Wonhyo Sunim – Inspiring yourself to practice

Inspiring Yourself to Practice
             By the Korean Zen Master Wonhyo 

This English translation and introduction were done by Won-myong Sunim and Mark Mueller 

Inspiring Yourself to Practice was written by the Silla Monk Wonhyo (617-686). It consists of 706 characters, contained in one roll. In Korea, the text is one of the most important in the curriculum of the temple training. The text stresses the need to dissolve one’s worldly attachments and habits, and to begin immediately to practice. The original Chinese text is kept at Haein Temple, near Daegu, and the annotated version is kept at Songgwang Temple, in Sunchon. 

The twin pagodas at Kamun Temple site
The stone pagoda from Bunhwang Temple, historically associated with Wonhyo. Photo by bifyu, on Wikipedia
The grave of the Queen Seondeok (/sun-duck/). She was the ruler of the Silla Kingdom and known to Wonhyo

All the Buddhas
who reside within the splendid realm of Nirvana
have, throughout countless eons,
discarded their desires and undergone arduous training.

Sentient beings,
transmigrating within
the burning house of desire
have, for countless generations,
failed to discard their greed and desire. 

The gates to heaven (the Pure Land)
are not blocked;
yet, few are those who enter them.
This is because most people make their home
among the three poisons. (1) 

 The evil realms (2)
have no real power to seduce us,
yet many enter them.
The deluded mind values
the four elements (3) that make up the body
and the five desires (4)
as if they were jewels.

This being so,
is there anyone who does not long
to retire to the seclusion of the mountains
in order to practice the Way? (5) 

Yet people do not go there;
they remain caught up in desire. 

Although you do not
retire to the mountains
to cultivate your mind,
you should strive with all your energy
to perform good deeds. 

If you can renounce your own pleasure,
you will become as trusted and respected
as the sages. 

If you can undergo
that which is difficult,
you will become as respected
as the Buddha. 

Those who greedily seek after things
join the ranks of demons.
Those who give with compassion
are the disciples of the Dharma King. 

High mountains and lofty peaks
are where the wise reside.
Green pines and deep mountain valleys
are home to those who practice.
When hungry, such people pick fruit from trees
to calm their empty stomach.
When thirsty, they quench their thirst
with water from a stream. 

Although we eat fine foods
in an attempt to carefully preserve this body,
our bodies will definitely face destruction;
even though we cover this body
with soft cloth,
our lives are sure to come to an end. 

Make a small mountain cave where echoes resound
into a hall to chant the Buddha’s name.
Let the sad cry of a wild goose
be the heart-warming call of a friend. 

While bowing, your knees may become
as cold as ice,
but you must not long for a warm fire.
Your stomach may writhe with hunger,
but you must not give in to your thoughts of food. 

One hundred years pass like the blinking of an eye,
so why don’t you practice?
How long is a lifetime?
Can you afford to neglect practice,
wasting your time on leisure? 

It is only he who renounces
all of the desires in his heart
that is rightfully called a practicing monk.
Only he who no longer yearns for the ways of the world
is called “a monk who has renounced the house-holder’s life.” 

A practitioner who is caught
within the net of worldly desires
is like a dog who wears
elephant’s hide.
A man who practices the Way
yet remains attached to worldly desire
is like a hedgehog
who tries to enter a rat hole. 

Some people, in spite of their outstanding ability and wisdom,
choose to live in the busy atmosphere of the city.
All the Buddhas feel pity and concern for such people.
other people, although they have not yet developed
a deep practice,
choose to stay in the contemplative atmosphere of the mountains.
The sages feel a great joy
when they see such people. 

There are those who are skilled and learned,
but do not follow the precepts.
They are like men who are told of a cache of jewels
but do not get up and go to it. 

There are those who practice steadfastly
but lack wisdom.
They are like men who want to go east
but mistakenly walk towards the west. 

The actions of a wise man
are like steaming grains of rice
in order to make a bowl of rice.
The actions of a man who lacks wisdom
are like steaming grains of sand
in order to make a bowl of rice.
Everyone knows how to eat and drink
in order to satiate their hunger;
but no one seems to understand
the method of training —
the way to transform the ignorant mind. 

Practice and wisdom must exist side by side.
For they are like the two wheels of a cart.
Likewise, helping oneself and helping others
are like the two wings of a bird.
If you absent-mindedly chant for your donors
over the morning offering of porridge
without understanding the meaning,
you should feel ashamed
to face those who give alms. 

If you chant
during the lunch-time ceremony
without attaining the essence of the words you utter,
won’t you be ashamed to face
great people and sages? 

Everyone hates squirming insects
and those who can’t distinguish between the dirty and the clean.
Likewise, the sages feel disgust with those monks
who cannot distinguish between the defiled and the pure.
If you wish to be through with this world’s conflict,
good conduct is the ladder
that ascends to heaven. 

Therefore, one who violates the precepts
and yet wishes to help others
is like a bird with broken wings
that puts a turtle on its back and tries to fly. 

If you’re still not free from your own faults,
you will not be able to free others of their faults.
So why do you, who violate the precepts
receive that which is provided by others? 

It does not benefit you in the least
to merely maintain your physical body
if you neglect to practice.
And all your concern for this transient, fleeting life
will not preserve it. 

If you’ve set your sights
on the virtue of the great masters,
you must endure even the longest hardships.
Once you’ve set out for the Tiger Throne, (6)
you must forever leave all your desires behind you. 

When the cultivator’s mind is pure,
all the devas (7) bow in praise of him.
When a follower of the Way loves lasciviousness,
the good spirits leave him. 

At death, when the four elements of the body scatter,
you cannot preserve the body and remain in it any longer.
Today, evening has already arrived;
tomorrow morning will soon be here.
So, practice now before it is too late. 

Worldly pleasures are unsatisfactory;
why do you greedily cling to them?
Enduring joy can be won through a single effort in patience;
why won’t you practice? 

Those who practice feel shame
to see a seeker of the Way who remains attached to greed.
The virtuous man laughs
at the seeker who forsakes the householder’s life
but is still wealthy. 

Words, such as these written here, go on and on,
yet clinging attachment does not come to an end.
“I’ll do it next time” — such words go on and on,
yet you fail to put an end to clinging.
Clinging goes on and on,
yet you fail to renounce worldly matters.
Your mind is filled with endless devious plans,
yet you do not make up your mind to put an end to them.
“Today will be different,” you say,
yet you continue to perform evil actions every day.
“Tomorrow, tomorrow,” you say,
yet few are the days when you really do something good.
“This year will be different,” you say,
yet your defilements are without end.
“Next year I’ll do it,” you say,
yet you don’t grow in wisdom. 

The hours pass,
snd too soon a day and night are over.
The days pass,
and soon it’s the last day of the month.
The months pass,
and suddenly another new year has come.
The years pass,
and in the blinking of an eye,
we find ourselves at death’s door. 

A broken cart
cannot be driven.
When you’re an old man,
you cannot begin to practice.
When you lie down,
you will succumb to laziness.
And when you sit,
your mind will be overwhelmed
with stray thoughts. 

 For many lifetimes, you have failed to practice,
passing your days and nights in vain.
Having lived many lifetimes in vain,
will you again fail to practice during this lifetime? 

This body will inevitably come to an end;
who knows what body you will have next time? 

Isn’t this an urgent matter?
Isn’t this an urgent matter? 

N o t e s
1. Greed, hatred (anger) andignorance.
2. Durgati, the hell realm, the animal realm, etc.; there are 3, 4, or 5 according to text consulted.
3. Earth, water, fire and air are the four elements that everything is made of.
4. There are two meanings: 1) the objects of the 5 senses (eye, ear, nose, mouth, body); these defile the True Nature when the mind is filled with desire;  2) desire for wealth, sex, food, fame, and sleep.
5. The Way refers to the path to enlightenment.
6. This is a name for the Dharma Seat, the special platform that a great monk sits on to give a Dharma lecture. Someone aiming to sit on this seat is aiming for enlightenment and so needs to give up all attachments and desires.
7. The devas are the beings who live in the Heavenly realms.

15 thoughts on “Wonhyo Sunim – Inspiring yourself to practice”

    1. The dates are unknown, the characters used suggest that the existing copy was written using the writing system developed after his death.

      His marrage is a interesting issue, in that it only lasted one night, and for 20 years after he never called himself a monk nor wore robes. He practiced and taught lay people, but only returned to the monastery much, much later. So was his one night with the princess a kind of “zen disease” where he lost perspective, or given one interpretation of the poem he spoke, him preparing the way for a great being to be born in Korea. (His son was the greatest scholar of the day, and developed a system for writing Korean with Chinese characters. This formed the base of a method that was used for 700 years)

    1. Barry, have you ever seen the book, Admonitions to Beginners?
      We once studied it with ChongGo Sunim, maybe he could find another copy somewhere…

      1. Hi Barry,
        I think I have an extra copy somewhere, but the typesetting was really terrible – no apostrophes, spacing, etc. I have the files for 2 of the other 3 parts, with the forth one in Buswells books about Chinul. I’ll post the files I do have, but if you’d like the book I can send you that as well.

  1. Wonhyo wrote this before those events with princess, I think, it shows in the text, and it was not just one night, he had great teacher DaeAn who brought him to brothel. It has to be understood properly though, it cannot be looked at with ordinary perception, that was also practice, necessary for Wonhyo on his path to transcend cirtain way of thinking that blocked his progress. After those encounters Wonhyo’s writings were profound in understanding of the nature of Mind; that was more tantric practice and not “zen disease”, Wonhyo disrobed as a monk, but he did not loose perspective, he went beyond the bounderies not because of regress, but progress. Those who study sutras do not know tantra, but those who study tantras know sutras. Again, tantric teachings should not be misunderstood or looked upon with shallow perception (which unfortunately flourished in the West)

    1. One of the things I noticed about this story was that the princess had been widowed. I’m not sure about Korea, but in many cultures this would have made her ineligible to be married again, and together with not having any children might have condemned her to a marginal, lonely existence. Whereas having a child, particularly a son by one of the great figures of the day, would have completely changed her situation.

      I wonder if her suffering and loneliness factored into Wonhyo’s behavior?

      1. this of course was a factor, however his own writings about it are awfully erotic, so it is more his own confrontation with his own desires, like there is saying “removing a wedge with a wedge” to put it simply – through sex we come about to this world and through sex he closed the door to this world of rebirth, he got rid of desire with desire.

  2. Thanks Sunim. This text really resonates with me, and where I am at right now, with enough understanding and wisdom to know what is worth pursuing, and at the same time knowing that I am not practicing as well and as much as I should. An interesting place to contemplate . . .

  3. As you may see from my (a bit harsh) reply in the beginning this theme touches me inside.
    Last night Daehaeng Kunsunims song came to my mind.
    The Title in German is “Love Song”, but I have no English translation for it. (The Korean beginning is : Dsongmakhan guang ja rul. dalli nun in saeng a….)
    The meaning is: This live is a live and that live is a live,
    but in all it`s empty, so what should I seek for?
    I have the feeling, after all I have heard about Wonhyo Sunim, that he harmonized within one live the living as a monk and as a layman, because in the end he didn`t make any more distinctions between the two.
    As a monk and as a layman he lived as a true human being.
    That`s what I really like about him.
    Please excuse me for my opening. And thanks for this post.
    With palms together

    1. No problem, Sabine!
      That’s also my suspiscion about Wonhyo Sunim, that he simply responded to the need of the circumstances, without getting hung up on fixed ideas of the way things “should” be. Though I don’t have the spiritual ability to confirm for myself what he was really thinking! 😉

  4. Pow! These are strong words, I kinda feel slapped when I read them…

    I see I have a long way to go, and “I” don’t like these words! Guess “I” need them all the more due to my dislike! Like the slap across the face, that then one says, “thanks, I needed that” (in order to get them out of a hysterical state of emotion, or transfer them into another state of being…).

    So, although not fuzzy, warm feeling, very much needed. Thanks for the “slap”. 🙂

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