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Published: Friday, 9/10/2010

Tales heal soul, storyteller says

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE RELIGION EDITOR

"Stories in words are among our oldest, most powerful, most mysterious tools. Through mere sounds in the air or squiggles on a page, they give us what no other technology can give us - ourselves.

- Rafe Martin, storyteller

People are starving for stories, Rafe Martin said.

An award-winning storyteller and author, he said the human voice, body language, and silence can fuel the imagination in ways no technological device can do.

Mr. Martin, who will lead a story-telling workshop Saturday and give a Zen Buddhism talk Sunday at the Toledo Zen Center, said television, films, and the Internet have been consuming more and more of people's daily lives since he began telling stories 35 years ago.

"It's harder and harder to find opportunities for storytelling," he said in an interview from his home in Rochester, N.Y. "But on the other hand, when you do it, it's like somebody who hasn't had food in a long time. They are starved for it."

His stories cover such topics as World War II and the Holocaust, childhood wishes, and his adventures in motorcycling,

"When a story is told, unlike in movies and television - and I like good movies a lot - but when you're reading or hearing a story told, you are creating the images. There's something active coming alive in your own imagination that is transformative and healing. A TV show might be restful, but not restorative, whereas a story leaves an imprint on the brain that changes you."

A New York City native, Mr. Martin, 64, received a master's degree in English literature at the University of Toronto, where he studied with such scholars as Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, and a bachelor's degree in English from Harpur College, now Binghamton University.

In academia, his interest was on myths, consciousness, and narrative, he said. After reading extensively, he was drawn to Zen Buddhism, saying it "really sparked something in me."

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade in the United States with the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, and a growing youth counterculture, among other things, which made Zen meditation especially appealing.

Mr. Martin was raised in a Jewish family and never felt like he was abandoning Judaism when he and his wife, Rose, began studying Zen Buddhism.

"I never think of it as a conversion as much as an acknowledgment of what we were already feeling," he said, adding that there are many other "JewBu's," or Jews who practice Buddhism.

Mr. Martin moved from New York City to Rochester in 1970 to study with Philip Kapleau, Roshi, founder of the Rochester Zen Center. It was there that Mr. Martin began telling stories, at first about the Buddha's previous lives.

"That is part of the Buddhist tradition, that Buddha could have been an animal or a poor person, and I started telling stories, and lo and behold, I discovered I had some ability to bring stories alive," he said. "And people wanted more."

He also began writing books, and has written more than 20.

His writing, storytelling, and Zen Buddhism all combined to help him develop personally and professionally, Mr. Martin said.

"I am ordained in the Zen tradition, and I have a responsibility to maintain and teach Zen practice," he said. "Every day, whether in country or not, in a hotel or motel or at home, I do a formal sitting both morning and night."

His 40 years of meditation have taught him that gestures and silence can add greatly to a story.

"When you're telling stories, a lot of the story is not told in language but in gestures. It's not just your ability to use voice and hands but also to be empty and silent on the stage," he said. "And if you can't stand yourself and just be present, then how will the audience ever be able to step into that silent moment in a story when you say so much with just your presence on stage?"

Rafe Martin will lead a storytelling workshop from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and give a Dharma talk at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at the Toledo Zen Center, 6537 Angola Rd., Holland. (419) 861-1163

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.



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