Traditional Korean Chanting: Songgwang Sah Temple

This is the daily Evening Chanting at Songgwang Sah temple, where I did six 90-day ango retreats. It was one of my favorite temples to practice at. This is the temple of Master Jinul (보조지눌; Hanja: 普照知訥, 1158–1210), the National Teacher during the Koryo Dynasty who was one of the foremost shapers of the Korean Buddhist tradition we know today. In all, Songgwang Sah produced 16 National Teachers, so it is revered in Korea as the “Sangha Jewel Temple” — a temple which upholds the highest standards in the educational formation of monks. I practiced there off and on from 2002 to 2016.

When I first arrived at Songgwang Sah to practice, there was not a very good feeling among the senior monks there about my Teacher. Songgwang Sah’s own special role in Korean Buddhism had been the establishment of an international Zen center in the 1970s — the first in Korea. The Patriarch Ku Sahn Sunim was justly respected for having been able to make a practicing home where Westerners could live an ordain and practice, together with Korean monks. He was very old-school, though, and as the Patriarch of such an ancient lineage as that at Songgwang Sah, he did not undertake many liberalizations of Korean Buddhism’s hard-conservative outlook to benefit the newly-arrived practitioners from the West. They were trained more or less the same way that Korean monastics trained, despite the obvious differences in cultural and social shaping that led to vastly different mental frameworks and value systems. He made a massive contribution to the development of Korean Buddhism, and was truly a great monk.

Yet, my Teacher was much much more risky and innovative. He allowed lay folks to wear the robes of monks and nuns and teach as Dharma Teachers. He permitted lay people to sit retreats with monastics. He did not describe the work of enlightenment as some extremely hard work requiring effort in a temple holding a single kong-an, but emphasized the liberation of attaining “don’t-know mind” right here, in this moment. He wasn’t so especially emphatic about the matter of the precepts.

When I arrived at Songgwang Sah, I would often be “schooled” by senior monks there. They were teaching me, but it was not hard to feel the undercurrent of correcting my Teacher. There was definitely a strong perception — and I could understand it, from their point of view — that Dae Soen Sa Nim had somehow not taught us Westerners the “true” Korean Zen (or, as they insist on calling it today, Soen”). My Teacher had taken too many liberties with the tradition and the form. I had to sit through many a tea-drinking session where the subject started in one area, maybe a question from some young monk to the senior, with the discussion being wheeled around fairly quickly to a snappy correction of my Teacher’s teaching. (One monk, a master by the name of Hwa Ahn Kunsunim, even yelled at me for my Teacher’s mistaken approach to Zen, while I knelt there on his floor for a good hour or so, having just climbed up the mountain from the main temple to his hermitage in knee-deep snow with no trail on a rest-day to give traditional Lunar New Year’s Day bows to him. He was just unrelenting, almost seething. Even the Korean monks who had accompanied me on the trip were apologizing to me as we left his room to head back down the mountain again. “Sunim, that was not good. But don’t worry — he is too old and set in his ways. It is his style.”)

When I left Songgwang Sah, and left Korea for good, following the 2015/16 Winter Kyol Che, they were roundly praising Dae Soen Sa Nim. Every monk I interacted with praised his efforts, and his innovations, which most of them agreed were way ahead of his times. Some expressed great regret at having only “found out” about him after he died (in 2004), such that they missed their chance to practice with him directly. Of course, the opinion was not universal — it could never be so, about anything. But I did notice a massive sea change in the time that I practiced there.

A last look out over Songgwang Sah, on the last day of my last Kyol Che in a Korean temple — the end of the 2015/16 Winter Kyol Che (“dong ango”)
The Caucasian is No. 12.

Your Emotional States Are Only Real to You

A prominent Zen monk once wrote to me after describing a conflict with one of his most senior students, “We who teach Zen have the daily privilege to bring an ancient wisdom to people which helps them to open their minds, just so that many of those same people can then later hate us for helping reveal to them all the areas where they have been stuck and suffering, but not be able to fix the problems for them.” He was expressing, in dark humor, an irony that often lurks at the edges of this work.

One of the greatest joys and blessings of this job and this calling is seeing how many people can liberate themselves from habitual patterns of self-created suffering. And yet, when people become just “half-liberated” — when they merely begin to taste the fruits of relief as they see it, but for one reason or another cannot do the strong, consistent application of effort to “follow through” on their initial insights — they can then expect the guide or teacher to somehow “solve” these matters for them. Or they become discouraged by the inching progress of refining their first, seemingly rapid insights, and feel they are being “cheated” somehow by the teaching or the “methodology” (for want of a much better word) that does not grant them lasting, constant relief. I have seen this countless times over the last three decades. And then when the guide cannot or will not solve these matters — because he or she CANNOT do that — then there is often a bitterness toward the teacher. Relations become sour. As a colleague once said to me, “If a student does not like what they see in the mirror, often the easiest solution is to punch the mirror!”

When we have the sacred honor to “teach” this mind-tech called meditation — especially the exquisitely refined hacking-tech packaged as Zen, real temple Zen — we also get the downside of experiencing the suffering of those who have only the time or resources or karmic commitment to see the work merely “halfway through.” Even my own work is not finished, in the sense that I am constantly in awe of the constant production of tricks and seductions by the mind and its habitual patterns. Even seeing those patterns to be completely unreal, and have them realized as the utter illusions they are, yet some wiring can have been installed by the unexamined repetition of thought-patterns for the decades before meditation practice became firmly committed on the disk.

How much more for people who get but a little taste from a few retreats. The stabilizing trust in this vast, indescribable awareness can take much more time, especially while going about life in this distracting, distracted world.

As Dae Soen Sa Nim used to sign-off his letters, “Only go straight don’t know — try try try, for 10,000 years nonstop, get enlightenment, save all beings from suffering.” This is the only way through such things.

Reply to a Reader: “How Can I Become a Monk?” [video]

I get letters like this often: “How do I become a monk?” It’s one of the most consequential decisions that anyone can face, both for themselves and for their families.

Yet, it’s hard to reply when they don’t even provide their own name or reply address, much less a self-introduction!

So, the reply to this query had to come in the form of a public talk. Although I’ve addressed this matter on a number of other occasions, in different forums, and told many of the same stories retold here, this seemed like something that needed to be done again for the sake of this letter-writer. (Begin the video at 1:29:00. An edited version will appear in a few weeks, but I wanted the letter-writer to have their answer as soon as possible.)

Receiving novice monk precepts from the hand of Dae Soen Sa Nim (Zen Master Seung Sahn) on September 7, 1992, in the Main Buddha Hall of the Temple of the Sixth Patriarch, Nam Hwa Sah, on Chogye Sahn Mountain, Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China. Co-officiating was Do An Sunim, now known as Dae Kwang Sunim.