Crossing a Threshold, Book Excerpt

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There was nothing in the air, nothing on my mind or in my heart that morning, that gave me even the slightest impression my life was about to change forever.

It was a mid-spring day, May 14th, 1987, and, not having to work until the afternoon, I went for a walk to Main Street, Canmore, Alberta, a then sleepy town on the boundary of world famous Banff National Park in the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

27 years-old and overwhelmed with boredom in my first post-university ‘real world job’ in London, Ontario (fundraising for a private school board), I returned to the Rockies and to my student job as a ‘motor coach driver-guide for Brewster Travel Canada in Banff.  As I walked down 8th Avenue, I passed a small plaza and saw on a small plaza, a storefront that both surprised and fascinated me: “Canadian Rockies Zen Centre.”

“What’s this? A Zen centre in Canmore?”  I had been fascinated with Zen Buddhism since my university days, had even tried meditation in my bedroom; so, curious beyond belief at the oddity of such an exotic place in quiet Canmore, I hopped up the concrete steps, reached for the door, and crossed a threshold.

It was a martial arts dojo. The smell of sandalwood incense hung in the air of a carpeted room, 50 feet long and 30 feet across. Mirrors covered the end of the room to the right. A battered black leather kicking bag hung from the ceiling.  On the walls were Oriental scrolls, paintings in black ink of ancient Bodhisatva’s glaring outward, some holding fierce poses, and others standing serenely with expressions of wisdom on their faces, in their hands lotus flowers.  To my left were shelves filled with of pottery and masks (Korean I would learn later).  Against the far wall were swords, fighting staffs, and menacing weapons, the likes of which I had never seen before.

It was someone in the corner, however, immediately to the left of the door that caught my attention most. Sitting behind a wooden desk, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki pants, sandals, and watching TV, was a short, stocky Oriental man in his mid forties.  His round face was framed by long black hair and a wispy beard, both of which dropped to his collar.  He was looked somewhat plump, heavy maybe, but not fat. In his left hand he held a TV remote, and in his right, a white styro-foam cup filled with coffee.

I wasn’t sure what a Zen master looked like in the 20th Century, my only reference to Zen was the TV show Kung Fu, and I wondered to myself, “Do Zen masters watch TV and drink coffee?” He pointed the remote at the TV, pressed a button turning it off, looked at me and asked, “May I help you?” He had a thick Korean accent.

Standing in front of this man and feeling a profound sense of his authority, I felt shy and slightly embarrassed, realizing my reading of Zen literature in two years of university did not qualify as an authority on meditation, as I had proudly believed (such is the hubris of young people).   Regardless, I jumped in; “hi, I’m interested in Zen.”

He nodded his head, looking at me intently, and asked, “Who are you?”

“My name is Pat O’Connor,” I replied.

“Where are you from?

“London, Ontario.”  His questions were beginning to unsettle me.

“What is taste of orange?”

This caught me completely off guard and not knowing how to answer him, I stammered,  “Uh, sweet, tangy, uh, effervescent?”

He shook his head, looked me straight in the eyes saying, “These are answers, but they are not real answers.  You have to do meditation, search for the answer and one day true answer come.   It’s meditation.”  Completely, out of place, he slid an application form and a pen across the desk, challenging me to sign up.

My first encounter with this man was intense, there was something in him that was strong and compelling, but I was not willing to jump so quickly. Three times I went in to discuss Zen with him, each time testing him to see if he was real.  His name was Hansuk Kim – Dr. Kim, and he came from Pusan, South Korea.

On my third visit, I signed up for 2 martial arts classes and 1 meditation class per week.  The cost was $60.  In time, I would him call him, “Sifu.”  For the next 18 months he would be my spiritual mentor and I his “Grasshopper.” Our relationship would change my life profoundly.   25 years later, a day does not pass that I don’t think of him and the challenging spiritual path I stepped onto that day.

Categories Blog Post | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Posted on December 8, 2014

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