On Teachers, Emotions, and Feelings

It’s always an interesting thing to deal with Zen students who are dealing with teachers/senior students having emotions. Sometimes people practicing together will see me or some other experienced practitioner manifesting strong emotions: it can be seen in some temporary frustration with an unworkable situation, managing some stressful decision-point that is happening on-the-fly, maybe some appearance of sadness, or a need for a special relaxation or a break from the fishbowl-experience of Zen Center life, seven days a week. Being “stressed out” is something I have seen in many spiritual teachers, over the years, beginning with my experiences with Catholic nuns and priests from as far back as I can remember. (I remember, as a young boy, registering the extreme shock of seeing my larger-than-life Catholic priest uncle get very very angry at an NFL football player dropping a pass during a critical moment of a critical game that was playing on TV: the hard slap he gave his knee and his fiercely-gritted teeth remained in my mind for quite some years thereafter.)

But to see how even younger generation meditation practitioners handle this subject is something very curious. They can get confused when senior practitioners or teachers reveal some experience of stress or a strong emotional reaction. Of course, anything that is held onto, or that appears too frequently in a teacher’s practice, should certainly give grounds for concern, especially if there is injury given to someone, or seems to appear as a pattern. But meditation practitioners — the new and the more experienced — are human beings, having a human experience, in a modern world that constantly rushes a torrent of information and heavily-interconnected situations.

I remember the first time I saw my Teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, get very very angry and very stressed out. For several moments, he seemed like he was “losing it”, as we would say — he seemed to really blow his cool. This is not something you expect from a Zen master of his standing, but I eventually came to learn that it can be quite normal, if he is not attached to it and the reaction or expression “returned to zero”, was let go of. But it was such a shock to experience this — it left me quite shaken. I had not previously had much direct contact with him before these events, and it took a little while to integrate this into my understanding both about Teacher and practice. But it has certainly broadened my understanding of practice in ways that have helped me to understand better the suffering of others, and to help.

There was a huge ceremony at Providence Zen Center in October 1992. Guests had gathered from all over the world to witness Dae Soen Sa Nim authorizing some of his students to become independent Zen masters. There was a very full schedule of events, Dharma talks, meetings, and commemorations, because it was also the 20-year anniversary of the Kwan Um School of Zen. So many people had come from Korea and Europe and many parts of the Americas, and Dae Soen Sa Nim was always the gracious, correct host. But there were constantly meetings and greetings, he could not have any rest for several days previous to the ceremony day, due to making sure guests arrived from so far away were being properly looked after by his freedom-loving, tradition-ignorant Western students. There were also several high-ranking monks from various Buddhist and Christian traditions in attendance, all with their own entourages of assistants and supporters. Everything had to work very well. One of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s “trademark” emphases — in practice, in life, in the expression of teaching — was “meticulousness”, meticulous clear functioning for other beings. This ceremony, in October 1992, was a very public mirror of Korean Buddhism into how successful Dae Soen Sa Nim was in transmitting some of the key tenets and attitudes of (until then) temple-entered practice, with all its combinations of institutional function and hierarchy. There was a great deal of pressure to “make a good impression” for these people who had supported his work so selflessly, for so long, as he transmitted the 1,700 year-old vessel of Korean Buddhism to the West.

During the mid-morning chanting ceremony, I was tasked with standing near Dae Soen Sa Nim and helping with things. One of the “jobs” was to hand him the moktak at the appropriate time for him to lead the central Sokka Muni Bul chanting. I was not yet one-month old as a newbie monk, so this felt like such an awesome privilege! I was also tasked with being available to care for late arrivals to the ceremony whom would need to be seated in the proper places in the Dharma Room. I had a beeline view of his face, not one meter away. This was the first time that I had ever been so physically close to him, for so long. It felt like such an honor, maybe the honor of my life: I remember that feeling very clearly. The room was jam packed with people from all over the world. There were people continually bringing offerings to the main altar, not two meters away. The feeling was electric, but also very chaotic — it was a constant kaleidoscope of activity and functioning.

On cue, I walked to the altar, half-bowed, reverentially took the moktak, turned, and stepped to him, half-bowed, and offered it to him. Usually he was a person of great natural focused intensity, but I noticed that his eyes were darting around that part of the room, giving cues and giving directions to people who were carrying out other ceremonial functions. Within seconds, Dae Soen Sa Nim was leading the chanting — “Sokka Muni Bul, Sokka Muni Bul, Sokka Muni Bul” (Shakyamuni Buddha) — his voice was its usual tiger-like intensity. For this one chant, he was striking the moktak himself, maybe to be sure that certain traditional flourishes and inflections would be handled by someone with more experience.

While he chanted, the door nearest him continued to open and close, elderly Korean Bosalnims entering in streams. It was a kind of beautiful chaos. The carefully laid-out seating order — the subject of many a planning meeting, containing all of the diplomatic micro-considerations necessary not to offend individuals coming from such a hierarchy-conscious culture as Korea and Japan — was now reduced to a total mess. The neat rows and columns of cushions were a total pit, people were coming up to put offerings on the altar and bow three times at random times right in front of others engaged in chanting, floral bouquets neatly standing on the altar would get knocked over by some big bowl of fruit lifted to a prominent position, candles were sometimes being lifted off the tall candlesticks in mid-flame to be replaced by some believer with a deep personal wish or prayer and their own specially-purchased set of candles. The Korean Bosalnims, most of them quite elderly and from a different age of ancient temple ritual, were doing these long, full-armed prostrations just right where they stood, even in the very doorway while others tried to squeeze in or out of the space, which was heating up like a sauna even in autumn!

Meanwhile, various people would need to check some urgent prep-factoid with Dae Soen Sa Nim, whispering a question in his ear during the chant. Perhaps some Korean layperson would immediately drop down right in front of him to bow three times while he chanted, people were crowding in on all sides. It was a kind of helter-skelter all around, a teeming whirlwind of Buddhist faith exploding with Dae Soen Sa Nim at the physical, spiritual center. At various points, some highly revered monk or nun would enter, causing a Western student to need to rearrange cushions to place them, making all sorts of fraught diplomatic decisions on the fly. Frankly, it was madness!

What developed next really struck me deeply: I remember that, at several points, Dae Soen Sa Nim would bark out some order, in mid-chant. But there was lots of noise and chanting, so sometimes he wasn’t heard well by the assisting nun or monk. Or his directive was not being carried out as he expressed it, in his short burst of command. His eyes were darting, he would point the moktak stick at some intended direction as the explosion of Buddhist faith-mind gathered and gathered in this maelstrom of order and disorder, dancing and breaking apart again and again.

His eyes narrowed on some detail, and he barked out a correction here and there in the din. A massive golden candlestick tottered ominously above an old Korean grandmother’s head as she nudged it further into the packed altar with her humble sack of white rice. The candle looked for a moment as if it would come down on her head. There were massive clouds of smoke coming from the large incense burner, yet the elderly women crowding around it, sticking new sticks of incense into the packed sand, nearly caused a fire when several sticks dropped onto a stack of programs directly underneath. No one saw it happening — but the Eagle did. He never missed a detail!

I saw real flashes of anger!

There were so many mental forces colliding in that room, energized by chant and faith and idea: near-total disorder was winning the battle, at points. His genius and experience and enlightenment were the only thing holding the general direction of the ceremony together. And then suddenly some Korean monk bigwig would suddenly enter the Dharma Room, and maybe there would be no seat for him at his appropriate ‘place” because it had been filled by others in the crush. Dae Soen Sa Nim, trained by tradition and motivated by bodhisattva-ship, would swivel his head to see about alternatives, only him fully grasping the possibilities of someone feeling embarrassment or aggrievement or insult, especially after travelling such a great distance from Asia. Dae Soen Sa Nim, in full chant mode, would need to bark out some order to one of the locals to arrange a seat somewhere respectful of the late-arrived VIP.

Ordinarily, during chanting, we all just face forward. But I had been tasked with the honor of assisting the Zen master. So, my job was to watch him very closely, to try to be of any help. I could only do this by watching his face at all times, to detect a need he might have. And one detail jumped out of it all and seemed to pierce me straight through the gut: I clearly remember his lips were shaking. They were trembling. I will never ever forget this image. His eyes had become tightened around the edges, his brow furrowed. He would bark some order — angrily — for something critical that needed to be done in some moment. His lips were twitching, and then his cheek facing me started to twitch. He was barking out orders with greater edge, greater urgency, and greater anger, even. There was a ferocity which flashed on his face, from time to time.

I remember thinking: “This man might lose it. Is this possible?” He was sweating profusely, and when certain critical mistakes were made, he barked in his old military-training way. “Why not do that?” he lacquered a Western hippie-student who was hesitating about something Dae Soen Sa Nim had already pointed out.

It had never entered my mind that a Zen master — someone who had seen the emptiness of mind, the absence of self, the nothing-lacking completeness of only-don’t-know, this Unborn — could be knocked off course so strongly. He would bark out orders to people in between phrases of “Shakyamuni Buddha! Oh, Shakyamuni Buddha!” How ironic! “How un-buddha like,” it seemed!

Something about my ideals felt so crushed, soured, disappointed. I really didn’t want to see this kind of Zen master — a short bald man fully stressed seemingly to a breaking-point. Everyone around him recoiled in shock and apprehension at his every order and remonstration!

The chanting service eventually ended, and everyone filed (“massed” would be a better word) down to the kitchen for Korean food. But the feeling of shock remained with me: this Teacher, who had clearly attained something that few other human beings ever experience, was — for a time, in a situation — seemingly at the mercy of the same emotions and frustrations as every other one of us experiences! A membrane of my faith seemed to have been torn by this. I couldn’t assemble it together with all that I had read in books about Zen and Zen practitioners.

“Meteor Friend,” Matt Semke. www.catswilleatyou.com

But it certainly expanded my view, and deepened my faith: “We are not here becoming some robotic beings, devoid of passion or intensity!” It was an important breakthrough to have, to see my Teacher like that for some moments. And I was only several weeks into the “monks’ life”!

And this was not the only instance of this extreme stress manifesting in him: Once when he was being tailed, in a car, by secret agents of the North Korean security service, he also sort of lost his cool in front of his Western students, bending under the extreme fatigue and strain of being hounded by these agents from his homeland.

The background: Dae Soen Sa Nim first started teaching in Europe in 1978. His first invitation was from a country under communist rule (Poland), and he taught often in other communist countries (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia). As a native of Pyongyang, the capital of today’s North Korea, he was acutely aware of the brutal severing in human relations which happened on mass scale when these experiments in collective society were imposed on the human spirit. Although his homeland had no communist- /capitalist-identity into his early 20s, when the border was drawn and certainly after war broke out in 1950, Dae Soen Sa Nim was completely cut off — forever — from ever visiting his hometown again, from ever seeing his parents again. He could never receive word on their condition during the following decades of Communist rule in North Korea, and he never received word even of their death — the when or how. Had they ended up in one of the sprawling slave camps that were the destination for landowners like them?

So, he had had fears of the reach of communist government. Being killed one evening after giving a talk, on some lonely street on the outskirts of Warsaw, he justifiably experienced fear.

It had been stimulated early in the evening. While giving a talk to a auditorium at a university in Warsaw, the Western students noticed that three or four Asian men — never seen in those days, in the 70s, in Communist countries with no tourist industries! — would habitually appear. They would stand at the back of the room, taking notes. They never interacted with anyone, and looked glaringly out of place in their suits and ties and sunglasses.

Then, as the students drove the Master back to his room in some student’s apartment, they would be trailed the whole distance by the Asian men. Outwardly, Dae Soen Sa Nim was cool to the situation. But after several continuous nights of this, with his Polish students so inured to such behavior that they drove too lackadaisically, to his liking, at one point he shouted to the students to take some evasive driving manoeuvres. “Go this way! Now, this way!” “But, sir, that’s not the right way home!” one said. “Don’t question! Only go straight! Now, right turn! Right turn!” He was obviously a little concerned what could happen if these Communist agents, operating in a brother-Communist country, might do with this high-profile defector from North Korea. Or what would befall the humble couple who were letting him use a room to stay in, if these agents learned the address.

Once, during his first visit to teach in West Berlin in the early 1980s, some of Dae Soen Sa Nim’s students brought him to Checkpoint Charlie, an elevated platform in divided Berlin from which one could have a view over the Berlin Wall into East Berlin. The Western students — some disciples from America, and some of the local Berliners who had invited him there — were excited to honor Dae Soen Sa Nim’s wish to have this rare chance to “look” into a Communist society, however superficial or insubstantial the view.

Dae Soen Sa Nim naturally ascended the staircase first, and arrived at the viewing window. Before him spread the drab grey buildings of East Berlin. There was no human movement on the cold streets — there were no cars, no humans playing or conversing, no open cafes, no shoppers shopping.

The Western students were no less moved by this moment. The unbearable heaviness of history in the 20th century was palpably felt. There was a general silence.

After several minutes, one of the Westerners turned to ask something of Dae Soen Sa Nim, who by that time was standing somewhat separately from the rest, his eyes fixed ahead, his lips mumbling clearly The Great Dharani, over and over and over again, a whispered breath-flow of mantra.

The student was shocked to see that there were tears rolling down Dae Soen Sa Nim’s cheeks. This great, fearless Zen master — who had attained the realm of consciousness beyond life and death — was standing there crying silently! The student later said how utterly shocked they felt to see this. Several of the others noticed this, too. The students looked at each other with something that could only be called bewilderment. (I was later told this story by one of the very fortunate participants of this precious moment.)

The Zen master, freed from life and death, was crying. And visibly so!

Later, after they had left the viewing platform and were enjoying a coffee together, one of the students could not contain his confusion. He asked the Zen master if he could ask a question about their experience. “Sir, you always teach us that ‘life’ and ‘death’ are all created by mind alone. You teach us that ‘East’ and ‘West’ and ‘North’ and ‘South’ all just come from the mind. You teach that mind is fundamentally free, already complete, no matter the condition or situation.”

“Yes…?” Dae Soen Sa Nim said.

“I’m sorry. But you had tears coming out of your eyes before. You were sad? You were suffering? Why is that? How could that happen to you? Isn’t an enlightened being above that?”

“Yah,” Dae Soen Sa Nim replied. Standing there in the tower, looking into East Berlin, into East Germany, I remember my own country: also divided, and families separated. Much suffering. This German-people’s suffering and my own-country suffering is the same suffering. I understand the German-peoples’ sadness, so my mind is also sad. Our True Self is like a clear mirror. The Great Round Mirror only reflects: Red coming, red appears; white coming, white. If someone is happy, I am happy; if someone is sad, I also sad, OK? That is why tears are coming. But, soon it passes: now, we are sitting and eating cake together. Very good experience! There is now only this experience. If you hold a red ball in front of a mirror, red appears; if you hold a white ball, white appears. But when this ball disappears from the mirror, the mirror does not hold the red ball or the while ball. All of our feelings and thoughts are just like this. This is the freedom of don’t-know mind.”

This was Dae Soen Sa Nim’s Great Freedom, that he pointed out is all of our natural birthright, practicing or not, if we choose to swim freely in it. When there is chaos and stress, stress appears. When their is fear, fear can appear. When sadness comes, only sad.

Not only do I teach, but I have gotten to know many teachers over the years: Zen teachers, Vipassana teachers, yoga teachers, also therapists and doctors. They are human beings carrying human experiences of this suffering world. And sometimes they become manifested in some speech or some action.

I once witnessed the shock on the faces of a group of yoga students when a prominent yoga teacher had a very open argument with her always-spastic husband, after practice one morning. The yogis and yoginis all turned their heads, and there was some mumbling later that night when the yoga teacher had a cigarette with friends after a heated discussion about the morning’s incident with her husband.

There were years, after my fame erupted in Korea, when I was burdened with such unimaginable mountains of stress. It seemed like everyone came to me with some difficult request, or complaint about someone else in the sangha that they needed to have “explained” to them. I was trying to manage public expectations with a strong and clear public demeanour, but also seemed to be under a constant barrage of unsatisfiable expectations and demands. I seemed never to have even the slightest “break” from the constant juggling of public and private needs. Meanwhile, my slightest error of judgement would be something that could give distress or confusion, not least because students — with their deep and profound faith in the technologies of self-liberation that Zen represents so clearly and radically — would invariably need to see you operating by a higher standard of performative expression. I could lose my cool sometimes! During some dark years, too, crumpling under the unending weight of this every-direction input-force, I did not always reply to situations with the calm and clarity that people had seen me announce and explain so clearly during public talks and in the pre-set environment of silent retreat. I know that I certainly burned a lot of folks during those years!

It took me some distance from those situations to gain a better perspective. And I am still not perfect at carrying out the things that I teach and that I actually live, when I am not under unnatural stressors. And certainly having a family with a tendency toward addiction — and deeply buried traumas from childhood only recently faced in all their brutal truth-force — have always provided a certain fiery force to the areas where I am not yet fully clear, as a human being.

When I was a monk at Hwa Gye Sah temple, I got to spend a lot more time seeing Dae Soen Sa Nim on a day-to-day basis. In those years, his main Western secretary and attendant was a bumbling, impolitic, uncareful, yet extremely hard-working and devoted monk from the US. This monk was constantly making some of the worst mistakes with people, offending people left and right in this etiquette-hyper Korean culture. (All of us did!) Yet Dae Soen Sa Nim was already a legendary master of the highest standing in Korean Buddhist society. So, though that monk’s mistakes were often quite innocent, he had an extremely hard time learning his lessons from errors!

Dae Soen Sa Nim was the leader of a worldwide network of Zen centers. Though he was certain of his own self-liberation, his bodhisattva-spirit had compelled him to bring the technology of Zen to as many people in the Cold War world as he could. So he was under a constant barrage of administrative needs, settling personnel issues that arose in his Zen communities in far-flung lands, all of it on the 24-hour cycle, providing funding for a center in trouble in this country, managing the teaching requests from centers in another country. And on top of that all, the Korean media and political elites would constantly bang on his door for consultations, interviews, advice, and his laser-like spiritual decisiveness.

On occasion, he would need to yell at this poor, hapless dim-wit of a secretary. Someone who’d donated to Dae Soen Sa Nim’s work in the West, saving a Zen Center under financial duress, hadn’t been thanked properly by the secretary, or brushed aside when they brought their daughter-in-law to the temple for some petty marriage advice. The situations were endless, and this good monk — despite his best intentions and a handicapped intelligence — could hardly keep up. But in Korea’s tight Confucian culture, they keep score, baby!

When the secretary monk got called in for a drubbing, some of us working in the garden outside the master’s humble quarters would wince a little in sympathy. “You were very rude to the woman who came for advice. That woman went home crying! Why you not understand, this family help our Dharma very much!” But no matter the intensity of the correction, the master never held anything. The next moment, after the storm had passed, the sky was completely empty and clear. He never ever held anything against this monk, no matter how egregious were the errors — he protected the hapless monk for many years after much of the temple community had grown exasperated with his predictably left-footed, sometimes abusive behavior.

I describe these things knowing that some will come away with perhaps an abused idea of what spiritual teachers are. But even His Holiness the Dalai Lama admits often that he can lose his temper at subordinates from time to time! While you do some of your strongest training in your younger years, and maybe attain some deep insight, when you take this message out into the noise and mess of the daily world, and don’t keep it only to your own perfected bliss, there can be complicating conditions and interactions where do you don’t always perform or react with your best polished expression. This is especially challenging now, in this age of Internet ubiquity, in an atmosphere of hyper-connected communication, where it seems like all you can do to manage the constant onrush of immediate messaging. I remember several times having given such an effort, in a public talk, at enunciating with greatest effort the nuanced view of Dharma to the point of having my clothing soaked with sweat to three layers of clothing — even in a freezing winter Buddha Hall! — and yet, descending from the High Seat, being literally pulled and tugged into group photos with a sea of cellphones. Several times, engaged in some deep attention to a questioner who’d travelled from afar and brought a hard-waited question about practice, someone grabbing my sleeve to yank me into the face of some upraised selfie, and then tugging back, strongly!

It is especially challenging, in this Internet Age, where so much can be asked for, from so many directions, all at once.

A monk once approached Dae Soen Sa Nim and said, “Sir, some Korean person complained to me about not being a correct monk. They asked me why I am not more calm and correct? If they say this again, what could I say?”

Dae Soen Sa Nim did not hesitate. He said, “You must answer: ‘Why am I not correct?’ Because of YOU! You piss me off!” Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! A teaching for the Ages!

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