Thoughts and True Character of Ven. Beopjeong Reflected in his Literature
Jeong Chan-ju | Novelist
If there is one theme that penetrates all his writings, it is life-centeredness. This theme can be easily and consistently identified in his essays.
I opened a photo album and found an old photo of Ven. Beopjeong taken 35 years ago in the summer of 1985 when I was 34. I met Ven. Beopjeong at Buriram, a hermitage managed by Songgwangsa Temple, and took this picture in front of the temple’s Doseongdang Hall. At the time I was working for Saemteo Publishing as the editor in charge of Ven. Beopjeong’s collected essays. I probably went to see him to take care of some business. Wearing a straw hat, Ven. Beopjeong was probably 54 years old then. He still wasn’t accepting any disciples at that time. I still remember what he said about the matter. Because the Buddha at the secular age of 55 had accepted Ananda as his first disciple, he himself could not accept a disciple while only 54.
One must respect the Venerable’s spirit of practice and put it into action from wherever one stands; to do otherwise would be superfluous. After all, there is a saying in the Buddhist community that “each disciple represents a hell,” meaning that to cultivate even one disciple takes much care and effort. A few years after I met Ven. Beopjeong, I went down to Buriram and stayed overnight. The next day was Dano, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, a “traditional” Korean holiday but not officially observed. In the early morning I offered three full bows to Ven. Beopjeong and received my Dharma name “Muyeom” (lit. Undefiled), meaning I would not be tainted even while living in the secular world. He handed me the certification of precepts, which he had written before dawn. He also gave me a Dharma talk about the merits of receiving the precepts. Essentially, the message was: “Precepts are like traffic lights. When you take the wrong path, the precepts, like traffic lights, will let you know.” From that day on I was his lay disciple.
I had edited over 10 of his essay collections, which was a great honor for me. Each of his writings is like a Dharma talk. I was curious why his essay collections were so ardently loved by readers so I asked him. We were at Haengji Hall in Gilsangsa Temple in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul.
“Venerable! Having edited over 10 essay collections of yours, I realized one thing. Readers love your books, but not solely because of your poetic sentiments or penetrating observations into reality.”
“Heo Heo! You think so?”
“There is a theme that is consistent throughout your writings, and readers empathetic toward it express an unwavering admiration for you. In my humble opinion, this life-centered theme or ideal regards the value of life as equal in all sentient and insentient beings, including humans, insects, plants and even rocks.”
“Muyeom! If the West centers on human beings, Buddhism centers on life.”
This conversation is still just as vivid to me as though it happened yesterday.
Is Ven. Beopjeong a practitioner or an essayist? This is a point many people disagree on. He did publish his writings to communicate with people, but his main objective was practice, not writing. The hours he dedicated to writing were not that many in a day. He arose at dawn, performed Buddhist ceremonies alone, drank tea, and prepared his own meals. He tended a veggie garden, practiced sitting meditation, and read Buddhist texts, such as collections of Seon (Zen/Chan) dialogues. In spring and fall when there were no three-month Seon meditation retreats, he visited various temples around Korea in what Buddhists call “wandering practice.” He never deviated from the daily routine of monastic life.
That being said, I have to mention his writings as a means of better understanding his true character, and I think I have identified several aspects. In fact, I once tried to understand the real Ven. Beopjeong through his collected essays, Bloom Your Own Flowers for example.
First, he lived the life of a mountain monk thoroughly, and as a naturalist like Henry David Thoreau. And when he stayed at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul, he had also struggled against autocracy, along with the famous Korean Quaker Ham Seok-heon. He said about that, “It was not my fundamental duty, but I got into it like a firefighter because there was a fire.” He became aware that hatred was sprouting in his heart, something practitioners should not allow, and left Seoul in 1975 to go to Buriram Hermitage in southernmost Korea. Afterward, he seldom left the mountains. Even after he established Gilsangsa Temple in Seoul, he never slept even one night there, but returned to his mountain hut in Gangwon-do Province as long as he was alive. After he died his body was kept one night at Gilsangsa before being returned to Songgwangsa for cremation.
The essays of this mountain monk resonate deeply in the hearts of his readers, like echoes in the mountains. They leave a lasting feeling like the long shadows of mountains at sunset.
“Forests have order and rest as well as calm and peace. Forests embrace all. They embrace mist and clouds, embrace the moonlight, and generously shelter the birds and animals. Forests never reject anyone or anything. They generously embrace even fierce storms that may damage them. These are the virtues of the forest.”
“Mountains are more than just nature to those who live in and rely on them. They are giant sentient beings and are forever welcoming. Much more happens in the mountains than just flowers blooming and fading; they possess poetry, music, ideas and religions too. We should recall that many of humanity’s great philosophies and religions first sprouted in the bosom of untainted nature, not in classrooms built of brick and concrete.”
“Nature is humanity’s last hope for salvation. The universe is a giant living organism, and nature is its essence or spirit. When we realize that we are part of this giant living organism, perhaps we will stop destroying it needlessly. Traditional Eastern thought regards large mountains as living organisms. That’s why we do not use the expression ‘climb a mountain’; we say ‘enter a mountain.’”
Second, if there is one theme that penetrates all his writings, it is life- centeredness. This theme can be easily and consistently identified in several of his collected essays.
“Although our outer forms may vary according to our karma, the desire to live is the same for every life form. One life form may be weaker than another, but this doesn’t mean it’s okay to kill them. Suppose an animal far more cunning and powerful than a human kills a beloved child to satisfy its hunger or just out of primal instinct. How embittered and furious would we be? Life is not just a means to an end. Life is a perfect goal by itself. Life is the one and only absolute value.”
“This world is not just inhabited by humanity. Whether seen or unseen to our eyes, or whether heard or unheard to our ears, myriad lives live together in harmony in this giant organism which is the universe. The presence of these beings and their harmony can only be perceived with loving and compassionate eyes. We should view all life forms as equals who all originated from one life source. If we try to find them with earthly eyes or from the perspective of superior human beings, we cannot perceive their presence. The blindness of people is most likely the result of self-centered arrogance.”
Third, Ven. Beopjeong’s teaching of “non-possession” is well known. This philosophy was inculcated when he served as an attendant to his teacher Ven. Hyobong. He told me that one day he planned to go to a market in Gurye to buy more soap because the last bar of soap was worn out and broken into pieces. His teacher said, “When you squeeze out water from a rag, try not to squeeze too hard because the rag may tear; soap should also be used until the last piece is completely used up.”
“I am fond of tea utensils, probably because I love to drink tea. One day someone gave me another tea set, and then I had two. Having two tea sets seemed too extravagant and I was less appreciative of them. So, although I felt some guilt toward the person who had presented it to me, I gave away the extra set.”
In other words, to have the minimum essentials we need in life is the basic idea of “non-possession.” In essence, one is sufficient, two is superfluous. The concept of non-possession was first expounded by Ven. Beopjeong, a fact widely known. He also told me the following.
“In this contemporary era, people seem to aspire to be free from the mental anguish of feeling that they are forced to ‘possess.’ When I first published Non- Possession, it was a novel concept. Furthermore, ‘non-possession’ was not appreciated as a spiritual value. The president of the publishing company was reluctant about the title, but I persisted.”
He also said, “No matter how great Sakyamuni Buddha is, one is enough.” In his many essays, Ven. Beopjeong exhorted others not to live relying on something or somebody else, or by comparing ourselves with others; we should live independently and bloom our own flowers.
“Trees and plants put forth flowers while remaining true to themselves. They do not try to imitate others. They reveal themselves as they are and bloom the mystery of life. Being unable to accept ourselves as we are leads to unhappiness. Azaleas bloom true to their nature, and dandelions bloom true to their nature. Comparing ourselves to others only begets unhappiness.”
I suspect that the characteristics I explained above reflect Ven. Beopjeong’s true character and spirit. China claims to possess the true Chan/Seon of Baizhang and Zhaozhou. I believe Korea possesses the true Seon/Chan of Beopjeong. This is evident to me considering that Seon is not a philosophy of following another’s path, but of living one’s own inherent life creatively and dynamically.
Jeong Chan-ju graduated from the Dept. of Korean Literature, Dongguk University, and later worked as a Korean language teacher. He began his editing career at Monthly Literature, and later was the editor in charge of Ven. Beopjeong’s books for over 10 years at Saemteo Publishing. He received his Dharma name “Muyeom” from Ven. Beopjeong. Since 2002 he has resided at Ibuljae, a mountain residence in Hwasun, Jeonnam Province. There he tends a small veggie garden and devotes himself to writing.
My Experience with Korean Zen Practice
Zen Master Kwan Haeng | Head Dharma Teacher at Providence Zen Center
While at work one day I had a comparatively insignificant interaction with someone. In fact, I don’t even remember what it was about, but it left me with an emotional tightness in my chest, not a physical tightness but emotional. It lasted a couple of days. Eventually, that feeling and another incident that happened to me when I was young seemed to merge. I remembered the incident from my youth but not the anger it caused because I had in fact hidden the anger from myself. And that suppressed anger had made my life miserable. I went to a therapist who said what I had experienced was not so unusual for someone my age, 32 years old. I had suppressed the anger, and now after so many years had passed and I had a fairly stable life, this suppressed anger had resurfaced.
Suppressed Anger Emerged during Intensive Meditation Retreat
At this point I had been meditating for some time, so I had some insight into my personality that showed me this anger that seemed to be always present. Yet that was not enough to get rid of it to the point where I could live life without its constant presence. Understanding could not help me in this situation because I had built up a strong habit of being angry. Habits are formed by our thinking or by an experience we have had, and in both cases we dwell on them after the situation that created them disappears. Some years later, my anger got so out of hand that I dropped everything, went to Korea, and became a monk.
The first thing I did when I got to Korea was attend a 90-day winter meditation retreat (gyeolje or kyol che) at Sudeoksa Temple on Mt. Deoksungsan. During that retreat I sat between two people who often irritated me. Every day it was something, and I would get so angry. Finally, we approached the mid-point of the retreat where we sit in intensive meditation for one week. At the beginning of that week we practiced two hours more each night but got up the following day at the same usual time. I decided I was going to leave not only the retreat but Korea as well. I had quit my job in the U.S. and given away most of my possessions, including my car. I didn’t have much going for me. Just at the beginning of that intensive meditation week, the Zen Master of that monastery, Most Venerable Buk An, came to give us a Dharma talk. During that talk he said, “If you pay attention to your head (thoughts), you will follow your thinking and suffer; if you pay attention to your heart, you will follow your emotions and suffer. But if your attention is focused on a point about two fingers below your navel (danjeon), you will be able to weather the storms that appear in your mind.”
Zen Master Kwang Haeng at Providence Zen Center, Rhode Island, USA
In front of the monk’s stupa of Zen Master Seung Sahn at Hwagyesa Temple, Seoul. The main group of Zen Master Seung Sahn’s disciples moved to Musangsa Temple in Chungnam Province in 2011.
If your attention is focused on a point about two fingers below your navel (danjeon), you will be able to weather the storms that appear in your mind.
Being Angry Turned Out to be My Choice
I had nothing to lose, so I tried what he said. Afterward, during meditation when these two guys would drive me up the wall by making stupid noises and just being idiots, I would watch the anger rise within me as I focused my attention on that point. I did not act on the anger, and as best I could, I tried not to dwell on or push the anger away when it appeared. But sometimes I did exactly that and suffered the consequences. Then I begin to notice that regardless of how strong the anger was, it did not affect me. And when it did appear, it always disappeared after some time. Suddenly I realized that these guys weren’t making me angry; I was choosing to be angry in reaction to what they were doing. After that, things became easier for me, and things that would have angered me a few days before now had no effect on me. Very interesting.
After our afternoon meditation I would go to one of the temple’s Buddha Halls and bow for about 30 minutes before dinner. One time while I was bowing, I was consciously trying to keep my attention on my belly but not entirely succeeding; much of it was still in my head. Suddenly, all my attention shifted to my belly. My legs and arms and body as a whole felt loose, and my attention was completely focused in my belly. Wow! That was an amazing feeling! It did not last more than a few moments, but it taught me something about myself, and I finally got a handle on my anger.
Steadfast Practice Overcomes the Habit of Anger
But even after understanding my anger and seeing that it was a habit, I was not yet free of it. That took more meditation practice, and lots of it. The practice of meditation, or looking inward, was the only thing that allowed me to understand the suffering my anger caused me and let it go. And from that I could gain some wisdom and possibly help others. I’ve now had years of meditation practice, and in the process, I have had moments of deep peace in which there was absolutely no suffering. I still have suffering today. What those moments of peace really show me is where that peace comes from, as well as where my suffering comes from.
So that is my experience in trying to liberate myself from suffering. Practicing Zen Buddhism is about experiencing, seeing, feeling, touching, tasting, and hearing things as they are; not as Zen or Buddhist texts say, or as people say, or as society says, but as you experience them. And from there you help others do the same. I knew a Zen Teacher who taught photography to kids. He never spoke of Zen or Buddhism, but simply connected with them and helped them experience the moment as it appeared.
I became a novice monk when I was 41, and the happiness and peace of mind I have experienced since then, along with less suffering, far exceeds whatever happiness I had before. Where would karma and plain ignorance have led me without the benefit of practice? I shudder to think about it. Zen is a scientific way of looking at one’s mind. Here are some words of wisdom from Compass of Zen by Zen Master Seung Sahn. The Buddha first taught that what we call mind or “I” is only the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, and consciousness. These aggregates (Skt. skandha; Pāli. khandhā) are constantly changing; they are only bundles of mental energy. Because human beings form attachments to these things/aggregates, then when they inevitably change, we experience suffering. As long as we cling to these attachments, we never escape suffering. That is because we believe that these things are real, and that they constitute the real “I.”
Attaining the Emptiness of the Five Aggregates Brings Liberation
However, the beginning part of the Heart Sutra shows that these aggregates are inherently empty. Since that is so, where does suffering exist? What can possibly suffer? For example, here is a cup of orange juice. If you have a cup, then you can keep the orange juice in it. But if the cup breaks, where can you keep the orange juice? You can’t! Suffering is similar to that. Where does suffering abide? If you are attached to the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, impulses, or consciousness, then suffering has a place to dwell. But the Heart Sutra explains that these five aggregates have no intrinsic substance/existence. If you empty your mind completely, where can suffering possibly exist? So this teaching about emptiness is very, very important to understand. When you practice the way of the perfection of wisdom, you come to understand that all five aggregates are inherently empty. Knowing this can free us from all suffering and distress. Merely understanding these views cannot help you—you must attain it.
Zen Master Kwan Haeng met Zen Master Seung Sahn, Patriarch of the Kwan Um School of Zen, in 1986 at the Cambridge Zen Center. In 1997 he went to Korea to train at Hwagyesa Temple in Seoul and received the novice precepts at Jikjisa Temple in 1999. Upon receiving the full precepts in 2003 at Tongdosa Temple, he practiced in Korea until 2012 when he returned to the Providence Zen Center, USA. He is the Head Dharma Teacher, and hosts the Sunday Dharma Practice program.