When he was 22 years old, a young man shaved his head and went deep into the mountains of South Korea to do a 100-day solo retreat. He had a big question: How can I help this suffering world?
He practiced very hard, chanting the Great Dharani mantra for 20 hours every day. His skin turned green from a diet of crushed pine needles. He repeatedly packed his bags to abandon the retreat but, ultimately, never walked down the mountain. Mid-way through the retreat he began to hallucinate extensively.
But on the last of the 100 days, he attained a great enlightenment. And later he became known as Zen Master Seung Sahn.
In October, 200 members of the Kwan Um School of Zen visited Buyoungam Hermitage, the place where Zen Master Seung Sahn attained. The small hermitage is perched on a small ledge on a cliff, high in the mountains above Magoksa Temple. It's a precipitous place to practice, in many senses; take five steps from the front door of the hermitage, and you'd be falling.
While visiting the hermitage, we unveiled a small plaque honoring Zen Master Seung Sahn's awakening and we also chanted the Great Dharani mantra.
May all beings awaken to their true nature!
You can watch a video of our visit to Buyoungam Hermitage here.
Zen Master Seung Sahn's Enlightenment Poem:
The road at the bottom of Won Gak Mountain
is not the present road.
The man climbing with his backpack
is not a man of the past.
Tok, tok, tok - his footsteps
transfix past and present.
Crows out of a tree.
Caw, caw, caw.
Crows were in the trees everywhere around the hermitage.
The Last Words of My English Grandmother by William Carlos Williams
There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed—
Wrinkled and nearly blind
she lay and snored
rousing with anger in her tones
to cry for food,
Gimme something to eat—
They're starving me—
I'm all right I won't go
to the hospital. No, no, no
Give me something to eat
Let me take you
to the hospital, I said
and after you are well
you can do as you please.
She smiled, Yes
you do what you please first
then I can do what I please—
Oh, oh, oh! she cried
as the ambulance men lifted
her to the stretcher—
Is this what you call
making me comfortable?
By now her mind was clear—
Oh you think you're smart
you young people,
she said, but I'll tell you
you don't know anything.
Then we started.
On the way
we passed a long row
of elms. She looked at them
awhile out of
the ambulance window and said,
What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I'm tired
of them and rolled her head away.
I'm astonished at the widespread adoption of mindfulness practice in many sectors of modern society. Thirty years ago, who would have imagined that Buddhism would infiltrate Western culture so thoroughly? Yet, mindfulness has become commonplace in hospitals, schools, corporations, sports and the military.
As a Zen guy, I'm just a little jealous.
Still, I'm good with whatever works to reduce suffering. And mindfulness works.
With the publication of Mindfulness Starts Here, Lynette Monteiro and Frank Musten offer a clear, step-by-step introduction to this ancient tradition.
The authors provide simple instructions and practices that anyone can learn and put to immediate use. Their "curriculum" develops through eight sequential practices, at the center of which are the "Five Skillful Habits." While the habits are too extensive to explore adequately in this review (see brief summary, below), one thing is clear: Anyone who adopts these habits will experience a reduction in suffering.
As you may already know, mindfulness practice arises from Theravada Buddhism and shares with that tradition an analytical approach to mind's function. Mindfulness Starts Here takes advantage of this rich analytical tradition, along with the Buddhist psychology developed in Theravada texts, to help the reader examine how mental habits create suffering.
I find this approach seductive because it offers a way to parse and organize experience; in doing this, analysis can create an appearance of understanding.
But in Zen, we sometimes say, "Understanding won't help" and, in moments when the shit really hits the fan, intellectual understanding often gets in the way. In those times we might better depend on the deep intuition that arises from holding a great question such as, "Who am I?" The Buddhist name for this intuition is "wisdom."
Still, I haven't trained in mindfulness, so . . . perhaps I'm missing something.
Some modern approaches to mindfulness seem to ignore the importance of a lifetime commitment to practice. Evidence shows that mindfulness does help relieve stress and anxiety in the short term. But the Buddha was interested in more than short-term relief. He taught the importance of an engaged practice, life after life, and he provided a context for developing that kind of practice: sangha.
Lynette and Frank understand this and Mindfulness Starts Here emphasizes the importance of community and sustained practice:
We encourage everyone to find a community . . . practice is best cultivated in a group of like-minded people.
If mindfulness appeals to you, consider finding a teacher and community. The Buddha referred to community as one of the "three jewels" of Buddhism because it's an essential component of any practice effort.
Toward the end of the book, the authors mention a small sign placed carefully on their office wall:
Nothing changes if nothing changes.
This summarizes the direction of Mindfulness Begins Here. If you want to change your life, you have to take responsibility - no one else can do it for you.
Fortunately, Mindfulness Starts Here offers a finely-crafted tool for doing this work.
Five Skillful Habits, summarized:
1. Respect human life 2. Be generous 3. Respect boundaries 4. Speak mindfully 5 . Consume mindfully
Disclosure: The authors are personal friends and kindly sent me a complementary copy of Mindfulness Starts Here.
Well, I was wrong. Zen Masters of China, although it contains no new material, organizes and recounts the old stories in a new and compelling way.
If you're like me, you're confused by the relationships among the various Chinese T'ang Dynasty masters. Who was teacher, who was student? What are the main lineages? What are the key elements of each master's teaching?
These are important issues because Zen goes forward by virtue of its stories. Whether dharma talks or brief dialogues, traditional Zen stories seem to reveal ways of living that go beyond conditioning and acculturation. Many of us were first attracted to Zen by these stories.
To organize a large sampling of essential Zen stories, Rick McDaniel has employed both chronology and lineage. And, as shown below, each chapter begins with the geneology of the teacher(s) covered.
Zen lineage charts are common, of course. For example, Andy Ferguson provides a fairly comprehensive chart in Zen's Chinese Heritage. However, I suspect most readers experience these charts as I do - overwhelming and baffling. McDaniel's pairing of charts and stories clarifies relationships and permit the reader to develop some understanding of how Zen teaching evolved over time.
As McDaniel notes in his preface, Zen Masters of China contains no new material. Everything has been published elsewhere in English translation. So if you're looking for new stories, this is not the book for you. But McDaniel has organized the stories in an innovative way and made various small changes that help us enter the stories in a new way. This is a great service. Check it out!
This essay is based on a talk I gave at Palma Zen Center, Palma de Mallorca, Spain, in May 2014.
Earlier today, Tolo took me to visit La Ermita de la Santissima Trinitat (Hermitage of the Blessed Trinity), a small cluster of buildings built into the terraced cliffs of the Serade Tramuntana mountains.
Four Christian hermits live at the hermitage, old men with long beards and soft faces. Their home looks west across the Mediterranean towards Barcelona - and perhaps further, toward the Western Pure Land.
After walking around the grounds of the hermitage, Tolo and I sat silently together in the hermitage's tiny chapel.
In the stillness, I reflected on the spiritual longing found in every culture, a longing that perhaps originates from deep awareness of the ways in which thinking cripples our ability to bring joy and wisdom and kindness to everyday life.
Who doesn't long for release from this self-obsession?
Humans have many names for this release. Some call it God or enlightenment; others call it Allah, emptiness, Buddha, love, absolute, or oneness.
Such names point at the mind before thinking; they describe a life unhindered by name and form.
A small crucifix hung on the chapel’s Western wall, a common symbol of Jesus' willingness to let go of his human form and enter into a complete union with God.
Our spiritual path, the way of Zen, is not different from that undertaken by Jesus.
If we practice sincerely, we will inevitably give up the clinging that defines the "small self."
Make no mistake: practice leads directly to death - the death of self-obsession.
After leaving the chapel, Tolo and I walked along the retaining wall of a small terrace. A tile plaque embedded in the wall read: Help us live in the peace of God.
So the question is: Where can we find this peace?
We certainly won't find it in thoughts, fears, hopes, and fantasies. We certainly won't find it by attaching to name and form.
But if we open to don’t know mind, which is before thinking, the peace of God immediately appears.
And, of course, we don't need to go to a remote mountain hermitage to find this don't know mind.
We can attain don't know right here in the noise of Palma. We can do it right now, in the unfolding of this very moment.