The Tale of the Monk Wonhyo: the Mind and Ideas

We first think before we act. What is there, though, beneath thought? There we find “emotion.” “I feel bad. I don’t feel good.” There are things like these. We feel emotions.

What is there beneath emotions? Whether I feel good or bad, where do those emotions stem from? Beneath emotions are ideas. We have countless ideas, religious views, and values according to our own standards. Those ideas call up emotions. They create arguments about likes and dislikes, good and bad. Ideas, though, are invisible. They’re like glasses we’re always wearing; we go about our lives without even realizing we are wearing glasses.

Let me introduce a story that teaches us something about the mind and ideas.

The monks Wonhyo (* a famous Buddhist monk who lived in the Silla Period of ancient Korea, around 600 CE) and Uisang were going together to Tang China to study Buddhism when they lost their way one night during a heavy downpour. Wandering mountain paths in the black of night, they fell asleep, exhausted. Waking in the middle of the night with a great thirst, Wonhyo felt around with his hands and, luckily, found a gourd drinking bowl, which contained water.

So Wonhyo drank water from the bowl, and he gave some to Uisang, too. They found the water really refreshing and delicious because they were so thirsty. “We’re going to study Buddhism and the Buddha has found our hearts praiseworthy, so he gave us this blessing!” With grateful hearts, they drank and then went back to sleep because they were so tired.

They opened their eyes in the morning and found themselves in a public cemetery, a ravine of death with countless skulls rolling about. The bowl from which they drank the previous night was a skull. The two monks saw this and vomited. The water tasted so great when the darkness of the night hid the nature of its container. They vomited when they realized it was a skull.

As he was vomiting, Wonhyo thought something. “Who is it that drank with such enjoyment yesterday, and who in the world is vomiting now? And who is it asking this question?” Then the monk had a great realization and just laughed. Newsletter signup banner

He told Uisang, “I won’t be going to China. I’ll share my Law here.” “Although I understand you,” Uisang said, “it isn’t my awakening, so I will go to China.” He went on to China and also obtained enlightenment there.

Wonhyo realized that he had ideas. When he felt that the water in the bowl was clear and clean, it tasted so good, but in the instant he realized the bowl was a skull, the water’s taste became nauseous. The water was the same, but his thoughts changed according to the ideas he had. Wonhyo realized, “Everything is a delusion.” And he saw the mind that does not change through life and death, the Original Mind that does not change amid joys and sorrows, the eternal mind. He awakened to the fact that the mind is the only thing that is eternal. Why do countless emotions arise? He called these “illusions” and “ideas.”

The monk Wonhyo laid hold of the mind he saw then, and never let go of it for the rest of his life. He laid hold of that mind, and, from then on, actualized it.

People generally get such opportunities to obtain realization, but they pass them by. For example, let’s say that you thought really well of a person, so you treated him well and even loaned him money. But then someone else told you all kinds of negative things about the person, saying, “You know what kind of person he is?” How would your feelings toward that person change them? Your thoughts would be flipped by that information. And you would think to yourself, “No wonder he has that weird look in his eye.”

We have these ideas inside us, but we live our lives without knowing it. And we judge and act according to those ideas. We start to change, though, when we see those ideas for what they are. The true nature is beneath those ideas. The true nature is called “Truth.” We discover our true selves once those ideas are broken.

You all, too, have the mind of Wonhyo, who obtained great enlightenment on drinking water from a skull. That mind is called “cosmic mind.” A person is said to be precious when she has cosmic mind. Where did that cosmic mind come from?

The Chun Bu Kyung speaks of cosmic mind as il (the One, 一). It is one. It said that the One has no beginning and no end. And, the Chun Bu Kyung records, heaven, earth, and humanity all came from the One. “All things come from Han (One) and returned to Han. This is the same for heaven and earth and all life.”

So life is like a water droplet wandering around in the ocean of Han. It’s a little droplet connected with the great cosmic mind. It’s a little life. So we become infinitely free and feel great when we feel and rely on that cosmic mind. We feel it in great shock.

Generally, we can’t feel cosmic mind at all when delusions are stuck to our consciousness. Attachment and possession, in fact, are all illusory. People generally hold tightly to those illusions and absolutely won’t let go. They think that letting go of them is the same as dying. Although they say they’ve emptied their minds, many people actually empty themselves inside their illusions. We feel cosmic mind fully once we’ve left illusions behind.

Cosmic mind is the substance of who we are. Our lives spread out infinitely. Our lives also come together infinitely. So the substance of life is found amidst its infinite expansion and contraction.

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