Skip to main content
Report this ad

See also:

Keith Martin on 'The Heart of Zen'

The Heart Of Zen
North Atlantic

1. What was your prime motivation and inspiration for creating your book, "The Heart of Zen"?

Jun Po Roshi has been my teacher and friend since we first met in 2007. His very unique teaching style and insight, which centers around emotional transformation and a radical claiming of enlightened insight, has touched thousands of people since I’ve known him.
His life has been like something out of a movie, and I chronicled it in the 2012 memoir, “A Heart Blown Open” (Divine Arts Media), which won the Silver Medal for Excellence from Nautilus Book Awards.
Jun Po’s work centers around updating Zen for the 21st Century. He took the classical koan model of Rinzai Zen, with over 1,500 koans, and reduced them to just 13. But in those 13 koans he added something novel, the idea of “emotional” koans designed to enlighten and transform our emotional reactivity.
His teaching mind and style work best in living, fluid situations. He is not one to write a book, or to put his teachings down “on paper” for posterity. I felt that a teacher with this level of insight and novel wisdom needed to get his message out to a much larger audience. Thus, “The Heart of Zen” was born.

2. Could you define enlightenment from your perspective for our readers?

In my experience, I would say that enlightenment is the flow out into the world in every, breathing moment, not a place and not an experience, a paradox that resolves inside of the unfolding of its own brilliance.

But I’m not the Zen master, so I’ll pull the question out of The Heart of Zen, where I ask Jun Po Roshi that very question:

Keith Martin-Smith: What is Enlightenment?

Jun Po Roshi: Practically speaking, enlightenment is realization of your true self-nature. It’s awakening into pure receptive consciousness, and awakening from the dream of your ego as a permanent self.

Keith Martin-Smith: That’s it?

JP: Not quite. Expressing this realizing, this freedom, is beyond description. So we’re screwed. But we have to try. Once Awakened, you experience and see your ego as a temporary process, instead of a permanent self. You experience the pure Nondual Bud (pronounced booed) Consciousness deep within you and if deep enough, you also experience the visceral compassion, the unconditional love that arises within this realization. This can be overwhelming to behold. Tears and laughter.
At the relative, ego level it is also the integrated realization of the One Mind, One integrated universal Body, no you, no me. At the absolute deepest level, Emptiness, it is a realization of death beyond death, darkness beyond darkness, nothing to say here, no one to say it, Dhyana Mind, the void, Zen.

3. Once enlightened from my experience personally, keeping that state of mind all the time seems to be the problem. What can you share with us regarding that?

In my personal experience, this is because enlightenment is not an experience, which by definition must come and go. Nor is it dualistic, meaning I’m standing over here experiencing something over there. Enlightenment is a choice that is made in the arising of every moment, a constant moment into the only truth there is, the singular expression of this mind.
However, I will once more defer to Jun Po on this! He addresses your question directly, inside of the new system of Zen that he invented. It is, in fact, one the last of the 13 koans he asks his students is your very question. Here is us talking about it:
Keith Martin-Smith: This sets us up perfectly for the next koan. Personally, it was one that really rocked my boat.

Jun Po Roshi: Does Clear Deep Heart/Mind, does Enlightenment, come and go?

KA: Okay, so anyone who’s read a book or two on spirituality knows the answer to this. It’s shocking for new practitioners, but even though I had heard a version of this koan 100 times, when you first asked it of me, I felt the burn of the question. I mean, I knew the answer was no. I knew that vast, empty, eternal, boundless, timeless, fearless emptiness didn’t come and go. That it couldn’t come and go.

JP: You had known it philosophically. But not experientially.

KA: That’s right. And presented with that koan, “Does this Awareness come and go,” I realized what a horrible trick you had played on me.

JP: Not a trick. The truth. It’s very simple really: unless there is a Clear Deep Empty Mind, unless there is turiyatita or Dhyana Mind, there is no place for sensing, for ego, to take place. It’s not philosophy. It’s experience. But you have to be willing to have the experience, to drop under the noise of your mind and see what’s really there.

KA: “No,” I remember telling you. “This mind, this Awareness, doesn’t come and go.” And you leaned in and growled at me, “That’s your experience?” When I nodded, you followed up with, “Who comes and goes?” It was such a hard thing to admit! I really struggled, because I knew the implications of what I had to admit. “I come and go.” My ego awareness of this depth of mind comes and goes, which is a hell of thing. And it was the only truth that fit what was going on inside my experience.

JP: (nods) That’s the beginning of a fundamental shift in our understanding. This is what all the masters through all the ages have been trying to tell us, over and over and over again.
What I’m saying isn’t new. Enlightenment is closer to you than your own face. How? Because when you experience this depth of Awareness, not as a philosophical construct but as a felt reality, it’s obvious that Awakening Awakens, and that the ego only provides a lens, a window, for Awakening to see and speak. Ego is then what I like to call a figment of Divine Imagination. It’s real, but it is most definitely not permanent.

KA: That’s the view from Emptiness. The view from ego is far less certain. I can imagine many people reading this are feeling a little lost, a little confused.

JP: An ego insists upon its view. An ego cannot Awaken. Only Awakening Awakens, which is why Trungpa Rinpoche said Enlightenment is the ego’s ultimate disappointment. An ego is informed by Emptiness, even transformed by Emptiness, but the ego’s view is still relative, partial, finite, dualistic, and limited. So long as the ego is informed by Emptiness, it will see and accept its limitations and become an ally of deeper awareness.

KA: Someone once said the ego makes a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Baker Roshi said, famously, that Enlightenment is an accident and meditation makes us accident-prone.

JP: It’s true that no one understands why some people Awaken easily, and some struggle. We have to be very careful here, though. If we’re sitting around waiting for the accident of Enlightenment, where is our will? Where is our choice? Enlightenment is right here, right now. It’s no accident. There are no accidents.

KA: Perhaps Baker Roshi was speaking to the paradox of pursuing Enlightenment from an egoic place?

JP: We’ve covered this already, if you recall. There’s nothing wrong with Seeking Mind, remember — it’s only neurotic seeking that’s the problem. Seeking Mind will resolve itself on the path, without any effort on your part. Until that happens, it’s important to follow the energy. It’s important to take ownership, you see.

KA: Why? And of what?

JP: Because otherwise you’re in a prison of you own making. We have to watch out for highly sophisticated victim mentalities, where we passively sit around and wait for the day Awakening comes, like it did to so-and-so. Or you wait for your teacher to bestow their blessings on you so you can Awaken. (shakes his head) My insight is of little value to you.
After a talk, I can’t come home with you and sit behind you while you meditate; I can’t step between you and your spouse when you become angry and show you how to slow it down; I can’t follow you to the grocery store and ask you how mindful you’re being about your choices and their consequences.
I cannot give you your seat. You must take it. Not from me, but from and for yourself.
The world needs more awakened souls living, playing, and interacting. I’m old and tired these days; my body is heavily damaged from my cancer treatments. It is up to you, you reading this, you listening to this, you who are concerned about a better future for our species; it is up to you to move the world forward.

4. I am someone who seems to have to deal with an onslaught of negative emotions like anger on a daily basis and though I have some tools to overcome. I am curious to what you would recommend to stay above the storms so to speak?

This is a complicated topic and the very heart of Jun Po’s work in the world. I will excerpt a fairly length section of the book that explains some of what he is teaching around this very questions:
Jun Po: (nods) I manifest the signs of hyper-vigilant tension in my occipital band, temples, and my eyes; they used to squint much of the time because my brain was conditioned to be ready for an unexpected blow from my father.

KA: I see those narrowed eyes on you from time to time. So this still affects you?
JP: To a degree, yes. It arises in my body, manifests in my brain, and then comes into my consciousness. At that point, I have freedom to choose my response.

KA: That’s fascinating. How does it happen? What does it look like, to you?

JP: I now recognize and feel the contraction for what it is. The eyes are narrow, and my body and brain are on high alert. When this arises, I choose to look deeper at what’s happening. Usually, something outside of me has really gotten my attention. Someone has raised their voice in a violent way, for instance. But it actually makes me smile now. The contraction still arises, but that old reaction to it, my, hysterical-historical, has been transformed.

KA: The hysterical-historical — you mentioned this term before. It seems like it’s most relevant here, around conditioning. For you, this is the story behind your hyper-vigilance? All the complications that it caused?

JP: It’s the conditioned story that arises around my physical trauma, in this case, yes. So me as victim, or rebel, outlaw, numbed-out guy, or all the other sub-personalities created by that reality, that I lived over my youth and young adulthood. Those were the stories that came alive in reaction to the trauma.
So when the energy of contraction would arise in my body and my brain, it might lead to an argument with my beloved, or me shutting down emotionally because I would get afraid that I was going to blow my top like dad used to do. Or I might go off to be by myself, or have some other reaction that wasn’t true to what I was really feeling and what I really wanted.
Let me say that again. I would have some reaction to what I was feeling, and to a deeper need, but that reaction always happened so fast that I wouldn’t notice until too late.

KA: Such as?

JP: Well, when you get all pissed off at your beloved, and storm out of the house, or numb out to protect yourself, is that what you really want? To be contracted and upset, and separate from him or her? Of course not. You want closeness and connection; you feel deep caring for this person — which is why you’re so upset to begin with — yet you’re driven to do something that has the opposite effect.

KA: So, hysterical-historical is the way we react to certain life events, certain “triggers”, if you will? That’s the conditioned response to, well, a conditioned reaction?

JA: (nods) We all have our hysterical-historicals within us, and an emotional trigger sets the story in motion (snaps fingers) so quickly we don’t see that we actually have a choice in the matter. Sometimes it’s our “intolerable situation”. Virtually everyone has something they just won’t tolerate — that’s a great place where there is a hysterical-historical trigger waiting to go off.

KA: Like what?

JP: It depends on the person. For some, it’s infidelity. Others, it might be dishonesty. Others, integrity. Or loyalty, sexual intimacy, or challenges to authority. It’s a place in our lives where we seem to have no ability to do anything but react, strongly.

KA: And you’ve learned that you — that we — actually have an ability to choose a reaction instead of have a reaction?

JP: Yes — that’s part of the formal Mondo Zen practice. For me, I had all kinds of problems in relationships when I was younger, because I had no real idea how to trust love or how one was supposed to act in a normal relationship. My familial models — my conditioning — were very confused. Hysterical-historical.

KA: Did your spiritual practice help to expose this and help you to have more freedom and choice?

JP: (pauses) Only partially. What an intensive concentration practice and meditation can give you is a tremendous amount of space in your mind. Your reactive patterns can be seen much more easily, because you’ve trained your mind to be non-reactive. Thousands of hours of meditation creates tremendous spaciousness in your mind.

KA: But it’s not enough?

JP: Well, it wasn’t enough for me. It’s not enough for many of the people who come to me to train.

KA: Why is it not enough?

JP: Because the conditioning is still in place. In long-term meditation, you learn to be non-reactive, you see, to witness what arises in your mind, including your personal hysterical-historical. But you haven’t understood and transformed that conditioning; you’re like a sober drunk who has learned to stop drinking by force of will, but never looked at the causes of what led him to begin drinking in the first place.
As I’ve said before, feelings are information. That’s all. Concentration and meditation can slow down our reactive patterns, and give us genuine spiritual insight. But it takes emotional koans to transform our habitual negative patterns into enlightened action.

KA: And there aren’t emotional koans in traditional Zen?

JP: (shakes head)

KA: Let’s focus on an example that everyone has experienced: “fight, flight, or freeze”. This causes almost instant physiological reactions — breathing gets faster and shallower, blood moves from the stomach and brain to the muscles, pupils dilate, awareness becomes laser-sharp, and our ability to perceive pain and have empathy greatly diminishes.
I feel it if someone pulls out in front of me in traffic without warning, or if a friend jumps out of a closet and scares me, or —

JP: Or if someone puts your intolerable situation in your face. The problem is when we have small fight/flight/freeze responses, just enough to put us into a reactive pattern. We don’t always recognize when that pattern gets partially triggered with us, say in a fight with our partner, some “jerk” cuts us off in traffic, or our mother calls and manages to “make us angry” or “shame us” in only the way that she seems to know how to do.
People will say that someone pushed their buttons — well, those buttons usually are tied directly into fight, flight, or freeze responses, and they have nothing to do with physical survival, but a hell of a lot to do with our perceived emotional survival. That’s why they led to an emotional “acting out”, which is fight, flight, or freeze; or denial leading to passive-aggressive behaviors later, like withholding love or connection with the person who caused the trigger to arise.

KA: So these adaptive and marvelous physical survival strategies — fight and flight, which are great when tigers leap out of the jungle but not so great when my girlfriend raises her voice at me — can create obstacles to emotional awareness when they become ‘high jacked’ by our conditioning. That what you’re saying?

JP: (nods)

KA: You maintain that we choose our reactive patterns. I imagine a lot of people argue with you about this.

JP: (laughs). Yes, until they see if for themselves. There is absolutely a choice point. I didn’t say that it was a conscious choice point, at least in the beginning. The reason is because it’s almost impossible to track fight, flight, or freeze getting triggered within us at first, because the process itself shuts down our thinking brain and our empathy. It’s hard for us to “witness” this happening. This is where concentration meditation training is essential; we need to develop the ability to stay intelligently awake, present in the face of anything. Usually, we just react without thought, yelling at the driver who cut us off, hanging up on mom, or by going emotionally “flat” when our kid acts out in public. Only later, if at all, do we see that a reaction occurred; that we were, in fact, moving a ton of emotional energy through our bodies.

KA: This is what the emotional koans address? This is what your spiritual training was unable to touch?

JP: Yes. (pauses) And yes.

(from the next chapter)
Keith Martin-Smith: So you say that anger is a reaction to care, fear, and sometimes sadness. Those things have to arise first, before anger. Anger, as you define it, is simply intense clarity. It’s seeing things as they are. From there, we can choose to use violence if, say, some drunk has just pushed our girlfriend down. But that is a boundary, a line in the sand, and we stop them, correct them, with physical violence but without, what? Help me on that last part.

Jun Po: Without closing down, without turning away, without putting on armor, without being reactive. We don’t smash the guy’s nose and not really remember what happened — becoming our rage — but we might need to use some kind of physical force, consciously, to control the situation.
A less extreme example might be your loved one raises her voice at you. You feel yourself having a reaction — maybe anger, maybe shame, maybe dissociation — and you notice what’s happening. You let yourself feel the care, the fear, the grief — and you then choose a response. “Honey, I’m really having a hard time with this conversation. I’m really afraid right now. It’s hard for me to follow you. Can you help me understand what you need right now, without raising your voice? Because I care, about you and about what you’re trying to say.”
(laughs) Try that, and see how the person just melts in front of you.
Feeling is information, no different in form and function than our other five senses. All our emotions are telling us to do is pay attention and get the information in the feeling. As I’ve pointed out through a few examples here, fear, sadness, and deep caring is always underneath the reactive violence — acting out, collapsing in — of anger.

Keith Martin-Smith: So we haven’t touched on depression or anxiety, or other powerful feelings that people struggle with on a daily basis. Depression seems to be a real modern scourge, a feeling that can rob people of the very motivation they need to figure out what’s wrong.

Jun PO: Only if you stay on the surface will it, by definition, keep you from diving deeper. What I ask people who come to me with depression is to be willing to look at it the same way as with our other emotions. Feeling is information, but emoting is conditional. There’s nothing special about depression. The same is true for anxiety.
I like to use a ringing phone metaphor. When the phone rings, we know that to stop it from ringing we need to pick it up, right? There’s information on the other side of the call. With depression, the phone is ringing, but someone refuses to take the call. They say they’re just too depressed to answer. Anxiety means you’re running around, jumping up and down, frantic that the phone is ringing. “The phone is ringing! The phone is ringing!” Well, pick up the Goddamn phone!

KA: So, you’re saying to ask “what’s the information that’s being transmitted?”

JP: Exactly. What is the depression trying to show you? The reason you may be depressed is that you simply don’t want the information that ‘s waiting for you. Depression is safer than facing the truth.

5. What about the ego? Does anyone ever completely overcome the ego? The Buddha did right? I always loved the story of the many headed serpent Naga who extended its heads out to help protect the Buddha meditate during a rain storm.

I asked Jun Po Roshi about this once, if fully awakened people still struggle with egoic things. He laughed.

“Kogen,” he said, “Fully awakened is fully awakened. No more ego drama. You have completely seen through the construct. But very few, one in 10 billion, just wake up. The rest of us will have to practice!”

He then laughed again. “I once asked my teacher, Eido Roshi, if he knew of any fully Enlightened teachers.”’
‘Oh yes,’ Eido said.
‘You’ve met them?’ I asked.
Eido thought a moment. ‘Well, no,” he said. ‘But I’ve heard of two.’

And that’s the problem. We’ve all heard of those teachers, but none of us has actually met one. Understand that deep spiritual insight doesn’t promise you that you won’t feel! Depression, anxiety, anger — for decades to come, until fully Enlightened, these things may and will continue to arise, because we have human minds. Practice, evolution, takes time. That is wonderful. But you can see to the truth of the emotion — you can get the information in the feeling, and you can choose a compassionate and effective response to it, instead of merely reacting.”

That was how Jun Po answered that question for me.

6. What about awareness and how do we call it into our lives?

This is one of Jun Po’s 13 Koans, so I’ll just put it in from the book. Of course, it’s a little out of connect here, but I think you’ll get the gist.
Jun Po :So the question I ask my students in the 9th Koan is a simple one: does Clear Deep Heart/Mind come and go? No! Know a deeper truth than your relative mind! No to dualistic thinking! No! Know!

Keith Martin-Smith: I believe you.

JP: It doesn’t matter what I believe, Kogen. It only matters what you experience, not what you believe! (pauses) That’s why I follow this koan with a follow-up: “What is the first thing you must do to manifest this realization in your life?”

KA: You’re getting people to paint themselves into a corner.

JP: (smiles) Well, I’m getting them to be honest. I am, hopefully, saving them years and years of sitting in frustration, the way I did, before this becomes painfully, unbearably obvious.

KA: Which is?

JP: You had the experience, and if you claim the understanding the experience has imparted there is no more pushing it away. That puts the ego into a room with no doors, you see.

KA: Because turning away from Awakening is, in fact, a choice?

JP: Yes. Again, perhaps not a conscious choice, at least at first, but a choice. And once that choice point is made conscious, you’re really screwed. (laughs)
What is the first thing you must do to manifest this realization in your life? You must choose it. (pauses)

KA: I get what you’re saying. I understand the metaphor in Zen of the Gateless Gate, where once we are in the realization of Awakened Mind, there is no path, no realization, no insight, nothing to do, nothing to attain. It’s all right here. But, holding onto this is tricky. It seems, to be honest, like an over-simplification to just say that I can choose to be Awakened, and that’s it. If that was the case, why would any serious practitioner not choose that?

JP: (sighs and nods) For most of us it takes a lot of work to stabilize this insight, but it does mean you understand what’s really going on. You’re no longer a victim in some kind of cosmic, karmic game of hide-and-seek. This is why I can’t give you your seat. You must choose it. I can help you in that process, but at the end of the day only you can allow Awakening to see its own true face.
Every Awakened teacher of the Dharma has said this, in their own ways, throughout the ages. It’s nothing new I’m offering here; I’m just giving it a 21st Century twist. Right View, which we covered earlier, has to be updated for our times, for post-post modern sensibilities and sophistications.

7. This is a wild card question. What would you like to share with us from your book that the readers might enjoy?

Two things, but they’re related to each other. If space allows, both would be great; if not, the first one, below and italicized, can stand alone:

Jun Po: I met the Dali Lama back in the 90’s, as part of a delegation of first generation Western teachers teaching the Dharma — to go and see dad, as I liked to say. Someone in the audience asked His Holiness to explain how a Tibetan monk many of us knew could have come to sleep with his students, causing all manner of lawsuits and turmoil. The Dali Lama smiled, and said simply, “Easy. His insight isn’t deep enough.” Well, I had met this monk. I had to raise my hand, and someone handed me a microphone. “Your Holiness,” I said, “Can I say something here?” He nodded. “Bullshit,” I said. (laughs). Man, his eyes just lit up. So I continued, “Look, I’ve trained with this man. He trained with you personally for a decade, and did three three-year solo retreats. I’ve sat with him, and his insight is very deep. I think there’s something else at play here aside from his insight.” The Dali Lama offered me this brilliant smile. And then he said, “That’s because your insight isn’t deep enough.” (laughs). I sat there with my mouth hanging open. He had me.

The second one is longer:
KA: I would like to take this to something more personal for you, so we can talk about something more relevant to us today.
Your teacher, Eido Shimano Roshi, has had some very public problems with fidelity and boundaries around affairs with some of his students. He admitted to this in a public letter, and resigned as head abbot of Dai Bosatsu, the monastery in New York where you were given inka and made his dharma heir. How do you view this?

JP: With sadness. Remember what I said about karma? Eido Roshi was for me and many others a true meditation master, with incredibly clear insight. (pauses) Yet some of his behaviors were very problematic.

KA: You witnessed his indiscretions when you were his student?

JP: (pauses) My experiences with his duplicity concerning his unconventional sexuality at Dai Bosatsu helped to show me that meditation alone wasn’t enough; insight alone wasn’t enough. I resigned my vice abbotship in protest over his behavior, and gave up my secession of the monastery in the spring of 1993.

KA: In protest of what?

JP: He was being deceitful. I do not object to consenting sex between psychologically healthy adults, or even polyamorous relationships where people have open sexual relationships with more than one partner. I’m not even necessarily opposed to adult teachers sleeping with adult students, so long as it is open and honest — if you’re not willing to do what you’re doing in the public eye, and with everyone aware of what’s going on, you should probably think twice about the behavior.
Sexual union is divine art and we need to come to that realization. When and how our culture awakens to this truth is going to require evolution — and evolution has it’s own timetable. But the Mondo Koan Process started with Eido, because of my need to understand his confusion, sexual immaturity, reactive duplicity, and cultural bondage.

KA: You seem like you’re really struggling to give me these answers.

JP: (nods and sighs) It’s a mess. The rules of Zen are very old and very rigid, and they can’t be broken by someone like Eido Roshi, who lives within their confines and teaches them. Classic Zen doesn’t evolve — they do things now they same way they did them 400 years ago. So he had to go into psychological shadow and duplicity. Many times he took advantage of women because he saw their weakness around him. And more than once, I watched women take advantage of him because they saw his weakness around them. These things are seldom as neat as the stories we create about them. It’s an impossible dilemma Zen, and culture in general, finds itself in around sexuality.
How could a traditional Japanese Zen master deal with complicated sexuality between consenting adults, and remain in cultural integrity? How could he express his sexual desire, and remain in personal integrity? Now there are two koans for you. Traditional Zen and American puritanical, and occasionally hysterical, views on sexuality were little help back then. I don’t condone his behavior — let me make that clear. But I see it as a symptom of a much larger problem of immature sexuality.

KA: What did you say to him?

JP: I told him just tell the truth. You have the opportunity to enlighten us.

KA: Anything else?

JP: Be sure you’re clear on the difference between love and lust.

KA: You’re not sure that he was.

JP: I don’t know. I do know that love doesn’t leave anyone feeling used or pissed off. That much I can tell you. But now I get to understand and compassionately live with what he taught me. What to do classically, and what not to do culturally and personally. I am eternally grateful for both teachings.

KA: What are the biggest lessons you learned?

JP: You can keep the light shining in the face of lust. Then, it’s inconceivable you could choose to cause another being pain through selfish action. Getting laid, and deceiving someone because you’re unwilling to stand honestly with your desire and its consequences, doesn’t work anymore. Not as an ethical edict from outside but as an interior moral from within. Understand?

KA: You stumbled publicly yourself in this domain, yes?

JP: I fell in love with a priest in my order in the mid-2000’s, when both of us were in relationships with other people. But it was before Mondo Zen had been developed; I too ended up falling into duplicity and madness, and tore my own community apart. My insight wasn’t deep enough.

KA: That’s why you hold that Compassionate Wisdom beats Crazy Wisdom.

JP: Any day of the week.

KA: And I should note you’re married to that priest now.

JP: I will forever be on my knees for my duplicity, begging for forgiveness. (pauses, composes himself) But I will never apologize for falling in love.

KA: You have tears in your eyes, I would like to point out.

JP: Love takes no prisoners, Kogen. I know this better than most.

8. What book are you working on next or project and any links you'd like to share? Thanks for the interview.

Thank you!

I ran a successful, $30K campaign on Kickstarter to start my next book, a novel called Only Everything. The campaign ended in August, 2013, and the new novel is about half done.

More can be found through my website,

The Kickstarter campaign is here:

Report this ad