Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair

The death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair shocked me, but not because it happened: after all, as Lona Manning has pointed out in her thorough, extraordinary article, "The Murder of Madalyn Murray O'Hair," she was, at the time of her death, "America's Most Hated Woman" at No, what surprised me was the libelous inuendi flying fast and thick as hurled by the press and other media; that, and the bizarre banality of her murder as illustrated once some truth came out.

I met Ms. O'Hair at an East Texas debate between herself and a cracker evangelist from Bob Harrington, who billed himself "The Chaplain of Bourbon Street" and challenged O'Hair to a debate a la Bryan versus Darrow. The crowd appeared to have been 'bussed in" (progressive code words meaning a claque). They cheered, clapped, and yelped at everything Harrington said and booed, hissed, snickered, and mocked everything Ms. O'Hair said.

New York
magazine had sent me to assess the situation on the ground, and it was my opinion that Harrington was banging the pert blonde bimbo who posed as his press agent. After all, when you stroll the saloons in America's most dedicated party city, you get dirty. As the say in Mexico, when you lie down with dogs, you sometimes get fleas. Harrington was a James Garner type who just reeked hypocrisy. This was pre-Bakker-Swaggert, but Harrington talked like they did, smiled broadly like they did, and looked like he stepped right out of the pages of a novel by Sinclair Lewis. I found interviewing him impossible: he was a True Believer and had his own one-woman choir. Think Sarah Palin dyed platinum blonde.

There were times during the one "debate" I sat through when I thought I was Daniel in the lions' den. I was surrounded by slavering herd mentality alpha primate types who would just as soon rush the stage and strangle Ms. O'Hair -- a "Kill an Atheist for Christ" kind of thing -- as listen to her poke fun at the "Good Book" and dare to question the lunatic theory that this planet was created by a supernatural being six thousand years ago, meaning that man once walked with dinosaurs. It occurred to me, Have any of these people studied biology and geology? but I was keeping my opinions to myself as best I might.

((To be continued.))

Thursday, December 25, 2008

X-Mess 2008, c.e.

As I write, I am listening to the John Elliot Gardner version of St. John's Passion by Bach. Now, as it is X-Mess today (12/25/08), it might be asked, what is an atheist listening to Christian music on Christmas Day? And, why am I, an atheist, playing an Easter liturgical work, performed by Bach at Leipzig on Good Fridays? It's not enough I'm listening to a work befitting another occasion, placing Jebus's death before his birth as it were, it might be seen the height of hypocrisy for a non-believer to sit enjoying a work of spiritual inspiration.

Aha! It is a mistake to think that just because a person is irreligious, he or she cannot be spiritual nevertheless. Other atheists, including Harris and Hitchens, Dawkins and others, have ably explained why it is possible for me to experience a union with humanity during a religious festival in October in Cuetzalan, Mexico, but come home just as convinced as ever that Jebus, too, evolved from forms much lower than apes and that the evidence against the possibility of a supreme being are overwhelmingly countered by more logical, sane arguments against his or her factual authenticity.

Whether one plays Easter choral works at Easter or at X-Mess (as I've called it for ages, now) makes absolutely no difference; not speaking German, I have no idea what the Monteverdi Choir is singing about, I only know that I regard choral music as sublime. And, you know, they don't get any more sublimer than Gardner's Bach. Even my old dog, Yemaya, knew the difference between Metallica and classical music; both she and I believe that the former is Dionysian and repetative, while the latter hath charms to sooth the savage breast. When I listen to loud popular music I think of poor Caliban, hearing thousands of jangly sounds in the night.

And when you think about it, if Jebus is Alpha and Omega, when you reach the latter, you are by very reason alone planted firmly in the former. Here was a dude born for one thing and one thing only: death. In the Martin Scorsese movie (from ex-Calvinist screewriter Paul Schrader and novelist Nikos Kazantsakis), The Last Temptation of Christ, Saul-Paul tells Jebus "You're worth nothing to us alive. You're dead." That Kazantsakis was a heretic is beyond question, but his canonical satire is pure Gnostic. The more outre sects actually believed Jebus survived the Crucifixion and wandered the earth for many years. Some say he is buried in Srinagar.

Now, that would be exciting if true. But the religious boobs came along and poisoned things: today, Srinigar is the center of one of the world's most war-torn regions, as hot a bed of murderous sectarian violence as the Gaza. And it's the same old conflict. The conflict between Hindus and Muslims (or, in Palestine, Jews and Muslims). The grave of the Messiah in Srinagar is a place of pilgrimage for all three faiths. This makes it as much a symbol of religious strife as the Temple Mount of the Dome of the Rock.

Praise God and pass the ammunition. Any thug can cherry pick scripture and find passages justifying the most grotesque and macabre treatment of others whose god you personally dislike. Peace on earth is a phantom so long as we are perpetually accompanied by the two children huddled under the robes of Christmas Present in Dickens' Carol: Ignorance and Want. Ignorance of what religion is and such social forces as unemployment and famine. If the Vatican is so adamant about feeding the hungry, why doesn't it sell off its treasury of great art and its gold reserves?

In a few hours I will eat turkey with friends who will say a prayer. I must go along, of course, falling short of saying Amen, because although I agree with the well-wishings of the pious person intoning the inauguration of the table dome, I do not agree my message will be heard by "God." I can be as spiritual as I wish without going to a church, cathedral, synagogue or mosque.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Altar at Jamay & Other Madnesses of Crowds

Tony Burton, in his excellent Western Mexico: A Traveller's Treasury, recounts the tale of a priest, Jose Maria Zarate, who became so enamored of Pope Pious IX that he erected a "wedding cake" stele in the plaza of Jamay, Michoacan, Mexico. Burton says that "few towns outside Italy and the Vatican can boast papal monuments on this scale": the pope pillar is over 111 feet in height, about thirty yards of a football field. Built during three years of the 1870's, the tower depicts Pious's birth, early years, appointment as archbishop, imprisonment by King Victor Emmanuel in 1870, and writings, including his explanation of the Immaculate Conception and his explanation of the concept of the infallibility of papal authority.

Then, Burton laments the "cost" of the monument: "...The priest responsible for this monument paid for it by selling the superb baroque high altar of his eighteenth century parish church; its whereabouts today are unknown."

It would be interesting to speculate on the whereabouts and circumstances of the "superb baroque high altar," but what is certain is that the story illustrates the arbitrariness and capriciousness of the clergy and the gullibility and naivety of the faithful. Any student of religion knows that the decor and aesthetic appeal of a place of worship and its accoutrements -- especially an altarpiece -- is as essential to inspiration as the theatrical enunciations of the celebrant, the wafting of frankensense and other burnt offerings, and the organ and choral music; in short, everything necessary to production in the congregation a discrete altered states (d-ASC).

Sell the alter, you're selling millions of prayers. You're selling a venerated object. You're selling a collector of hopes, wishes, desires. Forget the parishoners, promulgate a pope. One is left with the one question: Why?

Henry Ford said "history is bunk." (Of course, he did all he could to alter history, even supporting the rise of Adolph Hitler -- but that is another blog.) Santayana said we must learn from history if we don't wish to repeat it. I'll take Santayana any day. Now, what about the history of Pope Pious IX?

What history tells us about Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti is that he was the last pope to hold "temporal" powers. To put it country simple, he symbolized pro-theocratic wealth-grabbing. Victor Emmanuel was simply acting out of democratic principles. He never "imprisoned" Pious IX; Pious IX simply decided to play martyr and stay home, avoiding visits to his former papal states -- a propaganda ploy. Vindictively, Pious IX paid the king back by having him excommunicated. (Whatever happened to turning the other cheek?) Victor Emmanuel went on to unify Italy, torn apart by foreign intervention and occupation. Apparently, Victor Emmanuel thought the Vatican as culpable as Austria.

The selling of the baroque altar in Jamay doesn't hold a candle to what the Spanish clergy did in places like Cholula, where one of Mexico's largest pyramids, the Mixtec temple of Tlalchihualtepetl was sacked. To think what we could have learned about an ancient civilization had the zealot missionaries not ordered the destruction of their codices and demolition of their architectural wonders. What a sneaky way to sucker the faithful into following a new monotheistic supersitition by simply replacing their polytheist pantheon, even going so far as to cover the templo mayor with a Catholic church.

Give me a beautifully executed altarpiece to a statute of a pope any old day. Jose Maria Zarate, wherever you are: You should be ashamed of yourself. Apparently, the area of Mexico southeast of Lake Chapala is full of wonders. Nearby, Burton writes, at the town of Ocotlan, on October 2, 1848, an earthquake caused massive fatalities. At a mass for the dead the following day, Burton says, "a resplendant cloud suddenly appeared in an otherwise blue sky, producing a vision, seen by thousands, of Christ on the Cross. The site is now marked by an obelisk."

Here we go again: putting up a monument; only, this time, not to a pope but an apparition. One thinks of the hundreds of sightings of Jebus of late, not only in clouds but Cheetos, slices of bread, torn circulars pasted to brick walls -- in short, anywhere and everywhere someone could see anything they were hoping to see and were actively looking for. Mass hysteria and the behavior of crowds. Delusion, pure and simple. I am reminded of the delightfully wicked Campo del Miraculo sequence in Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

In that film, Marcello, the newspaper reporter, is sent on assignment to the sticks, where a couple of mischievous children have claimed visitations by the Virgin. (Fellini gives every indication they've made it all up to get attention.) When a violent thunderstorm breaks out, drenching the field where the Virgin was last seen near a particular tree, the children suddenly run out to greet her, causing a riot to break out, everyone wanting to see the Virgin for themselves. In the melee, several crippled persons there for healing are trampled by the crowd. (Right out of a Wal-Mart Black Friday.) Nobody sees the Virgin, least of all Marcello or the movie audience.

The point of the Ocotlan and Campo del Miraculo illustrations of post hoc reasoning is simply that faith makes people delusional. I can find any figure in any carpet I want to see in it. But what you see is not what you get. It's even more absurd to claim that such things "prove" the existence of "God." Sometimes a face in a Cheeto is just a baked-on rough spot. Sometimes a cloud is only a cloud: people swore they saw the face of Satan in the smoke over Baghdad when the U.S. invaded post-9/11. Some Iraqis to this day see the face of Satan every time they look at George W. Bush. Anything means anything to anyone who wants to believe it so.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why I Believe the Catholic Church as Sexist as Wahhabism

Isn't it ironic that the Catholic Church is perfectly willing to excommunicate people who vote for a pro-choice candidate yet say nothing when those same people are sent to the Mideast to fight in what is so obviously a religious war? Ironic, or cynical? A little disingenuous? Hypocritical even. Every little baby is a potential Catholic, so saving the mother where birth is concerned, is out of the question if the fetus or child must die. After all, no one has known this child-to-be except God, and He would be sorely offended if this lapsed or at least jaded mother subjected herself to abortion.

That is the problem with interpretation of supposedly sacred texts, those overly-translated and ideologically perverted sayings of persons who knew someone who knew some sort of messiah, some Joshua guy called the Christ: latter-day devils can twist the original meaning into anything that sounds good to them. One supposes that the Catholic fixation on depriving females of the right to do anything with their bodies they might wish is found early on in the Decalog. But the last time I looked, Reb Yeshua was supposed to be a forgiving person. Maybe that arch woman-hater and latent homosexual, Paul of Tarsus, mistranslated to suit his purposes, and by the time Constantine joined up, the life of the Christ was more myth than legend, a tale not even King James's poets could entangle there are so many contradictions and illogicalities.

How does one "interpret" such a "book"? Going to great lengths about prophets and Gods and such, none of which is capable of scientific examination much less proof, is illogical in the first place. One might as well worship the Easter Bunny or Genghis Khan. (Actually, worshipping the Great Kahn isn't a bad idea, a kind euhemerist Dark Ages version of Ares or Mars.) The infallibility of the Pope (I almost said Ponzi) is unquestioned, which is kind of nice because you don't have to resort to the only God there is: the one between your ears.

I have known corner preachers who've uttered more truth than the average priest. Once, in the Park at Venice Beach (okay, California, not Italy), I ran into a small crowd encircling a young black man who discussed the Bible with anyone interested. At one point, a self-professed born-again youth drew near, holding up his "good book" and insisting that the corner preacher was going to hell because he wasn't himself "born again." (And by the way, just what does that mean? I had enough trouble getting here the first time, and my Mom is dead, so how can I be "born again"? These people find such silly euphemisms.)

The corner preacher asked to see the Bible and it was duly passed to him. Whereupon, he flipped through it to a particular passage one would find meaningful with the Vietnam War going strong at the time and the newspapers full of photos of LBJ hoisting his beagles in the most painful manner, and read: "He who passeth by and meddleth with strife not his own is like one who would take a dog by the ears." The small crowd laughed, getting the joke. But the preacher quickly added: "It's in there! It's IN the book!" (He also located a passage saying that God gave us all the herbs and plants to use as we wish, which the preacher claimed proof positive God wants us all to smoke dope.)

I don't suppose the Church is still extracting the hard-earned shekels to buy loved ones out of purgatory, but it's still a money-making enterprise, complete with accounting department and, at one time at least, their own bank, so they must be raking it in. I should imagine that anyone who believes in such a thing as purgatory must think that the more they put into the collection plate, the less likely the will go to the Other Place. After all, fear of death is the only reason those rascal clerics make their living.

Oh, by the way, when the born again requested his book back from the corner preacher, things got briefly nasty: the born again almost struck the corner preacher, who observed: "There you are. If I don't give it back, you gonna HIT me man! You gonna HIT me!" Something tells me he was pointing up the born again's hypocrisy, believing in a man of peace but failing to turn his own cheek.

Orthodox Islamists believe woman is inferior to man, else why not let her drive a car, go out in public without veiling her hideousness, &c.? But the Catholic Church is just as Medieval and silly. I lament the passing of the late George Carlin, who, in one of his stand up routines, saw it odd that in the Cathedral God makes woman cover their head, but when the go to Synagogue, covering their head is verboten. Carlin wondered if it was really wise to believe in a God who's that arbitrary. Hey, George, they're all the same.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"'Miracle' Baby Dies"

That was the bottom-line to a story on CNN about a baby, born prematurely when its mother was crushed beneath a vehicle. When passersby lifted the vehicle off the victim, the mother died, but not before the baby was delivereed. But the baby also died a few days later. Question: If the baby's initial survival was a miracle, does its death suggest God changed his mind?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Life Before Atheism


I sincerely doubt anyone is born an atheist, but if she were, her parents would quickly see to it that she accepts such supernormal entities as the Easter bunny, Santa, and the Tooth fairy. This leads to indoctrination into the deeper mysteries of one of an assortment of so-called "faiths" (a word that says it all), and to a certain extent I must provide as an answer to what is my religious preference, " the since that I protest." I am an apostate, but not an uneducated one, not one who has sampled one or two religious "beliefs" or "spiritual paths" and seized upon some inconsistency or illogicality in the holy writ of the faith; rather, I spent almost sixty years searching religions and paths before concluding there is no god but the one between your ears.

My parents were social religionists, which is to say, they went to be seen. It was not uncommon for business deals to be closed at the end of "services" on the front steps, which became a de facto marketplace. And there I'd been taught, in "Sunday school," that Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, thereby infuriating the rabbis, who depended upon that boodle for their livelihood. Which was a good thing in a way because, being totally ignorant of science (the microscope hadn't been invented, or if it had, it was not available to these desert nomads), the rabbis could save the flock by outlawing pork. Too many had died. It took centuries to figure out it was due to worms, not Yahweh-Jehovah.

I may have implied that both of my parents were big on church-going. Not really. I think my father was a skeptic: he'd fought in a war in the Philippines and didn't like killing. He was a lifelong anti-capital punishment person. I think he also wondered why a good, all-powerful, all-knowing god would allow World War II. But he deferred often to my mother's wishes when it came to Sunday mornings: he took us to church, perhaps because this made it easier later that morning to go out to "collect rents," which meant drink beer with Hispanic tenants. He dabbled in real estate.

My mother was religious enough to have turned to it as she entered her last illness and died, mercifully -- yes, it's still a good word, but it needn't mean divine intervention -- in her sleep, of heart failure. I do think my parents chose their particular church for social and political reasons. It was the Episcopal Church of the Good Savior, but some local wags called it "the Church of the Good Cadillacs." (That was then, now it's BMW's and Mercedeses.) In any case, we three boys were told that if we did not go to church, we would not receive our weekly "allowance." We went to church. But as we grew older, we found ways to skip Sunday school and head a couple of blocks away to a drive-in restaurant only to magically reappear as the classes ended.

My impression of our Sunday school teacher was that he was a thorough-going hypocrite. I am unsure today why I formed this impression, but something about his manner suggested as much. Lay readers are nothing on earth but wannabee preachers; it's embarrassing to listen to them stumble over that old faggot King James's Booble with all its "thou's" and "thy's." There ought to be a law. Betcha you become a lay reader by sucking up to the preacher and making sizeable thithes to the church.

I soon enough learned the politics of the pastorhood. We would see "ministers" rotated up (or down?), all vying for the ultimate prize: bishophood. It was entirely political. The pastors who brought in the shekels were moved up. Being a small city, Nueces mightn't collect from passed plates with as much moola as, say, San Antonio or Houston or Dallas. So when one of "our guys" moved up, it was an event. Let me tell you about one pastor who moved down.

Reverend Key brought a handsome son and attractive daughter my age when he moved from his former parish. I started enjoying church. I dated the daughter but soon learned she was a manipulative girl interested in having guys spend a lot of money on her. Her brother was childish but sly, fun to be with, a laugh a minute. When I broke off with the daughter she found a way to inform me that Rev. Key was of the opinion I lacked maturity and was obviously an unloved child. It delighted me when, months after the Keys moved on, I was told he'd been involved in a scandal that ruined his chances for advancement.


It was the practice of certain upper middle class families to send their children to summer camp. For several weeks each summer, off we'd go, first to a camp for grade-schoolers, then one for middle scholastics. My grade school camp was Camp Tancahua, named after one of the indigenous groups who camped on the Gulf prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquest. Like most summer camps for boys, Tancahua was located in the Hill Country near Kerrville, Texas, and although it was owned by a wealthy family, they delegated the operations each year to a middle-aged couple with "hardshell" Baptist notions of morality. I hated the place.

For one thing, I was inept at all sports. When I rode horseback one afternoon in a blazing summer heat, my steed got it into his head that he didn't much care for me. He took off in a near-gallop toward a corral at the bottom of a hill. Just before he reached the corral, he stopped in his tracks, throwing his burden high across the rails of the corral. It so knocked the wind out of me, I soured on horseback riding for the rest of my days. I fared better at swimming, and in fact, this was always my optional post-nap time activity.

I met a smart but amoral boy named Paul St. Paul, a moniker both inapposite and comical under the circumstances: there was nothing saintly about him. In fact, he went out of his way to be cocky, daring, and self-assertive. I had a crush on him. He was the exact opposite of the greybeard headmaster and his pale Galilean. In later years, I would look back at the friendship as somewhat akin to that of Jean Cocteau and his childhood idol, "Dargelos."

Paul and I soon found ourselves in a pickle. During one of the afternoon activity periods, we broke into a cabin used for storage only to find nothing inside but a pile of mattresses. We ended up peeing on them and, as luck would have it, getting caught.

We were duly punished by being sent to separate rooms, left alone for what seemed many hours, and lectured extensively about how what we had done was a sin and that God would punish us with eternal damnation. Oh, and they also planned to tell our parents. This was the only part I feared. I mean, my Dad was all in favor of sex, mind you, but he exemplified rather quaint attitudes toward certain sexual practices some of us take for granted, such as his observation concerning cunnilinctus: "If you'd suck the hole, you'll suck the pole." I kid you not.

Instinctively, I knew that any adult condemning so innocent, completely amoral a thing as taking a piss on saggy worn-out mattresses that in all likelihood would never see sheets again, was a hypocrite of the worst sort. To this day, I do not believe that anything consenting adults do with themselves sexually is not only nobody's business but their own but perfectly natural. The sexual minorities have equal rights with those who only screw in the missionary position, and only then to procreate more mouths to feed. Religion can go to hell if it says otherwise.

I think that by then I'd had all of Christeranity I wanted.


In the fall of 1965, I entered Texas Christian University as a freshman. I did not "choose" to go to a church subsidized institute of higher learning: it was the only university that would accept me. (I had lousy high school marks and a low entrance exam result.) To pass the first year's required subjects at the time, you had to have six hours of religion. I not only made high marks in these courses, I went on to take electives, and I owe to this my exposure at a relatively early age to Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. I made a high mark in "World Religions" as well.

It soon dawned on me that each religion has its very own god and that this is what really characterizes all religions; even Shintoism in effect deifies ancestors, and although Theravada emphasizes that Gautama was a perfected being, they do not pray to him or think him a deity. Arguably, the Mahayanists have gods, but they're only deities in a euhemerist sense; that is, the Boddhisattvas are really "saints": perfected people who chose to be reincarnated to help others on their paths.

It also dawned on me that the moral demands made upon persons by some religions are both unrealistic and unnecessary; that most "religious" people wouldn't know the founder of their faith if he appeared before them, and that few people practice what is preached. The Oriental religions appealed to me, however, for ontological and non-moral reasons. I thought, for example, that karma and reincarnation made more sense than the Judeo-Christer concept of "Heaven and Hell." Today, I admire most in Marlowe's play on Dr. Faustus the line, "But surely this is hell and I am in't."

The Buddhist concept of "error" also appeals to me, even today. The Christer concept of "sin" is so inherently hypocritical -- who is to decide? -- and so illogical in its concomitant, expiation, I've gotten to the point today when I can't understand why anyone would fall for it. I mean, let's say you've sinned. You confess and get salvation. What's to keep you from going out and doing the same thing or something worse? William S. Burroughs had it right: "When you're dealing with a Christian, get it in writing!"

It so happened that one of my dormatory classmates was the son of a preacher from my hometown, Richard S., who one day engaged me in a debate about "God." Already, I was a doubter, an agnostic, albeit a somewhat naive and unarmed one. I told the preacher's son I could not believe in anything not subject to proof by scientific method. He said, "You have to accept some things on faith."

"Faith?" I asked. "You can only have faith in yourself."

He came back with the argument that one might have faith in a lot of things. He avoided the example of having faith that the sun will come up in the east each morning, perhaps to avoid discussion of astrophysical phenomena, and instead pointed to the light switch on the wall next to the door to his room. "When you throw that switch, you have faith that the light will come on."

In my naivete, I was nonplussed. It never occurred to me that Richard, who was a year or two older, had made no argument at all for the existence of "God." Years later, reflecting on that conversation, I thought: Sure, you have faith that the light will come on, but you also know that it only comes on when electricity, a natural phenomenon, is produced by burning coal, a geophysical substance, to turn generators that produce the electricity, and that it is routed through power lines to electric companies, then to homes, schools, and so forth. During a power outage, "God" doesn't deprive one of electricity; some failure of the system does.

It also never -- at that age, and with limited education -- occurred to me that if Richard had countered with the observation that "God" caused the power failure because all eventualities are reducible to the whims of a deity who creates and destroys all things, the question nevertheless remains: who created "God"?

At T.C.U., only second year students were permitted to enroll in Philosophy 101. In retrospect, I now suspect the university wanted incoming students to undergo six hours of Bible study prior to taking a philosophy course: the truth, after all, shall make you free. Brainwashed in Christerism, one would be much less likely to be exposed to such dangerous ideas as those of Baruch Spinoza and Bertrand Russell. In any case, I duly approached the department head toward the eend orf my first freshman semester and obtained permission to take the course prematurely.

The cards were stacked, as the head of the small philosophy department was the brother of Swedish metaphysician Nels S. F. Ferre. In fact, metaphysics appeared to be the only area of philosophical inquiry and discourse that interested this clown -- and I do mean clown: his teaching method, which of course endeared him to some students, included such methodology as mounting his desk like a Hyde Park orator and going "Swoooooosh!" in a falsetto voice when declaiming some esoteric ephiphany.

He was a huge time-waster. Unable to actually "teach," he found some means of turning each lecture back to his favorite subject: metaphysics. As the semester neared a close, he began one morning's session with the candid observation that there was no way we would ever finish all the topics covered in the remaining chapters of our text, so we would have to skip over some of them in order to reach the "important part," which of course was -- guess what? If you said existentialism, you guessed wrong. That was one of the chapters he said we would skip.

Somewhat foolishly, Parzifal-like, I raised my hand and, when called upon, asked, "What about existentialism? Aren't we going to discuss that?"

"It's not that important," he answered.

Not important. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Heidegger, Jaspers, Unamuno, Buber, Ortega y Gasset, Marcel, Shestov, Camus, Berdayev, &c. -- the list goes on and on, the most important philosophers of the late 19th and 20th centuries: "unimportant." On my term papers, I disparaged metaphysics and argued what little I knew of existentialism and made a "C" in the course. (In Ferre's favor, I must also add that I didn't understand half of what I had read in the first place. Philosophers dive into the deep end of the pool.) Nevertheless, I managed to attain a high enough grade point average to get myself into graduate school at U.C.L.A.


Los Angeles in the 'Sixties was a "happening" place. It seemed as if everything important in the U.S. was occurring in L.A. or New York. I'm told that historians see time as cyclical to the extent that we wax and wane between periods of relative freedom and enlightenment and those of constriction and narrow-mindedness. L.A. in the 60's was the full flowering of the former. I studied film at U.C.L.A. for a couple of years, read scripts at studios for a couple, edited a monthly magazine for a couple, and freelanced as a writer and editor for about 11 years in all. I met everyone from Andy Warhol to Billy Wilder, with dozens of rock stars, movie people, and other artists and celebs thrown in.

My spiritual inclinations most of this time were what might best be described as "Vedantic," since Vedanta held a special place in my head (well, "heart") and I thought its ontology just as reasonable or more so than Christianity or the other main two monotheisms. The closest I got to debating religion with those I met was an exchange in an interview with Lou Reed (of Velvet Underground and solo fame), who informed me that he does not believe in evolution. As I admire Reed -- to put it mildly -- I shall do no more than agree to disagree.

But the most enlightened person I met during this period was the late composer, John Cage. I had not intended to interview Cage personally, as my depth of knowledge in musical lingo and things technical was minimal. I just know that I know what I like. (I am beginning to sound like Sarah Palin.) Cage was a composer of what is called aleatory music. He wrote a piano piece for pianist who sits quietly at the keyboard doing nothing while the audience supplies sniffles, snoring sounds, catcalls and the like, which to Cage was the "music."

A Buddhist to the end, Cage had to have had special regard for the Book of Changes, or I Ching. By manipulation of the yarrow sticks in a "yi" oracular working, one might find correspondences to other portals to wisdom, an idea that could easily be borrowed musically, letting the random hexagrams and trigrams trigger particular notes, clusters, &c. I asked a young music teacher to accompany me to ask most of the questions, but I found Cage more interested in mine, and at one point the discussion went:

Me: What are you working on now?
Cage: It's..... (gives title and description of the work in progress)
Me: By telling us its title and so forth, aren't you worried some other composer will steal the idea?
Cage: Good, then I won't have to write it.

It was the most perfectly Buddhistic statement I ever heard: pure zen. It profoundly impressed me. The egolessnes of it is something some people see in Obama. In Cage, I felt I had met an amazing man. We put him on the cover of Coast, the magazine I edited, perhaps the time in his life that John Cage graced the cover of an American monthly general interest magazine.

At that time, I had little understanding of Buddhism and only knew the silliness one hears from some Christers to the effect that its only reward is "nirvana" without the slightest inkling of what nirvana "is." It, nirvana, certainly is not fact (if you do not believe it, read the Heart sutra at:

Buddhist ontology, too, depends on speculation and metaphysics, especially apparent in later Mahayana, with its implications of sainthood and other accoutrements alien to Hinayana and more in common with organized, indeed Western, religious practice outside the monasteries. (Unlike Sunnis and Shias, these two Buddhist strains get along just fine. Nevetheless, there would appear to be prejudice in the division of a religion into "Greater" and "Lesser" Vehicles.)

((To continue.))