In a way, life is a continuous imparting of oneself in other people’s hearts. So we can say there is a continual process of giving something to someone. Whether you like it or not, that is just the way life is. If you know this, then give readily with pleasure. Give it according to your own environment and relations.
There is a maxim in this part of the world: `One swallow does not make a summer’. But I’ve never seen a swallow in Britain! I can, of course, imagine a mother swallow picking up a worm or an insect and bringing it back to the nest where her young chicks—maybe five or six of them—are waiting, making an awful noise, opening their mouths: Me first! Me first! Me first! Give it to me! Give it to me!
In a way, we are all constantly clamouring for nourishment—physical and mental. I will do my best, therefore, to feed you well. This, then, is a very rare moment for me and for all of you.
There is a Zen saying:
I have a Buddhist sutra. When I open it, I can find not one single character within it. It is written without ink and without paper. But from time immemorial it has radiated light.
I Mo Ko [the hua t’ou or koan What is this?]. If there is anybody here who has completely forgotten I Mo Ko, then please bring it to mind again.
The easiest and most harmful place for practitioners to find themselves in is the discursive mind—discrimination, analysing, categorising this and that, good and bad, here and now. But Zen uses quite abrupt methods and the teacher may just slap the practitioner whose mind is full of analytical and discursive thinking, blowing it up instantly, allowing the practitioner to immediately enter into a place of everlasting light.
When practising hua t’ou meditation, you may find that the teacher is very difficult to understand. There are two reasons for this. The first is that Zen teachers speak very little; they are very mean as far as explanations are concerned. If you have detailed explanations, you might be easily guided, but you might also think, `Oh, that’s it! I’ll do that!’ And you just sit comfortably. But you may be merely taking this into your own normal mental dimension. Superficially, you might feel that you are doing quite well, but in essence you are far far away from the right way.
Therefore, the teacher intentionally gives the least amount of verbal instruction, letting practitioners find their own way, feeling it for themselves. Then they will not merely be imitating or copying, like a computer graphic which can be exactly reproduced.
The second reason you, as westerners, may find Zen teachers very difficult to understand is because they live a totally foreign lifestyle. Modern western society provides a more convenient lifestyle. It is also based on analytical methods of thinking. When wishing to understand something, one is encouraged to analyse it and keep it on a flat dimension. But this kind of thinking and analysing has no end.
Because you may be accustomed to thinking discursively, therefore, it may be rather difficult to understand the teacher who says, `Do not try to answer by the discursive method of thinking the question I Mo Ko or What is This? Instead, face yourself, the reality of your own buddha-nature, your own original face, without any kind of make-up—foundation cream, eye shadow, various other cosmetics!
Sometimes people feel afraid because they don’t know what the teacher is talking about! `How we can face our own reality?’ But the teacher also has difficulty in getting the student’s discursive mind to understand what he is talking about. The best policy for the teacher, then, is to let practitioners continue with their practice, giving them time for some perspective to slowly come into focus. The most chronic disease for people who find it difficult to face reality is, indeed, this discursive mind.
So, I Mo Ko. I Mo Ko. What is this? What is this? When we practise hua t’ou meditation, we are simply trying to generate doubt: What is this? Sometimes the `this’ is crying, sometimes laughing, sometimes feeling depressed, sometimes being excited—walking, sleeping, eating, drinking, shouting, talking, reading. What is this which is doing innumerable things? What is this? I Mo Ko. I Mo Ko. Whatever you do, whatever kind of sensation comes into your mind, just say I Mo Ko. I Mo Ko. What is This?—generating doubts.
As soon as your discursive mind gets into motion, then you should realise, `Oh, this is a chronic disease which is arising in my mind.’ Then, even without knowing exactly what this means, face the reality of it and just say I Mo Ko. I Mo Ko. Whatever you are doing, even while reading a newspaper, keep your mind with I Mo Ko. You will then not go astray as a result of outside occurrences.
Initially, you may find it difficult to concentrate on I Mo Ko without bumping into people or treading on their toes. But as you develop this way of meditation, you find a kind of space, a relaxed space, and you get a broad perspective. You are keeping the meditation I Mo Ko with the five senses open to the outside world. However, the senses are led less by outside influences. More and more you stand still. You act positively rather than responding habitually. So, if you continue this meditation, you will feel this, you will experience it for yourself.
Zen practice is not some ideology. It is a most advanced science, bringing body and mind together. This is simultaneously healthy and flexible. In order to be open to and to embrace every external thing, we must be receptive. If our minds have a tendency to be fixed and are too conservative or narrow, then we cannot have much space to accept, to allow different views, different colours, different ways of doing things. Different ways of doing things has its own value. It is a matter of where a person is standing. You sit there and your viewpoint is different from mine sitting here. Naturally, viewpoints differ from person to person. But why is it so difficult to understand another person’s viewpoint? People might say, `Your view is rubbish! Only mine is right! Mine is the best!’
Why are we like that? Because we are being led by external sensations, external perceptions. We do not go deep enough, do not touch the bottom of this primordial spring, the fountainhead, the original face, the buddha-nature. As you develop this meditation, however, you will have more space; you will accommodate all views, all opinions. This does not mean you become a person without any kind of viewpoint or special way of doing things. We are conditioned in this physical form, so we are bound to have particular ways of doing things, particular viewpoints.
Although we assert our opinions according to our environment and education or understanding, we are also ready to understand other people’s points of view—because we know the reason for having many different views. In the same manner, when we really understand this original face, then we will not be a slave to external sensations.
`Life is very short,’ people say. I also feel that very strongly. The person is very happy who has numerable things to do with joy. It is important that whatever we do, we enjoy it. You are sitting in the meditation hall with I Mo Ko, I Mo Ko, but then, `Oh, the pain in my back! Oh, I’m losing my leg! How can I continue without moving until the gong goes in forty-five minutes?’ You can, however, change your attitude in meditation. Experiment the next time you sit so that when this kind of negativity arises simply get rid of it, get rid of all mental coverings. Take them all away and come from the position of, `All right, I will sit properly. I won’t scratch an itch on my face. I will just sit still until the bell goes.’ Please experiment.
When you first sit cross-legged, you may get various sensations in your back or legs. Maybe after fifteen or twenty minutes, for example, you lose the feeling entirely in one leg. If you move to relieve the sensation, however, you may never learn to sit for long periods of time. But, strangely, if you let the pain or discomfort just be there, assume it to be something external, as merely pain which does not belong to anybody, which is not one’s own self, then—maybe after twenty or twenty-five minutes without moving—it will simply disappear. When I first sat on the cushion this is what I experienced. After about fifteen minutes or half an hour, I lost the feeling in my leg. But, according to the instructions I was given, I didn’t move. Then five or ten minutes later the discomfort went and the feeling in my leg returned.
We are living in a society which looks for convenience in all things. But this is detrimental to a healthy life! People have become permissive—you can do whatever you want. A Conservative MP once told me that everyone has his or her own right to go to hell—this was during a few words I had with her about the drug problem. What I am saying is we should have some determination. Determination makes the change. Intellectual understanding alone does not bring about fundamental change. You should be careful about the discursive mind, the discursive thinking process. In other words, try to learn how to think simply, without making things complicated. Once discursive mind pops up, it produces many children, many branches and twigs grow making things very entangled. It is a matter of learning to think simply and living simply—a frugal way of thinking and living. That is what the Zen master tells the follower.
Koreans enjoy hot springs. In fact, and in recent years they have become quite popular as a result of Korea’s new material wealth. I once visited one such place which had opened near my monastery. It consisted of three saunas, three steam baths, very hot bathtubs, very cold baths, and an outdoor cold bath where the sky was the roof. I enjoyed going from one thing to the other like a child. Of course, this was for men only, but I was sad to see that most of those over forty or fifty years of age were very overweight. Even boys of six or seven were overweight.
When the baby is born from his mother’s womb after making her uncomfortable for nine months, he is such a beloved child. But then he makes his karma according to his speech, bodily behaviour, and thinking—only sitting, only talking, only accumulating, eating, eating, eating. This is a kind of money-hoarder, or food-hoarder like Scrooge.
When we take, we should also give freely to other people, to the outside. Buddha says that nothing stays, nothing stands still. But people just grab, just cling, just take. We should let everything go, let everything take its course, let it all go. If we don’t let everything go, if we grab inside, then a kind of unbalanced bodily posture comes into being. A mentally unbalanced kind of disease comes into being. Body and mind are interwoven, they collaborate, they are two sides of the same coin. That is why a spiritual practitioner can see the person’s mind through his or her face.
The Zen teaching and innumerable Buddhist scriptures are a very poor sketch of how you can see your original face, your buddha-nature. When someone points to the moon, you should look at the moon, not the finger. That is what the Zen master says. You can easily understand this simile—and yet not really understand it. In actuality, you are constantly being driven by the poor sketch. Think about it. You see your husband, your wife, your children. You live under the same roof with them. But you are far far away from each other.
This important counsel is also for members of the sangha, like myself. We should be an example—not as a show, but quite naturally. We should be an example of practice, and not just erudite speakers. There is a saying: However many sutras you memorise or recite, if you don’t put even one line of a stanza into practice, it is all just a waste of time. So we should make a distinction between the sketch, the Buddhist scriptures or teachings, the guidelines, etc, and the thing which is being aimed at.
Think about the many things in your house. How many pairs of shoes do you have? How many ties? How many clothes? Do you just buy them to satisfy a passing whim? Do you see something attractive and buy it, maybe using a credit card and putting yourself into debt? Not only does this produce financial difficulty, but perhaps more importantly it is making your home, your environment, into a kind of rubbish dump.
When you have too many things, you realise that your space is being invaded. It is like a child with too many toys. He doesn’t want to play with them, but neither does he want them to be taken away. He just wants to keep them. So his room becomes a kind of toy shop. Well, parents do that also.
We could use things for a long time, on the other hand, giving them gentle care so that they become part of us, become a kind of living thing, a living being. We don’t need many things, do we? Apply this attitude to clothes, shoes, all kinds of household goods. Have a car boot sales, make a spacious room in your house and convert it into a meditation hall!
Korean families are beginning to accumulate many things. They go to Rome and buy miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa’s, come to England and buy miniature bone china roses. Their living rooms are filling up with so many things you can’t find a blank space for your eyes to rest. Calligraphy and paintings are also fashionable and good investments. People don’t necessarily appreciate the aesthetic beauty of these paintings or know the meaning of the calligraphy, but they just decorate their walls with them. However, simplicity—external and internal—is the only way to enjoy life and to live the dharma. We should live the dharma, not just have a marvellous mountain of ideas.
Although we recognise flowers, trees, etc, and although we listen to passing cars or birds singing, while we do not see our original face or know the origin of this kind of function, then our lives are shallow, driven merely by external stimulation. We are driven, so that when we smell something sweet, we feel happy, and when we smell something awful, we feel unhappy and pull a face. By returning to the centre of this buddha-nature, by seeing our original face—our being before we were born from the womb of our mothers—we see things, but are not driven by them; we hear sounds, enjoy them, but are not driven by them; we smell flowers and enjoy feelings, but are not driven by them. That is the difference.
Our original nature always has equanimity and joy, so that whatever happens, even something standing in the way, can just be utilised. We can say, `Thank you. You are my teacher. You interest me.’ And start to learn, start to experience that which it is not possible to experience in the normal environment.
The Zen master is not attached to one thing. His mind is like the clear sky. There is not even one thing which, in the pure sense, he really keeps. That is why he can see sound through his ear, hear the tree through his ear, so he could be everything. He is not conditioned by the eye, ear, nose, smell, or by anything. So we say that when you are really in unison with other people, you can communicate without verbal speech. If this kind of a communication is fully open, then it is like Avalokiteshvara who has the all-omniscient capacity to hear sound through the eye, etc. Then he is the real `man of freedom’.
This kind of person is not different from us. There is but a thin covering separating us from being a real `man of freedom’. How can we remove the covering? Through continuous meditation. In my case it is through I Mo Ko, I Mo Ko, What is this? What is this? Maybe you will decide to use this meditation until your last breath. Maybe you will experience many things which are really helpful and enjoyable, and accommodate many difficult things without experiencing difficulty, instead enjoying readiness. If you wonder if this is possible, may I say that I really do enjoy it, I just experience, I witness. But the Buddha, more than anyone else, was the man who really enjoyed this experience, as did many Zen masters from, say, 1,000 years ago. Although they lived in this samsaric [unsatisfactory] world, they just enjoyed it happily like a lotus flower.
I advise you to practise in daily life for, say, fifteen or twenty minutes, regularly, continuously, consecutively. Then you will experience it; you will feel it; you will live it.
Buddhism Now August 2002
Click here to see other teachings by Jisu Sunim
[Jisu Sunim, a Korean Buddhist monk, is based in Korea. Occasionally he travels to Europe and Britain. The above is from a talk given as part of the 1996 summer school in Leicester.]
Filed under: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Ch'an / Seon / Zen, Mahayana Tagged: | #longread, Art Metropolitan Museum of Art, hua t'ou meditation, I Mo Ko, Jisu Sunim, Koan practice, Korean Buddhism, Longform, Zen koan