An Interview with Michael Imperioli
About an hour after we sat down at a sidewalk table at Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, each drinking a pot of green tea, a self-proclaimed huge fan interrupted our conversation, saying he hated to do so, but “I loved your work in The Sopranos.” This happens to Michael Imperioli. People know Christopher Moltisanti. They know Spider from Goodfellas. Both characters—Tony Soprano’s nervy, wide-eyed nephew and the Scorsese gangster—have some things in common: they’re earnest greenhorns caught up in chaotic violence, and at this point, they’re very much in Imperioli’s past. His presence now is calm and patient, an absolute flip side to the energy of those two, but their roles still follow him, even as he’s gone on to shows like Californication and The White Lotus. When the fan approached us, Imperioli shook his hand, receiving him gracefully, and later admitted to having no control over what people do with his image. “It is what it is,” he says.
This chill is no trickery. To use a metaphor Imperioli is fond of: if you’re digging for water in the desert, you can dig either a thousand holes one foot deep, or one hole a thousand feet deep. It seemed to me that he knew how to do both, how to bring an immediate presence into everything he did, every role he’s acted, and every small encounter. Imperioli’s a man who spends a lot of time sitting patiently with his own mind. I wanted to better understand his framework.
Where the thousand holes are concerned, Imperioli’s a multi-hyphenate: He came up in New York City’s downtown arts scene in the ’80s, playing in noise and punk groups, and acting in theaters and small-budget films. Since The Sopranos ended, his own projects have had more purchase: his 2009 film, Hungry Ghosts; his 2018 novel, The Perfume BurnedHis Eyes; and his ongoing three-piece rock band, Zopa—all of them dowse for the same water. A real capaciousness carries through all his work, a feeling of immediacy and constant curiosity.
When I first heard it, I thought the hole metaphor was about picking a lane, but the truth is, as long as you dig, there’s water. A key part of Imperioli’s divination comes from Tibetan Buddhism. He took vows and he practices. He teaches a weekly meditation class. The name of his rock trio translates from the Tibetan as “patience.” Buddhism has become part of everything he does. He’s glad to be a perpetual student.
Imperioli’s unabashed love for heroes and teachers, of which his social media offers daily evidence, had me watching John Cassavetes’s films after we talked. Whenever Cassa-
vetes appeared on-screen, I thought, Damn, they’re the same guy. What I recognized was this magic of immediacy that performers can have when they’re completely tapped into the moment, when it feels like there’s no separation between thought and expression. How to live safely in that moment for a lifetime is the real work of so many artists. Imperioli would never say there’s just one way to do it, but that Tibetan Buddhism has given him a particular tool kit. It’s where he landed after a long spiritual search, and it’s what has sustained him in the artistic depths. His openness is one of the most powerful and particular things about him. It’s a feeling strong enough to make fans stop him on the street because they feel an urgent need to share something—even if it’s just a moment.
Our conversation started when Imperioli saw a copy of The Diamond Cutter Sutra inside my bag.
I. A Vibe
MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: That was the first Buddhist book I ever bought, The Diamond Sutra,when I was nineteen.
THE BELIEVER: What got you into it?
MI: Jack Kerouac.
BLVR: Dharma Bums?
MI: Just in general, but I couldn’t penetrate it. I still have the copy.
BLVR: Yeah, it’s difficult. Especially how it’s formatted with all these commentaries. Reading it the past few days, I was like, Just give me the sutra. Tell me what the sutra is.
MI: That might not make it easier.
BLVR: No, it doesn’t work. You have to get into the whole nested thing. Teachers quoting teachers.
MI: With the books, yeah. A lot of it’s following actual teachers’ instructions: what they emphasize, making a connection with them. Devotion is a big part of Tibetan Buddhism. Not in an obsequious or sycophantic way—it’s much more about trusting that this path is right for you. This person, the teacher you’ve made, is going to bring you along that path. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, your own teacher is more important than the Buddha.
BLVR: The teacher is the lineage.
MI: Yes, 100 percent. For me, that’s what separated Buddhism from a lot of other paths. The lineage is almost a safety mechanism, because you know it’s not somebody just making it up as they go along: a little of this, a little of that.It’s more like this is how it’s been done. Generation to generation, teacher to student, teacher to student—for so many years.
BLVR: Even the phrase taking refuge. There’s a lot of trust in it.
MI: Yeah, it’s a good phrase, right? In the meditation class we do, someone asked a question on Sunday about someone who was a Catholic: raised Catholic, is a Catholic. They asked, “Are they compatible? Can you be both?” I was told you can’t be both. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to study Buddhism and to enjoy the teachings or apply the teachings or to meditate. But Buddhism is not a self-proclaimed thing. Being a Buddhist means you have taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, or the teachings, and the Sangha, the congregation. You commit to what those vows mean.
BLVR: The tradition seems to make it feel pretty safe.
MI: Oh, I think so. It’s really important, because we’re so fallible as human beings that without the discipline of the lineage and the tradition and the requirements and the respect and the commitment and obligation you have for it—without that, things can… You’ve seen Wild Wild Country?
BLVR: I haven’t.
MI: Osho, Rajneesh, was a guy who had lot of spiritual knowledge. But there wasn’t a lineage. He had no guru. It became this cult of personality and went completely bonkers.
BLVR: Lou Reed, in The Perfume Burned His Eyes, felt a little like a dangerous teacher—it’s not his intent, but the main character, who’s just seventeen, is charmed by his way of being, how close Reed lives to his art.
MI: Too much voltage at that age. You know, that’s really what it was. I don’t think it was necessarily toxic or poisonous. It was just too much too soon. I call it voltage… energy, right? That intensity.
BLVR: At seventeen it’s really tempting to jump over everything.
MI: That’s exactly how I felt. You want to jump over this stuff. I didn’t go to college, because after high school I was gonna go to SUNY-Albany, and I went up for the orientation weekend in the summer. I was like, This is just kind of like an extension of high school. They are just living in fucking dorms and not at home. I was like, I don’t, I really don’t feel like doing this.
Instead, I wound up going to acting school here, which was great. There were mostly people in their twenties, thirties, forties. That made all the difference for me. I wanted to be around people who were not kids anymore, who were adults and doing adult things.
BLVR: Was your family resistant?
MI: No, they were fine. They kind of understood. They also knew I was too stubborn. There was only so much control they had anyway. But they were very supportive and still are—and they’re still here, which is nice.
BLVR: Is acting school where you met John Ventimiglia?
MI: Yeah, I met John. I met a guy named Tom Gilroy, who’s an independent filmmaker—he was a really big influence on me. He was twenty-three and had just come from Boston College, where he was a DJ and he played in bands. We started a band together, started producing theater together, and started writing. He was a lot older and knew more about music, punk, literature, and film and stuff. I wasn’t exposed to anything out of the mainstream until I was seventeen.
BLVR: The whole group in Cabaret Maxime does feel like it came up together.
MI: Yeah, I met Nick Sandow a few years after that. The director, Bruno de Almeida—we met in 1996. We did three movies: On the Run here in New York, and then The Lovebirds and Cabaret Maxime in Lisbon. Nick directed a lot of the plays when we had the theater. My wife and I opened Studio Dante [points at the caffe dante sign above] after Caffe Dante.
BLVR: Cabaret Maxime got me thinking about directors who come from theater with a crew. Fassbinder, Cassavetes…
MI: Yeah, Cassavetes was teaching an acting class, an improv class. Do you know that story? He was on a late-night radio show in New York. A guy named Jean Shepherd used to do this middle-of-the-night radio show with artists and celebrities. And Cassavetes started talking about an improv they were working on in his class. He said, “You know, if you want to see a good movie, people should send us money. We’ll make a movie about this.” People started sending dollar bills and then he felt obligated to start shooting Shadows.
BLVR: Is he still your favorite?
MI: Yeah, he’ll always be my favorite just because he has a lot of compassion for his characters. The lines of what’s bad and what’s good get muddied. He understands that people are searching. I mean, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie there are gangsters, but even there, Timothy Carey’s character, when it’s time to kill Ben Gazzara, he can’t do it. He chickens out and becomes something else. I think he really had a lot of compassion for people in general.
The aesthetic is just gorgeous for someone who doesn’t like to say that he has an aesthetic. It’s beautiful. As a writer, he’s incredibly underrated. A lot of the people I’ve met that worked with him say he wrote most of that stuff. It wasn’t just, like, turn the camera on and actors going off.
BLVR: People assume most of it was improv?
MI: Yeah, all the time. It has that feeling.
BLVR: It does.
MI: And he was an actor. So the critics figure actors aren’t that bright, so he probably didn’t write it. Or that he wasn’t really a filmmaker, because he didn’t make Hollywood movies. He made these things that some people consider very indulgent. I think of them more as experiences. They were a completely new experience for me. I had seen Gloria—but that was a studio picture—when I was young. Anthology Film Archives, sometime in the ’80s—I think late ’80s?—did a retrospective. That was the first time I saw A Woman Under the Influence; The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I had never seen anything like that, to the point where it was like a dream. You weren’t really sure how much time had passed: Is this the beginning of the movie? Is this the middle? Is this the end? I still watch those movies. And they still challenge me. I mean, I’ve seen some of them twenty times.
BLVR: I went to the Rubin the other day, and the shrine on the third floor made me think of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie because of all the red, the stage curtains. There’s a certain intensity, really: it’s a vibe.
MI: It’s a vibe. I mean, that’s how the shrine or the temple is designed. The thangka paintings are designed with a certain sacred geometry that corresponds to, like, the rods and cones in your eyes. Immediately, when you look at a thangka painting, the geometry of it connects to your sense faculties in a way to bring you into meditation: basically, to be in contact with your own mind in a deeper way.
BLVR: There’s a lot of magic to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—stage magic. Have you gotten much into or read much about Buddhist magic?
MI: Yeah. I mean, listen. Vajrayana Buddhism, or Tantric Buddhism, is primarily what Tibetan Buddhism is. It’s really Buddhist mysticism. I mean, without a doubt. You can’t really define it in any other way.
BLVR: Filmmakers can channel some magic. Assayas is somebody who often gets into this, what it means to live a little bit in the spirit world.
MI: I think in its purest form, art definitely has a connection to those things. I mean, part of The Perfume Burned His Eyes wasreally about how the character of Lou is almost like a shaman. Not intentionally, but he’s living so far out of society, in a way, through his drug use and his psychological state and his choices.
Yet he is in the world and he’s creating. So he’s in touch with something that’s really extraordinary and creating something tangible: a song or an album that people can actually listen to. I think when you’re really in touch with certain truths, there is some magic to that. If you get out of the way, magical things happen.
BLVR: You’ve talked about taking Carlos Castaneda literally, the magic he writes about. I’m interested in what that can do, that belief.
MI: That was before I got into Buddhism. I really wanted the magic. I really did. And I believed that was possible. It’s funny: sometimes when I’m in LA, in Westwood, I drive by his house, which is on Pandora Avenue, where he practiced with the three witches and stuff like that. It’s not far off Santa Monica Boulevard, but it’s surrounded by hedges. I don’t know who owns it now.
I just found it so fascinating that this lineage that had existed for centuries and centuries was still alive and that this guy stumbled into it. Which I do think he did. I’m not sure how much of what happened in those books is literally true. But I’m sure a lot of it is. There’s a screenwriter, a novelist named Bruce Wagner…
BLVR: Oh, sure.
MI: You know him? He was a student of Castaneda. He wrote a book that’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, called—
BLVR: The novel about LA?
MI: No, The Empty Chair. The one about LA he put me in.
BLVR: Like, full name?
MI: Yeah. I’m not really sure how I was portrayed, if he was being cynical or if he was being kind. I still don’t know.
BLVR: Did you look at it?
MI: I did. I just can’t tell. I didn’t read the whole book.
BLVR: How do you relate to your image being out there? Christopher’s a good example. I mean, is it just distance, something from the past?
MI: You know, when I got on social media, and during the pandemic, when I saw how much of a presence that character was in people’s consciousness, especially among young people—I really wasn’t aware of that. I kind of said, Well, why don’t you just own that a little bit and use it to get your other stuff out there?
BLVR: That seems graceful.
MI: Yeah, it is what it is. Some people just see me as that. There’s nothing you can do to ever change it. And I get that too. I can’t have it on my terms. I can’t have your perception on my terms. Once you give it out, it’s done, right?
BLVR: I’ve certainly struggled with the fact that once you write and publish something, it’s out of your control.
MI: Completely, completely out of your control. Once it’s out, you know, it is what it is. You post something about meditation and people comment with Sopranos quotes and stuff like that. You can’t be like, They don’t get it. It’s just part of the whole thing.
BLVR: How often is the meditative mindset with you? I’m thinking about a student who asked the Dalai Lama, “What’s the best time to meditate and how long should you do it?” And the response was “All the time.”
MI: Yeah, well the point of meditation is not just for while you’re on the cushion. It’s for life and for living. You’re practicing so you can bring a certain level of mindful awareness to your life and your motives. My understanding of what total enlightenment and full enlightenment are is that that becomes your state. Period.
You’re in that level of awareness—and not just that level of awareness, but also I guess the realization of the truth of existence, interdependence, impermanence, and non-
duality. The view of Buddhism is just completely realized in every waking moment.
The Tibetan word for meditation is gom, which means “to familiarize, to habituate.” So what are you habituating? You’re habituating your connection to your mind. Someone once said nirvana is looking within at the nature of your own mind. Samsara is looking out, projecting, being lost in projections. That’s basically the only difference.
BLVR: You’ve talked about how playing a certain guitar over time with a certain kind of music—
MI: Will change the molecular structure of the guitar, yeah.
BLVR: That feels related to sitting to practice. Practicing for a long time. Practice becoming the default mode.
MI: Karmically as well. Karma is related to the actions of body, speech, and mind, right? You create karma through the actions of body, speech, and mind. And you experience a result of karma not just from actions of this lifetime, but from prior lifetimes as well.
Mental habit is very hard to get out of. The way you see things, the way you react to certain people. Addiction.
BLVR: It’s a very deep groove.
MI: Addiction is a deep groove. That’s a good way to put it.
BLVR: Do you feel like there’s karma to representation in art? When you write something and show the shadow side and show violence.
MI: Is it negative karma?
BLVR: Is there a difference? Between negative karma and putting out negative things in the world?
MI: I think it depends on your intention. You know, if you make a film with a certain degree of violence, you can be a sadist and say, I want people to suffer. I want people to really be revolted when they see this. Well, maybe that’s a negative intention, and if so it will create negative karma.
A good example for me is Goodfellas, right? Not because I’m in it or anything, but I think it is a really brilliant movie. I don’t think Scorsese’s intentions were negative at all. His intentions were to express a certain way of life that he had some familiarity with as a kid and was connected to through his ethnicity and heritage.
The opening of the movie is a flash-forward, right, to later on? It’s the brutal murder of Billy Batts. After that, the story starts again, but from the chronological beginning, it’s very kind of, [snaps his fingers] “Mack the Knife” or whatever. Rags to riches. Tony Bennett. Everyone’s young, it’s kind of innocent and still fun. It’s before the coke and the psychosis and the sadism. He put that flash-forward up front to say, Before you start having fun, remember: this is what this is about. I think his intention was to show a truth and explore it.
BLVR: Do you feel like you just have to shut out the audience and the meaning of something as you’re kind of figuring out your intentions?
MI: You’re communicating with any art, right? I think that the fact that you are communicating means you are aware of an audience. You might not be aware of a demographic or a commercial thing—[or] maybe you are, but the fact that you are thinking about communication with people means you’re thinking about an audience.
BLVR: Have audiences with totally different politics from yours changed how you feel about this? I know people took The Sopranos to be a lot of glorification.
MI: Yeah, it was very interesting and eye-opening—in a very difficult way, but in a good way. I had just assumed that the audience was all in on it. I’ll be really honest with you when I say that David Chase—his intentions, I think, to make this show were much like [those of] Marty Scorsese for Goodfellas or Coppola for The Godfather. These are great artists who have a connection to these stories and these people based on who they are and where they’re from. Yet projecting these images, can we say that it’s 100 percent pure and benevolent? I’m not sure, you know what I mean?
I post stuff about gun control because I’m not into guns, whatever—and then people say, Well, it’s hypocritical. You made a lot of money glamorizing gun violence. I can easily refute that argument in my mind and justify it very effectively. But there’s part of me that says, Hmm…
Ultimately, I don’t think the intent was to glamorize. The intent was to tell the story.
BLVR: Laurie Anderson’s teacher said something that relates for me: practice feeling sad without actually feeling sad. There’s value to showing these places and feelings, even if they’re dark.
MI: Yeah, you know, there’s that word in Sanskrit, karunā, like, “that tender heart.” When you really open yourself up to others’ suffering and things like that, there’s a universality to it.
You also have to accept that if you’re going to be in samsara, if you’re going to make movies, and you’re going to be in the public eye, and you’re going to have some degree of fame. A desire to make movies—to have the volition to create and do those things—you are creating karma. I’m not necessarily saying negative karma, but you’re still in samsara. You’re not sliding through the world in this enlightened state that makes no ripple. You know what I mean?
MI: I mean, Milarepa, when he decided to go into the mountains and sit in the cave for the rest of his life, basically, I imagine he stopped making ripples.
BLVR: You’ve talked about how artists need both—to be sensitive people and engage with the world. Maybe the sensitivity is easier.
MI: I guess so.
BLVR: Personally speaking.
MI: There’s a wisdom to it. There’s a wisdom to sensitivity. It’s also your karma to be in the world right now. I mean, I have three kids—they’re adults, but I still have some responsibility to them, and a wife, you know. And it’s like, I could choose tomorrow to go to Nepal and sit in the cave for the rest of my life. But I have karmic ties. That might be easier, or it may not. But what about these responsibilities?
When the time is right, maybe we’ll be in the cave. Hopefully at some point. [His phone rings.] I just get a bunch of calls sometimes. It really freaks me out. A bunch of different people call at the same time and it makes me think that something bad has happened.
BLVR: You want to pick it up?
BLVR: [Laughs] OK.
MI: I hope nothing bad happens. [His phone rings.] See what I mean? [He picks it up.] Hello. Hello? Yes. Uh, yeah. I’m in the middle of an interview. I’ll see you then.
III. “Taking myself out of the equation”
BLVR: You’ve related the creative process to having a compass and pointing it toward something, being receptive to everything you find. How do you know whether you can trust the compass?
MI: That’s a really good question. At the inception of a project—say, if you’re an artist, right? Once your consciousness gets tuned to whatever it is—an image, a story, a chord progression, a melody, and you’re working on it; you know, it might be a year, not all the time, but you’re working on it—once your consciousness gets tuned to that, anything that comes into your head related to that idea, you have to respect it.
You may not use it, but you better write it down. Because at that point there’s no random thoughts. Your consciousness—your compass, if you will—is tuned to that. Whatever is coming is filtered through that. You can’t ignore any of it. That’s how I trust it.
BLVR: Do you ever find that overwhelming?
MI: No, no, I wish. I wish I was overwhelmed by that.
BLVR: Does it feel slow?
MI: No. It’s just like: the more the merrier. [Laughs]
BLVR: I’ve felt obsessive about finishing things, but that might just be impatience.
MI: Yeah, there’s a fine balance between impatience and the time it needs. At some point you’ve got to realize that you’ve got to commit to it—sometimes you just have to start, even if you just have one scene, one image, one moment. Just start playing with it. Sometimes that opens a box. That opens and then there’s another one.
BLVR: How do you receive those first ideas?
MI: I think you have to set a space and time for them. If you’re writing, especially fiction—that takes a lot of time—that’s why you have that daily: All right: Monday through Friday, I’m sitting at the desk, and I’m writing. Whether or not you write a word, it’s important to be in that seat. You may not write a word for a whole week. But the mind knows that that time is dedicated to that. Something’s going on. If you’re going to wait for the inspiration, that’s probably going to slow things down.
BLVR: There’s that Leonard Cohen line, “Ring the bells that still ring. / Forget your perfect offering.” Can’t be too precious, even if it’s sacred.
MI: Yeah, did you see Hallelujah? There’s a couple of shots of, like, the notebooks just for “Hallelujah.” And there’s, like, dozens of them.
BLVR: He did so much work to keep things simple.
MI: Yeah, he was special. He was a spiritual seeker. He definitely got in touch with something.
BLVR: And he’s just so raw emotionally. Is that one of the things that draws you to music? You’ve talked about having a stage presence—the immediate communication you find when you’re up there.
MI: Yeah. I really had to figure out how to do that. I really didn’t know what the fuck to do. First of all, singing and playing guitar take most of my attention because I’m not so fluent in those things. But once you do find some kind of control, then: Okay. I can actually look at people. I have enough control now that I can look at people—what are you going to say? What are you trying to communicate? People are looking at you. I think now it’s really about emotion. Getting inside the story, the song, whatever emotion is evoked.
You’re trying to express your energy like an actor does, expressing it in your body as well.
BLVR: Does it feel like playing a character?
MI: It’s very, very similar to acting. The song is the script. There’s a character but it’s not playing a character. It’s connecting to it. It’s different. Although some of the songs have first-person dialogue. And I’ve been trying to kind of actually play those characters a little bit. Yeah, that’s true. I’m not playing a character as the singer, but within the song, yes.
BLVR: Do you feel like you’re doing the Buddhist thing of watching your own mind in those spaces when you’re acting or onstage?
MI: I don’t know if it’s mind looking at mind, because there’s so much fixation on what you’re doing. [Laughs] At least for me at this point.
BLVR: I guess you hear about people who have prepared and done something so much that they’re out of body when they’re performing.
MI: Like athletes when they have these games. When they’re completely in the moment. It’s just effortless. I don’t think it’s the same as mind looking at mind. I think there’s a stillness to those moments.
BLVR: Do you think musicians are like religious icons for the culture?
MI: Saying “religion” is a tough one. But when I was a teenager and I first heard the Smiths, Morrissey was very, very, very important to me. For many reasons, but I just felt like he was doing something that not a lot of people were doing. I felt the same thing about David Bowie and Lou Reed. There was an honesty. It was important to me that they were in the world. It made you feel less alone.
BLVR: Is it spiritual?
MI: I felt more like they were teachers. Sometimes the experience of being at a show could be some kind of an ecstatic, transcendent experience, seeing music. If you’re seeing somebody that you really connect to, those vibrations—or, you know, again, the molecules—those vibrations are very profound.
BLVR: Is that what happened when you first saw My Bloody Valentine and had to leave?
MI: That was even before the lyrics. I can’t even hear them on the record. But yeah, that’s what I hope for every time I go see music. Very often I won’t go see music, because I know that’s not going to happen. I don’t know how to do that intentionally for people beyond, you know, just trying to be honest in the song, committing myself as much as possible.
BLVR: Onstage do you feel something comparable to when you’re seeing shows live?
MI: Oh yeah. Even taking myself out of the equation. The sounds that my two bandmates make, being onstage with it, being in sync with it: it’s very, very powerful. Those two guys are not just a rhythm section. They’re two very distinctive players on their instruments. Olmo is a very powerful drummer. As Elijah is on bass and vocals. You feel a lot. At the times when I get most insecure, I lean on that. The fact that I’m onstage with those two guys gives me confidence, more than I have for myself.
BLVR: Does the noise feel like armor?
MI: Yeah, yeah. But it’s also very pleasurable. I like the noise we’re making now, but it’s a little more specific. It took a while to find the sound. The early stuff is a lot more punk-driven, post-punk. The newer stuff has more psychedelic and shoegaze and indie rock.
BLVR: You’re recording more songs now?
MI: Yeah, we just started in August. We did a single last year with John Agnello. We liked it so much we decided to do the album with him. A day opened up, Sunday, and he called a few days ago. He goes, “I’m up here and we’ve got Sundays open. Do you want to come in?” So we went in. At the studio he works out of in Union City, there’s two control rooms. It turned out in the other one was a different producer and the singer Jane Siberry, who we didn’t know. He introduced us and we played her the song. She wound up doing some vocals on it, which was a real thrill. I told David Chase and he said, “Well, her song closes The Many Saints of Newark.” I’d totally forgotten. She was lovely.
BLVR: It seems like chance has played a big part in growing your community. You wouldn’t have started the meditation class if people didn’t want it.
MI: Yeah, I think a lot of it’s a matter of just being open to it. In Tibetan, there’s a word, tendrel, which means “auspicious coincidence, auspicious circumstance.” So, like, when something happens that seems like a coincidence but it’s really very profound, right? Know what I mean? You have to follow those things. It’s important to be open to them.
IV. The Good News
(or: The Worst Thing in the World)
BLVR: You get to collaborate a lot when you’re screenwriting too.
MI: Although I started The Perfume Burned His Eyes because I was sick of collaborating. Not sick of collaborating with people, but there were a lot of projects I loved that I couldn’t get going. And I’m like, At least I can do that. I can complete this, whether it gets published or not. It’s not like a screenplay or teleplay or a bible for a show where you do it and it never gets made. It’s like you didn’t really do anything. You know what I mean?
Giving people your unmade screenplays to read, it’s fucking the worst thing in the world. At least a novel you can finish.
BLVR: Do you find it easy to take breaks with a novel and go back?
MI: It takes a while. Sometimes it’s really good. Sometimes it’s not so good. It just is what it is. I wish sometimes that’s all I did.
BLVR: Just fiction writing?
MI: Or anything.
BLVR: You want to dig just the one hole a thousand feet deep. Yeah.
MI: Karmically, this is where I’m at right now. There’s a bunch of things happening.
BLVR: How do you feel about the watered-down Buddhism that often makes its way into the culture, the kind Mike White’s satirized?
MI: It’s dangerous or just ineffective. Did you ever read What Makes You Not a Buddhist?
BLVR: I haven’t.
MI: It’s very good. He’s a very important teacher right now. He’s a filmmaker too. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He goes by Khyentse Norbu when he makes films. He’s a tulku reincarnate lama from the Khyentse lineage. Really amazing and smart.
BLVR: What are his films like?
MI: The Cup is about monks who want to see the World Cup on TV. Travelers and Magicians is more about pilgrims. They’re interesting films. He understands the West and modernity and artists. He basically says that in the beginning, people want to meditate because they’re stressed out. Which is fine, you know, but, he says, if you want to feel better, you’re probably better off getting a massage than meditating.
It’s not a self-help thing. The goal of Buddhism really is to end delusion from our subjective, human existence. And it demands that we’re brutally honest with ourselves. It’s a very different trip than most people think Buddhism is, you know?
BLVR: I wanted to ask in your class: How can you be ambitious without being attached?
MI: I don’t know if you can. Doing stuff in the world, there’s gonna be a certain amount of karma that you’re creating. I think part of the challenge is to recognize the attachment. Become aware of it. See that it’s there. See how it affects you. How much of it feeds your ego, inflates it, how it affects your expectations and what you’re trying to do.
If you can see that, then you really kind of get down to the essence of why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s also your karma, in a way. You’re in this position to do certain things, right? That’s who you are.
In Mahayana Buddhism, you take the mind bodhisattva vow, which means: I am committing to return lifetime after lifetime to be of benefit to beings until all beings are enlightened. I’m not going to seek enlightenment just for my own benefit. But I’m going to come back. I’m going to do that until all sentient beings become enlightened.
That’s the bodhisattva vow; that’s part of the foundation of Mahayana Buddhism. It’s a really tall order. It’s an easy thing to say the vow, but it’s a really big commitment. [Laughs] A lot bigger than most of us who take it really know.
BLVR: Nondualism confuses me. I can never really define it or get the idea to stick.
MI: I don’t think it ever does. It’s not enough to have an intellectual understanding of it. You can, on the level of quantum physics and stuff. But how do you start to bring that into your practice, into your life, and how you engage with the world? I think when you finally realize that and embody it, it becomes your default. That may be Buddahood. The way we see the world is sort of habituated over lifetimes and in this physical form we are limited to certain sense perceptions, how we perceive the world. There are limits. And a certain functionality you need just to survive comes through duality.
You can go sit in a cave for some kind of release from it. That’s a process. There’s a teacher, I forget who it was, who said: “Just try not to hurt anybody.”
BLVR: I guess the idea being that once you’re living all these practices…
MI: If you start to apply awareness to situations, you can bring a positive charge where maybe there would just be a neutral one. Just by your attention and where you’re placing it. That’s the good news.
BLVR: Do you feel comfortable calling yourself a teacher?
MI: No. Maybe for meditation, but not Buddhism. I can teach meditation. It’s very simple, really. Posture, breathing, working with the mind, the techniques. But not Buddhism. I don’t know enough to teach that. I mean, that’s specific.
BLVR: You chose Tibetan Buddhism because of the teachers.
MI: It’s like martial arts, right? All the martial arts have their merits, but it’s really about finding the right teacher. That’s when you’re really going to learn stuff and progress. If you find a teacher that has some realization and is from an authentic lineage, you should leap. They’re as rare as stars in the daytime, as they say.