I would like to thank you for coming today just for this little commemoration of the founding of Kilsang-sa monastery. There is always so much happening here, so many gatherings. As this year comes to a close, as I was coming here today, I looked back and reflected on the marks I’ve made, asking myself, “How have I lived this past year?” Namely, I’ve looked back on this year and reflected on whether I’ve lived well or not.
The world we live in is certainly neither a paradise nor a heaven. It is a “saba (skt. saha) segye”, or saha world. “Saba segye,” is not a world where one lives by giving bribes to officials (n.b.- In Korean, the verb “saba saba” hada is a colloquial term meaning “to bribe an official”), rather, this is a word that comes from India and it means a world where one can only exist by enduring and suffering. Thus, in Chinese characters, it is also referred to as the gam in world [gam withstand and endure].
There is a saying that time does not come, but rather goes. We have a very visceral sense of this. Yet, don’t get carried away by such talk. In reality, ‘time’ is something that is neither coming nor going. It is the people, things, and images within time that are all coming and going. To use the expression of philosophers, time exists in and of itself. It is something that is, something that exists. This type of thing is not something that flows along. Within this time, it is we living beings who ourselves are coming and going, always changing. When we refer to that which is called “transient” or “ephemeral,” it is not time itself that is constantly changing. We speak of “ephemeral” because we live in a world that we ourselves cannot predict, because of the changing world that is never constant.
In our one lifetime, one year fades and passes in just the same way. As one year changes, young people have another year added to their age. But for older people, that one more year of age is part of something that continues to dwindle away. This is why our lives are so regrettable and disappointing if we waste time on trivial, worthless things. Like flowing water, once time passes, we can never get it back. The reason why we must live well and without regret in each and every moment lies precisely in this fact.
If you go to certain meditation halls (Seonwon), you’ll find a sign there that says, “Life and death is a matter of great importance; Everything is fleeting and impermanent” (saengsa sadae musang sinsok). Our living, right here and right now, is exactly “life and death.” The stuff of being born and dying within this one moment is present in our consciousness that is not focused; it comes and goes, flowing, wandering without purpose. This is exactly samsara, the cycle of life and death. This kind of “life and death” is something of such great importance in our lives. Within this cycle, what is it that is always interrupting our lives? It is impermanence (musang), fleeting impermanence. No moment ever lasts longer than just that, a moment. It is ceaselessly changing. Because we are living within these circumstances, if we can’t properly control our thoughts, we skirt off on the wrong path. Similarly, if we properly concentrate our thoughts, we can enter onto the right path. We must live each moment well and without regret. Living life indifferently simply will not do, because every moment that passes is time that we can never get back.
Some time ago, somebody told me an interesting anecdote. This person had gotten into a taxi wanting to go to Kilsang-sa when the driver said, “Ah! That rich peoples’ temple?” For some time now, he words “rich peoples’ temple” have become my hwadu (key phrase of meditative absorption). When this temple was founded eight years ago, there was a lot of criticism regarding churches and temples, because they were getting so lavish, with over-consumption, over-abundance and excess. I expressed my wish that it would be a good thing if the temple were a bit poorer.
Though this was just the perception of a few people from the outside, when I heard the words “rich peoples’ temple,” it gave me a heavy heart. You all remember how the newspapers and television raised such a clamor when Daewongak, a former gisaeng house and high class restaurant, was converted into this temple eight years ago. They would talk about the market price for the size of the land, guessing how many hundreds of millions, or worse, how many billion of won it could be worth. One paper then came out with a figure of some hundreds of million won, and from this I think the perception was set that this place was a “rich persons’ temple.” It’s no wonder that for some time now I’ve been receiving so many letters from every direction. The contents of these letters all pertain to people asking me to help them out financially. When I get these requests, from people who take it that the temple is my own personal possession, I really feel hardpressed.
What on earth does “rich person” really mean? Doesn’t everybody want to become a rich person? If you look in the dictionary, “rich person” is defined as “someone who is well off,” “someone with much wealth.” The definition comes across very clearly and concisely. That’s exactly what a dictionary is, something that defines things in just this way. As we all know, our proverbs come out of the agricultural society of the past when we lived by farming. If you look at a collection of proverbs under the heading “rich people,” you’ll see the following, “Rich people are greedier.” You often hear the same thing today. Though of course not every rich person is greedy, compared to poor people, it is saying that a large number of them are indeed greedier. Even though they all have more than poor people, they are stingier. There is another saying, “Even if rich people go bankrupt, they can go on living at the same level for three years.” This speaks to the fact that they have accumulated so much. To put it in contemporary terms, there’s the saying that “even if a conglomerate goes bankrupt, the chairman remains completely unaffected.”
But now there is also the saying that “even the rich face bitter sorrow.” When we speak of rich people, we are not talking about those without worries and anxiety. Think of how many tears they have choked back, how many pains they’ve endured striving to become rich. In a sense, it is owing to their experiences facing poverty that they have concentrated all their energy, their entire being, without regard for anything, scraping together whatever they could such that they were able to become rich.
There is another proverb, “If a rich person gets angry, three towns are ruined.” When I first saw this, I was thunderstruck. If a rich person was angry, could three towns really be ruined? Of course, you should keep in mind that this proverb comes from our agricultural society of the past, and thus, this “rich person” must have been a huge landowner. At the end of the Joseon dynasty and during the Japanese colonial period as well, if there was a bad landowner, the tenant farmers would be exploited to no end. Indeed, these neighborhoods faced so much exploitation that, “if a rich person got angry, three towns were ruined.”
When I was looking up these proverbs about rich people, it forced me to think about what kind of relationship there was between the conglomerates of today and these rich men of old. The desire of humanity knows no end. It has no end. Thus, when we look to the sutras, we see that “desire is precisely the foundation of the endless cycle of samsara.”
This desire refers to an excessive greed, a greed that exceeds our fair share. It is that endless ambition that makes one want to accumulate more than what one needs on their own plate. How much is enough? Those greedy people don’t know how to be content. But this is not only true for those greedy people; we here today also don’t know how to be satisfied, even when we have plenty. So, is it such that we are only happy to the amount of our possessions?
Though there certainly is a correlative relationship between happiness and possessions, our happiness is not satisfied in direct proportion to them. Happiness is never something that comes from the outside. Like a fragrance, happiness issues forth from within one’s mind. Though living within exactly similar conditions, as some people live blissfully blessed with happiness, aren’t there so many others living swamped in dissatisfaction? We cannot measure our happiness by our possessions.
The whole world without distinction wants to become rich. This is a very instinctual wish. We all want to live comfortably and well. In order to become rich, aren’t there people who will take any means necessary to do so? What is it that is referred to these days as ‘globalization’? This is the forced marketization of our world, coming the United States and the other great powers, the intention of which is all centered on making themselves even richer. This is yet another strategy of economic invasion.
This is something that exists in our society too. Consider the nouveau riche, the parvenus who exist in every society in the world. Not acquiring wealth by means of their just effort, are they not the ones who engage in some sort of speculation and then suddenly become rich? Sudden wealth brings people misfortune. This is because it is something beyond their fair share. Though we only require enough to fill our own plates, we sometimes try to fill our cups with amounts that could fill a huge jar, and thus it overflows. Sudden wealth brings people misfortune.
For example, there is the public lottery, the Lotto. Many people buy these tickets quite often, and most of the time it all amounts to nothing. But then one morning, when they announce that somebody has won millions of dollars, everyone envies the winner. They think, “Oh, I’ve got to go buy myself some tickets, too.” One morning that winner went out and bought a few tickets and this small act turned into a multi-million dollar prize. However, from that day forward, the winner becomes unhappy. It’s a simple matter of course, that’s been shown over and over no matter where or when in history. The winner becomes estranged from social relations. He or she is alienated. Moreover the winner loses the meaning of the life he or she has led so far. Because so much money had appeared so suddenly, the winner is severed from the discipline that had sustained an entire life up until now, the steadfastness, the sweat and toil of one great effort after another is now gone. The meaning of life is lost. Added to this, a distance grows between these winners and their close friends and family members. Can they ever sleep? Wondering always how to protect all this money and how to spend it, they can never get a good rest. There is nothing in this world that can be got for nothing. If you encounter a sudden windfall, without a doubt you will end up facing an unexpected misfortune. This is the karmic relationship of cause and effect. A lottery prize is just such a windfall, it is unearned income. If you come upon a windfall, you will face a sudden calamity; misfortune is so easily summoned. Material gain is just that kind of thing. Money is not something that comes to one alone. Undoubtedly, a dark shadow also follows nearby.
A long time ago, I heard another story. It was about some monk who had won the lottery after engaging in prayer. Now, when I heard this, it was some twenty years ago and supposedly it happened at some temple in South Jeolla Province. Anyways, this monk who won the lottery, though he had always prayed so sincerely in the past, after his windfall he totally changed from how he had been in the past. It was said that he had forgotten what it was he should be doing. First, he bought his ordination master a car as a gift. Then he bought one for himself. From that point on, his thinking totally transformed. It was all because he had suddenly come upon so much money. By this point, when his eyes met with those of a comely young lady in the village near the temple, he went so far as to get married. Later, I heard that he had become a taxi driver. When money comes completely out of the blue, inevitably people come to misfortune.
Now, poverty is never a noble virtue. The pure poverty we speak of today is an honest poverty that reminds us to avoid our excessive greed and to live within our means. We talk of pure poverty in order to escape excessive waste and loose spending, to live a pure, humble and snug life where we have just as much as is necessary; it is not poverty itself that is a noble virtue. We must all live well. If at all possible, we should all live together as rich people. But in this world, the haves are greatly outnumbered by the have-nots. Moreover, from a structural point of view, there are many who are deprived of their share because of those who take it away.
Then what is it that we can call a genuine “person of wealth”? It is a person who cultivates virtue whether their possessions are great or few. What is virtue? It is consideration for one’s neighbors. It is sharing what you have with your neighbors and friends. The wealth that is given to us does not issue forth from a wellspring, nor does it originally belong to us. When I came into this world, I didn’t come carrying wealth. Moreover, when I’ve lived as much as I’m going to live and it is time to bid farewell, I won’t be able to take anything with me. It is simply that according to some karma, some of the wealth and gifts of the universe are entrusted to me for a short time. If we know how to manage this wealth correctly, we can prolong it, and it continues for a long time.
If we don’t understand this truth, if we cannot manage this situation correctly and we come to lavishly squander our wealth, before long we will face the withdrawal of these riches. What do the police or prosecutors do? They are just waiting to reclaim that wealth. This is structurally enforced in society. Thus when it passes that some riches have arisen into our lives, we must think about it very cautiously. Because, these riches are not mine. These riches are nothing more than that which is briefly entrusted to me. Even those things that I can say I’ve earned properly, these too are merely entrusted to me. This is because originally it was never mine. Thus, if I use it properly, virtue is being cultivated. If I don’t use it well, my happiness will be diminished.
We need to become people who live while cultivating virtue, whether we own a little or a lot. People who can share what they have with troubled neighbors, these are people living well, or, if you will, “rich people.” Everything is ephemeral. This is what “impermanence” means. There is nothing that continues forever. Though you say someone is rich, there is no way that you will always be able to say this. Now you may say that someone is poor, but there is no way you can continue to say that forever. Something that is transient, something that is transforming, what kind of possibility does it hold? What it can do is this: though people can indeed accumulate wealth through their willful efforts, all the lavishness they have come to enjoy can also be cast away to ruin in a very short time. This is the cold, hard truth. There is nothing eternal. Everything is fleeting.
When we’ve lived as much as we are meant to live, and it comes time for us to depart this world, what is it that remains? Please consider this for a moment. This isn’t the work for others, this is a task for all of us. When we have lived out our lives, when the time of our lifespan is exhausted, do we not have to face the final summons? At that point, what remains with us? Does our house continue with us? Do our offspring? As there is nothing that remains with us forever, those things can never have been “mine.” In some way, they are unrelated to me. What here lives on of this solitary self of mine? Those many offspring we’ve made, the many possessions we’ve accumulated, or whatever riches we’ve acquired, we cannot take any of it with is.
What is it then that we take with us? It is the karma we’ve created through our habits. Now, this karma I speak of is not only negative karma. We’ve brought about both positive karma and negative karma. The karma we’ve created through our habits follows us just like a shadow. When we’ve lived as much as we are meant to live, and it comes time for us to depart this world, there is nothing we can take along with us. Don’t we also cast off even our bodies as well? But what is it that will be following us? It is that karma which we have cultivated in our habits while living every single day of our lives. Whether it is wholesome or unwholesome karma we’ve created, it is but karma, following us like a shadow. Thus, to use the expression of people in India, karma is nothing other than “that which is creating our future lives.”
But all of this doesn’t just come about all of a sudden. It is created as things pile up, one by one on top of another. Consider for example the case of the three or four year old child who composes and performs some exquisite piece of music. This is not something that comes about overnight. This is a capacity that has been accumulated over time in a past life, budding like a sprout when the opportunity to do so arises. As another example, the monks here today are the same. For those whom this is the first time they’ve ever shaved their heads and taken up residence in a temple, they fail to take permanent residence here and some twenty or thirty years later, many will end up as taxi drivers. But for those who have been monastics for many lifetimes, even when they die, they never leave the path. Karma is this type of thing.
Is there anyone who has ever seen a want ad recruiting monks or nuns? From the time of the Buddha until now, there have never been wanted ads for monks. Theology schools recruit theology students. Thus are clergymen and pastors made. But Dongguk University [a major Buddhist university in Seoul] is not a place where monks and nuns are trained. This is a regular educational institution that happens to be founded by the Jogye order of Korean Buddhism.
Even though no one is bidding them to come, when the time comes, people will voluntarily walk into a temple on their own to become a monk, motivated by some decision on their part. Even when no one is waiting for them to make that decision, they act as if there is no time to spare, no more time to speculate. Why on earth can this be? It is all the fruition of actions that have ripened in past lives.
This kind of thing is not only applicable to monks. It is true for all people. It is all due to this ripening. Thus, the mind we carry, the actions we engage in, and the things we say day in and day out, all of these things are direct influences on the type of future lives we will have. None of this is created for us by someone else. By our own efforts, as we live each moment to moment, we are making our next self.
Since some call Kilsang-sa a “rich peoples’ temple,” it behooves us to reflect upon whether or not that designation is justified. The monastics who live here and the practitioners who come here should all reflect on this together. Is this indeed the type of temple that deserves to be called a “rich peoples’ temple”? When you become a community grounded in strong faith and determination, through vibrant practice and righteous cultivation, sharing your happiness and sorrows with the most downtrodden, as you look after one another, it is only at that time that this temple will be worthy of its name (kilsang: auspicious, fortunate) and it will become an auspicious rich persons’ temple.
To everyone who has come here today, more than I hope you become rich, I sincerely hope that you become people who live well. Please live well. Without living like a rich person, please just live well.
December 11, 2005, Commemorative Dharma Service for the 8th Anniversary of the Founding of Kilsang-sa