SZ: I know you’ve discussed this elsewhere, but what
was the initial draw for you to Zen Buddhism and when and where did you start
PC: I began reading Zen literature when I was a teen-ager,
around 15 or 16. I think The
Three Pillars of Zen was the first thing I read. Also very into
Norman O. Brown - Life Against Death. I had no
idea about sitting per se, but the ‘idea’ of enlightenment seemed to be just
what I needed to be the most powerful person on earth, always correct, always
knowing what to do. Then, in the late Sixties I met Gary
Snyder, and was extremely impressed by him and the good order that his
life was in. It took me a while of being around him and checking him out until I
connected it with Zen practice. It wasn’t until around 1974 that I was dating a
woman at San Francisco Zen Center that I began to sit and then, as they say,
“The shoe dropped”.
SZ: I remember reading that you had some drug
problems before coming to Zen. Was this just youthfulness, or something more?
PC: I was definitely addicted to drugs. I used heroin and
cocaine and methedrine (methamphetamine) extensively. I finally reached a point
where it was obvious that I was going to die. (I once counted and between 1965
and 75 I lost 17 or 18 friends in drug-related deaths) I made a radical decision
to change my life. I moved into San Francisco Zen Center and began to practice
while undergoing a full course of psychoanalysis. My therapist died in the
middle of treatment, some two years in, and I started all over again. It worked.
I’m still crazy, but I no longer use drugs at all and plan to stay that way.
SZ: I’d imagine Gary Snyder might have influenced you
some artistically also, especially in terms of your writing. What sort of
example did he leave for you? Were you friends with Philip Whalen?
PC: I’d say Gary has been a major influence on my life. I
joke with my friends that “I’m a poet that not even my friends will read.” I say
this because I’ve sent lots of my work out and never been published and some of
my friends have never even responded. I guess it’s something I do for myself,
regardless of talent. Still, Gary’s clarity, precision, and pungency as a writer
have defined good prose and poetry for me. His discipline, detachment,
steadiness, zest for life and unabashed curiosity have also influenced me
I knew Philip Whalen before he was
a priest, through the San Francisco poets Lew Welch and Jim Koller. I ran into
him again at Zen Center when he had been practicing for some time and was a very
senior student. I was always a little intimidated by Philip who appeared
somewhat unapproachable—not due to unfriendliness, but because it was as if his
mind were a kite fixed to earth by a thread, and soaring in rare air.
SZ: Many people know you as an actor, writer/poet,
and social activist. I know you also as the guy who pops up on LINK TV now and
again adding your insightful commentaries as a host! But behind all of this I
sense that it is your Zen practice that allows you to express your talents and
passions to their fullest. I wonder if you could comment a bit on that.
PC: I pretty much think that if we’re not working on our
character the world is eroding us. It’s hard to know whether it’s Zen practice
per se or my passion for practicing it that does the trick. I don’t know. I do
know that there is a powerful, brain-altering quality to sitting still,
impossible to explain. I feel as I age and as my practice deepens, more fully
‘myself’—more ‘permitted’ to exist in great and easy spaciousness. Can’t say why
or how, but the path works for me and I’m stickin’ with it.
SZ: You were recently ordained a lay priest by
teacher Lew Richmond in the Soto tradition and given
the Dharma name Hosho Jishi (meaning Dharma Voice, Compassionate Warrior) in
2007. How has this changed your role within the sangha and are you now teaching?
PC: Becoming ordained, sewing a rakusu, all seemed like
deepening my commitment. I had been practicing for 30+ years and I felt that I
had to take the next step. My teacher has urged me to ‘step up’ and consider
teaching, something I had never considered putting myself forward for because it
seemed to me as an irrefutable mark of ego to do so. I’ve entered a three year
training period called SPOT (Sogaku Priest Ordination Training) which is
training for dharma leaders. I don’t know if I will ever be ordained as a
priest, but we have a tradition in our Sangha of teachers who wear a green
rakusu. They don’t have full transmission and can’t ordain heirs, but they
certainly help the Sangha. There are always people ahead of me and always some
behind me, so I’ll help where I can and learn where I can.
SZ: I know you practiced at the San Francisco Zen
Center during the years when Richard Baker-roshi was
abbot there, practicing zazen but not necessarily accepting Baker as your formal
teacher. Where you still there during his fallout? What impressions of
Baker-roshi did you have?
PC: Richard Baker is an extremely brilliant and charismatic
man. He was my wife’s teacher and I was more of a social peer with him (though I
did sit sesshin with him.) There would be no Zen center as we know it today
without him, he built the institutions, but when Suzuki Roshi
appointed him successor, he never empowered others in the community to be able
to control him or rein him in. I think of Baker-Roshi a little like a Bill
Clinton, with uneven development—-highly highly gifted in some areas and (like
all of us) obtuse in some others. He’s a friend and it feels like after all
these years a bit of a rapprochement is starting with Zen center. But it was a
very painful time and he hurt some people badly, compounding it by not seeming
to understand how he’d hurt them.
SZ: I do have one political question! As a
self-described progressive, you were critical of the Obama administration early
on for not appointing enough progressives in his cabinet and in to positions of
power. What are the issues you’d like to see addressed by his administration
during his Presidency, and how do you rate his performance thus far on the
PC: I am very concerned at Obama’s drift into Bush territory.
Given the billion dollar armored “embassies” we are building in both Iraq and
Pakistan, I do not believe that we are planning to leave anytime soon. I’m
afraid that Obama is simply going to substitute paid mercenaries for American
troops. I know that he has his hands full with the Republicans and the
Corporatocracy and Financial centers which really run the government, and so I
blame the Left for not being vociferously “out in the streets”—protesting with
the nurses for single-payer health care; demanding an end to the foreign wars of
occupation, and giving Obama the excuse and opportunity to listen. He is
completely surrounded by Center-Right advisors, Free-marketeers, and lobbyists
of every stripe and persuasion. Where are the voices of the Left? On blogs!
Sitting home alone and privately opining, meaning less than sweat to those in
the corridors of power, while the country is gradually steered away from those
who elected Obama…and our values.
SZ: What books would you recommend to someone
interested in Zen?
PC: I usually recommend:
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind & Not Always So
by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.
Taking the Path of Zen by Robert Aitken
The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh