Reply to a Reader: On Zen Master Kyong Ho Getting His Ass Kicked

Question:

On the topic of art, I stumbled upon Cheonjangsa* last week, having no clue where I was until I read an info panel.
One of the murals [above] really caught my attention. A Korean monk in the temple that day explained that the painting was about removing good/bad dualistic thought. It seemed really familiar and I was curious if you’d included it in your book, Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake? It was 15 years since I read it and my copy is now in Canada.

Reply:

The answer that you received from that Korean monk is 100% completely bullshit. While there might be some Chinese stories depicted in this or other temples, why would there be a painting of a Chinese monk presented so prominently in that little hermitage (which I have visited many times), which is proudly known as the place where Korean Zen was resurrected basically out of nothing in the modern age due to Kyong Ho Sunim’s enlightenment and teaching-career? Complete bullshit! As usual, too many Korean monks are profoundly misinformed about their own tradition, as my own Teacher (a Korean) used to rant about quite so often.

First, some background on Kyong Ho Sunim (1849–1912): He was unusually huge for that age in Korea, over two meters tall. He was a brilliant scholar-monk before doing an intensive solo-retreat in the hills behind Dong Hak Sah Temple, where he attained his Great Awakening. But there were no Zen masters in Korea who could confirm his insight, because the Zen lineages had all been destroyed under the heavy-handed policies of Korea’s Confucian authorities. So Kyong Ho Sunim’s insight could not really be confirmed by anyone.

Even during his lifetime, Kyong Ho Sunim was regarded as a deeply controversial, even disturbing and lawless figure to many: Once, while walking across miles of countryside with his student, Man Gong Sunim, in order to attend an important funeral ceremony at a temple in a far province, the younger Man Gong Sunim developed a vicious leg cramp, and could not walk any further. Filled with compassion, and knowing that they needed to arrive at the temple by nightfall that day, Kyong Ho Sunim had his student rest under a tree in the sweltering heat. He proceeded to approach a family which was working in the fields. Eyeing a particularly gorgeous unmarried young maiden, Kyong Ho Sunim asked her for something to drink. As she poured out some of their rice wine for him in a cup, Sunim leaned in, embraced her strongly, and placed a big wet kiss straight on her lips! The woman was simply aghast (no #metoo in those days), and screamed out. Her father and brothers, seeing this, were fucking enraged! Grabbing pitchforks and other tools, they ran after the very, very tall and fearsome-looking monk. (Think Wahabbism or honor killings — by the end of the day, someone will surely need to die.)

Sunim sprinted back towards the tree where poor Man Gong Sunim was rubbing down his aching leg. Seeing his Teacher being pursued by a mob of screaming farmers, Man Gong Sunim was gripped with terror.

“Get up, Man Gong! Get up!” Kyong Ho Sunim screamed ahead. “Run for your fucking life!”

Completely forgetting his pain, Man Gong Sunim leapt up and immediately sprinted from the tree. The much larger Kyong Ho Sunim soon overtook him, and sprinted far in the distance. The farmers nearly grabbed Man Gong Sunim in the process!

They reached the temple before nightfall, and could attend the funeral ceremony the next morning.

On another occasion, a young attendant who waited on Kyong Ho Sunim was found hanging from a tree, dead, in a valley above Dong Hak Sah temple, in the Kyeryeong Sahn Mountains. The few coins he carried for the market had been torn from his belt-pouch. The investigating authorities immediately suspected the large, gangly, exceedingly strange monk who was always accompanied by the young attendant. Kyong Ho Sunim’s strange behaviour was legendary in those parts, and it was also deemed to be deeply dangerous, even corrupting. When the authorities questioned him, Kyong Ho Sunim would not answer. He kept “noble silence”, neither confirming nor denying. According to the story, Sunim actually knew the probable suspects, a gang of thieves who lurked in that part of the mountains which had been his home for many years. But he would not cough them up, even if just to save himself: Sunim knew that even a suspicious report — even without confirmation or evidence — would cause the suspected men to be tortured and punished to the death, since such was the “legal system” of the day. An awakened man who functioned wholly beyond the categories of “guilt” or “innocence”, Kyong Ho Sunim was loathe to have these men receive such brutal retribution for their need to eat, which drove them to commit such a horrible karmic debt that would eventually drag their minds to deepest hell and an animal rebirth. The villagers immediately suspected Kyong Ho Sunim, as well. It was an act of extreme compassion for Kyong Ho Sunim to expose himself to increasing suspicion in order for the true murderers — or just suspects — not to be tortured by the state authorities!

When his devoted student, Man Gong Sunim, once gathered the courage to ask his Teacher if he knew who had committed such an act, Kyong Ho Sunim would not answer him, either. And Man Gong Sunim later recounted that he was filled with such doubt about the case that he severely criticised his Teacher, inside, and doubted his own practice, that he was following such a bad monk! But Kyong Ho Sunim would not answer who he thought were the murderers. Yet the suspicion was so great that a huge and oppressive pressure built on him. Kyong Ho Sunim eventually escaped that region of Korea, and silently removed himself to a far corner of northern Korea (in what is now North Korea), to a region which was known as a place of criminal exile due to its isolation and frigid conditions most of the year. He donned lay clothes, let his hair and beard grow out, and spent his final years and days until death teaching Chinese characters in a rough village school.

The panel-painting you ask about is tells a typical story about Kyong Ho Sunim himself. The painting references a very famous story about how Kyong Ho Sunim used to test his practice through wild actions, to see if the clear mind/compassion of his samadhi could remain unshakable even in a difficult situation. It is a very iconic story.

Kyong Ho Sunim always liked to challenge his practice. During periods of intense practice, Kyong Ho Sunim would often wander down into the villages below his hermitage to beg or make trouble. In those days, Confucianism was still the main state “religion”. Sunim was invariably completely drunk on rice wine, wearing his shabby clothing, unwashed and unshaven. He would curse at men in the cross roads and marketplaces, causing them to beat him mercilessly with sticks and clubs. (In those days, Buddhist monks were greatly oppressed by Confucianism, and monks were considered to be parasites by that philosophy.) The men would just beat the living shit out of this hippy-monk. According to one story, on one occasion, he sang beautiful love songs over the wall to a young Korean maiden who was doing work in the courtyard of her house. When her brothers or other menfolk saw this, they beat Sunim senseless and then wrapped his unconscious body in a reed-carpet, and tossed him in a riverbed!

Why did an enlightened monk need to do such crazy things? For one, Kyong Ho Sunim was just wasted — his book of poetry (translated into English) is filled with frequent references to drinking and carousing: the references to rice wine are in nearly every poem! Kyong Ho Sunim would “check” his practice by causing these beatings and then seeing if this pain and suffering and brute force would cause his mind to “move”. He wanted to see if, under the blows of others, he would forget the clear mind/compassion that he could easily maintain while sitting quietly up at Cheonjangsa (sometimes called Chon Jang Am). This was part of this great monk’s wild wisdom — attaining profound peace in meditation, and then seeing how it could be maintained — or not — when adversity, pain, and life-threatening suffering were completely dominating his physical and mental experience. As Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, “Attaining peace in a peaceful place is not true peace; attaining peace in a noisy place is true peace.” This is the same point.

I think that Kyong Ho Sunim’s meditation must have been strong, because the entirety of modern Korean Zen practice is derived from his Dharma. There is not a lineage in Korea today, of the true Zen lineages, that does not bloom from Kyong Ho Sunim’s awful, amazing, asshole-like practice. He is my great-great grandfather-Teacher in the lineage in which I was trained.

Thanks for the question. It has been a pleasure to try to set the record a little straight on the story behind this painting you encountered.

_____________________

*Cheonjangsa — The hermitage where Zen Master Kyong Ho lived for several years after attaining his first big spiritual breakthrough above Dong Hak Sah. In order to better serve his crazy teacher, the young monk Man Gong Sunim took up residence at nearby Su Dok Sah, and from there the lineage of modern Korean Zen grew to sprout forth all the great monks of today’s practice in Korea, including my own Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn.

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