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Posts Tagged ‘Zen Literature’

I got Ven. Jiheo’sDiary of a Korean Zen Monk‘ as a present from one of my favourite friends who worked in South Korea as a teacher for a few years. The book seems to be hard to find and I don’t know anyone who has read it.

This book is a diary of a Korean Zen monk when he was at a three month winter retreat at a Buddhist monastery called Sangwonsa temple. The book covers the important happenings during this retreat, the formal practices and the informal happenings and conversations. Some of the informal happenings are fun to read – for example, when some of the monks, whom we expect to be wise, steal potatoes and bake them and enjoy a midnight treat and the monk who manages the stores tries to outwit them. Ven. Jiheo also introduces us to Korean Zen Buddhism through this book – on how people opt to become monks, the two main types of monks and the differences between them, how a monastery works democratically with respect to decision-making, how monks are not exempt from compulsory military service, how life is hard for monks who get sick, how everyone puts their hands up and work together while preparing for the winter, the different practices that monks follow to help them achieve enlightenment including being awake for a whole week during a retreat – these and more are described in the book. There are philosophical debates in many places in the book which are fascinating, and towards the end there is even a comparison of Buddhism and Existentialism.

There are beautiful black-and-white water colour sketches at the beginning of every chapter which bring the atmosphere of the book alive and enhance the reading experience. I’m sharing a few here.

Not much is known about the author of this book, Ven. Jiheo. He seems to have become a monk after finishing university and he  wrote this book in the early ’70s when he was probably around 35 years old. What happened to him after that and whether he is still around is not known. It seems to be a mystery. I seem to remember a story that he left the manuscript of this book in the monastery and that is how it was discovered and no one knew anything about him. But I’m not sure whether I read this or whether this is just my imagination or something I dreamt during the wee hours of the morning, because I’m not able to find this story anywhere. It clearly is a mystery.

I’m not a religious or spiritual person, but I enjoyed reading this book very much. It was beautiful and calming and therapeutic like Zen Buddhism is.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“A Seon monk is not a product of fate but a creation of karma. Fate is what was determined for you before you were born, and there’s no way you can change it; karma refers to what you choose with your own free will in the present. Thus, fate is inexorable but karma is malleable; fate is fixed while karma can be changed by your intentional actions; fate implies limitation and karma confers possibility.
      It was my fate to be born poor but it is my karma (actions) to become rich when I grow up. It is my fate to be born a human and not a louse or a flea but it is my karma to choose Buddhism as my spiritual refuge and aspire to Enlightenment.”

“For Seon monks, next to the hwadu, the most insistent thought is about food. The craving for food strongly suggests that monks haven’t really eliminated their desires, but that they have merely deflected them or put them on hold. It also demonstrates that the most basic human instinct is to consume food. I’ve concluded that the most compelling human fear derives from hunger…A sutra teaches : “Do not love anyone, do not despise anyone. You suffer because you can’t meet the one you love often enough, and you suffer because you encounter those you dislike too often.” We should remain distant from the feelings of love and hate. Live with detachment. The monks knew this teaching better than anybody else yet they violated it because of hunger. They overate. Instant karma.”

“The forty-something monk had a unique habit. No matter what temple he visited, he would bust off the hinges of any locked door he encountered. He believed that Buddha’s disciples shouldn’t have anything to hide or valuable enough to steal. He said he felt frustrated whenever he encountered a locked door. It reminded him of the sad bondage of sentient beings who are entrapped by ignorance and rotten karma.”

Have you read ‘Diary of a Korean Zen Monk‘? What do you think about it?

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