Keith Martin-Smith is an author, martial artist, and ordained Zen priest. His latest book is “A Heart Blown Open”, the biography of his teacher Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi. In this episode, Vincent Horn talks with Keith about the book and Jun Po’s “Mondo Zen” approach, which aims to join the path of awakening with emotional maturity.
Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn and I am thrilled today to be joined in my home studio with an old friend, Keith Martin-Smith. It’s great to have you here Keith.
Keith: It’s great to be here.
Vincent: Yeah. And I’ll just say it just a little bit and then we’ll jump in about your background. We’re going to be speaking today a lot about a book that you wrote recently called A Heart Blown Open, and it’s on the life and practice of Zen master Jun Po Dennis Kelly Roshi, who is also your teacher.
Keith: That’s correct. Yeah.
Vincent: Awesome. And this came out recently. It’s an incredible page turner. I was just saying before the interview I really enjoyed reading this. I actually contributed a little blurb to it which was sweet of you to ask.
Keith: And kind of you to do.
Vincent: Yeah. So we’re going to talk a lot about Jun Po and his life but I wanted to start off by first asking you a little bit about your background. You’re primarily an author. That’s kind of your main gig I understand.
Keith: Correct. Yeah.
Vincent: But then you also have like a long rich history in martial arts and Kung Fu. You teach martial arts, also a Zen practitioner. So I’m curious, given your background being a writer and being into martial arts, how did you get into the Zen thing and then how did you meet Jun Po.
Keith: I got into Buddhism when I was about 24 and I saw a Vajrayana teacher named Lama Tsering Everest who is a student of Tulku Rinpoche. And I saw her speak in Philadelphia and I think it was 98 and just completely blew me away. Just her presence, the depth of what she was saying. And the main thing was that what I realized when I was watching her speak was she had something that I wanted. She had this deep equanimity and presence that I’d never seen before in a human being. And I was just blown away. So I became a student of hers and a Vajrayana practitioner and did that for about eight years or so pretty steadily. And she eventually moved to São Paulo, Brazil and so I had much less frequent access to her and her teachings.
And I went through a divorce in 2005 and moved to Boulder in 2006. And when I was out here I was at Boulder Integral which was run by Jeff Salzman, who used to work for Ken Wilber. And there was an event there and Jun Po was there. He was there just as a participant, same as I was. There were about 35 of us there. And we were in a group of four. And I was in with me, my friend Jason Lange and Jun Po, who I never met, and Diane Musho Hamilton sensei. So it was interesting to say the least. And Jun Po went first and introduced himself. We were supposed to talk about who we were, why we were there, and what Integral meant to us. So he kind of leans back and he says, “Yeah, they call me Jun Po these days. I’m supposed to be some kind of a Roshi.” So I kind of immediately cocked my head like huh.
He said “A couple of years ago I started fucking somebody I shouldn’t have been fucking, a student of mine. And I fucked up her marriage, I fucked my marriage, almost destroyed my entire sangha, everything I’d spent a lifetime building. So at 64 years old I was back doing small self shit again. So I’m here to figure out if integral can explain what the fuck happened to me.”
Keith: That is literally how I met him. That’s exactly what came out of his mouth. I’d never heard anyone, much less a Zen master and Roshi, speak with that level of candor and ownership, so I was very intrigued.
Vincent: Nice. So that I guess led in some ways for you to kind of experiment with his teachings or something like that and you just kind of got in that way, huh?
Keith: Exactly. Yeah. Every time he would come back to Boulder that year in 2007 I would see him speak and became intrigued by his work and what he was offering. And then just this kind of very bizarre personality that I wasn’t used to seeing with a spiritual teacher, very candid. He’s not vulgar, but he’s very candid and speaks very plainly at times. But with a lot of philosophical sophistication and insight but also with kind of, more kind of someone who was raised in a blue collar environment would speak.
Keith: So not a lot of flourish and a lot of emotional honesty.
Vincent: And how did you, cause I know toward the end of the book you kind of mentioned one story of how you sort of decided to write the book I think. And I’m curious what brought you to writing this book and how did you decide like I’m going to spend all this time listening to this guy’s story and helping him craft it into a book. I mean it’s a huge project.
Keith: Yeah. I’d never done a memoir, a biography or anything like that. What happened was I’d known him for about a year and a half or two years I guess. He invited me to Massachusetts. He flew me out there and basically said I want to tell you my life story and if it’s a fit then you can write the story and if not don’t worry about it.
So he flew me out to Massachusetts and we spent basically two days, two solid days where he just downloaded his entire life and I recorded it with a digital recorder and took notes. And then at the end of that I couldn’t believe the life that he had lived. It was just beyond extraordinary. So I readily agreed to write his life story. And then the original plan was to take a year to do it but there wasn’t enough time so I ended up having to take two years. So I ended up selling my house that I owned and putting a lot of my own money into the project because it was an amazing story that had to be told.
Vincent: All right we need to get some of that recouped here. [laughter]
Keith: Exactly. Right. [laughter]
Vincent: So the first thing I was struck by when I was reading the book, and you just mentioned this, which is I mean this guy has lived an insane life. That’s how I would put it. I mean when I was reading it I was like even after the first couple of chapters it was like wow that’s a full life in that first two chapters.
Vincent: And then by the end of the book it’s like this guys has lived like 10 normal lives.
Vincent: And it didn’t in any way line up with the stereotypes that I think most people, and even myself, hold about Zen or Zen teachers and masters. You know there’s the image of like the Zen master like solo, hermit up in the hut, you know, just sitting there.
Keith: Right. Right.
Vincent: That is not the life he has lived, although, he’s done a ton of Zen training and practice of course. So I just wondered what you made of that as you’re talking to him, like this incredibly full rich life with so many amazing things and then so many things you’re like whoa that guy was like a criminal for a certain period of time.
Keith: Yeah. I mean it’s a highly unusual story for someone who became a high ranking Zen master. It’s more of a Hunter S. Thompson kind of road movie in a lot of ways is how his life reads. It’s product of the 60s, ran a major LSD manufacturing family, you know travelled around the world, was into polyamory way back before that was even really a word in the popular vernacular, made and spent millions of dollars by 1975, then was on the run for five years. And so on the surface there’s this kind of very wild, very charismatic, very much Enneagram 7 enthusiast kind of running through his own life and experiencing almost anything that he can. But I also learned it wasn’t quite that simple as I began to look at it, which there really were and are two sides to him. Underneath of that there was this deep desire to uncover who he really was and what life really was about. And while there was a lot of hedonism and excess, it really was fueled by a desire to get to know what was driving him and what was driving his mind.
And so throughout his use of drugs for instance through the 60s was always experimental in design to help him understand his own consciousness. They were almost always done ceremonially and for greater insight. And that became clear in his life in the mid-70s when a lot of his friends began to either die or go to jail. You know the split between the 60s counter culture that was rooted in consciousness expansion and experimentation, and then the 60s counter culture that was rooted in escape and anti-authoritarianism. You know those two things, those splits became obvious in him. And he was on the first track. So it was in the 70s that he began training with Trungpa and he trained with Suzuki Roshi, trained with Eido Shimano Roshi, Pattabhi Jois. You know it was a very impressive list of people he was training with even though he was quite wealthy and living this kind of very unusual double life.
Vincent: You know another thing that I found really interesting is there are so many really deep insights even going back to childhood well before he was exposed to Zen. And I found that really interesting that from the beginning there was a recognition of this thing that he was looking for through all these different avenues through LSD like you mentioned, through just living life trying to find this thing, through Zen. That’s really interesting because it makes me think there had to be a way in which you recognize this wasn’t about Zen. This was about something more fundamental. That Zen was sort of a vehicle for realizing. LSD was a vehicle for having recognition over something. I’m curious what do you think about that?
Keith: I think that’s exactly right. When he was just a toddler he had a really profound, basically a non-dual experience. It was one of his first memories in response to some abusive thing that was going on in his house. That being one of his first memories, it laid down kind of in his forming grey matter this experience of safety and security and peace that was outside of time and this kind of deep mindful presence that he knew was who he really was.
But yeah he was always trying to get back to that. He was always trying to discover what that was. And initially LSD seemed like it was the way to do it because it could really create powerful state experiences. But what drove him eventually slightly crazy was you couldn’t hold on to those experiences. The depth of the insight would always fade with time. Yes, he was drawn toward Zen because Zen offered a very pure practice to attain the same result that you could do through discipline practice and not rely on external exogenics.
Vincent: That’s really cool. And you know you just mentioned this, that even that early experience was sort of triggered by like a kind of traumatic situation. And that’s also one of the themes that seems to run through the story is like these breaking points, these really intense situations and then something will happen and it seemed like Jun Po would sort of snap in a certain way. And yet in retrospect, it seems like that snap was a good thing. It ended up like a really key moment or pivotal moment in his life. And what I was struck by is how much courage it actually seemed to really take in those moments because it’s almost like he had to keep facing death. And as I was reading it I had the thought I wonder if I would have been able to face this, like this seems really intense.
Vincent: And yet it seems like that theme is actually key to some way the spiritual path too.
Keith: Yeah. I think that’s for many of us on the path it is very much a part of it or what brought us here. But for him, yeah, again it’s kind of again and again. You know when he was in prison in 1980 for manufacturing LSD, spent year in prison, and he had a really powerful Satori there as he was kind of literally in prison and realized, had real insight about how his suffering was really created as a product of his own thought patterns and that freedom was something you can only generate internally.
So that was one response to an extreme stressor. And he had another really powerful insight when in the late 80’s he really reached a point where he was a Zen priest, he was about 45 years old, and he had what basically was close to a mental breakdown because he realized that he was still entirely conditioned. That even though he’d been training in various spiritual practices for over 20 years and had tremendous experiences in spiritual insight, there was still a painful amount of conditioning that cause him to really not actually be free at all. And when he saw that it was really a real pain point in his life.
And he had never wanted to surrender fully to a teacher because of his upbringing. And in response to that crisis he decided for the first time that he would fully surrender to Eido Shimano Roshi. And that was when he went to the monastery for six years and spent six years staring at the wall. So those are just two examples. But there’s plenty in his life where a crisis would arise and he would really choose to turn into it fully and take the lesson.
Vincent: Yeah. That’s really cool. It’s interesting because before that time with Eido he was pretty anti-authoritarian, right? Like that was one of his key like kind of personality traits like I ain’t going to do what this person says just because.
Keith: Yeah. It’s a big part of the 60s counterculture that he was steeped in, but it’s also his own upbringing. He was raised in an abusive household, in an abusive kind of Catholic Church upbringing. So he hated authority and hated institutions. So he was always looking for profound teachings but he wasn’t really that interested in the teacher. And he really thought LSD, its main way that it would serve people would be by empowering them so they wouldn’t need teachers and wouldn’t need the institutions. You could have the insight for yourself. And it would kind of deconstruct the whole power structure that spirituality was built on.
Vincent: Right. Like sort of decentralizing it in some way.
Keith: Yeah. It was like a great egalitarian tool. And it was when he realized that LSD caused only a manic spiritual insight but not a stable insight, and also realized that he was mostly psychologically conditioned and reactive and wasn’t really free, then he thought okay it’s time, I have to surrender this idea that I don’t need a teacher. And so he went to the monastery seeking freedom, not just spiritual freedom, but freedom from his conditioned mind, freedom from his small self. He really wanted to figure out why he was such a deeply conditioned man. But life conditions arose and he would react very strongly, as we all do, but he really saw it for the first time just how deep the conditioning went.
Vincent: I think this is sort of connecting it, certainly ties in with the themes we’ve been talking about, but one thing I was really struck with is that at a certain point after his Zen training, which is very traditional, like a very traditional Rinzai going through the kōan system with Eido Shimano, which is actually really cool to see a little bit of the inside view of what that kind of training is like and kind of what the essence of it is about.
Keith: Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of scenes set in the monastery so yeah.
Vincent: And it’s incredible. I mean there’s a way in which the Zen kōan thing is like do or die time.
Keith: Yeah. Yeah. As Jun Po often says this is life and death.
Vincent: Nice. Nice. So at a certain point he’d done this really intensive training and become a teacher under Eido Shimano. And at some point it seemed like he recognized there was a limit to the kōan training and how it affected his conditioning like somehow there’s something missing, it didn’t go all the way through into certain areas of his life, like into his relationships or into some aspect of his psychology, and that was really interesting insight and it also led to his own innovations to the kōan system.
Keith: That’s right.
Vincent: And I wonder if you could share a bit of kind of the background of how that arose and then also what this new system is that he’s teaching and how it’s different than the kind of the traditional style.
Keith: Sure. Yeah. When Jun Po was at the monastery he really was struck by how neurotic so many of the people there were. And what he began to realize over the six years that he was there was that a lot of the practitioners that go to that extreme are looking to get away from some part of themselves. So that they’re really, it’s now what we know as spiritual bypassing, but the idea is that I’ll wake up beyond my pain and contraction. So I don’t have to feel anymore. I don’t have to feel that anymore. I don’t have to actually go into my sexual indiscretions or my sexual shadow or the abuse that I had as a child or whatever it might be, that you really just want to get away from all that stuff. So he was really struck by the fact that when he, at 50 years old, became a Roshi, that he realized that he still was deeply conditioned.
That he’d spent six years in the monastery hoping to get away from this deep psychological conditioning and had really radically deepened his insight, you know really radically woken up. But it still wasn’t enough to touch huge parts of his small self. So he set out in the early 90s to do a lot of psychological shadow work that the Hoffman process, which is a family dynamic process, the Alaya process and a whole bunch of other things, the mankind project, and really set to uncover his own shadows and his own conditioning and see how his upbringing had really created a lot of crazy dynamic energy that was him, and the basic narcissism that drove a lot of his actions.
There’s actually as a sub-story he went to see the Dalia Lama in the mid-90s. This is a great story related to this topic. Or as he says we went to go see dad. So it was all the first generation of spiritual teachers about 50 people. And I believe they were in Dharamshala. So one of the people there, one of the American teachers raised his hand and asked a question about one of the Dalai Lama’s senior students who I believe was a lama and had been in trouble for having sex with his students and created a whole bunch of problems back here in the states. And so he asked the Dalai Lama how the Dalai Lama would explain this problem. And the Dalai Lama looked at him and said “well his insight isn’t deep enough.” So everyone kind of nods their heads and were quiet. And so Jun Po said he’s sitting there and he’s fussing in his chair and finally he can’t stand it anymore. He raises his hand and they bring the microphone over. And he says “I beg your pardon your Holiness but I have to say something here.”
He says, “Yes, yes.”
He said “bullshit.” And the Dalai Lama smiled and he said “Its bullshit.” He said “This guy trained for 30 years, he’s trained. He did a 10-year cave retreat. He trained with you personally. I’ve met him. His insight is incredibly deep. I don’t buy it.”
And he said the Dalai Lama looked at him and smiled and said “That’s because your insight isn’t deep enough.”
So this really was a fundamental problem that Jun Po set out to solve. Was insight alone enough or did it take a combination. And so that’s really what the 90s and the early 2000s were about was his exploration of that kōan that he felt he was handed.
Vincent: Nice. And I know kind of out of some of that exploration came like a whole new system of kōans like social kōans. Things that were more about relationships, which is I guess there’s probably some of that in the Zen school.
Keith: Yes, absolutely.
Vincent: But it seems like these were maybe more contemporary and maybe more relevant to like the modern psychology. I’m curious about that because I imagine that you’ve done some of these trainings with him, these kind of more modern innovations I guess you’d say. And I’m curious about that, of course we love to explore innovations. You know it’s one that’s very fascinating.
Keith: Yeah. What he came up with, what Jun Po’s answer to the Dalia Lama’s question was that the Dalai Lama was correct. That if your insight is deep enough awake is awake period. There’s nothing outside of awakened consciousness by definition. But only a handful of people in a generation will wake up that deeply. And for the rest of us we have to do the hard work of awakening. So what he set to do with the Mondo process that he created was to help not only do insight kōans that allow awakening to occur, but also so that we can take a look at the ripple effect that we’re creating in our lives. So we look at our relationships, the ripples we’re creating in our relationships. And that includes with obviously with other people but also with the environment and things like that.
So a big part of his work was waking up is not enough. You know waking up is part of it. Growing up is another part, which is looking at your shadow material. But then showing up, how do you show up in your own life as a so called awakened being as an integral being as whatever it is. You know what are you doing in your personal and environmental relationships?
Vincent: And then I guess the most recent iteration of that is something he’s calling Mondo Zen.
Vincent: And maybe just to close I’m wondering if you could describe a little bit about what it’s like training in Mondo Zen. What does Mondo mean too?
Keith: Mondo is a dialectic so it’s a dialogue process. So the Mondo process is designed to be done with basically a facilitator. And you work 13 kōans, and the first 10 kōans are all about insight and claiming your own insight. So it’s about pointing out what’s right under your nose which is your pristine awakened state that’s arising right now.
So that’s very very classic Zen. That’s the baby that he threw out the bath water which was all the imperial patriarchal sexist etc. things that were in line with a lot of traditional Zen. And then the last three kōans are about emotional maturity. So it has to do with, because what he sees is that more and more people are genuinely awakening. That there are more and more awakened beings walking around, more people are having kensho experiences, but they’re not integrating that with any kind of any sense of emotional maturity or insight. So anger and shame and jealousy and these other emotions will come in and completely knock them off their center and their insight can’t penetrate that.
So the last three kōans are designed to really reprogram people to understand the fundamental nature of their emotions as merely as information that’s arising. And for them to go deeper than the conditioning, so to see that anger for instance is really about deep caring. You know you can’t get angry, it’s impossible to get angry, if you don’t care. It doesn’t happen. So if it’s true that you care, then why would you care react violently with anger? Why would you make a lot of noise? It doesn’t really make any sense when you could choose to respond from that place of deep caring. Just this one example for instance.
So in my own life, and a lot of people that have trained with him it has revolutionized their relationships. Because this emotional maturity piece is really an enlightened response to so called negative conditioned emotional reaction. And by cutting under it you really see what’s there which is almost always just deep caring.
Vincent: It reminds me of there’s a teacher I hung out a lot with. He’s classically trained 30-40 years, you know, 10 years of retreat. And at one point we were sitting at dinner and he said, “Would it surprise you if I told that almost everything I do is motivated by anger?” But he tied it into exactly what you’re saying that anger is often, its deep care actually that’s not being felt fully.
Keith: Right, and anger doesn’t have to be violence. That’s where it gets very confused in our culture that you can be angry, if anger is an expression of deep clarity of mind and deep concern and maybe a little bit of fear, then anger is very very healthy. But if anger is a lot of noise and violence and objectification of the other person then it’s very very destructive. And it doesn’t help because it doesn’t honor what you’re really feeling. It’s just a lot of noise. So yes that’s really been his, Jun Po’s whole teaching, the whole Mondo process, is the integration of spiritual insight with western psychological intelligence and basic emotional maturity.