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tearing the rag off the bush again
America?s Zen will have to happen without our conscious knowledge of it PDF E-mail
(or The American DoubleBind)

…books, teachings, lectures and so on are more concerned with proving that they are right than with showing how it is to be done, which is the essential thing… the world is moving so fast, there is no time to prove … whatever we learn we must bring it and cook it and eat it immediately.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

In these degenerate times, as far as the outer universe is concerned, the rains and snows do not come when they should, harvests are poor, the cattle are unhealthy and people and animals are riddled with disease. Because people spend their time in evil activities, because they are jealous and constantly wish misfortune on one another, many countries are at cariance and in desperate circumstances. We are in an era when the teachings of religion are pervertedso that famine, disease and war are rife. But when a forest is one fire, a gale will only make it bigger, it certainly won’t blow it out.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

In the west, in America specifically, there has been for a long time now the separation of church and state – that is the separation of religion from the state of being alive. Religion has been relegated to the reliquary and rules, in the majority of our minds, only the dark province of death. Often, we find religious feelings are ‘dredged up’ by tragedies and, like superstitions, cannot stand the light of reason. It is no accident but is rather illustrative of this idea when we realize that the only way religion has seriously impacted the public discourse in America in the last century has been in the issue of abortion; only in that imprecise realm where the boundaries between life and death are fuzzy and obscure. Yet, one cannot deny there has been a considerable upsurge in religious feeling in America in the past 50 years even in the non-Christian, non-evangelical realm. When once it was thought that Psychoanalysis was going to replace religion in the west an enormous counter culture arose that found Psychoanalysis just as invasive and inhibiting and useless as their parents had found Christianity. This counter culture, arising in the 1950’s in America in what has come to be known largely as the Beat movement, morphing in the 1960’s into the Hippie and Free-Love Movements, and splintering in the 1970’s and beyond into various progressive groups often New Age and occult in their beliefs and practices, usually looked elsewhere and most often to the East for their spiritual inspiration. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 soon sent a flood of Tibetan refugees, a regular diaspora, all around the world, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama who is a revered religious figure even to non-Buddhists all over the world. Add to that America’s military involvements in Japan, Korea and Vietnam in the 1940’s-1970’s, with figures like Thich Naht Hanh speaking in the US against the Vietnam war and being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King and also with all of the children born to American fathers and refugees from those wars, you will find that a generation of misplaced Asians with their religious practices, found material comfort and political refuge in America as well as fertile minds in which to plant the seeds of their faiths.

Unlike most faiths we are familiar with, namely the three Great Religions at war this very moment around the entire world, there is no evangelical Eastern faith as we know it. In fact, as so many Western authors have noted when encountering Eastern religions, there is almost nothing at all in Eastern religions that you might call ‘religious’ by Western standards. For instance, sitting meditation, practiced in all forms of Buddhism and by many Taoists, is exactly that, sitting. One does not necessarily chant, rock back and forth, cry out, raise your eyes or outstretch your arms to heaven – in short, one does not seek any ecstatic feelings at all, whatsoever. Unlike our American evangelical ‘shock and awe’ Jesus President Bush and other evangelical Christians so revere, Buddhists do not have altar calls with wailing and screaming and gnashing of death. One is not looking for ecstasy – ecstasy, in fact, though the scriptures warn it may happen, is one of many forms the mind takes and is to be observed for what it is if it occurs, just as, when you sit, you might examine some anger or sadness that might arise in you. Practicing Buddhists often say of personal or emotional problems: Bring it to the mat. That means you should allow the problem to arise in your mind when you are sitting in zazen and examine it for exactly what it is – a form of the mind. The object of the meditation is to detach yourself from these forms the mind has taken. From this view something called compassion arises for you can usually see what brought on the situation, some misunderstanding for instance, and you can understand that it was not some inherent flaw in you or another person, some damning thing that will condemn your mortal soul to hellfire that caused you to feel this or that way but that your, or the other’s, conditioned responses to life that created the entire problem, whatever it was. The more you examine your life in this way the easier it becomes in the future when those feelings arise in you again and the less attached you become to your positions. When someone challenges you with something, seemingly to anger or embarrass you, or when conflict seems immanent, that insight will arise and you will see that they or you or both are acting from your conditioning and that further escalation would only be harmful and then, maybe, the words of some scripture will arise in your mind or maybe the words of a character in a novel you admire, or a poem or some gem of wisdom from a parent or teacher and you will have space enough in your mind to perceive those things, too and not just the situation itself to exclusion of all else and you will act in ways that are not robotic, knee-jerk reactions, ways that enact the wisdom and may I dare say kindness you have received from the people around you all of your life.

This compassion for others is the Mahayana religious ideal and, as a Buddhist, if you pray or chant or anything like that, or if you have any evangelical feelings at all they are for compassion, this real and true and enlightening insight into the mind, to envelope the entire world and for everyone to realize that, as the Buddha said, everyone wants to be happy and free of pain and suffering. There is also no Messiah in Eastern faiths. The Buddha or the Taoist Superior Man is not someone who will come some day and destroy our enemies and rule the entire world – they are in fact here right now – THEY ARE YOU. Wu Wei, a Taoist commentator and translator of the I Ching, has said that the Superior Person of Taoism is a polestar, an image that remains with you as you grow into it – you are to the Buddha or the Superior Person of Taoism as an acorn or a seedling is to an oak tree. That being said, they are not some image of perfection that is distant from reality and bears no resemblance to the person you are right now. Living in a consumerist culture and undergoing the conditioning we do on a regular daily basis, we are literally assaulted with images of Perfection. These images are, generally speaking, superficial, equating sexual desirability with quality of life but they also work to incite desire in you, the viewer, the consumer, and cause a kind of aggression against the self. If you are not the same as the image you are not good – that is perhaps an oversimplification but, I’m afraid, it is literally true. It is perhaps more subtle, but after a lifetime of it, it can turn quite insidious and hellish, resulting in all kinds of violence against the self and others.

It was largely this kind of consumerist image-making and desire-manufacturing, already in full swing in the 1950’s that the Beats were rebelling against in their literature and their lifestyles. In their Zen they found a way to distance themselves from those conditioned responses that are so powerful and that have literally imprisoned the minds of millions of Americans. I have found no better statement of this vision than this passage from Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums:

Japhy (Kerouac’s fictionalization of poet Gary Snyder) leaping up: “I’ve been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that the attitude for the Bard, the Zen lunacy Bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen lunatics…

Dharma Bums, p.97-98

Now, if millions of people took up rucksacks and wandered America today there would be thousands of gruesome traffic fatalities as those other millions who did not revolt and went to work as ordered would, purposefully or not, run down all of those wandering beatniks on America’s highways. That is no joke. ‘The Road’ once the subject of great Beat literature is now the setting of the American wasteland imagery you find in Cormac McCarthy’s later books (and which I’m sure you get an eyeful of every morning on the way to work or school or anywhere). Once the place where the American spirit wandered freely; now a place where ‘the homeless’ hide under tattered tarps, dreaming of wide open landscapes where, as McCarthy wrote ‘You could ride clear to Mexico and not strike a crossfence.’ (The Crossing, p.1) Thoreau warned us of the dangers of the ‘public road’ and what he called the ‘evil days’ that would come with it:

At present, in this vicinity, the best part of the land is not private property; the landscape is not owned and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only, when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.

Thoreau, Walking, p. 20

Thoreau wrote this right around 1860 and in less than a century his prophecy came literally true. Not only, now, today, but even in Kerouac’s time it was not exactly a ‘free’ country to wander however you might wish. And we all remember what happened to the Joads as far back as the 1930’s. Yet, as we grew up, at least as I grew up, I was told and convinced that America was an absolutely free country and I always held it in the back of my mind that if I really wanted to I could just leave wherever I was and set out on my own life and just go – walk on down the road, free. This might seem naïve but I was a child and it was what people always said – in America you are free, all you have to do is grow up and not break the law. What I thought it meant to be free was a state of actual physical liberty, the ability to do as one chooses and go where one wants, not a state of political freedom relative to those unlucky souls who dwell in ‘totalitarian dungeons’ and the like, specifically, when I grew up, the Gulags of the Soviet Union. I always took freedom very literally, the way, I would later discover, they do in most Eastern religions:

…a Tibetan experiences freedom … ‘concretely’, that is to say through his being rather than through its conceptual image in his thinking mind. The presence or absence of interference in his life tells him how far he is or is not a free man and he feels little need to call in abstract criteria for the sake of defining his own condition.

Marco Pallis in Chogyam Trungpa’s Born in Tibet (p. 7)

In fact, the religious ideal in most Eastern traditions is that of the Bhikku or wandering saint, the one who wanders the landscape freely practicing his or her Tao or Zen and generally just participating in the reality all around. In fact, that is Kerouac’s inspiration:

“No sir, you can’t do that, cops in this town are the toughest in the state. If they see you down there they’ll put you in. Boy,” said he, “I’d like to sleep outdoor too tonight but’s against the law.”

“This ain’t India, is it,” I said, sore, and walked off anyway to try it. It was like the cop in the San Jose yards, even thought it was against the law and they were trying to catch you the only thing to do was do it anyway and keep hidden. I laughed thinking what would happen if I was Fuke the Chinese sage of the ninth century who wandered around China constantly ringing his bell. The only alternative to sleeping out, hopping freights, and doing what I wanted, I saw in a vision would be to just sit with a hundred other patients in front of a nice television set in a madhouse, where we could be ‘supervised’… I saw many cop cruising cars and they were looking at me suspiciously: sleek, well-paid cops in brand-new cars with all that expensive radio equipment to see that no bhikku slept in his grove tonight.

Kerouac, Dharma Bums

For most people this relative freedom to consume and work for the privilege of consuming is enough – this other dimension of freedom that is literal physical liberty is unimportant. Yet, the political rhetoric we have no choice but to learn is a classic double bind and as we grow up and investigate the nature of this freedom we celebrate, this freedom we grew up taking quite literally, we run into what Alan Watts has called emotional ‘snarls’ of anxiety, this anxiety that is actually becoming the general state of mind of almost every American:

Technology, which increases the power and range of human control, at the same time increases the intensity of these snarls. The apparent multiplication of psychological disorders in our technological culture is perhaps due to the fact that more and more individuals find themselves in these snarls – in situations which the psychiatric anthropologist Gregory Bateson has called the double-bind type, where the individual is required to make a decision which at the same time he cannot or must not make. He is called upon, in other words, to do something contradictory, and this is usually within the sphere of self-control, the sort of contradiction epitomized in the title of a well-known book, You Must Relax. Need it be said that the demand for effort in ‘must’ is inconsistent with the demand for effortlessness in ‘relax?’

Alan Watts, Zen and Control

The problem multiplies as our experience progresses when we discover that in every area of American life the rhetoric we are made to learn and the actual truth we experience are two different things, always, in almost every case. We can talk about so many things that are of the double-bind type in American life, (like private property for instance, how can it be private property if you have to pay taxes to the government in order to keep it? Or, you can be anything you want when you grow up as long as that choice is take up a job or career, rent or buy a place, buy your food at a store, register your vehicle, etc…) so many things that touch on this area of freedom and general human liberty and ‘rights’ being exaggerated if not just plain outright false in the rhetoric we grow up mouthing. Yet, to do so is to be naïve. At least that is what most people who have a stake in this system will say. To suggest that so much falsehood, so much duplicity, might actually harm people, might amount to a kind of ‘mind-fuck’ is what most people would call ‘over the line.’ Yet, that is exactly what I am asserting. It is this mind-fuck aspect of the system we live under that is the problem, for it is destroying our very souls(1). It is destroying our minds. Our children are being affected as well with enormous increases in autistic spectrum disorders, anxiety and attention deficit disorders reported over the last 25 years – one out every ten kids, 10% of our children, are functionally disabled by ADD(2) alone, and the rise in Asperger’s Syndrome, Bipolar Disorder and Defiant Disobedient Disorder are astronomical! What is it they are failing to pay attention to? Why are they defiant? Why are they turning inward, away? We are come to a time when approaching half of our children will be emotionally unable to function – why? Because of their brain chemistry? That is obviously part of it. But why now when children are getting the best nutrition in the history of the world is the brain chemistry gone awry? This is the best cared for, most strenuously ‘protected’ generation of children in world history, they should feel the most secure, the most loved, and yet they are riddled with psychological disorders. But, being the most cared for, the most ardently protected can also be seen as the most rigorously controlled. Perhaps the multiplication in severity of these controls in this free country of ours is behind the rise in all of these disorders, childhood and adult?

But the above really is an oversimplification. It is more than just the American Double-bind and the lie of freedom, it is more that just the accelerated development and overprotection of our children, it is more and more and more. That is really the problem. It is a glut. It is 9,000 double-bind messages per day; it’s seeing your life and all of your cares and all of your soul’s meaning reduced to a slogan for an insurance company and spooned right back at you and it is the 10,000 iterations of it all, the ceaseless yammer and the inescapability of it all – it is everywhere and it is on all the time and if you escape, if you go off the public road, if you try to get away from it for more than a short outing in a public park, you are breaking the law, trespassing upon some rich person’s pleasure grounds or golf course, you are a public menace. And, of course, the possibility of escape is never mentioned. It makes me think of the writing of Thomas Wolfe, the older, the wanderer in the ‘hot mazes’ of Brooklyn, who took trains coast to coast with the heart of a Whitman, in fact I believe he was trying to find Whitman’s America and find his place in that vision. What he actually found, though, was No Door.

It seems now that you are living in a world of creatures who have learned to live without weariness or agony of the soul, in a life which you can never touch, approach or apprehend; a strange city-race who have never lived in a dimension of time that is like your own, and that can me measured in minutes, hours, days and years, but in dimensions of fathomless and immemorable sensation; who can be remembered only at some moment in their lives nine thousand enthusiasm back, 20,000 nights of drunkenness ago, eight hundred parties, 4 million cruelties, 9,000 treacheries or fidelities, 200 love affairs gone by – and whose lives therefore take on a fabulous and horrible age of sensation, that has never known youth or remembered innocence and that induces in you a sensation of drowning in a sea of horror, a sea of blind, dateless and immemorable time. There is no door.

Thomas Wolfe, From Death to Morning, p.4

End Notes:

(1)The body is no longer the target of our punitive institutions. Per Foucault, the soul has become the target of discipline and punishment: The reduction of penal severity in the last 200 years is a phenomenon with which legal historians are well acquainted. But for a long time, it has been regarded in an overall way as a quantitative phenomenon: less cruelty, less pain, more kindness, more respect, more ‘humanity.’ In fact, these changes are accompanied by a displacement in the very object of the punitive operation. Is there a diminution of intensity? Perhaps. There is certainly a change of objective.

If the penalty in its most severe forms no longer addresses itself to the body, on what does it lay hold? The answer of the theoreticians – those who, about 1760, opened up a new period that is not yet at an end – is simple, almost obvious. It seems to be contained in the question itself: since it is no longer the body, it must be the soul. The expiation that once rained down upon the body must be replaced by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations. Mably formulated the principle once and for all: ‘Punishment, if I may so put it, should strike the soul rather than the body.’

Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 16

(2) A lot of ADD/ADHD literature says that the figure is lower than 10%, more like 3-5% but Dr. Daniel Amen and others have written that they believe the figure is much, much higher, more like 20-30%. I think 10% is a fair compromise.
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