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“Temple ailment” (2)

Dear K.,

Thank you very much for your concern about my health, which was posted about yesterday here. I am sorry to make you worry. In hindsight, maybe I should not have made such a public post. But all signs seem to be pointing me to pull back a little bit on the intensive group sittings and long retreats that have been the center of life for the last 30 years, so that I have a long-term ability to keep sitting, and not making this condition any worse. That is the only reason why I published so publicly – – it will be the background for any future decision that I must make about how much I can or should participate in these long sitting retreats that are the core of our Zen training experience.

This new condition is only the functioning of the law of entropy, the law of impermanence – – the Buddha already taught us very clearly about that. I accept this fully, and I do not have any particular sadness, just beyond the usual simple adjustment that I need to make mentally to travel from one phase of life to another. And, boy — of all the things I could be a little limited by, this one is really really lucky. Please don’t think that I am complaining: I just raised it publicly to perhaps dampen expectations when I need to bow out of some big obligations that have been set for myself.

Actually, I probably shouldn’t be doing this much intensive long sitting anymore. There are very very few monks of my age and ordination status in Korea who continue to do these retreats. Some monks do continue to train in the Zen halls at this age, of course. But it is always the case that, when they are teaching, they just come out and sit on the cushion for one or two hours of the day. But I have the stubbornness to want to be there all the time, to push the room, and to touch people who I think are having particular difficulties.

So, this will just lead me to moderate somewhat the level of activity in practice that can be expected when teaching.

What is most significant is that it probably means that I will not be able to participate as fully in our annual 90-day intensive Kyol Che. Several close students have been urging, for months and months, to consider taking a one-year sabbatical, because they see the impact of this every day, 365-days-a-year activity and its effect on physical health as well as even stress levels. I’ve resisted this for a while, saying that “monks do not take sabbaticals!” But I think my body is being a far more emphatic teacher, and we cannot avoid any longer what it is saying to me. 

Both of these ailments — the torn meniscus and the constant hemorrhoids — have been caused by too much sitting in these retreats. That is what the doctors tell me. Both problems become worse during retreats.

These ailments feel deeply connected to the ailments of the world, which pain me terribly. I feel that the only way not to go insane with grief over the condition of the world and humanity is to practice helping human beings to wake up. And the best way — the only way — that I know how to accomplish this “waking up,” both for myself and others, is through Zen practice.

In the time of the Buddha lived a layman named Vimalakirti. He was a great businessman who was also a very great practitioner. His attainment in meditation was so vast that he was respected almost as a kind of “buddha.” One day, Vimalakirti became very sick. Naturally, many people were shocked and surprised: “How can this great practitioner be so afflicted by ailments, just like us?” In those days, without scientific understanding, people generally thought that people of high spiritual attainment could avoid sickness or even death. Even today, in Korea, I have heard people express alarm or even disappointment when they hear of a “great monk” (it’s always a monk!) being struck with some chronic sickness.

Vimalakirti, sick in bed, with Manjushri behind him conveying the wishes of the Buddha

So, when Vimalakirti became sick, and was bedridden, the Buddha wished to send one of his students to convey the Buddha’s best wishes. (There were no phones in the day; the Buddha could not FaceTime or WhatsApp his greetings — someone had to make the long journey as his personal emissary.)

Many great practitioners and bodhisattvas politely declined to go, because they feared great Vimalakirti’s strong spiritual practice and his skill in debate, or “dharma combat.” His wisdom seemed to outshine even the greatest of the Buddha’s students!

Finally, the bodhisattva Manjushri agreed to attend. When he reached Vimalakirti, he expressed the sentiment of many people by asking how such a “great” practitioner could be hindered by physical sickness.

“Householder, whence came this sickness of yours? How long will it continue? How does it stand? How can it be alleviated?”

Vimalakirti replied, “Manjusri, my sickness comes from ignorance and the thirst for existence and it will last as long as do the sicknesses of all living beings. Were all living beings to be free from sickness, I also would not be sick. Why? Manjusri, for the bodhisattva, the world consists only of living beings, and sickness is inherent in living in the world. Were all living beings free of sickness, the bodhisattva also would be free of sickness. For example, Manjusri, when the only son of a merchant is sick, both his parents become sick on account of the sickness of their son. And the parents will suffer as long as that only son does not recover from his sickness. Just so, Manjusri, the bodhisattva loves all living beings as if each were his only child. He becomes sick when they are sick and is cured when they are cured. You ask me, Manjusri, whence comes my sickness; the sicknesses of the bodhisattvas arise from great compassion.”

Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman (copyright 1976, The Pennsylvania State University)

So, maybe this is why I have broken one-and-a-half knees and an ass that’s now streaming more than five Netflix accounts: Too much sitting effort at an age when this is no longer so possible to endure.

Monks in the old days had much simpler lives, and they rarely left the temple, and they did not have such things as social media and international travel to add physical wear and tear to their daily use of the body for meditation. (Social media adds “wear-and-tear” because it enables people from all over the world to send questions about practice or their suffering, and these questions often require sitting down and typing out some sort of well considered, essay-length reply – – not everything can be avoided, not if you are in the bodhisattva business of meditation, as my Teacher encouraged us by his own example.)

I saw with Dae Soen Sa Nim the impact of all of his traveling activity: He died at age 77, which is not especially “old” these days. Some people in Korea whispered a little about this: “Why did your Teacher die so young, when many monks these days live into their 90s?” I received these questions directly. And even some of his closest students wondered amongst themselves, after his death, how much he may have been worn down by all the years traveling for teaching, especially with his diabetes, which was very sensitive to changes in diet and time-stress.

So, now with social media and all that it brings in and requires, I might be living the next generation’s further iteration of this burden with having this kind of constant activity that does not have any borders or resting periods. I live in a temple, and there is activity and access to me 24/7, 365 days a year. While all of my students have a place where they “work” and a separate place where they “live” — and can therefore “leave” their work-matters where they “work” and refresh their minds and bodies with something else not connected, in another setting and location — for nearly 30 years I have lived without any meaningful breaks, at all. I live together with the people I train. Temple-life means training people not only in the Dharma Room (“Zendo”), but also in meals, and how they do their work period jobs, the cleaning of the temple, and everyday life matters. There are no weekends for monks! There are no vacations, especially for monks raised in the tradition of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Though people would like to idealize us monastics as some sort of supermen, the reality is far far from that. In the old temple life, there were mountains and rivers to refresh the mind-body, and plenty of time in the daily schedule not to have teaching contact with others.

Not really.

Not so these days: It is not uncommon for me to need to make or receive a phone call from a student or follower living in another time zone who is undergoing crisis or merely has a question or personal problem that can only be discussed at a time which might not match our daily schedule. We are all connected through different frames, and video conferencing makes this — to laypeople living out in the world — something quite natural to expect a monk or teacher to be able to do. Right now, as I write these words to you, in the middle of a 30-day silent intensive retreat, with some 15 people under my direct daily care and supervision here in the Zen Center, there are several very good Zen practitioners who I taught or met, now in other countries, needing to get some teaching because they feel some problem in their practice, or are undergoing a crisis. They have no teachers nearby that they trust as much as me, or who understand their practice and life. Two of these good people wrote me in the same week with very strong needs to connect, asking to set up a time to have a video talk for guidance and inspiration: One of them is waiting in Japan, and the other is waiting in Mexico. Two beautiful souls committed to practice, in two vastly different time zones. I have promised and delayed each conversation several times, due to unexpected conditions in the retreat requiring my attention. And even though I should limit the time spent sitting on this ass, there is a pile of unanswered emails always waiting for replies, and until we install a standing-desk, there will be no meaningful rest or improvement of the current condition.

Anyway, I am reminded of the story of my Teacher when he was admitted to hospital in the US with an irregular heartbeat, brought on by his own overwork and lack of time to rest. Naturally, his students met him at the hospital with worried looks and pained expressions. But when they entered his room, he was only smiling, and said, “My body has a problem. My heart is making bad sounds — BOOM BOOM b-boom BOOM! That’s just a body-problem. But my True Self never has a problem. True Self is never sick, never changing. So, I don’t worry. You should also not worry, either.” 

Not Superman. (But close!)

This is an amazing teaching! All compounded things, all physical materials and conditions change and decay, can be fixed or broken. It is the law of entropy, the law of impermanence. Nothing special.

But our True Nature is never broken: it is like empty space, never coming and never going. Even if you explode an atomic bomb in the sky, the sky is not broken by it. Trees and buildings and people and objects are destroyed by the bomb. But the empty space is never changed by it. The same is true of our True Nature. This new condition is showing me that.

So, I cannot expect to do as much long sitting with my students as I used to — this health condition means only that. I am not worried about it at all, and you shouldn’t, either. Impermanence teaches us to appreciate more sweetly the things that disappear, as all things eventually must.

Except our True Nature, this “don’t-know mind,” which is the only thing that ever matters. Ever.

So, thanks for your concern. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be OK. I look forward to some strong sitting with you at the intensive retreat when you come in November! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!

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