Authentic Life


Two years after I wrote this blog article I received an email from a former member of the Source Family who says the documentary I talk about in this article is entirely misleading. Here is her blog about what she says really went on.

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The other day I re-watched the movie THE SOURCE FAMILY and started thinking about authentic ways of life.

The Source Family is a documentary about the most quintessential seventies California sex-drugs-rock’n’roll and spiritual goopty-goo cult you could possibly imagine. Led by a charismatic millionaire, health food advocate, martial arts master and wanna-be yogi who called himself alternately Father Yod or Yo Ho Wah, they advocated marijuana, meditation, tantric sex and alfalfa sprouts as a way to transcend the restrictions of the straight world.

What struck me most was how many of the people who joined Father Yod in his crazy quest were fairly sane and intelligent people. I got the impression that few of them actually bought into most of the cobbled-together spirituality but were willing to go along with it because it seemed like a better alternative to how normal people live their lives. You only have this life. Why not do something outrageous and fun with it?

All of us are looking for an authentic way to live. Mainstream society presents us with a model that is quite clearly broken and inefficient. But it sorta-kinda works, so most of us just go along with it to some degree. We go to school, maybe go to college, get jobs, get 401K plans, do the things that other people do to make their way through life and then when the time comes we drop dead like everybody else. We work hard at jobs we hate and look for pleasure when we can afford it.

People in power  — or those who’d like to be in power — create fantasy scenarios to try to get us to happily do the things that keep them in power (or the things they hope will put them in power). The dominant Western paradigm these days says that consumption is good and that money will buy you happiness (at least temporarily). This enables Wal Mart and Mercedes Benz and the Bank of America and all the rest to stay in the business of selling you stuff.

If you’re reading this blog I’ll assume you’ve already decided that’s all bullshit. I did a long time ago. But you’re still probably wondering what you can do to live a life that is real, that has some sort of value and that will make you reasonably happy or at least content most of the time.

When I see people who join religious cults I don’t think they’re idiots. Some of them probably are. But I generally think, “There’s someone who is trying to find a way to live an authentic life.” They’re intelligent enough to see through the dominant paradigm and bold enough to do something decisive about it rather than just letting it grind away at them until they can’t be ground away at anymore.

And I look at myself and think, “Here I am, a representative of one of those kooky religious orders that tries to offer people a different way to live.” I don’t think Zen is religious. But for the sake of discussion I’ll call it that since that’s how people see it.

Like any other kooky religious order out there, Zen is built upon a foundation of actual insight into how things are and a whole lot of trial-and-error as to what ought to be done about it.

I think the best way to pick what kooky alternative lifestyle you’re going to choose to follow is to try to determine how much real insight there is at its core, how much time they’ve had to work on the trial-and-error aspect, whether the other people involved in it seem happy and connected to reality, and whether it just plain makes any sense or not.

When I look at the Source Family I can see a lot of things that would have made it attractive to me had I been old enough to be interested when it was active. You’ve got healthy food, lots of sex, a sense of purpose, a strong community. But on the other hand, if I’d looked into the insights of its leadership I’d probably have thought the same things I thought when I looked into the Hare Krishnas. It’s all very beautiful but it ultimately doesn’t make any sense. There’s insight involved, but it’s pretty shallow.

I think some people are willing to overlook that aspect if the other parts of the lifestyle in question are attractive enough. Or maybe they just take it all in and hope that eventually it will make some sense. Perhaps they work very hard to convince themselves they believe in it when they actually don’t. And, of course, there are some folks who actually do believe in those shallow insights or fail to see how limited they are. But I think you have to start off with a lot of ignorance or at least naivety and then, as new information becomes available you have to work hard to either avoid it or strengthen your denial mechanisms.

I couldn’t do that. So I never joined the Hare Krishnas. The punk rockers made more sense. But they hadn’t had time to work on the trial-and-error aspects of their movement. It has outlasted the hippies and beatniks because it learned from their mistakes. But it still only goes so far.

Zen made perfect sense to me. It was completely reasonable, completely rational. It didn’t try to fight against science. It had worked on the trial-and-error aspects for 2500 years and gotten a lot of the bugs out.

I couldn’t buy into the Zen monastic thing, but I didn’t have to. I think it works brilliantly for certain people, yet I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. Luckily, people who came along way before me had already figured that out so there was an established place for those who wanted to work on the practice but couldn’t see the sense in committing to the monastic life, at least for themselves.

I still struggle sometimes with this question of how to live an authentic life. I think you have to have doubts. My first Zen teacher said that this practice required both doubt and faith. That balance is what keeps you from losing the truth.

But I no longer look at folks like the Source Family or their current equivalents and wonder if maybe they’re right. Sure, other alternative lifestyles might look more fun. I went to a big SoCal polyamorist gathering when I was working on Sex Sin and Zen. Those people got to have loads of wild sex. But I could see that it was making them kind of crazy. It looked like fun, but it lacked any kind of stable foundation. The Hare Krishnas still have way better food than the Zennies (although the bread at Tassajara is fantastic). But as long as they keep putting out books saying that evolution is wrong, I’m not going to join.

I know I made the correct choice. There are variations I could try. Sometimes I think it’s possible I should go freeze my ass off in some mountain monastery and submit to getting bossed around by jerks in brown robes for a while just to see what it’s really like. Maybe I will. But the particular variation on the theme of how-to-be-Zen that I’ve been following for the past few decades has worked out mostly OK.

For now, I’ll just keep on keeping on.

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The audiobook of Hardcore Zen is now available from Amazon and Get yours today!

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Here’s my 2014 European Tour as it stands:

Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined

Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland

Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany

Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany

Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany

Oct 18-19 Possibly in Bonn, Germany (not confirmed)

Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany (probably)

Oct 24 Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 25 Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands

Oct 26 Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands

Oct 27-30 Amsterdam, Netherlands (exact dates to be determined, but within that week)

Oct 31 Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 1-2 Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands

Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK

Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)

That’s all I know for now. Only the event in Benediktushof is currently open for registration. You can reserve your spot at this link. Please don’t write me asking for details about the other events because right now this is all I know for certain.

95 Responses

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  1. Wibble
    Wibble June 15, 2014 at 4:34 pm |

    Well if you’re chanting you’re not doing anything much else I suppose.
    It does have legs does chanting, almost all religions have chanting in one form or another.
    They’d not have stuck with it for so long if it didn’t do the trick.
    Back in the old days on political demos if one could get the crowd chanting slogans then it was a lot easier to engineer a kick off along the lines of…
    ” Once they start chanting they stop thinking.”
    ( Scargill).

  2. Jinzang
    Jinzang June 15, 2014 at 4:51 pm |

    “How would chanting sutras have a direct transformative effect on the consciousness that bypasses thinking?”

    There’s a story how Machig Lapdron, the woman who founded the chod (severance) practice tradition in Tibet, attained enlightnement after reciting the 100,000 verse perfection of wisdom sutra three times in a week.

    Any action performed without grasping has a transformative effect on consciousness. Whether reading sutras or eating a meal. The problem with the “meditation only” crowd is they expect to find something, see something, achieve something. There’s no problem with meditation, but how to smash the gaining idea without stepping outside the mercenary mindset which is so prevalent in our culture? Traditionally in Tibetan Buddhism this is done by cultivating devotion. Which is why statues, bowing, the whold nine yards some peole find irrational. The problem with being “rational” is that in most people’s minds it’s bound up with self-interest. And self is the thing we are trying to see though.

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles June 16, 2014 at 4:41 am |

      Very nicely put.

  3. Fred
    Fred June 15, 2014 at 4:52 pm |

    Mark Foote:

    “Mind,having no fixed abode, should flow forth”

    as the words that Huineng heard from the Diamond Sutra in the marketplace when his zither got plucked now sends me other possible translations and their source:

    ‘…Robert Aitken says, “One tradition states that this moment occurred at the lines: ‘Dwell nowhere and bring forth the mind.” Sekida says it was, “Without abiding anywhere, let the mind work.” Shibayama says it was the line, “No mind, no abode, and here works the mind.” These are all from commentaries on Mumonkan case #23”²”

    That’s it.

  4. Fred
    Fred June 15, 2014 at 4:55 pm |

    When the bottom of the bucket is ready to break, a slap on the head could
    trigger it.

    Yet endless chanting, not so much.

  5. minkfoot
    minkfoot June 15, 2014 at 7:12 pm |

    Dealing with words seems unavoidably conceptual, doesn’t it? But the focus of the practice is not the sutra as an object, but an interactive partner. Think of Huineng hearing “Arouse the mind without fixing it anywhere.” Think of koans. Think of chanting the Heart Sutra, especially in Sino-Japanese or Sanskrit. An oblique approach gets right to subconscious levels.

    Read the section of the Shurangama Sutra concerning the preparation of a place for practicing the Way. Just to prepare the ground of the place, you need to mix incense with the dung of a white calf that eats only the grass that grows in certain valleys of the Himalayas. Taking this at face value is absurd. Realizing deeply the need for diligence in arranging for one’s own practice is an invaluable effect of chanting this section.

    So, how can a novice know what is baby and what bathwater? With basic humility, one ought to adopt the whole practice, though not blindly. With whole-hearted practice, even bathwater can become baby.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot June 15, 2014 at 7:46 pm |

      Anybody curious about the Way-practicing place in the Shurangama can find it at
      The physical prep begins at section 6.76.

  6. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 15, 2014 at 9:49 pm |

    I’m sick and tired, and I’m not going to take it anymore!

    whew. Sorry. I’ll take it down shortly, but I just had to do it.

    I am not so good at chanting, but as far as world magic goes, seems like it’s all about a trance. Erickson spoke of interrupting the rhythm of doing, and of helping someone to find their own way into trance by speaking of the benefit and helping them give themselves permission. Maybe that’s what Kobun was talking about, other people give us permission.

    Other people here are giving me permission not to know.

  7. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 15, 2014 at 9:50 pm |

    ah, other people here are helping me give myself permission not to know…

    1. Mumbles
      Mumbles June 16, 2014 at 4:43 am |

      “I do not abide in the mind.” -Nisargadatta Maharaj

  8. woken
    woken June 16, 2014 at 12:54 am |

    “Which is why statues, bowing, the whold nine yards some peole find irrational. The problem with being “rational” is that in most people’s minds it’s bound up with self-interest. And self is the thing we are trying to see though.”

    This is one reason why people styling them as “spiritual teachers” or whatever go off the rails IMO. A lot of gullible people basically will do whatever their teacher tells them to. teachers are only human.It’s just an invitation to all sorts of exploitation and abuse, as ae’ve seen all across various sects and cults.

    I agree about the “gaining mind” being endemic in western society and the source of much of our unhappiness. However, this mindset is so prevelant that everything can be used to feed it, otherwise it is destroyed. What this means for traditional spiritual practices is that they invariably become corrupt and the anthesis of what they claim to do. As soon as you start trying to make money out of your spiritual work, it’s finished. It becomes a “brand” and subject to market forces just like anything else. And like any other “brand” the only value and ideas of right and wrong are predicated on the growth and poftability of the brand, so all sorts of ethically questionable behaviour becomes justifiable. This is one reason while spiritual teachers of the past were so strict on material gain, vows of poverty etc. sprtual orders in older societies were based on patronage. This wasn’t perfect by any means, but it allowed schools and orders to develop without too much reliance on the market.

    In any event, spiritual practice in todays mercantile society is worse than useless if done for money. t can’t be done, and sprtual practicioners shouldn’t even play the game. Our age is a time for quiet personal cultivation, outside of big organisations.

  9. Katageek
    Katageek June 17, 2014 at 12:08 pm |

    Great article Brad.

  10. Inge
    Inge June 19, 2014 at 6:05 pm |

    I nominated you for the “Very Inspiring Blogger Award”. You can visit my blog to find out more …

Comments are closed.