Sixth Patriarch in a Purple Ski Jacket

He sat down with an intensity that was almost anger. ‘Buddhist thought is so and so and such and such.’ I nodded trying to orientate myself to this new, volatile element that had unexpectedly burst into my own field of interest. ” So what does that mean for you?” I asked him, still trying to figure if we were on the same wave length.

“Do you think I am an orthodox Christian?” he blurts out and I realize with little surprise that he is to some degree drunk. His clothes are unusual: purple ski jacket with jeans. Respectable in almost the complete socially accepted form. But his unkempt hair and unshaven stubble, hinting at a lack of something showed an unevenness which fitted well with his unusual character. The conversation continued for another 30 minutes unproductively but I was too bored to go to bed and was for some unknown reason intrigued. However in the end I gave up trying to figure out what was going on behind those semi drunk opinions, and didn’t think about it again until the next evening when the student teachers were relaxing around the computers in the communal lounge. He sat down opposite me “Sorry about the other night.” once again he had caught me off balance.

“It’s OK, no worries.” I said still trying to figure out what he was talking about.

“I was being argumentative.”

OK, now I knew what he was apologizing for. Not knowing that this style of conversation is what I call stimulating, he thought he needed to apologize. Interesting! He has a Jekyll and Hide aspect to his personality and in the light of early evening seems rational and reasonable.

Not thinking too much of it but realizing in some strange way we had established an unusual bond which I thought may only be due to our age, as most of the other teachers were in their mid twenties to early thirties. It wasn’t until the next evening at the Wa bar in central Seoul where the teachers met to chill at the end of a day of lectures, that I realized, as I have so often in the past, that this unusual connection ran deeper that simply shared age discrimination.

Walking into the bar it was nice to see a familiar, if somewhat haggard face amongst the group of teachers which I had, until tonight, simply ignored. So I sat opposite him and ordered my next beer.

“So you’re a Buddhist right?” he started.

“Yeah, apparently.” The conversation juiced with beer after beer brought us back to the end of our conversation the night before, except this time I was more on his wave length, glass for glass.

After boasting about my experience at the Korean temple and my recent visit to Peru, it was his turn to man up and reveal his credentials.

“…and after some experiences I looked into Buddhism.”

I pushed him further on what he meant…”what exactly were those experiences ?” Damn, I thought I’ve got to ask your name.

In my life I have listened to perhaps a handful of genuine experiences of a spiritual nature. I remember them all like street lights along a dark alley punctuating my life like beacons guiding me to where I am now.

“Well I read a book on meditation and I went into the park, sat down and tried the techniques. My mind quietened, three hours passed.”

“Shit”, I thought! “Three hours is a long time.”

“And it was my first time to meditate.”

“OK that’s not normal” I remembered my own first attempt to meditate, in a garden shed, 3 am at the local swimming pool exhibit, with a group of teenage friends trying to impress a girl with my extraordinary ability to go into a trance. Curiously enough this technique with the ladies never really worked from that point onwards.

“I felt as if only 15 minutes had passed.” he casually said and it took me a while to realize that he wasn’t boasting, as I had been a few minutes earlier. He was simply and truthfully expressing his genuine experience of three hours passing in an instant!

A plethora of zen anecdotes and stories I have read and heard flashed through my mind. “No training with transcendent experience emerging from emptiness”.

Whoa! This guy has something. The story of the illiterate wood cutter hearing the Diamond Sutra chanted by a passing monk comes to mind. Circumstances for my new friend were however not as propitious for cultivation as they were for the sixth patriarch.

That these kind of people are still walking the world, awakened ,if only partially, with no practice but an innate ability sends a thrilling shiver down my spine. Historically there are examples but I have actually only crossed paths with a few of those people in my life.

“I went to the library to find out what had happened to me” I could tell, he was excited. “I went down one aisle and picked a book at random, opened it up and it explained everything that had happened” he laughed recalling the moment “I couldn’t believe it. Everything I experienced was explained in the first book I just plucked off the shelf!”

Now for me that came as little surprise, but I could see it was a keystone moment in his own spiritual journey. I could recognize parallels with my own journey stumbling along the way without knowing there was a way. Looking through the second hand book stores trying to find an explanation of what had happened to me. A clue here and there.

20 minutes later after intense and nonsensical discussion he said “If I’m already awake why do I need to practice? Why can’t I just laugh?”

“You can,” I said, realizing no stance I took would help him. “let’s see you try.”

I ended the night giving him the address of a temple where  two American Zen masters reside both of whom studied under the enlightened Master Seung Sahn Soen-Sa, hastily written on a discarded cigarette pack.

“You’re going to lose that aren’t you?” I said stating the obvious.

“No, no.” he insists.

Then the next morning our paths diverged and as my bus is chased through the never ending Korean mountains by the setting sun, to the town I work in, I realize how lucky I was in meeting him, whoever he was.

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