If you seek the Great Path, more than anything else, the most important thing is your spiritual attitude.
This Great Truth cannot be fathomed, is vast and boundless, and all varieties of debate on right and wrong and good and bad points, and all the little differences and sundry forms and colors (形形色色) have ended and are gone in the level of the Truth. So we can imagine how much unnecessary stress we put ourselves through in trying to grab onto and to intellectualize about such a level, where all things have been extinguished. It is as stressful as trying to grab onto thin air.
So what must we do in order to experience (證得) this Truth that is so difficult to understand? For one possessing great piety and a dauntless determination so strong its force could pierce the heavens, attaining such an experience is as easy as touching one’s nose while washing one’s face. But for one without piety and without the karmic ties to hear the true Dharma and meet a true master (正法正眼의 因緣), it is as difficult as picking a star from the sky.
Anyone who, with an enormous pious heart, learns and receives guidance from one who has attained an awakening first, and without looking back continues in just this way, will pass through the door of Truth without any real difficulties.
But if one loses oneself in wrong perspectives and views and – forgetting the traditional proverb that “no one becomes a military general on one’s own” – arrogantly tries to attain enlightenment without the help of anyone, even though this person devotes his entire life to his practice, and in no matter how many subsequent lives he tries to polish his character, such a person won’t progress at all.
Inasmuch as all language, discernment and discrimination have been extinguished in the level of this great Truth, we must at least pull ourselves out of such wrong views in order to head toward the Realm of Selflessness/Egolessness.
So then what must we do in order to enter the Realm of Selflessness of the Great Path?
Long ago, Great Master Bodhidharma crossed over into China from India and attempted to spread the teachings of Seon. But there was no one who could understand his teachings and therefore he had no following. So Bodhidharma was left with no choice but to go and live in the Shaolin Cave, where he sat in meditation in complete silence while facing a wall for many years. Finally, after nine years, he met someone capable of receiving his teachings. This monk was none other than the Venerable Shingwang (神光, lit. “Mysterious Light”).
The story of the life of Venerable Shingwang goes like this: One day, Shingwang made the resolution to enter the Buddhist monkhood. He traveled far and wide in the great expanse of China in search of one who had awakened to the Truth of the Great Path, but he could find no one.
But then one day, he met a man, who told him to go see the great Bodhidharma:
“There is a Brahman who for nine years has sat facing a wall in meditation in Shaolin Cave. He seems like someone who knows the right path. Go there.”
So Shingwang went, but upon reaching Shaolin Cave, Bodhidharma did not turn around to greet him, even though he was aware that someone had come – he just continued sitting facing the wall.
After performing the ceremonial bows to Bodhidharma, Shingwang announced “I’ve come here so that I can know the great Truth of the Buddha.” But the Great Master Bodhidharma still would not turn around.
This was in the middle of a cold winter, where a snowstorm and stinging winds had blanketed the entire mountains and fields. In the middle of this stinging wintry cold steadfastly stood Shingwang, in front of Shaolin Cave with hands clasped. He stood there throughout the night, until the snow had reached his waist.
Think about how harshly cold it must feel for someone who’s steeped in snow, from the waist down. The average person, no matter how hard he tries to tough it out, would surely not last. But Shingwang ably conquered all such hardships through his piety, throwing all worries about his body out the window with the sincere single-minded thought that “I have to know the Truth of the Great Path.”
The Great Master Bodhidharma finally turned around after one night and one afternoon had passed, and saw that Shingwang was still standing there without having yielded an inch, hands clasped, with the snow up to his waist. Only then did Bodhidharma turn around to face Shingwang, and he asked “Why have you come?”
“I’ve come to know the Great Truth of the Buddha.”
“Only after one has diligently devoted oneself to this practice through limitless time, through infinite kalpas, ably performed activities that require great strength and courage, and weathered through unlimited suffering does one attain the Great Truth of the Buddha. So how does someone like you with no piety expect to attain such a thing?”
The message here is that an extraordinary degree of piety is needed to know the Great Truth of the Buddha; So much so that even as much devotion as standing hands clasped outside for one night and an afternoon, until the snow reaches one’s waist, doesn’t even come close to cutting it.
Upon hearing this, Shingwang took out the dagger he had been carrying attached to his side and cut off one of his arms and presented it to Bodhidharma. He expressed his desire to realize the Truth thus: “I seek the Great Dharma of the Buddha with a sincere mind, inasmuch as I am willing to sacrifice my body and life.”
As if finally acknowledging Shingwang’s piety, the Great Master Bodhidharma at this point said “If you have any doubts about anything, then ask.” At this, Shingwang said, “As my mind is always insecure, please help pacify my mind.”
An insecure mind is not something unique to Shingwang, but afflicts all sentient beings.
The Great Master Bodhidharma shot back:
“Then bring me this insecure mind.”
But Shingwang, after trying to find this insecure mind, realized it was nowhere to be found. So Shingwang said, “No matter how much I search for the insecure mind, there is no way to find it.”
The Great Master Bodhidharma then triumphantly uttered: “I have thus already pacified your mind.”
Upon hearing this, Shingwang’s ‘mind’s eye’ burst open.
After connecting with each other in this way, the Great Master Bodhidharma accepted Shingwang as his disciple, and said “I acknowledge that you now have the wisdom of the right Dharma,” and bestowed upon Shingwang the Dharma name of “Hye-ga.”
As all of you know very well, it was this Venerable Hye-ga who went on to inherit the Bodhidharma’s teachings, thus receiving the “transmission of the lamp” and becoming the 2nd patriarch of Ch’an in China. In this way, life is such that anyone can enter the door of the Great Path if you are able to throw away concerns about your body and life and seek the Truth with sincere single-mindedness.
The reason why we don’t awaken even after practicing meditation our whole lives is because of a fault that lies within us – we don’t seek the Truth with sincere single-mindedness. As a result, when we sit to meditate, we waste away all our time harping on our sad plight (?) and on delusions, and we end up using time frivolously.
If, with the resolve of “I will do whatever it takes to solve this problem in this lifetime,” one meditates on the hwadu with sincere single-mindedness, even though time flows on, one will be unaware that it does; also no matter how noisily the person next to you chatters, you will not be able to hear it; and even though you sit in meditation, you even forget that you are sitting. The only thought on your mind is the hwadu.
If you’re able to continue this one thought, this single-mindedness on the hwadu, in much the same way water constantly flows in a river, then you’ll for certain help tens of thousands of people open their eyes to the Truth.
Thus in order to awaken to this Great Truth, you must first establish a resolute mind.
One must decisively cut off all of one’s myriad karmic ties and throw away trifle concerns about health and wealth, and pour all of one’s everyday thoughts for the rest of one’s life into only the hwadu.
If you constantly practice in this way, eventually, even when you try to think of something else you can’t, and even when you try to latch onto thoughts, you won’t be able to. Banish away all worldly thoughts and, in the same way one’s mind immediately focuses in on an area of the body that has been pinched by a needle, concentrate very hard on the hwadu. One will eventually become so deeply submerged in the hwadu that when others see you, they’ll think “That guy’s absurd,” or “That guy’s lost it.”
After many uninterrupted days, months, and years like this, when the time is karmically ripe, the hwadu will be toppled. That is, having let go of the myriad thoughts in one’s mind, one’s single-minded concentration on the hwadu becomes as continuous as the flow of river water; And when the time is karmically ripe, the very essence of the hwadu will reveal itself to the person.
Although the wintry winds of early and mid-winter sting the leather of our skin, once this season passes and the balmy winds make their way in, the winds of winter that were once so cold and harsh fade without a trace, and the comfortable warm breeze of spring gives life and nourishment to all things.
One’s hwadu practice, if forged ahead with a true heart, will progress in just this same manner as nature.
But because truth-seeking apprentice monks don’t seek with a true heart, with motivation welling up from one’s own heart, they don’t come close to reaching the state of single-mindedness, even after 10 or 30 years, and thus are not able to gain insight into their true nature. If the hwadu comes passionately from the heart, and one voraciously remains fixated on it, then without enduring any boredom and unaware of the passing of time, the three months of intensive retreat in meditation will fly by.
However, having trained and lived with many heads of meditation halls before, I have seen some go mad because they can’t stand the tediousness of the three months of retreat.
This isn’t the spiritual attitude of a true practitioner. Many people think all they have to do is simply sit and meditate on the hwadu – then why even bother? This is like aping meditation. With this kind of a starting spiritual attitude, even if you meditate till your hair grows gray, you will gain nothing. In the end, all you’ll have to your credit is charitable kindness (施恩), and all you’ll have on your deathbed is regret.
Therefore many of you monks out there must make the effort to reflect on your practicing attitude, asking yourselves “Am I living the life of one who has truly made the resolution to see my original nature?” – or living the life of one who lives day in and day out just using up valuable food. And then you must again, and again, firmly resolve to earnestly seek your original nature.
We did not turn our backs on worldly activities and come to the temple as beggarly monks for the sake of our parents, or for the sake of others; we came here for our own sakes.
We must absolutely let go of all our convoluted karmic ties and feuds. If you don’t think you can throw away these apparitions, there is no way you’ll be able to progress even one step in your practice.
If you make the resolution to gain insight into your true nature at whatever cost within this lifetime, you will one day inevitably become like a fool, since you have now given up living like a regular person.
When you become like a fool, with each step, each thought, the hwadu absorbs you. If the hwadu becomes the sole, central occupant of your mind, there is nothing that is hard. At this point, you don’t care whether or not the intensive retreat is over, nor take a special interest in daily mundane matters, and you forget all concerns over the physical body.
Only when you practice in this way for a long time will you be able to come near the door of the Great Path, and in the end, you will be able to fling the door of the Great Path wide open.
That is why you must clearly define your practicing attitude from the start. If you don’t, then whether you live the life of a monk for 10 years, or 30 years, or till your hair grows gray, you will still be stuck in the same spot.
It is the same for all of you laywomen and men. Just because you’ve been to this and that temple in every rural hinterland of the country doesn’t mean you will be blessed, nor does it mean you are practicing well.
With an absolutely unmoving mind that thinks “The only thing for me to do is find my mind’s shining light,” you must throw away all your pride, cut off all convoluted karmic ties, learn the correct way to seek the hwadu, and insistently and consistently deepen your practice in this way amidst your daily life.
But since all of you have families, and sons and daughters to take care of, and family matters to tend to, then amidst this secular lifestyle – since this is the only time you have – you must sincerely seek the hwadu without letting go of it once. If you practice in this way, all of the habit energies and weak points of your mind will eventually be erased.
“What is it that allows us to come and go and talk?” Because there is a true, faceless owner who controls this physical body of ours, we are able to carry out daily activities such as coming and going, speaking and answering someone, and are able to listen to this very Dharma Talk. Even as I write this, you are unable to make this teaching your own and understand. On the other hand, if the fact you don’t understand makes you truly feel indignant and realize how foolish living in this kind of ignorance is, and generates within you a sincere single-mindedness to understand, and you thus focus on the hwadu with a voracious doubt that carries enough force to pierce the five viscera and the six entrails, then even without you being aware of it, your practice will ripen. All worldly thoughts retreat and only the single thought of the hwadu will appear before you clearly.
Whether you come or go, prepare food, clean your house, work in the office, or sleep, if the single thought of the hwadu of “What is this?” appears before you clear and bright at all times and places, all the habit energies you have created over many past lives during many kalpas will all melt away.
Whoever reaches such a state of mind – whether they be monks, laywomen, or laymen – can awaken. In fact, even if you didn’t want to awaken, you would awaken.
The Buddha’s Dharma is not something that has been brought over from the moon world, or from the heavenly realms. Because at the core of each and every one of our hearts lies the same basic level of the mind, there is not even a hair-width difference between the minds of sentient beings and the minds of the innumerous Buddhas and Seon patriarchs. But because bewildered sentient beings have not realized their true nature and thus cannot make use of it, there is nothing in this world more irritating.
If we diligently stay with our practice and come to see the basic level of our mind, we will attain the same state of mind as the Buddha. If this happens, we will be able to zip through the koans that have been passed down to us, and which now amount to piles upon piles, by all of the Buddhas and past adepts (道人).
So when truth-seeking apprentice monks think they “know” and go to see masters to receive acknowledgment, the masters listen to their understanding of the kongan and then test them. At this point, only one who has truly awakened is able to point to the east when asked which direction the east is, and point to the west when asked which direction the west is.
During the test, if one talks about the west when asked about the east, then this person has not yet entered the door of Truth. Because one whose eyes have not yet opened to the Truth are unable to differentiate between east, west, south and north, the questions and answers will not connect with one another, and the young monk, always confused, will answer absurdly.
Such an understanding by the apprentice monk is but a wrong understanding, and is not of any help along the Great Path. If one falls into this wrong view, not only do you waste away this lifetime, it will become harder and harder to break away from the yoke of wrong views, as they arise one after another.
Therefore the apprentice monk should always lean on the Master Teacher (善知識) who has awakened before him, cultivating one’s practice accordingly and continuously receiving guidance from the Master Teacher, and establish a right view and perspective. If the master is not a true master and has a wrong view, you must have the great gall to leave him right there and then. Only then will you develop a close karmic connection with the true Great Path. While you strive along the Great Path, I hope that you reflect from time to time on whether perhaps there is a weak spot in your practicing attitude, and voraciously seek the hwadu throughout the night.