“Now who you jivin’ with that cosmik debris?”
My first sight of Minneapolis was from the car of a jovial Ojibwe woman who had picked me up outside the city and brought me to the Phillips neighborhood, and my first experience of the Native community there was when she dropped me off outside the Hi-Lake liquor store, pointed to a guy, and said, “Look, there’s an Ojibwe now! You can tell because he’s got no butt!” I had heard good things about the city, and over the next few days it grabbed the heart of this gnarly vagabond. On the basis of little more than a nice bike ride around the city with an old college crush, an evening in one of the many fine South Minneapolis community houses, and a bookstore where the prominently displayed books were about how to forage wild edible plants, I moved there. I had seen enough to know the place felt right. I was as free of personal connections in town as a Swedish immigrant freshly arrived from Ellis Island. But like that Swede, I found I did know some people who could help me get situated after all. A college friend of mine recommended I call Erica, a college friend of hers who I’d never known. Erica was living in a community house, and one of the few firm convictions I held at the time was that, for however long I was going to live in a city, I wanted to live in community. I had barely been in Minneapolis three weeks and already it seemed things might be coming together.
The first time I visited Sprout House was during their weekly open-to-the-community morning meditation. I skipped the meditation that day because meditation smelled too much like woo-woo; I came to the breakfast afterwards instead. There was a painting of a lotus blossom on the wall, and one attendee was a guy sitting on the living room floor wearing a wire-frame pyramid on his head. He said it helped concentrate energy into him. I immediately began developing misgivings. I’ve always been severely allergic to woo-woo. But the Sprouts clarified that going to meditation was entirely optional. Also, the pyramid-head guy didn’t actually live there. (I only ever saw him one more time, in passing.) And I had to admit everyone there seemed like great people. So I moved in.
Before focusing on learning indigenous language and land practices, it was time for me to just get the hang of living in a community house. Sprout House had a fluctuating membership of eight to ten people spread among the four floors of a huge duplex, with similarly fluctuating food-share systems and chore rotations. Part of a natural lifeway was the extended family unit. This was a pretty good facsimile of that arrangement, and also a decent approximation of some of the hippie communes, in case I wanted to learn experientially where they went wrong. Mostly, though, it was a nice place to live, where I had good friends just in the next room and the rent was cheap.
During the time I’d spent hitchhiking around the continent, I’d comfortably put the question of spiritual matters on the back burner, and besides the odd frisson of otherworldliness I got when entering, say, Notre Dame Cathedral, it seemed those questions were content not to raise themselves. But after a short while at Sprout House, I noticed that everyone but me, in some way or another, seemed to be seeking some kind of spiritual understanding of the world. Much of the house was Buddhists, and they had close ties to a local meditation center that people from the neighborhood attended on Sunday mornings just like church. One housemate, Sucharit, practiced a spinoff of Hinduism that he’d picked up back home in India called Ānanda Mārga, and would fill the house with the sound of his harmonium as he chanted Bābā nām kevalam.
And what’s more, none of them seemed actively crazy or ignorant. Sucharit had a doctorate in something like neurology, and was so unafraid of letting science get a hold of his religion that he was doing a research project involving brain scans of meditating people. Nobody tried to tell me that the Buddha created the Earth in seven days, or that if I didn’t meditate regularly I would go to Buddhist Hell. They just told me that meditating was a good way to get in touch with deeper parts of your being and different ways of understanding the world. They all had different ways of explaining what these deeper parts were—Emily might say they were mostly the subconscious; Makai might call the same thing the spirit; Sucharit called it all different aspects of Bābā, the one spirit or principle that underlies and pervades the universe. But all the different words they used seemed congruent, and none of them asked me to believe things that were provably false. And thus, with a mix of thrill and alarm, I realized there might be something out there called a religion that I could actually take seriously.
So I took some tentative steps into the water. I started meditating—very irregularly—and I even got something out of the experiment, though I would’ve been hard pressed to tell you what. Somewhere I found a copy of the Tao Te Ching, and found that it was not a bundle of dubious just-so stories, but a collection of levelheaded and deeply observant meditations on why the world is the way it is, and what we can do about that. Ideas like the Tao’s “Obedience to law is the dry husk of loyalty and good faith”2 and the Buddha’s “Attachment is the root of suffering”,3 once I understood them, explained a lot of life’s joys and pains—in a way I’d never seen science attempt. It was almost, I thought, as if religions didn’t set out to be scientifically accurate geobiological histories. Perhaps, I thought, they had entirely different goals from the very beginning. And a million imaginary theologians shouted, “Duh!” I revised my definition of religion to allow that some of them were in fact solid moral frameworks for navigating life.
This, in a way, solved two problems at once for me. On the one hand, it made believing in a religion at least admissible for me to consider, now that I’d found some things called religions that had helpful lessons and that I couldn’t dismiss out of hand. On the other, it put me within sight of a bridge, between taking nature as a guide on one hand, and on the other our puny human understanding of what nature is actually like.
I’d always gotten my morality from nature, or at least fancied that I had. To my mind, it was the only possible legitimate source for moral guidance. Even as a nominally Christian child, I discounted the Ten Commandments from the beginning. Honor thy mother and father. What if thy father be a wife-beating heroin junkie? But in nature all morality is decided on a case-by-case basis. Any decision or action is, at its most natural, like a patch of moss that happened to grow a certain way, from a tree that happened to grow on a nurse log, which happened to fall a certain amount of time ago, in a forest that happened to grow on a rainy coast, which happened to form by tectonic motion a certain number of eons in the past. Nothing is not contingent; no decision can be made without context, and the context for any decision is the entire universe. Yet without benefit of hard-and-fast rules, the moss is doing just what it should be doing. (As Lao Tzu would say, “Not one of the ten thousand things / fails to hold the Way sacred / or to obey its power.”)4
The trouble is that once you bring human consciousness into the picture, suddenly instead of just doing what nature would have you do, like any woodpecker does without thinking, your human brain starts going, and you get to wondering what exactly it is that nature would have you do—and by the time you wonder that, it’s too late to just know. Consciousness is neat and I’m quite happy to have it, but sometimes knowing a lot of things really gets in the way of knowing one thing. And so, a religion: a collection of the best wisdom from hundreds of years of people, from their most vivid moments of watching the ten thousand things, often with the acuity of Hafiz or Buddha, and it’s all there for you to fall back on at those times when you haven’t had your morning coffee yet and teasing out the correct decision from a whole universe of causes and effects just feels a little beyond you. It seemed, I had to admit, like something I could get into.
At the same time, it didn’t escape me that the religions I’d taken a shine to so far were exactly the ones that many people would insist are in fact only philosophies. On the topic of spirits, the supernatural—in the incarnations I’d met, these religions were silent. Or to the extent that they really were religions rather than philosophies, it was because their adherents took their wisdom to have bearing on dealings from another plane of existence besides the old physical world: if not a plane inhabited by legions of spirits, then at least one where there dwelt an emergent human “soul”, not definable or predictable just in terms of brain firings, its own thing that possibly even had priority over the physical body and mind.
And, I noted, those supernatural trappings were absent almost exclusively in the Euro-American sphere’s secularized, watered-down versions of these religions. In their native homes, Buddhism and Taoism can be found with pantheons of spirits just as surely as Hinduism and Shinto can. The Dalai Lama talks matter-of-factly about the possibility that he’ll choose to reincarnate in India instead of Tibet next lifetime around. So though every religion has its body of moral lore, it always seems to come accompanied by its strange bedfellows: spirits, souls, gods. These are the entities we usually figure are the real core of any religion. And yet they must be some kind of mistake.
But I couldn’t seem to find any satisfying morality that didn’t bring in at least a little of the supernatural. The devising of such a thing had been attempted, certainly. Social Darwinism, for example, much loved in the Gilded Age by rich sociopaths who liked its justification of both their richness (survival) and their sociopathy (being the fittest). Or today’s secular humanism, which pays as little regard to non-humans as the name suggests, in its breakneck quest for a middle-class lifestyle for everyone on Earth—and by so doing manages to eat itself by implicitly sanctioning the environmental destruction necessary to that goal, thus also the destruction of the very humans it professes to help, because they had the inadvisable habit of depending on functioning ecosystems to live. Even the better ones—the Tao’s philosophy, secular Buddhism—seemed more helpful the more you started embracing their metaphysical aspects. Buddhism can be just about training your brain, but it becomes much more compelling if you take its views on reincarnation to heart. Mark Nunberg, a Buddhist teacher (on a meditation retreat that I was eventually persuaded to go on), spoke about reincarnation to me and a group of twenty-odd Twin Cities liberals, and closed his thoughts on the matter with the reflection that it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s actually true, so long as you get some benefit out of behaving as though it were true. If your belief system encourages people to at least imagine they believe a certain thing about the hereafter, I’d say it’s begun crossing the line from philosophical to spiritual in nature.
Which is not to say (I hasten to add) that involving one or more divine powers automatically makes any moral system a good one. Far from it. I don’t think we have to catalog the ways in which Christianity, for instance, which rather makes a point of being more spiritual than rational-philosophical, has been used as the reason to exile, enslave, or kill not just individuals but entire continents full of people. In this country, Christianity is the religion you’ll most often hear talked about in that respect—since it’s “our own” religion and we feel more comfortable criticizing it—but elsewhere Islam is plenty well-known to be an excuse for enormities against women in Saudi Arabia and holy wars far and wide, and even Hinduism comes dragging its own baggage of sati (widow-burning) and at least countenancing the development of the caste system. Tim Minchin fields Buddhism:
- Somewhere in your house, I’d be willing to bet
- There’s a picture of that grinning hippie from Tibet—
- The Dalai Lama
- He’s a lovely, funny fella, he gives soundbites galore
- But let’s not forget that back in Tibet
- Those funky monks used to dick the poor (yeah)5
—alluding to the traditional serfdom there before China took over, in which monasteries (and other parties, like aristocrats) could require a family to send them one laborer per day year-round.6 In fact, finding human societies with what I would call a really commendable set of ethics, at least in the contemporary world, is a tall order, whether their ethical code involves anything supernatural or not.
But I did, I reckoned, have some justificaton in considering small, close-to-the-land, tribal communities to be at least somewhat better than other human arrangements. Of course when we consider ecology a part of ethics, as we must, these cultures had sterling records; they had in most cases coexisted with their landbases for thousands of years, sometimes tens of thousands (in the case of the southern African Bushmen cultures or the Australian Aborigines), without degrading it, a track record not claimable by Europeans or middle-Easterners, to say nothing of Euro-Americans. Socially, too, they had enough respect for egalitarianism and democratic decisionmaking that the framers of the U.S. constitution took inspiration from the Iroquois Federation’s success,7 and their quality of life was high enough that not only escaped slaves but a large number of chafing white colonists’ children escaped early American towns to go live with the Natives. Those escapees, even white ones, had to be tied up to be returned to the settler towns, while Indians brought to live among whites always left at their first opportunity.8
And these cultures I looked up to, one and all, had an understanding that the physical world was not all there is—that there were spirits everywhere. I had come far enough to accept that very philosophical, materialistic kinds of religion could be useful, and “useful” was as good a definition of “true” as I could use for such systems. If religions both worldwide and tribal all seemed to find value in believing the world was inhabited by “spirits”, might it be worth looking further into this matter of spirits, in case that, too, might have something for me to learn that I hadn’t suspected?
- Back to Deep Island, pt. 3: Indian Trails
- On to Deep Island, pt. 5: Stranger in a Strange Enclave
Zappa, Frank. Apostrophe (’), track “Cosmik Debris”. Los Angeles: Warner Music Group (Ryko), 1995. ↩
Le Guin, Ursula K. (trans.). Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, ch. 38. Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 2019. ↩
Bodhipaksa. “ ‘The root of suffering is attachment.’ ” Fake Buddha Quotes, March 11, 2013, fakebuddhaquotes.com/the-root-of-suffering-is-attachment/. (N.B.: despite the blog’s name, the quote is genuine; the post serves to authenticate its provenance.) ↩
Le Guin op cit., ch. 51. ↩
Goldstein, Melvyn. “When Brothers Share a Wife”. Natural History, pp. 39–48. Amer. Mus. of Natural Hist., 1987. ↩
Loewen, Rob. Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 103. New York, N.Y.: The New Press, 1995. ↩
Loewen op. cit., pp. 101–104. ↩