On the Caravan, Stephen talked about the days when he was just beginning to integrate his spiritual experiences and how hed originally considered inventing new systems of precepts and practices to catalyze similar understandings in other people:
"So I started thinking of all the things youd have to do to set up something really straight, that every monkey could trust. I thought that a real religion would have to affirm the essential oneness of all of them. I found that later expressed in Mahayana Buddhism."
The unique feature which drew Stephen and the rest of us toward the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism is the ideal of the bodhisattva who is dedicated to awakening for the liberation of all sentient beings. Stephens earliest definition of the Mahayana is found in the beginning of Monday Night Class where he states:
"And the thing about the great boat, the greater vehicle, is its the one that includes everybody...Cause if it doesnt include everybody you just cant get very high on it ... like when you start a bubble, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, and if it includes everybody it can keep growing indefinitely. If it doesnt include everybody, it gets to a point where somebody says, Im not in this bubble man ...you know, and then pop. There it goes. So you always gotta be sure that everybodys in them."
On the basis of understanding the essential unity of all life and consciousness, the practice of all-embracing compassion toward sentient beings is a hallmark of Mahayana Buddhism. This is known as the generation of Bodhicitta or the Mind of Awakening. In the above quote, Stephen stresses the importance of considering the welfare of all sentient beings in each of our actions, but the linear imagery of a sphere expanding to include everybody suggests an intent to create a movement that would follow in the footsteps of Sherwin-Williams and cover the globe, so to speak. In contrast, a practitioner of Mahayana Buddhism is already working for all sentient beings whether his particular sect grows popular or not.
The Caravan was launched in the wake of the Kent State killings and an extreme polarization between large factions of the society over the issue of the Vietnam war. Stephens offering was timely, necessary and basically a positive influence in the world. Since it was primarily the masses of generally immature humanity who were the real focus of his address, on subsequent tours he travelled with his own rock and roll band, seeking to attract people who might otherwise have had no inclination to commit themselves to such a lifestyle.
To clarify the right motivation for practice, the Mahayana stresses that the accumulation of good karma realized by the practitioner must be dedicated to the welfare of all. In an effort to offer people a relatively balanced, productive way of life as an attractive alternative to suburban nucleation, Stephen popularized these ideas. The esoteric meaning of these teachings was generally unexamined and in some cases, unwittingly falsified and reinterpreted in a limited manner that tended toward the glorification of social existence.
The tenets of Mahayana Buddhism are unequivocally dedicated to the welfare of all beings. Everybody and anybody is welcomed and encouraged to take refuge in the Buddha, to study the Dharma and to practice with the Sangha. There are no restrictions based on race, age, sex or social position. This does not mean that Mahayana communities will redesign their precepts or lower their disciplinary standards to accommodate the indifference of the common man. The Farm gate crew was responsible for communicating the nature of our agreements to visitors, most of whom displayed a measure of empathy with our effort and were welcomed in. There was certainly merit in our generosity, and these interactions educated our guests as well as enriching the Farm. The fact that people were passing through was a boon. Our pathological weakness was subtler than that.
Without a deeper understanding of the Dharma, we unwittingly gave in to our own mediocrity. To fulfill the Mahayana ideal and serve sentient beings effectively, one must be in a position of spiritual strength and well-established equanimity. Without having cultivated one-pointed concentration and a profound aversion for the karmas that perpetuate bondage, it is frivolous to talk of accomplishing the welfare of sentient beings.
An empowered effort to fulfill the bodhisattva vows and be useful to the world must have a very solid basis in the practices and trainings which blossom as the transcendental capabilities of a Buddha. The Mahayana lineages have always created sanctuaries with very specific guidelines to help accomplish the birth of divine wisdom in ones inmost consciousness. The bodhisattva vows are based on the intention to realize Buddhahood for the sake of all life. The primary emphasis is on awakening to our real nature because it is only once we are relatively free of our own obscurations that we can offer the most meaningful help to others.
Altruistic activities performed without this non-dual wisdom will also accumulate a degree of merit and lead to progressively better circumstances in this life or rebirth in the higher worlds after death, but at best, these activities only support the eventual awakening of transcendental insight and do little to expedite awakening in this present life. In itself, the practice of virtuous activities is not the goal of the bodhisattva.
Buddhism doesnt teach the observance of morality as an end in itself, but observes ethical behavior as a means of freedom from internal distractions and cultivating the tranquility necessary to develop meditative concentration. This is why the practice of generosity, morality, patience and joyful effort are all referred to as paramitas, a Sanskirt word meaning, going beyond. Such disciplines contribute to the accumulation of good karma but must be complemented with wisdom or non-dual insight in order to realize perfect Buddhahood. This is the highest good.
In the Diamond sutra, the Buddha said -
Do not think, Subhuti, that the Tathagata would consider within himself: -I will deliver human beings. That would be a degrading thought. Why? Because really there are no sentient beings to be delivered by the Tathagata. Should there be any sentient beings to be delivered by the Tathagata, it would mean that the Tathagata was cherishing within his mind arbitrary conceptions of phenomena such as ones own self, other selves, living beings and an universal self. Even when the Tathagata refers to himself, he is not holding in his mind any such arbitrary thought. Only terrestrial human beings think of selfhood as being a personal possession. Subhuti, even the expression terrestrial beings as used by the Tathagata does not mean that there are any such beings. It is used only as a figure of speech.
He goes on to tell Subhuti that to study, understand and explain even one stanza of this scripture to others is worth far more merit than to offer an abundance of the seven treasures sufficient to fill the three thousand great universes to charity. Such a statement can only be understood in reference to the primacy of the essential wisdom elucidated in this sutra. The Diamond of the title refers to the Essence of Mind, the Transcendental Reality, the Void-Emptiness or Suchness of all phenomena, the Origin and Ultimate Abode of All Activity.
In the Platform Sutra, the great Chan master Hui-Neng echoes the Tathagatas words from the Diamond Sutra as he offers his audience a penetrating commentary on the inner meaning of the vow of the bodhisattva, 1300 years before the emergence of the holographic paradigm:
We have now vowed to deliver an infinite number of sentient beings; but what does that mean? It does not mean that I , Hui-neng is going to deliver them. And who are these sentient beings, potential within our minds? They are the delusive mind, the deceitful mind, the evil mind, and such like - all these are sentient beings. Each of them has to be delivered by oneself by means of his own Essence of Mind; only by his own deliverance, is it genuine.
In all the Buddhist traditions, it is the realization of Emptiness, this Essence of Mind, which generates the wisdom consciousness that is considered to be of the highest spiritual value. As the Sixth Patriarch has indicated, it is primarily our dualistic and emotional conceptions which must be transformed through insight ( prajna ) into their true nature so that compassion arises spontaneously. Without this understanding, even the experience of cosmic consciousness will slowly fade as the mundane karmas of deluded self-interest reemerge and continue to determine events.
In a Tibetan canonical Prajna-paramita commentary, it is written:
Just as one desirous of reaching a certain city requireth the eyes for seeing and the feet for traversing the way, so doth one desirous of reaching the City of Nirvana require the eyes of Prajna and the feet of Upaya (skillful means).
Good works performed without transcendental wisdom bind one to causality. Our path was naïvely imbalanced toward the horizontal axis to the degree of mystical acrophobia. The life of meditation, spiritual inquiry, study, and ritual consecration was pre-empted by the runaway demands of our socialist-work-athon ethos. Without the meditative experiences and spiritual understanding to support our uncommon efforts, our glorious option would gradually erode and eventually began to feel oppressive and hollow.
Over the years, the gulf widened between what was popularly espoused and common practiced. Double-think became insidious. Vasubandhu defines doubt as to be in two minds about truth; its function is to serve as a basis for not becoming involved with postive things. The failure to generate meditative equaqnimity and focus inevitably hobbled us with collective blinders. Vasubandhu defines inattentiveness as awareness which is simultaneous with and on the same level as the emotions and thereby is made inattentive regarding actions by body, speech, and mind. It has the function of providing a basis for falling from one's level of being. Shantideva wrote,
A person who is learned and has trust
But does not apply himself diligently
Will be sullied by falling from his status
Because the defect of not being watchful has clung to him.
It is not by burying our individuality in a group identity that we transcend the ego but only through a profound and thorough investigation of ourselves, and through familiarity with wisdom teachings, developing a clear minded insight into the life process. Far from being archaic and sanguine niceties, ritualized spiritual practices may directly contribute to this awakening process when undertaken with proper motivation.
By the time we had arrived to live on the Farm in the summer of 1974, Stephen was about half way through doing a year in jail for that hundred pounds of ganja hed told them not to plant... but would they listen? After initially closing the gates for a few months, they were again re-opened and the community continued to take on new members in his absence. For Tenkar and I the format consisted of a short meeting with Stephens main wife, Ina May whose main concern was that we were of age and that our parents knew where we were. Even after his release, very few of us who came after midsummer 1974 had made any face to face agreements with him regarding the mutual responsibilities of teacher and student. Over the seven years I was associated with the Farm, there were a minimum of formal introductions between Stephen and new students. There was no mandatory or periodic interviews to evaluate or intimately assess a students spiritual growth. To connect with the Friendly Stranger and introduce yourself was considered a personal responsibility.
Theoretically, the overall lifestyle and basic spiritual principles of the Farm were the shared vision that would help create the appropriate conditions for effective sadhana, superseding the traditional intimacy of the guru-devotee relationship or any necessity for esoteric transmission. The irrelevance of the spiritual teacher was so played down on the Farm that by the time I was ready to leave the community I felt virtually no obligation to inform Stephen of my plans. By then (1981), he had abandoned his role and responsibilities to the degree that it would have been irrelevant to single him out and tell him anything about my personal life. Besides, he didnt really care.
On the old Farm, the highest form of devotion to the common ideals had always translated out as working hard with good vibes. This was honorable and everybody had plenty of opportunities to exercise their capacity for such service besides enjoying the good society of others given to the same sacrifice. Unfortunately, this was an insufficient bond to keep us together for much more than a decade. Our simplistic yoga did not address the deeper levels of egoic conditioning carried over from the past. It was tacitly assumed that the necessary purification and reconditioning of the conscious and subconscious minds would be adequately accomplished by one-pointed intensity to the task at hand. Except for the occasional anomaly, usually attributable to the wider human oddysey, it all seemed pretty straightforward.
As Stephen had no human guru, we had no formal association with a lineage of transmission. This led to a situation where the description of the path itself was often rather elusive. Without a legacy of myths, symbols and sacred language, we were consumed by visions of mundane objects and concepts comprising the stuff of our practical lives, and whatever there may have been of our high idealism gradually devolved into gregarious narcissism and spiritual mediocrity.
Six years after coming to Tennessee, Stephen was still trying to define it for us:
Once again I find myself wanting to say, Dont think that we dont have a path if it isnt drawn on the white line on the highway. I think, Why should I be in a position of saying that after all these years? What we are doing here is a path. Pay attention, because if you dont understand it as a path and if you arent trying to tread that path, you are left out of the major information circuits on the Farm, because thats the one that everyones in on.
It might be assumed that Stephen is referring here to the path that leads to enlightenment, but by the time this talk was given (1977), it is tactfully left unsaid. Where the path leads is only inferred, leaving the responsibility to fill in the blank to his listeners. The longer we were on the Farm, the less anybody heard about enlightenment or the attainment that lay at the end of our particular journey. The path in this case was not a dynamic process of spiritual development, but a loose cliché invariably associated with the success of the Farm itself in its role as a catalyst for planetary change. This path does not refer to the ultimate unfolding of individual potential so much as to creating a magnet for media attention and insuring the feudal subsistence of the group. As long as the movement appeared to be more enlightened than the individual, it seemed plausible to accept the community as guru, but it would not always be that way.
The practical emphasis was to find ones place in the collective and serve diligently To some, the neurotic complexity of the situation left them unable to discern the differences between service and exploitation. After leaving the community, the once-beloved lead guitarist for the Farm Band said that the main thing that he learned to do on the Farm was 'kiss ass.'
The nature of the relationship between the individual and the absolute was never well articulated.