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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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Echoes From Mt. Kaya by Ven. Seong-cheol

Echoes From Mt. Kaya: Selections on Korean Buddhism by Ven. Song-chol, Patriarch of the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order.  Translation by Brian Barry.  Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Center 1988.  217 pages.

Regrettably, this is not a book you’ll easily find, nor will you easily get other writings by the same author, though Ven. Seong-cheol (1912-1993) wrote a lot in his day and was well known and widely respected in his homeland of Korea.  This unfortunate fact is on account of Korean Seon (Zen) being much less well known than its Chinese and Japanese counterparts.  Exactly why this is the case I can’t say, especially when one considers the close ties historically between the United States and South Korea.  One thing though I can say with a fair degree of certainty is this: if you want to get a first hand taste of traditional Zen practice the place to go is not Japan, and most certainly is not China (I’m not sure what, if anything is left there)–it is Korea.

Consider the practice of the koan.  In Japanese temples koan practice has degraded into a sort of mantra-like parody.  The Japanese–I’m speaking from my experience, others may have had different experiences–seem to have lost a sense of what it means to go beyond samadhi (zanmai), and in fact I knew many monks who had spent years, even decades, working on koan after koan but never getting beyond samadhi states.  (If only they took a month or two off for a vipassana course, what a difference it would make.  But I digress….)  And the reason for this is on account of how they approach koan study which, as I noted, has too much in common with a mantra.

The Koreans have a different understanding of the koan, which they call hwadu, or “head of speech.”  If you investigate the dialogues of early Chan and Zen masters you’ll see that enlightenment experiences, though often proceeded by many years of practice, typically erupt out of a paradoxical situation, question or experience.  In other words, a cognitive disruption of some kind gives birth to kensho/satori/awakening.  This is what is lacking in modern Japanese Zen but is the vein through which Korean Seon approaches the koan.  The point in Korean koan practice is not to answer the koan, but to be changed by it.  The most common koan these days in Korean monasteries is the question “What is this?”  The point of this question is to evoke first a puzzled sense, then doubt, then further inquiry, until the sense of doubt/questioning consumes the thinking mind.  Out of that state, which consists of both samadhi and insight, comes true awakening, and by this process the Koreans, I suspect, avoid the samadhi-stagnation that I saw over and over again in Japanese monasteries.

But enough of my tiring sidetrack.  On to the book review.

Seong-cheol Sunim

The author, Seong-cheol Sunim (sunim is Korean for monk; you can read his extraordinary bio here on Wikipedia) was in his own day known as a “living Buddha”.  I suspect the number of people who have been accorded such a designation is rather small and there is good reason for that.  How many people sequester themselves in solitude for 18 years, even to the point of surrounding their hermitage with barbed wire and living mostly on food they grow?  How many sleep sitting up in the full lotus posture for eight years?  How many, though never leaving the mountains, become beacons of inspiration and instruction to millions and get appointed heads of major monastic orders?  Not many.  This tells you a little about this amazing man.

As for the book’s contents: snippets from dharma talks–all dating from the 1980s, when Seong-cheol was abbot of Haein Temple and Supreme Patriarch of the Korean Chogye Buddhist Order–make up the first part.  The second part consists of selections from interviews, and part three specifically concerns monastic life.  Some selections are but a page in length, poetic and inspirational, others are ten to fifteen page essays.  In other words, the book is a miscellany, though generally of high quality, especially if one is practice oriented.  There is also a very brief introduction, a translator’s preface, and a capsule history of Korean Buddhism.

I think a few brief quotes might give a feel for the contents of this book.

Fundamental oneness includes and transcends being and non-being.  Absorbing mind and matter, it syncretizes self and others.  Should the world as we know it come to an end, fundamental reality would still remain unmoved, stable and free.  How heartbreaking that endless personal greed blocks people’s  sight from this brilliant scene; how tragic that people continue to writhe in a world filled with darkness (73).

The Emperor of Chin conquered all of China.  He built a huge palace, and tried to forget the tragedy of life by surrounding himself with all kinds of elegant pursuits.  But he ended up as no more than a handful of dirt on Mt. Lu.  Life is like the dance of a criminal being sent to the gallows (185).

And this is Seong-cheol’s prescription for meditative success:

You must strictly observe the following: do not sleep more than four hours a night, act as if you were a deaf mute, avoid all script as if you were illiterate, do not snack at any time, and do a proper amount of physical work (205).

This, finally, from the section on monastic living:

The goal of monastic life is total altruism.  You should constantly serve others both psychologically and materially.  And when doing so, you must never take a thing for it.  Lend a helping hand whenever you can, especially to the old, the young, the ill and the poor.

The Buddha’s very own son, Rahula, became one of the Buddha’s ten great disciples, and he later became known for his anonymous works of compassion.  All your deeds, no matter how outstanding, must be carried out without even a ghost knowing about them.  This too, is essential for your enlightenment.  A dollar worth of good can be ruined by a penny worth of evil, and you are the loser (207).

Note: Korean Buddhism is a dying tradition.  As the decades slip by, the numbers of Koreans calling themselves Buddhist dwindles, their percentage of the population goes down.  It is high time people outside of Korea take an interest in this rich cultural tradition, every bit as worthy as its Chinese and Japanese counterparts.  I list a few other books here I have happened upon that can ease you on this journey if you decide to partake:

The Zen Monastic Experience by Robert E. Buswell

Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen translated by Robert E. Buswell

The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim.  Kusan was a monk of prodigious attainment, a rival to Seong-cheol in his ascetic feats.

Thousand Peaks: Korean Zen Tradition and Teachers by Mu-Seong Sunim

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