On The Passing of Teachers

Zen Master Wonji Dharma (left), Lama Chuck Stanford (right)

In the last few months of 2021 two of my Buddhist teachers died. They were both over the age of 60, but they certainly could have had a few more decades in this world. Their deaths have affected me more than I imagined they would. I am mourning their passing. It was a shock that their deaths were so close in time.

Lama Chuck Stanford taught me in the Tibetan Rime tradition.

Venerable Wonji Dharma taught me in the Korean Zen tradition.

The Rime Center Buddhist Community is left to figure out how to go on without Chuck Stanford in this world.

The Five Mountain Zen Order is left to figure out how to go on without Wonji Dharma in this world.

And they will go on. Both these teachers had already retired and trusted their legacies to others. Buddhism outlives teachers, even great ones that touch a lot of lives. We have to go on. I’m hopeful that seeing the ends of these lives that were so dedicated to spreading the Dharma can help us motivate ourselves. We can’t waste our lives. Our spiritual journey is important and needs to be something we focus on.

There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.

Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?”
And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”

(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)

Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”

And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”

It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.

As Aaron Burr says in ‘Hamilton’, ”Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes.”

Since the passing of these great teachers I’ve started doing a daily recitation practice along with my meditation each morning. (I used to do a much shorter recitation)

Both of these teachers manifested great compassion, so a compassion prayer seems appropriate. If you feel so inclined, you can do this daily practice as well.

I used to really see myself as a secular Buddhist, so prayers like this felt off limits and unapproachable to me. That has all changed in the last couple of years. I’ve grown more and more comfortable with Buddhist devotional practices after going through the isolation of the pandemic and the passing of these teachers.

I’ve been focusing more and more on practices to open my heart and I’ve been studying more diverse teachings and practices.

Loss is tragic, but it can also inspire us.

How can I serve others? How can I help you?

These are big important questions.

Buddhism teaches us that loss is the nature of things. Many of us know that very deeply.

Loss is still hard. It’s up to us to figure out how to go on and to try to carry on the legacies of our teachers. They can still motivate and inspire us.

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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.

Perceptions and Reality: Wonhyo’s Story

 

I gave a talk recently about the power of our minds, the way our perceptions can shape the way we see the world.

You can listen to it here: Perceptions and Reality

In that talk I told the story of a Korean monk from the 600s named Wonhyo. I wanted to write this to talk about Wonhyo a little.

Wonhyo was a really important figure in the history of Buddhism in Korea. He lived in the 600s. His importance in the spread of Buddhism into Korea can’t be overstated and all of the schools of Buddhism in the country view him as an important figure. He wrote hundreds of Buddhist texts. In addition to his own work he wrote many commentaries on classic Buddhist texts from the various schools.

I like all that, but I like him more because he was kind of a weirdo. I like the Buddhist teachers that seemed crazy. Wonhyo did what other Buddhist teachers didn’t do. A lot of his time that wasn’t spent writing was spent out in the streets. He went to public places and taught regular people about Buddhism. Not only did he do that, but he didn’t always wear robes, he actually gave up being a monk to get married. Not only that, but he also included singing, dancing, and other forms of entertainment in his dharma talks.

Anyway, I spent that time telling you who Wonhyo was so that I could tell you his origin story. I like his story and I think that maybe it tells us something about ourselves.

When Wonhyo was a young monk he wanted to journey to China. Like many historical teachers, Wonhyo became convinced that the “real” Buddhism hadn’t come to his country yet. So, he wanted to go to China to find a better and more authentic Buddhism. So, he and a friend decided to take a journey to China together.

They were just walking and it was a long journey by foot.

One night on their journey they got caught in some terrible weather. It was a torrential downpour and they didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t keep walking in it. They found a cave, which they thought was some kind of temple dug into a mountain. They went inside to stay for the night and try to sleep. It was very dark and hard to see in this little cavern.

They slept for a while and Wonhyo woke up in the middle of the night. He looked around a little and stumbled on something round. He assumed it was a gourd and he held it to his mouth.

I guess in those days catching water in a gourd and drinking it was a thing people did.

There was water inside and he thought it was the best water he had ever tasted, it was refreshing and delicious.

The next morning the two friends woke up and discovered that their cave was a tomb. There were skeletons everywhere. Wonhyo looked down at the gourd he had found the night before and discovered it was skull full of dirty water. He threw up immediately.

It’s said that Wonhyo attained Enlightenment in that moment.

Why?

Because he saw that he had an incredible ability to reshape reality with his perception. He thought it was a gourd, and so he tasted really good water. His expectation changed the tasted of the water.

After this experience Wonhyo decided to go back home. He gave up being a monk and started spreading the teachings as a layman.

I think his story tells us a lot about ourselves. We expect an interaction or experience to be a certain way, and then we make it true.

How many times have you thought you’d have a bad day and it turned out you were right?

Is that because you were right? Or because your perceptions made it true?

It’s hard to really know. The hope is that with our meditation practice our minds get better and better at distinguishing things like that. If you can approach your day and just be present in it without predicting if it will be good or bad, I think that’s best.

Our perceptions tend to shape our reality and that causes us to avoid facing the truth.

 

 

 

“What Defilement Could Ever Arise?” (Video)

This is a talk I recorded. It’s inspired by the text Mirror of Zen. This talk addresses Buddhist ethics and a few other things.

 

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Mirror of Zen

The Mirror of Zen is a text that was written by a teacher named So Sahn. He is one of the most revered Zen Masters in the history of Seon Buddhism. He was a Korean teacher and he tried to distill Zen teachings from over 50 sutras into a container that could easily be understood.

So Sahn lived in the 1500s. He became a monk at the age of 21 and dedicated himself to lifelong study. He lived in a time of great peril, when Korea was at war with Japan.

In these days there was some debate over whether practice should be centered on meditation or sutra study. Several different branches of Buddhism arose because of this debate, putting different levels of emphasis on different aspects of the Dharma. There were some saying we should just study the words of the Buddha and we really don’t have to practice ourselves. There are others who say that we just have to practice, that studying in any way is a distraction from our practice, we just have to sit like the Buddha did.

So Sahn dedicated himself to trying to bridge that gap. He thought that sutra study and practice were equally important. That’s actually a pretty common opinion these days, but not in So Sahn’s time.

It’s with this in mind that he wrote “The Mirror of Zen,” which is at once a study of core Zen concepts and also a practice manual. It’s a tiny little book. It can be read in just a couple of hours, but it has incredible depth.

I went through this text in great detail, but I also skipped the sections about how to be a good monk, since I don’t believe anyone reading this is a monk, I thought those areas wouldn’t be necessary.

Mirror of Zen: Part 1

Mirror of Zen: Part 2

Mirror of Zen: Part 3

Mirror of Zen: Part 4

Mirror of Zen: Part 5


 

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