Becoming a Light in the Darkest of Times: A Buddha's Birthday Message

Becoming a Light in the Darkest of Times: A Buddha's Birthday Message
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Today is the Buddha’s Birthday. But in Korea it’s called “The Day the Buddha Arrived.” The point here is that the Buddha’s mind exists eternally, without beginning or end, but we Buddhists like to think that on a certain day — today — roughly 2,500 years ago the Buddha-mind manifested in human form and appeared here on planet Earth. And so we commemorate this day in gratitude, love, and the hope that such a day will one day come again.

Just a few days ago I received an email from someone in the United States whom I’ve never met. She told me that her life partner, someone she thought she’d spend the rest of her life with, wanted to leave her. Shortly after he made this devastating announcement, he was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. Meanwhile, she was helping to raise his children from his first marriage. She and her partner had no biological children of their own.

That’s how fast our entire world can come crashing down around us.

This strong and brave woman told me, however, that through the Son meditation techniques she learned from the various venues that I teach in, she was able to survive. She felt certain that she would have self-destructed if she hadn’t learned how to meditate. And she said a lot of flattering things about me and the kind of work that I do.

I don’t know why for certain, but her email put me into a kind of daze for the last few days. Through a number of technological channels, I share the teachings that I learned from my own teacher as broadly as possible. But I had no idea — to be honest — that anything I did really made such a big difference in the world.

I certainly didn’t think anything I did would give someone I’ve never met the strength to go on.

So for the last few days I’ve been thinking about how to reply to this woman without saying something trite. I did reply to her email, but actually this post today is my true response to her and anyone else who’s listening.

This unknown friend’s email returned to me a precious memory.

When I first met my teacher Son Master Songdam nearly thirty years ago, I was completely blown away by him. You know how some adolescents fall madly in love with certain pop stars or actors or professional athletes? Well, that’s how I was with the legendary Son Master Songdam. He who was once nicknamed the “Silent Meditator” for performing a mind-blowing ten-year vow of silence. He who could paint beautiful paintings and pieces of calligraphy, play the Korean flute, and toss off profound and witty aphorisms whenever the time was right. The most authentic human being I’ve ever known, the most upright monk I’ve ever met, the most secluded of all hermits, the Zen master among Zen masters.

Son Master Songdam was my rock star.

And every time I saw him, I was grateful that he chose to be here with us, teaching us, instead of off in the mountains which I believed he preferred.

One day, a few years after receiving my precepts, when I was in my mid-twenties, I had occasion to spend some time with him. He was preparing a Dharma speech, a dapper and small sixty-something year-old gentleman monk at the time, sitting cross-legged on his cushion and leafing through a worn, fake-leather bound journal filled with his own notes. As practically everyone around him does to this day, I surreptitiously watched him from the side.

As usual, in his presence time seemed to stop. Dust seemed to hang unmoving in the air and light of his room. Things seemed more real around him. The undying fragrance of incense. The colors of the room — the creamy white of the wallpaper, the golden honey yellow of the lacquered floor, the deep browns and blacks of the spare Korean furniture that lined the walls — all seemed more vivid and alive when he was in the room.

And things were always so quiet around him. Serene. Around him there seemed to shine a kind of aura and the skin of his face and hands also seemed to shine with a faint and pearly radiance.

I thought yet again of how fortunate it was that a person like him had arrived in this world to illuminate it with his light. How dark this world would be if not for someone like him.

He shifted slightly and then I knew that he knew I was watching him. Something else shifted, too.

I gazed at him in profile openly now and it hit me. All of this time I thought he had become enlightened because he was extraordinary. Because, I thought, he was a brilliant, natural-born genius.

But for some reason in that moment, now so long ago, I felt very strongly that it was not his brains or his talents that had led him to his enlightenment. It was something else.

If he had done anything differently than the rest of us, it was not his vow of silence or his many legendary demonstrations of talent.

It was because he really believed.

When he was a young man, a young monk, he had really believed in his inner light. He believed in it and had felt its radiance before he could directly perceive it. And he had followed it to its source within the deepest recesses of his heart.

In that moment, I knew that I possess that light, too. That we all possess it. But it’s not enough to believe and to know. We have to make our own journey to its source as well.

In that moment, I learned that the job of a “spiritual teacher” is not to shine her light upon the world. It’s not to dazzle and inspire the poor, benighted masses.

The job — the real job — of any human being is to make others believe in their own light. To help all others to shine their light in the darkness, in the darkest times of our lives.

Tonight in Seoul, in accordance with Korean Buddhist tradition, those who believe and those who hope to believe will light paper lotus lanterns and set them afloat on the Han River to make their way through the night. It’s a good symbolic teaching of the purpose of the Buddha’s appearance on Earth.

Not to illuminate us with his light. Not to show us the way. But to awaken us to our own inner light so that we can see our own way through the world. Through life. And even through death.

That, we, too, might shine our light on our fellow human beings and awaken them to their own light.

I’m deeply grateful for the email that I received. My unknown friend wrote at a time of great distress in her life to express her gratitude for the teachings I had shared.

But the truth is that her email was a guiding light for me as well. To remind me that what I do matters, too. That somehow I am connected to others, even ones whom I have never met.

The day we wake up to the existence of the light within us is the day that the Buddha arrives. I learned that from my teacher one day many years ago and then an email out of the blue reminded me of it.

It’s the Buddha’s birthday today. Shine your light on those you love.

Palms together,

Hwansan Sunim

To learn more about Son meditation, please visit Hwansan Sunim’s Youtube channel.

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