small stone (243)

Post-rain cool. Birds, singing & chuckling. Soon a train will pass on elevated tracks through the valley; clouds will lower onto the hills.

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such tender emptiness

Let us examine the daily life of a Bodhisattva:
There is nothing to be found in the empty mind,
Yet they are full of generous charities
In the empty roots of the six senses,
And such purity without defilement is the precept,
Such tender emptiness, tolerance,
Such innate brightness without dark shadow is exertion,
And such bright serenity, the meditation.

from The Collected Writings of Gyeongheo: A prose collection, translated by Dr. Young E. Park

The moon’s a nicked-out sliver of sky, a slash revealing the illumination waiting beneath every night. In two days’ time, Buddha’s birthday will be upon us, and the brilliant gash of the moon will widen a bit more as it moves toward full. And on the full-moon day next week, the three-month summer retreat will begin in Korea.

I am here, moving with the moon, moving with the widening belly of light, listening to frogs in the pond below the international Zen center, in the light humidity and warmth of early Korean summer.

Last week Tuesday I landed in Incheon. An American nun, one of my closest friends, picked me up at the airport. The next morning she drove me down to my home temple. Almost exactly eight years ago to the day, another friend drove me to that temple to begin haeng-ja, the period of postulancy preceding novice ordination in the Korean monastic system. The parallels were not lost on me: eight years ago I followed through on a decision, the ramifications of which shape and will continue to shape my life every day. Last week, I went to inform the senior nuns at my home temple that I had decided to stay in the US, in order to help with the Zen Center and university community I became involved with over the course of the last 12 months in the US, and to continue to prepare for and (I can only hope) gain admittance to a graduate program in Buddhist Studies. The decision was long in the making. It wasn’t easy to tell my teacher and grand-teacher that, contrary to their expectations, I would not be returning to them, but going off on my own. Like the decision that brought me to them, this decision will also exert substantial influence on each day of my life from here on out. Independence seized also entails a rather lonely-looking path; whatever else I might have to say about living within the closely-drawn boundaries of my home monastic community, it did offer material stability and the assurance of certain kinds of support that don’t come ready-made like that in the West. There is no perfect situation. Every decision and action entails a sacrifice, something given up. For security, I would have to give up a calling toward scholasticism. To pursue that calling, without any insurance that what I hope will happen actually will, I have to give up security, as well as disappoint some of the most important people in my life. To not pursue it, however, would mean disappointing the strong sense of what it is I need to do in this life.

I’ve decided against security. I’ve also decided against “duty,” which was far more painful and difficult than any question of material support. What will come of this, I can’t say. I don’t even want to speculate, although I’m working as hard as I can to lay a foundation for graduate school applications and study, which has been my long-term plan for several years now. I also will use the opportunity of being in Korea to ground again in the monastic community here. Another senior monk, who like me lives as the sole monastic in his local center, said, “Coming back to Korea and being with sangha nourishes me.” It was like I was parched and didn’t even realize the extent of my thirst.

And for the summer, something worked out like a grace: three months’ retreat. The first time I’ve been able to go on retreat since before I ordained. The dates for this summer’s retreat fell in between the American academic calendar, allowing a rare moment of equipoise in which I can participate in both the traditional monastic cycle and the conventional academic schedule. I’ll be chanting (rather than sitting) this retreat, something I’m really looking forward to.

Gyeongheo, one of the preeminent Zen Masters of modern Korea and a patriarch in the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn, speaks of the paramita, or perfection, of tolerance (also translated as “forbearance”) as a “tender emptiness.” “All existence is dukkha,” or “unsatisfactory;” this is the first noble truth, and in the Buddhist world we often toss that up as a flippant explanation for why life is just so damn difficult sometimes. The impression I’ve given myself over time is that I try and shrug off the intense pain living can bring by trying to bundle it up with a trite gesture toward this first noble truth, rather than actually sitting with and giving space to pain. Everything changes; we repeat this to ourselves ad nauseam in Buddhist communities. I tend to smother any acute discomfort with that pithy statement about impermanence. I abuse the first noble truth to accomplish this same emotional dulling, because sometimes things just hurt, and nothing we do changes that aspect of living.

The link between dukkha and impermanence is that the reason the stuff of life itself is unsatisfactory is because the stuff of life itself is impermanent. Whatever we hold in our hands is already slipping away from us, and we are slipping away from it. The whole range of responses to the slippage and loss of ordinary life, from mild irritation to breath-taking anguish, stems from the wish that we could hold on just a bit longer to the single bright moment. Tolerance, as I’ve come to experience it, is not a conventional patience. It is a deep acceptance that because people and situations change, sometimes there will be sorrow and sometimes there will be joy. Whatever’s there at the time is what we get to deal with. Then that too will dissolve into something else. Empty of permanence, it’s the nature of things to do this. It’s easy to quote a teaching and pay lip-service to the concept of change. It’s harder to practice that tender emptiness of forbearance, that aches and yearns and still lets go, and that can recognize and hold the aching of others as well. I was sitting in the tea-room today, waiting for a senior monk, and idly flipping through this book of Gyeongheo’s writings. There’s a bit of an ache alongside a bit of joy in me these days, the ache of knowing I disappointed my teacher and grand-teacher, and the joy of being where I feel I need to be. Gyeongheo’s “tender emptiness” touches this spot in me, like a bruise of light. No stoic patience, insensate to the pulsating whirl of living, but a response, genuine yet also discerning. Toward that forbearance, and the embodiment of it, I hope this summer sees us all advance…