The first time I came to Korea in 1975, the first nun I talked to was Myoljin Sunim. Two years later we spent a memorable three-month retreat together. Fifteen years after that I was directed to a small temple in the outskirts of Seoul to meet a highly respected, veteran nun meditator, and there she was again — Myoljin Sunim! We were overjoyed at meeting once more after so long.
In the Lotus Sutra it is said: ‘One has to experience difficulties and suffering in order to develop wisdom.’ From this text we can learn the right way to live.
We are all born in order to perform a certain task. There is not a blade of grass which has no name. Even people who perform negative actions have their place. If I see someone perform a negative action, I reflect that I must not do such a thing myself. The negative person, therefore, also has to be born.
Goodness can come out of badness, but badness does not come out of goodness. For this reason the world is impartial; it is the way of the One Vehicle. Everything can come on board this One Vehicle — animals, human beings, and everything. This is the vehicle propounded by the Lotus Sutra.
It is difficult to be a good nun, a great responsibility. We must be extremely careful of each thought and not go astray. If our thoughts go in the right direction, then realisation is easy.
People who are ill come to this temple, meditate together and are cured. If we achieve a certain level in our meditation, it is important to cultivate together with others — to go through difficulties together, to experience suffering together, and then wisdom will come. Then we are able to talk to people and they are able to listen and to benefit. Even if we do not talk, it is enough to sit in zazen and for people to see that.
First we must develop concentration in meditation and then we can practise giving of ourselves in service — we can practise this sort of service work and Zen, side by side. Nowadays, I meditate at night and undertake this work during the daytime.
It is said that in a very short space of time there are seven hundred revolutions of our distracted thoughts. Often we do not know they revolve like this in our minds. But if we meditate for only a short while, the restless mind slows down and distracted thoughts stop for that amount of time, and our minds become clearer.
After practising meditation for a while, we must enter the state of no-self. When the self is let go of, self and body disappear, and there is great brightness. If we sit and enter the state of no-self only, however, strength will not come. We also need to do a worthwhile practice of service before wisdom and compassion can arise. Of course, meditation pacifies the mind as well as the body — we look quiet and restrained, and a certain composure is created — but this by itself will not produce wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is something alive; it has to move.
If the earth is very hard, nothing will grow in it. If it is rich, however, many weeds will spring up. When we practise earnestly, a lot of distractions appear, but if we pull out those distractions as we go along, slowly they will die. If there is some good earth and we pull out a certain number of weeds, and then plant some cereal in it, the cereal will grow well and the rest of the weeds will gradually die.
In the same way, if we practise meditation diligently, one thought only will develop [the thought: ‘What is this?’], then strength will be produced and distracted thoughts will disappear little by little of themselves. People who have practised much in a past life, can go quickly to realisation. The rest of us have been born with a certain task to accomplish.
The cells of the root of a plant take their nourishment from the water in the ground. The cells of the leaves take their nourishment from the sun. A cell of the root cannot take its nourishment from the sun, and a cell of the leaves cannot take its nourishment from the earth. In the same way, we need to practise diligently in the place where we are, then the whole tree will grow. This is equanimity — to try to practise in our own place.
If we diligently undertake a task which fits our make up, at the same time practising zazen, then the whole world will move; our health will also improve because at that moment we revolve with the whole world. There isn’t much benefit in only sitting on a cushion and not doing anything else.
When we practise Zen in the four postures [sitting, standing, walking and lying down], questioning ‘What is this?’, the sensation of doubt will develop strongly. As we live in meditation, from time to time we shall understand things deeply and we shall enter the state of no-self. Thus, wisdom will develop. When we are in the state of the three poisons (greed, delusion and anger), and then try to accomplish something, there is no unity in our intention and things don’t go well. However, if we walk on with only this one thought [‘What is this?’], then we shall understand whatever confronts us because there is a unity with truth.
We always continue with the doubt, but at some point the thought that we are doubting must also disappear; then truth appears; then emptiness appears. As everything is dissolved, something new comes into being. We live anew. There is birth only after destruction. In the same way, when birth has totally come about, destruction will appear. When death is all done, it becomes birth. When one has no thought and the question ‘What is it?’ has disappeared as well, then we enter the state of no-self. But this is not emptiness, it is not nothing — we awaken and see truth.
We have to be careful. There are many koans to help us raise the doubt, but in a way, anything can be used to raise the doubt — a passage from a sutra, or some event in our daily lives. Not everyone raises doubt from a koan. We should use whatever helps us to raise the doubt, rather than force ourselves to raise it from an obscure koan.
If we enter deeply, it will work and our practice will develop. If we enter the doubt [the ‘what is this?’], we enter the state of no-self. In the state of no-self, we do not see what is external; we see inside the mind with a different eye; we hear from a different ear which is not this ear. Then we have transcended the three poisons and are in the realm of the spirit.
When I was young, I used to wonder: ‘Why do we live?’ I wanted to understand the origin of life, so I studied biology and mircroorganisms, cytology. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find anything! Then I met someone who told me that I would understand and discover the answer to my question by practising Zen, that by awakening I would know myself and the essence of life.
During the holidays, I meditated very hard, hoping to complete my search before they ended. And one day, suddenly, everything became obvious — I had an answer to all my questions! The explanations kept on forming inside my mind. It was so marvellous and fascinating that I continued sitting all day and all night. But this was a mistake! It was all intellectual — ideas, which kept revolving and revolving in a vacuum. A fever developed and painful headaches! I had tried too hard. So I went to see the master who told me to relax and to try to go beyond all these intellectual answers.
I am fifty-eight now and have been a nun for thirty-four years. I ordained in Sokmamsa where I stayed for fifteen years. As well as meditating in the Zen hall, I would also practise sometimes while working in the kitchen. When they wanted me to take some official position, however, I left. After that I went to various meditation halls and hermitages. But however long I stayed, I would always think that this was not it. I would spend time in the Zen halls during the meditation season and return to the hermitages in the free season. I kept going from one place to another, always dissatisfied.
A nun doesn’t stay by herself in a hermitage; that isn’t possible. Generally she will share with two or three other nuns. It is a place where she can meditate, but there are a lot of other things to do as well — cutting wood, preparing food, keeping the house in good repair, and so on. She must do everything by herself. It is a certain discipline, a certain practice of doing something which is worth while, but it is only for her own benefit.
Truly practising something worth while, of service, is to share the difficulties of others, to meditate and to read together. We must be able to give of ourselves in this way. To act just for ourselves might be useful for a short while, but it is unnecessary to do it for a long time. For a short time, to try this very diligently will give us strength. But once that strength has been achieved, we must go out and do things together with other people — share and listen to their sufferings, support them by advising them wisely, praying and meditating with them.
When we stay in the Zen hall, practising sitting meditation, lay people will come and bow to us three times. This might be fine for some, but after I came to this temple I realised this was not my path. I started to think that we should share the burden of all sentient beings and that it is only possible to receive three bows when we have resolved everything within ourselves and can help other people. Of course, we can bow to each other out of respect and politeness.
It is from a place of no-self that brightness comes. And people can be helped by that brightness. I realised that to obtain this no-self and this brightness, just sitting was not enough. That is why I came to this temple which is dedicated to the Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutra is the teaching of the last period of the Buddha’s life.
In the celibate order in Korea, the Lotus Sutra is not highly regarded because the married monks study it a lot! I used to be the same — just meditating and never looking at this sutra. I would read the records of the Zen masters and postponed looking at the sutras, presuming that only after I had awakened would I be able to understand them all. But once I started reading the Lotus Sutra, I couldn’t read anything else; it is so good.
I have been the abbess of this temple for three months. I decided to cultivate this giving of myself for some time in order to develop more strength in my practice. This will help me to develop humility. Later on I shall go back to full-time practice. Here we only read the Lotus Sutra and practise zazen. This has been very beneficial for me.
New people come every day. I speak to them and we sit together. They appreciate this kind of dharma meeting. Entering the state of no-self gives them renewed strength. For me it is easier to do zazen than to work, so I am happy to help them in their practice by working and meditating with them.
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[This article was made possible by a grant from the Korean Foundation.]
From the August 1995 Buddhism Now