I returned to our home temple, Hwa Gye Sah, in the mountains of Seoul after completing a second 100-day solo retreat in the Jiri Sahn Mountains, in the winter of 1998-’99. I had lost 27 kilos after subsisting on only dried pine-needle powder for the duration, engaging an unwavering daily Marine-like schedule with lots of bowing and chanting and sitting, and something we called “midnight practice”. My monk-robes were ragged and smelling of the stacks of wood which were burned to heat the traditional stone-floor I slept and meditated on. I was experiencing the first episodes of an explosive diarrhoea condition (“irritable bowel syndrome”, brought on by the irritation from tar in the pine needles) which would last for exactly one year thereafter (and countless colonoscopies). A few of the other monks said I looked like some POW from a forced labor camp. But my mind felt super-clear: while there had been some scary visions at points in the retreat, there had also been indescribable meditative experiences which continue to guide my life until today, as I write this.
The first person I encountered in the temple was the Director of our International Zen Center at the time, Mu Shim Sunim, an American monk from Philadelphia who was one of my ordination seniors. His eyes grew wide when he saw me, and his mouth was agape: this was the first person from whom I got some instant reflection back that maybe there had been some kind of outward “change”, since there were no mirrors in my tiny mountain hut, a tiny, rude mud-and-stone cave-like thing without electricity or running water. “Wo, Hyon Gak Sunim. What happened to you? Were you sick?” There were no words to answer. I remember having this long, speechless smile at him that seemed to make him uncomfortable. There were these long pauses in our short meeting in his room, because it felt like there was so much to express, and yet nothing that could be expressed. Sunim fidgeted a little more than usual in these gaps of silence, I remember. As the Director, Mu Shim Sunim functioned as a sort of gatekeeper for anyone wishing to visit our Teacher, and he was quite excellent at this very necessary task.
He tried to make some small talk. But I wasn’t interested. I really only wanted to meet my Teacher.
“Can I bow to Dae Soen Sa Nim?”* I asked him. It is customary, after a retreat such as this, to go directly to the Teacher to have an interview, to have his keen eye look deeply into your practice in this full ripeness. Ordinarily, I was scared shitless about the rare personal encounters with the Master, due to his laser-like seeing and his straight assessment of whatever karmic problem or struggle that you were bringing to him. But this time, it was impossible not to notice inside a calm before this encounter which I had not experienced before…
Mu Shim Sunim got on the intercom-line that was hooked next to his desk, a direct line to the little hut where Zen Master Seung Sahn lived slightly above the temple main complex. When I heard the Master’s voice crackling through Mu Shim Sunim’s earpiece, a wave of love and joy spread through the body. (Maybe a few drops of fear.)
Hanging up the phone, Mu Shim Sunim said, “OK, he will see you now. Do you have your robes ready?” I reached into my monk’s bag, where I had packed the formal robes on the very top while still down in the mountains, clearly prepared for this part of the retreat experience, and put the robes on right in Sunim’s room. I noticed my fingers trembling just a tad as I did the convoluted unwrapping and fastening that this enrobement required. A little sweat was appearing in the palms.
Now, it was time to meet the Zen master.
There was another visitor still meeting with the Master when I entered his little traditional tiled house. On first hearing the sound of his voice, my heart skipped a beat. I knelt in the waiting room, my eyes naturally resting on the floor. As usual, “The Great Dharani” mantra was rocketing effortlessly through my mind, unstoppable. The sweat on my palms was increasing. The smell of burnt wood still emanated strongly from my clothing.
Suddenly, the door was opened by the attendant, and I was led in. A lamb to slaughter, it felt like, I stood up and crossed the threshold of the doorway.
As usual, Zen Master Seung Sahn was sitting cross-legged on a long silk cushion, a traditional folded painted screen behind him. There was a low antique traditional Korean desk between his cushion and the empty space where guests would bow on the bare floor. The little desk was clear of objects, covered with a glass protector. “Come in, come in,” he said. The attendant silently slid back out the door and closed it, leaving us alone. I might have envied her safety a little.
I did not make eye contact with him yet — maybe could not — dwelling deeply in the breath and offering three full prostrations, forehead-to-floor, long and slow, sweeping away the expansive folds of the robes as I completed each bow without getting tangled up during the up-stand. (In the mountains, on a solo retreat, one seldom — if ever — uses the full set of formal robes, so I had grown out of rhythm a little bit with them.) Completing a long and profoundly sincere little micro-bow at the end of the third bow, and coming up to finish with the standing half-bow, I then knelt on the ground with my knees tucked underneath. It was only then that I raised my eyes slowly to his. This happening had played out several times in my mind during the three months of solitary retreat, and I knew that what would come next would be intense.
When I looked up to meet his eyes, my Teacher was not there. Instead, my eyes locked in with the eyes of a fierce tiger, utterly focused, blank as the cosmos itself. “Tyger, tyger, burning bright, in the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye, Could frame they fearful symmetry?” of William Blake’s poem.
“Oh, very good face! Very strong practicing!” he said, plumping his prey up for the kill. He leaned his head forward toward me, drilling through my head to the back wall with a laser-beam seeing that went right through my soul, I shit you so fucking not.
I replied with some nodding, maybe a word or two of thanks. Yes, I remember thanking him — thanking for his teaching that brought me to this. It might not have been even a complete sentence, or at least something short. There was too much to express, but nothing to say. I was filled with energy and anticipation, but his strong seeing contained so much inexpressible compassion that something in my limbic system must have relaxed a little.
Then, the tiger pounced. BAM!
Immediately, he hit with several kong-ans [Jap.: kōans]. Some were kong-ans that I had been “working on” for a few years, and then — by my replies, I guess — steadily progressed into a few kong-ans that were only for some advanced practitioners. The “answers” (I hate that word for what “happens” when you are asked a kong-an) just manifested automatically, in flashes. There is no time to think — that’s the point! — and words are extremely few. Sometimes the replies you give cannot use words at all. There were a few wild actions. I remember that on two of the kong-ans, I let out yells so loud that later Mu Shim Sunim told me the kitchen workers preparing lunch nearby thought that someone was attacking the Patriarch in his room.
Such a kong-an testing is called “Dharma combat” for a reason.
It is impossible to describe this kind of encounter, especially with a Being as perfectly clear and transcendent as Zen Master Seung Sahn. There is just this knife-edge Presence, diamond-pure clarity, meticulous reflection — a full-consciousness MRI-imaging of the soul which is empty and infinite as space. And he never, ever took his pupils out of my pupils — you felt like you were connected to a tunnel through his eye-sockets, a portal straight into the vast cosmos itself, a full existential scanning. I will never be able to put it into words: even 5% of this experience could not be described, had I 100 years to type it out. So let’s leave the lame attempts at description alone — it feels so tawdry. Suffice it to say, there were answers that he felt happy with, maybe even surprised; and there were a few that lacked some refinement of view or expression.
After covering at least five or six kong-ans (some of them with “second questions” and one where we reached to the third and fourth question), the exchange ended when we reached a kong-an where I became fully “stuck”, and could not answer. (The “answer” appeared in a flash as I slipped on my shoes back upon leaving ten minutes later, but that was too late.) He seemed really happy, because he said, “Very good. Very clear. Soon become teacher.” This was already indicating maybe that there would be some sort of “authorization”. But I didn’t think about that — my robes were filled with sweat.
But this is the reason why this story is being shared here today:
After the sometimes-explosive exchange, and his approving comments, we slipped into a few moments of normal silence. What else could be said? He was definitely not a chit-chatty person, and nor am I. The enormity of this intense retreat experience had done so much radical, unspeakable reorientation inside — in what I had taken to be “reality” itself — that, frankly, my psychology felt just a wee bit discombobulated, since (I understood later) this infinite view of things had not yet even begun to integrate with the accustomed functioning of my karmic, social self. There was this extraordinary lightness, but… The universe felt perfect and “right”, and yet also somewhat skewed. This is what the Zen master sometimes called “a deaf mute who has had a beautiful dream”.
It was only a few moments of silence, facing each other from a distance of no more than one meter, one and a half meters. I remember that he was rubbing the sole of one of his feet, partly upturned as he sat cross-legged on his silk cushion. “So, you [have] see[n] something,” he said to me while he looked toward the wall away from me, into space towards his bathroom door. “Something now become clear...”
A moment or two more of silence. It was perhaps the most intimate moment I ever shared with him, that silence, pregnant with emptiness.
Then, my mouth opened. In the only “descriptive” words I used about the retreat, I said to him: “Sir, this reality — it’s only like TV. Everything is coming going, coming going everywhere — but it’s only TV. Nothing is really ‘real’. Only TV.”
He burst out with an enthusiastic laugh — it felt even sort of eager: I remember this distinctly because there had never been something I said which caused this sort of a sort of explosive laugh from him. He said, “Yah! Yah! Everything only TV. This whole world only TV. All thinking, only TV! Only not touch that, then you are free. If you touch inside TV, then only get suffering! Not touching, then free! That is Buddha.”
I was struck by his expression: His laughing start, his leaning forward toward me with wider eyes as he pressed forward the “TV” view with a kind of eager enthusiasm. I was also struck by his simple and clear direction for what I should DO with that view.
Don’t. Touch. TV-“Reality”.
Then you are free.
Of course, I have touched deep inside the TV on not a few occasions since then. I am often weak, or not able to manage well the challenges brought on as a deeply solitudinous person simultaneously managing some perverse public-facing obligation. The sometimes insurmountable effects of massive fame and renown throughout Korean society would drop on my head like an atom bomb in less than one year from that sacred encounter in his room. It has been especially, perniciously difficult when one becomes “famous” in the Digital Age of the Internet (the ultimate “TV” — on steroids) which was just then emerging in those years — the Buddha himself did not give us specific guides on how to manage this way of transmitting the teachings without losing big chunks of your psychological-soul. I spent some years actually rudderless, as a result, attempting to share my natural joy in the teachings and the practice and feeling overwhelmed with a gratitude I have always felt compelled to “pay back”. And in these efforts, I have naturally fallen more often than I’d like to count.
But the fundamental point has never left me. The fundamental view of this has perhaps prevented me — “saved” me — somewhat from even further falling into delusion. This view of the “TV” of reality lets me let go of the “remote control” of automatically following the thoughts that endless emerge and disappear, and maintain some part of a freedom which would not otherwise be available.
At least, that is what I strive for.
*“Dae Soen Sa Nim” (meaning “Great Zen Master”) is the name that his early, close students used when referring to or addressing Zen Master Seung Sahn.