review

book

music

Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics
Allan Hunt Badiner, Alex Grey, eds.
Chronicle Books 2002

Zig Zag Zen is an anthology of visual and written perspectives addressing the connections, if any, between Buddhism and psychedelic drugs. Looking back on the counterculture of the sixties in the United States, a time when interest and experimentation along both paths was growing, some correlation between the two is evident. But what is the connection? Was it just a historical coincidence, or is there more to this link? And "is it 'Buddhist' to give, take or otherwise occupy oneself with the psychedelics as spiritual tools?"

Ultimately, the nature of the connection is left open to interpretation, but many contributors described their personal psychedelic experiences as gateways to Buddhist practice. David Chadwick shares his experience of his first trip on LSD, which convinced him that "there could be no purpose in [his] life to compare with awakening to the essence of being [he] had kept company with that night." He felt that meditation was the way to awaken to this essence in a more lasting way, and so Buddhism became his chosen path. Beyond such catalytic experiences, a common reflection was that "lacking the temper of ascetic discipline, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life."

The book was very effective in opening up discussion and pushing past the taboo surrounding drugs and spirituality. Some were supportive of psychedelics and others were generally opposed, but both sides were talking. The discussion was further encouraged not only by the diverse collection of written perspectives, but also by a very effective visual presentation.

One of the most appealing aspects of the book was its design the upside-down captions and clean, calm layout created an appropriately contemplative and mindtwisting setting. The book also beautifully brought together colourful works of art from across the centuries, adding other dimensions to the discussion.

Zig Zag Zen presents an extensive collection of insights treating issues that colour the intersection between psychedelic experience and Buddhism. There has clearly been a connection for many Westerners on their particular paths, but the message is also, as the Buddha insisted, that people must rely on personal experience to know the truth. As for the question of whether or not it is "Buddhist" to employ psychedelics as spiritual tools, the book answers the only way it really can: Yes. And no. And just maybe ...
Swami Radhananda

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Spiritual Genius: The Mastery of Life's Meaning
Winifred Gallagher
Random House 2002

In Spiritual Genius: The Mastery of Life's Meaning, Winifred Gallagher defines spiritual genius as the "ability to seek life's meaning" and states that "all of us use spiritual genius some of the time, but some of us use it all of the time." She explores this "human gift" through the lives of a handful of exceptional and inspiring people within the world's five major spiritual traditions. After meeting a monk who reminded her of "things we somehow just know but sometimes forget," Gallagher decided to search for living examples of spiritual genius.

The resulting book profiles ten personalities in very different situations, making a wonderful tapestry of the range of genius. I was immediately drawn into the book, feeling as if I were traveling with Gallagher around the world, getting glimpses of the lives and commitments of her subjects.

Many people have fantasies about spiritual life, which usually centre on a concept of spirituality as blissful: no effort, no troubles. In Spiritual Genius, we see the amount of dedication, hard work and resolve needed to create change in this world.

Each chapter in the book conveys something of the wisdom of the major traditions in very personal ways. The interviewees are forthcoming about their practices and insights: Brother James tithes ten percent of his day to personal religious life, saying, "Prayer refreshes me and gives me the grace to step into the dark." Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells Gallagher, "We don't try to have a relationship with God! We try to become aware of our presence within the Divine!"

Ani Tenzin Palmo compares spiritual practice to a rocket lifting off: "You need enormous amounts of fuel to get beyond the Earth's gravitational pull... In the same way, if you want to get to the unconditioned mind, you need everything you've got, including so-called spiritual obstacles, such as the body's senses and negative emotional states."

There are many gems to discover in the book, from a Hindu doctor, a Muslim scholar, a Talmudist, a guru, a Christian social reformer and more. Gallagher meets each person on her journey with respect and receptivity. Whether she is visiting a children's orphanage, a woman's contemplative conference, a classroom, a synagogue or a hospital, the stories tell about real situations that exemplify what it means to be human.

Spiritual Genius offers inspiration and insight on how to face the common enemy of all faiths: "the daily grind of soulless materialism." These spiritual leaders can affect us by focusing "our attention on a reality that's more than meets the eye. Teaching us by words or example how to find and define our special roles in the great sacred scheme of things. Inspiring us by demonstrating the ultimate expression of our human potential."
Erica Crawford

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Krishna Lila
Cheb I Sabbah
Six Degrees 2002

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Darkness settles, a distant circle the only light. Slowly breath rises, gently fading, rising again, with each the circle approaches, expanding. Breath rising, falling, now more than a simple sphere of light: Within a swirling chasm of fear and hope, love and sorrow, an endless array of scattered emotion unfolds. One last breath, the circle consumed, light blending complete with dark. The mystic dancer has entered trance.

Within seeming confusion stillness pervades; from this quietude an album like Krishna Lila derives. Slow, seductive rhythms of India mesh with crystalline Western electronica. The musicians of South Asia lend perfection to lifetime devotion; the modern scientist, to precise machinery. In between instinct and intellectualism, Cheb I Sabbah fuses these distinct elements.

An Algerian-born DJ residing in San Francisco, Sabbah has held residence for twelve years at Nickie's in the Haight, blending global sounds with the ease of an expert craftsman. Four decades deep into his turntable futurism, he has continually extracted international sounds and blended them eloquently.

Krishna Lila (The Divine Pastimes of Krishna) is the third in his trilogy exploring the fusion of classical Indian sounds with contemporary beats. Following 1999's Shri Durga and the 2000 remix project MahaMaya, this chapter is the quiet partner of the previous albums that exploded with club madness and throbbing bass lines. Krishna Lila dances to a different tabla: an internal rhythm as deep as the heartbeat.

The strength of this album is its ability to adapt to any environment, accessible to listener regardless of taste, race or gender. Adding layers of down-tempo, drum-and-bass, and lucent ragas, Sabbah finds simplicity within constant chaos. Krishna Lila is sound in its most elevated form, music of the spheres expanding and contracting with the breath of the cosmos. In essence it captures Bhakti Yoga: subtle, a slow surrender to contradictions threading bliss and tears as one timeless lover.
Derek Beres

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Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet
Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble
Sony Music 2002

I am always amazed by the diversity of sounds and flavours we humans are capable of producing, each with its own distinct colour and beauty. On Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet, the combination of the musical traditions and instruments widens the horizons of each tradition, creating a surprising orchestration of sound and emotion.

The "Silk Road" refers to a series of routes that criss-crossed Eurasia from the first millennium BCE through the middle of the second millennium CE, allowing the cultures along the Silk Road to exchange ideas, materials and music.

In 1998, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Silk Road Project to reopen these links, and also to shed new light on these ancient musical traditions. The Project's vision is to use music as a way to draw people together and create a greater understanding of the cultures along the Silk Road. Because music is intimately connected to the psyche, if we can understand the music of different cultures, then there is a hope that we will be able to understand the cultures from which they originate and live more harmoniously. As Yo-Yo Ma states, "The Silk Road Project hopes to plant the seeds of new artistic and cultural growth."

From the first sounds on the CD, I was amazed to feel the presence, intention and concentration of the musicians, as if we shared the same space. As only some of the music was composed beforehand, the artists were free to experiment to find where things fit together. The result is rich and vibrant, as though the musicians are discovering the music at the same time as the listener.

At times I feel I am sitting in the desert listening to the sand whisper its song. Other times vocal chords float me down crystal-clear mountain streams, and I wake up in a Renaissance European court. The use of dissonance in certain pieces has a way of captivating my attention like the noises in a dark basement that lure us down the stairs to find out what is making the sound.

As the title suggests, this album is a vast journey. In the span of a little under eighty minutes, we are carried from the steppes of Mongolia to the regal courts of sixteenth-century Europe. We hear musical instruments as varied as the cultures from which they originate: vocalists, strings, wind and percussion from Mongolia, China, India, Persia, the Middle East and Western Europe.

The members of the Silk Road Ensemble were curious to find out what would happen if they took musicians from distinct cultural and musical backgrounds, put them into a studio and got them to jam together. The virtuosity of each musician is showcased in an earthy and unpretentious style.

As Yo-Yo Ma states, we must learn to trust each other in order to come together and create something of real value. We hear this sense of abandon throughout the album. "Part of being an artist," says Yo-Yo Ma, "is being prepared to ask questions to which you don't have the answers."
Brian Wall

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Now
Bhagavan Das
Karuna Music 2002

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I'm listening to a rich male baritone floating over the sounds of the ektara. Outside my window the branches of a tree seem to dance to the ringing of bells. A deep chorus of voices echoes a resounding a cappella kirtan called "Shanti Shanti Shanti." This is the sweeping finale to a collaboration between American spiritualist Bhagavan Das, and Beastie Boy Mike D.

I have to admit, when I first picked up the album I was a little skeptical of the concept. I'm a fan of both devotional bhajans and of more upbeat popular rock. However, I've always been quite content to keep these drastically different genres relegated to their own corners: devotional music and mantra for times of contemplation and spiritual practice, and good old rock 'n' roll for the times in between. What beat guru and producer Mike D has accomplished with this album is a successful fusion of the two, and after all, why not? Devotion can be a round-the-clock affair, a practice without boundaries. And that's what the message of this record seems to be.

Bhagavan Das, for those unfamiliar with him, was made famous by his inclusion in the 1960s classic hippie memoir by Ram Dass, Be Here Now. After studying Hinduism, Buddhism and meditation and living the life of a sadhu (ascetic holy man) in India for seven years in the late sixties, Bhagavan Das returned to the United States where he toured the "guru circuit" with famous authors and celebrities throughout the seventies. According to Money Mark Nishita, Beastie Boy collaborator and keyboardist who also appears on Now, "Bhagavan Das [is] a walking encyclopedia of old Eastern and American vocal pieces," and it's clear that his rich knowledge of both Sanskrit and English melodies was fully taken advantage of on every track. Now is successful in its efforts to explore both traditional sounds and instruments from the East, along with more Western styles of beat sequencing and sampling. From the first track onwards, I catch reflections from the classic Beastie Boys album Ill Communication: old-time radio samples, particular guitar riffs, and yet at the same time, the distinctively Eastern feel of the album is entirely new. This is a clever album a unique contribution to the annals of devotional music and beat-driven rock, and a well-constructed piece of entertainment perfect for the devotee and rock 'n' roll fan alike.
Michael Wray

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