Inspiring Yourself to Practice by Won-Hyo: Part 1

We’re publishing the full text of Won-Hyo’s Inspiring Yourself to Practice (Bal shim su haeng jang). Written in the seventh century in Korea, it consists of 706 Chinese characters. (The English version looks much longer!)

According to the anthology Admonitions to Beginners, printed by the Bureau of Education of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, Inspiring Yourself to Practice  is one of three staple texts for all aspiring monastics. “The text stresses the need to eliminated (sic) one’s karmic bond with the world and immediately begin practice.”

Inspiring is found in Admonitions to Beginners. Currently out-of-print, this edition needs editing and revising. The following is my rewording of the original English translation, which was produced by Mark Mueller and Won-Myong Sunim.

If you’d like to see a printing of the entire anthology Admonitions, please let us know. If there’s enough interest, maybe it could be published in the future.


For countless eons all Buddhas residing in Nirvana
have discarded their desires and trained arduously.
From endless time sentient beings have cycled
within the burning house, having failed to discard desire.

The Pure Land is not blocked.
Yet few are those who enter;
most make their home among the three poisons.
Although the lower realms lack inherent power to seduce,
many enter therein.

The deluded mind values the five desires and the four elements
comprising the body as if they were jewels.
As this is the case, is there no one longing
to retire to the secluded mountains to practice the Way?

Enmeshed in desire, folks don’t go there.
Although you don’t take refuge in the mountains to cultivate your mind,
strive wholeheartedly to perform wholesome actions.

If you can renounce pleasure,
you will be as trusted and respected as the sages.
If you can undergo that which is difficult,
you will be as respected as the Buddha.
Those who greedily seek after things join the ranks of demons.
Those who give out of compassion are the disciples of the Dharma King.

(This post was also published on a blog specifically about Pure Land Buddhism)

13 thoughts on “Inspiring Yourself to Practice by Won-Hyo: Part 1”

  1. “Those who greedily seek after things join the ranks of demons.
    Those who give out of compassion are the disciples of the Dharma King.”

    Great stuff! Thank you for this!
    And so good to see you here Joe!


  2. “Those who greedily seek after things join the ranks of demons.”

    I’d like not to join the ranks of demons, so count me in for any future publications along these lines! Thank you!

  3. I like this text alot, and it agrees with me, only going to the mountains, probably, does not have to be always literal, your mind can do that even if you are in the middle of the city and doing whatever you have to do.
    Why when Wonhyo says it – it is considered great wisdom, but if someone, just a person, would say something along the lines, then you are kind of an enemy even to someone who should know better.

  4. Good point, Tanya. We like to hear things from people who passed long ago, but if someone living, our friend or cousin, said the same thing, we’d dismiss it.

    Reminds me of Steven Harrison writing about enlightenment as a social construct. Imagine: what would being awakened look like if it were a 7-11 clerk? Without the robes, the temple, and all the mystique, it wouldn’t look like anything — just a guy going about his business, stacking shelves and working the cash register.

  5. there are no demons, poison, or mountain to practice the Way, whether in reality nothing exists outside of our inherent essence, that the end is not ours, where to go … not the Monkey King never came out of the hand of Buddha, and But it was the Buddha ..


    Alejandro (Wen Hui – Mun Hye)

    no existen demonios, veneno, ni montaña a donde practicar la Vía, si en realidad nada existe fuera de nuestra esencia inherente, que al final no es nuestra, donde ir…Ni el Rey Mono salio nunca de la mano del Buddha, y sin embargo el mismo era el Buddha….

    ¡Bendiciones Hermanos!

    Alejandro (Wen Hui – Mun Hye)

  6. I am curious why you have made edits.
    The English version I have seen opens:

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

    And you have rendered it:

    For countless eons all Buddhas residing in Nirvana
    have discarded their desires and trained arduously.

    I admire the brevity of your translation, but it reads like straight prose. I am curious – is the original not poetic? If not, I suppose your version is more faithful to it. But if it is, I think that is sorely lacking, and so I would prefer the Mueller/Won-Myong translation.

    1. I’m curious why you’re curious. (Of course, you’re not really “curious”. This curiosity is no more than a ruse to criticize a layman’s re-rendering of a beloved work, but I’ll play along.) Why wouldn’t I make edits? Shall a translated work never be reworked? I found the original clunky and cumbersome. I prefer brevity and conciseness. You find it “sorely lacking”, I find it streamlined and fresh. Tomayto, Tomahto, my friend.

  7. No need to get defensive – of course you’re free to rework all you like and certainly don’t need my permission, or anyone else’s, to do so. I was just inviting you to explain the virtues of your reworking – I didn’t really see the advantages to it, and figured some explanation might convert me. In that sense, I was curious how you might critique the older translation and explain your vision for a new one. I hope that doesn’t seem too aggressive.

    Freshness, for instance, is not something I considered, because the Mueller/Won-Myong translation is still new to me, so it also is fresh.
    As for streamlined – yes, I agree entirely that your reworking has a faster pace, and I already said I admired it.

    As you say very rightly, Tomayto, Tomahto, and I will add, Potayto, Potahto. I’m just also a big fan of this text and have a great interest in all things Wonhyo and am excited to see others with the same interest. Didn’t mean to offend you, although I admit I was challenging you to explain yourself (and I still am curious to hear you talk more about the flaws you see in the old translation and what you envision as an improved text). I suppose challenging and offending can be a fine line, and I could have done it more carefully. I appreciate your work, at any rate!

    1. Sean, true I shouldn’t have gotten defensive. I guess the “sorely lacking” got me. At any rate, I did the re-rendering for a couple of reasons. One, I simply enjoy trying to improve the original and enjoy working with the text as an excuse to spend more time with it. I don’t know ancient Chinese, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the translation.

      I’m a fan of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”. I like reworking belabored prose. “undergone arduous training” sounds better as “trained arduously.” The Chinese is always so spare, so umpteen different English renderings are possible. Chinese is also very economical, and I’d prefer an economical rendition in English.

      Someday I hope to learn the ancient language so I can produce my own translation. Glad to meet another fan of this obscure text.

  8. I’m also a big fan of Strunk and White, and I certainly agree with the emphasis on elegance and a “less is more” philosophy. I certainly think that the sense of “undergone arduous training” and “trained arduously” is the same, and so the shorter automatically wins points. But I found something sonorous in the words “undergone arduous” – they are balanced against each other by beginning with similar vowels, mixing ‘r’ and ‘d’ sounds, and so on. But, that is a matter of taste, I suppose, and there is no accounting for taste, famously.

    In general, I think I agree with you 100% that reducing overworked prose to its essential meaning improves the text; poetry, on the other hand, is for me distinct from prose. Poetry is the sort of thing one memorizes and savours more slowly, and is not necessarily aimed at saying anything simply or straightforwardly – the doubt and thickness of the meaning can become an integral and enjoyable part of the text. Take a religious poet from the English tradition, John Donne –

    Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
    Which was my sin, though it were done before?
    Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
    And do run still, though still I do deplore?
    When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
    For I have more.

    This could be rendered much plainer, but I think the slight sense of paradox, the confusion itself, is part of the experience Donne is trying to convey. If it were grasped too easily or without tension it wouldn’t be the same poem.

    But one thing I am especially intrigued by in your reworking is you have changed, “burning house of desire”, into “Samsara”. I think this is a really intriguing point – I like your choice of Samsara because it establishes a balance with the word Nirvana, used previously, and I think the balance, the comparing and contrasting of two paths, is one of the main and most powerful devices in this poem. So to re-assert it by using the word Samsara is, I think, a great decision.

    I find the original translation’s decision to translate only Samsara, and not Nirvana, an odd choice. If it is true to the original, then I find Wonhyo’s choice odd, because it disrupts the balance. Had Nirvana been described as vividly as Samsara, I think the poem would be more vivid and compelling.

    Also, the original translation writes, “heaven (the Pure Land)”, which you translate straight into Pure Land. I also deeply agree with that translation. I don’t like the parenthesis at all, and I wonder what “heaven” could have meant to Wonhyo, if not simply the concept of Pure Land? If they are synonymous, why have both? I suppose heaven is a more familiar word to English readers, but insofar as it is familiar it is misleading, it seems to me.

    Well, this is getting too long. I hope you do take up ancient Chinese and produce a translation. I am also very interested in becoming a translator someday! Thanks again for your sparking this conversation and giving a forum for discussion on this interesting text. For my money, the end part of it is the most powerful and exciting, and I’d love to see you continue on to a part 2!

    1. Hi Sean, I rechecked the text and made changes. “Burning house of desire” is actually “burning house” in the original — samsara was a poetic leap and unwarranted, although one may argue that the meaning is the same. Also, the Chinese reads “Heaven” instead of “Pure Land” but a noted monk in his commentary wrote that Wonhyo intended the meaning of Pure Land.

      I also don’t think economy is always the most important thing in writing. Sometimes extra words serve a purpose. And if everyone wrote like Strunk suggests, we’d all be carbon copies of each other. Extra words serve to show humility or at least a lack of confidence. Terse prose gives an air of arrogance or “knowing” — sometimes if we don’t know, we need to write cautiously, and it might be wise to write: “I’m not sure, but I think…”

      I want to work more on this project but with someone with ancient Chinese skills. My wife and I worked together on it but her Chinese is not so good, although she can tell me what the Korean says. Thanks for inspiring me to keep plugging away!

      I love the Chinese because it’s so spare. For example, the “Gate to Heaven is not blocked” is actually “No Block Heaven” in the Chinese.

  9. I really enjoyed seeing the edits and will await any new additions or editions eagerly! I liked the use of the word “cycled”, by the way – that seems a much more natural and familiar word that “transmigrate”.

    The sparsity of the Chinese certainly sounds attractive! That is a familiar trait of lots of Buddhist and especially Zen poetry, in my mind – the counter-imposing of images. I know the modernist poet Ezra Pound was very influenced by Chinese poetry.
    One of his poems is called, “In a Station of the Metro”
    “The apparition of these faces in the crowd –
    petals on a wet, black bough.”

    He sets two images against one another, which is a feature of Chinese poetry, but I think you are absolutely right in noting that the pace of the language is much slower.
    “The gates to the Pure Land
    are not blocked”,
    You’re point is very well taken, as I saw that this was originally:
    Is there an English way of imitating this pace? The lack of articles and prepositions seems hard to keep up with. Absence of blockade to the Heaven/Divine/Pure Land/Hall.
    I searched some on the character, “無”, or 무 in Korean: Wikipedia lists three possible meanings, the third being relevant to us:
    3. (Buddhism) 무 (mu, “neither yes nor no”) (in response to a koan or a question that mistakenly assumes an affirmative or negative answer)

    Also, in English you traditionally need to say whether the block is lacking TO heaven or IN heaven, and so forth. These are meaningful differences apparently left ambiguous in the original. From a critical perspective, ambiguity is seen as a valuable sign of great literature, so it is a shame that making it English eliminates or narrows some of that.

    I would suggest this – that readers are sophisticated enough to handle some shocking grammar. I quite liked the way you put it, “No block Heaven”. I am uncomfortable using the word “heaven” in these texts, because I think the Western word “heaven” is tied up with a metaphysics that is very different from the Eastern idea of 天.

    Well, I don’t know how you’re going to resolve all of these very difficult problems, but I am really interested to see how it turns out, how you navigate all of these possibilities. I also hope that while reworking, you note some of the challenges and thoughts guiding you, as I would love to see the trail you choose amongst so many possible paths.

    Thanks again for all your hard and interesting work!

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