THE VISIONARY STATE: A JOURNEY THROUGH CALIFORNIA"S SPIRITUAL LANDSCAPE
Chronicle Books, 2006; 272 pp.; $40 (cloth)
As a 55-year-old priest visiting from Japan, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was inspired to stay and teach in the United States by an eagerness in his California students that he called shoshin, or “beginner’s mind.” The scruffy crew that showed up at the zendo each morning—housewives, acidheads, readers of Jack Kerouac and Alan Watts—had fewer preconceptions about Buddhism, and more hunger to taste the marrow of Zen, than the old-school sanghas he saw back home. The San Francisco Zen Center was born.
The flourishing of Suzuki Roshi’s way in the fertile West Coast soil is only one of dozens of stories chronicled in a handsome book called The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape. Writer Erik Davis and photographer Michael Rauner make a strong case that the common thread running through the crazy-quilt spiritual heritage of the Golden State—from American Zen and Jewish renewal to goddess worship and Scientology—is a passionate search for firsthand experience of the sacred, particularly if it requires improvising a means to get there. From the Pentecostal pulpits of Echo Park to the yoga studios of Beverly Hills, what unifies California’s flamboyantly eclectic lineage, writes Davis, is “an imaginative, experimental, and often hedonistic quest for human transformation by any means necessary.”
By embracing the diverse forms of California’s spiritual life with non-snarky equanimity, The Visionary State is full of discoveries and provocative juxtapositions, both verbal and visual. The story of Ken Kesey’s psychedelic rebellion against ossified belief is tucked into a chapter about a dome-shaped Unitarian Universalist church in the San Fernando Valley that hosted one of the Merry Pranksters’ Acid Tests in 1966. Davis uncovers Gnostic undercurrents at the Lick Observatory and reveals a Rosicrucian influence on the prolific imaginations of both Walt Disney and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Even for seasoned practitioners, The Visionary State offers pithy insights, such as when Davis observes that one of the crucial contributions made to Buddhism by teachers like Bernie Glassman and Sylvia Boorstein is their distinctly Jewish blend of pragmatism and humor.
Meanwhile, Rauner’s luminous panoramas provide rare glimpses of sacred spaces like the Ring of Bone zendo in the Sierra foothills—built by the poet Gary Snyder and his friends—and Druid Heights in Marin County, where lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow established a “hidden hearth of bohemian culture” for fellow seekers such as Watts, novelist Tom Robbins, and bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. The image of a crumbling foundation in the Mojave desert opens into the story of how Aldous Huxley, already acclaimed in England for writing Brave New World, embraced mystical experience in the early 1940s during a season of hermitage near the ruins of a failed commune. The book Huxley conceived there, the cross-cultural classic The Perennial Philosophy, laid the groundwork for the cosmic syntheses of the ’60s counterculture.
For generations of pilgrims from elsewhere, going West has meant seizing an opportunity to look within, shed the manacles of worn-out creed, get healthy, find a teacher and a community, and hope to be reborn in a flash of authentic revelation. Growing up in Los Angeles, Davis came of age in the crowded aisles of the spiritual supermarket, where the marrow of a thousand traditions was repackaged as fast food for the soul. He was first exposed to the Christian gospel by listening to his mother’s beat-up vinyl copy of Jesus Christ Superstar, and his own philosophical stirrings were nurtured in the traveling circus of auspicious synchronicity that trailed after the Grateful Dead.
“By the time school beckoned me east,” he writes, “I had met and broken bread with teen witches, born-again surfers, Hare Krishnas, wandering Christian mendicants, Siddha yogis, est seminar leaders, psychedelic Deadheads, and a spindly metaphysician who taught English at my junior high and read my aura after class.” Eventually, Davis’ quest led him to Zen study with Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Reb Anderson, a virtual plunge into the “cyberdelic” culture wittily chronicled in his 1998 book TechGnosis, and annual immersion in the gleefully trashy Eleusinian chaos of the Burning Man festival.
The occupational hazard of those determined to achieve rebirth in this lifetime is the ailment that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche diagnosed as “spiritual materialism”—an ego-driven mania for grasping after the latest new-and-improved shortcuts to ego death. But reading Davis’ affectionate accounts of failed utopias, debauched preachers, and abandoned landing strips for “space brothers” who never arrived, it’s easy to identify with the yearning that has populated his home state with fantastically ornate churches, mosques, mandalas, and tabernacles of every stripe. In the often sloppy exuberance with which Californians have made a lifestyle of the perennial possibility of awakening, Davis recognizes the seeds of an inclusive, global, anti-fundamentalist, shoshin-driven spirituality that could be a powerful healing force in the gnarly decades to come.
Steve Silberman writes about science, creativity, technology, and the brain for Wired magazine. He lives in San Francisco.
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