Prophets and Profits on the Burning Shore
August 10, 2006 2:14 PM   Subscribe

From organically-farming Zen centers to celebrity-cultivating Scientology centresTM, California is a seedbed of the most earnest (and most frivolous or worse) branches of spiritual inquiry. What's in the water in the Golden State that has made it The Visionary State? In an interview with editor Geoff Manaugh of the excellent BLDGBLOG, author Erik Davis -- whose published passions have ranged from an analysis of Philip K. Dick's "divine invasions" to erudite musings on Led Zeppelin's fourth album to an ode to the joys of being a teenage bongeur -- talks about the formerly chic devil-worshipper Anton LaVey, Beat Zen, Aldous Huxley, the Watts Towers, and beyond, with great photos by Michael Rauner, who collaborated with Davis on the new book.
posted by digaman (30 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I lived at Green Gulch for about 6 months, in the 90s. That is where I learned that I do not like farm work. At all. Great place, though.

Nice post!
posted by everichon at 2:18 PM on August 10, 2006

Thanks, everichon. When I was a student at San Francisco Zen Center in my very early 20s, I used to head up to Green Gulch for lectures by Richard Baker-roshi -- and then head back to the city for a week of serving food at Greens restaurant made from the wonderful produce grown at the farm. I think Green Gulch is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
posted by digaman at 2:22 PM on August 10, 2006

From Davis' funny and smart introduction:

"...then it dawned on me: what if California itself was my tradition, a great polytheistic fusion of transplanted religions, nature mysticism, tools of transport, and creepy cults? What if the restlessness and constant mutation of California’s alternative spiritual scene actually reflected an almost dogmatic insight that reality itself is inherently perspectival? What if the California tradition was like the land itself: a collection of amazing and diverse ecologies, but united by freeways?"
posted by digaman at 2:29 PM on August 10, 2006

I don't think that you can rightly put Green Gulch and Scientology in the same category. We have interviewed both Sharon Salzburg and Robert Thurman on our show recently, and members of my own family have attended Green Gulch.

Green Gulch, though Buddhist, is prominently non-sectarian. Whereas, whenever we hear about Scientology, we hear only from a select few - celebrities.

I ask Mefites: Where are the Scientologists who have not been profiled on Entertainment Tonight?
posted by parmanparman at 2:31 PM on August 10, 2006

I don't think that you can rightly put Green Gulch and Scientology in the same category.

The only category you can put them both in is California spirituality. Which is what Davis' book, and this post, is all about.
posted by digaman at 2:33 PM on August 10, 2006

Yeah, well in that case. Although, I really think New Mexico really already has the the title for most quirkiest religious organizations in one state pretty wrapped up.
posted by parmanparman at 2:37 PM on August 10, 2006

When Vern moves to CA, then the collection of spiritual seekers will be complete.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:37 PM on August 10, 2006

I ask Mefites: Where are the Scientologists who have not been profiled on Entertainment Tonight?

I dated one in high school, and stayed pretty close through college. She's in France now, I think, working at a CoS there.
posted by carsonb at 3:12 PM on August 10, 2006

That article on pot by Eric Davis linked above is a great read. Thanks.
posted by ninjew at 3:17 PM on August 10, 2006

Yeah, I love that piece.
posted by digaman at 3:19 PM on August 10, 2006

so, they tied aliens to volcanoes and blew them up with a-bombs...the soul bits are in us all, and we need to get clear.

why do humans need magical thinking?

(psst...opiate of the masses)
posted by aiq at 3:44 PM on August 10, 2006

I read his Led Zep book from the 33 1/3 series. Really well done. Colin Meloy's take on the Replacements from the same series is pretty amazing too.
posted by vronsky at 4:14 PM on August 10, 2006

What's in the water in the Golden State

Most other populous regions get an annual reality break called winter, and the other 'warm' states are Christian.
posted by scheptech at 4:32 PM on August 10, 2006

Not all forms of spiritual practice involve "magical thinking." I'd even venture to say that certain forms of Buddhism are quite the antidote to magical thinking. But hey, that's for you to find out for yourself.
posted by digaman at 4:45 PM on August 10, 2006

Digaman's mention of Richard Baker^ reminded me what a controversial chappy he was. There's already been a FPP about him in 2002, but here's an interesting article about him and the continually developing mythology of zen which develops on a book about him and the scandals he was involved in, reviewed here.
posted by Sparx at 5:03 PM on August 10, 2006

Sparx, that is a fascinating and provocative essay. I'm going to have to think about it longer before saying anything intelligent about it.

I will say, though, that the primary source text of that essay, Downing's Shoes Outside the Door, makes rather frustrating reading for anyone who was there. (I was at Zen Center at the time he decribes.) It's like reading a very detailed account of one's family problems by an outsider who decided that he had the right angle on all this family neurosis -- but whose subjective lens is consistently skewed in certain directions. It's not a terrible book, but it's not at all the final word on what went down. The lack of perspective that Lachs criticizes in his essay is mostly a product of Downing's own skew: there was plenty of sharply critical perspective going around the sangha at the time, as well as plenty of the neurosis that Downing consistently emphasized, as if he was the one seeing man in a country of the Zen-blind.

Believe me, I had my own problems with Baker's style, and with the situation he helped create at SFZC; in fact, I left Zen Center just before the shit hit the fan. But Shoes Outside the Door was a distorted account, and thus Lachs' essay is distorted-plus-hearsay. On the other hand, Lachs brings up some really important issues that transcend the SFZC brouhaha, so thanks for posting it.
posted by digaman at 5:31 PM on August 10, 2006

Great link, Sparx. I spent a total of about 2 years at Tassajara, with the stint at Green Gulch sandwiched in between. I derived a good deal of benefit from them, on a bunch of levels.

That said, I've long thought that those places are incredibly rich veins for sociolgists and/or cultural studies wonks. What a crazy, pomo north American melange of spiritual idealism, classic campus social dynamics, plain old coasting, some actual scholarship, and dressing up in Japanese liturgical outfits. And much more I don't have time now to remember.

posted by everichon at 5:44 PM on August 10, 2006

For instance, this, from Lachs:

There is certainly nothing anti-authoritarian about the notion of unbroken lineage going back to the historical Buddha. Likewise, Dharma transmission was as much about institutional prosperity, prestige, authority, continuity and acceptance and control by imperial authorities as it was about notions of enlightenment and spiritual perfection. The Zen master is a role that stands as a representative of the entire Zen institution. He occupies an authoritative place in East Asian cultures that have already been imbued with a special level of hierarchy since ancient times. It could fairly be said that what is effectively transmitted by Dharma transmission is institutional authority, rather than religious wisdom. However, I do not mean to imply there is no inner spiritual content to the Zen tradition.

That's rather like saying that there is nothing anti-authoritarian about anarchism, since anarchists are constantly citing books by the great anarchists of history, Emma Goldman and such. Wellll..... yes. And no. Lachs' statement here practically obscures more than it reveals. That is, a historical lineage that consists of teaching-tales like this...

Q. What is Buddha?
A. A dried shit-stick!

...has more going on in it than simple-minded supplication before a historical tradition. Since the spirit of that tale is at the very heart of Zen, Lachs' assertion needs to be taken with a grain of shit.
posted by digaman at 5:49 PM on August 10, 2006

Digaman, have you ever read Faure's The Rhetoric of Immediacy? That and Chan Insights and Oversights are fascinating, regardless of whether or not you ultimately agree with them.
posted by everichon at 5:57 PM on August 10, 2006

Urk, that last link is wrong, just check out his oeuvre.
posted by everichon at 6:01 PM on August 10, 2006

Looks very interesting, everichon -- thanks!
posted by digaman at 6:05 PM on August 10, 2006

"Where are the Scientologists who have not been profiled on Entertainment Tonight?"
posted by NortonDC at 6:05 PM on August 10, 2006

I think everyone in California should drop what they're doing and follow me.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:17 PM on August 10, 2006

* whaps ZenMasterThis with folded fan *
posted by everichon at 6:21 PM on August 10, 2006

Glad you liked it, folks. I should have mentioned a few of the article's limitations, but had an appointment to rush out fo the door to. Mea Culpa. There's good collection of links and comments about shoes (inter alia) here, and I note that, regardless of the SFZC, they're all in reference to Soto zen. I have no idea how Rinzai zen stacks up next to it in terms of any general allegations made, so apologies for that, too. Big subject.
posted by Sparx at 6:41 PM on August 10, 2006

* whaps ZenMasterThis with folded fan *

Ow, quit that.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:47 PM on August 10, 2006

I've read the Lachs essay before, and I agree with digiman that it doesn't jibe with my own impressions of how people I know in and around the SFZC in particular approached Zen. Certainly an element of that sort of guru-worship was there in some people, but most of the people I talked to about it took a very critical approach to the idea of teaching and dharma transmission and so on.

Of course, that's all filtered through the particular people I knew, and a lot of it comes from the post Baker-roshi period, when people were undoubtedly more skeptical.

By the way, here's a brief interview about The Visionary State from a few weeks back on The California Report (a local radio show).
posted by whir at 8:43 PM on August 10, 2006

"Oh, California is a garden of Eden,
A paradise to live in or to see.
But believe it or not,
You won't find it so hot,
If you ain't got the do-re-mi."

--Woody Guthrie
posted by John of Michigan at 8:43 PM on August 10, 2006

I like the San Francisco Zen Center. I did a one-day sitting there, like eight hours of counting my breath, then they fed us nice yummy soup and tea and I cried gratefully for it. I learned I'm still reward-motivated and unlikely to be gone gone, completely gone, altogether gone, bodhi svaha. The striving to not strive to want to be enlightened but not too much because the desire is what trips you up: shit, gimme a tent revival and a personal savior. The food's meatier, and it's okay to really want it.

The Shinnyo-En Temple in Burlingame is nice. I went there with a Japanese friend of mine. They've got a big, gold reclining Buddha and radio headsets which translate the service into three or four different languages. You chant in archaic Japanese while fingering beads. Everyone wears their best clothes. There was a coffee klatch and a bunch of kids running around afterward. Nobody's eyes were too shiny. It didn't seem to be as beatnik weisenheimer as SFZC. They had a pulpit and actual chairs rather than tatami. Could've been St. John Cantius if they'd just had cabbage rolls and a crucifix somewhere.

As for cults, My friend Debs was gonna start one in Marin theologically founded on the transmogrification of souls, specifically by eating one's dead relatives. I'm sure there'd still be tea and coffee and a bunch of kids running around, though. Even LaVey had that.

Episcopalians are a strange bunch.
posted by eegphalanges at 10:44 PM on August 10, 2006

From sparx's links -- this cracked me up -- Baker needed the BMW because he "liked to keep his legs in zazen posture."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:38 PM on August 10, 2006

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