Saturday, April 22, 2006

Zen Radio (and Disney)

(This is a post from my own blog that I thought some here might enjoy)

I was recently in Disney World, invited to attend a press event, awards ceremony and the grand opening of their Expedition Everest ride because I had collected some new species of beetles in China on a Disney - funded Conservation International expedition. Disney did an awesome job, thanks to Joe Rohde, executive designer at Walt Disney Imagineering and lead designer of Disney's Animal Kingdom, on the Tibetan & Himalayan details of their Everest ride. Who would have thought one would find a Tibetan Buddhist mani stone pile, complete with prayer flags, in Disney's Animal Kingdom? (see my pic above).

I'd never been treated like VIP before so this was a real treat. It was exciting to get to meet some celebrities (Disney held an awards ceremony to honor conservationists) - including a hero of mine since 4th grade, Jane Goodall. My wife and family came as well, although we're not normally 'theme-park' type people, we had a great time. John Cleese was there too although he claimed he shouldn't have been since he was "just an aging british comedian" rather than a conservation biologist. We sat behind John at the awards ceremony and I thought "Is this anything like what I'd imagine it'd be?" "Is being so close to a real TV / movie star as thrilling as one might imagine it'd be?" and the answer, of course, was no. John Cleese is just a guy, like me or anyone else. There is no aura of stunning wonder and happiness that radiates from him to all those around him or anything. Of course this is the case. My children don't understand this concept though (I think they think celebrities don't need to use the toilet or something). And from a Zen perspective it makes perfect sense as well - the only thing 'special' about a celebrity is what you ADD to them with your mind. You see and sense a person near you. There are people all around but if you use your memory and your mind you can add all sorts of special thoughts about this ONE person. I found that sometimes I'd forget I was so close to John Cleese and then find myself reminding myself - "Hey, that's John Cleese, he's famous, you should be feeling some awe or something..." Ha.

Well, being at Disney as a special guest for this event was fun but I had work to do as well. There was a species of beetle in Florida I wanted to collect for my research. I had arranged with an entomology grad student before hand to meet me about an hour west of Orlando in some good natural habitat where I might find my target organism. This was also a real treat for me - driving away from the city, the entire Disney 'magic' thing, and getting into the real world, with real mosquitoes and real mud. (Reminding myself that Disney is just as real as the mud of the forests...but I still find the mud more appealing sometimes :). There were tall trees and lots of them, grass and lilies, woodpeckers and yes, my beetles. But as I drove out through the Floridian landscape I noticed that the people there are VERY Christian. There were churches everywhere and lots of Christian radio stations too.

One of the churches had a sign that struck me as odd. It said "IF YOU'RE NOT GOOD FOR GOD, YOU'RE GOOD FOR NOTHING". Wow! How insulting! It took some thought to realize that perhaps the real message wasn't so insulting. Perhaps the intention was that if you are behaving in a good way, but aren't doing it for the Christian deity, then you are doing it for no 'deity' or person in particular - you are being "good for nothing" in particular. Another, perhaps more selfish, slant on it is that if you are being good for some reason other than the Christian deity you are wasting your time since you won't make it into the Christian heaven. But the most obvious and insulting interpretation is that you are worthless if you aren't being good for the Christian deity. That is quite a statement. What real Christian could endorse such a statement?

But the Christian radio stations stunned me as well. It seemed like there were more of them than normal radio! I had trouble finding a station that wasn't playing Jesus music. This got me thinking - what would a Zen radio station be like? The answer was obvious - all radio stations - even Christian ones - are zen. Really? How could they not be? Zen is not about dividing the world into good "acceptable" things and bad things. Even a station that is based on censorship like these Christian radio stations fall into REALITY AS WE KNOW IT. We can't exclude them because they are so narrow in their preferences.

But then I thought - there are plenty of songs out there that seem to match up with Buddha's teaching, couldn't there be a station that preferred these sorts of songs? Here's an example of one of these songs (I don't actually know the author - perhaps 10,000 maniacs? but this one has been covered a lot):

I could feel at the time
There was no way of knowing
Fallen leaves in the night
Who can say where they're blowing
As free as the wind
And hopefully learning
Why the sea on the tide
Has no way of turning

More than this - there is nothing
More than this - tell me one thing
More than this - there is nothing

It was fun for a while
There was no way of knowing
Like dream in the night
Who can say where we're going
No care in the world
Maybe I'm learning
Why the sea on the tide
Has no way of turning

More than this - you know there's nothing
More than this - tell me one thing
More than this - you know there's nothing

More than this - you know there's nothing
More than this - tell me one thing
More than this - there's nothing

ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh

There are plenty of other examples - but this song is a perfect example. "There is nothing more than THIS". Perfect Zen.

On a slight tangent about Christian censorship: a good friend of mine grew up under communism in Poland. He and his friends were unable to get a copy of George Orwell's 1984 in bookstores because, of course, the government didn't want the people reading such subversive literature. However, he and his friends were eventually able to get a copy - one that had been typed by hand and passed from person to person secretly. He was able to read the entire thing this way. Once communism was replaced and they had a more sane form of government with more freedom my friend went to a bookstore to use his new freedom to purchase a copy of Orwell's 1984. The copy that he bought, however, had been censored by the Church - all references to sex had been removed from it because this was deemed inappropriate by the Christian church! The irony should be obvious... (and the tie-in with Christian radio should also be obvious).

Last night I went to see a performance by two awesome guitar players - Jacob Moon and Andrew Smith who were playing in our town. Their skill with the guitar was, well, beyond anything I've seen done live. They finished the night with a song that Andrew chose which I can't seem to find the name of on the web unfortunately - but it was also very Zen. The song began with a description by some ordinary Joe who was recalling his youth in church and how they had the holy sacraments and the sacred scriptures etc. but then moved to his elder, present self, in which 'everything is sacred' (this was the chorus) - even the bird singing outside his window. Another contrast was made with things being miraculous - as a youth the bible instructed him on the miracles of the red sea parting and the whole water into wine thing, but now, he sees everything as a miracle. Just being alive and walking to work, a miracle.

Zen masters tend to use the equivalent phrase 'Nothing sacred' rather than 'Everything sacred' perhaps because of the more negative / impermanence / 'all is illusion' slant that Buddhists settle into. This contrast seems to be something worth exploring deeper. I'd start with the notion that if one takes the 'everything sacred' approach then this could lead one to a grasping and protective approach to all matter "Don't touch that sacred pebble! Don't eat that potato chip without realizing it's sacred too! Be careful with that sacred toilet paper!" Whereas the Zen phrasing 'nothing is sacred' makes everything equal and even does away with the very notion of sacred itself. This notion has inherent in it the idea that some things are more special than others - and that notion is a major block to seeing reality as it is.

I recall a comedian, I think Steven Wright, saying he "had a wonderful sea-shell collection" with the punch-line being "I keep it scattered on the beaches of the world." Hey, so do I!


At April 23, 2006, Blogger Drunken Monkey said...

I enjoyed this post very much. Thanks for sharing.

At April 23, 2006, Blogger karen said...

I am originally from outside the Philadelphia area near Lancaster County Pa. We would regularly take trips to "Amish Country" when it was time to buy seeds for planting etc. On one of the most dangerous roads in the area, on a bad curve there was a billboard that declared "Jesus Saves". It always made me think that we were going to be in an accident and that we had better make good with Jesus really quick. The road, Route 10, had very steep hills and terrible curves and was traveled heavily by 18 wheel trucks and it had a history of fatal accidents. So, I guess they knew where to solicit for customers! But it was like that throughout the "Pennsylvania Dutch Country". I don't see much of that where I am now, but it brought back memories of when I was a kid.

At April 23, 2006, Blogger healthyscratch said...

Well, Brad might be "just a guy, like me or anyone else", but I defy anyone to watch their Fawlty Towers boxed DVD set and tell me that John Cleese is not worthy of worship.

Thanks for your enjoyable post.

At April 23, 2006, Blogger Justin said...

Everything we feel about others is projected from us as individuals and societies. Whether John Cleese is 'worthy or worship' or not, sometimes we get to glimpse through the glow of celebrity and see that they are just human being like us. Why are we surprised to realise that?

At April 23, 2006, Blogger Jinzang said...

The song lyrics you quote are from a Roxy Music song. It's the late Roxy Music, whose songs sublimated into a romantic mist and disappeared into the ether. I like the lyrics too and had them in my email signature once. There's lots of "Zen" lyrics if you look for them. My current favorite is

If you want to see something
Look straight ahead

from "Sadistic Years" by Moev.

Christians can be closed minded and smug, but so can anyone. including Zen Buddhists. If you look for bad qualities in people you'll find them and if you look for good qualities you'll find them as well.

On the sacredness of everything, my favorite quote is from the very Catholic fantasy writer Gene Wolfe:

What struck me on the beach--and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow--was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck across so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in everything, in every thorn in every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred sand because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and even touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground.

At April 23, 2006, Blogger me said...

Christians can be closed minded and smug, but so can anyone. including Zen Buddhists. If you look for bad qualities in people you'll find them and if you look for good qualities you'll find them as well.

Good point.

At April 26, 2006, Blogger aumeye said...

I am a little late on this post, but I wanted to add that, yes, this song was done by Roxy Music, but also covered by a later version of 10,000 Maniacs (without Natalie Merchant). I have always LOVED the song and was so happy to discover this way of looking at it (so to speak). I guess I've not been attentive to the lyrics in a long time, and have not listened to the song since I began my practice, so this post allowed me to appreciate it anew. By the way, I enjoy both versions of the song, but prefer the one by 10,000 Maniacs.

Me, you managed in one post, to remind me of TWO things I love: More Than This, and Steven Wright. And yes, that IS his joke. Thank you Me. Great post!

At April 26, 2006, Blogger me said...

Thanks aumeye for the compliment & info on the music & joke. I recall last hearing that song sung karaoke style by Bill Murray in a movie I really liked - 'Lost in Translation' (which had a lot of subtle zen-like aspects to it as well).

At April 27, 2006, Blogger aumeye said...

Ah Me, you did it again; I must tell you that I, too, really liked Lost in Translation. And, once again, I forgot about Bill Murray doing that song in the karaoke scene. Now that you mention it, though, I remember at the time, getting a real kick out of that.


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