Monk on the Run

Warren Rosen, from pot dealer to Buddhist monk to ex-con. (Photo by Liza Macrae)



Who could resist a book called Monk on the Run? With chapters titled “Monk on the Lam” and “Monk in the Slam”?

The Buddhists were not best pleased to learn that the eager student who had kept their discipline for five years came to hide from the feds. As character witnesses in his eventual trial (for dealing marijuana), their tone was chilly. But Warren Rosen is a real artist as well as a con artist, and you have to admit, his strategy was creative.

At first, he was not sure he could do it: “Me, a somewhat hyper New Yorker sitting still for fifty minutes, are you kidding me?” But soon he was sitting zazen for eight or ten hours a day. Granted, his first thought when preparing for an austere retreat was “what kind of special treats we could take.” But he moved smoothly from a life in New York’s East Village, making art and seeking out friendship, women, fine food, and wine, to rising at 4:30 a.m., chopping vegetables with pure concentration so each piece would be exactly the same size and meditating until icepicks of pain stabbed his knees.

The discipline and inner quiet turned out to be the perfect preparation for twenty-two months in prison.

Neither life had been planned. Rosen grew up the only artist in a suburban Jewish family. Learned to smoke pot when his older brother brought some home from college. Started sourcing it for his friends at the University of Iowa. Became a foodie after a meal of blood sausage, brown bread, and vodka with a German art professor. Chose art over sociology because he knew he would rather hang out with bongo drummers and painters than with academics.

“I never wanted a white picket fence,” he says dryly. Selling pot was his way of funding his art. He had begun to have some success—small shows in New York and one in Europe; work acquired by small museums. Then came the 4 am phone call. His friend Billy, who had grown up in a privileged Jewish East Coast family and bought Rosen’s art and invited him to fabulous dinners and fronted him pot to sell—had been arrested. Faced with a choice between two years in prison and life in prison, Billy had offered up his contacts to the DEA.

Rosen smashed his phone and took off. First to Ithaca, where he remembered a Jewish Buddhist friend saying that a Zen student could travel the country studying with different teachers and living at monasteries. It beat prison. He showed up at the only Buddhist center in Ithaca and found a sign saying the monks were on vacation. “What, monks on vacation? I could envision them piling in a van and sightseeing at the Grand Canyon….”

Syracuse had more options, so he bought a bus ticket at a Greyhound station crowded with “the down and out, derelicts, outcasts…or fugitives. (Oh, that’s me).” At the Zen Center in Syracuse, he was able to sit longer each time, stilling the jitters, “letting cloudy water settle.” From there, he went to Dai Bosatsu, high in the Catskills, where the first thing he had to do was remove his street clothes and put on institutional garb.

Just like prison.

The discipline at the monastery was more intense, though. He would have to keep silence. “In Manhattan, the only time I wasn’t speaking was when I was sleeping.” Five months in, he decided it was a “terrifying but wondrous experience to put yourself out into the universe while emotionally naked.” He was no longer an artist, a foodie, a bon vivant, a New Yorker, and a denizen of the East Village. He was just a student who saw with an artist’s eye. In Tassajara for three secluded winter months, he watched snow falling, the whole world turning white, and the monks walking single file into the whiteness in their black robes—and wished it were a conceptual piece he had created.

Now, he has created a book. Monk on the Run is shaped the way he has lived his life: moment to moment, choosing freedom over convention, scorning practicality, following impulses. Lots of digressions, in other words, and prose that is not always linear or logical but stays vivid, a paintbox spattered with bright personalities. Women who were “art royalty” (one showed up in black jeans, white T-shirt, high black boots, and a full-length fur coat). A mysterious fellow who carried a gun to black-tie dinners and had boxes of wine delivered from all over the world, some bearing army insignia. A Dominican cartel leader who asked Rosen to teach him to meditate.

My lips press tight when I read the risks Rosen took—not only for himself but for the friends who hid him. But I relax into awe when he describes the art projects that drove him. A giant frozen disc he placed in the woods, the trees behind it becoming more visible as it melted into translucence. Performance art with nude men and women on pulleys that let them interact as bodies moving in space, free of gravity. A clifftop house in upstate New York whose owner let him paint it phosphorescent green (provided he had it repainted for free), then photograph it on a moonless night and again at sunrise, glowing. One thousand pounds of ivory wax he molded into a giant chair then slowly melted, so it funneled back into the mold. “Re-creating life itself,” he writes. “Life and death. The Phoenix.”

Takes one to know one.

Rosen’s mother once asked, her jaw no doubt clenched, “Don’t you have regrets for ruining an art career that was just starting to take off?” He gave her a look. “Mom, there would not have been a career or potential career if not for the money I made illegally. None of these pieces would have been created and none of the connections would have been made…. I would have still been bartending.”

Money for its own sake was never the point; nor was fame. He had watched other artists whore, attending every gallery opening, insinuating themselves into the art world, hoping to become one of the art stars of the post-Warhol years. Many broke under the pressure. What Rosen loved was the process: popping an idea and making it happen. He talks about past projects with a kid’s excitement, no longer as Serious as he was in art school. In the New York years, he mustered enough ego to believe his work belonged there. But over those years of meditation, the persona slipped away. He lost the New York edge, the need to always be on top of his game.

“With deep meditation, eight hours a day for months or years, the brain literally changes,” he says. “And the change is there forever. Am I still walking on air? No. But the peace of mind, just being comfortable in my skin—that’s what’s important. Knowing all your wants and hates are an illusion. That stays with you.

“I was lucky,” he says a minute later. Which is not the way most people would put it, if they went underground for five years in a setting “tougher than the Marines,” surfaced, and put together an antiques business in California, only to see a convoy of black SUVs coming. He ran again, eluding federal agents for days by running along a creek the way he had seen people do it in movies, then hiding out in a shack in the woods. When he finally turned himself in, he was told that in California, the charges would likely have been dropped, but he would have to stand trial in southern Manhattan, one of the toughest district courts for drug cases. Where, okay, he was a little bit lucky, sentenced to twenty-two months when it could have been far longer. But what he means by lucky is that he found a way to “step off the merry-go-round of life for five years.” It got him ready for prison’s roller coaster.

Warren Rosen is not a practical, sober man. His refusal to conform to rules and precedent lets him dream up his art. His enthusiastic appreciation—for pleasure, nature, eccentricity, creativity—lets him adapt to all sorts of strangeness. And his refusal to judge lets him pile up interesting friends everywhere he goes. The drag queen with a drug addiction who became a Buddhist abbot. The infamous John Gotti Jr., who wanted Rosen as his cellmate: “Tell the Jew I want to talk to him.” (Authorities refused.) The gourmand who walked into the bar Rosen was tending, English bulldog at his side, and swept back a black cape lined in red silk to sit on the stool. (They became friends, and the guy invited Rosen to six-hour Chaine de Rotisseurs dinners that required him to check the pockets of his secondhand formalwear for the cockroaches that cohabited his tenement apartment.)

Rosen has no regrets; he refuses to entertain them. After years alone, he is now, in his seventies, wildly in love and living in Oaxaca, where he enthuses about five centuries of cobblestoned history, world-class bakeries and coffee, mezcal, moles of every color, “and an interesting expat community of artists because it’s not the foofoo umbrella drinkers of Cancun.”

He could have finished out his life in Santa Cruz, where he owns a scenic chunk of land. But “if you stay in the same place all the time, it’s very predictable what’s going to happen,” he points out. “If you allow yourself to leave things open….”

I imagine his next book as loose and funny and scathing…and perhaps titled The Foofoo Umbrella Drinkers of Cancun.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.