in a rut


      I think my one issue with studying Buddhism in Korea is that Seon (the Korean word for Zen) is nearly the only thing that’s commonly accessible. Seon/Zen came out of the Mahayana tradition and exists in other traditions but usually isn’t approached for a long time. In Himalayan Buddhism, there are about twenty years of teachings before the student is fully prepared to study emptiness. Korean Seon seems to have an approach of, “just do it, NOW!” when it comes to realizing emptiness. For some people, it’s possible. Nearly every generation of Korean Buddhist have had at least  a couple practitioners who have attained realizations of Seon to become great teachers. For others though, it’s kind of like sitting at the foot of a mountain and trying to summit without moving.

      I used to think that Korean Christians had a bit of a mixed up view of Buddhism, but then I started meeting a lot of Buddhist here who really believe that Buddha and Avalokiteśvara are really Gods. I’m not in a position to say what is correct or incorrect, but I must stop myself from cringing every time I hear my wife tell me not to do something because Buddha will be angry! (>_<) I usually reply, “If he got angry, than he wouldn’t be Buddha anymore…” But I suppose that’s a good enough reason not to make him angry, right there! I understand that sociology and other factors can explain the development of and practicality of these beliefs but as far as I’ve learn, when Buddha died, he wasn’t interested in sticking around. He was gone, gone, entirely gone… as the heart Sutra explains it. Avalokiteśvara is a little more difficult to explain though. It’s entirely possible that she/he is based on a historical figure who realized Prajna Paramita (Perfect Wisdom) and the Bodhisattva vow is to remain and help others on their path until we all can ‘go’ together to(?) Nirvana. My criticism then would be that I’ve mostly seen laypeople praying to Avalokiteśvara for things they want, generally money or success in the family (which would lead to money). Isn’t there something more to ask for from the depths of perfect wisdom?? 

      Most of what I’ve learned about the Buddha’s discourse has either been from Joe or from books written by Theravada monks. I had asked my monk friend a couple times about somethings about Buddhism I was curious about, but he quickly brushed off my questions, saying, “That is Hinayana, I don’t like it. Mahayana is better.” I knew nationalism is very strong in Korea, but I hadn’t realized how strong it is in Korean Buddhism also, which explains the lack of other paths. I also felt that the terms Mahayana and Hinayana are a bit pretentious. Mahayana means ‘Great Vehicle’ while Hinayana means ‘Small Vehicle’. ‘Hinayana’ is the Mahayana word for ‘Theravada’, which means “Teaching of the Elders”.  Actually, Theravada and Mahayana are very similar when it comes down to it, and I don’t think one has any reason to look down on the other. It makes me think about having a choice between a Smart car or an SUV. I know it’s not an accurate analogy, but I’d choose the Smart car!  

      I’ve decided that Theravada suits me well, it makes sense to me. My dilemma is that there’s only so far I can go with a book. I realized that I need a teacher to discuss things, and give me some direction. I hope someone who reads this post and disagrees can prove me wrong and send me a list of temples in Korea that have Therevada monks. Joe had found a Korean monk who practiced in Burma and had a temple in Apgujeong, not very far from my home, but he went back to Burma, and at the time I met him I was just beginning my interests and had very little to ask him. Joe told me he may have returned to GwanAk, still not very far away, so I’ll have to see if I can find him. I began this post over a week ago, wanting to touch on the Four Noble Truths, but I might not know enough about it yet to write about it well, then suddenly became bothered with the idea that it’s not something I could really learn about very well in Korea. I think I’ll still try to touch on it anyway and see if I can prove myself wrong… My small understand forces me to keep it simple which is really the best way to build a good foundation for deeper understand, and the blogg is definitely orientated in that fashion. As I learn, maybe my writing can help others at similar levels, which is probably who this blogg is most likely to attract naturally. I’ll consider this post another bump in the road and keep going. *^^*

May we all become Buddhas!

Mahakaput / Great Head


8 responses »

  1. Thank you Joseph,

    Your honesty and openness here is very refreshing. With all your travels in Asia, and experience with Buddhism, and friendships with monks and laypeople, and time in temples, etc, there would be a danger in some people (I’m thinking of me! LOL) of thinking you know all there is to know – and telling people what you know! LOL

    So a post where you say “I don’t know” is very nice.

    And what do the Seon masters say about not knowing?

    By not knowing, by asking, you’re at the foot of the mountain, and, yes, getting to the summit.

    Just enjoy the hike! It doesn’t matter if you’re at the foot, at the top, on the way up, on the way down. Just enjoy a lungfull of good clear mountain air!

    All the best mate,

    Namu Kwan Seum Bosal,


    • Hi Marcus,
      It always makes me happy to see you being the first to respond! thank you! ^^

      I was rolling along quite well until I suddenly had a humbling experience, which did a good job at putting me back in my place.
      Meditating had become a time of the day I really looked forward to until one time I found myself sitting there not knowing what I was doing and not knowing who I could ask. Joe reminded me I should be looking to hard for any major developments in such a short amount of time and try checking again in about 15 years! haha

  2. Hi Joseph,

    My teacher – Zen Master Seung Sahn – used the term Hinayana when referring to the vast and complex tradition that arose from the teachings of the Pali Canon.

    The Theravada tradition is one school of the Hinayana tradition (and the only one that survives today), but there were many others that thrived for hundreds of years. Of course, the term “Hinayana” remains a pejorative and I often use the term “Theravada” when I’m actually referring to the Hinayana tradition.

    Although most of my experience is in Korean Zen, I do know that – in practice – many Theravadan teachers guide students in much the same way as Mahayanan teachers do. There are many differences in technique and form, of course, but the *direction* of the teaching is often the same.

    But not always. I’ve never encountered a Mahayana teacher who taught that the purpose of awakening was to step off the cycle of rebirth. This teaching is common among Theravadan teachers and may, in fact, be the dominant view in that tradition. Still, the Theravadan tradition does include bodhisattvas and at least some sense of helping all beings – it’s simply not at the center of the teachings in the way that it is in Mahayana (and especially Korean Zen).

    Like you, I’ve seen people “pray” to the Buddha for their son to gain admittance to a high-class college. This behavior is not unique to Koreans – it occurs in Thai, Burmese and nearly all other Buddhist cultures.

    That’s because we humans have a natural tendency to look outside of ourselves for happiness. We think that if we can arrange outside conditions “just so,” then our lives will be wonderful!

    Even many of us on the Buddhist path think this way (“If only I could answer this kong-an, then I’d be happy” “If only I had a better teacher, then my practice would develop”). But, of course, the dharma doesn’t work this way. Darn!

    By the way, I’ve seen Theravadan monks practicing occasionally at Mu Sang Sah – during the 3 month Kyol Che retreats. Maybe there’s a way to encounter one of them just before/after those retreat….?

    Okay, enough rambling. Thank you for your post!

    • Hello Barry,
      Thank you for a nice response. I had second thoughts about publishing my post this morning. I felt a bit whiny writing it by the end. After receiving your words, I’m really glad I decided to post it.

      It is strange to develop the thought that “I need a teacher” while I’m sitting in meditation trying to remove craving. It was the first time I ever realized I didn’t know what I was doing sitting there.

      It must have been a great experience learning from Zen Master Seung Sahn. “Wanting Enlightenment is a Big Mistake” was the first Buddhist book I ever read when I first moved to Seoul. I guess I’m basing too much of my opinions on going to YeBul, or things like that. I don’t know very much how more serious practice is guided here. My own practice is a mixed bag of things; some Tibetan chanting, some Korean chanting, occasional bowing… I really became interested in Vippassanna Meditation, and I guess that’s what led to to my present state state of dissatisfaction.

      I remember going with my Thai friend to listen to a monk speak in Bangkok. After speaking he splashed water on all our heads and I thought that was nice but then they all hauled out their wallets for him to bless. I remember being a little confused by it, and my friend made me get out my money belt for him to bless. That was one of my first experiences with Buddhism, so I’m not surprised to hear it’s a common practice. I figured I might as well get him to bless my passport while he was at it, I think that meant a little more to me than my money belt. ^^

      Are/Were you a monk?? Do you live in Korea now?
      Thank you again for your words, they helped broaden my view some~ and thank you for reading!


  3. Hello Joseph,

    I am commenting on your reply to Barry’s post. Barry and I are long time friends, and I will let him respond in his own time. I just wanted to say that you could always visit Mu Sang Sa / Kye Ryong Sa and perhaps meet with Zen Master Dae Bong, who is also a close friend and a Direct Disciple of Zen Master Seung Sahn. Anyway, thanks for your honesty, it is the most important step we can make in our practice; to learn to be honest about ourselves, with ourselves.


    • Hello Paul,
      Thank you! Is Gye Rong Sa in Daejeon? If I remember correctly I’ve been to GyeRyongSan before.
      I’ve heard of Mu Sang Sa before, actually my friend just sent me a link to their sight asking if I thought it would be a good temple to visit!
      I guess the Dharma Realm was already telling me where my next trip should be! ^^

      Thanks again for the great information, and thanks for reading!!

  4. Hi Joseph,

    Thank you for your generous comments!

    Paul did make a good suggestion – you might very much enjoy a visit to Mu Sang Sa. If you’d like an introduction to Zen Master Dae Bong, please let me know and I’ll write directly to him. He’s a truly gifted teacher (who knows a few things about confusion). And, yes, the temple is outside of Daejeon.

    I live in Seattle but have traveled to Korea a number of times, both for pleasure and also to participate in Kyol Che retreats. The turning points of my life….

    Best wishes in your practice,

  5. Pingback: meeting my teacher « Somewhere in Dhamma…

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