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I am going to bring up a somewhat critical example regarding Korean Buddhist society. These days, Korean monks say among themselves that “persons of the Way (Doin) are sages only from a distance, not from up close.” Actually, this statement disparages all sages and is among the worst type of ridicule. To say that “persons of the Way are not sages up close” suggests that a person who is recognized as a sage actually has plenty of faults when examined more closely. This insinuation may have started among those many monks who went out to learn the truth from spiritual teachers, but returned disappointed. However, those putative sages should more appropriately be called those who have attained some degree of understanding; they are not real ‘persons of the Way.’
Even among those who have attained correct understanding, there is a vast difference in the degree of understanding between those masters who are mentioned in the discourse-records of the patriarchs of ancient China and our teachers today in modern Korea. In the former group, their speech and actions have come into conformity with one another according to their own levels of understanding; but those today in Korea who are called persons of the Way have not always attained this congruency. This is an extremely crucial point that Korean Buddhism today needs to rectify. This incongruency between speech and actions also applies to practice monks. They claim to be doing their cultivation practice by either holding a hwadu, reciting the Buddha’s name, or being involved in service work, etc., but their consciousness lays elsewhere—thus this incongruency.
Let’s look at an example. The contents of the book Anger, which was written by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn, is perhaps nothing extraordinary from the standpoint of Korean Buddhism, since it only deals with overcoming one’s anger. Even so, it has sold 1,200,000 copies. In Korean Buddhism as well as in the orthodox Buddhism of the Buddha, anger should not even arise in the first place. There are many recorded examples that illustrate this point well. For example, there was once a non-Buddhist person who came to see the Buddha and swore at him, but the Buddha did not respond. The man grew angrier and finally spat in the Buddha’s face. Still not showing any anger, the Buddha finally asked the man, “Are you done?” Seeing the Buddha’s perfect composure, the man became intimidated and left on his own. Meanwhile, the Buddha’s disciple Ananda, who was standing next to him and had witnessed the whole event, could not tolerate the sight. As soon as the man left, Ananda said angrily to the Buddha, “Oh World-honored One, I could barely tolerate that man. How could you just sit there and take it?” The Buddha looked quizzically at Ananda and said, “Before I pitied that man, but now I pity you.” The Buddha’s reply indicates that, even though the man was angry, he was at least being sincere to his own feelings, but Ananda only pretended to be composed in front of the man, suppressing his anger only to let it out after he left. Doesn’t this make Ananda a hypocrite?
In this story, however, was the Buddha really unresponsive like a dead tree? Not at all. Like Ananda, we tend to respond with anger and hatred to those who hurt us, but the Buddha responded with his sympathy and kindness. In the term “lovingkindness and compassion” (Jabi 慈悲), the character bi (悲) means compassion. This sympathy, however, does not mean that we look down on or disregard our counterpart. Rather, it is sympathy generated by acknowledging the absolute equality of all existence. What then do we have to do in order to arouse in ourselves this sympathy of absolute equality? We must first understand that each and every one of us is originally a buddha. The fundamental principle of our existence is that we are originally all the same, without even a fingertip’s amount of disparity; but by falling into our own illusions, we arouse anger and hatred. This is why the Buddha said that he felt pity. But the Buddha’s pity is a sympathy that derives from this sense of equality. Therefore, Buddhism actually means not to generate anger, which is quite different from merely controlling or eliminating one’s anger.
Once I met with the Dalai Lama and, after talking together with him for three hours. I was left with the impression that compared to Tibetan Buddhism, Korean Buddhism’s understanding of the Dharma is much more profound. I do not mean by this that Tibetan monks are any less qualified than us. But the reason that Korean Buddhism has a deeper understanding of the Dharma is because we have preserved well the traditions of Seon and Patriarchal Seon.
I could make a similar comment regarding Chinese Buddhism. I have traveled to China twice in order to inspect Chinese Chan monasteries. While I was there, I had chances to talk with various Chinese monks and was surprised to discover their lack of knowledge regarding the history of their own tradition. For example, I went to visit Gashansi (협산사, 夾山寺), where Chan master Yuanwu Kejin composed The Blue Cliff Record (Biyan lu, 벽암록), a masterpiece of Chan writing. I asked a Chinese monk resident there to show me some of the artifacts associated with the Chan master Yuanwu Kejin. The monk, who appeared to be in his forties, asked me who Yuanwu was. You can imagine my surprise! In my opinion, Chan Master Yuanwu is a person who has same stature in China as Wonhyo does in Korea. It seemed to me, then, that many Chinese monks were not very well versed in their own tradition.
Japanese Zen, too, derives from the Chan of conceptual understanding (uiri 義理). Thus, Korea is the nation where Patriarchal Seon and the Buddha’s fundamental philosophy have been transmitted and preserved. Even so, we do not receive the kind or trust or respect worldwide that monks like Thich Nhat Hahn or the Dalai Lama do. Why is this the case? It is because our speech and actions are not congruent with each other. If we can accomplish this congruency, we will be beyond compare.
Let’s talk about cultivation practice for a moment. In Tibet and in Southeast Asian Buddhism, practitioners force themselves to fit the stratagems followed in their practice. Cultivation practices are intended to be methods for attaining liberation and achieving buddhahood, but if instead we immerse ourselves in those practices for a long time without ever letting them go, then our practice will end up becoming formalized, stale, and stifling. Korean Seon practice has a different orientation. Our way of practice does not require that we force ourselves to conform to our cultivation stratagems, but that instead we bring both Seon and Buddhism into our daily lives. Once we attain awakening, birth and death will be nondual, secular life and ordained life will be nondual, and regardless of where we are or what we’re doing, we will be free, autonomous, and peaceful. Therefore, ours is a Buddhism that does not become formalized or stifling as a result of forcing ourselves to live in accord with specific cultivation practices. This is what makes Korean Buddhism so extraordinary, and the root of our tradition of Buddhism is the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Even so, we do not receive much respect or recognition around the world. Who gives Korean Buddhism the kind of respect it deserves?
What’s the root of the problem? It is we monks who are most responsible. Our speech and actions are not congruent; we have not transformed our lives in accordance with Buddhism in order to gain freedom; and we have instead let our lives become more secularized. These are major issues. Then, you might say, “Hey, if this is the case, then isn’t Buddhism too difficult?” Absolutely not! If you understand the Buddha’s dharma correctly and establish right view, then anytime, anywhere, you will be able to accomplish anything.
In Huineng’s case he kept his mind pure while being filial to his mother, that he was able to attain correct understanding when he heard the Diamond Sutra’s verse “You should give rise to a mind that does not abide anywhere.” When he attained correct understanding, his view of filial piety began to change. Before this incident, filial piety for him simply meant to keep his mother’s room warm and cook her nice meals. But once his correct understanding was awakened, he realized that there is no greater way to fulfill filial piety than to learn the dharma and become a person of the Way, so that he could guide many people by spreading the dharma and its grace. If, like the Sixth Patriarch, we attain correct understanding and thereby gain right view, our lives will be transformed. Correct understanding is nothing special. It can be attained in a few hours of cultivation practice.
If our lives and perspectives change, though, wouldn’t our lives become more complicated and restrictive? Absolutely not. To the contrary, our minds will become extremely peaceful and free. Hence, the Sixth Patriarch’s view on filial piety changed after he heard this verse from the Diamond Sutra. Before that incident, even if someone had put a knife to his throat and said, “Quit taking care of your mother and ordain as a monk,” he would have responded, “I would rather die than neglect my mother.” However, once he attained correct understanding, his views changed. This is extremely important.
There is a record that the Sixth Patriarch obtained 100 taels of silver from a man named An Daosheng, which he used to buy provisions and clothes for his mother before he left for the monastery. The Dunhuang recension makes no mention of this incident, but I am sure he would have made arrangements so that his mother would live comfortably during his absence. In this way, the Sixth Patriarch was able to attain an unimaginable transformation of his consciousness when his correct understanding was awakened. Only then was he able to make the decision to leave his mother and ordain as a monk. This tale is extremely important in the context of our cultivation practice. Since we have already ordained, there is no need for us to ordain again. The important point to bring away from this tale is that the actions we make in our current circumstances can be transformed by producing a different perception and state of mind than those we had before.