Buddism 101: A Meeting With A Surprisingly Hip Monk
I was shopping for new meditation spots and recently saw a flyer advertising a new Buddhist temple with daily sessions. The place piqued my interest, so the other day I paid a visit to the temple, which turned out to be inside a brownstone on the Upper West Side.
Yes, even the Buddhists recognize good real estate.
The temple was mostly empty when I arrived, except for a man working there who told me the monk was running late.
“No worries,” I said. “Even monks get stuck in traffic.” I chuckled awkwardly then made my way over to the big gold Buddha, and took a squat.
The monk—surprisingly white—arrived 15 minutes later harried and stressed. He had a shaved head, looked to be about my age, and wasn’t bad on the eyes. I took a moment to wrack my brain: Had we dated before?
The monk introduced himself as Myong Haeng Sunim or Dave and told me I was there on the wrong night—the beginners, he explained, met on Tuesdays. I assured him I am no novice.
“Well then,” he said, “you should have no problem sitting in silence on your own.”
“Um, well, no,” I back-stepped, “I’m not sure about that.”
Dave changed into his robe kneels, bowing to Buddha and reciting Korean prayers in a very deep, monotone voice.
This isn’t so different than synagogue, I thought to myself, minus a few golden statues.
Dave tried explaining the prayers, but was in a rush to get elsewhere. He handed me his card and invited me to get in touch. So I e-mailed him, which seemed a strange way to correspond with a monk, and we made plans to meet the following week and talk more.
Here’s what he told me when we met, sitting Indian-style, cushion to cushion:
How He Became a Monk
Dave went to Cornell and found himself surrounded by people chasing desires, money, and goals without any sense of happiness. His peers seemed distracted with TV, drugs, and conversation. Then Dave’s father got cancer. Suddenly, primetime sitcoms and frat parties didn’t seem so important. Dave found himself wondering, What’s the whole point?
He started hanging out with local Buddhist groups, went on a few retreats, and before long was in Korea teaching English. He didn’t necessarily want to be a monk, but Dave needed money to stay in the country. So, he kept learning and teaching at the temples until he finally graduated and realized his purpose.
Why Most People are Unhappy
Suffering comes from attachment to the idea that your thoughts are true; like when I tell myself that the only reason the guy on the train offered me his seat is because he thinks I’m pregnant. Everyone in this world is attached to his or her thinking, and puts everything into categories of right and wrong; seeing all the world through this filter. If you are attached to anything, you will suffer because inevitably it will change. We need to wake up moment to moment, perceive this world clearly, and do our best to help others.
Thoughts and Judgement
Buddhism allows you to see things as they are. People confuse their thinking with the truth. Your thoughts are just coming and going. If you see them as true, you suffer. Our thoughts categorize people into right and wrong buckets. The moment we separate and categorize, we see ourselves as better. Another moment, we see ourselves as inferior.
Do We Stop Thinking?
Thinking is not bad in itself, but if you attach to your thinking and ideas and believe that they are true, then you will cause suffering for yourself and others. Most thinking is based on opposite concepts, which are formed by our biased perceptions of the world. It’s important to think when necessary, but to turn off the faucet when you are done. If your mind is clear, you can respond to any situation naturally.
Chanting and Meditation
Bowing, chanting, and sitting all help our body, breath and mind become one. If your body is doing one thing and your mind something else, then you can’t be clear; and you’ll inevitably suffer. When you do something, just do it. Bowing and chanting are the fastest ways Dave found to bring his body and mind together.
We’re all either planning for the future or regretting the past, which makes it hard for us to connect to any situation now. Dave uses mediation to turn inward. Our mind is like a mirror, he says: When it’s, clear it reflects in front of you and allows you to connect with people.
I’m not sure the temple on the Upper West Side is my scene, but I liked Dave. He was peaceful, kind, and I loved the way he processed the world. I would even set him up with one of my single girlfriends if I could. Even American monks have to remain celibate. Of course, I had to ask!
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