by Debra Greenfield
A conversation with Zen Monk, addiction recovery worker and Buddhist chaplain, Venerable Thay Kobai Whitney of the Plum Mountain Buddhist Community in Aberdeen, Washington.
I first met Ven. Kobai after reading about his work with recently released inmates at his Plum Mountain Buddhist Community, and learning about his Buddhist Recovery meeting in Aberdeen. I was interested in his eclectic monastic background, and his blogs about integrating his
own 12-step program work with his Buddhist path. In 2012, my husband and I were running a Buddhist Recovery meeting in the University area of Seattle, and were going on a pilgrimage to Thailand for almost a month. I thought I would invite a couple of speakers to come to our group and do a talk in our absence, and Ven. Kobai graciously accepted the invitation. I finally met him some time later, at our first Northwest Buddhist Recovery facilitator conference, which we held at a Theravada Buddhist temple in Woodinville, where an old friend of his lives and teaches. We corresponded over email as our Buddhist organization grew, and I asked him for much advice. Last summer we invited him to come to our first Buddhist Recovery weekend retreat to teach meditation and talk about recovery. He not only offered the participants meditation instruction, but added Chi Gong movement and wonderful Dharma talks about how the Buddhist path can help ease our recovery.
The exchanges we have had since have been colorful and cheeky, yet at the same time he can be a staunch proponent of the necessity of the AA 12-step model for addiction recovery and will hold nothing back when talking about his beliefs and challenges with the program. The following is an interview I recently conducted with Thay, discussing his monastic life and his own personal journey of spirituality and addiction recovery.
NWBR – Venerable, I want to thank you for taking time and agreeing to do this with me. It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and while I was writing these questions I was thinking that although I know readers will be interested in your colorful life, I am so happy to have some time with you to personally get to know you better.
VK – (chuckle) I always love talking about myself. NWBR – Don’t we all?
NWBR – Ven. Kobai, could you share with us your personal history of when you first became interested in pursuing a spiritual path, and how you came to integrate it with your own recovery path?
VK – Well it goes way back. I come from a family where my father and his father were alcoholics, and also his father before that. We have (including my generation with siblings and kids), probably six generations, mostly the male line, that have succumbed to alcoholism. Today my siblings are mostly all alive and sober, except for one who died of an overdose.
My mother was Irish Catholic. My Father was from a wealthy family that I guess you could say were Atheist, so my attraction to the spiritual path started very young when I became an altar boy with the Catholic Church. The only time I felt peaceful was when I was at church. It was clean, smelled of incense and beeswax, and everything was orderly and quiet as opposed to my home, which had lots of noise and chaos. So I formed a desire to go into the religious life, and I did- quite early.
In those days the church had Junior Seminaries and Junior Novitiates and you went in during your high school years. I decided I didn’t like the life of a parish priest, but wanted to explore the life of a monk, not necessarily a strict order (like the Trappists). I really wanted to go into a more active order of teachers or something like it. There was a Catholic high school in Fresno, and the boys were taught by the La Salle brothers, otherwise known as the Christian Brothers. It was an order geared toward religious teaching, especially for the poor. I started visiting one of the Brothers at the high school who helped me to contact their Novitiate in Napa, CA. They also had a winery there…
NWBR – Oh, boy… VK – Yeah.
VK – So, both my drinking career AND monastic path started together at Mont La Salle. There they had the Novitiate, the winery and a community of retired brothers called “The
Ancients.” I spent 4 1⁄2 years there training to be a brother. It provided me the escape that I wanted from my alcoholic home. At the time I didn’t understand what I was doing, much I figured out retroactively. I was devout and idealistic so the years I spent there were very happy ones for me.
Meanwhile, my father became sober through AA, so things were not so bad at home any more. At the same time, I was realizing that I liked other men and began having a few affairs at the Juniorate. Being Catholic, this made me feel very guilty and I also realized that I would not be able to keep a vow of chastity. Also, this was the 1960s, and I was hearing about all the exciting things happening on the outside.
Not long after returning to Fresno I grew my hair long and grew a beard, (you know, became a hippy) and decided I was an existentialist. I got a scholarship to go to Europe and attended the University of Madrid for a year, traveling and drinking a lot (as were we all). This was the beginning of a very permissive time for me and my fellow ex-pat students, but Dictator Franco was still in power and at the same time it was very repressive there.
This was also the beginning of demonstrations in Europe against the Vietnam war, and I lived in a student residence owned by the Brazilian government. I lived with a lot of South Americans and really got an education in the politics of that time.
Ok, so then I returned to the United States. Eventually I moved to San Francisco and in 1975 I bottomed out, as they say, and went into a Salvation Army detox. That introduced me to AA in the Bay area, and some of the first gay community’s AA meetings. There were also Atheist/Agnostic meetings which I could go to. I got more sobriety under my belt and I realized that I had a lot of free time on my hands.
I always wanted to learn to meditate, and I heard about the San Francisco Zen Center. It turns out I had a friend who attended and lived across the street from the Page Street Center. He introduced me to people there, and for the first year I only went to their Saturday lectures, because I didn’t have to sit cross-legged. I could get a chair in the back, and hear all these wonderful speakers like Philip Whalen (a poet/Zen priest) and Issan Dorsey.
Issan had been an addict and drag queen for many years, and Suzuki Roshi had taken him in and encouraged him to study Zen. Issan became one of my early mentors. I spent those years going to 12-step meetings, mostly AA, and trying to find ones where they didn’t say the “Our Father”! There were plenty of choices in the city, like now. In fact these days, Zen centers in San Francisco host several recovery study groups, like the group at the Hartford Street
Zendo. One of the teachers that came through the San Francisco Zen Center as a guest lecturer was Robert Aitken Roshi from Hawaii, I was very impressed with him. Later, after I was sober a few years, I went to University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health. There, I completed a certificate program in addiction studies and I began to work in various treatment programs throughout the Bay area.
At one point, I decided to leave San Francisco and move to Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State. After a year of running a bakery on the island, I ended up moving to Hawaii and became a student of Robert Aitken Roshi, and lived there for the next 30 years. I lived in Honolulu, except for the five years when I took a job in American Samoa and another year in the Marshall Islands, but I always came back to Honolulu and the Aitken group, which is called the Honolulu Diamond Sangha.
In 1995, I took my refuges and precepts with Aitken in what is called a “lay ordination,” – a real contradiction in terms for most traditional Buddhists! Places like the San Francisco Zen Center and the Zen Center in Los Angeles all went along a stricter monastic path, but Aitken never did that. He pioneered “householder Zen”, and remained a married lay teacher all his life. “Diamond Sangha” descends from a Japanese lineage called “Sambo Kydan”, which is a lay tradition. He introduced the idea that you could be a Zen person, and also be a householder- even be a Zen teacher- without becoming a monk.
NWBR – How did you come to work with inmates and become a Buddhist Chaplain with the Department of Corrections in Washington state?
VK – There was a Federal Detention Center out near the Honolulu International Airport, (the HDS) and some individuals from the Vipassana community wanted to pair up with practitioners from the Aitken’s group to volunteer teaching meditation to the prisoners. That’s how I started working with inmates. Atiken himself was very supportive, but the Sangha leadership and board of directors was not. They kind of rallied against Aitken in terms of his social action and became very conservative. So, some of us individuals from the HDS started going in with Vipassana volunteers. It was then I saw a different style of Buddhism than I was not familiar with. At the same time I was learning how to work in a prison setting, I was learning about Vipassana meditation instruction, and it opened up a whole new world to me.
Later on, I ran into Arnie Kottler, who was publisher at Parallax Press in Berkeley and I pitched him my idea for a book on prison Dharma. I said, “Nothing has been done on this, I think it’s a good idea”. He agreed. I wrote a book proposal, and began working on what would become Sitting Inside.
In the course of researching the book I did a phone interview with the first Buddhist Chaplain in Washington state, Aryadaka Dharmmachari, from the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now Triratna Community). I was thinking about coming to the west coast anyway to visit family, so he invited me to do some one-day retreats in prisons in Washington State. We did two one- day retreats at two different prisons. I eventually went back to Hawaii and kept working on my book, which came out 2002. I was working as an editor for HONOLULU Magazine and I happened to call Aryadaka one day and he told me he was dying of liver failure, and that he would be dead within a few months. A week later, it occurred to me that I was not happy with my life in Hawaii. I was actually relapsing at that point, drinking, but trying to hide it. I was not a happy camper. So I thought this might be my ticket out. I emailed him, asking who was going to take his place. He said he had no idea and so I asked what would he think if I applied for it? He said he would be very happy.
After he died a few months later in 2004 I came to Olympia and interviewed. They gave me the contract as Buddhist Chaplain for the Washington State Department of Corrections.
Most recently in 2012. I received novice ordination in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, and in July 2014, I received teacher ordination from Thich An Giao, the Abbot at the Desert Zen Center in Lucerne Valley, California.
NWBR – How did the Plum Mountain Buddhist Community come about, who do you serve there and what is the primary mission of your community?
VK – Plum Mountain happened as I was a Chaplain at Stafford Creek Correctional Center, and living on Grays Harbor. Several local people asked me if I would lead a meditation group. A bunch of them were from the Community College faculty, so that’s how Plum Mountain started. “Plum” comes from my Dharma name “Kobai” which means “old plum” or “old plum tree.” You get a different name with each ordination, but I always held on to that first one from Aitken. Every Zen center is also supposed to have a mountain name. I didn’t want to name it after Mt. Rainier, for one thing, it’s not on the coast, for another it’s not the original name, which is Tahoma which means “white mountain.” So I thought, “I’ll just use my name, and it will be Plum Mountain”.
Now, our “house temple” is in a group of duplexes where I have a little two bedroom apartment. The living room is the meditation hall, set up with all the zafus and Buddhas, and we have our Tuesday night sangha meeting there. We usually have two to eight people there, and we have a sit and a Dharma talk on we have cookies and tea. Then, on Sundays I have a recovery meditation group from 4:30 to 6:00 in the afternoon, run along the lines of many of the other Buddhist recovery groups. We have peer-led sharing, sitting, then reading and discussion of a text, usually something by Kevin Griffin or David Loy.
In addition to the Plum Mountain Sangha, I also have been teaching meditation at a hospital based recovery center, and work with the adult school in Montesano, called Montesano Community Education. I teach a workshop called “Meditation for People who Think They Can’t Meditate”. It’s held quarterly and is very popular. A lot of people have had this experience and say “I can’t meditate because of this and that…” and there they find that they can!
I am also teaching a workshop called “Mindfulness in the Kitchen”. We’ll be cooking together some good, tasty vegetarian food, defining vegan, and discussing cooking as a spiritual practice.
NWBR – Could you share about your writing and books you have published? We talked a little about “Sitting Inside” is there anything else you are working on right now that you’d like to tell us about?
VK – I just participated in the ordination of a novice named Chris Richards, who was an inmate in New Jersey who I corresponded with for many years. I’m very happy about that. North West Dharma Association is publishing a piece on his ordination and there will be nice
photos. I’ve also been working on a book called Heart Open, Mouth Shut.
NWBR – (laughing) I love that, that is definitely close to my heart!
VK – I’m not making much progress with it, but am also writing poetry and some fiction at times.
NWBR – If you could choose the core teachings of the Buddha that you share with those
suffering from addiction or dealing with incarceration, what would they be and why?
VK – I think Buddhism is a really good way to explain about the nature of addiction. Buddhism also has its own 12 steps—the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold path. Also the “Three Poisons” of greed, hatred and delusion, really the whole of Buddhist teachings, cover what is going on when we are using, with our constant attempts to hold on what we have or to push away people, places and things we don’t like. The teachings also provide a blueprint in the Four Noble Truths for how to live, outlining practices of lifelong projects like right livelihood or right speech that can lead us to a more ethical life with less suffering.
NWBR – Ven., to close, is there anything you can share with our recovery community about walking a Buddhist path of addiction recovery?
VK – June 5, 2015 was my 10th year of sobriety from alcohol. That’s very important to
me. What I would like to tell the readers is that this path is a practice. We have to just keep at it. It’s like if you want to be really good on the violin or the piano, you have to practice every day. That’s what we have to do. So much of western Buddhist teaching has become a big distorted mess. It’s become a pop psychology. All the Buddha taught and promised was contentment in this lifetime. If we want that we have to practice with the contemplative and the ethical components. We need to encourage each other and to keep at it. And don’t play at being a hermit. Get a sangha!
NWBR – That is so true for me, I have found it so beneficial in my own recovery to have a sangha of friends to walk the path with.
Thank you, Ven. Kobai for all that you do for the Buddhist community. May you be well.
Plum Mountain Buddhist Community is a collection of spiritual eccentrics who are trying to practice the methods of the historical Buddha. We practice in a mixed tradition that is based on the Pali canon and the Theravadin traditions that surround the historical Buddha’s original teachings.
Thay Kobai Whitney is the spiritual director of Plum Mountain and conducts meditation classes in the coastal, Grays Harbor area of Washington as well as leading retreats around the Northwest. He especially works with marginalized people who do not feel comfortable in other spiritual communities: people in 12-Step programs, those recovering from prison or homelessness, domestic violence or loss of a loved one.
Our community tries to work on social justice projects along with other faith communities in the northwest. In the Olympia and Grays Harbor areas we partner with the 12-Step communities, jails and prisons, and with services for the hungry and the mentally ill. Our sangha members are committed to the idea that all beings wake up as we ourselves seek out our illumination through practice of the Way of mindfulness and compassion.
We meet every Tuesday evening from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. @ 516 West Cushing Street Aberdeen, WA 98520. Beginners and people of any or no faith are welcome.
Thay Kobai also leads retreats inside and outside prisons around the West Coast.