The History and Tradition of Korean Seon

The Arrival of Seon and the Acceptance of Patriarchal Seon

The Ganhwa Seon of Korea is a mainstream lineage of Patriarchal Seon that accepted entirely the current of Patriarchal Seon established by the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. The Seon Dharma first entered Korea at the end of the Silla and start of the Goryeo dynasties, when monks who were foreign students seeking the Dharma in the Tang Dynasty received the Dharma from China and began to disseminate it in Korea.

Most of them received the Seon Dharma from Seon Master Huineng’s disciples, and they formed the Nine Mountain Seon Schools (kusan Seonmun). By the Goryeo period, these Nine Mountain Seon Schools were collectively called Jogyejong, which was the Seon School that received the Seon Dharma of Seon Master Huineng.

The school name, “Jogyejong” of the Dae Han Bulgyo Jogyejong is derived from the name of the mountain where Seon Master Huineng resided and unfolded the Seon Dharma of sudden enlightenment. From the time of the Tang and Song dynasties, Seon Master Huineng was called Caoqi Huineng (Kor. Jogye Hyeneung). From this it is clear that the Jogyejong has continued to maintain the mainstream lineage of Patriarchal Seon in its true state.

The ancestor of Jogyejong, National Teacher Do-ui received the Seon Dharma from Xitang Zhizang (735-814) in the fourth generation from Huineng. National Teacher Do-ui worshipped and consulted Zhizang as his master, dispelled the ball of doubt he had amassed and finally overcame the indigestion that blocked his enlightenment. Zhizang, seeing this, just as if he had picked out a beautiful jade from among the pebbles or a pearl from the oyster shell, was happy and said, “Truly if I do not transmit the Dharma to this man then to whom would I transmit it?” (Jodangjip 17).

In the Goryeo period, with the advent of the Cheontae (Chi. Tientai) School that had the powerful backing of the royal clan, the Seon School shrank somewhat. Approaching the twelfth century, while consolidating the School, it proceeded to build a new foundation.  National Teacher Won-eung Hag-il (1052-1144) of the Gaji Mountain Gate and National Teacher Daegam Tanyeon (1070-1159) of the Sa-gul Mountain Gate acted vigorously to restore the Seon School. Moreover, Layman Yi Jahyeon (1061-1125), who had extensive connections with the Seon monks and who at that time exercised huge influence on the Seon thought of the Goryeo, initiated the flowering of an invigorating layperson’s Buddhism.

The Acceptance and Consolidation of Ganhwa Seon
In the period of military dominance in the Goryeo, with the advent of Seon Master Bojo Jinul (1158-1210), the Seon-style rose strongly once again. At Suseonsa (Cultivation of Seon Society – today’s Songgwang-sa Monastery), National Teacher Bojo developed the Jeonghye Gyeolsa that was a movement for the joint practice of meditation and wisdom, and meditation practitioners gathered there from all over.  Then, for the first time, the Ganhwa Seon method established by Dahui (1089-1163) was introduced into Korea by Bojo. The National Teacher offered Ganhwa Seon for the practitioners of outstanding ability.

However, the person who genuinely accepted ganhwa Seon into Goryeo Buddhism was National Teacher Jin-gak Hyesim (1178-1234). Seon Master Hyesim compiled the Seonmun yeomsong, the very first collection of gongan (Jap. koan) in Korea. This collection of gongan opened up a concrete path for practitioners to study (gongbu or concentrated effort) hwadu. Moreover, Hyesim clarified in detail the concrete troubles and symptoms that can occur when studying, and elucidated the topic of the hwadu of the character “no” (the story of a dog having no Buddha-nature).

After Seon Master Hyesim, the Ganhwa Seon method of practice and style was continued through sixteen national teachers of Suseonsa. Of course, even in the period while they were active, the practice method of Ganhwa Seon entered Goryeo from China several times.
In 1270, the military regime collapsed and Suseonsa fell to a low ebb, but the current of Ganhwa Seon was renewed by Seon Master Iryeon (1200-1289) who consolidated the Seon style. Around this time, many Seon monks of the Goryeo entered into Yuan China in active pursuit of the Dharma, and through them many Seon texts and new Seon methods were introduced, and so the Goryeo Seon School encountered a new phase.

The Development of Ganhwa Seon and its Complete Consolidation
The firm establishment of Ganhwa Seon in Korea was accomplished by the activities of three teachers at the end of the Goryeo. They were Seon masters Taego Bou (1301-1381), Naong Hye-geun (1320-1376) and Baeg-un Gyeonghan (1299-1375). They all went to China, and through their exchanges with genuine lineage teachers of the Seon Gate, after inheriting the correct Dharma lineage of the Linji Branch, they returned to Goryeo. In this way these three teachers, after being enlightened to the teaching of Chan Master Mengshan of Yuan China, who had freshly formed the new Seon style of the Seon Gate of Goryeo, they sought out the true teachers of the lineage (literally, lineage masters of original complexion), received their seal of approval, and established a strict tradition.

Although it is a fact that Seon masters Naong Hyegeun and Baeg-un Gyeonghan’s activities were outstanding, it was rather National Teacher Taego Bou who spread Ganhwa Seon widely at the end of the Goryeo and firmly established it. National Teacher Bou argued that one transcended the Buddha through the house style of one’s own lineage teacher (literally, lineage master who originally shared in enlightenment), and as the teaching of Seon that passes over the patriarchs says, “Even though one has all the teachings of the Tripitaka, the 1,700 gongans, the shouts of Linji or the blows of Deshan, from the viewpoint of the original teacher of the lineage it is all in vain.”

The National Teacher taught that one practice Ganhwa Seon, investigate the hwadu and try not to interrupt doubt, and after conquering the hwadu, one seeks out one’s true lineage teacher and has him confirm one’s enlightened state. That is, Seon Master Taego clearly established a Ganhwa Seon practice system in which one investigated the hwadu, and after enlightenment, sought out one’s true lineage teacher and asked him to judge if it was truly enlightenment or not.

The reason National Teacher Taego Bou is venerated as the restoration patriarch of Korean Buddhist Jogye order is because he firmly established such a systematic practice of Ganhwa Seon, and because he received and brought the mainstream lineage of Linji (Kor. Imje) Seon from China, and because that Dharma-lineage has passed down through Joseon Buddhism without break to the present day.
The Transmission of Ganhwa Seon in the Joseon period and the Revival of Ganhwa Seon in Recent Times
The Ganhwa Seon Dharma was fully consolidated in Korea by National Teacher Bou, and through his agency occupied a firm place as the leading method of practice in Korean Buddhism. Bou’s Seon lineage was continued by Seon masters Hwan-am Honsu (1320-1392), Gu-gok Gag-un, Byeoggye Jeongsim, Byeoksong Ji-eom (1464-1534), Buyong Yeonggwan (1485-1571), when it formed the two mountain branch lineages of Seon masters Cheongheo Hyujeong (1520-1604) and Buhyu Seonsu (1543-1615).

In Seon Master Seosan Hyujeong’s school, the two great masters Pyeonyang Eon-gi (1581-1644) and Sa-myeong Yujeong (1544-1610) appeared, and of them, the faction of Seon Master Pyeonyang Eon-gi flourished in later times. This latter Seon lineage was continued by masters Pungdam Uisim (1592-1655), Woldam Seoljye (1632-1704) and Hwanseong Jian (1664-1729).

In recent times, Seon Masters Gyeongheo Seong-u (1846-1912) and Yongseong Chinjong (1864-1940) greatly promoted the Ganhwa Seon style. Gyeongheo succeeded to the Dharma of Seon Master Yong-am Hye-eon. The advent of Gyeongheo was the direct occasion for the revival of the Seon style of Ganhwa Seon that had been dying out. Gyeongheo’s disciples were Suwol (1855-1928), Hyewol (1855-1928), Man-gong (1871-1946) and Han-am (1876-1951) among others. Seon Master Yeongseong succeeded to the Dharma lineage of Hwanseong Jian. In Ganhwa Seon what is valued above all else is the Dharma. So after Hwanseong, the isolated lineage school was reactivated due to them and has been carried on till the present day. Their Seon style is a line of Ganhwa Seon that has its basis fully in Patriarchal Seon.

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