But apart from that...

Do you remember this schtick from Monty Python's Life of Brian? The "Judean People's Front" is having a meeting to plan their rebellion against Roman rule:
Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had,... And what have the Romans ever given us in return?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah, they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Activist: And the sanitation!
Stan: Oh yes, the sanitation, Reg, you remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
Matthias: And the roads.
Reg: (sharply) Well, yes, obviously the roads. The roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads?
Another Masked Activist: Irrigation.
Other Masked Voices: Medicine. Education.
Reg: Yes, all right. Fair enough.
Activist Near Front: And the wine.
Omnes: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That's something we'd really miss if the Romans left, Reg.
Masked Activist at Back: Public baths!
Stan: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
Francis: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order. (General nodding). Let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this. (More general murmurs of agreement).
Reg: All right, all right. But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace.
Reg: Oh, peace. Shut up!

Funny! To use another Monty Python line: "Now for something completely different."

I am susceptible to occasional yearnings for a utopian community where property is held in common. Problem is, communes generally don’t last. They tend to fall apart after a couple years, if they last that long. Richard Stosis studied communities that hold property in common. They dissolve because the level of trust and cooperation required is just so difficult to maintain. Stosis found, however, that:
“communes that base their existence on religious ideals tend to last roughly four times as long on average as do those that base their existence on a secular ideology.” (“Religion and Intra-group Cooperation: Preliminary Results of a Comparative Analysis of Utopian Communities,” Cross-Cultural Research 34 (2000): 71-88)
Groups with shared rituals and sacred stories cohere better. Indeed, religion itself just is an adaptive strategy for fostering group cohesion. Shared myths, ritual, and music help our brains be ready to trust at the levels required for communal life. Some secular communes, such as Twin Oaks in Louisa, Virginia, have managed to last – but they’re only 100 people, and they have high turn-over. They survive because they’ve made themselves well-known so that there’s a constant flow of new folks ready give communal life a try.

Tegher Monastery in Armenia
In contrast, some monasteries, with the members holding property in common, have lasted a thousand years, and the turn-over rate is pretty slow. They share sacred stories and rituals: they stay together.

Problem is, monastics have this vow of celibacy. Even while we know they aren’t all keeping that vow, the removal, or at least the marginalizing of family life and sexual competition probably plays a role in monasteries surviving and keeping their levels of discord below the point of dissolving the community.

Would it be possible for a shared-property community to have shared spiritual principles and practices – like a monastery – but also have marriage, children, and family life? What would that look like? I suppose it would look rather like an Amish community.

There's a lot to admire about the Amish. They have strong and stable communities, which can sometimes look pretty attractive to those of us with the fragmented, hustle-bustle, disconnected, alienated lives typical of our times. So the question arises: If they would have us, why not join the Amish?

At this point, my internal dialog enters a sequence reminiscent of Life of Brian.
Me: Why not be Amish?
Also Me: Cars, computers, televisions, telephones.
Me: Sure, we'd have to give those up. But that might be rather liberating.
Also Me: I've heard that some Amish operate cruel puppy mills.
Me: Well, those aren't the kind of Amish we're talking about.
Also Me: Very plain clothes.
Me: That would be OK.
Also Me: The career options are basically farming and... farming.
Me: Well, yes, there is that.
Also Me: When they aren't farming -- and often when they are -- they're parenting. They place great value on having large families, averaging 6.8 children per family.
Me: I enjoyed parenting two children. I don't know about seven.
Also Me: They have a very literal interpretation of the Bible, and adhere to it strictly.
Me: OK, but other than that...
Also Me: They're very patriarchal. Women aren’t allowed to be ministers or bishops, are largely consigned to traditional female roles, and, if mistreated, have little recourse.
Me: Um. Yeah, I do have a problem with that.
Also Me: No education beyond the eighth grade.
Me: All right, all right. But apart from the theology, the patriarchy, large families, the lives of farming, no education beyond middle school, limited clothing options, and maybe an occasional issue over humane treatment of puppies, why not be Amish?
OK, so, we're not going to be running off and joining an Amish community -- even if they would have us. Even so, we can learn a thing or two from the Amish.

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "The Amish Challenge"
Next: Part 2: "Original Position"


Odyssey, part 7: The Knowledge Road to Nowhere

I grew up impressed with the need to know. And now my spiritual practice is not knowing.

My Unitarian Universalist upbringing pointed me towards the path of philosophy, but the philosophy teacher whose work compelled me might better be described as an anti-philosopher. My spiritual journey as a UU and a Buddhist has both illuminated and cast doubt on the traditional hope for reason and rationality to yield religious truth.

I grew up impressed with the need to know, and equally impressed that many claims of knowledge were false. I was raised by two college teachers: Mom, a professor of chemistry, and Dad, English. As their first-born, I imbibed their core value: know stuff. Dad had a plaque over his desk, quoting Plato:
There is only one good, knowledge; only one evil, ignorance.
I was raised in the South by Yankee parents who became Unitarians about the time I was born. After a few years each in Virginia, North Carolina, and Alabama, as my parents climbed the academic ladder, we settled in Carrollton, Georgia, a small town without a Unitarian Universalist congregation. On Sundays we drove an hour to attend the UU Congregation of Atlanta.

In childhood, I had showed symptoms of the philosophy bug. I was one of those kids who, early on, was fascinated with the thought that the color experience I call “red” might be experienced by other people the way I experience blue. I was drawn to the nonsense questions – though I had no grasp on their nonsensicality. At age 6, I had wanted to know, “What’s the opposite of a rubber band?” Would it be its elasticity or its loop shape that would be reversed? The teachers at my Unitarian Universalist Sunday School classes seemed to enjoy my loopy questions – and gave me others to think about.

I was in fourth grade the first time I can remember hearing the word “atheist.” I asked what it meant, and shortly thereafter decided that I was one. My Sunday School teachers were nonreactive when I announced this to them, but my Carrollton classmates were gratifyingly scandalized. Some of them sought to rescue me from certain damnation. Naturally, I became a debater. Then a debate coach.

By my mid-20s, I was a graduate student in communication studies at Baylor University studying for a career as college debate coach. I took a number of classes in "argumentation" where we talked a lot about justificatory devices for beliefs. I’d majored in philosophy as an undergrad, and had the vague sense that some of what my philosophy profs had been carrying on about might be relevant. I had the philosophy bug. So one semester I wandered across the quad to take a course, "Epistemology" (Theory of Knowledge), in Baylor's philosophy department. The last reading assignment in the class consisted of two chapters from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) by Richard Rorty.

Descartes' (1596-1650) concerns with establishing foundations for knowledge had moved epistemology to the center of Western philosophy. Rorty diagnosed the obsession with epistemology as deriving from a conception of knowledge as “mirroring” nature. A true sentence was one that “reflected” or “represented” the way things really are. Against this representationalist conception of knowledge, Rorty drew upon his rather free-wheeling interpretations of certain other philosophers – especially, John Dewey, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Martin Heidegger – to argue for a revival of pragmatism, the American philosophy developed by Charles Peirce, William James, and Dewey in the 19th and early-20th century. Rorty’s pragmatism said that the point of inquiry is not to picture the way things really are, but to cope with them.

It’s not just that absolute certainty is unobtainable; rather we have no general way to assess even relative certainty – i.e, no way to be “more certain” or “less certain.” (We do have the conventions for calculating probability within particular technical fields -- meteorology, say, or genetics. Those conventions suit the field’s purposes. What we don’t have is a way to know what purpose a human life, either overall or at any particular time, ought – or even probably ought – to have.)

Knowing – and therefore life, as I understood it – isn’t about mirroring or even “approximately” mirroring reality. Rather, it’s about doing.

I was hooked. I read everything by Rorty I could get my hands on. I wrote my thesis at Baylor on "Richard Rorty's Pragmatism: Implications for Argumentation Theory." From there, I took a job as a speech instructor and assistant debate coach for a couple years. Soon, though, I abandoned that career track and enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Virginia, where Rorty was then on the faculty. For four years I took every class he offered, pored over the prepublication typescripts of each new essay as it appeared from the departmental copy machine.

It was exhilarating and liberating in two ways. First, I was getting progressively clearer on how the quest for certainty was misbegotten. There is no such thing as the sort of knowledge that Plato, through my father’s desk plaque, had been telling me was the only good since before I knew the difference between Plato and Play-Dough. Rorty’s pragmatism absolved me of the burden to seek and acquire such Platonic certainty. Second, not only did I not have to get that kind of knowledge, but if it’s not the sort of thing one can have, then my evangelical grade-school classmates didn’t have it either. Whew! In one swell foop I had marked my independence from both my parents and my peers.

In due course, the degree requirements were met, and I joined the ranks of fresh assistant professors of philosophy. In one of my earliest lay sermons for my local Unitarian Universalist congregation, I addressed the nature of truth:
“We speak of true diamonds, true friends. Someone particularly suited to her field – say, engineering, is said to be a true engineer. We speak of the arrow flying straight and true to its target. If the billiard table cloth is true, then it is flat and level. When I take my bicycle in for a tune up, they “true” the wheels – make them straight. From a philosophical point of view, it’s the truth of sentences that we’re talking about when we talk about truth – not the truth of diamonds, friends, or bicycle wheels. What we’re after when we want truth on some subject is to know which sentences, if presented to us on a true-false test, to mark with a ‘T.’ It’s one thing to commend certain sentences as handy for some purpose or other – to say of those sentences that they are ‘true’ as a mental note to remember them when dealing with their subject matter. It’s quite another thing to insist that certain sentences will always and forever warrant a ‘T.’ This is the ‘truth as death’ conception of truth. It comes from the yearning for sentences that we will never have to revise or modify our understanding. Such a yearning is like a death wish – a wish to be freed from growing and changing. . . . There is no truth ‘out there’ – just waiting, like the elephant encountered by the five blind men – for us to get our hands around more of it. Sentences are human creative products, just as art and music are. We produce beliefs – sentences to which we give our assent – as best we can to meet our purposes, and we will always be re-creating belief and knowledge as our purposes guide our inquiry and what we learn in turn leads us to redefine our purposes. . . . Art does not aim at gradually converging toward the one ultimate eternal beauty. Nor should we see our sentences and beliefs as converging toward one ultimate eternal truth – even an infinitely far-off truth. The search for truth is not aimed at bringing itself to an end. It's not that the target is impossibly far off. It's that there is no overall target – only local and temporary targets.”
I cannot say that, as I composed these words, I imagined Rorty looking over my shoulder, smiling, and nodding. That wasn’t his way. His way had always been, when I brought to him the astonishing (to me) fruits of my intellectual labors, to shrug and say, “sure.”

What I had learned under Rorty – drawing especially on one of his heroes, Ludwig Wittgenstein -- was more anti-philosophy than philosophy. Grand philosophical projects such as those of Plato, Descartes, and Kant were based on a certain sort of nonsense – namely, the sort that results when concepts that make sense in one particular area of human endeavor are extended too far out of their context to make any sense. For instance, we can ask whether a bottle is upside-down or not only if the bottle is within a context that establishes “up” and “down”, and the conventions of the bottle’s use establish which end is its “upside.” To ask whether the entire universe is upside-down is nonsense because there is no larger context that would establish “up” from “down.” The concept “upside-down-ness” makes sense within a context; applied universally, stripped of context, it’s a nonsense concept. It’s not just that we don’t have enough data yet. Nor is it a case of, “We mere mortals will never know, but God knows.” Rather, this is a nonsense question from the beginning. “The big questions” of philosophy tend to be that way.

For me, graduate study in philosophy was therapy, curing me of the grip of my philosophical bug. From Wittgenstein, I read that the aim of philosophy is “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” The image stuck with me: philosophy as buzzing around inside a bottle of questions, trying to answer them, unable to see a way out. Reading Wittgenstein under Rorty, I came to see the “nonsense” in philosophical questions. My twenty-six-year-old self was finally able to say something satisfactory to my six-year-old self: “The concept of ‘opposite’ applies in some contexts, but it is not, dear child, a universal concept. ‘Opposite’ doesn’t apply to rubber bands.” In the unlikely event that my six-year-old self would have appreciated this point, I would have added, “Indeed, there are no universal concepts. Every concept has its work to do, and can do so only within the context of purposes and practices for which it was created.”

The questions that Western philosophers regard as central have gradually shifted through the centuries, but I began to notice that the old questions weren’t ever actually answered. (Or, if they were, then that area of inquiry spun off into an empirical discipline and wasn’t “philosophy” any more.) The history of philosophy, Rorty once noted, isn’t one of answering questions, but of getting over them.

One of the questions I got over, with the help of Wittgenstein-via-Rorty, was that “color conundrum.” Wittgenstein once answered the question, “How do I know it’s red?” by saying, “I know it’s ‘red’ because I speak English.” In other words, “red” is a concept (for to have a concept is to be able to use a word), and all there is to do with a concept is use it in the ways appropriate to the speakers of the language within which the word/concept has its place. There’s the doing – and, beyond that, there’s nothing there. “Red,” ultimately, is...empty.

I came to Buddhism slowly. I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha in eighth grade and felt its impact like a body blow. With nowhere to go to build on that experience, it gradually faded – yet a seed had been planted. In college, I mused, captivated, over the Dao De Jing (not strictly Buddhism, but an influence on the Zen form). As an assistant professor of philosophy at a small liberal arts school, I was called upon occasionally to teach a “Humanities” course that included surveying the world religions. As I prepared for the Buddhism unit, I found many of the teachings eerily reminiscent of what I’d spent graduate school thinking about.

In one of the sutras, the Buddha is presented with the sort of questions that philosophy and religion typically wrestle: Is the world eternal or not? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same as the body or different? Does a person exist after death or not? The Buddha replies:
“Suppose a man were wounded by an arrow thickly smeared with poison, and his friends and companions, his kinsmen and relatives, brought a surgeon to treat him. The man would say: ‘I will not let the surgeon pull out this arrow until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble or a Brahmin or a merchant or a worker; until I know the name and clan of the man who wounded me; whether the man who wounded me was tall or short or of middle height; was dark or brown or golden-skinned; lives in such a village or town or city; until I know whether the bow that wounded me was a long bow or a crossbow; the bowstring was fiber or reed or sinew or hemp or bark; the shaft was wild or cultivated; with what kind of feathers the shaft was fitted; with what kind of sinew the shaft was bound; whether the arrow was hoof-tipped or curved or barbed or calf-toothed or oleander. All this would still not be known to that man and meanwhile he would die.” (Culamalunkya Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 63)
The sutra goes on to say that having any of these views -- that the world is eternal, not eternal, etc., -- precludes the holy life. The Buddha refuses to address any such question because it
“does not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.”
How very...pragmatic! Buddha, too, was trying to show the fly the way out of the fly bottle. What took me years more to grasp was that liberation from philosophical questions by way of a philosophical explanation of the nonsensicality of the questions was partial liberation at best.

My call away from teaching philosophy and to Unitarian Universalist ministry came as a double awareness: (1) I can do that (I’m good at public speaking; I’m reasonably smart; I’ve been a UU all my life, and I love our congregations); and (2) I have no idea how to do that (i.e., the other stuff ministers do or are, which I couldn’t then even name, skills eventually described to me as “projecting spiritual presence”). Somehow, dimly, I perceived that the part I was clueless about – so clueless I couldn’t say what it was – was the next step in my journey. It was the lack I needed most to fill.

So when, after one year of seminary training for ministry, the Midwest Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy told me to “get a spiritual practice,” I knew before I’d arrived back home what that practice would be. The idea of meditation seemed like a good one. The time had come, it seemed, actually do it.

I began the way I usually begin new things: I got a book. It told me about mindfulness, finding a posture for stillness, and what to do with my mind while being still. And what to do when my mind wandered off from doing what I had told it to do.

I started with fifteen minutes a day, and after a couple months was up to 30 minutes each morning of sitting meditation. I started going to weekly meditation group meetings and insight meditation classes. I spent one year with a Vipassana (Insight) meditation teacher, and then began checking out Zen teachers. I started sitting every day.

In 2002, LoraKim and I moved to El Paso, and I started exploring Zen. I had heard that there was a UU minister named James Ford who was also a Zen master. I wrote to Rev. Ford and asked his advice. He wrote back and said:
“There are two times to visit many masters: at the beginning of your training, and at the end.”
He listed some I could visit, and his strongest recommendation was for Ruben Habito, a Filipino former Jesuit priest teaching comparative religion at Perkins Theological School in Dallas. I visited with, and meditated with, and chanted with, and absorbed the dharma talks of Zen teachers in Las Cruces, and Tucson, and Albuquerque, and Austin, before finally going to see Ruben in Dallas. Ruben has been my Zen teacher ever since. I go out to Dallas for week-long Zen retreats when I get the chance, and in between retreats, we’re in touch occasionally by phone or email.

Since 2001, I’ve been sitting daily, going to retreats 2-5 times a years ever since. The Rorty-dharma in many ways prepared me well for the Buddhadharma. In Zen and Buddhism books and in the dharma-talks (teisho) of Zen teachers, I hear recurrent echoes of the themes of my graduate school experience. Attachment to your picture of reality doesn’t help. Upaya (skillful means) does. Concepts are empty, yet useful within a context of a particular purpose. All things are impermanent, including the list of sentences that humans, at any given time, commend as ‘true.’ Things do not have essences or permanent, distinct identities, but are a continually shifting networks of relationships – and this includes the self. Rorty taught “radical contingency;” which I discovered the Buddha also taught, calling it “interdependent co-origination.”

Buddhist practice has, however, brought me to a place that my academic studies led me away from. I completed graduate school with the understanding that everything was linguistic and purposive. “True friends” or “true diamonds” were just figures of speech – the only sort of truth worth talking about was truth as an attribute of certain sentences (the true ones). The only “knowing” worthy of concern was knowing how to make and recognize true sentences. This was the orientation that made me a philosopher. Moreover, the only way to assess knowledge and truth was within the context set by some particular purpose. This was the orientation that made me a pragmatist. So when I first heard my Buddhist teachers talking about “seeing things exactly as they are in themselves,” with my own attachments and purposes “dropped away,” I had no idea how to charitably interpret such talk. Had not Wittgenstein established that “all seeing is seeing as”? There is no Kantian thing-in-itself – nor even a “red” apart from the practices and purposes of calling things red.

I don’t know how to resolve this issue except in practice (“pragmatically”). My inner Zen teacher says to me, “Never mind if ‘everything is purposive,’ or not. There’s a poisoned arrow that’s killing you, Meredith, so let’s set that question aside. Never mind about everything and bring mindfulness to just what is before you right now. Do you notice the presence of purpose within you? Fine. Just notice it. If, in the glare of your attention, that purposive category of perception begins to loosen its grip, does another one pop up in its stead? Fine. Just notice that one, too. Does some word or phrase arise to attach itself to your perception? OK. Notice that, too.”

The path to nonlinguistic, nonpurposive presence is one step at a time. Notice and see through the linguistic description and the purpose it serves. Then the next one, then the next, then the next. Just keep at it. This is the path.

I grew up impressed with the need to know. And now my spiritual practice is not knowing: opening myself to let each thing present itself afresh without burying it under the load of all the concepts I worked so long to acquire.

* * *
Next: "Odyssey, part 8: Walls and Fridges"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 6: Anti-Barbie"
"Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction"
"Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"


Where Nowhere Might Begin

We need egalitarian visioning today even more than in the late 1960s. In the 60s and 70s the top 0.1 percent of earners brought in about 2 percent of the nation’s pretax income. By 2004, the top 0.1 percent were making 6.8 percent of the nation’s income. “In 1980, the average CEO of a large American firm made 42 times as much as non-supervisory workers.” By 2000, such CEOs were paid 458 times as much as ordinary workers. (David Batstone)

Kathleen "Kat" Kinkade (1930-2008)
Where did nowhere go? I’m glad Twin Oaks and a few other intentional communities are still making a go of it – indeed, in the last decade a number of new intentional communities have started up. But that’s not enough.

I hope we can rekindle in ourselves the vision of an earth made fair and all her people one. We need communities – many of them not farms – where a vision of possibility of transformation shines like...like a flame in a chalice.

In most faith congregations, the members do not share all of their incomes. They share just some of it – a mere 10 percent, and usually less than that. Congregation members don’t hold all property in common, but many of them do own some land and a building held in common. At Twin Oaks, people take a term as a manager of one area of running the place. In my congregation, we call that being a committee chair. At Twin Oaks the average length of membership of the current members is 7 years, and that’s about the same as the average length of membership at a typical Unitarian Universalist congregation.

We must have communities of love and care. And that may be one area where the nonreligious communes like Twin Oaks are most apt to fail their members.

Kat Kinkade was one of the eight original founders of Twin Oaks in 1967. She was 36-years-old then, and she stayed with Twin Oaks through its first decade, after which she left the community for some extended periods, but always returned. Her 1974 book, A Walden Two Experiment: The First Five Years of Twin Oaks Community, chronicled life and development in the commune. She followed up twenty years later with: Is It Utopia Yet? An Insider’s View of Twin Oaks Community in its Twenty-Sixth Year (1994). Kat Kinkade died at Twin Oaks in 2008, at age 77. Interviewed in 1998, she said of her cherished utopia into which she had poured all that she was and had for so many years:
“Twin Oaks never did love me. It respected me and it feared me, but it never did love me.” (Tamara Jones, “The Other American Dream,” Washington Post Magazine, 1998: download PDF here.)
Perhaps Twin Oaks missed step one in its quest to get to steps four and five and six. Step one is: be a place of care, to nurture each other, nurture our souls. From there we cultivate our spirits, and from there we help heal this world.

We are here to become something new on this earth: our true selves as we become when we are held in a community context that situates us, that locates us, that places us in acceptance of ourselves and acceptance of others.

We are here to be transformed by finding in ourselves the place of compassion, to bring that radical liberating energy to the world. We are here to be the community we dream of. Where did nowhere go? Look around. It's not the middle of nowhere. But it might be the entry gate.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "Where Did Nowhere Go?"
Previous: Part 3: "Where Did Nowhere Go?"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Utopian Connection"
See also: "Odyssey: part 8: The Commune Attraction"


Where Did Nowhere Go?

Twin Oaks community today is very different from the eight struggling communitarians you’d have found there during the first week in 1967. While they continue to evolve, by the early 1970s, they had settled into a basic pattern and approach that is remarkably similar to what they still have today. They operate by basically the same labor-credit system they worked out within the first couple years: everyone puts in 42 hours a week cooking or cleaning or gardening or hammock-making or child rearing or machine repairing or whatever the community needs. Members turn in a preference sheet each week weighting their preferences for the jobs they’d like to work on that week, and from everyone’s preference sheets job assignments are made and posted. As long as there are enough people for each job, preferences are granted. They have a rotating manager system: each of the various areas of work and life have a go-to person who is in charge of that area for a finite term of office, and there’s an elected governing board.

One thing that’s different is the wider social context within which experiments like Twin Oaks take a large part of their meaning. Twin Oaks was once a reference in a conversation about radical new possibility. With stability and constancy has come a loss of the sense that there’s anything all that radical going on. In many ways, Twin Oaks today could be said to be one more business venture in a country with a vast array of different kinds, styles, and structures of business ventures. It’s a farm, and it runs on resident labor, flexible work schedules, and natural resources. In one sense, it’s simply a bit further out on the same continuum that includes employee-owned businesses, workplace democracy, and on-site housing. Its company values happen to include nonviolence, cooperation, and egalitarianism.

Today's Twin Oakers have more stress on the point that "this isn’t for everyone," and less wistful hope that a radical model is being built for the whole world to follow. Reading about Twin Oaks today, I repeatedly saw members quoted saying “this certainly is not utopia.”

Utopia. The word comes from the Greek for “nowhere.” And if Twin Oaks “certainly isn’t utopia,” then why isn’t it? It started out as a “utopian experiment.” If Twin Oaks is not utopia, where is? Where is radical hope kept alive? Where did nowhere go?

Russell Jacoby’s book, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy documents how the contemporary Western world has largely lost the vision of any future substantially different from the present. Utopia became a bad word. It came to be identified with Marxism, thence Stalin and gulags, and with dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. “Utopian” came to mean “totalitarian.”

Huxley and Orwell offered us important cautionary tales. Neither those works of fiction nor the reality of Soviet atrocities should ever have been excuses for giving up on dreaming that we can, somehow, more or less on purpose, make a better life for all of us. We need egalitarian visioning today even more than in the late 1960s.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Where Did Nowhere Go?"
Next: Part 4: "Where Nowhere Might Begin"
Previous: Part 2: "Twin Oaks Community"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Utopian Connection"
See also: "Odyssey: part 8: The Commune Attraction"


Saturdao 28

Dao De Jing, verse 17

16 translations.

1. James Legge:
In the highest antiquity, (the people) did not know that there
were (their rulers).
In the next age they loved them and praised them.
In the next they feared them; in the next they despised them.
Thus it was that when faith (in the Dao) was deficient (in the rulers) a want of faith in them ensued (in the people).
How irresolute did those (earliest rulers) appear, showing (by their reticence) the importance which they set upon their words!
Their work was done and their undertakings were successful, while the people all said, 'We are as we are, of ourselves!'
2. Archie Bahm:
The most intelligent leaders bring about results without making those controlled realize that they are being influenced.
The less intelligent seek to motivate others by appeals to loyalty, honor, self-interest, and flattery.
Those still less intelligent employ fear by making their followers think they will not receive their rewards.
The worst try to force others to improve by condemning their conduct.
But since, if leaders do not trust their followers then their followers will not trust the leaders, the intelligent leader will be careful not to speak as if he doubted or distrusted his follower’s ability to do the job suitably.
When the work is done, and as he wanted it done, he will be happy if the follwers say: “This is just the way we wanted it.”
3. Frank MacHovec:
As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next,the people fear; and the next, the people hate.
If you have no faith people will have no faith in you, and you must resort to oaths.
When the best leader’s work is done the people say: “We did it ourselves.”
4. D.C. Lau:
The best of all rulers is but a shadowy presence to his subjects.
Next comes the ruler they love and praise;
Next comes one they fear;
Next comes one with whom they take liberties.
When there is not enough faith, there is lack of good faith.
Hesitant, he does not utter words lightly.
When his task is accomplished and his work done
The people all say, 'It happened to us naturally.'
5. Gia-Fu Feng:
The very highest is barely known by men.
Then comes that which they know and love,
Then that which is feared,
Then that which is despised.
He who does not trust enough will not be trusted.
When actions are performed without unnecessary speech,
People say, “We did it!”
6. Stan Rosenthal:
Man cannot comprehend the infinite;
only knowing that the best exists,
the second best is seen and praised,
and the next, despised and feared.
The sage does not expect that others use his criteria as their own.
The existence of the leader who is wise is barely known to those he leads.
He acts without unnecessary speech,
so that the people say, "It happened of its own accord".
7. Jacob Trapp:
“Good Rulers”
The good ruler rules inconspicuously;
His influence is every where,
Yet the people are scarcely aware of its source.
The weak ruler seeks to be flattered;
The bad ruler is feared and reviled.
Where a ruler no longer
Trusts and honors the people,
The people no longer
Trust and honor their ruler.
He then demands their loyalty.
The good ruler talks little;
And when his work is done
And his aim fulfilled,
The people say, “We did this!”
Or, “Things were so of themselves.”
8. Stephen Mitchell:
When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.
If you don't trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.
The Master doesn't talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, "Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!"
9. Victor Mair:
Preeminent is one whose subjects barely know he exists;
The next is one to whom they feel close and praise;
The next is one whom they fear;
The lowest is one whom they despise.
When the ruler’s trust is wanting,
there will be no trust in him.
He values his words.
When his work is completed and his affairs finished,
the common people say,
“We are like this by ourselves.”
10. Michael LaFargue:
The greatest ruler: those under him only know he exists
the next best kind: they love and praise him
the next: they are in awe of him
the next: they despise him.
When sincerity does not suffice
it was not sincerity.
(“Reticent – he is sparing with words.”)
He achieves successes
he accomplishes his tasks
and the hundred clans all say: We are just being natural.
11. Peter Merel:
The best rulers are scarcely known by their subjects;
The next best are loved and praised;
The next are feared;
The next despised:
They have no faith in their people,
And their people become unfaithful to them.
When the best rulers achieve their purpose
Their subjects claim the achievement as their own.
12. Ursula LeGuin:
“Acting Simply”
True leaders
are hardly know to their followrs.
Next after them are the leaders
the people know and admire;
after them, those they despise.
To give no trust
Is to get no trust.
Whe the work’s done right,
With no fuss or boasting,
Ordinary people say,
Oh, we did it.
13. Wang Keping:
The best kind of rulers are those whose existence
Is merely known by the people below them.
The next-best are those who are loved and praised.
The next-best are those who are feared.
The next-best are those who are despised.
If trust in others is not sufficient,
It will be unrequited.
(The best rulers) are cautious,
And seldom issue orders.
When tasks are accomplished and affairs completed,
The common people will say,
“We simply follow the way of spontaneity.”
14. Ames and Hall:
With the most excellent rulers, their subjects only know that they are there,
The next best are the rulers they love and praise,
Next are the rulers they hold in awe,
And the worst are the rulers they disparage.
Where there is a lack of credibility,
There is a lack of trust.
Vigilant, they are careful in what they say.
With all things accomplished and the work complete
The common people say, “We are spontaneously like this.”
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
The supreme leader is one whose existence is barely known.
Next best is one who is loved and praised.
Next is one who is feared.
The last is one who is contemned.
No trust will ever be accorded to a leader who lacks integrity.
Therefore, with deep commitment,
Honor your words and trust the words of others.
Then, when the work is done and success achieved,
The people will say, "we did it ourselves."
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
Great rising and falling –
People only know it exists.
Next they see and praise.
Soon they fear.
Finally they despise.
Without fundamental trust
There is no trust at all.
Be careful in valuing words.
When the work is done,
Everyone says
We just acted naturally.
* * *
Look: How are you ruled?
By the universe, I mean.
Does the cosmos not offer such light and unobtrusive guidance to your life that you don't notice it at all unless you stop to reflect?
Does it not leave you to feel, rightfully, responsible?
OK, then.
When you rule, do likewise.

You are indispensable,
Also invisible,
* * *
Next: Saturdao 29.
Previous: Saturdao 27.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.


Twin Oaks Community

The Twin Oaks Community -- a commune in Louisa, Virginia -- started in 1967 with just eight people and a 123-acre farm. They were adherents of behaviorist principles and enthused about B.F. Skinner's 1948 novel, Walden Two. They were also mostly broke. The commune struggled on the edge of extinction for two and half years: the communally-owned cars sometimes sat inoperable for lack of money for parts; meals were often vegetarian not by choice but by insufficient production or money for meat; people slept in the lofts of the barn -- under a dozen blankets in the winter.

They had conflicts, and a lot of turn-over – but the good thing about the turn-over was that the new members didn’t have any of the grudges or sore spots from the past conflicts.

Gradually, they worked out a workable system. They learned how to farm, how to build buildings, how to fix cars and refrigerators and all the various farm equipment. They learned how to make hammocks almost right away, and hammock sales to this day are a major source of the income they need for the things they can’t produce themselves. They’ve added land over the years and are now up to 465 acres now with 25 buildings and 30 cow. They’re up to 100 members now, according to their web site: 85 adults and 15 children, and that’s their capacity.

They’ve had a constant flow of curious visitors starting day 1, and still do. After doing a three-week visit, you can apply to join. Your application will be voted on by the whole membership, and, if approved, you’re added to a waiting list. The turnover is still such that it’s rare for it to take more than six months for an approved applicant to come on board.

They’ve worked out systems for smoothly integrating the new folks. They have a million dollars in the bank now – one bank account for 100 people. They have a fleet of 18 cars, trucks, and vans communally owned. Some of the cars have a bumper sticker that says, "My other car isn't mine either."

Twin Oaks produces a significant portion of its own food. The members have decided not to have TV – which is too heavy on the messages of violence and commercial consumption – though they do have computers: about 15 public ones and a number of private ones people keep in their own rooms – that’s allowed. Private property you bring with you when you join can stay just yours if you keep it in your room, and every member does get co’s own room. (“Co” is what they say instead of “his or her”.) So you can have your own personal clothes, but you don't have to: there’s also a communal clothes supply where anybody can pick out any item they want to wear for a while then return it to the communal laundry. Other assets you might own when you join remains still yours unless you decide to donate them. The assets are simply frozen during the length of your membership.

Cartoon from Twin Oaks, ca. 1980.
In the early years Twin Oaks emphasized noncompetitiveness. One of their newsletters from the early ‘70s relates that a ping-pong table had been donated, and that the members now played noncompetitive ping-pong. When I read that as teenager, I thought, "Right on. What’s wrong with the world is that it’s just so competitive!" Today, that just seems silly to me. There’s a lot of suffering in this weary world, but it doesn’t come from people keeping score at recreational games.

Twin Oaks still emphasizes cooperation, of course, but when they play games, it’s OK to try to win. “Noncompetitive” isn’t such a key concept any more. Nor do they any longer characterize themselves as a behaviorist community. They aren’t trying to realize Skinner’s vision – and haven’t for decades. New concepts that have become central to who they are include ecovillage and sustainable. Still, it’s remarkable how basically similar they are to 40 years ago.

* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "Where Did Nowhere Go?"
Next: Part 3: "Where Did Nowhere Go?"
Beginning: Part 1: "The Utopian Connection"
See also: "Odyssey: part 8: The Commune Attraction"


Boxes Too Small

Martin Luther proclaimed the "priesthood of all believers." Shakyamuni Buddha admonished, "Work out with diligence your salvation." Michael Muhammad Knight declared, "You are your Allah." These calls to individual responsibility militate against the tribal tendency of religion. Emphasis on each individual's responsibility to make/find her own spiritual truth makes community-building more difficult. Nevertheless, I believe that only a community that recognizes each person's divinity and authority has a chance of lasting. As long as there are external authorities, there will be competition among them and rebellion against them.

That doesn't mean that rejecting all religious authority will end the competition and rebellion. It goes on internally. Within each psyche, impulses compete with and rebel against one another.

The divine, spiritual truth, God, the ground of healing and wholeness that we call by many names -- whatever we call reality at its most inclusive -- is too big to fit in the box of what any one authority -- person or doctrine -- decrees. External authority is one box too small. The internal authority of our own egos is another box too small. We need the authority of individual conscience, and we also need religious teachers as guides and companions on the spiritual path to help us see our own delusions and mind-traps. We need authoritative teachers and leaders that we trust -- but not so much that we shut down our own conscience. We need to trust our own conscience -- but not so much that we shut out religious and spiritual leadership that can help us see where our egos lead us astray. Lasting, healthy faith community will recognize each person's divinity and authority -- and the members will recognize the value of legitimate community leadership. The test for any authority, internal or external, is this: is it maintaining a small box for spiritual truth, or is it working to expand, or explode, the box?

Our project -- the Unitarian Universalist project in particular and the liberal religious project generally -- is the difficult and fragile task of community with diversity and taking seriously the work of spiritual development. We’re nailing, not two, but three things together: community, diversity, and genuine work of spiritual deepening.

One of the ways that some of us do that is with dual identities: we are Unitarian Universalist Christians or Unitarian Universalist Yogis, or Unitarian Universalist pagans, or, like me, Unitarian Universalist Buddhists. As a Buddhist, I have some rules. It’s not the sort of deal where any one ever chides me about what’s forbidden and what isn’t. But I’ve got a discipline: sit for half an hour, then recite the heart sutra every morning. I know it’s arbitrary. Reciting a random column from the phone book might work as well. But like my mentor the birder, it’s a relief to have a widely shared practice to participate in rather than having to explain, if only to myself, what this weird idiosyncratic odd thing is that I’m doing. I get plenty of exercise at that in the rest of my day.

The practices we choose support our primary identity as Unitarian Universalists, people of different beliefs, making community of freedom, recognizing you are your Allah, yet also standing in awe of the reality as given to us, in gratitude of the grace we receive from the universe without earning it: worshiping together as one faith of diverse beliefs and disciplines. Michael Muhammad Knight today sounds pretty much like a Unitarian Universalist Muslim, as when he says:
“Allah is arranging things beyond all our grasps. The Earth isn’t spinning because you told it to. Your intestines aren’t digesting by your command. You’re made up of a trillion cells that don’t ask your permission before offering their raka’ahs [prayers]. And we think submission is about applying a strict discipline to our worship? We think surrender is about not eating a pig? It’s not that small to me. I can’t fit my deen [faith life] in a little box because to me, everything comes from Allah. Birds sing Allah’s name. To say Allah is in this book and not that one, or he likes this and not that – do you know who you’re talking about? Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed. Does that make me a kufr [apostate, nonbeliever]? I say, 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is greatest']. If that’s not good enough then %$@#! Islam. You can have it. Imam Hussein said: ‘He who has not religion, let him at least be free in his present life.’ So there you go. Now, let us pray.”
So there you go. And let us pray.


* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Previous: Part 4: "The Tolerance Paradox"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nailings"


The Tolerance Paradox

In Michael Muhammad Knight's 2003 novel, which became a 2010 film, The Taqwacores, the young adult Muslim residents of a punk house in Buffalo hatch a scheme to host a national gathering of Islamic punk bands. They'll bring punk bands from all over the country together for one big punk Islam festival-party-concert. Jehangir is the primary energy for organizing the project. There is a controversy in the house about whether to invite a band called Bilal’s Boulder, a punk band that adheres to a particularly conservative and strict brand of Islam.

Jehangir is a advocate of open-ness and acceptance – and Bilal’s Boulder represents strict rules and intolerance of any fudging on those rules. And there we hit that familiar paradox of tolerance: if you tolerate everything, including tolerating intolerance, then you facilitate intolerance. And if you don’t tolerate intolerance, you have become the intolerance. Jehangir argues for tolerating the intolerance, for inviting Bilal’s Boulder. For him, the openness and inclusivity that he wants to move toward would be contradicted by not also being open to closedness.

Bilal’s Boulder arrives wearing turbans and traditional Arabic attire. They size up the house and announce they won’t sleep on the floor in the house, as all the other bands are – because a woman will be staying somewhere under the same roof. They’ll have none of that. They’ll sleep in their van – even though it’s winter and they’re in Buffalo, and it’s freezing.

The next day, during the concert Jehangir himself is persuaded to perform. Highlighting that tension of individual vs community, Jehangir sings a punk cover version of Frank Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way.” As he finishes, Rabeya, the burqa-wearing “riot girl” performs an act that seems deliberately planned to disturb, shock, offend, and enrage the strict tough guys of Bilal’s Boulder who, having finished their set, are standing in the crowd. They react violently, and in the melee, Jehangir receives mortal blows. The advocate for openness is killed by the closedness that he had insisted on being open to.

Community is hard.

Since writing The Taqwacores, Michael Muhammad Knight has been drawn toward an offshoot of the Nation of Islam called the Five Percenters, who reject the traditional Muslim belief that God is separate from humanity. Says Michael Muhammad Knight:
“The Five Percenters have a devastating critique of organized religion that, to me, mixes with punk rock because in a so-called punk view of religion, you are your authority, and you’re not entrusting your soul to other human beings. The basic idea of the Five Percenters is that all this divine power that you fear as being something outside of yourself – that’s gonna come down and crush you -- all that power is actually within you. You are your Allah. So rather than entrust your religion to the imams or the priests or whoever, you become the master of your own cipher.”
Knight, it seems, is re-inventing the Protestant reformation – for, after all, it’s been 500 years since Martin Luther proclaimed the priesthood of all believers. Knight is applying that Reformation concept to Islam rather than Christianity, and perhaps, "You are your Allah," goes a bit further than, "Priesthood of all believers." In any case, the Protestant reformation requires periodic re-invention, for in our quest for community we are prone to forget that each of us is of the priesthood, you are your Allah, no one can make your spiritual truth but you, no one but you can do that work. It's up to you to open yourself to grace, which then takes over.

That’s a hard basis to make community upon. Hard. Not impossible.

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Next: Part 5: "Boxes Too Small"
Previous: Part 3: "The Unbearable Difficulty of Community"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nailings"


The Unbearable Difficulty of Community

Both the fictional characters in the The Taqwacores, and the real-life American-born young-adult Muslims who resonate with the novel, have choices. Many of them are first-generation Americans, children of middle-eastern or Asian Muslim parents, and many of them are many-generation Americans, like Michael Muhammed Knight himself, who were drawn to, and converted to, Islam as teenagers. These are American young adults who are choosing to leave behind their parents culture, either by becoming Muslim or by submerging in the punk scene.

They’re choosing to go in for a practice with a lot of rules. Even the hard-partiers generally get up before sunrise to make fajr. A number of them take on more rules, and adopt the straightedge identity: abstinence, no alcohol or drugs. And, no pork, five prayer times a day. Strict discipline.

The rules give life structure, and the structure gives life meaning. Most of all, rules give us belonging and community. You know you’re in the community of those who follow those rules, and it flat doesn’t matter if the rules are arbitrary.

Following a rule, adhering to precepts, gives followers a label, and, yes, labels have their shortcomings. Labeling others always leaves out most of who they are. When we choose a label for ourselves, though, it can be a validation.

When I was a graduate student, my mentor professor happened to mention his birdwatching hobby. He was a birder. For some reason we were discussing whether it mattered that there were other people who were also birders. He indicated that if there weren’t other people doing it – creating and maintaining the institution of birdwatching – then going out with binoculars on cold winter mornings day after day would be this weird idiosyncratic odd thing that he just wouldn’t have the energy to work out how to explain to himself or others. But participating in a widely shared practice – which means taking on a label – in this case, “birder” – gave the activity a meaning, a way for it to make sense and be understood.

The need for identity – for “this is who I am, so this is what I do” – is a universal human need. It’s nice to have identity: Muslim, Christian, UU, Punk, Democrat, Republican, teacher, lawyer, doctor. It’s nice to have the words to say who you are -- and whose you are.

The Taqwacores explores the interplay between the call of the rule and the countervailing call to freedom, acceptance, and diversity. On the one hand, a community based on shared rule-following requires putting some energy into policing those rules: making sure everyone follows them: pretty much, most of the time. I understand the impulse to orthodox judgmentalism with its rules and strict procedures. If we don’t all follow our rules, then who are we? We don’t get to have the connection of a shared life pattern if you don’t follow the pattern.

On the other hand, I also understand that part of the human heart that rebels against orthodoxy’s constraint. A part of me -- and of most of us -- cries: come on, lighten up, open up, accept and embrace diversity of belief and of practice.

Community is hard, and it’s always falling apart, and we’re always looking for it, trying to find it, or build it.

Community based on strict rules can be very attractive: it’s so clear and direct. But there’s a price to be paid for those rules.

The Unitarian Universalist approach to community is to have very little in the way of rules, to eschew the very idea of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, to celebrate diversity. This means that it isn’t so clear what binds us together. For a lot of people, religious liberalism doesn’t feel very satisfying. There’s also a price to be paid for minimalism on rules. Community is hard, anyway you cut it.

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Next: Part 4: "The Tolerance Paradox"
Previous: Part 2: "Yeah, But What Type of Punk Muslim?"
Beginning: Part 1: "Nailings"


Yeah, But What Type of Punk Muslim?

Originally, Michael Muhammad Knight was giving away photocopied spiral-bound copies of his novel, The Taqwacores, for free. It was later picked up by a punk record label and published in 2003.

The novel describes the exploits of the of denizens of a Muslim punk house in Buffalo. These include:

Yusef, the first-person narrator, a fairly straightlaced US-born son of Pakistani parents. He has come to Buffalo to study engineering, and his Muslim parents thought it would be more wholesome for him not to live in the campus dorms.

Umar, a Straight-edge Sunni Muslim who tries to enforce Islamic rules.

Jehangir, a hard-drinking, dyed-red-mohawk-haircut-wearing Sufi punk who announces morning prayers with an electric guitar on the roof.

Fasiq, an Indonesian skateboarder.

Amazing Ayyub, a shi’a skinhead.

Rabeya, the house’s only woman, who wears the full-scale body-tent style of burqa and studies feminist Islam.

And various other comers and goers.

Right away, a reader like me is wondering: is this really Islam? I know I’m not in a position to judge who’s really Muslim and who’s just appropriating some of the language because they’ve decided it sounds cool. I’m not in a position to say who is a true Christian or fake one, a true Buddhist or fake one, or even a true Unitarian Universalist or fake one. Generally, I let people pick their own labels. If you self-identify as a Daoist, a witch, or a Jew – or as a woman, or as a man – then, for my money, that’s what you are. What these kids are doing might not look like Islam to the Ayatollah Khomeini, but they study the Koran, debate about how to interpret it as a guide for their lives, say their prayers facing Mecca, and call themselves Muslims.
Yusef and Jehangir (from the film adaptation)

There’s a huge diversity within the group of people who call themselves Muslim. It's good for us to know that, in concrete specifics. Many “young American Muslims, stigmatized by their peers after the Sept. 11 attacks, [felt] repelled by both the Bush administration’s reaction to the attacks and the rigid conservatism of many Muslim leaders.” (New York Times, 2008) They didn’t want either of those two options, so they made a third way, and the novel, The Taqwacores, became a blueprint for their lives.

One Moral of this story: If you don’t like either side in a conflict, make a third way.

There’s even huge diversity among the punk rock Muslims. Some of them drink a lot, smoke hashish, and engage in casual sex. Some of them are in the “straightedge” camp and eschew all those things.

What really is Islam is a central question for Michael Muhammad Knight, and the novel reflects its author’s wrestling with that question. Half-way through, narrator Yusef muses:
“Jehangir’s romanticism just equaled a spiritual, cultural and ideological laziness: in all things the path of least resistance. Allah wills, right? As a mumin [believer] I was ruined. How long had it been since I had attended a real jumaa? In a masjid, with men and women separate and khutbahs from qualified imams? Had I journeyed into apostasy? What did that even mean? We lived in a non-Muslim state where I had no fear of shari’a’s penalty, but there’s more than one way to chop off a head. What would it do to my parents to find out how this house really functioned?”
There’s something very basically American about this wrestling with identity. Who are we? What do the terms which gave meaning to life in the old country mean on this new soil? The way these questions are playing out for the growing numbers of American-born Muslims is merely one of the more recent versions of the basic American story of struggling for identity.

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "Punk Islam"
Next: Part 3: "The Unbearable Difficulty of Community"
Previous: Part 1: "Nailings"



Comedian George Carlin – a muse to whom I often turn – said back in 1972:
“You can buy anything in this country. Anything you can think of! You can probably buy a left nostril inhaler if you look around long enough. With your state motto on it. Glows in the dark -- anything, man. If you nail together two things that have never been nailed together before, some [body] will buy it from you.”
Call it American innovation if you’re looking for a positive spin. Call it American hucksterism if you want to be a less positive.

Peanut butter and jelly – slapping together two things that had never been put together before. It’s a combination you will rarely find anywhere outside America.

Convenience stores with fast food chains inside them – nailing together things that hadn’t been nailed together before. Stop in and get gas, whatever that might mean to you.

The smart phone is basically the result of taking a cell phone, and nailing lots of other things to it. I can’t wait until it’s also my garage door opener, my TV remote control, and an electric razor. Is there an ap for that? I don’t know what’s taking them so long.

This country’s origins as a nation-state involved two kinds of Europeans coming over here. Pilgrims and puritans came here seeking a place to build the city of god. Then there were a lot of other Europeans that arrived on these shores because the British, French, and other colonial empires were using North America as a penal colony, often under the guise of indentured servitude. They were shipping their undesirables here. In the 18th-century, 50,000 British convicts were sent to colonial America.

The two main strands that formed American culture were the churchy types who liked rules and the criminal types who really didn’t get along with rules. We’re a nation created from nailing together two very different things.

When other religions began arriving here in notable numbers in the 20th-century, they, too, found themselves culturally nailed to things they had not been nailed to before. When Islam met the African American culture of the 1930s, the Nation of Islam was born. When a few Japanese Zen masters met the Beatnik and Hippie US culture of the 1960s, American Zen, culturally very different from Asian Zen, was born. And so on.

Do Unitarian Universalists also nail together things that are generally regarded as very different? Boy, howdy! "Syncretism running completely amok," we've been called.

How about these two: Punk rock and Islam. Surely those haven't been nailed together? They have!

There have been Muslim Punk bands since at least 1979, in fact. Punk Islam turned into a movement with the 2003 novel, The Taqwacores by Michael Muhammad Knight.

Michael Knight was born in 1977 in West Virginia, his father a Pentecostal and his mother Irish Catholic. When Michael was age 2, his mother took him and fled from Michael’s mentally ill and abusive father. Knight’s first exposure to Islam came when he was 13 and heard about Malcolm X in the lyrics of the hip-hop band, Public Enemy. He started reading more about Malcolm X, and about Islam, converted to Islam, and, at age 17, went to Pakistan to study Islam at Faisal Mosque. Now named Michael Muhammad Knight, he spent several years in Pakistan.

He grew gradually disillusioned with orthodox Islam. After returning to the US, he wrote The Taqwacores -- a novel about a group of Muslim punk-rockers living in Buffalo, New York, Michael Muhammad Knight imagined the book as his "good-bye," to Islam. In the novel, the narrator, Yusef, draws parallels between Islam and punk:
“I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way – the energy, perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth.”
* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "Punk Islam." 
Next: Part 2: "Yeah, But What Type of Punk Muslim?"


Saturdao 27

Dao De Jing, verse 16b

16 translations.

1. James Legge:
To know that* unchanging rule is to be intelligent; not to know it leads to wild movements and evil issues.
The knowledge of that unchanging rule produces a (grand) capacity and forbearance, and that capacity and forbearance lead to a community (of feeling with all things).
From this community of feeling comes a kingliness of character;
and he who is king-like goes on to be heaven-like.
In that likeness to heaven he possesses the Dao.
Possessed of the Dao, he endures long;
and to the end of his bodily life, is exempt from all danger of decay.

[*i.e., the returning to the root, the state of stillness, the report of the fulfillment of the appointed end.]
2. Archie Bahm:
Each thing having its own goal is necessary to the nature of things.
He who knows that this is the ultimate nature of things is intelligent; he who does not is not.
Being intelligent, he knows that each has a nature which is able to take care of itself. Knowing this, he is willing that each thing follow its own course.
Being willing to let each thing follow its own course, he is gracious. Being gracious, he is like the source which graciously gives life to all.
Being like the gracious source of all, he embodies Nature’s way within his own being. And in thus embodying Nature’s way within himself, he embodies its perpetually recurrent principles within himself.
And so, regardless of what happens to his body, there is something about him which goes on forever.
3. Frank MacHovec:
To know the Eternal Constant is to be enlightened. To be ignorant of this is blindness that begets evil.
Whoever knows the Eternal Constant is open-minded. Being open-minded is to be impartial, being impartial is to be above nations and laws, being above nations and laws is to be in accord with nature, being in accord with nature is to be in accord with Dao; being in accord with Dao is to be eternal. Although his body may die and decay, he shall live forever.
4. D.C. Lau:
Knowledge of the constant is known as discernment.
Woe to him who willfully innovates
While ignorant of the constant,
But should one act from knowledge of the constant
One's action will lead to impartiality,
Impartiality to kingliness,
Kingliness to heaven,
Heaven to the way,
The way to perpetuity,
And to the end of one's days one will meet with no danger.
5. Gia-Fu Feng:
Knowing constancy is insight.
Not knowing constancy leads to disaster.
Knowing constancy, the mind is open.
With an open mind, you will be open hearted.
Being openhearted, you will act royally.
Being royal, you will attain the divine.
Being divine, you will be at one with the Dao.
Being at one with the Dao is eternal.
And though the body dies, the Dao will never pass away.
6. Stan Rosenthal:
Being one with the Dao is to be at peace, and to be in conflict with it, leads to chaos and dysfunction.
When the consistency of the Dao is known, the mind is receptive to its states of change.
It is by being at one with the Dao, that the sage holds no prejudice against his fellow man.
If accepted as a leader of men, he is held in high esteem.
Throughout his life, both being and non-being, the Dao protects him.
7. Jacob Trapp:
“In Accord with Dao”
To be enlightened is to be tolerant;
To be tolerant is to be impartial;
To be impartial is to be all-inclusive;
To be all-inclusive is to be in accord with Nature;
To be in accord with Nature
Is to be in accord with Dao,
Invulnerable and preserved from harm.
8. Stephen Mitchell:
If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Dao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.
9. Victor Mair:
To know the perpetual is to be enlightened;
Not to know the perpetual is to be reckless –
recklessness breeds evil.
To know the perpetual is to be tolerant –
tolerance leads to ducal impartiality,
ducal impartiality to kingliness,
kingliness to heaven,
heaven to the Way,
the Way to permanence.
to the end of his days, he will not be imperiled.
10. Michael LaFargue:
Experiencing Steadiness is Clarity.
Not to experience Steadiness
is to be heedless in one’s actions – bad luck.
Experiencing Steadiness, then one is all-embracing
all-embracing, then an impartial Prince
Prince, then King
King, then Heaven
Heaven, then Dao
Dao, then one lasts very long.
As to destroying the self,
there will be nothing to fear
11. Peter Merel:
“Decay and Renewal”
Accepting this* brings enlightenment,
Ignoring this brings misery.
Who accepts nature's flow becomes all-cherishing;
Being all-cherishing he becomes impartial;
Being impartial he becomes magnanimous;
Being magnanimous he becomes natural;
Being natural he becomes one with the Way;
Being one with the Way he becomes immortal:
Though his body will decay, the Way will not.

[*i.e., the eternal decay and renewal flow of nature whereby all flourishing things return to their source]
12. Ursula LeGuin:
“Returning to the Root”
Peace: to accept what must be,
to know what endures.
In that knowledge is wisdom.
Without it, ruin, disorder.
To know what endures
is to be openhearted,
tollowing the Dao,
the way that endures forever.
The body comes to its ending,
but there is nothing to fear.
13. Wang Keping:
To know the eternal is called enlightenment and wisdom.
Not to know the eternal is to take blind action,
Thus resulting in disaster.
He who knows the eternal can embrace all.
He who embraces all can be impartial.
He who is impartial can be all-encompassing.
How who is all-encompassing can be at one with Heaven.
He who is at one with Heaven can be at one with the Dao.
He who is at one with the Dao can be everlasting
And free from danger throughout his life.
14. Ames and Hall:
Using common sense is acuity,
While failing to use it is to lose control.
And to try to do anything while out of control is to court disaster.
Using common sense is to be accommodating,
Being accommodating is tolerance,
Being tolerant is kingliness,
Being kingly is tian-like,
Being tian-like is to be way-making.
And the way-made is enduring.
To the end of one’s days one will be free of danger.
15. Yasuhiko Genku Kimura:
And to know eternity is called enlightenment.
To act unawarely in the nescience of eternity
Is to bring disaster to your life.
To know eternity is to be all-inclusive,
To be all-inclusive is to be impartial,
To be impartial is to attain self-mastery,
To attain self-mastery is to be heavenly,
And to be heavenly is to be one with the Dao eternal.
To be one with the Dao eternal is to enjoy everlasting life,
Forever secure even after the enfolding of the physical self.
16. Addiss and Lombardo:
Understanding the ordinary:
Not understanding the ordinary:
Blindness creates evil.
Understanding the ordinary:
Mind opens.
Mind opening leads to compassion,
Compassion to nobility,
Nobility to heavenliness,
Heavenliness to Dao.
Dao endures.
Your body dies.
There is no danger.
* * *
We're not talking about assimilating.
We're talking about acceptance, yes,
And more: The adaptation to things that acceptance makes possible.

You, Westerner, raised or razed in the shadow of Plato and Augustine to
Your reason struggles with your passion, your will at war with virtue:
Forget that.
Peace in your relations is the path to inner peace.
(Inner peace is also the path to peace in your relations, still one must start somewhere.)

Accommodate, adapt, without judging good or bad, just flowing effectively with what is,
Yes, also present to the distinctiveness you bring to that flow ('cause, again, we're not talking about assimilating),
That's the way:
The Way.
"Extending oneself through patterns of deference" (Ames and Hall)
I like that.
* * *
Next: Saturdao 28.
Previous: Saturdao 26.
Beginning: Saturdao 1.


Odyssey, part 5: The Commune Attraction

"The commune movement is part of a reawakening of belief in the possibilities for utopia that existed in the nineteenth century and exist again today, a belief that by creating the right social institution, human satisfaction and growth can be achieved."
-Rosabeth Moss Kanter

"It is easier to have faith that God will support each House of Hospitality and Farming Commune and supply our needs in the way of food and money to pay bills, than it is to keep a strong, hearty, living faith in each individual around us - to see Christ in him."
-Dorothy Day

In my old files that date back to high school there is a letter dated 28 March 1976 -- twelve days after my seventeenth birthday. It’s a letter from Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia to me. It says:
"We've received your letter requesting a visit for August 18 to Sept. 18. We probably won't be making reservations for that period until early or mid summer, so we'll let you know then whether we can invite you. It costs $1.50 per day to visit here. Your age would not be a barrier to membership if you could get written permission to join from your parents or legal guardians."
Twin Oaks Community was (and is) a commune. When I was a teenager, I believed in the idea of communes. I had written to ask for a visit because Twin Oaks required a visit before joining. The dates of the visit I had proposed, starting August 18, remind me that back then my plan was go to summer school that summer to finish high school and, a day or two after graduating, head up to Virginia. I would subsequently join Twin Oaks and spend my life in this commune.

How did this happen? How did a healthy American lad arrive at such a plan? Where would I have picked up such craziness?

We could go back to Thomas More’s 1516 work, Utopia, or further back to Plato’s Republic, but this particular story best begins in 1948 when B. F. Skinner published Walden Two. Skinner was a behaviorist psychologist, and Walden Two was his novel about a Utopian community with about a thousand happy, productive, and creative members who share the work of sustaining themselves and hold property in common, so no one is richer or poorer than anyone else.

Skinner’s behaviorism was controversial. For Skinner, only behavior mattered, and the only thing that determined behavior was contingencies of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Skinnerian behaviorism seemed to “threaten a concept at the very root of western civilization: the individual endowed with inalienable rights and personal responsibility.” And the Walden Two community he envisioned seemed indeed a utopia to some, but to others the control of behavior seemed to be a totalitarian dystopia.

Behaviorism was attacked for denying human freedom and dignity. In response, Skinner wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which came out in 1971 and brought the debate about Skinner’s ideas to its peak. To Skinner’s fans, what appealed to them was the grounding in reason and science combined with the promise that this grounding would lead us to a society of true equality. Concepts like “freedom” and “dignity” had for too long been used to explain and justify a gap between the haves and the have-nots that was unnecessary and unjust. Income and wealth and the bases of self-respect should be fairly and more equally distributed, argued John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, also published in 1971.

In 1971, the national discourse included a number of prominent voices calling for greater income equality. Today, we do not hear that case being made: though the need for it is much greater now than it was in 1971. In the spring of 1972, I turned 13 and had little inkling of the debates of Harvard professors like Skinner and Rawls, but I was a UU kid, and I was taught to value equality. That spring, my religious education class at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta was being led by a young man, about college age, as I remember. He wasn’t old like my parents, who had zero credibility for me when I was 13. He was young enough for me to trust him, and old enough to know things.

It was from that Sunday school teacher that I first heard of B. F. Skinner and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. We are all equal, and we are all good. If we just arrange the "contingencies of reinforcement" right – a small, merely technical problem – we’ll all do the work necessary for all of us to have what we need, instead of the haves taking it all and leaving the have-nots without. That’s what my R.E. teacher said, and he was cool, he was smart, and I so looked up to him.

When class let out, I went to the church book table and there was a copy of Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I got my parents to buy it for me. I read it. Thus was a young behaviorist born.

Here was a way to fix this world that my parents and their generation had so messed up. We could all live in harmony, and end strife and inequality if we just built our society on Skinner’s principles. B. F. Skinner said:
“societal survival could be ensured only by making conscious use of the techniques of controlling behavior to induce people to behave for the good of the group.” 
And I said, “Yes, B.F., Yes!”

Then I read the older book, Walden Two, and there it was: a picture of exactly how it was to be done.

My Dad, an English professor, said, things always change. Even if you have a perfect society today, it won’t stay that way, he said. But I didn’t see why it wouldn’t. Dad had a colleague in the English department who had an interest in Utopian experiments and had subscribed to the newsletter of Twin Oaks community. Learning of my interest in Walden Two, she passed on to me those old newsletters: pictureless pages of manual typewriter mimeograph text. That’s how I learned about a community called Twin Oaks that had been founded in 1967 specifically in order be as much as possible like Skinner’s Walden Two. In fact, in the late 60s and early 70s about three dozen communities inspired by Walden Two sprang up. Most were short-lived.

By my 17th birthday, Twin Oaks, nearly nine years old, was still going. In fact, it’s still going today, now in its 46th year. In the summer of '76, I did go to summer school and finish high school early, just as I had planned. But I never paid that visit to Louisa, Virginia. About a month after writing that letter to Twin Oaks, I began dating a young woman who I eventually married, and that had a lot to do with the change of plan.

To this day, I still haven’t been there, though the place continues to intrigue. At 17, I believed commune life was the way to go. I was so disgusted with the greed I saw all around me, and I saw the injustice and the violence that resulted from that greed, and I was angry at greed wherever I perceived it. I look back on that callow youth now, with some compassion for that guy. The one thing that makes me shake my head in wonder at that past self – what was that teenager thinking? – is the idea that he wanted to spend his life as, basically, a farmer. Twin Oaks depends on their own farming for most of what they eat. I have a lot of respect for farmers, but that is so not my calling.

I was an awkward teenager with ambitions not just for myself but that all humanity would live equally, everyone would have enough, injustice and violence would be ended. And the way to do that was to just do it: start now with a shared-income democratic community that would grow and spin-off -- and the spin-offs would grow and spin-off -- until the whole world had left greed behind and everyone was taken care of.

I’m still that guy in a lot of ways. Still not too smooth on the social skills – still working on that. I don’t have as much anger as my 17-year-old self had. I do still have his ambition for all of humanity – or, rather, I would now say, all sentient beings.

That guy -- my teen-aged self -- lived in a time when Utopian debate was alive. He spent hours in long discussions with people about the possibility of utopia. I live instead in a society where that debate has been settled – and the side that 17-year-old was on lost. I mourn the passing of a time when public discourse could take seriously the project, at any level, of a truly egalitarian society.

* * *
Next: "Odyssey, part 6: Anti-Barbie"
Previous: "Odyssey, part 4: Paragon of Loquacious Discourse"
"Odyssey, part 3: Mr. Bear's Lover of Leaving"
"Odyssey, part 2: Falling Apples"
"Odyssey, part 1: 1959"