Master Hyobong left his position as a judge in the Japanese colonial period after bestowing the death penalty on independence fighters and became a monk based on his own experience of the human suffering. Applying himself with lionhearted devotion, he earned the nickname of “stone mortar meditator.” He held a series of positions during his life ranging from that of the first Patriarch of the Haeinsa Monastery and its annexes, or the Gayasan Monastic Compound (Haein Chongnim), to the Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. His dharma was transmitted to Master Kusan, his first major disciple and the first Patriarch of the Songgwangsa Monastery and its annexes, or the Jogyesan Monastic Compound. His disciples include Master Beopjeong, famous in the present day for his collection of essays, Musoyu (Freedom from Possessions); Master Beopheung, master of Buddhist services at Songgwangsa; and famed poet Ko un, among others.
Master Hyobong was born in 1888 in Yangdeok-gun, Pyeongannam-do Province, and graduated from law school at Waseda University. After returning to Korea, he became the first Korean judge at the age of 25 and then spent ten years on the bench (1913 – 1923). However, in the tenth year of his tenure, the course of his life would face a major turning point. During the period under Japanese colonialism (1910-1945), as many of Hyobong’s compatriots were sacrificing their lives for the cause of their homeland’s independence, the colonial authorities were sending arrested independence fighters to Korean judges to escape criticism. As a result, Master Hyobong’s only recourse as a judge was to hand down death sentences to any independence fighters who would come before him. Facing his first instance as a judge where he would be forced to fulfill such a duty, he anguished for many days about the foundation of human society and over the question of how one person could ever judge another to die. Finally one morning, after anguishing like this for some days, he left his family and the bench behind, leaving his home without letting anyone know. He then wandered the entire country for three years, living as a taffy peddler. Through this experience, he cultivated contrition and asceticism while traveling on a pilgrimage in search of truth.
At the age of 37, he entered the Buddhist order as a student under Master Seokdu at Singyesa Monastery on Mt. Geumgangsan. In order to find a true master, he then embarked again on the path of the wanderer. However, after being convinced that he had to become enlightened through a practical method based on his own direct investigation and not from being entranced with the words of others, he turned his back on his two years of wandering and again returned to Singyesa. Entering into the retreat in the meditation hall at the Mireugam Hermitage near Singyesa, he said the following to his fellow monks, “Because I’ve become a monk so late, while my karmic connection with wisdom is thin, I can’t engage in any leisurely devotion. Please allow me to simply sit constantly night and day, maintaining strict silence and taking no breaks to rest or walk between meditation periods.” After receiving their consent in this way and devoting himself to this practice for three full months, his buttocks became inflamed and covered in sores, such that his clothes and his cushion were on the verge of becoming stuck together. Because he sat down once and then remained like a heavy stone mortar, devoting himself so strenuously and never budging, he earned his nickname as the “stone mortar meditator.”
Still not enlightened even after spending his first five years of monkhood practicing such strenuous devotion, one late night in 1930, at the age of 42, he constructed a tiny mud hut behind Beopgiam Hermitage. With a hole in one corner for his bodily functions and another hole to receive his food once a day, his hut was built to completely wall himself off from the outside world. He pledged that until he reached enlightenment, he would die before emerging from his tiny abode. In the summer of 1931, as the morning rain cleared, he kicked out one side of the hut and emerged. One year and six months had passed. A song of enlightenment (odosong) rang out:
In a sparrow’s house under the ocean, a deer is sitting on an egg
In a spider’s web in a burning fire, a fish is making tea
Inside this house, who can know what’s going on?
White clouds fly west, the moon moves east.
After this, Master Hyobong practiced retreats at many different meditation halls, one by one receiving a seal of approval (inga) of his enlightenment experience from each head master. In 1937, his 49th year, he went to Songgwangsa at Mt. Jogyesan. He had said that Songgwangsa felt in no way unknown to him, that it was very familiar, as if he was certain he had spent much time in a previous life living there at the seminary. Master Hyobong also received his Buddhist name here, when, in a dream, Gyobong, the 16th dharma heir to Bojo Jinul, appeared to him and said, “Bring vibrant light to this monastery” and bestowed on him his name of Hyobong, together with a set of verses (gatha). Master Hyobong also gave himself his name of “Hangnul” (Studying [Ji]nul), as both a sign of respect and as an indication of how much he had learned from the Great Master Jinul. During the ten years at Songwangsa, while filling the position of head master, he reconstructed the Monastery compound and taught many disciples.
In 1946, Master Hyobong was made the first Patriarch of the newly inaugurated Gaya Monastic Compound, a comprehensive training seminary for monks, headquartered in Haein-sa Monastery. In 1954, he participated in the preparatory committee working in conjunction with the Buddhist Sect Purification movement. In 1962, at the age of 74, he became the first Supreme Patriarch of the Unified Jogye Order and devoted much of his effort to its revival.
In 1966, at the age of 78, with his vitality now in decline, he moved to the Seoraegak Pavillion at Pyochungsa in Miryang. A few months after his arrival, on October 15th, during the morning chanting service, with the aid of his disciples he assumed the lotus position as was his ordinary training regimen and stated to those around him, “I will be going today.” Focusing to the very last moment on the ‘Mu’ hwadu that he had not stopped practicing for even one moment since he had become a monk, at ten o’clock, with his eyes closed, the Master’s prayer beads that had been fingered for so long in his right hand finally came to a stop. His “Song of Nirvana” was the final thing he left behind, a few days before passing into nirvana:
All of the dharma I have spoken
all of it superfluous
should one ask of today’s affairs
the moon is reflected on a thousand rivers
There are no works written by Master Hyobong directly. There are only the Collection of Seon Master Hyobong’s Dharma Discourses, a collection of dharma talks and sermons compiled by the Association of Hyobong Disciples and published in 1975, and the newly revised and enlarged edition of the same, The Collected Dharma Talks of Hyobong, published in 1995.
The period of Master Hyobong’s life began with the ruin of the Joseon Dynasty, continued through thirty-five years of Japanese colonial occupation, and then passed through the post-liberation period of economic ruin and ideological tumult. Within this generational backdrop, Master Hyobong, centered around Songgwang-sa, strove to inherit the spirit of the “samādhi and prajñā society(Jeonghye Gyeolsa)” established by the Goryeo era National Master Bojo Jinul (1158 – 1210). The fact that Master Hyobong came to this emphasis on Master Jinul’s dual practice of meditation and wisdom can be considered as stemming from an awareness that the sense of duty among monks to be ascetics must be recovered, given the vulgarization and Japanization of the Korean contemporary monastic sangha that was caused by the married monk system instituted during the period of Japanese colonialism. In short, he believed that the harmonizing spirit of the dual method of meditation and wisdom was the only way to solve the problems facing the contemporary Buddhist community, since Buddhism’s most fundamental issue of “awakening” depended on “the path of cultivating the mind.”
The Master once said, “Though the courtyards of the monks of the past were each set up differently, when it came to the way they led other seekers, they were all kind. The kindest among them included the Sixth Patriarch Huineng of the ancient period, Zhaozhou of the middle period, and Jinul of the later period.” In this way he clarified that he is following the teachings of the three masters. The common point among these three monks can be known in the fact that they all locate the combined study of the three practices of morality, concentration and wisdom, directly within the mind. This type of thought comes through in the following dharma talk given by Master Hyobong:
If you want to cultivate wisdom (prajñā) without having morality, the result will be an arid wisdom and you won’t be able to escape the condition of life and death. Since the three practices of morality, meditation and wisdom serve as the gate of entrance for all of the ancient Buddhas and Patriarchs, any teaching not on this path is a heretic teaching. In addition, while meditating, those who investigate a hwadu must cultivate both meditation and wisdom, for without the proper energy of concentration the hwadu will often be interrupted. During meditation, only by thoroughly awakening to your hwadu can you escape the condition of life and death. Wisdom without the vitality of meditation is like a castle in the air. (from the sermon at the winter retreat, 1 December 1958, Geumdang Seonwon Hall at Donghwasa Temple)
Like in the words spoken above, Master Hyobong understood that, “the investigation of a hwadu in Seon Buddhism is the combined cultivation of meditation and wisdom.” In short, it is precisely in the practice of the Ganhwaseon method (Observing the hwadu) that the viewpoint regarding the genuine meaning of the dual practice of meditation and wisdom becomes clear.