Meditation Teachers, Behaving Badly


A great modern Tibetan meditation master recently described the difference between the appearances we expect from people functioning “normally” in polite society, and the boundary-busting work of a real Dharma teacher — and how those expectations often become mixed up with one another:

By and large, human beings tend to prefer to fit in to society by following accepted rules of etiquette and being gentle, polite, and respectful. The irony is that this is also how most people imagine a spiritual person should behave. When a so-called dharma practitioner is seen to behave badly, we shake our heads over his/her audacity at presenting herself as a follower of the Buddha.

Yet such judgments are better avoided, because to “fit in” is not what a genuine dharma practitioner strives for.

Think of [the great tantric meditation master] Tilopa [988–1069]*, for example. He looked so outlandish that if he turned up on your doorstep today, you probably would refuse to let him in. And you would have a point. He would most likely be almost completely naked; if you were lucky, he might be wearing some kind of G-string; his hair would never have been introduced to shampoo; and protruding from his mouth would quiver the tail of a live fish. What would your moral judgment be of such a being? “Him! A Buddhist?” This is how our theistic, moralistic, and judgmental minds work. Of course, there is nothing wrong with morality, but the point of spiritual practice, according to the vajrayana teachings, is to go beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Khyentse Rinpoche (b. 1961)

“To go beyond all our concepts, including those of our morality.” How dangerous are those words, so easy to imagine yet near impossible to attain with any impeccability. Who is really willing to do this, in the work of practice and waking up? Who, in these days, would risk taking themself to the edge with a teacher — and maybe beyond? Who would enter what the ancient Zen kong-an [koan] describes as “Taking one more step from the top of a 100-meter flagpole?”

I was beaten beyond any concepts in the So Baek Sahn Mountains of Korea, while not yet an old monk, by a genuinely awakened mad court jester of a Zen master during the days of a frigid winter Kyol Che intensive retreat. Bong Cheol Sunim was either a demon who was destroying Korean Buddhism, or else one of the great awakened ones of the nation’s 1,700 year-old tradition. It wasn’t a smooth ride when living with such a crazy wisdom teacher.

Back during those crazy years of mountain-practice with his pirate-like Dharma activity (during which time, for example, when he would run out of pocket-money for eating, he would drive us to a financially well-endowed temple and honk his car horn furiously until someone came out and placated him with a fat wad of cash, at least so that he would shoo away). This was vintage Bong Cheol Sunim, one of the great Zen masters of modern Korea, or perhaps any age there. (Again, the jury is still out on this matter.)

For him, though, amidst all the mayhem and crazy testing, he was always driving us “beyond all our concepts, including those of morality.” Screaming some Dharma talk while aiming his car on winding winding back-country mountain roads slithering under the front bumper at 90-100 km/hr, slaloming white-knuckled back to the hermitage deep inside So Baek Sahn Mountains, having just concluded some dinner meeting with his local cadre of monks and various restaurant owners and professors and law enforcement folks professing their fealty to him like a Father (really), he would continue the Dharma talk in the car shouting in my left ear grabbing my lapel area for emphasis, just one hand on the wheel, often smoking and using the window control up and down as his ashtray.

Bong Cheol Sunim was always destroying what people thought Buddhist practice should be, and raising it back through a constant, unrelenting baptism by fire. In this, he always reminded us of the words in So Sahn Dae Sa’s 500 year-old classic The Mirror of Zen:

  • [from Wikipedia]:
    As advised by [his teacher] Matangi, Tilopa started to work at a brothel in Bengal for a prostitute called Dharima as her solicitor and bouncer. During the day, he was grinding sesame seeds for his living. During a meditation, he received a vision of Vajradhara and, according to legend, the entirety of mahamudra was directly transmitted to Tilopa. After receiving the transmission, Tilopa meditated in two caves, and bound himself with heavy chains to hold the correct meditation posture. He practiced for many years and then met the mind of all buddhas in the form of Diamond Holder Vajradhara. He is considered the grandfather of todays Kagyu Lineage. Naropa, his most important student, became his successor and carried and passed on the teachings.

Zen Master Seung Sahn’s Great Dharani Practice (1)


A fascinating snippet about Dae Soen Sa Nim’s (Zen Master Seung Sahn) personal practice in the midst of his busy, daily life, as told by the Kwan Um School of Zen teacher Zen Master Hae Kwang (Stanley Lombardo):

Once, before a retreat in Boulder, I asked him what he did when he sat. He told me he recited the Great Dharani over and over, very fast, one repetition per breath. “Then your mind is like a washing machine on spin cycle, moving very fast. All the dirty water goes out, but the center is not moving.” The Great Dharani (or Dharani of Great Compassion) is a very long mantra—about 450 syllables. I asked him if he actually pronounced, sub-vocally, every syllable. He said he perceived each syllable, moment to moment. He was fond of the notion that in Buddhist psychology moments of perception go by at about the same fraction-per-second rate that frames of film must be projected in order to create the illusion of motion.

Quoted in [emphasis mine]

Reply to a Reader: On Zen and the Use of the “Why?”



Hello Hyon Gak Sunim, I wanted to ask you about the why questions. Up until recently I used to enjoy answering the why questions that would pop-up in my head, during unpleasant emotions and thoughts. When an unpleasant emotion appear, or unpleasant thought would appear, I would ask why. I would get an answer from which I learned a lot about me and a lot of my conditioning and beliefs that controlled my life. Lately I don’t like answering them. Answering is not interesting me. What should I do?


Thank you very much for your letter.

In your letter, you say that you “used to enjoy answering the why questions that would pop up in my head.” You said that, from this way of practicing or watching, you were able to “get an answer from which I learned a lot of my conditioning and the beliefs that controlled my life.” 

So, this kind of practice is a kind of baseline mindfulness practice, a watching. It’s helpful to do this. But it is not Zen. It is an analysis or search for understanding new things about yourself, but it cannot really be said to be the practice of asking “What am I?” It is not full-on deep-question Zen. It will not lead to complete attainment of your True Nature.

Zen is not about understanding. It is not a form of analysis, nor should it produce any kind of better “understanding” about oneself. That understanding which comes is a by-product, if you will, of the search into don’t-know, the limitless, borderless place before “understanding” appears. But Zen is not there: Zen is looking into your before-thinking mind.

So, you can use one knife very different ways, and get very different results. Likewise, the way of looking into this existential “what?” (or, maybe, “why?”) can be used in various ways. Psychotherapy uses the “Why?” to dig at important strata or memory, and relationship, and emotional patterning. Certain forms of counselling also provide “understanding” by peeling away layers of ignorant or one-sided thinking. That’s wonderful.

In Zen, we should not use this “Why?” for understanding the memory-“I” or psychology-“I” or gender-“I” or social-“I”, but to attain our most fundamental nature. To sit there and attain that there is NOT a separate “I” or self, there is also nothing to understand — this is the eventual depth of effort in Zen meditation. “No attainment, with nothing to attain,” as the Heart Sutra says. Everything, right now, is moment: unmoving, eternal moment. This is the place of no-I. This is the point of Zen.

s the ancient kong-an (koan) urges, in Zen we are taking one more step off of a 100-meter flagpole. When one of my senior American monk brothers grew frustrated in a conversation with Dae Soen Sa Nim, and at his own failure to penetrate the master’s teaching, the young monk blurted out, “But I’m just trying to understand your teaching, that’s all.” To which Dae Soen Sa Nim answered, “My teaching is not about understanding. My teaching is only don’t know.”

So, this is a very important point. Perhaps I am overemphasising my own reading of your question, but it seems anyway like an good opportunity to emphasise to others that our practice is not about some search for understanding, the kind that can be bought in books or lectures or videos or through a therapist. Yes, we are all drawn to Dharma because we wish to understand our existence, our life and death, our lightning-flash brief appearance on this speck of dust hurtling through empty space. We practice in order to understand our constantly fractious minds. That is how and why I started.

But, once you begin practice, you have to let go of that wish or search to understand. It is only a habit to wish to understand. There is only, now, constant effort in serious practice. To attain my True Self – NOT to “understand” it, or find a way to describe it through my categories of logic and analysis and memory and comparison, etc., but through practice — to attain that, in truth, there is already nothing to attain: this is the nature of Zen.

So, when some phenomena, appears, we are one with it. When some thought appears, we reflect “back,” we “ask” “Where did that come from?” “What hears that?” “What sees that thought crossing this empty space of moment? What ‘sees’ that?” This is all just a way of keeping the Great Doubt that cuts off thinking and leads straight to don’t know. We reflect back, we “turn the light towards the source of the light.” (Of course, those who come to practice through tragedy or great suffering ordinarily do not need that “nudge” to turn the awareness to the source of awareness: Someone who has just been told that she has only three months to live just does not follow the extraneous thoughts, and rather dwells more reflectively inward. In meditation, we are practicing a kind of “little dying.”) We are returning to silence, ending social contacts and concerns, for a period, letting awareness settle out of the Six Gates [eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, thinking-mind], into don’t know.

But do not let the “questioning” get verbal or conceptual. Don’t use it to stir up memories or ideas for how to solve this or that “new” understanding that gets churned up. Do not weigh or compare anything that appears in your mind with anything else. All of this may provide refreshing feelings of insight, but they are all only temporary jewels. These little understandings about some aspect of ourself  pixilate and float away in minutes or hours or days, at most. They are not the real thing, but a flabby substitute. They are insights that come and go: it’s not taking you to don’t know, the ultimate ground. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “If it shakes, it’s not muscle.” If something moves in your mind, or comes and goes in your mind, it ain’t don’t know. It’s not your True Self.

You write, “Lately I don’t like answering [the questions]. Answering is not interesting to me.” That’s it! If you ask after understanding, it inevitably becomes tasteless, it is cheap and it does not remain or even repair anything significantly in your life.

But looking into “don’t know” is infinitely interesting. It never becomes “boring,” or something “repetitious” or rote. It is what is, and there is this immensity to it that is just impossible to put into words. It is very new, and yet absolutely the most familiar “thing”, even older than my understanding. You know it when you feel it. As I heard the American monk Su Bong Sunim once say, “Don’t-know recognizes don’t-know.”

Looking inward, “reflecting mind’s light back to the source,” simply don’t pause at things you might newly “understand” about yourself. Don’t touch anything; don’t hold anything. Just abide in this not-knowing, this “place” before thinking arises.

This is how we practice, this is how we look, this is how we question. This is how we attain our True Nature.

Batman and the Diamond Sutra.


Ouch! Sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation. Ouch! Ouch!!

From The Diamond Sutra:


Buddha said: Subhuti, all the Bodhisattva-Heroes should discipline their thoughts as follows:

All living creatures of whatever class, born from eggs, from wombs, from moisture, or by transformation whether with form or without form, whether in a state of thinking or exempt from thought-necessity, or wholly beyond all thought realms all these are caused by Me to attain Unbounded Liberation Nirvana. Yet when vast, uncountable, immeasurable numbers of beings have thus been liberated, verily no being has been liberated. Why is this, Subhuti? It is because no Bodhisattva who is a real Bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego-entity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.


Subhuti, it is the same concerning Bodhisattvas. If a Bodhisattva announces: I will liberate all living creatures, he is not rightly called a Bodhisattva. Wherefore? Because, Subhuti, there is really no such condition as that called Bodhisattvaship, because Buddha teaches that all things are devoid of selfhood, devoid of separate individuality. Subhuti, if a Bodhisattva announces: I will set forth majestic Buddha-lands, one does not call him a Bodhisattva, because the Tathagata has declared that the setting forth of majestic Buddha-lands is not really such: “a majestic setting forth” is just the name given to it.

Subhuti, Bodhisattvas who are wholly devoid of any conception of separate selfhood are truthfully called Bodhisattvas.


Then Subhuti asked Buddha: World-honored One, in the attainment of the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment did Buddha make no acquisition whatsoever? Buddha replied: Just so, Subhuti. Through the Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment I acquired not even the least thing; therefore it is called “Consummation of Incomparable Enlightenment.”

The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng
(Shambhala Publications, Boston)
Translated by A. F. Price and Wong Mou-Lam)

Reply to a Reader: Is There a Creator God?



Good morning, Shifu. I would like to know, is there really a God that created us? Thank you.


No. Now, go look into your True Nature. Here is a better question for doing that: Just reflect inward on the matter, “Before my parents were born, what am I?” You will find there an answer that is way, way better than God, OK?

Photo by Jeon Jewoo (전제우 한국불교사진연구소장)