The renowned Korean Zen Master Beop-Jeong published a best-selling collection of essays known as “Abiding Nowhere.” Thanks to him, this expression has become very widely known. If you ask people what it means, though, they tend to hesitate, saying that they have some vague idea but that it’s difficult to explain precisely. When you ask them again what their vague idea is, each person will paint a different sort of picture. People say all sorts of things like, “Leaving family and wealth behind and going to the mountains,” “Gradually learning to live a simple life by continuously abandoning personal property and possessions,” or else “Drifting about like the clouds and the wind — living the life of a wanderer.”
These statements all have a common theme — gradually emptying one’s life of material possessions. In other words, we should abandon this lifestyle which is so burdensome to us these days. While many people yearn for this sort of life, however, they usually feel that it has nothing to do with the way they are living now. What does a life “abiding nowhere” really imply?
Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 19:24)
It’s an ambiguous statement, as there are both well-meaning as well as covetous rich people in this world. Why would it be more difficult for a rich man than for a camel? What sort of rich people was Jesus talking about, anyway?
Let’s take a closer look at this expression “abiding nowhere.” If we study the original Chinese characters that make up this phrase, it literally means “not-existing within existence.” We can also look at it the other way, however, in which case it implies “Existing within non-existence.” Buddha expressed this same teaching by saying, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” In other words, not-existing within existence is the same as saying form is emptiness; existing within non-existence is the same as saying emptiness is form.
People always wonder, “How can I beat others in the game of life if I don’t have the desire to possess anything?” or else, “If I lack desire, doesn’t that mean that I ultimately won’t be able to accomplish anything?” or others simply, “Living one’s life while abiding nowhere is only a job for saints and enlightened beings — it has nothing to do with me at all.”
But is that really so? In professional sports these days, coaches and athletic directors are always encouraging their players to relax — it’s the same in golf, basketball, baseball, and figure skating, whether the athlete is Tiger Woods, Lebron James, Derek Jeter, or Yu-Na Kim. If these athletes force themselves they become tense and can’t perform to their best.
It’s not only true in sports, our own minds are the same — we tense up when we are strongly attached to something, since we try very hard. At the same time, our daily lives become bound to some predetermined set of illusionary parameters and the way we function day-to-day becomes forced and rigid, since our natural pathways of internally flowing energy have become obstructed. The word ‘property’ does not only refer to material possessions — if our minds are affected by past scars, present desires, and future anxieties, these become part of our lives and belong to us.
A life lived “abiding nowhere” means that this tense, incessantly struggling mind which typically governs our lives has completely relaxed.
People still wonder, “Doesn’t it mean that my life will lack goals, challenges, and achievements if I stop striving for anything?” It’s not true at all, since the topsy-turvy nature of daily life — our current reality — is actually not a negative condition at all but a beneficial one. Within that one can shoot, swing, and jump naturally, without any hindrance.
The energy of not grasping anything is greater than the energy of holding something, since the infinite energy that flows within us is not hindered by preconceived notions or attachments. Christ therefore said that it was difficult for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The more you hold onto in your life, the smaller the eye of the needle becomes, whereas the more you let go, the larger it becomes.
You should not misunderstand the phrase “abiding nowhere,” to imply not thinking at all. It’s not saying one should stop shooting the ball, swinging the bat, or avoid jumping all together. It’s saying instead that we should let go of our attachments and use our minds effectively; that is the power and potential energy one realizes by not grasping anything. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha also emphasized “Use the mind which abides nowhere.”
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo writer on religious affairs.