The Linchi-lu and the Korean seon Buddhist Tradition

Shim, Jae-ryong 

Seoul National University
The Linchi-lu and the Korean seon Buddhist Tradition

1. Preliminary Remarks

What does it mean to re-establish the traditional Korean seon Buddhism of the Patriarchs(祖師禪)? Is it really possible to re-establish tradition? If possible, in what manner? Plethora of questions pop up in our mind. We do not dare to answer all the questions. This is a limited attempt to show that the Linchi Ch’an is closely connected with Korean Patriarch seon Buddhism throughout history, and is still alive in Korea deserving our attention as an important tradition. In this paper we evaluate the recent Imje style Son movement through historical reflection.

Tradition is alive as long as it is held as valuable but questioned and put to critical evaluation for possible uses. Keeping in mind that tradition can play either a positive or a negative role, we can approach the current Ch’am Saram (True Human) Society Movement led by Rev. S?-ong at the Paekyang-sa Monastery.

Tradition is a process of selection. What does Rev. S?-ong select among the many strands of Son Buddhism? what is left unselected? and what is added? In every epoch-making selection, tradition is transformed. Tradition is, therefore, a continuous transformation. Whether the transforming process is continuous or discontinuous is difficult to decide. It may not be an exclusively disjunctive choice.

In the case of Lin-chi Ch’an (Imje seon in Korean) tradition in Korea, we can trace a fairly well formulated tradition-line being upheld as orthodox continuously since the time of its first introduction from China to this peninsula. At every turn of historical event, the Imje seon was utilized by Korean seon masters and patriarchs to the needs of society, secular or sacred: at times of trouble to bolster its authority and sustain its experiential authenticity over against other sects or religions and most times usually to instruct aspiring students of high capacity in the seon to immediate enlightenment. Those many uses of Korean Imje seon tradition bespeak its tremendous influence on Korean seon Buddhism.

In short, Imje seon is a living tradition in Korean Buddhism. It is still alive in the dharma talks of masters; offering rare opportunities of enlightenment to students, giving credentials to those who are awakened and providing both lay people and monks with some possible remedy to the modern malaise such as loss of humanity and even environmental hazard. It is a task for us to evaluate those awesome claims. But one thing is definite and clear: the Imje seon tradition is live in Korea, not in a sectarian sense, but in its claim to the universality, comprising two notions; one, the spirit of independence or freedom from all kinds of slavery in the conspicuous Imje style and another, that of infinite compassion in the general Buddhist tradition.

Idiosyncratic of Korean seon Buddhism, however, is the fact that, in spite of its overall influence, the Imje seon has never established itself as a sect as is the case of Japan nor has its sectarian name been used as the representative of Korean seon Buddhism. It is all the more strange that the Linchi-lu, the record of the life and sayings of Chinese Ch’an Master Linchi I-xuan (d.866), has never been published nor studied as an independent text in Korea, though parts of it were included in Son anthology, up until Korean Chogye Order ex-Patriarch S?-ong(西翁)’s Imjerok S?ong Y?n?i (臨濟錄 西翁 演義 an extended commentary of the Linchi-lu by Old Man from the West) in Han’g?l, a vernacular Korean language was published fairly recently in 1974. Hence this attempt to trace some uses of the Imje seon tradition in Korean Buddhist history and the role the Linchi-lu has played in the process of conscious selection within that tradition.

We will illustrate five uses of the Imje seon thus far, including the current Ch’am Saram Movement. By so doing we try to carve out the characteristic feature and significance of this revival and retrieval movement called “Ch’am Saram Ky?lsa Undong (True Human Society Movement). We hope we can confirm the contemporary relevancy of Imje seon and its universal appeal to human kind in stark contrast to the sectarian and ultra-nationalistic bent of the Japanese Rinzai sect.


2. Korean Imje seon Tradition and Transformations

Seeing is believing. Seeing the Buddha nature is the key to becoming a Buddha. Thus declare the famous motto of Son Buddhism. But any kind of seeing can be subjective. To guarantee the authenticity or veracity of seeing experience, inter-subjective recognition by the teacher of the student’s seeing the Buddha nature i. e., enlightenment is provided in the Son Buddhist tradition. Through the teacher’s recognition the holy pedigree of transmission lineage is established in Son Buddhism, supposedly uninterrupted from the Buddha Shakyamuni through Bodhidharma, Huineng and Linchi down to the present Korean Chogye Son Buddhist Order Patriarch. Hence the sacred authenticity and orthodoxy of the Korean Son Patriarchs belonging to the Chogye Son Buddhist Order as the representative of Korean Son Buddhism. This seems to be the popular understanding about the Korean Son Buddhist tradition among the Korean Buddhist populace.

We will contend, however, in the following that the Korean Son Buddhist tradition has been consciously formed by selective acceptance of the transmission lineage from China during the Koryo period, and consolidated during the Choson period in Korea. In the process Imje Son and implicitly the Linchi-lu play important roles to establish that Korean Son Buddhist tradition. The formation of Korean Son Buddhist tradition was thus completed during the Koryo period and further consolidated consciously during the Choson period. Perhaps we can call this process the formation of the Korean Son Buddhist paradigm.

Of special note is the emphasis laid upon the Dharma lineage by Korean Son Buddhists. In order to emphasize the importance of teacher’s recognition and direct transmission from the teacher to the student in the seon lineage, the first generation Korean Son Buddhists belonging to the Nine Mountains schools concocted even the story of Chingwi Chosa(眞歸祖師), who supposedly recognizes and gives sanction to the historical Gautama Siddharta Buddha Shakyamuni. The secular family ties seem to be copied and confirmed repeatedly even in the sacred family tree in the Son tradition. <Give citation and note. Ch’?nchaek’s seonmun pojang-nok>


Another surprising fact about Korean Son Buddhism is that Chinul (1158-1210), the actual founder of the current Chogye Son Buddhist Order, has never been approved by any teacher at all for his enlightenment experience but he self-taught himself arduously through careful reading of books related to Ch’an and even Hwaom Buddhist scriptures. For Chinul, books are the teachers. It is a strange feat for a Son monk, whose tradition, being separate from the doctrinal Buddhism, avowedly eschews any scriptural adherence by claiming non-dependence on words and letters. How could this strange feat happen and yet how on earth Chinul is still considered by some as the founder of Chogye Son Buddhist Order in Korea? This is a topic for our immediate concern. And in what connection to Chinul, does Imje Son play any role in establishing Korean Chogye Son Buddhist tradition?

2.1. Chinul’s Appropriation of Ta-hui’s Records -Taxonomy of seon Practice according to the Three Dark Gates of Linchi

The hallmark of the Korean Son Buddhist practice since the time of Chinul’s immediate disciple Chingak (1178-1234) is the hawdu(話頭) or kongan(公案) meditation, a uniquely Son Buddhist technique of “looking critical phrase” (看話) in the story-telling book of Son transmission lineage, for the sake of inducing enlightenment. Chinul is the one who first introduced this technique to Korea without having any direct contact with Chinese masters but indirectly through reading Ta-hui’s(1089-1163) Records(大慧語錄) on the occasion of his third and final awakening experience. His culminating experience was so striking and radical, according to his biographer, that he accepted and approved this special technique as the most effective short-cut (徑截門) for the superlative capacities to enlightenment, although he provided lower capacity students with two other approaches; one, simultaneous cultivation of meditation and wisdom (惺寂等持門) based upon the teachings in the Platform Sutra (六祖檀經), and another, all round and sudden approach by faith and understanding (圓頓信解門) based on the Li Tung-xuan’s interpretation of the Huayen Sutra (李通玄, 華嚴新論), thus completing his comprehensive three-way approaches to becoming a Buddha basically following Chinese Huayen-Ch’an monk-scholar Tsungmi.

Imje style practice, modified by Tahui and Linchi sect in China, was only a part; one third of the Pojo Chinul’s triple approaches to Buddhahood or true humanity. But for Chinul’s followers thereafter accepted, among the three approaches, the hwadu meditation to be the exclusive, effective method for cleansing conceptual adherence to letters and words and thus attaining the ultimate enlightenment.

A partial adaptation of Imje Son is further witnessed by Chinul’s utilization of Imje’s various instructional devices. Chinul uses specifically the so-called three mysteries of dark gates (三玄門) and four processes of liberation from subjectivity and objectivity (四料簡) as instructional devices as presented in the Linchi-lu. The former was utilized by Chinul to analyze and classify entire Buddhist scriptures including Son writings, while the latter was included in the ten kinds of No-mind practice.

…In Son there are three mysteries(dark gates): first, the mystery in the essence; second, the mystery in the word; third, the mystery in the mystery. The mystery in the essence (體中玄) is the approach to dharma which demonstrates the unimpeded interpenetration of all phenomena and involves such statements as “throughout boundless world systems, oneself and others are not seperated by as much as the tip of a hair; the ten time periods of past and present, from beginning to end, are not separate from the present thought-moment.” It is a preliminary approach for inducing an awakening in those of beginning potential.

Since this approach has not yet abandoned understanding based on the verbal teachings, the mystery in the word (句中玄) is employed. These words have no traces, are ordinary, have a cleansing effect, and eliminate grasping so that students can suddenly forget their conceptual understanding and knowledge of the Buddha-dharma.

But since this approach also involves cleansing knowledge and vision and cleansing words and phrases, the mystery in the mystery (玄中玄) – the use of pauses, silence, the staff, and the Son shout – is also employed in training. When this last approach is used, one can suddenly forget the cleansing knowledge and vision and the cleansing words and phrase of the second mysterious gate. As it is said, “When we get the meaning and forget the words, the path is near at hand.” This is called the sudden realization for the dharmadhatu. For inferior men of beginning capacity, the Son school points out that there is a sublime mind, pure in nature, which follows along with the stream of falsity and pollution; this enables such men to understand easily and enter into faith. After they have entered in faith and forgotten their understanding, they can achieve personal realization. But if they do not forget their understanding, they will ait??? in the deep pit of liberation unable to use their bodies freely in displaying the manifold supplementary practices belonging to the approach of conditioned arising. (Buswell’s translation; The Collected Works of Chinul, pp.214-215 Complete and Sudden Attainment of Buddhahood 圓頓成佛論)

An initial attempt to classify all the Buddhist writings can be gleaned in the above. In the Straight Talk on the True Mind (眞心直說), Chinul’s most comprehensive guide for Son practice, he quotes Imje’s Four stages of liberating from both subjectivity and objectivity without directly pointing to the name of Imje. For Chinul, Imje was one of the Chinese Ch’an masters who shed light on the “sublime path of the patriarchs.” In the synopsis of ten different techniques for extinguishing delusions concerning the true mind, Chinul quotes Imje as one of the ancients (sic ancient patriarchs in China):

…Three: efface the mind but preserve objects. This means that when we are practicing, we extinguish deluded thoughts and do not concern ourselves with the external sense-spheres. We are only concerned with extinguishing the mind, for when the deluded mind is extinguished, what danger can sensual object present? This is the teaching advocated by the ancients” “take away the man but leave the object.”

…Four, efface objects but preserve the mind. This means that when we are practicing, we contemplate all internal and external sense-spheres as being void and calm. We preserve only the one mind, signaling solitarily and standing alone….If the mind is attached to the sense-spheres it becomes deluded. But if there are no sense-spheres, what delusion can there be? The true mind shines alone and is unobstructed in regard to the path. This is what the ancients called “take away the objects but leave the man.”…

…Five: efface both mind and objects. This means that when we are practicing, we initially make the external sense-objects void and calm and then annihilate the internal – the mind. Since internal and external are both calmed, where can delusion arise?…This is the patriarchs’ teaching of “take away of both man and objects.”…

…Six: preserve both mind and objects. This means that when we are practicing, mind remains in its place and objects remain in their place. If there is a time when the mind and the objects come in contact with each other, then the mind does not grasp at the objects and the objects do not intrude upon the mind. If neither of them contacts the other, then, naturally, deluded thoughts will not arise and there will be no obstacles to the path…. This is the patriarchs’ teaching of “take away neither the man nor the objects.”…(Buswell’s translation pp. 170-171)

We have observed two specific uses of Imje’s teaching as part of the Chinese patriarchs’ instruction as to the methods of eliminating delusions. Hence Chinul’s use of Imje was not a total acceptance but a partial application of some of his instructional devices. Imje, according to Chinul, in terms of Chinese Ch’an lineage, was only one of the patriarchs in Chinese Ch’an Buddhism belonging to Matsu-Hungchou line, never the originator of Linchi branch/sect in distinction to other sects like Fayen, Yunmen, Tsaotung, and Kueiyang, forming the so-called five families of late Chinese Ch’an lineage. In passing, we can also note that Chinul uses t’i-yung category in two combinations as expedient means of explaining methods of eliminating delusions.

This picture of Imje Son has been dramatically changed : Imje Son became the only orthodox line of Son in Korea immediately after Chinul’s demise, for his direct disciple Hyesim Chingak(edited all the available Son stories in an anthology, which later became the standard text for kongan meditation for all Korean Son monks. Chinul’s round about way of dealing with the problem of Son-Kyo controversy by striking a balance between the two tilted towards an extreme and exclusive practice of kongan meditation.

2.2 T’aego’s Direct Transmission of Lin-chi Ch’an Lamp – Origin of the Korean seon Patriarch Lineage Debate

This exclusive tendency was strengthened when T’aego Pou (1301-1382) went to Yuan China and got a seal of recognition from the Linchi line Chinese master Shi-wu Ching-kung(1270-1352): T’aego emphasized the hwadu meditation as the only method of attaining Buddhahood. Out of the three masters in the same Koryo period, namely Naong Hyegun (1320-1377) and Paeku Kyonghan (1299-1375) included, who had any connection to the Chinese Linchi lineage, T’aego was selected and his line of transmission became consolidated during the Choson period by the followers of Sosan Hyujong(1520-1604) specifically by Chunggwan Haean(1567- ?) who repudiated the nativistic Ho Kyun (1569-1618)’s claim to include Chinul and Naong to be the legitimate heir to Chinese Ch’an lineage. Under the severe oppression of Buddhism in the Confucianism dominated Choson society, it is understandable to uphold the legitimate lineage of Son Budhist tradition to safeguard its authority by connecting it to the then East Asian universal frame of reference, i. e., the only living Chinese Linchi line.

Even in contemporary Korea there still is a lively discussion as to who deserves to be the founder or sectarian head patriarch (宗祖) of the Korean Chogye Son Buddhist Order. Conservative and universalism-oriented elements tend toward Ta’ego while nativistic and progressive, toward Chinul. Six out of 28 registered Korean Buddhist denominations list incidentally T’aego as their founding father. To put an end to the controversial matter, Chogye Order statute lists Toui, the first importer of Chinese Ch’an to Korea during the Unified Silla period as the founding father.

2.3 Paekp’a’s Re-appropriation of Lin-chi’s Three Phrases – Establishment of the Korean Patriarch seon Taxonomy

At the impending downfall of the Choson dynasty, Paekp’a Kungson (1767-1852) tried to reestablish the Son Buddhist tradition through careful analysis of the whole scriptures of Son. Korean Son Buddhist taxonomy of triadic Son is firmly put into place in the minds of Korean people. The current usage of the Patriarch Son seems to stem from Paekp’a and his followers’s prolonged discussion extending well over one hundred and fifty years: a similar feat can be found in the Korean Confucian debate over four beginnings and seven emotions during the first half of the Choson period. Some may criticize the overly metaphysical paraphernalia and pedantic bickering of the debate. But the focal point of the discussion rests firmly on what kind can be the legitimate heir to the true spirit of Son. The Patriarch Son(祖師禪) is the highest, because it refers to the state of enlightenment of true emptiness and subtle beings (namely, manifold phenomena) comparable to the Buddha mind, while Tathagata Son(如來禪) is concerned only with the One Mind, hence put to the second level. The third and lowest is the intellectually ratiocinating Son (義理禪) where discrimination of phenomena and essence exists, existence and emptiness co-exist and spoken of. Throughout two centuries of discussion nobody challenges the supreme orthodoxy and authority of the Patriarch Son. Hence, the establishment of Korean Patriarch Son by multitudes of scholar-monks starting from Paekp’a, confronted by Ch’oui Uisun (1786-1866), conjoind by Udam Honggi (1832-1881), and Soldu Yuhyong(1824-1889), rebutted finally by Ch’ugwon Chinha (1861-1926). All of this discussion was ignited and refueled by the three phrases in the Imje-rok. Criticized as an empty talk, it still bears grave importance of the Linchi’s influence over the Korean Son Buddhist tradition.

2.4 Manhae’s Imje-chong Movement – Failure of the anti-Japanese Sectarian Movement

The history of Buddhism in Korea during the past and present century is riddled with problems like unification of the many strands of Buddhism, how to deal with colonial authority and its edicts and questions of reform and revival of the Buddhist order. Manhae Ha Yongun(1879-1944), opposing to the Japanese political move to merge Korean Son Buddhism to one of the Japanese Soto sect, proposed and created a counter-order/sect, the Imje-chong in 1911 but soon aborted by the Japanese colonial government. We are reminded of the famous diction in the Story of the Three Countries: Dead Kongmyon is better than the living Chungdal. The name Imje had such an appeal to Korean Patriarch Son Buddhists.


3. Concluding Remarks: The Linchi-lu and the Korean Patriarch seon – The significance of the Ch’am Saram Society Movement

Now we are ready to put the Ch’am Saram Movement in perspective. As the fifth and the final transformation of Korean Son Buddhism, this movement is significant and epoch-making in the sense that it tries to cope with the Western civilizational challenges. The previous transformations were made within the East Asian Buddhist framework of reference. Ven Seo-ong’s attempt to retrieve and revive the Imje Son spirit is a colossal venture to radically transform the Korean Son Buddhism, and by the same token, the Buddhist tradition itself in the upcoming age of global civilization.

When any tradition is secured and established, something is selected and accepted while another is left unselected. Thus the tradition is transformed. When Rev. So-ong tries to re-establish the Imje Son tradition, he selects the Linchi-lu as a whole and commented it in its entirety. But the focus of his selection rests securely on the single idea of ch’am saram, the True Human Without Rank in the Linchi-lu. He brush aside all the historical ramifications in one stroke as nothing but a heap of puppets: the three mysteries and concomitant taxonomical classifications, claim to the orthodox lineage requiring us sectarian fidelity are puffed at by him. He selects the true humanity ideal for the sake of coping with the new age of globalization.

Ven. Seo-ong’s approach to the traditional patriarchs’ Son including Imje is epitomized in the Three Vows of the True Humanity:

“Firstly, let us awaken ourselves to the true self of no form and non-abiding and put it to practice by compassionate living [together with all other beings].

Secondly, unobstructed, unbound by any thing, being free from everything, let us create [a new] history where all human kind can live in peace and with equal [right].

Thirdly, being aware of the fact that our individual selves, human kind, and the universe are both eternal and solitary living entity, and yet keeping their own identity, let us respect each other, help each other without grasping [anything as absolute] and practice [our enlightened awareness] in the truthful and right manner so that we can construct a world where beauty is appreciated.”

We take note of two factors in the above vows. It is to be remarked first, that Ven. Seo-ong does not fall into a trap of ontological commitment. In the descriptive explanation at the beginning of his extended commentary on the Imje-rok, he explicitly denies Son to be connected or even compared with either of the Western metaphysical category of both mysticism and pan-theism. His method of ‘infinite break through (無限透過)’ seems to connote this attitude of non-commitment, which is reminiscent of the historical Buddha’s positive and yet anti-metaphysical stance. Incidentally the so-called Critical Buddhist charge of substantialism, associating the Buddha nature to the idea similar to Atman does not seem to apply to Son Buddhism, including Ven. Seo-ong’s recommendation of True Humanity movement.

Ven. Seo-ong also emphasizes the key idea only i. e., that of Ch’am Saram, a rarified universal model of true humanity, in the Imje-rok without labeling it as the Imje-chong sectarian tenet. Hence, he effectively disengages himself with any sectarian or nationalistic/nativistic implication of his proposal to revive Korean Son Buddhist tradition to cope with the globally human problem.

By logical extension, Ven Seo-ong tries to universalize the basic and only aim of Son practice: to become a truly human being. To forge a radical transformation out of ordinary, sense-enslaved man to the universally true humanity in a socially engaged network of world system is an extremely sophisticated and yet very laudable endeavor.

We have no qualm over the first claim. In the universalization process just mentioned in this period of paradigmatic change, however, we are supposed to invent many mediatory steps to fill the wide gap between the rarified universal model of true humanity and the concrete social problems like justice, human rights, environmental hazard, and furthermore construction of world peace. Internally within the Buddhist tradition, the Patriarch Son Buddhist is required to deal with other alternative meditation techniques by critically repudiating them and thus re-confirm the uniqueness as well as the supremacy of the idiosyncratic hwadu meditation. Externally the general idea of religious freedom must find its way and channeled into the socio-political dimension. Without aping a Buddhist type of liberation theology, how could we find the crucial link between the Son idea of unbounded, unobstructed freedom and the concrete social proposal of reform or revolution of the whole world? It is all the more necessary for any Son Buddhist to critically aware of the unbridgeable gap between the spiritual manifesto and the concrete social transaction. But the first gigantic step toward building a brave new world in the radical spirit of Imje’s universal freedom has already taken by Ven. Seo-ong. It is up to the present gathering of practicing monks and intellectual scholars to make up the mediatory steps to fulfill his grand design.