On Sunday I was joined by Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi for a fiercely human dialogue we entitled “Falling in Love with Death.”
Jun Po is the 83rd Patriarch of his lineage of Rinzai Zen. He began his Buddhist practice at Zen Center San Francisco in the early ’70s, later becoming a student of Eido Shimano Roshi in New York and subsequently a monk. He received inka from Eido Shimano Roshi in 1992. Interested in bringing his Zen Rinzai lineage into American culture without the Japanese cultural bindings, Jun Po left the monastery and founded the lay Buddhist Hollow Bones order, of which he is abbot. He also created Mondo Zen, which integrates processes for emotional maturity and insight with meditative awareness.
That’s Jun Po’s official biography as a Zen teacher. But he was also a wild hippie, a lover of many women (though now happily married), a Vietnam-era military man and a major LSD manufacturer hunted by the FBI — for which he served time in federal prison.
What I appreciate most about Jun Po, though, is not his wild, passionate, colorful past, but his willingness to step outside of his story into immediate contact with himself, the moment, and during our dialogue, with me. He invites in what people tend to hide —fear, dysfunction, confusion — all of which he’s confronted personally in his past experience with stage 4 throat cancer and most recently Parkinson’s Disease.
It’s precious when someone confronts mortality in the way that Jun Po now is, with a lifetime of spiritual practice, a deep witnessing capacity, and a drive to pass the insights gained from his illnesses on to others. During our dialogue, he brought his real-time insights and experiences to bear as we explored what it means to fall in love with death (actually he says it should be “standing” in love because “falling” in love, without awareness, can be dangerous!)
At times, he struggled to maintain a volume level that sounded normal, rather than too low, but which to him took all the effort of shouting. He explained that this is one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s. Another symptom he suffers (from chemotherapy) is neuropathy. There are times when his body will not respond to his intentions, so he has accidents and falls. A studied Argentine tango dancer, he shared that he doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to dance a decent tango with his wife, Mary again. And yet, he still shows up to dance, inviting the grief and the loss, and opening into deeper intimacy with the moment and with his beloved.
The key to opening up to his circumstances and conditions, particularly the BIG, unavoidable condition of mortality, he says, is radical self-acceptance. This is something Jun Po found on the other side of traditional Zen. Traditional Zen says to stay absolutely fiercely present. Don’t look away! Wake up! But after awakening, we are still left with the psychological and emotional structures that were there before. And often these structures are damaged.
Zen didn’t address these “faulty” structures for Jun Po and many others (which is eventually what led him to develop Mondo Zen). But it was through Zen practice that he had anchored the witnessing capacity to radically accept the fear and confusion and gain clarity; to let views and opinions fall aside leaving only the incredible intensity of awareness. From a nondual perspective, this intensity of experience is simply that — “not good, not bad.”
He said, “Death is “boo-hoo” from a relative perspective, but from pure witnessing it’s the gift of liberation. That’s ‘the Joke’.” Then he offered the following reflections on compassion:
When your heart breaks, it doesn’t break closed, it breaks open in unconditional love. This is a love that takes no prisoners. Our true nature of compassion gets filtered through our relative nature. Feeling is information which we often, in our ignorance, meet with violent reactivity. Thus deep care and incredible clarity of mind is expressed as anger. Excitement and opportunity manifest as fear.
We don’t have sin, we have ignorance. When we realize the misinterpretation of feeling, compassionate nature takes over, including self-compassion. You can’t scream at your loved ones anymore. Not because you don’t want to, but because that reaction becomes inconceivable. We awaken to the myth of our own persona.
Stay present in the face of absolutely everything. No one has ever shamed you except you. When we realize that we are responsible for our reactivity, our angst becomes our liberation.
It was a tender dialogue, during which I came into contact with my own sense of grief and loss about the aging process, as well as my joy and gratitude for my connection with that which is beyond words (God). I wake up and reawaken, discovering freshly That which I have discovered so many times before; and yet always it’s a new moment of authentic discovery.
I felt all of this relating to Jun Po, grieving with him, and listening to him “shout” his good news that “we are all dying. Celebrate.”