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.
But the day-to-day reality is often more like this:
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.
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!
We all know what a seeming insurmountability it is to grapple with the forces and effects of our own karma, or “mind habits,” as Dae Soen Sa Nim so tersely defined it. Even after years and years of practice. And even he clearly could not perfectly master it, in his own life, despite a great enlightenment and a really really really strong center. I know that I cannot yet master it!
Now, how about super-intelligent machines having karma wired into their very DNA? It is happening, because we make them. We are making AI, and we are wiring our karma right into it. This image that AI will somehow be just some benign force that drives our cars perfectly and detects cancer cells and kills them earlier is pure fiction.
Imago dei. In the image of god.
This article in today’s New York Times points to two things I have been saying in public talks about computers, AI, and the human mind. In short, AI definitely has “karma,” and therefore, we should definitely fear it.
This article naturally made me worry. It makes me worry because I have already been worrying about this issue of AI a great deal, intuitively, and the latest developments in AI clearly confirm that that suspicion is merited. Several years of a latent, unspoken gloom was given flesh and bones by Sam Harris’s great TED talk on AI (“Can We Build AI Without Losing Control Over It?” — link below). Rather than newly informing me, Sam’s talk just confirmed — with facts and Sam’s extraordinary clarity — things already darkly suspected. His later conversation with Nick Bostrum, “Will We Destroy the Future?” just confirmed things. I am no specialist, and actually I don’t read much, but this AI is something I am definitely worried about. I am worried about it precisely as a student of meditation, a student of mind and its discontents.
And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image/b’tsalmeinu, after our likeness/kid’muteinu (Genesis 1:26–28)
In talks both public and private, I often use examples of digital performance/experience to describe aspects of the meditation experience. The operations of computers are a perfect way for explaining simply the operations of our minds because human minds have birthed computers, and we have given them the negative capacities of our minds just as much as we have designed the amazing functions that they possess. So, when people come with all sorts of questions about meditation practice or human psychology, it is so simple to answer their questions using the terminology and function of our digital ecosystem. In the past, teachers used examples from “nature” to explain mind and human nature; these days, humans are removed from nature, and connect far more readily to the examples drawn from their ubiquitous computer existence.
And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image/b’tsalmeinu, after our likeness/kid’muteinu
I often describe how complicated thinking comes from “keeping too many apps open” in our minds (and that meditation “shuts them down”); that Zen meditation is itself a very powerful “mind-hacking tool” that cuts through the normal barriers preventing a sense of spiritual/mental wholeness; that we constantly “download data” through the senses all day that, when not well integrated through a consistent meditation practice, makes us tired or run-down, scattered, edgy, stressed, or makes us give suffering to others in an uncontrollable way; that we are constantly downloading “malware”- and “computer-virus”-like thoughts through constant close-contact with other human beings in the modern world, and therefore must practice constantly in order not to be controlled by it all; that when we are attached to our thinking, we cannot “download” our true (innate) wisdom from the “cloud” of don’t-know. I talk about how, just as our computers perform much more slowly when there are too many programs open simultaneously, or when we are viewing a movie on the computer and try to do other computer functions at the same time, there is a slowing-down, even a crash, and how this is connected to the very ways we use our minds, overburdened with sensory stimulation and now “continuous partial attention.” I speak quite often how “karma” can be understood as something that we have “downloaded” from family or society and its many experiences.
I often talk about the fact that it is no mistake that it was a Zen meditation practitioner (Steve Jobs) who had the first intuition of the intuitive integration of human-machine functionality called the smartphone. Dae Soen Sa Nim used to also sometimes point to a student’s head and say “Your computer too complicated.”
It’s not a novel insight: Our minds function like computers because our minds designed computers. Our minds designed computers to function like them, to retain and process abstract bits of information as nearly as possible to the linear ways that we retain and process and act on them.
So, naturally, as a neuroscientist and serious, seasoned meditator, one of the great accessible speakers on the topic is Sam Harris. Forget the fact that I consider him — on a vast range of human insight — to be a modern Buddha who is, in every respect, a shining Jeremiah of our Age. But his TED talk on the subject in 2016 (nearly 5,000,000 views to date) presents the tersest explanations of the profound existential conundrum in which we now find ourselves. Everyone to whom I have introduced this emphatically prophetic talk has come away with eyes opened so wide they can only shiver at the horizons looming mercilessly forward into view:
The Future of Life Institute summarizes Sam’s thrust pretty well:
In the talk, [Sam Harris] clarifies that it’s not likely armies of malicious robots will wreak havoc on civilization like many movies and caricatures portray. He likens this machine-human relationship to the way humans treat ants. “We don’t hate [ants],” he explains, “but whenever their presence seriously conflicts with one of our goals … we annihilate them without a qualm. The concern is that we will one day build machines that, whether they are conscious or not, could treat us with similar disregard.”
Harris explains that one only needs to accept three basic assumptions to recognize the inevitability of superintelligent AI:
Intelligence is a product of information processing in physical systems.
We will continue to improve our intelligent machines.
We do not stand on the peak of intelligence or anywhere near it.
Humans have already created systems with narrow intelligence that exceeds human intelligence (such as computers). And since mere matter can give rise to general intelligence (as in the human brain), there is nothing, in principle, preventing advanced general intelligence in machines, which are also made of matter.
But Harris says the third assumption is “the crucial insight” that “makes our situation so precarious.” If machines surpass human intelligence and can improve themselves, they will be more capable than even the smartest humans—in unimaginable ways.
Even if a machine is no smarter than a team of researchers at MIT, “electronic circuits function about a million times faster than biochemical ones,” Harris explains. “So you set it running for a week, and it will perform 20,000 years of human-level intellectual work, week after week after week.”
Harris wonders, “How could we even understand, much less constrain, a mind making this sort of progress?”
Harris also worries that the power of superintelligent AI will be abused, furthering wealth inequality and increasing the risk of war. “This is a winner-take-all scenario,” he explains. Given the speed that these machines can process information, “[for one country] to be six months ahead of the competition here is to be 500,000 years ahead, at a minimum.”
So, the development of AI by human beings who, themselves, are nearly always under the operation and control of karmic softwares that they, themselves, neither perceive nor recognize, nor exert the least bit of control over, gives very little confidence to the prospect of the development of AI systems. You might like the way your Alexa or WhatsApp (I do!) or Google Translate (I DO!) function, but it does not equip even microscopically you for the immense — insuperable, as I see it — challenges and impossibilities of runaway technology. In fact, it humanizes and makes fatally convenient a tool which is far far too capable of running away with our very humanity than we are even remotely able to comprehend.
As these tools and technologies become ever-more essential for how we carry out our lives — from dictation to law enforcement — we erase the lines of clear perception and enter fully and irreversibly into the realms of our darkest impulses.
From the New York Times article today:
Researchers have long warned of bias in A.I. that learns from large amounts data, including the facial recognition systems that are used by police departments and other government agencies as well as popular internet services from tech giants like Google and Facebook. In 2015, for example, the Google Photos app was caught labeling African-Americans as “gorillas.” The services Dr. Munro scrutinized also showed bias against women and people of color.
BERT and similar systems are far more complex — too complex for anyone to predict what they will ultimately do.
“Even the people building these systems don’t understand how they are behaving,” said Emily Bender, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in computational linguistics.
So, as I said above, one of the nascent, insidious dangers of AI is that it has become just so normal to live alongside it with the same lack of apprehension as someone who has brought a cute little lion cub into their home as a novelty pet that might yet adapt to our domestic ways. I have serenely accessed (and benefitted from) Google’s search AI several times just in the speed-writing of these quick reflections (it’s hard not to feel a deep urgency about these things). AI lives in our pockets already. As a result, according to Sam, in the talk above, most people “seem unable to marshal an appropriate emotional response to the dangers that lie ahead.” And that worries me a lot more. This is really just another existential fuel for the burning fire of the Great Question. If anything fires up don’t-know, it’s this subject.
Reading the New York Times article this morning in the waiting room of the doctor’s office just inflames the possibilities further: if AI begins to “inherit” the biases — i.e., thinking-habits, “mind habits” (Dae Soen Sa Nim), meaning “karma” — of its flawed creators (who, themselves, “run” on reams of unexamined mind-habits), this is no longer the benign relationship to searches such as “How do I share Instagram Story to my WordPress blog?” queries. It’s hard enough managing our own in-built karmic tendencies, and then the countless mind-habit biases of the myriad humans in our ever-widening constellation of human relations, stretching from each one of us out to family, friends, partners (and their families), work colleagues, into sangha members, local community, national compatriots, fellow world citizens, right up into the dank reptilian recesses of a Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin, finger-on-the-button and tearing-up-cooperative-agreements-and-weapons-treaties.
The Lord with his own two hands created mankind; and in a facsimile of his own face. (2 Enoch 44:1–3)
We’ve been not so good at managing the karma-glitches in our software. As individuals, as a species, we have not come remotely close to being the true Lords of our own cause-and-effect behaviors. Our mind-habits dictate so much of the destruction of our health, our relationships, societies, and now even our entire biosphere. What if super-intelligent machines possess these blind mind-habits, too? Well, AI already possesses these karmic “glitches”, inherited from its masters.
I cannot urge with greater urgency Sam’s great conversation with Nick Bostrum (“one of the most provocative philosophers I can think of, ” Sam says), the Director, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University. It’s a division of Oxford focused on the study of existential risk — the existential risks to human existence. It’s definitely must-listening.
They discuss public goods, moral illusions, the asymmetry between happiness and suffering, utilitarianism, “the vulnerable world hypothesis,” the history of nuclear deterrence, the possible need for “turnkey totalitarianism,” whether we’re living in a computer simulation, the Doomsday Argument, the implications of extraterrestrial life, and other topics. But it’s especially their discussion of AI that is most relevant. Here is the link, and you should set aside some time to hear their whole, absorbing, talk in its mouth-gaping entirety:
So, yes, I am worried about AI. Rather than just from a fear of tech, I have this worry from everyone’s experience of the lack of effort we put into examining and digesting karma, our mind-habits. This is my basic sense of things. It’s not a complete picture, and I claim no expertise or leading knowledge. I might even be pathetically uninformed, since I really cannot read books these days and prefer nearly always to spend the remaining hours available husbanding energy and enthusiasm for sitting meditation.
But, this NYT article really hit my Buddhist training right straight in the solar plexus today: AI is being developed, at breakneck speed, by a species which is notoriously blind to its own karmic tendencies, with the first country-tribe of these karmic-disasters to “reach the goal” instantly becoming the world-dominating force which would (potentially) reduce every other seeker — competitor and friend — into utter, irrevocable subservience. The incentives for “winning” are scary-immense; the outcomes for “losing” unforeseeable, and impossible to contemplate.
And as if this NYT article was not enough: Just very recently, the esteemed American documentary program, Frontline, presented this fascinating program called “In the Age of AI.” It describes the race between China and the USA to gain mastery in the field of AI. “Who arrives at AI first, controls the future,” many people say. I recommend a watching of this program for the latest insights into where this “karma” is all going — from surveillance capitalism of social media to the surveillance state of AI, which China is already implementing with “social credits,” use of AI face-recognition software of identify even jaywalkers, shame them with their picture posted instantly on a vast screen at the intersection, and fine them before they ever reach the other side of the street; and a face-recognition-only, cashless economy which tracks one’s every purchase, and which learns one’s behavior to predict models of one’s future behavior, choices, even thoughts and feelings.
So, we still don’t see our karma, even as tribes, as societies, as nations, and as a species. I would not want even my best and clearest human friend armed with tools so infinitely absolute and unchallengaeable what AI clearly and demonstrably offers.
In the end, I am not a social analyst or commentator. These are just the ramblings of a meditator who has been left too long with boundless internet access in his hands, and a lifelong foreboding about the human condition and my own unwitting place in all of it, and how I got here, and what should be done about these unfortunate conditions so received. I will never pretend to be making some new or particularly piercing insight here, and on many points will probably be proven to be wrong.
Also, I am not just a Luddite, some anti-tech Buddhist monk so attached to “nature” and fearful of the benefits of these silicone-and-metal demigods. I grew up among computers — big big really heavy computers — long long before 99% of the population ever conceived of their existence or role in their lives. In fact, it was the sale and maintenance of advanced Wang Laboratories computer systems which funded my beloved after-school peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches with a cold glass of milk, Catholic school beating-sessions from nuns, alienated summers on Cape Cod seeking shade from a blinding sun and vague social stratifications, and Yale education among English aristocracy, Jews, gays, New York socialites, Hollywood move stars, children-of-prominent-intellectuals — all the things a northern Jersey boy never gets to know from danker childhood, yet grows to view with fascinations which shape and enrich him. My Father was a skillful salesman (and executive) with Wang — a company which was once considered a significant rival to IBM, before Wang decided (early 80s or so) that this new PC-thang would never catch on, regular folks would never make computers their own and buy them in such quantities for personal use in the home as to turn a profit. (And yet the explosion occurred, and Wang is now no more, and a company never dreamed of in those years is now the richest corporation in the world, and transmits these words to you while you sit on the toilet or on a subway.)
I do not rebel against AI because of any weak-flower rebellion against “the new,” and too-hard holding of the ancient, the traditional, the temple, the mystic, the “Zen.” Through my good Dad’s earnest paycheck, I am also a child of the computer.
But this alone is not the dilemma we are facing. It is not enough merely to question things from the point of view of the subject-object: AI is bad. AI is dangerous. AI threatens us.
AI does not threaten us, any more than this pen before me, this sound outside the window, or this cup of coffee on the desk threaten me/us. It is our own lack of insight into our own minds that is the greatest threat, and AI is merely its own best (worst!) catalyst.
Really, there might be no better words directing us to the heart of the most essential matter on this than Dae Soen Sa Nim. In his seminal book, Only Don’t Know, we have a collection of exquisite letter-exchanges between the Zen master and his Western students, how quaintly preserved for us in the pre-Internet amber of an intimate one-on-one letter coming to a master, and a one-on-one answer arriving to the student, albeit by several weeks of delay.
It is important to note that this exchange happens in the early 1980s: Steve Jobs’s dream is still, as yet, some years away. My own father’s computers have not entered the experience of regular people’s lives, much less the experience of an itinerant Zen master from Korea traveling through the strange, weird lands of post-Watergate America.
In this simple, yet priceless exchange, an American student asks about the compatibility of science with meditation practice. Dae Soen Sa Nim, as usual, like your UPC scanner at the supermarket checkout, he scans the issue and issues an insight which is so completely updated to the question in that moment that it is, almost digitally, one might say, calibrated to any question raised by AI or digital reality or anything else either dreamed of or not yet imagined by this babbling essay.
Dae Soen Sa Nim’s main point is this, and his answer has clear force for how we should view any of these reports about the “advance” or problematics of AI or anything: WHO is the driver?
We have consciousness, and this consciousness is like a computer. A computer does not work by itself; somebody controls the computer. Our consciousness also does not make itself work; “something” controls our consciousness. Then our consciousness makes science. So this something controls consciousness, and consequently science. This “something” is not science, not consciousness, but has consciousness and science. So I say to you, if you attain this “something,” you understand consciousness and understand science. The name for that is Zen.
So, AI does have karma. And we should definitely, clearly be absolutely concerned about that. The reason is because “karma” means mind-habits, and unexamined mind-habits nearly always produce suffering for others.
As usual, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s words about the present conundrum are clear, piercing, prescient, event prophetic.
This is it. Before developing better Alexas and better self-driving cars — all based on AI, for our convenience — we should really make effort to develop insight into the driver of these cars, the listeners of these automated sound-systems.
Yeah, I’m worried. I really don’t believe in human beings’ ability to safely regulate and perceive this stuff. The Chinese government is already employing its vast pools of personal-data, through algorithms and self-learning machines, to round up, imprison, and oppress a whole ethnic group, the Uighurs. In the Frontline documentary, we are told by leading authorities of the ways in which China is already exporting these manifest technologies, and their supporting infrastructure, to African countries.
If you think that Sam Harris might not yet qualify as true prophet of where we are going, I leave you with the mesmerizing soul-insights of Kraftwerk — prophets of an order way way beyond anything “predicted” by moldy biblical texts.
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard Business, Numbers, Money, People Business, Numbers, Money, People
Computer World Computer World
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard Business, Numbers, Money, People Business, Numbers, Money, People Computer World Computer World
Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard Crime, Travel, Communication, Entertainment Crime, Travel, Communication, Entertainment Computer World Computer World
Kraftwek already saw where this was heading: “…Business, Numbers, Money, People… Crime, Travel, Communication, Entertainment.”
AI has karma. We should fear about it what we fear about our false understanding of our self. With this subject, as with everything: really, the way is just “only don’t know.” Instead of better better better tech ubiquity, who “controls” our mind-computer.
Entering the Temple of Apollo, in sacred Delphi, the ancient words call us to a truer path than chasing all this tech “knowing”: γνῶθι σεαυτόν. “Know thyself.” The road that leads to insight into not-knowing.
Zen Master Seung Sahn on the issue of gender equality and identity:
One day, the American Zen practitioner, Barbara Rhodes, was speaking with her teacher about the situation with women teachers in the East:
“At one point I asked him if there were any women Zen masters in Korea, and he said, ‘Oh no, of course not. Women can’t attain enlightenment.’ He said it with a really straight face and then walked into the kitchen. I followed him in and said, ‘I’ve been with you for two years and you’ve always said just to believe in yourself. How can you say women can’t get enlightened?’ He just stared at me and pointed his finger and he said, ‘So you’re a woman?’ In other words, I had grasped hard on the man/woman concept. He was saying that you can’t attain enlightenment if you hold on to that self-identity. I really liked that approach.”
The Compass of Zen is based on a scientific insight — not religion. The “Theory of Relativity” is explained perfectly by Zen, in a way no religion would ever attempt:
Albert Einstein: “To simplify the concept of relativity, I always use the following example: if you sit with a girl on a garden bench and the moon is shining, then for you the hour will be a minute. However, if you sit on a hot stove, the minute will be an hour.”
Zen Master Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen (1997):
“Your thinking makes past, present, and future, so you have time. You make time. And the time that you make is your time, not my time or anybody else’s time. Let us say someone is waiting for his wife. They are supposed to meet at 5:00 pm, but it’s already 6:30 and she hasn’t arrived yet. If she is late, he will be at least a little angry with her. This is the view of “my” mind, “my” time. It may be that she is late because she is working on something in the office, and she is getting something done. “Her” time may be passing quickly, and she’s not going to get angry. But while I am waiting in the car, “my” time is passing slowly, and “my” time is being wasted. “My” time is suffering-time, passing slowly. But “hers” may not be the same; she may be working hard, meeting a deadline, and that same period of time is actually passing too quickly for her to get it done.
This is “my” mind. We make our time either good or bad, happy or sad. We make time with our thinking minds. We make time either long or short. We make it good or bad. Here is another example: At 8:00 o’clock pm, you go to a disco, and you are dancing with all your favorite friends. It’s a wonderful party. Everybody is having a very good time. Then at one point you look at your watch: “Oh, it’s already 11:30! Almost time to go home! That’s too bad!” Three or four hours pass like maybe one hour. But then on another occasion you go to the airport to pick up your girlfriend. You have not seen her for one month, and you are very, very excited. But this plane is one hour late. The minutes pass so slowly. It seems like a very, very long time. “Why is this plane not coming? I want to see her soon. But the airplane is not coming!” This one hour waiting for your girlfriend is a very, very long time, and it feels like one month or one year! Ah, suffering! [Loud laughter] But at the disco, dancing with your friends, the same exact measurement of time feels like it passes in five minutes. “Only one hour. That’s too bad!” Ha ha ha ha! So your mind makes one hour either long or short. It all comes from your thinking: How do you keep your mind, right now? What kind of mind do you have?
Our thinking also makes space because originally space, too, simply does not exist. America is here, and Korea is over there. America has north, south, east, and west; Korea also has north, south, east and west. But America’s north, south, east, and west are different from Korea’s north, south, east, and west. “I am here. I have north, south, east, and west. When I disappear, where is my north, south, east, and west?” Does a dead man have north and south? There is nothing, yah? Ha ha ha ha! Also two men stand facing each other. One man lifts his right arm and points it straight at the wall to his side. “That’s the right wall.” But to the man facing him, that is the left wall! Which one is correct? If there are one hundred people in a big room, each facing a uniquely different direction, and each one does this, maybe you will have a problem. [Laughter] This is where all war and conflict come from. The reason for this is because everybody makes their “left” and “right,” and everybody believes that their “left” is the correct one. So as we see, we make our time and space, and we make our cause and effect, and all these then control our lives.”
[ I wrote this story in Facebook two years ago, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s The Compass of Zen. ]
The Compass of Zen is now 20 years old. [ 한국말 맨 아래에서 ]
Twenty years, already passed, like nothing. Happy birthday to one of the seminal records in “modern” Buddhism by one of the greatest teachers to ever articulate it, Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004).
The first edition was in 1997. For some reason, during an interview with another teacher, I was told that Dae Soen Sa Nim wanted me to put his series of talks together as a book. Only that.
He yelled at me for four long years, “When finish?!!” Every time we met, he shouted, “When finish?” (And that was a lot to handle, since we both lived in the same smallish temple together at Hwa Gye Sah.) Even after traveling happily with the Hwa Gye Sah family to see him off or welcoming him arriving at Kimpo Airport, the moments of interaction were very short, surrounded by people. But you got your teaching anyway. As I bow down with big smile, all of us leanng in, and him dropping greetings and teachings here and there, basically the one I got was, “When finish? Why not finish this book?! Some finish necessary!”
Now, not to make him sound strange or even irritable. But the original “root” text of The Compass was a thin, 30-something-page mimeographed handbook of the spare root text, and nothing else. The rest of what appears as a text was fleshed out by going through many many hours of his talks on the subject, and many other Dharma talks he gave on the various subjects, to fill out the frame with the muscles and sinews his sparer skeleton of teaching required. So, he naturally believed — I think — that it would be a snap to put together a basic book with a few stories gathered around the central organizing roots.
One can’t be sure what he expected, but anyway, I did not see it that way. I saw this as being a chance to produce one complete record of his teachings on most of the core issues of Buddhism. I wanted to get everything in there that he had said about these things, and I had to go through lots of recordings of his talks, produce meticulous transcripts, and even add stories I had heard him say in live talks, and stories that some of his closest students relayed about him.
One time we met by accident, In a remote temple in the mountains outside Seoul, after having already met for the Dharma talk after morning practice in Hwa Gye Sah. I was in this temple for some matter, and here comes my beloved Teacher, scheduled for a tea with the Abbess. I bowed to him deeply as he walked up the main temple path, what a beautiful coincidence! But as he got nearer, he just barked at me, “When finish?!” It was total mortification. I wanted to find a rock in this beautiful temple to run under and hide. With any luck, it would crush me, then soon finish!
We had a challenging relationship during those years — he expected something simple and quick from the original 30-page root text, and yet I was totally foolhardy enough to tell that him I was merely trying to ferment a great wine: it might take time, it might take time. Idiot work, that never cut it with him. “Why not finish?”
But he was not being intemperate. He just knew that his own remaining days of teaching activity were growing ever-smaller. He was a man on a mission to save all beings from suffering, that’s all.
He used to declare a lot in his talks at Hwa Gye Sah, “common world have many wars. Many many human beings die. Only attack-mind nowadays. Many have strange weapons all humanity kill.” Something like that. Someone else can give a clear quote, it is welcome. It is surely on the tapes that were preserved up this morning talks in the temple. So he seemed to feel some intense urgency. “Human being soon wake up necessary!“ And “Nowadays human beings number one bad animal in this world. Number one dictator. All kill everything.” “This world wake up necessary!” He was well aware of the current matter of our impending environmental disaster, before the matter of climate change was even spoken about much. He died in 2004. He knew and he declared that there would be some “payback“ or balancing for this, according to natural law.
“Human beings soon wake up necessary!” He was clearly urgent in his fear for life itself on this planet, so he was urgently focused on this arrogant punk of a monk getting his teachings put out there NOW. He wanted to hand sentient beings a compass — not a compass leading to him, as Guru or establishment Teacher, but to themselves. When I asked him why it was called The Compass of Zen — and not the Compass of BUDDHISM, since he spoke also of Hinayana (Theravada) and Mahayana teachings — he answered, “This book’s teaching is, What kind of Zen in this world. Also have Zen in some Hinayana practice. Also have Zen in some Mahayana sutras. And in Zen, also many kinds of Zen. Many kinds of techniques. What is true technique for find my true self? I only showing that. Most important is, don’t know.”
I believe fully that this must be the fullest, clearest exposition of his mind into all of the subjects in the thin, thin group text. Kidd told many many stores, and also used dryer explanation. But all of these were scattered in mountains of tapes and old spotty video tapes. But there were different stories he had used when teaching the Compass at Hwa Gye Sah in Korea, in the 1980s. There was a book published with those talks. How he gave these teachings to Westerners, and anything else that would show is inside, especially where his English had been poor in some of the public talks.
So I really wanted to cast a wide just not possible to mine for this one opportunity to have his complete vision all in one place. As clearly as possible. Without any fat for intellectual grabbing, as he wanted to avoid himself. Trying to keep the simplicity.
He really wanted it done, with his physical indominatibilty waning, to have this complete insights of all facets of Buddhist “thought” and practice.
I had been given a single room at the temple during those years in order to work on this book. That was a very rare thing for a young monk. And one whole wall was a completely elaborate construction of the flow of every single story and explanation that he had given, which I had amassed from hundreds of hours of tapes, personal things scribbled on the back of envelopes that I had heard directly in his morning talks to us, or stories that I had heard from some of the senior monks. Scraps and crumpled napkins with chicken-scratched notes, linked together with a tangle of intersecting lines. That big wall was like a scene from “A Beautiful Mind,” where John Nash strings up in his garage an elaborate flow-chart of things out of his head. Nobody knew what was the matter. Even some of my friend monks used to come in and make jokes. “Don’t make this more complicated than his own teaching!” But I wasn’t, and wouldn’t: we just needed to get this thing right, in every detail. The flow of this could not leave out a single point.
It is said that, every day, Pope Julius II used to come in and yell up at Michelangelo, working on the Sistine Chapel, “When will you make it end?” And Michelangelo could only answer, “When I’m finished.” That’s how I felt. Except that, I was not even Michelangelo – – my Teacher was, or his teaching was, and I was just some little paintbrush in the hand. Maybe a fiber on the tip of the brush, pulled from a horse’s tail — there were many other practitioner-bristles expressing his inimitable teaching. His was a Dharma which painted itself, it seems.
Dae Soen Sa Nim did not even like this cover image which I chose. And this said a lot about his teaching about Buddha images, such as we see in homes and restaurants: He said it was “not correct” because it cut off the body of the Buddha under the neck —he hated Buddha-head-only things, thought them deeply disrespectful. I said, “Yes, but this is Sokkuram Buddha — the most famous Buddha statue in your Korean history.” He didn’t give a darn about any national pride — “Why cutting off under head?!” He was a stickler for the full-picture. He believed that a Buddha-statue does do not exist for decorative purposes. Without the seated posture, the Buddha head has no “direction.“ That was a very very important teaching to get. To this day, I cannot look at a head-only Buddha the same way. A little of his own passionate scorn for that has been implanted in my mind ever since.
The project was drawn out for so long mostly because I was dutifully attending the three-month Winter Kyol Che’s and Summer Kyol Che’s, putting it all down and looking into “don’t know” in silence, plowing through interviews and doing tons of thousands of bows, and returning to the work only during the relative silence of the three-month Hae Jae. Didn’t matter. “When finish???!!!”
And when I flew to Korea from the US in late Autumn 1997, with the first copies wrapped in silk, expecting his final approval, he leafed quickly through the product of four years’ effort and just waved it over a nearby garbage pail, like some stinky fish. “Throw this away. Throw it away now. Many sentient beings will read these words, attach to them, and lose their way. Better to throw it away right now.”
That was it. A punch to the gut. The Master didn’t give a flying poop about my ego’s extensive investment in this project, or his own many-uttered exhortations to finish it. Straight in the garbage.
And that is why he is my Teacher. He didn’t care about his own words, or even his own written teachings. He didn’t care a whiff about my petty ego’s attachment to it, or anyone’s proud celebration of this super-succinct expression the totality of the Buddha’s teachings: “Throw it away, right now.” That was his first reaction.
This man from the North was really like a great compass: he always pointed “true North.” And that’s the real Compass of Zen. Timeless.
“선(禅)의 나침반” 은 이제 스무살이 되었다.
20 년, 이미 지나갔다. 마치 아무것도 아닌 것처럼. 항상 불교를 명확히 한, 가장 위대한 스승 중 한 분인 숭산대선사님(1927-2004)에 의한 “현대” 불교의 정교한 기록 중 하나에 대한 생일을 축하한다.
초판은 1997 년이었다. 어떤 이유로 다른 스승과의 인터뷰에서 대선사님께서 자신의 회담을 한권의 책으로 정리하는데 나를 원한다고 들었다. 오로지 그뿐이었다.
그는 4 년 동안 내게 큰 소리로 고함쳤다. “언제 마쳐?” 우리가 만날 때마다 그는 “언제 마쳐?”라고 소리 쳤다. (그리고 우리는 화계사의 작은 암자에 함께 살았기 때문에 많은 것을 함께 처리해야했다.) 심지어 공항에서 화계사 식구들과 행복한 여행을 위한 그를 배웅하기위해 혹은 김포 공항에 도착한 그를 환영하고 난 후에도, 사람들로 둘러싸여 우리의 매우 짧은 교류의 순간에도 어쨌든 그는 그의 가르침을 마련했다. 나는 커다란 미소로 머리를 숙여 인사하고, 우리 모두는 기댔다. 그리고 그는 여기저기 인사와 가르침을 주셨고, 기본적으로 내가 하나 얻은것은 “언제 마쳐? 왜 안 끝내? 일부 마무리 필요해! ” 였다.
우리가 우연히 만났던 한번은, 이미 화계사에서 아침 수행 후 법문을 위해 만난 후, 서울 밖의 산속에있는 외딴 절에서였다. 나는 이 절에서 어떤 일에 관계하고 있었다. 그리고 여기 내 사랑하는 스승님께서 원장수녀님과 차를 마실 일정으로 오셨다. 그가 대웅전을 향해 걸어 오고 있을 때 나는 그에게 깊은 인사를 드렸다. 이 얼마나 아름다운 우연의 일치인가! 그러나 그가 더 가까이 올수록, 그는 나에게 짖다시피 소리쳤다. “언제 마쳐?” 그것은 완전 굴욕이었다. 나는 이 아름다운 절에서 달려가 그 아래 숨을 바위를 찾고 싶었다. 운이 좋다면, 그것은 나를 눌러 부숴 줄 것이고, 곧 마칠 것이다!
그 수년 동안 우리는 도전적인 관계를 가졌다. 그는 20 쪽짜리 원문에서 간단히 그리고 빨리 얻기를 기대했었다. 그러나 나는 그저 내가 위대한 포도주를 숙성 시키려했다는 것을 그에게 말할만큼 충분히 무모했다. 시간이 걸릴 수도 있고, 시간이 걸릴 수도 있다. 그와 함께 절대로 그것을 모른 체할 수 없는, 바보같은 일. “왜 안 마쳐?”
그러나 그는 도를 넘어서지 않았다. 그는 이제 자신에게 남은 설법 활동이 점점 더 줄어들고 있음을 알았다. 그는 모든 존재를 고통에서 구원하는 임무를 수행중인 사람이었다. 그것이 전부였다.
그는 자주 그의 법문 중에 독점 강타를 명확한 많은 말씀으로 하셨다. “공동 세계에는 많은 전쟁이 있다. 수많은 사람들이 죽는다. 요즘은 오로지 공격 정신만 있다. 많은 사람들이 모든 인류를 죽이는 이상한 무기를 가지고 있다. ” 그런 식으로. 다른 사람의 명확한 인용문을 줄 수 있다면, 그것은 환영한다. 그것은 오늘 아침 절에서 이야기를 한 보존 된 테이프에 있는 셜리(Shirley)다. 그래서인지 그는 강한 긴박함을 느낀 듯 보였다. “인간은 빨리 깨어나야 할 필요가 있다.” 그리고 “오늘날의 인류는 이 세상에서 최고로 나쁜 동물이다. 최고의 독재자. 모든 것을 죽인다. ” “이 세상은 깨어나야 할 필요가 있다! ” 그는 기후 변화의 문제가 많이 언급되기 전에 임박한 환경 재앙의 현재 문제를 잘 알고 있었다. 그는 2004 년에 세상을 떠났다. 그는 알고 있었다. 그리고 그는 이를 자연법에 따라 일부 “되돌려 받을 것” 이고, 또한 이것을 위해 균형을 유지할 것이라고 단호히 말했다.
“인간은 빨리 깨어나야 할 필요가 있다!” 그는 이 지구상의 삶 자체에 대한 그의 두려움은 분명히 시급한 상황이었기 때문에, 그래서 그는 급히 그의 가르침을 받고 있는 한 명의 이 오만하고 불량한 중놈에게 주력하였다. 그는 중생들에게 그에게가 아닌, 구루나 설립 스승으로서도 아닌, 그들 스스로 인도할 나침반을 건네주길 원했다. “이것은 이 세상의 어떤 종류의 선(禅)이다. 또한 어떤 한 종류의 어린 수행에서 모래이다. 또한 대승불교 몇몇 경전에도 선(禅)이 있다. 그리고 선(禅)에도 많은 종류의 선(禅)이 있다. 많은 종류의 기술도. 무엇이 진정한 자아를 찾기 위한 진정한 기술인가? 나는 단지 그것을 보여줄 뿐. 가장 중요한 것은 모른다. “
나는 듬성듬성, 내용이 없는 단체 문자메시지의 모든 주제들, 이것이 그의 마음을 가장 분명하고 분명하게 드러내는 것임을 전적으로 믿는다. 키드는 많은 상점들을 말했고, 건조기 설명도 사용했다. 하지만 이것들 전부는 산같은 테이프들과 오래된 얼룩덜룩 한 비디오 테이프들에 흩어져있었다. 그러나 1980 년대 한국의 화계사에서 나침반을 가르 칠 때 사용했던 다른 이야기들이 있었다. 그 법문들로 출판 된 책이있다. 그가 서양인들에게 어떻게 이런 가르침을 주었는지 특히 그의 부족한 영어로 대중을 위한 일부 법문에서, 그리고 보여줄 다른 것들도 안에 있다.
그래서 나는 단지 한번의 기회로 내 것이 되기에 가능하지 않은 그의 완벽한 비전을 한 곳에 넓게 펼치고 싶었다. 가능하면 명확하게. 그가 그의 자신 스스로 기피하고 싶었던, 지적 흥미를 위한 어떤 군더더기 없이. 단순함을 유지하려고 노력했다.
그는 불교의 “생각”과 실천의 모든 측면에 대한 완전한 통찰력을 갖기 위해 육체적인 어려움을 극복하면서 끝내기를 정말로 원했다.
나는 이 책을 집필하기 위한 그 수년동안 절에서 방 하나를 받았다. 젊은 스님에게는 매우 드문 일이었다. 그리고 하나의 벽 전체에는 그가 해주신 각 이야기와 설명의 흐름으로 완전히 정교하게 구성되었다. 그리고 그것은 내가 수백시간의 테이프들로부터 얻어 축적한, 그의 아침 법문에서 우리들에게 말씀하셨을 때 내가 직접 들은 봉투의 뒷면에 쓰여진 개인적인 낙서, 혹은 어떤 고참 스님들로부터 내가 들었던 이야기들이었다. 읽기 힘든 필체로 빼곡히 쓰여져 있는 스크랩들과 구겨진 냅킨들, 교차하는 얽힘과 함께 연결돼 있었다. 그 큰 벽은 “A Beautiful Mind” 의 한 장면과 같았다. 그의 차고에서 축 처져 있던 존 내쉬(John Nash)는 사물의 정교한 흐름도를 그의 머리 밖으로 꺼냈다. 아무도 그 문제가 뭔지 알지 못했다. 내 동료 스님들 중 몇 명은 농담을 하곤 했다. “이것을 그분의 가르침보다 더 복잡하게하지 말게!” 하지만 나는 아니었고, 그렇게 하지 않았다. 우리는 이 일의 모든 세부 사항을 단지 올바르게 할 필요가 있었다. 이 흐름은 단 하나의 요점을 벗어날 수 없었다.
교황 율리오 2 세 (Julius II)는 매일 시스티나 성당에서 일하는 미켈란젤로에게 소리 쳤다. “언제 끝낼 것인가?” 그리고 미켈란젤로는 오직 “내가 마쳤을 때” 라고 대답 할 수 있었다. 그것이 내가 느낀 방법이었다. 그것을 제외하더라도, 나는 미켈란젤로조차도 아니었다. – – 나의 스승은 혹은 그의 가르침은, 그리고 나는 손안에 어떤 작은 그림 붓이었다. 어쩌면 말의 꼬리에서 뽑아 내어 만든 붓의 끝 부분에 붙은 하나의 섬유였을것이다. 그의 훌륭한 가르침을 표현하는 다른 많은 강모(剛毛)-수련자들이있었다. 그의 그림은 달마가 그린 그자체인 듯했다.
대선사님은 내가 선택한 이 표지 이미지가 마음에 들지 않았다. 그리고 이것은 우리가 가정과 식당에서 볼 수있는 것과 같은 부처의 이미지에 관한 그의 가르침에 대해 많이 말씀하셨다. 그는 부처의 목 아래로 몸을 잘랐으므로 “정확하지 않다”고 말했고, 오직 그것, 머리만 부처를 싫어했다. 그들을 심히 무례하다고 생각했다. 나는 말했다. “예, 그러나 이것은 석굴암의 부처입니다 – 당신의 한국 역사상 가장 유명한 불상입니다. ” 그는 국가의 긍지에 관해 헛소리따위는 하지 않았다 -“왜 머리의 아래는 잘랐나?! ” 그는 부처의 전체 사진을 고수했다. 그는 불상이 장식적인 목적으로 존재하지 않는다고 믿었으며, 앉은 자세가 없으면 부처의 머리는 “방향”이 없다고 했다. 이것은 매우 중요한 가르침이었다. 오늘날까지 나는 똑같은 방법으로 머리만 부처는 볼 수 없다. 그 자신의 열정적인 경멸의 일부가 내 마음 속에 이식되었다.
이 프로젝트는 오래 끌었다. 그 이유는 3 개월간의 동안거와 하안거에 참석해야 했다. 그리고 모든 것을 내려놓고 침묵 속에서 “모를뿐”을 들여다 보며, 대면을 통해 헤치고 나아가, 수천 번의 절을하며 3 개월간의 해재의 상대적 침묵 동안만에 작업에 복귀했다. 상관 없었다. “언제 마쳐??? !!!”
그리고 1997 년 늦은 가을, 실크로 포장한 첫 번째 사본을 가지고 미국에서 한국으로 건너가 그의 최종 승인을 기다렸을 때, 그는 4 년간의 노력의 산물을 재빨리 포장을 뜯어 내더니 마치 비린내 나는 어떤 생선인 것 처럼 근처의 쓰레기통 위로 흔들어 댔다. “이거 저리 던져버려. 당장 그거 저멀리 버려. 많은 지각있는 존재들이 이 단어들을 읽고, 붙이고, 길을 잃을 것이다. 지금 당장 버리는 것이 더 낫다.”
그것이었다. 제대로 창자를 한 대 얻어맞은 기분이었다. 스승님은 이 프로젝트에 대한 나의 자존심을 막대하게 투자하거나 그것을 끝내기 위해 자신의 많은 발언을 권고하는 것에 대해 헛스윙을 하지 않았다. 곧장 쓰레기통에.
그래서 이 사람이 내 스승님이 되셨다. 그는 자신의 말이나 심지어 자기 자신의 서면(書面)가르침에 대해서도 상관하지 않았다. 그는 그것에 대한 애착을 부리는 내 작은 자아의 헛일에 대해서도 아무렇지도 않았고, 혹은 누구라도 부처님의 가르침의 총체적인 이 초(超)간결한 표현에 대해 자랑스럽게 여기고 축하하는 것에도. “갖다 버려 당장.” 그것이 그의 첫 번째 반응이었다.
북쪽(북한)에서 온 이 사람은 정말로 위대한 나침반과 같았다. 그는 언제나 “진정한 북쪽”을 가리켰다. 그리고 그것은 바로 “선(禅)의 나침반”이었다. 영원한.
“In this world, nothing is free,” Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, in his unique form of super-succinct English. “Something you have obligation. Even air and water is not free, OK? – – You must some pay tax on that! Only use this free air, use this free water and not [do] good actions to this world, then you not pay tax. Pay tax means, you must good action with this air, good action with this water, good action with this body. Everybody must pay tax. Every day, human beings get this air free, get this water free, but have no obligation to air, have no obligation to water, have no obligation to anything. Only to himself. Only ‘myself.’ But one day, you must paying something.”
A typical night of teaching in Germany, in one of the richest countries in the world, a Dharma Room full of people in Bavaria, the richest Land in Germany, results in not enough donations back to the temple to purchase a Maß of the local beer. Even after making a short, sweet announcement after sitting meditation about the need for donations to keep this oasis-in-the-craziness open and free for those who cannot afford to pay at all, this is the result of opening the donation box at the end of the evening:
Yes, we practice with no expectations, not “wanting” anything in return. It is so gratifying — and enough, in itself — to see the faces emerging from Evening Meditation daily here at the Zen Center, made lighter by their work in stillness with chanting and sitting, attention to breath and sound and the scent of frankincense and the normal wood-grained flooring beneath the nose. The change in their demeanor is clear, it is obvious, and the practitioners notice it themselves as they step back out into the chilly night and blend into the bustling, shopping, eating crowds. You see it in front of the shoe rack outside the Dharma Room: on arrival, there is hurry and stress, the carryover from work and commuting; and when they return to put their shoes on again, there is lightness, smiling and laughter.
Yet every community is only enabled to continue this sort of work when the beneficiaries recognize their good merit in finding such a teaching (as Zen Master Seung Sahn’s don’t-know pointing); when they realize their great merit in finding such a community which embraces without strict membership, but lets anyone enter the doors and get instruction and a clear practice-form that lets them swim deeply in the vast space of our True Nature. On an average night, ten able-bodied people receive instruction in looking into their life. How excellent! Yet rent must be paid, electricity must be paid, insurance must be paid, cleaning supplies to make their toilet experience healthy must be paid (and effort by the Abbot to clean it), water for their tea must be paid, and this is the result even after asking! Opening the donation box tonight after practice, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s words floated up into view: “In this world, nothing is free. Something you have obligation. Even air and water is not free, OK?”
Some of the Zen Center directors tell me that I must remind people — again and again — to give money, that we must make a hard-and-fast membership which allows attendance at meditation. But I cannot do that — I cringe bodily about the mouth that speaks Dharma and money in the same exchange. It recalls the skin-curdling reaction one has to televangelists and priests. “They must be subjects done by separate people,” I feel.
Yes — this is aversion to talking about money to our meditation students is perhaps also attachment, a hindrance of some kind, “making something.” Money is actually a kind of dharma, after all, a neutral manifestation of the operation of the universe, our minds and intentions and desires and histories. “All dharma are marked with emptiness, / They do not appear or disappear / Are not tainted or pure / Do not increase or decrease.” In Germany especially, I have been told by members of the local community that, unless you speak to Germans in very clear, firm, exact terms about their financial obligations in receiving this teaching — and unless you do it often — they will not be prodded to support the temple. From the very beginning, however, we have encouraged whoever wants to sit retreats to sit retreats here, regardless of their ability to pay. (Sometimes one-half to one-third of the Dharma Room is filled with retreat ants who have paid little or nothing to sit the retreats.) And we have kept the training fees extremely low, and not raised them since establishing them on opening day in March 2016. In a university town, especially, you don’t want there to be any barriers to an enthusiastic engagement with the opportunity to sit down and look inside.
So, part of the problem resides with me, with my weird character resisting money-talk. How strange — a person whose family-name is Muenzen (Münzen is German for “coins”) has trouble asking people for money!
I believe that I’ve had a fairly healthy attitude to money and to others’ relationships to money. When some little book I wrote in Korea became a mega-bestseller, and earned several quarters of a million dollars in royalties, it was an absolute no-brainer to send all of it to Zen Master Seung Sahn for help in the construction of the Zen Center, or to give to poorer monks from Eastern Europe who couldn’t get the airplane money to visit aged parents for years while practicing in Asia, and to buy Buddhas and temple bells for various Zen centers in need. I was literally just handing the stuff away, before it could grow roots in and destroy my brain. It wasn’t a “good” thing or a “noble” thing: When this sudden explosion of celebrity after the bestseller caused all of this money and temptation to pour into my life, there were predictions that I would not stay long as a monk. But it was, to me, an act of preserving sanity to just shovel the stuff out just as fast as it was pouring in. The money “appeared” as a result of some energy or power that had been generated through intensive practice — some explosive blooming of merit or “dharma energy,” as Dae Soen Sa Nim used to call it — and so this money belonged to Dharma, and should only be used to further the work of Dharma.
(Another famous case, in the same years, was a young Korean monk whose simple, naive paintings of temple-life and child-monks began selling like hotcakes in Korea. He became so rich that he bought several properties in Seoul, and eventually moved to the US to attend art school, and was never heard from in Korean monk-society again. They say he is currently married and living comfortably from the rent on the properties he bought with the big money he earned from selling his naive paintings about the simple poverty of child-monks living playfully in the temple. This monk’s trajectory into wealth was happening at exactly the same time as my bestseller was minting a smallish fortune. Needless to say, not a few voices murmured that I might just take off and stop being a monk. Even Dae Soen Sa Nim is said to have mentioned, “This fame maybe kill Hyon Gak Sunim practice.” I heard about that, and it spurred me to try even harder to do well with the whole experience, though there were many dark periods, as well.)
When I had a newspaper delivery route operating off my bicycle every day in my hometown, when it came time every 2 weeks to collect the subscription monies from the customers, door to door — money that was owed by their having received the papers I had delivered, by their order — I was unable to collect the subscription from houses which seemed poorer in appearance. If they had some plastic sheeting in place of a cracked windows, or an unkempt front yard with garbage, unpainted steps in need of repair — I would just not be able to ask them for money. My dad ended up paying those bills — though he was not rich at all — and that shortened considerably my promising career as a newspaper delivery boy.
In our Zen Center, I have refused to make a membership which might create a barrier to anyone getting in and getting their ass on the cushion. It seemed obvious that receiving strong and clear meditation instruction from an experienced practitioner — and then seeing its benefits, in visit after visit to an especially clean and orderly meditation space (otherwise they would not come at all!) — would naturally produce an upwelling of “return”: giving back to the universe what had been revealed about the innate riches of one’s own True Nature. As I always remind the guests who come here, “Regensburg is one of the most picturesque and beloved tourist locations in all of Germany because previous generations donated to build its great Gothic gem of a cathedral, its UNESCO-listed Old Stone Bridge, its winding cobblestone streets. Modern Regensburgers (and we!) live well off the torrent of tourist dollars pouring into this city because those before us gave of themselves to build such a jewel as this. Every church and monastery in Europe that draws hordes of tourists to its hotels, restaurants, cafes, and shopping centers was built through this mentality. We must have the same attitude about our local meditation centers, as well.”
This work in Regensburg has been made possible by many people in Asia who have seen our practice and teaching efforts, and have wished to support this work. But this is not something which should continue indefinitely. And anyway, as my presence in Korean Buddhism recedes into the rear-view mirror, the donation-stream will also recede, and already is receding. It is not a foreign concept to expect local Europeans to “step up”, and I have a feeling that they are, slowly. A group of young men have recently decided to meet and coordinate a strategy for fundraising and membership — two things I do not have the time in this work to engage in. Let’s hope it’s not too late to secure us another year or two here. I have a feeling that they are “just in time”!
If not, it is perfectly OK to begin — again — a wandering life, based for some periods here in Germany, some periods in Greece. The enthusiasm-level in Greece seems something I will eventually respond to with greater involvement there. It would be sad to lose this fantastic base in Bavaria, were it to come to that. But I’m definitely ready. One of the precepts delineated by the Buddha himself is that monks should not stay in one place for more than three days, otherwise feelings of attachment appear. It has now been 10 years of hard work in Bavaria, and four years in Regensburg. Very happy to take this thing on the road again, in the end.