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Life in a Korean Monastery, Jisu Sunim

Jisu Sunim holding up a rubbing of Bodhidharma which has just been presented to him by Shi Yanzi. Photo © Gerda ChapuisKorean food is very hot and spicy compared to the British diet which is rather sweet. We always have chilli sauce with our food. We have pickles made with Chinese leaves, cucumber, spinach, and so on, and everything is mixed with at least a little amount of chilli. So Korean dishes are very hot and spicy.

I think that what we eat is what we are. Because we eat hot and spicy food our lifestyle seems to be rather hot and spicy compared to yours in the west. Zen monastic life is hot and spicy. The Zen retreat that I shall be holding in a few weeks’ time, for example, has been advertised by Dick and Diana as a rather ‘tough regime’. But when I refer to Zen retreats in a western country, I usually call them ‘sugar Zen’ because they are adjusted to accommodate westerners. Even so, it still seems to be too much for people on this side of the world, so maybe I need to put a bit more sugar in this second retreat that I will be doing.

This evening I am going to talk about my life as a Buddhist monk—how I was ordained and how I have spent the last twenty years. When I first went into the monastery I was twenty-five years old, and I was given no directions at all. No one told me anything—no one approached me, no one. The Guest Monk simply informed me that there were three meals a day—breakfast at 6.00am, lunch at 11.30 am, and the evening meal at 5 o’clock, but that was all. One is put into the situation of being like a lonely island.

After about seven days, I realised that they were intentionally not telling me what to do. It was like a test of my character. I also realised later that every monk was watching: What kind of character is he? Is he prepared to live as a Buddhist monk? Gradually, I began to understand what was needed, and I joined in cleaning the compound, collecting firewood in the mountains (the rooms were heated by firewood), drawing water, and taking on all kinds of chores.

After a week I was instructed by the Guest Monk to visit the Abbot’s room. The Abbot gave me a cup of green tea and asked, ‘Are you still thinking of becoming a monk?’ I said I was, and he gave me permission to do so. I shaved my head, was presented with special clothes (slightly different to the ones I am wearing now), and spent six months as a postulant. During that time I was not allowed to read any books. All day from 3 o’clock in the morning to 9 o’clock in the evening, I was engaged in menial tasks—in the rice fields, drawing water, etc. On one occasion I was in the mountains collecting wood using an A-frame—a wooden device that is carried on the back—and because I am small and the A-frame was very big, I stumbled, rolled down the mountain, and severely damaged my knee. It looked abnormal and swelled up, but as a postulant, I dared not ask if I could go to hospital. I was afraid that I may be ostracised, and so I kept silent and just gave the knee some gentle massage from time to time. I survived!

There were two other novices there at the same time as me, and we shared kitchen duties. I might prepare the rice for cooking, for example, while one of the others prepared side dishes, and the other one got the table ready. It was very difficult because I had never cooked before. In Korean Confucian families, men do not go into the kitchen, so it was a really hard time for me.

Jisu Sunim with a MoktakWe also had to memorise chanting and learn how to use the moktak (the wooden bell). We practised sometimes by using a long stick and striking the fireplace while boiling rice. All the work was absolutely menial, and no reading of the scriptures was allowed. I found this exasperating because my intention in becoming a monk in the first place was to sit in the monastery meditating. I didn’t want to spend my time collecting firewood and slaving away in the kitchen. I was very idealistic! Menial tasks, I thought, were for low class people, and it was clear to me that I had received a much higher education than most of the people there. This kind of thinking, of course, led to some suffering for me and I found myself in a dilemma: Should I continue to be a kind of servant to these monks? Should I go on? Or should I just go home, be a pious son to my father, pass the examinations and become some kind of distinguished person? These were the kinds of doubts I was having.

I succeeded in spending half a year as a postulant. Then I was given the ten precepts of a shramanera. On receiving this ten-precept ordination, I was given a Buddhist name. My preceptor, my teacher, gave me the name Jisu. This all took place in a small temple where there were only about fifteen monks, but now I could either go to a big monastery to practice Zen meditation, or study the scriptures for up to six years in a kind of Buddhist monks’ College. I decided to spend four years studying scriptures, and this is customary. First one studies the Mahayana sutras and classics of the Zen Masters—the Lotus Sutra, Avatamsaka Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and the Sixth Patriarch’s Platform Sutra, for example. From there you may decide to proceed to a Zen monastery.

It is also necessary to learn how to behave properly as a Buddhist monk. A senior monk will instruct you in etiquette and manners—how to walk, where to direct your eyes, how to move your hands, how to eat using chopsticks and a spoon, how to walk always using the left foot first rather than the right, how to fix your mind on particular things when you go to the toilet, which direction you should face when lying down to sleep, that sort of thing.

On becoming twenty years of age, one can then receive higher ordination, the full ordination of a bhikshu. This is done in a place which is completely sealed off; nobody may approach the applicants except the Preceptors. You have to take off all your clothes and a Preceptor examines you. You need to be physically healthy. And if you have a tattoo, for example, you will also be dismissed. I remember hearing about one woman who was rejected because she had a tattoo on her eyebrow. However, a year later she returned, having had the tattoo removed. Then she was admitted. The reason for all of this, I think, is that monks and nuns are supposed to be an example to others. And because they will be teaching the laity, they should be physically and mentally fit.

After spending four years studying scriptures, I went into a Zen monastery. Korean Buddhist monks and nuns live, basically, as wanderers, not being attached to one particular monastery. I have a mother temple, but my time has been spent in various Zen monasteries and a scripture-study monastery. It is totally up to the individual to decide where he wants to stay and practice meditation.

Looking for the Ox. Korean Oxherding pictures.There are four different sects in Korean Buddhism. The Order I be­long to, which is the most in­fluential and biggest, is based mainly on Zen meditation (although we are also supposed to learn the basic teachings of the Mahayana script­ures). There are two three-month retreats held every year—a winter retreat for three months, and a summer retreat for three months. During this time you stay in the monastery, only practising sitting meditation.

The meditation practised during these two retreat seasons is gruelling. First, perhaps fifty or so monks assemble in the monastery, and be­fore it begins, the group discusses the sitting times. The first time I joined one of these retreats, I was both lucky and unlucky. The majority agreed to meditate all through the night for three months without lying down! The routine was simply to alternate sitting for fifty minutes with walking for ten minutes, and only leaving the Zen room for the meals or when going to the toilet. Apart from that, the whole time was to be spent sitting on the cushion.

For the first two weeks I found it extremely difficult to be always sitting on the cushion, never lying down . . . for three months! . . . for three months! . . . for three months! We did some physical exercises in order to relax the muscles and to remain flexible, but for those first two weeks I found it almost unbearable. A month later, however, it became a kind of daily routine. I lost the sense of time. I felt that time was a kind of circle, totally round—time and space seemed to mingle together, becoming one.

At the beginning each practitioner is given a hua-tou, a kind of koan. For example: What is this? I-Mo-Ko? What is this? The idea is to concentrate your entire attention and mind on this one particular koan or hua-tou: What is this? What is this? What is this? It is different from vipassana meditation where the intention is to be aware and solely aware of what is going on. When you eat, you just acknowledge how that feels—approaching the spoon, touching the spoon, feeling the coolness of the handle, and so on. In koan meditation, however, your attention is single-pointedly directed to this question—What is this?—right now. Initially, it is very difficult to concentrate because all kinds of thinking comes up . . . comes up . . . comes up . . . like clouds, or smoke from a chimney.

After a month, however, when you are familiar with sitting all through the night, when the agony, the excruciating pain in your legs, back, and shoulders, has slowly died away, then the most difficult thing to cope with is remaining awake. Of course, we were sleeping while sitting. And a senior monk would walk quietly along the line of meditators carrying a long flat wooden stick. If he saw someone dozing, he would gently touch his shoulder to wake him up. If the monk continued nodding, though, he would receive a strike from the stick to muscles in the shoulders or back. The sound is alarming, and those unfamiliar with this kind of practice might think it is brutal, but it is actually very refreshing.

After a month, then, the most difficult thing is to be really awake, and one finds oneself always dozing. Some monks sleep holding onto trees when they go to the toilet. A monk was late back once and someone was sent to find him. He was discovered sleeping in the toilet! So this kind of practice is not easily accomplished by everybody. A few monks dropped out. They simply couldn’t cope with not sleeping on the floor. Nevertheless, about forty-six or forty-seven finished the three-months retreat.

During these retreats, we take turns in being interviewed by the Master. He checks how we are progressing with our study of the koan. However, we would not expect much of an explanation from him during such an interview. When entering his room you first make three bows. He might then, without saying a word, just give you a cup of green tea. Perhaps you will say, ‘I am having difficulty with fantasies or illusions.’ At one time I saw all kinds of demons crawling across the floor. At another, I had the feeling that my right arm had disappeared. And other occasions, I have felt as though I was full of emptiness, or that the whole room had become golden in colour, bright and dazzling. All kinds of things happen when doing this kind of meditation and people often attach to the experiences. But that is a hindrance. You should never attach even to marvellous experiences. If you do so, you will get caught up, and then you will have a problem.

Detail from a painted Door at BokwanSa, KoreaIf you ask the Zen Master about this kind of problem, he will not give any detailed explanation. Personally, I may do so when holding a retreat for lay people or westerners, because they may not be strongly committed to practice without really understanding what it means.

If the Zen Master gives too much of an explanation, the disciple will not build up a big doubt about the koan, and building up a big doubt is the prime ingredient for enlightenment. Maybe the Master will ask, ‘How is your koan practice going?’ If the disciple tries to explain everything in detail, he may just say, ‘You are just the scum of society,’ or something very nasty like that. All kinds of inexpressible words intentionally come forth from the Zen Master at such times. Why does he do this? To crush out the disciple’s ego-identity. You should try to become completely empty of ego-identity, of self-id­ent­ity. It is a kind of shattering of ‘my-ness’, ‘I-ness’; it is a way of cleans­ing your intellectual brain. You should not, therefore, expect good manners from the Zen Master. He will sometimes shout, or maybe give you some kind of blow, or act in a rather barbaric way. The point is to be alert to what is going on rather than expecting detailed information or explanations. You should try to understand what the Master is saying, maybe just through the movement of his eyebrow or the rolling of his eyes, or how he drinks a cup of tea.

As a wandering monk, therefore, I may spend the winter retreat at Songgwangsa, say, after which I may either continue to practise at Song­gwangsa or move on to another Zen monastery. Because we continuously move from one monastery to another, we are very well informed about the different monasteries. But after spending twenty years or so as a Zen monk, it is possible to go into the mountains as a hermit. Then you can spend the whole time, twenty-four hours a day, as you wish, waking up at 3.00 am, say, going to bed at 9.00 pm, and meditating, perhaps, for eight or ten hours a day. You may grow cucumbers, aubergines, chillies and Chinese leaves in the vegetable garden, just collecting them and cooking yourself three meals a day. And if you are enlightened or well established in your training, other monks will come to you for instruction. You may even establish your own teaching community. The Zen Master is now very independent.

While living in the monastery, we follow the form. Every two weeks, for example, the community meets to recite the 270 rules of the bhikshu. At this time we say what we have done wrong. At various times, also, the Zen Master gives dharma talks. He might invite a kind of answer to, ‘What is this? What is this?’ A disciple may come up and grab the Master’s cuff or do some kind of strange thing. This kind of activity could be expected during a Zen talk. I remember once a practitioner came out when the Master was giving a dharma talk. He made three full prostrations, went up to the Master and took his Zen stick. It so happened that this Master was very frail—he was probably about seventy-six years old—and when the stick was taken from him, he fell down. Two disciples then had to hold him up. This is the kind of unexpected behaviour that can occur.

When you go to a Zen talk you should be prepared even to die. Why do we do this kind of gruelling practice? Because this is a way of severing all I-ness.

The monk’s life in the Zen tradition is not dependent upon idealism or any ideology. You can be a man of real independence. And when you live as a hermit after being in the community, then you can live in whatever way you like. Whatever you do, will not hurt others; it will always be helpful to other people. At the same time it will be conducive to your own lifestyle. In order to be fully independent, absolutely free from all kinds of blame and mistakes, you should go through this very difficult time.

In the beginning, then, when you first enter the Buddhist monastery you have a very strenuous time of it. And after you become ordained you may have little or no guidance from your teacher. So, if your behaviour in body, speech and mind is not established according to the Zen tradition, you will sometimes act in an improper manner. That is why we initially need to be tough when becoming a Buddhist monk. When you have a strong shower, all kinds of mental dirt will be completely washed away. In this context, I think it is necessary for a certain period in one’s life to be dedicated to preparing for the complete death of self, body and mind. You should die from what you are, now. All your knowledge, all your judgements, completely go when you engage in this kind of exercise.

Korean Sunim sitting by open door.If you happen to go to Korea, the only place you will really marvel at or get inspiration from is the Buddhist monastery. The big cities and towns are now completely westernised, completely commercialised. When you go to the monastery, however, you will be in the mountains, the forests, in complete silence, and find a kind of natural purity. The Korean Zen monastic life is hard physically and mentally, but it is valuable to those who are really prepared to get to know their own true nature, and to be free from all kinds of bondage.

Of the various Buddhist traditions, Zen is rather difficult compared to others, but it is not impossible. Human beings can do anything; it is all a matter of attitude. I strongly advise you, before you go to your own deathbed, to allocate some time—say one or two weeks—to just sitting in meditation without lying down on the floor. Then you will really get some kind of thundering inspiration or enlighten­ment. When you do not sleep but just sit on the cushion or chair, you may see a different dimension of time and space. I can say that time and space mingle together, and I think that may­be when you are breathing, it is for the last time without the fear of dying. So in this context the Zen Mon­as­tic life has some­thing to offer you.

First published in the February 2003 issue of Buddhism Now

Click here for some other teachings on Korean Buddhism

[Jisu Sunim was a regular speaker at the Leicester Buddhist summer schools for many years. The above is from a talk given in 1998. He is a patron of the Golden Buddha Centre, Totnes and is based in London and Korea.]

6 Responses

  1. Wow, I learned so much from this. Thank you! :)

  2. Thank you Sunim. This is a very wonderful teaching.

  3. That is why I asked you to become my teacher a few years ago.

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