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Seongcheol (Hangul: 성철, Hanja: 性徹, April 10, 1912 – November 4, 1993) is the dharma name of a Korean Seon (Hangul: 선, Hanja: 禪) Master (Zen Master). He emerged as a key figure in modern Korean Buddhism, introducing significant reforms from the 1950s to 1990s. Seongcheol Seon Master gained wide spread notoriety in Korea as having been a living Buddha, due to his extremely ascetic lifestyle, the duration and manner of his meditation training, his central role in reforming Korean Buddhism in the post-World War II era, and the quality of his oral and written teachings. He became an inspiration to the Korean nation struggling to embrace spiritual values and lifestyle at a time of extreme materialism, moral decay, and confusion of values.
Born Lee Young Joo in Korea on April 10, 1912, Seongcheol was the first of seven children of a Confucian scholar in Gyeongsang province. An exceptionally bright child, he read constantly, having learned to read at the age of three, and gaining proficiency to read such Chinese classics as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Journey to the West by age ten. Enthusiastic to read, he once traded a sack of rice for Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as a teenager.
Having read numerous books on philosophy and religion, both Western and Eastern, he reportedly felt dissatisfied, being convinced that those could not lead him to truth. One day, a Seon monk gave Seongcheol a copy of The Song of Attainment of the Tao (Hangul: 증도가, Hanja: 證道歌), a Seon text written by Young Ga Hyun Gak (永嘉玄覺) in the Tang dynasty. Seongcheol felt as if "a bright light had suddenly been lit in complete darkness," and that he had finally found the way to the ultimate truth.
Immediately, he started meditating on the "Mu" kong-an (Japanese: koan) and started ignoring all his responsibilities at home. Deciding that his parents' house had too many distractions, he promptly packed his bags and went to Daewonsa (Daewon temple). After obtaining permission to stay in the temple, the young Seongcheol started to meditate intensively. Later in life, he would say that he attained the state of Dong Jung Il Yuh (see Teachings below, Hangul: 동정일여, Hanja: 動靜一如) at this early point in his life in only 42 days.
The rumor of a lay person meditating so intensely naturally spread to the main temple of Haeinsa. Under the recommendations of renowned Seon Masters Kim Bup Rin and Choi Bum Sool, the young Seongcheol left for Haeinsa in the winter of 1936. At the time, Seon Master Dongsan presided as the spiritual leader of Haeinsa, and recognizing Seongcheol's great potential, he recommended he become a monk. But Seongcheol refused, stating that he had absolutely no intention of becoming a monk, just meditating intensely. But Dongsan master's dharma talk during the following retreat season changed his mind:
In March of 1937, Lee Young Joo received his dharma name of Seongcheol, forsook all relations with the outside world, and became a monk, writing this poem:
In the tradition of Korean Buddhist monks, Seongcheol wandered from one temple to the next after each meditation retreat. In the summer of 1940, he went into deep meditation at the Geum Dang Seon Center and attained enlightenment. Having become a monk at the age of 25, he had attained his true nature in only three years. He went on to write his enlightenment poem:
Having attained enlightenment, Seongcheol master began pilgrimages to various temples to validate his experience and to examine other monks and their levels of attainment. Frequently disappointed, he noticed that monks received inka (validation of a monk's attainment by a master) carelessly, thereby falsely recognizing many monks as having fully attained enlightenment. During his retreat at Songgwangsa, he felt dismayed at Jinul's theory of Don Oh Jum Soo (sudden enlightenment, gradual training), the widespread theory during the time. Later during the 1980s and 1990s, his contribution to the revival of Hui Neng's traditional theory of Don Oh Don Su (sudden enlightenment, sudden training) would have a significant effect on the practice of Seon in Korea, China, Japan, and other countries where Seon/Zen is practiced.
Soon, Seongcheol master's reputation began to spread. Numerous factors contributed to his growing recognition. One of the more famous anecdotes is Seongcheol's Jang Jwa Bul Wa (Hangul: 장좌불와, Hanja: 長坐不臥). Literally translated as 'long sitting, no lying,' monks employ the meditation technique to intensify their practice. Sitting meditation is equivalent to most other practices, except that the practitioner never lies down to sleep, but stays in the lotus position even during sleep, with the intention of minimizing sleep through the position.
Seongcheol master practiced that form of meditation for eight years after his enlightenment. He reportedly never once lied down and denied sleeping at all. Another anecdote recounts how while Seongcheol stayed in Mangwolsa in Dobong mountain, an old monk by the name of Chunseong refused to believe this. He wanted to catch Seongcheol dozing off to sleep, so spied on him secretly throughout one night. Having witnessed the truth for himself, Chun Seong felt amazement and began practicing the technique himself. The stress of the practice, and the old age at which he started the technique, caused all of his teeth to fall out the later years of his life.
Seongcheol's reputation for intensive practice went beyond his meditation. He displayed complete indifference to the outside world, focused intently only on meditation and guiding fellow monks to enlightenment. His displayed such a complete indifference he even refused to see his mother when she visited him at Mahayunsa in Kumgangsan mountain. Upon hearing of her visit he reportedly replied, "No need to see her." His fellow monks burst angrily, stating that although monks devoted to asceticism and meditation, they believed refusing to see his own mother too extreme an action. Afterwards, Seongcheol accompanied his mother, showing her the sites of Kumgangsan mountain.
On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered unconditionally, thereby ending World War II and the occupation of Korea. The events offered an invaluable opportunity for the reformation of Korean Buddhism, which had been severely oppressed during the Japanese occupation. As an emerging leader of Korean Buddhism, Seongcheol joined the nascent discussions on the emerging plans to reform the religion. Forming a partnership with such luminaries as the venerable Jawoon, Cheongdam, and Hyanggok, the future leaders of Korean Buddhism chose Bong Am Sa temple of Heui Yang mountain. There, they formed a pact to live strictly according to the Vinaya, the Buddhist code of ethics. The members agreed upon rules of conduct (Hangul: 공주규약, Hanja: 共住規約) and required strict adherence to it amongst themselves:
The reformation movement started around a small group of monks centered on Seongcheol, but quickly grew by reputation, attracting monks all over the country also committed to bring back the Korean tradition of intense meditation, strict celibacy, and study of sutras. Weolsan (월산), Woobong (우봉), Bomoon (보문), Seongsu (성수), Dowoo (도우), Hyeam (혜암), and Beopjun (법전) numbered among those younger generations. Two Supreme Patriarchs (Hyeam, Beopjun) and three chief administrators of the Jogye order came from that group.
Unfortunately, the Bong Am Sa experiment ended prematurely in 1950 when the Korean War broke out on the peninsula. With constant bombing raids and the presence of soldiers of both sides around the temple, the strict monastic life of Bong Am Sa became impossible to follow.
Some of the reforms that occurred during this period were:
After the war, the reformation gained momentum, setting significant changes in motion, although years passed before they solidified. The issue of celibacy lay at the heart of the reformation. While all the Buddhist canons emphasized the celibacy of monks, Japanese Buddhism had undergone significant changes during the Meiji Restoration, most notably the end of monastic celibacy.
During the Japanese occupation, Japan severely oppressed Korean Buddhism and promoted the Japanese style of Buddhism. Most Korean monks became little more than monastic residents officiating over ceremonies, married, with a business and income. Seongcheol and the new leaders voiced criticism of the Japanese style of Buddhism, maintaining that the traditions of celibacy, hermitage, poverty, and intense meditation central to Korean Buddhism and to the true spirit of Buddhism as a whole. Korean post-war sentiments towards Japan reached a peak at that time, and with the help of the populace and president Syngman Rhee, the traditional Korean style began to take hold and became the dominant form of Buddhism by the 1970s.
Seongcheol insisted on giving away all monastic assets to the public and reverting to the original Buddhist way of wandering and begging for alms while investing all energy into meditation. He upheld that as the only surefire way for true reforms to take place, warning that otherwise, full-scale conflict could ensue between bikkhus and married monks fighting over temples.
The leaders of the reformation refused to follow, condemning his assertions as too extreme. Seongcheol's predictions, though, came true and Korean Buddhism has had numerous conflicts between monks over temple jurisdiction since then up to the present day, many of them escalating into violence between both sides (e.g. paying gangsters to physically harm opponents). The bikkhus loosened ordination restrictions to increase their numbers in their effort to assume control over temples. Such men of dubious character (e.g. former convicts and criminals) received ordination as bikkhus, leading to more violent fights amongst monks. A particularly embarrassing chapter in Korean Buddhism in the late 1990s took place when monks fought over Jogyesa, the main administrative temple in Seoul, fighting among themselves using weapons, including Molotov cocktails, to subdue each other.
In 1955, Seongcheol received the appointment as the patriarch of Haeinsa, but disappointed by the direction that the reformation took, he decline. Instead, he removed to a hermitage near Pagyesa, in the Palgong mountains near Daegu. There he focused upon meditation, seeking to strengthen his enlightenment. At the hermitage Seong Juhn Am, Seongcheol dedicated himself to study of the Buddhist teachings that, later, enriched his spiritual teachings. To insure solitude, Seongcheol surrounded the hermitage with barbed wire to keep all out with the exception of a few assistants. Staying within the boundaries of the small hermitage for ten years without leaving, he deepened his meditation and studied the ancient Buddhist canons, Zen texts, sutras, modern mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and even taught himself English so as to keep current on international affairs. That decade of self-education enriched his future teachings dramatically.
Seongcheol finally opened the doors of Seong Juhn Am hermitage in 1965. He visited Gimyongsa temple where he gave his first dharma talk in a decade. In 1967, Seongcheol accepted Jawoon's appointment as the patriarch of Haeinsa temple. That winter, he inaugurated a daily two-hour dharma talk to monks and the lay people for one hundred consecutive days (Hangul: 백일법문). Applying his decade of scholarly studies, he broke the stereotype of the "boring and stuffy" dharma talks, transforming them into an electrifying blend of Buddhism, spiritualism, quantum mechanics, general relativity, and current affairs. Seongcheol's Hundred Day Talk ushered in a new kind of dharma talk aimed at reaching the modern audience living in an age of globalization and intellectual diversity.
Ushering in a revival of the Seon tradition of intense meditation and strict monastic lifestyle, Seongcheol spearheaded the reformation of modern Korean Buddhism from the rubbles of Japanese colonialism into an epicenter of meditation training. During his tenure as patriarch of Haeinsa, the temple transformed into a training ground for meditation, sutra studies, and Vinaya studies, attracting monks from all over the country. The meditation center averaged approximately 500 monks per biannual retreat, a number unheard of since the days of Hui Neng and Ma Tzu.
During the 1970s, the militaristic and dictatorial climate in Korea increase, eventually leading to a purge of many Buddhist monks suspected of political involvement. With his reputation as a living Buddha increasing among lay people and monks, the Jogye order nominated Seongcheol as the Supreme Patriarch of the order. He accepted, saying, "If I can help reform and improve Korean Buddhism, I will humbly accept."
His inauguration speech catapulted him from an obscure monk into the limelight as the leader of Korean Buddhism. The Jogye order published his speeches to the entire nation:
Seongcheol never left the mountains from the inauguration as Supreme Patriarch until his death, declaring the temple a monk's proper place. Initially, members of the Jogye vigorously protested his semi-hermetic policy, eventually sense of respect replaced the outrage. Buddhist recognized that he brought to Buddhism a purity and piety that had been lacking since the Chosun period. They recognized that his practice vastly improved the respect of monks in Korea.
During his years as patriarch of Haeinsa and as Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye order, Seongcheol's reputation grew constantly. He gained fame among monks as a strict teacher, earning the name "tiger of Kaya mountain." When monks nodded off to sleep during meditation, he beat them with wooden sticks yelling, "Thief, pay for your rice!" He admonished and punished them for taking donations from the public but failing to practice Buddhism faithfully to the utmost of their ability in return.
He became known for his unique three thousand prostrations. After the Korean war, Seongcheol built a small cave-hermitage near Anjungsa temple, named Cheonjegul. Many people came to pay their respects to him. Seeking to guide the pilgrims in their spiritual practice, Seongcheol began his practice of 3000 prostrations. Only people who completed 3000 prostrations in front of the statue of the Buddha in the main hall could meet with him. Some lay people accused Seongcheol of arrogance, but he maintained that the practice helped them destroy their ego, and helped them attain one-mindedness. Tradition supported Seongcheol in his practice. The Korean Buddhist training regimen includes 3000 full prostrations as a mainstay, performed at most temples in Korea monthly. The 3000 bows normally took eight to twelve hours, depending on the experience of the practitioner. The bowing technique clears the mind, instills a sense of humility, and increases the awareness and focusing power of the practitioner.
As his fame and reputation grew, the prostrations became a way to lessen the number of people meeting with him. He never made exceptions to that requirement, regardless of the person's wealth, fame, or power. An anecdote illustrates the daunting task of the 3000 prostrations and Seongcheol's strict adherence to his own rules. When Park Chung-hee, the president of Korea, opened a new highway between Seoul and Pusan, he visited Haeinsa. The head administrative monk quickly sent word to Seongcheol to come down from his hermitage to greet the president. True to form, Seongcheol demanded the president go to the main Buddha hall and perform the 3000 prostrations before meeting with him. Park refused and the two never met.
During the latter years of his life, Seongcheol edited and wrote numberous publications, including eleven books of his lectures including the full transcriptions of the Hundred-Day Talk, lectures on Huineng's sutra, Shin Sim Myung (Hangul: 신심명, Hanja: 信心銘), Jeung Do Ga (Hangul: 증도가, Hanja: 證道歌), Illumination of Sudden Enlightenment (Hangul: 돈오입도요문론, Hanja: 頓悟入道要門論), (see official website)
and his dharma talks. He authorized the translation Seon Lim Go Gyung Chong Suh (Hangul: 선림고경총서, Hanja: 禪林古鏡叢書), a collection of Chinese and Korean Zen classics that until publication was known mostly only to monks. Those publications helped to spread his teachings to the general public and raise the general awareness and knowledge of Buddhism.
His last words were: "Meditate well." His parivirvana poem was:
Seongcheol explained the cryptic poem in this way:
I've lived my entire life as a practitioner, and people have always asked me for something. Everyone is already a Buddha, but they do not try to realize that fact and only look towards me. So, in a way, you could say I've deceived people all my life. I've failed to get this message across to everyone so I'm suffering in a kind of hell.
Over a 100,000 people attended his funeral, the largest ever seen in Korean history for a monk. His cremation took over 30 hours and his sarira numbered over a hundred.
Seongcheol's teachings fall into five categories:
Citing Taego Bou (太古普愚: 1301-1382) as the true successor of the Linji (臨済義玄) line of patriarchs rather than Jinul (知訥: 1158-1210), he advocated Hui Neng's original stance of 'sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation' (Hangul: 돈오돈수, Hanja: 頓悟頓修) as opposed to Jinul's stance of 'sudden enlightenment, gradual cultivation' (Hangul: 돈오점수, Hanja: 頓悟漸修). Whereas Jinul had initially asserted that with enlightenment comes the need to further one's practice by gradually destroying the karmic vestiges attained through millions of rebirths, Huineng and Seongcheol maintained that with perfect enlightenment, all karmic remnants disappear and one becomes a Buddha immediately.
He also expounded on the true definition of the Middle Way (Hangul: 중도, Hanja: 中道), stating that rather then avoiding the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification as many understood, the Middle Way described the state of nirvana where all dualities fuse and cease to exist as separate entities, where good and bad, self and non-self become meaningless. He compared that to the common misconception that had ruled pre-Einsteinian physics, that energy and mass constituted two separate entities, but which Einstein had elucidated as interchangeable dual forms with the relationship described by E=mc², thereby proving the equivalence of one to the other. He also compared the Middle Way to the fusion of space and time into spacetime. Using the analogy of ice and water, Seongcheol taught that rather than the 'middle' or 'average' of ice and water, the Middle Way is the true form of each, H2O. He maintained that the state of nirvana compared to that, a state where the true form of all dualities is revealed as equivalent.
Seongcheol strongly advocated the gong'an (Hangul: 공안, Hanja: 公案) meditation technique as the fastest and safest way to enlightenment. The most common gong'ans he gave to his followers were:
Seongcheol also set a clear benchmark that the practitioner could apply to gauge his level of practice. Throughout his life, many followers came to him to obtain acknowledgment of their enlightenment. He felt dismayed at the number of people who thought they had attained perfect enlightenment by experiencing some mental phenomenon during their practice. He therefore reiterated that every enlightened person from the Buddha and on had given the same definition of enlightenment. True attainment, he quoted, came only after going beyond the level of being able to meditate in deep sleep. Only after being able to meditate on a gong'an continuously, without interruption, throughout the waking state, then the dreaming state, and finally in deep sleep, one reaches the state where enlightenment can become possible. Before any of this, one should never claim to have become enlightened, even though there may be many instances of weird mental phenomena that happens during one's practice. The levels he identified were:
Seongcheol expressed sharp criticism of the Japanese style of Zen meditation. The Japanese style favors a gradual study of many gong'ans, similar to a curriculum where the practitioner improveed from an easier gong'an to a more difficult one as he mastered each one over time.
Seongcheol, and many other masters, stated that that would achieve nothing. They argued that meditation aimed to rid one's mind of all divergent thoughts which caused of karmic rebirths and its concomitant suffering, by focusing the mind deeply on only one gong'an until it destroyed all other thoughts. By studying gong'ans like a curriculum, one exercised the mind, rather than attaining the original goal of extinguishing the mind. The gradual style of meditation, dissimilar to Jinul's gradual cultivation, proved a complete waste of time to the practitioner. Zen became nothing more than an exercise in sophistry, with higher positions given to those who could solve more riddles.
Gong'ans can never be solved with such rational, or even intuitive methods, and only the final, perfect enlightenment could give the solution to the gong'an, and simultaneously all gong'ans. Seongcheol repeatedly clarified that the study of many gong'ans worked against effective meditation. He stated that attaining perfect enlightenment equaled becoming a Buddha, equivalent to definitively solving the gong'an. Seongcheol remarked that his teaching agreed with numerous masters including Huineng, Ma Tzu, all the way down to current masters. Being able to solve multiple gong'ans constituted pure delusion believed by many practitioners, and Seongcheol devoted much of his teachings to dispelling that illusion.
|“||The Buddha said, "I have attained nirvana by relinquishing all dualities. I have relinquished creation and destruction, life and death, existence and non-existence, good and evil, right and wrong, thereby attaining the Absolute. This is liberation, this is nirvana. You [the five initial bikkhus] practice self-mortification and the world indulges in the sensual. You therefore think you are great and holy, but both extremes are the same. To truly become free, you must give up both, you must give up all dualities… - Seongcheol ||”|
|“||It's the scientific age, so let's talk in the language of science. Einstein's general relativity proves that energy and mass, previously thought as separate, are actually one and the same. Energy is mass, and mass is energy. Energy and mass are one.||”|
|“||The fact that energy and mass are equivalent means that nothing is truly created or destroyed. This is what the Buddha was talking about when he relinquished both creation and destruction. It is like water and ice. Water converting into ice and vice versa does not mean that either of them gets destroyed. It is just the change in the form of H2O, which itself never changes, just like energy and mass. If we compare mass to 'form' and energy to 'formlessness,' the Heart sutra says the same thing as general relativity. Form is formlessness and formlessness is form. Not only in words, not only in the realm of philosophy, but in truth, in nature, measurable by scientific methods. This is the Middle Way!||”|
|“||The three poisons that prevent us from realizing our true selves are desire, anger, and ignorance. Among those, desire is the basis for the latter two, and desire comes from 'I'. The attachment to the 'I,' the ego, and the indifference to others, these are the basis of all suffering. Once you realize that there really is no you or me, self or non-self, you will understand that all things are inter-related, therefore helping others is helping oneself, and hurting others is hurting oneself. This is the way of the universe, the Middle Way, dependent origination, and karma.||”|
|“||Removing the clouds that are blocking our pure light of wisdom, we can become liberated from the chains of karma, thereby becoming truly free. But how do you do this? There are many methods, but the fastest is meditation and the fastest of those is the hwadu, or gong-an. By going beyond the level of being able to meditate in deep sleep, you will reach a place of perfect serenity, your original, bright, shining mirror devoid of all dust that had sat on it. You will see your original face, your true nature, the nature of the entire universe, and realize that you had always and originally been a Buddha. This is nirvana.||”|
|“||No one can help you with this endeavor. No books, no teachers, not even the Buddha. You must walk this road yourself.
|“||Many practitioners believe that they have attained enlightenment. Some say they have attained it multiple times. This is a big delusion. There is only one true enlightenment, such that the attained state never disappears and then reappears, but is constantly present even through the deepest sleep. As Ma Tzu said, 'attained once, attained forever.' Any enlightenment that comes and goes or has gradations is nothing more than delusion.||”|
Seongcheol played a key role in revitalizing Korean Buddhism suffering in deep disarray from the Japanese occupation. He served as one of the leaders in the reformation, bringing back celibacy, strict practice, monasticism, and mendicancy back to Korean Buddhism. Later in his life, with his growing recognition, he helped to rectify Buddhism's discredited reputation amongst the general public, from a group of in-name-only monks who would get married, own businesses, and frequently collude with the Japanese occupiers, to that of serious practitioners, never got married, and owned no possessions.
Seongcheol also contributed significantly to bringing back Huineng's 'sudden enlightenment, sudden cultivation,' and clarified the notions of gong'an practice, meditation, monasticism, and enlightenment. More than a decade after his death, his books are still widely read and respected, and pilgrimages to Haeinsa are a mainstay for Buddhists.
All links retrieved November 2, 2019.
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