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.

Week 3: Dharma talk from “The good for nothing son”

Here’s the Dharma talk from this past week’s English Dharma talk. It’s a great story, with some really interesting points, but I’d say the main one is that everything changes. If you can just wait long enough, even what you are experiencing right now *will* change.

And if you work at entrusting that to this foundation we all have, this inner light, this Buddha-nature, then it will change faster (I think!) and will move in a more positive direction, and be much, much less likely to be rerecorded as more of the same type of thing/experience/karma.

with palms together,
Chong Go

Week 2: Dharma talk from the story, “Letting Go”

Here’s the Dharma talk for the second week’s talk, from the story “Letting Go”. (You can find the full text and a nice audio version of the story if you scroll down the posts.)

I’m trying a new way of putting up the audio files, so let’s see if this this works better! (You can still download the file by left clicking on the column of dots next to the speaker symbol.)

The Pure-hearted Sculptor – bonus story

Here is a bonus story! We won’t have a public talk about this, but I’ll still put up a recording next week. Just because I really like this story!

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

The Pure-hearted Sculptor

If you go to Bulguk Temple near Gyeongju, you can still see in the courtyard two magnificent stone pagodas. There is an air about them of something profound and peaceful, and perhaps you will understand why when you hear how they came to be.

Over a thousand years ago, after Kim Daesung became prime minister of the Silla Kingdom, he began to rebuild Bulguk Temple.

He wanted to add two pagodas that would express the richness and depth of the Buddha’s teachings, but in order to do this he knew he needed to find an artisan whose great skill was matched by an equally deep sincerity and faith. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he looked, he couldn’t find such a person.

Yet Kim Daesung knew that if he was sincere enough, he would surely find a craftsman of equal sincerity.

So, for one hundred days, he fasted and prayed. Although he was rebuilding Bulguk Temple in honor of his parents, it wasn’t for them alone that he was praying. He was praying for all beings, that they would truly awaken to their inherent Buddha-nature, and that the entire world would live together peacefully and harmoniously.

He poured his entire heart into his prayers and meditation, and on the night of the one hundredth day the Buddha appeared in a dream, saying to him, “In the lands of the old Baekje kingdom is a sculptor of great depth and sincerity, called Asadal.”

Kim Daesung left immediately for the southwest of Korea, to the lands that had been the old Baekje kingdom. He spent months there, traveling through villages and cities, always asking if anyone had ever heard of a stone carver by the name of Asadal.

One day, as he traveled through a remote mountain valley, he heard a woman call, “Asadal, dinner’s ready.” At last, he had found the man he’d been looking for!

He humbly asked Asadal to design and carve two pagodas for Bulguk Temple, and explained his hope that they would express the Buddha’s teachings and guide all who gazed upon them.

Asadal was filled with joy at the prospect of being able to contribute to the reconstruction of a great temple like Bulguk, but he couldn’t immediately accept Kim Daesung’s offer.

For Asadal had a wife, Asanyo, who he loved very much. They lived together with her father, and it was he who had taught Asadal all of the stone carver’s arts. But he was elderly, and would never survive the journey to Bulguk Temple.

Yet if Asadal went by himself, Asanyo would be left trying to care for her father by herself. No matter how Asadal looked at the situation, there seemed to be no good answer.

That night Asadal told his wife about Kim Daesung’s proposal. Asanyo was filled with joy, for she loved him deeply and knew that he was capable of producing something wonderful. But she noticed that Asadal was uneasy, and also realized that even traveling to Bulguk Temple would take many, many weeks.

“I know the circumstances will be difficult, but the pagodas you’ll make will convey the Buddha’s teachings throughout the centuries. Don’t worry about father; I’ll take good care of him. And even though we’ll be apart, think of all the benefits those pagodas will have for so many generations of people.

“You’ve dreamed about being able to do something like this, and when the work is finished, we can be together again.”

With this, Asadal made up his mind to go to Bulguk Temple and carve the pagodas. He and Asanyo held each other and cried for a long time, promising that one day they would hold each other again.

After he arrived at Bulguk temple, Asadal set about designing and carving the pagodas. Although he missed Asanyo terribly, everything he did was imbued with the love he felt for her.

Thinking of her hope that these pagodas would benefit generation after generation, his great love for her expressed itself as compassion for all beings and the hope that they would dissolve all traces of self-centeredness and awaken to the eternal, fundamental Buddha within.

He focused on the pagodas with this utter sincerity, and the hope that they would be beacons that would guide all beings to this bright path.

When Asadal began to work on the first pagoda, called the Dabo Pagoda, an image of the four all-embracing virtues arose within him, for with these, anyone would be able to live a true life and would open themselves to innumerable blessings.

The first virtue is freely giving to those in difficulty. The second is encouraging others to live together harmoniously through gentle speech and a kind face. The third virtue is helping others through words, actions, and even mind. And the fourth virtue is sharing unconditionally, by becoming one with other people and their circumstances.

Asadal decided to represent these virtues as pillars, so after finishing the foundation of the pagoda, he erected four rectangular pillars, plain looking but sturdy.

On top of these he built an elaborate and refined structure, representing the functioning of the earth and heavenly realms. Thus, the Dabo Pagoda teaches us that it is these four virtues that support the functioning of all things in the world and universe.

As Asadal designed and carved the second pagoda, known as the Sokga Pagoda, it was with the hope that beings would put into practice the four all-embracing virtues represented by the Dabo Pagoda, and in so doing, they would awaken to their inherent nature and go on to become Buddhas themselves.

This he represented with clean, straight lines and smooth squares, one on top of another; thus developed the Sokga Pagoda’s noble form. Even today, these pagodas are still there, speaking silent words to all who come.

Both Kim Daesung and Asadal were deeply sincere people, who worked hard at letting go of self-centeredness and the tendency to see themselves as existing apart from others.

Kim Daesung wanted to build the pagodas in order to help all beings, while Asadal entrusted every single thing to his inherent nature, and every stroke of his chisel contained his pure heart. And so, the Dabo Pagoda and the Sokga Pagoda are made of much more than just stone.

If people realized just how precious it is to be born as a human being, they wouldn’t waste their life just wandering around.

Even worse than this are those who think only of themselves, and so turn their backs upon the tremendous opportunities to create virtue and merit which come from being born as a human being. The thoughts we are giving rise to now can even determine whether we are reborn as a more evolved human being, or whether we wear the mask of an animal.

So, have a great heart like Kim Daesung, and raise an intention to benefit each and every being. Diligently rely upon your foundation with the sincerity and focus of Asadal.

Practice like this, and your life will shine forth like the Dabo and Sokga Pagodas, whose light remains undiminished after even a thousand years.

True Giving – text for week 5

Here’s the text for the Week 5 talk based on the book, “My Heart is a Golden Buddha.” I have to say that this is one of my favorite stories. Though, to be honest, as I’ve been going through the book, I’ve been going, “Ooh, that’s a good one! And that one. Oh, and so’s that one!” Lol.

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

True Giving

One day, when the sunims were out collecting donations of food for their temple, one sunim entered the yard of a house that looked so poor he felt guilty about asking them for anything.

He turned around and was leaving when the owner called out to him. His family had very little, but they wanted to make an offering.

Not having any food, this family had gone around asking people for the water they washed their rice in, which was normally just thrown away. They added a bit of rice to this water and boiled it down until it thickened a bit. Then they would drink it like a soup.

Using their best bowl and a serving table, the family offered a bowl of this rice water to the sunim, who humbly accepted it.

As the sunim drank it, he was moved to tears by their sincerity and wanted to do something to help them. He had nothing of his own to give, but he could find them some firewood. So, later in the day, he took up an empty pack and headed into the mountains. He collected all the wood he could carry and was on his way to their house when he met his teacher.

His teacher asked him what he was doing, and the sunim explained the whole story to him. As soon as the sunim finished, his teacher swung his staff around and started beating the sunim’s legs mercilessly, roaring:

“What do you think you’re doing? You’re a sunim! For years now you’ve been studying this vast and profound fundamental mind! You should be helping them through formless giving! Once they’ve burnt up that wood, your help is gone! And you would call that giving?!”

The sunim rolled around on the ground, still wearing his pack load of firewood, clutching his calves, with tears streaming down his face. Finally he sat up and was wiping away his tears and blood when suddenly he understood formless giving.

“That’s it! That’s it!” Blood was still trickling down his leg, but now he understood the principle of entrusting a thought to his fundamental mind.

All of his pain and shock were forgotten, and he felt so light and free that he thought he might start flying. He took all of his gratitude and best wishes for the family and silently entrusted them to his foundation.

Before too long, the family that had given him the rice water began to flourish until eventually they became one of the most prosperous families in the village.

The benefit of raising a good thought for someone and entrusting that to your fundamental mind can’t be compared to the temporary help that material goods provide.

When you selflessly entrust a wish to help someone to your foundation, when you do this while letting go of any hint of “I’m doing” or “I did,” then that help continues without ceasing. It never ends, and it helps them on a very fundamental level. Not only that, the virtue and merit of that act eventually returns to you.

Pay careful attention to the thoughts you’re giving rise to. “I don’t know anything,” “I’m sick,” “I don’t have anything”—don’t let statements like these guide your thinking, speech, or actions. Don’t let them become excuses for thinking of only yourself.

If you do, the results will not be good. This is because all of your thoughts, words, and actions return to you. They are input into your foundation and then come back out with different appearances. If you use your mind narrowly and shallowly, the poverty of that opens up before you. If you use your mind deeply and inclusively, peace and warmth lie as far as the eye can see.

Truly, a single thought can create heaven, and a single thought can create hell.

Three Grains of Millet – text for week 4

Here’s another great story from Daehaeng Kun Sunim! This will be the text for this week’s Dharma talk.

audio file (It’s really good!)
– from the audiobook version of “My Heart is a Golden Buddha”

Three Grains of Millet

Once there was a sunim passing through a village busy with the millet harvest.

He’d been traveling all day and his stomach looked forward to dinner. Walking by the ripe stalks of millet, he reached out, and touching them, three small yellow grains fell into his hand. He popped them in his mouth without thinking, and kept walking.

Although he immediately forgot all about it, this unconscious act caused the sunim a lot of suffering in his next life. Dying some years later, this karmic debt led him to be reborn as a cow belonging to the farmer whose millet he’d eaten.

For three years he had to work as a cow, and although the farmer was a kind man, life as a cow was still difficult. Not only was the sunim not used to hard physical labor, but he had also retained his human consciousness. He was trapped in a cow’s body with all of his human thoughts and feelings, but couldn’t communicate with anyone.

Finally, those three long years were nearly finished. Just as the sunim’s karmic debt was fulfilled, in the minutes before the cow died, he regained his ability to speak.

He spoke to the kind farmer and explained all of the causes behind his rebirth as a cow. Further, he warned the farmer about a disaster that was approaching the village:

“The day after tomorrow, a gang of five hundred outlaws will attack this village. However, if you prepare meals for all five hundred men, they’ll spare the village.”

The farmer, amazed by what the cow said, took it to heart and went to tell the village elders. After much discussion, they gathered the entire village together and began preparing food and places for five hundred men. And then, everyone waited.

As the cow had foretold, two days later five hundred outlaws, bandits of the worst sort, came riding hard into the village.

They’d come expecting the usual thrill of terrified villagers running every which way, but instead, the villagers met them calmly. They announced that they had prepared dinner for all five hundred men, and that if the gentlemen would be seated, they would begin serving them.

“What’s going on here? Is this some kind of a trick?” demanded the leader, waving his sword around.

The villagers told him about the cow’s prophecy, including why the sunim was reborn as a cow. This was just too strange to accept. But everyone told him the same story, and, as they had provided meals and food for his group, he decided to leave the village intact.

As the days went by, the bandit couldn’t help reflecting upon what he had heard about the sunim. Again and again, he found himself comparing the monk’s behavior to all the bad things that he had done.

In fact, all the outlaws found themselves thinking along the same lines. “If taking three tiny grains of millet can cause a sunim, a disciple of the Buddha, to be reborn as a cow, what will happen to someone like me?”

Each man knew that he had done far more terrible things. Trying to estimate how much they would have to suffer, they were forced to think about how much pain and suffering their actions had caused others.

As a result, the leader and his men began to sincerely repent of the things they had done, and dedicated themselves to learning and applying the teachings of Buddha.

Eventually, all five hundred bandits became Arhats, great beings who extinguished the seeds of desire and anger, and transcended birth and death.

When people hear this story about a sunim becoming a cow because of three grains of millet, they often think this is just a story, something I made up in order to teach them. Of course I tell this story to teach people, but you should know that everything actually happened, and that things like this are still happening today.

Nothing in this world happens by accident. A sunim can be reborn as a cow for stealing three grains of millet, and, because of that cow, five hundred bandits can reform and even become Arhats.

Although everything in the world has its own path and its own function, at the same time, it is all interconnected and functioning together as one.

Holding the universe in one hand,
and making it my hat,
hanging the sun and moon from my staff,
with a single step
journeying throughout the soaring mountains.
Everything in these living mountains,
every leaf and pine needle,
are all one body.

Seon Master Daehaeng, February 22, 1986