Interview with Eric Arnow (emails)
Why I Stay in Monasteries by Eric Arnow - posted 6-16-14
4-18-07 On Shunryu Suzuki
Since Eric mentioned Suzuki Roshi in the last letter of 4-17-07, I asked him what he remember of Suzuki and those days. - DC
DC wrote Eric: Thanks for the great though short email. Nice SR quote. I want to ask you a few more questions. First, (and please feel free to elaborate as much as you wish, including, guessing other questions that might be asked and answering them), why did you come to ZC?
Your question about why I came to ZC.
The answer to that has changed over the years, but especially since I came here.
My brief Biography of Buddhism.
When I was 9 years old, I was watching PBS, and they were televising a play about a beatnik party. This was about 1957. There was a strange looking fellow with a beard and a beret and a turtle neck shirt. None of which I had ever observed before in a human being.
He was blowing smoke, presumably a joint, and airily waving his hand and talking about "Zen".
I thought, "Zen...Zen...what's Zen?"
Then a few years went by and I was about 14 years old.
These were really miserable years for me. My father had died when I was 8, mother depressed, nagging, miserable herself, and my self esteem in the tank.
But anyway, after school one day, I was in a little pharmacy in Brookline Massachusetts on the way home and I just happened to browse one of those paper back book standing circular racks, you know the kind that spins around and usually had dime romance or western novels.
But on the rack was a book called, "Zen Flesh Zen Bones". A BOOK ABOUT ZEN!!! WOW!!
So I bought it and brought it home. First story, Bodhidharma and the emperor.
What is Buddhism? (I forget the exact words) Bodhidharma: Vast emtpiness, no holiness
Who am I talking with? Bodhidharma: I don't know.
That just knocked my socks off, David. Never had I seen anything in the science fiction I was reading that touched that.
Later on when I went to college, I took courses in Goethe and Nietzsche. Opening line of Faust:
"Alas, I have studied Medicine, Jurisprudence, Philosophy and even Theology, and see that NOTHING can be known." Wow.
And Nietzsche was talking about revaluation of values, and many other topics that challenged conventional thinking.
Then, the last year, we had a special session where a psyche major from UC Berkeley set up a bunch of workshops on Biofeedback, Encounter groups, the emerging New Age stuff.
And he had a girlfriend whom you may remember, Nelda Foeste. An absolute Goddess of a girl, long blonde hair, beautiful sexy body, who had worked as a gogo dancer and had been at Tassajara.
So when we talked she told me about Zen Center and that I must go to Tassajara.
The flip side of going to ZC was that my family was hugely fucked up, as was I and I knew that I 1)Needed to get away from them 2)That California was were it was happeneing 3)I was fucked up and needed to get myself together.
After staying at Wheeler's Ranch, an infamous Hippie hangout outside of Occidental, and realizing that I was both a failure as a druggie and a failure with women, and that for their part, the folks at Wheelers were way off track, I got to thinking.
I was tripping by myself one day, looked at my self, dirty and disheveled as I was, and realized that I needed to go the Zen Center, since that was, as far as I knew, the only game in town.
Oddly enough though, David, one time, I went with a friend to Ananda near Nevada City. I had of course read Gary Snyder, a true hero of mine, but had no idea that he was leading a Zen group right next to Ananda.
Had I known that, my life might have taken a totally different turn. But that is how Serendipity works, I guess.
Especially because it would take me 28 years more to find Nelson Foster and meet Gary Snyder.
I mainly thought I went to Zen Center because I wanted to practice Zen as a way to express my manhood, rather than say the military, which I have always shunned.
I knew I had karma to work out, and I liked the whole Zen poetry, creative wildness. So that's what got me there, to Zen Center.
However, my answer to the question has changed. When I first got there, the issue primarily was about my personal pain and deep conflicts, shyness, depression, etc. That fueled my practice.
Now that I am here and have sat a lot more and allowed myself to do what I want, not follow what an institution or a society manipulated me to do, I answer, when people ask, that I started practicing Buddhism in this life (Remember, in Thailand, most people are Buddhists and are surprised and happy when a Westerner practices Vipassana and professes to be "A Buddhist"--whatever the heck that means, I mean I thought there was no self, how could ther be "a Buddhist"?) that I must have been a monk in a former life.
Indeed, as I grew older in America and observed the madness of American society, and how I tried and failed for years, to fit in, I began to realize that, even if I was crazy, they were more crazy, and that I was probably born in the wrong country.
Next week, I start an intensive 4 week TEFL --teach English course--so I may be a bit of a stretch for time, but do feel free to write back and I will almost certainly find time to respond.
Why I Stay in Monasteries - written a while back by Eric Arnow, sent to his Uncle. Posted at the bottom of his cuke interview.
“Daddy died today”. Those were the words that greeted me when I got home from school with my sister on December 12, 1956. I was 8 and my sister was 11. It affected my sister so much, that she, after more than 50 years, finally wrote a book about the effects of losing a loved one.
For me, losing my father was as if, God had died. Kids see parents as gods, nurturer, protector, teacher. Without a parent. Kids become lost. I once heard a story about a Palestinian boy. His family was in a refugee camp in Lebanon, when the fascist falangist militia, supported by the future Prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, conducted a massacre in the camp. The boy’s sister was so desperately thirsty that she left the house, despite the danger. When her screams were heard, the father went out to help her. Neither of them ever came back. His statement, at the age of 26. “It happened when I was 6, but I haven’t recovered."
When I was 9 years old, I was watching TV. It was a play with strange people in it. The man on the TV had a beard. And he was wearing a beret. And he wasn’t wearing a normal shirt, but what was called a Turtleneck. I had never seen such a man. And he was holding a funny looking cigarette in his hand, waving his arm and talking about ….Zen.
Zen…Zen…what’s Zen?” I thought. In my liberal but conventional Jewish family, such a word had never been spoken. So, my father’s death went underground, as did the word Zen. I did well in primary school, and easily got into Boston Latin School, the prestigious high school founded in 1635. The first public high school in America. Harvard University was founded later, so that graduates of Latin School would have a University to go to.
When I was 14, I was on my way home from school, and stopped in to a shop. There was a revolving book rack that sold things like “Desperate Passions”, or “Lawless Desperados”. But there in the rack was another little paperback, titled “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”. A book about Zen! Don’t ask how it is that I could have remembered such an inconsequential event as the TV show 5 years earlier. But there it was, and I bought it.
This little story was recently appropriated in two movies: Avatar, where the Na’vi girl scolded the dumb Marine, who then learned a lot more than he realized or bargained for. Also, the same story appears in a scene from the new 2012 movie, where a Tibetan guru and his student have the same interaction.
I thought this story was way way cool, as were the many other stories.
Another story is of the founder of Zen, Bodhidharma, who came from India, and met the Emperor of China. “I have founded many temples and supported many monks and nuns. What is my merit?”, he asked Bodhidharma, smugly. "None whatever" was Bodhidharma’s reply.
“Well then what is the meaning of the holy truths?”
“Emptiness, no holiness”.
"Who are you anyway?" Demanded the Emperor. “I don’t know”. The emperor did not understand, but methinks Bodhidharma was lucky, He dumped cold water on the Emperor's self centered ideas. Anyone else might have had his head cut off, for being so impertinent, perhaps, insolent.
But I loved these stories. They fed a gap that had gnawed at me. What is the meaning of injustice, unfairness, of losing one’s father. When everything that is supposed to make sense, but doesn’t, what do we do with that?
When I went to college, the Vietnam war was raging, and I was susceptible to be drafted to fight. I was thinking, “Who are these people on the other side of the world, who could hardly be a threat to me. And more so, hey, in a war, you could get hurt. And I don’t like getting hurt." But I had a problem, which was that I had a deep down feeling that without a father, no one had taught me how to be confident, how to be a man. And as we all know, one goes into the military, so they can make a “man out of you”. More like a killer, certainly not what I had in mind for myself.
While in college, I was studying German literature and philosophy, and read, Nietzsche, who was talking about Beyond Good and Evil, and about the West’s decadence. He once said, There are no eternal facts, as there are no absolute truths.” This reinforced what I had read in Zen. Goethe, the greatest German writer said in his play Faust, “Alas, I have studied, medicine jurisprudence, philosophy and even theology, and realize that NOTHING can be known. And in physics, Heisenberg had discovered the Uncertainty principle.
So with all these ideas percolating in my mind, after I graduated, what was I to do? I wrote to a cousin, “It’s a dog eat dog world, but I don’t want to eat the flesh of dogs”
Meanwhile, likewise, my own dysfunction and that of my family was manifest.
“They are fucked up!,” I thought, and told a school guidance counselor. The country is killing people, the financial system, I recognized 40 years ahead of time is corporate feudalism, and I want freedom, I want to learn to be a man, what to do?
In Asian culture, and certainly in Thailand, there is an institution that deals with this problem. That is the temple, where it is said, one “takes refuge”. Literally.
Meanwhile while in college, I was visited by an angel. During my last year’s winter break, we had a special series of workshops hosted by the psychology department, and someone from UC Berkeley, you know, from the People’s Republic of Berkeley was there. He was a nice guy, but had this girlfriend, about 19 years old named Nelde Feoste.
She was a wild child who had gravitated to San Francisco, danced for a living, and by the way, had been to a place called Tassajara, a monastery in the mountains near Big Sur.
Nelde was utterly gorgeous, with long blond hair and a pixie, sexy way about her. The problem was that she had this boyfriend, and I was extremely shy. She told me that after I graduated, I should come to California, go to the Zen Center, and look her up.
Ten days after graduation. Two of my friends made a threesome of the Fabulous Furry Freak brothers, and took a truck loaded with stuff owned by the sister of Steve, my old roommate, and fellow furry freak. She and her husband were moving from the West Village in New York to San Rafael, just north of San Francisco.
That trip is grist for a whole other adventure, but anyway, I got to San Francisco, and after a few months of bumming around, and living at the notorious Wheeler’s Ranch in Northern California, decided to clean myself up and study Zen. But I lost track of Nelde.
A year and a half later, I found myself at Tassajara. It was during the summer guest season, and who showed up as part of a group workshop…..Nelde. When she saw me, she threw her arms around me, gave me a huge kiss that sent me into outer space. And told me that she was getting married….to the group leader. He’s been married 4 times before, and was probably only in his 30’s if that.
So I lost track of Nelda again. But I spent the next two years at the monastery, sorting through the emotional wreckage of my life.
Years of practice have passed since then, with many adventures and more misadventures. My first Zen teacher screwed up and was forced to resign, throwing my life into total disarray. I decided to go into the insurance business, to help families avoid at least the financial trauma of the adversity I experienced when my father died.
After several years of that, it became apparent that, just as I had expected, it is in fact a dog eat dog world, and the insurance industry is one of the biggest dogs around, with a huge appetite for eating …..us.
Then came the year 2000. I was working for Ralph Nader in the Green party. Somehow through all the years in business, unlike many of my hip and lefty peers, I still stuck with my central principles. When asked why I was supporting Nader, and not Gore, I said, “It’s like this---with Gore, we are all frogs, and will slowly boil to death without realizing it. With Bush, the American people will just get burned. Subsequent events proved that the 2000 election was stolen. The Democrat Gore, in true Democratic party enabler fashion refused to “fight for us” like he promised in the campaign. The theft of that election is well documented for anyone wanting to read Greg Palast, who reported it in the BBC, as well as other journalists. Not to mention the US Civil Rights Commission, that got an out of court settlement against Jeb Bush’s Florida
Having studied Germany and the Nazis, I was well aware of their program. In 2000, I read the “Unauthorized Biography of George Bush”. It documented George Sr’s Eastern European Nazis on his staff, his drug dealing and many other crimes, as well as the Grandfather, who financed the Nazis even during WWII, and whose investments Bush Jr certainly has benefited from.
And through all this, I was thinking. “ I am really not like these people” What am I doing in this country?” It appeared to me that the country was in deep trouble. When 911 happened, my first thought was “Reichstag”. That was the German capital that the Nazis themselves torched, blaming the Communists, and implementing the police state and set up for WWII.
So, I realized that there was really a much larger drama being played out, and one that I didn’t want to be a part of. I saw the abuses of the mortgage fraud first hand as financial advisor. I saw the War on Terror as a war against the people, and decided that Thailand, a Buddhist country with a long tradition of supporting people who want to work on themselves would be a much better place for me, away from the corruption and stress of the war state.
In 2004, I left the US, telling my friends and family I would be gone for “sabbatical”, but knew that in the likely event that Bush remained President (2004 was also stolen but Kerry refused to dispute, despite pleas from the Greens and Libertarians of Ohio to challenge the documented fraud.) I would not go back.
Now 5 years later a lot has happened, good things for me, but I think the country and world is even more Dog eat dog, and the “gods’, in this case the government and institutions, rather than my father, have proven themselves to be unreliable, to say the least.
My father’s untimely death taught me that all things are uncertain and unreliable,
And in fact, in Buddhism, there is no discussion of whether God exists, But rather, the three characteristics of existence.
First, in life, suffering is unavoidable.
Second, all things are impermanent, and cannot be counted on to last.
Third, there is no self existent ego entity. And therefore, there is nothing in control.
Everything is in dynamic flux.
So at the monastery, on the micro level of moment by moment consciousness, we learn to observe this situation, and eventually, to dance with it joyfully as a mysterious unknown.
To be able to face our own life’s weirdness, accepting things as they become apparent, making changes to our perceived mistakes seems to be the right thing to do, at this point.
We’ll see what unfolds.