by Venerable Muyeo, February 22, Buddhist Year 2548
(Congratulatory Speech at the Ceremony for the newly appointed Spiritual Leader of the Meditation Center)
Hello! How nice to see you all here. Today I would like to talk about “How to Approach Hwadu Practice.” How can we study hwadu effectively?
That is the question! The purpose of hwadu is to help practitioners break through views based on conceptual understanding of the dharma and so to ultimately return to the source of all discriminative thought.
These days we are experiencing economic hardship, political uncertainty, and social disorder in our country; such factors cause a lot of people take refuge in places like temples and meditation centers.
A few years ago, I read an article about the Pope in Rome being greatly displeased by priests in the east who were doing Asiatic religious practices. Recently I read articles in the newspaper with titles like: “Meditation is the latest trend”; “Now the age of practice has come.” Regardless of whether a person is Buddhist or not, practice is appropriate and inspiring for the future of mankind. It is my belief that for us to live decently, to live in a healthy and contented society, the age of practice, the age of the truth, and the age of wisdom have to come. Those of us who are very much concerned about the future of mankind seem to find great hope in Buddhism and to believe that Seon Buddhism, in particular, will play a major role.
Practicing Seon, following the way of the Buddha, and studying the mind, these all mean the same; they all mean practice of the mind. For this is the ultimate study. The Buddha gave 84,000 dharma talks over the course of 45 years. These teachings are very profound. If I had to sum up all 84,000 dharma talks in one sentence, it would be “Study your mind, and then you will also become a Buddha.’
Accordingly, if you devote yourself completely to practice, you will find real happiness and fulfillment. We refer to most people and other living things as “sentient beings.” They do not see the world correctly as it is and have many thoughts based on ignorance. This impure mind is compared to a gloomy sky filled with black clouds during the rainy season. It is murky like midnight. This is the world of sentient beings. On the other hand, the world of Buddha is extremely light and bright. Sentient beings’ minds are under the spell of darkness, so we can’t see the real truth. Our judgment is distorted. Therefore, whatever we do seems to be very troublesome and so we experience many difficulties. This is the reason that we refer to the realm of all living beings as an ocean of suffering.
The eye of your mind cannot open without wisdom. One day a person may say, “I’m going to work,” or “I’m going to school.” And then go out and never return alive. You cannot predict what will happen. Likewise, the realm of all living beings is also unpredictable and we cannot even see what will happen in the next moment. We, human beings, tend to think that we are superior to all other creatures. But from the realm of the bright light of the world of the Buddha, we are blind, unable to see. So pitiful! Thus the Buddha was very compassionate toward us. What can a blind person possibly want? Money? Fame? Power? Of course, money, fame, and power may be needed but the most essential requisite of a blind person is the restoration of sight. For a blind person, the life long wish is to see. Likewise, for ordinary people, the most essential thing is to open their minds. Nevertheless, ordinary people suffer from many problems that make it very difficult to cultivate practice. In spite of this, people should try to study their own minds any chance they get for this is the only way to practice.
Then how do we study our mind? Mind has no physical form. It is not an object. So you cannot cleanse it as you clean the floor with a mop. Changing impure thoughts into bright ones is the practice of the mind. Then what is the main factor that pollutes our minds? What is the original cause? It is worldly desire and delusion. Because of these two things, people agonize, struggle, and are anxious and restless, thereby tarnishing their minds.
So how do we cleanse the mind of worldly desires and delusion? By practice. Take the example of the ocean. When it is very calm and tranquil, the water is very clear; you can even see a few meters down. But when there is a typhoon the water becomes turbulent, and so turgid and very dark. Then we cannot even see one meter down. Nonetheless, once it calms down again, it becomes once more clear and bright. Originally our mind is inherently calm. In the absence of worldly desire and delusion, it naturally becomes clear and bright, and then we can wake up. It is for this reason that our ancestors said that the best way of practicing is to just rest the mind. Just empty it! Just put it down! Emptying, resting, and putting down all mean doing away with nonessential thinking. Do not let your mind-ocean be tossed about by typhoons. If it becomes disturbed, go back to letting it rest. Rest it again and again and again.
The Buddha said that when you rest your mind and let go of your thoughts, you will attain enlightenment. Completely resting and letting go is being enlightened. That is the orthodox method. In ancient times, Master Linji said, “Resting is the pure embodiment of the truth and the Law (Dharmakāya).” This resting place is the Buddha’s seat. Therefore, rest, rest, rest and rest again, and then the final resting place is the state of Buddhahood, a state often referred to as Nirvana. It is where all of our worldly desires and delusions are totally burnt, are completely melted away after which all the fire is gone. This is the state of pure tranquility or serenity. In this state, there is no life or death for it is the state beyond life and death.
Once, long ago, there was Chan Master Wuye(無業). People asked him, “Sunim! Sunim! Give us dharma!” And then he said, “You fools! Just let go of your illusory thoughts. Dharma talks are illusion as well.” When your thoughts disappear, then your Original Face will appear. So while you are practicing, even if the Buddha himself were to knock at your door, ignore him, and if an enlightened patriarch comes to your window, ignore him as well. Just empty your mind! But it isn’t easy. Why is it so difficult? The minds of sentient beings are crammed with worldly desires, cravings, and illusions. So whenever we move or speak, we only fall deeper into the world of desire and delusion, which keeps us in the state of sentient beings.
To make things worse, parents these days are putting too much focus on early education. Certainly education is important, but from dawn to dusk, children are forced to just study and with the knowledge gained from their study, they hope to make a living. What makes this modern world move is nothing but knowledge! So modern-day people are full of paper knowledge. Without paper knowledge, it is very difficult to live these days. The true nature of knowledge is delusive. As a result, mankind has been living a very abundant, convenient life, and yet more and more people are feeling desolate. Ironic, isn’t it? Hence as society develops, people must practice. For modern-day people, it is becoming a necessity; if they don’t do it, they are going to get hurt.
There are several ways to practice. One of the best methods is hwadu, sitting meditation. So what is a hwadu? It is a big question. It is a big question that the practitioner must solve. Hwadus are teachings handed down from our ancestors and patriarchs. They are not just words, but contain very important wisdom. Hwadu Seon contains the essence of all patriarchs and of the three Buddhas’ teachings from the past, the present and the future. Therefore, if you solve the big question, hwadu, you awake to Buddhahood. This is why receiving a hwadu is one of the best ways to practice.
Recently, some people have become critical of hwadu practice without really knowing what they are talking about. If criticism is based on good intention, it is favorable. But this form of criticism is useless. Hwadu is something you must experience and only after experiencing enlightenment can you say what hwadu is. Without the actual experience, a person should be cautious in making any comments.
One form of hwadu practice is Ganhwaseon. You cannot underestimate the greatness of Ganhwaseon as it is the way to the deep state of hwadu. Other methods are still elementary and it is difficult to go into them. We feel that Ganhwaseon is one of the best practice methodologies in the world. So everyone here should also study, inherit, and preserve this methodology and so devote him or herself to bettering the future of mankind. Ganhwaseon is difficult but if you have a good teacher, he will show you the proper way so that it is not so difficult.
In spite of this, some say that Ganhwaseon is not a proper way of practice for modern people. Why? Because these days, people are less spiritually powerful than people in ancient times. Nowadays people haven’t even had any kind of initiation to spiritual practice, let alone firm faith. In addition, they are not eager to study, and cannot honestly devote themselves to practice. People with inferior Qi (Ki or energy), weak minds, and no firm faith require something they can depend on in practice. That’s hwadu. As a lame person needs a wheelchair, a person who can’t swim needs a boat to cross a river, and a blind woman needs a cane, in the same way, modern people need to depend on hwadu in order to practice. In any case, the principle of hwadu study is the attainment of awakening, where a practitioner seeks an inexpressible answer, and leaves behind all discriminatory thoughts. Thus this study or practice requires the teachings of good teachers or masters. Now how do we study hwadu?
Firstly, you need to have Great Doubt. You must have this big question: what is hwadu? Who or what is the Buddha? You ask yourself these big questions and abide in Great Doubt because you do not know the answer. Hwadu is not about thinking. Hwadu is not about memorizing. Only keep these big questions in mind. Great Doubt is your guide. Without Great Doubt, there is no hwadu. Through Great Doubt, you can truly awaken. Through lesser doubt, you will awaken only to the extent of your doubt. Without doubt, you won’t be able to attain awakening. So, you might say that the essence of hwadu practice is having this Great Doubt.
Secondly, you must be eager to take a hwadu. According to one ancient Seon master, the character “Ganjeol(ch. 恳切 kěnqiè: sincere desire)” in Korean can be sufficient to explain the taking of a hwadu. Now then, what does it mean to take a hwadu with sincere desire? It means to take it as if your very life depended on it. If you are starving, you can only imagine food. You can only think about food whether you sit or stand. Likewise, the hwadu practitioner must concentrate on the hwadu as a starved person thinks of food, or as a thirsty traveler lost in the desert thinks of water. That is the kind of desperation with which you should focus on your hwadu.
Thirdly, when practicing with a hwadu, perform the practice diligently without any interruptions. From dawn to dusk, do not drop the hwadu, not even for a second. Focus on it without rest, without interruptions, continuously. Whether you are happy or sad, coming or going, sitting or standing, whenever and wherever, focus on your hwadu, so you will not lose it. If you get interrupted, then it is not the proper way of practicing hwadu. Even for a short time, if you are interrupted, this is not the genuine way of practice. So when you take a hwadu, you should always practice without any disturbance, not even for a nano-second. This is a bit difficult for people living in the mundane world, but it is essential to let the hwadu saturate you. Because of this, the sages of old used to say, “Focus on your hwadu as a hen sits on her eggs.” The hen might feel extremely hot during the summer. Maybe she does not even need to sit on her eggs continuously because it is very hot during those months. Still, she stays continuously. Why is that? Because she knows the eggs have to be kept warm for 21 days, or they won’t hatch. This is how you must practice with your hwadu. Completely devote yourself to this practice, then you may unexpectedly attain awakening. The practitioner must be persistent and relentless, diligent and sincere. Do your very best with all of your strength! When you devote yourself to the study or practice of the mind sincerely and genuinely, then it will be truly productive and bear unexpected fruit.
Once a sage said that practicing hwadu can be as easy as turning your hand over. Others have said that it is like touching your nose when you wash your face. When you wash your face, of course you will touch your nose. Practicing hwadu can be easier than this for it will provide you with the fastest passage to awakening. So that’s the study of mind. It can be that easy, but if you become lazy and just practice whenever you feel like it, then you will have a difficult time and walk a very thorny road. But if you practice with great sincerity and all of your heart, without any interruptions, suddenly one day you will attain your hwadu. Then you will be motivated by Great Doubt. At that stage, you won’t be able to let go of your hwadu even if you want to. You will concentrate on your hwadu, and you will complete it day after day.
So when you have this Great Doubt, real study is on its way. Yet when most people practice hwadu, their progress is sporadic. The hwadu becomes clear one day, and then the clarity fades away. It seems to be ripe but then it is not quite ready. This practice has many ups and downs and is called, “fabricated hwadu(做作話頭).” In this state, you are forcing yourself to practice with the hwadu and so the doubt is fabricated and is the result of beginning practice without the proper motivation, or lacking faith in the practice itself. You must be lionhearted when practicing hwadu or it will be very hard for you.
How should you go about motivating yourself for this mental initiation? Ask yourself, “Am I really ready to take a hwadu?” For your state of mind in setting out is extremely important. What state are you in? You must be truly inspired to take a hwadu with sincerity and a wish for freedom. You must be motivated with great certainty. You must have the mind of Bodhi, the mind that wants only to awaken. “Bodhi” means “awakening”: seeing your True Nature and attaining enlightenment. Having the firmest determination to attain Buddhahood is the motivation needed in hwadu practice. Maintaining this motivation is the greatest and most important task. Maintaining unshakable determination, thinking only about the hwadu, no matter what happens, until your last breath, with all your heart and mind, this is the motivation, the mental initiation essential to beginning hwadu practice. So sages of old warned, “There is nothing more important than firm determination for attaining enlightenment.” However, even the firmest determination doesn’t always open the door to enlightenment.
So what else is required? Secondly, you should be confident that your hwadu practice will lead to attaining Buddhahood. You must have complete faith in your inherent Buddha Nature. In this life time, as a human being, I am a Buddha, just like Sakyamuni. My True Nature is the same as that of the Buddha. While practicing, do not allow your discriminating mind to distinguish between the Buddha and your present form. True wisdom starts from this faith and ends with this faith and so the practitioner must keep this faith at all times. With true faith and confidence, you can cross the big ocean of rebirth. Many people take rice as their main basic food. But for the practitioner, the staple food is confidence. As people die if they don’t eat, so the practitioner without faith is not a real practitioner. So faith is like the root of a tree which, when it is thick and strong, enables the tree to withstand wind and rain and so grow. The fruits of your practice are in direct proportion to the strength of your faith.
Thirdly, a person experiencing frustration with his or her hwadu should keep a certain kind of angry mind. Like this; “Why can’t I attain enlightenment? Why not me? For generations, many patriarchs and Seon masters did it? Why not me? So many people have awakened. Why not me? Because I am not a monk?” The way of Bodhi does not know the difference between monks or lay people. The way of Bodhi does not discriminate gender. The door to the dharma is open to anyone. So, why not you? This great angry mind should be sincerely channeled directly into the hwadu; this may lead to an unpredictable awakening. Thus some sages used to tell people who had a hard time with hwadu, “You are not worthy of the food you eat.” One monk said that if you can’t practice hwadu in your dreams, then you are not a real practitioner. Hwadu study will work only if you put everything into it.
Among the Buddha’s disciples, there was a disciple named Chulapanthaka. He was not considered to be very bright. He could never remember a single stanza of the Buddha’s teachings. He tried and he tried but he was unable to retain a single word. Then one day the Buddha asked him to sew a robe from small pieces of cloth and as he sewed he was asked just to say, “It will become dirty!” With this he attained enlightenment and became an Arhat despite being simple, through his constant, steadfast effort. When you look through the sutras, there are several scenes where the Buddha spoke highly of Chulapanthaka.
He is an example of the fact that everyone can wake up. So, why not you? Just do it. If you have hard times then write the two letters, “Seong Bul” on your forehead. The letters mean, “To become a Buddha, as a bodhisattva does on reaching supreme Bodhi.” Put the words on and make every effort with intensity, practice hwadu! hwadu! hwadu! For a person who can’t focus on a hwadu must study vigorously, intensely. Without Great Doubt, you are confused, distressed, and so you must focus on the hwadu more vigorously, more intensely. Especially if you are filled with thoughts of inferiority or if worldly desires appear in your mind, then you must make an even more vigorous, intense effort. You should get enough rest, but don’t sleep too much. Do not allow yourself to become confused, but keep your mind clear and vital, your eyes full of energy, your willpower soaring. Even when faced with extreme difficulties, maintain courage and conviction, practice with all your heart. Then you are a true practitioner.
In Seosan City, on the west coast of Korea, there is a tiny temple where the famous Seon Master Gyeongheo Sunim once stayed. It is written that in that temple, Gyeongheo practiced intensely for a year. He started on the first day of the New Year and ended on the last day of that year. After each meal, he sat down, and practiced and practiced very hard. Some people wondered if he was really alive! All year around, he didn’t take time to change his clothes, or to take a bath, or to wash his face, or to cut his hair. He only ate, used the toilet and carried out only the most essential activities for staying alive, and continued his practice without any interruption. During the heat of the summer, while he was practicing, a big yellow snake came crawling into the hall where he sat. The snake crawled up his back and stayed there for some time. A young nun passed by the hall and when she saw the snake she cried out, “Teacher! Teacher! There is a snake crawling on your back.” But Gyeongheo just sat there, still as a rock. The snake stayed for a while, then crawled down and went on its way. Later, he stressed that that sort of determined concentration is essential to bearing the fruits of practice.
Fourthly, when studying, be wise, be clever! That is, practice sensibly, properly, and intelligently. All wisdom is being implied in this sentence. So if you are wise, you can attain Bodhi, you can attain Buddhahood; otherwise, it will be difficult to face life and death. You should be cautious about the following. First of all, even though you have the best intention, you also need to be mature in your practice. You should listen to the hwadu carefully and grow in maturity. You should not be satisfied with any stage of hwadu practice. You must continue studying and so deepening and ripening as you go. Secondly, embrace your hwadu in isolation. Maintain a proper mixture of being satisfied and, at the same time lonely. It is quite possible that you experience loneliness but, on the other hand, if you only strive to be perfect and satisfied, or even think that you are beyond perfection, then your mind will become confused, which will lead to vulnerability to worldly desires and to delusion. So hwadu practice requires that you maintain the equilibrium of the Middle Way.
This is the shortest path to awakening. When practicing hwadu, do not waste even one second. Continuously, as a hen sits on her eggs, as water flows, without rest, focus on your hwadu without any interruption. Then, your effort will be fruitful, your mind and body will become light and contented. Take your hwadu even into your dreams, and you will attain wisdom, a mind clear and full of intelligence. Then you will naturally understand all sutras that you previously found incomprehensible. Even the analects, which in the past you might have considered dry and complicated, you will absorb without the slightest difficulty. In this state a practitioner may say, “Wow, I have awakened, haven’t I? I have finished my study!” He or she is dying to let other people know of the experience and so drops many hints and waits for people to ask for an explanation of the teachings. However, even at this moment, the practitioner shouldn’t be satisfied and should merely renew the commitment, redouble the effort, and keep practicing. After attaining a little wisdom, thinking you are enlightened is like trying to burn Mount Sumeru to the ground with fireflies.
Once you pass the phase of taking your hwadu into your dreams, you are at a wondrous and mysterious stage. One day while you are studying, the wall of the room disappears. You can see outside. When you carefully concentrate, you can see things much more clearly. You can see distant places, maybe a few hundred meters away, or a few thousand meters away. In this phase, it is very difficult to control yourself. You can see the ocean in Incheon, even if you are in Jogyesa Temple in Seoul. Anyway, this astonishing power can hold you back from your real study. And what is this real study? The real study is the art of distinguishing, perceiving, recognizing, discerning, understanding, comprehending, the mind and it leads to intelligence, knowledge, science, learning . . . wisdom. There are no longer any differences in things far away and things nearby, high and low; you have the ability to see through everything. When you reach this phase, problem will disappear. For example, if you suffer from stomach troubles, they will disappear. If you were weak then suddenly you will be able to walk all day long without getting tired. You will even be able to read the mind of passersby and see, “Ah! He has this thought and is going this way.” Tasks that once seemed difficult will become very easy. Some practitioners even gain the mysterious ability to control their own life and death.
At that time, do not fall into the trap of thinking you have reached the end. If you fall into that trap, you will just end up enjoying your attainments while your practice wastes away. Such abilities are only part of a passing phase on the way to your final destination. Therefore, you should refocus your mind on your hwadu, study more diligently and continue more vigorously, and then you will be able to soar higher. When your practice goes well, you can feel abundant and profound enjoyment from hearing and meditating on the Buddha’s teachings. This is not just a feeling of happiness or pleasantness, it is an inexpressible feeling. Even if you feel this way, calm yourself down and steadfastly continue so that you will be able to enter the next level. Sometimes, you might feel so happy, it makes you unconsciously shout or jump around, and it is hard to control yourself. And what is the culmination of this feeling? Nirvana.
According to the Buddha, Nirvana exists ten billion realms to the west of Samsara which is the wheel of life and death, this world. Even if you don’t attain the state of Nirvana, you will experience peace of mind. You can experience this peace at an elementary level and there will be no more worldly desires or delusions. You will be happy, comfortable. The feeling, the peace, the enjoyment from hearing and meditating on the teachings will give you the experience of real happiness and the richest of fulfillments. As your practice matures, you need to be cautious and always lower yourself. Be humble, be considerate of others. While practicing this way, your study will deepen with more and more success. You will make progress day after day, month after month. However, most practitioners want to go out and proudly show their tiny achievements, so it is difficult for them to continue. You must always watch yourself.
Confucius, 551-479 BCE said, “Even if you can’t examine yourself three times a day, you should do so at least once.” What kind of person am I? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What do I need to change and improve? Everyday you need to make yourself better, as a sculptor works clay. You need to note any shortcomings or vulnerabilities, and begin to address them. Thus today’s “I” is better than yesterday’s “I” which will be better still the day after tomorrow. So try to renew yourself every day and observe yourself carefully as if you were looking at your palm. You must know yourself well. Practice is the fight against yourself. When you overcome yourself, when you know how to control yourself, you can truly focus on practice. Your progress depends on how well you can understand and control yourself.
These days it is rare but in the past there were many zigzag unpaved roads which made driving difficult and dangerous. Like a driver negotiating such a road, you must dedicate yourself to your practice while controlling yourself with wisdom. This is the proper way to practice. Often people say, “Change your fate.” People are born, grow up, get married, have children, build a career, make some money, and die. Each person has his or her own scenario. That’s what we refer to as fate or destiny. But each person’s scenario can be rewritten through practice. So depending on how you practice, your life will change. Even if you are born with a bad outlook, you can live a life full of good fortune. You might have an embarrassing and painful life at present, but you can turn everything around. To do so, you must think of your practice as an essential and necessary task. Put all of your strength into it. There is no need to say whether you should or shouldn’t study: if you don’t, it will be your loss. Why? Because it is the source of real happiness and fulfillment. Without it you can’t talk about life. And life is worth all of your effort. Everyone, please be energetic and try hard together! Thank you very much.
* A hwadu is the punch line of what most westerners know as a koan. A koan is a story of enlightenment and the final line is the hwadu. It is a riddle that cannot be solved by the discursive thinking mind – the mind of categories, concepts, language, and logic, which dominates worldly life. By concentrating on the hwadu, the practitioner slowly realizes the limits of the discursive thinking and gradually moves into higher modes of consciousness that are 1) unbound by categorical thought, and therefore inexpressible in language, and 2) conducive to directly experiencing reality, and therefore one’s True Nature. As such, the hwadu requires not an answer so much as a demonstration that it and the practitioner are doing their work. Whether verbal or physical, this demonstration might appear to the outsider to be a non sequitur. However, the teacher has the capacity of interpreting the answer so as to determine the depth of the student’s realization. If undertaken without proper guidance, hwadu practice can be psychologically dangerous. Those interested in practicing with a hwadu are strongly urged to do so only with the help of a trustworthy and qualified teacher.