Bodhidharma – 달마 (5th to 6th Cent.)


An Image of the Bodhidharma from a Temple Wall.

Hello Again Everyone!!

This is the ninth installment about prominent Korean monks. And while the Bodhidharma wasn’t Korean, he had a heavy and wide-sweeping influence on Korean Buddhism, especially Seon Buddhism.

The Bodhidharma, which is shortened to just Dharma in Korea, was the legendary founder of the Seon/Zen/Chan tradition of meditative Buddhism. He first traveled to China, from northern India, in the early 6th century. He came to China to help enlighten people through meditation and through a minimal amount of studying texts.

The Bodhidharma first arrived in China in the capital of the southern kingdom. While there, he had a famous dialogue with the king, King Liang Wudi. During this dialogue, the Bodhidharma told the king that all the king’s donations to temples and monks would gain him nothing. Instead, he had no idea of who he was. Out of frustration, the king sent the Bodhidharma north to a minor temple on the remote Mt. Song-shan.


A Painting of the Bodhidharma from Jogyeam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do.

The Bodhidharma had to cross the great Yangtze River by standing on a reed. After arriving at the temple, the monks simply couldn’t understand what it was that the Bodhidharma was attempting to teach them. From this inability to be understood, the Bodhidharma retreated to an isolated cave high up in the mountains where he continuously meditated for nine years in front of a rock wall.

At the end of the nine years, a military officer by the name of Dazu Huike visited the Bodhidharma because he was curious. Dazu Huike begged the Bodhidharma to allow him to become his student. After being refused, Dazu Huike cut off his left arm with his sword as a sign of his commitment. Finally, the Bodhidharma relented and Huike became his student. After this incident, the Bodhidharma returned to the temple from his cave to teach his new form of Buddhism. This little known temple would become famous as the Shaolin Temple, while the Bodhidharma’s new form of Buddhism would famously become known as Zen Buddhism (or Seon in Korea, or Chan in China).


Dazu Huike and Bodhidharma Mural from Bohyunsa Temple in Goseong, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Dazu Huike would become known as the second patriarch of Chan Buddhism. There would be four more patriarchs that followed culminating in the teachings of Huineng (638-713). Visiting Korean monks that learned under Huineng would transmit his teachings back to the Korean peninsula. This resulted in the Gusan Seonmun (The Korean Seon’s Nine Original Sects). Some of these temples include Silsangsa Temple in Jirisan National Park, Borimsa Temple on Mt. Gajisan, and Taeansa Temple in Jeollanam-do. This form of Buddhism would gain popularity among the lay-people and continue to grow. As a result, the Bodhidharma is regarded as the founder of Seon Buddhism in Korea. He’s even referred to as the Dalma-josa (the founding master Bodhidharma) in Korea.

The Bodhidharma can often be seen depicted in a variety of manners and in a variety of locations. The paintings of the Bodhidharma, for instance, are known as the Dalma-do. The Bodhidharma often sports a heavy beard, a big nose, and he often wears large earrings. He has a knitted brow, suspicious eyes, and he sometimes dons a hood. You can find the image of the Bodhidharma in paintings around temple halls or in a person’s house or even their jewelry. This famous monk knows no bounds and is as popular as ever among the Korean population.

Jinpyo – 진표 (8th Century)


 A Portrait of the monk Jinpyo.

Hello Again Everyone!!

This is the eighth installment about prominent Korean monks. This time, I thought I would talk about the famed monk, Jinpyo. Jinpyo was a consciousness-only doctrinal scholar who lived during the Unified Silla Dynasty (668-935) during the 8th century. And Jinpyo’s name, in English, means “symbol of truth.”

Jinpyo was originally from Wansanju, which is present day Jeonju. He was both a good archer and hunter as a child. According to the Goseung-jeon (“Old Monks’ Tales), and while out hunting one day as a child, he tied a frog’s legs together before heading up into the neighbouring mountains. While hunting, he completely forgot about the frog that he had tied up. A year later, he heard something crying, so he went to see what it was. Amazed, he discovered the exact same frog still tied up. As a result, and at the age of 12, Jinpyo decided to renounce the secular world and become a monk. He became a monk at Mt. Geumgangsan, and he later studied under Masters Shandao and Sengji in Tang China.


Geumsansa Temple

When Jinpyo finally did return to the Korean peninsula, he underwent a strict regimen of Buddhist monastic training. He did this in the form of forgetting the body. And he underwent this form of repentance at the famed Geumsansa Temple at Mt. Moaksan. Through visions of Jijang-bosal (The Bodhisattva of the Afterlife) and Mireuk-bosal (The Future Bodhisattva), he became a devout follower of the two. He is also said to have had an encounter with Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom) in 740 on Mt. Odaesan. This was then followed by an encounter with Mireuk-bul (The Future Buddha) at Yeongsansa Temple after years of meditation.

After this last encounter, Jinpyo was invited to the Silla royal court. While there, he was given money to distribute it among the various Buddhist temples in the kingdom. Specifically, Jinpyo led the Beopsang school of Buddhism that focused on strong devotional practices, as well as belief. In addition, and not so surprisingly, he placed an emphasis on repentance.

Through his influence, as well as his disciples’ actions, his beliefs were passed down to Wang Geon, King Taejo, who was the founder of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). And to the present day, his teachings have had a long lasting effect on Korean Buddhism.


 A Portrait of King Taejo, who Jinpyo helped influence.

Uicheon – 의천 (1055-1101)


The Creator of the Cheontae Order, Uicheon (1055-1101)

Hello Again Everyone!!

This is the seventh installment on prominent Korean monks. This time, I thought I would talk about the royal monk, Uicheon, who helped found the Cheontae Order of Korean Buddhism.

Uicheon was born the fourth son of King Munjong (r. 1046-1083), which was during the early part of the Goryeo Dynasty. And while Uicheon was a royal prince, he devoted himself to Buddhism and Buddhist scholarship. He did this by collecting various scriptures. Amazingly, Uicheon became the head of the Buddhist seungga (community) at the very early age of 13.

In 1085, at the age of 30, Uicheon boarded a boat bound for China. And while he was well versed in Buddhist doctrine, he believed that he could still advance his studies by traveling to China. In total, he stayed for 14 months. While there, he met and consulted with some fifty leading masters of Buddhism from varying sects. While in China, he studied at Hiuyan Temple in the city of Hangzhou with the monk Jingyuan (1011-1088).

When Uicheon returned to Korea, he became the spiritual master of Heunggwangsa Temple. During his time at this temple, he successfully brought both Gyo (doctrinal Buddhism) and Seon (meditative Buddhism) together under the inclusive Cheontae-jong (“Heavenly Platform Buddhism,” in English) Order of Korean Buddhism. With royal financing, as well as influence, Uicheon collected various Buddhist scriptures and organized them in a palace library in the city of Gaeseong.

Sadly, Uicheon passed away in 1101. Upon his death, he was given the honourific name of Daegak-guksa: Daegak meaning “Grand Enlightenment,” while guksa means “national preceptor.”


The Cheontae Buddhist Order sign.

Samyeong-daesa – 사명 대사 (1544-1610)


A picture of Samyeong-daesa from Jikjisa Temple

Hello Again Everyone!!

This is the fifth installment on prominent Buddhist monks in Korean history. And this time, I thought I would talk about Master Samyeong-daesa, who I have long found very interesting for a number of reasons. So keep reading and find out why, as you learn a bit more about the Joseon Dynasty monk, Samyeong-daesa.

Samyeong was a Seon master with the Buddhist name, at least during his lifetime, of Yujeong; however, he became posthumously known as Samyeong-daesa. Samyeong-daesa was born at a time in the mid-Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) where there was a lot of upheaval. It was a period that included the Imjin War from 1592 to 1598. Samyeong-daesa would become one of the leading warrior monks during this hellish period in Korean history.

Samyeong-daesa was born in the city of Miryang in Gyeongsangnam-do Province. Tragically, his mom would die in 1558, which was followed by the death of his father in 1559. Shortly after their deaths, Samyeong became a monk at the famed Jikjisa Temple in Gimcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do. During his studies, he studied both Buddhist and Confucian texts. Later, in 1575, Samyeong was nominated to become the head of the Seon Order; however, he refused. Instead, he chose to travel to Mt. Myohyangsan instead. It was here that he became the disciple of Master Seosan.

Samyeong-daesa was one of the leading disciples of Master Seosan. And it was through Seosan’s influence and instruction that Samyeong-daesa took up arms against the invading Japanese during the Imjin War. In fact, and after joining forces with Seosan, Samyeong helped defend Haeinsa Temple, Gounsa Temple, and the Haenam region of Jeollanam-do from the Japanese.

After the war, Samyeong was appointed as the royal envoy. During his negotiation with the Japanese, to which he traveled to Japan, Samyeong successfully negotiated a peace agreement. After the war, Samyeong returned to Korea with Korean prisoners of war, as well as priceless religious artifacts.

Not long after the Imjin War, Samyeong retired. As a sign of appreciation, the king built Hongjeam Hermitage near Haeinsa Temple. With failing health, Samyeong-daesa passed away in 1610. His stupa and stele remain at this hermitage to this very day. After his death, special shrines were built at Pyochungsa Temple, Jikjisa Temple, and Daeheungsa Temple. To this very day, Samyeong-daesa continues to be remembered as one of Korea’s greatest heroes, and his writings are preserved in the Samyeong-daesa-jip.


 Samyeong-daesa: The warrior monk

Naong Hyegeun – 나옹 혜근 (1320-1376)


Meditation Master, master Naong Hyegeun (1320-1376)

Hello Again Everyone!!

In the fourth installment of leading luminaries in Korean Buddhism, I thought I would talk about the meditation master, Master Naong Hyegeun. He was a master of the Imje Seon lineage, and he taught and lived during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). It was a period of increasing negativity towards Buddhism due to the corruption that was rampant in the religion at that time. He is best known for laying the foundation for Buddhism in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

Naong was believed to have been born as Gang Wolheon in the city of Yeonghae. At the age of 20, he became an ordained monk, which happened after the death of a close friend. At the age of 27, Naong traveled to Tang China to further his Buddhist education. Uniquely, he was the student of the Indian master, Jigong. He was later to further his studies when he traveled to China and studied under various masters while in the southern part of China. While there, he learned under the most prominent monk teaching in China at that time, Master Dhyanabhadra at Wutai-shan.


The Gwaneeum-jeon Hall at Songgwangsa Temple.

Upon his return to the Korean peninsula, he became the abbot (juji) of the famed Woljeongsa Temple in 1360. It was during this time that he had a mystical experience with Munsu-bosal (The Bodhisattva of Wisdom). He also became the primary teacher of Muhak, who he had met in China, and would go on to become prominent in his own right within Korean Buddhism. And then, in 1371, not only did he become the abbot at Suseonsa Temple (now the famed Songgwangsa Temple), but he also became the Royal Preceptor. Eventually, he became the abbot of Hoeamsa Temple.

In 1376, Naong Hyegeun passed away while in the process of moving to Yeongwosa Temple in present day Miryang. He died at Silleuksa Temple in Yeoju on May 15th. In total, he had over 2,000 disciples, the most famous being Muhak Jacho (1327-1425), who helped contribute to the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty.

Picture-066Haedong Yonggungsa Temple in Busan, which Naong Hyegeun founded.

Doui-guksa – 도의 국사 (? – 825)

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A picture of Master Doui-guksa, who was the first monk to transmit Seon Buddhism throughout Korea.

Hello Again Everyone!!

In this third article, I thought I would talk about Doui-guksa, who was the first Korean monk to transmit patriarchal Seon Buddhism, which became an integral part of Buddhism throughout the Korean peninsula.

Doui was born in Bukhan-gu, which is present day Seoul. His surname was Wang. Before Doui was born, and according to the “Doui Jeon” (Biography of Doui), in the 17th Volume of the Jodangjip (Records of the Ancestral Hall), Doui’s father and mother had a dream of his impending birth. While Doui’s father dreamt of a white rainbow across the sky which entered their room, his mother had a dream that she had slept with a monk. About a month and a half after this dream, Doui’s mom started showing signs that she was pregnant. Strangely, she didn’t give birth for another 39 months. Talk about a long pregnancy!

In 784, Doui made his way to Tang China by ship, which was pretty standard for Korean monks at that time. When he first arrived, he visited Mt. Wutai-shan. While there, he was ordained a monk at Baotan-si Temple in Guangfu. After becoming ordained, Doui headed south for Mt. Caoxi-shan (or Mt. Jogye in Korean). There, he paid his respects to the sixth patriarch of Seon Buddhism, Huineng, who is still enshrined there to the present day. According to legend, when he arrived at this temple, the temple doors mysteriously opened for him on their own accord. After his visit to Mt. Caoxi-shan, he traveled to Kaiyuan-si Temple next to help further his studies under Master Zhizang, who was a fourth generation disciple of Huineng. Doui attained enlightenment under Master Zhizang’s guidance.


Borimsa Temple in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do.

Eventually, Master Doui returned to the Korean peninsula in 821, where he established a small temple to teach. This temple was located in Jangheung, Jeollanam-do; and while there, he started to transmit the little known Seon doctrine of meditative Buddhism. Doui was also known as a strong critic of scholastic-driven Buddhist practices, which were prevalent during his lifetime.

Doui’s main disciple was Yeomgeo, whose main disciple was Chejing (804-880). Master Chejing was to later expand the little known temple that Doui had founded. This temple is still around today, and it’s known as Borimsa Temple. In doing this, Chejing founded the Gaji-sanmun (Buddhist Wisdom Sect), as the first of the nine Gusan-seonmun (Korean Seon’s Nine Original Sects). As a result of this lineage and his efforts, Master Doui is held in high regard as one of the key founders of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, which is the largest sect of Buddhism throughout South Korea.

In 825, after retiring to Jinjeonsa Temple in Mt. Seoraksan, Doui-guksa passed away. Master Chejing put it best when he wrote about Doui’s brand of Buddhism that it was “the tenant of unconditioned spontaneity,” which sums up the new brand of Seon Buddhism that he brought to the Korean peninsula. Doui-guksa’s budo, which houses his earthly remains, can be found at Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do.


Doui-guksa’s budo from Seoknamsa Temple in Eonyang, Gyeongsangnam-do.

Wonhyo and Uisang Temple Paintings

WonhyoamThe famous pair of monks from Wonhyoam Hermitage in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Uisang-daesa is on the left and his close friend Wonhyo-daesa to the right.

Hello Again Everyone!!

At the occasional temple, you’ll see a unique painting of two monks. In this unique painting one monk is holding a human skull as he dances, while the other waves good-bye. So who are these two monks? What does the painting look like exactly? And what does it all mean?


The famous painting of Wonhyo-daesa on the left with his friend Uisang-daesa to the right from the Jogyeam Hermitage.

In this painting, which usually adorns the main hall of a temple or hermitage, are two monks realistically rendered on a beautiful landscape painting. The monk on the left is holding a human skull as he smiles, while he’s dancing away from his fellow monk. The second monk to the right is waving good-bye with a bag on his back. He is apparently continuing on some sort of journey. To the uninitiated eye this may look like nothing more than any number of murals that adorn the exterior of a Korean temple or hermitage hall; however, this painting, and these two monks in particular, have a lot of loaded meaning to Korean Buddhism.

So who exactly are these two monks? And what exactly is the meaning of this mural? The easier answer to these two questions is that the monk on the left in the mural is Wonhyo-daesa, and the monk on the right is his friend, and fellow monk, Uisang.


A better look at Wonhyo-daesa (617-686 A.D.)

Wonhyo (617-686 A.D.) was born in Apnyang, Gyeongsan-gun, in Gyeongsangbuk-do province. His secular name was Seol, and he originally came from a middle-class background (Head-rank six: Yukdupum, in Korean).


And a better look at Uisang-daesa (625-702 A.D.)

Uisang (625-702 A.D.), on the other hand, couldn’t have been more different than his friend. Very little is known about Uisang’s early life other than a few basic facts. First, he came from Gyeongju from a noble royal family. Second, his secular family name was Kim, and his father’s name was Han-sin. At the age of nineteen Uisang became a monk at Hwangboksa Temple.

Initially, Wonhyo and Uisang attempted to travel to China to further their Buddhist education in 650 A.D., when Wonhyo was 34 and Uisang was 26. Unfortunately, they were captured by Goguryeo guards as they attempted to travel to China by land. They were treated as spies and for several weeks they were in jail. And even though they wouldn’t make it to China on their first attempt, because of the heightened tension between Tang China and Korea as a result of the recent invasion of the Tang army into Korea, this would not quell the desire to visit Tang China to further their education of Buddhism. However, this helps to partially explain the mural that is now painted on some Korean temple and hermitage halls.

In 661 A.D., Wonhyo and Uisang would attempt to visit Tang China one more time. This time, however, they would attempt to arrive in China by sea. Again, they were attempting to visit Tang China to help further their education and understanding of Buddhism. As they travelled towards China, they stayed in Liaodong, Goguryeo (modern day Incheon). This was to be their point of departure to sail towards Tang China; however, their ship was delayed due to stormy winds and torrential rain. Caught in the storm without a place to stay, both Wonhyo and Uisang took shelter for the night in a nearby cave. As they were resting, they became thirsty, so they found gourds of water inside the cave to drink from. After drinking from the gourds, they both had a good night’s sleep.

HaegwangsaThe two friends finding a source of water to drink from late at night. This painting is from Haegwangsa Temple.


And the two friends quenching their thirst from “gourds.” This painting is from Baekryeongjeongsa Temple near Tongdosa Temple.

 It wasn’t until the next morning, at first light, that they realized that they hadn’t stayed in any ordinary cave; instead, the cave that they had stayed in was in fact a grave. And the gourds that they thought they had drunk from were in fact maggoty and putridly decaying human skulls. This realization is beautifully painted along the main hall at Songgwangsa Temple and Unmunsa Temple. And with this realization, they couldn’t stop vomiting.


The moment of realization by Wonhyo-daesa from Songgwangsa Temple.

For a second day and night, stormy weather was all about Liaodong, Goguryeo (modern day Incheon), so they were forced once more to spend another night in the same cave. During their second night, both Wonhyo and Uisang were unable to sleep because they were haunted by the nightmares and imagined ghosts from that morning’s realization. It was at this point that Wonhyo had his revelation known as “conscious-only enlightenment.” What Wonhyo realized was that the water he drank was the same water, but that his mind had changed towards what he had drank. It is in this revelation that he realized that a subjective mind can change an objective object. He would famously write that “there is nothing clean and nothing dirty; all things are made by the mind.”


The famous painting of Wonhyo and Uisang, with Wonhyo to the right dancing with a skull and Uisang to the left waving good-bye and determined to complete his travels to Tang China.

With this knowledge, Wonhyo decided to return to his home. He believed it would be more fruitful to learn practical wisdom than to achieve ideal knowledge. So while Wonhyo returned home after his revelation, Uisang would continue on towards China. And it is from this departure that the two are idealized in the present paintings that adorn temple and hermitage halls of these two famous Korean monks and their famous legend.

After their leave from one another, both Wonhyo and Uisang would go on to become two of  Korea’s most popular and famous monks.


Another artisitic interpretation of Wonhyo’s revelation from Unmunsa Temple.

Wonhyo would return to Korea and leave the Buddhist clergy and become a common practitioner of Buddhism. Of his revelatory experience, Wonhyo would later write:

When a thought arises, all dharma (phenomena) arises and when a thought disappears the shelter and the tomb are as one. The Three Worlds are simply the mind,

All phenomena are mere perception.

There being no Dharma outside the mind.

What else is there to seek? I shall not go to Tang.


The shrine hall, Bogwang-jeon, at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju, which is dedicated to Wonhyo-daesa.

Wonhyo would go on to author 240 volumes of work which cover all aspects of Buddhism including Mahayana, Hinayana, and the Tripitaka sutras. A large number of these texts were written at Bunhwangsa Temple in Gyeongju. To have written so many volumes in one lifetime is nearly superhuman. Wonhyo is recognized for his depth of perception and clarity of thought on Buddhist Truths. And all of this was made possible by the one event that took place in Liaodong, Goguryeo, when Wonhyo drank from a perceived gourd. At his death, Wonhyo’s son, Seol Chong, would be at his side. Also at his side would be his lifelong friend, Uisang. Wonhyo died suddenly at a temple near Hyol in Gyeongju in 686.

Uisang, on the other hand, would go on to visit China. He would go to Zhixiangsi Temple at Mt. Zhongnan, where he met the great master, Zhiyam. Uisang would study under Zhiyam for the next ten years, where he learned about the “Flower Ornament Sutra.” Uisang eventually returned to Korea, where he became the founder of the Korean Hwaeom school of Buddhism. Uisang would also go on to be known as the “ Temple Builder” for the number of temples and hermitages he either established or extended during his lifetime like Buseoksa Temple and Beomeosa Temple. Finally, and on a more personal level, Uisang stressed the equality of all individuals, which was unique at that time in Korean society, when there was a rigid caste system in place. He also attempted to lessen the suffering of all individuals in their daily lives. Eventually, and sadly, Uisang would pass away in 702, a full sixteen years after his friend, Wonhyo, died.

These murals of a dancing Wonhyo holding a human skull, and a determined Uisang waving good-bye to his friend as he continues on his journey towards Tang China aren’t at a lot of temples or hermitages. However, when you do spot one in the future, you’ll have a better idea of the story the mural is trying to convey about these two seminal figures in Korean Buddhism.

An American Buddhist Monk in Korea

Picture 441

Hello Again Everyone,

When people think of a foreigner in Korea they usually think of an English language teacher, a soldier, or a professor.  However, there are several people out there in the foreign community in Korea that contribute a lot more to Korean society than what you might imagine.

I’ve been very lucky that in my time in Korea I’ve met a lot of interesting and inspiring people, but none more so than the Buddhist monk Chong Go Sunim. By chance, he discovered my blog, and ever since then we have been emailing each other back and forth.

To let you know a bit more about Chong Go Sunim, he’s a Buddhist American monk that has been living in Korea for the past 17 years. He had been practicing Buddhism in the U.S.A. for many years on his own; but according to him, he wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, he met and listened to the Korean monk Daehaeng Kun Sunim. And as he describes it, “It was as if I’d been looking at a dirty painting, with only a small clean spot in the middle. When I began listening to Daehaeng Kun Sunim, it was as if the clean spot had suddenly become much larger and I could see what had been hidden. What she showed me seemed exactly what should be there, but had been unable to see for myself.”

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to ask him a couple questions about what it’s like being an American living in Korea as a Buddhist monk.  Here are the questions I asked him and their corresponding answers:

Q: 1. Tell me a little about yourself (i.e., where you’re originally from, etc.)

A: I’m originally from eastern Oregon and Washington. I lived and went to school there, until I came to Korea when I was 25.

Q: 2. When and why did you first become interested in Buddhism?

A:  I was probably about 12 when I first became interested in Buddhism, and one of the things that impressed me were the rock edicts of the Indian king, Ashoka. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was encouraging people to treat each other well, and said that he who slanders another’s religion slanders his own. There was a sense of inclusiveness that really impressed me.

Q: 3. What idea/teaching of Buddhism would you say is the most important part?

A: Letting go of “me” and “mine,” remembering that we’re not the ones doing things and instead relying upon our inherent Buddha-nature, and not giving into the desire to blame or criticize others.

The question is a bit like saying “Which finger could you do without?” “Umm, they’re all kind of useful, actually.” But these are three really huge, if someone diligently tries to apply these; they’ll definitely see good results.

Q: 4. Why did you want to become a monk?

A: Basically, I wanted to do this spiritual practice more than anything else.

Q: 5. Why did you decide to move to Korea?

A: I was very impressed with the quality of monks and nuns from Korea, and the teacher I felt the most connection with also came from Korea.

Q: 6. Presently, what are you working on in Korea?

A: As a part of my practice, I’m working with the Hanmaum International Culture Institute on translating the works of Seon Master Daehaeng.

Q: 7. What are your future plans?

A: I’ll probably get a cup of coffee, and then go have some dinner.

So the next time you too narrowly or stereotypically think of what foreigners are doing in Korea, and how they contribute different things to Korean society, think of Chong Go Sunim.

For more information on Chong Go Sunim, you can check out his blog  Wake Up and Laugh.