What Am I?

When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick - every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. But if instead you look at where your thoughts are coming from, you will see that each thought arises and dissolves within the space of that awareness, without giving rise to other thoughts. Be like a lion, who rather than chases after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.

~ Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

I’m So Bored with the USA

From middle school onward, my favorite band was The Clash. Their revolutionary insights and expressions about history, politics, and society were so absolutely essential in my waking up from slumber in suburban NJ, USA during the late 70s and through the end of the 1980s. They served almost like a gospel for my emergence from sleepwalking conformity into the practice of waking up to some more transcendent consciousness within/without. I tended to just really like one or two bands very very intensely, and not have a lot of records or interests here and there in music. There were the things that really moved my soul — and it had to move the brain as much as anything else — and there was everything else. The Clash moved me in ways from intelligence to passion and a gnawing realization that I was existing in a profoundly unjust world.

The Clash informed my politics very deeply — the orientation of my political views (while much more capaciously informed, I would hope!) have probably not changed since, in terms of the basic direction, from the way they were pointed by The Clash’s hard edge of insight. (Them and a whole lot of Catholic liberalism and activism, and two very progressive-oriented religion teachers I had in St. Joseph’s High School — Bob Morton and Ted Kean.) But I owe a great debt to the music of The Clash for being around when I was shaping views about history and politics and society. Getting involved with CISPES in college (“the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador”) got me an FBI file when we later learned that they had been surveilling our weekly meetings in Bethel Chapel. And then the two years of activism protesting apartheid in South Africa, which led to two arrests — one of which was spent some hours in a city jail cell with Cornel West — was all of this set on noisy track by the driving energy and passion and sincerity of revolutionary spirit of The Clash.

How sad it is to realize, during a worldwide pandemic in 2020 — with all of this craziness, this false-religious anti-science ignorance, the gun-toting, planet-devouring faux lifestyle of hyper-consumption that has gotten the world addicted to the raping and death of our natural ecosystem as a matter of course — how breathtakingly sad to realize again that these lyrics have not become “dated,” but actually express my only possible space of reaction to the current polarized, no mask/mask, guns/no guns, science/no science, two-party spiritual and cultural and political asphyxiation. (I am the latter in every case, it goes without saying.) It is not a little dispiriting to know that the lyrics of one of your most animating punk-rock anthems are still the best expression one can muster up today, some 30 or 40 years later.

It all comes from the most cynical abuse of religion that perhaps any people has ever perpetuated for such a sustained length of human history: unapologetically mercantile from its very inception as a set of corporate-run colony outposts, from the slaves at its founding, through nearly continuous war, through the genocide of a native people, to the buying and selling of the human spirit for corporate gain, a rapacious, demonic prosperity gospel which has been foisted down the throat of a fragile biosphere.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1849)

“I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” [lyrics]

Yankee soldier
He want to shoot some skag
He met it in Cambodia, but now
He can’t afford a bag

Yankee dollar talk
To the dictators of the world
In fact it’s giving orders
An’ they can’t afford to miss a word

I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
But what can I do?

Yankee detectives
Are always on the TV
‘Cause killers in America work
Seven days a week
Never mind the stars and stripes
Let’s print the Watergate Tapes
I’ll salute the New Wave
And I hope nobody escapes

I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
But what can I do?
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
But what can I do?
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
I’m so bored with the U.S.A.
But what can I do?

Move up, Starsky
For the C.I.A.
Suck on Kojak
For the USA

Sun-Face Buddha, Moon-Face Buddha

One of the Zen adepts I respect with greatest ardor is great Mazu Daoyi (709–788 C.E.) [Korean: Master Ma Jo; Jap.: Ma-tsu Tao-yi]. He was known for his shocking teaching style, utilizing everything from shouts and strange words to extraordinary actions to wake his students from their solipsisms and self-enclosed mind-traps. The school that flourished under him is regarded, universally, by scholars as “the golden age of chan [Zen]”.

I remember feeling deeply inspired, for years, by the story of his first big enlightenment: As a young monk, Mazu was renowned in the Zen Hall for his arduous practice. He sat in meditation intrepidly, without moving in the least. And even after the rest of the monks retired to sleep for the night, or on rest periods during the day, he routinely continued his sitting practice out in some clearing near the meditation hall. He was absolutely determined to attain his True Self, and not waste a minute otherwise!

One day, the Patriarch of the temple, seeing him sitting deep in meditation, went out and sat on a rock beside Mazu.

“Young monk, you are practicing very hard. Everyone really admires your practice! Why are you practicing so hard like this?”

Mazu replied, “I want to get enlightenment [in Sino-Korean the term “get enlightenment” is expressed “to become Buddha”].” And Mazu kept on with his strong sitting.

After a few moments, the Patriarch reached down. Picking up in one hand one of the rooftile shards that lay nearby, and grasping a rock in the other, the Patriarch began grinding them together. The scratchy-screeching grinding sound was unbearable!

Mazu could not take it any longer. “Master, what are you doing?”

The Master replied, “I’m rubbing the tile to make it a mirror.”

Mazu said, “That’s crazy! How can you make a mirror by rubbing a tile?”

The Master answered, “Just like you! If I can’t make a mirror by rubbing a tile, how can you achieve buddhahood [“become Buddha”] by sitting in meditation? When you want the horse to pull its cart, should you whip the cart or the horse?” When he heard these words, according to tradition, Mazu attained enlightenment.

As a teacher, Mazu really established the style of “wild teaching” and “spontaneous methods” which you to characterize many teachers from his age to the present.

“Mazu Daoyi, in order to shake his students out of routine consciousness, employed novel and unconventional teaching methods. Mazu is credited with the innovations of using katsu (sudden shouts), keisaku (unexpected strikes with a stick), and unexpectedly calling to a person by name as that person is leaving. This last is said to summon original consciousness, from which enlightenment arises. Mazu also employed silent gestures, non-responsive answers to questions, and was known to grab and twist the nose of a disciple. Utilizing this variety of unexpected shocks, his teaching methods challenged both habit and vanity, a push that might inspire sudden kensho.” (Wikipedia)

For many years, he taught simply, “Mind is Buddha. Buddha is mind.” When some monks became attached to these teaching words, and spouted them off as if having attained their true meaning, he changed it to, “It’s not Mind, not Buddha.” The teaching was equally the same point. But in this simple phrase, he was able to throw off the scent of the fakers, jumble their expectations, and set their Great Doubt back on firmer footing. Probably the tersest expression of an entire teaching of a tradition, and its apparent — seeming! — flipping, the greatest display of the teaching not having been moved by a single hair’s-breadth while renewing its impact and power:

“Mind = Buddha; Buddha = mind.”

And when people get too attached to that:

“Not Mind. Not Buddha.”

A monk once asked Mazu why he always taught, “Mind is the Buddha.” Mazu smiled wanly and answered, “Because I want to stop the crying of a baby.” The monk then persisted, “Well, then, when the crying has stopped, what is your teaching then?” “Not Mind, not Buddha”, he replied. Sweets might be given to a child to stop the crying-mind, but when the child becomes attached to sweets, and depends on them, a compassionate parent must take them away! How amazing!

It was the late afternoon of the day before he was to pass out of this world, and Mazu was in the midst of a serious illness. The Head Monk paid a visit to his chamber. “Master Mazu, how is your condition today?”

“Sun-face Buddha, moon-face Buddha,” Mazu replied. The next morning, he passed peacefully into Nirvana. [The names of the two Buddhas are from The Scripture of the Buddha’s Names: Moon-Face Buddha manifests for an extremely short time, just one night and one day; whereas Sun-Face Buddha manifests for exponentially longer, around 1,800 years. Thus, Mazu was answering the worried monks by reassuring them of the relativity of time, of impermanence and constant change: THIS is his “true” condition, and also that of the monks and of all of us.]

Infinitely Precious Elder Brother Hwi Kwang Sunim

Ahhhhh, these moments loving the great Hwi Kwang Sunim, the esteemed Abbot of Bul Kwang Zen Temple, a prominent Korean temple located just a few cracks up the Hudson River from New York City. He is one of the monks in Korean Buddhism who I respect and love the most. I have known him for well over 20 years, and he is always a real inspiration for maintaining faith in the Buddha-way. Some know him as the ordination teacher (unsa Sunim) of the famous author and motivational speaker, Hae Min Sunim; I just think of him as a very precious elder brother with a huge, huge heart of gold, a rare wit, and a rock-solid commitment to practice, to developing the Dharma in peoples’ minds. He is also much more intellectually curious than your average Korean monk, knowing not just about Korean and Asian culture, but also familiarizing himself deeply with the teachings of all the world religions, with history, current events, and American culture and history to a degree which actually surprises me a lot of the time. He recently published a book on the teachings of the monotheistic religions, as viewed from the standpoint of the Buddha-dharma.

Sunim is regarded as one of the top Chogye Order monks in the West, officially appointed by the Order to lead its Overseas Affairs Department. He built his thriving temple at the border of my native NJ — right on the NY/NJ border — in a historic register-listed house built during the time that George Washington camped nearby during the American Revolution. Every morning, after practice, he would drive us monks five minutes over the border to a typical Jersey diner for breakfast. When I once tried to sneakily pay the bill, he seethed playfully at me, “Maybe you are near your hometown, so you think we are your guests here. But when you visit my temple near your hometown, you are my guest! You are poor monk, and you are my guest — don’t try that again! Ha ha ha ha!!” The point got across. And he drives all of the monks (and nuns) to breakfast most days of the week so that the older women would not have to come to the temple and cook for the monks in the morning, who they so worried about. They would not permit the monks and nuns to cook for themselves all the time. Even if we stayed in the temple in the morning to cook for ourselves, they would feel ashamed, and they would get up early every day and leave their families to prepare food-offerings for us. And he knew that very well. He didn’t want them to feel obligated, or take time away from their families. He is such a bodhisattva.

Most people greet Hwi Kwang Sunim with three full bows: he is perhaps the highest-ranking Korean monk in the West. Between us, it’s full-on Jersey-style, like brothers (even though I do show him formal respect in other ways). This is an expression of affection which draws gasps from the younger Korean monks when they see me greeting him so. “How can someone just grab the Abbot like that! He is very very senior monk! Is Hyon Gak Sunim crazy or just rude?” Maybe both. Definitely so.

“Good to see you again, big Brother!” At Bul Kwang Zen Temple, Tappan NY, May 2019.

Sunim reminds so many of us Western monks of our Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim: nearly everyone, after spending even just a few minutes with him, find ourselves seeing the resemblance. Appearance, attitude, massive impish belly-laugh, and even eating habits. This monk is boss. Every couple of years, he will dedicate himself to extended periods of prayer, or kido, for up to 1,000 days. That means, he does not leave the temple for three years, keeping a very strict schedule chanting several periods per day. Most times he is not doing this, he will stay in the temple for 100 days straight, driving the entire community with an intensive chanting retreat. And he has done this several times. That’s where he connects to “don’t know.” He does not do much sitting meditation: his samadhi is through consistent application in chanting. His voice is forceful, yet also soft and even sometimes plaintive (and can also reach some screech-like peaks during particularly ardent chanting sessions I have heard). A real Buddha, but of the elvish kind: very wide understanding, and also very playful, even mischievous, yet always naturally correct-correct-correct in the way Dae Soen Sa Nim would have appreciated.

He is really someone whose life and practice have seriously impacted my own: He first invited me to give talks on The Compass of Zen at his temple in 1999, and again in 2000: each time, his temple flew me over, and that enabled me to visit my aging parents during the long periods of practice in Korea. I was always grateful for that. When I left Korea, in 2009, and relocated to Europe, Sunim made sure there was some assistance for getting things started in Germany. He has always taken a great interest in my work, and is continually finding ways to help, large and small. Without him, I doubt very much that I could have endured so long, with no support from the locals, struggling to establish this community virtually out of nothing. I will always owe him a debt of fraternal gratitude.

해외 조계종 최고의 수장 중 한 분으로 공식 임명되어 조계종 해외 교구본사장 이심을 이끌었다. 정말 사랑하는 분이쇼…

일반 사람들의 아는 바러서 “혜민스님의 아버지”라고 생각 할 수도 있죠… 뇨욕 불광선원 주지이신 휘광스님. 내형님이세요..

대부분의 사람들은 이러한 한국스님한테 삼배를 올리며 인사한다. 우리 사이는, 최대의 뉴저지 스타일로 뒤에서 부터 사랑!

그는 숭산 대선사님의 많은 서양 스님들을 생각나게 합니다. 대보살이시며 덕분에 내가 이 동안 종단이나화계사 지원 전혀 없이 포교 많이 했다.

Very very 사랑합니다, 휘광스님.

Regensburg, Germany, March 2016.
With Hwi Kwang Sunim and the American monk, Dae Soeng Sunim (Carl Haycock), February 2020.
Opening Ceremony, Zen Center Regensburg, March 2016. Despite the “busy season” just before Buddha’s Birthday, Hwi Kwang Sunim flew all of the monks in the temple to Bavaria for our Opening Ceremony.
With visiting monks from Korea, May 2019.

This is Dae Soen Sa Nim. The resemblance between Hwi Kwang Sunim and him is already striking. But it is not just a physical similarity: their energy and boundless bodhisattva-heart, their absolute dedication to Dharma, and their vast open minds are also so wonderfully matched. Sometimes when I am with Hwi Kwang Sunim, I do a double-take because I notice feeling as if I am in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s general energy-field, for want of a better term.