By Melanie Wong
Denis Kelly, in the course of his life, has called both a federal prison and a Buddhist monastery home. The Wisconsin native has lived more lives than most – he’s been a soldier, a manufacturer of LSD during the 1970s, a homeless wanderer, a cancer survivor and a Zen master.
The story of how Kelly (or Jun Po, as the spiritual teacher is also known) came to be all those things is told in a biography by writer Keith Martin-Smith, who visits The Bookworm in Edwards on Thursday, May 3. “Heart Blown Open” follows Kelly from his early years with an abusive father, to the center of the counterculture movement of San Francisco, to a life on the run from the Drug Enforcement Administration and, finally, to his emergence as a Buddhist teacher. Today, Kelly is a traveling teacher of a modern form of Buddhism called “MondoZen.”
The biography is Boulder-based Martin-Smith’s second book, and he delivers the story with the sense of sweeping cultural history and dramatic action of “Forrest Gump,” but from a decidedly spiritual viewpoint. As one reader commented on the book’s website, “It’s like ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ for dudes, only far more interesting and better written.”
SneakPEAK caught up with Martin-Smith before his appearance at The Bookworm to chat about how he wove together the story of Kelly’s varied and exciting life.
SneakPEAK: How did you meet Kelly, and what led to you writing his biography?
Keith Martin-Smith: I’ve been studying Tibetan Buddhism for 15 years and I had not heard of (Kelly) before I met him. I was at a conference that he was speaking at, and I got into a conversation with him and was amazed at how candid and brutally honest he was. He was talking about an affair he’d had with a student when he was 53 and the consequences – how it had ruined her life and his work at the time.
I’d never had heard a roshi (Buddhist teacher) speak with such ownership and candid speech, so I was very intrigued by him. I did a weeklong retreat with him, and at the end, he offered the opportunity to write his biography, saying, “I’ve kind of lived this crazy life.”
He flew me out to Massachusetts where he was teaching, and told me this unbelievable story and asked if I was interested. I had no idea as to how crazy his life had been. His life story is something that I never could have imagined on my own.
SP: How long did it take to finish the book?
KMS: I started the book in July 2009, finished it in May 2011, with a total of more than 35,000 hours put into it. When (Kelly) offered me this story, I knew it wasn’t something I could do nights and weekends. It wasn’t something I could do while also making a living.
So I sold my home in Philadelphia and used the money from that to live on. That was my motivator to finish the book, because I knew I had a certain amount of money in the bank that would last about two years. The story is something that was too amazing to pass up. It was a gamble, I know.
SP: For those who aren’t familiar with modern Zen teachings, tell us about Kelly’s methods and how they’re unique. What drew you to it?
KMS: He combines Eastern mysticism with Western psychological ideas. His teachings focus on psychological insights and teachings based around the idea of emotional maturity and ownership, combined with this deep Zen practice. It’s the idea that no one can make you angry, no one can shame you – it’s this radical ownership of yourself.
If you’ve spent any time doing Eastern meditation, you’ll find that often people who do this kind of hardcore seeking tend to be running from these emotional shadows.
A lot of spiritual practice kind of bypasses dealing with (those shadows). A big part of (Kelly’s) teaching is to bring insight and wisdom into your most troubled relationships and issues. The place of your highest emotional reactivity is where you begin your practice.
SP: This is your first biography – how did you feel writing someone else’s story, especially someone who is presently living, teaching and working? What were some of the challenges?
KMS: It was totally nerve wracking. He entrusted me with the whole of his life. The only pushback I got from him was once after reading an early draft, he called and said, “You had me weeping the whole time and I’m not a weeper. Can we clean that up?”
Otherwise, he let me really run with the story. When I wrote the first draft, I was very much reporting on his life like a journalist would. I got horrible feedback. People just didn’t get it. So I had to go back and presume to speak for him, imagining what it was like being in his situation. It was a really weird process for me, where I had to imagine myself in these scenes that I never actually experienced.
I did a lot of researching as well, on the history of LSD and how it was perceived then. I researched about his time in India and about the teachers he worked with there.
SP: Kelly’s life is a very eclectic collection of experiences, some very negative (the book opens with him nearly committing suicide) and very extreme, and they morphed him into a Zen master. What do you think is the bigger lesson of Kelly’s story?
KMS: The bigger lesson of his life story is that he was never willing to compromise his life. I see a guy who was always pushing to figure out what life was all about, and had an insatiable need to understand where he came from and understand where he’s going – just a push for knowledge and understanding. At any point he’s found pain in his life, his impulse is to follow it down and see what’s there. He’s willing to go into pretty intensive work to find out “why,” and shows the willingness to look at the ugly parts of yourself.
SP: Are you working on anything else at the moment?
KMS: The publisher of “Heart Blown Open” contracted me to write the philosophical companion book – it will explain what “MondoZen” is. It’s more about the practice, what you can learn from it and how to implement it in your own life. I’ll be starting it very soon, and it’s slated to come out in 2015.