I had been seeking "my" spiritual teacher for quite a while -- without much success. And it was not for lack of trying.
I had had several private sessions with Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche at Tail of the Tiger (before it became Karma Choling); had taken darshan with Ram Das at his family's estate in New Hampshire; had spent time at one of Kirpal Singh's ashrams; and had met privately with a number of other teachers of the day.
But I couldn't help feeling that there was something a little bit different about me as a spiritual seeker -- an ill-defined kind of "specialness" -- and I was seeking a teacher who could recognize, reflect and explain that "specialness" to me.
Needless to say, I wasn't having any luck. Then one night in a somewhat altered state I had what might be called a vision -- or a presentiment -- of the future.
In it I am standing on a street corner in a very large Asian city. A man walks up to me, taps me on the shoulder, says, "I know who you are. Follow me." Somehow I was led to understand that this man would be my long-sought teacher.
So here I am 10 years later on my way back to the U.S. from Kathmandu (where no one tapped me on the shoulder), flying on a ticket with free stopover privileges in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo. On arriving in Seoul I was issued a non-extendible, non-renewable 3-day visa, which I assumed would give me more than enough time for a little sightseeing before heading on to Tokyo.
I spent my first full day wandering around the city, ending up back at the YMCA hotel in late afternoon. While pausing to look in a store window I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to find a short man with a whispy beard dressed in gray robes and wearing a huge, wide-brimmed straw hat.......the only person that I had seen in non-Western dress all day.
In reasonably good English he introduced himself, said he was a Buddhist monk and asked if perchance I had recently come from India. He said he planned on visiting there shortly, showed me the visa stamped in his passport as proof, and asked if we could talk. On learning that I had recently come from Nepal not India he said he still would like to speak with me and suggested we go for a cup of tea. After a long, hot day I said I was more in the mood for a cold beer and he said that would be fine, too, he would like to buy me a beer, and then he turned and walked away, clearly expecting me to follow.
This whole time two men, apparently accompanying him, had been sheepishly hanging back a bit and we all fell in behind him as he strode resolutely up the street. Luckily they both spoke English and I asked them who this odd man was. They explained that he was their teacher, a highly respected Zen Master (then, at age 33, the youngest in Korea) and Abbot of a venerable monastery in the southern part of the country.
I asked if he was in the habit of approaching strange Westerners on the street. They looked at each other and said, "no" not to their knowledge.......in fact, they had never heard of anything like that happening before.
True to his word, Baba led us to a big restaurant, bought me a beer and then, absolutely blowing my mind, proceeded to tell me how utterly delighted he was to see me.........again. He said that we had a long history together stretching over many lifetimes; he was overjoyed at encountering me again but he was saddened to see that I was not in good shape. He said that I desperately needed some meditation instruction ASAP........ beseeching me to come to his monastery with him forthwith.
I agreed, albeit with some trepidation, and a couple of days later he was twisting arms in a variety of government offices to get my "non-extendible" visa extended. He was nothing if not persistent and soon we were on a train bound for his mountain-top monastery, Sang Yun Dea, in the far south. It was not a monastery that catered to foreigners. In fact I was one of the first, if not the first, Westerner to stay there (sleeping on the floor next to the kitchen helper). It was ancient, secluded and tiny. It consisted of Baba, a senior monk, and four other monks who were there on retreat -- evidently a great honor as the few available spots were hotly contested by monks from all over Korea.
At the end of my week-long stay, involving zazen sessions with the small sangha which routinely started at 3:00 a.m. and lasted until 9:00 p.m., I took vows as a lay Buddhist monk and received my dharma name, Maha Yananda Rishi. Not long after my return to the U.S. Baba came to the U.S. to stay with me for a number of weeks. He continued to visit me, on both the East coast and West, for shorter periods off and on over the ensuing years.
There was at least a 10 year gap in visits, marked only by occasional phone calls and letters, before I finally accepted his long-standing invitation, returning to Korea to spend a month with him in the summer of 2008. We had several long discussions, during one of which I recounted to him what I remembered of that long ago first meeting and I asked him what he recalled of it.
Luckily I captured his remarks on tape, as I was hearing some things for the very first time:
My 2008 visit was a big success, one we both enjoyed immensely, and he reciprocated several months later, visiting on my birthday and sharing some priceless time with me and a small gathering of family and friends.
Earlier on our relationship was not without its challenges -- him with the Eastern teacher's typical expectation of tractability and obedience, me with the Western layman's penchant for independence and egalitarianism. But over the many years we have each mellowed and matured........and so has our friendship. To the extent that I closed one long, heartfelt letter to him with:
Baba, you have been the perfect teacher for me. I have begun to see myself within you -- and you within me.
How wonderful to go through my lives with such a steadfast and compassionate guide, companion, task master, teacher and friend.I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being on this long journey with me.