[Viewpoint] Teachings of nothingnessWhen someone asked the late Venerable Beopjeong what joy he found in living alone deep in the mountains, he serenely answered, “I find joy in getting water from the stream and making tea.” The monk could find a certain joy even in a simple life in secluded mountain hills. “The more you let go, the more you gain,” was his paradoxical teaching. What did someone who vehemently resisted possessions seek to gain?
“If human civilization changed its direction from pursuit of possessions to non-possession, there would be nothing to fight over,” he said. In the eyes of the secular world where people wrangle and fight bitterly to own more than others, the monk was poor in possessions, but immensely rich is peace of mind. His mantra of non-possession, although as simple as spring blossoms and plain as clayware, cannot be modestly defined as an embrace of nothingness because the preacher lived and died larger than life.
I know I take a risk even trying to delve into his philosophy and life, a paradox of wealth amidst asceticism and emptiness in search of a new and unfamiliar meaning of positiveness.
What is nothingness? A pupil approached ancient Zen teacher Zhaozhou and asked whether a dog possessed a Buddha-nature. He answered no. Through a simple answer, he was advising the pupil to look to his heart first because as long as one searches for Buddha somewhere else, he cannot see Buddha in his heart.
A new pupil asked the teacher, “I have come with nothing, what can I do?” The teacher said: “Lay it down.” The student naturally protested: “But I brought nothing. What can I lay down?” The teacher answered: “Then carry it and go.” The pupil insisted, “I carry nothing in my heart.” The teacher exclaimed, “What a load you have in there!” To think that one has relinquished everything and bears nothing suggests self-assurance and self-indulgence. I can only assume that the pupil had not reached the level of complete emptiness.
Venerable Beopjeong had sold millions of copies of essay collections including the steady seller, “Non-Possession.” He silently gave away whatever he earned from the books to help the poor and erased the deed from his mind. The sense of self-gratification of helping others could have disrupted the calmness in the realm of emptiness in the monk’s mind. Despite establishing 84,000 doctrines, Buddha claimed “I have not preached a word.” The way to reach true spirituality may be articulated in verbal and written language. But the truth itself could not be told in simple language.
Beopjeong had been unequivocal in his will. He did not want reprints of his works because “he did not want to take the debt from [my] words to the other world.” He has truly emulated the Buddha’s heart and essence of his teaching of emptiness. The legal and financial complexities of ending prints are beyond his care. The monk, who had not served as a temple head nor resided long even in the temple he helped build, grieved over the state of the Buddhist community.
“When someone declares he has reached enlightenment, yet the practice remains within the boundaries of the temple and home, he is not for real. One who talks about knowing something is most often the opposite,” he said.
“The temple and church today have forgotten their place, lavishing themselves with extravagance.”
Buddhists alone should not be embarrassed by their respected teacher’s criticism. We live in a sea of enlightening religious sermons and preaching, yet there are only a few who practice them.
Venerable Beopjeong, like Mahatma Gandhi, who deemed possession and private property as sources of evil, laid upon the cremation fire in his usual gown without even a decent coffin. Usual flowers, eulogy prayers, lotus lanterns and other customary funeral ceremonial rituals were unseen. As in life, the death of the great preacher of “non-possession” was brimming with emptiness. Only the limousine that carried his body to the cremation site was an unwanted luxury.
“Emptiness is the true form of our heart. When the heart is empty, it can resonate. When the heart resonates, life becomes vivid and alive,” Venerable Beopjeong said. He has truly returned to the state of nothingness. But his teachings and practices on vast emptiness will resonate deeply, loudly and lastingly amongst our lives.
*The writer is former head of the Seoul Central District Court.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Lee Woo-geun