Of all the traditional temples in Korea where I did the 90-day ango, Shin Won Sah has a special importance. It is the first temple where I experienced these retreats, and most significantly, it is the temple where I could fully dive into the total ecosystem of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s ineffable dharma. All in all, from 1990 to 2000, I did six winter retreats there, and each one of those retreats caused the further and deeper revolution and spiritual disruption to set me most unshakably on this path. It was definitely a place of heaven and hell, and getting grounding in the don’t-know road through both. If anyone could ever be eternally grateful to a spot of earth, a set of crumbling rock walls, some crumbling old dharma halls, and some crooked Pinetree ‘s, that place would definitely be it, for me. That little smidgen of scrubby land in the temple precincts of Shin Won Sah “gave” greater value to my life than all of the well-manicured real estate of the Yale and Harvard campuses.
But the retreats there were retreats of my Teacher’s students only, so, one was fairly safe there from needing to integrate all sorts of other influences that dominate the standard Korean Zen hall experience – – mountains of tradition, heavy monastic family histories, and a mixture of practicing styles and attitudes that can often be a great challenge to maintain one’s practice among for the duration of such a long retreat.
After Shin Won Sah, I would have to say that practicing at Songgwang Sah for 5 more Winter angos was the next greatest effect on the development of this work.
Songgwang Sah Is one of the most esteemed of Korea’s ancient temples. It is respected for its strong discipline and unshakably clear rules for monastic community-life. It is located in a relatively poorer area of the country, and so therefore doesn’t have some of the materialistic excesses that can flood some of the richer temples.
Most notably, Songgwang Sah temple produced 16 National Teachers (국사), and was founded by the great monk Chinul (보조 국사), whose spirit is recalled and remembered in so many aspects of the temple’s life today. The eminent 20th-century Zen master Ku Sahn Sunim (구산스님) founded Korea‘s first international Zen Center there in the 1970s, and his family of western practitioners includes the former monks Stephen Bathchelor, Martine Batchelor, and Robert Buswell, among many others.
Songgwang Sah was also the lineage temple of one of the most beloved spiritual figures of Korea’s modern times, the poet/essayist/environmental activist/meditator/national conscience, Boep Jeong Sunim (법정스님) (1927-2007). His main student, Dok Hyon Sunim (덕현스님), is the monk I respect most in all of Korean Buddhism, alongside Hwi Kwang Sunim (뉴욕 불광선원 휘광스님).
The retreats at Songgwang Sah were not easy, and they were not comfortable. Well, that is exactly the way a real Zen retreat is supposed to be, and I can never say – – and hope I never say! – – that some kind of retreat was beneficial because it was “comfortable“. But, there was a dimension to this “discomfort“ which became another, wholly unexpected fuel for the practice that I needed to do there during that period: Being the only foreigner in the retreat group, there were always strange daily challenges and pressures that needed to be encountered, in a way that was unique in the entire community. On top of that, being perceived as some sort of “prominent“ or “famous“ entity created its own sets of fires that needed to be walked through, especially in the temple like that which prides itself on its low-key, understated traditions and atmosphere. There was naturally an inordinate amount of curiosity about this foreigner, and for 99% of the monks in attendance at the retreat, living together with a non-Korean like this was the first time they had ever had ongoing contact with a non-Korean, at all!
But I always tried to just keep my head down and practice hard. It wasn’t an ambition or anything: it was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t wish for chatter or making friends. I never ever went on the customary post-lunch walks in the mountains with the other monks, which could be filled with idle chitchat and especially curious questions to me and lame attempts for people to improve their English vocabularies. Anyway, I simply wasn’t interested in the least iota of social exchange. I even avoided appearing in the tea room, where monks gathered around on the rest periods and exchanged news about the larger Mahasangha, or issues in the world, or views on practice. It never interested me, at all. It probably seemed somewhat arrogant, but I didn’t care about that, either. I just kept my nose down and focused on the work, unrelentingly, every single day of the retreat.
I even grew to be anxious about those little periods of rest we were granted after a community work project, when it was natural for the community to sit around a pot of sliced watermelon (in the summer) or roasted sweet potatoes or chestnuts (in the winter) or tea and snacks. I didn’t want any invitations for conversation.
During certain communal events at the main temple, I would be invited to visit senior monks in their hermitages ranged up in the hills above the main temple compound. I was always asked up for tea, and I avoided at all costs, maybe going once or twice or three times in all of the retreats that I attended there. This was just standard operating procedure for me to keep my practice, and not be distracted by things.
As in most matters as an inheritor of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s practice-technologies, I was so fortunate to have been trained with the habit of doing lots and lots of prostrations with mantra. Unshakeably, I used every available rest-period possible for this, except the rest-period immediately following lunch, which I always always used to get a little recharging nap so that there would be clarity for the second half of the day, sitting until late into the night. Except for that rest in the schedule, pretty much every other free time was used for bowing. This had the added benefit of keeping me out of social interactions, and gave a perfect running alibi for why I couldn’t join people on mountain walks or trips to the rooms of elder monks for teachings and discussions which I did not want (or frankly even need).
I realize that this last part might come across as arrogant. So be it. But I have always felt so completely well equipped by my teacher. The only thing lacking was the resolve to execute, the giving in to laziness and sloth or some needless distraction. Maybe even giving up the bows, on one rest-period or another, due to some heavy sadness or feeling of impossibility that could creep up in the practice from time to time. Some valley might appear in my mind, during the many hours of sitting, and there could be some times when I just would not have the strong will to suit up again with warm clothes to execute a few sets of bows in the freezing Buddha hall. Sometimes I could just be really really down, or some intense loneliness could set in.
Also, as was also the experience with many of my fellow Western monastics, there was the constant feeling of frustration living amidst the pervasive narrowmindedness of a very tightly focused monoculture mentality. Nothing against it, but it is a homogeneity of mental-functioning that could truly get under one’s skin and be a constant irritant!
So I knew, whenever these invitations by Elder monks were proffered, that it was a friendly lure for this big-nosed fish to be brought into a room and talked to didactically about some dry intellectual concept of Buddhism that the fish had not the least interest in knowing anything more about. So it just became better for me to make it clear to the entire community that my resting breaks would be spent bowing in an old Buddha hall, or resting in my room thereafter, or making a pot of tea and getting ready for the next three-hour sitting block. There wasn’t left any margin for people to play with. I felt so great to be able to control that, though it was not always easy. And these struggles were not “bugs” in the system, but “features” of monastic life — a large group of unmarried men living together in a confined space of the temple precincts (albeit in the deep mountains!), following a fairly unwavering schedule, living under a certain prescribed hierarchy and representing a very, very old and justifiably proud tradition.
Despite the beautiful, bitter trials — or, rather, thanks very very much to them! — I have an eternally abiding gratitude to the Songgwang Sah community for allowing me to attend so many retreats there. The senior monks often joked that I was “a part of the Songgwang Sah family,” forgetting, it would seem, the awkward fact that their greatest modern patriarch and my own Teacher had a difference of view about how Westerners should be guided into Korean Buddhism: Ku Sahn Sunim believed in the unwavering tradition (a bread-making machine for the first Westerners back in the day was considered a major innovation and bending of the cultural rules!), while Dae Soen Sa Nim perceived enlightened natural adaptations of Korean Buddhist roots to the new soil of Western-shaped consciousness, including encouraging gender equality, democratic temple management, etc.
In any event, after my last Kyol Che at Songgwang Sah — and perhaps the last Kyol Che I ever sit in Korea — I returned to Germany to formally inaugurate the Zen Center Regensburg in a former office building in the Old Town of this UNESCO-listed jewel of medieval Europe. In our Dharma Room, inspired by the experiences at Songgwang Sah, and its mirror-altar in the main Soenbang [Zendo], I had two artist friends construct our altar according to a very clear and specific design.
A last look before heading back to Bavaria. And no more trips back here for retreat.
Some years ago, a London filmmaker/graphics designer extraordinaire, Jayoon Choi, of times 3 London, made a short documentary-treatment of the practicing life in our Zen Center. As part of it, she set up a GoPro camera on the altar to film a time-lapse of the morning practice. I left an intimate Zen-moment for her (and her alone) to discover during the editing process when I went to the altar to put out the candles after chanting.
Imagine the surprise to discover this Tibetan guy copying it. Well, a few years earlier. But I didn’t know that yet, at the time.
Now that we’ve mentioned it, here is Jayoon’s beautiful videoette:
[ 한국말 아래 ]
This is a group photo from my first post-ordination Dong-ango Winter Kyol Che retreat, at Shin Won Sah Temple, in the Kyeryeong Sahn mountains of South Korea.
I had already sat one Kyol Che at Shin Won Sah previous to this one, in the winter of ‘90/‘91, taking a one year hiatus from Divinity school expressly for that purpose. That retreat gave the first taste of the possibility of monastic life, and inspired me to strive to ordain as a monk after completing studies. Without this long-term tasting of hard practice (yeah, I really aspired to that excess at the time), I doubt there would have been the confidence to sustain a jump into the unknown of monastic life in Asia.
So, for this reason and many others too innumerable to contemplate, I am so forever grateful to this temple for this opportunity to sit there during an absolutely crucial period of my life. (Of course, that goes without saying that there was gratitude to such a one as Dae Soen Sa Nim for opening up this opportunity to people like me, to the lay supporters and the teacher-in-residence at the time, Mu Seung Sunim, later Su Bong Soen Sa).
And, despite the smile in the picture, it was a bitter, brutal alchemy that needed to be passed through. I saw real heaven and hell there – – for the very first time, I tasted the true infinite bliss-state heaven of before-thinking not-moving mind (flickering glimpses only, at first), and the true bottomless-pit brackish rank-stench hell-states of unexamined Karma. Of the latter, it was an accustomed sight since childhood, living in these lost and alienated mental states and naturally taking them to be “reality“. But the unvarying regularity of the daily schedule and the absolute silence-practicing were essential to really getting deeper insight into the nature of mind. Except for these very rare visits of lay supporters from the head temple in Seoul, Hwa Gye Sah, we were left by ourselves in the mountains. We were basically locked into this poor temple in the last pre-internet days, with very little heating and washing ourselves in a freezing cinderblock-and-corrugated-roof-shed shower room with just two spigots to wash from and an allowance of two bowls of heated water per day to use for face washing, foot washing, etc. The full-body shower was permitted once per week, when your gender went in at scheduled intervals and shared a large tub of hot water which had been heated just for that day. You soaped up standing naked in the freezing air of the shed, and doused yourself with large ladles of steaming water. This was not done intentionally, for some extremist trial, but because this temple was just so darn poor, and its local supporters were humble family-farmers who themselves struggled to put food in their families’ mouths. It was a supremely humbling experience, and so you were forced to make every hour, every minute “count“.
In this photo, I am standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the great Nissim Amon, who is now a very prominent Zen teacher in Israel and around the world.
At least five of my co-retreatants in this photo are now dead, possibly six. At least three of the visiting laypeople arranged behind us are also dead.
“In the Great Work of Life and Death, time will not wait for you. When you die, what kind of body will you get? Isn’t this matter of utmost importance? Hurry up! Hurry!”
승려로서 첫 동안거, 계룡산 신원사, 겨울 1992/‘93
This cartoon in a major Buddhist newspaper in Korea points to a problem facing the Chogye Order: While soldiers and priests are provided with clothing and basic necessities in exchange for sacrificing their lives (however differently) for their “mission,” the central Chogye Order provides nothing whatsoever to monks (and even less to nuns). Nada. The looming crisis is among the “haves” and “have nots” in monastic society — and there is zero assistance for monks as they age and decline in usefulness and activity. There is nothing to support them in their infirmity.
There is a misconception that I must somehow be “provided for”, as a monastic of 30 years ordination: the Order sustains this very burdensome work, with all of its many costs and material needs. And it surprises the people who ask me, when I tell them that I have never received a single spoonful of support from the Order and nothing, too, from the temple where I was raised — not even, as the cartoon makes clear, the kasa and robes. We must seek out lay donors if we wish to be clothed and fed, thereby creating an unnatural relationship of dependency. This is where all of the decidedly un-Buddhist ceremony-making and corruption come into nuns’ and monks’ lives.
I am glad, now, not to be receiving assistance from a central authority, because then I am not beholden to any institutional pressure or politics. But I have a fairly unique situation, especially since being a Westerner and then a publicly-facing teacher for so long gave me the tools that nearly all Korean monks do not have, or even know how to seek. Yet, I cannot be active for long. Already I notice greater retirement into quieter attempts at expression of Dharma, such as this blog, things not requiring so much movement and generating of enthusiasm and organization. How will my many years contributing to the development of this tradition’s voice in the modern age be acquitted when hospital visits and treatments start their inevitable hegemony over my life?
The current kerfuffle over Hae Min Sunim touched this nerve: a relatively youngish monk who has amassed a vast fortune in the tens of millions of dollars, including ownership of real estate properties in the pricey Gangnam, Namsan, and Brooklyn waterfront districts. He was a completely unregulated man, less monk than businessman and impresario. His revenue streams (through shallow-thinking bestselling books in 35 languages, a lucrative speaking schedule, income from videos and tapes, and a strongly monetised YouTube channel, in addition to the usual flow of private enveloped-donations which are the oxygen of life in Korea’s generosity-based society) were never questioned by any force of the eternally self-regulating power of Sangha.
Meanwhile, some monks whither out their final years in the back room of some temple, parked out in front of a loud TV back by the kitchen where the cats fight over scraps of garbage and overflowed ceremony leftovers.
Just got this SWELL handmade hat in the mail today from my super-duper mega-precious friend in Munich, the indescribable funny intense sarcastic and stunningly beautiful soul Dr. Leila Horvath, MD.
After years of work as a doctor, often dealing with emergency and trauma cases, Leila is now a higher-up in the Bayerisches Staatsministerium für Gesundheit und Pflege (the Bavarian Health Ministry). She is in charge of ensuring that health care workers (especially in long-term care facilities) are fully empowered against the Covid pandemic. She is in clinics all the time. She was in charge of setting up and running the successful contact-tracing program in Bavaria which was praised worldwide for being so instrumental in suppressing the virus spread in the Spring and Summer months, during that long, long ago “first wave”. She has been working flat-out since mid-March, sometimes six-day weeks, often returning home late at night and working on weekends (that is a particular no-no for Bavarian mentality!). She sometimes does not see her two precious daughters much during the week, and now has her weekend sliced in half. Lucky for her, she has a great partner in her husband and soulmate.
How did she have time to knit this, and perfectly timed for my birthday? If you knew her, you would know that you had met a true and living Superwoman. And she would also laugh at you if you even thought that. She is a very, very precious member of our Zen Center Regensburg e.V. practicing family, and even follows the daily livestream on the few days per month when she can actually sleep in in the morning.
I know that I am in total prophylactic safety with this beautiful hat. And I actually really needed one, too.
당신의 선택입니다. 오직 할 뿐이다!
매일 매일 하루에 세 번 참선 정진합시다.
한국 불교 역사에서 첫 “온라인 안거”입니다. 유투브: cloudpath108. 내 공식 비디오 체널이에요.
나는 당신을 위해 설명 할 것입니다 :
(즉, “할렐루야!” )
진정으로 현실로 깨어날 수 있습니다. 더 이상 헛소리가 없습니다. 진정으로 자유로운 사람이 될 수 있습니다.
매우 간단한 선택입니다.
Carrying the coffin containing our Teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004), down the stairs from Hwa Gye Sah Temple one last time. Together with Mu Shim Sunim and Dae Soeng Sunim. We escorted him to our ancestral root-temple, Su Dok Sah, for his 5-day public obsequies and cremation in the center of the nearby forest.
Smartphones were still five years away. How would he have taught “don’t know” in all of this distraction? Would anyone have heard his teaching at all? It certainly was a purer, quieter time.
This is when we usually prepared for the weekly neighbourhood Saturday morning farmer’s market day and our trip out into the cold to gather our fresh veggies for the week and flowers for the altar.
Due to lockdown, the Market Day is no longer being held. I am eating old pasta in half-opened boxes out of the cupboards and jars of tomato sauce. Missing so much these Saturday mornings shopping with Ioannis and Yonym after bright practice, our motley international crew among the Bavarian farmers.
While I was sitting in a park one day recently in Athens, a stray cat came to talk. “Meow! Meow! Meow!! Please give me some food.”
The question was answered purrrrrrrrrr- fectly.