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The Making of a Teacher

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Can a lad sometimes regarded as bad by his father, by a Catholic priest, by the Army, and by the Drug Enforcement Administration transform in the middle of life's path into a Zen roshi and reinvent his tradition in ways that impress the brainy Ken Wilber, Mr. Integral? A Heart Blown Open by Keith Martin-Smith shows how it happened as it follows the life of Denis Kelly from a small Wisconsin city to the Bay Area in its glory years to a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York, with a stop in federal prison.

Why prison? On the West Coast, Kelly was head of a "family" that manufactured "window pane" LSD, an adventure that allowed him to live the high life and to blow minds with well-refined molecules before he learned to help people blow open on the meditation zafu.

The biography reads less like the result of interviewing colleagues and examining documents than like the tales of a natural raconteur, with a good listener shaping a narrative and filling in some details. After a bout with cancer, Kelly is very much alive, founder of a Buddhist order called Hollow Bones. He spent an intense fortnight with the author who then drafted material and reviewed at least some of it with the primary source.

However, the result contains stringent judgments about the hero, many of them from Kelly's own lips. He apparently has a rep to keep, not only as a "bad boy," but also as a Buddhist observer of himself and others. A few of the stories seem a bit truncated, but the bio offers more lively material than many books twice as long.

(Disclosure: At the age of 60, on the hunt not for any "ism" but a sort of mind training, I was introduced to Kelly. He invited me to sit with his sangha, a circle of meditators that met almost daily around dawn and that included individual talks with him, in a form known as "dokusan." While remaining ignorant of the stories in this bio, I realized in the initial interview that Kelly had the air of a rogue, which was paradoxically attractive to me, because I wanted a teacher who exuded not piety but engagement with life.)

Kelly came to regard LSD less as a mountain top, and like some authors in Allan Badiner's Zigzag Zen, more as a gate. Then he encountered limits in the practice he adopted, noticing that people who had "awakened" were sometimes limited or held back by their emotional bodies. For example, a person's behavior could be warped by unresolved anger

While mastering the traditional koans (such as the sound of one hand clapping), Kelly integrated yoga into the practice, pioneered what he called "emotional koans," and championed an ecological vision. For many people, his work followed the "training adventure" conducted by the Mankind Project, which teaches emotional literacy and awareness of personal mission.

Martin-Smith's nourishing bio lays out food for thought about how experiences one might never chose can, with luck and hard work, lead to valuable psychological or social inventions. For example, what is the relation between dissociation caused by childhood trauma and beneficial witness consciousness? Between the rebel's view of life and the ability to lead people beyond the ordinary mind? Between seeing that "realized" masters can act badly and developing a broader basis for personal development? And what is the deeper wisdom in Dylan's seemingly paradoxical line, "to live outside the law you must be honest"?