Mirror of Zen Blog

Letter to a “Panicked” Ukrainian

In 35 years of giving talks at universities, temples, churches, corporations, and gatherings of all kinds all over the world, I have never one time felt compelled to “defend” a talk or statement I have given.

Ever.

Until now.

This matter that I reply to today is clearly becoming my own small experience of the “cancel culture” mentality raging through our app-addicted times, the “moral panics” so easily-triggered and quick-to-destroy impulses of the current social media age. And what makes it saddest of all is that the little group of friends who have initiated their own little online campaign to impugn my expressions from a short public talk represent a people and a movement and a struggle who I feel constant and unquestioned empathy for, and for whose cause I have tried to contribute as much attention and resources as possible.

The background: I recently delivered a talk at TEDx Berlin, on February 2. Held under the organizers’ motto “Perceptions: A Spotlight on Blind Spots”, the talk was on how different perceptions of the same facts can produce totally varying reactions from people. “Our bodies do perception,” I claimed at one point of the talk, “but the mind does interpretation.”

During the talk, among other citations and examples of the vagaries of perception, I held up the story of a deeply impressive, courageous Ukrainian woman who had recently sat retreat at Zen Center Regensburg, and through her direct facing of her terror, anguish, and rage at the genocide of her people, had actually managed to have a conversation with a Russian person in the retreat after the retreat concluded. In order to be sensitive to the Ukrainian woman who attended retreat, I employed a pseudonym, as I did for the Zen Center resident with whom she interacted during and after the retreat. It seemed to be taking all of the right precautions.

As expected with such a deeply sensitive subject, there were a few strong reactions. On the day of the talk, during an intermission, several Ukrainian women approached me to “thank” me (quite enthusiastically) for raising — at the first talk to open TEDx Berlin after a five-year hiatus — the issue of the Ukrainian peoples’ immense, unspeakable suffering. Yet on the night immediately following the talk, I was approached by a Russian woman at a private reception for the TED speakers, whose first words to me were, “So, that was a very pro-Ukrainian talk you gave there!” (I detected even a slight hint of indignation in her voice, and it might have been a social “mock indignation” for effect or not, I couldn’t be sure.)

And now there is this: Some well-meaning Ukrainian woman in Berlin has contacted the TED organizers to have my talk cancelled, claiming as grounds for the cancellation only her complete misperception of my views, the “panic attack” she said she received during my talk, and her obvious ignorance about the efficacy of meditation or even psychotherapy, as well — the topics I was invited to speak on, and which I have 35 years of intensive practice and study in. She also creates a very obvious slander in her claims, to top it all off.

Since this well-intentioned woman has chosen “cancel culture” and slander to misrepresent the views which are very clearly recorded otherwise on the video of the talk, it seems important to offer her a public clarification. Rather than put some long defense on Instagram, and merely chum the waters further, this Blog seemed a more reasonable place to set the record straight, in calm and repose, dialed-down from any temptation for instant-reactivity from any direction, which might also re-traumatize this woman who is clearly trying to help her suffering people, however misguided, blindly self-righteous, and deleterious are her methods.

I understand her right to speak from the very, very terrible pain that has been visited on her people — a war of pure annihilation completely without justification! — by the Russian people and their utterly evil, nihilistic government. (And the utter moral weakness of most other governments in the face of this — including and especially the US Government — must certainly bring her and her friends even greater pain, as it certainly pains me.)

But her indescribable pain gives her no moral “extra credit” to send such misguided missiles into someone’s work who actually does not make the claims she asserts. As such, I have decided on this kind of reply, and am posting it here on the Blog “for the record”.

I want to emphasize that I have tried very hard to restrain myself, and not further inflame this person. I have resisted a reply for nearly two months since her first complaints. I do not wish to hurt her further: That is another reason for not posting this reply directly on Instagram (as she has), where it will only whip up that instant-reply reactivity of others looking for easy digital bloodsport which can be had while sitting at the edge of their toilet seats. But such egregious misperception and a kind of low-grade calumny as hers must be responded to, if just so that she might better refine her very sincere efforts to fight the good fight for Ukraine and for other suffering people. And the first part of that development would need her to train in clear seeing of truth and thinking.

Perception.

First, the public complaints: [Since she has complained publicly, there seems no need to “anonymize” anyone here — she has chosen to make these claims in full view of the eyeballs engaging one of the most widely-viewed social media apps in the world, and so these screenshots should provide the best contextualizing of the coming essay, for fairness-sake and transparency. She has made her complaints against me for anyone to see, and not blurred her name, and so she opts out of that approach in return. Otherwise, this would have been conducted by private email.]

Next, the reply:

Dear Yulia ( @yuliyaryna ),

Not a mere few of those who wanted to drive out their devils entered into the swine themselves.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra 

Thank you for your very passionate and deeply sincere comments on Instagram — and your complaints to the TEDx Berlin organizers in other fora — regarding my recent talk, entitled “The Zen of Perception: Mastering Suffering and Pain”. Since you have brought your concerns into a public space (Instagram) and also through email or other communication to the event organizers, and since in your remarks you have presented certain misunderstandings of the speaker and the actual recorded substance of the talk in question — and have further asked that I be cancelled for my views — I feel compelled to offer you, in humility and yet in strength, some helpful clarifications of what you have and have not seen in the talk. Even your initial comments put “Russian” words in my mouth, things that I never actually said, things that are NOT on the YouTube record of the talk, and things what would never come of this speaker’s mouth. You have even questioned the story at issue even happened at all!

This and other misconceptions show that, despite the true and legitimate righteousness of your intent (which I believe 100%), you have printed onto this talk grave misperceptions which are not actually anywhere in the talk itself, and which are not the stance or position or even the point of this speaker and the talk I delivered. Your reaction is a complete MISPERCEPTION of the entire talk I delivered on the topic of “perception: a spotlight on blind spots”. How fitting!

I do not write the following easily: it is a matter of a certain failure on my part even to consider “defending” my own thoughts and expressions. As a Zen monk with over 35 years of teaching, I have never felt compelled to “correct” the record for a public talk I have given. Anywhere in the world. But due to the extraordinarily sensitive subject matter of this talk (a genocidal war by Russia against the innocent Ukrainian people and their courageous nation, its history and even its language), and wishing also to serve with compassion the grave hurt you must surely feel when non-Ukrainians speak about such a deeply painful subject as this insane Russian war, I feel compelled to offer you the most meticulous understanding of what you have complained about, point-by-point, so that you may be reassured of my intentions, and so that you do not misinform people further about what was actually being accomplished in that talk.

First things first: Whether it matters or not, for basic background it is helpful for you to know that the speaker who delivered this talk — and who you have worked to have the TED organizers “cancel” — is a passionate and devoted supporter of the Ukrainian cause even since BEFORE the onset of the full-scale invasion. Such “support” should not matter in any other context, and this confers no special moral “allowance” for claims made by me. But since you publicly claim that I am “spreading russian propaganda narratives”, it seems that having this corrective information would help you better to understand where I speak from in this TED Talk (as if publicly listing this shit really matters, but for people like you, it should, or could).

So, here goes: (As a Zen monk, I just HATE doing this)

Though I am only a “begging monk”, supported by no church or order or organization, I have personally donated (and have ordered our not-rich organization to donate) close to 7000 EUR to Ukrainian organizations since the first week of the brutal and insane full-scale invasion of your truly amazing homeland, in February 2022. (We could crunch the exact figure at some point, to help your doubt and your understanding.) Funds were donated first to VETERANKA (an organization serving the needs of female veterans, because we judged that they might get less attention than the usual male soldiers, and have unique burdens as mothers and breadwinners where the “male” is incapacitated by war); then an equal amount to Hospitallers Ukraine (a hospital unit treating injured troops in the field); to the Liberty Ukraine Foundation (DRONES, baby!! — but primarily non-lethal thermal-imaging drones for assisting humanitarian orgs to track Ukrainian “internally displaced peoples” who might be hiding in their basements under shelling, to bring therm services and care); to a Kharkiv unit 127 “Окремий батальон 127 Окремої бригади Сил ТрО ЗСУ” [on June 6, 2022, well before “Maria” of the TED Talk became known to us]; and to another Ukrainian soldier in the field, the great Roman Trokhymets. I have donated several hundred Euros to UNITED24 (Ukraine House DC Foundation) for “U24 Humanitarian Demining“, to support the defining efforts that prevented Ukrainian farmers from replanting their fields.

All of these thousands of Euros sent to your homeland and your people is money which I cannot give to my own meditation Community. (And we NEED money!) How dare you claim that I “spread russian propaganda narratives” simply because I have told a story about two people experiencing a “private” peace-making at the end of practicing a 2,500 year-old technology of peace, just because your rage is so understandably massive that you don’t think such a “peaceful” happening should be any part of any whatever solution at any point to this horrible crime against Ukraine and humanity? How dare you put such egregious lies in my mouth as to claim that this story is “maybe” not even true?

In addition, in 2023, together with a group of Korean Buddhist nuns, I fundraised 2500 EUR for providing life-saving breathing apparatus to Ukrainian refugee children through an important organization in Poland called Fundacja Pallium for Ukraine, run by a Ukrainian woman and her husband. (If you don’t believe me, then you may view here their report of our donation on their Facebook page — https://www.facebook.com/profile/100083244163220/search/?q=zen)

On top of this, I have financially supported a local meditation group in Lviv (and its abbot, a Ukrainian Buddhist monk-brother named Won Hak Sunim) who are providing a truly important oasis of meditative calm to serve the unimaginable traumas inflicted by Russia’s bestial infliction of war on your people. (I do not have the exact amount of support sent to the meditation group in Lviv, but it is close to EUR 2-3,000, including tech equipment.)

Even further, I informed my Zen friends in Lviv that Ukrainian refugees who have interest in meditation would be welcome to apply for free residency in Zen Center Regensburg.

If you had done your fullest research before so terribly and emotionally “misperceiving” my talk as passing on “russian propaganda narratives”, you might have noticed that I have not only donated financially, but have spoken out publicly against Russia and in favor of the obvious moral purity of Ukraine’s hellish situation. Use the search function on this Blog with the words “Ukraine” or “Russia” or “Zelensky” or “Putin”. I have posted numerous essays on this personal blog which severely criticize the Russian government, Russian society, and especially the absolutely evil Russian Orthodox Church and their leadership for their insane instigation of this terrible tragedy inflicted on the innocent Ukrainian people. (As a former Catholic, I have also strongly mocked and criticized the current Roman Catholic Pope’s own total moral shitheadedness regarding Russia’s total culpability for this war. Check here — a post from 5 days BEFORE the full-scale invasion of this long war began — https://blog.mirrorofzen.com/2022/02/17/thoughts-and-prayers-alone/)

I have been criticized by several of my own students and members of the public for seeming to “step out” of a Zen teacher’s spiritual “neutrality” in order to enter a sensitive matter which people would prefer to call “politics”. Several Russian people who “followed” me in some way discontinued their contact. No problem. I have used this small public voice to make absolutely clear the evil and the utter barbarity and senselessness of this war. There are no “two stories” to this conflict, from a moral point of view: There is only the matter of one side’s indescribable evil and cynicism, and one side’s beautiful wish to survive and be left alone. And I have spoken about this with pretty extreme clarity.

Of course, you would not be expected to do this, but if you had by chance ever encountered even one of my Dharma talks released on YouTube, beginning in February 2022 you would hear me criticizing the Russian standpoint rather vehemently and rather often (to the point that even some of my students have asked me to “tone it down a little”).

If I have sometimes accepted a Russian person to practice meditation with us (and only once), it is in my role as a healer and servant for all beings. I have clearly and unequivocally taken the moral position of the Ukrainian people in this conflict, as I do for any oppressed people or beings. And I take the side of any suffering being in the conflict of being human.

In your utterly impetuous moral panic, you have done NO “due diligence” to understand the intentions of the speaker you and your friends so easily calumny. Now that we have shown that you have completely misunderstood the intentions of the speaker of the talk you criticize, let’s now get a little more specific about your malodorous “misperception” of my public talk:

1.

In your first note, you claim “TedX Berlin here is spreading russian propaganda narratives (it’s in the full video). Brotherly nations bullshit…” There is not one single word in my talk which is spreading Russian propaganda (you are welcome to be more specific, but you cannot). Simply whipping out the radioactive claim that “he is spreading russian propaganda narratives” without concrete substantiation (“HE MOLESTS CHILDREN!”) is simply not being intellectually or morally honest, whatever your understandable pain. I never even ONE TIME mention “brotherly nations” — it is simply not in my talk, or even hinted at. I have HATED that term when other Slavic visitors to our Zen Center have used it in the past, including one very close Serbian monk-brother and Putin-fan who used it all the time. I despise that term for its “nationalistic racism”, and for its patriarchal emphasis. How dare you impute that toxic thinking to my efforts to express my own experience for people to find peace inside? How dare you?

“Spreading russian propaganda narratives” / “brotherly nations bullshit” is YOUR misperception of my story, that is what YOU saw in this story, because YOU saw a resemblance between my expressions and things that other people say about “brotherly nations”. You are certainly entitled to your (unfortunately) very grave suffering, and you are certainly entitled to the undeniably strong moral position of the Ukrainian people that comes from that. But no one is entitled to use that “moral” pain in order to present their own terrible misperception of the speaker’s very CLEAR words with whatever moral indignation is welled up inside them, and present that misperception as the speaker’s own views. This is simply inadmissible, and it is wrong.

Do you have the guts to apologize for this just as equally as you might seem to have the guts to “take down” or cancel someone?

I am a meditation teacher, by training and vocation. Of COURSE I believe that the ultimate solution to all human conflict is a deeper look within — even between antagonists and mortal enemies. And Jesus believed this (under brutal Roman occupation), and Gandhi believed in this (under brutal British occupation), and Martin Luther King believed this (under brutal white supremacist occupation). Of course, there should also be total military defeat of Russia, in this case. But that will NOT ensure the making of world peace — only “knowing the self” will liberate human beings from their bondage. Otherwise, even a defeated and humiliated Russia (“Yes!”) will one day return for its revenge! While you and the rest of the Ukrainians are completely justified in living by “lex talionis”, today, as a meditator, I have other experiences and insights about a longer-term solution for things. And my story about “Maria” and “Natascha” was simply pointing at that dimension. And you have conflated it with me somehow claiming “Ukrainians should just lie down with their brothers in peace”. Will you take back your “misperception”, as publicly as you have slandered me with it?

2.

You say “This man also spreads disinformation in his talk that Kharkhiv fell to russians…” — Yes, Kharkiv CITY proper never fell to the Russians. But much of Kharkiv OBLAST fell to Russia until September 2022, when the brave and honorable Ukrainian forces pushed them out. According to Wikipedia, “During the [2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive], Ukraine retook over 500 settlements and 12,000 square kilometers of territory in the Kharkiv region”. I was speaking about this — I did not demarcate between Kharkiv City and Kharkiv Oblast, and perhaps a student trained in history might make that distinction a little bit better. But in the flow of a public talk without script, I simply did not use the demarcating word “Oblast” — these units of administration are things not familiar to me, a simple Zen monk.

The point remains that Kharkiv Oblast had fallen largely under hellish Russian occupation, and no other military definition of “fell to” would cancel that point. In any event, though I did not make that specific administrative distinction, it does not take away anything from the glorious efforts of the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian people, whose efforts (we believe) will be honored and celebrated by countless generations for as long as history is written about this failed species called “human being”. And the Battle of Kharkiv — the battle to take back Kharkiv — will be written about on the level of the Battle of Marathon and other improbable achievements of an outnumbered, outgunned, supremely inspiring military victory. Truly, and with humility — “Slava Ukraini!”

3.

You say, “I already complained to the organisers but they chose to go ahead with spreading this nonsense further. Can we do something about it?” Your answer to an incredibly fine-tuned presentation is merely to demand cancellation of the speaker’s voice, his “nonsense”. “Can we do something about it?” is your whistle to bring other waves of negative reaction hopefully to bear against the organizers so that they would bend to your aggrieved heart and cancel this evil speaker (a penniless monk raising money for Ukraine who is CLEARLY “spreading russian propaganda narratives”). Your statement — “Can we do something about it?” — is a public call to the mob, and nothing less. Nowadays, it’s a not-so unexpected moral weapon employed only by the intellectually weakest. Don’t you have anything more potent to cover for your own impetuous ignorance of the speaker, ignorance of his meaning, and inability to take better responsibility for your own mis-seeing than cancellation? Please don’t take this too personally, Yuliya, but you act a little like a Russian missile here — no accuracy, not aimed at a “legitimate” target, only sent to kill and destroy whatever you don’t understand, or didn’t take the time or effort to understand. Again, as Nietzsche said, “Not a mere few of those who wanted to drive out their devils entered into the swine themselves.

4.

You claim, “…the speaker doesn’t even put the right stress on the city name…” Please give a public talk about something in Korea, or Japan, or even Scotland or Wales, and try not to mispronounce a term or city name differently than a native-speaker, especially when that city name is part of a sub-story of a sub-story of a main theme. This criticism itself reveals a pettiness which proves the weakness of your entire “moral” stance here. You’re desperate for anything that lands a “hit” proving the speaker’s incompetence, and proving your sole moral and linguistic command of the entire terrain.

5.

And here your moral argument breaks down completely: You claim, “putting together a victim who literally escaped from being bombed and had so much trauma together with someone who directly contributed to that trauma and hoping they become friends is extremely unethical practice”. And by whose ethics do you estimate this? The woman, “Maria”, came to me because she recognized something about my skill as a teacher of meditation; she was being cared for and served with exceptional attention by our compassionate and highly skilled Zen Center family; I gave her my fullest attention and guidance. She was accepted into a meditation retreat which other attendees were paying close to EUR 600 each for, and “Maria” was housed and guided for free. No one “hoped that they become friends” — we only hoped that they would meditate. We knew that 2,500 years of “know thyself” would produce the results, as they did. When people shut their fucking mouths for a few hours together, magic happens, Yuliya. You wouldn’t believe it!

The need to provide “Maria” with a special apartment location for “venting” truly unimaginable traumas provided an extremely challenging decision for our entire Team in the midst of a major event of several months’ planning. (And “Maria” applied to our retreat quite late in the planning process, when other rooms could not be changed more easily, especially for someone who admitted that she might need suddenly to scream.) It was NOT made lightly to house her in that Russian person’s apartment when there were NO OTHER OPTIONS, and there were zero other options for our Community, given its extremely limited space in a booked-out retreat event.

But as I do not know the correct pronunciation of Ukrainian city-names, you might also not really understand Zen, or, meditation, or the deep alchemy of truly transformational spiritual evolution. And meditation means — all truly deep spiritual and even genuine psychotherapeutic transformation means — allowing oneself (under clear guidance) to come face-to-face with your demons, and, seeing through those demons, attain your inborn liberation right at the root. And this is what I accessed through an impossible situation, and our whole Community guided “Maria” every step of the way with it, and the results — whether you like them or not, or whether you consider “all Menschen werden Brudern” to be true or not — to be extremely effective for THOSE two peoples’ experience. And for everyone who had the great honor to witness it.

6.

You claim “At this point I am sure the story is made up, but has it been true, he would for sure retraumatise the Ukrainian woman.” [See point 8, directly above.] What an utterly disparaging and heartless slander you are making here!

7.

Here’s the kicker: You claim — “I was there is the room when he gave this talk. As a refugee myself, this gave me a huge anxiety attack. Other Ukrainians in the audience complained to you in comments on your page about this talk.” Yes, it is truly unfortunate that you experienced an anxiety attack. Some of these stories and images were chosen for strong “effect”: For example, when told to provide graphics for my talk, I intentionally chose a very, very evil-looking photo of Putin to show, at one point, to stimulate deep emotional connection with the gravity of this telling and to give a clear “hint” about my “position” in this conflict. [i.e., “Putin is an evil motherfucker”.] But your anxiety attack — however real and unfortunate — is itself no greater moral truth to the reality of your claims and clear, documented misinterpretations. You do not speak for the “panic” of all Ukrainians, or even those I met at that event: During a “Meet the Speakers” table during a break immediately following my talk, I was approached by several Ukrainian women who waited patiently to speak with me while I was occupied with others. When there was finally time to chat, the Ukrainian women expressed extremely enthusiastic gratitude that I had spoken about Ukraine, and that it came to pass that the entire TEDx event opened with the concerns of a suffering Ukrainian person (“Maria”). Even when I was called back into the Hall for the continuation of the program after just a few short minutes of conversation, these Ukrainian women walked with me from the meeting area back to the auditorium, and all of their words were ones of gratitude and appreciation for what I had said — not a single panic-inducing reaction from any one of them. I mentioned to them my great admiration for President Zelenskyii (correct spelling?), how I consider him to be one of the greatest moral lights of a whole era, and I believe I compared him to Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King, which I have often done in public and private. And when we parted, at the bottom of the stairs, I shouted “Slava Ukraini!” to them loudly as I re-entered the Hall. (On a personal note: I felt a distinct honor finally to be able to say “Slava Ukraini!” to “real” Ukrainians, in the flesh!)

But here’s the most mind-blowing insight into the roots of your misinterpretation: The night immediately following the talk, at a reception for the speakers, I was approached by a prominent Russian woman whose first words to me, after greeting, were “So, that was a very pro-Ukrainian talk you gave there!”

Yuliya, my talk was about “perception”. What you have viewed as “spreading russian propaganda narratives” — coming from the mouth of a speaker who is extremely “pro-Ukrainian”, in word and in deed — was viewed as “very pro-Ukrainian” by a Russian woman within 36 hours of your horrible panic attack. Who is right? Who is wrong?

PERCEPTION.

[One more point about my private “affiliations”: While I was rehearsing this talk with some of the TED organizers, I told one of the listeners at the rehearsal that I was tempted to end the coming talk by saying, “Slava Ukraini!” from the stage. But someone with more experience told me that TED would not wish to be a platform for any political views whatsoever, and so it would be best not to “give in” to such passion from the stage. I was grateful for that advice — I may have been “cancelled” by the TEDx Berlin organizers much quicker than your misplaced “moral panic” could have ever accomplished.]

Ukraine owns the total moral landscape as far as this war is concerned. There is no non-Russian historian of any standing who disputes that now, or who will dispute that in the future. And I also agree 100% with the moral position of the Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian nation. Every time I hear a talk by Professor Timothy Snyder, of Yale, I am in complete agreement with him. (I even used his list of Ukrainian charities on his blog or substack as the basis for a blog post here, and as the basis for who I donated to.)

There is NO perceptual difference in how this war should be viewed. But you might perhaps reflect a little inside yourself and see that however much the very high and secure moral ground your precious Ukrainian identity might grant you regarding some dumb American total outsider talking about sensitive subjects touching your truly undeserved and enduring pain, this does NOT give you the right to use that “moral high ground” to own or even be authoritative about every aspect about how some “solutions” might be offered. And meditation — looking into the very nature of consciousness itself — certainly offers a great deal, once the Russian military and its government are utterly and completely defeated, even humiliated. We have 2,500 years of proof of this kind of “solution”, and not one syllable of your hasty “moral panic” will ever quiet or diminish that.

Please be careful that your true moral indignation at this utterly senseless and insane project by Russia not cause those who support you to come to the conclusion that, while you may have moral power, if you misuse that moral power, you are simply a victim of your own thinking, and Russia has won over you, in the end.

Perception.

Thank you for your attention to read these words. I am so sorry to offer them here, because your heart must exist already under such unimaginable pains and losses. But your misperceptions — whatever your nationhood and its completely undeserved agony — could not go factually unanswered, especially since you have made such strenuous efforts to make your misperceptions the basis for cancelling my talk.

Everything else you might think after these words is your own right to your own “perception”. When will you end the stupid war in your head?

Slava Ukraini.

Hyon Gak Sunim
Regensburg, DE

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