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New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Monday, March 31

beast of eden

I was just now reading an article in the current issue of The New York Review of Books (subscription required) called The Rescue of John Steinbeck. As a kid, I read a bunch of Steinbeck, and liked how he confirmed my most radical adolescent impulses to smash the state. Which have of course persisted, even if my fondness for Steinbeck has not. However, my current interest is because of a book titled Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell -- with the greater part of my Mystic Bourgeois curiosity naturally focused on the latter (how I would love to blow away his hero at a thousand paces). The NYRB writer says a good deal about Ricketts -- e.g., Steinbeck's "moving and perceptive tribute" to him in the introduction to The Log from the Sea of Cortez -- but sadly for me, doesn't mention Campbell.

Never mind all that though. About 3/4 of the way in, in a discussion of Steinbeck's East of Eden (note the Oprah seal of approval), there's this:

The personal aspects of Eden are painful to relate. By the late 1940s, Steinbeck's second marriage had shattered. (Domestic life and giving birth to two boys, Thom and John, had kept Gwyn from the "creative" life she felt entitled to.)
Now as it turns out, I knew both brothers from my first-round stretch in Boulder back in the late '70s. One afternoon I was passing the time in the trashy pre-renovation elegance of the Hotel Boulderado playing pigs with Thom and a woman whose name I've long since forgotten. We were drinking a good deal of Scotch and snorting lines of what Thom claimed was mescaline. I doubted it. Maybe it was an early batch of Ecstasy. Who knows? At any rate, we were plenty high when we finally left the hotel -- and immediately got pulled over by a cop. Terrific. We were holding all sorts of shit. As I was driving, I also got to do the talking. "No, I was not aware that my passenger-side tail light was not working, Officer." All polite and deferential. "Do you mind if I get out and look?" He did not, so I did. "Ah, that's the first I knew of it, thanks. I'll have it taken care of first thing in the morning." I got back into the car. "See that you do," he said, and drove off. My two passengers then broke into spontaneous and heartfelt applause. I'd saved our bacon with aplomb, despite the fact -- obvious to everyone but the cop -- that I was shitface wasted.

I knew John much better. We first met at Le Bar, the now defunct watering hole that was host to much of the post-beatnik riff-raff then skulking about Boulder and the nascent Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Burroughs was often sitting off in a corner solo, wondering what snakes dream about, but I gave him a wide berth. It was from John that I first learned the meaning of the word "smarmy," because that's what he accused me of being. I was stung. It hurt. But I also knew he was right. On about three seconds of reflection, I had to agree that, yes, I was being an asshole. Copious drafts of Scotch whiskey allowed us to explore the cause of this in some depth. Later, he told me about walking away from the war in Vietnam and becoming, for a time, a Buddhist monk.

Several years later, I ended up at his place a total mess. He told me I had to check into detox. How the hell do I do that, I wanted to know. And what's "detox"? I was utterly clueless. "You've come to the right place," he told me, all warmth and camaraderie. "Most people don't know how this works, but I'm a past master. I'll show you how it's properly done." We then went out and bought a quart of hooch, which on returning to his house, we drank until we were both righteously hammered and half blind. He then drove me to the Alcohol Recovery Center, where they shot me up with Valium. I don't remember much after that.

Eventually, John and I both got sober, I in 1984, he toward the end of that decade. Back in Boulder in 1992 after stints in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Tokyo, I was sad beyond words to learn he had died the previous year. He was a good man. And his own.

Which I suppose is why, when I first came across it in 2002, I passed on The Other Side of Eden: Life With John Steinbeck, posthumously co-authored by his wife Nancy. I was then back in the throes of the same madness that had driven me -- John at the wheel -- to that first detox, though I was wasn't drinking. Just crazy. And just starting to think about the puzzle I would later begin trying to work out in Mystic Bourgeoisie. There's evidence of something important here, I thought, sitting on the floor, paging through the book in the New Biography aisle at the Boulder Barnes & Noble. But I put it back on the shelf. It was too much, too painful, still too raw.

A few minutes ago, I looked it up again on Amazon. Neither Library Journal nor Publishers Weekly was kind to it, but I did find this:

Nancy does contribute an interesting, somewhat iconoclastic point of view rife with New Age inflections.
Ah yes, the ever-popular New Age inflections. The Curse of Boulder, and now the world. A man's life paved over with a travesty of smarmy platitudes. There's evidence of something important here, I thought, clicking a used copy into my cart. Perhaps even now it's not too late.



Saturday, March 29

the large ears of the spiritually advanced

The title slug is from a passage I just now found in Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism. Here's a bit more context...
Don Caesario usually maintained the distanced but regal demeanor of someone with command over the deep mystical realms. He resembled a high Tibetan lama, with Asiatic features and the large ears of the spiritually advanced.
Well, sure, I thought, the large ears of the spiritually advanced, why not? I had to stop for a moment to let that sink in, find the deep bedrock substratum of my inner-racist Ur-tantric archetypal unconscious and have its way with the roof-brain chatter of my First World Western ego. Yippee ki yay, motherfucker! I check my ears in the mirror. Hmmm.

Here's a picture of the guy who wrote that book, Daniel Pinchbeck, whose mom once dated Jack Kerouac back in the, you know, day. This factoid seems to form an essential bit of grounding for a man so hip, so in tune with the zeitgeist that you can, and should, expect offhand references to ayahuasca tourism, entheogens, ecodelics, 2012, and "the playa" -- that last an integral codeword in the lexicon of Burning Mania. What I want to know is, why does he keep his ears covered up like that?

OK, full disclosure: I don't know if Pinchbeck really says "ecodelics" anywhere, but I did find the quote by searching Google for "ayahuasca tourism," a concept I had not encountered before this morning, but whose main contours I immediately grasp: rainforest shamans, organic DMT, parrots, Sting, and obnoxious techno-yuppies who've read way too much Maslow and Metzner.

But maybe I'm just getting old. I have to admit that my one experience with DMT: The Spirit Molecule was over 40 years ago in Buffalo, New York, hardly the right "set and setting" for the type of eco-aligned spiritual visions that are driving the current economies of Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and Peru (if you don't count the crack). And no vomitous jungle juice for me, no Sir. I smoked the shit. The instant result was like the fleeting after-death flashback one might have after a highway head-on with a speeding semi. Of course, had I prepared myself properly with fasting, prayer and a cheese-free lifestyle, my body probably wouldn't have melted into the rug like that. Out of dozens or possibly hundreds of unpremeditated mind alterations, that five-minute DMT ride was by far my most terrifying trip. I have to say, though, that it was curious how, after I magically re-corporated and walked into the kitchen, the cabinet doors and drawers were all opening and closing by themselves. Was it a message of some kind? At this far temporal remove, I suppose I shall never know.



Saturday, March 22

Rocky Mountain High: The Tibetan Bay of Pigs

The widely renowned -- and in many quarters infamous -- Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa (photo right) came to the United States in 1970 and founded Tail of the Tiger (now known as Karmê Chöling), a meditation and study center in Barnet, Vermont. I first met him there in 1974, and a year later he invited me to move to Boulder, Colorado. When I asked why he'd established a community there, he said it reminded him of home. As a direct result of that exchange, Boulder has also been my home, off and on, for the last 30 years. I love Tom Petty, but I don't take advice well.

Only recently have I started wondering: had Trungpa maybe heard the stories coming back from these guys? The following is from the Wikipedia page about the Colorado CIA training facility for Tibetan guerillas. If they'd been fighting a right-wing dictatorship, we'd call them terrorists.

Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville in the Eagle River valley in Colorado, was a United States Army training facility constructed in 1942 for what became the 10th Mountain Division.... From 1959 to 1964, Tibetan guerrillas were secretly trained at Camp Hale by the CIA. The site was chosen because of the similarities of the Rocky Mountains with the Himalayan Plateau.... The Tibetan project was codenamed ST Circus, and it was similar to the CIA operation that trained dissident Cubans in what later became the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Camp Hale ruins - near Leadville, Colorado


Tricky Dick Sells the Tibetans Down the River

This whole film appears to be on YouTube, but if you can afford to buy it, please support the filmmakers. The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet was produced and directed by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam. their work is described at their site, White Crane Films. You can order the DVD here, and you can find more information about the film and related background at the following links.

  • The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet
    "It is an extraordinary tale, and one that makes uncomfortable viewing..." The Independent on Sunday, November 15, 1998
  • The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet
    "Contrary to the generally held preconception of a deeply religious and peace-loving people, the Tibetans fought a long and bloody - though ultimately, unsuccessful - guerrilla campaign. They were aided in their efforts by an unlikely ally, the CIA."
  • The CIA Circus: Tibet's Forgotten Army
    "How the CIA sponsored and betrayed Tibetans in a war the world never knew about"
  • CIA's great betrayal
    "Guns might have fallen silent in Tibetan hills after the fierce battles fought in the fifties with Tibetan blood and US arms yet the issue of Tibet remains vexed as ever, writes Abid Shah in his review of film The Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet"
  • The CIA's Secret War in Tibet
    University Press of Kansas book page
  • Camp Hale - Wikipedia page



Friday, March 21

uma's dad and america's favorite theocracy


Dalai Lama, Nancy Boy

The image above from today's New York Times is so wrong in so many ways. It captures the photo-op high point of Nancy Pelosi's recent visit to Dharamsala, India. First off, the depth of bows should be reversed. From this shot, you might imagine Nancy to be the great spiritual leader, which -- just my guess -- she probably is not. Second, what was the thinking as to how this trip would affect the US presidential elections in November? You can be sure this was covered in some strategy session. The leveraging of human suffering to wave the flag of liberal correctness has to be at least vaguely nauseating -- especially in light of the fact that 99+% of the people viewing this photo have no fucking clue what's really going on in Tibet.

As many of you know, I live in Boulder, Colorado. At a conservative estimate, there must be literally thousands of Free Tibet bumper stickers cruising the streets of this burg. Yet an unscientific survey I conducted this week showed that there were no -- as in none, zero, nada -- books on the history of Tibet on the shelves of Boulder's two largest bookstores, Borders and Barnes & Noble. The latter did have several copies of The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama in its history section, but conversations with the Dalai Lama hardly constitute serious intellectual history. If you doubt this statement, imagine the history of the Catholic Church you'd get from chatting with the Pope.

And the gnarliness of Tibetan history is the stuff of legend. I am currently reading an excellent book on this very gnarliness -- History as Propaganda: Tibetan Exiles versus the People's Republic of China -- which shows, in a very disciplined and scholarly way, how both sides distort "the facts" and "the truth" each claims to be conveying. Neither camp is spared the author's keen eye for bias and hyperbole.

My favorite bit so far involves the works of Robert A.F. Thurman, whom I prefer to think of as Uma's Dad, which he in fact is. The photo of the two together is from an InStyle magazine slideshow titled "Fergie and LC Daily Hot Shots," which also includes candid pics of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Justin Timberlake, Paris Hilton, and Lenny Kravitz. The caption reads: "Uma Thurman joined her father, Robert, for the annual Tibet House auction at auction house Christie's in New York City. Items up for grabs included a $20,000 shopping spree at Donna Karan, a set of Gucci luggage, and dinner with Uma and her dad at the tony Four Seasons hotel."

Wow, huh? And if you'd been top bidder for that tony dinner, you could have discussed with Bob the situation in Tibet.

In History as Propaganda, author John Powers has this to say about Thurman...

While Richardson and other Western and Tibetan writers freely acknowledge that Tibet was by no means perfect, Robert Thurman's characterization of Tibet is distinctive in that he appears to recognize no flaws in old Tibet.
In the next paragraph, we read a contemporary update on the fantasy of Shangri-La -- or, as it's called these days by my dearly departed (to Nova Scotia) ex-brethren, Shambhala.
In Thurman's version, old Tibet was an idyllic land of spiritual adepts, He refers to them as "psychonauts" and claims that while the West invested its resources in the pursuit and development of external technologies, the Tibetans invested just as heavily in the pursuit of spiritual perfection.
Of course, this leaves hanging the question of who, precisely, was doing all this "investing." Powers continues...
While other writers portray Tibet's relative poverty in a negative light, Thurman contends that Tibet's people freely chose to reject materialism to better pursue their religious goals, The economy was deliberately "minimalist" because Tibetans wanted to produce only enough to feed everyone and provide a small surplus to guard against any shortage. They realized that greed and corruption result from excessive materialism, and so they consciously decided to limit themselves to a "small is beautiful" economy.

Translation: Tibetan serfs were more than happy to slurp Yak-butter tea and thin barley gruel while the monks daubed gold leaf onto the roofs of the Potala. Right out of this picture, on the other hand (or is it the same hand?), would be "a $20,000 shopping spree at Donna Karan, a set of Gucci luggage, and dinner with Uma and her dad at the tony Four Seasons hotel."

Pressing on a bit further...

Thurman's Tibet was "a place of unprecedented opportunity for the individual intent on enlightenment: maximum low-cost lifelong educational opportunities, minimum taxes, no military services, no mortgages, no factories of material products, no lack of teachers and realized beings." It was a "spiritual civilization," a country in which the people had a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all life that resulted in an attitude of stewardship of the environment and in which the government unilaterally chose to demilitarize the country, creating a "zone of peace" that is a model that should be emulated by other nations.

Has being dirt-poor and politically disenfranchised ever been made to sound so wholesome? Not to mention, notice, how eco-friendly! But let's consider for a moment Thurman's notion that this model should be emulated.

Chances are good that most of you would balk (to say the least) at the idea of living under a born-again evangelical Christian theocracy. Uh, that's OK, thanks. I'm trying to cut down. Or how about an Islamic theocracy? That'd be cool, right? Well, hmmm, on second thought, maybe not. But a Buddhist theocracy? Especially a Tibetan Buddhist theocracy? Double-down super-especially a Tibetan Tantric Buddhist theocracy? A-OK! Bring it on!

Never mind that "Buddhist theocracy" is an oxymoron. As so many spiritual-but-not-religious wanna-weenies are utterly flabbergasted to discover, Buddhists are by definition atheists. So the "theo" bit doesn't really apply. You could look it up. Knowing that you won't, I looked it up for you. In the Wikipedia entry for Nontheism, we get to read this quote from my old pal Pema Chodron (she knew me when I was still an active alcoholic and practicing Buddhist [they went so well together back then, if only as psychic protection from this sort of thing]). Where was I? Oh yes. So Wikipedia quotes Pema from her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times...

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God.[...] Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there's some hand to hold [...] Non-theism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves [...] Nontheism is finally realizing there is no babysitter you can count on.
In other words, if I may paraphrase, if you want to believe in a magical heavenly au pair girl, knock yourself out, fool! In light of this gloss, her first sentence, above, seems a tad disingenuous. The fact is, Tibetan Buddhists no more believe in God than the Chinese Communists do. Put that in your bong and toke it.

What they both do believe in is...

Perhaps this will make more sense in context.

Note the rich gold brocade. Note the look. But especially, note the word "ruling." Take it very seriously. They do.

Back to that Free Tibet bumper sticker. If you want something of substance about Tibet -- say, to display prominently on your dashboard so it looks like you know what the fuck you're talking about -- you can do no better (I checked) than the two-volume 1500+ page History of Modern Tibet by Melvyn C. Goldstein. Volume 1, The Demise of the Lamaist State, covers 1913-1951. Volume 2, The Calm Before the Storm, covers 1951-1955. Granted, that still leaves more than 50 years of recent history out of the picture, but it explains a whole hell of a lot about what's going on in Tibet today. As do these excellent books...

If you really want to understand the region, pay less attention to books like Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer, who was a member of the Nazi Party, and to the various (and vacuous) gushings of Giuseppe Tucci, who was a committed fascist (see "Giuseppe Tucci, or Buddhology in the age of Fascism" in Donald S. Lopez, Jr (ed.), Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism).

Instead, try thinking of the Tibetans and Chinese as normal human beings like you and me, trying to work things out on the ground instead of allowing themselves to be used as pawns in the hyper-abstract geopolitical war games still being played on artificially intelligent supercomputers by dried up old military geezers in Washington and Beijing. And yes, Virginia, on the equally bizarre prayer wheels of Dharamsala.



Sunday, March 16

overriding arrogance, implacably sustained

Whittaker Chambers, veritable patron saint of the Right, and National Review, its College of Cardinals, are not among my usual sources, or delights. However, I must admit to warm feelings toward Mr. Chambers, whatever else he may have written or said, for his delectably scathing review, over 50 years ago, of Ayn Rand's turgid jeremiad, Atlas Shrugged.

My favorite bit is the penultimate paragraph, where he dissects

...the book's dictatorial tone, which is much its most striking feature. Out of a lifetime of reading, I can recall no other book in which a tone of overriding arrogance was so implacably sustained. Its shrillness is without reprieve. Its dogmatism is without appeal. In addition, the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them. From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber -- go!" The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture... At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive. Soon we suspect something worse. We suspect that this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house. A tornado might feel this way, or Carrie Nation.
Call me Carrie Nation, but I love how Chambers busted up Rand's living room with that one! First published on December 28, 1957, the full review -- "Big Sister Is Watching You" -- is available at National Review Online.

(See also: Ayn Rand on the virtues of shellfish.)



Saturday, March 15

good question

Leaving out of consideration, of course,
the congenital morons.



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