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Q + A
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We just had to ask: The Zen teacher
Story by Joseph Langdon
“I realized it wasn’t about me. It was never about me. There is no I.”
Thom Pastor, master dharma teacher, founder and abbot of the Zen Center of Las Vegas
Desert Companion: If there is such a thing as a typical path to becoming a Zen teacher, I’m guessing that yours wasn’t exactly it. Could you describe how you came to be here?
Thom Pastor: I’ll go off on a tangent to begin with, because it just immediately came to mind. When Suzuki Roshi became a dharma heir — in other words a Zen master — he was being interviewed like this. The interviewer said, “It is my understanding that when you first started practicing there were 300 monks in the temple. Out of those 300 monks, how many became a Zen master?” Suzuki Roshi’s wife was sitting there and before he could answer she said, “Oh, out of all the monks, only Shunryu — that’s his first name — got transmission.” And the interviewer said, “Wow! Out of 300 monks only you got transmission?” To which Suzuki Roshi said, “Yeah, because everybody else left!”
It’s funny, but apropos. Originally, when I was a professional musician, I felt that meditation could help me focus on the music and not be distracted about acceptance and how I was playing—to transcend all that and just become the music. So it started with a very mundane outlook that this can help me. The more I practiced and the more I did interviews with teachers, the more I came away perplexed. I had my mind hit, and with each hit it became wider and more open. I realized it wasn’t about me. It was never about me. There is no I. The Heart Sutra says, “No attainment with nothing to attain.” What is this attaining no attainment? Just being present to each moment. So, indeed, my original gesture toward it helping me was efficacious, but it was like a back door. Most people come to Zen wanting to approach it in the linear way we do with all education, but when we completely put down all of our ideas and concepts about becoming something here, that’s when you can really help people.
DC: In the modern world, and in this city especially, we seem to celebrate distraction. Do you think that makes Las Vegas a difficult place to practice Zen?
TP: It makes it a better place to practice. When my teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, died, 20,000 people went to his funeral in Korea — he was a beloved master; wisdom from every pore. And he loved Las Vegas. He came here many times. His take on it was that it’s easy for anyone to go to a mountain setting and put a cushion down in nature and become very quiet, but if you can do that practice in the midst of all of these distractions — still body, still breath, still mind — then no matter where you go, your center will not be lost.
DC: I was at the Vegas Valley Book Festival recently and on a panel they were talking about the relationship between art and attention, when the poet Donald Revell said, “Despair is the worst kind of inattention.”
TP: That’s wonderful! Tell him I bowed when I heard that.
DC: Yes, but when I ran into him in the bathroom and said I liked that idea, and he said, “I hope it’s true!” Is it?
TP: (Laughs) You have to have a sense of humor. You cannot be tight and morose in this practice. Some people try to do it and I think it’s all the worse for it. We have to celebrate this space-time grid and the time we have together. So I agree with the poet. I love it! Despair is the worst kind of inattention.
DC: Even as a Zen teacher, is there still something that just bugs the heck out of you?
TP: Just one? … You know who you should talk to about that? Talk to my wife. We’ve been married 40 years, she’ll tell you exactly! … The point is, what you see, hear, taste, touch, smell — don’t embellish it, but be present to all of it. So when you stub your toe, you stub your toe. That’s the better answer anyway: Owwww!
DC: In order to become a Ji Do Poep Sa Nim, or master dharma teacher, you had to survive “dharma combat.” What’s that like?
TP: Before you can become a teacher you need to pass muster with five Zen masters. If even one of the teachers feels you’re not ready, you’re not. They will ask you kong-ans — in Japanese they call them koans — like, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” They’re all designed with hooks in them, like fishing hooks, and the hooks are language-based. If you take the hook you get caught in the questions. But if you can cut-and-throw-away and rely on these skandhas (senses) then something will appear. It’s about not losing your center and responding. If even one of the teachers feels you’re not ready, you’re not.
DC: So … does have a dog have Buddha nature?
TP: I ask you: Does a dog have Buddha nature? How would you respond?
DC: I don’t know. Pet the dog?
TP: That’s good direction. You pet the dog. But what about the dog? What would the dog’s answer be?
DC: Ahhhh … ?
TP: So that’s homework.
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