In Korea I knew John Barazzuol under his Korean Zen monk’s name, Dogong Sunim. At that time he was teaching Buddhist meditation at Lotus Lantern, a center that had been set up primarily for interested foreigners. I studied under him for four and a half years before he returned to Canada. In 2009 after a writers’ conference north of Seattle, a friend and I went up to Vancouver to see him. This interview took place on that trip. My friend Kelly said he was the kindest man she had ever met.
Religion has a dark side. There’s a saying, “The brighter the sun, the darker the shadow.” When I was in Kuala Lumpur, after I had gotten my classes going, my teacher sent me out to give talks. I went to little villages along the east coast of Malaysia where people had absolutely no knowledge of Buddhism. They wanted me to make charms for them like magicians used to do. Some monks were obviously making big money selling charms against evil spirits. When my teacher asked about my trip, I was about to launch into a tirade against corruption, and he just said, “Now you know.”
During the Japanese colonization of Korea, the Japanese monks who came over told the Korean monks they didn’t need to be celibate, they could get married. They applied pressure to change over to the Japanese system. One temple wouldn’t—couldn’t—change. After the Japanese left, this temple decided to reestablish the celibate tradition. There were only a handful of them, so in order to increase their numbers they made it easy for anyone to join. Shave your head, put on the costume, and we’ll make you a monk. A lot of gangsters thought it might be a good way to operate. All kinds of people became monks with no intention of practicing Buddhism. On one of the retreats I sat, the guy running it would go to Seoul and do politics, trying to get one temple to take over another. He’d come back with bakery goods and fancy meats. We weren’t supposed to eat meat, but he’d take almost half a cow out in the woods to cook where nobody could see.
A friend asked me where would be a good temple for him to ordain. I couldn’t recommend a single one that was totally following the tradition. When the world gets polluted, so do temples, and so do the monks. You’ve got a lot of free time, and nobody’s checking on you, so you can use that time anyway you want. It’s like saying, “Look, we’ll give you room and board, we’ll give you a little salary, we’ll give you a lot of respect.” So you think everyone’s going to be into spiritual growth? Not really.
A monk has to keep the precepts, the rules or the commandments that keep you on the right path. You must know when to keep them and when to break them. Sungsan Sunim’s example is very good. When a monk is meditating, a deer runs by, and then a hunter runs after the deer and asks the monk which way the deer went. The monk lies and saves the deer. That was a time to break the precepts. This is a good story, but it gets interpreted as meaning you can do whatever you want, steal money, sleep with other people, take power. It’s a back door escape.
When human beings become monks they don’t automatically get rid of their dark side. I asked three Theravadan monks, “What do you do with your sexual energy?” Nobody wanted to talk about it. A lot of repressed energy comes out of that one. Life energy can be transmuted through social service or used in some other way. But if you just suppress it, whether it’s sexual or anger or whatever, it becomes demonic. It circulates in the subconscious, and then it will shoot up. The problem was never addressed in either the Theravadan or the Zen tradition.
There’s a fear of the light, that’s the same as the fear of the dark. You’re afraid of yourself, or you don’t want to acknowledge part of yourself. It’s fear of success, but it’s mixed with the dark and the light. Let’s say I’ve got such a powerful mind that I can make people believe white is black. I want to be a criminal lawyer. I know I can make all these criminals look shiny white and shaft innocent people. I’m afraid I might hurt people. It’s not just fear of success. It’s also fear of my dark side.
Once I was taking a workshop from a psychic who worked on the stuff people held in their bodies. He worked with me for about half an hour, and he got frustrated until he looked at my hands. He said, “Why are you curling your hands?”
I said, “Well, I’m really deep inside myself. It’s like a meditation thing.”
“Why don’t you let go?”
“I can’t let go. I’ll hurt people.”
He put one person on one of my shoulders, another person on another shoulder, one on one arm, another on the other arm and one on each leg. I moved them around because suddenly he had created a situation where I could let go. I lifted these people off the ground, but I couldn’t do them any harm. I started crying and crying, and I went back to being a seven-year-old. The workshop leader was doing this to other people too, by creating situations where it was safe to let go.
When I started out in the Theravadan tradition, I got into loving kindness meditation. For months I was doing meditations for my friends, my family, the people in the country, the whole universe, all the creatures that were ever born. One day it occurred to me, “You don’t even love yourself. How can you love all these people?” It was such a shock. Back to square zero, right? The way I see it, if you start out helping someone else, who are you helping but yourself? If you’re helping yourself, who are you helping but other people? You start where you need to start. As long as you keep going and do the work.
Sungsan Sunim had a koan [question to meditate on] that I liked. A woman has land with a mountain on it, where she builds a meditation hut for a monk and supports him. After he’s been on retreat up there for ten years, she decides to test him. She dresses her daughter up in sexy clothes and makeup. She has her bring the monk his food, kiss him, and then come back to tell her what happens. The daughter comes back and says, “Well, the monk said, ‘Cold water over stone with ashes.’” In other words, no feeling. The woman gets really upset, runs up the mountain, kicks him out and burns the hut down. She says, “I’ve been supporting a monster for ten years.” So the koan is this: if you were on the mountain, what would you do?
Zen is “without words going beyond words.” I think it was a Japanese master who said, “All of your thinking, all of your philosophy is not worth more than a tiny hair blowing in the wind.” Sungsan Sunim was against our reading. He attracted a lot of fed-up intellectuals who were becoming carpenters or doing some other kind of physical work.
There is an inner silence which Sungsan Sunim used to call “don’t know mind” or “before thinking mind.” In Spiritpower I call it “wordless mind.” If you don’t like the word “spirit,” you can call it “higher power” or “higher self.” I also use—and it’s just words—“superconscious mind,” above the level of conscious. When you’re writing from your superconscious mind, it’s not information which comes in through the five senses. You don’t know where it came from. Now this is all theory, but I think the superconscious mind comes up through the subconscious mind to the conscious mind—sometimes directly.
None of this makes sense until you start meditating. Sungsan Sunim suggested watching as your thoughts come and go. When one thought ends, before the next thought begins there’s an empty space. So that’s the practice. You keep focusing your mind there until that becomes like a natural space.
In Singapore doing walking meditation, I could walk about three or four steps without thinking, and then I was walking five or six steps. Eventually I was walking all the way around the shrine room. In chanting you can use a bell and have the mind going to the bell. Or chant by breathing into a vowel and letting it come out. When I was in a temple in Thailand, we spent days and days doing physical exercises. I could feel the movement in my hand to the point where I felt a real strong connection from my arm to my heart. This gave me so much concentration that when I had a pain in my leg I just put my hand over it and the energy healed my pain.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron tells readers to get up in the morning when the subconscious mind is near the surface and just start writing whatever comes out. Just keep the pen moving across the page and don’t stop, I think for half an hour or so. The first week or so I was bored, but I did it because I’d agreed to. After about six months, I looked back and was amazed. Where did this information come from? Not from my thinking mind.
Spiritpower did not come from my thinking mind, but from a higher part of myself, almost like I was a medium transmitting to me. I didn’t tell people that because they would have thought I was crazy. If it had I would have planned it all out, and even as I was writing I would have been editing, which is thinking. I couldn’t have written anymore. When the thoughts flowed, to me they came from the non-thinking mind. I remember reading an article on where creative people get their inspiration. There’s no way of proving whether it comes through the higher part of themselves—their higher power—or whether it comes to them through some other entity and they’re acting like a channel or a medium. Somehow you know when it’s you. If it’s not, then who is it?
I got some feedback on the book from people in the publishing world. One said, “Get it out, and then go back and revise it for a second edition.” That’s what I’m doing, actually. Before comes out again, I’ll do a couple of three-day workshops. In the last chapter, which you liked, I had the applications. I was told that the practical stuff was boring and I should make it separate. So I did, and now I’m questioning that decision.
The power in Spiritpower is getting into your being, becoming mindful and creating. This is how you connect with your higher power, how you open a relationship with it, how its energy comes through you, whether it’s in words or without words or pure energy. It happens through the pain. That’s the connection. You get established in being, in this empty space. The process begins in a non-thinking way, but eventually you can start thinking because your intellect will start working from your being instead of from your lower mind. Then the insights you get are different than what comes from the left brain. It’s an understanding that we can call wisdom, which doesn’t come from the physical world, but from another realm.
You probably remember the Beatles singing, “In times of darkness Mother Mary speaks to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.” This is a reference to the real deep understanding that comes from the depths of being rather than from the thinking mind. Whether you’re creating a novel or a career or a baby, the creative energy of the universe is the energy of being. It’s the doorway to wisdom, to your superconscious mind or your higher power.
From having the experience of being you can move on to the cultivation of being. The wordless mind becomes wider and deeper and more and more habitual. You can’t force your mind to stop thinking, but somehow you have to be aware of what’s going through your mind and be willing to get into a space where your thoughts can immediately translate into action. Intellectual thinking doesn’t lead to action, just to more thinking and more ideas. From being, the concepts become embodied in the world as actual events. It’s creative energy.
One way of getting there is koan practice. You have a question that the thinking mind can’t answer. There is no answer, but you take it seriously and stay with it. Sungsan Sunim’s said, “Only go straight—don’t know. Try, try, try for ten thousand years nonstop.” He meant that whatever the paradox or the problem is, stay with it until the thinking mind gets exhausted. Then it will drop away, and the non-thinking mind will give you the answer.
Let me use an example by analyzing a koan, which you’re not supposed to do. Two groups of monks are fighting over a cat, both groups claiming that the cat belongs to them. So the master comes, grabs the cat by the tail, takes a sword and says, “Okay, give me the correct response, and I’ll save this cat. Otherwise, I’m going to kill it.” Nobody does, so he kills it. So the koan is if you were there, how would you save the cat’s life? The thinking mind can’t give you an answer, but your heart can. The answer they wanted was “cut” with a gesture at the throat, meaning, “Don’t take the cat. Here, take me.” The other people are only yakking, which is all superficial ego stuff. Coming to that point where you are ready to give your life to save a cat, that doesn’t come from thinking.
If you keep the koan, you keep giving all these thinking answers, and the Zen master keeps whacking you with a stick. Until the mind realizes that it’s bankrupt, it’s not going to go anywhere, and then BOOM, the answer appears. In life it’s a decision about what to do—this or that—when your thinking mind can’t come up with the answer. Sungsan Sunim’s advice is stay with the fact that you don’t know. “Only go straight—don’t know.”
From being, you get an experiential answer. You tasted an orange, but you don’t have to describe it to me because I know what an orange tastes like. It’s a matter of exploring a whole new dimension of yourself. But you have to allow yourself a few minutes every day on the clock. It’s hard because your thinking mind will protest that it’s boring and nothing’s happening. Say you’re washing dishes, but instead of getting into the motion of dishwashing, the thinking mind tells you to put on a tape or listen to the news. It wants stimulation, right?
There’s nothing wrong with the thinking mind, but it breeds only one kind of understanding. Deep understanding comes when the intellect works from being, from a mindfulness state. It’s doable. It’s immediately translated into action. For example, Dr. Phil did a program about adult kids who had all moved back in with their parents. The parents were living in a trailer court, and the neighbors complained. Well, the kids refused to leave. The parents came to Dr. Phil. If he were working just with his thinking mind, he could have interviewed each child—there were about four of them—and interviewed the parents, and the discussion wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. Instead he put a satellite hookup in front of the house and said, “Okay, do we have permission to go inside and take their things out? We’ll put a new lock on the door, and we’ll provide each of your children with three months’ rent in an apartment until they can get themselves going. Will you allow me to do this?” The parents said yes, and they watched it happen. That’s an example to me of a thought that came from before thinking.
On one of my meditation retreats in Korea at Sudoksa, I spent three months thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking. It was supposed to be meditation. I begged myself to stop thinking. I did it for three months. It was exhausting. I was sitting a meditation retreat, but inside I was “Aw, man!” I’ve come a long way from that.
UPDATE: On Dec 15, 2010, in response to Part 1, John wrote: “Actually, throughout my life–wherever I found myself and in whatever circumstances, I’ve always felt that my lifestyle was hardly interesting enough to write home about–yet I always felt quite content with myself wherever I was and whatever I was doing, and I still feel that way.”