The Zen (Temple-Hell) of Me

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Sami forever. The author of http://thezenof.me.

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

http://thezenof.me

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.

Journal of Life in a Zen Hall (선방 일기) by Ji Ho Sunim (지허스님).

Nobody knows who he truly is, or if he is living anymore. He has never announced himself. No picture exists, though written and published in 1973.

『선방일기』는 1973년 봄 『신동아』의 논픽션 공모에 당선된 작품으로 ‘지허知虛’라는 서울대 출신 스님의 선방에서의 일과가 솔직담백하게 담겨 있다. 일반인들로서는 쉽게 접할 수 없는 선방에서의 수행 풍토는 물론이고, 당시의 시대상까지 접할 수 있는 값진 글들이 …
선방 깡패들. 봉암사 동안거 ’09 마치기 2일전. 묵언 풀고 하는 날… /// Zen gangsters. 2 days before the end of the Winter Kyol Che 08/09 at Bong Am Sah. The day of letting go of 90-days’ solitary silence-practice within the retreat. So hard to let that go.

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!

Face-palm. Face palm. Face palm.

More coming.

Korean Samantabhadra: Bodhisattva of Great Action

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This person. This Being, this unfathomable bodhisattva, this strange force of utterly selfless just-do-it nature justly loved and respected by so many who have been in touch with this teaching through my work in the fields of Korean Zen: It has now been 25 years of hard work together to bring this wake-up teaching to as many people as possible, and she has been as constant as the rising of the sun. She has been central to essentially every aspect of the work, from the very beginnings of my public activity.

Over the years, she has been variously known as “Kim Bosalnim,” “FedEx Bosalnim,” or “Ji Weol Bosalnim,” following the 5 Precepts name I gave her in a ceremony in Hwa Gye Sah’s Seoul International Zen Center in 1996. In March 2019, she took the Ten Precepts from Zen Master Dae Bong at Zen Center Regensburg e.V, and became a Dharma Teacher. She is now “Dae Haeng Poep Sa Nim” — “Dharma Teacher of Great Action.” She is an unstoppable force of nature who impresses all who meet her with her strength, energy, abject humility, purity, natural non-bookish whole-human intelligence, her total spiritual orientation, simplicity, determination, and self-negation. The list goes on and on. She is closer to me than any of my eight blood-siblings, having cared and assisted and shouldered virtually every aspect of my public and private life. She does not spend any time on the Internet, and so most likely won’t ever see this post. So, it has become possible now to share a few words about her publicly, to inform and inspire just a few of the people whose lives she has touched through her immeasurable contributions to this work through several Sunims. And I am especially, eternally grateful for the selfless service, friendship, and love which she has given to me. Anyone who has any contact with my work, for the last 25 years, has had at least some contact with her, and if not direct contact, they have certainly, concretely received some benefit from her efforts. Every single person.

We first met in Seoul in 1994 when I needed her company’s help in a project I was then engaged in to spread Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teaching in Korea, where he was still (strangely) very unknown to the masses of Buddhist society, let alone to Korea’s larger culture, due mostly to his many years’ transmitting the Dharma in the Western barbarian lands, and to a revolutionary, unorthodox style and genius which had caused so many of Korea’s conformity-bound monastics to disregard him as someone who had “betrayed” Korean Buddhism through his transcendent innovations, his untouchable enlightenment, his authentic bodhisattvic direction.

I had ordered some archival material of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings from the Head Temple in the US, and when it arrived at Korean customs, I was informed that a steep customs fee would have to be paid first for the videotape (that’s right — videotape) materials to be delivered to me at Hwa Gye Sah Temple. The phone call came from Miss Kim, who was then an assistant manager in Federal Express/Korea, based at Kimpo Airport in Seoul. $100, and I could have the materials. If not, they would be sent back to the place of origin. In those years, for a penniless monk, $100 was a princely sum indeed!

This FedEx employee, Miss Kim, was a devout Buddhist who spent every free hour in her schedule volunteering at some temple. She had never before heard of Westerners practicing Buddhism — I was the first exotic barbarian. She couldn’t conceive of a Westerner wearing the monastic clothing and living in a Korean temple. She could not believe that the intended recipient of this imported videotape material, now handling her phone call in the temple office, was, in fact, a Westerner who would come to Korea for old stodgy Buddhism, of all things.

I was stunned that money needed to be paid to complete delivery of such important, even historic Dharma records — some video cassettes and raw manuscript materials. So, she made a deal: If I would agree to explain to her the impossibility of Western people practicing “her” Buddhist tradition, she would deliver the materials directly to our temple office without charge, paying the customs duties herself as a donation. She just could not believe that this person speaking with her on the phone was an actual, real, Western monk, not just some tourist or English teacher earning money in Korea! She would personally deliver the materials to our temple — on her day off, no less! — and pay the customs duties out of her own pocket if it was true, as I was claiming, that Korean Buddhism was, in fact, known to Westerners and that there were real, live Westerners practicing it not only here in Korea, but in many places all over the world. She was too pure — she could not believe it, and she thought she would “win” the deal.

What followed, on the day we met, was a long, 4- or 6-hour conversation about practice: She wanted to know why a Westerner was practicing Zen, why a Westerner had “chosen” this teacher and this Korean Buddhism, why he had left family behind in the West and entered the monastic path. She received a total introduction to the practice being taught to us by Dae Soen Sa Nim — something which is still quite unique in all of Korean Buddhism. In those days, I was deep into writing The Compass of Zen (it would not appear for another three long years), so it might be that she got the first complete audio-book download of all the material.

In the end, I got the materials, and she paid the customs fee!

From that day forward, as she says, her life was radically changed: she began to realize that she could discover her own True Nature, through practice. It did not require the long, incremental steps of gaining merit through temple-work (as she had been taught), joining lots of chanting regimens with other housewives and spending the fees to attend (as she had been taught), sponsoring lots of donations to monks (as she had been taught), hopefully all of which would lead to a male rebirth, then finding the Dharma, then having the good merit to become a homeless monk (yes, monk — not nun), and then the impossible odds (she was taught) of someday — maybe — attaining enlightenment into her True Nature.

When Westerners hear these things, they are naturally quite shocked. And very little, if any, of it has to do with the Buddha’s stated teachings. Mostly it was good old-fashioned social mores, which had been baked into so many masters’ (and scribes’) teachings over so many generations in India, China, and Korea as to make them indistinguishable from what the Buddha himself truly pointed to.

Although born in a Buddhist family, she had been taught for decades by various monks in Korea that her job, as a Buddhist believer, was just to earn good merit by making donations to the temple and doing lots and lots of work for the temple. There was no real practice but what was generally taught to women in those days in Korean Buddhism: the monks will get enlightenment, and your job is just to make sure they have well-pressed clothes while they get there, if they ever do. Making lanterns, serving the Sunims, doing kido practice to earn stores of merit — this was the Path of the usual woman in Korean Buddhism. Basically, it was being a glorified housewife of/for the temple. (It is changed now, but that was the prevailing expectation, up to and including much of the time I was in Korea.) Sure, there were a few small pockets, here and there, at certain isolated temples where some eminent monks encouraged the women to do actual sitting meditation. (And Dae Soen Sa Nim was one of those prominent “revolutionaries”, see below. As I might later write about, the first affirmation of enlightenment that he ever offered to give anyone in this world — monk or layperson — was a widowed lay woman, a humble housewife in LA.)

Yet when people have asked her, “Why do you assist this strange American monk for so long, through so many trials and tribulations, through the stress and even jealousy of others?” — she always answers the same thing — for twenty-five years, the same reply: “Until that moment, no one really showed me clearly the way that I could find this truth inside myself. I was only shown how to recite sutras in a Chinese characters I could not understand. Buddhism was about making merit. Or else Buddhism was always made out to be difficult and mysterious. Only monks could do the ‘real’ practice, and we could hope — at best — to do a lesser practice of incremental merit, so that we could maybe be reborn as a male next life, and maybe be a monk who could practice. This was the first time I learned how I could actually find this truth inside myself.”

She began attending her new Western monk-teacher’s weekly talks on The Compass of Zen at a Buddhist center in the southern district of Seoul, Gangnam. (Even having a Western monastic as a teacher was considered strange, even unnatural in those days. Not a few well-meaning Koreans of the older generation tried to persuade her to practice rather under the guidance of this or that old crush eminence. But she resisted. The idiot.)

She immediately began attending the all-night Zen meditation sittings at Hwa Gye Sah Temple held every Saturday night. The tough grandmother-sitters leading the group, who Dae Soen Sa Nim had raised as practitioners since the 1960s, were shocked to see a woman in her early-30s attending. And not just attending: even the occasional daughter-in-law who had been dragged along to satisfy the requirement of a marriage agreement or to better the family “line,” by just needing to show up a few times, was nearly always zombied-out completely by midnight, or a little after. None of them made it until the concluding hits of the chugpi at 3 am.

But she was there. And she was full-on clear and strong in her sitting, the elders would report. And this was after a full day of work at the office, located a 45-minute drive from the temple. (In those days, in the early-90s, it was still customary for Koreans to be expected to work every Saturday, at least for half a day, and more — it was a six-day-a-week work culture.) She sat strongly, and was respectful to the older women who had kept this meditation group together for decades, even when Dae Soen Sa Nim was teaching in the West and returned to Korea only infrequently. The elder Bosalnims respected her a great deal.

In those days, it was customary for several carloads of Sunims and believers to see off Dae Soen Sa Nim when he travelled abroad for teaching, and when he returned, there was a welcoming gathering, as well. This is old Asian tradition for taking care of elders, especially people of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s position in Korean society. FedEx Bosalnim (her temple nickname at the time, given by Dharma brother the American monk, Dae Soeng Sunim) worked in the airport FedEx unit charged with overseeing customs clearance. She would come out to the departure or arrivals, and the Big General grandma Bosalnims accompanying Dae Soen Sa Nim to/from a foreign teaching trip would greet her with a warmth seldom shown to other temple members her age (not because of coldness, but because of strictly hierarchical Confucianist habits). They really respected her, very subtly but strongly. And she reacted like a glass of water: still, reflecting back, but adding nothing of “self” or “ego”, any self-stained coloring.

Seeing her extraordinary faith and devotion, I gifted her once in 1995 a small golden statue of Kwan Seum Bosal (Jap: Kannon, or Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the bodhisattva of compassion). It was one of these simple things you can find for sale outside Chogye Sah Temple in downtown Seoul, maybe $60. I thought that she had the consciousness of a high-class practitioner, and lived already like a true nun or monk, and longed for the life of practice alone. But her job prevented her from getting to our temple more than once a week, for the all-night sittings. Why shouldn’t she make her humble one-room apartment into a true practicing place? A Korean nun learned of this gift some years later, and was outraged. There is a teaching from many Korean nuns and monks that laypeople should not have a personal Buddha in their home. The strange Western barbarian had violated this, and was deemed a dangerous influence to learn Buddhism from! The Korean nun made strenuous efforts to keep Ji Weol Bosalnim from learning such debased Buddhism from this uncouth “practitioner”: it was the first incident where I began seriously to question the insight lacking in your usual run-of-the-mill Korean monastics.

But FedEx Bosalnim was undeterred. I pushed her to practice, and she was more than ready for the inspiration. She took it up and practiced as fiercely as any person I ever met — and more fiercely than most Sunims I knew.

She began, in her home, 100-day retreats: Waking at usual temple-time (about 4 am), she did 1,000 prostrations with “The Great Dharani” mantra. Then, she would chant a certain sutra for that 100-day period: for one period, The Diamond Sutra, and at the conclusion of 100 days of this practice, she would just continue for another 100 days chanting the Amita Buddha Sutra, or the Sutra of Great Enlightenment, or some other sutra. Then, she would do a little meditation, shower, eat breakfast, and then go to work, to spend 9-10 hours behind a desk. At night, she came home, ate a simple dinner, and did the full Evening Practice, meditation, and then sleep. She never ever skipped a day, for years. And she never ever spoke about it, or showed it, to anyone. She positively hated it if I mentioned her rigorous practicing schedule to others (to inspire them, I would sometimes bring it up, to show that “regular” laypeople like her and them could have a fulfilling practicing-life.)

She lived like this for over two decades. She was unwavering, unshakeable: Even when taking the occasional international trip somewhere with her friends or family, she woke well before dawn, no matter what, to continue her “retreats.” She bowed and bowed and bowed and bowed, and chanted and chanted and chanted — in sickness and in health. She immediately became my closest disciple, and actually the first person I could ever think of as having taken some direction and employed it usefully in their life to effect real and substantial change.

So, Kim Bosalnim became FedEx Bosalnim became Ji Weol (“Wisdom Moon”) Bosalnim. She assisted with absolutely everything that I needed to accomplish as I suddenly (and unexpectedly) exploded into a reluctant public face of modern Korean Buddhism. It would be impossible to catalog the untold numbers of tasks and projects she undertook in this long, long crazy slog. She also helped other Western monks and nuns with their needs, everything from driving people to doctors’ offices to handling the customs clearance paperwork for shipments of Buddhist wares to various countries for assisting in the spread of Korean Buddhism. Needless to say, she has devoted countless hours of time and effort to assisting the establishment of the Zen Center Regensburg e.V, from its pre-inception right up until the present. Every meditation mat and cushion, every futon and blanket and temple-pillow, every set of Dharma retreat clothing, the temple bowls and spoons, candles and incense without number or measure, Buddha statues and bells brought here for donation to Zen groups in other lands, books and documents birthed from trees without number. When my Mother died in New Jersey, in 2013, she arranged to hold the weekly memorial ceremonies which are Korea’s ancient Buddhist tradition for the dead, traveling every week down to the mountains to oversee the solemn chanting ceremonies at Mu Sang Sah, since I was then living in Europe. She designed a large 49-day Ceremony for my mother and still makes absolutely sure to have the ceremony done every year on the anniversary of her passing. She has arranged for copies of my birth certificate, where needed, for all sorts of medical documentation covering more than two decades of varying medical conditions, and she determined the taking of my official death portrait (important for prominent monks). She should be called Alpha Omega Poep Sa Nim.

Dae Haeng Bosalnim (this is the final name — promise!) has earned mountains of respect from the Western practitioners of Korean Zen who have come into contact with her, through her many trips to the US and Europe to assist in this work. She is actually something of a legend to them, I have learned. Yet she is absolutely so naturally humble, utterly self-effacing, hardly ever speaking and preferring, instead, to assist in the background while certain ego-stuffed loudmouths give talks, arrange retreats, and curate various Dharma events.

She is a natural teacher such as we read about in the moldy old texts like The Lives of the Saints. There is a recent happening which is beautifully descriptive of how her activity shocks the supposedly “liberated” sensibilities of even those she meets in the West.

A simple story shows how she manages this burden while generating no ideas of self or ego:

I was recently invited to officiate at a special event in Athens. There would be many many things to do, and traditional aspects to arrange. Despite her own busy schedule, and advancing age, with the attendant bodily discomfort, Dae Haeng Bosalnim agreed to accompany me to Athens to help with the event.

We expected that a number of people would want to have private discussions and consultations with me in the little spaces of time before and following the event that night. It usually is a feature of the work anywhere. And yet that time before the event would also be filled with the many little last-minute corrections and modifications that accompany such public events. We were all very busy with organizing things!

A persistent skin condition on my face and scalp sometimes leaves me with dry, flaky skin, and on the head, can lead to mini-calluses which protrude microscopically. Travel and uncontrollable changes in diet and sleeping patterns had caused this to erupt during that visit, and I know, from experience, to leave the condition alone as long as possible. Sometimes I must even apply steroid medicine to the condition, but I tried to avoid it. 

I had delayed shaving my head for several days before the event, to give a space for natural healing. Yet the salt-and-pepper stubble had grown out somewhat, and needed to be weed-whipped back to the skin. But there was not any time to prepare until a fairly short time right before the ceremony – – our day had been full of other organizing matters related to this work in Europe. As is often the case, years of training means that personal upkeep and personal work are put on the side while dealing with the common matters shared with the students.

While shaving my head in the shower some hour and a half before the ceremony, I gouged a corner of the back of my head, a curve in the skull whose skin covering had become dried and scaly with the condition of my psoriasis or sebborheic dermatitis. The taste of blood was unmistakeable in the rivulets of water running over my pate and down the forehead onto the lips.

Even while still in the shower, I could tell that this was a serious cut. A real gusher. Years and years of experience teach a monastic how to assess and know these things with the fingertip and tongue, even while water is running over the fresh cut, without any mirror. First, you see the size of the blood-mark on your wet fingertips. Then, you taste the water running down off your head: you can sense the size of the cut by the concentration of irony-hemoglobin-taste in the blood entering your mouth. It’s almost as accurate as having a photo of the site.

And this one left an indelible mark, and the flow of the blood was hardly diminished by the drops of water running over my head even when the water wasn’t being applied directly to the area. A real doozy!

Emerging from the shower, I used the custom blotting technique with the fresh, white towel to bring forward a more realistic image of the size of the wound, the amount of the blood flow, even the dispersal of the blood — indicating things that could not be seen in a mirror. My own private Shroud of Turin, a fresh towel blotted on the cut tells the size of the cut, its location, and even the rate of flow of blood. And no matter how much I blotted it, the blood flow remained constant at the source. This was one of those cuts which would remain raw and open, even while I stood in front of a crowd of people, giving a talk and leading chanting and meditation. I don’t often feel self-conscious about appearance, but, having fresh red blood caking out of a hole in my head, all while standing in front of people, with their eyes fixed so centrally on the role, is something that can be a little distracting for the job. It can make for some nice jokes to start the evening, though. It’s a benefit/loss tradeoff of uncertain amount.

When something like this happens and I am alone in the temple, a few plies of toilet paper applied strategically to the wound can usually block things long enough for coagulation to appear. But who likes to give a public chanting and discussion with a few squares of toilet paper coagulated against the back of their head? So, the method would not be available – – this thing would need to dry of its own accord, like it or not!

Yet, when I emerged from the shower, and got dressed, some early arrivals for the event had already appeared. Some of the other students were busily rushing here and there, putting final preparations into place in the meditation room. I also had several tasks remaining, mostly concerned with the arrangement of the altar, instructions for seating arrangement, how to position certain objects, even the selection of the ambient music which would accompany the social gathering following the event: not too musical, not inappropriately matched with the spiritual atmosphere of the entire evening’s meaning. 

Yet, every time I touched the back of my head, there was a crimson bubble sitting there, ticky-tacky. And all of these wonderful people entering the meditation room, immediately searching for me, and coming over to greet me! I sort of positioned myself in an area of the room where I was sitting in the corner, with my face turned towards the center of the room, nicked skull pointed back into the corner. At least this would give a few minutes for the blood to cake. Then maybe a solution would appear… Maybe a scabette could form that I could rub off just before the talk, the wound threaded with enough hemoglobin to have stanched the flow. But the Greeks hug strongly and truly (this was immediately pre-Covid), sometimes the hands might embrace all around the head, with particularly close friends. What if one of them was smeared across the hand with my crimson? Awkward!

But I would not be left alone: one of my closest students had just come a very long distance from a far city just for the event. And she had not informed me of the visit — it was a beautiful surprise! She immediately sat down in front of me, while I was arranging some technical matter. She was very very eager to have a consultation about some important matters regarding the way she was teaching the practice to other people. This is my job, and this is where my focus goes. I needed to be fully present with her.

Several minutes before she came, Dae Haeng Bosalnim had noticed my gushing wound. She was aghast, and immediately began washing it and applying creams to fake-coagulate the flow. She even borrowed some sort of make-up from someone (she doesn’t own any of her own — see below) to disguise the reddened area, if not the blood itself. She was fussing over me every few minutes, muttering under her breath in polite exasperation that this is the presentation that I would give to the audience of people, some who had gathered from far away. Her voice was filled with deep and pure sympathy, and also a little correction to me. “Why does your skin skin become so? Are you not regularly applying the medicine prescribed by your dermatologist? Why do these accidents happen right before a ceremony?“ Always the faithful student, yet truly the friend, and quite often the mother!

While she fluttered back-and-forth between my flowing scalp and the several other responsibilities she also had to prepare for the event, I noticed the eyes of other people in the room, all of them – – as usual, in a gathering such as this – – at least part of the time, much of the time coming back to try to make eye contact with me, perhaps to cause a face-to-face meeting possibility, or just to find an opening to come forward to give a greeting.

But I saw something else in the look in the eyes of several people in the room: Why is this woman fawning over this monk’s head? Some of my feminist friends have, in the past, viewed any Korean female follower’s assistance or devotion unfavorably, skeptically, even cynically. It seems, well, perhaps quite backward to them. It seems to remind them of elements in their own patriarchal cultures (I understand, and sympathize with this), the images of their mothers slaving unquestionably over the physical needs of their fathers and uncles and grandparents. I get this — I get this very much, if you look at it just from the outside, and have no knowledge of someone like Dae Haeng Bosalnim, or where it comes from, it might look strange — this service, this fussing, this attention to detail, this highly personalized care and upkeep performed on this figure who already possesses or displays some outsized role in the group: a monk. (They will also do it for a nun, it should be noted.) To many of my supposedly “liberated“ or feminist friends – – both male and female – – the appearance of such actions as hers seems to smack of outdated interactions, things that we have grown out of as people and as cultures, at least in the contemporary versions of the cultures we swim in, in this part of the world, in our limited spaces where social roles are constantly, automatically examined through the lens of liberated, “woke” culture.

And in such a situation, in the West, coming as I do from something (a 2,500 year-old monastic tradition) that is patriarchal, by nature, I am part of the oppressor class. Maybe add notions of “white privilege” to it. I have often gotten these sorts of perceptions and interpretations, when Westerners hear how Buddhist “followers” (hate the word) or “devotees” (that, too) treat or serve the monks in Asia.

I have even encountered reactions of how Western students simply look down on behavior such as Dae Haeng Bosalnim’s, as representing the old country behaviors of cultures and oppressive systems we have grown out of. You hear stuff like this from people over the years. It’s OK. I can definitely see their point, looking at it from the outside.

Yet, here is a woman who has become an executive in an international corporation, without school network or family connection. She has chosen not to get married, consciously felt not to have children, because she did not feel that the factory-installed plan would fulfill her. She feels completely free living by herself, not bound into a marriage or emotional tie, better able to serve others every hour that she is breathing. Never married, she has never been “under contract” to a male, in the slightest way. In Korea, as in Islam, a woman is “daughter of so-and-so [father],” and “sister of so-and-so [brother],” then corralled into “wife of so-and-so” and eventually (of course!) “mother of so-and-so [son, it must be].” This is all oppression, accepted as normal and inescapable even by those who (justly) rail against it. Why, she has never even been “girlfriend of so-and-so [guy]”. She has never handed up her autonomy to the least measure of gender-mandated contractural identity, save for the boss she has in the building she needs to attend to earn her daily rice.

And yet, even without the term, Dae Haeng Bosalnim is, perhaps, the most “liberated” woman I have ever met.

She has never once worn lipstick; she has never once worn the slightest bit of make up or mascara in her life. She never feels the need or compulsion to enhance her natural, plain beauty for the sake of “bettering” her access to the “other” sex — whichever that one would be! (In a department store once several decades ago, some friends and acquaintances twisted her arm into allowing a store clerk to put some makeup on her, as a free test or gift, some special store promotion. She told me later that the feeling of these layers of paint on her skin was so awful, she immediately went home and  scrubbed it all off with such great vehemence that her skin was raw for several days!) She has never pierced her ears, to hang metal that would attempt to further adorn her natural beauty. She owns no earrings, and no ring, and no necklaces. She has never bought stockings. I don’t think she even owns any hairpins — even of the plainest variety! She has never permed or had her hair curled or styled professionally – – I call her hairstyle “rice-bowl-turned-over-on-the-head-and-trimmed-right-under-the-rim”. She has never owned a pair of high heels – – not even one. She has not worn a dress or anything but pants and sweaters, except for once or twice she was required to wear a corporate dress at some official function, maybe once at a wedding before she moved out from her mother’s home. She has never drunk alcohol, never smoked, and — needless to say — has never, ever experimented with any sort of drugs. She has absolutely zero understanding of any kind of music or musician or cultural adornment — she couldn’t tell The Bee Gees from Led Zeppelin (she may have heard of The Beatles, but she has no knowledge of them or their music except what anyone has heard in a popular sense). She has never read a novel, or poetry, and she does not have the slightest interest in history, philosophy, art, drama, culture whatsoever.

These qualities — in themselves — are not the qualities of “liberation,” and those who possess them are not “oppressed,” in some way. But please look at it all from the eyes of a practitioner, and you see a woman so fully comfortable in her own skin that she has spent not a single cent on fortifying or enhancing what she already, naturally just is. And she has relied on no male, whatsoever

So, back at this event in question, in Athens, several women viewed Dae Haeng Bosalnim’s care for my wound as a bit excessive. It might have actually offended them, from what I could tell. There was something, in her — viewed from the outside — that many good women had spent untold years trying to change, reform, eradicate, disappear. For good reasons, to be sure, but there is always — almost always — more to a situation than meets the eye.

I do not “celebrate” these qualities in her as some “preferable” standard that raises Dae Haeng above or “better than” other women who might enjoy and even flourish in these “adornments.” (Full disclosure: My own Mother was almost perfectly resembling this character: never makeup of any kind, or jewelry, or piercing, or nice clothing, or perfume, or nice shoes — any shoes but the flat-sole $45 shoes that a nurse or schoolteacher might wear for practicality-sake. Never shopped for nice clothes, had no possessions, preferred leftovers and stuff from the back-of-the-fridge over anything special, etc.)

I like to tell this little bit of hagiography about her birth-origins. It sounds too fantastical to be true, but it is, in fact, something that can be confirmed with Google Earth:

Dae Haeng Bosalnim was born in a mud hut in a clearing located somewhere in the wilds of the mystical Jiri Sahn Mountains of South Korea. When she popped out of her mother’s vagina, in 1961, the mud hut was isolated, far from other similar settlements, and her parents were just poor folk living off wood-gathering in the mountain valleys and subsistence farming. She didn’t experience electricity until she moved to Seoul along with the mass migration of the 1970s that surged there, searching for work, searching literally for food. (She tells me often that many of her first meals were from US-donated corn meal rations.)

Even before her teens, she cradled her own father during his slow and agonizing death from cancer in that hut. Without any source of survival, the family (5 sisters and a brother) moved up to Seoul in the early 1970s in search of economic survival during the rapid industrialization of South Korea.

But here is the point of these slavish hagiographics: Today, the very location of that mud hut, is now a newish Buddhist temple, and the location of the very room where she (and her 6 siblings) was born is now the Main Buddha Hall of that temple. The golden Buddha statue sits right on the spot where she came into this world and began the work of supporting the spread of Korean Buddhism around the world in the second iteration of that work after Zen Master Seung Sahn, our Teacher.

That is just so awesome: That the very spot where she emerged in this world now supports a large gilded Buddha statue, seated on a gilded lotus. Where she was born! (You can Google it.) People gather in that very spot to hear words of Dharma and chant and meditate and study sutras. People do numberless prostrations right in the spot peaks to the extraordinary merit and capacity of this humble, pure-minded soul. It has been one of this life’s greatest honors and gratitudes to have been such a constant recipient of her shining faith and single-mindedness.

Recently, during her last trip here to Europe (again, she uses her vacation days to come here to assist with the spread of these teachings, not for some idle personal travel), she noted that we had both been working so closely together for exactly 25 years. I had never thought to do the calculation from that date just before Buddha’s Birthday in 1994 when she brought those videocassettes of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s teachings to Hwa Gye Sah. Why is she talking about anniversaries?

But she had a point. This woman who has never, ever said a wasted word had her typical view in mind when she delivered that beautiful reminder:

“Sunim,” she said to me on the train one day, traveling to yet another point of departure to teach Zen in yet another European city, “you must take care of your health. We are already halfway done with our job. Still 25 years to go.”

Somewhere, a stupa should really be erected for this Soul, if they are ever put up for any monk or nun. Until that time, I will leave here, as a record, her own words. I filmed her once in the middle of a longish bike ride we had taken along the Danube outside Regensburg, one Spring day in 2018. The words are in Korean. But the soul is unmistakeable.

Free.

A tribute to her Soul: a sound-and-eye poem (which I would address) to Great Action from none other than Leonard Cohen, the late Zen priest: