SPECIAL EDITION – Call and Response Podcast – Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck
David Nichtern is a senior teacher in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This tradition combines a contemporary, secular approach to meditation with the ancient practices and philosophies of Tibetan Buddhism. David has created and taught meditation teacher trainer programs worldwide. He has also been a business consultant with companies creating a variety of offerings integrating meditation in a larger health and well-being context. As many of you already know, David is also a well known composer, producer and guitarist – a four-time Emmy winner and a two-time Grammy nominee, and often tours and plays with Krishna Das. In this podcast, the two chat about spirituality and making a living on the heels of the launch of David’s new book : Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck
If you would like, there is a video version of this podcast to watch.
Video recording of KD and David’s discussion.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, the premise of this workshop and, tonight, which is based on the new book is looking at the strands of creative expression, spiritual practice and alignment, inner well-being, and our activity, livelihood. Those three strands. So, why did I write about that? Because I’ve been really, in a way, juggling those three elements in my life for 45 years. I met my teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, when I was at Berklee College of Music, studying yoga at the same time and it takes time to do spiritual practice. Some people go quite deeply into it. It takes time to have a music career and then we always have, you know, that sort of ongoing relationship to livelihood, what we call in Buddhism, “right livelihood” which we can talk about a little bit more. So I’ve found, in working on that puzzle myself, I would talk to a lot of people, you know, I’m mentoring a lot of students and there’s always, it lights up people’s interest because I know a lot of people, you know, for example, who are trying to start a yoga studio or you know, kind of a kirtan band, for that matter or a fitness, mindful fitness studio; and they often will be at a loss as to how to manage the business aspect of that and what ends up happening is, it runs aground at a certain point. So, lack of relationship to that kind of practical aspect, which we call “earth”. They have a lot of heaven and a lot of vision but not much connection to earth. And then on the other hand, you go to the other part of the world that I occupy and people are very competent and sort of together, like the people you met today, but they may not have much direct connection with creative expression in their lives and also, you know, the idea of meditating or something like that is seen as kind of a waste of time, like why would you do that? Like, I’ve got to address 450 lawyers next week and the people are telling me, “You’d better do it quick. You’d better get to the point really quick. They’re going to want to know why they’re spending even five minutes doing something like this.” So, I see, just from where I sit, these two worlds, it’s like two gigantic ocean liners coming together and they’re about to crash into each other, so I thought it might be good to throw some lines back and forth between those two and open dialogues of all kinds. And then, of course, it takes different, you know, people have different focuses. So, with KD, you know, KD I think the channel of creativity is something that I wanted to kind of get into and also, this spiritual practice, because he’s one of the few people I know, actually, who makes a living doing spiritual practice with music. There aren’t that many people doing that. He’s a pioneer, in a way. So, that’s all he does. That’s what he does. That’s his gig. So, I wanted to sort of look at it like, what’s the difference, KD, I’m going to start with this, in your mind, if there is one, between secular music and sacred music?
KRISHNA DAS: What’s the difference?
DAVID NICHTERN: Between secular and sacred music.
KRISHNA DAS: Well, sometimes you feel like a nut. Sometimes you don’t. It’s not the music in itself. It’s the intention with which you either listen or do the music. If the intention is to make beautiful sounds and even, you know, if music itself was spiritual practice, by itself, every musician would be happy. I don’t think so. So, it’s not enough just by itself. It’s how you come to it and how you listen to it.
DAVID NICHTERN: Is every kirtan singer happy?
KRISHNA DAS: Huh?
DAVID NICHTERN: Is every kirtan singer happy?
KRISHNA DAS: God forbid. It’s a question of what a person brings to the practice, you know? A person, for instance, all I can do is talk about myself. That’s all I do anyway. So, when I sing with people, I’m only sharing the practice that I do for myself. I’m not, there’s no intention to make anything happen for those people in the room singing with me. I’m simply sharing what I do with my own mind and my own heart and if I was at all focused on whether they like it, or they don’t like it or, what should I do to get them off? You know? How could that happen for anybody? It couldn’t happen because you’d feel manipulated and as soon as a person feels manipulated, their hearts close down. So, popular is, and entertainment, is all about manipulating the emotions and the senses and getting pleasure from it, getting some kind of experience from it. Usually, some kind of pleasurable experience. But chanting and spiritual practice is not about that. It’s becoming aware of whatever’s going through your awareness and then letting it go and coming back to the chant. Because the chant that, the chants that I do are mantras and mantras and what they call in India, they call “the names of God,” but you know, it’s not some God up in the sky, it’s the presence that lives within us, our own true nature. So, when we chant, even if the music is beautiful and pleasant, the point, simply, is to pay attention and to keep coming back to the sound of the mantra and the sound of the music. But you’ll notice you can’t. So, you have to keep coming back. You notice you’re in a room with a thousand people and everybody’s singing and you’re reviewing the shopping list for tomorrow, you know, and you could be gone for like, 20 minutes and then you realize, “oh, I’m supposed to be paying attention,” and then you come back. That’s what essentially makes it a spiritual practice. The deal is, that you make with yourself, is that you’re going to let go of your thoughts, let go of all that stuff and keep coming back to the present moment, which you use the sound of the chant to anchor yourself in that.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, KD that’s very similar to the instruction, isn’t it similar to Samatha.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, it’s very similar.
DAVID NICHTERN: What’s the difference?
KRISHNA DAS: That’s a good question.
DAVID NICHTERN: In other words, in shamatha, you’re using the breath as a way of coming back, and this one, you’re using the mantra to come back.
KRISHNA DAS: You know, we come from slightly lineages in this respect and in, where I come from, they say that these sounds or these Names or these mantras actually carry a magnetism in a sense that attracts the attention and helps you enter more deeper awareness of your, in your own being. It’s not simply a breath, but that there’s actually something about this that adds a dimension to it, from my, from my side of the story. For instance, you may have a Guru or a teacher or a deity that you love, that you feel some attraction to, so you can repeat the Name of the Deity or that Being and the idea is that, because it feels good, because you have love and affection for that person or that Being, the mind will tend to stay there more easily, because we, our minds stay on what we love, usually. Much more easily. You know, like when you fall in love with somebody, the first three days are fantastic. You can’t even read the paper. But after that, life kicks back in and then you have to start practice again. So, the breath is a very powerful anchor for our awareness. And of course, this is a moot point because they do come together ultimately. It’s just the approach, different personalities like different things.
DAVID NICHTERN: Well, so, in a way you’re saying it has shamatha element to it.
KRISHNA DAS: Absolutely.
DAVID NICHTERN: And then it has an extra kind of kick of drawing you, in other words, it’s one thing to go back to the breath, which is kind of a neutral experience, in a way.
KRISHNA DAS: In a way.
DAVID NICHTERN: But to go back to like, a mantra, or a visualization of a deity or you know, the sense of the Guru or whatever, has got more magnetism to it, more drawing.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, it can be conceptual, where as the breath, it tends not to be conceptual. But the mantras, although you’re not supposed to be thinking about something but the juice that’s generated by that love connection or that devotional connection or that deep connection, there’s a juice generated by that that helps you overcome a lot of distractions and obstructions and kleshas.
DAVID NICHTERN: you know, by coincidence today, I’m not even sure where I saw this, but you’re quoting your teacher, Maharajji, you know, Neem Karoli Baba, and, maybe it was on your Facebook post or something today, courage, He said courage is extremely important. It was so out of the blue that that message came through because obviously that’s, you know, He said a lot of great things, but I’d never heard that one before. Bravery, you know.
KRISHNA DAS: I heard it. Yeah, He told me that one time. It’s a long story, but we had, He had disappeared as He tended to do, He would run away from everybody, but we found out where He was and we found Him in Bombay, which is now Mumbai, but at the time it was called “Bombay” and anyway, so we would spend all day with Him, just sitting around and one day, He looked at me and said, “You have attachment. You have to go back to America.” Now, I’d been in India two and a half years and I was never planning to go back to America. That was the last thing on my mind. And He, Himself had actually allowed, made it possible for me to stay. He kept me there. Otherwise I would have been thrown out. My visa was finished. So, He looks at me, He says, “You have to go back to America. You have attachment there.” I was like, I couldn’t even speak. I couldn’t. My mind had not even gone back to America in two years, you know? I would speak like this, “Hello. Just coming. Now going. Thank you very much. Yes, good. Very good.” And really, I was totally Indianized. So later that day, we’re sitting with Him and a couple of hours went by and He was just lying on the bed. He would sit up. He’d lie this way. All of a sudden, He sits up and He looks at me, really powerful, and He says, “Courage is a really big thing.” And the Indian guy there said, “Oh, Baba, God takes care of His devotees.” He kind of sneered at him and He looks back at me and said, “Courage is a really big thing.” You know, my first reaction was like, “What’s going to happen?” But He was right. I mean, there were times that all I had was the vague distant memory of those words and it was enough to keep me from jumping off a cliff.
DAVID NICHTERN: Yeah.
KRISHNA DAS: Or driving off a cliff. Or falling off a cliff. Stumbling off a cliff. Flying off a cliff. You know. But, and also, when I first started to sing with people, nobody was doing it. I just had to do it. I knew I had to do it. I had been in my apartment in the city at the time and I was very very unhappy. Very dark space and I walked from one room to the other and I was struck with like a lightning bolt, and at that moment, I knew, it was like, I have to sing with people and if I don’t sing with people, I’m never going to clean out the dark corners in my own heart. And the understanding was that those dark places were the only thing that was causing me suffering. So, either I had to get with the program or not. It took me a little while to get with the program, but I got with it. So, once again, that motivation was not for anybody else, but it was simply to save my own ass.
DAVID NICHTERN: And you pioneered, I mean, I don’t know how many, everybody’s aware, but nobody else was doing what you were doing in bringing that tradition into the West, setting it to Western melodies and harmonies and then just schlepping around, playing for six people or eight people of twelve people or a thousand people, you know. So, you almost, you know, this is something in the music world, we say, there’s people who create genre, like, you know, like Bill Monroe or somebody like that created bluegrass. Or Miles Davis created a certain type of jazz.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, you’ve created this genre but its evolved. It’s interesting, we were going back and listening to some of the early records, right, for the concerts Friday and Saturday.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, it’s 20 years.
DAVID NICHTERN: Do you have any flashbacks listening to that stuff?
KRISHNA DAS: I listened to it once. I kind of barfed.
DAVID NICHTERN: Really? It’s interesting because coming back to the sacred-secular, it, there were two good friends of mine who came to a concert in L.A., a kirtan in L.A. that we did maybe five years ago, and these are two guys I have done recording with as the Beyman Brothers, and its Christopher Guest and CJ Vanston from Spinal Tap, and we have a kind of acoustic record, an acoustic band that we did, and they came, you know, as guests and they had no idea what this is, you know. It wasn’t part of their purview and Chris said, “He could have been one of those guys.” You know? KD could have been one of the guys, Bruce Springsteen or Townes Van Zandt or you know, you can run down the list of the names and just checking the quality of your vocal power and ability to you know, to render a beautiful melody and sing it and then CJ, who’s a bit more of a cut-up said, and he knew nothing about this kind of chanting structure, he said to me, he said, “You know, I really thought of walking up to the stage at some point,” and he had also played in a lot of R&B bands, and he said, “and throwing a 20 dollar bill down on the stage and saying, ‘Go to the bridge already.’” So, and you know, so this still lingers with me because I’m probably more of a hybrid in terms of my music sort of going across the boundaries and I’m actively involved with secular music and you know, pop records and film scoring and tv scoring and it’s been my livelihood to play music and to try to make cool music and it’s interesting, like, for example, when you said, you’re not doing it for a response, that was interesting to hear.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
DAVID NICHTERN: Like when we play the kirtans, at the end of it, one of the best moments is, what do they call it? Turiya? And its empty. So, we play and then it’s like everybody’s sitting there like, it drops people into a very meditative space.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. And you feel the silence that surrounds all sound.
DAVID NICHTERN: yeah.
KRISHNA DAS: The silence that surrounds all thought, also.
DAVID NICHTERN: Yeah. So, but I always wonder, you know, with KD, like, you know, we’ll all have choices that we make and one choice that you made, KD, was to not go into that realm and at a certain point you sort of were thinking about it, right? Going into that realm? There’s a famous story?
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, I love it when people give me credit for shit that I had nothing to do with. I love it. But it wasn’t true. I would have fully gone for it. I had been in the, I had played music with these guys who later became a very well-known band, and the guy, and then I, they were just getting into smoking dope and I was just finishing with that so… This is like 100 years ago and sowe didn’t, I kind of went my own way and they went their own way and years later, I was on my up to spend time with Ram Das in, up in Vermont. Not Vermont. New Hampshire. And this was a big thing for me. I was leaving the whole school thing. I had been in college for a few minutes now and then and I was going up to live with him, so I had all my, two dogs, my cat and all my worldly possessions in my car and I drove down from New Paltz to Stony Brook for a Jimi Hendrix concert and then after the concert, everybody’s hanging out and the manager of the band came to me and he said, “The guy who replaced you, we have all the tracks cut for a record.” Ha. Remember records? And the guy who replaced you as the singer can’t sing in the studio. He just can’t do it. Will you come back and cut the tracks? We have a tour and a whole thing. Now, this is what I would die for. I mean, you know, completely. But, I had told Ram Das I was coming. I had moved out of my cabin in the woods. I had quit my job as the hippie bus driver and I was on my way up to there and you know, it was the middle of the night. I had no options, you know? So, I said, “Yeah, you know, I can’t.” And I went that way and they went a lot of ways.
DAVID NICHTERN: You zigged, and they zagged.
KRISHNA DAS: Huh?
DAVID NICHTERN: You zigged, and they zagged.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. They had a nice run, but I know that if I had gone that way, I would have been dead in a couple of years. I just didn’t have the structure to live through that kind of stuff. It was too…
DAVID NICHTERN: What would you have died of?
KRISHNA DAS: What?
DAVID NICHTERN: What would you have died of?
KRISHNA DAS: Oh, so many things. I can name a few different things. Too much fun.
DAVID NICHTERN: Yeah. I know what you mean. Too much fun has been killing me lately. Yeah. So, it’s a kind of parallel universe. It’s kind of an interesting parallel, you know. I was in L.A. in ’76 and I was kind of very focused on career and I had, you know, a big hit record that I wrote, and then I was getting film scores and you know, recording sessions and stuff and in the middle of that, my teacher, which was Trungpa, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, said, “Ok, I want you to go be the director of Karme Choling Meditation Center in Vermont. So that was like somebody unplugging your amp while you’re playing a solo, a little bit. And I had to decide, you know, and a lot of that is sort of resonant in this book here. Like, you’re making choices and I went from a house on Mulholland Drive and moved into two little rooms at Karme Choling that were the size of the closets basically, in the house that I left. And it changed my trajectory. But I never, just like you did, I never just, like you did, I never just went, “Ok, I’m just going to be a Buddhist priest now or a monk or you know, a practitioner.” For one thing, as you know, the Buddhists don’t really have great tunes. We rely on you people for the songs.
KRISHNA DAS: What’s that?
DAVID NICHTERN: We don’t have great tunes, the Buddhists. All the Buddhists come to KD, “Can you write me a song?”
KRISHNA DAS: But you know, the funny thing…
DAVID NICHTERN: Impermanence, you’ve got impermanence, you know.
KRISHNA DAS: Jimmy Durante Buddhist Sect. But the funny thing is, everything, everything I wanted, I imagined I would get from being a rock and roll star, you know, all that, I get now. And it’s good for me. How weird is that? It’s so weird. I can’t even believe it. And I can do it sitting down. I don’t have to stay in shape and jump up and down and everything. It’s amazing. I mean, what I imagined, how I imagined I would feel if I became a, you know, a rock and roll star, that’s included in this. It’s strange.
DAVID NICHTERN: It is really interesting. That part of it’s really interesting. You have all the accoutrements. The, you know, it draws a lot of energy and attention towards your offering and lots of people are coming. They look to you to provide an experience for them that’s, you know, kind of uplifting and elevating. Yeah, so that’s interesting. So, they came together in a certain way, right? They came together, those two strands are kind of unified. And then, the third piece is the livelihood piece, which is, it’s you know, I kind of thought, “I can’t talk to KD about this. It’s not going to happen.” You know? But I’ve still been thinking about it, the KD world has a lot of people in it. It’s run kind of, Nina’s sort of the manager of the situation. Nina Rao couldn’t come tonight, but most of you know her.
KRISHNA DAS: She has two assistants.
DAVID NICHTERN: Yeah, you’ve got an organization and now that I work for a lot of different people, yours is one of the cleaner ones.
KRISHNA DAS: And what?
DAVID NICHTERN: It’s clean. Your organization’s clean. You do what you say you’re going to do. Buses show up. Hotel rooms are there. You get paid. It’s like it’s actually a really, kind of, well run aspect of what’s going on and that’s one of the things I talk about in the book, too, is ethical conduct.
KRISHNA DAS: We never sign, we don’t have contracts. We don’t sign contracts. We’ve only been ripped off twice in all these years.
DAVID NICHTERN: You don’t have contracts for any of the gigs that you do?
KRISHNA DAS: No. We don’t.
DAVID NICHTERN: Wow. No riders for those little sandwiches without the…
KRISHNA DAS: Just the red m&m’s. That’s all.
DAVID NICHTERN: That’s interesting. Just, so, and in all this time, you’ve never needed that.
KRISHNA DAS: No. Only twice in all these years have we been ripped off.
DAVID NICHTERN: Wow.
KRISHNA DAS: It’s amazing.
DAVID NICHTERN: That’s interesting. But you clarify the terms of engagement, right? It’s clear. You might have an email…
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, there’s a basic deal but, it’s not like, we don’t sign contracts and, you know, there’s, and we don’t, we don’t ask for guarantees, either. In other words, we go somewhere and if people don’t show up, nobody gets paid.
DAVID NICHTERN: That sounds like R&B to me.
KRISHNA DAS: I mean, it’s not like, you know, usually you have a contract that the promoter has to pay you x amount of money. But we don’t do that, because if they don’t make money, why should we make money? But it’s never been an issue. So far.
DAVID NICHTERN: Yeah. So, then when it comes to, you know, KD and I, which is pretty typical for our community, there’s this Bhakti Yogis and then there’s the Buddhists, right? We always hang out as a tribe. Both tribes are very close, so when we go to the retreats…
KRISHNA DAS: We intermingle.
DAVID NICHTERN: The intermingling, yeah. We kind of have, what would you call it? Children, you know, that are half and half? But in Maui, the retreats that we do, there’s always a very well-known Buddhist teacher. You go to a lot of… what were you doing last week? You were studying with Tsoknyi Rinpoche?
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. Tsoknyi Rinpoche in Garrison.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, of course there’s always a little gentle playing back and forth about metaphysical and philosophical stuff. So, and I could sum it up for our students here. It’s like their mantra, their logo is “All One.” It’s All One. Would you say that? You say that a lot.
KRISHNA DAS: So, Maharajji used to say that. He would, you know, He was a very unusual Being. He didn’t teach. He didn’t write books. He didn’t initiate people. He just gave you more puris and potatoes than you could eat in a million years and then told you to go away. You could come back. But you had to go away. At least for a minute, you know.
DAVID NICHTERN: Maybe I should do that this weekend at the meditation retreat. Just give people a lot of potatoes and puris and tell them to go away. And then I can come and play with you.
KRISHNA DAS: Just make sure you have a contract. But we used to sit with Him and He would just look at us and He’d go… and you know, the thing is, you see, and you have to take my word for this, at least, you have to listen to what I’m going to say, you don’t have to believe me, but He knew everything. Everything. He knew how many pieces of toast you had on the day of your bar mitzvah. 400 years ago. He knew everything. Everything. He knew what was going to happen. He knew what you were thinking right now, and He knew what you’d done. So, when He goes like this, we thought, like “Shit, what am I getting busted for? Something I did? Something I’m going to do? Or something I’m thinking of doing?” So finally, somebody says to Him, “Baba, what does it mean when you do this?” And He goes… and we said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Many names, many forms, all one.” Oh. Ok.
DAVID NICHTERN: And so, of course, this is the trigger for anybody who’s studied Buddhism because that’s a particular school, actually, within Buddhism, called Yogachara. It’s like, Zen, is based on it. The One is the Big Mind. So, then after that, there was a school, the Middle Way School, which is kind of, Madhyamaka, it’s called, and we say, “Not one and not two.” So that’s kind of the take, if you fixate on the oneness of it, then you miss the diversity, if you fixate on the diversity then you miss the interconnection of it. So, we have that conversation, then I would say, “But KD, if it’s all one, then give me the keys to your house and give me the keys to your car and let me have your bank account.” But I say to people, he’s the only person I won’t have that argument with because he would do it. He would win. My winter jacket was given to me by KD. You know, so I think we don’t really take it that seriously because at the end of the day, you didn’t really hear it here, but it is all one.
KRISHNA DAS: Maharajji didn’t say, “It’s all one.” He just said, “All one.”
DAVID NICHTERN: Interesting.
KRISHNA DAS: He was a little bit more subtle.
DAVID NICHTERN: Yeah, that’s very subtle. All one.
KRISHNA DAS: All one. And then, when we asked Him… He seems to like us, “Ok, how do we find God? How do we get to it?” He would say, “Serve people.” Excuse me? Serve people? What do people have to do with it? I mean, you know, we were young, we wanted to do kundalini. So, we said, “How do you raise kundalini?” He said, “Feed people.” What? He never encouraged us to do spiritual practice for the sake of our own “enlightenment.” When I was going to kill myself… one time.
DAVID NICHTERN: One of the times?
KRISHNA DAS: One of the times, in the temple. I was having a complete nervous breakdown, hallucinating, flipped out of my mind. I ran up to see Him and He says, “What are you going to do, jump in the river? Ha!” He wasn’t taking it very seriously. He said, “You can’t die. Worldly people don’t die. Only Jesus died the real death.” What is this little Hindu guy wrapped up in a blanket talking to me about Jesus?” “Only Jesus died the real death. Why? Because He never thought of Himself.” In other words, in that being, thoughts of “me” no longer arose. There was nobody. What are you going to do? Why would you try to hurt the body when you’re not identified with it at all? He was just very unusual in that way.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, you could hear about that and, I guess some people have. They go into charity work or, you know, trying to feed people.
KRISHNA DAS: People did all kinds of things. Everybody found their own, you know, He never told people what to do. Very rarely He’d tell you what to do. Part of the deal seemed to be, you had to find out what you wanted to do yourself that would be, that would keep you and bring to you, bring to your life the things that you wanted in it. Some people do charity work. Some people do medical health work. Some people teach children. Some people don’t do a damn thing except smoke dope. You know? Everybody’s finding their own thing and I had to… He never told me to sing with people. He never said, “Go forth and multiply.” You know? I had to, I had to find what worked for me, what was going to do it for me. So, it took me a long time. It took me 20 years. 21 years to sing with people, after He died.
DAVID NICHTERN: You didn’t even start for 21 years?
KRISHNA DAS: He left the body in ’73 and I didn’t start singing with people in what I considered to be the right way for 21 years. Til 1994.
DAVID NICHTERN: What were you doing in there? Oh, ok.
KRISHNA DAS: Lots of stuff.
DAVID NICHTERN: Well so this idea of an offering is something that comes up in the book. And, you know, the book has a workbook, so you can kind of work along with the ideas that are being presented in it and basically, this… I want to read a little piece of it called “Clarifying Your Offering.”
And it starts with the idea of heaven and earth, before that, which is, you have some kind of vision, some kind of sense of a big picture and then you begin to bring that down to your, kind of, everyday life level. That’s called joining heaven and earth. Vision and practicality. So, when we contemplate heaven and earth, remember that there’s a third important component in this relationship: humanity. In this traditional view, the job of humans is to join heaven and earth, to bring together vision and practicality. As we focus our exploration, I think we’ll begin to see that we each have some kind of special offering to make to this world. Perhaps this approach is kind of romantic and if so, I can live with that. If we see our existence as some kind of fundamental expression of creativity, it’s only natural to conclude that we can and should express ourselves. If only in the spirit of call and response. The universe created us. Now we’re responding by creating our offering back. Our offering could be art, business, charity, leadership, innovation. That’s entirely up to each one of us. We can have a variety of offerings, even a plethora of offerings. The notion here is that we each have some unique expression, idea, presentation that we’re inspired to bring out of our inner world and present to our outer world, our family, friends, colleagues, communities, society, world, even the universe if you want to reach that far. At this point, in terms of the process in the book, we’re just trying to feel, to assess what we want to express from our unique perspective. In the next section, we choose. We’re going to see what’s involved with presenting our offering beyond our intimate world of family and friends. We’re going to explore sharing our offering with the bigger world, our communities, society and beyond. Here, though, we’re just trying to access our personal Geiger counter and see what we naturally tune into. What intrigues us? What we enjoy communicating with and about. In essence, what floats our boat.
So, that’s interesting, KD. I never heard you say that He didn’t sort of set you on that track of singing kirtan. He never set you on that track of singing.
KRISHNA DAS: Well, we used to sing to Him because He liked to hear chanting. We never thought of it as…
Since I was never coming back to America, it wasn’t like I was gathering information for a career. You know, my high school guidance counselor didn’t have “Kirtan Wallah” in her book. So, it was just a natural thing, He liked it and we liked spending time with Him and there was always, we were always trying to get more time. So, if we sang, we knew He would kind of call us and we would get to spend more time. But there was no nothing about ever doing it in any other way. Nothing at all. One thing, one funny thing happened, so in Vrindavan, the ISKCON people, the Hare Krishna people had just, Westerners had started coming to India, to Vrindavan, which is a holy city for Krishna, and they were coming there and starting to spend time there, so one of the guys who was hanging out with us had a friend who was a bigwig in ISKCON and he invited them to come to the temple to sing, to chant for Maharajji. So, we used to just stand there and go, “Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram.” You know, we had nothing going on. It was very boring. But we did it anyway.
DAVID NICHTERN: No harmonium?
KRISHNA DAS: No instruments. We had nothing.
DAVID NICHTERN: Nothing.
KRISHNA DAS: Nothing. So, these guys, they came, about 20 of them with their drums and their cymbals and their shakers and everything and they were dancing and singing and Maharajji loved it, right? As soon as they left, He reached into His dhoti and He pulls out 50 rupees. He said, “Go buy a drum.” And that’s where all this came from. That 50 rupees.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, it was all a capella in the beginning.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. Nothing going on. You know, it was like, crazy.
DAVID NICHTERN: Is there a tradition of kirtan with instruments, though, in India?
KRISHNA DAS: Eventually, well after that we got a drum.
DAVID NICHTERN: But did the Indians? They use instruments with the kirtan.
KRISHNA DAS: You know, I didn’t hear Indian people singing to Him that much. It wasn’t, it was such a funky scene, you know. People came and went. And He sent people away. One time, one time one of His old devotees brought a friend of His who had a different guru, to the temple. And they come up to Maharajji and Maharajji says, “Why did you come? Why’d you drag this guy here?” And He says to the guy, “Your guru is so good and at his temple there’s all kinds of kirtan and chanting and everything.” He said, “Here it’s just come, eat, go.” That’s the way it was there. It wasn’t a spiritual situation. He said, “When you come here, you should feel like you’re going to your grandfather’s house.” Everybody, everything is given to you, food, you don’t have to do seva, you know. You go to an ashram, you have to serve before they’ll feed you. Not there. You know, you didn’t do anything. We didn’t do anything. It was very unusual.
DAVID NICHTERN: yeah.
KRISHNA DAS: The most, but the main thing was that the love we experienced was so intimate and so open and so non-manipulative. It was like He would open the door to the room where love lives and we were free to come and go. We weren’t, He didn’t drag us in, but the door was open and if we wanted to, we could, and believe me, when that door’s open and you see that, you know, nothing can keep you out of it except your own bullshit. So, we had gone to the room. We’d be with Him, hanging out with Him, everything would be great, and then you’d start thinking about something you said to somebody which was kind of mean and then you start yelling at yourself in your mind and all of a sudden you’re depressed and you’re outside of the room and you’re sitting like this and everybody around you is laughing and joking and you’re just like this, you know. Then, you turn your head, boom, you get hit in the heart with a banana. And then you’re back in the room. You know, that’s what happened. He let us in. We took ourselves out. He’d let us in. We took ourselves out. It’s crazy.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, there’s a certain mood or bhav, right? To that experience.
KRISHNA DAS: The what?
DAVID NICHTERN: A certain mood.
KRISHNA DAS: IT was just sweet and funky and very…
DAVID NICHTERN: What’s the closest thing to that now? If somebody said, “Oh, KD that sounds so phenomenal, I wish I could taste that fragrance.” Where would you send them?
KRISHNA DAS: I don’t know what to say. I’d send them to a mental hospital. You get good treatment. You know, so, when I left America, I didn’t tell my parents I was never going to come back, you know, but so there, I’m there in the temple, I’m living in the temple, finally with Maharajji and He looks at me one morning and said, “Is your mother coming to India?” I said, “My mother? Coming to India? No way.” “Oh, ok.” Later that day, I get a message from in town. They have a message for me. “Your mother called. She wants to talk to you.” So, I went to town the next day and I called America. In those days, you had to call the local operator, who called the town operator, who called the state operator, who called the federal operator, who called the international operator, who called the American operator. It took about three days to get a call through. So, I finally got my mother on the phone and she says, “I want to come see you in India.” Now, I said to her… if my daughter would ever say to me what I said to her, I would lock her in her room for three years and just give her some rice every day to eat. I said to my mother, “I have to ask my Guru.” Ha!
DAVID NICHTERN: But He had already told you she was coming.
KRISHNA DAS: Of course, but I was hoping that something would change that.
DAVID NICHTERN: Fourth down. Long yardage.
KRISHNA DAS: So, of course, He said, “Tell her to come.”
DAVID NICHTERN: You know, as you’re talking about that, KD, I was thinking about, how would that go down today. You would… Ram Das would have gone over there and it would be on Facebook immediately and everybody would know exactly everything about the whole situation. Like your, the Baba that you hang out with, He, I was, there’s a Baba that KD likes that, you know, I’ll let him talk about it, but I was with Doctor Rick who’s, you know, one of our compatriots and is actually an emergency room doctor. And I was having a kidney stone last time when we were in Maui and lying there on the gurney and then Rick’s phone rings, you know and it’s this Baba from India. His face is like this and He’s going like “How are you doing?”
KRISHNA DAS: Facetime. Facetime from India.
DAVID NICHTERN: yeah, I mean, it’s different now.
KRISHNA DAS: It’s very different. In Maharajji’s time, He wouldn’t let anybody write about Him. If anybody wrote about Him, He banished them, He wouldn’t let them come for a long time. But everywhere He went, a city grew up in like five minutes. People came from everywhere. How they knew, I don’t know, but it’s very strange. Now it’s very different. Let’s just say that nothing can happen unless it’s supposed to happen.
DAVID NICHTERN: Well, how about if we open the floor up. You all can fall through. How do you feel about opening up to some questions, KD?
KRISHNA DAS: What?
DAVID NICHTERN: Opening up to some questions from them?
KRISHNA DAS: Open up the concussion?
DAVID NICHTERN: Hi.
DAVID NICHTERN: What’s your name?
Q: Maura. I think the biggest thing that I wonder and that I struggle with, and I’m sure many people do, is how to quiet the chatter. How to get that internal peace and quiet to be able to really meditate and get the full benefit of it. That’s my question.
DAVID NICHTERN: And who are you addressing it to?
Q: Either of you, but I think I was speaking to KD
KRISHNA DAS: Maura was here this afternoon.
DAVID NICHTERN: This afternoon?
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah, when I gave a…
DAVID NICHTERN: Oh, at the…
KRISHNA DAS: At the place, whatever it was. I still don’t know where I was or what I said.
DAVID NICHTERN: That makes two of us.
KRISHNA DAS: But you’re here so it must have been good. This song, you know, the one qualification that I have for any of this stuff is longing. Longing to be free. Longing to be, to live fully in that love or that space or that truth all the time. That’s what keeps me moving and that song, of course, it’s really about the longing to be free across the borderline. So, you kind of have to get into that, really experience the need to connect more deeply and that will naturally open up new directions inside of us. It’s not so much about technique or getting any one thing, having any particular type of experience when your ass is on the cushion. It’s the rest of your life that comes into focus because you need it to. And not just five minutes a day or an hour a day, so methods come, methods go, but the impetus to get here and to really, you know, find what you need is what you really have to kind of dip into. Yeah. It’s not a bad thing to feel sad about what you don’t have, what you really need. You know, we want to push those things away, those feelings away, but they’re really much deeper feelings than we think. Much more important.
DAVID NICHTERN: And just, since we’re joining the teacher training here, Maura, like these folks have been studying mindfulness meditation so they could tell you, one of the things we recommend is, don’t worry about it so much, to try to blank out the mind, so if you think of the mind as like, monkey mind, you know, just using that, we’re not trying to kill the monkey. You know? So there’s this sense of not pushing away thoughts but letting them be, but when you notice, that’s the key moment, is you notice it, that’s the key moment of awareness and then bring your attention back but gently and without sort of, any kind of, you know, attempt to conquer it or try to win the game or something like that. So, this kind of compassionate attitude is very helpful. Right kids? They’re all learning right now.
KRISHNA DAS: Is this the Mickey Mouse Club?
DAVID NICHTERN: It sort of is. I’m Donald Duck.
Q: Hi. This is a question for Krishna Das. I’m always curious about your Guru.
KRISHNA DAS: Me, too.
Q: How did He know that your mother was going to call you?
KRISHNA DAS: If you knew and I knew, then we’d have a lot of things going on, but we don’t, but He did. And that’s nothing.
Q: So, is it a level of, I don’t know, intellectual…
KRISHNA DAS: It’s called a siddhi. One way of looking it is that it’s a siddhi or power that comes to Beings who do, achieve a certain state of Being.
Q: He was born like that?
KRISHNA DAS: I’m sorry…
Q: He was born like that?
DAVID NICHTERN: He was born. Was He born like that?
KRISHNA DAS: Oh, that’s a good question. Yes and no. The way I see it is that we’re, just to use some simple analogies, we’re trying to kind of get up, you know, raise ourselves up and get into that, get up into that light. These great Beings are trying to hold that down here for us. It’s a whole other ballgame. They do their practice, they do their purifications, they do their meditations to anchor that Being, that Presence, that Truth, that Reality in this world so we can see it and taste it and then we know it, about it. It’s like completely different than our, the way we go through our lives. We’re just totally self-centered. Centered around “me” and “my” and “what I want” and “what I don’t want.” They don’t have that, the Great Ones. It’s different. They’re only here for us because we don’t know what’s going on and it’s very hard to believe that but when you taste what that tastes like, it’s just like sugar. People say, you know it’s sweet, yeah yeah yeah, ok. But once you taste it, “oh, that’s what that is.” When you really taste that, what that presence is, what those Beings are like, when they laugh, how sweet it is. When they cry… you know, it’s like really, wow, it really exists. It’s amazing. And then, from that, all these other possibilities open up. But He knew everything. Not only that, He could pretty much do anything. P.S. You know? They say He raised people from the dead, cured diseases, got people jobs and children and this. You know, in India, especially in the old days, they didn’t have doctors, so people would come to yogis for healing and the yogis knew how to do that, one way or another. There are many ways to do those things. It’s just another world that’s not exactly like New York.
DAVID NICHTERN: Could He bowl a 300 game?
KRISHNA DAS: He could bowl a 500 game. Without a bowling ball.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, again, since we’re… just to add just a little bit, these siddhis, you know, that we’re talking about, can be a byproduct of deep practice. I don’t think you have to be born with them. You can, they might arise as your practice really deepens. But there’s a pretty clear prescription about it is to not seek them out. There’s a sadhana that says the supernormal powers which need not be sought, and even there’s a warning against because that can be a sidetrack for people on a spiritual path because they just want to do magic. And so, it’s a byproduct and it’s not something that you would… “I want to meditate so I can levitate,” you know. And you know, how about just learning how to walk instead. Just walk mindfully. Hope about that? So, yeah, it is interesting though and I still, you know, there are ways to access right, KD? Tell me there are ways to access what you’re talking about right now in 2019 and how will we do it?
KRISHNA DAS: How would I do it?
DAVID NICHTERN: How would they do it?
KRISHNA DAS: How would they do it.
DAVID NICHTERN: They didn’t meet Maharajji.
KRISHNA DAS: Well, they don’t know that. Well, first of all, you don’t think about things that way. You deal with your own issues. You uncover what’s already within you. That’s all you have to do. You have to overcome your own selfishness, your own greed, your own shame, your own fear, your own pride, your own manipulations of other people, you know, that’s what we have to do. We don’t think about things like, I’m going to go get this, or go get that or try to make our lives a better place to be.
DAVID NICHTERN: but do you think, and I think it’s a really interesting question, that He had that journey in His lifetime? Did He go through that? Was He born that way?
KRISHNA DAS: Well, like I said, ah Jesus.
DAVID NICHTERN: That’s ok.
KRISHNA DAS: Now you’re in really strange territory.
DAVID NICHTERN: Go wherever you want to go. Do you want to sing?
KRISHNA DAS: Just because, the simple answer is yes, He was born with it, but I, but He did spend many years in caves by Himself meditating or whatever He was doing. Maybe He was watching TV, I don’t know. But many years and the idea was that He was preparing, He was, once again, purifying the body and to manifest that here, not for His own sake but for the sake of the people that it was going to help. So, it’s just, it’s such a different way of Being. It’s hard to discuss it.
DAVID NICHTERN: Maybe one more question? Then we’ll do some more music?
Q: I’d like to ask about spirituality, creativity and making a buck. So, I feel like those three things can be combined in like, many different ways. And what I’ve really struggle with is figuring out what configuration of those three makes sense? Like, I feel like there are so many different avenues of combining those three things which I would like to do but it’s hard to know what path to go down. And this sounds very vague, but it’s just like, when you have so many, like, when you feel like you have many different opportunities, how do you know which opportunity is the thing that will make you happy or the thing that’s going to be the best combination of those three things?
DAVID NICHTERN: So, you have to read the book.
Q: But the book… in the book…
DAVID NICHTERN: Have you read the book?
Q: I started reading it, but I got stuck in the part in you know, the first chapter
DAVID NICHTERN: You got stuck in the first chapter?
KRISHNA DAS: Rewrite.
Q: Because it said, well think about like, we’re going to take what we want and we’re going to like, do something with it and I was just like, I don’t know what I want so…
DAVID NICHTERN: Well there’s a question, you know, the book has a downloadable, you know, workbook that you fill out and that’s a key point of it, it’s just my opinion about these things and my experience that I’m sharing, but really the central process is you walking through it. So, I’m just going to suggest that if you want to go down this path that you actually read the book and do the workbook and then we schedule a conversation. And I’ll nudge you. I’ll work with you on it. Because, you know, one interesting part of this is, we’ve had serious mentors, I mean you could, you know, a lot of the role of teachers and stuff is to kind of mirror back to you what your own stuff is that’s coming up. And we’ve both had that. You know, in different tradtitions. So, the bar is set to a certain extent to… now, in my tradition, the Guru is very mirror-like, you know. It’s not so much the Grandpa. When I need a Grandpa, I actually talk to Maharajji and KD. I do. I just go, like, Ok. If I need something taken care of on a very temporal level, and then here’s what I say to Him, KD, I say, “Maharajji,” this is in my head of course, it’s imaginary, sort of, “This is David. I work for your boy, KD. I’m helping him with his thing here on earth and I’m not asking for big things. I’m not going to ask you for big things, so for example, I asked Him, when we were making the record, the Kirtan Wallah record, it need to be 74 minutes and 30 seconds long.
KRISHNA DAS: Technically, you can’t get more on a cd. That’s it.
DAVID NICHTERN: Now, these songs are not, like, singles. A single in kirtan is like 14 minutes and 30 seconds. That’s a hot single. So, these songs are twenty minutes long and they’re accelerating in tempo, you know. It’s an editor’s nightmare, basically. How are you going to get a 74 minute 30 second…? I said, “Look, Maharajji, I don’t want to ask for something for me, for something big, but could you just take care of the timing on this cd. This is a true story. I know it makes me sound a little bit crazy but it’s ok. And I let it go. I just went like, I’m letting it go. And we get into musically, we just made decisions based on the music, and then it’s on a computer, on pro tools, you know, and we just kind of… I did the work on it and we made the edits and we worked together on it, like what about this one fading out here and that one coming on. And then took our hands off the wheel. And the computer goes, 74 minutes, 30 seconds. That actually happened. So, was that a siddhi? Did Maharajji do that? Who did that? I don’t know. But be careful what you ask for. You know? And the kind of teachers I work with don’t give a lot of answers like that. They mirror back to you. So, I don’t usually ask Trungpa Rinpoche for stuff like that. They’re both dead. They’re both out of the body, so… but the kind of feedback I get from talking to Trungpa Rinpoche in my mind is to pay close attention to what is happening right now. I’ve given you all the training and teachings that you need. You should use them and activate them. That’s the kind of… it’s a very powerful kind of non thing, but if I need Uncle Tanoose or Grandpa I go to Maharajji. I’ve asked Him a bunch of stuff. Or I ask KD. KD, you’d give me anything, right?
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah. Uncle Tanoose?
DAVID NICHTERN: You remember that, that’s right.
KRISHNA DAS: But let me tell you a quick story. Long before I went to India, I was hanging out with Ram Das. We were up at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. There’s a big commune, a beautiful commune up there. We were up there for the whole winter. While we were there, we heard about a New York artist who had been to India and new how to meditate and he was living just down the mountain from the commune. So, a group of us went down to meet him. His name was Herman. I don’t remember his last name. So, we went down to his cabin and we spent a couple of hours with him. I was kind of standing, sitting in the back. I didn’t ask any questions and everything. So, as we were leaving, I was actually the last person to go through the door on the way out. He grabbed my arm and he looked at me and said, “You, you have to find out why it is you can’t give yourself 100% to whatever you’re doing.
DAVID NICHTERN: Herman asked you that?
KRISHNA DAS: Herman. You ever seen those like, in a taxidermy shop, the squirrel on the wall? He nailed me to the wall. That was, you know how many years ago that was? That was 1969. 50 years ago. I can remember it like this. He saw me. And that’s been working in there all these years. Why can’t I give myself 100% to what I’m doing? When I want to, even, I can’t. And that’s, it’s been a, it’s like the poll star that you’re guiding on the water, you’re in a boat, you kind of go this way but you’re facing that way. You go this way. So, things in life, they move in there and they give us little hints about what we should do, but if we don’t do what we want, how do you find out what you want? You go after it. And then you get, you hit a wall at 150 miles an hour. So, you put yourself together and you go in another direction. You have to live as intensely as you can, with as much courage as you can. And you don’t hold back. And then,
DAVID NICHTERN: And that’s courage, right?
KRISHNA DAS: That’s courage. When you hold back, you notice that, and then you go to the therapist and find out why.
DAVID NICHTERN: So, a few closing arguments, as the lawyers would say, A few closing thoughts. I mentioned in the book this notion of pith instructions, or essential short burst instructions and it’s interesting how certain of them agree on one point, which was, when Karmapa 16 was, you know, part of this Tibetan Buddhist Hierarchy here, He gave a pith instruction to one of our students, saw him and made a big deal and said, “Come here, I wanted to tell you something really important,” and He gave him an ear whispered transmission which was “Be kind to everyone.” That’s what He said, the Karmapa said. And then Maharajji has this one saying that Ram Das repeats a lot, so does KD, but I think it’s really Ram Dass that’s kind of pith instruction to carry forward, “Love everybody and tell the truth.”
KRISHNA DAS: Of course, Ram Das would say, “The truth is, I don’t love everybody.” Maharajji looked at him again and said, “Ram Das, love everyone and tell the truth.” So, he had to get with the program.
DAVID NICHTERN: That’s sort of in the first chapter of this book as a sort of framework of pith instructions, like you can’t remember the 95 things we talked about in our 100-hour training, you could work on that one.
KRISHNA DAS: Yeah.
DAVID NICHTERN: And I do. That’s my litmus test, the really, bottom line and kind of, I don’t know, KD, about you, but I feel like I’m sort of heading, roughly, towards the finish line, in a way, in life. I mean, I’m not leaving tomorrow if I can help it but if I wanted to hold out something to kind of put on the final, famous last words, it would be those words. And it’s great for, you know, if you want to call yourself a Mahayana Buddhist practitioner, that’s the instruction, anywhow. You can’t pick and choose anymore. The metta practice that we learned, you know, here, you send out the kindness to your friends. You send it out to your neutral people. You send it out to your enemies. So, it’s the end of that picking and choosing who’s worthy to receive this open-hearted expression from you. And it’s challenging as hell. I mean, it’s, you know, so is feeding people. I was just walking through the streets of New York thinking, “We’re going back to the hell realm.” It’s like, there’s people just walking around like, kind of, with nothing. Sleeping under awnings and stuff. So, these are not easy things. But, I think the way I work with it is, in the moment, when I’m starting to pull back, and oh, this person’s annoying or whatever, whenever that happens, I just kind of cut it. I’m just kind of you giving you a little bit of Mahayana instruction. There’s a lot of ways to reverse the flow of that energy and just shift it. You can breathe in and breathe out with it as in Tonglen type of instructions. But, I just, I really feel like that is a paramount, for somebody to be able to say that and kind of mean it and as KD said, teachers at that level are just giving us things to chew on. We have to work on it. It’s not going to happen overnight. So, I have a tremendous appreciation, you know, Shyam Das used to call me the Shambhala Wallah, that was my nickname and this is, this community here is, you know, very important part of my life and it’s my sangha also, my cousins and brothers and sisters and for KD to come and kind of help support our training and workshop here is very meaningful and I want to thank you, KD, so much for coming along. It means a lot.
If you would like, you can buy David’s new book HERE
Call and Response podcasts are made possible by the Kirtan Wallah Foundation
Your support via direct donations go toward offerings such as this series, new teaching materials, as well as the the compilation of all of KD’s work on the Path, for the purpose of sharing it with everyone in a variety of media. Kirtan Wallah Foundation is also be able to offer assistance to organizations around the world, whose efforts are in alignment with the teachings of Neem Karoli Baba. For more information about the work of the foundation you can visit our blog for recent updates as well as sign up for our foundation news letter.
A note about your donation:
Donations can be made via Paypal below and are tax deductible under 501c3 guidelines. If you prefer to give via a check, please send your donation to Kirtan Wallah Foundation | 228 E Route 59 | #85 | Nanuet, NY | 10954. We thank you in advance for your generosity.