Nino, the director of Dharma Fragments, has a plan. He always has a plan. After we finish shooting the next segment for Dharma Fragments, Liberation—and he’s really charged about this, he wants to go to Cuba and do a series there. He asked, “What would inspire you about being in Cuba?” I didn’t have an immediate answer, though of course, Hemmingway. There’s something about the place, the music, the colors, the people… I’m sure it would be something extraordinary. One of the underlying themes of Field of Weeds is the secret place in the woods, the tree in the field behind the old hotel at Tsushima Island and past it the tunnel through the trees that leads to the open sea. I will never forget that place, that scene. I would love to film it. My sense is, that’s what comes through the frames of Dharma Fragments, these images of Korea that only I know, my relation to the land, the places that draw me. That’s the underlying story. I’m working toward multidimensional themes that have something in the imagery, something more than a backdrop for a scene, that tells its own story. After all, our relation to the earth is of primary importance. We are the earth, an expression of it. How we relate to it portends our mental health, our happiness. These powerful places that draw me, I always develop a relationship with them. It’s like a relationship with a true friend, always nourishing and sustaining, the best healer. Cuba will offer her secrets, and I will capture them.
Author Archives → Wonil
Where the Teaching Ends
The act of meditation, largely obscured in mysticism, is easy to describe but far from accessible. The trend is toward a constant attention, being in the moment. Simplified to this degree, if you follow a popular sentiment, the act itself becomes self-perpetuating enlightenment. If so, are we content to remain within the form itself?
“Yes, I am present. And what strikes me at this moment is that I can go no further – like a man sentenced to life imprisonment, to whom everything is present. But also like a man who know that tomorrow will be the same, and every other day. For when a man becomes conscious of what he is now, it means he expects nothing further.” — Albert Camus – The Wind at Djemila
Camus was right. Being in the moment, if we follow the literal meaning, is a prison. Further, in this busy world, it’s an arduous task to remain concentrated in a momentary awareness, and what exactly is the goal? These teachings are fairly abstract, a single aspect of something much larger. If you follow them directly you will go wrong. When we say, “cut off all thinking,” it seems to imply that thought should be impeded directly. However, if your mind penetrates deeply into meditation, it’s filled with brightness. In this ecstatic state of the mind encountering the Source, there’s no room for thought. You could call this “cutting off all thinking,” but it’s pointing at something much more profound. In the same way, to be in the moment, if you contact the brightness, the magnificence of the One Mind, it becomes evident, imbues your life with a deep awareness and peace—but you’re faced with a subtle dilemma: the duality of the self and the Source. This is very difficult to resolve. I’ve grappled with this for more than a decade. Recently I realized if you take away time and space*, the Source, the Uncreate blasting into existence, and the thing that is in front of you are the same thing. This is the way to surmount duality. This is the height of our understanding. No one has been able to penetrate further. This is where the teaching ends. You could call this “being in the moment,” but it’s pointing to something much greater than being aware that you’re eating your breakfast cereal.
* For those new to Zen, going beyond time and space is a euphemism for the present moment, often demonstrated by a deep belly shout or striking the floor.
Emotional ramblings from the unpublished journal Some Other Burning:
I was a phosphor cloud of burning white. How long before I began drifting above the earth? The cataclysm of the practice world coming into being, a thing of light; giving and receiving, a membrane made to collect the emanations from the source… there was no other activity. The deep practice wanted, and received, all, every fragment of a life consumed in an instant. The fire only grew. It would be my end, there was no question. Like the serpent biting its tail, I was consuming my own entrails and would soon vanish. But I wasn’t only a man. There was something much greater blasting through the walls. I gave myself to it, fully. In return it obliterated me. Everything of Tae and the forest consumed, only the sound of it, the wild chaos of it. All my life to face it, to know it.
“Only meditation practice can give you this experience (One Mind) directly. When this experience becomes completely yours, you attain your wisdom.” – Zen Master Seung Sahn
A day of clearing the emotional field. Today I understood…
The great love, great peace of the One Mind is the true emotion.
Our attachment and desire for heightened states creates closed loops, which can’t sustain themselves. The systems we’ve developed to cope with these closed-loop emotional crises don’t address the fundamental problem. But it’s very difficult to connect to the One Mind. It requires a deep sacrifice, a whole life. Nobody can do it, as this putting down a life has to be supported by a framework of long practice. Really it was beyond my abilities. I had to die and come back from the dead. Though I turned radioactive, and things were coming to pieces around me, some part of me remained impervious.
I took it as far into the abyss as mortally possible, still she remained. The love just wouldn’t die.
“Hope is written on the gates of hell.”
I heard the crow in the trees, separate and distant. It had never been otherwise. Self and other continued as different occurrences far beyond any threshold I’d penetrated. The deep state had completely overtaken my life, filled it with a radiant, great peace, one that only increased. At the same time, my heart completely broken, I was a ghost.
Inside the storm there was no calm eye. I had to live the wild. I saw so deeply into its dark unearthly revolving. I had no way. There were less than silver rays, filth; the dull, heavy mist pressing, hanging so that I would not stay but it was the same inside. I didn’t rise for some time. I held to the dark cleft of the woods – recapitulating an unbroken chain of despair, other times, a whole world, so close to the skin. The cold misery of the winter fell gracefully, softly. The despair was so eloquent that it rose to meet the One. I didn’t know that it could be, but the breakthrough’s I’d had – it was always there. Not only the state itself, but all the way back through the past, a threading through them all, all returning to some point of origin, of perfection. All contained an element of the eternal that now, on the surge, completed the circuit. Each rose to the height I could manifest at the time, with the weight of my longing, my spiritual darkness holding me to the street, the dark forest, the flash of light through the window; a Sisyphean mechanism that created its own dark current which appeared at all points to lead to my doom.
I have to be careful here. It’s important that this be put in order, not left to a poetic interpretation. I didn’t find a way through despair. I released it. I gave everything. The despair I felt in the cleft, it was long after the One Mind state was known and known. From that deep inner knowing I could return through despair, as well as from any other emotion. Going through the dark revealed all recurring pools of darkness, extending back to the initial break from my childhood. I don’t know if despair itself is a way. It’s a hard way, and dangerous. It has the element of its own emancipation in it, but who would be strong enough to go through it without disintegrating? How to practice? We have to go all the way through the experience. When conditions are right, it appears. The right conditions mean no conditions. You understand. Finding the way through despair was more unexpected, more welcome than the love – more familiar, steadfast, dependable, a frozen flat calm that continued far into the night, beyond sadness, beyond fear. It was a raw, primal power, my power.
It was wonderful to finally see the swell of love pass, to again feel the delight of the world, of being alive. But it wasn’t the same as before. Though I’d survived her, there was little left: my empire flattened, my love lashed to its tattered remains; the seeds ruined, its dead form immobile, like an unearthly statue. Dark, calm, its death exuded a sweet smell; so complex, so rare. And though the joy the despair a thousand times more.
“To make absolute, unconditional surrender to the woman one loves is to break every bond save the desire not to lose her, which is the most terrible bond of all.” –H. Miller
I would live in darkness if the light was this. It was a joy to kill love: what I had to give up, what it fostered in me. The One Mind… my poor soul could not rest in either world, though it proved resilient. It was a sweet, enveloping mystery to fall in love again, to see the framework from the inside, to withhold, withstand, and to give it back, with respect, with joy. I gave my weathered and torn entity, it fell to nothing. It didn’t stop anything. The eternal aspect, what was rising, had no emotional need. It contained all, asked for nothing. It was fast to the work. One to the next, it never hesitates.
Beyond Time and Space
I was talking with a friend about a young monk we all know who is very aggressive, who is often mean to younger students, pushing them toward a very austere practice. I told him that it’s just a stage you pass through. You think that you have to follow some kind of rule in order to attain your true self, you have to be extremely diligent and forceful. Super moralistic. Don’t touch the smartphone around these types! I guess I was like that for a while. You get to a point where your practice matures and you start to become aware of your true self, the brightness of samadhi—the ecstasies of spiritual practice. You attain something, but it’s still another stage. You have an experience of the One Mind as something apart from you, but there’s still a duality. I wasn’t able to resolve this for more than a decade. It’s one of the reasons I returned to Korea to become a monk. Just the other day I realized that the creative aspect, the true self that’s ceaselessly blasting into existence, if you take away time and space, phenomenal existence, whatever’s in front of you, and its blasting into form is the same thing. Suddenly I saw it, not as some impossible distance that must be surmounted, but within easy reach, intimate and warm… and completely unknowable. How could anyone perceive the infinite reaches of the cosmos?
The Dust of a Distant Past
I’ve been trying to bring the wisdom of the path to a Western audience since I began writing The Zen Revolution over 20 years ago. At that time, before the dawn of the Internet, the Zen wave was already fading and, without a platform, I had no traction. I found it impossible to publish a book on Zen. The Zen Revolution was originally self-published alongside a podcast where I introduced a new chapter every week and talked about other things. I gave the book away free to promote it, and my name, and had some measure of success with it. Still, it was a book, and I had no idea how to break through with it.
The Field of Weeds was a progression of that, a central theme that became clear after writing The Zen Revolution. The metaphor is encapsulated here.
At that time I was living in LA. Naturally, I decided to start working with video. I did a number of experiments, short videos alongside a podcast, and wrote a new essay every couple of weeks. It was quite different than The Zen Revolution, following my love of the autobiographical novel: Mark Twain’s Roughing It on through, Celine and Henry Miller, Hunter S Thompson, Bukowski. It was an experiment, and it didn’t really connect with an audience. At the same time I started developing The Void Project, which was video only. It was very dark, existential, and too wordy I think, too complex for its own good.
I started training to become a Zen monk in Korea soon after. During the lengthy process of ordination I wrote a science fiction novel Another End of the World and half of another one, working on a new angle, and the journal Some Other Burning. All remain unpublished.
After the ordination, in Covid stasis, I met Nino, who read my previous work and was sure that we needed to pursue it further. He encouraged me to go back and try another approach with Field of Weeds. So we dusted it off and culled a collection of excerpts, which were culled further at a few late-night sessions at the café. After hastily organizing scenes we began shooting, not trying to do anything literal, but just run and gun, get the stuff down. Dharma Fragments is what it is, exactly as it happened. We shot the scenes, edited them together and added the narration, and moved on. He was with me through the entire editing process, sitting beside me in the studio. It was great having a second eye on everything, one that wasn’t prone to going dark, which is my predilection. I know I can paint great things, but I’m at the mercy of the brush. Does it work? Did we succeed? Time will tell. We’re both happy with it. Artistically, it’s where we wanted to go, and we want to go much farther. We have two more segments planned, Death and Liberation, both of which will be filmed on the islands of the Jeollanam-do province, South Korea—and a different film altogether with DJ Shanell, an Ingmar Bergman-style drama on said islands. I hope we make it there. I hope our work will be well received. But, you know, it’s a life. It’s already complete.
All points burn through to the surface… a little deeper, if possible, into the underlying substance
There are so many unique souls out here. All of them seem to have a handle on it—even the children. Their happiness is in human terms: fleeting, a moment only—the crest of the wave. In the study of meditation, countless times I’ve seen the adept grappling with this. Not wanting to break from the depths, they try to remain seated after the chugpi is struck. You can’t keep it, you couldn’t bear it—moments only. Then the walk, single file, eyes down. The practice continues, only from a more agitated position. We need the change, yes, to move the blood through the legs, but also to break from the intensity of the floor, to stimulate the senses. There’s no state of mind that remains constant, yet we are never resolved to this, no matter how far along. We refute it, because we know in truth there is a constant. Our entire struggle is to reveal it, once and for all.
In Chaos and Fractals—New Frontiers in Science authors Peitgen, Jürgens, and Saupe show, through repeated feedback evaluations using two different calculators, remarkably different results after only three iterations. The same is shown on one calculator using two different implementations of the same equation. The pattern these anomalies reveal is an endless spiral, into the depths…
Ed. note: After reading over this chapter of Field of Weeds for the Chaos segment, I thought it didn’t quite dig deep enough into this luminous discovery. I regard this book, alongside Camus – The Rebel and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, as one of the formative works that deeply impacted my understanding of the human condition. I felt it needed more math, so I added this section:
Mathematicians discovered that while iterating p + rp (1 – p) for the constant r = 3 and the initial value p0 = 0.01 to the tenth iterate on a Casio fx-7000G pocket calculator:
anomalies resulted. Chaos. When these are plotted on a graph, this is what it looks like:
(fractal video sequence)
Chaos is beautiful.
Without modern computers, this view of the universe would be exceedingly difficult to obtain. Consciousness is similarly obscure, perhaps it is the same thing?
(panpsychism) title card
We can only know it intuitively, but once you become aware of it, once your brain knows how to decipher it… so, this is our work.
This section was omitted by the director, who thought it too technical for Dharma Fragments, “It needs to remain in the realm of the metaphysical.” Without the math, the chaos section had no fulcrum, so I emitted this whole concept and wrote something new. Back to the Chaos chapter:
…To paraphrase, chaos, the breakdown of predictability, is the rule in nature, while order, or predictability, is the exception—but chaos follows very stable patterns. The pattern revealed is startling, at once familiar and unknown. In Chaos and Fractals there are many examples of spiral patterns, naturally occurring fractals, in the veins of a kidney, broccoli flowers, the branches of a river, mountain ranges, coastlines, moon craters. The math is very complex—I’m sure I’m glossing over details, but the seeming unpredictability shown through complex math to draw the fractals we know today would be unthinkable without the aid of computers—and I’m no match for that. The underlying symmetry is a beautiful pattern, the harmony of substance. In a way you could say it’s the true form, the face of it. Happiness, bliss, the rapture of existence, is the same. It’s not found on the surface, it’s indiscernible—but once you become aware of it, once your brain knows how to decipher it… so, this is our work. If it were easy there would be geniuses everywhere computing magnificent fractals beyond comprehension. It’s the path of the hero, the rockstar. It’s amazing we’re beginning to understand these things at all, with our limited facilities. It is there—the capability. It must be nurtured, organically grown, but yes… if it’s important to you, you can cultivate a mind that can perceive substance. Funny that in the perception of it there’s a catalyst—the mind heated, forged; the beating core, and peace everywhere. Since we’re striving night and day to reach it, from every conceivable angle, I’m sure we will. It’s not so far. It nearly requires the psyche, the ego, to give way, to be abandoned. Its clumsy mechanisms don’t work here—its faults too conspicuous, the emotional toll too destructive, wasteful. Regardless, the turmoil and suffering of humanity, the cloud of ignorance, is the cure.
“If a monastic still envies a lay person’s wealth and fame, or is lonely and still feels sorrow, this is truly shameful.” –Zen Master Man Gong (1872–1946)
The fog has rolled in this morning. The train beeps and rattles its doors closed. To Watts! Several more trains wait in the distance, the tracks between them rusted, but concrete and steel is what they require. How much thought went into every small detail? That I can pay my hard-won dollar and board this, if slow and clunky, thrill ride to the heart of the city. Most, if not all, faces are besmudged and gloomy. What would they require? Magic? I suppose it’s not so much the vessel, but the troubles they bring onboard: a caustic stew of disappointments, deaths, miscarriages, early and late arrivals, bad teeth, and bad digestion. What a heavy load! I’m surprised the train is not heavily fortified. The wheels squeal as all of our demons weigh in, but before the thing careens into a pitch black tunnel of despair, a few teenagers bound to their seats and it’s all sunshine and good vibes and the smell of candy. Rosa Parks is the crossroads between the green and blue lines, metaphor on top of metaphor. I love the strain of humanity I encounter here. The place is alive with so many deeply worn characters; if I were a painter I would surely be dumbstruck. Maybe one day I’ll have the courage to photograph them. The blue line races to the financial district and ends there, under what I remember as a large, ugly building—but I won’t see it today. The financial district, gateway to Broadway—which in LA… they could call it Mexico and no one would question it. Maybe they already have. The grand old buildings there all seem left behind like there was a mass exodus, one of the reasons I like the place. Surely there’s some meaning. Why bother over old texts or count how many stones in the grand gallery of the pyramids? There’s as much meaning here, how we’ve joined these divergent elements: the lay of the streets, the movement of the crowd, the winding flames of my tattooed friend, who’s brought a pillow onboard and, to my knowledge, remained slouched near the door. What’s the rush? We’re forced out at Washington. Some problem ahead. All of us shuffle out and onto waiting buses. The packed conditions have me repeating the great dharani, soaring. Gangsters, thugs, tiny children clinging to their mothers, we again find our ease together. Hands are shaked, wapos congratulated—shrieks and moans, the indiscernible sounds of excited humans. I’m fortunate enough to stand near a sleeping child clinging now to her father. Watching her, it’s the same feeling as the retreat cabin in the heart of the wilderness. It’s too noisy for her to remain asleep, but she’s determined, and quite relaxed. The morning fog has become an urban haze—the best weather for traveling across the grid. As I walk through the nearly deserted streets I’m on the lookout for graffiti, abandoned corners of desolation—suitable places to add my stickers. I’ve been doing it enough that it’s reflexive: finding the right spot, scanning the street for trouble. Today I place several right in front of the cops. The last stop an officer tracked me through the whole process. I didn’t notice who she was until I was on the escalator down. She watched me disappear into the waiting tunnel with a complete lack of interest or concern, but I was so encouraged by the placement of the sticker (I’d seen the red box a block away) that I must’ve looked like I owned the thing. The light in the subway flashes the same code of existence, being, the substance revealed in the intricacies of the form. I enjoy the hypnotic flickering. So much information is conveyed, even here.
Excerpts from the unpublished journal Some Other Burning before they were edited down for Dharma Fragments:
The love had become something tangible, a glowing presence that surrounded me. It lit the dark forest, slowly drifting through the rain and fog like an apparition.
Day after day the interactions with (her) spun into a web of light that swelled to a crescendo of trembling before the One. The flow was tremendous, so hot! I was so enraptured, both with her and the final, the filaments coming together into a wondrous whole, that I feared to remove her, to return to me alone falling into the abyss. If she had any idea what I faced hour by hour, both the rapture and the uncertainty… but what joy to live in those brief moments with her.
The nest, the dream of bonding with an ideal, love, the magic love — the beat of life, the blood, the glowing light they admit, the siren song, the pattern of our own upbringing: childhood, the extended family, new and old life together — obliterated with a single turn. It couldn’t be, it would never be. She was like any other person on the street, a smile alone.
…The rhythm, the beat, the heat of the night air; restlessness, longing, pacing, long walks in solitude lost in thoughts of her, trembling and crying, forgetting the way, the swell of love imploding, cascading into the resonant field of meditation, as perfect and natural and pure as the light from the source, beating together from one to the next, a kaleidoscope of the human mind encountering its origin, holding the thing most dear; a wave of understanding, the most sincere moment. Cry, but don’t move, don’t breathe.
Everything seems to be interconnected, like a neural pattern. How does it work? So many connections and bonds, all I can see.
…such a difficult architecture: fiery, looping filaments grown into a vast network. The bonds form automatically, without knowledge or consent. It is at once spellbinding and ominous.
We think of ourselves as unique entities, but we are not. We are an amalgam of things, growing dynamically. Bonding is more than joining to another entity, it’s growing the network, adding connections and nodes.
Our attachment and desire for heightened states create closed loops, which can’t sustain themselves. The systems we’ve developed to cope with these closed-loop emotional crises don’t address the fundamental problem.
But to connect to the One Mind… It requires a deep sacrifice, a whole life… Really it’s beyond my abilities. I had to die and come back from the dead.
Now in front of me, there is only the One Mind, the human opening to the life force, aligning with it. In the One Mind, there’s only one emotion: a deep, unimaginable peace, radiant joy, love.
The Field of Weeds is a Metaphor
I’ve always been attracted to abandoned fields, where the natural forces won against someone’s idea. No more clean lines and monotonous order, instead a swirling chaos of weeds and flowers, so beautifully arranged. A stand of trees, all the intersecting branches moving in the wind, the scattered light — there’s some meaning beyond the simple fact that it exists. It conveys something of its origin, the One.
It became alive in me. I first noticed when I had to do the morning bell chant at Musangsa, solo. I’m not a vocalist. I don’t have any natural ability with the voice. I could do it, but not clearly. Out of desperation, I recalled the sunlight through the trees, and I found my voice. It took a few years for me to understand this. My voice became the same as the sunlight through the trees. When I chanted from that place, it conveyed the same information. Then it slowly began to dawn on me that I should live this way.