13세기 회교 신비주의자인 루미: “왜 아직도 철창 속에…?”

Film Editing/Design: Γιάννης Παπάκης Παπαδοπουλάκης /// Vajra Vlito Studios
Graphic: Matt Semke /// www.catswilleatyou.com
Music: “Better Days” from bensound.com (Many thanks for this kind offering!)

Sunday Brunch in the Zen Center

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I love this ever-revolving family so much. But especially this crew who sat the intensive one-month retreat concluded July 31, there is great special affection.

As usual, we chanted The Heart Sutra over this closing-ceremony of a Sunday brunch:

Dharma PANTS. Everyone LOVES them!

Keep In Mind

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Yes, this meme has appeared 3 or 4 times on this blog. But this timeless truth, so immediately graspable, is so flagrantly violated, and the root direction of so much needless suffering in our everyday lives, that it bears repeating again and again and again.

Maybe, one day, it will break open someone’s view to a little taste of freedom, for someone in this day.

So, it is repeated. (Expect it again!)

(Artist unknown.)

Ashtanga Practice, Ten Years On

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I speak often about the great benefit which the practice of Ashtanga Yoga has brought to my practice of Zen. Years and years of 90-day intensive retreats, stacked on end, every winter and every summer for several decades, while perhaps producing disruptive breakthroughs and fantastically laser-like insight, had also produced a lower-back cramped from constant sitting compression. Physics will have its way, even in the work of “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. By my mid-40s, two decades of constant meditation retreats and an all-out schedule of teaching were clearly taking their toll. But it was not only me: I noticed that a great many of the Zen monks training together in the traditional Korean temples were also suffering from a “stuckness” in their practice that fairly mirrored my own. Guys were more easily worn out with a brisk mountain walk, than they had been just a few retreats ago. They required more visits to the retreat by the Chinese medicine doctor. I’d had, for many years, a very strong practice of doing 1,000 prostrations a day with mantra, and this did move the “chi” around. But it was taking a very severe toll on the knees — I was sometimes experiencing difficulty walking up stairs. My meditation practice was gliding into a torpor. Something needed to change.

For years and years, there were friends who tried to encourage me rot to yoga. But I poo-pooed the idea, right out of the gate. I had a strongly chauvinistic view of the singular merits of Zen, and I resisted acknowledging anything outside our Zen “toolkit”.

Pushed by an American friend, I first encountered Ashtanga practice at Pure Yoga, Hong Kong, during a trip there to attend a memorial ceremony at Su Bong Zen Monastery in Causeway Bay. The experience — just one or two classes! — was nothing short of revelatory. It rejuvenated my practice — after just one class, the first one, I felt a release of an inner radiance that is hard to put into words. My meditation practice that night was of an easy and natural “depth” that I had not felt in quite some time. And it was just as accessible the next day, and the next.

Returning to Korea, and now passionate about deepening the mind-opening that was enhanced through Ashtanga, I felt very stymied: It was next to impossible to practice yoga while living in mountain temples. What I mean is, I was already somewhat advanced in age — mid-40s, and worn out from a tsunami of public teaching activity and stress — and I was under a constant microscope. The eyes grew large when I even suggested to temple folk that I would be attending yoga courses outside the temple, requiring a dispensation here and there from the attendance at ceremonies and visits of VIPs that can characterise life in such a prominent, busy city/mountain temple as Hwa Gye Sah was, especially in the years around Zen Master Seung Sahn’s passing. And some of the temple members, housewives mostly, were aware of the “gear” that was worn in those places: they would giggle at the thought of a monk stripping off his tightly-starched traditional robes — handed down since time immemorial and fully symbolic of the homeless life — and wearing some form-fitting workout gear, sweating alongside young 20ish and 30ish young women in a yoga center in the middle of the city. The whole image collided with so much of their expectation for you, and in that culture, image and expectation for narrowly-defined roles were rarely — if ever — abused so openly.

I tried to learn along with DVDs, propping up my computer on a stool in my tiny monks’ room. But that was only partly helpful. Due probably to my own peculiar character and learning-habits, I knew it would be necessary to really drill down side-by-side with a strong, skilled teacher who would kick my ass a little bit (due to my lazy character). Nowadays, it is quite common to see Korean monks and nuns practicing in city yoga-centers: But in the last years I was there — and with my level of unfortunate renown — I was uncomfortable in the effort, the only bald-headed guy (and a prominent Westerner, at that!) among spandex-clad women. There were seldom other Korean men in the room. I attracted attention. The wearing of yoga-clothing attracted attention. One Korean yoga teacher who I tried to train with (I found a guy!) kept himself in constant reserve when he needed to put his hands on me to manipulate some body part into deeper alignment. (His female assistants would never even dare to give me the adjustments one so clearly requires to advance in correct alignment of this practice.) People practicing on nearby mats often glanced at me along the way — I was also, ipso facto, causing some minor level of distraction in the room, despite the very best efforts to “blend in”.

One of the reasons I left Korea, in the years between 2007-9, was (again, among other, more salient reasons) so that I could find a strong yoga teacher and train strongly with them. After dabbling here and there for some years in Munich, I was fortunate, in 2011, to be led to a teacher leading a year-round training shala on the island of Crete, in the picturesque old Venetian-Ottoman-Greek town of Rethymno. She was Kristina Karitinou, a direct disciple of S. Patthabi Jois, the legendary “founder” of the form known to people as Ashtanga. Looking at my overweight, inflexible, slightly crumpled and habit-addicted form, she said, “I will break your body down, and rebuild it up from the inside.” Sometimes, there are crystal-clear moments in life when you know you’ve met your match.

And that she did. I spent two months training as a winter Kyol Che there, in the quiet non-tourist months of early 2011. It turned out to be one of the most consequential “retreats” that I ever attended, bar none.

Because I was penniless, and could not afford the proper fees to attend a retreat with such an experienced teacher, for so long, we made a “deal” wherein I would offer meditation teachings for free to her community, in exchange for receiving direct training from Kristina, six days a week.

Rising before sunrise, I would walk the ancient streets of Rethymno, among shuttered stores, and arrive early at the shala, earlier than everyone else, let myself in, and sit in the empty room with a then-student from Germany. Rolling up our yoga mats under the coccyx, he and I would begin with the long, slow breathing-chant of “Om mani padme hum” that I had spontaneously developed while leading public talks back at Hwa Gye Sah Temple, in Korea. (This chant was itself not something I had learned from anyone, and had never seen taught, because it is not taught in our tradition of Korean Zen, or in its Kwan Um School of Zen offshoot, to which I was then still a “trustee” authorised teaching-member. It is merely something which popped straight out of my dan-jeon one afternoon as I sat on the “high seat” preparing to give yet another Sunday Dharma talk at Hwa Gye Sah: “Why keep talking?” I remember asking myself, looking out over the packed room of some 250 people jammed in cheek-to-jowl for yet another entertaining Dharma performance by the uber-famous Western monk. “Why more words and inspirations? How many of them actually walk out of here and practice it at all?” The chant, which I had never done before, and had never even heard before, just gurgled up spontaneously and without plan out of my “center”, and filled the room. The crowd joined in, and by the end, there were tears in some peoples’ eyes. Something had been released, as we merged into the glide path of silent meditation. From then on, it became part of my teaching “tool box” for opening and entering minds, for calling clarity “out” of peoples’ rushed, cramped, synaptically frantic mind-space, wherever I gave talks and led retreats.

In the beginning, in those early Rethymno days of Ashtanga, it was only my German student and me doing the chant, then gliding wordlessly into a mere five or ten minutes of meditation. The morning practitioners were meanwhile gathering outside the glass doors, chatting and socialising. I remember finding this to be so weird: How could people, gathered to do some strong spiritual work of yoga, meditation, whatever you want to call it — how could they start their practice with chit-chat? Had they no sense of what they were tossing away, or cutting themselves off from? I did not yet know “yoga culture” (and, it must be said, what I was experiencing was the Western face of it, commodified mainly as exercise). I was a little bit idealistic about things, believing that we were all in this to deepen the tools of meditative insight. And for many — maybe for most! — the endorphinic satiety of a post-yoga bliss mode was as close as they might be willing to go. And that’s OK. I just did not know it yet.

Kristina began joining us in the early-morning sessions, before she engaged the hard labor of giving hands-on physical “adjustments” to what would become a roomful of strong, sweating machines engaged in all sorts of intense physical and mental effort. She entered the room physically drained and exhausted, a mother of three who’d usually been kept up late being the passionately devoted mother she was. Freshly showered, her hair still wet, she definitely carried the appearance of someone clearly still squeezed empty, physically and mentally, from the previous day’s constant teaching-exertions; again, giving very intensive, full-armed, person-by-person adjustments of every sort of body from every sort of culture, practicing at every sort of “skill-level” (bad term), in what would sometimes be up to three separate classes held every single day. Some very senior practitioners would visit her from other countries, needing her experienced eye and arms to lift their practice to another level. And she always gave her all. The result was a lemon fully pressed out, first thing in the morning, as my German student and I breathed out deeply the infinite six-syllable breath-length treasure of “Ommmmmmmmmmm~ maniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii~ padmeee hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm………..”

From this chant, and glided into meditation, I began teaching Zen in Greece. Now is the tenth year of training and teaching Zen here. The practice of Ashtanga bloomed inside, meanwhile, and a small group of Greek (and international) students blossomed up in Greece from the roots of this simple effort to develop a yoga practice which would reinvigorate my Zen. Now, work in Greece has equalled the amount of time and energy given to building the work in Germany or elsewhere. We have translated The Compass of Zen into Greek, and every year a not-small number of Greeks make the trip to Regensburg to do deeper immersion in the intensive retreats at the Zen Center. We have a strong core effort based out of Synthesis Center Athens, and until the very doorway of the pandemic, we were hosting there retreats which were packed with a waiting list. Clearly, there is strong existential hunger here for the practice!

Over the years, my connection with Ashtanga practice has waxed and waned a bit. (I am exceptionally talented in the arts of extreme laziness.) But I am recently reconnecting, and it feels good again, exactly ten years on. And I’m feeling very grateful.

Again.

These photos were taken by a photographer when I travelled to give some talks in Belgrade before the pandemic. She was hired by a yoga studio there to do some publicity for the studio, and came in while I was practicing alone one day before giving a public Dharma talk. If you can actually believe it, I release these photos under extreme mortification and embarrassment, if only for a few to feel inspired to know what a totally lazy good-for-nothing sometime-meditator can possibly hope to accomplish for himself, over the age of 50, to better his health and general all-around well-being, with just a little consistent effort, some great practicing friends, persistence, and not a little fear of the toll he has always been wreaking on the mind-body machine. Formal mistakes abound in the photos — Kristina would have so much to correct me for, not the least of which is even releasing these shots themselves. But there — it’s done. Zen Master Seung Sahn’s admonition “Don’t make anything!” was never so egregiously flouted.

All photos by Djurdjica Vali Crnić.

Messing With Our Brains

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This seemed worth sharing, an anecdotal take on the collective effect of these enrolling crises on our consciousness:

A key point here: “For most people, though, the stress compounds: Surviving one crisis puts one at a greater risk of having an unhealthy psychological reaction to another.” This is why, more than ever, it is so extremely essential that we all practice. As I say so often to people these days, we must “show up”. In all of the unrelenting onrush of distraction, the attention pulled here and there by the next gripping or inflammatory subject, the next step forward into some seemingly more certain rut of doom, we need to “show up” to the material in front of us. Sitting down on the cushion, at the hour we have each appointed for our daily practice, we “show up” for whatever is the material presented by life. We don’t parse it, try to push it away (we can’t!), analyse it, or rage about it or hope it could be some other way. Showing up for practice is not showing up for some formal thing or even for a “practice,” a method or path: It merely means “showing up” to the raw content of our unfiltered life, the pleasant and the unpleasant. In this “showing up,” the ogre-like dream-state of suffering is seen for what it is: a painful nothingness-dream. In that instant, the ogre cannot control us.

In the Ancient Greek myth that so haunted my childhood, for years, the Athenian hero Theseus, witnessing with horror of the annual (some say every seventh- or ninth-year) tribute of young Athenian women and men sent into the labyrinth of the fearsome Minotaur as a penalty against Athens, where they were devoured by it, he sprung into action. Offering himself as part of the tribute, young Theseus entered into the labyrinth from which no one had ever escaped. He faced the Minotaur, and he slayed it. Taking on the seemingly unstoppable tribute, Theseus ended the bloody regular sacrifice of young Athenian blood.

We, too, facing the devouring maw of this seemingly endless onslaught of bitter, doom-like news. Our attention span, weakened by a constant assault of a torrent of over-information, all happening in real time, seems like it cannot survive the day-to-day labyrinth of our quotidian lives. As the article chillingly reveals, we can even develop “strategies” to try to manage the seeming ubiquity and strangeness of today’s suffering human story. (Much less, the yawning awareness about what we are doing to doom so much other innocent life through our horribly misguided lifestyles and political views.)

In practice, we do not shirk from our duty, like Theseus: We enter the labyrinth. But we enter with eyes open, girded with the sword of our fierce awareness, our just-now mind. Encountering the Minotaur, we “slay” it — we overcome the jaws of incapacitation and powerlessness that we all fear. Led by the light of Dharma — our daily practice — we can emerge from the daily labyrinth of struggle into the light of constant service to others, the uncountable masses of beings suffering unimaginable torment.

“All these simultaneous disasters are messing with our brains.” The best antidote is never to “laugh it off,” no matter the short-term relief it might surely bring. We “show up” — show up to our practice, which means “show up” to awareness.

Reading Now

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I started this book yesterday, and will finish it by day’s end. I have seldom read a more impactful, even urgent text. I cannot recommend it enough.

I have suffered from sleep apnea -– specifically, “obstructive sleep apnea“ – – for most of my adult life. Friends have described the experience of it as sometimes resembling the sound of several jet engines; the pauses in between can make fellow-sleepers endure a night on edge. (Many many thanks to this condition, in some temples in Korea I was unceremoniously exiled from the common room where all the monks sleep together chockablock during the 90-day retreat, and given my own private room back by the kitchen, where I would only disturb the grandmothers who stayed overnight in neighboring rooms to prepare the temple food.) In addition to some of the obvious lifestyle factors, this condition seems to be congenital: Several other members of my biological family also have severe forms of apnea. I have been examined by specialist doctors from Seoul to New York City to Munich, and I have been fitted with several different kinds of prostheses. Losing some excessive weight that I gained in the years of fame in Korea certainly improved the condition somewhat, thanks to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga and, nowadays, some work on the stationary bike. Although I began the regimen of ketogenic eating already some seven or eight years ago, before it became all the rage, fortuitously, maintenance of that discipline has certainly aided in the amelioration of some aspects of the apnea condition, for sure. (This, despite the fact that I started ketogenic eating and one-meal-a-day living for spiritual benefits, which are incredible, especially for students of Meditation.)

But this book really has some truly compelling insights into the reasons for “obstructed breathing”, which affects a greater number of people than I had realized until I read it. Who would have known that eating industrialized, softened foods has caused our jaws and our entire oral/nasal cavities to become so maladapted to the natural effort of merely taking in the air that we depending on!

I cannot recommend this book enough! That someone who has taught meditation for over three decades, now, urging continual “return to soft awareness of the breath” as the ground for engaging the Great Question, could remain so uninformed, for so long, about the cultural, anatomical structuring and life-habits which mitigate against good breathing, is fairly astounding, and hard to admit. The first words of this text are not yet one day old in my head, and it is already clear that this will have lifelong impact on myself and on how I teach.