Presents Of Mind: Satya Vayu knows the reason for the season. It’s not under the tree.
Willamette Week cover story | Dec. 22, 2010
By Christina Cooke
Satya Vayu and I are sitting across from each other on floor pillows in the sparse living room of the house where he’s staying in Southeast Portland. His legs are crossed and his feet are bare, the bottoms calloused and dirty from walking around shoeless outside.
He’s telling me how he’s gotten by without working for an income or spending a substantial amount of money for almost two decades. He calls his way of life voluntary simplicity. “We already have what we need and it’s time to enjoy it, instead of trying to get more and make more,” he says. “The more you do it, the more you realize there’s joy just in attentiveness in and appreciation of each detail of life.”
The 41-year-old ordained Zen monk thrives on practically nothing. He lives where he is invited, crashing in the spare bedrooms, basements and backyards of acquaintances. He finds all of his clothes, including the billowy wool pants and chunky wool sweater he’s wearing now, in curbside free boxes. He collects food from the dumpsters and the throwaway piles of bakeries, grocers and farmers markets. And he walks or bikes everywhere he goes, even if it’s in Wyoming. On top of all that, Vayu spends hours a day in meditation, often outside, even in the rain.
During this holiday season, as most of us elbow our way through shopping malls, the simplicity of Vayu’s life stands out in especially stark contrast.
“The beauty of the holidays has to do with community and sharing, and commercialization and buying things is completely opposed to that,” says Vayu, an Oberlin graduate with striking blue eyes and a close-cut beard. “Sharing comes from giving away your time and attention and energy, not material objects.”
Vayu, born Matthew Seltzer, was raised in a 15th-floor apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. At the age of 5, his mother secured him the highest-paying job of his life, as a child model. He appeared in a Macy’s ad in The New York Times and on the packaging of a toy football player that punted when you hit its head. “It was $50 an hour,” he says. “It’s kind of funny, because now I think advertising is one of the darkest, most harmful forces in world culture.”
Though his parents were atheists of Jewish descent who only halfheartedly celebrated the holidays, he remembers waking up extra early on Christmas morning to open presents. He also remembers thinking, when his parents gave him underwear and socks, “It’s a scam!”
In college, Vayu studied creative writing, but he was more interested in drumming in an improv band with no actual songs except for Talking Heads or Rolling Stones covers. He was outgoing, but not around women and not in front of large audiences (as a DJ for the school radio station, he often played half-hour Tibetan chants to avoid having to talk on air).
Once he discovered meditation, it became an all-consuming passion that led him to the Berkeley Zen Center after graduation and then on a near-decade-long journey between Zen centers in the U.S. and monasteries in Japan and Korea. His contemplative practice, and seeing the happiness of the “poor” cultures at the end of a 30-day walking pilgrimage across the Himalayas, inspired him to begin the process of “joyfully renouncing” his material possessions and actions he views as damaging to the earth. He was ordained a Buddhist monk in 1995 and changed his name to Satya Vayu, Sanskrit for “Truth Wind.”
After returning to the States for good in 2000, Vayu lived a transient life for a few years. He settled full time in Portland in 2002 and has since devoted himself to running a meditation community and collecting throwaway (but still good) food for Food Not Bombs community- building gatherings in Colonel Summers Park.
“I think some people see him as too arrogant or strong or stuck in his ways, and maybe they feel intimidated because he has a very strong personality,” says Sara Monial, 28, who stopped using money and has lived alongside Vayu since meeting him at a full-moon gathering three years ago. “He knows how he feels about things, and he says it, and he’s uncompromising.”
For a brief period last year, Vayu, Monial and others began setting up a meditation community called “Flourishing Clouds Hermitage” in a half-torn-down house with no heat on Southeast 50th Avenue near Woodstock, but that fizzled after a neighbor reported them to the city for not having electricity.
These days, he leads Sunday meditation sessions from wherever he’s living.
Vayu leads me downstairs to check out the space that’s his in his current house. Turns out, it’s a foam mat on the concrete floor of the single-car garage. Surrounding it are all of his possessions: a camping mat, sleeping bag and stack of wool sweaters, and, in boxes on a shelf, the remains of his monastic robes, Buddhist books, a rocket stove and some pots. Not much, compared with what’s in most people’s houses.
Many people would label him a “freeloader,” but Vayu challenges that word. He explains that in a “gift economy” of the Buddhist tradition, people give what they’re able—in his case, his character, practice and contemplative teachings—and naturally receive what they need without having to concern themselves with who is getting how much of what.
“To me, that’s completely ridiculous, this idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps to be responsible, following the trend of what’s expected by society,” he said. “That’s not interesting to me.”
Sometimes, Vayu says, his housemates grow resentful of him for getting for free what they’re paying for. “I’m very clear, I would love anyone who feels that way to join me in my privilege,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Stop paying rent. You won’t be able to stay here, but both of us will go somewhere else.’ People don’t want to.” If they argue that it would not be sustainable for everyone to live like he does, for free, he counters, “If we all decided to stop working for money, all these houses would belong to all of us. The whole culture would change.”
He says there are times when he wants things, sure—like now, a tambura (a long-necked lute)— but he’s not willing to compromise his principles to purchase them. “I don’t think I’ve ever missed anything I’ve given up,” he says, explaining that because his process has been so gradual, he’s felt ready for each renunciation. “With each step of simplification of my life, there’s an incredible sense of release.”
Simon Walter-Hansen, a 32-year-old former software developer who is also in the process of simplifying his lifestyle said Vayu recently lived in his basement for four months and, while there, led daily meditations and introduced ideas such as the Humanure compostable toilet. (Some of the housemates resisted the idea, although Walter-Hansen eventually embraced it.)
“He’s probably the most outspoken person I know on the idea of alternative lifestyles,” Walter- Hansen said. “I think of him as being someone who has an awareness of the connections in the world and in the universe, and is living in that presence. I see him as a beacon of information.”
This holiday season, Vayu will continue living as he does each day, modestly and deliberately. He plans to spend time with friends and run a five-day silent meditation retreat in honor of the winter solstice.
Oh, and one more thing: “I would like to go caroling,” he says.
FACT: Though Vayu still follows the spirit of Buddhism, he is reluctant to identify with the institution because he dislikes the divisiveness of formal religious groups.