“Breathe in, say, ‘Clear mind, clear mind, clear mind.’ And breathe out, say, ‘Don’t know,’” Paul Park politely instructs the dozen of quietly respectful people lining the room. Among them is a neighbor who finally decided to follow through after knocking on the door some 10 years before, an elderly woman shawled in a black hoodie worn backward, and a handful of men in robes as gray as their hair who have clearly heard this orientation before.
“Don’t know doesn’t mean that you don’t know something intellectually,” Park continues. “Don’t know means before thinking mind. Beyond words and speech.”
Despite the serenity he projects, a weight rests on Park’s shoulders. Having been named a lead teacher by Korean Buddhist Zen master Seung Sahn Sunim shortly before his death, it is up to Park and his small community of practitioners to maintain the vital core of Sahn’s teachings while recruiting among the diverse seeking community of Los Angeles.
Yet loyalty is hard-earned among Korean Americans wary of a Buddhism that has obscured its ethnic roots and American seekers distracted by the variety of sacred to secular Zens available. With low Korean Buddhist immigration numbers and the growth of mindfulness practices free of any Buddhist trappings, Sahn’s Kwan Um School, a once vibrant transnational religious movement, now faces an uncertain future. And his Los Angeles experiment of creating two facilities—the Dharma Zen Center for non-Korean seekers and Koreatown’s Tahl Mah Sah Temple for Korean traditionalists—is being put to the test.
Dharma Zen Center sits just off Olympic Boulevard among a quiet stretch of houses in LA’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Seung Sahn transformed the house into a meditation practice space in 1974 with the revolutionary intention of introducing lay people of any race, gender, or background to his specific form of Korean Buddhism without asking them to abandon their modern, urban lives. It was designed to be a democratization of a Korean Buddhism that Sahn felt was too restrictive, hierarchical, and distant. And while the center has been host to a revolving door of tourists, drop-ins, and occasional residents since it opened, the “Korean-ness” of its ritual practice, as Park puts it, has been both a blessing and a curse since it expanded out of Koreatown some four decades ago.
A three-hour meditation occurs every Sunday, which includes a 40-minute chant and two sitting sessions. For the uninitiated, it can be intimidating.
“The chant is the sound of Chinese characters pronounced in Korean,” Park explains.
“Don’t know” is the point, Park repeats.
The objective is to be present, beyond words. Straight-backed meditators concentrate a couple of inches below the navel. Tan Tien the technique is called. It’s where you keep your energy. Don’t know means focus there.
“What am I?” Park asks before the first silent meditation. The Korean practice of Zen, and Sahn’s Kwan Um School in particular, puts an extra emphasis on this sort of inquiry, which Park calls the “bone of Buddhism.”
Every Sunday the center hosts on average a dozen practitioners from the metro’s population of about 13 million residents. Few, if any, of them come from the city’s thriving Korean American community, which is overwhelmingly Christian. But Park is reservedly optimistic. He senses the city is changing due to American society’s increasing volatility.
“Bad is good and good is bad,” Park says with a grin.
According to Park, some of Sahn’s most popular centers are in parts of eastern Europe, where practitioners are no strangers to suffering. Dharma Zen Center’s future relies on non-Koreans getting serious about confronting existential questions and uncertainty. He’s waiting for a new generation of seekers.
Park first practiced meditation at 14, when his mother took him to Tahl Mah Sah Temple, seeking help for herself. That day in 1972, they approached the temple not expecting anyone to be there. But Seung Sahn invited them in and gave Park a lesson that was the beginning of a lifelong practice. And when Sahn founded Dharma Zen Center two miles west down Olympic, Park was enlisted to be a lead teacher in Sahn’s campaign to internationalize Korean Buddhism. A portrait of Sahn still hangs in Tahl Mah Sah, even though it is now independent of the Kwan Um School.
“Tahl Mah Sah was always Korean,” Park says. “But Seung Sahn wanted more than a cookie-cutter migration of Korean Zen to America.”
Seung Sahn established nearly 40 Zen centers and meditation groups around the world. In places as different as Spain, Malaysia, Argentina, and South Africa, Sahn’s maverick quest to take Korean Zen Buddhism abroad is impressive by the standards of any missionary. After his death in 2005, these centers have been left to greater or lesser extents to determine their own futures—which includes the degree to which they will adapt to their new cultural contexts.
“Who knows?” Park wonders. “Maybe the next generation of Korean American Buddhism will just be American Buddhism.”
In the context of his Los Angeles experiment, Sahn’s disparate currents of Zen—the American center and the Korean temple—face similar problems of recruitment. Yet they remain quite independent in their operations.
Tahl Mah Sah’s temple architecture looks foreign among the neighboring apartment complexes, strip malls, and gas stations. Traffic howls at the intersection of Olympic and Arlington while Jong Hwa Sunim, a visiting monk, leads a simple tour of the temple.
Jong Hwa pauses at a tapestry hanging to the left of the altar; it’s called The Guardian Mural. It depicts dozens of figures ranging from the Moonlight and Sunlight Bodhisattvas calling sufferers to enlightenment to the San shin mountain spirit that inspires Korea’s rural monasteries. There are monks chanting sutras, military spirits, and folk figures both Confucian and shamanic in origin—Zen’s first internationalization in microcosm. All surround a multi-armed figure and a winged-helmet-wearing spirit. Together they are charged with protecting the teachings of the Buddha.
“This has all people in it,” Jong Hwa says in broken English. “Chinese culture. Korean culture. Middle Asian culture. All people.”
Jon Won, a member of the young adult group, spends Sundays at the temple with his father. He mills about Tahl Mah Sah’s parking lot and welcomes guests politely.
“I was born here,” he says of the temple with a laugh. Yet despite coming here for 30 years, Jon Won speaks to the monks shyly. He’s quick to clarify he has a lot to learn.
“Some people just do meditation, or 108 bows every day. I come half for meditation and half for bowing. I don’t feel comfortable chanting.”
When a class on introductory Buddhism lets out, six young people stick around to practice yoga with one of the monks.
“The Bar Exam is approaching,” Jon Won says with a hint of apology for the small number of students. “But about 40 people came to our last wine party,” he adds eagerly.
The students place stretching pads in a loose circle among the basketball-court-paneled floor of the temple. A monk leads them in a vigorous circuit of stretches that Jon Won describes as “moderate exercise.”
While Park ends the center’s morning meditation with a circle talk, Tahl Mah Sah erupts with a Korean drum circle. The center’s seekers go to post-meditation tacos, while those at the temple eat tteok rice cakes. Both end with smiles and bows. Both represent Sahn’s legacy.
As the temple’s visitors file out, Bum, Jon Won’s father, hangs around in the parking lot smiling kindly. He stands by a statue of a long-haired figure in flowing robes.
“It’s Maitreya Bodhisattva,” he says, motioning to it. “It’s a future Buddha, the next generation.”
“Do you know why its hand is raised?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s to say don’t worry. Everything is going to be OK.”
Bum walks the students to their cars, parked in the shade of a four-story business complex built so closely it could share a wall with the temple. Having immigrated in 1981, he’s quick to confirm that K-town has changed.
“That wasn’t there,” he says, pointing toward the business complex.
“But the temple,” he says, “is the same.”
“Maybe we need to change it.”