Mirror of Zen Blog

Nico Tattoo Crew, Athens

I just received an ad that they are opening again after lockdown —

This is place where I got my first tattoo, located just meters away from the ancient Agora of Athens — the marketplace where Socrates sometimes debated.

And the tattoo? The tattoo is the phrase most easily representative of Socrates’ teaching and debate:

ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα

Photographed sitting in front of the jail cell where Socrates was kept as he was tried and awaited his execution-suicide, in the hills of Athens.

which I translate as “The only thing I understand is this not-knowing [mind].” This is the phrase that a young student in Pyongyang heard in the 1940s from his high school teacher, when the teacher was teaching them about the father of Western philosophy. “That’s crazy,” the student thought. “How can this Western civilization which makes planes fly in the sky and telephones — how can its highest philosopher admit that he ‘doesn’t know” anything?”

Later, when that student escaped the North Korean Communists and resettled in the South, and then — disgusted with the conflict in Korean society — cut his hair and went to the mountains to attain understanding of what is human nature, he poured himself into study of the Diamond Sutra. An old monk, walking in the forest saw the young student-monk, and asked him what he was studying so diligently.

“I am studying the Diamond Sutra.”

“And why are you studying the Diamond Sutra?”

“Because I want to understand Buddhism. I want to understand my True Self and save humanity.”

“But Buddhism is not about mere ‘understanding'”, the old monk said. “True Buddhism means attaining what you don’t know.”

When the student-monk heard this, he remembered the words of the father of Western philosophy — Socrates — about “knowing only this not-knowing [mind]”. He realised that Buddhism represented the highest philosophy of the world: understanding cannot help you. Throwing away his books, he poured himself into a rigorous 100-day chanting-meditation retreat. Near the end of the retreat, his mind fully attained its True Nature — the mind before thinking arises. He attained complete realisation in that point.

So, I got this tattoo in honor of my Teacher, that monk, Seung Sahn Haeng Won Sunim. The tattoo is located on my left arm, just next to my ordination precepts burns. It represents the highest realisation of Western philosophy, the tradition where I was raised.

On the right arm is the second tattoo: the entire Sanskrit text of the Great Dharani, the mantra he chanted during that retreat which “woke up” his connection to Socrates’ don’t-know and Buddha’s don’t-know and Kyong Ho Sunim’s don’t-know and the Sixth Patriarch’s don’t-know and my don’t-know and your don’t-know and all beings’ don’t-know mind.

The tattoo represents the cutting-edge technology of Eastern philosophy — Buddhist insight, rooted in Hindu philosophy.

The left arm is Western philosophy’s intersection of Western and Eastern thought, as realised by my Teacher and all Buddhas — the realisation of the primacy of our now-knowing mind; the right arm is the tool that we have employed to arrive at that.

One more point: In Korean Buddhism, people who have tattoos are disqualified from becoming monks. That’s why I got two.

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