To Discover Your True Self, “I” Must Die


This is an excerpt from the Dharma talk published with this title as part of the series, Practice in Daily Life. The complete Dharma talk is also included in the book Wake Up and Laugh.

I’m grateful that we can all gather together again today. Although we always function together as one, there is clearly “you” and “I.” All of us are fellow practitioners who explore together the path of truth. When we gather here like this, you, I, and all other beings are friends who walk together on the way of truth. Today let’s begin by thinking deeply about the meaning of what Shakyamuni Buddha said and did when he was born into this world. He said, “Above and below the heavens, there is nothing that is not me.” Then he looked in every direction and took seven steps. Buddhism appeared at that moment, and the practice of cultivating mind, which is the path of discovering our true self, also began. Although I have never been to school, nor have I read many books, here is what I think the Buddha’s actions mean.

First of all, what is the meaning of “Above and below the heavens, there is nothing that is not me”? I have always told you that the foundation of the universe is directly connected to our foundation, our fundamental mind, which is directly connected to every single part of our lives. Even before the Buddha was born into this world, all beings were directly connected to each other through the foundation. Thus, if you awaken to the foundation, you will save all of the lives within you, and you will also save all of the lives outside of your body, because they are all directly connected to your foundation. If you have a question about this, let’s discuss it at the end of the talk.

Second, what is the meaning of the Buddha looking in every direction? The foundation of everything is neither emptiness nor form. Thus everything operates and functions together inseparably. In order to demonstrate this, the Buddha looked in every direction.

Finally, his taking seven steps shows that our ever-changing daily life, where “you” and “I” distinctly exist, is itself the path of truth. This is what the Buddha taught us without using words. Actually, this isn’t something that you can learn through words. The truth can never be learned through scholarship, intellectual knowledge, worldly power, fame, or theories. From the very beginning, practitioners have learned truth only through wisely investigating the fundamental questions of where we came from, where we are going, and how we should live.

To explain it another way, we consist of the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air. We live in the midst of these elements and sustain ourselves by eating them. You shouldn’t ignore this. You should be thankful for those elements, because all living beings originated from them and have evolved from them into the life forms of today. Everything comes from them and returns to them. Everything disappears into them and then arises from them. This is the truth. When the wind blows, a petal hanging from a tree is soon gone. If the petal is protected from the wind, it may hang there a little longer, but in the end it too will fall.
Everything is like drifting clouds. Because we all should overcome this illusionary realm, we have gathered together here to cultivate our minds. Our minds embrace everything without excluding even a blade of grass. You should know that in Hanmaum (One Mind) everything – plants, bugs, animals, and even beings without life – ceaselessly functions together. Although everything functions together like this, as I said earlier, there is clearly “you” and “I.” But the very existence of “you” and “I” is empty, and in the midst of such emptiness, there certainly exists one extraordinary thing. In order to discover it, we are cultivating mind together.

Some of you may wonder why I am explaining this again. There are always people who are here for the first time, so I should say something about it for them. I always tell them, “First, you must die! Let go of everything and entrust everything!” But where should you let go to? You should let go to your fundamental mind. Because you exist, others exist. Because you exist, all other things exist. Further, your fundamental mind is directly connected to the foundation of everything in the universe. It is as if there is a power plant within you. This bright power plant! If we need some energy, we can take out as much as we need. The energy of the power plant is infinite. No matter how much energy is taken out, it never decreases, and no matter how much energy is put in, it never overflows. The energy flows freely – we just can’t see it.

Therefore, living daily life can be practicing Seon. Just physically sitting down is not sitting in meditation. When your mind is at ease and you have let go of everything, this is sitting meditation and practicing Seon. However, this doesn’t mean surrendering your firm, upright center of mind and just falling into emptiness. It is because you have this center that you are able to practice Seon and feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Without all of these feelings you could not attain wisdom or awaken to your true self, nor could you become a Buddha.

You should entrust everything that comes up in your life – solitude, poverty, loneliness, anxiety, and illness – to your foundation and live freely. Entrusting everything is letting go of everything. This is the way to die. The phrase “First, you must die!” means unconditionally releasing everything, without any excuses or reasons, including both what you understand and what you don’t understand. When things go well, you should release them with gratitude. When things don’t go well, you should also release them with the faith that “Only the foundation can solve this and lead me in the right direction. Because nothing is fixed, this also can change.” You should keep letting go like this. For it is only by dying unconditionally that you can discover your true self, your eternal root.

Second, you must die again. While studying here, some of you have discovered yourself. Yet you still have not discarded your habits and your thoughts of “I,” “me,” and “mine.” So you’re happy if you see a Buddha in your dreams, but you’re scared if you see a ghost. When you feel or experience something extraordinary, you carelessly talk to others about what you experienced. What you see and hear is just an illusion, but nevertheless you still tend to cling to it. This is why you must die again.

Now do you understand why first you must die and keep what you experience to yourself, and why you must die yet again, keeping what you experience secret? Even though you are able to see or hear certain things after you discover your true self, those powers are not the Way. Even though you have obtained the five subtle powers – the abilities to know others’ thoughts and feelings, to know past lives, to hear anything, to see anything at any place, and to appear anywhere without moving your body – this is still not the Way. You can truly master the five subtle powers only when you are free from them. If you reveal what you hear, see, or know, it will only bring trouble. First, it will cause trouble for the Buddha-dharma, second, for sunims and the Seon center, and third, it will cause trouble for you.

Once you discover yourself, you enter the stage of experimenting. Don’t regard what you learn in your dreams as different from what you learn while awake. And keep everything you learn secret. Although you are able to see, hear, and know things that others are unaware of, do it without clinging to any thought of “I see,” “I hear,” “I know,” and do not reveal to others what you experience. This is a very powerful stage of practice in which you experiment with what you have learned. Your experiments result in experiences, and then you put those experiences into action. This is the meaning of dying a second time and keeping what you experience to yourself.

While keeping everything secret, if you are completely free from the five subtle powers, you will be able to control all of them. For example, if you are a slave to your body, how can you take care of it and keep it healthy? Likewise, you must be able to free yourself from the five subtle powers. Although you see what others can’t see, release it. Although you hear what others can’t hear, release it. Although you know others’ minds and past lives, release all of that. Although you are able to come and go to any place or any time without a trace of coming and going, you should also release that. This is keeping it secret. This is the very way to realize the truth of mind and to attain wisdom. It is like a secret path by which you can experiment with and experience the principle of mind, and make it your own. The secret door is inside of you. It sends out and takes in everything through the five sensory organs. Do not search for the door somewhere else. Discover truth through the door that is within you.

Third, you still must die again. Keeping what you experience secret and being free from the five subtle powers, even though there is clearly “you” and “I,” there will be no discrimination between “you” and “I.” At this stage, you will be able to manifest such that “you” become “me,” and “I” become “you.” Your ability to manifest and transform yourself as a response-body will become so powerful. What is transforming? Because mind has no form, tens of thousands of different shapes can come out from it. This is called the ten billion transformation bodies of Buddha. Why is it called the ten billion transformation bodies? It’s because Buddha responds to you as you request: if you want the mountain god, Buddha manifests as the mountain god. If you want Avalokiteshvara, Buddha manifests as Avalokiteshvara. Like this, Buddha manifests in various forms. Furthermore, Buddha responds not only with certain shapes, but also with compassion and warmth.

Buddha manifests, transforms, and responds to every single life. Such manifestation is Buddha’s stepping down from the realm of Buddhas for the sake of unenlightened beings. This is the compassionate action of a Buddha. This is the same compassionate behavior that is performed by the Lotus-Flower Buddha, Samantabhadra, and the Tathagatha. Buddha responds to everyone. Regardless of who they are - the spirit of a tree or the spirit of the earth, man or woman, rich or poor, old or young, someone with power or without power, intelligent or unintelligent - Buddha responds equally to all of them. Buddha is Buddha because it is able to do all of these things.

If these three stages are the process of becoming completely human, then this is not the completion of an individual, but the completion of the whole, where everything becomes one and works together. You flow as yourself, and I flow as myself, but while we are flowing like this, Buddha responds to all of us. All beings can become you – their circumstances can become your own circumstances; their hands can become your hands; and their suffering can become your own suffering. This is the compassion of Buddha, who responds through tens of billions of transformation bodies. Which shape is truly Buddha? Is it when Buddha is in the form of a worm? Is it when Buddha responds to you by manifesting as Avalokiteshvara or in the form of an animal? Is it when Buddha enters the body of a dog? Which of these shapes can you truly call Buddha? Always changing and flowing every single moment is the nature of the Way, and is truth itself. The only thing that can be attained is the Way, the truth called supreme bodhi, which is the path that transcends all names. This is the meaning of the word “Buddha.”

Hanmaum [han-ma-um]: “Han” means one, great, and combined, while “maum” means mind, as well as heart, and also means the universal consciousness that is the same in every thing and every place. Thus “Hanmaum” means both the state where everything is interconnected as one, and also the functioning where everything lives and works together as a whole.

Buddha : In this text, all references to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are capitalized out of respect, because Buddhas and Bodhisattvas represent the essence and function of the enlightened mind. “The Buddha” always refers to Shakyamuni Buddha.

Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of compassion who hears and responds to the cries of the world, and delivers unenlightened beings from suffering.