Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor
Zen Buddhism is legendary for its anecdotal teachings that confound the keenest of minds. "You must discover the Buddha in you, it's in all of us," I was told as I sat before Master Samu Sunim. Hardly internalising his counsel, he continued, "If you throw a stick past a dog it will chase it, but if you throw it after a lion or tiger, it will come after the thrower ... you cannot be like the dog," he cautioned, "be the lion. This is what we call the authentic experience, your true self."
Silence fell, as if allowing me time to grasp the abstruse teachings of Zen Buddhism.
Midtown, New York City, can be unimaginably frenetic. But within the whirlwind of activities, there is a sanctuary, the eye of the storm, the Zen Temple, a new contemporary building that recently moved its spiritual services from Chinatown. "We realised that young people go to Chinatown for Chinese food, not for Zen wisdom," Master Sunim said in a rare show of levity.
But wherever the Zen Temple of New York is located, the outside world with its vagaries and vicissitudes no longer hold sway over its followers.
Master Sunim is slightly built, unassuming, his stoicism surrendering at times to a broad smile, even an occasional expression of gaiety. He was poised - statue-like at times except for his fingers that kneaded the malas (beads) wrapped around his hand.
He also proved quite erudite in comparative religion. True to his tradition, he demanded that I decode his teachings. It's a way of nurturing and cultivating the mind. His pronouncements were controversial for believers in Western-based religions. God or the devil is not a part of his philosophical nomenclature. "We are not a faith-based religion. Zen is a wisdom-based expression," he explained. "We do not beg, implore or supplicate to some higher being. Others pray to a God or gods, the Zen Buddhist can, if he chooses, bring the desired state of peace and contentment through meditation. You don't need to read the Bible or Koran or any sacred book when the enlightenment you want is already within you, waiting to be discovered."
Humility, he said brings wisdom, as he made reference to the venerable Dalai Lama who "remains incorruptible because he is remarkably humble."
Master Sunim attributed suffering to attachment to this world and it enticements. "It's a delusion that has unleashed real pain on mankind." He teaches that we can help ourselves, "whether we are sick or incarcerated."
Happiness, he emphasised, is an inner experience. Buddhism, he said, falls into two categories: the more conservative Theravata expression that is practiced in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Cambodia; and Mahayana, known for its liberal interpretation of the canonical language. Zen, he said, belongs to the latter classification.
The crux of Zen is meditation. Master Sunim viewed mental quietude as the panacea for many diseases. He cautioned, though, that contemporary medicine is relevant to holistic wellness.
He identified several forms of meditation, namely, visualisation and contemplation. The latter, he noted, influenced early Christian mystics and helped create many Catholic rites such as the 12 Stations of the Cross.
The Zen way is one of concentration. He directed me to look down, following the trajectory of my nose. "This is your point of concentration," he counselled. "Unlike others, we meditate with our eyes open to avoid delusions." He then asked me to count to 10, slowly and methodically. "This simple exercise is remarkably useful to quiet the mind and body. Before any activity, it can be done. It instills discipline. Before interviews, examinations or performing on stage, you can perform this simple routine and you will experience your natural state of being." He added, "It is even more advantageous to listen to your voice during the process". "The numbers" he said, "are tools to free ourselves from distractions and allow you to go deeper in to the meditative process. We use numbers to cultivate the presence of the Buddha within."
Zen employs other practical exercises to lift the consciousness from maya (illusion) and suffering. "Chanting mantras can engender peace, bring about greater awareness and trigger solutions to problems."
He also advised retreats and fasting to purify the mind and body. "A one-day fast is beneficial for the body. In our society, overindulgence has created a host of physical and psychological problems."
This purification can also include a rite called Jivamala where the devotee extirpates anger, hate, and grief by articulating these feelings on paper and having it ceremonially burned. "It adds some depth to the concept of forgiveness," Master Sunim explained.
He then related the story of a member who was estranged from his mother. Learning of her imminent demise, he called her only to be rebuffed with expletives. His mother passed away minutes later. "My student was hurt, distraught and guilt-ridden over the incident. In such cases, we encourage purification."
Master Sunim continued sharing his sagacity. "You should not concern yourself with the past or future. You will know the future by what you are doing here and now. And of the past, you will know by your present condition."
Living in the moment is axiomatic: the centre pole of Zen's many teachings. He later addressed death and rebirth. His admonition was unequivocal. "We must strive for voluntary rebirth. We must be aware of our transition (death). If you can help it, do not lose awareness at that point. This is the time when you must make three vows that you were not able to undertake in this life. This is spiritually vital and will help shape the type of rebirth you experience."
Dr Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council. You may send feedback to email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @glenvilleashby.