Thursday, August 14, 2008

What's this?

In high school I read Carlos Castaneda's first book. Although now his books seem contrived and somewhat unauthentic, at the time it was a much more substantial read then the New Age books about Atlantis and guardian aliens I was reading. In university I read most of the rest of his books. They are fantastic stories, especially if you take them seriously, as I did. Still I remember them with great fondness because beneath the fantasy there are elements of great truth and I believe the foundation of his writing was based on shamanistic wisdom he did receive in Mexico that he then created his narratives from.

What influenced me the most from his books was the emphasis on becoming aware of the negative emotions that use up our energy. Things like jealousy, for example. When ever you notice yourself indulging in jealousy, stop it. The more you train yourself in these ways, the more personal energy you acquire. Also, a seaker should follow their path with the frame of mind of a warrior. Every moment riquires accute awareness and meticulous action.

Another philosophy in the books that went well with what I was beginning to feel already was the Mexican shaman's interpretation of God. Not a single entity that oversees and creates all, but rather a source of energy that we all come from and return to in an endless cycle. The path of a shaman is chosen by this source. The spirit comes to catch one's attention until they notice it, and proceeds to break their perception of reality, inviting a new way of seeing.

The more my thoughts began to develop and the more I expressed them, people started telling me that it sounded like Buddhism. Growing up in Clare, there weren't a whole many opportunities to learn about Buddhism. I knew about the Dalai Lamma and my mother had a post-card of the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Burma on the fridge door for a while. In Halifax there was more exposure and even a small Buddhist community, but I didn't get involved with it. I went with my friend Andru to a Wednesday night meditation class at the Shambhala Center but neither of us were left with much of a desire to go back.

Not long after, I was on my way to teach English in Korea with a keen interest in Korea's ancient form of shamanism. "Mudang" are female shamans in Korea. Although to me they are fascinating, to most Koreans the mention of Mudang arouses most fear then interest. Mudang are associated with ghosts (a fact of life in most countries in this part of the world) and with Christianity getting stronger every year, people are being taught that Mudang are evil. I've met Mudang in a few different places but none of them spoke English and didn't seem eager to have a conversation if they could. Last week in Seoul we came across one in a possessed rant Insadong about Korea's president, Yi Myung Bak. As soon as she saw my foreign face she started yelling not to trust foreigners and if a foreigner starts a fight with a Korean then kill him. She reminded everyone not to eat US beef because it's infected with Mad Cow and her rant died down. I walked away less than amused but maybe there's an interesting encounter with a Mudangyet to come... I'm hoping.

Buddhism in Korea, on the other hand, is still very vibrant and accessible to everyone. I began by just visiting temples on weekends, walking through the grounds, taking photos, poking my head into the halls but to shy to enter. I loved watching people bowing in the main hall. The flowing motion as they went through their postures, and the murmurs of chants and prayers. After time I realized there was no reason to be apprehensive and started just sitting in the halls, soaking in the energy for a few minutes. Most temples in Korea are in the mountains and usually take 15 minutes or more to walk to. It's a nice separation from the rest of the world and temples outside small country town are my favorite. Going to temples with Korean friends taught me the etiquette of bowing. Still, going on my own I was usually too self conscious to bow, usually I would do a quick bow at the entrance gate and leave it at that.

Visiting temples continuously, you're bound to meet a few monks. The first real lesson I got in Korean Zen Buddhism was from a monk who invited the group of friends I was with into his house for tea and dried persimmons. His English was short but he did his best. My friend asked him what the meaning of Zen is and he dropped his plump right index on the wood table and exclaimed, "What's this?" Pointing at several other objects, he continued, "What's this? What's this? What's this?" Then thumping his own bare scalp, "What's this?"

I don't know if any of us got the meaning immediately, but it is the usual recurring theme of Zen, so it wasn't long before I understood the question. It was a good turn in my own thinking.Instead of questioning inaccessible mysteries of existence,

question the things right before your own eyes. The word 'table' is an idea. It creates an illusion that an object is a table. One step back from being a table, what he was laying his finger on was a piece of wood shaped in a particular way. For now I'll leave it at that, but feel free to continue on your own, what makes it a piece of wood? The importance of then turning the question on yourself, "Who am I?" is to discover what part of you '"self" is, where is the you? What part of your being continues when your bodies dies? In Zen, if you experience the answer you are enlightened. Meditation monks in Korea will sit only focussing on the question, "Who am I?"


  1. Hey Joseph, what you wrote here: "Also, a seaker should follow their path with the frame of mind of a warrior. Every moment riquires accute awareness and meticulous action." That is really true. How much of our days are we alert, aware and conscious of what we are doing/saying/feeling? If we think of this analogy - that each day we wake up to follow our path, like a warrior - it might help us remember to stay alert.

  2. Hailey, thanks for your comments, and thanks for reading~