Hwadu Meditation and Contemporary Society
Sung Bae, Park
Professor of Buddhist Studies
State University of New York at Stony Brook
I have read many articles recently, and have had quite a few discussions with various knowledgeable people as well, regarding the topic of hwadu meditation. What I have observed from my readings and discussions is that people’s opinions about the hwadu fall into two distinct categories: “pro” and “con.” Those in the “pro”category feel that the hwadu is the only means by which enlightenment can be achieved, whereas those in the “con” category feel that hwadu is ineffective. However, from my observation, I have noticed that both sides are experiencing a sense of crisis regarding the proper use of hwadu meditation. I feel that the suffering on both sides is intensifying; I hear it as a scream for help, and I cannot ignore these screams. I will now look at each side in more detail.
The message of the “pro” people is simple: using hwadu is the only way to become enlightened. However, these people realize that many, if not most, people are not practicing it correctly. People may appear to be using hwadu during their meditation but in reality they are not. This is the crux of the crisis. In order to help these people, the “pros”continue to emphasize the teachings of the ancient Zen masters, reminding them of the basic fact of non-duality and so forth. Some of the “pro” people have proposed to develop some kind of special technique of meditation in order to help those who are having difficulties, such as putting band-aids next to their ears or having them listen to tranquilizing music with headphones, and so forth. However, such methods are not a solution, as they only serve to increase a sense of duality between the practitioner and the practice. In my opinion, the problem is that practitioners are not examining themselves deeply. In other words, they lack the necessary practice of brutal and honest self-criticism.
When I observe the “con” people, I see that they can be further divided into two groups. The first group consists of people who have tried using the hwadu, but feet that it doesn’t work, so they give up and claim that it cannot lead to enlightenment. These people, I feel, are innocent in the sense that they are not aiming to malign or demean others; they simply feel that the hwadu has no value. The second group is more sophisticated. These people are intellectually well-armed; they have much knowledge, having by and large been trainedor at least influenced by modern scholars. Of course, there are many things to be learned from their research, yet what I feel is lacking in their comments is any real interest in Zen meditation. They have no real desire for spiritual practice. They are isolating themselves within their fortress of intellectual security, and from there they feel safe enough to freely attack others. Again, as with the “pro’s,” I feel that there is an absence of brutal self-criticism. In a way, these people cannot be blamed entirely for their views. The media is forcing them to feel as they do, for the media sees any true spiritual practice, any practice based on non-dualism, as mysticism, and looks at it with a skeptical and disdainful eye. But putting blame aside, I find that there is presently no room in the consciousness of the “con” people to accept the mission of the hwadu. What is the mission? It is, metaphorically speaking, to cause the practitioner to have an experience of being in a shipwreck. That is, their very foundation must be shaken. This will be discussed in more detail later on, but for now I would like to ask: is it really possible for “con” people to accept the mission of the hwadu? My answer is: yes, it is possible. However, most of them are simply not ready for such an experience. They have not reached the point in their lives at which they are able to accept the possibility of, or the need for, any real or fundamental change in the way they view things.
Chapter I: The Nature of the Problem
Two immediate facts need to be mentioned; one concerning spirituality in general and one concerning hwadu meditation specifically. First of all, in Korea today, and indeed all over the world, an increasing spiritual thirst is becoming more and more evident among people of all ages and from all sectors. We are all experiencing the pressures caused by our modern way of living and are searching for ways to alleviate these stresses. As a result, we are discovering and learning about various techniques that can presumably enable us to calm our minds and/or strengthen our bodies. Some of these techniques include tai chi, yoga, chi kung, as well as various forms of breathing exercises and meditation. Any and all of these techniques are certainly capable of helping us to feel better.
The second fact that needs to be recognized is that hwadu meditation is, by its very nature, not intended to alleviate people’s tensions and stress. Its practice is far too serious and demanding for it to be categorized among the previously mentioned methods that are on the market today. This is important for people to realize so that they don’t attempt to compare hwadu meditation with any of these other methods, and so that they don’t hold any false illusions or expectations about either the purpose or the value of the hwadu. It requires tremendous discipline and diligence.
It is also helpful to remember that the hwadu method of meditation was introduced and practiced by Zen masters many hundreds of years ago, when the economy of the country, whether it is Korea, China, Japan, or any other country, was completely self-supported. If food was needed, people went into the fields and planted rice and vegetables. If fuel was needed, they went into the mountains and collected firewood. In such a serene atmosphere of relative simplicity, using the hwadu was doubtlessly much easier than it is in today’s world. The most vital requirement for hwadu meditation is the ability to attain a state of total concentration, so that one can thentranscend the limits of time and space. In our modern society, to reach such a state is not an easy task, as we are constantly being bombarded by all kinds of external distractions wherever we go. We cannot even try to escape them at home, as most of us now own television sets, radios, computers, telephones, and numerous other technological gadgets.
Another important feature of the hwadu is that it is not intended to be practiced only during the time of one’s formal sitting meditation. Rather, it is supposed to be used during each and every one of our four possible bodily positions: sitting, standing, lying and walking. In other words, regardless of one’s physical situation, whether he/she is in the meditation hall, the garden, the kitchen, the car, the store, the office, or wherever, his/her mind should be with the hwadu. Is it possible for modern people to maintain such a total, uninterrupted concentration?
It was in order to alleviate the problem of being distracted by external stimuli that serious practitioners left home in the past, and still do so today, to become monks or solitaries. They left the secular world behind and completely isolated themselves in the monastery or the mountains, living like hermits in partial or complete solitude. Yet the Zen masters taught that such an attitude, that is, of attempting to avoid difficult external conditions, was not correct. They constantly emphasized that hwadu meditation could be practiced by anyone, no matter who that person was or where that personlived. Many Zen practitioners living in our world today, however, have abandoned the hwadu method of meditation altogether, replacing it with other, easier styles of meditation, such as those mentioned earlier. Feeling the stresses of modern day society, they have opted for practices that help to calm their minds so that they feel able to cope with all their tensions. Yet this is not the true purpose of Zen.
What is to be done? In the Chogye order, here in Korea, the leaders are in a bit of a dilemma, as they have lost a large part of their membership to these popular styles of spiritual practice. To point out the dangers of this modern trend, a group of reformers has recently arisen and become quite vocal. This group is concerned about what they view as the misbehavior and even the corruption of the religious community. They have made it a point to analyze the psychology of hwadu meditation and they claim that the leaders of the Zen community, that is, the Zen teachers practicing today, are misleading people. What is the nature of their accusation? These reformists claim that the Zen leaders are “sugar-coating” hwadu practice by promising that if done correctly it leads one to enlightenment. The reformers point out that this was never the Buddha’smessage. As we know, his great gift to us was his understanding that we are all already enlightened, just as we are. So how can practicing the hwadu with such a futuristic goal in mind ever produce the correct results?
The majority of practitioners, however, are seduced by these promises of enlightenment. They don’t believe that they are already enlightened. They don’t understand that their real task is to awaken to their inherent essence as fully enlightened beings. They believe instead that by donating money or medicine or by providing gifts to the monks and leaders of their order they can earn merit and thus eventually gain salvation. The leaders in turn are monetarily benefiting from such attitudes, as they are the recipients of all these donations and gifts. Therefore, they are often reluctant to make any changes to this system. They continue to receive gifts while the members continue to practice incorrectly.
To summarize what has been said so far: 1 – In the present world, hwadu practice is generally viewed by most people as too difficult to undertake and 2 – the leaders and monks are not willing to correct people’s views, as they continue to profit from them.
Chapter II: The Real Meaning of “Hwadu”
Almost all Zen texts contain at least some discussion about the use of the hwadu in one’s practice. Indeed, hwadu meditation is and always has been considered the core of Zen practice. Yet this term “hwadu” is not being understood correctly by the vast majority of people living in Korea today. In my opinion, they have “stolen” the term and given it a completely erroneous meaning, which translates into English as “an agenda to be pursued or an issue to be clarified.” Korean journalists, politicians, and others from all walks of life use thisterm in their writings and/or speech freely, saying for example, “The hwadu of the president in this situation is…” or “What is the hwadu to be discussed here?”Such uses of this term are totally incorrect; the word is currently being presented in a secular manner, but that was not the original intention of the Zen masters who originally taught with it.
A similar situation may be seen to exist in the contemporary Christian world. The word “God” has also lost its original meaning, except to a very rare few. Most people these days view God as a kind of broker or agent to whom they can appeal when they have a need to be met. Yet this was certainly not the understanding of Abraham or Moses or Jesus.
Throughout the course of history humans have invented many such sacred words, whose original meaning has either been completely distorted or else has disappeared altogether. To name a few: “tao” in Taoism (meaning the Way), “ren” in Confucianism (meaning benevolence), “ti-yung”in early Chinese thought (meaning essence-function), and so forth. The meaning of these words was originally pure and essential, but as time passed people did not practice according to the original message of the meaning, and so these terms eventually lost their power. This is a great tragedy which has occurred to our human civilization, and it explains why I say that the meaning of “hwadu” has been stolen. It no longer exists in its pure form.
In Korea, during the Koryo dynasty (from the 10th to 14th century), there was a very popular event that used to occur regularly: Buddhist practitioners would gather together, not in a temple or monastery, but in a large field. There they would discuss and practice the teachings of the Buddha. As there were no boundaries to the field, anyone could attend. Such gatherings were called “yadan popsuke,”which means “Dharma seat in the field.”Later the Koryo was replaced by the Choson dynasty, which embraced neo-Confucianism, and this popular practice disappeared. To this day, the term “yadan popsuke” is still in use, but just like the word “hwadu,”its meaning has become greatly distorted; now when people use the term, they use it to mean “noisy.”This is yet another example of a sacred term whose original meaning has been lost due to people’s inability to live up to it.
So what is the original meaning of “hwadu,” the meaning reflected by the teachings of the ancient Zen masters? In my understanding, “hwadu” helps us to return to the Buddha. The hwadu may be used to help us make this journey back to the source. In the history of religion, such a message has always been the core principle: return to the Buddha, return to God, return to Allah, return to Brahman, and so forth. The special message that lies hidden within all these religions is that this source exists within each and every one of us. We ourselves contain or reflect the source that we are seeking. In the Buddhist tradition, when the ancient Zen masters saw that the practitioners did not understand or did not accept this truth, and instead viewed themselves as existing apart from their own, innate Buddha-nature, these Zen masters became angry and hit the seekers with a stick to wake them up. This was an animal instinct arising from inside and manifesting itself. Parents often exhibit the same behavior, scolding or even hitting their children if they see them doing something wrong. The Zen masters recognized the severity of the practitioners’ error in understanding, and wanted to help them rectify it. What was the mistake the seekers were making? In the Zen masters’ eyes, the aspirants’fundamental error was that they were too attached to the scriptures. After reading a particular text, they would organize various dogmas based on their understanding and would then become imprisoned in their own dogmas. The Zen masters knew very well that this was not in accordance with Buddhist teachings. They knew that no matter how well an aspirant might understand a scripture intellectually, if he remained attached to the idea that he was not a Buddha, his understand would yield no results, like a farmer without a harvest. So the message of the Zen masters was always the same: Don’t go in the wrong direction. Return to the Buddha.
How did the use of the hwadu come into being? At an earlystage in the history of Zen Buddhism, there emerged a division into two schools, each practicing quite differently. One school is called “Soto” in Japanese; in Korean it is called “mukjo.” Westerners usually translate this term as “sitting only,” and interpret it to imply the absence of the use of the hwadu. Yet if we analyze this word “mukjo,”we find that it may be broken down into two parts: “muk,” which means “silence,” and “jo,”which means “bright illustration.” In the “mukjo” school, then, the practice involved first quieting the mind and body and then observing the manifestation of one’s field of consciousness. There are several other terms which are now in use that reflect a similar practice: they are “samatha/vipassana” in Sanskrit, “chih/kuan”in Chinese, “ting/hui” in Chinese, and “dhyana/prajna” in Sanskrit. These terms all have similar meanings. Yoshito Hakeda, in his commentary on the Awakening of Faith, has translated “samatha/vipassana” as “cessation/clear observation.” Chinul, the well-known Korean monk of the 12th to13th century, made extensive use of the combined practice of “dhyana” (meditation) and “prajna” (wisdom).
The second school of Zen was called Rinzai in Japanese. This school used the hwadu exclusively. The Zen mastersof this school observed the practitioners of the Soto school with a critical eye and concluded that their practice was ineffective. They felt that too many seekers were using the “mukjo” practice in the hopes that some day all of their problems would be magically solved. They saw that the aspirants did not understand the true relationship between “muk” and “jo,”which is based on non-duality or non-separation. Instead, they were striving to create a balance between the two and thus were attempting to control their practice through the use of their intellects. The Zen masters knew, however, that in order for enlightenment to occur, the intellect must be abandoned. Yet instead what was happening was that the practitioners were holding onto their intellects with all their might! It is for this reason that the Zen masters created the hwadu; it was used to help practitioners loosen and ultimately break their bondage to their intellect. This is always the reason why Zen masters would hit meditators with a stick. The stick itself was a hwadu. It helped the seeker let go of his habitual conceptual tendencies.
With reference to the techniques of the Soto school, however, please do not misunderstand what I say. There is nothing wrong with the practice of “mukjo” if it is performed correctly. It must be understood, though, that the two aspects, “muk” and “jo,”should not be viewed as two different types of practice to be pursued. The truth of the matter is that if the first aspect, “muk,” is performed with the correct understanding, the second aspect, “jo,” will occur naturally on its own. Thus, if cessation is practiced correctly, then clear observation will automatically emerge, with no effort required on the part of the practitioner. We may see a similar truth if we look at the relationship between the sun and the clouds. When the clouds disappear, the sun is automatically seen. It doesn’t have to be coaxed out in order to manifest itself; it is already there. The Zen masters, then, introduced the use of the hwadu in order to help the practitioner dispel the clouds, which are a reflection of his own ego, his own intellect, so that he could see the sun, or his own Buddha-nature, shining in all its beauty and magnificence.
We live in a pluralistic world ; there is no one way of life or culture that exists to the exclusion of all the others. The same may be said of religions, beliefs, and practices. We need to respect all views, whether it is belief in the Pure Land, use of a mantra, practice of prostration, or the performance of various types of breathing exercises. What these practitioners need to be aware of, however, is that they are all practicing “muk” or cessation. That is, these practices are all examples of the first aspect of the Soto school practice, which involves the calming of the mind. They need to ask themselves if they are practicing it correctly. If they are, then the second part, “jo” or clear observation will arise spontaneously. So what does it mean to practice correctly? It means to break apart the whole of the intellect, the ego, and to abandon the dualism between the practice and the one who is practicing. If the seeker is able to practice in this way, then he will be in accordance with the Zen masters’ original message. This has been the basic teaching of all religious saviors of the past, and remains the most vital point which all monastery leaders should be imparting to their members.
Let us now delve into the nature of the hwadu a little more deeply. Why is it that the hwadu is considered by many as being too difficult to practice? Is it merely due to the fact that it requires one’s utmost concentration and discipline, as mentioned earlier? In my view, the issue goes deeper than that. In my understanding, as I mentioned earlier, the core of the nature of the hwadu is that it gives the practitioner the experience of being in a shipwreck. In other words, his very foundation is completely destroyed. Such an experience may be compared to an earthquake. About thirty years ago a severe earthquake struck Berkeley, California, where I was living as a graduate student. The experience was totally devastating. Inside my living quarters pictures fell off the walls. Books, tables, chairs, and all the furniture were turned over. Outside in the streets, buildings collapsed and cars were demolished due to the debris that fell on them. Our lives are based on the belief that our physical foundation, the earth, is solid. When this earthquake occurred, however, this belief was completely turned 180 degrees in my mind. Our earth is not a permanent fixture, I now realized; it can be disrupted at any time.
It is understandable that people seek security, both physical and psychological. Living in fear can and does cause many internal as well as external problems. Thus, we will do everything we can to avoid any fears that arise regarding our own mental and personal safety. Let it be understood: the hwadu will shake our very foundation, just as the earthquake shook my living space. What is the nature of this shipwreck, this earthquake that occurs within us as we practice the hwadu? What is it inside of us that is being shaken to the core?
Unlike the physical shaking of the earth caused by an earthquake, when we are shaken by the hwadu, it is our very belief system, which has been developed within us from the time we are born, that is being attacked. This belief system, which includes our world-view as well as our views about ourselves, has been created by the letter culture in which welive. By letter culture I mean the value system which we have created over hundreds and thousands of years by means of the written word. This letter culture has gone a long way to contribute to our illusion of safety; it has become a dogma for most of us, deceiving us by pretending to insulate us from fear and by claiming to make us feel strong and secure. It is like living inside a dark fortress.
The hwadu, however, bombs this fortress. It rips away any and all illusions we may have regarding who we are and what this world is. It does not allow us to receive the benefits which other types of meditation or spiritual practice may offer us, such as better health, ease of tensions, calmer minds, and so forth. Thus, if a teacher asserts that hwadu mediation can be used to achieve any such beneficial effects, he is being dishonest. We must never propagate the belief that the hwadu can be used in order to bring about any enhanced state of being, including enlightenment. To do so is to use the hwadu as a type of bait in order to lure or entice the practitioner, or like an advertisement in which one says, “Use the hwadu and be cured!” Such tactics are greatly misleading and do not support the teachings of either the Buddha or the ancient Zen masters.
Chapter III: The Solution
As mentioned above, almost every Buddhist monastery these days teaches various forms of meditation in addition to the hwadu. Also, many universities now include Zen Buddhism among their course offerings. In Korea alone, there are about 100 large-scale universities, most of which offer such courses, which generally include information on how to practice meditation. How are they teaching hwadu meditation? If we examine the Zen texts being used in these university courses and in them on a steries as well, we discover that there exists a serious problem: the texts, by and large, are based on ordinary logic as opposed to Zen logic. What is the difference between the two? In ordinary logic, a friend is a friend and an enemy is an enemy. In Zen logic, however, a friend may be an enemy and an enemy a friend. In other words, the reality of a situation and indeed, the reality of existence, cannot be based on one’s pre-conceived understanding alone. This is a fundamental fact that Zen students need to keep in mind at all times. Yet these texts are often using ordinary people’s logic, based on the intellect, in their attempts to interpret Zen logic. This is a serious mistake. The students are being misled and are thus bound to develop an incorrect understanding of the true meaning of Zen.
I like to use the Korean term “mom” which means body or essence, and “momjit” which means function, when discussing the logic of Zen. Zen logic is “mom” in other words, Zen logic is primarily concerned with the entire body or essence of any phenomenon or circumstance. It thus transcends the dualism of the intellect. Ordinary logic, on the other hand, is “momjit” logic, and reflects our usual, day-to-day way of viewing ourselves and life in general. This logic, stemming from our intellect, is based entirely on dualistic concepts of good and bad, right and wrong, and so forth.
We find many examples of Zen logic in the Buddhist texts. For example, after the Buddha gave his famous sermon on the four noble truths, one of his disciples, Kondanna, remarked that the second noble truth, which identifies desire as the cause of suffering, was in essence the same thing as the third noble truth, which refers to the cessation of desire. By his statement, Kondannawas using Zen logic; he was saying that the arising of a state and its cessation are no different. In other words, in one is contained the other and vice versa; they cannot be separated. In the field of science, we may discover a similar truth when we examine the law of gravity. What goes up must come down; one cannot exist without the other. This type of understanding is what we usually fail to recognize when we use our ordinary, conceptual way of thinking to view our world or ourselves.
Another example of Zen logic may be found in the Mahayana text entitled The Awakening of Mahayana Faith. This treatise categorizes all phenomena, including all sentient beings as well as our thoughts and actions, as operating within the confines of four distinct sequential stages: 1-arising, 2-abiding(or lasting), 3-decaying and 4-dying. The stage of arising corresponds to our physical birth; then for the major part of our lives we exist in the abiding stage; later, in old age, our bodies begin to decay; finally, at the end of our life, we die. The same process occurs with our every thought and action as well: they arise, experience a period of lasting or abiding, eventually beginning to ebb or die out, and finally they disappear altogether.
For ordinary people likeyou and I, these four stages are experienced as completely distinct and separate phases of a process. Usually, for regular people, it is not until a thought has already disappeared that we even realize that we were thinking the thought. Buddhist practitioners who have a slightly higher level of awareness, for example the level of a Hinayana Buddhist, are able to realize the existence of their thoughts when they are still at the third level, that is before they have disappeared from their consciousness. A Bodhisattva, who functions at an even higher level, is able to be aware of his thoughts while they at the second stage of abiding. This is the stage at which our thoughts are most powerful; we can see the value of being able to thus catch hold of our thoughts before they begin to lose their force and die out. Only an enlightened being, a Buddha, is able to perceive his thoughts at the very moment of their inception, as they are being created in his mind. Indeed, ultimate enlightenment entails knowing right from the start exactly what is occurring within your own mind.
The crucial point that the text makes is that these four stages are said to occur simultaneously. This is a clear example of Zen logic. Everything is seen to happen right at the very beginning; there is no sequential development of one stage occurring before or after another. This understanding is also reflected in the often-quoted analogy of the water and the wave. Each is a part of the other, and they both exist together and at the same time. It is not possible to separate them into two independent entities. Similarly, “mom” and “momjit” also operate in unison. Every “mom” is also a “momjit”and every “momjit” is also a “mom.”
The teachings of Hua-yen Buddhism are yet another example of this fundamental Zen truth. According to this school of thought, there exist 52 stages with regard to the attainment of enlightenment. The first stage refers to the arising of the desire for bodhicitta, or the wisdom mind, which reflects one’s initial desire for enlightenment. Each stage represents one step further along on the path, and the 52nd and final stage is the attainment of ultimate enlightenment itself. Hua-yen thought teaches that at the moment one enters the first stage, that is, the moment the aspiration for enlightenment arises, at that very moment the last stage is inherently included. This is the timeless perspective; by using theistic language, we may call it God’s perspective.
It is extremely difficult to comprehend the Zen logic described above. Our intellects alone cannot accomplish such a feat, for this logic points to an understanding which lies beyond the realm of our reason. It is here that faith is required in order to bridge the gap; otherwise, the practitioner may easily be tempted to give up his practice altogether. What is meant by faith? It is nothing other than having complete and utter trust in the teachings of Buddha. If the practitioner can develop and maintain such an attitude of firm conviction within himself, then eventually his intellect will soften its grip and the practitioner may catch a glimpse of the truth of non-duality.
Many, if not most, scholars, including Hakeda in his discussion of the four stages of phenomena as mentioned above( see p.40 in his translation and commentary on The Awakening of Faith), fail to recognize the crucial need for faith on the part of the practitioner. They discuss non-duality in a straightforward, scientific manner, but do not understand that such an approach is incomplete. Something more is needed if one is to grasp the truth of the Buddha; something is required if we are to transcend the limits of our intellect. In my opinion, it is the underlying background of faith, or the ultimate trust that we, too, are Buddha, which enables us to “cross to the other shore” and attain our goalof enlightenment. It is this issue, the issue of faith, that scholars need to recognize and address if they are to correctly and successfully interpret and communicate the Buddha’s understanding.
What is the hwadu? It is nothing but returning to the Buddha. We must not fall prey to the temptation of mysticizing it by saying that it promises enlightenment. The hwadu, in and of itself, does not promise us anything. It merely points to what already is, to what exists right in front of us. If a Zen master was asked, “What is the essence of the Buddha’s message?”, he would reply, “Flowers are red and leaves are green,” or “My nose is vertical and my eyes are horizontal.”
How did the mystification of the hwadu arise? Whatever the answer to that question, we must not view the hwadu in such an illusory sense. The hwadu means to return to our ordinary, everyday life as it is. There is no mystery about it; therefore, we shouldn’t try to add anything extra. Nor should we be concerned with others’practice with other methods- these things are not important. What is important is that we return to the Buddha. How can we do this? We need to fix our false techniques. We are already Buddha; we exist as timeless beings, as “mom.” So let’s not use “momjit” language or ways of thinking in our spiritual practice. Let’s move, act, think, and speak as that which we are. The hwadu shows us who we are. It is enlightenment itself. Let’s wakeup and celebrate our true identity.
Kanhwasŏn Hwadu, Bojo, Sudden-enligenment, Zen master