the mind and evolution

In his post a few days ago, Joseph relayed the story of a monk who died in the Jiri Mountains (A glimpse). It highlighted two critical truths, namely, that we are not our bodies, and the importance of how we use our minds. 

In Chapter 2 of No River to Cross, Daehaeng Kun Sunim also covers these points: 

If we just wander around in the fog...

Even after your body falls away, your consciousness remains. It often happens that people do not understand that their body does not exist anymore, and they do not realize that living people cannot see or hear them. So, sometimes, in their confusion and desire, they cause other people to suffer. If you sincerely cultivate mind while you have a body, then you can leave without having any attachments. However, if you don’t practice, then even though you’re dead, you’ll be caught up in all of your old relationships, and won’t be able to freely leave. Instead, you may just wander around, stuck in that state for a very long time. When people die, if they have never practiced spiritual cultivation, their consciousness cannot see and cannot hear. In the middle of the darkness, their consciousness cannot correctly perceive things, so those people may (accidently) enter the womb of a pig or a magpie. However, people who have cultivated mind give off a great light and thoroughly illuminate their surroundings. Even their families tend to live brightly, although individually they may not know anything about spiritual practice. (p 20-21)  

...running from the things that scare us, chasing after desires, where will we end up?

Have you ever gotten caught up in a dream about walking through a building that no longer exists? Those steps you were walking up are now only empty sky a hundred feet off the ground. After we die, we no longer have physical senses, so with what are we seeing and hearing? If we haven’t practiced while alive, then we’re only experiencing the arising of karmic states of consciousness. However, we think those things are really happening, and so chase or flee them. In essence, we’re running outdoors at full speed, while blindfolded.  

Thus, how we use our minds while alive is critically important to us.  

In order to be born as a human being, it may have taken a thousand years of accumulated virtue and merit. It’s so hard to become a human being. Nevertheless, if you don’t let go of the habits you developed prior to becoming a human being, and if you think of only yourself, your suffering will be endless. If you live this way, you may live like this for many, many lives, stuck like a hamster on a wheel, unable to evolve. Or you may devolve and be reborn as an animal. Once you are reborn as an animal, you will suffer a lot, having to eat others or be eaten. There will be very little opportunity to reflect upon your state, and if you develop the habits of an animal, it will be even more difficult to free yourself from that state, even over billions of eons. (p 19)  

We go where we look. Or in this case, where we think.  

From the perspective of evolution, lives are affected by circumstances and the environment, and can adapt themselves to a certain degree. However, the more fundamental things all depend upon consciousness. (p 21)

Once the level of mind changes, the body also changes accordingly. Evolution is the process of the mind becoming brighter, while creation is the outward manifestation of the minds design. Thus, while this process is evolution, it is also creation.  

Mind is the basis of both evolution and devolution; they aren’t separate forces. Devolution is also done by mind. All of this is the manifestation of our fundamental mind (and how we use it.) (p 22) 

Alive or dead, awake or asleep, if we always rely upon our inherent Buddha-essence, what could we have to fear?

notes on karma

During last year’s season of Rains Retreat talks Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku said the Buddha taught there are  four imponderables, four things just not worth thinking about as they are impossible to understand. One is the source of psychic powers, another is the mind of an Arahant, the third is the mind of a Buddha, and the final imponderable is karma. Trying to figure out how karma works will do little more than split your head into seven different pieces the Buddha said.

But I keep coming back to it this week. My post on moving the mala was prompted by reflections on karma, those “huge killer waves of our own making”, and Joseph’s post yesterday underlines again just how vital it is, if not to fully understand, then to at least have a basic grasp of how these energies work. Just as Phra Pandit suggested last year, we can get by with an outline of the principles of karma without delving into its more complex, imponderable, depths. And that basic outline is simply that everyone has karma and so we must be careful of what we do.

“That’s it”, he said. “Finished. Anything that comes next is, unlike most of the Buddha’s other teachings, going to be mainly speculation.” But it’s clear that our behavour, and the patterns we establish, can make all the difference between joining those figures in white at the bulgogi feast, or remembering one’s vows just in time. The clearest and most succinct formulation I ever heard of the workings of karma came from a Thai friend of mine when she said “Do good, get good. Do bad, get bad”.  Whichever way you look at it, our intentions and habits, orientation and practice, are what decide our fates.

Who can’t help but be reminded of Bodhidharma and Emperor Wu? “How much karmic merit have I earned by ordaining monks, building monasteries, having sutras copied, and commissioning Buddha images?” “None.” And then there’s the story of Nanta, the old lady who, despite her poverty, lit a lantern for the Buddha with such sincerity that not only did it burn late into the night, but she was also promised future Buddhahood from that single act of devout intention.

Littlebang: Notes on the Clockwork Universe

a glimpse

One of the most interesting stories I heard Chong Go Sunim tell at Saturday Sangha was about a monk he knows who was staying in Haein Temple, when Zen Master Seong Chol was still alive. The monk left the temple to do a long retreat in the Jiri Mountainsand was living off what ever he could find in the forested slopes.

After eating something he shouldn’t have, maybe a poisonous mushroom or something else inedible, he became seriously ill and collapsed on the ground. He came to awareness back in Haein Temple, about 100km or more away and saw two of his friends in the hall doing what seemed like a death ceremony. They didn’t seem to notice him and he found it curious that instead of reciting the appropriate sutras, the monk with the mok-tak (a wooden percussion instrument) was repeating the word, “Chek, chek, chek…” (“Book, book, book…”) and the monk with the bell kept repeating, “Yeom ju, yeom ju, yeom ju…” (“prayer beads, prayer breads, prayer beads…”)

In a flash, he was in his mother’s house. He was standing next to her as she was loading wood in the fire. She didn’t notice him so he reached over and touched her shoulder. She let out a shriek and crumpled over in pain.

Just as he had found himself at the temple, then at his mother’s, he was standing back in the mountain. He noticed the scent of bulgogi, marinated beef, wafting up from the river bank and a group of men in white hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) calling, “Hey! Come down and join us, there’s plenty to go around!” Just as he was about to join them he remembered he is a monk and shouldn’t eat meat.

Making his way back into the hills, he came across an old man with an old fashion jigae, a wooden A-frame carrying rack, on his back. But instead of carrying wood, he was carrying a man down the mountain. He put the man down on the ground and the monk, thinking the man looked familiar, went over to take a closer look. As he stared at the man’s face, he couldn’t get over how much the man looked like himself. He touched the body and at that instant, his consciousness was sucked into the body, and he woke up with a jerk. He was laying near the village where he’d seen the old man put the body. He was also probably feeling a little disoriented from the strange experience he’d just had.

Returning to the temple, he went to his friends and told them about what he had seen. They replied that Seong Cheol Sunim spoke to them that he had died in the Jiri Mountains and that they should perform a death ceremony immediately.  He continued, telling them that they were chanting the words “book” and “prayer beads” instead of the proper sutra’s they should have been chanting. Surprised, the first one admitted that he knew the monk had a collection of really nice books and was wondering if he could have them. A bit ashamed, his second friend also admitted that he was thinking about the monk’s nice “yeom ju” and also wondering if he could have it. So, even though they were speaking the mantra, all that he could hear from them was their thoughts.

He visited his mother and told her of the experience. She replied that she remembered a sudden sharp pain in her shoulder.

Going back to the stream in the mountain, where he’d seen the men eating bulgogi, he found no remnants of barbecue. What he did see disturbed him though. Laying by the river bank was the corpse of a magpie, entirely infested with maggots. He realized that what appeared to him as men by the river were actually larva calling him to dine on the flesh of the dead bird. He wondered if he hadn’t reminded himself that he was a monk and had instead joined them, would he have been reborn as the larva of a fly? How difficult would it have been to work his way back to being born in human form again? When he left his body, he had no ears, no eyes, no nose, no tongue, no hands. All he was left with was his perception and his illusion of what surrounded him. He couldn’t hear words, only intentions.

For a while, I’ve felt that our state of mind at the moment of death is very important. We must be aware, first that we’ve stepped out and second, where we are to go. Through the Dhamma, I’ve learned that all life is equal, but the human mind is most advantageous for developing liberation. When taking into account the number of beings in existence, from elephants and whales to single cell organism, it is actually extremely rare to be born human. We should recognize the opportunity we have in this form and do the best we can with it. When we die, we usually won’t in the best states of mind, perhaps sick, drugged, confused, or not even conscious. The more our mind is prepared now, the better we can deal when the moment comes.

More (Buddhist) books about Korea

In a previous post featuring books about Korea, readers pointed out a couple of truly great books that been overlooked.

The first one is The Zen Monastic Experience, by Robert Buswell. Written about life in a major Korean zen monastery, this is based upon the years he spent at Songgwa Temple. He lived here as monk for about five years, under the great master Kusan Sunim. Buswell also does a great job of explaining the different jobs and positions at a large monastery.

As I think about it, I could do an entire post on the books of Robert Buswell! He’s really done some great ones about Korean Buddhism. One of the most influential is The Collected Works of Chinul: The Korean Approach to Zen. This is the only English translation of the complete works of one of Korea’s most important thinkers. However, used copies of this one sell for over $200, so it’s probably better to get the excerpted version, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen. All of the works in this book are full-length; it’s only the longer, and more obscure works of Chinul that were left out. Buswell was also the editior of Religions of Korea in Practice, and Currents and Countercurrents: Korean Influences on the East Asian Buddhist Traditions.  This second one is definitely an under-appreciated gem. Most of us bought into the idea of a linear transmission of Buddhism. However, Buswell shows that this was much more dynamic, with Buddhist practitioners and teachers traveled throughout the region learning and influencing as they went. 

Similar to Religions of Korea in Practice is Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism. This is quite a nice volume about modern Korean Buddhism, with many chapters about the history and key figures of Korean Buddhism during the turbulent 20th century.


 Here’s a nice book about the life of modern Korean Buddhist nuns, Women in Korean Zen: Lives And Practices. Martine Bachelor was also another person who lived at Songgwa Temple and practiced under Kusan Sunim. She talks about the life of Korean Buddhist nuns, the difficulties of a westerner adjusting to both the monastic and Korean culture, and in the second half of the book, Martine includes the autobiography of the outstanding nun, Son’gyong Sunim.
One of the great works in Korean Buddhism is The Mirror of Zen, by Seon master Sosan. This one is studied by most of the monks and nuns in Korea, and here is widely availiable in English for the first time. My only complaint, and it’s not a reason to avoid this book, is that this book is only one section of Sosan Sunim’s original work, Mirror of the Three Religions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. (The only attempt at this work in English is a MA thesis at the University of Hawaii by Jinwol Sunim.*) In it, Sosan Sunim compares the three religions then prevalent in Korea, and shows their common characteristics and beliefs, explaining why there is no need for conflict between them. In a sense, Sosan Sunim’s original work may be one of the first “Appreciation of” textbooks in the world.

Another neat book is Temples of Korea.  With beautiful photos, information, history about a number of important temples in Korea, I doubt you could go wrong with this one. 


There’s an interesting couple of books that resemble the “How it’s made” series, in the sense that they show and explain all of the components of various temples in detail. The first is called Korean Temple Motifs, and is quite a nice, if expensive, book.  

The second, Korean Cultural Heritage (Vol. 1), is perhaps even better. There is a volume 2, but it doesn’t cover Buddhism. This book (volume 1) is definitely worthwhile, but hard to find. It’s at Kyobo Books in Seoul, and I found my copy at the Bandi and Luni’s at Jongno 1ga (in Seoul), but apart from that, it doesn’t seem to be in many other places.


These are just some of the many books about Korea. I haven’t posted anything by my Dharma teacher, Daehaeng Kun Sunim, because you’ve probably already seen information about her books if you’ve visited this blog before. Likewise, most westerners interested in Buddhism already have at least a passing familiarity with the works Seung Sahn Kun Sunim. I’ve also avoided posting much about Korean art for two reasons. One, I don’t know anything! And two, there are a lot of newish books about Korean art that I haven’t looked at. Many of them aren’t available outside of Korea, but the bookstore Seoul Selection has a very good selection.

If you know of any books about Korea that left a good impression, please share them in the comments section. And I’ll try to include them in a future post.

 *  Common Themes of the Three Religions (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism): The Samga Kwigam of Hyujong (1520-1604)  (University of Hawaii, 1990)

Buddhist Nuns in Korea

Korea has one of the most vibrant communities of Buddhist nuns in the world. To my knowledge, only Taiwan has anything even close. While there are still some inequities, such as the tendency for monk’s temples to attract more donations, in terms of practice, the nun’s community is outstanding.     

Two of the major institutions for nuns (and also monks) are the meditation hall, the seonbang, and the sutra study program, the kangwon.  This is a four-year course of study where one lives at the kangwon with Korean sunims,* while attending lectures and commentaries. This involves massive amounts of memorization and traditional sino-Korean (Chinese) characters, as well as the daily work you’d expect at a large temple. Only upon completion of one of these courses is a nun (or monk) allowed to take full ordination in Korea. (This applies to only the Jogye Order, although it is by far the largest Buddhist order in Korea.)   

Jaeun Sunim
Although a number of non-Koreans have ordained in the Jogye Order, few (male or female) have taken full ordination after completing the traditional four-year kangwon course of study. Even now, the number is certainly less than 10 people, although there are several who will graduate in the next year or two.  Instead, most foreign sunims have ordained through the four-year meditation hall program.

However, Jaeun Sunim (/ja-un/), a Canadian, did not choose this path. She was one of two bikkhunis** who were the first to take full ordination after graduating from the kangwon. This interview examines her experiences and why she endeavored to spend years training in a completely different cultural environment.  This interview originally appeared in the Lotus Lantern magazine.
Sunim is the Korean title of respect and address for both nuns and monks. It’s similar to “venerable.”
Bikkhuni is the term for a fully ordained Buddhist nun.  

By the numbers:
7000+  The number of nuns in Korea’s Jogye Order.
 6   –   Kangwons attended by Buddhist nuns
18  –   Meditation halls exclusive to nuns  

All of these kangwons and meditation halls are run by the nuns.  Men (including monks) are generally not allowed in these temples.

How did you become interested in Buddhism

I think it would be truthful to say that I have always been a Buddhist. However, as I was born in a country where there is no indigenous Buddhist tradition, it was many years before I was able to recognize it.When I was in the first grade at school, a student asked our teacher, “Who made the world?” and she said, “God made the world”. Another student asked, “Then, who made God?” and she said, “We shouldn’t ask questions like that”. I remember asking, “Why not?” I had many questions about life that nobody seemed to want to talk about. My experiences with Christianity were similar: I was told to just have faith and that we shouldn’t try to understand the mind of God. These attitudes served to quell my interest in religion. So I redirected my inquisitiveness in a more “acceptable” direction and studied science, eventually majoring in biochemistry.

When I was a university student, I did volunteer work with the local chapter of Amnesty International, and was shocked by the stories of torture and injustice that are committed so routinely around the world. I realized how well off and comfortable I was compared to most people in the world. My life seemed so useless in the face of all that suffering, and this brought back many of the unanswered questions of my childhood. So as a graduate student I did research in virology, with the idea that I could do some good in the world by helping to understand diseases so that they could be more effectively treated and prevented. At the same time, I started to read more in philosophy and psychology, and to explore some alternative spiritual paths.     

One day a friend told me she was learning to meditate and suddenly I found myself saying that I wanted to learn too. She loaned me a book by Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh and as I read it, I simply knew that I was a Buddhist. My friend introduced me to a woman who was teaching meditation, and eventually I met her teacher, the late Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche, and other students of his who were teaching Buddha Dharma. From them, I began to learn the fundamentals of Buddhist theory and practice     

It was such a relief! In Buddhism, I not only found others who were asking the same kinds of questions that had nagged me since childhood, but a way of spiritual life in which this kind of questioning is in fact necessary and encouraged.

In Canada, there are very few Korean Monks and Nuns, and little is known of Korean Buddhism. So how did you come to Korea, and to Korean Buddhism?
As a postdoctoral research fellow, late one night in the lab, suddenly, very clearly, a thought appeared: “Even if every disease known to humanity could be cured, suffering would go on unabated because suffering originates in our minds, not our bodies”. After that, it seemed to me the only thing that could truly relieve the suffering in the world was Buddhist practice. My interest in my research career rapidly faded away.The next time I met the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche, I told him about this, and he said that I should consider becoming ordained, which meant going to Asia, as there was no monastic community in Canada. But after so many years of university study, I had almost no money. One day, a small ad in the newspaper caught my eye: “Teach English in Asia, no experience necessary, free air ticket, room and board”. So I got a job as an English instructor in Korea, not because of Korean Buddhism, which I had never heard of, but because of the free ticket to Asia. My idea was to save a little money and travel around Asia exploring the options for Buddhist study and ordination. However, not long after I arrived, I met some Korean nuns and was impressed with their dedication, their independence and the wonderful opportunities for study and practice. I found the Korean Seon tradition very clear and straightforward as well. That was in the spring of 1998, and I’ve been here ever since.   
Sunim, you were one of the first two Western nuns to graduate from a traditional Buddhist seminary (kangwon), and now have received bikkhuni ordination in the Jogye Order. Since graduation from seminary isn’t required for foreign monks and nuns to receive full ordination, why did you decide to do it?

Most Korean Bikkhunis believe that training in the seminary is necessary for novice nuns to provide a foundation for their monastic life and practice, and the vast majority of nuns in Korea attend the seminary for four years as the basic training before full ordination. The only way to really understand something is to experience it yourself. And for a Westerner to understand a particular Buddhist tradition, it’s important to get as close to the roots of that tradition as possible. Because Western culture is so different from Korean culture, life in the seminary would also teach me how to live together harmoniously with Korean nuns. So it seemed attending the seminary would be the best way for me to get a good foundation to monastic life and a deeper appreciation of the Jogye tradition and life as a Korean Buddhist nun.  


Cheongam Temple

How was life in the seminary?
Seminary life is communal. We eat, sleep, study, and practice together in one room with everyone else. Communal work is also a large part of the life. Through this we learn to consider others first, putting the needs of the community before our own personal needs. At Cheongam Temple (/chung-am/), the nuns in the first three years (about 80 people) live together in one room; the fourth year nuns live together in a separate room. To live so closely together with many people means that one’s actions, moods and energy affect everyone in the whole group. Therefore one has to learn to act in harmony with the community as much as possible and to let go of one’s opinions and selfish desires. Anything one does that negatively affects others becomes immediately apparent, and one has to work to correct it. For me this was very difficult, but is actually a very deep training in mindfulness, and so also wonderful practice. 

As a Westerner, were there difficulties in adapting to the culture?Western culture is more individualistic than Asian culture, so adapting to communal life is very challenging. I was amazed to learn how much of my way of thinking was intimately tied to my cultural background. The way of expressing oneself, mannerisms, expressions, and of course, language are all different. I sometimes felt completely exhausted from having to concentrate all the time, trying to be mindful of my words and actions. However, I found I couldn’t blame all my difficulties on cultural and linguistic differences. There were simply aspects of my personality that I needed to work on in order to be able to live harmoniously with others.Then of course there was the textual study. The curriculum consists of Seon writings from China and Korea, and major Mahayana Buddhist Sutras. All of the texts are in Classical Chinese characters, which for me are very difficult. Also the method of studying is very different from how we study in Canada. The characters are read and simultaneously translated into Korean. The texts are memorized as much as possible, regardless of whether or not they are understood. After reciting a text many times, the meaning is said to appear naturally. The way I have studied since childhood is to discuss and understand the underlying meaning of the subject first, not to memorize text verbatim. When something is thoroughly understood, remembering it comes naturally. I found it nearly impossible to memorize texts and had a hard time adapting to the studies

Now that you have graduated and ordained as a bikkhuni, what will you do? 
Of course the most important thing is to live the teachings, to experience the teachings, which cannot be done through academic study. Therefore daily meditation practice is very important. Eventually I hope to do retreats in various meditation centers throughout the country, to deepen my understanding of the teachings, However before I begin to do formal retreats, I will take some time to review the material we studied in the seminary and do some independent study and practice. I may also help with some translation of Korean Buddhist materials to English. The Korean Buddhist Seon tradition is still largely unknown outside of Korea, which is something I hope will begin to change, as I feel Korean Buddhism has a lot to offer to the international community    


Sunday Photo; Dharma Hall at Hanmaum

In contribution to this blog, I would like to share a photo each Sunday, focusing on interesting Buddhist sites, throughout South Korea.

I thought a good place to start would be the main Dharma Hall at Hanmaum Seonwon.

An interesting, detailed description of the Hall and it’s art work can be read here on the Hanmaum website. I especially like that the wood-carver has been designated as Korean Important Intangible Cultural Asset No.108. Is he actually the 108th, or did they just decide to give him that number??

moving the mala

“Huge, violent, killer waves of our own making are bearing down on us, ready to smash us against the rocks.” I know this to be absolutely true. I’ve experienced some of it for myself already, across the moments, days and decades of my life. Every unskillful action I’ve ever performed either has, or will eventually, return to me. So when I think of what’s to come, the outlook really isn’t very pretty.

But, Phra Bhasakorn Bhavilai continues in his wonderful book ‘Karma for Today’s Traveler’, “somehow, we see more clearly, we improve ourselves, we reject our past behaviour and we embrace the five precepts. By changing our mental state like that… the power of our bad deeds to effect us has been reduced… The waves will hit us, we can’t stop them; but they only take a limb or an eye or some teeth. We are left alive. The five precepts will reduce the negative effects from our past.”

This is very practical stuff. It’s not about achieving Buddhahood through the perfection of precepts, something I know I am incapable of completing by my own efforts. Rather, taking refuge in the precepts is about developing the skills and habits to live with more peace and confidence in this very life, of being happier and having better relationships with everything and everyone around me, as well as making progress on the path.

I see how this works and rejoice in it, it brings results. And, though central to my personal practice, it’s still not easy. The trickiest for me, just as in Joseph’s insightful post yesterday, is the precept concerning speech. Partly formulated, in words from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fourth Mindfulness Training, as “Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am determined to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope.”

The trouble, I find, is remembering. Sitting with friends, it is so easy to slip back into negative speech patterns. So easy to swear, to complain, to gossip, to exaggerate, to condemn and criticise. So easy to speak rather than to listen, to dominate the conversation, and to talk with urgency and anger rather than with kindness and peace. How can such behaviour not build up disasterous karma? How can I remember my vows?

I recently heard about a church minister in America who suggested to his congregation that they wear a wristband and that every time they catch themselves complaining or gossiping or otherwise engaging in negative speech, they simply move the band from one wrist to the other. What a brilliant idea. It’s a simple act that would re-enforce one’s aspirations and help break the habits of negativity.

I decided to try this out using the wrist-mala I wear everyday, and was surprised at the results. Although I was concentrating on speech, the first effect was that I became much more aware of my thinking too. The second thing I noticed was how often I had to move the mala. And thirdly, I was pleased to see how often I didn’t have to. Which is important, not because I imagine I can ever reach perfection, but because it improves my life here and in the future, reducing the size of those killer waves.

I also remembered Kun Sunim’s advice about striking back at negative thoughts and changing them into something positive, and I worked on just that.  Of course the most positive thing you can do is to entrust everything to your own Buddha-nature, and this technique really helped me do that. I let go of the negativity, and found myself smiling instead. “When you entrust everything to the foundation” Kun Daehaeng Sunim writes, “with a single thought you can go a thousand miles.”