This is a photo, seldom published or spoken of, of a significant moment: the last ever robing of Zen Master Seung Sahn as a living being, formally among his Sangha. It records a Kyol Che retreat-gathering of the international monks then present at Hwa Gye Sah on the day in June 2004 when the Chogye Order conferred on Zen Master Seung Sahn the rare title Dae Jong Sa — “Great Lineage Master”, the highest honorific in the Chogye Order. A high official from the Order, one of its most esteemed elders, made the trip to our temple to confer the special silk Dae Kasa and horsehair whip signalling “Patriarch”.
I remember that day also because the Hwa Gye Sah abbot made sure to use the rare opportunity of Dae Soen Sa Nim being so enrobed, that a photographer was previously all set up to take the — you know, _____ portrait, which made Dae Soen Sa Nim grumble because even without words he knew what that meant: seeing the photographer’s gear and the setting already arranged, Dae Soen Sa Nim (like a sniffing-dog) knew that those photos could only be necessary for one more last thing, and that’s squeezing out of the old exiting master one final formal portrait, usable immediately upon death for ceremony and press and posterity. Dae Soen Sa Nim was not so excited about the whole process when it flashed on his face, I remember, as if the great lion was sensing in a flash that everyone there, the abbot, the group, were making preparations in his greatly declined condition. The Abbot gently arm-led Dae Soen Sa Nim back toward his room. I remember he shot a sideways glance at me as if to ask, “Are you in on all of this?” Et tu, Brutus? He grumbled at least for some minutes as we angled his frame into a stiff final-sit-before-any-camera-for-the-last-time-in-this-life. He wasn’t resisting, it’s just like we were all going through this ritual of saying goodbye, which we knew was coming fairly soon. And this portrait sitting sort of crystallized that – – there was that energy in the room with him and the Abbot and me. I’m lucky as shit I was able to be there. Working out this awkward triangle that would be the architecture of his final portrait. But I knew the sourness of his physical condition in those days. Being jostled around, especially by someone as forceful as our ex-military Abbot, he wasn’t in the most enthused condition. He was grumbling wanly about being forced to go through with all of this rigaramole, but getting it fully, what needed to be done. Completely not attached to his condition. “Correct situation, correct relationship, correct function.” He relaxed into the whole sitting (and a Kasa change) and just disappeared. As Dae Soen Sa Nim once said to me at the end of an interview in a Kyol Che at Shin Won Sah temple, “Zen means number one Best Actor, OK?”
Dae Soen Sa Nim was patient with the Chogye Order ceremony but was shocked and surprised by the news that he needed now to sit down from this great glory of the Order and now have his death portrait recorded in front of everyone. Spin on a dime. Imagine having that existential threshold to cross immediately upon receiving the greatest honor of your field, whether you desired it or not! The discomfort, the crossing an existential walkway from which there is no return, was something that registered in such a human way across his brow for a few seconds, which he expressed to us and did not try to hide. That was an awesome gift to see and experience. Through several setting changes and robe changes, Dae Soen Sa Nim just flowed with the situation. The Great Dharani was barrelling through him, there was nothing there anymore.
He was letting go right before our eyes, just in the happening of this ceremony and his relinquishing the authority that such an honorific would, if nothing else, confer over such a crossing-point in the Sangha. But he trusted us, trusted the Dharma he was leaving behind for us. He left us behind, in that letting go into the death-portrait sitting he sensed this was all about, he left us behind with his Kasa on. And important ones were not there, namely Dae Bong Sunim and Mu Shim Dae Jin Sunim, tending the budding of Mu Sang Sah in the rocky soil of Kyeryeong Sahn Mountain, that retreat season.
So, the new Kasa and formal robes were put on specially for that in-house ceremony, something I’d not seen him so much do in recent years, due to declining health. He was suddenly declining those last years attending even at Buddha’s Birthday ceremonies in Hwa Gye Sah, certainly skipping that year and perhaps the previous one, as well. His presence, usually central at the Buddha’s Birthday, was reduced to just an arm-assisted walk around the old inner courtyard below the Main Buddha Hall during the Big Thangka ceremony, instead of the healthy walk over to deliver the big talk for Buddha’s Birthday in the Dae Dok Kwan Jang delivered from the Lion’s Seat above our heads, with all of the robes and finery and the great, big patriarchal stick, the local and national politicians gathered in the front rows, and the smiling Bosalnims wall-to-wall, the “Mae Mae Mae!!” of the Korean locusts beginning into their summer riot. Those appearances of Dharma vigor had only stopped some two years, or slightly more, before then.
That morning of this photo, it was then his last robed affair, if I remember correctly — that is what registered upon suddenly discovering this photo today. There were no other significant events that year that would have had him robed up for public appearance. He was way done with being able to give talks, even to use a car for longish distances.
This day, for this ceremony, he was duly enrobed by the Abbot, so then after the whisk was handed over, a photographer was wheeled in at the end to get some snaps. They were the last formal snaps ever taken of Dae Soen Sa Nim.*
He would die just a few months later.
By way of context: Those times I was then the Guiding Teacher for the Zen Hall at Hwa Gye Sah — the Seoul International Zen Center — appointed by Zen Master Seung Sahn a few years earlier. This photo was taken of the core group of monks who I was practicing with and ”teaching” in the 90-day Summer Kyol Che then. But there were also always so many teaching obligations I had to fulfil all over Korean Buddhism, during that period, in this revival that was happening in his teaching reception at the end of his life. This is the period of time I would try to go back and be more careful about, even a few years earlier, when this false illusion of fame was arising like a tsunami. I could hear some alarms better now than I perhaps should have then.
One other monk in the photo, the Lithuanian Bo Haeng Sunim, kneeling at extreme right, bottom, died just over two months ago. He was our Zen Center Director, my right-hand man, a total soldier, the one without whom I could not possibly have carried out the immense teaching duties of that position in those years shouldering that ill-gotten fame and renown, while also serving as Secretary for my Teacher.
- There is that grainy video taken by Bo Haeng Sunim, addressing the closing day of our retreat, Zen Master Seung Sahn delivering his last filmed Dharma talk, ever, in the old Mun Bang of Hwa Gye Sah. A priceless resource that Bo Haeng Sunim should receive boatloads of good merit for having captured, this final teaching expression.