Is Zen Center Life in the West a Failure?

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A Kwan Um School of Zen student asked me this question this week during the daily Livestream. It gave an opportunity to address the matter of having strong experiences in retreat, then returning home to life and finding perhaps greater challenges. This is inevitable, once your eye begins to open. Also, the matter of not having residential, on-site teachers to guide and shape the practitioner through their disruptions and evolutions is perhaps a very key reason for why this student would ask such a question. I was very grateful for the chance to address this issue of how our modern approach to retreat-style practice was designed for a different living matrix than we pursue in modern times, and so should be understood accordingly.

See the whole video to follow the argument:

Our Mirror of Zen // 깨달음의 거울

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The altar in the main Soenbang [Jap.: Zendo] at Songgwang Sah: Kil Sang Sah (길상사).
…another angle.
The last day of the 2015/‘16 Winter Kyol Che, Walking through the bamboo forest above Songgwang Sah, taking the path to make a private pilgrimage to the hermitage of Boep Jeong Sunim (법정스님) at Bul Il Am Hermitage (불일암), to visit his favorite magnolia tree where his cremated ashes were sprinkled, before returning to Europe to start Zen Center Regensburg.

Of all the traditional temples in Korea where I did the 90-day ango, Shin Won Sah has a special importance. It is the first temple where I experienced these retreats, and most significantly, it is the temple where I could fully dive into the total ecosystem of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s ineffable dharma. All in all, from 1990 to 2000, I did six winter retreats there, and each one of those retreats caused the further and deeper revolution and spiritual disruption to set me most unshakably on this path. It was definitely a place of heaven and hell, and getting grounding in the don’t-know road through both. If anyone could ever be eternally grateful to a spot of earth, a set of crumbling rock walls, some crumbling old dharma halls, and some crooked Pinetree ‘s, that place would definitely be it, for me. That little smidgen of scrubby land in the temple precincts of Shin Won Sah “gave” greater value to my life than all of the well-manicured real estate of the Yale and Harvard campuses.

”The room where it happened.” The Mountain Spirit Hall [중악단 /// 산신각] at Shin Won Sah, where I made massive installment-payments on mountains of unexamined karma by doing lots and lots of daily bows and midnight practice there during the winter retreats. Located about 50 m from the meditation hall, it is an ancient, partially dilapidated, unheated shed-experience where the wind blows through the cracks between the warped planks of wood in the walls and floor.

But the retreats there were retreats of my Teacher’s students only, so, one was fairly safe there from needing to integrate all sorts of other influences that dominate the standard Korean Zen hall experience – – mountains of tradition, heavy monastic family histories, and a mixture of practicing styles and attitudes that can often be a great challenge to maintain one’s practice among for the duration of such a long retreat.

After Shin Won Sah, I would have to say that practicing at Songgwang Sah for 5 more Winter angos was the next greatest effect on the development of this work.

Songgwang Sah Is one of the most esteemed of Korea’s ancient temples. It is respected for its strong discipline and unshakably clear rules for monastic community-life. It is located in a relatively poorer area of the country, and so therefore doesn’t have some of the materialistic excesses that can flood some of the richer temples.


Most notably, Songgwang Sah temple produced 16 National Teachers (국사), and was founded by the great monk Chinul (보조 국사), whose spirit is recalled and remembered in so many aspects of the temple’s life today. The eminent 20th-century Zen master Ku Sahn Sunim (구산스님) founded Korea‘s first international Zen Center there in the 1970s, and his family of western practitioners includes the former monks Stephen Bathchelor, Martine Batchelor, and Robert Buswell, among many others.

Songgwang Sah was also the lineage temple of one of the most beloved spiritual figures of Korea’s modern times, the poet/essayist/environmental activist/meditator/national conscience, Boep Jeong Sunim (법정스님) (1927-2007). His main student, Dok Hyon Sunim (덕현스님), is the monk I respect most in all of Korean Buddhism, alongside Hwi Kwang Sunim (뉴욕 불광선원 휘광스님).

The retreats at Songgwang Sah were not easy, and they were not comfortable. Well, that is exactly the way a real Zen retreat is supposed to be, and I can never say – – and hope I never say! – – that some kind of retreat was beneficial because it was “comfortable“. But, there was a dimension to this “discomfort“ which became another, wholly unexpected fuel for the practice that I needed to do there during that period: Being the only foreigner in the retreat group, there were always strange daily challenges and pressures that needed to be encountered, in a way that was unique in the entire community. On top of that, being perceived as some sort of “prominent“ or “famous“ entity created its own sets of fires that needed to be walked through, especially in the temple like that which prides itself on its low-key, understated traditions and atmosphere. There was naturally an inordinate amount of curiosity about this foreigner, and for 99% of the monks in attendance at the retreat, living together with a non-Korean like this was the first time they had ever had ongoing contact with a non-Korean, at all!

But I always tried to just keep my head down and practice hard. It wasn’t an ambition or anything: it was the only thing I knew how to do. I didn’t wish for chatter or making friends. I never ever went on the customary post-lunch walks in the mountains with the other monks, which could be filled with idle chitchat and especially curious questions to me and lame attempts for people to improve their English vocabularies. Anyway, I simply wasn’t interested in the least iota of social exchange. I even avoided appearing in the tea room, where monks gathered around on the rest periods and exchanged news about the larger Mahasangha, or issues in the world, or views on practice. It never interested me, at all. It probably seemed somewhat arrogant, but I didn’t care about that, either. I just kept my nose down and focused on the work, unrelentingly, every single day of the retreat.

I even grew to be anxious about those little periods of rest we were granted after a community work project, when it was natural for the community to sit around a pot of sliced watermelon (in the summer) or roasted sweet potatoes or chestnuts (in the winter) or tea and snacks. I didn’t want any invitations for conversation.

The One-Pillar Gate [일주문] of Songgwang Sah. Entering the temple, we enter a realm of non-duality (불이성) — Buddhanature has no “two” aspects, nor does the natural world.

During certain communal events at the main temple, I would be invited to visit senior monks in their hermitages ranged up in the hills above the main temple compound. I was always asked up for tea, and I avoided at all costs, maybe going once or twice or three times in all of the retreats that I attended there. This was just standard operating procedure for me to keep my practice, and not be distracted by things.

As in most matters as an inheritor of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s practice-technologies, I was so fortunate to have been trained with the habit of doing lots and lots of prostrations with mantra. Unshakeably, I used every available rest-period possible for this, except the rest-period immediately following lunch, which I always always used to get a little recharging nap so that there would be clarity for the second half of the day, sitting until late into the night. Except for that rest in the schedule, pretty much every other free time was used for bowing. This had the added benefit of keeping me out of social interactions, and gave a perfect running alibi for why I couldn’t join people on mountain walks or trips to the rooms of elder monks for teachings and discussions which I did not want (or frankly even need).

I realize that this last part might come across as arrogant. So be it. But I have always felt so completely well equipped by my teacher. The only thing lacking was the resolve to execute, the giving in to laziness and sloth or some needless distraction. Maybe even giving up the bows, on one rest-period or another, due to some heavy sadness or feeling of impossibility that could creep up in the practice from time to time. Some valley might appear in my mind, during the many hours of sitting, and there could be some times when I just would not have the strong will to suit up again with warm clothes to execute a few sets of bows in the freezing Buddha hall. Sometimes I could just be really really down, or some intense loneliness could set in.

Also, as was also the experience with many of my fellow Western monastics, there was the constant feeling of frustration living amidst the pervasive narrowmindedness of a very tightly focused monoculture mentality. Nothing against it, but it is a homogeneity of mental-functioning that could truly get under one’s skin and be a constant irritant!

So I knew, whenever these invitations by Elder monks were proffered, that it was a friendly lure for this big-nosed fish to be brought into a room and talked to didactically about some dry intellectual concept of Buddhism that the fish had not the least interest in knowing anything more about. So it just became better for me to make it clear to the entire community that my resting breaks would be spent bowing in an old Buddha hall, or resting in my room thereafter, or making a pot of tea and getting ready for the next three-hour sitting block. There wasn’t left any margin for people to play with. I felt so great to be able to control that, though it was not always easy. And these struggles were not “bugs” in the system, but “features” of monastic life — a large group of unmarried men living together in a confined space of the temple precincts (albeit in the deep mountains!), following a fairly unwavering schedule, living under a certain prescribed hierarchy and representing a very, very old and justifiably proud tradition.

Despite the beautiful, bitter trials — or, rather, thanks very very much to them! — I have an eternally abiding gratitude to the Songgwang Sah community for allowing me to attend so many retreats there. The senior monks often joked that I was “a part of the Songgwang Sah family,” forgetting, it would seem, the awkward fact that their greatest modern patriarch and my own Teacher had a difference of view about how Westerners should be guided into Korean Buddhism: Ku Sahn Sunim believed in the unwavering tradition (a bread-making machine for the first Westerners back in the day was considered a major innovation and bending of the cultural rules!), while Dae Soen Sa Nim perceived enlightened natural adaptations of Korean Buddhist roots to the new soil of Western-shaped consciousness, including encouraging gender equality, democratic temple management, etc.

In any event, after my last Kyol Che at Songgwang Sah — and perhaps the last Kyol Che I ever sit in Korea — I returned to Germany to formally inaugurate the Zen Center Regensburg in a former office building in the Old Town of this UNESCO-listed jewel of medieval Europe. In our Dharma Room, inspired by the experiences at Songgwang Sah, and its mirror-altar in the main Soenbang [Zendo], I had two artist friends construct our altar according to a very clear and specific design.

A last look before heading back to Bavaria. And no more trips back here for retreat.

Bye, guys. See you next life, I hope!

한국어 오디오북: “만행: 하버드에서 화계사까지”. Chapter 1: 숭산 숭산 숭산 /// Audiobook of “That” Book

Someone seems to have done an audiobook recording (in Korean) of the first chapter of that best-selling book I wrote in Korea 21 years ago this month. This opening chapter is titled “Seung Sahn, Seung Sahn, Seung Sahn” (I did not choose the chapter titles – – that was purely a publisher decision!), and describes the events leading up to my first encounter with Zen Master Seung Sahn, who would become my Teacher.

I stopped publication and further sales of the book (despite being offered a very, very large bonus to renew the contract, it must be stated for the record!) when the initial five-year contract ran out, because of two important reasons: one, things had grown wildly out of control for me in Korea, with fame and notoriety and too much social freedom, Chogye Order politics, and so my practice was beginning to go off the rails, which I never felt comfortable about at all. And, two: The book was written only to get The Compass of Zen published, finally, in Korea. Its very reason for existing — this whole infected experience — was finished, since The Compass was published the following year, by agreement. So, it was possible to let this whole situation drift off into emptiness, from which it had young emerged. People in the West ask if there is an English translation somewhere, and I reply that there isn’t, and that there shall not ever be, I hope. It was a book written for a specific, unavoidable reason, and it outlived its purpose. There is no equivalent purpose for this book appearing in anything other than the Korean language, for those very reasons. Also, the book was written in a more dramatic and perhaps more florid speech style which was responsive specifically to the audience who would be reading it – – there would just be too much work to re-create this for a Western mind to absorb best. So, it ain’t happening in English. Arrow already passed downtown, baby.

(By the way: I did not have anything to do with this little video, and only discovered its existence quite by accident recently. But for Korean listeners to perhaps get a better sense of this teacher who I practiced under – – so relatively unknown in his own country, at the time of the original writing! – – this is re-shared here in the hopes that it gets shared and shared, so that a new generation comes to know some aspect of why a Westerner would connect with him. I wish also to remind Koreans of the grateful jewels which exist embedded in little corners of their own tradition. They don’t need to become Americanized Southern Baptists in order to find an authentic teaching which connects with everyday life in the modern world.)