See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Tonight, I was exhausted. Maybe it was that really good Yoga class I did last night, or maybe it was the fact that my job has become so stupefying I can barely make it through the days. And then on top of it all, my Buddhist practice, which is my point of reference when everything else become intolerable, is so infested with bullshit these days that I'm tempted to clear it all out and start over.

But I was exhausted, and whereas when I'm in that frame of mind, in the old days I would have probably got drunk, passed out and woke up about this time (1 a.m.) with a hangover, last night I had a salad and a barbequed chicken breast, read as much really good sci-fi as I could stand, and went to sleep about 7 p.m. Go figure.

When I did wake up, I found Brad Warner's latest Suicide Girls article. Go on, read it, it's free, especially if you're Buddhist. If I had stayed in California where I started sitting zazen about twenty-seven years ago, I might feel like he does about institutional Buddhism.

Bonnaroo, ten days ago (sob!) did for me what I hoped it'd do; it cleared some of the bullshit out of my head and let me reconnect with a part of my "self" that I was missing, the one that liked to stand in a field in Manchester, TN, and scream "Bullshit!" at the world, all done of course with a beer in my hand and some really good music. On the other hand, it made me want to call a spade a spade, and that makes it really hard to go to work and pretend to be someone I'm not (or more accurately, to refuse to admit who I really am), and on top of all that to deal with Buddhism®.

You've heard all this before, but for some reason, at the two times in my life I've really felt drawn back toward Buddhism, I've had trouble finding it. The first time was in Albuquerque, where now there is a big Albuquerque Zen Center apparently (Rinzai), but when I was there I had trouble finding anything authentic and instead wound up with Nichiren Shoshu for a few years. The second time was in Nashville in 2004, when I did find the Nashville Zen Center. When I discovered the NZC, I had hoped it was a source for connecting with real Zen. I was motivated to come back to Zen by Brad's first book, Hardcore Zen. I think the preface of that book -- Brad's basic "philosophical" questions, the "What is This?" which is the basis for all real philosophical, existential inquiry, was the same as mine. I just needed to find people of a like mind.

My frustrations with the Nashville Zen Center have been well-documented, and I won't reiterate them here. In the spring of 2006 I went to Atlanta to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and found what I'd been looking for. I found a teacher who insisted on staying with what I feel to be the true essence of Zen, and of existence; the essential staring down the void which is the self. And he/they was/were still able to do that essential thing within the context of a semi-formal, mostly dignified Zen practice. I made that connection and it's the best thing I've done since my life changed when my mother died in 2003. I will not refute it.

This coming Saturday, Michael Elliston, Abbott of the ASZC, is coming to Nashville to conduct a Discipleship ceremony for my friend and NZC president Nat, and to initiate some really great people into formal Buddhism. These people are people I'm thrilled to share the experience with, people who were drawn to Zen of their own accord. Paul and Ana, you are two of my favorite people (you too, Michelle and Walter). The ceremony will take place after a half-day sit at the new 12South Dharma Center, which is a cooperative effort among several Nashville Buddhist groups and a kind of dream space (with problems, of course). So why am I not happy?

In my efforts to bring what I find to be real, essential Buddhist practice to Nashville, I have of necessity found myself among the purveyors of Buddhism®. To do what I had to do, I myself had to become visible and prominent in the Buddhist® community, which is something I never wanted to do, and now I'm paying for it.

See, I would never want to be a visible leader of any Buddhist group I'm a part of. I've got too much baggage, for one thing. For another, I have, of my own design, very little tolerance for bullshit, and that's not what you want in the occupant of a position which becomes, in some sense, political. I just want to sit on the sideline and throw these japes in. Unfortunately, in this case I had to help create the thing that was there to throw the japes at. Hence the dilemma.

Last year, I and representatives from four other Buddhist groups conducted the very successful Fourth Nashville Buddhist Festival. You've read all about it. It went well, and it made me a lot of friends, and I was happy with it. Unfortunately, this year I'm still on the Board of that, and I don't like it any more. Can't stand it, in fact. I got them incorporated, but I'm done with it. They want to do the same thing as last year, and I never do see the point in that. Introducing the Buddhist-curious in Nashville to some options. For some of the groups, it's a recruiting tool.

Yes, people can be recruited to Buddhism, just like any other religion, or any other -ism, for that matter. Because, see, people want that. That's what religion is all about, isn't it? The desire to find people of like-minded belief. To gain a purpose larger that oneself. To mutually reassure one another that, yes, despite, the vicissitudes of this life, Life has a bigger meaning, and everything will be OK in the end. God or the Buddha will take care of you. I'm OK, you're OK. Horseshit.

Because my Zen practice has nothing to do with that. Zen is about confronting reality. Michael Elliston and 90% of the ASZC members I've practiced with (of course, I only tend to meet the serious ones, at the retreats) understand that. Brad Warner certainly understand that. And I choose these people to be my teachers. Don't think I'm in any way refuting my authentic Zen practice here. I have found, in my sitting on my cushion, a lifetime practice. Something that always comes back to the real. Something I won't give up. And the only sincere Zen practitioners I've ever met came to Zen on their own. Wandered in off the street, as it were. You can't recruit people to the real question; they must have it, to start.

I've been told by my teachers and by people who've been sitting zazen for a long time, that once you've done it for a while, everything you do is Practice. It took me until now to understand that. Because now, not sitting zazen is also Zen practice. Bonnaroo was practice, definitely. Writing another vitriolic blog entry with a Red Bull® at 2 a.m. is also practice. Knowing I have another mind-numbing work day to follow, followed by a refreshing NZC meeting tonight, is also practice.

And sitting in a room with a bunch of delusional religiosos who happen to call themselves Buddhists instead of Christians is also practice. I'm talking about the Board of Directors of the Nashville Buddhist Festival, not the NZC (the latter being, in its present incarnation, made up of quite sincere people). And there are some NBF Board members whose practices I admire, and in fact consider teachers. But in a group setting, it all makes me puke. Because at this point I may as well be on the Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

And now of course there's the informal committee set up for running the Dharma Center, which is made up mostly of the same people. Good people, good intentions, more bureaucracy. I'm not made for Bureaucracy. I'm made for sitting in a field at dawn with a beer in my hand. That's existential realization. That's Practice, too.

So for now I have to stay with the Bureaucracy for a little while longer. Pretty soon I'm gonna get off all these committees. Maybe someone else will take my place, now, maybe not. But for now it's the place in which I've put myself and I have to deal with it. I should be typing the minutes of the last Nashville Buddhist Festival Board meeting right now, instead of bitching about it. Hopefully I'll get that done, sometime.

Photo courtesy of Paul Felton, Shambhala Nashville®.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Bonnaroo and Beyond

Now that I've survived it, enjoyed it, and was in fact revived and transformed by it, I'll admit that I was approaching it with genuine trepidation. The version of myself that had evolved to deal with my "current" reality just wasn't geared up for it. My friend wanted to camp, and I didn't; I was thinking I wouldn't sleep for three nights, be tired, comatose and cranky. I was thinking that I'd need a Port-o-Potty every thirty minutes and have to stand in long lines for them. In short I was afraid that I was gonna have a really shitty time. But I'd committed, so I bought or borrowed all the necessary supplies, girded my loins, and charged in.

The other factor that was making me hesitate was that the thing is, after all, supposedly mostly a musical event, and my interest in music in these latter days waxes and wanes, and lately has been kind of at a lower point, so that seeing Metallica and Pearl Jam sounded OK, but the idea of listening to a lot of new bands, particularly the noodling jam kind, didn't appeal to me.

And actually that worked in my favor. Because my friend and I winded up having fairly different experiences. He threw himself into the music, watched it all day and into the night, and hated the camping. I, on the other hand, threw myself into the social experience (including the contents of our coolers and the beer booths in Centeroo) and missed a lot of the music. But in the process, I think I made a reconnection with a part of myself that's been either missing or scorned lately, and it's a big step forward for me, in terms of self-realization, if that term has any meaning, and also in terms of my practice of Zen.

Because I sure as hell violated a lot of precepts those four days, and I'm a better man for it. Neither the career world nor the zendo values a beer at dawn, but I can tell you it's one of the more mystical, meaningful and beautiful experiences I've had in a long time. I don't know if it's modern society or just a component of the general social makeup of mankind that I lack, but I find most people to be effete pussyfooters. They seem afraid to do much more than prance or cower, for fear of the judgments of others, or worse, of their own Freudian superegos. And I agree that you can't live too well in the modern world they way I lived those four days, and I'm back to playing my old roles with a bit more awareness of their arbitrariness, and intrinsic falsehood. But I've had a catharsis.

It's been a hard lesson for me as I've had to deal with the social aspects of helping establish genuine Zen practice in Nashville, that most Buddhists aren't really any better than most moderate, reasonable Christians (forgetting the more rabid species of the latter for the moment). They want to wring their hands and nod sagely at platitudes and ring little bells, assuring themselves that they've become more enlightened thereby (and also thereby conquering their basic, animal selves, and becoming better than their fellow humans who are non-Buddhists). I'm sure they have no comprehension of why Hunter S. Thompson will always be one of my foremost idols. And if I have to sit in any more meetings after this year of watching these people plan puppet shows to en-trance more people to be like them, I'll barf.

I don't particularly want or expect anyone to be like me. My mission is to become more fully myself, and now I can throw myself into my zazen with more dedication and more knowledge. I wouldn't want to live every day like I did at Bonnaroo, not anymore, but that experience will help me live each day more truly as myself, and that is indeed "a blessing."

Incidentally, I do want to commend the great people who attended, especially the kids in the hard-core camping all around me, and the people who kept order at the Festival without becoming cops. This is the social experiment that proves that the Bush Cabal are wrong; people are not ignorant savages to be kept in check by the Forces of Order (for Profit). They are just like me (and you); noble savages in greater or lesser degrees of denial. And joining the Order of the Spotted Palm or whatever won't change that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Standing in the Doorway

I was trying to get somewhere close to finalizing my preparations for Bonnaroo last night, and I realized I was way too stressed out for the occason. After all, it's a four-day camping trip, albeit in crowd and 90-degree heat, but I'll survive. It's supposed to be fun, dammit. I just wish I knew how I was gonna set up camp; I haven't really done it since I was about 11. Oh, well.

At any rate, I finally figured out that I was using the occasion as a metaphor. We're all on the edge of so many things, right now. The world is on the edge of what may be the final Depression, and deeply in denial. Try watching the Post-Oil Man again (isn't that a cow pasture in Manchester?); he may seem a little less humorous now.

I think the denial is the worst part. People continue to spew out offspring as if they hadn't clogged the planet enough. Mankind is indeed a virus that is killing its host. And the host is staggering. Witness the ice caps. Witness the fact that all animal life on the planet not directly being used for man's (approachingly) desperate survival is nearing extinction, and the hell on earth the survivors are being forced to live in (anyone been to Greeley, Colorado, lately?).

Mankind is nearing extinction, there's little doubt about it. We sit zazen for our sanity, not to save the world. If there is a hope for the survival of intelligence, it lies beyond man. The postmodern era is doomed to be a short one, postmodernity being nothing more that the breakdown of all the walls that have kept the cultures apart and intact. We are moving to the posthuman era; and the question is, will there be a posthuman intelligent creature?

It is becoming more clear that the survival of intelligence on earth, if it does occur, is going to be by virtue of the one area in which man has progressed in this new millenium, at unprecedented breakneck speed -- his technology. Man is on the edge, some would say over the edge, of creating machines which are smarter than he is. The first true artificial intelligences are around the corner, and which of us is so say when they become "conscious"?

We in the West, being a victim of the Three False Relgions, have a misguided view of what it takes to be an intelligence, to be aware. As long as you're thinking of souls and spirits, you'll have a problem. Your only hope of survival into the near future is the availability of technology to upload your personality, to preserve it in some alternative form which you may or may not recognize, and which may or may not recognize itseelf. Actually, your personal hope of survival is pretty damn low, so you have to get over that, unless you're extremely rich. But it shouldn't matter.

Maybe the posthuman intelligences of the future can evolve before we destroy all the fuel sources they'll need before they become self-sustaining, in some way unimaginable for us. I could be wrong; maybe there will be humans in the new world. Maybe we'll even figure out how to get off this dying planet in time, though the odds of that are damn low; that's not the area in which our tech has been progressing.

Look at how William Gibson's imagination of the future became the world we live in; look at Charles Stross's work (start with Accelerando) if you want the top of your head blown off, to see what could happen. Maybe aliens really did give us a language, and they'll be back to turn the universe into computronium and make it one big, smart Ipod. I don't really know, and anything is possible.

But your current life is over; surely even you can see the world ending. My advice? Hang on, accept what happens and enjoy the ride. I can relax at Bonnaroo, relatively speaking, but sometime soon there won't be any sunscreen or insect repellant or bottled water, any electric music or motor vehicles. Enjoy it, Man. You may just be in the last generation of Civilization, and what comes next is probably not fit for a dog (if there are any dogs left).

Beyond that, things get interesting.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Language is a Virus

"Language is a virus from Outer Space" - William S. Burroughs.

My point being, not just to give you this 1986 video from Laurie Anderson -- surely one of the most thought-provoking and just plain ahead-of-its-time ever made -- but to give you my own little myth that's been churning around in my head for quite some time.

Laurie Anderson, by the way, was a pioneer of thoughtful performance rock; the fact that she was actually successful for a while in the 1980's tell you that we've lost something. These days she is also known as the other half of Lou Reed, one of my all-time favorites from the 70's and 80's. So go figure.

Anyway, the idea of language as a virus is anything but original to me; the idea has been posited in many other places I haven't bothered to look up for you. As I said in a previous post, you should know how to Google by now. I'm not even sure if the famous quote attributed to Burroughs is from one of his works, or not. Burroughs is one of those writers whom for me, like Kerouac, the bio is worth more than the oeuvre.

No, but the final self-convincing moment, the birth of the entry of that phrase into my own personal pantheon, came at the Circle of Friends retreat in February, as I was trying to get to sleep with too much caffeine in my system. I had one of those kensho moments when everything is clear. Of course it's when you try to write about it later that you realize how limited your vision was. However, to eschew digression:

Let's say that language was just a disembodied entity floating through the abyss looking for a host and found one in early humans. Maybe it did come from outer space; I wouldn't be the first to adopt that theory. Maybe its existence is not quite on the physical plane, as the spiritualists would say. I'd say all those expressions are a bit off; let's say Language is a creature, an entity which is not biological. Somehow it couldn't adapt to any other creature, but it found itself able to infect and then form a codependent relationship, and to coevolve with him into what we now call the human race.

Because when I look at other mammals, I don't see anything different from us, except language. Sure our brains are bigger and evolved a bit differently -- but isn't that just to produce the lobes to house language? And what other difference is there between you and your pets, or the slaves you eat, the cattle and the hogs? I just don't see any.

Of course, it's a BIG difference. Because language takes over everything. Why do we feel the need to "meditate"? To get beyond language. When, for that rare moment of freedom from concept, maybe in some sort of meditative experience or more likely in some instant of sport or dance, maybe for some in sex, or in war, or traffic accident, or blind submission to any passion, do we escape language?

Or who is the "we" that would escape language? For if the consequence of the above is that the noise in our heads we fruitlessly try to escape is not the "monkey mind" of yoga nor even the "thoughts" of Zen, but simply the bare essence of language, true and simple; then is not the falseness of the concept of self not due to any "co-dependency of causes" or emptiness of skandhas, but simply to the fact that we are not one entity, but two; the animal man, plus the beast of language? This, right here, explains the inability to find the unique self (as well as schizophrenia, by the way),

So play with the concept for a moment. You are an animal, just like your cat. But when you were born, your mother passed along to you a virus, an entity split off from the one that infected her all her life: Language. This is the other being you almost see with your mind's eye; but "he" is so closely connected to "you" that you cannot see where one ends and the other begins. When you feel the other, it's the animal feeling the virus; when you describe it, it's the virus describing the animal.

So that's all the explanation needed, for all of man's religions and psychologies. No gods, no souls, no skandhas, no devils, no ids or ego. Just the beast and the virus. Locked together, forever. A composite entity. Could you deny that a human without language would be less than human? A beast.

And need I mention, in terms of human culture and history, language is everything. Language alone gave Man the ability to create and pass down ideas. You couldn't dig those oil wells, build those computers, or create all those bullshit religions and philosophies all by yourself any more than your cat could. Culture is built up brick by brick over time, with ideas passed down and maintained by Language, hosted by man. Human history is nothing more than its artifact.

As I said, it's a myth. Any reduction of "everything" to a simple formula is just that, and to mistake the myth for reality is once again to mistake the map for the territory. But this myth makes more sense to me than anything from Freud or Genesis. And it makes it a little harder ot eat that cheeseburger, doesn't it?

By the way, I purposely didn't invoke the Autostart on the video, just to make sure you read this blog entry, because I think it's an important one, as they go. But watch it!

"Paradise is exactly like where you are right now... only much, much better. "
Laurie Anderson, Language Is A Virus