Religion and Philosophy
Twenty years ago I had my first and only mescaline trip in a remote part of the Himalayas that borders India and Nepal. I had already traveled and studied Tibetan Buddhism in India for three years. I had read Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s book on psychedelic experience, which they compared with the Tibetan bardo, or after-death realm. When I actually ran into Alpert — now known as Ram Dass — in a small town in northern India, the meeting seemed fortuitous.
What are you going to do? I mean really: what are you going to do? Do you actually believe anything is going to stop the drift toward disaster? The drift of an entire planet? Do you actually believe we’re going to be saved? Everything is heading straight to hell, the whole thing is falling apart, the whole world is going insane. Do you really believe all this can be halted or reversed? It’s too late, it’s all over. Just dig it.
A Hard Look At The New Age
There is no “new age,” or every age is a “new age.” Every randomly defined period of history is (of course) “new” when it is happening; yet all periods of history are subject to the eternal return of events and meanings. If we try to name the features by which observers declare a present new age, we find only some of the oldest and most conservative human activities: millennialism, the sacred earth, channeling and mediumship, communication with nonhuman entities, ritual participation in food and medicine, faith healing, and shamanism. These were also hallmarks of the so-called Sixties revival, a new age which was partially eclipsed by the materialism of the late Seventies.
Flies are constantly present in human life. They investigate the baby’s diaper and have to be shooed away from the dying grandmother’s face. They cannot be ignored. Our tenderest and most passionate moments, our deepest intuitions of transcendental intelligence — all are likely to contain the familiar sound of little wings buzzing on glass.
Zen is a religion for adults, although even adults have a hard time getting the hang of it. Children don’t need to understand it because they live it. That’s a paradox — a Zen paradox. In the perfect world of logic, paradoxes can’t exist. But in real life, they flourish. And Zen is, more than most religions, here-and-now oriented. It has to be: for Zen, there is no hereafter.
Feeling my way toward some understanding of the mystery of death, I find that I must begin by talking about my mother. She was my beginning, at least in this life. Her appearance in my room immediately after she died in a hospital, one-hundred-eighty miles away, was the only time I can say with certainty that I interacted with a “ghost” while I was wide awake.
I start the day with coffee again. Or did I start it when I opened my eyes? When I stopped dreaming? When my daughter started her day, and began to cry? My wife is out of bed and across the room in one fluid motion, returning with Mara in her arms, and the three of us lie in the bed Mara was born in, just a year ago. Not a bed, really, just a foam mattress on the floor — but our bed, as this house is our home, these movements a morning, these days a life, our lives the pivot of creation, turning the raw stuff of the cosmos into a bed, a home.
When her father died five years ago, Alice had a dream that gave her a great deal of comfort. Her father was sitting at the end of the bar in MacDonald’s — where the owner later put up a little brass plaque with his name on it — and Alice came in and tugged at his sweater to ask him for nickels for the pinball machine. In the dream she was still her age, sixty-two, but at the same time she was somehow a little girl. Her father gave her a roll of nickels and smiled at her, and as she watched he began taking off his clothes. He removed his button-down sweater, the yellow golfing shirt and the blue-and-white striped trousers, and when he’d taken off his boxer shorts he peeled out of his skin. Underneath there was nothing — nothing, at least, that corresponded to bones or organs — just a series of quick sparks, like someone’s lighter that wouldn’t quite work. That was her father now, and as she watched him leave the shell of his body behind — somehow it had taken on the colors of his clothes, so that it looked like a deflated beach ball there on the cracked leather stool — Alice saw that death was no big deal.