My best friend just returned home this week from his first Ram Dass retreat in Maui, and I was beyond eager to ask questions and delve into his experiences there. Upon reconvening over some food, drinks, and kirtan at my humble mountain home, my wife and I picked his brain about overt themes, subtle nuances, the general vibe, and I definitely threw in some fanboy questions about teachers and idols of mine with whom he crossed paths. After chomping down comedically large portions of Trader Joe’s potato pancakes, veggie sausage patties, and kale, and taking a dewy walk outside during the golden hour while waiting for AAA to come help our friend get his keys out of his locked car, we went inside to share in some kirtan together.
When my wife sat to play the harmonium, she noticed something was broken with one of the stops. Whenever the bellows on the back were pushed in to give air to the system and allow notes to be played, a constant drone in the tone of C would ring through the instrument. This created a funny situation where my friend realized that for anything to sound right with this constant humming, we would have to play everything in the scale of C. Fortuitously, she just so happened to learn two new songs that week that were played completely on that specific scale. Funny how things like that happen. Her chants were powerful and encapsulating. Our friend was able to use the situation in a really smart way, as it pushed him to put together some new arrangements in that scale, and digging like that seemed to take him to different places in his music than he would have gone to had the harmonium been fixed.
At a certain point in that luscious space between songs, a specific deity came to the tip of my friend’s tongue, Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, often represented in Buddhism as either male or female, with a mandalic plumage of unlimited arms outstretched to help. I had no prior knowledge of this being, the meaning of the name, or what it represented. The moment my friend recollected and uttered the name, sitting at the harmonium already, his eyes closed and head lowered, and he instantly fell into one of the deepest, most intrinsically loving and otherworldly tranced bhajans I have ever heard.
A depiction of Avalokitesvara by artist Alex Grey
The name, Avalokitesvara, fluttered by, encircling, encapsulating, and deepening with every layered repetition. A strange reminiscence was felt, like I had heard this before, strikingly vivid, but I just couldn’t place it. I didn’t need to place it, though, as I felt my sense of self floating away from my localization within my thought system. Just thirty minutes prior I had been so caught up in thought that I was barely even “there” to enjoy my meal. Now I was not only letting thoughts slip by rather than latching on to them, but I was detaching from the entire system of thought all together. Deeper and deeper the chant went, and higher and deeper I went with it. The farther back it took me, the more familiarity I felt with the mantra and the space that it was imbibing. I felt my awareness floating through my whole body, non-localized, feeling everything. I intuited a neon essence to my being, and felt like a strong, stoic temple, sitting cross-legged on my meditation pillow.
I felt myself rise through states I had visited before through mediations, lucid dreams, and consciousness exploration. Each different layer I peeled up through, I was able to note, and welcome myself back in thinking this was the stopping point, but I just kept rising. My friend’s Avalokitesvara chant took me higher up than I have ever been in my life, while staying as centered as I have ever been in my life. My incessant thoughts were wiped clean, my heart felt outreaching, accepting, and purified, and there was a sense of total familiarity and complete taken-cared-of-ness. The only way I can medially attempt to describe it is to say that I felt a total blanket of familiar-but-forgotten oneness wash over my existence, and in that vibration of unity, these specific channels, these tunnels opened up where compassion could flow out from the infinite into the relative, and back from the relative to the infinite. That’s just a rather simplified and deluded attempt at throwing paint over the invisible man, as the experience cannot be touched with words.
Basking in this clear, warm, ethereal, unified state, we sat in meditation for a while, until our friends dog brought us back to the physical plane, as dogs like to rightfully do. From there my friend described how he learned of Avalokitesvara through spending time at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village in France. He hadn’t sung it in ages, and that had been the first time he had ever shared it. It surprised and amazed him to tap into the space after all of those years, and felt it was imbibed due to his recent retreat with Ram Dass being of the same kind of essence as his time at Plum Village. It wasn’t just that chant, though. My friend came back charged from this Ram Dass retreat. He was truly beaming and emitting something different, alongside his kirtan being steeped in a deeper well of power that we had never experienced from him on that level. It was as if he had gone to the Ram Dass retreat with a giant metaphysical ice cream scoop, scooped up a big ole heaping serving of bhakti ice cream, took it on the plane back with him, and plopped it right into our hungry hearts upon arriving home. I feel like the reason the Avalokitesvara mantra was so potent, was that my friend embodied the pure compassion in which that bodhisattva represents. He had the compassion to fully and openly share with us all of the love downloads he had received at the retreat. We were not able to experience the retreat alongside him, but through his compassion he was able to share with us a heaping scoop of exactly what he got there, and not just memories, but the true feeling and divine essence.
The next day, back in my thinking mind and completely blown away by the experience the evening prior, I messaged my friend this hilarious and embarrassing stream-of-consciousness text, which exemplifies the life-shaking, raw power of that moment for me. I texted, “After hearing that song last night…. I can’t place it. I’ve heard that before… I’ve been there before. It was beyond dreams. Completely gone, totally present. All of it. I can’t place it. I can’t. It’s like the fondest/strongest memory, with nothing localized for actual recollection. It’s like between births. Everything grew. I grew. Neon. I was neon. I was a triangle. Awareness bouncing through my triangle. Temple. Neon triangle temple. These are crazy ramblings now. Where do I know that mantra/feeling? Stronger connection than anything. Stronger recollection than anything. It wiped me clean. I’m sorry to muddle it with words... The only way to describe it is to be it, and when you’re it, describing it is meaningless.”
His simple reply: “Buddha.”