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The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  (Translation by Martine Batchelor; edited, with an introduction by Stephen Batchelor.)  Weatherhill 2009. 182 pages.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better, more authentic introduction to Zen Buddhism–or, as it is called in Korea, Seon Bulgyo (where “seon” is pronounced like English “son”).  But perhaps the word “introduction” is not really appropriate.  If you know nothing about Zen Buddhism this is probably not the best place to start.  If you’ve waded into the ocean of Zen and are looking for a fine “fish” to eat, something tasty and nutritious, something truly representative of these particular “waters” (to carry my analogy near the breaking point), this book is marvelous.

It is not about Japanese Zen, though, but Korean.  The Koreans have been practicing Buddhism longer than the Japanese, plus there is more active, “authentic” Buddhism happening in Korea than in Japan.  (At least that’s been my impression; let me know if you think otherwise.)  This situation, however, is changing; as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the tradition is dying and is probably ready for life support at this point.  (In Japan it is as good as clinically dead; there is probably more authentic Zen in America than in Japan.)  That said, the Koreans understand the whys and wherefores of koan (or “hwadu”) practice in a way I never got the sense contemporary Japanese do.  This book delves in depth regarding koans and contains prime instruction for anyone utilizing this particular meditation subject.

Kusan Sunim (1909-1983)

Some words about the source of these teachings.  Kusan Sunim was, along with Seong-cheol Sunim (“sunim” means monk in Korean), arguably the greatest living exponent of Zen Buddhism in twentieth century Korea.  He started life as a farmer and barber, was even a married man.  At the age of 26 a life-threatening disease struck him.  He survived by going to a temple and reciting the mantra Om mani padme hum for a hundred days, which practice cured him.  Three years later he renounced family life and ordained as a monk and soon after took up meditation, which he did with fanatic resolve.  Sometimes circumstances intervened to interrupt his practice, but he repeatedly went back to it with increased determination.  During one stint, to fight off drowsiness he practiced continuous standing meditation for days on end, during which time “he lost any sense of the outside world.  He was no longer concerned whether he lived or died.  He was so absorbed in his meditation that birds would come and sit on his head and shoulders and take pieces of stuffing that protruded from his padded coat for their nests” (45).  Eventually he attained Great Awakening, which caused his teacher Hyobong Sunim to say “Until now you have been following me; now it is I who should follow you” (47).  This book gives you a chance to follow this great man.

The contents offer a good variety.  The introduction (by Stephen Batchelor) chronicle the history of Buddhism in Korea, a much neglected area of study by Western Buddhists.  Readers who wish to delve more deeply into this would be advised to check out Mu-Seong Sunim’s Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers.  Those with a philosophical bent will appreciate Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen.  (Chinul, a contemporary of Dogen’s, is the intellectual godfather of Korean Zen, though in the last several decades he has been somewhat overshadowed by Seong-cheol’s “sudden awakening, sudden cultivation” teachings which hearken back to the Sixth Patriarch.)  There follows an overview of life in a Korean Zen monastery and a brief bio of Kusan.  Those wishing to know more about the former should read The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell.

The second half of the book constitute the teachings proper.  They consist of meditation instructions, specifically how to practice the koan (hwadu), as well as discourses from winter retreats delivered by Kusan to monks assembled at Songgwang-Sa, where Kusan was the abbot.  (This is also the temple where I lived most of the time that I spent in Korean temples.)  There are also less formal talks–“advice and encouragement”–and a series of poems and commentaries on the traditional “Ten Oxherding Pictures.”

Entrance to Songgwang-Sa

The feeling one gets from reading the words of Kusan is This is the real deal.  Imagine if one of the ancient Chinese masters–Huang-po or Linchi or even Huineng–were suddenly resurrected in the here and now and started spouting off–this is what you’d expect to hear.  Kusan has the same punch, energy, sense of paradox, and intrinsic authority.  You can’t help but want to take this man’s advice, to run off to the mountains, live in a cave and risk all for the breakthrough.

But don’t believe me.  Listen to him:

To live long would be to live for a hundred years. A short life is over in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a single breath. A hundred years of life depends upon a single breath, for life stops when respiration ceases. Can you afford to wait for a hundred years when you do not know how soon death will come? You may die after having eaten a good breakfast in the morning; you may die in the afternoon after a good lunch. Some die during sleep. You may die in the midst of going here and there. No one can determine the time of death. Therefore, you must awaken before you die (78-9).

What will it take to awaken?  Kusan tells us:

The Buddhas and the patriarchs did not realize Buddhahood easily. They realized it through great effort and much hardship. They exerted themselves with such great effort because the sufferings of birth and death are so terrifying. Therefore, even though you want to sleep more, you should sleep less. Even though you want to eat more, you should eat less. Even though you want to talk a lot, you should try to talk less. Even though you want to see many things, you should see less. Your body will definitely feel restrained by acting in such a way. This is indeed a practice of austerity. However, none of the Buddhas and the patriarchs would have awakened had they not trained themselves in this manner (81-2).

Finally, if you want to help sentient beings, how can you do it?  Kusan says

In order to be able to actually help others, you should seek to emulate the spirit of a great hero.  This is necessary because only one who is the greatest hero among heroes is able to accomplish this difficult task [of awakening]. You need supreme courage in order to bring this practice to its completion. To transform this world into a Pure Land and to change ordinary sentient beings into accomplished sages is no easy matter. It is truly the work of a great hero (118).

I advise all you wanna-be great heroes to get a copy of this illuminating and inspiring book and enter soon the practice of the Way!

My Amazon rating: 5 stars 

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2 thoughts on “The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim

  1. Reblogged this on blogdeal2 and commented:
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  2. Jude Worth on said:

    thank you for this review….just one more now to add to the already lengthy list of wanna reads ! Sooooo many teachings, so little time ! _/\_

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