A Meditation Teacher’s Last Talk
Years ago, our meditation teacher left the Lotus Lantern Buddhist Center in order to return to Canada. He laughed when we gathered in the meditation room and saw seven tape recorders laid out on the floor in front of him. In Canada he removed his monk’s robes and wrote his own book on meditation, which he talked about in “The Man Behind Spiritpower.” When I asked him about his monk’s name, he said, “Do Gong means ‘empty way.’ My interpretation: a way that is empty includes all other ways. So I don’t have a personal path because my path/way is large enough to include all others. Lao Tzy says, ‘Everything comes from nothing.’ “
Dogong Sunim’s story
Buddha told a wandering monk, “I am the one who is fully awake.” Be involved in the process of waking up. What does it mean to wake up? So I started working with the unknowing mind, the mind that is before thinking. This is what Zen is about. So I volunteered to wake up the other monks. I could handle that. Don’t fall into the fog. Wake up.
“What am I going to do with my life, where is my life going, what is the direction of my life?” I thought about that and sat with that for many years.
“I think I need to release some energy.” I went up the mountain, and I yelled for three or four hours. And that night I couldn’t sleep because I had so much energy. An incredible amount of poison, toxin, defilements, negative energies had been released in my body. An enormous amount of junk that I had been holding onto had been released. I had filled the vacuum with a lot of this good, clean, fresh mountain energy. So that got me interested in the whole process of purification. For me, part of the process of waking up is the process of purification, letting go of the impurities that are lodged in the body and the mind. I spent a lot of time working on the five hindrances—desire, hatred, sloth and torpor, laziness, doubt. I spent a lot of time looking at the dark side of myself, looking at the dark side of human nature, of ourselves. I got in touch with stuff in myself that I wasn’t supposed to see, particularly as a monk thinking that I’m such a special person. Stuff like I had a very deep fear of being abandoned, which I think came from childhood. All kinds of restlessness. A lot of doubt and cynicism and skepticism, just all kinds of garbage came up and came out. I worked with this, and sometimes when I was at Lotus Lantern it took the form of talks.
I got interested in Carl Jung because he talked about “the shadow,” which is all these defilements that you can’t see because they’re buried inside you, the energies that are unacceptable to us. Whenever they come up, we push them down and reject them. I was particularly interested in these kinds of energies because these energies represent the real master. The master’s not out there, the master is the stuff in here that we don’t want to look at. That was the master I was looking at. When you look into this deeper side of your unconscious mind, you find a lot of stuff that’s not just negative, some of it is positive. I got in touch with a character deep inside myself that was pushing this waking up process. Deep inside of you are positive forces that will support what you want to do if you can contact them. It said, “As long as enlightenment is your goal, I’ll be around to help you. Whatever you do or don’t do, I will be working with you and through you. You cannot and you will not uproot me.”
Another vehicle that I’ve used is teaching. During the time I’ve been at Lotus Lantern, my focus has been on getting the teaching into my life. Before when I studied Buddhism, the Buddha’s teachings were in my head. I’d just taken them in my head. When I went back to the West with them in my head, I had nothing to offer, just a bunch of information. I realized I had to take this information in my head and put it in my gut and in my toes and in my bones and in my blood and in my life. That’s what I tried to do with the teaching here. So it wasn’t just, “This is what the Buddha said,” it was “OK, this is what the Buddha said, but what does this mean in your life, what does it mean inside your body, what does it mean right now.” I started taking this approach because if the teaching is just dry, intellectual abstractions, they didn’t do anything for me. They didn’t seem to go anywhere. “Understood are the things to be understood, cultivated are the things to be cultivated, eradicated are the things to be eradicated.”
One of the cultivation things I did here was working with love and compassion. I was at Hwagye Temple wandering around in the mountains one day. I had a free day. I said to myself, “where is my practice going? It’s not clear anymore. What do I need to do the practice. What kind of a practice should I do?” Then I said, “Okay, I’m not going to stop walking until I find out what my practice is. I’m not going back to the temple.” I found myself walking down the mountain, which I didn’t like. I thought I was supposed to walk in the mountain. I went on the subway and went to Chongno-3-Ga and started walking up and down the street where they’ve got all these Buddhist stores and shaman places. I started walking up and down, and I walked into a store, and there was a big statue of Kwanseum Bosal [also called Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion]. I walked right into Kwanseum Bosal. Okay, I walked into another store. They’re playing a tape—Kwanseum Bosal. I walked into another store, there are all little wooden statues of Kwanseum Bosal. This went on for about five or six stores. Kwanseum Bosal, Kwanseum Bosal, Kwanseum Bosal, Kwanseum Bosal. And I think, “I think I got the message. I think I can go home now. I think I’d better do something with Kwanseum Bosal.”
So I went back in the subway, and sitting on the subway there was this older Korean lady, and she just had no energy. She was washed out and depressed, and her whole body sort of hung there on the subway. So I did one of my little tricks. I pretended to be asleep, and I sent my mind to her. I tried to radiate some compassion and some love to her. I thought, “Okay, come on. Get to work. Here we go.” I went back to the temple, and I thought, “Okay, this is what I’ve got to work with.” So one of the things I tried to develop is loving compassion. Not in any formal way.
As we go through this process of waking up, we have to each of us follow our own way. “There is no certain way—each of us must make his own way, and when he does that, that way will express the universal way.” Zen Mind, moment to moment as we live our life. If you are on the way to waking up, I hope you find your own particular way and I hope you stay on this way for 10,000 years if necessary but at least until you can experience some kind of a full awakening. I hope that you can be the Buddha that you already are.
The metaphor of waking up has become real to me. I want something that’s workable and practical and pragmatic.
I think the most difficult was to stop the thinking mind and come to a mind that was naturally empty. There was one kilche [meditation retreat] I remember at Hwagye-sa, when my mind was thinking, thinking thinking. About halfway through I said, “Oh, please, please. Stop. Stop. Thinking, thinking thinking. Oh, please, stop. Stop. Stop.” I’m begging myself to stop thinking. And you know, it took me many, many years. When I first meditated, I sat down and went “duh-duh-duh-duh: these are are all the places I went to and all the places I saw and all the kinds of perfume I smelled and all the kinds of food I ate and how I can cook this and I can’t cook that.” Oh, it just didn’t stop! It went on, and it went on, and it went on. One year, the next year, the next year until—I remember I was in Singapore at the time, I was doing the walking meditation and for four steps there was no thought. My mind is empty. And then the next day I went halfway around the room. Then one way around the room! Ooops, lost it. But it took a long time to reach silence because I’ve got all this thinking karma. This is why I’m straddled with teaching. My teacher once told me at the beginning, “Don’t read any books.” And I thought, “Well, that’s fine, because I needed a holiday from books.” But he said, “When your direction becomes clear, you must read.” I’ve always had trouble getting beyond the thinking mind.
Okay, the koans. [For example, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” These are intended to stop the mind from thinking.] A koan is a question that if you bring it up, whatever this question is—in my case it was related to thinking, too. I once asked myself, I was doing koans like “who are you?” “what is this?”and I’d go on for hours and hours. But one day I asked myself, “where does this thinking come from?” And I really looked. I was stunned. I had no idea where it came from. And so whenever I ask myself where my thinking comes from, it just turns right off, because I have no idea. I really don’t have the answer. So to me that’s the function of the koans. When you really get into a koan, then you’ve got your mind at the edge where you know that you don’t know. So your mind just goes, “Okay, I give up.” You’re bankrupt. You’re in a corner. But that’s one way. Then awareness is I think another way. Where you watch the thoughts coming and going.
The mechanics of the koan, as I understand it, is you’re given a little story or something, and your thinking mind thinks. And if you play the game, you think and think and think and think and think and think and think until one day you get the message that your mind is not going to come up with the answer. At that stage you genuinely don’t know. It’s not an attitude. You have no idea because you’ve been thinking about it for months and years. And you know that you don’t know. And that’s the beginning of knowing. But it takes a lot of thinking. For me it took a lot of thinking. So you can turn it off with koans. Mindfulness is good too.
No, the idea is that we each have a self-image. When energy pops up that’s not consistent with the self-image, we push it down. This is what the shadow is all about. Energies that are not acceptable to the conscious mind get pushed down into the unconscious mind where they take on a life of their own. And they work inside the unconscious mind, and then they take over. So you have an idea that you’re some particular kind of person, and then something happens that’s not consistent with that special kind of person you think you are, so you jam it back down again. You don’t recognize it because it’s not you. Or you project it onto someone else—“that dirty, filthy person. It’s not me. I’m pure. That animal.”
Anyway, I found that working with the shadow side is difficult. It’s very slow and it’s very difficult, and it takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of commitment because you have to take a look at parts of yourself that you don’t like and don’t want to see, and you have to be with parts of yourself that are not acceptable to you, and they have to be.
With negative energies, I found that what works best with me was just hanging out with them, living with them, treating them as friends. And if necessary staying up all night with them sometimes until they were ready to leave on their own. And that’s how it worked with me. One night I couldn’t sleep, and I stayed awake all night. And about six o’clock in the morning I just spontaneously started a dialogue between my heart and my mind. And I did a gestalt thing. My heart is over there, and my mind is here. And I went back and forth between the two places physically. And the heart said, “Please, listen to me. You’ve been a big bully, and you won’t listen to me. You just control everything. You override all my decisions.” And the mind said, “I’m sorry if I’ve been doing this.” And they started a dialogue which ended up with their deciding to try to cooperate and work together. And then I went to sleep. But that kind of a transformation was—I let it work on an unconscious level. I didn’t even know what it was until it was ready to come into words. And then through the verbalizing it got released. I don’t know. It happens all kinds of different ways.
But all of this—anybody can do it. But you have to get a focus. You have to turn your energy in and zero in on it and be with it and concentrate and hang out with it and work with it. And so you have to make it sometimes a priority in your life. It doesn’t matter if there’s a business appointment. Tonight you’re going to stay up until this thing is settled—even though you don’t even have words for it. Or you’re not. You go to bed.
Why do you throw a fish in the water? Why do you throw a bird in the air? Why do you become a monk? It was the same. It just happened. I found myself knocking on a monastery door and saying to this man who has become my teacher, “I want to meditate.”
And he said, “I’ve got all the bulldozers and the banging and the scraping and the painting. How could you meditate here?” And I looked at him like, “Are you crazy? I want to meditate.” And this came out of me. I’m looking at myself saying, “What are you telling this man? You can’t meditate.” I’m going, “I want to meditate.” And I’m looking like “where’s this coming from?” And then bang, I’m in robes.
You know, I feel that everyone’s life is like a flow. This is not Buddhism now, necessarily, but anytime my life has taken major turns, it isn’t really my thinking mind. My thinking mind can never really think out what I’m supposed to do. It just happens. I have no idea why. My thinking mind has no idea. None. Completely out to lunch. Not just me, but I think if you’re in the flow with your life, instead of resisting you just sort of go with it. I could never have imagined my life. If somebody had told me that I would have become a Buddhist monk, that I would live in different parts of the world and I would move around from one place to another, I’d say, “You’re crazy.” And if you’d said I would live in Seoul, I’d say, “you’re absolutely out of your mind. Korea?” I had absolutely no interest. But it all happened. I couldn’t have planned it if I’d wanted to. It’s like moment to moment the universe brings all this stuff to us. I’m constantly amazed, and I see it all as a mystery. I have absolutely no idea why all of this happened.
With meditation basically you’re just being yourself. You’re just with yourself, right? Whether you call it Vipassana or Zen or whatever you call it, or whether you to the koan or concentrate on your breath, you’re sitting there. And if you sit long enough, this stuff comes up into your mind. It just comes up. The hells arise, and the heavens arise. My attitude is very Western and very pragmatic. Whatever works, use it. If it doesn’t work, abandon it. When the mind becomes naturally empty, there’s no Zen, there’s no Vipassana, there’s no technique. There’s no teaching, there are no words. It’s just empty.
When there was the silence here, it felt really nice. One of the things that I’ve also discovered in Korea, and I think it’s from the oriental tradition, the focus is on here in the tanjeon or the hara [abdomen]. In Vipassana, sometimes people concentrate up here [nostrils]. But for many years now I’ve had my energy in here, down in the tanjeon. And because of this I’ve finally gotten to reclaim what we call the gut center, the instinctual center. This is also the creative center. And so I feel in the last few years I’ve also gotten in touch with my creative energy, indirectly through the meditation. Just from keeping the mind in this area all the time. I discovered the whole creative energy. When the mind is silent, like we’ve got a silence in here, there’s that silence inside. This is also a way of getting in touch with your creative energy. If somehow you can still your mind—by Zen or Vipassana or being in the mountain or taking a hot bath—anything. Once the mind is quiet inside, then the creative energy can start surfacing.