“Religion is what the individual does with his solitariness.” – A. N. Whitehead
I know absolutely nothing about Mr. Whitehead. The quote above came from I And That – Notes On The Biology Of Religion by Alex Comfort, which I got at the free book stand in front of Downtown Books, a local bookstore that has somehow managed to stay in business. It’s a good book. The title refers to Martin Buber’s I And Thou, obviously. I haven’t finished it, but the gist of it is that the impulse to religion is inherent to the human animal; that the reason all of the world’s religions share so many common ideas and themes is that all people share the same biological blueprint, which is reflected abstractly in the ideas and themes of religion. This is a concept that I’ve encountered many times before, but Comfort delves into it in more detail. I And That is a bit dry, but certainly worth the effort.
Whitehead’s line about religion is thought-provoking. The first thought it provoked in me was “The word is solitude, not ‘solitariness’.” I certainly think religion is a little more than that, but that is a good starting point.
I had some solitude recently, an unusual thing. A whole day with no work and no little grrrl. I laid around drinking coffee for an hour or so – which is how I begin every day – then went out to Fridley’s Gap, one of my regular National Forest haunts. Usually when I go there I tread the same ground, but this time I decided to find my way to a rock face I’d been admiring on a ridge I’d never been to. I guessed where it was – I couldn’t see it from the bottom of the gap because of trees and didn’t want to climb above the tree line to get oriented. I just lit out a-walking. It was a beautiful morning of sunshine and cool breezes, butterflies and birds, scratches and spider webs. I wandered through some blackened areas – they were doing controlled burns out there last month – and was pleased to see the little green shoots coming up through the burn, ants crawling out of charred logs, new life popping up all over.
As I got higher, the mountain got rockier. Big hunks of stone jutting up out of the earth, like bones. Higher still, the trees thinned and I could see the valley stretching out, brown and green rectangles of farmland. The turkey buzzards were soaring in slow circles, riding the up-drafts. I could see their red heads turning from side to side as they searched the gap below for brunch. There were feathers on the rocks and I gathered a bunch of them, shoving them into the band of my hat. I found a dog bowl and slate marker on a cairn. I shed my cut-offs and laid there naked in the sun on a rock that was a hundred-billion years old. The mountains here were once like the Himalayas. They were that big. Unimaginable time has worn them down to the gentle, rolling mounds they are today.
I was in a slightly altered state up there on the mountain. I felt like I could just wander and wander, seeing and seeking the next rock face, scanning the cliffs for the chance to climb down for another wing-feather, gazing off at ridges and valleys and then suddenly seeing the shape of the wind-blasted cedar right beside me. It happens every time. I always feel like I could just drift off and become part of the mountain and I expect one day I will.
Eventually, I started heading down. There were more burned areas to blacken my feet, thorns to scratch my shins, bear shit to remind me to look for bears. I found a trail. There was actually a trail that led pretty damn close to where I was going which I followed back to where I’d begun. I was glad for the trail, which made returning easier, but glad I had forged my own way out. There’s a little swimming hole at Fridley’s Gap which I jumped into and then down to the truck. A bunch of cars pulled into the parking area when I got there – big, loud people with lots of kids, coolers, folding chairs and assorted errata. I was glad they were going to the swimming hole and gladder that I’d already been.
There are always carcasses around the parking area at Fridley’s. Hunters kill deer, cut out the loins and saw off the racks then leave the rest to rot. I always look around for bones I can use. This time I found a coyote. There’s no good meat on a coyote – people kill them just to kill them. The skull had been busted, but was mostly intact and I was able to find both pieces of the lower jaw. I brought it home and was able to wood-glue it back together pretty good.
Nap. Worked on some recordings. Dinner was beans and rice with a liberal amount of pickled Thai chilis. Then I went to hang out with friends, which ended the solitariness.
Every bit of that was my religion. But as I said, that’s only the starting point. Hanging out with friends is part of my religion, as is taking the sprat to playgrounds and working and sleeping and anything else I do. I’ve come to agree with the great mystics of all religions who say there is no sacred and no profane. Everything is a thing of God/Brahman/WakanTanka. Every action is a rite. I’ve spent years attaining to this understanding. Yes, I am sometimes less conscious of it, but I’m always somewhat conscious. It takes work and practice and repetition, but it does come and when it does, the world is different. Some people experience it as a sudden awakening. For me it’s been more gradual. I have had epiphanies, but mostly I’ve just grown into my awareness that the world around me is a manifestation of Divinity and that I am as well.
Comfort is quite correct. Religion is a reflection, in abstract language, of our inner selves. Jesus said as much. So did the Buddha. God/Nirvana/Shiva are within us already. All we have to do is realize and start acting like it.
So, I haven't posted in a while because I've been busy and because the word program I was using was actually a temporary thing that my mom had on this computer and it ran out or stopped working or some such and I'm trying to figure out how to get another one without, ya know, paying for it.
And I been busy. All good stuff - work, daughter, art, music, snow, good things. I set up a BDSR Bandcamp and put up a bunch of songs. But I haven't been doing this thing, which I don't feel good about because I usually do three or four a month and I feel like I should put something up once in a while at least. So, enjoy some photos of my mom's back yard which she also left on this computer.
Oh yeah, uh, religion is the best thing people ever came up with. I haven't been depressed or dropped acid. I rode my skateboard to the mailbox and back t'other day. I'm reading The Gateless Gate again - it's awesome. My daughter turns five next month! Holy Shite, seems like just yesterday she was in diapers. Not Noise, meditation, look both ways, smell the coffee.
I’m writing this in the last couple hours of 2013. It’s been a hectic few weeks since I put anything up here. Shit’s been falling apart.
The Toshiba has been showing signs of rough usage for some time. You know, bits falling off, little quirks, special knowledge required to get things to happen. It went mute a few months ago, which meant I had to burn cdr’s and go for a drive to listen to anything I was working on. In mid-December, the power cord wore through. The thingie that plugs into the back was already pretty hinky and it turned out they don’t make those anymore, so replacing isn’t an option, which left me without a computer for a couple weeks. That’s why I ain’t posted.
There’s also some car trouble – my ignorant guess is that it needs a new head gasket. I’ve done that job on older cars with simpler engines, so I might be able to pull it off. We’ll see. I sure can’t afford to have somebody else do it, even though the garage where I get inspections is pretty cheap.
Both roomies bolted. One has been talking about it for months, did it all right and on the up. The other one…not so much. I heard a rumor she was moving, asked her about and yeah, she’s out in ten days. No reason to think she would’ve told me if I hadn’t asked. Utilities are in her name so I assume she was just gonna leave me with no power and water, which is no worse than I would’ve expected really. She ain’t what you’d call a friend. I needed a place to live. I’m on a separate lease, so my rent don’t change, but the utilities’ll go up. Meh.
Then there was Xmas. I am a huge fan of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and I don’t mind at all that the Xians pasted the birth of Jesus on top of it. They got all the imagery right, that’s for sure: the birth of the Sun God/Son of God, the miraculous birth, the evergreens, all of it merges smooth and works well. Until it all went commercial as shit. I’m not exactly sure when that happened. I’m sure somebody has been complaining about how the “real meaning of Christmas” is being forgotten since the year 2, but I’d put it in the 1950’s, since that’s when most of everything started to really go to shit in the USA. I haven’t done a lick of research on that one and I’m not going to. Xmas has been steadily getting more and more horribly anti-Christlike for as long as I can remember. The past few haven’t been too bad for me personally – my daughter is all caught up in the magic of it, believes in Santa Claus, loves every bit of it. I enjoy her enjoyment and I focus on what the Yuletide means to me. It works.
On Xmas day, we got up. She ran out to the livingroom and came running back yelling “Daddydaddydaddy! He was here!” It was cute. We saw some kinfolks, I took her to her Mommy, who took her to visit her family in godforsaken New Jersey. I had to endure a bit more relatives, but the food was good. One complaint I don’t have is that my people can’t cook. I ate all there was that didn’t have dead animal in it, sat around and listened to pudgy, bald guys talk about hunting and football and got out. Leaving the family thing on Xmas is always a giddy experience: it’s the furthest I can ever get from the next Xmas.
Here’s a thought: how about if we just don’t have Xmas occasionally? I’m thinking we take every fifth year and just don’t do it. No Xmas in years that end in 5 and 0. Wouldn’t that be cool? We’d all be able to get through December without the hectic, bombastic stressfest for a change. We could still give gifts to people if we wanted, get together with friends and family, donate to charities. We can do those things anytime we want, Xmas or not. Just think how nice it would be to be able to go to the grocery store and not have to hear some idiot ringing a goddamned bell. If we liked it, we could increase it to every other year. Maybe we’d eventually eliminate Xmas altogether, which would actually mean it would be celebrated by friends and families on 25 December, at home, with a good meal and some simple gifts, the way it was until the 1950’s or whenever.
Anyway. The grrrl went to NJ for a couple days. I worked both jobs (Isaiah 48:22). She came home and we’ve been tolerating each other pretty good for a few days. We’ve had a couple spats, but we get along pretty good most of the time. Things’ll get back to normal soon enough.
Nana gave me this weird little computer that I’m using now. She got it a few years ago, never really took to it. I had no trouble getting it working, though it did need one-hundred-twelve updates. I’m not kidding. “Now installing 1 of 112 updates. Please do not turn off your computer…” I had to download Google Chrome to check my email. I installed the sound program I’m used to and I’ve started fucking with sound again, which is fun. As I type this, in bed, sleeping Spotted Opossum beside me, I’m listening to Shinki Chen’s Shinki Chen & Friends, a fine slab of 70’s Japsyche straight off youtube, which I hain’t been able to do for a while. I still gotta get all the shit from the old box to this one, but I’m not worried.
2013 was a fine enough year. I moved twice, which was less than the year before. Swear to gods, if I can put some cash together, I’m buying a cabin out in the woods and never moving again. The little red truck runs like a top. BDSR released a bunch of new stuff. The line-up right now is a good one, possibly soon to be augmented with clarinet and flute. Seriously, there may be a clarinautist and a flautist joining the din. I can’t imagine how esoteric that would be.
Another thing happened. There’s this guy in town, another musician-type, we’ve had some bad blood between us for years. There’ve been times when I’ve wanted to make that right, but there’ve also been times when I’ve stirred shit up. Mostly I’ve just let it alone. Guy came up to me one day to tip me off about some LP’s he thought I’d be interested in at the local skateboards and used records shop. I was dealing with the grrrl, who was pitching a fit about something at that moment, so I couldn’t really engage with him, which may have been better. Small steps. I sent him info about the “Crazy Bush’ compilation, invited him to contribute a track. He said he’d put something together. So – may be that we’re both ready to move on. One shouldn’t look too far ahead with this sort of thing, but I’m hopeful. Decreasing the amount of negativity in my world is something I always hope for.
Been feeling the bite of poverty, man. Getting all Zen about it. Nothing like poverty to help ya get all Zen. Then again, I picked up a copy of Dennis Tedlock’s Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition Of The Mayan Book Of The Dawn Of Life And The Glories Of Gods And Kings at the free book stand in front of Downtown Books recently and I’ve been reading that. I haven’t figured out if the Mayans had anything like Zen, but they had some good shit going on, that’s for sure. Solid Twin Hero stuff, very popular all over the Americas. And I just realized, just now this moment while I was writing, how I can use that looped sample I made this afternoon and a section of the Popol Vuh that I wanted to do something with when I read it last week. Those two elements might just fit together exactly right or I might have to bend ‘em a little, but I think it should work. Ha.
Ah…uh….the Shinki Chen thing ended a couple paragraphs back. I switched to Taj Mahal Travellers July 5, 1972, which is a whole ‘nother trip. Also, it’s about to be 2014.
See ya on the other side.
Oh, the Earth’s been good to me
and so I thank the Earth
for giving me the things I need
like the Sun and the rain
and the apple seed.
The Earth’s been good to me.
At the local Montessori school, the little grubs sing the above song before tearing into their PBJ’s and apple slices. The Spotted Opossum gets it stuck in her head frequently and – like everything else that comes into her head – shouts it out loud over and over.
I’m fine with that. The Earth has been pretty good to us. Without the Earth, we’d all be having a really tough time right now. I have, of course, provided the wee grrrl with the image of earth-mother/sky-father, among other possible ways of imaging the Great Mystery and that seems to make sense to her, but the culture in general and our local piece of it stresses the sky-father part of that duality to the total exclusion of the earth-mother, so I’m quite happy to have her school provide a little ditty that encourages the sprats to remember the Earth.
One of the many books on my need-to-read-again list is Gaia: The Human Journey From Chaos To Cosmos, by Elisabet Sahtouris, an easily readable little book that explain how our planet became the incredibly complex, life-sustaining place that it is. This is the book that turned me on to the Gaia Hypothesis, in very brief the notion that our planet, Earth, Terra, Gaia, is a living entity and that the many life-forms that live on Earth are parts in a greater whole. Some scientists have criticized that premise because the ability to reproduce is one of the defining characteristics of living things and there is no evidence that our planet has reproduced, i.e. given birth to another life-sustaining planet. To that objection I respond, Go fuck yerseffs, ya literal-minded gits. No sensible person believes that the third rock out from Sol is alive in the same way a person or frog is alive. No one is suggesting that Gaia is floating around in the Kozmic Sea thinking “I think I’ll make it rain in Virginia today.” The Gaia Hypothesis does not suggest that Earth is a conscious being, but that it is a totality which has, factually and demonstrably, evolved from a noxious, violent blob of conflicting forces to the stable, life-sustaining beauty that we now pollute. The Gaia Hypothesis is not a religion; it is a way of thinking about the Earth. I would argue that it is a better way of thinking about the Earth than the old way which held that the Earth was a thing that existed for no other reason than to be conquered, used, exploited and paved by human beings, possibly the only thing that Western science and religion have agreed on in the past five centuries.
Many peoples, probably most, have believed in the life-loving nature of Nature. The exploitive and destructive idea that the Earth is a thing is an idea whose time should never have been and hopefully, people will stop thinking that way soon. It’s bad for the planet and it’s bad for people. As a firm believer in the Gaia Hypothesis, I can assure you that I never feel alone. When I go out into the National Forest, especially, I have the warm and wonderful sense that I am a small part of a magnificent and madly complicated whole.
Some scientists have objected to the Gaia Hypothesis because it’s named for a Greek goddess, Gaia/Gea/Ge, the Earth Mother. Right. All the fucking planets are named after goddesses or gods, you assholes. So are most of the months and days of the week and elements for fuck’s sake. No one is saying that people should start worshipping the Earth, running around naked, singing endless songs whilst twirling around Maypoles like those goofballs in The Wicker Man – well, actually, I would really love to live on Summerisle, especially if I could engage in certain pagantics with a young Britt Ekland – but it isn’t mandatory or anything. Scientists, man. How ‘bout you guys stay in your labs, torturing mice or whatever, and let those of us with creative minds blather on about big picture stuff like how human beings can and should live happily and peaceably in this, the best of all possible worlds.
That is not to say that personifying the Earth is a bad thing. I am 100% in favor of personifying natural processes, emotions, planets and states of being and naming them for ancient gods, goddesses and other beasts and beings. vast pantheons of unseen forces have always populated the Collective Unconscious, giving people inspiration, comfort, strength in times of need and good ol’ healthy fear. When there were monsters in the night, there were reasons to bond together. Fear is fine. I watched Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory with the little girl recently and got to vicariously relive the thrilling terror of the boat ride, which is just as important and wonted as the fantasy of unlimited candy.
All the goddesses, gods, et al. are metaphors, personifications of energies. That only becomes problematic when people start thinking that their metaphors are facts. Yes, I am referring to the big three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Metaphors are not facts. The gods of other people are not devils. Personification is a perfectly good and useful tool for making abstractions intelligible.
Gratitude is good. We are entirely dependent for everything on forces that we did not create and cannot maintain. We should, humbly, appreciate the planet that allows us to live. We should act as stewards of the planet, not as destroyers. Certainly, we must have as much information about our Earth in order to be good stewards, to balance our own needs and desires with the needs and desires of other species and with those of the Earth itself/herself. I was kidding earlier about scientists. We do need them to learn all that can be learned about the Earth, so we can thrive. I stand by my assertion that there are people better suited for big picture abstractions than microbiologists and chemists, but I should add that religious folk, especially those who are partisans of the Big Three, have no business making claims about natural processes. Where I live, the Creation vs. Evolution debate continues to be debated in public forums. That’s just dumb.
So. We live on a living world. Or it is as if we live on a living world.
I highly recommend Dr. Sahtouris’ book. I also recommend watching Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory again, especially if you can share it with a child who has never seen it. And I recommend The Wicker Man, the 1973 original, not that fucking abortion from 2006, but I wouldn't advise sharing that one with a minor.
And yes, the song is wrong: the Earth did not give us the Sun. It was the other way ‘round.
I’m in the process of moving. Today I took the first truckload of boxes over to the place where I’ll be crashing for a few months until the room opens up at the place where I’ll be living until some something happens which causes me to have to move again. This is the way it goes when you live a life based on the creative principle of chaos. The reason I mention it is, the boxes I took over today were full of books which is why I won’t be able to quote anything or give citations or any of that shit. If I could, I’d start by giving you all the information on an awesome piece of work titled Red Man’s Religion, which was published in the thirties or so and which is “awesome” because it is every bit as unintentionally racist as he title implies. There never was a “red man’s religion”. The indigenous peoples of North America lived in different environments, spoke different languages, had different economies and held different beliefs with different rituals. The Creek, Huron and Pima were not the same nor were the various individuals of the various tribes and nations all wonderfully honest and pure “noble savages”, which is the impression I got from Red Man’s Religion. I do recommend the book, despite its flaws, and I wish I could tell you who wrote it.
Anyway, now that I’ve stated that the Native Americans, aka “red men”, were not a big blob of homogenous religiosity, I will go to say that there were some ideas that were pretty common. To the best of my knowledge, all Native American groups had religion and the form of religion they had was animism. There was a good bit of trade and other interaction going on between the Natives, always a good way of spreading myths, legends, stories and other bits of lore (as well as small pox, but that’s something else entirely. One book I do have, which I’m currently reading, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic Of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn, is delightfully entertaining.) As the myths traveled from one tribe to another, they were changed in the telling, but the salient features tended to remain.
The one I want to focus on here is “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, which originated among the Algonquin up in present-day New York and migrated from tribe to tribe all over North America. Even the Navajo, way away in the desert that we now call Nevada, had a version of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. This is interesting in itself, because “The Woman Who Fell” is an origin story. It explains how human beings came to be on Earth. Many of the tribes who incorporated it into their stock of myth either didn’t already have such a story or they preferred “The Woman Who Fell” and so got rid of whatever they had before. The Navajo had a long and richly developed myth about how the first people lived in the center of the Earth and ascended to the surface by climbing up a ladder or rope. The Navajo were not about to let go of their origin myth but they apparently really liked “The Woman Who Fell” because they kept it, despite the fact that it was incompatible with what they already had.
This is a wonderful thing about mythology. These bizarre and fanciful tales come into being and then spread across continents for no apparent reason other than the fact that people find something of value in them and it doesn’t matter at all if they make no sense or contradict each other. That can only happen, of course, if the people in question know that myths are not facts. If people think their myths are facts, you get 1,500 years (and counting) of bloodshed.
None of the books on Native American myth are here, so I’m going to just give a very basic and possibly marred synopsis of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”.
The story begins in the sky world, where the spirits live. There is a young woman who is married to the son of the sky chief. She’s pregnant. Things are going along pretty smoothly – or not, there are different versions – until one night there is a terrible storm. In the morning, everyone goes outside and discovers that a very large tree was blown down by the storm. The whole tree fell over, ripping the roots out of the ground and making a hole. The people gather round the hole to look in and they see right through the ground of the sky world, down through space. They see the Earth down there. The pregnant woman leans over too far, perhaps trying to look over her belly, and falls into the hole. Down, down she falls through space toward the Earth. Some ducks see her falling and fly up to catch her. Bearing the woman on their backs, the ducks bring her safely down to Earth. The woman who fell to Earth gives birth to her child, a girl. In time, the girl grows up and desires a mate. Her mother, who has a bit of magic, transforms different animals into mates for her. The girl admires a buck’s beauty and grace, so the mother changes the buck to human form for her. The girl admires a bear’s power and strength or a mountain lion’s speed and agility, so the mother transforms them for her. From these unions are born the first human beings.
There’s a lot more to the actual myth(s), of course, and I encourage everyone to look up “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. The above is just what I remember off the top of my head.
So why is this strange story significant? Why did the Native Americans from New York to Nevada adopt it into their stores of myth? What the hell does it mean?
First, let’s set aside any questions about whether or not anybody actually believed that a pregnant woman fell through a hole in the sky, was carried to Earth by ducks and gave birth to a daughter who fucked anthropomorphized animals. Some probably did, some probably didn’t. That doesn’t matter. What we’re looking for is the symbolic content.
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” explains why human beings are different from the other animals: they are pure animals, while we are only half-animals, being spirit on our mother’s side, so to speak. Our spirit lineage gives us advantages over the other animals, but it also gives us responsibilities to them and to our ancestors above. Our minds, our creativity, our complex emotions come to us from the spirits; our physical bodies, however, are of the animal world with all the needs, wants and urges of animals. This can be perceived as a conflict between the “higher” and “lower” natures of humanity, but it doesn’t have to be. Spirit and body can live together without conflict, or with relatively little conflict. That seems like an odd notion to those of us who were raised up with a worldview based on a cosmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. We were taught to identify ourselves with the good and fight the evil. To the most of the world, body and spirit are not diametrically opposed. In disagreement occasionally, sure, but not opposed. The goal of those peoples is to achieve balance between the two, so that they can both be satisfied without either suffering.
So “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is about the dual nature of humanity, but without the conflict. The rest of it is just storytelling, which is a fine and respectable thing in itself. The ducks are there because ducks fly, walk and swim; that is, they exist in the air, land and water, which makes them special in a symbolic way. Ducks, geese and swans show up in myths fairly often. The woman who fell has magic because she is from the spirit world; her daughter doesn’t because, though conceived in the spirit world, she was born on Earth. If you understand the symbols, it’s all pretty straight forward.
I was doodling in my sketchbook t’other night, just doodling, kinda zoned out, and I got a sudden insight. “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is the first two chapters of Genesis from another perspective. I won’t be quoting Genesis because my King James Version is in a box over at the other place. They share certain features. In both, the female is the mate of the son of the sky chief. In both, humanity is of divine origin and invested with a soul that is housed in a body with the same needs, desires and urges of animals. There’s even a tree in both stories. At the most basic levels, they say the same things. The differences, though, are pretty striking.
In “The Woman Who Fell”, the fall, which is literal, occurs first and by accident, instead of last and as punishment for disobedience. The fall to Earth is simply the explanation for a sky world person to be on the Earth and carries no moral overtone. Animals in “The Woman Who Fell” are helpers, noble and good in their own right. In Genesis, animals are things to be dominated and used by Adam and Eve, except for the serpent who is the agent of evil. In “The Woman Who Fell”, human beings are equal parts spirit and animal. In Genesis, human beings are inherently corrupt because we inherit the corruption of our forebears. “The Woman Who Fell” spread across a continent because people liked telling and hearing the story. Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, spread across the world at the point of a sword. Millions of swords, actually.
Here’s a little research project: name one monotheistic religion that wasn’t disseminated using violence. Then, name one non-monotheistic religion that was.
I’m coming across like I have no use whatsoever for monotheism. That’s mostly true. I do find some very good stories in the Bible, most of which have better parallels in other traditions, and I certainly believe that the metaphors employed in the Bible are as good as any. Unfortunately, the Bible is overwhelmingly moralistic, which I find distasteful. Actions speak louder than words, after all.
I digress. The point I was after was the differences and similarities between “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” and the creation story in the two opening chapters of Genesis (which are really the same story told in two ways). Everywhere and everywhen you look in mythology, you find the same ideas popping up again and again, occasionally with different interpretations. The same stories appear over and over among peoples who never had any contact with each other. Diffusion, the explanation for the spread of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” across North America, cannot possibly explain the similarities between the Hindu Indian myth of Indra and Vrtra and the Canadian Indian myth about Kuluscap and the Water Monster.
The myths speak to us in ways we don’t understand. Indians and Indians developed the same stories because they share the same basic bodies and lifeways, as do we all when we live according to the needs, desires and urges of both our bodies and spirits. Every myth is reflected, possibly refracted, by another. Every human being is connected to every other.
Some of those connections are also very good ways of spreading small pox.
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.
“…We should mention also a feature found in some African music that involves both form and polyphony, namely the tendency – in some pieces – for a number of apparently unrelated things to be going on at the same time. Some of this is due to the development of complex rhythmic polyphony, the simultaneous presentation of which seem, to the Western listener, to have little in common. It is hard to say whether the African listener feels all of these rhythms to be part of one over-all rhythmic structure (as a Westerner can conceive all of the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united), or whether the African can conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…”
My main source for used books is Gift’N’Thrift, a Mennonite thriftstore. I get a lot of cassettes and LP’s there, too. And picture frames. I recently picked up Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents by Bruno Nettl, the book from whence cometh the passage quoted above. It was worth every penny I paid for it – all fifty of them. It’s got some interesting observations and general insights and is inadvertently funny in its patronizing ethnocentricity, although, published in 1965, it came a little late to be really hilarious or to qualify as what I call “double anthropology”, i.e. anthropology that reveals as much about its creator as its subject . For a stunning example of that, check out the short film, African Pigmy Thrills, from the late ‘30’s, in which a group of Pigmies (sic) construct a bridge of vines across a raging river while some smugly asinine narrator embarrasses all white people with his condescension and pathetic attempts at humor. White people sure are a bunch of assholes.
Please notice that Mr. Nettl includes Africa (sub-Saharan, to be precise; North Africa he excludes from this work on the grounds that its folk and traditional musics have been heavily influenced by middle-Eastern peoples and are therefore properly “Asian” and not within the scope of his book, which is a ridiculous and specious argument) – Mr. Nettl includes sub-Saharan Africa among the “Western Continents”, which would seem to make sub-Saharan Africans “Westerners”, but he still makes a distinction between “Westerners”, by which he means people who “can conceive of all the voices in a Bach fugue to be independent yet united”, and “Africans”, who may or may not “conceive of music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena…” and who probably spend a lot of their time running around naked in the jungle spearing and eating each other. That the word “Negro” doesn’t appear in the quote above does not mean it doesn’t appear repeatedly in Folk and Trad…, although that really doesn’t reflect badly on Bruno, as “Negro” was the proper term in the early ‘60’s. Still, the chapter on African music is far more insulting than the chapters on European folk and traditional musics, though those were hardly celebratory, referring as they did to “gesunkenes Kulturgut”, which sounds like something Hitler would have wanted to eliminate. Why Nettl chose to write a book about the traditional folk music of people he had such distain for is beyond me, but the next chapter is about “The American Indians” so it should be pretty amusingly racist.
But what I really wanted to address here was the idea of “music as consisting of the simultaneous presentation of unrelated phenomena”, because that’s standard operating procedure here at the BDSR Hondo. The majority of BDSR releases have layers of shit going on. Sometimes, there’s a riff or other repeated element that runs through the entire thing as a unifier, but it’s not unusual for us to just pile a bunch of sounds on top of each other and then turn up the volume on the track that sounds the least awful. In any case, there’s a lot going on. Minimalism ain’t our thing, man.
Way back, many moons ago, there was this acid-casualty around town. I worked with him and he was one of the few people I could almost always count on to be in the mood to drink Night Train and smoke pot when I was which was always. He owned a four-track and sometimes we would make a bunch of noise in his kitchen. It was from him that I stole the idea of recording independent jams and layering them. Last time I saw that guy, five years ago, I think, he was sixty pounds heavier, had a bunch of scars on his face from driving a pick-up into the side of a moving train and was muttering some paranoid gibberish about crop circles and chubacabras. I’m not making that up.
A significant portion of the bands I’ve been in in the past decade used layered unrelated phenomena. The ones that didn’t didn’t because I was outvoted. Piles of random sounds all trying to squirm their way to the top of the mix is what I like when I’m making music. I like it when other people are making music too, which is why I have numerous recordings of African folk and traditional music and not one Bach fugue.
Ephemeral sounds are good too. A few years ago, some other guy I know was talking about his recently purchased Robert Johnson box set. He was complaining about the static and hiss, a result of primitive recording techniques and the effects of age on the masters. He even managed to bitch about the fact that there were other sounds audible in some of the songs – Johnson’s creaky chair, car horns outside the hotel room where the recording took place, somebody coughing. I was stunned that a) anybody would buy a box set by Robert Johnson as opposed to Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt, Charley Patton, Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Willie Johnson, Henry Thomas, Bukka White or any of the dozens of other country blues Negroes who picked and slid circles around Robert fuckin’ Johnson; and b) that anybody would complain about the static and hiss and car horns and coughing on old country blues recordings. The ephemeral sounds are and always have been intrinsic aspects of the pleasure of old country blues for me.
What’s that song? The one where Charley Patton’s voice rises up out of the crackling fuzz like a specter pushing his head up through the graveyard fog, shouting “Loooooord, have mercy on my wicked soul”? That hits me every time. I swear I can’t listen to Patton when I’m driving alone. I did it once, going across the mountain for some reason, and I had to pull over. Can’t drive them mountain roads when your eyes are blurry with tears. Jesus. Patton is a hungry ghost, moaning across an ocean of time. Then there’s Henry Thomas, whose Pan pipes still cut through the years of tape decay like shimmering razors though cornbread. Beautiful.
Layers upon layers, waiting to be discovered, like the meanings in myths, like how you can know someone for decades and still be surprised when they mention some insignificant event from their childhood because you never knew that. Like how the moon can sometimes catch your eye as you walk in from the car and make you pause, even though it’s the same fucking moon it’s always been. Like a detail in the Norman Rockwell print that Nana has had in her dining room forever, but which you never noticed before. All the elements are always there, but we pass them by. We fail to hear the melody under the noise or we just look through the reality because it doesn’t advance our agendas. Sad.
I’m touching on different things here: my deliberate mashing-together of unrelated recordings, accidental happenings on old blues sides, the unnoticed beauties of the plain and simple world around us – yet they somehow seem to go together. We miss so much. We don’t appreciate all there is. We don’t get it. We judge things as being “good” or “bad” depending on how well they conform to a notion we hold of how things ought to be. Then, like Bruno Nettl, we display our utter inability to truly appreciate anything which is foreign or contrary to our cherished prejudices.
I recommend Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents, I really do, not because it’s especially special in any way, but because, recommending it gives me an opportunity to recommend picking up any and every 50¢ book that looks vaguely interesting. Obscure used books are gold. Ephemeral noise is priceless. Norman Rockwell prints are sublime.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.