If you ask people what comes to mind when they hear the word meditation, most would say “sitting on a cushion, focusing on the breath.” Even Googling it brings up images of people sitting in a tranquil space with ambient lighting and hands in mudra postures. I lead a meditation group at a local university and asked a group of students the question “What is meditation to you?” and their replies were similar. They regarded meditation as something to do at rest, separate from their academic and social life, relegating it to the seated posture.
It may surprise many of those students to learn that for practitioners in the school of Won Buddhism like myself, there is no hard distinction between meditation and the rest of our lives. Master Sotaesan, the Korean Buddhist teacher who founded the school at the start of the 20th century, taught that buddhadharma is daily life, daily life is buddhadharma. We call this approach Timeless Son (Chi., Chan; Jpn., Zen). Through this practice, we learn how to stop the mind when we encounter difficult situations and think about the circumstance from a place of clarity, so that we make a choice that brings benefit to ourselves and others.
Timeless Son was created with the active person in mind: the parent raising children, the employee sending an email to her client, the farmer tilling the field, the student balancing a full course load with a part-time job, the teacher buying groceries after a long day in the classroom. Although many people may fantasize about the possibility of spending months up in the quiet mountains, sitting hours in meditation and seeking answers to essential life questions while they take a respite from everyday experience, we are beckoned to take care of our families, pay the bills, and continue our livelihood. Of course, a long-term retreat would provide an environment conducive to intensive spiritual practice, but how many of us can convince our boss to let us off work for three months, never mind one? If we can only practice by entering the mountains and sitting quietly, how could this be the dharma that can save all sentient beings?
Master Sotaesan warned against separating practice from daily life, especially in this ultra competitive and digitally active world. Practice needs to be weaved into the fabric of our lives so that every moment and place is an opportunity for practice and progression. Seated meditation on the cushion is only part of the practice to help us mindfully navigate our way through the many sensory conditions that we encounter throughout the day. What is most important, Master Sotaesan argues, is that we achieve freedom of mind, which we can do by awakening to our own nature and realizing that it is originally free from discrimination and attachment. This is precisely what Son practice is.
He goes on to explain that for people who are first beginning to practice Son, the mind is not easily controlled according to their wishes. A classic teaching compares this to training an ox: If the reins of the mind are dropped even for a moment, it will instantly harm our commitment to the way. But with training, the mind gradually becomes tamed and will do what we wish. When at rest, we engage in practices such as seated meditation and chanting the name of Buddha to help us remove distracted thoughts and nurture the one mind, free of attachment. But ultimately, we need to be heedful in our actions and make choices with sound thought in all our applications. This is the mind state as expressed in the Diamond Sutra: “Give rise to a mind that, even while responding, does not abide anywhere.”
A practice taught and used in Won Buddhism to bring mindfulness into daily activities is called Plan, Do, See (PDS). The first step in this practice is to plan in advance by choosing an item of mindfulness. This would be an item to focus on in an area of our life that brings us persistent problems or unease.
If tardiness causes problems at work, “arriving five minutes early” could be an item of mindfulness. The plan and intention could be to leave the house earlier or pack our bags the night before so we’re ready to head out the door without forgetting anything important. The habit of hasty speech can be countered with the mindfulness item “mindful speech.” A plan and intention, in this case, could be to pause before speaking to reduce harmful or unwholesome speech. Or if we are constantly distracted by social media while studying, “to concentrate on the task at hand” could be a mindfulness item. The plan might be to first turn off our smartphones before opening our books or place our phones in the next room. By resolving to be mindful of a particular item in advance, we become more aware of our actions when we are in the doing mode.
To remain mindful while we carry out our plans, Won Buddhist practitioners are instructed to record the number of times we handled a situation in either a mindful or unmindful fashion (either by marking it down on a piece of paper or using a digital counter). In the beginning, we keep track of the number without noting how things turned out, which allow us to develop the habit without concerning ourselves with the outcome. As our practice deepens, however, we begin to record whether the result was good or bad. It’s easy for a practitioner to fall into a conceptual practice (knowing not do something but doing it anyway), but considering the consequences of our mindful or unmindful behavior helps to reduce the likelihood of perpetuating bad habits—which brings us to the final step: see.
Seeing means reflecting on whether we were able to carry out the items we resolved to do or not to do. Sometimes we completely forget our item of mindfulness, and continue our habitual actions. Instead of berating ourselves with comments like “Why am I a bad practitioner?” or “Why can’t I ever do anything right?” we assess the reasons for not putting the item into practice and then make an intention to do better next time while letting go of any feelings of guilt or disappointment. In this way, we empty the mind and start again. On the other hand, if we were mindful of our item, we should embrace our efforts with gratitude and continue our practice with sincerity and diligence while guarding against laxity or self-pride. Interestingly, when we become mindful of one thing in our life, we develop an awareness that naturally influences other areas as well.
Through PDS, we can cultivate mindfulness throughout the day and begin practicing Timeless Son, in which our lives and practice become nondual, or free from discrimination, from the early morning until late at night. My teacher once told me, “You can tell a person’s mind by how they use time and how they use money.” Everyone is given 24 hours a day, but we all use it differently. Living a more awakened life depends on when and where we choose to practice. Are we going to squeeze practice into part of the day, or build the practice so it becomes our lives?
When we make choices with sound thought, our life becomes abundant. Our heart opens and we start to notice the suffering of others; wisdom and equanimity are cultivated. Where before we were lost in a train of thought, preoccupied by worries and anxieties about the past or future, we now can taste that part of us that is originally free from discrimination and attachment, making room for self-care and compassion toward others. When each of us is engaged in this self-renewal, we collectively move toward the renewal of our communities and the world. The starting point Won Buddhism proposes is the practice and realization that buddhadharma and daily life are one, which means learning how to make the mind function properly and using it well.
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