In 2009, as part of the Seonwon’s tenth anniversary celebrations, Chong Go Sunim visited Bangkok for the first time and gave a joint talk with Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku on the subject of Buddha-nature. During his visit I accompanied him to various places in the city, including Wat Chanasonkram, the lovely temple opposite the western end of Khao San. Chong Go Sunim was struck by the good feeling in the main hall, and on the way out he took a few photos of the murals on the interior walls.
One picture came out particulaly well and was used over a whole page a month or so later in the Hanmaum Journal. And last month, at the start of his second visit to Thailand, Chong Go Sunim very kindly presented me with a large print of the photo which shows the colours and details of the mural with great clarity. The scene is a simple one of the Buddha, before his enlightenment, escaping his father’s palace on his horse Kanthaka with his attendant Channa holding on tight at the back.
The horse is not on the ground but, with legs stretched out front and back, is flying through the air. This is no ordinary leap, they are high above a river bend with mountainous shores, under a night sky full of red and orange tinged clouds behind which you can just make out a luminous full moon. Despite the action depicted in the scene it’s remarkably still. Prince Siddhartha’s royal crown is perched upright on his head, and holding onto the flying horse looks like it involves no struggle or fear at all.
But the most remarkable thing about the picture is not the young prince or his devoted attendant or the magical horse, but five figures, picked out in white outline only, aiding him in his flight. One, with the multiple faces that denote Brahma, stands to the left, holding a gently flowing parasol above the future Buddha’s head. The other four almost ghostly figures, kneeling in traditional Thai sideways style despite being airborne, each hold aloft one of the horse’s hoofs.
I don’t believe, despite the daily chant in temples all over Thailand affirming otherwise, that the Buddha was self-enlightened. Not if by that we mean that his achievement was accomplished single-handedly, and this picture explains what I mean. The entire universe acted in his support. Heavenly figures held his horse aloft through the night sky. Then teachers came to guide him through his first comprehensive meditations. On the point of starvation, a young woman came to feed him and teach him the nature of kindness. Mara even helped him along. After his insight into how we all share the same nature, disciples came. A community was built.
Sangha is essentail to spiritual growth. My friend Roy, in a lovely photo essay entitled ‘Church’ beautifully describes how anything, everything, can be a church or sangha. And he’s right. “The only offering accepted here is presence – your very life” he writes. And “There is nothing that is not our teacher” Daehaeng Sunim teaches. “The resolute and unflinching mountains silently tell us, “Live like a mountain.” The ceaselessly flowing waters whisper, “Live like water.” The flowers that bloom in the midst of any kind of adversity quietly sing, “Live like a flower.” A weed living in harsh soil says, “Live courageously.””
But community in the more usual sense is also essential for most, for me at least, in providing support on the spiritual path, and during the course of my life I have moved through a number of wonderful communities. In various places and periods of time I have been a regular attender at a Quaker Meeting House, in an Anglican Church, in a small informal Therevadan sitting group, at Chong Go Sunim’s Saturday Sangha in Seoul, in the diverse group known as Littlebang here in Bangkok, and for the past two and a half years my main Sangha has been, as well as Littlebang, the wondeful Bangkok Seon Club and Seonwon.
One of the things I want to do in this post is to thank all my past communities for their amazing warmth and support. Especially, on the eve of my leaving Bangkok, to thank Seon Club. I’ve found in Hyedan Sunim, Mrs Nam, Young, all the regular members of Seon Club and Seonwon, and all those that have come along and contributed in so many ways, a truly inspiring and caring group, one that has aided and challenged me on my path. Thank you. And though sad to leave such a vibrant and friendly Sangha behind me, I know their influence will last many years to come.
Later this week I’ll be on a plane, leaving Bangkok, this city that I know better than any other in the world, heading to a new country a new life and to unknown future communities; and I can’t help but think again of that picture of the Buddha-to-be (and we are all Buddhas-to-be) flying away from home. He doesn’t strain forward, lean back, or flee the dangers surrounding him. He isn’t trying to control the horse that’s carrying him. He has set his direction, without which no travel would be possible, and now all he does is let go, and trust the invisible hands that are always ready to carry him to where he needs to go.
What are you looking for?
Whatever it is, you have to start by letting go;
Learn to trust the fundamental source within you.
Whether we call this Buddha-nature, God, or true self
Makes no difference. It has guided you and supported you
For a billion eons. Through it all things are connected,
And unseen energy flows back and forth
Between all lives and things.
– Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim