"Lift me to Paradise" Revisited
Pristine landscapes were mankind's Miltown and Prozac - up until the time pharmacology developed tranquilizers. If things got on a person's nerves and he lost his emotional balance and stumbled, he picked himself up, dusted himself off and got moving, aiming for a vanishing point on the horizon.
We're all familiar with the ancient regimen. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. They hit the road. There is nothing like a landscape to soothe the savage breast. A minstrel sometimes helps.
There are few biographical accounts of Zen Masters in which pilgrimages to distant hermitages are not included. Hsu Yun, Han Shan and Hui Neng all did their share of traveling on foot to reach some mountain retreat. Even the Buddha went on his Journey without his beloved horse Kantaka. It's slower and he could take more in on foot.
We preach, of course, that the setting for meditation and introspection does not and should not matter. We can go within ourselves regardless of our geographical location. "Go into your bedroom and close the door and pray" all religious leaders have advised us to do since we learned to communicate such thoughts. We don't need trips to the Alps or Adirondacks. Or so we preach.
Yet studies have shown the tranquilizing effect that landscapes have upon us. A dentist I know read a report about the difference in tension levels between patients who had a nice bay window to look out of, seeing trees or a garden in the view, and those patients who sat in claustrophobic areas or, worse, looked into the inquisitive eyes of portraits hanging on the walls. He followed the suggestion of the report and took down all his Red Skelton clown-prints and those big eyed children and put up a wallpaper mural of a sylvan scene. He said the results were dramatic. He didn't know why it should be, but he was convinced that there was, indeed, something disturbing about faces and something calming about scenery. A dentist's testimony is compelling.
And so when we are beset by problems and we are not chained in place, we hit the road. Solitary travel is therapy.
More to the point, scenery induces creativity. The great Zen masters looked within their own natures when they were confronted by nature, herself. Said Hsu Yun,
But days and months advance unmercifully to cut off my time.
I return to my cave in the mountain, but the trees are all gone.
I look down on the river and all I see are meandering curves.
The sun is captured in a cage of delicate clouds.
I listen to the wind.
Suddenly I hear the Temple Bell!
The sound comes washing over me,
Waking me from the dusty labor of my thoughts.
And distant heaven opens wider and wider to me.
But let's get back to the point of this little essay: the creative effect of an overland journey.
I had begun the original of this rambling trip down memory lane when I read that Frankie Laine would once again perform in Las Vegas, Nevada. I had written that Generation X probably wasn't familiar with Frankie Laine or the music he made famous. But those of us who did remember him could still hear his distinctive baritone telling us helpfully to go where the wild goose goes or to hop a mule train... clippity clop. Most of all he had told us about that orb, that sun that in advanced Zen meditation, constitutes the zenith of spiritual communion and deliverance.
I'll pick up where I left off last time:
Back in the year I was born, 1934, a fellow named James Haven Gillespie, who wrote lyrics for a living, took a trip across the Nevada desert... from a town called Tonopah (where billionaire Howard Hughes would later marry actress Jean Peters) down to Las Vegas. It was a hundred plus miles and wall-to-wall desertscape. Purple mountain majesties but not much in the way of a fruited plain. Mesquite and sagebrush, Joshua trees and yucca. And, no doubt, as another song says, "cactus lovelier than orchids.. blooming..."
The sight of desert beauty has a poignant effect that sylvan scenes just cannot provide. The clarity of air and the absence of tall vegetation makes it possible to look as far as the earth's curvature allows. And a nice, inexplicable feeling comes over a person. He knows he can walk a hundred yards on either side of the road and quite likely walk on earth upon which no human being has ever trod. Virgin spaces and little canyons or gullies carved by torrential streams that are nowhere in sight. The water is gone... until the next rainstorm; but it has left in its wake opportunistic wildflowers that are, themselves, exploited by bees.
James Haven Gillespie was in a creative mood that day. The landscape does this to the human spirit. It was during the Depression but his heart was inflated by the sight of all those purple mountains, the Sierra Nevada. He wrote, "This Is God's Country!" And after he was satisfied with that song, he wrote a tribute to the creator, himself. "The Old Master Painter From The Faraway Hills." As his car lapped up the bumpy miles like a cat with a saucer of milk, he thought about Christmas and children and the poverty that had engulfed the nation. So for the kids he wrote an admonishing promise, "You better watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus Is Coming to Town!"
Somebody else might pitifully ask, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" Not Gillespie. Begging was an urban activity. You had to look into people's faces to evoke pity for your own.
James Haven Gillespie continued to write lyrics. He loved the desert and being alone with all that beauty. The hardships of surviving in the desert... and still the grateful prayer! A cactus, scorched by sun and deprived of water and still, despite the struggle, producing a flower so beautiful that a person's breath would fly out to embrace it. It all sung to him. But the struggle to live amidst uncompromising beauty needed an anthem. Life was not a bowl of cherries. The Pure Land of Amitayus deserved a hymn that was devoid of such cheap sentiment. He thought about it. "Up in the morning. Out on the job. Work like the devil for my pay; but That Lucky Old Sun's got nothin' to do but roll around heaven all day. Good Lord above, can't you hear me pining? Tears are in my eyes. Send down that cloud with the silver lining. Lift me to Paradise! Show me that river. Take me across. Wash all my troubles away. Like That Lucky Old Sun give me nothin' to do but roll around heaven all day."
Gillespie found in nature what Hsu Yun, Han Shan and Hui Neng found. Solitude, simplicity, hard work and honesty... the direct link between creation and the eyes that are privileged to witness it. He lived simply and anonymously in a little two-bedroom apartment in Las Vegas, until in 1975, at the age of 87, he died. He loved the desert sun, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. It spoke to him the way that it has spoken to holy men since the dawn of time.
He wrote other songs... Honey; You Go To My Head; Breezin' Along With The Breeze to name a few. None ever became as famous as That Lucky Old Sun which Frankie Laine would make so popular; and then, in the year 2000, more than fifty years later, would return to Las Vegas to sing again.
A reader contacted me after this essay first appeared. She had heard that things did not go as planned at the performance. Laine, 89 years old, got confused in the spotlights, she said. He apologized and announced his retirement. He simply couldn't remember the words to anything. But the audience apparently did. The musicians, all younger men, played That Lucky Old Sun and the audience sang it to him.
Amitabha and Amitayus... two names for the same Buddha. Infinite Light and Infinite Time. Physics tells us that in a very real sense they are in fact the same thing.
But never have their dual nature been so fortuitously grasped as in the line... "That lucky old sun's got nothin' to do but roll around Heaven all day."
All that is left for us to do is to seek out the rising or the setting sun and open ourselves to its meaning.
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts