We practice Zen solely to look directly into our True Nature. There is no belief system to uphold, or moldy creed, or ideology, zero dogma, or philosophy, or outlook. There is strictly this pure seeing: the attainment that there is, actually, nothing to attain.
There is certainly a minimalistic teaching-form in Zen. But we do not practice in order to uphold that teaching form of bowing, chanting, sitting, walking and eating meditation, mantra and breathing and looking into Great Doubt, in the same way that a person does not wear eyeglasses simply to uphold some frame on her nose. The form is there for the seeing: in correct practice, as with eyeglasses, we do not even notice the form anymore, but enjoy the sharper, clearer vision of this life that results thereby. If there is any form we hold to in Zen, it’s only “don’t know.” Before-thinking mind. The Unborn. Whatever we want to call it at one time or another, though it eludes even any possibility of being named. The “formless form.”
Like Jesus later, the Buddha broke from moldy tradition to revolutionize into being a deeper, more radical technology of seeing the very nature of Being. There are aspects of the old “tradition” that he carried over from Hinduism, but (like Jesus) he was also harshly criticized for his reformation of the dead, useless parts of the old tradition. Both were severely attacked for their innovations: there were even several assassination attempts against the Buddha because of his radical approach to the old ways. (For example, he would not insist that his followers be strict vegetarians. This caused him boatloads of grief and accusations that he was “not a correct yogi”: apparently, the Buddha wasn’t “woke” enough for his vegan/veggie colleagues in Jainism and saddhu circles.) And we all know what happened to Jesus and his path of challenging the traditions.
So, using tradition without being used by tradition — this is always a very delicate balance. Dae Soen Sa Nim was just a total master of that. He was very very strongly invested in transmitting to the West a clear sense of the correct traditions of Korean Chogye Buddhism’s 1700 year-old practicing flow. But he weeded out the needless extraneous stuff from the get-go: he threw away memorial ceremonies and monastic hierarchy over laypeople; he promoted gender equality and teaching authority for women from the very beginning of his work in the West, without ever needing to be prodded; there was democratic management of the Zen centers, instead of Korea’s hierarchical management style; monastics did not have absolute authority in the spiritual space, but shared accountability with lay teachers; finances and admin were shared, not held in the hands of clerical elites.
And yet — as with Jesus, as with the Buddha — even his own innovations came to ossify into unchangeable, unquestionable shibboleths. The very institutional inertia that he rebelled against, in Korea, lifted its fuzzy head (albeit more gently) in his creation in the West. His vital revolutionary movement has steadily morphed into a collection of laws.
I remember when I first started using the Om Mani Padme Hum chant that I developed at Hwa Gye Sah in 2004, during retreats in the Kwan Um School of Zen in Europe. The students found it such a breath of intense fresh air to have their post-lunch sitting meditation renewed — in its digestive, altitude-losing condition — with this bright chanting and then movement back into sitting. The comments that came back were ones of astonishment: some said that they had never experienced such clear, deep sittings during that most difficult period of sitting meditation. (One student in the Czech Republic even told me that she had forever “given up” on ever having a clear, non-droopy post-lunch sitting until we did that chant: The only other way she was able to have strong sittings at that time of the day during retreats was to skip lunch entirely, but then her blood sugar levels dropped because of some preexisting condition, and her head was dizzy. She had tried brisk walks in the cold outside during walking meditation, even doing headstands in her room during walking meditation — nothing worked. Until she did this burst of harmonization together with everyone.)
Everywhere I went, I did this chant together with everyone just to reboot their satellite into higher orbit in that post-lunch torpor. It was not something I had learned anywhere. It is just something which had poured out of my dirty mouth one day spontaneously while sitting on the high seat at Hwa Gye Sah Temple delivering the umpteenth Sunday Dharma Talk in English, as I looked out over the usual 200 people gathered for the talk and realized, “You know what? I’ve said enough from this seat. This talk’s gonna just be practice. Got no idea what it’s gonna be. But it’s gonna be practice.”
I had literally no idea what would happen. Just took a long breath way in down to my center, below the navel, and what came out is — well, it’s what we have been doing now ever since that Sunday in 2004. It’s what I brought to chilly Rethymno, Crete in February 2011 and did every morning alone with one other person in the empty shala before the other practitioners were even awake. Using a spare key that the resident teacher had lent us, this empty yoga space became our Om Mani Padme Hum temple. Soon, the swelling group of yogis gathering outside to wait for us to complete the chant before entering, eventually became the minority. As the days and weeks passed, they dripped in until there was a whole group of us vibrating: it became a standard part of their morning practice, before the asana work. We smoothed the chant it right into sitting Zen, even if just for 2-3 minutes (at first). And it has grown into a movement where, through this simple one-breath chant, and the sitting that follows, Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Dharma has become interesting enough that a large number of the people doing our retreats here in Zen Center Regensburg are from Greece, and I am pulled back once every two months to lead retreats packed to waiting-list in Athens and Thessaloniki. And The Compass of Zen was translated into Greek by one of those early Om Mani Padme Hum chanters. Seven of them have taken 5 Precepts, and two of them are now Dharma Teachers, with another two Dharma Teachers training to receive Precepts at the next ceremony.
But when we chanted that chant in Kwan Um centers, there were notifications from central HQ that this was “not correct.” It was not the orthodoxy, “not our School style.” Having grown up in the Catholic Church, the writing on the wall was clear: orthodoxy or else. So, without bitterness, I left the School. It would no longer be possible to grow there. It would no longer be possible to maintain a self-disruptive practice in a village which demanded conformity and nearly as much hierarchy as one could find in the innovation-averse Chogye temples that Dae Soen Sa Nim had rebelled against, himself.
But I did not leave the School because of that chant. I left because of laziness.
Here it goes: