Vineyard Stupa Monk

A good dharma friend Boep Jeon Sunim has built this stupendous stupa in Grafenwörth, Austria. It’s in an active vineyard and (until recently) protected district in the Danube River valley, so he is connected to us at Zen Center Regensburg through the mighty Danube’s vast flow approaching Vienna. He is connected to Castra Regina, the Roman camp directly underfoot our Zen Center building. That base was built for Legio III Italica during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the reluctant philosopher-emperor, practitioner of Stoic wisdom, non-attachment to phenomena and passions and thinking, his main collection known to us as The Meditations. Our Zen Center’s Dharma Room — the Mirror of Zen — straddles the former Praetorium building, the HQ, where the Stoic Emperor sent his thoughts on living the truly awakened life. How fascinating: Stoicism is often referred to as “Ancient Greek Zen.” Meeting in this spot through Korean Zen and Greek Ashtanga Yoga.

Boep Jeon Sunim has therefore a strong connection to the Zen Center Regensburg, the life waking up through silent retreats and daily-practice. He visited Regensburg to meet Dae Bong Sunim in March 2016, and participated in the Precepts Ceremony, where two new Dharma Teachers (“Poep Sa”) from Greece were confirmed, Niko (Bodhi-citta), and Dimitra (Prajna-chandra). Greek Zen (“stoic”) becoming Greek Zen (“true don’t-know”).

Could just be a day-laborer, working for his daily bread. He shouldn’t be up there.

I received this picture just today. A few hours ago. That’s him near the summit, taken today or yesterday. He’s up there hand-painting some soffing or moulding under the recently-joined golden crown. Zoom in on the relentless Arhat’s humble service, monkeyed up scaffolds himself in the early winter air of the Danube plain. What a true faithful student of the Buddha.

This is his second stupa in Europe — the first was in Hungary. Chong An Sunim and Won Do Sunim used to speak about this way back in the Tea Room at Hwa Gye Sah. I think I remember it that way. Or around that time. They were actually so proud of it, to say to other young monks like me how proud they were that in their country, there is already a great stupa. True Tibetan design. His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited formerly Communist Hungary soon after reunion with the West to lead the Opening Ceremony and Blessing or whatever they do. I remember them being really proud of that, among the Europeans. And for all good reasons. There was no hard edge or anything. Yet the Hungarians knew they were well-advanced in having Buddhism in Europe. Legally considered to be one of the official religions of Hungary. Their Buddhist College is fully accredited and the only one of ts kind in Europe. “Hungary have strong Buddhism tradition, already.”

The stupa that Boep Joon Sunim built there is the only stupa of its kind in Europe. That is why the Dalai Lama came to Hungary for the first time, to bless his work. His Holiness often recognizes Boep Joon Sunim in a crowd of monks in Dharamsala or on these teaching trips through Europe — often Sunim is in Tibetan robes, just a wrap. And the Dalai Lama reaches behind Sunim’s neck to cup him behind the head and laugh, and laugh, saying, “My friend. My old friend.” One of the first monks in the Korean lineage to get close to His Holiness in Dharamsala and abroad. And he quickly donated the stupa to a group of Tibetan monastics — maybe even nuns — and maintains no further control or relationship with it. He just built t, and gave it away.

Because he has attained that he never “has” it.

Peace Stupa in Zalaszanto, Hungary, Europe. Sunim built to pray and gave away.
Peace Stupa in Zalaszanto, Hungary: If you build it, they will not come.

He hasn’t had the official Opening Ceremony in Grafenwörth yet — I believe he is holding out hope that His Holiness’s next and last trip to Europe will enable a visit to the old vineyards of Grafenwörth to open this magnificent practice place. (IF there is practice.) But His Holiness has already announced no more European travel in 2020, on health advisory. Sunim is absolutely determined to launch this way, to energize Dharma roots in that part of the world. So, there is some special appeal from an organization or two that even His Holiness cannot avoid, for the Tibetan condition and the ever-more delicate holding-pattern of world peace. Crazily, i.e., still Korean and pure-minded, Sunim believes fervently that some people might convince the Dalai Lama to “break’ his no-Europe schedule, for at least one trip, maybe two. Then he could get the Dalai Lama to officiate at the stupa’s opening. He knows that would be the last visit to Europe, to preserve his health. So, he must come to Grafenwörth. “But that’s it,” Sunim said. “No more Dalai Lama coming to Europe, after. We all know that. So he must come here, visiting our stupa. I pray, very very harder that .”

Actually, I don’t really know Boep Jeon Sunim well at all. I never met or heard of him in Korea — he had gone early to India, to Dharmasala, to Mount Kailash. Not really sure which Korean monastic family he belongs to. Maybe Baek Yang Sah. You know he is/was a real monk in Chogye because of some eminent Teacher trained him, whose name I forgot, and Sunim is clearly a temple-honed monastic. All I know is he is an outlier-maverick in Chogye, and even claims sometimes “I am not in that Order,” even though he is. Like me. Maybe a little trapped by the politics, but also the affiliation that comes from a shared training regimen, lifestyle together, practice, however variant are the techniques. “In” this Chogye Order (ordure?), yet having no place or use for it. Yet, this order is the tradition’s “something” through which all temple families and lineages run. And right up against the politics, the nationalisms, the paralyzed (and paralyzing) temple families (the mun jung). “In this world” of Chogye, “but not of this world of Chogye,” borrowing from Jesus. Boep Jeon Sunim wants nor receives the least bit of support or attention from the Chogye Order, or any Korean temple. Just as he likes it. He’s not at all, it seems, into that whole Korea Inc. thing that is robbing the soul of Korean Buddhism these days.

He’s totally off the grid, nowhere to be found, Buddha-ing strangely in plain sight. It seems he won’t be too rooted down by this pagoda as by the last. There might be other stupas yet coming. He might not have an ambition or plan, but his pure faith compels him on for practicing waking-up.

The Great Dharani
Drunk on samadhi out in the vineyards of Lower Austria.

Retreat Posting

By training and temperament, I never access social media for personal matters during intensive retreat — Kyol Che or otherwise. (The only exceptions are for Zen Center admin-related official posts directed toward promotion.) That means, especially, that I do not engage the practice of “liking” or commenting on all the endless social media diarrhea out there during these periods of hard training. This is not to seem “virtuous” or pure; it just feels unseemly for people in meditative retreat to behave “socially” online, like having a cigarette while playing tennis. I know some monks who are very avid social media types, even during silent retreat, and I could never understand that: Even the thought of touching even the smallest part of all that super-superficiality seems so incompatible with the everything the ancients told us about the attitude and focus of the Way-seeking mind. Again, I’m the last person who should try to seem somehow “better” than other fellow practitioners. I just don’t think that anyone who is truly serious about their practice can be engaged with Facebook commenting and “sharing” and “liking” while also making efforts in the work of looking into “don’t know.”

And I am absolutely certain that my Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, would have never, ever allowed that to happen in our retreats, had he lived into the Facebook age. (Died in 2004.) In Mu Sang Sah Temple, in Korea, my older brother, Dae Bong Sunim, forbids retreatants from any Facebook/Instagram-type social media connection during retreat. The temple even asks you to hand in your smartphone when you begin the retreat! Dae Bong Sunim told me recently that people who are compulsively posting, commenting, or “liking” on FB during retreat, no matter their monks’ age, were just killing time, and not looking into themselves at all. I have exactly the same feeling.

This year, after some 27 years of these intensive retreats, but especially since carrying a teaching role which extends beyond the confines of just this retreat-place, I am trying something new, as an experiment: In the time since this baby-blog has appeared two months ago, mostly as a way to have a teaching “home” which is not reliant on social media communication — in other words, it has appeared in order to become free from Facebook as the only means of reaching people — we are having our first Kyol Che retreat. And I have decided to continue to post things here that might have some meaningful content for my students and their practice. After all, the very reason for this blog is to be able to offer “a digital finger pointing at the moon” (as I named the original Tumblr page), away from cat videos and noisy politics and opinions of social media. That pointing is merely a kind of cheap-form Dharma talk, for those at a distance, to augment the (already few and far between) talks I give here in the Zen Center during practice. (And, anyway, is a blog social media, anyway?)

So, while this blog is technically not “social media” in the classic sense of the word, it will be linked to our ZCR Facebook account, so, things that get written here might (and might not, in some cases) get linked there, in order to reach anyone who has expressed interest in my work through the conventional FB outlet. I am going to work hard for this not to become a “substitute” for social media, but rather to be a more “curated” experience than I have heretofore had available for digital teaching.

And yet there is profound discomfort with this “experiment.” But there might be no other way: You see, I have this extraordinary compulsion to spread the technologies of my Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, every day of this short life. I have felt this compulsion since literally weeks after first encountering his practice in the Cambridge Zen Center, and getting some initial tastes of its extreme and right-at-hand benefit, and this “compulsion” has become a vocation, and that vocation has now inspired nearly everything I have said or written or recorded or filmed for the last 30 years. So, making this blog was a lame attempt to have some more consistent base from which to conduct nighttime raids on the sandbagged bastions of samsara, conventional thinking, mere religion, social/religious straightjacketing, etc. etc., employing the guns of whatever I have developed through years of practice of his teachings, and that of others.

So, we will see if maintaining this blog has any benefit. Again, as a Zen practitioner, there is great ambivalence about the whole thing, and about nearly every sentence that comes out. I will keep an eye on whether or not maintaining this blog adds more noise or distraction to my own daily practice, or to the lives of friends and students. The first concern here, every day, is to protect enough time in the busy work of leading a small meditation community, to actually be on the cushion at every single sitting, and to attend every single meal (even the breakfasts, though that is personal fasting time, an added training). If I notice any clouds gathering as a result of this blog-communication — either an unrestrained desire to yak-yak-yak post or needing to deal with an unexpected volume of “incoming” reactions or requests — then this idea, too, can be shut down. I hope, in the meantime, not to embarrass (too much) any students or practitioners of Zen, with my crude, unpracticed expressions.

The most important thing is to practice. Since I am a communicative person — sometimes — by nature, it is unavoidable to want to communicate my own impressions of things encountered through the lens of the focused, practicing life. If it might have any benefit for others who also have this shard of the Great Question lodged in their brains, as I do, then But this must never become any substitute for, or distraction from practice. There are already far far too many distracting opportunities, both for my students, unknowns, and for this errant monk. It would be making immeasurable sin to add yet another flashy-object, if there was not some “Dharma” to come of it.

So, I will continue to blog during retreat, and anytime, for the time being. This is being done for the first time, and it really does feel weird. I wanted to share these reasons why, and why it might also not remain.