Buddha-nature: Theravada Zen

Last year, as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations, the Bangkok Hanmaum Seonwon hosted a joint Dharma talk on the subject of Buddha-nature with the Theravadan monk Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku, the founder and guiding light of the English-language Littlebang Sangha, and Chong Go Sunim, who had kindly made the trip from the Hanmaum International Centre in Anyang, Korea.

Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku, popularly known as Phra Pandit, started the evening with a brief history of Theravadan and Mahayanan Buddhism, and how the differences between them are not as great as they might at first seem. After all, he said, everything started at the same point, with the Buddha putting aside all theories and looking into the nature of things for himself.

What he saw under the Bodhi tree was experience in terms of fields of awareness, sight, sound, taste, and so on, and that they were forever changing. Finding no stability in this, he withdrew his mind and found it becoming brighter and sharper. And what he discovered there, the Buddha declared, was that which does not die.

He gave this a number of names such as original mind, source of mind, Nirvana, and so on, and later it was termed Buddha-nature. Phra Pandit suggested it was perhaps a little egotistical to give it this name as it exists in all people, regardless of the labels they use. A bit, he teased, like planting a flag on the moon.

He also pointed out that seeing this fundamental mind is a temporary experience and that we inevitably return back into normal life. However, once seen, it will change one’s way of relating to the world. The great problem, though, is how attainment of this fundamental mind can be taught. No matter what is said about it, it is not it.

So Buddhist teachings are like radio stations. We can switch between them, some we will like, some not, but the point is the silence beneath. Using the analogy of the diamond in the mud, Phra Pandit said that reaching it through purification or reaching it through realisation were simply differences in emphasis.

Chong Go Sunim agreed, pointing out how the Buddha’s teachings, using another analogy, are like medicine. And no single medicine is good for all illnesses. So a range of Buddhist teachings developed according to the needs of listeners. Different Sutras, in fact, are simply saying, “okay, let me put it like this, now like this”.

But the point to all these teachings is to transcend the limited sense of self, and Chong Go Sunim described how his own teacher, Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, emphasises the practice of letting go. Like chanting, bowing, and meditation, he said, it is a tool for transcending the self, and a self-correcting one at that.

Often, he said, people have great meditation experiences or insights, but make the mistake of saying “wow, I want that again”. Soon, they are carrying around little more than a memory of a past experience. By practicing letting go, they are able to move on from it. But to carry out this practice requires trust.

Which is where Buddha-nature comes in. Chong Go Sunim, before he became a monk, used to sky-dive, and he explained that no matter how badly you might be spinning through the air, simply getting into the correct position allows you to right yourself. In terms of practice, that position is the act of trusting and letting go.

“Perhaps this is all just a skillful means” Chong Go Sunim said, “but I can’t say it’s not true” and with the way that one’s ignorance grows back again and again, just like a monk’s hair, one must return to this practice over and over. Like the the Diamond Sutra, he concluded, which seems to repeat itself, but at deeper levels.

The evening ended with a short time for questions and answers and in response to one question Chong Go Sunim, using the large bell at the front of the Dharma Hall, demonstrated, to an audience of mainly English-speaking Bangkok residents, the sound of a Korean chant. The perfect way to round off a unique and wonderful evening of Dharma.

LittleBang: the English-language Bangkok Sangha

If you do what everyone else is doing…

I posted this elsewhere, but Evelyn in Germany offered such an insightful comment that I thought it was worth reposting here.

A few weeks ago, I overheard Daehaeng Kun Sunim say the following sentence during an interview:

 If you just do what everyone else is doing, you’ll be screwed.*   

How’s that for a to-the-point Dharma talk! She was talking about the cost of following the herd, but even more than that, the cost of not making an effort to find your own, true root; and the cost of not listening to this root, your Buddha-nature.

Following the herd – in the beginning it may seem the easiest way… you don’t offend, you aren’t blamed. there are many places and opportunities ‘following the herd’ isn’t just wished but wanted from you – at school, in your job, at home. not to follow the herd implicates annoyance, dismissive treatment and a general uncertainty. you’ll think twice to dare! you try to please everybody. you run… up to the day you are at point zero. you are shattered. and yes, you are screwed. you feel desperately helpless. finally you start thinking again. who’s to blame if you aren’t where you want to be? who’s to blame when you aren’t doing what you want to do? how to untangle this situation and not to destroy everything?

You have to be brave. you have to take the risk. and you have to take the responsibility. then maybe you’ll find out wherefore you are here. it’s worth the effort…

   *The word Daehaeng Kun Sunim used was ‘mang-ha-da’, which could be literally “ruined,” but the nuance was much more like “screwed” or “up a creek.”

mending the seam

Mending the seam between self and others has been an extraordinary challenge. The teachings have given me the conceptual realization that I am but a thread in the cloth that makes up our existence, now I must do the work to experience that concept within.

I found “No River To Cross” momentous in the ongoing development of such a realization; Look within, trust your inherent nature, let the fundamental mind take care of things, are the mottoes that one is left to consider. At first, I had to ask myself, “How will I experience non-duality by focusing on myself?” I think it’s by looking past all the things that are usually associated with self; What’s my favorite color? What song do I feel like hearing? What do I want to eat? Beneath these are very universal functions. Actually, we spend every moment in non-duality, it’s just covered over by the daily concerns of self.

As I clear away enough mental debris to poke a finger-hole through, like in the paper windows of a temple door, my thoughts echo those of Dae Haeng Kun Sunim:

Your fundamental mind, your true self is invisibly connected to all things in the world and through it all things communicate with each other and work together as one. In this way, the whole universe is functioning together as one through fundamental mind, so this working together is called One Mind (Hanmaum).

The big difference is, she’s sitting peacefully on the inside, and I’m standing here fiddling with the latch!

Practicing through our fundamental mind

Practitioners don’t get caught up in labels
such as “man” or “woman,”
nor the preconceptions that go with such labels.
They’re focused on going forward while relying upon this fundamental mind.
Even if their situation seems unfair,
they see it in a positive light, and are at peace.
They don’t stir up the intellect and “I,” or give rise to plans and goals,
instead, they take the events of their daily life,
and entrust them to their fundamental mind.
While entrusting these things,
if they give raise a thought free of “I” and “mine,”
that thought will manifest into the world.
This is why this practice is so convenient and practical,
it reaches everywhere and communicates with everything.

It’s so hard to be born as a human,
but it’s even more difficult
to become a true human being.
It’s not something that someone else
can give you,
nor are great physical hardships necessary.
Listen often to Dharma talks,
try to practice through mind,
experience what happens
and know for yourself.


Belief and confidence are essential to this process.
Don’t worry about whether your practice is going better or worse than others.
Don’t try to achieve everything all at once,
steady and consistent is the key.
Steadfast faith in your fundamental Buddha-nature,
and consistently entrusting everything to it
is the most important thing.

In this new year,
I hope that you all will live together non-dually,
living as one,
working together as one,
and freely giving and receiving whatever’s needed.

                                        —Daehaeng Kun Sunim
copyright 2010, The Hanmaum Seonwon Foundation

What feeds your spirit?

The great Korean Buddhist teacher Hanam Sunim (1876-1951) once said that the things we do in our lives either brighten our minds, or darken them. (He said that there’s really no neutral ground, just effects that are too subtle for us to notice.) 

I thought of this the other day, when I came across this great line :

Another washing machine, a bigger car, a nicer house to live in? Not much to feed the spirit in all that.  (Bangkok Tattoo, 179)

So here’s an open question for everyone: What feeds your spirit?

Ox Herding: No River to Cross

One of the very best Buddhist sites on the Internet is the ‘Ox Herding’ blog maintained by long-term practitioner Barry Briggs. Barry been running the site since June 2008 and it is essential reading. The blog started with a different theme each day matched with questions to challenge the reader’s ideas and practice, and has developed over time.

More recently Barry has introduced occasional week-long themes, which he often starts with a well-chosen cartoon and caps with a Friday video. Past themes have included, naturally, the Ox Herding pictures, as well as Zen art, the five desires, the poet Rilke, the nature of time, and, just last week, Zen books. One of the books he reviewed was ‘No River to Cross’.

It is a wonderful review which highlights and describes aspects and features of ‘No River to Cross’ in such a way that I, despite having read the book many times before, could see things about it in a fresh new light. The main thrust of the review is that ‘No River’ is a book about practice, or “practice life” as Barry so beautifully puts it.

“Zen Master Daehaeng” Barry writes, “strips away any notion that practice consists of technique. Instead, she views practice as a more expansive and ultimately more profound type of engagement with the world.” A perspective shared, of course, by Barry’s own root teacher Zen Master Seung Sahn, who once, when asked about the essence of Korean Seon, said:

This is NOT a school of samadhi, OK?
This is not about feeling good.
It’s about “How may I help you?”

I first heard that wonderful exchange on Barry’s blog, where he capped it with the comment “That’s the whole, sweet story.” And if ever I’d been in any doubt about the closeness between the teaching of Masters Seung Sahn and Daehaeng Kun Sunim, Barry’s review offers a fabulous line from Seung Sahn Sunim which directly parallels the practice of entrusting to Buddha-nature: “If you don’t hold onto anything, you will get everything.”

Thank you Barry. Not just for your wonderful warm review of ‘No River to Cross’, a review that allowed me to see the book from a whole new perspective, but for all your efforts on Ox Herding over the past couple of years, creating a true treasure house of beautiful teachings and reflections, and for all your work in the Dharma long before that. Thank you.

Ox Herding: No River to Cross

The Samadhi Treatise of the Treasure King

I remember seeing a different version of this in the Jogyesa magazine some years ago, but what follows is a fresh new translation by Chong Go Sunim which I first saw at one of our Saturday discussions in the Buddhist English Library of Seoul. Chong Go Sunim later gave me permission to publish his translation on my online journal, but this website is a much better place for it. 

The Samadhi Treatise of the Treasure King was originally written in China by Miaoxie in the 1390’s, but, though written in the Zen tradition as advice for those engaged in meditative practice, its wider application is fairly obvious. This is advice for everyone, monks and laypeople, Zen and Pure Land, Buddhists and beyond, it is good advice, surely, for all people everywhere.

Thank you again to Chong Go Sunim for kindly making this available to us.

The Samadhi Treatise of the Treasure King

1. Don’t desire perfect health. Perfect health can easily increase one’s greed and arrogance. Instead, let your suffering become medicine.

2. Don’t hope for a life free from hardships. Such a life would only increase your self-indulgence and contempt for others. Accept the worries and difficulties that come your way.

3. Don’t expect that your practice will be free of difficulties. Without difficulties, you could never learn anything. Obtain liberation in the midst of obstacles.

4. Don’t expect that you can practice hard and not experience temptations. A lack of temptations will only soften your resolve. See demons as friends who have come to help you along the Way.

5. Don’t hope for easy success. Easy accomplishment tends to make one careless. Instead, accomplish your goal by persisting and persisting.

6. Make friends, but don’t expect any benefit for yourself. Pursuing your own benefit damages trust. Maintain long-term friendship through integrity.

7. Don’t hope that others will agree with you or follow your leadership. This desire only increases your arrogance. Those who disagree with you are the ones who help build your character.

8. Don’t expect to be rewarded for your kindness. This leads to scheming. Throw out the expectation of rewards like you’d throw out an old shoe.

9. Don’t desire more than you’ve earned. Chasing after more than you’re entitled to gives rise to stupidity. Become rich through modest profits.

10. When you suffer unfairness and mistreatment, don’t dwell on it or try to expose it for everyone to see. This leads only to resentment and poisons the heart. Consider mistreatment the materials for making progress in your spiritual practice.

Progress in spiritual practice becomes possible when you are confronted by obstacles and hardships. Whereas no growth is possible where there are no obstacles. It was in the midst of hindrances that the Buddha realized supreme enlightenment.

Angulimalya committed terrible acts, and Devadatta and his followers rebelled against the Buddha, but nonetheless, the Buddha guaranteed that even they would one day be able to attain enlightenment. If even people like these are able to awaken, how can you claim that the things that offend and trouble you will prevent Liberation? Rather these will speed you on your way; through them you can make quicker progress. If you want to obtain the great treasure, you must face what confronts you and embrace it with wisdom.