Archive for February, 2011

More Than One Right Way, Part 2

by on Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Seoul's Banpo Bridge with apartment blocks behind

We had a union for a year and a half. Despite the fact that each of the employees made more money for his position than anyone else in the country—a fact that we were quite proud of—the junior staff set one up. These new members were the equivalent of Harvard and Yale graduates, who were suddenly trying to bill themselves as “the downtrodden.” They weren’t hurting. The most junior person was driving a Hyundai Sonata to the office and paying for parking all day long. In the States, if I had driven to work as a young loan officer, my financial background would have been investigated. Like any new movement in its infancy, people took it to extremes. They ordered tee-shirts, they insisted that the company buy musical instruments so that they could demonstrate. They even insisted that the company pay for music lessons, so their noise would be “more soothing to management.”  The instruments are still in their cloth carrying-cases in the union room, which has been abandoned. They’ve never been used.

The sad part about it was that we had, then as well as now, people in senior management who genuinely cared about the junior people—that they had a reasonable lifestyle, that they made progress and that they got training. During union negotiations, people started to wake up to the fact that the senior management did care. Then they started to attack middle management as the guys “lying on the ground not moving”—the current trendy expression used to describe a Korean bureaucrat’s survival strategy.  Somebody has to be responsible. Over a period of eighteen months they went through all the possible targets, even me, the foreign senior executive.

The president told me, the union’s suddenly having issues with you.”

“I’d like to find out what they are.”

“Good, I think you ought to talk with them.”

So I sat down with them, and darned if they hadn’t figured out a way to hate me and to pin all the problems on the fact that there were foreign shareholders. By the end of that meeting, myths were dispelled and the union had exhausted itself. They’d run the gamut.

It ended with an incident at a company outing, later dubbed the Staff Outing Uprising. Every year you have the obligatory mountain climb in company uniforms. It’s supposed to be a “company unity” event with singing and drinking until all hours and gambling with seed money provided by the company. Then the next day there’s a forced march up a hill. All you see are the heels of the person in front of you—no stopping, no resting, no enjoying. At the end there’s the obligatory song, lunch, and everybody splits. On this occasion at four in the afternoon of the first day, over the second drink, one man in middle management—a guy who didn’t want to be there—said he didn’t want to go on the hike the next day. He clashed with the man who’d set this up, who really enjoyed the minutiae of the planning much more than the result. The man who didn’t want to be there slugged him.

The president and I went numb. We walked out because we were both so upset. That night we tried to create some reconciliation by having people break up into teams and make a list of things that could improve the company. The spokesmen for each team suddenly felt empowered to make outrageous, insulting statements on behalf of the team, things that they would never say in normal Korean society. It snowballed. They started being as insulting as they could while still being funny—with a “can you top this one” attitude. It got hysterical. It became a devastating indictment of management. Many of the staff were laughing, some from embarrassment and some from wicked delight. The president was humiliated. He went bright red and then white. He couldn’t believe that these young people would speak to him like that. But the Korean management just sat there stoically. That was the catharsis.

The venting of this hostility marked the beginning of the end of the union—there was little left to fight over. The next day the two who got into a fistfight were walking arm-in-arm up the hill, and the junior people had broken up into fresh groups in order to come up with constructive solutions to the problems underlying the tension that had broken out. We set up some focus teams—on compensation, benefits, career paths. But we set ground rules insisting on mutual respect. It was healthy because we came up with about a hundred points where we needed improvement. We made some changes, and then everything slowed down. There were no more ghosts to fence with. And really, when it came right down to it, what the union members wanted was more recognition, more communication. They wanted a forum for speaking out.

Now, let me say I believe that at one time many of the unions in Korea, particularly in manufacturing, were an absolute necessity for reform. The government was lying about inflation—calling it 9.9%, when it might be 25% in a given year—and trying to keep salary growth at 5%. People were losing tremendous purchasing power, some were being disenfranchised, and factory workers were vastly underpaid compared to the productivity gains and progress in the economy and to the rise in housing and food prices. But most of those injustices were corrected in the first two years of the unionization of Korea, when there were huge pay increases. At our bank the conflict wasn’t about money, benefits, overtime pay, life insurance or health insurance. There was a need for understanding among different generations. There was a need for a conduit for communication. There wasn’t a need for a union.

Actually, even before the Staff Outing Uprising, the men in the union had virtually abandoned it so they wouldn’t have to deal with the women’s issues. The women had more votes, and they were saying, “Give us a 30% salary increase and you take a 5% salary increase. Give us a career path. Don’t make us leave when we get married.”

The men complained, “They don’t understand the sophistication of the problems that we have.”  They also wanted a career path and more money, but they saw their issues as much different. “Really, how can we take this seriously when we have to sit across the table from women who are making these ridiculous demands that have nothing to do with business.”  I was rooting for the women on that one.

The way we treat women here is just outrageous. The women have the same credentials as the men have, but we pay them very little. Up until two years ago we insisted that they leave either when they got married or when they reached twenty-five, whichever came first. We have changed that system, so that now they can stay. And we’ve played some catch-up on salary, so that they no longer make half of what the men do, but it’s still no more than say 65% of the male salary.

We hire only the graduates of leading universities—Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University. The job interviews are incredibly sexist. We ask women job candidates, “Will you do the three C’s—coffee, copies, cleaning?”  Anyone who seems to have a negative reaction is not hired. The interviewers are the senior Koreans and me. We would each score people separately. In the early days when I didn’t speak much Korean, I was looking for body language, eye contact, poise, energy, that sort of thing. At the end of these sessions we would compare our scores, and the correlation was amazing—but only with the men.

We had a woman here who had a double major in math and economics. I thought, “My God, if she stays with us, if we treat her halfway decently, she’s going places.”  They didn’t ask her a single question about her studies. They asked her about her religion, what her mother did, what her father did, if they were living together, had there ever been a divorce in the family, when she was going to get married. I mean, the more talented a woman was, the more demeaning the questions were. They did hire her.

About a year after she was hired, an anonymous discrimination complaint was filed with the Bureau of Labor Standards and the National Labor Relations Board. The male staff of the Labor Relations Board visited the male staff of the bank. During the time it took to drink one cup of tea, it was decided that there was no problem, that we were really the most progressive of Korean institutions. That was the end of it. Six months later this woman quit. I was really sorry to see her go. I had insisted on including her in departmental lunches. But I got comments, even from the youngest male staffer, like, “She’s arrogant.”

“What do you mean ‘She’s arrogant’?”

“She seems to be very impressed with herself and what she knows.”

“But is she right?  Is she just demonstrating that she knows something?”

“Well, she’s—she’s just very arrogant.”

No one would listen. When I tried to bring a moderating influence into the conflict, they laughed at me as much as they laughed at her.

Some time ago we took a woman who’s been working with us for five or six years and made her an officer in a new investment support team. It was very much a token position, but Korean management saw this move as being really avante guarde, really ground-breaking. I said, “Fine, now that’s entry level. How much longer before she becomes an assistant manager?”  People just looked at me like I was from the moon. Ultimately, she left for the States, where she’s doing quite well. Then people forgot about women officers.

At my home bank in the States, we had a couple of Korean American women, like Sandra Noh, who is a vice-president. When she came out to Korea for a brief visit, I was delighted to show her around. She was far more advanced than the male staff here, so that she could actually teach them. People looked at her as quite an oddity. There was a lot of giggling, a lot of discomfort and a lot of sexual innuendo from the men, but I saw that the women were cheering her on.

More Than One Right Way, Part 1

by on Friday, February 18th, 2011

Seoul Tower from the South Mountain (Namsan)

My friend Lawrence is a confident, good-looking, soft-spoken man, a 45-year-old executive vice-president of an investment bank here in Seoul. When I asked him what he felt he had gained from his six years in Korea, he said, “Finding out that there is more than one right way of doing things.”  He enjoys watching people, and he speaks of his Korean colleagues with obvious affection. I suspect that he also enjoys molding himself to fit into different environments and circumstances.

Lawrence’s Story

In Japan I once worked with someone who was a nice man, but not a deep thinker. He looked at people from cultures other than his own as a mystery, almost as a science project. He would read the occasional 250-word essay, go around asking about cultural differences and making lists, and then he would try to deal with people from other cultures according to the formulas he’d worked out.

I would say, “Well, this won’t work, because Mr. Suzuki will react this way, and Mr. Saito will react that way.”  He truly expected all Japanese to behave in the same way. Finally, he got so frustrated that he wasn’t plugging in—and he noticed that I was—that he said I should become his bellwether, or his eyes and ears.

I’m not threatened by cultural differences because I know that I can go off with a person, talk one-to-one, and discover that we’re the same—we all have the same needs and the same desires. Of course, the taboos about expressing them are different. In the West it’s okay to be greedy. In Korea, greed is the last thing you want to show. Here it’s okay to express self-pity, whereas it’s not in the West—you’ve got to tough it out with a stiff upper lip. I’ve had strapping young Korean men refuse to go on business trips because the food wouldn’t be good for their health, and Korean management accepts this attitude with equanimity.

Japanese management is bottom-up. Change starts at the bottom and requires consensus. For example, one day I found some pencils which were better than the ones we were using, and they had erasers on them. I sent someone out to buy them, but no one would use them. I said to our senior Japanese advisor, “This is crazy. We have better pencils sitting there, and they’re still using the old ones. It makes no sense.”

He suggested that I circulate a proposal for acceptance, describing the benefits of the pencils and mentioning that we’ll save money by using them. The memo went through all the lower ranks, and people expressed their agreement by putting their chops [stamped signatures] on it. Under the ringi-sei system, as long as everybody’s chop is right-side up, the memo continues to circulate. If somebody’s chop is upside down, people approach the person who disagrees and try to deal with the problem. Once everybody’s in agreement, you can act. It took six weeks for the petition to circulate and to agree upon a date to start using the pencils. When that date arrived, they used them.

Of the three Confucian cultures, Koreans seem to have the strongest appreciation of an autocratic system. Younger people may talk about resisting it, but they abhor weakness in leadership. It’s a very top-down management structure. For example, the chairman of a famous chaebŏl has a morning presidents’ meeting. The presidents of his companies receive their orders and do what he instructs, and they’re constantly checking with him. When I came to this bank six years ago, the top twenty-six managers would meet every morning for instruction from the man who was then president, who typically just expounded on the latest political developments. One person talked. Those present then went back to their departments and held meetings to report on what happened in the management meeting. We didn’t start work until eleven. Fortunately, that didn’t last.

One of the first things you’re asked when you come to Korea is, “How old are you?”  People want to know the exact date because age determines how people position themselves. With the seniority system, people are promoted when they reach a certain age and length of service. We don’t have the luxury, which the merit system does, of putting the right person in the right job. What I mean is that in a small company you have people you would trust to make the right credit decision, but not to keep a very orderly set of books and records or to go somewhere to negotiate a deal. We’re constantly re-jiggering teams in order to compensate for the fact that the wrong person is in the senior position—or sometimes it’s a younger person in the wrong job. But people are very comfortable with the system and very tolerant when their boss is no good at the job he’s in.

There’s always the assumption that he has other talents which compensate. It’s accepted that he’s older and that’s his due, and it’s up to the other members to compensate for the weaknesses and create a competent team. The boss is a person who in the West might be forced out, but here he can enjoy a standard of living based upon his position in the company and his academic background. He can provide for his family on the same basis as the other people who came in at the same time. If the job is getting done well enough—so that it’s a matter of being either ruthlessly efficient or just competent but responsive to customer needs—I think it’s probably worth it to accommodate. People look at their work as a team effort, and it creates more of a family atmosphere in the workplace. It’s their system and it works.

With a merit system you could probably create a smaller team because you wouldn’t have to be filling in these blanks. But when the merit bonus system was introduced this year, I voted against it because I saw the divisiveness it would create. You know, in investment banking in the United States, someone’s bonus could one to four times his or her salary, and yet one person in three will complain even after getting a large bonus—acting ready to quit because it wasn’t enough or covering for gross inadequacies and a feeling it wasn’t deserved. Then there are people who get no bonuses at all, and they are outraged. So I can’t say that the American system is better. And I see other examples of this every day.

In Korean companies people are very rank-conscious and very careful not to cut across boundaries. I know almost all of the hundred and thirty people in the company. It’s quite clear that President Ahn knows far fewer than I do because in his position he’s not supposed to associate with junior people. Since management is very top-down, all communication is vertical. Junior people in the bond department, for example, are supposed to deal just with other people in their department—communication with other departments takes place at a higher level. So people think only in terms of what’s good for their department. Well, there are times when we don’t want to be heavily into the bond market, but the bond department feels that it’s failing if it doesn’t book this business, which is very poorly-priced and unprofitable, and that the department is not getting needed support from management. A more flexible approach would be to take a few people from the bond department during slow times and put them in stock trading, and then focus on bond underwriting again when the market comes back. Korean management knows this, but they will not buck well-entrenched norms.

At the same time, there are deep divisions between employees of various age groups because of the economic explosion and the other changes in the culture. So we’ve got fifty-year-olds who rose through old school ties, hometown affiliations and family money. We’ve got forty-year-olds who came with academic credentials from leading universities and who believe getting the degree was their lifetime achievement and they shouldn’t have to go looking for work. We’ve got twenty-five and thirty-year-olds who feel that this degree was just the first step—that now they have to prove themselves. The differing sets of expectations can cause a lot of conflict. While President Ahn is independently wealthy and works for prestige rather than salary, there are junior people who are saying, “Why can’t I be earning a six-figure salary?”  The younger people have not experienced the financial hardships that the older people have or seen the government take away people’s jobs or put them in jail for speaking out. I bridge all the groups because as a foreigner I don’t count. Once they learned that I was not going to repeat anything to their detriment, people at all levels started confiding in me. They say things to me that I wish they could say to each other.

Contrary to what usually happens in investment banking and in Korea as a whole, in this bank senior management works harder than middle management, and middle management works harder than junior staff. I arrive around 8:00 in the morning and I leave between 6:30 and 8:00 at night. We have short opening hours as part of the government’s effort to conserve energy. Among the junior people, there is seldom a soul out there before 9:30 in the morning or after 5:30 in the afternoon. I get calls from London—opening time in the UK is about six o’clock at night here—and I’m always disappointed when I get an exciting business transaction and want to put a team together. I go out into an empty room. So I have to sleep on it, and it loses some of the fun. It would be nice to have the occasional times—maybe once a month—when people are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing that they forget the time.

I remember one guy I’d taken under my wing. I really thought he had tremendous potential. He was interested in learning how to do financial projections on the Lotus computer program—I’d  actually written a program for financial projections some years ago—and we had a live case to work on. He was very enthusiastic. I said, “Let’s project this out five years and see if the company can repay on the basis of your assumptions. And we’ll put together a proposal. I’ll meet you tomorrow morning at eight.

Hhhhwwtt. He went deadpan. “We start at 9:30.”

“Well, you’re going to miss it, because I’m starting at eight.”

As I found out later, he got together with some of his peers and discussed whether he should concede on this point or not. He wandered in about 8:15, late enough to make a statement. It took some of the fun out of it, but he did at least show up. In an American or Japanese organization hewouldn’t have been so reticent to let me do him a favor.

Buddhism at a Cultural Intersection

by on Monday, February 7th, 2011

Meditation class at Sudok Temple with Wonmyong Sunim and Chikwan Sunim

The old part of Seoul near Kyongbok Palace always seemed soothing and energizing despite the traffic. In the late 1980s and the 1990s, you could walk along the walls surrounding Changyong Palace, under the closely trimmed sycamore trees and past the tiny parks which are so welcome in a huge city, and then up crooked, narrow little streets of ancient houses and little shops to Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Center. The center has since moved to Ganghwa near Incheon City. [Please see the link on the right.]

Many things happened at the center—meditation classes, classes in Buddhist teaching, some with an eye toward improving people’s English, regular services of chanting and 108 bows, dharma talks on aspects of the teaching, traditional Korean tea ceremonies, monthly pot-luck dinners, publication of books and a newsletter, a big celebration of Buddha’s Birthday, and workshops on things ancient and modern. It was squarely in the middle of the crossroad between East and West, with a great deal to offer people from both. Just before its fourth birthday, two branch centers were established in Russsia.

In 1992, I met with one of the center’s co-founders, Michael Roehm, an attractive, energetic man in his forties. Michael was leaving Korea after a tenure of almost ten years. We sat in a comfortable coffee shop drinking coffee and listening to recorded jazz being played softly in the background.

[Readers may be interested in checking the website archives for other Westerners’ experiences with Buddhism. Dogong Sunim, aka John Barazzuol, post “The Man behind Spiritpower,” published on December 10 and 19, 2010. Brian Barry in the post “The Temple Painter,” published September 11, 2010.  For Buddhism in Hong Kong, the post “A Monk’s Tale,” published January 5, 2010.]

Michael’s Story

One of the things that makes Lotus Lantern interesting is that it exists at a cultural intersection. It’s unique in Korea—and even unique, as far as I know, in most Buddhist countries. It’s a center that is deliberately not a temple, where you have innovation and new ideas existing in the setting of a very old, xenophobic tradition. Therefore it is highly unusual, and so far still an experiment.

Originally Wonmyong Sunim [a Korean monk] and Mujin Sunim [a Canadian nun] were thinking about starting a Buddhist magazine. I had some experience with that sort of thing, since in my work at a university in Washington I’d edited many publications. So I sat with them and listened and then said, “This is all very interesting, but I don’t think you realize what it entails. Most magazines go bust.”

They gave up the idea, wisely. Then they came up with the idea of a center. With Brian Barry as the other layperson, there were four of us who thought there was no place in Korea which could provide foreigners with reliable and helpful information on Buddhism and also give foreign Buddhists a place to come to—and Koreans who were interested as well. So we got together in a coffee shop, and we started to flesh out the idea. We needed a name. I thought the name should be concrete and should have an image, like a wind-chime, but distinctly Korean. Brian came up with the name Lotus Lantern.

In those days Wonmyong Sunim was working full-time as part of the Chogyesa headquarters hierarchy. He’s very well liked, and he knows a lot of people. He talked with lay supporters who provided the rent money. Mujin Sunim jumped into it, and we looked at a lot of buildings and finally found the present building. By virtue of circumstances and her own personality, Mujin became the manager of the place. She was the only full-time person, and she had a modern sense of order and of what needed to be done. Then eventually Dogong Sunim came from another temple, to some extent Chikwan Sunim also got involved, and a yoga teacher offered to teach classes after going to India for more training.

The concept we discussed in the coffee shop was that we wanted to set things up in such a way that Lotus Lantern was not dependent on any one individual. That proved impossible. Both of the clergy are indispensable, and it turned out that neither of the laypeople could devote as much time to the place as we had thought. After two years we abandoned the idea of rotating the courses so that all of us could teach everything. Dogong Sunim took over the meditation classes and the Exploring Buddhism classes. I took the sutra study.

Becoming a Buddhist

When I was twelve years old, my father died. I started to question God. I bought some books on Oriental religions. This had the local minister going up the wall. There was a real confrontation. He said, “You have to have a book.”

“OK, I take the Tao Teh Ching. Taoism is my book. All right? Happy?”

I got out the World Almanac and wrote to every non-Christian group I could find—the Bahai, the Jews, the Unitarians, and the Buddhists. The first response I got was from a Buddhist group in California. They sent something on the Four Noble Truths. [These are usually translated as the following: life is suffering; suffering comes from desire; suffering can be overcome; follow the Eight-fold Path.] At thirteen I was not ready for that. I thought it was awfully pessimistic. The Unitarians sounded nice, so my mother and I went to one of their meetings. We were living in Ben Avon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and we went trooping through a snowstorm over to the East Side for a meeting, which was rather dull. Gradually Judaism and Bahaism were also eliminated.

Then I got some books on Buddhism. Christmas Humphrey’s Buddhism had just come out in Penguin paperback. It had the address of the Buddhist Society in London, so I wrote to them, and they put me in contact with some Buddhists in Philadelphia. I came to Buddhism that way.

Meanwhile my mother was going out of her mind. She thought this was not normal. At one point she said, “You can’t do this.” My mother had been to boarding school and finishing school and believed it was impossible to buck society. She felt you could believe what you wanted, but you had to go to church to keep up appearances. We had a relative by marriage who had gone to China as a Christian missionary and had converted to Buddhism. His wife divorced him for it. But he persisted and wrote some books on Buddhism which are still in print. So my mother said, “Now you know Dwight Goddard. He could do that because he was a millionaire. You can’t. You go to church.”

Later when I went to American University in Washington, DC, I met other Buddhists. My first meditation teacher was Thai, and my first dharma teacher was Sri Lankan. At that time I was doing some reading on Buddhist philosophy and allowed it to interfere with my practice. It’s common for people to get hung up on the articulation of something rather than doing it. You read so much it mucks things up for you.

Then in 1979 my mother died quite suddenly, and my family responsibility was gone. I decided to go to Sri Lanka and become a monk—full of the romance of it. However, before I left I met a Korean Zen master from Songkwan Temple named Kusan Sunim, who gave a talk at Washington Buddhist Vihara. I spent the whole week driving him around the area and looking after him. When I found out that he was going to have a retreat in California, a friend and I went out there for it.

In Sri Lanka I was ordained in the very conservative, rule-bound Theravadan tradition. I was not favorably impressed with the teacher I had. So when the death of a family friend called me back to the States, I stopped in Korea to see Kusan Sunim and a couple of Westerners I’d met in the States.

In Songkwansa there were some Westerners to talk to, real meditation practice, and Kusan Sunim himself was a great inspiration. He was quite extraordinary. He was a traditional mountain monk, a Zen practitioner who put aside all concepts and just did meditation, living in the mountains away from all involvement with society. It was extraordinary for a monk to be so open to foreigners, to want them to practice with him and to be constantly promoting and defending them. There is no other mountain monk in this country who is open like that.

So I stayed. I took Korean ordination on top of my Sri Lankan ordination. My confusion about practice lifted. Kusan Sunim had me working with a different method, the hwadu. Hwadu practice is by far the most prevalent practice among monks and nuns in the Korean Zen tradition. This is a practice of constant questioning, similar to the koan practice of contemplating paradoxical riddles and having the same purpose, to break outside the bonds of left-brain, linear thinking. The hwadu might be a question turned back on the questioner, such as “Who is it that is sitting? Who is it that is walking? Who is it that is calling the Buddha’s name?” Or, as in my own case, the hwadu might be an unanswerable question that has arisen from the practitioner’s personal experience.

The Zen people in Korea have a very good attitude about reading things on Buddhism. You read your sutras or you read your books, and you put them over there, and you go sit. You forget them. What’s of value has been absorbed. The founder of Songkwansa, the National Master Pojo, developed a method in which meditation and reading the sutras are balanced so that they keep feeding each other. A number of his awakening experiences occurred after a period of intensive meditation, when he’d gone back to a Chinese text and then all of a sudden—click—one word or one sentence would light up, and that was all it took. That’s the purpose of the sutras. They’re not creedal documents, they’re not philosophy, and they’re not novels. They’re supposed to guide your practice. If they do, certain things will go just like snapping your fingers. If you don’t have that experience, go read a murder mystery.

Kusan Sunim died two years later. His successor was not a great meditation master. The value of coming to sit under someone great was gone. Everything fell apart. Of the old group only Chikwan Sunim is left. Being a monk or a nun here is very difficult for a Westerner because of the xenophobia in the temples. Passing through is fine, but people don’t want foreigners as part of the operation. In Korea adjusting to the conflict between Western society and Asian society is a much bigger problem than in Sri Lanka or Thailand because of the Confucian element. Those societies are much more open, more flexible. And at Songkwansa we were in traditional Korea, not in Seoul.

For me on top of that was the fact that I’ve never been a perfect fit for mainstream culture to begin with. I’ve always been on the side—one foot in, one foot out. There was a conflict of things that all came together that I couldn’t resolve. All my real training, apart from meditation, had been as a Theravadan monk. I was wearing the robes of a Mahayanan order, but I didn’t really feel I could wear the robes of either one.

Eventually, I went back to the Pali sutras and discovered that I am really a Theravadan, but with a certain looseness. I reoriented myself, and certain Buddhist problems disappeared. The question of whether to remain a monk or not was a separate issue with a different set of problems. I said to myself, “OK, being a monk now is not the right thing, drop it.” I think now leaving the order was a good thing, instead of running back to Sri Lanka or staying a monk somewhere in Korea, but there’s still a fifty percent chance that I will ordain again because I have a monk’s mind.

I also decided that I liked Korea very much, in some ways much more than Sri Lanka. I didn’t want to go back to being an academic bureaucrat in America. In Korea all I could do was teach English because everything else was closed to me. I taught in a language school for a while, then went to the company language school at Daewoo, then to London for the Royal Society of the Arts certificate in TESL [Teaching English as a Second Language], then back to Daewoo. I stayed on for six years.

Teaching at Lotus Lantern has been very beneficial for me because it has forced me to go deeply into the sutras rather than just read them. The Buddhist sutras are really transcriptions of oral literature, so they show those characteristics—excessive repetition, stock phrases, mnemonic devices and so on. The repetition is not just for aesthetic purposes, as in a symphony, but to drive home a point. It drives Western people nuts.

The translations from Pali and Sanskrit are a problem. But there are also big cultural barriers. In the Indian culture of the time, educated people were expected to be able to versify spontaneously, so in the sutras, people will suddenly burst forth into verse—which strikes us as totally improbable. Indian culture is also excessively verbose, causing one of my students to ask, “Why do they use twenty words when they only need one?” But the thing is, within the tradition of Indian literature, the Pali sutras are very lean. In Sanskrit there would be sixty words for the twenty in Pali. Sanskrit literature is cluttered beyond belief—full of literary allusions and multiple adjectives and hyperbole gone amok.

Yet at the same time, you’ll be reading, and all of a sudden—wham—you’ll be hit, not by the whole thing, but by a golden thread piercing through your consciousness. Given the function these texts are supposed to serve, you read them, you go and practice some more, you have more life experiences and come back and read them again, and you see things you never saw before. Because the meaning is not simply in the text and not simply in you, but in that horizon or fusion between the two. There are certain sutras that I will go back to regularly, after a period of two months or two years, and all of a sudden I see new things and gain new insights. I learned in Korea that proper practice is a combination of formal practice—sitting meditation, walking meditation, everyday mindfulness—and study. Practice and study should be interrelated almost in a dialectical development.

After almost ten years I’m going back to the United States very much changed, in many ways, and Lotus Lantern has been an important part of that. The time has come for me to go—due to a variety of reasons, getting my own house in order and changing what I’m doing. The time is right, but I’m leaving reluctantly. I’ll visit regularly because this country has become part of my blood. When I get back to the States I want to be more oriented to Buddhist work, if not completely involved with it.

[Some time after Michael left, I received a letter from him saying that the reverse culture shock had sent him into such a tailspin that he threw away all considerations of differences in traditions and emerged “just a Buddhist.”]