I just came across this recording of The Heart Sutra in Medieval Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is very interesting. The original post says that “there are many theories about the pronunciation of Middle Korean and this video cannot represent all of those.” But it certainly gives a clearer sense (to this viewer) the link between the Korean pronunciation we have come to use, and its roots in some of the older expressions of Chinese. (Though this feels as close to Cantonese as it is to Korean!)
I remember, when reading The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queen in university, what it was like to experience Old English: the English language in a more chrysalis-like state than its contemporary expression. It gave me a sense of the Latin and French and German inflections that I had never considered, and gave much insight into the subtle feelings and uses of the words and phrases.
This reading gives a sense of the possible feel of this familiar sutra recitation’s continuity with ancient Chinese culture.
Sometimes people want to add mantra to their everyday practice. You get asked about mantras and how to do them. Some people come from traditions where the mantra is supposed to be some secret thing with the guru.
I always do mantra in the way it was practiced and taught to me by Dae Soen Sa Nim. While he offered the opportunity for various mantras (depending on the person and their condition), the mantra I trained with was “The Great Dharani,” though it could have maybe been anything else, but it is the way it was done that perhaps made this practice so powerful to him and to me. Running through this mantra, every syllable, remaining consciousness enough to perceive and yet turn — continuously turn, turn, turn — attention to the “doer” of this mantra, the sayer or mumbler or hummer — the “witness” of all of this happening, “What is this?”
I know that Osho Rajneesh roundly criticized many types of mantra practice. And for his time and his place, especially when he started — as an upstart professor against priestly elites, challenging their false secrecies and empty sorcery — he railed against mantra. I would have done the same thing, in the mantra-teaching of the times in which he began his iconoclastic rise. It was a vague and pointless form of bending in to the false religion of the corrupt elites, corrupted teachers among them.
Anyway, we went out for a walk recently to test some equipment that had been donated. We were just enjoying a rare night out, our first right after the first strong imposition of lockdown in Regensburg, in Germany, in Europe. It felt like an illegal delight just to walk along the Danube again (and later, after this segment, we were, in fact, cleaned off politely by flashlight police from sitting on the rocks by the edge of the Danube and watching the huddled groups, the twos- and threes-only, in this new quarantine.)
We had been inside the Zen Center walls for some 6 weeks without venturing out (save for food once or twice). After Evening Practice, this walkout to stretch the legs began a little furtively. There was palpable suspicion, especially when passing people in shortened spaces, waiting at a light together. Everyone was still learning the reflexes to guarantee their space, especially if they were older and more frightened. (I had already received one or two “Back up!” growls from Bavarian grandmothers in the Saturday farmer’s market in the Kornmarkt by the Alte Kapell.)
One thing that Dae Soen Sa Nim says
There is one important point about mantra practice you must understand. With mantra, getting “one-mind” and samadhi are very easy. But you cannot find your True Way if you are attached to just mantra. Such only-mantra practice has no direction. However, “Who is doing the mantra?” means having a direction. Having a direction means keeping a question and letting your cognition become clear so you can perceive your correct situation. This is Great Love, Great Compassion, and the Great Bodhisattva Way. So, only-mantra is “one mind”, but if you keep the great question while practicing mantra, that is “clear mind”.
-Zen Master Seung Sahn
Now, for what it’s worth
And it must be said that my Dharma brother, Andrjez Stec (AnJay Stec) JDPSN, has done much to popularize a great practice for people, something he calls “mantra walk”. It seems to be a practical Dharma-inspired meditation/well-being movement of body, breath, mantra-movement. I think he has a very excellent teaching on this — the first one publicly in my tradition. It was amazing to see him promoting this so much: I had also been miss ionizing about this, beginning back in Korea. I had also been urging students, for years and years, to treat their constant daily errands as “mantra walks” and to treat long drives (when traveling alone) and commuting time into a chanting temple. “Why not?” I turned several “followers” at the time, in Korea, and later in Germany, into avid car-chanters. I used to give out tapes of famous Korean chanting monks, chanting the chants, so that these followers would feel confident enough to do this together as they drove, or remained stuck in endless traffic.
Chanting and driving created one fantastic experience: I was chanting the Great Dharani for a long time stuck in traffic one night in Seoul, when the heavens opened an ocean of downpour on the highway, and I experienced that wild accident which nearly destroyed the car, but I experienced such infinite calm in, in the midst of these ricocheting coins and pens and objects from the dashboard. It was a freaky stillness and roundedness in chaos. I have always believed that it is essential for us to practice mantra whenever possible, when moving through the world, and then learning when to let it go in sitting and when Moment is attained and stabilizes, my connection in it stabilizes.
In Zen temples and Zen communities, when a practitioner of some kind of death in practice passes into Nirvana, it is customary to offer a poem to them. Some reflection is offered which reflects on the passing or the core point of the dead monk/nun’s life crystallized in their death. (Or a monk/nun, coming close enough to the threshold of death compose a poem themself about their passing: “Moments before he died, Zen Master Kyong Ho wrote the following poem: “The mind moon is very bright and round / Its light swallows everything. / When both mind and light disappear, / What… is… this…?”)
This video is this humble practitioner’s death-poem for his Dharma sister: that is all.
Myong Hae Sunim (her Dharma name means “Bright Ocean”) and I were not close, as human friends in the monastery we shared — she was a completely different generation of trainees, but she was not far away. She was with us in Hwa Gye Sah temple beginning, for her, in 1996, only 2-3 years after I first started living there.
Back in the day, we often said that she was the living prototype for those stories of ancient Catholic saints that one reads about in books, the Holy Ones who would stand in flames for the purity of their faith and goodness. There was nothing she was “doing”, to give off that “air” of a totally tangible “sainthood” (I justly cringe as I write that word) among us. No affectation of anything whatsoever; she just emanated the single-hearted devotion to natural goodness and purity, and quietly helping others. But she was never showy about this, or in the least bit self-aware of any sort of quality or holiness. You hardly ever noticed she was in the room, unless she was handing you something from the background while slicing fruit quietly for everyone to share. She was not about socializing or being involved in chitchat. Just simple girl-like speech with other nuns, maybe sharing stories with a fellow-trainee haeng-ja monk about some ceremony that would make them busy with work later that day. She was so unaired in things, you hardly noticed her leaving the room, off to help or the serve or maybe to see a doctor. She didn’t leave traces. “The nun of no-rank.”
She came, she left. Impermanence. Then what remains? Anything? Go ask the Bright Ocean. It will give you a good answer.
Several days after this video was shared on social media, I was contacted by Myong Hae Sunim’s Teacher and “nun mother,” the great nun Zen Master Dae Kwan. Though we had been close when I lived in Asia, we had not been in touch in about 15 years, since just before I moved to Europe. Dae Kwan Sunim said that another KUSZ senior teacher had sent her the video with a recommendation to watch it. She felt deeply moved by the experience. She asked if she could use the video to open the big Memorial Ceremony for Myong Hae Sunim which will be held in September.
The Meister Eckhart quote is less relevant to a Chinese audience seeing this publicly, and so to make space for her Teacher to add a teaching-quote that would be more fitting for the Su Bong Zen Monastery community, I went back and produced this version — extended, with no quote.
Here is the super-cut version prepared for Instagram:
In Haugesund, Norway, in May 2019, a student asks about attaining Zen.
Attaining Zen is not difficult — unless we want some complicated explanation, some understanding for our heads.
The beautiful thing about posting teaching videos on Instagram is that you are forced to a 60-second limit. It temporizes you into a mindset that you need for haiku: extremely compressed form, so that every single word counts, every single gesture or pause.
[Excerpt from a Q&A in May 2019 in Haugesund, Norway — the “Bible Belt of Norway”.]
If you sit, with enough effort, for long enough, you eventually arrive at the view of the ultimate nature of reality. That “view” is nothing more than the awareness that there is no “separate” identity or substance or reality, one object or being or even “time” or “space” from another. Everything — all reality, all appearance, all laws and principles and states of consciousness — are fundamentally and constantly marked with the utter lack of any abiding separate quality, state, or condition, any material or existence. If there is a word to “explain” this, when we need to discuss things, the terms that are most often employed are “the void,” or “emptiness.” In Sanskrit, it is sunyata (sometimes anglicized as “shunyata”).
But every one of these terms is mistaken. Truly, open one’s mouth to “express” it or describe it or state it or render it is already completely insufficient. The monotheistic traditions somewhat “get” this point: That is why in the Old Testament, it says, “Be still, and know God.” And why, in Islam, one is forbidden from ever trying to depict this deity-expression through any kind of drawing.
And yet both traditions then expend oceans of ink, vast rivers of blood, and histories of conflict in order to declare their ideas about this inexpressibility, and to defend and conquer in its name.
In Buddhism, there is the space for its “expression” to be transmitted — especially in the Zen way of teaching. “Opening your mouth is already a big mistake.” Yes, but when you are called upon to do so, perhaps this might be a closer approximation for how we can deliver the experience to others’ minds, when called out into the realm of words and speech: