I’ve recently come across a few popular artists who followed a calling to walk along the Buddhist path. They include the recently departed singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen, known for such beautiful ballads as ‘Suzanne’, ’Hallelujah’, and ‘You Want It Darker’. He was a long-time student of Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sawaki, the controversial Japanese Roshi who migrated to the U.S. when he was 70 and lived to the advanced age of 107 years.
Cohen devoted many years to practicing zazen at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Cohen’s untold personal story has just been recounted by his longtime friend and colleague Eric Lerner in the recently published ‘Matters of Vital Interest: A Forty-Year Friendship With Leonard Cohen’ (Da Capo Press). It’s an enlightening and entertaining read for those who are familiar with Cohen’s music and want to know more about his personal and contemplative life.
Cohen grew up Canadian and Jewish during the 1930s and 40s in Montreal. He had already gained prominence by the time he was attracted to Buddhism in the early 1970s. Other Western artists and poets had been drawn to the flame prior to Cohen. The Zen wave first crashed upon these shores in the fifties and was embraced by such poets as Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, the author of ‘The Dharma Bums’, the author and scholar Alan Watts, and author Aldous Huxley. An early Zen text written for westerners was Suzuki Roshi’s best-selling ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’.
I arrived a few years later upon the Buddhist scene by a circuitous route. As a young man, I was searching for meaning in my life as well as some inner peace in a world that made little sense to me. I was confronted with the moral challenge of the American invasion of Vietnam during the 60s and early 70s. My strategy was to postpone the draft that awaited me and other healthy males who had received a low draft number in the first national lottery. I took advantage of a college deferment and worked just hard enough to be able to stay in school and out of the war.
The war propaganda and lies perpetrated by media, government, and by most of the grown-ups I knew had compelled me to undertake a soul searching inquiry into the myths I was being fed – beliefs about American imperialism, Christian nationalism, white supremacy, free market capitalism, the threat posed by international communism, and the morality of the so-called good and just war.
I wasn’t alone. Like-minded individuals were organizing around radical politics and progressive music. And by the early seventies, youth culture transformed society for a short magical moment. The fertile climate seeded the nascent movements for the environment, for women’s equality, for civil rights, for organic foods, for global peace, along with the search for self-actualization.
My eureka moment came when I was first introduced by a friend to the esoteric Eastern philosophies while backpacking through Europe in the early seventies after undergraduate school. With plenty of time on my hands during a cold winter spent in Crete, the teachings first came in the form of Baba Ram Dass’ seminal text ‘Be Here Now’. The stories that the defrocked Harvard professor brought back from his seclusion in India resonated with my own inner inquiries and with my disenchantment with western liberalism.
In the winter of 1975, I followed Ram Dass and the beat poets to Boulder, Colorado and enrolled in Naropa, the newly organized Buddhist University. The summer arts program was titled ‘The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets” and I absorbed the literary arts like a sponge, including a summer course with renowned poet Allen Ginsberg.
I studied Buddhist philosophy and psychology at Naropa under the auspices of the Oxford educated Tibetan monk, Choygam Trungpa Rinpoche. I sought out answers to questions that perplexed me. Is Buddhism a religion, a philosophy, or as some scholars claim, a science of mind? I learned that unlike the western religions, Buddhism isn’t a centralized belief system that’s based on revelations from a creator god or a supernatural being.
Since the fifties, Buddhism has mushroomed in popularity in the West as an emerging form of non-theistic spirituality that’s based on humanist values and Eastern wisdom traditions. Buddhism teaches that our efforts of maintaining the illusion of ego — the sense of ourselves as a permanent, unchanging reality — is the basic cause of samsara and our suffering. In fact it’s the second noble truth of Buddhism. We suffer because we try to struggle against or deny reality. Our lives are spent in delusion and denial. And as we know by observing the great deniers of our age – denial will make you stupid.
The antidote to suffering is insight or wisdom — experiencing reality accurately. In the basic teachings of Buddhism, that reality is described as the three marks of existence. These are impermanence, non-self, and suffering, or dukkha. All reality is said to be marked by these three qualities, and to deny them is self-delusion. The practice for reaching such realizations is sitting meditation.
I have recently gained new insight into the human condition from Robert Wright’s published best-seller ‘Why Buddhism is True’ (Simon & Schuster). As an evolutionary psychologist, Wright asserts that for the purposes of evolution, the denial of reality has proven to be advantageous in the passing along of our genes to our progeny. In fact, unexamined belief and denial are hard-wired into our DNA, and provide evolutionary advantages. But while we may do well enough individually in spite of our denial of deep existential truths, as a collective strategy, humans may soon take the planet down if we aren’t able to overcome our evolutionary genetics.
Robert Wright states “As you know, it’s not just about acknowledging impermanence, emptiness, and suffering, or understanding them intellectually. That alone doesn’t do it. That’s why there’s a whole practice associated with it. I mean, swimming upstream against the current of our evolutionary heritage is not going to be trivial or easy.” The practice that he is referring to is mindfulness meditation. Wright claims that the path towards truth and the path towards happiness are one and the same.
I attempted a practice of silent meditation at the Boulder Shambhala Center while attending Naropa. It was before the advent of smartphones and the web, and our distractions were less seductive at the time. The beautifully ornate Tibetan meditation hall contained elaborate iconography of deities that evoked a feeling of awe. And yet I felt estranged from this otherworldly cosmology. The thought of a month-long Dathun retreat of sitting meditation seemed absolutely torturous to me.
I explored other forms of Buddhism that I had been reading about including Zen. The word ‘Zen’ is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese ‘Ch’an’, which means meditation. Ch’an came to Japan and became Zen around the eighth century. Zen Buddhism is a stripped-down, austere, uncompromising Buddhism. For an aesthetic comparison, think of the simple aesthetics of a Protestant church (Zen) as opposed to the iconography of a Catholic cathedral (Tibetan).
Not relying on scripture or doctrine, Zen is validated by one’s experience and is passed on from master to disciple through difficult, personal training. Liberally flavored with doses of Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese poetry, and written in informal language, much of classical Zen literature consists of legendary narratives by the great masters. The Buddha is rarely mentioned. The iconoclastic and anti-authoritarian spirit of Zen appeals to the American mind.
Each Eastern culture has evolved a tradition that is recognizable as Zen, but also differs in various degrees. The Zen form that evolved in Vietnam tends to be gentle in expression and method, and combines Zen with Theravada teachings. The best known teacher of this tradition in the West is the beloved Thich Nhat Hanh. Information about a local sangha that gathers in Norfolk may be found at their website, Mindfulness Community of Hampton Roads.
Not long after my initial studies at Naropa during the seventies, I took a break and journeyed to California, seeking out the poetic teachings and rituals of the San Francisco Zen Center, followed by a short residency at Green Gulch Zen Farm on the Pacific coast in San Marin County.
The rigorous schedule I was required to follow at Green Gulch would push me to the very edge of my forbearance. We arose each day at 4:00am from a short uncomfortable sleep on a hard mat in the zendo and proceeded to sit up cross-legged in a rigid position on a zafu cushion that faced a blank wall. It was difficult to focus on my breath and so my thoughts ran wild in my dreamlike state. I fought the urge to pass back into unconscious, knowing that if I would start to nod off, a guardian of the zendo would come behind me to correct my posture and loudly whack my upper back and shoulders with a strap.
Following the morning zazen, we’d receive some tea and snacks before leaving to work in the fields. And all the while we observed silence along with the rising sun. We’d return from the fields for a bountiful and delicious macrobiotic breakfast. All of our meals were grown on the farm and were lovingly prepared by the monastery staff and volunteers. And yet, I counted the days before I could leave and break free of the strict schedule that allowed me so little time to hang-out and enjoy diversions such as music and media.
But something happened as my visit lengthened. I awoke to the opportunity provided by this unique challenge. My daily experiences at Green Gulch made me feel so very alert and alive. What I had considered to be my liberated life – the freedom to act upon my self-consuming concerns – now seemed more like sleep-walking through life. When I left the retreat and returned to nearby Berkeley, I felt so healthy and peaceful that urban living seemed quite toxic and polluted. I could only think about going back to the zen garden sanctuary that I had been so eager to depart.
A contemplative film about the Zen experience, ‘Zen For Nothing’ will be showing at the Naro on Wed, May 1 in our ongoing ‘New Non-Fiction Film’ series with an introduction by Nicole Willock, an asst. professor of Asian Religions at ODU with a specialty in Tibetan Buddhist studies. The film follows the journey of the European actress and dancer Sabine Timoteo as she arrives at the remote Japanese monastery Antaiji as a Zen novice. Swiss filmmaker Werner Penzel transitions through three seasons at Antaiji including a brutal winter in the rugged forests on the West Coast of Japan.
The director of this monastery, Abbot Muh, is originally from Berlin. He is the first non-Japanese abbot of a monastery in Japan, an insular society. We experience the regimented daily life in the monastery. Much of the time is spent in silence in zazen meditation, sharing the chores, and preparing the communal meals. There still remains personal time for reading, poetry, and conversation.
There’s very little doctrine that’s dispensed in the practice of Zen, apart from the instruction given concerning ritual and procedures. The autonomy and cognitive liberties of the individual are honored in this tradition. Instead of doctrine, understandings about the mystery and paradox of existence are transmitted to the student in the form of koans – enigmatic questions for the initiate to ponder. The student must go beyond thought to attain self-realization and potential enlightenment. What is Zen good for? Nothing… and everything!
Compare Zen to the belief systems of each of the Abrahamic religions where ideology and unexamined orthodoxy determine the reality of the true believer. The church leadership maintains control over the congregate through an ongoing indoctrination of supernaturalism and exceptionalism. Each of the major religions claim to possess divine exclusivity for the soul’s salvation and for entry into the kingdom of heaven.
Each of the western religions provides an apologia for the dominant world powers to wage territorial wars. After all, the holy scriptures of each religion lay claim for Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The modern theocracies infuse religion and state to justify aggression and repression all in the name of God or Allah. The prime examples being Saudi Arabia, Israel, and if it’s up to Christian nationalists, an America made in the image of white evangelicals and executed by Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Congressional Republicans, and newly appointed federal judges.
A group of media-savvy activists in the U.S. are challenging recent legislation by state governments that try to blur the line of separation between church and state. The First Amendment prohibits the government from passing laws “respecting the establishment of religion” meaning the state cannot promote one religion over another. Any legislation sanctioning religious activities in schools or public life would have to allow the practice of not only Christianity but also unpopular religions. That’s where self-proclaimed Satanists have stepped into the fray.
The new documentary ‘Hail Satan?’ chronicles the actions of the newly-formed Satanic Temple, based in Salem, Massachusetts, the historical site where more than a dozen innocent people were executed during the witch trials of the 1690s. The film will show at the Naro on Tuesday, April 30 with post-film discussion.
Is the Satanist group just a sheep in wolf’s clothing? After all, they advocate for religious freedom and social justice. When the Oklahoma legislature passes a law allowing a monument to the Ten Commandments on public grounds, the Temple petitions the state to sanction the erection of a seven-foot statue of the goat-headed deity Baphomet alongside the Christian marker. The media attention that swirls around the legal controversy helps expose the Christian nationalists for who they really are, and has succeeded in having the Biblical memorial removed.
Similar legislation that’s been proposed in Arkansas and Florida have stimulated the formation of more Temple chapters around the country. Their public fight is raising awareness, but it has also increased the threats of violence voiced against Satanists.
I would think that there are Zen practitioners who would revel in the opportunity to provide meditation instruction for all the parties concerned. The observance of silence, stillness, and concentration on the breath could dissipate emotional attachment and allow for greater insight and understanding. One can only dream!
Upcoming Film Events at Naro Cinema (click link at left to see list with trailers)
LAS SANDINISTAS The untold stories of Nicaraguan women warriors and social revolutionaries who shattered barriers to lead combat and social reform during Nicaragua’s 1979 Sandinista Revolution and the ensuing U.S. funded Contra War waged by the Somoza dictatorship against their own people. Today another generation of Nicaraguan women are leading popular movements for equality, social justice, and democracy. Shows Tuesday, April 16 with discussion.
WOMAN AT WAR Iceland filmmaking has arrived and it’s every bit as quirky and earthy as the Icelandic people themselves. Halla is a fifty-year-old independent woman. But behind the scenes of a quiet routine, she leads a double life waging a one-woman-war on an aluminum smeltering plant owned by a multinational corporation exploiting Iceland’s cheap and bountiful geothermal energy. Shows Wed, April 17 with discussion.
DECONSTRUCTING THE BEATLES: ABBEY ROAD (Side I) Musicologist Scott Frieman goes deep inside The Beatles last recorded album in this ongoing film lecture series. Shows Tues, April 23.
THE BRINK With truly remarkable, unprecedented access, filmmaker Alison Klayman (Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry) follows Steve Bannon through the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections and his current efforts to mobilize far-right nationalist voters in Europe ahead of the upcoming E.U. Parliamentary elections. Shows Wed, April 24 with introduction.
HAIL SATAN? What is the Satanic Temple? Is it a religion? A cult? Performance art? Political activism? Documentary filmmaker Penny Lane (Nuts!) gains inside access to this new movement that is defending the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment for the separation of church and state. These Satanic crusaders advocate to save the soul of a nation. Shows Tuesday, April 30 with discussion.
ZEN FOR NOTHING Quietly compelling, we follow the experience of Zen novice, Sabine Timoteo (a European film actress and dancer), as she arrives at the Antaiji Zen monastery located in the wooded mountains on the west coast of Japan. Simple and beautifully filmed through three full seasons, and with composer Fred Frith performing the eclectic, elegant score. Shows Wed, May 1 with discussion.
CatVideoFest Each year an entirely new compilation reel of the latest, best cat videos is culled from countless hours of unique submissions and sourced animations, music videos, and classic internet powerhouses. What better way for us humans to come together than by watching cats? A Benefit for Norfolk SPCA. Shows Tuesday, May 7.
Well said, Tench Phillips! I enjoyed this entire written piece immensely. You my man, are a very talented writer! Over the years, my husband Lyn, and I have heard you reference your Naropa experiences during some post yoga class chats. However, I really enjoyed reading your expanded version here. Thank you for sharing your extensive knowledge of Buddhism. I love, love, love it!
Peace and Balance,
I was very pleased to read this article. You write very well with an easy going and informative style. I as well attended Naropa in the summer of 74. It was the first year for the institute and I was very fortunate to be able to take part in its beginnings. I my wife and our 5-year-old son caravanned from Va. Beach with many other folks, Alan Clements, Kathy Ingram, Steve Pague and his family to name a few. WE left here and went to Nashville to meet up with some other folks and then on to Boulder.
The first introduction to a more spiritual path other than my traditional Catholic up bringing was thru BE Here Now. This set all of us on the quest to pursue a greater understanding of beings. It was a wonderful experience to be around Ram Das, Trungpa and all the other teachers and practitioners.
My path was revealed when I took a Buddhist course with Joseph Goldstein and his followers. After a summer of practice and learning I went to Sequoia in California with 50 other people for a 30-day retreat to practice Vipassana. The rest is history as to this day I sit twice a day.
I am telling you this story as you once asked me a question, we were in your kitchen where Angela and I had copped a bit of a buzz and you inquired about my spiritual practice. I did not give you a satisfactory answer and that has always bothered me. I don’t know why it has stuck with me for these past 15 years or so but after reading your article it has brought to light and now, I would like to give you my proper response to your question.
“I practice Theravada Buddhism, the eight-fold path and the four- noble truths as set down by Siddhartha Gautama and Vipassana is the meditation practice.”
There you have it and I feel grand. There is a little more to this story. I may have said or done some things back then that were inappropriate. I must apologize to you and Angela for any negative words or actions. That was a very low part of my life going thru a divorce, overworked and very stressed out. I admire you and Angela and will always hold your memories in the highest regard.