How come, even after decades of practice, real wisdom and compassion still don't rule our lives? What is really directing our behavior, and why do things like lust, violence, anger, and jealousy continue to plague us? Aren't we "spiritual" people? It turns out that in order to head into the light, we have to be willing to spend some time in the dark.
This is an excerpt from The Heart of Zen.
Keith Martin-Smith (KMS): So thirteen years later, you become Eido Roshi’s first dharma heir and a roshi in your own right. You were given all the titles and honors to carry on the ancient Japanese lineage, and had proved your insight was deep enough to get this public acknowledgment. Most people would simply set up shop and start teaching what they had been taught. But not you. What happened?
JUN PO (JP): [laughing] There was nowhere to hide, that’s what happened. In 1992, when recognized as a so-called Zen master, I had to face the fact that in my case Zen was just not working effectively—not for me or for many others. I had insight but I wasn’t free. I had a lot of psychological damage from my upbringing, and Zen simply hadn’t touched it. I could transcend it, true, control it with my will, but the damage was still intact and mostly untouched. I didn’t know if that was just my problem, or if it was something that was common in the larger Buddhist community. I saw, with my six years in the monastery, a lot of psychological shadows—
JUN PO: Yeah, the unconscious issues people carry with them about authority, or sexuality, or gender, or power, or the hierarchy of the place that caused people to act out in weird ways. A million places.
I saw those shadows in myself, but also in the men and women training at Dai Bosatsu, in other spiritual communities, and certainly in Eido Shimano himself. But how widespread it was, and what it meant, I could only guess at.
What was missing became MY relentless koan. I couldn’t crack it with my level of insight at that time, even though I was fifty years old and had spent almost half my life in serious meditative practice.
KMS: What was your koan?
JUN PO: How come after decades of practice, real wisdom and compassion were not ruling my life, directing my behavior, and transforming lust, violent anger, jealousy, envy? How could love and compassion not hold in the face of my internal conflict? I could remain nonreactive in the face of these things, mind you, but it was a very repressive energy that was required. And my negative emotions still flourished, and they would sometimes overpower my discipline and my insight. Why? How? I had to know.
In 1994, in Nepal, after many hours of uninterrupted full lotus posture zazen in the forest, I was looking out on the world with full dhyana consciousness. It was then I recognized the ego is a wholly conditioned reactive process, not a self at all. In my insight, all of my thoughts and emotions were experienced not as a self but as a reactive process. Deep meditative consciousness is pure and receptive fundamentally; ego is temporary and superficial. I had this experience in the forest, and it changed everything.
KMS: Yet you did what some might consider strange. You came back to the States and threw yourself into psychological shadow work—everything from the Hoffman Process to standard therapy.
JP: That’s right. Because ego is a reactive process and not a self, I was able to approach therapy in a very different way than most people do. I wasn’t just trying to fix myself, or get a better version of myself that I liked better, or even trying to incorporate my unconscious shadow elements into my conscious mind. I saw, instead, that there was no self, only a temporary process, and I developed a deep curiosity about how that process worked, including the years of violence I had experienced as a child and young man.
KMS: By the late-1990s you were teaching what you learned—what was to my mind more of a standard approach of Buddhists trying to integrate some psychology into their practice. You called it Stop and Drop, and it had to do with noticing emotion arising, stopping the reaction, and then dropping to your deeper nature, correct?
JP: That’s about right. Yeah, but it was missing a few things. During my cancer treatment in 2005–6—at sixty-four years of age—
KMS: Throat cancer, right? Stage four?
JP: That’s right. The prognosis wasn’t good. They had prepared palliative care for me, assuming I was an old, out-of-shape geezer. But I was in outstanding physical shape, so they decided to treat me the way they would a man half my age. And hope they wouldn’t accidentally kill me or leave me irrevocably damaged.
I received four months of heavy metal chemotherapy—carbo platin, cisplatin, and taxol—and two months of throat radiation. [pause] It caused the slow and methodical dissolving of my neural connections. The life I knew slowly disappeared, dissolved into emptiness. I experienced directly the fact that relative ego mind—thoughts and emotions—are in fact reliant upon the biophysical neurobiological structure of body mind. This is obvious, right? But we forget in day-to-day life how powerfully we are tied to our bodies. We are literally an integrated spirit, body, and mind complex.
As treatment went on, I knew less and less. No connections to memory, nobody to react as I was heading for death. I got a direct biophysical transmission deeper than I had ever experienced before. I knew emptiness, I knew nondual reality, from my many years of training. But watching my ego be deconstructed as my physical brain and body died—how extraordinary. It was here where I deepened the insight I had in Nepal. I knew the ego was a reactive process and not a self. But I saw how my ego mind was constructed by a series of conditioned habitual reactions, rather than by conscious choices or responses. My reactions were wholly conditioned and without a separate personal self.
KMS: So choice was the insight. What made it a deeper insight than in Nepal?
JP: That’s right -- choice was the insight. It was deeper because I saw that most of our choices aren’t conscious, because our relative minds appear to move so quickly—but they are reactive choices nonetheless, in the sense that we can develop the capacity to make a choice instead of merely having a reaction.
For instance, we think we “fly into a rage,” but we actually choose to fly into a rage, even though most of us never notice the actual choice point itself. That was my insight.
Our minds don’t, you see, move as fast as we think they do, but we’re locked onto the surface. From the depths of our being, each emotional reaction we have takes an eternity to arise, giving us all we need to choose a response when, say, we get cut off in traffic, Mom calls and tries to shame us, or we find out our partner is having an affair. With meditation concentration training and emotional koan practice we develop the ability to stay present and transform our superficial reactive feelings.
KMS: I think that’s going to take some unpacking. We’ll save the explanation of that statement for later. In summary, though, Mondo Zen came from this insight around choice?
JP [nodding]: The ego is a temporary process, not a self, and that process is conditioned—therefore, when your insight is deep enough, you will discover that you don’t know who you are. You can’t know who you are, because there’s no self here. Look into your ego right now—who are you? Find something that’s permanent inside of your ego, that hasn’t come into being in the stream of time, that will survive death, and that hasn’t been shaped by your beliefs, biological, psychological, and spiritual conditioning. [laughing] Good luck.
No, we don’t know who we are from the ego’s perspective. But we are the not knowing itself. That’s our nature—you have never entered time, have never been born and will never die, are boundless and eternal, are utterly beyond fear or contraction or self-doubt. You are—before Abraham, before the Big Bang. Claiming "I don’t know" from the ego is one thing. But experiencing the freedom of not knowing from the depths of your consciousness? [shakes head] That's far apart as heaven and earth, nirvana and samsara, God and man. Deep mind is naked and free, relative mind is constructed and bound. Where do you take your seat? Where do you want to take your seat?
KMS: So the ego is a process and not a self. And our true nature is deathless, fearless, timeless.
KMS: Assuming I can access this timeless, fearless bud consciousness you speak of, then what?
JP: [laughing] Then what, indeed! Awakening transcends but also includes our relative, value-weighted egos. Another wonderful Zen saying is “Ordinary mind is the way.” After Awakening, we feel life’s pain even more powerfully than before, not less. Once we Awaken, we’re no longer willing to use violence trying to change what is, you see, but that doesn’t mean we sit around on our cushions doing nothing. Compassionate caring discernment and skillful nonviolent action reigns. The great sages don’t sit on their asses and just be awake, or enlightened; they are in the world, doing things to make it a better place. But they’re also not attached to the outcome, you see.
We stop trying to make life abide by our wishes, or reacting angrily every time something gets in the way of what we think we want. We are suddenly capable of watching our collective and personal karma unfold, smiling and patiently applying skillful means to deal with it.
KMS: And how do we get there?
JP: Follow ordinary mind. What we want is right under our noses, right now. The more pain and angst you have in your life, the more fuel for your Awakening. I’ve spent time in federal prison and in monasteries. Prison if a far better place to practice, I can tell you. And once you get that—
KMS: Excuse me for interrupting. Prison is a better place to practice meditation and insight than a monastery?
JP: Without a doubt. In prison, everything is a hell realm. You have the opportunity to see and discipline your reactive mind constantly. You can remain silent for days on end—no one cares. It is the perfect place to practice meditative awareness, and to come and know yourself deeper than your reactions. Horrible institutional food, incredibly wounded human beings, psychological darkness all around—inside and out, all you see is conditioned, relative misery. And with that, you can see your own reactive mind very clearly, if you’re looking.
In monasteries you’ve got a bunch of vegetable gobblers sitting around contemplating their navels a hundred miles from the real world.
When I counsel people going to prison, I tell them, What an opportunity. I explain how it can become a great place to practice, because it’s the most difficult place you could ever find. We have an expression in the Rinzai Zen tradition: Send me to hell so I can see if I’m really awake.
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Keith Martin-Smith is a published author of fiction and non-fiction, a Shaolin Kung Fu lineage holder and teacher, and an ordained Zen priest. He helps leaders, creative visionaries, and entrepreneurs clarify their goals and overcome obstacles.
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