The two guides I met in Seoul in 1971 provided some intriguing clues about silence. But I didn’t know enough to recognize them. Now, decades later, I needed to look much more closely at what happened there.
Home base for the great Zen Master, Venerable Seo Kyung-Bo was Jeong-gak-won Temple, the serene Buddhist temple on the massive rock in Seoul. This distinguished monk showed me an interior gate I never knew existed, and a map to lead me there.
Knowing of my interest in Zen Buddhism, the ever dignified and gracious President of Kyunghee University, Dr. Choue Young Seek, arranged for me to meet and study with the luminous Zen monk.
The Venerable Seo Kyung-Bo was the Dean of Buddhist Studies at Dongguk University, one of the relatively few Buddhist universities in the world. (1) He was a renowned scholar of the Tripitaka, the most complete body of Buddhist texts in the world. In 1011 CE, Korean monks began carving the scriptures of the Tripitaka into 81,258 birch-wood blocks.
Venerable Seo was nothing like the austere and fearsome man I expected. He wore the simple grey robe of a Korean monk. He was humble and approachable. It felt like a soft breeze when he slipped into our large meditation space. He would teach and give instructions from his teaching table below a giant golden Buddha. Sometimes he would pause and translate for me. Most of the time, though, we sat in silence.
FINDING THE GATE
Venerable Seo taught us zazen, the traditional Zen practice of focusing on the breath. This silent practice has been refined over the centuries as a method. It sharpened concentration and the ability to pay attention.
MY MIND USUALLY RUNS FULL SPEED. After a year of focusing on my doctoral dissertation, my concentration felt pretty sharp. My active mind constantly thought of new ideas and solved problems. It had never occurred to me to stop thinking. When I tried to pause my thinking I was astounded to discover that I had virtually no control over my mind! I could not stay focused on my breath for more than a few seconds. I bounced from one thought to another. I wondered if I spent most of my life somewhere else, lost in thoughts and fantasies. The novice monks and I all worked very hard to steady our minds – to not “wobble” in the silence.
To encourage us to stay focused, there was the kyosaku, the Awakening Stick. This yard-long bamboo pole was ceremoniously carried by the kyosaku-man, usually the largest monk in the group. The kyosaku-man would solemnly walk up and down each row of the seated meditating monks. If a meditator seemed to “wobble”, distracted from the focus on his breathing practice, the kyosaku-man would stop in front of that monk, bow deeply and respectfully, and administer a loud whack to the monk’s shoulder. In gratitude, the student would return the bow.
One morning, having settled onto my cushion, I unconsciously swatted a fly that had landed on my nose. A big mistake, I knew in an instant! Sure enough, moments later, two large feet appeared just in front of me with the big shadow of a monk bowing very low. Then a loud whack!
The sharp crack cut through the deep quietness of the meditation space. But I hardly felt anything – only a blow to my ego. The kyosaku-man was a sweet bear of a Korean man and seemed a bit embarrassed. I was probably the first Westerner he had ever encountered and he had just hit me with a big stick.
During the thick snows and ice blizzards of that harsh Korean winter of 1971, Master Seo worked closely with me and the dozen monks. Fortunately, Paul Reps classic book, Zen Flesh and Zen Bones (2) had just been published in both Korean and English. This became our textbook.
Ven. Seo helped us deepen and refine zazen, the entry point, the silent practice at the very core of Zen Buddhism. We learned that every person can find the natural inner stillness usually drowned out by the mind’s constant internal chatter. “Here, in this deep silence, you will meet your true self,” he said.
ZAZEN IS A MENTAL DISCIPLINE. It provides grounding for the still point. “It is like human development,” he said upon learning about my area of specialization. I was beginning to see that Buddhism and human development have a deep affinity. The lotus blossom, the central image of Buddhism, symbolized the unfolding and blossoming of the human being. The Taoists have a specific word for it: tzu-jan – the constant unfolding of things. Zen presents the organic vision of humans, ready to flourish.
Zazen is the silent entry point into the core of Zen Buddhism,
Zen Buddhism is an ancient way of responding to the interior impulse for rich quietness. I was, in fact, learning a sophisticated method of human development.
And soon there would be an astounding breakthrough.
Ven. Seo and I often talked. I sat on a black cushion on the light brown tatami floor of his study while he sat at his writing table. He joked that we must be from the same family since his name, Seo Kyung-Bo, was so similar to my Korean name, Seo Mi-Bo, (created from the sound of my name, “Smith, Bob”, and the nickname they gave me, “beautiful beard”.) He felt a little like my father, comfortable, kind and wise.
Two clues from Master Seo would change everything.
SUGGESTIONS FOR PRACTICE
- Experiment with stopping thinking for 30 seconds. Are you able to let the thoughts pass by like clouds without getting involved with them? Write about your experience.
(1) Dongguk Post, http://www.dgupost.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=676
(2) Reps, Paul, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, (1961), https://amzn.to/2s0M0tX
©Robert Charles Smith, PHD