Wonhyo is one of the most respected Korean Buddhist masters, who lived in the ancient Korean Buddhist kingdom of Silla from 617-686. There is a well-known story about Wonhyo, an incident that supposedly led him to achieve spiritual awakening. In today’s post, I’d like to share this story with you as it imparts great spiritual wisdom to all of us.
The awakening of Wonhyo
When he was young, Wonhyo dreamt of furthering his studies of Buddhism in China. As his knowledge in Buddhism deepened, he finally decided to go to the neighboring country. Accompanied by a fellow monk named Uisang, Wonhyo embarked on a long journey to China.
One day, the two Korean Buddhist monks found themselves in the middle of a rugged mountain as dusk was nearing. They hastened their steps, but soon the night caught up with them. Fortunately, there was a small cave which was big enough for them to sleep in for the night. They crawled inside and, exhausted, they soon fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, an intense sensation of thirst awoke Wonhyo. Rubbing his eyes, he fumbled around in the dark and managed to find what seemed to be a small bowl filled with water. Letting out a sigh of relief, Wonhyo grabbed it to drink the water, which tasted extraordinarily fresh and delicious. Then he went back to sleep.
The next morning, Wonhyo woke up, seized by some creepy feeling. He got up and caught a glimpse of skeletons scattering in the cave. Also lying next to him was a broken skull with a trace of water inside. He was horrified as he realized that he had drunk stale water from the skull. He felt so disgusted that he immediately began to vomit. The vomiting sound woke up Uisang. “What’s the matter? What happened?” Uisang asked him in astonishment. After recovering himself, Wonhyo told him what had happened.
While Wonhyo was recounting Uisang how fresh the water tasted last night but how disgusted he felt this morning, something struck Wonhyo’s mind. “That’s right. Didn’t this water taste heavenly last night?” Wonhyo asked himself. “But yet, today the mere thought of having swallowed this water made me throw up!” As Wonhyo gazed at the skull which he had mistaken to be a bowl, he soon came to realize that everything existed in his own mind. Then without any hesitation Wonhyo abandoned his life-long dream of studying abroad.
After returning to his Korean Buddhist temple, Wonhyo established himself to be such a great Buddhist master in the country that even today he is still respected as one of the greatest Korean Buddhist philosophers in history. It is the above incident that is believed to have opened his eyes and led him to achieve awakening.
The above story of Wonhyo teaches that everything lies inside us. Even heaven and hell are both created by our own minds.
Apart from this ancient Korean Buddhist master, many other spiritual teachers have also imparted the perennial wisdom that external world cannot satisfy our real needs since everything lies in us.
Grasping the substanceless nature of the physical world constitutes an essential step toward spiritual enlightenment.
What is real lies beyond the illusion of physicality. What is truly important lies in our inner space. Lasting happiness can be found only when we turn inward.
We cannot attain anything of lasting value by exclusively focusing on the external world. When we recognize the impermanence of everything that is physical, we can detach ourselves from external factors of life. When we can perceive the essenceless nature of the physical world, our eyes are opened. We finally come to the realization that nothing outside of us can make us suffer. Everything lies inside us!
When we realize that true reality lies in us, this gives us the ultimate power, the power to create happiness and joy regardless of external conditions. As long as our happiness is tied to outside circumstances, we are not free. As long as our happiness is dictated by outside circumstances, we remain slaves to external factors of life.
However, when we realize the illusory nature of the physical world, we no longer depend on the external world for happiness. When we no longer look for happiness in the external world, we naturally turn inward and awaken our true selves. By connecting to who we really are, we can create happiness independent of outside circumstances. Happiness is our natural state.
Ultimately, there is nothing substantial to be gained from the external world. The external world is an illusion. Everything lies in us.