The Adjacent Interview with Pat Enkyo O’Hara

Dan O'Sullivan, interviews one of the co-founders of ITP and current Roshi of the Village Zendo.

By Dan O’Sullivan

Illustrated by Nick Gregg

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Dan: Alumni events like the ITP 40th are always a little nostalgic, but the tech world now seems more at the center of the world’s problems, making the nostalgia bittersweet. Additionally, those problems seem more serious than they were in the old days. Does the past always feel like a simpler time? Were world-class problems just as fraught back in 1979?

Pat Enkyo: As I think back to those early days, it seems that most of us in ‘communications’ ––which was the way we thought of our work then––were most concerned with enabling less powerful communities access to the means of connection and transmission. We sought lower-end technologies to shift the balance from the few politically and economically powerful to a larger base.

Dan: All of us at ITP are blessed with knowing of the legendary, Red Burns, and her ethical, thoughtful, empowering and playful approach to technology. Sadly, most people today only know the legend, and not the woman herself. You and I probably spent the most actual time with Red, working out the mundane details of running ITP. What was it in her approach to those small details that allowed ITP–– this big, lasting and honorable institution–– to emerge? 

Pat Enkyo: As you say, Red’s approach was multifaceted, like a gem. She was equally at ease with a wild new idea, a corporate sponsor, a spreadsheet, as she was with how a working space was best organized. Collaboration and creativity. We took chances, tried things. We worked hard, long hours, with much discussion.  And we laughed a lot.  

Dan: When I was at ITP, you and Red always felt like a team. I was a little more under your wing, so you always felt like the good cop to her bad cop. How would describe your partnership?

Pat Enkyo: Red’s way of working with people was something to behold. When she sensed someone with talent and a great capacity, she would often challenge them, to see how they would react. This initial contretemps often resulted in a deeper, more personal relationship with her. And, at times, this called for a little ‘soft power”––my way of working.

Dan: ITP is really growing. It has spawned many new programs– undergraduate programs in Shanghai, New York, and Abu Dhabi; and now a low-residency MA program this coming year. But at the beginning, that was not clear. Can you think of times when you were not sure ITP would make it?

Pat Enkyo: No, when I was involved, we were at times a bit scrappy, but we were having fun and making a difference, so I never doubted that we’d survive. But I also had no notion that ITP would become so renown.

Dan: Like Red, you appear to have chapters of your life that seem very different–– from hippie activist, to tenured professor, to Zen monk.  In particular, your transition from ITP Professor to Zen Monk seemed abrupt to most people. Can you talk about how all of these transitions happened, and how you knew it was time to leave? Did all these phases seem very different or did they seem more like a natural transition?

Pat Enkyo: We can see transitions as naturally-occurring shifts in accord with the times. For me, it was an unsurprising transition from working with community groups with a small video camera, to engaging ‘new technologies’ with the Alternate Media Center, Red’s precursor to ITP. We did lots of projects: interactive cable TV (for seniors), early computer conferencing (for disabled people), audio conferencing (for political groups), teletext and videotext (for those dependent on government benefits). And then, when federal funding for our AMC projects became scarce, I joined ITP to offer my experience and organize new programs, particularly programs that involved working with artists, small non-profits, and experimental projects. Those twenty-some years were a delight: teaching and engaging in the onrush of new tech. These were all ways to think, work and serve others! The students were brilliant and awesome to work with.

During the latter part of those years, I was affected deeply by the AIDS crisis, losing some students and friends. And at the same time, my Zen Buddhist training was leading me to even more of a ‘service oriented’ life. The times were changing – the later 90’s – and it seemed to me that so many of my ITP students were most interested in financial gain, just as my own concerns were turning even more toward service, toward offering whatever I could. And, I had been studying and training in Zen Buddhism for years. By 2001, the path was clear, and I shifted my work to full time Zen practice, teaching and facilitating others to work with their minds. 

Dan: What’s the difference between running ITP and running the Village Zendo?

Pat Enkyo: Not so much! We’re in a loft in Soho, with a great mix of people who pass through the doors to sit in meditation, to attend retreats, to work in community. There are a good many artists and musicians and social activists, therapists and teachers. Our official name is “Temple of True Expression” and we emphasize the importance of creativity in our lives. We have an executive committee that coordinates as well as  teams that help the Village Zendo ‘run itself.’

Dan: Increasingly, as people have their heads down into their phones, we are recognizing how addictive and distracting this new technology is. Many technologists are turning to “mindfulness” meditation as a way to regain control of their minds, but also their lives. I remember back in the day, the concerns around technology stemmed from the worry about people watching too much television. Is meditation, if we define it as a remedy for technological distraction, part of what drew you to it?

Pat Enkyo: Whatever encourages us to stop for a moment, to listen and see our mind, is a benefit. We become more intimate with our own mind, our own nature. For me, it wasn’t so much ‘technological distraction’ that brought me to meditation, but rather a sense that I was not truly experiencing myself, that something was missing. And that something was in me.  

Dan: While smartphones are widely believed to be part of the problem, meditation apps designed for them have now become a big business. Has the way you help people with their practice of Zen Buddhism changed in any way, as interactive telecommunications has become available at every moment? Can technology actually help someone’s Zen practice?

Pat Enkyo: Oh, well, I admit that I have a sleep app, an activity tracker, and a heart rate monitor, so I can hardly disparage meditation apps. Anything that reminds us to pay attention seems like a good idea to me. And, it must be said, that it is also very beneficial to sit in meditation with others, together, at the same time. Actual human bodies, in the same space––it’s the human factor!

Dan: I assume you need technology to run the Village Zendo. Any social media?

Pat Enkyo: Just the usual, Web Page, Facebook, (sometimes Facebook Live Talks), Instagram, a little YouTube, a little Twitter.  We are essentially all volunteer, so there is a distinctly ad hoc quality to these offerings.

Dan: One thing I remember when I was in your Comm Lab class in 1989 you said that it’s less about the technology, than who has access to it. ITP has attracted so many different kinds of people, on so many different trips. Would you say that democratizing access to media has been the one thread of ITP in common over the years?

Pat Enkyo: Definitely. For me, it is the heart of ITP, even as it changes and moves through different spaces and times. To offer access to media, to communications, is to empower and create an ecosystem of creativity and conviviality. So needed in these divided times!

Dan: Increasing access to media has definitely happened already. Now, anyone with a thumb can broadcast to billions of people. Has the democratization of media worked out as a better way to pursue the truth?

Pat Enkyo: It may be hard to see that right now, and yet I still have faith that yes, access leads to discernment and thus pursuit of truth. But my caveat is, that all of humankind is subject to the currents of greed, anger, and ignorance. Only by seeing that, and owning that reality, can we hope to serve all of life.