One of the most popular Buddhist teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area these days is not a Tibetan lama or a traditional Zen master but an unconventional, an American-born lay teacher named Adyashanti. His public talks and dialogues (which he calls satsangs, a term borrowed from India’s Advaita, or “nondual,” tradition) attract hundreds of seekers, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.

At a satsang I attended recently at a church near Lake Merritt, in downtown Oakland, Adyashanti sat on a large chair at the front of the hall, flanked by flowers. After a period of silence and a brief dharma talk, in which he focused on “the futility of seeking what we already are,” he invited members of the audience to engage in dialogue with him.

One man asked about the value of a regular meditation practice, and Adyashanti observed, “Whenever you aren’t manipulating your experience, you’re meditating. As soon as you meditate because you think you should, you’re controlling your experience again, and you’ve squeezed all the value out of your meditation.”

Again and again, he urged students to connect directly, in the moment, with the palpable truth of their own inherent nature—with the one who, in Adyashanti’s words, is “always looking out through your eyes right now.” The intensity and intimacy of these encounters reminded me of a kind of public dokusan, the private exchange between master and disciple in traditional Zen.

Although Adyashanti rarely talks about Zen or Buddhism these days, he did train closely with a Buddhist teacher, spending more than a dozen years practicing meditation under the guidance of Arvis Justi, a lay teacher in the lineage of Zen master Taizan Maezumi, the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Beginning at age nineteen, Steve Gray (as Adyashanti was then called) shifted his youthful intensity from bicycle racing and backpacking to the pursuit of enlightenment, attending weekly gatherings in Justi’s living room, sitting periodic week-long retreats with Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a disciple of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and logging three or four hours each day in a meditation shed he constructed in his parents’ backyard.

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