Mirror of Zen Blog

The Sound of Deep Space

The 'Pillars of Creation' is a term that refers to a part of the Eagle Nebula, a vast region of star-forming gas and dust located roughly 7,000 light years from Earth. These iconic pillars, captured in striking detail by the Hubble Space Telescope, are massive columns of interstellar gas and dust where new stars are being born. The very idea of capturing sounds from such a distant location is a testament to NASA's technological advancements. These sounds provide scientists with a unique perspective, allowing them to study the vibrations and movements of celestial bodies and the interstellar medium in a way that was once thought impossible.
They are actually electromagnetic signals converted into sound. These electromagnetic signals include a variety of frequencies, such as radio waves and X-rays, that have been translated into sounds we can hear. This allows us to "hear" space in a way that would not normally be possible, since our ears cannot directly detect electromagnetic signals.

Buddhism Has No Hope


Some years ago, I was invited by a group of Korean Catholic nuns to address their conference of international hospice workers gathered for several days at St. Mary’s Hospital in central Seoul, one of the most prominent hospitals in South Korea. Hospice workers from mostly Christian hospitals all over the world would be coming to Korea to share developments, to organize for greater representation in their healthcare systems, and for the Koreans to show off their advances in end-of-life treatment, especially for a rapidly ageing population which lives longer and longer but with greater cognitive decline.

I would speak on the third day. The first day, a Catholic speaker would speak on Catholic approaches to end-of-life care. The second day, a Protestant would speak on non-Catholic Christian approaches to end-of-life care. And on the third day, I would present the Buddhist views on end-of-life care accompanying people facing terminal diagnoses. “What does Buddhism teach people about this end-of-life process,” the hosts wanted to know. This was the deal. It was an honor to be invited, as this was quite an important gathering of people passionately engaged in this truly essential work.

On the first day, a kindly Korean nun presented the Catholic approach to end-of-life care, and stressed the importance of reassuring the patient of a better life beyond, where they would hopefully be reunited with their departed loved ones in a healthier body and better conditions, the whole bing-bam-boom promise of a coming resurrection, etc. The Protestant speaker, the following day, gave a talk which tracked more or less along the same lines: “OK, your condition is totally fucked [my words], but if you pray really hard and have faith-to-the-end, you might meet Jesus and the angels and you’ll be free from all of these tubes and wires and pinpricks and suffering and death, and you’ll have wings to fly forever. Just keep the faith for a little longer — Jesus is right around the bend.” Right by the book (though not by any means biblically correct, a master’s degree in theology permits me to say).

On the last day, they called the representative Buddhist guy up on stage. I gave a basic talk about how Buddhism doesn’t give a shit about preparing people for some “afterlife” [not precisely my words], doesn’t get them ready to enter any sort of otherworldly paradise, doesn’t dangle out some superhero for you to meet. I talked about how we don’t pad the end-of-life experience with any soft-tinted fluffiness to look forward to, nor dangle out any meetings with ol’ departed Grandma and Grandpa.

Rather, I explained, we guide the person — through actionable practices — how to have joyful presence in their sacred infinite here-and-now, accessible directly through an embodied experience of the infinite richness of the indescribable power of the present moment which has no birth or death, no coming or going. I spoke about how we use ancient transformational technologies of breathing and conscious reflection to liberate the person from the panicky states associated with their natural transition out of this current body, and how to embrace the profound mystery of this “next stage”-experience with courage, with strength, even with a healthy curiosity and wonder and an acceptance which will fortify the experience of transitioning, both for the patient and for the grieving family which is being “left behind”.

I mentioned also that most Buddhist traditions (especially the Tibetans) had developed quite compelling technologies for navigating “the in-between” so that the soon-disembodied traveller might use practices of mental awareness to arrive at more developed levels of conscious experience, even bereft of their accustomed body-entered life.

Then it came time for Q&A.

Someone raised their hand at one point to ask, “We never hear much about Buddhist teachings on ‘hope’. For us Christians, it is most important to help the person with a hope for a better existence in the afterlife, freed from sickness. We are always trained to use our religious faith in Christ to give the terminally ill patient ‘hope’ that they will soon be meeting their Savior and Creator. We must give them hope! But I don’t ever hear you Buddhists saying much about ‘hope’ for the next life. What does Buddhism teach you to give terminal patients to help them hope for something better? Is there anything in your Buddhist teaching about hope for the terminally ill?”

This was a real question, nearly verbatim, from an earnest Western healthcare worker down front-and-center.

I looked into the eyes of the questioner with the kind of heavy empathetic feeling that she directs to one of her terminal patients, leaned close into the microphone, and said, “In Buddhism, there is no ‘hope’”. I paused. “No hope, OK?” I replied without a nano-second of hesitation, consciously using the full timber of my already-deep voice to drive home the point with particular emphasis. And I drilled straight down into her eyes forcefully as I said this.

There was total silence in the vast auditorium: it was as if something deeply offensive had been said. Leaning again into the microphone, I repeated, quite strongly, NO. HOPE.” The two words dangled out in empty space. You could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium.

“Buddhist teachings never talk about or emphasize ‘hope’ — anywhere. We never even think about ‘hope’. In the 84,000 sutras of the Buddhist canon, there is no use of the word ‘hope’, and certainly not in the way that monotheists use it. Buddhism has nothing to do with hope, whatsoever, so ‘giving hope’ would not be something that a Buddhist would use in hospice work. Why would I lie to them with such nonsense at this point in their lives?” There was dead silence — a pure leaden vacuum which seemed even loud, by contrast to the faintly murmuring atmosphere of the hundreds of attendees which had preceded it. Perhaps there was once the sound of a distant chair creaking. An exit door swinging open on its hinges somewhere deep in the back. Otherwise, it was — well, tomb-like.

“In Buddhism, we do not teach ‘hope’ — ever. Ever. ‘Hope’ has nothing whatsoever to do with Buddhist teachings, in any way, shape, or form. Why? Because when you really look at it honestly, ‘hope’ is actually a lie: hope is a wished-for reality based on a future fiction. ‘Hope’ is an expectation — however noble in its intent — based on some desired future state or condition or meeting. It is making promises for a reality which has not happened yet, and which might possibly never even happen at all.” It is perhaps appropriate to write here ‘there were audible gasps from the audience,’ for dramatic purposes, but it actually happened! There was definitely some murmuring, furrowed eyebrows all over the place. Lots of folks glanced nervously at one another. They looked up at me, many jaws fully a-gape. I would not relent: “No. Hope! Why? Because ‘hope’ is just some empty promise or wish based on a lie, an expectation that comes from a lie, on a future that does not exist. And Buddhism does not lie to people to make them feel better — Buddhism leads us to a direct insight into the true nature of reality, right now. Attaining the experience of the deathless ‘now’ is far, far better than having any kind of false and lying ‘hope’ for a future that does not — certainly right now — exist.”

Someone piped up, “But Venerable, you must understand — these people are coming to us after often very long and terrible suffering. They NEED hope — their families need hope. How can ‘hope’ not be possible? How would we help them otherwise?”

I continued, “I have listened to many of your talks over these three days. You keep saying, ‘ministering skills to help the person who has only 6 months to live’ or ‘what should we do to encourage the person who only has 3 more months to live.’ What noble purposes these are! Yet, however you wish to paint it, really you are actually lying to your patients in the very way you view them, in the way you view THEIR condition and your OWN. You speak as if the terminal-patient’s time is somewhere determined to be ‘shorter’ than your own, which is not guaranteed anywhere in actual reality. You might actually die tomorrow, before them! That is this root lie I speak about, a perceptual lie, and from this sort of lie about reality you are enabled to have all sorts of other lies about reality, and you pass these on to the patient, and it makes you feel better. But it is not the truth, and it does not help the patient you are ministering to.”

The beautiful Catholic nun who had invited me to speak to the conference cleared her throat and spoke up from a chair by the lectern: “Uh, Sunim, what do you mean that this is a lie — the doctor and staff have evidence that the patient’s case is incurable, when they are brought to us in hospice. They only have less than three months to live, sometimes as much as six months. Surely their life is judged to have an end-point, and we must work from there — we must minister them with clear eyes in their final days… And it is hard for them to know that they are leaving so soon, and they need some strength. Hope gives them that strength…” A few heads nodded synchtonistically in the audience.

I replied, “That’s funny, Sister. You think you ‘have time,’ and these unfortunate terminal patients do not ‘have time’ like you do. You say that the patient has something like three months left to live, and you have more. Or their family has more. But no one guarantees you will not get hit by a cab while running to work at the hospice during rush hour the very next day. One bad hectic move, you step into a bus lane when it’s cruising in noiselessly… How about that? Someone guarantees against that?”

I’m not sure if anyone was hanging on by their fingernails or if this crazy loon were just being tuned in at only the politest frequency, but I kept going: “The future is a lie. The amount of time is a lie. Making promises based on that perceptual lie is itself a lie.”

“If you want the Buddhist hospice view, it would be this: We are all terminal patients, every damn one of us. We are all in the same existential boat, no special escape. No one has any guaranteed length of time left for themself. We only have Moment. Moment. We can lie to make a ‘hope’ for an imaginary future, or we can have real hope right in this Moment. True Moment has no ‘me,’ has no ‘you.’ True Moment has no ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Christian’. Has no ‘I have time’, ‘You have no time’. Moment is infinite time and infinite space — this ‘moment’ is the very thing Jesus spoke of when he talked about giving us ‘eternal life’ — there is no other meaning, no other life than this moment. If you keep that mind, then you and the hospice guest are not two. There is no more ministering ‘to’ — there is just this Moment, their only Moment, their only remaining ‘life,’ and yours and mine, too! Believing fully in this moment, which is the only moment that you have and I have and he has and she has: that is Buddhism’s insight into hope.”

I closed my talk, “The very idea that ‘They are terminal patients because the doctor says they have just three months left’ and ‘I am not a terminal patient because the doctor has not said I have only three months left’ is a completely false idea. Didn’t Jesus say, ‘You know not the time nor the hour?’ The idea that that person is terminal, and you are not just as EQUALLY terminal — right NOW — makes a false distinction. It makes a totally false separation coming only from your own conceptual thinking. And from that comes a kind of microscopic arrogance, and eventually that arrogance will metastasize. And the hospice patient will feel this subtle superiority on your part, and that will not help them during their ‘remaining’ time.”

“If you can deeply attain that you have no time just as much as they have no time left, you attain the right way to ‘minister’ to this person, minister to yourself, minister to all beings. There’s equality! And THAT is how Buddhists handle end-of-life care: we meet the person fully right where they are, with fully what we are. Not with some vague, idiotic lie, some ‘hope’ or myth.”

There were some other engagements that required me to leave immediately after the talk, so I could not dialogue further with these exceptional souls. But my Catholic nun friend – – who was a regular attendee at the talks I gave every Sunday at our home temple, Hwa Gye Sah – – told me the following week that the presentation I gave elicited some very, very strong reactions among the audience. That means, the medicine might have registered somewhat.

I can only “hope” so. Ha ha ha!

Some years later, upon encountering this quote from E. M. Cioran, that talk with the Christian hospice workers at St. Mary’s Hospital in Gangnam, Seoul, came back to mind. How keen was precious Cioran’s wisdom-eye, and how far more parsimonious his delicious expression.

Hope is a promise: a promise to the slave that he will one day be free. If freedom from servitude is not achieved in this incarnation, dear Slave, perhaps if you believe strongly enough in the lie of your future freedom, you will get freedom in some heavenly life. Just don’t disrupt the party going on around here. Keep your nose to the wheel; don’t challenge the system in order to recognize your basic humanity: A slave’s virtue. As “the Good Book” says, in Ephesians 6, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

Wasn’t Malcolm X’s critique of Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent civil disobedience that it was too much informed by Christian teachings which themselves honored the institution and practice of slavery (“In reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh” — 1 Peter 2:18-20), for humans to own humans and will them as their machines and play-toys? Didn’t Malcolm scold the followers of Dr. King because those good people accepted the slaveowner’s moral ihopium — the white man’s Christianity, the white man’s Bible — and so were forever bound and guaranteed to remain unfree in the land of this genocidal master whose greatest compass was just this set of damnable Iron Age tribal stories offering some “hope” in a better state?

The white apologists for slavery taught the slaves to “hope” for a better life in heaven by being dutiful Christian slaves in this life — a life of inhuman drudgery and soul-killing depravity. And Malcolm X was infuriated that Dr. King was passing on this false “hope” to African-America in the form of the white man’s Christian “hopium”. And in that respect alone, perhaps Malcolm X surpassed Dr. King, by some regard.

Hope is a slave’s virtue, absolutely — whether it is addressed to the matter of slavery or to the matter of the climate disaster, and also to the matter of hospice ministry. Hope is a truly disempowering mindset of the lowest common denominator which appeals only to the expectational aspiration — of the child hoping for Christmas — and is not based on any true and clear seeing of the fundamental nature of reality itself — only an illusion, a cartoon, a myth.

And Buddhism has no truck with slave’s virtues. Only the masters do.

History of the Entire World, I Guess


Apparently, this video is considered something of a classic — and for very good reason. It is a masterpiece masterclass, in 19 minutes, of the sweep of all human history. Brilliant, insightful, and truly hilarious… And it’s real history, and you WILL learn a lot about actual history from it.

history of the entire world, i guess

Ditch the Fucking Car Already


I own more cars than the average person. I own several cars. Actually, I hate to admit it, as a monk, but I own several automobiles. I keep them in several places. On several continents.

Several million cars, that is.

Seriously, I’m not joking: I own several hundred million cars. All makes and models, because I like variety, just like the next person.

To be precise: My whole life, since getting a drivers license at 17, I have never owned a singular car, and I never will, until death. In its place, I have constant access to innumerable taxis, buses, trains, and shuttles. When I need to get somewhere that cannot be done by public transportation – – the preferred mode, by far – – I can call a taxi. Just by typing some numbers in the phone with my fingertips, or slightly raising my hand on the street, a car is in front of me. I use it to get precisely where I need to go. When I get out of the car, at the destination, the car disappears from view, and disappears completely from my list of concerns forever. I never need to worry about searching for parking places, or paying for them. I never need to pay taxes, or pay for engine maintenance or repairs, or for fuel, or for insurance, or for anything else related to this object and its upkeep or registration or storage or cleanliness. Where that car I was using to get into an accident of some kind, of course, I would console the driver for the time being, but then I can take my bag and completely walk away from the situation, perfectly scot-free. No paperwork or reports to file. No wrangling with some insurance company which only wishes to make me suffer with an endless request for documents, and the proofs to limit the money they can give me for the damage.

Next week, I will be attending some workshop just over the border in Switzerland. I will need a car for several days. So, I have arranged with a company to have a car, and I will have access to a simple, cheap, clean car, which will enable some friends and me to move easily for a few days through some rural areas. And when I am done, I will give the company their machine back again, and I will not need to repeat this experience for another year or two, at best.

I have never made a car payment in my life, to partially pay the salaries (and office rent) of bank workers through the interest that is given to the bank in order for me to have this four-wheeled “convenience“ sitting right outside at beck-and-call. I have not had to pay insurance companies’ salaries, or pay the exorbitant upcharge for car parts or repairs. I take particular satisfaction at not having ever owned a machine which relies on the constant payment of hard-earned money to petro-dictatorships all over the world merely for my operation of this “convenience”.

And yet, despite not owning a car for my entire life – – and actually seldom ever using taxis, to be honest – – I have been able to live with many full and rich experiences on three continents of the world. Lack of car ownership has never held me back from having any experiences, and rather has possibly enabled them to happen more richly, since I am not under the constant “suck“ of payment-slavery to banks, insurance, companies, and all of the related services tied to this indenturing machine. This leaves surplus funds for sharing those funds with others, helping some of my friends and students with their education costs, maybe buying a few drones for Ukraine when is necessary, these days.

A typical European car is parked 92% of the time. It spends 1/5th of its driving time looking for parking. Its 5 seats only move 1.5 people. 86% of its fuel never reaches the wheels, & most of the energy that does, moves the car, not people. 

Sound efficient?

Same-same — NOT same.