Interview with Josh Schrei in 1993

He had a popular one man show in Santa Fe back then.

Note: this was edited from an old WordPerfect file in 2024. The file had abbreviations and codes which may have been incorrectly interpreted.

Disclaimer of criticism of kids raised in spiritual communities should not be used in arguments against that necessarily. That's just the subject here. There are no environments or lifestyles we know of without comparable pitfalls to young and old alike. When we are afraid to criticize ourselves, our faults surely become calcified.

I was born in Rochester in 1970 and spent the first eleven years of my life at the Rochester Zen Center.  That's where I was raised basically, Kapleau’s group.  When I was eleven, we moved out here to start a branch of the Rochester Zen Center.  Mountain Cloud is now that branch.  When I was 13, my parents were still associated with the Zen Center at that point, and we went on a pilgrimage to Asia for a year, mostly stayed in India and Sri Lanka.  And it was a very interesting time for me to go to Asia, being 13 years old, in between childhood and adolescence, encountering cultures extremely different from ours, hitting puberty at that time.  And then I came back and found high school to be a pretty disorienting experience. At that time my parents had a falling out with the Zen Center, so we weren't associated with them anymore. It had to do in my perception with the fact that my father who'd trained there a long time with the intention of becoming a teacher, and it became clear that he wasn't going to be the kind of teacher that Kapleau wanted, which was somebody who would follow Phillip K's rules of Zen basically to a tee. 

DC: Sort of straight and narrow?

Yes, in my perception. So, they had a falling out, and Kapleau basically told my dad that he would never be a Zen teacher at the center, and my parents left. My dad's an ethereal kind of guy and he's interested in a wider approach, so we were no longer associated with the Zen Center, and I was suddenly plunged into this, and I found it disorienting. Even though it was a small private high school, to be plunged into modern American life as a teenager, and basically I didn't have any tools with which to relate to the world, and I started taking a lot of drugs like grass and hallucinogens. 

DC: That's good for you.

Well in one way it was expanding in that I got out of my traditional upbringing view. The people were uplifting, and we took them in a natural environment, like we'd go camping. And then I got into the shamanic trip. Did most of my papers in high school on shamanism and tribalism.  

DC: Sounds like you entered high school lost without tools but found something inspiring and helpful there.

But in a way I've realized since then that that was its own kind of narrow-minded mindset but was perfect for where I was at at the time, and since then because I still felt isolated from the world at large. And which is a good thing in some ways, but I still felt like I didn't have the tools to relate to the world at large. 

DC: It was sort of like a steppingstone.

Definitely, we read a lot of philosophy, Plato political stuff Thomas Malthus, very dry political figures.  And Plato was so dualistic with his white horse of reason and black of desire and have to tame the latter. It related to experiences I'd had at the Zen center. Even though Zen talks about non-duality, so much there was so much incredible duality at the Zen Center that I couldn’t …

DC: Isolated nondual areas.

All through high school my main goal was to go back through Asia. I had an idea that answers would be waiting for me there and travel [was] my biggest goal. I wanted to spend the rest of my life traveling. Went back to Asia when I was 19, three and a half years ago. It was a very eye-opening experience that showed me first of all I didn't want to spend the rest of my life traveling. That what I wanted to do was to find some way of integrating what I saw over there in the East with America today. Because I feel that in America there are so many conceptions about eastern spiritualism, like it's this kind of aloof removed thing that we have to really work hard towards to attain someday. And what I saw as the truth in eastern spirituality is that it's there. Life and death and raw experience are there in the streets. You walk down the street in Nepal and you see every single aspect of existence here on earth. So rather than create some distant thing that you develop in a monastery off in a mountain somewhere or in an isolated spiritual community, I began to see it as a kind of ever ready something that was always there. That is their just kind of ancient livelihood that's always there. So, then I came back and started studying theater and started devoting more of my time to writing which turned into monologues. And through that I got in touch with a lot of feelings inside of myself that I'd denied the presence of for a long time. And it was through that that I started to get in touch with my feelings about Zen Center and about especially both positive and negative. And, I think it's really important these days. I'm in a play Rhino which makes the point that it's very easy to on the surface to change your belief systems when actually keeping the exact same narrow-minded character. My character sees the world in a picky judgmental way, goes through an incredible transformation, and turns into what would seem to be exactly the opposite character, but he still has the exact same limited way of seeing the world. And how I relate that to Buddhism is I see the tendency for people to think they're being revolutionary by adopting some Buddhist beliefs, when actually they've just transformed a lot of their old patterns within themselves into this new belief system without realizing it. When they realize that, it tends to change.  

DC: They get humbled in time.

In Zen there's so much talk especially in the koans of spontaneity like the unsubstantiated reactions of the Zen masters, which is the beauty of the koans. But if you take that and start bogging it down with all these rules and dogmatic kind of mental approaches to the exact way you're going to achieve enlightenment or your goal or the exact way one should do this or that, then the essential nature of Zen Buddhism has been ruined. 

DC: It makes great material though.

For humor it does, like for monologues. Like okay, here's a religion that claims spontaneity, and it's talking about being in the moment and what people really get down to is that someday, someday I'll be in the moment. If I work hard enough now, then someday in the future I'll be in the moment. 

DC: Postponement.

Practice in the future which never comes for me. That's a belief system that's inherently handed down from Christianity—is that someday we'll attain this heaven. We’re coming out of Judeo-Christian culture and then Buddhism comes in (they've surely got their own problems in Buddhist countries as well). But I think that people take that Judeo-Christian mindset and apply it to Buddhism, and say, if I meditate hard enough now, then someday I'll reach enlightenment or nirvana or whatever. 

DC: It manifests in different ways such as the anal-retentive making lists.

And it's like. I have put off some Zennies when they saw the show. 

DC: That's your job.

Yeah, it would be my goal to see that people who are involved in Zen not be put off by any act of spontaneity whatsoever because [it’s] inherent in the teachings. Though a lot of people at the Rochester Zen Center enjoyed it. 

DC: San Francisco Zen Center would too I think, but those who squirm are those who should see it most.

Yes, it would be their koan if they'd look at them. 

DC: Whatever pulls down the veils is useful, is medicine.

That's what I think my goal is on earth—is to challenge built up belief systems, holding up a convex mirror.

DC: Excellent.

A slightly distorted view that makes people laugh at themselves. Or maybe they'll just see it as ugly. 

DC: Do you get too self-conscious of this role at times?

That becomes its own kind of hierarchy. Human beings are expert at finding things to cling to, as we know from Buddhist teaching. It's the way our nervous systems operate, and so it relates to the idea of emptiness really. How attached am I to my own viewpoint about how the world should work. I don't want to be too attached to this idea that I have to point out people's shit to them. Basically, anything can become its own fascism. So, for me theatre is the great emptying process. I can assume this viewpoint. This body-mind-spirit mode of viewing the world—get totally immersed in it to the point where it's almost consuming me, and then boom! Drop it instantly, then assume another role completely, and then drop that one. 

DC: And by being in theatre you subject yourself to criticism.

You've got to be entertaining and on, or you'll hear about it. It seems braver than the guru path which often discourages feedback.

What I think about the guru path is that the guru says, do this and this and this, but I've practiced long, so I don't do that anymore. But a lot of times that's not true. They're just as ingrained as anyone else. What I'm trying to create more is a sense of—look we all do this like in Kathmandu [name of his play]. I'm talking about my own experience as a human being. Trying to bring awareness to patterns that every human being alive including me has. And if we can look at these patterns with awareness and start to laugh at them a little, and start to kind of open that up, then that’s a real steppingstone. But if I just said, you do this, then I remove myself from the reality of the situation. I'm not trying to remove myself from being human but trying to point out to everyone and myself what it means to have these emotions, feelings, belief systems, and through that in myself hopefully freeing myself from some of the dogma that comes with it. 

DC: If you had followed the assumptions of the Zen trip you were around as a kid, it would have led to, "oh, I shouldn't be saying anything," right? I shouldn't be expressing myself. I shouldn't be trying to tell people anything. Only the enlightened teachers can do that right?

When you're a kid, especially for me, when you get these belief systems pumped into you consciously—unconsciously—at an early age, they become your glasses for seeing the world. And it's a very different thing when an adult goes in, and they’ve had twenty years of life experience or 30, and they can relate it to something else. 

DC: See it in context.

But when you start projecting these into a child, especially like I was thinking, writing the monologue. Take the Four Noble Truths, like life is suffering. When you tell a three-year-old kid that life is suffering, or when the kid is around that the whole time, then he goes, okay life is suffering. And that's the glass through which you see the world. 

DC: That was the emphasis where you were?

Maybe not the main emphasis, but it had an impact. There were a lot of things. Let me see, probably the one that stuck with me the most, I think psychologically was the whole no accomplishment trip. There's nothing to do, there’s nowhere to go, I don't exist, and that as a child absorbing that there’s nothing to do. I should rather dwell in the realm of no accomplishment. That makes it very hard for children, or especially for me as a child, to come out of that. And to try to reintegrate myself in the world was a very difficult process because inherently I had this belief system that accomplishment in the world has no meaning, and for me that's not what that teaching means now, but I can look back on that and just ingraining that belief. There's a Zen chant from Rochester that I quoted in the monologue :  The great way is not difficult for those who have no preferences, the great way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose. 

DC: San do kai?

When you ingrain that kind of thinking into a kid, you make them think it's bad to have desires in the world. And it's bad for them to wish and hope and dream of creating something in the world because creating something in the world isn't what matters. It’s this kind of wishy-washy attitude of "I don't even exist at all." 

DC: So nihilistic Buddhism is as detrimental to growth as the hellfire and brimstone of the fundamentalists?

Exactly. It's called spiritual abuse. I also felt there are beneficial attitudes like the attitude of compassion and of awareness that I received growing up in that place that served me very well, but the whole concept of the world, especially since the community was tightly bound, was that this is the community, and that is the world out there, and it's not good to have desires in the world out there.  The world out there is basically a place of chaos, and so you should not have goals. And then suddenly my parents left the center, and I was out in the world all of a sudden, and it was like what the? What am I gonna do? 

DC: Were your parents true believers with a nihilistic slant?

I wouldn't say that the community was inherently nihilistic. I'm just saying as a kid that it's very easy to be perceived subconsciously to have that kind of nihilistic attitude ingrained.

DC: Do you feel your parents made any mistakes there? Or were you mad at them for any period for their shortcomings? Or are you speaking to the influence in general?

I think it was more of a general influence. It never came out specifically at my parents, and it’s not really anger. More digging it up and doing it in the monologue has been my kind of release of it in a lot of ways, and there's a little anger associated there. And what I feel more than anger is more of a need to dialogue with people at the Rochester Zen Center, and to begin to shed light on it. And not just this Rochester Zen Center but all spiritual communities that raise children because I feel it's a very dangerous ground to tread.

DC: On July 9 it would be neat to get you, Johannna, Mariner, Padua, and Kelly to talk about these things.

Great. Well one of the funny things is that as much kind of backlash I've had toward the Zen teachings, I feel that the path I'm taking in life now is a very Zen one. Like spontaneity. To me the essence of Zen is spontaneity and emptiness, and emptiness meaning to free yourself from old shit.

DC: Discussions about what does suffering, emptiness, non-discrimination, and all that mean is—I always find that no matter I think I've learned that, I find myself sticking to a smaller understanding of it. Those things always need to have dynamite stuck in them and…

Yeah! The challenge as humans is whether we can abandon our viewpoint ever. And it's like, if you go to a Zen teacher or someone who's been involved in it for a long time, and they tell you—well you just need to be like me and not pick and choose so much. Well, that's just its own form of picking and choosing, and to me the inherent contradiction is very frustrating because I see patterns at the Rochester Zen Center. And I still see that kind of dichotomy, that dualism, which is ten times as frustrating as regular old dualism, is the dualism in the guise of being nondual.