the Venerable Ya-un – Admonitions to Myself

Together with Wonhyo’s Inspiring Yourself to Practice, and Chinul’s Admonitions to Beginners, this forms one of the fundamental texts of Korean Buddhism. Originally intended for monastics, practitioners of all backgrounds may find this useful and inspiring. It’s a fairly long text, with 10 parts, so I’ll post each section separately. It was written at the end of the Koryo dynasty (~1394~) by a Korean monk named Ya-un (野雲和尙), and I did the English translation. 

Admonitions to Myself
(自警文)
by the Venerable Ya-un

My own true self! Listen carefully!

There have been so many people who have achieved enlightenment by dissolving all attachments and aversions.[1] Why do you still linger within the realms of suffering and defilements?

For endless lives, you have turned your back on your true nature, and through clinging and attachments have fallen into ignorance. Committing all kinds of unwholesome acts while not cultivating the roots of goodness, you have repeatedly fallen into the sea of karma that leads to rebirth as one of the four types of lives. [ii]

The body follows the six senses. Thus you will suffer immensely if they lead you to be reborn in an unwholesome place. Having turned your back upon the transcendental teachings of the Buddha,[iii] even if you are able to be reborn in a human realm, it will only be before or after the appearance of a Buddha. Fortunately, this time you have received the body of a human, but you have been born long after the Buddha’s entry into Nirvana. This is heartbreaking, but whose fault is it?

Nevertheless, if you sincerely repent and want to change your direction, then cut off all attachments to the world. Leave home, carrying your bowls and wearing the kasa, and take the direct path and learn the profound Dharma, which is free of all defilements. Like a dragon in the ocean depths, or Spring coming to a mountain, this profound truth is utterly inexpressible!

People have a past and present, but the Dharma is neither far nor near. People can be wise or foolish, but the Way is neither strong nor weak. Even if you had lived at the time of the Buddha, what would it have benefited you if you didn’t follow His teachings? Even though you live in a period of decadence, if you believe and live according to Buddha’s teachings, the benefits of this will be beyond measure.

Thus the Buddha said, “Like a good doctor, understanding the disease, I prescribe the appropriate medicine. The doctor is not to blame if the patient refuses to take the medicine. Or like a good mountain guide, I show people a safe path. If people ignore the directions he has given, it is not the fault of the guide.”

“The Dharma, which is beneficial to myself and to all beings, is omnipresent and inherent within all. Thus, even if I were to remain longer in this world, there would be no additional benefit. If my disciples continue to practice the Dharma without ceasing, then the Dharma-body of the Tathagata will never disappear.” If you understand this truth, then you will regret only your own lack of practicing, rather than worrying about things such as the decadence of the era.

I sincerely hope that you develop a resolute and expansive mind, and determine to completely cut off all ties to the mundane world, and get rid of all delusive thoughts. Thoroughly investigate the hwadus [iv] of the Patriarchs, attain the highest wisdom, and thus overcome the great matter of birth, aging, suffering, and death. Make the attainment of ultimate enlightenment your goal. Don’t take this lightly, don’t step backwards.

In this age of degeneration, it has been a long time since the Buddha left. Mara has grown strong and the Dharma has become weak. Those who lead people astray are many, while few are the ones who correctly show the path. Wise people are few, while the ignorant are many. Not only do they ignore the Buddha-dharma, but they also distract others. It’s not possible to talk about all of the hindrances to spiritual cultivation. 

Worrying that you might go astray, I have outlined ten points to be cautious about. Please believe what I say and do not violate any of these points. 

                           If you are ignorant and do not study,
                           your arrogance alone will increase.
                           If you do not polish the darkness of your mind,
                           your egotism will only deepen.
                           To have an empty stomach and a haughty mind
                           is to be like a hungry snake,
                           or an ignorant and lazy monkey.
                           Although you readily listen
                           to harmful and evil speech,
                           you purposely ignore the teachings of
                           the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
                           If you have no affinity with
                           the good path,
                           who will be able to help you?
                           Following the six senses,
                           leads only to terrible suffering.


[i] Literally, “…achieved enlightenment through the gate of emptiness.” This can mean a deep experiential understanding of emptiness, or it can also mean making your behavior and thought in harmony with the principles of emptiness.

[ii] Lives born from wombs, eggs, moisture, and through transformation.

[iii] Literally, the One Vehicle.

[iv] koan(Japanese), kong’an(Chinese)

25 thoughts on “the Venerable Ya-un – Admonitions to Myself”

  1. “Nevertheless, if you sincerely repent and want to change your direction, then cut off all attachments to the world. Leave home, carrying your bowls…”

    Ouch! Not ready for that!

    But thank you Sunim for your translation and for making this available to us – even if I don’t find it particularly comfortable reading!

    Marcus _/\_

      1. Hi Chong Go,
        I wonder about “… then cut off all attachments to the world. Leave home, carrying your bowls…”

        You are a monk who has gone away from your homeland and family and are working at releasing all attachments. I wonder at this in terms of it seems at times to be easier, to me, to be able to walk away from my family and go on my own path, but harder to be with my family and know that I am responsible for them, but not have attachments to them.

        In other words, it seems to me, that to have a family and play the roles one must play, and be in that family while releasing all attachments is a far more difficult thing to do versus giving it up and not having to be in that role. I do not mean to say that what a monk goes through is not more trying and very challenging, ’cause I do not know what you go through, which I am sure is a lot and definitely more disciplined than I would care to be, as I have a long way to go…:). However, I am asking in hopes of helping sort out a question in my mind about why a monk gives up family life instead of being in a family and giving up attachments? Is it not possible to not have attachments but be able to play a role in a family? Similar to how one plays a role in society or within the temple, etc.?

        I mean no ill with these words, but merely an ignorant mind trying to understand something that has eluded me thus far…

        Can you enlighten me on this?

        With Warmth,
        Rachael

      2. hi, Rachel, you did not ask me, but i really wanted to express my opinion on “why a monk gives up family life instead of being in a family and giving up attachments”
        Why would you want to have a family in the first place? It is one thing that you already had a family when you met the Dharma and practice of mind cultivation, and of course you have to take care of family and practice within the circumstances and let go of attachments while taking care of them. However if you met the teachings while you are free from relationship, why on earth would you want to complicate your life by such things as a mate, offsprings and difficulties (like horror pain of childbirth, like being subject to copulation because it is your duty in marriage, or being basically addicted to stupid sex, or like worrying sick about your child when something is not well, – just examples, the list can go on) Basically family is based on sex, isn’t it; the major requirment for marriage is sex, the kids appear also after sex, relationship depends on sex. Why being an addict to this function. Turning this desire inward, toward your own foundation brings you home and relieves from bodily addictions. Some people really like studying mind and it is really nice to do so, discovering your mind is incredibly great and saitsfying in every way, even though sometimes it could be crazily difficult, because mind is limitless by itself and … probably I am not the one to speak about the limitless… but discovering your true self is incredible and then you can take care not just of one or several people – your family, but many, many beings. For monks and nuns maybe it is much more easy in terms of not having to take care of family and having no worries, but they can experience difficulties in terms of mind, it is not really that easy to discover your true self and help others, maybe they feel the burden of sufferings of others, they also somewhat similar in a way to a mother who gives all her life to child, they devote their life to others, because they are practising to become enlightened for the benefit of others.

      3. Hi Rachael,
        You raise a good point, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that Ya-un was probably writing this for people who were already monastics. As Marcus said a bit down the comments, and as Daehaeng Kun Sunim said in the Dharma talk a few days ago, all the stuff in your daily life is the materials for your practice. For example, even though I’m living as a monk, that itself doesn’t make my habits of clinging, desire, and fear disappear. They still show up, but there’s not so much for them to glom on to. The point is, I still have to deal with them wisely. If there’s a disadvantage to lay life, it might be that things are happening so fast it’s hard to keep up with it, and that facilitating and sustaining very close relationships, (spouse and children) can increase attachments, and the related fears.

        One time before I went to the US, Daehaeng Kun Sunim told me, “Love your parents, but don’t be attached to them.” When we can do this with the things in our lives, then we can see clearly, we can know what needs to be done, and through our foundation, can make it happen. But as long as we’re clinging to one side or the other, that energy and wisdom can’t flow so well.

        Regarding the family, I think a lot of it is karmic affinity, ie where were you in life when you met the Dharma, and a lot of it is also where do you want to put your energy. It’s not necessarily even loving one and hating the other, just that some choices don’t leave a lot of room for other things. If I’d already been married, I would have had to do my best to accomidate practice. As it is, this practice is the most important think to me, and I don’t think I could fairly take care of a family as well.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Sunim. I look forward to spending time with it.

    I noted this phrase, the sentiment of which I’ve seen elsewhere:

    “In this age of degeneration, it has been a long time since the Buddha left. Mara has grown strong and the Dharma has become weak.”

    I’ve often wondered if this way of thinking is just a bit of romanticism about the glorious, if mythical, past – or if there’s actually something to it. Certainly the Pure Landers and other Lotus Sutra-based sects would argue that we now live in a degenerate age.

    But isn’t “degenerate” just a function of mind?

    1. Hi Barry,
      I think a lot of that comes from the prophecy attributed to the Buddha, that the first 500 years after his Nirvana the Dharma would be alive and vibrant, and getting weaker every 500 years after, until at last nothing would remain and their would be no people who capable of giving rise to faith and determination.

      Given that people estimated the Buddha to have been born 500 years ealier than we now accept, the timing was pretty close to this time period (circa 1400). That plus the wars, starvation, and general suffering of most of those time periods could make most people think that the degenerate age had come. Ya-un also seems to oppose the idea of “decadence of the era,” and I think he’s hitting over the head those practitioners who are saying things like “there’s no hope of enlightenment in this era.”

      While Daehaeng Sunim too has said that there’s no such thing as an age when the Dharma could degenerate, that as long as one person lives, the Buddha-dharma will be alive and vibrant, the Buddha’s prophecy actually looks pretty accurate for describing what happened in India. Perhaps the clock resets as Buddhism moves from culture to culture!

  3. The text is not particularly comforting or uplifting, but I suppose it is meant to sort of shock us who are asleep (both monastic and lay folk) into waking up to the truth.

    That said, I did find the following words to be instructive and quite helpful — the Buddha prescribes the appropriate medicine for our suffering and shows us a safe path to follow:

    Thus the Buddha said, “Like a good doctor, understanding the disease, I prescribe the appropriate medicine. The doctor is not to blame if the patient refuses to take the medicine. Or like a good mountain guide, I show people a safe path. If people ignore the directions he has given, it is not the fault of the guide.”

  4. Good Chong Go Sunim,

    Thank you for posting this, Teacher. I am going to look at it a piece at a time, and surely benefit from it.

    OAN (On Another Note [I never liked “BTW”; it makes no sense!]): I was wondering; any chance we could have a sangha on Sunday, instead of Saturday?

    Peace, Love, and Joy,

    Carl/Mahndoe

    1. OAN -on another note – like another, different sound (like in music), or BTW -by the way, the same way, in the same direction
      OAN is unpronouncable, BTW -rolls easy 🙂

  5. knowing the right teaching is precious beyond measure, the right teaching – Dharma – is about the treasure within, about who you really are, to know this is very, very rare in the universe, it is very precious and is the purpose of life. Existance is suffering, the only way it is not suffering if you use all that suffering as path towards your awakening, even good life and nice existance ends and it is suffering to end good stuff, because who wants to ends good stuff, right? Leaving home, carrying your bowls – does not have to be exactly litteral, it means also leave desire for “the colours of this world “- the desire for existance -to experience life, to experience constant flow of events, things, to taste, to touch, to feel – all creature do the same major things : eat, excrete and procreate, which is a constant flow of things, they born and die – endless cycle; the existance never, ever would bring complete satisfaction, it is like running after shadow, or trying to reach a horizon. If you experience good karma and live in heavenly pleasantries it might be even more difficult to get out of that pleasant dream, because who wants to end a good dream, but that dream would eventually end and if you don’t turn direction towards waking up, it will end in suffering, so the sufferings of this realm are the best base for practice, so we have a chance to wake up to our true reality. If you would truly know that your true reality is limitless state of Buddha, why would you cling to your present state. Think about all this process of dayly life, even necesseties like passing food from one end to another – is it realy pleasant to be human, bodily functions and brief existance with so many dangers, how can you desire to cling to that? It is there only for the purpose of “transporting” towards your destination – your true state, which is Buddha. And it is also not only about yourself, think about those you love (and those you don’t), the best gift you could ever give to then is the gift of Dharma.

    Nice text, very inspiring

  6. {{My own true self! Listen carefully!}}

    That will take a few years to practice! Inviting language to myself? This decrepit, degenerate bag of spit and slush? Hah! 😀

    {{Even if you had lived at the time of the Buddha, what would it have benefited you if you didn’t follow His teachings? }}

    Important point! Too often I distract myself with the idea that I’m only practicing because I have a “good” teacher or a “caring” community. They may be moderating variables but not the main effect – which is effort I put out myself!

  7. ‘The body follows the six senses. Thus you will suffer immensely if they lead you to be reborn in an unwholesome place. ‘ – There are so many different kinds of ‘unwholsome place(s)’;-) During my last retreat Lama Michel spoke about attachment and with a sigh he remarked , ‘indeed, my life has been much easier before coming to Italy and getting to know all these sorts of cheese…’ – what was the moment, somebody came in to bring him a big ‘latte macchiato’ … LOL

    Well, we all have our chance: ‘People have a past and present, but the Dharma is neither far nor near’ – we just have to open our eyes, just have to step aside and carefully watch and listen what we’re doing.

    And definitely yes to, ‘like a good mountain guide, I show people a safe path. If people ignore the directions he has given, it is not the fault of the guide.’ – years ago i went to my Guru and asked him for advice. with a smile he told me exactly the opposite i had hoped for – one of my darkest days, i was totally devastated you can imagine… but before i asked him, another Lama had told me, ‘never ask a Guru and then don’t do what he says’ … ouch, it took me a while to accept, but i followed his advice and within a year i knew what a fool i’ d have been not to do so.

    Wonderful text, Chong Go! looking forward to reading the next section…

  8. “The path of becoming a Buddha lies in the midst of taking care of your family and looking after the people in your life”.
    – Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, ‘No River to Cross’, page 76.

    1. of course you have to take care of the people in your life, but to my child I often say that married life is bondage and suffering, I tell her that it is better to be a sunim or live like a sunim, be free and study your mind. The choice is yours, it can take one lifetime to become a Buddha, or 500 life times or without any practice whatsoever, eventually you will become Buddha anyway, but that can take very, very, very long time, maybe few billion years. If you notice that samsara is suffering, you would not want to stay in it. When Buddha left his family to get enlightened, he did not really abandon his family, he went “to war with suffering”, he went to get the medicine from suffering and when he came back he was able to truly help his family, he gave them the teaching which was the medicine from suffering of samsara, birth and death. They all lived with him after he became Buddha, he personally taught his son, who became enlightened at 18, his former wife Jasodhara became enlightened too, after he returned he personally went to see he; he taught his father …
      In whatever circumstances you have your mind is present, so you can practice, but if your attention always goes to outside things like attraction to someone’s body, you cannot really have “relationship” with your foundation, your inner Mind. If you are kind and helpful to others even though you do not know teachings, you would still be understanding One Mind

  9. love the picture in the text: this huge stone’s arching like a caring hand over the path, isn’t it?

    1. I never thought of that! There was just something about this picture that I thought might go with the post. Btw, if you click on the image, you can see it in a larger size.

      The image is from behind Sudeok Temple. This is very well-known temple, and where Mangong Sunim established the first modern meditation hall for nuns. (I don’t remember the exact date, but I’m thinking in the mid 1930’s, though it could be earlier.)

      1. ha – you live and learn! i clicked!
        really a great picture, taken in a fine moment with these red flowers in the background. perfect invitation to a great place…

        thank you, Chong Go!

  10. Hi Tanya,

    I notice that many times in the comments here and on other posts you talk about how much you dislike the concept of sex and even how much you feel that family is a fetter. In this you are, I suppose, in good company – isn’t that exactly how the Buddha described his family?

    You say “why on earth would you want to complicate your life by such things as a mate, offsprings and difficulties” – well the answer to that one is because we are human. This is what it means to be born in the human realm. And nor do we escape this realm just by avoiding these things.

    In Therevada Buddhism, one indeed does escape Samsara via becoming a monk, and so people hope to be reborn as monks – with no families and no ties to the world. But the point of Mayahana is that we all have Buddha-nature and all of us, monks and lay people, householders and non-householders, can all find liberation.

    So we do what we need to do in this life, and – vitally – we can enjoy this life. Sure, sex can be as you describe it, as a burdernsome “duty in marriage” or a stupid addiction – but it can also be a beautiful, and fun, loving expression of a relationship between two people that love eachother.

    But perhaps you think that because I love life and love relationships and love sex too, and love this wonderful physical world even with all its suffering, my attachments are so great that I can never leave Samsara? Perhaps you are right.

    And yet I refuse to believe that Samsara is just suffering. I know it contains great joy and peace and beauty. It contains all the relationships and connections that I need to work through and which bring happiness and fulfilment to my life. For some people, their karmic journey means they need to be monks, some even live as hermit monks, but for most of us that’s just not so.

    If you are right, if we need to reject relationships before they happen and so avoid the painful things you describe, such as “worrying sick about your child when something is not well”, then I hand in my Buddhist card right away. I’m not interested.

    But rather, I love this world, love this life, and love that through it I can learn more and more, develop myself on the Bodhisattva path, and come eventually – along with all other beings – to another realm that will be even greater.

    And I do that by ‘letting go’ – letting go to my Buddha-nature or to Amida Buddha, letting go to the whole process that is carrying me where I need to go. I don’t cut off attachments, I let go. I don’t avoid relationships. I entrust.

    All beings, one Buddha-nature
    Praise to Amida Buddha
    Praise to the Bodhisattva of Compassion

    Marcus _/\_

    Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and around us, everywhere, any time“.
    – Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

    1. “if we need to reject relationships before they happen and so avoid the painful things you describe, such as “worrying sick about your child when something is not well”, then I hand in my Buddhist card right away. I’m not interested.”

      Amen to that!

    2. Marcus, everybody is different, I am different from you, I just speak about my view, I do not say how you should think, I only say what I feel and how I see things, in many ways I am not like majority of people, I live in a ‘different world’ by many reasons (long story), my views and opinions are mine and I don’t impose them on anybody, just share my view. I don’t say “we must, or should…” – I just share my view. I do not share your and majority of people view on sex and family, why does it bother you, I do not understand, if I find it bizzare to communicate through genitals – it is my view, I prefer communication through mind, and if it makes me different from others then it is ok! actually buddhist and christian monks and nuns also prefer to live without it, so I am not alone, ok
      Maybe you would find it weired, but if you would try to “have sex” with your own foundation, using your mind, then you could understand me better. I am in love with my inner Buddha – nothing wrong with that!

    3. Beautifully said Marcus!

      Thank you for your words, they are most uplifting and remind us to look and perceive life positively.

      I too perceive life through a lens like yours and sometimes with all these stern teachings and words, it seems that then life can be taken too seriously. And I guess, for me, I would rather be laughing and loving each moment and not be caught up in trying to be a certain way in order to be a certain religion. For I do not know any religion really and just as there are strict views with any, they do not sit well with me when it is anything but love…

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