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Three Seon trainings
Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom
Master Kusan of Songgwangsa used to say in his Seon talks that it was essential for Seon students to train in ethics, meditation and wisdom. These were the basis for any Seon practice. Most importantly they had to be practiced in unison. It was like a tripod, with one or two of its legs missing, it could not hold anything and was pretty useless. In the same way, one had to practice the three trainings together for them to be more effective. A focus on ethics by itself could make one narrow-minded, meditation by itself could make one a little detached and self-absorbed, wisdom by itself could make one a little dry and analytical.
Morality is important because ethical precept deals with our relationship to the world, people, things, and how what we do affects ourselves and others. Seon ethics comes out of Buddhist ethics, which is based not on rules but on compassion and wisdom, and the notion that as practitioners we intend to dissolve suffering. In a general way, it answers this question: What would be the most compassionate and wise thing to do? The five basic Seon precepts express ethics in term of restraint: do not kill, do not steal, do not have damaging sexual interaction, do not lie, do not take intoxicants. In terms of positive action, the five precepts are encouraging us to be harmless, generous, disciplined, honest and clear-minded.
These precepts are intended to be cultivated not only in body but also in mind and speech, not only towards others but also towards ourselves. Master Chinul (12th C) said we had to learn to open and close the precepts, that is to know when to apply them and when, in certain circumstances, not to apply them. One well-known example is: if we were to stand in a forest and a deer appeared and ran left, if a hunter asked where the deer went, we could reply that the deer turned right.
In the Seon tradition, there are also the Bodhisattva precepts which laypeople take every year as a reminder and in the knowledge that one is fallible. These precepts are contained in the Brahmajala Sutra. This is a list of ten major and forty-eight minor precepts. Their intention is to remind us to live with awareness and compassion.
Quietness and Clarity
The second training is meditation. When we meditate, we cultivate concentration and enquiry. Concentration helps to still the mind and enquiry to make the mind clearer. In order to still the mind, one concentrates on one thing. It can be the words of a question (hwadu). The aim of the concentration is to stay as long as we can with the meditation object. It is quite difficult as the mind has the tendency to wander to the past, to the future, to the shopping list for dinner tomorrow. We need to remind ourselves of our intention to meditate, to focus on the question, so that we can come back repeatedly to the object of concentration. After a while we come back more quickly and stay longer on the object. Chinese Master Hsuyun (20th C) said: “A thousand thoughts give us the opportunity to come back to the question a thousand times”.
So being distracted is not the problem, staying distracted is!
The effect of concentrating and coming back is twofold. First, our mind is more peaceful because there are fewer thoughts engaging it, since we concentrates on one thing. Second, our thoughts become less agitated and obsessive because we do not feed and indulge in habits of mind such as ruminating, judging, daydreaming, planning, or fabricating as we come back again and again and dissolve their threads.
In Seon, enquiry is cultivated by asking a question like “What is this?” This deep questioning helps the mind to become alert and bright. In Seon meditation, one endeavors to cultivate together calm and clear awareness. It is important for the mind to be still but also to be clear and sharp.
Potential for Change
The third training is wisdom. Seon wisdom, in simple terms, is knowing to drink out of a cup, that it is a cup and not a bucket, and be fully present to the drinking, the taste of the tea, its color, its fragrance with no grasping of the cup, the tea or ourselves or anything else apart from that. Seon wisdom does not depend on how many books we have read or how much intellectual knowledge we have accumulated. It comes from seeing the characteristics of life, which in Buddhist terms are impermanence, unreliability and emptiness.
In Seon, impermanence and death are often impressed upon one. But this does not make Seon people gloomy or pessimistic, on the contrary. By experiencing impermanence deeply we realise the preciousness of life and the potential for change. It is very easy for us to take life and people for granted. We generally believe that we’ll live for a few more years yet. We think it is other people who die -- until it threatens to happen to us.
Master Kusan used to say: “Our life rests upon a single breath”. When we are driving very fast to an appointment, is it better to arrive dead or late? When you have an argument with your partner over the washing up, would you feel differently if you recognised that he or she might die tomorrow?
Recognising impermanence makes us realise that things can change. We have a tendency to fix things. We have a headache and we feel it will last a week. We have a problem, we tell ourselves it will last forever and thus become very anxious. How are we going to stand this terrible thing, day in, day out? It is very rare for anything to last very long, be it our feelings or our thoughts. The world around us changes constantly. If we accept that things change, then we open the door to an array of possibilities for ourselves and others. How often do we say: “You are always like this! I am always like that!” This means that we must do that particular terrible thing twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, etc. It would very hard to sustain anything to that extent. As soon as a Seon students hears ‘always’, they question this statement with wisdom: “Is this true or even possible?”
With the wisdom that comes from experiencing impermanence, we realise that partners, friends, family, possessions, jobs, houses, etc are only there for a short time and cannot give us lasting happiness; even if we are seduced by the hope that they will. We work very hard to get various things. We get a new car or a new job. How long is it before frustration appears? Soon we find that the car is not going as fast as we hoped or we worry that someone is going to scratch it. As for the new job, we find that the atmosphere in the office is not pleasant enough or that the work is not as satisfying as we hoped it would be.
It does not mean that we cannot appreciate and care for what we have but that nothing can give us total, forever, lasting happiness because we and they are impermanent and unreliable. Realizing this will help us to strive less, to appreciate more and to be more content with what we have. Yunmen said: “Every day is a good day”.
Emptiness is the final characteristic. Seon is not nihilistic as it is not asserting that everything is empty or that we do not exist. It is suggesting that we do not exist independently, separate from everything else. Realising emptiness is to see that nothing exists separately or independently from anything else. We are totally interdependent with the whole world. We depend on food, clothes and shelter. Without these things we could not survive. So we are dependent on all that supports our life; in turn, these things depend on something else for them to be. It is the same with people. The teaching on emptiness is trying to tell us that things and people are not as solid or as separate as we think they are. It is also trying to make us look beyond our simple assumptions and one-sided ideas in order to see a much bigger picture, and finally to grasp less and appreciate more.