The Bangkok Seon Club

Gulukhan Bucheonimke Gwiuihamnida
Gulukhan Galeuchime Gwiuihamnida
Gulukhan Sunimdulke Gwiuihamnida
– The Three Refuges 
 

I am constantly struck by just how valuable an opportunity we have here in Bangkok to study the Dharma. In order to practice Therevadan Buddhism in English there is the wonderful Littlebang Sangha, and for those of us drawn towards Korean Zen, there is the Bangkok Seon Club. Not only is it amazing to be able to study Seon Buddhism at a Korean temple while living in Thailand, but the friendliness and support of the group is something not often encountered, and very precious. 

Hyaedan Sunim

We start each meeting by chanting the three refuges, though in the Korean tradition it’s more of a song than a chant, then we bow and take our places for a short meditation. The sit is led by Hyaedan Sunim, who marks the start and finish with three strikes of the seon stick, and then we always place our cushions onto benches, which we move into a square, to briefly read a few pages of Kun Daehaeng Sunim’s book ‘No River to Cross’, and start the discussion. 

Looking back through my notes from the past year of discussions, I see that we’ve covered a great deal of ground. One of the meetings that was most useful to me was from last August in which we talked about faith. I have a naturally devotional approach, and Kun Sunim’s teaching – to believe in, let go to, and observe the workings of Buddha-nature – has provided a better understanding of my faith, and a beautiful and adaptable practice I can go back to again and again. 

Many of the people in the group have been studying Zen for decades in various traditions, and although I admit the discussions sometimes become a little too complicated for me to follow, I always enjoy what I am able to understand and I am impressed at how people are able to share ideas and experiences regardless of language differences. Eun Young, our wonderful translator and an inspiring practitioner, deserves huge thanks for this. 

Bodhisattvas filling the sky around us

 But, of course, discussion has its limits. As Kun Daehaeng teaches in chapter two, “The eternal self cannot be described by words, and it cannot be revealed through discussion. Trying to know it conceptually is like trying to know the world while trapped inside of a barrel.” Hyaedan Sunim describes it as being like a bird which has flown into a room. Banging its head against the window won’t free it. 

Rather, the bird must stop its frantic activity, rest, and examine how it came to be in the room in the first place. Then the way out will be clear. This reminded me a lot of Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu’s comments last year in his talks on ‘the way of wisdom’. He warned against too much conceptualisation and also suggested that simple resting, using time in practice to observe rather than engage, leads to peace and liberation. 

entrance to the Bangkok Hanmaum Seon Center

I’m glad I went back to look at this again. As well as that part of me that welcomes resting in faith, I also have a tendancy to try to work things out, to try to find the ‘right’ answer. Too often this ends up in pointless discussions, especially on the Internet. The beauty of our monthly Sangha meetings is that it is a place where real, meaningful discussion can happen, and where we can learn the practice of letting go. A practice I have had to return to again today, a practice I return to again and again. 

Our meetings are also a lot of fun. After the discussions, and sometimes they go on very late, many people continue talking and sharing in a nearby restaurant till well after the last train has stopped running. Thank you again to everyone who makes these evenings possible. And click on the link below for details of the next one on June the 26th. 

Links:
Littlebang: home page
Littlebang: details of next Seon Club

No Master Criminals Here

Tongdo Temple, one of the three treasures of Korean Buddhism

The Jogye Order had arranged for a professional nurse to be present during our 23-day ordination training session. A Buddhist nun herself, she had already probably saved the life of a male postulant. He had such a terrible cough I half wondered if he wasn’t there for some spiritual benefit that might come from dying as an ordained monk. Hearing him cough as she passed by, the nurse read the riot act to the overseers and had the trainee brought to her office, where she immediately started injections of antibiotics. By the time the training was over, his cough had almost completely disappeared.

           As time went on, she became concerned that some postulants weren’t getting enough calories. With over 1,000 full bows a day, and only two moderate meals, we were certainly going through the calories. On top of this, many of the men were already quite skinny when they arrived; I would have guessed that some had less than five percent body fat. Seeing this, the nurse began to surreptitiously give out food, usually pastries, chocolate, or bars of sweet, red bean-paste.  A trip to the nurse’s office became more and more popular!  Disappointingly, whenever I went, I was always escorted by one of the overseers. The result: no food for me. For which I was soon to be grateful.

             Sunims, I’ve noticed, are not particularly good at deception!

The hall where we had lectures, and did most of our bowing (photo by Jung Yeon)

Part of me, the one that spent my last year in high school trying to buy beer, shook my head in disapproval at seeing chocolate and bean-paste wrappers just sitting on top of the toilet wastebasket. “You have to hide the evidence better than that,” I wanted to tutor the unknown snacker.   The inevitable soon happened: A postulant was walking by the front doors, in front of everyone, eating a bean-paste snack. He walked right past an overseer, who twisted around so fast that he must have sprained something.             

        Within the hour, all 150 men were lined up with their grey backpacks in front of them. The overseers started with first person, thoroughly searching all of his belongings. We didn’t know what would happen to those caught with food, but we all knew it would be serious. Expulsion was a real possibility. But for all of the postulants’ incompetence at deception, the overseers had no better understanding of the sport. As four of them focused on the first few people, nobody was looking down the lines at the other postulants. At least a dozen of them were slipping pastries and other food out of their bag and down their pants legs where the material bugled out over their leggings. Further, while the overseers diligently checked the contents of pockets, it never occurred to them to actually frisk anyone.

             Disgraceful, I thought, as I stood there, with a rumbling stomach. I couldn’t help smiling though:  I suppose it speaks well of those choosing a spiritual path that they were so unpracticed in the ways of deception.

Dawn at Tongdo Temple. The pudo with the relics of Shakyamuni Buddha (photo by Jung Yeon)

The Blame Game

As soon as you concern yourself with the “good” and “bad” of your fellows,
you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter.
Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weakens and defeats you.

Morihei Ueshiba, The Art of Peace, page 55 

 

This is such a wonderful verse. Like other truly profound teachings, it causes everything within me to settle deep down. It’s a lot like the deep-centered feeling of sitting in the full lotus posture (assuming one isn’t being tormented by rending knee pain!) 

I think the reason for this is that it acknowledges and reinforces the fundamental truth of our lives: that we are not separate.  We’re living together as one, and anything I direct towards someone else is felt equally (or more!) by myself.  It’s as if we’re living in the same room, breathing the same air, and eating from the same plate.  If I said I was going to poison the plate of food we’re eating from in order to “get” one person, everyone would think I’m nuts.

 
“But you’re eating the same food!?!  It’ll kill you as well!”  To poison the air we all breathe, thinking “Hah! I really showed you!,” would be the act of a lunatic.  Yet the actions and thoughts we give rise to continue to act through this unseen connection we all share.  This isn’t to say don’t ever have harsh thoughts; everyone has them, and they tend to arise out of habit before we realize it.  Rather, when you realize you’re caught up in them, stop feeding them energy.  Entrust that situation, as best you can, to your inherent Buddha, the source of all energy, and that which is truly taking care of things.

Another thing about blame and criticism, is that it’s often dumping the entire cause for something onto the other person(s). When in reality, if there’s something going back and forth between us, then I also share partial responsibility for it.  At the very minimum, I’m at this place now as the karmic result of the choices I’ve made, so there’s no use in blaming others. And in fact, acknowledging that I have a share of the blame often feels very liberating.  Look at how you feel when you get caught up trying to defend yourself and justify your actions. Now look at how you feel when you say “I’m sorry,” even if only silently, to yourself.

 
Daehaeng Kun Sunim often teaches that everything gathers together because of its similar level of growth and its similar karma. She gives the example parents and children, saying that they’ve gathered together because they created similar karma, although it’s not always apparent. Parents chose their children, and children chose their parents, because that was the level that looked most appealing to them. 

Thus, for all these reasons, Daehaeng Kun Sunim has always emphasized that blaming and criticizing others is one of the most spiritually harmful things we can do. She tells people to be generous in how they view others, and to interpret the things in their lives positively. For everything in this world manifests according to the thoughts we give rise to. Whether this world is a hell realm or a heavenly realm depends upon the thoughts we choose.

 
Over these many kalpas of our evolution, there’s no one who hasn’t been our father or our mother, our son, our daughter, our husband or our wife. Let’s remember the love we once felt for them, and raise the desire to see them grow and succeed, and know peace and liberation.

 

  

Lotus Lantern Festival

Just for fun, here’s a few photos from past years’ Lotus Lantern parade, which will be held in Seoul this Sunday (May 16). Following it, are some photos from Dharma Halls on Korean army bases.

 

Getting ready for Buddha's Birthday on an army base.

 

 

Barbwire and lotus lanterns
A Dharma Hall on a small base
The Dharma Hall on a much larger base

 

Lunch with Buddha

 

The beautiful photos at the top were taken by Park Youngwoo, and the rest by me! 

Ps. please let me know if your computer has trouble loading this page, I may have overdone it with the photos!  With palms together, Chong Go.

entrusting/Green Tara

I noticed this comment by Roy, from Return to the Center;

It would be very helpful to me to hear more about entrusting. I react with worry to this encouragement. I think “entrust myself to what? How do I know if I am entrusting myself to my own delusion?” and things like that.

Actually, I had a very similar feeling after reading No River to Cross. I asked Chong Go Seunim at Saturday Sangha one day how to know if it’s truly intuition or your desires that you are following. His answer was to ask deep within and listen to what your true feeling is. Usually we know if we’re doing the right thing or not, we just don’t always listen to ourselves.

My wife and I decided that we would get married only three weeks after we first met. It sounds crazy even to us when we think about it now, but at the time, we just knew. I’d never had a relationship that I didn’t drive myself half crazy asking if it was right (because deep down I knew that it wasn’t, I just didn’t listen) but when I met my wife there was never any doubt. Three weeks isn’t long, but I looked as deep down as I could in that amount of time and didn’t hear anything but “Yes!” It’s only been a couple of years, and I can’t pretend to know what the future holds, but just trusting that everything will be okay, even if it doesn’t work out as planned, makes it seem okay. If there’s ever a time that things just can’t be worked out, I trust that I can find the strength to pack up (within) and become a monk!! ^ ^

Also, I wonder whether or not entrusting yourself is very separate from some devotional forms of Buddhism. Personally, I see the Amitas, Gwan Sae Eums, Taras, or which ever you prefer, as manifestations or projections of expressions that are also within yourself.  Honestly, it’s not a topic that I’ve given a great deal of thought to, my practice is decidedly not very devotional, but I’m sure Chong Go Seunim or Marcus will be willing to add something to that (and it doesn’t have to be in accord!).

I am reminded, though, of taking a night bus from Kathmandu to Lumbini. I usually travel entrusting that nothing bad is going to happen to me, but even the locals kept worrying we about the risks of traveling on the night buses. One of the shop keepers, from whom I’d bought a number of castings, gave me a small Green Tara amulet to hold on the ride. He reminded me of her mantra, said to remove fear, and then told me not to worry, even the daytime buses tend to get hijacked in Nepal…

A little short of reassuring, it still made me realize there was no point in worrying.  On the bus, however, my nerves were shaky. I clenched the Green Tara amulet in my left hand and my mala in my right hand and repeated the mantra until I lost count of how many times I’d thumbed through the 108 beads. I visualized Tara above me, shinning her light down. I visualized the green light hitting my forehead, spreading out to the others sitting around me, the others in the bus, and everyone else traveling on the road that night.

At one point, I opened my eyes to see the entire bus bathed in green light. I noticed a green plastic cover over the light at the front of the bus. I had to giggle to myself as my mind toyed with possibilities.

What I realized later about the mantra is that it doesn’t necessarily protect you from what you fear but more from the feeling of fear itself. It might be a stretch, but maybe what it’s doing is actually giving you the trust within yourself that everything will be okay.

Buddha-nature: Theravada Zen

Last year, as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations, the Bangkok Hanmaum Seonwon hosted a joint Dharma talk on the subject of Buddha-nature with the Theravadan monk Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku, the founder and guiding light of the English-language Littlebang Sangha, and Chong Go Sunim, who had kindly made the trip from the Hanmaum International Centre in Anyang, Korea.

Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku, popularly known as Phra Pandit, started the evening with a brief history of Theravadan and Mahayanan Buddhism, and how the differences between them are not as great as they might at first seem. After all, he said, everything started at the same point, with the Buddha putting aside all theories and looking into the nature of things for himself.

What he saw under the Bodhi tree was experience in terms of fields of awareness, sight, sound, taste, and so on, and that they were forever changing. Finding no stability in this, he withdrew his mind and found it becoming brighter and sharper. And what he discovered there, the Buddha declared, was that which does not die.

He gave this a number of names such as original mind, source of mind, Nirvana, and so on, and later it was termed Buddha-nature. Phra Pandit suggested it was perhaps a little egotistical to give it this name as it exists in all people, regardless of the labels they use. A bit, he teased, like planting a flag on the moon.

He also pointed out that seeing this fundamental mind is a temporary experience and that we inevitably return back into normal life. However, once seen, it will change one’s way of relating to the world. The great problem, though, is how attainment of this fundamental mind can be taught. No matter what is said about it, it is not it.

So Buddhist teachings are like radio stations. We can switch between them, some we will like, some not, but the point is the silence beneath. Using the analogy of the diamond in the mud, Phra Pandit said that reaching it through purification or reaching it through realisation were simply differences in emphasis.

Chong Go Sunim agreed, pointing out how the Buddha’s teachings, using another analogy, are like medicine. And no single medicine is good for all illnesses. So a range of Buddhist teachings developed according to the needs of listeners. Different Sutras, in fact, are simply saying, “okay, let me put it like this, now like this”.

But the point to all these teachings is to transcend the limited sense of self, and Chong Go Sunim described how his own teacher, Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, emphasises the practice of letting go. Like chanting, bowing, and meditation, he said, it is a tool for transcending the self, and a self-correcting one at that.

Often, he said, people have great meditation experiences or insights, but make the mistake of saying “wow, I want that again”. Soon, they are carrying around little more than a memory of a past experience. By practicing letting go, they are able to move on from it. But to carry out this practice requires trust.

Which is where Buddha-nature comes in. Chong Go Sunim, before he became a monk, used to sky-dive, and he explained that no matter how badly you might be spinning through the air, simply getting into the correct position allows you to right yourself. In terms of practice, that position is the act of trusting and letting go.

“Perhaps this is all just a skillful means” Chong Go Sunim said, “but I can’t say it’s not true” and with the way that one’s ignorance grows back again and again, just like a monk’s hair, one must return to this practice over and over. Like the the Diamond Sutra, he concluded, which seems to repeat itself, but at deeper levels.

The evening ended with a short time for questions and answers and in response to one question Chong Go Sunim, using the large bell at the front of the Dharma Hall, demonstrated, to an audience of mainly English-speaking Bangkok residents, the sound of a Korean chant. The perfect way to round off a unique and wonderful evening of Dharma.

Link:
LittleBang: the English-language Bangkok Sangha