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: