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For Tommy Chong to get straight, he's got to go to God. Not God as envisioned by, say, Jerry Falwell, not the God of hellfire, but the omniscient source of goodness and, yes, jokes. He's cultivated a meditative practice over the years of smash hit movies, Grammy-winning comedy albums, and woozy influence over decades of pop culture as half of the comedy duo Cheech & Chong. So when he was busted in 2003 for selling Tommy Chong bongs and sentenced to nine months in the federal penitentiary at Taft, California, one of the items he brought with him was the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes.
While in prison, he started ruminating on life's lessons, and the result was his new book, "The I Chong: Meditations from the Joint." This book is a breezy vision of the man's essential "Chongness," as he writes not some preachy life lessons but about a life lived: growing up rough as the mixed-race child of a Chinese father and a Scottish-Irish mother in Western Canada; learning to tango with his wife, Shelby; and using his gentleness and wit to thrive in lock-up. "I met the warden one day. I swear to God, I've met fans but he was one of the biggest fans ever," says Chong. "He says, 'Are they treating you OK?' He turned out to be a really sweet guy."
DEAN KUIPERS: Each chapter leaf in the book starts with a hexagram from the I Ching.
TOMMY CHONG: I went through the I Ching and just picked out a heading that would best suit the chapter. And the I Ching -- I was just doing it -- it's three lines on top, three lines below. And they're either broken or straight. And it's based on an ancient book called the Book of Changes. You throw them -- they used to do it with bones, but then they evolved it to coins, and they used to do it with yarrow stalks [a common, long-stemmed white flower]. What you get is a good sense of how you're feeling, where you're at in your life.
KUIPERS: How is this a book of meditations?
CHONG: I'm a writer, I just write all the time. I hadn't planned it to be a book, I just have a compulsion. I tried to write a Cheech & Chong book, and I've been working on it for five years, and I just can't get it going. But this new book was so personal that, when I started writing it, I realized: no one knows who I am. So I started writing about who I am, and I picked out memories from my past and then I realized, damn, I'm almost 70 years old, so I've got a lot of memories.
KUIPERS: And those are meditative?
CHONG: Well, I'm into meditation. Actually, Cheech turned me on to meditation. When I first met Cheech, he followed that guru from India [Maharishi Mahesh Yogi]. Every once in a while I'd go over to meet with Cheech, and he'd be meditating. It wasn't 'til years and years later that I read a book by Joel Goldsmith, The Mystical I, and he went into the depth of meditating with your mind on God. And so when I went into prison, I thought: well, this is the best place in the world to put meditation to work.
KUIPERS: What was your meditative practice in prison?
CHONG: I ended up being the go-to guy with the I Ching. You have a lot of time in jail, so I read about how they did it with the yarrow stalks, and yarrow stalks were growing in the Indian garden at the prison. I did I Ching readings for the prisoners and it would blow people's minds. I was in a recreation room and I was throwing coins and doing mine and this guy, Mike, came up to me and he asked, "What are you up to, Chong?"
And I told him, and I said, "Do you want me to do your reading?" And he said "Sure." So I had him throw the coins, and when he read his reading, it blew his mind so bad he just handed me the book and he stayed the rest of the day on his bunk. I read his thing and it said that he had just suffered a terrible accident. And he had, like, a couple of months before, his wife and child were killed in a car accident coming up to see him. The book nailed it. And same with me, my first reading was, "You're in jail for a reason."
KUIPERS: Were you there for a reason?
CHONG: Yeah, absolutely. It was to reconnect with my spiritual self, with my job. The problem with me is that I've got this incredible ego, but I know that I was meant to do what I've been doing. From my earliest childhood, I knew I had something unfinished on this planet to do. And I got too comfortable in my life ... doing comedy, having a good time, collecting checks. And jail was like a little nudge, saying, "C'mon, let's get back to work."
KUIPERS: You went to prison for selling bongs, right?
CHONG: The official charge was "conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia over state lines." Supposedly, it was part of a nationwide sting, but everybody they busted is either back in business or going back in business.
KUIPERS: In the book you say that this is payback for all the movies, for laughing at cops, for Sergeant Stadanko.
CHONG: Yup. The Bush administration, Karl Rove, they just figure out who's got the media power. They mentioned that in the transcripts of the trial. They said that I had gotten rich, made millions of dollars off making movies about glorifying drug use and making fun of law enforcement.
KUIPERS: Well, that's true.
CHONG: Yeah, totally true. But it's also written in the Constitution that I have that right. And that shows you the extent of this administration, what outlaws they are. It's like the "weapons of mass destruction" reason to raid Iraq. It's the same mindset: they have an agenda and they will do anything to meet their goals.
KUIPERS: Do you view weed as kind of a sacrament?
CHONG: Yes, totally. It's a gift, and it's written that He gave us the seeds and the trees for our use. It's in, I forget which one, Genesis or something.
KUIPERS: Are you part of any church?
CHONG: No, I was never a member of any church. Now I'm a member of an Indian sweat lodge. That's my official church now. When we lived on a farm, the only entertainment was Sunday school. And then I ended up teaching Sunday school when I was really young, and then I went to bible camp when I was seven, eight years old. And it was an incredible experience because it was purely spiritual for me. And that's when I knew that I was somehow connected, because it all made sense at that age; I loved the praying, the singing, everything. That's how I got into show business: They used to put on little plays at that camp. It was the best two weeks of my life. And we would walk out into a field of clover and grass and sit down, and the teacher would tell us stories of Jesus, the beautiful stories. What really stayed with me is how to pray. You pray for wisdom, because if you've got wisdom you don't need nothing else.
KUIPERS: You mention in the book that you asked for wisdom and these stories are what happened.
CHONG: Exactly. That's how everything fell together. One of the guys, the Confucians or the Buddhists, they say when the pupil's ready, the teacher appears. And that's what happened to me. When I was standing there being sentenced to nine months in jail, in my mind I heard this phrase: "Thy will be done." When I was ready to do the book the editor appeared, the publisher appeared. Everything appears at the right time.
Dean Kuipers is editor of LA CityBeat and the author of "Burning Rainbow Farm: How a Stoner Utopia Went Up In Smoke."