Sunday, February 12, 2006

un week-end mouvementé

Along with the powerblogging, I've had plenty of stuff to do this weekend:

1. extra work for a buddy of mine
2. shopping for DVDs for my upcoming Movie English class
3. planning the Movie English curriculum
4. writing up lesson plans for my Intensive 2 Conversation class
5. writing up skit scripts for the same class (we're performing a skit for the end of term; the other Intensive classes are doing the same as well)
6. preparing for the imminent arrival of my father, who's taking military hops to get here courtesy of Uncle Sam (ah, the benefits of being a retired E-8)

On Friday I had the chance to eat a rib-sticking dwaeji-kalbi lunch with Nathan Bauman of Seoul Hero, and just today I spent a couple hours meditating at Hwagye-sa with the inimitable Sperwer, who also brought me over to his pad to meet his adorable daughter and to chow down on some fantastic home-made Italian grub. I'm still bloated from that experience-- a day that began with middle-way intentions ended in the wholesale slaughter of penne pasta with red sauce, Caesar salad, and great bread.

The dharma talk today was by the two resident Eastern European monks, whom I've seen many times before. I can never remember the name of the serious, senior Polish dude. The other monk, Bo Haeng sunim, who I think is Lithuanian (Sperwer's surmise as well), claimed his talk was about "life and death." He covered a wide range of topics, actually: the problems with practicing too hard, how to handle the deaths of loved ones, the lack of wisdom among those who talk about the dharma (the Polish monk smiled at this, as he was next up to talk), and a few vignettes about the Kwaneum order's founder, Seung Sahn.

Of those vignettes, the one that struck me most was in response to a question from a Korean man in our group. The man had two children in their twenties, and he was worried because they were both influenced by Christianity, while he and his wife were still practicing Buddhists. "My children might want to bring home prospective spouses who are Christian. What can I tell my children to get them thinking correctly?" he asked (or something to that effect).

Bo Haeng's answer was a story from Seung Sahn's early days at a Zen center outside Korea. Apparently, some gentleman, a super-dedicated practitioner, was causing his family a lot of grief: he'd want to meditate from 8 to 9AM every Sunday, and he demanded that the family be absolutely quiet. When they weren't, he'd storm about telling them to SHUT UP! The family members finally complained to Seung Sahn that the man's Zen practice was causing them suffering. Seung Sahn called the man in and wasted no time yelling at him: "Your most important Zen practice is loving your family!" How easily we miss the point of practice, eh? "So first, love your children," Bo Haeng told his Korean listener.

A lot of people today seemed to be missing the point in some way or other. As per usual, many of these people had not shown up for seated meditation; they had come only for the dharma talk (Bo Haeng shook his finger a few times at such people). Both monks noted that lack of practice leads to the sorts of useless questions being asked. Neither monk gave particularly satisfactory answers to the questions they heard, but that's pretty consistent with the Zen monks I've heard elsewhere: in the end, you can't expect to be spoon-fed an answer.

One girl in particular seemed intent on asking question after question; Sperwer later noted that the monks showed "remarkable restraint" in how they dealt with her. The flatly declarative tone of her questions, and the fact that she kept interrupting both monks, indicated that she was more about the business of telling than asking. We all have those moments, I suppose, but most of us retain enough awareness to know when we're overstepping our bounds. This girl had no such clue, and the Polish monk eventually closed his eyes and said, "Hannah, I like your questions, but you have to give other people time to ask theirs." Bodhisattva ethic: consider others. It doesn't matter how loftily intellectual you are if you're prone to forgetting the basics of what it means to be human.

Hannah's questions were a strange combination of technical discourse and impertinent accusation. At one point, she proclaimed, "Zen is Taoism." Made me wonder if she'd been reading Ray Grigg. "Zen is not Taoism," said the Polish monk. Perhaps he said that merely to shake her tree, or maybe he really meant it. Hannah didn't like Bo Haeng's negative comments about Muslim behavior on the news (Bo Haeng was in no way casting aspersions on Islam as a whole; he was noting the same thing I've been trying to note-- that such behavior is abysmally stupid), and she said, "But if we practice sincerely, then we have to be believe that we are all one, so we can't make distinctions!"

Hannah betrayed a naive understanding of what the nondualistic "one" means for a Zen Buddhist. "One," in the Buddhist nondualistic sense, isn't really approachable through the discursive. It's certainly not the numerical "one" to which Hannah was referring. The numerical one is still dualistic: one as opposed to two, or one as opposed to three, or one as opposed to nothing. Nondualism is not monism.

Hannah is right to see Taoist themes in Zen, but she should have known better than to come to a dharma talk looking for technical answers to questions she could research on her own. The monks are, as always, interested in dealing with the person-- with Hannah herself, and her situation. Neither monk's answers were intended to make her (or any other questioners) comfortable, but to throw the questioners' questions back on themselves. This is the style of monkish compassion.

I did admire Hannah's doggedness, though. While she was manifesting a certain amount of ego in her rudeness and attachment to her own ideas, she was also un-self-conscious in her aggressive hunt for answers. I think the monks admired that as well, however exasperated they might have been.

The monks dealt ably with all questions, but as I noted before, not everyone was happy with the answers they received. One shy Korean woman, freaked out after reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead following the death of a relative, didn't seem too pleased with the incomplete answer she got from the Polish monk, who truthfully proclaimed himself ignorant of many aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. He congratulated the lady on her fear of death ("The stupidity all humans share is to think death is far off"), and told her she should try living mindfully in the present ("Keep this moment," he said). The lady smiled and bowed, but the look on her face said she wasn't comforted.

People often make the Marxian mistake of thinking religion is primarily about comfort or refuge-- an opiate for the alienated masses. It can be an opiate, to be sure, but religion is many other things as well. Sometimes it's the kick in the ass that gets you moving in the right direction-- toward love and compassion and altruism, as opposed to hate and evil conduct and selfishness. Today, I think, we saw a good example of religion's better traits. Compassion, despite certain leftist myths to the contrary, doesn't always take a tender form, and isn't always about coddling and being sensitive to others' feelings.

I had my own pride issues to deal with during meditation. Having long ago given up on the half-lotus (thanks to fat thighs, my left foot keeps slipping off the top of my right leg), I usually do the so-called "monk's posture," which involves cheating a bit: your left calf is simply placed atop your right calf, such that your left foot is resting partly on your right knee, not tucked in the fold of your hip as the lotus requires. This is far more comfortable for me, but it still cuts off circulation in my left calf. The question then becomes what to do during walking meditation.

Had I listened to my pride today, I would have maintained the posture throughout the first thirty minutes, then risked limping with a sleeping (then tingly) leg during the walking session. Instead, I dropped my left leg and stuck it under my right leg: voilà-- regular Indian style posture. Circulation returned, and I was fine during the walking meditation. I kept that posture for the following sessions of seated meditation.

My second bout with pride occurred as I felt a tickle in my throat approaching "cough" status. Not good. The question that formed in my mind was: if the coughing gets bad, what should I do? Then I remembered the lesson of snot, and suddenly everything was better. I let go of the problem and kept on meditating.

And now I'm home. Tonight, I'm finishing up a lot of my to-do list, so the next thing you'll see from me will be Chapter 24 of "Smells Like Golgotha."

PS: Hyeon-gak sunim is giving a dharma talk next Sunday at Hwagye-sa, at 1PM. I expect it'll be crowded. He'll be using the main dharma hall and not the smaller Zen Center for his talk. Come one, come all-- but most important, come early. I'm thinking of bringing my own cushion next week: I imagine they're going to run out of cushions at the temple. Hyeon-gak is something of a celebrity here: an American Zen monk from the Kwaneum order who speaks Korean pretty fluently, but with a heavy New Jersey accent.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've visited Hwageysa; there were a few other foreigners there the time I went with Chae Young. By the way, it was nice to eat lunch with you the other day, Kevin!