He was born the second child of seven in Jangseong, Jeollanam-do in 1920. He was a bookworm from childhood and used to read the biographies of great men of the east and the west as well as Buddhist books. At the age of seventeen (1937), he went to Japan to study more about eastern and western religions and he also studied eastern philosophy. He read The Bible, Four books and Three Classics of Ancient China, and Buddhist masters’ analects.
While he was reading all these different books, he came upon a book called Seongwanchekjin. It was a guide to Seon practice which was collected from advice given by masters of the past. When he read the following words, “I have a sutra, which is not made of paper or ink. Though it does not contain any letters, it always gives a bright light,” he became inspired. Then he immediately returned to Korea, renounced secular life at the age of 26 (1946 C.E.) at Haeinsa Temple. He received teachings from the great monks Hyobong, Hanam, Dongsan, and Gyeongbong who were the spiritual leaders of Korean Buddhism at that time.
From the day of his renunciation up to his death, he never lay down to sleep; and had only one meal a day. His whole life was one of detachment and frugality, in food, clothing, and housing so that he could just concentrate on practicing. He was very self-disciplined monk.
In 1947 at the age 27, he made the Retreat Community of Bongamsa Temple, together with Venerable Seongcheol and some twenty other young monks. This was to resuscitate the traditional lifestyle as lived by the Buddha and follow the Buddha’s teachings. As soon as it was set up, seventeen new rules were enacted. All the monks of the association then started three years of intensive retreat. They pursued the disciplined Seon tradition of Korean Buddhism, by letting Seon practice be the center. As a result, this movement contributed to the proper identity of the Jogye Order. And the rules of behavior, rituals, and lifestyle that they set up in those days became the standard rules of the Jogye Order even today.
In 1957, at the age of 37, he went on retreat at Sagoam Hermitage in Mt. Odaesan with the strong decision that, “even I die, I will not stop practicing.” He continued practice in the freezing cold weather. The temperature went down to minus twenty centigrade, but he never heated his room. His main meal was just 20 grains of raw beans and raw pine tree leaves. He kept on this ascetic practice without letting up. During the retreat, he never slept for four months. He never lost full awareness. After that, he became convinced that sleep does not actually exist. Since that time sleep could never be a hindrance for him any more.
From 1977 onwards, at the age of 57, he stayed in Haeinsa Temple, and practiced together with the community while holding various positions. As Haeinsa is a full monastic training temple, with a Monks’ college, a Meditation Hall and Vinaya School, many monks live together. Over the years he was given various jobs and yet he was not lazy to practice. While he carried out each of these jobs, he put all his effort into development, constantly encouraging the monks to do intensive retreats (yongmaengjeongjin) and to improve the practicing tradition. He opened a Meditation Hall for laypeople at Wondangam Hermitage at Haeinsa when he was 61 (1981). He joined the over-night sitting program on certain Saturdays for 21 years. This special intensive practice was held twice a month on the first and third Saturday in the summer and winter retreat periods. This meditation center, Dalma Seonwon, was opened mainly in order to teach the laypeople Seon practice. After this initiative, meditation centers for lay people have become a popular movement and it gives new meaning to people’s daily lives.
Venerable Seongcheol was a spiritual leader of Haeinsa temple, which is full monastic training temple, died in Nov.11th 1993. After his passing away, its community monks asked him to be their 6th spiritual leader. He accepted their proposal and he did his best. After that, he made some guidelines for Seon practicing monks. They were not allowed to sleep longer than four hours and forced not to eat after midday meal. At his age 74, he was asked to be the 10th Supreme Patriarch of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. He accepted it in 1994. Staying in Wondangam, he taught his disciples.
Because of his straightforward character, he was called “a piece of bamboo” in Mt. Gayasan. He lived as a monk for 55 years, and passed away at the age of 81 while attending to his disciple on 31st Dec 2001 in Misogul, Smile Room, in Wondangam Hermitage.
2. Characteristics of His Thought
Venerable Hyeam primarily taught Seon practice to monks. He was famous among his students for the following sayings: “Even though you die, die while practicing,” “Eat less,” “Practice inwardly and help others outwardly,” “Do not be the head monk of a temple,” “Live modestly and honestly with a set of clothes and a set of bowls.” He always particularly insisted on telling junior monks, “Do Seon practice diligently.”
He said that Buddhism is not just theory but practice. Practitioners, thus, have to concentrate on their hwadu until they get the answer. That is the real way of Seon practice. Seon is the supreme way and the most expedient way to find our True Nature but it cannot be said that just sitting meditation is the best way of Seon for, in actual fact, the true way of Seon practice is not to forget concentration and awareness of the hwadu at all times; this advice was aimed at monks or lay Buddhists alike. In order to be in that state, the best way is to keep the doubt about hwadu alive for it is this big doubt which brings realization and it can be said that the possibility of breaking through is directly related to the amount of doubt that the practitioner can maintain. In fact, without doubt nobody can reach the state of enlightenment. Normally, there are several hindrances during the practice of hwadu. The first of these is a lack of doubt and the second is having too little knowledge of hwadu. The third is the necessity of a desperate mind, one that can therefore concentrate on the hwadu for if there is not this desperation then the practice cannot be maintained. In addition, concentration must be carried out with a full heart; only this is the way and there is no other. One danger: if practitioners indulged in their own insights, they will suffer from various diseases of the mind.
He had the habit of saying to meditating monks, “Cut off all relationship to the outside world and just keep your mind empty.” When he was asked the question, “How can we keep to our ordinary life if we follow your teaching?” he would reply, “You just do it, but without any intention when you are doing it.” And he added, “Eat in order to keep the body healthy and not just to feed your belly,” “Go without noticing you are going,” and “Live to practice,” “Do not stick to tasty food, it just makes you to go to the toilet.” Sometimes he was told the people may say that we earn money in order to have good food. Then he would answer them, “We were not born to eat but for another clear reason. We were born into this life in order to practice Seon and to find our True Self. Furthermore we are here to pay back our past lives’ bad karma. Therefore, our duty in this life is to follow our karmic relationships and to diligently practice so as to find ourselves.” This was one of his favorite sayings.
He would often remark, “If you understand this teaching, then you will never envy anybody. Do not envy good-looking people, don’t envy wealth, prosperity, or intelligence for the knowledge that you learn from society is not true knowledge. Even though you keep on learning up to your last breath, you know nothing. For instance, even when you hear such simple words as ‘this is the sky’ or ‘this is your mind,’ you do not really know what the sky is or what the mind is.” He emphasized that knowing common knowledge is not true knowledge. He would say, “The scholars do not know even one-tenth about themselves. In addition none of us knows what will happen in the next second. We all know this fact very well.” He added, “We do not even know why we eat rice! How can we therefore say that we know others! We insist that the knowledge which we have learned in our delusion is right. But, we actually know nothing.”
He would say that happiness is nowhere in the world; it is merely words. Only after knowing what the mind is can a person enjoy true happiness. In order to be inspired, we must practice hwadu intensively all the time. And he often told people, “Even though you have a job, you should investigate hwadu eagerly because by raising continual, you may find your True Self.