This was my “second teacher”, the legendary and fiercesome Zen Master Bong Cheol (1933-2011). One of the most esteemed practitioners of modern-day Korean Buddhism, Sunim was known for his belovedly delicious cursing, as foul (to outward appearances) as any drunken sailor. Yet he only spoke of the Dharma, and nothing else. He ate whatever he wished, drank whatever he wished, and smoked like a factory chimney in war-production, even within the temple precincts. Yet his mind was always perfectly clean — he manifested, at nearly all times, the spotless state of pure emptiness. He brewed his own homemade wine, yet always kept us drunk on the clear mind of Dharma. Visitors travelled to him from all corners of the country, yet he quickly chased away the ones gathering simply for a show of his infamous powers of wild expression. I saw people lay on him envelopes of cash donations, to support his rude and dirt-close life in a mud temple, yet he sometimes threw fruit at them to drive them away whenever he detected the slightest notion of arrogance or some proof of their understanding of anything called “Buddhism”. (They would laugh under the torrent of rotten fruit — I saw no one take umbrage, because his Dharma about it all was so clear.)
Even some of the toughest Zen monks would not dare to visit him, for fear of being cut down to size for some blindnesses in their practice. (Nuns gathered around him like beautiful twittering birds, and giggled uncontrollably at his juicy, ribald expressions for them.) When I did the long 90-day retreats in various traditional Korean Zen halls, rumour would soon spread that this American monk was not only quite close with Sunim, but lived with him, and had accompanied Bong Cheol Sunim on some of his latest scandalous escapades, rambling from temple to temple in his bang-up Jeep, squeezing the horrified office-monks for envelopes of cash that he immediately spent on a night in a country restaurant. Monks would sidle up to me like I had some secret method for being allowed to spend so much time with him!
Of course, traveling in his hysterical Jeep-temple for days on end, you’d work up a smelly presentation, or need to cut your hair. Stopping off in public bathhouses along the way, going from temple to temple, he took exuberant glee at pointing out this Westerner’s genitals to other men lounging in the bathhouse, clapping his hands in buoyant amazement. “Waaaaaaaa, American ginseng — No. 1!” he would shout to people, a wet towel wrapped around his head like a granny and his own frail nude body stooped under the degradations of decades of too much hard practice. “Wa, you stupid fuckhead — you should be using that!” he would exclaim in glee, clapping his hands together above his head like some kid who had just received his first red fire truck for Christmas. “You are wasting that as a monk,” he practically yelled across the foggy room. I would eventually sneak off to some little plastic stool in a corner to shave my head unmolested, but he would find me. Cheap soapy bathhouse suds streaming down my face, its bubbles pregnant with stubbly cut-hairs, I would hear him dragging some hapless fellow bather over to gawk at me, head to toe. “Look at that body hair. A fucking monster!” he would say. (I do not have body hair except what you see on my legs and arms.) “American animal!” he would yell, pointing from on high and swivelling his head manically around the room to anyone who would hear him. Then he would pull his towel-crown off to twirl it overhead like a helicopter rotor. The bathers would be stopped in their tracks, mouths dropped agape. They gave him a very wide berth! He marched around like a scrawny nude emperor of mists, dragging people over to gawk at me or screaming my name from across the open floor.
Bong Cheol Sunim took profound interest in all things related to song-i mushrooms (송이버섯. Tricholoma matsutake, sometimes called “pine mushrooms” in English), which grow once a year at the roots of old pine trees and especially prized, throughout Asia, when they came from Korea’s pine forests. They were considered to be aphrodisiacs, ancient Viagra, too, according to Sunim: “Monk Viagra,” he would proclaim for the gazillionith time, as if for the first time, and everyone laughed as if it were so, the women nervously tittering. Revered for their supposed medicinal powers, and sold at extremely pricey amounts, I believe that Sunim admired these mushrooms most because they were shaped and dimensioned to the size of genitals normally seen in old porn films from the 1970s. When the harvest of mushrooms happened, once a year in the early autumn, following the cooling late-summer valley mists that raised them, there would be a huge gathering at his temple. He would husker several cases of the ‘shrooms from visitors, and we would roast/fry/bake/sautee them for days on end, all washed down with his favourite rice wine. Those were easily his happiest days of the calendar — the short, exuberant erection of “pine mushrooms” on the scene. The local farmers who gathered the mushrooms — and which they could support a family on for months, if the weather cooperated in producing a particularly good harvest that year — they would come to his temple to offer a “tribute” of the most prized specimens.
I used to light his cigarette whenever possible, especially when he was in the midst of one of his constant Dharma rants. He really loved that, and I loved doing it for him, mostly so that he wouldn’t break stride in one of these extremely clear and penetrating talks, filled with all manner of cursing at whoever was stupid enough to expose their conceptual thinking in the vast play of his no-hindrance soul.
Once, when lighting what was the umpteenth cigarette for him that day, I asked him, “Sunim, why do you smoke so much?”
And he answered, with naturally heavy-lidded sangfroid, “Because I’m bored.”
The silence between us let his words sink in in all their dimensions, both common and cosmic. “Bored? Bored of what, though?”
“All of these sentient beings, living in palaces of pure empty being, limitless in time and space. Yet they are bound by the non-existent filaments of their own habit-thinking. I’m bored with it.”
Even in the polite corners of Korea’s old traditional culture, he was renowned for having caused a revival in Korea’s traditional tea ceremony, after decades of its disappearance under the heavily-mannered Japanese culture that dominated their culture from 1910-45. So, sitting with him, one was treated to endless pots of pure tea, much of which he had cultivated and grown and roasted and fermented and dried carefully with his own, dirt-yellowed fingertips. He even had a tea which he served to people which contained the leaves of a plant he believed to be cannabis, which was growing out behind his hermitage since he’d planted some seeds from a devoted student. I didn’t notice any “effect” whatsoever, even after several potfuls. (Believe me, I tried many ways to confirm his “special” gift, but there was nothing there.) Yet though I informed him more than once that these plants might not have been bred and hybridised “optimally” to produce any high, eventually I went along with his need to believe that he was serving something super-special to select guests, and which made it all the more precious to him because of Korea’s hyper-strict laws against any consumption of anything whatsoever from the cannabis plant, either domestically (where it was as forbidden as alcohol in an Islamic country) or abroad, even in places where it might be legal.
He often tried to dissuade me from going off to attend the twice-annual 90-day ango retreats in some of the bigger temples. He was one who had attained his Great Awakening through diligent solo practice, alone in rude mud huts he’d constructed from rocks and branches only to last the duration of a practicing season. He considered the main temples to be corrupted by ceremony and politics, and no place for a true practitioner.
Once, returning to him from a particularly intense winter retreat at Songgwang Sah Temple, we had an exchange which forever marked our interactions, going forward. As I robed up in all the most traditional garb to offer him three full bows of greeting and, emerging from the last bow, reached in and laid before him an envelope filled with the spending-money given to each monk who completed the retreat, to fund their further wanderings until the next retreat season, I felt his eyes penetrating me like a ferocious tiger. He would not lift this intense gaze, and had even paused his cigarette for the length of my slow, meaning-filled bows. My body was distinctly purified from three months of non-stop asceticism, I guess you could say — even the accustomed smoke from his cheap cigarettes felt like a stinging foreigner in my eyes.
“You are different,” he said solemnly, in a voice I seldom heard him employ. “Something has happened to you in these 90 days.” My legs filed respectfully underneath me, in the traditional kneeling position ones does before elders, he would not take away his gaze — it felt like he was drilling right through my eyes to the back wall where was hung a famous ancient Zen painting he had stolen from some temple he had once been abbot of, to prevent the painting falling into the hands of some dead museum, seen only by the effete. I looked down, unable to bear his gaze any longer, after sustaining an eye-lock which had seemed to have lasted since well before my parents were born.
“Hyon Gak is different,” he sort of muttered, laser-fixed, unblinking. It felt like I was getting corneal implants from him, even with my own eyes averted downward by then. I could feel his gaze layering right through my eyelids!
“Waaaaaa, Hyon Gak had the Big Taste.” His mouth creaked into one of his mischievous smiles. He picked up the envelope of the spending-money I’d offered, and began waving it flappy-flap-flap-flap.
“Hyon Gak had the Big Taste. Hey, everybody” yelling to no one in particular, since there was no one else in the room — “Hyon Gak has tasted it! Tonight, we are having a party. Hyon Gak had the Big Taste, and tonight we are going to celebrate.” Shit. I knew what was coming. Before I could avert him from the soiled tsunami I knew would now rush in over my purified body, he had already speed-dialled several of his students. The room was soon filled with various monks and laypeople who lived in that mountain valley, and Bong Cheol Sunim was in a highly triumphal mood, screaming the same shit over and over and over again. That night was spent consuming such things as only kings could contemplate — if only they were monks. He kept on filling my glass, shouting, “Don’t hold your holiness, American Buddha! Don’t attach to purity or dirt!” Feasted until nearly midnight, we were up at the usual 2 am and on the cushion again, just as always, plunged into deep mountain silence. I learned to know a hangover again.
These are just a smidgeon of the stories of the escapades we had together. There are stories still-too scandalous to mention, to some ears. But they all vastly exploded my sense of the possibilities of Dharma, and — for better or worse — shaped me into the practitioner I am today.