Dennis Clouse
Dennis Clouse

Rafe Martin was born into the perfect training ground for a storyteller. He grew up immersed in told stories, hearing his father’s tales of flying dangerous rescue missions in the Himalayas during World War II, fairy tales read aloud by his mother, and his Russian-Jewish relatives telling entrancing, often hilarious, stories about their lives. His early exposure to stories about Asia, his reading of Alan Watts and other Buddhist authors, and a chance meeting with Allen Ginsberg in a bar in Greenwich Village fueled his interest in Zen practice. In the late ’60’s, Martin found himself becoming disillusioned with graduate school at a time when the Vietnam War and social unrest were peaking. “I made a vow to myself in graduate school that if things got really bad, I’d go practice Zen,” he said.

Things did get really bad, and he began sitting with Philip Kapleau Roshi [1912—2004], the founder of the Rochester Zen Center, in upstate New York, becoming a student and, later, a disciple. It was at the Zen Center that Martin began telling stories, most of them Buddhist Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha’s former incarnations), and began learning firsthand the power of told stories and the role of a storyteller. It was also at the Zen center that he began melding his storytelling and writing with his Zen practice, which has included working with koans. Koans—sometimes called spiritual puzzles—pose questions or situations we can’t answer or understand using logic, and thus force us to go beyond the discursive mind. Martin recognized that the traditional tales he was using in his storytelling and writing might in fact function like koans. These simple tales may indeed point to our place in the universe.

Martin is the author of twenty-one books, ranging from picture books to novels, and he was the editor of Roshi Kapleau’s final two books. He has won numerous awards both as a storyteller and as an author, including the Storytelling World Award, American Library Association Notable Book Awards, and Parent’s Choice Gold Awards. His most recent novel is Birdwing (excerpt on final page).

I spoke with Rafe Martin this summer at his home in Rochester, New York.

—Joseph Sorrentino

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