Messenger Teaching

A Facebook Messenger exchange I had with someone I never met, back in 2017.

Reading more books just to learn the Dharma is just delaying further the day when you sit and practice, look inside. If someone has gotten enough from your videos or recorded teachings on the Internet to call you “teacher,” they already know enough that knowledge can ever possibly show them about Dharma. Reading more books, at this stage, would be like someone sitting in a French restaurant reading Michelin’s Guide to French Cuisine. No amount of reading will satisfy the appetite OR fill the stomach. Just eat!

In my whole life, I have not read even 10 Buddhist books cover-to-cover — and maybe 5 of those were books I had to write or translate. Perhaps the greatest blessing of having the unbelievable karma to meet the Teacher I met is that it absolutely eliminated any need for further reading or edification in Buddhism, its theory or history. I really don’t know much about Buddhism, as a subject.

Instead, I was able to pour everything into hard-ass practice, in sub-freezing Buddha halls on howling mountainsides and in city temples with bustly coming-and-going all around. There was just no other way. He made the road so simple and clear. The only thing left to do was to “just do it.”

One elderly Korean man cut his hair at 60 and became a monk under my Teacher. He respected Dae Soen Sa Nim’s clear Dharma, but it was also this man’s dream to obtain a PhD in Buddhist studies. (In traditional Korean Confucian culture, “the scholar” was the noblest profession, the most lauded status.) He sat one or two of the 90-day Kyol Che’s, and then told Dae Soen Sa Nim that he was going to enter the PhD program at Dongguk University, the main Buddhist university in Korea.

Dae Soen Sa Nim shouted at him, “PhD? How can that help your life? You are already old man. Nothing guarantees your life even one more day! How will even 100 PhD’s help you in the moment you die?”

But the 60-plus baby-monk was adamant. There may have been some family issue involved, some feeling of needing to achieve something in his family line. He was dumb enough to say this to Dae Soen Sa Nim.

“But your parents long ago dead! Your brothers and sisters all dead!” But the aged novice wouldn’t listen — he felt it was his “destiny” in this life to end his life with a PhD in Buddhist studies. He thought that he could not train as hard as the younger monks and nuns, so maybe also having a PhD would enable him to at least qualify for running a temple somewhere as abbot. Anyway, he claimed that he would finish the program as soon as possible and he would do only meditation retreats after that. But he at least needed to get a PhD, to fulfill some obligation to his (long-dead) ancestors.

Dae Soen Sa Nim was really yelling at him by now. He said, “If you enter this PhD program, you cannot practice Zen — it will make too much thinking for your head. So, if you follow this way, then do not come to me for three years.” This would have been an especially severe hardship, because the university-monks’ dormitory was located right at the front gate of Hwa Gye Sah Temple, where we all lived and practiced together with Dae Soen Sa Nim! This sentence would have meant that the monk would basically be living in the temple precincts, but not able to come to see his own Teacher. But Dae Soen Sa Nim was resolute about certain fundamental principles, and one of them is that he was against any sort of book-learning which substituted for keeping the Great Question and looking right into it through strong, clear practice. And doing the long retreats was a central path for that.

Sometimes, when the community of monks gathered on special occasions to bow together to Dae Soen Sa Nim (say, on the Chinese New Year, or Korean Thanksgiving), the old baby-monk would sheepishly hide in the far back of the group, so desperate was he to offer greetings. And we would all smile at him wanly, and give him some “Cheer-up”s. And whenever Dae Soen Sa Nim caught a glimpse of him in the back, he would bark out something like, “Oh, scholar-monk! Did your PhD make you Buddha yet?”

In the end, the monk did get his PhD. (And I believe Dae Soen Sa Nim relented on the three-year “ban” on meeting him: As with everything with Dae Soen Sa Nim, it was meant to teach and inspire, and never to punish or demean.) Eventually, he also was invited to be a teaching-monk at a large Korean temple in the US. He died a few years later, deeply involved in temple politics — and without ever having sat one of his promised Kyol Che retreats. But not before he had used all of his scholarly knowledge to develop a grand schematic theory for how to spread Buddhism in the West, which nobody ever heard about or uses.

This is the lineage I descended out of. It is truly impossible to describe how profoundly grateful I feel, every single day, to have made the merit (somehow!) for this connection. And this is some of the spirit I try to convey to others, because I know the benefit of not examining and analyzing the poison arrow shot into our arms, but rather in putting everything into ripping it out, at once.