Sunday, February 19, 2006

two hours of Hyeon-gak

I went to Hwagye-sa with my father today and met up with D, an old EC coworker of mine. We three had a quick lunch at the Outback Steakhouse by Suyu Station, then Dad and I hopped into a cab while D took his scooter over to the temple. This was to be Dad's first time seeing a Buddhist temple in action-- not merely as something pretty to photograph.

We were told the dharma talk would be entirely in Korean-- something of a disappointment for Dad, I suppose. We got to the dharma hall about 15 minutes early; the place was already crowded, but ended up becoming so crowded that the bosal-nim* up front took the mike and asked us all to scoot forward to make more room for the throng of latecomers.

Hyeon-gak himself was "fashionably late," as D smirkingly observed, but his talk was quite good. I didn't understand every single thing he said, but he touched on a sufficient number of familiar themes for me to be able to follow without too much difficulty. Many of his points were illustrated by multiple anecdotes, which also aided comprehension.

This was the first time I'd heard Hyeon-gak speak entirely in Korean, and it was great to see that the rumors were true: his Korean is indeed quite fluent. His accent remained as Joisey as ever, but pronunciation isn't everything when you're judging fluency. I'd say my own pronunciation, while far from perfect, is better than Hyeon-gak's, but my lack of knowledge of the necessary vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic expressions would make me unable to duplicate Hyeon-gak's two-hour feat.

Hyeon-gak covered a number of topics, the central theme of which was the core teaching of the Diamond Sutra. Perhaps the two most important teachings for today boiled down to, "This very moment is already perfect," and "no-self is the basic reality." Hyeon-gak spoke for an hour, then took an hour's worth of questions. Many of the questions were answered with a slam of his stick on the lion's throne; other questions were answered with characteristic wit and humor.

Some random notes from the talk, then:

1. Many religions teach that this world is somehow imperfect, but that's not true: this very moment is already perfect.

2. Everything you need to know about the Diamond Sutra is contained in its first chapter. In it, you see the Buddha's mindful behavior as he performs each action deliberately, one at a time.

3. Regarding no-self: people say this teaching is difficult, but in truth, it's just the way things are. The "I" is a fake "I."

4. When asked why he had chosen to follow the path of Korean Buddhism as opposed to other Buddhisms, Hyeon-gak said, "Why do I drink coffee and not something else? Why do you have the friends you have? Why are you Korean?" (laughter)

5. When asked by one lady (who was obviously kissing ass) why he didn't run for president in the US, Hyeon-gak replied that he didn't want the job, and that it was a far better thing for a person like him (or like us) to be meditating and practicing, even if only for ten minutes a day.

6. We often go through our day with many minds. Hyeon-gak gave an example from his own experience of being at his office in Korea and talking with someone in Korean about an extremely important matter, then being interrupted by a phone call from New York (conversation in Korean), then being interrupted by another phone call from Boston (conversation in English), and finally being interrupted by a second visitor right there in his office. The only way to get through such times, Hyeon-gak advised, was by keeping one mind, not by splitting the mind into many minds and being distracted.

7. When one questioner looked confused after receiving Hyeon-gak's "stick thump" as an answer, Hyeon-gak riffed off the man's confusion, noting that he'd been asked a similar question by someone else at a different dharma talk, and that he had given his stick-answer. At the time, a pigeon had flown into the dharma hall. When Hyeon-gak thumped his stick that day, the questioner had looked confused, but the pigeon had taken flight immediately. To the questioner before him at today's dharma talk, Hyeon-gak said, "That pigeon understood what I was saying better than that man did!"

8. The stick-thump is part of Zen's wordless teaching. Hyeon-gak returned to this nondiscursive theme several times, both in his talk and during the Q&A period. While he was talking, a temple bell rang outside, and Hyeon-gak said, "Compared to everything I've said here today, that bell's teaching is greater." He stopped to listen to the bell until it had said its piece.

9. When asked how he had felt when he had first shaved his head, Hyeon-gak said, "I knew I was doing this for you." Classic Mahayana answer.

10. To my delight, Hyeon-gak at one point focused on the same passage of the Diamond Sutra I had quoted in an earlier post. But whereas I had been using the text to talk about the mind "having no address," Hyeon-gak's focus was on what the text had to say about the doctrine of no-self (mu-a in Sino-Korean) in general.

11. Hyeon-gak used an illustration from the Bible, the story of the widow's mite, to make a point about what is truly great.

12. The dharma talk featured a lot of "finger pointing to the moon" imagery.

Many other things were said, but I can't remember them all. It would have been poor taste to take notes during the dharma talk, but my inner academic was sorely tempted to do so. Good thing I had no pen or paper with me.

I had thought I'd be meeting Sperwer today, but it turns out he skipped the 1PM Korean-language talk in favor of Hyeon-gak's 3PM English-language talk, which means he got in his two hours of zazen (1-3PM) while Dad, D, and I took the lazy route-- listening without meditating. Sperwer called me later in the afternoon to say he was going to be having dinner with Hyeon-gak (how the hell did he manage that?). I wonder how much of the dinner conversation will appear on Sperwer's fine blog.

In all, an interesting day.

*The Korean word bosal indicates a bodhisattva, but is used less cosmically in Korean Buddhism to refer as well to the laywomen who have various caretaking roles in a temple. Robert Buswell's The Zen Monastic Experience offers some descriptions of these women's daily lives.



Hecknoman said...

Would it have been bad form to bring a pocket tape recorder and keep it out of sight?

Anonymous said...

i've seen people at numerous temples, in korea and the usa, take notes during dharma talks. i never imagined it to be out of line....go for it.