1904 - 1992
The Life and Teachings of Joe Miller
by Shabda Kahn
(written as a book review for Yoga Journal
after the publication of Richard Power's book about Joe)
Joe Miller is one of the great "homemade" American Mystics of this
century. He was recognized as an enlightened being by many spiritual
authorities and revered as a mentor by many young seekers. He and
his wife Guin, best known for taking hundreds of people on their
weekly walks through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, were true
torch-bearers of Love. They were hard to miss on the walk, two white-
haired elders wearing T-shirts that read: "No Religion higher than
Truth, no Power greater than Love"
"Don't bother just listening to the words, but try to get the feel
of what I'm putting out! Realization can't be taught, it can only be
caught". He would roar at his audience: "There are three things one
needs for the spiritual path -- common sense, a sense of humor, and
more common sense!"
In the words of Richard Power, who wrote the book, Great Song: The
Life and Teaching of Joe Miller, "Joe was an authentic American
revolutionary of the spirit. He challenged his young friends to
issue their own declarations of independence from the empire of fear
and wanting. Joe wanted people to seek the truth for themselves
within themselves. He felt that each person had an inalienable right
to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life - as in 'the
resurrection and the life'; liberty - as in spiritual liberty from
the tyranny of opposites; and the pursuit of happiness - as in the
inner contentment that flows unceasingly from the depth of the heart
if you 'let go and let God'".
When giving a rap, Joe often introduced himself as "a graduate from
the School of Hard Knocks." In his autobiography, Joe offers
insights into both his worldly life and his inner development. Born
to poor parents in the frigid north of Minnesota, with an eighth
grade education and beautiful tenor voice, Joe became a vaudeville
entertainer by night and a Wonder Bread truck driver by day. He
recounts how several episodes of pre-cognition and sudden spiritual
ecstasy, together with a misplaced book on a library shelf, led him
to join the Theosophical Society in his early twenties.
His T.S. membership was just the beginning of a life-long inner
quest. Joe experimented with many other groups, taking
correspondence courses from the Rosicrucians, dabbling in Aleister
Crowley's "sex magic", learning the sales pitch for the I AM
movement with its "Ascended Masters" and purple Cadillacs. Searching
to unlock the healing powers of color and music, Joe encountered
charlatans and bold innovators. Along the way, Joe read voraciously,
and used himself as his own laboratory for the various techniques
that attracted him. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that most
of the groups he had investigated and much of the popular literature
he had studied boiled down to "astral real estate, just pretty
pictures in your imagination."
While Joe pursued his interest in the mystical and occult, his
personal life provided him with plenty of what he would call "the
manure that makes the flowers grow." His early life was a painful
American patchwork, moving from town to town for work, staggering
through three marriages and raising two sets of children. After
moving to northern California, Joe began to find books and people
with the answers he was looking for. In the works of Ramana
Maharshi, the Sutra of the Sixth Zen Patriarch, and Dr. Evans-
Wentz's translations of sacred Tibetan texts, Joe found practices
that made sense to him and he began to dig deeper into the inner
Dr. Evans-Wentz, the original translator of the Tibetan Book of the
Dead, and other sacred Mahayana texts, considered Joe Miller "the
only man he had met in the West who understood the Doctrine of the
Near retirement, Joe's quest received a great forward impetus when
he met his fourth wife, Guin, a woman of his own age (for a change),
an accomplished pianist and a fellow Theosophist. Together, they
vowed to "grow geometrically" toward "falling awake" (a term they
coined to express Enlightenment). His marriage to Guin provided Joe
with the emotional equilibrium and spiritual camaraderie he needed
to unlock that inner door. The key was love, unconditional love.
After decades of inner searching and outer turmoil, Joe was able to
turn the spiritual ecstasy that he had first touched as a young man
on and off at will. The inner and outer worlds began to mirror one
another. Joe called his friend and mentor, Dr. W.Y. Evans-Wentz on
the phone and sang him a verse from one of the sacred scriptures
that Evans-Wentz had translated. Guin had set it to music. Although
ill and very old, the good Doctor shouted into the phone: "You're
there now, stay there!" As Joe told it later: "When he said that, it
didn't do anything to my 'kundalini,' it did something to my heart."
From then on, in their late fifties, when others of their age had
settled down to mah-jong, Joe began to walk in the Golden Gate Park,
singing and expounding to the many young people who came along.
Always, balancing him beautifully, was his opposite and "better
half," his beloved Guin.
Without taking any titles, Joe was known among the Sufis as Murshid
(Master) or Madzub (one crazy for God), among the Buddhists as Roshi
or the "Sufi Lama", and among the Vedantists as "Swami Joe".
Virtually every high Lama, Swami or Murshid visiting San Francisco
would make their way to his door to pay their respects. The Ven.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called the musical meditations that Joe
sang to his wife's piano accompaniment "the first American mantras".
On his deathbed, the American Sufi Master Samuel L Lewis (a.k.a.
Sufi Sam), entreated Joe to: "Take care of my disciples", and for
more than twenty years, Joe lovingly fulfilled his friend's request.
But as Power writes: "Joe didn't take any money for public speaking
or private consoling. He absolutely refused the role of Guru or
spiritual teacher. He referred to himself as 'just a friend' ".
In Joe's voice,"This isn't something you can go to India and get, or
the moon, or South America to get! It's inside you. Just be still
and find it and start living from there". "The truth IS, nobody can
say it. You've got to BE it!" Joe used his vaudeville flair: "You
can get more stinkin' from thinkin' than you can from drinkin', but
to feel is for real! AND I MEAN REALLY FEEL!" His advice on
meditation was disarmingly simple: "Just take a gentle in-drawn
breath into the heart and feel unselfish love flowing out. If you
can do that you're cooking on the big burner."
Joe's message was simple but powerful, direct but subtle: "Just be.
But just be who and what you really are, in depth. Not what someone
else tells you to be, or what you think you should be. Be. When you
first wake-up in the morning, who are you then? When you say "I",
you put your hand to your heart, don't you? Well, that's
headquarters, not in your head. Your head is just an outpost. You've
got to get out of your cotton-picking mind! Go deeper." Joe was
always trying to break-up people's fixed ideas and biases about how
to get to the goal: "You've got to do it for you. No one can carry
you piggy-back to the Reality. You've all got your own do-it-
yourself kits. You don't have to go to anybody else, pay out a lot
of loot, do a hundred thousand gyashos, and contemplate your navel
till it gets as big as a wash-tub. Just be still, be very still."
"I know I'm NOTHING, no-thing, no-thing, not me, not me. I'm just a
wild assed spark of the Infinite functioning in the Finite! This is
the magic that each of us has within us."
Joe Miller left his body Aug 19, 1992, but his presence and message
Oniko, thank you for your line to me
love and peace, Karta