A nondescript and somewhat uninteresting individual, having returned to college in his mid-thirties, was sitting in a classroom doodling instead of taking notes. The class had some relationship to the role of mental health care workers within the larger, admittedly troubled, society and was referred to by all involved, including the professor, as “Social Problems”. The professor, a delightful old crone with a passion for good gin and her retirement in sight, was holding forth on the necessity of the mental health care worker to withhold judgment and personal opinion when dealing with clients, specifically with regards to their religious beliefs.
“You might be a Christian and your client might belong to the big drum in the sky religion…” something something about not letting that get in the way, I dunno. I was the aforementioned uninteresting clod and at that point my careless margin doodles had become frantic writing: THE BIG DRUM IN THE SKY RELIGION – NEXT BAND NAME. My handwriting is all caps.
That’s how it came about. Random, unexpected, sudden. Inspiration happens; explanation follows. I knew in a flash The Big Drum In The Sky Religion (BDSR) would be experimental improv, that it would consist of myself and whoever happened to be moved to be in on it at any given moment, that the working premise would be Shamanism in this post-modern era. Either the Devil or God or some combination of the two is reputed to reside in the details, but those basics were in place at the outset.
It is the thunder, obviously. That’s the big drum in the sky, the rolling boom of Celestial Blue Heaven, the hammer of Thor, the mallet of Lei Gong, the vajra of Indra, the beating of the wings of the Thunderbirds. From Job, “God thundereth marvellously with his voice; great things doeth he, which we cannot comprehend.” (37:5; KJV - all Biblical quotes here come from the KJV). Ominous when heard from the next county over, when it tolls close, the sound seems to come from all directions and within, jolting bones and throwing the consciousness back and back to the dawn of the human consciousness, some distant instant in the long ago, when the wisest were as children gripped by the fear of the unknowable unknown. Even with our modern understanding of weather patterns which explain, our statistics revealing the rarity of people struck by lightning, our smug assurance that we are developed and civilized, worldly and not given to petty superstitions, we feel the magnitude of the thunder with fear and excitement, with awe. Our children and dogs go squealing for cover and we comfort them, hold them in our arms while looking up, wondering, waiting for what may come. The thunder stirs these feelings in all peoples and has through all time and these feelings link us to them.
This is the moment of clarity: when the petty, little claims of our egos are pushed aside and we are only feeling, experiencing reality unclouded. This is satori – the flash of enlightenment, when the delusions contrived by the ego vanish allowing a glimpse of Nirvana.
“A thunderclap under the clear blue sky
All beings on earth open their eyes;
Everything under heaven bows together;
Mount Sumeru leaps up and dances.”
is how Wumen described his awakening, attained after six years of focusing his mind on the koan “Joshu’s Dog” (some sources transliterate the name “Zhaozhou”).
“A monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?”
Joshu replied, “Mu.”
Wumen attained and that was his goal. Good on him. Six years isn’t long and many have taken longer, but what a long time he took to understand a moment.
The moment of orgasm, when the muscles contract and the mind shuts down. The moment the car goes out of control on a mountain road. The moment the halo’d moon is glimpsed. The moment of falling. The moment the newborn is placed in the parent’s hands. The moment the battered electric guitar is turned toward the overloaded amplifier and the feedback shrieks. The moment the stick on the trail coils and rattles. The moment "when the doors of perception are cleansed,” to paraphrase William Blake, and we “see things as they truly are, infinite."
We chase the experience, terrified we will have it. Drugs, fast cars, roller coasters, rock’n’roll, combat, give us the sensations, but not the sense. The adrenalin rushes, we laugh it off, regain our composure, walk away waiting for the old inevitable empty to return so we can find some relief from it again.
One time, I took acid with a girlfriend. A thunderstorm blew up and it somehow seemed like a good idea to go out onto the roof and fuck in the rain. We crept out the window, ridiculously overcautious about getting too close to the edge and falling into the yard, out around back where the streetlights didn’t reach and were driven scurrying back inside when the air was suddenly furious sound. Gasping on the kitchen floor, wide-eyed and shaking we stammered what we’d both seen: a lightning bolt had cut the sky and exploded a miniature white sun between us. We drank some Night Train and found someplace safer to fuck: bed. Too close to the truth.
It would take me longer than Wumen to wake up, but I didn’t have Gatsurin Shikan for a teacher. Yes, I meant to say that. I have waked up. I have been to that yonder shore. I have swum in the cosmic waters, diving deep. I met the Buddha on the road and I killed him and the bees made honey in that liar’s head. Thomas tells us Jesus said, “ He who drinks from my mouth will become like me, and I will become like him, and the hidden things will be revealed to him” and I have drunk. It isn’t hard. It isn’t some rarified gift, attained only by shaggy saddhus performing austerities in Eastern mountain caves. Enlightenment is everywhere at once and it’s no work at all to see it; it takes constant work to not see. Seriously, the sound of one clapping is obvious. Just try it. Clap with one hand. That’s it. There is no magical mystery. With all respects to Josiah K. Alwood, “that land far away, where the tree of life in eternal bloom sheds its fragrance through the unclouded day” is right here, right now.
The stories and rituals of religion can have many effects – or none – and among them is the cultivation of awareness of the moments of clarity, which allows them to linger and their memories to stay. Meditation on these experiences expands them further until they grow together and become one’s normal state. Of course, the other businesses of life may sometimes distract, but the focus can always be shifted from reality to Reality.
The Spotted Opossum came into being in the Sun of the Fish, in the year of the Earth Ox (March, 2009), looked for and with considerable effort on her mommy’s part. There was blood to be mopped up and entrails to be put back so a nurse handed me the little, pink fruit of her mommy’s labor. I wanted to be out of the way so I stepped back and looked down and I knew that my life as I had known it was over. That never again would I be the man I had been. I felt myself cross a threshold from one state of being, with its attendant form of consciousness, to another one, as if I had died and been reborn simultaneously. I had had similar experiences, had been transformed through several transformations, but that time, Holy Shitfire, I was aware of it. I knew a world was falling away. Scary? Yes. And thrilling. A vast new infinity of possible opened out before me, so exhilarating, awesome and sublime that I wouldn’t trade the worst of it for the best of what came before. Again. That has happened to me many times and will happen again. And it will happen, again, as it has happened, to you. Life is bounded by thresholds and there many between the bounds. We pass through gateless gates whether we will or no, whether we know or no.
Well, I’d rather know.
Back to the beginning: I had by then been studying myth and religion as an avid amateur for ten years. I understood that all paths lead to the top of the mountain and that my own was most decidedly pagan/animistic with a heavy dose of Zen (“panentheism” was a term I hadn’t yet encountered; now I claim it). Mircea Eliade had turned me on to Shamanism, but, between my concerns about cultural insensitivity and my aversion to putting on airs, I was a bit hesitant to claim the title. I got over it. Shamanism is a world religion, possibly the first such. It’s been practiced in countless forms in every corner of the globe, by every kind of people. The earliest archeological indications of Shamanism are in caves in France (Lascaux, Trois Freres) and those were painted at about the same time the first major wave of Native-Americans-to-be were skating across the Bering Strait. My own Germanic forebears were scrying and getting wigged out on moldy bread and mead for millennia. So my pasty white hide has no relevance. Anybody and everybody has a right to seek the Spirit World using the basic techniques, which Michael Harner dubbed “core Shamanism” without specifying whether they were hardcore or soft. And Hell, if I’m gonna call myself a “musician”, I might as well be a “Shaman” too.
“Brown Hat” was a pseudonym I came up with a couple years prior, while reading Black Elk Speaks by Black Elk and John Neihardt. All those Lakotas – Black Elk, Black Kettle, Medicine Hat, Big Foot, Kicking Bear – and then my eye fell on that battered, brown leather Outback hat I’ve been wearing for years and I thought, “If I was an Indian, my name would be Brown Hat”. There’s a bit of foul punnage going on in that name that any old punk can appreciate. The “Espresso Shaman” bit came about when an earlier band I was in decided to do a cd with a cover parodying Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O.’s Absolutely Freak Out (Zap Your Mind), which almost required us to come up with titles referencing theirs and since I was the guitar player, I grabbed Makoto Kawabata’s “Speed Guru” and changed it to fit.
The logo came from the ether in the first few months too, but that should be its own chapter.
So The B. D. In The S. R. was begun.