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Face of the Unborn

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Kevin Thornley


Very early in the Zen tradition in China, a seeker was instructed to return to his face before he was born. In other words, be yourself. Don't put on a face for the outside world. Let your attitude be as unconditioned as before you emerged from the womb. Cultural trends and movements also have unborn expressions. When Jesus spoke, his words were not immediately called Christianity.

In 1967 in California something existed that has since been characterized as the Love Generation, the Hippie Movement, the Counter-culture and Flower Power. But those were names given it by the media. Before then it was more or less unconditioned, and it consisted of people who believed in being unconditioned - in finding their faces before birth. They hadn't decided to be the Love Generation; they had decided to put aside striving for appearances.

An interview was published in the Los Angeles Oracle, a transcript of a conversation between Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder and Alan Watts. At one point they chatted about the flamboyant new people populating the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Alan Watts said that as soon as somebody discovered a name for the phenomenon, it would kill it.

Although we sometimes called ourselves hip or hipsters or hippies or flower children, at that time those were just names among many that seemed occasionally fitting. As a social entity we were not yet stereotyped. Between a hard-bopping hipster and a gent le flower child there was a distinction, and neither label stretched to include us all.

Usually we called ourselves heads. Pot heads, acid heads, or both. Bohemians, Beatniks, mutants, freaks and groovy people were names used with due caution. For in those days what we called ourselves was not to obscure what we were, and what we were was op en to experience.

Becoming hung up on avoiding names, of course, can be as misleading as being named, classified and forgotten. We were not making an effort in either direction. We intended, however, to avoid abstractions that short-circuit thought. An unborn face entailed a naked mind.

Zen is called Zen, but when the monk asks the master, "What is Zen?" he does not receive a definition but a whack on the head, or a mundane remark, or a seemingly unrelated story. Although such responses might baffle the student, they did not en courage him to glibly pigeon-hole the Doctrine.

Zen remained alive and vigorous for many more generations than would otherwise have been possible. Neither was it easily co-opted nor did it degenerate into superstition. Among the people in the Haight-Ashbury that Alan Watts did not want to see named wer e many scholars of Zen. More recent traditions also influenced what was coming to be.

Every year near Thousand Oaks, California, was something called a Renaissance Faire. As a custom it survives even now, but before the media discovered the hippies it was not the same. That it was less commercialized was only part of the difference.

What could be gathered about the people who came there to peddle their wares was significant. Self-sufficient individuals who lived by means of their craft, whether it was leather carving or pottery or one of a dozen other skills, they were bearded and lo ng haired in the years before anyone employed by a corporation was permitted to look so outlandish. Self-styled gypsies who lived in the canyons and foothills and desert areas up and down the coast from Los Angeles, they were tanned, wiry and weathered. In their conversation they were knowledgeable without seeming pompous. A natural sensuality appeared in their body movements that did not seem distracting. Playing music, singing folk songs and dancing whenever they felt like it, they did not seem especi ally gaudy in their colorful clothes.

People like them had been in existence in California at least since the early Forties. Gary Snyder insists in his writings that their tradition goes back in West Coast history past the turn of the century. I recall seeing them when I was a child - my nose pressed against the car window as we drove through the environs of Hollywood. In those days, they were generally gathered around the entrances of the local health food stores.

I asked my mother what they were and she said they were crackpots; I determined then and there that when I grew up I was going to be a crackpot.

Then there was the Beat Generation of the Fifties. Overlapping with the Bohemian craftspeople, it was not identical. Beatniks tended to be more urban and vocal, less stable and more pessimistic. Among the most avid readers of Beatnik poetry were these ser ene artisans, who also mingled with them socially. By 1967, though, most of the Beats were consigned to the dead past, at least in the public mind, while the older and less conspicuous group endured without benefit of the obituaries written for the Beat G eneration after its heyday. Lawrence Lipton used to argue in the Los Angeles Free Press that the demise of Beatdom was a media hoax, but in any case the word "beat" had been beaten silly, and only the most naive flower child or the most s ophisticated hipster could any longer use it without sounding square.

Critics of the counter-culture have charged that such mores indicated a system of conformity among the hip just as oppressive as the one they were trying to escape, but that was not the way it was at all. A wide range of behavior was lovingly tolerated. O nly stepping back into the plastic world of mindlessness was discouraged.

I remembered, as one of my early contacts with the hip culture, a visit I'd made in the early Sixties with a young woman of an acquaintance, to the home of a jazz musician. Tucked away in the hills above the Sunset Strip, it was the pad where his friends gathered to jam. I had been attracted to a picture of Ramakrishna, the Vedantic Indian saint, sitting on a dresser with a little flower in a vase in front of it. So late in the spring of 1967 I designed a simple meditation table - a rectangular plywood bo ard with a brick under each corner - for incense, flowers and Zen books, not to mention my marijuana stash. Symptomatic neither of a belief system nor a discipline, meditation became for me a relaxing way to spend part of an hour, from time to time, seate d cross-legged in a corner of the living room.

Raga music played on the stereo, sunlight coloring the walls through the homemade stained-glass window behind and above me; wisps of smoke gyrating from the end of a joss stick, a cup of tea - these simple and inexpensive enjoyments added more to m y life than any collection of art treasures could have. Such was the unborn face at the time of becoming.

An eternal paradox of this kind of subject matter: the specifics are irrelevant, but it cannot be conveyed at all in general terms. Certainly it isn't about a handful of cheap decorations. Stopping to dig them was what it was.

After my second LSD trip was when it began. Horrible bummer that it was, I came down from it nevertheless knowing for the first time what it would take to make me genuinely happy - not much. But I didn't have it. More time, less hustle.

So I spoke with my wife. I told her I was tired of busting my ass. I would keep up my end of the load; she worked part-time. I was no longer into rushing through life as if it were something to be gotten over with. I would awake each morning and sit and t hink until I figured out a way to make ten dollars that day - writing, selling grass or working odd jobs. Why hadn't I thought of it before? I had only wanted to make as much money as possible, and suddenly it was obvious that I had been completely out of touch with my own values.

Since I was editor of a libertarian newsletter with all the free ad space I wanted, and since my contacts in Los Angeles were numerous, it proved simple to earn my daily bread in this fashion.

An understanding woman, my wife contributed an idea of her own. We could live without paying so much rent. My grandparents were now in an old people's home and their house was vacant. We arranged to rent it from my family for fifty dollars a month plus up keep.

A big old house in which I first came to consciousness as a toddler, it contained two bedrooms and a large living and dining area composed of two adjoining rooms, a glassed front porch, a gigantic old fashioned kitchen, and an enormous backyard with a cha rming, if decrepit, walnut tree.

With so much room for guests, this house on 77th Street in Southwest Los Angeles became a social center of sorts. We harbored my brothers when they became acid heads and had to quit living with my parents, occasional runaways they brought home from hitch- hiking adventures, visiting libertarian and Kerista acquaintances from out of town - and together we gardened, listened to rock music while stringing beads to peddle on consignment in head shops, and of course, partied. In retrospect, I always think of th at house as 77th Street Parade.

About the same time the Human Be-Ins started happening. Announcements in the Free Press and occasional comments from my teenage brothers first brought them to my attention.

Then there was the Easter Love-In and Gathering of the Tribes in Elysian Park. That was my initiation into the possibilities inherent in our situation. Converging before sunrise from all directions they came - high and grinning people garbed in ceremonial dress. Sounds of tinkling bells worn around necks and on the sashes of robes, together with the rattle of an occasional tambourine, filled the air. At the center of the field was an ensemble of gongs and temple bells called Spontaneous Sound - with one m an, stripped to the waist, leaping among them, striking one and then another.

Believing in reincarnation or genetic memory was a temptation. A friend walked up to me and said, "Well, here we are again." Tribal banners hung in the trees. A voluntary extended family of one kind or another was assembled under each of them. Among many others were represented the Hog Farm, the Oracle Tribe, Strawberry Fields/Desolation Row as well as the Free Press and KPFK.

Why they were called Human Be-Ins was obvious, for just by being there we had created all this haunting beauty.

Although it lacked the strident quality of a demonstration, this gathering could not help being an eloquent protest of all that was drab and uninspired in the surrounding dominant culture. Only the tiniest children took it all in stride as something quite natural to be expected.

More Gatherings of the Tribes followed during the spring and summer of 1967 in the Crystal Springs area of Griffith Park. Before long we organized a tribe of our own called the Gentle Folk with our friends who were into sexual mate sharing and psychedelic s. Most of them we had met through Kerista, a movement that enjoyed a brief, spectacular success as the hip religion - establishing communes in ghetto slums - until the founder, Jud the Prophet, turned most of us off by coming out strongly in favor of the war in Vietnam.

I recall carrying our banner through the early morning mist, sitting beneath it later as an American Indian squatted in front of me and, without uttering a word, made a beautiful flower out of some feathers and colored pipe cleaners we'd brought to give a way. Then he handed it to me.

Before dawn I would also gather rose balls - flowers just about to bloom - from bushes around our house. Whenever I made eye contact with someone at the Love-In, I'd toss them one. Some Diggers who liked my rose ball idea once gave me a big, fat joint of Acapulco Gold.

Our whole tribe huddled one morning under the same blanket, giggling. God's eyes made of yarn. Peace emblems and scented oils. Guitar-strumming minstrels. Beautiful women in flowing long dresses. Laid-back Hell's Angels. Bewildered crew-cut servicemen on liberty and little old ladies looking for Communists. Afro-Americans with drums. Practically everything and everybody you wouldn't expect to find anywhere else was here.

One of the little old ladies went home with flowers in her hair and wrote a nice column about us in the Pasadena newspaper for which she happened to work. As she was to note, when we cleared out of the park in the evening, not a speck of litter was left b ehind. For the most part, the rest of the media confined itself to inaccuracies such as underestimating our numbers by many thousands or implying that we were outstandingly sacrilegious. Every effort was made from the start to insure that we would become nothing more than a passing fad.

By the middle of that summer, the cops were infiltrating us and making busts for marijuana possession with increasing belligerence. Earlier, Timothy Leary had said, "I didn't mind it when they were calling us a cult because that means a small group o f people devoted to an ideal, but now they are calling us a movement, and that means we are in danger of becoming a minority group." By this time it was worse, for we were a generation. As the misrepresentation and persecution increased, the morale o f our fragile social miracle deteriorated and with it went most our much-touted love.

"Hippies don't like to take baths!" became a popular cliche and so everyone opposed to personal cleanliness ran away from home and joined us. Whoever originated that rumor was probably speaking for how they themselves would have opted to behave in an atmosphere of freedom. Mechanisms of self-fulfilling prophecy insured that every unseemly trait projected our way by those who feared themselves would become the truth in short order, for Time and Newsweek began to function as recruiti ng literature. So it was not long before it was no longer hip to be a hippie.

Astonishing, though, was that anything had happened in the first place. Nobody could say precisely what brought us to be, but LSD got much of the credit. Unlike junkies, pot heads were always a sociable lot. Acid, however, was to endow them with a cosmic confidence in the righteousness of their way. That in turn led to lectures and light shows and psychedelic boutiques and, ultimately, a movement strong and vigorous enough to be taken for a generation. But in fact, it had contained people of all ages with little more in common than independence of mind.

Among my friends in those days was a man named John Overton. A technical writer for the aero-space industry, a White devotee of Black culture and a consummate seducer of women, he began to blossom spiritually with LSD, psycho-drama and human potential gro ups. Briefly he became involved with an Indonesian cult that recommended legally changing one's name in order to reprogram an unwanted self-image. So he changed his first name to Camden, because he liked the sound of it, and his last name to Benares, afte r the city where the Buddha delivered his first sermon.

Since then, he has written Zen Without Zen Masters (Falcon Press, 1985), a book that inspired this one and which seems to have grown out of our stoned 1967 discussions about mysticism and authority. To the best of my knowledge he also wrote in thos e days the first American Zen story, as a result of a visit to the Oracle Tribe's mansion. Published in his book as "Enlightenment of a Seeker," it is about a young man who didn't know what to think of himself. Then one day he overheard a nother say of him, "Some say he is a holy man. Others say he is a shithead."As Camden explains, "Hearing this, the man was enlightened."

Among the scholars of hip I did not know personally, Gary Snyder was into something he called Zen Anarchism. Everything else he said also attracted me.

As Japhy Ryder, he was hero of Jack Kerouac's novel, The Dharma Bums. In the interview with Ginsberg, Leary and Watts he seemed at once the most sensitive and the most politically sophisticated.

As a libertarian I was acquainted with that astute minority among us calling themselves anarchists. That they were not a bunch of psychopathic bomb throwers out to stir up chaos and violence, but a group of sociologists independent of the constraints of i nstitutional financing, was just beginning to dawn on me.

At the library I was always obtaining books about Zen Buddhism, for I was aware that it was one of the keys to the fresh liveliness of what was happening. Writers in the Free Press and commentators at KPFK frequently quoted Zen sayings. When I was serving in the Marines in Japan I'd made a cursory study of the subject, but came away more puzzled than enlightened- both with Zen and Japanese culture in general.

Now Zen struck me as the natural lifestyle implied by anarchist politics - and from the Taoistic perspective of Zen, anarchism seemed the logical political option. Like the Yin and the Yang, they belong together in a dynamic synergy of creative power.

In his final work, Tao: The Watercourse Way, Alan Watts was to reach the same conclusion, linking the principles discovered by Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu - Taoist sages as responsible as the Buddha for the flavor of Zen - with the anarchism of Peter Kr opotkin.

Pondering the words of Alan Watts in the Oracle interview, about the destructive power of names, I decided it was not the labels so much as our attachment to them that constituted the problem. Much like the Psychedelic Movement, our consciousness b egan to narrow. As the Hip Culture we were used by Madison Avenue to sell fashions. As the Love Generation we became hateful and angry because we saw ourselves as loving and young, and those opposing us as spiteful and old. Perhaps the secret of survival , now that we were being named from the outside anyhow, was to forever create new names and always be ready to let the old ones go.

Early one Saturday morning, wooden blocks seemed to tumble and clatter away from my mind in all directions. Had it been satori (enlightenment), I wouldn't have been so annoyed since then by the trials and tribulations of living. But it was somethi ng that nearly allowed me to understand what those old guys meant. When my mind closed in on it, it slipped away like an eel - but that took time because I was quite thoroughly stoned on marijuana. After that, my fascination with Zen outstripped my devoti on to rigid anarchist ideology.

Then there was the night I was having a bout of insomnia and jumped from bed, ran into the dining room, grabbed a sheet of paper and a laundry marker and wrote one single bold word: ZENARCHY!

I hope that didn't kill anything.


Zenarchy
Face of the Unborn The Birth of Zenarchy



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