His dharma name was Yongseong and his ordination name was Jinjong.
Master Yongseong was born in Namwon, North Jeolla-do Province. He began studying the Chinese classics at the age of six, and by the age of eight he could even write poetry, exhibiting exemplary literary skill. At the age of thirteen, he had a dream that he had received a dharma transmission from the Buddha, and then some time later when by chance he came upon some monastery, he discovered that the enshrined Buddha there looked exactly like the Buddha he had seen in his dream. After that incident, he stayed at the monastery wanting to live there, but his parents persuaded him to return home. At the age of fifteen, he ordained at Geungnagam Hermitage at Haeinsa Monastery on Mt. Gayasan.
Following his ordination, he learned the practice of Buddha recitation from Master Suwol and as he was continuing with his memorization of the daebiju (the dharani of Gwanseeum Bodhisattva), he had an awakening experience after six days of deep Seon meditation practice at the Dosoram Hermitage at Bogwangsa Monastery in Yangju. However, feeling himself that this awakening was insufficient, he continued further by taking on the investigation of the “MU” hwadu. Finally, in 1884, at the age of twenty, he broke through his mass of doubt and awakened to the fact that emptiness and form were not two. Following this, during a period of intense practice he again had a great awakening while reading the Jeondeungnok (The Record of the Transmission of the Lamp) in the Samiram Hermitage at Songgwangsa Monastery.
After this great awakening, the Master went to Sangseonam Hermitage in Mt. Jirisan where he practiced both Seon and Gyo (doctrinal study) with voracity, teaching Seon meditation to other monks and also reading various sutras, including the Awakening of Mahayana Faith, the Lotus Sutra, and the Flower Adornment Sutra. In addition, while cultivating the perfection of effort (virya paramita), he engaged in discourse on the nature of truth with masters such as Hyewol, Mangong and others, gradually expanding his own awakening. Regardless of where he went, his presence made it as if a Seon assembly was being held and the spirit of Seon flourished.
In 1907, at the age of 43, the Master headed for China. To a Chinese monk who arrogantly praised the superiority of Chinese Buddhism and disparaged Korean Buddhism, he replied, “Is the Sun and the Moon in the sky your country’s alone? Buddhist dharma is a public truth of the world, so how can the public truth of the world be limited to China?” In this way, he defended the legitimacy of Korean Buddhism.
In 1910, he was invited to the position of Head Master of Chilburam Meditation Hall (Seonwon) in Mt. Jirisan, guiding and encouraging many monastics. He composed the first work that analyzed and criticized the teachings of Christianity from a Korean Buddhist perspective, Gwiwon Jeongjong (Correct Teachings Returning to the Origin). As a response to the growing strength of Christianity in Korea, which was more organized and successful in its outreach efforts, he set out on an effort to write books systematizing Buddhist doctrines and tenets, as well as translating sutras written in Classical Chinese into Korean native script (hangeul).
In 1911, he went to Seoul for the propagation of urban Buddhism. The following year, he established a Seon Center in Daesa-dong to lead a modernized propagation movement, and then later, he founded Daegaksa Temple in Seoul’s Bongik-dong where he offered Buddhist instruction to the general public.
In 1919, during the March 1st Independence Movement against the Japanese colonial regime, together with Master Manhae, he served as a representative of the Buddhist community among the 33 national representatives, devoting themselves to the work of restoring the nation and serving as an encouragement to all Buddhists to join in the patriotic movement. As a result, he was apprehended by the Japanese police, put on trial, and endured three years of hardship in prison. Even after his release, he was put under constant surveillance by the Japanese authorities. During his three year confinement, upon seeing that another prisoner had a Bible that had been translated into the Korean script, he came to again recognize the necessity of translating the Buddhist scriptures into vernacular Korean. Thus, after his release from prison, he formed the “Tripitaka Translation Group” (Samjang Yeokhoe) and immersed himself in the work of translation, for the purpose of propagating Buddhism to the public. In addition, while serving as Head Master of the 10,000 days Meditation Hall (Manil Seonwon) at Naewonsa Monastery in Yangsan, he translated the 80 volumes of the Flower Garland Sutra, an effort regarded as an epoch-making accomplishment in the Korean translation of the Buddhist sutras.
In 1925, at the age of 61, he established the “Supreme Enlightenment Foundation” (Daegakgyo) at Daegaksa in Seoul, beginning new Buddhist and Public Education movements. A movement to arouse self-awareness in each of his fellow countrymen that they are truthful beings who possess infinite possibilities and wisdom, this activity was grounded in the idea of putting into practice the Mahayana Bodhisattva path of serving others and serving one’s self.
Following this, he went to Longjing in Manchuria where he cleared the land in the Mt. Baegunsan to both manage the Hwagwawon, where he established a “Supreme Enlightenment Foundation”, and spread the “Seon and Agriculture, Combined” (seonnong ilchi) movement. As a means of bringing about the economic independence of Buddhist temples, this movement especially emphasized agricultural cultivation and development alongside Seon meditation; the Master personally grabbed a hoe to join in the labor. In addition, to concentrate the activity of Buddhist propagation, together with Master Hanyeong he published the “Buddha Day” (Buril) magazine and inaugurated the practice of holding Buddhist services every Sunday. Furthermore, they brought about the complete translation and standardization of Buddhist rituals and recitations into vernacular Korean, and authored the “Chanbulga,” a series of odes to the virtues of the Buddha that could be sung in Korean.
Living with an unmatched intensity during these difficult times, Master Yongseong left to us a diversity of lifetime achievements, including his defense of traditional Buddhism, his reform and popularization of Buddhism, the simultaneous practice of Seon and Vinaya, the implementation of the Agricultural Seon movement, as well as the idea of “Supreme Enlightenment” and the advocacy of “Supreme Enlightenment Foundation” movements. Finally in 1940, at the age of 76, after 61 years in the sangha, he entered Nirvana. Among his disciples were Masters Dongsan Hyeil, Goam, Jaun, Deongheon, Gobong and others.
The Master’s written work includes twenty-one volumes, including the Gwiwon Jeongjong (Correct Teachings Returning to the Origin), Gakhae Illyun (The Sea of Enlightenment and the Circle of the Sun), Seonmun Yoji (Essential Teachings of Seon Buddhism), and others. He also produced a 22 volume work of translations and commentaries including the Suneungeomgyeong Seonhan Yeonui (Commentaries on the Suramgama-sutra in Korean) and his published essays which amounted to nine volumes, including Manil chamseon gyeolsahoe changnipgi (The Story of Establishing the 10,000 Days Seon Community), Hwalgu chamseon manil gyeolsa barwonmun (Dedication for the 10,000 Days Live Phrase Seon Meditation), Beomgye saenghwal-e daehan geonbaekseo (Admonition for the Keeping of the Precepts), and others.
To bring about the popularization and reform of Buddhism, Master Yongseong strove endlessly to find and implement the dynamic path of Buddhism, embodied in the idea of daegak “supreme enlightenment.”
Because the thinking of daegak as emphasized by Master Yongseong was advocated through the idea of jagak gakta, that the self-awakening to one’s fundamental nature and the awakening of others are not two separate things, the combined notions of awakening to bongak (original enlightenment), sigak (initial enlightenment), and gugyeonggak (ultimate enlightenment) comprised the idea referred to as daegak (supreme enlightenment). Based on self-enlightenment (gak), it can be said that “Buddha” is nothing other than daegak and “Buddhism” is nothing other than the “teaching of daegak.”
Master Yongeong’s thinking of daegak was an individualized and powerful Buddhist teaching that matched the spiritual capability rooted within each sentient being who lived and breathed just as he. His method was similar to treating patients with medicines that suit their disease, or how the Buddha always modified his dharma sermons to communicate the truth in accordance with the interpretive capabilities of his audience.
The epochal circumstances of Japanese colonization that brought an end to the Joseon Dynasty perhaps cut more deeply into the heart of Master Yongseong than anyone else, and he strove to make the 2500 year-old teachings of the Buddha relevant to the long-suffering Korean people, struggling under the Japanese colonial regime. As a result, he abandoned the life of “Buddhism in the mountains,” presenting for the first time an alternate model propagating Buddhism within an urban setting. Moreover, he perceived the obstacles for the public to approach Buddhism, due to the fact that ordinary Buddhist believers faced great difficulties in understanding the Buddhist sutras written in classical Chinese, he also began the immense undertaking of translating the sutras into Korean script (hangeul). The result of this undertaking was that numerous sutras were written in the vernacular, including the Diamond Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra and others, and in this way he supplied a shortcut by which the public could more easily come into contact with the wisdom of Buddhism. This translation project was not his only propagation effort, as he also introduced the modern method of setting the framework for Buddhism’s economic independence through the establishment and management of urban propagation groups.
In addition, within his practice, he gave weight to both the Vinaya and the practice methods of the “observing the hwadu” (Ganhwa) Method of Seon meditation, and through setting an example of exhaustive practice, he showed a path of guidance to those who sought the dharma.
Even under the sharp gleaming edge of the Japanese blade, poised as it was to annihilate Korean national culture, the unyielding strength of the Master, who always stood at the forefront of efforts to propagate of Buddhism to the public, was a result of the power of his practice and activities that literally put his life at stake. As a monk who had already transcended the boundaries of life and death, he was able to overcome each and every fear without hesitation.