People have asked several times on this blog about the possibility of eating pine needles during a long solo meditation retreat. “What is the benefit in doing this?” “Does it really help with getting enlightenment?” “Why is such harsh practice necessary?”
This practice comes, in our lineage, from Zen Master Seung Sahn’s original enlightenment experience in 1948-49. He did a legendary mega-harsh 100-day solo retreat deep in the mountains, living only on crushed pine needles and taking ice baths and chanting for 20 hours every day, and never really sleeping. This resulted in him attaining a big, super-luminously bright enlightenment which shook the world of Korean Buddhism, and shakes it to this day. His enlightenment-retreat is legendary because, at the time, he was just a 19 year-old novice monk doing his very first retreat practice. But this event also took on an added aura because of the harshness of his practice, which included relying only on these needles for food.
So, naturally, people read the story of his retreat, and then people want to know if this is something that they should try.
My short answer to this question is: As they say on many stunt shows on TV, “Kids, don’t try this at home.“
First, some background: Subsisting only on pine needles powder was not Zen Master Seung Sahn’s brilliant invention. It is an ancient effort referred to in old Taoist texts, and even in Won Hyo Dae Sa’s essential inspirational text, “Starter’s Mind”:
High peaks and lofty crevices are the dwellings of a wise man. Green pine trees and deep valleys are the places for those who practice Buddhism. When you are hungry, eat fruits and satisfy your hunger. When you are thirsty, drink running stream water and quench your thirst. However you may nourish your body with delicacies, it will perish. However you may protect it with soft clothes, your life will come to an end. Make the echoing cave your hall for chanting the Buddha’s name. Make the flying ducks who cry out sadly your heart’s friends. Even if your knees are ice cold as you bow, do not think of fire. Even if your intestines are cut through with hunger, do not think of seeking food.
So, when he speaks of “eat fruits and satisfy your hunger,” he is not referring to the fruits that we buy in stores. His meaning is the “mountain fruits” of “high peaks and lofty crevices”: berries from shrubs and pine needles from trees. “One who eats pine needles” was a term for those who practiced in such desolate places, who made a severe effort to cut off all communication with the outside world so that one can practice in radical solitude without connections to food sources which might cause distraction or needless communication.
There is very little farming available way up in the craggy mountains of China and Korea, and pine needles come from evergreen trees – – a plant which is green all year round, hence the catchy name. For deep-winter retreat, when even the poor farmers on the flatlands below are hard-pressed to find nutrition for their families in the unforgiving months of cold and snow, the dried and powdered needles of a constantly-green plant can be a singular source of even low-grade nutrition.
This is some of the historical background.
What it doesn’t tell you in this is that pine needle powder has a pretty harsh effect on the body. Unfortunately, I didn’t get this email early enough – – I did the dried pine needle experience on the second of three 100-day solo retreats, in a mud hut in the Jiri Sahn mountains in Korea, over the winter of 1998-99. It was a decision which, while operationally helpful for protecting solitude and enhancing a kind of hard-edged focus and determination, I paid for dearly for exactly one year thereafter. It so severely fucked up my body in a most debilitating and embarrassing way. It may have almost killed me.
So, then why does one do this? I did it, yeah, because Dae Soen Sa Nim did it. Can’t lie about that — it felt perfectly natural to ape the effort of the teacher whose insight had altered my existence forever. That image is also burned into anyone who practices in this lineage (although no senior teachers in Kwan Um School of Zen have ever encouraged replicating that crazy way, as far as I know, and good on them for that).
But I did it also because I was attached to a very, very severe form of practice in those first two decades of monk-life. I needed, as always, not only to “cross the line”, but maybe to blast through with all of the fervor in my heart, trying anything, making the strongest effort, even moreso. Being an overly dramatic person at heart, for years and years it felt perfectly natural to practice the Dharma like a Hollywood stuntman. A little masochism goes a long way in spiritual practice, it seems. I really only desired to break on through to the other side, by any means necessary.
Eating pine needles itself should not be problematic — you can have the powder delivered from Amazon with the click of a button. The problem is, I relied on this powder exclusively as my only food for three months (along with another green powder, see below). And I have weakened the body with all sorts of extreme practice.
In addition to the pine needles, for those hundred days I was also chanting for many hours, waking up at 11:30 p.m. after sleeping at 9:00 p.m. (so-called “midnight practice”) in order to bow and chant for a few more hours, then sleep until 3:00 a.m., then bow and chant and sit, and bow and chant and sit, and bow and chant and sit, and bow and chant and sit into the next night, in one of the coldest mountain ranges in South Korea, with no electricity or running water, living only by candlelight in a crude mud hut.
During the “breakfast“ and “lunch” slot, there were 2 to 3 heaping large spoonfuls of pine needle powder. (I forget if I ate again the stuff in the evenings.) To this day, I remember the resinous after-coating on my teeth when the meal was finished. The powder I had received had been prepared by a monk, and he must have gathered the needles in some fruiting period of the year, because it was very resinous-feeling. Several more toothbrushes than usual for that length of time, were used up trying to scrub the sticky after-stuff out from the gaps between my teeth, as I had neglected to think of bringing dental floss. (Who could’ve planned to bring dental floss for a practice-to-the-death life in the mountains?) The only beverages for three months were green tea and mountain water, melted from the heavy snow-cover and collected in a well. I bathed by heating a traditional iron cauldron of water (가마 솟) over a wood fire in a corrugated lean-to outside in the bitter cold, alternately mixing the boiling water with cold water from the well, soaping up quickly all naked in the mountains, and dousing myself as quickly as possible. When the well ran dry several times, I needed to spend some practice periods gathering bowls of fresh snow to melt in my room, and collecting in the plastic well for washing and as a reservoir in case fire were to break out, since I needed to warm the floor of my heart with a raging fire below. I didn’t have any books to read or pads to write on, so the free time was spent resting from the efforts all day.
There were amazing illuminations, too numerous and inconsequential to report here. I do not tell this story often at all. [And this telling, here, might vary in a few details from other places I have told it, as the details of the whole experience became a kind of a blur over the last 20+ years.] All of this — the living conditions I chose, and the stuff I ate — was just a technique, a radical way of cutting off and sharpening the effort. And in the department of eating, doing dried pine needle powder is the ne plus ultra of solo retreats. There is no refrigerator and no cupboards in a rude deep mountain hut: the only way to practice there is to have a nearby temple bring donations of food regularly to support you. Eating pine needles was the clearest way to draw a line against any of the interaction and distraction that would come with receiving deliveries of food from a nearby temple, or going there to get some. The local monks were especially curious about this Westerner practicing like a madman nearby, and I didn’t want them to have any excuse or reason to visit.
Someone asked me once, “Weren’t there other powders or supplements available instead of somethings so harsh as pine needles?“ Um, maybe in a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, but not where we were based, in Korea. Today, it would be possible to do this differently. In the winter that I did the retreat, 1998-99, there was as yet no Internet as we know it today. I was a foreigner in a country whose language I did not know much of. One couldn’t just look up “alternative health supplements” on a computer. (Even finding a good cup of coffee in Korea, in those days, required a major effort to reach a singular Dunkin’ Donuts located near the American Army base in the capital. It was a half-day effort, back and forth to the temple, to secure a cup of fully-brewed coffee. Needless to say, alternatives to pine needles were just something I did not have the tools or the knowledge to procure.)
By some act of Buddha, I had received a large donation of spirulina from the United States some months previous to the retreat. So, I had one heaping spoonful of spirulina at every “meal“ of the other powder, which consisted of two large heaping spoonfuls of dry, chalky, resin-filled pine powder.
But the real and enduring problem with eating this powder was not made manifest during the retreat – – it happened within days of returning to society. The aftermath of this choice remained with me for exactly one year. Every single day, I was racked with constant bouts of what is called in America “explosive diarrhea“: every toilet bowl (and the occasional squat-toilet) became a brown-on-ivory Jackson Pollock of my karma. The wave after wave of internal-M80 blasts hit me in all manner of situations, from the common to the ecclesiastically ceremonial. A taxi ride across the congested Seoul megalopolis could turn into a white-knuckle experience on the edge of terror, the brown water-filling balloon of my thoracic cavity threatening to paint the interior of the car in some explosion of Sedona earth-color. Sometimes it hit me when I was trapped on a bus between cities, or in an airplane, or – – if it could be worse! – – while standing or sitting in front of several hundred people giving a public Dharma talk in some temple somewhere. Pretty hard to leave the high Dharma seat to squat on the toilet for 25 minutes, when the Dharma hall is filled with people who have traveled there to hear from you, and you are wrapped in layers of donated silk clasped by traditional buttons, ties, knobs and fasteners, the length of whose unfastening resolution would never be shorter than the absolute need to explode before reaching a toilet.
For months and months, I learned to fear any obligatory participation in long-winded funeral ceremonies, polite gatherings, or dharma talks given by monk sisters or brothers. Sensing even the slightest need to release a bit of gas, I’d be gripped – – often in public! – – with the paroxysms of paralyzing fear that this accession to an airy homeostasis might inexorably be achieved by the full sloshing up of my pants with mud before a crowd or even among friends. The days were filled with unpredictable spasms. I would grit my teeth (while sucking in my spastic and neurotic bowels), and would proceed to give the best teaching that was possible, all things considered. Every day was filled with a kind of episodic lineup of abject terrors, not knowing when or where the super gaseous explosions would demand to occur. It felt like there was a terrorist parked in my guts, ready to drive me mad with some agonizing, grinding spasms at any moment. I’m normally sensitive about the use of public toilets, and had been so sensitive my entire life that I would refrain from using the bathroom all day throughout grammar school, middle school, and high school. It felt quite normal, my entire childhood, to go through an entire day without releasing a package, no matter the discomfort. I can tell you, in that year of gaseous explosive diarrhea, I forever stopped making distinctions about messy toilets.
In desperation, I consulted all the top internists in Seoul, was inner-scoped from this end and that, and even had several MRIs done on my midsection. The doctors always came back with something like, “You are in excellent health, Sunim. Very strong! No problem that we can see!“ The diagnosis was that the lining of my intestines had probably been excessively coated with the resin of the pine needles. The only “medicine“ was to simply grit my teeth and bear with it, until the coating was sloughed off. Two doctors scared the shit out of me – – yeah, there was some left sometimes! – – by ominously predicting that I could eventually develop ulcerative colitis (also known as Crohn’s disease) from this substance being layered on to my innards so consistently, for so long. The general consensus is that I had given myself a year-long case of severe irritable bowel syndrome.
All of this needless damage and terror and inconvenience to others – – how many people needed to drive me through this hospital and that! – – simply in order to taste the infinity of Moment. So, if it has not already then made manifestly clear, this ancient practice is something which really has no place in the practice of someone of our age.
Needless to say, this powder would be exceptional for dieters: I lost 17 kg. (about 37 lbs.) over the 100-day retreat. At the very first meeting with Zen Master Seung Sahn, upon returning to Hwa Gye Sah, he laughed loudly at the gaunt, explosive gas-bag bowing three times in formal robes, saying, “Your body all disappear! Soon all becoming Emptiness! Ha ha ha ha!” Then he immediately proceeded to tackle me with all sorts of the classical kong-ans. When he had probed my meditation experience sufficiently with this “dharma combat”, there were a few moments when we were sitting there in silence, facing each other across his tiny traditional floor desk. I remember saying to him the only words of description of the retreat being, “Sir, it’s all just TV! Everything — this whole world — just TV.” His answer is something I’ll remember forever, since it was the first time I ever said some thing that caused him to laugh. “Yah, yah, yah! Everything only TV, coming-going, coming-going. Only, don’t touch. Then, you are free.” Leaving his tiny room a few minutes after that, I sprinted across the neighboring waiting room, stripping off my robes as I ran. Landing on the toilet in the attendant’s room adjacent, I splattered out another Jackson Pollock to cover every inch of the bowl.
And when did the condition finally improve? On my first toilet visit of the very next Winter Kyol Che, at Shin Won Sah Temple, in November 1999. I remember squatting there in the old outhouse, icy air blowing up through the holes leading down to the collective poop-mass of centuries of Zen monks, and having my first “normal” relief since the end of the last retreat.
So, I would not recommend this method for practice. It was something from a bygone age, when other alternatives were not available.