Letting Go and Taking a Step Forward – An interview with Chong Bo Sunim (Part 3 of 3)
An Interview with the head of the Mungyeong Hanmaum Seon Center, Chong Bo Sunim. This interview was originally published in Korean, in the March-April 2020 edition of Hanmaum Journal. In this part, Chong Bo Sunim talks about being put in charge of the Mungyeong Hanmaum Seon Center, his experiences there, and what he’s learned there.
Grasping a Handle That Has No Handle
In the years after Daehaeng Kun Sunim and Hyewon Juji Sunim passed away, things at the Seon Center in Anyang began to change for me. I’d had some problems with my eye for a while, and it had gradually reached the point where it was hard for me to do the editing and reading for my job with the publications department. So whenever I went up to the Dharma hall, I’d ask my foundation to open a new path for me.
I was talking about this with Chong Bek Sunim, the abbot of the Gwang Myeong branch, and he said, “Although it may be hard work, why don’t you try to work with laypeople, and perhaps give something back in that way?” And soon after the Mungyeong branch needed a new sunim to take over.
While I was at Anyang, I’d focused on returning everything inwardly, and took that as my practice, but after I was put in charge of the Mungyeong branch, I realized that I needed to work on seeing everything nondually. It was like my foundation was letting me know that I had to connect with everything nondually, and only then could things at the branch work out harmoniously. I felt as if I’d been stuck at the same point for life after life, and only now had stumbled upon how I could finally take a step forward.
One time, Kun Sunim had said to me, “You have to grasp the handle (of a hoe) that is not a handle, and hoe the field that has no dirt or rocks. This field of mind which needs endless hoeing, but doesn’t have anything to hoe. You go forward like this, looking although you can’t see, listening although you can’t hear, going forward on this path that can allow you see and hear, and never losing sight of the fact that all Buddhas are there together with you in this process. This is what ‘intensive practice’ means.” (The word used for ‘intensive practice’ is often used in the context of meditation retreats -translator.) It seems to me that this is how to take care of everything, from both the inside as well as outside, and how to live a true life.
It was during that first year in Mungyeong that I gained a new and deeper sense of the idea, “Wherever you find yourself, just do your best to fulfill the role of a sunim and meet the needs of the people.”
When I was at Anyang, at the Dharma talks for the laymen’s group that I worked with, we studied Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s new Korean translation of the Diamond Sutra. This forced me to take a deeper look at her translation, and I realized that she kept coming back to the point that this visible word and everything else that’s unseen are never separate. They are one whole that’s ceaselessly functioning together without division. She was very clearly showing us that everything in this world is happening based upon the functioning of the unseen realms.
Also, in her translation of the Diamond Sutra, she said that we have to return inwardly, and, while letting go of all traces of “me,” we have to make all the various states of consciousness that continually arise within bow down and surrender. This is how we can move forward on the path to becoming a Buddha.
But in one of the Dharma songs, Kun Sunim said, “Solemnly return them back to the place they came from, your fundamental mind. Suddenly, in an instant, you’ll leap over the cycle of birth and death, over karma, and over the conditioned nature of existence.” All of these verses are teaching us to return inwardly. Just this one Dharma song has all the truths of so many of the sutras. And presented in a way that helps people understand and apply them to their lives. I’d never felt this more clearly.
Further, in Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s Hangul translation of The Thousand Hands Sutra, she says, “My one mind hears and responds to all the cries of the world (this could also be read as ‘the Bodhisattva of Compassion’ -translator) so I return to and rely upon my one mind.” With these, she’s giving us such complete and detailed directions! When we work at entrusting everything we experience to our foundation, then everything we see, hear, and say becomes us putting the spirit of the Bodhisattva of Compassion into action.
I came to realize this, because I used to unconsciously think, “There’s no way I can understand The Diamond Sutra,” but when that fixed frame of thinking collapsed, then, in one instant, it turned into the conviction that I, too, can understand and apply those teachings. Once I came to understand the core and the logic of practice, I became able to manage everything by returning it inwardly. At some point, I was reading along and suddenly realized, “Ah, this is what she meant!” Like this, when you keep returning to your foundation, the time will come when you see your core. But you have to be working at it for this to happen. I realized that “The Essentials of One Mind,”(Hanmaum Yojeon), as well as Kun Sunim’s collected Dharma talks, the Dharma songs she gave us, and her translations of the sutras are all saying the same thing, just in different ways according to the context.
The Path to Freedom
When I first came to the Mungyeong branch in December of 2018, I had the desire that I wanted to make more progress in my spiritual practice. It’s one of those things that’s hard, because you’re taking a path you’ve never traveled before. The path you’ve already been on is easy and seems shorter, doesn’t it?
I felt like it now took great effort for me to move forward even a little bit, but it also felt quite satisfying. One of the things I realized is that the Seon center was developing and making progress not because of me or what I was doing. Things got done and progress happened when everything was connected nondually, through this one mind. There, in the midst of that, I was just one small cog. And, as I practiced and worked like this, it allowed the abilities and contributions of the other people working at the center to shine forth. In this way, all of our efforts become a foundation for the center, a foundation for a new Dharma hall that would one day benefit everyone.
That’s how Kun Sunim was, wasn’t she? She never had a “me” in anything she did, and so everything she did was beneficial for everyone. That’s why people had started calling her “E-saeng”( 利生 “ Blessing to all beings”). The only thing she cared about was helping beings move forward and awaken, which is also why people gave her the name “Daehaeng”(大行 “Great Action”). Whenever I met her, I had a sense of, “That’s how we have to do things! That’s real.”
The Mungyeong Seon enter is on a narrow piece of land at the bottom of a hill and next to a large pond, so sunims who’ve lived there before me have done a lot of work on expanding the usable ground. They each did a little bit more. It’s a collection of smaller buildings, and there was always the hope to build a large, proper Dharma hall. Sometimes there was the idea that we would make do with temporary facilities until we could build a dedicated Dharma hall, and then, once that was done, we could make it a place for people to practice and learn. As the head of the branch, some people thought my role was to focus on laying the foundation for that Dharma hall, so that it would be ready for someone in the future to build. However, that’s not the way I saw things. If you’re thirsty right now, what good is focusing on digging a well? You need a glass of water now, not a well in the future.
Likewise, I found myself thinking of the abbot in “The Records of Mazu,” who only had one night to live. How would I practice if that’s all the time I had left? I found myself thinking of the Dharma song Kun Sunim wrote, which said, “Do everything while letting go of any traces of ‘me’ or ‘I.’ While letting of ‘I did,’ or ‘I’m alive.’ If you just let go of ‘I’m living’ or ‘I’m dying,’ and bravely step forward, the path to freedom will appear before you.”
The pond below the Mungyeong center has many lotuses. I’ve spent three years watching them bloom and produce seeds. But as I do my best with what comes up, letting go of any thoughts about how long I’ve been doing it, or even that ‘I’ve’ done something, I sometimes think about what Kun Sunim said about that pond.
One day she pointed at it, and said, “A golden dragon lives there.” As I think about it, the word that for ‘dragon’(yong,용) also has the same sound as the word that means ‘working together.’ People thought she said ‘golden dragon,’ but I think she may have meant ‘golden working together, as one.’ Working together with others, through this foundation where we can completely rest with our eyes wide open. Where we can all become free together. Maybe that’s what she was really talking about.