On Devotion: A Conversation with Robert Ryan

by Timothy Frazier

Renowned tattoo artist Robert Ryan discusses his spiritual practice and preforms a Shiva Puja in his backyard temple in New Jersey.
Interviewed and photographed by Timothy Frazier for Volume 2 - A Spiritual Awakening.
Listen to the full interview here:



 

TF: Could you tell me about your childhood? Were you raised in a spiritual or religious household? Or is that something you found later on in life?

 

 

RR: I had some religious relatives. My grandfather was a mason of high degree. My dad was an atheist and my mom is a laissez-faire presbyterian. So not really in the immediate household but there was spiritual influence in my family. I was alway fascinated by it maybe because it wasn’t around. I wasn’t really exposed to it so I think I sought it out more vigorously.

 

TF: At what point in your life were you first introduced to Hinduism?

 

 

RR: Well, Hinduism came a bit later but I was introduced to Eastern philosophy through martial arts when I was really young. I was in Judo and I was obsessed with Japanese culture. I took about 5 years of Judo and had some friends that were taking other kinds of martial arts. We would trade our teacher's stories. That was my introduction to a lineage of teaching and obviously, I was young and I wanted to get into martial arts as a kind of self-defense and it was cool - all the Kung Fu shows were on Saturday. Immediately, I realized that there was a strong amount of discipline in it and was the first thing that I chose to discipline myself. You’re forced to go to school and do all these other things and you’re disciplined by your folks. But, a choice to discipline yourself with this martial arts practice - I think that kind of led into Hinduism.

 

RR: When the Hinduism thing came: I stopped eating meat. I was active in the punk rock/ hardcore scene. Vegetarianism was becoming popular with straight-edge bands like Youth of Today and stuff like that. I went to an animal benefit and there were some Krishna’s their giving out Prasad there. They gave me the higher taste book - the vegetarian cookbook. Later on that week: I came back home to New Jersey and I was hanging out on the boardwalk, on the oceanfront where all the kids would hangout. A Krishna devotee approached me and he used his tacit that they use in Grateful Dead parking lots where they approach you and say, “You’re under arrest!” to disarm you, and then he said, “for smiling” and game me the Jagannath sticker.

 

RR: I was like, Oh wow, I just met some devotees for the first time and I was interested. He’s like, “Well that great. That means it’s meant to be. Why don’t you come up to my van. I’ve got some japa beads. I’ll teach ya the Maha mantra.” So, he taught me how to chant the Maha mantra and japa beads. A few weeks later I went to the temple for the first time and then was frequenting the feasts.I had a friend that actually moved into the temple so I was spending some time with him.

 

RR: I kinda fell out of it after a few years because I was young. I was 16. I was trying to become a monk at that age and I just wasn’t ready to do it. I didn’t have the right mindset. Then, 15 years later I rediscovered it. I met my teacher, now my guru. I’ve been with him for the last 15 years.

 

 

TF: Can you tell me a little more about your guru and how you met him? How does one go about getting a guru, especially in the 21st century.

 

RR: Yeah, there’s a lot of interesting ideas about how the guru will present himself when the inner guru is ready to meet the outer guru. So, in 2007 a friend of mine who I had kind of lost touch with, he was kind of peripheral - we were never close friends, but he came back into my life out-of-the-blue and was like, “Hey have you ever worked with any plant medicines?” I was like, “I’ve taken mushrooms” and he says, “No I mean ayahuasca.” I was like, “Whelp, I’ve always been interested but I never have.” I had read The Yage Letters from William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and stuff like that. He got me invited to my first ceremony. So I drank ayahuasca and immediately I felt Krishna’s presence. The second ceremony I went to, he told me about this other shaman. That was the shaman that actually became my guru. In that ceremony, it was a traditional Peruvian-style ayahuasca ceremony, but at the end he chanted the Gayatri mantra on a shurti box. I was just like, “I’m staying here. This is my guy.” So, as time went on, he started introducing more Hinduism into the ceremonies. After the ceremonies, like the next morning, he would do homa and puja and stuff like that. He started teaching the community puja and I became closer with him. I ended up traveling to India with him. He started teaching me ‘proper’ Sdhanpractice. His practice expanded to the rest of the community. The people who were just there to drink ayahuasca fell off and the people that stuck with him were really interested in making this a life practice and not just like a weekend or a yearly thing where they would go to these retreats stayed along and we have a pretty small community that work with him. He’s in Spain and has a Shiva temple in Span. It’s a hermitage.

 

 

TF: It’s interesting you bring up plant-based medicines. Because I feel as if maybe, specifically psilocybin and DMT they act as a sort of catalyst to experience one’s true self. I forget the exact quote, but it’s, “To know one’s true self is to know God.” That seems very prevalent.

 

RR: Yeah, you know the rishis who are the saints that basically brought the stories of all the gods to the people and they had them through these revelations. Many of them were working with plants. It was soma. In the Vedas they refer to it as soma. They go deep into the soma ceremony and the visions that they have and the revelations that they’re having. Many of the deities that we now worship, I think we're connected in these ceremonies. So I think the plants were really present in original teachings of what we know as more orthodox Hinduism. They don’t really work with the plants much anymore. It was amazing that my teacher took a completely different course and then wound up back there again. He’s one person, probably one of the few people I know that are offering those two things - in consort with one another. It’s really amazing. I feel really blessed to be able to be in that circle.

 

 

TF: How often do you get to see your guru?

 

RR: A couple time a year. With Covid, it’s been a little bit harder. But we did travel together during the pandemic when the spikes lowered. But usually, I get to see hime like 2 or 3 times a year. I’ll go their and then he’ll usually come to the States and we’ll go to India together. We went and visited the caves in Bulgaria recently.

 

TF: Do you have any favorite temples, cities, or spots in India you like to frequent?

 

RR: Two of my favorite: I go to the North and the South. Varanasi is one of the places that’s always, like I go every time I go to India. It’s the oldest lived-in city in the world. It’s really a complicated city to navigate spiritually cause there’s a lot of chaos there. But, underneath all of that there’s a direct line to a powerful concentration and powerful Sdhan. My practice really increased when I started practicing there.

 

RR: There’s another place in South India in Tiruvannamalai - where Mt. Arunachal is. That’s where Ramana Maharshi’s Ashram is. That’s where he gained enlightenment. So those are the two places I go usually - North and South.

 

 

TF: The path that you’re following, that’s Santana Dharma, correct?

 

RR: Yeah, well Santana Dharma is basically all the practices together. What I’m following is probably considered Tantric because we’re using a lot of the different elements and we’re worshiping all of the gods. You know, you have Vaishnavas and Shavites and Shaktis, but we worship all of them. A lot of our practices are Tantric. But it’s in line, our lineage, our Shadguru is from South India and he’s part of the Mahasiddha’s which are like the ‘perfected’ ones there and a lot of what we know as Ayurvedic medicine came from SIddha medicine. A lot of the scriptures in South India, the Tamil scriptures , came from the Siddha’s - so he’s part of that. So it’s a really, kind of unorthodox in a lot of ways cause it is Tantric and there’s no specific temple. The Sampradaya is kind of spread out. There are certain lineages in Santana Dharma where they can trace each teacher right to Krishna - the Vaishnavas can do that. Ours is a little bit more spread out. There’s a lot of mystery. There was a lot of stuff that was happening in the jungles and a lot of stuff that was happening in the mountains that never got recorded. So I’m part of that lineage. I’m fortunate that I am, you know, sometimes people have a pedigree of what their teachers teachers teachers did and things like that. But ours is like a, the mystery unfolds as you learn more.

 

 

TF: Is that what captivated your interest in the Tantric movement, where it encompasses everything, rather than some particular sub-set or some facet of Hinduism?

 

RR: Yeah, I don’t think that one is better than the other. But it’s different and I think that fits my a lot more. The things I struggled with in regular Gaudiya Vaishnavism are in the Tantric. There’s a lot of rules: we still follow a pretty strict code. But there’s a little bit more freedom of expression and we don’t, our belief is that where a lot of other schools is like, ‘the world is Maya’ and we have to get away from the illusion to gain liberation - where our belief is that everything in the world is by the grace of the Devine, the Devine Mother. That acting within the world in your daily duties, you know, using: the true essence of Tantra is, in English the definition is to weave. So you’re taking all these elements and weaving them together.

 

 

TF: Like merging them together.

 

RR: Yeah, you’re merging them. I like that, ya know. To merge this practice that we just did, this puja to my regular life of tattooing and art and things like that. Tantric works really well for me.

 

TF: With the current setup of our society, very commercialized and all that: do you think it’s important to have some sort of devotion to a sort of spiritual practice, whether that be a higher version of oneself, or a God, whatever you want to refer to that as. Do you think that’s important in order to have some sort of peace and maybe tranquility or purpose in life?

 

 

RR: Yeah, 100%. I think that we can talk about it in the macrocosm of the regular world, of the world that we see in television, newspapers and media - what many people think of as society. We can also look at it in the microcosm of the spiritual aspirant. So, for me, in the New Age movements people can go to a weekend teacher and get their Shaktipat or get their name and not really do much to achieve that kind of spiritual title. It becomes this like kinda tourism. There is no advancement in anything but especially in spirituality without any kind of effort. That effort is what’s considered devotion or Bhakti. Cause you’re not going to make the effort if you don’t feel the love in your heart towards something. I’d be a waste of time. So, yeah it think it’s important to have a constant practice you take seriously and I think that’s the way that you’re gonna see improvement in your life. Cause if you just kind of shelve it as, “Oh I just did this and now I’m this kinda person” it’s not going to bear any kind of fruit.

 

 

TF: Could you explain a bit more in detail about the puja that you just did. I have a basic understanding of what everything was, but I’d love to have a more broad knowledge of what was happening. Maybe you could expand into chanting and mantras and what’s the purpose of that and why one might chant and like the point of it and what you’re trying to achieve.

 

 

RR: Yeah so a puja is a worship of God. By worshiping God through the use of mantra and yantra - which is what I was drawing on the floor, offering rice and flowers too. The use of Mudras and the use of a deity. You’re using these kind of modalities to bring your mind towards the Devine. You’re recognizing yourself within that Devine presence because you’re the one preforming the rites. So there’s visualizations happening through all of it. There’s reflection. You’re using all of your senses to brighten your attentiveness towards the Devine presence in your own life. By doing that, it’s gonna your heart. There’s different levels that you go through as you learn it. One of the first things you learn is how to sit.

 

TF: I’ve got to get better at that.
 


  

 

RR: Everybody does. When I first started, I could sit for 2 minutes and then I’d have to stretch my legs. But, as you learn and as you sit the pains and discomforts - you’re able to overcome them. That’s one of the first things you offer is your posture. That’s an offering. You’re offering fruit or food or you’re offering rice and grain. You’re offering fire. You’re offering different kinds of pastes and things like that. But the first thing you offer is your posture and your attentiveness. So it’s a really amazing, interpersonal, unique of connecting with the God within you. It’s not so much about the external. Many people can do it thorough silence. Personally, I need the different kind of things to lock my mind into it. The deeper I go, the more the conditioning and my own habits and patters kind of warn away. As you practice, the pattern of doing puja becomes more in your life. You can take that puja, that same attentiveness and I can bring that to work and practice that same kind of attentiveness that I was doing in the puja and apply that to my tattooing - in the way that I treat my customers and the way I actually do the tattoo. Or the way I make a painting or a drawing. So the goal is that your life becomes the puja. That little 45 minutes or half hour that we just spent in contact with the Devine, I could try and bring that to my entire life. Even the night before when you’re doing what’s called a sankalpo, which is a determination - say if I’m going to do this puja for 30 days, I need to be efficient with my time, be efficient with what I’m eating. I don’t wanna drink a lot of water before I start because then I’ll have to get up and use the bathroom. There’s a lot of pre- production that goes into it, foresight, and it’s not just like: the preparation for the puja is just as important as the actual act of doing it.

 

 

TF: It sounds like a really great way to be more mindful and just present in the ‘now’. Instead of stressing about, “Oh I gotta do this for work. Oh I gotta do that.” Do you have any other suggestions or not only that but is there anything else I can do to be more present and self- aware?

 

RR: Yeah, one great way is to focus on the breath. The breath is so important and vital. Everything, all the religious teachings, all the stories and all the aspects of Dharma are all connected with the breath. You can peel the onion so far, you get into the different kind of Pronic channels and vital forces that run throughout your body that connect with your mind. I guess the point I’m trying to make is: this experience that you’re having when you’re trying to become more attentive or more mindful - it’s still happening in your own mind. The mindfulness is your own mind. The difference between mindfulness and ideas and thoughts is that consciousness is involved. By doing puja or by focusing on your breath or being silent or just trying to sit by yourself and clear your head of all your thoughts - you’re inviting consciousness into your life. With that consciousness, it can open up the possibility for just about anything.


TF: So it kind of goes along the lines of us being our own biggest enemies. We’re fighting against ourselves to be a better version of ourself.

 

 

RR: Exactly. That’s what all the Santana Dharma stories, like all the weapons that all the gods have - those are all to fight off demons. All those demons are actually thoughts. In the Devi Mahatmyam, which is the story of Durga the goddess and how she defeats these demons - each demon is just a thought. One’s self-deprecation, one’s self-conceit. One is too much and too little. Sinful eyes - which is desire. They all go to the mind. The battle’s inward. The Bhagavad Gita - the battle at Korshetta, that’s happening internally. The battle happens outside, there’s the external battles. There’s war, there’s pestilence, there’s fighting - but the true war is inside. Because if you can defeat the inner demon, you can defeat any outward demon. Or the outward demons could defeat you and it doesn’t even matter. Because if you’ve found peace in your heart - that can’t be overcome by anybody but yourself.

 

TF: Could you tell me a bit more about Shiva and the consciousness of infinite goodness?
 


 

RR: Yeah so Shiva, one of the mantras that I was chanting, “Om Tatpurushaya Vidmahe Mahadevaya Dhimahi Tanno Rudrah Prachodayat,” Shiva is the consciousness (Purushaya) and then there’s Pakriti, which is like the force of nature. So you have the consciousness and the force of nature. The lingam is the consciousness. The Yoni is the Pakriti or the Purushayapakriti. When they unite, the male and the female, the consciousness is a force of nature. That’s when you have the true potential for anything. The consciousness of infinite goodness, Shiva is known as the destroyer or the dissolver. Shiva’s the one that takes away all the things that’s gonna stop you from being reborn or from being enlightened or finding liberation or gaining merit in your life. So that’s why he’s considered the consciousness of infinite goodness - because there’s no judgement in any of it. Shiva is surrounded by goblins and demons. His hair is matted with dreadlocks cause he’s not participating in society. All the other gods are covered in gold, he’s covered in seeds and plants and he has snakes around his neck. He’s the ultimate expression of fearlessness. That fearlessness equates to the consciousness of infinite goodness cause there’s no judgement. There’s no fear. There’s no denial. It’s complete acceptance that this world is transitory, but there’s something that always remains solid - and that’s Shiva and that’s the consciousness of infinite goodness. You can always return to that.

 

 

TF: I know that astrology weaves in and out of Hinduism. Maybe you could call it a split between what is actually astrology and what people in the West consider astrology with, you know, star signs and daily horoscopes. What is actual Vedic astrology?

 

RR: So Vedic astrology is more in tune with the lunar than the solar. So your sign has a lot more to do with not just the day you were born, but the time you were born and where you were born. So they, of course, they took it to the ultimate point of your conception and existence in this planet, in this life. A true Vedic astrologer will be able to dig deep into your past life and into your future. But also helping you, giving you the prescriptions that you need to align you with all the planets, all the planetary influences, all the negative energies that come from planetary influences - to be able to reap the benefits of all the positive things that come from the planetary influences, as well. So, if you’re born in one house (I think there’s like 7 or 8 different houses) I’m not an expert on this. But, I actually just had mine done a couple days ago and she was amazing. So, if you’re born in this one house at one time in one place in the world - certain planets are going to influence you in a great way and other ones you’re gonna struggle with. A good Vedic astrologer, though different kind of meditation, mantras, different diets will help you align a practice that will help you reverse those negative influences or deal with them or cope with them. They’ll be able to tell you the arcs in your life, where things are going to be great, or where things are not going to go right. You’ll be able to prepare for things.

 

RR: Or things will make more sense to you. You might blame yourself for things that you had no control over. It’s in the stars. A good Vedic astrologer will give you the run-down of what your planetary influences are, where your strengths and weaknesses are and will also help you, give you prescriptions on how to work with them.

 

TF: Bit of a loaded question, but what do you think if any is the purpose of this plane of existence and the life we live. What do you think happens when we pass?

 

RR: In my opinion, the purpose of this birth is to understand the self. If you practice and dedicate your life to self-awareness and attentiveness to yourself, there might be liberation at the end of this life. If it doesn’t work that way and I’m wrong: it’s a good practice to have and living. So I don’t see a lot of difference between life and death. Just because the body is no longer here or no longer functioning, I don’t that the essence of who we are ends ever or begins ever. It’s connected to that consciousness of infinite goodness - which is endless. So I think that the purpose of this birth is to find our way back to that consciousness.

 

TF: That’s very interesting. It’s kind of like the duality of everything. Everything has a duality to it, whether it’s Shiva or you, me - it’s all the same.

 

 

RR: Well the funny thing about duality, what we practice in Tantric is non-duality. So there is a duality, there’s the opposites. There’s always the opposites. But the triangle, that’s what unites the two. It’s me, you and the relationship between us. That’s why Shiva’s holding the trident. It’s the three’s. Shiva is the lord of the three worlds. Aum: waking, dreaming and deep sleep - the three states of consciousness. Everything is in the three’s. When you start becoming in- tune with the three’s, the pairs of opposites be cast away, and the pairs of opposites - that’s what causes a lot of grief in our life. Like I said earlier, the demons that were named too much and too little: Either you don’t do enough or you do too much. A way to balance that is incorporating that third aspect in and that’s the trinity, the trimutri - creation, sustaining and dissolving. If you only have creation and death, life and death, and you don’t have the sustenance in the middle, your life is gonna be mundane. You’re gonna live a life of fear or to be afraid to die. But, if you have the sustaining aspect involved in that, which is Lord Vishnu the sustainer, the highest God - you’ll be able to overcome those two opposites and you’ll be able to live in peace cause there’s balance in the three. The one and the two aren’t balanced.

 

 

TF: And Shiva’s the one that sort of hold them up, right? He’s the one that keeps the balance going.

 

RR: Yeah because everyone wants to live. Nobody wants to die.

 

TF: Do you have any advice that you would give a younger version of yourself or that you wanna leave with anybody that might read or listen to this?

 

 

RR: Yeah, don’t be hard on yourself. Be forgiving of yourself. Slow is fast in the evolution of your discipline and your journey. Don’t force anything. Don’t rush anything. I think to just be mindful of that there’s no real right or wrong way to do things. You just have to accept and be willing to love yourself.