Letters Exchanged between Master Seongcheol, Prof. Bieder and Layman Gyutae Son

 1. A Letter Answered to Prof. Bieder1) by Master Seongcheol2)

I am deeply ashamed of myself for having said too many unnecessary things, revealing my foolishness, when you visited me the other day.
It is unthinkable to answer questions, which are not clear even to oneself, though, I prepared the following answers to your questions, not daring to put your questions aside. I beg your forgiveness.

1) ‘Truth is not in the letters of scriptures, but in one’s mind, therefore, one must realize one’s mind in order to attain Truth. Otherwise, trying to seek Truth in the letters of the scriptures, is like seeking the sky while digging in the earth, whereby the Truth will never be found. Devote yourself solely to cultivating your mind and you will attain enlightenment.’ That is the basic teaching of the scriptures. For those who don’t believe that Truth can only be found in their mind, scriptures can temporarily be helpful. However, if one meets a good teacher and understands that Truth is in his mind, he doesn’t need scriptures any more. Accordingly, the learning of scriptures is not compulsory for entering the Buddhist Path.
The Buddha always said to his disciples: “The most difficult hindrance to developing Truth in one’s mind is adhering to the letters of the scriptures. The merit of millions of years of scriptural study is inferior to that of a single day’s cultivation of mind. Abandon the scriptures, instead, cultivate your mind.” The Buddha always admonished his disciples for adhering to words and scriptures. Instead, he taught them sitting meditation.
Those monks who study scriptures cannot be equal to those monks who devote themselves to practicing sitting meditation. Though a monk can recite all the sutras printed on eighty thousand blocks,3) his knowledge is not comparable to an illiterate monk who has a supreme powerful wisdom. The lifeblood of Buddhism is not in the accumulation of abundant knowledge of scriptures, but in realization of one’s own mind.
For example, Master Huineng,4) the Sixth Patriarch of Chan (= Zen) Buddhism, is considered to be the greatest figure in Chinese Buddhist history, but he was utterly illiterate. His colleague Master Shenxiu5) was an exemplary disciple who had no equal in his understanding of Buddhist or worldly knowledge. Nevertheless, the Fifth Patriarch transmitted the dharma to Master Huineng, who was illiterate, but realized his own mind. It has been lauded by the whole world that the descendants of Master Huineng’s disciples dominated Chinese Buddhism. There are some who solely engage themselves in the study of scriptures, but, if they devote their whole life to it, it would be a kind of deviation from the fundamentals of the Buddha’s teaching. Master Seosan,6) who was regarded as the greatest monk of the Joseon7) dynasty in its 500 year history, always said, “I would rather remain an illiterate all my life than to become a monk who devotes himself to the study of the scriptures.”

2) In Buddhism, there is a strict distinction between monks, who have renounced the world and laymen leading a worldly life. Monks are those who, sacrificing all of their worldly happiness, devote their whole life to the service of others and maintain a life of celibacy, while laymen, believing in Buddhism, engage in various activities of ordinary life. If a monk has a wife and children, his Buddhist activities will necessarily become a means of making a living, his family, being the center of his life. That would go against the Buddhist spirit of Great Compassion which advocates devotion to the service of all sentient beings. Therefore, it is strictly prohibited for a monk to take a wife. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is not permitted a monk to renounce his earlier commitment and return to the life of an ordinary layman. Once a monk returns to the laity, he retires as a monk and becomes a lay Buddhist. No matter how the world today has changed, such monks, who completely forget their own interests and realize the Great Compassion in the pursuit of the welfare of others, should come forth in numbers. Only then can the true value of Buddhism be recognized.
Furthermore, if one wants to completely develop his absolute and original mind with which everyone is equally endowed, he should abandon all of his attachments, or he cannot accomplish it. The Buddha said that sexual desire is the strongest among all attachments, and so one cannot attain realization without eliminating it. Therefore, realization entails a life of celibacy.

3) According to a medical study, all plants contain a proper amount of salts which are sufficient for maintaining good health. They are natural foods. If a food is proper for maintaining one’s health, it is good enough and doesn’t need to be processed. Besides this, there is no special meaning in several years of a salt-free diet.

4) Prayer is an expedient for those who don’t know clearly that the Buddha is in their mind. Therefore, if one knows that his own mind is the Buddha, then prayer will be denounced rather than unnecessary.

5) One cannot see the Buddha, which we all equally have in our mind, because one’s original mind is obstructed with evil thoughts, that is, afflicted by deluded thoughts. Therefore, if you want to see the Buddha in your original mind, you should eliminate these elements of deluded thoughts. There are four devas8) guarding the gate at the entrance to a temple. They represent the generals who defeat the deluded thoughts and the poor beings, pressed under their feet, symbolize evil, which obstructs one’s original mind. The countenance of each of the four gatekeepers describes their compassion and dignity when they expel the evil beings. It means that the one, who enters the gateway to Buddhism, will activate the guard of his mind to crush evil in his mind and return to his original mind, which has already been one with the Buddha.

6) Temples are training centers where the spiritual leaders, namely, apostles of Truth, who will provide the nation and the society with spiritual nourishment, are cultivated. Therefore, the temples cannot be developed into tourist resorts which serve to delight the eyes of visitors. It is quite natural for Haeinsa to be opposed to tourist development in order to insure that the original purpose of the monastery remains a place for spiritual practice. No matter what plan the government draws up, we cannot but strive to defend our position as seekers after Truth.

7) In Buddhism, it is said that each human being has eternal life and ability, which is called one’s original Buddha nature. If you develop it to perfection, you will attain eternal freedom and absolute happiness. The symbol of the phoenix denotes the eternal working of this principle.

8) I told you several times that the Absolute Self, based on the limitless ability of eternal life, namely, the Buddha in one’s mind, is the original state of a human being, which was discovered and seen by the Buddha. Therefore, Buddhism is not for the study the Buddha’s teachings, but to return to one’s original self, which the Buddha showed us. If one returns to this Absolute Self, the distinction between self and others will completely disappear, and you will find nothing in the whole universe which is different from you or which is not you. If you develop this True Self, which is beyond both self and others, its great working, free from all obstacles, will eternally unfold. If the very ‘self’ is not found here, then how can there be ‘others’? Here is the place where an absolute religious life begins, which rises above both the individual and the whole world and at the same time, integrates them.

9) Buddhism refers to the unity of body and mind. Though there are three bodies of Manju?r?, Samantabhadra and ??kyamuni, which respectively stand for wisdom,  practice and  both wisdom and practice, their meaning is one, that is, the fact that one’s mind is manifested in all. They are different expressions describing various activities of the same one mind, and so, it is called Manju?r? when the activity of wisdom is emphasized, Samantabhadra when that of practice is emphasized and ??kyamuni when that of both wisdom and practice is emphasized. Therefore, such being the case, Manju?r? is Samantabhadra and Samantabhadra is ??kyamuni, and accordingly, they are completely one.

10) Truth, i.e. the original light of the universe is always shining without interruption, though, a blind man cannot see this and laments the darkness. Discrimination between Christianity, Islam, Buddhism etc. is like an illusion made by the blind man in his world of darkness. Therefore, if he gains his eyesight, all differentiated illusions of the darkness will disappear without any remains. At that moment, there is nothing which is not light, not the Buddha Dharma. It is like becoming one [salty] taste of various rivers when they flow into the sea. Once you open your eyes and see the light, there will be only this absolute great light, without any traces of various religions. If you can’t find Buddhism, where will you find the Christianity or Islam? We should just open our eyes, look strait ahead and see the light of life which we all equally have.

11) Mountain spirit is one of the nature-spirits which are not acknowledged in Buddhism. The shrine of the mountain spirit shows the influence of Shamanism, an indigenous religion of Korea, upon Buddhism and is not pertinent to orthodox Buddhist thoughts.

12) Seon (= Zen) is essential for the preservation of Buddhism. The dharma lineage of Buddhism has continued unbroken by Seon. One- Buddhism9) places one-sided emphasis on daily life and neglects the basic focus of pure Buddhism on the attainment of enlightenment, that is, realizing one’s original mind. Therefore, One-Buddhism is a quasi Buddhism, and not Buddhism in its real essence.
The division of Buddhism into various branches is caused by different interpretations of the basic teachings. However, all Buddhist schools, without any exception, regard the Middle Path as the fundamental Buddhist teaching, which avoids both extremes and leads to penetration into reality. Therefore, each school is trying to find a way to dispel the differences between the various schools by developing a more accurate understanding of the Middle Path. It will hopefully lead to a resolution of the general problems in Buddhism since the middle Path is the formulation of the contents of one’s own mind, i.e. the Buddha nature.

13) It is easy to find a good scholar, studying the scriptures, in Japanese Buddhism, but not easy to find a devotional monk, practicing meditation. Although there are a number of monks, most of them have a wife, and so there are only few monks who keep the precepts given by the Buddha.
Meanwhile, in Korea, there are a number of monks who practice meditation and lead a life of celibacy, and so Korean Buddhism is regarded as superior to Japanese Buddhism in this respect. Therefore, we often meet Japanese monks who visit Korean temples and record that Korean Buddhism is still active and preserving its ethical and devotional tradition. It seems that Buddhism has disappeared in China, while the Taiwanese monks are often ascribed to be less decent than the Korean monks.

14) As stated above, what is important in Buddhism is to realize one’s original mind, with less emphasis placed upon knowledge of the Buddhist teachings. Fortunately, all human beings, without any distinction, are equally endowed with this original mind, the absolute Self. Therefore, it is important for those who enter Buddhism to have faith in the Buddha nature and their knowledge about Buddhism is no consideration.

15) Buddhism is based on the notion that the present is absolute. From the Buddhist viewpoint, there is no separation between the present moment and the absolute.
When one does not know, he distinguishes between the absolute and the present and mistakes the absolute for the present, but when he attains penetration into reality, he correctly sees that the present itself is the absolute. At the most threatening moment of being attacked by an armed robber, a religious man will not lose his composure, remaining undisturbed by this situation. If he loses his presence of mind and attitude according to various circumstances, how does he differ from an ordinary layman? The common man is subject to spatial and temporal conditions, but the enlightened man, who realizes his own mind, can control them. If one can lead a life which is free from spatial and temporal conditions and have his daily activities under his control, then it will be beyond and prior to the ultimate (= nirvana). Such matters are taught to be actualized through practice, not for talking or discussion. It is not an empty theory. When you realize the Buddha in your mind, with which we all are equally endowed, you will know that there is no falsehood in my words. I apologize for my long letter. Please, after reading it, throw it away.

2. A Letter from Layman Gyutae Son to Master Seongcheol

I deeply appreciate for your kindness and the wholehearted conversation you gave to Prof. Bieder and myself when we visited you the other day. It was an unforgettable experience for me to meet a living Seon master of great personality, though it was just a brief meeting.
Here are a couple of constructive questions of Prof. Bieder along with my questions, which are of interest to me from the viewpoint of social ethics. It was the first time, and probably the last time, for Prof. Bieder to have an opportunity to meet and talk with a prominent leader of Korean Buddhism since he came to Korea and his knowledge about Korean Buddhism is limited to a few books. I believe that the following questions and your answers to them will certainly be considered in his writing after his return. You may answer in English or German, or if you prefer to write in Korean, I can translate them.
The questions are:

1) What is the present state of Buddhism in North Korea?

2) What is the difference between the attainment of Correct Eyes in Buddhism and Transformation in Christianity? Also, it seems that in Buddhism, transformation is denied because even the Enlightened One is still equal to ordinary men. If so, is it the same as the teaching of ‘Simul justus et peccator’10) which is the formula of Ruther’s doctrine of justification by grace alone during the time of the Reformation?

3) You said that, when one enters a new dimension, Nirvana, there is no distinction between others and self and all confrontations resulting from our mental activities will be dissolved. In that case, what is the Buddhist view on the reality of sin? How does it differ from Augustine’s saying that lack of virtue is sin?

These are rather rough and primitive questions, though, as I am concerned about social ethics, I dared to ask for your views on these matters.
Thank you again for your kindness and if you have time, I hope to visit you again some other day. Please, don’t reject me but allow me to see you as last time.

4th September, 1972 A.D.
Sincerely yours,
Gyutae Son

3. An Answer from Master Seongcheol to Layman Gyutae Son

I received your letter and here are my answers to the inquiries of Prof. Bieder. Please translate them and show him.
Among the questions,

1) About the present state of Buddhism in North Korea, I don’t know much about it.

2) The Position of Buddhism is like this: ‘To see your Original State. The Original State is everlasting, inexhaustible and absolute and called ‘mind’ or ‘the Buddha’. If you do not know this Original State of your mind as a result of having a deluded mind, then you misunderstand that ordinary men are just sentient beings. It is only after you get rid of all illusions and misconceptions that you realize your original face, the Buddha in your mind, and attain Correct Eyes. Through these Correct Eyes you see your original face which has been always there and is not at all a result of any kind of transformation. All human beings are equally endowed with this Buddha nature, and so there cannot be any difference between them, such as superior or inferior. The distinction between the Buddha and ordinary men comes from illusion, which is not a correct seeing.’
This is the Buddhist point of view. We are all under the illusion that we are sentient beings, not knowing that we are originally the Buddha. It doesn’t mean that we should transform sentient nature into the Buddha nature. What we should do is just to see our real state as it is, which we mistakenly regard as that of sentient beings, then we will realize that we are intrinsically the Buddha.
Even though you misunderstand the Buddha in your mind as a sentient being or an ordinary man, it remains only as delusion and doesn’t make any difference to the original face in your mind. As I illustrated the other day, no matter what you call gold, whether gold or stone, the gold doesn’t change into stone. When you awaken from this illusion and identify gold as gold, it is still the same gold as before. If you know this correctly, you will see that the present is the absolute and each sentient being is originally the Buddha, and accordingly you will realize that you are originally a great free man of the Land of Bliss.

3) The Buddhist argument favoring the original innocence of human beings is this: ‘You are already in nirvana. In nirvana, all confrontations are dispelled such that there is no distinction between you and me. This is your original face. The distinction between you and me arises from delusion caused by intellectual understanding or speculative discrimination. If these mental activities of intellectual understanding or speculative discrimination are ceased, you will awake from illusion and return to nirvana, your native place. It doesn’t mean that you will enter nirvana, because the great nirvana is the absolute, beyond coming in and out. This nirvana is your original mind, real self and the Buddha.
All sins arise from blind behavior caused by misunderstanding of the original Buddha. If you awaken from illusion and return to the original Buddha, sin, which is the illusion of blind behavior, will disappear without leaving any trace. Sin does not really exist, but is a transitory phantom arising from delusion. Don’t be afraid of sin nor try to get rid of it, but just awaken from illusion. Then you will know that you are originally the Buddha, free from any sins, the real gold.’
Such is the Buddhist preaching of the original innocence of human beings. There cannot be any sin in the original Buddha. When you correctly see the original Buddha in your mind, which, as an absolute personality, is beyond all distinctions such as good and evil, you will realize that each human being is originally a perfect man of virtue, having nothing to do with sin. Therefore, I believe that, if you understand the Buddhist viewpoint of the original innocence of ordinary man, the difference of Buddhism from other religions will be clear to you.
Surely, you can visit me whenever you have time. Though I cannot entertain you well, you are always welcome.

10th September 1972
Sincerely yours,


1) Werner Bieder; Theology Professor of the University of Bazel, Switzerland. While staying in Korea as a visiting scholar, he visited Master Seongcheol in 1972 with Gyutae Son, a graduate student of Theology, who later became a professor of the SongKongHoe University.

2) 性徹 (1912-1993); his dharma name was Toeong 退翁 and family name was Li. He was born in Sancheong, Kyeongnam province. In 1936, he entered the Buddhist Order under the guidance of Master Dongsan of the Haeinsa. It is said that he practiced Hwadu meditation without lying down for eight years until he attained enlightenment at Geumdang Seon (= Zen) Center, Donghwasa, in 1981. In 1967 he was selected as the Seon Master of the Haein Monastic Teaching Center, and in 1981, as the Seventh Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order. He wrote many books which have had a great influence on Korean Buddhism of today. He died in Haeinsa, at the age of 82, fifty eight years after entering the Order.
3) Referring to Tripitaka Koreana; The Korean edition of a Buddhist Tripitaka on wooden printing blocks containing both the Pali and Mahayana sutras, scriptural commentaries, and philosophical texts from the both traditions. In 1236, after the burning of the first Tripitaka by the Mongols, the carving of a new Tripitaka was ordered by the royal decree, in order to protect Korea (= Goryo at that time) from foreign invasion. This second set was completed in 1251 and is still preserved today at the Haeinsa.
4) 慧能 (638-713); A Chinese Chan (= Zen) monk who is one of the most important figures in the tradition. He was said to originally be an illiterate wood-cutter, who, upon hearing a recitation of the Diamond S?tra 金剛經, became awakened to the import of Buddhism. He went on to study with the Chan master Hongren 弘忍, eventually becoming the dharma-heir of this teacher, and thus the sixth patriarch 六祖. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch 六祖壇經, attributed to Huineng, became one of the most influential texts in the East Asian meditative tradition: Cited from Digital Dictionary of Buddhism. http://www.acmuller.net.
5) 神秀 (606? – 706); A most famous figure in the tradition who became the second best in the contest for the patriarchate which, according to the Platform Sutra took place shortly before the death of the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren. However, he became Head Master of the Northern School of Chinese Chan, and was in some traditions recognized as the sixth patriarch of the Chan tradition. Also Dunhuang documents show that in the early part of the eighth century Shenxiu’s group was clearly the mainstream and the most vibrant exemplar of Chan in China. They never referred to themselves as the ‘Northern School’ , but rather called themselves the ‘East Mountain’ school, and were recognized as the legitimate heirs of Hongren: Cited from Digital Dictionary of Buddhism.http://www.acmuller.net.
6) 西山大士 (= 休靜 1520-1604); a great Seon master of the Joseon Dynasty, who advocated the doctrinal approach in combination  with practice. His influence remained in place down to modern times. At the time of the Japanese invasion, he played an important role, by creating and leading an army of monks. He also was the author of a number of important religious texts, the most important of which is Mirror for Meditation Students 禪家龜鑑, a guide to Seon practice which is studied by Korean monks down to the present.
7) 朝鮮; 1392-1910.
8) The Devas in Hinduism and Buddhism hold a similar place in relation to God as angels do in Judaeo-Christian traditions.
9) 圓佛敎; a new folk religion of Korea which was founded by Sotaesan 소태산少太山, Jungbin Pak 朴重彬 in 1916 when he realized the Truth of the world and the life. In One-Buddhism, there are elements similar to the Buddhism, though, we cannot correctly say that it is the same as Buddhism. First of all, its main goal is to make a better society for better life, while neglecting one’s own enlightenment, as Master Seongcheol demonstrated. Also a life of celibacy is not compulsory in One-Buddhism.
10) It means that one is both a righteous man and a sinner at the same time. Based on this teaching, Luther understood righteousness as a gift of God’s grace, and discovered (or recovered) the doctrine of justification by grace alone.

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