A conversation with Lewis Richmond
One thing that makes Lewis Richmond so interesting to speak with is that he is a person of so many interests. As a Buddhist teacher, an accomplished musician and composer, an author, a software engineer and entrepreneur, and someone whose curious and agile mind has garnered a great store of all manner of knowledge, he moves easily in conversation among diverse fields of culture and takes obvious enjoyment pursuing the unexpected turn toward wisdom.
Lewis is also interesting because he is genuinely fascinated by the experience of other people. This became abundantly clear to us at Tricycle when we invited him in March of last year to import to our community website a discussion that he began, and continues, on his blog Aging as a Spiritual Practice. Very quickly, the aging discussion became our most popular thread, thanks in no small part to the skill with which Lewis led it. His participation seemed not to be that of an authority figure, really, but of what in Buddhism is called a kalyana mitra, a spiritual friend. He guided the discussion gently—posing questions, sharing from his own experience, supporting what others had to say, contributing a timely quote, and so forth—and in that way, he helped the participants bring forth what is best in themselves.
Lewis is a Soto Zen priest and a dharma transmitted teacher in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (1904–1971), the founder of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Lewis is the founder and leader of the Vimala Sangha, in Mill Valley, California, and the Provost of Shogaku Zen Institute, a Buddhist training seminary. Recently he has also begun co-teaching, with Lama Palden Drolma, the founder of the Marin-based Sukhasiddhi Foundation, a series of workshops called Zen Heart Vajra Heart, which brings together the teachings of Zen and the Tibetan Mahamudra tradition. Lew’s book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser is scheduled to be published in Spring, 2012 by Gotham Books, a division of the Penguin Group.
You have had a long and varied life in Buddhist practice. What have been some of its key events, benchmark experiences, turning points, and the like? When I graduated from Harvard with a degree in music in 1967, my future was promising and clear: I was going to compose, perform, and perhaps teach music. But I walked away from my life. I didn’t really know what I wanted, but I knew that the course that was laid out for me wasn’t it. I returned to California, where I had grown up, and entered a seminary in the San Francisco Bay Area to prepare for a career as a Unitarian minister. One of my field assignments was to check out the Zen temple in San Francisco led by Shunryu Suzuki. Meeting Suzuki Roshi changed my life.
How so? Before encountering Suzuki Roshi, I didn’t know what I was searching for, but afterward, I knew that I had found it. It was authenticity. I would look at him and think, Okay, this is the real thing, and that touched me deeply. Later that year I dropped out of seminary to study with him, which I did until he died. During that time I was living, with my wife, Amy, in the rapidly growing community of the San Francisco Zen Center. Suzuki Roshi had ordained me as a priest. At his cremation I cried rivers of tears.
I continued my Zen training under Richard Baker Roshi, Suzuki Roshi’s successor. In 1974 I was installed as tanto [head of training] at Green Gulch Zen Temple, [in Marin County], one of our three practice centers. I was thirty years old at the time; I held that position for seven years.
Thirty was pretty young to take on the responsibilities and burdens of teaching Zen. We were all young in those days. Zen Center was an enormously exciting and innovative place to be at that time. We all felt we were creating something special and groundbreaking. I fully expected to live out my life there, serving Buddhism and fulfilling my vows as a Zen priest.
Why did you leave? The community went through a wrenching crisis in 1983, which culminated in Baker Roshi’s resignation as abbot. At its core were long-simmering questions and resentments about his leadership style, but I won’t go into any of the details here; it has been widely written about elsewhere. Shortly afterward, Amy and I left the Zen Center. We moved to Mill Valley, and I got a job (Amy already had one). I took off my robes, I let my hair grow, and we lived the life of ordinary folks, raising our nineyear- old son and going to work every day.
Most people thought that our departure from the community was due to the crisis of 1983. That was partly true, but it was also true that spiritually and developmentally I was ready to leave. I felt a need to take the carburetor of myself apart and reassemble it piece by piece, so I could figure out what had actually happened to me through those fifteen years of Zen practice and residential spiritual living.
Would you say that you once again walked away from the life that was laid out for you? Yes, I would. And as when I graduated from college, the change of direction had to do with a search for authenticity. After Baker Roshi left, I was one of the most senior priests in the Zen Center community, and I was close to completing my studies for dharma transmission, so there was a clear expectation shared by many people of the course my life would take. My leaving was confusing to some, upsetting to some, and I think generally controversial. But it was something I had to do. I walked away from my career in music because it didn’t feel authentic, and then I walked away from Zen Center because my life there had ceased to feel authentic.
I wanted to live an ordinary life as a householder, which I did. At the same time, I continued my study of Buddhism, especially in traditions other than Zen, such as Vipassana meditation and Vajrayana. I wanted to know what Buddhism looked like in other guises.
This “ordinary” life took an unexpected turn in 1985, when doctors found a cancerous tumor in my abdomen the size of a football. For the next year I lived the life of a cancer patient. The chemotherapy and radiation treatments made me sick as a dog, and even though I was able to return to work, my health was compromised for several years afterward.
For a while, I thought I was done with my priest vows, but over time I discovered that my vows weren’t done with me. Slowly, I edged my way back into teaching; I started a small sitting group in town and began to do some writing. I was especially interested in the contrasts between my life in Zen and my life as a business person. Over time I came up with a book idea that connected my years of Zen training with my experience in the corporate workplace. The book, Work as a Spiritual Practice, came out in 1999.
Just after the book came out, life handed me another rude shock. I fell ill and soon was in a deep coma that my doctors did not think I could survive, let alone recover from. I had viral encephalitis, a devastating and often fatal illness, and when I awoke after two weeks I had brain damage and a slew of other disabilities. It took me three or four years to fully heal. Out of that experience, I wrote my second book, Healing Lazarus, which described my coma visions, my illness, and my slow recovery.
It sounds like this time your life walked away from you. This illness totally changed my life. As a software developer, I had made my living with my brain. Being smart and capable was central to my identity, and suddenly that was all snatched away. When I awoke out of my coma, I was like a newborn baby. I could barely move; seeing, hearing, and thinking were all difficult. I had to learn to stand, walk, eat, and perform basic bodily functions all over again. For weeks I was unable to talk— that was especially hard!
Essentially, I had to reboot my whole life, including my life of Buddhist practice. During the early stages of recovery, I felt I had lost most of my practice resources; I couldn’t sit, meditate, or concentrate. So I chanted the nembutsu—the recitation of the name of the Buddha of the Pure Land, Namu Amida Butsu—asking Amida Buddha to help me. As time went on, I realized that not only had my practice been helping me all along but that something had happened while I was in the coma that had completely changed me. During the coma, I was totally unaware of the outside world. I had no body and no sense organs—just consciousness. I was fully conscious and awake the whole time. I went to the edge, and when I came back, I was different.
This reminds me of a question we asked a number of people to respond to several issues back: “How has a mistake, shortcoming, or misfortune enriched your Buddhist practice?” Without the misfortune of my illnesses I would not be able to teach in the way I do today, which includes advising and counseling people about illness and loss. So in a dharmic sense, my illnesses were also gifts. The encephalitis brought me to my knees; but in Buddhist practice, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I got to find out what is really important, whether we’re talking about Buddhist practice or life in general.
When you take everything away, what have you got? That was the situation I had to work with. Having had everything stripped away, I understand that Buddha-mind does not depend on our capacities. The engine of practice is always there going. I unlearned a lot.
Sometimes when I’m asked to describe the Buddhist teachings, I say this: Everything is connected; nothing lasts; you are not alone. This is really just a restatement of the traditional Three Marks of Existence: non-self, impermanence, and suffering. I don’t think I would have expressed the truth of suffering as “you are not alone” before my illnesses, but now I find that talking about it that way gets at something important. The fact that we all suffer means we are all in the same boat, and that’s what allows us to feel compassion.