Master Goam was born in Paju, Gyeonggi-do Province, in 1899. At the age of 18, Goam, who used to say, “Whenever I so much as gazed at a mountain, my mind was happy; if I so much as looked at monks, I wanted to ordain,” entered the sangha in July, 1917, at Haeinsa Monastery, tonsuring under Master Jesan and taking on the ordination name Sangeon. During the 1919 March 1st Independence Movement against the Japanese colonial regime, he joined in clandestine activities in Seoul, Gaeseong and other cities. Then in 1922, he met Master Yongseong and took the full monastic and bodhisattva precepts. Following this, Goam participated in numerous retreats at various meditation halls across the country, such that over 15 years he had completed 25 full sessions. Training so diligently like this, while practicing Seon meditation at the Naewon Meditation Hall (Seonwon) at Seogwangsa in Anbyeon, Hamgyeongnam-do Province, he fathomed within the call of a cuckoo outside the deepest meaning of the Patriarchs and then crafted this verse of praise:
Being absorbed in true Seon is like a whole new world in a wine-jar
When the cool breeze blows, there are no troubles in one’s heart
In 1938, at the age of 39, while seated in the lotus position at Naewonsa Monastery in Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do Province, his body was brought to a state where inside and outside had become one, and he found himself standing in front of Master Yongseong. Between the two monks, an examination of awakening unfolded, and confirming the vivid reality of Master Goam’s awakening to Buddha nature, Master Yongseong lauded him as a “a bright moon and cool breeze of antiquity,” and then gave him his dharma name Goam (“go” meaning “ancient” and “am” meaning “hermitage”) together with a verse verifying the dharma transmission.
After Master Goam attained the rank of “Great Seon Master” at Haeinsa in Februrary 1944, he traversed the nation leading Seon monks in meditation training and instructing the general public in the dharma. But this was not all, as he also maintained a strict adherence to his precepts, confirming his role as a Precept Master and displaying the tradition of the purity of the precepts. He regularly participated in Buddhist services, making no distinction whether they were large or small, and used these opportunities to transmit the bodhisattva precepts, doing so more than any other monk.
In 1967, at the age of 68, he assumed the position of the third Patriarch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, in 1970, he served as the second Head Master of the Haeinsa Monastic Compound(Haein Chongnim), and in 1972 he served as the fourth Patriarch of the Jogye Order. Once again in 1978, he became the sixth Jogye Patriarch, but noting, “I hate continuing in the position of Patriarch,” he resigned the position. Following this, Master Goam went to Hawaii to stay with his disciple Daewon for the purpose of propagating Buddhist teachings abroad. Here he volunteered to take on the role of offering aims for the sake of the public and gave five or six dharma sermons a month. Then in 1985, he traveled to India, Southeast Asia, Australia and other countries on a pilgrimage to transmit the dharma. Even at the age of 86, he visited Europe and the United States, forsaking no one, expending all his energy to offer dharma sermons and engage in propagation activities, including offering the bodhisattva precepts to the Korean immigrants in each of the places that he visited.
In 1988, at the age of 89 and nearing the end of his years, he called together his disciples at the Yongtap Seonwon Hall in Haeinsa and told them, “Be careful as you live. The law of cause and effect is clearly present” after which he left the following “Verse of Nirvana” and passed away.
The color of the fall leaves on Mt. Gayasan are rich and deep
hereby we know the autumn of the universe
with the frost, the leaves fall and return to their roots
September’s bright full moon shines its light on the void
Among Master Goam’s numerous disciples are Daewon, the receiver of his dharma transmission and the Head Master of Hangnimsa in Gongju; Gukbong, the paragon (hanju) of the Yongtap Seonwon Hall at Haein-sa; and Jinwol, who received a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley and now serves as the head of the Jeonggagwon Temple at Dongguk University.
Mater Goam left no written works during his life. However, after his death, a compilation of his dharma sermons, Jabi bosal ui gil (The Path of the Compassionate Bodhisattva), was published in 1990.
When examining the dharma lectures of Master Goam, though his erudition in Seon teachings is quite evident, he did not focus solely on Seon. Even while he may have focused specifically on “perceiving the Buddha nature,” he did this according to the various capacities of different people, administering precepts to some, while also living a common life together with the general public. Though he displayed no extraordinary discernment into the Seon teachings, neither did he suffer from any deficiencies. To the contrary, he made up for whatever shortcomings he may have had through his compassion and humble mindedness. That said, his dharma lectures were nevertheless infused with the spirit of China’s Linji sect and the unique voice of Ganhwaseon (or observing the hwadu). The content he emphasized through his meditation retreat lectures encapsulated just such broad meanings.
His point of emphasis was this: “During the meditation season, while immersed in your hwadu or released from it, in all activities no matter what you see and hear, as in the saying ‘in all things alike, water is water, mountain is mountain’ (susu sansan dudu mulmul),this is the reality of absolute existence. You must become the hwadu.”
A sacred thing is covering the entire cosmos
you search for its inside and outside, but you can’t even see the end of your own nose
you deeply ponder your thoughts and emotions, but you can’t see your mind’s true nature
Do you know what it meant when the Buddha held up that flower?
Here, the thing that is called sacred is the original mind. Even without an extended analysis of what this sacredness is, it covers and exceeds the universe. Simultaneous with the providence of our mind’s creation is the true essence of the universe, which is also the foundation for the attainment of Buddhahood. There can be no inside or outside of the mind. Thus, if you say you are searching for mind, there is no target for you to find. Though there was nothing unique in Master Goam’s insight grasping the totality of the universe within the dharmakāya Buddha, his was a perspective realized directly through his own practice.
“When practicing Seon and learning the dharma, what is it that you seek? When you sweep away the 10,000 delusions, forgetting even the mind, everything in the universe is your true, original nature.”
When we personify Buddha nature, all of the mountains, rivers and land become our original true countenance. Yet despite such grandiose conceptions, no matter where Master Goam was, he neither set himself above others nor tried to gain attention for himself, instead, he lowered himself constantly by putting into practice direct actions of humility. This humility is the foundation on which human arrogance is conquered and it becomes a motivating force that give others a deep and lasting impression. Thus, while volunteering to give daily offerings to the Buddha while at Yujeomsa Temple on Mt. Geumgangsan, he always managed to heat the water of the baths and straighten up the shoes of the other practitioners. Moreover, even after he turned 70, he always washed his clothes by himself, never ending this type of work, even up until the final days preceding his death. In emphasizing that, “we should not distinguish between high and low sentient beings, but instead respect them all. This is precisely being of service to all sentient beings” he offers to us an inestimable instruction on how to truly act with complete humility. Criticizing traditional masculine family customs, Haeinsa’s Master Seongcheol, who asked that anyone who wanted to meet with him must first do 3000 prostrations, called Master Goam the Bodhisattva of Compassion, noting his maternal loving kindness that he offered to anyone he met. It was with just such humility and compassion that Master Goam leaves to us a different type of “family custom.”