Time, Space, and Knowledge by Tarthang Tulku

tulkut-timespaceknowledgeThis book was recommended to me as a means of getting to grips with the philosophy non-duality. The author, a Tibetan lama living in California, approaches it from the Buddhist perspective, although he does not use any Buddhist terminology.

The book places a heavy emphasis on visualisation exercises as a means of getting past our conditioned understanding of the world. For the most part I didn’t pause to try these out, as I’m already accustomed to viewing life in non-dual terms, but the exercises did strike me as useful to newcomers. I’ve even developed a few of my own in the course of writing my own book on esoteric matters.

Tulku suggests a model of reality that views it as consisting of three fundamentals: space, time, and knowledge. These are not really separate, as each cannot exist without the others. Scientifically minded readers will already be familiar with the term space-time and will know that we cannot properly consider time without space, nor space without time. Tulku suggests a “trinity” of inseparable elements: space-time-knowledge. This is very similar to my own personal view of reality as mind-space-time.

The real drawback of the book is in how technical it becomes. It is very easy to become confused when reading. And yet I would not accuse the author of being pretentious. There were sufficient cues in the text that let me know he a man of considerable insight. As an effective communicator, however, he fails. Alan Watts, for instance, has communicated similarly stunning insights with far more straightforward argumentation and vocabulary. If Space, Time, and Knowledge had been my first step into non-dual philosophy, I think I would have given up in frustration.

In the end, Tulku also commits the great error of so many spiritual teachers: a lack of realism about life. He asserts that life can be lived with a drastically different sense of awareness from what is common. While that is true to an extent, I always like to remind myself that one day I might find myself being chased down an alley by an assailant. In such a situation, does the philosophy of this book help me in any way? No. That’s the real acid test. So all this talk about every experience being an unending feast of beauty is mere talk.

Overall, Tarthang Tulku communicates much less fluff than Eckhart Tolle or Deepak Chopra. Time, Space, and Knowledge is a deep but unnecessarily difficult book. It has its moments, but I would not consider it essential reading.

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again by Brad Warner

warnerb-hardcorezenstrikesaBrad Warner has written several books since the publication of his excellent volume Hardcore Zen in 2003. If that book were a DVD, Hardcore Zen Strikes Again, would be the equivalent of the “Extras” menu. It’s about 150 pages consisting of seventeen chapters: some are essays from Warner’s early blogging days, others are chapters that the editor of Hardcore Zen deemed unworthy to include in the original book. Does that make the present volume a collection of inferior material? Not really. Most of the cuts were on the grounds of relavance, not quality. And I think the editor made the right choices. The chapter on vegetarianism was interesting, but comes across as a rather verbose side-issue. And the chapter on Warner’s career in the Japanese monster movie industry is really only of relevance to readers who are particularly interested in learning about the author.

Warner’s early writing was more brash than it is today, in keeping with his punk roots. But it’s no less effective. For example, this is how he desribes phoney spirituality:

All that peace and calm is a bit of a cheat, though. It’s a come-on, like a hooker flashing you a bit of leg. She’s not lying. Not exactly. That leg really is a lovely thing. And when it’s wrapped around your back it will feel very nice indeed. But it’s going to cost you. You might get caught by the cops or by your spouse, or catch some terrible disease. You’re risking a hell of a lot for that little bit of leg. Buddhist temples are like that. They show you a little taste of inner peace. But most of them won’t tell you how high a price you’re going to have to pay to make that peace your own. They sure won’t tell you it’s going to kill you.

The book doesn’t really have a distinct theme. The chapters are random, can be read in any order, and don’t build towards any sort of conclusion. They cover a variety of subjects, from a Zen Buddhist perspective: individuality, fake enlightenment, religion, the nature of reality, afterlife ideas, reincarnation, duality and non-duality, the nature of time, vegetarianism, and even writing tips. Most of it is really interesting, and Warner has a pithy way of stating matters that is very quotable. Here are a few gems that I took note particular note of:

Authority is the coward’s way of deferring responsibility for his actions.

Reality exists before our attempts to explain it as matter or as spirit. The truth exists before we give it a name.

It is only when people believe that something is above questioning, beyond all doubt, that they can be as truly horrible as we all know they can be.

Mystical types like to say that we have to realize we are God. I prefer the converse. God has to realize that He is just you and me.

You need both doubt and faith. Faith keeps you going forward. Doubt keeps you from going forward with a blindfold on.

You cannot be alone because you are always surrounded by you. You extend all the way out beyond the farthest stars. And you are as intimate as the air that embraces you and slips its way inside your body. There’s nothing here but you. Yet you’re never alone.

Each essay is accompanied by an introduction and afterword, where Warner talks about how he feels nowadays in comparison to how he felt at the time of writing. This struck me as a little odd. Wouldn’t it be better just to revise the content of the essays themselves? But I think the intention behind this book was more to provide a snapshot of the author’s life at a particular time. It feels like a “filler” book – an extra for the existing fans between the publication schedule of the “real” books. And that’s okay, because I’m a Warner fan. Honestly, I can’t get enough of this guy. I only wish a little more care had been taken with Hardcore Zen Strikes Again. I notice it wasn’t put out by Warner’s usual publisher, and it shows. Clumsy typos abound, and for some reason the publishing company chose to use unjustified text throughout and a blank line between every paragraph. Nevertheless, there is nothing amateur about Warner’s mind. Well worth reading.

A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

tollee-newearthI read Eckhart Tolle’s first book The Power of Now about four years ago. In fact, I read it twice. It was one of those books that had a profound ring of truth, at least in part. But something didn’t quite sit right. I had exactly the same experience with A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Here’s an example: “Fear, anxiety, expectation, regret, guilt, anger are the dysfunctions of the time-bound state of consciousness.” Tell that to the gazelle as it runs away from the lion. Fear, far from being a dysfunction, is the emotion that is keeping the gazelle alive. Fear floods the bloodstream with adrenaline, unlocking much needed additional energy for the desperate sprint to safety. Fear is an essential living reality for animals. And if you think humans are some kind of special case, exempt from the trials that “lesser” animals face, then just imagine a zookeeper who carelessly lets a lion out of its cage during public visiting hours. A marvelously “enlightened” public apparently wouldn’t feel the urge to scream or run, or perhaps they would pragmatically choose to run while not feeling any of that pesky dysfunctional fear. But here’s the most important observation: the person who is so terrified out of his wits that he manages to scale a seven-foot wall on pure adrenaline is the one least likely to end up as the lion’s lunch. All thanks to fear.

I will give Eckhart Tolle some credit for helping to raise awareness in the West of more Eastern ways of thinking. And I do think that East has always been way ahead of West in terms of metaphysical thinking. But Tolle’s philosophy reads like Buddhism Lite. Sometimes spiritual teachers, even those with large followings, can be profoundly naïve about life and profoundly short-sighted about ordinary avenues of knowledge that would inform them of so much – in this case biology. Tolle has little or no awareness of man’s place in the animal kingdom, or of the predicament that all organic life faces. He speaks from the false perspective that most religions speak from: man is not just an animal, man is special, and man needs saved from something that has gone wrong with him. But humans are basically animals, and they don’t need enlightenment any more than dogs do. The human ego (like the ego of any animal) is not dysfuncional; it is a demonstrably successful product of evolution. Tolle views human consciousness as some sort of special case, and he sees us on a verge of evolving into a new state of consciousness, where the ego is finally defeated. This is nonsense. As long as you are a body/mind, you are an ego. You will have to deal with a world outside yourself that doesn’t always have your best interests at heart, and you will have to steal energy from other forms of life in order to continue to survive.

It strikes me that Tolle’s philosophy is only of relevance to bored affluent people who feel vaguely dissatisfied with their lives. And he provides a labyrinth of overly technical abstractions for them to ponder over. But very little of what he says is relevant to someone who faces real conflict in life, or real suffering beyond what polite society generally tosses at us. The power of now all falls apart if you’re someone who is being brutally beaten by an assailant in a dark alley.

There are a few legitimate insights scattered here and there, but the whole message is poisoned by the false premises of the ego’s alleged dysfunctionality and man’s specialness. Tolle is playing the same game (perhaps unconsciously) that religions have played for millennia – convincing the human race that there is something inherently wrong with it then offering a unique fix. The reality is that nothing went wrong with the human race. Everything is as it’s supposed to be, including the “egoic mind.” The ego is the hero of the story, not the villain to be vanquished.

There isn’t a new Earth coming; there isn’t a new consciousness on the horizon. There is only the continued forward motion of evolution, including the evolution of consciousness (which is really the organic evolution of the brain). We don’t choose our own evolutionary path. It is caused by the pressures of a changing world and the ability of organic matter to randomly mutate. When a random mutation provides a better chance of survival, the mutation thrives, and eventually becomes dominant. Tolle, unsurprisingly, doesn’t understand evolution, because he doesn’t seem to be interested in real science; he prefers to wallow in a web of philosophical abstraction that is divorced from the observable world.

Lastly, I’m going to indulge in a little ad homemin attack, but only because I think it’s relevant. I can’t stand the “holier than thou” image. I can’t stand the projection of politeness and meekness, like Tolle has transcended “ordinary” consciousness, and “Wouldn’t you like to be where I am?” It’s so phoney. Once you’ve experienced a truly down-to-earth esoteric book (and I thoroughly recommend the works of Zen Buddhist Brad Warner), actors like Tolle pale by comparison.

I’m a big supporter of monism (or non-duality), and Tolle is basically a monist. But when you take that profound truth about the universe and you mix in a bunch of faulty ideas about life, then you end up with a philosophy that’s going to do more harm than good.

Supernormal by Dean Radin

radind-supernormalDean Radin is the senior scientist at the institute of Noetic Sciences. This is his third book on psychic phenomena. His first two, The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds, concentrated on providing evidence for the reality of psi through statistical analysis of the wealth of experiments conducted over the past centrury or so. This new volume is largely concerned with why some people have a higher aptitude for psychic ability than others. The deciding factor that Radin attempts to identify as the culprit is meditation. The book is subtitled “Science, yoga, and the evidence for extraordinary psychic abilities.” Psi phenomena are extremely slippery to prove in a lab setting, except by doing a huge meta-analysis. But what if we could demonstrate a measurable trend, such as an observation that long-term meditators outperform non-meditators? Using a wealth of experiments, Radin builds a very convincing case.

The one aspect of the book I’m not so sure about was the wisdom of using the “siddhis” of Buddhism as a credible blueprint for a modern discussion of psi. Siddhis are the alleged supernormal abilities of Buddhist masters, recorded in Buddhist scripture. Radin reckons there is more than a grain of truth in the old scriptures, although there is almost certainly a large amount of overdramatism.

Having read Radin’s previous books, I’ve noticed that any discussion of technique was absent. It’s all well and good to have evidence for psi, but what does an experimenter actually do to cause psychokinesis, telepathy, or precognition. This absence is finally addressed in the latest volume, albeit in a rather vague way. If you want to play with psi, learn how to meditate. Why? Presumably because meditators have the required mental discipline and are competent at holding prolonged “empty” states of mind, where the ordinary, incessant mental chatter is silenced. From my own past experimentation, I concur that it is indeed the state of “no thought” that provokes psi phenomena. And there really is no shortcut achieving an effect. It takes persistent practice. I could occasionally perform limited acts of PK, using a device called a psi wheel, but only when I was daily practising. And even then it was hard to figure out exactly what mental mechanism was causing the effect. The daily practice had the effect of making it easier to slip into a state of “no thought.” Now that I’ve been out of practice for years, it appears to be much more difficult when I decide to just give it a try once in a while.

Most psi effects are small, although Radin has a striking personal story to tell about his own experience at a “PK Party”, where he accidentally ended up bending a spoon. I was also delighted to see the humble psi wheel get a positive mention, as this was my own personal area of interest and where I had some legitimate success.

Supernormal is written in a much wittier and more conversational style than Radin’s previous books. It’s very accessible, but no less deep. Although I have to say I didn’t much like the accompanying illustrations of superhero characters striking yoga poses. I think this image cheapens the credibility of psi and alludes more to those fraudulent career psychics who tout their so-called “powers.” The philosophical territory that the book deals with in the closing chapters is particularly profound. Psi phenomena provide the best evidence for the kind of non-dual underpinnings to reality that mystics have talked about for thousands of years. The book is written as a standalone volume, so there is some necesssary overlap with the previous books, in order to give a complete picture. But a little revision does us veterans no harm. I’ve learned a lot from all of Radin’s books. He is a meticulous thinker and a true pioneer. If I might indulge in a little prediction: when psi is eventually integrated into science, Radin will be looked upon as a key figure who was well ahead of the game. He’s doing really important work, especially when you consider that he’s investigating a side of reality that pioneers such as Stephen Hawking are not prepared to acknowledge. Those of us who are lucky enough to have had a legitimate paranormal experience might be ridculed, accused of fraud or self-delusion, but we know better. So does Dean Radin.

The Book of Secrets by Deepak Chopra

choprad-bookofsecretsHaving already read many authors who teach non-dual philosophy, I thought it was about time I sampled Deepak Chopra. This short book is basically non-dualism and its implications presented to the reader in the form of fifteen secrets (which is basically a fancy way of saying fifteen chapters). There aren’t really fifteen special things you need to learn and then you’re awakened, but I guess Chopra likes to be overly dramatic. These secrets are:

  1. The Mystery of Life Is Real
  2. The World Is in You
  3. Four Paths Lead to Unity
  4. What You Seek, You Already Are
  5. The Cause of Suffering Is Unreality
  6. Freedom Tames the Mind
  7. Every Life Is Spiritual
  8. Evil Is Not Your Enemy
  9. You Live in Multidimensions
  10. Death Makes Life Possible
  11. The Universe Thinks Through You
  12. There Is No Time But Now
  13. You Are Truly Free When You Are Not a Person
  14. The Meaning of Life Is Everything
  15. Everything Is Pure Essence

The problem with having already worked my way through non-dual philosophy is that I’m now finding that I have very little to learn from books on the subject. But that’s hardly a criticism of this book. If I had discovered this one several years ago, I think it would have been an eye-opener. As it stands, I’m already familiar with much of the material, so this really becomes an exerise in revision. The highlight of the book was an insightful section dealing with Jung’s idea of the “shadow” – coping with one’s own personal dark side.

My main criticism of the book is that it tends to get too caught up becoming a self-help manual, and some of the advice struck me as verbose, convoluted, and lacking in genuine insight.

Chopra, who hails from India, brings an interested balance of science and Eastern philosophy to the table. It’s mostly good material, but for me personally, I felt he wasn’t really saying anything new, and it’s unlikely I’ll read another of his books. Still, The Book of Secrets serves as a useful primer for the newcomer to esoteric thinking.

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate by Brad Warner

warnerb-zenkarmachocolateThis book begins: “In 2007 my mom died and then my grandmother died, my wife decided she didn’t want to be my wife anymore, I lost my dream job, and people I thought were friends and colleague in Buddhist practice began attacking me in public over scandals that existed solely in their own minds.” This statement crystallises the underlying theme of the book: does Zen practice really help when your life turns into a shit sandwich? Unlike books that deal with suffering in purely theoretical terms, Warner’s take is autobiographical, which gives it an air of realism lacking in many spiritual self-help books.

Warner is refreshingly human for a “Zen master.” He eschews robes in favour of T-shirts with punk rock band decals; he cusses when he talks; he says “I don’t know” when he just doesn’t know; and he never projects a fake “enlightened” persona. A lot of spiritual teachers could take a large leaf from his book, instead of pretending they’re the guys with all the answers. Many spiritual tomes get bogged down in technical details that have the reader scratcing his head, but Warner has a real flair for being both easy to read and deep. As well as providing advice, from a Zen perspective, on matters like dealing with death, sex, divorce, and fame, he deals with such hot potatoes as the taboo of the spiritual teacher who sleeps with one of his students – and his example is … himself. The overarching agenda of the book is to dispell the hoax of the holier-than-thou spiritual celebrity, by giving an eye-poppingly honest account of his own recent life, warts and all. That alone possibly makes this a landmark book. So if you happen to be involved in any way with any sort of guru figure, either as a fan or a student, you need to read this.

My own spiritual path began about five years ago, after I made a decision to leave Christianity. But not all the jigsaw pieces clicked into place at once, and a big one that took years for me to come to terms with was the realisation that Christianity’s ideals of purity are not based on human nature, but on thin air. It was a long time before I stopped trying to live up to the ridiculous standards imposed by my culture’s religious heritage. I used to think, “I will achieve what Christianity was supposed to achieve in me without Christianity.” But I couldn’t. And the problem was exascerbated by the example of spiritual teachers who would dress in special robes and make religious gestures and pretend that they are above anything so crude as sexual desire. What a bunch of phoneys! Thankfully I never fell prey to any of these people, but their presence unconsciously maintained the fallacy of purity in my mind. Warner does the human race a service in giving these spiritual “supermen” a much deserved boot up the arse and off their thrones.

This is the third book by Warner that I’ve read, and I have to say that I simply can’t get enough of his honesty and insight (not forgetting his sense of humour). I’m not a Zen Buddhist; I’m, shall we say, a non-denominational non-dualist, if that makes any sense. But the basic sense of reality in Zen is identical to my own beliefs (at least the way Warner describes it), and so I find the author’s words extremely helpful. Up to now, I’ve never made meditation a part of my life, but Warner has got me giving zazen a try.

Warner is streets ahead of the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. Actually, all of my favourite teachers (particularly Alan Watts and Anton LaVey) are dead. So, long live Brad Warner! I will be following his career with great interest.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

pirsigrm-zenmotorcycleThis book uses a father and son motorcycle trip as the background for a philosophical discussion about the existence of what author calls “quality.” He notices first of all that there are two ways of looking at a motorcycle, and these are reflections of two ways of thinking – what he calls “classical” and “romantic.” To the classicist, reality is made up of functional bits and pieces; to the romanticist reality is an aesthetic whole. This is illustrated with a personal example of the vastly different manner that the author’s friend John views his motorcycle (and the task of motorcycle maintenance). The author sees the motorcycle as a collection of mechanisms, whereas John only sees the aesthetic whole and has a distaste for the technological side of things (and hence a frustration when things go wrong). There’s a funny example where the author suggests fixing a problem with John’s motorcycle using a slice of metal from a beer can. Classically speaking, it is the perfect solution, but romantically speaking, John is horrified to integrate such a thing into his beautiful, pristine BMW. And so begins the author’s journey from being a pure classicist towards an integration the two modes of thinking.

Scientifically oriented people tend to be classicists, but Pirsig came to the realisation that classical thinking alone was not enough to explain all of reality. The turning point was when he asked himself the question “What is quality?” and couldn’t come up with an answer. He was a teacher at the time, and he put the question to his students as a homework assignment, because he genuinely wanted to know what they thought. They were as unable to answer the question as he was. As he follows this thread, it leads him ultimately to a confrontation with his bosses, a nervous breakdown, and a stay at a mental hospital which changes his personality forever. I realise that’s quite an A-Z to lump in one sentence, and I’m not entirely sure how the author ended up at Z, other than some unhealthy obsessional tendencies – including a strange need to convince his peers about the reality of “quality.”

Much of the story consists of the author trying to put together the memories of who he used to be, referring to his past self in the third person as Phaedrus. The book shifts wildly from easy-to-read autobiographal passages, to massively deep philosophical discussions – back and forth. As a reader, I couldn’t make up my mind about whether I liked the book. I appreciated that it was teaching me something useful about how to think more clearly, and at times the author’s experiences were moving. But at other times I found myself feeling frustrated at the author’s long-windedness, and sometimes I simply couldn’t follow his train of thought.

Regarding the father and son relationship, I found it irritating the way the author would constantly make silent judgements about his son Chris. For instance, there’s a passage where they’re climbing a mountain together, and Chris is pushing himself like something he really wants to accomplish. Pirsig silently makes a big deal about his son’s “ego.” And yet he makes no condemnation of his own egotism in the intellectual fencing matches he engages in with his university peers.

I got something out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s streets ahead of many books that masquerade as “spirituality.” But I think the author came to grasp the existence of “quality” via a route that was far longer and more technical than it needed to be. Then again, this is his story, not mine. The primary value of the book is that it makes a case (albeit a rather complicated one) for the view that reality consists of something more than the material stuff of classical thinking.

Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

campbellj-mythstolivebyJoseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, takes the reader on a journey through the various myths that mankind has used to make sense of his place in the universe through the ages. Of particular note are the differences between Eastern and Western religious ideas, and the impact of science on myth. The importance of myth is something that is largely alien to science, but if you can accept that there is an impenetrable mystery at the heart of existence, myth is the use of stories to hint at the nature of that mystery and our relation to it. Of particular note towards the end of the book is the mythological significance of Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and also man’s first journey to the moon, which Campbell sees as a paradigm changing moment watched by all humanity. He notes, with disappointment, that the astronaut’s words were a reading of the Genesis creation account, while his very actions were a deathblow to the Bible’s earth-centred cosmology. Incredible shortsightedness, showing how stuck people can become in outdated myths. Myths are supposed to change, in keeping with man’s evolving awareness of the universe.

It’s difficult to pin down in a few sentences what I got from reading this book, but it was a lot. From the standpoint of my own personal interests, the book was filled with interesting information. One item that stands out in particular was an examination of the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism and Christianity, from which came our ideas about hell, Satan, a saviour figure, and Armageddon. The book’s title alludes more to outdated myths that were once held, rather than myths that we should embrace in the present. In its concluding chapter, importance is placed on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and on what Huxley referred to as “Mind at Large.” Individual minds are not like little pilots riding in bodies. There is only one Mind, which is focused into an experience of many through the aperture of individual brains, which are filters for Mind at Large. This is a model of consciousness that I very much resonate with, and which finds a parallel in some ancient mythologies of the East.

Myths to Live By originated as a series of lectures that Campbell gave at the Cooper Union Forum. He later edited these into this book of twelve chapters. Because the book’s content is so diverse, I will list these, to whet your appetite:

  • The Impact of Science on Myth (1961)
  • The Emergence of Mankind (1966)
  • The Importance of Rites (1964)
  • The Separation of East and West (1961)
  • The Confrontation of East and West in Religion (1970)
  • The Inspiration of Oriental Art (1958)
  • Zen (1969)
  • The Mythology of Love (1967)
  • Mythologies of War and Peace (1967)
  • Schizophrenia – the Inward Journey (1970)
  • The Moon Walk- The Outer Journey (1970)
  • Envoy: No More Horizons (1971)

Essential reading for anyone who is not bound by the one-dimentional reasoning of scientific materialism. Campbell’s work is unique; I know of no other parallel in literature.

Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley

huxleya-heavenandhellThis short book, which is little more than an essay, is a sequel to The Doors of Perception – a continuation of the theme of expanding consciousness via psychoactive drugs. I hardly know what to make of it, as I have never felt attracted to such experimentation, but I do find Huxley’s theories fascinating. He states that ordinary waking consciousness is heavily restricted, and there are higher states of consciousness that the brain generally excludes from awareness because they contribute nothing to the survival of the human organism. There is ordinary “mind” and “Mind-at-Large.”

Huxley maintains that the reason for the prevalence of visions in medieval Christianity, and the absence of visions in present day religion, is due to factors such as a restricted diet in winter causing vitamin deficiency, which triggers chemical changes in the brain facilitating visions of heaven and hell. The practice of deliberate fasting has the same effect. Chemical changes in the brain put us in touch with what Huxley calls “the antipodes of the mind.” He claims it is also possible to reach these visionary states more safely by using certain psychoactive drugs.

The book describes our fascination with gemstones and gold as a manifestion of our mind’s longing for the antipodes. When we decorate our churches with stained glass and shiny ornamentation, we are really attempting to evoke a sense of the otherworldly. This would have been clearer centuries ago, in a world that was not saturated with larger-than-life visuals via television and cinema. Going to church centuries ago would have evoked a sense of awe not possible today.

I can see what Huxley is getting at, but it’s all so foreign to my own experience. I have had what I believe to be a genuine mystical experience in the past, but it did not involve anything of a visual nature, and I simply can’t relate to this fascination with visions. In my opinion, the glory of creation is the very world in front of me, and I feel no urge to use psychoactive substances to mess with my appreciation of it. Do drugs really open us to higher perception, or do they merely distort perception? It’s a tough question, one I don’t have a solid answer for as yet. There are plenty of “spiritual” drug users out there who will tell you that their experience with drugs was life-changing, but if you ask them to elaborate on their spirituality, they’re often not very deep people at all.

Heaven and Hell, due to its shortness, is usually found packaged with The Doors of Perception as a single volume. Worth reading for its thought-provoking content.

Sex, Sin, and Zen by Brad Warner

warnerb-sexsinzenHuman sexuality is a fascinating subject for study, mainly because there is so much bad information available about it. For that we can thank our Christian heritage, which made us view this instinct as something sinful and dirty, leading us to repress aspects of ourselves. Here in the West, we all grew up with that mindset, whether we were overtly Christian or not; the Christian value system permeates our culture.

Two things attracted me to this book in particular. (1) Although I’m not a Zen Buddhist, large parts of that philosophy are compatible with my worldview. (2) Having previously read Warner’s book Hardcore Zen (and especially the chapter “Personal Demons”), I was captivated by his raw honesty; I thought, “If anyone can write a useful book about sex, it’s him.”

Sex, Sin, and Zen does not disappoint. It covers such topics as masturbation, celibacy, polyamory, pornography, BDSM (yes, you heard that right!), marriage and dating. It’s all angled towards the Zen practitioner, so there are many side-issues covered such as meditation, the nececssity (or otherwise) of a priest being celibate, and a frank chapter called “When Good Spiritual Masters Go Bad.” None of that detracts from the book one bit, but simply makes it more fascinating.

Five years ago I painfully detached myself from an 18-year stretch as a born-again Christian. As I pursured my own individual spiritual path, so began a slow process of sexual healing – both from the repression, and the obsession that it inevitably generates. I would hazard a guess that the reason the modern world is sex-crazed is due to all the repression we’ve lived under. We’ve never been allowed to integrate our sexual natures into our lives in a balanced and healthy way. One of the main things I took from this book was the perspective that the sex-saturated society we live in is just as unbalanced as the extreme sexual repression of the past. Overall, I didn’t learn a great deal that I didn’t already know, but that’s no criticism. It just means I’ve already come a long way myself. I found myself agreeing with the vast majority of the author’s assertions, and I could have done with a book like this five years ago. One of the most gripping sections of the book is a lengthy interview that Warner held with ex-porn star Nina Hartley – an actress who, curiously, is also a Zen Buddhist. This is a seriously open and self-realised woman.

Sex, Sin, and Zen is written in Warner’s characteristically rambling, friendly, down-to-earth style, laced with much humour. This is not a spiritual teacher who has any interest in appearing superior to his audience, which is a real breath of fresh air for this type of book. Highly recommended for those struggling to come to terms with the sexual side of their lives, whatever their predicament.

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

campbellj-powerofmythThis book is a transcript of several conversations that took place between Joseph Campbell, an expert on mythology, and Bill Moyers, journalist. Campbell compares myths across cultures, looking for similarities, in an attempt to show us the importance of myth as man’s way of understanding his relationship to the world in which he finds himself. In essence, if a particular myth reappears in different cultures and epochs, chances are it represents a universal truth about mankind.

Myth is essentially a means of modelling reality using symbols. And when you think about, that’s exactly what science is, too. This point was not covered by Campbell, which I thought was a startling omission – perhaps left out because he does not share this view. Campbell laments modern man’s lack of meaningful myths, whereas I see science as the modern myth unrealised. Man cannot escape myth, because all attempts to explain reality are done by modelling the universe. And even in science, our models change over time as we learn new things that cast old assertions into disfavour – just as the old gods are now replaced my more meaningful symbols of forces in natures: electricity and atmospheric pressure in place of Thor, the god of thunder, for instance. Sadly, this insight, which I personally find vital to my worldview, was not covered.

Even so, I was mesmesised by the breadth of Campbell’s knowledge and his ability to articule it without preparation, when prompted by questions. The book covers so much ground that it’s hard for me to pin down exactly what I got out of it, but it was definitely a unique and special read. Of particular interest to me was the notion that the modern man finds mythological significance in movies and television dramas. When I look back at old films and TV series that have endured in my mind as favourites, this is definitely true. Some of my favourites are Mad Max, The Prisoner, Blake’s 7, The Tripods, Forever Knight. The common denominator in all of these is the man who finds himself as an outsider, an individualist, a non-joiner, for reasons that are varied. There is the man who becomes a loner because of his brokenness, the secret agent who refuses to have his will broken, the cold realist who is not quite one of the good guys, the group of boys who fight against a brainwashed society, the vampire who attempts to better himself and conquer his nature. It’s not so much that myths were deliberately built into these fictions; only that it’s possible to draw mythological significance from them. Take Forever Knight, for instance. To many, it’s a tacky story about a vampire cop. To me, it’s about a man who is striving to be fully human – to conquer the beast (his vampire nature) within. He has done awful things in the past, but he remains ever cheerful. Tacky or not, this myth speaks powerfully to me as a human being, because it symbolically mirrors my own strivings.

When talking around the question of what life is all about, Campbell regularly employs the phrase “Follow your bliss,” which really stuck with me. It captures perfectly my own feelings about how the meaning of life is not one thing in particular, but consists in making of life whatever we want to make of it. A multiplicity of potential experience is open to us, but we can only follow one course. It makes the most sense, then, to follow the course that brings you the greatest sense of fulfillment: follow your bliss.

I hold a personal philosophy that I’ve developed through much study over a period of years. It could loosely be called non-dualism or pantheism. I’m always amazed when I read a book and discover that the author totally gets where I’m coming from, using certain words and phrases that reveal his inner depth. This was the case in the final chapter of The Power of Myth, entitled “Masks of Eternity.”

If you’re the sort of one-dimensional rationalist who is stuck with an entirely scientific outlook, presuming that ancient man’s beliefs were just exercises in silliness, you need to read this book. These interviews were also released as a six-part television series (now available on DVD), which might be an even richer way to enjoy them. However, the book does contain more content than the series. The Power of Myth is a book unlike any I’ve read.

The Church of Satan by Blanche Barton

bartonb-churchofsatanThis book is quite hard to find, not for any particularly esoteric reason. I imagine there simply weren’t that many copies printed and no one has yet produced an ebook of the text. The publisher is Hell’s Kitchen Productions, which might be the Church of Satan’s own self-publishing imprint. I was lucky to find a second-hand copy on eBay for £20, but the lowest price among the current ten copies listed on Amazon’s used books is £60. Owning this book now completes my collection of official Church of Satan literature. The other works are five books written by Anton LaVey, a biography on LaVey by Blanche Barton, and one book by Peter H. Gilmore (LaVey’s successor).

Blanche Barton, the author of the work under review, was Anton LaVey’s live-in partner for the latter part of his life, and the mother of one of his children. LaVey was, of course, the founder of the Church of Satan. This slim volume of 170 pages provides a brief history of the Church, beginning with some short biographical notes on LaVey’s carnival and occult background, leading to his reasons for forming a new religion based on man’s carnal nature. The growth of the church is catalogued, from its beginnings as a Friday night get-together at LaVey’s home, where he would lecture on the occult, to the eventual implementation of a nationwide “grotto” system. One of the most unfortunate aspects of LaVey’s earlier life is some of the claims are provably legendary. I personally find it a bit insulting that Barton reiterates these legends for her readers, especially when her intended readership seems to be Church of Satan members, rather than the general public. Michael Aquino’s Temple of Set gets a few jibes, as Aquino was responsible for splitting the Church of Satan in 1975. LaVey and Aquino spin that event in different ways, and its hard to tell who is entirely honest about what went down. Aquino’s claim that the Church of Satan ended in 1975 would seem to be a tad pretentious.

There is much material in the book that I have encountered before, but also some interesting new material, such as clarifications on the practice of ritual magic. The timing of the book’s publication puts it right in the middle of the Satanic Panic, a period of unprecedendent public hysteric about occult crimes against children. The phenomenon is rationally and effectively debunked.

The real strength of the book is the huge amount of direct quotes from LaVey himself. These are not from other printed works and public interviews, but presumably from Barton’s own conversations with the man himself. The quotes are so voluminous that LaVey could really be considered a co-author.

If you’re already familiar with Satanism, this book will serve as a refresher on the fundamentals, with perhaps a few new insights. For those who are not familiar with the philosophy, this is definitely one of the better books to read initially. Shame it’s so obscure.

The Lion Encyclopedia of World Religions by David Self

selfd-lionworldreligionsI have quite an extensive knowledge of Christianity, but I thought it was high time that I educated myself on other world religions. A broad knowledgebase is essential in helping us to discern truth from error. But few of us have the time to study masses of information about many fields of inquiry. In the matter of religion specifically, I was instantly attracted by this book’s size (123 pages, illustrated) and the breadth of subject matter covered.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism are all covered in some detail, going into the history, basic beliefs, and culture of each religion. Around 16 large-format, heavily illustrated pages are devoted to each religion. Double-page spreads are also given over to the lesser players in today’s religious climate: Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, the Bahai Faith, etc. Finally, modern religious movements are covered.

This was the perfect book to fill a particular hole in my knowledge. It’s aimed at schools, but the information is by no means dumbed down. Highly recommended for readers who want to get a feel for world religions fast.

The Mystery Experience by Tim Freke

When browsing the “body, mind, spirit” section at my local bookstore, I am frequently disappointed by the books that I flip through. A lot of teachers of non-duality (or “advaita” as it’s called in the East) are quite disappointing, in my view. They are not grounded in a realistic appraisal of what it means to be a human being living in a physical world that is essentially adversarial. Spirituality becomes something that is divorced from the predicamenet of fleshly existence, and so it ultimately fails to deliver the promised goods. The Mystery Experience, by contrast, was a refreshingly realistic book. In the store, I read bits and pieces randomly from the text, and came across lots of little gems of wisdom about all kinds of things. I was really intigued by some of the chapter titles, such as “Mad Scientists Do Mysticism,” “The Ego as Hero,” “Celebrating Separateness.” And so, I had to get the book.

Tim Freke is very much in touch with the earthy, carnal side of life. Life is not about denying the body, or about subduing the ego, or about avoiding attachments. Life is to be lived fully, as an adventure. At the same time, Freke is in touch with the spiritual side of life, with an understanding that consciousness is something transcendment, and that under the surface we are all one.

In the book, Freke invents a new term called “paralogical” which he defines to mean two things that appear equally true but are incompatible with each other. It reminds me of what Stephen Hawking calls “model-dependant realism” – the view that we may have more than one model of reality, depending on our perspective, and that each model has merit within its particular context of observation, while the models themselves are in conflict with each other. Of the two authors, I would have to say Hawking explains it better (in The Grand Design), and I’m honestly not sure that the word paralogical helps in any way. It feels as if it almost gives us license to remain complacent about our paradoxes, failing to realise that it’s only our approximations of reality, gleaned through our inadequate models, that contain paradoxes, not reality itself.

I do have a few criticisms of Freke’s approach. He’s very much a believer in the importance of an “awakening” experience, whereas I feel this is too similar to the Christian idea of salvation. I don’t believe there is anything broken about natural life that needs fixing, even our natural belief in duality. Tim also puts a lot of emphasis on techniques as a means of deepening your spirituality. My view is that if you need a technique to convince yourself of something, then something’s wrong. When a truth becomes clear to the mind, it needs no repeated technique to constantly renew it. Freke also verges on the melodramatic when talking about love. I tend to think love and hate both have their place.

Don’t make too much of my criticisms, because I really did enjoy this book. I took it slow and savoured it, reading a few pages each night at bedtime. The writing was vibrant, easy to read, personal, and practical. In keeping with the title of the book, Freke places a huge emphasis on the mysterious nature of the ground of being. The “mystery experience” is the conscious appreciation of this impenetrable mystery at the heart of life. Freke’s writing on this theme helped me to deepen my own perspective on what I call the Infinite.

It saddens me that Eckhart Tolle gets all the fame, while guys like Tim Freke are little known by comparison. You might say that Tolle belongs to the “escape from life” branch of non-duality, whereas Freke belongs to the “embrace life” branch. The philosophy advocated by Tolle pales by comparison to this. I highly recommended The Mystery Experience, and it’s a book I’m likely to read again in the future.

The Philosophies of Asia by Alan Watts

Here in the West, we’ve all grown up under the influence of Christianity, where God is viewed as a divine monarch. Little do we realise that we only picture God in this way because we’re unconsciously projecting an entirely human political structure onto him/it. Watts’s book challenges this, by describing the very different concept of God that has arisen in the East, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. To the Hindus, the Universe is viewed as God play-acting, or dreaming each of us. God is inside everything rather than above everything. It’s like a game of hide and seek; each one of us is God-in-disguise without realising it. In Taoism the Universe is viewed as a single organism (indistinguishable from God). Watts helps us to look upon the Universe in a very different way, not as a collection of separate things which exist independently of one another, but as a series of interconnected relationships. These Eastern approaches differ greatly from the likes of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because they are not concerned with divine revelation, or obedience to a monarch. In this sense, they are not really religions at all, in terms of what we understand religion to be. The focus of the East is a transformation of consciousness. Learning to look upon the Universe in a different way that dramatically affects one’s life.

This volume consists of various verbal lectures given by Alan Watts, transcribed by his son Mark in the 1990s, from earlier recordings. The lecture “The Mythology of Hinduism” examines the religious side of Hinduism, where the godhead is said to be dreaming each of us. “Eco-Zen” delves into how the individual is one with the world, showing how the line between organism and environment is blurry and insubstantial when we get past the idea of “things.” “Swallowing a Ball of Hot Iron” examines the relationship of student and master in Zen Buddhism. “Intellectual Yoga” looks at the mind as a path to enlightenment. The volume finishes with “Introduction to Buddhism” and “The Taoist Way of Karma.” This is not a lecture series, as such. Mark Watts draws together material that spans his father’s career into single book of related topics.

Since this is the fourth book by Watts that I have read, I’m starting to notice a lot of overlap, but that’s unavoidable, and actually serves as a reminder of important insights. I continue to be impressed with this philosopher, and I have a better undersatnding of the Universe as a result of his work. This book provides a short and often humourous brief on Eastern philosophy. It’s certainly not detailed enough for the serious student, but as an introduction, it makes perfect reading.