Seoul, South Korea: Now and then Zen

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Seoul, South Korea: Now and then Zen

Soo Bool Sunim smiles broadly and asks, “Can you see your own eyes?” This is not a question that has ever occurred to me, but now it becomes troubling as I turn it around in my head, looking for an angle into it, and wondering whether there is an answer at all.

Or even if that is really the question.

This bewilderment is what Zen masters can do to decades of logic the conscious mind has laid down.

There's no correct answer of course, but that doesn’t stop a few us here in his home-cum- temple retreat in suburban Seoul having a stab – and Soo enjoying our weakly rhetorical answers.

Later some agree you could get very annoyed by Soo’s beaming countenance, his quiet composure and a youthful appearance which belies his fiftysomething years. We come away with many more questions than answers.

Soo is a Zen master -- of a Korean branch of Buddhism -- and his orderly home and garden behind a stone wall is a quiet refuge from the streets outside where there are fashionable art galleries, hip wine bars and low-rise apartment blocks. In Seoul these collisions of the ancient and modern are common -- and sometimes strange.

Next to the Ahnkook Zen Institute is the Seoul Museum of Chicken Art.

You can be very easily bewildered in Seoul -- and nowhere more so than at Soo’s.

I should have been prepared. I studied Zen at university in a Chinese philosophy course, and have read much Zen poetry and writing since.

So I was at least familiar with koans (riddles or paradoxical stories to test the mind). But Soo could answer a question with a question -- and having read about Zen proved no help.

A monk for around four decades, Soo studied under masters himself, had a small group of students (most adults in their middle years and older), and meditated for at least 12 hours a day. Which probably explained his youthful appearance.

His daily regimen was simple: think a lot, eat a little, repeat until bedtime I believe it was.

Matters became complicated when he spoke of impermanence.

I asked if there was such a thing as change, a question I thought a Zen master might appreciate and be willing to bat around with someone like me who was clearly broadcasting on a similar frequency.

His long reply seemed to involve a mild rebuke -- with a smile in my direction as one might offer an idiot child -- and then a monologue to the few Koreans in attendance. It might have been along the lines of, “this clown here has just asked . . .”

Oddly enough the interpreter’s reply to me was brief. But one phrase rang through with clarity, and which might have been either a revelation or a condemnation given my profession as a writer: “Don’t be captured by words.”

I think I shut up after that but later we exchanged pleasantries and I told the interpreter the master’s statement about words had amused me. He passed this on and Soo nodded and kept on smiling.

Back home I typed out his words and placed above my laptop. Why? I have no idea.

Incidentally, Master Soo said he could see his own eyes, but the explanation was so convoluted my brain started to hurt.

The bugger didn’t stop smiling then either.

For other travel stories by Graham Reid, see here for his two award-winning travel books.

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