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…


14 comments on “such tender emptiness

  1. A really nicely written post.

  2. Kevin Kim says:

    I thought I’d caught a hint that you were aiming toward doctoral studies in something you had written earlier, either here or on Twitter, and I kept meaning to email you about that, to ask for clarification. I see, now, that you’re definitely going for the brass ring, so I wish you great good fortune. You said you’re applying to different grad schools… I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll end up at Yale. Call it karmic gravity.

    Do you perhaps see yourself as an academic, eventually housed either on campus or at a temple near whatever campus you’ll teach at? Or do you see yourself, even with the “Doctor” title, as more of a monastic—not teaching at all, but instead fully immersed in your suhaeng, only occasionally researching points of academic interest? Forgive the implicit dualism of the question.

    It’s interesting, this path you’ve chosen. Doctoral students are expected to contribute something to the current body of human knowledge; it’s not enough just to research and regurgitate. In a weird way, there’s a bit of a bodhisattva ethos in doctoral studies: turn around at the threshold and help others with what you discover. Climb the mountain, peek into the new valley, then go back down into your home valley and describe the vista. Ph.D. work is strangely consistent with the path you’re already on. Beware, though: it’s also a path paved with ego. Scholars’ egos can be legendary. Not that that’ll be a problem for you personally, but you’ll be among those egos. Good luck navigating that morass!

    I’m in Korea until this coming Sunday. Alas, my days are pretty much filled with various appointments, so I don’t know whether I’ll have a chance to meet up. For now, I’ll just bid you bonne chance, bon courage, et bonne continuation. May your life continue to be awesome.


    • seon joon says:

      Hi Kevin,

      I’ve been open about my further academic ambitions for a couple of years now; I just usually don’t post explicitly about those kinds of plans here. Sorry not to get you in the loop earlier *grin*.

      I doubt I’ll end up at Yale simply because I don’t plan on applying to Yale, at least not on the first go-round, for doctorate programs. My particular area, text-based Yogacara, fits best with other universities. I will be applying to a master’s program at Yale, as well as the Yale Div School program, because I’m not terribly confident that I can make the grand leap to a doctorate program right away. I’ve been auditing classes and will continue to do so over the next academic year, both for knowledge’s sake (I’m focusing on languages and the broad sweep of history and thought in East Asia) and to produce writing samples and, hopefully, relationships with professors. In any case, the first round of applications will be for a mix of master’s and PhD programs, knowing that a master’s will help facilitate getting into a stronger PhD program if I don’t get in on the first round.

      I do see myself as an academic, working and living in academia. I’ve already been talking to both scholars, practitioners, and scholar-practitioners (some of them clerical and some even monastic) about how to balance the particular aspects of my own vocation(s). I’m fully aware that the job market in academia is shit right now, but that doesn’t stop me from saying with full sincerity that I’d love to work as a professor. I also recognize that if I want to make that happen, a lot of variables will have to come together. Aim for one’s hopes, prepare for nearly anything. Living arrangements will be fluid; right now I live in a Zen Center and make a short commute to campus, and share my time and energy between the campus and the Center. When in graduate school, however, I’m not so sure. It’ll depend on where I get in, first of all, and what kind of Buddhist community is in the area; it will depend on funding and stipends, if there are any, and whether I can make rent work; it will depend on the flexibility of a center or temple to host someone who will, frankly, keep odd hours and have her mind some other place a lot of the time. Several schools I’m looking at don’t have a residential temple or center near them; others have many. In the long term, after graduate school, a lot will depend on where I can find work and if any of my sisters from the international sangha are interested in joining together as a community.

      I do see myself as having a single vocation (“scholar-monk,” or hak-seung) that, in these oh-so-modern times, requires dual citizenship in the monastic world and the secular academic world. Of course, I could have opted to stay in Korea and study in the “graduate” seminaries, but I resent the tacit acceptance of certain imaginative limitations simply because it’s a “religious” environment. (And I deeply resent the active enforcement of those imaginative limitations!) I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I was able to take a critical stance to its outer limit. That doesn’t happen in the religious environments of the gangwon system in Korea, or even in the Tibetan shedras or institutes. That leaves secular academia, which is sometimes too critical, but at the same time allows for greater independence of thought and inquiry. I value that as much as I value the before-thinking practice of Seon. I also felt like it would be in certain ways easier to be a scholar-practitioner in the West, where I can be part of both their academic world and, either in American centers or by returning to Korea as I have this summer, participate in rigorous spiritual training.

      I’ve also bumped up against some of the larger of the scholastic egos at conferences and in other situations. Since I’m little more than an earnest hanger-on at this point, not someone’s student, not in a program, carrying no affiliation beyond a burning love of learning, I’m usually on the receiving end of cold shoulders. My first thought was, “Well, this is a lot like monastic society!” Same attitude, different field. Eh.

      I also thought I was going to have more time in Seoul than I did; I came down to Mu Sang Sa much earlier than anticipated. This is okay for me, since I’d rather be here and settling in than not, but it does mean I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of people I’d originally thought I would. Of course, you know you’d be welcome down here at Mu Sang Sa for Buddha’s Birthday tomorrow, should the fancy grab you! 🙂

      Thank you for the well-wishes; and if you’re in Korea more permanently in the near future, I’ll probably be able to see you at some point. Both my monastic training and my precious D-6 visa require me to be in and out of Korea at least once a year. To you, as well, bonne chance! Any new on the job front? (I’ve not been checking the internet much since a week before I left the US, and I’m pretty behind on everything.)


  3. Il Bo John says:

    Thank you. I hope you enjoy your retreat.

  4. “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.

    Oh, I can relate to this, so much. I feel this way every time I am able to gather with my Jewish Renewal community, the community in which I studied and was ordained. There’s always a feeling of relief, of drinking deep and realizing in so doing how much I had thirsted. It nourishes me to return to my ordinary life.

    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 can relate to this, too.

    May your summer bring you every blessing. I send love from afar.

    • seon joon says:

      And sending love (and an email before retreat begins next week!) to you. Thank you for all your love and support, in all the years past but especially this past year, Rachel!

  5. Dave Bonta says:


    Thanks for sharing all this; I was curious. Best of luck with everything you undertake.

    • seon joon says:

      Thank you, Dave. I was hesitant to be really public public about my plans until I’d informed my home temple and teachers. Less because I wasn’t sure, and more out of respect for them and our relationship and the “chain of command” within the monastic community. But now I’m permanently based in the US, and while nothing is guaranteed with graduate school–not acceptance, not a job afterward, not the overall trajectory of things–I’m willing to take the chance.

  6. Beth says:

    Ah. I understand better now; thank you for telling us your plans and being so honest about the process you’ve been going through. I can well imagine the complicated feelings, but I’m also quite sure that you’ve done your discernment with love and care and that you are making the right decision, or you wouldn’t be doing it. I wish you every blessing, both for this summer’s retreat, and for your future studies. Wherever you are, you will bring light with you — and I know you would be a wonderful, sensitive teacher and scholar. I’ll be remembering you in my own practice and prayers while you’re on retreat.

    • seon joon says:

      Thank you, too, Beth. As the “chanting” monastic this summer, I’ll be doing most of the daily blessings, and I’ve included everyone in this far-flung poeto-blogolicious family for many years in those blessings. This summer will be no different, and will be thinking of you as well. I hope your summer is good!

  7. […] In response to thus: such tender emptiness. […]

  8. Dale Favier says:

    I was a little afraid that you might get talked out of your plan! I knew better — but I was imagining myself in your place 🙂 Bless you, traveler!

  9. […] In response to Morning Porch and thus: such tender emptiness. […]

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