Leaving Twitter for peace of mind

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Leaving Twitter for peace of mind

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Venerable Haemin took a break from his university professorship in the United States to spend a month in Zen meditation at Bongam Temple in North Gyeongsang. By Kwon Hyuk-jae

Venerable Haemin, a Buddhist priest, writer of the best-seller “Things You Can Finally See When You Stop” and Twitter celebrity, has been practicing Zen meditation at the Korean Zen hall of Bongam Temple in North Gyeongsang for the first time. Under the guidance of Venerable Jeokmyeong, the head of the temple, Haemin ate and slept with the Bangam monks for a month.

Haemin joined the priesthood when he was studying Buddhism at Princeton and Harvard universities. As a result, he sees Buddhism from the perspective of the West. The JoongAng Ilbo met him in Bongam Temple recently to ask what the Korean Zen hall was like for him.

Haemin said he chose Bongam Temple because it was “the home of one’s heart.” From 3 a.m. to 9 p.m., he went through 10 hours of Zen meditation each day. He noticed while he was there that there were monks who were without money, who used phones for less than 40 minutes a month.

As our conversation continued, it got complicated. He said Jeokmyeong saved him from the trap between “knowing Buddhism” and “enlightened Buddhism.” By this, he mostly meant the unspeakable enlightenment, where there is no division between “I” as the subject and “others” as the object. It is the spiritual realm that needs to be grasped by a high-degree of intuition, rather than logic. “Turn the consciousness that obsesses with objects before one’s eyes and face, ‘the thing’ without differentiation,” said Haemin.

Q. We heard this is your first time studying Zen meditation since 2008 when you officially became Buddhist priest.

A. Shamefully, it’s true. I’ve taken part in short-term programs, but I never lived in the Zen hall with other monks.

Why did you take a break from teaching at Hampshire College for this Zen meditation program?

For several reasons. As I have been focusing more on Twitter and presentations, my attentions have been taken up by exterior things. I felt funny advising others when I’m not good enough myself. Like my book title says, I needed to stop because I needed some introspection.

How was Venerable Jeokmyeong? He is known to be mysterious, never coming forward.

I was impressed by his words and conduct. He has a great ability for religious purification, but he hardly reveals it.

How did you feel about Jeokmyeong’s religious purification?

He was superior in easily explaining what he knows. He immediately noticed my state and suggested an answer when I told him how I had been stuck.

What was the answer?

Human nature is originally pure. If one sees that completely, one will know that there is only oneself, the main character in the play. The character is empty, without a shape. Yet that empty character is alive. To put it another way, it means that everything is a play in one’s heart. One exists all around, even in the valley where the water flows. My problem was that there is a difference in just knowing and reaching the stage for real.

What was “Hwadu Zen meditation” like?

It obviously is an outstanding method. In Vipassana, there is an object which divides the position of subject and object. Ganhwa Seon, in contrast, starts without those in the first place. It is like finding the answer to the question without an answer. It never leaves the fundamental place of the whole from the start.

Isn’t that kind of mentor rare?

One can meet one if one longs for it desperately. Oddly, the universe solves those things.

(The conversation with Haemin went on longer. “I won’t let go of the practice,” said Haemin. He kept saying that life is the gust of a dream, or some kind of role playing. And the sound of water running through the Bongamsa valley was vivid.)

BY SHIN JUN-BONG [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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