[Intro to Ganhwa Seon] 13. The Importance of Balshim
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Chapter 3. The Essentials of Ganhwa Seon Practice
3. The Importance of Balshim (awakening the aspiration for enlightenment 發心)
What is Balshim?
What is balshim, or awakening of mind? To what extent does it play a role in investigating hwadu?
Balshim is an abbreviation of balborishim, which can be divided into bal (arousing), bori or bodhi (enlightenment 菩提) and shim (the mind), meaning the mind (thought) of intention to achieve enlightenment (發菩提心). Simply put, balshim is the aspiration for enlightenment. The aspiration for truth, the aspiration for one’s true self and sincere aspiration for liberation through a free, happy and peaceful life without sufferings and afflictions. In other words, it is the aspiration for discovering one’s true self, going beyond death and formlessness and living a life without attachment.
With this aspiration for enlightenment, we come to feel the resonating urge deep down to discover our true self. It is because of the master within our mind who actually moves us and prompts us to talk, say sweet words, cry and laugh. This master is always filled with virtue, mercy, wisdom and courage, warmly embracing us all the time. Therefore, we just end up having relentless urge to see this true master of our mind. This is balshim. We can rightly investigate hwadu, when our mind is fully occupied by sincere aspiration for enlightenment.
The beginning and end of spiritual practice is this aspiration. Making up one’s mind to engage in spiritual practice is not only self-optimism but also giving up the entire form of oneself. At the very moment of realizing one’s true self in the principles of universe, one comes to be convinced that the most universal and noble being is oneself and to have sense of duty to clearly see (究明) one’s true self. In this regard, balshim is about great self-optimism. But at the same time, for self-optimism and self-awareness, we have to give up lives as sentient beings so far by looking back on our daily lives. However, it is not easy to put this “great give-up” into practice. That is why we need once-in-a-lifetime great decision, which considers that we are not born in this lifetime. This is called “one great death (大死一番), absolute resuscitation consequently (絶後蘇生)”.
This is in line with enlightenment through concentration on hwadu. One great death is, in other words, having great doubt by interrogating hwadu. Death here means the death of the form of “self”. The entire sense of self melts away to death through single-minded concentration on hwadu. That is indeed great death which shatters hwadu itself with thorough doubt on hwadu. With this great death, enlightenment, or life of the Buddha, is realized vividly. The great doubt and interrogation of hwadu, in turn, continuously stimulates aspiration.
Balshim can and should be available to anyone. Otherwise, the horizon of Buddhism as a universal religion will remain closed. The moment when we decide to practice for enlightenment and serve others is the time when our mind is awakened and we become bodhisattva. At this very moment, we are reborn as true Buddhists. But this moment of aspiration doesn’t come along that frequently. It is indeed very rare and noble origination. So, often stories of the origination of aspiration are passed down as inspiring and touching tales.
How Balshim Originates
Think of the Gautama Buddha. The Buddha desperately and earnestly asked why human beings get old, sick, die and end up disappearing as a fist of ashes, whether this vicious cycle could be resolved and what the essence of all sufferings is. The Gautama Buddha was devotedly committed to resolving these endless sufferings. The cycle of birth, getting old, sick and death and the Buddha’s strong commitment to overcoming it prompted the Buddha to renounce the secular life and attain enlightenment. In addition to this, steadfast aspiration for salvation of sentient beings suffering from endless pain made the Buddha’s mind awakened. These aspirations guided the Buddha to take the path for enlightenment and salvation of all sentient beings.
A number of Seon Masters took the path toward Seon practice, while thoroughly sensing impermanence of life. They chose to embark on a journey to great liberation to overcome impermanent cycle of secular life.
It was the death of his mother that awakened the aspiration for enlightenment of the Second Seon Master Jingak Hyeshim (眞覺慧諶 1178-1234) of the Sangha Jewel temple Songgwangsa. Similarly, Seon Master Naong (懶翁) and Seon Master Hamheo (涵虛), two of the three eminent Seon Masters in the late Goryeo period, made up their mind to renounce the secular life after their friends died. Faced with death, Seon Master Gyeongheo (鏡虛), who revitalized Seon traditions of Korean Buddhism from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, decided to become a Seon practitioner as well.
Death. Not as a kind of abstract and vague notion but as everlasting separation with those who we had a heart-to-heart talk up until yesterday. How many people will be able to be indifferent and steadfast in the face of sudden cessation of life and complete despair? On top of that, how many people will be able to calmly take the death of oneself?
The value of everything that we cherish is just overshadowed by death. All we have become meaningless. Wealth, fame, knowledge and exceptional skills are just drawn into the realm of impermanence all of a sudden.
Even one’s beloved children, grateful parents, closest friends, mountains, rivers and secular desires such as wealth, success, fame and intelligence end up disappearing into swirl of impermanence. Everything inevitably loses its value in the end. What should we do then?
Life is full of absurdity and contradiction. Good and evil are mixed up, so making clear assessment and decision is very difficult. Judgment changes according to one’s own values and views without firm belief. Due to wishy-washy stance and thinking and judgment which can’t be perfect, people end up being overly anxious after making a decision on crucial matters. What if things just change and become hostile against us after choosing a certain value based on our position on political issues? Is this a plausible scenario only for politicians? As a matter of fact, this can happen to anyone because no one is immune to power struggle wherever he or she is.
Then, what to do when we are challenged by absurdity of life and limitation? Is there any way to survive and overcome inevitable impermanence and limitation of life? Actually, there is. The only path to rise above impermanence, limitation, pain and absurdity of life is finding one’s true self. With one’s genuine self, one can be liberated from everything. Investigating hwadu can never be more timely and effective when one is faced with impermanence and absurdity of life and thereby desperately feel the limitation of oneself and strong aspiration to find one’s true self from the bottom of one’s heart.
On top of the commitment to going beyond impermanence and absurdity, another essential factor in arousing balshim is actual practice. We vaguely understand what Dharma talks or sutras mean, but there is still unresolved doubt in our mind. Then, all of a sudden, we come to listen to what our mind says to us, “I truly want to confirm my true self with my own life and my own body.” This is how we awaken our aspiration for enlightenment.
These days, recorded Dharma talks by eminent Seon Masters are easily accessible. As long as your time and circumstances allow, listening to them frequently can naturally lead to awakening of mind.
Cases in Point of Balshim
Becoming a disciple of Prajnatara, also known as Keyura, Bodhidharma could learn the true meaning of “emptiness” that transcends attachment to life and universe. Prajnatara literally means perfecting the Sutra on Perfect Wisdom. Prajnatara’s teachings prompted Bodhidharma to make a vow with strong commitment that he would actually put what he learned into practice. This sincere aspiration for enlightenment of mind led a number of Masters who solely concentrated on doctrines and principles to the path toward Seon practice.
Seon Master Deshan Xuanjian (德山宣鑑 780-865), well known for his “blows (bang)”, was a renowned scholar who perfected the Diamond Sutra. Deshan had great pride in his knowledge of the Sutra and even called himself “Diamond Ju (周金剛)”, combining the Diamond Sutra’s “Diamond” and his secular family name “Ju”. One afternoon, Master Deshan bumped into an elderly woman who made him speechless. The woman asked,
“According to the Diamond Sutra, neither the mind of the past, the mind of the present, nor the mind of the future can be acquired. Now it’s time for lunch, so, which mind are you going to point?”
Caught speechless and dumbfounded, all the Master could say was just “Hmm...” Despite so much analysis and calculation in his head, he could answer nothing. With the elderly’s reference, Deshan came to visit Seon Master Longtan Chongxin (龍潭崇信 782-865). It was a moonless, pitch-black night. Deshan was just standing in Master Longtan’s room. Master Longtan said that it’s too late and Deshan should go home, giving Deshan a candle. At the very moment when Deshan was about to excuse himself holding the candle, Master Longtan blew out the candle. With this, Deshan just attained enlightenment. He, then, brought all his books on the Diamond Sutra in front a Buddha Hall and burned them down. It was because even a single piece of knowledge that he learned from sutras and books could not serve him at all when he was asked a sharp question in the darkness of Master Longtan’s room.
Fenzhou Wuye (汾洲無業 760-821) visited Seon Master Mazu Daoyi and asked, “As far as doctrines are concerned, I studied most of the principles. However, having heard that mind is Buddha (卽心是佛) of the teachings of Seon, I still don’t know what it actually means.”
Mind is Buddha and we are all already Buddha. This is what we hear and learn through sutras and Dharma talks of Seon Masters. However, there is no tangible way to confirm the truth and it is not easy to have steadfast belief in the true meaning of the teachings. All of a sudden, however, the sincere question of “Why?” comes along. That is how Master Fenzhou Wuye embarked on the journey to Seon practice, with high aspiration to actually experience “enlightenment”. While he fully understood and even perfected doctrinal knowledge, he ended up being indecisive with no unshakeable conviction or whatsoever. The same can be applied to us. We have heard and are vaguely aware of that we are originally Buddha but the next foremost necessary step is aspiration for enlightenment and commitment to actually experiencing it with both our body and mind not just with head.
With this sincere aspiration for enlightenment, we can fully concentrate on investigating hwadu. Then, our practice becomes unwavering regardless of what others say and what we hear. This is true learning. In the process of investigating hwadu with this strong aspiration, a coincidence like the one Seon Master Deshan encountered will come to enlighten us.
The anecdotes teach us that aspiration for enlightenment is not only the beginning of Seon practice but also continuous process and everything of practice. Balshim could be aroused unexpectedly when we study sutras or read records of Patriarchs or even when we do chores. One good way is visiting Seon Masters or listening to Dharma talks that encourage right view to be developed.
Aspiration for enlightenment comes in various circumstances as much as its universality. This is, in a way, very natural because a wide range of practice methods and means are required depending on each practitioner’s capability.
 The Korean word for lunch has Buddhist origin and literally means “putting a dot on one’s mind (點心)”
* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "Introduction to Ganhwa Seon" published by the Bureau of Dharma Propagation and it is contained in the autumn 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 16~22.