The Bone of Buddhism __ Ven. Daebong

The Bone of Buddhism

Ven. Daebong | Guiding Teacher (Josil) of Musangsa Temple

Wherever Buddha’s teachings have gone, they have always harmonized with local indigenous culture. India is a country with a deep spiritual, analytical and philosophical tradition. Buddha was a son of this tradition, so his teachings arose from a deeply spiritual, philosophical and practical analysis of his experiences. Buddha used his body, mind and life as the objects of his investigations. He was both the subject and object of his study. The great questions in Indian culture at that time were: Is there a permanently existing Self inside or outside a human being? Is there true liberation from the sufferings of life? How can a person attain true liberation? From his study and practice, his great vows, purpose and effort, Buddha attained enlightenment and developed teachings which have endured over 2,500 years.

When Buddha’s teachings arrived in China after 500 years of development in India, they encountered the Chinese traditions of Daoism and Confucianism with their emphasis on nature and orderly human relationships. From this, a deeply practical approach emphasizing the concrete and simple arose. Zen Master Seung Sahn often said, “Indian Buddhism went to China and met Chinese Daoism. They got married and had a baby. The baby is Seon (Chinese Chan; Japanese Zen).” In addition to the many approaches to studying sutras, in China the enduring practice traditions of Chan Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism also appeared.

Tibet already had diverse native shamanic traditions before Buddhism arrived – spirits, demons, powers, belief in good and bad. Over centuries, Buddha’s teachings coming from India mixed and blended with the native traditions in Tibet becoming a truly Tibetan Buddhism. Now the many rich, well organized teachings, practices, art, rituals and wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism are spreading all over the world. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes compassion and the ability of all beings to attain enlightenment and has developed many teachings and techniques to help people develop their body, mind and emotions.

Buddha’s teachings from China and Korea arrived in Japan in the mid-500s. Over time numerous schools of Buddhism emphasizing different sutras or meditation styles have developed. Japan has often absorbed cultural and artistic elements from other cultures and then developed them into highly refined styles that are uniquely Japanese. During the period of the shoguns (approximately 1185 to 1868), competing feudal lords loyal to different schools of Buddhism sometimes became antagonistic toward each other. In addition to sutra schools, three main schools of Buddhist practice developed, each with several branches: Pure Land, Zen and Nichiren. Following Japanese tradition, these various Buddhist schools developed their own art, rituals and practices that were often quite austere.

In my own limited experience, perhaps the core principle of Korean culture is human relationships, “jeong (情),” or as Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “injeong (人情)” which he translated as “human love or affection.” A true human has love for all things which means he/she cares about all things. Romantic love, which is so popular and sought after today, is a very limited form of this. Injeong is love in the sense of living harmoniously with all things, making relationships of respect, appreciation, gratitude and concern for all things. This includes: people, animals, insects, birds, sea creatures, earth, air, water, fire, mountains, rivers, forests; all living and non-living things of the earth, sky and water. How do we establish and live in proper and harmonious relationships with the heavens, people and the Earth?
The Buddha’s teachings, which originated in India and came to Korea through China, slowly became distinctly Korean and focused on how to live in harmony with all things. From Buddha we learn that in order to do that we must realize our true inherent nature, the “essence of mind,” and not simply cling to the identity we construct through our attachments to our body, our mind, our emotions, our social status, our culture, our country and our opinions.

With this understanding, Korean Buddhism developed in a syncretic, holistic manner, merging the various sutra schools, Vinaya teachings and meditation schools into one unified Buddhism. Wonhyo, revered by many Koreans as the most important Buddhist practitioner and scholar, spent his life philosophically investigating the Buddha’s teachings, and through his writings, songs and actions tried to harmonize all schools of Buddhist and Asian thought.

These are two great aspects of Korean Buddhism. First is the holistic approach to all Buddha’s teachings and the spiritual thought of East Asia, and second is the belief that at the heart of all human life is our relationships with each other and with all beings and things.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been a great wave of global interest in Korea, the Korean people and Korean culture. Likewise, since the late 1980s, more and more Korean people have been visiting, studying and living overseas, making foreign friends and learning from other cultures. Korean people seem to have an ability to identify things they admire in other cultures, learn them very well and then do them in their own way. This has been true for thousands of years. More recently, Koreans are absorbing American culture, digesting it and then creating their own style, even simple things like Western pastries and coffee.

(Left) Master Seung Sahn at a Dharma talk
(Right) Precepts Ceremony at Providence Zen Center, the head temple of the Kwan Um School of Zen

When I first came to Korea in 1984, these things were, to be honest, terrible. Now they are fantastic. Years ago, Korean monastics liked to drink green tea. Then it was Chinese puer tea, and now, coffee. In the last 15 years, Korean coffee consumption per person has grown more than any other country in the world. Small Korean coffee shops are each unique, and the owners often select, roast and prepare their own beans. They have made it their own special product.

Sometime in the 1990s, a reporter from MBC TV came to interview Zen Master Seung Sahn at Hwagyesa Temple. One question he asked was, “How have you been more successful at spreading Korean Buddhism around the world than any other Korean monastic?”

He answered, “Every country has its own culture, and every country loves and has pride in its culture. If I went around the world only teaching Korean Buddhist culture, I would have very few students. I only teach the “bone of Buddhism.” Then slowly, each culture will evolve its own style of Buddhism, but all will have the bone.”

What is the “bone of Buddhism”? As already stated, Buddha taught that, to attain lasting peace and happiness, to make true human relationships with ourselves and all things, and to become truly human, we must awaken to our true original and inherent nature. Ask yourself, “What am I?” If you sincerely investigate this question, you will eventually find that “you don’t know.” This “mind that doesn’t know” is what is called the “bone of Buddhism.”

Every day people everywhere use the word “I,” as in: I think this. I feel this. I want that. I don’t like this. I am this. They also use the word “my,” as in: my body, my house, my car, my money, my family, my country, my life, my death, my happiness, my suffering. We also say “me” a lot, as in: Do you love me? Why do you hurt me? Don’t touch me! What do these three words really imply? Does anyone ever think about that?

When I was a child in the US during the 1950s and 60s, I thought a lot about suffering. Why do white and black people treat each other badly? Why are there wars, and why do people kill each other? Why do some people and countries have so much while others have so little? Why do so many people hate others? Even growing up in a stable and comfortable family, it was possible even for a child to see that mere economic success was not sufficient to eliminate greed, hatred and stupidity. So what is life? What causes suffering, and how do we overcome it?

The first time I met Zen Master Seung Sahn was in 1977 at a Zen center he and his American students had opened in New Haven, Connecticut. At that time I had come to think that Buddha understood suffering and what to do about it, and I was very interested in meeting a Buddhist teacher, and in particular, a real Zen master. I knew nothing about Zen Master Seung Sahn, having only heard that a Zen master was giving a talk and would then lead a 3-day retreat.
Ven. Seung Sahn had been in the US less than five years. From knowing no English when he arrived in the US, he had learned a lot. His teaching style was to have one of his Zen students give a short opening talk about their experiences, and then he would answer anyone’s questions. That night, a professor in the audience asked him, “What is sanity and what is insanity?” Kun Sunim (lit. “Most Venerable”; referring to Seung Sahn) didn’t know those two words, so one of his students said, “He asks, what is crazy? What is not crazy?”

Seung Sahn Sunim said, “If you are very attached to something, you are very crazy. If you are a little attached to something, you are a little crazy. If you are not attached to anything, you are not crazy.”

I thought to myself, “That answer is better than anything I’ve heard in my eight years of studying psychology and working in psychiatric hospitals!”

Kun Sunim continued, “So, in this world, everyone is crazy. Everyone says “I.” But this “I” is only a construct of our thinking and has no inherent existence. If you want to detach from this delusional “I” and find your true “I,” you must practice Zen.” At that moment I thought, “This is my teacher.”

If you sincerely investigate deeply the question “What am I?” you will eventually find that you don’t know. In universities, if you don’t know, you fail, but in Buddhism, the sooner you realize you don’t know, enlightenment begins. Then you must find true enlightenment.

Whether you attain enlightenment or not is not the most important thing. You must figure out what is the true purpose of enlightenment.

When you know that, you are truly on the path and can apply the “bone of Buddhism” in daily life.

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