설악산 차담 2012 /// A Conversation at a Remote Temple in Sorak Sahn Mountains [ video ]

It was quite common, during my final years in Korea, that reporters for Korean media and broadcasters would often pester me to grant interviews. I resisted and hid, here and there. I tried not to appear in busy temples, and I would stay in the mountains as much as possible. WhatsApp and Facebook and Google did not exist yet — it was actually possible to cut oneself off, and maintain a somewhat solitary lifestyle. (Oh, those were the days.) But it was always lots of effort not to get pulled into media-teaching, and eventually leaving Korea is the only method I found that could most completely resolve the issue. Hence, coming to Europe.

But these efforts to evade public-facing teaching were not always successful. And sometimes, elaborate traps were laid to try to capture my interest and participation.

One time in early 2012, I was travelling with an elder Dharma brother, Boep Ung Sunim. We had just spent 3 months in the winter Kyol Che intensive retreat at Bong Am Sah Temple. Sunim had been the Head Monk for some 100 monks, and was tired; I had trained fiercely as the first Westerner admitted to that temple in its over 1,000 year-old history. We had had a tiring retreat season of hard effort, and were free now to leave the temple and wander a little bit on our own. We were visiting the temples of some of his own Dharma brothers from his 40 years in the Korean Zen halls. He told me that we would visit the temple of some monk located deep, deep in the mountains. The temple was a small hermitage called Jin Jeon Sah, located near the village of Yang Yang, in Kang Won Do Province, deep in the crusty crevices of the famed Sorak Sahn Mountains.

The Sorak Sahn Mountains are in the extreme northeast corner of South Korea. They are right near the border with North Korea, and are geologically connected to the spine of mountain ranges which connect directly to the legendary Diamond Mountains in North Korea. Being in such a totally isolated spot, completely cut off from outside contact, even cut from the rudimentary cellphone service which in those days was just then exploding into the necessity it has become today.

We arrived at the temple after a long and winding drive up a fairly steep road. Sunim told me that the Abbot of the temple was one of his best and most treasured “do bahn” — literally, “partner on the Way.” The Abbot had specifically asked Boep Ung Sunim what kind of foods I liked, if he needed to prepare anything special or have any Western food ready, which I found to be funny, though not a unique generosity that was shown by some. “No way!” I said. “Why would we monks eat anything different from one another?” “Yes,” Boep Ung Sunim said. “He has never had a Western Sunim come this far into the mountains to his temple. He really just wants to be sure you feel taken care of.” “Sure, if we want to be well taken care of, why would we be wearing these shabby monk-clothing?” Ha ha ha ha. We had a great laugh together. “We monks live on handouts. We are beggars. I would feel ashamed asking for anything special,” I said.

But in this world, everything is not free.

When we got to the temple, and had tea together, the Abbot presented me with a request. A news reporter who was friends with the Abbot had been told (by the Abbot) that Boep Ung Sunim and I would be practicing there for a few days. Would I please accept this reporter’s request to have a conversation and a look at my practicing life? I was in yet another one of those positions, sitting in the temple of a senior monk and being asked — the pressure is implicit, yet clear, in the ranking hierarchy of Confucian society — to do something to benefit someone’s personal “connection”. I showed displeasure, but because of the relationship this Abbot had with my older Dharma brother, there was very little wiggle room.

After trying every sort of way to telegraph a diplomatic “WHAT THE FUCK???!!!”, and a tense back-and-forth, there was no way out. My expected days of silence and isolation would be intruded upon, to further the connections and careers of people far better situated in the culture than me to refuse things.

What follows below is a record of what happened as the TV crew spent some time with us in the temple.

Though the video is in Korean, perhaps friends who have come to know these teachings through me here in the West can get some sense of the Korean temple life I led during those years.

This was, I think, one of the last long-form media “gives” I permitted in those many years in Korea. It is offered, here, for your own consideration. Maybe some day we will get some English subtitles for it — all in all, it turned out to be a discussion which had some real “meat on the bones”, unlike most.