Mirror of Zen Blog

Reply to a Reader


For whatever it’s worth, this is a true and complete record of an email exchange I had recently with a reader of this blog. This is the entirety of the dialogue:

Question: Why do so many “western Buddhists” have a view aligned to liberalism? Instead of real radicalism and progressivism? Being no-ism is what’s otherwise called liberalism…

Reply: No idea, really.

So many of these enquiries — earnest though they be — remind me of the famous speech by the Buddha, the Parable of the Poisoned-Arrow, which points at our almost insatiable thirst for evermore empty conceptual knowledge, grasping at fleeting empty shadows of mental construction even as our days drip away endlessly into the abyss:

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“Naaaah, I’ll get this. But first, I have some questions…”
"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short. Until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored, until I know his home village, town, or city, until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow, until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark, until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated, until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird, until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.' He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' 

The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him."

from the Cūḷamālukya Sutta (The Shorter Instructions to Mālukya), a section of the middle-length discourses (Majjhima Nikaya), one of the five sections of the Sutta Pitaka.

Acupuncture at Lunch


There have been many stories on these pages about my years with the eminent Korean Zen master, Bong Cheol Sunim. He was wild, spontaneous, and free. He ate whatever he wanted, he drank whatever he wanted, he smoked wherever and whatever he wanted, and he said whatever he wanted. He was known throughout the temples of Korea as this fearsome tiger-like figure who few dared to approach. If he didn’t approve of your practice, he would just dump a torrent of curses and insults on your head. He was merciless in his all-seeing.

One young monk came to him, the disciple of another great monk who had never once, in over 50 years, ever missed not only the twice-yearly 90-day Kyol Che (“ango”), but even the “middle retreats” in between. The young monk was singing the praises of his master. “My teacher has never missed a single ‘ango’. Not only that, he even participates in the month-long mini-‘ango’ [산절결제] that happens in between the Kyol Che! He is certainly a great monk!”

Others in the room were very impressed — there were half-bows all around the room as he spoke. But Bong Cheol Sunim only smiled sadly. “You stupid idiot! Buddhism does not mean the endless doing of long retreats, OK, you fucking dick? True Buddhism means waking up, and that happens with a burst of power. It’s why most great masters wake up early in their practice, not ‘later’. If he continues to require doing so many retreats, maybe it means your excellent teacher is putting his energy in the wrong direction. What a sad fucking matter!” Sunim took another long drag on his cigarette and said to the now-crestfallen young monk. “I wouldn’t brag so proudly of your teacher’s constant retreats — if you really understood what is the point of Zen, you would probably feel some shame that he has not yet awakened.”

BOOM. Just like that.

One day, we were out for a lunch together at some country hut located nowhere deep in some rice fields among the So Baek Sahn Mountains where the Great Tiger had his lair. Sunim had been feeling a little bit ill for several days. The favored acupuncturist did not have time to come deep into the valley where the hermitage was located — would Sunim consent to a treatment right now? Maybe we could find somewhere near the restaurant with a proper treatment table.

The acupuncturist was delayed, and arrived just after the food arrived on the table. There was no bed or treatment table for Sunim to get some needles in the legs. So, he just had them clear off half of the table and Sunim climbed up and had his acupuncture treatment, just like that, right next to the side-dishes. He told me to keep eating. The other customers were shocked, but they eventually got used to it.

After the meal, Sunim ordered a few more bottles of rice wine and we slept our hot summer sleep right there on the floor of this busy restaurant.

Back at the temple later that day: