The Backstory. I left Seattle for India in 1999, half imagining that soon I would be living in a cave eating nettles in a mystical and hidden region of the Himalayan mountains close to the snow line. Instead, within nine months I was married to Upel and my Tibetan lama repeated his advice that it was probably time to return to the U.S. and put into practice whatever Dharma I had learned. It’s far more difficult and and at a certain point, more spiritually meaningful, to practice patience, compassion and contemplate interdependence while navigating the treacherous and stressful landscape of modern American life, than it is living on 100 rupees a day in the Himalayan foothills, pontificating on the nature of reality in Indian chai shops with the global hippie crowd.
Two years passed and the wisdom of my lama’s advice finally dawned on me. The allure of the mountains and contemplative solitude will always call me, but the ultimate sustenance of a spiritual life is derived in service. Still, to my delight, our karmic fortunes offered one last adventure in Shangrila before the imagined dread of “settling down” would need to be faced.
A South Korean monk friend, had suggested we take a side trip to visit Buddhist temples in his country. He would arrange all the details. Thirteen years later, I found an account of our trip in a box of papers during spring cleaning and reread it. Moved by the memories which reawakened timeless Buddhist themes, I realized that the extraordinary generosity from the Korean Buddhist community and Koreans in general, compelled me to share a few gems from the journey.
My wife and I landed in Seoul, groggy from a 7 hour overnight flight from Delhi. A mountain of luggage making its way towards our new life in America made for an interesting story at the Korean customs counter, but they all smiled when I told them that the large box was an altar. “What goes inside?” they asked. “Buddha”, I said. “What do you do?” “I’m an acupuncturist”….confused looks….”Chinese medicine doctor”. “Oh, okay, have a pleasant stay in Korea.” “Kamsa amida” (thank you).
Mr. Lim was waiting for us at the baggage carousel and had obviously arisen very early that morning to pick up two people he had never met, all out of devotion to his teacher. Arriving in the temple outside of Seoul, we were welcomed in that same spirit by a monk – Man Ah Seunim – another friend of Chong Jeon Seunim. After storing our mountain of luggage upstairs in the temple and showing us our room with a traditional Korean heated floor, we were beckoned to his room for tea. Passing through the door, there was the sense of passing into another world – a world of simplicity, of inner peace and tranquility, and of wisdom beyond this world. It was a feeling that would arise often over the coming three weeks. The walls were completely white, with no decorations, not even a picture of Buddha. On one low table behind him sat a stone statue of Buddha. In front of him on the floor was a tea table from which he poured tea almost as quickly as we could drink it.
He spoke very little English, but it did not seem to matter. Our friend Chong Jeon Seunim in Dharamsala had already taken care of the details of our stay and Man Ah Seunim only seemed to want to ensure our comfort. Later in the day, at our second tea with him, just when I was beginning to wonder how we had ever deserved such a kind welcome, he passed an envelope to Upel, obviously full of money. Upel immediately refused vehemently, thinking quite naturally, it is only proper for a lay person to offer to the Sangha, not the other way around. Seunim was unfazed by Upel’s refusal and later, when Mr. Lim appeared, it was explained to us that this was something that he wished to do, and he hoped that we enjoyed our pilgrimmage to a few of the many Korean Buddhist temples in South Korea. Not wishing to be obstinate any more and possibly cause Seunim or Mr. Lim to have “a loss of face” – an important concept in the culture of Asian social relationships – I accepted the gift, imagining that it was simply a loan. My part in helping others would certainly come.
Another possible interpretation is that in Korean Buddhist culture, it is the teacher’s responsibility to take care of the student financially. But I think this is true mostly in a monastic context. In return, the student serves the teacher and does his best to practice what he teaches.
And perhaps we were receiving a teaching on the relationship between generosity and a happy mind. Man Ah Seunim, 48 years old, a monk for the past 18 years, was a radiant being. Buddha or bodhisattva, I can’t say and it didn’t matter. The teaching was clear – plain and simple. No words were necessary.
At times, words are necessary, and travelling in Korea is not easy when for example, as an English-only speaker, I found myself in a huge bus station, and all the destinations, directions, and so forth, only displayed in Korean characters. These difficulties are manageable with a bit of patience and creativity.
At other times, words are obstacles. Somehow, since the dawn of language, the human brain has developed a short circuit whereby we mistake the conceptual frameworks which we superimpose onto the world, for ultimate reality. Actually, Buddhist philosophy says that this malfunction predates the dawn of language, is not limited to humans, and is beginningless – but I’ll refer you to the Dalai Lama for further explanation here and stick to my journal of travel lessons.
Mr. Lim had driven me to the local branch of a major bank to draw some money from my credit card and get Korean currency. As a former bank employee in another life, I watched the operations of the 15 or so employees with interest. The lower ranked employees were all in the frontline trenches, meeting the customers in person, dealing with the natty problems like foreigners wanting to draw on their credit card. The big wigs were sitting at spacious desks towards the rear, entertaining their girl friends, or appearing to have no special purpose. At least, that was the movie playing on my mind-screen.
Suddenly, one of the bosses got up and walked forward, snatching a manual from the hard working hands of one of his employees who seemed to be performing his job with diligence. I studied the worker’s expression. He did not seem to take offense from what seemed very unkind treatment from his superior. Perhaps he was used to such abuse and like most of the world’s laborers, cling to whatever small piece of the pie they can get for themselves and their family, hoping only to stay employed and keep their families fed, housed, and clothed.
And I suspect that in Korean society, the notion of equality is not so developed as it is in the West. Many Asian countries have for centuries conformed to elaborate rules of rank and position which probably originated in Confucian times. Something I might take personally, as in the above incident, would not be experienced that way by an Asian.
In a place far from my familiar world, suddenly I was brought back to the sobering reality of 2002 – a small blue island in space inhabited by beings on the verge of complete self-annihilation of their species, with much of the natural world already destroyed by the global cancer of greed, hatred, and ignorance. A tear began to moisten the corner of my eye and I silently reminded myself that “vacation” is a loaded word – another conceptual filter which is either gracefully applied to life – like Seunim’s pouring of tea – purposeful, mindful, observant, nothing spilled, and always connected to the fountain of wisdom for which it flows – or it is applied unthinkingly, like a pre-programmed machine that rams a plane into a skyscraper, or orders a war in retaliation.
Yes, I need to rest these old bones from time to time, rest these harried thoughts and emotions. But there is no vacation from the awareness of suffering in the world. There is no vacation from the death of this body, or the planet. There is no rest from the law of cause and effect.
I was happy to leave the bank and return to the safety and peace of the monastery, but I remembered that there is no ultimate sanctuary. All beings share this world together. There are no ultimate walls. It is only our clever manipulation of words and other mental games of hide-and-seek which temporarily enable us to escape the truth. Drugs, money, sex, power, mental compulsivity, technology…what good are these when we must follow the karma we’ve set in motion at the moment of our death.
The following morning, Man Ah Seunim knocks on our door at precisely 6 a.m. to inform us that breakfast has been served. We lift our tired bodies off the heated floor, trying to remember our first prayers upon awakening. The monks have been up since 4 a.m. chanting, directing their minds towards complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. I feel a bit undeserving of receiving more generosity from Buddha, having slept through the morning prayer session, but I remind myself I am doing my best after a long journey.
After breakfast, Seunim appears again and gestures for us to follow him. Up the mountain we hop and leap in the pre dawn darkness. He has a purposeful energy which is powerful and gentle at once. He charges forward, leaping from ledge to ledge, stops to point out the river far below, mirroring the faintly growing light in the east. Or he pauses and stands in silence to listen to a songbird.
Pop Chu Sa. Song Ni San National Park. Many of the Buddhist temples we will visit are nestled in national parks, a double treat since we can pay our respects to Buddha both before the temple altar and before the shrine of rock, tree, and ice waterfall. Upel and I find an unmarked trail behind the thirty meter high statue of Maitreya Buddha and enter the silence of the woods. thirty minutes later, we are at the summit, where huge granite boulders are found nestled in a pine forest, ancient Chinese characters from the Buddhist sutras chiseled into their rock faces.
A sudden thought-prayer enters my mind. Perhaps in 3002 C.E. the Buddhist Dharma of America will be part of the landscape, as old and natural as these ancient carvings before me. America will be an ancient land of shrines with sutras carved into cliffs inside forgotten forests, long since left in their natural state. Buddhist monks and nuns will wander the countryside again, following the way of simplicity and peace. And common lay people will bow respectfully when they pass on the trail. Christian monks and nuns, and renunciates of other faiths will also practice their faiths with steadfastness and purpose, and inspire the diverse American people to strive onwards, ever moving towards greater global understanding, leaving dark ways of war and oppression further and further in the past. Perhaps.
Nae Jang San. The young police officer speaks a bit of English and, as an officer of peace and public safety, he quickly consults with his superiors regarding our plan. Chong Jeon Seunim had told us it would be possible to hike over the 800 meter peak and reach another monastery, Baek Yang San, after a beautiful, yet rigorous four hour hike. The steep northern face of the ring shaped valley wall has patches of snow and ice visible. I am guessing the officer pegs us for goofers, tourists who know nothing of mountains. It is probably a reasonable assumption.
“Too dangerous,” he says. 5 or 10 years ago, I might have ignored his advice with my brashness and arrogance, self absorbed in my many wilderness “conquests”. But the Korean friendliness and the warm baths in the motels at night are bending me and my aging bones to a different understanding of travel adventure.
“We’ll give you a ride to the temple”, he says, as if to dissuade us from our plan. So we hope into the police car and speed up the access road in the grey shadowy valley which has yet to see the sun. The place is empty. Not another car or human in sight. Approaching the park entrance, I fumble for my wallet to get out a few bills to pay the required fee, but the police car speeds through the gate without stopping, honking his horn as if to say, “official business”. He drops us before the One Pillar Gate. Korean hospitality strikes again.
One Pillar Gate. “This gate is the main gate of the temple and inside the Buddha world of Nae Jang Sa temple starts from here. Anyone who passes through this gate must send away all of his chaotic thoughts and just enter into the world of Buddha. Don’t depend on your normal perceptions which are based on secular knowledge at this gate. Just take a stroll through these 108 roots of maple forest and cleanse away 108 agonies of humankind. Then you can get a refined prayer bead from the bottom of your sincere heart.”
Kwang Ju. The guidebook calls it a sprawling modern concrete and glass city of one million people with almost no redeeming value. Writers are sometimes an over critical bunch, myself included. Perhaps it depends upon what one is looking for. If it is only pleasures of the six senses – beautiful mountain scenery, sublime temple architecture and magical feng shui….fresh water gurgling to the chorus of winter sparrows and chickadees, then Kwang Ju may not be the place.
If you are looking for life, unexplored, unexperienced, fresh, always new and awake – then any place will do. Unfortunately, most of us forgot this fresh experience of life. In the morning, my mindfulness slips and before I know it I am lost in childish reactivity and making life difficult for myself and Upel. Teachings come in many forms. Sometimes it seems they need to be unpleasant and loaded with suffering for me to get the message.
I wanted to escape again to the countryside, but Upel wanted to see more of Korean people. In the different desire systems of husband and wife, conflict is a very natural phenomena. But I handled it quite poorly. When I had suffered enough, I apologized and we settled on a late breakfast in the basement of a department store and later walked to a nearby market.
One bleak alley is filled with cages of chickens, geese, rabbits, cats, and dogs, more than likely destined for the butcher’s knife and the carnivorous appetites of the local humans. Korean dog eating is a sad affair. It is an old custom from hard times in the past when starvation was a reality. I read that it is predominantly a male driven market motivated by unproven assumptions that it increases male sexual potency. In this respect, it is similar to customs in other Asian countries where tiger penises and rhinoceros horns are still (illegally) sold on street markets in big cities.
In any case, as one Korean writer remarks, now there is no longer any danger of starvation, and for macho male types, there is Viagra. But as an American, I have no moral high ground. My people murder vast numbers of cows, deer, fish, chicken, and other creatures. Only it is hidden behind the sanitized smile of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders – McMurder, Kentucky Fried Death. The American Way. But perhaps I am being too critical. Food politics is a dangerous arena for one such as I who has yet to fully develop compassion for all beings, including other humans.
As a Korean American friend informs me, Koreans have suffered greatly throughout history. It is easy to find fault with another, but we are all imperfect beings with self centered, destructive habits. If we can instead look for the goodness in people, then certainly the Korean people are some of the friendliest and kindest I have ever met.
Time and again in our adventure, we are the recipients of unexpected kindness and assistance. And maybe it is not hard to see that this quality is present in people everywhere – Koreans, Americans, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, North Koreans. Only we are often too jaded to notice. Or we are caught up in habitual bitterness and jealousy fueled by nationalistic prejudices which are taught by our leaders and our media.
I was quite saddened when, as I watched the open ceremony of the Winter Olympics, I saw all the countries receiving such enthusiastic applause – and then when the athletes from the Islamic Republic of Iran walked out, they were met with silence. You could see the disappointment in their faces. The great President’s fresh, now infamous words heard round the world – “axis of evil”, were no doubt clouding the pure view that sees into the goodness of all beings.
Song Gwang Sa. Of the three main temples of the Chogye School of Korean Buddhism, each represents one of the Three Jewels. Tongdosa represents Buddha as it contains a relic from Buddha’s body. Haeinsa represents the Dharma because in its library are stored the complete collection of wood block plates of the Tripitaka Koreana – the entire collection of Buddha’s sutras in Chinese. Song Gwang Sa represents the Sangha because of the large community of monks who live and train here in the Zen tradition.
Generally, when monks first arrive here, they wear brown robes and do many chores and study scriptures in the Colleges, such as the Vinaya – the code of ethics for monks and nuns formulated by Buddha.
Ji Woo Seunim is the Kang Ju (Chief Lecturer) here. When I first meet him, I think of him as an ordinary monk, because of his friendliness and unpretentious nature. He is relatively young – late forties I am told.
He asks me why I have come here and I tell him that Chong Jeon Seunim, our friend in Dharamsala encouraged us to come, and since we know little about Korean Buddhism, perhaps it will better enable us to understand Buddhism in general. Also, since I have deep respect Cheong Jeon Seunim, I knew I would probably meet good teachers by coming here.
Kang Ju Seunim holds up a tea cup and asks me: “what is this?”
“A tea cup,” I reply.
“But this thing did not ask you to call it a cup.”
“No, I just give it that label with my mind.”
“Zen meditation uses koans to help one learn not to be deceived by language, or the defiled mind that places concrete, separate identities on things. When one learns not to be deceived by language, there is freedom. Study of Mind-Only philosophy helps us to see how our world is created through our mind, our mental activity.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Middle Way philosophy, Madhyamika, takes this a step further. I notice that Kang Ju Seunim has a copy of a book by Nagarjuna, in English, on the top shelf. I feel the urge to ask further questions on philosophical tenet systems. But when a clear mountain stream is flowing, I don’t wish to interrupt it with my cloudy questions on topics not well understood from my limited studies. So I relax and try to follow his teaching.
“So what is this?” He holds the cup again. “It is a dependent phenomenon and ultimately it is beyond all labels and conceptualizations.”
I am quickly getting the feeling that I am in the presence of someone who has both vast learning and deep meditational experience.
3 a.m. Snow has fallen overnight. The air is crisp. My fingers and toes are all pins and needles as I stand on the temple floor in double layered socks, upper body swaddled in five layers of heavy clothing. Morning chanting and prostrations with the entire assembly of monks invigorates my mind but still it is a task to fight off worldly thoughts such as “it’s too cold, I want to go back to bed.” One is supposed to leave such worldly thoughts outside the One Pillar Gate before entering the temple grounds. At least, in the freezing cold, my head bare out of respect to Buddha, there is no sleepiness. The mind is very awake.
Above the monk who is striking the gong is a painting of a monk striking a gong, his head slightly slumped, above him a dream cloud shows that his mind has wandered – he is fantasizing about family life. To his right, his master, a white bearded old man enters through a door and sees everything clearly. That monk and I are having the same struggle of taming the mind. I try to control it, but it keeps wandering.
An hour and a half passes and the monks file out in procession. I return to my room and sleep another hour until 6 am when the breakfast gong wakes me again. I try to kid myself that I am practicing the Dharma of sleeping, but really, I am just tired from traveling, and getting older every year.
Upel and I take a walk through the silent forest, following a creek uphill. Silent tracks left by some creature, shriveled leaves dance on bare branches in the icy wind. The gathering glow over the eastern mountaintop hints of the day’s first rays of sun and an easing of the chill in my bones. But the real warmth, the transcendent heart of wisdom, comes after lunch when we meet the Kang Ju Seunim again for tea and Dharma teachings.
I share what little I know of Tibetan Buddhism with him in response to his questioning, falling back on “I don’t know,” several times. Throughout all of our discussion, very pleasant tasting green tea – is filled and refilled into our cups.
The One Tea Meditation. “So the tea has taste, color, and fragrance. As you taste the tea, notice the first taste, notice the taste as it changes. And throughout, be aware also of the tastelessness of the tea – the lack of any ultimate taste, taste being merely a conceptual designation of mind, lacking any intrinsic, inherent, self existence.
“Also, before you even taste the tea, notice the reflection on the surface of the tea – the clarity of its mirror-like appearance. Imagine that clarity as a small lake and gradually expand that mental image to be the clarity of the entire sky. As you practice in this way, your entire mind will be cleared of all mundane thoughts and your mind’s true radiance will shine forth. This will enable you to overcome all small minded inner obstacles that habitually arise such as being quick to judge or criticize others negatively.
“Returning to the taste of the tea, as you notice how it changes, you see into its impermanent nature and this same form of analysis is to be applied to one’s thoughts. Happy thoughts arise and pass. Sad thoughts arise and pass. Neither happy nor sad thoughts arise and pass. Pure awareness sees this all clearly and remains at peace.
“Happy, sad and neutral are like fleeting clouds in the sky. They are not our true nature. The mind that rests in this spacious awareness of non-identification knows itself and is free.
“Be aware of the fragrance of the tea and let that beautiful aroma fill your entire body and mind. Be aware of the fragrance-less of the tea in the same way that the taste of the tea is ultimately tasteless – beyond concepts. In this way, you can offer the tea’s fragrance to people who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, or otherwise cause unpleasant odors. This enables you to purify and protect yourself from such outer disturbances.
“Review your life from beginning to the present moment and then in reverse order, back to birth again. Whatever difficult experience you had involving other people, offer all these wonderful qualities of the tea to those people and situations and thereby cause any negative emotional charges that still remain to be released. This purifies the mind. “In the same way, look at happy, virtuous events and offer the tea in those instances. This strengthens the imprints of positive states of mind.
Another master expressed his thoughts as follows: “After seven years of practice in silence, I don’t have many words to say……..All the answers to your questions are already inside of you. Simply be present and listen for the answers. Be happy and drink tea.
Another afternoon with Kang Ju Seunim. After discussion the unique qualities of tea from China, Korea, and Taiwan, and recounting stories of reincarnated monks, Kang Ju Seunim asks for more questions. Following our previous discussion of the tea meditation, I present the following scenario as a way of clarifying my doubts.
“So I am in an email shop and the guy playing his war games behind me lights up a cigarette – a common occurrence in email shops throughout Korea. How does the tea meditation protect me from the smell of the smoke which I dislike intensely, and usually gives me a headache? Do I recall the fragrance of the tea and in that way, make my mind very happy, or do I contemplate the ultimate nature of the tea?”
Kang Ju Seunim: “Everything arises from the mind. This is the essence of the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka or Wha Om Sutra). If you understand this, then you understand where the Buddhas of the three times come from.”
“The body is composed of four elements – earth, water, fire, and wind – and five skandhas or aggregates – form, feeling, discrimination, mental factors, and consciousness. These all arise from mind. And these elements and aggregates are also present in the tea and the fragrance of the tea. So the fragrance of the tea is in reality, the fragrance of the mind. “Because of the relationship of the mind to all phenomenon, everything has the ability to be shaped and transformed by the mind – consciously. Malodorous things can be made sweet.
“For example, you can drink tea made by a master, and the fragrance and taste is exquisite. Then you can drink the same tea in the next room, made by another person, and it will taste ordinary. This is due to the transformative power of mind of the master making the tea.
“Also, sometimes you may have the chance to listen to certain meditation masters give Dharma talks. The air in the room will be filled with a sweet fragrance and this is again due to the power of the master’s mind.
This reminds me of similar stories from the Tibetan tradition, how impure and repulsive substances can be transformed into pure substances like nectar, through the yogic power of mind. Or of dangerous fires that are put out by a yogi, who simply enters into a deep concentrated state of mind, connecting with the control panel – so to speak – for the elemental level of reality.
Dae Won Sa is a small 1500 year old temple about fifteen minutes by taxi from Song Gwang Sa. The abbot, Venerable Hyunjang, has a particular interest in Tibetan Buddhism, and has built a three story museum devoted to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture. A young thangka painter and his wife, from Dharamsala, are busily painting murals around the perimeter of the museum, and making silk sewn applique thangkas to hang inside.
They were both requested or encouraged(?) to come here by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the abbot has also met His Holiness several times. The vast activities of His Holiness never cease to amaze and inspire me.
Venerable Hyunjang beckons us inside for tea. Great teachers have a mastery of things that it is not possible to learn in university – such as how to make a strong and positive acquaintance with an individual on first meeting them. He asks Upel and I if we met in Dharamsala. I reply, “yes”.
“Dharamsala means ‘the place of Dharma’. May you always be keenly aware of this in your relations with others.” Hearing that I am an acupuncturist, he comments that one of the original purposes of acupuncture was to open up the channels and chakras in people in order to facilitate meditation. A framed photo of Mount Kailash hangs above the Buddha in his room. I ask him what Mount Kailash means to him.
“Around Mount Kailash are located 33 Heavens and it is through these realms that the Buddha journeyed when he returned from Tushita Heaven back to Earth and India. The human spine also has 33 vertebrae. If we can open up the entire spinal cord and all the associated chakras, then we are able to traverse the entire path of Buddha and achieve enlightenment.” He smiled and made a mandala offering mudra.
Conversations with a young English monk, Hae An Seunim. Hae An Seunim is 26 years old. He has been a monk at Song Gwang Sa for about 3 years and was assigned to be our translator and guide. His knowledge of Korean language seems quite good.
One morning, I am reading my Dharma notes from Geshe Rinchen’s class at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, and Hae An Seunim arrives and asks me what I am studying. I show him The Seven Verses of Mind Training by Geshe Chekawa. Seunim is familiar with this teaching and comments that he hopes that Buddhist monastic training in Korea will gradually incorporate such practical teachings.
“In Zen, there is just the One Question that one must always return to again and again. One’s investigation grows deeper and deeper until the question becomes like a lump of hot iron in the belly and finally explodes – sudden enlightenment.
“This is the beauty of Zen. On the other hand, the teachers tell us to practice compassion and bodhicitta but give very little practical instruction in comparison to what is found in the Tibetan Lam Rims and mind training systems.
“Korean Buddhism was suppressed for many centuries and when the Japanese invaded, the monks were forced to marry and the true practice monks had to hide in the countryside. If they showed their face in a town, they were beaten.
“In Zen, the basic idea is to empty yourself. We live together in community and this strips away all your clinging to a separate individual personality. If you do something that the others don’t like, they let you know about it, gently, but quite firmly.
“For example, it’s not easy to be sick here. It is seen as dropping out of the community. So mostly one just keeps to the same schedule, arising at 2 or 3 in the morning, and a novice often has 18 hours of chores each day. It takes a lot longer to recover in this case.
“The Korean people are an incredibly tough race, with great physical endurance. I notice that my health is not as good as it could be. “Why is that?” I ask. “Too much sex, drugs, and rock and roll I guess.”
Hae An Seunim excuses himself to tend his studies but says that Won Sun Seunim had mentioned we could visit him so we walk to his retreat cabin, about a fifteen minute walk uphill through the forest, outside the main temple area. He seems surprised to see us and looks around for our translator.
“Only two? But my English no good.” Fortunately he speaks a little Chinese. He has translated several books from the Chinese sutras into Korean, one of which he gave to Upel, with several more translations planned.
He beckons us in, and after offering our respects to the Buddha, and to Won Sun Seunim, gestures for us to sit down as he steps into the kitchen to prepare tea. The room is bare and simple, a large floor to ceiling window commands a sweeping view of the forest of bare trees which blankets the mountain side.
Seunim laughs and smiles constantly as he talks. And he takes every opportunity to make jokes. I ask him how long he has been a monk. “I don’t remember, but I’ve been in this cabin for six years and plan to stay four more.” “How do you make your food?” “For lunch I walk over the mountain, one hour each way, to a small temple with three other monks and eat with them.” Upel asks why he doesn’t eat at the main temple which is much closer. “Because I like to. I go to the main temple on special days.” Having seen him at the main temple kitchen today, Upel asks him why today was special. “Because I went there.” “Do you have any animal friends around here?” In the background, something is climbing around in the wall. “All animals are my friends. The animals know your mind.” He steps out after we have emptied several cups of tea and presents us with a large Korean pear, an apple, and a paring knife. “I’m a free man. Monk’s life is good for me.” Noticing that he often pours a bit of tea into a large bowl on the side, I ask him if it is an offering to Buddha. “All is Buddha. All arises from Vairocana Buddha, and all merges back into him.” “You must do a lot of meditation here?” “No, only eating and sleeping.” “Why do you steep the tea so quickly?” “Some people use warm water, steep long time, others use hot water, steep very quickly. Everybody has their own unique method.”
Final teaching from Kang Ju Seunim. Upel asks about how to practice Dharma in daily life. “Mindfulness is the one way to Enlightenment. You must practice mindfulness with everything. Don’t try to do two things at once like reading a newspaper while eating. One is enough. Pay attention. When you notice extra thoughts or emotions arising in your mind, catch them, be aware of them, before they sweep you away and deceive you. Bring your awareness back to simple observation of phenomena arising and passing. If you can pay attention closely to your daily life, then your path will be clear and steady progress in your meditation will occur. Freedom will come quickly. But this practice isn’t easy. Therefore, we must also keep in mind the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, cause and effect, and bodhicitta. All of these things are important.
“Make your life simple. Doing too many things at once makes for strange psychological effects. Be mindful of everything. Otherwise you are no different than a dead person. If you are faced with a multiple array of sensations at once, choose the strongest and put your awareness on that while not completely neglecting the others.
“When breathing, know that you are breathing. When standing, know that you are standing. When walking or lying down, know that you are walking or lying down. Right Mindfulness lengthens and deepens into Right Concentration and Wisdom. Specifically, mindfulness transforms into wisdom when the three signs of existence appear very clearly – that all worldly phenomena are afflicted with suffering, that all conditioned things are impermanent, and that all phenomena lake a self-essence.
“Strong bodhicitta and awareness of the suffering of others is needed. Otherwise, at a certain point, an aversion to mindfulness can arise. Likewise, a clear understanding of cause and effect keeps you from wrong action and is conducive to your peace and happiness as you progress on the path.
“Without understanding cause and effect, deep concentration may occur and feel very peaceful, but the three signs of existence don’t appear. It stops the practice from developing and a subtle dullness sets in. Or another form of dullness, more frightening may occur, where one tries to annihilate oneself, in the imagination, through bombs, guns, or knives. This is another trap. The body will re-arise, and one will be forced to blow it up again and again.
“Study this-that conditionality. Because there is this, there is that. Because this arises, that arises. Because there is no this, there is no that. Because this melts or is extinguished, that is extinguished. This is the essence of the Four Noble Truths.
“As you practice like this, the body becomes empty but this is not the same as shunyata, where one perceives ultimate truth. When you perceive shunyata correctly, you will still see the body, but know how it exists. The Flower Garland or Avatamsaka Sutra (Wha-Om Sutra in Chinese) says ‘don’t seek nirvana apart from the defilements. In other words, the defilements are empty.”
“Don’t ask meaningless questions. Buddha said in the Sutra of the Poisonous Arrow. To remove the poisoned arrow of suffering, don’t try to find out who shot the arrow, or what the arrow is made of. You will die before you answer these questions. Just pull out the arrow and be free.
“One Zen master of the Tang Dynasty said ‘to know (intellectually), is not to know. And not to know (the law of cause and effect) is also not correct. The Truth avoids these extremes. It is a knowing from the center of emptiness.
“In conclusion, study of cause and effect, and bodhicitta, keeps the practice from veering off course. For example, if you are aware of cause and effect and avoid eating meat or wearing leather, then you avoid karmic links to be reborn as an animal.
“Still, it is hard to live in this world without some ethical transgressions, so therefore, purify negativities. Practice wholesome compassion for all life. Respect other beings. Keep strong precepts. Give dana. Giving alms makes wholesome roots. It pushes you forward towards enlightenment. One always need to give, especially to those who are in difficulty. And giving strengthens our awareness of interdependence. As husband and wife, one of the best ways to resolve disputes is to practice giving to the other person.
16 February. Sok Chon Sa is a small temple in the seaside city of Yosu, Chollanamdo province. A young Korean woman, Miss Kim, an English teacher and student of Buddhism, has come to translate for an evening talk with Jin Ok Seunim, the abbot of Sok Chon Sa. Jin Ok Seunim asks me if I practiced Buddhism in Tibet and whether I had any difficulties. I mention that I went there briefly last fall and that the main difficulty was physical – the climate and otherwise difficult travelling conditions. He asks whether I had mental difficulties. “Only the usual suffering, and some sadness to see what is happening there, the Chinese repression of Tibetan people.” “Yes, I had this feeling of sadness also when I was there,” he says.
Addressing my reference to the usual suffering, he says, “the boat’s only purpose is to carry us across the river. When you arrive at the far shore, the proper thing to do is to leave the boat at the water’s edge and walk on. Don’t carry it around on your back. Don’t burden yourself with knowledge.”
“The Tibetans have a very good system of training in Buddhism.” I reflect that the gradual path as epitomized by the Lam Rim teachings of Lama Tsong Khapa could be seen as contradictory with the Zen approach which seems to eschew excessive conceptualization using language and words. Jin Ok Seunim, in a characteristic style of the Zen teachers I have met recently, does not answer this point directly, with a linear response, but circles back around and addresses the issue from his own unique perspective. This gives me room to think for myself, and not simply believe the teacher and his words which is emphatically discouraged by Buddha and particularly in Zen Buddhism.
“The Tibetans have excellent wisdom teachings. But in their past history, they had an isolationist closed door policy with the rest of the world. They neglected to practice the truth that nations only exist in an interdependent relationship with other nations. And so they lost their country. The “method” side of practice was lacking in their foreign policy. This problem was also present in the attitude of the Korean nation in their history, hence their frequent struggles to maintain independence throughout their history.”
“But returning to Zen meditation from an individual perspective, the words of the teacher are really unimportant. And when a great master dies, sometimes there is a special kind of bone formation, like diamonds which illustrates the power and clarity of the mind. But this also is unimportant. Knowledge and possessing knowledge is unimportant. Many philosophers write long treatises but are often so caught up in the words that it only creates a mass of confusion, for themselves in others. What is important to ask yourself again and again: “Who am I?” This is the Hua Do Chan, or important question. Whenever you have a free moment, bring your mind back to this question again and again. Hold your mind close to this question and if you lose yourself in an emotional upsurge like anger, quickly bring yourself back.”
“Anger is very destructive. For your own body and mind, and to others. You easily lose sight of the path when anger is present. So you must act quickly to prevent its destructive fire.” He repeats what I had heard from Kang Ju Seunim a few days previously, that the defilements of mind, such as anger, have no ultimate existence. If you are able to be aware of the mind’s contents, and to remain separate or apart from solid identification with it, then there is clarity – no problem, complete freedom.
I ask him: “Then if I have a moment of anger, and I see it clearly, without seeing it as coming from a solid I, or mine, there is no problem?” As I eagerly await the answer, a sudden thought flashes through my mind…How difficult this process of learning sometimes seems, having to use the clumsy tool of language to learn to go beyond language. Add an interpreter of unknown skill into the mix of ingredients and then things get really complex. Almost certainly, my meaning gets distorted a little bit as it is first translated into Korean. And then the answer, returning, is bent and refracted again as it returns again to English. “You cannot cleanse water with water,” Seunim replies. His terse reply again steers clear of any linear response. I think what he is saying to me is that almost certainly my anger is likely to be ensnared in the darkness of confusion, and hence, will not enable me to see truth.
I ask him about the Tibetan methodology again, and philosophical study of the 4 schools – Vaibashika, Sautantrika, Cittamatra, and Madhyamika. “How does one do this kind of study and avoid conceptualizing? Or how does one do a retreat that focuses on the nature of the mind, and sets aside words for a month, if one has daily prayer commitments to recite?”
“The Tibetan system is excellent. You must go beyond concepts such as good or bad, higher or lower, right or wrong. Westerners are a very capitalistic and materialistic culture and this is a problem, both in the world, and in their meditation, they tend to be very possessive of things and knowledge. Here, they could learn something from the wisdom traditions of the East. On the other hand, Westerners are very pragmatic and open-minded. This is a great strength, and it often allows Westerners to understand Zen much more quickly than Asian people. Asians can learn something from Westerners here. Human beings are fundamentally all the same. We all experience the same suffering, and wish for happiness.
“Intention is very important. You must always have a strong intention to serve and help people who are suffering and in need. You must have strong confidence that you can overcome all problems and become Buddha. This is what we are all striving for.”
Earlier in the day, Upel and I had been taken on a tour of Yosu. We visited 4 adult day care centers and one kindergarten. Most, if not all of these social projects were established for people who have no money and cannot afford to pay for their care. Most had classrooms were one could study topics as diverse as Buddhism, Christianity, computer and internet skills, English, and Korean language. All were completed under the leadership of Jin Ok Seunim. We were introduced to the friendly and enthusiastic staff, none of whom spoke much English, other than the occasional “hello”, with giggles.
But they all bowed to us and seemed very happy to share the inspiration of their altruistic programs. Again and again, I saw pictures of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the offices we visited. Many had been to Dharamsala and described meeting His Holiness, gesturing with their outstretched fingers to indicat tears flowing down their cheeks.
After two years in India, I am returning to the Western world and the practice of karma yoga, as young Bum Chen Seunim points out to me. On the outside walls of the main temple in most of the monasteries, one sees the beautifully illustrated story of the Ten Oxherding Verses: The young monk goes off in search of the mind. He sees footprints. Then gains his first vision of the untamed wild bull. Gradually he tames and finally transcends the mind, “sitting alone, apart from the mind.” Then he returns to the world to serve.”
Naturally, I see myself in that story, only I am still some distance from riding peacefully atop the white bull of a tamed mind. Still, the story is timeless, and offers inspiration to return, again and again. We sit in meditation quietly each day, find that place of peace within us, and then go out to share it with others. I remember that my teacher encouraged me to return to America. He didn’t say, “practice acupuncture”, or “do this or that”. Really, we must learn to find our own way, to make our own choices, to learn our own lessons. The teacher inspires, leads, guides, makes suggestions, but he cannot impart his wisdom simply by waving his hand and ringing a bell. It is up to me, to us.
Jin Ok Seunim smiles at me with a brilliant gentleness. I suddenly remember that I had been introduced to him and sat beside him two months previously in Dharamsala. But in a swirl of new faces and quick introductions, I had forgotten. At that time, he seemed incredibly fierce, a spiritual warrior then. Now, I am seeing another facet of his mind.
“You are a good student, genuine, and sincere.” I bow in thanks, turning on all the remote control cameras inside, watching my mind for conceit and pride as his words reverberate down the long corridors of my mind. The false self is nowhere to be seen now, but a faint trace lingers, like fog condensed on a mirror, a lack of clarity with respect to seeing ‘not-I’. Or it is like the lingering odor of a garlic clove that was stored in a bowl for a long time and only recently removed. ‘Every free moment of your time, you must investigate the question, who am I.’
“I will keep trying.” I respond. It is my prayer that some day you have one month to meditate on this question: “who am I”?
He looks at Upel and asks if she has any questions. Upel, smiling, replies that she has none, adding that, “it isn’t that I really have no questions, only I have so many questions that I’m not sure where to begin.”
Probably her words were mis-translated as the answer seems to be aimed to cut down a mind of pride. “So you think your word is powerful. Let us see what happens at the moment of your death.”
Once there were two practitioners and one went to the other and shared his difficult worries and anxieties. “Show me your mind”, said the other, “then I can help you.” The one having difficulties looked for his mind, and not being able to find it, realized no-mind.
17 Feb. The abbot bid us farewell with gifts and an offer to send a driver to take us to the next temple. Feeling confident that I can now navigate the bus terminals, I politely decline, not wishing to put an extra car needlessly on the planet’s highway system.
Bum Chen Seunim, the young monk who looks 14 but claims to be 28 gives me a small portrait photo of himself in his newly donned robes, saying he hopes to meet us again. Jin Ok Seunim calls ahead to the next monastery and informs them of our impending arrival.
On the bus, a man reeking of alcohol and cigarettes sits down across the aisle. I remember Kang Ju Seunim’s teaching on transforming odors through yogic powers of mind. At least I remember to have a kind mind. The man turns and says something not understandable to me but I realize he is pointing out the window at the river. I smile and say “kamsa amida”. He smiles back.
At the ticket gate to Hwa Om Sa, we pay 6000 Won to enter the park, but the ticket taker looks at us and amongst much uncomprehendable speech, I hear the word, “Seunim”. I fumble through my bag to find the name of the teacher who is our host. “Kag Cho Seunim”, I reply. He nods and directs us back to the window where the man directs the clerk to refund our money. He tells us that the monk phoned down to the gate to let them know of expected guests.
Hwa Om Sa is another beautiful temple, full of devout monks and lay people. Delicious vegetarian food in the kitchen – we are beginning to appreciate the Korean food which at first gave our stomachs difficulty the fact that the pickled vegetables are usually served cold. But apparently we have no translator this time, and after being shown to our room by a monk in the morning who leaves a basket of fruit and traditional Korean sweets, nobody from the temple comes to our room to meet us.
Though we were invited to stay two nights, we decide to leave after one and head on to Haeinsa temple which proved fortuitous as, on our last bus ride of four that day, we spoke with a Korean man who spoke a little English. Upon mentioning to him that I was an acupuncturist, he said that his sister in Taegu was also an acupuncturist and that perhaps we could visit her. This resulted in a very interesting and educational visit a few days later.
Haeinsa. An icy wind funnels down the river valley, as sharp on my cheeks as the brilliance of the late afternoon sun. At the center of the hurricane of sensory experience lies the peaceful eye of pure awareness. Passing through the One Pillar Gate, we make our way up the ancient stone walkway where so many spiritual seekers of truth have walked before.
At the very back of the temple compound, appropriately situated on the highest ground, lies two long buildings appearing quite plain on the outside. The walls are slatted all around, allowing air to pass freely. Inside, on floor to ceiling shelves are over 80,000 wood block plates, the complete collection of Buddhas sutras carved in Chinese characters. In 1995, UNESCO designated this a world heritage site, “a treasure of human culture.”
I remember Jin Ok Seunim’s words, “knowledge is unimportant”, and the story of the raft, also urging those who seek the way to drop all burdens, including knowledge. The truth has many levels, and though I can appreciate the profound statements of Zen, I know I am near the bottom rung of the ladder of meaning. Upel and I make three prostrations to the Dharma in all its meanings, the vast collection of teachings as contained in these more than 6000 volumes of writings, and the ultimate Dharma which transcends the limited reach of language.
Taegu. A city of three million. The logistics of setting up a meeting aren’t easy for a couple of foreigners with an outdated guidebook and no Korean language skills. I am not even sure when I speak to Theresa on the phone, that I am interested in meeting her and talking about Korean acupuncture, rather than coming as a patient. She gives the name of another friend, Jasper, whose English is a bit better. Jasper tells us that she will send a taxi for us, with instructions to the driver, and on the following day, we all meet for lunch in a nearby suburb.
Theresa works in a busy clinic nearby and has obviously pried open a slot in her schedule in order to meet us. Theresa is married to a Western doctor and if I remember correctly, has children. Jasper is “a housewife”, married to a planner in the city government, mother of two adolescent boys who she teaches English to, and volunteers as a Sunday school teacher.
Their enthusiastic welcome has me puzzled. Why would two busy people go out of their way to welcome a couple of strangers passing through their city for a day? What do we have to offer. Combined with our other experiences in Korea, I am beginning to feel as if kind hospitality directed at visitors is not so much a personal choice as a cultural obligation in Korea.
A Westerner reading this, with all his reverence for individual freedom, might find these words sounding disrespectful, as if to say that our two new friends weren’t necessarily acting out of the kindness of their heart, but simply following social upbringing. Not having any knowledge of the minds of others, and wishing to assume the highest good, I like to think that their warm welcome was both a result of social training, and a genuine desire to act out of kindness.
Once Korea was named “the Hermit Kingdom”, because it was closed to foreigners, but things change, and often for the better.
One of the highlights of the conversation for me was our mutual efforts to have an interfaith dialogue, as Jasper and Theresa shared aspects of their Christian faith, and Upel and I shared aspects of Buddhist practice. I asked Jasper how she prayed, and she replied gleefully, “may I show you?” “Yes, please”, I replied. She folded her hands together and said how this made five joined pairs of fingers to symbolize five important points to remember in each prayer. It had much in common with a traditional Buddhist framework for prayer, the seven limbs – for example, refuge, motivation, confession, purification, and dedication.
When she described how Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all, I thought of one possible Buddhist interpretation of this in the practice of tonglen – taking on the suffering of all living beings, and giving happiness and peace in return.
Philosophical points and practices aside, we both agreed that the basic point of both religions was to be a good person, to be kind, to practice patience, tolerance, forgiveness, and to help others. After lunch, we walked to Theresa’s clinic and she gave a short presentation of different techniques she uses based on her ten years of experience, including a short treatment on my low back using suction cups and a special kind of tool, similar to the plum blossom needle. Lying on top of a heated acupuncture table and receiving the healing energy of a kind and skilled doctor, I felt a definite rise in the vital energy in my body.
Theresa makes a point of treating old people who aren’t able to afford treatment, as well as monks and nuns. When she is unsure how to help someone, she simply does her best, and then lays her hands on their body and prays for help from Jesus. May I always follow her noble example of charity and service in my work.
Kwang Ju. Too much to say about this place, as the history here is rich and deep -1500 years ago, Buddhism first flourished in Korea in the Shilla dynasty of Kings. Some of the finest examples of Korean art and culture, inextricably linked with Buddhism’s arrival from China, are still found in this area unlike other areas which were lost to the many ravages of war throughout history on the Korean peninsula.
Sogkur Am. High atop a ridge on Tohamsan Mountain, Shakyamuni Buddha sits on a throne, overlooking the East Sea (Sea of Japan). From Korea, Buddhism spread to Japan, and now it is spreading from all parts of Asia to America. Things change.
This story is of no importance, and will be forgotten quickly by those who have endured reading this far. All stories come to an end. All pens run out of ink, are lost, or are simply set down because the time has come.
1 thought on “A Zen Pilgrimage to South Korea”
Love the story of your travels, Jordan. Thanks for sharing!
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