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.