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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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