Find yourself by looking withinOne spring, the Korean Zen Master Go-Wu visited China together with some lay Buddhist believers. They were all riding a bus together one day when he took the microphone and said over the loudspeaker, “People usually look at me and assume I’ve reached enlightenment, but actually I didn’t fully awaken; I’m still looking at the moon through a thin veil.”
A hushed silence fell over the bus and everyone became somber and reflective. It’s not every day you hear a venerable Zen Master admit that he didn’t reach enlightenment.
A little while later the bus stopped at a rest area and I went up to the Zen Master, introduced myself, and thanked him for the Dharma speech he had given that morning. While some people may have found the lecture confusing or discouraging, I personally found his teaching about the separation we all feel between ourselves and the moon to be particularly poignant, as it simultaneously demonstrated humanity’s basic dilemma of existence and the genuine possibility to overcome it. Even while human beings feel hopelessly discouraged, suffer, and wallow in despair, they are also steadily approaching God. This is because human beings are originally Buddha — yet even while being Buddha, they still need to remove this delusion that it is not possible for one to live as a Buddha.
There was a controversy over some unpublished letters and personal records of the renowned Saint of the Poor, Mother Theresa. In these writings, Mother Theresa agonized:
Lord, who am I that you should forsake me? I, whom you once loved, have now become the despised one. Where is my faith now?
People often feel slightly suspicious and a little disappointed when they read these words and wonder, “Did Mother Theresa really write that? Are those actually the words of someone who had such strong faith?”
Eventually, Mother Theresa even wrote of her despair, “Did I make a mistake in blindly surrendering to the Call of our Lord?”
When some see this they say that Mother Theresa doubted the very existence of God, whereas others argue that Mother Theresa was being hypocritical with her feelings because she spoke and acted as if she was always with God.
I see the opposite as being true, however, for I believe Mother Theresa would have been more hypocritical if she had claimed to have been together with Christ from the beginning to the very end of her life. If she had said that I would have doubted her faith and compassion, since Mother Theresa’s life shows the Path to us — the Path that leads to God. From Mother Theresa’s anguish and despair we can thus get a sense of her spiritual milestones.
Who am I that you should forsake me?
Her anguish was not one that just anyone could have expressed — it was the confession of someone who had truly experienced God. Therefore, we should not take the meaning of Mother Theresa’s despair lightly, since our own division from God is contained within this.
Mother Theresa was a human being; she ceaselessly reflected on her separation from God and whether it had become wider or narrower — by fully accepting this division, she could not help but get closer to God one step at a time. The voice of Christ that one has heard in the morning cannot be heard again in the evening. Even the very breath of God that was felt in the depths of our soul can be forgotten the moment we turn our backs. This is the treacherous road human beings traverse as they approach God.
There are some important matters one must pay attention to along this perilous path, however. The more one grasps at and seeks again the voice of Christ heard yesterday evening or the call of God heard in the morning, the farther they actually become from us. No matter how sweet or mysterious this voice may seem, it is a mistake to try and hold on to it — we should only bear in mind the meaning of what we have heard. When one progresses and learns to repeatedly let go in this way, the voice of Christ can be heard once again.
Take a look at the historical accounts from the Bible — the moment we hear God’s voice is invariably the moment we let go of the object we prize the most and are the most attached to; for example, when Abraham held a knife to the son he had fathered in his later years.
Abraham let go of this seemingly unseverable attachment, and in that moment he heard God’s voice.
Mother Theresa was similar — she was not doubting the existence of God, but questioning this egotistical self which ceaselessly hides the truth from us. Let’s listen again to Mother Theresa’s agonized cry:
Lord, who am I that you should forsake me?
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo writer on religious affairs.