The Iron Butterfly of Zen

iron-butterflyA guy I met in Berlin last week told me he was in a band a few years ago that got a gig opening for a European tour by Iron Butterfly. You remember Iron Butterfly, don’t you? Their big hit was the 17 minute proto-prog-rock opus Inna Gadda Da Vida. Other minor hits included Flowers and Beads and the world’s first stoner rock anthem, Iron Butterfly Theme.

Those all came out in 1967. Since then the band has reunited every couple of years to try to cash in on the nostalgia craze, or, as when I saw them in 1988, to try to rebrand themselves as modern metal. Last I heard, the band touring as Iron Butterfly consisted of the original drummer and a few guys he probably found through an ad on Craigslist*.

The tour started out with all the Butterflies vowing to remain clean and sober and stay away from groupies. The guy I talked to said that lasted about ten days, after which these late-middle aged dudes were partaking in whatever action they could manage to get. You gotta wonder just what sort of groupies go for the guy who used to be the drummer of Iron Butterfly or, God forbid, guys picked up by the former drummer of Iron Butterfly via a Craigslist ad.

He said it was all pretty sad to see.

This is precisely what my current European tour feels like to me. I am the Iron Butterfly of Zen.

I’m on ICE Train 727 bound for München via Köln and Düsseldorf. I don’t know how fast this one’s going, but the one from Amsterdam Centraal to Duisburg was doing 119 km/hr. Don’t ask me what that is in MPH. Fast, I think.

I got on the 14:35 from Amsterdam after missing the 12:35. My original ticket was not refundable. So I paid for two full train tickets from Amsterdam to München. The reason I’m on my way to München and not Brussels is because I woke up extra early and extra sick on Tuesday morning in Wageningen (don’t try to pronounce it, you’ll get it wrong). I knew if I tried to make it to my gig in Brussels, I’d end up too ill to get through the rest of the tour. So I canceled and arranged to go straight to München where at least I don’t have to act all Zen in front of a bunch of strangers until Friday night.

I’m guessing the money I’ll get from donations from the four-hour-long workshop followed by a two-hour-long lecture in Wageningen (both on the same day!) will not cover the price of these tickets plus the one I had to buy to get there in the first place and the one I canceled to Brussels. My nearest estimate is that in the end I will be paying around 400-600 Euros out of my pocket for the privilege of leading these events.

This is the way my tours go when they are functioning at their absolute peak optimum of efficiency. I’m not the Iron Butterfly of Zen. I’m probably more like the Spinal Tap of Zen.

I do not stay in hotels on these trips. I stay in whatever bedrooms the folks hosting me can scrounge up. Sometimes it’s a former squat now occupied by hippy anarchists in Berlin. Sometimes it’s someone’s kid’s bedroom with a bed two feet shorter than my legs and My Little Pony posters on the walls. Sometimes it’s a nice little apartment someone lent me while they stay with a friend. Sometimes it’s warm and cozy with a relaxed vibe in spite of all the spray painted slogans on the walls, as in Berlin. Sometimes it’s a weird waking nightmare of non-stop aggressive hero worship mixed liberally with envy and greed, as on previous trips but (thank God) not this one — so far, at least.

Does the Dalai Lama travel like this? No. He does not. I doubt even Iron Butterfly travels like this.

People are exhausting. I don’t think human beings were built to adjust to a new set of prying eyes and probing questions every three days. This is why normal people find a set group of family and friends early in life and stick close to them as long as they can.

I understand why they dope up touring rock bands to get them to the next show. But at least a touring rock band has their hit song from thirty years ago to fall back on. I go out there, night after night and let the people probe into the deepest secrets of my nonexistent soul. Then after they’ve wrung me dry they filter out into the night never to be seen again, dropping a Euro or two in the Styrofoam cup by the door. “Your book changed my life, dude! Can you sign it? Maybe it’ll be worth something after you die!”

But you know what makes it even weirder? I enjoy this stuff.

I had a great time in Wageningen riding bikes in the rain and eating homemade pumpkin soup. And in Berlin with the anarcho-hippies and Syrian refugees playing Saz. And in Stockholm leading a Zen retreat at a hipster party space hired by a Mexican biologist. And in Turku talking Zen and comic books. And in Lammi in the sauna after a day meditating. And in London lecturing about Zen in a Wimbeldon pub. And in Hebden Bridge with the kittens and the fire juggler. And in Dublin trying to stay awake while religious leaders spoke of peace and God. And in Belfast stuffing my face with Wagamama noodles.

I learn a lot while I travel. Besides, I don’t know how else I could make a living given my total absence of marketable skills and my lack of a resumé due to being technically out of work for the past six years.

I do my little song and dance routine. I give them the deepest secrets of the Universe with as little distortion as I can possibly manage. Nobody notices. Nobody gives a shit. They’re looking for lifestyle enhancements, something they can agree with or argue with. Either way it serves the same purpose.

I wish I could write you something nice. Something to ease the burden of living by being funny, light, and reassuring. Something to tell you it’ll all be fine in the end, that you’ll go home to be with Jesus in Paradise Everlasting or whatever version of that you want to hear. Maybe some New Age-y type version of that same empty promise peppered with a few key buzzwords stolen from Huffington Post articles about the recent discoveries in pop physics. Something to make you feel like all my bullshit is safely scientific.

I’m not trying to be funny. I really, truly wish I could write you that kind of stuff. Not only would it sell well to the crowd who buy reassuring books. It would make you feel less unease, less sorrow, like a soft warm blanket on a cold winter night, like a kitten curled up at your feet.

I’ve tried writing that book once**. But it was an unmitigated disaster. It was so palpably false, so dead, so without charm or nuance.

I know why we want to hear those lies, why we set aside our common sense in order to try and make ourselves believe them. I know because I want that too. I wish I could believe that stuff. I really do. I’ve tried. I just can’t. If I could make myself fall for that shit, maybe I could bring you with me.

Yet in spite of all that, I believe that what is true is better than what’s comforting. And I believe that the truth, ultimately, is not so hard, not so heavy, not so acid as we’ve been led to believe by those who have much to gain by selling us their fantasies.

And even if it’s not, I’d rather be real than false.


* I just checked their website and the current Iron Butterfly line-up contains no original members.

** Working title: You Will Be Reincarnated and Live Forever!




October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat

October 18, 19, 20, 2016 Salzburg, Austria, 1-Day-Retreats

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat

November 11-13, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California (near Los Angeles) Three Day Retreat

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THERE IS NO GOD AND HE IS ALWAYS WITH YOU is now available as an audiobook from as are Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up!

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Check out my podcast with Pirooz Kalayeh, ONCE AGAIN ZEN!

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I’ve got a new book out now! Stay up to date on my live appearances and more by signing up for our mailing list on the contact page


Every Monday at 7:30pm there’s zazen at Angel City Zen Center (NEW TIME, NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am there’s zazen at the Angel City Zen Center (NEW PLACE!) 1407 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA, 90026 Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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