Archive for December, 2010

Rise and Fall in a Filipino Market

by on Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Fruit stalls in the Marikina Market

Mike is an Englishman currently living and working in London. He spends as much time in the Philippines as he can and hopes to move back here soon.

Mike’s story

Hey, watermelon man!

I’ve always been interested in exotic places, particularly the Far East. Instead of going to university I went to work for a big commercial bank in London, became a currency trader, and was promoted and sent to Singapore. But over time I came to hate the stress of currency trading and the climate of fear that came with it. I met my wife, who’s a Filipina. I’d made enough money to live on for the rest of my life, so I decided to go to the Philippines and buy land.

Having blue eyes meant I was an observer and taken as an observer—because I had no influence. A foreigner going to court would lose. In the Filipino way of doing things we were insignificant. I mixed with people on both ends of the social spectrum. I remember one day I was talking to the street sweeper in the morning, and at lunch I had lunch with a former Secretary of the Philippines under Corazon Aquino. Generally the rich tended to be jealous of us—colonial mentality—but the middle-class would welcome you as one of them and not treat you any differently. Certain doors were closed to me, but I didn’t want to mix with the shallow, celebrity world which governed the Philippines.

I loved everything about living here, but was very naïve about business—I got into the housing business here—and I wasn’t used to dealing with desperate people who would do anything to make money. Eventually I found myself with no job and children who had tuberculosis. I was like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I had to do something.

On our land there were mango trees. Every year we paid people to harvest the mangoes. My wife was from a market family, and she said, “I’m going to sell these.” We had a truck which we’d bought for a factory, so we started bringing fruit up from Mindanao to sell in Manila, at one point ten tons of bananas a week, which she sold all around the area. The business grew. Toward the end of 2000, everything looked good.

One fateful day we sent 100,000 pesos down to the canal to bid for the bananas—we sent 50,000 with each person. One of them went to the other and said, “We missed the bidding. I’ll send the money back. There’s no sense in both of us going back up.” He disappeared with it. Then the company which was using our trucks on their return trip decided to make other arrangements. Other things happened as well. All of a sudden I was wiped out and staring at a very uncertain future. All I could do was just go home and get on the floor by the air conditioning. I was exhausted, and I didn’t know what to do.

My wife said, “Well, we’ve got some money left, and I’ve got a chance to buy a store in Marikina Palengke.” I said, “Okay, fine.” After she bought it, we had enough money to set up the stock.

I got involved, and I loved it. I found Marikina Market a very friendly place with a certain magic about it, a massive showcase market, and not quite as dog-eat-dog as one might think. Everyone was very friendly, everyone knew everyone else’s business, the same as you would do in any close-knit, old-time community. People called to each other as they went past or stopped to have a chat. Basically, there were about twelve fruit stores, but only about four or five families involved. There was some wholesale and some retail, but prices were very cheap and products very fresh.

When we went to the business, the heyday of the markets was gone. First supermarkets had encroached on the markets—the supermarkets really started to muscle in around 2004, when it got really hard to make money—and then the big malls. There were times of great activity and times when you wouldn’t see a customer for an hour or two. It was hot, but the market authority wouldn’t allow sleeveless shirts. If there was any rubbish, they’d fine you. Another trouble was the workers. We paid them 250 pesos a day [$5.60] and bought them lunch for an additional 30 pesos. They’d make their money by stealing from us. So we always had to be on the watch after them as well.

Dried fish

In the front of the market you had the fruit stands, and inside the dry goods to one side, and on the right-hand side the meat and then the fish. We were in the fruit section, selling local fruits such as latundan and lakatan bananas, melons, watermelon and pineapple. We also sold exotic fruits, such as apples and oranges and pears. I became a barker. Mam, mangga, mam, saging, mam. That was the patter I used. “Can I get you anything, ma’am. Do you want mangoes, ma’am? Bananas, ma’am. Mangoes, ma’am. Very sweet ones, ma’am. Twenty-five pesos a kilo, ma’am.” You started off with a certain amount of money, and then each night or early in the morning you would go to the big wholesale market. We were open twenty-four hours. We had three stalls, two joined together plus one slightly further down the aisle.

Banana heart

Lanzons

On a typical day, about four in the morning, we went to the wholesale market in Cubao with the Ford Ranger pickup truck and a couple of employees who did the carrying. Early in the morning it was lovely—cool and not so polluted. There was a buzz about the place that was almost like a futures trading pit in Chicago as the fruits and vegetables came in. The big-time banana traders with stacks of bananas six or seven crates high. The specialists in atis, or custard apple, a seasonal fruit which looks like a green hand grenade. The local mangoes, the small fruit called lanzons. Lots and lots of people running around, all trying to do deals. We were well-known, so when we didn’t have money we could borrow.

Around six or six-thirty we went back to the store to arrange things. The fruit had to be displayed just right, all stacked up nicely. Lychees came on small sticks, so you tied them all up to look nice. But all during the day you had to keep wetting them with water, otherwise that bright red color on the outside would turn dull red. Around six o’clock the early shoppers would start coming in for the bargains. I’d be in my polo shirt and shorts and a pair of flip-flops. We’d sit down with some coffee and some pan de sal [kind of Filipino roll], and we get our suki, our regular customers. “Hi, suki, what can I do for you today?” Maybe I would offer them the strawberries I had just bought in Baguio. Filipinos generally are quite loyal buyers. Once they like you, they’ll always buy from you. So it’s very important to be good to your suki. We had some very interesting customers, like the wife of the head of a big corporation who shopped from us.

The bananas came green. You had to put medicine on them to make them turn yellow. Mangoes needed to be hot in order to turn yellow. So you wrapped them all in newspaper, each one individually, in what they called a kain and added the powder that turned them yellow. I had a funny feeling was actually gunpowder or some other kind of explosive. But the sweetest mangoes were the ones that you allow to ripen by themselves. Philippine mangoes are much sweeter than the Indian variety.

Weekdays generally were quite quiet. For lunch I ate at the Thai restaurant, which was very, very cheap. That’s where you really met people. When the sun went down, I’d be sitting there feeling as if I’d done a hard day’s work, carrying around 30-kilogram crates of bananas. Then busy weekend started on a Friday night after work when everyone got paid. Marikina is a big leather area, famous for shoes. So the big shoe company owners would come down in their big cars and send out the maids to get fruit and vegetables in the market. The friendly middle-class people would come. At night time there were the taxi drivers and the bar girls, and you got the gangs of street kids asking for the slightly-off fruit so they could sell it. Once there was one girl with a cleft lip, and the kids were saving money so she could have a lip operation. They were cute and very friendly. No one minded them. They were very loyal. One day my wife’s cell phone was stolen. The street kids saw it, and they chased after the guy and caught him.

A butcher

Saturday morning was very busy. I’d have ten, twenty people around the store and I’d be trying to remember what they were buying, remember all the change and everything. We were always looking for different ways to beat the competition. I remember once my wife bought an entire jeepney [a small bus for public transportation, originally made of jeeps left behind by the U.S. military] of watermelons at a very low price and we sold them very high. Everything was all about price.

If market people had a good Christmas and a good New Year, they could make enough to survive the rest of the year. Christmas was busy, but New Year’s was busier. According to Filipino tradition, at New Year’s you need to have thirteen different round fruits: for example, grapes, oranges, apples, lanzons, chestnuts, chico fruit, jackfruit. We used to truck in a big, ten-wheeler truck of fruit. At New Year’s, you’d be brushed off your feet at six in the morning. I couldn’t believe how many people. Everyone is grabbing, grabbing, grabbing. On that day we would easily spend 250,000 pesos [$5,555] on fruit, and we’ll end up with probably 450,000 pesos [$10,000] at the end of the day. That was most of a market trader’s money for the year. 200,000 pesos would be just enough to pay the school fees and everything else. It’s not much abroad, but in the Philippines it’s a big amount. Normally on a good weekend day we would take in about 25,000 or 30,000, on an average day about 10,000.

As I said, New Year’s was busy. It was slightly chillier so you didn’t notice the heat so much. In the morning Filipinos actually wore jackets. All the time it was rush, rush, rush—no stopping all day. So that night you took the money that you made on that day and went back to the wholesale market to buy the same amount then for the next day. It all stopped on New Year’s Eve because that’s a holiday. New Year’s Day is absolutely quiet. We went there to open the shop and make one sale. Just for tradition.

When the market was heavily hit I started borrowing money from the loan sharks to pay for our fruit.  It got into an absolute turmoil. Everyone was doing the same. It was hard to be worrying about how we were going to feed the children. The debt made things worse. I’d rather have my savings gone than to suck money from the house. We were just treading water. All I was doing was working in the market during the daytime, and my wife was working at night because we didn’t trust the employees. We were hardly seeing each other, and it got harder and harder. And then eventually it had to go.

I love the Philippines. I don’t know why. It’s dirty. It’s polluted. It’s corrupt. But there’s a magic here. There’s a “can do” attitude. It’s a place where people deal with adversity that the West wouldn’t even begin to understand. Filipinos shrug it off with a smile. There’s a great tradition of amour proper, where everything should be balanced. Even when you’re selling.

The Man behind “Spiritpower,” Part 2

by on Saturday, December 18th, 2010

John Barazzuol's "Spiritpower"

In Korea I knew John Barazzuol under his Korean Zen monk’s name, Dogong Sunim. At that time he was teaching Buddhist meditation at Lotus Lantern, a center that had been set up primarily for interested foreigners. I studied under him for four and a half years before he returned to Canada. In 2009 after a writers’ conference north of Seattle, a friend and I went up to Vancouver to see him. This interview took place on that trip. My friend Kelly said he was the kindest man she had ever met. (A link to Spiritpower Seminars is on the right.)

Religion has a dark side. There’s a saying, “The brighter the sun, the darker the shadow.” When I was in Kuala Lumpur, after I had gotten my classes going, my teacher sent me out to give talks. I went to little villages along the east coast of Malaysia where people had absolutely no knowledge of Buddhism. They wanted me to make charms for them like magicians used to do. Some monks were obviously making big money selling charms against evil spirits. When my teacher asked about my trip, I was about to launch into a tirade against corruption, and he just said, “Now you know.”

During the Japanese colonization of Korea, the Japanese monks who came over told the Korean monks they didn’t need to be celibate, they could get married. They applied pressure to change over to the Japanese system. One temple wouldn’t—couldn’t—change. After the Japanese left, this temple decided to reestablish the celibate tradition. There were only a handful of them, so in order to increase their numbers they made it easy for anyone to join. Shave your head, put on the costume, and we’ll make you a monk. A lot of gangsters thought it might be a good way to operate. All kinds of people became monks with no intention of practicing Buddhism. On one of the retreats I sat, the guy running it would go to Seoul and do politics, trying to get one temple to take over another. He’d come back with bakery goods and fancy meats. We weren’t supposed to eat meat, but he’d take almost half a cow out in the woods to cook where nobody could see.

A friend asked me where would be a good temple for him to ordain. I couldn’t recommend a single one that was totally following the tradition. When the world gets polluted, so do temples, and so do the monks. You’ve got a lot of free time, and nobody’s checking on you, so you can use that time anyway you want. It’s like saying, “Look, we’ll give you room and board, we’ll give you a little salary, we’ll give you a lot of respect.” So you think everyone’s going to be into spiritual growth? Not really.

A monk has to keep the precepts, the rules or the commandments that keep you on the right path. You must know when to keep them and when to break them. Sungsan Sunim’s example is very good. When a monk is meditating, a deer runs by, and then a hunter runs after the deer and asks the monk which way the deer went. The monk lies and saves the deer. That was a time to break the precepts. This is a good story, but it gets interpreted as meaning you can do whatever you want, steal money, sleep with other people, take power. It’s a back door escape.

When human beings become monks they don’t automatically get rid of their dark side. I asked three Theravadan monks, “What do you do with your sexual energy?” Nobody wanted to talk about it. A lot of repressed energy comes out of that one. Life energy can be transmuted through social service or used in some other way. But if you just suppress it, whether it’s sexual or anger or whatever, it becomes demonic. It circulates in the subconscious, and then it will shoot up. The problem was never addressed in either the Theravadan or the Zen tradition.

There’s a fear of the light, that’s the same as the fear of the dark. You’re afraid of yourself, or you don’t want to acknowledge part of yourself. It’s fear of success, but it’s mixed with the dark and the light. Let’s say I’ve got such a powerful mind that I can make people believe white is black. I want to be a criminal lawyer. I know I can make all these criminals look shiny white and shaft innocent people. I’m afraid I might hurt people. It’s not just fear of success. It’s also fear of my dark side.

Once I was taking a workshop from a psychic who worked on the stuff people held in their bodies. He worked with me for about half an hour, and he got frustrated until he looked at my hands. He said, “Why are you curling your hands?”

I said, “Well, I’m really deep inside myself. It’s like a meditation thing.”

“Why don’t you let go?”

“I can’t let go. I’ll hurt people.”

He put one person on one of my shoulders, another person on another shoulder, one on one arm, another on the other arm and one on each leg. I moved them around because suddenly he had created a situation where I could let go. I lifted these people off the ground, but I couldn’t do them any harm. I started crying and crying, and I went back to being a seven-year-old. The workshop leader was doing this to other people too, by creating situations where it was safe to let go.

When I started out in the Theravadan tradition, I got into loving kindness meditation. For months I was doing meditations for my friends, my family, the people in the country, the whole universe, all the creatures that were ever born. One day it occurred to me, “You don’t even love yourself. How can you love all these people?” It was such a shock. Back to square zero, right? The way I see it, if you start out helping someone else, who are you helping but yourself? If you’re helping yourself, who are you helping but other people? You start where you need to start. As long as you keep going and do the work.

Sungsan Sunim had a koan [question to meditate on] that I liked. A woman has land with a mountain on it, where she builds a meditation hut for a monk and supports him. After he’s been on retreat up there for ten years, she decides to test him. She dresses her daughter up in sexy clothes and makeup. She has her bring the monk his food, kiss him, and then come back to tell her what happens. The daughter comes back and says, “Well, the monk said, ‘Cold water over stone with ashes.’” In other words, no feeling. The woman gets really upset, runs up the mountain, kicks him out and burns the hut down.  She says, “I’ve been supporting a monster for ten years.” So the koan is this: if you were on the mountain, what would you do?

Zen is “without words going beyond words.” I think it was a Japanese master who said, “All of your thinking, all of your philosophy is not worth more than a tiny hair blowing in the wind.”  Sungsan Sunim was against our reading. He attracted a lot of fed-up intellectuals who were becoming carpenters or doing some other kind of physical work.

There is an inner silence which Sungsan Sunim used to call “don’t know mind” or “before thinking mind.” In Spiritpower I call it “wordless mind.” If you don’t like the word “spirit,” you can call it “higher power” or “higher self.” I also use—and it’s just words—“superconscious mind,” above the level of conscious. When you’re writing from your superconscious mind, it’s not information which comes in through the five senses. You don’t know where it came from. Now this is all theory, but I think the superconscious mind comes up through the subconscious mind to the conscious mind—sometimes directly.

None of this makes sense until you start meditating. Sungsan Sunim suggested watching as your thoughts come and go. When one thought ends, before the next thought begins there’s an empty space. So that’s the practice. You keep focusing your mind there until that becomes like a natural space.

In Singapore doing walking meditation, I could walk about three or four steps without thinking, and then I was walking five or six steps. Eventually I was walking all the way around the shrine room. In chanting you can use a bell and have the mind going to the bell. Or chant by breathing into a vowel and letting it come out. When I was in a temple in Thailand, we spent days and days doing physical exercises. I could feel the movement in my hand to the point where I felt a real strong connection from my arm to my heart. This gave me so much concentration that when I had a pain in my leg I just put my hand over it and the energy healed my pain.

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron tells readers to get up in the morning when the subconscious mind is near the surface and just start writing whatever comes out. Just keep the pen moving across the page and don’t stop, I think for half an hour or so. The first week or so I was bored, but I did it because I’d agreed to.  After about six months, I looked back and was amazed. Where did this information come from? Not from my thinking mind.

Spiritpower did not come from my thinking mind, but from a higher part of myself, almost like I was a medium transmitting to me. I didn’t tell people that because they would have thought I was crazy. If it had I would have planned it all out, and even as I was writing I would have been editing, which is thinking. I couldn’t have written anymore. When the thoughts flowed, to me they came from the non-thinking mind. I remember reading an article on where creative people get their inspiration. There’s no way of proving whether it comes through the higher part of themselves—their higher power—or whether it comes to them through some other entity and they’re acting like a channel or a medium. Somehow you know when it’s you. If it’s not, then who is it?

I got some feedback on the book from people in the publishing world. One said, “Get it out, and then go back and revise it for a second edition.” That’s what I’m doing, actually. Before comes out again, I’ll do a couple of three-day workshops. In the last chapter, which you liked, I had the applications. I was told that the practical stuff was boring and I should make it separate. So I did, and now I’m questioning that decision.

The power in Spiritpower is getting into your being, becoming mindful and creating. This is how you connect with your higher power, how you open a relationship with it, how its energy comes through you, whether it’s in words or without words or pure energy. It happens through the pain. That’s the connection. You get established in being, in this empty space. The process begins in a non-thinking way, but eventually you can start thinking because your intellect will start working from your being instead of from your lower mind. Then the insights you get are different than what comes from the left brain. It’s an understanding that we can call wisdom, which doesn’t come from the physical world, but from another realm.

You probably remember the Beatles singing, “In times of darkness Mother Mary speaks to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.” This is a reference to the real deep understanding that comes from the depths of being rather than from the thinking mind. Whether you’re creating a novel or a career or a baby, the creative energy of the universe is the energy of being. It’s the doorway to wisdom, to your superconscious mind or your higher power.

From having the experience of being you can move on to the cultivation of being. The wordless mind becomes wider and deeper and more and more habitual. You can’t force your mind to stop thinking, but somehow you have to be aware of what’s going through your mind and be willing to get into a space where your thoughts can immediately translate into action. Intellectual thinking doesn’t lead to action, just to more thinking and more ideas. From being, the concepts become embodied in the world as actual events. It’s creative energy.

One way of getting there is koan practice. You have a question that the thinking mind can’t answer. There is no answer, but you take it seriously and stay with it. Sungsan Sunim’s said, “Only go straight—don’t know. Try, try, try for ten thousand years nonstop.” He meant that whatever the paradox or the problem is, stay with it until the thinking mind gets exhausted. Then it will drop away, and the non-thinking mind will give you the answer.

Let me use an example by analyzing a koan, which you’re not supposed to do. Two groups of monks are fighting over a cat, both groups claiming that the cat belongs to them. So the master comes, grabs the cat by the tail, takes a sword and says, “Okay, give me the correct response, and I’ll save this cat. Otherwise, I’m going to kill it.” Nobody does, so he kills it. So the koan is if you were there, how would you save the cat’s life? The thinking mind can’t give you an answer, but your heart can. The answer they wanted was “cut” with a gesture at the throat, meaning, “Don’t take the cat. Here, take me.” The other people are only yakking, which is all superficial ego stuff. Coming to that point where you are ready to give your life to save a cat, that doesn’t come from thinking.

If you keep the koan, you keep giving all these thinking answers, and the Zen master keeps whacking you with a stick. Until the mind realizes that it’s bankrupt, it’s not going to go anywhere, and then BOOM, the answer appears. In life it’s a decision about what to do—this or that—when your thinking mind can’t come up with the answer. Sungsan Sunim’s advice is stay with the fact that you don’t know. “Only go straight—don’t know.”

From being, you get an experiential answer. You tasted an orange, but you don’t have to describe it to me because I know what an orange tastes like. It’s a matter of exploring a whole new dimension of yourself. But you have to allow yourself a few minutes every day on the clock. It’s hard because your thinking mind will protest that it’s boring and nothing’s happening. Say you’re washing dishes, but instead of getting into the motion of dishwashing, the thinking mind tells you to put on a tape or listen to the news. It wants stimulation, right?

There’s nothing wrong with the thinking mind, but it breeds only one kind of understanding.  Deep understanding comes when the intellect works from being, from a mindfulness state. It’s doable. It’s immediately translated into action. For example, Dr. Phil did a program about adult kids who had all moved back in with their parents. The parents were living in a trailer court, and the neighbors complained. Well, the kids refused to leave. The parents came to Dr. Phil. If he were working just with his thinking mind, he could have interviewed each child—there were about four of them—and interviewed the parents, and the discussion wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. Instead he put a satellite hookup in front of the house and said, “Okay, do we have permission to go inside and take their things out? We’ll put a new lock on the door, and we’ll provide each of your children with three months’ rent in an apartment until they can get themselves going. Will you allow me to do this?” The parents said yes, and they watched it happen. That’s an example to me of a thought that came from before thinking.

On one of my meditation retreats in Korea at Sudoksa, I spent three months thinking, thinking, thinking, thinking. It was supposed to be meditation. I begged myself to stop thinking. I did it for three months. It was exhausting. I was sitting a meditation retreat, but inside I was “Aw, man!” I’ve come a long way from that.

UPDATE:  On Dec 15, 2010, in response to Part 1, John wrote: “Actually, throughout my life–wherever I found myself and in whatever circumstances, I’ve always felt that my lifestyle was hardly interesting enough to write home about–yet I always felt  quite content with myself wherever I was and whatever I was doing,  and I still feel that way.”

The Man behind “Spiritpower,” Part 1

by on Friday, December 10th, 2010

John Barazzuol's "Spiritpower"

In Korea I knew John Barazzuol under his Korean Zen monk’s name, Dogong Sunim. At that time he was teaching Buddhist meditation at Lotus Lantern, a center that had been set up primarily for interested foreigners. I studied under him for four and a half years before he returned to Canada. In 2009 after a writers’ conference north of Seattle, a friend and I went up to Vancouver to see him. This interview took place on that trip. My friend Kelly said he was the kindest man she had ever met. (Check out the Spiritpower link on your right.)

There was a time when I had inside me an emptiness or a pain which I knew no relationship, no amount of money, no possessions, was going to fill or overcome. I got a job on a freighter and worked my passage from Canada to Japan, where I taught English for two years.

In Tokyo I got interested in the sadhus, the holy men or wandering monks in the Hindu tradition. I decided to go to India and live as they lived. I gathered all my friends together, threw a big dinner and a big party and gave everything away except my ticket back to Vancouver, which I had exchanged for a ticket to New Delhi. On my way to India, I passed through Kuala Lumpur, and I thought, “I have to go to the Buddhist temple.” I never made it to India. I ordained as a Buddhist monk. But before the ordination a grandfatherly monk took me aside and said, “Okay, son, now it’s time to decide if you want to be a monk all your life.” My first thought was that I didn’t even know what I was going to be doing in five years. I decided I had to do it, but not for life. So that was the beginning.

My idea had been to travel around with no money, but after I ordained I got three square meals a day and clean sheets. Instead of getting out of the world I was fed up with, I found that actually I was getting into a whole different social system. I was shocked to find myself an object of public worship, with people bowing down to me. I thought it was a big mistake, they had the wrong person, but I couldn’t say that. About four or five years later, I noticed that my ego had picked up on it and was telling me I must be a pretty good person because everyone was bowing to me all the time. One day a Sri Lankan monk said, “First I’m a human being, second I’m a monk.” I’d thought a monk was something really special, but then told myself I was just a human being. I was working through a lot of things.

My teacher was the Chief High Priest of Malaysia. He told me, “There are two kinds of monks, a social monk who works in society and a meditation monk. You can do your meditation seriously when you’re old and tired. You’re young now. You’ve got to help people.” So I started studying Buddhism, and he gave me a class. I would study a chapter and teach a chapter. That’s how I learned.

The Theravadan tradition is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism, formed in India and quite conservative. I had a particular role which included giving blessings. As an intellectual who was interested in the teachings, I had a hard time relating to the devotional people who only wanted to be blessed. I remember one time a prostitute came to the temple. She said, “Please pray to the Buddha that I get more customers. My mother’s sick, and I want to look after her.” I was disgusted that she didn’t want any teaching. I did some chanting and she went away happy.

There was a big pagoda where I used to meditate in the morning and in the evening. One day these two American social workers came into the temple, and they said, “What are you doing here, young man? You’re sitting here doing nothing.”

“But I’m not doing nothing. I’m meditating.”

“You’re sitting. You’re doing nothing. Why aren’t you helping the poor pregnant mothers whose partners have left them? The poor people in the street?” They had a whole list of all the social work. “Why aren’t you doing all this?”

“Look, if I can’t make myself peaceful, I can’t make other people peaceful. If I can’t make myself happy, I can’t make other people happy. Whatever it is, I’ve got to work on myself first.”

They just shook their heads and said, “It’s such a shame. You can even justify your laziness.”

To this day I think there’s a time when you have to help yourself, and there’s a time when you have to help others. In the I Ch’ing there’s a hexagram of the well, which is a symbol for nourishment. If your well is going to nourish people, it has to be in good working order. I was fixing my well.

After studying Buddhism for about two years and teaching classes and studying, I was sitting in the library wondering how much more studying I would have to do. Over the week, I got a clear and solid answer that I didn’t have to learn anymore for me. If I practiced everything I’d learned, I had enough material for the rest of my life. But if I wanted to help other people, then I had to study more in order to pass those these ideas on to them. That would be my service.

One of my jobs on Sunday morning was to lead the kids in chanting. One Sunday I was sick in bed, and another monk had taken my job. I heard the Pali chanting across the courtyard and remembered being an altar boy as a Roman Catholic. Then it was Latin, now it was Pali. I thought, I don’t need to do this anymore. What am I doing? But the next week I was back in the shrine because I realized that just because I was finished with it didn’t mean other people were. It’s like my leg was healed, but I didn’t need to break the crutch. Give it to someone else. Chanting has a devotional element to it, whether it’s Buddhist or Christian, almost like you are praying, in the sense of appealing to the Buddha or the Virgin Mary as a protector and helper. There’s nothing wrong with that. But when I say I don’t need something anymore, it’s like I’m strong enough in myself.

When I ordained, some people seemed to think I was running away from the world, but it was really clear to me that I wasn’t. The first thing that came out to me was: if you throw a fish in the water, the fish doesn’t ask you why. I felt I belonged, and that was good, but that wasn’t really enough. I still had to work on me. There was something that wasn’t right, and the monastic environment and the monastic role would help me. That’s why I told the social workers, “I can’t make other people happy if I’m not happy.” I really meant that. I can’t go into a prison and tell people I had news for them.

It has to do with karma. Whatever lessons we’ve got to learn, there are people who just go inside. They are withdrawing spirits who take their energy away from life and go back to the source. Others pull their energy down to the world and create things. I thought I was one of the retreating people, but I wasn’t. Any time I tried to go on retreat by myself, I could last only one month alone. I had to go into town and talk to somebody. I needed to be with people. That’s where my work was.

When I went into the Korean tradition the monk who took me in was Sungsan Sunim, who was traveling all over the world. I didn’t realize it then, but he was modeling how to live in the world with this kind of spirit. One day after a three-month retreat, I was bowing to show my respect, and he said, “This retreat was only for ninety days, why don’t you do one for ten years?” That was when I knew I could take my meditation anywhere. I remember being on a subway in Seoul or being in the Hilton Hotel and yet telling myself I was on retreat. The real challenge was to live a spiritual life without the monastic props. Being a monk out in the world means being aware of your spiritual values and your spiritual life as you live your daily life, meditating while walking down a busy street with noisy traffic going by.

When I ordained in Korea, I lived in Hwagye Temple outside Seoul. Others from Europe and America came to Hwagyesa to ordain, and I discovered that the role of the monk in the Korean tradition was much broader and less rigid than in the Theravadan tradition. You get up early in the morning and bow 108 times and do some chanting, and then you’re free. What are you going to do then? They wanted me to teach English in order to attract people to the temple. But I felt I hadn’t become a monk to teach English. I found a role for myself at Lotus Lantern teaching Buddhism, which I was happier doing.

To me being a monk was a real privilege. You didn’t have to worry about making money to pay the bills, cooking your food, storing your food—it was all taken care of. I heard of a Scottish monk who had been an accountant. He got fed up with it, so he joined a monastery, but then he was stuck doing the monastery finances. You live in a special environment, but you can’t count on the whole world to support you all the time.

In Korea you could do what you wanted. I had trouble with my back. There was a little basket with straps used by working people when they carried stuff. Well, one fall the leaves were all over the temple yard, so I started gathering the leaves and putting them in the basket on my back. Monks kept coming and telling me I didn’t have to do that kind of work. The guy who was supposed to do it thought I was a god who had down from heaven to help him. One winter it snowed so heavily that tree branches cracked all over the mountain. The monastery cooked with wood. People were hired to gather it, but for my back I would saw off the tree branches and carry them up to the temple in the basket. It really healed my back. My body would love being in a certain position on the slope and cutting trees. I might have had severe back trouble otherwise.

A thirty-day meditation retreat had a daily work routine. Food was provided by the people who did the cooking and cleaning, but monks did work like sweeping the floor, taking out the garbage, burying the garbage, doing household work, sweeping the courtyard and wiping the floor of the meditation hall with a wet cloth. In the nun’s temple, the nuns did their own cooking, and they were incredible cooks!

It’s not so in the Theravadan tradition, where monks meditate and let other people do all the support work. Once my teacher in Kuala Lumpur went to Paris and stayed with Venerable Rahula, the author of What the Buddha Taught, who was teaching at the Sorbonne. Ven. Rahula cooked dinner, and afterwards he was slowly and mindfully drying the silver. My teacher asked what he was doing.

He said, “I’m practicing mindfulness.”

“You’re a scholar. Why don’t you work on your dictionary or another book? Let somebody else do that.” That’s not the Zen attitude. Monks till the field, they grow the vegetables, they do whatever they’re supposed to do.

One time I was doing a retreat, and I went into the meditation with the question, “Why am I not enlightened? Now, right now. Why am I not now?” I took it beyond words, so deep that I wasn’t even aware I was in the room. I wasn’t in this reality. I didn’t know I was moaning and groaning and mumbling and shouting. All of a sudden, I heard this American monk say, “Dogong Sunim, are you all right? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know—yeah, yeah, I’m okay.”

“You’re making all these strange noises. What’s the matter?”

So I said, “You tell them I can’t come for dinner.”

So I went up on a mountain ridge that went down into a valley where there was only one farmhouse. In Korea, if you wanted to get rid of excess energy, you could yell yahoo. So I shouted for about three or four hours. All this garbage started coming out of me, all kinds of stuff. Then the frequency changed, and I started channeling a higher energy. That night I was so energized I couldn’t sleep. But I got the answer. “Hey, Mr. Monk, you’re a human being, and you’ve got all this crap inside of you, and that’s why you’re not enlightened.” That was good.

Sudok Temple or Sudoksa

About a quarter of the way up the mountain from Sudok Temple was a little private meditation hut. Right before a retreat Sungsan Sunim told me about a woman who wanted the experience of being alone up there. He said to me, “Would you mind giving it to her? She wants it for two weeks.”

I said, “I don’t care. It’s not mine.”

So I met her at Sudoksa to take her up to the amjah, and one of the young Korean monks gave me a look with a glint in his eye, as if to say I was taking this woman up to my private space. I said, “I’m going to be sleeping up there tonight.”

“Yeah, I know, okay.”

Now, I was a good little Catholic boy. I got her settled in, and I decided to go back to Sudoksa to show that guy. When I was walking down I realized that whatever I did, it was damned if you did and damned if you didn’t.  I really got an insight into it didn’t matter what other people thought. That was a good lesson.