a light in thick darkness

Having searched for myself in all myriad things
True Self (Juingong) appeared right before my eyes
Ha! Ha! Meeting it now, there is no doubt
Brilliant hues of udumbara flowers spill over the whole world

– Seon Master Gyeongbong Jeongseok (1892 – 1982)

The focus of this blog are the teachings of Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim and their relevance in the life and practice of each of us in this small group of Dharma friends. We first came together in the Buddhist English Library of Seoul to study Kun Sunim’s book ‘No River to Cross’ and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all found the book of huge usefulness in our practice ever since. I know that I’ve been drawn back to it time and time again.

One of the remarkable things about it, although I hardly know why I’m surprised, is how whenever I hear other teachings, even from other Buddhist traditions, they fit so well into the framework ‘No River to Cross’ provides. Take that first chapter,which, despite being just five pages long, gets off to such a rigorous start: “Above all else” Seon Master Daehaeng writes, and I’m sure this is the essence of so much Buddhist teaching, “you have to truly know yourself.”

It’s easy to respond with a knee-jerk reaction to this, saying “ah, but there is no self”, while missing precisely what we are being asked to do. I remember hearing Venerable U Vamsarakkhita speak in Bangkok about this. The Buddha did not tell people, he said, to cast aside their bodies and thoughts and feelings, but to examine them. And then, through this investigation, be better able to live in the moment, experiencing a richer more fulfilling life.

We are asked to find out for ourselves. And even if you find, as I heard Ajarn Brahm once put it, that you are a bus without a driver, that you are not your body, you are not your intelligence, you are not your job or even your gender, then you can just relax. As he said, you can let go. There is nothing to feel proud of, and nothing you can’t let go of. “But what” one questioner asked, “CAN we hold on to?” And Ajahn Brahm answered “Wisdom, virtue, and peace”.

A little bell went off somewhere over my head! It’s the very same! What all these teachers urge is to keep looking to see what is beyond the truth of my everyday self, to that which we can most rely on. Beyond this self, which we learn is constantly changing and connected in every way to everything else, is what? “The purpose of studying Buddhism” Kun Daehaeng Sunim writes, “is to discover who I am. Discovering who I am means returning to my foundation.”

So I come back again to Kun Sunim and see how so much wisdom is packed into so few lines. She takes us through the practice of deep investigation to a joyful meeting with the True Self in no time at all, and then tells us to have faith in that foundation and entrust everything to it. Yet what she does is actually no more than repeat the message of all the masters through all of history. What can you rely on? Wisdom, virtue, and peace: our true foundation, our True Self.

It is like coming across a light in thick darkness; it is like receiving treasure in poverty. The four elements and the five aggregates are no more felt as burdens; so light, so easy, so free you are. Your very existence has been delivered from all limitations; you have become open, light, and transparent. You gain an illuminating insight into the very nature of things, which now appear to you as so many fairylike flowers having no graspable realities. Here is manifested the unsophisticated self which is the original face of your being; here is shown all bare the most beautiful landscape of your birthplace. There is but one straight passage open and unobstructed through and through. This is so when you surrender all – your body, your life, and all that belongs to your inmost self. This is where you gain peace, ease, non-doing, and inexpressible delight. All the sutras and sastras are no more than communications of this fact; all the sages, ancient as well as modern, have exhausted their ingenuity and imagination to no other purpose than to point the way to this. ”

 – From a letter by Yengo (Yuan-wu), quoted by D.T.Suzuki in ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’, Grove Press, 1964

4 thoughts on “a light in thick darkness”

  1. “Talk is cheap” – I think often about this phrase. What is it you want by writing this post and what is it I want by responding with my comments, especially after promising not to bother anybody with my opinions. Maybe connection, connection through mind, that is so difficult to get. When you die, what does it matter, the opinions and deeds of others – nothing would matter, it is only your own mind, your own experience of your own mind. Once I got a speeding ticket, I went to judge, to explain that it was not much speeding and that everybody else was going this speed, that I was kind of in the flow and did not want to upset the drivers behind me, which was bending the truth if not comletely lieing, however I was told that I cannot speak for others, that I am the only one who is responsible for my own actions, regardless of what others do around me. I was amazed by the profound message I heard from traffic court people. So I paid the reduced fine and now I deliberately go within speed limits to much annoyance of near-by drivers. The lesson learned or just reminded is that there is only your mind that you experience. So when you die, what is it that you would see? How I see this world might be different from how you see it, but at it’s root it is the same, like one leaf sees and experiences different stuff from other leaf, but they are on the same tree and supported by the same root. So what I am trying to say that unless you have a solid view of your root, no amount of meditation or inspirational talk would help in bad circumstances, you have to have solid ground of your foundation – that is the only help. Knowing about it intellectually, or sitting on a cussion sometimes may seem like “something” in good circumstances, you might even feel you know something and feel uplifted and even feel like you have peace or wisdom or achieved something in your spiritual quest, but in bad circumstances it will all go down the drain. What is wisdom? I think it is seeing that there is no reality to physical world, if you can stand on solid ground of your invisible foundation – that is your only salvation. What is a universe – maybe spawning of mind, but what does all the knowledge in the world matter to me in my moments of suffering, and seeing others suffer is also my suffering, because it bothers me; what does it matter anything else if you don’t know who you are, that is why know yourself first. What is virtue? It is wanting to return to your root. What is peace? It is when nothing can touch you because you are on solid ground of your true self. “Know your own root” – that is immeasurable gift that Kun Sunim is offering and the only way you could ever repay that is by actually do just that.

  2. What a perfect gift this post is for me today – to be reminded that my True Self is wisdom, virtue and peace…

    Keeping it all in perspective through the dark times.

    Thank you Marcus!

  3. Thank you Carole (ZDS!), Tanya, and Christine (a true poet). And Tanya, I think you are mostly right about ‘talk’ – just because it’s ‘cheap’ doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort! Like you say, it’s about connection, and that is wonderful!

    I remember a funny exchange I once heard. Someone quoted the Zen masters of old; “open your mouth and you’ve made your first mistake”. And someone else responded by saying, “and never be afraid to make a mistake”!

    With palms together, Marcus _/\_

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