It's a long path even to get to the path.
I have my outline here. I should warn you that in grad school I did a performance where I talked non-stop for 12 hours, but I won't do that today.
I was born in 1961 in New Jersey, Catholic mother, agnostic Protestant father. Didn't like going to church. Kind of wanted to do what dad did: Go to the store while mom was at church. I went to art school in the 80s, pretty much always knew I was going to be an artist. It was either that or acting. My other academic grades were not so great, so I went to art school thinking I was going to be a cartoonist, and there were all these people doing avant garde performance work and video, and I was kind of blown away by this other art scene. Having grown up in the suburbs I really only had TV.
The first few years of art school I was a very punk -- post punk -- provocateur, a lot of obnoxious antics, participating in noise bands and pretty wild performance scenes, and cabaret scenes, all the while trying to find my voice and my art, and after two or three years, I really got pretty depressed. I saw other people around me making work that was very dynamic and I was making things, but I often felt like my work was kind of empty -- not in the Zen sense, but kind of lacking in -- yeah, just not good; bad art.
I used to characterize my sense of myself or my art as being on an express bus going past my stop, not knowing how to get off, to express what was going on inside of me. In retrospect, it seemed like I was looking to slow down, but that would take another several years. The last year of school, I started seeing art that was influenced by Buddhism, and I started reading about Zen and ink painting. I was watching a lot of Japanese film, reading translations by Burton Watson. A lot of artists at the time were older: John Cage, the 60s, 70s. A lot of artists were influenced by Japanese aesthetics and Zen philosophy.
So when I graduated, I decided to go to Asia and check it out for myself. I went to Japan for a couple of weeks. I went to China. I went to the Philippines. I was hanging around some other punk travelers, a lot of partying, and I was having a fun time, but I was kinda depressed. Eventually I ended up in a monastery in Thailand, doing 10-day Vipassana retreats. I did one, and it was like: "Hey man I can do this. This is good." And then there was a break, and I did another one, and about half way through the other one, I just started to lose it, my body shaking -- this was 1985 -- and I had a huge breakdown, a collapse. They had to carry me out of the zendo. My hands were all clenched, I couldn't release my fingers, and what had happened was that I saw all of my negative internal monologue and self-justification, all of that sort of just go "Tshhhh," just shatter, and I had this realization that all of that self-abuse had no reason. I mean, there were a lot of reasons, but it really felt like, "What are you doing? Why are you doing that?" Anyway, that was my special experience in Asia.
I stayed for a little longer, but eventually I left, I did more travelling, I met a Dutch painter who was also very influenced by Zen, and I moved on. I came back to the US six months later, and I didn't really think about looking for a teacher or anything at that point. I was pretty much anti the organized religion thing. My model really was a sort of ancient Chinese poet in the mountains by himself, drinking in the moonlight, writing, and I kept working on my art. After a few years I realized that I needed to go back to grad school, so I went back, and that experience really did help me find my voice, find my confidence, in my work. My work pretty much became about the practice. Imagine this floor covered with paper. I put out about a thousand rocks, and then painted ink rings around it, so that it was like a drawing of a Zen rock garden. People could come in. My MFA show was called "Fake Zen." I was acutely aware of being this white, suburban kid doing the Asian new-age Zen thing, and so I had to poke fun at myself for that.
After grad school I moved to New York with my girlfriend at the time. My work was all about this practice. I was taking metaphors from Zen texts and enacting them literally. So for the monkey mind, I dressed in a monkey suit and sat meditating in the window at the New Museum. Clown mumblings in the Pure Land was a performance, an accident in the Pure Land. I was using the material of Zen, reading Joko Beck, sampling places to sit, but I didn't really -- I mean honestly, I think Joko's book was the closest thing I had to a teacher. Anyway, eventually shit hit the fan with my girlfriend at the time. I went back down the rabbit hole of partying, and carousing, and did I say partying? I mean, the amount of money that I spent at the saki bar on the Lower East Side is scary. I had a lot of friends and would go out and stuff, but I didn't have a real practice.
After a while, I started collaborating with another artist, and my work shifted away from the overt Zen material. I think a lot of it went underground, as did anything that I had learned -- "Bhhhh" -- down. And then I had a collaboration that went on for like ten years. It was very successful in terms of my art career, not monetarily successful, but a lot of shows. And a few years ago I had moved, my parents had died, I started feeling like I needed to get back to my solo art practice. I ended the collaboration, though I'm still good friends with this guy, Lidell Shaw. We collaborated for ten years; it was quite a trip. I broke up with a girlfriend of five years, and went down yet another trip down the primrose path. I was pretty bitter, because now I'm in my 50s and my art career kind of "Khhhhhh," slowed down. The gallery I was showing at closed. I had broken up, yet again. I had many relationships in that interim, many of which were unrequited, pursuing someone who wasn't available, for years. "Oh, let's try that one. Okay."
When I broke up with my previous girlfriend, I went back online to go dating, and I met this woman, Elizabeth, who was married, had a gay husband, two kids, and I thought, "Great! I'm not ready for commitment. My last relationship was pretty rough, and I just want to have some fun.” So Elizabeth and I had some fun. We had some fun. After a few months, just as I was starting to fall for her -- we had kind of an open thing, so I was dating other people, and she was too, and just as I was falling for her, she met this other guy who practiced yoga and had an intense meditation practice, and I totally freaked out, and right way I was like, "Oh no! Here I am again, falling for someone who's not available. Should I cut and run?" I was pretty much: "Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this, again?" A friend of mine had met Elizabeth, and she said, "You know what? I like Elizabeth. You guys seem good together. You wanted an open relationship. Now the table's turned. Why don't you just sit with it and see what happens." And I was like, "Ahhhhh!"
And so I started sitting again. Right away I was just crying, and "Why, why, why, why, why? Why am I doing this? What is wrong with me?" I was really freaked out, and around that time I was having knee problems. I went to a friend who's a masseuse, an old friend of mine, and she gave me a massage, and when you get massages you cry, so I started crying, and then it was like, "What the fuck is going on? Somebody's hooked up the Chrome Aqueduct to the back of my head, and 'Bshhhhh!'" I'm just exploding and wailing, and the whole room was intensely vivid, and I kinda knew what was happening, but I sat up, and I said to my friend Marissa, who is the masseuse, "You may not know who you are, but I know who you are." And she burst into tears, and we were just screaming for 35 minutes nonstop. And I felt all of this, my playing the role of victim, my self-abuse, demonizing of ex-girlfriends, and demonizing the guy that Elizabeth was seeing, and I was like, "Jesus, you really knocked it out of the park." I was so blown away. And it was this raging thing, and then it was like, "Dppp," it stopped, and we were both like "Wow, that was intense." It was so disjunctive, it was kind of mindblowing. And so I talked to her about stuff, and she was like, "Well, Jimbo, you go after these unavailable women. Maybe it's because you're unavailable." And I said, "I need a therapist, goddammit, do you know any therapists, somebody with a Buddhist inclination?"
She told me about guess-who. I called up Barry and he said, "I'm not taking any clients, so why don't you come out." "Okay, all right, I'll see you at the Zendo. Okay." So that brought me here, and I'm so, so thankful to have found this group, and Chris, and Claire, and Gayle, and everybody else who has been really open and warm and supportive. It's like coming home after twenty years, twenty years of running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Now it's slightly reattached.
Elizabeth came back; she’s the lovely lady right here, who I am also so grateful for, who's been incredibly supportive to me, in the midst of her intense upheaval in her life. I hope it's clear that my precept was elevating the self while demeaning others, and the inverse of that. I didn't really talk about that, but am I out of time? Where am I? I have no idea how much I've done?
Response: You have plenty of time.
Jimbo: I don't know that there's a whole lot. Am I missing anything, dear?
It's just hard to convey how right it feels to have found this group, and my secret name for Barry is “Shiva, the Destroyer of Wu-wu.” Where else can you go that you can hear Hegel and Joanne Kyger and Philip Whalen. It's great! There's the other precepts, which I touched on, the alcohol, drugs, sex; sex, drugs and rock and roll, basically. Originally I was thinking about the three treasures, upholding the three treasures. "How can I maintain the practice? I need it; I need the practice." Even if you don't get anything from it, there's an absurdity there that I like. I feel like I have shed so many tears in the last year, letting go of stuff that's been built up in me for decades.
I was talking to Barry last week, and saying, "... not disparaging dharma assets," and Barry said, "Well, you can start thinking of yourself as a dharma asset." Yeah, I'm trying to. Self respect.
Reb Anderson had a lot about respect: Look at yourself, again.
I had so many little quips that I was going to fold into my talk. Six months work, every morning in the shower, "That'll make them laugh." I was so scared. I was so scared to give this talk. There's still a lot of fear wrapped up in my basket of threads, in my head and heart, but I hope that I can be of service in some way to you.
Is there anything else I've missed here? I didn't even look at my thing. I'm so proud of myself.
Well, yes, there's the hungry ghost, but I think that should be somewhat obvious.
This talk was brought to you by the generosity of people like you. Ordinary Mind Zendo is a non profit organization that depends entirely on the generosity of people like you for its continued existence. If sitting with us, listening to our talks, or supporting a Zen center in New York City is in line with your values, you can make a donation here.