We must not stay at the Zen of Words, by Haechun Sunim

Avalokitesvara, Korea (This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.)As a laywoman, I received a hwadu [a Zen koan] and practised meditation. I felt that existence was false and vain; I had no interest in the worldly life. Wanting only to discover truth and become a liberated being, in 1950 I entered the temple and was ordained in 1952. I then meditated in Taesongam for ten years under the direction of Mansong Sunim.

I would like to tell you a little bit about this nun, Mansong Sunim. She had once practised at Kyongsongam, a place of great activity where laypeople would come regularly to the many ceremonies, and the wooden bell would be struck daily calling everyone to work together, One day Mansong Sunim wanted so much to practise quietly that she took her cushion and set off for the mountains. Two nuns ran after her shouting, ‘Sunim! Sunim! The wooden bell has been struck. You must go to work!’ At which she shouted back, ‘You two — there are places where people who prevent others from meditation go to — you’ll both end up in hell!’ Then she disappeared into the forest.

Later in life, when Mansong Sunim created the Zen Hall of Taesongam, she took great care of the meditators. They were allowed to sit as much as they wanted to and the ‘working’ wooden bell was never struck. In fact, she did much of the work herself— all day long, every day, she worked. Having obtained great strength from her practice, she was able to use her mind differently from ordinary people.

Once, I did a week of nonsleep practice all by myself. Mansong Sunim came along and said, ‘Haechun, in this lifetime you will awaken to your nature. Continue to put as much effort into your practice as you are doing right now.’

When I first started to question ‘What is it?’ [the koan], I tried too hard, using the head to try to figure it out. But, because the practice did not develop the way I wanted it to, a fever broke out — my body became hot, I shivered continuously, my head ached badly, and even my lips began to crack. I spoke to the Zen master about this and he told me to rest. But, really, irrespective of whether the head hurts or not, or whether we live or die, we should not rest. We should continue no matter what. Because that master told me to rest, I did so, and I slept a lot. But, really, one of the greatest obstacles to meditation is sleeping; another one is talking!

What I was suffering from was something called sangee. This is a condition that occurs when the body and mind have not grasped the middle course — the body is weak, and yet there is a pressing on with the mind. It is important to practise while healthy, sleeping just for as long as is needed — about three or four hours a day. It does not always work out that way, of course. Sometimes one just wants to practise totally, regardless of life or death. Then one does not eat or sleep. There have been times in my life when I have done it this way — without eating or sleeping — regardless of life and death. If one cannot stop oneself, it is important to follow one’s inclinations. Sangee might arise, but we continue. If we die, it doesn’t matter; at least we shall have tried.

Iron Buddha Jokjosa temple. Korea (This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.)Until I practised under Mansong Sunim, my mind was as if gasping for air. It would dart here and there all the time, never resting in stillness, and I could not practise properly. As soon as I took hold of the question [the hwadu ‘What is it?’], my mind would become distracted. And then, concerned about not practising well, my mind would become even more restless. Finally, Mansong Sunim told me to relax. After that, my mind became level and quiet. Even if I had sangee, it didn’t matter — the mind that seemed to be fighting for air had ceased to do so. This mental gasping had, in fact, been an energy, a very restless energy, preventing me from holding the question, and tiring me unnecessarily. When this energy relaxed, the practice became easier.

Mansong Sunim didn’t give long dharma talks because every two weeks we would go to listen to Zen Master Tongsan in the main temple. But sometimes she would question us without warning. If we were cleaning wild herbs, for example, she would suddenly say, ‘The person who is cleaning the herbs, say something now!’ Or, when we were cleaning the Zen Hall, she might pick up a cushion, display it to us without a word, and then beat it. We should have been able to give an answer to such actions, but because of our being blocked, we could not. Then, a great determination would arise within us all. We could not sleep, and would sit all night.

Once, in guise of an answer, I took the clapper and hit her with it. But she exclaimed, ‘Why did you hit me? Why did you hit me?’ I couldn’t follow that through, so I gave up and stopped.

It was great for the practice to be there. Generally, at around 11.00pm or midnight we would lie down and fall asleep. After a while, I would wake up and look around me. Most of the others would be meditating! Everyone had great intention and faith; it was most inspiring.

For us, to be alive is to practise. The question is our very life. If we hold it continuously, this is proof that we are alive. ‘What is it?’ is everything. Because I cultivate the question, I can be in Seoul if I want to be. If I didn’t do this, I could not be in Seoul. I became a nun because I was not fond of worldly life. If I were not to practise, how could I live in Seoul?

When we receive the hwadu, at first we repeat it, ‘What is it? What is it?’ And we repeat it continuously like a mantra, to make it work. As we apply ourselves more and more, without necessarily sticking to it, suddenly it will stay in the mind: This thing — truly, what is it?’ With deep perplexity, a feeling of doubt exists without any obstruction; it is softly and deeply there — ‘What… is … this?’

When a feeling of perplexity arises, we try to stay with it, gently, so that it is not cut off. It continues, and we try to feed that sensation of doubt. At such a time, it is important to practise even more diligently. This state of perplexity is quiet and clear. The mind is very quiet; it is also very bright. To describe this in words is difficult. Practising the question is like tasting two different kinds of water — one salty, the other not. Only by tasting them yourself, will you know which one is salty. And only to someone who has tasted salt can salty water be talked about, otherwise it is of no use — the person will not know the taste of salt.

It is the same with meditation. It doesn’t work merely to talk about it; you cannot do it through words. When it comes to the question ‘What is it?’, you must receive it from a teacher who really knows. If you are unclear, you can go to that person and, even without words, he or she will know what kind of illness you have caught. The question cannot be taught by reasoning.

You must, therefore, accept the hwadu from someone who has great realization; then it is easy to practise. A person who climbs a high mountain is able to see all around, but those who climb only halfway will only see that much; their vision will be greatly reduced and they won’t be able to see what is above, only what is below.

What is helpful is to practise with someone who is diligent, who has great dedication and determination. That will be much easier. If you practise with someone who is playing around all day, it will not be of much benefit. This life is fleeting, impermanent; there is no time to lose. If you go here and there, flitting like a butterfly, when will you practise? Look at an apple. If you eat a whole one, it is very different from eating only half, or a quarter. If you start to think of this or that, your strength will weaken.

If someone wanted to practise alongside me, for example, it would not really help them because I’m working all the time. You must practise with someone who practises all the time, while awake or sleeping; as soon as they wake up, the question is there.

You should also select the place carefully. If you are weak, it is good to be in a place which is strong. Of course, it is fine to practise in the market place, but this requires a lot of strength. Long ago, a worthy one said, ‘Oh, when I have wandering thoughts, it would be nice to practise in a quiet place.’ But his master told him to practise right in the market place.

Singyesa Buddhist temple, in the 1930s. Korea (This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.)It is important to practise in noisy places, as well as in quiet ones; this will give you strength. A beginner’s attention will be diverted easily by sounds, smells, sights, etc. But when you have practised for a while, you can maintain your practise in any situation. According to your strength in practice, you should choose an adequate place.

The masters also tell us to practise while working — chopping wood, tending the fields, cooking rice. Meditation is not just sitting all day.

If you want to develop strength in practice, of course, sitting for long periods is a quick and sure method because that is all you are doing. You are totally focused on the practice, which makes it easier. You could do this for four days, or more, up to ten days non-stop. However, when you are tired you have to lie down; when you are hungry, you have to eat; when you are dirty, you have to wash. There are a lot of things you have to do. Personally, I would rather just sit and practise, without having to move.

I do not know about compassion and wisdom outside of meditation. These days young nuns say we are putting too much emphasis on medi­tative sitting instead of helping people. I’m not so sure about that. Of what greater benefit could we be to them but to become liberated from birth and death? Birth and death is the greatest problem. What else is there? If we want to benefit others, we should complete the practice, and then we shall be able to guide them. This is the greatest benefit. When we are blind, when our sight is obscured and we do not know, how can we teach others?

In this materialistic world, if nobody tells people to practise meditation, who will practise it? One should teach beginners as beginners, recommending to them this and that method. One should teach the very determined meditators to become awakened. It must not be in words; it must be through practise.

The source of Zen is awakening. We must not stay at the Zen of words. To see the nature and become a Buddha, this is the foundation. Meditators can teach others to the extent that they have practised and experienced it themselves. It is important to acknowledge that one does not know. To pretend, in meditation, is not acceptable.

We can say, ‘As yet, I do not know for myself, but the Buddha said this … And Bodhidharma said that… Let’s practice together in this way.’ This is fine! Who knows, the student may awaken before the teacher. In Buddhism, there is the saying: Although there might be a hierarchy according to who has entered the temple first, in awakening, there is no hierarchy, there is no line — it is according to our roots and our efforts.’

Water must be a hundred degrees for it to boil. If, every day, we only
heat it up to eighty degrees, when will it ever boil? And if it was a thousand
degrees, everything would melt. It is the same with meditation. If we put
all our effort into it, it can bear fruit. It will never happen if we do it comfortably till we die.

To read more of Martine’s translations click here.

Haechun Sunim, a highly respected seventy-five year old Korean nun, who is head of the Buddhist Korean nun’s association in Seoul, tells her story to Martine Batchelor. This article was made possible by a grant from the Korean Foundation.

Published in the Buddhism Now May 1995



Categories: Biography, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, Encyclopedia, History, Mahayana, Martine Batchelor

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