His ordination name was Wolmyeon (meaning “the face of the moon”), his dharma name Mangong. He stood as a renowned disciple of Master Gyeongheo. Together with Masters Suwol (meaning “the moon in the water”) and Hyewol (meaning “the wise moon”), the three earned their nickname as “the three moons of Gyeongheo.”
“Master Wolmyeon, ‘there is one place where every truth returns, but where on earth does that one place go [“the ten thousand dharmas return to the one, where does the one return?”]?’ It is said that if people knew but this one thing, not a single obstacle would obstruct them in all affairs. It should only go to say, what in this world does this all mean?”
Ten years after his entrance into the sangha, facing this question from someone who looked three or four years younger than him, the 21 year-old Wolmyeon suddenly saw everything in front of him turn pitch black. Up until this point, he had spent his ten years at Cheonjangsa Monastery, taking care of the odds and ends of temple life, chopping wood, making rice, doing laundry and such. Sweating with the labors of his formal studies, he hadn’t even had a chance to learn, let alone even hear such questions as “what is Seon?” and “what is earnest devotion?”
However, in facing the questioning of this young person, Wolmyeon’s single hwadu had appeared. Whether day or night, sleeping or eating or doing work, inside his head one thing and one thing only occupied him, his vexing on the hwadu: “though there is one place where every principle returns, where on earth does that one place go?” But the work required of him to serve his elder monks continued to pile up, and he was never able to devote himself fully to his proper studies. So, he left Cheonjangsa and took up residence at Bonggoksa.
One July day, after having already passed through two winters at Bonggoksa, Wolmyeon was leaning against the wall, staring at the wall opposite him on the west side of the room. The condition of “no thought” (munyeom) had arrived. This Master who had devoted himself so diligently to his hwadu was now without even a single idea about it. As if a wall had suddenly disappeared without a trace, he experienced the appearance of the irwonsang, a great circle symbolizing the inherent unity of all things.
His posture not easing even in the slightest, he continued his devoted practice and when dawn broke he went about as normal, carrying about the duties for the morning meal. He struck the temple gong, breaking the darkness, and recited a set of verses. “If you want to know all the Buddhas of the three worlds, you must come to know that all laws are created by the mind.” At that moment the boundaries of delusion fell away. In the sounds of the temple bell, the darkness that clouded his eyes revealed light. The sound of the gong had opened his eyes of wisdom. This was Master Wolmyeon’s first enlightenment experience.
However, his master, Master Gyeongheo, cautioned him that this kind of awakening was not a complete enlightenment. He encouraged Wolmyeon to devote himself to investigating Zhaozhou’s “MU” hwadu. What is Zhaozhou’s “MU” hwadu? This hwadu is based upon a dialogue that occurred a long time ago, when a monk asked of Master Zhaozhou, “does a dog also have the Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou replied “Mu!” [Ch. wu, which can be interpreted as “not,” as opposed to “no,” hinting that the question itself is wrong; and also can be interpreted as an onomatopoeia of a dog’s bark]. This exchange is the substance of one of the most powerful hwadu, as the “MU” hwadu stands out as one that has brought many masters to enlightenment.
Wolmyeon took on the “MU” hwadu and returned to his travels, touring many different meditation halls, always practicing always with ferocity. It was during this period, in 1901, that he came to the isolated Baegunam Hermitage, located on Mt. Yeongchuk in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do Province. It was here that one day, while caught in the monsoon and forced to spend a whole month doing absolutely nothing but meditation, the world came crumbling down in an instant as he heard the sound of the morning bell, until ultimately the orginal mind of the universe had appeared. At the age of 30, Wolmyeon finally had achieved his great awakening.
Following this, together with a dharma transmission verse, he received the name “Mangong” from his master Gyeongheo and became one of the main disciples inheriting his true dharma and core teachings. He was 33 at this time.
He then practiced at the major meditation hall of each famous mountain, starting with the Mahayeon Hermitage at Mt. Geumgangsan. While residing at Mt. Deoksungsan in Yesan, Chungcheongnam-do Province, he refurbished Sudeoksa, Jeonghyeosa and Gyeonseongam Hermitage and cultivated a sparkling coterie of disciples. With the renown of his efforts spreading far and wide, Master Mangong uttered these words in front of mirror after performing the evening meal offerings one day in 1946, “This guy Mangong! Though we’ve shared our lot for this past 70 some years, today is the last day. You’ve worked hard and done well.” At the age of 75, after 62 years as part of the sangha (beomnap), he entered nirvana.
His disciples, including the monks Bowol, Gobong, Hyeam, Jeongang, Geumo, Chunseong, Byeokcho, and Woldam and the nuns Beophui, Manseong, and Iryeop, among others, formed one of the major Seon lineages in the modern Korean Buddhist community. Especially notable here is the presence of nuns among his disciples. Based on the Buddha’s teaching that if women practiced they could also become Buddhas, Master Mangong taught bhiksuni (female monastics, nuns) without discrimination. It created quite a stir when Iryeop, who at that time had become famous as a “new woman intellectual,” was influenced profoundly by Mangong and became ordained as a nun. In addition, the enlightenment of his disciple Beophui, the first nun to receive a dharma transmission, when compared with even the great male Seon masters, nothing was found wanting. In making it clear to us that on the journey to find one’s true self, there is no separation between “man” and “woman,” and through understanding his disciple’s capacities and his unstinting leadership and guidance, Master Mangong shows us his eyes of wisdom.
Mangong left behind not a single written work. The only thing left to us were his Seon teachings given to his many disciples. However, his disciples compiled a volume of his dharma talks, and from this we can catch a glimpse of Mangong’s thought.
Though there is a strong emphasis on “having to find ‘I’” in the dharma lectures of Mangong.Since the Buddha rejected “I,” elucidating the idea of “no-self,” why would Mangong be saying, “You have to find your “I”? What is the “I” that must be rejected and what is the “I” that must be found? The intellectual core of Mangong lies precisely in knowing the true nature of this “I” that must be rejected and the “I” that must be sought.
The “I” that we usually think of is the “I” who answers back when someone calls out, “Hey you!” However, is the answering mouth “I”? Is the eye that sees other people, “I”? Am I my feet or legs? Is my brain “me”? If not, is the mind that thinks of “me,” “me”? What in the world is the thing we call “me” and “I”?
Stepping back from this line of thought for a moment, let’s take another look at an object we can often see in our daily surroundings, the bicycle. What is a bicycle? Is the front-wheel the bicycle? Is the chain the bicycle? Are the pedals or the handlebars the bicycle? What we call a bicycle is the thing made of the parts enumerated above, something a person mounts, puts both feet on, and then is propelled forward by the spinning of the wheels. Strictly speaking, “bicycle” is something that we all agree on to call such a thing. Thererfore, if for example, this thing were missing a front-tire, or the handlebar, or the chain, or any other one single thing, then it could not be a bicycle. You only call something a bicycle when all conditions for doing so are met. Suppose it has been thirty years now that this bicycle has been ridden. So, if I were to now dispose of this bike, could I call the wheels I separate from it a bicycle? What about the chain I saved, can I call that the bicycle? No. We don’t call that a bicycle. That thing is simply a wheel or a chain. Because it now fails to meet the conditions for being a bicycle, there is now no longer a bicycle. This is precisely the “true nature” (silche) of a bicycle.
Now, let’s return to the question of the “I.” The “I” that says “yes” in response to the sound of someone calling, the “I” that is reading this right now. That’s right. This “I” too is simply the name we give to a temporarily existing “I,” something arising only when the proper conditions are met. It’s just like our bicycle, still briskly riding along.
Exactly as in the situation with the bicycle, when all of the parts come together a bicycle is formed, when each of the parts disappear the bicycle itself disappears, this arising and disappearing based on certain conditions is referred to in Buddhism as “dependent origination” (yeongi). As a result, when we think of this “I” that originated dependent on certain conditions instead as something that has a fixed and unchanging essence, it is here where our numerous attachments arise and intensify, and it is these things that are referred to as “afflictions” and “delusions.” Mangong said we should reject the clump-like “I” in this kind of fantasy and that the “I” we must search for is the “true I” or “true self.” This “true self” is not the self that is based on the conditions of dependent origination, it is “self” in name only, having no fixed essence.
This “self” is nothing other than the clear recognition of the fact that existence is dependently originated, this knowledge itself is the “true self.” Therefore, this “true self” is different from the atman concept of Indian philosophy. The atman is a concept from a philosophical perspective, meaning something like “ego,” or “individual self,” or soul. Having meaning as a “true form,” something “traversing the universe with immanent magical power,” it is an object that continues eternally. This draws a stark contrast with the conditions of dependent origination, so thoroughly discussed in Buddhist thought.
Now we know that the “I” spoken of by Mangong is something different from both the “I” that we normally think of as well as the atman spoken of in Indian philosophy. Mangong went on to also say that when one thought arises, the totality arises and that when one thought is extinguished, the totality is extinguished. He said that when the thought of “I” arises, in the time of one breath, a universe is created and destroyed. When there is thought, the entire universe appears, when thought disappears, the foundation of the universe is immediately returned to nothingness. The “one mind” (ilsim) is precisely reality. This is the totality of existence.
In order to ascertain this “true self,” Master Mangong stressed that we must practice Seon meditation. Therefore, he exerted all of his energy leading his disciples in proper Seon practice. It is perhaps because of this, and also because of the dangers inherent in the tendency for the meanings of words and letters to become fixed, that Master Mangong left behind no written works.
Therefore, he settled upon the “observing the hwadu” (Ganhwa) method of Seon meditation that totally rejects theory and speculation and observes with the spirit of “no discriminating mind,” (musim), always teaching his disciples to investigate Zhaozhou’s “MU.” In these anecdotes I’ve given you today, you caught but a glimpse of the Master’s teachings, seeing how they aimed at leading his disciples to experience truth each for themselves, in the way that the Buddha personally experienced the truth of reality. As for the rest of his teachings, I’ll have to promise that for the next time we have a chance to meet.