“What is Mun Su Am?”

A reader of this blog messaged me today: “What is ‘Mun Su Am’? That’s been driving me nuts in your posts.“

Mun Su Am is the apartment, the connected (but separate) unit where I (and several guests, when they are in town) live.

Manjushri Bodhisattva is one of the four main bodhisattvas of northeast Asia Mahayana/Zen practice. He/She/It are its preferred pronouns. This bodhisattva represents the wisdom that is innate in us, uncovered best through meditation practice, and refined through life, especially through the power of Sangha. Manjushri (the name means “Gentle Glory” in Sanskrit) is always depicted with a gleaming sword. However, unlike other religious expressions, this sword is not wielded in order to punish or dominate or injure or kill. It is not the blood-soaked sword of the Christian crusader or of the Taliban, Saudi religious “authorities“, or the Iranian mullahs. There’s zero lex talionis here. Rather, “the sword of Manjushri” merely means the wisdom which cuts through all illusions, like a samurai sword. It does not cut through necks and wrists, nor causes anyone to cower or submit to anything.

From Wikipedia:

Mañjuśrī is depicted as a male bodhisattva wielding a flaming sword in his right hand, representing the realization of transcendent wisdom which cuts down ignorance and duality. The scripture supported by the padma (lotus) held in his left hand is a Prajñāpāramitā sūtra, representing his attainment of ultimate realization from the blossoming of wisdom. Mañjuśrī is often depicted as riding on a blue lion or sitting on the skin of a lion. This represents the use of wisdom to tame the mind, which is compared to riding or subduing a ferocious lion.

The name Manjushri, in Korean Buddhism, is Dae Ji (Great Wisdom) Mun Su (Manjushri: “gentle glory”) Bosal (bodhisattva). It is spelled 대지문수보살 in Korean hangul. The word “Am” means “hermitage”. Thus, Mun Su Am, my home in the temple, means “Manjushri hermitage”, the place to realize our “gentle glory”. And if you don’t realise your inner wisdom, your “gentle glory”, no one here will cut off your head or hands. But reality certainly might.

Here is a version of Mun Su Bosal painted in a large altar icon (a taenghwa, Tibetan: tangka) for the former Seoul International Zen Center at Hwa Gye Sah.

Because the dimensions of the painting for the space of its installation, the artist, the eminent painter Park Kyong-Gwi, of Seoul, has installed Manjushri on a lower plane, with no sword. What is special about this painting is that the painter has included representations that include all four classes of practitioners enunciated by the Buddha himself: Bikkhu and Bikkhuni (比丘/比丘尼: monks and nuns), and lay woman and lay man (優婆尼/優婆塞)– the sa bu dae jung (사부대중/四部大衆).

Zen master Seung Sahn (1927-2004) believed strongly that Korean Buddhism had erred, mostly through Confucianism, into making a Bikkhu-centric Buddhism, which put women and lay practitioners on a lower level. It is a Buddhism focused primarily on the practice of the Sunims, who also control all of the resources and operations of the temple-communities. In this way, the modern Chogye Order model is also anti-democratic in a way that the Buddha might blush to see — again, due to the particular social and historic experiences of northeast Asian Korea. He worked very hard to “correct” this, even appointing a divorced lay woman to succeed him as the head of the worldwide sangha he founded. He was criticised –and to this day! — for his insights and adaptations of the matter, by more conservative, tradition-bound and politically fearful elements of the Chogye Order. In fact, this painting hangs in the very Zen Center he founded, at his own base temple, where he strove to carry forward what he often fondly called “our Zen revolution”. And yet, within a few years of his passing into Nirvana, the new overlords of his temple cancelled out his innovations in favor of a return to more traditional modes of teaching, which continue to weaken the work of Buddhism in Korea.

I like this unique taenghwa very much because it depicts the harmonious elements of all of our practicing-community, in the very vision that Zen Master Seung Sahn strove to make real. It is the family of those who are waking up, and accomplishing this work without discrimination as to gender or race or calling in life. (OK, the monks and nuns do have better front-row seats here. But maybe you do get nice box-seats when you decide to go all-in on things.) The painting is also clearly multi-racial, which also reflects his teaching beautifully.

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