From federal prisoner to zen master |

From federal prisoner to zen master

Caramie Schnell
VAIL CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyBoulder writer Keith Martin-Smith, left, met Zen master Jun Po Denis Kelly in Boulder in 2007 and began writing about Kelly's life - which he calls "part Hunter S. Thompson, part Timothy Leary, and part Eckhart Tolle" - shortly thereafter.

When author Keith Martin-Smith first met Zen priest Jun Po Dennis Kelly Roshi in 2007, he quickly realized the tall, imposing man wasn’t your typical Zen master. The man may have looked the part, with a shaved head and intense blue eyes, but the words out of his mouth didn’t quite match.

The two men were both attending a weekend long discussion for leaders and teachers in Boulder. They were matched up in a group of four people and tasked with telling each other about who they were.

“That man went first, and he sat back in his chair, taking a moment to make eye contact with each of us,” Martin-Smith said.

Kelly proceeded to tell the group about an affair he’d had.

“‘A few years ago, I started screwing somebody I shouldn’t have been screwing,’ he stated flatly. The three of us all raised our eyebrows. ‘A priest in my order. And I messed up her marriage, my marriage, and my entire community. Nearly destroyed everything that I had spent 20 years building. I realized that at 64 years of age I still had more psychological shadow work to do, and so it was back to the therapist …'”

Martin-Smith could hardly believe what he was hearing.

“A ‘roshi’ is the highest-ranking Zen master’s there are, men and women who have undergone tremendous training, education, and demonstration of spiritual mastery,” Keith-Martin said. “The few I’d met did not speak so plainly or so self-effacingly. On top of that, spiritual teachers were notorious for excusing sexual indiscretion through a lot of doublespeak and bypassing of responsibility. I didn’t know who this Jun Po Denis Kelly was, but I was determined to find out.”

Two years later, in 2009, Martin-Smith was offered a job writing a biography about Kelly’s life.

“I realized that it was a story more extraordinary than I had ever heard before,” he said. “Denis Kelly’s life is like a Hunter S. Thompson story that somehow ends up with a Zen master at the end of it – Amazing.”

“From his beginnings in an abusive and alcoholic home in Wisconsin to becoming a major force in the counterculture movement, and then from a life on the run and in prison to a life in a monastery and in service, it is as entertaining as it is inspirational,” the book cover reads.

There was only one problem.

“How does one afford to take a year, or two, off of life to write a book, full-time?” Martin-Smith said.

Though he was living in Boulder, the freelance writer, author (his first book of short stories is called “The Mysterious Divination of Tea Leaves”) and kung fu teacher still owned a house in Philadelphia.

But Martin-Smith realized he couldn’t turn down the opportunity and instead, decided to sell his house in Philadelphia and use the money to live on while he wrote the book.

“I’ve never regretted that decision, even though the chances are slim I’ll ever make the money back,” he said.

The resulting book, “A Heart Blown Open,” is “all about how Denis Kelly went from being a drug manufacturer and federal prisoner to a Zen master and innovator,” Keith-Martin said.

Martin-Smith will be at the Bookworm of Edwards Thursday night, reading from the book, answering questions and signing books. The event starts at 6 p.m.

During the event, people will get a brief overview of Kelly’s life and teachings and Martin-Smith plans to share a very personal story from the book, “about when I first understood the gravity of what he was teaching, and how that radically transformed my relationship to anger, and my relationships to others,” he said.

“The Bookworm selected this book with the growing Eastern practices of yoga, pilates, meditation and acupuncture in mind,” said Kelli Kostroski, marketing and events manager at The Bookworm. “Keith Martin-Smith is a Colorado author and his book offers insight and inspiration for the seekers and practitioners of enlightenment in our recreational community.”

So how does this book inspire the everyday spiritual seeker?

“By showing, experientially, that the mess of everyday life is the very fuel one needs to awaken and find liberation,” Martin-Smith said. “As Kelly says, ‘Your angst is your liberation.'”

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or