From Satori to Silicon Valley

by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.

Organic Commonwealth and Buddhist Anarchy

Perhaps the high water mark of this symbolic effort to rusticate western civilization was the brief and turbulent episode in Berkeley remembered as "People's Park." What the Human Be-In in San Francisco of 1967 had been for one day, what the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York in early 1969 had been for a weekend, People's Park was meant to be for keeps. The event might be seen as the culmination of the direct action social philosophy proclaimed by the Haight-Ashbury Diggers. After issuing a series of broadsides in late 1966 that called for an urban anarchist order of life, the Diggers had begun a daily come-one, come-all free food project under the slogan "it's free because it's yours." The food was either stolen or scrounged from merchants around the city (most of it days-old and unsalable if still edible) and served up for the growing population of young, underfed street people. But history's first Diggers -- those of seventeenth century England -- had not been panhandlers; they had been would-be revolutionaries. Dispossessed farmers and artisans, they had occupied the land, proclaimed it the "common treasure" of the people, and begun tilling it. (Not much land, actually; there were only a few dozen Diggers. Nor did the occupation last long; only a few months before they were driven off, condemned as madmen rather than criminals.)

People's Park in Berkeley 1969 revived that original Digger ideal. A piece of the city's turf had been liberated by some shaggy squatters (and their dogs) from Governor Reagan and the University Regents. Promptly, the word went out for the tribes to pitch their tents, cultivate their gardens, warm their bones by the campfire, and create the Organic Commonwealth. In People's Park, the aboriginals -- their history dated back all of several days at most -- called themselves "sod brothers" and set about planting crops that never sprouted, and which few would have stayed put long enough to harvest. In any case, the Governor and the Regents quashed the experiment before it had the chance to fail, leaving it as another emblematic gesture along the way. The history of the period is mainly a collection of such emblems and symbols, evocative but ephemeral.

There were those, however, who took the stalking of the wild asparagus more seriously and put a deal of inventive thought and practical energy into the skills of postindustrial survival. There was, for example, the Portola Institute in Menlo Park, which dates from 1966. From it, along a number of routes, one can trace the origins of several ingenious projects in the Bay Area whose aim was to scale down, democratize, and humanize our hypertrophic technological society. These included the Briarpatch Network, the Farallones Institute, the Integral Urban House, the Simple Living Project.

On the national scene, the most visible of these efforts was The Whole Earth Catalog of 1968, a landmark publication of the period. The Catalog was an exuberant compendium of resourceful possibilities for laid back, but self-reliant living: wood-burning stoves, home remedies, mail-order moccasins, durable tools. I can recall a meeting I attended on the San Francisco peninsula where the first rather ratty looking edition of the Catalog (the print order was about 1000) was handed around the circle hot off the press. It was closely scrutinized with a mixture of wide-eyed wonder and honest glee. For, yes, here were the tools and skills of the alternative folk economy-to-come, tribal technology ready to be ordered and put to work. When the cities collapsed (as they were certain to do) and all the supply lines froze up (which might be any day now), these would be the means of cunning survival. Right there for all to see was a blueprint of the world's best tipi. There was even a book available for a modest price that showed how to deliver your own baby in a log cabin.

How many who read the Catalog ever ordered its goods or used its advice? I suspect that, for many, it was more the banner of a cause than the real tool it was meant to be. But even if one discounts most of these gestures as impractical whimsy, they stand as a provocative assertion of justified discontent which reached out, however unsteadily, toward organic values that our industrial culture has left far behind. That assertion, so I believe, represented much that was best in America's abbreviated countercultural episode. Somewhere in that longing for an earthier texture of life, there lay the saving sensibility that might have disciplined our runaway industrialism and given it a human face. Certainly we have had no stronger an appetite for social and economic alternatives, no livelier a discussion of major issues facing our high industrial system than we experienced during this brief, superheated interval. What is a sane standard of production and consumption? What is the true wealth of nations? What is the meaning of work, of leisure, of community, of masculinity and femininity, of freedom and fulfillment? What is the relationship of economy to environment? How do we create an economics of permanence? What are the values of a planetary culture? I cannot recall the last time I heard a discussion of such great questions that was animated with the energies of possibility.

If the wishful paradigm that sparked discussion of issues like these was a somewhat romanticized neo-primitivism, that may be of less intellectual importance than the quality of the ideas that soon found currency within this unlikely public of dissenting and dropped-out middle class youth. For these included the humanly-scaled economics (sometimes quaintly called the "Buddhist economics") of E. F Schumacher, the communitarian philosophy of Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin, the feminist insurgency of the women's movement, the convivial social theories of Ivan Illych, the ecological poetics of Gary Snyder, the manifold insights of the humanistic and human potential psychologies. Like so many tributaries, these currents of thought at last flowed into the environmental movement of the early seventies, which survives as the most durable offshoot of countercultural protest.

Permeating all these issues was a peculiarly west coast American reading of Zen-Taoist nature mysticism, a reborn sense of allegiance to the Earth and its rhythms which centered especially in the postwar Bay Area. The positive side of youthful disaffiliation during the sixties was the discovery of a new postindustrial standard of wealth and well-being that borrowed heavily upon oriental philosophy. I have met academic specialists who insist that Alan Watts, who did so much to popularize Zen, did not grasp the authentic meaning of satori. So it would be hazardous to say how many members of the untutored counter culture achieved a studied knowledge of this elusive tradition. But many had at least acquired from these exotic sources an awareness of values that commanded no respect in the mainstream of our frenzied industrial economy: a trust in the organism and the spontaneous patterns of nature, a sense of right livelihood, a taste for pleasures of the senses and splendors of the mind that money cannot buy nor machines produce. Learnedness may not always have been there, but longing was. And sometimes timely intuition supplies what scholarship cannot provide. If the raggle-taggle youth of the sixties had any guiding star before them, I think it was the hobo Taoist saints and shabby Zen masters, civilization's original anarchist philosophers, wise fools who taught the art of living lightly on the Earth. Young and raw as the counter culture may have been, there were those in its ranks who recognized the relevance of that tradition to the needs of a society sunk over its eyes in an obsessive struggle to conquer nature, to obliterate all traditional wisdom in the name of "progress," to transform the entire planet into an industrial artifact. They perceived the nuclear death-wish that lies at the core of that Promethean obsession and, accordingly, they proposed a more becoming human alternative.

One of the earliest and strongest statements of the ideal can be found in Gary Snyder's terse manifesto "Buddhist Anarchism." It appears in The Journal for the Protection of All Beings, another landmark publication of the era, this one issued by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books in 1961.

Modern America has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated, and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself or the persons one is supposed to love. The conditions of the cold war have turned all modem societies, Soviet included, into hopeless brainstainers, creating populations of "preta" -- hungry ghosts -- with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, and forests, and all animal life are being wrecked to feed these cancerous mechanisms.

The disaffiliation and acceptance of poverty by practicing Buddhists becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs "only the ground beneath one's feet" wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by, "communications" and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural desires . . . destroys arbitrary frustration-creating customs and points the way to a kind of community that would amaze moralists and eliminate armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.


Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.