The Buddha said, “The whole world is on fire.”  Look around for a moment and you will notice the fires of suffering everywhere you look.  What does the sane person do when their house is on fire?  They call on the people who can help put out the fire.  Now imagine that the firemen appear on the scene, and the homeowner takes a look at them and says, “Oh, you can just pack up and leave.  You are the wrong kind of fireman.”  The fireman might be surprised, even flabbergasted.  “Sir, if we leave now, your house will burn to the ground.  Why don’t you let us use our equipment and knowledge to help you now?”  The homeowner replies, “I heard you guys talking as you arrived.  It seems that you have wives.  I believe that firemen should be single.  Thanks for coming, now leave!”  That homeowner cares more about his belief than he does about his house.  The next people to arrive will be the guys in white coats, taking him to his new residence.

Teachers of the Dharma are like these firemen.  They dedicate their lives to being prepared, to showing up moment after moment and helping to put out the fires of suffering.  They keep an attitude of wanting to help others, regardless of skin color, gender, profession, religion, or political affiliation.  Sometimes these bodhisattvas encounter resistance.  It can be discouraging.  They offer to help expecting nothing in return, and people may return this kindness with ridicule and attack. 

Once after giving a talk at a church, a woman appeared anxious to talk with me.  As I turned to face her, she boldly entered my personal space and said, “I have a problem with you being married!”  This was one of the first times I had experienced this in public.  I didn't have any references to work from, so I just responded as I was moved in the moment.  I laughed my ass off!  She stormed out, so I suppose that wasn’t the response she was looking for.  Perhaps she thought I should defend myself.  I don’t know.   I am just honoring the conditions of my life.  But her problem with me was really a problem for her.  Her concept of what a monk should be stoked her personal fire.  She couldn't do anything about it because the pain was so great; she couldn't recognize her own suffering.

Wondering if one could escape the fires of life anywhere, I paid a visit to a nearby Zen center.  When I arrived, I acted according to the protocol of my tradition and began to make three prostrations to the Buddha.  Before I hit the ground on the first prostration, the teacher yelled out, “Stop! Don’t do that!”  I stopped and sat down, enjoying the service and meditation. 

Afterwards the teacher came up to me and asked my name.  “Haeja” I said.  “What do people call you?” he asked.  I told him that people usually call me “Haeja Sunim” or “Sunim”.  He said, “I don’t believe in using titles.”  He tried to argue the point for quite a while, even after I explained that it is just the tradition and doesn’t imply superiority.  Monks/priests are all called “Sunim”, male or female, even if it is their first day on the job.  Interestingly, this teacher insisted that people call him by his transmission name, sat apart from the congregation, and wore a teacher’s kasa while everyone else wore something different. 

Before I left, his head student said, “Excuse me Sunim. (Ah, HE gets it!)  If you are looking for a teacher, I am sure that our teacher could help you.”  I politely said thank you and left.  In my mind I was thinking, “That’s okay.  I have already mastered attachment to name, form, and opinion.  I don’t need help in that area.” 

Another time I was asked to speak to a Korean Buddhist group.  The talk was scheduled to last twenty minutes.  After the talk, people asked questions for two hours.  I was delighted that people were asking so many penetrating questions, showing a thirst for the Dharma.  A big part of the discussion centered on shunyata (emptiness) and the Diamond Sutra as applied to everyday life.

When I hadn’t been invited back after a few months, I asked a contact there if they had enjoyed the time we spent together.  She told me that they enjoyed it very much.  “Then why haven’t they asked me to come back?”  “Well Sunim, ah, well you have to understand, um, well, not everybody feels this way, but you are the wrong kind of monk.”  They enjoyed the teaching, but because I was a married monk, they were not as open to listening to me.  The irony is that I am a celibate monk, one who happens to be married.  Without the financial support of my wife it would be impossible for me to devote myself to the Dharma full time.

“The whole world is on fire.  How do you escape being burned?”  This is a kongan (koan) question from our tradition.  This is a great question for the aspiring bodhisattva to consider.  How can the fireman rush into a burning building to rescue people without being burned?  If we take others’ suffering personally, we will surely be burned.  Don’t let others’ suffering become your suffering.  The fire of suffering is everywhere.  There is no place to hide.  You could try to stay in your own house, but that too will burn to the ground.  Jesus said, “…the son of man has no place to lay his head.”  We are all the children of mankind.  We are all ultimately homeless bhikshus.  “Bhikshu (Pali: bhikkhu) is the word for monk, and means “beggar” in Sanskrit. 

We have to constantly be alert to the fire in our own house.  For those who cannot see their suffering yet, Zen Master Sungsan would often say, “More suffering is necessary.”  If we can see it, then we can work with it and become free.  Suffering, ours or someone else’s, can be our teacher.  It points to the thoughts in our own minds which obstruct reality.  Because the whole world is on fire, we all respond to suffering each conscious moment.  We have no choice.  We are all firemen.  So what will you bring to the fire?  Will you bring water or gasoline? When your house is on fire, does it really matter what color clothes the fireman is wearing?  My brother-in-law is a fireman.  He says that people mostly say “Thank you!  Please have some tea.”



Gillian Harrison
10/06/2013 23:20

So happy to hear your voice Haeja Sunim!
Thank you for your teaching here!

10/07/2013 00:33

A wonderful teaching. Thank you.

Samaya Hart
10/07/2013 09:46

You are the right kind of monk for me!

10/07/2013 11:19

So much focus on form and ideas. How can anyone be a wrong kind of anything?

Hoka Ji Shin
10/16/2013 19:28

Thank you Haeja Sunim...wonderful! Interesting that folk believe that one should be unmarried to teach the Dharma and relieve suffering. Even celibate monastics form unisons etc. to work together and expound the very relief, that causes the suffering behind such judgements. We currently have 100s of millions of Buddhists all over the world and only a very small percentage are teachers. In other words its mostly the non ordained practitioners themselves who do most of the expounding. Just a few random thoughts. :-)


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