Friday, September 21, 2007

Shave My Head

With desert temperatures sure to reach 110, I prepared for Burning Man by shaving my head. It was already pretty hot in Los Angeles the morning I cut off my hair and it felt wonderful to expose my scalp to the air and sunlight.

The Zen school to which I belong has roots in Korean Buddhist tradition, and it draws a bright line between sunims (celibate monks who live a restricted lifestyle according to the Vinaya precepts) and Dharma Teachers, who are lay students that have taken some or all of the bodhisattva precepts named in the Brahmajala Sutra. To make a long explanation very brief, suffice it to say that some people don't like it when Dharma Teachers shave their heads. For some Korean Buddhists, a shaved head and Buddhist robes constitute a specific uniform and way of life. Since becoming a Dharma Teacher in 2000, I have usually worn my hair short, but never bald, as it might cause distraction at the Zen Center and even offend some people.

For Burning Man, I figured there would be no problem. What are the odds I would run into a Korean Buddhist out there?

You know what's coming, don't you? Yes. It happened on the Very. First. Morning.

Walking out across the playa wearing meditation pants, a mala around my wrist like always, carrying a zafu for morning sitting at sunrise, I crossed paths with a Korean woman who saw me and did a full-body double-take. I could just about read her mind. She called out to me: "Sunim??"

So I was going to have to have this conversation after all. "No no, not Sunim. Dharma Teacher - Poepsanim!"

Her eyes widened and she flung her arms around me. "Ji Do Poep Sa Nim??" Oh no no no no. Ji Do Poep Sas are teachers who have received inka from a Zen Master. The term is specific to my Zen school, which revealed she and I were both students of the Kwan Um School of Zen. This was a delightful surprise and also an enormous relief, for now I could explain to her, "No no no, Senior Dharma Teacher - you know, a student who teaches meditation." She introduced herself as Un Ju, from the New York City sangha. I invited her to sit with me some morning, but I didn't see her again the entire week.

I'm glad we cleared it up, although it would have been amusing if, several months from now, I caught up with some rumor there was a mysterious American Sunim prowling Burning Man, like the ghost of Won Hyo in the midst of a bacchanal.

De-an, De-an! Universe is emptiness! De-an, de-an! What are you?

[Photo: Your correspondent, getting ready to teach a free meditation class at Burning Man's central camp.]


Lorianne said...

Ha! What are the odds? You look good with a shaved head: your skull isn't bumpy. :-)

Ji Hyang said...

On my monastic sabbatical I have begun to enjoy color. Yesterday I left the house: blue. khaki. jade. My hair was grown out in the Bodhissatva way. I felt secure in my transformation-- and enjoying it.

Arriving at MIT, a young Korean man came over to me. Are you a monk?