One of Sri Gurudev’s most senior devotees reveals the innermost yearnings that took her deep into Zen Buddhism as part of her Integral Yoga path. In this article, she shares her journey through personal stories, conversations with Swami Satchidananda and teaching parables.
Sri Gurudev (Swami Satchidananda) was my first teacher. I felt completely drawn to him and his teachings and in 1970 moved into the New York IYI. In 1972, Gurudev sent me to the “Word Out of Silence” interfaith retreat to teach the Yoga classes. True to Gurudev’s interfaith teachings, there was a beautiful sharing of spiritual practices from wonderful teachers including Pir Vilayat, Br. David, Fr. Berry, Alan Watts, Ram Das and Swami Venkatesananda. It was incredible for me. Sazaki Roshi had zazen every morning. Gurudev, Ram Das, and Alan Watts would all go and sit and we would join them for this meditation session.
Sazaki Roshi was doing dokusan and in those days I was very timid and afraid but I felt I didn’t want to miss sitting with this great master. Gesshin (who later became the Ven. Prabhasa Dharma Roshi) gave us an introduction and explained all the very extensive bowing and other protocols for the session. Sazaki Roshi gave a koan: “How do you realize yourself as the Buddha while listening to the sounds of the cricket? The last day came and I still didn’t have an answer to this koan. But I thought, “I can’t let this opportunity pass. I stumbled into the dokusan room where Sazaki Roshi sat firmly in his black robes. His energy was very strong and dense and he said: “Koan please.” In a squeaky voice I said the koan. He said: “Answer.” And I said: “I don’t know.” He looked at me and suddenly became very soft. Opening his arms he said, “Completely the Buddha surrounds you.” I felt a huge weight lifted. I also really appreciated his talks and Gesshin’s talks and started reading some books on Zen.
Over the years I developed a strong connection with Gesshin. I felt it was Sri Gurudev’s interfaith approach that introduced me to and drew me to Zen. I continued with all my Yoga practices and teaching Yoga. But, meditation was always really hard for me. I liked Hatha Yoga, the vegetarian diet felt very natural and the Integral Yoga philosophy and lifestyle was easy for me. I continued my mantra practice and had faith in that. But still, meditating regularly didn’t come naturally to me and I wanted to be able to do it that. I started to do Zen practice with long sittings, sesshins and I used to tell myself, “It doesn’t matter what happens here, you just need to be here.” There was never anything lacking in Sri Gurudev or his teachings. I wanted to do practice and Zen for me was like someone being in Integral Yoga and going to their local church or temple. I liked the formal sitting and the directness of Zen. There was nothing extra.
At one point I decided to take Jukai (entering the path) and I asked Gurudev if it was okay. He said, “What none of you have understood is that all of this is Integral Yoga.” I felt Gurudev gave me the space to have the meditation part of my Integral Yoga practice to be through Zen practice. I think he nourished his students in whatever way their energies longed for. He was so universal he could do that. So, I never felt I was not doing Integral Yoga. I feel fortunate to have a core teacher as completely open and inclusive as Sri Gurudev. In my heart he continues to be incomparable and I feel fortunate because when I wanted to try something else it wasn’t something other than him.
I love Buddhist practice because there is no ground to stand on. You never arrive. There is always the question, “What is underneath this?” What can you say that doesn’t violate things “as they are.” Before Jukai, I was reading the book, What the Buddha Taught. The author was saying that Hindus believe in an Atman (Self) and Buddhists believe in no self. I decided to call Gurudev and ask him about it. Gurudev said that when the Buddha was dying, Ananda, who was his chief assistant and disciple, was crying and Buddha asked why he was crying. Ananda said, “All these years you have never spoken about God.” Then, Buddha replied, “Ananda, when have I ever denied God?” So Ananda said, “Then you believe in God? to which Buddha replied, “Ananda, When have I ever affirmed God? Neither accept or reject.” Sri Gurudev replied just like the great Zen master he was.
I started reading more and books like Moon in a Dew Drop and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind and these had such a profound impact on me. I read the story of an old Zen teacher who died and his student said at his grave: “Eighty-one years just as it is.” In his book, Suzuki Roshi advised seekers, “Just to see things as they are and to let them go as they go.” And I realized that that is what I wanted to be able to do. I like the aesthetics and formality of Zen. Everyone dresses in black so there is no distraction. There is an etiquette upon entering and being in the zendo which immediately takes you into a reverential and meditative space. When you enter and walk in the zendo, your hands are in a certain position. The left hand is in a fist and the right hand is cupped over it just below the heart chakra. You bow to your cushion as the seat of the Buddha and then you bow to the person across from you as the Buddha. It’s the same respect, honor and reverence as if you were sitting with Gurudev.
I cherish this practice. During meditation the concentration is in the hara (the energy center located just below the navel) The eyes are slightly open so you don’t feel a separation between the inner self and outer world. Even during meditation you don’t want to create a separation—if you are going inward, it doesn’t mean you are not present to the outside. Suzuki Roshi said that before enlightenment it’s something special and after enlightenment it’s nothing special. If it is special, you are creating separation between special and not special.
I feel that every single thing in my life—my husband, children, friends, sitting, the practice—everything has been a gift from Sri Gurudev. Daily I thank him for my Hatha practice which has maintained my body and for all the Integral Yoga practices. Whatever health challenges I face, I feel he’s given me the gift of an easeful body due to these practices. And, I’m also grateful to feel that each day my mind is more and more peaceful. This doesn’t mean that I don’t have challenges or difficulties. There may be things going on in my life that I am trying to figure out, or I might find disturbing, but they are on a superficial level; at a deeper level I am in touch with the peace that Yoga and Zen have brought me.
I think Sri Gurudev was the consummate Zen Master. One of the things I love most that Gurudev said is, “This person, this body is like a mirror. Do not strive for the approval or smiles of the mirror. But strive to become that which you see. Then and only then will you know the essence of me intimately and will you recognize my presence and guidance in your heart.” That quote was printed under a photo of Gurudev and I meditated in front of that for years. I think of myself as a Yogi—I think that is a natural lifestyle for me—and I think this is one of the reasons my Zen center doesn’t press me to have the usual relationship with them; they acknowledge and respect that my Guru is Sri Gurudev and he is my Zen teacher too. They always say to me, “Thank you for coming to sit with us.” I learn so much from them and consider them a treasure.
Shakyamuni Buddha taught on Vulture Peak to a throng of people. They expected him to speak but he didn’t. He just held up a single flower. One person in that throng, named Mahapakasha, smiled and that became the first transmission from Master to student. I never aspired to stand out, to be a teacher, or to have anything other than this understanding, this essence of what Sri Gurudev is. I met Gurudev in 1970. Since then I have understood this Buddhist chant: “The dharma, incredibly profound and infinitely subtle, is rarely encountered even in millions of ages. Now we hear it, see it, receive and maintain it.”
About the Author:
Padma Wick met Sri Gurudev in 1970 and served as corresponding secretary at the New York IYI during its early days. Over the years she has taught Integral Yoga and contributed to Sri Gurudev’s interfaith service organizing several “Unity in Diversity” conferences. Padma has two grown sons, Ganesh and Muruga. She and her husband Vishnu live in Longmont, Colorado.
Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2006 issue
(Photo at top: Sri Swami Satchidananda and Prabhasa Dharma Roshi enjoyed many interfaith programs together for over a decade. Pictured at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville East, late 1970s.