The MGM lion, that great golden idol of so many earthy desires, long dominated the view from the Zen Center’s old home in an industrial park on Dean Martin Drive. Not your typical ambiance. And yet, when Zen master Seung Sahn paid a visit, the renowned Korean founder of the Kwan Um school declared: “The jaws of the lion is a wonderful place to practice Zen!”
“What he was saying was that Vegas is wonderful because it’s not hiding anything,” says the Zen Center’s abbot, Thom Pastor. “‘Desire mind’—sex, drugs, gambling, alcohol—all of it is right here. There’s no pretense. No trying to hide it or veil it, it just is what it is. [Zen master Seung Sahn] told me, ‘If you can find your center here, then going anywhere is no problem.’”
We talk cross-legged on the floor of the Zen Center’s new digs, pretty little whitewashed buildings with blue trim at Harmon and Eastern avenues. The center moved here in 2009, thanks in part to the collapse in housing prices (call it karma). It has 18 pine trees and a sculpted pool out back (although one of the new waterfalls is on the fritz). Inside, members of the 50-person congregation chant, bow and sit in silent meditation. The room is simple, though not austere, and is dominated by a large golden statue—not the MGM lion, but the Buddha in his serene pose.
Pastor, 65, has a wide grin and a shorn head. His presence is at once avuncular and intimidating. He has a tendency to whack interlocutors on the thigh with a short stick, especially when they’re trying to take accurate notes.
This is Las Vegas’ very own Zen master—and his path to the Buddha goes straight through the heart of Sin City.
In a previous incarnation, Pastor was a master sax player (among 10 other woodwinds). He toured the world with the likes of Humperdinck, Anka and Tom Jones before settling down in 1973 to spend 15 years on the Strip playing behind Frank Sinatra and other headliners as part of the Caesars Palace house orchestra.
In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a being who attains enlightenment but decides to stick around here for a while to help out the rest of us bums. Now, I’m not saying Sinatra was one of these guys, but he did help Pastor down the path, in a manner of speaking. Pastor started to explore Zen as an antidote to those swingin’ nights on the Strip, when he was seeking an alternative to the musician’s traditional stress-reliever, the between-show cocktail. And he found that high-stakes musicianship can be good training for Zen.
Case in point: his first rehearsal with Sinatra at the old Circus Maximus. The famously temperamental Chairman of the Board only played with musicians he trusted, so when he noticed a new face in the woodwinds, Sinatra suddenly announced that he’d be conducting the first set of tunes himself. “Frank came and put one foot up on the riser right in front of me and said, ‘OK, fellas, here it is,’ and started conducting,” Pastor says. Sinatra stayed there, looming over him and reading along with his music while he played. After getting through the tricky intro to “I’ve Got the World on a String,” Sinatra passed the baton back to the conductor; the lead alto leaned over to Pastor and said, “Congratulations, you just passed the audition.”
That audition, a one-on-one gut-check with the big guy, is not too unlike the Zen tradition of “dharma combat,” in which the student must respond intuitively, with moment-mind, to challenges posed by the master. In 2002, Pastor survived dharma combat with five Zen masters, the last step in a 20-year process of study, retreats and training to become only one of 40 master dharma teachers worldwide in the Kwan Um School of Zen.
Pastor doesn’t view his new life as a break with his old one—he still finds time to perform in addition to abbot duties here and in centers in Madison, Wis., and Fairbanks, Alaska, and he just cut an album,Sleeping Lions, at the Straight Up Martini Lounge with his jazz outfit, B3 Conspiracy. Besides, Buddhism is about the oneness of all things, and that includes Las Vegans and all its denizens, too. And with times tough and looking to get tougher, a lot of us could do with a dose of the dharma. In a delightfully ironic metaphor, Pastor calls Buddhism the “Rolls-Royce teaching” about how to be happier with less. All you need is “moment-mind—not getting lost in your thinking, but being present in this moment.”
That is the “bone of the teaching” that runs through all forms of Buddhism, and it fits the Vegas experience perfectly. From my new, more enlightened perspective, the Strip looks less like a Buddhist obstacle course and more like a training course. Anyone here can see that nothing is permanent, not a hot streak, nor the city itself. And we are bombarded by reminders that grasping is endless—the promise of this place is that there will always be more to desire. If you are convinced that a jackpot will end your suffering, you will likely depart burdened with bad karma and calls from collection agents. Instead, just open your eyes and take it all in: You’ll probably have a decent time whether you hit blackjack or go bust.
“Gain and loss are just opposites,” Pastor says. “Winning the lottery or losing all your money at the craps table—both have no meaning. The fan above you is whirring. The floor is brown. The Buddha is gold. That’s my teaching to you. No more, no less. If you get caught in gain and loss, then you are a slave to your mind and to all things. If you attain pure mind, then complete freedom is available to you.”
The Zen master falls silent, then chuckles. “Doesn’t help the economy here, though!”