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My Visit to Korea - Encountering the Spirit of Zen Buddhism:
Stinging Truths - Humiliation, Humility and Revelation

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by Father John Alexis Viereck

Last spring as community faith coordinator for the Great LA Clean Up, I organized a 24 hour inter-faith vigil for the healing of Los Angeles on the anniversary of the 1992 riots. One of the participants was the Venerable Jong Mae Park. We both shared a strong commitment to interfaith work and to racial religious, and community healing through the common ground of the experienced spirit. I had found a spiritual brother.

In my tradition as a Christian universalist, I had always thought of the Buddha as the elder brother of the Christ. He had come before and taught the nature and source of suffering and the way of unattachment, the noble 8-fold path to enlightenment. I liked the Buddhist emphasis on no personal salvation apart from that of the community of all sentient beings. I felt that the Buddha's teaching about unattachment and the light were a necessary precursor and the foundation for the Christ's teaching of unconditional love, that is love without attachment.

However, my actual experience of Buddhism did not go beyond these intellectual concepts. So when a few months later, out of the blue Jong Mae told me he was going to Korea and invited me to be his guest, I was over joyed and could hardly believe my good fortune. I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to go on pilgrimage to the very source of Korean Buddhism.

The 14 day trip would include visits with his dharma brothers in the Pusan temple, warrior monk temple, Kwan-Yin temple, and the temple of the Bodhisattva of Harmony with Nature,
as well as the Sokuram Grotto and the Kirim-Sa Temple in Kyongjiu, a tour of Seoul and a week's stay at Hwaumsa: his home temple. I set my intention to meet the heart and spirit of Buddhism and invoked the living experience of this path and its implications for my own life and service. Little did I know what I was getting myself into!

The Buddhist belief is that the Buddha nature is innate in all of us. It is not something to be searched for or striven after as some external goal, but rather the emergence of our true nature. The spiritual discipline and training is to remove what stands in the way of our Buddha nature's self-revelation. What stands in the way are our attachments to anything other than our Buddha nature, instincts, or ego and especially attachment to either pole of the swing between the pairs of opposites that characterizes the phenomenal world (pain / pleasure, happiness / sadness, etc.).

The state of realized unattachment is what is meant by "enlightenment". It is characterized by emptiness. It is however not an emptiness of loss or absence, but a living emptiness in which at all times all things, all respondings, all givings and all receivings are possible, precisely because there are no attachments, no anything having to be a particular way. It is a state of equi-animity, literally, "equal-mindedness", because not drawn to (any) this or that. To live in this state is also to be aware of the sufferings of all sentient beings because of their attachments. And so it is an emptiness that is imbued with a boundless compassion, and the ability to respond ( respond-ability! ) with whatever is needed for the liberation of all sentient beings.

I had the opportunity to meet several monks who were recognized by the community as having achieved the enlightenment that the Buddha achieved. What characterized all of them were these 3 qualities, emptiness, equanimity, and compassion, along with a simplicity of life that comes from paring the ego down to its essential functions.

My own previous training and development has been a gentle heart approach drawing on the feminine and love aspects of spirit. Spiritual development was by feeding and nurturing the qualities of spirit we wish to develop, in the belief that whatever we water will grow, whatever we don't water will die away. I experienced the Korean Buddhist approach as coming from the opposite pole of spirit, drawing more on spiritual will and power, and more male aspects of spirit, a kind of physical, emotional and mental sandblasting. Destroy everything and whatever remains is the Buddha mature. It was a salutary and shocking experience for me.

I had expected to grow further along the lines I was already developed in. Instead all the impediments to my own further spiritual development and service were made painfully clear to me. I was confronted with my areas of greatest weakness and attachment and shown what I didn't know at all. My separativeness and selfishness, my tightness around money, my fear and need to control my environment and interactions, my mental arrogance and spiritual pride, my ego and emotional attachments, were all brought stingingly home to me. It was like going from sixth grade to junior high school. I felt humiliated. My Buddha nature rejoiced!

The first stinging truth was quite literally a stinging truth.
Some examples:
While doing the half of meditation I know well, I am hit with the half I don't know at all.

While at the Hwamsa temple, Jong Mae took me one day to the zen meditation training retreat building where the monks would meditate facing a blank wall for sixteen hours a day. He suggested I try meditating there to see what it feels like. I got in meditation position facing the wall, closed my eyes, and turned inward. A few minutes later Jong Mae snuck up on me and hit me on the shoulder. Startled I jerked out of my "meditative" state immediately. He pointed out to me that to be in a truly meditative state is to be so totally persent that nothing can upset one's equilibrium. I realized that in my meditative practice, I was concentrating on shutting out the physical world and focusing completely on an inner space. Rather than expanding my ability to be present, I was cultivating absence! I had a long ways to go.
Making a fool of myself in front of the head of the community.

Some days after arriving a special audience was arranged with the head of the community. A man recognized as having achieved enlightenment and with a great deal of political power, he combined the wily watchful expression of a Machiavelli with the laughing eyes of a Bodhisattva. I was excited by this opportunity and also socially very nervous. I had this idea in my head about delivering some word about the unity of the Christ and the Maitreya Buddha. Instead he started interrogating me about the nature of religion. I was quite taken aback. I eventually responded by distinguishing spirit from religion, observing that religions were simply different paths in to the one center that is spirit. He didn't ask me any more. I found out later that by answering with ideas about religion and with my mind, I was simply demonstrating, however intelligently, my own mental attachment and identification with mind.....
A stinging truth wakes me up.

A few days before we were to leave, I had my first chance to be on my own, as up to this time I went everywhere and did everything with Jong Mae. I decided to go for a walk up the mountain outside the Temple compound. In about half an hour I came upon a great rock about 25 feet high sitting in the midst of a mountain stream, that had a most strong aura as a holy place and from the writing on its base and the place for offerings, showed signs of being a shrine of very long standing. I was immediately drawn to it and in very Yankee fashion decided to climb to the top. I was about ten feet up and holding onto a small tree to keep my balance on the steep face when I noticed a few teet above me a small opening in the rock. As I idly took it in, I realized the insects flying in and out were in fact very large bees and it suddenly dawned on me that this was a beehive. At that moment 3 bees at least 2 or 3 inches long, the size of wasps, flew out at me like divebombers straight into my face. Before I could even blink, one stung me inside my nose, another on the side of my cheek right through into my mouth and a third under my chin. Flailing with my hands, I stumbled back down the side of the rock, my whole face on fire, somehow making it to the bottom without falling. After deciding I wasn't going into anaphylatic shock from the stings and calming down a little.

I am "awake" for a day.

Fear of loss of this state causes me to lose all I had gained and, as I realize what I have done, I experienced shame and humiliation before the spiritual leader of the community in whose presence I had felt so honored and affirmed only 12 hours before.

Concluded with other aspects of Korea. The 3 qualities of the culture and need to bring them into relationship with each other - group materialism (capitalism alive and well), Buddhism, fierce earth spirituality/the original shamanism/the Bon. The generosity of the people.****

1-10,1994


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