His dharma name was Jeongang and his ordination name was Yeongsin.
Master Jeon-gang was born in 1893 in Gokseong, Jeollanam-do Province. At the age of seven, his mother passed away. His father then remarried, but he too also passed away when he was 13; his step-mother then abandoned not only him but her own son as well, remarrying into another family. To fill his empty stomach he was forced to take on a number of odd jobs hard to bear for one so young; he worked as a hunter’s assistant, pumped bellows at a brass foundry, and also worked as a traveling merchant.
It was during that time when after meeting a monk one day, he ended up visiting a temple. When he turned 16, he began the life of a postulant at Haeinsa Monastery. There he formed an intimate friendship with Bongnyong, a novice monk two years his elder, who had a strong personality and was well learned. Bongnyong then ended up falling ill to a sudden disease and died. In the forlorn circumstances of having already gone through the difficulties of facing the deaths of his parents and sibling, he watched as Bongnyong, whom he had depended on and had been like family to him, was cremated and turned into a handful of ash. Seeing this, he felt deeply in his heart the transience of life and death.
Pledging to himself to use this opportunity to break free from the sufferings of life and death, he became absorbed in the “MU” hwadu. His devoted himself with such intensity that though he bled fiercely from his mouth and nose he would not stop his meditation. This ferocious pursuit of the truth continued for some eight years. Pale and close to death, the 23 year old Jeongang headed for his hometown of Gokseong to spend a season at Taeansa Monastery.
One night at Taeansa, as he was passing across the stepping stones while listening to the sound of water flowing through the valley, in a flash he felt the mass of doubt that had been inside of him dissolve and the cloud of life and death wash away. After this awakening, he sought out the Seon masters of his day, Hyewol, Bowol, Yongseong, Hanam, Mangong and others, and through many dharma debates with them he received from each approval of his complete enlightenment (inga).
From then on, Master Jeongang, who had taken on the position of Head Master of the Bogwang Seonwon (Meditation Hall) at Tongdosa at the age of only 32, presided over many different meditation halls (Seonwon) across the land, including the Bokcheon Seonwon at Beopjusa, the Donghwasa Seonwon, the Seonwon at Sudoam Hermitage, and cultivated numerous disciples.
Master Jeongang never showed a single flaw in his dharma discourses and teachings. In matters of dharma he never went easy on either masters or disciples. Still, his love for his disciples was exceptional.
For example, Master Songdam, the current head master of the Yonghwa Seonwon and a disciple of Master Jeongang, was practicing the discipline of silence in those days. But when the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950, it became very difficult for him to maintain his silence in those circumstances. Thereupon, Master Jeongang took on the management of a store in the marketplace, allowing Master Songdam to safely take refuge in the attic of the store, and therefore made it possible for him to continue his special practice. Receiving such continuing unconditional help like this, Songdam completed ten whole years of this practice but had yet to bear even a hint showing that he had gained any enlightenment. Seeing this, Jeongang, who had treated Songdam better than his own son, finally beat him mercilessly. The following day, Songdam let out a lion’s roar, and to pay back the kindness of his master, he has become a towering figure in the sangha, rising high to lead the lineage of the Korean Seon Buddhism of today.
In 1963, Master Jeongang established the Beopbo Seonwon at Yonghwasa in Incheon. Without distinguishing between monastics and lay followers, he served as a light to all practitioners, clarifying their minds through his dharma sermons. At the age of 77, in 1975, after 61 years in the sangha, at two o’clock in the afternoon on January 13th, after ascending the dharma platform, he entered nirvana at the completion of this short dharma sermon:
What is the suffering of birth and death?
Nine times nine multiplied backwards is still eighty-one.
Though the master’s body had already returned to the earth and wind, his formless dharma body remains to this day preaching the dharma, still remaining in the position of Head Master of Beopbo Seonwon; transferring the merit of his accomplished enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Master Sondgam was Master Jeongang’s senior disciple and among his fifty or so other disciples were Masters Jeonggong, Jeong-u, Jeongmu, Jeongdae, and Jeongnak. In addition, these disciples also had another 200 disciples following them.
Out of the many methods of Seon meditation, Master Jeongang especially emphasized the Patriarchal Seon transmitted through Live Phrase (hwalgu)investigation.
The Master said that the method of Seon meditation was the one genuine eternal truth and that this truth was the awakening to your original countenance. Moreover, he said that in awakening to one’s original face and understanding the truth of no life and death, samsara cannot take root; awakening to this truth that samsara cannot take root and being assured of this enlightenment is what is meant by the “hwalgu Seon meditation method.”
In addition, he said that Seon meditation was drilling through a gongan (Jp. koan, Ch. gongan), impossible to be analyzed by intellectual understanding. Just as you can only truly know if a glass of water is cold or warm by drinking it, if you do not have any direct experience, you can never awaken to the truth of a gongan. In this way, Seon is a path of self-awareness to bring about awakening. It is not an objective perception, but rather the work of intuitive understanding, the accomplishment of awakening to the infinite creative power that resides within, through the process of one’s exhaustive self-examination.
The representative hwadu that Master Jeongang used while cultivating his many disciples was the “panchi saengmo.” Panchi saengmo means “on a plank’s (pan) teeth (chi), hair (mo) grows (saeng)” and originates from Master Zhaozhou’s answer to the question, “What was the reason that Bodhidharma came from the west?” Master Jeongang said that when asking, “how could hair grow from teeth on a plank?” the place of totally unknowable doubt created by this hwadu was a place where neither illusion or desire could become attached.
It is totally taboo from the perspective of Seon to use as your own the analyses of the gongan by the old Patriarchs. This is due precisely to the fact that awakening can never be the simple imitation of others. Moreover, a gongan is not a riddle that can be solved through our intelligence nor can it be unwound through our logical analysis. Therefore Master Jeongang asserted that “First comes Seon meditation and second is also Seon meditation. Third, fourth, and fifth are also Seon meditation. The face of a true practitioner is the energy devoted vigorously to practicing Seon meditation for nothing other than solving the great matter of life and death.”
In addition, he said that it was wrong to search for Buddha or to exert energy in order to find Buddha, emphasizing that our own true nature was precisely the Buddha and that the Buddha did not exist separately, estranged from this true nature.
The master also completely exercised the practice of “freedom from possessions” (musoyu). Saying that true freedom never came in possessing things, he argued that such freedom could only be gained in musoyu. Telling his disciples, “after my death, don’t save my remains,” he displayed his musoyu spirit to the very end, not wanting to leave even a single ash of his cremated body behind.