The True Coronavirus, True Cancer

[ Written in February 2020, at the very beginning of the coronavirus epidemic.]

Today, February 5, is International Cancer Day. My Mother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2013, and I helped family members to nurse her through the final weeks. It is a terrible, merciless slayer. Witnessing someone pass from cancer is a grinding, awful experience.

But however its horribleness, this kind of cancer is not the true cancer: one death, and the body is gone. Cancer does not ever infect neighbors or family. Cancer does not spread uncontrolled through populations. The true nature of a far more dangerous cancer — a far more dangerous dis-ease — is elsewhere than the one which ravages a single body, even a single family. AIDS is like that (while being transmissible). Lou Gehrig’s disease is like that. Many bodily diseases are like that: a single unit, a single body where it is carried out. The body dies, end of story.

But in these days of coronavirus-paranoia, it seems to me we should not lose perspective on the true cancer that terrorizes our life, and the true cancer that terrorizes this whole planet. In the face of our ego-based fears of losing our bodies and our lives, it seems we need always to keep in perspective the true nature of the most destructive version of this most destructive disease. The actual disease we should fear is far, far scarier than these life-enders that only threaten our singular bodily existence(s). The real nature of a more dangerous disease lies elsewhere.

According to the American Cancer Society, “[Cancer] starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.” Cancer is uncontrolled cell division and hyper-growth of its attendant damaged to such an extent that it crowds out, subverts, grinds down, and destroys the intricate functioning of all the other systems of survival in the larger body-system.

Human beings behave as a cancer. We are a cancer on this world.

It is strange when you find yourself agreeing wholeheartedly with Agent Smith, the arch-villain of The Matrix movie series, at least in part. I am referring to when he says that human beings themselves are a cancer and a virus whose out-of-control growth and expansion is destroying life itself on this planet. The scene wherein he interrogates Morpheus contains a searing diagnosis of the existential threat that human life poses to every ecosystem that it comes to inhabit, functioning precisely like a cancer:

I’d like to share a revelation during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague, and we are the cure.

Is this too harsh a judgement? Maybe this is some over-dramatised Hollywood doom-saying?

In 1974, the Club of Rome published their second seminal report, Mankind at the Turning Point. From it comes the famous statement, “The Earth has cancer and the cancer is Man.” This phrase seemed so unduly harsh, at the time, that this entire report — and even the Club of Rome itself — was demonized by media and the usual religious conservatives (to this day) for being alarmist, overly dire, even purposely designed to mislead the public into opting for One World government of this or that kind.

Yet the view that runaway population growth — and its attendant resource depletion — is at the core of our anthropogenic planetary suicide is now quite commonplace. An American scholar, W.M. Hern, wrote, in an essay “Why are there so many of us? Description and diagnosis of a planetary ecopathological process” Population and Environment volume 12, pages9–39 (1990) that it our human existence itself contains all four major characteristics of the growth of malignant bodies like cancer:

The human species, through the instrument of culture, has become the dominant force of planetary ecological change. Our adaptations have become maladaptive. Moreover, the human species as a whole now displays all four major characteristics of a malignant process: rapid, uncontrolled growth; invasion and destruction of adjacent normal tissues (ecosystems); metastasis (distant colonization); and dedifferentiation (loss of distinctiveness in individual components). We have become a malignant ecopathologic process. If this diagnosis is true, what is the prognosis? The difference between us and most forms of cancer is that we can think, and we can decide not to be a cancer.”

Interesting (though completely not surprising) how the author of this study points to runaway population growth as being a “cancer on the planet.”

Dae Soen Sa Nim used to say the same thing to us, in Dharma talk after talk. He was saying these things as far back as the 1970s, emphasizing that human beings were the only true disease we needed to worry about. He believed that the world was grossly over-populated, and this over-population threatens all living things. “Soon, in the future, there will be a great disease which kills many many people. Maybe 30% of people will die as a result of this. This is cause-and-effect from the natural world. Human beings do many bad things to animals, many bad things to all beings. One day, this whole world will fight back against human beings. When so many people die, there will be balance again in the world. That is because human beings are number-one BAD ANIMALS, and nature will hit them and make them wake up!”

Someone asked me, recently, if I am worried about the coronavirus, since my work requires the use of planes (a few), trains (more), and automobiles (seldom). Actually, this virus will pass, as the Spanish Flu of 1918 passed, taking with it 50 million souls. I’m not worried about the coronavirus. Sometimes I’m worried more by the inevitability that we’ll survive the coronavirus than that it will be something we need to fear.

Graphic: Joan Cornellà

It is not coincidental that these exotic new flus and epidemics arise (or “crossover”) from animals to humans in places where humans live in dense concentrations, and this density interacts with wildlife animals kept in poor, unsanitary conditions. Interestingly, these diseases arise in situations where we keep animals and sell animals for their exotic health-benefits.

The appearance of this coronavirus has come as no surprise to people who study the breakdown of ecosystems caused by the unbridled destruction of resources for human-centred benefit.

I visited the wild-animal markets of Hong Kong several times, these places where the H1N1, H5N1, the swine flu, and SARS are widely believed to have been born. You could see quite graphically, in these locations, the obvious insanity of having such a variety of life-forms all crammed together in cramped spaces, and also chopped and sliced open on chopping blocks with flies swarming all over, circulated through these dank, humid spaces by huge lumbering fans caked with dust-hairs that extended out like furry tentacles.

During a period when I stayed in Hong Kong in the early 1990s, our local temple sometimes sent us down to these wet markets with bags of cash donated to the temple membership expressly for the purpose of “liberating” these creatures from sale and slaughter. So many strange and interesting creatures, all jammed into bamboo cages, stacked on on top of another, as far as the eye could see! The creatures were in miserable straits — stacked like this, they literally just peed and shit on top of each others’ heads for days on end, until such time as someone would mercilessly purchase them for their virility-soup. I remember vividly the image of birds whose wings were caked with the excrement of the birds stacked for layer after layer above them!

The members of the temple would buy up whole stalls of animals. The sellers were overjoyed and could go home early for the day, their suffering supplies exhausted by the bald-headed meditators, and we could drive into the mountains above HK to release the animals back into the wild all while chanting madly for their happiness and protection. Everyone was very happy! And the animals — released from their cages, at first they could not “believe” their freedom, or were too stunned to realize it — would become overjoyed, fluttering around our bald heads for long periods before finally fleeing the evil of human presence.

Being the cynical Westerner, at first I was critical of all these funds being raised simply for releasing caged animals back into the wild. What a wasteful thing not do, I thought. Won’t these same animals be trapped again and sold again, maybe next time to some far less scrupulous customers than us? Couldn’t that money be sent to Greenpeace or World Wildlife Fund, to enact more carefully-reasoned programs which were based on science and research>

But the real nut of the problem is this over-population and reliance on meat-eating culture run amok. Whether separately or together, these are two of the forces driving our own extinction most decidedly. The virus replicates out of bounds — too much desire.

I am sometimes asked to comment on this new life we lead under COVID-19. People wonder when we will be able to contain the spread of the virus, or develop effective inoculation against it. But while I hope, like anyone, to have this human suffering alleviated (especially from the frontline workers and especially the economically/socially disadvantaged who it harms the most), in my heart of hearts, I believe, as Agent Smith does, that the real virus that needs an effective vaccine is really not the one with the tell-tale protein spikes and lipid envelope. That virus, it seems, by its lethality against human populations, might actually be the inoculation itself, against the virus which has proven a far, far greater and unstoppable lethality: the human species itself.

Agent Smith says something else that is becoming patently clear: “Evolution, Morpheus. Evolution! Look out that window [at human civilisation]. You had your time. The future is our world. The future is our time.”

No Peace of Mind at All

Dae Soen Sa Nim (Zen Master Seung Sahn) used to say very much the same thing: “If you have mind, then have a problem. Have no mind, then no problem.” And even more powerfully, he would say, “World peace is not possible… Also, not necessary [in order to accomplish spiritual work].” And this is from the monk who was constantly emphasising “Attain your True Nature, then world peace possible.” But that was exactly the point, as with Osho: To attain real peace — authentic peace, transcendent and enduring — we must return to our original nature, our being before thinking arises. This is sometimes called “don’t-know mind” (by Dae Soen Sa Nim), “no-mind” (Osho), “the cloud of unknowing” (the 14th-century unnamed English Christian mystic). And Dae Soen Sa Nim was even blunter: “Throw your mind in the garbage. Then freedom appears.”

And does this seem like some out-of-reach exoticism? The father of Gestalt therapy is known for this same teaching:

And these, too, are only mere words words words. It is why the only true experience of this oneness or Absolute can only be completely attained through silent meditation. All other practices, especially those centred in conceptual thinking, are mere approximations, as a written recipe of a cake is never — ever! — comparable in the slightest to even one bite of the cake itself.

Don’t. Make. Anything.

Dae Soen Sa Nim used to often say, “Don’t make anything!“ It took years and years for the full depth and dimension of this to really sink in. The activity and go-go nature of teaching in Korea for 20 years didn’t really give space to appreciate that, when I was with him. But it’s really so incredibly effing true: Don’t make ANYthing. In original stillness, that place before thinking arises, there is absolutely nothing needed. Nothing effective or helpful can be “made” or “done.” 

I guess this was something resembling the dilemma of the Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree in the first hours of his fully awakened condition: “There’s no way anyone will ‘get’ this,” tradition tells us he thought to himself. “It would be pointless to teach or to even try: sentient beings’ eyes are completely full of dust. How can this infinite depth and boundlessness be transmitted to others?” Fortunately, according to tradition, the god Indra appeared and spoke to him, saying, “Go and teach. There are beings out there who have only a little dust in their eyes. You should teach for them. Help them to make their final step to liberation.” 

So, I put out these teaching-videos, create teachings for social media spreading of seeds of Dharma, and write this blog — all of it so reluctantly (hence the many long gaps between posts that can appear).  There are certainly days when I seriously contemplate deleting the whole mess (and I almost carry it out!).

But maybe… Maybe — out there in the digital wilderness — there might be people who can find some useful breadcrumbs in these “mistakes“, and they can be skilled and patient enough to employ them for returning to their True Self/ our True Self. So, when I receive letters from people in Iran and Turkey and Pakistan — where it would not be possible for Dharma teachers to visit to guide people — or even people in Israel, or Canada, Australia, and Malaysia — who say they have been helped by something that they have seen in one of our videos or on this blog, then the finger relents: I do not push the “delete” key.

Every single time I post something, the sense of Dae Soen Sa Nim‘s words ring in my mind. it is so much so that I often mutter to myself, right after pushing the “post” button, “This is the last post. Too many words and concepts and ideas. Stop polluting! Shut your mouth – – keep it as simple as possible. Don’t make anything, anymore!” (Plus, from a more selfish point of view, there is all of the web and digital stuff that I must always keep up on, update, download, upgrade to, etc., in order to function in this constantly changing digital world. Without the resources to pay for staff support, to have others use their better talents on these matters, it falls on my shoulders to constantly learn new computer things and be involved deeply there.) 

I’m not so sure if it is Indra or not, but if something occurs from this practice that I feel might be helpful, for someone, somewhere, some time, I digest the possibilities and often will post something again. “… for those who have only a little dust in their eyes…” Maybe I am kidding myself as to the value of these things! But I return to posting and sharing with a lingering awareness that I am not being so faithful to my Teacher’s insight — MY insight! — and especially to his passionate efforts.

And so I do reproach myself for that, and try always to keep it limited and essential.

In Hwa Gye Sah Temple, Seoul, 2003.

The Great Work of Life and Death

by Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004)

In the great work of life and death, time will not wait for you.
If you die tomorrow, what kind of body will you get?
Is not all of this of great importance?
Hurry up! Hurry!
Blue sky and green sea
Are the Buddha’s original face.
The sound of the waterfall and the bird’s song
Are the great sutras.
Where are you going?
Watch your step!

Water flows down to the sea.
Clouds float up to the heavens.

A Zen Poem by Zen Master Seung Sahn

A Zen poem is not merely an aesthetic exercise. It is not an expression of “art,” design, or thinking. A Zen poem is a teaching tool: it begins in opposites’-world thinking, through the Great Question, perhaps a stopover in the realm of emptiness or freedom-consciousness, to bring the reader to a view of “truth just-like-this.” 

Here is a video of some words of commentary I recently offered on perhaps Zen Master Seung Sahn‘s most recognized poem. This talk was delivered at Zen Center Regensburg during the Quarantine Retreat, April 2020. 

Film Editing/Design: Γιάννης Παπάκης Παπαδοπουλάκης
Graphics: Matt Semke

Zen Master Seung Sahn: In His Own Words [video]

Here is a video of Dae Soen Sa Nim giving a TV interview in Korea, recorded in 1997 — seven years before his death. In his own words, without the halting English, in a well-produced production, you can feel his energy and his Great Compassion. His energy is still strong and very clear. The subtitles have been prepared by capable native English speakers, so there is a natural feel to his expression.

In the video, Dae Soen Sa Nim tells some private stories of his early life. He discusses how he became a monk in the first place, in the turmoil of Japanese occupation and the Korean War. He also shares some stories of his free-spirited Teacher, the wild-wisdom figure named (Park) Ko Bong Sunim — known for his rule-breaking and sharp speech. In this way, it is a precious record, quite unlike the usual films which are more of formal Dharma talks.

The interview was filmed on the little hill inside our temple — Hwa Gye Sah. From about 1:40 in the video, you can hear the sound of the meal “moktak” being struck, or else the special “work period” moktak, if it is just before Buddha’s Birthday, and we are called into making the thousands of lotus lanterns which will be sold on the holiday, to support the temple. (I couldn’t imagine him giving an interview during an official mealtime.)

I was probably in the temple, at that time, when the video was filmed. Surely I was living there, if I was not outside the temple walls for a few hours for some important business. But in that year, I was living with him at Hwa Gye Sah.


Messenger Teaching

A Facebook Messenger exchange I had with someone I never met, back in 2017.

Reading more books just to learn the Dharma is just delaying further the day when you sit and practice, look inside. If someone has gotten enough from your videos or recorded teachings on the Internet to call you “teacher,” they already know enough that knowledge can ever possibly show them about Dharma. Reading more books, at this stage, would be like someone sitting in a French restaurant reading Michelin’s Guide to French Cuisine. No amount of reading will satisfy the appetite OR fill the stomach. Just eat!

In my whole life, I have not read even 10 Buddhist books cover-to-cover — and maybe 5 of those were books I had to write or translate. Perhaps the greatest blessing of having the unbelievable karma to meet the Teacher I met is that it absolutely eliminated any need for further reading or edification in Buddhism, its theory or history. I really don’t know much about Buddhism, as a subject.

Instead, I was able to pour everything into hard-ass practice, in sub-freezing Buddha halls on howling mountainsides and in city temples with bustly coming-and-going all around. There was just no other way. He made the road so simple and clear. The only thing left to do was to “just do it.”

One elderly Korean man cut his hair at 60 and became a monk under my Teacher. He respected Dae Soen Sa Nim’s clear Dharma, but it was also this man’s dream to obtain a PhD in Buddhist studies. (In traditional Korean Confucian culture, “the scholar” was the noblest profession, the most lauded status.) He sat one or two of the 90-day Kyol Che’s, and then told Dae Soen Sa Nim that he was going to enter the PhD program at Dongguk University, the main Buddhist university in Korea.

Dae Soen Sa Nim shouted at him, “PhD? How can that help your life? You are already old man. Nothing guarantees your life even one more day! How will even 100 PhD’s help you in the moment you die?”

But the 60-plus baby-monk was adamant. There may have been some family issue involved, some feeling of needing to achieve something in his family line. He was dumb enough to say this to Dae Soen Sa Nim.

“But your parents long ago dead! Your brothers and sisters all dead!” But the aged novice wouldn’t listen — he felt it was his “destiny” in this life to end his life with a PhD in Buddhist studies. He thought that he could not train as hard as the younger monks and nuns, so maybe also having a PhD would enable him to at least qualify for running a temple somewhere as abbot. Anyway, he claimed that he would finish the program as soon as possible and he would do only meditation retreats after that. But he at least needed to get a PhD, to fulfill some obligation to his (long-dead) ancestors.

Dae Soen Sa Nim was really yelling at him by now. He said, “If you enter this PhD program, you cannot practice Zen — it will make too much thinking for your head. So, if you follow this way, then do not come to me for three years.” This would have been an especially severe hardship, because the university-monks’ dormitory was located right at the front gate of Hwa Gye Sah Temple, where we all lived and practiced together with Dae Soen Sa Nim! This sentence would have meant that the monk would basically be living in the temple precincts, but not able to come to see his own Teacher. But Dae Soen Sa Nim was resolute about certain fundamental principles, and one of them is that he was against any sort of book-learning which substituted for keeping the Great Question and looking right into it through strong, clear practice. And doing the long retreats was a central path for that.

Sometimes, when the community of monks gathered on special occasions to bow together to Dae Soen Sa Nim (say, on the Chinese New Year, or Korean Thanksgiving), the old baby-monk would sheepishly hide in the far back of the group, so desperate was he to offer greetings. And we would all smile at him wanly, and give him some “Cheer-up”s. And whenever Dae Soen Sa Nim caught a glimpse of him in the back, he would bark out something like, “Oh, scholar-monk! Did your PhD make you Buddha yet?”

In the end, the monk did get his PhD. (And I believe Dae Soen Sa Nim relented on the three-year “ban” on meeting him: As with everything with Dae Soen Sa Nim, it was meant to teach and inspire, and never to punish or demean.) Eventually, he also was invited to be a teaching-monk at a large Korean temple in the US. He died a few years later, deeply involved in temple politics — and without ever having sat one of his promised Kyol Che retreats. But not before he had used all of his scholarly knowledge to develop a grand schematic theory for how to spread Buddhism in the West, which nobody ever heard about or uses.

This is the lineage I descended out of. It is truly impossible to describe how profoundly grateful I feel, every single day, to have made the merit (somehow!) for this connection. And this is some of the spirit I try to convey to others, because I know the benefit of not examining and analyzing the poison arrow shot into our arms, but rather in putting everything into ripping it out, at once.

Life of the Monk in the Digital Age

You might think it’s like this:

But the day-to-day reality is often more like this:

(Or, this could just be a visit back to family…)

Trying to be a full-time practicing monk, in the city, and making the practice available to people in an urban Zen center — it’s some serious jujitsu. Those figures in white aren’t “people” one contends with, but the administrative demands of carrying out these teachings in the digital age. They’re emails, man! Without the protection of ancient temple walls, and being at least somewhat open to contact from folks in these hyper-wired globalized days, this GIF is a little what the modern monk’s life is like, when you choose to practice out in the very center of modern life. The constancy of need-to-reply-now emails, and the never-ending correspondence, enquiries, and requests for assistance from all corners of the globe, they all pour constantly through the gates of social media/WhatsApp/Telegram. And with free video connectivity in a globalized world, we must add that, too — the very frequent necessity to advise or guide people through that — because, well, because it’s available, and because it’s something everyone uses with family and friends, so it’s just natural to understand that this is something that a professional meditator should do to help others. And you do, because, well, they ask you to.

My Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, was renowned for teaching through correspondence with his Western students as he spread Zen throughout the US and Europe. The collection of his letter-exchanges spans to several large ring-binders, and a selection of them has long been known to the world as Only Don’t Know: The Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Along with Ta-Hui’s (1089–1163 CE) letters (in English, published as Swampland Flowers), and Hakuin’s (1685-1769) letters (Beating the Cloth Drum), Only Don’t Know is one of the great Zen teaching epistolaries in history. (Full disclosure: I edited the revised edition of ODK, but receive zero income whatsoever from it.)

So, this methodology of teaching through correspondence is part of the DNA of Zen, and especially of our lineage. Every morning, at the conclusion of dawn practice at the Cambridge Zen Center, one of the letters from a student to him was read, followed immediately by his reply. Seeing Dae Soen Sa Nim’s exquisite mind-acupuncture at work, deftly receiving the student’s “sickness” and then applying the “cure,” was instrumental in developing and encouraging my work in this practice.

How simpler was his world! The letters all record the date of the sender, and his reply. There are often several-week gaps, due to the fact that they were mailed by snail-post, and then often the letters did not catch up to him until he returned to the Head Temple where they were originally delivered, often after much teaching in other lands. Furthermore, the letters were read out loud to him by his secretary, and he could “talk” freely his reply. His words were jotted down, corrected, and typed for him to sign. (Letters with topics not connected with teaching or practice were, of course, never shown to him, but went straight to some relevant functionary in the Providence Zen Center office.) Letter-senders were content to receive a reply some weeks later, even months later. And the effort to actually hold a pen and write something no doubt caused an automatic economy of back-and-forth.

In today’s world, technology has given us the sense of things happening much more quickly. There is pressure, urgency. Even a close student who understands the workload here can be flustered if a WhatsApp query is not answered within the day, or two — if not within hours, sometimes just minutes, for some pressing subjects! Someone returning home from a retreat in ZCR, and wondering how to “integrate” their retreat experience into a newly-seen marriage or work-situation, has been “developed”, by life in today’s work- and life-environment, to feel a little anxious when an answer is not forthcoming from their teacher for one day, or two. Three days of delay can sometimes cause major repair-work to need to be done on the trust-factor. This is the reaction you get! And I completely understand it, given the way our work-environments and social-media reactivity have trained us to be.

Finally finding time in the practice schedule here to sit down in the Zen Center or a coffee shop with one of our members to discuss their practice (and that meeting was itself arranged through a back-and-forth of messages!), the phone is always switched to “airplane mode” or silent-mode, and placed face-down. But when connection is resumed, at the end, there are more requests for appointments or confirmations! The incoming is not always constant, but there is certainly a daily “quota” of replies requested, of one form or another.

Seong Cheol Sunim (1912-93) is one of the most revered figures in modern Buddhist history. Even some years after attaining enlightenment, he once closed himself off in a tiny hermitage, deep in the Tae Baek Sahn mountains, for ten years of intensive retreat. He had published some books, and so had become the most well-known meditation monk of his day. Many people wanted his advice on things, up to and including the then-dictator/president of Korea.

“Hopefully this Zen stick doesn’t attract Internet signals.”

Seong Cheol Sunim was often being interrupted by visitors, in whatever temple he stayed. So, after entering the little hut, he strung barbed wire around the perimeter of his place, to keep people away. When I first heard of that, it seemed so “un-bodhisattvic.” I remember commenting in public talks about that being a selfish, Hinayana-style attitude. “Why does he keep himself away from suffering sentient beings and their needs?” When he finished his retreat, and returned to a big temple, he required that anyone who wished to have a meeting with him was required to do 3,000 prostrations in the Main Buddha Hall first, and only then were they granted face-time with him. Even great Seong Cheol Sunim could never have dreamed in his enlightenment of today’s FaceTime demands!

But his approach makes sense. In the age of ubiquitous communication, now you need something like “digital barbed wire.” Traditional Catholic monasteries were/are located beyond walls, or located far away; in the Buddhist temples of Korea, the compound where the Zen nuns/monks hold their retreats is usually also walled-off, even walled-off within the larger temple, to keep their practice protected from the activities of the administration monks’ business, from the endless ceremonies and public events.

By choosing to live outside a traditional temple, a monk freely surrenders this physical/mental protection. But cellular technology has made those old walls redundant, anyway. FaceTime with a nervous meditator is just a simple screen-press away! There’s no such thing as an “unlisted number” anymore, if you are engaged in public teaching, however “privately” you neurotically strive to maintain it. People who have never met or even practiced with me can just find a contact point through social media (which is a tool that’s indispensable or announcing events and retreats), and — BOOM! — sitting on the toilet, there’s a letter in your trousers.

A “digital barbed wire” is now necessary, even if just to preserve a fraction of the solitude and depth of the old temple experience. So, I turn off the phone quite often, yet when it is opened again, the stream of things requiring attention just lines up on the fresh screen. I try to leave email correspondence for just a narrow sliver of time during the day — this has caused not a few letter-writers to become angry and even cancel their retreat registration. I shut down social media during retreats (except for official Zen center advertising and information). But you just cannot have even a fraction of the remove and isolation doing this even in a small, almost monastic city like Regensburg.

It is said that Napoleon famously ignored letters that came to him when he was away on battle campaign. When his secretary was frustrated that the Emperor wasn’t engaging his correspondence regularly, Napoleon famously replied something to the effect of, “If after two weeks they do not receive a reply from me, and they write back insisting on an answer, then I know the letter is worth my consideration; but if there is no follow-up, then it wasn’t important in the first place, and is better to have been ignored in the end.”

The digital age is not so patient. Things build up and they do not forget.

It is clear that the choice is all mine — no one forced this way of teaching outside then temple. But it really is actually quite hard to sustain, while making efforts to stay “connected” to an interior stillness which might actually bring some benefit to others. It can be a constant struggle, trying to bring authentic monastic experience and clarity into this busy world, instead of just enjoying it oneself in some ancient temple somewhere. Without being able to afford the paid staff who could support a monk’s practice by handling the correspondence and vast stream of constant admin, there is an inevitable impact on practice, on teaching. In order to support this community, I am often the only one who is left to do these things.

So, I am noticing that an ongoing theme, as a practitioner, is often feeling sorry and regretful for not being able to maintain the clarity, calm, and stability that your students expect and need to develop their own practice, to guide their own lives. Without constancy in the practice you developed over decades, you can feel this natural edginess. Instant messaging and emails have caused human beings to evolve into expecting, in these highly-reactive times, that things get answered rapidly — at least, they would like a reaction of some kind. Sometimes, despite even years of practice, you make avoidable mistakes, lose your patience with a situation, you are seen sometimes not being so mindful as people naturally expect from a practitioner, you maybe even lose your temper, or become forgetful. The torrent of busyness is not so unlike the people who come through our doors, tired and worn out by swimming in such similar floods of empty data-chasing. So I have a much much greater sympathy and compassion for the struggling lives of people in the modern age, hounded by their own work-lives and constant social burdens — both those lived and those manufactured through social media.

I never like presenting a stressed, stressy face to people who come to the temple looking for peace, balance, depth, settled wisdom, and instead get some bald guy who’s frazzled or wiped out because he has been replying to Zen center business for several hours that day, and is STILL behind on what needs to be done, and has been going since 4 am, seven days a week. These conditions of modern life outside the walls of the temple present a sharper reflection in the mirror of this practice, in the mirror of rolling with these beautiful souls of sangha. I do not always handle it that well, so, I am always a student with them.

Dae Soen Sa Nim’s mandate to us was to share our practice with everyone. And it is also something that a Catholic school education bred into me , that sense of duty to help “the poor in spirit.” But if I just disappear at some point — suddenly, abruptly — and there are perhaps reports of me living in a cabin somewhere or on an Aegean island, it has been foretold by these very experiences. I chose monastic life to dedicate myself to something deeper than the surfaces and waves of life in conventional society, to live for something deeper, that I might serve others more capably. And yet it’s clear why Zen temples and Catholic monasteries function with strong walls.

Recently, a prominent Buddhist family in Korea made an interesting offer: Korean Buddhism is going through some rough times these days, with politics and a few public scandals that have caused many Buddhists to feel estranged from the temples and their “business” involving monks. Since I was perceived to be able to have some influence on the state of modern Korean Buddhism in years past, the family offered, then if I would move back to Korea to teach and become active again, they would offer me their modern eight-storey tall building to develop as a complete meditation temple and community. The property is located in one of the most prized, traditional neighborhoods of Seoul, right smack in the heart of the capital, just a few blocks away from the presidential palace. It is in a very picturesque location, yet the city throbs all around it, pulsing with so many possibilities and opportunities. I would not need to pay anything for rent, like here in Europe; rather, I would be provided with a salary, health insurance, a car and driver, and all relevant expenses would also be covered. Needless to say, there would be ample staffing there (the most enticing part!), so I would not have to do any of the organizational admin work that has become so burdensome these days. There would also, I imagine, be a secretary who could handle all of the personal correspondence and teaching arrangements.

Sounds like a great deal, right?

But I rejected the offer, politely and without hesitation. For this is the very thing that I ran away from when I escaped the country in 2009. There would be lots more invitations for dinners outside with prominent people. There would be constant requests to teach at this and that temple, involving all sorts of travel. There would be the usual strong media interest, and needing to glad-hand that necessary-evil of maintaining good relations with the media forces which report on and promote temple activities and Korean Buddhist society in general. There would be politics and social obligations, as there are in any and all ancient spiritual cultures like Korea’s 1,700 year-old Buddhism.

So, it is impossible to go “back.” Instead, though it feels like I am reaching a point in life where it would be better just to lead silent retreats and perhaps teach a little more creatively through writing, it is far better to have this kind of low-key prominence and level of busyness. I can at least maintain something of a closer connection with a daily practice, despite the administrative burdens. At least I have some control over them, whereas in Korea, Korean Buddhism exists on a vast ancient scale, and the larger society still operates largely by a traditionalist software which requires a kind of hyper-vigilance.

I mentioned Seong Cheol Sunim, above. On his deathbed, he wrote his final “death-poem,” but his students could not grasp his true meaning. So he gave the final words to them.

I’ve lived my entire life as a practitioner, and people have always asked me for something. Everyone is already a Buddha, but they do not try to realize that fact and only look towards me. So, in a way, you could say I’ve deceived people all my life. I’ve failed to get this message across to everyone so I’m suffering in a kind of hell.

How shocking are these words, and yet how true. To think that these are the final words of one of the most esteemed monks of Buddhist history!

The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Don’t know anything about his books, but that is as clear and total a philosophy as any. It is the soul of the teaching of Zen.

Moment-life = eternal life. It’s only don’t-know. Very simple, very clear. #zen #zenretreat #eternallife #eternallifewithjesus #notjustjesus #notevenjesus #notreligion #justdoit #onlynow #hyongaksunim #hyongak #seungsahnsunim #seungsahn #killthebuddha #throwawayjesus #throwawayphilosophy #kwanumzen #zencenterregensburg #zenmonk #예수님 #부처님 #현각스님 #숭산스님#세계일화 #화계사