March 29, 2013

Go Now & Begin Your Practice: An Interview with Youngbear Roth. ~ Sidney Bennet

{Part two in a series. Read part one here.}

Youngbear, a street educated Los Angeles homeboy in his 60s, began as a barber shop shine running for country star Freddie Hart’s beer and a bull-worker loading freight trucks on Los Angeles’ underground loading docks.

Youngbear spent nights reading and studying and weekends hanging out at L.A.’s spiritual hub, the Bodhi Tree book shop, meeting everyone who was anyone in the Southern California spiritual new age movement until during a private and unexpected moment satori struck like a lightning bolt or a falling leaf, depending on his mood when he tells the story.

YB drove through the South Central riots the day after Rodney King was beaten to meet with the Los Angeles Zen Center’s founder Taizan Maezumi Roshi.

Youngbear Roth: I had to take this meeting with the roshi immediately. I knew that something important just occurred in my life and that it was momentary and wouldn’t last—that is, the moment wouldn’t last, but its effects turned my vision of a significant part of my life inside out forever. Of course, I realized the city was armed to the teeth, but at the same time I was in this placid state where I judged it to be unimportant. I remember driving down Wilshire towards central L.A. and thinking, “Shoot me, throw a brick at me, kill me, I don’t care. Something has happened and I need to know what my life is worth.”

What were the results of that first meeting with the roshi?

Y.R.: We’d already spoken over the phone the previous day, so I climbed some stairs, found him and introduced myself. I told him that my dharma wheel had been turning for a thousand years and the answer to one hand clapping is “Not so!” He laughed and told me I’d had a moment called satori and that now the thing is to forget it or not forget it but move on and don’t let it slow me down.

I was relieved because I thought he was going to tell me I was a lunatic and throw me out. Instead, we became on-again off-again friends until his passing.

Can you explain satori?

Y.R.: Look, people want to know how to find enlightenment. What is it? Where is it? How do I begin my search? Here is where the trouble begins. We search out a guru, one who claims he can lead us to where enlightenment is. That’s bullshit. Certainly, there are very sincere spiritual leaders and wonderful teachers, most of whom have no notion of their leading and who teach by virtue of their child-like sensitivities; their wisdom is right there if you’re ready to receive it. There are also a glut of assholes worldwide who claim infinity as their Disneyland and for your hard-earned paycheck they’ll sell you an e-ticket. They’re no different from the Christian church.

You are in the dark and they hold your light. They are the way when in truth only you are the way.

Jesus said,

“The way to the Father is through me.”

He was speaking of the moment when your enlightenment comes through your awakening and he was putting himself up there as an example for all of us. You are the only one who is fit to conduct your journey to enlightenment. You have the sat guru within to lead you to direct recognition of God or Brahman or Vishnu or The Father, whatever. In yoga, sat or satya means truth, and guru is one who leads from darkness to light. Enlightenment is always here now. Enlightenment is Buddha nature; it’s universal and doesn’t need discovering—it needs awareness and realization.

Whenever and wherever any of us are, enlightenment is there. The problem is one of conscious recognition. We might awaken anytime to the presence of enlightenment—in the middle of an intense life struggle or in the middle of our bedtime prayers. But in a sense we sleep until we are ready through our life experience to awaken. At that moment awakening consciousness is brief. It blows through like the wind and leaves and we know something happened—that we become aware of something, a quality that allows the already existent infinite enlightenment to be recognized as part of our finite state of existence. Then it’s gone like it arrived—on the wind. The enlightenment is not gone, just the awareness of it. Oh, but from now on things are different. We’ve caught a glimpse of the infinite and that changes everything. We can’t live 24-7 in that moment. Well, most of us can’t. But we can begin to reach for that as a goal through yoga practice.

Look at it. True yoga practice is not wanting to escape your mundane responsibilities or escape your life, because you come to an understanding that your finite existence is the tool that is given you as a vehicle through which to realize the divine infinite. Everything that yoga people who are in avidya [ignorance of truth] call illusion or maya is actually a required piece of truth, a tool that already contains the infinite reality.

You’ve written that yoga is so broad and profound that it can take a lifetime to scratch the surface. You’ve also been quoted as saying that the Zen koan of one hand clapping is a metaphor for a universe essentially empty of self—that all manifest forms are aspects of a single energy. Didn’t you say that the void is all or nothing, and how can you now say that there is no help for any of us? You are saying when it comes to jivan-mukti (liberation from human suffering while one is still in the body) that it’s every individual on their own. Surely, you can see how this sounds contradictory and confusing.

Y.R.: Okay. First, I’ll clarify. The most any teacher or guru can do is lead you to what you already have, the ability to awaken to the moment of your most complete being. No roshi other than your sat guru holds your moment. The void is all or nothing? Yes! Everyone is an aspect of complete being, one energy. But here’s the ground we tread; each one of us is experiencing finite awareness confused with finite thought forms, however, without the infinite. Your most complete moment is when you directly experience awakening to the presence of the infinite through your finite self. It’s transpersonal.

You transcend the self by using the self through which to awaken to a state where you have no independent self, only everything as self.

Outside of the moment, later, you may again begin to use thought to indirectly understand the transpersonal aspect of what has occurred. So, a huge chunk of enlightenment is learning to walk two worlds, both real. There is no maya [illusion]. That’s more yoga-speak bullshit. Here and there, now and then, finite and infinite are all real and valid. Each piece is used to achieve a whole illuminating state of consciousness, and the whole is present within each piece.

This brings us to the famous, albeit much misunderstood, Zen koan,

“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

There is no such thing as one hand clapping. One hand has never clapped. In fact, one hand has never existed. Look, remember the void? It’s either all or nothing. There is either no hand or everything. So, my answer to the koan is, “Not so.” The question is simply another way of stating the essential void.

You’ve been called an egotist, and I have to say that you come off as somewhat less than diplomatic.

Y.R.: I’ve never had much in the way of social grace. Believe me, it upsets me. I’ve tried. My wife has tried to teach me and I want to learn, but it’s not a happening thing for me. You know I’ll tell you something from the bottom of my heart – I love people but I don’t need them as much as I love them. I believe in love in its broadest sense. I believe in universal love.

I also believe in Brahman, an impersonal creative god. And there’s lots of room in there for compassion. I feel very deeply, and it took me a long time to understand that quality about myself. Another teacher of mine, Arleta Soares, had me examining my intuitive side, and that leads to an admission of deep emotions. I didn’t want to recognize it. I was raised in some ways to believe that if I ever really opened myself up to my more profound feelings I would never survive this world.

However, slowly coming to an understanding of eastern philosophy and taking it as my truth, my way of life, and then falling in love with my wife, experiencing her complete being in my life opened me up to realizing that dealing with my feelings was a way to impart the most insightful meaning to my life journey, and I wanted that, and sitting here now, I still want it.

All of that said, I don’t need people as much as I love people, and when you know something, I mean really know it, you can’t teach it to others or use it in your own life if you’re going to be diplomatic or wishy-washy about it because social convention expects you to be a nice fella! You know, I want to be a positive force in the world each day. I just don’t feel that I can do that by spoon feeding pabulum to people or granting interviews when I feel more important issues are pressing.

You’re sitting here because I genuinely enjoy having you here. If not, I’d kick your ass out.

YB leaned over and put his hand on the back of my head drawing me into his space. He looked directly at me for at least ten seconds and aside from an initial discomfort at being touched this way by another man, I felt so strongly that he was able to see into me—see something inside of me that I didn’t know was there.

“Look,” he said, “I love you, and I mean it.”

For the first time since we began the interview I found myself really looking into Youngbear’s face. It was a magnetic moment. YB’s features above the neck are old, gray, with deep lines, the scars of a difficult life and some distant sadness in his eyes. It’s the kind of sadness that’s not bad, only there, and it won’t leave until he closes his eyes for the last time. It’s the sadness that leaves one wondering about YB’s one thousand years of turning the dharma wheel.

Below the neck it is as if his body stopped aging at 25, and this he says is from over 50 years of practicing different forms of yoga contemplative and physical. I was overtaken by an otherworldly sense of spirit within and everywhere around the man—peace. The air, I noticed, was pure here. Nothing of the outside world existed while I sat and my thinking just ceased. I felt his wisdom. He wasn’t trying. He didn’t care, yet, I felt this man’s love. I doubted for a split second if he, as a physical body, was really present. He never referred to himself and enlightenment in the same sentence, but I could swear I saw him walking in two worlds.

I would like to ask about the grieving woman. It’s followed you for years.

Y.R.: Oh, I don’t know, you know? Things happen we can’t or don’t want to explain. I know what happened but I don’t want to get into that side of it. I met a young lady in a Santa Monica shopping mall. A beautiful woman and I could see her soul—perfection, really. She was so filled with grief. She had watched her boyfriend die as the result of a fire. Apparently the burns killed him but it was slow, you know, in the hospital where he laid and she watched everyday for weeks. Oh, I felt so bad for her. So, I took her hand. I just held it. I felt that she was good with that, so I held her hand.

I spoke to her about her boyfriend’s life—a lot of little details that just came flying in from wherever. I told her that at the time of his death he did not feel pain, at that moment or maybe the last few moments. And then this idea came in and I asked her if she would like me to show her what her boyfriend saw and how he felt at his time of passing. She said yes, so I let go of her hand and asked her to close her eyes. I put one hand over my heart and ran my other hand over her energy field. She continued tearing but the sobbing stopped. She said she was seeing a bright light in one high corner of the hospital room and there was no pain.

Well, after that she stopped crying and said to me that she could go on now, you know, with her life.

I think that’s all I want to say about it.

But this is a great story.

Y.R.: No. Love is the story. God is the story. Realizing your complete being is the story. Look, everything else that we celebrate, chase after, suffer with are all footnotes. They’re valid and interesting, but they are not the story.

You had an experience you call your illumination.

Y.R.: Yes, Ahbe used that term and I never forgot it. It turns out that many people from all walks of life in numerous different cultures have these illuminations, but only in few cultures are illuminations considered acceptable. Usually they are not to be spoken of. If you are a Native American you go on a vision quest for your totem or spirit guide and that may be an illumination you want to speak about and delve into the meaning of.

However, in the Judeo-Christian culture if you ever actually admit to having seen a spirit or literally spoken with God or Mary or if you are asked, “Do you know Jesus?” and you answer “Yes,” you’re considered a loose cannon. In the Zen school of Buddhism, if you have a vision while sitting in meditation this is makyo (deception of nature) to be ignored.

One afternoon I took my usual meditation spot in the courtyard at the Ananda Ashrama [This is a Vedanta Society ashram in La Crescenta, CA] opposite the library across from the temple proper. I was sitting outdoors, my favorite, under a roofed area and when I closed my eyes a female figure that felt like Mary of the Judeo-Christians or the Divine Mother of the Vedanta traditions, or Kwan Yin Blessed Mother of Buddhist traditions appeared to me. No communication ensued, just an appearance.

This makyo, if you wish, had been consistent for three months.

It was a cold wet winter up there. Really, just gray, you know? I couldn’t get warm sitting, so, later I went for a hike wearing my heavy coat. I walked to the edge of a stream rushing down the mountains after the rains and decided to stop by a statue of the Divine Mother that the ashram placed there. I stood still watching the deer and then closed my eyes and spoke to the statue.

“Fine. Here I am, and here you are. You’ve been dogging my meditation for months and now I’m here listening. If you have something to say, say it! Out with it. What do you want from me? Speak!’

It was given to me to keep my eyes closed. I broke out in a profuse sweat all over my face and neck. I understood in the moment that my entire state of being had shifted. It was given to me to open my eyes. I opened them and the whole forest shimmered in brilliant sunlight and auras around all of the trees and creatures. Nearby, two deer played and then stopped to stare at me. Man, I’m telling you, it was like a Technicolor moment.

A female voice spoke clearly and I will never forget it,

“Behold, you are looking into the face of God.”

I couldn’t turn, yet, I could see everything in a 360-degree circle. I lost my sense of time and place. All I knew was that I was wherever I was and this was happening. I understood hearing Mary’s voice. Now, I know she didn’t speak English, and words like ‘behold’ were not part of my casual English. I’ll call it a compromise between two spirits through time and space. No one will ever convince me otherwise.

After a time, I closed my eyes and the cold settled in again. When I opened my eyes the sky was dark with clouds and the forest was overcast, and I heard the stream in the background.

Would you say that’s a moment of enlightenment?

Y.R.: Well, it’s sure as hell an illumination. I don’t know if that was enlightenment. I know it answered a lifetime of doubts and questions. It didn’t change me, you know? It released something already deep within me. It allowed some unsatisfied thirst to finally die. I put any thoughts of a personal god to rest; the entire universe became God and that includes me. I haven’t returned to the ashram since. I believe I received what I had come for and my time there was completed. I would have to say that my life shifted from a thing or an episode to an ongoing process of dynamic faith.

I consider Eden Ahbez’ teachings and that part of me that died after repeatedly attempting to persevere. I’m certain that one must in a sense die to renounce, to liberate, to become samnyasin practicing a flowing yoga with Brahman. Now, I can tell you, I see buddha-nature everywhere, just everywhere.

I wanted to ask YB about my life purpose. That was the secret agenda behind my interview and it was my motivation to do this assignment from the beginning. I was told that at extremely rare moments he would look at someone and give a reading. I hesitated and just kept thinking about it. Finally, he smiled a bit.

Y.R.: Look, my spiritual mentor, Eden Ahbez, told me at our first meeting if you want your life to change you must give the best of yourself freely and without expectation, and your life will change. It will take time, but it will change.

That was my answer. It was the bottom line to every question I struggled with. He was offering me peace. Not some quality I didn’t have, but a way to express what I knew had always been there. I wanted to tell him so. As I watched him, the bear in Youngbear vanished. I saw a man. Only a man. However, his face, his hands and fingers, the manner in which he sat in his chair, again I couldn’t ignore the feeling that he was not here, but he was here. I felt his dharma wheel of a thousand years as if they were nothing. He carried no weight.

“Go now, and begin your practice,” Youngbear said.


Mr. Bennet is thirty-six years old, married and from Netanya, Israel. His wanderlust and studies in media, politics, photography and journalism at Tel Aviv University led him to Egypt, Africa, France, India, and to the United States where he lives in Los Angeles, California working six months out of the year as a freelance story analyst in independent radio news and the film industry. The rest of Mr. Bennet’s time is spent photographing Israel and enjoying his family.



 Like elephant spirituality on Facebook.


Asst Ed: Amy Cushing/Ed: Kate Bartolotta

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,590