(weekly Hankook, issue #849, March 1, 1981, Seoul)
Who is the thief wearing my noble robes and selling Buddha,
only to plant his own seeds of suffering?
In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha said that anyone who shaved his head, wore the noble robes, pretended to be a monk and sold the Buddha for a living was a thief. And according to the Surangama Sutra, the Buddha said that those who became monks and wore the robes, and who, rather than striving to become enlightened and guiding all sentient beings, used monkhood as a means of livelihood―those people were not his followers, nor were they monks. They were all thieves.
Living as a monk in a temple and trying to live by the Teachings of the Buddha is not an easy task. But it is essential to at least attempt to live according to the Teachings. And even if one is not totally successful at it, he should at the very least not go against the Teachings.
We are reminded of the words from the Sutra of Forty-Two Verses: “It is difficult to be born as a human, and it is equally as difficult to hear the Teachings of the Buddha.” So it is highly fortunate to be born as a human and to become a monk. but even if one ultimately cannot succeed on the path of a monk and lead others as is his duty, he should never resort to this form of thievery.
If we call one who makes a living by selling the Buddha a thief, then what should we call the place where he lives? Certainly not a temple; rather, a robber’s den. And the Buddha? He has become an agent for the thieves since he is being sold by them.
Here in Korea we have a large number of temples and a considerable number of monks and nuns. It would be hard to figure out how many such thieves there are, how many temples have become robbers’ dens, and how many Buddhas are being used as agents. To fail in your study and to fail as a monk is to sink into a state of hell in itself. But to use the Buddha―the greatest teacher the universe will ever know―as a means of livelihood is an entirely different matter.
To think that it is the result of ones karma to become such a thief and that one is bound to go to a hell anyway may be one thing. But how can anybody dare to make a living as a thief by intentionally selling the Buddha? We must all do our utmost to be careful not to use the noble Buddha as such an agent.
You see, there are all kinds of ways of selling the Buddha. And perhaps the most common way is through misrepresenting what we call Buddhist offerings. There are some who play the mokt’ak to the tune of “Come to know the world of Buddha. He will give you direction, he will bestow blessings upon you. If you come and make offerings, you will receive all this and more.”
The mokt’ak is the essential instrument used in spreading the Dharma. It is claimed that even confucius said, “Become the mokt’ak of the world.” By that he meant that we should spread the Buddhist way around the world so that everyone will lead a wholesome and proper life.
In contemporary Korea, however, there are some temples where the mokt’ak is being used to make money. To play the mokt’ak before the Buddha for people who pray for longevity and blessings has become a business. And that is selling the Buddha.
Everyone is familiar with that type of thinking; what is most important is to correct it. But some are making the situation even worse. They know that this is wrong, yet they do not correct it and continue to play the mokt’ak to this same tune. we are supposed to make Buddhist offerings in the way that the Buddha said we should.
Christians suffice with just one book, their Bible. But Buddhist Sutras number over 80,000, and just to be able to listen to them all would be practically impossible in a single lifetime. The number of Tripitaka Koreana woodblocks at Haein-sa is 81’340. How can anyone expect to read all of them? How are we supposed to be able to understand Buddhism if such a task is all but impossible, if the number of Sutras is so great? Since we can’t possibly read all the Sutras, we have to rely on established theories of study based on tradition for an understanding of Buddhism.
The most representative of the Sutras, and the most precious as far as the words of the Buddha are concerned, are the Avatamsaka Sutra and the Lotus Sutra. These are the “kings” of the Sutras. And the Avatamsaka Sutra is deeper and broader in Buddhist truth than even the Lotus Sutra. But where would you get the time to read all 80 boolts of the Avatamsaka Sutra?
The best thing to do is to read “practices of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra”2 from the Avatamsaka Sutra, since this is often referred to as “the condensed Avatamsaka” All fundamental Buddhist truths are contained in this scripture, and all codes of behavior for the Buddhist can be found there.
Concerning Buddhist offerings, we find in this section “Samantabhadra’s Broadly Cultivated Offerings of the Ten Great Vows.” Let me quote from this:
People think that the greatest offering to the Buddha is to gather enough things to fill the sky, to light a candle with a wick as high as Mt. Sumeru, to bring an oceanful of oils, and to bow endlessly before the innumerable Buddhas.
That certainly would be one of the greatest offerings possible, and there would be great merit involved. But even greater is the Buddhist offering of Dharma. There are seven forms of Dharma offerings3, and the greatest of these is that of helping all forms of life. The Buddha said that helping other sentient beings even for a second was infinitely greater than bringing everything you can to the Buddha in a temple, chanting and praying.
To make a comparison, which would you rather do―spend a lot of money to set up shop and make little profit, or spend a little money to set up shop and make a large profit? The common sense answer is obvious. It costs a lot to bring all kinds of offerings to the temple; but the rewards are negligible when compared to the offering of common good, of helping other sentient beings even for a moment. This is considerably less effort, and certainly much less expensive. The gains to be made by doing so, as opposed to making expensive temple offerings, are incalculable.
The Buddha said, “If you truly believe in me and wish to follow me, don’t bring money to lay before me and then pray for longevity and blessings. If you really believe in me, then practice my teachings.” He was saying, in other words, to help all forms of life. So you see, we must cultivate our offerings on a scale far beyond ourselves and far beyond the temple
We can find other examples of Buddhist offerings in the “practices of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra” as well. The Buddha said, “To give a starving, dying puppy on the road a handful of cold rice is of much greater merit than making all kinds of temple offerings and infinitely bowing before a Buddha.” Think about it. The Buddha said that the only true offerings were helping all forms of life and that you become a true follower of Buddha only by doing so.
Nowadays, 1 constantly tell students to make offerings. Their immediate reaction is, “we don’t have much spending money, so how are we suppose to make offerings?” This reaction illustrates the magnitude of misunderstanding the meaning of genuine offerings.
Helping others physically, psychologically, and even materially are all Buddhist offerings. If we all resolve to make offerings in these three ways, then the world will be filled with Buddhist offerings. The only reason that we don’t is because we’re all lazy and selfish. But you must realize that you must make offerings in this way to achieve Buddhahood.
When we have student retreats at the monastery, the students do 3,000 prostrations before coming up to see me at paengnyon-am to receive their koan. I tell thern that before they start on their koan they should learn how to make genuine offerings. And their eyes get really big. They think that l’m suggesting that they should empty their pockets and start bowing before the Buddha. Then I explain to them, as I have to you, what true Buddhist offerings are. They are all quite pleased!
The Problem of Pride
In making such offerings, however, you haye to be careful of one thing, and that is pride. To make an offering in the way I have described, and then to boast about it ruins the offering completely.
There are a lot of people who make offerings for their own ego, for their own public relations campaigns. That is not an offering, however; it’s merely making your own publicity materials. We should not ruin our offerings with our mouths. The Buddhist way is to make offerings anonymously. And Jesus said, “Don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing” I’m glad that more and more young people today are listening to this kind of thinking. I get letters from students who say that they will make offerings this way for the rest of their lives.
Let me tell you a story that happened shortly after the Korean war. I was staying in a temple called Songju-sa outside the city of Masan. Hanging on the front of the Buddha Hall was a big banner that read “Mr. Yoon So-and-So Financed Buddha Hall Restoration.” I asked who this Mr. Yoon was, and they said he ran an herb medicine shop in Masan, and that he had paid for the entire restoration out of his tremendous faith. I asked when he might be coming, and they said that if he knew I were there he would come immediately.
The next day, Mr. Yoon showed up to greet me. I told him that everyone was praising his outstanding faith, and that I, too, had been impressed when I first read the banner. You could tell by the glimmer in his eyes that he just loved the praise.
I then told him, however, that the banner was in the wrong place. banners were for lots of people to see, and if he hung it up there in the mountains, few people would see it. I told him to take the banner the following day to masan where he should hang it up in front of the railroad station. He got the message.
There’s another temple where they completed a project first before soliciting donations. They erected a new memorial tablet first, and then put up a banner. Then they waited for the funds to come in, which didn’t happen. The tablet just sat there getting weatherbeaten.
The monk involved said, “Gee, guess I did it the worng way. But I didn’t know any different.”
I said, “Not knowing the differrnce is not the problrm. The problem is, how are you going to recifty the sitation?” He thought for a moment, took the banner down and tore it to pieces. He then set fire to it.
Once I gave a number of examples of these quiet offerings to students, and one student said, “Well, Sunim, you’re not making any offerings. Why are you telling us to?” May reply was that teaching how to make offerings was an offering in itself.
Even just 20 yeara ago there were hordes of poor people living on the outskirts of Seoul, Pusan and other major cities. Someone came to me who wanted to distribute food to these people, and he asked how he could go about this without anyone finding out.
I told him that first he should have a couple of people go to the area to do a survey and make a list of the needy. Then have a couple of other people go to the nearest rice shop, have tickets made, and arrange it so that the residents who brought tickets would get rice. Then have other people go around carrying rice to accact attention and distribute the tickets. Then have another group of people at the rice shop give rice to those who brought tickets and matched the list. If they kept changing the people all the time., no one would find out. I told him that if the residenta asked, the workers should merely reply that they were doing if for someone else.
At first, the needy didn;t believe that there was free rice, so they hesitated to go the shop. But after enough prodding, since the shop was close by, they went there and came home with rice. One day a kid coming home from school was heard to comment, “Somthing really weird is going on in our neigborhood. These strangers have come, they give rice tickets, and people are getting free rice so that they won’t go hungry. These strangers must have come from out of the sky!” there is always a way to remain anonymous.
Then once in Masan somebody anonymously provided a truckload of rice for the needy at the Harvest Moon Festival. The newspapers caught wind of it and wrote up a big story.
He came to see me, and I accused him of doing it intentionally to make headlines for himself. He insisted that it was not his intention, but that there was no way the reporters wouldn’t get wind of it. I told him that I was nevertheless suspicious of his motivations, and that he should have found a way of doing it so that he would have remained anonymous.
Many years ago there was an old benefactor in the countryside, and a youth of the village came to pay his respects to the man for his outstanding contributions. The youth said, “How noble you are! Being rich in itself is a great blessing, but what could be a greater blessing than sharing it with others?”
The man responded with, “You little creep! When did I ever help anybody? Helping somebody else is like having ringing ears. You know your ears are ringing, but nobody else does. Good works? Benevolence? What benevolence? If you’re going to talk about benevolence, get lost.”
This old benefactor is a perfect example of making true offerings. Helping others can be easy, or it can be difficult. But even more difficult is keeping quiet about it.
Women tend to be weaker physically and emotionally than men, and they like to chatter more. And it seems women like to brag more, too. I was asked why this was so, and my reply was that people carry weight according to their strength, and people wear clothing according to their height. Tall people have to have larger clothes, and shorter people have smaller clothes. This is equality. Strong people can exert their strength physically, but weaker people usually can only get on top of a situation by talking. So women have to be even more careful about bragging, especially about making offerings.
Buddhist Repentance, Prayer and Service
when Gandhi was in England, he studied Chrishanity and the Christian concept of love for fellow men. Later he studied Buddhism and discovered the Buddhist concept of love for all forms of life. He felt that although it was not proper to talk about other religions, if one made a comparison, Christianity was like a saucer of water and Buddhism was like an ocean.
The point is that Buddhism is not anthropocentric. It respects all forms of life. people, beasts, microbes-these are all subjects for Buddhist offerings. Helping all forms of life is the true Buddhist offering. It is genuine Buddhist practice, and it must become our personal practice. Only by doing so are we be able to avoid being classified as thieves by the Buddha.
After the Korean War, I spent some time at Pong-am-sa in the Mun-gyong area, and the late ven. Hyang-gok was staying there. He went to Pusan to deliver a Dharma lecture, and he talked about Buddhist offerings. He told the people assembled that a true offering was helping others, not playing the mokt’ak in a temple. He explained that a temple was the site where genuine offerings should be taught. He said that making offerings was something to be done outside of the temple, and he used examples from “Practices of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.” The people were quite delighted to hear all of this.
A few days after he returned to Pong-am-sa, a monk from Pusan came to see him. In those days the Chogye Sect had provincial organizations, and after ven. Hyang-gok had spoken in Pusan there evidently had been an emergency meeting at the Kyongnam provincial Chapter. The monk had quite a bit to say to Ven. Hyang-gok:
“I understand that you told the assembly that a temple was a place where people should learn how to make offerings outside the temple, and that true Buddhist offerings were done in the form of helping others. That amounts to telling them not to bring money to the temple. What are we monks supposed to do, starve to death? One monk was driven out of the temple and the place was in an uproar, all because of what you said. So please don’t ever say that again.”
A few days later, another monk came from the Chogye Headquarters in Seoul and said that in Seoul they had had a similar emergency meeting. Ven. Hyang-gok was quick in his response:
“Then what should I say instead? What you’re telling the people is that you have the powers of Buddha, so the more money they offer, the greater the blessings they’ll receive. Do you want me to go around saying things that will increase your income? Do you think you’re going to live for a thousand years, forever? It seems to me that sometime you’re going to die. What do you have against dying while teaching the words of the Buddha? Seems to me that that would be a rather glorious way to go. I don’t care what anyone else says―the only thing important to me is transmitting the Teachings. That’s all I can do, so leave me alone, and do as you like.”
You asked me to come here to speak to you today, and what do I do but give you a quick course on how to starve to death! You’re a bit worried, aren’t you?!
I’m sure there are other temples, not just Haein-sa, where people worry about this. But I’ve always tried to make what I think is an important point. It’s up to you whether you believe in Christianity or Buddhism or Taoism or nothing. But if you believe in Christianity, then you believe in Jesus, in what he taught and what he represents, and not just in the priest or minister. It’s the same with Buddhism-you’re supposed to believe in the Buddha, his Teachings, and what he represents, not just in the monks. If you believe just in the official representatives of a religion, you might wind up in a living hell rather than in heaven or paradise.
What I am telling today are not my own thoughts; I’m just transmitting to you what the Buddha said, so it’s okay for you to believe me!
You all know the old saying that if you’re pointing at the moon, you should see the moon, and not just your finger.
A monk is someone who learns the Teachings of the Buddha and who teaches how to make Buddhist offerings. A temple is a place where people are supposed to learn how to make genuine offerings. The subjects for your offerings are outside the temple, not inside. The subjects for offerings are not the temple Buddhas, but all living Buddhas outside the temple. We must cultivate our offerings on a broad scale, and that is how Buddhist offerings should be directed.
Monks should not be playing the mokt’ak and having people make offerings for longevity and blessings in front of the temple Buddha. Helping all forms of life is the only genuine Buddhist offering. we must understand this thoroughly, and we must practice it diligently. Only then will Buddhism start to grow new sprouts. I’d like to make some simple comparisons between Christianity and Buddhisrn because 1 think we have some things to learn from each another.
As far as doctrine is concerned, Buddhism and Christianity are beyond comparison, and quite a few scholars are coming to feel that way, too. Schopenhauer once said something to the effect that to compare Christianity to Buddhism was like throwing an egg at a boulder. And this is closer to the truth than it is an exaggeration, at least as far as doctrine is concerned. But today in Korea, in practice, it’s just the opposite.
The core of Mahayana Buddhism is selfless compassion for all that lives. But how many monks actually have this true sense of compassion? How many monks are actually helping others? In current terminology, this sense of compassion has been replaced by the word “service.” And it seems to me that monks have the least sense of service, while Christians are really doing a great deal of service. Let me give you an example.
I read an article somewhere about a place called Carmel Convent. On New Year’s Day, everyone drew lots for people who were in difficult straits―old folks, orphans, prisoners, and so on. If a person picked an old folks, home, that person had to pray for those people all day long each day for a full year. The same for someone who drew an orphanage or a prison. Their entire lives are centered around praying for others, not for themselves. This is the very basis of prayer, and these people are truly religious people. And how do they manage to live? They sell homemade candies and poultry for a living. They make their own livelihood, and pray only for others.
Well, what about Buddhism? If we must draw lines, Theravadins are basically concerned with their own enlightenment, while Mahayanists are sulpposed to live selflessly for all forms of life. And the real basis of Buddhism is Mahayana, not Theravadin. Yet few actually practice the mahayana way here in Korea. Those people in the convent rnake their own living but live for others. It’s not that there aren’t Buddhists like that today, but it seems that they are considerably fewer in number.
I’m not saying that we are supposed to follow the example of the Christians, because our doctrines are considerably different as are some of our methodologies. What I am saying, however, is that compassion for all forms of life is the very basis of Buddhism, and practicing this compassion is the genuine Buddhist offering around which we must center our very lives. And we must not think of it as “service,” “self-sacrifice,” or “love.” It should be done spontaneously, naturally and without a thought of the self, just as a mother cares for a child. If you applied medicine to a cut on your arm, would you consider that service or self-sacrifice or love? Of course not. In the same way, you should serve all forms of life.
Not too long ago a student came to see me at paengnyon-am, and I asked her what she thought about when she prostrated. Her response was that she was prostruting in hopes of becoming a person who helped others. I then asked her why she was going around in circles. “Don’t prostrate in hopes of becoming someone who helps others. Go out and make all forms of life happy, and then prostrate. And when you do prostrate, do it for all forms of life. That is quite different from prostrating just to become a person who helps others.”
The point is not to prostrate thoughtlessly. The point is to do everything, beginning with the first prostration, for all forms of life. And the next step is to pray for them every morning.
I make people who come to see me regularly do 108 prostrations before we meet. If you really want to help others, you should do 108 prostrations every morning, and do them for others. I, too, do 108 prostrations each morning. The condition is that, from the very start, I do not prostrate for myself. When you prostrate, recite a prayer from The 108 prastrations of Repentance
Now that I have become religiously aware, I am worshipping, but not in the hopes of blessings for myself, nor to be liberated and sent to paradise. I am worshipping with the hope that all sentient beings will be enlightened simultaneously, and I transfer all personal rnerit to this end.
You should both repent for and pray for all sentient beings, for all others. There is considerable rnerit in this, and this merit should also be transferred to all sentient beings. This transfer of merit is essential to the mahayana way. So you should add to your prayer:
And should there be any remaining merit, let none of it come to me. may it all be transferred to the Incomparable Eternal Dharma.
This exemplifies the Mahayana attitude of complete altruism. These methods of repentance and transference were developed in India, came through China, and firmly rooted themselves in Korea’s Shilla and Koryo dynasties. This was also practiced in all temples in China until communization. one doesn’t repent for one’s own misdoings, but for the misdeeds of all sentient beings and on behalf of all sentient beings. Then one prays for all sentient beings and transfers any and all personal merit to them all. This should be a basic attitude for all Buddhists. It should be their sense of mission, their very duty.
We also have another problem related to the Ven. Hyang-gok episode. Someone once asked me, “Sunim, you’re really frustrating me. I am the one who is hungry, and you’re telling me to go around feeding others? Am I supposed to starve to death?”
The principle of cause-and-effect is not something which applies only to Buddhists. It is basic universal law. If you plant green beans, you get green beans. If you plant red beans, you get red beans. If you sow good, you reap good, and if you sow misdeeds, you reap retribution.
Illness, poverty and all other forms of torment are retribution for previous misdoings, but people wonder what misdoings. Of course the average person has no recollection now, but all of these things are the culmination of your previous Karma in both this life and others. Present sufferings are for misdoings in the past.
On the other hand, good returns from good. So if you do good now, it will return to you in the future. Such things as helping others and praying for others will all return to you sometime in some form. So by praying for others, you’re actually praying for yourself in the same way that if you harm others, you’re actually harming yourself. And even if you do not wish to reap the rewards of helping others, there’s no way around it-merit will come to you. someone who helps to feed others is not going to starve. I think that the problem is that people, out of personal insecurities, are just arfaid of making that kind of commitment. They worry about their own stomachs first. But that is not the Mahayana way.
This is a very important point. If you pray for others in your daily life and help them, they become happy. And following this universal principle of cause-and-effect, all of this happiness will return to you.
You can see the same principle at work in biology and in ecology. If something is about to attack something else, it often becomes victimized first. Everything comes back to you sooner or later. If you don’t care for your crops, you’re the one who winds up hungry. So don’t worry about whether you’re going to starve to death if you feed others first. use your energy to make offerings in the way that the Buddha taught.
Let me make this point with another story. Once there was a man who didn’t know how to make true offerings and whose life was filled with wrongdoings, so he went to a hell. At the gate he looked inside and saw others in terrible torment, and he had to close his eyes at this unbearable sight. Most people in the same situation would think, “This is awful. If I go in there, I’ll have to suffer the same way. How can I get out of this one?”
This man thought otherwise, however. He wondered if there were any way in which he could, even for just a few minutes, be tormented instead so that these sufferers could have a reprieve. He wondered if there was any way that he could alleviate their torment. At the very instant he had this genuine thought, the hell disappeared and he found himself in paradise. If you think good, then goodness, even paradise appears before you.
Nowadays a lot of people are doing all kinds of good works, but there are many monks in the mountains who are not so active in such service because of their intense training. So I have one request. Lets following the Teachings of the Buddha, and make true Buddhist offerings whenever and wherever we can. And at the pre-dawn service, lets add a simple line to our prayers:
May all that lives be happy,
May all that lives be happy,
May all that lives be happy.
If you chant this line three times every morning, you’ll feel something inexpressible. And whether you prostrate once, or twice or a thousand times, do it for all sentient beings. Help all sentient beings, and pray for all sentient beings. You have to become sorneone who lives selflessly for all sentient beings. Otherwise you become one of those thieves that the Buddha was talking about. So let’s all rnake broadly cultivated, genuine Buddhist offerings together.