"Let’s take the real one, even if it is only 1 cent!"
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Written by Si Hwan Oh / Photographer Eun Mee Hong / Translated by Hyeon Sil Kim
The whole world, our global village, is in chaos these days with racial and religious tensions as well as disasters killing hundreds of thousands of people. Peace and love are slowly fading away while conflict and confrontation are increasing. Living in such tough times, we seriously need a spiritual leader to give us direction and show us “what true life is.” Therefore Harim Sunim and some members of the ClearMind staff visited Venerable Gou Sunim.
The spine of Baekdu Mountain slides down the East Coast to the Taebaek Range where it then heads deep into the interior of the country. And there, on the lower slope of Gakhwasan Mountain sits cozy little Seoam Hermitage, about fifteen minutes walk from Gakhwasa Temple. Gou Sunim cooks, sews and does everything necessary for himself for last sixteen years in this beautiful spot; it is his way of teaching Buddhism through an integrated daily life. Whenever we think of Korean Seon we cannot overlook him because he is a well known practitioner as well as being famous for establishing a special meditation hall at Bongamsa Temple, Mungyeong of which the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism is very proud.
Gou Sunim made us tea. In his room, there were a small table, several books, a tea set of green pottery and an electric kettle all neatly organized. His warm smile made us immediately comfortable. His radiant face with its sparse gray eyebrows with several long, thick hairs protruding made a strong impression. I could feel the pureness in his face -- surely that comes from his many years of practice, I thought. He started to talk.
The Middle Way and Dependent Origination
Gou Sunim (Sunim): “The mundane world is a delusion and we are living in it. Someone has to help people to understand it. Yet, it’s not possible for all of them to get out at once. Some people are so deeply rooted that it is difficult but there are some who are aware of where they are. Awakened people should guide people and teach them about how this world really is. Living without conflict, we should understand the theory of existence clearly as it transcends time and space. There is no difference between the past and the present, between Korean and American. Nothing is separate. If we live in this understanding, we can transcend the limitations of country, race and gender. In the case of America, people there have severe racial conflicts. In order for them to have a happy life, they need to get over this problem. We should be aware of the great value of living up to the ideal of the interrelatedness of all things, for it is unique.”
While we were drinking tea, the warm spring sunshine coming in through the window, illuminated our cups of tea. Society suffers from endless sorts of conflicts and confrontations, yet Gou Sunim’s life in Seoam Hermitage offers a refuge from all that. It is a small, simple hermitage, not really a proper traditional hermitage but it does have the minimum necessities for Sunim’s life, including a courtyard. Gou Sunim went on to carefully explain that it was the Buddha who understood the theory of existence and facts about life.
Sunim: “There is nothing independent in the universe. This is proved by the fact that, if we break something, then each piece is a part of the whole and not an independent entity. Each piece is made of a bunch of atoms. The Buddha didn’t talk about atoms. However, he did explain that everything is compounded and assembled. In Buddhist terminology, it is called Dependent Origination. When we understand this teaching and live accordingly, we live in the Middle Way. The Buddha knew this principle thoroughly and lived according to it.”
Editor (E): “Sunim, please explain more about the Middle Way and Dependent Origination.”
Sunim: “The main teachings of Buddhism are the Middle Way and Dependent Origination. Though there are many texts, basically they all explain these two, as well as Seon and other doctrines. Theravada Buddhism includes the practice of Vipassana. These two, the Middle Way and Dependent Origination, are expressed in different ways. A house is a good example. It is made of thousands of different materials. But if we examine each one, one by one, there is nothing that can be called a house. Our body is the same as a house. Because there is nothing independent in the universe, even the Middle Way and Dependent Origination are empty. The word ‘emptiness’ is not easy to truly understand.”
Sunim continued talking but it began to be a little difficult to understand. And so he added more explanations about the Middle Way and Dependent Origination.
Sunim: “In the Heart Sutra, the Middle Way and Dependent Origination are briefly but well explained. The key words are the five aggregates: matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Matter refers not only to our body but also to all forms of beings and things in the universe -- including everything in this room. To this are added sensations, perception, mental formations and consciousness; it is these five aggregates which are empty. Therefore everything is empty and so is in a state of Dependent Origination. You might wonder, “If this is truly so, is there nothing in the end?” It would be very good if there really was nothing in the end, but there isn’t. Here is an example. If I think of the back of my hand, let’s say this side is empty and it is brought together with other side, the palm. For there to be hand, the palm and the back of the hand have to come together. Emptiness is like this hand. It is this coming together which makes up matter. Therefore the Heart Sutra says, form is emptiness and emptiness is form. Buddhists regard this teaching of the Buddha as difficult to understand.”
E: “I think that this teaching of form is emptiness and emptiness is form is over the head of ordinary people who live with duality, good and evil, high and low, long and short in their daily lives. Therefore, we easily abandon the Buddha’s teachings rather than taking them deeply into ourselves. Please explain more, Sunim.”
Sunim: “Korean society has to deal with the very delicate issue of the North and the South, the conservative and the progressive. I consider this to be child’s play for all they do is to draw a line on the ground to mark their territory. And while they are trying to extend their territory, problems arise and so they hit each other and eventually they fight. I think they are ridiculous! But the Buddha looked at the world through the eyes of compassion. He sympathized with all beings by embracing them with affection and sympathy. The word compassion is composed of affection and sympathy. However, sympathy is closer to compassion.
Wisdom is classified into three sorts in Buddhism. They are wisdom by studying, wisdom by contemplating and wisdom by practicing. Of these three, the wisdom obtained by practicing is called ‘experience.’ For true wisdom is acquired through experience and there is a big difference between understanding and experience. After we have experienced something, we will naturally have a compassionate mind like that of the Buddha. However, if someone has not yet had the experience, but understands the theory of existence and its actual conditions, they will live more happily than those who know nothing.”
E: “Sunim, please tell us about your views on the situation of Korean Buddhists today.”
Sunim: “I feel that these days Korean Buddhists do not respect the Buddha’s teachings for they won’t even place the value of 1 or 2 cent on them. If they would just value the teachings for that small amount of money it would be something. Even just ten won is good as it is real money! These days, lots of people misunderstand, even falsely represent the teachings all the while pretending that they have real understanding. And they call it Buddhism. The Buddha taught the Middle Way and Dependent Origination. These two teachings cannot be exchanged for money and in the Diamond Sutra they are considered more valuable than the grains of sand of the Ganges River. As I say, “Let’s take the real one -- even if it is only 1 cent.”
E: “Sunim, what is the real one?”
Sunim: “When I point to the moon with my finger, then you should look at the moon and not look at my finger. Looking at the moon is the way of Seon practice, and the finger represents other ways of practice. Seon teaches us how to look at the moon directly. From then on we begin to admit the existence of ‘self’ which is a delusion. Because of this self, suffering, confrontation, conflict and all other problems arise. These problems transcend time and space as, actually, they have always been the same?
In the Buddha’s time just as now. We are living in delusion and so have problems. And we are trying to find the solution to two opposed situations. Eventually we get the answer, but it is usually violent.
Looking at the moon directly is to understand the truth, which means knowing the Middle Way and Dependent Origination more clearly. It is the traditional way of practicing Patriarch Seon to which Korean Buddhism belongs.
As far as our Buddhists are concerned, the position is difficult. For example, everyone respects His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. When these two go to their own countries, their own people admire them very much. But, how about Korean Sunims? Do people in other countries admire them? And how about here in Korea, do the people respect Korean Sunims? What is the reason for this lack of respect even though we have such a wonderful tradition as that of Patriarch Seon? The reason is that Sunims don’t integrate Buddhism into daily life. Sunims separate life and practice.”
E: “I can clearly understand what you are getting at through your warm speech and your fine expressions. Sunim please advise us on where to go for practice.”
Sunim: “There is no need on insisting on practicing in a particular place, such as in the mountains or in a temple. Most people think that it is not possible to live and practice at the same time in society. But it’s a big misunderstanding. According to the analects of Patriarch Hui-Neng, ‘Practice when you can and where you are.’ He didn’t say to practice away from the place in which you live.”
E: “Sunim, what about places for lay Buddhists to practice Seon in?”
Sunim: “It is not necessary for lay Buddhists to stick to Seon practice. But it is important to keep in mind that the main theory of other forms of practice is the same as that of Seon practice: awakening from delusion is admitting the non-existence of ‘I.’ For once you separate ‘I,’ then there is ‘you.’ It causes conflicts and confrontations, such as ‘I’m right’ and ‘you are wrong.’ Once we realize there is no ‘I’ and that basically everything is empty, then there is no reason to have those ugly behavior patterns. It leads us to living happily through the admitting of delusion and so we begin to help each other.”
E: “Sunim’s teaching is very profound and broad. Suddenly, I begin to feel sorry for myself as my practice is so shallow. Please explain a little more especially for lay Buddhists who live in other countries.”
Sunim: “All human beings’ lifestyle is similar. If you had problems in Korea, then you will have the same troubles over there as well. That is because you were deluded and could not accept the non-existence of ‘I.’ And you compare yourself continuously with others. This state is called suffering. Now you should realize you haven’t understood true existence correctly. Then you have to find out how to solve your problems. That is the right understanding of the Middle Way and of Dependent Origination. Once you have a clear vision of emptiness, then you will be aware that all beings are equal. Emptiness means that the whole word is one, and that the one is empty. As soon as you have the right understanding of emptiness, then you begin to be aware that everything is one. Therefore there is no reason to oppose each other. Even though this one doesn’t seem to be the same because of different forms, however, you will eventually find out that it is all the same. As soon as you are truly aware, then you won’t compare yourself with others, and therefore you won’t have any obstacles in dealing with people. If you understand that everything is one, you will begin to look at people from a different angle. The hateful mind will vanish and compassion will arise. This state is one in which you become a liberated being. The right way of practice in modern times is to experience the Buddha’s main teachings of the Middle Way and Dependent Origination. After that, you can integrate them into your daily life so that life and practice become inseparable.”
Although spring is coming, it is still winter in the mountains. We said good-bye in the courtyard still covered with snow. While I walked down the lane, I smelt the wonderful aroma of pine trees and felt the inspiring talk ringing my ears. It was a joy to mull over Gou Sunim’s talk and the Buddha’s teachings.