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« Religion, Politics and Temperament | Main | Prisoner's Dilemma: Inmate Art »

June 20, 2003

California, Religion and Art

Friedrich --

Every time I come to California, it happens. A few days pass, and my stern, Northeast mental wranglings start to relent. I give up grim resolutions. Why not sniff the beautiful eucalyptus-and-sea-salt air instead? Why not sip some chilled white wine and watch the waves break? If all else fails, thereís always the hot tub. No wonder so many Californians walk around wearing an expression of inane, self-pleased untroubledness. Iím wearing it myself, and Iíve only been here a week.

As my mind gets driftier and more relaxed, it also starts to muse -- or Muse, with a capital M. I start to think what strike me as Big Thoughts. I think about religion. Itís not as though I donít think about religion when Iím back home, although I do it in a scrappy, off-and-on way. I meditate; I drag my sorry butt to the occasional tai chi class; Iíve attended a handful of Zen and Tibetan Buddhist classes and lectures. (A tip to single guys: an amazing number of the women who are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism are really good lookiní.) Iíve dragged The Wife to services at a couple of the more beautiful NYC churches and cathedrals, although largely in the spirit of an architecture buff and an amateur anthropologist.

Do any religions speak to you? I can get fascinated, for a short while anyway, by almost any of them: the various Christiainities and Jewishnesses and paganisms and animisms and Native Americanisms, etc. The mythologies are interesting, itís fascinating to watch different cultures wrestle with the Big Questions, etc. But itís an intellectual/esthetic fascination for me, because none of them resonate -- certainly not the smalltown Presbyterianism I was raised in. And the idea of buying into their doctrines and creeds? All due respect to peopleís religious preferences, but Iíd as soon choose to believe in a Marvel comic book. Miracles? Virgin births? Coyote spirits? Puh-leeze.

Then I visit California, and every time, I get intrigued all over again by the Eastern philosophy/religions: Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. They speak to me. When I read about them and explore them, Iím not just intellectually fascinated, but moved and hypnotized; I feel like Iím in private conversation with someone who knows exactly what concerns me on the deepest levels, and who has sifted and sorted these questions out far better than I ever will. These religion/philosophies seem full of good sense, and also seem based in certain experiences that I recognize as fundamental. I can never find my footing with, say, Christianity or Judaism; what seems to concern them most urgently are questions I respect but have little feeling for. With the Eastern philosophy/religions, I feel right at home. I also find it appealing, or at least convenient, that the gods and mythologies these Eastern approaches peddle seem optional -- I once saw Buddhism described as ďreligion for atheists.Ē

Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism -- Iím happy bouncing from one to the other, which is apparently yet another demonstration of my innate shallowness. I seem to be whatís called a ďspiritual materialistĒ -- someone who shops around, and who never stays with a religion long enough to get anywhere with it. (On the other hand, where exactly am I trying to get? I ask this question, feel pleased with myself in a Zen-ish way, and then relax back into lazy spiritual materialism.)

As far as I can tell, the wonderful phrase ďspiritual materialistĒ comes from the Tibetan Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa, a hilarious character. Have you ever heard about him? A round-faced little guy who had a very successful career as a guru, then died before turning 40 of (I believe) acute alcoholism. He was a force behind the Colorado Beat arts colony/school Naropa, was guru to a surprising number of well-known edgy-lit and edgy-art types (at least what passed for edgy a couple of decades ago), and was notorious for booze, orgies and (apparently) taking sexual advantage of many of his disciples. What a guy! But he did have quite a way with high-end fortune-cookieisms. I read a few of his books and found them first-rate, especially the one entitled ďCutting Through Spiritual Materialism.Ē Reading the first 50 pages of it was a spookily enlightening experience for me; it was as though Trungpa was inside my head, recognizing my thoughts as I had them, and discussing them as I thought about them -- discussing openly (and helpfully) what my brain spends most of its time and energy privately chewing on.

Anyway, this visit to California, short-attention-span, Spiritual-Materialist me is much taken by the Hinduism offshoot known as Vedanta. Have you ever encountered Vedanta? It presents itself as a kind of meta-religion, and thereís much about it I find appealing. Iíve visited the local (and very beautiful) Vedanta temple, Iíve read a couple of Vedanta books, Iíve surfed Vedanta sites on the web, Iíve made a date to attend a Vedanta service. Very attractive, I find -- and, hey, one of my favorite authors, Christopher Isherwood, was a Vedanta enthusiast. Weíll see how long my interest in it continues, but for the moment, Iím charmed, intrigued, and moved. If you want to taste-test -- and if you do taste-test, let me know how you react -- the best Vedanta website Iíve found is run by the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and can be found here. It features many links, as well as an excellent collection of introductory essays and faqs.

What does any of this have to do with art and culture? It has to do with the question of belief. Christianity, for instance, seems caught up in some dance I have no interest in -- it seems to doubledare you to believe, and Iím not even tempted. With the Eastern philosophy/religions, you arenít asked to believe in the same way. If you recognize what theyíre talking about and if you find what they have to say and suggest helpful, then why not look a little further into them? Such, anyway, is how I take them.

And I find that this same pattern holds true for me with the arts. I donít believe in art in the way many people seem to. The mass-hallucination side of the arts is something Iíve always found interesting to observe but impossible to participate in. Why? Iím tempted to say that a few decades in the art and media worlds will tend to burn away a personís fantasies about art. (For one of the best pictures of the nightmare that the bohemian/arts life can be, you could do worse than read Gilbert Sorrentinoís very fine first novel ďThe Sky Changes.Ē)

But I think itís mainly temperamental. And I realize that, despite my inability to believe in the arts, I do take a certain something for granted about life. Iím probably fooling myself, but I think of it as a fact rather than a belief even though I canít back it up with experiments, hard evidence, or respectable philosophizing. Itís just something that seems central to me about life, clear as day and there to be seen, and has ever since I was a kid. Itís this: we live on two levels. One is the familiar, everyday world of cause and effect, of bodies that age, of gravity, limited resources and money, and of linear time. The other level is the one thatís often referred to as the spiritual plane, or the transcendental plane. I dislike such highflown words, but what the heck, perhaps they have their uses. In any case, Iím referring to a level where things are cylical, mythical, disembodied, weightless, flowy, and hyperlinked. Cyberspace, by the way, strikes me as an electronic approximation of this second level. Iíd argue that thatís the reason itís so addictive, so bewildering, and so entrancing. Enter cyberspace, and day-to-day laws donít apply any longer. Amazing to think that weíve drilled our way through to the infinite, but thatís what it's looking like we've done.

A passage from one of the Vedanta texts Iíve been looking at:

Whatever we take in through our senses, our minds, our intellects, is inherently restricted by the very nature of our bodies and minds. Brahman is infinite; it cannot be restricted. Therefore this universe of change -- of space, time, and causation -- cannot be the infinite, all-pervading Brahman ... Yet what we perceive can be no other than Brahman. Brahma is infinite, all-pervading, and eternal. There cannot be two infinities. What we see at all times can only be Brahman; any limitation is only our own misperception.

Apart from the ďBrahmanĒ jargon, this is pretty much exactly the way I talk, given half a chance. And, when not given half a chance to say these things, itís how I think.

Anyway, hereís where art fits into all this for me. For me, art is nothing more or less than a tradition, even a kind of technology, for boring tunnels or opening doors between these two levels. It seems that for many people, art is fantasy, or glamor, or escape. All of which is fine, of course; the more things art can be, the merrier. For me, though, belief isnít necessary. Art is simply an activity and pursuit that makes communication between these two levels of existence more rather than less likely. (Have I ever told you about the books on Japanese esthetics that Iíve read? This is pretty much exactly how they see art. Me and the East, huh?) Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesnít, and it all comes down to personal experience. Unlike some people, Iím not looking to art for escape from the mundane realm into the infinite realm. Iím looking instead to experience the sensation of the two realms being in touch. We live on both levels all the time anyway. Why not experience this fact fully? Hence, art.

This is why I tend to prattle tiresomely on about eroticism, too. My thesis? That while we rube Americans bombard ourselves and each other with provocative imagery and media, weíre starved for actual erotic experience -- both of the juicily-sensual type, and of the sensual/esthetic, religiously-transporting type. Hey, have you ever looked into Eastern approaches to sex? Just as helpful, Iíve found, as Eastern approaches to art and religion.

Surfing and Eastern philosophy/religions ... Soon, they'll be casting me instead of Patrick Swayze in the sequel to "Point Break."



posted by Michael at June 20, 2003


Oooohhhh, vedanta, tantra, Boulder, the Beats, Naropa, Tibetan Buddhism: that's what I was up to in the early-mid 90's :-)

Friends, lover and roommates all continually dragged me to Naropa parties and functions, out of which many wild stories may be told (theres the one about nursing a keg with Anne Waldeman, being the self-declared heckler of the City of Boulders Official Alan Ginsberg Day, grooving with the Tibetans and scaring all the white Buddhists and Krishnas, wild debauchery at the Chairman of the Board of Naropa's house, laughing Tom Peters out of the venue when he publically called me out....I was coming off of a multi-year St. Francis bit meditating in the woods, and was still meditating 2-8 hours a day).

I was one of the best dressed homeless people on the planet a while there, Vice-President of the Professional Couch Surfers of America (I got accused of being an aristocrat on the street there once by a raving Christian preacher, in the snow, while wondering where I was going to sleep. But I was wearing around a $1000 of clothes given to me by rich friends, so I can see his error).

They had to make dumpster diving illegal the pickings were so good...and we haven't even mentioned anything about the cyber-hippys, gutter punks or the Crowley freaks yet! (and those groups certainly had a bit of shifting overlap!)

Auming Freaks with Modems

It was all quite seriously sure hit a passel of buttons there with that one for me!

Posted by: David Mercer on June 20, 2003 11:51 PM

Dang, I should have known that Mercer'd have been part of the scene. You wild man! So, David, does it stay with you still in a good way? Is it more like a bad dream you've awakened from?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 21, 2003 1:09 AM

Do you see both art and Eastern religion as performing roughly the same function--that is, promoting your simultaneous perception of the transcendent and the, er, mundane? If so, does the practice of Eastern religion enhance your ability to experience art? Or is art merely a way station on the road to the more intense experience of Eastern religion?

On a more petty level, do you have any plans, either now or in the future, to escape the Big Apple? Sounds like, as an environment, NY is functioning mostly like an irritation or distraction in your life at the moment. Or do you need it to feel grounded in "real life?"

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 21, 2003 1:32 AM

Michael, the good memories far outweigh the bad ones, which mostly consist of the 'ones that got away' variety (often the hardest, and easiest, to get over!)

The pain of the hangovers of course is long gone!

And I can't think of anywhere that would have been more fun to mis-spend my youth, although of course now the scene there is pretty much just a very pale shadow of it's former self (gentrification will do that).

The practice meditating in an urban environment was priceless: it's one thing to keep your equilibrium in the woods, another to do so on a bustling pedestrian mall!

Can't speak for Michael, but I personally have certainly had my appreciation of art greatly enhanced by Eastern religious practice: before seriously adopting meditative practices I was far too caught up in the world of the mind for art to hit me much. Now at times it has a very profound emotional impact on me, and can certainly function as a tool to connect with the transcendent.

And Friedrich sounds like he was a good point, is the Big Apple treating your soul right? LA sounds like it does agree with you on some deep levels.


Posted by: David Mercer on June 21, 2003 11:17 AM

Question: Does anyone have any "beginner's" books on Buddhism they would recommend. I seem to be intuitively interested in the subject but don't quite know where to start.

Posted by: annette on June 21, 2003 6:39 PM

"Zen Flesh, Zen Bones," compiled by Paul Reps is the best place to start for the Zen flavor.

"The Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist, is one of my favorite books on meditation, and is especially good for a beginning Westerner (or an advanced one, for that matter! :-)

Posted by: David Mercer on June 21, 2003 7:38 PM

Sounds like you're talking about ecstasy there. Not the the drug, nor "ecstasy" as it is often used to mean "pleasure" - but in the ancient Greek* sense: ek histanai (trying to remember Greek here) standing outside - the state of being arrested and pulled into the presence of the gods? (Usually good old Dionysius). Often accompanied by music and dancing and other sensual endevors so nothing all that ethereal. Isn't that what art is about?

I like your calling it a "technology" - a device to give you a glimpse of/into the "second level." You knew it was there all along but you forgot about it, so busy in the "first level."

* the ancient greeks are often thought of as the "founding fathers" of the West - they were, but they were an intersting lot, a lot of stuff we associate with the East - reincarnation, etc.

Posted by: some guy on June 22, 2003 12:53 AM

FvB -- I'm probably making too big a deal out of my taste for erotic-contemplative states. But, lordy, I do dig 'em. And you're right, the clatter in NYC can get awfully loud. On the other hand: jazz, dance, the Met Museum, MOMA ... Life is full of dilemmas.

David -- Naropa has gotten yuppified? Sounds like time for someone to do some investigative reporting. Have you kept up any interest in Eastern religions? I often wonder if it's a waste of time and then figure, what the hell, I get something out of it, or at least think I do.

Annette -- I second David's suggestions, and will also put in a vote or two for two Chogyam Trungpa books, "Meditation in Action" and "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism." Both are easy reading and informative. David's right to use the word "flavor" -- there are a bunch of different Buddhisms, and each does have its own flavor. You'll probably want to sample them all, to see what they're like and figure out which ones you find most helpful or appealing. Zen is super-austere, for instance -- much too much so for me. Tibetan Buddhism, which was Trungpa's thing, is more florid and entertaining -- it's sometimes called Disneyland Buddhism. I found it more congenial than Zen. I also like Vipassana Buddhism, from Southeast Asia, which has an especially forgiving flavor. Theraveda I don't know much about. Web searches will probably turn up good sites full of intros and faqs.

Some guy -- Many thanks for the info about the Greeks and what they meant when they talked about "ecstasy." I hadn't known that -- yet another thing the damn college profs didn't tell us about.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 22, 2003 2:12 AM

John Horgan had an interesting article in Slate about how he thinks Buddhism stacks up in a modern scientific world, which may even include California.

...and, a reaction to the Slate piece from the American Scene blog.

Posted by: Kurt on June 22, 2003 5:59 AM

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm off to

Posted by: annette on June 22, 2003 9:25 AM

What a lovely post. Michael, would you recommend books on Japanese aesthetics?

I'm attracted to buddhism because it's flexible and adaptable, apparently not tied by dogma. I especially appreciate the work that American women have done adopting buddhism to this time and place. Sandy Boucher, Rita Gross, Cheri Huber, and Joanna Macy are my favorites.

Posted by: Cleis on June 22, 2003 12:53 PM

Zen is the least attached to dogma, and Theravada is the most filled with it (it's got kind of an 'all or nothing' attitude to enlightenment: you're either a monk, or you're just waiting for the next spin of the wheel to get serious).

One thing to watch for in America about Zen is 'paper Zen Masters', teachers who have a nice certificate on the wall from some Japanese school, who'll charge you a lot of money, and who aren't really any kind of 'Master', but sound really good. Exemplary examples of 'spiritual materialism' in action.

And I'll definately second Michael's suggestions on which of Chogyam Trungpa's books to get, those 2 are really good.

Oh and Boulder itself has only gotten more and more yuppified as the years go on, and the white Buddhists at Naropa are quite hung up on the 'right' way to do things. As Baba Ram Das said when he was there about 10 years ago, those with newfound belief can get quite carried away by dogma and absolutism ("I've found the 'One True Way', listen to me and abandon your wrong ways!")

Tibetan (or Vajrayana, I'm probably misspelling that) Buddhism is the flashiest, it's the most Tantricly inclined, as it is a blend of native Tibetan magical paganism, and has a heavy Vedantic strain too. Theravada adherants dismiss it as being a bunch of illusion enhancing prattle, but they've got their own issues. :-)

I most regularly practice mantra and breathing meditation, the sitting hasn't been as prominent in recent years, which I probably need to work on!

Posted by: David Mercer on June 22, 2003 1:44 PM

How's the surfing going, by the way?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 23, 2003 1:42 AM anyone familiar with the Ba'hai faith? During a visit to Australia last year I visited one of their 7 temples worldwide. I found myself in agreement with what seemed to be one of their main principles: "One God, many roads to Him." (or something like that)

Being firmly grounded in the Baptist religion, I have found much to reject and much to cherish. For better or worse however, I like being rooted in this sometimes flawed approach to relating to God. No religion that I've found has it all figured out. So I stand close to the religion of my childhood and venture out as needed.

I'm embarrassed by some beliefs in my faith. I feel like a teenager rolling her eyes at some nerdish parental behavior when I see my fellow Baptists clutching the 6 day creation story, or strongly espousing that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. This list is practically endless.

But when I need "grace" I've found no other religion to be more thorough. It's a concept that I've been told, is left out of most religions. When I need a mature community of friends, it is the church of my childhood that is at my door to help out. And when I need tradition, my christian faith provides grounding and history.

My comment here surely sounds corny. I just wanted to make the point...or ask the question: Can you folks get that "rooted" feeling from eastern religions? Maybe "rooted" is not the right word. But, I can't. So I don't consume them as a main part of my religious diet. Here and there, they're great side dishes. But personally, I would miss my home religion.

Posted by: laurel on June 23, 2003 7:23 AM

Laurel, I definately feel more rooted from my meditation practices, and my mental and emotional health seems to correlate to how steadfast I am in them.

I didn't get the warm fuzzies you do from my birth religion, as the Mormons don't take too well to excessive questioning of their beliefs, and are rather black and white about membership.

Grace is represented in the East by various Krishna sects, Pure Land Buddhism (a Japanese sect), and some other corners, but it is indeed a very minor current there, which most are unaware of (some Buddhists view Christ as the predicted 'future Buddha of Compassion', hence the Japanese sycretism with Christianity).

I have at times wished for the ready made social network that organized religion provides, but I just can't abide dogma (note that I'm not just applying that to Western, but Eastern faiths).

The Tibetan Potala has (had? the Chinese have done a number there)inscribed over it's main gate "A Thousand Monks, A Thousand Religions", which sums up my ideal very well.

I'm familiar with the Ba'hai, my main beef with them would be their virulent opposition to homosexuality, but aside from that they are much more palatable than most other Muslim derived faiths (along with the Sufi's of course). Their extreme pacifism, which is at Quaker like levels, is indeed admirable for the area of the world they arose in.

Posted by: David Mercer on June 23, 2003 11:16 AM

What's with the whole Harry Potter craze ? Is it just a well-marketed literary event or are people seeking some type of religious experience there ? The books are so long, I know people who have never read the Bible who have read through the entire Potter series in preparation for the new book, and then read the new one in a day or two. That's like the length of 5 Bibles ! The Bible has supernatural heroes and villains, condemns materialistic worldliness (called "Muggles" in the Harry Potter series), features a Chosen One. I read similar comments about all the philosophizing that went on leading up to Matrix sequel.

I think if the popularity of Harry Potter got to the point where it was institutionalized, where you were expected to visit Harry Potter priests once a week and hear lectures, and everyone in town nitpicked each other about their Harry Potterness, it would lose some of its appeal. That's the paradox of organized religion. The Christian churches help ensure the Bible will still be read two hundred years from now, but to participate in a Christian church brings up all these conformity issues, the group/authority figures versus the individual. You could probably say the same about the Eastern religions you are discussing here. If they became the status quo they probably would be a lot less fun, less private and personal. I read an article recently about the caste system in India that didn't make Hinduism sound like much fun if you are in a low caste over there.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on June 23, 2003 8:57 PM

- Boulder has essentially become Aspen.
- The Harry Potter books are perhaps some of the best novels written in "our" lifetime.
- "Point Break" is a blast. It's perhaps the most testosterone laden movie ever.
- The biggest mistake people make about Christianity is they don't understand how simple it is. It's as simple as a Beatles song. Or, it could be summed up in the Indigo Girl's line "the hardest to learn was the least complicated". Please don't mistake that for back-handed evangelism.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 23, 2003 10:40 PM

Yahmdallah---Can you please elaborate? What is the simple message---as simple as a Beatles song? I get Beatles songs better than Christianity.

Posted by: caroline on June 26, 2003 3:40 PM

Or the Peter Gabriel soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, Passion.

Posted by: David Mercer on June 26, 2003 11:25 PM

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