H: Knowing a bit about your path and life journey, one of the first topics I wanted to discuss has to do with the solitary artistic life itself. Those who stand outside of such a spiritual or creative pursuit can sometimes misunderstand it. Part of that misunderstanding can be a muddling of different terms in association with it e.g. hermit, recluse. Modern media and even many dictionaries confuse the matter as well, often treating such terms as synonymous. What are your own thoughts about these terms ‘hermit’ and ‘recluse’? How do you relate to the terms ‘hermit’ and ‘hermitage’ given the unique path you have walked?
A: I find recluse the least relevant term, at least in relation to myself. It indicates withdrawal (from the world), but without any goal other than to avoid the world and evade revelation. For 5 years, I spent most of my time living in a hermitage, but much of that time was hermitage-in-community, or with my partner, who lived that path with me. I don’t see this as contradictory to hermitage, but rather that I lived in communities of hermits, who sought to focus on the inner world, the inner journey, and so withdrew from the world for that purpose. This is withdrawal for the goal of inner work rather than withdrawal for the purpose of avoidance. I don’t consider myself a recluse, nor do I consider myself a hermit. But, I am drawn to hermitage, and am better described as one who is drawn to live in hermitage.
H: I know that you have been a Wayfarer for quite some time in the Zen Way, having studied with various teachers. When did you begin formally studying the Buddhadharma?
A: I first came to Zen at art school when I was 19. I was working on the floor, making drawings and paintings in a calligraphic style, with no knowledge of the Zen tradition or path. My tutor looked at me and said he could see me as some old Zen calligrapher, sitting cross-legged on the floor, with an old wooden transport palette for a desk, with two stacks of paper, one inked, one un-inked, writing and painting. He recommended that I look into Zen.
Intrigued by his guidance, I searched for and found my first two Zen books, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps, and Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. I’ve carried Suzuki Roshi with me ever since, wherever I’ve traveled in the world. From that time forward, I sought a Zen master with whom I could meet in person. There have been a few teachers in my life’s journey, but it remains the case, even today, that Suzuki Roshi is my root guru.
Less than a year after art school, I was drawn to explore other Buddhist offerings, as Zen was rare as “hares with horns” in England at that time. I found myself at the first London Buddhist Centre, in an old fire station in Bethnal Green, London. At that time, I explored the opportunity to live in a Buddhist community with them, but something didn’t click.
Now aged 56, there has been a long journey since age 19, with many teachers entering my life. The key teachers I have lived with, studied with, and served in these years have been Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Julian Daizan Skinner Roshi, Mooji, Ananta, Ganga Mira, and Sokuzan. Regardless of the teacher and their background, I have continued to present as a Zen lay monk. I didn’t choose this as an identity, but it seems to have chosen me. I can’t really explain it in any way that might make sense.
H: Understood. That is a fascinating ‘Lineage Tree,’ as the late Chogyam Trungpa would call it. Could you reflect a bit about taking up the solitary life?
A: As far as the solitary life goes, I didn’t take it up. It was really more like it took me up. In 2000, I was a successful, ladder-climbing university lecturer, course director, and researcher, leading a Buddhist lifestyle. Quite suddenly, I became rapidly seriously ill, becoming bedbound and housebound for almost 7 years. This presented many challenges and pain, increasing until I was unable to sit much of the time, let alone stand or walk, due to vertigo and other symptoms.
When I could, I would meditate, sitting or lying. I eventually increased my practice time, despite the pain and discomfort. I read and studied Dharma. But, the sickness got worse, and became prolonged. I could no longer hold a book steady, nor focus my eyes steadily, so reading Dharma became impossible to do for a time. My partner stepped in and would read the Dharma to me. I was grateful for that lifeline. It was this Dharma study and practice, the practice of mindfulness, which I now understand more broadly as Awareness, which saved my life. Of that, I have no doubt.
When I look back now, I often call these 7 years “the zazen years.” It was like a 7-year Zen sesshin (Zen intensive). Socializing became impossible, due to my health issues, so a more solitary life began to form. I didn’t set out to lead this kind of life.
Once I was well again, my partner and I acquired an old VW surf camper, and drove around the coast of France, Spain, and Portugal, north and south, in both directions -- twice. Before setting off, I named the van, “The Zen Bus", “Zen” for short, and the trip itself we called the “Zen Road Trip". The idea was that we had no idea where we were going, or what we were looking for, but only that we were looking for something and would know it when we found it.