Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on July 24, 2014

9{Note: Before I get on with this series, just want so say a few words about last night. Margaret and I have been traveling to different concerts and shows of our daughter May and her husband Seth to take care of their new baby Iris while May sings. Last night we were in Baldwin, Michigan at the Wenger Pavilion, where they sang. We had a great time with baby Iris, who is now interacting with me and we had some good laughs. The show was interesting, because the pavilion is outside, open to the air and the public, and surrounded by two large parking lots. The fun part is that people come and park in the lots and sit in their cars, plus there are rows of chairs up near the stage, and even more were brought out into the lots among the cars. After a song or a good solo, people not only clap, but honk their horns. It was like something out of the 1950s, when we all used to go to the drive-in movie theaters. That was last night. This morning I head to the dentist for a root canal. Ouch!]

In this blog I will cover very briefly what was quite a long time, the period in Ann Arbor when the 1950s turned into what we now call The Sixties. Keep in mind that the 1960s hippie-thing did not start until the summer of 1965, so we are talking some seven or eight years here.

Something that was missing back when I first met Buddhism was what we can call personal direction. Buddhism was still just too new and for the most part it was all in the books. In Ann Arbor Michigan we had no Buddhist centers and no teachers. The first Zen Center in Ann Arbor did not surface until the early 1980s, if I remember right. And I am talking here about the late 1950s and early 1960s. All we had were bookstores and then it was mostly only books on Zen that could be found. In the beginning there was just Bob Marshall Books down on State Street. Even as a high-school kid, I hung out there.

Marshalls was a huge sprawling sort of thing that took up the whole basement floor of the building. It had low ceilings that stretched far back toward the alley from the street side where you came in. Despite the inadequate lighting, cords running where they shouldn’t be, and the occasional space heater or dehumidifier, this was what a bookstore should be. It had books I actually wanted to read.

Way at the back and along the walls were books I was not interested in, remainders, oversize art volumes, and all kinds of others. I seldom went back there except to use the bathroom because everything I wanted was right up front, just to the right of where you came in: two rows of double-sided bookshelves running side by side that were no more than three-feet tall. You could almost hop over them.

And on those shelves crammed together were the only books I cared about, almost the complete catalog of Evergreen Press, Grove Press, City Lights, and other publishers of Beat poetry and literature. And it was not just “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac that we read, but other books by Kerouac like “Dr. Sax,” “The Town and the City,” and “Mexico City Blues.” These were mostly large, heavy paperbacks with slippery-slick covers that really felt like something when you had them in your hands. And there was William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Peter Orlovsky, and Gary Snyder. And on the back of these books were still other books that I could order, and I did.

And keep in mind that Buddhism to many of us back then was all academic, mostly late-night talk fueled by too much coffee and a lot of cigarettes. We also would talk of existentialism, Ingmar Bergman movies, and all that dark European shtick. Remember, this was the around the end of The Beat Movement, and things were "heavy man." We were cool. It took us all the way until the middle 1960s to honestly admit that actually we were not down at all, but rather up and excited to be alive. We were young! When the Hippie Movement finally came in, all that European stuff went out the window in a jiffy and then all we wanted to do was be happy and dance. Not enough has been written on how my generation stopped scowling and started laughing.

I have written before about hitchhiking and living in Venice Beach, Santa Monica, North Beach, San Francisco, and Greenwich Village, NYC in my attempt to become a Beatnik. It was just a little too late.

My first face-to-face meeting with a Zen teacher was sitting Zazen all day in the Michigan Union with Roshi Philip Kapleau and that must have been somewhere in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Kapleau was not ordained until around 1965 and he established the Rochester Zen Center in 1966. Sitting Zazen for a whole day while Roshi Kapleau walked around with a big stick and whacked us on the back was interesting at best, but not enough for me to follow on with that training. I still needed to talk some things out for a while or something like that.

On the Vernal Equinox of 1968 my brother Stephen Erlewine started Circle Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the town's first metaphysical bookstore. I helped to do a rebuild on the store, finishing it all in redwood and fish tanks. Margaret and I ended up doing the astrological charts for the store, and I taught astrology evenings and all of that. It was here that I devoured hundreds of books, including those by many Hindu babas and sadhus. I educated myself in that store.

Anyway, as mentioned, it mostly was all about the books back then. As for Tibetan Buddhism, we were reading the Walter Evans-Wentz translation of the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" or Anagarika Govinda's "Way of the White Clouds" and other books like that -- poor printing and hard-to-read type. And I tried to extricate anything Tibetan from Madame Blavatsky's works, but that was an uphill climb. I eventually became vice-president of the Michigan Theosophical Society, and even married in the Liberal Catholic Church, part of the Theosophical Society. As for Alice Bailey's books and her "Tibetan," fuhgeddaboudit. Those books are harder than the New York Times Crossword Puzzle to decipher.

I did have one live experience with author and Zen teacher Alan Watts who spoke in Ann Arbor at the time. I was sitting in the front row, only a couple of feet from Watts. What I got out of his talk, strangely enough, was that here was a man who had great difficulty understanding things. It occurred to me that even I had an easier time of it, and that was indeed encouraging, because I had been drawing a blank until around then.

And I met and hung out with the likes of Baba Ram Das, Norman Mailer, and all kinds of Indian sadhus and yoga teachers, none of which stuck. I very much liked a young American, Michael Shoemaker, who later became Swami Chetanananda. We are still in touch. And the last time I saw the poet Allen Ginsberg he was sitting stark naked on the grass in the meadow at the bottom of the U-M Arboretum. This was in the early 1970s. All those years I did my best to flirt with everything Asian, in particular if it was Buddhist, but all I got was a little more literate.

In fact it was not until 1974 that I met the real-deal, and a double-whammy at that. In the next blog I will try to tell the story of my first authentic initiation into Tibetan Buddhism.

[My Milkweed patch just outside our side door.]