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

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Okay, I put this on as a teaser overnight the other day and took it off because I thought (knew) it would offend people. But I keep pulling this video up on YouTube and watching it, so I'm gonna prepare myself for the hate mail and post; it's just too good.

No, I haven't gone insane. Friends, I wish the world was big enough, and was going to last long enough, for all of its independent cultures and sub-cultures to last forever. I really do. The Libertarian ideal is just that. But there just ain't enough room! Such is idealism. .

So. I think this is a really beautiful video and song. So yes, I don't like it that the culture that made this country is about to become a minority, within it. I remember when the world was big enough for every culture to have its own space. They deserve it, and so does mine. And if I hear one more rap or hip-hop song, I'm gonna puke, or worse.

Yes, this is beautiful. And there will be more, on this theme. So if you want to be taken off my list, just let me know. I understand.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I'm not much on jewelry, but I've seen this process in others; Grandma left a piece of jewelry with a really nice stone, a stone with clarity and history and value, but the setting was wrong. Either it was out of style, or damaged, or ruined by age, or just not appropriate to the style of its wearer or its new intended method of display; so that the stone's new owner, after much debate and decision, finds a new setting which preserves the beauty and the meaning of the stone, and obtains for himself (or herself) an item of deep meaning and power, which is both a reminder of Grandma and the re-embodied essence of her, and also a part of the new owner, part of a new self.

With my practice of zazen, the deep shining beauty of the essential practice is and will always be there, but at times the setting has become awkward, uncomfortable and embarrassing. As long as the ritual is silent, it is true, but once the mouths begin to flap, the meaning is lost. So I find myself seeking intuitive comfort, and a setting with more shine and natural-ness.

Sunday morning, after I posted my last blog entry, I went to a meeting with some Theravadan Buddhists, who practice Vipassana meditation. This group also has some resolute members, and they have a monk, a starved-looking American who has gone through the rigours and is quite authentic, in the meaning of the trade; I wanted to hear words which were true and qualified and deeply meant, as a setting for my meditation. It seems that Vipassana meditation is a lot like Zen, except that one takes the training wheels of Zen, the focus on the attention, on the wandering mind, and turns it into the whole practice. I think ultimately that has to fall away, and one is left with the same practice; how could you justify running on training wheels for fifty years? But with this monk, with some of these people, I felt that the practice was true, and I felt somewhat comforted.

Sunday afternoon I went to a healing circle for my friend Tanya; not the kind of event I would usually attend, but I wanted to be supportive, and this event featured a guy doing a Lakota healing ceremony of sorts, involving wrapping prayers in tobacco, then wrapping the tobacco in little flags, and then burning them. Joe didn't look like an Indian, but I guess he was; I guess I'm used to Southwestern Indians, where the blood is stronger. He was not the only one there; there was a woman there from whom I felt the real genuine nature of the American Indian, as I haven't since I left New Mexico in the early 'nineties. There was some other ritual enacted, some Reiki and some quiche; but I'd had the little taste of authenticity I'd come for. And hopefully it helped prepare my friend for the great unknown of the next few days or weeks.

The New Age in American has grown weaker as the times grow tougher and I know why. Most of today's New Agers have their roots in the affluence and experimentation of the 'sixties, and for the younger ones, its legacy. Between about 1965 and 1983 (when AIDS rang the death knell of a culture), as the world opened wide and people had the means to explore it, all sorts of rituals and guises of spirituality flowed into America and the West. Some of it was brought by true teachers -- the Zen masters like Suzuki in San Francisco; Soyu Matsuoka, the teacher of my teacher in Zen; Nishijima who stayed in Japan, but sent his disciples around the world, all teachers who were attempting to purify the Zen practice which has grown stagnant and false in the lands of its gestation and needed rebirth in the untainted (by Buddhism!) beings of the West.
Most of what came was fake, and false: those who taught enlightenment by drugs, which could kick the door open but provide no context, and left so many staring into the abyss for all time; proselytizer of every cult and delusion that had run out of naive Eastern minds, and found a new market here.

For the New Age was for the most part an age of sham. It flourished in a culture detached from its roots, desperately seeking meaning in an age of unprecedented materialism. And the worst part was, the culture of the West had always been a false culture, as had the culture of Western Europe for a thousand years before. For a thousand years, Western Man has been ground beneath the dogma of the Desert Religions, the unholy trinity of Judaism, Christianity and Islam., which are not natural to him or to his culture. When I look at the history of a thousand years of darkness, I see the real soul of Western man striving to break free. Within Christianity alone, which has ground more under its cloven hooves than any other, I've seen the attempts at freedom which were suppressed as heresies by the Church and its inquisitions, I've seen the striving for direct knowledge for God which resulted in the Christianity of the Grail, after Pope Nicholas in the ninth century denied the reality of the individual human Spirit; and the latter day attempts at Reformation, which lacking context, resulted in more suppression, this time of each man by himself.

All dead and all hopeless, because the raising of a desert tribal god into monolithic, megalomaniac monotheism, had infested the Western world and part of the East like a deadly virus. How different would the World have been without Constantine? We'll never know.

The World Culture has failed, and as times get hard, each of us looks naturally to his roots. For many of us it's family. As the World overpopulates itself to death, the West has been outdone; most of the earth's babies are being born in the places and to the people least able to feed and support them, much less provide them with a level of culture adequate to give their lives meaning. I'm not much for children, and until recently I'd looked on the attempts of even those in modern society whom I'd call my friends, to keep spewing out children in the face of certain disaster, as naive and selfish. I don't think those children will have good lives, in the way that their parents did. But now, as the cultures break down, as the tide of affluence recedes, I can see the production of those children as a means of self-defense in a World which is eating Western man alive.

If you don't see it for yourself, let me just tell you: things are getting harder, and they're going to get worse. As they do, people are going to withdraw into their tribes. Those who see the apparently unavoidable election of Barack Obama as some sort of victory of polyculture will be disappointed; he is, I think, the last gasp of the same, and its high-water mark. The United States, which was in my childhood a largely heterogeneous culture, has become a cultural mix; we all know that. Sadly, most of the alternative cultures which have taken root here are cheapened, demented and depraved versions of more hearty cultures elsewhere. It was always known, in my youth, that to know Mexico, you had to go a lot further south than Tijuana, unless you wanted to see a people at its most tawdry. It is the latter which has made itself at home in our streets. The culture of the American Black, which in its blending of its African roots with the bounty of America, both the land and its heritage, gave us jazz and rock and roll and so many other great things, now has fallen into the hands of vultures and gives us rap (music for those who hate music) and violence. It reminds me of what I saw in the Southwest in places where the Native American culture had been destroyed and replaced with nothing -- nothing left but the saddest, lowest remnants of the conquering culture, with only the lowest elements assimilated.

Sadly, in modern America, it is the remnant culture, the debased version of the cultures which held proud sway in other places and times, that has become dominant. Appropriate I guess, in the End Times, but not so if one would survive, or at least go down with pride.

The hope, here? The setting for the stone. I can only answer for myself. I do believe at this point, that there is culture in the blood, if one looks for it. At the Lakota ritual, I could feel the vague twinging of my own, thin strain of Cherokee blood; I think I am about one-sixteenth, not enough to really count -- I had one Cherokee great-great-grandmother, I'm told. How much stronger now, is the calling of my true blood, the dominant blood, which is German and English, with a bit of Scotch-Irish --all Germanic and Celtic.

And the Germanic tribes did have a culture, a legacy, of their own. Modern propaganda, fostered by the adherents of the Desert Religions, will tell you that Western Man has no culture and pride of his own, but they are wrong. There were religions and cultures in Northern Europe long before the fanatics came. By the ninth century, the warriors of Rome and of the legacy of Charlemagne all but destroyed the native cultures of the northern lands, and planted there the unnatural crop of Christianity. The Cross all but buried the Hammer. But the Hammer has been reborn.

It seems to me at this point that the true legacy of Germanic man, the heirs of the Teutonic tribes and the Aryans, has been entrusted to the "new" faith of Asatru. More on that later. I am just learning of my own native culture, but each thing I learn comes with a new feeling of relief, a realization of ancestral memory. I have been a Zen Buddhist and I still am, but its style never fitted my personality; I can see myself in the behaviors of the Norse gods much more than I ever could in the meek and ego-denying traditions of the East. Those traditions are very true, for those people, and the traditions of my people are very true for me.

I've been attempting to reconcile elements of my self for my whole life, the more so since I found this practice of zazen, which enables me to see everything clearly. Now at long last, I can say that before the end I've recovered my identity, my ancestral true nature. Not emptiness, but fullness, of a kind that's been denied.

I am just beginning this new phase of my journey. It seems quite likely that I will keep you informed. Be patient, I am learning, too. The only advice I can offer is this: find what's true for you, and people whose goals are true to yours. For all the false alliances of comfort, all the superficial associations are breaking down. There will no longer be one nation here, but many -- there may be one totalitarian government for as long as it lasts, when and if the strongman comes; that I can't foresee, and don't want to, that endless boot stamping on the human face. But I do know that the cultures, the real nations, soon will be fragmented and many.

The New Age is over, and the New Order is here. Choose your tribe carefully.

It's in the blood.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Full Circle: Zen for the West, Part One

Where to begin? Last evening I had one of those "Ah-hah!" moments which are all too rare, when disparate elements that've been trying to resolve themselves into a coherent whole, click together for me. So, where to begin?

Let me first introduce the new logo of the Nashville Zen Center. This has its own story. For several years now, I've been wanting our little Zen group in Nashville to have its own distinctive, representative design. I won't repeat the NZC's history again here, but readers of this blog knows that we've finally, in the last year, recreated ourselves into an authentic Soto Zen school. Zen Buddhism, by definition, needs a teacher and a lineage, which we accomplished by association with the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and its teacher and founder, Taiun Michael Elliston, Sensei. This, with our newly formalized protocols and the lay ordination of Nat and myself as ASZC disciples this summer, puts us into stark contrast with the old NZC, which was loosely organized and self-taught.

If you still want Buddhism 101 in the form of anything-goes ecumenism, Nashville still has groups to fill that roll. My deepening perception that the NZC had moved beyond this came to a head as I was dragged kicking and screaming this past year into a repeat performance of last year's Nashville Buddhist Festival. The NZC never has, to my knowledge nor that of anyone I know, gained one single member from the NBF, which is at best a soft retreat for Buddhist dilettantes, as it was this year, and at its largest, as last year, a street bizarre for New Age looky-lou's.

The bottom line is, this is the End Time for our current culture, a few years past the unacknowledged end of the American Century. I come to Zen as the only means I've found to deal with the impending years of horror. Those who come to Zen, as I did, are all self-motivated, self-driven, spiritual questers of the first order, and they can't be placated with the treacle of a watered practice which purports to be the distilled essence of the East and West. They can't be found by advertising or lured by vague and inoffensive teaching. They want the real thing and in this town, there's nowhere else they can go. Needless to say, we're not the largest group in town to call itself Zen, but we're the most authentic, and we have the most to offer by way of connection to a transmitted teacher who is not himself the product of a diluted practice. So.

The emblems of Nashville's other Zen-like or Zen-affiliated practices are all flowery and feminine, being based upon the excellent art of the founder of at least one of those groups and ex-President of the NZC. I truly do enjoy and appreciate Lisa's painting of lotuses, but the Zen I was looking for and eventually found was a hard thing, a strong and striking thing which stood in stark contrast to the alternatives to be found here. Luckily, the ASZC includes in its emblem the most standard Zen symbol, the enso. Nat had the idea to use the enso as our group's emblem a couple of years ago, but the proposed t-shirts were part of an idea which was (and still is) not executed. Within the last few months the design for the present logo came to me, and was wonderfully executed by Ana King, our resident artist. Hence what I consider to be a strong and striking logo.

Ana appreciated the irony of my coming to one of our few female members for the execution of what I honestly consider a strong, masculine symbol. Because it occurs to me now that we are in fact, the yang to the yin of the alternatives, and it is precisely the "yin" flavor of Nashville's alternatives, and to much of what I consider to be New Age Zen, that had me frustrated. But let me come at this from another angle.

It has long been my opinion that mankind has been the beneficiary of a number of religions which are helpful, supportive of their cultures, and intuitively if not literally true; and that concurrently, it has been the victim of three or so harmful, parasitic and essentially false and deceitful ones, the latter being the Desert Religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is a strong opinion, and it is not likely to find any favor in the New Age mind, which is the mind of much of what passes for Buddhism. Nonetheless, I have intuitively known it to be true since I was no older than ten.

I don't have the space here to argue comparative religions; suffice it to say, that for me and for most of those who seek long and hard enough, Zen comes at the end of the road, as Nat is wont to say. That is, by the time you get to Zen, you've eschewed your way (pun intended) through all the bullshit and come to the essence of "spiritual" practice; direct confrontation with reality. There are no frills needed at this point.

No frills, but there is, I find, the need of a framework. I recently came across a comment somewhere by Jundo Cohen, founder of the Treeleaf Zendo, brother monk of Brad Warner, his fellow disciple of Gudo Nishijima, to the effect that Nishijima's disciples had fallen into disarray because of Nishijima's minimal reliance on the Precepts. The truth (or not) of that is beyond my present scope, but it did ring very true to me that zazen, although the jewel at the center of Zen practice, needs the setting of Zen itself to shine, and not to be obscured. As I said before, the Zen student needs a teacher to keep him from getting caught on the ledge on his way in, or down.

The framework of Soto Zen works very well for me; it involves ritual but minimized teaching. And yet it often occurs to me that Japanese culture is a very strange fit for modern Western man. This perception has certainly not been lost on the numerous Zen (and otherwise Buddhist) teachers who have attempted to purify their homeland's (usually Japan's) corrupted traditions in the fire of the new forge which has been American since the 1960's. It was brought home to me recently by, of all things, an article on how Western social networking sites fail among the Japanese, who are loath to even give out their names online, much less their pictures.

So: if Zen and indeed Buddhism itself is merely a setting which although formative is set aside, to some extent, once the point of direct perception through zazen is reached, might not another setting do? or be better for the products of another culture such as ourselves. It seems so, or at least seems worth a shot. But what would that setting be? Surely not the pervasive Christian and post-Christian culture, the taint of which is the hardest to eschew for anyone wanting to confront the reality of existence -- nor that of its sister religions.

It finally occurred to me that the native culture and spiritual traditions for Americans of northern European descent, is that of the Norse and Germanic gods, which although largely wiped out by the insidious Christianity of the Dark Ages by about the ninth century, formed the basis of the northern half of Western culture in its formative years. In the years before Christianity, Europe was dominated by Greek and Roman cultures in the south, and the religion of the Aesir and Vanir in the north. When the cult of the desert god Yahweh was adopted by the Roman Emperor Constantine and established by conquest of Europe by the Romans, the extant Norse religions were all but obliterated.

So why did I find myself, in the last few months, find myself inexplicably and inexorably drawn to the Norse religion, and to its present re-incarnation as Asatru? I have never at any time considered giving up my Zen practice, but I found myself being lured by the Norse mythology. It made no sense to me; what could have less to do with Zen than the worship of Odin?

It finally came to me last night when I discovered a description in an early Pali, Theravada text (in translation, on the internet -- don't think for a second that I read Pali!) to Gautama as a tall man with brown hair and blue eyes! And suddenly I was reminded of my college studies from thirty years ago or more, of the history of world religions and I realized: Buddhism is not a religion of Asian cultures at all, but the culmination of the myths of the Aryans, which are common to the mythology of Scandinavia and to the pre-Hindu Vedas!

The Aryan tribe (and please not let's mistake the real Aryans for Hitler's concept of the race of Supermen!) are first seen in the mists of pre-history somewhere in what is now Eastern Europe. From there they spread into northern Europe, but also through the Middle East and ultimately to India, to the banks of the Indus River, where their fiery conqueror's religions intersected with the ascetic and mysterious (because not documented) practices of the Dravidians, a race? tribe? of dark-skinned people who were there when the Aryans arrived. Thus the myths of the Vedas flowed into the period of the Upanishads, and ultimately formed modern Hinduism.

But along the way, about 600 B.C., a prince named Gautama brought this evolving religion to its culmination as Buddhism. Buddhism is, thus, the culmination of the Norse religion! And zazen is the essence of Buddhism; it is the true and original practice of the Buddha, despite the cultural accoutrement's which it has picked up through its long Asian sojourn. So that perhaps the jewel of zazen, set in the rich culture which is most accessible to us now through the Eddas and Asatru, is the true legacy and flowering of Western spirituality. It could be our recourse from the maddening, yin femininity of the desert religions which engulf us. It could be what we need.

But this is too long, and I need to sit. I'll flesh this out later. This was truly enough to keep me up all night, last night, and too exciting a realization to put down soon. So you'll be hearing more, I promise. This is evolving thought, so if you have contributions, please make them; my head is spinning.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Guest Blog: Jim Lydecker on the Economic Crisis

For those of you about to watch the debate between two guys who are NOT the best this country could do for a leader; take this pill first, from my friend Jim. Then see what comes out of their mouths, our yours....

I lifted this whole from the Napa Valley Register.

Economic crisis is all about the dollar

Friday, October 03, 2008
By Jim Lydecker

For those of you counting, we are about to pass another dubious milestone and reach the unheard debt amount of $10 trillion. Adding another trillion in record time prompted the Economist to dryly remark, “at least it hasn’t hit a zillion yet.” Maybe it will. Bush says we need to print up a quick $750 billion in order to save the economy, though many feel it will be closer to $3 trillion.

The problem here is that printing paper money may help in the short term but will hasten the collapse of the economy. An economic collapse brought on by debt is like an organism infected by cancer. On the other hand, a fiscal collapse is more like a massive coronary. Uncle Sam may be dead before he hits the floor.

It has been said that “He who holds the gold rules.” Throughout the ages, when gold was used, and laws protected honest commerce, productive nations thrived. However, when wealthy nations — those with powerful armies — lived beyond their means, they had to use fiat money.

The terms "fiat currency" relates to types of currency whose usefulness results, not from any intrinsic value or guarantee that it can be converted into gold or another currency, but instead from a government’s order (fiat) that it must be accepted as a means of payment. Those nations and their economies always failed.

Today gold no longer rules. Instead, “He who prints the money makes the rules.” And the rules are similar: Compel foreign countries to produce and subsidize the country with military superiority and control over the monetary printing presses. Dollar dominance began in 1944 at the Bretton Woods agreement. Due to our political and military muscle, and because Fort Knox held a mountain of gold, the world accepted the dollar as the reserve currency. With no controls, the Federal Reserve printed more money than we had gold for the next 27 years. This sham was exposed in 1971 when the French wanted to cash in their surplus dollars only to find there wasn’t enough gold.

To rescue the dollar, it had to be backed by something of value before becoming interchangeable with Monopoly money. In 1973, the Nixon Administration struck a deal with OPEC to price oil in and only accept dollars for all transactions. We, in turn, promised to protect various oil-rich kingdoms from any internal or external threat. Thus the birth of the petrodollar. The agreement with OPEC has allowed tremendous artificial demand and strength allowing the Federal Reserve to print money at will. Since most nations need to import oil, they needed dollars. This arrangement kept the Third World mired in poverty. To get dollars, they had to keep their natural resources and labor cheap. There are several ways to bring these ethereal days to an end and one is if OPEC decides to accept currency other than the dollar for oil. This could bankrupt us in a very short time.

In November 2000, Iraq demanded euros for oil. The first Bush Cabinet meeting (January 2001) was dominated by how to get rid of Hussein and Iraq back on the dollar. There was no concern of his military or terrorism prowess. It was instead about his attack on the integrity of the dollar.

Another example was when Venezuela floated the idea of switching to the euro in mid-2001. Immediately there was a coup attempt against Chavez, reportedly with CIA assistance.

Real threats come from countries who are incapable of threatening us militarily but able to dismantle us economically. This is the threat we see from Iran. Since 2004, Iran has been talking of switching to the euro and we have repeatedly put Teheran in our cross-hairs. The fear is not a fundamental Islamic revolution causing Middle East countries to fall like dominoes, but that there may be a domino effect where they will all stop taking dollars.

And now matters are made worse because we are essentially printing money to rescue an economy that has gone down the wrong path. The arrangement between the Federal Reserve printing money backed by Treasury notes, both worthless, is check-kiting at its worse.

Warren Buffett put it in perspective last week when he said, “No one knows who is skinny-dipping until the tide goes out.”

The truth of the matter is this: Our currency is backed by our military in the sense that anyone choosing to not accept it will get a thumping by our armed forces. Dollar superiority depends our strong military, and our strong military depends on the dollar. Ironically, no outside military force is needed to tear this relationship apart and with it would go the economic engine that powered what was the American Century.

There’s a new world waiting and it is not promising.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Nashville Buddhist Festival, Oct. 4, 2008

"Rely not on the teacher/person, but on the teaching.

Rely not on the words of the teaching, but on the spirit of the words.

Rely not on theory, but on experience.

Do not believe in anything simply because you
have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything because it is
written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

Text from the Kalama Sutra. Pictures by Paul Felton, Bob Jarrell, Susan Warner, and Ana King. For more pictures from the 2008 Nashville Buddhist Festival, go here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

More Edie: A Short Film

I regret that when I did my prior blog post on Edie Sedgwick, I didn't give you a glimpse of her personal presence except by description, and I just stumbled across this on YouTube. This short film features a montage of stills and video set to a recording of Edie speaking, recalling her life during her short two years of fame. She indicates that she was 27 at the time she speaks, so her life was just about over. Remember when you listen that she sounds soggy because she was heavily sedated, in the name of what passed for medical practice in the late '60's and early '70's, which was just as barbaric as today's equivalent.

Despite all that, Edie seems to have matured into a very healthy personality by the end of her short days; perhaps she always was. Who are we to say? That someone can have the perspective she had by the end of her life, despite the fact that that life was little other than abuse of one kind or another, despite having been a shining star -- there's a lesson there for you whiners and moaners. Seize the day!

There's a bunch more of this stuff at; check it out!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Joan of Arc: The Power of Deep Practice?

I just finished re-watching The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. I was drawn back to this excellent movie by way of a renewed interest in the Middle Ages and their talismans, via the TV series Witchblade (as opposed to its anime sister series, which is also great in its own right). I'm also reading Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft, a faintly fantastical account of Hitler's journey into dark magic, especially with regard to the Spear of Longinus, which I haven't quite decided how to take yet, except as account of spiritual practice gone badly wrong. And while I'm at it, I have to mention the book that brought me to the magic of the late Middle Ages, particularly the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, years ago, Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, surely the most readable and fascinating history book I've ever come near, which I heartily recommend.

The Messenger is a film by Luc Besson starring Milla Jovovich, surely one of the most underrated actresses of our time. Milla's performance is entrancing; if you've only seen her as Leeloo in The Fifth Element and as Alice in the Resident Evil movies - both of which are fine performances - you owe it to yourself to see her as Kat in .45 and in The Messenger. The most intriguing thing about this latter movie (although with excellent performances by John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, Dustin Hoffman and Milla) is that the source of Joan's visions is left ambiguous. Do they come from God? From the Devil? From some sort of schizophrenia, from Joan's own unconfessed ambition, or from some other source.

It appears to me that in the movie, at least (the historical facts are too vague to even speculate), Joan is entirely convinced (at least until the end) that the voices come from God, and I don't doubt that they did. Which sounds like a strange thing for me as a non-theist to say, but it is obvious that Joan has a profound conviction, of which she was dead certain, which turned out to be true and accurate and led her to great victory.

You have to remember that Joan of Arc was an ignorant (in the non-pejorative sense of the word; she could of course neither read nor write and had no education at all beyond the indoctrination of the fifteenth-century Church) peasant, and any experience she had was solidly in the context of the deep Christian fear in which she would have been raised. I think even modern Christians would have to admit that the Church of the Middle Ages, although the only source of political stability in the Western World before the rise of the nation-state, was a dreadful entity. It occurred to me, thinking about this fictional depiction of Joan, which I think expresses deep truths, that the experience of direct communication from God, of which she was absolutely certain, was virtually indistinguishable in context from the direct perceptions of absolute certainty one can have after a few years of zazen, or perhaps any other direct and deep practice. And thus I can empathize.

I have dedicated myself to the practice of zazen only for about four years, a pittance of time compared to some of my friends and fellow Zen students, but I can tell you (those of you who don't already know) that there are moments of insight at which time the defensive barriers with which we surround our non-existent (though all too apparent) selves drop away, and one for a moment is clearly able to see what is, or what things are, to eschew Zen terminology for a bit. Certain things can be seen as absolutely true, and if one can bring back an accurate enough perception or description of that moment, even to oneself (because the event has to be interpreted and to some extent verbalized to be stored in the "mind"), those clear truths can be made the basis of right actions.

As adamant as I am about my practice of zazen, and my constant battle against what I see as a watering of the practice by those who value the context more than the content, please don't think I think everyone needs to be a Zen Buddhist. First, it's just not a path that's going to appeal to that many people. It's hard work, the promised rewards aren't much in comparison to what most religions promised, and the only ones who find the true practice are those who come looking for it. Which is why I get really annoyed when a bunch of metaphysical crap is passed off as Zen, because people will encounter that, realize what bullshit it is, and go away disappointed. This is why I won't be involved in the Nashville Buddhist Festival after this year; most of the people who come there are seeking some sort of comfortable delusion, and it's a violation of the Fifth Precept to sell it to them.

Zen is definitely the place for me, but if you're one of those people like me who, from the first realization of your human existence, have demanded to know the answer to the question: What is this? then I really want to believe that over time your quest will lead you through the illusions and obstacles to some form of deep practice which will enable you to perceive things directly and truly. In between my Zen periods, I tried other things. Strangely enough, the chanting of the Nichirens was a very powerful practice for me, although the context was absurd enough ultimately to drive me away. Conversely, my brief flirtation with Tibetan Buddhism left me with nothing but a distaste; it is a devotional practice based on illusion, not much different from what I perceive the Black Arts to be.

But there are experiences outside religion or spiritual practice that can take you there; although I wouldn't advise anyone to try it because of the inherent risk factors, drugs can blow open those doors of perception; I know a lot of people with deep current practices and development who got their first glimpse of reality without filters this way. Unfortunately, drugs, like occult practices, can leave the door open for a bunch of other stuff you don't want. Having those doors opened without proper guidance can take you to some strange places. Madness and egotistical delusion spring to mind. Some of us were lucky to come through as intact as we did, and to this day I question my own sanity, as defined by the modern world.

There are probably a lot of other things that can kick those door open: hunger, trauma, all sort of privations. Anything that strips you of your social context and removes you even for a moment from consensual reality can, I think, enable you to see things as they are. But the failing of asceticism is that without context, either from yourself or a mentor of some sort, these experiences can't be brought back into "everyday life" once participation in such is regained. Some are prepared, and some get lucky. Personally, I feel like some of the nasty experiences I've had have enabled me to remember, even when things seem fine, that there are no guarantees. You'll die alone, and things will be about like they are right now. Sorry.

The experience of Joan of Arc led her to reject the Church, the only voice of authority in her day, and the only context she had ever had, in favor of the content of her own experience, which to her was the voice of God. This is of course the common factor of mystical experiences throughout the history of the world; they do not come through organizations. A teacher can be helpful to get you there, but once you have the experience, you must rely on your own truth. But how to know truth, whether seen as divine communication or just direct perception, there's the rub. Because you won't know it until you see it. You will know it when you do see it, but you can be fooled by all sorts of stuff before you get there. There are logical problems with this proposition, I see all too well, but they're just artifacts of the language, and remember, you have to get beyond language to see what's real.

As a footnote, in Soto Zen, a "mystical revelation" or "moment of enlightenment" is seen as just another experience not to be dwelt in. At worst, they are seems as delusions; at best, they cannot be grasped and held onto and should be let go just like any other perception or experience. When Joan's voices stopped, she carried on doing what she thought had been the last command of the voices, and wrong-headed herself into downfall. It's the moment we have to act in, not a great experience of the past, which is where so very many mystics go wrong, so enraptured by their experience that they can't let go of it.

So I understand the experience of Joan of Arc and I think she did hear the voice of God. Because the power of understanding comes not through grasping, but through letting go.