Zen Confidential: Declassified

Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand. Tilt shift lens.
Wat Arun, Bangkok, Thailand. Tilt shift lens.

Writing a Zen memoir is like crowd sourcing your spiritual life. You are always only a Google search away from a wide variety of opinions on your progress, or lack thereof. Early reviews for my first book, "Zen Confidential: Confessions of a Wayward Monk," have come back pretty positive, though one critic claimed the writing ranged from "admirably candid to downright disturbing." Another noted, "Some women readers may find it to be vaguely offensive lad lit."

This gave me pause, for I had hoped to be offensive to both genders.

I began writing the book with a single phrase in mind: "Never trust a German with a grand vision." An eight-word doorknob. I turned it, stepped through, and nine years later an intelligent stranger is likening me to a Buddhist Tucker Max. Though that's better than being implicitly compared to Adolf Hitler. My apologies to the Berliner monk who installed the epically disastrous composting toilets at our Zen monastery, which inspired the first essay in my collection.

You had a dream, my Rhinelander friend, and that dream was to turn our stool into food for the earth.

What those toilets became, for me anyway, was food for thought.

Before I moved to the monastery, my life was in the toilet. I spent four years at a conservative Catholic college in Texas studying Western philosophy. While the experience introduced me to certain key habits for critical thinking, such as chain-smoking and caffeine addiction, in the end I reached a conclusion similar to another onetime philosophy student, Steve Martin: "I learned just enough philosophy in college to fuck me up for life."

I graduated and moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter.

Failure, drugs, casual sex and more failure -- relentless, insistent, soul-fucking failure -- ate away at my 20s. I hit 30 with nothing to show for it but a rent-controlled apartment, a subtly receding hairline, and a Ford Festiva I'd named Pepe.

I awoke one morning unemployed and knocked-up with the genesis of another rotten screenplay. Stupidly, I chose not to terminate it. I lived on a chaotic street in West Hollywood. It was August, the heart of summer, and the sun burned even the smog out of the sky. I stuck my desk in a cool, quiet closet, sat down with a great many notebooks and a hash pipe, and attempted to pen the Great American Screenplay until my savings ran dry.

"Sexual Positions," if I'm remembering correctly (and unfortunately I am), was supposed to be something like the art-house classic "The Seventh Seal" meets a high-school sex romp a la "American Pie." It featured a cameo from a seven-foot-tall, walking, talking, eminently personable penis.

"Charlie" wound up being the most fully realized and human character in the entire screenplay.

"These genitals really work on the page," my best friend told me, trying to find something positive to say about the wasted months of my life he was holding in his hands.

I gave everything I had to that movie. When the negative feedback started pouring in (ironically, from people who read and reviewed scripts for a living, as I had), I realized that I didn't have much to give. Like the horny juvenile existentialists in "Sexual Positions," I'd become a pretty one-dimensional character.

Continued disgrace as a writer makes you wonder if perhaps it is your life and not your work that needs rewriting.

I had bought into the rickety truism of our age: the truth lies within. But what I discovered when I followed the thread of artistic ambition inward was that, instead of leading to a source, the quest for aesthetic understanding and expression was its own end, and coiled, like any desire, deeper and deeper into its own center of gravity, like a bloated star collapsing into black hole oblivion under the weight of its thrust for infinity.

To make a long story short, I met my Zen mentor, fell spiritually head over heels, and spent two years actively ignoring every crumb of wisdom he laid in my path. Then one day I found myself in the cluttered office of the city temple where he and a lanky, handsome monk were discussing an upcoming retreat at the secluded and legendary monastery where my mentor spent a decade.

It couldn't have been more than 10 seconds, but the shift was seismic, as though an inner earthquake had toppled all four walls of my sunny LA prison.

In that instant I knew three things: I would move to the monastery, get ordained as a monk and trust my mentor to care for the only two things that were sacred in my life: Pepe and my rent-controlled apartment.

That's exactly what happened, though he sold Pepe to a friend who wasted no time wrapping it around a telephone pole.

It was a year of training at the monastery before I would start writing again. And then I couldn't stop. I was working beneath the composting toilets, churning shit with a shovel, trying to turn it into food for the earth, when a voice rose up from the depths: I just have to tell people about this.

I finally had something to say. And I would let it rip.

The work I was doing at the monastery was an attempt to transform the crappiest parts of my life into food for living.

The whole spiritual project comes down to this: We turn suffering into love.

When I was 10, I had a beatific vision in the bathroom. My parents had rented space in an abandoned building and founded their own intensely Catholic elementary school. I was desperate to meet God.

Then I walked into the bathroom one morning and saw three globes of pure light descend through the windows over the toilet stalls.

Mr. James, a jolly old silverhair who ran his own insurance agency out of the room next to ours, walked in moments later and caught a frail, grace-blasted youth hyperventilating.

"Just breathe," he told me. "Just breathe." And he demonstrated.

For the rest of the school year I stole away from the classroom and catechism and waited for God in that bathroom. I was looking in the right place, but my eyes were fixed in the wrong direction: up. I would eventually become frustrated and turn in the opposite direction, crawling around in the sewer for the ensuing decades before moving to a mountaintop monastery, taking Mr. James' advice, and learning to level my sight at whatever was in front of me -- no matter how odious, or even gorgeous -- and just breathe.

All those places that we think are horrible are usually just unfamiliar, and it may sound blasphemous, but somehow the world wouldn't be as roundly beautiful without them. I've tried to introduce some of those places in this book, with the hope that we will look not only up, for visions of light, nor merely in, for exclusively personal truths, but also down and all around, until those downright disturbing places, inside and outside of us, start to feel like home.