What will you rely upon: Raising up teachers

One of the things I’ve noticed about spiritual practice is the urge to see someone else as a perfect or enlightened practitioner.  But this has terrible consequences.

 I’m not sure where this desire comes from. Is it simply that they show our goal is possible? Or is it more insidious: that he or she is perfect, and so will take care of us.  Perhaps it’s wanting to see something divine, something other than this ordinary, human realm.  Or perhaps it’s a form of laziness, of subtly wanting someone else to do the work for me.

An odd thing I’ve noticed is that every time I try to say “He (or she) is a great practitioner,” they invariably disappoint me.  Why is this? Well, my judgement might not be very good….^^ However, I think it’s not that they failed me or betrayed me, but rather they and their qualities are not where I’m going to find my liberation. I’m looking in the wrong place, and what I need just can’t be found there. I have to do the work myself, and learn to discover and rely upon the divinity that has always been a fundamental part of myself.

“You will not fail to go unpunished”

I don’t remember where I heard this phrase, but I often think of it when I see a situation where it looks like people are abandoning their own, upright center.  I’m reminded of this when I think of the series of scandals American Zen centers experienced some years ago.  Looking back now, I think there were several contributing factors.

One was that people were given major teaching roles after only a few years of practice. Ordinarily this might not have been a huge problem, but it was also coupled with the idea that the teacher was infallible. This to me is where the real disaster started. It’s bad enough when the students are looking to put someone on a pedestal, but when the teacher is also encouraging it, look out. A more experienced teacher would, hopefully, have avoided this ego trap.

Another huge risk factor is when sustaining the center or lineage becomes too important. Corners get cut and people are kept around who normally wouldn’t have been. Chillingly, an Irish friend told me this is exactly what happened with the Catholic Church.

What is a teacher? 
Daehaeng Kun Sunim once said that taking refuge in the Sangha doesn’t mean blindly following teachers, monks, or nuns. She said you could take someone as a teacher when their words and actions all agreed, and were also consistent with your own good judgement.

A teacher is someone who got there first, or who is ahead of you on the path. And a realized teacher is someone who understands the pain of where you are, and wants to see you free and able to live for yourself. In my opinion, an awakened teacher never tries to foster dependencies. Things gather and separate according to their karmic affinity, according to where they are in their growth, so to try to force them beyond that is to invite disaster. This is something that all the great teachers I’ve met seem to understand.

That said, we can learn from everyone around us, those who are doing well, and those who aren’t behaving so well. The key to me is this upright center we are all part of. This is the thing that we must never abandon. While trying to be humble and uphold the precepts, we must always keep returning to this.

A tree lives by relying upon its root

To be frank, I really don’t like talking about others’ shortcomings. I’ve got enough of my own that I’m ashamed of, and which should be plenty to keep me busy. However, people interested in spiritual growth must absolutely be cautious about these points, so I’ve said a few words here. Please forgive me if I’ve misspoken.

with palms together,
Chong Go

Buddha’s Birthday at Bangkok Hanmaum

I arrived yesterday afternoon just in time for the final rehearsals, with the altar looking just as gorgeous as it did for the Buddha’s Birthday last year, if not more so. Seeing all the offerings arranged before the Buddha image, fruit and flowers, candles and boxes, and so many people busy with the final touches for their performances, you’d never have believed this is just a small overseas branch temple with just two resident sunims. The energy was intense.

At six o’clock sharp everyone settled down for a short evening ceremony of chants, containing some refrains and mantras I found familiar and lovely, and then there was, just as the lantern lights were switched on, a circumambulation in the temple grounds and everyone chanted the Buddha’s name. With a short period of meditation too, this first part of the evening contained something for every style of practice. And then the festival began.

The stage doors were pulled back and first off was a choir with all the women in gorgeous hanboks and all the men in white shirts, and English translations to some of the Dharma songs on a screen to one side. In the audience, as well as dozens of Korean families, was our small English-language Seon Club, trying not to compare our upcoming efforts with the magnificent voices on stage!

The anticipation must have effected my memory because I can’t remember the order of the acts that followed, but I remember being stunned by the drumming performance, oooing and aaahing at the wonderful magic tricks some of the kids performed, and clapping along as some younger and very cute kids danced to a song about Superman. There was a traditional Thai dance and during a Korean dance the Seon Club slipped behind the stage door ready to go on.

Daily life in Bangkok has been much disrupted over the past few weeks and two of our regular members, both with superb voices, have recently had to leave, but, as our singing coaches Jo and Mrs Nam emphasised again and again during rehearsals, the point isn’t the sound of our voices, but the expression of the Dharma. And in the end we had a respectable little group with singers from England, Australia, and Japan, and Eun Young, our extraordinarily talented and enthusiastic translator from Korea, and we sang with all our hearts.

The Seon Club is only a year old, it was at the last Buddha’s Birthday celebration that we first discussed the idea of an English-language group, and during the second verse the whole audience joined in. I looked out and saw other Seon Club members in the audience giving us the thumbs up, and all over the hall so many familiar faces from the Seonwon singing along and wishing us well, and I understood that nothing is separate here, that every single one of us is together supporting each other.

So thank you to everyone that sang last night, thank you to everyone that attended rehearsals, even if you couldn’t make it on the night, thank you to those who coached us over the weeks of preparation, to everyone who supported us and watched us and joined in with us, and to all the wonderful people from the Hanmaum Seonwon in Bangkok and in Korea and throughout the world. Thank you all!

Our song finished and we bowed and hurried back into the audience smiling and elated and watched others take their turns. There was some acting, a wild but tightly controlled performance of swordmanship, and everything was rounded off with more singing and the handing out of some small gifts. And again I was left amazed at how this little community manages to find such time and such talent. It was a fabulous way to celebrate the coming of Buddha, and a lovely example for every day of the coming year of energy and joy and togetherness. Wonderful!

Buddhism and Debt

Has anyone ever noticed anything in the teachings of Buddhism about the need to avoid financial debt?

There’s a great financial advisor in the US who really gives a lot of good practical and Biblical reasons to avoid debt, and I was wondering if there’s something similar in the Buddhist teachings. (He often brings up several quotes from the Bible, such as “The borrower is slave to the lender,” and “One who cosigns for another is stupid.”)

As a monk at a large center in Korea, debt is one of the three main reasons I see people coming here in crisis. (The other two are health and spiritual crisises).

My own teacher really comes down on debt as well, I suspect because of the suffering it causes. She doesn’t talk about it much, in part because avoiding stupid things may seem too obvious, and in part because most people may not want to listen.

 I’d like to know about any deeper, Dharmic connections related to debt that anyone may have heard of as well.

 The financial advisor I mentioned has a favorite saying “Broke, Desperate, and Stupid are three brothers that always hang out together. When one shows up, the others aren’t far behind.” From what I’ve observed that’s really true. Nearly all of the truly stupid (non-alcohol related) things I’ve seen have been a result of financial desperation.

with palms together,

Chong Go

Herding the Ox (Part 2)

(This is the second part of Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s version of the Tex Ox Herding verses. These are traditional verses that describe the progress of spiritual practice, with the ox symbolizing our inherent nature.)

6. Riding the Ox Home

As I ride the ox,
making my way home,
it turns out he already knows the way.
Sitting on his back
and playing the flute,
its harmonious melody goes far and wide.
Hearing this sound,
the villagers all come out to welcome me.

7.  Forgetting the Ox

At last the ox and I have returned home.
My mind is utterly at peace,
the ox too is resting,
and an auspicious light
fills the entire house.
This small, thatched-roof hut
knows no worry or suffering,
and at last I can lay down the whip and reins.




8. Myself and the Ox both Forgotten   

The whip and the rope,
even the ox and myself,
are all empty, gone without a trace.
Oh this sky, so wide and open
so vast and boundless.
There’s no place for even a single dust mote to settle.
How could I ever be ensnared again?

9. Returning to the Source 

 I’ve crossed over so many mountains
in order to return to this root.
Here is my true home
in appearance like the open sky
with nothing hindering it and nothing to be gotten rid of.
The waters of a stream just flowing,
the flowers so beautiful.

10. Returning to the Town

Although I’m wearing old rags,
there’s no sense of lack.
As I mix with the many people
on the streets and markets,
their suffering fades away,
and even dead trees come to life.
Such a deep valley,
yet the turbulent waters
cannot claim me.



the dance of emptiness and form

Form here is only emptiness, emptiness only form.

Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.

-the Heart Sutra

During a trip to Thailand, I bought ‘A Brief History of Time’, by Stephen Hawking. Like the best Dharma books, it was written with the intention of being understood by any common layperson but also must be read several times for it to really sink in. One of the many interesting things I learned is that matter is constantly appearing and disappearing in space, out of apparently nothing. Particles and their corresponding anti-particles, arise for a moment, then, nearly immediately, collide back together into nonbeing.

Although at the time that Stephen Hawking wrote the book, he was only 95% sure that black-holes existed, he supposed that as these particles and antiparticles arose just on the edge of black-holes, one of them would be hauled into the black-hole, allowing the other to continue its existence, becoming the seed of form.

What does this mean for my practice? Well, probably nothing… but it does interest me that an ancient Buddhist text, which reads almost like a dream, would be echoed well over a thousand years later in contemporary theoretical physics.

The appearance of all Buddhas and Patriarchs in this world can be liked to waves arising suddenly on a windless ocean.

-Zen Master So Sahn

Similarly, as the Buddha sat in meditation, he was able to focus his awareness so acutely that he actually experienced his form on a subatomic level. He saw that everything is pulsing, appearing and disappearing countless times each moment. I think this experience helped him realize the extent of our impermanence. Thousands of times a second we regenerate. Thousands of times a second we’re given the chance to start all over. Personally, I find this very encouraging!

Again, this time about twenty-five hundred years later, science and technology caught up to Prajna Wisdom and built a scanning electron microscope that could observe the inside of an atom. Each time they focussed in on a particle, it seemed to melt into pulsing waves of rhythm and revealed an even smaller particle, which in turn, did the same.

Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world, there is no solidity. Once again, there is only the dance. At the unimaginable heart of the atom, the compact nucleus, we have found no solid object, but rather a dynamic pattern of tightly confined energy vibrating perhaps 1022 times a second: a dance…

-George Leonard

Running Errands for the Dharma-realm

If you’re doing what the Universe needs done,
the Universe will support you.

Years ago I read this by the thinker and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, and was really impressed.  He went on to say that if no support is forthcoming, you’re probably not working on what the Universe needs, and you need to change direction asap. 

My own teacher says something similar:

A practitioner is someone who is merely running errands for the Dharma-realm.

the all-reaching hands and feet of Buddha

I’ve found practicing like this has so many amazing aspects. One of the first is the feeling, the change in focus when I quietly ask, “What does the Dharma-realm need done?” 

Life also has a different feeling of worth when things are no longer about what “I” want, or just entertaining my desires. And I’ve found that when I’m making an effort to live like this, what I need seems to naturally appear.  [Need, not want :-)! ]

One of the effects of this is sometimes I’m called to do things or go places that don’t fit into “my” plans, or that “I” can’t stick an explanation onto. Sometimes I can later see why that was needed, but other times I still have no idea what was truly going on. Just that I met people I would never have met otherwise, or shared a kind word with someone I wouldn’t have encountered had things happened according “my” plans.

Of course, I have to be careful that I’m not just listening to my karma, (the precepts are real handy here!) but the analogy that comes to mind is water. You can’t make a hole in water for more than an instant, because the water all around it responds and fills in the hole. Likewise, you can’t pile up water, because where there is extra, it spreads out and automatically goes to places that need more.  I suspect that we also become like this as we learn to work on behalf of the whole, and dissolve the barriers of “I” and “mine” that imprison and cut us off.  With this wall gone (or at least weakened!), if we lack something it flows to us, and when we have extra, we naturally send it where there is lack.

working on behalf of the whole

doing what the Universe needs done

running errands for the Dharma-realm
These seem like such wonderful guides – please share your experiences!

Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices

Following on from my piece a week or so ago about entusting and devotion, I’d like to post an updated review I wrote last year of the little booklet called “Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices” by Seon Master Ilta, translated and very kindly gifted by Brian Barry. I think Master Ilta says so much better than I can just how there need be no contradiction at all in combining a very devotional approach with the practice of uncovering one’s own true nature.

‘Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices’ is a translation and abridgement of Saenghwal Sogui Gidobop by the late Zen Master Ilta, Grand Preceptor and member of the Elders Committee of the Jogye Order. Brian Barry, temple artist, Dharma Instructor, and translator of many key Korean Buddhist texts, translated, published and distributed this work free of charge as a Dharma gift dedicated to all beings throughout the universes. He is also active on the Seoul Dharma Group and is a thoroughly nice man.

The book is divided into five sections. The first chapter is called ‘Effective Chanting’ and deals with the lay person’s approach, and the three empowerments practice brings. Part two is the main part of the book, and concerns daily practices. Many people outside of Korea who come across Seon Buddhism might perhaps think that this would deal with meditation, but most Buddhists, even many Zen Buddhists, do very little meditation at all, and this chapter deals mostly with the practices of prostrations and chanting.

I personally find it hard to maintain a prostration practice, especially here in Bangkok. There have been times I’ve started each day with 108 bows, and have benefitted enormously from it, but my favourite practice is Avalokitesvara chanting, about which Master Ilta has some interesting and useful things to say in this small book. He says it’s useful to have an image of the Bodhisattva while chanting, and I noticed with delight that Brian Barry generously included in each copy a postcard of one of his own gorgeous paintings of Kwan Seum Bosal.

Master Ilta talks about how, wishing to receive compassion, “it is both natural and essential that you lead a compassionate life yourself” and he emphases the importance of maintaining one’s resolve. He also discusses visualisation, prayer, and using beads. My own beads were a beautiful gift from my Dharma brother Joseph. Each one has the hangul for Kwan Seum Bosal carved into the wood, and they are a joy to hold. Not all the advice Master Ilta gives will apply to everyone of course, his suggestion about making as many repetitions as possible in a single breath, for example, is not something that works for me.

The final sections of the book are on special methods and spirit guidance, in which he talks about the practice of Namu Amitabul chanting, Namu Jijang Bosal chanting, chanting the Great Light Mantra, and reciting the Teaching for the Departed, the Musanggye, which Brain Barry adds as an appendix. Finally, Master Ilta concludes with a story, illustrating his central theme of one-minded devotional practice.

It is a book devoted to the everyday practices of, especially, chanting and prostrating, with a real ‘other-power’ feel to it. “In Buddhism” Master Ilta writes, “our practices are our very faith, and this faith is in the power of the buddhas and bodhisattvas to help us in times of need. So it is necessary to put our faith in them and their powers”. So how, it might be asked, does this fit in with the idea of relying upon one’s own inherant Buddha-nature?

For Seon Master Ilta there is no contradiction. The devotional practices he outlines exist for the very purpose of reaching one’s own foundation. “The nonduality of the practitioner and Buddha is the True Self” Master Ilta writes. “The only difference is that the Buddha recovered his essential nature, while we have not. The objective of our practice is to discover this true nature and to realize our full potential.”

This reminds me very much of what Daehaeng Kun Sunim also has to say about the practices of bowing and chanting. “True bowing” she writes “means keeping yourself humble and respecting Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and sages. But at the same time, know that their mind and your mind are not two, and never lose your determination and resolution.” In a section of ‘No River to Cross’ on reciting the Buddha’s name she warns against simply looking for light from outside. For Daehaeng Sunim the power of chanting is from the power of the foundation.

What ‘Everyday Korean Buddhist Practices’ does is provide a wealth of advice and suggestions on some of the technical aspects of these practices, in a way that never loses sight of the main goal – to, as Mastar Ilta puts it,  “bring about the force from within”. This marvellous little book has been widely distributed, entirely free of charge, to Seon centres around the world, and Brian even kindly sent some extra copies for the Hanmaum Seonwon here in Bangkok. It is well worth finding for both its insight into everyday Korean Buddhist practice, and for inspiration too. Thank you Brian.

Brian Barry’s webpage
Entrusting and Devotion