The Venerable Ya-un: Don’t forget about freeing yourself from desires

This is the eighth of Ya-un’s admonitions: Don’t lounge about in the realms of desire. It’s also a caution for monastics to remember why they originally became a monk or nun, and to not end up living like an ordinary lay person.

The person who renounces the desires of their heart is called a practitioner. Not longing for the worldly life is called leaving home. Having ended desire and left the mundane world behind, how could you possibly associate and amuse yourself with lay people? To miss and yearn for the mundane world is called “intense craving,” which has always been incompatible with the path.

When longing and attachment arises, the determination to achieve the way begins to fade. Therefore, cut off all longing and attachment and never look back. If you do not want to betray the reason you left home(to became a monk or nun), then you should go to an outstanding temple and uncover the profound meaning. If you go forward with your robe and bowl, and dissolve all worldly desires, without any concern for hunger or safety, then your practice will automatically deepen.

                 Even good actions done for yourself or others
                 are the cause of the cycle of birth and death.
                Among the pine trees and arrowroot vines,
                the light of the moon illuminates all.
                Diligently enter the true meditation of the Patriarchs.

13 thoughts on “The Venerable Ya-un: Don’t forget about freeing yourself from desires”

  1. “Having ended desire and left the mundane world behind, how could you possibly associate and amuse yourself with lay people?”

    Well, it was nice knowing you Chong Go Sunim.


    Seriously though, this is a difficult one.
    In fact, the whole question of monkhood vs lay practitioners is tricky for me. Before I came to Asia and developed a Buddhist practice, I used to attend Quaker meeting back home and I still have those same egalitarian instincts and the belief that we all of us have equal access to that inner foundation we share.
    How do you read old Ya-un on this one?

  2. When I read passages like this I feel a momentary sense of loss . . . “oh, I should have ordained!” etc. Really, Ya-un makes the path of lay practice seem hopeless, at the best.

    So, after moping around the keyboard for a few minutes, I remembered Zen Master Seung Sahn’s teaching about outside and inside jobs. He said that everyone has a different kind of outside job: businesswoman, baker, candlestick maker, monk, lawyer, soldier, etc. That’s okay and one is not better than the other.

    But he went on to say that all human beings have the same inside job, which is to wake up and save all beings from suffering. And he thought it was very important not to confuse outside and inside jobs.

    Ya-un reminds me of the sutra master who encouraged his students to become holy and stay in good company. Kyong Ho Sunim took a different view:

  3. I’ve thought about the difference often, too (monk/lay) but I don’t think there are limitations in being a lay-practitioner but it definitely feels like doing things the hard way!

    When we meet tomorrow, I’ll do my best not to make you yearn for the mundane! _/\_

  4. A day after a friend’s ordination, this one is very touching.

    Being in her sixties and having spent more then a decade as a disciple of Rinpoche she finally became a nun in Albagnano yesterday. when we phoned last week she told me she had dreamt she should do so.
    i know her devotion as well as i know her as someone who always has loved to be a woman- the whole shebang … when she told me, there was kind of intermission in my head, i really was stunned.
    And since we’ve phoned i’m thinking i couldn’t do that;
    i find the path of lay practice beautiful and precious – from the very first step it changes your life. Reading the Ya-un text i felt the same that Barry expresses, ‘Ya-un makes the path of lay practice seem hopeless, at the best’.

    what a text these days…

    !and i know some rather blitheful monks who not even associate with lay people but also amuse themselves by communicating with them via Internet!;)

  5. I’m struggling with this one too. Specifically the comment about associating with lay people.

    Barry’s point through Seung Sahn is how I’d like to interpret this writing, and others like it, but I’m not sure it’s meant to be that way.

    “If you do not want to betray the reason you left home(to became a monk or nun), then you should go to an outstanding temple and uncover the profound meaning.” I could read this is going to the heart of my life, and uncovering the original face. However, that’s a bit of a stretch.

    I’ll be honest, when I read things like this, what I see is the old sacred/mundane divide, as well as the old rejection of this world for some place “more holy.”

    I’m certainly willing to admit I’m missing something here, but I don’t recall the Buddha shunning association with lay folks. The Pali Canon is filled with interactions with lay people, as well as teachings deliberately tailored for lay life. Buddha didn’t seem to make the kind of hard and fast separation I see here.

  6. Sorry everyone,
    I should have been more clear. Here, where it says lay person, I should have said something like “ordinary, worldly person.” I think there’s a huge difference between associating with fellow practitioners (lay or ordained) and spending lots of time with people who have no interest in spiritual practice

    There’s two things going on in this admonition, one is a caution to new monks and nuns about spending too much time with lay people. (They’re new, and in a monastery, so have no reason to be spending time with laypeople.)

    The other caution is about remembering the aspiration for enlightenment, and, the aspiration for freedom from craving.

    I have to run now, but I’ll try to come back to this later. Barry and Nathan raised some great points

  7. The monastic walls can easily turn into barriers on the path – just as easily as an outsider’s worldly distractions. I find Ya-un’s words above troubling. Sorry Chong, I find your clarification in the comment above that ‘lay person’ actually means “ordinary, worldly person” helpful for understanding Ya-un’s meaning, but equally as troubling. It raises a new problem. Is Ya-un’s question really sincere: “Having ended desire and left the mundane world behind, how could you possibly associate and amuse yourself with lay people?” There is a time for polite skilful means, such as Barry’s interpretation and there is a time for cutting through the bullshit, such as Nathan’s general approach. Actually, I think it’s usually time for both approaches. Thankfully there are many voices making themselves heard here online. Tallis

  8. Funny. I didn’t feel any twinge about monastics not hanging out with lay persons (meaning householders). I took it as a point to consider that as a monastic one makes certain choices and those choices are more or less easily honoured depending on circumstances. A commitment to celibacy for example would mean taking care to not put oneself in the position of compromising the vow, not being with those who may not take one’s vow seriously, etc.

    When I went on a personal retreat at a monastery in Vermont, one of the male monastics and I spent a couple of hours talking in the dining room. The nuns kept closing the door to give us privacy; he kept going and opening the door because his vows didn’t allow him to be alone with a woman. It was quite funny and I guess in this case monastics themselves run into this “lay person mentality.”

  9. Further thoughts…

    Here in Thailand (where I’ve lived for most of the past 11 years) it is a daily event to see monks smoking, buying all kinds of stuff from shopping malls, walking past beggars without so much as a glance in their direction, spending fortunes on amulets, having old ladies give up their seats on the bus for them etc etc… and when the lid does finally come off (as it will one day) the level of corruption and abuse that goes on here will make the problems in the Catholic Church look insignificant.

    Worse is the fact that just saying such things will bring about censor – leaving the corruption (and, let’s be frank, abuse) to continue. Having said that, there are, of course, many good monks here. But not enough to stop the decline in layperson support here in Thailand and not enough to change the rottenness that is all too evident.

    I know less about the monkhood in Korea but, from what I’ve seen, monks are more serious about practice. Not all, mind. A friend of mine, a good American woman with good Korean language skils, was reduced to tears and then outrage after a monk in Busan told her she’d be better looking if she lost some weight.

    However, I am glad to say that I’ve never come across anything like that in the Hanmaum tradition, and all the Korean monks and nuns I’ve met that follow Daehaeng Kun Sunim have been (in my humble opinion and experience) very serious and committed practitioners.

    And yet. And yet the religious backround from which I’m from (I first went to a Quaker meeting when I was a late teen, and I’ve been attending on and off since then whenever I’ve lived near one) is one that emphasises that we all contain within us the inner light – and there should be no lay and ordained and no distiction between them.

    So I’m sometimes surprised to find myself ignoring those priciples (principles for which the early Quakers suffered at the hands of the established church at that time) and giving respect to one person over another simply because of the robe they are wearing.

    And it happens all the time. Group conversations stop and everyone listens when the monk speaks. Even if the monk has only been wearing robes for a week and he’s giving his opinion on the weekend’s weather! Pass a drink to a monk and you’ll bow, pass it to a friend and you won’t. Why is that? And I’ve seen this happen again and again and again for years.

    And it does surprise me. What happened to my egalitarian beliefs? What happened that I suddenly find it normal that an old lady here in Thailand will take off her shoes in the street and bow down to a 15-year-old porn and computer game addict just because he’s wearing robes for a week? What happened that I’ve done the same?! It comes, of course, from living here so long, from throwing myself so deeply into Buddhism, from losing that link to my root (to use a double meaning).

    I love Buddhism, I love the practice, I love what I’ve learnt and experienced from Buddhism, I have met a couple of truly wonderful Buddhist monks (Chong Go Sunim of course, and Hyedaeng Sunim who is, I’m sure, as close to an Enlightened being as you can find on this earth) and I value all this so much, but if there is one thing that I am uncomfortable with it is this role of monks in Buddhism.

    My best religious friend, a Catholic priest, mostly refuses to wear his dog-collar and has done so for the past 40 years. He takes seriously Jesus’ admonition to the religious authorities of his time about recieving respect and taking the best seats etc etc. And I know both Christians and Buddhists who are so much more enlightened and compassionate than I could ever dream of being and than most monks I see, without their ever having been ordained.

    Tomorrow morning I’m going to the Seonwon here in Bangkok to renew my lay refuge and precept vows. I take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, and in the Sangha. To my way of thinking this Sangha is not just those in robes in the best seats (or on the best cushions!), but the Sangha as all of us – from the head monk to the old lady chopping the vegetables, to the kids outside on the swings, to the curious friend that came along to watch, to the turtles in the pond.

    And if someone decides to put on robes and “go to an outstanding temple” and not “possibly associate and amuse [themselves] with lay people”, well, I’m pretty certain that actually it’s their loss.

    Marcus _/\_

    1. From the very first moment we put our foot on the path we learned that we should take care of everything through our fundamental mind; and that all and everything should become one through our foundation -> one mind.
      i agree with you, Marcus, ‘we all contain within us the inner light’. and if we are all one, what can an ordained person have to fear ‘associating and amusing’ him-/herself with a lay person?
      Why should she/he turn away from his family and friends?… (why should i loose my friend Liana?)

      ‘To miss and yearn for the mundane world’ mustn’t necessarily be the case if someone becomes a nun or monk. They just have to struggle with the same problems as everybody else to bring practise into daily life – only under more stringent conditions. what doesnt mean they are ‘better’ a priori. Chögyam Trungpa speaks about ‘spiritual materialism’ … i’m further on the path=i’m better than you.
      how could that fit with non-duality?

      on the other hand i don’t have any problem to bow down to a person who earns my respect – lay or ordained. it’s not the robe i bow to, it’s the person. and yes, i bow with respect to a person who’s just creating a perfect vision of her/himself to finally become like that (Vajrayana).
      nobody’s perfect but we’re doing our very best:)

  10. Hi Evelyn,

    I agree with you. And thank you for the reminder. Of course I am also happy to bow to a monk! To someone who has made that decision to commit for life to the Dharma and who is training in the Dharma.

    And I bow also to all those everywhere who who are committed to the Dharma in the midst of all the struggles of daily life too.

    Hell’s teeth, let’s be like the Bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra who bowed to all – recognising the Buddha-nature in every single being!

    And today I was happy, overjoyed, to be in the Sangha, with all the great laypeople and all the devoted and skilled and compassionate monks and nuns (don’t you just love how many nuns there are in Hanmaum?!).

    Thank you Evelyn!

    And a deep bow to you!

    Marcus _/\_

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