Native tradition in Korean Zen

By Mu Soeng

 

One time someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn about the importance of the history of Zen, and he said, "Knowing the history of your tradition is like coming face to face with your ancestors. These ancestors are your roots; when you know these roots, you also know something about yourself." So when one studies within a certain tradition, it is a natural curiosity to want to know about the roots of that tradition, where the tradition has come from, and what are the sources of inspiration within that tradition.

This talk is primarily about the thirteenth-century monk Chinul, who is the founder of the native tradition of Zen in Korea. But it is also, by necessity, a talk about the larger spectrum of Chinese and Korean Zen traditions. One cannot really understand Chinul's impact on Korean Zen without knowing what went on in Korean Zen before him, and that cannot be understood without some understanding of Zen in China.

Chinul is to Korean Zen what Hui-neng is to Chinese Zen. Hui-neng was not only the sixth patriarch in the line of succession from Bodhidharma, but actually he was the real founder of Zen in China. There are four stages of development of the Zen tradition in China. Each of these stages is associated with a historical incident and points to a key ingredient of Zen practice.

The first was the arrival of Bodhidharma in China. He arrived at the court of Emperor Wu and had an interview with him in which the Emperor enumerated the temples he had built, all the charities and the good works he had done. He then asked Bodhidharma, "What do you think? What is the merit of all this?" Bodhidharma, very coolly, said, "None whatsoever." This must have shocked the Emperor because the answer was so contrary to everything he believed. He then asked Bodhidharma several more questions, to which Bodhidharma gave equally unsatisfactory (to the Emperor) answers. Finally, in frustration, the Emperor asked him, "Who are you?" (meaning, "Who are you to be giving me all these crazy answers?"). And Bodhidharma said, "I don't know," (or, "I have no idea.") Obviously, after this exchange Bodhidharma was not very welcome at the Emperor's court, and he went off and sat in a cave at Shaolin Temple for nine years. So, that is the first step in the tradition of Zen in China - the example of Bodhidharma sitting motionless and facing a blank wall. This is the way we sit even today in our dharma halls.

The second step relates to Hui-neng. Hui-neng was a poor, fatherless boy who used to sell firewood in the marketplace so he could support himself and his mother. One day he heard a monk reciting a line from the Diamond Sutra; he was maybe thirteen years old at the time and when he heard the verse from the Diamond Sutra, he got enlightened on the spot. This is the second step, the tradition of sudden enlightenment. I will not get technical about sudden or gradual enlightenment, but only know that, according to tradition, if one's practice is mature enough and solid enough, enlightenment will happen all of a sudden. You never know the time or the place where it's going to happen or how long it will take to reach this state. Students of Zen practice in the hope that this event will happen in their life. This is the inspiration from Hui-neng's life.

Up until the time of Hui-neng, all the monks were reading the sutras and building temples, hoping that all these good deeds would bring them merit in the next life. Hui-neng said that none of this was necessary to get enlightenment. He went even one more step and said that even meditation wasn't necessary. That was a very radical step in Chinese Zen. Hui-neng never explained how to get to this state of enlightenment but our own teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, goes all over the world and talks only about this "don't know" mind. He keeps saying over and over again that if you keep this don't know mind one hundred percent at all times, then you are already enlightened. So, if you keep a don't know mind at all times and all places, then sitting meditation is not necessary. This is a direct connection between Zen Master Seung Sahn's teaching and Hui-neng's teaching. Later in this article when Chinul and Korean Zen are discussed, it will be seen that Chinul is also talking about one moment of effort - this moment of effort - and that's all it takes.

The third step that took place in the history of Chinese Zen is associated with the patriarch Ma-tsu, who was the second generation successor of Hui-neng. Ma-tsu invented the shock tactics of suddenly shouting at a questioner, hitting the questioner, or suddenly calling out the questioner's name as he was about to leave the room. Ma-tsu was a true innovator in this regard; he wanted to break through all the conceptual thinking we have. Hui-neng talked about arriving at this point but he never talked about how you arrive there. It was left to Ma-tsu to invent all those tactics of sudden shock which jar your consciousness and make a breakthrough.

The fourth step was the compete systematization of the kong-an system. Ma-tsu and his successors were very gifted teachers. Some of his successors also had relatively few students, so they could have personal encounters with their students and be creative enough and skillful enough to bring the student to enlightenment through a shock tactic. This was the Golden Age of Zen, approximately from 700-900 A.D. However, as the number of students grew, personal instruction became very difficult. So, the Zen master used the stories of the old Zen masters to teach their own students. In Sung China (tenth century A.D.), this system was perfected and most effectively used by Zen master Ta-hui.

Before Hui-neng, Zen (or Ch'an) had flourished in northern China. Bodhidharma had stayed at Shaolin temple and his successors were monks from the northern part of the country. That's where they had their temples and some patronage from the royal court. In fact, until Hui-neng, Ch'an was just one of the many competing Buddhist sects in northern China. The story of Hui-neng's transmission is quite well-known so it need not be repeated here, but when Hui-neng had to flee his teacher's temple after receiving the secret transmission, he crossed the Yangtze River and traveled as far south as the present-day Canton. When he finally established his temple in this extreme southern part of China, a new kind of Zen appeared: it was rural and centered around a community of farming monks. Northern Ch'an had relied on the sutras, on building temples, and patronage of the royal court, but Southern Ch'an was economically self-reliant and revolved around the work ethic. The monks farmed the monastery land during daytime, didn't read any sutras, didn't even have a meditation hall or practice any formal meditation. They kept their practice alive in the midst of doing physical labor throughout the day.

When Zen appeared in Korea, it was a direct successor of southern Ch'an. During the period from 828 to 935, there appeared the so-called Nine Mountain Schools of Zen. These temples and their ethos were a mirror-reflection of what was happening in Chinese Zen at the same time. The marvelous thing about these nine schools is that seven of these schools were started by Korean monks who were students of Ma-tsu's successors.

Ma-tsu is a very interesting figure in the history of Zen. In a comparison to American history, it would seem that Bodhidharma is like George Washington, and Hui-neng is Zen's Thomas Jefferson. Ma-tsu is more like Theodore Roosevelt, the rider on horseback. He was the greatest Zen teacher of his time and it is said that there were, at times, as many as eight hundred monks in his monastery. He gave transmission to one hundred and thirty-nine dharma successors, and is known to history as the Great Patriarch.

Among these one hundred and thirty-nine successors were some of the most influential teachers in Zen history. One was Pai-chang, who formed the monastic rules that we follow even today, and whose successor, Huang-po, was the teacher of the famous Lin-chi. The second was Nan-chuan (Korean: Nam Cheon), perhaps the most brilliant of Ma-tsu's students, and the teacher of Chao-chou (Korean: Joju). The third of these teachers is not quite so well-remembered in history; his name was Shi-tang Chi-tsang. Three of the founders of the Nine Mountain Schools in Korea were students of Shi-tang Chi-tsang, one was a student of Nam Cheon and three were students of Ma-tsu's immediate successors.

Thus our lineage is from Ma-tsu and from Hui-neng, and this is the tradition of Korean Zen. Korean Zen is also called Chogye Zen, after the name of the temple of Hui-neng in south China. Zen Master Seung Sahn is the seventy-eighth patriarch in his particular line of succession that starts with the Buddha and continues through Hui-neng and Ma-tsu.

When the Nine Mountain Schools of Zen appeared in Korea in the ninth century, they modeled themselves along the same lines as the temples of Ma-tsu's successors, that is temples in the mountains with the monks working the farm land around the monastery and being economically self-reliant. However, the development of Zen in Korea differed in one significant aspect from Zen in China or Japan. In China and Japan, Zen always had a special place of its own; it was autonomous and quite independent of Buddhism. But that never happened in Korea for a number of reasons: Korea is and was a very small country; it had a period of civil war that lasted for about a hundred years in the fifth and sixth centuries; and Buddhism played a very large part in the formation of the United Silla Kingdom in 668 A.D.

Buddhism played the role of a state religion, and was protected and patronized by the rulers. So, when the new branch of Buddhism called Zen appeared in the ninth century, instead of having time to develop its own system and institutions, it was immediately absorbed into mainstream Buddhism and received the same patronage from the royal court as other schools. Thus within a hundred years of the founding of Nine Mountain Schools of Zen, we find that Zen in Korea cannot be distinguished from the other schools - Zen monks wore the same fancy robes, lived in fancy temples, enjoyed all the riches of food, and had access to the power centered at the royal court. The royal court instituted a system of exams for Zen monks corresponding to similar exams for other Buddhist monks. This was one way for the state to have control over the shape and development of Zen. Traditionally, Zen monks were always found sitting in meditation in mountain temples, but now, here were many monks living in the city temples and spending three years memorizing the sutras and other texts. Thus, within a short time, Zen lost all its vitality and drive.

In the tenth and eleventh centuries Korea suffered a series of attacks from the north by Mongolian tribes, most especially the Khitans. There was never any peace in Korea during this time, and as a result of these conditions, both the affairs of state and religion fell into disorder. This was the situation of Buddhism in Korea in the latter half of the twelfth century, when Zen Master Chinul appeared on the scene.

Chinul was born in 1158 A.D. This was a very interesting time for Buddhism in East Asia. Zen Master Ta-hui, who was mentioned before and who perfected the system of kong-an practice in China, was only one generation removed from Chinul. As a matter of fact, Ta-hui died in 1163, five years after Chinul was born. Also, at a time when Chinul was trying to sow the seeds of a native tradition in Korea, Zen was brought from China to Japan, where Zen Master Dogen became one of its great exponents. By the year 1200, Zen had largely disappeared in China but there was a new flowering in Korea and Japan.

But, why did Zen die out in China? First of all, there was a severe repression of Buddhism in China in 845. Buddhism had originally appeared in China in the first century A.D. and it supplanted Taoism and Confucianism as the state religion for China's dynasties over many centuries. Buddhism gained a lot of economic and political power at the expense of Taoists and Confucianists, so, all this time, they were conspiring against Buddhism, trying to find ways to bring it down. In 845, Emperor Wu came to power and he called himself a Taoist. For two years from 845 to 847 there was extremely severe persecution of Buddhists. The statistics of this repression are quite remarkable: two hundred and sixty thousand monks and nuns were forced to give up their robes; forty-eight hundred major monasteries and temples were destroyed.

This was a staggering blow to Buddhism in China, one from which it has never quite recovered. One of the ironic effects of this persecution was that while Buddhism was wiped out in northern China, Zen in south China was relatively unaffected. Southern Ch'an was not a player in the power games at the royal court, and they didn't have temples with large statues of the Buddha with gold and precious stones. In northern China, when the temples were destroyed, the statues made out of bronze and copper were melted down and used for making coins. The monks of southern Ch'an didn't even read sutras and lived the simple life of a farming community, so they didn't have any possessions that could be taken away. They didn't have a high profile and so they didn't have much to lose in the persecution.

When the Sung dynasty came to power in 960 in northern China, the only form of Buddhism that was left in the country was the southern Ch'an. The Sung emperors made it their house religion, and as a result, it too became corrupt and lost its vitality. Zen Master Ta-hui was the last major figure to infuse any vitality into the system; once he was gone, there was no teacher of his stature to sustain it.

Returning to Chinul, one finds that he was a sickly child. His parents prayed to the Buddha and vowed that if he recovered they would allow him to become a monk. He did recover, and had his head shaved at the age of six or seven. This is a very graphic example of how Buddhism benefited as a state religion in East Asia - Buddhism was an all-permeating religion with strange beliefs and superstitions far removed from the teachings of the historical Buddha. This happened to many children and Chinul was by no means unique in this respect.

At the age of fifteen, Chinul went to live in a temple and took the formal precepts of a novice monk. One interesting fact about Chinul's life is that he never had a formal teacher, one who may have guided his intellectual or spiritual development. He had a preceptor, like any other Buddhist monk, but he always studied on his own. His self-study program was quite remarkable and innovative for a monk of his time, for he combined his study of sutras with Zen practice.

Ever since the arrival of Zen in Korea with the establishment of the Nine Mountain Schools, there was a fierce rivalry between Zen and the sutra schools and neither wanted to have anything to do with the other. The sutra schools insisted on studying the sutras for twenty or thirty years, and gradually becoming a Buddha. The Zen schools started with the premise that you are already a Buddha and all you have to do is to rediscover that through personal meditation. Thus studying the sutras is quite irrelevant. Chinul became the first thinker in Korean Buddhist history to effectively resolve this conflict between the two approaches, and it was resolved in his own experience.

Chinul had three major awakenings or enlightenment experiences in his life. The first one was when he read the Platform Sutra of the sixth patriarch (Hui-neng). The second awakening was when he read the Avatamsaka Sutra and the third was when he read the Records of Zen Master Ta-hui. Two of these documents, the Platform Sutra and the Record of Ta-hui, are classic statements of Zen tradition, whereas the Avatamsaka Sutra is the basic document of the Jua-yen (Korean: Hwa-om) School, which was the most influential sutra school in Korea. Thus, throughout his life, Chinul emphasized simultaneous cultivation of both doctrinal understanding and personal practice.

At the age of twenty-two, Chinul came to the capital city to take his monk's exams, but was dismayed to see all his fellow monks struggling for fame and power. They all wanted to pass the exam and get a position at the royal court with prestige and influence. As a reaction to this jockeying for power, he wrote a manifesto urging his fellow monks to leave this worldly struggle and retreat into the mountains to form a practicing community. He was able to have ten other monks sign this manifesto and they decided to meet together at some time in the future and start the community with they proposed to call Jung Hae Sa or "Samadhi and Prajna Community." Samadhi means meditation practice and prajna means wisdom or intuitive understanding.

It is a tribute to Chinul's influence that today there are at least fifteen temples in Korea that call themselves Jung Hae Sa. Our own lineage comes from Su Dok Sa temple on Duk Sung mountain, where one of the major temples is Jung Hae Sa. This temple was established by Zen Master Man Gong in the early 1930's for the training of his senior students. Zen Master Seung Sahn calls this Jung Hae Sa the primary point of our lineage; so, Jung Hae Sa of our school and the Jung Hae Sa community that Chinul founded have the same focus.

At this point, it is useful to note some remarkable parallels between the lives of Dogen and Chinul. They were near-contemporaries, Chinul being older. They were both dismayed by the struggle for fame and power at the royal court and went into the mountains to establish their communities of monks. They both dedicated their lives to intensive practice and lived very pure and simple lives. There is nothing dramatic in the lives of either Dogen or Chinul. They both had a very strong direction in their life and dedicated their entire energy to following that direction. It is not an accident that Dogen is considered the most original thinker in Japanese religious history and Chinul occupies the same lofty position within the Korean religious tradition. It is interesting to note that Thomas Aquinas appeared in Europe at approximately the same time, roughly after Dogen, and became the fountainhead of all subsequent Christian theological thinking. Thus, within a period of fifty years, these three original religious thinkers appeared in different parts of the world, and shaped their traditions in such a way that their influence is felt even today.

When Chinul did not hear from his fellow monks who had signed the Jung Hae Sa manifesto within the agreed time, he went traveling and lived in a temple in the southwest corner of Korea. There is speculation that he chose to live in this part of the country because this was the only area of Korea to have any maritime contacts with China. As a result of Khitan invasions in the north, Korea did not enjoy any diplomatic or overland trade relations with China. The port towns along the western coasts of Korea were the only places where merchants could carry on any kind of trade with China. It is possible that Chinul may have hoped to get hold of some news of Buddhist activities in China through these merchants. However, he never went to China.

It is also interesting to note that two of the greatest thinkers in Korean Buddhist history, Won Hyo and Chinul, never went to China, although it was quite common, even obligatory for Korean monks to go to China, study under a great teacher, and come back to establish their own temple. Won Hyo and Chinul never made it. But Chinul did come into possession of Ta-hui's writings during his stay in the southwest and these writings were a lifelong influence on his thinking.

Zen Master Chinul became the first Zen teacher in Korea to systematically use hwa-tou (kong-an) practice in the training of monks in his community. This was also an interesting transitional time in Korean Zen. The founders of the Nine Mountain Schools had trained in Ma-tsu's method of shock tactics, but even in China itself, the use of kong-ans as a teaching tool was not adopted until the third generation after Zen Master Lin-chi in the mid-tenth century.

By that time, it had become very difficult for Korean monks to travel to China; also, Korean Zen itself had lost its original vigor and was entering a period of decline. For these reasons, it fell to Chinul to introduce this new teaching tool in Korean Zen. His own knowledge of it came through the writings of Zen Master Tai-hui (1089-1163).

Before we go into Chinul's method of investigating the hwa-tou, I want to emphasize Chinul's insistence again and again on "one mind." This is the core of Chinul's teaching: that both the deluded mind and the enlightened mind are part of the same landscape, the one mind. The deluded mind is not separate from the enlightened one and the enlightened mind is not separate from the deluded mind, and they are both within us. Most of us have the idea that there is something outside of us that we must look for. Chinul firmly demolishes this notion again and again in his writings and talks. For a record of Chinul's writings, we have a translation of Chinul's works by Robert Buswell (The Korean Approach to Zen, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu), a premier work of Buddhist scholarship in America.

In Buswell's translation, Chinul's writing is very clear; part of the reason is the writings are answers to questions put to him in open assemblies. Thus his words become live and have a sense of immediacy about them.

At an assembly, someone asked Chinul, "How is it that saints and ordinary people are not the same?" We all have this idea that we are very ordinary and are not saints, that we are inferior, that we don't have the qualities of saints. The questioner is asking Chinul why, if both the ordinary person and the saint have the same one mind, they are not the same? Chinul responded to this question, "The true mind is originally the same in the saint and the ordinary man, but because the ordinary man endorses the reality of material things with the false mind, he loses his pure nature and becomes estranged from it, therefore the true mind cannot appear. It is like the tree's shadow in the darkness, or a spring flowing underground. It exists."

Chinul was asked, "When the true mind is beset by delusion, it becomes an ordinary mind. How then can we escape from delusion and achieve sanctity?" He replied, "When there is no place for the deluded mind, that is bodhi. Samsara and nirvana always remain equal." It becomes a very interesting question: how can we reach this place where the deluded mind has no place?

Chinul describes this place as "luminous awareness." Later on, someone asked him how we approach this place and, in response, we have an interesting exchange:

Chinul: Do you hear the sound of the crow cawing? That magpie calling?

Student: Yes.

Chinul: Trace him back and listen to your hearing nature. Do you hear any sounds?

This is an interesting experiment all of us can do. Anytime we hear a sound, whether it is the sound of a jet plane overhead or a bird singing outside, all we have to do is bring this sound inside and listen one hundred percent. If we listen one hundred percent, there is no idea of "I am listening to the sound." So when Chinul asked the student what happens when you listen to the sound of a crow or the magpie, one hundred percent, the student said, "At that place sounds and discriminations do not obtain." That can be our experience, too. If we really go deep into a sound, the idea of "I am listening to a sound" disappears; then you become the sound.

Sometimes at Zen centers this happens - we are listening to the morning bell chant, being a little sleepy, not completely asleep but just a little bit, and the bell is hit. All of a sudden, there is nothing but the sound of the bell resonating deep within ourselves. Then, there is no sound and no discrimination. "I, my, me" disappears and the whole universe is just one sound. This place of no discrimination is what Chinul calls luminous awareness. This is the whole point of Zen practice. Zen Master Seung Sahn always talks about cutting off I, my, me mind. Our mind is deluded because in every situation we apply I, my, me to everything that appears. When we don't see things through I, my, me, then we can see, hear, taste, and touch everything clearly. It's that simple.

When Chinul is talking about entering into the sound, the same can be applied to tasting, seeing, touching, everything. In "just doing it" one hundred percent, there is no discrimination. So, the student says, at that point the sounds and discrimination do not obtain. Chinul says, "Marvelous! Marvelous! This is Avalokitesvara's method for entering the noumenon. Let me ask you again. You said that sounds and discriminations do not obtain at that place. But since they do not obtain, isn't the hearing-nature just empty space at such a time?" The student says, "Originally, it is not empty, it is always bright and never obscured." Chinul asks again, "What is this essence which is not empty?" The student: "As it has no former shape, words cannot describe it."

The student describes the hearing-nature as being always bright and never obscured. We can find the same thing in our own experience by bringing any sound within ourselves and going deep into our hearing-nature. You will find that there is something there, some kind of radiance; it's not just blankness. This radiance or brightness is our luminous awareness. This brightness does not come from the sun, it's our own original true nature. This experience can be reached through our eye-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, touch-consciousness, and thinking-consciousness.

Chinul further says, "If you believe me to the point where you can suddenly extinguish your doubt, show the will of a great man, and give rise to authentic vision and understanding; if you know its taste for yourself, arrive at the stage of self-affirmation, and gain understanding of your true nature, then this is the understanding awakening achieved by those who have cultivated the mind. Since no further steps are involved, it is called sudden. Therefore, it is said, 'When in the cause of faith, one meshes without the slightest degree of error with all the qualities of the fruition of Buddhahood, faith is achieved.'"

Chinul is asking us to show the will of a great person and have this complete faith. That's all we have to do: apply this resolution and courage to every situation that appears for us. Rather than holding onto our idea and applying I, my, me mind to every situation, we can let go and perceive things as they really are. It's a simple matter of whether a situation controls us or we control the situation. Who is in control? By control, I don't mean in a neurotic sense, but perceiving things with complete clarity and acting clearly. This is the mind of a saint. But if a situation clouds our vision, we act with the mind of a deluded person. The choice is ours; we have the one mind from which comes the action of a saint or an ordinary man.

In his writings, Chinul comes back to this issue again and again. And he gives some interesting examples. One of the examples he is fond of quoting many times is that of a frozen pond. "Although we know that the frozen pond is entirely water, the sun's heat is necessary to melt it. Although we awaken to the fact that an ordinary man is Buddha, the power of dharma is necessary to permeate our cultivation. When the pond is melted, the water flows freely and can be used for irrigation and cleaning. When falsities are extinguished, the mind will be luminous and dynamic, and then its function of penetrating brightness will manifest."

In our day-to-day life, our mind is like a frozen pond, frozen by our conditioning so that we respond in deluded ways and continue to wander around in the samsara of anger, desire, and ignorance. But when we start to practice, it's like the sun's heat; it comes down and melts the ice. The only thing that happens through practice is that the frozen waters of our conditioning melt and start to flow.

At another point, Chinul says, "A person who falls to the ground gets back up by using that ground. To try to get up without relying on that ground would be impossible." We all have the same dilemma: how to let go of the conditioning of anger, desire, and ignorance. Chinul says we have to use our own deluded mind to get out of its delusion, to use our deluded mind to awaken to the fact we are already Buddha. In this way, the deluded mind is not a liability but a necessity. This means we can use our delusions or any bad situation skillfully to understand what the correct situation is.

Chinul goes on to say, "Sentient beings are those who are deluded in regard to the one mind, and give rise to boundless defilements. Buddhas are those who have awakened to the one mind and have given rise to the boundless sublime functions. Although there is a difference between delusion and awakening, essentially both are derived from the one mind. Hence, to seek Buddhahood apart from the (deluded) mind is impossible." It is a remarkable statement for Korean Zen of the twelfth century, because at that time the whole notion of Buddhism was filled with the idea that the Buddhahood is something out there, maybe in the Pure Land, and that you had to do these rituals or read these sutras and then maybe someday you will become Buddha. But Chinul says again and again, that to seek Buddhahood apart from the mind is impossible.

Chinul further talks about the mind of the saint and says: "All the sound of slander and praises, acknowledgment and disapproval that deceptively issue forth from the throat are like an echo in an empty valley or the sound of the wind. If in this manner we investigate the root cause of such deceptive phenomenon in ourselves and others, we will remain unaffected by them." In our own daily life too, whatever appears in front of us, if someone badmouths us or gives us a hard time, says something unpleasant, and our minds don't move, then that's the mind of a saint. It happens to all of us at some point that our center does not move and we remain unaffected by other peoples' slander or bad speech.

Question: You talked about Chinul's impact around the year 1200. What has happened in the 800 years since then?

Mu Soeng Sunim: Chinul established the temple called Songwang-sa and throughout these eight hundred years it has remained the premier Zen temple in Korea. It's a remote temple, situated in the mountains, and has continued the tradition of Zen teaching which Chinul founded. After Chinul, sixteen of his successors were given the title of "national teachers." Fortunately for Songwang-sa, that does not seem to have caused any permanent damage to them. Chinul's successor, Hae Shim, compiled the collection of seventeen hundred kong-ans, which is now the standard reference in Korean Zen. So, Songwang-sa is the lasting legacy of Chinul and its influence has continued even to this day. When the Yi dynasty came into power in Korea in 1392, they turned to Confucianism and undertook a very open and systematic persecution of Buddhism. So for five hundred years, Buddhism had to go underground. At that time, there were no temples in urban areas and Zen was practiced only in the mountains. Songwang-sa remained the only large temple which had a clear function in Zen training. All other Zen monks had to find caves in the mountains or small temples.

When the Japanese armies invaded Korea in 1592, Sosan Taesa was one of the few well-known Zen monks in Korea. Sosan is the most famous Zen Master between Chinul and this century. His fame came largely because of his role in organizing a monks' militia against the Japanese. Sosan is the prime example of a Zen monk of those dark times; he didn't have a high profile and lived in a succession of temples in the mountains. In those years, the lineage was handed down in a rather obscure manner. Then Zen Master Seung Sahn's great-grand teacher, Zen Master Kyong Ho, appeared at the turn of the last century (he died in 1912) and revived Korean Buddhism. For about two hundred years before him, Korean Buddhism had become almost extinct. Even at temples like Songwang-sa, there was nothing much going on.

Zen Master Kyong Ho and his students revived Korean Buddhism in this century. Zen Master Man Gong, Kyong Ho's best known successor, was a very charismatic teacher and became the first person to really popularize Buddhism, even among lay people. The Japanese occupied Korea from 1910-1945 and tried to abolish Korean Buddhism. In 1945, when the Japanese rule ended, there were only four or five hundred traditional celibate monks in Korea. Of these, about two hundred and fifty were at Zen Master Man Gong's temple, Sudok-sa, and the rest were scattered all over the country. Today, there are about thirteen thousand monks and nuns in Korea. So, we have this dramatic shift from about five hundred to about thirteen thousand monks in only forty years.


From a talk at Providence Zen Center in January, 1987 and first printed in Primary Point volume 6, number 1 (June 1989) and volume 6, number 2 (October 1989). Copyright © Kwan Um School of Zen