Spending fifteen years as the first Patriarch of the Jogye-san Monastic Compound(Jogye Chongnim) headquartered in Songgwang-sa, Master Kusan devoted much his life’s energy to propagating Buddhism, through such activities as the founding of the Bulil International Seon Center. Directly and indirectly, some fifty of his disciples from both Korea and abroad are spreading the teachings of Korean Seon Buddhism around the world.
Master Kusan was born December 17, 1909, in a small village in Mt. Jirisan in Namwon, Jeollabuk-do province. At the age of 14, after his father’s sudden death, he took over management of his father’s barber shop and family affairs, spending his young years in anguish. At 25, after coming down with an unknown illness, his moans of agony were interrupted by the words of a wandering Buddhist ascetic. “The body is the mind’s reflection. Since the seat of one’s original nature is pure, where can disease take root?” Hearing these words gave Kusan a sudden religious awakening. At that moment he decided to head to Yeongwonsa Monastery on Mt. Jirisan, to take part in a 100-day practice of devotion to the Bodhisattva Gwaneum. With his disease cured during the 100 days of prayer, Kusan decided to be ordained into the sangha. In 1937 at the age of 28, he received the precepts to become a novice monk at Songgwangsa Monastery from Master Hyobong.
Following this, with Songwangsa as his base, Master Kusan spent five years practicing ardently at various meditation halls (Seonwon). In 1943, to engage in serious practice, he built the “Correct Awakening” (Jeonggak) hermitage near the Sudoam Hermitage at Cheongamsa. For two years, he practiced with ferocity. In 1946, his master Hyobong became the first Patriarch of the Gayasan Monastic Compound (Gaya Chongnim) headquartered in Haeinsa, and Master Kusan took on the administrative responsibilities of the temple and also built and resided in the Beobwangdae Hermitage, midway up Mt. Gayasan, all while maintaining a diligent training regimen. In 1950, with the onset of the Korean War, the monks of Gayasan Monastic Compound scattered, and Kusan went to Eungseoksa in Jinju where he continued his Seon investigation. During the winter retreat in 1951, at the age of 42, Kusan penned his verse of enlightenment and submitted it to Master Hyobong:
The world’s outer appearance is originally emptiness
Do people point to emptiness because the mind resides there?
For the withered tree above the crags, there are no seasons
when spring arrives flowers bloom, in fall, it bears fruit
Master Hyobong accepted this verse and endorsed Kusan’s enlightenment. Beginning in 1954, he assisted Master Hyobong as an avid supporter of the Buddhist purification movement. In 1966, with Master Hyobong’s passing, Kusan returned to Songgwangsa, following his master’s dying request to “restore Songgwangsa [which was mostly destroyed in the Korean War] and train many great people there.” Following the developments at Haeinsa, after three years effort the Jogyesan Monastic Compound (Jogye Chongnim) was established, the second Chongnim in Korea, at Songgwangsa in 1969.
As the first patriarch of the Monastic Compound, Master Kusan instituted a fundamental training program for his disciples, and as one of the three jewel temples, Songgwangsa, the “Sangha Jewel Monastery,” overflowed with the energy of its vivid restoration, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of National Master Bojo Jinul. To say nothing of the Korean monks, monks from the United States, Europe and elsewhere also came to Songgwangsa, constantly maintaining the highest levels of intensity in their training. In 1973, after attending the inaugural service at Sambo-sa in Carmel, California, in the United States, Kusan returned to Songgwangsa with a few foreign disciples and other practitioners to found Korea’s first international Seon meditation center, “Bulil International Seon Center,” opening a new chapter in the globalization of Korea’s traditional Seon teachings. Kusan continued along these lines, pouring his energy into the international propagation of Korean Buddhism, founding temples around the world, including Goryeosa in Los Angeles in 1980, Bulseungsa in Geneva in 1982, and Daegaksa near Carmel, California.
One day the following year, in 1984, as the restoration of Songgwangsa, together with the winter retreat, was coming to an end, Kusan let his disciples know that the karma of his life here was meeting its completion and left behind the following requests: “don’t give my body any injections, perform the cremation in sitting meditation posture, live together in harmony without harm to the Seon tradition, do not live as a monk deceiving yourself, and devote yourself continuously to awakening.” He also left his “death verse”:
As the leaves of fall burn more crimson than the flowers of spring
All of creation is completely laid bare
As living is empty, and dying too, is also empty
I go forth smiling, within the ocean-like absorption of the Buddha
On the afternoon of December 16th, at the Samiram Hermitage in Songgwangsa where he had first met his master Hyobong, surrounded by his many followers, Kusan assumed the lotus position and his seventy-four years of life came to a quiet end with his passing into nirvana.
Among Master Kusan’s written works are his 1975 book, Seven Perfections, aimed at bringing Buddhism back into daily life, and his 1976 book, Nine Mountains, an English version of his dharma talks, written for the benefit of his foreign disciples. After receiving much attention from scholars of Buddhism and eastern philosophy around the world, Nine Mountains was revised and published in Korean as Seok Saja (Stone Lion). After Master Kusan’s passing, his foreign disciples published Seon! My Choice, a compilation of their impressions and experiences regarding Korean Buddhism and their Seon training at the Bulil International Seon Center. In 1985, Master Kusan’s disciples Stephen Batchelor and Martine Fages edited an English compilation of his dharma teachings, The Way of Korean Zen. The Society of Kusan Followers also published Kusan Seonmun (Seon Teachings of Kusan) in 1994, a volume of the Master’s Seon sermons, and Kusan Seonpung (Seon Tradition of Kusan)in 1997, a collection of his dharma sermons delivered in the early 1980s while touring the United States, Taiwan, Europe and elsewhere.
Master Kusan’s practice was an exhaustive hwadu training. After gaining experience with the hwadu, “what is this?” Kusan then took up Zhaozhou’s “MU” hwadu, leading his disciples in this practice as well. This hwadu was meant to lead one to understanding the state of mind that exists before saying “MU!” Kusan described his struggle this way:
“Investigating this hwadu, my investigation and the saying of “mu” coincide. In this state, I come even to defer sleep and forget meals. Standing alone, I reach to the point where I am alone, facing every enemy I’ve ever made during the past 10,000 years, wanting to sleep but unable, put in a position where I cannot go left or right, straight ahead or back, until finally, the place I have been leaning on exists no more, and I become unafraid of tumbling into emptiness. Thereafter, one day, I suddenly yell, ‘Ha!,’ and I’m left feeling as if heaven and earth have been overturned. When other people enter this place whose depth is unfathomable, they laugh out loud to themselves and do nothing but smile.”
He also explained that even after achieving an awakening, until you are able to precisely communicate your experiences to others, while pushing yourself to continuously refine your own opinions and understanding, you must engage in purification practices; then you must work to relieve the sufferings of all sentient beings.
Though Master Kusan spent 45 years practicing his hwadu with precisely this kind of discipline, he never stinted from getting involved in doing the work of the Buddha. Whenever he had a spare moment free from his practice, he could not keep still, such that he earned the nickname, “the working monk.”
Moreover, he never failed to join with the rest of the Buddhist community to participate in worship services, cooperative cleaning or building efforts, food offerings, or other such activities. In this way, the ever-thoroughly practicing Master Kusan emphasized the practice of making Buddhism a part of daily life, based on the idea that it was wrong to think of Buddhism as the sole preserve of a singular class of people, like monks and nuns, or that you have to live in the mountains to practice. Combining these methods under one teaching, Master Kusan promoted the “seven perfections” movement. He taught that a good way for Buddhist practitioners to implement the truth of Buddhism within their daily lives was to use six days of each week to practice each of the six bodhisattva perfections: charity on Monday, morality on Tuesday, perseverance on Wednesday, effort on Thursday, meditation on Friday, and wisdom on Saturday, and then to use Sunday as a service day, the day to practice the perfection of all works together.