An interview with Kobutsu Shindo Kevin Malone, Osho

by Danny Fisher: The Blog of an American Buddhist Chaplain, January 30, 2007

Sedgwick, Maine (USA) -- Kobutsu Shindo Kevin Malone, Osho, is an American Rinzai Zen Buddhist Priest of the Gempo-Soen-Eido lineage, and is also recognized as the Second Lineage Holder of the Celtic Buddhist tradition. A practitioner for nearly four decades, Kobutsu has studied with such preeminent Buddhist teachers as Ven. Eido Shimano, Roshi, and the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

<< Ven Kobutsu Malone, Osho

In 1992, Kobutsu established the Dharma Song Zendo at New York State's Sing Sing Prison, and served there for eight years as a volunteer Zen priest. In 1996, he established the Flowering Dogwood Zendo at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenel, NJ. He is also the co-founder of the Engaged Zen Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) corporation founded with the goal of "[fostering] contemplative meditative practice in prisons, [developing] monastic alternative sentencing/post release programs and [dealing] with the complete circle of human rights imperatives."

Regular readers of this blog may remember mention of Kobutsu and his recent book Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism: A Source Book for Prison Chaplains, Administrators, and Security Personnel some months ago in this post and this post.

I first became aware of Kobutsu and his work while I was working on a summer research grant at Denison University in 2000, studying the work of Buddhists at prisons in the United States, the U.K., and India. In the project the research ultimately produced, I gave special attention to Kobutsu's work with a prisoner named Rev. Jusan Fudo Sifu Frankie Parker, as I was particularly moved by their story.

This past July, Kobutsu sent me a hilarious e-mail in response to a post I wrote in which I offered a sort of review of his book. In our subsequent correspondence, I asked if he would be willing to do an interview for the blog and he graciously agreed.

I spoke with Kobutsu last week by phone, transcribed our interview, and vetted it with his input via e-mail.

DANNY FISHER: For those unfamiliar, can you tell us about yourself, your work, and the Engaged Zen Foundation? How did you get involved with prison work?

KOBUTSU MALONE: I was part of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the psychedelic movement--way back. I hung out with a lot of heavy psychedelic cowboys: Timothy Leary, the Grateful Dead... Guys in Haight-Ashbury. People like that. So, I knew a lot of people who wound up in jail for one reason or another. I actually got arrested in Washington, D.C., in 1968. I was at a friend’s house and was falsely charged with presence in an illegal establishment and possession of implements of a crime. I was sent to the D.C. jail. I stayed in there fourteen days, and on the second or third day I was in there I was beaten and raped. I managed to stick my foot in an electric gate and got transferred out to a hospital. When I got there, I was able to tell one of the orderlies what had happened to me, which led to my being subjected to questionings about being a homosexual by white-coat correctional officers. They told me it would take three months for me to go to trial if I pleaded innocent to the charge that I had a marijuana smoking pipe in my suitcase. (Even though I didn’t own a suitcase or a marijuana smoking pipe and there was no sign on my friend’s house that said, “This is an illegal establishment.” I didn’t know where I was or what was going on. I was just an eighteen-year-old kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

So, after that, I kind of steered clear of any kind of jail or correctional facility... Until I was around forty-years-old, when the vice abbot of Daibosatsu Zendo came to me and said, “Someone is trying to get rid of the meditation program in Sing Sing Prison. Would you be willing to take it over?” These were evidently a couple of New Age people who had gone in and started a stress reduction meditation program for some reason or another, and they were going to dump it because the prisoners had essentially taken control of it. These people weren’t really in a position to handle it, and they weren’t really qualified to be teaching meditation. (And besides, the prisoners didn’t really want meditation--what they wanted to do was use it for political and fund-raising activities.) These people were really doing their meditation program at any place that would take it, and they just wanted out [of the prison work]. So the vice abbot said, “Hey, Kobutsu, you wanna take this?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” He said, “I can’t think of anyone more qualified.” So I said, “Sure, I’ll teach there.” And he said, “Good! I always thought you belonged in prison.” And off I went.

The first time going into Sing Sing was quite scary. The sound of that steel door slamming behind me brought back some pretty strong memories... I visited the place six-hundred-and-seventy-three times over the next eight years. Each time was at least two-and-a-half hours. Many times, the visits were weekend and all-day sessions, where we would go from seven in the morning until nine at night for up to three or four days in a row. I published a magazine called Gateway Journal during that time, and I began correspondences with literally thousands of prisoners. I set up a Buddhist book program. I sent out about fifty-thousand books to prisoners all over the country. I got grants from the George Soros Foundation, the Tides Foundation, a couple of other groups--smaller grants from various people. So, that’s what I did, along with raising two kids, supporting a household, and supporting myself working as an engineer.

DF: At Naropa University, where I was a student, we were trained with the notion that a big part of chaplaincy is social justice work. I can think of lots of examples of people who do chaplaincy with very pronounced social justice pieces in the Judeo-Christian traditions--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Sloane Coffin, and Sister Helen Prejean all come immediately to mind. To my thinking, you’re a great example of this in the Buddhist world.

KM: I’m out there to raise holy motherfucking hell. I’ll tell you the truth. That’s my job. My job is to light fires under people and raise hell. You cannot do your job for the benefit of all beings if you are a part of the system that oppresses them. So many people going into the prison environment automatically enter it with the idea--or without the idea; it’s probably unconscious--that they are part of the establishment and somehow under the protection of the administration. Actually, their job in there is to liberate people, not oppress them. There are things to be learned. If you’re not in there fighting the administration, then you’re not doing your job. You can’t work for a prison and be a chaplain properly because your paycheck depends on your cooperation with the administration, and the administration is there for one purpose: propagation of the thirteenth amendment, which actually permits slavery and involuntary servitude in prisons. If we’re working for the system, paid by the prisons, we cannot do our job properly and serve the prisoners.

DF: Do you think this is true in other popular realms for chaplaincy, like healthcare and military facilities?

KM: Absolutely. All realms. You know, you have doctors working in prisons who are told, “You cannot treat these people for these conditions. Do not treat these people beyond this point for that condition.” This is not in the best interest of the patient, but it’s in the best interest of the actuaries who are figuring out the expenditures on medicine within the institution. According to the Hippocratic Oath, doctors cannot ethically do this sort of thing, but they do it all the time. Periodically, though, you will find the very, very infrequent altruist who is out there.

DF: So, you have to do chaplaincy from the outside?

KM: The only way to do it clean is be a volunteer. Yep. But being a volunteer, you have to be a very powerful fucking volunteer. You have to go in so that they know, “You don’t fuck with that monk.”

DF: Can one be in the organization but not of it?

KM: I don’t think they should be in the organization whatsoever. I think they should be agitating to deconstruct the organization. Punitive incarceration is simply unacceptable. It doesn’t work--never has, never will. Punishment itself is invalid. It does nothing but damage people. As a society, we don’t get that yet.

DF: I had thought that maybe Saddam Hussein’s public hanging might be a catalyst for popular discourse on this point…

KM: Well, you have to remember that corporate media is not going to let you see the truth and that cannot be trusted. It is just propaganda. When you go to real things... People are still being crucified in the Sudan. Darfur is an absolute nightmare. These things are happening right under our noses. Saddam Hussein... What about the rest of the world? You’ve got Buddhists running around saying, “Oh, the statues! We have to rebuild the buddhas that the Taliban knocked down!” Well, what about the female buddhas in the country? What about them--the alive buddhas? Give that money to them. Educate them. Get them out from under the control of male-dominated social systems instead of rebuilding stupid statues. Buddhism is alive--it’s alive. It’s not some statue. It’s not some scripture. It’s in the hearts and minds of the people. But we don’t get that...yet.

DF: How do you think the social justice work of a chaplain in one of the Buddhist traditions differs from, say, the strong examples in the Judeo-Christian traditions? Does it?

KM: Well--no. There’s no difference. The Buddha teaches anarchy. He teaches anarchy and awakening. He does not teach subservience, nor does he teach detachment--he simply teaches the consequences of attachment.

DF: Can you say more about the word “anarchy?”

KM: Anarchy means not relying on authority, questioning authority on all grounds. The basis for this is in the Kalama Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. [The latter are the last words of the Buddha,] where he says, “Be a lamp unto yourself. Figure it out for yourself. Do not rely on outside authority.” Questioning authority is fundamental to the Buddhist path; Buddhism is anarchistic. All of the elites that we have been subservient to for all these years are now destroying the planet, and we simply cannot allow that to happen. The time for that is over.

DF: So, how does one make a shift from subservience to anarchy? What’s the path?

KM: Agitate. Agitate, agitate, agitate. Read Frederick Douglass. Read Malcolm X.

We also need to begin to recognize the limitations of the Buddha’s teachings as they are available to us. One of those limitations is that the vast majority of these traditions are held within religious boundaries. For example, in my own school--or, one of my schools--which is the Rinzai Zen school, there is a whole set of religious concepts, principles, hierarchy, and things like that. These have been in place for hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These things have modified the Dharma and the teachings in ways that ensure their self-survival. This is quite understandable. So, when the Dharma comes to this country, it is coming in a religious vessel. The shape of that vessel is largely determined by the teacher--where he is coming from and how he is trained. But we don’t necessarily have to adopt that shape. We can make another shape. We can modify the shape of the vessel. We don’t have to be subservient. We don’t have to practice love and light. We don’t have to go around handing out imaginary lotuses and telling each other that we’re buddhas-to-be. That’s horseshit. That’s watered-down Dharma for children. We’re not buddhas-to-be—the first thing the Buddha said when he awakened was, “Wonder of wonders, all beings are fundamentally awake.” They’re not going to be--they are.

When we’re looking at the vast majority of practitioners in the West, particularly within the United States, we’re looking at people who are approaching this from the point of view of self-transformation. This is usually how most people come in. Now, the transformative aspect has a tendency to be limited within the Zen tradition to just that of personal kensho, or personal awakening. What I am proposing is that we need to carry awakening beyond just personal transformation. It has to go into the social, psychological, spiritual, political, economic, and ecological realms. We have to awaken in all of these areas almost simultaneously. It cannot be limited to just a selfish experience of “I’m awake, I’m enlightened, and blah-blah-blah.” So, it involves a huge amount of social responsibility on top of the basic anarchistic principle. And therein lies the path of the awakened state of mind. It involves navigating all of these things, and it’s no mean feat. Unlike some teachers, I teach that there are definitely morals and ethics in Zen. Absolutely. You know, my own teacher denies that there are morals in Zen. I’m sorry, but that’s unacceptable. It simply isn’t true. There are no morals in his Zen. American Zen is not his Zen. It’s something entirely different. It’s going to be very, very special. Very, very meaningful.

DF: Thank you, Kobutsu, for your time and for your work.

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