BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Originally nothing. Where is dust?

This may be a bit into the “TMI” zone … as I came to be reading this book through a “very personal” route, one that many might not choose to volunteer in public. I quit drinking 31 years ago … but have just recently begun to attend A.A. Meetings because, while I evidently “got” the first step way back in 1985, I've been feeling that I “missed something” regarding the full program. As regular readers know, I'm at least “deeply agnostic”, if not enthusiastically “antitheistic”, so the second (and third) steps in A.A. were a wall that I could not figure a way around. A couple of weeks back, I had a discussion with a fellow following a meeting who suggested the Korean Zen concept of “don't know” might provide me with a way to have a “higher power” that did not seem to be a lie (which would, in my view, taint all the subsequent steps as being built on a falsehood).

This struck a chord with me, as I had long quoted a bit of this (as I recalled it) from a talk I'd attended at the 1993 Parliament of the World's Religions here in Chicago, where a Korean Zen master (possibly Samu Sunim, but I wasn't able to find definitive identification) did a talk, and said something to the effect of if you say “yes”, I hit you with stick, if you say “no”, I hit you with stick – what you gonna do?, with the intent of getting into that pure “don't know” consciousness. Inspired by this, I went off to Amazon and found Don't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen by Richard Shrobe and dug into it. While I didn't have a “lightbulb moment” with this (the “don't-know mind” is still pretty abstract, but perhaps less so than gravity, which was what I was otherwise coming up with as a “higher power” that I had faith existed), it certainly fleshed out the concept to the point where I suspect I might be able “to work with it”.

Anyway, embarrassing “breaking of anonymity” out of the way … this is quite an interesting read. First of all, there is an approachability of this being issued under the author's “birth name”, rather than his “Zen name”, Wu Kwang … this alone is enough to indicate this isn't some newage twaddle, as it's the opposite of what frequently happens in those cases where somebody without much in the way of credentials starts “spewing in public” based largely on some “sacred name” they've come up with! Shrobe is the main teacher at the Chogye International Zen Center in New York City, and this book is primarily a collection of talks that he's given there.

The book operates on several levels. There is a goodly amount of the history of Zen presented here, with discussions of the various “schools”, and the key figures involved in these. There is the presentation of teaching materials, and explanations of how these work, and there is the underlying offering of what one might hope is possibly enlightening. The book is divided into three sections, “Origins”, “The Classical Period”, and “The Modern Period”, each looking at highlighted teachers and approaches. Because this is based on talks, this does not hew to a particularly academic voice, with the author “breaking the fourth wall” here and there to add context and commentary for the reader, which is attractive when it happens. Because it's coming from a Korean Zen standpoint, the names of the protagonists are given in their Korean forms, but – very usefully – these are followed by their Japanese and Chinese forms, which are (for me) typically more familiar.

Now, when I was reading this, I was primarily focused on bits I could use in wrapping my head around the “step” thing, so most of my little bookmarks are leading me back to things I found illuminating, rather than illustrative quotes. So, bear with me. The first of these deals with a teacher named T'aego, born around 1300ce, when the Mongols ruled the region. T'aego had established a mountain Zen center near what is currently Seoul, and sought to bring together the feuding “Nine Mountain Schools” into a single school that would revitalize Korean Zen. The kong-an (koan) that grabbed my attention was:
The ten thousand things all return to one.
To what though does the one return?
The author cites a book that came out some time back on the teachings of this T'aego, and notes that he was inspired by parts of this. This section is exemplary of how the “discussing” vibe comes across here, as there are bits detailing how the various elements work in this, how things (a presentation at the palace for the King) would have been perceived at the time, and the offering explanations such as:
T'aego is establishing that on the one hand you can look at this thing as being something which is before name, before form, before speech, before words, never moving, never coming, never going, just universally covering everything. But at the same time, you can find this truth revealed in every activity, in every function, because everything is expressing it just as it is. These are two sides of the coin.
For a historical example, there's a look at the transmission between the Fifth and Sixth Patriarchs, where the head monk of the Fifth Patriarch's monastery was assumed to going to be the one to get the nod. However, the Fifth had requested that everybody there write a poem to demonstrate their “understanding and attainment”. The head monk wrote his poem on the wall (rather than directly presenting it to the Fifth Patriarch), which was noted as being a “good poem”, however, Hui-neng, a newcomer who could neither read nor write, heard the poem and realized that “it did not go to the heart of Zen Dharma”, and dictated a new poem to be put up next to the head monk's. The Fifth Patriarch saw that the author of the second poem was the one to pass along the transmission to, but he had to do so in secret, and then send Hui-neng (now the Sixth Patriarch) away from the monastery, as he knew the internal politics would not accept him. For several days the Fifth Patriarch gave no teachings, and the monks began to wonder, and he eventually said “the Dharma has left here” and explained that the lay brother who had been working in the rice shed had become his successor!

Another snippet which resonated for me was from the teachings of Kyong-Ho, a “modern” figure (1849-1912):
What does this which is now seeing, hearing, and thinking look like?
Examine and observe this matter carefully. … Let your examination and observation be focused at the one point and do not forget it. Keep it before you by raising doubt and questioning yourself.
Shrobe notes that “doubt” here is perhaps better rendered as “perplexity”, and that “don't-know” is the feeling of trying to frame the “this” in the above. Later there are a few other pithy statements from Kyong Ho, including one that reminds me of one of my favorite Hunter S. Thompson quotes:
Don't expect to practice hard and not experience the weird. Hard practice that evades the unknown makes for a weak commitment.
While this didn't get me where I was hoping it might, I certainly enjoyed reading it, and found the approach taken by its author ideal for presenting the material. Having previously only had that one brush (at the '93 PWR) with Korean Zen, this certainly filled in more details than “I hit you with stick” (although that element is touched on here). Of course, I came to this specifically looking for details on the title state, and might have benefited more from something more conceptually focused, but that would have no doubt been a lot less enjoyable read that this proved to be.

Don't-Know Mind must certainly have its audience out there, as it's not only still in print (a dozen years later), but the on-line big boys have it at full cover price, and the new/used guys don't have it for cheap (well, it can be had for 1/3rd to ½ of cover). I would certainly recommend this for anybody interested in Zen, and the Korean manifestation thereof … but it's probably not an “all and sundry” thumbs-up because it's really for those with those sort of interests. It is certainly an engaging read, however, from where I'm sitting.

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