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José M. Tirado Interviewed by Reijo Oksanen
Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, writer and Green activist. He is also a Shin Buddhist priest teaching in Iceland. His articles have appeared in CounterPunch, Swans Commentary, Dissident Voice, the Magazine of Green Social Thought: Synthesis/Regeneration and Gurdjieff Internet Guide ("Gurdjieff's Possible Buddhist Influences" and four different sets of Poems).
Reijo: I met José on the internet about a year ago and our interview is made with the help of it.
How did you get to Iceland, to the little country with the beautiful people, descendants of the Vikings?
José: Well, first of all let me say thank you for welcoming me to GIG. I am humbled to be in the presence of so many people whose work I admire and who have helped me far more than they know. Your web site been such a library of information for me as I have been studying Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way, and it has given me countless hours of both pleasure and eyestrain!
As for your question, my wife is from Iceland and we came here a couple of years ago. We met while we were both studying Buddhism at The Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado, founded by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She was in the "Contemplative" track in the Buddhist Studies MA program and I was in the "Engaged Buddhist" MA track.
Incidentally, I had first read about Naropa when I was about 15 and had dreamed of going there for many years. I used to write about it in the journals I kept (and I still have some from those days and before!) and it always had this dreamlike pull for me that wasn´t realized until I was 35. As is so often the case in life, it seems that the right time had to pass, along with the right circumstances to come together before I could attain what was needed.
Reijo: Your kind comments about GIG are very welcome - it is people like yourself, with an active search, that give the site its content.
I just looked again at your web site, The Path of My Experience, and on the linked page found a picture originating from Switzerland, the one with the man looking from the earth into the universe. This picture is connected with Astrology, Macrocosm/Microcosm, Paracelsus (who was Swiss) and the search. How did your search bring you to Buddhism?
José: You know, that picture is so important to me, for it represents a coming together of my own search for understanding and a return, of sorts, to my "western" roots. But that´s much later in my story...
I was first introduced to Buddhism through my father. He was a merchant mariner during my entire youth and was a marvelous story-teller, a journeyman opera singer, a working-class autodidactic and an incredibly broad-minded, curious man, despite his having ended formal schooling before finishing 8th grade. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War 2 and told us many stories of doing Occupation Duty in Japan after the war, seeing these remarkable Buddhist images, statues and art and he seemed deeply moved by them. He then did his own reading on the subject and was able to teach me some of the most basic, but essential pieces. Particularly the "Life is suffering" translation of the First Noble Truth. Considering many of the actual experiences I had growing up, nothing made more sense.
But along with Buddhism he gave me one other incredibly valuable lesson. The other things he talked about regarding Japan included one image I´ll never forget. He said that among the vast destruction and terrible poverty there were "little girls, maybe nine years old, prostituting themselves to the GI´s for a bar of chocolate." Considering my own evolution as an anti-war activist, I believe the disgust and sadness he felt over such scenes informed me more than any talk of the "glory" of war, which by the way, he absolutely never spoke of. He killed people and helped kill people and yet he hated everything about war.
But back to Buddhism, you could say that after hearing all those stories, everything catalyzed for me when I was about 13 when a teacher took us under a tree outdoors while studying Buddhism as part of a "World Religions" class. At that moment, I knew I was a Buddhist and, despite a couple of brief, rebellious turns elsewhere, I have remained so since.
Reijo: Buddhism in its many forms is very much 'in'. I have experienced this particularly coming to Switzerland, where both Tibetan and Zen Buddhism have many centers. The closest one to us here in Amden is only a hundred meters away (Bellevue, Buddhist Retreat Amden). We visited once, the place had many people, no-one paid any attention to us, so we got some leaflets and found out that the Lama in charge, Danish Ole Nydahl, has established over 400 Buddhist centers in the world.
With Buddhism as strong as it is in the West today please tell me about your reasons for looking seriously into Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way!
José: This is a major story for me. In 1999 a whole series of events occurred that completely altered my life. Several uncles and a cousin died suddenly. My relationship was being severely strained by low finances, intense work pressures and some serious personal issues. I´d had a minor heart attack the year before, my patients (I was a Chaplain Supervisor at the time) were dying regularly and I was emotionally exhausted. Then, at the end of the year, my father died, suddenly, though not quite unexpectedly. All the talk I had ever done about the importance of clarifying our relationships with our loved ones before they died and it was too late was not applied in my case and I was unable to visit him in the weeks before his death. I was told he died calling out for me to visit as I had promised. It was a terrible burden and I live with that sad regret daily...
At that time I knew that the Buddhism I was part of, the Tibetan, or Vajrayana was not working for me. Perhaps I am weak, perhaps I was not ready. Or just as likely, years of immersion in Buddhism does NOT guarantee one a defense against the viccissitudes of life nor some instant understanding that enables one to integrate Life and Death into something of a seamless whole. No, I needed something more, or different, perhaps and two paths opened for me simultaneously.
First I discovered that literally just a few blocks from where I worked was the Jodo Shinshu, Buddhist Churches of America headquarters. I had known about Amida Buddha and had even studied with one of the great author/scholars of Shin Buddhism, Taitetsu Unno, almost 20 years before that, but I had taken it for an "easy way out," dismissing it as not for someone so "dedicated" as myself! Once I went in, established a correspondence with Prof. Unno again, and began reading deeply, not just reading, mind you, but what we call "deep hearing", then I knew that something in me was being called out, so to speak..
Secondly, in that period of great sadness and confusion, (what for me I call my own realization of the "terror of the situation") I was also feverishly searching the Internet for something, anything that was not Buddhist. Yes, I was still exploring a Buddhist path totally different from everything I´d studied, but at the same time I was dissatisfied with all of it. I needed something that did address "practice" and yet provided it in my language, in my cultural context and in terms that, (as I had been a Buddhist my whole life I felt removed from the wisdom of the west), would resonate for me as is, without me having to learn Sanskrit, Japanese, Chinese or Tibetan, all of which I´d studied to some degree. So I came across a description of "Hidden Wisdom" by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney and devoured the book with tremendous soul-hunger. Here were descriptions of western paths I´d heard about but never really considered as "belonging" to me, yet they touched me in embarrassingly familiar ways.
When I read the Gurdjieff chapter, I remembered that here was another name my father had mentioned, though I´m so sorry I can´t remember in what context. Only that he was impressed with G. and wondered if I had read any of his writings. I hadn´t. Anyway, some further searching revealed-most Providentially, I might add-that Prof. Jacob Needleman, a longtime Fourth Way student actually lived in my own neighborhood in Oakland, California! It was too amazing and too eerie to pass up so I emailed him and we arranged to meet.
Reijo: Tell me about the meeting!
José: Well, the entire episode was filled with pregnant meaning for me. After he had emailed me rather simple directions for getting to his house, I managed to flub it up and ended up walking perhaps twice the distance needed, up and down winding hills, on a miserably hot Oakland afternoon, and I arrived at his house panting and exhausted. Our talk was less than two hours but the attention to my questions and the honest probing he did were so important for clarifying some of my hazy understanding. I remember in particular one question I had, that despite over 20 years within Buddhism and these moments of utter clarity and integration that, why, if this was the case, did I not strive with all my life to maintain such all the time? "THAT," he answered, "is the right question and the beginning of real Work." There were so many more moments like that and his graciousness and generosity were like a cup of cool water to a spiritually parched man. It was bittersweet however, because I was to leave the States within a short time after that and I told him that I wished I had been exposed to Gurdjieff earlier and that I had more time to explore what I had just found, which ironically was so close to where I lived. "Perhaps you weren´t ready yet" he said, and it was true. Finally, on the walk home, filled with joy and confidence, at the bottom of the hill from his house I noticed some writing engraved in the sidewalk in front of me. It said, "There is always hope" and I burst out laughing because two meanings were possible for me. On the one hand, in a conventional sense, there was hope of a new start, a fresh approach to my life that the teachings of Gurdjieff now offered. On the other hand, hope could also mean delaying real Work for some later date, when I met the right teacher or joined the right group, without attending to the moment now, every now of my life. So everything about that meeting I remember with great fondness.
Reijo: Over half a year ago we exchanged information on how to find and get in touch with the Gurdjieff work, which for you would mean a move out of Iceland. You had some contacts with different centers then. What turned up?
José: Several things occured, none of which had satisfactory endings for me. First of all, moving out of the country would be a huge shift in our lifestyle and considering the remarkable safety for the kids (I have three), the state supports and the extended family all readily available, I am not sure we could afford such right now. Secondly, some of the contacts I made were questionable or somewhat awkward.
Here I would like to say upfront that everything I understand about Gurdjieff indicates that he was a most remarkable man, but a man nonetheless. I have little patience, whether amongst Fourth Way students or Buddhists, for sycophantic displays of loyalty (whether to gurus, lineages or teachers) or tight-assed pretensions to "consciousness." And I believe G. in similar fashion would have deplored much of what has proceeded in his name. This has kept us all from remembering that he was a Greek-Armenian, a man who loved food and drink, story-telling and the earthy wisdom of his native land. Such a man I would have studied with, not the plasticized, stiff "guru of the west" we see written about and talked about all too often.
Reijo: You are touching here a subject that is very interesting. Many of the spiritual leaders at high level have some serious flaws in their character. It seems to be connected with "when there is much good there is also much bad". People with only "much good" are not interesting! And not only that: without the tension of an impossible situation none of us can develop and grow.
As far as I can see Gurdjieff was an alcoholic, who also liked women and as Paul Beekman Taylor tells us, he had many children and a very active sex life. However, these morally dubious matters do not diminish his value as a teacher, but rather tell us that he had enough problems to profit from them. Is it true what I have heard that Chögyam Trungpa died of AIDS?
José: Well, actually I think you´re mistaking him for his "dharma-heir", Ösel Tendzin who did die of AIDS after having publicly (and jokingly ) dismissed AIDS and who reportedly had unprotected sex with both male and female members of his "congregation," even after he knew of his own condition. Trungpa´s death remains an "official" mystery but severe alcoholism seems the most reasonably suspected cause. That whole crowd not only lost a charismatic leader upon his death but they also discovered a lucrative racket in posthumously publishing every tidbit, good or bad, Trungpa Rinpoche ever uttered. I think it rather sad. When I arrived there ten years ago, the scandals and heartbreak seemed to have dissipated some, but the cultish behavior on the part of many sangha members turned me off. Eventually though, I did make a connection with another young and charismatic teacher, Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche and the time I spent with him I still cherish fondly but the trends towards slavish devotion, uncritical thinking, and cultural appropriation (more akin to Edward Said´s "Orientalism" than to any sincere yearning for "enlightenment") seems to be following him as well.
Look, you are absolutely right about the clay feet of so many of our "heroes." Ken Wilbur, whose work I thoroughly enjoy used a phrase once that spoke volumes about a similar phenomenon, that of "enlightened assholes." These might be described as persons whose advanced spiritual state was secure but who had not developed much along other, more "mundane" lines of work, like basic personality adjustment, social maturity, etc. If they are wise, they themselves will understand these "habitual patterns" as Vajrayana refers to them, and use that knowledge to rise even higher in the levels they are "proficient" at. I believe Trungpa Rinpoche was in fact, keenly aware of his own failings and owned up to them, raising him even higher in my own estimation. Gurdjieff too I believe understood this quite well. Even the Dalai Lama once said in response to a question about whether he still had "bad thoughts" that after years of work, they were only "pretty much gone"! Imagine that! What hope is there for us then?!
Reijo: Right, unless we work on the principle that as we have so many faults everything is just fine!
One Orthodox Staretz used to say that the faults of character stay even with the holy men - to give them a chance to practise humility.
Ross Fuller, in his book about the Brethen of the Common Life tells a story of a monk who had a beautiful voice and who often read in a church. To humiliate himself he often 'farted consciously' and was shouted at in public and thrown out of the church.
José: My own verified, personal experience has lead me to conclude that all religions, all paths become, in the end, a racket and now more than ever, caveat emptor! No path, even Buddhism is exempt. Zen has a corner on the "serious meditator" racket, Vajrayana on the "crazy wisdom" or "electrified Tantra" racket, establishment Shin has a corner on the "lowlier-than-thou" market, and so on. This doesn´t mean that there are no longer sincere "seekers," persons who have traveled a long way in their lives, come to some great crossroads, as I and perhaps you did, and are truly striving for spiritual betterment, a deep illumination of the heart. Or that the path does not still contain gems of wisdom and spiritual guidance we cannot benefit from. Only that we no longer (if we ever really did) walk among giants and all we have is each other, our experience and our failings. These can be incredibly powerful tools if we honestly use them wisely. (Interestingly enough, I think G. was fully aware of this and tried hard to counter any such trends while paradoxically exploiting the gullibility of some people to expose their hypocrisy. He was assuredly an interesting man, full of such contradictions yet he certainly possessed something I think we desperately need today.)
However, as Ramakrishna used to say, "Who weeps for God?" these days? Even our spirituality centers and books, lectures and web sites are filled with the most crassly materialistic orientations; consumer addicts we remain, robots whose spiritual yearnings even are now mechanized and filled with delusions of quick solutions. It´s such horseshit! Who weeps for God, indeed! Most people want a new car, a new cell phone or a new address far more than some transformative, awakening experience that will perhaps diminish their selfishness and cause them to respond to the earth´s or their neighbor´s needs more sensitively. These are certainly trying times...
So, instead of turning out people whose humanity is more finely developed and whose consciousness was "awakened" becoming more full, truly compassionate persons, I think we have a situation where, as is described so well within the Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhist tradition, we are now living in the Age of Degenerate Dharma, when the teachings are not so easily followed nor the so-called "exemplars" of our traditions much to brag about. Believe me, I have trained with some of the best in both Zen and Vajrayana since the 1970´s so I believe I have some experience here. So some of the contacts I made were disappointing, to say the least.
But I must admit that there have also been some wonderful meetings and contacts and these too deserve notice. My ongoing talks with you for example have helped me put (and keep) a "human face" on the Fourth Way that, being without a group here, keeps me grounded in the basic truth contained there. As well, my first contact was with Prof. Needleman, and that first two hour meeting, the only we ever had, (and that three years ago now), remains one of the most significant moments in my life. He may have forgotten that afternoon-and me-by now, but I will never forget that talk and the instructions he gave. But most importantly, the connection was there and I knew immediately that something in the Fourth Way represented my own yearnings to feel connected to my own western background. And there have been a few others, persons with little pretense or illusions about the difficulties involved but who are earnestly striving whose presence in my life and occasional contacts with are inspiring.
Reijo: What then from now - do you intend to pursue your interest in the Fourth Way?
José: Absolutely. I have already finished the first, "obligatory" reading of Gurdjieff´s major works (and much of the biographical literature by others) and will begin the second reading in January. I also intend on visiting you in Switzerland next summer to get a feel for one community doing Work. And I will continue to seek out those who really do want to Work, who are not into quick fixes or desire only one good lecture and coffee afterwards. As well I realize how everything, the body included, must be seriously engaged so I am hoping to attend one of the movements seminars in Europe in the "hope" (there´s that word again!) of finding someone to bring them here to Iceland. But all of that is in the future and right now I am trying to be open the myriad possibilities of living a more conscious life, not by running from my daily difficulties, but by using them as the food to awaken. Charles Tart once said, "if I were wise enough to start a new religion, I would combine Buddhism and Gurdjieff work because we need both. It's not enough to feel mindful and clear on your cushion, you've got to get some of that mindfulness out into everyday life. That's where we make our screw-ups." I think he´s right on target there.
Reijo: Exactly - if we are lower than the level of the Householder, then we can not enter the Gurdjieff Work! Many thanks José! I ' hope' and look forward to see you some time! We can also take up the subject of poetry and other things we missed this time.
José: Yes, one day we MUST converse about such, and poetry, and Life over wine and bread!
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