Mirror of Zen Blog

Philip Glass: Mad Rush and Other Things [music]


Played by the Maestro himself. What a priceless experience, this video, this music, this mind.

As it turns out, “Mad Rush” (not the title that Philip Glass gave it) was written in honor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s first address in his first visit to North America, in November 1979. Glass describes the piece as “a piece of indefinite length” which could be understood through reference to “the play of the wrathful and peaceful deities” in Tibetan tangkas. I did not know about this ostensibly “Buddhist” context when I first heard it: yet something inside was profoundly “spoken to” (as with most of Glass’s music), and felt deeply familiar with its themes and its voices and its interplay of its voices with its themes and with each other, and so on and so forth, as his music does. Most everything that I have heard of his music strikes the soul in the same way that “sacred music” impacts me: there is this immediate and very palpable sense of being lifted into a higher plane of awareness and heightened inspiration for subtler states of consciousness.

I had the great fortune to have a private one-hour conversation with Philip Glass in about 2010 or 2011, at Tibet House in New York City. Just one-to-one, in a hushed library room. We spoke about Buddhism, about Zen, about practice. I spoke with him about how he had come to make the music for Kundun. Needless to say, you can only sit there in total awe of him, this absolutely indescribable mind. I only had that same feeling when meeting with a few masters in the East — only three or four. He was like that: this vast, open, borderless consciousness without shape or edge. During the entire conversation, I had the overwhelming feeling that I did not belong in the same room with him, much less the same conversation. He was very very clear and just absolutely present. I was not really familiar with his music at the time: I had really only encountered his music first through a viewing of Koyaanisqatsi in a theater in the East Village back in the 80s (whereupon I immediately got a recording of that extraordinary soundtrack, and played it over and over again). I next encountered his music for Kundun and Mishima: both of them are among my favorite pieces of any kind of music, of anyone and anytime. I have listened to them countless times.

Yet this piece, and Metamorphoses, the Third Symphony, and that absolutely mind-blowing Violin Concerto No. 1 were as yet completely unknown to me at the time.

While looking for some things recently, I came across this version of Koyaanisqatsi. There is no substitute for seeing this filmic masterpiece on the big screen. But the film doesn’t really play anywhere, at least in the cities I’ve lived for the last 25 years. At least the opening of this, from Glass’s first organ notes… It is burned forever in the mind. It was like a dark spiritual experience.

If you have a few minutes, watch at least the first 5-10 minutes. It is a meditation — a truly dystopic meditation, to be sure. But Glass’s music is there, and he is Zen, and so that is okay.

Is Buddhism Atheistic?


Sometimes people claim that Buddhism is “atheistic.” I have also answered with this term, sometimes, in certain situations, when asked. But I have never been comfortable with this answer, even while giving it. It has always felt too hard-edged, too deterministic, too defined in an area that Buddhism has no place to be so defined. Why should the insights of this practice be described in terms of a completely illusory “theism/not-theism” dichotomy created and defined entirely by the monotheistic mentalities? And why should it be “defined” with a negative: a-theistic, meaning not theistic. Why is it a not?

So, I never felt comfortable about this handy expression — atheism — even while completely recognizing that Buddhism is clearly not the kind of belief in a Creator or omniscient being as is claimed by the major religions we hear about everyday making interesting stories in the news with all of their explosive new innovations. As Sam Harris says, ““Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.” This needing to answer whether Buddhism is a “non-” something has never felt comfortable, though I have answered within that negative-paradigm while wincing a little inside. Yet this is the terminology that people have some referent for, so I have done it, never happy about that.

In fact, ‘atheism’ is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.

Sam Harris

Listening to Robert Thurman’s current 12-week long series of talks on The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, I heard something from him which just went BAM! in the mind, and just felt exactly like the best way I could ever conceive of this. His description was like the phrasing I have always been looking for, like something which was dim in the mind: great midwife that he is, he brought the baby forward into the light:

“When people say that Buddhism is atheistic, that’s wrong. They should only say that Buddhism is non-monotheistic, or non-creator-theistic. I like to say that Buddhism is infinity-istic, because the clear energy of the clear-light of the void [emptiness] – – which is pure love in the sense that it is there in exhaustively to fulfill every need of every sense in being every sensitive entity (that’s what love is!), to fulfill every need — is infinite.”

Teacher and Student in Dharamsala, 1970s.

In another context, Professor Thurman has said, “Buddhism is less a religion than a method for fulfilling human potential, a method as empirical in its way as science.”

These words — and Sam Harris’s — completely sync with the way I think about things. And so, going forward, this is how I will express the point, thanks to them, with greater care and innovation, not accepting the “acceptable” terms of debate. They already frame the matter in a box which Buddhism never belonged, in the first place. And nor do I belong there, either.

Mirror of Zen 01 [video]

Image 19.07.20 at 09.39

Zen is not an analysis. Zen means looking in the mirror. That’s all.

An excerpt from a talk delivered in Haugesund, Norway, in May 2019. This is an extremely condensed video — it was originally produced for sharing the Dharma on Instagram’s extremely tight one-minute-limited posting format. A longer version of this talk will be released soon.