I already posted this in the pub but it quickly disappeared into the old posts, but I want to post it here to see if anyone else has thoughts on it
this will only really be the slightest bit interesting to people that are in love with the Grateful Dead or are really interested in Zen Buddhism, but i want to see what anyone thinks of the ideas here if they care to read it.
I wrote this essay for a Buddhism class when I was a sophomore in college, Fall 2004. I got an A (saw the grade online) on this paper but i fucking skipped the last class so i never got the paper back with the teacher's comments, i would have loved to have seen what he wrote about it since he gave me a good grade on it.
I basically do exegesis on the final section of Terrapin Station, and relate it to ideas from the 9th century Zen Master Linji/Rinzai. reading it again there are definitely badly worded sentences that can get confusing, but thank you to anyone who cares enough to read this.
this is the section it is based on:
Grateful Dead – Terrapin Station
Inspiration, move me brightly
light the song with sense and color,
hold away despair
More than this I will not ask
faced with mysteries dark and vast
statements just seem vain at last
some rise, some fall, some climb
to get to Terrapin
Counting stars by candlelight
all are dim but one is bright:
the spiral light of Venus
rising first and shining best,
From the northwest corner
of a brand-new crescent moon
crickets and cicadas sing
a rare and different tune
in the shadow of the moon
and I know we'll be there soon
Terrapin - I can't figure out
Terrapin - if it's an end or the beginning
Terrapin - but the train's got its brakes on
and the whistle is screaming: TERRAPIN (Grateful Dead Lyrics)
Zen, being one of the more recent Buddhist schools, sums up and gives a seemingly simple, on the surface, way to become in touch with reality. Simply find Zen; yet if a person believes in that word they are very lost. Zen is everything and trying to look at the world in this point of view can be difficult for westerners, yet it truly is all around us, and simply has to be realized. This idea of ‘Zen’ is one way to describe an idea which is the common goal among many groups of Buddhists and other religious groups. This idea is far beyond the realm of language and is often referred to enlightenment, in Buddhism at least. This idea is prevalent in many different forms and American music does embody this as well. The Grateful Dead song Terrapin Station has a section which is describing enlightenment in terms very similar to how Zen Buddhists see and interpret the enlightenment experience and what that all means. The term Terrapin in the context of this song is synonymous with the ideas which are shown through the terms Zen and enlightenment in other contexts. One specific Zen theme which is very prevalent in this selection is the idea of an enlightened person being a true man of no rank; being a person who is completely in touch with himself and is no longer bogged down by anything.
This is all, of course, completely useless and confusing. This is because by trying to harness these ideas in the realm of language we are completely destroying the meaning which is there. “If you name him, he becomes a mystery!” (Schloeg, 47), yet for the purpose of this assignment and course it is inevitable. All of the Zen texts, this song in question, and this paper are all trying to lead people towards a certain knowledge which, if it is ever realized, negates the need for the teachings or even the terms which describe the end result. Zen, Enlightenment, Terrapin, “Awakening and Nirvana are like tethering posts for donkeys” (Schloeg, 23). If you can’t use them to get away from the idea of them you will forever be attached to these false ideas. In the end this paper and all its ideas are illusionary but it will be written regardless.
The selection which will be looked into is the last section of the multi-song work called Terrapin Station. This is actually the individual section which is also called Terrapin Station, and the end (pinnacle or goal) section of the work. This section is reproduced after the last page of this paper in the way it is sung and the form it is written in. This song describes the process and experience of what becoming and being enlightened is all about, and it is very similar to how Zen Buddhists talk about it. This piece is broken up into four stanzas; the first stanza explains very succinctly the process and experience of enlightenment and the rest try to explain the change which has taken place. Unless the Grateful Dead specifically meant this to relate to Zen, this could very well be a link between two completely different cultures and times through a common archetype among humans regarding what a goal of life is, can, and should be.
“Inspiration, move me brightly” (Grateful Dead Lyrics) is how this selection begins and this is the point where the enlightenment, by any other name, begins. This inspiration is the drive for knowledge of life and the world which began the journey which is being described. This is the same inspiration which has led anyone to ever want to become enlightened or find Zen. This inspiration is telling the narrator of this experience to “turn round and look into yoursel[f]” (Schloeg, 23) and this inner inspiration is moving “me” (indicating it is something personal and within) brightly. This “brightly” is representative of the inner “light” of understanding which is in each person and through this experience is becoming more in tune with actual reality (closer towards Zen, Terrapin) and becoming stronger and brighter. The next line is to “light the song with sense and color” (Grateful Dead Lyrics) and this continues the light metaphor which has already begun. This line refers to actual understanding of the “song” which the narrator has been trying to learn about far reaching questions through. The inner light inside the person is now becoming aware of what the teachings (song) actually mean, on the level of senses and experience which transcends the language by which the teachings are transferred as well as transmitted in. “The flow of the Six Senses never ceases” (Schloeg, 20) and this is the beginning of enlightenment where a person accepts this and at the same time they realize that “fundamentally, it is one light; differentiated, it becomes the six senses” (Schloeg, 22). The “physical” changes in how the narrator “sees” the world are being expressed here, and are leading him to become a true man with himself.
The next two lines describe the things that happen to someone as they become enlightened, being able to “hold away despair” (Grateful Dead Lyrics) and having the feeling in life “More than this I will not ask” (Grateful Dead Lyrics). When someone has become enlightened “he clings not to anything that passes as supreme” (Schloeg, 40) and therefore can not be caused to worry or despair about anything, even the seemingly most supreme fear of life, death. “If you have genuine insight, birth and death will not affect you, and you will be free to come and go” (Schloeg, 19). No despair is a result of the detachment from material objects and hindrances to a calm mental state which arise as a result of our desires in the world and the attachment to them. This state of Terrapin (AKA Zen, Enlightenment, Nirvana) results in being completely content with life and being “a man who has nothing further to seek” (Schloeg, 20). This contented-ness is very important to both Zen and the Grateful Dead; they both express a desire to be natural and content with the life that is going on. People should realize that all the anxiety and stress they have about all the complicated things in their lives is pointless and simply a result of their attachments while un-enlightened. “Far better it is to have nothing further to seek, to be simple and plain” (Schloeg, 57). Both of these characteristics, being above the attachments that cause strife and being content with life, are important pieces to a man who is trying to find his true self and eliminate the desire and struggle for rank in life.
In order for someone to even think of the idea of enlightenment they must first wonder about the far reaching questions of life and reality. These are the “mysteries dark and vast” (Grateful Dead Lyrics) which are being faced during times like these. The far reaching ideas implied here are very important because they are both the reason which enlightenment is being sought as well as what will be explained when one becomes enlightened. While looking for the answers to these questions people often seek many different teachers, but until all these things are realized on planes beyond language they are never understood. This is why during this enlightenment experience “statements just seem vain at last” (Grateful Dead Lyrics) and the realization occurs that Zen (by any other label) is far beyond the realm of words and language; this is the same point that makes this paper just as useless as all of the Zen texts. This is a very important part of the enlightenment experience, especially in Zen practice where the mind to mind transfer of knowledge is very important.
These few lines embody the experience and result of being enlightened and finding Zen very well and quite succinctly. There are innumerable pages which could be inferred and read into into this piece, especially in the context of Zen Buddhism and using Buddhist reading techniques. “Some rise, some fall, some climb to get to Terrapin” (Grateful Dead Lyrics) refers to all of the different ways that people can approach and go about trying to become spiritually enlightened. There are as many different situations as there are people trying to find Zen, yet the one goal is all the same. The sky/candle light metaphor refers to trying to search for huge things (vast questions) is like you are trying to find things in outer space using just a candle. If you pay attention to the sky however, the one brightest star will show itself. The next section exemplifies how, after enlightenment, Zen or Terrapin is seen in everything all the time; Zen is the moon and the song of crickets and cicadas. Everything is still the same but now they all have a “rare and different tune” (Grateful Dead Lyrics).
Zen is and can be seen in everything, it simply has to be seen the right way. This is what happens when one becomes enlightened- and to an enlightened person the explanations contained herein would be completely wrong and misleading. There must be, however, information written for us who are not enlightened to try and glimpse at what we are missing. I found it very interesting how much this song had to do with Zen when it was read into as deeply as Buddhist texts are read into. It was almost surprising how similar they are but they both seek the same pure goal, one which has been and will be for as long as humankind is. If everyone knew themselves this well the world would be a much more civil place.
Grateful Dead Lyrics. Oldie Lyrics. 15 Dexcember 2004. <http://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/grateful_dead/terrapin_station_terrapin_station.html>;.
Schloegl, Irmgard. The Zen Teaching of Rinzai. Berkeley, California: Shambhala, 1975.