Stephen Mitchell is a rare blend of poet and dharma student who has touched many lives with his work. Nearly two decades ago, he spent five years studying Buddhadharma with Korean Zen master Seung Sahn (known as Soen Sa Nim), and compiled Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, a collection of the Zen master’s talks and teaching stories. Subsequently, he has produced powerful and lyrical translations of the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke and the Book of Job; a bold, original rendition of the Tao Te Ching; and edited a collection of sacred poetry entitled The Enlightened Heart. Most recently, a widely acclaimed book of Mitchell’s own poetic creations was published, entitled Portraits and Parables. The following interview was conducted by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
IM: Tell us how you became interested in Buddhadharma and meditation practice?
SM: Do you have four hours? (laughter) It really started with my first girl friend. After we broke up, the pain in my heart was so intense that after a year or two of trying to get a handle on it, I found myself magnetically drawn toward the Book of Job. I understood nothing about Buddhism or any nonwestern tradition at the time, and Job was the one place I knew where there was a profound encounter with the question of human suffering…and an answer. I thought that if I could somehow understand the voice from the whirlwind, I would be able to solve the problem of my own personal pain.
I learned Hebrew and began to acquire some tools of textual scholarship in order to investigate Job, and in many ways I got closer to the text—close to a kind of music that pleased me deeply—but I didn’t get any closer to the answer. And eventually I realized that I wasn’t going to find this answer through words on a page, not even the most profound, magnificent words. So in the summer of 1973, I enrolled in a course in Hindi at Boston University with a view toward going to India and meeting a guru. While I was learning Hindi, a friend of mine said, “You should come to Providence and meet this Korean monk who says he’s a Zen master; I don’t know if he’s a Zen master, but he has very strange eyes.” I had no idea that there was even such a thing as Zen in Korea. I had just discovered Zen a couple of months before, and the deep belly laugh that I heard in those ancient dialogues between Zen masters had a powerful effect on me. I felt I was in a room filled with laughter: there was some cosmic joke, and everybody had gotten it but me. So I decided to go visit this Korean Zen master.
Soen Sa Nim had arrived in America four or five months before, with no money and no English. He was earning his living repairing washing machines in a laundromat and living in a funky apartment in the black section of Providence. On the front door there was a handwritten sign written on a piece of typing paper in pen. It said, “What am I?” That astonished me, because I had just discovered Ramana Maharshi, and it was his question too. So I thought, well, this is a good sign. And I went in. Soen Sa Nim was sitting at the kitchen table in an undershirt and, of all things, a sailor’s cap. He was a very cheerful, rotund man—anything but what I thought a Zen master should look like. And then I looked into his eyes. I had never seen eyes like that. They were very strange; they had a light that I had never seen before in any eyes. It was as if I could walk into them as far as I could go, miles and miles and miles, and at the end of them meet myself. It was an incredible experience. In a sense, everything that I learned from him I learned in that first moment of looking into his eyes.
His English was very rudimentary but he asked me, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Well, I’m studying Hindi; I’m going to go to India to find a teacher.” He put his finger up in the air, and he said, “No. Don’t go to India. You stay here,” pointing down at the floor. And at that moment a vivid image popped into my mind. I saw a gravestone, and on the gravestone, in large capital letters, HERE LIES, and on the second line, STEPHEN MITCHELL, and on the third line, HE BLEW HIS CHANCE. So I stayed.
For the first few months I would spend the mornings giving Soen Sa Nim English lessons, because I was the only one of his four or five students who didn’t have any obligations. I didn’t have a job; I didn’t have any schoolwork; I was basically floating in my hunger for the truth. So I was completely at his disposal, and we would spend the mornings studying English and the afternoons just hanging out. It was wonderful, and I soaked him in as deeply as I could.
Then after a year, he sent me out to begin the Cambridge Zen Center, and then a year later I was sent to begin the New Haven Zen Center. It was then that things began to get difficult between Soen Sa Nim and me, but that’s another chapter.
IM: Can you briefly describe your difficulties with Soen Sa Nim, or perhaps how you resolved them, if, in fact, that occurred?
SM: In a sense, I was given permission to resolve them even before they began. A couple of months after I began studying with Soen Sa Nim he said to me, “You have three jobs here. Your first job is to kill the Buddha.” I had read that in the old Zen texts, and I knew what it meant—to destroy any concepts of a separate, superior, enlightened being outside myself. “It’s not that difficult,” he said. Then he said, “Your second job is to kill your parents, and that is very difficult.” And then he said, “Your third job is to kill me.” It was only later that I realized what a priceless gift that third statement was.
I had a difficult relationship with Soen Sa Nim for nine years, between 1974 and 1983. Many people who have a close relationship with a powerful teacher go through the same kind of difficulty: a lot of unresolved father projections necessarily come into play. And, for me, there was a great deal of ego, especially after Soen Sa Nim in 1974 said that he would eventually give me Transmission; the thought of being the 79th Patriarch in his line of succession was nectar that immediately became poison. There was also, I should say, a measure of healthy self-confidence, and a vision of what would be useful for American Buddhism, which conflicted with Soen Sa Nim’s more traditional vision. We were both very stubborn. So, it was like spending nine years as Jacob wrestling with the angel, not letting go until he blessed me—and for years it was excruciating. Especially after a very painful experience I had during seven months in Korea in 1976. I came back filled with anger at him, and had to go into retreat to get through it. I did a hundred-day solitary retreat in New Haven, and when that didn’t work, another hundred-day solitary retreat in California. Then, in 1978, I had to leave him. It was as painful as a divorce. I spent the next two-and-a-half years training at the Maui Zendo—six months of the year there and six months in Berkeley with my wife. If Aitken Roshi hadn’t been there to help me through, I might have drowned in my confusion and grief. I will always be grateful to him for that. But even in the most difficult years, I would go to see Soen Sa Nim when he came to Berkeley, just to bow to him. And every time, I would feel the rage in my heart, and feel his heart still closed to me. I thought that things would remain stuck that way, until he died, or I died. But I still intended to check in with him every year, and do my three prostrations, as a gesture of respect and gratitude, in spite of my other feelings. And then, to my great astonishment, in April of 1983, as I lifted my head from the third prostration, it was all gone: my anger was gone, his anger was gone, and the whole room was filled with a palpable light. The hug that we had was beyond my wildest dreams of resolution.
Early on when I became a monk, Soen Sa Nim gave me another valuable gift, a Buddhist name. When I first took the precepts I had one of those wonderful, poetic Buddhist names—in Chinese it means “the sound of light.” I loved that. I was looking forward to something just as poetic when I became a monk—you know, “Ocean of Wisdom” or “Dharma Bell” or something like that. So he told me the name in Chinese and then translated it for me. It meant “No Enlightenment.” My jaw dropped. What in the world was going on? But then I understood, and it was wonderful. During those three years when I was a monk, when I would introduce myself to people, and tell them my name in Chinese, they would say, “What does that mean?” and I would say, “No Enlightenment.” And they would always look embarrassed and say, “Oh, gee, that’s too bad.” And this would lead to wonderful opportunities for teaching, about what enlightenment is, and how true enlightenment is no enlightenment, and how the Buddha in the Diamond Sutra says, “When I attained perfect enlightenment I attained nothing at all; that’s why it’s called perfect enlightenment.” So that name was a terrific gift.
IM: As a writer and poet, do you think you can come to the same profound insights through reading or writing as you did through dharma practice?
SM: I think it’s very rare, but possible. In Zen history, we have the famous example of Hui-neng, whose enlightenment was triggered by hearing someone chanting the Diamond Sutra. He was so ready that he was like a supersaturated solution—if even one speck of dust drops into it, it crystallizes. In that condition, anything can be a trigger. Zen history has famous instances of monks seeing a peach blossom or hearing the sound of a pebble hitting a rock, so why not reading—? It could even happen while reading Inquiring Mind!
IM: What is your practice now?
SM: If I were to point to any part of my life as my most intensive practice, I would point to marriage. And that’s been a quite conscious effort too.
IM: I was expecting you to say, “My writing is the primary practice in my life.”
SM: No. Writing is a seamless part of my consciousness. Even when I’m not writing, I’m always somehow deepening whatever areas my attention is being called to. For instance, most of my current work is on a book about Jesus from a dharma perspective, and even when I’m not consciously thinking about it, the ripening goes on. But its function is not to transform my character.
The reason I pointed to marriage as my practice is that there I have a built-in teacher and obvious homework assignments, sometimes very difficult ones. Of course, I grow from my books, but it’s a different kind of growth: eating healthy food versus changing the gene structure. Maybe writing is who I am, while marriage is where I’m going. Another way of saying this is that writing manifests the results of my practice, but marriage is the practice itself. It’s like a mirror. My wife holds the space of absolute clarity for me (as I do for her); she can see egolessly, from the eyes of the Buddha, and point to a place where I’m stuck or attached to a particular idea of myself that isn’t the limitless reality. It’s the accelerated course, let’s say.
IM: So practice for you has more to do with working on yourself through the energies and fires of worldly life?
SM: Practice, for me, in the Buddhist tradition that I’ve been brought up in, has two facets. One is the question of insight; the other is the question of karma homework. The insight part of it may be difficult, but it’s not that difficult. It took me a great deal of effort and many years of intense practice, but I think that anybody who’s sincere and patient enough is going to have some kind of deep insight at some point. Still, the aftermath is what Tung-shan, a great T’ang dynasty Zen master, described: “It’s not that I’m not joyful,” he said. “It’s as though I have grasped a pearl in a pile of shit.”
Zen is very good at helping people open themselves to insight, and at deepening the insight. What doesn’t happen is the follow-up; people, and even gifted teachers, quite often don’t do the necessary work of flushing out their neuroses. The great Zen master Kuei-shan is one of the few teachers who even mentions this. He says: “Through meditation, a student may gain thoughtless thought, become suddenly enlightened, and realize his original nature. But there is still a basic delusion. Therefore he should be taught to eliminate the manifestations of karma, which cause the remaining delusion to rise to the surface. There is no other way of cultivation.” So there may be a deep and clear insight, but it is sitting on top of layer upon layer of personal unclarity. Many teachers are teaching through the junk. You can only teach yourself. That is your dharma. And you necessarily teach all of yourself, the unclarity along with the clarity. The less conscious you are, the more unfinished business you have and the more of it you teach. The scandals in all the various sanghas will testify to that.
I think it is extremely important to be doing that karma work, especially after one’s had an enlightenment experience. And that keeps being confirmed for me again and again, as the scandals get more horrifying. In other words, I feel that the more central or powerful a position you get into, the more important it is to be impeccable. Impeccable means 100 percent light. In other words, you’ve become transparent and you don’t allow any of the karmic residue to cling. You’re constantly working at it and eventually you can let go of it all. You become simply a vehicle for dharma, a clear pane of glass that lets the light shine through.
IM: Would you agree that a lot of art is spawned by people who are trying to work through their suffering and neurosis?
SM: Yes. Rilke’s a great example of that. But I would make a distinction between working through and working out. In other words, most great art comes from the world of samsara, and the greatest art is simply the most honest and pure expression of that suffering. Job, in its central dialogue, is one of the great examples. Shakespeare’s tragedies. Rilke. There’s great freedom in the expression of suffering, and it produces art that can be nourishing for all of us. On the other hand, for the artist it’s not a way out of the suffering. Rilke, for example, didn’t have a way of working out his considerable psychological anguish. He could write the great Duino Elegies or even The Sonnets to Orpheus, which are such pure, beautiful, deeply honest dharma poems, and still be as stuck in the swamp of his own misery as before. The work can provide great joy and nourishment, but for the artist it doesn’t solve anything, necessarily. There’s no dismantling of the neurotic patterns, even though some great truth has been uttered. The neurosis is still there. The creation of art may give a poet like Rilke a sense that his mission has been fulfilled, but it doesn’t get to the root. So, in the sense of doing a certain kind of spiritual work, it’s irrelevant. In another sense, it’s very relevant. But if you think that writing a genuine poem is going to solve anything, you’re looking in the wrong direction.
IM: How does somebody who is suffering and longing and struggling in their writing, at certain moments achieve the enlightened heart? They haven’t gotten rid of all the karmic junk we’re talking about, but a poem will still come out which reflects a place of insight and peace.
SM: Well, I think it’s a matter of connection. This sense of peace and clarity is not something foreign to the human heart. It’s the place where we all come from, and it’s something that we can feel at every moment. So it’s no wonder that at certain moments, with unusual concentration, people can connect with themselves, with their own clarity. And who knows how that happens or when? If you knew, you could make a lot of money selling the proper pills, right?
IM: That’s why we’re trying to get the formula out of you!
SM: The most we can do is be open to it, and be on call twenty-four hours a day.
IM: What motivates you to write?
SM: I have a sense of something that needs to be done or some kind of magnetic attraction to a book that I want to exist and that doesn’t exist. So I need to create it. With the translations, it was a question of being so deeply attracted to somebody that I wanted to spend time in great intimacy with him. Right now, for instance, I have two projects. One is called The Enlightened Mind; it’s an anthology of sacred prose, a companion volume to The Enlightened Heart. I’m digging up the most marvelous treasures from all the great spiritual traditions. The other one is a book about Jesus that I’ve had in my mind for a good dozen years, and that has a great compelling force. There’s no way that this book is not going to get written. It is calling me in the most clear tones, and it’s something that I have to do in order to get on with the rest of my life.
IM: Do you feel this great desire to share your passions and ideas?
SM: I don’t think of it that way. In all my work when something has deeply satisfied me, it satisfies a lot of people, so I don’t need to think about that. Anyone who’s proceeding out of any sense of genuineness and passion is going to find a resonance with other people. So basically I just trust myself and give my attention to what comes next.
IM: When you translated Rilke, did you have to become Rilke in his suffering? Is there that depth of identification?
SM: No. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to become Rilke, except for Rilke himself in the bardo realm, choosing that particular life. It would be so excruciating. My experience was of a connection. When I was working on my Lao-tzu, I used to call this an “umbilical connection.” It was something so strong and intimate that I didn’t question it. I could be working from the level below words and just ride on my own intuitions of what he was saying, and really, really trust it. I have never worked on a translation of anybody with whom I didn’t have this kind of deep, intimate connection. Except for two books of translations from contemporary Israeli poets, Yehuda Amichai and Dan Pagis, both of whom I knew and whose poetry I like. But the compelling reason there was my love for Israel—or, let’s say, for the best of Israeli culture.
IM: It’s amazing that you could translate those incredible Rilke poems without that visceral identification.
SM: Well, it’s not as if any of us don’t have the experience of great pain to call upon. That’s no problem at all. You see, it’s not that you have to recreate the experience at every moment that you’re creating the words. An analogy: if you’re a pianist, you can’t play a Schubert or Brahms well without expressing the great poignance, the sorrow and longing in their music. If you’re shallow or immature, or if you’ve done too much of the wrong kind of meditation, you’re not going to have that available to you, that ability to allow your own pain to be there. On the other hand, it’s not the pain itself. It’s not raw pain; it’s the pain transformed into great music or great poetry.
For me, working on certain books is very similar to the experience of working on a koan. Take my Jesus book, for instance. There’s a question that rises from the depths: I know it’s an important question for me personally, and I begin to live with it, to embrace it, without trying to arrive at an answer. Embracing it, and descending with it to an appropriate depth, allows it to ripen and to create its own answer. And there are moments of great illumination in the process, where I understand exactly what needs to be done and why one thing is appropriate and not another. It’s a matter of attention, patience, allowing things to ripen.
IM: Why do you think the Jesus question is so important for you?
SM: I had my first experience of Jesus when I was nine years old and was sent to a Christian school. We had chapel once a week, and the gospel words made a deep impression on me and gave me a big problem, too, as a little Jewish kid, that stayed with me for twenty-two years, until I had my first insight experience in Zen. But the Jesus koan for me was a very difficult and fruitful one for decades. In my early twenties, while I was working the Christian question out, I discovered a Hasidic community in Brooklyn and met a Hasidic rebbe and became immersed in Judaism for years, and learned Hebrew and became immersed in the Book of Job—all, if I see it from a certain perspective, as a result of that problem of mine, the Jewish/Christian split.
IM: Jesus was really one of the great Jewish teachers, one of the great rebbes of all time.
SM: Yes, yes, and I have a great love for him, and also a great urge to clarify his teaching, because there’s so much unclarity in the New Testament texts. Thomas Jefferson, who was one of the clearest readers of the Gospel texts, said, “In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
IM: How are you researching this Jesus book?
SM: Well, I went to Israel, to Galilee, for several weeks last September, and also spent a week in the Sinai Desert, where I met a most wonderful devout Muslim, a Bedouin, who was my guide. So that’ll be part of the book. But the real theme of the book is forgiveness. I also will examine at great length Jesus’s relation with his mother—being a good Jewish boy, he had his problems—and also the theme of men and women and sexual hurt.
There is a great deal of confusion about Jesus. The usual New-Age line is a sweet, fuzzy grouping of Jesus with the Buddha and Lao-tzu and other Top-Ten Hit-Parade dharma teachers. But the right kinds of distinctions really need to be made. I think it’s a pity for people not to see Jesus clearly. Many Jews I’ve talked to, and many Christians, feel attracted to Jesus, but very confused about him, and repelled by the traditional Christian interpretations. I hope that this project will provide clarity for people.
IM: Having grown up spiritually in Buddhism, it seems like now you are trying to encompass the insights of many different people and cultures, and bringing them under this rubric of enlightenment. You compiled the poetry of “the enlightened heart” and now you’re working on prose of “the enlightened mind.” What is your definition of enlightenment?
SM: When I called the book The Enlightened Heart, it was not necessarily an exact usage of what Buddhists would call enlightenment. What I tried to point to in the preface was a sense of spiritual fulfillment, and that’s the kind of poem that I was collecting in that book. So whether or not somebody is living it, the fact that a certain poem was written from that space of wholeness and inclusion and clarity was enough to qualify it for the book. Robinson Jeffers, for instance, is usually a very gloomy poet, with a large chip on his shoulder about human beings. Of course, you can understand his attitude; we have not been the most ecological of species. As Soen Sa Nim says, “Man is number one bad animal.” Still, with Jeffers I feel that this view is coming from a neurotic place, which reflects a good deal of spiritual immaturity. But in the particular poem I chose for the anthology, he is talking from a very calm, clear space about nonexistence and the glory of what is beyond us if we can step outside of this little human concern for our little human life.
IM: When I read your introduction to The Enlightened Heart, I thought to myself, “He must have just been wide open at that time.” Was it like you were channeling something?
SM: I don’t like the word channeling, because it means that the person checks out of the body and some other consciousness comes in. (A psychic friend of mine used to say about channeling, “What makes people think that a being has anything sensible to say just because it doesn’t have a body?”) It’s not that you step out of the way, but that your personality is fully there. It’s not somebody else’s voice; it’s you, fully, the completely radiant, transparent personality.
IM: There seems to be this Western perception that what Eastern wisdom is about is stepping on your personality, to somehow suppress it and find emptiness. Perhaps that is not such a healthy approach, whether one is an artist or not.
SM: There’s nothing dharmic about stepping on the personality. We need to get rid of the neurosis but not the personality. Personality is wonderful. A lot of what doesn’t appeal to me about certain Buddhist teachers is the lack of personality. They’re juiceless, joyless, there’s not a spark of vibrancy there; whereas when you’ve truly stepped beyond joy and sorrow, you’re full of joy. In my experience, the people who have been denying their emotions and just sitting on the cushion become very—what can I say—it almost feels ghostlike. The human quality becomes very thin, the flame becomes dampened, and the wonderful vibrant life that can come to fruition through dharma practice isn’t there. You feel that there are storerooms of unfinished business lying in the cellar beneath their dharma insight. It’s not genuine, at least in my experience. And I think that from the Buddhist perspective that I grew up in, the Zen perspective, it’s simply not skillful means. If you recognize that on the deepest possible level samsara and nirvana are not any different, and that your work is with all of yourself, and that you don’t want to assign the ghosts of your personality to the hungry ghost realm where they’re going to be suffering for eons and eons, then you have to go down into yourself and work with that personality level. This is how the Sixth Patriarch interpreted the first Bodhisattva Vow of saving all sentient beings; he said that the vow means to save all the sentient beings suffering in your own mind.
I like to think of it as somebody’s personality becoming transparent. Then it’s there in full presence and full enjoyment of the things of this world, with all its likes and dislikes, just not attached to them. For instance, it’s fine to like vanilla more than chocolate. When you order, it’s not being a great bodhisattva to say, “Oh well, vanilla’s fine, chocolate’s fine, I’ll have raisins if you want, put some hot fudge on it if you want, it’s all the same.” No. “I’ll have a vanilla cone.” In that great poem by the Third Patriarch, “The Mind of Absolute Trust,” he says, “The Great Way is not difficult as long as you don’t cling to your preferences.” He’s not saying, “Get rid of your preferences,” but “don’t be attached to them.”
IM: I’ve seen that line of the Third Patriarch translated as, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.”
SM: I think that’s a very important distinction, and that’s why in the version I did for The Enlightened Heart, I made sure to translate it the way that I did. There’s nothing wrong with preferences. I may prefer vanilla to chocolate. But if there’s only chocolate, okay, I’ll have chocolate. Or if there are two ice cream cones and you come along and say, “Gee, I’d really like that vanilla cone.” Fine, here, take it, I’m happy with chocolate. That’s what it means by not clinging to your preferences. It’s not that you don’t have preferences. You’re a human being. You’ve accepted it and transcended it. That’s you, but you know that who you truly are is something vast, and that your conscious, personal self is just a tiny part of it. You accept your personality and are willing to deal with all your karmic difficulties so that you can close the circle with each one of them. Then there can be the understanding of emptiness existing as the fullness and radiance of you.
IM: And you are Stephen Mitchell, radiantly. Thank you.