October 5, 1996

Dear TRICYCLE Folks,

The psychedelic issue (Fall 1996) was great--brought back a lot of old memories--and while there was a great breadth of experience and insight, there is more that can be said; hence...

In order for human beings to cooperate in society, we have to share some common understanding of the nature of the world we live in. Language is the tool we use to describe and define this consensual reality, and thus we find that our ideas about what is real are doubly restricted: 1) By the cultural framework within which we are raised, and 2) By the inherent limitations of language--by its inability to do justice to the vast range of that which is.

Poets and scientists take on the job of improving the fit of language to reality--an endless quest: language is necessarily finite; the universe is not. Other visionaries take the approach of redefining the culture, changing society. And then there are the seekers: chaffing at the limitations imposed by society and language, they want more than an expansion of the limits, an improvement of the fit--they want out. Out of the cycle of birth and death.

All we human beings have in us a little of the poet, the scientist, the activist, the seeker. All of us have rebelled to some extent against the confinement imposed by group living--ask any two-year-old if being socialized is fun--"NO!". Societies have almost universally provided some means of relieving the pressures unavoidably built into them. Those means have included entertainment, intoxicants, and religions--in various forms and combinations.

This is the context within which each of us evolves, made even more complex and confusing by the global intermingling of cultures in the modern age. Who are we, and where do we fit in?

We are biological organisms with a fairly well developed sensory apparatus and the capacity for abstract thinking. Our brains provide us with an approximation of reality that is biologically and socially useful, but this approximation is not reality itself--it is only a working draft. This working draft of reality residing in our brains can be distorted and played with there in ways that are well beyond the range of what is biologically useful or sanctioned by our parent cultures.

Some twenty years ago I was sitting on a hill east of Reno, Nevada, on LSD, gazing across the valley at the Sierras, when I noticed that the peak directly in front of me had been multiplied by five. The five peaks were rotating lazily clockwise, but the surprise of seeing them jolted my perception back to normal, and they became one stationary mountain again. I started wondering if I could reproduce the effect, sort of relaxed into it, and there they were again. I could reverse their direction of rotation, shrink them and expand them; all quite marvelous--and impractical. Mountains are for climbing over, or going around, or digging into--things that are impossible to do if they keep multiplying themselves and moving around.

The contortions we put our mental images through, either with drugs or without, do not alter the reality that is "out there", although there seems to be some confusion on this point. What we do with the pictures in our brains is like scanning a photograph into a computer and altering it there--it doesn't change the scene originally recorded on film, although what is in the computer is real too--it is real information in a computer.

Our brains are themselves a part of reality, and if we know how they work, our interaction with the reality outside ourselves can be greatly enhanced. Drugs and meditation can give us useful insight into our brains' inner workings, as can the efforts of good old-fashioned Western science. If we put them all together we get something like this:

Consciousness is a mental phenomenon, just one of the five aggregates of grasping. It is the light the brain shines upon those of its contents that are determined--by conditions--to be important at any one moment. The conditions that determine where the light shines are programmed by biology and culture. If we are awake and hungry the light shines on food, or restaurants, or recipes; if we are cold, on sources of heat. If our needs are largely met, it wanders; if nothing at all is worth noting we sleep, and consciousness disappears.

Drugs disrupt, in one way or another, our brain's usual system of determining what is useful or important, and consciousness sweeps around in the brain like a dropped flashlight tumbling down the basement stairs. Perhaps not as chaotic and random as that, but the point is that whatever is revealed is already there--part of the brain's vast resources of images and image manipulation--untapped by the meager demands of the socially sanctioned reality of the practical.

The lesson: the version of reality endorsed by the forces of the status quo includes only a small portion of that which is possible: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy". And yet, although it may seem at times that all things are possible, still there are limits. As an old head once advised a dreamy young tripper, "There is a reality, and you have to pay attention to it or it can kick your butt." Even the ancients had to eat sometime.

Meditation allows us to narrow the focus of consciousness to a fine point and, with practice, to shine it into rooms and corners that everyday practicality finds no particular use for. We can visit the same territory that the wildly flashing light of drugged consciousness reveals, but with more control--if we find that sort of thing amusing. The really important lesson of meditation, however, lies in that word, "control"--who is in control?

Meditation can provide us with a background against which we see thoughts arising and disappearing. If we watch long enough we may become aware of the conditions under which they arise, and the conditions under which they disappear; and at some point we may realize that we have been brought to this very moment by conditions; that each of the thoughts, decisions, and actions of our lives was produced by all the conditions of the universe as they converged on a particular space and time. The illusion that there is a person, an ego, an independent entity that is in control of our thoughts, decisions, and actions is itself a product of conditions, and when we realize the conditions under which it arises, the stage is set for its disappearance. With its disappearance come peace and joy, and the freedom to watch the universe unfold in, through, and around us.


I love the place to which life has brought me, and I no longer wonder whether there might have been an easier, shorter way to get here. Every moment is a teacher, and I can't begin to guess which one I might have omitted, or what the next one might bring. Nor can I prescribe how anyone else should proceed. I used enough drugs to get myself a nine-year stretch with Alcoholics Anonymous--highly beneficial--and now, some three years beyond that, the idea of altering my consciousness more than by jazzing it with a little caffeine seems like punishment. More precisely: alcohol, marijuana (my one-time favorite), or any kind of downer seems like punishment; anything psychedelic would probably be entertaining, but who has time for entertainment? I don't watch TV, either.

All I can offer anyone else is my experience, which I try to do at greater length on my web page. Whether anyone should or shouldn't do as I have done I couldn't begin to say--the universe unfolds as it will. I am grateful for everything that has happened to me, including TRICYCLE.


Norm Bearrentine


June 18, 1997

To the editors of TRICYCLE:

(About a book review in the Summer, 1997 issue)

While Sarah Fremerman has a few nice things to say about Thomas Cleary's Book, THE FIVE HOUSES OF ZEN, the overall impression she leaves us with is that it doesn't have a lot to offer a Western reader in the late 20th century. She fears that "If we read them (these teachings) as an end in themselves, or as a guide to meditation practice, we risk ending up with a shallow interpretation." Leaving aside what it might mean to read these teachings "as an end in themselves", why should meditation on them put one at risk of a shallow interpretation?

Perhaps these fears are based on her observation that, "If the teachings of the masters of the Five Houses might be described as a kind of postdoctoral Zen, addressing the concerns of thoroughly experienced practitioners, then in the West we are, in that sense, just entering kindergarten." While Buddhism is relatively new to the West, does that mean that all Westerners must be restricted to books for beginners? Might not some be ready for more advanced material, and shouldn't even kindergartners be aware that there is life beyond kindergarten--that there is more to enlightenment than watching your breath?

Her complaint that "these readings can be perplexing, and at times the effort to make sense of them feels like trying on someone else's eyeglasses..." reminds me of a friend of mine who had monocular vision until he was in his twenties. He never knew that his way of seeing the world was different from that of "normal" people, and when, as a result of karate training, he began getting normal binocular vision, it was so strange to him that he thought he was going crazy. The description of reality by those who see it just-as-it-is can indeed be perplexing from a conventional point of view, but Zen practice might aptly be described as wearing the Buddha's prescription until reality as he saw it becomes clear.

In spite of all the progress we have made since the time of the Buddha, since the time of Huang-po, suffering is still suffering, and the work that must be done has not changed. The same obstacles to understanding arise generation after generation, and people veer away into the same dead-end alleys. Yung-ming's "brief notice of one hundred twenty kinds of views and understandings characteristic of false cults" rings as true today as it did a thousand years ago.

All teachings are temporary expedients, even the Buddha's, as he himself illustrated with the story of the raft and its abandonment after the river is crossed. But those who have crossed over to the Pure Land, those whose temporary use of the teachings for themselves is done, still use them to help others build a raft--the plan itself, the eight-fold path, is timeless.

It is true, of course, that even contemporary Western scholars who read Chinese could never grasp all the nuances of meaning available to someone raised in such an ancient, foreign, and Buddhist-saturated environment as the monasteries of the Five Houses. Those of us who have spent less than a lifetime studying the body of material from which these teachings were drawn must inevitably lose much of what is potentially there, but even for us there are treasures in abundance. Cleary has set out a banquet from which a broad spectrum of wayfarers can take nourishment. Is it helpful to those who are hungry to point out that there is more here than one can eat?

A morsel from Hung-chih: "By the forms of combinations of objects and mind, puppets act out their parts on a stage. Breaking through the painted screen, come on back; the home fields are broad and clear."(THE FIVE HOUSES OF ZEN, Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, 1997)


June 19, 1997

To Sarah Fremerman:

Dear Sarah,

Enclosed you will find a letter I wrote about your review of THE FIVE HOUSES OF ZEN and sent to the editors of TRICYCLE. I also sent a copy to Thomas Cleary via Shambhala Publications.

Different people have different affinities for different books, of course, and your review leaves the impression that this one didn't speak to you in a very meaningful way. In contrast, I thought it had so much to offer that I wanted to give it a more favorable slant if I could.

While our reactions to the book itself were different, your suggestion that "maybe the next step will be to rethink this material in terms native to Western culture" is one I agree with; in fact it is the direction my own writing has taken. I have a web page in which I present my efforts (http://www.rentine.com). So far I have been mainly laying the groundwork, but I hope soon to start examining some of these teachings from a late 20th century point of view.

In my first reading of the FIVE HOUSES book, I was struck by the very passage you quoted from Huang-po, but my reaction was very different from your reaction that "it is very easy to think one has understood the essence..."

From a conventional point of view, "This reality is mind; there is no truth outside of mind", is not easily understood. It has the sense that there is no objective reality outside one's mind, that hydrogen bombs, supermarkets, and space shuttles are somehow imaginary. The guys I work with would dismiss it out of hand--there is a difference between one's mind and one's ski-boat.

But suppose one were to say, for example, that your mind and your ski-boat are both made of atoms--they are made of the same stuff, subject to the same physical forces. In that sense they are parts of the system of physics and chemistry that encompass the whole universe, and that system as a whole can be thought of as one huge, incredibly complex thing. If you think of the universe as a thing, then there is nothing that isn't "it"--there is nothing outside of it. The ski-boat is it, global warming is it, a shopping cart is it, your mind is it. If your mind is as much the universe as anything else, and there is nothing outside your mind that isn't the universe, then your mind and the universe are one--mind is the universe, the universe is mind--"this reality is mind; there is no truth outside of mind. This mind itself is truth; there is no mind outside of reality.".

On the one hand, this may seem to be nothing more than word play. Even though it makes sense in terms of physics and chemistry, my ski-boat buddies are not going to see the point. They will say, "What can you do with it?"

What you can do is experience it. The unity of everything can be experienced with the same unwavering conviction that you experience the cold plastic handle of your shopping cart, and simultaneously, everything can be experienced as uniquely itself.

With that experience comes the end of suffering, but only those of us who have suffered are motivated to seek it. Those who have not found life so difficult, who find happiness in a six-pack and a barbecue, have no impetus to pay the apparent price--the giving up of their unique separateness. Ultimately, separateness is as real as unity, but clinging to it obscures the big picture.

To cling to "mind" as separate from the universe obscures the point of view from which it is the universe itself; obscures the fact that it is "inherently mindless": inherently not a separate thing. If mind is not a separate thing, then a "mindless one" could not be a separate thing, either. In trying to be a mindless one, a person is clinging to the idea of mind as a separate thing, and as long as the idea of mind as a separate thing is clung to, "minding" as a manifestation of that separateness is there.

"Mind is inherently mindless; and there is no mindless one, either. If you mindfully try to be mindless, then minding is there.

"Its just a matter of silent accord; it is beyond all conception. That is why it is said that there is no way to talk about it, no way to think about it."

To experience silent accord is to experience the simultaneous unity and separateness of everything--experiencing it is different than talking or thinking about it--it is it. Experiencing it is different than "thinking one has understood the essence of a passage such as this one..." It is different than "ending up with a shallow interpretation." An interpretation may be shallow, but an experience is less likely to be so.

One experience does not always make one enlightened, of course. The immediate reaction can be, "Was that it? Was that what they are talking about?" One way of eliminating doubt is to read what these ancient folk said about it as one continues to overcome a lifetime of habitual "minding". There will come a time when many of these perplexing passages become clear as autumn water, and about those that don't become clear, one can either say that they "are meant to thwart intellectual analysis," that they are poetry, that their meaning is lost in the mists of time, or that they are not yet clear; but one will not doubt the fundamental, ultimate truth.

My point, (finally!) is that I think these translations are incredibly valuable. Yes, I think it would be helpful to rethink them in contemporary terms, (even though my own efforts along those lines may not be particularly helpful), but I think there is a great deal to be gained by struggling with them in the form that Cleary has presented them. I think we can trust that he has our best interests at heart. These passages were drawn from a great mass of possibilities, and I'm certain they were not chosen at random.

So, Sarah, if you can find anything of value in all this, you can thank the universe, and if you find it all worthless drivel, you can thank the universe for that as well. "I" am just along for the ride, but there is something that wishes you joy and peace.

Yours truly,

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(The End of Open Letters)