The life cycle of the strawberry:
A newly ordained Western monastic disciple asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Sir, in the monks’ precepts, it says we are not supposed to have sex. It says we can’t even masturbate, because of ejaculation. But, sometimes… this urge is really hard to resist. What should I do when this feeling comes over me, the feeling to masturbate?”
“Simply let that feeling go,” the Zen master replied, smiling. “Put it all down, and let it pass.”
“…But, sometimes I really can’t put it down. It’s so strong sometimes,” the monk said.
“So, then pick it up. Then you will get something, and that ‘something’ will teach you.”
What a practical, wide minded teaching about how to “manage“ a basic human impulse, perhaps even a need. It is not based on a myth or some repressive fear. The Zen Master‘s first response is merely to encourage that the student observe, and not to attach automatically to the illusory passing phenomenon of desire.
When the student claims that this might not always be possible, the follow-up teaching is full of flexibility and trust in the student learning from their lived experience. Following through on this passing desire, an experience is attained. And then this attainment of what was wished for — its insubstantial ungraspability, its hollowed-out vacuity — May possibly instruct him better than any rule of the Buddha or Teacher might.
I just received an ad that they are opening again after lockdown —
This is place where I got my first tattoo, located just meters away from the ancient Agora of Athens — the marketplace where Socrates sometimes debated.
And the tattoo? The tattoo is the phrase most easily representative of Socrates’ teaching and debate:
ἓν οἶδα ὅτι οὐδὲν οἶδα
which I translate as “The only thing I understand is this not-knowing [mind].” This is the phrase that a young student in Pyongyang heard in the 1940s from his high school teacher, when the teacher was teaching them about the father of Western philosophy. “That’s crazy,” the student thought. “How can this Western civilization which makes planes fly in the sky and telephones — how can its highest philosopher admit that he ‘doesn’t know” anything?”
Later, when that student escaped the North Korean Communists and resettled in the South, and then — disgusted with the conflict in Korean society — cut his hair and went to the mountains to attain understanding of what is human nature, he poured himself into study of the Diamond Sutra. An old monk, walking in the forest saw the young student-monk, and asked him what he was studying so diligently.
“I am studying the Diamond Sutra.”
“And why are you studying the Diamond Sutra?”
“Because I want to understand Buddhism. I want to understand my True Self and save humanity.”
“But Buddhism is not about mere ‘understanding'”, the old monk said. “True Buddhism means attaining what you don’t know.”
When the student-monk heard this, he remembered the words of the father of Western philosophy — Socrates — about “knowing only this not-knowing [mind]”. He realised that Buddhism represented the highest philosophy of the world: understanding cannot help you. Throwing away his books, he poured himself into a rigorous 100-day chanting-meditation retreat. Near the end of the retreat, his mind fully attained its True Nature — the mind before thinking arises. He attained complete realisation in that point.
So, I got this tattoo in honor of my Teacher, that monk, Seung Sahn Haeng Won Sunim. The tattoo is located on my left arm, just next to my ordination precepts burns. It represents the highest realisation of Western philosophy, the tradition where I was raised.
On the right arm is the second tattoo: the entire Sanskrit text of the Great Dharani, the mantra he chanted during that retreat which “woke up” his connection to Socrates’ don’t-know and Buddha’s don’t-know and Kyong Ho Sunim’s don’t-know and the Sixth Patriarch’s don’t-know and my don’t-know and your don’t-know and all beings’ don’t-know mind.
The tattoo represents the cutting-edge technology of Eastern philosophy — Buddhist insight, rooted in Hindu philosophy.
The left arm is Western philosophy’s intersection of Western and Eastern thought, as realised by my Teacher and all Buddhas — the realisation of the primacy of our now-knowing mind; the right arm is the tool that we have employed to arrive at that.
One more point: In Korean Buddhism, people who have tattoos are disqualified from becoming monks. That’s why I got two.
A society, however nobly purposed, that is built on violence and pure aggression, cannot easily break free from the crushing grip of its own brutal addiction to endless punishment and death.
However much they trumpet their exceptional allegiance to the “turn-the-other-cheek“ guy, American society actually cleaves far, far more miserably to the lex talionis dad – – “an eye for an eye” — who Carl Jung described (quite rightly) as a psychopath in Answer to Job.
Recent social indicators reveal that this malignant mass-psychosis is only becoming more unfixable. I had felt America’s addiction to retributive violence decades ago, and it is the reason why — when it was time to finish training in Asia —deciding to live in Europe was truly a no-brainer. Strict, common-sense gun control laws mean there are vanishingly few guns on the street, and there is no capital punishment throughout the European Union, and a far, far more humane approach to mental health treatment.
For these reasons, and so many more, I have chosen to live in a Europe which is an incomparably far more enlightened human civilization than the one into which I was born. When I organize some tax reporting matters owed to the land of my birth, I hope to begin soon the process of letting go of a US citizenship that serves no purpose but to cause me to send tax money to a system which, while begun steeped deeply in genocidal death, is still not yet sufficiently drunk on it to realize the pointlessness and cynicism of this addiction to arrogance and brutality.
“It is almost impossible to judge Mahler’s age from his face. One moment it seems as youthful as a boy’s; the next, it’s furrowed and aged far beyond his years.
“In the same way, his whole appearance can change from one extreme to the other within a few days, even a few hours. Sometimes he looks full in the face, sometimes strained and haggard.
“This all depends on the perpetual and swift transformations of his whole spiritual and physical nature. Each transformation possesses him completely, spontaneously, and with utmost intensity.”
— Natalie Bauer-Lechner, a close friend and intimate confidant
What is “mind“?
Philosophy generates vast libraries of words to describe it. “Mere religion” uses Iron Age (mostly Middle Eastern) myths and rules to judge and control it – – a repressive blind man painting schizophrenic pictures in the dark. Zen uses terse, true and direct means to point directly at it — complete arrival without relying on words and speech.
But what are the material grounds (evidence) for mind and its physical substrates? For meditators these days, I believe that gaining such kinds of material “knowledge“ and insights can really complete the way we structure and maintain our everyday practice in the world. This is made especially true and urgent due to the presence of mood-influencing pharmaceuticals such as antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs as normal aspects of so many peoples’ everyday lives. Some people can’t just sit in silence, staring at the floor – – they might have neurochemical imbalances that make such an experience of stillness and silent observation overwhelming, even damaging. New discoveries about the “gut/brain axis“ reveal the strong role of our micro-biome in influencing the moods, the rhythms and mental apparitions that can strongly influence our lives. Without those bodily-instantiated dimensions being addressed, in so many cases, meditation practice can be — for a great many people, especially those involved in bad dietary habits and conditioning – – hindered unnecessarily when practical solutions are more readily available than they might imagine. What to do for these people, then? With minds these days so constantly overfull due to the ubiquity of our information glut, today’s distracted minds can be super-challenged just to get through a few sittings in the day, much less an intensive retreat.
On several occasions, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism is not a religion, rather, a “science of mind“. I have also believed that point very, very much, from direct experience, long before I ever heard this statement of the Dalai Lama. It is especially incumbent on meditation teachers of today to access the best material aids to guide practitioners. On so many occasions, I have been approached by people with bipolar disorder or chronic depression who have asked about sitting retreats. I could not safely give them advice about transitioning from powerful drugs into a “purer” reliance on meditation regime or not. Frequently, people with long reliance on anti-anxiety medications ask about the appropriateness of using meditation safely without these medications influencing the meditative experience. Since I do not experience these inveterate conditions, it is impossible to offer my own meditation experience reliably to them, as an answer. Merely quoting old words from a Zen classic will also never be fully sufficient.
On top of this, there is the recent growing acceptance of the use of psychedelics to deal with PTSD, depression, addiction, etc. I believe very much in the targeted use of such instruments, especially in conjunction with a responsible, professional, and ethical therapeutic context. In the future, ever more people will find marriage of psychedelics and meditation to be an option that they wish to explore on their path to self realization. I get asked this question many, many times these days. It was due to my first LSD experience, in 1985, that I began to search in earnest for a meditation technology which could “access“ that “infinite-now” that I had experienced while tripping, without needing to rely on obtaining a drug to do that.
Childhood trauma and suffering may have been the engine that brought me to the path of waking up to my true nature; but a simple chemical addition to my nervous system, one cold winter night on the campus of Princeton University, turned the key in the ignition for that journey, and perhaps led me more directly to a Teacher who could show that that experience of transcendence could be accessed right here, in the just-now mind. I sometimes wonder if that LSD experience, so profoundly etched in my mind, perhaps “primed” me for the sudden, infinite, indescribable “letting go” breakthrough that burst my mind open in that one-week solo retreat at Temenos, in February 1992, and which “persists” to this moment. That forever life-altering experience in a hut in the woods absolutely confirmed, clarified, super-deepened, and stabilized — through a time-and-space shattering experience in meditation — the insights provided by a tiny tab of blotter placed under my tongue one night while visiting a friend during a semester break in college.
It is extremely important for meditation teachers, these days, to educate themselves as to the science of the material aspects of mind. Then we can better guide people using the ultimate tool of meditation, tailored more specifically and appropriately towards the myriad conditions that minds endure in an overcrowded, complicated, ever-changing modern world.
I have admired Andrew Huberman for a long time, having encountered him in several podcast discussions. Upon his recommendation, I read The Molecule of More, and this book has provided truly impactful insights into aspects of my own life and might have better equipped me to serve better the lives of others.
He really is a living bodhisattva, not merely sharing information but offering meticulous insight into the biological roots of what we call “mind”. Right off the bat, you feel yourself in the “presence“ of a person offering his insights and skills only for the betterment of humanity. He is obviously not only a great scientist, but also a profoundly humane and loving human being.
We are so fortunate to have access to such a true and genuine teacher, a Stanford University-level course available freely right from our phones, donating real tools for use in our everyday lives. I’ve been taking many of his insights from interviews he has done elsewhere, and having recommended him to several of my closest friends, and even posting about him on this blog previously, just today I begin going through his whole course more systematically, from the first episode. It is really quite natural to notice the emergence of a genuine love for the movement and function of this Being in the world. Scientist-Kwan Seum Bosal!
I have already directed several of the most senior meditation practitioners of the Zen Center Regensburg community to go through this course. In the future, if any formal curriculum appears, people who teach meditation in this lineage will need to complete this set of videos, giving them science-based practical tools which will more fully empower bringing the mind-hack tech of Zen teachings into the modern world.