Tom Robbins on the Zen rebels, Sufi saints, and wild yogis who fight conventional mind with humor, outrageousness, and paradox. Where are they now?
American novelist Tom Robbins has a well-deserved cult following, not just of gray-haired hippies but also fresh-faced students, back-packers in Banana Republics, and others. Take Jitterbug Perfume, the first book by Robbins that I was lucky enough to stumble across at the local library—how can one not be smitten by it? It’s a book that begins with beets—“the most intense of vegetables”—and then dives into heady perfume, a good poke at a few of the world’s major religions, and a host of zany characters, including a 1,000-year-old janitor. Clearly Robbins owes some inspiration to psychedelics, but this word-slinger, as he calls himself, also owes something to Eastern philosophy. His heroes are the Zen rebels, Sufi saints, and wild yogis of the “crazy wisdom” tradition, as he interprets it. Like them, Tom Robbins cuts through self-serious, conventional mind with humor, insight, and a little bit of weirdness. I interviewed him by fax.
Shambhala Sun: How would you define crazy wisdom?
Tom Robbins: The quick and easy answer is that crazy wisdom is the deliberate opposite of conventional wisdom. Like most quick and easy answers, however, that one isn’t really satisfying.
For want of a precise definition, we might consider that crazy wisdom is a philosophical worldview that recommends swimming against the tide, cheerfully seizing the short end of the stick, embracing insecurity, honoring paradox, courting the unexpected, celebrating the unfamiliar, shunning each and every orthodoxy, volunteering for those tasks nobody else wants or dares to do, and perhaps above all else, breaking taboos in order to destroy their power. It’s the wisdom of those who turn the tables on despair by lampooning it, and who neither seek authority nor submit to it.
What’s the point of all this? To enlarge the soul, light up the brain, and liberate the spirit. Crazy wisdom is both transformative and transcendent.
You seem to be particularly partial to Zen Buddhism. Is it Zen’s version of crazy wisdom that appeals to you, or are there other elements that draw you to it?
The branch of Zen Buddhism that has long interested me is Rinzai, the sect that eschews the mind-quieting practice of meditation in favor of the mind-blowing activity of wrestling with koans. Koans, of course, are those carefully crafted riddles that can never be solved by means of anything remotely resembling deductive logic.
On a purely intellectual level, attempting to solve koans is a perfect manifestation of crazy wisdom at work. It’s important to emphasize, however, that, unlike Zen, crazy wisdom is not a practice, it’s an attitude (an attitude I seem to have had since birth).
In general, I’m attracted to Zen’s focus on absolute freedom and all-embracing oneness, its reverence for nature, and its respect for humor. When Zen or tantric masters visit North America, they’re often astonished by how earnest, how overly serious, Westerners are about their spiritual practice. They’ll go to a zendo in Minnesota, for example, and wonder aloud why nobody there is laughing. This led Chögyam Trungpa, in a lovely expression of crazy wisdom, to squirt righteously zealous meditators with a water pistol.
To be uptight about one’s Zen practice, to become attached to it, is to miss the whole point of it; one might as well hook up with one of the fear-based, authoritarian, guilt-and-redemption religions.
Can you give me some examples of crazy wisdom that interest you? I realize that you talked a lot about crazy wisdom in your essay “In Defiance of Gravity,” but it would be nice if Shambhala Sun readers could have more of a taste of what you mean.
I’m a wordslinger not a scholar, I have a monkey mind not a monk mind, but I think you can trust me when I report that just as Zen evolved in China from a co-mingling of Buddhism and Taoism, there occurred in Tibet a dynamic meeting between Buddhism and Bön, the ancient Tibetan shamanic religion. The Buddhist masters who had infiltrated Tibet (around the eighth century) were eccentric mahsiddhas out of the tantric lineage in India, and the Bön shamans, having a natural affinity, took to their crazy-wisdom ways like Homer Simpson to donuts, maybe even improving (if “improving” is the right word) on their radical approach to ultimate awareness.
The Tibetan siddhas soon acquired a reputation as the wildest of spiritual outlaws. Siddhas slept naked in the snow, hung out in graveyards, nibbled on dung, drank wine from skulls, publicly engaged in kinky sex, and missed no opportunity to ridicule dogma. Believing in the possibility of instant karma, they employed shock tactics to jolt people into spontaneous enlightenment.
When a latter-day Japanese roshi would define buddhahood as “dried shit on a stick,” or answer the question, “What do you do when you meet your master coming through the woods?” by advising, “Hit him over the head with a stick,” you know they’d been infected with the virus of crazy wisdom.
Whether it sprang up independently in Persia and Turkey or was carried there by travelers along the Silk Road, I haven’t a clue, but crazy wisdom permeates Sufism. One of my favorite Sufi stories concerns a man who, feeling in need of spiritual guidance, petitions for an audience with a renowned master. After a long wait, the request is granted, but the man is allowed to ask only one question. He asks, “What is God really like?”
The master answers, “God? God is a carrot. Ha ha ha ha ha!”
Feeling mocked and insulted, the man goes away in a snit. Later, suspecting that he must have misunderstood something, he requests a second interview, and after several years it, too, is granted. “What did you mean,” the fellow asks, “when you said God is a carrot?”
The master looks at him in amazement. “A carrot?” he bellows. “God is not a carrot! God is a radish!” And again he laughs uproariously.
Turned away, the fellow broods over this outlandishness for many months. Then, one day, it dawns on him that the master was saying that God is beyond definition and can never be described, that anything we might say is God is automatically not God. At that moment, the man was powerfully awakened.
Examples of crazy wisdom also abound in the modern west, ranging from Joris Karl Huysmans sewing his eyelids shut because he believed that at age thirty, he’d already seen so much it would take him the rest of his life to process it all, to Muhammad Ali dancing in his undershorts at the Houston Induction Center after committing a felony by refusing to be conscripted into the army.
Unfortunately, however, crazy wisdom in the West is almost always devoid of a spiritual dimension.
What influences or happenings in your life first prompted you to have a spiritual attitude?
When I left home at age seventeen, I quit attending church because church had been providing me with nothing beyond an anesthetic numbing of the backside and the brain. By my mid-twenties, I’d completely rejected my Southern Baptist faith on the grounds that it was a bastion of fascist-tinged hypocrisy, based on misinterpretation of Levantine myth and watered-down compromises of the teachings of Jesus. Around that time, I began peeking into Asian systems of liberation, but it wasn’t until my early thirties that I was literally propelled into the spiritual zone by the oceanic blast of psychedelic drugs.
Traditionalists won’t like hearing this, but the fact is, tens of thousands of Westerners became receptive to and enamored of Buddhist and Hindu teachings as a direct result of LSD.
Over time you have changed your mind about whether or not Americans can thoroughly and successfully adopt Asian philosophies such as Buddhism or Taoism. What is your opinion now?
There are numerous paths to enlightenment. In Asia, the paths have been worn smooth by millions of experienced feet. The Western seeker, while he or she may have ready access to guides, maps, and road signs imported from Asia, must nevertheless stumble along overgrown, unfamiliar trails pitted with potholes and patrolled by our indigenous cultural wolves.
Americans may hold Buddhist ideals in our hearts and minds, but they’re not yet in our genes. That takes time. Meanwhile, Asians are becoming increasingly Americanized. Who knows where this exchange will lead?
In your first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, your character Marx Marvelous contemplates what religion would take Christianity’s place if Christianity were suddenly to disappear. Can you describe the faith that you think might develop in such a situation?
Suppose that from the environmentalist movement there should spring a revival of mystical nature worship, and suppose that this new nature religion should receive an infusion of crazy wisdom sufficient to keep it honest and amusing, free from any trace of dogma. Wouldn’t that be the wildcat’s meow?
In real life, the religious right has gained a lot of power in the U.S. over the past number of years. What are your predictions regarding how this situation will develop in the years to come?
There may seem to be a whiff of paranoid fantasy about it, but it’s really not unreasonable to suggest that the Christian right presents by far the greatest threat to human existence in all of history.
I have a friend, a high-ranking officer in Naval Intelligence, who assures me that the U.S. intelligence services, military and civilian, are becoming packed with evangelical Christians. Congress and the White House are known to be heavily influenced by evangelicals, their doctrine, their votes, and their money. The danger they present is that they desperately want widespread war in the Middle East, they hunger for the fire and blood of Armageddon, thinking that it will force Jesus to come back and remove the “righteous” from this earthly existence that confuses and disgusts them.
U.S. foreign policy is now based on the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, which is to say, based on the ravings of a long-dead misogynistic madman. When he lived in Ephesus, the first thing the Apostle John saw every morning upon awakening was the gigantic statue of Artemis, with her multitude of naked breasts, and she made him crazy (though hardly wise). The Book of Revelation is the result. What sort of hallucinations do you think ol’ John might have suffered had he run into Britney Spears?
As sentient beings, as a part of the One, the fundamentalist spawn of John deserve our compassion, but because they increasingly imperil all life on the planet, they must also be vigorously opposed.
Your book Still Life with Woodpecker explores how to make love stay. How would you define love?
Love is a carrot. No, no, it’s a radish. Listen, better brains than mine have skidded off the road in pursuit of that elusive subject. I can say this much with confidence: genuine love, while it lasts, is a transformative emotional state that makes of the loved one an irreplaceable being. There’s something magical, magnificent, and very sweet about that.
Still Life with Woodpecker was published almost thirty years ago. Since writing it, have you learned anything new about how to make love stay?
Well, I’ve learned that in asking how we can make love stay, I posed the wrong question. Romantic love moves around. That’s what it does. Indifferent to misguided human cravings for permanence and certainty, it stages its glorious show, then folds its tent and leaves town. Or, at least, it stops buttering the popcorn. Perhaps it’s both insulting and injurious to romance to try to hold on to it.
Ah, but there’s another kind of love that does stay—and most Buddhists are familiar with it. When you “fall” into universal love, you’re “in” love all the time, external events notwithstanding; you live and breathe in love. Even then, should your romantic partner decamp, you might feel sad or even angry for a while, but you won’t sit up night after night swilling tequila and listening to heartbreak music.
It should be noted that there are relationships between mature, grounded, personally evolved individuals (people whole enough not to cling or be needy) that do last, and sometimes manage to embody both the romantic and the spiritual.
In your latest book, Wild Ducks Flying Backward, you say that the word “spiritual” has become highly suspect. Why do you say that? How and why did the word degenerate?
When a blue-collar, average Joe hears the word “spiritual,” he’ll frequently hee-haw and spit. It sounds sissy, elitist, and heretical to him, a threat to his masculinity and a contamination of the patriotic and religious detergents with which his brain has been thoroughly washed. When cool urban cynics hear the word, they sneer. It’s an affront to their existential hipness.
For many others, it’s a reminder of the legions of charlatans, frauds, and self-deluded dilettantes who are making money by hawking various brands of “spiritual” guidance. Then, too, there are the innocent airheads who go about broadcasting embarrassing streams of woo-woo in their everyday lives (and who are frequently the victims of the con-artist gurus).
These folks—some greedy, some ignorant, some just sweetly naïve—have all contributed to the aura of suspicion that surrounds the word “spiritual” in contemporary American society. That’s indeed unfortunate, because spirituality, when pure, connects us to the godhead with infinitely more efficacy and grace than does religiosity.
What is the most spiritual place you have ever visited?
An uninhabited savannah deep in Africa, a hundred miles from any artificial light, where, while lions coughed and night birds sang, I gazed at a dozen wheeling constellations and millions of ancient sparkling stars.
If it were true, after all, that humans were made in the image of God, what exactly do you think God would look like?
God is a carrot. Wait a second, that’s not right. God is a radish!