On the Ninth Year of the Nirvana of Zen Master Bong Cheol (소백산의 욕쨍이 도인, 봉철스님)

Today is the ninth anniversary of the passing into Nirvana of the legendary Zen Master Bong Cheol (1933-2011). I often say that Bong Cheol Sunim was one of the “three Great Teachers” — Dae Soen Sa Nim (Zen Master Seung Sahn), Shodo Harada Rōshi, and him — who I had the extraordinary good karma not only to practice with, but to have very close contact with and some lifelong direct instruction (Harada Rōshi shortest of all, by far). Dae Soen Sa Nim and Harada Rōshi were both very strong, but mostly expressed through very strong and clear use of the “correct”, traditional teaching-forms of Zen temple training. They were both innovators with form — and in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s case, truly revolutionary — but they stayed fairly close to established styles of how teachers and students interacted and explored the infinite Dharma together, with their own unique adaptations also playing a role in the training. Form and a certain level of organization (especially with Dae Soen Sa Nim) were always-important teaching tools.

Bong Cheol Sunim operated from the polar opposite approach: he was a lone-wolf, never giving formal Dharma talks, avoiding public appearances. He brewed his own fruit-wine at home, smoked like a chimney, cursed like a sailor, drove his car like a maniac, screamed the Dharma at anyone who was too thick-headed to get it by usual means, ate whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, gleefully made references to genitalia for both Dharma and scorn, openly accepted the bribes of visiting politicians (and political monks) only to turn around and give the ill-gained gifts and cash to less-endowed monk/nun-practitioners. The list goes on and on. And yet, for all his storied wildness, he also re-developed Korea’s ancient tea culture traditions after they had largely died out under Japanese cultural domination in the 20th century; he encouraged and inspired artists both monastic and lay, since he had such a well-tuned eye for the inner meaning of aesthetics and their effect on consciousness; his genius produced delicious, complexly-layered recipes that some of his lay disciples parlayed into very successful restaurants; and he oversaw the construction and renovation of a good number of truly beautiful temples and hermitages. Sometimes, monks who wished to build a temple somewhere would first get him to visit to “perceive” the land, the pung and the su (wind and water: fengshui). I am still digesting his teachings, even ten years after he left his body on the side of the mountains and merged with either heaven or hell, I’m not sure which. (Knowing him, he has already fully transcended both!)

Bong Cheol Sunim was one of the most fearsome Zen masters of modern-age Korea. He lived alone, at a small hermitage deep in the So Baek Sahn Mountains, in a mud hermitage which he had constructed with his own hands. Monks in Korea would speak about him with a kind of awe, mixed with fear: many wished to visit his hermitage to present their practice, at the conclusion of their 90-day retreats, for example, or to receive his teachings. But they were all deathly afraid of his completely unpredictable response. If he thought that a nun/monk had attained some genuine insight, he would encourage them with it. If he saw that some monk or nun (or layperson) was not correct in their practice, or had some mistaken view, he would let the person know — with humor, and with a sharpness which always cut straight through to the practitioner’s deepest psychological mechanisms. If he was advising a monk (or nun), and they persisted in some weakness or mistake about which Sunim had previously instructed them, he would heap a torrent of abuse on their heads. When he shouted, he could shout with a tsunami of force; he cursed colorfully, always causing blushing and laughter at the sheer texture and inventive power of his foul language; and he was completely unafraid to unceremoniously kick visitors out of his hermitage if he sensed any pride or puffed-up attitude.

One day, I will write down some of the stories of our years together. He wrote no books himself, and nor did his monastic students ever compile a volume of his teachings for public consumption. One of his Korean lay disciples published two small books containing Sunim’s statements, observations, and wild actions, several years before Sunim passed into Nirvana. In those books are several stories and dialogues that reference some of our interactions together. By the time the books were published, Sunim’s eyesight had grown too problematic to make reading a comfortable or satisfying activity. He was curious, though, to know if the stories and teachings recorded there were faithful to what had actually happened. So, over the course of several days, I read every single line of each of the books to him. We sat there in candlelight, legs crossed. His elbows were on both knees, leaning forward, or he would lean back. His head was wreathed in cigarette smoke, eyes closed or just dimly present. From time to time he nodded his approval at the recollection of basically everything that had been recorded.

One day, I would like to have the time to translate these two slim volumes into English.

Interestingly, the last photo we have together is a photo of us sleeping together. (Sunim would just love that kind of comment, and there would definitely be all sorts of hilarious references to the dimensions of American and Asian genitalia!) He had grown very frail, and the cancer which was consuming him in his last year left him perpetually cold, unable to warm himself. He needed to sleep several times during the day. Even though the floor in his hermitage was heated, he still could not keep enough heat — his body fat was reduced to something like zero. So, after he fell asleep, I would climb under the blankets to warm him. I sort of semi-spooned him, and made sure the blankets stayed up to his chin, since in his sleep he often moved them off if his body was wracked with some discomfort.

I didn’t really get any sleep there, in that situation: I just stayed for the hours that he seemed most uncomfortable. I would ease out from under the blankets when I sensed that he had entered a level of deeper, less disturbed sleep. One evening, his kitchenmaster came to his room to deliver some warm Chinese medicine, and she snapped this picture:

스승과 제자: 이번 생의 마지막 우리의 만남.

This is the infamous Korean monk as very very few people actually saw him — at the end of his strength, no longer cursing people out and using bawdy, totally non-PC terms to address everyone from the temple Bosalnims to some visiting crew of high-ranking army officers or the political VIPs who would often drop by, since they knew his opinions were respected by so many people. How completely unlike the image that Korean monks had of him — his nickname, after all, was “the wild tiger of So Baek Sahn Mountain.” (Although he was just as widely referred to as “the Foul-Mouthed Monk of So Baek Sahn Mountain”!) This picture was snapped during my last visit to him before he died.

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It was one of the great honors of my life to be able to practice under his furious direction for seven years, in the last few years of the life of my primary teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, and beyond some.

The very first physical meeting I had with Bong Cheol Sunim, he beat me up. It happened on the side of a road, when I was being driven from Mu Sang Sah to his temple in winter of 2001 by a nun he knew, expressly for the purpose of finally meeting him. Our cars had met on an unpaved single-lane country dirt-path below his temple, and he came at our vehicle with a surge of speeding, when any other cars in that situation should slow down and decide which one should pass. He came revving right at us! It was a game of completely unexpected chicken — the nun’s driver at first did not know it was him. Maybe some drunk farmer who’s had a bad day? He stopped, just a meter or two from our front fender. Our car stopped short with a screech. The nun got out, and went to his window. She seemed to be saying some words inside but laughing powerfully. An arm reached out of her car and grabbed her robes near the throat, shaking her playfully. She clapped like a kid, and pointed back to our car while saying something.

Suddenly, he burst out of his Jeep — the abrupt opening of his door basically tossed the heavyset (actually, fat) nun almost to the ground. He ran at the car where I was still seated, strapped into seatbelt, yelling my name interspersed with curses! He was hurling all sorts of criticisms and abuse at me. I tried to emerge, but he just ripped me out the rest of the way, instead! He boxed my ears and punched me in the chest. I wouldn’t have known what to do until I saw right into his face, for the first time, and saw a soul completely unlike anything I had met before or since. Completely joyous eyes (made more self-joyous, it seemed, by his own delicious cursing), a wide, generous mouth revealing teeth grated from age and too much smoking. He was shorter than me, and thin — but, oh, the fantastic energy, seemingly emitted from every pore of his crazed, beautific frame. His punches and slapping of the side of my head were strong, but it immediately felt to be all in the manner of some apex lion clubbing his cubby into shape with the playful boxing of his lethal paws! I couldn’t understand a word he said — just the curses sounded familiar, stuff I’d picked up from countless taxi rides in Seoul — due to his thick South Kyungsang accent.

“We must eat dinner together!” he shouted. He dragged me by the wrist into his Jeep, and shooed the nun back into her car. I had no idea what was happening. The nun protested that she didn’t know the way to this location, on these obscure back-country roads. Kun Sunim screamed at the nun to just follow him. Then he just zoomed straight off — his engine was still running — in a cloud of dirtroad-dust before the nun had a chance to back-and-turn, back-and-turn, back-and-turn her car around on this very narrow mountain pathway, and gain the momentum to catch us.

I looked back several times to see if the nun was near. My backpack was in her car, and it contained all my overnight essentials and some things I was bringing back to my own temple. But she was nowhere to be seen.

Meanwhile, I was in the front seat with a crazed hijacker. We went blasting through rice paddies, slaloming madly through the rolling hills at the bottom of So Baek Sahn Mountains. He was yelling all sorts of teachings and warnings to me about “fame” and “temple life”. I was not sure what was going on. Who is this strange maniac? Why am I in this car? Where is he taking me? How do they let him have a driver’s license? What are these Chinese characters scribbled in thick magic marker on the felt ceiling of this Jeep? Why the cigarette ashes all over the centre console, the dashboard, the stick-shift, the floor?

And when — I thought — do I get to meet the great Zen Master Bong Cheol, to whose temple I was being driven only some 10 minutes before?

Careening madly down a long, lolling road, he abruptly screeched the car to a near-halt, and shot our pinball into a 90-degree angle drive-path which led to a small temporary shed in an open rice field. To the left stood an ancient tiled-roof shrine structure — really just a roofing over some sort of rock or statue. Skidding the Jeep to a halt right in front of the shrine, he jumped out. I was still frozen in terror. He charged around to my side of the car before I realised it, flung open the door, and yanked me off my seat. He dragged me by the fabric on my shoulder, then got behind me and pushed in the direction he was heading.

Suddenly, his whole screeching energy dropped into a natural silence and depth. He removed the frayed baseball cap from his head. I smelled incense, suddenly, wafting from under the shed-like structure. It was an ancient stone Buddha, which had been venerated in this place for over 1000 years. He did three standing bows in front of it, with full attention, hat in hand. It was the first stillness I experienced about him! He was pensive, respectful, awed. I later learned that he stopped at this spot many hundreds of times in his day-to-day drives through the countryside. Yet this visit seemed like the awe-struck experience of a first-time pilgrim over-brimmed with faith and its lightness and weight.

This interlude did not last long: Suddenly, the cap was back on his head and he began yelling again towards me — some history stuff, the name of some illustrious monk who had installed this Buddha here during which ancient king’s reign based on the statement in what particular sutra passage. Some tens of thousands of monks had congregated right on this spot. There had been some significant pilgrimage spot here. Strong practice was done here. It was a renowned community.

And now all that remained was just this tiled-roof shed, and a Buddha that people drove past without a shred of care for, staring into their smartphones as they drove.

Meanwhile, a set of chubby nuns came running out of the shed-house several meters away. They ran giggling toward him, fastening their nicest robes over their working clothes as they ran closer. “Kunnnn Su ~ iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiim!” They were ecstatic, giggling like children.

I went into trained performance-mode, ready for the kind of formalistic presentation common in the Korean monastic community, among Sunim’s. But he was already grabbing me by the shoulder, urging my frame back toward the car. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” he shouted. The nuns accosted him midway between shrine and car, offering smiles and bows and sheepish laughter as he tried to schlep one of the most famous monks in their tradition into his idling, mud-splashed Jeep. (And this image itself does not mean anything unless one has experience in Korean temple life: Any monk of Kun Sunim’s age or stature in the Order would be driven to anything in a clean car. Some even had things like the Korean equivalent of Lincoln Continentals or Cadillac. Sunim was a Jeep, and it was never, ever washed.)

He piled playful curses on their heads. He dug into his pocket and pressed them with several bills, a donation to the shrine (and to these protectors). He remained with them long enough to take about two long puffs and exhalations on his never-ending cigarette. In a flash, I was hauled back into the car. The nun who had driven me from Mu Sang Sah Temple to meet him was just now lumbering into the long driveway to the shrine as we sped out. He stooped at her driver’s window, shouted some orders and curses, and we lurched off, back on to this winding country road. I still had no idea where I was being taken. But it didn’t matter.

Within minutes, we’d arrived at some country restaurant which was run by a Sunim’s most devoted lay student. This man was a former mid-level gangster who ran the rackets at the biggest nightclubs in Seoul in the 1970s and 80s. I was told never to ask if he had killed anyone. (That request came from Kunsunim, who also told me the number “might be less than 5.”) He was a tough, tough guy for whom life in the city had become, shall we say, a bit “complicated.” He was in some exile in the mountains, running a restaurant based around some rustic recipes that Bong Cheol Sunim himself has conceived. That night, we ate several dishes of Sunim’s invention — even though Kunsunim, himself, never cooked. They were just combinations that appeared in his consciousness as a result of meditation. Yet people came from as far away as Seoul to enjoy these dishes. It was some of the most delicious food I ever ate in Korea.

That was the first meeting’s first 30 minutes. There are many, many more stories to tell!

No matter the number of guests visiting him at his Hermitage – – and it was often a veritable stream of visitors, some days – – he would often disappear from the room to go to the bathroom, and not return for several hours. When we looked, he was just sitting somewhere, completely immovable. He could remain like that in meditation, for hours on end. Completely not moving. Even despite consuming several bottles of rice wine, he would suddenly just start sitting in meditation in his room, and not get up. I think it was also a way of ridding himself of unnecessary visitors, or boorish VIPs who would bring their own friends to experience Sunim’s fantastically wild and unorthodox ministry.

The day this photo was taken, above, I had informed him that I had just recently received inka from Zen Master Seung Sahn in a public ceremony at Hwa Gye Sah Temple in Seoul. Bong Cheol Sunim asked me about the “dharma combat” — the questions that were given, and the replies that I had to given to each one. (He already knew about Dae Soen Sa Nim’s certification style.)

Sunim was genuinely pleased with all the answers. He then asked to see the traditional “certificate of Inka” that is given by a master to certify his student’s awakening and authorisation to teach. This handwritten calligraphy means – – in the original Korean Zen tradition – – that you are a dharma successor (though perhaps not yet announced to represent the full lineage). Getting inka, in Asia, means that you are what we call a “Zen master,” in the West.

When I unrolled the rice paper calligraphy scrawled with the Chinese character poem given by my Teacher, and spread it out before Bong Cheol Sunim, he read through it and laughed and slapped me on the back several times. At first, he was praiseworthy, even proud: “Good! Good! You attained your Master’s dharma.”

Later, he took us all out to a very big lunch together. He called out several monks and nuns to join us for this event. True to form, it was a classic Bong Cheol Sunim lunch – – everything imaginable on the table, and all kinds of things were eaten and drunk, in great great quantity. He was in an especially good mood! He kept shouting to everyone in the room, “Seung Sahn approves Hyon Gak Shithead’s dharma! Hyon Gak is Buddha! Hyon Gak is Buddha!! Everybody have a drink!” During the meal, he kept ordering his ex-gangster disciple to “Call So-and-so over here!” and “Tell So-so Sunim to get his ass over here to bow to this Yankee Fucker!” He was really in very high-style!

We all returned to the temple. While we enjoyed his service of handpicked teas, he suddenly arose and went to the bathroom. He did not come back for about two hours. In that time, this photo was taken secretly when a nun crept silently into his meditation room.

Instead of the great legendary figure of hard drinking, wildly cursing, intentionally yet naturally offensive expedient means, giving day-long dharma talks usually with a cigarette burning between his fingers while sloshing hot tea into our bowls in his little hermitage in the mountains, there was just his commonplace, every-moment mountain-monk old-goat samadhi. We experienced it in the everyday, 2 AM morning practice at his Hermitage, or walking with him in the mountains when he would suddenly splunk himself down on a rotten tree stump to meditate, or as he wildly drove like a homicidal madman through the winding mountain hills back to the temple after a major meal and drinking session, screaming something to us in the backseats about practice above the roar of his Jeep engine, or in pockets of solitary practice during the day, when he would quietly disappear from a group of visitors to return to his meditation cushion in the main dharma hall, leaving the guests to get the message themselves and finally disperse quietly without even a farewell from him.

As usual, the houseguests realized they could not wait out with him, and they eventually drifted off, back to their homes.

That evening, after evening meditation, after all the guests had dispersed, Kunsunim asked again to see the “certificate of Inka.“ 

Stupidly, I took it out again, and as I started to open it on the floor, he reached to grab it. But an edge of it was still between my fingers, and I could pull it away in one swipe, lifting it above and behind my head. I don’t know why I pulled it away, just in time. It was a completely spontaneous response. But something in me had a sense. To this day, I don’t know why…

He barked at me, “Give that to me! You fucking this-and-that, give it now!”

“What’s going on, Kunsunim?”

“Give me that fucking piece of toilet paper! You fucking shit…!”

“…But Kunsunim…?!”

“Maybe this piece of paper will make you stop your practice. You will forget your meditation! You might spend your whole life speaking from dead words of an old enlightenment experience. I worry about this if anyone gets ‘certification.’” His eyes were large, and sincere: he was truly worried about the effect of any kind of “authorisation” on my practice. Better never to receive anything like that. “It’s poison!” he shouted. He chased me around the room to get it out of my hands. And actually, I could very well have given it to him. But I had never had a piece of writing with Dae Soen Sa Nim’s signature, in his calligraphic hand. I did not own even one calligraphy from him! So, more than authorisation of any kind, this paper was my own possession of a writing in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s own hand — his brush hand — and I treasured having it. I somehow got the calligraphy back to my room, folded carefully, and placed back into the nice embroidered pouch, which I stored deep, deep under a bookshelf until the moment I would leave his temple for another appointment.

The next morning, at breakfast, Kunsunim never mentioned a thing. He muttered a little, under his breath. But I think it was the dwindling growl of that apex lion, reminding the growing cub that they still faced a dangerous world, and maybe a little fear would be their better guide.

That was the kind of monk he was. That is why his teaching completed and enriched the true guidance I was getting from Dae Soen Sa Nim. Both were extremely strong teachers, uncompromising in their focus, operating from 180 degree polar opposite styles. Both were brutal in their methods, yet both were just empty, unmoving bodhisattvas.

Three bows to you, Kunsunim, and to great Seung Sahn Dae Soen Sa Nim. And to Shodo Harada Roshi.

And don’t worry, Kunsunim – – I have torn up that “certificate” innumerable times, in my heart. Far from his worst fears, it has not (often) puffed me up to believe its statement is any more significant than the true right-now sound of that wind of that wind outside the window, the smell of the incense in my room in Regensburg as I write this, the clack-clack-clack sound of these fingers pecking on keyboard.

Thank you for your teaching, my Teacher.

The “Tiger of So Baek Sahn Mountain,” in his youth.
As I was leaving Korea.

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At the end of Bong Cheol Kunsunim’s life, we began to have a deep and painful struggle: He had been pushing me, for years, to accept from him custody of the temple which he had built with his own hands. I was, at that time, trying to extricate myself from the painful complications of the life that had grown up around my public teaching activities in Korea: the empty fame, the “in-demand” price that had been put on having me appear at events; the wining and dining I had received sans cesse as someone who had been promoting this revival of interest in Korean Buddhism, in the power and necessity of meditation in this go-go hyper-modernizing Korean society. I wanted out. I needed out. Partial paralysis had literally knocked down any of the last bodhisattvic rationales for staying and thinking that there was something to continually contribute to Korean Buddhism’s development, going forward. And the politics — the politics I had been dragged into by so many who had seen the “usefulness” of having this “celebrated” mountain-practitioner part of whatever effort they were needing to promote. Ugh.

So, even some years before Dae Soen Sa Nim passed, in 2004, I had already been imagining ways that I could tunnel out of the full-Korean scene and the mess of painful celebrity I had made there, unwittingly. And yet Bong Cheol Sunim had another idea for me: He told me that he wanted to give his temple — and all of its prime mountain land, so isolated from everything — to me. He felt that I would develop his humble construction into a center for strong and true practice. People who’d known him for many decades longer than I were stunned by his decision. Coming from the Confucian tradition, they thought it to be automatic that he would seek to transfer his life’s last great temple project into the hands of his immediate official monastic-disciples. I was a foreigner, which made it so out-of-mind for everyone, I suppose. And I had not know Sunim for more than 5 or 6 years, and did not live long periods with him. And on top of that, through media and Korean Buddhism’s small-pond environment, it was such commonplace knowledge in so many households — even non-Buddhists — that there was this young, enthusiastic monk whose faith in Dharma was kindled by one specific Korean monk who had spent years teaching in the West: Seung Sahn Sunim. I was in a completely separate “monk family” from Bong Cheol Sunim. It was actually regarded as a kind of Confucian “shame” that the father would, in effect, so symbolically “disinherit” his sons. And though some whispered this apparent shame, Sunim bragged about this view: “My students are shit! They all became office-monks, politician monks. This one is a loser, and that one is a loser.”

It was a stunning honour to be the recipient of this honour from him. Yet, I wanted “out” of being this celebrity in Korea, and there was no mountain under which I could hide: we were on the very cusp of the YouTube world, with the invention of smartphones just looming 3 years over the horizon. Everything was way, way too interconnected already in Korean society — there was no way to stay here and really maintain a clear, stable, authentic meditation rhythm.

Several of my last visits with him were tense affairs. He would tell me to “sign the papers” — accept formal ownership of the temple, the land, and several other pieces of extraordinary mountain land which he had envisioned constructing isolated ascetic huts on, if he had the time and the strength. I answered that I would be transitioning to the West, probably to Europe: To accept this honour would tie me ever more concretely to involvement and activity in Korea. “No it won’t!” he would bark back. “You only keep name on papers and move to Europe as you planned. Only put your student there in the temple, and come back once a year to give a Dharma talk. No problem!” But I knew it would not be so: Kunsunim was not as intimate with the force of “fame” or “celebrity” in the modern world, with digitised information traded on-demand. There would always be some promotional or organisational force tugging me back into the crosshairs which I had constructed from my misguided Dharma-enthusiasm.

The meetings grew testy, visit to visit. When I would call from Europe, Sunim seemed not interested to receive the call. He had never been this way before. I even detected a kind of sullenness” on his end. I was too spun around with work and continuing movement and travel that I could not pick up his intuitions with grater clarity than I should have.

“Sign the papers, you big-nose Yankee shit!” he would yell at me — even in front of others. In the Confucian system, I was perceived to be rudely defying the heartfelt wishes of a venerated elder in his dying throes. It was excruciating to not accept: the whole heart opened out to this man with a love I could not be permitted to feel — so bodily, so personally — even to my root-teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim.

I refused. Again and again and again. “Kunsunim [Great Monk], I am going to Europe. No more ties in Korea!”

“Only sign papers. You are then the Zen Master here in name-only. You come and go as you like. Whole temple supports you, even in Europe! Just give one Dharma talk a year, you shit! Buddha’s Birthday, you motherfucking guy.”

But I knew Korea. I knew the especially insidious tentacles of this especially insidious cultural mindset. Agreeing to even one comma of things would have meant fetters for the rest of my days.

One day, during my last visits to Korea before his death, his closest local lay disciple pulled me aside after one of our classic meals together, while Kunsunim sat off by himself having a post-meal smoke, “Hyon Gak Sunim, please listen to me. All practicing people know the famous story about Bong Cheol Sunim rejecting inka from his own Teacher, the legendary Jun Kang Kunsunim. This was one of the most consequential Zen masters of modern Korean Buddhist history — and our Sunim refused his inka. So, everyone knows how much he loves you and respects you — he always praises you to everyone who visits him. It’s like father to son. As teacher, he will not give you inka on a paper — he rejected that method with his own teacher. Instead, he wants to give you this temple that he built, and the mountain: this is his inka. Everybody understands it this way. Please, accept the temple.” I was silent. There was just nothing to say to such sentiments — it was all so undeserved, such love and such care and trust. The layman ended the talk with words that pierced to the soul: “If you do not accept this temple from him, it will break his heart. Please do not let him die with broken heart.”

His senior lay students gathered one day when I was with him, and when he went off to rest for a few hours, they applied the screws: I would receive the temple, to give him happiness. And then I could pass the temple’s legal status off to whoever I chose, especially my own disciple, a young Korean monk.

And that is how things stand today: having inherited one of the truly exceptional wild practicing places remaining in Korea’s always-urbanizing topography, I passed it directly into the hands of a young Korean monk. But that transfer was made after dear Kunsunim died — at least, so that he could not scream at me one more time with curses and threats.

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