The Remarkable Legacy of Robert Daniel Ennis (1946 – 1998)

-by Rob Schmidt

Seven years after his death on June 3, 1998, it is appropriate to revisit the question of the legacy of Robert Daniel Ennis. All people leave legacies in the sense that their actions continue to reverberate after their departures, like the waves from a pebble thrown in a pool. Some leave legacies that figure greatly in the minds of their fellows, while others depart unnoticed and unremembered. But fame, or its absence, are beside the point, since all fame eventually fades, as do the reverberations of all ordinary reactive manifestations, known or unknown.

Yet the legacy of an authentic spiritual teacher is something else again. To understand this, it is helpful to consider life as proceeding in two streams. The lives of most people rarely rise above the flow of the first stream, the stream of the organic imperative. Organic life functions in accordance with a purpose that glorifies individual expansion or self-aggrandizement. In this stream, the fundamental impulse is to strive to eat and not be eaten, at the levels of the body, of the emotions, and of the mind. But because all things born without exception die, the organic imperative generates and partakes in illusion. No matter how well an individual succeeds within the parameters of the organic imperative, death eventually terminates all success.

For most human beings, this aspect of the organic imperative manifests as the illusory view of themselves as free actors able to exercise meaningful choice, whereas the vast majority of their experience is the product of mechanical reactivity to interior and exterior circumstance. This illusion of freedom is eagerly grasped because people are proud, and don’t want to accept that so much of life has been based upon the action of mechanical habits. Thus the bulk of what people leave behind remains completely congruent with the direction of the organic imperative. And the ripples are quickly subsumed within the rush of the organic stream itself.

The second stream of life runs counter to the first. The impulse underlying the second stream pulls in the opposite direction of self-aggrandizement: the impulse to surrender. But it is not surrender to the organic imperative, a passive choice to be eaten by other individuals, physically, emotionally, or intellectually. Such a choice merely ratifies participation in the organic stream. To partake of the second stream demands surrender to something greater than another individual swimming in the organic stream. Paradoxically, strong and sustained effort is needed to reach the point where surrender to the second stream is feasible. In his book Heart Without Measure, Ravi Ravindra reports Madame de Salzmann as saying, “Both effort and letting go are needed…The ego makes the effort, then the ego has to let go” (p. 131).

This is the realm of the Teaching. The Teacher is one who has learned the lesson of how to make effort, how to let go, and most importantly – when to do each. When this lesson is mastered, then one can enter the second stream at need and at will.

The second stream operates under different rules than the stream of organic life. It is not a comfortable place for the ego, which is of course why the ego resists going there. If resistance arises to the direction of the second stream, that resistance kicks one back down into the first stream. Attuning oneself to the second stream entails giving up android-driven agendas – which is not to say that all “personal” choice is gone, but that it necessarily becomes a distant second in importance to the commitment to the second stream. Over time, as a Teacher grows accustomed to being sustained by the second stream, the time and energy devoted to the crumbs of individuality naturally lessen.

Through his ongoing practice, Robert Daniel Ennis fashioned himself as an adept in the second stream of life. He went on to introduce a number of others to its rules and conditions. He did not romanticize the second stream. Instead, he offered potent personal demonstrations of how human life in the second stream operates, and very practical suggestions about how to approach, enter, and be sustained within the second stream.

In several of the Buddhist sutras, the Buddha says that those who know the Teaching (the Dharma) know him, whether he is physically present or not. In other words, the Buddha identifies himself with the Teaching, indicating that the truth of what and who he is transcends the immediacy of body and personality. This implies that contacting the Buddha remains an ever-present potential.

In similar fashion, through his surrender to the second stream, and his energetic embodiment of it during his life, Robert contributed to the flow of the second stream. As with the contributions of others to the second stream, Robert’s contribution does not fade in the sense that all individual efforts in the organic stream arise from, and are subsequently subsumed within the flow. Rather, Robert’s efforts add to the diversity within the second stream. In this sense, the second stream resembles a chorus composed of innumerable distinct voices, each of which remains unique to the extent that we pay attention to that particular voice.

The contributions of the Buddha to the Teaching, or the second stream, remain relevant and accessible today to those who tune into them, and a genuine student of the Buddha may continue to find fresh insights into the human condition from his work. In similar fashion, those who seek inspiration and direction from Robert’s work can continue to do so, because his work remains alive within the second stream.

A unique aspect of Robert’s particular contribution derived from his demonstration that all genuine contributions to the Teaching, from whatever source, ought to be honored and appreciated. In this regard, lack of reputation was never an obstacle to his interest. In fact, he seemed to delight in finding value in obscure or previously little known contributions to the Teaching. Moreover, he never lost interest in sharing opportunities to speak publicly about the Teaching with practitioners and Teachers from all genuine traditions. This predilection for spiritual dialogue remained a consistent feature of his work throughout his career. Even failing health in the weeks before his death did not prevent arduous travel in service of this aspect of his work.

Robert Daniel Ennis began his search for truth at a time when only a few Americans had begun to suspect the riches that spiritual practice has to offer. His career in the last quarter of the twentieth century coincided with a consistent increase in appreciation in America for genuine spiritual growth. His voice contributed to that development, and his example opened a fresh path for his students and others to follow. Seven years after his death, the demonstration he provided of how to “live life as a work of art” as he liked to put it, remains accessible to open-hearted seekers of truth. Robert’s legacy lies in the attempts of followers to embody the Teaching with the honesty and integrity that he achieved and generously demonstrated.