Long before Umi was a Zen master in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he was a seafaring rock radio pioneer who riled the establishment and ushered in the British Invasion. In this spirited interview, he shares tales of his colorful journey and sheds light on the nature of Zen.
As I approach the end of the long driveway on Empire Grade that leads to Stillpoint Zen Community, Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” is blaring from the nearest building. With its relentless, menacing bass line and its maniacal, howling pedal steel guitar, it’s a far cry from the soft sound of bells and wind chimes you might expect to hear at a spiritual center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But taken in context, it’s not an unfitting welcome: From 1964 to 1968, Stillpoint’s focal figure, now known to the members of his community as Enlightened Master Umi, served as DJ and program director for Britain’s first offshore pirate radio station, Radio Caroline. During those years, the station’s crew sailed the English Coast, defying the establishment by broadcasting the rock & roll music of the day. In so doing, they played a key role in sparking the British Invasion and bringing color and life force to a staid, button-down society. Their exploits are echoed—albeit in highly sensationalized form—in the film Pirate Radio, currently on the New Releases shelves of video stores.
Written under his birth name of Tom Lodge, Umi’s just-released book “The Ship that Rocked the World” (shipthatrocked.com) recounts his Radio Caroline days, during which he endured a shipwreck, incurred the wrath of a pointedly anti-rock British government, met bands like the Stones and The Who before they had become legends, and, at one point, accepted a mission to interview a mystery band that turned out to be The Beatles. On Saturday, Sept. 25 from 2 to 4 p.m., the author comes to Borders Books in downtown Santa Cruz (1200 Pacific Ave.) to read from his book and relive his adventures at sea. He’ll also be at Capitola Book Cafe on Nov. 9.
Lodge first grew interested in Zen in 1975 while training students to be recording engineers and record producers at London, Ontario’s Fanshawe College. Captivated by an Alan Watts book that a student had brought him, he began devouring as much literature as possible on the subject of Zen. But he soon found that words on paper were not enough. “The thing about Zen is: It’s practical,” Umi offers. “It’s not theoretical; it’s not philosophical; it’s not a theology; there’s no dogma. So you can’t study it. It’s like, if you want to learn to swim, get in the water! You have to do it.”
Lodge got his feet wet by spending time with various spiritual guides: first the Japanese Zen master Roshi Joshu Sasaki, then with Indian guru Osho and finally with New Zealand Zen teacher Mikaire. A 30-year quest for enlightenment culminated in 1999, when, by Umi’s account, he awoke to his Buddha-nature while standing by the Chalice Well in Glastonbury, England. On his website umiji.org, he writes, “Without warning, the transformation shook every fiber of my being. There was no more ground, there was only light. There were no more thoughts, simply the moment. All that had been important to me, all that I had built my life on, all opinions that I believed were important for surviving and being, all these turned to slush. The joke of lifetimes of struggling, wanting, longing, fearing, and desiring, exploded into an outpouring of laughter.”
A fellowship of seekers began to form around Lodge, whom Mikaire had renamed Umi in 1998. He became the nucleus of communities in San Francisco and Aptos before moving to his present location, which at the moment houses six other spiritual adherents.
Umi, now 74, claims his current life isn’t all that different from the one he led as a radio pirate. If his description of how he once reacted to the threat of impending shipwreck (to be related later in this article) is any indication, then it can truly be said that the heart of a roshi was always beating under Tom Lodge’s striped mod shirts. The reverse is also true: You needn’t look hard to see the rock & roll streak running through Umi’s spirituality. When he sounds off on the folly of religious asceticism, the fallacy of the nuclear family model or society’s use of greed and fear as motivators, it’s with the same vibrant rebel spirit from which rock & roll was born. And along with its more traditional Zen trappings (lush flora, deity statues, shoji screens), Stillpoint is home to electric guitars and basses (jamming, Umi explains, takes one right into the present) and a mural that conveys a distinctly bohemian sensibility. “One of the things that we’re encouraging here is to let that creative space emerge,” Umi states.
Clad in matching white T-shirt and slacks that reflect Stillpoint’s dominant color motif, Umi displays a simultaneously easygoing and lively demeanor as we sip peppermint tea and discuss the nature of Zen, his rock & roll past and his current life in the eternal present.
GOOD TIMES: So, how does one practice Zen?
Umi: Well, every master—not just Zen masters, but Sufi masters, Taoist masters and so on—always create a community, so you can live it. Now, the thing about Zen is, you don’t renounce the world. So many religions, when they get heavy into the spiritual, they renounce the world. Well, that’s insane! What you think this world is but the natural creation of the whole, and so on? The world is the divine. So why would you renounce it? Why would you renounce the body? Why would you put the body through all these difficult things that some of these guys do in India? So they create a community so you can be in the marketplace, but discover how to be not of it. It goes day by day—you can’t set up a formula, because the mind is very cunning; the mind doesn’t want this process, so it will try to own whatever you do. So, there’s a subtle dance that has to happen. There’s sitting and watching the breath, which is what meditation is—it’s not thinking about something, as so many people, particularly in California, have made meditation into. In the present, there’s no mind. The mind is a thinking machine about the past and the future. It’s a great machine; it’s a beautiful machine, but it’s not real. It creates a fantasy of the past and the future. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s about coming into reality and cease making the mind your master, but having it as a beautiful tool, like your car: It’s a great tool. [Chuckles.]
GT: But it hopefully doesn’t run your life.
Umi: Yeah! It shouldn’t rule your life, and the mind certainly shouldn’t rule your life. But for many people, it does.
GT: And it creates stress to fantasize about what might happen in this imaginary future.
Umi: Yeah! Which means you’re also closing yourself off from the glimpse of existence that could be here. You’re focusing [elsewhere], and you missed it. You don’t know what’s going to come. But if you’re alert and aware … Well, take surfing or downhill skiing. Both of those, while you’re doing it, you have to be totally there. You can’t have a formula; you just practice it until it becomes part of you. And when you go unconscious, thinking about the past or the future, you fall off! You have to be right there. Well, that’s what Zen is: being right here.
GT: You mentioned that the mind wants to own this experience. Do you find that as someone who’s looked up to, there’s a temptation to fall into the role of “master”?
Umi: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And the thing is, a true master can’t do that. He doesn’t create the situation; it’s just an invitation for others, and if there are enough people who are interested in the invitation, then something happens around that. See, mind creates this thing called “me”: the ego, the identity. If you ask somebody, “Tell me who you are,” they’ll tell you their name; they’ll tell you their job; they’ll tell you what their interests are and so on. That’s not who you are! Name is a label; the things you do are things you do, but that’s not who you are. If you start looking at those things, those are just ideas—your preferences. Where did that come from? Maybe your father, when you were six years old, said, “You’re really good at that,” so you started grabbing onto that. Zen says, “Become aware of that and cease supporting that.” Slowly it falls away. And then you can play with it, but it’s not who you are. It’s just a rag doll, you know? A puppet.
GT: Is it possible to live in the present all the time?
Umi: Sure. I mean, if you’re going somewhere, you’ve got to book a ticket in advance. But you’re doing that in the present. There’s no attachment. Then something happens, and you can’t go, or you get to the airport and the plane’s cancelled and so on—it’s not important, because you’re not attached to going. If the plane leaves on time, you go. You’re always in the present. But if you’re living in the “I’ve got to have, and I’ve got to do, and what will happen if I don’t?” well, then you’re under stress, and you’re living in a fantasy dream. It’s a nightmare. So it’s non-attachment to anything: not just things, but to ideas, preferences and so on. The Zen patriarch Sosan said, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preference.” But you don’t renounce anything. If things come, enjoy. If they go, enjoy! There’s not this Christian thing about money: “Oh, I’m not spiritual unless I’m poor, unless I renounce the world and live a very simple life.” That’s an attachment. Then you’re attached to that concept. If something comes, it’s not a problem. And then it goes. It’s not a problem.
GT: Does living without attachment and with no-mind mean never being irritable or having bad days?
Umi: A bad day is: You’re not accepting what is. It’s like depression: The industry is making a huge fortune out of giving drugs for depression. But all depression is, is: What’s happening and what I want to be happening is not close enough, not the same. It could be a really big ideal that you’ve been given as a child about altruism, about beautiful things and how you should live. You’re not being it, so you’re depressed. And instead of changing the chemicals in your brain, which the drugs do … because you can think and create chemicals in the brain. That’s what happens when you go to a movie: You get excited, you laugh, you get scared and so on. So, instead of trying to do that with drugs or make what’s happening like what I want, and struggle to get it, if you accept what’s happening, there’s no more depression. There can’t be any anger; there can’t be any irritability. This is what’s happening.
GT: Now, if somebody’s in excruciating physical pain …
Umi: Yeah, the body hurts. That’s what happens: Bodies hurt, but I am not the body. And the beautiful thing is, when you don’t identify with the body, you watch the pain. It doesn’t have the same effect. I’ve had many fillings done with no Novocaine, because I’d rather not have that chemical, Novocaine, in the body. And you just watch the pain. Now, there’s a certain point when it’s too much for the body, and you need the painkiller just to relax the body. That’s different. But I’m not talking about root canals; I’m talking about just little cavities. So it’s: I’m not the body. I’m not the mind. They’re always changing. It’s not the same body that it was ten years ago. I think they say every seven years it’s a totally different group of cells. Maybe this [skin cell] was once an atom in a lettuce. Who knows? And the mind changes second by second, right? People say, “I’m of two minds.” No, you’re of maybe a hundred minds! [Laughs.]
GT: All right. Well, it’s quite a transition from your …
Umi: [Jumping in] Not really! What do you think Radio Caroline was about? We created a platform for incredible creativity. See, before Radio Caroline, the British establishment controlled the culture—literally controlled everything that happened in the culture. They had the government radio station, which had these three channels: It had the BBC, it had the Home Service, which was kind of plays, comedies, light music and things like that, but nothing heavy—no rock & roll. And the third program was very academic: opera, Shakespeare and so on. And then there was another radio station over in Luxembourg: Record companies would buy, say, half an hour, and they’d give ’em 30 records to play. One minute of each record. They weren’t interested in creating a music program, but selling the records: “Here’s a sample.” Just like when you go on Amazon: You can hear a sample. So there was no outlet for musical creativity. These teenagers were frustrated! So we put this ship out there to broadcast what was happening. Suddenly the whole country changed and created the Swinging ’60s!
GT: Tell me about some of your most memorable experiences from that time.
Umi: Well, one time was when we were shipwrecked. We were in a big storm, and the anchor chain broke. We couldn’t control the ship; we were being blown to shore. There was another DJ called Dave Lee Travis, and I said, “Well, Dave, there’s nothing we can do. I mean, either we’re going to capsize and drown, or who knows. Let’s have a game of checkers.” So we were playing checkers. He was always so good, and he’d beaten me so many times. I was determined not to let him beat me this time, so I was playing really good. I was getting it all set up, and I was going to do the big bounce around the board. Suddenly the board goes flying as we hit the shore. Big bang! We go out there, and there’s all kinds of lights. It’s January—there’s snow on the ground. Somebody with a megahorn said, “Stand back from the deck. We’re going to fire a rope.” And then the crew set up a pulley system. And what you do is you get in what’s called a breeches buoy: You know, that round thing that they have on ships? And it’s got a pair of pants in it! You climb into that, and then you’re hauled off the ship!
But maybe the most interesting thing is my interview with The Beatles. I’d just gotten a message on the ship that I had to come ashore. I said, “Why?” They said, “Don’t ask questions. Just come ashore.” There’s a limousine waiting to pick me up, and he won’t tell me where we’re going. He takes me into Chelsea, into a little mews, a little backstreet called The Vale. There was this wall with this little door. He said: “Go through there.” So I go through. I had nothing prepared, no questions or any idea who I was interviewing. Suddenly out of the corner of my eyes, I see these guys in suits coming by. They come close: “Wow! It’s The Beatles! I thought I was interviewing the Queen!” The interview was topsy-turvy like that, because I didn’t have any idea who I was going to interview. I was continually being thrown by their humor and their ways of not answering questions. Like, for instance, I asked John, “What kind of mail do you get?” He said, “I had a male come ’round the other day.” He was talking like he was gay, making fun of this little “male” guy. That’s what they did all the time to all the questions!
GT: How did you feel about the movie Pirate Radio?
Umi: Well, it’s such a shame that Richard Curtis didn’t understand what Radio Caroline was about. Or maybe it was Universal [Pictures] that wanted some kind of spoof, but they missed the real story, which was about the music. I mean, it was extraordinary! And our enthusiasm for the music was always at a peak: We couldn’t wait until the new records came, and we’d go through them, pick out the ones we liked, find these new bands with these strange names and get excited about that. It was just what we loved. It wasn’t about parties. There were no girls on board; we had one beer a day; we didn’t know anything about marijuana. We were very innocent at that time. What we were doing was an adventure in itself.
GT: But I’d imagine Radio Caroline was a lot more raucous than the Zen tranquility of [Stillpoint].
Umi: Well, the thing about Zen is: It’s about inner silence. So you can be living in chaos. It’s not [lowers voice] all quiet and calm. Inside, but not on the outside. In fact, that’s why, when Bodhidharma took Zen to China, he taught martial arts: to get [students] more focused inside, more still inside, as they were doing the martial arts. And you can’t do it with the mind. Have you ever been in a car accident?
Umi: And did you do things that you couldn’t have planned?
GT: I think so.
Umi: Yeah. That’s it! When you’re in a crisis, clarity comes. I was driving down Felton Empire Grade when we first came here, and there’s a corner up there I was going around. There was a vehicle passing another vehicle, coming straight at me. But just out of clarity, [I saw that] there happened to be just enough space for my car to go to the other side. I went by, and off we went! [Chuckles.] Anytime anyone’s in a crisis, people have experienced that clarity. You can’t do it with the mind. It’s like that: It’s always about the inner silence.
written by willow tracy, September 09, 2010
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