Ass-Kicking

Both of my primary Zen teachers were fearsome, fearless operators: Zen Master Seung Sahn and Zen Master Bong Cheol. You were seldom fully at ease in their presence. I was shouted at by both (though, it must be said, far less than most other practitioners in the group). Bong Cheol Sunim even threw a rotten melon at the floor in front of me to demonstrate a point about how I was holding ego, its seeds exploding all over my socks-only feet and lower pants.

One time, he engaged me in a very very animated Dharma combat in a public restaurant, across a long table filled to every inch of space with small side-dishes of food. At one point, he demanded a magic marker from the waitress, stood up off the floor, marched across the table of food in his stocking feet, and scrawled some challenging Zen question to me on the white wall behind my position. Then he marched back to his seat, upending dishes of food and drinks with his feet. Other times, when he saw me picking judgmentally through some food offering, he just started picking up foods with his chopsticks and dropping or tossing it into my own bowl, yelling, “Zen practitioners don’t pick and choose! Just eat straight — not so much thinking!” The contents of what he was tossing into my bowl mainly consisted of various fish-parts, heads and eyes that we Americans usually give to the cat after the meal. Well, some of it landed in the bowl, splashing other contents out. And some of it plain missed the bowl, and landed in my lap. I had just washed and starched that clothing that day, and was aghast at all the work I would have to do to clean it again — it’s a several-hour job, including all of the tedious ironing. It would take me the better part of a day to “recover” the original condition of the clothing from his teaching. And I needed to have clean clothing to give a big public talk in just two days’ time. He knew that. He knew it absolutely.

The first time Zen Master Seung Sahn yelled at me, the spit-drops flew from his mouth in arcs that landed on the glass desk between us. (And the occasion for the yelling was the presentation to him of the book, “Man Haeng: From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple,” that would be certified a bestseller several days later, remain a number one or number two bestseller for two years, and be credited — by some — with causing a sudden renewal in interest in Korean Buddhism and in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings and efforts, in particular.) And the great Shodo Harada Roshi, of Sogenji Monastery in Japan, once broke his Zen stick on my shoulder while distributing wake-up hits during a sitting one night during the intensive “sesshin” — cracked the thing right in half, and he had to fetch a new one to do my other shoulder with.

Great teachers don’t nice-nice you. That would be spoiling your practice. As with parents, so with a true teacher: the delicate balance between affirming speech and fearsome demonstration of true direction is a rare thing to find. As someone who teaches, I have not always gotten this balance right. (One could say that, if I get it “right” anytime now, it is because of so many mistakes and excesses of expression I made in the past, the dead bodies of former students always a powerful corrective for one’s vision.)

I saw this quote by Žižek and immediately connected. Bt there are certainly few people coming by Zen centers these days who can truly accept the raw teaching directness of Zen, so we must soften it up a great deal, or else you end up being chatted about critically on social media or to someone’s glad-handing therapist. (Sigh) Getting screamed at and having fruit thrown at you for your ego — man, those were the days.

Translate