Journey Without Goal:
Reflections of a First-Generation American Buddhist
In the past fifteen years, the practice of meditation, as well as many of the core principles of Buddhism, has begun to influence Western thinking and culture in ways that promise to be increasingly transformative and far-reaching.
The teaching of mindfulness has entered the mainstream as a powerful tool for stress-reduction and greater emotional intelligence. In the theoretical and experimental discoveries of quantum physics, cutting-edge Western science has begun to find many compelling parallels to the ancient Tibetan Buddhist practice of profound, non-dual awareness as a direct experience.
The Dalai Lama, with his lifelong interest in Western science, has done much to encourage and facilitate this revolutionary East-West dialogue.
But equally as influential in sparking the growing interest in Buddhist theory and practice in the West, has been the work of Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, scholar, and poet who founded Naropa University, the first Buddhist-inspired institution of higher learning in the Western world.
Frank W. Berliner, Class of 1967, met Trungpa there in the summer of 1974, just as this unprecedented cultural experiment was being launched. What follows is Frank's account of the journey that brought him to that meeting, and to his life's vocation from then on, culminating with his work over the past twenty years as a professor of Buddhist and Western humanistic psychology at Naropa.
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” --Cary Grant
I went to Yale because my father wanted me to go to Yale. Or perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that I thought he did. He would never have been so obvious as to reveal his real wishes for me by saying it aloud.
Yes, he had gone to Yale, and he was proud of having done so. But as for his ambitions for his oldest son, he would only flash his charming smile and say, “Frankie, you should go to college wherever you want to.”
As a boy, I idolized my father. My sole purpose in life, it seemed, was to please him. This I did by excelling in everything I tried from as early as I can remember. By the time I reached high school, the pattern was fully formed: straight A's in every course; star baseball and tennis player; president of my class; leading man in the school musical; nearly 800 in every college board exam I took in my junior and senior years.
Of course it was gratifying to be admired and envied by my high school classmates, but my father's approval was always the principal engine for all my achievements. It was also reassuring to know that, with my resume, I could go to any college I chose. But even as a seventeen-year-old high school graduate, I had no ambition about college—or my life beyond college-- at all. I did not connect my accomplishments in any way with any clearly imagined future.
My mother's influence was less visible, but in retrospect, more profound. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister from Ohio. She married my father to escape her own family's powerful, parochial magnetic field. She hoped to find refuge in the even more powerful magnetic field of a young, agnostic Jewish pediatrician in a wealthy, sophisticated Jewish suburb fifteen miles from Manhattan.
My mother was rarely happy. She was burdened by guilt for having left her family's world, and equally burdened by her awkwardness in trying to find her place in my father's world. Though I do not have many specific memories of this now, I know that as a child I felt her unhappiness deeply, and wanted to comfort her.
As her firstborn, I was her favorite, and in her own way, she always held me close. Indeed, I never had to do anything to get my mother's love; with my father, I was never completely sure.
When the time came for me to apply to college, I recall that my mother strongly hoped I would go to Haverford, and said so.
She was inspired that it was a Quaker school. She saw the Quakers as the purest expression of the Christianity of her childhood. She admired their confidence about the direct, inner experience of the Divine, their sense of spiritual community, and their courageous pacifism. It was as if she felt that in fulfilling her wishes, I might somehow live out the inner conflict she could never resolve about the Christianity she had abandoned, and resolve it myself.
Of course, my guess about my father's wishes for me far outweighed my certainty about my mother's. In the autumn of 1963, though I had also applied to Haverford and been accepted there, I entered Yale.
I was still a child in many ways when I turned eighteen that autumn. I had not yet even lost my virginity, and I had not the slightest idea what I wanted to do with my life. I soon found Yale to be both lonely and overwhelming. I was homesick almost every day, yet keenly aware that returning to the sanctuary of my boyhood was no longer an option.
I relied quickly and instinctively on the assets I had—my looks, my habits of academic achievement, my athleticism, my friendly, extraverted style around my classmates. Yet it was all an act—not in the sense of being a lie, but a persona, a way to navigate through a world that I had not chosen in any mature, conscious sense of that word.
President Kennedy was killed two months after I began my freshman year. At the time, the impact of his tragic death on my psyche and my young life was cataclysmic.
First was the brutal, horrific fact of it—that the most powerful man in the world could be slaughtered like an animal in broad daylight with utter impunity. The unimaginable trauma of this—captured forever on the Zapruder film-- replayed in me for many years afterward.
Then there was the personal anguish of it within my own family. My father, a fervent Democrat who had grown up revering FDR, loved and admired JFK. And I of course had shared his feelings—or perhaps more accurately, had borrowed them. I left Yale for an entire week to go home, where we all mourned together.
Finally, and most devastating to my naïve assumptions about life, was witnessing that some of my classmates actually rejoiced at the news of his death, and that a few were even outraged that next day's Harvard football game would be postponed for a week.
How could this be? How could the world be like this? Who were these people living right down the hall from me?
On that sunny November afternoon an enormous chasm opened beneath the smooth surface of my idealized youthful image of life. I understood suddenly what some deep part of me had probably always known but had never allowed myself to acknowledge -- that the world could be a dangerous, terrifying place, that it held no comforting certainties, and that I was utterly alone.
Over time, of course, this raw existential wound scabbed over, and my profound experience of inner groundlessness and disorientation faded into the background as I applied myself dutifully to the challenges of Yale. My persona took charge masterfully, and put on a convincing enough performance on every public stage that by the spring of my junior year I was tapped by five of the coveted secret societies, including Skull and Bones.
But exactly a year later, the whole fragile edifice collapsed, and the earth opened wide beneath me once again.
“The only difference between a mystic and a madman is in whom they tell about their experiences.” --Unknown
Just as the murder of Kennedy indelibly marked my entrance into Yale, so a frightening psychotic episode, induced by a massive overdose of LSD in May of 1967, indelibly marked my departure from Yale, only weeks before graduation.
I have already written of this 'trip' extensively in a memoir, so I will not go into detail again here. But it demonstrated to me, decisively and beyond any doubt, that heaven and hell are real. They have their own vivid existence as powerful and all-pervasive inner landscapes created by the mind.
Perhaps even more profoundly, it presented me with the persistent intuition that there is some aspect of our psyche that cannot die, and that has silently and immovably witnessed many previous lives like recurrent dreams, and is continuing to do so right now.
The short-term result of this wrenching traumatic episode was a depression that lasted at least a year. Never mind dreams of medical school, law school, or Wall Street—none of which had held any real allure for me even before the acid overdose. Now my mind was struggling merely to survive, to recover, and to re-integrate.
But the long-term inspiration was a consuming interest in spirituality as a direct experience rather than a mediated belief. It was then that I began my passionate study of the avenues to peak experience that did not depend solely on hallucinogenic substances.
In this there was no shortage of contemporary mentors, especially given the irresistible exuberance of the counterculture in the United States during that fertile time. In my own case, there were Alan Watts, Ram Dass, and Jiddu Krishnamurti.
As I read their books, I had repeated “Aha!” experiences—those exhilarating moments when my own inexpressible loneliness and longing were alleviated, time and time again, by the welcome companionship of a striking inner discovery eloquently described by someone else.
I think that I even convinced myself in those days that if I accumulated enough of these “Aha!” moments simply by reading, I would become enlightened.
This phase of my life lasted seven years after my graduation from Yale. It accompanied me through a year in film school, then two years teaching in the Brooklyn ghetto as alternative service to the gruesome specter of fighting in Vietnam, then four years living in rural Vermont as a carpenter and gardener who sold homemade maple syrup every spring to health food stores in New York and lived off the proceeds for the rest of the year.
I was keeping busy and learning many things, but I knew that I was also hiding out. Nor was reading dozens of spiritual books bringing me any closer to the inner freedom I longed for.
Then I met Chogyam Trungpa.
He had already been in this country for four years. Before that, he had lived in Great Britain for seven years, studying at Oxford and establishing a meditation center in Scotland; and before that, in a Tibetan refugee community in India for three years, where the Dalai Lama himself had also lived at that time.
To reach the safe haven of India, a 19-year old Trungpa had led a group of 300 Tibetans across the Himalayas in 1959 to escape from the invading Chinese, who had already put thousands of his countrymen to death, and begun relentlessly and systematically to dismantle the Buddhist culture and spirituality of his homeland—a genocide that continues to this day. Only thirteen refugees survived that exodus.
I was deeply drawn to him immediately. His command of the English vernacular to communicate the Buddhist teachings to American students was uncannily brilliant and precise. He used psychological rather than religious language to connect with us exactly where we were. His warmth, kindness, and playful humor were delightful. Most compelling of all, though, were the stillness, depth, and genuineness of his presence-- unlike anything I had ever experienced, or have ever experienced since.
Here was what I had been looking for all this time—not in a book, but in the direct
encounter with an awakened human being. I resolved to study with him, and did so for the next 13 years until his death in 1987.
Studying with Trungpa was alternately inspiring and unsettling. It was inspiring in the precious opportunity it gave me to experience the unwavering authenticity of who he was and the penetrating insight of what he offered; it was unsettling in the naked and uncompromising honesty he brought to every interaction with me and with everyone else whom he met.
There was nowhere to hide in being with Chogyam Trungpa. His teachings on the necessity for letting go of ego and its games were always far more real than mere words. Committing oneself to his world was like becoming an apprentice to a master samurai. The sword was so sharp, yet the hand that wielded it was so gentle.
Any strategy one might come up with to impress him or seduce him was cut through on the spot. Any genuine relationship one might hope to have with such a person was, by its very nature, a constant alternation of longing and embarrassment.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” --Oscar Wilde
I began my relationship with him by listening to him teach in large group settings during that heady Colorado summer at Naropa. But my first personal encounter with him did not take place until the end of that year, back in Vermont.
I was standing in a long line at the end of a reception in his honor. I considered intensely what I should ask him or say to him. Mainly, I wanted to impress him. I wanted to show him how much I understood about what he was teaching, and how inspired I was by it. I wanted him to confirm me as a bright, worthy, up-and-coming dharma student. By the time it was my turn to approach him, I was spinning inside a mental whirlwind of anxiety and expectation. I finally stepped forward in a state of controlled panic.
“Don't try so hard,” I heard him say to me, just as I reached the spot directly in front of him.
My mind abruptly stopped and my body froze. I could think of nothing to say. We looked at each other in silence for what seemed to me an endless time.
“More,” he said.
In that moment, my apprenticeship with him really began. And as time went on, I understood more and more clearly that his sharp sword and gentle hand were cutting—thread by thread—the inner cords that had bound me since early childhood to my father in my desperate need to earn his love and admiration by being good at everything.
My mother and father met Chogyam Trungpa only once, on my 38th birthday. At the time, I was executive director and resident teacher of his meditation center in Berkeley. To my father's skepticism and my mother's delight, I was also a Buddhist minister. Trungpa had come to teach a public program; they had come to visit me. By a precious and poignant co-incidence, their paths converged.
When he met my father, he smiled graciously and said, “Thank you for educating your son so well.”
Then he paused, sipped his tea, and added: “Today I want to thank you again, for turning his education over to me.”
For the first time I had ever experienced, my father could not think of anything to say.
My mother took my teacher's hands in her own with heartfelt intensity and thanked him. Her eyes were brimming with tears.
Most of the ideas I had about spirituality as a young man were quite confused and immature. My preoccupation with peak experiences had become an obstacle to the gradual ripening of the clarity, gentleness, compassion, and humbleness that are the marks of authentic spiritual practice.
Many months of solitary retreat, over a period of many years, helped me to have a more realistic appreciation of this. Being given the responsibility to lead spiritual communities in challenging situations that inevitably exposed my personal faults, deepened that appreciation even more.
Moreover, what I learned in observing my teacher was that the “peak experience” I so craved was, for him, ordinary and continuous. Because he was not identified with his thoughts-- unlike myself and everyone else I knew-- his access to it was always unimpeded. Trungpa taught me that “enlightenment” was not a mind-state to be created or achieved, but rather the complete absence of pretense, whether in the form of mental struggle or spiritual ambition.
I also discovered that he had little or no interest in material offerings from me or anyone else. Though he was quite earthy and practical in his awareness of the need for a solid financial ground for his many initiatives and projects, he would never compromise his vision for money. Indeed, the only offering from his students that ever truly pleased him was to follow his example.
This meant committing ourselves wholeheartedly to embracing the path of facing our fears, shedding our narcissism and self-concern, and serving others unstintingly with whatever gifts we had been given-- just as he had always done.
Now, more than forty years after meeting Chogyam Trungpa, I aspire only to the arduous yet delightful unmasking process required to be fully myself, and no one else.
In doing so, I have come to understand that the fruits of this task appear mainly in the quality of one's relationships with other people-- always the truest mirror for the life one has lived.
Whether with my students, my clients, my family, or my friends, but especially with my wife—my dearest and most genuine friend-- I'm still working on it, every day.
Nor do I ever wish to retire from this work! I welcome the truth that it has no end.
My mother age 22 in front of her Piper Cub.
My mother age 87 in front of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya.