A departure for returning to sabha: a study of koan practice of silence
Oh International Journal of Dharma Studies
A departure for returning to sabha: a study of koan practice of silence
Jea Sophia Oh
This paper deals with koan practice of silence through analyzing the Korean Zen Buddhist film, Why Has Boddhidharma Left for the East? (Bae, Yong-Kyun, Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? 1989). This paper follows Kibong's path along with the Buddha's journey of 1) departure, 2) journey in the middle way, and 3) returning with a particular focus on koan practice of silence as the transformative element of enlightenment. Analyzing silence throughout the film, this paper studies the Seon Buddhist lifestyle in an aesthetic way and finds a philosophical understanding of interdependency of samsara and nirvana. Silence is a crucial element of koan. Koan is, indeed, not to be answered, but to be practiced through one's life.
element of enlightenment. Nonetheless, each step embraces a different quality of silence
which seems to be vulnerable to criticism in the neo-Confucian Korean society and may
conflict with its set of promoted virtues. Perhaps, to outsiders, departure can be seen as
abandonment of family and silence can be seen as severance of communication. Beyond
these seemingly negative processes and practices of Seon Buddhism, this paper tries to
answer the great koan, “Why has Bodhidharma left for the East?” In order to practice koan,
silence is a crucial element which transforms samsara into nirvana. Analyzing silence
throughout the film, this paper studies the Seon Buddhist lifestyle in an aesthetic way and
finds a philosophical understanding of interdependency of samsara and nirvana. Koan is,
indeed, not to be answered out, but to be practiced out through one’s life. Thus, a koan
practice of silence is endless self-emptying in the middle way. A departure is, therefore, a
returning. Bodhidharma returned to the world to share his realization and compassion
with people, to become one with nature.
His will has departed. –from The Lotus Sutra -4
A silent departure (出家)/A detached self
Hajin: Why have we all left the world?
Kibong: It’s because in the world, there is no peace nor freedom. I was destined to
take care of my family. It is such an immoral act to take a departure for myself.
However, I was thirsty for the freedom of the soul. I couldn’t do two things at a time. I
had to leave the narrow path that was covered by sufferings like dust to find myself
again in an open field. When I decided to leave the world, morality and family love
seemed to be chains that I had to break along with the worldly desires and pleasures.
I must reach enlightenment and find the way of the great freedom.5
The film, Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?, introduces Kibong as a man
who has become a monk to escape his familial obligations to his blind mother and his
sister and shows his dilemma of attachment to the individualized quest for
enlightenment.6 In the film, Kibong’s departure seems to be somewhat similar to the typical
Buddhist motivations of departure. One can be compelled to become a monk by some
burning questions such as “Why do we live?” By awakening, one would know him/
herself and find the essence of life. In some cases, one becomes a monk because of
some difficulties of his/her life such as poverty and distress.7 In the case of Kibong, a
complex set of factors motivated him to leave his family. Although Kibong was
responsible for his blind mother and younger sister in a fatherless family, he was
struck by a burning question, “who am I truly?” He first fled from his worldly
circumstances and took a vow of silence. However, his silent departure would seem to be
immoral according to the conventional Confucian expectations regarding family
obligations and filial virtues.
Korea is a neo-Confucian society. For centuries in Korea, Confucianism has meant a
system of education, ritual ceremony and civil administration as first expressed by
Confucius in his writings. Confucian concepts of social harmony and moral precepts
permeated the intellectual life of the old East Asia and played a pivotal role in molding
the Korean culture as we know it today. After so many centuries of indoctrination in
these tenets, however, Koreans can hardly be said to have discarded the customs, habits
and thought patterns derived from the old system. It is easy to see the influence of
Confucianism on Koreans today. Older people are still very much respected. Among a
group of friends or co-workers, the oldest person is expected to pay in a restaurant
while the youngest is expected to serve the food. Still today, most young Koreans can
imagine no greater trespass than openly defying their parents.8
In this regard, Kibong’s silent departure can be seen against filial piety (孝, xiao) which is
the fundamental virtue of other virtues by Confucius. On the other hand, Kibong’s
departure might be a good model of detachment in Buddhism. Detachment is a central concept in
Seon Buddhism. One of the most important technical Chinese terms for detachment is “wú
niàn” (無念), which literally means “no thought.” This does not signify the literal absence of
thought, but rather the state of being “unstained” (不染, bù rán) by thought. Therefore,
“detachment” is being detached from one’s thoughts. It is to separate oneself from one’s
own thoughts and opinions in detail as to not be harmed mentally and emotionally by them.
According to the basic teaching of the Buddha, worldly sufferings (苦, duhkha) result from
attaching oneself to what one does not have or even what one cannot have along with
inevitable existential sufferings such as aging, sickness, and death. Indeed, the deepest meaning
of duhkha is the inability to live well when at odds with the truth of interdependent arising.
Thus, duhkha has a deeper meaning of unsatisfactoriness.9
In the film, Kibong was introduced as a discontented young man who comes to the
mountain hermitage to search for his true self. His Confucian virtue as a head of the
household seems to be disharmonized with his own possibilities of self-realization. In
his case, departure is detachment from his blind elderly mother and underage sister.
He suffers from the family pressures of taking care of his blind mother. He has a strong
desire to escape from reality and to chase after personal freedom. Therefore, he chooses
to leave the world and seek after enlightenment. By doing so, he has to empty his inner
world and break the ties with his family. From a Confucian point of view, he deserves
criticism for turning away from his filial responsibility. The irony is that, when he
becomes a monk, he is sent to a remote mountain to take care of a sick Seon Master,
Hyegok, and a baby orphan brother, Haejin. His departure from his family caused him
to have another set of relationships. That is to say, there will be no way one can be
completely detached from human relationships, but we all probably have to live an
endless karma of attachment and detachment through continual practices of emptying and
filling. Although Kibong ordains with the hope that he can achieve liberation and
enlightenment by cutting off all attachments to his previous life, he cannot avoid this
karmic facticity of relationships.
Then, is Kibong’s departure a form of escapism or a denial of reality? Kibong has
departed from his duhkha, unsatisfactoriness, and silently practiced out his koan
with endless guilt and self-blame. Kibong’s central dilemma and problem of the self
is that he presumes that freedom and escape are the same thing. Kibong’s suffering
is resultant from his unpeaceful mind. He is in fact overly attached to the
distinction between freedom and entrapment, nirvana and samsara as his master Hyegok
replies, “It is because people do not have enough heart to hold all the things in
the world. In fact, they have enough heart but it is full of the idea of the self.”
Hyegok gave Kibong a koan and ordered him to practice a silent meditation,
“When the full moon arises in your heart, where does the master of my self go?”10
Departure, getting rid of the link with families, is a necessary process for people
who want to attain enlightenment. How about the “Great Departure” of Siddhartha
Gautama? While Kibong departed from his suffering, the Prince Siddhartha has
departed from the palace in order to eliminate suffering in the world. The Great
Departure of the Buddha was neither escapism nor hibernation. “The Prince left the
palace through the eastern gate and went for the forest.” When Siddhartha decided to
leave the palace, he heard that his wife delivered his son. He named his son, Rāhula,
which means “obstacle.” What a name! What kind of father can name his first son
obstacle? From a Confucian point of view, there is no higher virtue than being loyal
to one’s family. Both Kibong and Siddhartha left their parents and families. It can be
considered a most unethical act in the Korean Neo-Confucian society. Most of all,
abandoning parents and children is the worst. However, is there anyone who has no
obstacle when s/he tries to accomplish a greater self-realization? A departure of a
Buddhist monk is called chulga in Korean (出家) which literally means “leaving
home.” Thus, the first and inevitable act for chulga (出家) is actually “detachment”
which is the practice of dan in Korean (斷, the practice of severing/cutting off
something attached). Departure is, therefore, detachment. The great departure is neither
denial of reality nor facing away from the world but it is dan (斷) to realize a true self.
Without words, the Buddha, Bodhidharma, and Kibong left alone like a rhinoceros.
A journey in the middle way/A muted self
Prince Siddhartha wanted to see his son Rāhula once before leaving. He opened the
door of his wife’s room. A scented candle was burning in the room. Rāhula’s mother
was asleep in the beautiful flowery bed with her baby. Prince Siddhartha was looking
at them and thinking, “If I hold Rāhula, my wife will wake up and the baby will cry.
Then, it will distract my leaving. I will return and see them again after
enlightenment.” He quietly sneaked out of the palace.12
The Buddha’s departure was a tough one. What a poignant story! As a human father,
he couldn’t even hold his first baby who was just born. Instead, he left without words.
The Buddha’s silence at his departure can be recognized as an extreme case of dan
(斷, cutting off ) which is similar to Kibong’s silence, when he visited his house to
check on his blind mother after his departure. Unlike his expectation of freedom
after his departure, he was not free at all but suffered from the guilt of abandoning
his family. He cut off his affections and responsibility for his family. Instead of his
old blind mother and a younger sister, he now has an old sick master and a little
brother. When one tie is untangled or detached, another one will be started on–
which is the karmic causation. Because of his attachment with his old master,
Kibong broke his koan and came down the mountain to the marketplace to buy
some medicines for curing his master’s sickness. At the same time, he also went back to
his home to visit his blind mother. What a poignant scene to watch, he entered his
mother's home but could not say a word. A blind mother and a mute son, two suffering
people in the world were unable to communicate with one another and yet created a most
profound and powerful interaction via silence. In this moment, the silence works as both
a form of meditation as well as a form of communication. His mother could sense that
her lost son is present and called out for him. He was totally muted since he vowed to the
silent koan. He helped his mother to find her pills with no word and quietly stepped out
like the Buddha did to his wife and the baby. He was able to meditate on his decision and
the silence allowed a blind mother and a mute son to achieve a form of closure.
Siddhartha, instead, told himself, “I will return after enlightenment.” Before becoming
the “Enlightened One,” Siddhartha saw four signs that set him on his path towards
being enlightened. The signs Siddhartha saw were: an old man, a sick man, a dead
man, and a recluse, or a man who has “gone forth.” These signs were the first to
introduce Siddhartha to pain and suffering which he later deemed to be “duhkha.” Duhkha
was this pain that the human condition obtains from both internal and external
sources. It can come from natural and artificial sources. However, after the fourth sign,
Siddhartha saw that duhkha could be eliminated from the lives of people, that could be
the reason why Bodhidharma has left for the East as the film says via a young monk’s
confession, “the great departure is, therefore, the great returning.”
After leaving his life of comfort behind, the Buddha sought out spiritual leaders and
practitioners whom may help him obtain the same inner peace that the man has “gone
forth” possessed. It was in these studies and travels that the Buddha realized that the
method to claim this peace was through the “Middle Way.” The Middle Way was a
method of, “knowing how to focus his consciousness and how to observe his feelings,
and no longer be afraid of the happiness that is not coupled with evil and depravity, he
practiced a form of reflective meditation in which he investigated the arising of
suffering in life, its conditions, and the way to remove these conditions.”13A Korean Buddhist
scholar Jin Y. Park explains the Buddha’s Middle Way in terms of mutual dependency
of the constituents of a being: “Existence is conditional and dependent upon various
conditions in each and every moment, which makes existence possible. Existence is a
result of a combination of various conditions. This interdependency of things is what
the Buddha calls the Middle Path.”14 By eliminating duhkha in one’s life, through the
practice of the Middle Way, by living the Buddha’s teachings, one can eventually find
In order to focus on enlightening the self, meditation is the practice of emptying one’s
mind of idle thoughts. In the film we can see the Buddhist monks meditate in silence
while sometimes accompanied by the beating of the moktak (木鐸, the wooden drum).
Meditation is very much a disciplined kind of silence in which the silence of the mind
brings tranquility and enlightenment. Silence in this film is not just scenes when there
is no sound, it has a purpose. This purpose is not to just make the tone quiet but to
stress dramatic effect. This dramatic effect is accomplished on many levels. On some
levels, we are brought to the magnificence of nature and the natural beauties the world
has to offer. On other levels, the silence builds tension and alerts us to a pending
explosion of action or emotion. On some occasions, the silence is used to bring the
audience and the actors to a meditative, peaceful, state of being. Yet, in some instances,
we find the silence acting as a method of clearing the way, and used as a transition
from one scene into another. But the ultimate purpose for silence, as has been taught
by the Buddha himself, is that silence leads to truth, which in turn, leads to the Middle
Way. In the Middle Way of interdependency and interconnectedness, roughly speaking,
samsara is nirvana, indeed! Like a lotus in the muddy water, the Eternal Bliss can be
realized through sufferings.
“Did you find the answer of your koan?” “Why don’t you realize that where you stood
today is the Land of Perfect Bliss [Sukhāvatī]?” “When the moon takes over your
heart, where does the master of my self go?”15
In order to practice out his first koan, “When the moon takes over your heart,
where does the master of my self go?,” Kibong has attempted many harsh ways of
intensive meditation and engaging in the extreme ascetic practices of meditating
with a stone on his head and even forcing his body to remain still upon a rock in
the midst of a raging river. Nonetheless, like the Buddha realized that two
extremes of ascetic practice and yogic practice couldn’t be the ultimate way of
enlightenment, Kibong discovers that such extremes only bring more suffering.
There is almost no way he could get out of attachment to the world even in the
monastery. Thus, the master gave him a final koan, “When I pass away, please
return my body to the source (nature).” Kibong continues to falter in his practicing
until given the final koan this one comes in the form of cremating the master’s
body and scattering its ashes within a day after the master’s passing. By observing
his master’s passing Kibong must learn what his master teaches, “to leave is to
arrive; to arrive is to leave,” as a Korean Buddhist scholar Sharon A. Suh argues
that enlightenment and liberation cannot be attained through escape from worldly
entanglements.17 Accepting the fact that the master has passed away and letting
him go through the difficult task of cremating his body, collecting his bones
through the ashes, grinding his bones, and scattering his bone powder to feed
fishes and birds, to fertilize trees and flowers, to dust out in the air, Kibong finally
realized the fact that “leaving is returning.” Suh is right when she writes, “Death
can sometimes be the most effective dharma teacher. One does not have to learn
how to magically overcome death or transcend this worldly life in order to
experience nirvana.”18 Separation from loved ones at death is such a tough lesson in life
that duhkha is an inevitable condition of life for spiritual growth and discipline,
the very ground of nirvana.
Kibong took a departure from his house to the temple due to the quest for true self.
The question, “Who am I?,” is a most fundamental question for Seon practitioners. The
point of Seon is to realize our true nature, our self-nature. Meditation is a most intimate
way to deal with the question.19 Through practicing out the second koan, Kibong learned
that the self is none other than a participant of the entire world, being one with nature.
The narration of the film when he returned to the temple from the marketplace tells
a truth of the Buddha’s teaching:
I became a hermit to free myself from the dust and the dirt of the world, looking for
perfection. But I realized that it was impossible without loving the garbage and the
dust of the world, even life’s passions. If it’s easy to fight against reality and fate, it is
difficult to love them. What a beautiful world when you know how to love it! The
great departure is, therefore, the great returning.20
When he returned to the temple, the master monk scolded and taught him, “For you,
nirvana and samsara are two different worlds. But the marketplace you stood in sabha
(娑婆, the mundane world) is the actual place of nirvana.” Kibong asked the master, “If
you pass away, whom should I ask questions?” The master told, “To the air, trees,
mountains, and rivers. My flesh and blood will be scattered and reincarnated as the
stars in the sky and dust in the wind.” The Seon master, Hyegok taught Kibong the
truth via his silent death. Silence is a path to attain enlightenment. The most powerful
use of “silence” in this film comes after the cremation ceremony of the master; where
silence is used to create a visceral response. After some initial challenges getting the
pyre to light, Kibong sits in silence as his master is returned to the earth. This part in
the film, the silence gives the audience a view into the spirit of Kibong. What is
normally peaceful and tranquil, the silence seems almost chaotic and deceptive. The
silence becomes uncomfortable. We almost want to hear a scream or a cry. But we never
get that noise. This indicates to us that the silence is emotional in nature. But as silence
is a meditative tool and a relaxing mechanism, we begin to understand its purpose.
As a part of the Buddha’s teachings, silence is one of the most powerful tools in
obtaining clarity and reaching nirvana. As a part of the Four Noble Truths, the fourth
to be specific, the Buddha introduced the world to the Noble Eightfold Path. Within
this Noble Path, we have “Right Speech.” Right Speech means knowing the time and
place for which certain talk is appropriate, implying that sometimes one should
maintain “noble silence.”21 This is based upon a negative golden rule, “If you don’t want to
get hurt, do not hurt others.” Therefore, silence is actually a way of practicing
‘nondoing (無爲, wu-wei).’ As Hyegok taught Kibong, “If you shut your mouth, you can get
the truth of nirvana,” this noble silence is crucial in understanding truth. The Buddha
expresses this in an interaction he once had with a philosopher:
A philosopher once visited the Buddha and asked him: “Without words, without the
wordless, will you tell me the truth?” The Buddha kept silence. After a while the
philosopher rose up gently, made a solemn bow and thanked the Buddha saying:
“With your loving kindness, I have cleared away all my delusions and entered the
true path.” When the philosopher had left, Ananda, a senior disciple of the Buddha,
enquired: “O, Blessed one, what hath this philosopher attained?” The Buddha replied:
“A good horse runs even at the shadow of the whip!”22
Hajin: Brother, Where are you going?
Kibong answers no word but looks at the east side and left.
The baby monk Hajin didn’t cry after his master passed away but silently burned his
master’s belongings as if he copied what his brother did for his master and meditated
in the master’s room. He silently let his brother Kibong go for his second departure to
the East. Kibong’s second departure symbolizes that nirvana is not a permanent event
‘once and for all’ but actually a continual process within samsara in the world sabha.
“Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?” “Well, because enlightenment is indeed a
continual becoming and dynamic self-emptying.” When we realize the fact that the
great departure is indeed the great returning, we can and should live in the world of
samsara but in new and nirvanic ways as the Buddha lived. Koan for Seon practitioners
is given guidance in realizing the Way and embodying wisdom in their own lives.23
When an hwadu 24 is given to a practitioner, one must trust one’s own wisdom and the
Buddha-nature and not look for an answer outside oneself.25 As koan is not to be
discursively answered but to be existentially practiced, nirvana might be nothing other
than an endless practice of enlightening and becoming with a continual rhythm of
emptying and filling. The process of self-realization empties only the moment’s
selfactualization not into nothingness but into one with nature in the world sabha, “the
community of all becoming.”26
Coming, going, seeing hearing: this marvelous thing!
Avoid such useless words!27 (The Poem, This Thing in Women in Korean Zen)
1The Korean Seon Buddhist film, Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? begins
with the well-known koan, “To the disciple who asked about the Truth, without a word
he showed a flower,” in The Flower Sermon. “When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount
Grdhrakuta [Vulture Peak], he held out a flower to his listeners. Everyone was silent.
common in the teachings of Chan Buddhism and Korean Seon. and Rinzai Zen. Hwadu
can be translated as point beyond which speech exhausts itself. Hwadu is the central
point of a koan that is singled out as a topic of meditation. Batchelor, 118.
26Keller, Catherine. “Scoop up the Water and the Moon Is in Your Hands: On
Feminist Theology and Dynamic Self-Emptying,” in The Emptying God: A
BuddhistJewish-Christian Conversation. Edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives. 1990.
New York: Orbis Books. 114.
This paper is an interdisciplinary study of religion and film. Since this paper is a film analysis, it is really helpful to
non-Buddhist readers to learn a crucial Buddhist concept of koan in Zen by following the aesthetic analysis of the
plot of the film which is compared with Buddha's process of enlightenment. Also, the enlightening process is indeed
existential living, therefore, koan is an existential question(s) to be practiced and lived. This paper is not explicitly a
paper of Buddhist studies but interdisciplinary, comparative, philosophical analysis which anyone can enjoy and learn.
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Habito , Rubin L.F. 2013 . Zen and the Spiritual Exercises . New York : Orbis Books.
Koller, John M. 2012 . Asian Philosophies, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson.
Oh , Jea Sophia . “ My Father- Filial Piety (孝, xiao) and a Daughter's Love ,” Jesus, Jazz, Buddhism. May 2011 . http://www. jesusjazzbuddhism. org/my-father-5050048736 .html.
Park, Jin Y. “ Naming the Unnamable ,” Jin Y . Park ed. 2006 . Buddhisms and Deconstructions . Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Reeves , Gene trans. The Lotus Sutra . 2008 . Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Sekida , Katsuki (ed.). 1977 . Two Zen Classics: the Mumonkan & Hekiganroku . New York: Weatherhill.
Suh , Sharon A. 2015 . Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film . London: Bloomsbury.