Jesus is my chainsaw

I’m formally Zen Buddhist. I took Jukai with Robert Joshin Althouse in 2007. But I grew up Catholic, and while I have multiple problems with Christianity, I still think there’s a lot of value in the teachings of the Jewish desert prophet. And while Christianity as practiced and understood today doesn’t work for me on a rational level, I do still have an emotional connection  to it.

Once a Christian tried to sway me with the line, ‘don’t think so much about this.’ That’s what we call ‘not understanding your audience.’ Yeah, no. But it does have enough of a tug on me that I don’t want to completely discard it. And I feel like repressing it could backfire in ugly ways. I’d hate to surprise my friends by going through a born again phase like Bob Dylan.

So an informal relationship with the the Christian tradition works best for me. I don’t consider myself un-Christian or anti-Christian, but I don’t think most people who would  call themselves Christian would call me one. Which is fine with me: I don’t have a need to fit anyone’s categories.

I came up with ‘Jesus is my chainsaw’ when I wrote this. It’s a line from a b-movie concept I’ve had in the back of my mind for a while, spoken by the evil Reverend Jim. ‘Jesus is my chainsaw! Come to Jesus! Bwhahahaha!’ But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. So I’m making it mine.

I have a deeply perverse and absurdist sense of humor. And for me, humor does have an important place in spirituality in general. So, while others might say Jesus is their savior, I say Jesus is my chainsaw. Jesus was a righteous dude, who stood up for ‘the least of these,’ threw the money-changers out of the temple, and died for what  he believed in… I don’t imagine him as a one-dimensional guy, but he could be pretty badass.

Savior? No. Teacher? Closer. Chainsaw? Hell yes.

Cloud Gate

Made it official: I am now a Buddhist. Not just philosophically, but with a teacher, and a lineage, and a dharma name, and everything.

John Cloud Gate Stoner. I asked for an English dharma name, just because I like the idea of participating in the larger encounter of Buddhism with the West, and I thought it would be appropriately symbolic. As Buddhism has moved from India, to China, to Japan, and other places, it has changed those cultures, and in turn been changed.

That’s what makes being a Buddhist now so exciting: the substance of that process is working itself out in this moment in the West. We are seeing new ideas emerge, spiritual innovations like Big Mind, the integral stuff, and so forth.

That’s not the whole reason I did it, but it’s one reason. Mostly I just wanted to put myself on a path of spiritual mastery in a committed way.

When I got home from the ceremony, one of my neighbors said he would have to start calling me ‘Bean.’ Cloud Gate is also the official name of ‘The Bean,‘ the sculpture in Millennium Park here in Chicago. We had a good laugh.

When he gave me the name, my teacher did not have that in mind. In the ceremony, called jukai, he spoke at length on the significance of the name. My memory is not clear, but here’s how I’d say it:

In Zen, clouds are symbolic of reality, or manifestation. They are boundaryless: it’s hard to say where they begin and end. They arise as a result of unseen processes. And they lack solidity; there is nothing to cling to in a cloud. So the world is.

Gates are also symbolic of awakening, or a choice to awaken. In the bodhisattva vow, we say ‘Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to open them.’ So at every moment we are faced with the choice to open the gate or not, and in taking the Bodhisattva Vow I am committed to opening it at every moment.

So a cloud gate would be a gate of formless form, leading continually into awakening. Well, that’s about the best I can do with it now. Perhaps Joshin will post to the comments.

Back from the Burn

I went to Burning Man this year. I survived. I had a lot of fun. Had some deep, life-changing experiences. I got home.

I went looking for more than a party. Something ill-defined, including a party, but more. Spiritual experiences. Creative and participative opportunities. Interesting people and art. Beautiful women. Found pretty much all that. No sex, no drugs, at least for me. Some things went very well, some not so much. But it was quite fulfilling.

My pictures are here.

My camp

Entheon Village is a big camp, about 400 people this year. The focus included green sustainability themes and a strong spiritual focus: the name means ‘a place to discover the spirit within.’ There were seminars, there were temples–a goddess temple and a zendo, there was visionary art, there were big parties with dj’s, there were people whose vision of spirituality was generally congruent with mine, people focused in different directions than I, and people I could quarrel with in small ways or simply enjoy their company. I generally chose the latter.

There were a lot of people engaged in shamanic or subtle-energy focused practices. Lots of art informed by various psychedelics. I met some folks who–shall we say–were exploring various states of mind. It was very interesting just to be with them.

I didn’t partake myself: I am looking seriously at having brain surgery soon. Didn’t think it was a good time to be messing with my brain in new ways. More about that in future posts.

I had some very intimate experiences, not sexual, just a relaxation of personal boundaries, interpersonal compassionate openings… difficult to describe in a satisfying way. With people under various influences, and not. Really beautiful to experience in a safe space. Entheon was like that, intimate, supportive, open. Lots of people who could just be loving without qualification or expectation.

Great people

Broadly, the mood at Burning Man was like that, a permeating sense of deep generosity. I think the gift economy aspect of the event creates that, a really welcoming atmosphere. As well as people who would do that in the first place.

One guy I met, Eddie Ray Watts, had this great sculpture project out on the playa, a beanstalk from the Jack and the Beanstalk legend. I took a few pictures of it, here’s one:


Eddie is a biochemist at Vanderbilt (I think?) working on some really cool combinatorial recombinant DNA stuff. Basically he’s developing techniques to produce protein varieties by the trillions, and test them against proteins that occur naturally in the body, trying to turn them on or off, thereby treating disease conditions. Expanding on current techniques, and reducing their cost.

And he makes this really cool art with his friends. I came up just as they were finishing and joined them at their camp for a beer. Very cool people. Lots of interesting cool people like that at Burning Man.

Attitude adjustment

I confronted the participative culture of Burning Man early. Entheon had a truck going out to Burning Man from Chicago. I requested a spot for some of my things, my tent, rebar, some clothes, and so forth. As the burn approached, I didn’t hear back about places and times to load stuff and so forth. I got concerned.

At this point, I had met the Entheon Chicago crew. Entheon is run out of Chicago, though it’s mostly people from all over the world. In particular I had met Koko, the guy running logistics. Koko is a great guy, and an odd combination of things. Very down-to-earth. Vegan. Makes his own clothes. Has a commanding presence, like a general on the battlefield. Long blond dreadlocks. Manages a lot of the Entheon operations.

Anyway, I was in the middle of a bitchy email to Koko and the relevant players, when I realized, ‘This isn’t really how I want to approach going to Burning Man, is it?’ Not to mention how that would go over with Koko. So instead, I started to ask, ‘Where can I help?’ Not that I could do much at that point. But it was my first point of real engagement with the spirit of the event. It was my camp too. Failures were mine too.

And that did carry through. I needed help with things–getting set up with my tent and stuff–and got it. They needed help, working in the kitchen, handling some positions–I stepped up. I brought some extra stuff–more rebar than I needed, an extra tent. I made it available. Because of my condition, my neck pulls my head down, so naturally I found moop. I picked it up. I did not rise to major player status in a 400 person camp, but I got in the spirit and pitched in.

I’d say the first burn was about getting a sense of what it’s like, and what you can accomplish in that environment. The second time, I’ll have to be more ambitious. I’m already getting ideas: shopping for hand-cranked ice-cream machines on ebay, plotting how to bike-power them, buying interesting toys on Sparkfun… my mind is racing.

While I met and worked with lots of people including Koko, I also have to call out the invaluable assistance of Kyle, who did most of the work setting up my tent. Kyle was creative, experienced, and resourceful, and set me up with a much more comfortable arrangement than I would have made by myself. Pepper, who was very busy managing electricity for Entheon–and dealing with exhaustion–took time out to make sure I got my camp properly broken down and shipped back to Chicago the night I left. Good help from good new friends.

And Crystal–totally, thank you for all your support, advice, artistic help, and friendship… you made the experience so much better, and the preparation so much more fun.

The defining moment

As great as the entire week was, I have to say the pinnacle was the first night. There was a full lunar eclipse, and the moon turned red, and the night sky lit up in a way I don’t get to see in Chicago. I lay on my back for a long time, looking at the Milky Way, thankful for this life. Like, in tears, no joke.

I went to Burning Man to mark the passage of turning forty. The experience was like the opposite of a midlife crisis: call it a midlife epiphany. I mean, life isn’t perfect right now, but it’s very, very good. I have a lot to be thankful for. I have a great family, good friends, a decent job, a lot of good things going on, and a lot of opportunities to help and support others. I’m starting to see the fruits of regular spiritual practice. Spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally, I’m in a very good place.

I can honestly say, I closed the distance in my mind between a party and a spiritual experience. The word that came to mind was ‘ananda,’ from the Sanskrit meaning a deep sense of spiritual bliss, beyond ordinary happiness.

Premature eburnulation

While I was having my epiphany, Paul Addis was allegedly burning the Man early. I couldn’t see it from where I was, and I’m glad. I was busy with something more important.

In and of itself, it was a great prank, or stupid and dangerous, depending on the facts as they emerge. I’m not that interested. I think he’ll get an aggressive prosecution, and an aggressive defense, and he’ll probably be dealt with fairly. He’s a lawyer himself, so he should be able to handle his situation.

I don’t think much of the point he was making. I’ve only been to Burning Man once, and I’m already bored of the chorus of old-timers protesting that ‘It’s just not the same,’ ‘Larry Harvey is an asshole,’ blah blah blah.

I want to say this with all due respect for those who have gone before, and full appreciation of some who were a great deal of help to me personally: This refrain is an ineffectual complaint. It doesn’t make any difference to the situation as it exists.

There’s some idea that Burning Man is turning into Disney: the participative culture is dying. It’s a spectator event.

I can’t speak at all to the Burning Man organizational issues Paul talked about. But I can see this much: it’s harder to provide participative openings as things scale up. Watch the current tv video of the Piano Trebuchet or the erection of the Crude Awakening oil derrick. I love it, but the scale of this stuff makes it hard to imagine participating. How do I pitch in when you’re setting up a 100 foot tower? How do I engage with that as art? It takes a bit more imagination: do I climb it, do I critique it, do I meditate upon it, do I draw pictures, do I have serious conversations with the artists…?

Or do I just look at it, dumbfounded at its mass, as it rises, stands, or bursts into flame? And how does an environment dominated by art like that invite or repel my own artistic aspirations? Am i inspired, or subtly intimidated?

I can see that there’s a problem, perhaps in the environment created now, perhaps in my response, and the responses I saw. Maybe there is a bad dynamic, suppressing the spirit that once was.

Here’s the thing: calling Burning Man ‘Disney’ does nothing to solve that or any problem or engage anything in a skillful way. Burning the Man early just invited more of the spectation that Paul wanted to criticize, and proliferated gossip, which is, again, rife with spectation. Truly creative gossip is fun, but rare. (Wish I’d thought of it when I was there: ‘Paul Addis and Larry Harvey were lovers and had a falling out…’) Trust me, it was not the wake-up call Paul had in mind.

Here’s one idea: organize a large number of novice artists, and display their work in a special collection on the playa. You could even create an online community for collaboration among different novice artists and projects. Maybe the Black Rock Arts Foundation could contribute small grants. Or not, maybe have some other financial base, or just let the artists raise their own funds. Maybe some of it will be less interesting, but it will get people engaged in making art.

Another idea: organize artists to design art to welcome and accommodate graffiti. You could establish some visual symbol that said ‘tag me.’

That’s just off the top of my head. There have got to be a million better responses than moaning about how much better it used to be. Ways to invite and engage people even as the event expands. Think, people.

Here’s another issue raised: as you scale up, there are new dynamics that come into play. It’s harder to be anarchic in a city of 40,000 than a group of 400.

I don’t have as useful a response to that as the other issue. I also come from a different value system from a lot of burners: I don’t have an issue with authority. I have an issue with authority misused or unfairly granted, but of itself it simply is. It has its time and place. I’m not an anarchist. I like my dad. And as I said, I don’t have any sense at all of the BMOrg issues. Maybe someone out there can pick that one apart better than I.

The bottom line is this: I don’t care how much better it used to be. I don’t give a shit about BMOrg politics. I care first and foremost about my own participation, and what I contributed (and will contribute next year) to the experience of others. The rest, to me, is secondary. And if Burning Man helps me deepen and broaden that spirit in my life, I call that success.

Thomas Aquinas and the Buddhists

If you ask me if I believe in God, I’ll usually say something like, “The short answer is yes. The long answer starts with, what do you mean by God, and what do you mean by me?”

‘What do you mean by God?” is a really important question, for another time. ‘What do you mean by me?” is the other central question. Even deistic religions must answer it, to define the relationship between the beleiver and his or her God.

Thomas Aquinas addressed the question, ‘What do you mean by me?” for most Christian traditions. His answer, simply put, was that we are sinners, connected to God only by his begotten Son. He derived this answer by way of Biblical inquiry: “What does the Bible say? How can we interpret it to understand our place in the world it defines?”

Other traditions make this inquiry in other ways. To my way of thinking, Buddhism has found the most satisfying way into the question. Instead of finding answers in a sacred text, Buddhism has established a centuries-long tradition of direct inquiry: “What is this thing called self? Why, I happen to have one right here. In fact, it’s me. Let’s look carefully at this thing called me. what is it? How does it work?”

One could debate whether the Buddhist direct inquiry is scientific. But it’s certainly closer than Biblical inquiry. If I want to understand the nature of DNA, I look at DNA, not the Bible. The main difference here is reflexivity: the mind studying itself.

What’s interesting is that a self can use its self-studies to further its development, alter and refine its perspective. Open itself, if you will. And as the mind deepens, the world looks different.

Even the Christian Bible reads differently. Jesus seems much more intelligible. We are struck more by His compassion than His sonhood. Whether or not we continue to beleive in His exclusive role, His example is more accessible.

Moreover, an inquiry into the nature of my self leads naturally to an inquiry into the nature of selfhood generally, which would include Jesus. What kind of self was Jesus? When he said, “I and the Father are one,” who was the “I” he spoke of? How was that self constituted?

The Christian tradition is not devoid of these insights. Meister Eckhart is a favorite Christian spiritual luminary. Jim Marion is a modern seeker who has written a very interesting book, “Putting on the Mind of Christ.” I hope to see the Christian tradition move in this direction.

political love

Author Chris Hedges, of the book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning was inteviewed in a recent edition of NOW with Bill Moyers.. This exchange occured:

MOYERS: How do you explain the phenomenon that while we venerate and mourn our own dead from say 9-11, we’re curiously indifferent about those we’re about to kill.

HEDGES: Because we dehumanize the Other. We fail to recognize the divinity of all human life. We— our own victims are the only victims that hold worth. The victims of the Other are sort of the regrettable cost of war. There is such a moral dichotomy in war…

I found myself agreeing, but strangely unsatisfied. It took a few minutes to figure out why.

Dehumanization is only half the story. Yes, it goes on even now, subtler than our “Get the Japs” posters of WW II. But humanization is work, too.

It’s not entirely natural for most people to “recognize the divinity” of every human being. It takes some work for us, or some event. I think the impact of 9/11 was so global because it was a massively visual event, and it happened where there were many people with cameras in the street.

There are other ways to cultivate “recognition of divinity of all human life.” I think the simplest is to dwell on it. To practice political love for everyone. Not neccesarily a sentimental or romantic love, but the simple decency called forth by the divinity of those around you. Practice political love, and continually expand the circle of those you give it to. Question your reasons for not giving it.