By Thomas Jones | February 23, 2018
Reprinted from the Busan Times
“It’s a fine line between heresy and testament,” the Yung Buddha tells me with an enigmatic smile that is both amused and earnest. “A prophet in the Abrahamic-sense is just a teacher of the will of God, especially when its followers have been bad.”
The year is 2018. The ISIS prophesied apocalypse has yet to come to fruition. Another school shooting has happened in Florida. Seventeen is the number of deaths, another addition to what has now become simply numbers. No angels and zero demons have shown their faces. The End is nigh, but more and more humans persist. Some critics have called him the “Lying Buddha,” but I’ve been curious about his recent uptick in popularity and his last book New Genesis in particular — how Judaism and Christianity tied into his most recent designation, if you will, as the Yung Buddha.
“Aren’t these separate religions?” “Buddhism isn’t a religion,” the Yung Buddha reminds me. “Is there a connection between these systems of thought?” I clarify. Slowly enunciating each syllable as if it held a mysterious secret of its own, he responds, “only if you want there to be.”
“The Last Daniel,” the pseudonym –– or identity –– the Yung Buddha uses in writing the New Genesis, “was a prophet like none other, however. He was the first prophet in history to prophesy the end of prophecy — in a very particular way, I might add,” the Yung Buddha explains. I begin to feel a sense of enlightenment.
Earlier in the morning, we walked along the streets of the quaint neighborhood of Tongdo. “I love these!” he bursted out suddenly, as he showed me images of fake Russian Facebook ads used in the 2017 U.S. Presidential elections on his iPhone. They ranged from illustrations of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan — in support of Donald Trump — to faux-Black Lives Matter posts of actual depictions of police brutality. “I imagine Vladimir Putin as a creative director ideating campaigns to influence an American audience. Pure genius! What is he selling, do you think?” “Chaos, perhaps,” I offer. “And oneness,” the Yung Buddha added.
We walk into a brand new cafe added to the row of older storefronts on the street that leads to the famous Korean temple where relics like pieces of Buddha’s shoulder strap and fragments of his bones are held. The two-story glass structure gives this sleepy town a shiny, fresh touch of the new and modern Korea. Recently, the last two former presidents of the country have been charged with major crimes — one stemming from a tragic manipulation by a charlatan shaman, the other seemingly from pure greed. Both former presidents have cost billions of won, or tens of millions of dollars, to the South Korean public and ruined many lives.
Although Buddhism and its philosophy of the “Middle Way” has things that seem like rules, it isn’t dogmatic. There is a spattering of monks within the cafe. They bow and smile at the Yung Buddha with familiarity. They are drinking tea instead of coffee in all likelihood, I’m told. Has there ever been a corrupt Buddhist?
“These Koreans,” the Yung Buddha mutters. For an enlightened being, the Yung Buddha occasionally slips profanities and stereotypes. “Koreans are…Koreans,” he finally confesses. “How could I explain?” Born near Ventura, California, the Yung Buddha is reluctant to talk about his past. He prefers not to identify with categories of identity, he tells me. He is quite knowledgeable of American sports, however. Since basketball was in season, I ask him about another Zen master per se, Phil Jackson.
“The triangle offense is based on a type of Zen philosophy. In its time, it has won eleven NBA championships. The movement of the ball between three forces or players where there is no focal point can be considered a Buddhist perspective in nature. It is fluid. Whoever has the best shot, takes it without regard to who the player is. The problem with the triangle offense and any ideology for that matter, however, is that if it becomes too strict, it can become too static. It will begin to fail. It’s a delicate balance. But you need a reference to differentiate from and add new wrinkles to the platform that is the triangle offense. If not, players have difficulty buying in.” “Phil hasn’t been very successful these days,” I point out. “The game has changed. They now call the triangle offense a fraud.”
We walk the three miles to the temple along a smooth dirt path lined with age-old pine trees with their branches arching over us. A rocky stream flows gently downhill to our left. These long, serene paths, which are sometimes arduous, have a function for Buddhist sites. They propose to quiet the mind. Step-by-step, one should leave behind obsessions. Leave behind worldly attachments.
Food is food, however. Lunchtime in a Zen temple is a strange event for these Western ears. There is an almost complete lack of human voices. One should not talk when eating. Eating is eating. There is nothing more. The Yung Buddha shows me how to mix my bowl of pyogo-buseot-bap, a famous dish of Buddhist cuisine specific to Tongdosa temple in Yangsan, South Korea. White rice, thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, gingko nuts, and radish are all steamed to a delicate neutrality indicative of its Buddhist practice. As many profess, Korean Buddhist food has a punch to it compared to other temple food from around the globe. Its use of chili peppers and fermented ingredients like the soy sauce that is added to the bowl, with its healthy sprinkling of gochugaru (finely ground dry Korean red pepper flakes), vinegar, and sesame seeds, gives this brand of Buddhism a unique flavor of its own. Food should not, however, be too delicious lest it cause obsession. Food is meant to sustain a healthy body and mind — nothing more. Meat is abstained from. There are no garlic, onions, leeks, or chives –– these arouse undesirable passions, the current Buddha argued millennia ago. The Yung Buddha is not so strict, however. He reminds me that the Dalai Lama eats meat at his doctor’s suggestion as do many non-hardcore Buddhists. “We must be mindful, however. Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change,” he explains. The Yung Buddha is often perturbed by most Buddhists secluded nature. “The earth is in trouble right now. It’s different times.
We have it. We have the way, but nobody hears us. Nobody sees us.”
“Mu,” the Korean word for radish, the Yung Buddha begins, “is also a very important word or concept in Zen Buddhist koans.” A koan is a story or riddle that Zen masters use during meditation or for students to reach different levels of enlightenment. “Mu is a term that is is hard to translate to English. It means something similar to does not have or carries no existence, yet it is an affirmation like a gong of a bell.” I nod half-understanding the concept as I gently infuse the soy sauce mixture into my rice, wondering if the bowl is an analogy of the universe. All I know for now is that it tastes wonderful — earthy, just slightly spicy, with a delicate umami flux from the shiitake mushrooms and soy sauce. I’m careful not to enjoy myself too much. When in Rome.
“But there is a metaphysical and, dare I say, prophetic view in Buddhism. If there wasn’t, how could you be the next Buddha?” I inquire, carefully trying to locate the man’s elusive position. “When you say ‘prophetic,’ I assume you are speaking about the Buddhist prophecy of the next Buddha, the successor of Gautama.” For many westerners unfamiliar with Buddhism, the Buddha isn’t a singular messianic figure, but one of many teachers throughout the eons. The current Buddha is Gautama who taught what we now know as Buddhism 2400 years ago. He predicted the next Buddha, named Maitreya, to come into existence billions of years after him. “Yes, so there must be a spiritual realm involved in Buddhist practice. Therefore, it has similarities to religious thought,” I explicate.
“Indeed. Many have claimed to be Maitreya. Some have said it is a person and others that it is a concept or symbol. There’s a game involved with this type of prophecy that many thinkers throughout history have used — not just Gautama, the Buddha. I’m not interested in those games. Stories assume a beginning and an end. This is not so in Buddhist cosmology. If the universe has no beginning and end, why should we? I do, however, know the Maitreya. Maitreya shall be revealed in good time.”
Confused, I ask, “aren’t all these prophecies fabrications?” “You are too fixated on true and false, black and white. These are binaries. Neither captures reality. In Zen, we have already asked these questions. It is the yin and yang, the cosmic dance of two seemingly opposing forces. They are not separate but one. Take a look around you. Take a look at societies around the earth. Are they not built on fantasies and faith? Are they strengthened on these machinations, or do they suffer from them?”
“Both,” I answer. “Or neither?” he follows up. I get the feeling I am being Zenned. I can only respond with a laugh. He looks at me and erupts in laughter as well.
As we finish our lunch, I look around at the various plates and bowls. Not a morsel of food is left. Nothing has been wasted. Together we pick up our plates and walk them to the kitchen where each monk will wash their own wares. Our time is coming to a certain end.
“I imagine it to be hard to become a Buddha or be the next Buddha. We’re talking a highly significant figure in the history of humankind. There must be some type of authorization or rites of passage. What does it take?”
He swallows his food and suddenly slams his hand on the table. “Mu!” he shouts.
Suddenly, I see it. And now I, too, am a believer.