"A Glimpse" by Joseph Bengivenni
29 April 2010
One of the most interesting stories I heard Chongo Sunim tell at Saturday Sangha was about a monk he knows who was staying in HaeinSa when Zen Master Seong Chol was still alive. He left the temple to do a long retreat on Jiri San (Ruling Wisdom Mountains) and was living off what ever he could find in the forested slopes.
After eating something he shouldn’t have, maybe a poisonous mushroom or something else inedible, he became seriously ill and collapsed on the ground. He came to awareness back in HaeinSa, about 100km or more away and saw two of his friends in the hall doing what seemed like a death ceremony. They didn’t seem to notice him, and he found it curious that instead of reciting the appropriate sutras, the monk with the drum was repeating the word, “Chek, chek, chek…” (“Book, book, book…”) and the monk with the bell kept repeating, “Yeom ju, yeom ju, yeom ju…” (“prayer beads, prayer breads, prayer beads…”).
In a flash, he was in his mother’s house. He was standing next to her as she was loading wood in the fire. She didn’t notice him, so he reached over and touched her shoulder. She let out a shriek and crumpled over in pain.
Just as he had found himself at the temple, then at his mother’s, he was standing back in the mountains. He noticed the scent of bulgogi, marinated beef, wafting up from the river bank and a group of men in white hanbok (traditional Korean clothes) calling, “Hey! Come down and join us, there’s plenty to go around!” Just as he was about to join them, he remembered he was a monk and shouldn’t eat meat.
Making his way back into the hills, he came across an old man with an old fashioned jigae, a wooden A-frame carrying rack, on his back. But instead of carrying wood, he was carrying a man down the mountain. He put the man down on the ground and the monk, thinking the man looked familiar, went over to take a closer look. As he stared at the man’s face he realized he was looking at himself. He touched his face and just then woke up with a jerk, like falling out of a dream. He was alone in the mountains again and probably feeling a little disturbed from the strange experience he’d just had.
Returning to the temple, he went to his friends and told them about what he had seen. They replied that Seong Cheol Sunim spoke to them, that he had died in JiriSan, and that they should perform a death ceremony immediately. He continued, telling them that they were chanting the words “book” and “prayer beads” instead of the proper sutras they should have been chanting. Surprised, the first one admitted that he knew he had a collection of really nice books and was wondering if he could have them. A bit ashamed, his second friend also admitted that he was thinking about his nice “yeom ju” and also wondering if he could have it. So, even though they were speaking the mantra, all that he could hear from them was their thoughts.
He visited his mother and told her of the experience. She replied that she remembered a sudden sharp pain in her shoulder.
Going back to the stream in the mountain, where he’d seen the men eating bulgogi, he found no remnants of barbecue. What he did see disturbed him, though. Laying by the river bank was the corpse of a magpie, entirely infested with maggots. He realized that what appeared to him as men by the river were actually larva calling him to dine on the flesh of the dead bird. He wondered if he hadn’t reminded himself that he was a monk and had instead joined them, would he have been reborn as the larva of a fly? How difficult would it have been to work his way back to being born in human form again? When he left his body, he had no ears, no eyes, no nose, no tongue, no hands. All he was left with was his perception and his illusion of what surrounded him. He couldn’t hear words, only intentions.
For a while, I’ve felt that our state of mind at the moment of death is very important. We must be aware, first that we’ve stepped out and second, where we are to go. Buddhism teaches that all life is equal, but the human mind is best (if not the only) for developing liberation. When taking into account the number of beings in existence, from elephants and whales to single cell organisms, it is actually extremely rare to be born human. We should recognize the opportunity we have in this form and do the best we can with it. When we die, we usually won’t in the best state of mind, perhaps sick, drugged, confused, or not even conscious. The more our mind is prepared now, the better we can deal when the moment comes.