Archive for the ‘Materialism’ Category

The Three Views of Existence (Edited)

March 7, 2017

[This is an old post that was originally in three installments. I’ve edited them together and am reposting them. I’m surprised at how much of what I wrote then I still stand by.]

Five years ago, down with the flu and having to spend all day in bed, I found myself thinking about the three fundamental views of existence, which are the creator god view, the scientific/materialist view, and the pantheistic, or everything-is-god, view.

To elaborate a little, the creator god, or monotheistic, view is what most people in this culture think of when they hear the word “religion.” It’s the belief in a god who exists apart from his creation. There are many different schools of thought within the fundamental view, ranging from followers of intellectuals like Augustine to populist evangelicals. The scientific/materialist view maintains that there is no spiritual realm whatsoever. There is only the material plane, and consciousness arises out of the workings of chemistry and physics. These first two views are currently duking it out. They barely recognize the existence of the third view, the pantheistic view, which says that the entire universe is god. (I once thought pantheism meant “nature religion,” that the “pan” referred to the Greek god Pan—or something. But “pan” means “all,” as in “Pan American.” So Pan-theism is “everything is god.”) We are god. The rocks are god. The trees are god. It says that the material realm arises from the spiritual, that everything is mind. It includes schools of thought and tribes that range from serious, committed Buddhists to frivolous New Agers. (While Jesus is seen as representing the creator god view, I believe he was actually teaching the pantheist view. But more on that later.)

Each of these views, even if we’re not all that serious about them, affect how we live and respond to events. If you believe in the scientific/materialist view, which is probably the most popular and widespread view, there is no such thing as “wisdom.” There is only knowledge. A people that sees knowledge as the be-all and end-all of life also sees material and scientific progress as essential to our growth as a species. We are currently entering an era when we are hitting the limits to material progress—the end of growth. Whenever this idea is brought up, the materialists become either angry or despairing. There will be no reason to live! But it’s not like that. We will never truly start living until we get past our present-day obsession with money, possessions, and scientific progress. We’re committed to an enormous misunderstanding of what the material plane is. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true that you can hear.

Shunryu Suzuki

Of the three fundamental views of existence—creator god, scientific/materialist, and pantheist—I subscribe to the third. (I should add that “pantheism” is short hand for me. It’s a Western term, that is, from the world of Western philosophical speculation, and has a lot of attached baggage that is not real.) I don’t see myself as having sought out this view. At one point in my life I was reading a lot of Taoism and Buddhism in order stay afloat. I was doing a lot meditation, too, but, again, simply to survive an extraordinarily rough time. (I write about this in my work-in-progress Street Song.) In the midst of my reading I kept coming across the idea that everything is god, or mind. For a long time I assumed that this was just a metaphor. Eventually I saw that the people advocating this idea really meant it. It’s difficult to see the material plane as “merely” mind. If you cut me, I will bleed. If I kick a boulder with all my might, it will hurt like hell. The turning point for me came when someone I was reading, someone whose opinion I trusted and valued, stated that the material plane is an illusion, albeit a very thick one. His statement tied together a bunch of others I had floating around in my head. Suddenly I understood how the material plane, while having laws, is one with the spiritual background from which it arises.

I don’t read a lot of science. I try, but I can’t hack the attitude that a lot of scientists adopt. They want to be the go-to guys, the great explainers. But science can never explain existence. It can only probe one layer of it—the material plane. I’ve read enough science to know that as scientists delve deeper into matter, they find that, essentially, it disappears. It’s a big mystery! But scientists insist that there is a rational order to reality, that through experimentation and research we can eventually understand everything—soberly. But that’s not what the sages say, and I take their word—the word of the real ones—over that of the scientists. The sages say that when you take the journey that leads to an understanding of what existence really is, it astonishes you. It blows your mind. If what you saw didn’t blow your mind, then you didn’t see fundamental reality. And fundamental reality is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into words. You have to see it for yourself. (There is more on this in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained”.) I’m not asserting here that I’ve had this vision. I haven’t. Just bits and pieces. So, in a sense, this is a statement of faith. But my journey isn’t over.

Our present-day understanding of religion is poor. When people discuss religion they are usually arguing about some doctrine they read in a book somewhere. Most of today’s religious institutions and organizations are led by people who’ve had no direct experience of the spiritual, but have ideas about what it. You can’t get religion from a book or from speculative thought.

In real religion a person sets out on a path that takes him, or her, to the very edge of what can be understood with the thinking mind. At the point he can go no farther, he has to let go of his ego and take a leap into the unknown where he has a vision of the oneness of all existence (and nonexistence). To most people this sounds like some kind of Eastern religious trip. But I contend that Jesus took the same journey. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it’s easy to recognize. One of the good things about the Gospel of Thomas is that it’s all sayings and aphorisms. There isn’t any mythology attached. It’s simply religious instruction. And religious instruction is mostly about how to safely manage the spiritual journey, which is incredibly dangerous.

Maybe it’s pointless to try to talk about this. To most ears, the journey I’m referring to sounds mythical rather than real. But that’s because of the time we live in, which is mundane and materialistic. In any case, for the moment, the door to the journey is closed. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the door was open, and thousands, if not millions, went in pursuit. Even then, it was difficult to get people to understand. For many years, I was one of those who refused to hear of it. I contend that real religion is simply the search for the truth about existence, about reality. There is only one true religion, and it doesn’t have a name. It is simply the laws of existence—an existence that goes beyond physical reality. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and others are all examples of individuals who  made that journey, and then came back to tell the rest of us how to go there. In each case, only a handful of the original hearers had any real understanding of what Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Tse were talking about. But they were impressed by the power of the speakers, who had been completely changed by the experience. That’s where the big churches came from—from the mass of people who didn’t really understand what they were hearing, as well as from those who heard it second and third hand. In the first group I would include most of Jesus’ disciples; in the second, people like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and so on. (I’m being critical of Christianity here, but I see Buddhism as having identical problems. One of the problems is to think that there is a “Buddhism” or a “Christianity.”)

It’s not easy to get people to understand what’s true. It’s easier to give them a jealous god who sits on his throne, sees all, and crushes his enemies. They can understand that much more easily than the idea that everything is god, that everything is mind. We all have, at the very least, an unconscious awareness of the spiritual roots of existence. That’s why the churches became so powerful. But as the churches—Buddhist included—have grown ever more distant from the source, their doctrines have become more at odds with observable reality. A few centuries ago it got to be too much for the well-educated, and they began to question what they knew as religion, that is, the creator god religion they’d inherited from Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther et al. Eventually they created science and philosophical materialism as a replacement. Today those two sides are duking it out, making headlines, trying to win converts. I can’t take either one of them seriously. There is that third way, which is quieter and more intelligent than either the creator god or philosophical materialism. It has the added advantage of being true. But, as I say, the door to understanding it directly is not open right now. That will change, however. Sometimes I feel that that’s all I live for—for that door to open again. When it does open, everything changes for everybody everywhere.


Where I Stand

December 20, 2016

I’d originally intended to write this piece after Clinton won the election to explain why I couldn’t vote for her. I’m writing it anyway. It’s meant to explain where I stand culturally/politically.

I was born into a mainstream “moderate to conservative” (I put the words in quotes because I think they’re deceptive) Democratic Party household. Eugene McCarthy’s near upset of Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary inspired me to leave the fold. I became what would be described today as an “ultra liberal.” Then, with the election of Richard Nixon, I dropped out psychologically and philosophically, switching my allegiance to the counterculture. The change coincided with my deepening disillusionment with Western civilization and ideas.

In its early days, the counterculture was divided into two fundamental factions: the spiritual hippies and the New Left politicos. The essential difference was that the hippies believed you had to change yourself before you could change the world, while the leftists believed you had to change the world before you could change yourself. I sided with the hippies. By the time I was 20 I completely dismissed mainstream American culture. I saw it as dying. At the same time, the hippie image and philosophy were being diluted and destroyed by the Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll crowd, who were not hippies, but looked like them. I ended up dropping out of the counterculture—dropping out of the drop-outs—and landing on the streets of North Beach, where I continued my search for what is “really real.” It wasn’t exactly a deliberate move, but neither was it an accident. I didn’t find all my answers there, but I did find many. And I came to a solid understanding that America really was in a death spiral, something that’s quite apparent now.

I remained a complete outsider—no home, no job, no ID—until the wild parrots came into my life. By getting involved with two creative projects, the book and the film, and having to present them to the public, I got pulled back into the System. (Both projects happened naturally. They were not calculated.) But I remained essentially a counterculturist disillusioned with the counterculture—not to mention the System. My return coincided with 9/11, so in 2008, I was happy to be seduced by Obama. But he turned out to be more of the same—a so-called centrist Democrat. I vowed then that I would never get fooled again. The only individual I could imagine ever supporting was Bernie Sanders. He was from the edge of the counterculture, its political side, so he felt close enough to where I stood. But I never thought he’d run, and when he announced, I pretty much ignored him. He started saying things that for so long had needed to be said, and I was amazed by how many responded to him. I was riveted throughout his campaign. But the establishment Democrats had no intention of allowing him to succeed.

Since the advent of computers the Empire has become corporate and global in nature. (That’s obvious, yes.) I am adamantly opposed to the Empire, which is indifferent to everything save money and power. Its massiveness has made it the biggest threat to world peace, a healthy environment, and a sane life. Hillary Clinton, like her husband, is a supporter of the Empire. She made it clear that she would use military power to keep the Empire in place and thriving. Trump, who is a genuine sociopath (that needs to be understood), is more like a domestic terrorist. He will fail because of his ego. The Global Empire demands an ability to work with others, something he is incapable of doing because of his “disease.” He’s going to cause a great deal of harm to his fellow Americans, but it’s difficult for me to think of Trump as objectively worse simply because he is more of a threat to me personally. If I did, it would make me indifferent to the suffering of those who Clinton would have squashed in her effort to maintain the Empire, which, like America, is also in its death throes. Both Clinton and Trump are devotees of Mammon. They simply had different constituencies supporting them in their quests for power. Mammon has no principles.

My allegiance remains to the counterculture, which needs to revive itself and develop greater maturity. There is no hope for the established institutions of the modern world, which are completely off-base philosophically. I don’t care about economics, politics, or science, all of which now serve as tools for ambitious egotists. The only thing I’ve ever cared about is love. It’s the only thing that has never fallen away from me.

The Problem of the Homeless

February 28, 2016

The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.

For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.

When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.

If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.

Idealism and the Young

February 22, 2016

My teenage years were the 1960s, a tremendously idealistic time. It was quite clear then that war was wrong, racism was wrong, chasing money was wrong, not loving was wrong. But I was always having to listen to older people assure me that someday I’d get real and grow up. I never knew how to respond to that. I didn’t have enough life experience to understand where they were coming from. Now we’re in a time where you have a candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, arousing the idealism of the young, and the young are responding. And you have another set of people denigrating their idealism and telling them to grow up. And this time the denigrators are people my age. I understand who they are, what they are saying, and why they’re saying it. They are not the people of my generation who grew up; they’re the ones who got old.

We live in a particularly materialistic era of a particularly materialistic civilization. A lot of us tend to see ideals as having no real foundation, that they’re just “brain activity” in a fundamentally meaningless universe. But the essence of existence is not material. What it is is beyond language, although we’ve come up with words for it — “spiritual” being one of them, one that has gotten tired from misuse. There is a set of universal ideals that grow out of that essence. Most of them are obvious, but not all. You don’t need to cultivate them for them to exist. They are inherent within us when we are born. In many of us, as we get older, as we compromise ourselves over and over again, those ideals grow dull and remote. Many of us eventually turn against them. We don’t believe in them anymore. And then we call it growing up. But real growing up is something else entirely: It’s understanding how difficult it is to bring our ideals into our practical lives and the patience we need to accomplish that. We can’t ever abandon those ideals. The farther we get from them, the older and grayer and more meaningless our everyday life feels. I’m not really interested in what a lot of folks call pragmatism. To me, it looks more like death.

The Lie of Supply and Demand

December 16, 2015

Every time I get involved in some kind of conversation or debate over economic justice, there’s always some guy who will jump in to invoke the “Law of Supply and Demand.” Invariably, he steps back then to see if any of us are dumb enough to continue. It’s a law, man, a settled issue, something that only an idiot would challenge. But supply and demand is not a law. A law is something that absolutely must happen. But no one has any obligation to follow this supposed law in any transaction they control. If I have the only loaf of bread and I’m surrounded by hungry people, I can give the bread away if I so choose. Supply and demand is a syndrome—a philosophical justification for greed. One of the assumptions behind supply and demand is that people naturally want to get as much as they can and will play every angle they can in order to get it. A further assumption is, that’s okay. The only law involved then is the Law of the Jungle. But it’s not okay. Greed is killing us. It’s been sanctioned for a long time and the ill-effects are mounting. Climate change is one of them. Another is the cost of housing. We have to change our approach to how we exist and survive. We don’t need so much stuff. We’re heading for the cliff, and the cliff isn’t that far away now. If we don’t stop soon, we’re going over it.

The Greek Debt

June 17, 2015
In Hydra 1969

In Hydra in 1969 with Dougal, Janice, Nikos, and unknown.

In 1969, a few months after graduating from high school, I flew to Europe, where I spent several months exploring by thumb and by train. Of all the countries I traveled through, my favorite by far was Greece. It was a beautiful land with its own distinct culture. The old Mediterranean peasant world still had a strong presence, which made a big impression on me. The Greeks in general were extraordinarily friendly, openly curious about people from other countries, and generous. One day, at an outdoor market I asked a farmer if I could buy an orange. He seemed puzzled and asked, “One kilo?” “No, one orange,” I said. He frowned and shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to sell me just one orange. He gave it to me. One of the special aspects of Greece, especially Crete, was the sense of timelessness—by which I mean I had little awareness of being in a particular historical era. Visually, everything was distinct. As Henry Miller said of Crete in The Colossus of Maroussi, “You see everything in its uniqueness—a man sitting under a tree: a donkey climbing a path near a mountain: a ship in a harbor in a sea of turquoise: a table on a terrace beneath a cloud.” I’d already begun my lifelong loathing of modernity—the tawdry commercialism, superficial relationships, the hustle—and I loved Greece for the slow pace of life and its beauty. Living life was more important than business. (It’s pitiful that people who believe life should be beautiful are regarded now as romantics. It’s a symptom of how lost we’ve become.)

In 2007 I returned to Greece to do research for my book Street Song. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same, but the degree of change was startling. Everything that I loved about Greece was gone. It had lost that special sense of timelessness. Greece had become a resort for wealthy northern Europeans and Americans. And the Greeks themselves had become sullen. All they wanted was your money. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what had happened: globalization. Greece was now just an outpost on the international corporate circuit. One day I tried to talk to a Greek about it, and he blew me off. He was gruff and uncommunicative. I finally did talk to a Greek about it,  a man who owned a laundromat and spoke English. He agreed with me—very passionately—that something had gone very wrong in Greece. All anybody did was work and work, and they were all unhappy about it. They all believed that they had no choice. Much of their work consisted in serving the fat Germans who lounged about on the beaches and treated them like serfs.

There is a lot of anger directed at Greece in the Western World because of the new government’s threat to default on its debt. A tremendous amount of pressure is being put on them to stay the course of austerity and to open the doors wider to those who have no interest in Greece other than to rape and pillage. I, for one, hope they can resist. If it means default, then bless them. The insane, pointless workaholism of the Germans and Americans goes against the character of the Greeks—against the character of human beings, really. We are not designed to live this way and we’re heading for a nervous breakdown.

America, Germany, and England as well as some other countries have declared to the rest of the world that globalization is the only way to go, that every country must be part of it or it won’t survive. No one is given a choice. The global economy is very clearly a great evil to me. It’s tawdry and shallow. We’ve gone far beyond any level of comfort that we actually need, and yet we’re still not satisfied. Our levels of anger and frustration grow continually because materialism can never satisfy. Something is going to bring the whole thing down one day. I think of the bankers as drug dealers. They try to get you hooked and then send in their enforcers if you don’t pay up. It’s probably too much to hope that a default by Greece would begin the unraveling, but it would be most appropriate if it did. The Western World’s enshrinement of rationality and logic began in Greece, and it is rationality and logic that have led us to the horrific level of materialism that we live by today. If Greece can begin the process of the collapse of that system—which must collapse for the world to survive—it will be one of those beautifully ironic moments that history sometimes serves up.

The Right to Slaughter

May 13, 2015

Many people, I would guess most people, roll their eyes when they hear the term “animal rights.” People see rights as something arbitrary that are bestowed upon us by the government. You vote for your rights. Animals can’t vote, so it’s stupid to say they have any rights. This is an incredibly superficial view of existence, yet pervasive. But the truth is that rights are not arbitrary; they are inherent. In any intelligent, healthy system, it is not the government’s role to bestow rights, but to see that they are protected.

What rights do animals have? For starters, they have the right to live out the laws of their being. That should be plainly obvious. And we human beings have an obligation, a duty, to not get in the way of that. We must create our civilization in such a way that it makes it possible for the animals to do what they do. I’m sure some oaf will be thinking, “Well, we have the right to live out the laws of our being, too. If the animals get in our way, that’s their problem.” But we are a different kind of animal. We have the capacity for huge amounts of free will. We also have the capacity to destroy all life on this planet. That’s not living out the laws of our being. That’s just being greedy and blind. We don’t know anything about the laws of our being. We can’t when all we care about is money.

The preceding diatribe is inspired by the fact that the Army Corp of Engineers has just been given permission by both the Fish and Wildlife Service and a federal judge to begin the slaughter of tens of thousands of cormorants in a nesting colony on East Sand Island in the mouth of the Columbia River. I’ve been to East Sand Island and have seen that colony. Thousands of pelicans and terns congregate there as well. The slaughter has been approved supposedly to help keep the salmon from going extinct. But that’s bullshit. What they’re really doing is trying to protect the fishing industry. They want to kill the birds so that humans can eat the fish instead of the birds. We don’t actually need the fish, but the cormorants do. And they have the right to them. That’s how nature works. And if the salmon are endangered, it’s not because of cormorants. It’s because of us, through our dams and overfishing. The Army Corp of Engineers, which thought up the plan, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which approved it, the federal judge who approved it, and Wildlife Services, who are to carry it out, are all killers in the pay of Mammon. I don’t believe for an instant that there is any environmental concern here whatsoever. And even if there is, it’s incredibly hubristic to think that we know what to do. We’re terrible when it comes to helping nature. All we know is how to exploit it. I, for one, can never give whole-hearted allegiance to a system that does these things.

Cannery Row

April 5, 2015

I’m currently reading an Italian translation of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (Vicolo Cannery). For anybody who hasn’t read it, it’s a romantic, sentimental depiction of a real place and based on real people, a community of outsiders in old town Monterey, California during the depression. Cannery Row was the popular name for Ocean View Avenue. It’s in an industrial part of town at the waterfront and was home to the old sardine fleet. The fish were abundant then, and Ocean View Avenue was lined with canneries. The main characters in the story are a man who owns a biology laboratory and warehouse, a bunch of bums and winos who spend their days in a vacant lot drinking, a Chinese grocer, and a madam with a heart of gold. The book sympathizes with these outsiders. In the mid-1940s, the sardine population began to crash, eventually putting the canneries completely out of business. The book Cannery Row was so popular that the town renamed Ocean View Avenue after it and turned it into a tourist destination.

Last week, Judy did a special screening of Pelican Dreams at the aquarium in Monterey, and they put us up in one of the Cannery Row hotels. Because I’m reading the book, I was interested in checking out the locations. Today the old canneries have been turned into restaurants, hotels, and upscale boutiques. It’s extraordinarily expensive and quite tacky, like Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. The morning we left I was walking along a bike path/pedestrian thoroughfare that used to be train tracks when I happened upon two homeless people guzzling a bottle of beer. It amused me highly because I was certain that if they’d been noticed by the police, they would have been run out of the neighborhood. Yet they were the only true part of the book that was left.

Easy Way Won’t Help

March 4, 2015

Why Buddha told us the Four Noble Truths is to destroy our easy way of understanding of life, scientific understanding or philosophical understanding. Those understandings are the easy way, you know. Without any effort you can read books [laughs]. Even though you are lying down you can study. Very easy. But it will not help you, actually will not help you.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (from David Chadwick’s site about Suzuki Roshi,

Lean to the Left, Lean to the Right

November 4, 2014

The media talks about elections as if they were sporting events. Which team is going to win? Which one is pleasing the fans most? But it’s not like that. It’s serious business. Unfortunately, the fans have become inebriated. They want to feel good NOW. We have one party (the Democrats) that tries to serve both God and Mammon (Biblical language for money and worldly power) and ends up wispy and frightened. And we have another (the Republicans) that is all-out for Mammon, and therefore unconflicted—in an insane kind of way. When the Republicans are on the outs, they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to undermine the foundations and bring down the house. When they are in control, they pound the table, shouting “United We Stand!” It is not an exhortation; it’s a threat. I will never stand united with the Republicans. Never. Those lovers of Mammon can never represent me. If they do obtain the power they seek, then I go into radical dissident mode.