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[Intro to Ganhwa Seon] 16. Gongan, Gochik and the Middle Way

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Writer Jogye Date03 Nov 2016 Read18,091 Comment0


Chapter 4. The Ways to Investigate Hwadu in Everyday Life

2. Gongan (
公案 public case; J. koan), Gochik (古則 old standards) and the Middle Way

What is Gongan or Gochik

Hwadu is also called as “gongan (公案)” or “gochik (古則)”. Gongan means absolute norms and standards like official documents of government offices. In other words, it means that practitioners should observe gongan as absolute and universal norms. Gong () of gongan also transcends the concepts of public and private. So it is universal norms which can be applied to everyone regardless of time and space. In line with this, gochik refers to universally appropriate standards which also go beyond when and where. Go ( old or ancient) is used to highlight it is right, universal and fair rather than just old. It also includes irreversible standards set by enlightened Seon masters of ancient times. Hwadu transcends ordinary words. In addition, gongan, hwadu and gochik are fair so there is not even a single space for judgmental thinking or prejudices. Seon practice according to these three guidelines can lead practitioners to enlightenment. Hwadu is bestowed by Seon masters upon their disciples. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch or records of Seon masters show that most of practitioners trained through Seon encounter dialogues with masters attain enlightenment immediately. However, if a practitioner fails to be enlightened, a life-or-death practice begins with the teachings of Seon masters as hwadu. Seon master Gobong said undertaking hwadu without immediately attaining enlightenment upon given hwadu is what ssukmaek, (a Korean word which describes someone who cannot even distinguish between beans and barley), does. In other words, it is unwise to try hard to eliminate afflictions and delusions for enlightenment because we are originally Buddha and complete as enlightened beings here and now. Seon master Unmun also highlighted that it is like leaving a scar on perfect skin. Even so, however, we should question hwadu deeply and keep on our practice because it is very difficult to be enlightened as soon as hwadu is given. We need to reach the point where we can attain enlightenment immediately by dedicating ourselves to Seon meditation. Investigating hwadu should not be based on ordinary thinking. Superficial knowledge is not allowed in Seon practice. With this reason, “In order to enter this gate (入此門來), do not give rise to thinking (莫存知解)” can be easily found on one-pillar gates or columns of Buddhist temples in Korea. Trying to judge and understand hwadu based on conceptual thought is what practitioners should refrain from the most in the community of Seon. 


Investigating Hwadu and the Middle Way

Ganhwa Seon, though it was devised in the Song Dynasty, is basically about correctly understanding the Middle Way and dependent origination of the Buddha. The Middle Way refers to the state of not being attached to the literal middle point itself as well as two conflicting extremes. The principle of the Middle Way cannot be illustrated with words, however, is just called the Middle Way nominally. Hwadu of Ganhwa Seon is closely linked to the structure of the Middle Way. Words and thoughts are cut off in the realm of hwadu. Investigating hwadu is about experiencing the truth which the Buddha awakened to through a conundrum-like question without ordinary words or thoughts. Here is a good example that shows similarity between hwadu and the Middle Way.

When asked whether a dog has Buddha-nature or not, Seon master Zhaozhou answered “No ()”. In this case, understanding “No” as “Yes”, “No”, “Yes and no” or “Neither yes or no” is all wrong. The four alternatives (四句) include all forms of thoughts, however, they cannot take us to the truth. What Buddhism emphasizes is going beyond the four alternatives and correctly understanding the Middle Way. The process of undertaking hwadu does not allow any forms of thoughts and judgment. You simply experience it. The only way to know whether the water is hot or cold is by drinking it. Likewise, Seon meditation is about actually experiencing the realm of truth through hwadu. All the thoughts are completely severed on the path toward experiencing the truth as they are for the Middle Way.

An anecdote from The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch describes the similarity between hwadu investigation and the Middle Way. The Sixth Patriarch Huineng became the bearer of the transmission from the fifth patriarch Hongren. One late night, he sneaked out of his monastery, worrying about potential harm against him because he was just a very young practitioner and not from the most leading and influential group of disciples. Sensing this, many pursued Huineng to take the robe and alms bowls bestowed upon him as symbols of the Dharma seal of enlightenment away from him. A monk named Huiming managed to hike a steep mountain and almost got close to master Huineng. Throwing away the robe and bowls, Seon master Huineng said, “This robe symbolizes truth, therefore, cannot be fought over. Just take it with you.” As Huiming came up and tried to hold it, however, the robe did not move at all. Shivering out of fear Huiming said, “I came here for Dharma, not for the robe. Please show me the truth.” Seon master Huineng said, “Where is your true nature when you do not think of good or evil?” Upon hearing this, Huiming immediately attained enlightenment. Trying to take the robe away from the master is evil and asking him to show Dharma is goodwill. However, master Huineng told Huiming not to think of good or evil, showing the wisdom of the Middle Way where all thoughts are cut off. In other words, what master Huineng said is hwadu. As such, both the Middle Way and hwadu investigation are based on the shared fundamentals. Questioning hwadu clearly illustrates the practice of the Middle Way which the Buddha emphasized. 


3. Three Essentials for Investigation of Hwadu

What Does It Mean to Investigate Hwadu?

The process of arousing great doubt and immersing oneself into hwadu is called “hwadu chamgu (參究)”. Cham means engaging in or entering () and gu means ultimately reaching the truth (). So chamgu means thoroughly and desperately delving into hwadu. In other words, practitioners should immerse themselves into hwadu with full concentration instead of theoretically analyzing it as an object. All in all, chamgu is about causing great doubt on hwadu, concentrating on it and becoming one with it. Another expression to describe questioning hwadu is “raising or lifting up ()” hwadu, meaning raising hwadu in one’s mind figuratively. In addition, the verb “study” is also used to mean cultivating one’s mind through study on hwadu. Finally, to “create (in one’s mind)” is employed to illustrate the process of completely digesting hwadu as one’s own.

There are the three essentials (三要) for successful investigation of hwadu without delusions. The three essentials put forward by the eminent Seon master Gaofeng Yuanmiao (高峰原妙 1238-1295) of the Yuan Dynasty had significant influence on Ganhwa Seon practice. The Essentials of Seon (禪要), which includes the three essentials, is taught at Korean monastic colleges as part of the required curriculum, playing a pivotal role in Seon practice of Korea. As a matter of fact, it is safe to say that the focal point of The Essentials of Seon lies in the three essentials. Then, what are the three essentials for smooth and pure investigation of hwadu? They are great faith (大信心), great resolution (大憤心) and great doubt (大疑心). The three essentials are like a tripod, so even a single element should not be missing. 


Great Faith (大信心)

Great faith is to firmly believe that we are originally Buddha. It is about great optimism. It is also unshakable belief that we have Buddha-nature within and already Buddha as we are. Ven. Seongcheol, one of the eminent Seon masters of Korea, also highlighted that we have all kinds of everlasting truth in our mind as follows:

“Let us see the true nature of ourselves. The truth we seek is already within our mind. Seeking the truth outwardly is like looking for water out of sea. There is no end of our true nature. Those who don’t know the true nature of themselves worry about the end of the world and wander around out of fear. The true nature of a seemingly ragged and malnourished person is dignified and noble. Feeling pity for someone based on looks is one of the worst insults. All beings deserve respect as they are.”   

Ganhwa Seon originates from the faith of “we are originally Buddha”. Our true nature is clearly confirmed here and now because we are inherently Buddha in the first place instead of changing ourselves from sentient beings to Buddha. To this end, the solid belief should be held. Even though we are suffering from agonizing pain caused by temporal delusions and misguided judgment, we all are Buddha originally. The original Buddha within is the true master of our mind. The one we have missed for so long is in our mind, not waiting for us outwardly. The master is always looking after us and sympathizing with us in our pain with graceful smile of Buddha. Steadfast faith should be put in this truth. There are two more kinds of faith in Ganhwa Seon. One is firmly believing and learning from Seon masters who clearly confirm the truth that we are originally Buddha. The other is having confident belief in the truth that hwadu is a means of the Buddha and Patriarchs to just show us our true nature and original Buddha-nature in the form of words and we can be enlightened by shattering hwadu and thereby seeing our true nature. Unshakable faith should be placed, instead of a halfhearted one. We should be reminded that Ganhwa Seon practice can progress according to how solid our faith is.


Great Resolution (大憤心)

Great resolution is the feeling of frustration over and pity for ourselves because we end up being fooled in the realm of sentient beings, while not seeing the truth that we are originally Buddha which Patriarchs have kindly taught us. Let us think about our everyday lives. We are sweet and kind as long as we feel comfortable, however, we can easily see ourselves mired into the trap of greed without noticing it. We regret our wrongdoings for a while but fall victim to greed, anger, jealousy and momentary pleasure when exposed to worldly seduction. Sometimes blinded by short-term profits, we hate and fight against others. We try to have more than others and are prone to be stressed out and get angry when something goes against our will. It is all because we see others as objects of our own desire. So we become disappointed, betrayed and jealous, if others don’t follow our intention. In some cases, we are divisive and criticize those who have different opinions without thoughtful consideration. Then, a careless word hurts the feelings of others deeply. We, too, live with scars that others left to us. This is what is actually happening in the realm of sentient beings.

Now, we need to renew our mindset and have great resolution in ourselves suffering from the vicious cycle of sentient beings by clearly seeing Buddha-nature within, building on the teachings of Seon. The Buddha and Patriarchs attained enlightenment and rooted out all sources of pain and afflictions. But why do we have to live everyday haunted by anxiety, feel unease and unhappy and fail to be enlightened, even though we are originally Buddha? Why can’t we realize the simple truth of our nature? By asking these questions to ourselves, we need to make and develop great resolution. The steadfast commitment to attaining equanimity and peaceful mind which we originally have should be stronger, so that we can sever the vicious cycle of desire, ignorance and anger. Investigating hwadu with great resolution solidifies our inner capability for enlightenment.  


Great Doubt (大疑心)

Great doubt in Ganhwa Seon refers to thorough doubt which doesn’t allow even a tiny gap. With great doubt, we can continue to fully concentrate on hwadu, while not being swayed by any external stimuli. As highlighted repeatedly, hwadu is words but not words with all the paths of words and thoughts cut off and thoughts before thoughts arise. It cannot be comprehended through any reasonable and logical ways of thinking. As soon as a thought comes to our mind, we end up being on a wrong direction. At the very moment when a word is spoken, attachment comes along. In the face of hwadu, even a subtle connection with thoughts is cut off with no trace left behind. The existence or nonexistence of hwadu cannot enlighten us at all. It cannot be caught or released. With this in mind, practitioners have to completely devote themselves to investigating hwadu. This is great, somewhat desperate even, doubt on hwadu. With great doubt, our mind is solely focused on hwadu. Great doubt doesn’t imply there is “small doubt” when it comes to hwadu questioning. When undertaking hwadu, we should not allow even subtle traces of thoughts. Therefore, it is thorough and great doubt. According to how committed, seamless and eager to shatter hwadu we are, the influence of great doubt in our mind is exerted. If hwadu is shattered as a consequence of great doubt and encounter with truth, we are reborn as an enlightened being of true nature, while previous sentient beings are gone. Seon masters attain enlightenment when great truth becomes vivid. In that decisive moment, breakthroughs of hwadu ultimately come along. We cannot completely immerse ourselves into hwadu investigation if one out of the three essentials, namely, great faith, great resolution and great doubt, is missing. When having steadfast faith in the truth that we are originally Buddha, great resolution for our true nature and thorough doubt on hwadu, our mind is wholeheartedly dedicated to attaining enlightenment by questioning hwadu deeply. The three essentials should be repeatedly reminded whether in daily lives or even when we concentrate on hwadu. By doing so, we can gain a momentum to truly understand hwadu and the truth it intends to teach us and be in perfect unison with it, finally laying the groundwork for attaining wisdom.

 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 winter 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 14~20.

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