A Heart Blown Open
The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi
by Keith Martin-Smith
Anytime I can open a book and the first two words I see are Zen and LSD I am intrigued. When said book happens to be about a Zen master hedonist with an incredibly checkered past who was has spent time in prison, modeling on a runway, made millions manufacturing LSD for people such as the Grateful Dead, is deeply versed in integral theory, friends with Ken Wilber, an abuse survivor, yogi, true iconoclast and by all accounts a fearless seeker who consistently refused to accept setbacks as a limiting factor along his journey; I’m enthralled. This is the true life story of one Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi recently wrestled into book form by Keith Martin-Smith.
I have known about Jun Po (I’ll pick that section of his name for the post) for years via the world of Integral. He is a Zen master in the Rinzai tradition who has developed his own accelerated version of Rinzai which he calls Mondo Zen. If we go with the notion that a dedicated student on the Rinzai path often takes 20-30 years to be recognized as an adept or enlightened master, it is speculated that Mondo Zen may be able to cut that by 5 years. Neat, and a wonderfully exciting idea. More importantly Mondo efforts to integrate aspects of shadow work that traditional Zen dangerously overlooks. We all know the stories of the spiritual leader who got into trouble sleeping with a student. Jun Po is one of them. He speaks of it candidly so that we may all benefit from it. Speaking from the heart with the type of audacity that doesn’t flinch at the idea of updating 12th centurey Japanese tradition is exactly the kind of iconoclastic attitude that Jun Po brought to most every aspect of his life.
Raised and abused by a misguided alcoholic father. A high school drop out. A heavy drug user and the creator of multiple failed marriages Jun Po also consistently displayed a fierce work ethic and unwavering determination to step outside of the limitations that life seemed to be handing him. It would be hard to call his life charmed. It would be much harder to call it dull or lifeless. He succeeds only through dragging himself through adventures that would send most people back home to the familiarity and security of a more rote life.
This is why this book is an inspiration to me. Jun Po’s life is the classic american story with a spiritual finale. Yes, he went from rags to riches, but that’s the beginning of the tail. After that is where things really begin to get interesting. While his is perhaps not the kind of life we might seek for ourselves or hope for our children, tucked directly inside each of the fumbles and hurdles that he moves through is a sense of possibility, wonder and openness to exploration that I think we could all learn quite a bit from.
I also really respect the openness with which someone such as Jun Po talks about his drug use and how it led him to find more stable ways of accessing the peak experiences that he glimpsed through altered states. It seems to be a little discussed truth that a very large percentage of the westerners who spend significant amounts of time on a meditation cushion owe a not so small part of their inspiration and insight into what a human being is capable of to psychedelics. I am one of those people. Any wise being recognizes quite quickly that substances alone are a paltry excuse for growth and transformation. But, as Aldous Huxley proclaimed quite loudly, the doors of perception can be cracked open amazingly quickly with a little chemical assist. From there we can spend decades learning to replicate and surpass the initial glimpse that psychedelics offer. Like everything else in his life, Jun Po jumped into the world of altered states head first, smacked his head on the bottom, did a bit of damage, but then managed learning both how to swim and how to teach others. It is this unflagging determination to self correct that I think we can benefit from emulating.
Laughing out loud, check. A gasp of breath, check. Tears streaming down my cheeks, check. A sly knowing smirk and a giggle of recognition, check². Crazy tales of supernormal powers, check. My full heartfelt recommendation, duh.
Oh, and enlightenment, this is a story of enlightenment. A fierce and unrelenting chase, many dark alleyways, many brightly lit fields and more than a few gloriously unexpected exaltations.