The meaning and essence of Seon : Gou

A Dharma by Venerable Gou Sunim
I wish to talk about the meaning and essence of Seon, which is the meaning of meditation. As it is not an easy topic, I will first talk about the essence of Seon.

The essence of Seon is impossible to discuss or even to speak about, let alone listen to. I cannot show the essence of Seon using the spoken word. Therefore I will resort to another method. I will explain the essence of Seon by the metaphor of the finger pointing to the moon. I hope you can see the essence of Seon by this objective explanation.

Let me give some examples of Seon. The Awakened One exposes the essence of Seon to an audience. Even though we are enlightened on the spot, it is like scratching ourselves until there is a tumor; we had better leave the itch alone. This is the actual essence of Seon.

Practice, attainment or awakening to something, all of these sayings are superfluous. They are like a snake’s legs. If a snake has legs, it can’t crawl and so they are useless.

But most people understand Seon as merely investigating hwadu. This understanding is actually wrong.

What on earth is Seon? Do we need Seon in our life? Do we really have to practice? Whether we do or whether we don’t, what difference does it make? We need to think these questions over carefully. Why do we practice Seon? Are we doing Seon because we have too much time on our hands? Why do we practice Seon? If we didn’t practice, what would happen, what would be the difference in our lives?)
Well… First of all, let us think over these questions seriously. Why do we have to do Seon? After knowing the answer then we must ask how we should do it, if we feel we have to.

These two things we are going to investigate today.
What on earth is Seon? You are listening to my talk now. This is Seon for Seon is not something else. You are listening to my talk and looking at me. This is exactly what Seon is. You are Seon and your self is that very same Seon.

Let me put it in other way. Seon is the Buddha and the Buddha Nature. These words are the same. The Mahaparnirvana Sutra says, “All sentient beings and non-sentient beings have Buddha Nature.” And in early Buddhist sutras it is said that “All existence be it form or formless is the result of dependent origination,” and “Seeing dependent origination is seeing the dharma, and seeing the dharma is seeing the Buddha.” That is to say, existence is equal to dependent origination; dependent origination is equal to the dharma; and the dharma is equal to the Buddha. That is, the Buddha is equal to the existence of beings and beings are the same as the Buddha. We are Seon itself and the truth itself.

You have to know this before you do Seon, meditation. If you think “I must practice Seon in order to become a Buddha,” this is wrong. If you do Seon in this way, it wastes time and does not work well. The being itself is Seon and it is also the Buddha. You have to accept this from today. This is the saying of the Buddha. I have given you examples and explained, “All beings have Buddha Nature” from the Mahaparanirvana Sutra and “Seeing the dharma is seeing the Buddha” from the Agamas. If you don’t listen to the Buddha’s words, you don’t need to come here. So don’t waste your time.

You should often reflect on the saying, “All beings have Buddha Nature.” If you think of the Buddha Nature as simply part of your body, whether it is the mind or your character, this is a grave misunderstanding. The Mahaparnirvana Sutra describes the Buddha Nature, it describes Buddhahood, “The Buddha Nature neither exists nor does it not exist. It is neither present nor not present, and as this duality of existence and non-existence comes together, it becomes the Middle Way.” You do not see the Middle Way but you tend to always see just one side, this is the existence of the Buddha Nature. Therefore you may think that grass includes some gold, this little bit of gold being the Buddha Nature and the rest not. But you are wrong for the grass is the Buddha! Even the grass! This body is the Buddha, and this mind is the Buddha. Even though this is true, we do not think our body is the Buddha.

To think that we will become a Buddha through practice or study is not right thinking. We are inherently Buddhas. We consist of the same substances and the same functions as the Buddha. We are not different. But we are not aware of this because of our illusion. What illusion is this? This illusion is that we have a self. So now, if we know that we do not have a self, then we are a Buddha. And now, if we apprehend no-self, then our functioning is the same as the Buddha. It is not at all different. But, if we just believe “I am a Buddha” without clearly understanding the fact, this is nothing but blind faith. It is blind faith without understanding and so it is very dangerous. As soon as we really know why we are a Buddha, we will save time on practice and decrease our suffering – which has always merely been caused by our delusion anyway.

How is it that we are all Buddhas? This is important. Understanding this naturally follows on when we know we are a Buddha. Let me explain more carefully so that you can understand.

As I mentioned before, the Buddha taught us, “Whether with or without form, all beings exist relying on dependent origination. Thus, the person who sees dependent origination sees the dharma; the person who sees the dharma sees the Buddha.” This can be interpreted in another way, “Everyone exists in the Middle Way.” If you think now of existence or of non-existence, it is because you think you have a self. You are reborn and you exist. Everything is thought of and presumed by “I.” Why on earth does this “I” exist?

You know the words of the Heart Sutra, “The five aggregates are all empty.” Do you remember? What are the five aggregates? They are matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. Matter is here not only referring to the body but to everything having form. It is called “rupa” in Sanskrit. If you think only your body is matter, then the rest of the aggregates, namely sensations, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, are mind, aren’t they? By the way, the Heart Sutra clearly states, “The body and mind are all empty.” But why do we think we have an “I”? If you believe that you have an “I,” it is not according to the Buddha’s teachings. If you do not want to believe in the Buddha’s words, you don’t need to come to the temple. When we accept the Buddha’s teaching, we can be disciples of the Buddha and we are then qualified to come to the Main Buddha Hall. Many people don’t agree with this, and then they go and pray for good fortune, even going as far as to ask for a giant amount of money to fall from the heavens or blah blah blah… No way, it’s wrong!

You should accept the fact that there is no “I.” It is because beings exist relying on dependent origination. This truth was explained in the Flower Garland Sutra (the Avatamsaka Sutra), the Lotus Sutra (the Saddharmapundarika Sutra), the Diamond Sutra, in the Theravada School and in Seon.

Seon, in particular, emphasized experience and became the one tradition of Buddhism which continued the theory of an inherent Buddha Nature. Therefore, Seon is considered by many to be a good vehicle. Other doctrines accept different expedients or methods for awakening, like a finger pointing to the moon. But Seon does not admit these systems. Only the moon is important; the pointing finger is not admitted. This is a characteristic of Seon.

It is empty because of dependent origination. There is no “I.” So the Buddha teaches us that there is no permanent self. As we are taught that this is our existence, let us experience Seon, and then think about what the difference is between the experience of Seon and living in delusion. Previously I clearly said that there is no big difference in the aspect of function between the Buddha and us but we are not aware of it because of our illusions.

Let us look at it another way. Suppose you and I each pursue happiness in our own way. Then there would be several ways to pursue happiness. But the fact is that we are all searching for happiness externally. Sakyamuni Buddha was born as a prince and so he lived in fine conditions. But even though the conditions were good at one time, they are changeable so that good becomes bad and bad becomes good. It is thus a conditioned happiness.

What kind of happiness can we hope to experience in the awakened world after knowing no-self? The Chinese Seon master, Wu-men, asked his audience, “After knowing the world of no-distinction, what comes up to the Awakened One? What is going on in the Awakened One after awakening to ‘emptiness’?” This is very important. But nobody answered. Then Master Wu-men said, “After awakening to emptiness, every single day is a good day!” That the good and the bad come and go is not true happiness. This is not complete happiness. After we know no-self, emptiness, dependent origination and the Middle Path, our life and thoughts should be good every single day. And then every single day becomes a good day and everything we do is good, too. Even “birth, ageing, sickness and death” are good. When you chant in front of the Buddha, we often hope for good health, not to grow old and not to die. Actually even though I don’t wish to be confronted by old age, sickness and death, I will be inevitably. But if we know emptiness, dependent origination and our inherent Buddha Nature, then we become wise and we know that birth, ageing, sickness and death are the truth.

In the small retreat hut where I stay, there is a large window through which I can see the beautiful mountains. In winter the scene is all white, covered with snow; in spring everything is growing new buds; in summer there is shade from the trees; in fall the colorful autumn leaves are so wonderful to look at. I have never felt that this living picture is bad. I enjoy the natural changes of the seasons. This is the same as birth, ageing, sickness and death. Look at these natural things, ageing and death, as if they were the changing seasons.

If we all knew our inherent Buddha Nature, then our world would not be as chaotic as it is. All around the world, there are many wars and all the problems continue. I have heard that more than 100 countries in the world allot large portions of the national budget for waging war and military protection. If all this money was put together then the total, even without the American budget, would save all the people in the world who are dying of hunger and disease.

You may think “What is this monk talking about? He seems to be talking as if in a dream.” No, I am not talking as if in a dream; my ideas are possible.

Many people fight and enter into confrontations which continually lead to reactions which lead to another war. Even at the time of the Buddha it was the same. The country of the Buddha’s clan was small and it continuously suffered from the aggressions of its neighbors. Then the Buddha thought about how all beings could live in peace and harmony together without war. Finally the Buddha found the answer: beings themselves are born in this way, they cause the wars themselves.

Thus, I used to say to my disciples whenever they visited me after finishing their meditation retreat. “From history we learn that we should know that the only way to world peace and freedom from conflicts within the society, within the family and between individuals is the Middle Way, which is the Buddha’s teaching!”

I’d like to talk now about the Buddha’s teaching in clear and simple terms. The teaching of the Buddha has changed our world history and our personal history. You have to accept this!

Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh visited Korea. He contributed quite a lot to the boom in Buddhist practice in Seoul. And His Holiness the Dali Lama’s books are dedicated to Buddhist practice as well, though I did not read one of them. I met and talked with the Dalai Lama for three hours in Dharamsala. By the way, Tibetan Buddhism is definitely different from Korean Buddhism. In short, Tibetan Buddhism is an expedient form of Buddhism. One Finger! Tibetan Buddhism is equivalent to this finger, while Korean Buddhism tends to see the moon more directly thanks to the Seon tradition. This is a main trait of Korean Buddhism.

I heard that the book Anger written by Thich Nhat Hanh sold a lot. This book presumably tells about how to calm yourself down at the moment of anger. Let us consider whether the Buddha was ever angry after attaining enlightenment.

At that time the Buddha was living in Northern India and wandering around barefooted. After wandering from village to village, he would settle near one village for taking a rest under the trees that are often found outside the villages of India, even today. On one particular occasion, he did not receive a warm reception, and even then he did not get annoyed or turn his back and return the way he had come. At that moment, one old man called out to the Buddha and so he stopped to answer. The man said, “Everyone is upset in this kind of situation and their faces changes and they get annoyed. How come your face didn’t change at all?” The Buddha said, “When I was visiting the previous village before coming here, I was welcomed. And they asked me for advice and so I taught them as best I could. Then all of the people brought me gifts. But I did not need those things and so I gave them back. But as soon as I reached this village, your people yelled at me. As I did not take the good things, why should I take the bad things?” The Buddha was not angry at all.

The Buddha transcended the “I” and the “you.” He always said, “The state beyond duality is our True Nature: it is to see Buddhahood and to attain enlightenment.” Heterodox people condemned the Buddha’s sayings, “His words are obscure. They neither exist nor do they not exist, it is all nonsense.” They came to argue and even to attack the Buddha. They would come to see him with confidence in their arguments. But the Buddha didn’t respond at all, he just smiled. Then they became angry and spat at the Buddha. Ananda, the disciple who looked after the Buddha, felt upset. But the Buddha said to them, “Have you finished?” Finally they gave up and went away. Then, the indignant Ananda asked the Buddha why he did not scold them. On hearing this, the Buddha said, “I felt compassion for them just now, yet now I feel more compassion for you.”

When we function in the duality of “you” and “I,” we respond with anger or hatred. How, after all, did the Buddha react? He reacted with compassion or loving-kindness. What is compassion? What is loving-kindness? Loving-kindness is to give pleasure to others and compassion is to share other’s suffering. Loving-kindness and compassion both purify and settle our own emotions and so unite with our True Nature. Thus, the function of his reaction was not dislike but compassion and so anger had no place. This is Buddhism. When anger does not appear in this kind of situation then this is Buddhism. From today on, whenever you get angry, you should feel ashamed of your self. This is the way to love yourself. If you hate or get angry with someone, this is nothing but cruel treatment of yourself. It is a self-insult. When you didn’t know this, you may have thought that you would feel better after responding with anger. But this is wrong. This is an insult to yourself. There is a saying in the Platform Sutra, “See your mistakes rather than seeing others’ mistakes.”

This is not merely a formal set of words for worldly life. Even though someone insults you, it is completely up to you whether you accept it or not. Thus, this is the way to learn to love myself. Some of you may misunderstand that Buddhism is to sacrifice yourself. Many people think Buddhism is a self-sacrificing religion. This is not correct. Buddhism is not the teaching of sacrificing myself but of loving myself. Therefore, the person who loves him or herself can love others with compassion. To help others is to help myself; to help myself is to help others. I am talking about the function of Buddhahood.

There are several differences between Korean Buddhism and Southeast Asian and Tibetan Buddhism. We have an inherent Buddha Nature; only the moon is the essential reality. The finger pointing to the moon is just a method and not the real substance. Only the moon is true.

Let me give one more example. A man who used to empty the night soil saw the Buddha and approached him. The man was from the lowest class of the lowest caste. So he felt so sorry to even look at the Buddha, even though he was pleased to see him. This was because he thought of himself as mean and lowly and he knew that the Buddha was from a noble caste. The man’s thinking was based on a differentiation between “you” and “I,” pure duality. This is really a self-insult as well. We are living with many self-insulting thoughts through our wrong views. The comparing mind comes from this duality, from “you” and “I.” The night soil carrier was insulting himself when differentiating between lowly and noble; thus it was painful for him to see the Buddha and so he ran away. But the Buddha followed him. And finally the man could not run any further and so he said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, why are you following me? I am in such agony at seeing you.”

The Buddha said, “When did I torture you? Did I insult or beat you? Why do you think that it is I who makes you suffer?” The man replied, “I am a lowly, miserable person. How can I dare to come to see one such as you? I cannot even get close to you let alone sit next to you. Being this close to you is already difficult to bear. Please, don’t follow me or come close to me.”

The Buddha said, “You have the wrong idea. The caste system was made for powerful men so that they might be served by people like you. It is not an inherent way. When a baby is born, it is neither lowly nor noble.”

Then the man said, “How can I think otherwise with my terrible job of carrying night-soil?” The man considered his job to be low. And so the Buddha said, “You seem to be so concerned with what is noble and what is low. Why do you concern yourself about such things? Why do you stick to your delusive thoughts? Why don’t you see things as they are? Since you attach so much importance to the noble and the mean, I will explain it to you.”

“Even a king, even a noble man can be annoying, this is what we call lowly.” The Buddha continued, “The man who does a job disliked by others is noble. You are such a noble man.” After this explanation, the man was no longer scared.

Heaven and hell are in our minds. This is included in my talk today. For we should think, how can we be happy with what we think and with the way we live? Even Sakyamuni Buddha suffered before renunciation. After renunciation he found various principles such as dependent origination which I mentioned earlier.

Racial, ethnic and religious conflicts are serious problems in the world of today. These conflicts are due to attachment, egoistic attachment, and the bias that only my idea is right. The 6th patriarch, Hui-neng, taught, “Don’t think of virtues and don’t think of vices. In this state what is your True Nature?” In this state, no vice can come up when compassion or generosity arises. It is not a matter of destroying or dispelling vice. This idea is wrong.
When I deliver a dharma talk, some of you may think I have very negative views about wealth and power. No, it is not that I am negative, and neither was the Buddha.

And I will tell you another story. In the Diamond Sutra, the Jetavana grove which is also known as Anathapindika’s Park is described. Anathapindika is the name of the rich merchant, Sudatta, who donated the Jetavana monastery to the Buddha. Anathapindika was a man who cared a lot for the poor and homeless. He was a very rich man. How rich he was! Before building the Jetavana monastery, Prince Jeta, who owned the grove, agreed to sell it on one condition which was that Anathapindika must cover the grove with gold coins. You know what happened. He did it! Anathapindika covered the whole grove with gold coins and was able to do so because he was so rich.

As he listened to the Buddha’s teaching he began to feel ashamed of his wealth. Then he consulted the Buddha. He said, “If I cannot practice your teachings because of my wealth, I will give everything to the poor and then I will study.” He was a man who deeply understood the Buddha’s teaching. Such a man is very rare indeed. Many people want much more, which is a real problem. On hearing Anathapindika’s words, the Buddha said, “May you have even more, even though you are already very rich.” This means that he deserved much more because he was such a wise man.

Many people live in luxury; they waste their money and do bad things. In this case the wealth hurts them. Those kinds of rich people are common in our society. And some of them even look down on and harm the poor. But, Anathapindika did not harm others with his wealth but did everything he could to help others. He had such a great capacity. Where does this capacity come from? It is because he transcended the limited mind of “you” and “I.” As the duality is transcended, such a capacity appears by itself. After that, whether a rich person or a poor person, the haves and the have nots, he or she comes to live in the Middle Way.

The Diamond Sutra describes this value in these words, “A good man or a good woman performs as many charitable acts of self-denial as the grains of sand in the Ganges in the morning, and again performs as many at noon and in the evening, and continues to do so throughout numberless ages. On the other hand, a person who learns and practices would be more blessed and of incomparable value.” Though we do not practice everyday as we should, we must know that learning the Buddha’s teaching and living in this way we are happier than living with attachment and greed and with the egocentric duality of “you” and “I.”

We should know the value of the Buddha’s teaching and therefore necessarily practice. The main reason is that as we are born in way we should return to our True Nature.

For instance, when you have a machine which works well and it starts to malfunction, then you should repair it and make it work properly again. It is the same for us.

How can you bear to waste your life not living up to your full capability! Therefore we should live up to our potential and see our True Nature.

Until now I have concentrated on the reasons for learning the Buddha’s teaching. Now I wish to talk about the best and most efficient way of recovering our True Nature. This is the very Seon that we practice. Ganhwaseon is the Seon of holding a “hwadu.” I did not say that it is to have doubt but I said that is to hold. Holding! I presume many people understand hwadu practice to be focusing the mind or focusing on a question. Is there anyone who does not practice like this?

Most people think that they are doing hwadu just in order to focus on a question. Generally people think this way. Almost 90% of the people that I have met think this way. But, hwadu is neither for focusing the mind nor for asking questions!

This is very important. What is hwadu if it is not for focusing the mind or for asking questions? The original expression, “doubt hwadu,” was first used around 1000 years ago. One of the representatives of this view was Master Ta-hui who is my favorite Seon master of the Chinese Chan tradition. He was the one who actively insisted on the practice of Hwadu Seon. He really began to teach the investigation of the question. What else did the previous masters teach? Let me give an example by going back a further 250 years, this means around 1250 years ago. Let me talk about Venerable Ma-tsu. Unfortunately I have never seen any records written during the life time of Ma-tsu. How did they teach Seon or, as we call it, Patriarch Seon? Let me give one example from Venerable Neukdam. One day Neukdam-Beopi went to see Master Ma-tsu. He asked the master, “What is Seon?” Then Ma-tsu answered, “I can’t talk about this in public.” After saying that Ma-tsu looked at Neukdam-Beopi. Ma-tsu saw that Neukdam was wondering what the master was talking about. Current masters might say, “Have a question, then bring your answer.” But Ma-tsu did not talk like this. He said, “Come again tomorrow.” Thus, Neukdam visited Ma-tsu early the next morning. As he was very curious to know the answer to his question, he couldn’t sleep all night. He kept mulling over the meaning of “I cannot talk about this in public.” He spent the whole night wondering what the master had meant. He kept thinking, “I asked about Seon but the answer was not related to Seon. Because he said that he could not talk about Seon in public… What do these words mean? What is it?” It was because of the “don’t know” mind with which naturally doubts arises. But often people hold a hwadu in order for doubt to arise or in order to focus their mind. No way! It is wrong! Holding the doubt for doubt’s sake is wrong! It is the reverse. This is important. Maybe in those days of the great Seon masters they did not actually say to keep the doubt. I believe they did not really say this.

I am not saying Master Ta-hui was wrong. In actual fact Ta-hui said, “Do have doubt about it,” which means that the practitioner doesn’t know and so Ta-hui himself might not know that answer to the question, so he would say to the practitioner, “Have doubt about it.” Ta-hui did not say to hold a hwadu in order to have doubt. We have misunderstood.

And so Neukdam went to Ma-tsu and said, “You told me to come today. Please, tell me what Seon is.” And Ma-tsu said, “I didn’t talk yesterday because of there being so many people present. But, I cannot talk to you today as there are not many people present.” He said the opposite.

This includes the principles of existence of all beings. Sometimes the principles of existence are said to be like this. “Is no-mind truth or is the everyday mind truth?” These words were recorded in Seonyo, Essential teachings of Seon. This is the actual saying, “I will not talk because of the presence of many people, or I will talk only as many beings are present.” This hwadu is beyond “you” and “I” and beyond “being present or being absent.” At least as long as we have thoughts of “you” and “I” we do not understand this hwadu. We can only understand as long as we do not have a subjective or objective mind. The moment we hear Master Ma-tsu’s words, “I cannot talk because of so many people being present,” we have a doubt. “Huh?” we think and simultaneously we should awaken, “Boom!” The objective and subjective have to disappear. That is why hwadu is given. Hwadu is not given for us to have a doubt. When I have the mind of object and subject, this saying without the mind of object and subject, “Today I will not talk because of many people,” is heard. The moment it is heard, the object and subject should be broken up. But it isn’t. Therefore, naturally doubt comes up, “Oh, what is that?” Then the separated mind of object and subject disappears in one strike, “Boom!” That is why Seon masters give hwadu.

This is hwadu. This is the practice and this is Seon. This is neither for asking questions nor for focusing the mind. You should know this clearly.

When all of this is not working well, the person has an unavoidable doubt. This belongs to the lower level of Seon practitioners. Thus, this person is called in Seonyo, a “Sukmaek” in Korean, which means a foolish person. The literal meaning of “Sukmaek” is the person who can’t distinguish between beans or barley. Beans are round, while barley is flat. Such a foolish one doesn’t know the difference. And so the foolish have doubts about the practice of Seon. Actually, this state of mind has to be broken or awakened from at the instant of hearing. But it does not work in this way. Therefore the questions are inevitably required for hwadu practice, because this is a way of practice as well.

The reason for doing hwadu practice is neither to raise doubt nor to attain mental focus. We should break the dual thinking such as “you” and “I” and “existence and non-existence,” which are not necessary. We inevitably have a doubt during our hwadu practice because of our dual thinking. I am not saying that having doubt is bad. Though having doubt, you should know this fact. Having doubt is not the best way or the ultimate vehicle or the most efficient practice. This idea is vain. Many people, not only the profane but also the sacred, think in this way. Even some monks look down on the monks who do not practice Seon and even consider them as not real monks. This thought leads you away from the proper way rather than to true Seon. This thought should be removed. This is absolutely the wrong idea. With this thought you cannot know the real, true hwadu; you cannot get rid of dual thinking.

You should get away from the mental concept of “I.” Before enlightenment the Buddha said, “There must be something else after attaining enlightenment.” That is, the Buddha thought there should be something to gain after enlightenment when he was practicing. Yet, after enlightenment he found that there was nothing to gain. This is because everything had already been achieved and completed by himself.

The records of Seon discourses say, “Awakening to the fact that there is nothing to awaken to is to see the Buddha Nature.” This means that if we think there is enlightenment and that we will get something after enlightenment, it may mislead us.

Therefore we should know that all of us are inherently Buddhas. Why are we all Buddhas? It is because everything is empty. As we begin to practice with this truth, it saves time and is far more effective. If we investigate hwadu from the point of view of our inherent Buddha Nature, whatever obstacles come, they are easily overcome. For instance, let us assume that some obstacle arises. If you know you are inherently a Buddha, the mental shock that you receive decreases and disappears easily. It is because you already know that everything is empty and there are no entities to fear. If we practice hwadu with some expectations such as learning or awakening to something, obstacles arise and shock us. So you face the difficulties and need quite a lot of time to overcome the problems.

The other important thing is that if we know and understand and believe our inherent Buddha Nature, even though we don’t attain a great awakening in this life, we know what is right and wrong. We should keep in mind our inherent Buddhaness. In Seonyo the following simile occurs. “Seon practice is like filling a well by pouring buckets of water into it.” Think about this. Is the well going to become full of water by pouring buckets of water into it? No matter how much water we pour into the well, the well will not be filled. “Seon practice is like catching the reflection of the moon in water.” Can you catch the moon on the surface of the water? It is impossible. Though people think there is something to attain or to awaken to, there is nothing to awaken to. Right now this moment, hearing and seeing, is Seon. Think of the present moment. The present moment!

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