The Examination – text for week 6

Here’s the text that will be the basis for the
English Dharma talk on week 6.

audio file – from the audiobook version of “My Heart is a Golden Buddha.”

The Examination

During the Joseon Dynasty, there was a scholar who was on his way to Seoul to take the national civil service examination.

He had been walking all day under the late summer sun, and was hungry and tired. Seeing an inn, he entered its courtyard and sat down on the raised platform with a heavy sigh. He ordered food and drink, and as he took out his purse, he found himself staring at it with tears in his eyes.

The tears welled up because while he had spent the last several years studying for the civil service test, his wife had been the one who supported their family.

Although she belonged to the nobility, she worked in other people’s kitchens and took in their sewing and mending. One copper coin at a time, she supported her husband and children, and saved enough for her husband’s traveling expenses.

What made it worse was that this wasn’t the first time the scholar had taken the national examination; it was famously difficult, and he had already failed it several times. So, as he looked at the coins in his purse, he felt the weight of his wife’s love and how bravely she had gone about taking care of the family.

For several years, the entire country had been gripped by a drought. If the rains did come, it was always as floods that washed away entire fields, or buried them under sand and gravel. Words can’t express how much the ordinary people suffered.

But the worst disaster of all was the behavior of the corrupt and greedy officials that plagued so many areas. Even when the people were one step away from eating boiled grass and tree bark, these officials still insisted that they pay their taxes, and they would take every last thing of value a family possessed.

If the local officials had just reported the situation to the king, he would have canceled the taxes in the districts that were suffering. But then the officials would have lost the chance to steal part of the tax money. So they kept quiet and the people continued to suffer.

Thus, the scholar couldn’t pass through a single village, no matter how small, without hearing the sounds of weeping or the groans of the sick and dying. He vowed, “If I pass that test with a high score, I’m going to become a royal inspector, and I will not let the people be abused and suffer like this!”

You see, in those days the king had secret inspectors whose job it was to tell him what was really going on in the country. In addition, they had the authority to solve any injustice on the spot. All of the soldiers and police had to obey the inspector instantly. These inspectors could even have officials arrested, exiled, and beaten to within an inch of their lives.

The most terrifying sight a corrupt official could see was a shabby peasant suddenly calling out in a fearsome voice and holding high the badge of a king’s inspector. Even the most cunning and powerful official’s blood would turn to ice at the sight of that round, brass badge with its image of five horses. These inspectors truly had the power to relieve people’s suffering.

As the scholar thought of the suffering of so many people and of his wife, he sat up straight, drew his shoulders back, and growled, “I’ll pass that examination or die trying!”

As he wiped the tears from his eyes, a weary old man sat down beside him. “Oh my legs! And if it were any hotter today, I don’t know what I’d do.” Smiling at the scholar, he asked, “Where are you off to on a day like this?”

“I’m heading up to the capital to take the national examination.”

“Well then,” said the old man, “you’d better take a look at this.” Out of his backpack he took an old book and gave it to the scholar.

The scholar opened it up, but as he looked through it, he saw that every page in the book was blank. He turned to speak to the old man, but no one was there; the old man had vanished!

“Had he been there at all?” wondered the scholar. “Perhaps I’m suffering from heatstroke?” But no, the book the old man had given him was still in his hands.

He sat there for a long time looking at the blank pages of that book. Passers-by saw him and imagined that he was studying some particularly difficult text, and yet not a single word was written on those pages.

Suddenly the scholar gave a shout. “Hah! Who would have guessed! There’s nothing here, so it can become one with everything, and can manifest as anything. It contains everything in the world. If one takes that as their center, they can hold all the realms of existence and non-existence in the palm of their hand.”

The scholar reverently put the book in his bag, and with a smile on his face continued on his way to the capital.

On the day of the exam, he went to the palace and found his seat. At last, the instructors revealed the examination topic: the word “Everything.” Everyone had to compose an essay or poem with “everything” as their subject.

The scholar thought of the book the old man had given him, with its blank, white pages, and smiled as he began to write about the principle by which everything in the universe functions.

Needless to say, his poem received the highest scores. He met the king, who upon hearing his story made him a royal inspector and charged him with protecting the people and upholding justice.

When peas are immature, they tend to stick to the pod, don’t they? However, when they have completely ripened, they burst out with just a touch of the fingers.

The scholar’s study of human virtue and how we should live had ripened to the point where those blank pages alone were enough to open his eyes. Everyone needs to reach this point.

There are so many teachings left by great practitioners; however, if your own spiritual practice isn’t deep enough, those teachings will remain just words on a page.

Even though you’re not yet at the stage of understanding the blank page, do your best to at least correctly understand the true meaning of the written words. If you can’t understand even the written words, how will you be able to pass the examination?

But when your practice has deepened and matured, then without even a single word, you will understand the ultimate meaning.

4 thoughts on “The Examination – text for week 6”

  1. Wow, such a wise story!
    Sunim, I was wondering if you knew of any English speaking Buddhist services in the Seoul or Gyeonggi-do area (I’m living in Pyeongtaek). I’m studying Korean but am not fluent yet, so I’d really appreciate an English service.

    1. Hi Michael,
      If you mean the daily ceremonies in English, then I don’t know for sure. Maybe Hwagye-sa? There’s a facebook group called “Buddhism for expats in Korea”, and if you asked there, someone might have an idea. I have occasional English Dharma talks at Anyang (Gwanak Station on line 1), but not the daily ceremony. (This Thursday and next, 4/11 & 4/18 will be the last two until this fall.)

      1. Hello Sunim,

        I was mainly inquiring about a service on Saturday or Sunday with chanting, meditation and a Dharma talk in English. Looks like Hwagyesa has that bit somewhere a bit closer would be good.

        What time are the English Dharma talks on this and next Thursday? I’ll try and come but it will take me about 2 hours to get to the temple from Pyeongtaek.

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