Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Non-possession" by The Reverend Beop Jeong

I have always had great fascination and respect for Korean Buddhism, especially Chan/Zen, since it has always seemed to me more realistic. More…honest. Better at balancing that noble path with the human condition. But I had never read the teachings of any particular Korean monk. Then this past month The Reverend Beop Jeong passed away. He was seventy-nine. I had never heard of him before, but for several days read about him in the papers while on the subway to work. I was saddened, for one of the greatest living Buddhist teachers had been no more than a short ride away and I had never met him. Moreover I felt shame for seeing his death in such terms – a missed opportunity. After all, a man had died.

I resolved to acquaint myself with him through whatever writings I could find, and was delighted to discover he had gathered quite a following of foreigners by having often delivered sermons in English. I went to bookstores hoping to find what the papers described as his most celebrated work, 무소유 (musoyu) i.e. “Non-possession”. But finding no English translations, I decided to put my own hand to it as a sort of birthday present to myself. So, with a sturdy desk, a heavy dictionary and plenty of time, I went at it and, I think, even managed to understand most if it. What follows then is gathered from the notes I used to burrow my way through. For those who understand Korean, please forgive my paraphrasing (and mistakes). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…

The Reverend Beob Jeong

“I am a poor beggar. I have a spinning wheel and from jail a used rice bowl and a tin of goat’s milk, six shabby blankets, a towel and a reputation not worth mentioning, that’s all.”

In September 1931 Mahatma Gandhi was on his way to the Second Round Table Conference in London when Marseilles customs opened and inspected his belongings. When I read this passage from a compilation by K. Kripalani I was so ashamed. Perhaps it was because I had so many things. At least now my portion is thus.

In truth, when I first came into the world I brought nothing with me. After a full life, I shall disappear from this cruel world with empty hands. While here, I’ve gradually acquired many things. Of course, in everyday life things can seem necessary. But are those things really indispensable? The more I look the more I find so many things may not be good to have.

We have what we need, but sometimes because of such stuff our hearts become more than a little obsessed. So having something can, on the other hand, also mean being bound to it. Rather than have things as needed, when we are bound to them we begin to confuse our priorities and it is then that we bear difficulty. Therefore, by having much do we become prideful, yet these sides are simultaneously intertwined.

Last summer I had two beloved orchids and raised them devotedly with all my heart and soul. Three years before some monks had sent them to our room. Because I lived alone, the only living creatures there were myself and those two young ones. For these children I got and read related publications, for these young ones I asked acquaintances going abroad to find and bring back hydroponic fertilizer. When summer came I found cool shaded places to move them to, and in wintertime I withstood not raising the indoor temperature too much, for their sake.

If such devotion were given to parents, I’d most likely hear rumors of being a dutiful child. Thus being cherished and raised, by early spring bloomed a delicate fragrance with chartreuse flowers that made my heart flutter, the crescent moon leaves that were always fresh and green. Each person who visited our teahouse and saw the fresh orchids was invariably pleased.

One day last summer during monsoon season I went to Bongseongsa (Balsam Temple) to see Unheonosa (耘虛老師). The midday sun, confined as it was by the monsoon sky, poured down all the more glaringly before me, exciting the sound of a brook that mingled with the voices of cicadas.

Dear me! Standing there I suddenly had a thought. The orchids had been left out in the garden. After such a long time the bright sun suddenly seemed so hateful. Its hot, ever-present rays and the thought of the orchid leaves haunted me until I could delay no more. I hurriedly returned along the road. Sure enough, it was as expected. The leaves had gone limp. Impatiently I gave them spring water at length in order to moisten them and raise their heads. But it was as if some radiant vitality had fallen from them.

All that time I had worked so earnestly, body and soul. It seemed attachment was no more than suffering. I had been so tenacious for those orchids. I decided then to remove this attachment. During cultivation, the orchids had required such attention that I could never leave and was essentially stuck. When going out to do something for a moment and leaving the room empty, I would crack the window a little in order to provide as much ventilation as possible, and if I went out forgetting to do this, I would quickly have to return again, so real and awful was my obsession.

A few days later, a friend dropped by whose quiet disposition so reminded me of my orchids that I gave them to him. For the first time, I had come out of my confinement. Out, it seemed, with a light-hearted sense of freedom. Three years with close ‘kind-heartedness’ had left me looking hurt and empty, but I walked ahead with a lighthearted soul. Since this time, I made a promise to myself to do away with things. The orchids had given me an understanding of the meaning of non-possession.

I now see human history as a story of possession. Continuous quarreling for the sake of one’s portion. With this desire to possess, there is no limitation and no days off. And even if there is a single thing more to have, the heart will surge for it. By wanting the things we are bound to, we thus come to want the people bound to them as well. That person then, should they then not possess what they wish, will see it as some cruel tragedy. Their mind cannot control themselves from this desire to possess.

As for this desire to possess, loss and gain are directly proportional. It is not only so with individuals, but with nations too. Yesterday’s allies stand face to face today, mutually opposed for the sake of possession. Yet if humans' history of possession were to become one of non-possession what then would become of us, I wonder. Maybe there would be no more quarreling. For perhaps then there would be nothing to fight for.

Gandhi also said one more thing.

“I begin to think for me possession is first an offense…… .”

If another has something, people who want the same things will be equally limited. However it is because this kind of ownership is impossible that one cannot help feeling sorry for oneself. We are sometimes blinded by thoughts of possession. They are, without even a shadow of doubt, restless. As for me, I shall toss aside this flesh with all the rest. For however much we posses, we cannot truly possess anything at all.

They say only people who discard much can gain much. Just once, then, consider that it may be because of things that people have broken hearts. A broken heart because of something is a lesson for people to think about. Another meaning of non-possession is that when you do not have anything, you only have the world.

1 comment:

  1. I know of at least two sets of sisters who have quarreled over things: a burial plot in one case and a violin in the other. Though these objects may have just been pretexts to fight, and though there may have been underlying tensions in the two sisterly relationships, I must say that this monk's words seem very wise to me. Two sets of loving sisters no longer speak to one another, all due to obsessive possessiveness of objects.