Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008). Art direction by Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington.
THE SOMA OF MADNESS
Seeking wisdom in late-Sixties Mexico City, filmmaker ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY found several unusual masters. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (translated by Joseph Rowe), he discusses his encounters with the Japanese Zen monk Ejo Takata and the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington…
I was raised by a merchant father. All the wisdom he had to offer me could be summed up in two proverbs: “Buy low and sell high” and “Don’t believe in anything.” I had no teacher from whom I could learn to love myself, others, and life. From adolescence on, driven by the thirst of an explorer lost in the desert, I sought a master who could show me that there was some meaning in my useless existence. A voracious reader of literature, I found only self-absorbed and pretentious meanderings there. A very cynical phrase by Marcel Duchamp led me to flee that sterile world: “There is no finality; we construct from tautology and arrive at nothing.”
I sought consolation in books of Eastern philosophy, holding for dear life onto the notion of enlightenment or awakening. I learned that Shakyamuni Buddha awoke while meditating under a tree. According to his disciples, the holy man perceived the deepest truth by ceasing to preoccupy himself with the question of his survival after death. Twenty-eight generations later, in China, Bodhidharma sat in silence for nine years in front of a stone wall until he discovered in his consciousness that fathomless emptiness, like a pure blue sky, in which neither truth nor illusion can be distinguished. . . . The longing to free myself from the terror of dying, of being nothing, of knowing nothing, had dragged me implacably into a quest for this mythic awakening. Striving for silence, I ceased to be so attached to my ideas. To further this goal, I wrote all of my beliefs in a notebook, then burned it. After this, requiring calm in my intimate relationships, I shunned the vulnerability of any sort of self-abandon, always setting up aloof relationships with women, thereby protecting my individualism behind panes of ice. When I met Ejo Takata, my first true master, I wanted him to guide me to enlightenment by purifying my mind of the last illusions I had not yet succeeded in uprooting. I saw myself as conqueror of both mind and heart.
“Feelings no longer dominate me. Empty mind, empty heart.”When I solemnly proclaimed these words before my Japanese teacher, he burst into laughter, which was quite disconcerting. Then he answered: “Empty mind, empty heart—intellectual raving! Empty mind, full heart: That is how it should be.”
Born in Kobe in 1928, Ejo Takata began to practice Zen at the age of nine in the monastery of Horyuji, under the direction of Roshi Heikisoken, the head authority of the Rinzai school. Later, at Kamakura, he entered the Shofukuji Monastery founded in 1195 by Yosai,† the first monk to bring Chinese Zen Buddhism to Japan. There, he became a disciple of Mumon Yamada of the Soto school. The life of these monks aspiring to enlightenment was very hard. Always living in groups, deprived of intimacy or privacy, they ate little and poorly, worked hard, and meditated constantly. Every act of daily life—from how they slept to how they defecated—adhered to a strict ritual.
After living in this way for 30 years, in 1967 Ejo Takata decided that the times were changing. It was useless to preserve a tradition by remaining closed up in a monastery. He decided to leave Shofukuji and encounter the world. His determination led him to embark for the United States, for he desired to know why so many hippies were interested in Zen. He was received with great honor in a modern monastery in California. A few days later, he fled this place with only his monk’s robes and twenty dollars in his pocket. He reached a major highway and began to hitchhike, communicating mostly with gestures, because he spoke little English. A truck carrying oranges picked him up. Ejo began to meditate on the odor of the fruit, with no idea where he was going. He fell asleep. When he woke up, he found himself in the immense city that is the capital of Mexico.
By a series of coincidences, I had the chance to meet this master. Seeing that he was homeless, I offered him my house, inviting him to transform it into a zendo. There, the monk found his first honest students: actors, painters, university students, martial arts practitioners, poets, and so forth. They were all convinced that through meditation they would find enlightenment: the secret of eternal life which transcends that of the ephemeral flesh. It was not long before we realized that Zen meditation was no game. To sit very still for hours, striving to empty our mind, enduring pains in our legs and back, and overwhelmed by boredom was a heroic undertaking.
When Ejo Takata first visited my house in order to choose the right space for his teaching, I showed him my large library proudly. I had been surrounded by books since childhood, and I loved them as much as I loved my cats. I had a sizeable collection of books on Zen—in English, Italian, French, and Spanish—but the monk glanced at them only briefly. Opening his fan, he moved it rapidly to cool himself. Then he left the room without a word. My face darkened with embarrassment. With this gesture, he was showing me that my erudition was nothing but a disguise for my lack of true knowledge. Words may show the way to truth, but they are not the truth. “When you’ve caught the fish, you don’t need the net anymore.”
Time passed. Thanks to the support of the Japanese embassy, Ejo was able to set up a small zendo in the university quarter of Mexico City. For five years, I arose each morning at six o’clock to drive for at least an hour through heavy traffic in order to arrive at the zendo for two meditation sessions of 40 minutes each. Yet it became clear to me that my path in life was not that of a monk. My ambitions were becoming centered on the theater. Nevertheless, Ejo Takata’s teachings—to be instead of to seem, to live simply, to practice the teaching instead of merely reciting it, and knowing that the words we use to describe the world are not the world—had profoundly changed my vision of what theater should be. In my upcoming production, a theatrical version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, I had stripped the stage of its usual décor, including even curtains and ropes, and had the walls painted white. Defying censorship, the actors and actresses undressed completely on stage after reciting lines from the Gospel of Thomas: “The disciples asked him: ‘When will you be revealed, and when will we be able to see you?‘ And Jesus said: ‘When you shed your clothing without shame, and when you take your jewels and cast them under your feet and trample them like little children, then will you be able to contemplate the Son of the Living One and have no more fear.’”
Ejo proposed that the two of us meet once a week at midnight—he chose this dark hour because it is symbolically the beginning of the new day’s conception. We engaged in conversations which literally began in the darkness and ended with the light of dawn.Continue reading