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.