Thom Pastor is the founder and abbot of the Zen Center of Las Vegas, a meditation and teaching space on East Harmon Avenue. When not in Las Vegas, he leads Zen retreats in Asia and North America, including Madison, Wisconsin, where he is guiding teacher for the Isthmus Zen Center.
The Weekly spoke with Pastor—a dharma teacher since 1994 and musician who’s played with Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra—at the Zen Center, which recently completed its outdoor meditation garden with walking paths, an altar, bamboo trees and a turtle pond.
How did you get here? In college in Boston back in the ’60s I used to read, and was fascinated with Eastern philosophy. At some point I realized I could be 70 years old and still hanging around the Eastern philosophy section at Barnes & Noble, searching for that one seed to bear fruit. The catalyst for it was when my brother died in his sleep. He was a young man. I came to see very clearly the genesis of human suffering—the arrogance, the manipulation, the wanting something. I went to the Zen Center of Los Angeles and met Zen Master Seung Sahn.
You were raised Catholic in New Jersey. Why Zen? No dogma. Zen cuts all the mental constructs out from under you and you’ve got nothing, and in that nothing is profound wisdom. No meaning is profound meaning.
How do you balance Zen with a music career? I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston and we’d play jazz where the music should be spontaneous and also in the moment. I wanted to be completely present so I wasn’t reliant on my patterns and scales. I was listening to others. Being in the moment musically is important, whether it be a symphony orchestra playing Mahler’s Second Symphony or a jazz trio.
Can you sum up your music career? I had a rock ‘n’ roll band after graduation. A Blood, Sweat and Tears/Chicago-type band. It was an exciting time. We toured and I met my wife at Lake Tahoe King’s Castle and we were married. She was a New York City Rockette on vacation and decided to stay. In the ’70s, I traveled as a musician and played 11 woodwind instruments. I went on the road with Paul Anka, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. In Las Vegas I worked in the showrooms behind Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. I worked in lounges and really small clubs, which I liked because it was locals.
How did you become a Zen teacher? Being a teacher never occurred to me. That’s aspiring. A Zen master tells you if you’re to be a teacher. And when you’re being prepared to be a teacher, they look at you under a microscope, at how you live your life and how you do things. I studied 16 years until inka. It’s the hardest Ph.D. program going.
Characterize human suffering. We create suffering in this world by thoughts of, “Here I am, this is where I want to be.” We’re always projecting outward. We’re clouded by “I, my, me.” By getting rid of judgmental thought, we get back to the essence of who we are, which is compassion. Most people want to be a better person. There are a lot of self-help books. But meditation is just like taking an onion and peeling away myriad transparent layers and relinquishing our desire mind. Anger is a poison. By seeing it, it begins to melt. You don’t have to deal with it or give it energy. Just see it.
What about physical suffering or death? This life guarantees us nothing. We come empty handed. We leave empty handed. We are a temporary manifestation of energy. These bodies we inhabit are like rental cars, something we have to trade in.
Why meditate together? All sects of Buddhism teach together action because you are less apt to get up when the phone rings or when something interesting comes on TV or you get hungry. In the beginning, the discipline isn’t there.
What’s it like hanging with monks? Fun. Hysterical. Funny stuff. Jokes. I think it’s their way of spending all the dharma gasoline from meditating.
Do you love it? I’m grateful for having been born a human being, exposed to the dharma and having a keen-eyed teacher. Everything is spiritual in Zen. Brushing your teeth is a spiritual act, washing your face is a spiritual act.