Seth Greenland is an author, playwright, and screenwriter. For two seasons he was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love. His latest novel, The Angry Buddhist, is the story of an ex-policeman seeking guidance from an online Buddhist teacher. The novel is currently in development with Showtime as a possible series for the network with Greenland writing and producing.
In this episode Greenland speaks with host Vincent Horn about the book, what messages he hopes to convey with the Showtime series, and how Buddhism is making its way further into the pop culture landscape.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m back again for another Buddhist Geeks episode and today I’m joined by a very special guest. I’m here over Skype with Seth Greenland. Seth, it’s awesome to have you on the show.
Seth: Thanks for having me Vince. I appreciate it.
Vincent: And I wanted to mention a little bit about your background. You’re kind of on the fringe of the Buddhist world in that you’re a novelist and TV writer as your main profession. You’ve written several novels. You’ve produced and written stuff for TV. I think I saw on your bio that you had some involvement in the television series Big Love.
Seth: Yeah. I was a writer and producer on Big Love for two seasons.
Vincent: Cool. My wife, Emily, loved that show. Every time I’d walked in the living room for a few weeks she was watching it. So just jumping right in, we’re going to talk a little bit about your newest novel. It’s called The Angry Buddhist. But I also want to hear a little bit about how you got into this whole Buddhist meditation thing. And I understand that you got into meditation because your wife was doing it.
Seth: What happened was when I was in my mid 30’s, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had stage IV lymphoma. It was all over my body and the predictions were pretty dire, and I freaked out a little bit. When I got over my initial freak out, I realized that I needed to do some things to calm down. You know I’d been hearing about meditation for years and had done a little bit of yoga in college. But I’d never really been particularly interested in eastern things. But I thought if not now when and it’s better than taking 100 mg of Valium every three hours.
I said to Susan I think maybe we should go learn how to meditate. So we were living in New York City at the time and I dragged her over to the Zen Center on the east side of Manhattan. And the Zen Center is very traditional Zen meditation, sitting on cushions, your back ramrod straight in a circle, a Roshi leads you. It was the whole nine yards. And neither of us knew a thing about it really. So we went and we had instruction.
And the Roshi who was Caucasian guy named Jeff who I think had grown up on Long Island but was Roshi so and so. He had a Buddhist name of course and was in the robe and everything else taught us how to meditate, the rudiments of meditation. And people asked all the beginners questions: can you do it lying die, in this position and that position.
And of course, the Zen they were teaching was very strict and it was no you got to sit on the cushion. Imagine the thread peering out at the back of your head and reaching toward the sky and somebody is pulling on the thread. Your back needs to be ramrod straight. You cross your legs and you will sit there. We’ll bang this gong. We’ll begin meditating when the gong gets struck. We’ll stop meditating when the gong is struck again, and in the meantime good luck with your thoughts. That was our first experience.
Susan became very very adept at it and I began to explore along with meditation some other practices like Tai Chi and Qigong ultimately which I became more interested than Zen meditation. But over the years, I’ve returned to meditation and I’m healthy now. I’ve been healthy for nearly 19 years. But I practice still regularly. What I don’t do every day is sit on a cushion. I take my practice into the world. And by that I mean I use the principles I’ve learned along the way particularly Vipassana principles to try to be in the world in a healthier way than I was before I began doing this, in a more equanimous way, in a way that’s better for me and the people around me. I also should say I am the opposite of a master at this. You know I love the phrase beginner’s mind because as far as I’m concerned I’m always a beginner and I’ll be the perpetual beginner. But I’m always trying and trying to get better. And I think I’ve improved slowly over the years. So you could say I’ve had something of a practice for nearly 20 years now.
Vincent: That’s awesome. It sounds like something a master would say.
Seth: Well thanks. Thanks. I mean I always say you know if what it takes to be a master is humility I have that in spades. [laughter] I (hold ineptitude-inaudible) as my signal quality quite honestly and that’s served me well.
Vincent: Nice. Nice. And then to explore a little bit this book that you’ve written, The Angry Buddhist.
You know, it’s really interesting because you don’t typically see really well written novels that have any connection or tie in with Buddhism or meditation. So I’m curious what is The Angry Buddhist about? Is it a spiritual book or is it more of like spirituality is kind of interwoven into something else.
Seth: Well spirituality is a big part of the book but it’s not a book about Buddhism per se. Well it’s about I mean very briefly, so your listeners get a sense of what it is. It’s about three brothers. One of whom is a former police detective. One of whom is a congressman currently running for reelection, and one of whom is a career criminal. And the Angry Buddhist is the character of the former policeman.
And what he’s doing in the course of the novel is trying to learn the basic precepts of Buddhist meditation to deal with anger issues he has and to try to become a better less conflicted, less tortured person. The book is about a lot of things but the key the book is about thematically is his struggle. And the question the book asks really is there a way to be a better person in the world. Are there techniques one can use to be a better person that are not horrible and obnoxious for everyone around you, like Scientology for example. How can you avoid Scientology and be a better person. I didn’t mean to pick on the Scientologist. That was an easy joke.
Vincent: No, no, it’s fine. You’re part of a long and illustrious lineage of folks who’ve taken shots at scientology.
Seth: What’s interesting is I know that scientologist take a lot of crap. I have no personal beef with them. I just use that as an example of some people get into that, other people get into Buddhism. I think Buddhism is far more mentally healthy cause it lacks the bureaucracy. I think anything that lacks the bureaucracy is generally a better place to be.
Vincent: Got you. You know one thing that’s really interesting about this book and really I saw something on this immediately after it was published is that it was also being developed into a television show with Showtime.
Vincent: Could you say a little bit about that and how that happens.
Seth: Yeah, absolutely. I worked over the years on and off as a television writer. You know I’ve written on a show called Big Love which I think you mentioned. And these kind of shows, you know these shows that work the way that 19th century novels work, these panorama type shows like The Wire or The Sopranos or Big Love are very popular right now.
And the people at Showtime thought that The Angry Buddhist might fit under that umbrella and make a very workable and compelling family drama for them. I agree so I’m trying to write that right now.
Vincent: That’s really interesting. What I find so cool about that is that you’re really bringing this story and this reflection into popular culture.
Seth: Yeah that’s the thing because in the meeting that we had with the executives over there, the president of Showtime, very lovely and intelligent guy named David Nevins, who I like very much cause he’s a big fan of the book, said to me we love this title, The Angry Buddhist.
And it’s a title that really picks people’s interest because obviously it’s paradoxical. But by the same token America is a remarkably angry country. Eastern thought is becoming ever more popular here. And the idea of taking these two elements and fusing them feels very much a way of dealing with things that are going on right now in our country in terms of the zeitgeist.
Vincent: Are there ways that you’ll be involved in such a way that you’ll kind of have some creative influence on how the television stuff turns out.
Seth: I will be in charge of the show. Yeah. I will have a lot to say.
Vincent: I can’t wait till it comes out.
Seth: But that’s Showtime has to decide they want to shoot the pilot and they have to decide they want to make the series. I mean there are many steps here. But the good news is they optioned the book. I’m writing a pilot and then we’ll see what happens. But I’m cautiously optimistic that it will continue to go forward.
Vincent: Okay that’s cool. So there’s a kind of process.
Seth: Yeah, exactly. Long-drawn-out.
Vincent: Got you. That makes sense. So just exploring that idea a little more of infusing popular culture with some of these ideas. Are there certain principles, practices, ideas that you’re most interested in getting out into larger audiences with this?
Seth: Yeah, I would love to. And I do this in the book and I would do it in the series as well. I’m particularly interested as I alluded earlier in Vipassana techniques. Because I think they’re remarkably helpful and easy to use for most people. In the book, the angry Buddhist character, the former policeman is studying Buddhism with an online teacher. And what she’s teaching him is the basic tenant of Vipassana about watching a thought rise, not labeling, not judging it, letting it drift away, watching the next thought rise, and sitting there and just watching how your mind works which is a very elementary probably over simplified version of what Vipassana is. But about all one can get across in a piece of popular art I think. Because again I’m not writing the Tibetan book of living and dying nor am I making a television show about that. This is popular culture that we’re talking about here. So if you can get these kind of broad ideas out there I think the goal really is to get people to the point where they want to explore more on their own. You see I’m not passing myself as a Buddhist teacher.
Vincent: Yeah. Yeah. I got you. And yet you’re doing something really interesting which is getting certain concepts out into the kind zeitgeist.
Seth: Yeah and what I hope is a real way in a non-cheesy way. You know we were talking earlier before we started recording about a show that was on I think it was 70s called Kung Fu, which used eastern elements in a really cheesy kind of way. I think the exercise if you’re going to traffic in this area is to be somewhat, is to be as authentic as possible without scaring away people who aren’t that interested in eastern thought.
Vincent: Or recent one I saw out of HBO was a series called Enlightened. I was really hoping that it would live up to its title in some way. It really, watching the first couple of episodes, is more like playing off of some general popular notion. But it wasn’t actually really pointing to some of the things that sounds like you’re exploring in your writing.
Seth: Yeah. I’m trying to get into a little more deeply than they did in that show. Although, I will say I think that’s a terrific show actually. The goal of that show is different than the goal of my show and I like that show very much actually.
Vincent: Yeah, it seemed like more of psychological or self-help or sort of self-actualizing.
Seth: Exactly. The character in that show is very lost. She’s not really rigorously pursuing anything. She’s very flighty and new agey. And I try to approach it a little bit more seriously in The Angry Buddhist.
Vincent: So just playing off something we’re talking about here. I’ve noticed sometimes on let’s called it the Buddhist or spiritual side of the street that the notion of popular culture can seem like automatically this sort of bad thing. Like popular culture equals shallow or materialistic or something like that. And yet you’re right in the heart of that world. So, I’m curious what your relationship is between those two elements, and how you relate to them. It sounds like from what you’re saying you don’t really separate them out that way.
Seth: I don’t separate them at all. I proudly participate in pop culture in the sense that it casts a remarkably wide net. You know pop culture is everything from Keeping Up with the Kardasians to The Sopranos and The Wire, which are as good as any novel anybody’s published in the last 25 years. So pop culture is a very big tent and you can do pretty artistically ambitious things in pop culture and if you’re an artist you do want to reach as many people as you can reach without cheapening what you’re doing.
Vincent: Yeah, absolutely. That makes a lot of sense.
Seth: That’s when I think about pop culture that’s how I approach it. Shakespeare was pop culture in the 17th century, Beethoven in the 18th century. The list goes on and on. You know what I mean.
Vincent: I do. I do. Have you run into that attitude at all and how do you respond?
Seth: No, I mean not at this point really. Because pop culture, you know, the so called pop culture gets taken pretty seriously these days, because of how many things of quality are getting out there. This isn’t to say that most of it isn’t junk. Most of it remains junk. But there are things like Mad Men and Big Love and as I said The Sopranos that are just terrific or a movie that’s out now called Moonrise Kingdom a Wes Anderson movie. It’s terrific, beautifully made, artful movie. That’s pop culture really. I mean it’s not pop culture the way that Transformers is pop culture. But it’s pop culture as well.
Vincent: Yeah, totally, totally. That’s great. You know you mentioned one of the characters and this is what I found really interesting is this instructor that the angry Buddhist is speaking with. I think her tag is like dharma girl or something like that.
Seth: Yes, exactly.
Vincent: So they’re communicating like over IM, email. You know it’s not a conventional teacher-student relationship in terms of how they’re communicating. Can you say a bit about that character?
Seth: Yeah, absolutely. Well as you probably know there are online dharma teachers now. This is a little known fact. You know you can learn anything online these days. And I hadn’t seen that depicted anywhere and I thought this is interesting. I think I should render this in the book. And I just love the idea of somebody sitting at his computer learning about the dharma from someone who’s in a completely different state and who he’s never met.
Because what they’re having is a dialogue which is what you would have with a dharma teacher. They’re just not in the same place. They can see each other. Actually in the television version they can see each other, in the book they can’t. In the book as you mentioned they’re IM-ing. But I don’t know if you’ve ever had conversations with instant messaging with people. But when I first started doing it, it was very disorienting but then it became kind of as if, if you’re a relatively fast typist, it is a little bit like they’re there. And yet there’s a [scrim] between the two of you and I thought this would be a fascinating way to chase enlightenment for a character, particularly a guy like my character who is an ex-policeman who is not that open to this kind of thing, who might find it uncomfortable to go to a dharma group, or to sit with other people in a public place. But in an instant message situation can ask all these questions in a nonthreatening way that would be compelling to a reader as well.
Vincent: And not to spoil the ending, but does he find enlightenment?
Seth: It’s always a struggle. [laughter]
Vincent: Okay. [laughter]
Seth: Isn’t it? Any of us? [laughter]