Mirror of Zen Blog

A Snapshot of History

Zen Master Seung Sahn and friends, Providence Zen Center, Providence RI, circa 1976.

This photo documents perhaps Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first core group of students in the West. It contains the disciples who would go on to have among the most consequential effect on the spread and development of new Dharma expressions in the West, and his Dharma, in particular. But it does not record the moment of “one” sangha. Contained within the edges of this photo are several of the most consequential figures in the spread of Buddhadharma in America. This one photo reveals what an “incubator” his teaching was for the explosion of Dharma-spread that was happening at the time — and his teaching was right smack at the center of it all.

To Dae Soen Sa Nim’s immediate right hand is Mu Gak Sunim — his first Western monastic disciple. He is known to us as Stephen Mitchell, the eminent translator of such books as The Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Book of Job, Gilgamesh, reams of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and many many other spiritual-oriented texts. He is known to another segment of society as the husband and collaborator of Byron Katie, whose books he has also produced to such clarity and precision. Through his own many translations and essays, and his work with Byron Katie, he has truly brought the living force of “the Great Question” to innumerable people.

Very few people know that he got his first grounding in this work through immersion in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “don’t-know” emphasis.

Stephen Mitchell’s first book — which he was probably working on in the days that this very photo was snapped — was Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. This was Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first book in English. It is an absolutely unique book-experience of Zen, because rather than attempting conceptual analysis or academic or even explanatory expression, Mitchell was able to preserve with absolute felicity Dae Soen Sa Nim’s true and living Socratic Zen: delivering the questioner, and the reader, straight back to their “don’t-know” condition. It is a living Dharma book of live words, not the dead words of most books. This is truly a singular book among all modern Zen books (and compared to quite a lot of the ancient texts, as well). It is impossible not to be boundlessly thankful to Mitchell for the careful word-craft and subtle intelligence he put into transmitting — with as few as possible personal adulterations — this living, breathing record of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s work. A truly disruptive text, in all the best ways. I always think with profound gratitude that this “elder monastic brother” appeared when Dae Soen Sa Nim was just getting started. He created a record for the ages, right on par with the Record of Huang Po and the Record of Lin Chi. It is that good.

According to Mitchell’s Wikipedia page, “Stephen Mitchell was educated at Amherst College, the University of Paris, and Yale University, and de-educated through intensive Zen practice.” That essential “de-education” started in the School of Don’t-Know, circa the time of this photo.

In the first standing row, second in from right, is Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is also one of the most consequential forces of Dharma in the West, even throughout the world. A 1971 PhD in molecular biology from MIT, he was one of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s first Western students, and accompanied him to give Dharma talks throughout the US. He was a co-founder of the Cambridge Zen Center, where I was later able to begin training. After training with Dae Soen Sa Nim for some years, and becoming a Dharma Teacher, he went on to found the Mind-Based Stress Reduction practice, which is now a worldwide practicing and healing methodology which impacts millions of lives. His first big book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (1991), is what set out the field. It is science-based, peer-reviewed application of Buddhist meditation practices (he later removed the Buddhist-specific parts) for the alleviation of pain and the reduction of stress-related illnesses and disorders which impede the healing process. According to Wikipedia, “MBSR has been adapted for use by the US military to improve combatants’ ‘operational effectiveness,’ apparently with Kabat-Zinn’s approval, which has provoked some controversy among mindfulness practitioners.” It shows his very Dae Soen Sa Nim-like attitude that he was not too “politically correct” to prevent the military from having access to any of the technologies he developed from practice.

In the front seated row, peaking in between the first and second from the left, is Larry Rosenberg. A former professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and the Harvard Medical School, he grew disillusioned with the limits of psychiatric practice when he encountered Dae Soen Sa Nim’s straight-on “don’t know” pointing to the nature of self. After training with Dae Soen Sa Nim for several years, he went on to practice Vipassana meditation. He then co-founded (with Joseph Goldstein and Larry Rosenburg) the Insight Meditation Society, in Cambridge and Barre, MA. He is one of the leaders in the Vipassana movement in the US. He got his start and his inspiration in the hatching-farm of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Dharma.

First standing row, fourth in from the right, is George Bowman. He is one of the first people to receive inka from Dae Soen Sa Nim. He was later selected to be the guiding teacher and resident master of the Cambridge Buddhist Association (founded in 1957 by D. T. Suzuki), and made himself independent from Kwan Um and later started Single Flower Sangha. He is a respected Zen master with a quiet, abiding impact on Dharma in the US. (Personally, George was my first Guiding Teacher at the Cambridge Zen Center, when possibly having a chance to meet with Dae Soen Sa Nim — much less ever practicing directly under his gaze! — seemed like an impossible pipe-dream. George’s quiet, deep presence had a big impact on my practice in those formative first years, and there is always an enduring gratitude for having sat some retreats with him at Cambridge Zen Center.

Barbara Rhodes is in the first seated row, fourth from right. She also is (with George) the first of the Westerners to have received Dae Soen Sa Nim’s formal approval. A real bodhisattva, through-and-through — maybe 110%. She has been the Head Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen since before Dae Soen Sa Nim’s passing (so, approximately since 2003). That’s not such a good idea, because it more than anything else has allowed the energy of this movement to basically just crumple into increasingly frumpy irrelevance. An amazing force of love and other-centeredness, she is, unfortunately, somewhat ill-fit for such a leadership role for so long because she is, by nature, a risk-averse, capable, though thoroughly unimaginative sort of leadership-figure in the place of a challenging visionary. (She would be a Tim Cook to Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Steve Jobs: while the company may have enjoyed vast expansion under her leadership, basically there has been no novel innovation whatsoever, and the product-line that made the company such a radical standout has never really been updated.) She’s very very lovable and not controversial, and she loves everyone, too, and that’s what they’re looking for. The Chogye Order even does not permit its Patriarch to be a “for-life” position, because then the energy of the Order would stagnate — 1700 years of experience have taught them that. Only the Roman Catholic Church and the Kwan Um School of Zen permit this to happen: two movements with exceptionally important teachings which remain mired in the unnecessary compulsion to create a deadening fixed global constancy of forms and expressions, thereby choking the creative, even slightly “dangerous” renewing lifeblood of “spiritual disruption” which is the true beating heart of both these movements’ Founder’s tense (yet completely free) alignment between strong tradition and revolutionary spontaneity. She is a great woman, and anyway who am I to judge?

Back row, fourth in from right, is (pre-monk) Dae Bong Sunim. The current Patriarch of Mu Sang Sah temple in Korea, and truly one of the most impactful and total of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Western (or Eastern) students. He’s the real deal, in every way. A true and living bodhisattva who Dae Soen Sa Nim loved with particular favor, I know. After Dae Soen Sa Nim’s passing, the light of his Dharma would have died out in Korea, from all practical considerations: there were no other living practitioners, in Korea, which had absorbed and digested so much of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Dharma. In some ways, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s work there would have been limited to some stupa there and a few books on the shelf. His senior lay-practitioner disciples have largely all passed away (obviously, without successors possible in such a Buddhist culture), and while giving such focus and attention to world-wide efforts, Dae Soen Sa Nim had not grown a strong stable of Korean monastic disciples anywhere near his level of attainment, passion, and bodhisattvaship. There is just one, possibly two Korean monks who could represent his Dharma in that land (one being Hye Tong Sunim of Mu Sang Sah).

But Dae Bong Sunim has worked tirelessly to make sure that the root there is set as deeply as possible in his remaining time. Without him (due to Mu Shim Sunim’s passing), Mu Sang Sah itself would not be nearly as capable as it is today to be the beacon of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Dharma for the world. It is impossible (nor necessary) to estimate adequately how fortunate we all are to have the continued health and boundless passion and enthusiasm of that scraggly figure in the back row, fourth in from right, in this picture.

In the first standing row, mixed in on the left side, is (pre-monk) Mu Sang Sunim. He has done so much to preserve and communicate Dae Soen Sa Nim’s spirit to generations who could never meet the Master. A graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School (classmate of both the Clintons there), he participated in the dangerous voter registration drives in the Deep South in 1964, which later became the basis for the film Mississippi Burning. From a prominent family of Washington DC property developers, and a graduate of the most elite prep school in the city, he gave up considerable family wealth to follow Dae Soen Sa Nim all over the world, and supported Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings in innumerable ways. He is the lone remaining member of the first group of Western monastics, making him the senior Western monastic.

He was absolutely instrumental in this writer becoming a monk. It was not possible to have any contact with Dae Soen Sa Nim for the first few years of practice. So, Mu Sang Sunim functioned as an always-reachable mentor and he truly inspired and guided the first steps in this Path (and many, many steps thereafter, though he knows it not). He is not responsible for the results of his mentorship, and cannot be held legally liable or indemnifiable for the debts and liabilities, the injury, either intended or unintended, either imagined or actual, caused by his erstwhile protogé, his successors, ensigns, assignees, and Mu Sang Sunim cannot be held liable for failure to adequately warn of the dangers associated with such protogé, his products, torts, insults, speech, actions, or recommendations, whether real or imagined.

[One note: “Missing” from this photograph, yet equally significant and impactful among Dae Soen Sa Nim’s early students of that generation, is Joan Halifax, one of the most widely and profoundly resonant of anyone who considered themselves to be his student.

According to Wikipedia: “American Zen Buddhist teacher, anthropologist, ecologist, civil rights activist, hospice caregiver, and the author of several books on Buddhism and spirituality. She currently serves as abbot and guiding teacher of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a Zen Peacemaker community which she founded in 1990. Halifax-roshi has received Dharma transmission from both Bernard Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh, and previously studied with the Korean master Seung Sahn. In the 1970s she collaborated on LSD research projects with her ex-husband Stanislav Grof, in addition to other collaborative efforts with Joseph Campbell and Alan Lomax. She is founder of the Ojai Foundation in California, which she led from 1979 to 1989. As a socially engaged Buddhist, Halifax has done extensive work with the dying through her Project on Being with Dying (which she founded). She is on the board of directors of the Mind and Life Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring the relationship of science and Buddhism.”

Here are several pictures of her work organising retreats led by Dae Soen Sa Nim in California in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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