A Zen poem is not merely an aesthetic exercise. It is not an expression of “art,” design, or thinking. A Zen poem is a teaching tool: it begins in opposites’-world thinking, through the Great Question, perhaps a stopover in the realm of emptiness or freedom-consciousness, to bring the reader to a view of “truth just-like-this.”
Here is a video of some words of commentary I recently offered on perhaps Zen Master Seung Sahn‘s most recognized poem. This talk was delivered at Zen Center Regensburg during the Quarantine Retreat, April 2020.
RocknRolla: I’m proud to present a very visionary treatment of the “What is Zen?” video by the distinguished British genre-polyglot multi-artist — motown mods 69 skin liquidator dubbed 80s afropop tabu ley electro underworld house — named Chris Taylor, known professionally as Arman Ray.
What a fantastic way to convey the Dharma. Please play its Dharma loud.
Arman Ray is a lifelong student of Soto Zen (first Jukai: 1993) and sangha member of Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in the UK. His Roshi was the esteemed Zen Master Jiyu Kennett, former guestmaster of Chisan Koho Zenji at Eihiji Monastery in Japan.
Arman Ray has thus far collaborated with a French CGI artist for an accompanying-track video and came across my “What is Zen” video (which was filmed by the legendary fashion photographer 김용호 of Seoul). He asked if I would permit this teaching-video to be used in his project, and I granted permission after seeing his other excellent visionary works. The track/video will be one of ten (including one on “The Ten Oxherding Pictures,” titled “Footprints”) and will be performance-showcased at The Asylum Art Gallery in the West Midlands, UK next year.
Here is a video of Dae Soen Sa Nim giving a TV interview in Korea, given in 1997 — seven years before his death. In his own words, without the halting English, in a well-produced production, you can feel his energy and his Great Compassion. His energy is still strong and very clear. The subtitles have been prepared by capable native English speakers, so there is a natural feel to his expression.
In the video, Dae Soen Sa Nim tells some private stories of his early life. He discusses how he became a monk in the first place, in the turmoil of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. He also shares some stories of his free-spirited Teacher, the wild-wisdom figure named (Park) Ko Bong Sunim — known for his rule-breaking and sharp speech. In this way, it is a precious record, quite unlike the usual films which are more of formal Dharma talks.
The interview was filmed on the little hill inside our temple — Hwa Gye Sah. From about 1:40 in the video, you can hear the sound of the meal “moktak” being struck, or else the special “work period” moktak, if it is just before Buddha’s Birthday, and we are trapped into making the thousands of lotus lanterns which will be sold on the holiday, to support the temple. (I couldn’t imagine him giving an interview during an official mealtime.)
I was probably in the temple, at that time, when the video was filmed. Surely I was living there, if I was not outside the temple walls for a few hours for some important business. But in that year, I was living with him at Hwa Gye Sah.
We were recently sharing a livestream event at the Zen Center Regensburg. One of the students asked, “”Buddhism often talks about ‘the three worlds’, sometimes referred to as ‘the triple world’. It is also chanted in the Heart Sutra. What does this mean?”
The view of “the triple world” is an exceedingly important dimension in the Buddhist view of the nature of reality. It shows the profound insight of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It is an almost clinical dissection of the layers of reality which are “sandwiched” together to form our entire realm of perceptive experience: the realm of form, of formlessness, and desire. (This is sometimes translated as “sign,” “signlessness,” and “impulse/activity”.) Everything we can possibly experience — absolutely everything, and there is nothing else “outside” or “apart” from it — is experienced in this triple-world reality.
One of the students standing nearby took some film for her own self-study. Ioannis edited it together to share the reply with others. I hope it is useful.
Just a regular daily lunch in the Zen Center Regensburg today with the meditation family (a Bavarian-German, Korean-Korean, Palestinian-German, Cretan-Greek, and an Irish-Germanic American), as we slowly begin to open back up again our deep communal life: Lentils and fresh wild greens from the local farmer’s market, rustic German bread slightly crusted three-days-old, Irish butter laid on in thick slabs, tart Greek olive oil chafing the back of the throat — and silence. The ancient bells of Regensburg ring out, swarming our wall of windows, flooding our sunlit kitchen space. We hover over our feast of wild, grassy scents and sparkling nutrition wordlessly: there is no chit-chat, no filling-of-spaces, only the sound of rapturous chewing and breath.
Which means “Observation”.
Seeing clearly what is.
Yet when food is self-served, we also pause, even with the natural pang of desire hanging in the air. We stop and pause to chant. To come back to this, from the foreign lands of accidental thinking.
In Buddhist temples in Asia, we often chant the Heart Sutra before a meal. The soft chest-and-breath vibration of the rolling chanting together harmonizes us with ourselves and with each other, cutting off the scattered wavelengths of previous discursive thinking, so that we enter the sights/smells/tastes of the silent meal together at 0.
Sometimes people write me questions about practice and life. It is usually a great opportunity to apply the teachings against some unique personal situation. And yet, at the same time, the matters people face are often quite similar to things that the rest of us face. “The 10,000 problems return to the one.”
I recently received a letter from a sincere meditation student in Greece. She asks about having periods of strong spiritual clarity, especially since beginning Zen practice, and yet having that clarity become “disturbed” most especially when interacting with other human beings. She writes about something which many of us also experience: “Why is it so difficult to keep clarity without social distancing? And although I’ve been practicing social distancing for many years now, I still feel like it’s like ‘you can run but you cannot hide!’ I mean… I know a lot more about myself [from Zen practice] but it’s difficult to apply it in the everyday life especially in relationships with other people.”
What was the last thing that Jesus did, as a free man, immediately before his arrest by the Roman authorities acting on behalf of the high priests? What was his very last chosen action, before he gave up his civic freedom into the hands of his torturers and killers?
He did not scheme some “last stand”. He did not attempt to work out an escape, to buy more time. He did not hold hands with his tribe and seek comfort in numbers and a sing-song sing-song fake religiosity. He didn’t take those options. In the final minutes of his liberty, he went into a grove of trees to pray, to reflect on life and coming death — alone. He left friends, protectors, and disciples outside the grove, and entered into his solitude.
This is an excellent teaching from Jesus. It points us, too, to consciously seek out our silence and solitude. In the midst of the trials and tortures of everyday existence, it remains to us to choose the means by which we will not only maintain our sanity, but also hopefully be strong enough to help and serve other people, even while we are beset by the challenges and suffering of everyday life in stressful cities, jobs, or relationships. But you don’t get that just from reading a book. You must choose your periods of solitude. Only through periods of meditative calm away from distractions — even if just for short periods — can we remain stable and calm, grounded in our unmoving, completely fearless don’t-know mind.
(Excerpt from a talk in Haugesund, Norway, May 2019)
Actually, to be quite honest, I am actually enjoying the time of this time away from the accumulated busyness. It is just so awful that it is built on such abject suffering, much of it by people already entrapped in systematic racism and classism. But that is the perfect function of what the Buddha termed “this ocean of suffering.” Damn! so lucky to have this daily practice.
Ioannis thinks he has kidney stones or Stage IV pancreatic cancer. The Abbot thinks he has “The Great Dharani”. Who is correct? Who has the True Dharma? Both are most likely mistaken.
Let’s see why, in this spontaneous moment in a recent day of the Zen Center Regensburg’s Quarantine Retreat.
Here is a totally unplanned video at the MOMENT of inspiration, at the nanosecond of “Eureka!” — the fulfillment of a teaching-dream I have had for years. I knew it was significant, if just personally so, because something had finally “clicked,” and I didn’t want to lose the record of the moment: I needed to capture the “feel” of the chant and video coming together as best I could, as it was exploding in the head. (I don’t even remember clicking on the phone, to be perfectly honest.) This video was shot for personal purposes only, to capture the “feel” of the chant-married-with-video at the moment I started feeling it. But then several students who I shared it with as a gag urged me to share it forward, as teaching. So, here goes…
Background: We have recorded several versions of “The Great Dharani”, over the years, and I have circulated simple audio files of them. But nothing seemed to really satisfy the sense that this excellent, ancient mind-tech dharani could really penetrate much deeper into common-consciousness if only it had some extra “assist” to help it get carried into an ever-narrowing span-of-attention out there in Digital Land. Because we are so stimulated, optically, from the moment we open our eyes and check our phones to the last moment before sleep — even on the toilets (you know who you are!) — it has felt that, for pedagogical purposes, there needed to be an “optic” dimension functioning as a kind of “babysitter” for that stimulated craving, in the visual sphere.
On a recent Thursday after Morning Practice, I had a sudden and explosive insight: to pair the sonic throb of “The Great Dharani x3” with Matt Semke’s visionary “Have No Sphere,” to realize the dream of completing a truly effective pedagogical tool for people to learn “The Great Dharani” as a chant and a mantra and a way of life. What a great teaching-video this could be, marrying sight and sound that anyone could follow along with, and that could run as a continuous loop. People attend retreats here and experience the bright power of the Dharani when chanted in a group, and sometimes get inspiration to add it to their practicing arsenal. But then they get back home, and often find that they can’t muster the inspiration in their daily practice to plow on with the repetition and rhythm which can be so helpful for burning this clear-mind oscillation into their daily routine. I get asked often for “tips” on how to embed The Dharani into their everyday life.
EUREKA! The visionary terra nova of Matt Semke seems preternaturally suited to the clean, clear, cosmic undulation of “The Great Dharani” and its several-thousand-year-old before-thinking trance.
I jumped up from my desk and ran out of my room in Mun Su Am. I was practically flown over to the Dharma Room to reveal this inspiration to someone, to anyone who would listen and see. Even to a Cretan who thinks his overnight bellyache might really be kidney stones or pancreatic cancer (Stage IV), though possessing no previous family history of same and only feeling this bellyache since sleep last night. (Full disclosure: Ioannis’s suffering was being experienced after he had consumed a hearty lunch I had personally cooked up for our ZCR Team the previous day, which repast had been stuffed to the gills with copious amounts of feta cheese which I had thought — apparently mistakenly — that a Greek would love. Maybe it was the rich tomato-pesto sauce, slathered judiciously on top, which had driven him into a crouch. The thick slabs of omega-rich Irish butter on fresh-baked, rustic German bread? Who knows?
“…Namora da na dara yaya…”
For whatever it’s worth, here is the “EUREKA!”-moment where this new pedagogical tool was born.
The teaching-video is being designed to spec right now. I am benefitting enormously from a cross-Atlantic collaboration with Matt Semke (www.catswilleatyou.com), who has graciously permitted from the American Midwest the use of his video (and many other graphics) in my work; of Erik “Yogi” Moeller, up in Oslo, who designed the sound with me; of Jayoon Choi, of times3 in London, who helped with visual graphics, and Ioannis Papadopolous, from Heraklion/Thessaloniki/Regensburg, who helps with so much else indescribable. (Update: after a trip to the toilet, he is completely cured, a modern Lazarus for our times.)
The video will be released later this week, first to Patreon supporters. Stay tuned!