My Perspective of Buddhism: Korean Influence in My Life
When asked to write a contribution to document the 20th anniversary of the founding of Kwan-Um Sa in Los Angeles, I realized that my personal experiences would be from the stand-point of many visits and sharing devotions with it's sangha.
Without any apologies for viewing Korean Buddhism as passer-by, I did pass by, stopped for a while to soak-up the profound dynamics of the people who practice and reflect the greatness of the Mahayana-Buddhism of the Korean tradition.
I remember and cherish the words of the great Buddhist writer, which first turned my thoughts toward this religion and, now associate them so much with the Korean masters:
The Mahayana stands firmly on two legs, prajna and karuna, transcending idealism in learning the firm foundation of WISDOM, with the all-embracing affection for all kinds of beings, animate as well as inanimate. from D.T. Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism.
Perhaps not entirely aware of the true significance of this passage, nor of the greatness of its author, at age fourteen I felt the awesomeness of the electrifying effect of an association in the readings on ;Mahayana Buddhism.; (Then, at that age the two words seem to go together: was there any other kind of Buddhism but the greatness of the love of a God living, not in a remote heaven but, in all nature here on earth?)
How was I to know that love of wisdom and compassion for all beings was to be the focus of my religious practice thirty years later?
When I walked into the Korean temple on Oxford Street with my Vietnamese master in 1978, the dynamics of the Kwan-Um statue on the landing of that stairway was something I had not sensed before. The ;beauty; of a statue was certainly not an expression which was strange to me. I felt that many times before in some devotional way about the statues in the Roman Catholic churches I attended in my younger years, and certainly in the hangings and statues in the Vietnamese temples. But, this beauty personified the Mahayana in such a way that the Bodhisattva Kwa-Yin affected me as in peak experience, causing a more heart-warming reality of the chanting - that of hearing the vibrations in my voice when I said the words, ;Kwan-Um Bo-Sal;. This was not just a one-time event: the feeling is there when I chant with other sangha, and alone in my Buddha Hall. A bit of background here as to how this Christian met the Buddha and with each transition embraced his own buddha-nature in a stronger sense.
I stepped onto the path of the Buddha's way in July 1964 when I meditated for the first time with a small group at a Japanese zendo in Gardena, California. I continued ;sitting; with that sangha for some years after the roshi moved into the Los Angeles area. To put it bluntly, I was HOOKED from the first night I began my Zen meditation experience. At first it may have been only the meditation - the position, the discipline, re-arranging my life because I wanted to, the GREAT DOUBT (that we experience in our continued practice) - but above all, the challenge of this sobering practice and being struck by seeing my own true self made me know the awakening was real. I changed from one sangha to another after a few years, and then began just sitting alone. Another crisis in my life, the detachment from my family and the loss of their support of me as a householder, made me know that I had to find another teacher.......another Master.
And, that Master, the Most Venerable Thich Thien-An came, as it is said, ;because I was ready;. We met at the Vietnamese Temple, where he was abbot, and we studied there. But, we visited, observed and met other Buddhist sangha members, monks and nuns at temples of other traditions and cultures. He wanted all of his American students to have experiences in the international spectrum of Buddhist devotions and practices.
At the time I referred to previously, we visited Kwan-Um Sa with Dr. Leo Pruden, then Vice President of the University of Oriental Studies, of which Dr. Thien-An was President. On one of my early visits to Kwan-Um Sa with Dr. Pruden, when he would help some lay people with translations of letters and documents into English, I met Do-Ahn Sunim, Abbot of the temple. I felt we had an immediate closeness in spiritual and emotional communication, probably felt by us both because of our language differences; language was certainly not a barrier in our relationship. I attended many services and functions there at his request, and on one occasion I gave a talk on ;The Four Noble Truths: theme for meditation; to the young people of the temple. I would like to include some thoughts here from that talk because of the inspirational feedback I received from them and Do-Ahn Sunim.
One of the most rewarding and remarkable experiences in teaching young Buddhist - and those in other religious and secular programs as well - is guiding them through the skills or techniques of learning how to meditate. What a reward it is to see the joy in their lives and the positive changes regular meditation has made. Monks-training in the Chogye order is heavily influenced by Seon meditation and Kyo, scriptural study. My training as a Buddhist monk in the Japanese and Vietnamese traditions also branches from the Chinese Lin-Chi tradition, as does kong'an (Korean) meditation practice. My discussions of Buddhist faith, practice and enlightenment reflect what is termed in Korean Buddhism as patriarchal faith. Inseparable from this Seon meditation practice is the belief in a ;grace; available to all practitioners from Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The idea of ;faith; is a natural function of one's originally enlightened mind: you are the Buddha, and practice is to maintain the perfection of faith (miao chiao)... this is the career of the Bodhisattva. ..... in teaching you young people the techniques of meditation, we have avoided the term ;concentration;, yet some feel it is synonymous with meditation; it may emphasize to a great degree the subject of direction of thought and not allow for free-association of thoughts as they enter your mind during meditation. The work is to acknowledge all stray thoughts, then, just let them pass on through. Setting up a barrier-closing the door- will not keep unwanted thoughts out of your mind... (in a previously referred-to " theme" for meditation), I suggest here that in learning mindful meditation, let Gautama's way of developing the Four Noble Truths be your theme, in that it is a straightforward method of practice by inspiration, or in and out breathing. We inspire to breathe in and then let the breath sort-of float out freely, without effort. You can say the mantra, 'breathing in calms my body... breathing out I clear my mind'. This is in the quietness of your personal 20-minute individual meditation period and is based on day-after-day, routine (and here is where that word may be appropriate) concentration. In order to be mindful in all things out there, you practice in here (pointing to the heart). Healing of the body and mind in meditation is through regular, routine breathing in and breathing out.
I am extremely grateful for all of the personal benefits I have gained from my contacts with the loving, kind Korean people in Los Angeles, and especially at Kwan-Um Sa. Master Do-Ahn Sunim has from time to time afforded me visibility and a place with the order monks who are sangha members. A most rewarding experience I have had is teaching T'ai Chi Ch'uan for the last two years to a monk from the temple. I have had many students over the last 15 years in my class at my dojo in Echo Park, and it has been an exceptional pleasure to teach this martial art to one who has had years of practice in mindfulness and conscious awareness. The speed and perfection with which he has learned the slow, delicate moves of this style of meditation is a personification of the Taoist description from the Tao Te Ching:
When once you are free from all seeming, from all craving and lusting, then will you move by your own inspiration, without so much as knowing that you move.
It is with great honor that I have this opportunity to contribute to a document of praise in the celebration of the twenty years of Korean Buddhism in Los Angeles: a memorial to all of my Korean friends and to the noted Master Do-Ahn Sunim. Thank you especially Jang Kak Sunim, head priest of Bo Hyun Jung Sa and Head of the Buddhist Temples in Chulla Nam Do, South Korea, and Mr. Han Chaesoo of Kwan-Um Sa for asking for my contribution.
----------Professor Claude Mitran Ware, Ph.D.(Un Hae Sunim) Los Angeles, 26 December 1993 Head Priest MITRA-DHARMA ZEN MISSION'
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