Interview by Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker
April 1996 for Spirit Matters
let's start this differently. What would you like to talk about?
truth is I always have more questions than I have answers. One of the things I
think about a lot is this proliferation of magazines and interest in what we call
the New Age phenomenon. It seems pretty obvious to me that the Judeo-Christian
paradigm isn't working for a lot of people. There are intellectual flaws in it,
and also some character flaws in the people practicing it. I see a lot of New
Age stuff as an attempt to come to terms with something that's real. Unfortunately,
I also see that the same character flaws that are making the Judeo-Christian world
view not work, are turning a lot of New Age practice into bullshit.
Everything to me boils down to practice.
Well you're a great
example. You have been practicing for a long time, as far as meditation, and in
your life. I always discover a real impeccability each time 1 rediscover you.
tend to think of myself as a sorry example, stumbling along with good intentions
and sincerity. The thing about practice is you can be pretty sure that if you're
not working on your character, the world is eroding it. I mean the level of temptation,
indulgences and distractions that are available to us are extraordinary. If you
don't have a rudder, or some kind of an outrigger to keep you straight, you're
hardly to be blamed for being confused.
I just came back from spending the
last two days watching some Pueblo Dances out in the Southwest. The scope of what
these people do is so broad, it encompasses the most profound intention of establishing
some kind of meditative relationship with the energies of the universe, and also
the most bawdy, hysterical play acting, social instruction, and the discipline
of children. Compared to that, anything I have seen in Western European Culture,
except for little off-shoots like the Quakers, and some of the religious communities,
is just a thin soup.
How did you get interested in Buddhism?
I was spending
time with Indian people, and finally realized that they were never going to really
make me one of them because I had no tribe. I chose Buddhism because it was a
world religion, and they had to take me.
"When you go home they have to
take you in." Do you remember that statement?
They take you, as long as
you follow the rules of the community. One of the first things I noticed about
the Buddhist community, that's also true of primitive communities, in fact, it's
true of anything that works, is that it's made up of a series of practices. Even
early Orthodox Judaism used a series of practices. They had something like 600
single minded devotional prayers that you had to say daily.
single biggest difference between these communities and us, "us" meaning
the whole Western ragtag, is the notion of reciprocal obligation. That's the thing
that, for me, is totally missing from all the New Age bullshit. The structural
problem with the golden rule is that it allows you, if you are a misogynist who
doesn't want to be around people, to behave independently and ignore everyone.
In any old and stable community you have obligations; to the old, to the sick,
to the children, to the rest of the community, to the universe to which you are
connected on every level. To me, the New Age is basically the transference of
capitalist greed into a spiritual dimension.
In a lot of ways that's true.
go into this or that for personal power, for personal aggrandizement, for personal
something. I hear very few teachers, institutions, whatever, talking about obligations,
how you manifest your obligations, how you turn it from being brain candy into
a living act. The thing I look for when I meet teachers and people, and look at
institutions, is the daily practice that keeps them centered. When picking the
vegetables in the garden, what do they owe the vegetables? What do they owe the
garden? What do they owe the water, the sun light, the clouds, the moisture, the
force of germination in the seed? Because they wouldn't exist without them. The
self is built of all non-self elements, so the idea of independent existence is
just a fiction. Yet we've grafted new and jazzy spiritual practices on top of
an absolutely adolescent notion of unlimited freedom. What freedom means in the
American context is, "without limits."
So that something like "You
can have it all," really should be, "You already have it all, now how
are you going to take care of it?"
Yeah, how are you going to pay it back.
How are you going to express it. You can know everything, but if you can't express
it in your life, it's just brain candy.. ideas that you feed and nourish in the
realm of the intellect...
But you don't do a damn thing about them in your
I'm not talking about joining the Sierra Club. I'm talking about the
way you empty the water out of a pot. Do you throw it away like it's nothing,
or do you say good-bye to it, in effect? You know what I mean? Thank it for it's
use and pour it in such a way that you're expressing your respect to it.
how long have you been sitting in meditation everyday?
I wish it was everyday.
It's not everyday.. .But over the course of twenty years, it's been my constant
practice. Because you know, sometimes I'm on the road and when I can't sit, rather
than make myself crazy, I make other things my meditation.
Life becomes your
Well I don't want to attribute qualities to myself that sound great,
that I'm not actually doing. The notion of practice doesn't mean that you are
perfect. It means that when you lose track of your breath, you bring yourself
back to it. When you stumble, and lose your temper, you know how to correct yourself
quickly. There are little practices, like when a phone rings, before I answer
it, I try to take one breath and let it out, consciously, so when I pick up the
phone, I'm really there.
And when you're working?
There's a lot of concord
between Zen practice and acting. Zen practice takes you down to ground zero. It's
like having a clean piece of paper with which you assemble a character. The truth
is, once you've gotten the character, the way he walks, his posture, his dialect,
his accent, the process still comes down to being in the moment. You take impulses
from the environment, your nervous system, and the other actors. When I was younger,
I spent a lot of time and effort trying to create a counter culture parallel world
that was going to be purer, better.. perfect. I realized at a certain point that
you can never pour a quart of water into a pint pitcher.
The world is the world,
and everything is in it. On a Hollywood film set, in a recording studio, wherever
I am, that's the world. The same passions, greed, hatred, and delusions are blowing
through that universe as any other, and the most I can do is to consistently reach
for the most enlightened possibility. I think that is doing the work. A caveat
is, that if enlightened possibilities is your goal, there is certain work that
is probably inherently inappropriate. I probably wouldn't be a bartender, or in
the business of deliberately creating a need that's not healthy, or disguising
the defects of something not healthy, but those are personal spiritual decisions
that people have to make for themselves.
I know about your green tea habit.
Do you believe diet is important, or is it more the respect that we bring to the
I believe that the fact that we have to eat to live creates reciprocal
obligations. I don't make a lot of distinction between the life of a broccoli,
and the life of a rabbit.
It's all energy.
I just try not to take more than
I need. I don't eat a lot of meat, because not having a tough, hard labor existence,
I don't need a lot of meat. It just doesn't work to take vegetarianism as a world
wide goal, however, or one would exclude the Eskimos. The task is to be completely
grateful for what you do receive, and try to come up with some reciprocity. How
do you express it? In my case, I try to say grace before I eat, and I feed a lot
of animals at my house... Two foxes, six coons, a skunk, and innumerable birds.
I'm living where they lived, and I've taken up a bunch of their space and habitat.
I've tried to cut certain kinds of fences on my property so that deer can get
through to have water.
You do what you can with the knowing that without the
whole world, there would be no self . We wouldn't be here without the oyster.
We wouldn't be here without pollinating insects. We wouldn't be here without sunshine,
and we wouldn't be here without other people laboring to serve us. How do you
express that gratitude? So when we're sitting, having our new age haute cuisine
I wonder what we've done for the farm workers
lately. Those people who are working with short handled hoes, noxious chemicals,
and don't even have bathrooms out in the fields. How are we expressing our relationship?
Paul Hawken, once said he would rather spend fifty cents a pound more for organic
brown rice in the super market, than give a hundred dollars to the Sierra Club,
because when you support organic food, you're already supporting the insects,
the birds, and the water, and what have you.
I try to recycle.
I try to do all those things, but you know, the other thing is, keep your car
an extra ten years, turn off the lights, and don't run the water when you're shaving
or brushing your teeth. Don't waste! Live in a smaller house. (he laughs) People
don't want to hear that, you know. I mean, Americans buy storage units to store
extra snow mobiles, while most people in the world spend half the day gathering
enough twigs for one fire, for one hot meal. It's a zero sum game, if people here
are really serious about compassion and the environment. Americans have to lower
their net use of energy and calories. It doesn't have anything to do with being
poor, it doesn't have anything to do with being inelegant.
It definitely means
cutting down indulgence in our lifestyles, and if we are not doing that, it's
brain candy. I can't tell you how many benefits for the environment I've attended
where the catering table would feed an Ethiopian village for a month; in somebody's
6000 sq. ft. house, with all the lights and air conditioning on. It's the nineties
equivalent of socialite charity balls. That's not going to cut it.
How do you
feel about the role of books and magazines or electronic publications such as
I have to give them benefit of the doubt. A lot of my early
pursuits began by reading. But finally, without a practice, "ideas"
will desert you in a pinch.
Sure, reading is only helpful if it inspires people
to change their lives.
It might be interesting to have a reference list of
communities with legitimate teachers, where people can go to get a sense of old
practices and disciplines.
Let's start one now. Who would you put on it?
thinking of people like Jack Kornfeld, at Spirit Rock.
We can invite readers
to E-Mail their suggestions, and have a growing list of real communities published
each month. That might really be helpful.
Yes. Real communities, because for
me, these people who are channeling dead people, and astro-beings, and a lot of
these New Age practices are thinner than gruel.
Who has been your most inspiring
Well, I guess in one way, it would be Suzuki Roshi who I never actually
studied with, but whose community I lived in for a long time. That community has
been a big teacher. The schedule of a monastery is wisdom, over and above whoever
is in charge of it. It's the way the day flows.
What kind of schedule are they
You're up about five in the morning, and you meditate for about 45 minutes,
and then you go to service and then cleaning. There is a work day, and at the
end of the day, there's meditating. There is service, and it's early to bed. The
day is arranged to allow for the maximum of meditation you can do, and still take
care of your affairs. So community has been my teacher.
Snyder has been a big example to me. He is a friend that I have watched and admired
over the years, who has managed to integrate all the levels of personal practitioner,
householder, community member, and artist into himself Also there's my teacher
Robert Aitkens and his disciple Nelson Foster. Then strangely enough, out of left
field, Carlos Castaneda's books have been something that I have been reading,
and thinking about, and integrating with Buddhist practice for more than 20 years.
Certain experiences that were in the books synched with my meditation experiences.
Ways in which I understood parts of the books were an indigenous expression of
truths I had encountered in Buddhist practice.
Well, I have a couple of the
commercial audio tapes of your reading Castaneda's books, and they're a treasure.
Are you doing Castaneda's Tensegrity movements?
Yeah, oh yeah.
about sound? Does music influence you a lot?
I have always loved music. I've
been a songwriter and guitar player for a long time.
I didn't know that. Have
you also recorded music?
I have, but not commercially. A few years ago I made
some tapes of songs I had written during the communal days, and I mailed them
as Christmas presents to a bunch of old friends who had asked me about my songs
over the years. The tape got popular. I went through over a thousand of them,
(laughter) and got into a second printing. It's sort of a "Digger" tape,
you know, free and only for friends. I guess I would rather be a talented amateur
then a second rate professional.
If you could change one thing about yourself,
what would it be?
The thing I've worked on changing the most is rage. Explosive,
learned as a child, you know, and hard to get rid of The positive side is anger
at injustice and ignorance, the negative side of it is just indulgence.
at brain candy?
Yeah, and you know, I'm just cranky. I get angry. (laughter)
It's just my way of obliterating things I don't like. It's a very egocentric perspective.
the best thing about yourself?
I think it's a willingness to pull the rug out
from under my own feet. To look and consider the possibility that something I
think, or feel, could be wrong, and then to look at the ramifications of that.
I guess the first wish would cover everything, which would be universal
enlightenment.. but failing that, (laughter) my biggest wish would be that people
would realize that the Earth is alive, down to it's deepest recesses. It's alive
in invisible realms. I wish people would wake up and begin observing and respecting
That alone would change everything.
I guess my third wish would be
that my country softened some of its muscular aggressiveness, and replace it with
something a little more receptive and sensitive.
Do you think that would bring
us into more of a male/female balance?
I think that men and women are really
each other's dark side. I don't mean dark in the negative sense, I mean shadowed.
When I love a man, I'm actually loving characteristics about him that I can understand:
courage, honor, discipline . A woman is different territory. I think that the
only way that you can work it out with women, is to be willing to relinquish control,
to not be in charge. Women have a genius about relationships, that I certainly
can't match, so I have two choices: I can either talk about sports scores, cars,
and computers. Things that can be quantified and numbered to reaffirm my sense
of control. Or, I can accept being out of control, and hopefully learn to be more
graceful with it. That's the path I've chosen in my life because it works for
I think that we can't have harmonious relations between men and women when
we are living in a culture with an exploiting, and ravaging world view. I think
the way we treat the environment is the way we treat each other. The way we treat
third world people is the way we treat each other. The way we treat the weak and
the helpless, is the way we treat each other and that's why I wish for a softening.
We are exploiting the shit out of the rest of the planet for our own indulgence.
We're putting ourselves first. So why shouldn't that be the case in any of our
human affairs? If I'm dealing with you, and you're making me uncomfortable, and
yet in every other aspect of my life, my personal comfort is the highest priority,
why should I defer to you, why should I lose my sense of power? So I don't think
men and women can make it in an exploitative, rapacious environment.
Does that mean your relationship is going well?
Going very well.
Elizabeth Gaylynn Baker, of Deep Spirit
Productions in Los Angeles, conducts
celebrity interviews for several
national magazines, works in film production
and is completing her
first documentary film, WHEN BUFFALO ROAM. She can be
(213)365-6006 or by e-mail at email@example.com
of Deep Spirit Productions in Los Angeles, designed
SPIRIT MATTERS. He also
designs music videos, and is completing his
first documentary film, WHEN BUFFALO
He can be reached at (213) 223-6910 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org