An Interview with John Terlazzo concerning Folktales & Ancient Stories
Recently John Terlazzo told 3 nights of folktales at Martin Library – Into the Wilderness. These were primarily folktales from the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Sufi & other Eastern traditions, at the library’s request. Ask someone to describe John and invariably they will say, "He's a wonderful storyteller." If you've ever read John's poetry, listened to him perform with his band Voices in the Hall, or attended one of his workshops or speaking engagements, you're nodding your head and smiling. If you haven't yet had that pleasure, keep reading…
JJ John, what draws you to the deep, rich well of storytelling?
JJT Well, it's the same energies that draw me to poetry and to songs. There are ancient stories all over the world that are…they're wired into our cells. And I think that in order for us to become fully human, we need to digest these stories.
JJ Why do you think people respond so strongly to stories?
JJT I think that so many of these old tales coming from these various cultures and traditions around the world…I think a lot of these old tales are elemental to the maturity of human beings. It's essential for these tales to be there for people to pass into adulthood. And so much of our culture now is stuck in a kind of adolescence or even pre-adolescence - even among people who are 30 or 40 years old - that we haven't taken the step across the threshold into adulthood in our culture, primarily because these stories are absent. More importantly, because the transcendence that these stories represent is absent in our culture, and people are starving for that transcendence. And they turn to drugs and they don't get the transcendence; they turn to structured religion and they don't get the transcendence. We have to go deeper than all of that. So I think people are just literally starving - I think we're starving for the nourishment that exists in these ancient tales…the nourishment that really kept humanity healthy for many, many, many centuries. I don't know if I've said this before, but even in the Middle Ages when we think of people in that time period as being stupid - illiterate - you know, and so therefore we think that translates into stupidity, but these people were hearing these folktales in their villages and they were thinking deeply about the tales. They were thinking deeply about what every aspect of the tale represented in their lives - the giant in the story that came into their village; the dragon that came and ate the sheep in their village. They understood that the dragon was a part of themselves. Even these so-called "unsophisticated" people understood that there was a part of themselves that they had to grapple with and come to terms with. And we don't do that anymore. You know, when we hear folk tales, those tales put us to work in a kind of deep labor…inner labor, and now we have a culture that instead of hearing these old tales, we primarily are stuck in television where 60 million images pass through our minds daily and we don't comprehend any of it. We don't go anywhere with it. We're not put to work with it; we are just made docile by it. So I think people are starving from that constant diet. And so when they hear the folk tales - keep in mind these folk tales go back to their ancestors, generation after generation after generation - there's something that becomes awakened and people long for that nourishment. It’s an awakening.
JJ It seems that storytelling is becoming a lost art these days. What are some of the ways we can keep this time-honored tradition and aspect of our humanity alive in our culture?
JJT Well, the culture is dying from within itself. We live in an empire now, and like all empires, an empire gets to a certain point where it needs to learn a lesson. If it learns the lesson, it can prosper and grow; if it doesn't learn the lesson, it's doomed to fall apart. It's doomed to collapse. Rome was a clear example of that. There was an empire that got to a place where violence became entertainment, the wealthy went around making themselves wealthier and made no bones about the fact that they would step on the poor to do it. Rome sent its legions out to make war on people who never did anything to them, to take from them whatever they wanted. All of this sounds incredibly relevant to the moment we are living in because it is. We're at exactly the same spot, and it's so interesting to me that this mystic Jesus arose in the Roman Empire and said to them, "You need to take care of the poor; you need to pay attention to the poor." And Rome ignored him and nailed him to a tree. And then Rome fell. We're doing exactly the same thing now. Only now the world is so much smaller and the reality of it is that the empire that we're in now is not just one country - this empire is expanding all over the world through electronic media. And it's destroying some very rich, sacred cultures on the Earth. So we have to learn the lesson - are we going to take care of the poor of the world or are we going to do what we've been doing, which in the end is going to create more terrorism? That's a very big-picture answer to your question. What you and I can do as individual human beings is turn off the television and encourage people we meet to think deeply for themselves instead of allowing that box to do it for them. I know that sounds harsh, and I know people can feel offended by a statement like that, but I think that we're not even vaguely aware of how much we don't think for ourselves in this culture. So I think a great thing to do is to seek out stories and tell them to people you know and care about - tell them to children…that's very important. To create stories, to create poems…to work with images, to write. You know, the thing that's coming into my mind right now is - and I've heard this said so many times - "I can't do anything about anybody but myself." There's that statement. And on a certain level there's a lot of truth to that. So all we can do is become deeper, richer human beings ourselves and offer that in our relationships with people in the world. Having said that, I think part of our responsibility, especially if we believe in any of this so-called freedom that we hear people talking about, is that we have to speak truth to power. These folk tales are so full of deep Truth.
JJ Have you always been a natural at this? How do you find just the right balance between using the stories to teach and entertaining your audience at the same time?
JJT (Laughs) Have I always been a natural? I…don't know. I don't know how to answer that, except…if there's some balance there, it's just because I just keep trying. And hopefully I learn a little bit about what works and what doesn't work in talking to people. But I love the stories. And if you really love stories like that and you start to tell them to a group of people, you get drunk on the stories. I think that drunkenness is contagious. And I think what happens…I'm guessing that what happens is that the drunkenness from the stories - and I mean that in the best sense of the word - has to do with transcendence. And when we tell tales to one another and we think deeply about them and we think deeply about our lives, we transcend the mundane, the everyday. By that I don't mean that we throw out the everyday or the mundane - I mean that we realize the preciousness in every moment. That arises from drinking at the well of these ancient stories. And it's so exciting to me to see how often there are so many correlations and the same tales are told in varying forms in so many different cultures - some of them are a hundred years old and some of them are thousands of years old. It's beautiful.
JJ You often try to illustrate the common thread among stories from many different cultures. The stories are able to reach across cultural lines; they are just as valid today as they were hundreds of years ago. Would you talk a little bit about the commonalities found within the archetypes and symbolism used in the stories?
JJT Well, I think one of the really crucial archetypes that we don't look at much in our culture and that is causing our culture to suffer so much is…well, let's take two of those, the warrior and the hero. In many, many cultures over the Earth, there have been these archetypes. And the warrior or the hero is one that would willingly give his life for Truth, and in so many stories he'll raise up a sword or an axe. In so many of these traditions, I mean whether you're talking about Medieval Europe or the Sufi tradition or Buddhism in Japan…or China, or in these African tribes - and I'm talking all of this in the past - the understanding was there that a warrior had a responsibility, a code, that he or she had to abide by. And the code was always about placing the good of the community above oneself and placing Truth above any other need. The sword or the axe that he would raise in a story like that was never - and this is what we don't understand now - that sword was never raised to cut down another. The purpose of the sword or the axe was to cut through illusions - to cut through those things that made you blind to Truth, and that's what it represents in those tales. The sword is not about cutting down someone else. If you look at a great tale like The Ramayana, you have to understand that these people Rama and Sita are exiled to the wilderness. They are exiled away from the world of riches and laws and comfort and royalty, and they're sent into the wilderness, which is a place where it's dark and wild and creatures live out there that nobody really knows anything about. Animals live out there - wild animals. And you go out there to sleep on the ground. And this represents the hero, in this case both male and female, Rama and Sita. The hero going out into the wilderness represents turning inward in meditation. It represents having to step outside of structures and laws of society or any given religion to go deeper. If you want the Truth you have to go beyond your concepts of truth. So any wise leader of any religion understands that his religion is there to lead people along the path to God, but that the religion itself is not God, is not Truth - it is a stepping stone on the way. Where so many people in our culture now - not just our culture, but it happens sometimes in other cultures around the world - where so many people get stuck is in believing that their religion is the Truth, and that somehow they have to defend it against somebody else. And then everybody is just cutting each other's throats…and God is not on the scene any longer. So Rama and Sita - they go into the wilderness, they go into this deep space of going towards Truth, and they will give up anything and everything in order to transcend the falsehoods and come into Truth. That's the work of the hero; that's the work of the warrior. So the warrior in these stories, while they're out there in the wilderness they come across many demons. The demons represent those parts of ourselves that keep us from realizing the Truth. And so our job as the warrior or the hero, then, is to raise up the sword that cuts through illusions and cut down those demons. All of this is happening symbolically, metaphorically in the stories. It does not mean nor can it ever be used to justify - and I can't stress this enough - killing other human beings. Small minded people who want to control other people will use tales like this to make people go to war and do their bidding. We see it happen time and time again. We see these modern wars that are perpetrated in the name of democracy and freedom, and that is a lie - an outrageous lie. Real freedom cannot come from killing other human beings; in fact, it's the opposite of freedom. So the stories show us that we have to be willing to cut through that which keeps us in chains. And we must be willing to do that at all costs if we want Truth, if we want God. If we don't want Truth, if we don't want God, then go ahead, kill people you don't know…make your life miserable. It starts in violence and that'll make more violence happen, which will cause more violence to happen, and it never stops. It's so interesting that in Yoga, the posture that is called 'The Hero' interestingly enough is a posture of submission. It's a posture in which the body is folded over the bent legs and it leans forward and the forehead is offered to the ground. Now, a cynical Western modern mind might look at that and say, "The hero is submissive - well, that's cowardly." It has nothing to do with being cowardly. The head is being bowed down to ultimate Truth - it is saying "I'm giving up my life to ultimate Truth." Now there are people who might say that a soldier is being incredibly courageous to go into battle. I will say - and especially in this day and age when wars are fought for profit above all else - it takes far more courage to refuse to kill others, and it's a major struggle in our age. If we truly want to awaken, then we have to be willing to give ourselves to the quest for Truth, and we can't let anything stand in the way of that. These stories provide us with great nourishment with these ideas and they provide us with the opportunities to transcend our biases, our bigotries; to transcend the blinders that we wear.
JJ Stories are a vital part of the history of every culture. It seems that we are in danger of losing touch with this aspect of our own culture. Are there any stories in particular that you think it would be important for Americans to know?
JJT Well, that part of the Earth we're calling the United States is a very new thing - it's a very young entity. And all of the people here have come from somewhere else...except of course the Indians who lived here…well, even they came from somewhere else - across vast tundras. (Laughs) So the tales have to come from every culture in the world. There are so many stories that I could bring out. I want to say that I think The Ramayana is of major importance - that would be one…that would be a great place to go to begin because that same sort of story is told in many different ways. Even the films people have been seeing lately - The Lord of the Rings in many ways has enormous inter-connections with a story like The Ramayana. The idea about the hero is the same - he's giving himself to something that is beyond his understanding. And in The Lord of the Rings you'll see that the hero is struggling with his own greed - the ring is his own greed, his own demon within himself, the viciousness, and he's struggling with the fact that he needs to take it up there and throw it into the molten lava. He needs to give up his greed, his lust for power! But there's a part of him that wants so much to cling to that lust. You know, that's all around us now and the temptation is there - "Do I grab whatever I want and keep it for myself? Or do I give up myself for the community…for the good of all?" So in that context, a hero like Frodo, a hero like Rama, a hero like Jesus Christ, they're all doing the same thing - they're giving up the ego - their own agenda - in order to serve the whole of humanity. And contrary to what anybody else might say, Jesus wasn't doing that for you; Rama wasn't doing it for you; Frodo wasn't doing it for you. And in every one of those situations and many, many more, what they're doing is showing us how to do it for ourselves...how to transcend. And we're lazy if we think we're going to let Jesus die on that cross and we're not going to stand up for Truth ourselves. You know, this statement that this guy paid so now we don't have to pay - there's a laziness in that, that we need to pay attention to. We have to do something about that. Likewise, and again, this is where there's a very unfortunate thing happening here in that people see the films that were made like The Lord of the Rings, which were excellent films - but there's no discussion going on particularly from adults to the young about what these films mean. And at the moment in The Lord of the Rings films that Frodo and the others are cutting down the Orcs in battle in those gruesome scenes that we see in the movie, while that's happening on the screen and everybody's sitting in comfortable, heated theaters watching that, on the other side of the world American soldiers are being made to kill people they don't know. And it might be very easy for people to look at the Orcs on the screen and think, "There's the Iraqis; there's the insurgents. We're right to cut them down!" That's not what the film is saying at all; that's not what Tolkien was saying…at all. The Orcs in the story - again - represent the demons within ourselves, they represent the parts of ourselves that are not life affirming, that are not healthy, that are not heroic - in essence, the Orcs represent the part of ourselves that would love to just keep that ring for us, to not do our duty and take it up the mountain and burn it; to not burn our greed up on the top of that mountain. The Orcs represent the parts of us that want to just say, "I just want what I want and I'll cut down anything to get it." So when we see Frodo and we see Legolas the Elf and we see those guys cutting down the Orcs, they are cutting down the illusions within themselves - they are cutting through their own greed, they are cutting through their own arrogance to get to the place of Truth. That is the exact opposite of what we are doing in Iraq. In Iraq, by killing these human beings - 655,000 human beings, so many of them women and children - we are in fact saying, "The hell with that mountain; I'm not going up there and burning my greed. I'm gonna celebrate my greed. I'm gonna go into Iraq and I'm going to take what I want." That's what the corporations have done there. And all this talk about freedom and democracy… So these stories are incredibly potent and relevant to our lives now. The Star Wars stories are the same thing. If we don't understand the relevance of the Star Wars movies to the present moment that we're living in, consider in the last film when the young Darth Vader is just about to turn to the dark side. He is believing that what he wants is more important than the ultimate Truth that he has sworn his life to prior to this, and he believes that so much that he's willing to kill his own teacher. And he's fighting with that teacher, trying so hard to kill him. And right in the middle - you know, if we don't understand the relevance of these old, ancient myths to our lives right now, just look at that story because right there where that young Darth Vader is at the worst moment in his life, he is at the lowest, most wretched moment of his life that he is willing to kill his own teacher, and he shouts out, "If you're not with me, you're against me!" It's so interesting that those are exactly the same words that President Bush used to push his war agenda in Iraq. (Pauses) So what's the question in the mythology of a story like that? Are we going to become Darth Vader or are we going to insist on transcendence? Now in the story, Darth Vader, if you remember that whole thing, comes to a place of transcendence - he comes to a place where he awakens. And it's so beautiful that they write a story like that where the most vile, wretched creature comes to a place where he can awaken to Truth. We can only hope and pray that our leaders might someday do the same…and that someday might be very, very soon.
JJ Who were some of your strongest influences, your most beloved teachers?
JJT Well, there's a lot of answers to that…I guess the first thing that comes to my mind is Nikos Kazantzakis - reading his stories when I was a teenager and young adult, and sort of re-reading them over the years. This was a caliber of writer, a caliber of artist, of mystic that is just extremely rare. And I love Kazantzakis for many reasons, but I think it was one of the first times when I was a kid that I felt validated by someone else. I felt validated by an older person who understood. He put across the idea that it's not God's responsibility to save man; it's man's responsibility to live in such a way that he burns away his own shell so that the Divine that is within can manifest visibly in the world - to liberate God from the material cage. That's so much the opposite of this idea of going to a structure… many people enter their beliefs as if those beliefs were a fortress, and they cling to those beliefs as something that will protect them from anything out there that is ugly to them, that is frightening to them. Kazantzakis was amazing to me as a kid because over and over and over again in every book that he wrote and every story that he told, he threw away the fortress - he smashed the fortress - he exited the fortress and demanded that he be naked to the elements. That he went out there into the world completely removing anything that might protect him from the Essence itself. He wanted to live in such a way that that energy, the Essence, God, Truth could just burn right out of him, burn right through him. And that meant so much to me as a kid, because it was the opposite of everything that the culture has come to represent. Someone like Kazantzakis shows me that there's no point in wasting a moment of my life in fear. When I look at somebody like Kazantzakis, and I look at somebody like The Buddha…Siddhartha…you know, they did the same thing. Love in its largest sense, compassion in its largest sense, liberates us from all fear, frees us from our beliefs and our concepts if we can actually figure out how to transcend our ego and our own beliefs enough to just love every being we meet and be willing to die so that the death of that ego could actually illuminate all beings - if we're willing to give ourselves up that much. And that's what it represents to me when I see Jesus on the cross - the willingness to give up ego, the sense of self, to the point so that all beings might awaken. So we see that what Jesus does on the cross is identical to what The Buddha did - it is giving up the ego so that all beings might awaken. I don't know…I've had so many great teachers like that - I guess those are a few, you could say. I'll tell you another story about one of those people: Al Halaj was a Sufi mystic - and he was the guy that would go up to people in the bazaar and he'd say, "I am God; now you say it." And the people who got it really got it. And the people who didn't get it thought that he was saying that only he was God. And it's so amazing when you look at that - I mean there they are, they're living wholly, solidly in their ego. They're living in materialism, and they don't get what he's saying in a moment like that. They're looking at him and because they live so solidly in ego, they hear what he says and they read it as - they think he's saying, "I am God and you better bow down to me." (Laughs) He's not saying that! Jesus didn't say that. But here are all these people living so solidly in their ego and in materialism that they can't grasp the spirituality of what Jesus is saying. So they think he's saying, "You'd better bow down to me or I'll send you to hell," because that's how they think, that's how they function - from their ego. He's not doing that. He's saying, "I am God, and you are God." So Jesus said, "I and the Father are one." Al Halaj said, "I and the Beloved are one." And they both got killed for it. But what they understood & offered is a gift to us - if we have ears to hear.
JJ Where do you draw inspiration for the stories you tell through your poetry and songs?
JJT That's one of those places that I think it might be impossible to try to talk about. There are some situations that are pretty obvious…I wrote a song called 'The Last of the Great Strong Men' about a kind of a mystic who was a friend of my father's when I was a boy. So that was a very clear inspiration. But a lot of the songs and poems that I write come from a place that as far as intellect is concerned, is a really nebulous place - you can't go there with your intellect. If you try to take your intellect there, your intellect loses its mind and is left babbling on the side of the road. But there is a place, you know, where someone like Federico Garcia Lorca would go, and I long for those kinds of places. There's a place…I think it's deep in your consciousness in which these images are just allowed to arise. That's where - I think you might remember from the writing retreat…I may have said something about it - that Lorca said something like, "If you write only with your intellect, you'll miss the opportunity to have an arsenic lobster fall on your head out of the sky." (Laughs) Perfect. So all I can say about that is there's a desire on my part to stay open to the images that can lead me away from my own confines, away from my own assumptions, and when I allow myself to go there and I allow those images to arise and become a song or a poem, it is often months or sometimes years later 'til I really understand what those images mean or what those songs might mean. But I love that - that's my small attempt to live in such a way that I might burn, so that the Essence might manifest…it's my small attempt to be a part of that. You know, the stories all increase the possibilities of going deeper into your own consciousness. And in some ways it's like sitting meditation - you go back to it over and over again. I tell some of these tales over and over and over again, and they're always new because there's so much psychic depth there that I've starved for all my life.
JJ People who have listened to your stories are always left wanting more. Do you have any recommendations to them for continued reading?
JJT I don't know…I was thinking about that - I'm trying to think of where I might have come across them and I can't always remember. I mean, there's great books out there - there are so many wonderful books about the Sufis, about Tibetan Buddhism and all these different traditions…and there are so many great teachers out there - so many great mystics and gurus. I've heard great stories from Swami Satchidananda; I've heard great stories from Krishnamurti…Just read. Go out and look for books and read or ask people you meet from different traditions. Robert Bly is a great teacher. I can’t measure what he’s offered me. It is staggering to my mind that there are such visionaries walking among us in this culture and yet they fill the airwaves with…I don’t know…Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern.
JJ Do you remember the first story you ever learned by heart?
JJT I don't…but it might be the story about Woody Guthrie...which I think I may have told you before. When Woody Guthrie was sick and he was going to the hospital several times towards the end of his life, and he went into the hospital and the nurse was filling out the forms for him because his hands shook from his illness - he couldn't write. And she was filling out the forms and she said, "What's your name and your address?" and all of that information that they need. And then she came to this one space on the form and she said, "What's your religion, Mr. Guthrie?" And Woody said, "All of 'em." And she was being very practical - she was thinking, "Well, I've got to get a rabbi in here or a minister or a priest" or whatever (if he dies). So she said, "No, no, Mr. Guthrie - you have to pick just one." And Woody said, "All of 'em or none of 'em." I can't remember how old I was when I first heard that story, but it was such a powerful affirmation of what I've known all my life, which is either all of the religions are valid or none of them are. And I will say this because I love dichotomy - I feel dichotomy so deeply. All religions are valid and completely invalid, in one and the same moment. Every religion on Earth contains truth that can lead any one of us to God, for lack of a better term - to the Spirit, for lack of a better term. Every single religion can lead us to that perfection that we're trying to get near when we use a word like "God." And absolutely every religion can blind us and keep us from ever seeing God. And we have to choose what we're going to do with that. So when I hear a story like that about Woody, I just think that is one of the most profoundly spiritual things I have ever heard anyone say, and I feel it so deeply. It was something I wrote down the other day…and it just jumped into my head. (John pulls some scraps of paper from his pocket and searches for one in particular.) "Forgiveness is maybe the only true heroism." Ultimately every being will rise into a place of clarity, and so in that every being is forgiven. The question is, do we get there tomorrow or do we have to go through ten thousand lifetimes? Or do we get there in this moment? So when Jesus was talking about forgiveness, I perceive that's what he was saying. When Buddha spoke about forgiveness, that's what he was saying. These guys were not saying, "You've gotta come to me and I'll do it for you." So you want to be a hero? Forgiveness. Now recently, those children over in Lancaster were shot down by a man that was so broken in spirit, so broken…his sense of self was so broken…he went into that little Amish schoolhouse and shot down those children. We were all horrified, and rightfully so. But there we were, horrified by that, while here we are at the same moment in Iraq killing thousands and thousands of people, so many of them children. And a friend of mine made a statement that the response of the Amish to that horrific moment was so beautiful - they brought food and comfort to the family of the man who committed these horrible acts. What if we would have responded to September 11th that way? What if we would have adopted an attitude of forgiveness? Instead of this arrogance and hatred - piling more violence on top of violence on top of violence? Somebody was broken enough to kill 3,000 people in those towers, and this government responded by being broken enough to kill 655,000 people that had nothing to do with it. Now, I'm not making a judgment about anybody. I'm saying where do we get off? Where do we get off that kind of madness…where do we step away from it and choose another way of life? And it's so easy to look at a moment like this and say, "Well, once we get this right, once we get the insurgents out, once we get this done, once we get that done"… forget all that. I'm talking about what will we choose to do to make this moment clear? When will we take the step into true heroism? That's a big question, and it means having to willingly choose to give up our sense of entitlement, our addictions. And you know, I think it's important - and I want to say this - when I speak about this and I say, "When will we do this…give up our addictions?" - I'm not talking about just the United States, because I am not simply an American. You know, all of that's illusion…I'm a human being. So I'm asking that question of every other human being on the planet. When will we be willing to give up our addictions? One of the things I've learned from all of these stories is - and I think we talked about this at the library when we told those tales (referring to John's 'Into the Wilderness - Contemplative Tales of the East' series at Martin Memorial Library this past November) - that idea of the Sufis saying you must be willing to die before you die; Buddha saying you must be willing to die in every moment - he was talking about meditation; Jesus talking about dying unto eternal life. One of the things I've learned from all of these stories is that "I" don't exist - the small "I" doesn't exist. John Terlazzo doesn't exist; Jane Juran doesn't exist; any individual being that we might point to - all of that's illusion. We are all manifestations of the Divine - every single being, whether we know it or not. And you know, even to say that is a concept within itself, and there's a certain failure in that. Even to say, "You are a manifestation of the Divine" - there's a concept in that – but what we’re talking about is bigger than any concept. If we live with the willingness to take every moment so sacredly, then there cannot but be paradise right here, right now. So the stories have shown me that my name is meaningless, anything that we might call a career is meaningless for any one of us, anything that we might call our nationality is meaningless, because your true Self is not Jane, your true Self is not an American, your true Self is not this religion or that religion or capitalist or communist - we are none of those things. All of that is an illusion. The true Self is beyond all of that. And if we constantly affirm our movement toward the true Self - if we constantly reaffirm that through loving kindness, compassion, forgiveness - we can't help but reaffirm that in every other being we meet. And therefore, we can't help but be giving….you know, the image that comes to my mind is that we're drinking of eternal waters and we can't help but give those waters to every being we meet. Not some concept of religion, but actual communion in every moment. That idea about 'die before you die' - is that clear? Did it seem clear at the library? Does it seem clear now?
JJ It does seem clear to me, but maybe because I've heard you speak about it before. Do you want to talk more about it now?
JJT I'm trying to decide…We live in a world in which we're walking around with a veil over our faces, over our eyes. And that veil is materialism. When I say that, I'm not saying people shouldn't own possessions or have bank accounts...you know, everybody has to choose that for themselves. All I'm saying is, we have to understand that all of that is transitory - it's dust. It's meaningless, and if we put it in its proper perspective, then we live a deeper, richer life. But if we are never led to a place of deeper understanding - and these stories can very much lead us there - if we're not led to a place of transcendence, then we can fall prey to materialism. What's really strange is that in so many cultures on Earth, the understanding was always there, and there were always elders who were saying to the young as they were growing up, "You see this? It's a gourd. You use it to drink with, you use it to make a lamp out of it, but it's just a gourd - it's just a gourd. It's a material thing. Your house, it's just a house. Your body, it's just a body. It's a material thing - don't get stuck on it." But now we have a culture in which the leaders are never showing us the difference between materialism and a deeper life. They're not showing us that because they don't know it themselves. They're actually encouraging us toward material addiction. They're actually encouraging us to be addicted to possessions. And so we're all walking around like drug addicts in a stupor, looking for the next thing we can possess. Working around the clock to get more money so we can buy more stuff that's meaningless, and more stuff that is manufactured so irresponsibly that we're poisoning the world we live in. So getting back to the beginning of our discussion, there's no hero up there saying to us, "Consider the lilies of the field. You've got to go beyond all this dust, these possessions, these figures on paper - if you want Truth." There's no hero doing that. And instead, the idea of a hero has been turned into somebody who is willing to thoughtlessly kill anybody they're ordered to kill at any given moment. We reward people for doing that in our culture. And it's so sad because what that then does is it violates the genuine desire of these people to serve, and it cripples the souls of those individuals that are sent out in uniform, as well as the souls of those behind locked doors who give the orders. You know, we hear all of this talk about supporting the troops, but here we are sending our own children out to kill and be killed. Imagine cutting down a life in its prime so that Halliburton can make profits. And imagine somebody actually sending their own child off to do that, and then having that child come home in a box and having to say…having to lie to themselves that this was done for some noble reason when deep inside they must know the truth of the matter. So the stories can lead us from our ignorance, our arrogance, our greed, our denial, into a place of compassion and wisdom. But we have to want to go there and that's why we don't see these stories on every street corner…that's why you don't find these stories being told to you when you turn on the television. Instead you have so-called reality shows in which people are constantly pitted against one another, in bitterness, anger, arrogance, vile competitiveness. That didn't naturally arise - somebody chose to do that. Somebody chose to create a kind of "entertainment" that is based on backstabbing - an electronic Coliseum. What does that do to a community when we feed on that night after night after night? What does that do to the soul of a community? I'm really rambling now. (Laughs)
JJ Not at all…this is great stuff. What was a favorite story to tell your children and why?
JJT Well, I think we've kind of been over that. And there's many, if I really think about it. That little tale about Woody Guthrie in the hospital was clearly one of my favorites. In fact, when my daughter graduated from Bucknell last year, she gave a speech there and began with, "My father was always telling stories," and then she told that story and it led into the rest of her speech - in which she talked about how much she’s come to deeply love and appreciate the fellow students she worked with while rebuilding a Nicaraguan village - even those she tended to have philosophical differences with. I was, needless to say - pleased - to see that. And then the other thing was that I read The Ramayana to them, probably six or seven times when they were growing up. Gawain and the Green Knight, St. George and the Dragon, Tolkien. Again, because it leads us to a deeper understanding of some of these archetypes that we talked about - the warrior, the hero, the king - the true king, the false king - the lover…These are beautiful, beautiful tales. As a result, my son played with wooden swords, like so many other kids - but he grew up with a very different understanding of what it means to hold a sword - or any other symbol of power - in your hands.
JJ Would you talk a little bit about the contrast between using the spoken word vs. the written word to convey a message - what are some of the advantages or challenges that you find?
JJT I'm not sure how to answer that. I took a Myers-Briggs test one time - one of those personality tests that among other things, it measures to what extent you are an introvert or an extrovert. Now on that particular scale, I was exactly right in the middle. So I love to talk with people about tales, about life, about The Mystery. I love to talk about it, and I love to talk about it with people who might believe at the start that they've got something to defend or that they disagree with me. I've had amazing conversations with fundamentalists who were angry with me at the beginning of the conversation and we left being quite friendly with each other because we got past the lies that separated us and took the time to talk. I've actually had some of those people say to me, "I really get it that you could actually get close to God without taking the same path that I'm taking." That's been said, and it's pretty outstanding. And that could happen all the time if we had conversations, if we weren't sort of separated into the ghetto of this church and the ghetto of that church…you know, the ghetto of conservative and the ghetto of liberal - all of those labels that we put on each other and then we point fingers and bark at each other. What a waste of life. So I love to talk about ideas with people. At the same time, to really withdraw and sit at that table facing that wall (gestures to a wooden table on the adjacent wall of his living room) and just write those ideas without any other input…just let the images arise and the energies arise - there's another very different sort of communion that happens there, so I'm really incredibly grateful to be doing both. And I'm longing to do more.
JJ In what ways has being a storyteller enriched your own life?
JJT You know, I'll say this - I think in a way it's very similar to what happens with writing poetry, which is if you just write a poem, that's good. But if you write a poem and you read it aloud, that's so much better. And if you read it aloud over and over again, then it's like the energies in you can sort of meld with the energies outside of you so there is no inside and outside. And telling these old tales does that same thing for me - it enables me to see the boundaries that we cling to so much…and enables me to see that they're really just vibrations. There is nothing that separates me from you or this from that. Stories really enable me to understand that it's all one, that there's only one Being - with a capital B. And I'm not interested in living for anything else.
JJ Would you tell a story now?
JJT Where to start? A story with…hmm. Yes, I don’t remember where I first heard this tale. It’s a story from the Sikh tradition, so I’m guessing it first came to me via Yogi Bhajan. It’s called, Balmikhi the Head Cutter. Balmikhi was a thief & a head cutter with an excellent reputation for efficiency & success. If anyone passed by Balmikhi’s hideout, Balmikhi would take his coins & cut off his head. There was no question, everybody everywhere knew that Balmikhi was the best, nastiest thief & head cutter. Hands down! One day, a holy man walked by the robber’s lair. Balmikhi leaped out with his sword raised high above his head. To his surprise the holy man happily offered his neck, saying, "Okay! Okay! Go ahead! You are most generous to give me my day of Liberation! Go ahead - Cut! Cut! I have waited long to leave this physical body. Please hurry so I may join the Creator!" But just as Balmikhi was about to bring down the sword, the holy man interrupted him & looked into his eyes saying, "Oh, by the way, as a truthful being it would be wrong of me to leave this world after having told you only a half-truth. If you kill me now, then you yourself will die within three days. Okay. Now you know - go ahead. Cut. Cut." Balmikhi paused & swallowed. "Uh, isn’t there some way around this?" "Well," the saint said, "If some member of your family will willingly die in your place at exactly the same moment that I die, that will work. But I don’t think they love you that much." Balmikhi went home & explained the situation to all of his relatives. They all felt very sorry for him, but not enough to die in his place. When he realized he could persuade no one, he returned to the holy man. Balmikhi was very depressed. You see, he felt a basic lack of understanding about life - No one ever taught him how to love, or how to be loved, or how to be spiritually great. The old holy Saint grew very compassionate when he saw this & with a touch of his fingers to the thief’s forehead, he cleared away all fear & ignorance. In that moment, it was as if Balmikhi’s whole form exploded, it was as if his whole being ceased to be, & at the same moment he’d never felt more alive, more conscious, more aware! He could taste colors & see flavors with his eyes! He could feel songs in the air on his fingertips! All Mystery & Wonder opened itself to the man. Why, Greed, Horror, Hatred, & Violence all seeped from his pores & died gratefully right there on the ground. In the tiniest fraction of a second, Balmikhi was emptied of all former pain & sorrow & filled with a deep, powerful, abiding, endless love for all of humanity & indeed for all things! And what he once gave to thievery & violence, now he gave to truth & realization. Miraculously, the same energy that once made him a thief now made him a Saint. It’s the same with you, and me.