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The Making of a Modern-Day Zen Master

With Jun Po Denis Kelly

by Ross Robertson

Jun Po Denis Kelly is a man of many things—Zen Buddhist roshi, Ashtanga yogi, psychedelic pioneer, former federal prisoner, cancer survivor, and noted modernizer of the famed Rinzai tradition of samurai-era Japan. He’s a man of rare strength and sweetness, whose character combines an unusually powerful self-confidence with a striking sense of defenselessness and deep vulnerability. Most of all, perhaps, he’s a true man of the sixties, and his life cuts a colorful arc through the era when the discovery of new layers of self and consciousness swept an entire generation beyond the limits of the familiar and into a deeper confrontation with the meaning of life and the nature of reality.

Kelly was born to a military family in northern Wisconsin on April 14, 1942. A troubled youth and an early spiritual hunger led him west to California in 1963, where he was quickly taken up in the exploratory ferment of the counterculture. He became a first-generation psychonaut and self-described “urban shaman,” a friend of Alan Watts and the Grateful Dead, a contemporary of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and one of the freewheeling inventors of the legendary Clear Light “Windowpane” LSD. He also began a dedicated study of Buddhist meditation, spending time with both Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche before finally meeting the man who would become his teacher, Rinzai Master Eido Shimano Roshi of the Zen Studies Society in New York.

After fourteen years of intensive training, Eido Roshi eventually recognized Jun Po as a Zen master in his own right, making him his first dharma heir as well as the heir to his monastery, Dai Bosatsu. But Jun Po’s path was destined to take a different course.

Desperate to make sense of the Rinzai tradition for his own time and culture, he decided to leave Dai Bosatsu to pursue an experiential education in Western psychotherapy. Soon, he also began translating many of the traditional Japanese teachings he’d been given into modern Western forms. He later joined the ManKind Project, a prominent international men’s movement, and started leading seven-day Zen retreats for men. Ultimately, he went on to found his own lay Buddhist order, Hollow Bones, and develop a contemporary Rinzai path called Mondo Zen, updating the traditional Zen koan study with a new dialectic “ego deconstruction/reconstruction” dialogue process born of his own innovative blend of East and West.

Today, at age sixty-seven, Jun Po is a wise soul who recently survived stage IV throat cancer. He is still teaching and leading retreats, still reaching in new directions, still wildcrafting mushrooms, dancing the tango, practicing zazen. He’s doing it all with grace and generosity, and this is his story—told in his own words, as taken from a recent series of interviews with EnlightenNext

–Ross Robertson

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This article is from
The Evolving Faces of God - New perspectives on the meaning of spirituality for our time


September–November 2009