People in Korea often ask why I left the country after nearly two decades of residency and becoming very “influential” in the culture and in Korean Buddhism there. There are many explanations that could be given. In the simplest expression, I grew enormously toxic from the enormous fame that had exploded up, and there was no “user’s manual” for it, especially at the dawn of a digital age which was now capable of projecting words and images and opinions at the speed of light worldwide, an utterly surreal experience to be an objectified focus of, something never before experienced in human history and what I felt completely incapable of handling properly, on all sorts of levels.
As a result of suddenly one morning waking up massively “famous”, in peoples’ minds, the rhythm of daily practice together with Sangha was constantly being thrown ridiculously off-kilter. I was continually under a deluge of temptations and distractions (many too controversial or at least absurd to relate here), and was so completely worn out with demands that I ended up developing a condition of facial paralysis called “Bell’s Palsy”. In order to fulfil the expectations of a Buddhist society which (by my own fault) went just gaga over the usefulness for this Westerner to proclaim the practical, scientific value of its ancient traditions to the masses, I did not spend the quiet hours and constancy doing “bo rim” — digesting and integrating the profound awakenings of the big retreats. I did not digest my karma as well as I should have, not by a long shot — in fact, I actually inflamed it terribly, on so many levels. There would be these really indescribable “openings” in meditation, usually in mountain-retreat settings; and then the 90-day period of “hae jae” would be spent struggling under the immense mountain of invitations and requests to teach here and there. Some of the invitations were that in name only: Many, many times when I refused an invitation, or complained the need for rest or quiet practice in the temple, I would get called into the Abbot’s room for some polite arm-twisting. In a Confucian system, when your Abbot — the man who provides your daily rice — is a product of 26 years in the military, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army, in fact, and he has some influential monk or nun calling him up to strongly request that the “star” Western monk provide his presence at some event because their temple’s faithful are demanding it, your options are really not many.
In fact, they really don’t exist. I remember when the bestseller, Man Haeng: From Harvard to Hwa Gye Sah Temple, was published and shook the world of Korean Buddhism, my Teacher told me to stay in the temple and keep absolute silence for one year. He was afraid of the impact of this massive explosion happening around the book. He mostly wanted me to “ripen”, so that if I opened the mouth to teach, maybe something true and useful would come out. He was aware of my “awakenings”, but he was much more concerned, I believe, that things were not integrated into my everyday psychology yet. And he was right.
But very few others even in his own temple were having similar plans for me. In several of those meetings, where he told me to do this silence and remaining only at Mu Sang Sah, the Hwa Gye Sah Abbot (also a disciple of Dae Soen Sa Nim, for over 45 years, and considered almost like a son to him) would be sitting together in the meeting, nodding at the Patriarch’s strong directives for my further ripening. He would smile along at the directive that I just stay in the temple for one year, keeping silence.
BAM! The minute we got out of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s room — or sometime within a day or two — I would be called to the Abbot’s room to answer a request from some super-influential monk or temple that I be the main Dharma talk at some big anniversary event or another. Now, I hadn’t ever mastered sign language sufficient to give public talks that way, OK? So the implication seemed to be that I would need to be doing some TALKING at these events. Like, with the fucking MOUTH. This apparent seeming maybe possible almost contradiction did not seem to faze the Abbot in the least. The Abbot would come up with all of these lawyerly twists on an interpretation of the order I had just been given by my own Teacher — HIS own teacher, since before I was even born! He would hem and haw like, “Opening your mouth to teach is still silence: it’s ‘bodhisattva-talking'”. That was one of his classics. Or, “Just this once. This inviting monk is very very powerful, he was my senior in the military. BIG temple, many people asking for you.” Or “This monk’s followers are all asking HIM that they only want YOU, Hyon Gak! He has much stress!”
It was impossible to resist him. These military guys always get their way, in this kind of strict Confucian culture.
So, it was a no-way-out situation. My Teacher had a very, very clear and unmistakeable directive. But he was physically very degraded by that point, and not able to enforce his way with as much energy as before. He was mostly in his room. The Abbot had been delegated much of the running of the Zen Center. And it was he who I met far, far more times during the day than Dae Soen Sa Nim, who I could sometimes pass several days without seeing.
Anyway, too many words, as usual. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So, here’s 2,000 better words than I could type to explain this point.
These two passport pages, exactly ten years apart, tell the whole story about why I needed to quit life in Korea.
This first page is from 2007 — some seven years after the bestseller was published, after years and years and years in the spotlight, being “invited” and pressured to give talks and lead retreats all over the place. This could be the face of a second-in-command of the Pablo Escobar crime syndicate: overweight, sleep-deprived, haunted by (self-made) ghosts, harried, squeezed of any spiritual juice, pressed by too many events and being wined and dined as this celebrated figure in not only Korean Buddhist society, but also in Korean media culture, as well:
Looks like a meth addict or something.
This is the renewal of that same passport, exactly ten years later (2017), after seven or eight years in Europe, more than five years of living with Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga and a low-carb/high-fat lifestyle (which was not possible when one lives in a monastic community, where personalised eating is not part of the training and the main regimen is extremely tasty polished white rice and all sorts of sauces that are loaded with rice syrup and high fructose corn syrup).
This should be the “before” picture, and the earlier picture, at top, should be the “after” picture — AFTER using meth for several years, AFTER a life of crime, AFTER several stints in prison, AFTER life in a gang, etc.
“Fame” is an unreal thing, a twisted fake excuse for reality. Actually, all along, when people would say, “You’re so famous,” I would always hear a voice of meta-commentary in my head replying, “No, I’m not famous. I’m me. In YOUR thinking, and in THAT person’s thinking, there is an IDEA about me and it is magnified by media and repetition into some IMAGE, and that IMAGE you take to be ‘famous’. But that is just something happening in your head. It is not the ‘me’ right here. It’s what you THINK about the me.” I felt pretty clear about that.
And yet, though there was always clear critical distance, in my own thinking, in my own commentaries to myself about this absurd and surreal fake-reality exploding up and reorienting all of the furniture of the choices and situations of life that was presented too me in those years, still something penetrated and infected me. There was definitely some ego-inflation. There was a sense of self-importance that emerged. With fame, I thought I could ride this horse and use this horse to take suffering sentient beings to a good place.
Little did I know, the horse you get saddled with, in fame, seems good when you first get on, in the pen. But when that gate opens up — BOOM! — you’re on some INSANE wild bronco-horse. Very very hard to stay on. Very hard even to survive this ride. Very hard not to get trampled in the process.
It took me some time to realise and find a way out that would also respect the obligations I had to Teacher and Sangha. All along, I also trampled some innocents, because the fame-filled mind develops toxicities which are really just these badly inefficient tools and prophylactics that one employs just to SURVIVE. It is a completely unnatural experience, fame. There is very very little in our evolutionary development that equips us to handle this fame reality which comes to be mostly as a result of having technological modes of conveyance (media, Internet) which can help in the false construction of an image and then the ubiquitous presentation of that image into the half-sleeping minds (by the way, it’s called hypnosis) of others, replacing, in a sense, their own better judgment and sense of perspective.
Anyway, there is much to say about this experience. Many many strange and wild stories and experiences. But that would not be conducive to the practice, just generating more of the very thing I am describing.
These two photos. They explain it all.