A Heart Blown Open: The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi Paperback – Feb 1 2012
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“Kelly came back to the question again and again: what did it mean to be an American Zen Roshi nearing the twenty-first century?”
If Denis Kelly’s life was made into a novel, no one would believe it, so the truth, told here as accurately as possible by author and fellow Zen Buddhist Keith Martin-Smith, must suffice: Kelly crossed every inner river, climbed every emotional mountain, slayed every psychological dragon, to arrive at a place of peacefulness.
Most of us imagine that a spiritual master would be a person of high moral integrity, likely celibate, and definitely vegetarian, someone who speaks in terse mysterious phrases and smiles a lot. Someone rather like the Dalai Lama, whom Kelly has met. Kelly had a habit, begun in grade school, of telling people in authority that what they said was “bull––” and he didn’t spare the Dalai Lama that assessment. The assertion generally resulted in shock and expulsion, but not in the case of the Dalai Lama, who just smiled and told Kelly that his spiritual insight wasn’t deep enough yet. Oddly, it was his tendency to blow up at authority that led to Kelly’s heart being blown open, and to his becoming a spiritual master himself.
Kelly grew up with an abusive alcoholic father who savagely beat his sons while his mother turned a blind eye. This gave the boy a hatred of men in authority and a mistrust of all women that took him years to overcome. The only saving grace in his youth was a memory from infancy, of finding solace in a “sense of pervasive peace … a silence out of which everything arose.” Because of that fleeting but seemingly endless moment, despite all the self-ruining experiences Kelly had to go through, he was drawn to meditation and to Buddhism.
Along the way to becoming a Zen adept, he was a wealthy drug dealer, a founding member of the California “family” that in the 1970s manufactured a notably pure form of LSD known as Windowpane. Kelly believed that enlightenment, that sense of peace he had felt as a baby, could be achieved through LSD. He traveled to India and met some interesting gurus, but none who could disabuse him of the notion that satori, the goal of Buddhist meditation, was available through a chemical. He wound up in prison for that belief. Finally he agreed to bend himself to the discipline of Eido Roshi (who pronounced him to be “worth civilizing”), lived in a Buddhist monastery, and became Vise Abbot for a time.
Martin-Smith keeps Kelly’s story rolling on a fast track, just as the man’s life has been lived—the women, the violence, the good times, the regrets, the fear, and loathing, all are recounted. There is something in this book for everyone: spiritual seekers and unrepentant sinners alike will find Kelly’s ride hilarious, frustrating, poignant, and thoroughly human. The result of the journey is a new unique form of spiritual practice that Kelly, now a cancer survivor in his seventies who leads international workshops, calls “Mondo Zen”—“the radical invention that brought Zen into the twenty-first century and fully into the West.”
Barbara Bamberger Scott
August 6, 2012
About the Author
Keith Martin-Smith is a freelance writer in Boulder, CO, where he teaches Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, Buddhism, and writing.
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Readers should judge the value of my remarks with the knowledge that I will do my friend the courtesy of writing nothing here that is less than an honest appraisal of both the story and the quality of the story telling. That said, it pleases me to say that I found this to be an excellent story written near perfectly.
From the beginning pages readers are reminded of the rigidity that was the American experience in the nineteen fifties and sixty's. A man holding the intuition that real freedom was not to be had without a fight - was in for a fight. And so the story of Denis Kelly begins.
The majority of us didn't get to Woodstock or live the street scene that was The Haight in San Fransisco, 1967. But these and other highlights are our heritage as members of the Boomer generation just as much as "Abraham, Martin and John", Vietnam and Watergate.
However, in "A Heart Blown Open" we ride with an insider. We see a man - who for reasons that cannot be easily explained - a guy who was at the right place at the right time with the right mix of the "mean streets," savoir faire and nascent transcendental intuition, such that he begins to look like more than just a clever opportunist - more like a gift we gave ourselves - Conscious Creativity knowing just what it would take to push the American experience off it's static pedestal, tipping it back into the crucible of transformation.
I give this book four, instead of five stars because the dialogue is at times written in a way that made it less than transparent - occasionally, I lost the story because of the words. This said, I think that overall, Keith Martin-Smith, (who I do not know), has done a great job as a writer and entrepreneur - moving this book from it's initial inspiration all the way to the hands of readers like myself. Not an easy job. Thank you Keith!
JunPo Denis Kelly is the most dangerous man I've ever known. And this, because he is free - unbounded by cultural conditioning. At the same time this is a man who embodies unselfish love and integrity such that I would not hesitate to place my money or my loved ones in his hands.
The value, the purpose of including words like these in a book review is to indicate for potential readers, the quality of the teaching that radiates from the book - from it's beginning pages where we see echoes of our own experience and our worst nightmares - to the end where like a well composed sonata, all melodic, in this case, plot and thematic tensions are resolved with credibility and satisfaction.
I knew Frank - Denis Kelly, the wild man. Now I know JunPo Roshi - Denis, the wiser man. I love them both. Readers will be introduced to a friend they have been waiting to meet as they turn the pages or even find themselves drawn to sit Sesshin at one of his retreats. Either way, all receive an introduction to the man and 21st Century Zen - the Mondo Process JunPo has molded with deep respect for tradition and realism.
If you are "spiritually inclined," read this book and you may find yourself inspired to actually Awaken! If you simply want to read a Really Great Story - read this book! And you too, may find yourself inspired... to Awaken.
To be transported into the world of JunPo's wild life was pure pleasure but to have the added effect of using its transparency to map my own being was invaluable.
It arrived on Friday afternoon and I had it finished on Sunday afternoon. Yes, that good. Denis Kelly's life is simply fascinating. Nothing more to say than just that. What else do you need? -- drugs, partying, sex, violence, more sex, wealth, money, travel to exotic places, cancer, catastrophe, heartache, and a long but engaging spiritual awakening.
It's like "Eat, Pray, Love" for dudes, only far more interesting and better written.
Despite the author's syrupy attempts to sway the reader to his side, an objective eye is likely to see Kelly's life as monstrously narcissistic and self-centered. When Kelly abandons his wife and child we are told this is something he had to do to save them from his fear of turning into his father. Running a large LSD manufacturing ring is for the good of the country. An affair with a student's wife is okay to pursue because it is done out of love.
Time and again, this "Zen Master" makes selfish choice after selfish choice and the author asks the reader to sympathize with his subject. The reason behind Martin-Smith's adoring rationalization of Kelly's poor behavior isn't revealed until the end of the book where we learn that Keith Martin Smith is a student and champion of Kelly's Mondo Zen making him entirely too close to his subject to pen an objective biography.
In the end I'm glad I read this book because it serves as a reminder that just because a person has a shaved head and eastern name or title doesn't mean a person is wise or insightful or deserving of adoration.
Let me start by clarifying an important point. This is not a criticism of what this book is. Rather, it is a criticism of what this book is not. Keith Martin-Smith is certainly a qualified, and at times compelling writer. The book does make an entertaining read, and it does tell a good story. Furthermore, while Martin-Smith's writing style (reflected in his relationship to the man whom he is writing about) is rather fawning, it doesn't necessarily detract from the telling of the tale, for a book such as this must necessarily be biased in adulation of the central figure, at least in some degree.
However, it is this very bias and adulation (infatuation, perhaps), which dangerously tells a cherry-picked half of the story. While this omission would have little consequence in regards to a historical figure, it matters a great deal here, for this is a living man, and these are living relationships. Thus, we may find ourselves captivated by a compelling tale, or a dynamic personality, and in seeking to have a relationship with the real man behind the story, only later realize the consequence. To this end, we would do well to know the whole truth, not simply the approved, story-book version.
So read this book with a large grain of salt, and keep a few words of caution in mind:
The presentation of Mondo Zen is that of "direct transmission, mind to mind, from teacher to student", all the way back to the buddha. There is the distinct impression of authenticity, married with enough radical wisdom to change the entire system for the western mind, held together with the utmost integrity and emotional maturity. The reality is a far cry from this, however. Junpo is an illegitimate teacher in an illegitimate lineage. His own teacher never received dharma transmission, and was instead considered to be too immoral to be fit for teaching anyone. However, he stayed in America and lied his way into the hearts of his students, benefactors, and contemporaries, not the least of which is Chester Carlson (founder of xerox), D.T. Suzuki, etc. How could an immoral, illegitimate teacher train someone to be a moral, legitimate teacher? How could any such trained teacher be "awake" enough to reform Zen in any way, to say nothing of a complete cultural overhaul? Of course, there are those who say dharma transmission doesn't prove enlightenment or capacity to teach in any way - to which I absolutely agree. But then...why the lie??? Why is there the need of the legitimacy of a title? What does it prove?
Anybody knowing the history behind the lineage of mondo zen should be embarrassed to call themselves associated, or cautious at the very least.
If you find these to be strong words, you would do well to investigate the history yourself. Take the opportunity to visit such sites as: shimanoarchive.com, as well as genkaku-again.com, etc. There you will learn of rampant psychological and sexual abuse, cover-ups, fraud, etc etc etc, on the part of Junpo's teacher Eido.
After reading, you may notice that there is hardly any mention of Junpo (this is, after all, about Eido's transgressions). Thus, one may conclude that this is "guilt by association", and thus a logical fallacy. However, it is important to understand the depth of the connection that runs between teacher and student. In this relationship, there is an internalization and passing on of a particular brand of teaching - a philosophical worldview, if nothing else - and the subtle internalization of what is "morally correct" within that worldview. There can be no choice put to accept the moral corruption, along with everything else. (Those who have ever been to Dai Bosatsu throughout its entire history, or studied with any one of Eido's dharma heirs, know what I mean). Of course, within Mondo Zen there is lip service to this little-talked about fact, and thus the frequent saying "don't throw the baby out with the bathwater". The implication being that Mondo Zen is a necessary house-cleaning - a cleaning up of a one-time corruption, while at the same time rebranding Zen in a western-friendly way. However, while these may be nice ideals and sound great to new people, does reform ever come from within? How can one so steeped in the abuse and perversion of that lineage even recognize the abuse and perversion anymore?
If actions speak louder than words, then the truth of the matter is that Junpo has a personality cult, much like his teacher Eido - and thus has tremendous control over his "students" (observe them and you will see). He is an adulterer, just like his teacher. He has slept with students, just like his teacher. He will choose to stay unaccountable unless caught, just like his teacher. He believes that an enlightened ego is enlightenment, just like his teacher (is that not the Mondo process?). His recognition as dharma heir involved tremendous scandal, just like his teacher's, and raised suspicions that he bought his dharma transmission with drug money. Which really begs the question - is there anyone in this organization who is qualified to teach anything? Is this why Junpo took the cognitive behavioral approach of "creating" a projection of enlightenment, instead of a buddhist approach of having to meditate your way there? His way is certainly easier - but is it real?
Probing the question of teacher legitimacy, it is interesting to note his own dharma heirs - one who made many sizable contributions to "Friends of Zen", and thus supported Junpo's lifestyle - the others grossly incompetent and narcissistic in their own right, yet willing to serve. They will, for the most part, remain unquestioned and unchallenged, as that is the hierarchical structure of the religious institution - just as Eido's other dharma heirs remain unchallenged, in spite of their own abusive tendencies. Again, you may feel that this assessment is unjustified. Perhaps this is so. However, before you dismiss anything I say as character attack, I would encourage you to get to know all of them personally - very personally. Then make your decision.
Of course, many, many people will argue that this organization is indeed an incorruptible beacon of enlightenment - fully realized, emotionally mature, and in absolute integrity. Of course people may think whatever they wish. However, I would challenge those people that they have never been on the inside of the organization, and have never seen past the veneer.
These are serious accusations, and serious accusations need proof. You may find that proof in two places - knowing the history of the "lineage" (doing some research on the past and present), and from your own observations of the organization - your gut feeling if you ever go on retreat. To this end, it's healthy to understand some cult mechanics (bearing in mind, there will be many star-struck seekers) and compare this version of buddhism with others. Also, the fact that Junpo has not publicly denounced Eido's most recent sexual and psychological abuses, but has rather privately exonerated them, should be a huge red flag. Lastly, look to the end "product" of junpo's organization; a cognitive behavioral process rebranded as zen and trademarked as "mondo".
Mondo Zen's sin is that it drains people, while promising itself to be the quickest way to enlightenment. It deceives people in its self-righteous assertion of spiritual superiority, while at the same time asking for greater commitments of time and money, to support the (admittedly un-lavish) life style of a one-time drug dealer, with no other tricks to turn. It drains people... and while in the beginning people give of themselves willingly and cheerfully, (you'll see many devotees), in the end, they end up leaving disillusioned and burned-out, no closer to "enlightenment". And while there may be an initial improvement in quality of life for many people, I would challenge that cognitive behavioral therapy or voice dialogue would be money better spent, as it's really the same thing. (In spite of Junpo's assertion that Mondo is the "end of psychotherapy")
By all means, enjoy this book all you want. Have your own opinions about it. Love Junpo for being the eccentric madman. Find life-changing value in his teachings. However, know all sides very clearly, and take everything with a grain of salt, or you may find your heart not "blown open", but rather, "ripped out".
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