A Stranger in His Hometown
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The supreme, profound, and sublime dharma is difficult to meet even in a billion eons. But now I have been fortunate enough to have seen it, heard it, received it and kept it. I vow to attain the true meaning of the Tathagata.Homage to the dharmas that abide eternally in the ten directions. Homage to the Lokajyestha, the lord of worlds, Bodhisattva Mahasattva!
Today my talk is called “A Stranger in His Hometown.”
In the early 1900s, there was a very famous monk named Venerable Manhae Sunim. He was a poet, a Seon master, and a resistance fighter during the Japanese colonial period. He wrote and published many books and articles including one entitled “Seon outside Seon.”
In Buddhist terminology, “Seon outside Seon” means that, even without using the terminology or practicing any form of meditation, people know what Seon is.
He wrote about an experience he had. He often used to visit to Seonhakwon temple in Seoul. In the street, there was a woman selling lettuce at the entrance of the Anguk-dong area. One day, a customer came to buy some lettuce, and she asked the vendor, “Why is it that these lettuce leaves are so small?” What the vendor replied was very interesting. She said, “No, these leaves are not small. If you think they are small, then they are small. If you think they are big, then they are big.”
On hearing this conversation, the monk was amazed. The woman did not know what meditation was; she didn’t even know where the meditation hall was. Even so, she was talking about Seon as she went about her daily business.
So what is Seon? It is mind, wisdom, and practice itself! Therefore, Seon is within our daily lives. This means that if you perceive things as tiny, then things will be insignificant, but if you perceive things as big, then things will be significant. This is a very important point.
Generally, people think, ”Because a thing is there I can see it. There is a mountain, therefore I can climb it.” This is absolutely wrong. We do not see things because they are there. Because there are things, we see them. There is a big difference. Consequently, the world looks different depending on how we perceive it.
Then you might ask, “Who created the world?” But this question assumes that there is only one world. In fact, there isn’t. The world seen by a mosquito is different from the world seen by a fly, or by a person, or by a raccoon. Each individual being makes his or her own world. For that reason, there are countless worlds in the universe. I myself make my own world. You yourself make your own world. Each child makes his or her own world. Each adult makes his or her world. In this way, many worlds are being created by people every second; that’s how it works.
For example, when you look at a pine tree, the way it looks depends on your mood. When you feel happy, the pine tree looks great, but when you are in pain, the pine tree looks terrible. So the first thing we should realize is that we see things as they appear to us, not as they really are. But we live without realizing this. So we can say that our home is a place where we can do as we like. In spite of this, we are always playing the role of a stranger in our hometown. Thus, the title of my talk today, “A Stranger in His Hometown” means that we live as strangers in our hometown because it exists only as we perceive it.
So we are called, “sentient beings.” We are wanderers, not because we have left our hometown, but because we do not know our origin. This is what I mean. Even for Venerable Manhae Sunim, this awakening didn’t come easily. In 1917, the year of the Snake, one evening he was practicing sitting meditation in a small temple called Ohsaeam Hermitage on Mt. Soraksan. The wind was blowing hard that night. Manhae heard something drop onto the temple roof and at that moment, he awoke to a profound new insight. So he wrote his enlightenment poem. Here it is:
Wherever a man goes is his hometown.Why does everyone wander around?Namo Amitabha Buddha!One shout took three thousand worlds away at once.Peach blossoms bloom on a snowy day.Namo Amitabha Buddha!
It is a bit difficult, isn’t it? Therefore we must take some time to understand this poem. The first line says, “Wherever a man goes is his hometown.” This means that after he has awakened, every place that he goes to is home to him. If he is over here, then this place is home. If he is over there, then that place is home. Wherever he stands, wherever he sits, wherever he lies down, wherever he travels, he will be at home.
The second line says, “Why does everyone wander around?” This asks why so many people are wandering endlessly from one life to another; from previous lives to this life and on to future lives! It is commonly said that wanderers suffer from homesickness. So when you leave your hometown, you feel sad for not being at home, don’t you? Why are so many endlessly suffering from nostalgia? After all, everywhere you go is home.
The third line says, “One shout took three thousand worlds away at once.” When something dropped on the roof, it made a big bang and then the three thousand worlds were destroyed. Here the “three thousand worlds” are worlds created by me, by my thoughts. But when I change my mind, my thoughts, these thousand worlds, are destroyed.
So once you have done away with the three thousand worlds, “Peach blossoms bloom on a snowy day.” This is the news from your hometown. All those worlds you created from your problems and your worries in this world are no more. No more worlds being created in the mind of the wanderer and so “Peach blossoms will bloom.”
When the original script of this poem was recently found, copies of the handwritten poem were made available to the public at the museum in Baekdamsa Temple. I was able to receive one as well and on my way here today, I read it once more, in case I forgot any part of it.
This is the state of enlightenment. We are at home. Our mind is where our hometown is. Then why are we always wandering around in search of our hometown outside? Whatever we see is made by us. As we make things for ourselves, we also destroy things for ourselves on and on endlessly. This is where we are at, and this binds us as sentient beings: strangers in our hometown.
Hence, there is a saying, “When the mind is, the universe is.” This means that when you enter your mind, you can see the world. If you don’t enter your mind, you won’t be able to see the world. So what is the world? Whatever you perceive in your mind, which is your world. But if you search for the world outside, you won’t find your home and will wander around endlessly without knowing where to look. You are a wanderer, a stranger in your own hometown, a sentient being. Our home is right here, but without realizing it, we wander eternally. For the only world that exists is the one that we have created in our own mind, but we are looking for some other world that we suppose exists outside. This is the main problem of all sentient beings and it results in more ignorance and reincarnation. We create this situation for ourselves.
Then where is home? Where are our ancestors? Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh once gave a very important dharma talk. He was returning to his native land, Vietnam, for the first time after forty years. He said, “Where are our ancestors? Where are our ancestors’ tombs? Our ancestors are within our bodies. You inherited your body from your ancestors and your body contains your ancestors’ bodies. All of your ancestors’ information is in your body. So if you want to meet them, you should understand yourself first.”
In addition, where is the home of my mind? The true mind, that’s my home. Because the True Self is within us, our home, our parents, and our ancestors are all there. Our mental refuge, our hometown, and our physical ancestry are all within us and so we should take good care of them. So how do you breathe? How do you eat food? You can’t live without this earthly body and so you must be very conscious of it. Every day, what are you thinking? What kinds of thoughts occur, then fade away? The key to your happiness lies within your own mind and body.
Once you can comprehend your body, then you can understand your heritage. But if you do not look into your thoughts, and just continue to search outside through your eyes and ears, then you will fall into the infinite loop of reincarnation. Today you follow this, tomorrow you will follow that, and the day after tomorrow you will follow something else. But you’ll never reach your hometown by running after things outside. So as practitioners, we should look into our bodies and our minds because it is there that we will find the key to happiness and to infinite wisdom.
For many centuries, our great Seon masters have been teaching us. Master Wonhyo and Master Uisang lived during the late Silla Dynasty during the 7th century. Once, the two of them set off to study in Tang China. The Tang Dynasty was united during the 600s and the Faxiang school(consciousness only school) was popular, adhering to the philosophy of “all existence is nothing but consciousness.”
Anyway, Seon Master Wonhyo was traveling to Tang to study the notion of consciousness-only, which chiefly teaches that nothing exists apart from the mind. The journey from Korea to China was very difficult at that time. The Silla Kingdom was on the east of the Korean Peninsula, the Goguryeo Kingdom to the north and the west was ruled by the Baekje Kingdom. So it was very difficult for people from Baekje to go to China, many had tried without success. Finally in 661, the passage to the west was opened and Wonhyo set off for China. The fact that he reached present-day Jiksan in Chungcheongnam-do Province was recently discovered inscribed on a rock.
Jiksan is located a little north of Cheonan City. As I was born in the same province, I am very proud of this discovery. Venerable Wonhyo Sunim was born in Gyeongsan City, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province, but Jiksan is where he attained awakening. Thus it feels as if the whole place is holy! Chungcheong-do Province is also well known for its famous fortresses built during the Joseon Dynasty and it was the home of the famous General Sunshin Lee who defended the country during the Japanese Invasion in the late 15th century. Venerable Manhae Sunim attained enlightenment in this province and Gwansun Ryu, the well-known female resistance fighter during the Japanese Colonial Period, was from Chungcheong-do Province as well.
On his way to China, Venerable Wonhyo Sunim was in the Jiksan area late one evening. It was raining hard and he was looking for a place to spend the night. At last, he found a cave away from the rain. Even though it looked like a big dirty hole, he spent a night there. On the following day, when he woke up, he realized that he had slept in an old grave. Recently, some say that there was a skull with water inside which he drank, but this was written long after the actual event. According to the biography of eminent monks and nuns, Song Gaoseng Zhuan1 written around 900 CE, there wasn’t any mention of water. How could there possibly be water in an old grave? It doesn’t make any sense. So there was the skull in the grave and he wanted to continue on his journey but it was still raining hard. So he had no choice but to stay there for another night.
The previous night, not knowing that it was a grave, he had slept very soundly, but on the second night he couldn’t sleep at all because he had seen the skull. So he was restless as if he had seen a ghost. That’s when he awakened to the truth. He thought, “Ah, when I didn’t know that I was in grave, I slept well; but now, after finding the skull and realizing where I am, my mind is uneasy. It is all in my mind.” Thus he realized, “So the world arises and ceases because of my mind. And this is the truth.” He understood the truth clearly and so said to himself, “The world is in my mind. So why do I need to go to China?” And he turned back. For when your thinking changes, your life changes and so does your mind. So many monks had tried to go to study abroad and failed! Though he was well on his way, he decided to turn back because he had awakened to the truth before reaching the destination. So you can see that not all learning happens through books. Teachings don’t necessary come in that form and so while we go about our business, we can practice. Look at the example of Master Wonhyo: he was awakened by looking at a skull and not by looking at books.
The truth of impermanence can’t easily be understood through books, but when you see a corpse for yourself, the fact of impermanence becomes clear. Recently, someone I know passed away in a really unexpected manner and this brought home to me the truth of impermanence. He was in his 20s. One day he felt some pain and went to an emergency room. He passed away a few of hours later. That’s life. You can say that life is impermanent, but there is a great difference between just saying it and witnessing it for yourself. Direct experience gives you a whole new perspective on impermanence; this is real study. Personal experience opens up the true passage to enlightenment. Sakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment while looking at a star. He was not listening to the story of the stars but while observing stars he realized the laws of the universe. Therefore, investigating and realizing are important. Awakening cannot occur by just imagining things. Everyone thinks that studying many books is the way to real practice. The study of life doesn’t fall into the category of studying many books, but of experiencing life itself. That’s why Venerable Wonhyo Sunim returned to Shilla. His experience was not different from that of any other enlightened monk.
Venerable Uisang Sunim was in the same place at the same time but he didn’t have the same experience. When he heard about Wonhyo’s experience, he didn’t just follow Wonhyo back, but he continued on his journey to China. He spent ten years there studying the Avatamsaka Sūtra and then awakened. (So today, whenever we have a memorial ceremony for the deceased, we chant the poem, Beopseonggye, which Uisang composed and wrote in a special calligraphic form, Beopseongdo.) This was how Venerable Uisang Sunim attained understanding. Everyone has their own proper time and place for practice and enlightenment. Though they both slept in the same place, Venerable Wonhyo Sunim attained enlightenment whereas Venerable Uisang Sunim wasn’t inspired by the same event. He had to continue his journey to China in order to study the Avatamsaka Sutra in depth. After attaining enlightenment, he returned home with his own interpretation of enlightenment, which people study even now. It is an interpretation of the universal principle in calligraphic art form in a poem consisting of 210 Chinese characters.
Therefore, when you open your mind, the world will open as well. Do not follow the world blindly. When you change your thinking, your mind, the world will change. But we live in exactly the opposite way. We are running after the world, hoping that we can change the world, and we think that then we will be happy. This is how we live now. So we think that if we can change our surroundings, our environment, then we will be happy. For that reason, people are working hard to make money, to get promoted, to get famous, but the truth is that when your mind is open, you will be happy wherever you are, whatever you are doing and no longer chase after worldly things.
Venerable Wonhyo Sunim showed us that the truth is in our everyday life. A little after his time the sixth patriarch, Huineng2 of China was born. In fact it was 21 years later according to the records. I think that Wonhyo was born in 617 and Huineng in 638, but I am not absolutely sure. One thing for sure is that Huineng attained great enlightenment and not through books, or by practicing sitting meditation regularly in a meditation hall for a long time. One day, he went to the market to sell wood and there heard someone chanting the Diamond Sutra: this caused his awakening.
So we see that enlightenment can be attained anywhere. It is in the songs of birds, in the sound of water flowing, and in howling of the wind. So open your mind, open your eyes, and open your ears. How do you open your mind? Don’t let your mind wander, think deeply, live simply, do not make things complicated. Look carefully and persistently into life, because the key to your door is within you. Your home is within, you can see and hear naturally: this is the world of enlightenment. This may sound a little strange but in actual fact it is like looking at your home from your home. When you realize that your dreams are illusive then your home will appear. You can’t see your home because you are still in the middle of a dream.
Huineng was famous for his simple, important dharma teachings. The following example comes from the time when he had just started explaining the dharma. One windy day, he went to teach at a temple where there was a flag in front of the hall. Many people came to hear the dharma and some of them started arguing about the flag. Some said it was the wind blowing the flag, and others said it was the flag moving. It seemed that they were both correct. What do you think? First of all, the flag was blowing but it was blowing because of the wind.
In the midst of this scene, Huineng uttered the following verse.
Neither the wind nor the flag is blowing,It is your mind that is blowing.It is your mind blowing.
This is the state of mind of a person who found his True Nature. Thus according to this story, this is what we can’t see through our eyes. We see things through our eyes and hear things through our ears, and all these things are perceived through what we have in our mind. All things are perceived through our form, not outside of our mind, so it is like our reflection. When we look at ourselves in a mirror, we think, “Ah, that’s me!” However, a person who has never seen a mirror might not know that he was looking at his own reflection. This is very interesting.
Let’s go back to Venerable Manhae Sunim. He edited Bulgyodaejeon, the Encyclopedia of Buddhism from the Tripitaka, and there introduced the following story. Deep in a large forest in India, there lived an elderly couple. Once they made some wine in a huge vat and, when the wine was well fermented, it had to be filtered. Once filtered, it became a clear liquid. When the old lady looked inside the vat, she saw an old woman whom she thought her husband had hidden from her. She was shocked and devastated. She didn’t know what to do, so she ran to her husband and demanded an explanation. “How could you do this to me?” The husband said, “What are you talking about?” The wife queried, “Why did you hide that woman in the vat?” The husband thought, “What is she talking about? This is really strange! I haven’t hidden any woman!” So the husband went to look inside the vat for himself. When he looked inside, the situation got even more outrageous. There was an old man inside the vat! His wife was unjustly accusing him of hiding an old woman, when it was she who was hiding an old man. Outraged, he went back and demanded an explanation from her. “How can you do this to me?” he said. She said, “What are you talking about?” She thought, “Huh? That’s strange! I don’t have any man at all!” Something was not right so she went to the vat again. Of course, when she looked in, there was the old woman again. And when he went and looked in, there was the old man again.
You know what is going on! It was their respective reflections in the vat that they were looking at, but they didn’t know. They had never used a mirror because they lived away from civilization. They had never seen themselves at all. So when they looked inside, they thought there must be a person hiding in the vat, it was the only way that they could understand the situation.
Therefore, if you just look inside a cup, for example, you will see only what is in your mind. This is my mind now. What if I was a mosquito, then what would I see? What if I was a person who had made pottery my whole life, then what would I see? What you see is what is in your mind. You need to know this. For example, you dream at night, right? What you see in your dream is the projection of your world. All the things in the dream go away when you stop dreaming. The things in your dream do not exist. When you stop dreaming, everything that was there disappears. So we see things through our thinking. When our thinking disappears, all the things we see disappear as well.
We find this teaching in the Heart Sutra which says that we consist of body (rupa) sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankara), and consciousness (vinnana). Thus we are, we feel, we think, we choose and then we perceive things. Without body, without form, these perceptions are not possible. Hence, when we say something is good or bad, this distinction arises from our dependency on our bodies. All of these thoughts will disappear when we die as they are all illusory. During the ceremony for the dead, we offer food to the hungry ghosts and we chant “Yuk Jin Sim Sik Bol Lae Gong” in which “Yuk Jin” means the six senses3, and “Sim Shin”4 all come from the void. In spite of this, people constantly mistake these illusions for reality and this is the state of mind of a stranger in his hometown. For the different situations which arise will cease as the environment changes and so sensations experienced by the body will vanish when the body is gone. But what you obtain from your home is real and will not be destroyed.
What do I mean by “the home of your mind”? How can you perceive through your eyes? Just looking at things as they are will lead you home. This is your Original Nature. So when you feel sad, just cry. But do not cry continuously and in the meantime question where this sadness is coming from. When you are like that then you can easily find your home. When you hear a sound, you tend to think that it is good or it is bad and this simply leads you to the endless cycle of reincarnation, Samsara. But if you question what is the mind which listens to this sound? If you try to find the mind listening to that sound, that is the way home. Thus for the mind, even though there is a body, there is no body, and though the body dies and is no more, there is still a body. Accordingly, whenever you think, just observe and ask yourself, “How does this thinking occur?” That is your True Self and you are the master of yourself.
Consequently, you cannot find the road home by merely following what you see but by searching for your mind. This is called, “the reflection of reflection” or “Ban Jo.” Look into yourself and think carefully about the mind which just hears things. And when you observe your body, constantly remember that your body is impermanent for yesterday’s body is different from today’s. Someone once said, “Ah! Sunim, you have become old!” So the monk asked, “When did you last see me?” “Ten years ago!” You don’t get old overnight but we are actually aging from moment to moment.
Today’s “I” is clearly different from yesterday’s. If you watch carefully, you can see the difference. People often say, “Life is impermanent and death reminds us of this impermanence.” In actual fact every second is impermanent. When you truly realize this fact, you can no longer be so greedy. If you don’t realize the impermanence of life, you act greedily. Because you do not really know impermanence, you should observe and observe continuously so that eventually you understand that there is nothing in this world worth clinging to. If you don’t understand this basic fact of life, then everything looks good because it is so attractive and so you cling to it, you crave it.
Once there was a dying person who thought that when he died, he would be born in heaven. So he was celebrating his death. When a Seon master visited him, he shook that man so that he could awaken to the truth. It turned out that he was going to be reborn in a magpie nest and then he realized that he had mistaken the magpie nest for heaven. So you to can mistake a magpie nest for heaven because you think it looks like heaven. All this is created by us. The man’s foolish mind had created a heaven from something else and it seemed to be a wonderful thing. And then we go ahead and cling to this wonderful thing. However, far too soon you are not interested in that thing anymore and you must look for better things: this is the sorrow of the wanderer. There is no end to this series of events. So if you want to put an end to this journey and go back to your real home, you search for the mind that sees things, hears things, then there is no death and no sadness. In order to do so, you must go and find your mind and dwell in that place and rest.
Then how can you get there? The first thing you need is faith, for it is important. No matter how many times the Heart Sutra says, “No beginning, and no end,” if people do not have any confidence in these words, then nothing can be done. Nothing else can save you with certainty. Confidence is the entrance. If you want to go home, you must pass through the front door and that door is faith. Once you pass through the door, you will understand more and more and so your faith will grow and grow. Then you can move to the next level. From the door you pass through to the court yard and stand in the garden. And from there you can step into the rest of the house. This is called, “Seungdang(昇堂), ascending to the next level or floor.” You get ready to take a step through the door and then finally what do you have to do? Open the door to the room and go in. This is called, “entering the room.” There are higher and lower levels in the process. Without faith, you can’t even open the door. You can’t go in if you don’t have the necessary confidence. So first have faith and then you can advance and ascend to the next level. The letter, “Seung”’ means ”ascend” and “Dang” means “the next level.” So you can then enter the room. Once you enter the room, what happens? It’s just a room, here you can sit down, stand up, or lie down comfortably and just be anyway you want. You are at home. So now, what will you do next? There is nothing to do. From there on, there is nothing to do in the house.
Your next task is to help people who can’t find the entrance. This is the way of the bodhisattva. Because you are in the room, if you stay in the room and are happy there, you won’t benefit greatly. So once you get there, you should try to lead other people. This is the true way of the bodhisattva. This is the task you need to take on next. Although the Buddha has taught this wonderful teaching, we do not really understand this profound wisdom and can never stop our discursive thinking. We think this and that, but we should try to stop the thinking. In Korean, “Ji” means “stop or cease” the thinking, and once you manage to stop then you must do “Bang” (방 放) which means “let go” for then you will truly be at ease. Our thoughts are bound by many useless things. Useless thinking! Worthless worries! They take over. So just stop and let go, and then what’s next? Just watch, just watch, as Venerable Manhae Sunim awakened and found his home, you will also find your home. And then you can help others as well.
One hundred and fifty years ago, there was an outstanding Seon master called Gyeongheo. Here is his enlightenment poem:
頓覺三千是吾家 Don Gak Sam Cheon Si O Ga(Suddenly I realized that I was at home. Just awaken!)
Here he expresses his enlightenment. Because we see the world through our thoughts, we do not know where home is but if we see the world through wisdom, we will know where home is: the three thousands worlds are my home. Every place I go is my home. This is the main sense of this poem. Then if you truly wish to go there, what do you have to do? Have faith! Have faith and make every effort to ascend to the next level to the end of the journey, to where you can enter the room. After that, as you know, lead the other travelers, those without hometowns to their true home. This is the way of the bodhisattva, the way of the Buddha, and the way of all Buddhists. I will end here today. Thank you very much.
1) Gaoseng zhuan. K 1074, T. 2059; (14 fascicles). Compiled by Huijiao, ed. 慧皎: 18th year of Tianjian (天監), Liang dynasty (梁) (A.D. 519) in Jiaxiang Monastery (嘉祥寺), Guiji, ed. (會稽). 1 Nanjio 1490; Ono. 3:350b. The first attempt in China to compile the biographies of eminent monks and nuns, which covered the period from 67 CE (Latter Han) to 519 (Liang).
2) Huineng was a noted monk and he became the sixth patriarch of the Chan School; he died in 713.
3) Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind
4) Mind and cognition.