Keith Martin-Smith on writing A Heart Blown Open with Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi
Tonight at 7:30 p.m., Keith Martin-Smith and Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi will appear at the Boulder Book Store to celebrate the release of Martin-Smith's biography, A Heart Blown Open: The Life and Practice of Zen Master Jun Po Denis Kelly Roshi.
Martin-Smith, who lives in Boulder, sold a house so that he could concentrate on writing Jun Po's story, and the enthralling result is unique, from the compelling memories outlined to the unusually tall book's formatting. We caught up with Martin-Smith to talk about how the Zen Master trusted him with every aspect of this story, including foul language, drug use and the gripping ritual-suicide scene that opens the tale.
Westword: How did you first become acquainted with Denis, and how did the idea for this book come about?
Keith Martin-Smith: I met Jun Po back in 2007, and I'd been in Boulder for a couple of years. And when I first met him, it was at this place called Boulder Interval, and he was part of a team of four of us, and there were maybe fifty people who came to this weekend gathering. I'd never met him before, didn't know who he was, and he went first to introduce himself. He had this introduction that was part sailor, part philosopher, part Zen guy. Using vulgar language, he said, "They call me Jun Po these days, and they call me a Roshi, and a couple of years ago I started fucking somebody I shouldn't have been fucking and almost ruined her marriage and my marriage and fucked up everything I'd been working for all these years. And I'm looking for a theory to explain what happened to me." I'd had a long-time Tibetan spiritual practice and I'd never heard anybody at his level come out of the gate with vulgarity and complete honesty and ownership, and I was really intrigued. Over the next year, I was going to his lectures and learning more about him.
His method is pretty different from traditional Buddhism; he was teaching radical emotional ownership, talking about things like anger and shame weren't emotions, and he would explain if you get angry or feel deep shame, you have to feel a deep sense of caring, and how it's impossible to get angry if you don't care about something, it can never happen. Anger can be violent, or shame gets internalized, and so the emotional honesty piece that he was teaching was that if we can slow things down and get in touch with what we're really feeling, which is deep caring, we can have an intelligent response instead of a response of anger and shame. And the second part of his teaching had to do with radical choice as it relates to enlightenment. He would work with people one-on-one and teach a state of awareness. We choose to not be in an awakened state, but it can be easy to access, and we don't really want to be liberated, and it's ours to claim whenever we want it.
So I hooked into his teaching, and I was in a really crazy relationship, and a lot of what he was teaching was really applicable to me. And I had a book of short stories come out in 2009. He had looked at some of those stories and said, "I'm considering hiring you to write my memoir, would you be interested?" I didn't really know how crazy his life was, so I said, "Maybe I'm interested, maybe I'm not." So I went to visit him for two weeks in Massachusetts, and he gave me his life story over two weeks, and it was completely unbelievable. It was unlike anything I was prepared to receive. I had assumed, he's a spiritual teacher, done this and that in the monastery, and when I saw how dynamic and full it was, I realized it wasn't something I could do nights or weekends, it was going to take me committing full-time. So I sold my house in Philadelphia, and I used that money to live for two years while I wrote the book.
You open the novel with a scene of ritual suicide -- why did you chose that memory as the first one readers would see?
I think I chose that scene because it highlights what makes him both the perfect poster child for his generation as a Baby Boomer, and what also makes him an unusual spiritual leader. He took 145 hits of LSD, a massive hit, and he knew because he made it -- LSD is not toxic in the least, there's no risk to the body, but it blows your consciousness to complete smithereens. And I don't know anyone who's done anything so reckless, brave -- I don't know what you'd call it, it's beyond anything I can imagine myself or anybody I know doing. And what happened was, in that experience of cold disintegration of his being and reintegrating and coming back into himself, that was a huge understanding. It was very manic for him, a very unstable insight, and it would be another twenty years, when he was in a sober, disciplined practice, that he was able to tap into what that LSD experience had taught him.
What was the biggest challenge in putting this book together?
The process was relatively smooth. The main problem I encountered was trying to figure out how to tell these stories in a way that makes sense. Where I was concerned and where I had some trouble in the initial first draft was not being able to explain his behavior in a way that people could understand it. There's so much stigma around '60s culture and drug use and some of the things he did, and the challenge was to demonstrate he was really wild, but he was also on a path to figure out what everything was really about. And it was hard to catch those parts of him, the wild man and the really serious practitioner, because I think we all have some elements of that, the fool and the wise person, and it was difficult to talk about that without it seeming contrived.
What surprised you the most about this project?
The biggest surprise I had was that he gave me complete creative control. He didn't have any opinion on how the book started, he had no opinions on the stories I chose to include or not include. There were only a handful of things that he asked me to be careful how to describe them, but for the most part, he trusted me with his life. It's such a personal thing to hand someone thirty years younger than you your life story and trust them with the process.
Can you talk a little bit about the format of the book and why it's laid out the way it is?
The layout, I worked with the publisher for that, but they really were the ones who wanted to take a risk for the shape. It was their idea, and their reasoning, which I agree with, is that this is such an unconventional man, and he has had such an unconventional life, that he deserves an unconventional book. They wanted to give it something that would make it stand out from other books in the way that it stands out.
Vouchers to the event are $5, which gets you $5 off a copy of A Heart Blown Open or another purchase today.
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