July 2021 Sesshin, Day 1: The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim
8:58PM Aug 4, 2021
Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede
This is day one of this July 2021, seven day sesshin - first sesshin at Chapin Mill in a year and a half - first session since the pandemic drove us out of here in March of 2020. We go back to one of my favorite texts, and I hope it is of others as well from the Korean Zen tradition. The book is called the way of Korean Zen. And it's by 20th century Korean master Kusan Sunim. Sunim is sort of the Korean equivalent of Roshi or maybe sensei I'm not sure.
And start off with the the biographical sketch of this master Pusan? Yeah, that's what, Sunni? Probably Yeah, the translator is translating as master. His dates are 1909 to 1983. So sort of 38 years ago, he died. And in the end, the book is
it's the book was translated by Martine bachelor that's his former wife, ex wife of Steven bachelor. I've met both of them at some conferences. Both very, very sincere. practitioners. kusatsu name was born near a town in the southwest of Korea. In 1909. I just put him just born three years before Roshi Kapleau. His parents owned a farm and family life was centered around work in the fields. His parents were Buddhist. He attended classes at the local Confucian School, where he studied the Chinese classics until he was about 15. And then, when he left school, he continued to help on the family farm and worked as a barber until the age of 29. He also was married during this time, before the age of 29. Interestingly, he studied the Chinese classics, which you wouldn't expect of a farmer or a barber
is from an early age he had been drawn to manette monasticism. She quotes him here, when I was nine years old, I remember thinking, could it be possible for someone to be without birth and death? Was it possible to have unlimited powers to move freely through the sky and on the earth? such thoughts made me want to go and live with the monks in the mountains. But the fear of missing my parents prevented me from leaving home than when I was 20. I also considered such a life. But I was not sufficiently determined. fear of missing my parents. I can relate. When I first came to the center, I asked Roshi Kapleau to ordain me as a celibate monk after a couple of couple three years, and he agreed to do so. And those days, he wanted to stick to the Chinese system of real celibacy but, but that system also meant cutting off ties from your family. When I he agreed to ordain me right before we went into a seven day session and I, I was just all in turmoil during that session, thinking, not about celibacy, I was already celibate but picking up how I could, how it would have to say goodbye to my, to my parents and my five sisters. This is what really weighed on me. And I came out of sesshin. And I said, I just can't do that. And then it was a year or two after that, that he realized that. For us, United States, that system of celibacy and renouncing one's family just wasn't working. And that's when he agreed to follow the Japanese system of allowing the ordain priest to either married or not.
At the age of 26, he was stricken by a severe illness that caused him a great deal of pain. When a friend saw him in this condition, this friend was also a devout Buddhist, late layman. He asked them since the abode of the self nature is originally pure, where does your illness lie?
These words had a deep effect on Pusan. You know, so much of this, this. So much of what we hear a teacher say or a friend or anyone, it doesn't matter who whether how it affects us depends very much on timing. One's readiness. For it more most, for most people, they're in serious illness hear a question like this since the abode of the self nature is originally pure. Where does your Where does your illness lie? I probably most people would just wash over them. It would be so miserable, but not with Pusan at this time. They must have been into him. And, and and Jen engendered a questioning or at least further stimulated questioning, or what we call doubt in Zen, a questioning that had already gotten already been going.
So he decided, even while he was still sick to go to certain monastery to recite the Kononenko. No, not the kianga, the mantra of avalokiteshvara delicatessen bar is the Indian original Indian name for condone or Guan Yin. But this is this is more of the the Tibetan mantra on money plumbing home, radio in my pilgrimage to Tibet, this is everywhere everywhere, you'd see Tibetan Buddhists fingering their rosaries and chanting all Moneyball my own own money, buy my own money, pour my own. Interesting that this, he made this Tibetan practice. I've never heard of it in Chinese or Japanese and that he made this part of his practice and he was probably convinced that this was a special mantra or a special chant that would cure him from from from his illness. And he did this for 100 days. And then it says after completing this 100 days This mantra, he found himself cured of his illness.
A skeptical person hearing this might think well, might have been cured anyway, even without reciting all that he will never know well, we. But this experience really strengthened greatly strengthened his faith in the Dharma. It was three years later that he became convinced that he should dedicate his life to the full time practice of the teaching of the Buddha. So we left home and family and started traveling to various monasteries, in order to find a teacher. He went to 11 different temples. And he finally came to songza
where he met all this stuff there, he finally came to song alongside and there's a description here. I thought just to sort of give you some context. Song Guang saw this is this is the editor Steven bachelor, who provided this song gangsaw is reached by a narrow, unpaved road that winds gently up from the valley below. The monastery itself is nestled in a circle of steep forested hills, insulated by nature from the disturbances of the outside world. The monastery complex complex itself is formed around a spacious square courtyard. Does that sound familiar? Though I bet it is more spacious than ours. Here. This open space is dominated by the Buddha Hall.
pressive wooden structure mounted with an imposing yet delicate Chinese style slate roof as with most of the temple buildings in the monastery, its walls are colourful, decorated with figures from the Buddhist Pantheon. Scenes from the lives of famous monks as well as landscapes. The ceiling is adorned with a profusion of multicolored interweaving patterns and motifs. Here we see one of the the differences between Korean Zen style and Chinese and Japanese. Although Chinese from my pilgrimage to China, there was more color and more more elaborate decorations than in Japan. In Japan, it's more the emphasis on this the natural the wood. around the central courtyard are smaller temples of similar design dedicated to different Bodhisattvas There are also a dining and a kitchen area, living quarters for the monks and rooms for guests. So no mentioned there, the meditation hall zendo. But until now, immediately behind the main Buddha Hall and elevated some 50 feet up on the hillside lies another group of buildings. This is where the meditation hall a like a large lecture room, a couple of small temples and the quarters of the Zen master are located. The area is sealed off from the rest of the monastery and is only accessible to those monks undergoing training in Zen meditation. it overlooks the entire monastery and offers a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and mountains.
I'll just continue reading here, where he bachelor sets the whole scene once a monk has been formally be accepted into the community. He then moves into the meditation hall and installs what few possessions he has in a locker. According to the length of time that is, according to his seniority, he is assigned a place in one of the two rows of meditation cushions that run down the length of the hall. This is where he will sit facing the wall in meditation during the day and lie down to sleep at night. This was also true are one of the two temples I trained at in Japan, a rinzai temple where we would sleep in the zendo we would sleep in the zendo during sesshin. And outside sesshin people had their own rooms or sharing rooms. Still now in the zendo, the the hallways and meditation hall is uncluttered and spacious. The walls and ceiling are white. Okay, so now we've moved off all of the extravagant colors and forms because we're in meditation hall. And this is most interesting to me in the middle of the long back wall is a small altar small altar above which hangs a mirror. Symbol symbolizing true mind always intrigued me.
I never heard about that in in Merseyside in China or in Japan. Maybe someday we should, we should try it. Of course the mirror would be high enough that you're not grooming yourself in the mirror. The floor is covered with varnished Yellow Ochre paper and is heated from below by a woodfire. That's that's what they're famous for in Korea that fires under the floor stone floor. keep it warm. The doors are just sliding paper screen same as Japan. After dusk, a dull electric lamp is used. There are a minimum of external objects to distract the monk from his meditation. Alright, let's get back to this journey of Pusan who lands here this song Gong sir. And that's where he met the man who would become his own master. Holborn su name. Now we're going to shift over to a little bit about Holborn cousens teacher says he was one of the most remarkable Buddhist teachers of this century in Korea, that is the 20th century. He was born in 1888. He had studied law and during the Japanese occupation, he was the first Korean who was permitted to become a judge. It means he must have been very compliant and obedient if the if the Japanese occupation would let them be a judge. Since many Koreans strongly resisted the Japanese rule, he was often forced to pass judgment on fellow Koreans accused of anti Japanese activities. And this you can as you can imagine, became a growing source of conflict for him. Well, he managed to soldier on with this as this job as a judge for 10 years. And then a case came up in which he was forced to sense the prisoner to death. This really shook him and caused him to question deeply what rights he had to impose corporal punishment on others. He began to doubt the validity of the entire legal system and the society that supported it. So one day he decided he couldn't, couldn't take it any longer. without telling anyone without telling anyone suddenly left his work and home and became a wandering toffee cellar toffee is a type of taffy candy continuing on here about Holborn, not Pusan Hogan. For the next three years, he drifted through the country barely supporting himself by selling toffee. All this time he reflected upon how he could lead a true and honest human life. Let's see how old would he have been? He's born in 1888. This was during the occupation. I don't know. He was not awfully young. Oh, here. He was 39 he finally decided to enter a monastery and start practicing Zen. He was ordained at 39. And this late start late, that is compared to the norm. Impact impelled him to practice with great fervor. For many years, he stayed in retreat, concentrating solely on resolving the koan Mu when he was 43, so that's five years of that. He built himself a tiny hermitage, and sealed himself inside. He left just one small hole in the wall through which food could be passed in and out.
This is something you also read about in Tibetan Buddhism, is hermits living in a little cell like that. And he he if he kept this up for a year and a half in complete solitude. I hope there was a pandemic during that year and a half. So you didn't miss anything for finally his mind's eye open and he realized that At last, all of his doubts had been resolved. During the next 30 years, this semester, Hall bone became a widely known and respected teacher, and is eventually appointed the spiritual head of the chogha order. I think it's from what I've read, it's the most prominent of the Korean Zen orders, the cegui order. And now back to Pusan meeting. Whoa, obong. Busan told him you wish to become a monk and asked him to take him as a disciple. Master Whoa, bong agreed, instructed, instructed him in the koan Mo. Now, let me just hear a sidebar. The translator renders Mu, as no.
And that's, that's widely. Generally, that's how Mu and woo woo was the original Chinese. This is a Chinese. Joshua was a Chinese Master, Zhao, Joe. And that little exchange where the monk asked us even a dog have Buddha nature and the the real Chinese, Zhao Joe said, woo, the Japanese made it Mu. I don't know what the Koreans made it, but it's translated here is No. But I've heard from a couple of sources that that's possibly not a great translation, no or not. Better one I heard, I read about in a book of foreign attracted translations of foreign words and phrases. Was that Mu and Whoo, I mean, it's not what you think. It's not. What do you think? Whatever you think it is. It's not because that's thinking.
I'm going to make it mo instead of know, if it's if it's repeated here. Eight months later, after being assigned the koan Mu, he became.
Now it says he received ordination and entered the meditation hall. Okay, little confusion there. And then, at the age of 31 he became full was fully ordained as a celibate monk bhikshu. For from the beginning, this Master crewson was only interested in the practice of Zen, and never attended a sutra school to study the Buddhist sutras. And these are his words, I chose to enter the Zen school, because I thought that through meditation, I would be able to free myself from birth and death, and gain the power to transform this world into a Buddha realm. It is a Buddha transforming into a Buddha realm, where he we could the way we can understand this is to, is to see with new eyes, to see this world for all of its terrible suffering, as ultimately, something pure and luminous and wondrous, and unfathomable and glorious. Even while not denying the terrible suffering.
To continue with his words, in the sutra schools, one is only told about cultivating the mind and awakening. I felt that we better to actually realize these things instead. Okay, that's, that's what we all have in common with cusano. All of us here, we wouldn't be here otherwise, would we be reading somewhere in here, in sesshin, we read ourselves.
As soon as he took up the practice of Zen meditation, he did so she writes with a tremendous resolve and determination. And again, here are cousens words. When I started meditating, I was firmly convinced that I would be able to complete the practice within the three months of the first retreat period, their retreats, are 90 days. They're not as intense they're not as strict as our seven day sessions. It's still 90 days of extra sitting. He writes, he says, I exerted myself to the point where I no longer cared whether I lived or died. This remember my early years of practice hearing this I no longer cared whether I lived or died, I assumed it was hyperbole. How could you reach a point where you you no longer cared whether you lived or died. But then later, as my practice on Mu, ripened, I understood and felt the same way. But then the three months for drawing to an end, and he says, I had still not realized my goal course that means enlightenment. I wanted to die since I felt it was it was no longer worth living. My life is no longer worth living. Once while doing standing meditation in order to prevent drowsiness, that's another thing that they do in Korean Zen when you become terribly drowsy in the in the zendo, you have the option of standing where you're less likely to be succumb to drowsiness. Once when he was doing the standing, he said I thought of drowning myself or throwing myself off a high cliff. But at that very moment, a huge snow capped mountain appeared before me. And this somehow shook him out of his misery or self pity, and he made him remember that the Buddha himself Shakyamuni had practiced for six full years at the feet of just such mountains. I then realized that it was somewhat presumptuous for me to want to complete my training in three months. So then he renounced his intention to die, and redoubled his efforts.
And then, the account here says that during the following years, cusano continued to pursue his practice fierce fiercely. After spending a number of seasons in various meditation halls, he decided he needed the solitude of a hermitage in order to be able to concentrate himself fully on his practice. And so he would spend his time in small remote hermitages, often completely by himself. So taking a page from his teachers efforts. Again, these are cousens words at these times when I was hungry, I would find something to eat. When thirsty, I would drink. When the room was cold, I would light a fire under the floor. I tried to practice as hard as I could, and would sleep very little.
His disciples recall that in those days, Pusan was a very stern and even frightening figure. He would demand exemplary conduct from all the younger students of his teacher, and urge them to work hard all day and meditate through the night. He would constantly remind them that they never knew when they might die. They would be finished. Should the mere breath in their nostrils come to a stop?
Yeah, so what he was doing was trying to foster a more acute awareness in the monks of the fragility of life precariousness of this life, just the breath in our nostrils, stopping there. It's it
at all times, is since birth itself is just hanging on by that thread, the breath this delicate,
mysterious process. Inhaling and exhaling. Inhaling and exhaling
this breath that that has its own remarkable intelligence where even through the night when we're sound asleep, the breath enters the lungs and it's expelled. It enters the lungs and is expelled without us doing it. No control, no intention beyond us. It's beyond the self bigger than the self having its own mandate. What is that really what is this breath that keeps us going moment after moment. Month after month, year after year.
It goes on to say if he, if a young monk were to waste even a few grains of rice, or a single cabbage leaf, you know, cabbage is very big and Korea kimchi, Pusan would punish him or make him go without food for the rest of the day. Without being that punitive we also is something we want to maintain is this strong emphasis ins and Zen and not wasting. not wasting electricity, gas without wasting food, especially without wasting water. But especially food
can't be perfect with this as any any head cook at a sesshin or outside sesshin has any hook head cook knows, you can't be perfect about this and you can, you can go too far and too extreme. But we make our best effort to not be careless honor, honor this food, which like breath keeps us alive. So that we can practice so we can realize the self nature.
It says his first important experience in meditation occurred after he had been sitting continuously for seven days, with the intense resolve to awaken before the memorial ceremony that came at the end of those seven days. So it was something but it says here however, he did not consider this a true awakening. He These are his words, while meditating. such experiences sometimes happen. You could say it was a certain opening of the mind's eye. It was the transition over a difficult step that enabled me to first gain admittance to the door. Perhaps you could call it an initial breakthrough. It showed that my practice was progressing well.
So he had the maturity or at least in retrospect, he had the maturity to recognize that this is not any great crowning experience. That means your work is done. And that's that's what I try to remind people of when they have passed their first call on Mu or who What is this? That Yeah, it's it's an initial breakthrough initial years Lifetime's of work yet to do.
He then went to a small hermitage. He stayed there for three years, and in 1946, he experienced a major breakthrough. This occurred after he had entered a state in which for 15 days he lost any sense of the outside world. He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died. He was so absorbed in his meditation, that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests. After this, he came down to the main temple and delivered a formal Dharma discourse to the monks. And he described he recorded his experience this major awakening in the following verse. Look at the front of the near it is completely dark. Look at the back and it is brilliantly clear. Looking at the front, it is not the front. Looking at the back, it is also not the back when both front and back are shattered. And truly one has a great complete mirror.
Front, back form, emptiness. And we chanted this morning and affirming faith in mind. What is is not what is not is
we'll have to leave it there for today and we'll stop now and recite the four vows.