those who are so careful not to misuse power. And later we feel betrayed and there’s this complexity when we engage a positive projection onto a teacher or an advanced student and then later discover that they’re human. That positive projection turns to a negative projection.

I think we’re in a time in which we have to be willing to step out from the costumes and the masks of our roles as teachers and students. And this is one of the ways that I would offer a very respectful challenge to many Buddhists because it’s none-theistic, because it’s so intelligent, because most Western Buddhist are very rational and clear and many of them very scientifically informed there’s a sense that the tradition, because it’s been able to pass all those tests that the traditions are somehow trustable. But you see because they have these forms, these forms that are so often very very handy and really really helpful, they’re still training wheels and they become rigid forms through which people easily can hide.

And some of the innovation that’s necessary now if we’re going to progress a conscious culture of self-responsible people who are practicing and awakening and whose consciousness is evolving, if we’re going to generate that there have to be Buddhisst who are stepping through the veils of their own tradition into a territory that’s a little less maped. And experimenting with a new ways of being in relation to power particularly that is spiritual practitioners if we do possess a higher level of awareness ought to be more influential rather than less influential over worldly affairs. And I don’t think we have any models for experimenting with that. And so becoming empowered and having a positive relationship to power, in general, and then being able to be with one another in a way that doesn’t involve any of that domination and submission or coercion or subtle peer group pressure and other dynamics that subtly violent, we have a lot of work to do. And I think that Buddhists can be leaders in this to the degree that they are stepping through the forms of their cultural tradition more creatively and boldly.

This is one of the things that came up for me as I thought about this conversation knowing that I’d be perhaps heard by many Buddhist practitioners who wouldn’t otherwise be aware of my work. And I wanted to suggest this challenge and I think it’s a broader one that we’re evolving a kind of consciousness and practice that is by its nature transcending old forms even as it retains them. And the leadership in transcending those forms even as we retain them has been mostly held by people who stepped outside their traditions. And I’m interested to see more leadership from people who are standing in their tradition but not hiding behind it.

The way that teachers hide behind the teacher role and don’t show their own questioning and don’t stand in there questioning and become visible is one of the key places that we can do something new that we know how to do where our vulnerability and integrity might edge us toward the evolution of something that our whole world needs.


Terry Patten

Terry Patten, is a vital, leading voice in the fields of integral evolutionary practice, leadership, and spirituality. He speaks and consults internationally, inspiring, challenging, and connecting leaders and institutions worldwide. A community-builder, entrepreneur, and author of four books, Terry has worked for over three decades as a philosopher, activist, coach, and teacher, helping leaders embody higher consciousness in practical actions that transform complex systems. He is the author, with Ken Wilber, of "Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening", and the host of the teleseminar series Beyond Awakening: The Future of Spiritual Practice.

Website: Integral Spiritual Practice