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Part V: Chulga
A Letter from Beopjeong Sunim: a Renunciation of the Secular Life
There’s been wind in the forest since yesterday. It is a strong wind, as the sound of waves in the ocean. There will be layers of fallen leaves on forest paths. There will be bare branches after the fallen leaves, under the early winter sky.
Where do leaves go, having fallen from the branches? Here and there rolling in wind, laid to rest under some tree or grass roots and rotted to be absorbed through, and with coming spring, in saps climbing up, transforming into new leaves and flowers. It is so. Without a leave, a transformation cannot be, as with leaves falling from branches. Having returned to the mountains last fall, I awoke to the sounds of leaves rolling many a times through the night.
In a silent mountain, I awake to the sounds of rolling leaves in the yard. The silent mountain awakes me with the sounds of leaves. It must be cleansing and clearing my ears dulled from the world.
People hold the will to better their environment and surroundings. This effort to renew exists in individuals and organizations. People in power may attempt to improve on the surroundings through the organizations they are part of. They may achieve what they desire, even when such costs the existing order of things.
An individual in reforming or restructuring one’s environment without organizational power or authority, knowing one’s limits, may simply leave the surroundings, without affecting the neighbours. It is an effort of creating one’s own world, outside the pressures of organizational chains.
Renunciation is this leaving, letting go. The olden home, a house of obsession and strife, it is the act of leaving behind such a space that is chulga (chul: leaving; ga: house/home/family). It is also called iyok (i: leaving/different/outside; yok: desire/greed for gain), for having escaped the turning world of delight in senses. The term chuljin (chul:leaving; jin: essence/study/meditation) is also used, for having left the world of dust or jingae-gwon. Chulga is not a passive escape, but an active pursuit of being, a part of the infinite latent potential to manifest the phenomena of life in the universe.
Those in sudo (cultivation of the way) are asked from time to time by the lay people, in the tone of popular music.
“What has led you to chulga and live as a monk?”
The question may be asked of Catholic priests and nuns as well. Such questions may be asked in certain curiosity, and to those being questioned, they are heard in the tone of a popular song. Once in a sermon, I spoke thus. Had we been born into the environment of the Shakyamuni Buddha, people such as us may not have renumciated.
The Buddha had a beautiful wife, Yashodhara. She was a partner of beauty both inner and outer, in wisdom and virtue, unlike the modern beauties of fashionable face and physical body. The Buddha was born into kingship, an absolute power without constitutional amendments, given to rule as he saw fit. He was born amidst material wealth and riches. The Buddha leaves it all behind, having let go.
However the physical wellness seemed from the outside, such conditions were not what coincided with the Buddha’s values, his path and worldview.
If asked by the Buddha, why have you renounced, I would answer simply.
To live as I am, to live as I saw fit, I left the house. Not because the world was devoid of meaning or form, or because I was taken by the truth of Buddhism, have I left. I could not say I renounced to save all sentient beings. The life outside the secular world is as void as the secular world itself.
I barely knew what Buddhism was before I joined the Sangha. Any talk of saving the sentient beings may not be befitting at this time, in the current state of Korean Buddhism.
Of all the possible roads, why have I chosen the road of Buddhist as a suhaeng sunim (a monastic, ascetic practitioner). It seems there was a certain indefinable demand of my life breath. There were certain ropes of connection pulling me, connections of the times, as an unavoidable road given me by many lives in training.
In the twenty years of chulga, I have many times lived through this. Still water rots. Water attains new life in flowing out of stagnated quagmire into the sea, in the movement. The water of flowing waves is not the water of a stagnated pool. The life of chulga suhaeng seung (a practicing ascetic), living amidst a small net of connections in solitude, is meant to provide for an active life of movement in suhaeng and gyohoe (a communication of the teachings).
In the later phase of a mediation retreat is a step of suhaeng, where one is required to practice in one place. Following the retreat is a period of travels in unsu (pilgrimage), where the terms unsu-seung and unsu-haeng-gak (a roving practice, pilgrimage) come from, to practice in unlimited movement as with the clouds and flowing water.
Ramakrishna tells a parable in his lessons of Nirvikalpa Samadhi
A man on his way to a bath is stopped by his wife.
“It’s a problem, you living one day to the next, growing older without any abilities to speak of. They say those who make something of themselves leave things behind one by one. I doubt you can do anything like that”
The man spoke,
“Leave behind one by one? I doubt they can leave it all behind. The one who truly leaves does not do so one by one.”
The wife berated the husband in laughter. The man spoke,
“The one who leaves behind is I. You will see. I am leaving.”
The man thus left with a towel across his shoulder, not returning to leave things in order or looking back.
This is the act of iyok or chulga. At the moment of realization, all is left behind.
The act of leaving requires strong discipline and the knowledge of how to connect and severe. It may be an endless task, to leave behind one by one.