A Zen Pilgrimage to South Korea

JVVThe 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 compelled me to share a few gems from the journey.

Seoul. Man Wha Seunim welcomed us  at the temple on the outskirts of the city. After storing our mountain of luggage and settling into our immaculately empty room with delightfully heated floor and not one piece of furniture, Man Wha Seunim beckoned us to his room for tea.  As I entered, I sensed a profound tranquility. His room was also basically empty, white painted walls with nothing hanging, not even a picture of Buddha. On one low table behind  him was a stone statue of Buddha.  In front of him was a small traditional tea pouring table from which he poured tea as soon as our cups were emptied. The following three weeks would be a rhythmic ritual of emptying our cups and having them filled – emptying tea cups and any preconceived notions, drinking in sweet flavors and the nectar of original mind.

Later in the day, at our second tea, just when I was beginning to wonder how we had ever deserved such a kind welcome, Man Wha Seunim passed an envelope to Upel, obviously full of Korean currency. Upel immediately refused vehemently, thinking quite naturally that it is only proper for a lay person to make monetary donations to a monastic, not the other way around. Seunim, unfazed by Upel’s refusal, simply smiled and ignored her attempts to return the envelope. Mr. Lim, our translator, later told us that Seunim wanted us to enjoy our pilgrimage and his actions were simply an expression of his practice. Not wishing to cause a loss of face with our host, we reluctantly accepted the gift of money, imagining that it was a loan. Our part in helping others would certainly come.

The following morning – we were eventually given thin mats to sleep on – Man Wha Seunim knocked on our door precisely at 6:00 a.m. to inform us that breakfast was being served. The monks had been up chanting since 4:00 a.m. but we were given a tourist pass to “sleep in” due to our seven hour overnight flight from Delhi the day before.

After breakfast, Man Wha Seunim again appeared and gestured for us to follow him. Although neither Upel or I speak Korean, and Man Wha Seunim spoke almost no English, we followed him up the mountain in the pre-dawn winter darkness without a translator.  We were heart friends now and there is no need for words on this morning’s walk.

Man Wha Seunim had a purposeful energy, powerful and serenely composed all at once, charging forward,  leaping from ledge to ledge, stopping to point out the river far below, mirroring the faintly growing light in the east.  A song bird anointed the silence, announcing the sun rise.

Song Ni San National Park. Behind the thirty meter high statue of Maitreya Buddha, Upel and I found an unmarked path leading into the woods and up into the steep boulder strewn mountains. Thirty minutes later, we were at the summit. On a granite cliff face, Chinese characters from Buddhist sutras had been chiseled into the rock – perhaps a thousand or more years old. None of the area was protected by ropes or signs or security cameras, only the local protector spirits stood guard. Nothing, just a forest, and your mind.

At the One Pillar Gate, Nae Jang San. “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 ordinary 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.”

Song Gwang Sa. Of the three main temples of the Chogye School of Korean Buddhism, each represents on of the Three Jewels. Tongdosa represents Buddha as it contains a relic of Buddha’s body. Haeinsa represents the Dharma because of the 750 year old collection of 80,000 wood block prints containing the entire Buddhist Tripitika canon.  Song Gwang Sa  represents the Sangha because of the large community of monks how live and train here in the Zen tradition.

Ji Woo Seunim is the Kang Ju (Chief Lecturer) here. He seemed ordinary, friendly, humble, unpretentious. He was relatively young, perhaps late forties. He asked me why I have come and I replied that I was interested to learn more about Korean Buddhism and Zen. Kang Ju Seunim held up a tea cup and asked me:

KJS “What is this?”

JVV “A tea cup.”

KJS “But this thing did not ask you to call it a cup.”

JVV “No, I just give it that label with my mind.”

KJS “Zen meditation uses koans to help one learn not to be deceived by language, or the confused mind that superimposes concrete, separate identities on things. When one learns not to be deceived by language and deceptive mental habits, there is freedom. Study of Mind-Only philosophy helps us to see how our world is created through our mind, our mental activity.”

3:00 a.m. Snow had fallen overnight. The air was crisp. My fingers and toes were all pins and needles standing on the bare temple floor which was not heated. My upper body was swaddled in heavy clothing. Morning chanting and prostrations invigorated the mind. Above the monk striking the gong was a painting of a monk striking a gong, his head slightly slumped. Above him was a dream cloud – he is fantasizing about family life. To his right, his master, a white bearded old man enters through the door and sees everything clearly. That monk and I were having the same inner struggle. An hour and a half passes and the monks filed out in procession.

After breakfast, Upel and I walked through the forest, observing animal tracks and shriveled leaves dancing on bare branches in the icy wind. The gathering glow over the eastern mountaintop hinted of the day’s first rays of sun. After lunch, the superior warmth of spiritual conversation and green tea with Kang Ju Seunim ignited the heart.

The One Tea Meditation.

KJS “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 the 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 others or criticize other 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 ad 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 flagrance-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 purity 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 those 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 similarly that day. “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.”

JVV “So I am in an email shop and the young man playing war games behind me lights up a cigarette (this happened a lot in internet cafes in South Korea and India).  How does the tea meditation protect me from the smell of the smoke which usually gives me a headache? Do I recall the fragrance of the tea and try to use my powers of imagination, or do I contemplate both the ultimate (empty) nature of both the tea and the smoke?”

KJS: “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 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 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 transformational 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.”

“I hear you are an acupuncturist. One of the original purposes of acupuncture was to open up all the channels and chakras in people in order to faciliate meditation. Around the holy Mount Kailash in Tibet, are located 33 heavens and it is through these realms that the Buddha journed 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 enlightment.” Seunim smiled and made a mandala offering mudra.

Hae An Seunim is a young westerner who ordained three years ago at Song Gwang Sa.

HAS “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 here as is found in the Tibetan Lam Rim and mind training systems. Korean Buddhism was suppressed for many centuries and when the Japanese periodically invaded, the monks were forced to marry and the true practitioners hid 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 clearly. For example, its 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 two or three 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.”

JVV “Why is that?”

HAS “Too much sex, drugs, and rock and roll I guess.”

Hae An Seunim excuses himself to tend to  his studies but says that Won Sun Seunim had told him that 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.

WSS “Only two? But my English no good.”

Fortunately, he spoke some Chinese and my wife translates to me. he has translated several books from the Chinese sutras into Korean, one of which he gives to Upel. He stepped into the kitchen to prepare tea. The room is bare and simple, a large floor to ceiling window commands a sweeping view of the mountain side. Seunim laughed and smiled constantly as he spoke. And he took every opportunity to make jokes.

JVV “How many years have you been a monk?”

WSS “I don’t remember, but I’ve been in this cabin for six years and plan to stay four more.”

JVV How do you make your food?

WSS “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.

WSS “Because I like it this way. 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?

WSS “Because I went there.” Big belly laugh.

Part 2 of A Zen Pilgrimage to South Korea (coming soon).








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