I was hanging out with the Spotted Opossum t’other day. She didn’t have school, I got her from her ma early, took her someplace. She was drawing and I was trying to get some more caffeine in me, making conversation. She said she’d had a babysitter the night before so I asked what she and the babysitter did.
“She told me stories.”
“Yeah? Were there little pigs in the stories?”
“No, she told me a story about Nineveh.”
“Is Nineveh a person?” Obviously, I was still not totally awake – or maybe I just couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.
“No, Nineveh is a city and there was a man named, uh, Jonah…” and at that point I saw the light. I asked a few more questions and, sure as you’re born, the babysitter had regaled the little heathen with many of the charming tales of the Old Testament, including Jonah and the whale, David v. Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, all of which are great stories and all of which have great and valuable spiritual lessons. Nevertheless, there were bells and sirens going off in my head.
Obviously, I have an abiding appreciation for religion and myth. I want my daughter to grow up with myth. I want her to be familiar with the many ways various peoples have tried to make sense of, or at least have a relationship with the Great Mystery that underlies all that is, was and will be, but that doesn’t mean I want some college girl I don’t know telling her about how some Jewish kid killed a giant with a slingshot and cut off his head. There is a proper time and such for some revelations and there are some myths that I would want framed as “some people believe…” The sprat’s mom and I disagree on many, many things, but we are on the same ecumenical page when it comes to the religiosities we want to present to our daughter. We exchanged a few texts. No damage was done to the girl. The mom said she’d have a talk with the babysitter – ask her to back off a little with the wrath of YHVH bedtime stories or seek part-time employment elsewhere. Problem solved.
Later, over lunch, the Spotted Opossum asked me to tell her the story of Jonah and the whale. She likes to hear stories over and over. I told it to her. It’s a good story and one which I can see myself in. I, too, was called by (insert name of deity) to a certain life. I, too, chose not to heed that call because I was afraid and kinda hoped I could slip away unnoticed. Jonah spent forty days in the belly of a whale - “great fish” according to the KJV – and I spent thirteen years put off, put down, strung out and stoned, but it amounts to the same thing. I do believe that every one of us is “called” to some task, some course of action, and that resisting the call is the same as throwing away one’s life. All mythology is in some wise related to this theme, but Jonah and the whale is a damn fine, and very concise, telling. When I told it, I stressed the importance of the voice of divinity, which speaks to us from inside ourselves, and I made the girl fall over laughing with my impression of a whale spitting a man out. Bleh. She wanted to hear about “David and the giiiiiiant”, so I said “Oh, I know another story about a giant” and gave her “Jack and the Beanstalk” instead, which satisfied.
This whole thing is part of why I started taking her to the Universalist-Unitarian church. I want her to have access to a spiritual community with some rituals, one that was open to all forms of religion and I want her to have something to fall back on when someone else challenges her. We live in the Bible Belt. There’s a guy who stands in front of the court house downtown, preaching Jesus to everybody who walks past. The girl will certainly encounter people who will assail her with whatever their preacher says and when some kid tells her “My church says God hates fags”, I want her to be able to say “My church believes in the inherent value of all human beings and that God loves us all enough to accept us all into Heaven” or words to that effect.
It’s a weird situation. I sometimes wonder if I’m holding back too much. When I tell the girl “Little Red Riding Hood”, I say the wolf wants to eat the cookies Little Red has in her basket. I tend to soft pedal, to smooth out some of the rough edges. Maybe I’m softening things too much. Which would be a really strange thing for me to be doing. I’m usually the one who offends people with my tendency to call a spade a fuckin’ spade and then get pissed off because so many fuckin’ people don’t know the difference between a spade and a shovel, for fuck’s sake. I try to be aware of other people’s sensibilities and I have made considerable progress in that area, but I’m not aspiring to become one of those ultra-sensitive guys who talks about their feelings in a sing-song voice and has to qualify every statement lest someone think they’re being overly aggressive in their request for someone to pass the sea salt. Then, my daughter sits down and wants a story and I find myself avoiding the more gruesome and unseemly passages of “The Three Little Pigs” for fear of shattering her innocence or something. Maybe the babysitter has performed a service for us by opening a can of Mosaic worms which we can now play with and talk about.
Which does not mean I want her to tell the girl the fabulous story of Job. And that business about Sodom and Gomorrah is right off the agenda as well.
The mommy suggested we find a collection of stories from different religions and tell those to the girl, which is a brilliant idea. Actually, I don’t have to find a book – I have shelves full of them. I can think of a half-dozen Inuit stories off the top of my head that would be pretty fun. There’s one where Kuluscap is wandering along looking for adventures and he comes to a village which is populated entirely with cats. The cats are people who have been turned into cats by a witch. Kuluscap turns himself into a cat. He starts to live in the village. All of the cats are trying to survive. They do the best they can, hunting mice and small birds. Kuluscap leaves the village every day and when he is alone he turns himself back into Kuluscap and goes hunting for larger game, deer, elk, bear. When he has killed an animal, he turns himself back into a cat, returns to the village and tells the other cats to follow him. He leads them to the deer or elk or bear or whatever. In this way, Kuluscap the cat proves himself to be a great hunter and a valuable asset to the community. He quickly becomes the chief of the cats. Kuluscap begins to lead hunting expeditions. He leads the cat hunters away from the village, slips away from them and kills some large animal. The cats are doing pretty well.
One day, Kuluscap leads the cat hunters to the river. They get into a canoe and paddle across to an island where there are many ducks’ nests. They want to gather eggs. The witch goes along with them, having changed herself into a cat. When Kuluscap sneaks away from the others, she says “Now, we must all go back to the village” and gets into the canoe. The other cats follow her. They paddle away from the island, leaving Kuluscap stranded. The witch leads the other cats back to the village. After a few days she says “The chief is gone and I am here. I am chief now.”
On the island, Kuluscap begins to sing. He sings a song that has great power. The song goes out of Kuluscap and across the river. The song travels many miles through forests and over mountains until it finds Fox, who is Kuluscap’s friend. Fox hears the song and immediately he follows it back to its source.
“Friend Fox” says Kuluscap “I am trapped here on this island.”
“Hold on to my tail” says Fox. “I will tow you across the water.” Kuluscap holds on to Fox’s tail and Fox swims, towing Kuluscap behind.
There is a huge storm. Kuluscap says “The witch has made this storm.”
Fox says “No, this is just a storm. Keep holding my tail. We will be across soon.” Nevertheless, it takes them all night to get across the river.
When they are across, Kuluscap thanks Fox and goes back to the village of cats. He knows that the witch has made herself chief while he is away and that she will oppose him when he returns so he makes a trap for her in a clearing outside the village. He rubs the trunk of a pine tree and speaks to it so the sap comes out. The whole trunk of the tree is covered with sap. Then he goes to the edge of the village and peaks out from behind bushes. He does this in a way that the cats will see him sneaking around and poking his head up because he wants the witch to see him. After a while, the witch sees him and thinks “There is Kuluscap, sneaking around, trying to figure out how to become chief again.” She picks up an ax and runs after Kuluscap, chases him to the clearing. Kuluscap hides behind some bushes. The witch looks all around, but she can’t find Kuluscap. She thinks “He is hiding around here, getting ready to jump out and attack me” so she backs up against the tree so Kuluscap can’t attack her from behind and she gets stuck in the sap. She is stuck to the tree and can’t get away. Kuluscap returns to the village. All the cats are happy to see him. They don’t know that he is Kuluscap, but they are happy to see him because he is a better chief than the witch. Still, they are afraid that the witch is going to come back and when she does things will be bad.
Kuluscap tells the cats not to worry about the witch. He tells them that he has stuck her to a tree. Later, they hear a chopping sound. Chop, chop, chop. The witch is trying to chop herself loose from the tree. All night long, the chopping goes on. In the morning, when the cats are making their breakfast, the witch comes into the village. She has an ax in her hand and a big piece of wood stuck to her back. She looks disheveled and worn out from chopping all night.
“Look” says Kuluscap “there’s the one you were frightened of”. All the cats start to laugh at the witch. The witch becomes angry and waves her ax around, but the cats just laugh harder. They fall down on the ground and roll around laughing. The witch can’t stand to be laughed at. She throws the ax down and runs away. She runs and runs and runs until she comes to a marshy part of the forest and there she stops. With the witch gone, the spell is broken and all the cats turn back into people. They ask Kuluscap to stay and be their chief again, but he says “No. I don’t like to stay in one place. I like to have adventures. Someone else can be chief”. Kuluscap leaves and goes off looking for more adventures.
Out in the marsh, the witch tries to think of a way to get revenge. She eventually decides to turn herself into mosquitoes. “I’ll be mosquitoes” she says. “I will plague the people forever and they’ll never be able to get rid of me.” So that’s what she did.
Now, that is a fine story even if I did alter it somewhat. I got it from Northern Tales, selected and edited by Howard Norman, a wonderful book which I picked up at the free book stand downtown. The version in the book is a lot more convoluted and has a lot of stuff which probably mattered quite a lot to the Inuit, but which seems superfluous to me. I think the girl will enjoy it. She likes cats.
Parenting is a lot of fun, but there’re these moments when you wonder how you’re doing. Most of the time, I try to just assume that I’m doing okay, that if there’s anything I should deal with someone or Someone will let me know. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the Great Parent sent the babysitter over with the intention that the grrrl get introduced to the O.T. in order to push me into teaching her about the world’s wonderful faith traditions. Which I can do.
Maybe one day I’ll tell her about how I was swallowed by a whale because I didn't go to Nineveh.
*I believe the spelling has been standardized "Kluskap" or "Glooscap". I went with "Kuluscap" because that's the spelling Norman uses.
At some earlier stage of my spiritual development, I picked up Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection Of Zen And Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps. It’s a great little book of koans and anecdotes and it totally blew my mind. As I read it, I kept having the feeling that I was reading things I’d always known, but had never articulated. The ancient, “answerless” riddles about one hand clapping and the face you had before you were born were so simple, so clear and easy. The wacky antics of Zen Masters made perfect sense. Like this one, (in my words, not those of Mr. Reps):
In one monastery, the Abbot had the habit of holding up his forefinger whenever he reached the point of a lecture.
One day, as the monks were preparing their breakfast, the Abbot noticed two young monks, ages five and ten, talking. The older of the two raised his forefinger as he spoke. Immediately, the Abbot seized a knife from a table and cut the boy’s finger off.
Wow. What a way to start the day.
Seriously, though, the story is supposed to be shocking. You’re supposed to think “What? Did I read that wrong?” Then you read it again and, sure enough, the Abbot cut the boy’s finger off. So, reeling from the sudden and apparently senseless mutilation of a child in the kitchen of a Buddhist monastery, you wonder “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” because all of the koans and stories in the Zen tradition mean something. They’re all very short, very direct and packed with meaning. Teachers would give a koan or story like this to students and have them go meditate on it for a few years, which seems pretty weird to us, for whom the reason for the Abbot’s action is perfectly obvious, but people were a little slower in the uptake 1,500 years ago.
See, a thousand years had passed since Buddhism was founded and a lot of dust had settled on the mirror. Early Buddhism was very monastically oriented. Anyone who was at all serious about seeking Nirvana had to first quit the world, shave their head and take refuge in the Sangha. The rest of the people gave their tithes, generally respected the monks and nuns and aspired to rise to their level in a few incarnations, not this one, thank you very much. After about five-hundred years, at about the same time Jesus was preaching in the Levant, somebody had the brilliant insight that since Samsara was this world of pairs of opposites and Nirvana was the state of mind of one who had gone beyond the pairs of opposites, including the pair of opposites “Samsara” and “Nirvana”, one who had gone beyond the pairs of opposites would not recognize Samsara and Nirvana as opposites, but would, in fact, see them as being exactly the same. Whammo bango, the entire thing was spun on its head and suddenly there was no need whatsoever to quit the world. Nirvana was equally accessible to anyone. Any farmer, merchant, soldier or milkmaid could aspire to Nirvana. These two early forms of Buddhism are referred to as “Hinyana”, “little ferryboat” and “Mahayana”, “big ferryboat”, respectively. Unfortunately, when one is aspiring to Nirvana, one has not attained it, or why would one be aspiring? The little ferryboat Sangha was mostly involved in memorizing Sutras, debating insignificant details of the Buddha’s biography and denouncing each other for having gotten it wrong. The big ferryboat lay community was burning up a lot of incense at roadside shrines, feeling a bit guilty for failing to adhere to the Noble Eightfold Path and sending their second sons to be raised in monasteries in the hopes that it would somehow help. Everybody pretty much assumed that Nirvana was several incarnations away.
Then, after another five-hundred years or so, somebody realized that Siddhartha Gautama Sakymuni, the historical Buddha, had attained Nirvana by sitting still. Sitting still, therefore, was really the key. All that business about incense and Sutras and gold statues and so on was missing the point. This was the beginning of what became Zen.
The First Patriarch of Zen was Bodhidharma, who entered the historical record when he emigrated from India to China. The Chinese had heard of Buddhism from traveling merchants and a few wandering monks and had the impression that it was some kind of high-minded, intellectual philosophy, which it was, in the Sangha. The scholars and philosophers were somewhat curious about it, but no one saw it as anything other than an intellectual pursuit. Then along came Bodhidharma, this big, hairy, wild-eyed Indian, intense and a bit intimidating, who sat down and stared at a wall for nine years without saying anything. That got their attention. The Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs of Zen, whose names escape me, maintained the don’t-just-do-something-sit-there meditation, but didn’t break any new ground. Then, in Japan, an illiterate stable-boy happened to overhear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra and he got it. He was Enlightened. He immediately attempted to enter a monastery, but was not allowed to take the Vows because he was just an illiterate stable-boy and not able to read, memorize and then sit around debating the insignificant details of every shopping list Gautama ever jotted on the back of an envelope. He was taken on as a scullery lad on the assumption that after spending a few lifetimes hulling rice he might rise to the level of literacy. Why they didn’t just teach the kid to read, I don’t know. Anyway, the Abbot of the monastery decided to retire and announced that there would be a competition: whoever could compose a poem best summarizing the principals of Buddhism would become the new Abbot. There was one monk who everybody was sure was going to get it and when he wrote the following verse on the wall in the hall, it was a fait accompli:
The body is the bodhi tree
The mind is a mirror
Clean it constantly
So it doesn’t get dusty
The English is my summary. Our illiterate scullery lad, whose name was Huineng, got a friend from the kitchen to read this to him and then write his response:
The body is not the bodhi tree
The mind is not a mirror
What can get dusty?
Next morning, all the monks were standing around wondering who had written the second verse when the Abbot walked in, got angry, wiped Huineng’s poem off the wall and passed his staff of office on to the monk who had written the first one. Later, he spoke to Huineng privately, advised him not to hit people with advanced truths they were incapable of comprehending and invited him to go away. Huineng became the Sixth and last Patriarch of Zen. He established Zen Buddhism as we know it today and attracted so many followers that Zen no longer needed Patriarchs to keep it going.
One does not have to spend x incarnations waiting for Nirvana; it can happen right now. In fact, it should happen right now. There is no real reason for it not to. So, sit there and realize it. That’s really the crux of Zen, as I see it. D.T. Suzuki might disagree, but who really cares what D.T. Suzuki thinks? Same goes for Alan Watts, that limey beatnik. Another thing – Zen produces enlightened Masters at a far higher rate than any of the other Buddhisms, crotchety old coots sitting around shit-talking Siddhartha like he was a redheaded bastard at a family reunion, an irreverence which this Espresso Shaman especially enjoys. Venerating Buddhas is all well and good and it’ll get you a seat in a closed lotus in the Pure Land, but it won’t get you into Nirvana. For that, you have to realize that there is no Buddha unless it’s you.
And it is you. This is the thing that has to be understood. There is no Buddha other than yourself, which is without a self. It seems paradoxical, I know, but the reason Zen Flesh, Zen Bones hit me so hard is that I just read the black parts and where it said “all things have Buddha nature”, I took that to mean that “all things have Buddha nature”. I have Buddha nature. You have Buddha nature. The fuckin’ roaches on my kitchen counter have fuckin’ Buddha nature. We all, and everything else, have Buddha nature, so why don’t we realize it? Why do we continue to walk around thinking that we’re anything other than Buddhas? My theory is that it seems too easy. Nirvana is described in high-falutin’, flowery language and made out to be this big fucking deal, mainly because that was the writing style in India at the time. Seriously, read The Upanishads, if you can. People have a tendency to want metaphysical stuff to be a big fucking deal, wheels within wheels in the sky, multi-armed gods dancing the cosmos, stuff like that. It isn’t like that – well, not all the time. I have seen some out-there stuff even when I wasn’t on acid, but most of the time a tree is a tree, a river is a river and people are people. Nirvana is not something to be attained. Nirvana already is in you.
As I’ve stated here before, I have taken the vow of the Bodhisattva and will be sticking around, in one form or another, until all sentient beings are enlightened. I would appreciate it very much if all who read this would sit down and realize their Buddhahood. It would make my job easier. If you care to take the vow and stick around to help, that’d be cool too.
If someone was to ask me how to become a shaman, I would encourage them not to. It’s a hard road, what with the fasting and aestheticism and feeding the spirit animals and all that, and there ain’t any money in it. In some cultures, there’s a certain amount of respect or appreciation for shamans, but here in capitalist North America, a shaman is just another degenerate bum in a weird hat.
It does get discouraging sometimes.
I went out to the woods for soul food. Driving out there, I was mostly expecting a moonlit walk down an old fireroad that goes a couple miles into the National Forest from Hone Quarry. I parked the truck at the gate and got out and there was no moon to lit. No stars either – the sky was totally cloud-covered and it was dark as a dungeon. I couldn’t see my feet. I wondered for a moment just exactly what was I supposed to do – this kind of thing falls into the “supposed to” category when you’re a shaman – and then I started walking. My eyes adjusted to the dark somewhat, but I was still just seeing shades of black and grey. The sky was easily discernible, grey between the ragged trees, so I mostly looked up and tried to stay in the middle. I could tell the difference between the rocky mud road and grass beneath my boots, so if I strayed off to the side, I could correct. Sometimes the puddles caught a bit of light and had a glossy grey, but sometimes I just stepped into them. It was slow going and I was keenly aware of the fact that there are places along that road where the side just drops off.
As I walked, I prayed and meditated. I reached out with my mind to my various spirit animals – who also have human forms when human forms are more conducive. I spoke with them, addressed certain fears and concerns. I also addressed my deity, the form of the Great Mystery that seems most right to me, asking, seeking, wondering. My prayers tend to be more “What should I do?” than “Lord, won’tcha buy me a Mercedes Benz?” I am a person with constant doubt about my abilities, my decisions, actions. I always think there’s a good chance that I’m fucking something up somehow and that there will be dire and sever consequences for every mistake and misstep. Most of the time, I’m wrong and everything turns out exactly the way it’s supposed to. My kid is awesome despite the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time. BDSR keeps growing, even though I can barely play guitar and have only a vague understanding of the sound program I use to record and mix releases. Somehow the bills get paid. Honest to gods, I don’t have a clue how things work out as well as they do. I am not even in the passenger seat of the metaphorical vehicle of my life. I’m in the truck bed, hanging over the tailgate, hoping that whoever is steering is paying attention.
How did this happen? How did I get to where I am?
I was born with certain abnormalities of the mind that would have made life a little difficult in the best of circumstances, which mine weren’t. My childhood wasn’t great. I took the bad hand I was dealt and played it the worst way possible, grossly exacerbating the situation until suicide seemed like the best option. Then I was plucked up. One of the many manifestations of Divinity that people have identified appeared to me and changed the course of my life. I found some folks who showed me how to grow in the Spirit(s), gave myself over to the Deity that appeared to me and I’ve been trudging along ever since. Fifteen years and I still don’t really know what’s going on. I read a lot of books on the subject. I read Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques Of Ecstasy a few years ago and was steered into my current avocation. I’m actually reading that one again. It’s pretty good. I’m not nearly as powerful as some Siberian or Mongolian shamans, but I’m self-taught and they had instructors, so I guess I’m not doing so bad. I’m certainly not unusual in that I didn’t choose this. The whole shaman thing was not my idea – I was assigned. If I had gotten to pick a role for myself, it would’ve been one with a higher income and more blowjobs.
So there I was, stumbling along this mud road in total darkness, praying and wondering why I wasn’t home eating beans’n’rice and watching a zombie movie. There were occasional sounds on either side, something or something else moving around in the underbrush, probably opossums or rabbits, but possibly bears and coyotes. I had a Ka-bar on me, in addition to the little knife that I always carry. I would fight a bear if I had to. It was definitely a scary experience. Mostly though, it was just putting one foot in front of the other, slowly, watching that strip of sky that was open over the road, feeling with every step the ground. I stumbled a few times, but only fell down once, when I stepped into a gulley that ran across the road and over the drop. There’s a concrete bridge that crosses a creek near the end of the road, so when I got to it I knew I was close. Then the strip of open sky just stopped. I was at the end of the road. It was almost disappointing. I had gotten used to walking along in the dark, had become okay with it. I suddenly felt that I could walk all night.
The act that I had set out to do was to walk to the end of the road, unless I had to fight a bear or something. So I turned around and started walking back. On the way back, I continued to pray, to ask for guidance regarding BDSR, my visual art, my daughter. And an answer came: “Just keep going”. It was that simple. Just continue to do what you’re doing. Just keep on walking, blind and trusting, and what will happen will happen.
Just keep going. That’s pretty much always the answer. I have gotten different ones – “Quit the job”, “Stop being such an arrogant asshole” – but the vast majority of the time I’m out seeking some kind of guidance, it’s because nothing much has happened and I’ve gotten all jammed up in my head thinking that I should do some something, something dramatic, to fuck shit up. I can handle crisis. You give me a burning orphanage or a fighting bear and I know exactly what to do. Let me be for a while, let a couple months of slow, gradual development happen, and I start to get edgy. Then I find myself out in the woods doing something that other people have the sense not to do – walking a road in the dark was a fairly mild one – crying out for a vision or a sign or a burning wheel within a wheel or something. The answer is usually just keep going.
The final step in the shamanic thing is sharing what I’ve learned. See, I do this shit so you don’t have to.
If you’re not living in the way of the Spirit(s), then this doesn’t apply to you. This is for people who are already committed to a course of action and being that is in accord with whatever form of spirituality that makes the most sense or has the most appeal for them. People without any form of spirituality – well, I dunno. Do whatever. Maybe that’ll work out for you. People who are walking on a spiritual path and who have the occasional doubts because it seems like nothing is happening and/or there appear to be some dark clouds on the horizon, possibly of a dark financial nature because you don’t have a regular job and there ain’t no income comin’ in, just keep going. The way may be dark, there may be bears in the woods, but just keep going.
A couple years ago, I realized that the pearls of wit and/or wisdom that occasionally fall from my lips were being wasted on swine. I decided that since no one else was writing them down for the benefit of posterity, I would have to so do. Eventually, I expect they will be compiled by my biographers into a handy, pocket-sized volume. The sub-heading of this blog, “The pun is always intended” is one. Others include:
“I never made up anything that wasn’t true.”
“The measure of a man’s maturity is the length to which he will go to avoid the company of women.”
“Religion is the greatest human invention.”
I want to elaborate on that last one.
First and foremost, I do not mean that there are no spirits or gods. Those metaphysical realities are certainly real, in a mysterious way that can’t be explained or understood, but which can be felt and experienced. The Spirits/Gods/Daevas are transcendent entities because they transcend the ability of finite, temporal beings to understand, speak of, even think of. Any and all words in any and all languages are human inventions, formed with the context of the human mind, bound as it is by time and space, and therefore incapable of expressing anything beyond time and space which is in any way intelligible to the human mind.
We can use words like “infinite” and “eternal”, but we cannot really grasp their meanings. Go ahead and try. Try to imagine the meaning of “infinity” and what you’ll get is a vast, open plane under an enormous clear sky, or something like that, which is not what infinity is. “Eternity” is even more misunderstood. Most of us imagine “eternity” as referring to a really, really, really, really, really, really, really long time – the amount of time our souls are going to burn in Hell if we pick our noses on Sunday or something. Trying to wrap your head around transcendence is like trying to put the Gobi Desert into a five-pound potato sack - failure is assured and there’s a possibility of ripping the sack.
And yet, we want to do it, which is fine. My daughter enjoys sitting in sandboxes, putting sand in her shoe until it’s filled and then more and then more and then dumping it out and overfilling it again. Certainly, the vain pursuit of understanding those Mysteries which can never be understood is a less harmful hobby than some others and may even have some positive effect, unless it degenerates into philosophy, in which case one tends to sit around, thumb in ass, coming up with ridiculous bullshitteries like Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox, which is actually as good an example of the futility of trying to understand the Spirits as any. You can’t ever get there. Shakespeare said something someplace about a man’s reach exceeding his grasp “or what’s a Heaven for?” or words to that effect or something. Anyway, we want to delve into these matters and we need some kind of method for doing so, even if it is flawed and ultimately destined to not quite make it and that’s what religion is: a way of referring to that which cannot be referred to. Religion is a human attempt to do that which is, by definition, impossible.
Mistakes have been made, sure. This Espresso Shaman will never make any arguments justifying the Inquisition, Crusades, or the zeal with which Europeans burned each other for a couple centuries (cf. H.R. Trevor-Roper’s The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Other Essays, a rollicking good time for those whose sense of humor is Bible black). Humans make mistakes, a fact well covered by religion. Nobody’s perfect, except God – and most religions don’t even make that claim.
There have been very few truly original inventions. Even the wheel wasn’t actually invented – someone saw a rock roll and realized the potential. All the fabulous contraptions that make our lives easier (or not) are really just new applications and combinations of pre-existing applications and contraptions. Religion certainly was not invented all at once. The archaeological record places the earliest evidence of religious activity – deliberate burials with grave gear, indicating a belief in some sort of post-death life – in Europe, 45,000 years or so B.C. Surely, there were thoughts, activities and shenanigans before that of which no evidence survives. At that point, religion was most likely of the animistic persuasion, possibly with some shamans roaming around shaking rattles at sick people. Organized religion, with professional priests, didn’t happen until roughly 5,000 B.C., in conjunction with the rise of agricultural and cities. The oldest of the world’s living religions, Hinduism, dates from about that same time.
The cool thing is that religion is still being created, as the Creation is still being created, but it’s us who are doing the creating. People make religion what it is.
A few years before BDSR, I had a one-man band, the name of which shall remain nameless. I was working with found sounds mostly, recording espresso machines, rain on the roof of the car, doors slamming. I set up a mic one time while my girlfriend was in the shower. Then I’d put random radio dialing over all that. Anyway, I did several tapes, one of which was titled Horrible Dreamer. The idea was, if “life is but a dream”, why is it such a fucking awful one? Why, since we are all co-creating the world we live in, are we co-creating such a miserable shitstorm? How is it possible that the majority of the human race believes that war, famine, genocide and rape are acceptable? What the fuck? I don’t have any copies of that tape, or any tapes I made under that stupid name. Meh.
We are co-creating the world. Everybody has the same amount of power, but unfortunately, most don’t utilize it. We are making the world what it is. We could make it something else if we wanted to.
Now is as good a time as any for me to disclose my devious plot. I intend to make the world something else. I intend to spread my own cockamamie ideas about religion as far and wide as possible, using any and all means at my disposal, for as many incarnations as it takes, and to radically alter the world. I want more attractive architecture, cleaner cars, renewable energy, honorable combats (no pacifist, I), free coffee for shamans, enlightenment for all and the universal recognition that we are all aspects of the one divine and incomprehensible Mystery that is in everything, is everything and is more than everything. The Big Drum In The Sky Religion is just one part of the plan. There are other things going on which I won’t mention at this point (Hint: the water reservoirs of certain port cities in the U.S. and Canada have been loaded with entheogens.) I have chosen to use religion to change the world because religion has the power to do it.
Some would say science has the power to change the world as well, but science has no morality and is just as likely to give us atomic bombs as Ipods, neither of which I have much use for. Also, scientists tend to be a rather drab lot. They wear lab coats, for Christ’s sake. Tibetan monks wear saffron robes and some of the zaniest hats imaginable. The Pope has a pretty funny hat, too, and a lovely dress. Shamans are some snazzy dressers, as well, if I do say so, meself.
And religion has much more entertaining stories. That’s part of the plan, too: I refer to the really cool stories (a.k.a. myths) in music and art to lure people in. Once people start reading the stories, they’re hooked. At least, that’s what happened to me. The myths got me and then I was transformed. If it can happen to me, it can happen to everybody.
Thing is, it doesn’t make sense. Well, it does make sense, but not in an intellectual way. It makes sense in an experiential way. Remember Zeno’s Dichotomy Paradox? Diogenes solved it by getting up and walking out of the room. His solution wasn’t a solution according to the “rules” of Greek philosophy, because he didn’t refute Zeno’s argument using logic and a lot of wordy-words and blah blah bullshit, but what are rules for? Diogenes demonstrated by his actions that Zeno was wrong. Religion makes sense in an active way, a feeling way, a doing way. I may never write about Zeno again, but don’t be surprised if I hit on Diogenes a few more times.
Religion was invented by humans. They were inspired by the Myster(y/ies), yes, but humans did it. Religion was – and is – great, in all senses of the word. Religion can be even greater. Humans, inspired humans, can make it so.
Other great quotes by me:
“Good enough is good enough – that’s why they call it that.”
“Fifty percent of doing a good job is being able to fix what you fucked up.”
“The word ‘cynicism’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘dog-like’, because dogs are capable of learning from experience.”
“If I wasn’t from Virginia, I wouldn’t be from anyplace else.”
“People will eat shit if it has enough sugar.”
BDSR plays shows with bands of any and all genres: punk, Americana, post-punk indie-pop, free jazz, metal, doom metal, death metal, black-death metal, nu-doom-death metalcore, whatever. We’ve played with a few bands that are actually stylistically similar, but those tend to be few and far between and nobody comes to those shows.
Not too long ago, we shared a bill with some subgenres of metal and a hardcore band from up the Valley, 75% of whom were of the straight edge persuasion, which is close enough to being a straight edge hardcore band to attract a following of straight edge kids.
I think I was seventeen when I first became aware of straight edge, which seems kind of odd since I live just a couple hours away from Washington DC, the epicenter of the straight edge movement. I entered punk at the Sex Pistols level, ten years after they ceased to be. It was easier to find albums by long dead British punk bands than current bands from DC. A college student who I frequently asked to buy beer for me loaned me some Black Flag and Circle Jerks 45’s, which blew my mind. Somehow I obtained a third-generation cassette of the DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head, which I loved, and which had the Teen Idles’ “I Drink Milk”, to which I ascribed no particular meaning. Then, somebody told me that it was a “straight edge” song and that there was a movement in hardcore – called “straight edge”. Straight edgers apparently didn’t drink or do drugs, which I thought was ridiculous and completely contrary to my entire conception of punk and hardcore, and they had a nasty habit of beating up people who did. Huh. Amazing. Now I’ve heard everything.
Eventually, I found out more and met a few people who were, or had once been, straight edge, more of the latter, of course, for the simple reason that very few people are able to so tenaciously hold on to an identity they adopted when they were fourteen that they never take a drink of beer or puff of reefer. And when the straight edge do pick up, they pick up with both hands. I’ve seen it so many times that I now take it as given that all straight edgers are alcoholic drug addicts who are delaying the inevitable as long as they can. The more “X” tattoos somebody has, the worse it’s going to be when they jump off the wagon. That’d be sad if they weren’t such insufferable assholes.
So, we agreed to do this show and immediately people started saying things like “Shit, dude, you sure you wanna do that? The guys in that band are okay, but their fans are total dicks”. I thanked people for their concern, assured them that I could hold my own against a gaggle of pimply little pukes with X’s on their hands and briefly considered trying to provoke some reaction, but then decided not to because I want to play that venue again.
The crowd at the show turned out to be mostly metalheads, which meant the straight edge goons, who prefer to have numbers on their side, were forced to sulk around glaring at everybody who had a beer, or who just wasn’t wearing a Fugazi T-shirt, including this shaman. There was some moshing, but nothing out of hand and then it was time for BDSR to set up. I had my laptop, to record the show, and as I was about to plug it in, I noticed that there was a wad of chewing gum mashed between the poles on the plug. Some straight edge kid had apparently decided to try to wreck my computer by connecting the positive and negative poles, which wouldn’t have worked in any case as any laptop has a couple of built-in protections against overloads. I scraped the gum off with my knife and no harm was done, but…really? Who does that? What kind of malicious malcontent goes slinking around trying to sabotage somebody’s computer just because that person isn’t a member of their petty little subculture? The more I thought about it, the more I wished that the little shitbag had had the balls to challenge me so I could’ve kicked his ass, but whatever. Cowards are cowardly and that’s how it goes.
I drink my share of coffee and somebody else’s as well. I enjoy fine tobacco. I probably violate some other rules of straight edge – I never have been much of a milk-drinker – but I don’t drink alcohol or use drugs. I did, quite a lot, but I learned that being drunk and/or stoned 24/7 was not a good way of living and since being fucked up is an all or nothing situation for me, I don’t touch the stuff. I also don’t judge people who do. If somebody can enjoy beer or other substances without wrecking themselves, that’s fine with me. If somebody enjoys beer or other substances despite the fact that they are wrecking themselves, that’s fine with me too because I respect other peoples’ right to make their own decisions regarding their own lives. It isn’t up to me to judge and condemn somebody else for their decision to drink beer, drop acid or be a Jew.
Did you notice what I did there? I brought the Jews into this. Why would I suddenly drop the Jews in? Well, I’m writing about a group of males (there may be straight edge females, but I never met one) with really short hair who identify themselves with an X symbol and who commit acts of sabotage or violence against people who they dislike or disagree with. That’s right – I’m saying straight edge punks are like Nazis. I’ll say it again:
Straight edge punks are like Nazis.
That’s not hyperbole. I absolutely mean it. Don’t drink or do drugs if you don’t want, that’s cool, but no one has the right to condemn others for their choices. Wait – is that hypocritical? Only if you believe that the Nazis had the right to express their anti-Semitism by killing 10,000,000 Jews. I believe anti-Semites have the right to be anti-Semitic, but they don’t have the right to harm others. So, I guess the straight edge shits have the right to condemn the rest of us, but they don’t have the right to attack us or try to fuck up our stuff in those cases where they’re too chickenshit to attack, just like I don’t have the right to beat them up, but I do have the right to say they’re not unlike Nazis.
That was the second time BDSR shared a stage with that particular 75% straight edge band. They’re alright – generic hardcore, but not terrible. They are a decent group of guys who unfortunately attract a bunch of assholes every time they play. Whether we ever play with them again….I doubt it. Part of me wants to go out on stage and start some shit, but a bigger, better part would rather just leave it alone. Nothing can be gained from starting a brawl with a bunch of surly adolescent goons, most of whom will be drinking themselves to death in a couple years anyway. Pathetic. Just like their fathers. Maybe I forgot to mention that: all straight edge kids hate their alcoholic fathers. That’s why they become straight edge.
One more thing. Straight edge is a subset of hardcore which grew out of punk. All of these are subcultures, which are basically tribal identities assumed by individuals who want to belong to some sort of group which values them. Nothing wrong with that; everybody wants to belong to some sort of group which values them. Trouble is, some groups reinforce their solidarity by uniting against outsiders. Straight edge against, uh, crooked edge. Nazis against Jews. Back in the day, the Semites were nomadic warriors who reinforced their unity by slaughtering the agricultural peoples of the Indus River valley. It works in the sense that it unites the insiders, but it also causes a lot of problems for everybody. It’s much better to look for the things you can value and appreciate in other people and focus on those than to try to harm someone because they drink coffee or have a beard or whatever. We are, after all, in this together.
Plus, that way you won’t get a size 9EE boot in your teeth when I catch you putting gum on my laptop.
P.S. A few years after I got sober, I became friends with another recovering drunk who had spent some time up in the DC area and had gotten to know the members of a straight edge band who shall remain nameless, but who were feverishly, radically straight edge – when they were in the public eye. Behind closed doors they were horking blocaine and guzzling whiskey and falling all over themselves laughing at the scam they were pulling off. My friend liked their music, thought the joke was hilarious and helped himself to as much coke as he could. He was a Jew. He’s dead now. He was killed by a guy who had the right to drink, but who didn’t the right to drive while drunk.
Gods bless you, J. Ro. See on the other side.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.