Scott Thornton is an Assistant Teacher in the Sanbo Zen lineage. He is also married to Valerie Forstman, who recently moved to Santa Fe to share teaching responsibilities with Henry Shukman at Mountain Cloud. Scott’s introduction to meditation came through theatre. The school he attended staged the first college production of the musical Hair, and he had been cast in the role of Claude.
“So Claude meditates at the beginning of the play. He comes out and sits down with kind of an Indian blanket around himself and just sits there for – oh – about fifteen/twenty minutes before the show starts, and the cast kind of gradually starts sort of meandering through the audience and comin’ around and finally the music picks up. So I acted like I was meditating, and, in retrospect, I was meditating. I mean . . .”
“What else was there to do?” I suggest.
It’s a little surprising that the college was in Memphis, Tennessee, where Scott grew up. He still has traces of a Tennessee accent.
“We were Baptists. My mother was very devout. My father went along for the ride.”
“And you?” I ask.
“I was a pretty reverent kid.”
He describes himself as having a naturally devout nature and tells me a story about an event that took place shortly after his baptism.
“So Baptists, supposedly, when we’re kids, we choose to be baptized. There’s really a lot of social pressure to do that. But I decided to get baptized sometime around fourth grade. I don’t remember a whole lot about the dunkin’, I just remember it happened and yeah, okay, I’m done. About a week later, I was playing army with my friend, who had also been baptized at the same time. And we were out diggin’ trenches with our plastic shovels and our plastic canteens and our plastic helmets and our plastic machine guns. And we were in the shadow, literally, of the church. And I don’t know how to put it, but I stood up, and something came down on me. It had a visual component – I’d call it synesthesia now maybe – but this kind of silvery light came down on me. I turned to my friend, and I said (I’ll do it in my Tennessee dialect) ‘Arncha glad we’re saived?’ And he looked at me like I was nuts. But I just had this glow. It was like I really felt God’s love.”
The sense of devotion lessened as he got older and by the age of 17, “The tenets of the church didn’t hold together for me anymore. So I just sort of eased out. I never declared, ‘I’m not a Baptist,’ but I just kind of eased out and quit going to church.”
A few years after the college production of Hair, he came upon the popular guidebook to marijuana use, A Child’s Garden of Grass.
“There was one section in there about, ‘Can Grass Enhance Meditation?’ Yes! So I tried it. They were debunking TM. They said, ‘You can pay a lot of money to some guru who will give you a “secret” mantra’ or you could use the mantra the book provided for free. And I remember it! As you breathe in, oon; as you breath out, yellimon. And so I practiced, ‘Oon / Yellimon’ quite often. And then I abandoned that.”
Somewhat later, while Christmas shopping, he bought Lawrence LeShan’s How to Meditate. “I was going to give it to a friend, but I started reading it, and I just kept it. And it kinda simmered there in the background for a while. But I remember this moment. My then wife and I were remodeling our house, and it was a construction site. And I had just got licensed as a psychologist about two weeks prior, and I was having one these, ‘Is this all there is?’ moments. And so I sat on top of a pile of construction material in my backyard in March and started counting my breath as Le Shan described. He gave several techniques, but that was the one that caught me for some reason. So I practiced breath counting for twelve years really regularly. And it morphed into what I called, ‘Listening to the Sounds of the World.’ I became absorbed in sound. And that’s what I practiced for a long time. My stepdaughter, meanwhile, had been going to the Maria Kannon Zen Center, and she told me, ‘Hey, Scott, we got this place over here.’”
There he met Ruben Habito.
“To my delight, the first or second time I met Ruben, he gave me the koan Mu and that fit like a glove. It took – you know – two and a half years, maybe, before I had some breakthrough with Mu. And then that set me on the course of koan study.”
“And if someone – say an old college friend from Hair – were to ask you, ‘Scott, what are koans?’”
“I love that question. In a setting like that, I usually say, ‘They’re pointers; they’re these pithy little exchanges between Zen masters and other masters or sometimes lay people, but basically there’s an exchange with a master, and it can be about anything. They are little stories, little exchanges or anecdotes that help clarify enlightenment.’ And I’d say, ‘You’ve probably heard this one. “What’s the sound of one hand clapping?”’”
“So what do they do? Even if you figured out what the sound of one hand is, what use is that?”
“Yeah . . .” he says, then pauses to collect his thought. “The experience when you (quote) ‘pass a koan’ often is sort of like” – he holds his hands before his face and suggests a series of veils being lifted – “one more film of this opaque view of the world drops off. So there’s little bit more clarity.”
“And how do they do that?”
He sighs forcefully, then we both laugh. “Yeah. How do they?”
Further Zen Conversations: 28-31; 50-51; 66; 67; 75-76; 130-31; 148.