Life of the Monk in the Digital Age

You might think it’s like this:

But the day-to-day reality is often more like this:

(Or, this could just be a visit back to family…)

Trying to be a full-time practicing monk, in the city, and making the practice available to people in an urban Zen center — it’s some serious jujitsu. Those figures in white aren’t “people” one contends with, but the administrative demands of carrying out these teachings in the digital age. They’re emails, man! Without the protection of ancient temple walls, and being at least somewhat open to contact from folks in these hyper-wired globalized days, this GIF is a little what the modern monk’s life is like, when you choose to practice out in the very center of modern life. The constancy of need-to-reply-now emails, and the never-ending correspondence, enquiries, and requests for assistance from all corners of the globe, they all pour constantly through the gates of social media/WhatsApp/Telegram. And with free video connectivity in a globalized world, we must add that, too — the very frequent necessity to advise or guide people through that — because, well, because it’s available, and because it’s something everyone uses with family and friends, so it’s just natural to understand that this is something that a professional meditator should do to help others. And you do, because, well, they ask you to.

My Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, was renowned for teaching through correspondence with his Western students as he spread Zen throughout the US and Europe. The collection of his letter-exchanges spans to several large ring-binders, and a selection of them has long been known to the world as Only Don’t Know: The Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Along with Ta-Hui’s (1089–1163 CE) letters (in English, published as Swampland Flowers), and Hakuin’s (1685-1769) letters (Beating the Cloth Drum), Only Don’t Know is one of the great Zen teaching epistolaries in history. (Full disclosure: I edited the revised edition of ODK, but receive zero income whatsoever from it.)

So, this methodology of teaching through correspondence is part of the DNA of Zen, and especially of our lineage. Every morning, at the conclusion of dawn practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, one of the letters from a student to him was read, followed immediately by his reply. Seeing Dae Soen Sa Nim’s exquisite mind-acupuncture at work, deftly receiving the student’s “sickness” and then applying the “cure,” was instrumental in developing and encouraging my work in this practice.

How simpler was his world! The letters all record the date of the sender, and his reply. There are often several-week gaps, due to the fact that they were mailed by snail-post, and then often the letters did not catch up to him until he returned to the Head Temple where they were originally delivered, often after much teaching in other lands. Furthermore, the letters were read out loud to him by his secretary, and he could “talk” freely his reply. His words were jotted down, corrected, and typed for him to sign. (Letters with topics not connected with teaching or practice were, of course, never shown to him, but went straight to some relevant functionary in the Providence Zen Center office.) Letter-senders were content to receive a reply some weeks later, even months later. And the effort to actually hold a pen and write something no doubt caused an automatic economy of back-and-forth.

In today’s world, technology has given us the sense of things happening much more quickly. There is pressure, urgency. Even a close student who understands the workload here can be flustered if a WhatsApp query is not answered within the day, or two — if not within hours, sometimes just minutes, for some pressing subjects! Someone returning home from a retreat in ZCR, and wondering how to “integrate” their retreat experience into a newly-seen marriage or work-situation, has been “developed”, by life in today’s work- and life-environment, to feel a little anxious when an answer is not forthcoming from their teacher for one day, or two. Three days of delay can sometimes cause major repair-work to need to be done on the trust-factor. This is the reaction you get! And I completely understand it, given the way our work-environments and social-media reactivity have trained us to be.

Finally finding time in the practice schedule here to sit down in the Zen Center or a coffee shop with one of our members to discuss their practice (and that meeting was itself arranged through a back-and-forth of messages!), the phone is always switched to “airplane mode” or silent-mode, and placed face-down. But when connection is resumed, at the end, there are more requests for appointments or confirmations! The incoming is not always constant, but there is certainly a daily “quota” of replies requested, of one form or another.

Seong Cheol Sunim (1912-93) is one of the most revered figures in modern Buddhist history. Even some years after attaining enlightenment, he once closed himself off in a tiny hermitage, deep in the Tae Baek Sahn mountains, for ten years of intensive retreat. He had published some books, and so had become the most well-known meditation monk of his day. Many people wanted his advice on things, up to and including the then-dictator/president of Korea.

“Hopefully this Zen stick doesn’t attract Internet signals.”

Seong Cheol Sunim was often being interrupted by visitors, in whatever temple he stayed. So, after entering the little hut, he strung barbed wire around the perimeter of his place, to keep people away. When I first heard of that, it seemed so “un-bodhisattvic.” I remember commenting in public talks about that being a selfish, Hinayana-style attitude. “Why does he keep himself away from suffering sentient beings and their needs?” When he finished his retreat, and returned to a big temple, he required that anyone who wished to have a meeting with him was required to do 3,000 prostrations in the Main Buddha Hall first, and only then were they granted face-time with him. Even great Seong Cheol Sunim could never have dreamed in his enlightenment of today’s FaceTime demands!

But his approach makes sense. In the age of ubiquitous communication, now you need something like “digital barbed wire.” Traditional Catholic monasteries were/are located beyond walls, or located far away; in the Buddhist temples of Korea, the compound where the Zen nuns/monks hold their retreats is usually also walled-off, even walled-off within the larger temple, to keep their practice protected from the activities of the administration monks’ business, from the endless ceremonies and public events.

By choosing to live outside a traditional temple, a monk freely surrenders this physical/mental protection. But cellular technology has made those old walls redundant, anyway. FaceTime with a nervous meditator is just a simple screen-press away! There’s no such thing as an “unlisted number” anymore, if you are engaged in public teaching, however “privately” you neurotically strive to maintain it. People who have never met or even practiced with me can just find a contact point through social media (which is a tool that’s indispensable or announcing events and retreats), and — BOOM! — sitting on the toilet, there’s a letter in your trousers.

A “digital barbed wire” is now necessary, even if just to preserve a fraction of the solitude and depth of the old temple experience. So, I turn off the phone quite often, yet when it is opened again, the stream of things requiring attention just lines up on the fresh screen. I try to leave email correspondence for just a narrow sliver of time during the day — this has caused not a few letter-writers to become angry and even cancel their retreat registration. I shut down social media during retreats (except for official Zen center advertising and information). But you just cannot have even a fraction of the remove and isolation doing this even in a small, almost monastic city like Regensburg.

It is said that Napoleon famously ignored letters that came to him when he was away on battle campaign. When his secretary was frustrated that the Emperor wasn’t engaging his correspondence regularly, Napoleon famously replied something to the effect of, “If after two weeks they do not receive a reply from me, and they write back insisting on an answer, then I know the letter is worth my consideration; but if there is no follow-up, then it wasn’t important in the first place, and is better to have been ignored in the end.”

The digital age is not so patient. Things build up and they do not forget.

It is clear that the choice is all mine — no one forced this way of teaching outside then temple. But it really is actually quite hard to sustain, while making efforts to stay “connected” to an interior stillness which might actually bring some benefit to others. It can be a constant struggle, trying to bring authentic monastic experience and clarity into this busy world, instead of just enjoying it oneself in some ancient temple somewhere. Without being able to afford the paid staff who could support a monk’s practice by handling the correspondence and vast stream of constant admin, there is an inevitable impact on practice, on teaching. In order to support this community, I am often the only one who is left to do these things.

So, I am noticing that an ongoing theme, as a practitioner, is often feeling sorry and regretful for not being able to maintain the clarity, calm, and stability that your students expect and need to develop their own practice, to guide their own lives. Without constancy in the practice you developed over decades, you can feel this natural edginess. Instant messaging and emails have caused human beings to evolve into expecting, in these highly-reactive times, that things get answered rapidly — at least, they would like a reaction of some kind. Sometimes, despite even years of practice, you make avoidable mistakes, lose your patience with a situation, you are seen sometimes not being so mindful as people naturally expect from a practitioner, you maybe even lose your temper, or become forgetful. The torrent of busyness is not so unlike the people who come through our doors, tired and worn out by swimming in such similar floods of empty data-chasing. So I have a much much greater sympathy and compassion for the struggling lives of people in the modern age, hounded by their own work-lives and constant social burdens — both those lived and those manufactured through social media.

I never like presenting a stressed, stressy face to people who come to the temple looking for peace, balance, depth, settled wisdom, and instead get some bald guy who’s frazzled or wiped out because he has been replying to Zen center business for several hours that day, and is STILL behind on what needs to be done, and has been going since 4 am, seven days a week. These conditions of modern life outside the walls of the temple present a sharper reflection in the mirror of this practice, in the mirror of rolling with these beautiful souls of sangha. I do not always handle it that well, so, I am always a student with them.

Dae Soen Sa Nim’s mandate to us was to share our practice with everyone. And it is also something that a Catholic school education bred into me , that sense of duty to help “the poor in spirit.” But if I just disappear at some point — suddenly, abruptly — and there are perhaps reports of me living in a cabin somewhere or on an Aegean island, it has been foretold by these very experiences. I chose monastic life to dedicate myself to something deeper than the surfaces and waves of life in conventional society, to live for something deeper, that I might serve others more capably. And yet it’s clear why Zen temples and Catholic monasteries function with strong walls.

Recently, a prominent Buddhist family in Korea made an interesting offer: Korean Buddhism is going through some rough times these days, with politics and a few public scandals that have caused many Buddhists to feel estranged from the temples and their “business” involving monks. Since I was perceived to be able to have some influence on the state of modern Korean Buddhism in years past, the family offered, then if I would move back to Korea to teach and become active again, they would offer me their modern eight-storey tall building to develop as a complete meditation temple and community. The property is located in one of the most prized, traditional neighborhoods of Seoul, right smack in the heart of the capital, just a few blocks away from the presidential palace. It is in a very picturesque location, yet the city throbs all around it, pulsing with so many possibilities and opportunities. I would not need to pay anything for rent, like here in Europe; rather, I would be provided with a salary, health insurance, a car and driver, and all relevant expenses would also be covered. Needless to say, there would be ample staffing there (the most enticing part!), so I would not have to do any of the organizational admin work that has become so burdensome these days. There would also, I imagine, be a secretary who could handle all of the personal correspondence and teaching arrangements.

Sounds like a great deal, right?

But I rejected the offer, politely and without hesitation. For this is the very thing that I ran away from when I escaped the country in 2009. There would be lots more invitations for dinners outside with prominent people. There would be constant requests to teach at this and that temple, involving all sorts of travel. There would be the usual strong media interest, and needing to glad-hand that necessary-evil of maintaining good relations with the media forces which report on and promote temple activities and Korean Buddhist society in general. There would be politics and social obligations, as there are in any and all ancient spiritual cultures like Korea’s 1,700 year-old Buddhism.

So, it is impossible to go “back.” Instead, though it feels like I am reaching a point in life where it would be better just to lead silent retreats and perhaps teach a little more creatively through writing, it is far better to have this kind of low-key prominence and level of busyness. I can at least maintain something of a closer connection with a daily practice, despite the administrative burdens. At least I have some control over them, whereas in Korea, Korean Buddhism exists on a vast ancient scale, and the larger society still operates largely by a traditionalist software which requires a kind of hyper-vigilance.

I mentioned Seong Cheol Sunim, above. On his deathbed, he wrote his final “death-poem,” but his students could not grasp his true meaning. So he gave the final words to them.

I’ve lived my entire life as a practitioner, and people have always asked me for something. Everyone is already a Buddha, but they do not try to realize that fact and only look towards me. So, in a way, you could say I’ve deceived people all my life. I’ve failed to get this message across to everyone so I’m suffering in a kind of hell.

How shocking are these words, and yet how true. To think that these are the final words of one of the most esteemed monks of Buddhist history!

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