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Studying the Platform Sutra, Lecture 5

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The Fifth Patriarch asked me, “Where are you from that you have now come to this mountain to pay obeisance to me? What do you seek?”
I answered, “I am a peasant from Xinzhou in Lingnan. My only purpose in coming from so far away to pay obeisance to you is to seek the buddhadharma.”
The Fifth Patriarch Hongren reprimanded me, saying, “You are a Xinzhou peasant, a barbarian from the South. How can you hope to become a buddha?”
I replied, “People may be from the north or the south, but there is no north and south in the Buddha-nature. My barbarian body may be different from yours, but what difference is there in the Buddha-nature?”
The Fifth Patriarch wished to continue his discussions with me, but seeing many people to his left and right, he asked nothing further and sent me out to work with the assembly. I was then brought to the threshing room by a novice monk, where I spent over eight months treading the pestle.

As you can see here, too, the Sixth Patriarch’s purpose in ordaining as a monk is to become a buddha. This purpose should not only be Huineng’s, but all of ours as ordained monks. Yet, this intent seems less obvious among Buddhist adherents today, doesn’t it? Our ultimate goal must be to become buddhas. Incidentally, there are some people for whom this goal is mere wishful thinking, but for others it is their firm conviction. It should never become just wishful thinking, for then one will not only lack any strength in the course of one’s cultivation practice, but might also be diverted to a different path. If this purpose becomes our firm conviction, then our practices will never become just difficult asceticism or self-mortification. Instead, if we are determined to become buddhas, we will feel more strength, patience, calmness, and freedom as we continue with our practice. And what is more, we will also discover a new strength beyond all our imagination and, no matter what sort of predicaments we might face, we will always have the wisdom to overcome them through Buddhist techniques.

Unfortunately, the general sentiment of Korean Buddhism these days is that cultivation practice is irrelevant unless it involves awakening to the Way. Korean monks in particular believe that, unless they have ‘seen the nature’ (kyonsong 견성), their practice means nothing. When I mentioned this tendency to a layperson at a private gathering, he responded that that view is common among all Korean Buddhists, not just monks. Actually, I agree with him. Just as some people try to get rich quickly by playing lotto or speculating on real estate and ignore the tedious intermediary steps, this preference for instant gratification seems to have pervaded our society. However, this sentiment that cultivation practice is irrelevant unless it involves ‘seeing the nature’ is a false way of thinking. Actually, the intermediary stages are absolutely crucial. This attitude--that “the process of cultivation practice is meaningless; if I can’t attain ‘seeing the nature,’ then I’d rather quit my practice all together--reflects this misconception. This is completely wrong. Even if we do not attain ‘seeing the nature,’ by experiencing the intermediary stages, we will be able to lead a much more valuable life than before, which will be full of patience, calmness, and freedom. The more practitioners there are in the intermediary stages, the more opportunities there will be for new sages to appear among them. It is the same with society: when the middle class predominates, society will be more peaceful and progressive, with much less crime. In the same way, if there are more practitioner-monks in the intermediary stages, then the Buddhist order will be tranquil, for the monks will have cultivation practice in common as their main direction. Then, we will be able to contribute greatly to wider human society, which often harbors aggression and conflict.

Hence, even if we were merely to generate correct understanding, which can be considered an intermediary stage, we’ll be able to recognize its value in our lives and continue living with much peace and freedom. Besides, are we really able to attain ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood’ without going through the intermediary stages first? There’s not much chance of that! Thus, Korean monks must not continue cultivating while holding to the misconception that practice is irrelevant unless it involves awakening to the Way. Awakening, however, is a sudden dharma that involves an instantaneous and abrupt experience of enlightenment. We therefore must not remain complacent in the intermediary stages but should forge ahead ever more diligently toward awakening.

Being a monk does not mean that you only do ch’amson (meditation practice) and remain in the meditation hall. Regardless of the place and type of work that one performs, there is always a way to do cultivation practice. All activities--whether meditation practice, performing the duties of an abbot, reciting the Buddha’s name, or any other type of cultivation practice--are all fine, as long as one does them while emptying the mind of any concept of ‘I.’ In that way, all things become one. Though different cultivation methods might produce faster or slower results, the practice of emptying the mind of the concept of ‘I’ is exactly the same in any path or technique. You must understand this.

Let me give you an example. A particular monk attended university and then went overseas to further his studies. Upon his return, he began teaching at a Buddhist seminary. While he was teaching, however, his mind was always preoccupied with the doubt: “Doing ch’amson is real cultivation practice. What good is lecturing?” One day, he happened to attend my lecture and heard me advocating, “Whatever you do, if you empty your mind, then all activities become cultivation practice.” He told me that, after hearing my message, all his mental dilemmas were resolved. All Buddhist practices involve emptying oneself. Hence, whichever practice one might choose to do, all of them are a road to cultivation. I ask those monk-lecturers, “Why do you lecturers emphasize the idea of ‘abandon the scriptures and enter into meditation’ at Buddhist seminaries? I might understand it if it were Son monks who were advocating this position, but why would sutra lecturers preach this? Reading the scriptures is also a path to ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood.’ Sutras only say that, by studying them, one can become a buddha; they never advocate that one should disregard the sutras all together and only meditate in order to achieve buddhahood. So, why do you lecturers emphasize this idea yourselves? Isn’t this a mistake?”

It is said that all roads lead to Rome: the only difference lies in how fast or slow one gets there. Hence, as long as one is on the road to Rome, one will eventually arrive. One may take a leisurely stroll and go slowly, while another who is impatient may take a shortcut—but the only difference is the duration of time before they reach their destination. It would be a mistake to label these differences and conclude that only a certain way is Buddhism but the other is not. For this reason, I also accept Vipasyana (Insight) practice as a valid type of Buddhist cultivation. Some practitioners come and ask me, “Why would a Son monk like you accept Vipasyana practice?” I reply, “Because it is also a valid Buddhist way of practice.”

Ultimately, if we perform any Buddhist cultivation practice, such as Vipasyana, reciting the Buddha’s name, service, etc., our consciousnesses transform into calmness and alertness (chokchok songsong, 적적성성, 寂寂惺惺). And when our consciousnesses completely transform into calmness and alertness, we will transcend all subject-object dichotomies and become liberated and free. Hence, whichever cultivation practice we end up doing will make our consciousnesses calm and alert, which the Diamond Sutra describes as ‘object-less service.’ While reciting the Buddha’s name, too, if one keeps the thought, “When your recitation reaches its climax, that is the locus of no thought,” then one will progress toward the ultimate stage of calmness and alertness. All Buddhist cultivation practices lead toward calmness and alertness, which is the cultivation of emptying oneself. In ch’amson practice, as well, the state when things are going well is called calmness and alertness, while the opposite state is called lassitude and distraction.
In the same way, in the Song of Yongjia (영가집 永嘉集), samatha is called calmness and alertness, while Vipasyana is called alertness and calmness. They are actually two sides of the same coin.

We have been studying the Sixth Patriarch, but have you ever seen a reference to him investigating a hwadu? There isn’t one. There is not even a single record of him going to a meditation hall to do an hour of meditation (ch’amson). Still, the founding ancestor of Patriarchal Son is the Sixth Patriarch. Didn’t he attain correct understanding by listening to the Diamond Sutra being recited, after which he ordained as a monk and spent over eight months treading the pestle? What does ‘treading the pestle’ represent? According to Korean Buddhism, it symbolizes bodhisattva practice. These days, we often use the term service (pongsa) for this kind of action, but this term comes from the West. For us, ‘bodhisattva practice’ would be the correct term. Hence, what the Sixth Patriarch did for eight months is bodhisattva practice, but there is no record of him doing ch’amson.
Hence, as we can see from the Sixth Patriarch’s example, doing bodhisattva practice, studying the sutras, or performing ch’amson makes no difference whatsoever for a person of advanced spiritual capacity. All his actions are one. The Sixth Patriarch, who attained ‘seeing the nature’ by listening to the Diamond Sutra, is the founding master of Patriarchal Son; he is the person who attained correct understanding through his bodhisattva practice and ‘seeing the nature’ through listening to the Diamond Sutra. His example is evidence that tells us that all cultivation practices are nondual. The dharma is but one; the only disparity lies in people’s capacity to open themselves to it.

In ch’amson practice there are conflicting views as to whether the Sudden Teachings of the Sixth Patriarch meant ‘sudden awakening, sudden cultivation’ or ‘sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.’ When we were composing a primer on Kanhwa Son, the thorniest problem we faced was how to address this distinction. This was my response. “’Sudden awakening, sudden cultivation’ or ‘sudden awakening, gradual cultivation’ can be seen as something like a big house versus a small house. The founding patriarch of either theory is still the Sixth Patriarch. Chinese Buddhism defines ‘sudden awakening, sudden cultivation’ and ‘sudden awakening, gradual cultivation’ differently than in Korea, by distinguishing the former as ‘the Sixth Patriarch’s dharma of sudden awakening’ and the latter as ‘Shenxiu’s dharma of gradual cultivation.’ We Koreans, on the other hand, accept advocates of both ‘sudden awakening, sudden cultivation’ and ‘sudden awakening, gradual cultivation’ as being part of the orthodox line of the Sixth Patriarch and view the lineage of all those past Son masters from Nanyue Huirang to Mazu Daoyi, Baizhang Huihai, and Huangbo as being the right dharma line. Only during the time of Chinul, the State Preceptor Pojo, did Korean Buddhism begin to branch out into advocates of these two different theories. Even if we were just to eliminate a particular branch, the main trunk and its roots would still remain the same. Hence, let’s view them as simply a ‘big house’ and a ‘small house.’ Thus, it is not that there is only ‘sudden awakening, sudden cultivation’ or only ‘sudden awakening, gradual cultivation.’ Rather, the root of all Buddhist cultivation practices is the Buddha. They are all just Buddhism and are ultimately nondual. The only disparity is in whether practice proceeds faster or slower and whether it is designed for practitioners who are dim or wise. Even so, the dharma does not involve sudden or gradual.

The Sixth Patriarch attained ‘seeing the nature’ when he had not even had an opportunity to attend a meditation hall or to keep a hwadu. Though he had neither formal education nor any background in Buddhism, because he was so sincere when taking care of his old mother in the secular world, his mind became clear on its own, which enabled him to attain correct understanding. I would like to re-emphasize that it is extremely important to be pure and sincere while engaging in any activity. If one performs an action through some preconceived understanding or a desire for compensation, then one’s mind is not pure. If one will just be pure and sincere, one’s mind will become clear on its own. In that way, one’s actions will naturally become a cultivation practice. Hence, even the secular act of filial piety can function as a Buddhist cultivation practice if one performs it with utmost sincerity.

Christianity says that, even if one performs good acts, one will not be able to go to heaven without faith in God. In Buddhism, however, we believe that even if one does not understand Buddhism, if he lives his life without contradictions according to the Buddhist way, then his actions will be equivalent to cultivation practices. In other words, whether we acquire our pure mind through Buddhist discipline or cultivate ourselves through the opportunities presented to us in the secular world, the principle is the same.

Various cultivation practices have been formulated since the Buddha’s time, so there is no reason to divide them still further and create different factions that are in conflict with one another. Since all cultivation practices have the same purpose of ‘seeing the nature and achieving buddhahood,’ it is not Buddhistic to criticize, dispute with, and oppose others simply because of different methods you follow or because of advocating a sudden or gradual approach. By the same token, the urge to contest with others is contrary to the dharma. At least within Buddhism, let’s embrace everything as long as it leads to calmness and alertness.

Let me emphasize this for you one more time. We should have the firm conviction that achieving buddhahood is our only purpose, by changing our sense of values. To have such a conviction does not mean that our lives will be oppressive or hard. Rather, if we can practice in accordance with right views, our minds will become more peaceful, forgiving, patient, and free. Truly in a peaceful state mind, we will be able to emerge ourselves in our practice.

A person who maintains such an attitude while perfecting his cultivation practice is called a ‘person of the Way’. I call such a person as a ‘person who is an adult among adults.’ Those who are ordinary will argue, but the person who is an adult among adults is truly serene. Even If someone criticizes him, he is able to smile and still feel compassion toward his opponent. As Buddhists, our purpose must be to ‘see the nature and achieve buddhahood.’ Even the Sixth Patriarch went to see the Fifth Patriarch to seek a method of becoming a Buddha.

The Fifth Patriarch Hongren reprimanded me, saying, “You are a Lingnan peasant, a barbarian from the South. How can you have any hope of becoming a buddha?”
I replied, “People may be from the north or the south, but there is no north and south in the Buddha-nature. My barbarian body may be different from yours, but what difference is there in the Buddha-nature?”

The Fifth Patriarch was testing Huineng through this dialogue. “You are a Xinzhou peasant, a barbarian. How can you hope to become a buddha?” Huineng answers by saying, “People may be from the north or the south, but there is no north and south in the Buddha-nature.” Huineng was an uneducated, ignorant person, yet wasn’t he truly incredible! Even if one simply attains correct understanding, one reaches this level of insight. And not only correct understanding--merely establishing right view can help a person give such an answer! But, why isn’t there north and south in the Buddha-nature? We must not skip over this point. The realm of the Buddha-nature is a state that transcends north and south, east and west; it is a state where such concepts as north, south, east, or west no longer exist. Thus, Huineng replied by asking how there can be barbarians, yangban (civil and military officials), or slaves in the Buddha-nature.

During the Buddha’s time, Indian society was divided into a rigid four-fold caste structure. It was a great revelation for the Buddha to abolish such a system and establish a sangha where people of all castes could cultivate together in the same community, where the caste structure of his society was not recognized but only the dharma of equality that was fundamental to all existence. Thus, these actions by the Buddha illuminate still more the value of Buddhism. The Buddha-nature is free from discrimination and all things are equal in it.

The Fifth Patriarch wished to continue his discussions with me, but seeing many people to his left and right, he asked nothing further and sent me out to work with the assembly. I was then brought to the threshing room by a novice monk, where I spent over eight months treading the pestle.

When the Great Master Hongren heard Huineng’s response, he realized that Huineng was different from the rest of his 700 disciples. Since this novice made an incredible statement that sprung from his correct understanding, Master Hongren wanted to check Huineng’s understanding further, but seeing many disciples around him, he did not ask any more questions but sent him away to work with the assembly in the threshing room.

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