“The coolest thing in the world for me is to lead a meditation, give a dharma talk– you know, with all the robes, smells and bells –and the next day to be in the boardroom of a car dealership using council to create a meeting using the Three Tenets. To me that’s engagement, that’s the whole point of it.”
Dr. Tony Stultz is a former Episcopalian minister and founding teacher of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Along with a long history of social action projects, he is the author of numerous academic and popular articles, several books, and has contributed to Buddhist periodicals such as Lion’s Roar and Buddhadharma. Below, read a December 2017 interview with Dr. Stultz on his background, chaplaincy, and philosophy.
Episcopalian Peacemaker to Zen Peacemaker
Anthony: How’d you get involved with Bernie and the Zen Peacemakers?
Tony: Well that goes way back. In 1995 I went to graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Chris Queen was one of my professors and we were studying people involved in engaged Buddhism; Bernie was one of the people we studied.
At the time I’d been in the Episcopalian ministry for about ten years. I had done prison work, homeless work, stuff like that. So I wrote an eight-page letter to Bernie outlining my ideas on things, this was around 1995. I was surprised to get a reply. He had read my letter and said, “We’ve got the same ideas; you gotta come see me.”
So I was thrilled, we made contact and I went down to Greyston. I got involved in everything pretty quickly. I was put on the board of directors at the New York Zen Community [affiliated with Greyston], and I started going down on weekends to hang out with Bernie. That’s how it started.
A: Are you an Episcopalian minister still?
T: No no, I did that for eight years. I had a spiritual calling from a very young age- when I was about seven years of age I was in a little church in New York and my mother couldn’t find me. When she found me I was in the sacristy, where the ministers would put on their robes. And I told her at that point, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
A: Whoa, that’s awesome. Thanks for that image… With your diverse background, can you talk about what role the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers play in your life and projects? Is it an active one, is it under the radar?
T: In all the various projects I’ve been involved in, the Three Tenets have always served as a foundation.
We have a saying I call the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: “To live fully, to love freely, to give completely.” For me, those are the fruits of the Three Tenets. By entering into a life where we’re in a state of Not Knowing– which is a great way to overcome the anxiety of the unknown, by plunging into it intentionally –the fruit of that is to live fully. You live with fewer restrictions, and it’s an incredible practice if you’re really doing it, because you’re never accepting any opinion you have as an absolute, nor anyone else’s opinion. That puts you in an unusual place, because most people like to settle down in this opinion or that opinion. Not-knowing, I think that’s the best way to live a full existence.
And then Bearing Witness to me is really about becoming one with whatever the situation is. But I’ve thought of it often in terms of loving freely. My love, my compassion, my connection to people is no longer limited by my tribal definitions, or my conditioning, and so it’s really learning to love beyond our normal boundaries.
And then Taking Action was originally loving action or healing action, sometimes people say Right Action. For me it was always about giving yourself completely. For me, that third part of taking action is to give yourself completely to whatever it is. So if I’m in a situation like this interview, I give myself completely to it; if I’m with my wife I give myself completely; if I’m visiting someone in prison or the hospital or someone comes in for counseling who’s suicidal, I give myself to them completely, and that’s a vow.
That’s how I see the Three Tenets, they’re like a vow. So you live out of it, and there’s no such thing as perfection so you don’t have to worry about that, but you evolve through that practice. So that’s the center point of how I do things.
Social Action in Corporate Chaplaincy
A: Great, that’s beautiful. I’d like to talk about what you do. I read your resume on the Harvard Divinity School website– you’ve done a lot of things. What’re you up to nowadays?
T: Well I have done a lot of things: everything from prison ministry, to homelessness work, to interfaith work. I’ve worked with political figures– one of my students right now is the first transgender surgeon-general of Pennsylvania, and I’m a spiritual consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I’ve always been very active.
I allow myself to be drawn, for lack of a better word, where the spirit leads me. And so about 25 years ago, along with everything else I was doing, I started doing corporate mindfulness-type work. I became a corporate chaplain, a company chaplain.
I did that for a number of different companies as a sideline, but over the last two and a half years everything sort of shifted. Not because I had done anything to shift it, but suddenly people were coming to me in larger groups, asking me to work with them. I’ve been doing a lot of that work for the last two years.
Prior to that my wife and I had gotten into working with families mindfully, but now it’s become focused on the corporate world. What’s really interesting to me is that I always hated that world. I left it. I was good at it– I had my first business at the age of eighteen, I know the language of entrepreneurs and I know how to make money. But that’s one of the things that drew me to Bernie, he had been successful with Greyston making the brownies for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. He wasn’t anti-free market, he wanted to see how mindfulness and business worked together.
So going into this world has been very exciting, and what’s great is that while the environment is different, the teachings are the same. I go in and work with the CEO and the principles, and sometimes I spend a good long while just with them, developing a personal practice. My experience has been if you go into these things at the HR level, or a lower level, if the people at the top haven’t bought into the situation you not going to do anything to change the culture. So by working at the top I’m able to help change the culture, and that’s what excites me most: to see these companies develop a different culture and mindset, to introduce things like my version of council that have changed the way these people do meetings and solve problems. That’s what’s exciting to me.
A: Very interesting. Yeah, the culture of Buddhism in the United States is very liberal– it’s interesting to think about what role mindfulness can play in a corporate situation.
T: Over the last couple years I’ve written a lot for magazines like Buddhadharma, Lion’s Roar, and Elephant Journal, and you know I consider myself a classic liberal, politically. I really don’t get into the blue and red (Editor note: referring to the American designation of Democrats and Republicans) thing too much but there is a kind of a bias towards a left-oriented agenda, informed by Marxist ideas and so forth, and I’m not that guy.
It is a challenge at times, because one of the things I get asked right off the bat at lectures is “How do you work with those evil corporations?” So I usually start by saying “Yeah they are evil, man. They are just the dark side, absolutely!” (Laughter) Just to disarm them and to make it humorous. I have a motto: ‘One should be sincere but not serious.’ So I try to open them up to the idea that if you think the free market or capitalism is a bad thing, that’s your opinion and go for it. But if you do think that, where better place to serve? If we’re gonna be the antibody to anything we think is not good in them, we gotta get in there.
Two of my big clients are connected to car dealerships. Ford is one of them. It shocks people that Bill Ford got into mindfulness a few years back and now it’s become a focus of his. Nobody would have guessed that. I go to car dealerships on a weekly basis, integrating the teachings of the Three Tenets and Council into their structure and framework so that these places are functioning with a different structure, a structure based on compassion and mindfulness. When you get the CEO involved, it’s amazing the things you can accomplish because there are no roadblocks.
The coolest thing in the world for me is to lead a meditation, give a dharma talk– you know, with all the robes, smells and bells –and the next day to be in the boardroom of a car dealership using council to create a meeting using the Three Tenets. To me that’s engagement, that’s the whole point of it.
At a Cigars For Good charity event to raise money for education, meals and water-well building in Mexico. Photo by Andy Hoover, Blue Mountain Lotus Society Clergy and director of the local ACLU.
A: So, what’s it like to be a religious consultant to the American Civil Liberties Union?
T: The ACLU is a group I really like. I mean, I don’t like it when they get partisan, but when they are bravely defending civil liberties, regardless of who it is, that’s what I dig the most. I have a friend in the area, a minister of ours now, who originally got involved in the ACLU as a part of his work with me. Andy Hoover, a legislative director who is engaged on the state level…This is another area I’m involved with now: using the Four Directions of Mindfulness to deal with social problems; how to bring people together through council and action, and using these techniques to help them deal with a problem. Andy would bring issues to me and we’d work them out together.
As wonderful as Buddhism is, I don’t think it’s been fully manifested yet. A lot of what I see, and this is just my opinion, I could be totally wrong, is the same sort of left-oriented thing you find in the Christian progressive church with a Buddhist veneer on top of it. I think Buddhism has much more to offer. Nonduality is an incredible perspective to bring into these things. I don’t think it’s done often enough.
I do regular retreats for social activists. Most of the time these people are coming from a particular philosophical-political perspective, and even though they call themselves Buddhist they aren’t using the key parts of Buddhism that give a different analysis and offer a different way to engage. So it excites me to offer my opinion and experience in doing those things over the last 30 years.
A: Can you name, precisely– what is it in meeting with the principles of Ford on one hand, and in meeting with the ACLU or social activist groups on the other, that mindfulness benefits? Like, what is it in groups with very different political backgrounds that mindfulness helps address?
T: Mindfulness for me is based on the first paragraph of the Dhammapada, where Buddha basically says that everything we experience is based upon our thoughts. Mindfulness is primarily the practice of realizing number one that the thoughts, feelings and sensations that we have are our experiences, but they’re not us, are not our true identity. And once you develop a spaciousness with them, meditation, in one form, can be an aid. You have to have a way to break things down, to understand things– understand where our thoughts and beliefs come from and whether they are based on what is real or helpful, and if not, how to create ones that are more helpful. This will naturally lead to a change in the way we feel and will open us to taking actions that will help us realize our insights. To me, that’s mindfulness.
Zen and Episcopalianism: A Paradigm Shift in Christianity
Tony Stultz with family friend Neil deGrasse Tyson
A: I’m curious how the Episcopal theological study continues on in your Zen Way– what are the biggest similarities, and are there any contradictions that you struggle with?
T: I don’t think I struggle with anything anymore. I think at one time I did, probably 20 years ago. So let me say one of my mentors in the Episcopal church was John Shelby Spong. He was kind of a superstar in that world, probably one of the few theologians who’s been on Bill Maher regularly. Jack Spong was very influential to me, he was an Episcopal bishop and created a new paradigm that is very Buddhist, for Christians. And so, I think what he was doing and what I was doing– there were similarities.
It’s about a shift in paradigm, that’s why I’ve also been very interested in the science connection. I believe that how things work and why they matter have to be one. If the way you view things working is very different from the way things matter, you create this divide. And what that leaves you with is people who become default atheist or people who embrace a fundamentalism of some sort. So for me there’s been a divorce between how things work and why they matter, and I’m trying to get them back together to create new offspring that are stronger.
So in order to do this, in our three-year seminary program they have to learn cosmology. For me the Buddha is this sort of Mythic symbol of that: he looks up in the sky and he sees the morning star and he says, “Hey man, that’s me shining so bright.” I always say that you start out with hydrogen and helium, two things that are invisible– you can’t taste them, can’t touch them –and yet they’re the very central building blocks of the universe. You go from helium and hydrogen into Hepburn and Hendrix, now if that’s not a miracle I don’t know what is!
So I would say Jack Spong and Science, those are the biggest influences. The other is Liturgy, that plays a big role in my Blue Mountain Lotus Society school. One of the things I learned to love in the Episcopal church was liturgy, as in Liturgia: the word of the people, the action of the people in meditation or in contemplation.
So I was influenced heavily by the Episcopal church in the sense of the power of liturgy: re-membering, remembering we’ve been dismembered, bringing our One Body back together like Avalokiteshvara. And so liturgy is a powerful way to enter into this space where we’re not just doing some perfunctory thing, we’re reenacting the awakening. That’s where I think the chanting and smells, bells, robes, dressing up, and the whole nine yards makes a powerful impact on people.
When I was at Harvard and people asked “How do you define Zen?,” I used Maezumi’s approach which is “to show Oneness.” For me it’s sort of a gnosticism, it’s a sort of practice of awakening to Oneness, and then giving yourself fully to it, embodying it. A living out of it each day, nurtured by your community, your liturgy, your practice.
Tony Stultz in blue with members of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society