For some reason, this has always been one of my favorite photos of Dae Soen Sa Nim. It might be because, unlike photos taken during public talks and appearances, this really captures in raw form the energy you encountered when you entered the room for a private kong-an interview. (Or when you’d been called to his room to present a personal issue in private, or receive guidance.) A terse, laser-like focus, a crouching ferocity, holding back until some weakness appears (i.e., unclear thinking) on the part of his unsuspecting prey; the eyes baleful like a hungry tiger, but not in anything remotely threatening or dangerous to anything more precious to one than one’s flimsy ego or wish for approval. The appearance “appears” merciless, but only only because he gives no quarter whatsoever on the faintest whiff of bullshit or dissembling or performance, and in that way is truly seeing you, and in that way, then, more merciful at heart in his total-seeing of the “you” behind the social and psychological constructions.
Plentiful are the photos of him smiling or engaging at some public talk, or arriving in some airport — in other words, giving energy to people, inspiring, meeting their expectations and lifting them beyond. Things directed “outward” toward “others” in the trajectory of the charismatic-form bodhisattva.
But this photo is a repose, a totality of reserve impossible to describe: total openness, taking in everything in its view, serene like a vast lake at dawn, lightning (and thunderclap, if you’d badly erred) in the very moment — in the high-resolution blink — just before its sky-filling ion-burst.
I wish one day to somehow be given a high-resolution version of this photo. I would frame it and keep it in my room, always under the pitiless gaze of this sober-making stillness, this compassionate ferocity, this supermarket-checkout-scanner all-knowing clarity, this sphinx-like don’t-know, crouching to strike you into liberation — this Buddha.
People sometimes ask why I do a standing half-bow to his death portrait that hangs in our door room in Regensburg, as I leave at the conclusion of practice every day. (Full disclosure: It must be stated that I seriously consider, at least once or twice a week, taking that portrait down. There is something more than vaguely a little North-Korean-Dear-Leader about the whole thing, especially for people not immersed in the tradition that it flows down from. I get that, and I feel it, too. But it was a donation by a devoted to Korean student who invested much in creating that when he died, to fulfill a traditional obligation in their culture. And it is an honor to have his presence remind the newer students of this over-arching gaze.)
But if you had been diagnosed with a fatal disease which sentenced you to an ocean of suffering leading to an early death, and some person donated the equivalent of their lungs and liver to help you resurrect yourself, you would unfailingly express your gratitude to that person. You would at least wave to them if you passed them on the street every day, twice per day. That is the lowest-common-denominator view of what I am doing with bowing, for he returned to me far, far more than the content of several dump-trucks filled with transplantable lungs and livers and hearts: he gave me back the keys to open my own life, and to help others to unlock their own.).
I love this Buddha for showing me how to wake from that nightmare of fake thought-created “reality” that had me dying from my earliest days. Vowing always to cultivate this affinity to meet you again and again and again, however you choose to manifest for waking sentient beings, and welcoming the drilling-in of this deep bodhisattva glare filled overflowing with love and compassion.