Adam Tebbe, senior editor at Sweeping Zen, recently interviewed Chuck Genkaku Johnzen Roshi, well-known and controversial Zen master and author of several best-selling books. We are happy to publish an excerpt:
Chuck, how did you first come to Zen practice, and what was going on in your life at that time?
Back in the 80s, I was president of “The Pissed off Bastards of Boulder”, a motorcycle club in Colorado. That was great, and profitable too, but I ran into some trouble and decided it was time to move on with my life. So I was sort of drifting around for a couple of years before I ended up in California. I’d just come to L.A. when I met this fat, bald guy in a bar. I didn’t know he was a Zen master, but we sort of connected immediately. We had a few beers, smoked a few joints, and I crashed at his place that night. Turned out it was a Zen monastery. There were lots of young chicks there, and the food was all right, and I was broke. I stayed there for 15 years.
Tell us a bit about your teacher, the one who gave you dharma transmission but later revoked it? Can dharma transmission be revoked, in your view?
Gumpo Roshi … Well, he’s quite a character, and a mean son of a bitch. As you know, Gumpo and I have had our disagreements over the years, but I tell you this: He is the real deal. Straight Zen, no bullshit.
Gumpo Roshi is a real bull of a man. He could be up drinking all night, and then sit in the dokusan room at 5 in the morning, meeting his students. And when I served as his attendant, I’d help him shoot up speed so he could sit up all night with his monks in the zendo during retreats. At the end of rohatsu sesshin, he’s veins would be totally ruined, and his teisho had this wonderful, manic energy. He could go on for hours, you know. Really far out stuff, totally incomprehensible … Sometimes we’d have to give him some smack, just so he would calm down a bit.
Drugs and Dharma is an interesting subject. I read this book on LSD and Zen …
Listen! Psychedelics is cheating! Sometimes it works like spiritual Viagra, but more often it’s like watching porn. A real Zen person doesn’t need that stuff. Speed and smack is a different thing. It’s more like an upaya. You remember how Bodhidharma cut off his eyelids or Eisai got high on green tea? It’s that kind of thing.
Anyway … When Gumpo gave public talks, all these women would be all up on him, young and old. I’m not kidding when I tell you he must have bedded more than 1000 chicks since he became a Zen master. Gumpo told me this interesting story once: He used to be a kind of shy, bookish type, and so awkward he never got laid. Then he moved in at this Zen center and noticed that the guys with the shaved heads and the robes were always surrounded by chicks. That’s why he got ordained and went to Japan. “In those days just being a monk was enough, so I figured that if you become a certified Zen Master, you could get any one. And I was right.”
But of course, it’s not that simple. Look at those losers in the AZTA: It doesn’t matter what fancy brocade robes they order from Japan, or how many transmissions they purchase, they won’t score outside their sanghas. But Gumpo really has this incredible charisma! They simply don’t make Zen masters like that anymore, at least not in the US. He is in New York now, by the way, running the Central Park West Sangha. Very posh, very classy place, quite different from what I’m doing here in New Mexico.
Of course, Gumpo is still a human being, and all that speed would make him a bit paranoid at times, and that’s what got me into trouble. When I was head monk at the Pink Moon Sangha, I had a thing going with this really hot jikijitsu. What I didn’t know, was that she was also one of the Roshi’s favorites, and he got really pissed when he heard about the whole affair. I told him he could have the chick for himself, but he never really trusted me after that. And then, a few months later, there was an incident with another zendo. It blew up, and the Roshi thought I had something to do with it. That’s when Gumpo tried to revoke my transmission, wrote letters to the Japanese HQ and all. Things really got out of hand at the Pink Moon Sangha, and I decided to leave and start my own group.
But you are a transmitted Zen Master?
Sure! I still have the gold rakusu and the certificate for anyone to see. Here it is, the kechyamaku. Look, there’s the Buddha … Bodhidharma … Dogen … and right down there, Gumpo’s name and then my own. I actually had the whole lineage chart tattooed on my back as well.
Dharma transmission is kind of a sacred thing, and it can’t be revoked.Trying to do that was a stupid idea, and it shows how crazy Gumpo was at the time. In any case, I made a deal with him a few years later. I give him a cut of my revenue, and he won’t challenge my teaching credentials anymore.
But then there is the North American Zen Teachers Association … Those motherfuckers still refuse to acknowledge me as a fully transmitted Zen master. Not that I would want to be part of that circle jerk again, but, to be honest, I find their arrogance quite disturbing.
Do you need a Harley Davidson, in your opinion, to practice authentic Zen? What is authentic Zen?
I’ll be honest with you. The Japs are pretty good at this Zen thing, but their bikes really suck. Simple as that. And I always thought it was kind of silly with these American Zen types wearing Japanese clothes, eating from bowls, riding Hondas or whatever, like those AZTA sissies. I’m an American roshi, so I ride a Harley. Sometimes I have to put on my robes, though.
Authentic Zen is about freedom, rebellion, and independence, not about tofu and green teas, and calligraphy. Or Japanese robes. And certainly not about membership in silly clubs, like the AZTA.
Tell us a bit more about the 1% Sangha, which you established in 2001.
It’s a mean bunch of Zen cruisers. Rude, crude, and tattooed. The exact opposite of your average middle-class Buddhists. A real outlaw sangha, riding the freeways like clouds and water. The best, most loyal Zen students you could ask for. I’m so proud of these guys.
I received a review copy of Outlaw Zen. Confessions of an Unrepentant Zen Master and can’t recommend it enough to people. For anyone who likes Saturday night bar fights, riding motorcycles and Zen, it’s a must read. In it you tell us how you were kicked out of the American Zen Teacher’s Association, and you have described it as a “complete loony bin.” Those are strong words. Care to tell the story?
Not really, but I’ll give you the short version. (Those interested in all the sordid details should buy the book.)
It all started with these rumors on the Internets that I was sleeping with my students. What a fucking joke! What hypocrisy!
You know, one of the things I liked so much about Gumpo Roshi was that he was never a hypocrite. He was always very straightforward with these things. When I was ordained, for example, he said: “Look, Genkaku. The life of a Zen monk is not for sissies. It’s hard work, and the Buddha is a tough boss. But there are perks …” And he meant the chicks.
I don’t understand the AZTA folks at all. They should mind their own business. Problem is, most of them don’t seem to have much of a business to mind. And they’ve obviously got nothing better to do than wasting their time on pathetic internet forums. A bunch of fakes and losers in silly robes, sticking their noses in other peoples’ business. It’s really pathetic. And I guess the presence of a genuine, liberated and fully transmitted Zen Master made them quite nervous. Not to mention that I’d show up at their meetings with these gorgeous chicks in my entourage, sort of like Colonel Gadaffi’s bodyguard. (Laughs)
How many in the 1% Sangha have attained satori? Is it a guarantee once they become a member, or will they need one of the teacher robes available at Tutteji Wachtmeister’s website before attaining it?
Most of the guys “get it” the first year on the road. But before postulants become full members, they go through an initiation ceremony. They take a 15 minute beating with the kyosaku, they drink some blood, and we burn them with incense. It’s kind of like tangaryo, but more demanding (there are some details that I can’t tell you about). So I know new members are made of the right stuff before I see them in dokusan.
Once they get enlightened, they’re allowed to wear the black leather rakusu with a flaming skull on it, and put a 無-patch on their vests. Obviously, I can’t guarantee enlightenment, but I honestly don’t know about any other sangha where so many people get satori in such a short time.
Tutteji Wachtmeister is a great guy in many ways, but he doesn’t really know anything about enlightenment. And only a drag queen would wear that kind of robe. No wonder the AZTA bunch is so excited about his work.
Your outlaw image has created some controversy in Buddhist circles …
Well, that was to be expected, wasn’t it? Let me put it this way: I emphasize a radical Mahayana interpretation of the precepts, and there’s no room for fundamentalist moralism there. True spirituality is about freedom and doing your own stuff. If that’s outside the law, or conventional morality, or if the AZTA ethics committee can’t handle real freedom … Well, I couldn’t care less.
But, seriously, this whole outlaw thing has been exaggerated. I mean, sure, most of us have served time, and it’s no secret that some of my students make a living from selling sacred substances made illegal by our government. On the other hand, I truly believe my Sangha represents the best of the American way. And we’re patriots, supporting the war on terrorism. A few years ago, I actually sent a letter to President Bush, volunteering a group of loyal Americans for behind-the-line duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. How many American sanghas did that? They’d rather be gang-raped by terrorists than stand up for freedom and the American way. It’s really pathetic, and another reason I don’t want to be part of that scene.
Are you enlightened? If so, how does someone else become enlightened like you?
What kind of question is that?! I’m a goddam roshi, for Christ’s sake. Of course I’m enlightened! If you think you have what it takes, you should join my sangha, and I’ll make sure you get enlightened. But you got to show some respect. Remeber the first precept: “Never question your Master’s authority”. Loyalty and obedience, that’s the way to enlightenment. You do what your teacher tells you to do, without questions. You’re loyal to the brotherhood. And you never, ever have anything to do with the cops or the AZTA.
You know, a genuine Zen Master is always acting from the perspective of the Absolute. And there’s no right and wrong in that place. If you want to drive at 100 mph, or get high, or whatever, you just do it. That´s real freedom, doing exactly what you feel like. No shame. No fear. Just pure action and delight.
What’s next for Chuck Genkaku Johnzen Roshi? Surely you have something in the works you’d like to reveal to readers.
Well, I’m writing a new book. I can’t tell you much about it, but it’s about the American Zen Teachers Association. And last month I gave transmission to one of my senior disciples, Dharma Dog Buller Sensei.
Is narcissism close to enlightenment? How can I still be selfish while also attaining good karma?
You’ve gotta have a strong, powerful ego to practice real Zen. And this has nothing to do with narcissism. And Tutteji is right on this point: If we suffocate our natural greed, there will be great suffering. There’s nothing wrong with being selfish as long as you’re not pretending to be some kind of saint. Like those sanctimonious AZTA pricks. And who gives a fuck about karma and future lives and shit? In my sangha we live for today and enjoy the present moment.
You’re one of the few Zen teachers out there today pioneering the movement of Zen teachers who enjoy sleeping with advanced female students. I really admire your bravery, so you know. Is Puritan Zen a dying fad?
There is no such thing as “Puritan Zen”. There is only Zen, and Zen has absolutely nothing at all to do with puritanism.
And I really don’t want to hear crap like “you only sleep with the pretty or advanced students”. Maybe the AZTA guys do that, but it only shows they’re not enlightened. If you know your Zen stuff, you don’t pick and choose. A man of Zen will sleep with any woman. Young or old, smart or stupid, pretty or ugly, it doesn’t matter. You just go ahead and do it, without any discriminating thoughts in your mind. To pull this off, you have to have a really solid grounding in the Absolute, of course. There’s only a handful of teachers alive that can plug their disciples into the Absolute, and I can tell you this: They’re not members of the AZTA.
I’ve never told anyone about my own enlightenment experience before, but I’ll tell you about it now, because it’s a perfect example of what I’m trying to tell you. Please listen carefully:
When I was a young monk, I served as Jumpo Roshi’s jisha, or assistant. It was hard work, I tell you. I had to follow the old man around all the time, fixing his drinks, making sure he looked good, that he got the best tables and so on. Once we were on pilgrimage in Japan, visiting Kyoto, when he wanted to go to a whorehouse. I found a nice place with lots and lots of absolutely gorgeous chicks, but being the dutiful jisha, I walked up to the mama-san and told her:
“Listen, I’m here with a very respected Zen master from America. I want the best piece off ass you’ve got.”
“Everything in my house is the best,” she replied. “You cannot find here any girl who’s not the best.”
And that’s when I finally got it. That was the moment of my great satori.
Wow! That sounds like a classic enlightnenment experience. Awesome!
Well, that’s the kind of experience you have when you study with a real Zen master. You see, Gumpo, who noticed what was going on, immediately started shooting all these questions at me: Bring me the prettiest one! Which one do you choose? How do you get laid without paying a yen? Right now, get a date with Miss Universe. We had this great Dharma combat right there, and I could answer all his questions without hesitation. And we just laughed for a long time, and then we celebrated my enlightenment. That was a night to remember, I tell you. Of course, the AZTA douchebags wouldn’t understand any of this.
What books would you recommend to readers interested in Zen practice?
Umm… I don’t read much myself, but I honestly think my own books could be helpful for someone attracted to authentic Zen and this way of life. And then I really enjoyed two new books by a young guy called Vajran Wells: The Ploy and The Secret Path of the Pickup Yogi. They’re very practical and down-to-earth. No pious bullshit.