Defilements are our teachers

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Defilements are our teachers

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Scene One:
During the public cremation ceremony for the renowned Korean Zen Master Beopjeong, one of his disciples exclaimed, “A lotus has bloomed in the fire!” We have all experienced these flames personally, as they often flare up in our minds. Grades in school, our children’s education, conflict at the workplace, family strife — these glowing embers are scattered everywhere.

That’s why we always feel afraid — we fear that the fire will flare up again! Therefore, it’s quite extraordinary for someone to say that a lotus has bloomed amidst these flames. That would only be possible if the fire had been extinguished — so how could a lotus have bloomed there?


Scene Two:
Like a lion not startled by any sound,
like the wind not caught by the net,
like a lotus unstained by the mud,
like the rhinoceros horn — go forth alone.


This is a famous passage from the Buddhist Sutta Nipata sutra. Zen Master Beopjeong held this verse in high esteem throughout his life. There is another reference to a lotus here:

Like a lotus unstained by the mud.
Spiritual practitioners should all take this passage to heart and reflect deeply on it.

It’s quite interesting, though, as it all depends on how one sees the lotus and the mud. Most people dislike mud. If they get too close to it, they think that it will cause them some inconvenience and that it should be avoided at all costs — a serious consideration, as it is messy, dirty and rather troublesome.

On the other hand, the majority of people genuinely appreciate lotus flowers — they are fragrant, sensually appealing and quite elegant.

Moreover, in the Buddhist tradition, the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment, so as a result people tend to conclude: I don’t like mud at all but I can appreciate lotus flowers. The same is true of the lotus blooming in the fire — I would like to avoid this fire, but I like the lotus.

There is a serious problem with this logic, however, since the flower never blooms for those who wish to avoid the fire and only desire the lotus.

If we examine it carefully, we can see that the stalk of the lotus flower springs from the fire, from the very conflagrations in our lives as sentient beings. As with the Buddha’s verse recorded in the Sutta Nipata — from where, indeed, does the untainted lotus flower arise? It arises from the mud, of course.

Let’s take a closer look at this point. The trials and tribulations of our lives that cause us endless struggle, fatigue and heartache are surely the fire; the conflicts within our daily lives that ceaselessly torment us are without doubt the mud. The fire is truly the fire, and the mud is surely the mud. We soon realize, however, that since there is mud, the lotus can arise; as there is fire, the lotus can bloom.

In the end, they are not different — the fire is the flower, and the lotus is also the flower. They are both the flowers of our minds. The two are actually one flower, but when we discriminate with dualistic judgment, it becomes fire — when we perceive the truth, it becomes a lotus. There is no need to say that we dislike mud and prefer only the lotus flower. It’s enough if we just strip away the mistaken perception — the delusion — that the mud and lotus flower are two distinct phenomena.

If we remove all bias and prejudice, it is possible to say why the lion is not startled by any sound, why the lotus is not tainted by the mud, and even why the wind is not caught in the net. It’s not because the lotus flower floats on top of the water, or that the lion is stout-hearted, or that the wind feels soft on our skin — they are not separate. The sound and the lion, the mud and the lotus, the wind and the net are not different at all. They are all flowers that we have created ourselves.

Our hectic everyday lives are similar. When we see that self and other are actually one and the same, there is no surprise, no taint and no being caught by anything. At that point we can perceive both the lotus in the mud and the mud within the lotus — the mud and lotus are of the same body. Having experienced this, Buddha said that afflictions are none other than Bodhi (“enlightened wisdom”).

In other words, the weight of our troublesome delusions is actually the weight of our wisdom. Don’t give up out of despair!


*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo writer on religious affairs.

Baek Sung-ho
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