From Book “Seon Thought in Korean Buddhism”, 1998
Written by Mok Jeongbae
(Former Professor, Dept. of Buddhist Studies, Dongguk University)
A. The Modern Definition of Sudden Awakening
1) The Problem of Sudden Practice and Gradual Practice
Recently, arguments on sudden awakening and gradual practice have once again become popular.1
Whether or not the issue can and will be ever resolved is still unknown. It is possible that the debate continues for a long time.
From the standpoint of the gradual practice idea, different theories can be suggested depending on the direction from which the issue is viewed. Directions include that of science, that of Seon study and that of Seon practice. But from the point of view of the Seon practice of sudden awakening, it seems clear that there actually cannot be any further discussion.2 But if awakening is regarded only from the point of doctrine or only from the point of Seon practice, the two are in confrontation and the problem will remain unsolved.
Actually sudden awakening is experiencing the culmination of meditation by the thorough practice of Seon. If one tries to enter the world of awakening by doctrine or logic alone, one only encounters big problems which are hard to solve.3
In this short thesis, on the basis of wishing to find a clear view in the cultural chaos of today, I am going to investigate the meaning of modern thinking on sudden awakening on the basis of the Orthodox Path of Seon (禪門正路 Kor. Seonmun-jeongno)4 written by Master Toeong Seongcheol, even though my ideas may sometimes appear irrational and intuitive, thereby lacking in logic.
2) The Utmost Truth
The inscription on the divine bell of King Seongdeok, known as the Emilie Bell, says:
The utmost perfect truth surrounds the whole world, hence forms are not seen. The sound of the truth fills up and overflows into the world; hence the sounds are not heard. To make sentient beings able to realize the extremely deep truth which is neither seen nor heard, this bell is made as a model of the truth and hung up for all to see.5
Truly, the utmost perfect truth cannot possess form and sound, but humans try to express the truth using form and sound. The divine bell of King Seongdeok is the highest form of art in which all the minds and all the bodies of the artisans who created it are condensed. The bell is famous for its perfect, holy sound, for other bells which have been made so far do not reveal the sublime sound of the One Vehicle because they are bound by the frame of gradual practice.
Original form cannot be shaped and the sound cannot be made. The original form is truth, so it can not be represented by artificial functions or by phenomena.
We express something in which the highest forms of art and nature are combined in the “divine manufacture,” and it might signify the world of the one True Suchness and its manifestation. Whereas the case of the culture of art recognizes divine manufacture, we have left the world of awakening unfinished.
We humans recognize the absolute convenience of things which we have made with scientific creativity and we experience the effective value of their use as the highest. But we question the absolute value of humans. We think that humans cannot become perfect for humans have ignorance of the five desires, and we are discouraged by that, and consciousness of this discouragement leads us to live ordinary lives.
Let us here use a daring expression. What is the difference between the various ways of changing the systems, using either a formal, gradual approach or a revolutionary one? If conservative systems are recognized to reach a certain standard and amended and supplied, then the existing privileged class can always enjoy benefits. But revolutionary change of all systems and organizations leads all classes to live on the same level.
If gradual practice is said to cause the systematic modification of the person, then sudden awakening is said to be a revolutionary event. Therefore, sudden awakening is something which cannot be entered into through the hierarchy of the Three Virtuous Positions and Ten Excellent Characteristics. Though hierarchy is gradually experienced and practiced, it still is on the level of awakening‐in‐the‐form‐of‐understanding (Kor. haeo). From this perspective, awakening’ is not a standard of knowledge. Awakening is absolutely perfect knowledge. The awakening of all-embracing wisdom is a sudden awakening; it is final Nirvana, and the stage of no mind.6
B. The Original Substance of Beholding the Buddha‐nature
Therefore Master Seongcheol, in his Orthodox Path of Seon, claimed “When one sees nature then one immediately becomes the Tatheogata.”7 That is, one becomes Buddha on the spot where one attains awakening. To enter the stage of a Buddha or attain awakening can be achieved by investigating certain doctrinal steps one by one logically. But Master Seongcheol quotes a saying from Records of Zongjing (Chn. Zongjing lu, Kor. Jonggyeong‐nok): “When one sees nature, one directly becomes mindless, and both medicine and disease disappear and both doctrine and meditation become unnecessary.”8 He adds “Though the bright light of True Suchness always shines very clearly in the realm of reality, sentient beings, concealed by a cloud of ignorance, do not see the light. As a bright light comes out when clouds disappear, when every extremely minute, misleading thoughts disappear, one realizes all and the True Nature is discovered.” According to Master Seongcheol, this stage is something in which all false thinking is cut off and consequently disappears, so it is no-thought or no-mind, and named “final Nirvana,” that is, “sublime awakening.” Hence in the Awakening of Faith (Kor. Daeseong‐kishin‐non) it is said, “Enlightenment is final awakening in which no extremely minute false thinking can arise or exist,”9 and Master Wonhyo, in his Commentary on the Awakening of Faith (Kor. Daeseong‐kishin‐non‐so), mentioned that the thought of ignorance still remains in all sentient beings, and the Buddha stage is no-mind.10 Thereby, since all sentient beings before the stage of equal awakening have thinking and mind to deal with, the stage of equal awakening needs the divine teachings of the Buddha and the medicine of Dharma. And the stage of no-thought or no-mind is one requiring no medicine being without disease, and it disregards both the teachings as well as meditation. Therefore it is the sublime awakening in which defilements have disappeared forever.
To realize the truth is to become the truth itself. If the truth and the seeker who grasps the truth are divided into two, it means that the seeker does not realize the truth correctly. The truth and the seeker should be together where the two become one without any difference. The way of realizing the truth is not the way of analysis. Realizing the truth means the oneness of the truth and the seeker.
Therefore, the spot where the seeker sees the True Nature should be no-mind and the no-mind should be to see the True Nature. The spot of no-mind is a spot where both medicine and disease become extinct, for the spot is a condition in which principal and auxiliary agree with each other. People need medicine when their bodies are sick. But when the sick body is cured, taking medicine is unnecessary. Medicine and disease are like a body and its shadow. Wherever the body goes, the shadow follows, and when the body is not visible, the shadow is also not to be seen. So it is that medicine is not needed when there is no disease. When one gets sick, the ailing person wants to take medicine. But when the sickness is over, the desire for medicine vanishes. That is a natural physiological function. As in the case of defilements and false thinking, when they arise in us, we should extinguish them. But if we think that these defects are not a serious disease and we do not take medicine, the defilements naturally become larger and the false thinking annoys us. To attain awakening in Buddhist practice is to reach a state of tranquility in which the false thinking, which endlessly occurs in our mind, disappears absolutely and completely. This state of tranquility is the final stage after which there are no further stages.
Such a state of mind is called Nirvana. To express Nirvana in Buddhist language is difficult because it encompasses many meanings. But its absolute meaning is the state of a stable mind which never shakes under any circumstances. Therefore, the mind of tranquil extinction becomes no-mind. When one is able to live with a mind of absolute stability and absolute tranquility, then one can enjoy absolute freedom. As such freedom is created within oneself, there cannot be any constraint or limitation. Therefore deliverance means to live in a world of no-mind, and it is the realization of absolute and transcendental potentiality and freedom of self-liberation. Transcendental self-liberation is the great no-mind, and the great no-mind is a mind of total tranquility. But extremely minute defilements continuously occur in ordinary people’s mind. That is, 84,000 defilements successively conflict with one another and create a continual series of shock waves. Human affairs seem to expand into a reality in which uncountable defilements of the number of 84,000 multiplied by 84,000 are accumulated and ever active. Such conflicts created by the minute mind mislead human beings and mess up their lives. Most people live in this illusion and are so misguided as to think it is normal. The total annihilation and perfect extinction of such minute and endless defilements is the spot of the great no-mind.
The spot of the no-mind is the space of the “true man of no rank,” where human beings can live correctly.11 It is said that extremely small differences divide the heavens and the earth. Today’s highly developed space technology proves that any minute error prevents execution of the task at hand. In this way, most defilements, even the smallest, in our mind should be extinguished to allow us to reach the state of Nirvana The spot where defilements do not occur can become a place of Nirvana, and furthermore, the spot in which nothing is given birth to becomes the space of tranquil extinction and joy, that is, Nirvana.
The spot of awakening is a world where no defilements occur. It is a world of calmness, where all activities of the mind, that is, the mind of discrimination, of distinction, cease by choice. Therefore, this world is a true aspect of True Suchness, the raw appearance of the essence, the great void, the great calm.12
Humans see things with their eyes. But we can only see the shapes and it is really hard for us to see through to the essence. We can only see, measure and understand everything from our own limited viewpoint. Surely this way of measuring cannot be right, hence humans make mistakes and their lives are mislead. And that is the tragedy which comes from pseudo-awakening or an approximate awakening, it is a trap resulting from guess work. To look at it from a different angle, the pseudo-self which could not enter into the truth always gets tangled up in imperfection and contradiction. We should boldly break away from this measure of self-distinction, self-discrimination and selfish choice. We should face things with a mind of equanimity which is the fundamental nature of the no-mind free from all discriminative consciousness of self, so that the mind will become mindless and equal. To promote ourselves to the utmost heights of the mind’s capacity, we should always get rid of false thoughts in which the discriminative consciousness ceaselessly arises.
Thereby Master Seongcheol repeatedly claims in his Orthodox Path of Seon to rightly guide students to the spot where they can see their Nature, and he tells them that to see their Nature is to rightly attain Buddhahood:
If one rightly discovers the Buddha-nature then there is Nirvana, then one can always live in mysterious deliverance.13
If one rightly discovers the Self Nature of the True Mind of all Dharmas, this is true ultimate awakening and the beholding of the Buddha-nature.14
When one sees the True Nature, then one directly attains Tathagatahood.15
If one suddenly sees the Buddha-nature, then one becomes a Buddha by thought.16
Then, why don’t human beings reach the highest stages? Why do we not experience and attain the truth and enjoy the great freedom of Nirvana? It is because we meaninglessly continue to create our discriminative foolish mind. If, while practicing Seon for seeing the self or while studying Gyo for investigating the most reasonable way, we can entirely remove defilements from our mind, then that is the highest way to no-mind.
Awakening-understanding is possible only when everything is realized and understood. Partial understanding and exaggeration of that partial understanding, taking it to be true understanding is a tremendous illusion. Our understanding is limited to the partial understanding of worldly matters, and moreover, it is difficult to directly grasp the reasoning of truth. Therefore, only sudden knowledge leads us to the perfect understanding of reality. This perfect awakening signifies the reaching of a stage of absolute eradication and no more birth of defilements. This no-birth is a condition for the eternal extinction of all things and of their no longer ever coming into existence again, it means that there is nothing to produce the defilements, for the mind is intrinsically, originally pure. That is, though realization is possible by progressive Seon, Master Seongcheol emphasizes the attaining of sudden awakening.
Therefore, through the claim that seeing one’s Nature directly is the becoming of a Buddha, we have a confirmation of the original look and the manifestation of the true aspect of the Tathagata. If a person is of high character and is respected by people, there is probably a moral code in the inner world of that person. This moral code made the person’s character noble. In Buddhism, the person who attains great Nirvana and becomes free and equal might have kept the precepts and thereby attained Nirvana, and so attained the great deliverance by seeing the true Buddha-nature. Hence, the keeping is equal to Nirvana, Nirvana is equal to the Buddha-nature, and the Buddha-nature is deliverance. All men are said to possess a Buddha-nature, and so if people live keeping the precepts without breaking them, then the Buddha-nature will become their deliverance and this deliverance will become Nirvana Like that, the way to awakening is easily revealed, but our life is continually shaken by our old habits which constantly surge up in the form of defilements. Let us see how this awakening is related to our ego. In the Sayings of Mazu (Kor. Majo-eorok) there is proof that the self and awakening are the same as the Dharma aspect.
Awakening is the thorough realization of the True Nature, of the self. Hence when one attains understanding once, then this is the eternal awakening and one can never be confused again. For example, when the sun rises, it does not correspond to a state of darkness, when the sun of wisdom arises, the dark clouds of defilements disappear, consciousness and conditions vanish, and false thoughts do not occur. This is no-birth, this is the patience attained through Dharma, and the searching for what originally existed. There is no need to ask for practice and sitting meditation in order to attain awakening. It is neither governed nor does it arise, and this is the pure Seon of the Tathagata.17
Through the endless arising of false thoughts the pure mind is dyed and polluted, false thoughts are broken by the pure Seon originally inherited in us, and the original light of understanding illuminates the Dharma realm. And so Master Seongcheol proclaimed:
The sudden awakening of Master Mazu concerning the pure Seon of the Tathagata in which false thoughts are gone forever, and in which no-birth is thoroughly realized results in one never being confused again. This Seon is the awakening of no-mind, and it is the final awakening. Not only was this the experience of Master Mazu but also that of other masters of right insight who correctly appreciated the teachings of Master Bodhidharma. All are the great attained ones who have perfectly realized that patience rests in belief in no rebirth. Hence it is sure that sudden awakening and seeing one’s True Nature in the orthodox transmission of Seon can never be a partial awakening or an awakening-in-the-form-of-understanding, but it is a realized-awakening which is the perfect awakening.18
Master Seongcheol meant that awakening by mere understanding or by discrimination is a lack of the true understanding of Seon Dharma As the time of sunrise does not agree with darkness, the dark clouds of defilements are extinguished when the light of wisdom appears.
This is the true state of awakening, and this awakening can be inherited by anybody. This awakening is not something made but something to be searched out and found. In other words, our true life is found but until then we are covered with defilements and false thoughts. And when the cloud of false thoughts is dispelled, the Tathagata of bright light appears right here.
Therefore, when one attains awakening, one should sustain the stage of being awakened and cannot, indeed must not, ever be confused again because “attained awakening” means the thorough realization of the True Nature. Let us use a metaphor to explain the stage. A room is dark, only lit by a ten watt bulb. If a 100 watt bulb is used, then the room will be bright. The sudden change of ten watts to 100 watts is much more startling than if the change was brought about gradually; this can be compared with the realization of sudden awakening. That is, partial knowledge or mere understanding cannot last long. We should keep it in mind that the meaning of “seeing the Nature” is that much more difficult to understand.
C. The World of Sudden Practice
As revealed in the 13th chapter of Orthodox Path of Seon, Master Seongcheol detests the teaching of “sudden awakening and gradual practice.” To state “sudden awakening and gradual practice” in another way means that “even Buddha, after he had attained awakening, needed to practice,” or “I will attain awakening by slowly practicing.” Such a half-hearted and vague way of practice is severely criticized by Master Seongcheol. According to the claim of the “sudden awakening and gradual practice” way, even though one has attained awakening, one must go on practicing, and one is not capable of teaching the Dharma or of answering others’ questions on Dharma. It is because of these things that this so-called awakening does not prepare the person for full maturity or for perfect awakening, hence it is a mere incomplete awakening-in-the-form-of-understanding and can be compared to the first stage of seeing one’s Nature.
Therefore Master Seongcheol claimed that “Seeing one’s Nature is final awakening which has the appearance of perfect and thorough realization. Hence understanding-realization which is an initial stage of the Ten Faiths is not truly seeing one’s Nature.”19 Understanding-realization is a first investigation and the admiration of an unknown world, and not a systematic research, hence it is not a perfect understanding. Therefore Master Seongcheol said that “Sudden awakening in the Seon tradition, from ancient times up to today, should be examined by extremely deep and profound questions and rightly answered bearing in mind the distinction which is as clear as the difference between the blue sky and the bright sun. Otherwise, it cannot be acknowledged.”20 Certain and thorough realization is the perfect realization of sudden awakening. The answer should neither be closed knowledge nor just a kind of guessing but a certain, accurate and direct answering. Sometimes shouting or hitting with a stick was a method used in Seon practice, and it was to draw a direct answer without hesitation, investigation or thinking, like the immediate sound that is heard when a stick strikes the table or the way a room becomes immediately bright when a light is turned on. There is no interval of time during which the sound is heard or during which the light is seen. The sound is heard and the light is seen at the very place they occur, immediately. Like that, direct seeing, hearing, realization and knowledge should be represented as substances of sudden awakening.
It is for this reason that there is a great difference between the sudden awakening of Seon, that is, seeing one’s Nature, which is perfect and whole awakening and the sudden awakening of Gyo, which is attained by mere knowledge. The stage of sudden awakening is a world of constant realization and, besides, in addition, there springs wisdom which is direct and thorough. Basically, theoretically understood knowledge and self-realized awakening to the stage of final realization are totally different.
Master Bojo, in his Encouragement to Practice: The Compact of the Meditation and Wisdom Community (Kor. Gwon-su-jeonghye-gyeolsa-mun), says:
How can they compare with men who first have faith and understanding that the mind-nature is originally pure and the defilements originally void, and yet find that this does not interfere with their subsequent cultivation based on that understanding?”21
About this, Master Seongcheol mentioned that “The ‘faith and understanding’ (which Master Bojo spoke of) means sudden awakening which is understanding-realization, therefore it is the thought of sudden awakening and gradual practice of the Gyo tradition.”22 Master Seongcheol further commented on sudden awakening and gradual practice mentioned in Master Jinul’s Secrets on Cultivating the Mind (Kor. Sushim-kyeol):
Understanding-realization is an illusive and false condition which is bounded by heavy false thoughts, so it is a fact that various defilements actively arise and vanish as before. Therefore removing these defilements and false thoughts is a gradual practice after one has attained awakening.23
But in the Seon tradition, sudden awakening or seeing one’s Nature signifies a stage of great repose of absolute no-mind, in which not only defilements and false thoughts but also minute defilements are all extinguished forever. The stage is that of perfect awakening, which is as hard as a diamond and which is described as no-mind, no-thought, no-rank and no-work. According to Master Seongcheol, the sudden awakening which is mentioned in the Gyo tradition cannot be the same as the sudden awakening of the Seon tradition, and the tendency to regard the two as the same by later Seon students is nothing but a great mistake.
The Dharma which Master Bodhidharma first transmitted and which Master Huineng continued, teaches only sudden awakening and not gradual practice. That is, Master Huineng’s verse, “Fundamentally Bodhi is no tree, nor is the clear mirror a stand” originally signifies the sudden realization of the body of the Dharma Nature which is void, therefore sudden awakening and sudden practice become the orthodox thought of Seon. Sudden awakening/ gradual practice is the means of practice advocated in the Gyo tradition, and therefore does not pertain to the Seon tradition. To do meditation rightly, one should follow only the right Dharma of Sort and must be free from confusion concerning all other theories. Therefore, Seon practice by the understanding-realization way according to Master Seongcheol is not the right Dharma. Since understanding-realization is an illusive and false condition, various defilements continue to occur, and removing these defilements is the very gradual practice which is needed even after awakening. But in the Seon tradition, not only false thoughts but also extremely minute bits of knowledge are cut, and the place of great repose of the final no-mind is nothing but sudden awakening and the seeing of one’s Nature. Hence sustainment and protection of this great diamond stage of the mind known as no-mind, no-thought, no-rank and no-work is needed.
There is a big difference between awakening and knowing, and the latter cannot be understood as seeing one’s Nature. In Gyo, the approach of gradual practice is certainly needed, because sudden awakening according to Gyo practice simply means a mere stage of understanding-realization, therefore the removal of defilements and false thoughts is needed in order to reach the stage of great repose. But in Seon, sudden awakening is the stage in which all defilements and false thoughts absolutely vanish, and only then one can see one’s Nature. There is a great difference between understanding-realization and sudden awakening.
Master Jinul, in his Encouragement to Practice: The Compact of the Meditation and Wisdom Community and Secrets on Cultivating the Mind claimed that the “sudden awakening and the gradual practice” of masters Heze Shenhui and Guifeng Zongmi was the right transmission of Master Bodhidharma. But in his Excerpts from the Dharma Collection and Special Record with Personal Note (Kor. Peopchip-pyeorhaeng-nok-cheoryo-pyeongip-sagi), he mentioned that the two masters were followers of knowledge and understanding, and that they were not the legitimate successors of the Jogye Order. Moreover, Master Jinul made it clear that his idea of sudden awakening and gradual practice is not that of the Seon tradition, which departs from speech and forgets understanding, but that of the Gyo tradition, which relies on speech and produces understanding.
According to Master Seongcheol, Master Jinul wrote Encouragement to Practice and Excerpts from the Dharma Collection at the age of 33 and 52, respectively; Excerpts was written one year before his death. And though it is not certain when Secrets on Cultivating the Mind was written, Master Seongcheol considers it to have been early on in his life because the content is similar to that of Encouragement to Practice.24 Master Jinul, in Encouragement to Practice and Secrets on Cultivating the Mind, was confused between Seon and Gyo and wrongly claimed the idea of sudden awakening and gradual practice to be that of Seon of Master Bodhidharma But as his wisdom and understanding grew in his later years, Master Jinul realized his mistake and proclaimed that the Seon approach is the shortcut gate, that is, practice of principal topic” called “hwadu” (literally “head (topic) of speech”). Master Jinul’s later claim that “relying on speech and producing understanding is the understanding-realization of sudden awakening and gradual practice” made an important turning point in the Seon approach; this was an epoch-making event in the history of the Goryeo Seon Order. Master Jinul realized that sudden awakening and gradual practice, which had been the common language of the Seon family, was nothing but the formation of knowledge understood by language, but not the original final realization.
As the above shows, Master Jinul clearly revealed that he realized during his life that sudden awakening and gradual practice were not the main idea of Seon. But in spite of this, some Seon students, on the pretext of following in the footsteps of Master Jinul some 800 years after Master Jinul has passed away, insist that sudden awakening and gradual practice are the hallmark of Seon, and Master Seongcheol strongly rebukes them. According to Master Seongcheol, since Master Jinul himself affirmed that masters Heze and Guifeng, the originators of the idea of sudden awakening and gradual practice, were mere followers of knowledge and understanding, whoever believes in the idea becomes nothing but a follower of knowledge and understanding.25 The main practice of the Korean Jogye Order is Seon, but the idea of sudden awakening and gradual practice is still very strong in the order. From another viewpoint, Seon students do not realize that sudden awakening and seeing one’s Nature are the final stages and the students show a strong tendency to practicing by the logic of realization awakening. This is due to this existing tradition of Korean Seon which has relied on the wrong understanding of the orthodox transmission of the Seon and teachings of Master Jinul.
As mentioned already, Master Jinul in his later years wrote that the “direct transmission outside the texts” is what came out of the Gyo vehicle, and affirmed that sudden awakening and gradual practice is but a dead phrase which is nothing but knowledge and understanding, and not the shortcut approach.26 Therefore, regarding the idea of sudden awakening and gradual practice as that of Seon is not only a revolt of the orthodox transmission of Seon, but also an idle view and a misunderstanding of Master Jinul. Hence Master Seongcheol repeatedly emphasizes that “Seon students must not become followers of knowledge and understanding, like masters Heze and Guifeng; it is the most serious taboo of Seon.”27 Master Seongcheol ends the 15th chapter, “Learned Knowledge and Understanding” of Orthodox Path of Seon, with a special mention.
When one clearly realizes that “complete and sudden faith and understanding” is the understanding-realization of sudden awakening and gradual practice, and that it is mere knowledge which is the first taboo of Seon, then it is natural to totally give up the idea Therefore, the right masters of the orthodox path of Son considered knowledge and understanding as evils which cut the life of the teaching of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas, and only rejected knowledge and understanding, never encouraging them. But Master Jinul, though criticizing Master Guifeng’s idea of understanding-realization as mere knowledge, could not give up the idea but always encouraged it in his writings such as Excerpts from the Dharma Collection and Complete and Sudden Attainment of Buddhahood (Kor. Wondon-seongbul-non). Master Jinul’s persistent idea of complete and sudden faith and understanding, in spite of his clear comments to the contrary in his later years that complete and sudden understanding-realization is not the true idea of Seon, makes him not a true master of Seon. For a true master’s duty is to keep the transmission of pointing to the mind. The chief object of Master Jinul’s thought is the Seon of the Flower Garland (Skt. Avatamsa, Kor. Hwaeom).28
Here, Master Seongcheol opened up a new frontier in the history of the Korean Seon Order. Master Seongcheol here seems not merely to criticize the Seon thought of Master Jinul but he appears to try to understand it correctly.
D. The Position of Sudden Awakening in Modern Times
Orthodox Path of Seon is a book of 19 chapters. Each chapter has its own characteristics, but all of them are about how to find the One Mind and to live rightly with the true mind. The book was not written for Seon students alone but also to emphasize the orthodox transmission of Seon in modern times and to counter some misrepresentations of traditional Seon practice.
People of today understand Seon using reasonable and expedient means. They often use expressions such as “Seon and health,” “Seon and calligraphy,” “Seon and tea,” “Seon and poetry.” These offshoots of Seon are only vaguely related to Seon and they are not the Suchness of Seon itself or the oneness of true Seon thought. Though some say “oneness of tea and Seon” or “oneness of poetry and Seon,” the expressions signify certain situations related to Seon. Master Seongcheol named Master Jinul’s idea not “Seon” but “Seon of the Flower Garland,” because many ideas derived from the Flower Garland are to be found in the Seon idea of Master Jinul. And this is even more so in the case of Seon poetry, of Seon writings, of Seon tea, and of Seon martial arts. They are newly formed affiliates of Seon, but they cannot be considered to be true Seon itself.
Then, is the realization of Seon in this life really impossible? Some Seon ideas give the impression that they even break general human moral standards, those which are fundamental to society. An example of this is the claim that “The heavy misdeed of killing one’s parents can be ranked as a crime, but the misdeed of slandering great wisdom is really hard to overcome.” This expression first seems to be a paradox of accepted morality, but it comes from the logic of language which is unique to Seon. In order to understand this paradox, we have to look at it from other standpoints. Those who slander great wisdom always behave against justification. If one lives according to the truth, it would be impossible to kill one’s parents. Like that, if one claims to have attained awakening falsely then this is nothing but slandering great wisdom, and through this, deceiving sentient beings and leading them the wrong way, a deed which cannot be forgiven.
What is most wrongful is to represent wrong views as if they were the truth and in Seon, this kind of wrongful deed is unacceptable. In this sense, it is worthy to take note of one particular phrase used by Master Seongcheol, that “When one beholds the Buddha-nature and becomes Buddha, one attains awakening once and for all. Then one relies on one’s own precious storehouse and manages the family treasure, and there is no limit to one’s accommodation.”29 When one becomes an absolutely perfect person, this awakening lasts forever. That is, the perfect person can supply the necessary daily dynamic power with the unlimited energy available regardless of time. To manifest our True Nature and really see it is the same as applying our unlimited dynamic power. Limited energy, after being used, needs to be recharged with electricity again or to have the fuel topped up. But the unlimited dynamic power of awakening is the beginning of a great turning point in human life. When one attains sudden awakening by Seon practice, one enters into the condition of not-birth and no-birth, and everything is changed. Master Seongcheol claims that the awakened one should make this condition manifest before us in our daily lives.
Master Seongcheol’s teaching is usually hard for ordinary people to understand, for the speech is consistent with the unusual language of Seon. So he sometimes gave easy Dharma talks, and one of them is about how to live life from day to day. He said, “The mind of human beings is the basis of life and the origin of all things. But human beings have lost their Self Nature and have been carried away by the workings of daily life. It is because they have lost their True Nature that they think that material things are everything. That is why masters of old have advised us to consider riches and the opposite sex as if they were snakes.”
Material things cannot fulfill the deep set human sense of emptiness. And the lost self can only be found in one’s own mind-nature. Master Seongcheol said, “That is why people who have left home to find truth are called pilgrims returning to the original role,” and he further mentioned that human beings can only be helped by their own efforts, by themselves, for they alone have the keys to awakening. Concerning method of practice, the aim of the practice, and whether sentient beings are sentient beings forever, Master Seongcheol offered, “There are no sentient beings in the teachings of the Buddha. For, the teaching is free from the appearance of sentient beings. Then, modern practitioners should find their own faults by themselves and live in order to realize their original selves.
Master Seongcheol added strongly, “Both Dharma and truth are transmitted from mind to mind, and texts are a mere means which help to awaken the true aspect in students. There is a way to the mind, a way which leads people to attain awakening without reading texts, and that is called a direct transmission outside the texts.”
The moderns are fettered by problems and are willing to live under the pretext of others’ ideas. Others’ ideas, though they are great, are what other people have understood but they are not my own. No matter how wonderful the teachings of the Buddha are, the world of perfect realization, they are teachings, ideas, and a mere means to goodness and perfection. What is actually needed is to enter the world and attain awakening by oneself. That is the way of Seon practice and the way of sudden awakening and sudden practice.
Therefore, Seon is something which is not taught, but faced up to in the reality of the universe. Grasping everything in the universe as it is, this is Seon. Sentient beings try to find Buddha outside the mind, but Buddha does not exist outside the mind. If all living beings are one, then it is there that the original aspect lies, thus “Mountains are mountains and water is water.”
Seon is not some way to see phenomena, but Seon is the mind’s way of taking a far-sighted view of the true essence. Whereas phenomena deal with objects, essence sees through, right to the origin of life. Moreover, Seon students, by grasping the essence, can develop their original power which leads them to the origin of life. Therefore, the power attained in the final stages of Seon is the power of the Buddha and of the Bodhisattvas. And that power is neither the logic of cognition, which is mere knowledge, nor is it ethical service, which is the activity resulting from sympathy. Seon is the realization of life in the depths of oneself, and Seon is to involve oneself in the true equality of all lives at the same time. The way of Seon is neither that of cognition, nor of logic, nor of ethical service in society. Seon students should follow the way without concerning themselves with conditions. That is, one should not be shaken by conditions but one should confront all conditions and solve all problems. Seon is the state of mind of firm determination, and it is the key to living consciously aware of all problems and their solution. Thereby Seon becomes the great self as historical being in the dimension of reality. It is active Seon which, with the consciousness of responsibility, takes charge of history. Master Seongcheol’s idea of Seon was this kind of active Seon, and the power of his active Seon idea was strong enough to break all the wrong understanding of Seon, especially concerning awakening and practice.
The modern meaning of sudden awakening lies neither in the procedure begun by awakening nor in the understanding-realization in which realization ends, but in the general manifestation of the essence in our daily lives. All of this can be cited in relation to Seon, like the cases of Seon of hwadu, Seon of life, and Seon culture, are something understood and realized by Seon. But sudden awakening is a world of bright light, which is a revolution to sentient beings, resulting in the obliteration of all defilements and mental dirt so that they are totally eradicated and no ignorance and bad karmas can influence the person any more. The effort used to understand and practice in this world logically and dogmatically creates numerous social, ethical and personal conflicts. The modern understanding of sudden awakening should be the thought that “sentient beings are Buddhas, which might be expressed as cosmic Dependent Origination, “[(n-1) n] divided into 2.”30 In Dependent Origination, all conflicts, alienation, loneliness and agony created by human desires disappear suddenly, the pure mind shines forth for all to see, and sentient beings attain Buddhahood.
1. Since the publication of Orthodox Path of Seon (Kor. Seonmun-Jeongno) in 1981, representative cases of discussions are the International Buddhist Academic Conference sponsored by the Research Institute of Master Bojo’s Thought (Kor. Bojo-sasang-yeonguso) and seminar “Awakening: Is It Sudden Awakening and Gradual Practice, or Sudden Awakening and Sudden Practice?” sponsored by Minjoksa Publisher in 1992.
2. I have already stated my standpoint on the Seon practice of sudden awakening in my theses “The Position and Prospect of Modern Korean Seon”(Kor. Hyeondae-hanguk-seon-eoi-wuich’i-wa-cheonmang) printed by the Korean Buddhist Research Institute (Kor. Hanguk-bulgyo-munhwa-yeonguwon) in 1984, ” The Basic Thought of Orthodox Path of Seon (Kor. Seonmun-jeongno-ui-keunbon-sasang), in Thought of Bojo (Kor. Bojo-sasang)the fourth collection printed by the Research Institute of Master Bojo’s Thought in 1990. Professor Shim Jae-ryong wrote a comment on my article, “The Basic Thought of Orthodox Path of Seon.” Representative people who support the standpoint of gradual practice are Venerable Beobjeong and Professor Sungbae Park.
3. Such a theme is hard to deal with from the aspect of analytics, poetics or literature. But the claim of Roudolf Oden, “Unreasonable elements which majestically exist as fundamental and essential elements in religion should not be left to voluntary language or claim, or to intellectual chaos, but they should be clearly revealed as far as possible, so that a sound theory can be established” should be recognized.
4. Toeong Seongcheol, Orthodox Path of Seon (Kor. Seonmun-jeongno), Seoul, Bulgwang Publisher, 1981.
5. Whole Korean Inscriptions (Kor. Han-guk-keumseok-jeonmun), article on the Divine. Bell of King Seongdeok (Kor. Seongdeok-daewang-shinjong), chap¬ter “Ancient Period,” Asea-munhwasa, p. 137.
6. Toeong Seongcheol, Orthodox Path of Seon, op.cit, p.28.
7. Ibid, p.21.
8. Records of Zongjing (Kor. Jonggyeong-nok) 1, in the Taisho Tripitaka 48, p.419c.
9. Awakening of Faith (Kor. Daeseong-kishin-non), in the Taisho Tripitaka 32, p.576b.
10. Wonhyo, Commentary on the Awakening of Faith (Kor. Daeseong-kishin-non-so) 2, in Whole Collection of Korean Buddhist Texts (Kor. Han-guk-bulgyo-Jeonseo) 1, p.719c.
11. Sayings of Linzi (Kor. Imje-eorok), in the Taisho Tripipika 47, p.496c.
12. Secrets on Cultivating the Mind (Kor. Sushim-kyeol), in Whole Collection of Bojo (Kor. Bojo-jeonseo), the Research Institute of Master Bojo’s Thought, 1989, p.35.
13. Toeong Seongcheol, Ibid, chapter 1, “See the Nature is Buddha,” op.cit., p.22.
14. Ibid. p.21.
17. Jingde Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (Ch. Jinde chuandeng lu, Kor. Gyeongdeok-jeondeung-nok) 28, in the Taisho Tripitaka 51, p.440b.
18. Toeong Seongcheol, Ibid, chapter 4, “Patience Rests in Belief in No Rebirth” (Kor. Musaeng-beobin), p.65.
20. Ibid, chapter 13, “Understanding-realization and Gradual Awakening” (Kor. Hae-o-chomsu), p. 155.
21. Bojo Chinul, Encouragement to Practice: The Compact of the Meditation and Wisdom Community (Kor. Gwonsu-jeonghye-gyeolsamun), in Whole Collection of Korean Buddhist Texts (Kor. Han-guk-bulgyo-jeonseo) 4, p.700b.
22. Toeong Seongcheol, Ibid, chapter 13, “Understanding-realization and Gradual Awakening,” p. 156.
23. Ibid, p. 159.
24. Ibid, chapter 15, “Learned Knowledge and Understanding,” p.204.
25. Ibid, p.205.
26. Ibid, p. 208.
27. Ibid, pp.208-209.
28. Ibid, p.209.
29. Ibid, chapter 19, “Extinction of the Seed of Buddhahood,” p.254.