Shawshank Zen (1)

Exactly twelve years ago today — the date-stamp on this photo reveals — concluded one year of training at the end of the Winter Kyol Che at Bong Am Sah Temple. On the day this photo was shot, I was just finishing 90 days of delicious silence in the midst of a group of some 80 monks at Korea’s most legendary Zen hall. It took several years of battering-ramming that community before they let me in — they had never accepted a Westerner since the temple’s founding in the year 821 C.E. It really required years and years of strong practice in the best Zen temples, and not making any problems for the community wherever I lived previously, making a “clean” record as a monk who practiced hard and caused others to practice harder. That reputation has to bang around the precincts of the community of Zen monks (especially the elders) in Korea and they finally let you in, as a Westerner, to practice at Bong Am Sah. And even for the first retreat, I was reminded that the community’s experience of my own practice there would determine if other Western monks would be accepted in the future.

Bong Am Sah Temple, Mungyong, South Korea. I lived there for one year of retreats (2008-09).

There is a reason why this might be so.

At first, I resented the resistance at being allowed to practice there. But maybe from this picture of the five monks, you can kind of see why it’s a tough place to be, and why they’d want to have some vetting. The life at Bong Am Sah is not some pretty temple-fantasy setting. Due to the size of the community housed there for each retreat season, and its total isolation away from markets and other amenities, the lifestyle tends more towards work-camp than bliss-out zone. There was still a large farm there that required much work to feed such a large community of practitioners. Massive amounts of vegetables were always being planted, or weeded, or harvested, or prepared in large vats to tide over a practice season. One taste of early frost on the Workmaster’s lips one morning at wakeup could cause a sudden order to clear a field of cabbages or turnips or whatever before a heavy frost sets in and destroys everything the previous season of monks had planted and cultivated. The stream running through the temple routinely overflowed suddenly during summer monsoon deluges and after sudden winter melts slushing down from the bell-curved eagle-like peak of Hwi Yang Sahn Mountain. Old rock walls ringing the temple precinct would sometimes crumble after a rain, requiring a chain-gang operation to shore up with rocks from the riverbed. This was truly back-breaking work resulting in many herbal patches being stuck to arms, legs, backs and feet for days afterward, in a particularly harsh weather-season. Wood was gathered in gangs from the forests and carted in for heating the heated floors; the giant cauldron for cooking rice for 100 people (monks plus staff) thrice per day must have consumed a mini-forest per retreat season (gathering-priorities was given to trees already naturally fallen).

But above all that, I think the fortitude they were suspicious of a Western monk lacking was perhaps the strength to live in a community of 80-90 of their own countrymen — men — under such a strict daily schedule of 90 days without rest, to endure the privations and constantly needing to share the same narrow eating space, sleeping space, showering space, working space, shitting space, pissing space, head-shaving space, chanting space, and meditating space with the same crew of other testosterone-vehicles, day in and day out, without separate privacy or privileges. Korean males all attend two years or more of military service (at that time), so they can be adequately (mal)adjusted to such conditions, a 90-day “Shawshank Redemption” of the soul. But I think they harbored legitimate worry that a Westerner — raised in lithe freedoms — particularly someone deemed more “effete” than the normal crew of Korea-battered monks, of the gentler persuasion (i.e., possessing the supposedly softening gifts of rationality), would not handle things well. Or that if something did “snap”, as it always can in any community of men, there would be avoidable injury if they just but kept only their own hardened race in this cauldron of effort. It’s like the way people are vetted for joining submarine crews, because a 90-day intensive retreat on only 5 hours of night of sleep and no days off for the whole duration, is really one of those “deep silent dive” missions under the Arctic for a crew in a super-confined space, and one improperly-fit element can make a difficult experience for all. Well, in this case, the Westerners had not been deemed, by reputation in other retreats, capable of handling the pressure and confinement of such a spiritual dive. Not in Bong Am Sah, at least. They had not allowed a Westerner even to overnight there for a night before I battered my way in.

And the “Shawshank Redemption” motif is not just my idea: You must believe me that this film is nearly every Korean monk’s favorite movie, by far. (In the same way, the favorite song of every Korean monk — this is about 90% consistent, across the board, for all Korean monks — is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”.)

But “Shawshank” is not just a movie for them, and it took me many years to perceive why. It seems to be a freakishly insightful explainer that they all connect with together, a roadmap. If you ever meet a Korean monk somewhere in the world, and you don’t know how to bond initially with them, tell them that “Shawshank” is your favorite movie: BOOM — friend for life. (And you don’t even need to say both words of the title: just “Shawshank”. The word is like code for them. That’s all. Life-link is permabonded forever.)

It is not that they see the monk-life as some prison: I believe, after years and years of immersive experience, that this movie seems to be the template of the Korean male experience writ colorful, an idealised glass through which the gritty terror of life under Confucianism’s inescapable strict hierarchies can be seen, and maybe laughed at; the dim sense that some penance is being paid off; the importance of developing conspiratorial bonds with other fellow-travellers to soften experience in that camp of life; the constant, looming threat of violence from the overlords, expressed specifically through their hellish two years of mandatory military experience (these days it is much softer, I understand); the constant fantasising of escape, perhaps to study abroad or even emigrate; and how, if you really use your head well, and play the game to all appearances, seeming to please the very oppressors you hate with all your guts, one day, after persistent grinding effort, you might cleverly shit yourself out through a sewer-pipe into the light.

And in not a few retreats, several monks would tag me with the name for Tim Robbins’ character (“Andy Dufresne”). It was like their way of confirming they were actually living the film: I was the nerdy-ish outsider not as condemned as the usual riff-raff (them), a person somehow already destined to escape. I was only dimly familiar with the film, since it had come out in 1994, some two years after I’d entered the monastery, and had long not seen many movies beginning to end. I didn’t get it, why in some of the first retreats in the Korean Zen hall, they would call me “Andy”, or “En-deee”. It actually took a few years. Someone may have told me that that’s what they were referring to. But I thought it’s because they thought I was also sometimes Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. (Western monks often got their nearest famous-person equivalent from the village-monks who didn’t have many other ways to communicate a bond with a Westerner.)

But there you have it: “Shawshank Redemption” is commonly regarded as the template among Korean monks for having laughs about their track as males in Korea on a peninsular jut surrounded three sides by ocean and one side by the most militarised frontier on Planet Earth (that’s the “Shawshank” part); and that sense of gritty shared fate continuing its course through temple-life training, with the only way to true freedom being the day-to-day chewing through the wall of our delusions, through Zen practice shot out through the sewer-pipe to Nirvana.

I once had no choice but to sit through it with a group of them after a retreat so that they could have a real, live Tim Robbins-character to practice some of the English phrases they’d memorised and bantered about together over the years, never sure if the delivery was ever correct or not. (“Get busy living, or get busy dying” and “Hope is a dangerous thing, my friend. It can kill a man” — they loved those phrases, and would sometimes quote them to each other while chuckling during some unbearably hard temple work project. Another one was, “Every man’s got a breaking-point…”)

Let’s look at this photo again:

The two monks in the center were/are among two of Korea’s most legendary practitioner-leaders of the Zen monastic community in Korea today. They were both monks since adolescence. They entered the temple when Korea was still dirt-poor, and even having two bowls of white rice per day was considered something of a special luxury. They grew up under the toughest masters of the second half of the twentieth-century blooming of Dharma intensity in Korea. Hard framework and tough discipline were the order of the day. In fact, it was somewhat routine for masters of the generation above them to actually beat the young monks to spur them in their practice. From a traumatised country with a history of trauma come traumatizing behaviors. Just look at their eyes — really, really tough guys, steely rough-cut bodhisattva-diamonds.

To my immediate right is Boep Ung Sunim (Dharma name meaning: “hero of Dharma”). He is one of the revered Head Monks of the last 40 years. As said before, every male in Korea attends mandatory military service. And while that experience is considerably softened in the last few years (as a result of attention to some horrific acts of hazing and disciplining that became major news events), during the years when the generation of Boep Ung Sunim attended, it was still run pretty much like a gulag experience, from what I have heard. Beatings were common, and they were never questioned in courts of law, leading sometimes to lifelong injury or death. Brutality was a feature of life that everyone accepted as normal.

So, Boep Ung Sunim’s generation of monks were taught to lead with toughness, whether in society or in the temple. There was ingrained in all fellow males, survivors of this prison-like system during the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, a constant vigilance against showing the least sort of “weakness”. Reasonableness was obtained through uncompromising displays of power alone. Boep Ung Sunim was legendary in that regard. And it is why every great Zen master of the last 40 years in Korea wanted him to be the Head Monk for the three-month intensive retreats. Nobody could “run herd” of a group of mangy Zen monks with such pitiless clarity as Boep Ung Sunim. (And it was just his “day job”: he had a sense of humour which was relentless, a constant joker with an almost preternatural comedic sense.)

One particularly famous story of his leadership is that, during one retreat when he was Head Monk to a group of some 40 practitioners, there was one especially troublesome monk who resented authority. (Fresh out of his military service, it turned out.) He was often making problems in the retreat. He ordered younger monks around constantly, and would not take correction from his other colleagues. He had a real chip on his shoulder! It fell to Boep Ung Sunim to give him corrections. The monk would accept the correction for a day or so, but could not control himself, and fell back quickly to his accustomed karma. Many monks in the retreat were having a very hard time with him.

Boep Ung Sunim tried all sorts of ways to persuade the monk to behave harmoniously. But he just had this obstreperous temperament: Everything was a challenge that he needed to meet with further conflict.

So, one night, Boep Ung Sunim waited until the end of evening practice, until all of the monks had bedded down for the night. In those days, every single monk slept together in the meditation room, because that was the only room that the temple could afford to heat all night. The monks were always packed in like sardines! It was a 90-day retreat during which the monks were sleeping only 3 hours per night. So those few hours of sleep were especially precious.

At some point in the night, Boep Ung Sunim crawled over to the “problem” monk’s place, took a pocket flashlight out of his pocket, pointed it directly over the monks face, and flicked it on. He put his hand over the monk’s mouth before he could utter any reaction.

“You!” he whispered gravely. “Shhhhhhh. Not one word. You are coming with me for a talk. Two of us will walk out of here. If things don’t go well, only one of us walks back in. Understand?” The monk, still gripped with shock and terror, nodded. Already terribly sleep-deprived after weeks of this schedule, he could not have been sure if this was real or just a bad dream! Boep Ung Sunim put his fingers to his lips. “Come! Now!” The monk reached for his coat, balled up on the floor beside him. “No!” Boep Ung Sunim shushed. “Come!”

Boep Ung Sunim marched the monk to a little forest of trees behind the meditation hall. The icy wind howled down the mountain in this, the deepest chill of winter. He berated the problem monk, he shivered without benefit of jacket or sweater. “This can be a one-off,” Sunim said, “or we can do this every night. It’s up to you.” Through various threats and blandishments, Boep Ung Sunim was able to earn at least some acquiescence from the monk, for there were no more problems from him for the rest of the retreat. There are many stories like this about Boep Ung Sunim’s fearless leadership.

To Boep Ung Sunim’s right sits another of the greats of this now-ageing generation of Zen leaders in Korean Zen: Cheol In Sunim (literally, his monk name means “iron person”) had been Head Monk under some of the greats. He was quite a leader, I have heard. When he walked into the Tea Room during retreat, the monks ranged in circles on the floor would immediately stand, nervously adjusting the bows on their robes if they’d “gone casual” for a few minutes. Cheol In Sunim, after years sitting retreats in some of the toughest temples, eventually began doing pilgrimages in the Himalayas. This led him to develop some knowledge of the Sherpa lifestyle there. He eventually lived with Sherpa communities, who respected him very much as a monk who was very humble, serving the Sherpas instead of expecting them to serve him. He eventually climbed some of the highest peaks in the world, especially Kilimanjaro, K2, Denali. When I met him, he was training for Everest. At first, I could not understand this: Why does he need to climb mountains? Why not just sit meditation — isn’t the Self the greatest mountain of all to summit?

But for Cheol In Sunim, after many years as the leader of the community, whenever he went to attend a Kyol Che, he was immediately expected to be a Head Monk. He was tired of this sort of responsibility, after so many years disciplining and running herd over the tough characters who usually show up in retreat. So, mountains became his practice. He told me that, since one’s very life depends on the moment-to-moment intensity of focus during high-peak climbing, mountaineering required aspects of his mental functioning that he had not used since he was a young monk, before he became “useful” as a leader. The samadhi of climbing had become his practice. And in any event, he felt that perhaps the life of Zen retreats was not as “tough” or edgy as during his formative years, so he treated each climb as a sort of retreat. I saw that his eyes still sparkled brightly and easily, like true practitioner. So, I could believe this to be true.

The two monks at rear are, you can easily tell, “newbies” in the temple. You can see the purity and simplicity. These young monks were raised a whole generation or two after Boep Ung Sunim and Cheol In Sunim, under a democratic Korea rather than the harsh military dictatorship which so crushingly influenced the lives of their elder monks. You can see it in their eyes.

But bodhisattva-nature is the same. It has just passed through a different crucible. One of the greatest good fortunes of my years in Korea is that I was there at the time when Boep Ung Sunim and Cheol In Sunim were still available to practice together with. I don’t know if the impact of the Korean Buddhist tradition would have been as firmly impressed into my practice had I been raised with monks from the Internet-era, the social-media-generation, the smartphone-carrying monks (and nuns) who can now maintain constant access to the outside world digitally even after the gates of retreat have closed for 90 days. This photo, then represents, perhaps one of the last years of true solitude in Korean Buddhist history: Steve Jobs would introduce the iPhone — the first smartphone — later that year.

And nothing would ever be the same in the temples again. The life has become radically altered, the cut-off and the solitude disappeared completely.

“Shawshank Redemption”, for all of its harsh conditions — and perhaps because of them — really does offer the chance to redeem.

Share this on:

Related Posts: