The Zen Center Regensburg is located in a four-story building in the middle of a mid-sized Bavarian university town. We occupy the third floor. On the ground floor is a recording studio, and many young people come there and spend the day and long into the night — sometimes into the morning — recording music and jamming on their instruments. They take breaks out on the front steps, smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking beers. They often leave food wrappers and empty cans on the steps or just at the curb.
So, though we often clean the entryway to the building during retreats, it is a constant project. People are always dropping cigarette butts and trash. (There are also several popular drinking locations nearby, and our front steps seem to be a popular stop over for people who want to gather on their way between clubs.)
Also, leaves and natural debris sometimes accumulate there.
We try to clean it up, but we would need to do that twice per day, and there are so many other things to do to keep the inside of the Zen Center clean, that we cannot make this a full-time job for a single monk to do, seven days a week, especially when keeping the interior space of our Zen Center clean is such a constant, everyday job that would occupy several people.
A few days ago, a visitor was leaving the Zen Center. A woman was standing outside the front entryway, staring at the front door to the building. She looked to be mildly shocked. “Is this really is the Zen Center Regensburg?“
The visitor, a new member from the Netherlands, pointed to the large sign on the door. “Yes, it is clearly marked here.“
“How can a Zen Center entryway be so dirty like this?” She seemed disappointed, and left without entering to practice the teachings upstairs. We have never seen her again.
Hearing this story, I was immediately reminded of the years practicing with one of my Teachers, the great and fearsome Zen Master Bong Check Sunim. As I have related in many stories on the site and elsewhere, this Sunim was infamous for his constant cursing, his drinking and eating whatever he wanted, and smoking constantly. His wild behavior was so strong and unpredictable, that many people who met him would be so shocked that they would never return to him again.
One day, someone asked Sunim, “Sir, why do you need to do all of this cursing and wild behavior? Can’t you teach the Dharma in a soft and clean way like all of the other teachers?“
Bong Cheol Sunim answered something to this effect: “This speech and these actions are not done with a purpose. But they are a good filter – – they filter out the merely curious from the ones who really wish to go deep and face the work of attaining their true nature. Such work is not easy work – – it means facing the most dangerous and threatening aspects of yourself, until you realize that all of these phenomena in your mind are completely empty, and harmless.”
Meditation practice is very popular nowadays. It has been linked with psychotherapy work, and many companies are harnessing the benefits of meditation to make their workers more productive and profitable. Scientific research is proving, on a daily basis, the very clear discernible health benefits of reduced levels of stress and anxiety that come from consistent meditation practice. This is all very well and good – – how could we ever not want people to do meditation, if it brought more peace and calm to this world?
However, the work of Utmost Vehicle Zen is not something that is pursued for these soft and calming benefits, although we are grateful for them when they appear! Of course!
It is natural for people to see pictures of meticulously maintained gardens in Japanese Zen temples – – which do not have any place in the Korean Zen tradition, which is based on naturalness and just-now reality, as-it-is truth – – and they think that this image is the bone of Zen teaching. Actually, it is just fantastic costume-work. It is beautiful, even helpful choreography for some aspect of the work of meditation. This is very possible for a Zen temple that operates in a quiet mountain space.
Like Bong Cheol Sunim’s teaching, there are always many “filters” in the path of doing real spiritual practice. Didn’t Jesus abuse the expectations of the pure rabbi community of his time by hanging around with the unclean, eating and drinking together with prostitutes and criminals and tax collectors that the usual rabbis assiduously avoided at all costs?
As Jesus himself said, in Matthew 11:16 -19:
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
So, John the Baptist is a super-correct practitioner, doing strong fasting and keeping all of the rules in a very fundamentalistic way. Jesus is more flexible and open-minded, not attached to purity or filth, living and moving with the regular people of his day, not being tight or unnatural about things.
And they are both somehow practicing a wrong way: Their practice inevitably caused them to be executed by others who they were trying to teach.
“Christ, you know it ain’t easy. You know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.“