I recently had the distinct honor to give the first public talk at the Stupa für den Frieden (“Peace Stupa”), located in Grafenwörth, Austria.
It is awe-inspiring to see what one monk can do, armed with his deep faith in the Buddha’s teachings and decades of immersion in the sutras: Boep Jeon Sunim is a Korean monk who has spent the entirety of his monks’ career outside the influence of Korean Chogye Buddhism. He trained in Thailand, and Japan, and Dharamsala, different parts of Nepal. He built the (at the time) largest pagoda in Europe, in Hungary, some twenty years ago.
And then he handed it over to a group of local monks. Years and years of indescribable effort, and much renown from it — even His Holiness the Dalai Lama travelled to Europe for its consecration! — and he completely let go of any further involvement in it. Buddhist non-attachment in action.
Now, he is nearing completion on a stupa which even dwarfs that! It is 32.5m high, and encloses a 700 square meter room. Located in the Danube River Valley, in the middle of rolling vineyards, it is truly a faith-inspiring site. Sunim works there all day, every day, 7 days a week. He wears regular working-man’s overalls and smears the cement and installs the floorboards with the regular workers. All have come to respect and admire him for his efforts.
We have developed a nice friendship, and he invited me to give the first talk in the newly-opened Pagoda. In the future, he wishes us to have Zen retreats there. What a wonderful human being, and an inspiration for the monk’s-life. I just have to prevent him from seeing my tattoos for as long as possible: Seeing Yorae’s wonderfully tattooed arms during lunch in the pagoda, Sunim told me, “He should remove them. The Buddha said that that is not good.” I don’t know what sutra he was referring to, but, well here we go again in the endless conversation that is the coming of this precious technology from eastern cultures to the West. Apparently he did not see my own tats…
“In this world, nothing is free,” Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say, in his unique form of super-succinct English. “Something you have obligation. Even air and water is not free, OK? – – You must some pay tax on that! Only use this free air, use this free water and not [do] good actions to this world, then you not pay tax. Pay tax means, you must good action with this air, good action with this water, good action with this body. Everybody must pay tax. Every day, human beings get this air free, get this water free, but have no obligation to air, have no obligation to water, have no obligation to anything. Only to himself. Only ‘myself.’ But one day, you must paying something.”
A typical night of teaching in Germany, in one of the richest countries in the world, a Dharma Room full of people in Bavaria, the richest Land in Germany, results in not enough donations back to the temple to purchase a Maß of the local beer. Even after making a short, sweet announcement after sitting meditation about the need for donations to keep this oasis-in-the-craziness open and free for those who cannot afford to pay at all, this is the result of opening the donation box at the end of the evening:
Yes, we practice with no expectations, not “wanting” anything in return. It is so gratifying — and enough, in itself — to see the faces emerging from Evening Meditation daily here at the Zen Center, made lighter by their work in stillness with chanting and sitting, attention to breath and sound and the scent of frankincense and the normal wood-grained flooring beneath the nose. The change in their demeanor is clear, it is obvious, and the practitioners notice it themselves as they step back out into the chilly night and blend into the bustling, shopping, eating crowds. You see it in front of the shoe rack outside the Dharma Room: on arrival, there is hurry and stress, the carryover from work and commuting; and when they return to put their shoes on again, there is lightness, smiling and laughter.
Yet every community is only enabled to continue this sort of work when the beneficiaries recognize their good merit in finding such a teaching (as Zen Master Seung Sahn’s don’t-know pointing); when they realize their great merit in finding such a community which embraces without strict membership, but lets anyone enter the doors and get instruction and a clear practice-form that lets them swim deeply in the vast space of our True Nature. On an average night, ten able-bodied people receive instruction in looking into their life. How excellent! Yet rent must be paid, electricity must be paid, insurance must be paid, cleaning supplies to make their toilet experience healthy must be paid (and effort by the Abbot to clean it), water for their tea must be paid, and this is the result even after asking! Opening the donation box tonight after practice, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s words floated up into view: “In this world, nothing is free. Something you have obligation. Even air and water is not free, OK?”
Some of the Zen Center directors tell me that I must remind people — again and again — to give money, that we must make a hard-and-fast membership which allows attendance at meditation. But I cannot do that — I cringe bodily about the mouth that speaks Dharma and money in the same exchange. It recalls the skin-curdling reaction one has to televangelists and priests. “They must be subjects done by separate people,” I feel.
Yes — this is aversion to talking about money to our meditation students is perhaps also attachment, a hindrance of some kind, “making something.” Money is actually a kind of dharma, after all, a neutral manifestation of the operation of the universe, our minds and intentions and desires and histories. “All dharma are marked with emptiness, / They do not appear or disappear / Are not tainted or pure / Do not increase or decrease.” In Germany especially, I have been told by members of the local community that, unless you speak to Germans in very clear, firm, exact terms about their financial obligations in receiving this teaching — and unless you do it often — they will not be prodded to support the temple. From the very beginning, however, we have encouraged whoever wants to sit retreats to sit retreats here, regardless of their ability to pay. (Sometimes one-half to one-third of the Dharma Room is filled with retreat ants who have paid little or nothing to sit the retreats.) And we have kept the training fees extremely low, and not raised them since establishing them on opening day in March 2016. In a university town, especially, you don’t want there to be any barriers to an enthusiastic engagement with the opportunity to sit down and look inside.
So, part of the problem resides with me, with my weird character resisting money-talk. How strange — a person whose family-name is Muenzen (Münzen is German for “coins”) has trouble asking people for money!
I believe that I’ve had a fairly healthy attitude to money and to others’ relationships to money. When some little book I wrote in Korea became a mega-bestseller, and earned several quarters of a million dollars in royalties, it was an absolute no-brainer to send all of it to Zen Master Seung Sahn for help in the construction of the Zen Center, or to give to poorer monks from Eastern Europe who couldn’t get the airplane money to visit aged parents for years while practicing in Asia, and to buy Buddhas and temple bells for various Zen centers in need. I was literally just handing the stuff away, before it could grow roots in and destroy my brain. It wasn’t a “good” thing or a “noble” thing: When this sudden explosion of celebrity after the bestseller caused all of this money and temptation to pour into my life, there were predictions that I would not stay long as a monk. But it was, to me, an act of preserving sanity to just shovel the stuff out just as fast as it was pouring in. The money “appeared” as a result of some energy or power that had been generated through intensive practice — some explosive blooming of merit or “dharma energy,” as Dae Soen Sa Nim used to call it — and so this money belonged to Dharma, and should only be used to further the work of Dharma.
(Another famous case, in the same years, was a young Korean monk whose simple, naive paintings of temple-life and child-monks began selling like hotcakes in Korea. He became so rich that he bought several properties in Seoul, and eventually moved to the US to attend art school, and was never heard from in Korean monk-society again. They say he is currently married and living comfortably from the rent on the properties he bought with the big money he earned from selling his naive paintings about the simple poverty of child-monks living playfully in the temple. This monk’s trajectory into wealth was happening at exactly the same time as my bestseller was minting a smallish fortune. Needless to say, not a few voices murmured that I might just take off and stop being a monk. Even Dae Soen Sa Nim is said to have mentioned, “This fame maybe kill Hyon Gak Sunim practice.” I heard about that, and it spurred me to try even harder to do well with the whole experience, though there were many dark periods, as well.)
When I had a newspaper delivery route operating off my bicycle every day in my hometown, when it came time every 2 weeks to collect the subscription monies from the customers, door to door — money that was owed by their having received the papers I had delivered, by their order — I was unable to collect the subscription from houses which seemed poorer in appearance. If they had some plastic sheeting in place of a cracked windows, or an unkempt front yard with garbage, unpainted steps in need of repair, or a dog that looked unfed or unclean — I would just not be able to ask them for money. My Dad ended up paying those bills — though he was not rich at all — and that shortened considerably my promising career as a newspaper delivery boy. “Your collections for this month are too low,” he would say in exasperation, and yet with a patience which I cannot understand today. “Why can’t you collect their subscription money?” I had no other excuse. “This or that person — they seem so poor,” I would say, my head down. I was not being a do-gooder. It was not in me, viscerally, to ask money from people who already seemed to have so little. But something felt wrong about it, too: I felt some humiliation and even lack of courage in this matter.
In our Zen Center, I have refused to make a membership which might create a barrier to anyone getting in and getting their ass on the cushion. It seemed obvious that receiving strong and clear meditation instruction from an experienced practitioner — and then seeing its benefits, in visit after visit to an especially clean and orderly meditation space (otherwise they would not come at all!) — would naturally produce an upwelling of “return”: giving back to the universe what had been revealed about the innate riches of one’s own True Nature. As I always remind the guests who come here, “Regensburg is one of the most picturesque and beloved tourist locations in all of Germany because previous generations donated to build its great Gothic gem of a cathedral, its UNESCO-listed Old Stone Bridge, its winding cobblestone streets. Modern Regensburgers (and we!) live well off the torrent of tourist dollars pouring into this city because those before us gave of themselves to build such a jewel as this. Every church and monastery in Europe that draws hordes of tourists to its hotels, restaurants, cafes, and shopping centers was built through this mentality. We must have the same attitude about our local meditation centers, as well.”
This work in Regensburg has been made possible by many people in Asia who have seen our practice and teaching efforts, and have wished to support this work. But this is not something which should continue indefinitely. And anyway, as my presence in Korean Buddhism recedes into the rear-view mirror, the donation-stream will also recede, and already is receding. It is not a foreign concept to expect local Europeans to “step up”, and I have a feeling that they are, slowly. A group of young men have recently decided to meet and coordinate a strategy for fundraising and membership — two things I do not have the time in this work to engage in. Let’s hope it’s not too late to secure us another year or two here. I have a feeling that they are “just in time”!
If not, it is perfectly OK to begin — again — a wandering life, based for some periods here in Germany, some periods in Greece. The enthusiasm-level in Greece seems something I will eventually respond to with greater involvement there. It would be sad to lose this fantastic base in Bavaria, were it to come to that. But I’m definitely ready. One of the precepts delineated by the Buddha himself is that monks should not stay in one place for more than three days, otherwise feelings of attachment appear. It has now been 10 years of hard work in Bavaria, and four years in Regensburg. Very happy to take this thing on the road again, in the end.