Tag Archives: Buddhism

Hell Realms


Genju, at 108 Zen Books, opened an interesting discussion with her post on sin, which also led to the topic of Hell.

You don’t hear to many things about Hell in Buddhism (probably because if you follow even the 5 basic precepts, Hell shouldn’t be a concern, and it’s not used to scare you into going to a temple on Sunday, and worshiping Buddha…) but it is there if you look. It seems to be presented in a very matter-of-fact way, too.

Traveling through South-East Asia, I saw many murals depicting the tortures of hell, butchers, thieves, murders, and other unfortunates, being strung up and impaled with hot pokers, tied up over fires like a pig on a spit, or dipped in a cauldron over a hot fire.

Just outside of Vientiane, in Laos, there is a Buddha Park with a very interesting dome. Inside, there are three levels, depicting the different realms of Hell.

I haven’t come across images like these in Korea (it’s not to say there aren’t any, but I not aware of them if there are…) but nearly every temple I’ve been to, and all the larger ones, have had an image or statue of JiJang Bosal, the green haired monk who vowed to save all the beings in Hell.

Zen Master Seung Sahn came from a Christian (Mormon, I think) background, and probably dealt with his share of opposition on his path. In one of the compilations of his teachings, I remember reading his response to those who told him he was going to Hell… “I’ll go to Hell, make a Zen Center over there!”

It’s nice to know that if I ever do end up in a Hell realm, there will be JiJang Bosal, Seung Sahn DaeSa, along with a few others, there waiting to get me back out!

A few more breaths with Sandima


It’s almost time to start packing for the long trip back to Korea. I’m always glad to be going back to Korea, even though I’m always glad to have a break from it when the time comes to leave. It feels like home now just as much as anywhere else.

When I left Korea, I’d just started studying Vipassanna with Sandima Bhikku. We made our plans to come to Canada just after meeting him, so I didn’t get very far. In the end, during our visits, he taught EunBong more than I learned which I thought was more beneficial since EunBong hadn’t been exposed to much more than devotion to GwanSaeEum Bosal. She was interested to learn theories about Kamma and how we can improve our Kamma by helping others.

What we went over together wasn’t really anything I hadn’t been exposed to, but it’s the kind of thing you can always benefit from hearing again. There was an extra quality in the teachings when it came from a person face to face instead of a book or a clip on YouTube. Sandima had a nice way of explaining things that helped open your understanding. His warmth and friendliness made being with him very comfortable. When he taught, he didn’t act as though he was above us, he was aware that what he was teaching was just as important for him to follow as the rest of us.

Over and over, he repeated that the most important thing was to understand the theory before starting the practice. It could be why I’d found myself lost on my own. I was going through the motions but not truly understanding what I was doing. I would find myself sitting with no focus, lost in thought or gone with no attention to where. At these times I realized the limitations of learning from a book.

Sandima spoke a lot about Kamma, as I mentioned a few months back. He explained how we are surrounded by the energy of our Kamma. Kamma is one of those things you can’t worry about too much as far as your past is concerned, but by being mindful in the present moment you can ensure that whatever Kamma you generate will be positive. Meditation, chanting, acting with mindfulness and compassion are excellent ways to maintain positive Kamma. Do I succeed at these from moment to moment in my own life? No, but even if once in five times I can stop myself from negative action or speech, remembering my teaching, then my Kamma is a fifth better than if I hadn’t heard the teachings at all! Swatting flies is a basic example. How many of us give it a second thought before smacking a house fly or a mosquito as it’s sinking its needle into our flesh? I still catch myself swiping my hand through the air without a thought  in mind, sometimes soon enough to veer off and miss or other times at least in enough time to be glad I missed. As far as my understanding of Kamma goes, the more often I remind myself not to swat the fly, the more likely I’ll be to remind myself the next time. Hopefully, after enough times, the thought of killing the fly will eventually stop arising. There is a strong connection between Kamma and habit, which makes a lot of sense. Sandima made an analogy that we are like little caterpillars climbing a tree. First the head goes forward, then the body follows. Like that, our Kamma energy goes first, then our mind and body follow. Like cause and effect we follow our Kamma.

I asked about chanting in Theravada practice. In Korea, I’d grown accustomed to chanting Namo Amitaba, Gwan Sae Eum Bosal, or a few other Bosal names, now and then, that don’t have a presence in Theravada tradition. He replied that it’s common to chant the different qualities of the Buddha that one wishes to manifest in themselves. For example, if he were preparing to teach a class, he might chant the Pali word for right speech. The most usual chant, Sandima told me, is Arahant, one who has all the qualities of a Buddha. In contrast to Korean chanting (at least according to Sandima, as Marcus kindly pointed out), Theravada chanting is/should be done in silence. I don’t think one or the other is better, but there is a difference. Sandima simply explained that, in Therevada practice, silence is prefered.

He spoke a bit about the nine qualities of a Buddha and the seven delusions that cause Samsara. To start, it’s important to know your position between total ignorance and being an Arahant. With a big smile, he looked at us and asked, “I’m a crazy fool, how about you?” His point was, if you start thinking that you are more advanced than you are, you won’t be able to learn what you need to know. To cultivate the nine qualities requires contemplation, mindfulness, and listening. You must start with knowing, with wisdom. Knowing comes from touch, from the five aggregates. Knowing starts with breathing.

visiting Sandima <

true experience

Fina experiencing a geranium

Fina experiencing a geranium

 I listened to Hyun Hyun Gak Sunim speak once at Hwa Gye Sa a week before Buddha’s Birthday celebrations in Seoul. Towards the end of the talk, an old man asked what “true experience” was. Hyun Gak Sunim raised his cup of coffee to his lips, took a long and noisy sip, then replied, “This coffee is bitter.”

Zen Master Seung San said something along the lines of, if you want to know what a watermelon is, you have to cut one open and take a bite!

Who said it was easy?


Ox Herding posted a great video by Pema Chodron talking about “This Lousy World”:

It’s great because it applies to just about anyone at just about anytime. The thought that all our problems are because of something else, someone else, always outside of ourselves, is difficult to get away from. I’d been realizing this more than ever over the past few weeks. Spiritual practice seems that much more difficult mixed with the exhaustion factor of having a new born in your life, and I’ve found myself getting frustrated even more easily lately than I had before. As ChongGo Sunim pointed out to me, frustration levels can be a good reflection of or spiritual practice. We get frustrated because we want a situation to be different, we are dissatisfied. It made me realize that maybe it isn’t really the exhaustion that’s making me more frustrated than usual, maybe it’s just that I’m not used to having a crying baby next to my bed and even though, as far as babies go, she’s really not that bad, I would still much prefer if she never cried at all!!! As Pema’s talk suggests, I could literally cover my ears in leather (it would be much more fatherly than my first urge to cover the baby’s mouth!) or even better, I could see my baby as the greatest teacher in my life right now, giving me the opportunity to face frustration within and not be bothered, not be moved, which is what Pema Chodron is really getting at.

I’ve been finding myself in a sort of awkward place in my practice. I’ve been becoming more and more aware of my ignorance and my delusions causing my suffering or dissatisfaction faster than I’ve been taking the steps to overcome them. Perhaps it’s my own complacency or even laziness, but it’s been more humbling than anything else I’ve experienced. I’ve even realized I had a fair amount of pride in the little humility I thought there was! Hopefully this will be a place I can start to really grow from. The Dalai Lama reminds us that there are no easy ways. Our effort will be the same as our results. It’s time to stop thinking about the path and start walking it!

For a little response to Pema’s talk, here’s Kermit with his reflections on Dukka, reminding us that no matter who you are, it’s not always easy!:

chicken or the egg?


-What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Perhaps the world’s best known koan. Could it be considered a koan? Marcus? Barry?? Anyone??? Regardless, for a while now, I’d thought for sure I’d figured out the answer. Or, at least until today, when I realize I’d been approaching it from the wrong point of view; mainly, a physical one.

Accepting Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, then it only makes sense that the egg came first. What ever laid the egg would have been one evolutionary step from being a chicken.

If we look at Adam and Eve, there’s no talk of egg, sperm, uterus, womb, or anything. The Creator scooped up a lump of clay with conspicuously human-like hands, and made Adam on the spot. Could we venture to believe that if this were the origin of our species that The Creator would have treated chickens any differently? From this point of view, it’s arguable that the chicken came first, but personally I’d bet the farm, or at least the chicken coop on Darwin. (Sorry, God. We can settle this later…)

At work this week, we’ve been having lots of long breaks while middle school students stay home to prepare for their exams. Today, I brought the Dhammapada with me to fill the time. The book is 110 very small pages, but I’ve yet to get to page 17 even after a few months. Practicing “not getting too far ahead of myself”, I’ve just been rereading the first four chapters every time I pick up the book. Every time, it is still like reading it for the first time, so I know it still needs to sink in. Or maybe it’s because chapter 5 is titled “The Fool” and I’m afraid it will be too personal! For what ever reason, when I opened the book today, instead of flipping over to page 17, I once again began at page 1…

Mind is the forerunner of all actions.

All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.

-The Dhammapada

I’d been thinking of writing about my thoughts on the chicken and the egg for the past couple days, more for a little comic relief than anything, and if I had, it would have been a much shorter post. Although it wasn’t what I had in mind (or my conscious mind, anyway…) when I solicited the Dhammapada for knowledge this evening, it suddenly ocured to me the level on which the question is asked is totally irrelevant. Yes, I realized before that it was totally irrelevant anyway, I just hadn’t realized why. The opening words of the Dhammapada suddenly told me it wasn’t a matter of the chicken or the egg, it was the chicken’s mind. Whether the egg came first, or vise versa, the question really  ought to be, “What came first, the chicken or chicken nature?”

As much as I’d like to leave it at that, my mind is left with one last question; What can we do to improve the nature of chickens, and all other beings while we’re at it?

Common Sense and the 1000 Buddhas of Unju Temple


In university, I took an introductory philosophy class with Dr. Nick Webb. It was one of the few classes outside of my studio classes that I really enjoyed, and probably influenced my way of thinking better than any other class I’d taken. One class, he briefly brought up the topic of common sense and asked if we thought there really is such a thing. Like most topics he confronted us with, it was one that I’d never considered on my own. That was about six years ago, and I still haven’t thought about it a whole lot, but every once in a while it comes back to me for a time than funnels back down into the depths of my unconscious.

Sorting through some old photos this week, I came across a group of shots from a particular trip that really got me thinking about common sense again. At this point in my thinking, I’m settled on the theory that common sense is quite relative. I wonder if there are factors in common sense, like geography, age, or what age you were born in. Common sense in villages I passed through in India or Nepal is probably different from the common sense of the people from the small village I grew up in. My own sense didn’t seem to be on par with most of the people I grew up around, or the people I met in Nepal and India for that matter. Of all our senses, any that could be deemed universally sensible don’t seem to be very common, or at least  from my point of view.

Over a thousand years ago, in Korea, it was common sense that the larger allotment of mountains in the south-eastern region of the peninsula created such an imbalance that the peninsula was at risk of capsizing. Fortunately, the monk DoSeonGukSa took matters into his own hands and prayed to the heavens to send down a few masons to carve 1000 stone Buddhas and 1000 stone pagodas to balance things out. All night they chiseled and carved until they heard the first sound of a roosters crow, signally their time to return to the heavens. If only roosters had a snooze button, maybe they would have had time to complete their task, but as it was, roosters being of the nature to cock-a-doodle when they do, two large stone Buddhas were left lying in the hills.

“They” say that a better explanation for all the statues and pagodas is that the temple had been opened as a place to train masons in religious carving, but what have “they” ever known? I think “they” have always relied too much on common sense, anyway. In 1432, regardless of their origin, it was documented that the temple ground was occupied by 1000 stone Buddhas and 1000 stone pagodas. After more than a millennium and a Kingdom switching from Buddhist to Neo-Confucius, only 91 Buddhas still scatter the area. Visiting the temple is kind of like visiting an outdoor museum with Buddhas lined up along the paths and tucked it the trees. Most have little left to identify them by, but they have their charm. Their features are simple and a bit awkward, common among themselves but unique to the temple. The pagodas, having to contend with the factor of gravity are even worse off, but a few of the 21 still standing are remarkable. One is designed with seven concave disks, rather than the usually square stones. Just before it, sit a house-like, single storey pagoda with a pair of rather stalky, square looking Buddhas rooted in prayer inside. They look as though they may be long lost relatives  of the folks over at Easter Island, but they’ll never tell… A short hike up the slope, nestled in the pines are the two “Wa-Bul”, Lying Buddhas. They’re big enough that I can see why the poor mason who carved them, heavenly or otherwise, would have booked it back to the clouds rather than try to lift them. There must have been some other heavenly beings better suited for the task, and if they weren’t willing to do it, we can’t very well blame our friend, the mason.

Part of the charm of the temple is that I had to take a bus from Gwangju about 40km to nowhere then transfer there to the bus that dropped me off a couple of km from the temple. The countryside is covered in old buildings, rice fields, and small, pointy, green mountains. Not a single apartment building to be seen in any direction, only the locals tending their gardens. It’s places like these that make me feel happy to be in Korea.

Namo Ji Jang Bosal

Namo Ji Jang Bosal

> photo album <


visiting Sandima


On Sunday, we finally took the opportunity to visit Sandima, the Burmese monk I’d met a few weeks ago, at his temple in a country town just east of Seoul. We traveled along the express way looping the city for about 30 minutes, then after a couple quick turn-offs, got dropped off in a small town that could have been anywhere in the Korean countryside. In Korea, Seoul is the only city, everywhere else is county. Although, I have trouble calling Busan, a city of nearly 4 million, countryside, but I have to admit, the only thing that usually distinguishes one town from another are the mountains beyond the buildings. Maseok, the town we’d just arrived in, was surrounded by beautiful, lush hills. The Sky Horse Mountain that was the towns back drop, looked sort of like it could be a volcano, the way the ridge dipped along its peak. This time of year, the foliage has just fully matured and the fresh leaves that coat the hills are rich, vibrant green. When the smog is thin enough that you can see a decent distance through it, and the sun can cast a shadow, the green of the hills really pops out against the relatively blue sky. We took a taxi from the bus stop along the road to the temple. It was the first weekend in a long time that we’d left the city. It felt nice to be out, even though the amount of stares we got from the locals was noticeably more, the expressions on their faces were equally more genuine.  The ridge I gazed out the window at as we drove had a huge, jagged, stone face protruding from its side. It looked as though a giant woodpecker had had a go at it, until it ran out of beak. A large V-shaped ledge ran through most of it, giving me an urge to go climbing through it until a found a good place to sit on its shade. As we passed the ridge, we found the the long driveway that led to the temple.

My first impression of the temple was that it looked like a cross between an old-fashioned Korean Hanok house and Tibetan temples I’d seen in India. The building looked like it could be a Burmese temple but the entrance was left Korean with a Buddhist flag flapping humbly above it. The building had been a museum of Buddhist artifacts before, so it was a good building to turn into a temple. What had been a gravel parking lot in front, Sandima said, was now perfect for walking meditation. The whole setting was relaxing. It was the first time since Fina was born that I felt I could catch my breath. Sandima was busy when we arrived, so we waited outside at stone table, under a bamboo canopy. A wooden helm with eight spokes hung from the canopy’s post, representing the Dhammacakka, Wheel of Dhamma, and the Noble Eightfold Path that turns it.

When Sandima was reading, he told us to sit before the alter and he tied a white string to a small pagoda on the shrine. He pulled the string across his seat, through my hands, then over to Fina where he loosely coiled it around her head. He took a flower from a large bouquet and dipped it in a bronze bowl of water, then blessed the three of us by splashing our heads. He said that he would recite the Abhaya Gāthā,
the Danger-free Protection Chant, in Pali. He said to focus carefully on his voice. The chant would remove fear from Fina’s past life Khamma and keep her from having nightmares. I’d never heard Pali spoken before. It flowed gently and was mesmerizing. It made it quite difficult to keep my focus, but I hauled myself back quickly when I found my mind beginning to drift. I think I may have found the chant online, but I’m not sure. It seems to match his explanation. It is only three paragraphs but Sandima chanted for nearly 10 minutes, so either he repeated it several times, or I’m wrong. I’ll check with Sandima next time I see him. What I found is this…

Yan-dunnimittaṃ avamaṅgalañca
Yo cāmanāpo sakuṇassa saddo
Pāpaggaho dussupinaṃ akantaṃ
Buddhānubhāvena vināsamentu
Whatever unlucky portents & ill omens,
And whatever distressing bird calls,
Evil planets, upsetting nightmares:
By the Buddha’s power may they be destroyed.
Yan-dunnimittaṃ avamaṅgalañca
Yo cāmanāpo sakuṇassa saddo
Pāpaggaho dussupinaṃ akantaṃ
Dhammānubhāvena vināsamentu
Whatever unlucky portents & ill omens,
And whatever distressing bird calls,
Evil planets, upsetting nightmares:
By the Dhamma’s power may they be destroyed.
Yan-dunnimittaṃ avamaṅgalañca
Yo cāmanāpo sakuṇassa saddo
Pāpaggaho dussupinaṃ akantaṃ
Saṅghānubhāvena vināsamentu
Whatever unlucky portents & ill omens,
And whatever distressing bird calls,
Evil planets, upsetting nightmares:
By the Saṅgha’s power may they be destroyed.
After he finished, he held Fina in his arms a bit and checked her palms. He said she has very nice palms but warned us she has very big pride, so be careful what we speak to her. According to her palms, she has what Koreans refer to as “Gong-ju Byung”, “Princess Disease”. It’s something I was already concerned about, having a half Korean daughter, but EunBong wasn’t very surprised. She said while she was pregnant, her feelings were very different about how she wanted to look and dress. She wanted to use make up a lot more and got her friend to buy her a knock-off Louis Vuitton purse after she saw the other women in our Lamaze class both had one. She thinks it was the mind of the baby that affected her. If that’s the worse thing we’ll have to deal with, I can accept it! She’s healthy, and has all the right body parts in the right places. She’s a beautiful baby!
He invited me into a room with a small tea table to talk. He said there was a couple who’d come in from Gangnam, the richest, most superficial part of Seoul, where on any day you’ll pass at least a few girls on the street whose faces are all bandaged up from plastic surgery. The man had a wife and baby, but had come to the temple with his girlfriend and wanted to divorce his wife and marry his girlfriend. His wife and him argue and can’t get along. When he asked Sandima’s advice, Sandima told him, “Go back to your wife, make things right, and take care of your baby!” He told him 70% of the problem was with himself, so changing wives isn’t going to solve anything. The man acknowledged that Sandima was right. The next people who visited that day was a mother with her son whose girlfriend was pregnant. They wanted Sandima to choose a wedding date. He checked their astrology and said they should get married next year, because if they get married this year, their astrology forecast they will be divorced. Of course, the mother wouldn’t accept that, because they’d have to get married before the baby is born, so Sandima was left wondering why they bothered asking.
At first, I was wondering why Sandima would be sharing this gossip with me. It might have been more interesting when I first arrived in Korea, but the novelty of hearing about peoples dysfunctional lives here has been worn off for a while. Korea gives you the impression that everyone wants their lives to be like an afternoon soap-opera and the effects are apparent. I felt relieved that I only wanted to talk about meditation, I wondered if he was relieved as well! He did turn the situation into a Dhamma talk, though. It was easy to agree with Sandima when he observed that patience is lacking. He felt that there is very little effort to work through problems and solve things. He also emphasised how it isn’t right to blame problems on others. He said people are kind of like magnets. If you take a magnet and place it next to a neutral metal, it will still effect and possibly even magnetize the other piece. Like this, we have an affect on each other. He drew a little stick figure with a circle around him and three little arrows representing the three kammas; kamma of thought, kamma of speech, and kamma of action. Our kamma follows us like this, feeding back the energy that we’ve made it with. The first time we met he spoke of the great amount of energy that meditation produces and and hours meditation has the same energy you would get from a few hours of sleep. This time he spoke that 2 hours of meditation can dissipate 5 hours worth of negative kamma. I’d never considered that before, but it makes sense. After that, it was time to head home and, ’till next time, just keep breathing!

>more photos from the trip<



The northern edge of Old Seoul is watched over by BukHanSan; the North Korea Mountains. Seoul is only 55km from North Korea, so I presumed the name referred to the North, but its actual significance is that the mountains dwell north of the Han River, the largest river in Korea. This river also cuts through Seoul, dividing Old Seoul from its recent developments.

I’ve yet to brave these mountains, not for their rounded, steep slopes and not their modest height, but for the thousands of Seoulites congregated along the trails. If the cultural complacency of blowing through fellow pedestrians -dislocating shoulders and fracturing elbows- that has evolved in the over-capacitated urban streets of Korea is any sign of what to expect on Seoul’s most popular mountain, I’m definitely choosing my day to go hiking with great deliberation. Seoul is a city of over ten million, with another twelve in the surroundings, and hiking is their national pastime.

Amidst the cell phone ringers, scooters, SLR cameras, and other various symptoms of modernity that flourish like bad perms and fermented soy beans in Seoul, there is one sacred place I’ve found that manages to evade the multitudes. Tucked on the side of InWangSan, one of BukHanSan’s initial foothills, there is a small, blue tiled village of Buddhist Temples and Shamanist Shrines.

Shamanism and Buddhism evolved side by side in Korea, and have influenced each other throughout their history in Korea. On most Korean temple grounds, there is even a small Shamanist shrine dedicated to San Shin, and other mountain spirits. Korean shamans, known as “mudang”, are intercessors between spirits and human beings. In a “Gu’t” ceremony, the mudang will offer sacrifices, such as candles, incense, rice or meat, and perform ceremonies while beating a steel drum, chanting, dancing, waving five different colored flags, and other rituals to attract and evoke communication with the spirits. It had an important role in the traditions of rice farmers and fisherman, but as Korea flocks to urban life, agriculture and its ways are diminishing, along with the role of the mudang.

InWangSan was once known as the White Tiger Mountain, but they have been hunted to extinction a long time ago. The Korean equivalent to, “Once upon a time…” is, “When tigers smoked pipes…” but now, “Once, when there were tigers…” seems more practical. Its current name means the Benevolent King Mountain and was named for the first King of the Joseon Dynasty. Buddhism was established as the state religion in the sixth century, but as Neo Confucianism began to overrun the aristocratic community, fundamental contrasts between the two philosophies couldn’t elude conflict. Eventually Confucianism overcame and Buddhism was exiled to the mountains.

From InWangSan, you can look down on the Joseon’s grandest palace, but just beyond the ancient fortresswall that divides the mountain, the monks and shamans were not disturbed. The path leading up the hill is steep and when you arrive at the site, there are corridors of brusque stairways entwining the temples. The atmosphere is still old even though between the buildings you can peer down towards the towers of Seoul. Walking through the village, a part of you is taken back and separated from the usual existence. The mountain is swathed by the prevalent scents of wax and incense that mingle with the aroma of sacrificial alcohol, poured to the Gods. Dishes of raw pork are set outside temples. The spirits must still be fed, and in Korea they are fed well.

A straight climb up the stairway brings you to SeonBawi, the Zen Rocks. Seon is Korean Zen, and Bawi is the name given to specials rocks. The rocks are said to resemble a robed monk, and are really an amazing formation. Expectant mothers crowd in front of them, praying for the birth of a son. Behind the rocks, empty liquor bottles are piled high and a path around and over the hill. A large round stone sits half way up the mountain, with steps worn into the side. Sitting there, you can look down at the temples, at SeonBawi, and you have clear sight of the entire city. The seven hundred year old fortress wall is to your right, just below it stretches the Grand Palace, andSeoul Tower is facing you. Continuing on, you walk along the foot of the small cliffs, where there’s an ancientBuddha craved in the rock. This is where you will see many mudang engaging the spirits with their Gut. Once you reach the side of the cliff, you can climb up the wall, and follow it along the trail into BukHanSan.

I walked back to the boulder and sat through the evening. I watched as dusk approached and the sun went down, the city lit up with office towers, traffic lights, and assorted neon. Two weeks later, I returned in the wee hours and watched the scene in reverse. As the smog along the horizon began to glow, like tarnished gold, the city’s lights eventually went out. I cherished the moment of apparent solitude, listening to the dogs howling in the hill above me. As dawn broke, the bitter winds of the waking spirits gusted through me. The closer the sun came to rising, the more I shivered. Soon, the morning sun warmed my face, and the winds withered. The flocks of magpies were my only companions. I extended my stiffened joints and made it back down to join the millions.

meeting my teacher


      In Korean, ‘in-yeon’ refers to your past life connection with the people in your life. It’s a term I hear a lot meeting people in Korea. Usually they are sure I have ‘Korea in-yeon’. The English equivalent might be ‘Karmic affinaty’ in Buddhist terms. With a baby coming any hour now, it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. What kind of being do my wife and I have a strong enough Karmic affinity with to have as our first child? Continuing on the topic, I was at the tea house last week, mentioning that I had spent a week in McLeod Ganj. One of the men there asked if I’d had the chance to see the Dalai Lama. I explained that the Dalai Lama left the same day I arrived, then the thought suddenly occurred to me, “In-yeon obseoyo!”  (“We don’t have in-yeon!”) It took a very minimal amount of humility to admit that I probably don’t have Karmic affinity with the Dalai Lama, but what’s pleasing is to look around at my life and see the wonderful people I do have a connection with, be it Karmic or not. 

      On Sunday, I felt very fortunate to have met Sandima, a Burmese Monk, who’s been in Korea for 10 years now. He came to Korea in 1999 to travel and learn about Korean Buddhism, but while he was here, over a thousand Burmese workers came to him. He had such compassion for their needs that he decide to stay for them. He had been based in Seoul, but is now opening a center outside of Seoul, quite close to where I’m living. On May 17th, they will celebrate the opening of the center. It will be a great opportunity to experience some Burmese culture (and food! ^_^). 

      We met on the street close to Insadong, it was easy to spot the man with a shaved head and burgundy robes, even among the Sunday crowds. The first thing that struck me about him was his deep, bright, shiny eyes and his huge South-East-Asian smile. At first he looked like a boy. After talking for a moment I figured he looked about 30 but might be as old as 40, maybe. When EunBong looked him up online this morning, we couldn hardly believe when it said he was born in 1960. We followed him up a small staircase to a traditional Korean tea house to talk. He gave my wife and I an invitation to the opening of the center and we chatted a bit. He is fluent in Korean and English so it was nice for EunBong to be able to speak to him as well. He said that after the baby is born, to visit him and he will do a ceremony for the baby. He also said that in Myanmar, they say the path to a happy family has five parts; 1-Love 2-Trust 3-Meditation 4-Understanding 5-Simple life. He told us that by practicing meditation, the other four fall into place. Love becomes loving kindness, and an unselfish love is more trustworthy because you don’t want to hurt one another. Understanding becomes deep understand so that we don’t need words to know what the other is feeling, and a simple life comes easily. 

      I told him that I know a little about Vipassan, but really need to start from the beginning. He told me that he will be doing a five month course about Vipassan but in Korean, so after the class to come and he will teach me. To start, he asked me, “What holds you? What keeps your body up?” I knew the answer would be so obvious, but I couldn’t come up with anything. Everything that came to mind I already knew wasn’t the answer. The best i could do was to answer, “Mind?” but I knew that wasn’t it. Finally he told me to hold my nose. He asked if I couldn’t do that for 3 hours. I held up one finger. He asked, “One hour?” I let go, and responded, “No, one minute!” I did see where he was leading me though. Breath is what holds us all, we can go a while without food, even a few days without water, but not very much time without breathing. My first lesson in Vipassana is to focus on breathing, in meditation or whatever I may be doing. He then asked me if I really know this now, or just believe it. He said I must know it, deep within, that it’s true. Contemplate it. It’s not very difficult to know that I need breath, but with all things, it’s important to contemplate and really know it. When I mentioned that I have difficulty focusing on my breathing for even ten breaths, he gave the best answer I’ve heard yet. He asked, “What did you do today? Where did you go?” I told him we came to Seoul, went to the tea house, then came to meet him. “Where are you going next?” he asked. “Home…”  “Yes,” he said, “so don’t worry about your thoughts, everyone has trouble with thoughts. Your breath is your mind’s home. When your mind goes out, just bring it home. Don’t worry about it. After time, your mind will spend more and more time at home.” 

      He told me that the best time to meditate is the moment you wake up, before you do anything. At that time, he said, there is a large gap between knowledge and thoughts. As soon as you start doing things, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, eating, thoughts start taking over and the gap tightens.I asked about extended meditation sessions and he answered that after meditating for an hour, it’s good to move around, do some walking meditation. It keeps a body/mind balance.

      He quickly mentioned the eightfold path and the five khandhas (aggregates), perhaps to test my knowledge. He will probably go into greater detail eventually, but for now we will just start very slowly, which is exactly what I want. I’m excited about all there is to learn, but for now, I won’t hold my breath! 






The Buddha’s “Coming” / a trip to Lumbini


      In Korea tomorrow, April 8th on the Lunar Calendar, it is Buddha’s “O-shin-nal”, the day Buddha came. It’s hard to say when, exactly, the Buddha did arrive, but there might as well be a day to celebrate! The Buddhist Calendar will enter the year 2553, but this number could be off by as much as 80 years, according to some opinions. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I even learned that Buddha was an historical figure. Like most people I know back home, my most associated image with Buddhism was the Chinese Laughing Buddha; 50% belly/50% smile. As warm and cheerful an image as it is, the further I’m able to progress into Buddhism, the more I’m amazed and intrigued to continue.

      Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama, in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal. Legend has it that he sprang from his mother’s side, but I think there are few traditions, although there are some, who still believe this. I think the story goes that he then took a few steps, Lotuses blooming in his footsteps, pointed the the ground with one hand, and to the sky with the other, and spoke, “Of all there is above and all there is below, only I am Holy.” It’s been explained to me that it means everything is within yourself, you don’t need to look above or below. It’s a common teaching in Korean Seon (Zen) that your true nature is Buddha nature, every being has inherent Buddha nature already, it’s a matter of “cleaning the dust off the mirror” and rediscovering it. 

      Joe and I watched an excellent documentary a couple years ago, by the BBC called, “The Life of Buddha.” It explains his life from an historical perspective, and has great commentary from the Dalai Lama and some Buddhist scholarly types, but, other than a bad wig and a couple tacky effects, avoids much pretentiousness. An interesting part is where they recount a dream the Buddha’s mother had at the time of the Buddha’s conception. “She was told that a special being, called the Buddha, was about to be born again on the Earth.” She was carried in her bed by the four heavenly guardians, up to the Himalayas. They “anointed her with divine perfumes and decked with heavenly flowers.” A white elephant with six trunks, carrying a Lotus flower, came down from Heaven and entered her womb.


      In Korea, when a women becomes pregnant, it’s normal for them to have “a baby dream” where usually an animal, a fish, or a flower comes to them and enters their body. My wife’s dream was that she was surrounded by cats and two cute white kittens leaped into her arms and she embraced then. Just before my wife’s dream, I had dreamt that we were together and a spider dropped down onto my right arm. It turned into a snake, wrapped around me and bit me on the the left fore arm. I’m not saying that has anything to do with the baby, but it did leave me a little uneasy!

      While I was in India, I took the opportunity to visit Lumbini, in Nepal. I took an overnight bus from Kathmandu and was dropped off a bit after sunrise by a long, straight dirt road that followed a large pond.  It had been light for a while, but the heavy mist kept me from knowing when, exactly, the sun actually rose. Through the mist, I could make out a temple. I guessed that would be the sight where he was born, but it was the first of many international temples around the site. I made it to the ticket booth, unloaded my 25kg pack into a locker, paid my dues, and walked across the road to the place of Buddhas birth. The building that marks the spot, is unimpressive and after many of the places in Asia I’ve visited, I was somewhat disappointed. It looked to me like an old, square, red bricked elementry school. The only feature that stood out to me was the stupa on top with the distinct Nepalese Buddha eyes, gazing in four directions.  I wonder now if the architecture of the building was meant to imitate the architecture of the Buddha’s time. None the less, the park surrounding the building was absolute tranquility. Beside the building was the pool his mother bathed in after her labour. The area is covered in the brick foundations of the ruins of ancient structures and the braided trunks and bushy limbs of Bodhi Trees, sitting like Buddhas in meditation throughout the area, and lines and lines of prayer flags, catching the light of the sun as it peered through occasional gaps in the clouds.  

      Behind the building is Ashoka‘s pillar, pointing out the place of Buddha’s birth that became the first modern evidence that the Buddha was an historical being. As I rounded the corner of the brick wall, I was surprised to see a handful of Korean monks and Korean women dressed in Hanbok doing a ceremony but the pond. There was a small group gathered around. I chatted with a couple of them, then they headed out. There’s usually not a whole lot to talk about, but I enjoy the reactions when they see a westerner in an other country speaking Korean. 

     I walked around a little then  made my way inside the brick box. It was dim and a bit stuffy. The interior wasn’t much different from the ruins outside. Towards the corner, the boardwalk jutted out like a bridge. I walked over to see what everyone was looking at.  

Below was a spot marked as “the exact spot where Buddha was born.”  I have no idea how they could know, but it’s possible that the architecture would have had a specific lay out or something so they would know, but it’s also likely they could have just picked a spot! As before with the date, why not? 

      I wandered around the rest of the grounds for a while.  There is a long road that forms a rectangle with temples from several countries along each side. I returned to the main site. There were two monks beneath a couple of the Bodhi trees where the crowd of 

Koreans had been.I decided to follow their example and sit for a moment. For the most part, there wasn’t a whole lot of peace through out my travels in India and Nepal, but remember the peacefulness I felt here. Actually, the only other spot that I remember feeling more at peace during the trip was in Kushinagar, the place where Buddha died and was cremated. I enjoyed my sit for another moment, then made my way back to the Indian border, to the chaos, the struggles, the suffering, all the things that keep us coming back, again and again.



some more photos of Lumbini

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

Four Mountains


ओं मणिपद्मे हूं

In a conversation I was having with Joe a few nights ago, we started talking about how many Buddhist teachings are related through a story, and how the visualisation, especially for someone with a developed imagination, can really help impact the meaning and create a sort of understand. There are basically two kinds of knowledge, conceptual understanding acquired through second hand experience and knowledge you acquire from directly experiencing something yourself. I think Jean-Paul Sartre had this same realization when he wrote about the rock in Nausea. I’ve heard a similar analogy in Buddhism, talking about a watermelon. No matter how you explain the vine, the leaves, the texture of the shell, the sweet, juicy taste, the only way to truly know a watermelon is to see it, pick it up, open it, and take a bite. No amount of words will explain it.

A lot of lessons in life can be taught through another person’s experience, although sometimes it takes learning something the hard way to really get through. For thousands of years people have been teaching through stories. Children’s stories usually have some moral in the end or some lesson. It reaches us on a deeper level than just saying, don’t do this or that. Is it that we relate to the characters on an emotional level that becomes personal? I don’t know, but I usually feel a good understanding of something even experiencing it through a story. It doesn’t take much to put my mind in that situation and it almost becomes ‘real’.

Joe told me a teaching Buddha had given to a contemporary king who often requested the Buddha’s council. On the topic of the importance of spiritual practice, the Buddha spoke…

“Majesty, suppose one day your trusted messenger brought news that there is a mountain, as high as the sky, approaching from the East, crushing every living thing in its path. Just as you begin to worry about this situation, another trusted messenger brings news that a mighty mountain is advancing from the West, also crushing everything in its path. Then messengers from the North and South arrive, bearing similar messages. Four mountains are advancing, crushing every living being in their paths. There is no way to escape, there is nothing you can do to prevent the mountains from coming. You have very little time left. Majesty, what do you do?”

The King thought, then responded, “I believe there is only one thing I could do. That would be to live my remaining hours in as worthy and sereneway as possible, following the true teaching.” The Buddha praised the king.

Yesyour Majesty! Those four mountains are the mountains of birth, old age, sickness, and death. Old age and death are closing in on us, and we can never escape.