Wonji Dharma Passed Away

I learned that Wonji Dharma (Paul Lynch) has passed away.

I wouldn’t call him my teacher because I was only with his organization, The Five Mountain Zen Order, for a short time. It was 2012 and 2013. I did take Novice Monk Vows from him, so maybe that’s why it feels serious to me. And to lose Wonji Dharma and my first teacher Lama Chuck Stanford in the same year feels really strange.

2012. I’m holding a certificate because I took vows on this retreat.

Wonji was a monk in the Korean Zen Tradition who trained with Master Seung Sahn and Master Ji Bong. He had a vision for online Buddhist communities way back in 2008. This was well before people started to believe such things could work on the internet. He had a vision and was an early adopter of the idea that people could take vows, study, and be trained as Dharma teachers on the internet.

I really learned that that kind of virtual community is not really for me. I need some kind of real life interaction for myself. BUT I am sure it works for many people and Wonji Dharma has left a mark on modern Buddhism. When he started teaching online it was controversial. Many people thought it couldn’t be done. It seems like it’s mainstream now, with organizations like Kwan Um, Shambhala, and Spirit Rock venturing into the web to teach the Dharma. It’s a new world. Many of the students who trained with him online run their own Zen Centers and temples now. Building a community is not an easy thing to do.

I know many people are sad at his loss and that his successors will do great things.

Retreats with Someone Else’s Hero

I’ve gone on a lot of weekend retreats over the years, with probably a dozen or so teachers.

These teachers come to visit the Rime Center in Kansas City. They come from a wide range of traditions and they have a wide range of teaching styles. This is a good thing because people can try to find what they’re looking for. (although I wish a Roshi or Shastri would come lead a retreat in Kansas City, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Weekend retreats are a good idea. That’s not what I’m writing about here. I’m writing about the teachers. And I hope everyone knows I’m not being critical…or if I am, the one I’m being critical of is myself.

You see, I went on numerous weekend retreats, I think I spent somewhere in the range of 50 days on retreat if you add it all up. It took me a long time to realize what was happening. Practicing with these teachers was almost always like meeting someone else’s personal hero. Is it any wonder I felt out of place?

(I said almost always because some of them were not quite that way. I’m talking about a majority of these experiences but not all of them.)

So many times I would hear about how great a teacher was and I would see people be really excited and…well they were fine. They weren’t bad, but just not what I’m looking for.

Although, as a really honest aside…I do sometimes have to wonder if other people are way better at understanding teachers with thick Tibetan accents than I am.

So, I stopped going on those weekend retreats. Rather, I stopped having the blanket view that I should go see ALL the visiting teachers. Because I don’t need to meet someone else’s personal hero. I’m glad your hero is here to lead a retreat for you. That is wonderful.

I think we need to ask ourselves why we’re doing the things we’re doing all the time. I think this is especially true in our spiritual practice. And if you find yourself sitting with a teacher who doesn’t mean anything to you, ask yourself a simple question.

Am I doing this because I want to or because I’m supposed to?

If I can’t travel to teachers that I want to retreat with and they also aren’t coming here, well I can always just retreat on my own. That’s what the Buddha did. That was the beginning of Seung Sahn’s practice too. Retreating alone is powerful.

Not that I think all of that time was wasted. I don’t. But the sitting meant more than the teachings almost every time.

And maybe I should have known better from my personal experience.

Back in 2012 and 2013 I was a Zen Monk in the Five Mountain Zen Order. I left because I didn’t connect with my teacher at all. He was not the teacher for me. I could have stayed and tried to stick it out until I received inka, transmission to become a teacher myself, but I didn’t. I considered that and it didn’t feel right.  I also could have asked the Order to assign me another teacher, but I didn’t even think of that possibility until much later. I’ll never know if that would have worked. I left instead (I don’t think they’d let me go back if I tried). Thankfully I found some really patient teachers online who would supplement my monk training with other  teachings to complete my training as a Zen teacher…

Of course our training is never really complete, is it?

Anyway, I had that experience where I knew a teacher wasn’t right for me and I backed out.

But for years I went on weekend retreats with someone else’s personal hero. Because I felt like I was supposed to go on these retreats. I’m not doing that anymore.

I’m only going on the retreats that my practice requires, instead of all the retreats that are available.

I think a lot of people are like me and have spent a lot of time practicing with teachers who aren’t very meaningful to them.

Don’t look for any teacher you can find. Look for the right one.

And for a while, maybe we can just be our own heroes.