Lately I’ve been (slowly) revising a collection of stories told by Daehaeng Kun Sunim during her Dharma talks. Here’s the story of the awakening of one of the most famous figures in Korean Buddhism, Wonhyo Daesa (617–686 CE).
Wonhyo Sunim and Uisang Sunim were Buddhist monks who had become close friends, and were on their way to China to find a great master under whom they could study. They had left Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom, and were headed to the southwest coast of Korea to find a boat that could take them across the sea to China.
After weeks of walking, they were deep in the rival kingdom of Baekje. The sky had turned dark and the showers were fast becoming torrents. Before long the rain was blowing sideways and the two friends could barely see in front of them. They looked around for some kind of shelter and eventually stumbled across an abandoned hut. It was too wet to start a fire and they were both so exhausted that they fell fast asleep as soon as they lay down. In the middle of the night Wonhyo Sunim woke up with a burning thirst. Half asleep, he found a broken bowl half full of rain water. He drank it down with a sigh, and fell back to sleep.
In the morning when Wonhyo Sunim awoke, he was shocked by what he saw: decayed bodies were scattered all around where the two sunims had been sleeping. This was no ordinary hut – it was a place for getting rid of the bodies of people who had died of the plague. And the bowl full of rain water? It was half a skull, with flesh still inside and crawling with maggots. Running outside, Wonhyo Sunim began to vomit as if his insides were going to come outside.
Kneeling there with his stomach tied in knots, he suddenly realized, “The water was the same – it’s my thoughts that were different. Last night it was pure and refreshing, and now it’s so disgusting that.… The only thing that’s changed are my thoughts.”
As he quietly sat there, Uisang Sunim said to him, “Why don’t we get going; you’ll feel better once we get away from this place.”
Wonhyo Sunim didn’t respond. After a moment he asked Uisang Sunim, “Why do you want to go to China?”
“To learn the path, of course.”
“The path isn’t someplace far away. It’s within us, wherever we are. Why go to China to look for what’s already with us?
With this, Wonhyo Sunim headed back to the lands of Silla.
Wonhyo Sunim had taken the first step: he had realized that it was his thoughts that made heaven and it was his thoughts that made hell. If he wanted to attain the enlightenment of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, he would have to start with himself. And there was no point in going somewhere else to do it. So he took activity of his own mind as his fundamental hwadu (koan) and returned home to Silla.
If you want to discover what’s true and what’s real, you’ll have to start with your own mind. All of the principles and truths of the universe are already contained within you. Our fundamental mind gives rise to thousand different manifestations, and our fundamental mind can combine ten thousand different manifestations into one. This mind that ceaselessly gives rise to things and causes them to subside, also gives rise to every kind of different person, and can combine all those people into one.
So take the functioning of your own mind as your hwadu. If you practice like this, you’ll come to know what binds your mind, and what frees your mind. You’ll discover where you are rich and where you are impoverished, and you’ll discover that it’s mind that makes things big, and mind that makes the same things small. You’ll know for yourself the unimaginable wonders that this fundamental mind can call forth. By ceaselessly taking everything that arises through mind as your hwadu, you’ll realize that among all the things in the world, the path to true freedom begins with your own mind. For this is the very place of Buddha.