Learn to Die!, by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Despite acclaim, even adulation, garnered from his theater and film work, including such classic films as The Holy Mountain and El Topo, the author found himself in a state of doubt—of spiritual questioning. …

By Alejandro Jodorowsky

Alejandro Jodorowski and Ejo Takata
Alejandro Jodorowski and Ejo Takata

Despite acclaim, even adulation, garnered from his theater and film work, including such classic films as The Holy Mountain and El Topo, the author found himself in a state of doubt—of spiritual questioning.

I realized how far I was from believing in God, in human beings, or in anything at all. I doubted art. What was it for? If it was to entertain people who were afraid of waking up, I was not interested in it. If it was a means of succeeding economically, I was not interested. If it was an activity taken on by my ego to exalt itself, I was not interested. If I had to be the jester for those in power, those who poison the planet and leave millions of people starving, I was not interested. What then was the purpose of art? After a crisis so profound that it led me to think of suicide, I arrived at the conclusion that the purpose of art was to heal.

“If art does not heal, it is not art,” I told myself, and I decided to unite my artistic and therapeutic activities. I do not wish to be misunderstood: the only therapy I had known was carried out by scientific minds, confronting the chaotic subconscious and trying to bring order to it, extracting a rational message from dreams. I approached therapy not as science, but as art. My goal was to teach reason to speak the language of dreams. I was not interested in art turned into therapy, but in therapy converted into art.

I owe this profound entry into the expression of the unconscious force—which, if we listen to it, is not our enemy but our ally—to Ejo Takata, who was my Zen master for a period of five years. Without really knowing what I was getting into, I agreed to be part of a group that meditated for seven full days, sleeping only twenty minutes each night. Full of courage, I knelt with my buttocks supported on a cushion, crossed my hands, put my thumbs together with minimal precision as if I were holding a cigarette paper between them, stretched out my spine, felt myself anchored in the ground and united to the center of the Earth while my skull reached up toward the sky, relaxed my face and then the rest of my muscles, eliminated all words and feelings from my mind, and, believing my technique to be perfect, prepared to remain there motionless, like Buddha, for a week.

After barely two hours, the torture began. My knees, legs, back, and entire body hurt. If I moved just a little, the giant Mexican patrolling with his baton would give me a hiding on the shoulders. If I winced when flies walked on my face, the master would yell demonically. My imagination flared up, and so did my anger. What was I doing here, suffering needlessly in the midst of these enlightened shaved heads? I saw my shoes in a corner, like open mouths, inviting me to fill them and leave this hell…. At the sound of a gong, we had to run to the dining room and gobble down a bowl of rice, almost boiling hot, in two minutes, without leaving a single grain in the bowl. We returned to meditate with bloated bellies. A concert of belches and continuous farting began. With anger and shame I noticed that the others, especially the women, were holding it in better than I. At midnight we lay down like dogs to sleep on the floor for those divine twenty minutes.

We awoke to screams and insults and had to run to sit and continue our meditation. We were allowed to go and defecate once a day in a communal latrine, where a row of holes over an artesian well invited men and women alike to completely give up privacy. I resisted and resisted, out of pride rather than mysticism. Takata began playing the drum, singing the Heart Sutra. Luz María, a chunky lesbian in front of him who also was playing the drum, flew into a rage and threw her instrument at his head. The monk made a minimal movement, ducking by a few centimeters so that the heavy instrument passed millimeters from his ear and smashed into the wall, leaving a hole. Ejo, not in the least perturbed, kept chanting the Sutra. No comment was made about this assault.

Ejo Takata
Ejo Takata

By the fifth day I had become a scarecrow. My knees were swollen and bloody, my belly was full of gas, my eyes were tear-filled, and there was a pain in my chest. At three in the morning, I was dragged by two aggressive students to a room where the master was going to give me a riddle, a koan. I was forced to fight and defend myself as the fanatical pair rained blows on me. I crept down the stairs and sat in front of the curtain hiding the sacred room.

“My chest hurts,” I said. “I think I’m going to have a heart attack.”

“Break yourself!” they replied, and left.

A gong sounded, indicating that I should go in. And so I did. There was Ejo, transfigured, dressed in a ceremonial robe that made him look like a saint. He looked at me with an objectivity that I construed as contempt and said to me as I knelt before him with my forehead touching the floor, “It does not begin, it does not end. What is it?”

I had been prepared to respond to a classic riddle, “This is the sound of two hands clapping, what is the sound of one hand clapping?” to which I would have raised my open right hand, answering with a broad smile, “Do you hear?” Or, “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” to which I would have responded by screaming, “Mu!” But when asked this question, so simple, so ingenuous, so obvious, I could only stammer, “Ejo, what do you want me to say? God? The universe? Me? You? All of this?” The monk took up a hammer and hit the gong, signaling for all the zendo to hear that I had failed. I bowed, humbled, and began to leave. Then Ejo yelled, “Intellectual, learn to die!” These words, spoken in an atrocious Japanese accent, changed my life. Suddenly, I realized that all my searching up to that point, everything that I had done, had been carried out by a cowardly intellect that, afraid to die, was clinging to the iron bars of reason…. Existence began when the actor-self stopped identifying with the observer-self. In a flash, I entered the world of dreams. ♦

The Dance of Reality by Alejandro Jodorowsky ©2014 Park Street Press. Reprinted with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com

From Parabola Volume 39, No. 3 “Spiritual Practice,” Fall 2014. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.