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The Threads of the Past

I recently returned from Maui, where I co-taught a retreat with old friends Ram Dass, Krishna Das, and Mirabai Bush. I’ve known each of them since I first learned meditation in January 1971 in Bodhgaya, India. In other words, I’ve known each of them a lifetime, or the several lifetimes each of us have lived in the past 44 years.

At my first meditation retreat, Ram Dass was considered the patriarch, the elder. He’d been to India before, he’d been a Harvard professor (albeit fired for psychedelic experimentation), and while we were in that little town in India we received a copy of his seminal book Be Here Now for the first time, in its original box. Much later, I was shocked to realize he was only 38 at the time! Of course, I was only 18 but still — now 38 seems awfully young to be an elder!

Some years later, in 1974, Ram Dass was invited to teach a large class of about 1,000 people at the opening summer of Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He invited my friend Joseph Goldstein, whom I had also met at my first retreat, to lead the meditation subgroup of the mega-class. I arrived back in the U.S. from my second trip studying meditation in India about halfway through the first summer session of Naropa.

A number of friends were just coming back to the U.S. then, and our joke in recounting it — though it was actually true — was that Joseph was the one of our immediate circle with a job and an apartment, so a number of us descended on Boulder. At one point there were about nine of us living in Joseph’s one bedroom apartment. Sometimes he tells the story from his point of view and describes how he struggled with that (he’s a very meticulous person, for one thing), until he gave up the thought that it was his apartment and thought of it as belonging to all of us. Our neighbor down the hall was Jack Kornfield, also teaching a class at Naropa. In a very real way, it was Ram Dass’s invitation that brought the three of us together: Jack, Joseph, and me.

Following that summer we began to respond to invitations to lead retreats — sometimes two of us, at times all three of us. At the end of a retreat we actually never knew if there would be another retreat, until the next invitation arrived. These were the days, after all, when meditation was not nearly as popular or researched. If you were in a serious profession, you likely wouldn’t disclose your hippie-ish pursuit, and, if you weren’t studying Buddhism, it was extremely unlikely you’d ever think to use the word “mindfulness.”

Often as we waited to see if another retreat would come together, we were sleeping in friends’ guest rooms or on living room couches, arriving with most of our worldly possessions, which usually wasn’t all that much but could still take up some room. One friend and frequent host, perhaps in an attempt to try to create some space for himself, offered us a house in Felton, California, which he had used a rental property. We moved in and opened a retreat center there. We offered the space for people to do personal retreats, and occasionally had a small group retreat as well. We called it Dhamma Vihara, Dwelling of Truth in Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts.

One day someone came through to do a retreat there and said to us, “You know, you should really start a meditation center in this country, not just a house. I know the people who can help you, who can serve on your first board of directors and help you figure out a legal structure, how to find a property, etc. They are in Massachusetts.” This comment set us on the path that pretty quickly led to establishing the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, which is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

As I write this, I just arrived at Felton a few hours ago. I came out to California from New York City to visit friends who recently moved to Felton from Los Angeles. I couldn’t believe it when they told me where they were going. I haven’t been here since the Dhamma Vihara house was the genesis of the Insight Meditation Society, which has served thousands. It’s a little eerie to be back here, a lifetime later, and so soon after seeing Ram Dass.

The Buddha said:

“Life is like an echo, a rainbow, a bubble in a stream. It’s like a flash of lightening in a summer’s sky, a drop of dew on a blade of grass.”

Everything happens, and it’s evanescent — shimmering, here yet insubstantial, impactful and fragile, luminous and dissolving all at the same time.

Ram Dass, this town, and certainly the Insight Meditation Society, are some of the markers of my life as it arises and passes away, as it flows on and all inexorably changes. How can 40 years have gone by? Today, feeling the passage of time, life does indeed seem just like a dream.

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