In late October, 2013, the Only Love Project’s Bill Murphy (BM) spent an hour on the phone with author, poet, Master Dharma Teacher Ven. Dr. Wonji Dharma (WD), founder of the Five Mountain Zen Order and President of Buddha Dharma University.
What follows is the transcript from that inspiring interview. Enjoy!
BM: Briefly tell us your background. What would you like others to know about you?
WD: Well, first off, it’s really not important who and what I am and where I come from. However, that stated, I would like to give some credit to my first teacher, Swami Siraj, who was a disciple of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. He opened the door to the Dharma for me.
I also have to give credit to, and mention my lifelong dedication to Zen Master Seung Sahn, who I found a few years later; he opened my eyes and opened my heart to the truth of this world.
And lastly, I have to give credit to the Honorable and Venerable Suhita Dharma for his lifelong dedication and selflessness in his aspiration to help others on this path. Beyond that, I’m merely trying to emulate what it is that these people who have taken significant portions of their lives to help me see the truth, I dedicate my life to following as best as I can in their footsteps. So that is all I really want to say about myself.
BM: Fair enough. Second question is, Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
WD: That is an interesting question. Years ago, before I decided to become celibate, I used to hang out on a site called DharmaMatch.com. And I remember there were so many individuals, and the ones that I cared about were women, there were so many individuals when asked what their religious preference was, they chose this option that the website allowed them, which was “Spiritual but not religious.” And I’m not quite sure what that means. There is a New Age trend about what it means to be spiritual, without any religious connotation whatsoever. And I’m not sure about the meaning of “Spiritual but not religious.” I’m not putting it down, I merely have no idea what it means. So am I spiritual? Within the context of post modernity in our 21st century society, I would have to say No, if those are the rules that garner what it means to be spiritual, I’m not spiritual. Nor am I religious. I only follow one path, and that path is, “How may I help you?”
We can get caught in the metaphor of idea, and I’m not trying to dodge any responsibility, nor am I putting down anybody who says they’re a spiritual teacher, however you asked me this question and I’m trying to define it, and those words don’t really represent my direction in life. So I would have to say I am neither spiritual, nor non-spiritual. Neither religious nor non-religious. I am some hybrid in between that has yet to be defined.
BM: Most religious traditions speak of the power and value of love. For example, the Dhammapada tells us, “Only love dispels hate.” The Bible tells us, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” What, if anything, do those words mean to you?
WD: This is an interesting construct that we as human beings attach to. So, right before we began this interview, I was listening to a favorite poet of mine, Neil Young, and also to a women who actually recorded a song which he wrote that was very popular in the 1970s, which is the era in which I grew up. So it was very impressionable for me. Her name is Linda Rondstadt. Linda Rondstadt was kind of a country folk musician who came out of the ‘70s, and she was the sometime boyfriend of Jerry Brown, who was [the] Governor of the state of California, and who coincidentally is currently serving his third term as Governor. But obviously many, many years later.
Anyway the song has always stuck out for me since I was young. The lyrics to the song that Neil Young wrote are:
Love is a rose, but you better not pick it.
It only grows when it’s on the vine.
Handful of thorns, and you know you missed it.
Lose your love when you say the word, “mine.”
So here’s the rub. We’re not talking about romantic love. We’re talking about the love that transcends religions, cultures, and boundaries, and this is human love. This is a sense of understanding, that we are all part of one family. And that family can’t be categorized, it can’t be rationalized, it can’t be controlled, it just is.We are human beings, and we share the planet.
So what is love? What is the essence of love? What is it that we’re trying to say? I’d like to quote a poem by Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī, who was a great Sufi mystic and poet. He is the bestselling poet in the West today. And some of his insights transcend anything that we can comprehend. And by the way, Sufisim is the mystical offshoot of Islam, and there’s so much negativity about Islam, but to be honest with you, Islam is the love religion. But let me just read this poem, and it segues into one, the construct of love, and secondly the construct of the rose, which represents so clearly to us as human beings what we believe to be the manifestation of love. Rumi wrote.
What was said to the rose that made it open?
Was said to me, here, in my chest.
What was told the cypress that made it strong and straight?
What was whispered to the jasmine so it is what it is?
Whatever made sugar cane sweet?
Whatever was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chagril
in Turkistan that made them so handsome?
Whatever made the pomegranate flower blush like a human face?
That is being said to me now, I blush.
Whatever pure eloquence in language, this is happening here.
The great warehouse doors open, and I fill with gratitude.
Chewing a piece of sugar cane,
in love with the one to whom which every that belongs.
So the question is, what is “that” that we belong to? And who are we in the overall structure of our lives? Are we people that need to be herded, controlled and contrived? Or are we here to just meet each other on the road? Quite simply, openly, and honestly meet each other on this road and say, “Ah, how are you, brother or sister? Where are you coming from, and where are you going? Ah, that’s wonderful.”
Can we meet everyone that exists in our day-to-day lives with that openness and tenacity? or do we see judgment? Do we see, Oh that guy’s got tattoos on his neck, I don’t want to talk to him. Or, Oh, that guy’s begging for money, I think I’ll go on the other side of the street. Oh, that guy’s really dirty, I don’t want to get near that person. And on the flip side, Oh look at that guy. He’s wearing a priest’s collar. I think I’ll have a conversation with him. Oh, look at this person, [he’s] in monk robes. I wanna be around that person.
What is it that drives us in our lives for what we call love? And what is love anyway? And again, we’re not talking about romantic love, we’re talking about total–unconditional–positive regard. I’m gonna repeat that. Total–unconditional–positive regard.
Can we have that kind of love for some guy who shows up with a tattoo in the middle of his forehead, and a shaved head with a purple Mohawk and a couple of industrial bolts in his ears? And on his arm, tattooed in lime green, it says, “Street Fighter.” And when you walk up to him and he says, “Hey, I’m street fighter.” Can we have total–unconditional–positive regard for the lime green street fighter with the bolts in his ears?
These are questions that we have to come to grips with. It’s so easy for us to go to a religious institute, see a man in vestments and robes, and say “Thank you, you’re such a nice and kind person.” But do we see ourselves in this archetype of the lime green street fighter, who is really only a miniscule portion removed from where we potentially could have ended up in our lives? Do we see that? You know, Jesus was regarded as someone who hung around with thieves and prostitutes and tax collectors, and all of the negative people of his time, and yet, how many of us are willing to hang out, or even engage those people who seem unseemly in our society today?
In Korean Buddhism, we teach Dae Ja, Dae Bi, Dae Bosal Do, which means, Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way. Now, Bodhisattva is a term most people don’t understand, but in Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva is one who vows to keep engaging this world until all people wake up. So are we willing to do this? Are we willing to walk up to street fighter in our day-to-day life – and he might be completely wigged out on crack – but are we willing to at least give him some kind words and realize that within his existence, or her existence, could’ve been a female, there is so much suffering there, that we need to attempt to at least communicate with them as human beings, because that is all they desire. That’s all any of us desire. So, that’s what these words mean to me.
BM: What role can love play in the world today?
WD: My first teacher, Swami Siraj, ingrained in me this one thing which I still use today, because I am a plagiarist. But you know what? As a plagiarist, I stand on the shoulders of many, many great teachers I’ve learned from. And what he taught me was this:
“There is only one resolve in our lives, and that is to be more loving.”
So what does that mean, more loving?
It doesn’t exclude us, you know. The first thing we need to do is become more loving with ourselves. To accept who and what we are. If we can do that, we can begin to accept others. That doesn’t mean that we have to accept their lifestyle if Street Fighter is a crack addict. We don’t have to accept the fact that that is the life he’s chosen; however, if we don’t enter into a dialogue with someone like this, and gain their trust, how can we ever help them see how they’re destroying their own lives?
And this is the point, love is about locality. Many people today want to save the world, right, and Oh well, let’s go to India, let’s go to Africa, let’s go to Zimbabwe. And on and on and on and on. And poverty, drug abuse, and all of the other things exist right in each one of our backyards.
So, if we want to make a difference, all we have to do is walk out our front door. Walk down the street, and we’re going to see it.
The big question is, do we choose to ignore it, and say, “Oh well, I don’t want to engage that person. If I give them a dollar, they’re going to go buy drugs or beer, or they’re going to go do something with it”?
I remember years ago, you telling me when you were in Portland walking down the street and some homeless guy said something to you, told you he was hungry – you may have been at a roadside café or something – and you immediately just handed him the sandwich that you had just purchased.
Can we do it that spontaneously? And just understand, Ok, it’s ok. At least for right now, it will sustain this person, and perhaps, little by little, they will begin to understand the difference.
Whenever we give, we have to give completely, with no strings attached. And most of us, we want our strings; we want to control what is done with the gift. We want full disclosure from the organization, what are you doing with the money? But is that real giving? Giving means just handing your sandwich to someone starving on the street, saying, “God bless you, brother” and walking away.
BM: What stops people from being more loving and compassionate?
WD: An idea that we have to control the output. An idea, Jesus spoke about, and I’m not so eloquent on this passage [Matthew 6:1-13], but he talked about those that pray in public, and he was talking about those people who went to the wall, the Wailing Wall as it were, and were making their prayers in public. And he said they already have received their reward.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.
– Matt. 6:5, ESV
Why? Because they’re looking for affirmation that, “Oh, I did the right thing, look at what a pious person I am.” But what he said is those who are cloistered, and do the same thing, and make the same prayers will be gifted insurmountably. So if we choose to do something to make a difference, to have some agenda, we’re not doing it for the right reasons. Or at least what we would say in Buddhism is the correct reason. The correct reason is, if I can help right now—and by the way, this is an important aspect—if I can help right now, I should do that. However, if it means that if I help this person, then I’m going to take food away from my family, my children, being able to pay the rent, whatever, then that’s a mistake. So we have to be clear in our lives about what we can and cannot accomplish. Does that make sense?
BM: Absolutely. Do you have recommendations regarding how someone might cultivate a spirit of love over the long term, but also put love into action right now, so that he or she can make a positive difference right away.
WD: Yeah. The first thing we’ve gotta do is, we’ve gotta come to grips with who and what we are, Ok? What am I? Who am I? There’s this story about this guy who, I read this on a Catholic website years ago, but it was about some guy who had heard about the ministry of Mother Theresa in Calcutta, India. And he decided that what he needed to do was to go to India and help her with her ministry. He wanted to go there, but he wasn’t sure where she was, because she moved all around southern India helping lepers and poor people and the displaced. So he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to track her down, so he could find out where he needed to go, because he wanted to go where she was, and be with her. So eventually one day, he gets a phone number, and he calls India, and lo and behold, there is Mother Theresa on the other end of the phone. And he says, “Mother Theresa, I’ve been following you for many years, and I want to help you in your direction of love and compassion. So what I need to know, I’ve already bought a ticket to India. It will take me anywhere, wherever you want. So if you will please tell me where I might meet you in the next three weeks, I would like to come there and start to help and volunteer.” And Mother Theresa said to this young man, “Young man, what I suggest you do is cash in that ticket, and immediately go out from your house and find the nearest homeless shelter, donate the money, and start to volunteer there.”
BM: Yeah, that’s great.
WD: So again, we believe somehow, and it’s a trite thing, but we say, “Think globally but act locally.” And this is what it means. We must act locally within the confines of our purview, whether that be our family or extended family or community. Whatever that may be, the minute we go beyond that, then it gets so far outside of our realm, and it gets lost. Mother Theresa was doing what? She was helping people within the purview of her ministry, which just happened to be in Calcutta, India. It doesn’t mean that that’s what we have to do. So we don’t have to go to Somalia or Zimbabwe or South Africa. What we have to do is walk outside our door and see that homeless guy lying in the alley, and even if it’s just offering words of acknowledgement, as a human being: “How are you? How’s it going?” We don’t even have to give anything. Just to have a conversation sometimes is great love. And are we willing to do that, or are we completely uncomfortable with it? And if we’re uncomfortable with it, we have to ask ourselves, “Why am I uncomfortable with this?”
BM: So what would you suggest people do right now? Just walk outside their door, just like Mother Theresa’s advice to the man?
WD: Yeah. Only if you have the means to be able to do that. Obviously if you’re reading this and you’re on food stamps, or if you’re reading this and you haven’t worked in the last two years and you don’t have the ability to help others, you still have the ability to communicate with others in your community. And this is the point, sometimes we think giving is about – because we live in such a capitalist society – we think giving is earmarked with money or food or shelter or something else. A lot of times, it’s just a good word. It’s just an acknowledgement of street fighter, the crack addict, standing there completely blitzed out of his mind, and you saying, “Well brother, let’s talk about your life.” And maybe just spending 15 minutes with somebody who maybe, throughout his life, nobody’s ever listened to him. And if we just listen for a moment, that may, we don’t know, but it may turn someone’s life around. So giving takes many, many forms. And it’s not always monetary. A lot of times, it’s just acknowledgement of humanity. And these people who are down and out on skid row, a lot of times, that’s all they want. They just want to be recognized as another human being, and have somebody just talk to them as a normal person.
BM: Well then, who do you look up to most when you think of the power of love.
WD: I can’t say one person; however, of all the people throughout history, obviously I’m a Buddhist teacher so I look up to Śakyamuni Buddha, but that’s a mistake to say that. Because Śakyamuni Buddha taught people 2,500 years ago, alright? Buddhism didn’t exist because it’s based upon his teaching, but if people after him hadn’t taken it to heart to want to spread his teaching, we would never know. Same thing goes with Jesus. Same thing goes with Mohammed. Same thing goes with all spiritual—there’s that word again—teachers of the past.
So do I look up to any one person in the modern era? In my lifetime, I would have to look up to Mahatma Gandhi, for his nonviolence. I would have to look to Martin Luther King for following suit with nonviolence. Both of them paid with their lives.
I would actually have to look to Malcolm X, who gave his life for stepping out against the tyranny of what had become the honorable Elijah Mohammed’s teachings, and speak the truth. Are we willing to step out and be uncomfortable? And by the way, all this stuff makes us uncomfortable until we try it. Once we try it for the first time, it becomes much simpler. So all we gotta do is just make a step forward, even a little step forward, and “Oh, that person’s not going to bite my head off. They’re not gonna follow me home, and they will respond well.” So it’s just, slowly but surely, let us all try to make changes in our lives. We don’t have to sacrifice our lives for our direction or our belief structure. We just have to understand that we’re all human beings on the same planet, and we all have basic needs of security, shelter, of food and warmth. And beyond that, we have an innate presence of fellowship with our fellow human beings. And many of these people are so dejected, just because they’ve lost that connection. So perhaps, that’s our direction: Find one person, even if it’s just one, that may make a difference.
BM: Wow. The last thing I can ask you is, do you have anything to add that I haven’t asked?
WD: Just do it.
WD: Don’t think about it, just go out and do something. Today, tomorrow, I don’t know, next week, but just do something. But do it locally. Forget about globally. Forget about going overseas or helping some relief effort. Do something personally that you feel a little bit uncomfortable with. And through that uncomfortableness, you’ll gain a little bit of respect for yourself. And that’s all the great spiritual teachers were ever telling us. And that’s what Jesus meant by the people who pray publicly have already received their rewards. So do it quietly, and just say hello to somebody on the street corner, even if you can’t give them a nickel, just sit down and spend even two, three minutes with them. It may change their lives.
BM: That dovetails perfectly with what The Only Love Project is about – being local. It has to happen right here. I can’t change anything going on in Syria. But I can change myself and my neighborhood.
WD: Yeah, we can’t teleport ourselves to Syria. You’re absolutely right. We might wish we could, right? We might wish we could go there. In fact, we might even wish we could sit down face to face with either Obama or somebody else in charge, or the UN Council, but reality is, that’s not gonna happen. And as much as that maybe pains us, that doesn’t mean that we should view that as a failure. We just have to look at the opportunity, and what’s the opportunity. Our opportunity exists in our community. That’s the only place it exists. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. Within our extended families, within our social networks, and within our communities. This is where we have to engage.
And you know that…the Venerable P’arang, she set up shop in the middle of the barrio in Detroit, right? [Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple] And as much as some of the people, if you read the books by Geri Larkin, she’ll share with you that many of the local community people, as much of a pain in the ass as they became, never got turned away, never were shut down, never were shunned, and were always respected.
And do we have the tolerance to do that? And again, it may make us uncomfortable, but it puts us much closer in touch with what it means to be a human being. So all I can suggest is just try it. Just try it.
NOTE: You can follow Ven. Dr. Wonji Dharma by visiting his superb Zen Mirror blog.