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 elements, 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 on the insights gained from his illnesses on to others. During our dialogue, he brought his real-time experiences to bear as we explored what it means to fall in love with death (actually he said it should be “standing” in love because “falling” in love, without awareness, can be dangerous!).
At times, he struggled to keep his voice audible which, he explained, took all the effort of shouting. This is one of the symptoms of Parkinson’s. He also suffers from neuropathy, a side effect of chemotherapy. There are times when his body won’t respond to his intentions, so he has accidents and falls. A studied Argentine tango dancer, he doesn’t know if he’ll ever dance a decent tango again with his wife, Mary. Yet, he still shows up to dance, inviting the grief and loss and discovering a deeper intimacy with the moment, and with his beloved.
Jun Po said the key to opening up to his circumstances and conditions, particularly the BIG, unavoidable condition of mortality, was radical self-acceptance. This is something he found on the other side of traditional Zen. Traditional Zen says to stay fiercely present. Don’t look away! Wake up! But after awakening, we are 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 eventually led him to develop Mondo Zen. But it was through traditional Zen practice that he anchored the witnessing capacity to radically accept fear and confusion and gain clarity. This enabled him 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.”
“Death is ‘boo-hoo’ from a relative perspective,” said Jun Po. “But from pure witnessing, it’s the gift of liberation. That’s ‘the Joke’.” He went on to offer the following profound 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 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.
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!”