SEVENTEEN

The spirit world dominated. It was Tae, the bond with her and the beautiful pulsing One. The deep practice, allowing her to take me, all of me like an immense stream that flowed through me, a blissful state of samadhi with Tae and the deep forest and the light of the Absolute; the pattern of wild things, the shaman rhythm, the music of my gods; pieces, melodies made at the height of their power, their contribution flowing relentless pounding like thunder, rolling underneath.

 

The way was revealed as I wrote it. Part of my understanding came from the page. It was how I knew the world, but it was often unsuitable for others. I worried that my next letter to her would be an atom smasher, if I went into details, if I revealed what was on my mind. But it could pass. I could let her be free. She was doing what was best for her. I didn’t expect her response to stimulate the field.

 

After waiting a month, I decided to send the letter:

 


“Life being what it is, as intense as the practice life can be, I wanted to write to you, just in case I don’t see you again. I wanted to tell you that I love you. I know we are both monastics, but I wish I could be close to you now. Our relationship is unusual… I don’t know. It makes a beautiful resonance on the cushion. It’s a safe place, for me, in a world that has none. It is very harmonious with the One, the movement of things, the abandoned fields. It’s ambition that impedes, not love.

 

I waited for your letter, but it will be a month soon. Maybe you sent an email? I have no way to check.

 

I’m sorry if I caused you any distress with the material on Sangmi. It was cathartic, something I had to investigate through the medium. It’s how I live. Here’s how I wrote you:

 

What I noticed with Tae, what she meant to me was revealed through the writing, my higher self worked through the writing to mark her as the important person she was, to me. She enjoyed me the way I enjoyed all of the strange personalities in my life. She knew how to love me.

 

The difficult part of being a writer is what it reveals about yourself to others. If it wasn’t provocative, true to the mark, if the point wasn’t dead serious, there would be no reason to write. But I gain so much, as do my readers (I hope). I allow them to see my internal process. My love, my grief becomes something everyone can share, and know. Also, in the process of writing I realized many things about you and me:

 

She was the first to love me in an ordinary way, as an individual — not just an object of desire or conquest. She was at the head of the wave, the pattern folded around her, the way it should. An effortless harmony that arose from our joy of being together, a joy of each other. It wasn’t so unusual. We were at the end of a very precise filter. Very few made it through to the Zen Hall. Only a handful sought to ordain. Us. I loved her from a distance. I didn’t know what to do. There were forces at work that operated beyond our feeble attempts to establish boundaries, and I wasn’t a man of logic. It had to flow — the rhythm, the beat, the heat of the night air; restlessness, longing, pacing, long walks in solitude lost in thoughts of her, trembling and crying, forgetting the way, the swell of love imploding, cascading into the resonant field of meditation, as perfect a natural and pure as the light from the source, beating together from one to the next, a kaleidoscope of the human mind encountering its origin, holding the thing most dear; a wave of understanding, the most sincere moment. Cry, but don’t move, don’t breathe.”


 

I dreamt of Pearl Harbor, Mishima’s flags. Everything suspended, I waited. I wanted her to be the one to share the important years, to help me to become a great man. I could have done it alone, with only my connection to the Void, but with her it would’ve been more human.

 

I feared her rejection, that I would again be thrust to the edge, abandoned, with only the sound of the wind to comfort me; her wonderful caring for me to disappear under the weight of days. I was made of unsuitable things bound together by some force of will, of unimaginable power. I was suspended in the magnetic field of its ceaseless movement, hanging in space like an apparition. No human contact! I was to remain untouched, disintegrating, blown by the wind into the haze of summer, drifting — the beat of wings — quietly into the forest, the dark forest of my youth.

 

A week went by with no response. I was sure it had made a strong impression on her, and that it was unexpected. Still, for a person who knew nine languages, it seemed difficult for her to write. I was in turmoil waiting for her, completely unsure how she would handle it, moving quickly through stages of denial. Day after day the interactions with her spun into a web of light that swelled to a crescendo of trembling before the One. The flow was tremendous, so hot! I was so enraptured both with her and the final, the filaments coming together into a wondrous whole, that I feared to remove her, to return to me alone falling into the abyss. If she had any idea what I faced hour by hour, both the rapture and the uncertainty… but what joy to live in those brief moments with her.

 

So close! Everything matched so perfectly… only that she was new to the path and I was far, far down the road. I could take any form, be anything, but she had to follow the numbers, the way it said in the book. One day she’d understand, probably after I’d gone.

 

We were made to seek each other out, to combine DNA. We were attracted to each other for a reason. Human life depends on the chance meeting, the moments together; sharing, killing time. We’d grown together imperceptibly. The way we moved was altered, the way we laughed.

 

At the height of the wave I wanted to bond completely with her, to merge together into a single entity, to combine our streams into one. But we were not one, finally. And we remained as friends and I walked into the forest as I always did, to sit under a tree and write, play out the scenarios, wonder at the complexity, the beauty, like the wings of a butterfly – so hard to understand.

 

The experiences I had… Tae. Neither of us were interested in romance. We were surviving a tough haengja life together and came to know each other as a matter of course. Slowly I knew her in such minute detail, the love grew deep. But there was no time to sort out our emotions. We raced from one training environment to the next and were separated, with no communication. It was a bomb with a slow fuse that suddenly turned bright and hot. What was I to do? I had no idea what process she was going through. I was a phosphor cloud of burning white. How long before I began drifting above the earth? The cataclysm of the practice world coming into being, a thing of light; giving and receiving, a membrane made to collect the emanations from the source… there was no other activity. The deep practice wanted, and received, all, every fragment of a life consumed in an instant. The fire only grew. It would be my end, there was no question. Like the serpent biting its tail, I was consuming my own entrails and would soon vanish. But I wasn’t only a man. There was something much greater blasting through the walls. I gave myself to it, fully. In return it obliterated me. Everything of Tae and the forest consumed, only the sound of it, the wild chaos of it. All my life to face it, to know it.

SIXTEEN

 

SEASON TWO — OF HUMAN BONDING


Like a bullet into the Kibonseonwon, there was a certain velocity, everything vibrating. I didn’t know how I would regain the ground again, where I would land, but a man can’t hurtle through space indefinitely. There was no time to sort out my feelings for Tae. It was some kind of impulse, like a light flashing on a control panel. It would have to hold. It would be a while yet.

 

There was a moment, a beat, of weightlessness — not a high point by any means, more the moment before the crash, where everything becomes distorted and strange. Not an arc through an impossibly blue sky, but into an abyss. Absolute darkness, what would spin and resolve into a new life, an unknown.

 

Baekdamsa. It was there the situation with Sangmi and Tae began to unravel. I was wrong, about everything. What I thought a tide of love turned out technically to be a wash. The society of foreign monks was duly decimated before I ordained. All of the first wave disrobed. They’d went through the Kangwon, a four-year program of disciplined Buddhist studies, the Sutra school. There was no one looking out for me. The reason I passed the kyoyuk exam wasn’t my conversation with the friendly monk, or the good relations I kept with everyone — it was a twist of fate. The elder monk of Baekdamsa was at the meeting. He agreed to take me. He didn’t know anything about me. I slammed into the first kyokwa ango, a 50-day training program much like the kyoyuk. Another exam failure, but the elder let me through. He was exasperated by the whole thing. What could I do?

 

There were two kyokwa angos resting between summer and winter angos, dividing the year into four long sessions with a few weeks between each. Four hours of lectures every day, it was like the kyoyuk without the sticks, but there were lapses in the schedule where I could walk down the river: a field of boulders that would periodically flood, then dwindle down to a stream; or the forest: small patches of wilderness between the mountains, with giant red pines.

 

Baekdamsa was located in the inner Sorak Valley, about 30 km from the North Korean highlands. There was some military presence, but the monastery was its own world. 13 centuries old, there were 30 buildings in four zones: the Kibonseonwon, where more than 60 monks lived and completed their training for Bikkhu ordination; the main temple grounds with the Buddha Hall, a café, and one of three offices; the nun training area that doubled as a templestay facility with its own resident and Zen halls, and a Mumonkwan, where 20 monks were locked alone in cells for years, fed through trapdoors. During the ango a monk escaped for a night out and died.

 

I, too, had things to work through. It was a surprise, to me, that I was still vulnerable to the women around me. But why the sudden outpouring? Cruel fate… these days I’m very careful about getting too close. As a foreign haengja, I was in a unique environment, living/working together with women for months at a time. It was a problem. The bonding that occurred was difficult to work through, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

 

Writing the scenes of SOB, I got hung up on Sangmi. The rest, dead issues I circled like a vulture, but Sangmi, she was alive. On one of the random breaks we were allowed to use our smartphones. I got an email through to her describing my new life and that I was writing her scenes. She wrote back, excited, encouraging me to “come back and play.” I misread her. I thought, since I wasn’t a student anymore, she was opening to me. Moments before our devices were locked down again I’d typed a single sentence, in Korean, “Wonderful, I always want to see you.”

 

A few weeks later we had access to the Internet again. She hadn’t responded. I wrote to her several more times as the work developed, but she never answered. She wouldn’t respond to anything outside of language study! It was bizarre, and, certainly, I was done. It was very difficult to process in the hard-training environment, but I turned to the writing and practiced with it and moved through it. After maybe a week it began to loosen, I was able to let her go. She remained in my universe, such a bright, wonderful burning, but it was a place I was forced to abandon.

 

Only after I resolved this did I begin to come to terms with Tae. I’m like the dog who only attaches to one owner. If I’ve developed a bond with a woman, I have no space for another. I was with Sangmi a long time before Tae became a constant, and that me and Tae were very careful how we approached one another. Neither of us were romantics. I thought I was finished with women, but quickly found that there were incredible women in the world who still had an enormous effect on me. I’d just spent too much time in LA.

 

We were always together for the best part of a year. Tae said, “I guess I just have to be a boy for a while.” We never did anything, not a word, not one gesture. It wasn’t like that, but there was always something between us. This is a letter I never sent, the beginning of the burn:

 


Today is the 19th, a few weeks into the summer ango. It is very bright. There are difficult things to endure. I find you in the quiet moments. You always help me. The time we were together was a noisy hell, but you shone through in a way I’m only now beginning to understand, through the writing, being away from you for such a long time. You were great source of color and joy, the safe place you created for me an exigency, as this ango’s nearly a circus.

 

I share a room with 20 men. Most of them are benign, but it only takes one floating menace. Mine is a flaming gay Korean who pulls my arm to blink his eyes at me to tell me he loves me, forces contact, gropes me, stands over my sleeping mat to leer at me, follows me, spies on me — a stalker, a real pro. It’s impossible to escape him. At times I turn to you as a religious icon. I pray to you to ask for protection. This may seem strange, but it isn’t possible for me to put it in the context of karmic debt. Even if all the complexities of the chaotic arrangement of balls in a box could be worked out mathematically, our billion years of evolution are a heap of garbage. What is true, the stalker is an element of my reality. There isn’t another one to escape to. Sometimes that means being creeped out by the weirdo stalker vibe. Trapped under the flow of days, I pray to you.

 

“Tae, if you can hear me, I ask for your protection, for your pure heart to guide me in these times of need.”

SOB Update 8-27-2015

Fist, we apologize for the site being down. The IT department was on summer break, and the one person who knew how to fight malicious code was on retreat.. everything’s back in order now.


The author, soon to be released from the summer ango, promises a new season of Burning, to begin next week. He’s requested a name change for a central character. Although a bit unusual, it’s early on, and with the blog format’s morphing structure.. Haeju, the main character in the new season Of Human Bonding will now be referred to as Tae. Apparently it’s a nickname the author began using, short for the Korean transliteration of typhoon, a religious icon if I understand him correctly. We’ll go back through season one and change all references of Haeju to Tae and leave this update in place for a few weeks as a reminder. Eventually it will morph as well. A new scene will also be added to chapter 13. Lost in the recycling process, the author kindly wrote a new version. When the book is eventually typeset, more things will likely be thrown out. Here at SOB, it goes down the way we get it — no alterations, unless the robots are low on oil?


Robot team update:


We have exactly 4.2 liters of press oil left in the roller. With the author’s colloquial use of 3-syllable adjectives, we ascertain a 20,000 word maximum output for season two. Once we reach 75% capacity, the forward team cuts us all a blast and we bang it out dry.

Following are the first 379 words we received from the author, delivered by the mojo wire we’ve installed in the press room:


The situation with Tae was, well it didn’t exist. We were friends on the path. It was never more than that, but she was giving off those damned nice wavelengths. I didn’t know if it was real. She would always find me and we’d do things together. We had some kind of love like the safe place between couples, where they can give each other some relief. It’s hard earned, hard to realize. I saw it only briefly with Tae. She just naturally worked that way, but to keep on the edge of love and not go in, impossible! That kind of black hole science has never been proved out, and if you enter, you’re destroyed. The safe place she gave me could not be maintained, but, since I’d never had one, I tried to put it out of my mind.

At Baekdamsa, I’d been separated from Tae for a few months after we ordained, with no communication other than a single email, which I will describe in time. The days into weeks, months, my bond with her underwent enormous pressures. I sacrificed a great deal, my entity dispersed, as you will see. A cruel turn of events not uncommon to the world I’ve known. I fell far below anything reasonable, but in a practice environment. The hours of meditation flowed with such intensity. A tempest rose and swallowed everything; the whirling core the only constant, it dominated everything, took everything into its faultless turning. Gone, my life, again…

I decided to leave the text largely unaltered. Though my views, my understanding, evolved through the long months of waiting, I didn’t go back and attempt to bring everything up to date. Maybe it’s useful to have the whole process visible? And, like Celine, it will have to float on asterisks now and then…


The One Mind is alive

Why delight, why the butterfly’s wings

If consciousness is a living thing, everything makes sense

Chaos theory, the press forward

When the conditions are right it appears — always more!

It waits on nothing

It can’t rest, neither can we

Our lives aren’t ours

“Human life has no meaning” -ZMSS

An existential conundrum that can’t be resolved

The noise of our entanglement is its joy

Our lives its expression through the medium

FIFTEEN

We filtered out through the gate, for the first time in grey, holding hands, crying, laughing. The hell we’d endured! I loved to see them walking freely.

 

Haeju came out of the crowd. Neither of us could speak, our voices lost. I took awhile for us to reorient ourselves, two things from different places thrown together. But she was burning and bright, soon the conversation resumed. I was pleased to see the scope of the wheel, that it could easily surmount such severity. It was quite different than the bond I had with Sangmi. With Haeju we were protecting something more precious than our own lives — with Sangmi there was only my own vow. Both were Japanese, both positive, active, engaged. One emitted light, the other a glint of darkness, the difference between an active, transformative practice and an attempt to find happiness in a world where all things die.

 

We had a half–day to shop for supplies. I didn’t need anything, but it was the last I would see of Haeju for some time. She was to take the entrance exam at one of the toughest Samini training facilities somewhere south, and I was headed north, to Baekdamsa.

 

She walked slowly to the place everyone stands to say goodbye.

 

“I’m glad I got to spend some time with you.”

 

Maybe I was being too emotional in front of all the people there, but I was always straight with her. For once she didn’t deactivate my sentiments. I looked into her eyes. She was seeing me, what she meant to me. It was something very deep, eternal, that required a silent response.

 

There were seconds only for this to unfold. It happened in altered time, like the answer to a difficult kong–an. It resonated both forward and backward. I could see it in the quiet moments we had together, how she would stand next to me and quietly manifest this unfolding. When practice breaks through the wall of self, it resonates through the forms, activities, interactions — people know. The mandala, it all reflects back into the whirling core. It becomes self–aware. This is our dharma, one of the many gifts Zen Master Seung Sahn brought to the West that have yet to be fully realized, that men and women practicing together in a truly integrated, modern sangha, the magnetism between them opens a new paradigm, if, like all the manifestations of practice, you can live freely with sometimes difficult emotions without trying to possess or dispossess them. You have to be at the point of turning the wheel.

 

Me and Haeju, it was something new, for both of us. Gradually, naturally, because of the integrity and fearlessness of her practice, we were able to create a way together. It was the story of future dharmas, caught for a moment in our interactions, the shockwave before the blast.

It carried far beyond us. One morning I was up early with a dream of Sangmi. She’d been on my mind a lot while I was writing the scenes of her. There was always some dark element to the dreams: meeting her somewhere, the time escaping, the entanglements after. It followed me into the meditation hall, clung to me through the morning rounds. Then it turned. The wheel turned.

 

It was something crucial. Something tightly bound was set free. All that I longed for and loved finally flowed with dharma. Haeju had shown me how to share a deep love and respect with someone on the path. Sangmi opened something much greater, the whole of humanity, all of life — the wondrous path unfolding everywhere.

 

I looked away. The sun, the fading color of new metal, was sinking fast. It was time to go.

FOURTEEN

Three–steps, one–bow. It went okay. It lasted from the front gate up and across the bridge into the courtyard and halfway around the stupa. Two hours on the asphalt on my knees… they seemed fine, though red and swollen. My legs had really gotten a workout in the kyoyuk, like pounding tough meat on a butcher board. Maybe it was good for my tendons to be pressed and flattened on wood. My right knee had some type of contusion. We had a strange day after, extra time to shower and wash our robes, time to take a tour of Chickjisa and write a letter to our teachers. We only got tortured a little, but lunch was long because it was real nice, my knees were in terrible shape. I was a little more flexible then but far from a quarter-lotus, especially with no cushion. There were many bright moments, I wrote a lot… not sure what I was producing, but at least it was flowing.

 

I was pretty sick and out of it, but we plowed through and made it to the evening. We had a few spare moments to prepare for the test the following day. It was the final full day. We were all in a good mood, though many were sick. The test had us all a little worried. I was going to have some kind of alternate score, but Korea had always held me with love, protected me. wherein they began torturing me for my benefit. It was an understanding between us. I’ve gained so much, to the degree that I extricated myself from my cold, apathetic Los Angeles life to return to one of their arduous programs of training. Tomorrow would be the day I’d graduate. I knew because Korean love is stronger than the fact that I would fail every test and should’ve been extricated.

 

The last day was full of misery and humiliation, but I passed the usual way, by failing so hard they had to have a special meeting. And friends, I made friends with everyone, naturally, meaning it required no effort. I was just in the peaceful core and going from that, enjoying everyone. The people saved me in the end. A friendly monk pulled me from the Dharma Hall to inform me that there was a problem with my score. He pushed me into a room filled with senior monks all sitting in a circle with all of the tests splayed out. It was a serious room. I was addressed, I gave my case, and they told me to get out. It wasn’t the warm heart of Korea. It looked like I was out of luck. On the way back to the Dharma Hall, I explained to my friend that the reason I was there without a sufficient aptitude in Korean was that I couldn’t study as a haengja. After one year they decided to let me ordain anyway. The University wasn’t working out for me. It was a little backwards, but letting me ordain would give me a great amount of freedom, comparatively, to study Korean effectively. My friend stopped me.

 

“Did you tell them that?”

“No, there wasn’t an opportunity.”

“You should have… It would really help your case.”

 

We walked on. Somehow he decided to talk to them on my behalf. I don’t remember asking. He came back to the Dharma Hall a few minutes later and pulled me to the back.

 

“Unfortunately…”

 

He cast his eyes down, resigned.

 

“You passed!”

“What…”

 

I couldn’t change gears fast enough. It came out in tears. I held him, he held me. I cried. He said, “Now you’re just a boy.” Yeah, but it meant all the effort, an impossible task had worked out. I was to be ordained as a Zen monk, with the lowest score in haengja history.

THIRTEEN

I felt something in my throat in the morning and it only worsened. By the afternoon I could hardly speak, but I felt alright. I got a packet of Korean medicine and a turtleneck from one of the monks. Sometimes they were very motherly. The day was made of scenarios to endure. There were a few random moments, too small to be recorded. What I would need stop–motion cameras, some engineering calipers, onion paper, drafting pencils… it would be easier with a full crew, someone on the script, one on time…

 

I continued to have a peculiar nausea and dizziness. The morning session went okay, only that we had to wear the changsam for breakfast and lunch. It allowed more room to alleviate the pain. We received our Dae Kasas from Chogye with the circles and our names embroidered on them. It was nice learning how to fold and unfold them, but I was sick and my knee was swollen, and nightmares of Auschwitz had me up an hour before the lights went on. But it was Friday, and, regardless of how I was feeling, the time shot by. I felt like an animal, just accepting the pain. There were a lot of dark scenes boiling out of my Louisiana black heart. They’d become so deeply intertwined in the path that they sounded the footsteps along with me. It helped define the cascading energy, the endless patterns, the light and sound and fury of existence.

 

My mechanical pencil ran out of lead, but I couldn’t go to the next room and get a refill. My life had been restricted for too long. Confined to the one activity allowed for the moment, their choice, there was a complete disregard for a natural rhythm in favor of a forced alignment. Kyol-che is another example of this, but there you have meditation practice and soft breaks. The haengja schedule is designed to make you hurry from place to place like a fire drill. It’s not about doing anything useful, but breaking your will. It’s not fun. I thought about being a prisoner a lot when I was at Dongguk, because a prisoner would have most of the day to read or study. We had less freedom than prisoners.

 

But there were only three days left. It was still a lot, but the next day would be cut up with the three–steps, one–bow. We also had to fit in a laundry and shaving our heads, a test. I was really sleepy during the lectures. It was the hardest part. I was looking forward to being free.

We were bothered with more, enough that I had to repeat the color of a spot on the floor. We were bothered with more, enough that I had to repeat the color of a spot on the floor. We trained for the three–step, one–bow, again. The cold descended deeper into my chest. I was growing a beard, a bristling white scrounge of hair that did wonders for my visage.

TWELVE

My skin began crawling. The pain and nausea both rose to defeat me. It was the 10th day of 16, a rainy Wednesday formal lunch to growl through. I couldn’t remember anymore what bowl to move toward the end, the pain would be so intense my body would vibrate, everything turned to blocks of color and noise. The incredibly slow movements they were going through! It was hard to determine how long it took, due to the severe compression of time, but it seemed to be a good hour. They forced me to use the half–lotus, but my wounded knee… I did some kind of fake–lotus while sneaking a couple of socks rolled in a hat under my leg, to relieve some of the pressure. The pain eventually turned everything into chattering madness. Before the third dedication my right foot would work loose and press down into the folded left to form a sort of cantilever, every inch of flesh struggling to escape the pain.

 

In the afternoon the pain sickness lifted and I felt okay. After lunch I could make it through the rest, but, as it was only Wednesday — no exciting mark of time to raise the spirits — I remained buried in the days. Thursday, Thursday the momentum would start to build, the draw toward the weekend and the final days. There was still a lot to handle but the wind was beginning to rise. It felt wonderful. Wednesday would die. That was my work, to wear down every day until I could close my eyes.

 

What did I want to do? I thought about playing guitar, I wanted an espresso, but mostly I wanted out of the sand trap of practice/torture. I guess they were making me a better man, there had to be a good example somewhere. The first wave of foreigners through the full Chogye system disrobed en–masse.

 

With Thursday’s cold damp the pain was ruining me. I stuffed a shirt in my hat and used it to sit on for the formal breakfast. It was the first time I made it through without becoming nauseous from the pain. Only five more days! Everyone was so depleted we could only wait for the sun. By noon it was so bright everything began to blur. We were entering the time–shift of the long retreat, where the days roar past. The time stretch is something like how the Edge described his discovery of his wonderful echo syncopations. He noticed as he was driving past a forest in Germany that the trees would suddenly become aligned. What he thought a chaotic wilderness became rows of industrialization. There was a way to bring clarity to a mass of information, a very human one. The human mind is inescapable in its need to put things in order. Everything involving humans has some kind of geometry applied, not so with nature. But to the point, when the brain becomes aligned with the schedule, it changes into a type of music. It may be that all of our activities are to reach this alignment, a naturally occurring, outward form of meditation.

 

It was nice out, but we were in a box within a box. It didn’t matter what happened out there. We were forced to surrender to the days, the grind, to let it flow by without interacting with it. You can’t know what this is like if you haven’t done it. And we were once removed from this, being indoctrinated into the inner circle, which meant enduring a lot of torture sessions. Through the window of pain, the sun outside was a distant dream. But we needed the radiation. It altered everyone’s mood, there were a few smiles, someone tried to say a few words, but was quickly cut off. If one of the monks caught us, we’d receive more points.

 

The leading edge of Thursday finally sank during an old monk’s lecture. He was my favorite of all of the speakers — not that I understood what he was saying. I liked him because he was old. Everyone had a hard time staying awake, though it looked like a good speech. He would read from a book for awhile then look at us with his shiny eyes… sometimes he’d even get up and spend a lot of time getting over to the blackboard, until he just started scooting over in his chair. It was better than the nun who projected an image of herself on the screen. I wished there were more of those kind of lectures.

 

The day went by. Curiously, I was having a little anxiety about finally graduating the program. After nearly 3 years of stress and effort, it was down to a few days, if they would allow me to ordain despite my performance on the test, which would be the last thing separating me from the Korean path. I was really looking forward to having the freedom to walk outside, to write again, to join a string of long retreats. It would be all for this life. The sky was almost black. The air was full of promise.

ELEVEN

A person’s light can be diminished, it can be completely extinguished. At my age I’ve already witnessed the deconstruction of several great men. It was only after I opened myself to a samadhi–like state that I understood this, from my own rambling life. When I’m stressed, it recedes. The trick is not to be taken in, but still a person is worn down. The haengja kyoyuk is a master class in having deep experiences and breaking them and carrying on. It’s not interested in anything of samadhi. It’s made specifically to condition the haengjas in specific types of behavior. All of the books on the shelves have to be aligned a certain way, with the spines facing the altar, each person’s stack perfectly aligned with each other’s. If one book was out of place, you were punished — this type of rationale.

 

The light was constant but diminished, though at times it seems to shine brighter through the storm. Everything was getting easier, but they added the points system suddenly. For every mistake you’d receive a point, which meant extra prostrations after hours. One friend received seven for falling asleep during the lectures. He was real nice. His father was a monk. If he received more than 15 he’d be expelled.

 

Two formal meals of extraordinary length and pain, 1000 prostrations a day, at least four hours of chanting, four of lectures in Korea, and kneeling and holding a book, whatever that’s called, chanting lectures, chanting with prostrations, admonishments about our chanting, and, at the end, extra prostrations for whatever mistakes you’d made. We only had six hours of sleep and were all worn out, but if we were caught nodding off during the lectures, we’d get points, which meant extra prostrations at night. I was in constant danger of gaining points, as I didn’t understand what they were saying, and it was coming too fast to ask my neighbors every couple of minutes, and we got points for talking as well.

 

The next day was long because there just weren’t any breaks, one torture event after another. We walked with our brooms a winding path through the sprawling buildings, encountering quiet groups of people here and there. It was old and dark from all the deaths and miscarriages, things lost, hopes, fears — probably something we carried: pale ghosts from the kyoyuk of fearsome tortures, we stirred the same out of our surroundings. It wasn’t the dark of impending doom, the drum and hiss of the jungle, but an existential dark. It had a certain weight, as though a great tide of peace lapped against the shore of human misery.

 

Several granite steps, protected by granite fences, were spotted with lichen and mold. Large bowls spilled water down granite sluices. It was a dark not unlike New Orleans but, like the forest, it never went completely to black. Instead, there was a deep peace. The swamp, the Crescent City… the world has grown much smaller in my time. There are places you go if you want dark forests and graveyards, places for theater, music, particular types of art. The best place to study Zen is in Korea. The cultural barrier is what it is. If you don’t bother trying to become a Korean, the people are very colorful and they understand Zen, though the young generation are involved with it less and less, it may be impossible to find a good teacher, and the small matter of learning the Korean language.

 

The kyoyuk system could only work in Korea. They know how to exist in that kind of hell without becoming monsters, the result of centuries of training and development. In the West, it would quickly devolve into someone’s personal agenda, and federal intervention. It also requires a great amount of infrastructure and mythology to produce a steady stream of new haengjas. At the bottom it’s an indoctrination, everything designed to bring you deeper into the organization. Maybe it could be adapted to a two–week retreat monastic workshop, but more, we need a third category, the independent, who would train as a monastic and come together for functions, like the Druids.

 

The difficulties of establishing a Druid–like culture is one of the reasons I returned to Korea. First we’d need a lot of good people, not necessarily enlightened, but well experienced on the path, to teach practice structure, what it means, how to initialize it, the way it works. You’d need someone realized enough to keep the thing alive. I see a sort of Fight Club underground that would use all facilities available, of any institution, just as wild and open as conditions demanded. An open community of retreat schedules, practice rings, solo facilities. More a collective than a lineage, there would be a community of elders, but no power structure. It would have to be quiet, the way a protest movement organizes itself, the instancy of the social network. It would be crucial to keep it path oriented, not a political device or hierarchy; a new model that hasn’t occurred to us yet.

 

Our brooms never touched the ground. Most the day was for our practice/torture with admonishments, a practice dragged across the rocks. We were all bruised and falling asleep at the lectures, endless point possibilities. I received one for having my stack of books out of line. It was a swarm to get the books on the shelf, and I was always last because I needed to see what everyone was doing — if they were pulling one for later study, which order they had their colors in. If you’re a foreigner, you have to watch everything. I was always last, scrambling to get my stack of books back on the shelf while the monks began shouting at me to hurry.

 

The weather turned to spring suddenly, which I’m certain had something to do with my troubled dreams. But I had no great desire during waking hours, so my dreams could hardly be discerned out of the shadows. I believe this is one of the effects of living in a deep peace, that the animal nature does what it does, but it rolls in impotent blackness. I was losing strength, but still ringing with all the practice and clean living. They were really pushing us hard. It was interesting because of the severity, the training had such a focus. I felt like it was going to end with someone shining a flashlight in my face asking me what my name was.

TEN

In the kyoyuk anything could be reason enough to admonish us. More than likely we’d be doing extra prostrations at night because of it. The constant pressure and my poor abilities with the Korean language caused a lot of tension. I got in trouble a lot because I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I tried to relax and ease through the situations as if I were a human being, to operate as if the kyoyuk was a practice stream. The practice, what was there, fueled itself, forced me into a heightened state. I was nearly always vibrating, beaming, breathing down tears, nearly hallucinogenic. But this unruly stepchild of dharma can’t be recommended. At least don’t do it more than once.

 

Every haengja became luminous, all 69 of them. They started to grab me, hug me, we were all high. My crazy heart, something carried over from my wilderness upbringing, the joy of seeing a human being, I still have it. People know… but if you put 69 men together for a few weeks there’s going to be… tribal things… you’re going to lose a few chickens. In our case, it was bananas. When the monks found out, ho! Screaming mad, they boiled into the hall and made us kneel on the bare wood floor for an hour, pacing back and forth through us with their sticks, shouting over each other. It was Hell. They wounded us. Some cried out. I was shaking with pain. They let us switch positions, but back to the floor. It was all too human, both the inevitable loss of bananas, and the darkness of those controlling them.

 

The light was clean and strong. I had many luminous moments. One of the generals, the meanest one, passed inches in front of me, so close we shared a breath. He scowled at me, but at heart I was still a young boy from the Louisiana wilderness. He was mean, yet I found him the most interesting. He was electrified like some kind of insect, with one magenta eye that pulsed cold math. He examined me as he passed. The way he focused on me… he was waiting for me to react, but I enjoyed it. He instantly knew both that I was on to him and that I admired him. He came back after pacing the ranks to ask where I was from, and to say “thank you.”

 

We began training for the one–step, one–bow that would take place the next day. My knees were getting worse. The right one had been taking more abuse since the left was weakened. I had to protect them, to survive. The workhorse body of mine, though it had allowed a lifetime of punishing demands, required a great many things of me. Like any relationship, it was a plus and minus.

 

Thankfully, we had to shave our heads, so there was a lull. I began writing the first fragments of Some Other Burning. After all the disturbances it was hard to initiate, but writing was always somewhat uncontrollable. The year at the University I couldn’t write. I could only beg for time. I asked everyone involved with the program for more, but it was impossible.

It’s not easy to innovate in Korea. I could’ve designed a rotating schedule in half an hour that would allow everything one would need to study the language effectively: people, movies, books, talk radio — some type of media room (an underground bunker), study time adapted to the individual, concentrating on morning or evening; grade point, test schedule, memorization ability, age, nationality, amount of experience learning languages, previous college. I would love to draw this! But I quickly learned that my input was… it was like talking to a therapist who’d listen in a clinical vacuum, as if I were insane. The only way through was to fail. I went to class every day unprepared. It was a constant. My brain was occupied with trying to create an area that absolutely didn’t exist, like growing a new limb. Deformed by the terrible schedule, I wasn’t able to either learn the Korean language or write. I lost a year.

 

I ate well, made a hundred friends, listened to music, always something in the background to ease the brute force memorization rounds. I discovered a great pile of new artists blasting out of the digital wasteland, a caustic stew that flooded my trouble brain like nitrous, the same as in my youth. I spent a lot of time on the subway to and from the University and some time on the streets. So many things, a whole life, scenes, moments, all the interconnected people (In Seoul this means children too — how much light and color they bring!) the hideaways, favorite restaurants and favorite bad ones, iconic billboards, flower shops, cafés; how to get everywhere instinctively, without care. That’s when it opens up to you… Los Angeles took a while, maybe ten years. I found Seoul’s rhythm in a year, Manhattan’s in a few months. I don’t like to travel as much as go somewhere and live. It’s the same with relationships. It isn’t interesting until you’ve made at least a thousand connections. Only with the city it’s the scenes you live through, the atmosphere, the large empty corridor that echoes a certain way.

 

We were arranged in groups of three from tallest shortest and put through several drills. The big hall had the corners taped out to match a square in the courtyard in front of the Daeunjon. They’d been training us for the one–step, one–bow the whole time. What seemed to be singular events were all components of this exercise: certain chants, synchronized movements, patterns, focal strength, prostrations, adjusting our robes. It was nice to repeat the training again because it made me remember the first one, what became the kyoyuk chapter in The Zen Revolution, Though the techniques had become formalized, they were nearly identical. It was shortened from 3 to 2 weeks, and they began using cushions instead of the bare floor. What I did at Tungdosa I would not be able to repeat. These days I couldn’t bear that kind of pain, it would kill me. Still, Tungdosa was more interesting. It had summer storms and dark halls, forest and graveyards, there were three times as many men, so we had more power. The three–steps, three–bows were down the road that penetrated the forest, leaving us enmeshed in its boroughs. I wish I could convey what it was like. A Korean spring forest has more yellow tones than those in the South. There’s a vibrancy, but not at a great depth. The darkness of the subtropics is replaced with joyous tones, with walls of granite, mountain streams and trails winding up through it. You can’t run into it and have it swallow you. It doesn’t overwhelm, but there are places that are just as important.

 

When it was time to go outside we were to organize and walk in minutes. Though the room seized for a moment, there wasn’t a note of protest. We sprang up and found our places and streamed to the courtyard, and this after kneeling for half an hour reading the Sami rules, which meant standing on our knees and holding a book out, arms locked. We were often to endure painful practices. No explanation. After we made it through the hours of prostrating around the courtyard we had a nice lunch, which meant everyone ate a lot so the time crawled. The pain of the floor turned from bright to magenta spots to broken scenes racing past like it was the end, then someone would grab another potato. The constant pain of the kyoyuk made it difficult to eat. In a constant state of nausea, I ate anyway. Like an athlete, I had to consume the calories. The meals were both wonderful and harrowing, unendurable. We had only two a day, so it was important to pack it in, even if you were nauseous from being tortured.

NINE

We raced from Hwagyesa to Musangsa and I continued on to Tsushima, Japan on a visa run, then slammed into the Sugyae Kyoyuk the next day. The light came in like it was the end. Everthing had a sickly yellow cast. The vibration of the road, the smell of the river, the coffee at the roadside market, it all raced through me and on, as if I were some kind of insect. I stayed close to Haeju, watching her cycle through the same emotions. I knew what she didn’t: we were going to be tortured. We didn’t have much to say. There wasn’t enough air to breathe. We left the river, following a mountain stream up through a winding park full of stone statues, the outer perimeter of Chikjisa.

 

We had a pack of Sunims hounding us from the beginning. We were ridiculed, despised, as if we were criminals. They walked through us constantly, tagging in and out so there was always a fresh man on the stick. Loud, arrogant, they repeated the same admonishments over and over with perverse pleasure. We were completely at their mercy.

 

The cast of characters was abysmal: the chorus leader who thought he was some kind of diva, the frat–boy military brat, the growling sergeant, the get–off–my–lawn burnout, who hated everyone, the fashion queen — every type of human vermin gathered together.

 

The first day we did maybe 1000 prostrations. It was the first time since the previous haengja kyoyuk in 1998. With the destroyed ACL and massive surgery, I’d had just enough time to recuperate before attempting another one. I had a few flareups and warning heat flashes, but relaxed into it enough to press through. One of the young haengjas in front had the really good technique. He pressed back to a quick balance on the lower leg, then slowly unfolded. It helped. I felt like I could make it.

 

I was scolded for running, but people run. Nowhere in the farthest reaches of human achievement is a more dead–eye example of structuring then the haengja kyoyuk. Everything has a form, a specific number of steps, an exact alignment of books on the shelf, folds of the cloth, bedrolls laid out seconds before the lights are turned off. Everything was adjusted and aligned constantly, not only the objects in the environment, but our orientation toward them — the way we sat, how our hands were clasped — all patrolled by Zen monks who made it their life’s work to uphold the discipline, to keep a steady beat behind us, to force us into disarray.

 

If anything broke the form, such as a shoe out of place, points were given, punishment meted out. They used the human drive toward meditation through patterns of behavior, structuring, as a training ground. Humans have a confounding knack to hit on things far out of their reach.

 

The weather was shit, cold enough to penetrate two thermal shirts and a wool sweater, but it wasn’t as bad as the constant drills. We tied and untied bowl cloths 20 times in one sitting. The same with arranging the room, but the sunlight through the windows, the long red curtains… at least there was some kind of madness. The lectures! Four hours. A sea of gibberish that held me from going under. The alert room, the discipline, the pacing monks, the exotic conditions left me stranded between dreaming and being fully awake. Because of the constant stimulus, I was unable to rest, yet I couldn’t comprehend what was going on. My brain began producing dream–states superimposed over the real. My head throbbed in its own blissful weight, heightened by the clanging bells, the Buddhist chants we were drilled on. I struggled to use it as a practice opportunity and find my bearings. Pure and painful, clean, everything was organized as a discipline. There was a constant pressure of authority, with wooden sticks, an austerity: the height of the mountains surrounding us, the scale of the buildings, the coursing stream. It was a beautiful place. The drills were relentless, bordering on torture.

 

The wind was whistling against the glass, blowing our robes off the bamboo; the tall mountains on every side slanting the rays, which collided with the refracted light from the stream — a soft haze. The pine trees, their red trunks smoldering in the shadows, strands of light through them over the sparkling stream filled the air with their sweet respiration, turning it translucent, refracting, melting, catching the light, breathing. If you caught it right the rapture of the interplay would fill you with laughter. The trees revealed the thing that animated them. Sometimes, if you looked through the intersecting branches, there was some information there beyond the random order. If you were lucky enough to have been in a deep forest for some time — a place I’ve always wanted to stay but life there was always hard, the people were hard — the light through the trees… it’s almost deliberate. It’s telling that anything man–made has none of this, unless it’s heavily randomized, such as a spark of light through a pile of twisted metal, where the complexity of the material allows nature to reclaim it.

 

The way the mind works when there’s no waking consciousness to filter and bind the imagery into cohesive fragments of reason, the same ill–fated death only covered in paper: flashes of magenta flashing from my subconscious like stalks of grass, magenta tongs criss–crossing in the dark, the inside of an incandescent bulb, a crazy world of images superimposed on each other, each a puzzling world too terribly made, made to die on the first light of reason.