Won Hyo

Thirteen hundred years ago, in an ancient province of Korea, there was a great Zen Master named Won Hyo. As a young man he fought in a bloody civil war and saw many friends slaughtered and homes destroyed. He was overcome by the emptiness of this life, so he shaved his head and went to the mountains to live the life of a monk.

In the mountains he read many Sutras and kept his precepts well, but still he didn’t understand the true meaning of Buddhism. Finally, since he knew that in China he might find a Zen master who could help him become enlightened, he put on his backpack and headed for the great dry Northern plains.

He went on foot. He would walk all day long and rest at night. One evening, after months of walking, he stopped at a small patch of green, where there were a few trees and some water and went to sleep. Toward midnight he woke up very thirsty. It was pitch dark. He groped along on all fours searching for water. At last his hand touched a cup on the ground. He picked it up and drank. Ah, how delicious! Then he bowed deeply in gratitude to Buddha for the gift of water.

The next morning he woke up and saw beside him what he had taken for a cup. It was a shattered skull, blood-caked and still with shreds of flesh stuck to the cheekbones. Strange insects crawled or floated on the surface of the filthy rain water inside it. Won Hyo looked at the skull and felt a great wave of nausea. He opened his mouth. As soon as the vomit poured out, his mind opened and he understood. Last night, since he hadn’t seen and hadn’t thought, the water was delicious. This morning, seeing and thinking had made him vomit. Ah, he said to himself, thinking makes good and bad, life and death. It creates the whole universe. It is the universal master. And without thinking, there is no universe, no Buddha, no Dharma. All is one, and this one is empty.

There was no need now to find a master. Won Hyo already understood life and death. What more was there to learn? So he turned and started back across the desert to Korea.

Twenty years passed. During this time Won Hyo became the most famous monk in the land. He was the trusted advisor to the great king of Silla and preceptor to the noblest and most powerful families. Whenever he gave a public lecture, the hall was packed. He lived in a beautiful temple, taught the best students, ate the best food, and slept the dreamless sleep of the just.

Now at this time, in Silla, there was a very great Zen master—a little old man, with a wisp of a beard and skin like a crumpled paper bag. Barefoot and in tattered clothes he would walk through the towns ringing his bell. De an, de an, de an, de an, don’t think, de an, like this, de an, rest mind, de an, de an. Won Hyo heard of him and one day hiked to the mountain cave where he lived. From a distance he could hear the sound of extraordinarily lovely chanting echoing through the valleys. But when he arrived at the cave he found the master sitting beside a dead fawn, weeping bitterly. Won Hyo was dumbfounded. How could an enlightened being be either happy or sad, since in the state of nirvana there is nothing to be happy or sad about and no one to be happy or sad? He stood speechless for a while, and then asked the master why he was weeping.

The master explained. He had come upon the fawn after its mother had been killed by hunters. It was very hungry, so he had gone into town and begged for milk. Since he knew that no one would give milk for an animal, he had said it was for his son. “A monk with a son? Dirty old man!” people thought. But some gave him a little milk. He had continued this way for a month, begging enough to keep the animal alive. Then the scandal became too great, and no one would help. He had been wandering for three days now, in search of milk. At last he had found some, but when he had returned to the cave, his fawn was already dead. “You don’t understand,” said the master. “My mind and the fawn’s mind are the same. It was very hungry. I want milk, I want milk. Now it is dead. Its mind is my mind. That’s why I am weeping. I want milk.”

Won Hyo began to understand how great a Bodhisattva the master was. When all creatures were happy, he was happy. When all creatures were sad, he was sad. He said to him, “Please teach me.” The master said, “All right. Come along with me.”

They went to the red-light district of town. The master took Won Hyo’s arm and walked up to the door of a whorehouse. De an, de an, he rang. A beautiful woman opened the door. “Today I’ve brought the great monk Won Hyo to visit you.” “Oh! Won Hyo!” she cried out. Won Hyo blushed. The woman blushed, and her eyes grew large. She led them upstairs to her room, in great happiness, fear, and exhilaration that the famous, handsome monk had come to her. As she prepared meat and wine for her visitors, the master said to Won Hyo, “For twenty years you’ve kept company with kings and princes and monks. It’s not good for a monk to live in heaven all the time. He must also visit hell and save the people there who are wallowing in their desires. Hell too is ‘like this.’ So tonight you will ride this wine straight to hell.” “But I’ve never broken a single Precept before,” Won Hyo said. “Have a good trip,” said the master.

He then turned to the woman and said, “Don’t you know that it’s a sin to give wine to a monk? Aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” “No,” the woman said; “Won Hyo will come and save me.” “A very good answer!” said the master.

So Won Hyo stayed the night, and broke more than one Precept. The next morning he took off his elegant robes and went dancing through the streets, barefoot and in tatters. De-an, de-an, de-an! The whole universe is empty! What are you?!

— From “Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn


6 Responses

  1. Karen! i read this and wondered if it was for me and then went to 100WW and indeed! thank you! i have to go on vacation now, but i will be back in a week, so i have a week to think about what this means for me : )

  2. Cool story, but I think I have to sit on it for a bit and ponder.

  3. 🙂 Zen stories usually last for a long time! I think about this one often — sometimes understanding it a little, sometimes not. What I love about them is that they seem to underline the fact that life is sometimes ambiguous, that you can’t explain everything easily, that there isn’t always a right and a wrong answer.

  4. and that things don’t have to make sense all the time, right? That sometimes everything is just completely senseless and that you don’t need to do anything about that?

  5. I’d love to exchange links for Won Hyo. I’ve posted several times on Won-hyo tul in Taekwondo. It could be a nice extension from your post above. Colin

  6. […] have always loved the story of Won Hyo, at least in part because I can’t quite fathom it. And the part about the fawn (quoted below) […]

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