Mirror of Zen Blog

Good-Situation Country

One of the most interesting aspects of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s transmission of his Dharma to the West since 1972 is the fact that he never produced any home-leaving monastics (nun or monk) from Germany. Though there were dozens of American monastics, and dozens of Polish monastics, and monks from the Czech Republic, Russia, Lithuania, Serbia, Ukraine, Hungary, France, Canada, there have never been any German-born nuns or monks.

There was one elderly retiree from Berlin in the early ’90s who grew quite attached to Dae Soen Sa Nim, and wished to globetrot with him while he gave teachings from Asia to Europe. He welcomed her along. She was kind and sweet, but also she was not very much into practicing. It was a kind of “scene” for her. Dae Soen Sa Nim tolerated the situation, with compassion. So, when she asked to become a nun, he allowed her to take “private precepts” and wear nun’s clothes. But she was never officially ordained, and never lived in the temple or did any of the basic training. It was more like a very sweet and sincere Dharma-groupie who he seemed to indulge, and one day, when Dae Soen Sa Nim stopped traveling and having interesting events, she dropped off into her house in Berlin with a pool, and she disappeared just as quietly as she had appeared.

The fact of no German monastic ever coming into being in Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Dharma transmission is something that the monks’ community sometimes talked about during my years in Korea. “Why are there no German monks to do the framework of guiding sentient beings in a country with such interest for Dharma as in Germany?” There is great enthusiasm for the Dharma, throughout Germany and across many traditions. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is welcomed with stadium-sized throngs in the Federal Republic, there are many active Sanghas here, and some of the most active Catholic religious practicing and teaching Zen are from Germany (cf., Father La-Salle, Willis Jäger, etc.). The Benedictushof Kloster has full-time Catholic-Zen retreats in a full Catholic monastery. And knowledge of the Buddha’s teachings goes back as far as Arthur Schopenhauer: it was his effusive praise of Buddhism that caused me to first look into Buddhism, immediately after graduating from college in 1987. So, the Dharma is by no means a “foreign” or unknown quantity in German letters and society. Everyone knows this, and I’m not going to go into it or act as a scholar with detailed and comprehensive statements.

In addition, Dae Soen Sa Nim was teaching here in Germany at least as far back as the early 1980s, well before the Wall came down. He established several Zen centers in Germany, most notably in Berlin, but there have also been active groups in Dresden and Köln. His first book in English, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, was translated into German as early as 1990. The Compass of Zen, and Only Don’t Know, and The Whole World is a Single Flower were also translated.

Many many Zen practitioners have encountered his Dharma in Germany. But none have taken the leap to become a nun or a monk. And the question among some not small numbers of his students was, Why is this so? For there is the sense that, were there to be but one strong German practitioner who could spread the Dharma without restriction of family or job or rootedness in locale or social construct, what massive effect they could have in bringing his extraordinary mind-tech to this country. That is especially true because Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teaching and practicing technology are so meticulous, devoid of extraneous form or decoration, so lean and refined, so adaptable to varying conditions and situations, and even “efficient” (“ONLY don’t-know” — no wasted effort there!), so fucking PRECISE and clear and down-to-earth, so “praktisch,” so “revolutionar” and so damn klar klar KLAR: there is nothing about it that should not connect to the German soul and habits of operation. (One could even make an argument, if you are intellectually or conceptually inclined, that his teaching is “systematisch,” with that whole kong-an “system” being so central. Yes, it IS a system, like it or not, and yet simultaneously transcends and eludes being “merely” systematic).

In short, on multiple levels, his teaching is totally “Made in Germany.”

So what’s the deal here? Why no German monks? Why no full-time, all-the-time, 24/7 soldier (male or female) for the Dharma in this tradition in this amazing country?

One more thing about why this question is important: Why is it “important” even to ask about whether there have been German monks or not? Well, just as whether or not a society produces doctors and engineers — or child-soldiers instead — says things about the health or direction of the society; just as whether some state in the American Deep South produces a notably large prison population, massive amounts of teen unwed pregnancies, why some states have very high opioid mortality rates or even high obesity numbers — these things say things about the health and direction of that state (and they’re always the God-fearin’ types, by far). These numbers speak to a mentality, a mindset, whatever you want to call it, sociologically or demographically.

In some really interesting way, if you are a citizen of the Dharma, then a particular country’s encouragement and support for the monastic lifestyle can say something about the spiritual conditions of that place, its material well-being as well as its appreciation (or not) for the singular spiritual way. So many monks and nuns have come out of Poland, for example. Well, in perhaps the most Catholic country in Europe, grounded in monastic traditions, yet with an educated youth which rebels increasingly against the institution of the Church, it might make sense that people so “genetically” inclined to monastic spiritual practices might, disliking the Church, find that expression in Buddhist monasticism — atheist monks and nuns.

Anyway, there can be one simple reason for this really glaring fact of there being no German monastics: Dae Soen Sa Nim himself used to talk about “good-situation country.” This is a country whose way of life is situated on such abundance and safety and opportunity and freedom that there is just no truly strong need or drive to “relinquish” these possibilities in the social realm. Becoming a nun or monk is, after all, “leaving home”. It is letting go of the safety and the identity and the surety of some kind of “upward” mobility. In fact, the entire training consists of finding, like water does, “the lower place.”

By the way, there are also no Norwegian monks/nuns, no Danes or Swedes or Swiss. No Benelux monastics, you can see. This is not to say that none will ever appear, but — while things are still a “good situation” in those places — don’t hold your breath. The outlier might even appear, but one cannot expect much of a large movement to happen.

[Note: The USA is another country that Dae Soen Sa Nim called a “good-situation country.” So why are most of the monks and nuns in his non-Korean disciples’ ranks drawn from there? The reason is very simple: While the US is certainly excellent by any quality-of-life index applicable to the Northern European countries mentioned above, there is this strong undercurrent of suffering and violence in America. It is a country that has been at war for some 226 of its 241 years. There is the sequelae of the “original sin” of racism: Unique among major countries, the USA was founded on the violent kidnapping, enslavement, forced importation, buying-and-selling, systematic repression, and even to today, forced institutionalisation and marginalisation of an entire non-native group of other human souls. The lingering toxicity of this permeates the soul of any person sensitive to the matter of human flourishing, its means and impediments. There is constant, wanton gun violence, the largest number of incarcerated souls on Earth (22% of the world’s prison population is in American prisons), the wounded bodies and souls of innumerable returned soldiers from its many foreign conflicts (many of which conflicts were predicated on political deceptions which became apparent to the soldiers fighting them, from the Vietnam War onward into today’s Iraq and Afghanistan senselessness, thereby magnifying the bitterness of those maimed in the work of fighting such duplicities), the largest wealth-gap in the world, etc. There is just such an extraordinary combination, in the American experience, of such extremes of “good situation” along with “bad situation” (one could say bestial situation, hellish situation) that do not compare with similar “good situation” countries. One need only drive around the Bay Area to experience the extremes of some of the richest tech titans on the planet living side-by-side with some of the worst homelessness; in LA, where the dream factory of Hollywood’s lotus-eating elites must drive through endless stretches of urban road given over almost entirely to tent cities, the homeless living in cardboard boxes a mere stone’s throw from some of the gaudiest mansions in the world.

THIS disconnect — between the enlightened ideals of a Declaration of Independence, a Jefferson and Lincoln and Emerson and Thoreau and King, and the tawdry machinations of conservative elites making constant efforts to disenfranchise Black Americans, even today — feeds enough into the “What is this?” of the Great Question of Life and Death.

America is a “good situation” country. But it has a “bad situation” psychosis, and many feel depressed by this irreconcilability, in the political sphere, and turn instead to wishing to transcend that or reform that from within.

Just some reflections on this interesting factoid — I don’t claim any real insight but these scattered impressions. Since people sometimes ask, I have wanted to offer Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “take” on this, such as I understood his view.

One more point: The Buddha himself said that, in order to meet the Dharma have conditions favourable for encountering it and practicing it, one must not have “too much” suffering, or “too little” suffering. Of course, suffering is the very seedbed for engaging practice, as sickness is the seedbed for eating healthy and exercising, and poverty is the seedbed for working hard to earn money.

The Buddha said that if you are born into a place or condition with too much suffering, you will be hindered in practice. Being reborn dirt-poor in a mud-hut in the slums of Bangladesh or Nairobi, or under the unthinkable brutality of Assad’s bombs in Idlib or under brutal Israeli- and Hamas-occupation in Gaza, one is not going to have the leisure to practice meditation for hours on end. One will not also have access to Dharma teachers who might visit and inspire. The day-to-day hunt for food and security in the slums of Nairobi will not support the effort to sit and investigate the fundamental nature of mind’s existence or not. There will not soon be Vipassana centers in Sanaa, Yemen, or in the hill towns of rural Afghanistan, either, or among the Sama-Bajau of Malaysia, the “water people” living in rickety enclosures on stilts. This condition of extreme suffering does not lend itself to practice, the Buddha said.

And he also said that the extremes of “good situation”-living is equal hindrance for practice. Yes, all human beings aspire to live without pain or want. It is natural and good to want to have at least some level of comfort, to have material means manifested with consistency and reliability.

From Homer’s “Odyssey”:

On the tenth day they reached the Land of the Lotus Eaters. The dwellers in that land fed on the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus flower. Those who ate of the lotus ceased to remember that there was a past or a future. All duties they forgot, and all sadness. All day long they would sit and dream and dream idle, happy dreams that never ended.

Here Odysseus and his men landed and drew water. Three of his warriors Odysseus sent into the country to see what manner of men dwelt there. To them the Lotus Eaters gave their honey-sweet food, and no sooner had each man eaten than he had no wish ever to return to the ships. He longed for ever to stay in that pleasant land, eating the lotus fruit, and dreaming the happy hours away.

Back to the ships Odysseus dragged the unwilling men, weeping that they must leave so much joy behind. Beneath the benches of his ship he tightly bound them, and swiftly he made his ships sail from the shore, lest yet others of his company might eat of the lotus and forget their homes and their kindred.
Soon they had all embarked, and, with heavy hearts, the men of Ithaca smote the grey sea-water with their long oars, and sped away from the land of forgetfulness and of sweet day-dreams. [Stories from the Odyssey Told to the Children – Jeanie Lang]

Painting of Odysseus’s Three Warriors in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, by W. Heath Robinson

But an excess of joy and pleasure is also a great obstacle for growth and evolution. One of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s beloved American monk-disciples, Mu Ryang Sunim, would refer to LA life and the denizens of Beverley Hills — even California in general, as a kind of type — as “the land of the Lotus Eaters.” Where there is too much access to pleasure and sensory stimulations become ever-more refined and accessible — especially those confined to people with great material resources — you will generally not find strong, hard practitioners who feel madly compelled to drill down strongly into resolving the matter of life and death, to spend freezing winters in remote places cut off from the world, eating whatever the temple or community provide, having few material comforts, giving up sensory freedoms in “pursuit” (bad word) of some abiding insight into the human condition, into own’s own suffering mind.

Until they hit some intense suffering that shatters the illusory veil of their sensory-drunk existence, you definitely are not seeing lots of Paris Hiltons in these strong meditation retreats.

So, according to the Buddha, too much “bad situation” is not so good; also “good situation” is not so good for maintaining a practice that, by its very nature, entails at least the letting go of some freedom, autonomy, status, comfort, social identity, and the like.

The best condition for practice, according to the Buddha, was a kind of “middle suffering”. He also extended this explanation to describe that, more cosmically speaking, just being born as a human is already a kind of middle-suffering: if you are reborn in a hell-state or as an animal, you do not have leisure for practice, since you are constantly hunting for food and safety and defending against attacks; and if you are reborn as a heavenly being or “deva,” you are too absorbed in your bliss-state to be concerned even with the question of being, much less feel inclined to give up your pleasures for the requisite effort demanded to break through the veils of illusion. You just don’t need to! Life is good! But eventually, like all energy, even this good reservoir of positive merit, like a tank full of gas on a long journey, eventually runs out. All things in the universe are like this! So, if you do not practice in this state of bliss, then your suffering is even greater when your good merit eventually runs out and you fall or descend into lower states of consciousness which are more impinged by the condition of suffering which is the normal state of things. The dramatic change will penetrate the mind far, far more painfully.

“Good situation” does not matter; also “bad situation” does not matter. What matters most in practice. Getting a human body in this birth is even more vital a concern than attaining any kind of blissed-out heavenly state, because it is only in this space of “middle suffering” that one can have the means to use the fuel of suffering with the relative safety and evolutionary capacity of human agency to break through the veil of illusion and return to one’s nature.

And that place — vast and borderless — is always the very, very best “country” to be in. The land where you are “born from lotus,” not eating them!

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