This is an actual quote from him. Master of pyrotechnics, inner/outer demolition, plumbing engineering, jewellery-maker, self-taught tailor, chemist, expert in the long-lost arts of ‘al fresco’ wall repair. He is the first human being to reveal to me — in shock and horror but also great patience — my Suburban American tendency to want to purchase a new tool or appliance that was damaged or broken, rather than his old Europe ways of taking the time to repair it himself.
He lost several fingers designing munitions to make bombs against the Communist leadership of his native Poland in the 1970s and ’80s. Spent years in one of Europe’s most infamous torture-prisons — the feared Montelupic prison system of Krakow, later perfected by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Poland. When it came time to apply for his monks’ ID card in the Chogye Order — Korea’s oldest Buddhist monastic order — in 1994, there was this gap of 7 years on his record where he could not show a job or schooling. The Order wanted paperwork to prove that all monk-aspirants had a legitimate record of schooling and employment, that monk life was not just something being taken on because the applicant had had a bad stretch of unemployment or hanging around.
Sitting in an office at the Providence Zen Center in the Summer of ’94, we used these years of incarceration to declare that he had earned a PhD at the Montelupic Institute of Poland (“one of the oldest institutes of higher education in the former Soviet bloc” is, I think, how we did it, back in those pre-Googleable days). It might be a different situation in Korea today with regard to ordinations in Korea for foreigners, but we were not sure if they would accept a former prisoner inmate. (Even if his tenancy were, it was true, due to political activism and maybe one or two complicating forays into neuro-chemical development, shall we say.) We justified it, under howls of laughter together, as maybe just another form of monk-life he was being trained for! Opposing communism and totalitarianism is what got him thrown into prison; not backing down from challenging the rough guards inside the prison got him thrown into solitary confinement. In a sense, he had already taken his first steps in monk life when he was incarcerated. We still have a great laugh every time we think about it. We even had someone design a fake Diploma from the Montelupic Institute!
He was always intent on freedom. He is my precious Dharma brother, no matter what. He is a wild chemist and crazed meditator, a demon-bodhisattva beyond repair. The first time he met my Irish-Catholic mother, shaking her hand on the lawn in suburban New Jersey, he took the handshake gesture and turned it into kissing her hand. She had never experienced that! And my sister, Colette, also had this descended-from-nobility 6.5-fingered Gollum-like monk kiss her hand, as well — she was in such frozen shock at the witness of it happening to my Mother, that she could not react meaningfully when he reached for her hand!
I recently came across some writings on practice by one of our Western monastics, the Louisiana-born Won Il Sunim. He had some interesting takes on the state of the practice in Korea today. I connected deeply with his description of a meditation retreat in a Korean Zen temple, the struggle there to be left alone. Just one passage really struck the eye, and it was just such a true sketch of a POV in the Korean Zen halls and the state of Zen training these last years. It was good that he is writing now of his experiences there, and offering teachings, as he does. I don’t always agree with everything he writes about, it’s not the point. He has an eye, and he has a wealth of experience. So much simple, so much maddening, about the way that “Zen practice” is happening in usual Korean temples.
Won Il Sunim is a student of Dae Bong Sunim. He has done the whole traditional Korean monk training experience from the ground up. Twice. (Maybe more — he seems still to be wearing the brown-collar of the Sami, even though I attended his return to Mu Sang Sah from receiving Bikkhu precepts. I witnessed him and the other new Bikkhus bowing to their elders.) This is all to say: He’s done all of the requirements of the current state of the Chogye Order nun/monk-training system. Including boot-camp study of Korean to a certain national proficiency (required).
His quick-sketch of a moment in life in the Korean soen bang (Zendo) is a snapshot of the in-your-face grind it can all be, on one level. The psych ward in one of their Confucian/Buddhist boot camps. Emphasis on mobilization and conformity, adherence to structure. There’s some practice possible, some many hours. And I am lucky for that. But the whole lack of any direct mentorship there always surprised me. Many oof the senior-most are just passed out on the cushion, the whole time. And, worse than the sound out-of-the-blue of their heads banging sometimes on the floor (literally), there’s just the inertia of the whole thing. Everyone is just thrown together, and the upper monks are occupied mainly with other things, and this wretched “temple stay” selling of Buddhism, and their constant digital-tethering to donors and politics. The Zen rooms are not strongly guided. They often take in monk-folks who might not actually be up for really practicing on the retreat. The doors close on the retreat, and you’ve suddenly found yourself in close quarters with some real “choice” psychologies — for 90 days.
Won Il Sunim seems to be trying something here, and he will certainly mine it later, as teaching. He has a dry, gloomy existential view on things, in a way I often connect with. He expresses as an artist, with camera or music or this blog — I saw him even using construction for his art, as he was involved in all carpentry work for the Providence Zen Center and Mountain Spirit Center for some period, I believe. He worked on the Peace Pagoda in Cumberland, learning to bend the wood’s Canadian substance into a Korean-esque expression. He counts as one of his formative teachers Hyon Mun Sunim. The plumber-carpenter aesthete ascetic.
Anyway, this is a poor expression of what this monk is doing these days as his practice and teaching.
I am writing all of this because one passage really caught the eye, and caused me to read further. Impossible not to connect viscerally with the truth of most of this experience — there have been many I have experienced similarly:
In my tradition we do three-month retreats twice a year, mostly in silence. We sit from seven to fourteen hours a day, sometimes more. In this heightened environment it’s very easy to see where people stand. Over the past few years I’ve noticed the people sitting next to me aren’t focused on going to a base level and allowing this transformative thing to occur. Instead they’re watching what I’m doing. They’re observing me. If I move they crack their bones or make some kind of noise, like its a game. They’re trolling me. Hard as it is to believe, everyone that I’ve sat next to for the past few years has behaved this way. We’ve ruined our tendency toward humanness. Powerless to stop the onslaught, sometimes I’ve become filled with rage… but I never respond to them. I let the emotion rise and crest and dissipate on its own. It becomes pure energy. I use them to further my practice. I feed on them. Still, it’s unfortunate.
Sometimes I get frustrated. I have to keep my eyes open and focus on my posture constantly in order to keep them from reacting to me. Though I’m aware of them and their constant movement, I don’t give them any signals. It’s not my business. If they fell to the floor snoring I would enjoy their slumber. Good for them. I have other things to attend to. I had one person sitting next to me who was watching me so intently, reacting and making noises in response to every deep breath, eye twitch, every tremor, that I felt like I was being raped. It shows where we are, what level we’ve sank to
Getting checked out constantly for one’s behavior and practice in the Korean Zen halls is quite an experience. It is by no means a relaxed, deeply spiritual experience alone. There is all of this boot camp mentality coming from the country’s unfortunate over-militarized defensive posture. It seeps down into the temple culture because, well, they all spend some years in the military. And remain on reserve. Some monks had to leave retreat for a day or even an overnight on some mandatory gun-training. Seriously. This has happened.
But it seeps down, into the intensity of that mobilized effort known as Kyol Che. It’s just a very mentally challenging exercise, that many males living in tightened-in quarters together, on a strict daily schedule. There is all of this petty hierarchy, pure Confucianism on crystal meth. And as a foreigner, you rank on the lowest level, everything being done wrong or requiring re-checking. Some of them have never interacted directly with a Westerner before. You fuck up the whole ranking-classification system beaten into their very DNA by centuries of invasions.
When once, during Summer Kyol Che, news came into the Tea Room that North Korea had just now completed their first successful atomic bomb test — the seismographic signals picked up were reported on the news, heard on the television of one of the old Bosalnims peeling or chopping some of the food for our meals back behind the kitchen.
While sitting for tea on the break when the news came in, some of the monks were positively cheery. There was definitely pride, among most or all of them: a Korean had mastered the worst weapon on earth. It was a breakthrough for the whole family, the Han kyorae. But I was sill shocked. Some monks dissented quietly from any display of pride by a few others. And I know it’s a very self-conflicted position to be in, with all of the shared history.
I was shocked that this weapon is accomplished in a nation (really, a legalized crime-syndicate kleptocracy) in which hundreds of thousands live like animals in camps, literally sub-human, and hundreds of thousands starve at least partially, and hundreds of thousands work as slave laborers in foreign countries in a scheme to send hard currency to the leadership-dynasty, and none of them are free. Didn’t it feel strange not to connect this reality with whatever feelings of natural or racial pride, if you want?
One sincere Korean monk practitioner I befriended in Kyol Che one summer, he saw that I was perplexed at seeing the reactions in the room, gathered as practicing monks around a little tea-stained table. He saw something on my face, and invited me to speak
I asked him, “Sunim, this kind of pride you guys feel. It seems strange. You know, when the Jews were released from the concentration camps, speaking also for those who had been killed and cremated, ‘You knew! You know what was happening. You already had aerial photos of train networks converging on camps and sub camps. You had testimony of a few of the tiny number of escapees. You knew tis, while it was happening, and you did nothing.'” I really said most of this, basically word-for-word, and he was one who seemed educated enough to really understand English more than many.
“Sunim,” I said. “One day, maybe soon, these Koreans in the North are going to be free. And they will come down and see how well we have lived while knowing of their imprisonment. It feels a little strange to be proud of the news today that now their jailers now have a better weapon to stave off any interference with their perpetual mind- and body-rape. Do you think your generation will need to handle their anger at us living so well while even tacitly empowering their tormentors”
Sunim was not bothered in the least by this potential development. “We Koreans are extremely used to suffering. It is in our genes material for us to suffer. You Western people cannot handle lot of suffering, then complain. In Korea, ‘endure.’ Endure is most important life. Then if you can strong endure something, is make you good better life.”
Interesting to read Won Il Sunim’s “endurance,” because for nearly all of us Westerners, nearly to a person, who have sat in the Korean “Soen bang,” there is this fact of the need to practice “endurance” while trying to open to the infinite within/without, boundlessly. It’s quite an environment.
One day, maybe I should share these stories that I experienced during those years in the Korean halls. In the spirit of Hakuin and Dogen, an updated “Journal of Life in a Zen Hall (선방 일기)” done by the mysteriously invisible Korean monk Ji Ho Sunim (지허스님). Maybe these experiences should one day be shared.
These stories sometimes appear in stories and Dharma talks. It is interesting to see them expressed by Won Il Sunim in his blog. I look forward to hearing more. He was trained in the temple, Baek Yang Sah, located deep in Seorak Sahn, near the North Korea border, where they have exiled former dictators. It used to be like a Supermax with cool Buddhist paintings. I’m sure he’ll share more of the beauty of what practice he found there. All challenging the consciousness. Westerners boot-camping their Big Question through some interesting psychological/historical complexities in these Confucian-Buddhist rejection pits. What is left now, with the entire tradition being carved out by government-tourism “growth priorities”, things like temple-cooking workshops and classes, and these cultural experiences called “temple stay” — these are becoming what it is meant to “practice” Korean Buddhism, or even Korean Zen. Cooking a fanciful food which we never ate in temples except if someone really big died, or tea workshops extol the supposed well-being of tea culture, tea for detox, tea for reducing stress and cleansing the body.
Here is a poster by a recent event by a Sunim in Chogye becoming well known through “Health Detox — Temple Stay” programs, with a poster extolling the supposed health benefits of tea. Nothing about the Buddha’s teachings, nothing about real waking up. Just peddling health-culture now. Dumbing everything down to purely transactional programming. Performance art.
And not a word of its function directed out at Westerners, non-Koreans. For an event which is also happening in the NYC area!