Satsang Reports
Been there, done that, from our non-partisan roving reporters ( * )
This page is from Bobby Meizer

Helga Schleiter Smith, May 2005, Santa Cruz

I decided to put on my GRRR hat (Guru Ratings Roving Reporter) and check out an event of The Way of Sudden Awakening group fronted by Helga Schleiter Smith. My interest was piqued by seeing her listed in the Other Buddhist Teachers category,
along with the news, somewhat dated, that she and her husband Russell Smith had split from Master Nome of SAT (their brother/brother-in-law) to start an independent group. I had written a Satsang Report about my visit in fall 2001 to SAT, and thought this might make for a good follow-up.

Helga's events are presently held in the small meeting-room of a little separate building adjoining what I presume is Russell and Helga's multi-story house. Though nothing like the palatial facility of SAT, here in the outrageously expensive Santa Cruz area it is easily a million dollar property. It's also only about a half mile up the forested hill from SAT. One suspects that possibly the Smiths did not leave the well-off SAT entirely empty-handed. [Sarlo adds: Yes, but where they actually live is eight miles away in none-too-shabby Soquel. The house described above by Bobby is said to belong to a devotee.]

The Way of Sudden Awakening events "start promptly at 8:00 PM". I gave myself plenty of time to make the three mile walk there, but, most maps being made for motorists instead of pedestrians, I ended up being about five minutes late. The lights were low as a woman came to the door and let me in. She asked me in a whisper for $15. I replied that I don't donate unless I know what I'm donating to. She seemed surprised by this, but made no protest when I took a seat. There were eight padded folding chairs set up in two rows, and behind them a single arm chair, occupied by two other men and four women. In front of this audience, beneath a striking triptych painting of an Asian dragon, were three armchairs. One in the center, facing the audience, where Helga sat. One to her right, facing sideways, where Russell sat. One to her left, also facing sideways, was unoccupied. Helga and Russell's chairs each had a small side table, with a glass and a bottle of spring water on it. Russell's table also held a small clock which faced Helga. It was quite a contrast to the huge Satsang Hall at SAT, where Nome occupies a throne on an elevated stage far separated from the audience. The one similarity was that Russell sat to the side, not facing the audience directly. Though at SAT he had seemed subsidiary to Nome, while here he was clearly not subsidiary to Helga.

Just after I took my seat the woman who had answered the door raised the lights and sat down. Helga began her half hour presentation, or "dharma talk" as she referred to it. Her delivery was competent enough, but a little nervous, glancing at Russell for reassurance from time to time; her German accent is slight enough that it doesn't get in her way at all. She did have all the mandatory pregnant pauses down pat, and she appeared to know her material. The content all seemed to me like straightforward Buddhist teachings of the Ch'an/Zen/"Ekayana" traditions. While the main subject of her talk was the "dharma gate" of Nobody Here To Begin With, she also made one long digression, and several subsequent comments, on the subject of "false humility" in religious teachers who needed to make their students feel lowly in order for them to feel masterful. She talked about an unnamed spiritual group that had been a major part of her spiritual path that was especially plagued by this hierarchical ego manifestation. That, of course, is not what she and Russell (who spoke little, but from whom she took occasional cues, and to whom she obviously deferred) were about, and I must admit that the vibe was much more authentic and friendly than the smug superiority of SAT. Nonetheless, the chairs, though all on the same level, were still set up for a few speakers with an audience, and those who came to listen were expected to pay for the opportunity. So complete egalitarianism within the group was not at all
what they had in mind.

After her talk Helga opened the floor for people to dialogue with her (and Russell). You raised your hand and were invited up to sit in the chair on Helga's left. A young woman went up first. It was obvious that she was a "regular". Instead of asking questions she just laid out how she was doing lately with life and with her practice of the Way of Sudden Awakening, and inviting Helga and Russ to weigh in, which they did in a supportive manner and with a humor that everyone else seemed to find much funnier than I did. After the first young woman was finally satisfied for the moment she was replaced by a second young woman who did the same thing as the first one. Of course, it was different because she was a different person, but she also talked about her experience with the Way, and got feedback from Helga and Russell, back and forth, until she was satisfied. Both of these women (especially the first one!) did the most talking, though Helga would often jump in with an extended comment, and Russell would try a more rapid-fire interactive approach, using more humor, and doing more playing to the audience than Helga.

Finally I raised my hand and was invited up. In that chair it became even more obvious that Russell, sitting across from and facing me, was the actual leader, the teacher's teacher, as it were. So I asked Helga how she had made the transition from the unnamed spiritual group to the Way of Sudden Awakening, had it involved studying texts? Yes, she said, but she only studied the original texts without any interpretation or commentary. "You read them in the original languages?". She was slightly flustered, no, she didn't mean to say that, she read them in English. I guess a lot of people don't realize that virtually every translation, especially of something like an ancient religious text, is an interpretation by the translator. So then I asked her if she had had a living teacher in this tradition, and she made it explicit by indicating Russell. I asked Russell who his living teacher in this tradition was and he mentioned a Japanese teacher (unfortunately I didn't catch the name) who had come to the U.S. 30 years ago (and stayed?) to teach Ekayana Buddhism. A good reporter would have delved much deeper, but I was satisfied just by confirming my impression about who was in charge, so I thanked them and sat back in the audience.

[Sarlo adds, Oct 31, 2005: Russell has now emerged as the first-named teacher on Helga's site, acknowledging the truth of this impression.]

No one volunteered for the chair after me, and Helga asked Russell if she should continue with the scriptural text she was reading to the group, and getting his approval she read for about five or ten minutes. Then she read a testimonial letter from a woman who was sorry that her schedule would make her miss this year's retreat in Hawaii, but was sending her check for last year's wonderful retreat in Hawaii which she had attended on scholarship. Finally Helga made an announcement of an upcoming event, a party for Buddha's birthday. Then the lights were dimmed, and we were asked to sit silently with eyes open for a few minutes. Eventually Helga looked to Russell who gave her a signal, and she thanked us all for coming. The two of them got up and went into the main house while the audience was invited by the assistant to stay for tea. It was around 9:50, and I had a three mile walk ahead of me, so I took off, missing out on yet another chance to do more investigative reporting.

If you're looking for an intimate spiritual community that's supportive and welcoming, and you're willing to pay the going rate for this sort of thing, I'm guessing you could do far worse than to hook up with Russell and Helga Smith. That is, unless I was conned, and they're just playing good cop to SAT's bad cop (which a one time visitor would really have no way of knowing). They seemed like genuinely nice people who weren't putting on any airs beyond holding themselves out as master teachers of a particular Buddhist practice. But for what it's worth, my advice if you want sudden awakening in Santa Cruz is to go see John Wheeler.

He sets up his chairs in a circle.

* This is an expandable set of pages. If you've been to see any of my listees and would like to offer an "objective" report, ie from one not already "attached" to the teacher in question or full of ideas based on attachment to a "competing" teacher, send it in (Feedback) and i'll be happy to put it up. Other Reports

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