JUNE 2008

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 your practice?

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 greatly.

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 progressive scale?

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


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