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The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  (Translation by Martine Batchelor; edited, with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor.)  Weatherhill 2009. 182 pages.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic introduction to Zen Buddhism–or, as it is called in Korea, Seon Bulgyo (where “seon” is pronounced like English “son”).  But perhaps the word “introduction” is not really appropriate.  If you know nothing about Zen Buddhism this is probably not the best place to start.  If you’ve waded into the ocean of Zen and are looking for a fine “fish” to eat, something tasty and nutritious, something truly representative of these particular “waters” (to carry my analogy near the breaking point), this book is marvelous.

It is not about Japanese Zen, though, but Korean.  The Koreans have been practicing Buddhism longer than the Japanese, plus there is more active, “authentic” Buddhism happening in Korea than in Japan.  (At least that’s been my impression; let me know if you think otherwise.)  This situation, however, is changing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the tradition is dying and is probably ready for life support at this point.  (In Japan it is as good as clinically dead; there is probably more authentic Zen in America than in Japan.)  That said, the Koreans understand the whys and wherefores of koan (or “hwadu”) practice in a way I never got the sense contemporary Japanese do.  This book delves in depth regarding koans and contains prime instruction for anyone utilizing this particular meditation subject.

Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)

Some words about the source of these teachings.  Kusan Sunim was, along with Seong-cheol Sunim (“sunim” means monk in Korean), arguably the greatest living exponent of Zen Buddhism in twentieth century Korea.  He started life as a farmer and barber, was even a married man.  At the age of 26 a life-threatening disease struck him.  He survived by going to a temple and reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum for a hundred days, which practice cured him.  Three years later he renounced family life and ordained as a monk and soon after took up meditation, which he did with fanatic resolve.  Sometimes circumstances intervened to interrupt his practice, but he repeatedly went back to it with increased determination.  During one stint, to fight off drowsiness he practiced continuous standing meditation for days on end, during which time “he lost any sense of the outside world.  He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died.  He was so absorbed in his meditation that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests” (45).  Eventually he attained Great Awakening, which caused his teacher Hyobong Sunim to say “Until now you have been following me; now it is I who should follow you” (47).  This book gives you a chance to follow this great man.

The contents offer a good variety.  The introduction (by Stephen Batchelor) chronicle the history of Buddhism in Korea, a much neglected area of study by Western Buddhists.  Readers who wish to delve more deeply into this would be advised to check out Mu-Seong Sunim’s Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers.  Those with a philosophical bent will appreciate Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen.  (Chinul, a contemporary of Dogen’s, is the intellectual godfather of Korean Zen, though in the last several decades he has been somewhat overshadowed by Seong-cheol’s “sudden awakening, sudden cultivation” teachings which hearken back to the Sixth Patriarch.)  There follows an overview of life in a Korean Zen monastery and a brief bio of Kusan.  Those wishing to know more about the former should read The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell.

The second half of the book constitute the teachings proper.  They consist of meditation instructions, specifically how to practice the koan (hwadu), as well as discourses from winter retreats delivered by Kusan to monks assembled at Songgwang-Sa, where Kusan was the abbot.  (This is also the temple where I lived most of the time that I spent in Korean temples.)  There are also less formal talks–“advice and encouragement”–and a series of poems and commentaries on the traditional “Ten Oxherding Pictures.”

Entrance to Songgwang-Sa

The feeling one gets from reading the words of Kusan is This is the real deal.  Imagine if one of the ancient Chinese masters–Huang-po or Linchi or even Huineng–were suddenly resurrected in the here and now and started spouting off–this is what you’d expect to hear.  Kusan has the same punch, energy, sense of paradox, and intrinsic authority.  You can’t help but want to take this man’s advice, to run off to the mountains, live in a cave and risk all for the breakthrough.

But don’t believe me.  Listen to him:

To live long would be to live for a hundred years. A short life is over in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath. A hundred years of life depends upon a single breath, for life stops when respiration ceases. Can you afford to wait for a hundred years when you do not know how soon death will come? You may die after having eaten a good breakfast in the morning; you may die in the afternoon after a good lunch. Some die during sleep. You may die in the midst of going here and there. No one can determine the time of death. Therefore, you must awaken before you die (78-9).

What will it take to awaken?  Kusan tells us:

The Buddhas and the patriarchs did not realize Buddhahood easily. They realized it through great effort and much hardship. They exerted themselves with such great effort because the sufferings of birth and death are so terrifying. Therefore, even though you want to sleep more, you should sleep less. Even though you want to eat more, you should eat less. Even though you want to talk a lot, you should try to talk less. Even though you want to see many things, you should see less. Your body will definitely feel restrained by acting in such a way. This is indeed a practice of austerity. However, none of the Buddhas and the patriarchs would have awakened had they not trained themselves in this manner (81-2).

Finally, if you want to help sentient beings, how can you do it?  Kusan says

In order to be able to actually help others, you should seek to emulate the spirit of a great hero.  This is necessary because only one who is the greatest hero among heroes is able to accomplish this difficult task [of awakening]. You need supreme courage in order to bring this practice to its completion. To transform this world into a Pure Land and to change ordinary sentient beings into accomplished sages is no easy matter. It is truly the work of a great hero (118).

I advise all you wanna-be great heroes to get a copy of this illuminating and inspiring book and enter soon the practice of the Way!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars 

Karma This, Karma That…

I recently encountered someone online who described karma as a “theory,” or “thesis.”  Ironically, they also criticized Stephen Batchelor as doing a disservice to Buddhism.  I noted that the Buddha in Anguttara Nikaya 6.63 explicitly stated: “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, and thought.”  Since I can see my intentions in real time (if I look), I therefore can see karma and, ipso facto, karma is not a theory but a lived fact, like breathing or farting or whatever.  For good measure, I quoted the Sutta Nipata where the Buddha defined karma as that which has consequences or results:

651-By action [kamma] is one a farmer, by action a craftsman,
By action is one a merchant, by action a servant,

652-By action is one a thief, by action a soldier,
By action is one a priest, by action a king.

I thought this made the stance of the historical Buddha as regards the definition of karma pretty clear.  But in response I was told that we do not see karma, only enlightened beings can do this.  I was also told karma is both cause and effect and the force that binds these together.  I was also told to get my head out of the Pali Canon.

I found these responses and the attitude they betrayed perplexing to say the least, and I’d like to take a moment to dissect what’s going on here.

First, let’s get back to Stephen Batchelor.  Batchelor is famous for his efforts to strip Buddhism of its mythology, dogma and old-fashioned delusions.  For this general program I applaud him, but he has a frightening tendency to confuse babies with bathwater.  When it comes to karma he kind of, almost, sort of gets it right, since in the chapter entitled “Rebirth” in his Buddhism Without Beliefs he quotes the above passage on the equation of karma and intention.  But then he goes on to spout silly and unjustifiable things, as when he claims on page 37 that karma is (just) an “ancient Indian metaphysical theory” and that “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  The first statement directly contradicts the definition of karma as intention (nothing theoretical there) and the second is simply false since if you can directly observe something it is a datum of experience and not something you need take on faith.

This misapprehension of the term karma seems to be a widespread problem, partly because not all Buddhists are even willing to acknowledge the quite straightforward definition of the term from the oldest texts—as in “get your head out of the Pali Canon.”  The inevitable result is vacuous assertions like “only enlightened people can see karma,” which is exactly the mindset Batchelor—quite rightly—criticizes.  In the case of my interlocutor, he clearly had an animus toward “narrow hinayanists,” not to mention a dislike for evidence that didn’t conform to his beliefs.   Such an attitude reflects a “true believer” mentality, since if we cannot experience something until the hoped-for day we get enlightened, then we have no choice but to accept the word of those who claim themselves enlightened.  This way of thinking reduces the Buddha’s teaching to a faith-based religion.

I loathe faith-based religions.  While I may with good reason accept a proposition as a working theory, I remain ever ready to toss it out if and when strong contrary evidence comes to light.  I treat a range of phenomena in this fashion, most notably the thesis of rebirth.  I accept rebirth for a variety of reasons, but I would not say I believe it.  I am willing to dispense with the notion; it just so happens that the balance of data I’ve encountered so far weighs in favor of it.  (When I went to Asia at age 23, I was quite firmly of the opinion rebirth/reincarnation did not happen.)

But I digress.  Back to karma.

Another point I made in the debate was that karma is cause, not effect.  I noted that vipaka (“fruit”) is the word the Buddha defined as the effect of karma; it is what happens as a result of my intentional action.  I was told this amounted to “an appeal to authority” and was therefore an illegitimate argument.

[Scratch head.]

Imagine you and I are playing Scrabble.  I disagree with your spelling of a word, or even doubt the word’s existence.  You suggest we look it up in Webster’s.  I then say “No dice!  That’s an appeal to authority.”  What should you do other than punch me?  I mean, really?  The issue here is not “authority.”  The issue is the definition and proper use of technical vocabulary, and it seems a great many people—especially when it’s something they’re emotionally vested in, like a religion—are inclined to making up definitions to suit themselves.

Think of the chaos that would ensue in daily life if everybody went about their affairs in this way.  Suppose you’re a Freudian analyst and one day, for amusement’s sake, you switch the meaning of the words “id” and “ego.”  How long will you last before you’ve lost everyone in the room?  How long will you last before you lose your board certification and are out of a job?

As in any endeavor, progress begins with learning the lingo.  It continues with clear and sincere motivations.  It is consummated when you are able to effectively communicate your realization, your understanding, to others in such a way that it helps them.  For this reason I find karma deniers and obfuscators among the most pernicious so-called Buddhists around.  They take a simple but very important idea and flog it until it submits to their ulterior motives.  This is not helpful.  It is bad karma.

Outing an Ideological Vandal

I am very grateful to a certain Rahula #80 on Yahoo! for pointing out something to me: there is a guy/gal operating under many aliases–A.E. Hollingsworth, Kenneth L. Wheeler, Denise Anderson, AncientBuddhism, Shakya Aryanatta, Ven. Shakya Ariyana, Aryasatvan, and the Neoplatonic Platonist–whose chief purpose in life (online, at least) is to go around bashing (i.e. giving one star) any book whose writer does not propagate his/her particular brand of Buddhism.  This “brand” is what he or she (I’m going to assume it’s a he) calls “Aryan Buddhism”, and he manages a blog by that name. 

Now it is quite fine if you want to give a book one star on Amazon or wherever, but it is cheap to do so purely because you do not agree with the author’s opinions.  It is double cheap–indeed, a form of literary vandalism–if you log in 

"Intellect without discipline; power without constructive purpose." (aka vandalism)

under a variety of names and give multiple one star reviews to those you dislike.  This, apparently, is what the blogger at Aryan Buddhism has done.

Specifically, what Aryan Buddhist (as I shall call him) is perpetuating is the notion that the Buddha really taught a soul/self/atman behind the changing, suffering phenomena of the temporal self we all experience.  He does this by citing quotes from the Pali suttas where he gratuitously translates any instance of the word atta as referring to a Self (with a capital S of course–a signification not found in the texts), soul etc.  Here is an example (from his review of Selfless Persons by Steven Collins):

“Therefore, Ananda, stay as those who have the Self (attaa) as island, as those who have the Self as refuge, as those who have no other refuge; as those who have Dhamma as island, as those who have Dhamma as refuge, as those who have no other refuge.” – Mahaparinibbana Sutta

A more intelligent rendering of the passage is as follows:

Therefore, Ananda, you should live as islands [or “lamps”–the wording is ambiguous] unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge (D.16.2.26, trans. by Maurice Walshe). 

Clearly the Buddha here is enjoining self-reliance and intellectual independence; the passage is not at all a metaphysical pronouncement.  For the simple fact is that the word atta is no more ontological than the English word “self.”  Usually it is a reflexive or indefinite pronoun, such as in “talking to myself,” or “take care of yourself” etc.  Imagine if one went through Shakespeare and began capitalizing every self-reference, taking each as a metaphysical postulate.  Consider Polonius’ famous advice to his son: “To thine own Self be true…”  By such legerdemain we could transform Shakespeare from the Bard into the Oracle!  This is exactly what Aryan Buddhist (and his ilk) are doing.  (As far as the claim of Shakyamuni teaching a True Self goes: Sabbe dhamma anatta (Dhammapada 279)–“All phenomena are not-self.”  Dhamma here covers both mundane and supramundane phenomena, meaning nothing–not even nibbana–can be considered as Self or soul.  If you don’t believe me, take a three-month course of vipassana meditation and you’ll know this directly–no need to read about it.) 

As a side note: readers should be aware that the misspelling of atta in Aryan Buddhist’s quote above is typical of his lack of attention to punctuation, grammar, spelling, or anything else to do with literary craftsmanship.  Read a few blog posts, or the vitriol that he leaves on Amazon (examples are in my review of Selfless Persons), and you’ll see one ungrammatical phrase and misspelled or missing word after another.  And yet, this is apparently the same person who, on his blogger profile, describes himself as “a Pali translator… author of books & articles on Buddhism,” who “has spent countless thousands of hours and many years directed at the research of earliest Buddhism before either Theravada & Mahayana existed” etc.  Oddly, he also describes himself as a “Neoplatonic Platonist” (they’re called Neoplatonists, for Christ’s sake) and says “that to call oneself a ‘buddhist’ is self-degrading and implies superficial nihilistic Humanism.”  (In a comment on Aryan Buddhist’s snappily titled post “Cross-examination of Typical Scumbag “buddhists”. Or, Claims, Conjectures, and Feelings, but no Logic” luke.jmo makes a reasonable request: “You claim to be a published author on the subject of Buddhism, as well as getting paid to lecture on Buddhism. I’m very curious to know where you lecture, and where I could purchase your books.”  No comment in response is found.)

Needless to say, it is hard to read any of this with a straight face.  I find it disturbing though when I go to a website allegedly devoted to the Buddha’s teaching (even if wildly distorted in its interpretations) and find it sprinkled with Nazi swastikas (see left) and a picture of Julius Evola, a twentieth century Italian philosopher sympathetic to the kind of occultic, racialistic, anti-egalitarian drivel promulgated by the Nazis and Italian fascists.  (Harold Musson, aka Ñanavira Thera, about whom I’ve written extensively on this blog, translated one of Evola’s books on Buddhism, though later wrote of the work “I cannot now recommend [it]…without considerable reserves.”  For the full story, see my first post on Ñanavira here.)  Readers who meet up with Aryan Buddhist’s hostile reviews (one star), under whatever alias, should ignore them for the claptrap they are.  To date, I’ve found them on Amazon attacking these books:

On the other hand, our friendly neighborhood Buddhologist does like some things (five stars).  For example:

  • The Trouble With Textbooks by Gary Tobin (which apparently attacks “the hard left-wing agenda”)
  • MLF II Black Infantry Knife (in the review for which he says “I hate everything, but this knife gets 5 STARS”)
  • Arguing With Idiots by Glenn Beck

I think this last one pretty much tells you the story.


(12/27/2011) I have now been the honored recipient of three vitriolic screeds totalling almost six thousand words from none other than “Aryan Buddhist.”  (By comparison, my original post above was just over one thousand words.  Clearly he does not believe in measured responses.)  Moreover, he has apparently garnered yet another alias: “Kelly den Adel.”  Further updates will follow as events unfold…


(3/21/2012)  Aryan Buddhist has a new moniker!  Ulf Hansrimehr.  Below is his latest shot across my bow, posted on my “About Me” page:

Your blog is superficial twaddle and smacks of existentialist crypto-nihilism. In short, you’re a materialistic demon

To which I responded:

I’m leaving this post here for its entertainment value. This is, I have no doubt, the work of Aryasattvan, a sort of neo-fascist so-called Buddhist non-Buddhist whose chief work in life (or at least on the web) is running around trashing other people. I am, for the second time now, the honored recipient of his vile and invective. See my (very popular!) post “Outing an Ideological Vandal” at https://buddhistbooksblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/outing-an-ideological-vandal/ to get the full, juicy scoop on this rather sad, strange person.

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening by Stephen Batchelor.  Riverhead Books 1998, 127 pages.

This is my second reading of this book.  I can’t remember exactly when I read it the first time; the early ohs, probably.  But given some of the comments I’d made in the margins, I expected to disagree–perhaps violently–with a lot of it.  I was pleasantly surprised.

One thought that kept occurring to me as I read was to try to figure out if the book was appropriate for beginners to Buddhism, or strictly for more experienced sorts.  Honestly, I’m still not sure about that, because exactly how to classify Batchelor’s little tome even seems problematic.  To be frank, I’m not sure you can say it is about Buddhism.  It talks a lot about the Buddha and his teachings, no doubt, but the impression I get is that it is more of a meditation on the implications of dharma and dharma-practice for modern men and women than something about Buddhism as Buddhism.  For example, you get very little of the traditional points of doctrine, or even meditation practice, though a few exercises are discussed.  These are all in the background, though, like pieces of furniture, and the reader is expected to find his or her own familiar seat among them and listen while Batchelor discusses whatever’s on his mind.  So, on this account I think it must be for advanced dharma folks…

But perhaps not.  Many people, those “with little dust in their eyes,” will be startled and stimulated by Batchelor’s eloquent, often insightful ponderings.  He points out that the Buddha’s way of awakening did not begin as a religion–is not really a religion at all–but started out as an expression of one amazing man’s experience of freedom, of his putting an end to suffering–or, as Batchelor rather oddly terms it, “anguish.”  (I must confess, this translation of the word dukkha jarred me from beginning to end.  It’s rather too extreme and not general enough.)  Batchelor goes on to say–and here is where the controversy starts–that the proper attitude, the one in keeping with the Buddha’s own, is agnosticism, a critical, even desperate sense of not knowing, of being open to insight.

At times he explicates this position brilliantly.  Consider this passage, for me one of the highlights of the book:

Such unknowing is not the end of the track: the point beyond which thinking can proceed no further.  This unknowing is the basis of deep agnosticism.  When belief and opinion are suspended, the mind has nowhere to rest.  We are free to begin a radically other kind of questioning.

This questioning is present within unknowing itself.  As soon as awareness finds itself baffled and puzzled by rainfall, a chair, the breath, they present themselves as questions.  Habitual assumptions and descriptions suddenly fail and we hear our stammering voices cry out: “What is this?”  Or simply: “What?” or “Why?”  Or perhaps no words at all, just “?”

The sheer presence of things is startling.  They provoke awe, wonder, incomprehension, shock.  Not just the mind but the entire organism feels perplexed.  This can be unsettling…

The task of dharma practice is to sustain this perplexity within the context of calm, clear, and centered awareness… (pp. 97-8)

A few paragraphs below, Batchelor writes in paraphrase of Tsongkhapa: “Questioning is the track on which the centered person moves.”  Herein lies the heart of the book.

Immediately I was reminded of the author’s Korean Zen (Seon) roots and of the practice of the hwadu, better known by the Japanese term koan.  For me the passage hit home for in fact the first awakening experience I ever had resulted from just such a sense of deep questioning following upon a very stimulating conversation with a friend, and my life has never been the same since.

Alas, Batchelor overreaches and in places his agnosticism descends into Western materialist pontificating.  This occurs especially in the chapter entitled “Rebirth,” where he makes a number of groundless assertions.  For example, on page 34 he says “The Buddha accepted the idea of rebirth.”  The texts, however, make it clear that rebirth was a matter of experiential fact for the Buddha as well as many of his disciples.  (My own experience inclines me, rather strongly, to side with the textual accounts.  I intend to write considerably more on this at a later date.)  Batchelor goes on to say “In accepting the idea of rebirth, the Buddha reflected the worldview of his time.”  But in fact the Buddha redifined the understanding of this process, from one involving a reincarnating soul (atman) to one of impersonal consciousness taking form dependent upon conditions.  Cf. the Mahatnhasankhaya Sutta (M.38) which begins “Now on that occasion a pernicious view had arisen in a bhikkhu named Sati… thus: ‘As I understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, it is this same consciousness that runs and wanders through the round of rebirths, not another.'”  That “pernicious view” is none other than the ever popular reincarnation theory of Hinduism and Western New Age claptrap.  Batchelor then claims “The Buddha found the prevailing Indian view of rebirth sufficient as a basis for his ethical and liberating teaching” (p. 35).  But this is in direct contradiction to the quote from the Buddha on the opposite page: “But if there is no other world and there is no fruit and ripening of actions well done or ill done, then here and now in this life I shall be free from hostility, affliction, and anxieity, and I shall live happily…”  Quite plainly, the Buddha’s ethics did not derive from a “belief” in reincarnation of any sort.  Rather, it was something that possessed independent merits and purpose.  Batchelor’s incoherence on this point undermines his otherwise excellent thesis that the spirit of the Buddha’s teaching is not dogmatic or ideological, but practical, empirical and investigative.

It is quite fine though if someone, Batchelor or even you, dear reader, wish to remain agnostic on the question of rebirth.  That is not an unreasonable position.  But where Batchelor’s materialist agenda really rears its ugly head is on page 37, where he claims karma (kamma in Pali) is some kind of “ancient Indian metaphysical theory.”  Batchelor says “…the Buddha accepted the idea of karma as he accepted that of rebirth…”  But as he himself notes, the word karma literally means “action” and in the Buddha’s psychology specifically conscious action or, to put it redundantly, “intentional intention.”  The notion that intentions and conscious actions have repercussions, that they condition the psyche and predispose it to certain influences and outcomes, is hardly a “metaphysical theory” but rather a fact seen in direct reflexive observation.  A good course of vipassana meditation will make this apparent to any who harbor lingering doubts, for there the impersonal flow of cause and effect in the states and contents of consciousness become palpably, indeed painfully, clear.

Batchelor–good materialist that he is–adopts the notion that consciousness is entirely explicable in terms of brain function–itself an article of faith as yet unverified by any experiment or data.  While no one will argue against the notion that changing brain structure or chemistry can alter conscious experience, it is also a fact that by thinking consistently in a certain way, or by determining to do something repetitively–both of which are acts of conscioussness–I can alter my brain structure and chemistry, thereby clearly demonstrating that consciousness and the brain are interdependent; it is not a one way street where the one strictly determines the other.  Batchelor, however, is too ideological too consider this point.

I have not yet read this book’s successor volume, Confessions of A Buddhist Atheist, which even Christopher Hitchens found palatable.  From what I’ve read though, Batchelor there really presses his brand of agnosticism to the limits, perhaps to the point of utter failure.  I’ll leave my considerations on that one for a future review, if I ever get around to it.  For now I would simply like to say that despite the above noted flaws, Buddhism Without Beliefs is a beautifully written, deeply thought and felt little book worthy of the attention it has received.  Batchelor is a wise voice and an excellent writer to boot and though his book deserves criticism it also deserves praise.  My final conclusion is that while beginners in Buddhism can benefit from the book, it will probably mean much more to those who have sufficient reading and practice under their belts.

My Amazon rating: 5 stars


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