Taking Steps Toward the Great Truth:
Approaching the 3-Month Retreat

December 1, 2012, at Haeunjeong-sa

From Finding the True Self by Jinje, the 1st ed. (p.152)




Seeking the truth of the buddhadharma is pursuing the great path. Practice means treading this great path toward truth. The truth of the great path is unfathomable, limitlessly vast, and free from all duality—right and wrong, good and bad. It is a state in which all differentiation by shape and color ceases to exist. This is the ethereal place we aspire to reach, yet it eludes us. It is like trying to grasp empty space.

We cannot but question whether or not we are ready to embark on this arduous journey. Most vitally important for us to walk this path is having the correct attitude. Infinitely deep faith and ferocious courage reaching the sky are keys to attaining enlightenment. If you possess these mental qualities, attaining enlightenment is as easy as touching your nose while washing your face. Yet it can be like plucking a star out of the sky unless you encounter the correct Dharma and invest sincere belief in it.

Anyone who develops genuine faith can practice Dharma. Devotedly follow the instructions from enlightened teachers who have successfully walked this path ahead of you. If you do not go astray and wander off the course indicated by your teachers, you will reach and enter the gates of truth with relative ease. However, if you are blinded by conceit and led by false views, there will be no progress, even after several lifetimes of hard practice. The truth of the great path lies beyond the realm of speech, beyond the mind that distinguishes and discriminates. One must rise above such false views to attain the state of “no-mind.”

Achieving the state of no-mind is not as difficult as one may imagine. The doors to the great path open wide for anyone truly ready to discard their own body and life as Huike, the Second Patriarch of the Chinese Chan lineage, did. To prove his desperate resolve to attain the Dharma, he stood in a howling snow storm all night long and then cut off his own arm. It was his sincere faith and fierce devotion that earned Huike the transmission of the Dharma from the First Patriarch, Bodhidharma. Some people dedicate their whole lives to practicing Seon, only to accomplish little or nothing. Probably 90% of the time, the reason is not because they receive incorrect teachings but because they do not yearn and seek for the truth desperately enough. They just sit around, wasting time in pursuing pointless thoughts. If you investigate a hwadu with a fervent determination to resolve this matter of life and death in this very life—at any cost—you will not notice the passage of time. You will not notice people making a racket around you. You will even forget you are sitting in meditation. Only one thought will remain. When this hwadu single-mindedness begins to flow unceasingly, your eyes will open to the truth. This is true for everyone, without exception.

Therefore, the first thing to do is firmly establish the correct mindset. All the agitations of the mind stirred by external stimuli should be severed at once, as if slashed with a single swift stroke of a sword. All trifling concerns of the body—whether your body is sick or not, or has enough to eat—should all be dismissed at once. Focus your entire mind and life energy into your hwadu investigation. If you do, then other thoughts cannot arise, even if you try. Your mind should be completely filled with only the thought of the hwadu, so full that there is no space for anything else. It should be similar to when a sensitive part of your flesh is suddenly pricked by a needle and your whole attention is occupied by that pain. Your mind should focus on your hwadu that much. Your mind should be so captivated by the hwadu that other people may think you are crazy or even possessed.

Your single-minded focus on the hwadu will run like flowing water for days, months, even years. You will forget everything. Then, when the causes and conditions dictated by your karma are right, the hwadu will hatter to reveal the place where truth lies.

When winter comes, the freezing wind cuts and slashes at the body. However, before we know it, a balmy breeze ushers in spring, and the bitter cold goes away. Then all things burst back to life. If your efforts are honest and sincere, hwadu practice is no different from nature; it will bear fruit just as nature does. However, if a practitioner’s questioning does not arise from the bottom of his or her heart, this ever-flowing one-mindedness will not come, even after ten, twenty, or thirty years of ceaseless effort. If this is the case, you will not find your true nature. If your questioning of the hwadu is poignantly heartfelt and you keep investigating it until it cuts to the bone, however, three months in retreat will pass before you know it.

Some practitioners may go stir crazy while cut off from the world and cooped up in the temple, craving news from the outside. This is not the correct mindset for a practitioner. Such a person, no matter how long he practice, is just pretending. It does not matter if he keeps trying until his hair turns white. Such a bogus practice will bring no benefit. He will only waste his patrons’ donations, amassing a huge karmic debt; when he nears death, he will feel only regret. A practitioner must have the right mindset first. Otherwise, no matter how long you stay a monk, whether it is ten, twenty, or thirty years, or until your hair turns white, it will be the same dance to the same tune.

When I examine Seon practitioners these days, I cannot tell whether they are sleeping or investigating a hwadu. I no longer see a practitioner penetrating a hwadu and generating a sense of doubt so intense it pierces bone. I no longer see in them the fierce spirit essential to the practice.

You are monks who renounced the world. If you are bored after only one three-month retreat, shame on you. If you cannot wait for the retreat to end when you can wander off into the mountains again with your travel sack slung over your shoulder, as a monk in tattered robes, you should be embarrassed.

Imagine that your home was suddenly invaded and your parents, sisters, and brothers were all butchered. Now you are the only survivor looking at the carnage. How would you feel? If you feel like that when you work on your hwadu, torpor and delusion cannot even come near. If that is how you investigate your hwadu, I can guarantee you will penetrate it within three years.

If you are ordained monastics, you should search your soul everyday and ask yourself whether you have spent the day sincerely trying to see your true nature, or whether you are just squandering your patrons’ donations. Arouse the ardent aspiration again and again. If you fulfill your role as a monk, you will help save all beings; if you fail, you cannot save even yourself. It is you who renounced the secular world and chose this path. You did not do it for your parents. You did not do it for anyone else. Abandon all conditional external things and the mental confusion they cause. If you cannot shrug off all falsehoods and fabrications, you cannot progress a single step.

Revive the firm resolve you aroused when you first decided to give up all worldly pleasures, when you turned your back to them. You should give up trying to be a respectable citizen; instead, you should become a complete fool who thinks, walks, and breathes only your hwadu. If the hwadu is the only thing that fills your mind, nothing will bother you. Whether this three-month retreat starts or ends will not matter. Eating and sleeping will no longer concern you. Even your body will become irrelevant. You will exist in this state for some time, but you will find yourself nearer to the gate of the great path. Eventually, you will throw that gate wide open.

The same goes for lay Buddhists. You will not come into a big windfall of merit nor suddenly become a better meditator just by crisscrossing the country visiting this and that temple. Make the resolution now: “The only thing I must do is to find the bright light of the mind!” Do not waver from it. Cast off all affectations and expunge all attachments to any perceptions that arise from contact with the external world. Learn how to investigate your hwadu and persist in it.

If you are married and have children, you do need to take care of your family. However, if you assiduously persevere in your hwadu investigation while living the secular life, all unwholesome habits and persistent misconceptions of the mind will fade away.

The hwadu “What is the true self from before I was born?” is excellent for any Seon practitioner.

We must discover the true self, no matter who we are, because we have been lucky enough to encounter the buddhadharma in this life. Don’t you want to cheerfully shuck off your body and make a glorious exit from this life when death is near? The true self is the true master of this body born of our parents. This true self is the one that does the talking, the coming and going in our everyday lives. This true self is listening to this Dharma talk right now. This true self never leaves us throughout our lives, not even a second. Yet we do not know it and do not seek to attain it. This is the height of stupidity. How can you not resolve to find it? If you engender, through unrelenting questioning of a hwadu, a doubt so overpowering that it penetrates bone and twists your insides, your practice will ripen before you know it.

If the hwadu “What is my true self from before I was born?” is sharply imprinted onto a single thought, and if this single thought is vividly present in the mind at all times and in all places—whether coming or going, cooking or cleaning, working or sleeping—all the unhealthy habits you have accumulated life after life will completely melt away. Once this state is reached, the mind will attain enlightenment whether you are a monk or a lay person, whether you want it or not.

You do not have to travel to the moon or to heaven to bring back the buddhadharma to this earth. In the heart of every sentient being lives the original mind. The mind of sentient beings is, even here and now, no different from that of the buddhas or the patriarchs, not even by a hair’s breadth. But sentient beings are too deluded to know the truth.

If you practice diligently and experience your original mind, you will rise to a status equal to the Buddha. Your replies to gongans, which the buddhas and patriarchs have generously left to us, will flow effortlessly and fluently. That is why enlightened teachers use the gongans of past masters to verify the attainment of practitioners. Truly awakened beings will point to east when asked which direction is the east, and point to west when asked which direction is the west. They will turn west when the teacher is pointing east. But if they have not penetrated the gates of truth, those whose eyes are not yet open do not know east from west. Their answers are confusing; the gongan exchange becomes chaotic. If you fail to forsake your misguided opinions, you acquire a perverted view, which is of no assistance on the great path. You have to be wary of such views, for once you become ensnared in them, you will fall victim to them, not only in this life, but every time you are reborn a human.

Therefore, practitioners must have absolute confidence in their enlightened teacher, unfalteringly relying on his guidance and training to acquire correct insight. You can cultivate the causes and conditions that will bring you closer to the great path only if you immediately let go of your wrong views when your teacher shows you the error of your ways.

You should check to see if there are weaknesses in your mind that may hold you back on this great path. You must question your hwadu until it is carved into your bones.

All monks have renounced this world in order to seek their true nature and attain enlightenment.

The first thing Shakyamuni Buddha said after becoming enlightened was, “If I enter parinirvana right now, without uttering a single word of Dharma, it would still be better than twenty-one days of unremitting reflection and deliberation.” This was the greatest teaching of all, a teaching that none of the thousands of saints nor tens of thousands of buddhas preceding Shakyamuni Buddha had managed to deliver.

However, Manjusri was at Shakyamuni Buddha’s side and begged him, “World-Honored One, Dharma is indeed such to a truly enlightened saint, but beings of lesser spiritual capacity are in desperate need of understandable Dharma, and therefore, your elucidation.” Thus, Shakyamuni Buddha was obliged to dedicate forty-nine more years of his life to teaching Dharma to sentient beings. At his parinirvana, Shakyamuni Buddha told the sangha gathered around him, “For the past forty-nine years, I have given different teachings to different people, each teaching attuned to the faculties and capacities of the listener. Yet in all that time, I have not imparted a single word of the buddhadharma.”

When you finally attain truth, you will realize that the spectacular array of teachings the Buddha gave for forty-nine years were mere skillful means to placate crying babies.

Now, what should we do to be awakened to our true nature and attain enlightenment? The answer is to practice with a living phrase. Enlightened masters of the past stressed the importance of practicing with a living phrase. They said, “Make sure to practice only with living phrases, and never with a dead one,” or “Practice with a living phrase and become a teacher to the buddhas and patriarchs themselves.”

Investigating a dead phrase will certainly never lead anyone to awakening; it is not even enough to save yourself. The difference between a living phrase and a dead phrase is as vast as the distance from earth to heaven.

Then, what is a living phrase? You are practicing with a living phrase only when you penetrate “the one phrase at the crown of a thousand enlightened beings.” Otherwise, you have no idea what the world of the living phrase is about. It is said that if you break through the world of living phrases, you will become a teacher to buddhas and patriarchs themselves. If you are a spiritual seeker worth your salt, your goal should be to penetrate “the one phrase at the crown of a thousand enlightened beings” and become an enlightened teacher who thoroughly masters a dazzling array of unhindered manifestations of truth, spontaneously saving life while killing it, or giving the truth while taking it away.

However, a dead phrase is contaminated with intellectual learning and knowledge, mired in deluded distinctions and discrimination. Your eyes are not opened yet; far from enabling you to freely and fully embody manifest truth, a dead phrase will not even save yourself.

You must pour your heart and soul into becoming an exemplary teacher with both consummate learning and practice, one that can teach even a thousand saints.

We all have eyes, nose, mouth, and ears, just like the buddhas and patriarchs. Likewise, there is no reason we cannot attain the same enlightenment if we cultivate in ourselves great courage and great faith. Sages of all generations said, “The greater the doubt, the greater the enlightenment.” Once great doubt is generated, it will trigger a true sense of questioning. This in turn will eventually encase the whole world in a dense mass of doubt. Then, your hwadu will be shattered.

How do we advance our investigation with great courage and great faith? The only way is to meet a radiant-eyed enlightened teacher, learn from him or her how to correctly investigate the hwadu, then fervently and ferociously endeavor to shatter the hwadu at all hours, whether awake or asleep.

We have been so busy playing as sentient beings through countless lifetimes and countless eons that it is difficult to grasp a hwadu firmly in our mind. At first, the hwadu appears to be ten thousand miles away. If the strength of your aspiration is just mediocre, it cannot overcome the combined momentum of habits, afflictions, and delusions compounded through your past lives. Only the soaring valor of an exalted hero can conquer the overwhelming power of karmic energies to attain this path, the very best of all paths leading to one’s true nature. Let go of all your attractions to the external world of sensory perceptions and try again and again, with all your might, until your mind is entirely and singularly focused on your hwadu. Once this intense state of hwadu single- mindedness is achieved, your hwadu will be shattered in your own time, determined by your own karma. You will arrive at the land of the Tathagata, still seated on your meditation cushion.