In 29 years as a monk, most of it in Asian temples, I have had the honor to participate in Dharma assemblies like this…
…and assemblies like this:
Buddhism is a pretty vast thing.
In 29 years as a monk, most of it in Asian temples, I have had the honor to participate in Dharma assemblies like this…
…and assemblies like this:
Buddhism is a pretty vast thing.
In Haugesund, Norway, in May 2019, a student asks about attaining Zen.
I passed several retreat seasons at Jeong Hae Sah temple, on the high ridge way up above Su Dok Sah, which is my Teacher’s ancestral temple in Korea, and so my own. Su Dok Sah is the legendary home temple of Kyong Ho Sunim (鏡虛 禪師: 1849–1912) and Man Gong Sunim (滿空 禪師: 1871–1946), two of the most significant pillars of Korean Buddhism in the 20th century, and perhaps in its entire history.
On the last day of retreat, as the small community was dispersing in the ten directions until the next retreat season, a very humble and devout Korean man (and professional photographer), Jeon Jewoo, asked the temple if he could be permitted to document the end of the traditional retreat season, with his lens. After consulting with the community, the elder monk agreed. (It had never been permitted before, at least at Jeong Hae Sah.)
The man took shots of various aspects of the last day there. He later sent me these cuts, from his vast pile, documenting my leave-taking of the temple.
After this retreat, I never attended practice at Su Dok Sah ever again.
Why are all sane people changed, purified, transformed, or at least settled down from any disturbing mood, when they are out in “nature”? Why is this experience so medicinal, it appeals across cultures and times, and justly celebrated in every art that has ever been created?
Because, in nature, people sense that they are in the presence of “something” (even an experience, as “something”) which has no separate “I.” There is no ego there, whatsoever. After spending their day-to-day lives contending with the forces of other people and their compartmentalized “I”s, and constantly needing so much energy to navigate through that, nearly every hour of every single day of their lives, to be in the presence of “something” which has not one iota of anthropic mind, there is only great release, full letting go.
There is no “I” in the natural world.
And yet if you try to explain the Buddhist insight into the non-existence of “I,” people freak out or think it is some impossible concept to grasp. Something that needs retreat upon retreat stacked up to penetrate through.
But it’s as near as the front door to one’s own house. And yet — it’s even closer. It’s right where you are.
This is why, when someone would ask a persistent question, or refused to be guided toward finding an answer in themselves, in the depths of their own mind, Dae Soen Sa Nim would often say, “Go ask a tree. The tree will have a very wonderful answer for you!”
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke
(translated by Stephen Mitchell)
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
The way that Dae Soen Sa Nim used to teach would simply be impossible today. He was so direct, so striking, so cutting straight down to the point — I am sure he would have been “called out,” in the last few years, if he employed his usual laser to today’s minds as he had freedom to do with his post-6os first-generation (and Communist bloc) disciples. It would be total social/political suicide today to teach the ways he taught. He would definitely be cancelled.
The eminent meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first Western disciples, some years before he developed the revolutionary method which has become known to us as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). Some years ago, I contacted him to ask if he would contribute a Foreword to the collection of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings I was then working on, Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake. Despite his very busy schedule (and a nasty cold, I remember), he readily agreed. Such was his love and gratitude for his first Dharma teacher.
The essay he submitted tells so much about the knife-edge style that Dae Soen Sa Nim employed, back in the 70s and 80s, which I fear might be far far too “dangerous,” even offensive, to employ in today’s politically hyper-sensitive environment:
He writes: “One night, with Soen Sa Nim sitting next to me, I gave the Wednesday evening public talk at the Cambridge Zen Center. When it was over, he answered the questions. It was his way of training his students to become teachers. It was a pretty interesting and challenging training regimen. The very first question came from a young man halfway back in the audience, on the right side of the room, who, in the way he asked the question (I forget entirely what the import of it was), demonstrated a degree of psychological disturbance and confusion that caused a ripple of concern and curiosity to pass through the audience. As usually happens in such situations, many necks craned, as discreetly as possible of course, to get a look at who was speaking. Soen Sa Nim gazed at this young man for a long time, peering over the rims of his glasses. Utter silence in the room. He massaged the top of his shaven head as he continued gazing at him. Then, with his hand still massaging his head, still peering over his glasses, with his body tilted slightly forward toward the speaker from his position sitting on the floor, Soen Sa Nim said, cutting to the chase as usual: ‘You craaazy!’ Sitting next to him, I gasped, as did the rest of the room. In an instant, the tension rose by several orders of magnitude. I wanted to lean over and whisper in his ear: ‘Listen, Soen Sa Nim, when somebody is really crazy, it’s not such a good idea to say it in public like that. Go easy on the poor guy, for God’s sake.’ I was mortified. All of that transpired in my mind and probably the minds of everybody else in the room in one momentary flash. The reverberations of what he had just said were hanging in the air. But he wasn’t finished. After a silence that seemed forever, Soen Sa Nim continued: ‘. . . but . . . [another long pause] . . . you not crazy ennuffff.’ Everybody breathed a sigh of relief, and a feeling of lightness spread through the room. This interchange didn’t follow a predictable script for meeting suffering with compassion, but I felt in that moment that everyone had participated in and witnessed an enormous embrace of compassion and loving-kindness, Soen Sa Nim-style.”
Quoted from Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006)
Attaining Zen is not difficult — unless we want some complicated explanation, some understanding for our heads.
The beautiful thing about posting teaching videos on Instagram is that you are forced to a 60-second limit. It temporizes you into a mindset that you need for haiku: extremely compressed form, so that every single word counts, every single gesture or pause.
[Excerpt from a Q&A in May 2019 in Haugesund, Norway — the “Bible Belt of Norway”.]
Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say to people, “Every day, you clean your body, clean your teeth, clean your clothing. But nobody cleaning this brain! Every day, we always using using using using our mind, it becomes very dirty. So, you must clean your mind necessary — use don’t-know soap. Then you can see clear, hear clear, smell clear, taste clear, perceive clear. Everything is clear. But using don’t-know soap very important.”
Yesterday was the burial in Vilnius, Lithuania of a truly venerable Dharma sister, Myong Hae Sunim JDPS (“Ji Do Poep Sa” — Guide to the Way). She was a prominent teacher in the Kwan Um School of Zen. We practiced for several years together in Korea, at Hwa Gye Sah, in the years when Dae Soen Sa Nim was still active there. She is someone who I witnessed from her very first days entering monastic life in our tough temple culture, and now she is gone from this world.
When she first arrived in Korea, some were not so sure the Sunim could survive: Her spirit and her drive were pure and clear, but she seemed often hobbled by sickness and an unexplainable fatigue. Yet she persevered. She practiced strongly and became such a quiet force of love and compassion, always genuinely helpful to everyone. And she was blooming into such an inspiring mentor for so many. She died last August 1 in a terrible accident on her way home from leading retreat, along with her student, the driver, a mother of two.
Myong Hae Sunim was a wonderful, pure, naturally kind and considerate person, a nun of such perseverance and clarity, who spent some 20 years living and training directly under her Teacher, Zen Master Dae Kwan (Hyang Um Sunim), in Hong Kong. She practiced during the many months of the recent civil strife there, and was just recently able to commit more and more time to the Dharma work in her beloved homeland.
Myong Hae Sunim was actually due back in HK several months ago. She was not supposed to still “be” in Lithuania. The Covid lockdown left her stranded just before her scheduled departure, when she “should” have already been back in Asia. Her Teacher has profound weight gathering on her shoulders. The many months of street protests has unleashed a flood of conflict and there is great fear among many many Hong Kongers — perhaps the vast majority. (Now, just today, the New York Times reports that the biggest internet tycoon in Hong Kong has just been arrested, for criticizing the government and supporting democratization. A hero to many youth, this could drive hotter winds of fury back into the movement for democritization. “Hong Kong Tycoon Jimmy Lai Arrested Under Security Law, Bearing Out ‘Worst Fears”. https://nyti.ms/33FoMhr) There are many many minds to be guided from understandable disappointment, frustration, and rage to the Dharma, in these days when HK’s free society is now frantically caught in the clutching web of totalitarian mass surveillance, CCP-style.
And now Dae Kwan Sunim must shoulder this burden of teaching having lost the disciple who spent so many thousands of hours, right by her side. Myong Hae Sunim even learned Cantonese, overcame years of sickly weakness to become a traveller to other Zen centers to teach in other countries, and is just respected and beloved by the (mostly Chinese) Buddhists who look to this temple for a wisdom-and-help in their hot, chaotic, endlessly noisy city.
Now, with the funeral over, the best I can do is share some of Myong Hae Sunim’s teachings, and share them here. If just a few more people, coming here for others things, can connect with the purity and the clarity and the gentle, unforced wisdom of this angel-nun, then it was worthwhile.
But first, for those who don’t know her, it’s good to share this tiny snippet of her biography, which is taken from a KUSZ page:
Myong Hae Sunim, JDPS, was originally planning on becoming a Catholic nun when a friend invited her to hear a visiting Chinese Zen Master, Su Bong Sunim, in June 1993. Lithuania had recently become independent from Communism and was opening up to the world. She had never seen a Chinese person before and initially went just to meet him. But she was so moved by his message she immediately signed up to sit a three-day retreat. Myong Hae Sunim quickly realized that the Buddhist path fit her better than the Catholic one, and she began sitting retreats in Poland before finally moving to Hwa Gye Sa Temple in South Korea in 1996 to begin her monastic training. The following year, after ordaining as a nun, she moved to Hong Kong to serve at the Su Bong Zen Monastery. Myong Hae Sunim is the first Buddhist nun in Lithuania’s history, and she received inka (permission to teach) in 2016 from Zen Master Dae Kwan in Hong Kong to become a Ji Do Peop Sa. She was the guiding teacher of the Lithuanian sangha in the Kwan Um School of Zen.
Myong Hae Sunim was the guiding teacher of the Lithuanian sangha in the Kwan Um School of Zen. What a deeply costly tragic loss for them. She was their first native-born teacher, the first Buddhist nun in Lithuania, with so much experience in Chinese and Korean temples in Asia. She was beginning to make such significant contributions to helping the Lithuanian sangha there to realize their dream to build an authentic temple-experience in their land.
Even the photos from her funeral express the vast-mindedness of Myong Hae Sunim in her passing: Her funeral would be presided over by a high-ranking Catholic priest, and a procession with a large cross and chanting. Her ashes would be interred below a large traditional Lithuanian dark-wood crucifix. Yet there would also be her sangha attending in their Dharma robes, and brown kasas signifying the Precepts she kept probably since before her own birth! Yet, following the Catholic situation seamlessly, and even having some chanting happen led by a Zen monk after everything is done, this ceremony itself expressed the big-minded way of Myong Hae Sunim. Interreligious harmony supported her parents and their wishes. A prominent KUSZ teacher, Alma Potter JDPS, flew up from Vienna to attend during a raging pandemic which has caused people to avoid any flying or mixing, during a week when there are reports in the media about spikes happening in Germany and Austria. This all truly inspired me.
So, I will share some Moments from this beautiful Buddhist-Catholic flowing (thanks to her mind) and end with some video-teachings that have been captured from her short life.
Some teachings from Sunim. She did not publish any books, or do things to promote any sort of teaching-voice or profile or “position.” She was just simply and clearly “her.” A true bodhisattva, natural and kind and funny, as well.
A brief encounter with the young LA filmmaker David Andrew:
This is an outtake of a conversation several years ago:
And this, below, is the most recent — and perhaps the last — talk recorded with Sunim speaking English. It is a ZOOM call with Zen students in Kansas, which was held 40 days before she died. She replies to questions on life and death, practice, and she tells how she came to practice in the first place. This video is priceless for those who do not speak Lithuanian to understand her great soul and natural good grace and joy:
This is how I will always remember her: this soft humanity, unshakeable natural clarity and truth, utter sincerity and compassion for others.
Here is a translation from the most recent newspaper article on her passing. It has teachings for all of us. I seriously debated strongly against posting this. And I decided to leave out these facts from a post that celebrates a soul and a Dharma of such rarity. But then after listening to her teachings on this ZOOM call with practitioners during lockdown, where she muses on death, it seemed there is some powerful irony in these facts which give new light to her words flowing from Dharma. And so they are added in, to give her teaching-words their context and sense:
On Tuesday, we wrote about a country-wide accident in the Plungė district, near the village of Bereniai, during which, as it turned out, two Vilnius residents, Zen Buddhist teacher Myong Hae Sunim (Loreta Kairytė) and her companion Rasa, were killed. Police were then just figuring out who was sitting at the wheel of the Mercedes Benz S320, which had provoked the fatal accident. Soon the work of the officials bore fruit. It was determined that the culprit of the accident was a 20-year-old Plungiškės native, who blew 1.78ml into the Breathalyzer at the scene of the accident.
As we have already written, the disaster happened late on Saturday evening [August 1], when, on the Mažeikiai – Plungė – Tauragė road, near the Bereniai village, in front of the Mercedes A S2020, the Toyota Auris, being pressured, decided to bend to the right. This difficult-to-understand maneuver failed, with the Mercedes bouncing into its right rear-fender and pushing it into the opposite lane of a Scania truck driven by a 1970-born man.
Suddenly the unavoidable turn proved fatal. Both women in the car were killed on the spot. The truck driver escaped with bruising to his legs.
The ill-fated Toyota Auris was driven by a woman born in the 1970s, Rasa U. The second victim was difficult to identify. From the extremely short hair and clothes similar to men, it was speculated that it was the husband of the driver.
But in the end it turned out that this deceased was the first Lithuanian to acquire the right to teach Zen Buddhism, Myong Hae Sunim (Loreta Kairytė, born in 1973). Kwan Um Zen School in Lithuania was one of the first to announce this on Facebook, leaving a post on Facebook: “We know that everything is temporary, but sometimes this truth reaches us in the most painful way … Rasa. Let’s help them along the way by chanting Namu Amita Bul. “
It is reported that Myong Hae Sunim has lived in Hong Kong, at a center of Zen Buddhism, for several years. She had come to Lithuania for half a year, where she conducted trainings. She was planning to return to Hong Kong again soon, but the disaster ended her life.
Five people were driving in the Mercedes that caused the accident. After the accident, two of them remained at the scene, the other three fled as a frightened beast. The other two were drunk. The driver, born in 1993, was found to have a 2.76 blood alcohol content, and his three-year-younger companion had 1.78 per mille in the breathalyzer. According to preliminary data, both men are residents of Plungė district.
The next day, Sunday, the ones who had fled also presented themselves to the Plungė District Police Commissariat. They explained someone else was driving the Mercedes, but were in no real hurry to reveal exactly who was at the wheel of the car.
In order to gather the most accurate information possible, the group that was driving together night was divided into separate rooms, and they were interrogated by different officials. The investigation into the accident is being carried out by the Road Police Service of the Klaipėda County Chief Police Commissariat.
After lengthy interrogations and intensive work by officials, the circumstances of the horrific accident began to become clear. The suspect has now been identified. He is a 30-year-old Plungiškis who blew 1.78ml into the police alcohol meter at the scene. Additionally, he has no driver’s license.
The suspect refused the charges. He was remanded in custody on a written oath not to leave and to register with the police twice a week. According to the ongoing pre-trial investigation, the perpetrator of the accident faces up to ten years in prison.
Finding out who was driving the Mercedes was not easy for officials. At first, the group was unanimous in silence. And what they eventually did tell officials was all different.
The culprit was brought to light after experts took DNA samples from the Mercedes driver’s seat and steering wheel. This betrayed the culprit. The data available to the officials were also confirmed by the confession of the said thirty year-old.
It was also found out that the accident car was bought on that same fateful evening. The guy bought the car in Palanga. The group of friends decided to “dirty up” such a fine purchase. And after that, thoroughly drunk, they flew home to Plungė. But in their way there were these women from Vilnius.
After being impacted from behind, the car in front of them was shoved under a large truck coming strong in the opposite lane. As a result, the car was completely destroyed. The women traveling in it were only pulled with metal clamps by firefighters using hydraulic equipment.
So, this is how it ends, for all of us: In an instant, at the short end of a sudden chain of ignorance and distraction, probably fueled by the tiring juice of testosterone and its endlessly thrill-seeking sequelae. Years and years and years of unshakeable practice, adapting to strange new cultures and traditions, are snuffed out in the instant of one man’s misplaced neurochemical confusion.
People sometimes feel that the Buddha is being too deterministic when he claimed, “This life is dukkha [“unsatisfactory”, sometimes translated as “suffering”].” No, he was not being too strong. We have only gotten good at papering over the wincing pain of existing — or desperately grasping the too-short fragments of joy and satisfaction that we might be fortunate enough to discover — so that the Buddha’s words seem like such unnecessary kill-joy. But I think of Myong Hae Sunim’s parents, alone in Vilnius, their precious only-child having been robbed from them by some deluded youths out for a joyride…
Though I felt deep existential pangs from as early as I can remember, they were made profoundly deeper by the experience of losing a cousin, one summer one, in a car crash in Wellesley. That crash was also caused by someone drunk on alcohol and some bent emotion of the moment. Kneeling in front of Paul’s coffin several days later, gazing directly on the face I had known so well — his beautiful facial moles which gave evidence of his connection through his father to my own mother! — I realized that this life was not going to be designed for any sort of abiding happiness. His death turned me irrevocably toward looking inside; Myong Hae Sunim’s passing reminds me to further my efforts to trust what is seen there.